It was the first time I’d been out in the ocean since my accident. One of the scars from it ran along the length of my forearm, and I tried to ignore it as I tread water behind my cousin Paul’s jet boat. He glanced over his shoulder. I gave him the thumbs up, tightened my grip on the handle of the line, and stiffened my body. The motor purred to life as he gunned it and I kept everything clenched as we lurched forward.
My skis brought me up, and I kept my legs bent like I was sitting in a chair until I was all the way out of the water and bouncing on the small waves. I straightened my legs and smiled, happy that even after all the time off I was able to get up with no problem.
“Get back out on the water,” my father had said. “It’ll give you closure and help you recover.”
Paul cut a hard turn around a buoy, and I swung out wide. He checked over his shoulder to make sure I was still skiing behind him, and after confirming he steered a serpentine pattern back toward the beach. He was experienced enough to keep his distance from the swimmers.
Opting to give me a bit of a thrill, he found a cresting wave and zoomed out in front of it. He swerved over toward the barrel and cut back to send me into the wave. I skimmed the inside as it crested, drifting up and touching the side of the barrel with my hand. He pulled me back out before the wave could crash down on top of me.
He pulled a 180, and we went back out in front of the wave at it splashed down and shot up droplets that sparkled like diamonds in the sun.
I’d only gone jet boat skiing on the ocean one other time, and it was also with Paul. Most of the other jet boaters that I knew claimed the saltwater would mess up the inner workings, but Paul insisted none of them knew what they were talking about. In his mind, all the seaweed and garbage found in the lakes was more annoying to clean from the intake hose than anything else.
We cut back toward the beach again and parallel to it at a safe distance. As if scared by our presence, every swimmer made a mad dash back toward the shore, the water foaming white with all their movement. Some were screaming, and I looked over to see if Paul noticed. He kept going, but the blaring whistle of lifeguard reclaimed my attention.
I turned my head back to the front just in time to see the dorsal fin as it passed directly in front of me. My skis crashed into it, and I went airborne. One of the skis was knocked free in the process, but I cartwheeled through the air, landing upside down in the water. My momentum took my lower half forward and when it finally slammed into the water as well a sharp pain shot up my spine.
Bubbles were everywhere, and I tried kicking, but the one ski made it hard to paddle. Thankfully I was only about a foot under the surface, and once I was upright, it was easy to break through.
Gasping for air as it became available, I started treading water before immediately leaning back so that my ski came up to the surface. I removed my foot from it and floated for a little while, keeping the panic at bay as I searched for the dorsal fin I had struck.
Paul noticed I had fallen and started turning back to come to get me and I was able to stay calm, remember that flailing motions draw sharks. Movement over my shoulder caused me to turn, and I saw the red jet skis of the lifeguards bouncing on the waves as they sped toward me. Only then did I realize there was blood in the water.
After massaging the area that hurt I confirmed everything was still inside. Nothing else hurt but I assumed one of the skis slashed me at some point during my tumble.
Something rough scraped against my skin, and I froze for a moment. A second later a dorsal fin slowly zigzagged through the water away from me. Spinning around, the fin started heading toward me, disappearing beneath the surface.
Panic erupted into my veins and joined the adrenaline already pumping through them. I undid the strap on my life vest so I could slip beneath the water. I held the vest in one hand and dipped my head under, pushing myself a little lower with my free hand.
Daring to take a look was a mistake, and I screamed underwater, releasing a mask of bubbles that prevented me from seeing the incoming danger. The shark was at least five feet long, and it’s unblinking eyes had locked onto me, making me flail in a panic.
The bubbles finally dissipated and I started kicking backward, but the shark was made for underwater attacks, and it reached me in a heartbeat. With a quick lunge, it had latched onto my leg.
Pain like I’d never felt before rippled through my body. The shark turned its head, and my blood clouded around me. Instinctively I balled up my free hand’s fist and sent it into the shark’s nose as hard as I could. It let go, and I surfaced, gasping for air and screaming for help.
By the time I’d popped through the surface Paul had reached me. He eased the boat over, and I swam as best as I could, each kick sending searing pain through my body, but the terror of being bit again sailing me forward.
Worry accentuated the deep wrinkles already on my cousin’s face, and he scrambled to pull me up onto his boat. It hurt my leg, but I struggled to get onboard as best as I could, flopping down on the deck when we finally succeeded.
I heard a bump and flinched, fearing it was the shark-jumping onto the deck after me to finish the meal he had started.
“Are you okay?” Paul said, kneeling next to me and hovering over my wound with his hands.
I tried speaking but realized I was breathing to fast to say anything sensible. The bump was the lifeguards, and they hopped onto Paul’s boat, med kits in tow. I relaxed a little, and the pain started to fade along with the panic as adrenaline continued to course through my body. Still, I started to feel lightheaded, and as the lifeguards examined my wound, I let my eyes close, thankful to be alive and vowing to never get in the water again.