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Maelstrom

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There’s a certain sense of strange endemic to the sea and all she holds within her winedark depths. A mystery. A foreboding. For as nurturing as her waters could be, they could take just as easily, destroy and consume as hungrily as any man might. Hungrier, in fact, since the ocean was bottomless.

Bottomless... but not empty.

Hank stood in his boat and stared out at the churning waves before him. The clouds were dark, swollen to bursting with more water on high. A sharp, persistent wind picked at his clothes, tugging like little fingers, rude and desperate to reach skin. Hank drew his thick overcoat around himself a little tighter just to spite it. To spite the wind so keen on turning into a storm.

“Fucking shit,” he swore under his breath. The words didn’t last long before they too were stolen away and lost to the waking sea. Maybe he should have listened to the talk down in the tavern. Don’t go out tonight, they’d said, speaking loud so even he could hear their words from across the way. Trying to look out for him even though he didn’t need it. Didn’t want it. It’s going to be a bad one. Only a deadman would tempt the waves tonight.

Well, Hank wasn’t a deadman. He also wasn’t too picky about staying as such. He leaned forward into the wind and wobbled his way towards the stern, casting a gnarled old hand over the taut line that held his net to the boat. The waves were growing choppier, the footing more treacherous. A blinding crack of lightning sundered the heavens, a deafening crack of thunder following a second later. Hank swore loudly as the first flecks of rain began to fall, stinging-cold against his bare hands. He scrambled for the net line and began to drag it towards him, determined to bring in at least one haul before hightailing it back to shore.

More thunder. Heavier rain. It soaked Hank’s hair and muddied his vision, his eyes blinking rapidly to see through the downpour. The net was heavy, waterlogged. It slipped and slid in his hands despite his iron grip, and Hank braced a foot on the side of the boat, pulling it upwards as fast as he possibly could. Despite his confidence, his bullheaded mettle, he was beginning to worry. The boat was pitching forward and back, forward and back, on waves that teased the lip of the boat more and more with every second that passed.

Should he just cut the net and call it a loss? No. No, he couldn’t afford to buy a new one if he did. Fuck. He pulled faster.

The next rolling peal of thunder brought with it more rain. The wind positively howled. Hank pulled and pulled, blind to everything but the blurry shape of his pale white hands against the dark, muddy brown of the netting. It was almost up. He’d fished with this net for a decade at this point, and he knew well enough how many pulls it took to raise it. Nearly there, nearly there, he repeated in his head like a mantra, a prayer. Nearly there, almost got it, three more good pulls and--

And the boat lurched as the sea gave out a shuddering, sea-splitting crest. Hank’s braced foot skidded on the wet boards, and before he had time to scream, to even blink, he bowled over the edge and fell headfirst into the pitch black waves.

The brine and salt of the water smacked Hank squarely between the eyes. He opened his mouth and the water rushed in, a lungful of bubbles issuing from his nose and lips in an ill-advised cough. The net was tangled around his hands. He could feel it through the icy cold, like locked fingers holding tight to his wrists for fear of letting go. A childlike fear, Hank thought in a voice calmer than he had any right to be. Like a kid terrified to lose his dad.

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. If he was already thinking like that, he might as well stop fighting and let the waters take him. Hank forced open his eyes and kicked, his legs so heavy from his boots, his thick rubbers, the cold. Again. Kick again. There was something swirling around him, dark against the flashes of light penetrating the churning waters. Lightning strikes. Was it a fish? Something that had fallen off the boat? Hank couldn’t think about it. His lungs were bursting, his head right behind it. He had to shake off these fingers, these hands wrapped around his wrists.

But God, it was so hard to do anything. Not when it felt this bad to try.

Another bubble of air issued from his lips. Hank’s eyes started to shut. Useless. Useless, useless, useless.

Maybe it was better if he died like this. Faster than the booze, kinder than with the pistol he stared at every single night. At least like this he’d get a fisherman’s grave, his name added to the little monument out on the cliff side. Hank felt something smooth and soft brush against his leg. It bumped his knee, his thigh, then his cheek. He cracked open an eye but his vision was already fading. The lightning above let out another burst of light. Hank caught sight of something sleek and smooth. A glimpse of a flipper.

A seal.

If he had the energy or breath to laugh, he might’ve. But he didn’t. He had neither. He had nothing anymore. Hadn’t for awhile now.

The pain in his head eased. The world turned black.

----

Pain. Firm, wet wood. A storm raged but a soft voice still penetrated the din.

“Hello? Please wake up,” it said. “I lost my coat to save you, so don’t you dare die on me!”