This is another of the (few) completed stories I’ve written. It goes way back… to the first creative writing course I took in college… about 16 years ago or so. It’s been ages since I’ve looked at it, but I can tell you it’s rough, not very polished. I remember being inspired by Stephen King while writing this, too.
It’s about 3215 words in length.
As usual, this is freely available and copyrighted under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license.
I stand on the edge of the rock, overlooking the ocean. It is windy, sand blowing in my eyes; I convince myself that’s what’s causing the tears to stream down my face. I look at my hands, and I wonder at the past four days.
I am high up.
The ocean looks so inviting.
I slung the duffel bag over the rail and onto the deck of the boat. Around me, people, some scruffy-looking, some well-dressed, traveled to and fro along the dock, working at their respective trades or enjoying the sights and smells of the fishing fleet in port. The day was relatively mild, with a clear blue sky and a light breeze coming in from the ocean. Out to sea there was a thin gray line of fog, about five to eight miles out — it would be in the bay by nightfall, with the wind. The air tasted of brine and was heavy, but not oppressive, with moisture, and the sounds of the tourism and fish packing plants carried over the water of the bay with eerie clarity.
The boat before me was called the Blue Seagull, the owner Vic Kovolski. I had met him just yesterday while I was at the fish packing plant, looking for a job. After talking with Vic for a few minutes, I had one.
Climbing the rail, I jumped onto the boat after my duffel bag. The vessel was a 48-foot salmon troller, a great wooden monster that was badly in need of a new coat— or three— of paint, along with a hundred other things I noticed that needed work. However, beggars can’t be choosers and I considered myself lucky to even have found a job on a fishing boat this year.
"Anyone aboard?" I called out, retrieving my battered duffel. From inside the cabin there came a rumbling grunt of acknowledgment, and then someone answered.
"Just a sec, I’ll be right there." Nearly a full three minutes later Vic Kovolski appeared from the shadows of the wheelhouse, wiping his hands on jeans that were faded and already soiled from innumerous such cleanings. He then stuck out a hand and I grasped it, and he said, "Glad you were able to find the ol’ baby here." He ran his other hand fondly along the railing.
"Wasn’t a problem," I replied. "I’m glad you’re able to put me up for a job. Getting hard to come by anymore."
He grimaced. "Don’t I know it. As it happened, you showed up at just the right time. I just fired my last puller— had too much likin’ for the sauce, gets him in trouble." I personally thought Vic— from what I’d heard— also had a "likin’ for the sauce," but I wisely kept my mouth shut. Beggars can’t be choosers, as I said. He gestured toward the cabin. "You can just toss yer things inside, an’ the cot’s yours. Only one bunk, an’ it’s what I need for my back."
"The cot’s fine," I said amiably, and meant it. For the past four nights I’d been sleeping among the blackberry vines with only two ratty blankets. A cot would be a luxury.
"Good, good. Well, go on an’ get settled in, an’ I’ll run you through the grand tour."
I carried my duffel into the wheelhouse and unceremoniously tossed it beneath the cot against the far wall— bulkhead, I mean— that was to be my bedroom. Next to my cot was the tiny two-burner propane stove and steel-basin sink, with various pot and frying pans and other cookware crudely hanging on nails above and around it. Opposite the cot was the main bunk, a wooden shelf with a thin mattress cast over it, covered with several blankets and a rock-hard pillow. The pilot station was up to the front of the cabin, with all the usual equipment you’d expect: radios, radar, fish finders, depth gauge, and the like. Strewn about in both neat and messy clusters was various fishing gear: spoons of all shapes and colors, flashers and hoochies, hooks of various size, spools of line, rope, a knife or two, buckets of herring in brine, gunnysack, steel wire, lead sinkers and weights ranging from several ounces to a 60-pound cannon ball, a spare chewed-up float, a net, several gaffs, and so on. It was the usual conglomeration of a commercial fisher, and I wrinkled my nose at the smell of the old herring.
Vic was the kind of guy I like to call "crusty"— a medium-sized man weather-tanned and tough as rawhide. From what little I knew of the man, he had been a fisherman all his life, since he was about fifteen. Never married. Beyond that, I couldn’t tell you anything definite about him, except that he had a puller’s position available and I was taking it. I wasn’t going to be picky.
He was rubbing at some rust on some of the hydraulics fittings when I reemerged into the daylight. He looked up, and looked for a moment as if he’d forgotten who I was. Then he grinned slightly and gestured widely around him. "This," he said, "is where you work when we’re out on the ocean."
No kidding. Nice grand tour. I said, "We going out tomorrow?"
"Hell, no, boy, it’s Friday," he answered, sounding surprised that I should not have thought of that first. "Tomorrow yer gonna clean up the gear."
That night something very strange happened.
I woke up from a dream, drenched in a cold sweat so heavy that my blankets were soaked. There wasn’t anything exact that I could recall afterward; I had more impressions than memories of that dream. I remember it was thickly dark, and had a great deal to do with something monstrous, something huge, something that filled me with a terror and a loathing that I had not felt since I was a child, lying in bed suffering from vivid fever dreams. I knew it was silly and irrational to be afraid of a dream, but lying there in the dark, shivering with cold and exhaustion, I was terrified. I laid there, clutching my pillow to my face, afraid of the dark, afraid of the weird shadows and shapes cast by the light of the orange fluorescent lamps that lit the docks at night. Near tears, I gradually began to relax, telling myself over and over that it was just a dream, just a dream, just a dream, when it happened.
I heard— how can I describe it?— this scratching noise that set the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and to send chills racing along my spine. I risked a look in the dark— silly, irrational child-fears to be afraid of the dark— and I saw that Vic was sleeping soundly on his wooden bunk, his back to me. Then the sound started again— a scraping, scratching, scrabbling sound, putting my nerves on edge and causing a fresh coat of perspiration to envelope my body.
It sounded all the world as if there were someone— something— moving, crawling around in the bilge, in the bottom of the boat, trying to get out. I tried to convince myself that it was a rope or chain scraping against the boat outside, or maybe even a rat moving around on the docks, and all the while I was trying to believe that, I was assaulted by images of a decaying man trapped in the bottom of the boat. I laid there, eyes squeezed shut, legs curled up in a fetal position, trying to believe it was a rope or chain or rat, knowing it wasn’t. Then I covered my ears tightly with both hands to block out the terrible noise and remained like that for a long time, finally blessing myself with sleep, in spite of the earlier dream, an eternity later.
I awoke the next morning with a ray of sunlight shining on my face. My blankets were still damp from the night before, but the dream and memory of the scratching noise was faint in my mind. I vaguely remembered being childishly terrified of first the dream and then the strange sounds, and I wondered at that reaction; it had passed out of my mind and left a twinge of curiosity instead.
I found Crusty Vic— I couldn’t help thinking of him this way— on the stern of the boat tying gear after I had dressed and combed my hair with my fingers. He looked up as I exited the wheelhouse.
"Well. It’s about time you decided to get outta bed," he said.
"Rough night," I replied simply. "Say, you don’t have rats in the hold here, do you?"
He said without breaking stride in his work, "I God damn well better not have. Why d’you ask?"
I picked up some six-aught fishhooks and shrugged noncommittally. "Just curious. Heard about some guys that got into trouble up in Garibaldi for having rats in their fish." I found some fishing line and began tying up gear also.
Vic grunted. "Don’t know nothin’ ’bout that. Sure wouldn’t wanna be in their shoes, though. Probably be gettin’ some stiff fines."
"Probably," I agreed, curiosity undiminished. However, I decided the idea of breakfast was more appealing, and didn’t give any more thought to the dream or the noises for the rest of that day or the day after.
It wasn’t until Sunday that we actually made it out on the ocean, fishing. We were crossing the bar when Crusty Vic spoke for the first time that morning.
"Been listenin’ to the radio, an’ it sounds like there ain’t any good fishin’ out there. I dunno where we should drop the gear— got any ideas?"
I wondered if he might be testing me, as his new hand. So I shrugged and said, "Best bet for today would prob’ly be the Rockpile."
"That’s about what I figured," he grunted, and scratched a rib. He said nothing more for a long while after that, working with a silent efficiency that surprised me.
The air out on the ocean was crisp and clear, with absolutely no sounds and smells other than that caused by the boat as it sliced through the water. I rode for awhile on the stern, enjoying the day, when I noticed something unusual.
The ropes and gear running up the side of the poles on either side of the mast were flapping in the wind. Nothing unusual in that, I know, but what caught my attention was the way in which they were moving— the port gear looked as if it were being blown one way, and the starboard gear the other. I couldn’t remember ever having seen anything like this, so I called Crusty Vic out of the wheelhouse to point it out to him. "What d’you think’s causing that?" I asked.
He squinted at the ropes, and said, "Damned if I know. Looks almost like someone’s tuggin’ on the damn things." A wave tipped the boat enough to convince Vic to go back to the wheel.
I dismissed the spectacle with a shrug and began to prepare the fishing gear, vaguely aware of a growing unease gnawing at the back of my mind.
The day was uneventful as far as fishing went. Crusty Vic and I took turns checking the lines for fish, but all we managed to catch that day was a small Silver salmon and a ling cod— not even enough to pay for fuel for the day. I was watching as Vic was bringing aboard the ling , swinging the gaff high and wide, and found myself thinking about running the sharp end of the gaff across his back. It wasn’t anything, of course, just one of those things you think about when you’re dead bored.
At about four that afternoon we picked up and headed for port, disgusted enough with the day to leave early. I was again sitting on the back of the boat, and I realized that I had not seen any other boats out on the ocean that day— none at all, even though the weather was pleasant enough. And I remembered what Vic had said that morning— that he’d been listening to the radio, and there was nothing going on. Which was funny— now that I thought about it, I hadn’t heard the radio working at all, not that morning, not at all during the day. As far as I could tell, we were totally alone out here.
My head began to hurt, in a sort of dizzy pounding. It took me by surprise, hitting so abruptly that I involuntarily grabbed the gaff Vic had been using earlier. Looking at it through squinted eyes, it looked to be rusty— really rusty. But no… looking at it more closely I realized it was dried blood, no doubt from gaffing an untold amount of fish in its time. But still, I set it down uneasily, feeling an obscure twinge of fear from somewhere deep in my gut, and I set the gaff aside, trying not to pay it any attention.
But my eyes kept straying back to the dried blood coating the steel point. I don’t know why. Just a macabre curiosity, I guess. But soon I was distracted by the spinning in my head.
I was seasick. I couldn’t believe it— I had never been seasick before, ever! It didn’t matter— I leaned over the side of the Blue Seagull and puked my lungs out. While I was doing this I was thinking about how stupid I must look to Vic, feeding the fish like some tourist on a charter boat, and when I finished I didn’t say a word to him, just went into the wheelhouse and laid down on my cot. I could see him smiling as I turned my back to him and fell immediately into a dreamless sleep.
I didn’t wake up again until late that night. Apparently Crusty Vic had brought us back to port while I slept, and was himself deep into la-la land. I turned over and rose from the cot, my ring and little fingers asleep and itching uncontrollably. I drank a glass of water, and relieved myself in the tiny head. As I was lying back down, I thought of the bizarre noises I had heard three night before, and it troubled me as I laid awake in the dark.
"How’d yer day go?"
I jumped, and looked around at the sudden voice. Vic, to my surprise, was asleep on his bunk, his back to me.
"It was pretty slow. Didn’t get much of anything."
Oh— it was a couple of people out on the dock, talking. I relaxed, listening to the water lapping at the sides of the boat, and thought about the bloody gaff.
"I hear you. All we managed to snag today was a Silver and a ling."
My eyes snapped open, at the sound of the voice reciting the exact catch— such as it was— that we had had. However, it wasn’t what the voice was saying that I was concerned with; it was who was saying it.
It was my own. It took me a minute to recognize it as such, and by that time, I was trembling violently.
Abruptly I jumped up from my cot, flinging the two blankets that had been with me for as long as I could remember across the cabin. Vic was still asleep, apparently not disturbed by the voices.
The gaff was hanging on the wall, the orange fluorescent dock lighting outside casting an eerie glow on it. I could see the crusted blood on the point. I grabbed it, and went to open the door of the wheelhouse. I thought maybe someone was jerking me around, and I’d give them a good scare. Breathing deeply, I controlled the trembling in my hands as I stood before the door. I then grasped the makeshift knob, and threw it open, jumping out onto the back deck, brandishing the gaff.
There was no one there. No one at all. I looked up and down the dock; it was empty, and there was no way anyone could have escaped into the shadows down by the trash bins without my seeing them.
My knees were weak; I almost dropped the gaff. I thought maybe I was dreaming again, but before I could follow that train of thought, a noise caused me to look down on the dock below. What I saw did make me drop the gaff.
There were three seagulls standing there, looking directly up at me with their black, beady eyes. They were cast an orange-ish tint by the light, and their beaks were curved and looked very sharp as they stared accusingly at me.
I leaped back into the wheelhouse, slamming the door behind me, and lay down on the cot. I was sweating, telling myself this was only a dream, and trying to remember what I had done before I had come aboard Vic’s boat three days ago— or four. The only thing that I could recall was sleeping in the blackberry bushes. But this was all a dream anyway, right?
I looked again over at Crusty Vic. He was sound asleep, like a log. I figured I should follow his example, dream or no. I turned over and had just closed my eyes when I heard the noises again.
The image of a rotting, decaying man trapped in the bilge, scraping desperately away in an attempt to get out. I knew that’s what it was. I knew. And instead of covering my ears to shut out the terrible terrible sound, I got up, pulled my clothes on and gathered up my blankets, and left the boat. I left the Blue Seagull as I had found it, serenely resting on the water with her captain Vic Kovolski sleeping the sleep of the dead, and I didn’t look back.
Not that night, anyway.
I stand on the edge of the rock, overlooking the ocean.
Tears are streaming down my face uninhibited, now.
I think I now know what the scraping sound was. I wish to God I didn’t, but I think I do. In my mind’s eye I see the bloody gaff, and Crusty Vic lying on his bunk with his back to me, sleeping the sleep of the dead. I don’t know about the ropes flapping in the wind, or about the seagulls or any of the other stuff, and I am so scared I could throw up because I can’t remember anything but the blackberry bushes and the four days I spent with Vic.
Only I don’t think it was four days.
They say Crusty Vic Kovolski was found dead on his boat, the Blue Seagull, on the Friday morning after he hired a derelict to work on his boat the day before. They say this derelict had been seen sleeping in blackberry bushes, and that Vic was killed with a gaff from his own boat.
I can’t remember anything but the blackberry bushes, and I look at my hands. I don’t try to wipe away the tears.
The ocean looks so inviting.