Sunday, December 25, 2016

GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS (Stave Two)



This second spine-tingling tale of terror takes us to the salty, blood-soaked shores of Amity Island, and the amazing world of JAWS.

I love sharks.  When I was little, I wanted to be a marine biologist, and the JAWS franchise fueled this desire.  

When JAWS 3D was released, I remember standing in front of a South Florida movie house and the line extending well into the parking lot.  The film sold out, and I was devastated.  My parents finally did take me to see it, and the effects blew my mind.  The gore flew off the screen, further cementing my love of horror and film.

My family spent more and more time in Panama City Beach, Florida and on the Gulf of Mexico's emerald waters, eventually moving there full time.  I got close to sharks: hammerheads, black tips, and lemons.

Once a year, the boats would bring in these beautiful fish for competition, and I cried when my mom took me and my brother to see their catch.

I watched Fangoria report that JAWS 4 was coming soon, and could not wait to revisit the maneater.  I read every novel, every making of book, eager to live in that world.  Even though critics and fans were disappointed, I enjoyed the film and cherish it to this day.

Since then, JAWS: THE REVENGE forced me to think about what was really happening in the plot.  Was there really a shark in the movie, or is the great white symbolic for something else, a ghost looming over the Brody family? 

This story comes from those musings.

I was pleased when Fallon, my son, also fell in love sharks.  We've watched the bad Sci-fi channel movies, Shark Week, and the Jaws films together countless times.  Last summer, we went and watched the original film in theaters for it's 40th anniversary.  As Bruce devours the Orca, the theater audience gasped.  The film was meant to be seen on the big screen and is every bit scary today as when it premiered.  A magical moment between father and child.

I am dedicating this ghost to him. 
Swim deep, my son.


AMITY



Sunlight gleamed over the choppy waves surrounding Amity Island, creating dancing diamonds that stretched into infinity.  Mike leaned over the pier's railing.  Murky green shrouded the seafloor, a drastic contrast to the crystal clear waters and stunning coral reefs encompassing the Bahamas, where Mike had lived and worked for the past seven years.
"Wanna go for a dip?" Carla asked.
Mike ignored his wife.
Though late April, this part of the Atlantic stayed too cold for swimming.  Mike had acclimated to paradise where the water temperature averaged eighty degrees year-round.  Here the sea wouldn't warm until June when schools released for summer break.
Not that anyone visited Amity anymore.
Several well-publicized shark attacks in the 70s and 80s had fractured the beach's reputation and with it the seasonal tourism.  Complications from mob real estate debts finalized Amity's economic devastation.  Most mom and pop businesses had boarded up years ago, leaving only a few big box retailers and grocery stores to supply the fishermen and families remaining on the small island.  Mike didn't understand what chained the townsfolk to the once thriving community.  To him, it represented an innocence that had been swallowed up like those friends and beachgoers so long ago.
Some things hadn't changed since his youth.  Catamarans, yachts, and commercial fishing boats lined the docks.  The ferry chartered cars from the mainland.  Traces of Jackie Peters' coconut suntan lotion laced the salty gusts coming off the foam, and he wondered what had become of his first love.  Her memory jabbed guilt into his heart.
Mike squeezed his wife's hand.  "I hate this town."
"I think it's quaint."  Carla kissed his earlobe.  "We could move from our topic utopia, enroll Thea in school here, and you can be close to your mother."
"I'd rather step on a sea urchin."
"I can arrange that."
"Let's go see mom," he said, leading her away from the restless waves.


***


"I'm glad you're both here," Tiffany said as she let Mike and Carla into the Ellen Brody's home.  Tiffany had been engaged to Mike's brother Sean before a he'd been killed dislodging a drifting log from a channel marker a few days before last Christmas.  Tiffany hung onto the family, staying with Ellen even though the Brody matriarch had lost her mind.
Mike hugged his almost-sister-in-law.
Carla kissed her cheek.
"Where is she?" Mike asked.
"In the kitchen, drinking wine."
"I need some time with her."  He rested his duffel bag on the table that caught the family's mail and keys.  "Please."
Tiffany pulled Carla into the living room where a soap opera played out its melodrama.  Mike followed the hall to the kitchen, flooded with memories preserved in the picture frames lining the wall.  He paused at an image of his father receiving the key to the city from Mayor Vaughn, taken after he'd managed to kill the coastline's first great white menace.  The smiling mayor had his arm around his father, but Martin Brody's tired expression hinted at the darkness that would haunt Amity's Chief of Police until his heart attack five years ago.
The same darkness that now haunted his mother.
Ellen Brody sat at the kitchen table in front of a half-completed crossword puzzle and a coffee mug filled with red wine.  Mike stood in the doorway, smiling but cautious.
"Hi, mom."
"I'd get up and hug you, but I guess you heard.  I'm supposed to be resting."
"It's fine.  Just sit.  Mind if I join you?"
"You don’t have to ask."
Mike sat across from her and inspected the wine bottle.  "A good year."
"Your father was saving it for when he retired.  Too bad he worked until the day he was killed."
"Dad wasn't killed, and you know it."
Ellen slammed the mug on the table.  "He was so.  It was that goddamned shark.  I don't know why you insist otherwise."
"Look, if you don’t…if you don't knock off this shark business, they're going to put you in the hospital again."
"You'd like that."  Ellen rubbed her bandaged wrist.  "You're still working in the water, aren't you?  I don't know why you didn't stay in Florida at the engineer job."
"I've told you, I was never an engineer.  I studied at Sea World, helping the trainers and scientists."
"And the shark almost got you then, too."
"How did a shark almost get me at Sea World?"
"Someone was careless.  Two of them passed through the gate that leads to the ocean.  It broke the rides and trapped all those people by flooding the underwater maze."
"Orlando is landlocked.  There is no possible way any sharks swam in."
"You blew the damned fish up after it ate your boss.  How could you forget?"
"There were times I wished a shark would eat Mr. Bouchard.  He was tough, but he prepared me for grad school."
"You could have been a great engineer."
"I'm a marine biologist.  It's my passion, how I make my living.  We went over this when you visited during the holidays."
"And I had to save you.  After what that thing did to my baby, I—"
"Fuck, mom.  For the thousandth time, there was no shark.  Sean's death was an accident."
"Is that how you explain the banana boat?"
"A reef ruptured the banana boat.  Nothing bit it.  Nobody got hurt or died."
Ellen threw her drink, smashing it.  Martin's retirement wine splashed across the linoleum.
"I saw it," she screamed.  "I saw it eat that lady in front of those kids.  Thea could have been killed."
"You're wrong."
Tears spilled down Ellen's cheeks.  "How could you forget me saving you?  The beast attacked your best friend."
"You didn't steal the research boat.  Hoagie never flew us to rescue you.  Jake didn't almost get eaten.  The shark jumping out of the water, the boat exploding—you imagined the whole damned thing."
Tiffany and Carla poked their heads into the kitchen.  Mike raised a hand, halting their entrance.
"I'm not crazy."
"Take it easy, mom.  It'll be all right."
Ellen sobbed, burying her head into her arms.


***


"She's not going to be all right," Mike told Carla after she turned out the light in the upstairs guestroom and snuggled close to him.
"What do we do?"
"I don't think we can leave her with Tiffany.  She's still not over Sean."
"Do you ever get over the death of your child?"
"Hell, I don't know."
Carla ran her fingers down his chest, scratching his navel.  He grabbed her wrist and halted the attention.  She pulled away, scooting to the other side of the bed.
"I'm glad we left Thea with Jake and Louisa," Mike said.  "She doesn't need to see her grandmother like this."
"Thea knew something was wrong with mom over Christmas.  She told me that Ellen got strange while they made sandcastles on the beach."
"I thought her troubles would pass, that the nightmares and the affair with that lowlife Hoagie were just her way of dealing with Sean's passing.  I didn't think she'd hurt herself."
Carla edged back to his side.  "Hey, don't put all of this on yourself.  I thought she'd be fine, too.  She seemed happier when she left us."
Mike agreed.  His mother had seemed happier.  But when they started getting anxious phone calls from Tiffany detailing Ellen's graphic, violent recollection of her visit, Mike and Clara worried.
Ellen maintained that another great white had attacked them in the Bahamas, and that she stole Mike's research vessel and impaled the monster as it leapt out of the water and roared.  Worse, Ellen claimed that the same shark had killed Sean.  Somehow it knew that she would leave Amity and managed to outswim the plane to the Bahamas.  The stories had grown in complexity and bizarreness since the second week of January, culminating with Ellen insisting she and the shark shared a psychic connection, possibly stemming from voodoo.
When Mike confronted her on the telephone, Ellen slashed her wrists.
"I'm taking her tomorrow."
Carla propped herself up with an elbow.  "You want me to come?"
"Nah, I'll do it.  Keep Tiffany occupied.  Take her out shopping or something."
Clara kissed him and settled down, but sleep eluded Mike.
Would mom still love him after he committed her?


***


Mike sat on the couch beside his mother, working on her crosswords.
"Since the girls are out shopping, why don't we get ice cream?"
Ellen lowered the puzzle book.  "Is coffee still your favorite flavor?"
"Yeah.  It is.  I can't believe you remembered."
"When the first shark attacked you and that poor man in the estuary, you asked for coffee ice cream and baseball cards at the hospital."
"What do you say?"
"Ice cream would be lovely.  I think I'll have rocky road."
Remorse tugged at Mike's gut.  Tricking her shattered his heart.
After helping her into a sweater, Mike escorted Ellen to his father's jeep.
They drove along the scenic route, hugging the shoreline and passing the Amity welcome sign he and his friends had defaced years ago. Accompanied by Eddie Marcharnd and Larry Vaughn Jr., the trio had painted an enormous dorsal fin behind a woman on a yellow raft.  Altering her expression with a gaping mouth and wide, cartoonish eyes, they also added a dialog bubble that proclaimed HELP!!! SHARK.  The graffiti stirred up a lot of commotion, making the front page of the paper.  As a kid, Mike considered the prank funny, one of those great moments of adolescent rebellion, but the man he'd grown into found nothing about sharks humorous.
Beach Creamery had survived throughout Amity's hardships.  Mike ordered two scoops of coffee on a waffle cone, and Ellen got a banana split, her favorite.  Their table overlooked the public beach and the observation tower that his father had spent each summer season manning.
Mike couldn’t help but stare at the tower.
Before girls and sailing devoured his time, Mike would join his dad in the tower and beg the chief to retell the events on the Orca.  Martin hated talking about Captain Quint's doomed fishing trip and would often change the subject.  He became an expert at dodging the tale until the locals stopped caring.
Mike, however, never forgot.
The story fascinated him, and the last time he and the chief huddled in the tower, his father told him exactly what had happened, how the shark rammed the ship until the bow cracked and then ate Quint; how the captain's horrible screams turned to gurgles as the Orca went down.  His father spared no detail in order to scare him, keep him on dry land.  But the story had the opposite effect, igniting a fire in Mike for the sea and her mysteries.
"He hated when you stopped sitting with him in the tower," Ellen said, seeming to read his thoughts.
"Sean liked it.  He took my place up there.  Guess that was the beginning of his becoming a cop."
"He loved this community.  Gave his life serving it.  I don't why you ever left."
"Just wasn't big enough for me here.  I had bigger ambitions, dreams I couldn't chase on this island."
"Your family is nice.  After today, you're going to have to protect them."
Mike stopped eating the cone.  "What do you mean?"
"I know where you're taking me."
"Mom, I—"
"It's okay.  I knew what was going on the moment you walked into my kitchen."
Appetite gone, Mike tossed what remained of the cone into a nearby trashcan.  "You hurt yourself.  I can't be here for you if it happens again."
"What you're failing to see is that I'm fine, Michael.  Where I'm going, the shark can't get me.  You have to worry about you and your family.  It's coming for you."
A brutal mix of anger and pity washed over Mike.  Ellen finished her ice cream, and they left behind the good memories: the beach, the ice cream shop, the tower.
At Tide Break, the island's low security rest center, Head Nurse Jackie Peters helped Mike check his mother in.  Still beautiful, Jackie had married, divorced, and remarried during Mike's absence.  Neither mentioned the shark that had attacked their catamarans or his mother's insanity.
After a friendly hug, Jackie gave Mike the admission paperwork and escorted Ellen inside the behavioral center.  After turning in the forms, Mike left, fighting tears.
Not wanting to return to his parents' house, he stopped at the pier again, following the boards until reaching the railing.  The past twenty-four hours had been the hardest day of his life.  He couldn’t wait to get back home to the Bahamas, leave behind these horrible feelings.
The ferry, shuttling three cars and a motorcycle, honked as it headed to the mainland.
A kite flew overhead.
And past the second sandbar, where the sun glimmered on the gentle waves, a dark fin pierced the surface.





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