Thalassophobia

Photo by Mael BALLAND on Unsplash

Carter held his wife’s hand and gently pulled her across the beach towards the incoming waves. The tropical sun was shining brightly, and the sea’s soothing sounds filled the air. Her skin, already pale from too much time spent indoors, was now stark white from the thick layer of sunscreen she’d applied.
“That’s it, slow and steady. We don’t need to go far today, just wet your feet a little bit,” he said. Gracie gave a tiny, quiet whimper but followed along.
“Does it get deeper quickly?” she said with her eyes fixed on the gently lapping waves.
“No, it’s a really gentle slope. Look how clear the water is! You can see the ground!”
“That makes it worse! I don’t know if I’m ready. Can’t we try tomorrow?” she replied in a terrified voice.
“I know it’s scary. But the therapist said you need to try and cope with being exposed to your fears. Let’s just try to get as close as we can today, okay?”
“Yes, but… I don’t know,” Gracie said, a frown forming on her thin face.
“You can overcome anything, if you just put your mind to it. I know you can,” he said and tugged her hand a little.
“I wish I could go swim with you. Like someone normal,” Gracie said, head hanging. Carter embraced her, rocking her gently.
“Aw honey, I’ll stand here looking at the sea for a hundred years if we have to. I can deal with anything as long as we’re together,” he said. They didn’t often engage in public displays of affection any more after years of marriage, but the moment called for a kiss. When they let go, Carter pulled softly on her arm, making a step towards the waves. She resisted for a moment but followed. When they reached the edge of the water, Carter said “I’ll go first,” and walked forward a step to where the water swirled around his ankles. Gracie sighed, and tentatively advanced. She glanced towards the open sea and shuddered.
“Nice, isn’t it?” Carter said, playfully splashing his feet in the surf. Gracie grimaced. “Let’s just walk along the surf a little,” he said and gently strolled forward. It was hot, but a slight breeze made the heat bearable, even pleasant. The water was just the right amount of warm. The corners of her mouth started turning up, just slightly.
“I guess it’s not too bad- IEEEH!” Gracie suddenly shrieked and leaped out of the water, tearing her hand out of his. She fell on the sand, holding her left foot, sobbing and shouting something unintelligible. Carter instinctively looked down at his feet. A small gray eel-like thing pulled itself out of the sand. Three pairs of thick fins along its length were trashing furiously. For a moment, the waves receded, letting him see the mottled gray flesh of its back before the water washed over it again. It made Carter think of cockroaches and maggots scurrying in filth. He recoiled at the sight. The eel-centipede thing pumped its powerful limbs and shot off into deeper water, disappearing from sight.
“Gracie! Did it bite you?” he shouted. He knelt down beside her, looking at her foot. She was still squirming and sobbing and sat grasping her left foot around the ankle. Blood was seeping out of an almost triangular hole about the width of a pencil in the side of her foot, near the little toe. Gracie’s shrieks turned into a quiet sigh and she passed out.

Gracie and Carter walked out of the tiny island hospital. She leaned on Carter to avoid putting weight on her bandaged left foot. Gracie looked miserable while Carter tried to cheer up his wife.
“I’m so sorry, sweetie. We don’t have to do anything you don’t want. Let’s stay at the hotel and enjoy the sunshine at the hotel pool.”
“Not the pool. I’m not going near any water here,” she answered, shuddering. He helped her into a taxi. The beat-up old car puttered past colorful street vendor stands selling fruit and snacks. The oily, spicy fumes of fried street food wafted into their car. Gracie’s stomach suddenly made an astoundingly loud rumbling noise. When Carter looked at her, she had a look of surprise and embarrassment on her face.
“Uh, are you hungry, hon? We can stop and take something back to the hotel,” he said.
“Yes, please,” Grace replied. She stared at a little stand where grilled meat was sold on sticks. “Can you bring a few of those please?” she asked. Carter looked at the long sticks, each of which had several hefty chunks of meat. The sizzling morsels glistened with grease and fatty bits and were expertly seared over a coal fire. The fragrance made Carter’s mouth water, but it seemed an unlikely treat for Gracie, who was more of a lean chicken breast person. He looked at her skeptically.
“A few? I’m not sure I could eat a whole one,” he laughed.
“They look so good.” Her stomach rumbled again, loudly. “I can put them in the fridge and eat the rest later.” She was looking at the food almost longingly. Carter wondered if shock could cause bouts of enhanced appetite and asked the driver to stop for a moment. A few minutes later, he returned, carrying three skewers wrapped in silver foil. To his surprise, Gracie didn’t wait for them to reach the hotel before tucking in. She grabbed one of the wrapped skewers from the paper bag, tore the foil off and started eating. The grilled vegetables were unceremoniously discarded while she ripped pieces out of the steaming gobbets with her teeth. Juice ran over her lips and down her chin in rivulets, but she didn’t seem to notice. Carter hadn’t seen such a blissful, ecstatic expression on her face even during their lovemaking. She devoured the whole thing in a few minutes, and reached for the bag to take another one. Even the driver threw a few glances back at the small woman eating ravenously.
“Whoa, chew your food, hon,” Carter laughed. When they reached the hotel, Gracie grabbed the bag of food and walked back to their room while Carter paid the driver. He had to hurry to catch up with her, despite her injured foot. She sat down at the small glass table in the suite and immediately started on the last skewer.
“I thought you didn’t like barbecue,” Carter said.
“Dish ish really good,” she said, her mouth full of chewed meat. Carter shook his head and stared at her while she wolfed down another helping in a few minutes. She belched loudly and stood up, wiping her mouth with one hand.
“Excuse me,” she said absentmindedly.
“That should tide you over until at least tomorrow’s breakfast, huh?” Carter replied, a little taken aback.
“Actually I’m still hungry. Let’s get more food,” she said. He raised his hands in a calming motion.
“I think we need to go back to the hospital. Maybe you have a tapeworm or something.”
“Carter, I’m just HUNGRY,” she spat. He took an involuntary step backward. There was an intense look in her eyes he couldn’t remember seeing before in five years of marriage and twelve years they knew each other. He tried to negotiate.
“Let’s go back to the hospital and we can pick up some food on the way there, okay?” Gracie seemed to consider this, then walked outside without a word. He shook his head and started to follow when he saw something on her skin. “What do you have there?” he said. He ran his fingers over a few gray spots on the back of her neck. They were slightly raised and felt rubbery. Her skin felt hot to the touch. “Honey, are you running a fever?” he said.
“Let’s get going,” she replied curtly and walked away. Carter decided that the quicker they got to the hospital the better.
They had to wait a quarter of an hour before another taxi turned up. Gracie was pacing up and down the pavement, agitated as if running late for an appointment. When their new ride reached the little marketplace where they’d picked up the skewers, Gracie got out without waiting for Carter. He hurried after her as she made a beeline to a stall where chickens were grilling on spits over a coal fire. She ordered two, and started eating one the moment the woman tending the stall handed her the first paper bag, with the other tucked under her arm. Holding the whole bird in one hand, she took rapid bites out of it as if she was eating an apple.
“Hot, seniora, hot!” the woman said, laughing. Gracie paid her no mind. As they walked back to their taxi, Carter was astounded to see her gulp down the whole piping hot grilled chicken in less than two minutes. She almost inhaled the meat, barely chewing and absentmindedly dropping the splintered remains of bones on the ground. She was already tearing into the second helping when the taxi got going.
“I’ll give you twenty extra if you get us there quicker!” Carter said to the driver.
The man replied, “Si senor” and gunned the pedal. Gracie was sucking the meat off the chicken bones at speed, then discarding the gnawed remains on the car’s floor. It wasn’t long before there was nothing left to eat.
“I’m hungry,” Gracie said, looking around as if there might be more chicken she hadn’t noticed yet in the car.
“I’m sure there’s something for you to eat at the hospital, honey,” Carter replied. He was sweating. Gracie still looked around, as if unsure where she was. He noticed there were more of those gray spots on her lower jaw. They were raised like pustules and radiated from the jaw down to her neck. He wasn’t sure if that was an illusion from the car’s bumping on the road, but he could have sworn they were twitching. The taxi stopped at a traffic light and Gracie tried to open the door.
“Honey, no!” Carter called out and tried to stop her from leaving. She pushed him away with savage force and he was stunned for a moment when he hit his head on the opposite door frame, crying out in pain. The driver shouted at him in Spanish when he followed after her. Gracie was running at full speed back the way they had come. He tried to keep up, but she didn’t seem to tire. Panting heavily and holding his aching side, he suddenly heard a car horn. The taxi driver had turned around and told him to get in. After a few minutes of driving, they saw a small crowd of people shouting and gesticulating in the street. “There!” The car stopped and Carter hurried out, towards the commotion. He pushed through the shouting people and saw another street vendor’s stand in the middle of the crowd: a butcher’s shop. Shanks of meat were on display, and half a pig and other animal parts were hanging from hooks. Gracie stood beside the cart and was gnawing on a raw goat leg, ripping chunks of meat off with her teeth. People were pointing at her and shouting “Esta loca!” A man in a butcher’s apron was lying on the ground, apparently knocked out. Nobody paid him any heed.
“Gracie!” he called to her. She looked up from the bloody hunk of meat in her hands. The gray pustules were all over her now, giving her a diseased, bloated appearance. Her stomach was visibly distended, which made her look heavily pregnant. There didn’t seem to be any recognition of him in her eyes. Carter noticed a few spots had grown even on her eyeballs. “Oh God, honey! We need to get you to a doctor!” Carter cried out at the sight. In the crowd, some crossed themselves. In response, Gracie let loose an inhuman screech he would never have believed her to be capable of. She sprang away, still holding the half eaten goat leg. “No, wait!” Carter ran after her. Gracie ran past bushes and palm trees towards another stretch of beach. She somehow managed to take bites out of the meat while she ran. Carter followed as quickly as his tired legs and lungs allowed. Gracie waded out into the water where the waves washed around her knees. The gray spots had taken over most of her body, and grown out in big, mottled clumps that reminded him of the eel-centipede’s flesh. With a scream, he jumped at her, intending to wrestle her to the ground and keep her from escaping again. She swatted him away with frightening ease. He landed heavily on his side, sending a spray of water into the air. She hissed at him again, a sound like an angry cat. The whites of her eyes were fully covered in gray spots, leaving the blue of her pupils the only spot of color. There was no understanding in them, no recognition that they even belonged to the same species.
“Gracie, please, don’t leave. We’ll find a way to fix you, I promise,” he said, sobbing. She looked at him, teeth bared, giving no indication she understood. She tore her dress away with black, encrusted hands. Exuded slime formed translucent webs between the fingers. Long slits traced her torso, like slashing wounds that had stopped bleeding. She was growling, but there was a wet quality to the sound, as if her lungs were filling with fluid. She seemed to be struggling to breathe and crouched on all fours. Her webbed hands shoved water into the slits in her skin. As her new gills started working, her lungs breathed air for the last time. Further out, the force of the incoming waves rocked her back and forth. She continued undeterred, never looking back. “I love you! Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me alone!” Carter shouted. He realized that she couldn’t, even if she wanted to. Her transformed body would suffocate outside of the water. Soon she was swimming out, her gray fins pumping with powerful strokes. Eventually she dove down, disappearing from sight completely. Carter stood on the beach, alone, shielding his eyes from the sun. There was only the sound of the waves and the wind, and seabirds cried in the distance.

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