“Eat the fish…eat the fish…eat the fish!”
Jake Chee eyed the fish and winced, felt immediately queasy. Nearly two-feet long the thrashing fish had no chance of jerking free from the cabled arms that clutched it, shoving it closer in time with the ever-escalating goading chorus.
“Eat the fish…eat the fish…eat the fish!”
Jake raised an acknowledging palm, nodded and flashed a rehearsed ya-got-me smile. As a greenhorn on a deep-sea fishing trawler he knew this moment would likely arrive. He’d heard about the ritual, had seen it play out on the occasional episode of Deadliest Catch. He knew if he was to be accepted by his crewmates he’d have to partake in the high-seas hazing…and take a bite of the fish. He had played the event out in his mind a hundred times, so he was mentally prepared for the challenge…or so he thought.
But the fish…something was off.
He felt the sting of vomit in his throat as he glanced at the writhing fish that had just been handed to him—a huge Pacific halibut. One hand around the pectoral, the other coiling around a grossly distended abdomen, viscera shifting like a bag of Penne in cheese sauce as fingers tightened, scales going pinecone with bloat. At first Jake thought it was gravid with roe, maybe an air engorged swim bladder. But looking closer he could see that it was something more. With hideously swollen eyes and an angry red sore stamped on its flank, Jake realized the fish was sick. An infection, maybe cancer.
Shit, he wailed in his mind.
Show no fear, he thought biting back nausea. I have a mission to complete, reminding himself; I can’t blow my cover. No self-respecting fisherman would be afraid to bite into the fish, even if it had just been freshly yanked from the sea, dreadfully malformed and wiggling like a worm cut for bait. Grotesque as it all was—not to mention the fact that the act would kill an innocent animal, the very critter and its kin Jake was here to try and protect—like the fish, there was simply no way to squirm free. Sacrifices, he knew, sometimes had to be made.
A hand clapped down on his back, bony fingers kneading his shoulder. “Let’s go, Jake Chee-eezburger,” a voice said, rewiring his last name with an insulting suffix. “This is your moment to be the man. You know what to do!”
Smiling to hide his annoyance Jake turned. The offending hand belonged to Brett Stubelt. No surprise. Brett was the deck boss and oldest son of the ships’ Captain, Brett Stubelt Senior. At five-foot-seven and 145 pounds soaking wet Brett Jr. was a scrawny pissant with classic little-man complex. With dark eyes, a reedy physique, and the washed-out skin of boiled chicken he reminded Jake of an extra in a second-rate zombie flick. The guy you see lurching amongst the cold shuffling throng an instant before getting his head blown off in a gory ground-beef spay of cheap pre-CGI special effects.
Often referring to himself in third person as The Brett-ster, Brett Stubelt Jr. was as pompous as he was surly, and spoke—or more often shouted—with a squeaky red-neck voice possessing the octave range of a dull chain saw whining through knotty hardwood. His voice, Jake found, to be near perfect personification of his ways. Onboard, he was as unpredictable as the seas and carried himself with the chest-puffed bravado of a clichéd Hollywood mob boss, his authority not so much earned as anointed. Strutting around ship with the kind of spray-on ego afforded by nepotism and the protection of dozens of underlings having his back.
Bottom-line, Brett Stubelt Jr. was a bully. He seemed to know it and, from all Jake had seen thus far aboard the Phantom Run, he not only seemed to relish the role but could give two shit’s and a kernel of corn what anybody might think on the matter.
Needless to say, Jake was not a fan of the man. Practically from the moment he stepped foot on board The Brett-ster had been riding his ass. Jake knew going in as low-man-on-the-totem he’d be subjected to his share of abuse. And working as a deckhand on a factory trawler was going to be hell with or without Brett Stubelt hanging over his shoulder at every turn. He’d expected and accepted all that.
But the man seemed to derive an extra heap of glee in seeing Jake assigned to the most unappealing tasks. He’d been shorted on break time—always the first called back to work and last dismissed—and issued the worst quarters on the ship. A cramped eight-by-ten metal box so close to the diesel engines he could taste the fumes just as sure as he could smell them…and felt the whining RPMs of the ship’s massive motors rattling in his bones.
The dozen or so other new recruits that had boarded with him back in Tajuana didn’t seem to be getting treated near as badly. But truth be told, Jake was so wracked with fatigue he couldn’t trust himself to be sure. Stressed as he was, his perception was clearly off, his head spinning like the compass on a luckless craft in the Bermuda Triangle seconds before being sucked off the map by some powerful and arbitrary unknown force.
Ming Yukabashi and Lenny Hicks, two of the new recruits he had started with, had been through their initiation process yesterday, both spiritedly taking a bite out of their fish. Jake had watched the ritual while mending line. And although his view came only in furtive glances from meters away, one thing he knew for sure. The fish they had been offered were nothing like the Frankenfish just given to him.
“Eat the fish…eat the fish…eat the fish…”
><> ><> ><>
Jake covertly rolled his eyes as the chant came back into focus. This time he noticed the inlay of another refrain. A single voice, hideously off key and a half beat late.
”Neep yoop…neep yoop…neep yoop…”
These were words he’d heard before, dozens of times, in fact. It was the voice of the captain’s other son, Bruce, Brett’s older brother. Jake had heard the words before because in the almost two-hundred hours Jake had been aboard the Phantom, they were the only words Bruce ever uttered—if they were words at all. Like Groot of Guardians of the Galaxy he had only one phrase, neep yoop, and it meant everything and anything. It was his, I am Groot. In this case Jake felt fairly certain neep yoop meant eat the fish!
Jake glanced at Bruce and, as casually as he could manage, nodded and winked to acknowledge his participation, trying to treat him like one of the guys. But the glance came at a price, the image of Bruce spiking Jake’s anxiety, heightening it a hundredfold, pushing him ever closer to the spew zone.
Because Bruce was not an easy man to look at. He was Quasimodo meets Hills Have Eyes, with a pinch of The Goonies, Lotney sloth’s silly asymmetry thrown in, blending just the right dose of absurdity with the hideous to give him top billing at any side show, even back in the industry’s’ pre-PC heyday when ogling freaks was accepted pastime. An orange-red ring around his mouth that looked like clown lips—some kind of rash, Jake guessed—was just icing on the cake of disturbing.
Unlike The Bret-ster, Bruce was huge, the polar opposite of his pipsqueak younger brother. Six-foot-two easy, probably six-four if his back and right shoulder were not eternally contorted. His hulking physique and poor posture were only part of the peek-through-your-fingers fascination, however. An accident years ago during his youth out to sea had caused crippling carnage and deformity. An eighty-pound steel pulley had snapped loose from a crane and whipped across deck removing a fist sized chunk of skull, mashing his shoulder and instantly amputating his arm. Leaving only a stump for a right arm about the size of a Coney Island jumbo hot dog that, like a needle on a Fukushima Geiger counter, continually twitched. Instead of Rads the limb seemed to register emotion.
Despite the fact that he was utterly unsightly, spontaneously scary as shit, possibly dangerous—no telling what he was handi-capable of, Jake had no clue what might be going on in his crane bitten brain—he still liked him a trillion times more than his brother, The Brett-ster. Who at the moment, began jabbing Jake in the back with a stiff index finger, prodding him on and yelling in his ear along with the dozen or so other crewmembers who had gathered to take in the festivities.
“Eat the fish…eat the fish…eat the fish…”
Jake nodded and held the fish aloft, playing the part to perfection. It was time anyway, he had calculated. Even though he had decided months ago when he first began planning this quest that he’d partake in this, or any other custom or chore in order to fit in and keep his intentions hush-hush, he still thought it best to feign reluctance. Sell the role, blend in, gain trust.
Holding the fish up, he was surprised by its weight. He squeezed hard so as not to drop it, fingers sinking for grip. Turning it over to avoid its jutting underbelly and take a bite of the muscular flank he got a look at the other fin. WTF, he cried in his mind, composure teetering on lost. The fin was stalk-like and articulated, about the size of a finger, encased in tiny herringbone scales, giving it an appearance more reptilian than piscine. Like the rest of the creature, the appendage trembled and flailed, paddling aimlessly, going nowhere. And then in a rivet-hot moment of connection Jake thought of Bruce’s tiny flapping arm.
Fuck me, he simmered, pissed at his mind for going there.
Anxiety squeezed him like tentacles as he stood frozen, reflexively processing, trying to grasp the significance of the elongated fin. It was clearly some kind of mutation. Maybe this was an important specimen, something to be saved and studied. He spun his head, searching the faces around him, trying and get a read on what everyone else might be thinking, or if they’d even noticed the fin. To his left several workers stood on a gangway, pointing and laughing. To his right Bruce bellowed neep yoop, stump arm wagging wildly. No help there. Several other faces flashed by as he continued his survey, not one of them seeming at all concerned over destroying a potentially priceless discovery for sport.
Twenty-five meters away some three-stories up in the wheelhouse he could see the dark silhouette of the captain—Brett Stubelt Senior—a pear shaped shadow perched behind the towering tinted windshield. No way to know what he was thinking, or if he was even tuned in or tending navigational endeavors. The chant to eat the fish was still in the background, a blaring counterpoint to the escalating internal stress that wailed like a siren between his ears.
And finally, as he finished his sweep—all of which took less than two seconds—he arrived at the smirking countenance of The Brett-ster behind him. “Let’s go, pal. Eat the fucking fish,” Brett said, nudging him again. And in that moment Jake realized that, without a doubt, Brett had selected the fish on purpose. Picking the ghastliest looking creature this side of a medical school pickle jar collection for him to have to chow down on.
A reeeeeal class act.
In his hands the fish continued to squirm, little finger fin pawing the air, flipping him off. Fine, Jake thought, adrenaline and chaos crystalizing into resolve. In a flash, he instantly retrenched, marshalling strength from the spirit of duty, stubbornly digging in his heels and settling into the moment. Mind going blank, apprehension rolling back like shark eyes before impact, his anxiety bleeding away.
With mindset duly fine-tuned, he leveled a cocky glare right at his good friend, maintaining eye contact with The Brett-ster through the red he was seeing. Wired tight as steel leader line, Jake curled the fish to his mouth and bit down hard. It didn’t matter that the animal had jerked in the last instant, causing Jake to bite into its bloated gut. Nope, there was no stopping him now. Its fate, like most of the other fish hauled aboard the trawler thus far, already vacuum-sealed.
The skin was much tougher than Jake could’ve guessed, spongy innards giving way, scales ceding to disperse force. Jake strained, chomping harder, twisting with his hands to gain mechanical advantage. He had to do this…and had to make it spectacular. Despite a week of hard work and careful adherence to protocols he’d yet to ingratiate himself with the crew. To a person they were detached and distant. Like the hide of the fish they seemed to form a collective shell of resistance, impenetrable as it was absolute. His most endearing contact had been with Bruce. And by virtue of circumstance, those exchanges had been limited at best. An occasional nod on his part met with the obligatory neep yoop, wagging stump, ADHD wandering eye response didn’t tell Jake much at all…or offer hope of learning any info going forward. To gain confidence with some of the less brain-dead crewmembers he really needed this to go well.
He could feel the fish struggling in his mouth, lateral muscles jackknifing so hard he nearly lost his balance. Despite its sickly appearance the fish was strong. Jake growled and wrenched, teeth punching down like a drill press. And then in one final shudder he was through, incisors puncturing skin with the crunchy wet pop of a bratwurst, the fish bursting open like a septic appendix, guts rushing into his mouth and spilling to the deck.
The fish convulsed like it’d been electrocuted. Jake held on, not wanting to screw this up. He’d come this far, stay focused and finish. He saw this as an important stepping stone, a key rung to a greater mission. Time to ratchet up the action. Show them all that in no uncertain terms he was with-it. He was one of the guys. He belonged. That he was sea worthy.
With the fish pinned between his teeth he pulled it away from his body, a loop of gore slick viscera unspooling from the breach. An assortment of organs and farting bladders dropping wetly to the deck in a thick chowder shower. In a haze he could hear his audience whooping and hollering in approval. This was all good. Once accepted into the ranks maybe someone would let down their guard, and he could find some answers.
Stay with the game-plan, he reminded himself, as the gory reality of what he was doing threatened to breach his inner firewall of poise. He was about to raise his hands in victory and spit out the fish in a grand sushi spray finale when a bony hand clamped over his mouth, another arm wrapping around his chest. Shit, Jake struggled and thrashed but Brett was stronger than his unimpressive physique let on. He had him locked in a bear hug. Not that Jake was all that physically endowed himself. But hell, he should’ve been able to muscle free from this guy.
Straining and pawing at the hand over his mouth, Jake realized Brett had positioned himself on a railing behind him. With the elevation he was able to lift Jake slightly off the deck. Denied purchase, he lost any physical advantage he may have had.
Eyes darting and now fighting to breath, he could see the faces of his crewmates rush by in a blurred merry-go-round of madness. This was definitely not part of the plan. He pressed his brain, trying to figure out the best play. He thought to try and mule kick Brett in the nuts. Probably not the best idea, plus the shithead had positioned himself perfectly on the railing. A steel cross member sat right in the line of fire should Jake even try.
Eat the fish chants continued to permeate the air, drowning out any ability to think. Fight or flight instinct kicked in, logic circuits shutting down as brainstem reason took over to deal with impending unconsciousness…or death.
Out of the corner of a panicked eye Jake notice Ming Yukabashi, one of the other greenhorns, approaching rapidly. As he veered into clear view Jake could see that he was moving with purpose…and heading right for him.
What the heck’s going on? Blazed in freaked-out font across his mind.
Then in one quick move Yukabashi crouched and lunged, punching him in the stomach. Jake braced and buckled, screaming NO in his mind, his mouth still held shut. The action had also caused him to swallow. He tasted salt and pungent alkaloids and a strange trace of petroleum as a fat gob of fish gunk sluiced down his throat. As Brett let him go, a rubbery ribbon of intestine followed the mass down like a thread of wet spaghetti, the other end unspooling from the fish’s gaping abdomen.
As Jake unclenched he realized that he’d not actually been struck. It was a fake blow, Yukabashi had pulled the punch at the last second. Jake realized now that the move had had the desired intent, however. In recoiling he had swallowed.
Jake staggered, dropping the fish. A gale of laughter crystalizing around him. The purpose of it all started to become obvious—and who likely planned it—and it pissed him off royally. Although Jake was not a violent person—he felt the idea of physical combat to be weakness, actually—he wanted nothing but to turn and smack the grin off Brett’s cackling face. It was instinct of course, and he squashed it. Not only for the character flaw he believed it to be, but because he needed to stick to the script, maintain his role. Which in this case, was that of a die-hard, somewhat dimwitted fisherman who was just happy to be there.
Steadying himself, heartrate jacked, he raised a palm for the coming high-fives, smiling and nodding to show he was a good sport—one of the guys, part of the team. But as he did he realized the team had already started to disperse. The group on the gangway had already turned, walking away, one guy waving a dismissive hand in Jake’s direction as if to say, you’re pathetic. Behind him, Brett had turned and joined a few others—all laughing at Jake’s expense—as they strode in the direction of the galley. He heard the waning echo of neep yoop, as Bruce zigzagged across deck by himself. What the words meant in this case, he couldn’t be sure. He noticed Ming Yukabashi ducking through a bulkhead door, shaking his head. He did not seem amused by it all.
With the general area clearing it left only Jake and the disemboweled Halibut at his feet. Absently, he bit down on the thread of intestine still hanging from his mouth, swallowing one end, the other flopping to the deck with a nauseating splat.
Looking down Jake got a better view of the fish and, of most concern, what was inside of it. He kneeled for a closer look, using a finger to sort through the guts. A small crab had already moved in to feed on the tasty windfall. As he spread the guts he realized what it was that had been in the fish’s abdomen, why it was so bloated.
Geez, he muttered, eyes going wide with shock.
And he had just swallowed a heaping pile of it.