This story is dedicated to all the great guys in Troop 65…
…and the a-holes, too.
No one had the slightest clue what was going on until A.J. spotted a bloody shred of little Kyle Kawecki’s ugly-ass orange swim trunks floating on top of the water. Then pretty soon we all knew we were good and screwed.
Holdout Bay was where everyone went to swim in our little town. Moms and dads would haul their brats down the narrow dirt path during the day, and the older guys would bring their girlfriends down at night to get some action on the beach- the actual logistics of which most of my friends and I understood in only the most abstract of ways at our age. Apparently in winter the spot where of the sun would set over the water made the place particularly popular with photographers and seascape painters, as well.
But summer was the real busy time for the little horseshoe-shaped harbor. There was clear green water and a long rocky reef that extended out into the open sea, sheltering it from the heavy surf and strong currents. It was just those conditions which had made it popular for the Rum Runners- guys who, back during Prohibition, would make trips in the dead of night in tiny boats out past the five mile line, loading up with all kinds of illegal liquor and running the gauntlet of rocks and FBI guys to bring it back to shore. Our Senior Patrol Leader A.J. would tell us dramatic stories about them by campfire on our weekend trips- stories that in retrospect I’m sure contained much more fantasy and imagination than actual historical fact.
While most would call the water chilly even for this area, the soft sand beach made it irresistible for those looking for a relaxing afternoon. Or, in this case, for Scout Troop 66 to do their annual Mile Swim challenge.
The Mile Swim was a right of passage within the Scouting world. It was a long way to paddle, a mile. Especially in the brisk bay water. To have completed the task was a way to show you had the stamina, discipline, and courage to call yourself a Scout, and by way of that, a man.
It was a good day for it. As we trekked down the steep path to the beach the sun was climbing in the sky towards noon, and it was about as warm as it was gonna get. Our Scoutmaster Mr. Lias and A.J. had carried a small rowboat down the path to paddle along with us in case anyone got a cramp or couldn’t make it. Dan’s dad Mr. Beeman and his dad’s friend (who’s name I can’t remember) came along to monitor from the dock.
After the usual safety speech out on the dock from Mr. Lias, we were in the water at 12:30. The water was chilly at first but as I started scooping with my hands and kicking with my feet I warmed up pretty quickly. I’d been a complete non-swimmer when I started Scouts at age 9, but in the last three years my parents had sent me to lessons and now I was pretty comfortable in the water. Not as good as my friend Eric, but better than some of the guys, for sure. I’d even thought of trying out for swim team the next year, but after that afternoon I could never bring myself to go in the water again- even in a pool.
Tim Bean was the oldest scout in the water that day. He was almost eighteen and had gotten his Eagle Scout rank earlier that year. He was a real gung-ho achiever type and frankly a bit of a tool, and there was a popular rumor in the troop that he wore his merit badge sash to bed at night. A couple of the older kids- Michael Williamson who was a really cool guy, Dave Buchanan and Dave Tomlin (generally referred to collectively as Dave Squared), and big Brian Holster were out in front, their longer and more powerful arms giving them an immediate advantage.
There was a kind of middle pack, comprised of several of us middle-year scouts: Frank Feleiz, Jimmy Finn who was a bit on the large size, my friend Eric Stephens and me (Tom). Bringing up the rear were the young-uns, little Dan Beeman, Kyle Kawecki and of course Jason Rabinsky, who was a kind of miniature little creature, and who we were all sure would probably need to be rowed in.
The course had three landmarks. The floating dock was about twenty feet out into the water from the sandy shore- a rickety fiberglass and aluminum structure sunk with long poles into the sandy bottom- and was our starting point. The second mark was a jagged clump of rocks, which jutted out of the water a little bit away from the rocky cliffs that framed the North side of the cove. The rumrunners of old had dubbed them the Widowers. Finally there was a buoy out towards the mouth of the Bay that made a triangle. Three trips around these three landmarks was a mile. I don’t know who figured that out and how, but that was the understanding and we didn’t question it. They told us a strong swimmer could do it in twenty minutes to a half hour. Most of us they said would take around forty-five minutes to a full hour.
The first lap was largely uneventful. We’d been told to be careful not to get too close to the Widower rocks at the first mark. There wasn’t much of a current in the bay, of course, but they’d cut your legs up if you got swept into them all the same so caution prevailed and we all gave them a wide berth as we came around, which had the benefit of cutting a few feet off the lap. The second mark, the buoy, was about a hundred yards out and we were straight-on paddling against the tide now, so it felt quite a bit harder. This was where the older kids- Tim, Michael, Dave Squared and Big Brian- started to really pull away from the pack. I glanced back: Jason was already lagging behind, and Mr. Lias and A.J. were rowing next to him, offering encouragement. No one really expected him to finish; he had plenty of years to work up to it. I felt for the kid a bit, remembering what a lousy swimmer I’d been at his age.
We rounded the buoy and Eric and I noticed we were pulling a bit ahead of Frank and Jimmy, but to our surprise Kyle Kawecki was catching up to us quick. He was a speedy little bastard. This third section, from the buoy back to the dock- was by far the longest, but now the tide was with us, so in a way it was also the easiest.
By this time everyone had definitely begun to feel it in their arms- that growing heaviness and stiffness that’s your body beginning to seriously question what it is you’re making it do. This was when a guy’s competitive nature kicks in. Looking ahead at the guys who are faster, stronger, taller… you say to yourself I want to be more like those guys, not the slow ones behind me. And you dig in and find more energy and keep swimming, harder if anything. At least this was what was going through my mind as we came around the dock and started the second lap. One down, two to go, and then they were taking us all to go eat pizza at the Pizza Hut on Laughlin Road and play arcade games. I could already taste the peperoni as we swam past Mr. Beeman and his buddy and started the second lap.
The only thing I remember from my second stretch between the platform and the rocks is glancing back and seeing Jimmy Finn getting hauled into the boat by Mr. Lias. Apparently Jimmy had eaten a little too much breakfast that morning and had cramped up something fierce. Meanwhile I could hear A.J. yelling encouragement to little Jason Rabinsky, who was doing okay after all. As we swung around the rocks Eric was getting a little ahead of me and in my competitive frame of mind I cut the corner just a little sharper than normal. As I did I felt something brush against my leg. Something rough. The contact startled me and I thought I’d come a little too close to some submerged ridge of the rock no one had noticed before. I paddled out from it a bit- which caused Eric to gain even a little more distance on me- and then I pushed forward and forgot it and tried to make up time.
It was around that moment I think I realized I didn’t know where Kyle was. I could see Tim, Michael, Dave Squared, Brian and Eric ahead of me, so I knew he hadn’t passed me up. Weird, because I was sure we’d been almost neck and neck. I figured the endurance had caught up with him and he’d fallen back, but I didn’t want to expend any more energy or time looking back, so I kept going. This was, after all, the hardest leg.
I was in my own world, pumping against the water. So I think there were a few seconds before I really became aware of the noise coming from behind me. Children and adults were shouting, but I couldn’t make out what anyone was saying. It was enough of a commotion, though, that I could see up ahead some of the older kids pause in mid-stroke and turn. Right in front of me, Eric stopped swimming and craned his neck to see what all the commotion was about. The expression on his face was something I’d never seen before. I finally stopped and turned, treading water.
It took a bit for what I was seeing to sink in. There was definitely blood. A whole lot of blood. It seemed like there was blood everywhere. On the boat. On the people. Floating on the surface of the water. A.J. was standing almost upright in the little rowboat, and his long arms were lifting Jason Rabinsky out of the water. But that wasn’t right, because what A.J. had in his hands wasn’t all of Jason. The rest of the little kid was just… gone.
Mr. Lias was leaning way over the side and screaming at Frank Feleiz to Swim! Swim hard, Frank! But Frank wasn’t making any headway. In fact he was going backwards. Something was pulling him backwards. Something in the water. And then suddenly another something came OUT of the water and grabbed Mr. Lias’ arm. Something blacker than the muddy bottom of the Bay. Something which glistened. Something with a head like a hammer. Something with a big damn mouth.
There were more screams and more splashing. Everything was happening simultaneously. Mr. Lias was howling and trying to stay in the boat but I could see the shape was tugging at him. There was hollering from the big kids out by the buoy. Way back on the dock I could see Mr. Beeman yelling and waving his hands but couldn’t make out what he was saying. I looked at my buddy Eric and he looked at me. We looked around and the closest thing to us was the Widower. Without a word we both started for it. As we did I felt another something brush against my leg. This time I was pretty goddamn sure it wasn’t a rock.
We’ve been taught about this, I remember thinking. Don’t panic- don’t paddle frantically- that’s what makes them attack. I remember the thought going through my head as I paddled frantically. Then Eric let out a loud curse as something slammed into him from the side. His body spun round so he was facing me. His eyes were big as spoons. My arms were on fire now, but I was to him in a few strokes and grabbed him under an arm and pulled him. The Widowers were only a few feet away and the current was with us. I could still hear the yelling and the screaming but all I was focused on was the rocks. I was acutely aware of shapes moving around us in the now-churning water. And then a last small swell washed both Eric and I up against the rocks with a jarring impact that made me bite my tongue. I tasted bitter copper and thought Great, more blood in the water flittered through my brain for a millisecond and then was gone.
There wasn’t a helluva lot to grab onto to pull ourselves out and up onto the rocks, but Eric managed to get hold of a jagged outcrop and I tried to help push him up. That’s when I saw the tear in his leg. Two perfectly arched rows of little jagged punctures that went deep into the meat of his thigh. Pale diluted blood ran from the cuts down his calf in an interlaced web of pink. Then I felt a thump against my own back, which sent me scraping up against the stone. A huge tail fin whipped up against the rock right next to me and sent stinging salt water into my eyes and the world went blurry. It probably only took me another second or two to get my bearings back but that bit of time stretched for what felt like forever.
Then I was back and could hear yelling again and looked up and Eric’s hand was reaching down for me and I grabbed it. In another moment I was out of the water and Eric and I were perched, shivering, up on the Widower’s jagged ledge a good four feet above the waterline. My chest stung and I could see a myriad of abrasions from the rock, but otherwise I was okay. Eric was holding his leg and wincing. The cuts were small but deep, and I could tell they hurt a whole lot.
The sun was high overhead and everywhere I could see it seemed the water was roiling and splashing with bloody foam. Dark shapes with T cross-shaped heads prowled everywhere just under the water, searching for prey. Most of the older kids I could see hanging onto the buoy, trying to keep their feet out of the water. I could make out Michael Williamson and Dave Buchanan and there was someone who looked like Brian Holster, but he was covered in red and holding his side, which was missing a good chunk. I didn’t see Dave Tomlin or Tim Bean at all, but the sharks were fighting over something a few yards away from the buoy and I didn’t want to look too long.
Over by the boat there was more chaos. The little craft rocked crazily as A.J. tried to wrap a bandana tightly around Mr. Lias’ upper arm as a tourniquet, while Mr. Lias held his right hand in his left. Even from a distance I could clearly see several inches of bare bone connecting the two. It looked like Dan Beeman had climbed or been pulled aboard by Jimmy Finn. They were both staring down at the top half of poor Jason Rabinsky.
Eric pointed at the floating dock, and I saw Mr. Beeman and his friend having some kind of tussle. Mr. Beeman was tugging on the guy’s arm and the guy was trying to push him away. He finally succeeded and Mr. Beeman stumbled back and ended up half stepping into the water. He regained his balance and got his leg back up on the dock, but by then his friend had jumped into the water on the far side and was splashing his way the twenty or thirty feet to shore. Even from this distance, Eric and I could see he wasn’t a very good swimmer at all.
They’re gonna get him, I remember Eric saying, and even as the words came out we could see shapes cutting like blades through the murk of the shallow waters. Still I thought he was wrong. I could see the guy’s feet could touch bottom now, and he was wading quickly towards the sand, using his burly arms. Now way he wouldn’t make it. Five feet of water. Ten feet to shore. And then without warning the guy’s head disappeared underwater in an instant. There was splashing and blood, and for a moment a hand raised up out of the water, grasping at thin air- and then there was nothing. It all only took a few seconds, and then the shapes turned and started moving back out into the deeper water, leaving behind crimson-tinged waves that left the sand tinted when they ran back out.
After that there came an odd stillness. All the yelling had now silenced and I was suddenly aware of the sound of the water slapping against the rocks, and of the gulls cawing above our heads. Four little islands of people clung to their perches, just out of reach of the creatures patrolling below the surface of the surrounding green waters. We were almost all bloodied and shaking with shock, but we were the ones left. The nightmare reality of what had just happened was still sinking in, and we all stared at each other- adults and children alike- in stunned silence. The attacks had only lasted two or maybe three minutes.
We all looked to shore. It was deserted. No sunbathers, no fishermen, no painters. No one to go get help or call the police. No one. It was just us. The ones who were left. And glancing at Eric’s leg, I realized that some of us didn’t have a whole lot of time.
I called out to A.J., but he was busy holding onto Mr. Lias’ tourniquet with all his strength. Mr. Lias’ face was pale as a vampire’s. A.J. took a look around and told Jimmy and Dan to start rowing to shore. The two guys each grabbed an oar with clumsy hands, and started rowing. It was like watching two monkeys trying to screw a football, as our old scoutmaster Mr. Crouch would have said. The boat turned in circles. It started moving the wrong way. It turned in more circles and almost capsized as Jimmy managed to turn its starboard side full flat against the incoming swell. There were yells and curses as several gallons of water rushed over the rail, making poor Jason Rabinsky’s corpse bob around and bump against everyone’s legs. Now the boat was sitting low in the water, which made it harder to maneuver. A.J. was getting angry as he still held Mr. Lias’ arm in a death grip.
Then we all heard yelling and looked to see Dave and Brian shouting at something in the water, headed towards the beach. We realized it was Michael Williamson. They were shouting at him to come back, to get out of the water, and I realized I was shouting too. Michael was moving very slowly, making the least amount of effort he could, really just letting the tide carry him towards shore. I remembered it was him that had told me how sharks have a sixth sense that picks up vibrations in the water, like when a fish is swimming or hurt… and that people make those same vibrations. Even the best swimmers were awkward in the water, he’d said, compared to fish. We made a lot of racket. So he was taking it easy, steadily working his way in while trying to not make himself a target for the dozens of beasts that circled around him. He was already a third of the way to shore.
For a while, we thought he was gonna make it.
No one’s sure what happened. We were all too far away. But he must have made a sudden movement or scraped himself on a rock or something, because suddenly I could all see the shapes turn and zero in on him.
I screamed at him to STOP! Stay still! But it was over in a moment. Michael turned suddenly as though he’d been surprised, and then I saw a huge gray tail whip around between us and he was just gone.
That shook us. Even more than the rest. Everyone looked up to Michael. He wasn’t any kind of Joe Scout like Tim Bean, and he didn’t pretend to be. But he was a font of knowledge when it came to camping, canoeing, building fires… anything woodcrafty, the guy knew more about than anyone, even the adults- and he’d always been friendly to the younger and less experienced guys like me. Watching him disappear under the water did more than make me sad, or scared. It made me angry. I grabbed a loose rock and hurtled it into the water at one of the shapes prowling nearby. There was a splash and the thing flipped over at the impact, but otherwise seemed completely unhurt. A dozen other shapes came slithering through the water towards where the rock had hit, and circled around in agitation, looking for a nonexistent meal.
The sun had started lowering ever so slightly.
A little time had gone by. We’d found some slimy strings of kelp to wrap around Eric’s leg. Of course it was soaked in salt water and must have stung his bites like crazy, but he didn’t say anything. I could feel the skin of my shoulders and legs beginning to burn from the sun. I was incredibly thirsty and my throat felt swollen. Right below our feet we could see the hammerhead shapes circling the rocks all around us.
Dan and Jimmy were now slowly and carefully rowing the boat towards the floating dock. They were only a dozen yards away or so now, but the rails of the little rowboat’s sides were only a few inches above the water. Mr. Lias looked like he might be unconscious, except every once in a while his body gave a little shudder. A.J. was doing everything he could to keep him up out of the water. He was the only one strong enough to.
Out on the buoy it looked like Dave was doing his best to keep Big Brian holding on, but even from the Widowers I could see that Brian’s head was sagging on his shoulders and his body was swaying a little too much with the bobbing of the buoy. If he was still losing blood he wouldn’t be able to hold on by himself for too long.
The boat had finally reached the dock and Dan and Jimmy had already clambered on. Mr. Beeman helped A.J. lift Mr. Lias’ heavy bulk up onto the platform, causing the boat to rock dangerously. With great care, A.J. bent back down and lifted up Jason’s remains and placed them on the dock as well. But as he finally reached out for the pole to step over himself, a shark rammed the boat, knocking it sideways into the dock and making the whole thing shudder. It was eerie- like the shark had been waiting for the perfect moment and seized it. A.J.’s hand came loose from the wet metal pole just as his legs went out from under him. His head hit the steel gunwale of the boat and we all heard his neck snap. If the sharks had been hoping for a struggle they were disappointed, because A.J. was dead before his body hit the water. That didn’t stop them tearing him to pieces, though. We all stared in horror as they fought over him, over his parts. In the midst of the chaos, one of the sharks’ tails came down on the boat’s rail and drove it further underwater, and the boat quickly filled the rest of the way up and disappeared under the surface. So that was that.
The sun was still sinking. We had a few hours of daylight left, but everyone was in bad shape. There must have been a hundred sharks between Dave and Brian out on the buoy and the shore: and in the shape he was in, Brian couldn’t have made the swim in to land even if going in the water hadn’t meant certain death. On the dock, Dan and his dad were doing everything they could to keep Mr. Lias warm and breathing. Seeing what happened to A.J. up close, well… it looked like Jimmy Finn had cracked a bit. He sat huddled up hugging his knees on the far end of the dock, as far away from the body of Jason Rabinsky as he could get. I couldn’t see his face to see if he was crying but I could see his shoulders shaking.
The only others left were Eric and myself up here on the Widowers, and Eric’s leg had started to stiffen. The edges where the skin had broken had turned white. I’d never heard of that before but I was sure it wasn’t good. Who knew what kind of bacteria a shark had in its mouth, with all the garbage it would regularly eat? As we all sat there I suddenly felt an eerie moment of calmness come over me, bringing with it clarity and a kind of fatal resolution. Going over it all piece by piece, in short order I’d arrived at a single conclusion: if we were going to get help in time to save Brian and Mr. Lias and my buddy Eric, I was going to have to figure out a way to get to land. I was the only one uninjured and without the responsibility of keeping someone alive, like Dave B. and Mr. Beeman.
I stood up and climbed up onto the crest of the Widowers’ tallest point to get the best view of the situation I could. I turned slowly around in a complete circle, so as to get the whole picture. There had to be some way. Something so obvious we’d all want to kill ourselves for not thinking of it. And turning towards the north side cliffs it all became evident. I was only a dozen or so feet away from where the waves lapped up on the cliff side. Scanning the water line I could clearly see a little outcropping opposite the Widowers that I figured I could climb up onto and out of the water. My eyes followed along the side of the rocks, which ran maybe thirty or thirty-five feet before they met the sand of the beach. They were wet, of course, and would be slippery. I squinted against the sun’s glare. It looked like there were decent handholds in places, ledges to step on in others- although almost never both in the same area- but there was at least one spot I could see, a few feet across, where I didn’t see anything promising.
But it was something. If I could get to the cliff side, then I could maybe work my way across it to shore without having to go into the water. But to get to it, I had to get across twelve feet of shark-infested water.
It was Eric who figured it out, from when I’d thrown the rock after Michael had got eaten. As soon as I’d told him my idea, and its obvious setback, his eyes had lit up.
Now I was perched on the lowest ledge of the Widower facing the cliffs, only a few inches above the water. It was cloudy over here, but I was sure I could see shapes moving in it. My legs were shaking and I was worried they wouldn’t do what I told them to when the moment came. My back ached and itched from sunburn and I felt a pounding in my ears. I suddenly had to piss like crazy. I turned around and looked up at Eric. He smiled back down at me and turned, disappearing onto the far side of the Widowers. Then I heard several splashes as he chucked rocks into the water. Within seconds I heard a loud rhythmic thrum sound. That would be the folks on the dock kicking the poles that went down into the seabed. I even thought I could hear yelling and banging from way out by the buoy.
But I was focused on the water in front of me now. I watched the movement of the surface, the rhythms of the waves as they grew and swelled and then struck the rocks just a few feet away. I couldn’t see anything moving in the shallow water now. I was sure of it. Pretty sure. If Eric’s idea was sound, then all the noise and vibrations should be drawing all the hammerheads’ attention. They would also, I knew, be throwing any spare bits of bloodied clothing they could in as well, to further distract the creatures. It all came down, I quickly decided, to whether or not I trusted my friend. I’d always thought Eric was a brilliant kid, so the answer was easy. I kneeled down and slipped into the water as gently as I could, careful not to make too big a splash.
The water felt cold after so long on the rocks in the sun- the chill shot through me and I suddenly felt like I’d returned to the state I was in before this had all happened. The ache in my chest lessened and my back felt relieved at the gentle caress of the cool liquid. I was halfway there before I even realized it. It was really a very short distance. Only a couple feet to go. Two maybe three more strokes. That’s when I heard Eric scream my name. He’d seen one turn, I knew. I gave up and kicked hard, scooping wide arcs with my slender arms, and in a moment the water shoved me up against the ledge. It was a little higher than it had seemed from the rocks, and I hit it on a down swell, which almost carried me underneath it to where it had been undercarved by the water. That was the moment I almost panicked. I’d misjudged. I’d screwed up and I was going to die because of my own idiocy. But as I grabbed desperately at the rocks my hands found a hold, and in the next second the waves swept up so that I could haul myself up and get a knee planted. And then I was standing safely out of the water. I heard whooping and looked up to see Eric waving his arms happily. The gang on the peer was waving as well, giving me the thumbs up. I couldn’t see past the Widowers to the buoy from where I was.
I looked down and sure enough there was a medium-sized hammerhead circling on the surface, just two feet from the rocks. He must have just missed me. Without pause I yanked down the front of my swimsuit and urinated directly on him, the stream hitting him straight in the face. I yelled triumphant profanities and flipped the shark obscene gestures as my piss hit it in the eye.
The goddamn thing didn’t even flinch.
Of course I was only halfway to safety.
I took a breath and started inching my way along the edge of the slimy rocky face of the cliffs. The shark I’d whizzed on seemed to be following me, and a couple of his pals had shown up as well, their fins cutting the surface as they circled lazily. I clutched at small outcroppings as I made my way the first few feet. After that bit there was a tricky moment where I had to step pretty far over a void to get to the next foothold, but I managed it. On the other side there was a decent little ledge for maybe a yard, which then turned into more of a slippery ramp tilting down right into the water. That was no good. A little higher up there was a crack that ran perpendicular to the water for a ways, and I dug my fingers into that and inched along for the next couple minutes, very aware of what was waiting for me if I slipped. My toes gripped anything they could as I made very slow progress. I could feel everyone watching me, probably holding their breaths, and that wasn’t exactly making it any easier, either.
I reached a small flat area just wide enough for me to stand, where the rock leaned in and I could catch my breath a second. I looked down and could actually see my bony chest pulsing with the pressure of my rapidly pounding heart. I took several deep breaths to slow it, and looked at the terrain ahead. My razor-toothed stalkers had slunk out of sight for the moment, but I was sure they hadn’t gone far.
I had to take this next bit very slowly. There was a little ledge that I could use, but it rose up several feet over a place where the rock was undercut again. If I fell I’d not only be in the water, but I’d be pushed under the rocks where I’d be trapped and drowned, and then most probably eaten. We’d done a climbing weekend the summer before and I’d been okay at it, but heights made my stomach do queasy things. I started up, finding what felt like manmade handholds most of the way. People probably did this little climb all the time, I told myself. Sure, when there wasn’t death swimming in the water below.
I was halfway across when the handholds disappeared altogether. There was nothing to hold onto. Just a six-inch uneven ledge running along a vertical wall for five feet- and nothing below. I only looked down once, and saw at least three shapes cruising in little arcs directly beneath me.
This was ridiculous, I remember thinking. How do they even know I’m here? I’m six feet up, they can’t possibly see me. Can they smell my fear? I looked back, trying to see if there might be another, safer route that I’d missed, but there wasn’t a thing. This was it. I made up my mind to push forward, but my legs rebelled for a moment. They knew I would fall if I went further, no matter what my brain was telling them. They had experience at this sort of thing. And indeed I could almost feel myself already falling. It was impossible. I was stuck. It wasn’t my fault; I’d done my best. We were all stuck. I looked out over the water and the others were standing or sitting perfectly still, watching me. Even Jimmy Finn had turned around and was watching me. I thought about Tim Bean and Michael Williamson and Dave Tomlin, and Tim Bean and Eric Stephens who I hadn’t seen what had happened to. I thought about Mr. Lias and A.J. and little Jason Rabinski, who’s mangled body I could see on the dock. And then weirdly enough I thought about Pizza Hut and Pac Man and how now there was no way we were going there now and that really pissed me off.
Screw it. I turned around so my back was to the rock, so I could lean against it as much as possible. I pressed back on the ledge until I could feel the rock against the back of my heels. And then I started moving. I moved incredibly slow, but at least I felt like this way I had some balance, some control. I didn’t look down at the sharks below, or the ledge, I didn’t look at the guys in my troop. I didn’t look up and I didn’t even look ahead to see where I was going. I just looked out at the distant ocean cliffs surrounding the next inlet. Wayfarer’s Cove, they called it.
And the whole time I just kept thinking about pizza.
I slipped once. There was an icky moment when the world seemed to turn up on its side and I frantically waved my arms in little circles, like I was trying to swim through the air backwards- but I managed not to fall. The close call had given me a rush of adrenaline, though, and I could feel my face suddenly flush, my palms suddenly sweating, and my legs shakier than ever. Another close call and I wasn’t sure how I would react. And then my foot slid onto something wider. I was past the undercut, and on a larger shelf, covered in small and medium rocks- some smooth, some jagged. It curved down seven or eight feet to disappear into the water, but there was plenty to hold onto. And just past where it ended was the beach. I was incredibly close. A weight came off me, and I moved forward. I’d gone a couple feet when I put my weight on a loose stone and it rolled out from under me.
It happened faster than my exhausted brain could follow. The only thing I remember is my chin hitting one of the rocks as I fell forward, making my tongue bite my tongue again. Then I was sliding and rocks were bouncing all around me and painfully off of me. And then I was underwater.
It was so fast I never took a breath until I was in the ocean- then I took in a lungful of seawater. The shock of it all shot through me and before I’d even gotten back to the surface I was charging for the shore. Maybe I had a second or two. Maybe the falling rocks had startled them. My head broke out of the water and I coughed even as I found sand under my feet and pushed forward- only to realize a second later when the water was out of my eyes that I was wading the wrong way. In horror I catapulted myself backwards just as a wave came in, and my head went underwater again. It was maybe only waist high this close to land, and there was a ton of silt mixed with the water, but even then I saw two dark shapes slicing through the murk towards me at incredible speed, coming in for the kill.
I was crab-walking backwards as fast as my limbs would motivate. The waves were crashing over me. I couldn’t breathe. There was a moment when I was out, and then the surf came in over me and I was in again, fins coming closer. I swear to this day I saw a single unblinking black eye right next to mine for a moment.
And then I was truly out. Up on dry sand that the tide didn’t reach. It must have taken me a full minute to realize I was actually safe. By the time I managed to cough up the rest of the water that had gone down my throat and look up, the rest of the troop were on their feet cheering. All I wanted to do was rest, to catch my breath, to maybe take a small nap. But I had to find help. Big Brian and Mr. Lias and Eric and the rest were all counting on me. So I dragged myself to my feet and started up the hill. I was so disoriented that I forgot to put on my shoes or shirt- both of which were lying right there with the rest of the guys’ stuff. I started running back up the steep path that led to the road. It seemed much steeper now. I had to stop twice to catch my breath- feeling guilty because I know everyone could see me resting, but it felt like I was going to pass out and if I did that wasn’t going to help anyone.
After an unmeasured time I was up where the road ended and people parked. Mr. Lias’ familiar white van was there, along with A.J.’s wood-paneled Bronco and Mr. Beeman’s tiny Toyota, badly in need of a wash. I made my way to the road, slicing my calves on the switch grass that lined the path and cutting my feet on the rough stones. When I hit the smooth pavement of the Shore Road there were no cars. I had two choices: to the right I knew there was a gas station a half mile down the road, because we’d stop there and get sodas and snacks sometimes. But it was Sunday and I couldn’t remember if they were open on Sundays or not, and if they weren’t then it was miles until the next house. To the left the little town of Jetty Point was probably an hour’s hike away. I looked at the sun.
An hour to find someone. Then the call to the police. How long to get a boat out to the harbor? Another hour? Two? Would it be dark by then? Would Mr. Lias still be alive? I must have been turning around and around in undecided panic, and I know I was full on crying, because when a pickup came by it slammed on its brakes and a man who I later found out was a volunteer firefighter jumped out and hurried over to me. He had a radio in his truck he used to call for help, and just like that, my part in the drama was over. The shore patrol had had a boat just a mile out giving a tow to a fisherman who’d run out of gas, and I watched from the top of the cliff with the volunteer fireman’s wife and a growing number of people as one by one everyone left in Troop 66 was rescued. By the time the sun was setting in a crimson explosion over the water, I was riding in the backseat of my family’s station wagon, my mom beside me. They took me to the hospital and I stayed overnight and watched TV and ate ice cream (but no pizza), and then I went home the next day. I wanted to visit Eric but they wouldn’t let me. They’d airlifted Brian and Mr. Lias to a hospital in the City.
I had nightmares that night and every night for a week. Water engulfed me and I couldn’t breathe. Sinuous gray black shapes surrounded me, prowling closer and closer- rows of shining stiletto teeth and black marble eyes. I woke up screaming. I wet the bed. Then the dreams came only every other night for a month. They averaged once a week for a year or two, until finally now it’s only once in a great while that I see hammerhead shapes swimming through my dreams and wake up in the dead of night clutching my chest.
They never found anything of A.J., Michael, Dave Tomlin, Kyle, Frankie or Mr. Beeman’s friend. Jason Rabinsky had a closed casket funeral that we all wore our class A uniforms to. Eric made a full recovery and actually ended up swimming on the team in high school. Poor Jimmy Finn was never quite right afterward, and had a lot of trouble in school and later on in life, I heard. We discovered that Tim Bean, our big time Eagle Scout, had somehow made it to shore amidst all the commotion when Jason first got bit, and had run up the hill and driven home without calling anyone. He wasn’t welcomed back in the Troop after that and the next year he graduated high school and moved on.
Brian Holster had to have two feet of intestine and part of his liver removed, and got one hundred and seventy-seven staples in his side, but he made a full recovery and manages a steak restaurant out where Route 252 meets the Interstate. The doctors ended up having to amputate Mr. Lias’ arm below the elbow. Otherwise he made a full recovery, but he never came back to lead our troop. Mr. Beeman took over for him, and many other parents became much more involved after the mile swim incident. There was an official Court of Honor ceremony later that fall, with all sorts of high-ranking people from the BSA and governors and politicians and what not. Everyone living or dead got some kind of award, except Mr. Beeman’s friend (who wasn’t actually a scoutmaster), and jerkoff Tim Bean of course.
Most of the kids got Medals of Merit for bravery. Brian, Eric, Dave Buchanan, Jimmy Finn, Dan and Mr. Beeman all got Silver Honor Medals. A.J., Michael Williamson and Mr. Lias received Gold Honor Medals. And they gave me the Gold Honor Medal with Crossed Palms, the highest medal for bravery that the Scouts award. All these years later, I couldn’t find it if I had to. My kid probably has it in his drawer.
The day after the attack there wasn’t a sign of any type of shark for miles around. They were just gone. Ichthyologists and other scientists descended on Holdout Bay in gaggles over the next two years, but could never figure out what factors had come together to cause the carnage which had wiped out half of Troop 66. We all learned that while Hammerhead Sharks have been known to bite humans, they have never been considered to be maneaters, and still aren’t. The Attack was considered a freak occurrence, and there were hypotheses about late-summer currents, migrating plankton, industrial pollution in the fishes’ diet, geomagnetic anomalies, and a thesis-paper’s worth more. Plenty of people in town had their own crazy theories as well, which weren’t peer reviewed. The Attack, as it came to be known, came to define an entire generation of our town. You were either around at the time of the Attack, or you came along after.
It took a couple years, but people eventually started swimming in Holdout Bay again. These days it’s as popular with swimmers, sunbathers, painters and horny teens as it ever was. So far, the sharks have never returned.
The Pizza Hut on Laughlin Road closed last year. It’s a Pilates studio now.
I stayed in the Troop for a few more years after the Attack, but in high school the twin mix of girls and part-time jobs combined to monopolize the majority of my after-school time. I never actually quit the Scouts, I just gradually drifted away. Eric and I remained friends through graduation, and I’d hang out with him the first couple summer breaks during college. He went into his dad’s real estate business and did very well for himself, taking over the company after his pop retired. My wife and I bought our first home from him and he gave us an incredible deal on it.
I’ve never tried to milk what happened for any kind of special treatment. I’ve heard of a few of the others doing that and that kind of thing is just repellent to me. But it’s a small town and no one’s forgotten what happened, so every once in a while I’ll get a free drink at the bar or my entrée comped when my wife and I go out. And one time when I rear ended a guy in traffic and he wanted to get in my face about it, I just looked at him and calmly told him I’ve pissed right in a shark’s eye, so nothing he could do or say was really gonna frighten me. The guy never even filed a claim with his insurance.
Like I said, I don’t swim. I don’t even take baths. The feeling of being submerged in water brings about a paralyzing feeling of helplessness that instantly takes me right back. If work or errands demand I take the Shore Road past Holdout Bay I won’t purposely detour, but if there’s another route to get where I’m going I’ll usually find myself taking it, even if it’s a little longer.
My kid is almost nine now. He’s talking about joining the Scouts. I ran into Dan Beeman the other day at the bank and turns out he’s Scoutmaster now. His son is a year older than mine. Mr. Beeman Sr. passed a few years back, I don’t know how I didn’t hear. Dan and I got to talking and reminiscing and naturally the talk turned to that afternoon. Dan said even though he made it through the incident without a scratch, he still feels like he lost a part of himself to the sharks that day, same as Mr. Lias lost his arm. Dan still has dreams, too.
I didn’t say much. I never know what to say about it. It happened. It was awful, but it’s a long way off now. And I guess by now I’m tired of being one of those guys who got attacked by those sharks. I guess I just want to be the best regular guy I can on my own terms, and if that means becoming an Assistant Scoutmaster for my kid, then so be it.
But if I do, you can bet your ass the Mile Swim’s taking place in a pool.
— Jim Towns is an award-winning filmmaker, artist and writer. His short fiction has been published in print and online by Burial Day, Switchblade Magazine, FunDead Publications, Castle of Horror, Hellhound Magazine, and many more. His first book American Cryptic was released in 2020 by Anubis Press, and November 2021 will see the publication of his Depression-era vampire novella Bloodsucker City. He lives in San Pedro CA with his wife and several mysterious cats.