The carbonation of Darren’s beer flowed back into the bottom of his cup, swirling bubbles up and outward making a mushroom cloud. Smoke filled up to the brim then floated down the sides falling to the deck, filling up the floor, sliding down the hull, clinging to the polymer, out and across the water to be boiled off by the heat of the sun. This was Darren; destroyer of witbier. Alex, all smile and black bikini, with a bright gold halo hanging over her head, called him over to get in the water. He set his cup down on the floor of the boat after finishing it and peeled the shirt off his pasty back. Jumping in was wet and cool, and the salt quickly began to tighten his lips. She was swimming in the lilting water with Jeremy. Jeremy was the original mind behind the vacation: a quick boating trip off the coast of Florida at Jeremy’s grandparents’ beach house before their first year of college. The three of them grew up in the town of Kenbridge, Virginia, but would be leaving for different universities come the end of the summer.
Darren forced his eyes off of the white flowers on Alex’s bikini and somewhere over the halo above her curly black hair at the single perfect cloud that hung suspended in the sky above them. It was bright white and completely still. They were out a few miles off the coast boating over a long stretch of five foot deep water. This was their last day of the vacation. The last day to decompress on the ocean before returning home and facing the reality of college: the same adventures with different people. The three of them swam for a while, talking about nothing in particular.
“Have either of you ever gotten arrested?” Darren asked.
Jeremy laughed. “Well shit you know I haven’t,” he said and looked over at Alex.
“So you think I have then, huh?” Alex said lying back in the water. “Tell me, D, is there a vibe I give off that makes you think I have?”
“You’re just such a bad girl,” Darren said and the three laughed.
The three had been friends since preschool or even before. All the ups and downs were well played out and shared between them, and they always had been. But Darren wanted to pry a bit.
“I got caught selling weed,” Alex said.
“You what?” Jeremy said.
“You heard me,” she said. “Sophomore year. When I started hanging out with Trashy Kathy. You guys just weren’t cool enough yet to notice.”
Darren and Jeremy looked at each other in disbelief trying to figure out how the hell that bit of information flew so low under their radar for three years.
“What so we weren’t cool enough for you to tell us?” Darren said, only halfway joking.
She shook her head. “No of course not. I just didn’t want to wrap you up in it. I was kind of embarrassed. And good thing I didn’t. The school officer took me aside one day because my bag reeked something awful, he searched it and then arrested me,” she made quotes with her fingers. “Just community service. Nobody actually gave a shit.”
“And to think all this time we could have had a plug right next door to us,” Jeremy said which they all laughed at.
“Funny enough,” Alex said, “That’s when I got this.” She pointed at the halo above her head.
“You’re telling me you got caught selling weed and then ended up getting a halo out of it?” Darren asked.
She smiled and nodded, so very proud of herself. “Yep. I was doing some of the community service, helping an old Vietnam vet clean his house. And let me tell you this guy was a true blue hoarder. After three afternoons of throwing out his shit, I woke up the next morning and bam.” She put her hands together as if in prayer and batted her eyelashes.
“I always wondered why you stayed so secretive about your halo,” Darren said.
Back in the boat. There was some good roots rock about Alabama on the radio. Alex danced, Jeremy whistled, Darren punched him. She laughed and grabbed Jeremy’s hands, pulling him up off the cooler, moving him into some position of dancing. Darren watched them move about the boat in rhythm, and tried to ignore how close together they were as they danced. They were watching each other’s eyes as they moved. A black curl of hair fell in front of Alex’s face, she pushed it back and twirled. The song ended. Darren fished for a beer and dropped the lid of the cooler shut.
The cloud above them had greyed, changing from perfect printer page white to a light concrete hue. Darren watched as a small chunk of the cloud separated and barely pulled away leaving long cotton-like wisps hanging in the air.
It was quite obvious that the three of them were all children of the mountains as they swam across the surface of the ocean. The blaring sun hit him like an Appalachian mirror. When they got into the water, fish flocked to them like bugs to a zapper. Darren got a burn the shape of Minnesota across the whole of his back and told Jeremy “that’s exactly what I deserve getting Alex to put on my sunscreen.” But of course he never could have refused an offer like that from her. One fish had been rubbing up against Darren’s glowing legs and then waiting for him (a particularly average goliath grouper with a streak of shocking white cutting from head to tail), circling the boat every time he got out of the water. He flailed his legs at it, but the grouper just thought it was a game and refused to give up.
They were out diving for scallops that last day. A pretty strange experience for three Virginians. Good thing Dave had been raised as a Floridian grandson. Wear a snorkel and mask and lay in the water until a row of beady blue eyes peers back up at the surface. Fighting off snorkelfuls of salt water and a leaking mask (and that damn grouper), flailing arms downward in the hopes of getting close enough to grab one. Half the time the damn things see it coming and squeal, spinning around fast as they can, burrowing down into the seafloor. Darren was proud of the four he snagged on his first dive. Alex and Jeremy both got eleven.
So Darren fell back in the water to prove something to whoever, leaving the other two alone to throw back cupfuls of Tecate together, as the clouds pulled in a little darker above them. Apparently it was scallop season. To Darren, that meant he should have been able to reach down and grab two fistfuls of sea floor and come up with a few pearls and a scallop clapping at him in each palm. He gave up and took a piss, maybe the filter feeders found it nutritional. He swam the warm water out of his trunks, the grouper seemed to like that, doing a little roll as he swam through the warm spot. Looking down through a cloud of sand and piss, the biggest scallop sat clapping slowly at the show. Bigger than his head; like a dinner plate. Four times bigger than anyone else’s. Darren dove down, scooped it up, and swam back to the boat, struggling to carry it. He patted the grouper on the white streak down his side then climbed back on the boat attempting nonchalance. “Holy shit, Darren,” Jeremy said and Darren ate up the recognition. “We’re eating good tonight,” he grinned.
The day went on with beer and music. More scallops and Darren and Jeremy caught a fish. They decided it would be more fun to drunkshell the scallops on the boat before they headed back than to drunkshell them in the kitchen. It was a wonderful mess. A palms worth of guts and a thumb of meat. Crack the shell at the base to bust the tendons and scrape the meat off with a spoon. They caught an entire cooler before they decided to stop. Jeremy popped every fourth one into his mouth raw as he shelled them and grinned at how grossed out Alex was. Every, single, time. “That’s really cute of you two, you know,” Darren said in a flat voice, taking a sip of his beer. They both unsurprisingly gave him a confused look.
They found a few things as they shelled, one of Alex’s had clamped down on a gold ring, and Jeremy found a matchbox corvette and a five cent Peso. They dumped the gutted shells over the side of the boat and a flurry of bubbles rose to the surface to carry them down on seafoam, hit the bottom, a cloud of sand formed and the boat drifted lazily away. Darren saved his mondo scallop for last and they watched while he opened it. He couldn’t crack it with his knife, it was clamped down for dear life now. After he and Jeremy tried to pry it open together, Alex had the idea to shove the spare anchor up its ass, which was small, shorter than a forearm, but they stood it up on the deck and shoved the side of the scallop down on one point, push, push, shove, hit, and it cracked and closed up clattering to the deck. They all whooped. Darren tried once then twice to get a grip on it, lifting it up to sit on a cooler and something bright and metal tumbled out onto the floor.
“Is that a watch?” Jeremy asked. It was bright gold with a black face. Darren sat the scallop down and picked it up. “Yeah it is. A Rolex,” Darren said. There was seaweed wrapped around the band. He picked some off and noticed that it was ticking. “And it still works.”
“I think that’s mine,” Jeremy said.
Darren laughed at him, “Like hell it is.”
“Look on the back. Does it say ‘For J.B’?” Sure enough it did. Darren handed it to him and he eyed it like a silver spoon of caviar. “My grandfather gave it to my dad, Jeremey Braun, and he gave it to me. Remember in ninth grade when we went on that beach trip to Newport News? I lost it while I was in the water. God my dad was so pissed at me.” Jeremy was smiling, holding the watch with both hands. He sat down on the side of the boat.
“That’s crazy. It really says J.B.?” Alex asked.
Jeremy raised his eyebrows. “Yeah. It does.” He slid the watch onto his wrist and wound it to the correct time, hands turning in circles across the ten thousand tick marks etched into its face. One tick as Jeremy put his feet up in the boat and read a book on Marx. One tick as Darren got back in the water. It had cooled quite a bit. The grouper was happy to see Darren climbing in the water. He rolled over to float on his back and his grey underside rose up a bit out of the surface. He gave the fish a solid pat on the belly. “I like your friend.” Alex said, one tick climbing down the ladder into the water, her halo bobbing in time with the ocean. “Those things will eat your hand if you’re not careful though.” Darren smiled. “Nah he’s nice. Aren’t you, boy?” The fish wiggled his head side to side in the water. One tick each time he circled around Darren. The fish bumped into his butt pushing him away from the boat. Alex swam towards them. The grouper stopped, quick. It backed up, slow at first, then turned around and disappeared faster as Alex got nearer. “Aww you spooked him.” Darren looked out away from the boat trying to spot him in the water. “He’ll warm up to me,” she said.
Darren noticed Alex had a school of little jet black sea bass swimming around her legs. Their fins were ragged. Darren shrugged and lay back in the water, closed his eyes, and drifted in the rocking of the ocean. Alex bumped into him. She was doing the same, eyes closed, head back, floating in the water, hair splayed out around her and mingling with her halo. A few of the tired black fish were dancing on her stomach, right above her bikini bottoms. Her legs were bent at the knee, dangling just below the surface. Something bit Darren on the ass cheek. He jumped in the water and yelped. Alex laughed and pulled her arm out from under him making a pinching motion with her fingers.
“Dammit I was in the zone, Alex,” Darren said.
She laughed. “Yes I know. I had to do something about it.”
One tick and they floated about in the water.
“Will you tell me something, Alex?” Darren asked.
She could hear the concern in his voice. “Yeah of course, D. What’s up?”
Darren felt he should just keep his mouth shut and stop there. “Do you and Jeremy have a thing?” He could feel Alex’s uncomfortableness transfer through the water into his body.
“What do you mean a thing?”
“Like a flirty thing. I see it all the time,” he said. One tick as the clouds above them transitioned into a wet ink blot grey and the cluster stretched outwards.
“You’re joking, right?” She was pissed.
“No I’m not joking,” Darren said. He couldn’t stop himself from diving deeper.
“Do you think that we’d keep something like that from you?” she said. They were both floating upright in the water now, facing each other.
“I don’t think you’re keeping it from me-,”
“There is no it, Darren,” she said it outright.
“I just don’t know if the three of us will be the same after college, you know?” Darren said.
She shook her head. “Well Jesus Darren. Not if you’re not going to trust us,” she let her words fizzle out.
One tick Alex did a summersault in the water, her halo shining in the dimming rays of sunshine, and breaststroked back towards the boat. “Come on, the water’s freezing,” she called back at him.
The grouper did come back as they got out of the water, idly waiting from a distance watching, then coming closer as they climbed out. Darren patted him on the side and told him he’ll see him someday and the fish gave his butt a nudge as he went up the ladder.
“What were you kids up to?” Jeremy asked mockingly.
“Chatting about college,” she said.
The started to make back for land, the clouds were getting too thick for comfort. Jeremy drove the boat, Alex next to him, Darren well behind them in the rear. Alex said something quiet to Jeremy that Darren couldn’t hear and Jeremy smiled a radiating warmth then kissed her on the head.
“That’s bullshit!” Darren was up and walking towards them.
Jeremy backed up as if Darren was about to start swinging at him. “Whoa what the hell man, chill out!”
“Jesus Christ Darren,” Alex said, “Will you just cut this shit out?”
“No. I know you guys have been screwing around. I’m not gonna sit by and watch you ruin our friendship like this.” Darren was in Jeremy’s face, pointing at him.
“Alex just told me she’s going to missing going on adventures like this with us all the time,” Jeremy yelled back at him, pushing Darren away.
The black clouds had completely choked off the sun now and it was getting dark fast. A crack of lightning came from not too far off.
“Darren, you have to believe us,” Alex pleaded. It was almost pitch black, but Darren could just barely make out the sparkle of her halo.
Darren felt it first, a slight lift in the bow of the boat as they rocked gently towards the back. Then the boat bucked backwards from a dark violent wave. Darren caught a last glimpse of Alex and Jeremy clutching onto the same railing before he stumbled over the edge of the boat and into the blackness of the sea.
Darren thrashed around in the choppy water trying to keep his head above the surface, gasping for breath, but he breathed in mouthfuls of saltwater. He tried to find the boat, find anything to swim towards, but there was only darkness. He went back under, unable to find his way upwards.
Deep beneath the surface, it was calmer, not much darker, quieter. There was no grouper, no twinkling scallops, no ticking, just a timeless silence and cold that would never change as long as Darren let himself continue to drift downwards into that deep black absence of sky.
A pair of arms circled around Darren’s waist and pulled his head above the surface. Jeremy kicked against the waves as hard as he could, dragging Darren behind him. Alex helped them both onto the boat, hoisting Darren, coughing and sputtering, up by his arms.
They made it back to the beach house.
Jeremy came out of his room the next morning as Alex and Darren were packing up silently.
“Huh, look at that,” Alex said. “You got a halo.”
The brightest golden circle floated above Jeremy’s head.
The ride back was silent for the most part. Some chit chat about college. Darren apologized for acting like such a dick. They forgave him as he knew they would, as they always would. But when they got back to Kenbridge, they dropped Darren off at his home first. They said a sweet goodbye, made plans to see him before they all left in a week or so. Then Jeremy and Alex drove off, driver and passenger, with a pair of halos shining at Darren in the rearview mirror.
MATTHEW KERBER is a writer living in North Carolina somewhere near the barycenter of Asheville and Chapel Hill. He is a recent graduate of UNC with a degree in computer science and media production and highest honors in creative writing. When not writing stories, he dabbles in music and film and serves as the literary editor of Event Horizon Magazine. His fiction has appeared in Cellar Door and he is the recipient of the Bland Simpson Prize in Creative Writing.