I’m 230 pounds (down from 280 during my years as a starting lineman at Penn State), 6’4” when I slouch, and used to getting what I want from people.
It’s been an adjustment accepting just how weak that Kaylee – all 66 pounds of her – can make me feel.
I know that I’m not supposed to give my ten-year-old daughter anything that she wants. But when she gets moody, sulky, or irrational, and I know that I’m the cause – well I just don’t feel all that strong anymore.
She’s used to getting what she wants from me. I guess the apple doesn’t fall very far, huh?
Anyway, that’s how I ended up on a cruise to Mexico.
Kaylee loves reading about history and other cultures. That shit comes from her mom, without a doubt. Reading was something that I only ever did out of necessity. But she tore through books about Aztec, Olmec, and Mayan cultures faster than I could figure out how to pronounce the titles.
She researched the cruise herself, and even made a fucking spreadsheet about prices and excursions. She asked to take a family trip, I said no, and we booked it shortly after that.
I’m used to feeling strong. Nothing made me feel weaker than the times when Kaylee was hurting. The night terrors when she was five left no memory with her, but I’ll admit that I cried when I didn’t know what to do when she woke up screaming. When she fell out of a tree at age eight, I started the precedent of buying her anything she wanted. That began her reptile phase; I bought more toy lizards and dinosaurs than I knew existed. By the time she was nine, I was actually skipping prime Sunday NFL time to watch ballet recitals.
I know that the best parent isn’t an indulgent one, but it’s hard to be confident on the day that you realize that your child is more intelligent than you.
“Remember,” the ship’s guide announced to the group, “this stretch of beach is a nature preserve. No one lives here, no one takes anything from here.” She shifted her sunglasses and looked away from the small tour group and down the ramp to the dock. I scanned her body when her face was turned. Not bad overall, at least an eight. And before you judge me for looking, I’ll have you know that my wife is a ten in my eyes, and she’s the only person besides Kaylee who makes me uncomfortably weak.
I’d do anything for my family.
“There’s a Mayan saying about this area. ‘The heart of the land belongs to us all, because we come from the earth. We take nothing from the earth without giving something back.’ It’s a beautiful beach, folks, so please take nothing but photos. My name is Sarah if you have any questions.” She flashed a sweet but manufactured smile and led the group down the ramp and onto the shore.
“Look, Daddy, it’s a heart!” Kaylee squinted in the bright daylight despite her little pink sunglasses, and handed me a warm piece of obsidian. “Can I have it?”
I took it from her and stared at the rock. It was, indeed, heart-shaped, four inches long, and rather out-of-place on this rocky beach. Everything else was smooth and tan. I sighed.
“No, Kaylee, the nice lady said that we can’t take anything from the beach,” I explained firmly.
“I know, but can I take it?”
We took it.
“Morning, Sweetness,” I said, tousling her hair as I passed by her sleeping frame, empty coffee mug in hand.
“Mmmmffxx,” she mumbled in response.
I loved getting up early; Kaylee hated it. My heart secretly ached when I thought about just how much more of my wife was in Kaylee than I was.
She sat up in bed, her hair a wasp’s nest of chaos. “I’m sorry about the bees,” she offered, eyes still mostly closed.
“What’s that now?” I asked, pouring myself a cup of coffee.
Her eyes didn’t move. “When I found the giant bees, I wanted to look at them, because I didn’t know that they could be so big. You told me to get away because it wasn’t safe. Then I laughed and you yelled at me. I’m sorry I laughed. They all yelled at me.” She blinked and looked around blearily. “Well maybe it was a dream.”
I looked at her with mild concern. Heavy sleeper that she was, Kaylee rarely talked about remembering any of her dreams. Even the night terrors didn’t leave an impact on her, and she never had any recollection of them the following morning.
“C’mon, Sweet Thing.” I responded, trying to push it from my mind. “Let’s get out of bed. We’re set to go scuba diving today!”
I tried, and failed, to ignore the memory of the buzzing sound that had awoken me the night before.
I couldn’t ignore what happened the next night.
Kaylee had been reading some books about the native species of southeastern Mexico. Those books had lead to internet searches about different animals, her curious mind never satisfied. “Did you know that some bats have tongues that are longer than their bodies? And that the kraken was probably based on a real giant squid? Dad? Dad?”
I smiled and asked her what we might see on land tomorrow. She dove back into her book, fell asleep within minutes, and I chose to leave her undisturbed.
That’s when she started screaming.
Do you have any idea just how much noise a ten-year-old girl can make? The answer is no, unless you’ve heard one rip the night with a soul-chilling shriek.
She had been asleep on the fold-out couch when she sat up. Still asleep, she opened her mouth.
I was sure the other passengers would report an attempted homicide.
I was able to hold her trembling frame and rock her back and forth until the screaming stopped. Then she fell back over, still out cold, and I left to take a walk.
I was only crying a little.
It was well after midnight, and most people were back in their bunks. My wandering took me to a remote passage near the stern of the ship. The lighting was dim, with weak lamps spaced at fifteen-foot intervals and darkness in the gaps between. In retrospect, I think that it was near the crew’s quarters, but my aimless wandering had no apparent destination.
I nearly shit myself when a man emerged from the shadows.
“Sorry!” The man shot at me, clearly rattled himself. “Sorry. I thought I heard a kid screaming, so I ran out here… did you see anything?” He emerged into the fuller illumination of a hallway lamp. He was just a kid, really, one of the employees of the boat. I guess I really had wandered off the beaten path.
“I…” What could I say? That a screaming kid is exactly what had sent me out here? “Sorry, no. I’m just out stretching my legs.”
The kid didn’t seem to relax. “Okay, sir. Why don’t you head back to your bunk? I’ve been hearing a lot of-” Here he cut himself off and looked into the air like he had sensed something odd. I was about to ask him what it was when the sound came.
Do you have any idea what a hiss mixed with a growl sounds like? Neither did I. But here it was, creepy, eerie, and extremely discomforting. It was followed by an odor so overpowering that it nearly knocked me to the floor. It smelled of fish and decay.
That’s when the spider’s leg emerged from the shadows on my right and slammed onto the floor.
I was far too shocked to react at first. It was eight feet tall and had crashed into the metal walkway right next to the kid. He froze, completely pale.
Then the other leg landed right next to him. The hissing growl followed, horrifyingly vibrating the floor.
And I saw that they were not legs at all.
They were wings. What had seemed like giant spider legs were actually the claws of an enormous bat.
Shimmering green scales hung down from the appendages like jewels. What I was seeing was completely impossible. It made no sense at all. So I turned to run.
But to my left, in the darkness on the far side of the weak lamp, I saw the tentacles. Long. Green. Filled with suction cups, tipped in a triangular appendage, at least a dozen of them. The owner of the tendrils remained in darkness.
We were trapped.
And then it got worse.
At first, I thought it was a snake crawling across the floor to my right, arriving to complete the impossible unholy trinity of coils from the darkness. Then I realized that it was a tongue. It slithered across the ground, half a foot wide and five feet long. It left a trail of thick, gooey saliva in its wake. It turned and rose up in the air like a snake being charmed, and lovingly tapped the kid’s neck. Ghostly white, he stared wide-eyed at me. The only part of his body that he was willing to budge was his lips. He mouthed a silent “Help Me” before the tongue spun around him like a vortex, pinning his arms to his sides, and sliding its thick, slimy tip into his mouth.
The kid slammed to the floor, and the tongue dragged him into the darkness with a sick screeching sound. He never broke eye contact with me as he slid into obscurity. Soon all that was left of him was a dropped nametag, oozing with thick saliva, the word “Corey” just visible in the dim lamplight.
Only when I started to breathe and move freely once more did I even realize that I had been frozen in place. I looked to the left, and saw the green tentacles slide away as well.
Two thoughts bombarded me at the same time.
Get back to the room and make sure your family is safe collided with If you leave him now, Corey will certainly die.
What would you have done? Answer that before you judge me.
Because I turned to the left and sprinted toward my family’s room.
I know that he was someone else’s kid. But his father wasn’t here. Kaylee’s father was.
My fears grew with each step. As I raced back to Room 3191, I was almost certain that I could see the tip of a tentacle whip around every corner just ahead of me. It was as though the thing was taunting me, and doing a damn good job of it.
I heard the door creak shut as I sprinted around the final corridor to our room.
No no no no no no no no I reached my hands out, sweaty and shaking, and grabbed the handle.
It opened easily.
But what I saw was not so easy to understand.
Kaylee was still asleep on the bed, the light shining dimly just above her. Four tendrils slithered across the floor, then rose up into a space above her head. But instead of reaching out and grabbing my daughter, they were being sucked into oblivion, disappearing impossibly into thin air. The tentacles whipped back and forth at a faster and faster rate as they got shorter, in the same way that the end of a piece of spaghetti vibrates electrically before the tip is finally sucked up. In a sudden moment, the tips were all pulled in and disappeared as Kaylee opened her eyes and sat up.
She stared at me sleepily. “Dad, I had a really bad dream.”
That was last night. This morning, we woke up to the ship buzzing with rumors. One of the employees seems to have disappeared. Nothing has been confirmed for certain.
But I don’t need confirmation. My daughter accidentally killed someone, and I intentionally let it happen.
Nothing can change what just happened. Nothing.
But for now, I’m trapped on a ship in the middle of the Caribbean, and I’m terrified about what’s going to happen next.