Fearless

Read junior Emma Sonberg’s short story, Fearless, a gripping tale that explores fear and how you react to it when it’s staring you in the face.

“I think we should turn back towards land, Laurie,” Carl said. “The clouds are getting thick and it smells like rain.”

He stood next to me, gazing up at the darkening sky. He was wearing bright white and orange; the last two colors I would pick to describe his personality. I noticed that his brown hair was artfully spiked, and I wondered why he felt the need to style his hair like that. I wondered if it was to impress someone; maybe a person at his high school that he had a crush on.

“No way,” I retorted. The air was humid; my tan skin was slick with sweat, wisps of blonde hair clinging to the crown of my forehead. “We did not spend hours interviewing the Smith family about what happened just to turn around—before we even get halfway there!” I leaned against the side of the boat, fixing my eyes on him. “We promised them that we would provide answers. Besides, you always think the worst is going to happen.”

I knew he did not trust me; it had been that way since we were young. I remembered the time I attempted to show him how a retractable trick knife worked, and he cried to mom that I was trying to kill him. What kind of a person thinks so little of their big sister?

Carl shook his head, still squinting at the swirling sky, but he didn’t reply. His brow furrowed, and I knew he was angry with me. As long as he didn’t turn the boat around, he could fume in silence all he wanted.

The sound of the frothy water lapping against the side of the boat lulled me into a confusing state of restless tranquility. I was both anxious to reach our destination, and content in the present moment. It was a feeling that I only experienced near the ocean. The last time I felt this way, I witnessed a great white shark breaching. The shark was hunting a seal that appeared unusually small for its age. The seal had sensed the shark’s presence, and leaped out of the way just as the shark launched itself out of the water, its gray and white nose pointing to the sky like a dagger, its raw pink gums like lipstick smeared around monstrous teeth. I watched the seal and the shark dance for half an hour; the shark leaping out of the water, and the seal flopping just out of reach. I didn’t stay to watch the end of the number; I didn’t want to know. If I had it my way, the seal and the shark would be forever dancing; neither one losing and neither one winning.

Although the sky predicted a storm, the water was tame. The water of the South African Coast was an unbelievable blue; so unlike the murky, gray-green waters of New England. Shadows of fish slithered alongside the boat. In the distance, I could hear a bird calling. Land was nowhere in sight. The hum of the boat filled my ears.

I imagined all the people who had sailed these waters before me; the fearsome pirates, who lived almost their entire lives on ancient, wooden ships that creaked and groaned and rocked with the ocean. I imagined that I would have made an impressive Captain—that I would have successfully led my ship to the brink of danger and back again, unscathed—and I would have been admired by all of my crew for my intelligence and bravery.

The boat slowed.

“We’re here,” he said flatly, glancing at the map. “The exact spot Hannah Smith claims she saw a thirty foot great white.” He rolled his eyes, and I smacked him on the arm. I wasn’t sure why I had even brought him; how hard could it be to steer a boat and read a map? I was sure that I could have figured it out if I had put my mind to it. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with his attitude.

Maybe he needed a reminder as to why he was here in the first place?

“One thing that I learned during my time at Harvard,” I said, “is that everything can be explained by science. I’m sure that we can both find and explain whatever it was that Hannah Smith saw.”

Carl sighed. “I don’t think taking a free Harvard class online about Marine life and binge watching shark week counts as having a degree in Marine Biology.”

I ignored his snarky comment. I did not have time to waste. I flung open my massive cooler. The putrid smell of a decaying whale carcass invaded my senses, and I held my breath as I quickly secured a sizable chunk onto the end of my line and shut the cooler. Big prey for a big predator. I tossed my line out. The lump of meat was a puppet of the ocean, shifting with the waves.

“Where did you get a whale carcass from?” He glared at me with stern eyes.

I hated it when Carl treated me like a misbehaving child. Where did you get this from? Why are you doing that? Don’t you know that’s dangerous? I rolled my eyes. “Now we wait,” I said, instead of answering his question. Carl sighed, but quitted his interrogation. We sat in silence for what seemed like hours. Nothing touched my bait, not even a small fish.

“We’re not going to catch a thirty foot great white like this,” I said, glaring at the untouched bait. “I think we need to chum the waters. And I think I need to go in. The shark might be swimming below.”

I could feel Carl staring at me, but I pretended not to notice, as I slipped on my diver’s suit and secured the air tank.

“You have got to be kidding me,” Carl drawled, coming up behind me.

I clumsily waddled over towards the railing of the boat, the rubber flippers on the ends of my feet making it hard to walk.

“Laurie.” Carl grabbed my arm to stop me from going any further. “This is stupid. C’mon.”

The wind whistled furiously, and lightening streaked across the sky. Waves slapped the sides of the boat, rocking it side to side. I stumbled and Carl caught me. Carl looked at me seriously and said, “We need to turn back towards land; it’s dangerous to be out at sea during a storm.”

I shoved his arm away. I couldn’t turn back now. Why didn’t Carl understand that? “Dump the chum in the water above me,” I demanded. “I know how sharks work. I won’t get bitten. I promise.”

I didn’t give him a chance to respond before I dived into the briny water. I was glad I was wearing goggles; shreds of slimy green and yellow seaweed churned in the choppy waves, and I was sure the debris in the water would have blinded my naked eyes. I swished my flippers, swimming deeper. I glanced down at the dark pit beneath me, and I remembered the shark hunting the seal. I no longer felt restlessly tranquil. An emotion I wasn’t familiar with washed over me. I pushed it away, whatever it was, and focused on my mission. Besides, shark attacks were rare, and in most cases, the victims were swimming in infested waters during prime hunting time. I wasn’t that stupid. I actually knew what I was doing. So, I would be fine. Besides, it’s the whale meat that they’re really after.

I looked back up at the surface, and I could see the blurry outline of Carl’s face looking down at me. Rain speckled the surface of the water with a thousand dazzling stars. It was amazing that something so ordinary could look so beautiful when viewed from another perspective.

Suddenly, I felt a presence creep over me. I slowly turned around, not wanting to scare whatever it was away. A large shape cruised towards me, and I knew from that infamous dorsal fin that it was a shark. It’s not going to hurt me. It wants the whale meat. My heart pounded against my chest, despite these self-reassurances. The shark swam past, its mouth slightly agape, its flat black eyes unmoving and emotionless.

I floated about five feet from the bait, and I watched as the shark approached. I could see the entire length of its body—the profile of each curved, serrated tooth—from my view on the left side of the impressive marine animal.

The shark opened its jaws and bit into the whale carcass; I watched in awe as the skin around its gills billowed out, like shredded fabric blowing in a gust of wind. The shark swung its head back and forth; its powerful teeth ground the whale meat. I stared in awe as its jaws sliced through the flesh as if it were butter. The shark finished the bit of whale meat, and swam curiously around the boat in search of more. The rhythmic sway of the shark’s tail reminded me of a pendulum. I fixated on that tail, observing how this particular shark had white splotches, as if someone had held a dripping paintbrush over it. I thought again of the shark and the seal’s dance. I wondered what it was like to be an apex predator—to be afraid of nothing—and I wondered if I could ever be as feared or as fearless as a shark. What did it even mean to be fearless? As I watched the shark glide through the churning water, I wasn’t sure that I knew.

The shark swam back to the depths it emerged from, not even bothering to glance back at me. I floated there, stunned for a moment, as pieces of chum drifted down through the water around me, showering me in ground up bits of dead fish and blood. I swam back to the surface. Carl grabbed me as soon as my arm broke the water.

He hoisted me onto the boat, and I fell with a thud. The rain splattered against my goggles, blurring them as if I were back underwater again.

“Jesus, Laurie,” Carl shouted, over the howling of the wind. “I thought you were dead!”

His tone softened. “The chum was an accident, I’m sorry. I was trying to distract it from you, but I didn’t see you there until you surfaced! You drifted really far away from where you dived in…”

He raised his voice again. He couldn’t seem to make up his mind about whether he was mad at me or mad at himself. “That shark…the way it just bit down on that whale…it was the most terrifying thing ever. He could have bit you in half! You’re crazy, you know that? Crazy!”

I lay there in silence. The water drained off my wetsuit, pooling around me. That shark was about the length of three of me. How big would that make it? “That shark was only about fifteen feet,” I said, dazed, doing the math in my head. “Can you believe it?”

“What?” Carl shouted at me. He couldn’t hear me over the roaring of the wind. “Nevermind. Look, we’re going back. No discussion.” He began to steer us back to shore. I knew that if I wanted to, I could stop him. I had always succeeded in doing so in the past.

Black storm clouds marbled the sky, and the sound of thunder filled my ears. Visibility was poor; rain pelted from the sky. I struggled to pry off my flippers; my toes were white, my skin shriveled and wrinkled, the tips of my toes tinged violet. I hadn’t felt the cold while I was underwater, but I felt it now. I shivered, and held myself tightly. I looked up at Carl, bravely facing the storm, and I wondered what it would mean if we never made it home.

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