A glimpse was all I needed to recognise my childhood sweetheart; I’d never forget those killer’s eyes. I swallowed hard, my throat like sandpaper. That blood-pumping muscle in my chest began to thud so violently my whole body vibrated. She slowed and turned to face me. The whites of her eyes told me she’d not forgotten me either.
Time slowed, the microseconds tick-tick-ticked away as our eyes locked. I willed her to turn back around, to keep going. But, as I knew she would, she allowed herself to be guided by the primal instinct that had always driven her — the compulsion that had driven her to kill in the first place. She began to approach, her pace slow, her grin wide.
A jolt of panic struck me like lightning, and I glanced around, desperate for another person to pass by or for the revelation of a hidden spot that I could slip behind. Deja-vu crept up on me — we’d danced this dance before, back when we’d first met. As had been the case ten years ago, I found myself exposed, the few nooks and crannies of the beach that offered concealment far out of reach. And, as it was late September, the summer crowds had long-since departed. I was all alone, save for her.
I had two choices, either run in plain view, or meet her head on. Which would be better? I glanced at the safety of the sand. She’d probably make chase if I tried to flee. Was that the coward’s way out? Would she judge me? Was that the more dangerous option? I looked back in her direction — startled to see how close she’d gotten in the brief moment I’d averted my gaze — and thought about standing my ground. She might respect me more for the latter, but did I really care what she thought of me, after all these years? Was it more idiotic to face her, to challenge her? Did it really matter whether I saved face?
My inaction made the decision for me. She broke away to the side and made a wide berth around me. She was a faster swimmer than me — always had been, always would be, I suppose. I knew what she had planned. She would cut off my retreat, so that I would be left to tread water and tire myself out.
As she swam past, I couldn’t help but admire her youthfulness. She had much the same figure as she did a decade ago, and her skin was still sleek, her complexion somehow still without flaw. I felt old — with too much flab — in comparison. I wondered whether she looked at me with pity. Or maybe it was regret, for her past desires that had soured with time.
She passed by with the elegance I so well remembered. It was as if she did not swim, rather the water moved itself around her, compelled by some anomaly of physics. Then she was between me and the beach. Open ocean to my rear, killer right in front. She hovered there, patient. The ball was now in my court.
As we both bobbed up and down on the ocean swells, I was taken back to the first time we met. I had turned 15 the month before and had been out for a late afternoon swim. I had been alone then, too.
I had seen her around, although we didn’t go to the same schools (the very thought makes me laugh). She was the same age, give or take. I knew that she was dangerous by her appearance — anyone could see that she was trouble, would eat a kid like me up. And yet, I had been entranced. She was of course beautiful, but she was also strong and independent — fierce. I had never seen her with her parents, or with any friends, for that matter. She always seemed to be alone. We had that trait in common. Although she had an air of standoffishness, there was a lonesome, melancholy affectation to the way she swam back and forth inside the cove.
I hadn’t approached her of my own volition that day, as the sun set and burned the sky a bloody pink. I’d been curious — no doubt — but I knew she was a murderer. On the flip side, I also knew that this was one of her favourite haunts, so I can’t really say that I didn’t know what was in store for me. I guess that goes true for today, too.
I had swum out a few hundred feet, the delicious chill of the brine lapping over me. I wasn’t a strong swimmer by any means, but I was wise enough to know my limits and was well aware of riptides and such. I don’t remember what was on my mind, but if I had to guess, it was probably school troubles; I was often bullied by the local celebrities of the playground. I had found — and this holds true to this day — that a good contemplative swim can help you dissect the day’s woes and dissolve them away.
I had been focused on my forward crawl whilst in a meditative trance — kick, stroke, breathe; kick, stroke breathe. I wore no goggles; I never liked the pressure on my eyes and the saltwater never bothered me. Kick, stroke, breathe; kick, stroke, breathe. I swam away from the beach, headed for deeper waters, when I felt something brush my leg.
As a child of the coast, I have a healthy respect for the dangers of the ocean — drilled into me from a young age by my parents — but I never was particularly frightened of the water. I’m still not. However, when you’re in the sea and the water is opaque, so dark it’s almost black, and you get touched, you quite rightly think of the worst.
I spun around in the water, mind flooded with visions of giant squid and Lovecraftian monstrosities. Instead, I came face to face with her. For one glorious second, time stood still. I’d heard people wax lyrical about how time can freeze, and always thought it was a cliché, something that people just said to emphasize their point. But at that moment, time really did hang in the balance, and I’ve since taken people at their word when they tell me time seemed to slow for them.
There we were — eye to eye. There was nothing else in the world except that spark between us, that eternal bond forged in embers of a sudden connection.
She lingered in the waters before me, the biggest smile I’d ever seen plastered across her face. She wavered and her eyes sparkled. And then she turned and swam further out to sea, glances cast back at me as she got further and further away. Every now and then she paused and looked at me, dancing in the gentle currents. I knew she beckoned me.
Alas, I was — and still am, if truth be told — a coward. I turned and fled, driven by fear and the what ifs that cascaded through my head like a waterfall. When I reached the shore, I scrambled up onto one of the rocks, which jutted up out of the water like broken teeth, and looked back to see if she was still there.
I couldn’t see her and panicked, she’d grown impatient and had left like so many others before. And then I saw her, just beyond the mouth of the cove, unfazed by the stronger currents, happy and playful, teasing and oh so cool. I wanted to go and join her, I really did, but I was afraid. Of the ocean, yes, but also of her. A part of me wished to know what it would be like, to swim out there to join her, to frolic with her in the deep blue sea. I didn’t, however. And it’s been a regret that always surfaces to my mind, every now and then, like a bubble.
I always pondered how it would have felt, what the outcome would have been. Was I wise to listen to my fear? Or was I a slave to my anxieties?
After that day, I never saw her again, but she was often on my mind. Did she think of me? Did I fade from her memory, or had I remained as prominent a figure in her consciousness as she had in mine? These are questions that swam around my mind for ten years after our chance encounter.
Was it wrong to consider her my sweetheart? After all, we exchanged no words and scarcely had any physical contact, except for that first bump. It could hardly be considered a true romance; it was too fleeting. But that link, which was galvanised in a second’s locked gaze, has been the benchmark to which I compare all other relationships — often to my own detriment.
I’ve come to believe that real connections are the ones which make you feel most alive. And as my bloodshot eyes take in her grace once more, after a decade of chasing that high, I am reminded of that sensation.
This time, however, she has not given me the opportunity to flee. Will she kill me, as she has doubtless killed so many others in the years between our meetings? I don’t know. The choice has been taken out of my hands; my fear cannot decide for me — there will be no future regret to resurface in my mind.
I am finally swimming with the great white shark.