Authors: Steve Alten
Dark water. Heavy fog. Salmon everywhere. Jumping. Panicking. A presence… circling below! Left ankle, seized with pain. Dragged underwater… can't breathe!
"Can't breathe!" Freaking out, I turned and fled, still clutching Leesa's hand as I dragged my once sure-thing face-first through the shallows and halfway up the beach before releasing her to vomit.
Office of Dr. Douglas G. Baydo
Coral Springs, Florida
"I never felt anything like this before. You gotta help me, Doc. I'm a marine biologist, I can't be afraid of the water!"
The psychiatrist was a big man, probably a former football player, an offensive guard, I guessed. A plaque on one wall indicated he'd been in the air force.
"And you've only experienced this hydrophobia since the Sargasso Sea incident?"
"Zachary, phobias are created in the subconscious mind. It may eventually pass, or you might have to learn to live with it."
"Live with it? To hell with that! I can't live with not being able to go near the sea. How do you expect me to work?"
"You may have to find yourself a new line of work."
I paced his office like a madman. "You don't know what you're saying. I've spent my whole life busting my hump to get where I am, no way I'm gonna just walk away from my career."
"Stay calm and sit down. Now tell me more about these dreams."
"They're nightmares, only far more intense, and always a version of the same dream. I'm underwater when I hear these sounds, the same growling sounds I heard in the Sargasso. It's like they're whispering into my brain, and somehow I just know I'm going to die."
"And then you wake up screaming?"
"I wake up, and my eyes are wide open, only I can't speak or move. It's like part of me is still stuck in the nightmare. But the worst thing, Doc, the very worst thing is that I feel this terrible presence in the room with me. I can feel it. I can hear the echo of its whispers still growling in my head. My skin tingles from it, and my fear… it's so intense that I just have to get out of there."
Dr. Baydo made a few notes, then continued. "Have you ever experienced episodes like these before?"
"No. At least none I can remember."
"But you're not sure?"
"Well, when I was younger, there was a time when I was sleepwalking a lot. It got so bad, my grandmother had to add a dead bolt to her front door."
"My mom's mother. We moved in with her right after my parents' divorced."
"I see. Out of curiosity, what do you do for fun?"
"Fun? I don't know. Why?"
"You seem wound pretty tight."
"I almost leaped to my death last night, then tossed my cookies in front of a girl that I'd have given my right arm for. Wouldn't that stress you out?"
"I'm sensing something deeper. Let's talk more about your childhood. You said you never got along with your father?"
"I said he enjoyed pushing my buttons. Look, I know it's a Freudian thing with you guys, but do we have to talk about my childhood? What happened in the Sargasso has nothing to do with my father. That was seventeen years ago. I'm a totally different person."
"Maybe. But everyone handles trauma in different ways. Some people repress or block out painful childhood memories that affect us subconsciously on a daily basis throughout our adult years. The near- death experience you suffered in the Sargasso Sea could have forced these childhood memories back to the surface."
"So what do I do now?"
"Discussing your past can often help resolve these conflicts. Do you still feel hatred toward your father?"
"Hatred? Not hatred. More like disappointment. Angus wasn't much of a father. He never let up on me… never. Always badgering, teasing. Scared the shit out of me when he was drunk. And always playing his stupid mind games. I remember one time, when I was six, my mother bought me one of those Rubik's Cubes. I must have worked that damn puzzle all day and night until I was able to master it. I remember running to my father, you know, looking for his approval. You'd think he'd be slightly impressed, maybe offer me a pat on the head. Not ball-buster Angus. First he accused me of cheating, then he challenged me to a Rubik's Cube duel. Now I knew I had him. Well, I worked that puzzle like a demon, rearranging the colored panels in their proper order in only seventeen minutes, a personal record. To my amazement, it took Angus only four minutes to finish, it just blew me away. For the next several weeks he'd berate me about it, making me feel inferior, until finally I figured out how the drunken bastard did it."
"How did he do it?"
"He cheated, of course. Never moved a block, he merely peeled away the stickers and restuck them in order."
Dr. Baydo grinned.
"You think that's funny?"
"You have to admit, he's resourceful."
"Try having him as your father."
"There's no excuse for his behavior, but let's try looking at things from Angus's perspective. Here's a man who never finished high school, trying to keep pace with his precocious six-year-old son, a boy genius in the making."
"He never saw me that way. I was nothing more than his runt. And being clever doesn't justify his constant drunkenness, or his cheating on my mother."
"He committed adultery?"
"Only every chance he got. Live for the moment, deal with the consequences later, that was my father."
"You caught him doing this?"
"Several times, including …" I paused, realizing I'd stepped in it again.
He sat and waited for me to continue.
"It was on my ninth birthday. Angus bought me a new fishing rod, only later I found out he'd actually won it in a dart game. Anyway, he told me to meet him at the Loch, promising me he'd take me out in our rowboat after he grabbed a cup of coffee. So I waited. An hour went by and it was getting dark, so I left the boat and went looking for him.
"There was a campsite nearby. I heard noises coming from a tent. As I came closer, I could hear someone moaning inside. So I peeked through the tent flaps."
"He was with another woman?"
"A girl, the brunette from the coffee shop, and she wasn't a day over sixteen. She was on top of him, totally naked, pumping up and down like one of those bobblehead dolls. Her back was to me, but I could see Angus lying there on the ground, a stupid grin on his face, drunk as a lord."
"What did you do?"
"I was mad. Bad enough he blew off my birthday, but to be cheating again on my mother? I pulled up the stakes and collapsed the tent, but the two of them just giggled and continued humping one another. So I left. I marched straight back down to the Loch and went fishing by myself."
"And that's the night you nearly drowned?"
"What happened? What caused your boat to flip?"
"It was a tree. Bottom of the Loch's covered with them. Compressed gases build up inside the trunks. When the pressure exceeds the depths, they come shooting to the surface like missiles. I can't remember much, only that the bow suddenly flipped over and
was in the water. When the tree re-sank, it took me with it."
"I don't understand."
"The tree trunk was wrapped in barbed wire. The wire snagged my left ankle, nearly tore my foot off. God knows how deep it dragged me before I managed to kick myself free."
"That must have been petrifying. It's amazing your friend's father managed to get to you."
"I got lucky, old man MacDonald must've been nearby. Scariest guy you'd ever want to meet. Kids around Drumnadrochit used to call him the Crabbit. Even his son, my best friend, True, was afraid of him. Still, I was under for a long time and blacked out. What probably saved me was the Loch's water temperature. It's only about forty-two degrees, close to freezing. In water that cold, your muscles turn to lead, and all your vitals slow to a crawl."
"Zachary, people don't just walk away from traumatic experiences like yours. Sure, you may block it out for a time, but the memories still linger in the subconscious… and so can the effects. Obviously, Angus was at fault, but all this anger you're still holding inside toward your father, it isn't healthy either. And keep in mind, he's not the one suffering, you are."
"So I've been told. But it doesn't matter. He'll never apologize, and I'll never forgive him."
"And what if—"
"Fuck what if? I didn't come here so you could reconcile me and Angus, I came because of these damn nightmares."
He closed his notepad. "For the record, they're not nightmares. What you're experiencing are classified as night terrors, a sleep disorder common among individuals suffering post-traumatic stress. It's your mind's way of dealing with what happened. I once treated a group of patients who just made it out of the Twin Towers before they collapsed. Many of them experienced these same intense dreams of death. While nightmares can occur anytime during REM sleep, night terrors take place only during stage four of sleep, which is the deepest, most difficult stage to awaken from. Patients bolt upright in bed, screaming, paralyzed in fear, their hearts beating at upwards of 170 beats per minute. Even after awakening, many patients remain in a state of confusion for twenty minutes or more."
"Yeah, I've experienced all that."
"Hopefully, our sessions will help, but I have to warn you, it could take years."
"Years? And until then?"
"Until then, we'll do what we can." Reaching into his desk drawer, he pulled out a prescription pad. "I'm going to prescribe an antidepressant. Take it once a day before bedtime. As for the night terrors and your sudden fear of water, sometimes the best therapy is to deal with their causes head-on."
"And how do I do that?"
"That, only you can figure out."
* * *
I left his office, convinced the only way to salvage my career and "remove the Wallace curse" was to return to the Sargasso Sea and "face my dragon." That meant resolving the mystery of the Bloops, no easy task, even without my psychological condition. Returning to the Sargasso meant raising money to fund another expedition. David had deserted me, and few companies would want to risk men and machinery in the wake of my recent disaster at sea.
Still, I had to try.
My mother and Charlie were returning home that afternoon. Charlie not only had money, but connections with several networks. Maybe his production company would be my sponsor?
* * *
"Absolutely not!" My mother stalked the living room, enraged that I'd even broach the subject. "You nearly died out there, Zachary, and now you want to go back?"
My stepfather winced. "Take it easy, Andrea—"
"Charlie Mason, you lend Zachary one silver nickel for this expedition, and you and I are through!"
She stormed off, the slamming door punctuating her words. "Sorry, Charlie, I didn't mean to get you in any trouble."
Good ol' Charlie just shrugged it off. "As Will Rogers said, there are two theories to arguing with a woman, and neither of 'em works. Your mom's just worried about you. Let me work on her a while."
* * *
But heart-stopping screams in the middle of the night were not exactly what my mother or Charlie had in mind when they invited me to stay with them. After the third straight night of listening to my mother threaten to send me to a sanitarium, I decided it would be best if I checked into a motel.
The next several months were a blur. I applied to every school with a marine sciences department, but the on-going war in Iraq, combined with the federal government's massive tax cuts had led to deficits that were strapping the states and forcing universities to cut positions and programs. While I waited to hear something, I bounced around from job to job, painting houses, trimming landscapes, basically allowing my mind to turn to mush. The antidepressants made me nauseous, but had little effect on my night terrors. I soon found something that did: alcohol.
Being inebriated kept me from entering the deepest stages of sleep, the stages where the night terrors lay in wait. Given the choice between preserving my sanity and my liver, I chose my sanity.
I'd never been much of a drinker in college, but my tolerance rose quickly with my "cure," and it wasn't long before occasional use became abuse. Days were devoted to sleeping off hangovers, my nights reserved for bingeing on expensive drinks and cheap women, both of which I found in abundance in South Beach, my new favorite haunt.
Hey, everyone from my ex-fiancée to my shrink had told me to loosen up. As far as I was concerned, I was just following their advice. And it didn't get any looser than South Beach after dark.
I'd hit the clubs by ten and party past dawn. Sometimes I'd make it back to my motel room, other times waking up in strange places I had no recollection of entering. I hung out with people whose names I couldn't remember, and had sex with women who couldn't care less.
And neither could I.
Having been goal-oriented and disciplined for as long as I could remember, I quickly became a rudderless, sinking ship. I stopped working out. I quit my job and lived off my savings, which vanished as quickly as the women in my life. No longer interested in the future, I was merely biding my time in the present.
I became a social vampire, a drunk haunted by my failures. I became my father.
* * *
It was a Thursday afternoon in May, five months after the Sargasso incident, when destiny came calling again. I was lying in a pile of wet towels on the bathroom floor of a motel efficiency when my brain registered a pounding on the door.
Sobriety greeted me with migrainelike symptoms. Pulling myself up by the porcelain, I spewed the prior night's toxins into the toilet bowl (is there a worse stench than Jack Daniel's over tacos?), then crawled toward the door.