Marlon piloted the motorboat at dangerous speeds. It would be nothing to a professional, but Marlon was an amateur, at best. He hardly remembered the last time he was on a boat; probably in his teens, with his father, who’d let him steer it a little, but that was twenty-something years ago. Now, in unknown waters, on a stolen boat, he had a good reason for this dangerous and daring stunt that’d cost him time in a foreign prison.
He had no choice, though. They had no choice.
Marlon’s cousin, Brandon, and Brandon’s girlfriend, Angee, were with him as they raced to where Brandon’s brother, Cameron, was last spotted two days earlier. The last anyone had seen or heard from him. That was about as much help as they’d received from the Water Tour Services on the beach. A man who’d signed Cameron up for a second scuba lesson had pointed in the direction his colleague and Cameron had sailed off to. He didn’t offer a boat to help look, though he’d at least called the authorities. But with Brandon being ultra-anxious, Marlon eye-balled an abandoned speedboat with the keys in the ignition and had decided to take matters into his own hands.
“I told him not to go. I told him.” Brandon wasn’t crying yet, but close to it.
Marlon grew up with Brandon and Cameron and had never seen either of them cry. It was a stressful situation for Marlon and Angee, too, but Brandon took it to a whole other level, acting and talking like his brother was gone forever, and they’d barely started the search. For a time, Brandon couldn’t decide if he wanted to stand or sit, talk or shut up. And when he talked, it was always the same thing over and over. And he choked on his words.
“I told him—”
“I know, I know.” Finally, Angee calmed him, hugging him and holding him as they cruised farther away, until they couldn’t see the shore anymore.
What now? Where to? The tourist guy back on shore had fucking pointed to an area out in the open ocean. Not on a map. Even so, they couldn’t read maps, at least Marlon couldn’t, and he’d already proved to be the most experienced of the three on the water.
This is stupid. Perhaps they were all thinking it.
He wanted to find his cousin, but feared they’d get themselves lost in the process. Marlon immediately wanted to turn back, wait for the authorities, and find Cameron the right way, the smart way. To hell with the consequences of taking the boat, he’d deal with that later, better than being lost. But if there was one thing he’d learned from being in the ocean with his father was that ‘navigating the waters using only your sense-of-direction is how you end up in Antarctica. You need a compass’. Marlon halfway checked the boat for a compass, only looking at the dash and the area around his feet. ‘Gotta use the stars’ his father had also said, but it was early in the morning with nothing but blue skies, no clouds. Weird. There’d been clouds, almost like it was going to rain, when they’d left the hotel this morning.
Marlon was lost, but he kept that secret to himself, especially since Brandon had settled down.
“We good?” Brandon asked.
“Mhmm,” Marlon responded. “Stay alert. I’ll keep my eyes on the north, you two take the east and west.” Poor guy didn’t know they were sailing south.
Before it got dark, he thought of coming clean, telling Brandon they were lost and that he didn’t know the way back. But it might have already been past that time, the way Brandon’s emotional state had done a full-on reverse.
The optimism in Brandon grew the farther away they drifted, saying things like, “We’re going to find him. I know it. We’re getting close.” He even went as far as to ‘swear to God’ that he felt him nearby. “He’s close. Keep your eyes open,” he said. “He’s close.”
Of course, Angee stood by her man, encouraging him, but Marlon looked at the situation like Brandon did before; Cameron’s gone. He stopped looking, then turned his head away from the ocean and faced his older cousin. “Umm…” He wasn’t sure how to tell him more bad news on top of the horrible situation, but it was going to come out one way or the other.
“Look!” Brandon lunged to the front of the boat and pointed.
Marlon held his tongue and swerved around. “Well, goddamn. A fishing boat!”
The green fishing vessel with blue streaks on the side slowly approached. A young man and woman looked at them as Brandon tried to wave them down. “Hey! Hey! Can you help us? We’re looking for someone. Have you seen anyone out here?”
The boat kept on cruising past them, and the young couple kept on looking. Didn’t seem like they understood Brandon, and looked like they feared him the way they held each other by the arms.
“English? You speak English?” he screamed.
The man shook his head, then pulled his wife to the top of their ship, toward the boat’s wheel.
“What the fuck? Help us!” Brandon raised his arms as they sailed away. That hope in him faded as he plopped on the floor of the boat and buried his face in his knees.
Perfect time for Marlon to tell them it was time to turn back but…
“Hey! There! Over there!” Angee screamed.
Marlon looked, then Brandon flipped over to his hands and knees and crawled to the edge. They saw another boat, a motorboat, exactly like the one they were in. Abandoned. Marlon took them over, then Brandon and Angee hopped in and searched for clues.
“Find anything? Is it Cam’s boat?” Marlon asked from the other boat.
Brandon raised a sweater in the air and regrettably nodded.
“Fuck.” Marlon felt a tightness in his chest that he’d never felt before. A chill rose from his lower back to his brain that burned his face and watered his eyes. He dropped to the seat in front of the wheel and covered his head. This can’t be happening.
Marlon retreated into his own world, reminiscing on good times with his favorite cousin, Cameron. Mainly this entire overseas trip, the best time they’d had together. Their first day, all four of them took scuba lessons in a controlled environment. They loved it, but Cameron wanted more adventure, more excitement. Marlon was supposed to go with him on this extended, pricey, and illegal scuba lesson but he overslept. Cameron hadn’t waited, so a lot of what Marlon was feeling was guilt.
“I’m going. You’re either coming with me or not.” The thunderous tone of his cousin Brandon brought him out of his thoughts, and he poked his head above the boat’s wheel and saw Brandon clad in scuba gear.
“Babe, wait,” Angee pleaded. “He’s gone. And if you go, you’ll be gone too.”
“Gone?” For a minute, it looked like Brandon was going to strike Angee. “I don’t accept that.” He stuck the regulator in his mouth and dropped into the ocean.
“No!” Angee screamed, reaching out to him.
“What—what—why’d he do that?” Marlon stumbled out of the stolen boat onto the abandoned one.
“He’s fucking lost it,” Angee claimed, but she grabbed a package from a compartment inside and started putting on a scuba suit herself.
“What’re you doing?”
“Going after him. I’m not going to let him kill himself down there.”
“I’m going, too.”
“No. You stay up here and keep watch,” Angee said, raising a palm.
“Keep watch for what? There’s nothing out here. No one.” If they were going down, Marlon would go too, since he felt at fault for not going with Cameron in the first place.
Angee didn’t bother arguing with him, there were no more scuba suits anyway; she’d grabbed the last one. She was breaking all of the rules they’d heard days earlier, to take your time as you put your suit on, to double check your gauges, your gear, to make sure you had everything, and as she readied herself to jump in, she’d dropped her flashlight without even realizing it. So anxious to get down there.
As she jumped in, it brought him to the realization that this had turned into a rescue mission for Brandon. He couldn’t make up for the responsibility of leaving his cousin out to dry. Best he could do was make up for it back home, in his memory.
They’re crazy. Gonna get themselves killed. What the hell does Brandon expect to find down there? His brother swimming with the fish, literally? Cameron’s gone. Forever. It’s been two fucking days. No way could he survive out here alone. Right?
He felt crazy for questioning himself. And he cursed himself for the next wave of thoughts.
First, he had wanted to jump, then he didn’t, but now, with even a small chance Cameron had survived or maybe there was a clue as to what happened to him, Marlon wanted to be there.
He glanced back and forth between the two identical boats, clearly part of the same tourist organization. If the compartment had scuba suits in this boat, then the other boat should have them as well. He rushed back over to the other one, opened the compartment, and found four scuba gear suits. He found some rope, tied the two boats together, then slipped into the gear. Please, God. Don’t let there be any snakes in here. Then, he jumped in.
Find this story and more like it in M. Sydnor Jr.'s short story collection, Nothing is Natural.
© 2020 M. Sydnor Jr.