Still Water

- by Ian Muneshwar -

6000 Words

CW: Sexual Violence

Miles had known the river when water lilies bloomed across its glassy face and fish flat like jackknives roved in twisting schools a hand’s length below the surface. That was years ago, when he was just a child and his mother and her sisters had bought the cabin in Machias. He and his cousins had spent a dozen sunbaked Julys setting out in canoes to claim every undiscovered inlet, every wooded island so thick and dark with pines that the loam at their roots still smelled of autumn.

But the water had receded in the intervening years; the dock now stretched across forty feet of mud cracked and dried by an unnaturally hot summer. Miles remembered the way it had been: reeds bent with the wind, eiders sunning on the rocks, the neighbours’ children shrieking as they leapt from their tire swing and flung their small, bony bodies into the river and the water closed over their heads. Now, the river was still, lifeless. Had it not been for the cabin, as squat and mossy as it had always been, he would not have recognized the property at all.

He and Trent arrived that Friday afternoon. The relationship counsellor had suggested a trip to the cabin. Miles had scoffed at the idea from the start; Trent was terrified of bodies of water he couldn’t see the bottom of, and Miles had no desire to spend a weekend cleaning a cabin that hadn’t been opened in God-only-knew how long. He couldn’t sleep well knowing that the dinner plates had sat stacked in the cupboards for months without having seen a cycle in the dishwasher. But Trent had insisted on this just as he’d insisted on finding a psychologist—once he’d made a plan, there was no turning away from it.  

They untied the kayaks from the top of the car and carried them down to the dock. Miles slid the paddles into the bellies of the two boats and dropped his life preserver onto the dock. 

“We should go out after dinner,” he said, giving Trent a small, teasing smile. “The river’s beautiful as the sun sets.”

Trent clung to his life preserver as though it could save him from the prospect of paddling down a shallow river.

“You go, bear. I’ll watch from a safe distance.” 

Miles laughed dryly, throwing up his hands in mock defeat.

They cleaned the cabin—Trent dutifully helped Miles put all of the dishes and cutlery through the dishwasher, Lysol the countertops, pull spider webs out of the cabinets, and wash the linens—before making a quick dinner. They ate on the porch off freshly cleaned plates, arguing between mouthfuls about the depth of the river and watching crane flies drift through the thick summer air.

“Just to the other side and back,” Trent conceded as they finished their meals. “Twenty minutes?”

“Ten minutes max to get to the other shore. We’ll throw our lines in, see if anything bites, and come on back.”

Trent leaned his leg over, brushing it against Miles’. Miles let him, for as long as he could stand it—he tried to keep his expression steady; he tried, as best he could, to pretend he was enjoying it.

“We should clean up before we go,” he said, finally pulling his leg away. Trent’s eyes flickered down as soon as he did; he knew his boyfriend noticed every time he flinched.

“You do that. I’ll find the bug spray.” When Trent returned to the cabin, he let the screen door slam shut behind him.

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They had decided to open their relationship after a string of attempts to liven their sex life had led to a particularly tragic love-making session involving a remote-controlled butt plug and a can of Reddi-wip. After, they had sprawled out next to each other in commiserative disgust, lips and nipples still tacky with the remnants of store-bought whipped cream, and installed Grindr on their phones.

Miles wasted no time getting acquainted with the grid of men who lived within a two-mile radius of their apartment. Casual flirtation led to dick pics, led to a cold November morning when Trent had left for work without their perfunctory goodbye kiss. Miles spent an hour chatting on and off with a man named Morley who lived less than a mile up Mass Ave. When Morley asked if he wanted to come over, Miles felt an almost giddy anticipation; he had not touched a man other than Trent in three years, and it surprised him how much he wanted it. He said he was on his way. 

Morley was tall and broad, but otherwise bore only a passing resemblance to the younger man in the pictures he’d sent. He combed his thinning hair backward over his skull, and his once-sharp jawline had begun to sag with fleshy jowls. Morley’s smile was still the same, though—his teeth were oddly, youthfully white—and he ushered Miles through the door with a “Glad you could come” and a clap on the back. He locked the front door behind them.

Morley’s apartment smelled faintly of cat litter, though there was neither a cat nor a litter box anywhere in sight. Miles asked if he should take his shoes off; Morley only shrugged and said with an exaggerated wink, “You’re gonna have to sooner or later.”

Miles began to regret the decision to enter this man’s house when he saw that Morley had tacked an enormous Dollywood poster to one of his bedroom’s walls. The poster covered well over half the wall; a nearly life-sized Dolly Parton surveyed the mounds of unwashed clothing on the rug. The words A Smoky Mountain Family Adventure! were written in a looping cursive over her head.

“So,” Miles said, “you like country music?”

“Not really.” Morley stepped closer and slipped his hand under Miles’ shirt, running a palm across his furry stomach. “I just love Dolly.”

Morley worked quickly. He brought Miles in for a kiss with one hand on the back of his head while the other hand loosened his belt buckle. A moment later, Miles found himself sitting on the edge of the unmade bed, his jeans and briefs around his ankles, his erection in Morley’s meaty hand. He closed his eyes and tried not to focus on the odour of stale sweat that wafted from the sheets.

Morley got to his knees and took Miles all in one go, crushing his nose into Miles’ pubic hair before pulling back, swirling his tongue around the head, and choking his way back down again.

“Ah—hey,” Miles said, “I’d rather keep it to foreplay, if that’s all right. Like we talked about.”

Morley surfaced.

“All right.”

He pulled off his own shirt and pants, and climbed on top of Miles, straddling him. As they kissed, Morley took each of Miles’ wrists in his hands and slowly slid them up behind Miles’ head. Morley pulled out of the kiss suddenly, rocking back. He sat on Miles’ cock, planting it firmly between his ass cheeks.

It took Miles a long moment to realize he was inside Morley. It seemed impossible, somehow; they had discussed on Grindr, in excruciating detail, everything Miles would be comfortable with. Foreplay. Nipple play. Kissing. Jerking—

When Morley began to ride him, grunting in pleasure, Miles tried to push him away. But Morley didn’t stop, didn’t look down. He only pushed his weight down more firmly against Miles’ hips and pressed his big hands into Miles’ chest, pinning him against the sweat-stained sheets.

“Let yourself enjoy it,” he said.

After asking him to stop and several minutes of pained attempts to get him off, Miles twisted, finally pulling his cock free. He pushed the bigger man off him and stumbled out of the bed, tripping over the jeans still balled around his ankles.

Miles didn’t say anything as he pulled his briefs, pants, and shirt back on. The only thought sparking in his mind was that he’d never had sex without a condom before, not even after three and a half years with Trent.

Morley, still naked, followed him down the hall as he left. The man was nattering on about being on PrEP, but Miles wasn’t listening. He needed to get home. He needed to wash himself.

He opened the front door and found a cat sitting on the stoop. It was mangy and the nubs of its spine pushed up through its thin fur. It opened its mouth in a long, silent hiss as Miles ran down the porch stairs and out to the busy street.

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They set their kayaks in the water and Miles pushed Trent out, then got in his own boat and pushed off from the dock. He let himself glide for as long as the momentum would carry him; he laid the paddle across his lap and watched it skim the dark surface.

It had always been a slow river. He had learned as a child that a wicked current ran deep, pulling splake, perch, and speckled trout through its muddy heart. But the surface was calm, deceptively so. Eventually, his kayak came to rest beside Trent’s.

“How deep is it?” Trent asked.

Miles took his paddle, holding it by the end, and slipped the other end below the surface. The paddle disappeared completely before Miles pulled it back up; Trent shuddered.

Miles rowed along lazily. A warm breeze scattered the mosquitoes that typically hovered near the surface of the water, so he stopped where he wanted and enjoyed the early evening.

Less than a quarter of a mile from the cabin the land along the riverside was already different from what he remembered. It seemed less inhabited now than it had twenty years ago. He remembered cabins like his mother’s peppering the coastline, but now he wondered if that had been some childhood invention. There were no other cabins, no other docks; just the unbroken wall of the pine forest.

They travelled in companionable silence. Miles stayed closer to the shore as Trent ventured out toward the middle of the river, peering mistrustfully every now and again over the side of his boat. Trent might have hated the water, but ever since Miles had brought him here for the first time, almost four years ago, Trent had fallen in love with the rhythms of fishing. He slowed his kayak on nearing the still centre of the river and cast his line out toward the shore.

Wanting to avoid Trent’s line, Miles paddled along closer to the riverbank. He came to a small cove, a sandy crescent carved out of the riverside. As the water grew shallower, thin reeds began to prick up past the surface. He was about to call out to Trent—this would have, after all, been the ideal fishing spot—when he saw something move in the corner of his vision. There was a fish on the bank. A plump catfish, almost as long as his forearm. Miles’ brow creased. The catfish usually kept to chill waters along the riverbed; they would never come this close to the shore without having been caught. But there were no other boats in sight, no one on the water but the two of them.

Miles moved the boat in closer, reeds hissing along the sides of the kayak. The catfish kept its spine arched in a strange, pained curve. The fish opened and closed its gasping mouth slowly, methodically, in search of the water that was only feet away. He got out of the kayak when the water was shallow enough that the bottom of the boat scraped at the sand.

The fish didn’t watch him as he neared; a thin, mucusy film covered its small eyes. Miles squatted beside the animal and reached a hand out. When he touched it, the fish rolled to its side, revealing its soft, pale underbelly.

A large insect clung to the fish’s stomach. Its broad carapace was brown and sleek and at least half as long as the fish itself; six long, jointed legs dug into the catfish’s flesh. The front-most pair of legs was thicker and stronger than the rest, and with these the insect greedily pulled the underbelly closer to its small head.

The creature had a curving proboscis, which it had sunk deep into the fish’s gut. As Miles watched, the insect pushed its mouthpart farther and farther in until its beady head could sink no deeper without breaking the fish’s skin.

After a long moment, the catfish stopped moving entirely.

“Miles!”

Trent’s voice broke him from the spectacle. He kicked the fish back into the shallows—the insect didn’t move, didn’t flinch—and clamoured back into the kayak.

“Miles, I, I can’t—”

Miles had heard Trent scream like this once before: the first time he had caught a fish. He’d yelled like he was being attacked by a bear as the trout fought to get off the line, its slick body writhing at the bottom of his kayak. He’d almost tipped himself over trying to get the fish back into the water.   

Miles steered the boat out of the cove and back to the open water. Trent was downstream now, much farther out than he had been before. His bright orange life preserver looked so small against the grey stretch of river and the distant, hazy forest.

Trent brought his paddle sharply into the water on the right-hand side of the kayak and held it there. Miles realized that he was trying to turn the boat—or stop it.

Miles started paddling again—the muscles in his forearms already burned with the effort—but Trent was moving away from him more quickly than he could get there, pulled along by some quiet, vicious current, drawn toward the place where the river emptied into the open sea.

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The day after the encounter with Morley, he had tried to explain to himself what had happened, but he couldn’t find the words. Rape didn’t seem right at all; that was something violent, something final. Something that didn’t message you the next day with an apology. Sexual assault felt bloodless, litigious; sexual abuse seemed more the domain of Catholic priests.

So he swallowed the words, every last one of them. He let them settle between the layers of his skin and sew themselves in, tight.

Trent came home from work that day and asked Miles’ permission to go on a date with a guy named Tyler he’d met on Grindr. A date. The word was so quaint it soured Miles’ tongue just to repeat it. Trent showed him pictures of Tyler, assured him that it was just to get a coffee, to chat and see if they’d be sexually compatible. Tyler had a full beard and a winning smile.

Miles agreed, of course. How could he not? It was just a coffee.

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The week after the encounter with Morley, Miles fucked three different guys. The first was a frat boy—loafers, salmon-pink T-shirt, baseball cap—who came to the house. Miles pushed him up against the door as soon as he entered and kissed him hungrily, desperately, his fingers knotted in the boy’s sweaty tank. They fucked right there, the frat boy’s thick, muscled legs wrapped around Miles’ waist, Miles fucking and fucking and fucking as the boy’s buzzed head rubbed against the door and the force of their bodies rocked the pictures on the walls. After Miles came, he pulled out, rolled the condom off, and said, “Thank you.” That didn’t seem like the right thing to say, but he didn’t really care.

The second was a blowjob after work, at the cruisey bathroom in the mall. It was toothy, forgettable.

The last was at dinner on Sunday with Trent. It was a new tapas place in Somerville called Parachute; there was a new tapas place every few weeks. While they waited on their cocktails, Trent relayed, in abundant detail, the particulars of his date with Tyler. They were very compatible, it seemed, and the more Trent talked the more a hollow unease began to grow inside Miles. He swallowed it as best he could—after all, they hadn’t had sex yet, and Trent was being so transparent. 

After their second round of drinks, he went to the restroom and stood at the urinals next to their server. The server was a willowy man with a grin not yet stained with the insincerity of years spent waiting tables. They made eye contact.

The server had a Coke can of a cock that Miles choked on in one of the stalls. It was so jaw-achingly thick that he couldn’t focus on anything else but the warm, spit-slicked skin filling him up, making him gag, and God how he loved it. 

That night, when they went to bed, Trent tried to warp an arm around him, to bring him close and press those soft, perfect lips to the back of his neck, but Miles pulled away.

“Sorry,” he said. “I’d rather not tonight.”

By the end of the month, he was sleeping alone on the sofa and Trent had called three different counsellors covered by their insurance.

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Miles rowed furiously, his paddles raising ropes of water that slapped across the front of the kayak and soaked through his shorts. The air chilled; a great grey bank of clouds had choked the sunset and settled across the sky; cold raindrops cratered the river.

“Trent?”

Miles’ glasses had begun to fog with the heat of his desperate, heaving breaths. He let himself pause, for just a minute, so he could see again, and listened. But Trent, if he could hear, didn’t respond; there was only the slow crescendo of rain on the water, wind through the treetops. When his glasses cleared, he found that Trent had disappeared beyond a bend in the river. The orange life preserver was nowhere in sight.

He took himself to the middle of the river. It wasn’t long before he found the current that had carried Trent away. In all his summers swimming and fishing here, he’d never felt the water pull like this. The kayak skimmed across the surface, as if it was pulled along by some great, invisible hand. His gut tightened as he felt himself lose control of the kayak, of the direction he was taking. 

Miles started paddling again. He would get to Trent, even if it meant letting the river drag him all the way downstream.

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They had bought a share of a local communal garden when they’d first moved in together. Trent couldn’t catch fish, chop wood, or start a fire, but he could coax life from the earth better than Miles’ mother or aunts ever could. Miles had always hated gardening, but with Trent, he didn’t mind the way the way the soil caked under his nails and dried the backs of his hands. They strung up lines of pole beans, built mounds for pumpkins, and paper-clipped collars to go around the tomatoes. Trent was particular about the collars; they had to be at least four inches high, and the dirt inside the collar always needed to be covered in coffee grounds and diatomaceous earth to keep the cutworms away. So they brewed two pots of coffee every night before going to the garden, and drank iced coffee in the car the next morning with windows rolled down and the wind to their faces.

Six months after the encounter with Morley and five months into counselling, they started going back to the gardens regularly. They had missed the early months, so they were late to rototilling and preparing the ground for seeds. While the plants in the neighbouring plots were growing tall under the watchful eye of the oscillating sprinkler, theirs were still pale. 

“They’re already after our plants, the little shits,” Trent said, kneeling beside the anaemic stalk of a tomato plant pushing out of the dirt. He pointed to a hole in the ground not far from the stem; he could spot a cutworm tunnel at a hundred paces.

They knelt beside each other and worked in tandem: Trent positioned the plastic collars at the bases of the plants and Miles gingerly clipped them closed. When the hairy back of Trent’s hand brushed his own, it occurred to Miles that this was the closest they had been in almost six months. He was filled with the urge to take his boyfriend’s hand, to hug him so tightly.

“There’s something I should tell you,” he said instead.

When he finished telling him about Morley and the six months of fucking every man who would have him, they squatted beside each other in silence. He watched grief spasm across his partner’s face; perhaps it wasn’t grief but the sudden loss of confidence, the dissolution of trust. 

Miles had hoped that saying it out loud would splinter the ice that had formed between them; he’d hoped it would dislodge those words he’d buried inside himself. But it didn’t.

“Is that why you haven’t—we haven’t—you know?” Trent stared at the plastic collar in his hand.

Why we haven’t had sex in six months. Why you haven’t touched me in six months. Why you can’t stand the thought of sleeping in the same bed with me.

“Your thing with Tyler makes me uncomfortable,” Miles says, hating the whininess of his voice.

“Our thing? We fucked once. And after we started seeing the therapist, I decided we’d just be friends.”

“But you still hang out with him. You can tell I don’t like it. I know you can.”

Trent stood, brushing dirt off his jeans. “Why are you so paranoid about this?” He lowered his voice partway through the question, realizing that some of the other gardeners had begun to look over.

Miles focused his attention on the coffee grounds and paper clips. Why was he so paranoid? “I don’t know,” he said after a moment.  

Eventually, Trent cried, and hugged him, and then asked if it was all right to hug him. Miles said it was. Trent said he forgave him, and that there was nothing to forgive, and that he would do whatever it took to fix this. He would make a plan.

They stayed like that for as long as Miles could bear it, kneeling together in the dirt as the oscillating sprinkler spread a misty caul over their shoulders and down their bare arms.

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The current took him far downstream, farther than he’d ever been before. He didn’t recognize the shape of the river anymore; it branched several times and curved back on itself. The land had changed, too. The pine forest gave way to tall, leafless trees; spindling things whose starved branches trembled with the wind. Though Miles knew night was falling quickly, the air felt warmer and warmer against his face, and the rain that fell tasted like butane.  

Eventually the current slowed enough that Miles was able to break free of it; he paddled the boat toward the riverbank. He began to worry that Trent had somehow gotten out of the current earlier, or maybe had been taken down one of the river’s other branches. That thought fought logic—he knew that wasn’t the way currents ran through a river—and yet he found his mind racing toward any conclusion it would come to. The trees were so bare that when he looked into the forest he could see hundreds of yards in; yet as far as he could see, the woods went on endlessly, unbroken.

“Miles!”

There—at the edge of the riverbank, hunkered between the smooth, skinless tree trunks: the orange life preserver.

Miles took the kayak to shore, stepped out when the water was ankle-deep, and dragged the boat to land. Trent didn’t come running to hug him; he didn’t even look up as Miles approached. His clothes were soaked through; his hair dripped.

“You fell in,” Miles said, pulling his shirt over his head. “Are you okay? Here. Take yours off and dry yourself, and you can have—”

“That’s all right,” Trent said. “I fell in trying to get out of the boat.” He gestured to his kayak, upturned on the shore like a massive insect’s shell. “I’m not cold, just wet. Have you felt the river? It’s warm.”

Miles hadn’t thought about it when he was getting out of the boat, but Trent was right: the water felt body temperature.

“Where are we, Miles?”

Miles ran his tongue over his lips. The earth between the trees was entirely barren. Now and again, small slips of steam rose from the loam; the land smelled like a bonfire left to burn too long. Somewhere above them, tree branches clicked against each other in the breeze.

“I don’t know. But we have to get back. It’ll get dark soon—it’s dark already. It’ll take us at least an hour to get back upstream.”

“Upstream?” Trent’s voice became brittle. “I’m not getting back in that boat.”

“I realize you don’t like the water. That current was awful. It was— I was scared, too. But taking the kayaks is the only way we make it home tonight.”

“We can walk it,” Trent retorted. “We don’t need the kayaks. We’ll leave them here—”

“Walk? Do you remember the way back? You remember which branch of the river we came down, which way it turned? Even if we can follow the river back, it’ll take us twice as long. We’ll be wandering through the woods at night. And like you said, this place—it isn’t the same place we left.”

Trent’s brow furrowed. For a moment, Miles couldn’t help but see the man squatted beside him in the communal garden, the same fear and mistrust corroding him. Miles searched himself for something to say, something smarter, something truer than I don’t know

“Look,” Trent said. “I believe you. You know the river. But if we’re going to get back, I need to know that we’re not getting separated again. I need a plan.” 

Trent pulled his fingers through his dripping hair. Wiped his palms on his shorts.

“Here,” he said, jogging back to the river. He pulled his fishing rod out of the kayak and start to unspool the line. “Can we use this to tie the boats together somehow?”

Miles took the end of the line from Trent. Tying the boats together would affect their manoeuvrability, but it also meant he wouldn’t have to see Trent in his orange life preserver disappearing downriver again.

“Let’s try it.” Miles bit the line to sever the lure and sinkers, drew out a few feet, and cut the line again. “If we tie the boats together and go upstream—keeping close to the shore—we might be able to avoid the current. We’ll have to row in unison, but we won’t get separated. Wherever you go, I go.”

They dragged their kayaks closer and lined them up, end to end. Crouched on the muddy riverbank, they worked together: Miles tied one end of the severed line to his kayak, and Trent tied the other end to his. They cut three more segments of line; when they had finished, a ropy, four-foot web joined the boats. 

Trent picked up his oar. “You go in front,” he said, “and I’ll follow your lead.”

They dragged their boats back to the river and, together, returned to the water.

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They made it less than a quarter of a mile upstream, paddles working in a haphazard attempt at unison, before the current found them again. Miles heard Trent bellow with frustration, and then he felt the pull of the water, too—its steely insistence. It began to carry them backward, into the graveyard of a forest. It was dark enough now that he could barely see the trees as they spun past.

“Keep the oar in the water! Right side!” he called over his shoulder. He heard the splash of Trent’s paddle cutting the river and the felt the kayaks begin to pivot. Miles knew they couldn’t fight the current, but if he could get the boats to turn he might be able to swing Trent wide of it, and then get himself out.

The boats wheeled, and he felt the tug from Trent’s kayak as it made it back to stable water.

“Row!” Miles called. “Pull us out! Just keep—”

The current was strong, impossibly so, and he was still in it. He heard the frenzied splashing of Trent straining behind him, fighting the stream. But the river drew them both along, and soon enough Trent’s kayak was back in line behind Miles’. They were, at the very least, going forward now.

Trent began to cry in small, frustrated sobs, and Miles twisted in his seat. It was too dark to see his boyfriend, but they could still hear each other.

“Hey. We’re going to get back. We’re going to be okay.” Miles rested the paddle across his knees. He knew it didn’t sound convincing.

“This goes out to the ocean?” Trent’s voice was small and sounded so distant in the darkness.

“Eventually,” Miles said. “We’ll feel the water change. The sea is choppier, but it doesn’t pull. Not like this.”

They skimmed along the quiet river for another hour, maybe more. The current was faster in places, slower in others; sometimes they’d almost break free, but the river always brought the boats back to its centre.

In time, the river changed. Miles felt the kayaks slow, and then the gentle tumble of churning water as it became the open ocean. They drifted for a time, buoyed along by the sea, until the chop stopped lapping at the sides of their boats and everything went utterly still.

“This doesn’t feel like the ocean anymore,” said Trent from somewhere behind him.

“I know.”

Miles had almost fallen asleep by the time the moon broke from behind the clouds. It was huge—just days from being full. It illuminated a strange world: an ocean all around them as black as an oil slick, motionless. He dipped his paddle in the water and the sea didn’t so much as ripple. When he pulled it out, the paddle didn’t wick water as usual; whatever was in the ocean beneath them slicked itself against the plastic, heavy and wet as an insect’s viscera.

The ocean stretched out as far as he could see. The mainland might have been out there, beyond the rim of the visible world. It did seem, though, that there was a small island not far from where they were floating. It curved up out of the water, a perfect hump of land silhouetted by the moonlight.

“We should head for the island,” Trent said. “Anything to get off this damn boat.”

Miles agreed, and they began rowing. It was slow going. Whatever substance they were floating in wasn’t easy to push through; after every ten or twelve strokes they had to stop to rest.

During one of these breaks, Miles heard Trent gasp softly.

“What?” he asked.

Trent said nothing.

“What is it?” Miles twisted to face his boyfriend.

Trent leaned over the edge of the kayak, his paddle clutched in his fists like a spear.

“There’s something down there,” he said.

Miles peered over the edge of his own boat. This ocean was reflective; he could see only the moonlight shining back at him, and the image of his own sweaty face.

“Bear, I can’t see anything past the surface.”

“I saw it break the water,” Trent fired back. “I saw— Oh shit—”  

Trent began stabbing at the water with his paddle, leaning over the edge of the boat as if he was hunting whales with a harpoon. 

“Hey, don’t rock the—”

Miles watched helplessly as Trent’s kayak tipped to the ocean and the substance below them sloshed into his boat. He went for the sea again with his paddle, and this time he slipped from his seat and the kayak tipped sideways.

Miles shifted his weight to the other side, hoping this would be enough to at least keep him afloat. But they were still tied together, and when Trent slipped out of his boat, sloshing into the deep, his kayak began to fill and, inexorably, sink. 

Trent’s head surfaced. He was keeping himself afloat as best he could, arms and legs churning.

“Get to the island!” Miles yelled. “Go!”

He tried to find something to cut the fishing lines tying his kayak to Trent’s—an extra hook, a sinker, anything. But there was nothing left in his boat, and there was no way he could lean back far enough to do it himself without tipping over. So he rowed. He pulled himself toward the island as quickly as he could, arms straining, back screaming with pain.

It didn’t take long for Trent’s kayak to fill and go under, and then Miles knew he would lose his, too.

He took off his shirt, shorts, and shoes, and he swam. He heaved himself through the mire, spitting out mouthfuls and blinking the wet slop out of his eyes. He swam to the sound of Trent’s voice calling his name, pulling him forward.

The island, once it was under his feet, was not an island. It was soft and wet, like a sponge, and felt warmer than the substance it floated in.

“Here.” Trent’s voice came from above. “Give me your hand. I’ll get you up. Come on. There you go.”

The island was covered in waist-high, fleshy buds like a human tongue. Miles took Trent’s hand as they picked their way between the buds, their bare feet sinking into the island’s skin. Something wet pooled up out of the island’s flesh and filled their footprints.

“I’m sorry,” Trent said as they found a place to sit. The wetness soaked into Miles’ boxers. “I thought I saw something under there. I could have sworn there was something moving.”

A warm ache twisted in Miles as he thought about Trent poised over the edge of the kayak, plastic oar in hand. It was an absurd response, given their situation, and yet there was such determination in Trent’s movements, such protectiveness.

Miles leaned back, looking up at the sky. The island smelled musky, the way wet animals do. From between its buds he saw the moon, silver and white like a trout’s belly. There were stars, too, all of them mirrored in the ocean’s face.

“You remember that day in the garden,” Miles said. “You asked me why I couldn’t be close to you anymore.”

A soft squelching as Trent turned his head toward him. “I remember. You asked me about Tyler.”

“I knew why I couldn’t be close to you,” Miles said, soft. “I couldn’t love you the same way I had before. That was too scary to admit. I didn’t want it to be true.” 

He felt the urge to say more: that just because their relationship had changed, it didn’t have to end; that theirs was an intimacy dependent on more than love alone. He started to say it—to give it voice—but it came out halting and broken. 

Trent squeezed his hand, hard.

They lay together in the still dark, watching the buds cast long shadows across their bodies. Somewhere below them, the kayaks, still tied together, fell soundlessly through the expanse. 

He was nearly asleep when he heard Trent ask: “What do you think will happen now?”

“I think,” Miles said, possessed of an uneasy clarity, “that in the morning we’ll see if there’s land out there. And if there is, we’ll swim. We’ll swim until we find the shore.”

© 2019 by Ian Muneshwar


Ian Muneshwar is a Boston-based writer and teacher. His short fiction appears in venues such as Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Black Static, and The Dark, and has been selected for Year's Best Weird Fiction and The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror. Currently, Ian teaches writing in the Myra Kraft Transitional Year Program at Brandeis University. You can find out more about his work at ianmuneshwar.com.