Homer’s Island, Massachusetts
FROM HIS PERCH ON SKULL ROCK, they looked like pale eggs sunny-side up moving just beneath the water’s surface. Some kind of jellyfish. Half a dozen, pulsating vigorously through the black surf like muscular parachutes.
. Jack Koryan had spent several summers of his childhood out here and could remember only a few occasions seeing jellyfish in the cove, most of them washed ashore by the night tide-dinner-plate-sized slime bombs with frilly aprons and long fat tentacles. But these creatures were small round globs, translucent jelly bells with nothing visible in trail.
Maybe some tropical species that the warm water brought in, he thought.
Jack watched them pump by in formation, driven by primitive urgings and warm eddies. Somewhere he had read that jellyfish were ninety-five percent water—creatures with no brains, bones, or blood. What enabled them to react to the world around them was a network of nerves. What a lousy fate, Jack thought—to relate to the world only through nerve endings: a life devoid of thought, passion, or memory.
The cool, moist air had picked up, ruffling the water’s surface. The tide was coming in, and soon the rock would be covered.
It looked just as it had forever—a domed granite boulder rearing out of the surf about fifty yards offshore, it’s crown whitened by generations of barnacles, the base maned with sea grass, a necklace of shiny black mussels hugging the high-tide line like exotic pearls. When they were kids, he and his cousin George would fill a pail with the mollusks for his Aunt Nancy’s Armenian dishes or bouillabaisse.
It had been fifteen years since Jack had last swum out to the rock. Back then he’d spend hours there with his cousin and other summer kids. At low tide they’d pack as many as ten wriggling bodies on the crown, holding their perch by little more than the worn barnacles under their feet. He could almost
hear the yowls of laughter as they lost balance or got elbowed off.
First man in is a rotten skate.
Behind him a sea like liquid iron rolled off to the dark rain-sagged clouds swelling down from the north. Someplace out there Jack’s mother had died—August 20, 1975. She had paddled out to her small sailboat, moored just beyond Skull Rock—probably within fifty yards of where he was now standing. It must have been a nor’easter since the tender had washed up a half mile down the beach with lifejackets still in it. Her body was never recovered.
Today was the thirtieth anniversary of her death. Every few years he’d come out in quiet commemoration. He was not even two years old at the time she died. His Aunt Nancy and Uncle Kirk had raised him as their own.
Below, more jellyfish floated by—a skewed phalanx of them. Translucent bodies with intersecting purple rings at the centers just below the surface.
This was a special place, a caretaker’s cottage to Vita Nova, the large Sherman estate on the cliff above. His mother, Rose, had rented it decades ago for vacations, attracted to the unusually warm water, the results of complicated weather phenomena involving El Niño. Periodically, eddies from the Gulf Stream would bring into the area creatures from the tropics—sunfish, hawks-bill turtles, bonito, and smaller creatures that fascinated his mother. According to Aunt Nancy, Rose had a half-mystical yearning for the sea and would spend hours walking the beaches collecting odd critters. But Jack had no memory of her—only scraps of information from his aunt, who had died thirteen years ago. His father perished in a plane crash when Jack was only six months old. So he had no memory of him, either.
But Jack did remember getting stung once by a big orange lion’s mane jelly in shallow water. It had felt like a hot lash across his calf. As he choked back tears, Aunt Nancy calmly walked him into the house and flooded his skin with vinegar. “Never rub,” she had said, “that only makes it worse.” Then with the dull edge of a knife she had scraped off a small scrap of tentacle. An old Armenian remedy—something she learned from his mother, she had said. He wondered if that was true.
On shore, in the dimming light, Jack could make out his clothes where he had left them to swim out and, just up the beach, the dark silhouette of the cottage. The sandy beach that rimmed Buck’s Cove was completely empty, although lights burned in the Sherman mansion above. It was a private island, but on summer weekends the cove would draw boaters to its pristine beauty. Tonight the place was empty of life.
Lightning lit up the horizon. The storm would break soon.
From the rock the lightless cottage brooded in the shadows of the shore, yet it was a place incandescent with memories. After his mother had died, the Shermans continued to rent the place to his family for a summer week or two. He could still recall how he and his cousin charged down the sand and plunged into the water, inured to the chill that stopped adults dead at the knees.
From out of the gloom a seagull sliced low to catch something in the water then shot up with a squawk at the last second as if spooked. It came to rest on shore near Jack’s clothes, still protesting.
Jack felt a jab to his chest. Under the flashing sky, the half-dozen jellyfish had turned into a school. He looked at the water behind him.
Not a school. He was standing in the middle of a damn jellyfish bloom. Hundreds of them were bobbing en masse by the rock. The cove was infested with them.
In the dimming light he could make out his clothes on shore, the legholes of his jeans beckoning him to slip back in and pull them up. They looked a mile away.
Where the hell did they come from?
What if these were stingers?
But aren’t there a hundred different jellyfish species, and only a handful that
He thought about putting his foot in to test. That would be fine if he got no reaction. But if he got stung, then what? Wait out the storm so lightning could turn him into a charcoal briquette? Besides, in an hour, the rock would be underwater, and jellies would be streaming over his feet.
He estimated the black expanse separating him from shore. His best high-tide time was one minute twenty seconds. But that was when he was eighteen years old. He was thirty-two, and at best he could reach shore in two minutes.
Two little minutes,
but the thought of swimming through water thick with jellies was repulsive. And if they were stingers, the trip could be nasty.
But they’re no bigger than a baseball and probably eat minnows.
True, but doesn’t their venom paralyze their prey like that?
But you’re not a minnow.
No, but a hundred hits could balance the books.
The sky lit up in a sickly green, then a high-metal crash exploded the air. With the incoming tide and the onshore wind, he could possibly make it in maybe a hundred adrenaline-driven seconds.
(His mind lit up with Aunt Nancy grinning on shore with a stopwatch.
Three, two, one. Go!
George was two years older, but Jack was the better swimmer.)
One hundred measly seconds.
The water was dark, but the jellies seemed to occupy the upper foot of surf. Jack could dive deep and swim half the distance just above the bottom, then he’d only have to stroke maybe another twenty feet to the shallows and go the rest of the way on foot.
He tried to tell himself that they were just harmless blobs whose mucus coating would slip by his body—that it would be like swimming through a tide of silicone gel bags.
Don’t think, just get your ass to shore. Three … two … one.
The sky exploded again, strobe-lighting the cove. His heart almost stopped: The water was flecked with jellies all the way out. He uttered a silent prayer, filled his lungs, and dived into the water.
But he was wrong. These jellies had three-foot-long invisible tentacles.
And they were stingers.
Jack kicked his way for maybe thirty feet, then shot to the surface.
In those first microseconds of awareness as he sucked for air, Jack could not determine the epicenter of the pain. The tentacles had slashed his arms, back, and legs and made a repulsive mucus mat of his head.
He brushed the things out of his hair, their spaghetti strands cutting across his face and ears. He screamed so loud that his throat nearly shattered. He was on fire, as if he had been caught in a hotwire mesh.
“Don’t rub. Don’t rub.”
In the chatter of lightning, he could make out a woman looking like Aunt Nancy waving to him from shore.
But it was too late, his hand was ablaze with poison. And his shoulders and back felt as if he’d been gashed with machetes. Jack had never known that pain could be so exquisite. He gasped in more air, closed his eyes, and kicked to get under the creatures. Pumping blindly, he could feel the blobs ripple by his face, cross-slashing his body.
He shot to the surface sucking for air, his mind screaming against the horror, fighting to focus on making it to shore no matter what, before the toxins began paralyzing his muscles.
On shore the woman had disappeared, and in her place a large white seabird pecked at his clothes.
Somewhere thunder crashed, but Jack did not register it. He did not register anything but the pain flashing across his body. It was like swimming through eddies of molten lava.
With a porpoise kick he shot ahead.
He was halfway there. On the hill above, the Sherman mansion glowed against the black sky. Even if he could find the voice to scream, it wouldn’t reach that far. And he could not summon the air. So he concentrated on pumping his legs and arms and keeping his face out of the water.
Your eyes. Close your eyes!
his mind screamed.
Don’t want to go blind. Can take the skin burns, but, God, you don’t want to lose your eyes.
He pressed them shut. A tangle of tentacles made a partial noose under his right ear, searing his skin.
But in reflex he swiped them off, making it all the worse because that smeared the toxins into his ear and across his jaw and lips. God! The stuff was in his mouth, burning his tongue and throat as if he had swallowed hot water. He scraped his fingers on his bathing suit to remove the slime.
Now both hands were on fire, like the rest of his body. And in that slender margin of sanity, he knew that his shoulders, back, and legs would be crosshatched with blistering welts—and that if he got out of this alive, he’d be a mess.
In the flickering light he made out the shore and the bird watching him. Maybe forty feet. He was in five feet of water. But he couldn’t wade in. So he pressed shut his eyes and kicked furiously, trailing his hands because they were useless balls of agony. He did all he could to keep his face up. But his eyes were beginning to burn.
God, don’t let me go blind. Please.
As he kicked, he could feel jellies slip over his skin, the hot-poisoned strands streaming across his torso.
At maybe another twenty feet, he snapped open his eyes to see the waves crash on shore just a few body lengths ahead. Acid tears flooding his vision, but he could still make out the pile of clothes. And he locked his eyes on his shirt and pants which that bird picked at like some carrion vulture.
With every scintilla of muscular will he had left, Jack Koryan kicked.
Suddenly the burning began to fade.
Thank you, sweet God.
It was miraculous. His arms and legs were rapidly cooling. Maybe the toxins
had worked their evil and were being neutralized by his body’s natural defenses. Or maybe he had somehow adjusted.
He tried to stand up to wade in, but he could not feel his feet touch ground. Nor could not even right himself up. He tried to continue swimming, but his legs did not obey the command.
God in heaven!
His body was going numb, as if his blood were hardening wax.
He was maybe fifteen feet from shore, but he could not move. He was paralyzed in a dead man’s float, bobbing in the surf, staring at his running shoes and clothes, just this side of the finish line, some dumb seabird gawking at him, its milky eye flicking in the lightning.
Then coming down the sands from the cottage was that woman beckoning him with open arms. She was Aunt Nancy and she wasn’t Aunt Nancy.
My mind. My mind is going. The last delusions of a dying man.
He looked at the bird and felt a fog fill the sacs of his brain like a miasma.
The bird let out a long harsh cry.
This is my death.
In the surf, just a few feet from home. Three … two … one.
Those were Jack Koryan’s last thoughts before his brain went black.