Paul Curran has decided to try his hand at fiction, and I am proud that he is sharing his first effort with my readers. It’s a little longer than our usual offerings, but well worth the read, so get into a comfy chair, and – Enjoy!
By Paul Curran
Shawna’s thick black hair bounced as she threw her kit bag into the trunk of the Lexus and slammed the lid shut. She was not pleased about this outing, but really had no choice. As a grad student studying marine biology with a specialty in tidal flora and fauna, this field trip and the lab work and report that followed were worth 25% of her final mark in this course. Today they were gathering samples of micro-organisms on the Flanagan tidal flats at low tide. She was meeting her lab partner and the other 8 students at the flats. It was quite a piece off the beaten track reached via an access road that was not open to the public. This made the samples they would take less likely to be contaminated by debris from humans.
She slipped into the driver’ seat of the luxury car – a birthday present from her parents. Putting on her Balenciaga aviator sunglasses, she slapped the keys into the ignition and cranked the engine. Her knee-high Brian Atwood Italian boots worked the clutch and gas as she spun the wheels leaving the driveway. She loved the $6,000 tooled leather boots that she had gotten from Saks Fifth Ave, during a recent shopping trip. She was addicted to shoes and boots and had a good collection. It was handy having the use of Daddy’s plane whenever she felt the need to pop down to New York for retail therapy. She slammed the car into second gear and laid more rubber on the street. The custom engine whined as the RPMs swiftly climbed to the red line and then dropped to a purr when she eased it from 2nd into 4th and steadied at the 50 mph speed limit. No sense irritating the locals – she only had a few points left on her drivers license. The car had had some custom work done to it and had a lot of horsepower under the hood spinning a Richmond Gear manual transmission for her driving enjoyment. At the ripe old age of 24, Shawna was the only daughter of a rich investment banker. She had always had whatever she wanted even though her parents had tried very hard to make her life normal – and keep their daughter out of trouble.
With a heart shaped face framed by her shiny black hair, she drew her fair share of looks when she walked down the street. She was only about 5 foot 4 inches but preferred wearing at least 3 inch heels when possible, which, with her aggressive attitude, made her seem much taller. Reflecting back on last night her grip tightened on the steering wheel. Jonathon, that bastard. They had returned to her place last night after dining and dancing and he had spent the night. Just before he left in the morning, he had told her that his wife was getting suspicious and he wouldn’t be able to see her for a while. Jon was an engineer and travelled for his company doing IT installations. He was in town about once a month, so it wasn’t as if they were going steady or anything. And Shawna wasn’t really in love with him – it just irked her that she played second fiddle. It was fun when it was dangerous, but when he left a little part of her left with him. She had been really upset and as he escaped down the front walkway, she had opened the door and thrown a pair of his pants out onto the lawn with a “”Don’t forget your fucking pants asshole!” A few of her neighbors had turned to watch. He had known before he arrived that this would be their last night together and he had waited until he was leaving in the morning to tell her. Bastard. Chickshit bastard.
Oh well, she thought, just shake it off. You knew he was a passing fancy. She should swear off men, but she so loved the attention and waking up with the warm body beside her. She realized she had arrived at the private road that led down to the mudflats. The gate was unlocked and open as they had been told it would be and she drove through carefully on the dirt road. About three miles later the road opened into a grassy area where four other cars were parked. There was a clear view of the flats from the parking area. Shawna parked, popped her trunk and got out of the car, locking it behind her with the remote. As she stood at the trunk her partner pulled up in her green Volkswagen Bug.
Cynthia was a bit older than Shawna, married and in the third trimester of her first pregnancy. They worked well together and enjoyed each other’s company. Shawna was pleased that she had Cynthia for a lab partner – she pulled her weight, was bright and funny. Plus their writing styles were compatible, so rewrites of labs were limited. The two had become close friends.
Cynthia did not look well this morning. As Shawna watched, she turned to one side, bent over and heaved up her guts. Staggering a bit, Cynthia, straightened up, wiped her mouth with a Kleenex and continued to walk in her rubber boots over to Shawna.
“Hey partner, how’s it going this morning?” Leave it to Cynthia to be throwing up one minute and smiling the next.
“I was feeling pretty lousy until I saw you. Morning sickness?”
“Yep, it’s annoying and it comes and goes. Aggravated by last night – I hardly got any sleep at all with the baby kicking.”
“Are you sure you are up to this? We’re just collecting samples. It looks like everyone else has already gone out onto the mudflats. Just a lot of walking and taking surface samples and noting the GPS coordinates of each sample.”
“Well, I do feel pretty lousy but you know the rule: we have to travel in pairs on the mudflats. I can’t let you go by yourself.”
“That’s not an issue Cynthia. It’s a sunny day and I’ve been on these mudflats before. The rumors of quicksand and sink holes are greatly exaggerated. Besides I’ll be in sight of you and others the whole time anyway. Why don’t you rest for a bit and when you feel better just come and join me? I may very well be finished before you’re done resting anyway – it’s not a big job, just twenty mud samples. Most of the work is in the lab.”
Cynthia looked concerned but after a minute nodded her head. “I’ll just rest for a few minutes – thanks Shawna, you’re a life saver.”
While they were talking, Shawna had pulled a reflective safety vest from the trunk and put it on. She took out the sample case and checked to make sure the bottles with the small scoops for sampling in them were all there and stowed properly in their clips in the molded Styrofoam. As Cynthia watched, Shawna pulled her red hip waders out of the kit bag and draped them over the edge of the trunk. Leaning against the car she unzipped and pulled off one boot then pulled on the wader. She repeated this with the other foot.
“Where did you get the sexy waders Shawna?” Cynthia asked.
“They’re Hunter Ostens. They were only made in 2011 winter for distribution in England. I was over in London for a conference and I spotted them in a little fashion boot shop. They were originally £150 but because they were out of stock everywhere the shop was charging £350. They are supposed to be fashion boots so the top part is thinner waterproof material, but the bottom is the solid Hunter boots. You know I couldn’t resist a new pair of boots. I figured they’d work well today because we won’t be doing any heavy wading in mud.” Shawna fastened the straps from the top of the thigh high boots to her belt as she spoke. Because of her height the boots came almost to the top of her thighs.
“You go put your seat back and rest Cynthia, I won’t be long. If I’m not back when you’re rested, come and find me. You have the matching Garmin Rhino GPS unit – it’ll bring you right to me.” Slipping her gloves into her back pocket and picking up the bulky sample case, Shawna waved good-bye as she strode down the path to the mud flats, her bright red boots gleaming in the sun. The Lexus beeped and the lights flashed as she pressed the remote and slipped it into her vest pocket beside the Rhino GPS unit. Cynthia climbed into the driver’s seat of her Bug parked beside Shawna’s Lexus and watched Shawna start across the mudflats. Each group had been given a separate sector to sample so they didn’t overlap. Their sector went out from the parking area and then went west to a river and then back to the lot, a pie shape. It looked like Shawna was starting at the furthest point and working her way back. Cynthia could soon only see the reflecting vest so she reclined the seat soon fell asleep.
As she walked onto the mudflats Shawna passed a sign that read “Danger – Quicksand – Stay Away”. She was aware of this as she had done some work on these mudflats before. Generally it was easy to spot and avoid soft areas and they were supposed to travel in pairs to reduce the chance of any incidents. Shawna had never actually seen any real quicksand here, just deep mud. She had been up to her knees a few times and easily got out with some effort. She suspected that the danger was exaggerated to keep tourists from getting stuck in the mud and calling for help.
Starting at the furthest point in their sector, she could see others working at a distance on the mudflats. She set down the sample case and reached into her back pocket to pull out her gloves. As then came out of her pocket they caught her iPhone and it fell into a puddle in the mud. Cursing she retrieved it, wiped it off, and found the screen blank. Fuck! Another phone bites the dust. Oh well, she could pick up another in town later today. Opening the sample case, she plucked out the first container and filled it with mud using the sample scoop which she then sealed in the container. She pulled the Rhino GPS unit from her pocket and copied the exact coordinates onto the container label with a sharpie. Shawna gradually worked her way west ward stopping every few hundred yards to sample. The repetitive process dulled her awareness and as she worked she stewed over Jon and his abrupt announcement this morning.
When she reached the river, she realized that the morning was getting late and was surprised to see that fog had rolled in. At first it had just been wisps but now it was getting very thick. She could no longer see either the cars or the other students. Sound was deadened and there was a chill in the air. Shawna was not concerned as she had the GPS and she could just follow the river back to the beach and from there the parking lot. She decided that she would take some samples at the edge of the river where it flowed across the mudflat. That would give a good idea of what microorganisms were being brought by the river when compared to the other samples. As she worked her way back towards the shore sampling along the river, she didn’t notice the color of the mud changing to a redder hue. Had she noticed it may have occurred to her that this mud had been deposited by the river and she was walking where the river once flowed. She came to a bend in the river where the water had moved around an obstacle of some sort. She set the case down as usual, opened it and took out the sample container.
Walking out into the bend to get a riverside sample, she didn’t notice the sandy mud getting softer as her mind was still focused on Jon. Each step left a slightly deeper footprint. When she finally noticed, her right foot was stuck in the reddish mud; mud flowing over the top of her foot. She frowned and pulled on her right foot but it seemed to be stuck. As she pulled on her right foot, her left boot sank deeper into the mud. Now her left boot was up to the ankle and she could feel the pressure of the mud on her foot. She continued to yank on her right foot and with a huge heave, it came free unexpectedly. She overbalanced and her foot swung forward to catch her fall. As soon as her right boot hit the surface again it was immediately swallowed up and disappeared up to her knee.
Now she was starting to panic and pulled hard on her right leg. This time her left foot and leg sank quickly almost to the top of her Osten boots. As the panic grew, Shawna struggled, pulling first on one leg and the other. She felt cold wetness on her left leg and looked down to see that the top of her boot had disappeared below the surface and wet mud stirred up from her struggling was flowing down inside her boot. She let out a small scream and tried to pull her left boot out of the mud and then she felt the wetness pouring into her right boot. As she struggled further, she screamed out for help but the dense fog swallowed up her cries. As her boots filled slowly with wet mud her legs became heavier and heavier and she sank faster.
Shawna’s intellect gradually cut through her panic and she realized that she was being pulled into quicksand likely formed when the river changed course but continued to flow under the sandy mud. By now she had sunk to her waist and she gradually calmed herself, realizing that she had once heard that staying still slowed the sinking. It was obvious that no one could see or hear her in the fog, even though she was not far from the car now. Her phone was dead but she still had the Rhino with its two way and texting capability with Cynthia. When they had been assigned as partners for the year, Shawna had given Cynthia a matching Rhino so they could communicate on field trips. They were expensive, but the GPS was required for their course anyway and the extra expense meant little to Shawna. She called and texted Cynthia now as she sank deeper and deeper, even without moving. Cynthia must not have had the unit turned on. Panic started to creep back as she tried and tried to contact Cynthia. Her legs started to move on their own trying to reach for solid ground with her toes pointed down. Panic was back now and she screamed for help, knowing that the fog would muffle any sound. Even so, she struggled and screamed as the panic washed over her. When the mud reached her chest she came to her senses for a minute and calmed herself again. With the Rhino still in her hand she realized that no one was going to come, that as much as she screamed she was going to sink to her death here, swallowed by the quicksand. Tears started to run down her face. From the depths of her mind came a glimmer of an idea – one more thing she could try. Although the odds were slim it might work. She reached her right hand down into the mud and found the pocket of her safety vest. Sure enough, she found what she was looking for and pulled the muddy car remote above the surface. She wiped it the best she could and pushed the panic button. If the remote still worked and if the car was in range – and it was a big if, although it was line of sight without the fog – that would set off quite a racket. She couldn’t hear anything and pushed the panic button over and over when suddenly the Rhino beeped. It was Cynthia! She had turned on the Rhino when the alarm woke her.
By now Shawna had been sucked into the quicksand up to her neck and she was holding the Rhino above the mud. She was very still as she tried to keep her face above the surface.
“Cynthia, hurry and come help me!! I’m sinking in quicksand and I’m almost under. Bring some rope!”
Cynthia’s reassuring voice came back with the loud shrilling of the Lexus’ alarm in the background: “I’m coming!”
The Rhinos had the capability of finding each other so Cynthia would be there as quickly as she could waddle as long as Shawna kept her unit out of the quicksand. She knew that Cynthia’s husband kept rope in the Bug because they had had to pull it upon occasion when it broke down.
But still Shawna sank deeper and deeper. Now up to her chin; now her bead was back to keep the mud out of her mouth; now her ears were below the surface. Even with her head back, the quicksand soon covered her mouth as well. Shawna held her hands in the air, keeping the Rhino out of the mud. Now she panicked as the quicksand slowly crept over her nose and she held her breath; now she had to close her eyes as her face disappeared completely below the surface, just leaving her hands protruding from the quicksand. Shawna felt a warm wetness spreading from her crotch inside her riding breeches as her bladder let go in fear. She knew she could only hold her breath for a few minutes and as the time passed and she felt the quicksand swallowing her arms, she slowly saw a bright white light appear in front of her. A sense of peace flowed over her as all her muscles relaxed. She seemed to be travelling towards the light and it was welcoming her. It felt like home as the light got brighter and brighter, bathing her in warmth. Then there was a short barrier and on the other side stood her beloved Gramps, who had passed about 5 years ago. He looked healthy and fit and seemed to gleam with light from within
“Hello Shawna, and welcome. It’s good to see you again.”
“Gramps, am I dead?”
“Not quite, Shawna. That’s why the barrier is here. You have to go back. It is not your time yet.”
“But then why am I here?”
“Well, you know some quantum mechanics – it was possible for you to either live or die in this situation and the outcome was just determined as you came up to me. For a while there you were both dead and alive. Like Schrodinger’s cat.” He gave a small laugh – it was a private joke between them.
“I don’t know if I can go back, Gramps.”
“There is no choice Shawna – this is not ours to determine.”
At this, Shawna felt something hit her right hand. She looked down but couldn’t see her hand. She grasped what ever it was with her right and then with her left hand, dropping the Rhino. As her Gramps faded from view, she felt herself slowly rising as she was pulled upwards from the quicksand. The suction holding her down was great and she rose slowly, with her face reluctantly breaking the surface. Her eyes and ears were still plugged as she opened her mouth and spat out the mud that had leaked in – taking large gasps of air. She peeled off one glove and used her relatively clean hand to wipe the mud from her eyes and clean out her ears. Her first sight was a very worried looking Cynthia staring at her from the other end of the rope. With her were two male students who had been in the parking lot when Shawna’s car alarm had gone off. God bless Japanese engineering.
They slowly pulled her from the quicksand, keeping their distance to stay out of trouble. The suction was huge and it took them almost 15 minutes to get Shawna back to solid ground. By the time she stood back up on her own, Shawna was a different person. Cynthia looked at her oddly as if sensing the change.
“What happened Shawna?” she asked when the boys had left.
“Oh, I just wasn’t paying attention and stepped where I shouldn’t have.”
“I figured out that part. What I meant was that you seem different somehow.”
Shawna paused and looked at Cynthia, seemingly sizing her up. They had spoken of religion casually over a glass of wine, and Cynthia had professed to being an agnostic. Shawna herself hadn’t been sure but felt there seemed to be some sort of higher intelligence. Now she knew, without any doubt.
“I saw my Gramps and he said it wasn’t my time yet, just seconds before you threw the rope to me.”
Cynthia looked doubtful but just nodded: “Let’s get you home and cleaned up.”
Image links are included with photos for this post (click on picture)