An excerpt from the novel by Spencer Fleury
Even with that overpriced wetsuit, I was freezing. The Gulf of Mexico was an ice bath. The cold air scratched my lungs. I was gulping down mouthfuls of it as I dragged that paddle through seawater that felt as thick as treacle, trying to force that kayak shoreward. But I was flailing already, and any forward progress I made was through sheer stubbornness alone. I kept trying to gain the entire five miles with each stroke, to put this entire ordeal behind me with a single thrust. But after maybe ten minutes or so, my arms were overstretched elastic, flaccid and spent.
I was just about ready to start panicking—I know, panicking after only ten minutes, pathetic—when this feeling of deep calm just radiated outward from my core. Technique. That’s what I needed to focus on, and I knew that because every single one of the kayaking how-to videos I’d watched on YouTube emphasized the importance of proper paddling technique. Especially in rough conditions like these. And proper paddling technique has just three steps: catch, rotate and recover. It really is that simple. Do that and you’ll maximize the power of each stroke while minimizing the effort required to make them. So I forced myself to throttle down on my panic, to slow my arms and unwind my torso with each stroke, to just dip the blade of the paddle instead of plunging the whole thing into the water. Before long I felt like I was—for the first time since ditching the Island Runner—in control of this overmatched piece of molded plastic. Even if I wasn’t making much headway.
I was lucky to have made it off the Island Runner at all. But you can plan and plan for a thing like that and still not anticipate every potential breakdown. For one thing, there’s nowhere to hide from the flames on a boat that small. I had known that perfectly well before I started the fire. But when I got to the rail, the kayak wasn’t quite so close aboard anymore—it had drifted a few feet off, and now I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it in a simple leap like I had been expecting. It was still in range of the boat hook, but I’d left that on the other side of the boat, and I’d have to cross through the fire to get it.
So I gauged the distance to the kayak again. It looked far, impossibly far, much too far to jump. But then again, I was several feet higher than the kayak, so maybe I’d get a few extra feet out of the height difference alone. I wasn’t sure I could make it, but it looked like I probably could. Barely. Maybe.
But by then it didn’t matter, because the flames had spread more quickly than I’d expected, and now the only way back to shore was on that kayak. There wasn’t a choice anymore. I climbed up onto the gunwale, took a deep breath and sprung forward, reaching out with both arms and sort of kicking my right leg out in front of me as far as I could—
—and at that exact moment, a quiet little roller of a wave emerged from under the boat and bumped the kayak a little further out.
My arms came down hard across the kayak’s stern and my legs splashed down and dragged through the ocean behind me.
I’m in the water. Shit shit shit shit shit.
I reached forward, looking for purchase on the seat or the paddle or anything that would let me hold on to this empty plastic shell and keep it from sliding out from under me like a watermelon seed squeezed between thumb and forefinger. Then the backpack’s left strap loosened, not enough to slide off completely but definitely enough to throw my balance out of whack, and just when I thought I was about to slip off the hull, my fingers finally found the cockpit coaming.
Got you, you bastard! I actually thought that. Like the kayak could read my mind.
At that point, the trick was going to be getting out of the water and into the kayak without capsizing it. I swung my left leg out of the water, trying to stretch far enough to reach the cockpit with my foot. Once I found it, I hooked my foot under the forward deck and, using that as leverage, somehow managed to roll myself on top of the kayak and slide into the seat.
I was in. I was in. Oh man.
My heart hammered away against my sternum. Thududududududup. Christ, that was close. But I couldn’t dwell on that, not if I wanted to be sure I’d have the confidence to actually paddle through all this shit for five miles. So I tried not to think about anything as I unhooked the paddle from its thick rubber strap. My arms trembled the entire time.
It was finally dark now, really dark, the kind of dark that a man wearing a black wetsuit can get good and lost in. I could see lights in the distance, on shore somewhere, maybe from a low-rent beachfront motel parking lot, or some nondescript beach bar where a potbellied bald guy warbled an endless loop of Jimmy Buffett songs for tourists too drunk to know any better. Those lights looked impossibly far off. But my compass told me that’s where I was going, so I hunched forward and dug into the water, pushing forward.
Spencer Fleury has worked as a sailor, copywriter, economics professor, and record store clerk, among other disreputable professions. He was born in Michigan, spent most of his life in Florida, and now lives in San Francisco. How I’m Spending My Afterlife is his first novel. More at spencerfleury.com