Edition 31: Reef by Kat Clay
You find obnoxious young men everywhere, but Brayson gets more than he bargained for with his callous disregard for the environment. Doesn’t he know Australia’s out to kill you? Kat Clay’s literal interpretation of the theme made Story Quest’s shortlist of excellent submissions. – SY
I’m an absolute dickhead, I know. I’m that guy you hate on your Ibiza tour. I got a six pack you can crack open and a backpack stuffed with duty free grog and condoms. No excuses. YOLO.
Aussie’s been on my bucket list since forever. Best beaches, hot birds, perfect place to make peeps at home jelly with #travelporn. Better than English beaches anyway, all pebbles and bad weather. Got a great deal on this cruise off an Airlie Beach whiteboard. Fifty quid for three nights on the Great Barrier Reef all food included.
The plan: get drunk. Get tanned. Get laid. All on a yacht parked dead-set in the Whitsundays, surrounded by water so clear you could see someone piss in it. I dive bomb off the side of the boat, huge splash into the sea. Afternoon sun hot on my head. I scoop my arms through the water.
“Ya can’t go swimming when you’re drunk mate,” shouts the guide with a beer in his hand. “Why don’t’ya come back on board. Help him in boys.”
There’s a great girl-guy ratio on this boat. Only four blokes and double that in girls. Most of ’em potted as piss, from tipsy to barely standing. I grab my way up the ship side on the net ladder.
The guide reaches his hand out for me and heaves me over the railing, beer still in hand. “Come on up mate, that’s right. Want another drink?” he asks. Does he need to?
Few beers later, I pull my shorts down and wave my willy over the top. Them ladies, they love it. Most of them turn over on their towels and pretend to ignore me, but secretly, they’re checking me out. The other lads on the boat got nothing on me. They’re all here staring at me and all I suck the attention in. Not my fault I live for every eye on me.
One of the girls is real hot—triangle bikini held on by a bit of string, sunburnt shoulders, blonde hair. Lise—turns out she’s an Essex girl—and I got her eye and she’s got mine.
“I’ll take you on later,” she says, touching the tribal tatt on my arm.
A bit of cheeky flirting, sun goes down and we shag. Down in her cabin on a tiny double bed, ain’t got room enough for both of us to lay side by side once we’re done.
Whoever made the sun ain’t never had a hangover. I roll over once more on my bed, the sunshine too cheery for my wrecked body. Reef day. Eventually I gotta eat something. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. When I get up on deck, everyone who’s awake’s wearing sunglasses.
“Maaate, rough night?” asks Aussie Nate. He’s alright, what. Met him in Airlie Beach and we been travelling together so far.
“You better believe it,” I say, humping my hips in the direction of Lise. I’m still kinda drunk.
She crooks her little finger at me, “This big I tells ya.”
Round about elevensies the tide sits low across the reef. Bleached coral pokes out from the ocean, ringed by some crusty ocean junk. The guide calls us over and we bunch around a bucket of snorkels in the centre of the yacht, between the sun loungers and sailing ropes. Boring safety talk yeah. Guide tries to be cool about it but he’s too old, clinging onto his twenties. How hard can snorkeling be?
I love to be a cheeky bastard, so I stick my hand up. “’Scuse me, question. What if you piss on the coral?”
The guide, who’s been alright until now, says, “Don’t touch the reef. The coral’s a living organism”—pfft “Orgasm!”—“A lot of it has poison on the tips to capture and eat fish. Plus you’re in a National Park. It’s an offence to disturb the wildlife.”
“Too late, did it last night,” I say.
Lise throws dirties at me. She knew what she was in for. I strip down to my boardies and wolf howl, running my hands over my abs in front of Lise, pushing my boardies just below my pubes.
“Keep your pants on,” she says, slipping on a stinger suit.
I peel on a neoprene suit and look like a giant black condom with flippers. Gotta walk backwards to the ocean. “Bottoms up.” I jump in.
The cool water’s a relief from the sun. A school of metallic fish hovers ’round the yacht. I try to touch ’em but they skive off. Water the same colour as a Blue Daquiri. Wait ’til all me mates at home see me on the Great Barrier Reef.
I paddle past Lise and the girls, who swim side by side with their phones dangling from waterproof baggies. The reef really ain’t that great. Looks like all these different colours on telly. Really it’s got loads of brown coral. A few starfish. No sharks. No giant stingrays. I paid good money to come and see this. May as well take some photos. What good’s travel if you can’t brag about it?
I swim around for a bit, kicking the flippers to see how fast and how far I can get from the boat. I go under to get closer to the coral, but my snorkel fills with water. End up with a mouthful of saltwater coughing and spluttering and trying to get air. Geez what I’d give for a drink right now. The small white boat reflects the sun like a mirror. I’m out further than I thought. The guide signals to me the okay from the yacht. I give him a thumbs up. I don’t need no help.
I drift, looking down at the reef through my goggles. It drops away to the ocean floor, an endless spit of night in the sea. There’s nothing there in that big, damn abyss. And all of a sudden it gets to me, as if I’m falling in water. Back to the reef.
In between an anemone and a giant clam, a small red sheet of coral grabs my attention. I never seen something like it; sure stands out from all the bleached coral. Could take it home for me mam, and it’s not that far down either. I can make it easy if I hold my breath. No one round.
On three. I take a deep breath and dive down, grabbing at the coral on the way. Shards fall off the edge into the abyss behind me. Stuff it. Who cares if some coral breaks off? Fish scoot outta the way. My arm kills for a second; suit’s ripped on a slice of coral as thin and sharp as a knife. Suck it up.
Almost outta breath I lunge for the red coral, scrabbling past swaying pink tentacles.
It’s soft, not hard like it looked. I reach further, deeper, until I feel something hard and pull. A shard of red coral. I kick back to the surface, clenching the coral tight.
Sharp teeth curl out from tiny holes and burrow into my skin. I rip it off and yank my hand back. Salt water burns like the pain of a tattoo needle. The coral floats for a moment, and then sinks. My blood in the water. Fuck.
Trust Aussie to try and kill me. I’d been warned by me mates about funnelwebs and boxing kangas and drop bears. Not to mention the man-eating sharks. But coral; what a wank.
I stalk a line of fish along the reef back to the boat, holding my hand to my chest. Climbing the ladder with one hand’s a bloody nuisance, but I haul myself onto the mesh platform and get the flippers off. The day feels warmer, dryer than when I’d got into the water, even though it’s late afternoon. The cut’s stopped bleeding a bit; but there’s these freaky circular sores around my hand.
The guide pulls out a first aid kit, cleans out the specks of coral. He dabs the wound with iodine and wraps a gauze patch over it with bandages and tape. “No more swimming for you. At least until this has healed.”
“Just give me a beer, it’ll fix everything. In’t that right boys!” I punch the air to cheers. Aussie Nate throws me a beer. I catch it with my good hand, wedge it under the bottle opener and pour it over my face.
I stay up late, until after everyone’s gone to bed. I watch the stars in the black-blue sky and the ripples on the water from the light on the ship. The night goes on forever.
Lise comes and finds me. “You okay Brayson?” she asks.
She’s not a bad girl, a sweetheart under the fake tan.
“Yeh, I’m fine,” I say. I almost want to tell her about me dad, but I don’t. I peel the label off the beer bottle. When she clears out, I throw it into the ocean.
The crew drops us off at Airlie Beach marina in the morning. “Hope you had a good time. Make sure you go get that looked at,” says the guide. Gives me a friendly farewell pat like we’re mates or something.
But I’ve got the whole weekend ahead, birds to meet, parties to attend. Why spend my money on a doctor? It looks fine. Just a bit red and sore.
Me and Nate check into the cheapest hostel on the strip and hit up a bar which promises $10 meals with a free drink. Liquid lunch. Liquid dinner. So thirsty. How’d it get so late again?
“So why’d you come to Australia?” asks Nate. General backpacker chit-chat: where’re you from? Why’re you here? Where’re you going?
“You know, the usual. Aussie birds have a reputation. Blonde, tanned. Easy lay.”
He laughs at me. “You can’t really believe that? Been watching too much TV. Nah really, why’re you here?”
Why am I here? I didn’t want to leave me Mam, but she wanted me to go. Gotta start fresh. Experience life. Meet new people. After Dad died, I took me inheritance and said see you later. Bastard thought a few quid could make up for years of being a shitty parent.
Music throbs through the bar speakers. I dance with a hot Brazillian and her munted friend. The chick points at my bandage over the music, mouthing something at me. She gives up with a look of disgust. My hand’s bleeding again.
I go to the loo—effing fungal—and open up the bandage next to two dudes snorting coke. Blood seeps from the tiny holes. Small lumps pulse under my skin.
I jump back from the basin and look again. Nothing. Drunk, that’s all. I grab a wad of cheap loo paper and wrap it over my hand.
2AM I bang my way into the dorm room. Can’t see a bloody thing. Turn on the light.
“Turn the light off,” shouts some wanker.
“Don’t tell me what to do,” I shout. “Or I’ll piss on you!” Even I know that’s a bit far but I need to get to the bathroom. My stomach’s going to exit in his suitcase if I don’t.
I switch on the fluorescent bathroom light. What would Mam do about this?
I pull the toilet paper off my hand. Circular red welts lace the skin. Pus weeps from the cuts. And…oh geez. Tentacles probe under my hand, stabbing out through the rings. I spew into the loo. They’re still there. They come and go, in and out. I can feel each movement as if it’s a part of me, waving and writhing in the air.
I scrub my hand with the clammy pink communal soap. Gotta get these out.
I peel each tentacle out slowly, ripping at my skin. They keep crawling back like leeches, little buggers. At the bottom of each, a tiny circular mouth full of pulsing teeth. They writhe in the stainless steel basin. I run boiling water over them for minutes before they turn limp. Fresh blood drips from my hand onto the white tiles. Whole place trashed like a rock band on a bender. At least the fuckers are out.
Gradually everyone in the dorm room floats away. I should be used to it by now. People always coming and going. Best friends for a day. Nate drives north with some mates in search of a surf beach. A whole new bunch of backpackers talk about going to the reef and what’s the best price for a yacht cruise while I lay here posting pictures of my hand. Sympathy votes. What happened? LLL xx luv you Brayson.
It’s pretty well healed. I’m sick of sitting on the beach and watching hot birds go by. Swimming’s where it’s at and damned if I’m going to miss out. This is meant to be the big year, where I hit up every continent and sleep with a girl from every country. So far it’s only been England, which is a shit start, and I’m already falling behind. I rip off my shirt and sprint towards the waves, jumping the crests as they roll in, angling for a fit girl swimming by herself.
I don’t catch her name. Long blond hair. Sweden is horny. She runs her fingers down my chest. “My hostel’s across the lagoon,” she says. An invitation.
Dorm room for six. No one round. We get naked with the window wide open, among wet clothing strewn from backpackers too cheap to pay for the dryer. Awkward moves on the bottom bunk, not screwed together quite right. She reaches down my pants and pulls her hand out quickly.
“Get off me!” she shouts. “What you got down there? Crabs? That thing’s moving.”
“The fuck you mean?” I say, still trying to kiss her.
She pushes me away, grabs her clothes and runs for the bathroom. The door clicks shut.
In the sunlight, so bright, so blue, my dick is infected. If it happened to anyone else, it would be funny. I’d be there laughing at them. But under the skin are these pustule things. Moving. Swarming and swaying under my foreskin. My hands shake. I look in the mirror. Red marks on across my cheeks, neck, down my chest, following the veins of my arms and legs. I’d thought it was sunburn.
I punch the mirror. The glass cracks. My hand bleeds.
Stay calm right. Doc can take a look at this. But this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen.
I grab a taxi and head straight for hospital, tapping my foot, looking out the window. Traffic even in this part of the world. Through to emergency. A woman white as sand shivers in the corner. She gives me the creeps.
“’Scuse me,” I say at the desk. “I need to see a Doctor. It’s an emergency.”
“I’ll get your details,” says the admitting nurse, not as urgent as I would like. This ain’t an emergency to her: probably thinks I’m some dickwad backpacker what drunk too much. She pushes across a wooden clipboard. Date of birth, country of birth, tick tick, cross cross, sign. I slump in a beige plastic chair screwed into the floor, as if anyone would steal them.
Waiting rooms: same the world over. Beige plastic chairs. Grey lino. The geezer next to me hacks up yellow phlegm into his hand and wipes it on his shorts.
People around me come and go. Paramedics in their blue jumpsuits swipe into secret rooms, and I wanna follow them to wherever they’re going and scream for help. The boy with the broken arm floats away. The pale woman faints, the room swells around her. People hover like fish around polyps.
My body is changing; it’s pulsing and shaking under my skin. Whatever’s in me crawls through my veins. Arteries swell up and release along my arms. Shit, shit, shit. I sit there and dig my nails into my hand to deal with the pain. And above everything else I feel thirsty, like there’s not enough water in the world.
I chug water from a dispenser in the corner and watch the air bubbles rise and break. The cup crunches in my hand. A doctor calls my name. I follow him down a long lino corridor.
“What’s the nature of your problem?” the doctor asks.
I sit with my legs dangling off a clean hospital bed. “I got something in me doc. I feel like it’s crawling under my skin.” I pull down my pants and show him, the glands and veins all swollen along my dick. It’s gotten worse.
“Have you had unprotected sex in the last month?” he asks. I shake my head. The Doctor gives me this look, complete dirty, and then puts his professional face back on. The speech is coming. Wear condoms. Practice safe sex. I’d heard it enough from Mam. The doctor snaps on a latex glove.
The skin bulges in rows of circular nodules. He swabs a cotton bud over the raw patches. They move. Doc jumps back. It’s not just me then. I’m not going crazy.
“Have you got a rash anywhere else?” he asks.
“Don’t think so, but I cut my hand snorkeling the other day. Please, doc. You gotta fix me. I don’t know what’s going on.”
I unwrap the bandage from my hand. It catches in the final roll. Yank it off. My hand is covered in coral like one of them gloves that knights wear. It stinks like bins on a hot summer’s night. Doctor stares. Doesn’t say nothing for a minute. Calls over another doctor. They talk in hushed voices over near the nurses’ desk. Comes back.
“We’ll send your swab for analysis, but in the meantime, it’s best if you’re admitted.”
They make me fill out a bunch of forms with me other hand and usher me into a paper robe and a white room with a snoring codger and some geezer who looks just about dead.
“Do I have to share with these guys?” I ask, but the nurse isn’t having any of it.
I’m alone, but not alone. A school of med students swim by to poke and prod me and speculate on what I’ve got. I look out the window and try to ignore them. Focus on the water. My arms begin to ache. The burning rash burrows through my veins, pulling magnetically towards the sea.
I dodge in and out of sleep. Dreams of floating, losing all the skin on my body, being weightless, back on the reef again. I wake, desperate for water. Press the buzzer, again and again. An annoyed nurse gets me a sippy cup of water, like I’m some kid.
“Got any grog around here?” I ask. But somehow I don’t want it anymore.
This place, it don’t take my act. They don’t pay attention when I want it. They don’t give me time of day and they couldn’t care less if withered up and died right here. I’m a thing to them, a freak of nature. Something to be studied and tossed away.
My skin stretches like a circus tent. Scales of dry skin flake onto the hospital sheets. It cracks red in the places between. Doctors are called. They scrape my skin for samples, pulling out pieces of coral from my skin. It burns. A nurse stabs me with an IV. More blood tests. My left arm’s bruised with holes. Time passes, and I feel something at last in my mind. Something is opening up. It’s under my skull plate and moving amongst my mind, probing and searching.
Night comes. A woman walks past the open ward door. A memory of her wanders through my mind. Lise. I call out her name.
Her head pops back ‘round the corner. “Brayson? What’s wrong with you?”
I hold up my hand, covered in red coral armour. My fingers, layered tentacles, swaying with blood.
She steps back, grasping her face. “The fuck?” she says, scared. “Am I gonna get like that Brayson? Tell me it ain’t an STD.”
“It’s from the coral Lise,” I said. “What you doing here anyway?”
She backs towards the door. “Melonie. Drank too much. Had to get her stomach pumped.”
She’s almost gone when I say, “Do one thing for me Lise, call me mam. Tell her to come. It’s an emergency. Don’t tell her what’s wrong with me.”
She dials. No answer. I turn to the side of my pillow, facing away from Lise. I can’t let her see me like this, with the salt water down my face. I won’t be the guy who cries. Dad cried, or so they tell me.
Lise moves to go.
“Can’t you stay, just a bit longer?” I lean out to touch her. Two days ago, her skin lay next to mine. She moves out of my reach.
“I gotta check on Melonie,” she says and runs out the door.
I lie there listening to my own heavy breathing. And I know what it was like for Dad looking into the abyss. No one to hold your hand. He left message after message after message and still I didn’t go. He died alone in the black hole that’s the night.
Morning I go to piss. I feel lighter. My mind’s got a clarity it hasn’t had for days. The colours are brighter. I lift the flap of my hospital gown. No, this isn’t real. This can’t be happening, not to me, not after everything that’s happened, this is meant to be the trip of a lifetime where I—
Layer on layer of sharp, sharded coral. I touch it lightly. The coral cuts the tentacles on my hand. Piss dribbles from underneath. Salt water bleeds down my cheeks. I stare into the mirror, scrabbling at my face. Putrescent purple tentacles stab through my cheeks, lapping at the water. They follow the source, emerging from my body like an eel searching for food, until they find my tear ducts. I grab at them desperately with my hands, but my hidden fingers only scratch my forehead. The searching coral crawls in through my eye ducts, stinging them with burning poison. My tear ducts burst, as feelers weave through my nasal cavity. I am a mess of blood and water.
Coral erupts from my skin. I feel it first, like an earthquake in my body. It shakes, tremors, and then breaks through. I scream and bleed onto the white floor, curling up in agony. Polyps multiply in my flesh, breaking down the muscle behind them to reform and grow. Calcium spews from my bones, stretching the skin beneath until it breaks from the pressure. And I can feel it in my head, under the shell of my skull, changing and squeezing my brain until it’s not me anymore and I’m becoming something else and I begin to see the patterns everywhere of things moving and being and swaying in the world. And we are one.
A mass of brain coral bulges from our head like a tumor. Every part of us is dry. We must go home or we will die. We need the reef. We need fish to swim between our branches. We need salt water through our sheaves. We need the abyss to take us in our death.
As we walk, our encrusted feet break out of their rind. We pull their tubes from our limbs and leak the bag of water onto our skin. Heart monitors beep through quiet corridors. We walk past the desk where night nurses shimmer around a light. Through the door, the soft whump, whump of endless rotating glass.
We leave a trail of detritus, leading a slow shuffle to the sea.
Kat Clay is a writer and photographer from Melbourne, Australia. In 2017, she was longlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger award for her unpublished novel, Victorianoir. She has been nominated for the Ditmar Award and received an honourable mention in the Australian Horror Writers Association Shadows Awards for non-fiction criticism. Her novella, Double Exposure, was released in 2015 with Crime Factory and was longlisted for the Davitt Award for Australian women’s crime fiction. Kat’s work has featured in The Victorian Writer, Literary Traveler and Weird Fiction Review.
Twitter handle: @kat_clay