Splash

The ocean was restless, tossing the USS Petra every which way. Simon hadn’t found his sea legs yet and doubted he would any time soon. The officers on board glided across the deck with ease, and even the prisoners they escorted—chains snaked around their limbs—managed to get by.

The waves had their way with Simon, though. He stumbled all the way to his meeting with Captain Peterson, who grinned at him under his salt-and-pepper whiskers.

“Mr. Lee. You’ll walk comfortably among us one day, I’m sure.” The captain’s hand slammed into his shoulder, and he nearly lost his balance. “You can barely walk, but you’re still here on time. I think like you already.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Simon said. They were paying him more money than he’d ever seen before, but he had no idea why. He’d stumbled around the boat for three days and hadn’t been asked for so much as a tissue.

Captain Peterson held out his hand, and a man in a police uniform handed him a manila folder. The guard carried a stack of folders in his hands, and Simon noticed the gun and baton nestled in his belt.

“Do you know why else I like you, Mr. Lee?” the captain asked, thumbing through the papers in the folder. Simon shook his head. “This is what your previous employer had to say about you: ‘When I tell Mr. Lee to jump, he doesn’t ask how high. He doesn’t ask where or why or when, either—he just jumps.’” He fished a cigar out of his pocket with his free hand and stuck it in his mouth. It wobbled while he talked. “Yes, Mr. Lee, the United States government will not regret hiring you—I’m sure of it.”

Simon stood with his back straight and his head down, hands behind his back. The breeze blew in a fresh scent of salty ocean air, a smell he didn’t have in his memory, growing up in Missouri. His nose rejected it, and the food in his stomach rose a little, trying to escape.

“Walk with me,” the captain said. He marched off, and Simon stumbled behind him with the silent guard bringing up the rear. “Give me a light, Lou.” The guard lit his cigar, and Simon heard the captain mumble things like “good” and “hmm,” while flipping through the papers in the folder.

“Says here you passed your drug test. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t, of course.” Captain Peterson turned and looked him in the eyes, exhaling sweet-smelling smoke. His bouncing between light-hearted smiles and strong stares put Simon off balance more than the incessant waves. “Tell me, Mr. Lee, have you ever done illegal drugs? Obviously, your blood’s clean now, but did you ever…I don’t know…puff a doobie with your frat brothers back in college?”

Simon paused. “I—“

“You can say ‘yes’. You’re already on the boat—you’ve got the job. I’m not gonna throw you overboard.” He had this odd ability to laugh without opening his mouth, and he used it here.

“Well, I, uh, I did in high school one time, captain.”

“Tsk tsk tsk, The smart answer was ‘no’.”

Simon’s eyes grew wide. “I’m sorry, it was only one time! Just once, I swear!”

The captain closed the folder and stopped walking. “Ask me if I’ve ever done anything illegal.”

“Have you ever done anything illegal, sir?”

The captain had a gaze like ice, and it froze Simon in place. “Nope—never. I never smoked pot in college. I never phoned an escort service, either. They never sent me this gorgeous Romanian brunette, and my roommate absolutely did not walk in on me drilling her like a Texan oil well. It never happened.” Captain Peterson had a long drag on his cigar and blew a bundle of smoke toward the ocean. Then he tossed the cigar overboard. “Ask me if I’ve ever dumped trash into the ocean.”

“Have you ever dumped trash into the ocean, sir?”

“Not even once. Never littered in my entire life. Good American citizens don’t litter, and that’s what I am—a good American citizen. Now, again, Mr. Lee, have you ever done anything illegal in your life?”

Simon rubbed his nose with his finger. “No, sir.”

“Good. Down this way, now. It’s about time you learned what we do here.” Simon’s insides shook with excitement and anxiety. Captain Peterson led him down some plain metal stairs, through plain, heavy doors that opened to reveal a small, plain room. Everything about the ship was emotionless—built from cold steel.

The room did have some amenities—a circular trapdoor in the floor, wide enough to fit a large man, and a steel lever sticking out of the wall. There was also a second door as heavy and plain and cold as the first.

“Welcome to Purgatory, Mr. Lee.” Captain Peterson pointed to the trapdoor. “These are the Gates of Hell.” He jerked his thumb back toward the lever. “And that’s Saint Peter.”

“I don’t think I understand.”

“You will in a minute.” The captain turned to the guard, who had floated in behind them like a ghost. “Start the train, Lou.”

Lou nodded and left through the second door. Simon heard the sound of metal swinging and banging and clinking around, until two guards entered, leading a man in an orange jump suit. Chains snaked around his body, connecting all of his limbs to each other. Lou stood behind them, carrying a large, heavy-looking bag that hooked up to the prisoner’s maze of metal links.

“You know what’s in that bag, Mr. Lee?” asked the captain.

Simon shook his head, but his heart knew—it started pumping blood at uncomfortable speeds.

“A rock. A nice heavy rock.” Lou placed the rock directly over the trapdoor. The prisoner’s eyes opened wide with a fearful comprehension that spread to his arms and legs. He flailed and thrashed, but the guards’ hands shot to their belts, and they each cracked him over the head with their batons. Blood trickled down his cheeks, and he lay still.

“No, man, please,” moaned the prisoner, barely conscious. “I’ll do anything, man.” He started sobbing and coughing up blood.

Captain Peterson tossed Simon’s file on the floor, and flipped through a few folders before sticking to one and saying, “Trevor Young. Let’s see.” He scanned the document inside. “Strike one: armed robbery. Brooklyn, New York.”

“Please, man, that was a long time—“

“Strike two: assault with a deadly weapon. Also, in Brooklyn.”

“I won’t do it again, man. That’s not me anymore, I swear.” Trevor struggled some more, but a baton to his face stopped him.

“And Strike three: possession of illegal narcotics in Albany. Trevor Young, you are outta here!” Without so much as an extra breath, Captain Peterson slammed his palm down on Saint Peter.

Crank went the lever.

“Shit man, don’t—“

Thunk went the trapdoor.

“—do—“

Splash went the body.

The trapdoor closed again. Simon’s limbs turned to stone. They stayed like that until a wave nudged the boat, and he had to hug the wall to keep from falling.

“And that, Mr. Lee,” said Captain Peterson, “is what we do here.” He handed the other folders to Simon. “I’m gonna need you to fetch the right ones. Their pictures and ID should be inside.” He turned to the guards. “All right-y, Lou, send out the next one.” Lou left with the other two officers. Captain Peterson fetched a pad of ink and a stamp from his pocket and pounded the word “deceased” over Trevor Young’s picture.

“You look like you’re gonna vomit, Mr. Lee. Should I open the Gates for you?”

“No!” said Simon. “No. I’m okay.” He took a deep breath, and his legs moved him farther away from the hole without his brain even noticing. He imagined the trapdoor swallowing him up until the ceiling grew smaller and smaller, and he landed with a splash right next to Trevor Young, who dragged him down to the ocean floor. He could see Captain Peterson stamping “diseased” over his own file, and his mother crying when the captain broke the news. Would he even break the news?

“Won’t Trevor Young’s family wonder what happened to him?” asked Simon. “What if they find out?”

“What if they find out what?” the captain said. “I don’t dump trash into the ocean, remember? So what would they find out? That their asshole son or brother or husband was shanked? Or hung himself? Or caught ebola? I don’t know, Mr. Lee. Well, I imagine they’d be sad. Or not. They might not even care. If you ask me, they’re as good as dead the minute they strike out.”

Simon said nothing and stared at the trapdoor. The captain eyed him and said, “I know people like you, Mr. Lee. And you wouldn’t be on this boat if you weren’t one of those people.” The captain ran his hands over the handle on the lever. “There’s a question floating around in that brain of yours. You’re too smart to ask it, but it’s there. You wanna know why. Why are we here in this room right now?

“I love my job—that’s why I’m here. I like to think of myself as our nation’s janitor. People waking up to a clean country puts a smile on my face.” The captain laughed that closed-mouth laugh again. “But I’m guessing what you really wanna know is why the government’s paying us to be here.” Simon nodded. “Well, that’s classified.” Again, the laugh. “But, like I said, you’re a smart man—I’m sure you could figure it out. Prisoners eat and drink and shit away dough that belongs in Uncle Sam’s wallet. Killing ’em properly costs even more and isn’t always allowed. And they just keep coming, one after the other—a train of money-sucking scumbags. Prisons are fat with the bastards. Why buy new pants, when you can lose the weight?”

Lou returned with two other guards, carrying a rock attached to a female prisoner this time. Her skin clung tightly to her bones, and her curly hair stuck out in every direction.

“W-what’s going on?” she asked with a voice familiar to Simon. “W-what are you gonna do to me?”

Captain Peterson stuck his hand out toward Simon, who found a picture matching the woman on one of the folders. He handed the folder over, and the captain flipped through it. Lou placed the rock on the trapdoor, while the other two guards restrained her.

“Michelle Perez. Welcome to Purgatory.”

She started trembling. “I don’t—“ Her eyes locked on Simon’s. “Simon Lee? Is that you?” Simon looked down at the trapdoor and said nothing. “It’s me, Michelle! Don’t you remember me?” He did. She stole his homework once to copy from it, and when he found out, she wrapped her arms around him and put her bubble gum lips on his to shut him up. And he let her. Another student walked in, and she shoved him away, screaming, “Shithead!” and ran out.

“Strike one,” said the captain. His voice bounced loudly off the steel walls and through Simon’s brain. “A prostitution charge in Phoenix, Arizona. Naughty girl.”

“They were kicking me outta my place! You gotta believe me! Simon! Tell him! I’m not so bad! Tell him!”

Nobody moved. Simon kept looking down and the guards kept holding her and the captain kept talking. “Looks like another prostitution charge in Los Angeles. You get around, lady.”

“Please! Let me go! I’ll do anything!” she struggled against the guards, but they barely felt anything.

“Strike three—“

“I’ll let you fuck my brains out! All of you! Just let me go!”

“—possession of illegal narcotics.”

“I’ll get clean! I swear! Simon, look at me! Look at me goddammit! Look at me you shithead!”

“And she’s outta here!” Captain Peterson made a gun with his fingers in his free hand and pretended to fire right as—

Crank went the lever.

At the last second, Simon lifted his eyes and connected to hers.

Thunk went the trapdoor.

He saw the terror in them until—

Splash went the body.

He needed some air, but he didn’t say anything. He needed to think, but he didn’t say anything. He needed to say something, but he still didn’t say anything.

“Let’s keep the train rolling!” shouted Captain Peterson. Lou and the other two guards went back through the door.

Simon’s forehead was a waterfall of sweat. “Oh,” he said, rubbing his stomach.

Crank went the lever.

Simon crawled over to the Gates.

Thunk went the trapdoor.

“Don’t fall in,” the captain said.

Splash went the vomit.

“I had high hopes for you, Mr. Lee. You gonna quit on me?”

“No, no. I’ll be okay. It’s just a lot to take in.”

“I get your reservations. The trick is not to see them as people. They stopped being people when they stepped on the toes of good American citizens like us. They’re just rocks now—rocks we’re sinking to the bottom of the ocean.” Captain Peterson looked at the trapdoor. “And like rocks they don’t change. They sit around for ages, tripping and smashing and crushing people to death.”

Simon thought of erosion and coals turning into diamonds, but, yet again, said nothing.

The captain looked toward the door to the prison. “Take it from me, Lee. We’re better off without ’em.”


Crank. Thunk. Splash.

The three sounds echoed through the room and through his ears and in and out of his brain.

Crank. Thunk. Splash.

The rhythm of it almost grew pleasant after a while.

Crank. Thunk. Splash.

“Mr. Lee,” said the captain. “You do the next one. You’ll see, there’s nothing to it.”

Simon had an urge to bolt, but he stayed and nodded.

“Remember, we’re just dumping rocks here. We’re good American citizens.”

Lou returned not with a rock, but with a boulder of man, each muscle an entire rock on its own. His eyes wrestled Simon’s and Simon lost, looking away. They moved on to Captain Peterson’s, but the captain’s stared right back, sneering.

“Michael Duncan.”

Simon realized he hadn’t given him the file yet.

“That’s me,” Simon lost his balance again and held the wall, not sure if the boat rocked because of the wave or because of the prisoner’s voice.

“First degree murder and sexual assault in Detroit,” said the captain, his voice more tremulous than normal.

Michael’s eyes connected to first the lever then the captain then the trapdoor then the rock behind him, and he put the puzzle pieces into place.

“I know who you are—I remember you from the courtroom,” he said. “You’re the girl’s father.” The captain walked up to him, drew his own baton, and cracked the prisoner in the cheek. He grunted and said, “Ah, the U.S. government’s justice. A lot more cost-efficient than real justice. Or is this personal?”

“Don’t act like you don’t deserve this, you murdering piece of shit.”

“No less than you. I’m guessing I’m not the first one to stand on this mouse trap today. Whose gonna pull the lever on you?” Michael offered the captain a cuffed hand as well as he could. “Come on, let’s go for a swim.”

Captain Peterson stepped in close and said, “The bottom of the ocean’s for killers and rapists like—“

Michael’s bald head snapped forward, and Captain Peterson toppled over, nose painted red.

The room exploded with sound, as Lou put a bullet in the back of Michael’s shoulder. He roared like a bear and dropped to his knees, trying to hold the blood in with his hand. Simon covered his ears and shrank near Saint Peter.

The captain stood up. His foot found Michael’s nose, spraying its blood all over the trapdoor. “Now we’re even.” Without taking his eyes off of the form at his feet, he said, “But even isn’t good enough. Lee, send this piece of shit to hell. I wanna watch him sink all the way down.”

Simon placed his hands on the cold steel lever, and hesitated. “Goddammit, Lee, pull the fucking thing.”

A wave pushed the boat again, but Simon kept his balance for the first time. In place of the bleeding, moaning man, he pictured a giant boulder and slammed his hand down.

Crank went the lever.

Michael’s eyes grew wide just like the rest of the prisoners that day. Captain Peterson aimed one more kick at his face.

Thunk went the trapdoor.

The kick never made it. On the way down, Michael’s good arm struck like a cobra and latched onto the captain’s leg, mirroring the rock attached to his own. The captain’s eyes grew wide, too, right before—

Splash went the bodies.

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8 thoughts on “Splash

  1. Oh. My. God.

    I can’t begin to explain how incredible this is. Wow. Seriously one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. Very Hemingway-esque. Seriously amazing.

    So much to take from this.

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