Off Grouper Reef

It was the first snorkeling charter since the big hurricane season, and the safety spiel had gone pretty well. Nobody had had too many margaritas on the way to the reef, just enough to be happy, and the warm, clear water sparkled. The anchor was dropped, customers were paired off as buddies, and in they went. It was a beautiful day. Jimmy Buffett said so on the boat’s stereo system.

Jeffrey hated rules, especially on vacation. It was only six feet of water, clear as air and warm as a bath. He was floating in a world of color and motion. Fuck snorkeling buddies. He waited for his chance and broke away to see something himself.

A floating corpse in a crevice in a reef stares at you in the sunlit waters.
Off Grouper Reef by John Donald Carlucci

Around a rainbow curve, something caught his eye.

There was an opening in the reef itself. Two masses of coral have splayed apart, like legs or lips, the healthy outer layers of reef fading down into a texture and color that somehow seemed diseased. Cold subterranean water billowed up, raising goose pimples on his skin. Beyond that was only a watery void, but moored in its midst, like a buoyant pearl, was something else.

It was a corpse, a floater. A man in faded blue swim trunks, a single black neoprene flipper on his left foot, and green swim goggles strapped to his face. His short blond hair drifted in the current. His mouth hung open with a shocked expression, revealing a pallid tongue. His eyes were empty, haunted, draped with a wrinkled, whitish translucent film.

Jeffrey stopped, treading water, staring into those lost eyes. There was no sound in the world but his panting breath in the snorkel.

Time seemed to slow.

The floater’s outstretched arms swayed. Jeffrey could clearly see a wedding ring on the dead man’s fingers. He wondered: Don’t dead people bloat up in the water?

The dead man’s jaw moved a little, as he bobbed slowly in place. Christ, Jeffrey thought, still transfixed. Is something inside him, and going to come out?

And it occurred to him then that while there were gorgeous tropical fish everywhere else in the reef, there were none near the rift. Only a dead anemone here and there, its tendrils waving along with the floater’s hair.

Then things wrapped themselves around the floater’s shoulders. Webbed, pearlescent grey-green, tipped with hook-like claws. Broad, large and powerful… fingers, but not human.

The floater’s eyes seemed to stare up at him—longingly? Hungrily? Pleadingly?

The webbed extremities pulled the corpse down and away, into deeper darkness.

A strangled scream burst up from Jeffrey’s snorkel, but Jimmy Buffett sang it away on a summer breeze.

The rift closed, silently and swiftly, as if it had never existed.

Jeffrey swam then; slowly, so as not to attract attention, his heart hammering. The boat was close. It felt like miles. A charter crewman helped him over the friendly, peeling dolphin decal and onto the gently rocking deck.

 “You okay, man?”

“Yeah, I… I forgot to breathe or something.”


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