“Endangered” by Christina Durner

Sharks Christina

It was a warm afternoon in late April when Caraleigh first met the marine biologist. Walking along the rows of books in the library where she’d worked, he had stopped her to ask where he might find a copy of Orwell’s Animal Farm.

She didn’t know it then, but he would be her husband someday. Caraleigh only knew that he was handsome and a frequent library visitor, but now, for some reason, seemed slightly flustered.

On the five-hour honeymoon drive she recalled that day with bemused reminiscence. How his demeanor was timid, how he’d knotted his hands as he addressed her. Completely uncharacteristic of the brazen, intrepid Jameson that she had fallen in love with. It still amazed her the way that he had been tongue-tied over her.

He hit the brake harshly, cursing under his breath. “You’d think that traffic would be better during the off-season,” he spat. “But no! Same idiots out on the road no matter what time of year it is. Are you starting to regret your unwillingness to fly?”

She dug a stick of chewing gum from her carefully organized travel purse and popped it into her mouth. “Nope,” she stated definitively, keeping her eyes focused on the road ahead.

Caraleigh was terrified of anything involving heights. Jameson had been able to talk her into many adventurous things over the years, but flying anywhere, even to their honeymoon destination, was not up for discussion. So the couple made the lengthy journey to Astin Island Beach.

The five-mile stretch of beach was infamous for being home to all sorts of east coast wildlife. Both Jameson and his bride shared a love for the ocean and all creatures great and small. Caraleigh relished the idea of spending a romantic week in a modest bungalow with her husband, surrounded by the sounds of lapping waves and the song of the local gulls.

Scrolling through her phone, she came upon a strange story in the trending topics section of Facebook.

“Oh my God, you’re not going to believe this!” she exclaimed. “A group of scientists in Panama accidentally stumbled into a colony of Panamanian Golden Frogs— “

“An army,” he interjected. “A group of frogs is called an army.”

Caraleigh couldn’t suppress a snicker as she pictured miniscule yellow and black spotted frogs clad in suits of armor, poking away at humans with tiny spears.

“Well, an army of Panamanian Golden Frogs. And the whole group was killed! Apparently the frogs are highly poisonous and took down a team of nine people with just one touch!”

Jameson shook his head. “That’s horrible. But sometimes these things happen. When you are working with animals, especially ones that are critically endangered like those frogs, they can’t understand that you mean them no harm. And they attack without any warning.”

She nodded curtly. Caraleigh had heard many stories of dangerous situations that he’d gotten himself into during his time at sea. But she was certain that he’d withheld some of the more frightening incidents from her. He was always trying to protect her from the harsh realities of his world. Jameson had studied all manner of both land and sea creatures. But studying them in books and coming face to face with them in the wild were vastly different things.

—–

Waves pounded against the shore as the couple made their way to the bungalow. Yellow sand sported mounds of foam like beer suds floating atop a pilsner glass. The foam broke and vanished, like childhood memories that one couldn’t remember in full. Crabs scuttled about as the waves continued to assault the seashore, carving paths for other nautical creatures traveling ashore.

The bungalow was small but tidy. The diminutive bathroom boasted only a toilet and narrow shower, the lone sink on the premises was in the kitchen that could more accurately be referred to as a nook. But the bed was amply sized and there were no neighbors around for miles. That’s why they’d selected the small cabin. Privacy.

She dropped her bags onto the wooden floor, plopped down in a nearby chair, closed her eyes, and leaned her head back.

“My goodness,” she said. “Do you hear that?”

The roar of the ocean and the song of the sea birds filled the tiny room. Caraleigh sighed dreamily.

“I’m so glad that we’re finally here.”

Her husband couldn’t help but smile. Most women would have opted for a world cruise for their honeymoon. Jameson had inherited a great deal when his parents had passed on and he could’ve given that kind of trip to her. Instead his bride had opted for a cozy dwelling in their home state with the intent of spending a week exploring the sea and making love as often as they’d liked. It was the simple things in life that Caraleigh cherished and that was what he loved so much about her.

—–

The next morning the couple had a hearty breakfast at a restaurant in town and made plans to spend the afternoon snorkeling. Snorkeling with Jameson had always excited her. His occupation filled him with tremendous knowledge of sea life and he was able to not only identify the creatures that they’d discovered but he could also give her fun facts about each of them.

Caraleigh remembered fondly their first time snorkeling together. They’d visited a beach in Delaware, where he’d pointed out fish that she was unfamiliar with. Slammer blues, black drums, tautogs, and even a northern sea robin. Snorkeling with Jameson was like searching for lost artifacts with Indiana Jones. And she couldn’t wait to get started.

On the way back to the car Jameson plunked two quarters into the restaurant’s newspaper vending machine and handed the sheaf to his wife. Her love of knowledge was endearing and he was certain that she would read the entire paper by the time they got back to the bungalow.

“Holy crap,” began Caraleigh. “Yesterday a group of tourists on safari in Tanzania were mauled to death by a pack of African wild dogs!”

“That’s horrible!” he replied.

Caraleigh shuddered at the idea of being attacked by vicious wild animals. She couldn’t imagine a worse death than being eaten alive. Those poor people must have suffered so much before they passed. She felt an ache in her heart and threw the newspaper into the backseat.

Grabbing Jameson’s hand, she inched herself closer to him. He’d worked around wildlife all the time. How often had he been face to face with death and not even told her?

Caraleigh shook the image from her mind. I’m just being silly she said to herself. The closest to danger he’s been on the job was having his toe bitten by a blue crab! She began to relax, resting her head on his shoulder. She couldn’t wait to get back to the beach and search for mysterious fish and ornate seashells.

—–

The sky was a vibrant shade of azure blue as birds looped about them. Jameson and Caraleigh gazed out over the expansive ocean. The air was salty as a dry brine. She inhaled with great appreciation. It was moments like these that Caraleigh wished she could bottle memories and relive the experience each time the bottle was opened. Clad in their snorkeling gear they waded into the surf.

Moments later, with a flutter of breath, Caraleigh raised her eyes from the water that she had been treading and took in the beautiful surroundings. They prowled on but found no whimsical ocean creatures about them. Jameson suggested that they swim out further. So the couple plunged into the dark waters and swam out to sea.

His occupation made snorkeling expeditions much easier. On top of his vast knowledge he’d also acquired state of the art equipment, including the full face masks with diver communication units that they wore at present.

As they swam he called out the names of passing ocean-life to her. Several clear nose skates, a school of white flounder, even a lone burr fish. But in the far off distance Caraleigh saw a large creature swimming toward them, one that she was unfamiliar with.

“What’s that thing coming at us?” she asked.

Jameson did not respond right away. He simply stared at the animal, his face an amalgam of fascination and pure dread.

“Honey, try to stay very still. Don’t make any sudden movements,” he advised as he started to unzip his waterproof utility belt.

Panic began to overwhelm Caraleigh. In all the times they’d been in the ocean together she had never seen him act like this.

“Why? What’s the matter?”

The creature continued to swim closer to them. It wasn’t particularly large, approximately three feet in length. But as the spotted animal swam closer to them the terrifying realization finally hit her. It was a shark.

“Jameson?”

Her voice wavered. She thought that sharks were supposed to attack with great speed. Yet this one seemed to be approaching at a snail’s pace. She knew that it had to have seen them because she looked right into its domed eyes.

“Jameson!” she repeated more tersely. “Hurry up and tell me what we are dealing with here and what we need to do!”

“Don’t panic,” he almost growled. “If you panic we’re dead.”

Caraleigh began to shake uncontrollably. She hugged her arms to her chest in an attempt to still her quaking body. Jameson began to speak more gently to her.

“This is a spiny dogfish shark,” he explained. “They are incredibly aggressive and they have spines near their fins that are poisonous.”

She could feel her heart begin to beat out of her chest as she watched her husband pull a knife from his belt. His voice rang out clear as a bell.

“Caraleigh watch out!”

But before she could realize what was happening it hit her with everything it had. In the short amount of time that she had taken her eyes off the shark to watch Jameson, the thing had launched itself at warp speed and taken a small chunk out of her leg.

As she reached for the wound, Caraleigh screamed in agony. Her snorkel dipped beneath the surface, filling her mouth with water. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, all she could do was watch as the menacing beast circled back around and came for her.

She was unable to stay under any longer. If she did she would surely asphyxiate. As her head bobbed above the surface Caraleigh ripped the mask from her face and choked on the sharp salty water. She could barely make out the struggle that was happening below. There was blood everywhere. Was it all hers? Was some of it Jameson’s?

Just as she screamed his name, Jameson quickly breached the surface. Tearing his mask off, he reached for her and pulled her into his arms.

“Are you ok?” he shouted. “How bad is it?”

Caraleigh lost control of her gumption and started crying hysterically. She was in agony. The wound throbbed and burned as blood continued to pour from it and the salt from the ocean made it sting. But more than pain she felt utter terror.

“Where is it?” she screamed. “Where did it go?”

“I got it with the knife,” Jameson replied. “But we need to get out of here as soon as possible. I need you to swim.”

She used her hands to pull her injured leg out of the water. A large portion of the skin above her ankle was missing. Blood spurted out and she began to feel queasy at the sight of it. Or perhaps the loss of blood was beginning to take its toll on her. She could barely keep herself above water as it was. Thank God he was there to hold her up.

“I can’t swim. You have to help me.”

“Hurry up!” Jameson spat venomously.

Caraleigh eyed him suspiciously. Sure, he was concerned about the shark bite and her safety. But she could tell by the urgency in his voice that he was keeping something from her.

“What aren’t you telling me?” she managed to get out.

“Nothing! But hurry up, wrap your arms around my neck.”

She felt as if her heart were in her throat.

“Now, Caraleigh!” he demanded.

Caraleigh did as he insisted and prayed that whatever he wasn’t telling her would not hinder their efforts to get back to the shore.

Jameson came up short. He held her close to his body and instructed her to remain still.

“How can we work together to get back if you aren’t telling me what’s really going on? Stop treating me like a child and talk to me!” she cried.

He held a finger to his lips, making it clear that silence was imperative. Her bottom lip quivered and tears threatened to return.

“I didn’t want to alarm you,” he started as his head turned back and forth, watching something that Caraleigh couldn’t quite focus in on. He continued.

“The spiny dogfish earned its name because it hunts in packs. There are several swimming around us right now. So please, baby, try to stay calm.”

Her chest began to heave frenziedly. How could such a small shark cause such devastation? How could something that they’d love doing together so much turn so horribly sour?

“So when you say packs, you mean like three or four. Right?”

His courage faltered for just a moment, but it was long enough for Caraleigh to notice. He had to level with her.

“Babe, I need you to try to stay strong for me, ok?”

She reached deep inside herself and mustered enough courage to stop crying and shaking. Nodding her head curtly she braced herself for what was surely horrifying news.

“These things hunt in packs of hundreds, sometimes thousands.”

Her breath hitched and panic began to crash through her entire body like a tidal wave. But Caraleigh forced herself to remain as calm as possible. Jameson continued his explanation.

“They might be small but they are quick and they have several rows of very sharp teeth— “

“Yeah, I know,” Caraleigh interrupted.

She felt something brush against her other leg and let out a squeal of fright.

“Unfortunately, they use these guys in fish and chips over in Europe so they are critically endangered.”

What do you mean unfortunately? She thought to herself.

She was beginning to feel weak. With all the strength she could gather, Caraleigh tightened her grip around Jameson’s neck and kissed him as they both felt another shark swim through the tiny space between them.

“I love you,” she declared frantically. “And if I don’t make it out of here— “

“Don’t say that!”

She pressed a finger softly to his lips and continued.

“If I don’t make it back, know that every moment of our short lives together gave me greater joy than I could ever imagine.”

Suddenly they felt themselves being jerked under the water. One of them had Jameson by the foot. He stabbed it in the nose and did his best to resurface.

Caraleigh was too sluggish to feel frightened as she saw another shark coming toward her, teeth bared. The shark’s sharp spine had just impaled her arm as she saw her husband plunge a knife into its right eye.

She looked down at his foot just before they returned to the surface. Four of his toes had been bitten off and he was bleeding heavily. Caraleigh feebly clung to Jameson’s neck.

Looking out at the horizon she saw the most direful sight that she could imagine. Hundreds of fins could be seen in the distance, swiftly making their way toward them.

Suddenly a familiar noise assaulted her ears. It was a noise that she never imagined she would be happy to hear. The sound of helicopter blades whirling in the sky above her.

Before they knew it, the medical evacuation team had them hoisted into the air. Sharks jumped from the surf, grabbing for them with open mouths. But fate seemed to be on their side, no one was further injured.

As the medical team began working on them, Jameson held her hand firmly, giving it a gentle squeeze as she winced each time the medic touched her leg.

“How did you know we were in trouble?” Jameson asked the medic.

“The whole beach is being evacuated. For some reason these dogfish sharks started attacking everyone,” she explained. “Killed a couple kids and took off more than a couple of limbs. You two are lucky that we got to you when we did.”

The other medic spoke up. “We’ve never seen anything like this before. They normally hunt closer to the ocean floor. We can’t explain it.”

Caraleigh began to piece the puzzle together. Panama. The poisonous frogs. Critically endangered. Tanzania. Wild African Dogs. Critically endangered. Maryland. Spiny dogfish sharks. Critically endangered.

Even as awareness struck her it seemed farfetched. Could all of the endangered species be banning together to wipe out all of humanity for the cruelty they’d been subjected to? Which animal would attack next? Had anyone other than her made the correlation between the status of the animals and the attacks?

As she peered through the window of the helicopter she could see what appeared to be a mass of snakes forming a large knot on the beach beneath her. Their brown and red bodies writhing like flames.

Caraleigh found the strength to speak.

“Does anyone know what kind of snakes those are down there?”

The female medic grabbed her binoculars and took a quick look.

“Not sure.”

“Do you have any endangered breeds of snakes around here?” Caraleigh continued.

Jameson spoke up. “Red bellied water snakes,” he suggested.

The medic took a second look.

“Yeah, these look kind of red. And they’re acting real weird too. Never seen so many snakes bunch up like that before.”

Jameson could hear several bird calls sounding from afar. Birds of all different flocks seemed to be gathering together not far from the snakes below them.

He asked the medic for her binoculars. On the shore he was able to spot piping plovers, sedge wrens, and royal terns. Bales of enormous loggerhead sea turtles emerged onto the shore. Even herds of eastern tiger salamanders began to throng together beneath them.

Jameson began to connect the dots.

“It’s all the endangered species,” he muttered.

Caraleigh used all of her remaining strength to nod her head. She’d been right. They were launching an attack on the human race and all she could do was watch from the sky as they congregated together.

For the first time in her life she was happy that helicopters existed. But they couldn’t remain in the air forever. How long before they landed? How long before these animals launched their final attack. And how long would it be before the human race became the endangered species?

 

 

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unnamedChristina Durner is a freelance writer based in Baltimore, Maryland. Her work has appeared in a variety of magazines and websites including Creepypasta, The Gunpowder Review, The Foodie Bugle, Examiner, and Fine Print. She also works independently as an editor. Christina loves to chat with readers and can be reached at https://www.facebook.com/ChristinaDurnerAuthor/.

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3 Comments

  1. This is a little on-the-nose for my tastes; the environmental angle is admirable, but it feels like the story connects all the dots for me instead of leading me to come to the intended message on my own terms. Having said that, I vastly prefer an overabundance of clarity in a story to muddled and confused half-metaphors and I’ve seen that problem in the arena more times than I can count.

    As far as the shark attack angle goes, I LOVE this story. I love the idea of a school of thousands of smallish sharks hunting together, and I did a little research on the spiny dogfish and found that Ms. Durner got the majority of her facts correct. When I ask myself the question, “Would I like to see this story as a Syfy original movie?” the answer is a resounding “Yes!” And that counts for a lot in my book.

  2. Overall I’m not sure how I feel about this one. We can start with the sharks, though. They were delivered, delivered well, and delivered in such a way that felt original and scared the crap out of me. Granted, the title art for this battle scared the crap out of me. Seriously. I can’t look at it. So maybe I’m kind of easy to scare with sharks. But here we had sharks hunting in a massive thousand-shark-large pack. That was terrifying.

    I could have gone with a less heavy hand concerning the animals turning. I found myself asking odd questions like, “Do the animals know they’re on the endangered list? What happens if they get upgraded and are only threatened? Do they then cease hostilities?”

    There were also some odd moments between the couple. The husband acted sort of like a dick a lot of the times and I didn’t exactly get where that was coming from.

    Still. The prompt was sharks and I have to say that Christina definitely gave the arena sharks in a very nice way.

  3. While I enjoy the prose of this story immensely, there is something a little Zoo-esque about the premise here. I like the idea of the endangered species taking things into their own hands (paws? flippers? wings?), but at least for me in my reading, it came across a little too much like something I’ve seen before.

    However, the story really hits the prompt straight on. Everything with the sharks is golden. I wonder if there is a version of this story that could be written focusing more on the sharks. I think that might be a stronger story overall.

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