Critical Thought: THREE WAVES

“Three Waves” follows a theme I often write about: young men doing stupid things in the outdoors. The setting is an important character in the story, because the natural world teaches you a lot about the human world. There’s a brutality in nature that I think human society tries to counter, with only partial success. The characters in the story represent that, a mix of ruthless competition and human compassion. White sharks make an occasional cameo in my fiction because they’re beautiful and wild and creepy all at once. Sort of like life itself.

Tom Mahony is a biological consultant in California with an M.S. degree from Humboldt State University. His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in dozens of online and print publications, including Surfer Magazine, Flashquake, The Rose & Thorn, Pindeldyboz, In Posse Review, Boston Literary Magazine, 34th Parallel, Diddledog, Foliate Oak, and Decomp. His short fiction collection, Slow Entropy, was published by Thumbscrews Press in 2009. He is looking for a publisher for several novels. Visit him at tommahony.net.

Three Waves

Seth and Billy stood in their wetsuits near a decapitated harbor seal. A turkey vulture picked at the carcass. The stench was brutal.

Billy nodded at the ocean. “Who goes first?”

They did rock-paper-scissors. Seth lost.

“Three waves,” Seth said.

He grabbed his surfboard and walked to the water. A set reeled. His heart pounded as he waited for a lull. The cove was empty. Nobody surfed here; it was a seal rookery, thick with white sharks.

The ocean went flat. He jumped in, paddled to the lineup, and peered into the murky water. Creepy. He shook aside the fear and focused on the mission, the deliverance.

Three waves.

“C’mon, c’mon,” he muttered.

A wave jacked. He caught it and carved a few turns, exited, quickly caught another wave, and returned to the lineup. Just one more to go. He stared at the horizon and saw a splash in the distance.

His body tensed. Instinct told him to paddle to shore. Now. But he couldn’t. A minute passed with no waves. Two minutes, three, another splash. As his nerve faded, a wave appeared and he rode it to the beach. Relief filled him as he stepped onto the sand, but he hid it from Billy.

“What was all that splashing?” Billy said.

Seth shrugged.

“Should I still go?”

Seth glanced toward the water. Boils churned near the lineup. Something swam out there, something big. It was stupid to get in the water. Billy glanced at him, pleading, looking for Seth to release him. Seth softened for a moment but the rage erupted, beaten into him, defying containment.

“It’s your call,” he said. “You can paddle out and catch three waves like a man or you can stand here like a chickenshit.”

Billy frowned, pale with fear. But he nodded, grabbed his board, and paddled into the cove. A few minutes later he caught a wave, rode it briefly, and pulled out. The ocean went calm. A seal circled the lineup. As Billy straddled his board, water splashed fifty feet away.

Billy caught another wave, stood up for a moment, then fell. He scrambled onto his board. The seal swam nearby. Billy turned to Seth and held up two fingers: two waves down.

“Yeah, kook,” Seth grumbled. “I guess that one counts.”

The water surged and boiled. A shark slammed into the seal twenty feet from Billy, a frenzy of splashing and churning, a slick of blood in the water. Billy didn’t move.

Seth felt queasy. Enough. Game over.

“Billy!” Seth pointed and waved, but the kid just held up a finger: one more wave.

Water surged behind him, like another shark was circling, sizing him up. Seth yelled but Billy just shook his head. Normally the kid was weak. It had always triggered something in Seth, an instinct to punish, just like his old man, pounding away after a few beers.

But now…

Seth ran onto a rocky ledge. He screamed and waved, shrill and desperate, but Billy ignored him. As the shark tore through the seal, another fin approached from the south, Billy trapped between, seal blood pooling around him. The kid sat there like nothing was happening. A wave jacked nearby and Billy paddled for it, almost missed but at the last second dug hard, caught it, and surfed to shore. Seth ran to the water.

“Damn, dude. You all right?”

Billy nodded and tried to smile and muster some smug bravado, but he just burst into tears. “Who’s the chickenshit now, Seth?” he blubbered. “Who’s the chickenshit?”

Billy collapsed on the sand, bawling. Seal blood coated him like oil. Seth stood speechless. A wave broke across the cove and whitewater rolled onto the beach and washed back down again. The sobs slowly faded.

They lingered in silence watching the turkey vulture rip flesh from the carcass, slow and methodical. The sun dropped lower in the west. They shivered in their wetsuits.

by Tom Mahoney