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The Abyss

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The Abyss


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Chapter One
Buddy

Buddy could've written the script for that morning before it even started. His big brother Junior was asking if he could take the pickup truck down to the beach. Daddy would say no. Junior would argue. Daddy would lecture. Junior would get mad and cuss. Daddy would take off his belt and go after him. Always worked the same way. You'd think somebody besides Buddy would catch on.

"It's October. Too damn cold for the beach." Daddy said it so loud the baby got startled in the bassinet. She set to wiggling around and crying.

"Listen to that baby," said Junior. "She sounds like a mouse in heat."

On the way to picking up the baby, Mama slapped Junior lightly across his face. "Mind how you talk in this house, young man."

"Sorry, Mama." He turned back to Daddy, but Daddy was already back to reading the paper, looking for reasons to cuss out Kennedy, who was the poorest excuse for a Democrat as ever got elected President. "I got my license yesterday," said Junior. "It's Saturday. I promised my friends."

"You got your license on Friday the thirteenth." Daddy didn't even look up from the paper. "Proof positive that the superstition is true, because the day you got your license is the unluckiest day that ever dawned for the American driver, not to mention the poor defenseless American pedestrian."

Buddy heard all this from where he sat on the floor in front of the TV, where he was watching Saturday morning cartoons with the volume turned down low so it didn't bother anybody. So far Daddy was still joking and Junior wasn't swearing yet, but that wouldn't last long.

Unless Buddy did something.

Like always, what to do was so vague in his mind that he didn't even know what he was planning, except that he knew it would work, knew that it would make everything turn out just fine and there wouldn't be any yelling and nobody'd get hit with Daddy's belt or say terrible things that would go on stinging long after the welts from the whipping had faded. And once Buddy knew how to stop something bad from happening, he didn't stop and think about it.

Buddy spoke right up, first words that came to mind. "Daddy, couldn't I go to the beach with Junior? You never did take me that time you promised in August." Only now, when the words were said, did Buddy figure out what it was he was planning to do.

Mama called in from the kitchen, where she was nursing the baby. "You did promise him, Homer."

Junior was sharp. Junior understood right off, almost as fast as Buddy himself. Buddy liked how the two of them could figure each other out without saying a word. Like they had a pipeline pumping brains straight from one head to the other. "Come on, I don't have to take a ten-year-old along with me, do I?"

Daddy took the bait. That's what the plan depended on, Daddy and Mama acting just the way Buddy knew they would. "What is it with you, Junior?" Daddy said. "You expect to use the family pickup and family gasoline and you think you can do that without any family obligations? You think the whole world exists to serve you and you don't ever have to inconvenience yourself in return?"

Just like that, the argument had stopped being about whether Junior could go, and instead it was about whether he had to take Buddy with him. And since Buddy knew that Junior probably would have taken him anyway, they were safe on base.

"All right, I'll take him." Junior sullenly took the car keys when Daddy handed them to him, then stomped out to the pickup, ignoring Buddy the whole way and starting the truck moving before Buddy was inside.

Once they backed down the gravel driveway and out into the road, though, Junior whooped and stepped on the gas. "Holy shit but you handled the old man! I wish I knew how you did that!"

Buddy just grinned and tuned the radio away from Daddy's country music to a teenage station. He couldn't just push a button because Daddy got mad whenever he found one of the buttons set for that rock 'n' roll crap.

The radio started playing "Teen Angel." Junior and Buddy sang along with it, using Junior's new improved lyrics, which ended up saying, "If you're somewhere down below, unzip my pants and give a blow." Buddy didn't know exactly what this meant, but he knew it always made Junior's friends laugh their heads off. He also knew that Mama would probably cut his tongue off with the kitchen shears if he ever sang those words at home.

They stopped to pick up Todd and Dennis and Larry and Frank. Todd, who usually drove, brought firewood, Dennis had some hot dogs, Larry had a bag of marshmallows, but Frank brought beer. A whole cooler full. They used the firewood to camouflage the cooler in the back of the pickup. "Look at this," said Junior. "Beer from home, right out in the open, no arguments, no false I.D. I can't believe your parents let you do this."

"Why not?" said Frank. "They don't give a shit."

"Oh, I believe you, Frank. I can hear your mom's voice." Dennis started talking in a high voice. "Here's your beer, Frank. Don't drink it all in one place."

They all laughed. Frank's mom spent half her life whining at him about how he'd go to hell if he picked up any of his dad's filthy habits.

"They're out of town and they left the beer," said Frank. Frank looked at Buddy. "He's gonna tell."

"He won't," said Junior.

"Like hell," said Frank. "Look at him sitting there watching everything with his mouth shut."

"What's he supposed to do," said Junior, "look at the sun and sing opera?"

"I won't tell, Frank," said Buddy.

"Well you aren't drinking any," said Frank. "So don't even think about it. Don't even breathe near the cooler."

"OK," said Buddy. It was all fine with him, Frank could boss him all he wanted. Buddy didn't mind, because Junior had stood up for him. None of Junior's friends teased him for it, either. Junior was the kind of guy that whatever he did, the other guys knew it was OK. So Buddy ended up in the back of the truck with Dennis and Todd, watching them stick wieners into their zippers and laugh about what would happen if they stood up so other drivers could see them. Of course they stayed right down on the bed of the pickup and took the wieners out the first time they thought somebody might see, but it was funny anyway.

When they stopped at the light in Verona, Todd leaned around the cab and yelled through the window at Junior. "You drive too slow, old lady!"

"You girls in the back just keep your panties on," said Junior.

"Bite on this!" yelled Todd. He jammed a wiener into Junior's face. Junior ducked his head to the side and jerked the pickup into gear. Todd was thrown back and lost his balance, almost falling out of the truck, but as soon as he recovered he laughed and pretended he wasn't scared. "That's right!" he yelled. "Get some speed, man!" Buddy knew, though, that Junior wasn't driving any faster than before.

It took forty-five minutes to get from Jacksonville, past Camp Lejeune, and down to the beach on Topsail Island. It was a lousy beach, as beaches go, dirty and steep and posted for no swimming, but it was close and nobody wanted to swim anyway. They had a fire going as fast as you'd expect from former Boy Scouts, and they had the beer open and flowing as fast as you'd expect from the sons of noncoms in the U.S. Marines.

Buddy'd never been at a party where everybody was drinking. At first they were funny, telling dirty jokes and funny jokes and now and then jokes that were dirty and funny. But after a while the stories got longer and never went anywhere, and Frank snapped at Buddy if he even breathed, and Dennis got into a shoving match with Larry that got sand into the hot dogs. Buddy took off for a walk along the beach.

It was a tricky place, where the current usually ripped across in front of the island. The sand was eaten away, so the beach was steep and the waves were higher and more violent than most other places along the North Carolina coast. Later, he'd see waves like that all the time in California, but on October 14th, 1961, Buddy thought these were the highest, most terrible waves in the world.

He couldn't take his eyes off them. He'd see a swell out on the ocean, watch it rise as it came in, and then, when it curled and broke and crashed down onto the beach, he'd imagine himself inside the wave, as if he were as small as a fish, with the slope of water behind him and the curl of the wave crashing down over his head. He felt the power of the water as if it were his own strength, his own body. It made him feel so strong that he could pound with his fists on the hard wet sand and cause an earthquake that would topple buildings in Jacksonville.

He couldn't stand not being in the water. He wasn't going to swim. He wasn't going to get anywhere close to the waves. But he had to feel the wash flowing over his feet. It was too hard to stay on the dry sand, wearing shoes. He had to root himself in the sea. Even if it was cold. Even if he got in trouble for it.

He took off his shoes carefully, untying them and laying his socks across them. The breeze was chilly on his feet, and when he got to where the sand was wet, it was even colder. His feet sank slightly into the sand, and it turned white where he stepped, as if his weight was squeezing the water out. As if he could drive the sea back from the shore just by walking toward it.

At first he stayed out where the weakest forewash only tickled and chilled him. He had always liked the way the backwash sucked sand out from around the edges of his feet, as if the ground was moving out to sea. It was a strong backwash, but the tide was ebbing, and as he walked along the beach he kept having to sidle closer to the waves in order to keep his feet wet.

He thought he heard somebody calling him. When he turned around the fire was out of sight. He had walked farther than he thought. He started running back, his feet slapping the wet sand or splashing through the forewash. "I'm coming!" Buddy yelled.

But when the fire came in sight, everything was just like it was when he left, the guys sitting on their coats around the fire. Buddy felt like a fool for yelling. Nobody called him. But now Junior was getting up, coming toward him, staggering a little. Drunk. "What is it?" called Junior.

"Nothing," said Buddy. He turned away, walked a little farther into the backwash, waving Junior off.

"What?" called Junior.

Buddy turned back to face his brother. Junior couldn't even stand up straight, he kept staggering to keep his balance. As a wave crashed behind him, Buddy yelled, "Nothing! Go on back!"

Junior yelled something and waved, but Buddy couldn't hear him. And then he felt the forewash from the wave slam into the backs of his legs. The back of his thighs. He'd walked too far down toward the waves. This must be a really big one, and it was above his knees. He started walking forward, a step toward the shore, but his legs moved so slowly through the water, and the backwash started before he took a second step. The sand washed right out from under his feet, and he fell forward, splashing down into the water. It covered his head. Hestruggled to sit up, to roll over; for a moment his head was out of the water and he heard Junior yelling "Son of a bitch!" and he thought, I'm in trouble now. Then he felt his body bouncing with the turbulence inside a breaking wave, and now he was sucked under for real. He couldn't find the bottom, he couldn't remember which way was up, and he had no air in his lungs; he hadn't gotten a deep breath before he went under. His chest ached for him to open his mouth and breathe.

And then, suddenly, his feet kicked air. He'd been upside down without knowing it. He doubled over and then kicked, and his head broke the surface and he opened his mouth and breathed, a great gasp that ended with water in his mouth. He swallowed and gagged, then kicked to the surface again, trying to swim and stay on top of the water. He was a good swimmer. Daddy made sure both his boys were good swimmers.

A swell lifted him. For a moment he was high enough to see the shore, just as Junior tossed away his second shoe and splashed out into the water. That's right! thought Buddy. Junior will save me. I'll be OK.

As he slid down into the trough between waves, though, he remembered that Junior was drunk. He couldn't save anybody. Go back, he thought. Stay on the beach.

The current had already carried him so far that when the next wave lifted him, the fire was like a candle flame with the shadows of spiders jumping around in front of it. It would be stupid to try to fight the current and swim toward the fire. He couldn't even swim toward shore -- the current was pulling him almost due south, along the coast and out to sea. The best he could do was swim to stay afloat and angle himself toward the west, trying to get out of the current. It was so cold. Half the time he couldn't lift himself high enough to breathe. His clothes were so heavy, it felt like big pieces of seaweed had caught hold of him, dragging him downward.

"This way!"

Buddy looked toward shore -- or where he thought the shore was.

"This way, kid! Toward the boat!"

He turned in the water and saw a flash of red and blue. A fishing boat. But it was in the wrong direction. The waves were against him as he tried to swim toward it. It was even harder to breathe, and he kept getting water in his mouth. Until one time he breathed in the water and choked. You can't swim while you're choking. He went under. He coughed convulsively, against his will; he gasped more water into his lungs. It was like a hard cold fist inside his chest. Now he needed air more than ever. He tried to exhale the water, force it out. Instead his body sucked more water into his lungs in a desperate attempt to breathe.

I'm going to die.

But even as one instinctive response was killing him, another was keeping him alive. His legs kept kicking. His arms kept swimming. And that kept him close enough to the surface that the fishermen could take hold of him, pull him out, lay him on the deck and press the water out of his lungs.

He could feel the water rushing upward through his windpipe, into his throat, making him gag. It was worse than vomiting, more painful, more terrifying than the drowning had been. When the air rushed back into his lungs, it hurt. And then the huge, heavy hands of the sailor pushed again, driving more water out. He choked. He tried to cry out with the pain, and then did cry out. He was alive. Strong as it was, he had beaten the sea.

Then he remembered.

"Junior!" he cried.

The sailors held him down. "Just rest awhile, boy!"

"My brother!"

They let him up then, as they rushed to look. Choking, Buddy joined them, clinging to the gunnel and searching. It must be the wrong direction, becauseJunior wasn't there.

But Junior wasn't there no matter which way he looked, and when the sailors got him to port at Topsail Beach and a man drove him back up the coast to where the pickup truck was parked near the dying fire, Junior wasn't there either. Todd and Dennis and Larry weren't sober, but they were solemn; Frank was still raging that they shouldn't have pulled him out, he could have saved Junior and the little brat, too. Buddy didn't care about being called a little brat. He only cared about the water dripping off Frank's clothes. At least he tried.

The keys to the pickup were in Junior's pocket. They waited an hour for their parents to start coming. By then they had given statements to the police and a reporter. Nobody had sense enough to hide the beer. The reporter counted twenty-two empty beer bottles and two that still had some beer in them. The story was in the paper next day. They held a service on the base. Everybody was in their whites. Buddy used to see all those men in uniform and it made him feel safe. Now he knew that they were nothing compared to the power of the sea. Little men in little boats with little guns. They were nothing.

Two weeks after Christmas Daddy got assigned as an adviser to help train South Vietnamese soldiers. The family was going to live in Hawaii. Daddy took Buddy back to Topsail Island one more time, the last full day before they were to leave. He didn't ask Buddy and Buddy didn't ask him, but they both knew they had to go there to say good-bye. They didn't talk the whole way. Buddy kept reliving the last time he took that road. He pictured himself opening the cooler and throwing the bottles of beer out onto the road, one by one. He pictured himself sitting in the sand, putting his shoes on instead of taking them off. Walking back up the slope to the fire. He pictured them all getting back into the truck and driving home together, laughing and drunk and stupid but by God alive.

Daddy parked in the exact spot. The half-burnt wood of the fire was still there. Or maybe it was from somebody else's fire. The waves were still pounding, just like that day in October, only now it was even colder and the sky was heavy with winter clouds. But the sea moved the same, heaving under every sky as if it was trying to shrug off the whole atmosphere, to break down every scrap of land, until the whole world was just swells and currents without breakers anywhere because there was nothing solid and strong enough to break the sea.

Daddy put his hand on Buddy's shoulder. "Both my boys went into the sea," he said, "but the sea gave one back to me. I thank a merciful God every day, Virgil."

Buddy didn't thank God for anything. Buddy picked up the longest half-burnt log and walked away from his father, toward the sea. He heard his father fall in behind him, but Buddy didn't care. He walked right to the edge of the water and then stepped into it, shoes and all. Stepped in until the water was ankle deep and the backwash was sucking at his feet.

Suck all you like, you son of a bitch.

Buddy raised the firewood over his head like a club and brought it down on the first wash of water from a broken wave. The club cut through the water and struck the sand. Water splashed all over him. Then he raised the club and struck again with all his strength. Again. And again, beating the sea but leaving no scar, no mark at all, no cry of pain. The water rushed away, tugging at him, just like before.

He brought the club back again but this time Daddy took hold of it, held it.

"She always wins," said Daddy. "If she wants to."

Buddy let go of the club. It slid down to the ground, scraping along his calf as it fell. It hurt, but the pain felt good.

"Your mama's going to give us hell about your wet shoes," said Daddy.

They splashed on out of the water and drove home.

Daddy was killed in Saigon in 1965 by a hand grenade strapped to a five-year-old. Mama married an accountant and Buddy lived in their house in Modesto for two years, until he was drafted into the Army in 1968. He was stationed in Korea and never saw action. When he got out, he didn't go home to his mother and sister and half brothers. Instead he went to Texas and got work in the oil business. He figured that was as far from the ocean as he could get. But within five years he was head of a team of riggers in the Gulf, with the sea around him every day for months on end. Go figure.

Copyright © 1989 Orson Scott Card


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