I shared a scary story in my newsletter and decided to share it here as well. Happy Halloween! Stay safe out there! I hope your Halloween
Dead in the Water
By Kerry Adrienne
A fisherman stays out on the sea after sunset and lends a hand to a woman in need.
One more fish, and then I’d head back home before my wife became too worried. Once darkness settled long and low over these waters, too many husbands never returned.
I cast my line and listened for the lead weight’s gentle plop off the boat’s stern. My Inuit ancestors would have marveled at my shiny metal boat and trim outboard engine—much more efficient than their bent wood and skin kayaks. Not everything was different. I still fed my family as they had–I accepted the bounty nature provided. I leaned back and let my line go slack against the rippling water and waited for the tug that signaled a nibble. I yawned, covering my mouth with a glove that smelled of fish and ocean.
Stars scattered across the dome of the near-jet night sky, and a filmy splash of vivid greens and faint pinks marked the aurora’s path. I took a deep breath of cold, briny air deep into my lungs. I was but a speck upon the water, insignificant yet all-important at the same time, floating in my solitude. The ocean filled my soul as it had my ancestors’ souls before me, and I closed my eyes and breathed in the same quiet peace they must have felt. On the water, bobbing under the starred sky, was the only place I could settle my thoughts and become one with the animals, the sea, the earth.
My existence was both everything and nothing.
A sharp tug on my line snapped me out of my reverie and I pulled the pole upward to hook the fish, and then began reeling my line in. My heart pounded as I anticipated the haul and exerted myself in the biting cold. Maybe this was a big one. As I wound, I noticed a faint smudge of yellowish light on the horizon, bobbing on the water like a crushed firefly’s smear. I’d only seen fireflies once, during a visit to my wife’s family home in Georgia. They were too frail to brave the Alaskan chill.
I held my fishing pole tight. What was that light? A beacon? Another boat? The fish jerked in counterpoint to the rhythm of my reeling and I yanked the pole the opposite way to keep it from escaping.
The yellowish light grew larger as I pulled the fish closer. The wind gusted from the north, and a burst of cold, pure air sliced through me, filling every exposed pore with approaching winter. My teeth chattered and I tensed, for a brief moment lost in the silence between seasons.
The sooner I was home by the fire, with my wife bringing warm towels to drape over my feet and shoulders, the better. September on the sea was a mix of every kind of weather, and not ever predictable or comfortable. The sun’s warmth drained quickly after it set, and night brought a biting cold that bored so deep, thoughts crystallized. The boat canted as I lifted my catch on board.
As soon as this fish was in the locker, I was going home. Enough was enough.
The fish flipped its silvery-blue scales in defiance, and I leapt to snag it before it jumped overboard.
Cod. Gift from god.
Cod was a mainstay of our winter diet, and the fish would be thanked for its sacrifice. I removed the hook, then checked if the fish’s length was of a keeping size. Yep, it was. I dropped it in the locker with the rest of the catch, most already frozen and eyes glazed.
It’d been a good day, despite the chill.
The sea provided to those who were patient.
The light on the horizon had grown significantly larger as it moved over the fog-draped water. It had to be a beacon of some sort, or a buoy that had broken free from its tether, but it was moving so fast, I wondered if it were possibly another boat. Maybe one of my fellow fishermen. We often fished the same area, though few stayed on the water after dark.
No matter, I was going home. My wife, a shower, and good night’s sleep awaited.
I stowed the fishing gear, all the while keeping an eye on the light. The yellowish-green glow pulsed and spread out on the surface of the water, almost mirroring the aurora overhead. Legends said the aurora was a walrus kicking around a human skull. Whatever it was, it was beautiful.
Sudden motion caught my eye and the hazy light picked up forward speed and rushed straight for my boat. Dread coiled in my stomach and I hurried to batten things down so I could get out of the way. Whatever the thing was, it was headed for my boat.
It trekked closer, and I fumbled to click on the main deck lighting to make myself more visible. Surely it would turn away before ramming me.
A low-pitched whine started as a keen gasp and crescendoed into a blaring wail that warbled, then stopped, leaving silence and the unwavering light. My dry lips stuck together, and I passed my tongue over my slick teeth. The thing was almost to my boat and the glare was now more green than yellow, exactly as the aurora above, sans the streaks of pink.
I hurried to the stern and yanked the outboard’s pull cable, the muscles in my arms burning with sudden use. The engine sputtered and spat out puffs of vapor.
My heart thumped. Not sure if it was exertion or fear, but I didn’t have time to ponder it. I jerked the cable again, trying to coax the engine to start. I had plenty of fuel and the boat had been tuned-up just three weeks ago so there was no reason the motor shouldn’t respond. I had a pair of oars stowed under the front seats for emergencies, but they’d never outrun whatever was coming for me across the black sea. Blinding now, the brightness lit the area like daylight and I shielded my eyes and tried to get the engine started.
Once. Twice. Three times more I yanked the cord, and the motor didn’t so much as sputter. I’d flooded it or maybe sea water had gotten to the gas somehow.
“Start, dammit!” My voice echoed across the waves. Nothing answered me, not even an echo on the wind.
I was dead in the water.
Something hit my boat hard and knocked me off balance. I grabbed for a rail to steady myself as I flailed to keep steady. The yellow beacon went dark and so did the lighting on my boat.
Temporarily flash-blinded, hazy circles spun in front of me as I stumbled toward the bow. I fell to my knees and lunged for my loaded handgun that lay in a storage box under the front seat.
A crash, and my boat jarred and rocked as it was rammed again. The ramming was intentional. I fumbled with the box and pulled out my gun.
“Who’s there?” I shrieked. Rational thought fled and I grasped the edge of the boat and searched the darkness toward the stern. “Why are you hitting my boat?”
The fading aurora wouldn’t light the water enough to see until my eyes adjusted, and for a moment, I was as blind as the fish in the icy locker. Helpless.
The frigid wind slithered up my back and circled my head like an icy halo. I blinked. No hazy shadows, no visible monsters. My eyesight slowly returned, though dimmed, and I held the gun in front, aware that my hands shook so much that I’d likely miss any target if I had to fire.
What was out there?
“I’ll shoot.” I paused. My vision focused and for a moment, everything seemed normal, like the thousand other nights on the dark sea.
A trailing meteorite slid across the sky and flash burned as it streaked toward land. The aurora returned, its greens strengthening as bright as twilight.
Then, I saw it.
A tiny boat had edged against my own, the name Nuliaq, “wife” in Inuit, emblazoned along the side in primitive, scrolling letters. No larger than a lifeboat for a mid-sized fishing vessel, the craft bobbed on the surface of the water, more ominous than its size. Standing at the stern was a hooded figure and maybe another sat hunched in the aft.
“Hey!” I called. “You hit my boat!”
I tried not to sound scared, but my voice quaked. This had to be a mishap, an accident. Boats didn’t ram other boats on purpose.
The figure glided toward my boat’s edge, and I clicked off the safety, just as I’d been trained to in firearms’ class, and put my finger on the trigger. I would shoot. I’d never shot anyone or anything before, other than paper practice targets, but the terror that tracked through my veins pushed me to protect myself. I steadied my hand and glanced to see if the seated person had moved.
The standing figure stopped at the bow of its boat.
“Stay where you are,” I rasped. I aimed for the chest. “I mean it, I’ll shoot. You do not have permission to board!”
It shed the cloak, letting it pool around its feet, and stepped over the side and onto my boat deck.
I almost dropped my gun as I stepped back.
Bile filled my throat, acidic and sharp. The woman, if you could call her that, was pale green, her skin, what there was of it, barely clung to her bones. She wore the dirty tatters of a wedding dress—one of those puffy princess gowns that had probably been the “in” style when new and complemented by big hair and a giant tiered cake.
My wife had worn something similar at our own wedding.
She stepped closer I and caught a glimpse of her face—what was left of it. Where eyes used to peer, holes of wet flesh gaped. She had no nose, and her upper lip was missing, giving her the appearance of wearing a perpetual smile. The skin on her neck weeped openly.
I swallowed a scream and pulled the trigger. The gunshot’s echo rang out over the waves as the kick nearly made me lose my balance. The apparition continued to advance, unfazed. A point-blank shot to the face hadn’t broken her stride. I hadn’t missed–a hole dug into her forehead.
She held her twisted hands out to me and my heart ached as if she were squeezing the life from my body. Maybe she was. White terror slid down my spine and adrenaline lit up my brain in fight or flight mode.
Only there was no place to escape.
My boat dipped as I tried to sidestep her. I couldn’t swim to shore; it was too far and the water dangerously cold. I debated shoving her overboard, but then I’d have to touch her, or she might grab me and not let go. Maybe I could take her boat and leave in that, if I could get past her.
She opened her mouth and I froze, all thoughts of escape fleeing my brain.
“Marry me.” Blood-tinged fluid with chunks of flesh dripped from her mouth hole.
“Marry me!” She moved closer, the swish of the tattered dress scratching against my boat deck.
“No!” I scrambled past her, cringing at the thought she might grab me, and then leapt to her boat, barely missing her grasp. I shrieked as pain shot up my legs as I landed hard on my knees, my gun flying from my hand. I heard it hit the deck…somewhere.
The lifeboat’s bottom was filled with bones of all shapes and sizes—and all appeared human. Picked clean and scrubbed white as the stars. I scrambled to the far end of the boat, casting aside bones as I went. As my ears filled with pressure, I held my hands over them, trying to shut out the noise of fear.
I’d forgotten. There was another figure in the boat, hunched over yet still imposing.
I was trapped.
Between the seated figure and the decaying bride, I opted for the lesser of the evils. I shoved the cloaked figure hard. I couldn’t fight both of them at once, so I needed to push this one overboard before the other reached me. The figure toppled forward, and its covering fell off, revealing a partial human skeleton covered with strings of flesh, bones tied together with waxed twine in large, neat bows. The putrid odor of decay slammed into my nostrils and I vomited.
The little boat rocked as the bride stepped on board.
She was on me in a flash. Her breath, cold as a primordial glacier and rancid as putrid fish, washed over my face. “Marry me!”
I shook my head and backed away, the pile of bones underfoot slipping from underneath me. I fell. My head hit the deck hard, and dizziness filled my consciousness.
As pain bloomed around me, I stared at the night sky, likely the last thing I’d ever see. The lights of my ancestors, blinking their disapproval.
The stars melted and slid down the dark fabric of night like hot wax on dripping candles, sputtering then going out. The aurora froze solid and cracked, green shards falling in a musical cacophony as the broken pieces sliced into the sea.
The bride leaned over me, and my tears crystallized.
I was going to die.
“That’s some fish story.” Malik laughed and took a swig of his beer. “I mean, really…”
I nodded, my mind wandering to the darkness and cold of that night. I shivered. “I know it sounds crazy, but it’s all true.” I leaned forward on my bar stool and grabbed my beer, wiping away the condensation with my thumb.
“Yeah, sure. It’s all true.” Bruce slapped the bar table and our beer sloshed in the bottles. “You win. Can’t compete with that.”
“Yeah, great fish story,” Pete said. “Perfect for a chilly night at the bar.”
“When are you going back out?” Bruce asked, his eyes bright with the glow of alcohol. “I still need more fish to get the family through winter, so I’ve got to try at least a few more days, even though there’s ice floes already nearing the harbor. I haven’t stocked nearly enough.”
“I haven’t either,” Malik said. “I need at least two more loads.”
I sighed. They weren’t going to heed my warning.
Always present, the whisper hid somewhere behind my psyche and called out to me occasionally. Cold bile crept up my throat and sweat broke out along my back. My family would starve unless I got better at hunting caribou. “I’m done fishing. I’ll never go back out…on the sea.” I took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “She’s out there.”
Malik peeled the label on his beer, dropping the curls of damp paper on the table. “Sure. The town’s best fisherman giving up because he saw a ghost. I’ll believe that when I see it. Bet you’re just trying to scare us off the good grounds.”
Pete clapped Malik on the back. “Well, if he quits, that’s more fish for the rest of us.”
“Tell us the truth.” Malik paused and stared at me.
I couldn’t meet his gaze.
They laughed, but I stilled, my mind wandering to that cold, dark night when the aurora fractured over the black sea and I was sure I was going to die.
The voice never left me. I stared at the taxidermy moose head on the bar wall, imagining the bones that puzzled together underneath its leathered covering, and the way it had been reconstructed to look real. I had to make my friends understand. I didn’t want them to die. “Don’t go. She’s waiting.”
Pete shook his head and sucked down the rest of his beer. “Whatever you say.”
“Yeah,” Bruce added. “I’ll grow corn or something. No more fishing for this guy.” He winked at Malik.
Malik scowled. “So, if she’s so dangerous, how’d you escape? You said you thought you were going to die. Yet, here you are, having a beer. What happened?”
An upbeat song began playing over the bar speakers and they all watched me as I took a slow sip of my now-warm beer. Even my wife didn’t believe my story. Not really.
Sometimes, in the bright of daylight, I didn’t believe it either.
“I was sure I was going to die.” I set the beer down and pushed it away. “But I figured it out. She wants a husband. That’s why I’m not dead.”
The men looked at each other, exchanging knowing glances.
“And you’re already married, that’s why she let you go. If that’s how it works, then we’re all safe. For once, being married’s a bonus.”
They all laughed again, the beer warming their bellies and dulling their minds.
I shook my head and held up the stub of my wrist, still sore and oozing through the cotton bandage. The doctor had sewn up the jagged edges as best he could. “She needed a right hand.” I waved my arm for emphasis. “So that’s all she took. She even bound the stump to keep me from bleeding to death. I woke up with my boat tied to one of the docks.”
The men stared at my stump. Malik was the first to speak. “Shit, man, that’s crazy. Some prank. You win. Now ‘fess up.”
I covered my stump with my coat and continued. “She’s building her husband, piece-by-piece. That’s why there were bones were in her boat. Leftover pieces from putting together her groom.”
“Sometimes she kills…”
“Oh, my god. The other figure on her boat…her husband.”
I nodded and stared at the pattern on the bar top.
“So that’s why you say you won’t fish…”
The sea always provides for those who are patient.
“That…” I wiped at my mouth with my good hand and stood to leave. “And the fact that she still needs a head.”