Madison Gray spends her nine-to-five writing copy for a marketing firm in Salt Lake City, Utah. After hours, she works and reworks her novel between walks with her dog, Xena, and TV binge sessions. Writing and reading stories helps her connect with the world and better understand the people in it. Her work appears in Outrageous Fortune: A Journal of the Arts and Manzano Mountain Review.

She Stepped into the Ocean

Madison Gray

Tyler worked in internal lending on the second floor of a credit union. She read loan requests and ran the numbers and accepted or denied them. On her first day back from vacation, the other lenders went out for lunch as usual. Tyler stayed behind to answer the phones. She ate apple slices out of a zip-lock bag and scrolled through a document. She read the same two lines again and again, her mind refusing to process the information. Gray-blue water sloshed through her neuron channels and muffled the bloated prose. 

She sat back in her chair and let the words turn into muddy, indistinct lines of black haze drifting in an albino sea. She kept her desk clear except for the monitor and keyboard. Louise, the thin, self-proclaimed “cycle freak” two desks over, piled her workspace with magazines and half-empty water bottles. Her life had even spread to the cubical walls where Louise had tacked up pictures of her and her husband on mountain bikes.

Aside from the photographs over Louise’s desk, the fabric walls were mostly empty. A few of the other women had tacked up photos or drawings their children brought home from elementary school.

The auditing department next door looked very similar: florescent lights glaring down on littered desk tops and reflecting off of pictures stuck with push pins.

Tyler scooted in again and minimized the word document. The green hills of her PC’s default desktop sprawled out in front of her. She liked the bright colors and the winding road that cut through them. Sometimes she imagined standing on that road in the middle of nowhere. Vibrant green grass needling through the asphalt underfoot. Manure and wildflowers mixing in the air and tickling her nose. She didn’t know what country the road wound through, but she could picture what sort of towns might line it. Small stone shops that sold nothing but shot glasses and key-chains.

Tyler moused open her Facebook feed and scrolled. Faces and words and birthdays flowed into her mind and out again—and then the tide stopped.

Tyler’s hand stalled out on the mouse wheel, and her breath stuck somewhere underneath her collarbone.

Greg Ichovick, a boy Tyler knew from years ago in high school, had shared the video. She hadn’t known that the video existed, didn’t think it was possible anyone could have recorded it.

The video started playing automatically and every frame shuddered through Tyler’s body like déjà vu. She fumbled with the mouse and hit pause. She couldn’t watch it at work, surrounded by those bleak walls. She would wait until she got home.

Time oozed by like cooling tar. Each second dripped through her mind and left a black rivulet behind. When five o’clock coated the inside of her skull, Tyler could barely concentrate enough to respond to the “see you tomorrows” and the “there’s somebody for everybodys.” 

Traffic was bad. Cobble stone barriers fenced in the freeway. Trees loomed over the walls and the matte black pavement, the glass and steel backs of the cars passing through their shadows. Tyler huddled in her Civic and thought of the video as she automatically moved her foot from the gas to the brakes and back again. The radio droned out a sad country song.

The commute took thirty minutes and for every one of them she thought of gray water slogging into a double-decker boat from one side and slowly claiming it, inch by inch, sucking it deep under the unchanged surface. Her hands shook, and at her apartment, she had a hard time fitting her key into the lock. Her tiny metal palm tree keychain knocked against her car keys and the door as she struggled inside.

She locked the door behind her and slung her purse onto the counter. The apartment was small. The island doubled as a dining table. The coffee table doubled as an ottoman. Books filled three of her kitchen cabinets and dirty dishes collected on her dresser. 

Tyler perched on the edge of the brown leather couch and pulled her phone from the pocket of her cardigan. She sifted through Facebook until she found the video again.

“The Sapphire Maiden goes down” the video's title read. The most intense moment of Tyler’s life played in her hands. The seconds ticked by, each one filling the bar below the viewing window with blue substance. She thought she had seen everything in those six minutes; she thought every detail already had stained her memory a red so dark it looked black.

The grimy handrails and the blue plastic that capped each metal pole, the bolted-down barstools with vinyl cushions, the booze hidden away beneath a cheaply-made bar, the corner of the canopy that had come undone in the gusty over-ocean air, flapping against its framing, all of it tumbled into her brain like icy water. Awake.

She could feel the slick of the deck under her feet. She could hear the dull clang of metal on metal from some unseen source. She could taste the ocean. She stood on the Sapphire Maiden all over again.

Whoever held the camera pointed it down the deck. The wood-planked floor and the canopied ceiling still seemed to be in their proper places on screen, but across the ship and over the handrail, deep sloshing blue filled the space where horizon and sky should have been.

Who had filmed the video? Who thought to pull out a phone and record while their life was in danger? Tyler pictured some of the passengers she remembered and imagined them bracing against the ship’s tilt, a camera grasped in their hand. It seemed impossible.

A metal bar obstructed part of the scene on-screen. Tyler recognized it as the base of one of the bar stools. Whoever filmed the video had to have crouched down and wedged in under the bar. Admiration twinkled in Tyler’s chest.

She squinted down at the screen, trying to find herself among the milling crowd of pixels. She only recognized a dark-haired woman wearing a lime-green dress that practically glowed out of the screen. She clung to the arm of a man dressed in dark colors.

Tyler had not talked to the couple while at sea, though she’d admired the woman’s confidence. Her bright pink lipstick and the dress that barely covered her rear-end—both demanded attention. The man had always been with her, but Tyler had never noticed anything about him, save his presence.

Next to the neon dress, everyone else on screen dulled. Achromatic extras Tyler could not identify.

Tyler tapped the screen with her thumb, and the video expanded. After a second’s delay, the sound erupted into her living room.

Each layer of background noise settled over her memory like tracing paper: People talking in high pitched voices, a man shouting in Spanish, the deep groaning of wood, glasses crashing into each other, glasses rolling down the deck, small splashes as forgotten belongings dropped through the gaps in the rails and fell into the ocean, thousands of miles of water folding over itself and lapping up against the ship and a hundred different shores: hushing her with every wave. With every movement.

Tyler’s hands shook so hard that she set down the phone. She took a breath. The stagnant air of her apartment slugged down her throat. She forced her fingers underneath her thighs and looked down at her phone on the coffee table. Though she’d flattened her hands, her abdomen quaked with every breath. The leather stuck to her palms. The video still played.

Nearly everyone stood strangely still on screen. A few people fought their way up the sloping deck, closer to the camera, but most of them stood in place, holding onto the poles that kept the canopy up. The view down the deck blurred into browns and muddy blues. Surprised shouts staccatoed out of the speaker. When the video cleared again, people clung to the poles and guardrails like half-drowned cats. The camera panned over the boat. The water had swallowed the lower half of the guardrail. Many of the passengers had fallen to their knees. They pawed at the deck with their hands. Someone new slid into view. Black skin, dirty orange life vest, jeans. Tyler recognized her own body with an electric jolt. She watched a miniature, pixilated version of herself grab for one of the canopy poles and miss.

She remembered that moment. Metal grazing her finger tips, though the resolution of the camera couldn’t capture the near miss. It felt like a forgotten stair or a momentary lapse in depth perception, expecting something stable and finding empty air. Tyler felt her stomach phase into zero gravity. She fell then, down, down, down the deck like a playground slide. Her feet phased into the icy water and collided with the handrail, by then totally covered in water. The deck became a wall. She leaned into it, her feet slipping into the gaps between the bars again and again. Every second the ocean swallowed another half inch of her body—threatened to swallow them all. Energy vibrated through her and the waves lapping against her stomach seemed calmer. If someone would have touched her shoulder, she wouldn’t have felt it. She became a self-contained bottle of fire. All the noise around her buzzed somewhere far behind her other thoughts. Muffled. Quiet. The smell of the sea turned into the clean nothing that follows a snowstorm. Tyler became something she’d never been before.

Tyler glanced at the progress bar below the video. Two minutes and thirty seconds had passed.

It had taken Tyler a month to decide whether or not she would actually go on the solo trip to California, 22,320 minutes. But she turned thirty that year. Thirty years of living and still she had no one to go on vacation with, 15,768,000 minutes. She took the money she had saved up over the last eight years for a wedding and a honeymoon, and she booked a ticket to California. She booked a hotel. She booked a zip-lining excursion. She booked a boozy boat tour. She got on the plane and played Sudoku for three hours—180 minutes.

Three minutes into the video, more people tumbled down the deck to join her. Whoever held the camera stayed put, peering down at the people who crashed into the water from twenty feet up. The screen morphed into dull pixels again. Dozens of passengers leaned against the deck when the video’s full resolution returned, standing on the guardrail just as Tyler had.

She remembered landing hard on her side as her feet slid out from under her. The water had covered about a foot of the deck—not enough to cushion her fall as she crashed against the guardrail.

“Are you all right?” someone had asked, but when Tyler looked up she saw a man crouching next to a woman, his arm on her shoulder. Tyler pushed herself up and leaned against the boat like she hadn’t fallen. Her clothes were wet. The breeze made the water feel colder.

She still had bruises from the landing; they patterned her left shoulder and hip with the faint impression of stripes. When she read or watched TV, her fingers found the tender flesh. She pressed and grimaced at the pain. The throbbing dulled out, but her arms still grew heavy with the lethargic fire that waited to take her until the adrenaline died down. Every time she dug her fingers in, she fell all over again, crashed into the bars all over again.

Tyler splayed her fingers and laid them flat over the bruises; she squeezed her arm, letting the fat bubble up between her fingers. The pain dripped out like the last drops of water onto a shriveled tongue. It had grown fainter, but Tyler still felt the hollow fear echo around in her gut.

She tried to remember who had still been hanging on, if she’d seen anyone lodged underneath the bar, but she didn’t think she ever looked up the deck again once she fell. Instead she remembered watching liquor bottles bob away from the boat, carried away by the water.

Tyler would love to find one of those bottles, the label wrinkled and peeling, completely illegible. Not a word to be read outside or within it, she would know the story it held. Maybe when she had the bottle, wet and plastered with sand, the feeling would crash over her again. The feeling she got when she pushed away from the boat, out into the ocean. Her veins would light up with electricity, she would forget to blink, or maybe she wouldn’t need to. Her body would pound out a war song with every heartbeat. Strength would awaken from within her soft form. Her lips that always hung open, her drooping eyes that made teachers ask if she was listening back in high school—her features would jump to attention in a way that might finally make her beautiful. Screams would billow from her mouth like a magician’s handkerchief, but she would forget them as soon as they came. She wouldn’t look for what reactions came from those who surrounded her, wouldn’t fixate on what anyone thought of her, wouldn’t think about anyone at all.

She had looked at the people lined up along the rail with her. They hugged the deck. Some pressed their faces into it. Some plunged their hands into the water and held the rail to keep steady.

Tyler felt warmth spreading out from her core, fighting with the goose bumps on her arms. It seemed ridiculous: all the people fighting so hard to stay with the boat—the boat was sinking. Tyler pushed herself away from the deck with her fingertips, her legs shaking in an effort to stay balanced on the thin bars of the guardrail.

She stepped into the ocean.

Tyler remembered floating in the water and feeling the strange way panic lapped up against her and then receded. Others joined her in the water slowly, but she let go first. She felt proud of that.

She could die there. Her body could bloat and dehydrate. She could die off the coast of a state she barely knew. Those thoughts drained into a somehow comforting helplessness. If she died, she would die. She couldn’t swim to shore. If help came, it would come. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t. Until then she would float, watching the water slowly eat its way up the deck as she drifted away from the boat with the other passengers. Many of them cried, wailed, tried to find their loved ones. Tyler just floated, kicked her legs a little to keep herself upright and dazed from thoughts of death to calm and back again.

On screen Tyler drifted out of view as whoever held the camera still managed to hang on. Almost everyone else had fallen now. They crowded the bottom of the deck like sea lions. Indistinct shapes milling in the water below. A few more people fell into the frame, streaking down the screen. Some of them crashed against the guardrail or hit the water so hard that they bobbed limp on its surface.

“Time to go!” a voice came out of Tyler’s phone, clearer than any of the audio in the video. She jumped a little as she recognized it. It shouldn’t have surprised her that she had talked to the man filming, but it did. Now that she heard Neil’s voice, she couldn’t imagine it being anyone else.

She had met Neil at the bar. He sat on one of the stools with a plastic cup in his hands. He stared down at the drink, and Tyler doubted that he’d even taken a sip of it, though all of the ice had melted. He had long blond hair pulled back into a bun. That might have bothered Tyler if it looked like he’d done it for fashion. The ratty hiking boots, travel-wrinkled t-shirt, and the cargo shorts he wore made the hastily thrown up hair seem more acceptable. She liked the way his thin, tan face wrinkled around his eyes, so she sat by him.

He had travelled the world. She learned that right away. She liked his Australian accent, especially when he said her name. Hearing it said back to her—the emphasis on ‘Ty’ and the second syllable draining away—made her feel like a different person. A world traveler like Neil. An adventurer en route to some exotic faraway country, making the most of her layover in California.  She could be interesting, more than a funder in Internal Lending at the central branch of America First credit union.

Neil oozed interesting. He smiled when he talked about himself. He didn’t ask about her, and she couldn’t blame him. He’d free climbed in red rock canyons and sky dived onto beaches. He rode horses bareback. He showed her a video of him grinning and waving from inside a cage and dropping into the ocean like a torpedo. Sharks circled the cage, and he took a photo with them. He didn’t look bored in the picture.

He’d handed her a napkin with his Instagram handle and boasted about some large number of followers. Tyler didn’t remember the exact digits anymore. The ocean had probably turned the napkin into broken up spitballs, but she still remembered what it said: @neilthrills. He posted thrill-seeking escapades on social media. He had a waterproof phone. Of course Neil had recorded the end of the Sapphire Maiden.

Tyler’s attention returned to the video when a muddied green-blue overtook the screen. Pixilated bubbles fizzed through the water. Neil’s hand flickered across the screen, a pinkish blur. The sounds—the screaming, the clanging of metal, the wind against the canopy—all covered by a congested nothing. It sounded like radio static smothered by a pillow.

The blue grew lighter and sounds muffled through the water like voices from another dimension. The sounds came into focus. Neil’s breathing mixed with the wind, and at times Tyler couldn’t decide if she heard one or both. The camera pointed at the Sapphire Maiden. The starboard side submerged, vanished. The portside turned up to the sky. The ocean had half-swallowed the sun, too.

On video, it just caused a glare, but Tyler could still see its orange glow vining up from the west, curving around clouds and dwindling into the deep blue of the east. Its honey tones almost made the scene beautiful.

A woman cried out for someone in the video. Jackson! She yelled over and over.

Tyler remembered that.

Neil’s footage didn’t show the mascara running down the woman’s face or her dark hair plastered against her face and shoulders in tangled mats, but Tyler remembered that too. The woman had clawed at the water with long red fingernails as she screamed for Jackson. She had flailed and screeched only a few feet away from Tyler.

No one answered.

Tyler had expected the woman’s desperation to wash away the heat inside of her, the electric fire that kept her warm in the cold water. The feeling of being something different: a survivor.

It didn't.

It grew stronger. It threaded its way around her muscles and tied knots around her bones.

The video ended on Neil’s face— one of his eyes closed—winking.

Like he knew something she didn’t. Something she didn’t know before.

Tyler stared at the dimmed image of the video’s final frame. The replay button glared out from the center of the screen.

Neil hadn’t filmed the hour that passed before Coast Guard boats pulled them all out of the water. Tyler had almost wanted it to be longer. She remembered running her fingers over the waterlogged wrinkles in her hands and pressing her nails into them, wondering how much deeper they might have become. How long she could have survived. One of the men on the Coast Guard boats told her that the Sapphire Maiden flipped because the captain had turned too sharply. That was all it took. The captain turned the wheel just a bit too far to the right, and the boat went up on its left side. That was all it took.

Tyler set the phone down. She looked up.

She saw her reflection in the TV across from her. The whites of her eyes startled out of the dark screen like pearls. The dim reflection smoothed her wrinkles and acne. Excitement shivered up her arms and swelled into her chest. She stood up and scooped her phone off the coffee table. She didn’t bother adjusting her skirt, even though it had worked its way up her thighs while she sat. The carpet seemed to prick her feet with tiny bolts of energy. She stood still with her eyes closed. She could almost imagine the floor tilting under her feet. She could almost picture the sea collapsing and rebuilding itself, could almost smell it on the air. Another jolt echoed through her body. She felt her muscles relax and a smile washed over her lips.

She opened her eyes to the drab carpet floor: horizontal, stable. Off-white walls and a tiny window shut her out from the overcast skies. She frowned at the smooth wooden surface of the coffee table and the stack of coasters in its center. If rings of condensation had stained its uniform grain or if the edge had been chipped or scratched, maybe she would like it better. She closed her eyes again and tried to imagine the leaning deck of the boat, but this time she couldn’t. 

Tyler looked down at the replay button. Somehow, she knew that if she watched it again, it wouldn’t feel the same way.

She opened a new browser window and stared at the search bar for a few minutes before keying in a new query: boat tours. She scrolled through all the listings on the first page, looking for grainy images or text ridden with spelling errors, something with few or no reviews, something like the Sapphire Maiden.