Drawing of a fish-tail diving into waves. Caption reads: "A large fish tail disappeared into the water."

Overboard short story by Iris Carden

This cruise had been a mistake, Terry thought, as he leaned against the rail on the main deck.

He and Sam had hoped time away from the stresses of everyday life would give them a chance to work on their issues while having fun together. It would help them fix the problems with their relationship.

It took them no time to realise there were three distinct groups of passengers: young families looking for an easy way to go on holiday, twenty-somethings who were bent on drinking all the bars dry, and the geriatrics who could be overheard complaining that this cruise wasn’t as good as any of the dozens of others they had been on.

There were no couples like them. No kid-less couples in their 30s.

Added to that was that choosing activities at each port of call had just showed their differences. Sam wanted nature, he wanted culture. She wanted to tour forests and streams and look at fish from glass-bottomed boats. He wanted to see markets, museums and galleries. They couldn’t agree on anything.

Leaning over the rail, hypnotised by the movement of the ship, which had made him sick to start with, he wanted to scream. How could everything possibly be going so wrong?

That was the moment the larger wave bumped the ship. For most people onboard, it just shook their balance a little, but Terry, leaning over the rail, fell.

He didn’t really have time to register what was happening before he hit the water, and went down. Never having learned to swim, he panicked. His anxious struggles took him further below the surface.

Desperate for air, his lungs burned. He fought against inhaling the water, but didn’t know how long he could keep fighting.

Then he felt something wrap around him, something strong. He felt pulled, dragged, upward. For a moment, he thought he saw hair floating past his vision, long blond hair, like Sam’s. Then his head and shoulders were out of the water. He waved his arms and yelled.

Someone had seen him go over. There was already a lifeboat in the water, with crew members looking for him. As they grabbed him and pulled him into the boat, he felt the other thing that was holding him up release. Looking back, he saw a huge fish tail flipping down into the water.

He tried to tell the crew members that there was someone else in the water. Someone had helped him. They told him there was no-one else there. He must have imagined it in his fear and panic.

A crowd had gathered on deck as he was brought back on board. Sam was there, waiting for him, her long blond hair in a damp plait over her shoulder.

When he asked about her wet hair later, she said she’d been in the shower when she heard the commotion. That seemed strange to Terry, because she always had her shower last thing at night, never in the middle of the afternoon.

In the years after, Terry’s mind would occasionally try to put together Sam’s wet hair, his strange rescue, and that huge, human-sized fish tail. But he would always reject the conclusion he came to. That couldn’t be true. It was just insane and not worth considering.

Sam was sitting on the balcony of their cabin, looking longingly at the cool blue water and reminiscing. Things were very strained with Terry and she needed some time to herself.

When she was younger, same and a couple of her friends had left their small community, and gone to experience life in the city. Her friends had quickly decided it was not the life for them and returned home. Sam would have gone home as well, except she had found one thing to keep her in the city. That one thing was Terry.

Now she was wondering if perhaps she should have returned home with her friends.

She heard the yell from the deck above almost simultaneously with seeing Terry fall past her. He couldn’t swim, and the yell from above told her the alarm had already been raised. He would just need help to survive until the rescue got there.

Checking there was no-one on the other balconies nearby, she slipped off her clothes and dived into the water. With an act of will, she changed her human legs into her shimmering tail.

Racing against sharks in her childhood made her fast. It was only a couple of seconds before she had reached Terry. He was flailing and struggling, and, of course, sinking. She swam up behind him and wrapped her arms around his middle.

While he fought against her, she swam to the surface with him. Keeping below the water level herself, she held him with his head above the waves, until she felt someone else taking his weight, lifting him into a lifeboat.

Sam did a quick flip, as she turned back toward the ship. Her tail may have been above the water for an instant. That was a mistake. Hopefully no-one had seen. She swam quickly and gracefully back to the ship.

As a child, she and a dolphin friend had spent hours competing to see who could jump the highest from the water. She hoped she could still do it. Using all her strength, she leapt back on to the balcony, and lay for a moment catching her breath, and exhale the last of the water. Her lungs, with their internal gills, didn’t always like the change from water to air.

She changed back to legs, stood under the shower a second to rinse off the salt water, dressed and ran to the deck, taking the stairs instead of the much-slower lift.

Although she was breathless, she was there in time for Terry to be brought back on board. A stranger handed her a towel and she wrapped it around him.

She listened to his story of his adventure. She told him she’d been having a shower when she’d heard the havoc on the deck above. Surely he would never suspect.

While you’re here…

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By Iris Carden

Iris Carden is an Australian indie author, mother, grandmother, and chronic illness patient. On good days, she writes. Because of the unpredictability of her health, she writes on an indie basis, not trying to meet deadlines. She lives on a disability support pension now, but her ultimate dream is to earn her own living from her writing.

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