The cruise was rockin! Jack Hartford wondered if his mother had known what she was getting her son when she bought him the ticket for his last semester’s grades as a ‘congratulations’ present. Jack had spent the last three days partying harder than he did on campus! The themed cruise hadn’t delivered the ‘horror extravaganza of a lifetime’ but it had been a lot of fun.
Jack tipped back the last of his hurricane and gasped as the rum burned his throat. Being barely legal might have made it easier to get a drink but it didn’t mean he’d gotten better at it. But who came to the Bahamas and didn’t try rum?
Fake smoke billowed over the deck and Jack (along with a healthy portion of the young people in the crowd) cheered. Another 'story’ was being set up for those who wanted to participate. The cruise’s Horror on the Sea had drawn Jack, who was a fan of anything creepy but so far everything had been pretty family-friendly. Though the escape room on the lower deck had been cool.
A crewmember stepped out in a cheap pirate costume and several tipsy college-kids whistled at him. “Alright you scurvy dogs, quiet down,” the guy said. He sounded like he was barely older than Jack. “The ‘Pirate Cruise Adventure’ is about to start! Several clues have been scattered around the ship, anyone in a pirate costume is available for hints and questions. Please be courteous to those who aren’t participating, and if you’ve signed up before-hand grab your treasure maps! This is open to everyone, but only those who’ve already made their interest known get the first clue! Follow me!”
A small crowd detached itself from the people crowded around the pool area. They followed the ‘pirate’ further into the bowels of the ship. Jack thought about following them but stayed. He had something more fun coming up if everything went according to plan.
Jack looked out over the ocean and smiled. The fog machine must have been turned up to the max because there was more of it here than there was in the middle of the deck. It looked like a cloud had fallen from the sky and was taking up residence in the ocean. Jack looked out over the waves as he tried to master his stomach.
A shape appeared in the fog and Jack squinted. It looked like an old-timey ship. The kind with masts and sails. Jack smiled, it looked like the cruise was going all out for this one. He took his phone out of his pocket and tried to take a picture but something was screwing with the camera. Probably the lights. The cruise ship’s deck was lit like a beacon while the evening had turned the waves dark as the sky.
The ship disappeared while Jack was filtering through the phone’s camera settings and he slipped it back in his pocket with an annoyed sigh. Oh well, it’d come around again no doubt, nobody else had seen it and the cruise wouldn’t want people to miss something that was probably pretty expensive to put together.
Jack went back to the party. The people that had signed up for the story had been led away, which let everybody else go back to what they’d been doing. The music on the sound system was turned up slightly and a song was blasting out. The pool area was crowded with adults of all ages as they talked, danced, or relaxed.
Melanie came over, two glasses in hand. Jack thanked her as he took one and set his empty glass on a nearby table. They’d met on the second day and were getting along very well.
“Did you see the ship?” Jack asked. “It was pretty cool.”
“Ship?” Melanie asked, looking toward the ocean then down at the cruise ship. She looked at Jack, silently inviting him to elaborate.
“They had some ‘ghost ship’ or something earlier. For the pirate thing,” Jack said.
“Oh, I missed it! Do you think they’ll show it again?” Melanie asked.
“I guess. It looked really cool, it’s probably the best prop they’ve had so far,” Jack said.
“I don’t think anything could beat that escape room,” Melanie said. “That skeleton was so creepy!”
“Yeah,” Jack said, though he’d been more impressed with the puzzles rather than the actual props inside the room. “What do you and your friends have planned for this evening?”
“Shirley signed us up for some kind of ‘spooky dance.’ I don’t know what’ll be spooky about it unless all the old guys are there,” Melanie said. Jack snorted and Melanie smiled.
“I think we can do a little better than that,” Jack said. He was about to say more when he caught something on the breeze. It smelled like rotten fish, and he gagged.
“What is it?” Melanie asked, then she coughed. “Oh, I just smelled it. What the hell is that?”
“Smells like they’re pulling some rotted fish out of the ocean,” Jack said. “Maybe it’s dinner?”
“Oh, don’t even joke about that! You’ll make me puke,” Melanie said. The smell was getting more oppressive. It smelled like a dumpster full of fish had been left in the sun for days, and was now being spread over the deck.
Jack stood and led Melanie to the railing, trying to find a clear spot of air. For a moment there was only the salty breeze, then the smell wafted after them. It was getting worse.
“What could that be?” Jack asked. Melanie shook her head and put a hand over her nose.
“I’m not waiting around to find out, I’m going below to get some fresh air,” she said.
“I’ll go with you,” Jack said. “Let’s find out what’s so spooky about a dance.” Melanie laughed and hit his arm playfully and they went below-decks.
“You know, there're ten minutes or so before the dance starts,” Melanie said. Jack looked over at her and quirked an eyebrow.
“Whatever will we do for ten minutes?” Jack asked.
“Probably not as much as you’ve been hoping for Jacky-boy, but we can have some fun,” Melanie said. She pulled him close and Jack could feel the rum on her breath and the sweetness of the hurricane on her lips.
Jack moved closer and put one hand on the back of Melanie’s head, deepening the kiss. They stayed locked that way for a moment then Melanie pulled away.
“We can get more done away from prying eyes,” she said. Jack nodded, unable to form a coherent response and they went to Jack’s small room.
The dance was not particularly spooky, not from lack of trying on the cruise’s part. Cobwebs were hung on the corners of the room and ghosts danced around the ceiling. They’d also brought the fog machine back and layers of billowing steam were covering parts of the dance floor.
“You were right about the old people,” Jack said as he and Melanie surveyed the room, looking for Melanie’s friends.
“I thought this cruise was for our age group,” Melanie said.
“I bet half these guys just saw ‘cruise’ and signed up,” Jack said. Melanie waved and Jack raised his own hand. Melanie and two friends had taken the cruise together. Shirley was tall and carried a few extra pounds with a pretty face. Roy was a meathead whose only personality trait seemed to be glaring at Jack.
“Didn’t think I’d see you here,” Roy said, staring hard at Jack. “We didn’t see your name on the sign-up sheet.”
“They didn’t have a problem with me coming in, I don’t see why you would,” Jack said nonchalantly.
“No probs here bro,” Roy said. But the way he made his biceps dance as he looked over Jack’s admittedly skinnier frame made Jack think the other man was being dishonest. Go figure.
“Now that we’re all together maybe we can hit the dance floor?” Shirley asked. She grabbed Roy’s hand and led him away from the entrance area.
“Shall we?” Melanie asked, gesturing to the dance floor.
“We shall,” Jack said, smiling. Melanie smiled back and they led each other out to the area Roy and Shirley had staked out.
To Jack’s surprise, Shirley was a good dancer. She and Roy bopped to the beat next to him and Melanie for a while before Shirley danced with Roy away from earshot. Jack privately thanked her ability to read the room better than Roy.
Melanie was no slouch and though Jack didn’t consider himself a great dancer he was able to keep up without too much effort. They whirled around the dance floor together, and by the time the sixth song had gone through he’d worked up some sweat.
“I’m thirsty, can you get me something to drink?” Melanie asked, and Jack nodded. He worked his way through the crowd to the bar and ordered two Mai Tai’s. The drinks came after a short wait and Jack balanced them in his hands as he tried to navigate the crowd.
There was a thump, a reverberation that was carried through the deck and ceiling that shivered its way up Jack’s body and he stumbled. Alcohol slopped out of the glasses in his hands and down his arms and he swore as he tried to stop the liquid from shaking. He stumbled again as an older man with about fifty pounds of extra weight slammed into his side.
“Watch it,” Jack said and ignored the look the man shot him. He wound through the confused people and made it back to Melanie’s side.
“What happened?” she asked, looking around in confusion.
“I have no idea,” Jack said. “Here’s your drink,” he added, handing it over. “Sorry some of it’s gone, I got knocked by some old guy.”
“It’s cool,” Melanie said, taking a sip and pursing her lips. “That’s a good Mai Tai. Do you think we hit something, like in Titanic?”
“I don’t know, but even if we did we’ve got life rafts and stuff,” Jack said. “Plus we’re smarter than those guys, but I’ll say this; if we end up on a door in the middle of the ocean you’re sharing the space.”
“Chivalry is dead,” Melanie said. She smiled at him but there wasn’t the same easy humor in it. Jack could she was feeling the same niggling dread as he was. The constant motion of the cruise ship kept the worst of the ocean’s tossing at bay, but they could almost feel the ship bobbing now. It was stopped.
“Can I have everyone’s attention?” a server called, standing on a chair and waving at the crowd. “It seems the ship hit something. We don’t know what it was yet, and the crew is investigating. Everything is fine right now, there was no breach in the hull and we should be underway within the hour. Free drinks for the next round.”
The crowd cheered and everyone with one raised a glass. The server waved again and got off the chair. Jack downed the rest of the Mai Tai in one gulp and looked at Melanie. “Want another one?” he asked.
“Not yet. You want to go up and see if we can spot what we hit?” Melanie asked.
“Iceberg scouting? Sure, I guess someone has to do it,” Jack said. Melanie rolled her eyes but allowed Jack to follow her as they made their way out of the dance room and into the hallways.
The inside of the ship was cramped, even though it was supposed to be luxurious. The hallways had a claustrophobic feel even with the brightly painted walls and orange carpet. Jack and Melanie passed a few pirates on their way up, and they called out the starts of riddles but neither stopped to engage, and they soon quit.
They reached the deck easily and joined a crowd that had gathered on the port side. Jack remembered that’s what they called ‘left’ but couldn’t quite remember what they called ‘right.’
“Anybody see anything?” Jack asked.
“Nothing yet,” a guy in a bathing suit and tank-top said. “But I think we might have hit a whale or something.”
“Why?” Jack asked.
“Don’t you smell that stink?” the guy asked.
Now that Jack was paying attention he did smell it. It was the same thing he’s smelled before, rotting fish. The stink was subtler now but it was beginning to waft up.
“That was what we smelled earlier,” Melanie said. “Do you think a dead whale floated up?”
“But how would we have hit it? That had to have been, like, half an hour ago,” Jack said. “Unless it’s been following us it’s impossible for the smell and the damage to be related.”
“Maybe it was two whales,” Melanie said.
“Maybe,” Jack said. They waited for a while but nobody got a glimpse of what they’d hit. The sudden fogbank that rolled over them didn’t help. Jack wondered if someone had turned up the fog machine, but it couldn’t have accounted for this much moisture-heavy air. The ship was nearly covered in it.
“This is creepy, let’s go back down,” Melanie said.
“Yeah, the smell’s getting to me too,” Jack said. As they waited the smell had gotten worse. They climbed down the hatch escaping the horrible scent of dead fish.
Jack led Melanie back to his room and they curled up together on the bed. Jack pulled Melanie’s hair back and began kissing her neck. She moaned and moved her head so he could be in a better position when the ship reverberated again.
“What was that?” Melanie asked.
“Maybe they tried to start the engines again,” Jack said. He looked around and waited for a second, then went back to what he was doing.
“Jack stop, I want to find out what that was,” Melanie said.
“Oh c’mon babe, whatever it was we’ll find out later,” Jack said. Some part of him wanted to find out too, but a lot more of him was engulfed in the fog of what they’d been doing.
“What if it means the ship’s going down and we have to evacuate?” Melanie asked pointedly. Jack sighed, the mood truly broken.
“Alright, let’s go find out,” he said.
Jack was feeling a lot less charitable as they exited his room once more and wandered the halls. Melanie didn’t want to go up to the deck in case they needed to keep it clear so they tried to find a crew member.
They finally hit an area outside the guest rooms and found one of the ‘pirates’ standing at an intersection. They could see the ‘pirates'’ back and they walked toward her.
“Hey, we’re not playing, do you know what that second thump was about?” Jack asked. The woman didn’t answer and as they reached her she folded over herself and fell prostrate. Melanie shrieked and Jack leaped toward the woman. “Lady are you alright?” Jack asked. The fish smell had returned, but Jack didn’t notice in his rush to help the woman.
Something cold fell against Jack’s chin and he looked up. The tip of a rusted sword was at his throat and Jack gulped, the blade digging into his Adam’s apple. The hand holding the sword was bloated and green like it had been rotting for days underwater. He forced himself to look further up, noticing the fish smell.
The thing standing in front of him was unlike anything Jack had ever seen. It was no special effect, his brain could tell that immediately. No makeup could simulate the chunks of meat that had been eaten away from this man’s face, or the growths erupting from the skin. The creature’s eyes were bulging, like a drowning victim’s as they took Jack in.
The creature smiled, revealing black tombstone teeth that were scattered in every direction. A purple tongue flicked out of the lips, which were blue and distended. Jack couldn’t breathe. What was he looking at? A bandanna covered wet scraggly hair and a lank beard framed the terrible mouth.
Melanie screamed and the thing’s eyes flicked up. For a moment it flickered like it wasn’t really there and Jack’s wheeling mind grasped on that observation. I’m having a hallucination. He had to get a doctor or someone because this woman wasn’t moving and he was having a panic attack and it sounded like Melanie was right behind him.
The cracked leather boots raced forward, and the hallucination’s pants, torn and waterlogged, swished around bony legs. The boots squelched, filled with water and Jack shook his head. The thing stepped through Jack and he gasped. For a moment his lungs had been filled with salt water, he’d even tasted it on his tongue.
The sides of his vision were turning black. He heard Melanie scream and though his head felt like it was floating from his body he tried to turn and look at her. He wanted to help her to get up, but his legs had no strength. He dimly saw Melanie run around the corner, the thing flickering as it chased her.
There was a thump. It sounded like someone had fallen. The thing returned, the rusted cutlass in its hand dripping with blood and seawater. It raised it at Jack and brought it down as he fell into a black hole.
The lights of the cruise ship flickered for an hour. At that time contact was lost with the mainland. No distress call was sent. A fogbank that hadn’t been on any radar had sprung up around it, and soon the ship was swallowed. It dispersed after a few hours, and left in its place was a mid-size pleasure craft.
The pleasure craft’s windows were cracked, and in many places, they’d been knocked out. Algae and barnacles covered the hull and a large section of one side was visibly cracked. It looked like it had drifted in the ocean for decades, but it was only two years old.
The Sea Strider, its faded name still visible on one side, rode low in the waves, bobbing like a cork. After a while, it vanished under the ocean. It left no trace that it had been there.