Gene, Darin, and Lonnie leaped into the ocean, flippered feet first; the warm, cerulean water splashed and rippled around them under the Hawaiian sun.
“Let’s get our snorkel on!” Lonnie said, situating his mask and mouthpiece.
“Lead the way, captain,” Gene said, readying his GoPro camera. “The coral reefs out here are supposed to be incredible. Ready, Darin?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” he replied nervously. Darin was doing his best to quell his anxiety. After getting pummeled by waves when he was nine, pulled from the ocean, and resuscitated by a lifeguard, his relationship with the sea was rocky at best. Gene and Lonnie wanted to take scuba lessons, but the friends settled on snorkeling instead to appease Darin’s oceanic apprehension.
The visibility was magnificent; the ocean floor crystal clear about ten feet below. Lonnie led the way, flanked by Gene and Darin, who took in the sights while keeping an eye on Lonnie to not drift apart. In moments the snorkelers came upon a massive reef bustling with life. Schools of Yellow Tangs surrounded the kaleidoscopic variety of smooth and branching coral. The green, blue, and orange Saddle Wrasse mingled with Banded Angelfish, Millet Butterflyfish, and the fittingly named Picasso Triggerfish. A few green sea turtles made slow circuits around and about, and Gene dove to try to touch one’s shell and get a close-up shot.
The reef rose to a massive mound, and as they got closer, Darin lost himself in the beauty of it all – the vivid colors and shapes – his fears drifted away in the gentle ocean current. Intrigued by an oddly shaped outcropping of coral that rose much higher than the rest, Darin approached. He snapped from his floating, meditative state and realized he’d strayed far from his friends. Breaching the surface to locate his friends, he trod too close to the reef, and a flash of searing pain sliced into his ankle. Darin cried out in pain and looked underwater to find his ankle surrounded by a small cloud of blood, an extending branch of coral reaching up like a calcium-encrusted arm.
Lonnie popped up about fifteen feet away, “Darin? You ok, man?”
“Shit! I got too close and cut my ankle on the reef,” Darin said, wincing.
“We better get you to the boat and get it looked at,” Gene said, emerging on his other side. “Coral stings can get pretty gnarly if they get infected.”
The friends made their way back to the boat, the burning sensation getting progressively worse, rising up Darin’s leg like tentacles of fire.
“Back already?” the boat captain said.
“This one got too close to the reef,” Gene said.
The bronze-skinned captain helped pull Darin up, and Gene and Lonnie quickly followed. They all grimaced at the sight of Darin’s lower leg, it was already swelling, and the gash on his ankle, though only about two inches long, was surrounded by purplish spidery veins that had already risen mid-calf.
“Jesus,” the captain said, “you sure it was coral that cut you?” He knelt down, carefully inspecting the cut. He rummaged about in a compartment and came back with a bottle of isopropyl alcohol. “This is gonna sting,” he said and quickly doused Darin’s wound before he could protest.
Darin’s scream rang over the open water like a Siren song; he began shaking violently, his brow suddenly dripping with sweat. His friends watched in shock at the sight before them. The wound on Darin’s ankle began blooming like a red rose, the purple veins climbing up his legs rapidly. A writhing, bubbling foam began oozing out of the wound as Darin’s desperate pleas continued.
“Holy shit! What the hell is happening?” Lonnie said.
The captain looked mortified. “Dear God, he must be having some allergic reaction. We must get him to shore, now!” The captain rushed to the stern to retrieve the anchor.
“Seawater… must… soak…” Darin said, shuddering. The dark ropes of pain had reached his knee.
Gene and Lonnie were frozen with fear; they stood idly by as Darin slowly lifted himself to the edge of the boat. The opalescent foam seeping from his wound had given way, and when he flipped his striped leg over the side, it appeared as if Darin had a head of cauliflower strapped to his ankle.
“Hey! Get back inside the boat. You need to keep your leg still, so the toxin does not spread faster!” the captain said.
Darin was sighing with relief, both feet swishing in the waves. “No, this helps; it feels better now. I just need to wash away the alcohol…” Suddenly he slipped on the edge of the boat, flipped into the water with a splash, and began sinking rapidly to the ocean floor as if wearing cement boots. For a brief moment, he saw his friends above the surface, staring over the edge of the boat in horrific, shrinking faces. Then he looked down and released his breath in a muffled, underwater shriek of panic. With blurred vision, Darin saw that his entire leg was now encased in a massive skeleton of rapidly calcifying polyps, swiftly climbing his body, blossoming, multiplying at an impossible rate.
He hit the ocean floor with a resounding thud and lost consciousness. The growth had encased both legs and was quickly concealing his stomach and chest. It began spreading over his arms.
The captain quickly donned a mask, hyperventilated, and dove into the water to retrieve Darin. Lonnie and Gene experienced a torrent of crippling emotions, watching the scene unfold as if it was nothing but a nightmare. Moments later, the captain resurfaced. “Quickly, get your masks, help me look! I cannot find him!”
“How’s that possible? He literally fell right here, just moments ago…” Gene uttered, morosely.
“Come on!” Lonnie said, slapping his friend’s back. They dove overboard.
Lonnie, Gene, and the captain dove and resurfaced, dove and resurfaced, scanning the ocean floor for Darin’s body, trying to make sense of it all.
“How could he have disappeared?” Lonnie cried, surfacing for the fourth time. Gene simply muttered: “What the fuck… what the fuck…” Both were too numb to cry, to feel anything really.
Ten feet below the shimmering surface, the captain continued traversing the ocean floor, trying to find his missing passenger. He repeatedly passed directly over a mound of pink and orange cauliflower coral spread across the ocean floor like the Vitruvian Man, glittering in shards of refracted sunlight. He was so busy frantically searching that he failed to notice the small reef grew with each passing, attracting larger numbers of shimmering yellow fish.