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STOWAWAYS

By Clive Carpenter All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Horror

from the short story collection "Brain Matter"

Matt knew he didn’t have much time left to get back to the only remaining lifeboat in the aft end of the huge cargo ship before it, and everyone left on board, was consumed by the towering waves… or before he was consumed by those ungodly things roaming the decks. Along the way, he was going to have to make a pit-stop at the infirmary to catch up with what was left of their crew: Tony, Wallace, Julie and Troy.

Matt had been voted to be the one to run and drop anchor to try to stop the ship from going any further and bringing the threat of the undead into the port of New Orleans. Now, he was a hundred yards further from the lifeboat than he was twenty minutes ago and nearly out of shotgun shells.

Dark, without power, and probably way off course, the massive vessel of steel bobbed in the stormy swells of the Gulf of Mexico like a toy boat in a tub of water. Heavy, dark clouds, highlighted with distant flashes of lightning, blanketed the night sky.

Matt ducked into a room just off the port side deck and took a count of the ammo in his pocket as the ship listed to one side, rocked by a massive wave: 4 shells.

“SHIT!” He dropped one when he lost his balance as the large vessel slammed back down into the water... 3 shells.

His body bounced off of a table in the middle of the room and he stumbled into the wall, dropping the shotgun along with another shell, which rolled under the table before disappearing into the darkness of the room. Matt found his footing and grabbed the gun.

A silhouette blurred passed the open doorway.

Matt flattened himself against the wall and froze.

Another silhouette clamored by, followed closely by a third.

Just then, the vessel was hit by another wave, this time sending a river of seawater through the doorway from the deck just outside. And with the water came the fourth silhouette as it stumbled and fell through the door, gliding along the floor with the gallons of seawater that washed it into the room.

Matt didn't move, not even to raise the gun. He hadn't been this close to one of these things in the two days that the cargo ship had been adrift. And he didn't really care to be any closer, so he wasn't about to give it a reason to look his way for a second.

The ship rocked back to starboard and Matt did his best to keep his balance in the shadows.

The thing stood up, its nude, sinuous body soaked to the bone, literally. Its skin hung in rotting shreds, hanging from the bones and exposing muscle and tissue that must have been decaying for several weeks, only, that couldn't be possible because as far as Matt knew, dead men didn't walk.

What Matt did know was that four days ago, they had picked up a shipment of twenty-four cadavers from Port Au Prince that had been donated to an American medical university.

That night, Chuck, one of the crewmen, reported hearing a knocking coming from the shipping container that held the cadavers and went with the first mate, Riley, to investigate. The things poured from the container like cockroaches and by sunrise all hell had broken loose and everything was out of control. All but five of the crew had been slaughtered by these dead stowaways; ripped apart with bare hands as the things fed on their victims, some eaten while still barely alive. Soon, even the captain and his crew were dead. After that, the ship went dark and was left to drift in the middle of a relentless tropical storm.

Matt was lucky enough to have been in his bunk fast asleep when it happened and was awakened by Troy, his bunk mate, in the midst of the carnage. They were able to find the other three crew members and three weapons, including the shotgun Matt now carried with him.

He had lost his rock-paper-scissors battle over who would drop the anchor. It sucked, yes, but it was easier for one person to elude these things, not to mention the fact that Matt was the youngest and most fit of the five crew members left standing, so it was fitting that fate chose him for the task.

Now, the stowaways roamed the ship day and night like packs of wolves, never alone, attacking anything that had a heartbeat. It didn't appear that they even slept or rested at all. The gut-wrenching smell was the worst part of it and was typically a sure sign that one of these things was in the immediate area. 

The stowaway sniffed the air and Matt was slightly amused by the thought of the walking corpse being able to actually smell anything passed its own, putrid odor.

But, now there was something else in the room making noise; thumping and thrashing in the water that stood an inch deep on the floor. Matt knew exactly what it was, and from the sound of the thumping, it had to be a big one.

The stowaway turned its attention to the big, thumping fish that Matt couldn't see on the other side of the radar console, and let out a loud yelp as if to warn the fish that it washed into the wrong room.

The ship listed again to the port side and Matt stood firm, but the stowaway didn't. It stumbled backward to the floor and slammed against the far wall. Matt could still see it, but what he saw next took his breath away.

The large fish that had washed into the room slid along the floor when the ship tilted. It was a fucking shark!

A big son of a bitch, too, at least ten feet long, and it slid, jaws first, right into the stowaway. They both began attacking each other; the stowaway clawing with his hands and the shark chomping away instinctively with its deadly shredders.

Matt was stunned by the sight and he knew he had to take the chance to escape, but he couldn't take his eyes off of what he saw. Who could? A wrestling match between a man and a shark... on a ship... in the Gulf of Mexico. People would pay top dollar for this shit! Matt watched as one of the stowaway's arms fell to the floor, effortlessly severed by the shark's snapping jaws.

Then, the ship fell back to starboard and Matt lost his balance, sliding on his back, feet-first, in a wash of seawater towards the door. He was followed by the shark and the stowaway.

Matt hit the wall first, just to the left of the door, but it was the big shark that hit the bull's eye as it got stuck, tail first, halfway out the door, stopped only by its fins that made it too wide to go through the door backwards.

The shark thrashed to and fro with the ravenous cadaver in its mouth, still clawing away at its aquatic enemy. Then, the stowaway spotted Matt and decided it didn't want to play with the shark anymore and began reaching for him instead.

Like a raging animal in a trap, the stowaway wiggled and strained to get a hold of Matt, who was well within arms' reach but scrambling fast to widen the gap between them. With each swing of the shark's body, the stowaway got closer and closer, its eyes ever on the prize and clawing with all of its might to get a grip on Matt.

Matt kicked wildly, splashing in the sea water that covered the floor, trying to back away but the rocking of the ship and the wet floor made it nearly impossible to barely stay just out of reach.

The shotgun slid away, but came back moments later when the ship shifted in the water again. Matt snatched it up, fumbled with it for a second, pumped a fresh round into the chamber and did his best to steady it in the stowaway's face.

He pulled the trigger and the shotgun bucked in his grip as the shell exploded, blowing the stowaway's head clean off. It stopped flailing about under its own will and now the shark would decide in which direction the stowaway’s body moved as it continued to chomp and swing the limp cadaver from left to right.

Matt had managed to eliminate one problem, but a thousand-pound, pain in the ass shark still blocked his exit.

The giant ship listed again, hit hard by a mountain of a wave, and Matt was thrown to the other side of the room.

The wave brought another flood of water through the door with enough force to free the shark and shove it back into the room. Its heavy body crashed into the radar console, ripping it from its bolts in the floor, leaving a large piece of metal that opened a deep gash on the belly of the shark. Blood gushed from the wound and the giant fish began to thrash even more in a fit of rage and pain.

The stowaway's headless body was a flopping rag doll still caught in the grip of the shark's mouth as it continued to chomp away, which was all the massive sea creature knew how to do. Well, that and swim, but swimming wasn't an option at the moment.

Matt was a little more than disturbed at the shark's devotion to surviving out of water for so long. He knelt in the far corner of the room hiding from the shark, as if the thing had the ability to lunge at him at any moment. Then, Matt remembered that he had the upper hand… Matt was land walker. Hell yeah! Damned shark!

He grabbed up the shotgun from the watery floor and pumped it once, sending a spray of sea water into the air as a new shell slid into the chamber, and aimed at the giant fish blocking his exit.

“You’re in my way, you fucking sushi bastard!” he yelled.

The ship fell, hard, back into the water after the last wave hit.

Matt lost his balance but squeezed the trigger as he went airborne and the shotgun bucked.

Then, things got dizzy for just a few seconds.

Matt was face-down in the water that had been made bloody by the gash in the shark's belly. He could taste the blood in his mouth as it mingled with the salty water. He pulled his face up, coughed and spit.

Something was different. He could feel the ocean spray on his legs and realized that the ship had tipped enough to cause him to slide halfway out the door onto the narrow starboard deck. He didn't see the shotgun anywhere and at that moment he didn't give a shit. He was just glad to be out of that damned room. Away from that damned shark.

That damned shark? It wasn't in the room anymore. Nor was the twice-dead stowaway.

Matt flipped over onto his back and looked behind him to see that the heavy cable railing had been ripped away. On the jagged remnants of a metal post was a quivering, bloody chunk of the shark and from the way it was hanging, it looked like the big fish had been washed overboard when the ship tipped back this way.

That's when Matt was brought back to the moment as, just beyond the chunk of shark meat, he watched a massive wall of the blackest water he had ever seen closing in fast.

But that wasn't the only thing closing in. On both sides of him, coming even faster, were three stowaways; two from his left and one on his right.

“Fuck!” Matt tried to scramble back into the room but his left leg protested and Matt screamed in agony. He looked down to see his ankle lying at an unnatural angle. In all the excitement he hadn't even noticed it.

He gave himself up to his fate just as the stowaways reached him and began grabbing for him, but the wetness of his skin caused them to claw and gouge his arms and chest. He screamed as he fought hard, punching one and kicking at another. He wasn't sure which was worse, the painful digging and scratching on his flesh or the horrific odor of the dead stowaways.

Matt quickly grabbed one by the throat and squeezed with all his strength, feeling his fingers easily squish through the decayed flesh and tendons. With the flick of his wrist, he felt its fragile neck bones, probably dead for months, snap. The head fell and rolled away and its body went limp. In spite of this tiny victory, Matt knew that wouldn't be enough to stop the mayhem, but there was one thing that would.

Matt took a deep breath and did his best to endure the pain of the attacking stowaways as he reached out and grabbed the doorjamb with both hands, screaming in his head and taking the agony for as long as he could. He knew it wouldn't last much longer.

The mighty wall of black water hit this side of the ship with more force than the last and Matt was weightless as the entire side of the ship was practically submerged. Matt's grip threatened to let go but he held firm.

The stowaways weren't as lucky. They washed over the side like garbage and would feed the fish now.

Matt hit the floor hard on his back and felt the pain shoot through him when his ankle made contact. He let out his breath and a loud scream and lost his grip on the doorjamb, sliding along the wall away from the door with the ebb of the water, and went over the side of the ship.

His hand instinctively shot out for anything to grab and found the jagged post. For a moment, Matt was afraid of squeezing too tight and snapping it like did the stowaway's neck, but he knew it would happen with metal. The problem now was that the blood and ooze from the shark meat impaled on the post had coated its surface and made it difficult to keep his grip.

Matt looked down and watched the ocean quickly fall far beneath him as the ship shifted on the crest of the immense wave and listed to the port side on its way down, lifting him and his half of the massive vessel out of the sea.

His heart stopped for a moment when he realized how minute he was in the overall scheme of things. He figured there was no better time than the present to get philosophical.

Without warning, his hand slipped and he began sliding down the side of the ship's hull.

Then, he felt a tight pressure on his wrist.

It was his bunk mate, Troy.

“I gotcha!” He could barely hear Troy's voice, but he knew what the big country boy had said. Matt tried to reach up with his other hand. “Relax! Don't struggle or I'll lose my grip! Tony's comin’ with a rope!” The sea spray was like a heavy rain and Matt was impressed with the grip that Troy had on him, but, of course, that's what made Troy such a good deckhand.

Matt just hung there, watching the tropical storm play out over the black water, kicking up spray and forming white caps here and there. And there was nothing but darkness all around. The lightening tried to brighten the black clouds in the sky, but failed miserably every time. Matt quickly imagined several giant tentacles shooting out of the dark seas to take him under and how much it would suck to be floating out there with God only knows what lurking beneath him.

The ship reached the bottom of the wave and the sea rose quickly again and the next wave seemed otherworldly… much bigger than the last. Matt's stomach turned at the sight. That little voice in his head told him this was it.

Troy's grip gave away and Matt wasn't sure if his friend let go to save himself from the monster wave approaching or that his own skin was so slick with blood and water that he slipped from Troy’s hand.

In a split-second, Matt was under water and the vortex created by the giant ship would have immediately sealed his fate, but somehow the force of the wave washed Matt far enough away that when he came to the surface; he could barely see the ship as it rolled over the crest of the wave like a tiny leaf in a river of white water.

Before he knew it, he was far above the ship, looking down on it from the top of the wave. All of his scratches and cuts from the stowaways didn't get along very well with the salty sea water, they burned like hell. And his ankle screamed at him as he kicked wildly, trying to stay afloat.

Then, he watched the next wave take the ship below the surface, as if a giant hand rose from the depths and yanked it down to the ocean floor.

Matt rode the next wave, his mind racing, not knowing what to do next. He was alone, adrift. Scared.

Then, something hit him and the sky disappeared without warning and his lungs filled with water as he tried to scream from the immense pressure on his chest.

Too much pain! His lungs ached and his eyes bulged as he gasped for the air that he knew he would never breathe again. His ribs cracked and he could feel them puncture his lungs and it all happened too damned slow as he felt himself going deeper and deeper below the surface. He didn't know which way was up anymore and it didn't matter.

In less than a minute – the longest last minute of his life - it was all over and Matt would join Troy, the stowaways and the rest of the crew at the bottom of the gulf.

Damned shark.

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