Peter had never seen the ocean, but its crystal image haunted his dreams. At night, after his family had gone to sleep, he lay in his bed, in that space between asleep and awake and felt the water engulf his body. He could feel it curl over his skin as he sank deeper into the depths. Sometimes he would reach toward the sun as it slipped away, spreading over the surface above him, but the whispers of the depths swirled around him, coaxing him toward oblivion as he sank deeper to the soft sand, which parted gently to accept him in its warm embrace. In this watery grave with the arms of the ocean enveloping his body, he felt content, the warmth comforting his head as he faded into unconsciousness.
When he woke in the middle of the night, his bed was soaked. He’d peel off the sheets, drag them to the bathroom to wash out the gritty sand and strange substance staining the clear blue so his mother wouldn’t find them in the morning and ask questions for which he didn’t have the answers. Even if he could explain, he doubted anyone piled around the breakfast table would care about his aquatic dreams. Peter would search for his voice in his morning cereal, but even if he could lift it from the table, it would be drown out by the hum of self-concern that eddied around his family – his father’s droning about the economy; his mother’s complaints about the constantly emptying cupboards; his teenage sister’s pre-occupation with the glowing enticement of her phone.
So Peter kept the dreams hidden in the depths of himself. He would sneak across the playground pretending he was crossing the bottom of the ocean as the images flashed through his head. To all the other children twirling outside the school, he was invisible. Even the bullies wouldn’t waste their fists on him because he only covered his head and closed his eyes, taking their beatings with silence. He was small for twelve, but Peter wasn’t bothered by it much. His puny size made his father scowl, which hurt his feelings, but never consumed his thoughts like the watery dream.
During school, he would dive into the murky black of the chalkboard, nearing sleep, watching the waves call him to the depths. His solitude and silence went mostly unnoticed by his teacher, and with thirty other kids and his straight A’s, he was little more than a passing presence, so his voice remained unused and stuck in his throat.
Only at lunch, when he was able to spend time with his friend, Myra, would he finally release it. She was beautiful and blonde and very popular in his class. As he chewed his peanut butter sandwich slowly, she would hang from the tree over him talking about anything. Maybe she liked him because he listened more than spoke or that he never tried to pull her hair or snap her bra or pinch her butt. Whatever it was, it was the best part of his day, every day.
One day, he tried to tell her about his dream as she was hanging upside down from a branch. Peter spoke, but his eyes were tumbling up her shirt, staring at her warm, goosepimply flesh, and getting that funny feeling within, as if the waves were breaking around him. He tried to distract himself from the waves of emotion he felt as he stared at her skin, and his eyes were caught by a glint of sun dangling beneath her upside down head. Peter saw the sunlight in the locket like the rays above the surface of his dreams.
“That’s a weird dream. And you have it almost every night?” she asked looking at him upside down, the blood rushing to her head, flushing her cheeks a warm rose.
“Yeah, and I don’t really care that I’m falling deeper and deeper. I think I like it,” he said staring at the ground, awkwardly chewing his sandwich.
Then Myra flipped off the branch, landing like a professional gymnast.
“That’s really weird, Peter.”
He knew it was. At least it felt weird.
Peter tried to finish the sandwich, dropping his eyes, even though he couldn’t help notice how Myra looked beatific and graceful in the backlight illumination of the sun.
“What’s the necklace?” he asked.
“Oh, my dad gave it to me. Isn’t it pretty?”
She certainly was, Peter thought, as she held out the locket for examination.
After a while, he tried to stop thinking about it so much. Sometimes, he would try to not have the dream. He would think of anything – the desert – or try to concentrate on the news resonating from the living room, where his father groaned and grumbled about the state of the crumbling world. Other times he found Myra entering his head, her eyes and smile, her goosepimply flesh or the way her blonde hair barely touched her shoulder. The feelings would rise from the pit of his stomach, and he would slip into an uncomfortable sleep where the water would claim him.
A few weeks later, he found Myra crying under their tree. He instantly took a seat next to her as she explained her locket had vanished.
“I had it on when I went to sleep, but when I woke up, it was gone.”
Peter tried to console her, even though he knew he couldn’t. He could barely find words to help himself, let alone bring comfort to someone else. He sat helpless, unable to move, watching her tears fall.
That night, he tumbled into a restless sleep. The waves of the water trickled over his bare skin as he made his usual descent into the undertow. As he sank into his sublime watery grave, he reached up for the sun, but it was replaced by Myra’s face between him and the surface, distorted by the waves, calling for him. Myra was a mermaid splashing in the water as thousands of rainbow-colored fish swirled about her. The locket was around her neck, floating outward and shining like a sliver of sun in the clear blue water. She told him to swim.
“Swim to me, Peter. Swim,” and he swam but he didn’t know how to move his body, arms yearning for the surface. He only fell faster into the abyss.
As he fought against the waves of his watery grave below, a red shark with dark black eyes rose from the murky edges of his vision and swam between them, circling Myra maliciously. Peter struggled against the weight of the water as the shark made another pass, baring its teeth. It suddenly snapped at Myra, tearing the locket from her neck. She called out in panic, her flipper whipping frantically, unable to swim away. Peter summoned all his strength against the urge to accept the warm nuzzling embrace of the bottom of the ocean. In his hand, a long, pearl-handled boning knife appeared, and a primal aggression burned in his watery eyes. Peter saw the horror on Myra’s face, her blonde hair billowing in the water as the crimson shark turned – the golden chain dangling from his razor-sharp, sinister mouth – and torpedoed directly toward her.
Peter disregarded his small size in the vast ocean, swimming straight at the bloodthirsty shark. With one hand, he grabbed the shark’s fin, the treacherous edge cutting his palm, polluting the water with burgundy blood. As the shark turned to attack Myra, Peter plunged the knife into the black eye of the watery beast. It thrashed in the water, but Peter held fast, plunging the knife in and out of the shark’s head over and over. The water ran foul with its blood as it spun around on Peter, its cavernous jaws open, the razors of his certain demise staring him in the face. Peter let go of the knife and reached out, snagging the locket just as the jaws snapped shut around him, the teeth slicing into his flesh. The last thing he heard was Myra screaming his name as all went black.
He broke the surface of his dream with a jolt. The bed was soaked as usual as he tried to catch his breath in the near darkness of his room. Something felt sharp and warm near his shoulder blade. He reached behind him, his fingers confused by the razor edge protruding from bone, and pulled a shark tooth from his skin, a small trickle of blood running in a thin rivulet down his back. As he examined the tooth in the obscurity of the darkness, he noticed a long linear cut across his palm. In the other hand, he held the dripping wet locket, slightly shimmering even in the absence of light. Perplexed, Peter plummeted back to the pillow believing it was all still a dream, even though he could taste the shark’s blood on his lips. He didn’t even bother to clean up.
When he saw her at school the next day, he felt like she knew what had transpired during his nocturnal wanderings. They exchanged clandestine glances across the classroom, and Peter reveled in the sea of the secret they shared. However, at lunch, she was quiet, twisting her hair in her finger.
Peter hid the locket in his pocket, running through the dream quickly, the words tripping over themselves on his tongue to get the story out into the open. The boy was trying not to be overexcited, although he couldn’t think of a time when he had used his voice more.
“I killed the shark, Myra, before it could eat you. And you were such a beautiful mermaid, but I got your locket just as it tore me apart, and I escaped to the surface. I woke up just in time,” he said looking up at her, the sun shining through the budding leaves on her hay-colored hair.
She didn’t hear him though. She was occupied with her newly discovered ability to see Brad, a tall, athletic boy, touching and aggravating a group of girls, who protested, but wanted him to continue for some reason. Peter just stared into his lap at the half-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the locket a lump in his pocket.
He pulled it out and held the heart in his cut hand, the bittersweet memory of his strange dream transforming from ecstasy to despair in an instant. He tossed it at base of their tree, which he knew would soon be only his tree. He felt himself longing to sink to the sands at the bottom of the ocean, the wicked whispers of the waves seducing him to a watery grave for eternity.
“I think that’s your locket,” he said to his sandwich.
“Huh,” she responded, her gaze dropping to his, then noticing the shining necklace. “My necklace! How’d it end up here?”
Myra considered it in her hand. Her confusion was momentary, broken by Brad who called her over to stand in line with him as the lunch bell rang. Peter watched them disappear together into the darkness of the school doorway. Gray clouds streaked the sky like foam on the waves of a darkening, tumultuous sea. Looking away, Peter stared at the shark tooth in his cut palm, tears welling in his eyes.
It was the last time Peter ever spoke of his dreams.
Adam Huening has spent most of his life daydreaming and screwing up nearly everything he touches. Read his stuff in 1947, Soliloquies Anthology and Burningword, among others.