Salvage

by Matthew Fairchild
The small boat rocked back and forth as Ethan slowed it to a stop and looked down at his GPS. He was right on top of it. Tossing the anchor over the side of the ship, he looked to the south. Large, grey cumulous clouds hovered miles away, darkening the sky beneath them with rain. A squall was predicted to blow through in about an hour, but he would be underwater then, and by the time he came back up, it should have passed by. The sky to the west was clear. The light blue of the noonday air met the slightly darker blue of the ocean all the way around his boat to the clouds in the south. He understood how pilots could lose focus and crash their planes into the open ocean. The blues melded together at the horizon, destroying any sense of definition or demarcation. All you had to do was stop looking at your altimeter and there was no way to know which way you were going.

Ethan strapped on his scuba gear and other tools needed for salvaging valuables: a small tank of compressed air, salvage balloons, nets, and boltcutters. He scanned the horizon again. No ships. Amy would be out here soon, maybe after the squall blew over. She did not yet have a diver, but with the coordinates to an untouched World War II destroyer, she could find one quickly. He was right to have come when he did. With that, he flipped off of the back of the boat and began the slow descent to the ocean floor.

The destroyer was deeper than he had ever dived before. At 100 meters down not many people would attempt the dive, which had left it nearly untouched for seventy years. He would need to be careful. Any number of terrible things could happen to him when he was that deep, like nitrogen narcosis, hypoxia, the bends, or a shark attack. He swam over to the chain leading down to the anchor, starting down alongside it with one hand holding onto it to make sure that he did not drift away. The worst thing that could happen would be for him to lose his orientation on the way down and not even make it to the destroyer after rushing over to beat Amy and taking on so much risk. Near the surface, the sun still shone brightly, with rays of light penetrating the water and illuminating plankton and particles of dirt.

On other dives, shorter dives, he could be less cautious and the dive could be more freeform. One day after Finding Nemo came out, Ethan went diving for clownfish. The shallow reef was brightly illuminated by the rays of light streaking through the ocean. The coral covered the reefs in greens, reds, and blues. It was in full bloom in the noonday sun, swaying back and forth in the current as it caught the nutrients it needed. Ethan carried a large net in his right hand, looking for a patch of anemones. He spotted a few large ones next to a green brain color to his left, and swam down to it. Between the red tendrils of the grouping, he could see many clownfish hiding, hoping that the plants could protect them. With his gloves and wetsuit on, though, the anemone had no chance of hurting him. He swept the large net over the group, pulling it from one side to the other quick enough for nothing to swim out the front.

When he had finished pulling it through, there were around fifty little orange and white striped fish in his net. He twisted the top to tie it shut, and swam back up to the surface. This was good enough for one dive. A few meters away, a chain led down to an anchor on the ocean floor and up to a small, white boat. Ethan swam up, popping his head above the water at the stern of the boat next to the idle engine. The waves slopped against the hull, making a dull thumping sound. Amy smiled down at him from the boat. Her brown hair blew across her face in the wind.

“How many’d you get?” she asked as he hauled the net over and up onto the boat. She took it from him.

“Something like fifty. There’s a big clump of anemone down there. Should be good for a second pass.” Ethan was sitting on the step on the back of the boat, waiting for Amy to give him back the net. She unwound the top of the net and dumped the fish into a bucket filled with water, careful to not let any fall onto the deck. Instead of handing him back the net, though, she put a lid on the bucket and grabbed a smaller net that she could hold in her hand.

“Is it right beneath us?” she asked.

“It’s just a little ways over there,” he said pointing away past the back of the boat.

She walked over to him and gazed down at the reef below her, only wearing her red bikini.

“I think I’ll dive for it. You coming with?” she asked.

“I’ll be right there with you.”

She kissed him, her hair that had blown across her face getting into their mouths, before jumping off the boat in a graceful dive. Ethan quickly put on his mask again and dove after her. He had a head start on him, but he had flippers and quickly caught up to her, staying just behind her feet. She made the twenty-foot descent to the anemones with ease, swiping across the top of the tendrils and capturing a few clownfish once she reached the bottom. Amy secured the fish in the net before scrunching herself up in a ball to flip over and race past Ethan to the surface. Ethan was much closer to her on the ascent swimming stroke for stroke next to her, watching her for signs of needing oxygen before she reached the surface. In a last few, powerful strokes, she pushed her whole upper body out of the water, gasping for air. After a few heavy breaths, she started laughing. Ethan laughed too as he pulled off his mask. She pressed her body against his and kissed him again before swimming back to the boat. From over the side, Ethan saw his net splash down next to him.

After another dive down to the anemone grove, yielding another fifty or so fish, Ethan came back up to see Amy looking into the buckets of fish, analyzing each one. This was a common occurrence. After many dives, especially ones where they took coral or fish, they would sit on the edge of the boat and look more closely at each piece or animal, taking it out of the bucket of water to examine it before putting it back and taking out another. She always loved looking at the wildlife, examining every speck of color on it. She reached down into one of the buckets and cupped her hands around one of the fish. It wiggled and splashed, sending water in all directions around her.

“You are most beautiful. You will go free,” she said in a hushed tone to the fish, holding it up to her face and tossing it back into the ocean. Once broken from this trance, she noticed Ethan sitting on the edge of the boat holding another net of fish that was wriggling around and splashing water, much like her one most beautiful fish. She deposited them in another bucket and handed him back the net. As he went back under again, she started examining the new batch. On his way back down, Ethan saw the most beautiful fish, swimming around aimlessly in the higher part of the ocean that was foreign to it. He swam over to it and captured it in his net before swimming back down to the anemone field.

Amy loved the physical grandeur of the reefs. On most dives like this one, she would search for the most beautiful thing they had caught and return it, so that the ocean could retain its beauty. If she found her favorite earlier in the day, Ethan would just swim back down and capture it again; even if she threw it over right before they left, he almost assuredly caught it again when they came back the next day, but he never told her that. She needed her idiosyncrasies to enjoy the job. And he loved her for it. She was more than someone taking what she could from the depths. She cared about them too. She loved the coral and the fish and the strewn debris of the old ships and planes that wrecked there. Every time he brought up some unwanted piece of cargo from years gone by, she redeemed it. With a smile and a quick wipe of the towel, it became something valuable, changing from litter to artifact.

As he slowly kicked his legs back and forth, the light dissipated. The sun became no more than a tiny bright spot directly above him. To occupy his time as he traveled down, he thought about what might be down in the USS…Wardon? Warton? Something. He needed to find out which one when he was back on land. Tourists cared much more about rusted metal if they knew that it was a part of the ship that their grandfather’s friend’s brother died on. Amy told him the name a week ago when she heard about the wreck, but after all of the commotion he had forgotten it. Dog tags and insignias pulled the most money, but even some lightly rusted bolts could bring in enough. Still, though, with how untouched it was supposed to be, he hoped for weapons, ammunition, or anything else specific to the era. No American tourist was able to pass up buying a piece of their country’s crowning achievement, especially one that so clearly showed it. Then they would leave, like every one of them always did, leaving behind only the money they paid for the worthless wreckage.

Down further he went. The water was darker, but not dark enough yet to turn on the flashlight mounted to his mask. Then, through the water, he saw it. The hulking destroyer was laying on its starboard side directly beneath him. Its main gun lay detached and upside-down, half buried in silt. There were two large holes on the port side of the ship about a quarter of the way up the hull, one at the bow and another at the stern. They were likely from torpedoes. The middle of the ship had some buckling in the metal, leaving some small cracks open, but mostly the ship was intact. It had not split apart and strewn debris along the ocean floor for miles like some did. This one had everything still inside of it. All that Ethan would have to do to find weapons and ammunition was to go to the armory. Despite the depths, this could end up being one of his easiest salvage runs yet. Amy’s information had at least been good about where the wreck was. In a few minutes he could find out if it had been picked over yet. He wanted to swim down to it as fast as he could, but he knew that he needed to be patient. At these depths the pressure became dangerous; he needed to acclimate himself to it slowly.

Darkness quickly enveloped the wreck. Ethan looked up to see that the pinpoint of the sun was gone, replaced by a uniform grey. The squall must have reached him. He heard the dull crash of waves through the tons of water in between him and the surface as the chain went up and down in his hand. In between the waves he heard the faint pattering of rain on the surface, creating a constant stream of noise. He shook his head to keep it from distracting him and pushed on. Soon he would reach the wreck. Hopefully inside it he would be shielded from the noise.

Starting about a month before, Amy stopped smiling as much. One day, when Ethan came up to greet her with a net full of tropical fish, she was sitting in the boat staring at the horizon. Later that day, she stopped throwing one of the fish back into the water or looking at them at all. That night at dinner she remained just as quiet and solemn. He waited for her to start up a conversation as they looked at their menus in the small restaurant next to the coast. After deciding on the pork loin, he put down his menu to look at her, but she still quietly held it up to her face. The only noise came from the crashing of the orange waves in the evening light and the few other patrons.

“There sure were some beautiful fish we found today,” he said.

She remained quiet.

“I’m glad that we were able to get such a good price for them.” The menu still blocked him from seeing her. “I think that we’re starting to get a good reputation with those guys. I don’t think that they even go to Tom for fish anymore.”

Still nothing. He needed to find out what was wrong.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. She put down her menu, looking through him.

“I want to start scuba lessons,” she said.

“What? Why?”

“If I knew how I could bring in a little extra income by taking some night salvage jobs.”

“Absolutely not,” Ethan said, shaking his head, “Night salvage is too risky. And we already make enough.”

“But the extra income could be really helpful if something came up.”

“But everything’s fine. We have enough. I want you with me at home.”

“What if everything wasn’t fine? Then we would have the savings to pay for it. Right now we don’t have anything saved up.”

“We have a little.”

They argued all the way from the restaurant to their bed, where she finally relented and agreed to not take the classes.

Ethan had hoped that after she went back to only thinking about her job, she would be happy again. Instead of looking at the horizon and dreaming of more money, she would look back down at the ocean and what he brought up to her. This, though, was not the case. On their next job, picking over a nineteenth-century trading boat, when he came back up with a basket full of ancient coins, she was still looking out at the horizon, a glazed sadness on her face. When he pulled the basket over to the boat, she took the coins and dried them off, but without her warmth it was not the same. The salvage still felt like flotsam. A wave of depression welled up within him, so he dove back down to distract himself before it overtook him.

In the week that followed, she remained as sad as before. Every time Ethan came back up her face failed to make him feel whole again. He started to think that he had made a mistake by telling her not to learn scuba, so as they went back to land after finishing up at the trading boat he told her that she should take the classes, if it would make her happy. She did not say anything, staring straight ahead as she steered the boat to land. That evening she did not get dinner with him, but instead went away after they had secured their cargo back on land, not returning until the evening. Later that night she came home, she only said that the class was good, and went to bed.

Even this did not make her happy. The joy that exuded from her was gone, replaced with a bland, monotone sorrow. Ethan needed the happiness back. Every time he came back up to her, it was a chore. He started to stay down for longer, bringing multiple salvage balloons and air tanks so that he could avoid her for hours at a time. Whenever he asked her what was wrong, she avoided the question. If she was not going to interact with him, he had no reason to interact with her. After two weeks of her coming home every night and going to bed without hardly saying a word to him, Ethan stopped going home after dinner to wait for her. There was no reason to be there if she was not even going to talk with him. He might as well enjoy his evenings too.

So the other night, Ethan stayed at the restaurant bar after his meal to drink and watch the boxing match. The alcohol and game lifted his mood a bit. The man he had bet on just knocked down his opponent. He asked for another beer and the bartender filled up another one, sliding it to him across the grubby bar. Then, a few seats down, a woman with short, blond hair in a small, red dress smiled at him with a shy smile that ducked out of the way when he met her gaze. He brought his focus back to the game. They were about to start the next round. The man he bet on got in a few good punches, knocking down his opponent again. When he looked back at her, she was smiling at him again. The ref stood in between them while the other boxer’s trainer came to him to bandage a cut on his brow. When Ethan looked back a third time she walked over to the open stool next to him. Her demeanor filled him with warmth like Amy’s had.

That night Amy found them together in their bed. She became irate, throwing plates, pillows, and whatever was closest at them. The other woman left immediately, but he was left to defend himself. Ethan stood up and quickly put his pants on, dodging a photo aimed at his head. It hit the wall behind him, shattering the glass all over the floor.

“I’m not going to take this!” she yelled. “After everything! After my dad got sick and what I sacrificed for both of you, taking on another job to pay for his medication and so that you could eat out every night, I’m not taking this anymore!”

She stopped throwing things and yelling to breathe deeply for a few seconds. Ethan did not know what to say so he stood quietly next to the bed.

“Just go. We’re through,” she said, much quieter now. “We’re done. You and me, the business. Take your stuff and go.”

So Ethan left the bedroom, scribbled down the location of their next job, and went to the boat. He slept there until morning came, when he plugged in the coordinates into the GPS and drove out to the wreck.

Ethan turned on his headlamp as he approached the destroyer. The armory would be at the back of this ship, so he made his way over to the rear torpedo hole for an entrance point. The crashing of the waves and white noise of the rain above him was louder now. The storm must have been directly over him. He ignored it and swam through the twenty-foot-wide hole ringed in frayed, rusted, barnacle-crusted steel. The explosion had ripped the steel apart and back into the ship in jagged edges that Ethan was careful to avoid. Inside, it was almost completely dark without the lamp. Without many gaping holes or fractured areas, the only light that could get in was through the torpedo holes. As he went further in and rounded a few bends in the passages, that light went away and all that he could see was what was directly in front of him. The bulkheads were rusted in places, but generally well preserved. Some of the painted numbers and signs were still visible. He followed the ones leading to the back of the ship, weaving through whatever corridors happened to be open when it went down.

A few small fish fluttered away to break the monotony of one dull grey hall after another. In the time while he swam through the maze of halls, he started to wonder why Amy had not told him about her father. If Ethan had known about how he was sick, he could have taken some night jobs or tried to find more lucrative ones that both of them could do during the day. Why had she not felt like she could tell him? He cared about her and wanted her to be happy again. Needed her to be. If she had just told him, he could have solved it. Maybe somehow she knew that he had recaught the fish and did not trust him. Maybe she did not want to worry or scare him with the news. But either way, now he was down in the ship and no one was above him to watch for him to come back up and sort through the salvage.

The passage opened up ahead of him to reveal a large room filled with small arms and ammunition. Jackpot. Artillery shells lay in a disorganized pile on what now was the bottom of the ship and some weapons lay strewn around a cage on the other side of the room. He swam over to the cage and opened it with his bolt cutters. Despite how rusted the lock was, it took some effort. He breathed heavily for a minute while strapping them back to his thigh. Inside the cage he grabbed what looked like some of the less rusted M1911 pistols whose handles were at least partially intact. Placing them in the net, he went down to the bottom of the room and picked a few artillery shells off of the top. He placed them carefully to make sure that they did not go off. To make it easier to haul it out of the destroyer, he partially inflated the balloon attached to the net so that the shells and guns floated next to him. After setting in a few boxes of ammunition from the cage, he made his way back to the anchor.

When he came back outside, the darkness was still pervasive. It crept around him, only allowing him to focus on what was directly ahead. The crashing became louder; the storm had not yet passed. At the anchor, he filled up the balloon to double its size and almost let it go, but realized that there was no one at the surface to retrieve it. In the storm, it would drift away in only a few minutes. He had to keep it down there until he wanted to leave and then take it with him. But he couldn’t leave right then. There was still more inside the ship to take and he had a whole other net and balloon to fill. He stared at the balloon for a few minutes, trying to think of a solution. If he let the balloon go, he could find something more valuable, but would have to give up what he had. But if he went up now, he would be guaranteed to have guns and shells to sell, but nothing more. He tried to think about it for a few more minutes.

If Amy had been up there, none of this would have been a problem. He could have just sent the balloon up to her like normal. They could have waited for the squall to blow over before starting so that she could dive into the water to bring it back to the boat. He regretted what he had done.

Then he realized that he could tie the balloon to the anchor. It would hold the balloon down while he went back for more and he could retrieve it when he pulled the anchor back up after he was done. Brilliant. Ethan quickly tied the rope to the chain and swam back to the wreck. Before he went back inside, though, he checked his oxygen gauge. His tanks were half empty. Half-way through the dive. It had not seemed like it had been that long, though. When he tried to look at his watch next to the oxygen gauge, he had to tilt his head toward it to illuminate it. The darkness from the storm was enveloping him. It had been an hour.

Instead of swimming straight for the ammunition room again, he went more slowly through the bulkheads, looking through the portholes into all of the closed rooms. The crew must have closed them in a vain attempt to keep the ship afloat. Each showed a part of life on the ship. One was the crew quarters, with beds without any sheets, those having long ago decomposed. The metal frames lay there exposed and rusted. Another was a common room. Tables and folding chairs nearly rusted away in places lay crumpled up at the bottom of the room opposite the porthole.

The next room he passed, though, had only a console on the far side, and three soldiers lying dead in front of it, incredibly well preserved. Their clothes had not decomposed and their bodies still had their skin, though the color had gone and he could see through it to the pale tissue underneath. They would have dog tags and insignia, the most valuable of wartime memorabilia. He needed to get into that room. Ethan grabbed the wheel keeping the door shut and strained against it. Years of disuse and decay had made it stuck. He took his boltcutters and stuck it into the handle for leverage, inching the wheel open until it gave way with a grinding lurch.

The entire room was incredibly well preserved. The console was hardly rusted at all. There were no cracks in the ceiling or walls. Those three men must have locked themselves in there during the battle, and once water filled the hall, they had no way to get out. They would have suffocated before the water slowly dripped in through the smallest gaps in the seal of the door. Nothing that would decompose their corpses could get in, so they remained entombed until he opened it. Ethan focused on the middle soldier. His dog tags were laying on his jacket, still hanging around his neck. He yanked it, but the chain would not break. He yanked it harder and harder until it slid through the soldier’s skin and tissue, separating his head from his body. The head rolled down his chest and settled in his lap, spilling blood and tissue as it slowly flipped down his front. He thought about how the thing that the tourists bought to commemorate their grandfather’s friend’s brother’s sacrifice could have literally been ripped from his cold, dead hands. Ethan started to laugh uncontrollably while he decapitated the other two dead soldiers.

He calmed down as he put the dog tags into the net and started working at ripping off their patches. He liked laughing. It had a cathartic effect. Whenever he was feeling down, Amy could make him laugh. She could heal him. This job was not one for creators. Every day he descended to the bottom of the ocean and ripped things apart. He was a broken person who destroyed things, but whenever he came back up to her, she healed him. Without someone else’s happiness, he had none.

Finished with the last patch, he turned around to leave the room. He stopped. Amy was swimming in the doorway in her bikini without any scuba equipment. Her hair flowed in the water around her head. A few bubbles floated up and away from her mouth. She grabbed the bulkhead and threw herself down the passage towards the entrance. Ethan swam after her, still clutching the net with the dog tags. She was faster than him, swimming just out of his grasp. With every stroke he reached out for her, and every time her foot kicked just beyond his fingers. As he came to the last turn before the torpedo hole, she kicked with a sudden burst of energy that propelled her far faster than Ethan could swim. When he finally rounded the corner and swam back out to the open ocean, she was gone.

He breathed deeply. The storm must have still been going on since the darkness still enveloped him. When he looked up to see if she had swum above him, he saw the pinpoint of light of the sun. How could he see the sun through the storm? It was still dark like before. His breathing slowed and eyes widened. Nitrogen narcosis. His tunnel vision, clouded thought, weakness, uncontrollable laughing, hallucination. Breathing compressed air at those depths for that long had started to seriously affect him. He needed to get back up to the surface.

He looked over to where the anchor had been before, but it was not there anymore. The balloon must have let it float away in the storm. He was going to die. There was no one here to save him, and he was going to die. Maybe his boat only floated a few meters away. He needed to get back up to the surface before it drifted any further, but he could get the bends. Ten meters per minute up to the surface. He stared directly at his watch to keep it in his field of view while he slowly swam up, monitoring it the whole way.

After ten minutes he came to the surface, pulling his mask off and breathing the ocean air. The darkness around his vision was still there, but it slowly started to recede. He whipped his head and body around to look for the ship. The only thing that he could see was the storm, now past him to the north. With each crest of a wave he spun around to look again, but each time all he saw was water.

Maybe she would save him. She must have found the boat gone in the morning and known what he did. She could be coming any moment now to stop him. He inflated the balloon attached to the dog tags and wrapped his arm around it, laying back in the water to make himself float. He looked up at the sun, closed his eyes, and waited for her to save him.
Matthew Fairchild lives in San Juan Capistrano, California and is a recent graduate of the MFA program in creative writing at Chapman University. He has previously been published in Cardinal Sins and Rivet. He is also one of the Founding Editors of Anastamos Interdisciplinary Journal.

© 2017, Matthew Fairchild