An excerpt from my novel ‘Black Tide’

Image courtesy of Wallpaper Flare.

This is a scene from my novel “Black Tide,” which I hope to begin shopping to an agent later this year or next.

In this scene, Fred, Heather and Scotty are trapped on a spoil island in Santa Rosa Sound after a killer phytoplankton moved through the area the day before, releasing a toxic cloud that transformed animals and people into maniacal killers that are extremely light-sensitive – they burst into flames when their skin is touched by sunlight or even the light of a flashlight.

A man by the name of DeVries tried to rescue them the night before but was attacked by one of these changed people and is now undergoing the change himself. They have placed him in one of their tents to protect him from the light.

We slept until late in the morning, almost 11. We’d been awake all night, none of us daring to nod off, none of us able to relax to the point that sleep could overtake us. The island was surrounded by stealthy noises – surreptitious splashing, the plod of wet feet on sand, the occasional animal cry of pain. And from the mainland there were strange goings-on too, occasional flickers of light, weird hooting sounds, and other occurrences that set our nerves on edge. Once I thought I saw movement over there, something big. But my mind rejected it because it was impossible. Nothing that big could move. Scotty had kept a frantic vigil with the flashlight until about 5:30 or so, when the sun had warmed the eastern horizon with a suffocating pinkish hue. The sounds of disturbance had faded, then, as the things moved to deeper water. Scotty and Heather took the opportunity to drag DeVries, who had begun to moan and squirm, into one of the tents. If the flashlight was capable of causing his flesh to combust, the full light of the sun would produce a more … energetic reaction. The tent would afford at least some protection.

All of us, then, had collapsed into what for me was fugue-like sleep.

I awakened to find Scotty and Heather standing on the beach, taking in a very different and unfriendly world in the light of day.

Across the water, fires still burned out of control. From the bridge to the east to as far as I could see west, individual plumes of oily black smoke merged into a single pall that drifted northward. I uttered a silent prayer of thanks for that – all we needed was a stinking smoke cloud to add another layer of misery to our already miserable situation. In some areas, forestland had been ignited and was burning in a solid wall of flames producing sheets of whitish smoke. I couldn’t imagine what the damage from this catastrophe would be.

Closer, Santa Rosa Sound presented an equally unsettling sight. The surface was layered with dead fish, dead birds, dead animals … and in some cases the bodies of people floating amidst the carnage. Why these animals and people had not been transformed into the things that had attacked us at night, I couldn’t be sure. Their exposure to the toxin had been sufficient to cause death, but they had not undergone the strange metamorphosis that had changed people into nocturnal lurkers. In a former life I would have been intrigued by the challenge of researching what had happened here. But given our circumstances, all I wanted was to get off this island.

DeVries had said the authorities were sending people to find out what had taken place and look for survivors. If we could signal them – enough debris had washed ashore that we could lay out an SOS on the sand using boards and other flotsam. Or we could start a fire – not that one more fire would work as a signal. To be honest, I had no other ideas.

As we stood there, pondering the awfulness of the world around us, DeVries’ voice carried through the nylon weave of the tent at a near-shriek: ‘I’m thirsty!’

Heather sighed and turned to go up the beach. “I don’t know why he keeps saying that,” she mumbled, more to herself than anyone else. “I give him water but he won’t drink it.”

“That’s ’cause it’s not blood,” Scotty murmured and cast a furtive glance my way. He had turned his hat around so that the bib faced forward, the MAGA staring me directly in my face. Ironic, I thought. America, or at least this cranny of America, didn’t seem so great at the moment. Looking at no one, he whispered it again, “Blood,” and I didn’t respond, partly because I knew if I did it would only encourage him to further provocations, and partly because there was the chance he was right … in a way. If it were not fresh water the creatures craved, then some other component of human metabolism must be involved. At the moment I was too tired and frightened to think about it.

Heather had crawled halfway into the tent to check on DeVries when she called, “Guys. I think you’d better come look at this.” I didn’t want to look at anything, to be honest, and I could tell Scotty felt the same way because for a moment, neither one of us moved. Then Heather shouted again, “Guys!” and we both rotated and began tramping through the sand toward the pair of tents. Heather’s ass jutted from the flap and I tried not to appear too interested. I didn’t glance Scotty’s way to see if he were appraising my level of interest. Instead, I let my gaze drop to the sand.

Heather backed out of the tent, her face pinched into an expression of worry. She looked at me and said, “Fred, something’s … happening.”

I dropped to my knees and crawled forward, into the tent, which reeked of unnameable odors, some human and others unidentifiable. It was stifling inside, yet DeVries’ body vibrated as if a high-voltage current were arcing through his nerves. I recalled old black-and-white film reels on YouTube about the Pacific campaign during World War II, and the men who’d been stricken with malaria. This looked just like that. I laid the palm of my hand across DeVries’ forehead, expecting it to be clammy, but instead felt an uncharacteristic chill. His head whipped back and forth and he whispered, “Thirsty – thirsty – ” as saliva flecked with blood leaked from the corner of his mouth. I peeled away the sticky mat of T-shirt that covered his wound and reared back, revolted by what I saw. The bite was blackened as if cauterised. Tendrils the color of road tar had begun spidering through the flesh, following the paths of blood vessels. It looked for all the world as if an alien infection were consuming his body. Osmotic pressure within the veins caused them to bulge to obscene proportions.

“I’m thirsty!” DeVries moaned, this time with greater vigor. In fact, the tone of his voice carried the hint of a demand.

“Heather, can you get me a bottle of water? Let’s see if I can get him to drink.”

She scrambled away as Scotty said something in a low voice about DeVries and how we should have gotten rid of him the night before. I felt a hot breath surge through me but I bit back on commenting. Then Heather was back, handing me the water through the tent flap. Though it had been sitting out in the sun, the bottle felt worlds cooler than the sweat lodge of a tent. I unscrewed the cap and placed the lip of the bottle at DeVries mouth. “Try to drink some of this,” I told him, and reached around to hold up his head.

“I’m thirsty!” he shouted. Spit flew. I felt squeamish disgust as a fleck landed on my cheek.

“I’m thirsty!” he whispered as I tilted the bottle and poured the water between his lips. I began to feel a crawling sensation of tension, knowing that something was about to happen.

“Thirsty thirsty thirsty – ” he chanted, shaking his head and spraying the inside of the tent with blood-tainted water. I rocked back on my heels and the bottle slipped from my fingers, the water gurgling out in languid gulps to pool in the tent bottom.

“Thirsty!” DeVries whispered again and sat up, bending at the waist, a ventriloquist’s doll brought to sudden and horrible life. His eyes snapped open and they were as blank and blanched as boiled eggs. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.

His head rotated as he seemed to sense me, and some horrid recognition of appetite crept into his features, and at this moment I could swear a smile formed on those chapped and scorched lips so that I scrabbled away toward the opening in the tent. His hand flew out lightning fast, faster than I would have believed anybody in his condition could have moved, and he whispered “I am thirsty” and opened his mouth to reveal teeth that were coated with a kind of dark, clinging mucus that hung in snotty, glutinous strands as he grabbed my hair and began dragging me toward him.

I shoved my palm into his chest and blurted, “Shit – shit – shit, he’s got me! Pull me out!” and heard Scotty swear and rip open the flap to grab my arm. DeVries snarled and leaned in close, his teeth snapping as they sought hold of my flesh. I pushed with all my strength, made stronger by the electric current of terror burning through me, and held him away as he gibbered and writhed and struggled to bring me into his embrace. Scotty was hauling me back and now Heather had grabbed me around the waist, and I began to slide toward the tent opening. DeVries uttered puppy-like whining noises and redoubled his efforts, and I felt my body going back inside, toward what I knew would be a certain and grotesque death. I used my free hand to punch him in the testicles – one, two, three times in rapid succession – and his reaction was to let loose with an animal cry of rage and yank on my head with superhuman strength.

“Jesus Christ! Get him!” Scotty yelled and Heather grunted, “I’m trying!” I could smell the swampy, fetid stench of DeVries’ breath, and his skin rippled beneath my touch as though I were grasping a plastic bag filled with live eels. I shifted my grip from his chest to his throat and I could feel him trying to bend at the neck to get his teeth into my wrist.

Scotty wrapped his arms around my chest and heaved a mighty heave and I heard a tearing sound, like a Velcro fastener being undone, and a swath of my hair ripped loose as the three of us tumbled out the opening. We stared at each other – I’m not sure we understood what had happened – when DeVries growled and launched himself from the tent.

I threw myself out of his path and jumped to my feet as he came at me. His arms were outstretched and his fingers hooked into claws, and as he sprinted toward me his flesh began to wrinkle and burn.

I ran.

He began screaming as he chased me down the beach, his voice gone beyond anything that sounded human. I snatched a quick glance over my shoulder and saw that he was consumed by fire, a trail of greasy smoke unfurling behind him. His eyes had begun to smoulder and as I watched, they popped into blowtorches of flame.

Still, he came after me.

I felt my chest heaving and my lungs burning, my lack of conditioning now a fatal flaw. I moved out of the soft sand and into the hardpack area between the island proper and the water to improve my footing, and when I looked back he not only was still there but was gaining on me, now an obscene caricature of a human being, blackened and trailing smoke and flames. My thighs began to ache. A knot was forming in my side. I did not know what was worse – the physical pain I was feeling or the horror of seeing this … this thing pursuing me.

Finally, I could run no more. The pain was too great. I could not take another step.

The shoreline was littered with debris. I snatched up a board and whirled around, holding it before me like a knight prepared for a joust. DeVries slammed into the end of the board, nearly knocking it from my grasp, and reached out with flaming arms to grab me.

His reach was short. Thank God.

And I held him that way, as the fire cooked his flesh into sizzling black chunks and his screams of hunger and rage diminished to an inhuman croaking. I held him at board-point and felt myself crying as his tendons snapped and his muscles gave way to the flames and he dropped to his knees.

I was still standing there as he burned to a crisp in front of me.