Dead in the water, p.1
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       Dead in the Water, p.1
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           Nancy Holder
Dead in the Water


  The Abyss line of cutting-edge psychological horror is committed to publishing the best, most innovative works of dark fiction available. Abyss is horror unlike anything you’ve ever read before. It’s not about haunted houses or evil children or ancient Indian burial grounds. We’ve all read those books, and we all know their plots by heart.

  Abyss is for the seeker of truth, no matter how disturbing or twisted it may be. It’s about people, and the darkness we all carry within us. Abyss is the new horror from the dark frontier. And in that place, where we come face-to-face with terror, what we find is ourselves.


  —Stephen King



  best-selling author of Making Love

  and winner of the Bram Stoker Award

  for Best Short Story

  from the Horror Writers of America

  “A nasty tale well told, infused with the eerily surreal quality of fevered nightmares. Discovering Nancy Holder is like finding a vein of true horror gold.”

  —Cheri Scotch, author of The Werewolf’s Touch

  “Man the lifeboats. Don your life jacket. Nancy Holder takes you on a cruise you won’t soon forget. Scary stuff.”

  —Maxine O’Callaghan, author of Dark Time

  “Dead in the Water is saturated with brooding, claustrophobic, hallucinatory menace. Nancy Holder’s vivid voice and sharp characterization make it all real. I’m never going on a boat again!”

  —Poppy Z. Brite, author of Lost Souls and Drawing Blood

  “I couldn’t put it down! A whale of a tale. A page-turner—the first sentence will hook you and what follows will reel you in. Dead in the Water is fast-paced and exciting, mysterious and spooky! Nancy Holder is a writer who’s going places. I can hardly wait to read her next novel!”

  —Chris Curry, author of Panic

  “Nancy Holder enshrouds fascinating characters within a chilling atmosphere and creates a relentless tale of terror at sea. Holder is one of my favorite writers.”

  —Elizabeth Massie, author of Sineater

  “Dead in the Water is an involving and truly frightening book. This is the kind of horror that gets underneath your skin and works its way into your soul. Real terror … for those daring enough to take the trip. I enjoyed it immensely.”

  —Rick Hautala, author of Ghost Light and Dark Silence

  “With Dead in the Water Nancy Holder proves why she’s an award-winning author. Eerie—effective—excellent! A chilling combination of Lifeboat, Ship of Fools, and John Carpenter’s The Fog, Holder keeps you treading water with every page, gasping for breath, sucking you under. A nightmare cruise into black waters and terrifying depths.”

  —Lisa Cantrell, author of The Manse

  “Dead in the Water is a superbly inventive mix of sea-lore old and new. If you’ve ever wondered what sails within the fog, beyond the horizon, or drifts beneath the deceptive calm of the rippling surface, then climb aboard. Nancy Holder has charted these waters with a master’s touch.”

  —Brian Hodge, author, The Darker Saints

  Also by Nancy Holder

  MAKING LOVE (with Melanie Tem)


  Published by

  Dell Publishing

  a division of

  Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

  1540 Broadway

  New York, New York 10036

  Copyright © 1994 by Nancy Holder

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the Publisher, except where permitted by law.

  The trademarks Dell® and Abyss® are registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

  eISBN: 978-0-307-79698-1



  Kathy Ptacek and Charlie Grant,

  who manned the lighthouse;

  Joe Elder,

  who held the compass;

  Leslie Jones, Elise Jones, Joan Mohr,

  and Ashley McConnell,

  who packed the supplies;

  and most of all, for my husband, Wayne,

  who yelled, “Row, damn it, row!”


  I would like to thank those who helped, encouraged, and inspired me during the writing of this book: Joseph Elder, Jeanne Cavelos, Danielle Clemens, Kathy Ptacek, Charlie Grant, Russ Boelhauf, Ashley McConnell, Wayne Holder, Leslie Jones, Elise Jones, Rick Anderson, Matt Pallamary, Doug Clegg, Kathe Koja, Rick Lieder, Cheryl Sayre, Eric and Stinne Lighthart, Debi and Scott Nelson, Steve and Melanie Tem, and Jeff Saar. Thank you, S.K. and P.S.

  And for great writing music: John Carpenter, for The Fog; and Goblin (thank you, Doug Winter and Craig Shaw Gardner); Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, and Oingo Boingo. And a special thanks to Michael “Misha” Newton for the “Strange Brew” tape.



  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page




  Author’s Note


  Prologue: Message Found in a Bottle, II; or, An Invitation from Your Captain

  Part I - Undertow Chapter 1 - Spinning the Bottle

  Chapter 2 - The Rime

  Chapter 3 - The Sea According to Cha-cha

  Chapter 4 - The Fog

  Chapter 5 - Arrival

  Chapter 6 - Birth of a Legend

  Chapter 7 - Bottle, Bottle, Who’s Got the Bottle?

  Chapter 8 - The Logs: Diaries and Messages

  Chapter 9 - Undertow

  Part II - Treading Water Chapter 10 - On Course: Damp Bodies

  Chapter 11 - Boarded

  Chapter 12 - Spin It Good

  Chapter 13 - Feelers

  Chapter 14 - Enough to Shake Up Anybody

  Chapter 15 - Surface Tension

  Chapter 16 - Cracked in Four Places

  Chapter 17 - Red Sails in the Sunset

  Chapter 18 - Rubbing It

  Chapter 19 - Bottling Plant

  Chapter 20 - Feeding Time

  Chapter 21 - Through a Glass, Darkly

  Chapter 22 - Message for Donna

  Part III - Going Down Chapter 23 - Here Comes Trouble

  Chapter 24 - Bottled Up

  Chapter 25 - Bobbing

  Chapter 26 - Shattering

  Chapter 27 - Glass-bottomed Boat

  Chapter 28 - Shattered

  Chapter 29 - Drowning

  Chapter 30 - The Rime of the Captain, DCLXVI

  Chapter 31 - Descent into the Maelstrom

  Epilogue: RSVP

  About the Author


  Three award-winning short stories by Nancy Holder Lady Madonna

  I Hear the Mermaids Singing

  Cafe Endless: Spring Rain


  As of this writing, the Queen Mary, while still docked at Long Beach, remains a tourist attraction but is no longer a hotel.

  It is, reportedly, still haunted.

  He went to hell in his own boat,
  having no need of the ferry of the dead.

  Epitaph by Prefect Juliannus


  Message Found in

  a Bottle, II; or,

  An Invitation

  from Your Captain

  This is how it will be when you drown:

  You’ll start out, of course, in water. The particulars really don’t matter, but for the sake of argument, let’s say you’re swimming. Of course, your boat might sink, or your plane may go down, and then there are ponds and lakes and rivers. And bathtubs. Or hot tubs. Dreadful things can happen in Jacuzzis. Have happened.

  But imagine that it’s a dazzling, warm day at the beach. You’ve arrived not half an hour before with friends, and you decide to take a dip while the others lie in the sun, play cards, and roast the weenies.

  You shuffle through the velvet sand, watching the water roll ever closer to your toes. The rippled flow is frosted with bubbles that remind you of champagne; beneath the crystal-clear curtain, seashells glisten in the sun. You look up and down the deserted coastline at patches of grass and lavender boulders, planted by Nature in a thoughtful breakwater pattern, and you’re grateful no one else bothers with the five-mile trek on the unpaved road that leads to this secret spot.

  A breeze ruffles your hair, tickles the hair on your arms. The water laps at the end of your toes; you jump playfully back, daring it to touch you. While it recedes into the ocean, you write your initials in the wet sand with your big toe, blot them out, jump back as the water rolls back in. It catches you this time, and licks your foot like a puppy; to your delight it is cool and refreshing, not cold at all. And quite clear: you can see your toenails as you wade deeper, up to your ankles, your shins, just below your knees.

  You call to your friends—they’re missing out! But they’re hungry, and busy preparing lunch, and they tell you to go ahead and enjoy yourself. You, after all, are the one who loves the water most.

  Knowing you’re amusing them, you move faster, going deeper and making little noises because now the water’s a tiny bit chillier. You prance up to your thighs and then you rise up on your toes as the swell gooses you. Then one, two, three big steps farther out, you dive into the rolling wave as it curls chest-high.

  Cowabunga! It wakes you up! It’s salty and clean, and washes the sweat and sand off your chest and arms. The sun dances on the droplets that cling to your hair and eyelashes as you pop up, shaking your head and wiping your eyes. You turn and wave, let out a whoop; your friends wave back. At this distance, you can hear the radio, see the smoke rising from the fire ring; and in the otherwise deserted parking lot your car sits, waiting to be refilled with damp bodies and sand, and the leftover firewood.

  You swim a little farther out, waiting for the moment when the bottom dips and you lose contact. Whoops! You duck under for a second, bob back up, tread water while you get your bearings. The water is a deep azure-blue, like a picture in a resort brochure or a travelogue about the South Pacific. You cannot believe the perfection of this moment, as buoyed by the salt, you dip your head back so the water can slick your hair. You squint into the golden, gauzy sun. You wave again to your friends with a rush of shy tenderness, because they seem so happy to see you enjoying yourself.

  Adventurous now, you flop onto your stomach and swim away from shore. You watch the waves; one swells beneath you, carrying you toward the beach as you ride it backward. It was just a small one, so you cut the trip short by standing up. Eagerly, you swim back out. Jump headfirst into the next one and swim through it before it crests.

  The sky is a reflection of the water—or is it the other way around? There’s not a single cloud up there, just the warm, gentle ball, a Goldilocks orb, not too hot, just right.

  And then a wavelet smacks you. Your mouth is open and you swallow some sandy saltwater. Your throat and eyes sting a bit. A piece of seaweed brushes against you, lazes away. You wonder if there are any fish in the water. One of your friends brought a fishing pole, and has high hopes for later.

  You give yourself a thrill by searching for jellyfish. But how could there be any, in this paradise? As if to confirm your opinion, a thirty-second scan of the area yields nothing.

  You swim farther out. You watch the waves, travel over and up, waiting for just the one to ride in, anticipating the rough-and-tumble exit you’ll make as you hit the shore. Your stomach rumbles and you imagine the tastes of potato chips and potato salad and remember you’ll need to reapply your sunscreen after you dry off.

  You turn around to see your friends again.

  And they’re farther away than you thought they’d be.

  A lot farther.

  For a moment you’re puzzled, and then slightly panicked, as you understand you’ve been caught in an undertow. The current has dragged you out to sea. Yes, and why didn’t you notice before that you’re cold? In fact, you’re shivering. You have another uncertain moment, but then you recall that now you must swim parallel to shore. Eventually you’ll make your way out of the current—which is, by the way, growing still colder. It’s practically frigid, and your muscles are cramping. Gooseflesh coats you like a wetsuit.

  Swim parallel. You say it to yourself three or four times as you swim. Hand over hand, steady, legs kicking easily. You move right along; after all, everyone says you’re part fish. You have it aced, you think; you’re in no danger.

  The undertow grabs hold of your ankles and drags you. You feel it this time, feel the process; have a frightening half-formed vision of someone actually wrapping their hands—

  —their bony fingers—

  around your ankles and swimming off with you, depositing you in deeper waters. You forget you must not fight directly against the force. Legs kicking, arms flailing like windmills, you lose the rhythm of your breathing and stop, gasping. Your lungs hurt.

  The waves are surging around you; they’re big enough to surf on. The water has deepened to a dark blue-gray like the skin of a humpback whale. You think you see things moving below the surface. Before you can be sure, a succession of waves crash right over you, and you go under, gagging. You try repeatedly to catch one and bodysurf in. Each time, you fail. They roar and crash, pummeling you. You stop, because all you’re doing is exhausting yourself.

  You go back to treading water. The water is thick and cold. The sun, once so benevolent, beats down on your head and makes you squint hard at the coastline. Perhaps due to the harshness of the shadows it makes, the lavender boulders jut like hard, sharp rocks into the breakers, and you wonder, for the first time since you found the beach, if you could seriously hurt yourself riding the surf back to shore.

  Something knocks into you, moves away. You don’t bother with it now, because you see your friends on shore: tiny dots. Your heart clutches. The something bobs against you again, and you look around. In a different direction, you see five huge Portuguese men-of-war, stinging tentacles streaming behind them. They drift in front of you, another obstacle between you and the beach.

  You wave at your friends. “Hey!” you call, but your voice is raw from the salt and it comes out scratchy and thin. Yet it must have done the trick: they’re looking around, looking for you, so you relax a little. They’re going to come for you and help you back. They’ll razz you, but you won’t mind, because you were pretty stupid to let this happen. You, after all, are an expert swimmer. But it’ll feel so good to be back on land, nothing can bother you. You’ll let them tease you all they want.

  All you need to do is wait. To conserve your strength, you flip over on your back and lay your head in the water, spread-eagle yourself. Your buddies are probably already on their way.

  But how? They don’t have a boat, or a raft, or even a life ring. And none of them can swim as well as you. Well, then, they’ll get in the car and drive for help.

  Except that you drove, and the keys are in your waterproof wallet, safety-pinned to the cutoffs you’re wearing.

  They’ll flag someone down, someone else in a car.
r />   But no one ever comes down that unpaved road. It’s your secret spot. You read about it when you first moved to the area, in a book of local legends. Some ghostly nonsense you’ve forgotten now, evidently scary enough to keep everyone else away.

  The undertow gives you another yank. You gasp, flip upright, and tread water again. You’re pulled past the breakers, into an ice-cube sea that rolls and dips but has no waves. Then even those highs and lows flatten out, and you’re floating on the liquid equivalent of a desert. The beating sun above, the cold depths below; the dark waters, where you can no longer see the lower half of your body. The ocean has swallowed it up and it’s pulling the rest of you down, sucking at your tired back and arms like quicksand.

  You scan the horizon for your friends.

  They’re gone.

  The coastline itself is gone. You see nothing but endless, heartless gray. You turn in all directions, but there is nothing to see but more jellyfish and the painful reflections of the sun. No sailboats miraculously passing by, no other swimmers, no land. A line behind you where both the sea and sky bleach to gray and become the same horizon, where you might simply float away into oblivion.

  You shout again for help. You realize you should have tried to shout louder when you were closer.

  The shore, the world, is still gone.

  You tread faster, comprehend that you’re doing the wrong thing, and rest back into the water so you’ll float again, while you consider your options.

  But what you don’t understand is that you have no options.

  And then something bobs against you again, against your calf, then your hip, then your side, and you think, Oh, my God, it’s a shark. Your heart skips a couplet, you hold your breath, and touch the thing.

  Not a shark. You exhale. Only a dark green flask you mistake at first for a 7-Up bottle. But there are antique brown lines running through it, and dazzling red and blue stones circling the neck like a coronet. No, the brown is actually golden, and the bottle’s corked; and there’s something yellow and gooey half covering the cork.

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