I knew we were in trouble when the current pushed us further and further away from shore as we frantically paddled toward it. I knew we were in bigger trouble when a wave hit me just wrong, and the kayak flipped. The taste of seawater filled my mouth as I fought my way back to the surface of the icy water.
“Hold on!” I could hear Bryon call. The fear in his voice was palpable.
I clung to my overturned kayak and studied the currents as Bryon paddled over. We should have checked the tides better before setting out. That was a stupid mistake to make. The current was like a river cutting through the water, dragging us closer and closer to the narrow channel of Deception Pass. The water beneath the tall bridge churned against sharp rocks like a meat grinder as the tide sucked the water through the passage. It was the last place I wanted to end up.
I positioned myself as best as I could as my partner tossed me a rope and tried to tow me to shore. I kicked with my legs as hard as I could, both to help him and to keep myself as warm as possible for as long as possible. The undertow was relentless. Every time we came close to breaking free, it would suck us back away from shore and closer to the narrow channel.
Something smooth and slimy brushed past my ankle as I kicked. I tried to push it out of my mind. All my thoughts were focused on making it back to shore, back to safety.
“That beach there, can we make it there?” I asked Bryon.
“I don’t know,” he called back. “I’m trying to just get us anywhere right now. We’re going nowhere.”
Numbness began to set into my fingers and toes. We had been fighting our way to the North Beach area of the state park for several minutes. I tried to wave to the people on shore, hoping someone would see we were in trouble and call 911. Bryon was right. The current wouldn’t let us go anywhere. We weren’t going to pull ourselves out of this one alone.
I felt the slimy thing brush past my thigh, and tried to shoo it away. I wrapped the rope around my wrist; grasping it was getting harder by the minute as my limbs went dull and cold. I couldn’t look up at the shoreline anymore. I laid on my half sunken kayak and kicked, not caring what direction, relying on Bryon to hopefully find a way out of the circular current we were trapped in.
Then it pulled. The slimy thing wrapped around my ankle and pulled.
“What the hell!” I cried as I kicked it away.
“What’s going on?” Bryon was breathing hard as he focused on paddling and fighting the current.
The thing reached out again, this time wrapping around my entire calf. I felt a jerk and lost my grip on the rope.
It was too late. I was underwater, the salt stinging my eyes, the icy cold enveloping me, the thing pulling me down against the force of my life vest. I kicked and thrashed as the pressure made my ears want to pop. A low, thunderous rumble reverberated through the water. It grew louder until it was absolutely deafening.
I thrashed until I felt something hard and sharp against my hand. I clasped to it, and Bryon pulled me up with his paddle.
“Cheryl! What happened? What’s wrong?”
I was screaming and panicking, unable to form words. I could still feel the thing wrapped around my leg. “It...it has me!”
“What has you? What is it?”
I sobbed and cried as I clung to the side of Bryon’s kayak, kicking frantically, trying to shake it off me.
“Hello! Do you need help?” A voice called out from behind me. The thing immediately released my leg, slipping away into the depths.
Looking around, I saw a fishing boat was approaching. Two men stood on the stern, one holding a life preserver. “The Salty Dawg” was written along the back with a home port of “Anacortes, WA” labelled beneath it.
“Look at me,” the man holding the life preserver said. “It’s okay. Let go of the kayak. I’m going to throw this to you. Take a deep breath and look at me; it’s going to be okay.” He threw the ring to me and I gripped it for dear life as I was pulled to the boat.
Once on board, I overheard the captain on the radio with the Coast Guard as I was led to the cabin to blankets and a heater. I tried to keep warm as Bryon was brought onboard with the kayaks.
“We’re going to take you to the marina at Cornet Bay; is that okay?” The captain of the vessel had poked his head in.
I nodded numbly. My frozen fingers struggled to pull my phone from its waterproof case. It was a little damp, but functional. It took a few attempts to get my fingers to unlock it.
“Oh my God, Cheryl! You’re alive!” Viola’s voice was frantic on the other end of the line. “We were on the beach and saw you flip and called 911! Where are you?”
“I’m on a fishing boat. They’re taking us to Cornet Bay. Can you meet us there?”
“We’re on our way. We’ll meet you there. So glad you’re somewhere safe finally!”
I leaned back and sighed as Bryon entered the cabin. “I just called Viola and Doug. They’ll give us a lift from the marina.” Viola and Doug were our camping partners for the weekend. We met up each year for a weekend to drink, explore, and relax, and they had watched us set off while they wisely stayed ashore.
“Good. Are you warming up?”
I flexed my fingers and felt a chill run through me. They were numb, but the icy bite of the water was gone at least. “I think so. It doesn’t feel too bad.”
Bryon sat close to me on the bench and wrapped his arms around me. “I’m so sorry this happened. We’ll get you to shore and get you out of these wet clothes as soon as possible.”
The fishermen took us to the marina, where a stern-looking park ranger was ready to give us a lecture. Viola shoved a hot tea into my hands and dragged me off to the car while Bryon and Doug took the scolding. Every joint in my body ached from the cold and the struggle from fighting the current. We went back to our campsite in the state park and I peeled off my wet clothes inside the tent. I massaged my leg. My skin still felt cold, and it felt as though whatever thing had grabbed me in the water was still wrapped around my leg.
“Are you okay in there?” Bryon poked his head in.
I laid on the air mattress, staring up. It almost felt as though I could still feel the waves in the water. “I’m just tired.”
“Come on, let’s get some dry clothes on you and get you warmed up by the fire.” He placed a hand on my shoulder. “You feel ice cold!”
“I’ll be okay.”
“Hurry up, let’s get dressed.”
With much poking and prodding, I relented and let Bryon help me into dry clothes.
“I feel so terrible,” he confessed. “This is all my fault. I should have checked the tides.”
“Mistakes happen. It’s alright. I’ll be alright.”
“Do you still want to go to the festival?”
I sighed. “Yeah, sure. May as well, right?”
Viola and Doug were waiting around the campfire for us. "So glad to see you looking alive!" Viola pressed a mug of coffee into my hands and wrapped me in a fresh blanket. "You scared us good! Are you warm yet?"
"I think I am getting there." I took a sip and flinched at scalding heat. "We're going to head to the arts festival in Coupeville in a bit."
"Still going after all that drama, huh?"
I shrugged. "I mean, it's either that or just sit around recapping trauma. The festival sounds more fun, don't you think?"
"Fair enough," Viola stated. "We could definitely use some ice cream from Kapaw's anyway. Take some time and warm up first, though!"
Cupping the coffee tenderly, I tried to mentally will the circulation back into my fingers. They still felt cold, numb, damp. I couldn't shake the dizzy feeling that I was still bobbing in the waves, and that slimy thing wrapped around my leg, slowly creeping up past my knee…
Eventually we loaded up in the car and headed out of the park and west on Highway 20. I pulled on a hoodie even though there was a summer heatwave going on. My color had returned to my skin, but I couldn’t completely shake the chill yet. Viola and I sang along to Backstreet Boys, Destiny’s Child, and Tupac on the radio while Bryon and Doug dithered over navigation in the front seat.
“Can you believe they call these throwbacks now?” Viola sighed. “Makes me feel ancient.”
I nodded as I watched Penn Cove come into view. The sheltered harbor would have been a safer place to kayak, I thought as I watched the fishing boats and observed the oyster beds. I shivered. My head swam as the road curved and turned, and I wished Bryon would drive just a little more slowly and a little more smoothly.
The entire downtown was barricaded off, the whole two square blocks of it. After shaking Doug down for five bucks for parking, we were off to explore the vendors. Painters, photographers, metal smiths, jewelers, bakers, and every other sort of artisan lined the streets in closely-packed stalls. As we entered the festival, a couple was leaving with half a dozen tall, tangled metal lawn ornaments in the shape of octopus tentacles. As they passed us, the sensation of the thing creeping up my leg suddenly turned to a sharp pain, and I stumbled and fell.
“Cheryl!” Bryon rushed to my side. “What happened?” He helped me to my feet.
“It’s...just a leg cramp, I think. I’ll be alright.”
“You still feel ice cold.”
“I’m fine. I’ll be okay. Let’s go grab a bite from the food court. That’ll help.” I forced a smile, and Bryon seemed to relax.
Viola amused herself with an oversized corndog while the boys went for barbecue brisket. I hit up the Thai food vendor for some pad thai with extra sriracha to try and warm myself up. My fingers still felt numb, and I struggled with the chopsticks. Eventually I gave them up for a fork.
When it came time to walk among the vendor stalls, my legs were stiff and didn’t want to move. My feet were numb, and I found myself walking slower. The ground didn’t quite seem fully stable, like walking on the deck of a boat, and I had to stop periodically as dizziness took over. Fortunately, everyone was too busy admiring the wares to notice I had fallen back. Their concern, well-meaning as it was, was beginning to get tiresome. I just wanted to get back to normal as soon as possible.
Just get back to normal, and ignore the sensation that whatever slimy thing had gripped my leg was starting to creep around my waist…
“Do you see anything that strikes your fancy?” The soapmaker stall owner meandered over as I browsed the lotions.
“Yeah, this muscle cream, is it any good?” I held up a jar of lavender-infused body rub.
“It’s perfect for muscle aches.”
“Good. My leg has been sore since this morning. I had a little kayaking accident. Stupid accident, really. I’ve been feeling like it’s been cramping up ever since.”
“Oh dear, was that in the waters out here?”
“Yeah. Up at Deception Pass actually.”
The soapmaker’s face darkened. “Deception Pass, you say?”
“Yeah. Didn’t watch the tides. We were stupid. Won’t make that mistake again, though.”
“I see…” He gazed out at the waters of Penn Cove. “Dangerous waters up there.”
“Yeah. So anyway, I think I’ll get this.”
“Hmm?” He seemed to suddenly snap back his attention. “Oh, yes. Here, take this as well. It’s made with local seaweed, very natural and healthy. It will help.”
“Oh, thanks, but I don’t have the cash…”
“On the house.” He pressed it intently into my hands. “It will help,” he murmured.
“Like cures like, as they say. Trust me; I’ve had similar...injuries in the past. This will make it easier. I’m...so sorry,” he whispered, and he left me standing in confusion as he turned his attention to other customers.
I slowly backed away from the stall, uncertain as to what had just taken place, and sought out my friends down the street.
“Hey, find anything good?” Viola asked.
“I think so, maybe.”
“Nice. I found these!” She showed me a collection of various bangle bracelets adorned with imprints of various sea life. “Hey, we were heading to Kapaw’s. Want some?”
Kapaw’s Iskreme was the best spot on the entire island for giant scoops of ice cream in a waffle cone, with a line that regularly stretched around the building. Menus posted outside gave you a chance to prepare your order to keep the line moving. I shifted uncomfortably as my leg had gone from a dull ache to a throbbing pain. Leaning on the railing, I tried to focus on planning my order and tried to ignore the sensation that the ground wasn't completely steady.
Once we got our ice cream, we wandered toward the pier. Huckleberry ice cream dripped down my waffle cone as I raced against the hot day to eat it before it melted, my numb fingers fumbling awkwardly.
"Having fun?" Bryon asked.
"Yeah. I managed to pick up a few things."
"You're not too warm in that hoodie?"
"No, it feels comfy." Actually, I shivered a bit. I could see the sun and feel the warmth on my skin, but it stopped right there on the surface. Inside, my body still felt cold. I told myself it was just the ice cream giving me chills.
As we stepped onto the pier, the pain in my leg became sharp and hot, wrapping up around my waist and into my chest. I screamed and gasped as I fell. It was so intense I felt I could hardly breathe. I heard Bryon call my name, but he sounded far away and distorted as the agony consumed my mind and the world spun. The waves beneath the pier grew louder with each crash into the shoreline, until they became a deafening thunderous thrumming that drowned out all other sounds.
At some point I must have blacked out, because I awoke on the grassy strip at the edge of the land. Bryon's face came into focus. Viola was in tears while Doug was on the phone, and beyond them dozens of onlookers gaped in a mix of confusion and horror.
"I'm okay," I whispered.
"Oh my God, Cheryl! What happened?" Viola pushed forward to hold my hand.
"My leg...my whole body...it just suddenly hurt." I slowly sat up and took stock of my surroundings. "My bag...where is it?"
"I have it here, babe," Bryon said.
"I have... something in there to try."
"We should get you to a doctor."
I shook my head. "I think it's just a bad muscle cramp from the cold this morning." Fishing around in my bag, I pulled out the salve the vendor had given me. Rolling up my pant leg, I rubbed the lotion in. The relief was sudden and immediate. “Wow, that really works.” I continued to rub it around my waist and chest, and the pain melted away from all the places the salve touched.
My friends were clearly very concerned. “What is that stuff you just put on your leg?” Bryon had grabbed the jar and was squinting at the label.
“It’s a seaweed muscle rub I got from a vendor. It really worked!”
Bryon sniffed at it dubiously as sirens approached in the distance. Doug had called for emergency services. The paramedics came, but I declined to go to the hospital. I was already embarrassed enough, and since they couldn’t find anything wrong with me they didn’t push the matter.
“Really, I’m fine,” I told my friends. “I’m just tired. Let’s head back and I’ll get some rest.”
We headed back to the car. The salve had taken the pain away, but I still couldn’t shake the subtle feeling that the world was still off. Each step I took seemed unsteady, like I was walking on the deck of a boat at sea. The horizon never seemed quite as level as it should be. I tried to push it to the back of my mind. It had been a long day and I hadn’t really rested, and I was starting to feel it.
The ride back to Deception Pass State Park was mostly silent. I leaned against the car window and began to doze off. The rocking of the car turned into the lapping of waves, the sound of the engine becoming a dull and deafening roar. In a moment I was back underwater with something dragging me down, deeper and deeper, until I was unable to breathe…
I woke up with a start as we pulled back into the campground, my heart pounding in my chest. I gasped for breath and tried to calm myself as I reoriented to my surroundings. Bryon gave me a worried look, but said nothing.
Viola hopped out of the car and immediately began prepping the campfire and dinner, while I retreated to my tent. I laid down on the air mattress and closed my eyes. Each time I did, I felt like I was back in the water, floating on the waves. I could hear the crash of the ocean on shore in the distance and when I closed my eyes, it seemed like it was suddenly next to me and all around me. And while the salve had helped my pain, I still felt a lingering pressure of something wrapped around my thigh, waist, and chest…
A sharp pain wrapped around my neck suddenly. I felt a cough and choke, and fumbled for my bag for the salve. The pain eased immediately as I rubbed it in. I sighed in relief.
“You okay in there?” Bryon asked, poking his head in.
“Yeah, I’m good.”
“Good. Dinner is almost ready.”
“Bryon? Can I ask you something that sounds a little crazy?"
“We’ve had a crazy day. I don’t think you could ask anything crazier.”
“What if...what if I never left the water?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Something pulled me under and I think...I think it still has a hold of me.”
Bryon shook his head. “The fishermen pulled us out. You’re safe. You just need rest.”
I felt the tightness around my neck. “I just am not so sure. Every time I close my eyes, I feel like I’m back there, and I feel like I’m not fully here all the way, you know?”
“You’ve been through a lot. Come on, let’s have some dinner and I’m sure you’ll feel better.”
As I ate taco meat on a pile of Fritos, I tried to smile and make conversation, but the sensation of the lingering pressure and the sound of too-loud waves gnawed at the corners of my mind.
I don’t know if I’ll wake up tomorrow. I don’t know if anything after the deep dive underwater was real. I feel like something is still dragging me down, and I’m afraid to close my eyes tonight.
Author's note: This story is fiction, but is inspired by some true events. Thank you to the crew of the "A'Lure", who in real-life saved this poor woman's life so she could turn her trauma into a horror short story for others. I owe you guys a beer at least!