In the Monster’s Mouth19 min read

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Violence
Narrated by Emmie Christie

In the Monster’s Mouth by Tim Waggoner/Narrated by Emmie Christie


Black water, black sky, strong wind.

A small wooden boat, no oars.

Faith’s hands grip the gunwales for support as the craft rises and falls with the turbulent waves. She cries out in panicked desperation, but she can’t hear her voice over the scream of the wind and the slap of water striking the boat’s thin hull. She’s dizzy, nauseated, and she wonders how much longer she can go on like this. Not very, she decides. Most likely she’ll soon lose her grip on the gunwales and be thrown overboard, or the entire boat may capsize. She can think of worse ways for her life to end than drowning, but that doesn’t mean she’s in any hurry for it to happen.

The water stretches outward in all directions, and the air holds the sharp tang of salt. It doesn’t smell like ocean water, though it’s a familiar smell, one she can’t place right now. This realm, whatever it is, is not completely dark, else how could she see anything? Precisely where the light—dim as it might be—is coming from, she doesn’t know. Perhaps it’s emitted by the air itself, a product of a trillion tiny glowing particles floating around her. Or maybe she’s been adrift long enough that her eyes have adjusted to the dimness and now find it natural. Either way, she can make out certain shapes: cresting waves coming toward her, dark blurs in the sky she thinks might be clouds, a massive black shape gliding beneath the waves, which she hopes is a product of her imagination but fears is not. The shape bumps the starboard hull then, the impact so jarring that her right hand loses its grip on the gunwale. She grabs it again and steadies herself just in time for another bump, this one twice as strong. She’s knocked back and forth, the boat tipping so far to the sides that it takes on water, enough to cover her feet up to the ankles. She wants to believe she’s struck a piece of driftwood, but she knows better. A third strike, this one harder than the first two combined, and when the boat rights itself, she sees the portside hull is cracked in several places, water now streaming in. She has nothing with which to bail. She can’t even use her hands—ineffective as they would be—since she can’t risk letting go of the gunwales. The boat is taking on water fast, and there’s nothing she can do about it.

She is, not to put too fine a point on it, fucked.

§

Faith climbed the last few rungs to the diving board, doing her best to keep her breathing even and relaxed. She was the youngest person on the team, and small for her age, besides, and she felt everyone’s eyes on her. Their dead-silent scrutiny made her nervous, not because they expected her to fail, but because they viewed her as a phenom and couldn’t wait to see her dive. If she’d been a couple years older, they would’ve seen her as a good diver but not as a rare oddity, like a zebra with purple stripes that could whistle. There was even talk of her trying out for the Olympic swim team, which she thought was ridiculous. Her coach didn’t, though, and neither did her father.

She kept her gaze focused straight ahead. She knew Coach Swain was standing at the edge of the pool, and that the other members of the team were huddled around her, waiting to see how Faith performed. Her father was somewhere in the stands. Mom never came; she got too nervous watching Faith dive, always worried that she would end up getting hurt. If he could’ve, Dad would’ve been down there, standing with Coach Swain, but family and friends were banned from being poolside, thank god.

Faith stepped onto the board, its wet warmth beneath her bare feet a familiar comfort. She stood there for a moment, eyes closed, breathing and visualizing the dive she was about to attempt: an inverse triple flip. In the space of a few seconds, she mentally performed the dive a dozen times flawlessly. When she was ready, she opened her eyes and started moving. She reached the end of the board, raised her hands over her head, jumped, came down—

“You got this, Faith!” Her father yelled, shattering the silence – and her right foot slipped.

She fell off the side of the board, spun through space, tried to contort her body so she would at least hit the water with a minimum amount of pain. She didn’t succeed. There was a loud smack, and her entire nervous system lit up as if she’d struck concrete. Then she was beneath the water and slowly sinking.

Ow, she thought.

§

“What the hell was that?

Faith sat on the passenger seat of her dad’s pickup. She’d dried off after the competition and put on a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. Her hair was still a little wet, and Dad had the air conditioner blasting, so she’d wrapped a dry towel around herself.

She didn’t answer his question. She knew he didn’t really want to hear what she had to say—especially about how he was the one who’d distracted her at a crucial moment. In his mind, he was always the star of the show, performer and audience all in one, and could do no wrong.

“Do you know how embarrassing that was for me? I could barely hold my head up as I slunk out of there.”

“I want to quit the team,” she said.

He kept on as if he hadn’t heard her. “It’s one thing to flub a dive. It happens sometimes. But to trip over your goddamned feet like that? There’s no excuse for it, Faith!”

He went on like that for some time, and Faith gazed out the passenger window, trying to tune out his words. It wasn’t easy. The man was loud. After a while, she felt a bead of moisture trace a line down her cheek. As she reached up to wipe away her tears, she remembered something she used to say when she was younger.

I’m not cryingMy eyeballs are leaking.

§

That swim meet had taken place Saturday morning, and by the afternoon, Faith was down in the basement, playing. At least, that’s what she wanted her parents to think. Some old furniture of Grandma’s was stored down here, stuff Mom couldn’t bear to part with after Grandma had died, and sometimes Faith would rearrange it and pretend she was a grown-up who lived in her own house. There were two couches back-to-back, and she’d pushed them apart so she could use them like parallel bars, sometimes flipping up and over one of them and landing on the cushions. One end of the couches was near the unfinished basement wall. She climbed on top of the couches, straddled them, and regarded the wall. It looked solid. It looked hard.

It was just what she needed.

She was tired of performing, tired of competing, tired of the pressure, but most of all, she was tired of her father. She judged the distance, closed her eyes, and visualized what she wanted to accomplish, and then she opened her eyes and flung herself at the wall, angling her left shoulder to take the brunt of the impact. When she connected with the wall, she felt as much as heard a harsh crack, and she fell to the floor. She lay there, her shoulder burning like fire, but she had a smile on her face.

Let’s see you try to make me swim now, Dad.

Tears rolled down her face, but these weren’t tears of pain, even though her shoulder hurt like a motherfucker. These were tears of relief.

§

“It’s hard having a narcissist for a parent. Did he ever …” The therapist trailed off, but Faith knew where she’d been headed.

“He never physically abused me, just verbally. That was bad enough.”

“How did he react when you broke your shoulder? Was he concerned?”

“He was disgusted. Before every competition, he’d tell me that ‘Pressure makes diamonds.’ But while we were at the hospital waiting for X-ray results, he leaned over and whispered to me, ‘I guess sometimes pressure crushes people. People like you.’”

§

She hears the crack of wood breaking, feels the boat fall apart beneath her. She plunges into the water, expects to find it freezing, but instead, it’s warm and salty, and, as it floods her mouth, she realizes why the scent was so familiar to her. It’s tears.

She doesn’t swim as much as she used to, but the old reflexes are still there. Her body relaxes. She spreads her toes and allows her flip-flops to fall off, and then she kicks her legs to propel her upward. When her head breaks the surface, she looks around to orient herself. All she sees is water surging around her, rising and falling, and for now, she lets it take her where it will. Dark shapes float on the surface close by, and she feels a stab of fear. Are they what destroyed the boat? They don’t appear large enough to have done the job, but maybe if they worked together … One of the shapes comes closer and she realizes it’s a board, a fragment of the boat, and she almost laughs with relief. At least now she’ll have something to hold onto while she bobs about in the water and tries to think of how to get back to shore—assuming there still is a shore.

Something clamps down on her right hand, hard, and an instant later, she’s yanked below the surface again. Her shoulder, the one she broke on that long-ago day in the basement, screams as something tears inside. She remembers the large shape she saw swimming near the boat and knows this is the thing that destroyed the craft, that it did so purposefully to get at her. Whatever it is, it’s heavy, and its weight drags her rapidly down into darkness. When she swam competitively, she trained herself to hold her breath for a long time, but she didn’t have time to saturate her lungs with air before being pulled under, and what’s in her lungs won’t last long. She needs to get away from whatever has hold of her or she will drown.

Fighting the force of water pushing against her as she’s dragged farther from the surface, she bends downward, reaches out, and puts her hands on something big, scaled, slimy. For an instant, she’s too stunned with disbelief to be scared. It’s a creature of some kind, a fish, she thinks, but the goddamned thing is huge.

She hears a voice then, speaking inside her mind.

We’re going to find out what pressure really does to you, Faith. Once and for all.

Her father. Of course. Who else could it be?

She continues sinking, shoulder on fire, her lungs beginning to burn.

§

“She was strong right up to the end. Unbelievably strong.”

Faith sat in the front row, eyes raw and sore. They’d been leaking quite a lot over the last several days. Her father, wearing an expensive tailored suit, stood in front of her mother’s open casket, blocking everyone’s view of her face. A lectern with a microphone stood off to one side, surrounded by dozens of floral arrangements, but Dad had to be the center of attention. The fact that this was his wife’s funeral instead of his had to be eating at him, and he was currently working hard to make this memorial service all about him and his pain. Faith’s hands were clenched into fists, and if she hadn’t known how much her mother hated to make a scene, she would’ve stood up, gone to her father, put her arms around him, and pretended she needed him to take care of her. He’d be irritated at having to cut his speech short, but he’d be forced to play the caring father in front of all the relatives and friends who’d gathered to say goodbye to Rita McCarthy. Faith didn’t do it, though, fearing she’d only end up giving him more attention, and the thought of feeding his ego like that made her sick. So she suffered through his words, along with everyone else.

Dad spoke of how Mom’s kidney disease progressed until she was on dialysis regularly. He talked about the wait for a donor kidney, the operation and recovery, and how Mom’s body had seemed to be adjusting well to the new organ. With each new part of the story he added, he stressed how he’d been at her side the whole time, taking care of her, marveling at her strength and resiliency. Him, him, him, him, him …

“But then the kidney began to fail …” He broke off with a choked sob so fake it wouldn’t have impressed a child, let alone a room full of adults. “And then … And then … Oh god.”

His shoulders moved up and down as if he were crying, but of course, there were no tears. He had none for anyone but himself.

Dad was a lawyer—a damn good one, to hear him tell it—and he prided himself at being good at anything he set his hand to, regardless of whether he was or not. He now walked over to the lectern, leaned over, and pulled an acoustic guitar from behind it.

Oh no …, Faith thought.

Dad walked back to Mom’s casket and lifted the instrument into playing position. He looked at his dead wife’s face as he spoke. “I thought I’d sing one of your favorite songs, dear. Is that all right?”

The only thing worse than Dad’s guitar-playing was his singing. Faith didn’t want to do this, but it was an emergency. She closed her eyes, let her body go limp, and fell out of the chair and onto the floor. Noise broke out as people voiced their concern, asked if anyone present was a doctor, suggested someone call 911. Dad was kneeling at her side in an instant, holding her hand and patting it gently. She opened her eyes to see her father’s face less than a foot away from hers.

“It’s okay, sweetie. You’re going to be all right.”

His words were soft and loving, but his eyes were hard and cold as flint.

§

“What’s the worst thing you can do to a narcissist?” Faith said. She smiled. “Upstage them.”

“Has it ever occurred to you that by drawing attention to yourself like that, you were emulating him?”

She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“You wanted to beat him at his own game, so—at least for that moment—you had to become like him. And there are other parallels. You also became a lawyer, and the string of unsuccessful relationships you’ve had were all with narcissists like your father.”

“Are you saying I’m searching for his approval?” She snorted. “Like that will ever happen.”

“You’ve been seeing me for a while now, Faith, and I think it’s time you come to terms with a fundamental truth. There’s a hole in your heart labeled Father’s Love, and it will never be filled.”

Faith knew the therapist was right, but that didn’t make her words hurt any less.

§

Faith trudged along the trail, hands gripping the straps of her backpack. Its contents wouldn’t weigh much if placed on a scale, but they were still a burden, one she was looking forward to being rid of. It was mid-July, the air hot, heavy, and oppressive. The mosquitoes were bad this close to the river, and she wished she’d thought to put on bug spray. She was wearing a tank top and shorts, and by the time she was finished here, she feared her arms and legs would be covered with bites. She could already imagine them itching, and she had to fight to keep from scratching at her skin. She’d expected this task to be miserable, and, in a way, she was glad she’d been right. It was only fitting.

Two weeks ago, her father had been in court, arguing a case for a client, the owner of a heating and cooling company who’d been charged with defrauding customers over the course of nearly twenty years. Faith had no doubt the man was guilty as hell. Dad loved defending the guilty. If he won, he got accolades, and if he lost, he received sympathy for having fought hard in what was ultimately an unwinnable case. That way, regardless of the verdict, he got the attention and recognition he craved. He’d been giving his closing statement to the jury when at one point he stopped speaking. According to what Faith was told later by the prosecuting attorney—one of those narcissists who she’d once dated—he’d seemed confused. He looked at the judge, then at his client, then his eyes widened, rolled white, and he collapsed to the floor. The heart attack was so massive, a doctor told her, that her father had most likely been dead before he’d started to fall. At least it was fast, the doctor said. Too fast, as far as Faith was concerned. Still, she knew Dad would’ve loved the theatricality of it, and she took grim satisfaction in knowing he’d died before realizing what was happening.

The trail angled downward, and, before long, she reached a rocky bank on the edge of the river. She slipped off her backpack with a grateful sigh, placed it on the ground, and looked out at the water. She’d been ten years old the last time she’d been here, and the river seemed smaller than she remembered, the water muddy and sluggish. An old, weathered rowboat had been pulled onto the bank a hundred feet upriver, and she wondered who’d abandoned it and why. There was probably a story there, one she would never know. She looked away from the boat and out at the water once more.

That’s not how you bait a hook. Most of the worm isn’t even on it. It’ll fly off when you cast your line.

She drew the back of her hand across her forehead to wipe away the sweat, but all she managed to do was smear it.

That’s too close to shore. You got to get your hook farther out into the water if you want to catch anything.

She knelt, got a bottle of water from the backpack, took a long drink.

Don’t pull your line in too early! You’ve got to give the fish a chance to bite. God, you really are hopeless sometimes, you know that? Sometimes you make me ashamed to be your father.

She removed a hand spade from the backpack and began digging a hole in the rocky soil. When she judged it was big enough, she removed a cardboard box from the pack and set it on the ground next to the hole. She took off the lid to reveal a plastic bag filled with gray ashes. She lifted the bag, opened it, and poured its contents into the hole. Her father would’ve loved a large funeral, with him lying in state as dozens of mourners filed by his casket to tearfully say their goodbyes, followed by a service in which somber speakers enumerated his accomplishments and spoke warmly of him as a friend and colleague. Instead, Faith had him cremated, and the only ceremony to mark his death would be the one she conducted now.

Once his ashes were deposited, Faith stood, pulled down her shorts, squatted over the hole, and pissed on his remains. When she was empty, she pulled up her shorts, shoveled dirt over the sodden mess that had been her father, and then put the spade, box, and plastic bag into the pack. She went to the water’s edge and began to cry. Tears poured out of her, ran down her face, fell onto her tank top, continued falling until her shirt was soaked. And still, the tears came, falling onto her shorts, running down her legs, forming a puddle at her feet. They joined with the river, fed it, caused it to rise. Black clouds rolled in to block the sun, and the air—so stifling only moments before—became chilly. Still, she cried, her body racked by great heaving sobs, and the river overflowed the bank, the water level rising to her ankles, then halfway to her knees. The boat became dislodged from the shore and began drifting lazily toward her.

The ground beneath her feet trembled, and she looked back over her shoulder. The spot where she’d buried her father’s ashes was underwater now, but the surface above it bubbled and roiled.

“No,” she whispered.

Something hard bumped into her, and she turned to see the boat floating in the water in front of her. She took hold of the gunwale with both hands, more out of reflex than any conscious decision, and when the water exploded behind her as if something large had burst upward, she flung herself into the craft. She was no longer crying, but the river continued to rise, flowing faster with each passing second, and the current carried the boat away from the rapidly disappearing shore. The sky grew even darker, the wind picked up speed, and Faith was borne away on the current. But something followed her—something big and angry.

§

White sparkles of light dance in Faith’s vision, and she knows she’s dangerously low on air. If she doesn’t get away from this giant fish-thing now, she’d be a dead woman.

With her free hand, she feels around on the creature’s surface, searching for … She finds an eye, the fucking thing as large as a softball, and she starts pounding on it. One, twice, three times … The fish doesn’t let her go, so she rakes her nails across the eye’s firm spongy substance. This does the trick. The fish-thing’s mouth springs open, and Faith shoots upward like a rocket, arms stroking, legs kicking. Her right shoulder blazes with pain, and she knows she shouldn’t be using that arm, but she has no choice. She needs air, and she needs it now, so she swims toward the surface as fast as she can, giving it everything she’s got, and to hell with her shoulder.

She feels her mouth begin to open of its own accord, her lungs so desperate that they’re willing to attempt to breathe regardless of whether she’s underwater or not. It’s a physical imperative, instinctive and irresistible, and she knows she cannot hold it off any longer. Then her head breaks the surface, and she draws in a gasping breath, followed by another, and then another. Her vision grays out for a moment, and she fears she’s going to pass out anyway. When it clears, she laughs.

“Fuck you, Dad! Fuck you!

A board from the boat floats nearby, and she swims to it, using only her left arm. The board’s not very big and one of the ends is jagged. She doubts it will be effective as a flotation device, but that’s not the reason she wants it.

Just as she reaches it, the thing that is … was? … her father breaches the surface no more than five yards away from her. Its hide is a mottled gray—Like ash, she thinks—with staring black eyes set high atop the head, and a yawning mouth that looks large enough to swallow the world. Those inhuman eyes fix on her, and she hears her father’s voice in her mind.

I’m making you swim now, aren’t I, Faith? You’re not doing too bad for someone so out of shape, but you’re not going to win any trophies with that shoulder of yours—and you sure as hell aren’t going to get away from me.

She remembers something her father told her once when she was a kid, standing with him beside the river,

You’ve got to give the fish a chance to bite.

And that’s exactly what she intends to do.

The giant fish flips its tail and surges toward her, white froth churning in its wake. Faith angles the jagged end of the board upward, and as the fish’s giant mouth closes on her, she rams the wood into the soft flesh of its upper palate. The creature tries to close its jaws on her, but the board prevents this, and she pulls herself out its mouth and, using her good arm, puts distance between herself and the fish. It thrashes its huge head back and forth in an attempt to dislodge the board, but the wood remains fixed in place, and then—with a loud wet snap—the jaws close. The sharp end of the board bursts through the top of the fish’s head, the point emerging between its bulging eyes. Blood flows freely from the wound, and the fish floats there for a moment, empty gaze trained on her. She thinks her father will make some final cutting remark, but he says nothing. The fish slowly slips beneath the water and is gone.

Faith stares at the spot where the creature submerged as if expecting it to rally its strength for one more attack, but it doesn’t reappear. Now that her psychodrama has played itself out, she hopes the world will be restored to normal. Exhausted, shoulder blazing with white-hot pain, she scans the horizon, looking for any hint of shore, but she sees none. She treads water for several more minutes, but the world remains as it is, a seemingly endless expanse of dark water. She could pick a direction and start swimming, hope that she eventually finds land, but her shoulder is too badly injured for her to use the arm on that side. And even if she could use both arms, how can she hope to combat the water’s currents? She can’t. And without any point of reference, she’d have no way of maintaining a straight course anyway. She might swim around in circles until her strength is gone and she finds herself unable to remain afloat any longer. If she had any of the other boards from the boat … but she doesn’t, and there are none in sight. For all she knows, they could have floated miles away by now. As far as she can see, she’s left with only two options: continue treading water and hope some sort of rescue finds her before she descends into the deep to join her father, or give in to the inevitable—on her terms.

It really isn’t much of a choice.

She takes in and releases several deep breaths, then she draws a final one, holds it, and swims downward. The water is quiet, dark, and soothing, and as she descends, she thinks of what her father told her after she broke her shoulder.

 I guess sometimes pressure crushes people. People like you.

We’ll see about that, she thinks.

She closes her eyes, curls up into a ball, and, as she continues down, she waits to harden.

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