By Hank Sbrocco
The man in the water had no idea how long he’d been holding on to his dead friend. His chest tightened. He had no view; the ocean swells were too close, too high to give him even a sense of a horizon. One arm tugged the short, nylon rope that tethered them together. With his free arm, he pushed at a wave in a fruitless effort to create space. Only his view of the vast moonlit sky eased his breathing. Their survival suits kept them floating. The strobe light on his suit was working, but the beam seemed weaker, or fear was taking over. His legs were cramping, and his right knee throbbed.
Between the darkness and snapshots from the strobe, the pale corpse had the appearance of some out-of-sequence horror comic book. They’d been friends for twenty-plus years. He didn’t know what to tell his friend’s family. His plan revolved around getting the body home to somehow provide them comfort.
How long was it since they were swept overboard?
In front of him, the shadow stretched.
“Over twenty hours, if you must know.” The shadow leaned against the water and used its arms behind his head as a pillow, a floating lounge chair. “So what do you do for a living?”
He knew he must be delusional. Been in too long; swallowed too much salt water. He felt himself split. One part of him remained in the past, back on deck. Their annual summer trip from Maine to the Bahamas surprised by a sudden storm, then blindsided by a wave. The Sloop completely flipped over before she righted herself. Five of them in the cabin. The mast held, but she’d taken on too much water. Another big one could sink her. He and the captain were freeing the life raft when they both went in.
“I thought you knew all that stuff.” Another wave hit the man before he closed his mouth. He coughed violently.
“Excuse me?” The shadow shifted. “All what stuff?”
“Ahh.” The man tried to catch his breath. “About me. My life. Birth to death.”
“Oh, no no no. Those other guys, Mohammad, Jesus, Buddha Smuda whatever. They know all that stuff. At least that’s what I hear.” The shadow sat up and let out a low chuckle. Water enveloped its legs up to his knees. “Not us. We’re simply collectors.” Out of nowhere, it produced a cigarette and lit up.
The smoke blew past the man. Instantly he felt better. Some sense he really wasn’t alone.
“Yeah. Why not? Can’t hurt us. Breaks the boredom. So come on, spill it. What do you do?”
He considered telling the shadow to leave him alone, but at some deeper level, even delusional, the shadow provided him comfort from his terror.
“I’m a lawyer. Why are you asking me this shit?” Another wave tossed him sideways, but the shadow always seemed to still be in front of him.
“Damn, give a guy a break, will ya? Just making conversation.” The shadow scratched its head, leaned forward slightly. “Sorry about your friend. Bummer.”
“What kind of chance do I have?” He was talking to himself. Wasn’t he?
“None for him.” The shadow pointed. “His heart gave out six hours ago.”
“He needs to get back to his family. What’s the chance?”
“Hell if I know,” the shadow replied. “It’s not up to me.”
“Yeah, I know. Buddha, God whatever…” The man looked away and then quickly back. The shadow was still there.
“Thought you lost me?”
He began to nod, then shook his head. “Focus.”
“Focus!” the man shouted. “Stay focused! You’re a trap. You’re me.”
“Now I’m confused,” the shadow replied.
“I’m not giving up. I’m not dying out here.”
“Good for you.”
The sky was getting lighter. The man shivered. The warmth of the Gulf Stream couldn’t support his body much longer. He rechecked the nylon rope fastened to the captain. Something to do, something to get his muscles moving, and generate some heat.
The shadow took one last drag on the cigarette and tossed it into the air. The cigarette faded instantly. A useless flare.
“Why?” the shadow asked.
“They can find us. It can happen. Sent out a mayday. Gave our position.” He wondered if the other three were alive. He’d lost sight of the Sloop within an hour of going overboard.
“No. I mean, why are you still holding on to him?”
“My friend. His family.” Completing his thoughts had become harder. Was the sea letting up? He hadn’t gone under in a while.
“Big risk, isn’t it?” The shadow leaned closer. “Leave him and you’re alone. Right? Even dead, he’s keeping you alive.” The shadow drifted backward. “Sure, thinking of his family, very honorable.”
What’s wrong with honor if it kept him alive? But the shadow was right.
“What do you want?” he shouted. “Why are you here?”
“Souls. I collect them.”
“So, there’s a God.”
“That’s a big leap.” The shadow chuckled. “Who said anything about God?”
The man’s head sagged. “A soul is the spiritual nature of a human. If you believe souls exist, you believe in God.”
“Every living being has a soul.” The shadow stood and started pacing on the water’s surface. “Why are you so arrogant to believe only humans have souls? You’ve been around a mere blink in time. Dinosaurs, millions of years. The Universe, eons! Why you and not your primate cousins? You think God said, ‘Let’s start here?’ What a joke. Adam and Eve. The first recorded sitcom.”
The shadow sat and sighed. His form sharpened. “Look, there’s one thing I know. A soul is the essence of a life. All life. Nothing more. Living things die and we collect.
“And you’re here to collect mine.” The man’s gaze drifted. He thought he spotted a bird.
“Don’t know. Haven’t gotten the call yet.”
Hope in a shadow, collector of souls. Despair and laughter rose up at the same time.