First Friday Free Fiction: Breaking the Curse

Welcome to my First Friday Free Mystery Fiction, wherein I share a free mystery short story on the first Friday of every month. You have one week to read the story here before it vanishes into the cyber ether. Tick, tick tick…

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This suspenseful short is NOT a Sydney Brennan story. It also has never been published before, so it has never been edited, except by me. If something wonky in it makes you lose sleep at night, feel free to hit the Contact thingee and share your angst. 🖋️ 📖

Breaking the Curse

Emily rested her hands on the cool metal railing, looking out at the flat water. It was an impenetrable, reflective mirror with the sun so low on the horizon. Not that she could see the horizon through the maze of masts piercing the sky, ticking back and forth like pendulums, their slapping halyards lightly clanking. The air was calm and carried a hint of fishiness, punctuated by the bite of an absent diesel engine in need of service.

It was after seven o-clock, but the marina seemed quiet, as though the world was still waking up. Emily had been awake for hours, lying in the dark. The gentle rocking, the creaks of lines and soft lapping of water, had become as familiar to her in the past eighteen months as sleeping in a bed on dry land had been the previous decades of her life. Except more familiar, because it tapped into something primal, like going back to the womb.

Everything about living on the water tapped into something primal, stripping your mind and body bare of anything nonessential. Anything that wasn’t about survival.

She felt the warmth of her husband’s body behind her before he nuzzled into her back and wrapped his arms around her protectively. “Coffee?” he asked.

They joked that coffee was one of the essentials of life—the first thing they bought in port—but Emily shook her head. Pressing against Jacob, trying to eliminate any space and merge their bodies into one, she said softly, “Maybe we should have stopped at Antigua.”

“We did,” he said, voice lightly playful. “For over three weeks. Remember, dementia will hit me before it hits you.”

“Stopped for good,” she said.

Back when everything started to go wrong.

Jacob rested his chin on her shoulder, burrowing until her fleece pullover began to dig into her skin. “I thought you didn’t believe in curses.”

She didn’t answer, just closed her eyes and lost herself in the feel of his sinewy arms beneath his cotton T-shirt, in the smell of his neck and hair. He hadn’t showered yet, so the mild, muskiness of his body odor was mostly overlaid by the ever-present crust of the sea. She bit her lip to stop tears that sprang to her eyes.

This—this moment—was all that mattered, and she was determined to imprint it on her mind.

* * *

Back in the galley, Jacob raised his cup (turquoise ceramic, the color of the sea in Barbados where they’d bought a pair) and offered coffee again.

“No, thanks. My stomach can’t take the acid this morning,” Emily admitted.

Jacob’s brows crinkled in concern. Forty-eight years old, but after eighteen months in the brutal Caribbean sun, he still didn’t look a day over forty. A fit forty. The sun and salt bleaching his hair even hid most of his gray.

He reached for Emily’s hand and said, “I can take hull duty this morning.” He grinned and kissed her knuckles, adding a lascivious eyebrow waggle. “Of course, it’ll cost you the usual chore trading penalty.”

Emily tried to smile, but it came out something closer to a grimace instead.

“Sweetie,” he said, taking her face in his hands. “I’m kidding. Seriously, if you’re not feeling well, why don’t you just lie back down? I don’t mind cleaning the hull this morning. Or if you’re really sick, we can go in town together, see if we can find a doctor. Maintenance can wait.”

She squeezed his hands, gently pulled them free from her face, and managed a genuine smile. “I’m fine. Probably just burning off the last bit of that food poisoning. Half an hour or so submerged in cool water is exactly what I need.”

“If you’re sure,” he said.

She nodded. Jacob took a slice of bread from a plate, slathered on a bit of butter from another saucer, and slid both closer to Emily.

“But I think I will stick to fruit this morning,” she said.

“Wise woman,” he said, then grinned. “Next you’ll be telling me not to eat raw fish from a street vendor.”

Emily reached for an apple that had seen better days before reminding him, “You have to be working on a street to be street vendor.”

It had become one of their running jokes, like so many other initially painful or frightening experiences. This most recent one had ended with them both vomiting and shivering with fever. Of course, Jacob had weathered it better—he’d always had an iron stomach—and had become Emily’s caregiver. Not that she remembered it.

When her fever broke a few days ago, she’d woken to his pale haggard face over her, streaked with tears. He said he’d been on the verge of taking her to the hospital. This marina did have proper slips with finger piers for easy access, but they’d laughed at the idea of Jacob, weak as a newborn himself, getting her to dry land without falling in and drowning them both.

Emily ate her apple—what she considered the edible part—and set it on Jacob’s plate. He picked up the core and ate pretty much everything else except the stem. Her face twisted in distaste.

Jacob jumped up like a triumphant kid, kissed her on top of the head, and said, “Good to see I can still gross you out after fifteen years.”

“You’ll be grossing me out in the old folks home,” Emily said, and almost forgot to add her usual, “When I come to visit.”

“That’s elder abuse,” Jacob said, and moved to the sink to wash the plates, draining the rest of his coffee so he could wash the mug as well. “You ready to suit up?”

“Yeah.” Emily rose, feeling elderly herself, though Jacob was four years her senior. “I’ll see you on deck.”

She went to retrieve a thin wetsuit. The water was comfortable here, but it was early in the day, and she’d be down for forty minutes or so. Plus, she’d never quite been able to warm up after the recent bout with food poisoning. Not deep in her marrow.

Emily ran her hands over the rubbery surface, pleased that she’d done a good job rinsing the salt off the last time she’d used it. She had a double-tub system that used less water than Jacob’s single-tub dunking, and did a more thorough job. That was something else about living on the water—you took pleasure in doing simple things well. Perhaps because you had a better sense of the serious consequences if you didn’t. Don’t maintain your equipment, and it can fail you when you need it most. And no one else will save you; when it comes down to it, you’re on your own.

She stripped down to her bikini, then muscled and finessed her way into her wetsuit, leaving it gaping open in the back. Jacob was already waiting on the aft deck, eyes closed and faded baseball cap pulled low, legs propped up on the rail. The advancing sun just hit the crown of his cap, giving the hat a two-toned appearance. A paperback sat facedown next to him. He’d filled their tanks yesterday, and he’d already hooked her BCD up to one. Its spine secured to the tank, the rest of the empty vest hung, slumping, looking somehow exhausted.

Or dead, like a crow hung out to warn other crows away from a field.

Emily shook her head clear of the image, and the motion brought Jacob’s eyes open. He plopped his bare feet to the teak deck (due for a washing) and said, “My lady! Your servant awaits.”

She gave him her back, as was their custom, and he zipped her wetsuit, carefully avoiding bikini strings and the brown braid that lay between her shoulder blades.

“You’re too skinny,” he whispered gently.

He was right. Emily realized she hadn’t held her breath for him to zip her up, as she used to do. The past three months, since Antigua, seemed to have shaved off any spare flesh. And even some that wasn’t spare. She felt hollow inside.

She felt hollow and she felt alone. Even when Jacob was lying next to her. Even when he held her hand or whispered in her ear.

With his hands poised on her shoulders, she asked her husband the question she couldn’t have asked him face to face. “Is it time to go home?”

He sighed, hugged her to him. “If you’re ready,” he said.

“Okay,” she said. “After this.”

“After this,” he agreed, and turned her to face him, stroking his hands over her upper arms reassuringly. “We’ll sell the boat and buy a plane ticket.”

“Okay,” she repeated, her voice catching in her throat.

Jacob handed her a pair of work gloves, and she slipped them on hands that shook enough for her to feel it but not enough for him to see. Then she turned her back to him again. A moment later, her arms were through the vest openings, and the burden of the tank weighed upon her body. She tugged the velcro closed, clipped the buckle, then did a quick, bouncing hop to settle the gear better before making final adjustments for comfort.

Finally, Emily smeared anti-fog in her mask before scooting the strap down the back of her skull and resting the lensed frame across her forehead. Jacob had already lowered the aft ladder for her, knowing she preferred that to stepping off. She backed awkwardly into the space, and as she gripped the rails, Jacob leaned in. He twisted his face to avoid her perched mask and rubbed his nose against hers.

“Love you, Em-n-Em,” he said.

She could smell the remnants of her apple on his breath.

“Love you, Jakey Cake,” she answered.

Then she backed carefully down the ladder until the water took her.

* * *

Three months ago, they’d decided to go ashore for a last night on the town  before setting off from Antigua. A night of beer and jerk chicken and dancing. The dancing came last because, unlike Jacob, Emily had to be drunk to dance. Very drunk.

Afterward, the ocean had drawn them like a magnet—as it always did—and they stumbled down a sandy beach, alone except for the occasional passing couple. The breeze tickling the palm fronds was just audible over the club noise they’d left behind, and the lights of human habitation were visible in the distance. Emily wore her sandals, not loving the sensation of sand between her toes, but they kept catching on the uneven surface. Finally, she’d fallen to her knees, pareo flying up to expose her bikinied bottom.

Jacob laughed, shouting, “Public indecency, madam!”

He slapped her derriere and Emily, whose poor balance had far more to do with alcohol consumption than her shoes, fell giggling onto her side. Her head swam with the scent of booze and spicy meat and smoke and she had a fleeting thought that she might vomit.

It would have been fine—they would have been fine—if he’d stopped there. But Jacob never knew when to stop. He seized the soles of her sandals, tore them from her feet and flung them inland.

“Dammit, Jacob!” He held out a hand to help her to her feet, but she was too angry to acknowledge it. He knew he’d just discarded her only remaining shoes that weren’t flip-flops or dive boots.

One shoe hadn’t gone far, and Emily snapped it up so quickly it smacked her in the thigh. But the sandals, made with thin, bone-colored leather straps and light-soled, weren’t easy to make out against the sand in the moonlight. Emily ignored Jacob—apologies, recriminations, it didn’t matter what he was saying—to stagger over a small dune after the remaining shoe.

And stagger into someone else, knocking a bowl from his hands.

She smelled the strange man as they fell to the ground in a tangle. It was a sharp, unhealthy odor that made her think of junkies. A campfire burned nearby, and what she could make out of his physical appearance reinforced the impression. Emily was petite, but he couldn’t have weighed much more than she did. Pale-skinned with long limbs like broom handles, his dirty blonde dreadlocks made her skin crawl as they brushed against her face.

She shrieked, scrambling away, heedless of the sand filling her bikini bottom. When Jacob arrived, the strange man was shouting, voice rising and falling rhythmically in a tongue she didn’t understand as he gestured at his empty bowl. (Vessel, Jacob said later.) Jacob roared wordlessly, yanked Emily to her feet, wrapped an arm around her and led her back toward the beach.

It took her a while to realize she was sobbing. She never could understand why.

She’d thrown up that night in some scrubby vegetation before they’d reached their boat. And Jacob held her while she’d apologized—for getting drunk, for overreacting to him and to the man in the dunes. Jacob spoke Spanish and French, so she’d asked him what the man had said, even though his words sounded like neither.

“You don’t want to know,” he told her.

She’d snuffled, trying to ignore the scent of vomit as she wiped her face. “Why? Because he insulted my ass?”

“Because he cursed us,” Jacob said.

He wasn’t joking.

The next morning, while gathering the lines to shove off, Emily had stepped through a rotten bit of planking on the dock and sliced up her foot and shin. Fortunately she’d had all her shots, but the infection kept them in Antigua longer than intended, and Emily out of the water for weeks.

Before they left, Jacob had returned from a supply run on a rented bike with an ashen face and scraped knee. A car had run him off the road.

There were other minor issues, simple things like postal deliveries or wire transfers that didn’t quite go as planned. But Emily had hoped that when they left Antigua behind, they’d left their bad luck behind as well.

They’d moored offshore next at St. Kitts. Returning from another supply run in their Zodiac, Jacob hadn’t seen Emily swimming lazily in the water and nearly mowed her down. This time, she’d held him, while he shook in her arms and apologized.

In St. Martin, she’d been hospitalized after an inexplicable food mix-up eating out. Peanuts, though she’d been allergic—and vigilant—her entire life.

They’d almost stopped then, almost gone home. Wherever home was, since they’d sold their house in Florida and both sets of parents were dead. But ultimately they’d decided to continue. Living their dream. A dream that had been hers first, so Jacob was reluctant to see her give it up.

Almost as reluctant as he was to use the word curse.

Their luck never changed, at least not for the better. They’d limped ashore at St. Thomas when their engine died and the mainsail shredded in freak high winds. Emily had thought they’d die that night.

Of course, they’d gotten food poisoning, too.

Emily tried to breath through her regulator evenly, the mild exertion making her short of breath.

Her head still ached, and her nausea had returned.

She rubbed her sponge across the bottom of the boat, putting her shoulder into it and clouding the water with greenish funk. A small brush hung from her wrist on a bungee. She should have started with cleaning the propeller, but found she couldn’t bring herself to approach it.

Not the slicing, dicing piece of metal. Not after her near miss at St. Kitts. The thought of it chopping her hands into little bits almost made her throw up in her regulator.

While she watched, the propeller began to spin slowly, edging toward her.

No, that wasn’t right.

Emily shook her head, blinked hard, and the blade stopped.

She could stop the curse, too. If she looked at it—faced it—and acted, she could bring it to an end. 

Or she could stay here and pretend, the way she’d been pretending for so long. Staring at her husband’s back in the dark. How long?  Three months, maybe. Definitely since the peanut incident and, if she were honest, even before that.

There was another way to end the curse, too. She could let it run its course.

It would be so easy to never know. To never have to live without him.

But she’d given him an out, said she was ready to go home. And he’d sent her down anyway.

Her hand strayed to the bailout bottle mounted on her BCD.

How long would it be before Jacob checked on her?

Emily clasped her hand around the small, metal bottle. She knew it was a simple thing—she’d done it so many times on boats and underwater, for just this reason—but she couldn’t figure out how to release her emergency air from her vest.

She’d waited too long.

She tugged desperately, aware that she was sucking even more deeply, filling her lungs with more bad air. (No funky odor or taste, so carbon monoxide was her bet.) Would her husband be waiting at the ladder? To push her under? Maybe he’d knock her regulator out first, watch her try to breathe seawater. After she was dead, it’d be easy to sell any strange behavior on her part as a side effect of the poisoning.

Finally, the clip released. Emily removed her regulator, placed the bottle’s regulator in her mouth, and tried to remember how to breathe. She swam/scrambled as close as she could to the sandy bottom. She couldn’t feel its surface (maybe she should have taken her gloves off), but soon a cloud enveloped her. Then she set off to the left through the plume (that was left, wasn’t it?), beneath the neighboring boats.

One, two, three. The sixth boat. If she surfaced beyond the sixth one, Jacob wouldn’t be able to see her. How many boats had she passed so far? And how many breaths did she have left? It didn’t matter; she couldn’t figure out which direction was up. That was so silly, Emily almost laughed in her regulator. Except it wasn’t funny. She was going to die. The hollow, echoing sounds she’d made breathing on her old tank had seemed more peaceful. More fitting for the last sounds she heard on earth. But she couldn’t quite work out how to remove this regulator and put the other one back in. Emily stopped kicking and her eyes drifted shut…

Violent splashing and flailing suddenly surrounded Emily, and arms slipped beneath her own, dragging her to the surface.

No! She kicked and fought to stay down.

He was going to kill her after all.

Glaring light overtook Emily as she broke the surface. She closed her eyes against it and felt the corner of her mouth tear as her bailout bottle disappeared. Someone peeled her BC from her body (I’ll drown without it) and then she was hoisted up a ladder.

“Got her?” an unfamiliar voice asked.

Emily opened her eyes and panicked because her wetsuit felt tight and she couldn’t breathe. She turned her head and vomited on a fiberglass deck.

While she heaved, someone—a dark-skinned woman in a blue uniform—unzipped Emily’s wetsuit. As Emily rolled onto her back, exhausted, her wetsuit was peeled down as far as her waist, pausing at her hands before being tugged free. Fingers swept inside her mouth and a cloth wiped her face, followed by a mask resting snugly over it.

“Shh, Emily,” the woman said. “You’re okay now. Just breathe. You’re okay.”

She took Emily’s hand and kept muttering reassurances. Her accented, feminine voice was the most beautiful thing Emily had ever heard. Much better than a regulator attached to a tank of dirty air. Emily wanted to sob, the way she had that night on Antigua.

But first, Emily raised her head and pointed. “My tank,” she said, words muffled by the mask.

A tall red-headed man, the sergeant she’d first spoken to days ago, stepped into view. His brows wrinkled with concern, the way Jacob’s had just hours ago. Was his concern more genuine than her husband’s had been? “We have it, miss. And we have him.”

Tears leaked from Emily’s eyes, and the kind woman’s quick, steady hand kept Emily’s head from thumping on the deck as she let everything go.

It was over.

Emily’s eyes squeezed shut and her shoulders rocked.

The “curse” was broken. Only time would tell whether she was.