By Joe Roubicek
The boy sat awkwardly on his pew, feet dangling above the floor as he tried to sit back, so he leaned forward and held onto the seat. His father used to call him “runt,” and each time his mother had countered that he was gifted. “You don’t need this,” she’d say, patting the muscle on her arm, “just this,” pointing to her head, “and of course this” patting her heart.
The boy missed them both very much.
A priest stood behind the altar dressed in green and gold reading aloud: “Revelationes, Ego sum Alpha et Omega, primus et novissimus, principium et finis…”
The boy did not speak Latin but recognized the words from bible study: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”
How can God be everywhere all the time and all at once? the boy wondered. God is elsewhere, not here.
It was a chilly April Sunday morning in the Northeast when blooming chestnut trees adorned the sidewalks of Eatons Neck, Long Island, where winding two-lane roads, summer cottages, and potato farms lined the east end.
But inside that church, the boy scanned the rows of pews with pathways for entry and escape. He thought of his father, a carpenter, who said the small knots scattered here and there on the wooden surfaces were once branches. The tinges of red and pink lines along the lacquered wood were once rings. “Count the rings,” his father used to say, “and you can tell the tree’s time.”
The boy spotted an unusual knot. It was light colored, surrounded by halos of disk-shaped, white-banded rings, like a tiny, elongated milky white smudge.
Elsewhere and many years later, April mornings were bright and warm with calm trade winds as two men with salt-and-pepper hair and Hawaiian shirts loaded two sets of scuba gear and three full coolers onto a fiberglass skiff. In the port of Isla Mujeres, a small island eight miles east of the Cancun coast, the two friends were beginning a tropical vacation they’d talked about for years, a well-deserved break from their ongoing research. Sunshine, palm trees, mojitos, reef dives, adventure. Five miles further east, a reef known as “Caves of The Sleeping Sharks” awaited them, where carnivorous creatures rested motionless in its caverns.
Their boat, a rented twenty-five-foot Boston Whaler powered by a 250-horsepower Evinrude, was more than enough to venture safely into the Caribbean. Thomas stepped behind the boat’s console while admiring the Whaler’s design with sleek curves from stern to a broadened, rising bow. Scanning theharbor, jade fading into bright blue, Thomas could hear the ocean just beyond like a conch shell to the ear. He hadn’t been on a dive in years and he felt a rush of gratitude that John had pushed it to the top of their bucket list.
Thomas turned the key. A ping followed a high-pitched whizz; then the engine kicked in with a low, powerful hum.
“Everything okay?” John asked.
Thomas turned the engine off, waited, and turned the key again. This time it kicked in instantly with a smooth, steady rumble as if wanting to be cut loose.
“Yep, everything’s fine,” he said. “Untie us, mate.”
Thomas revved up the Evinrude, and the boat pulled away from its mooring. As they idled in the inlet, Thomas entered the reef’s coordinates into the console screen, a broad multi-function display with GPS, depth finder, and radar for weather.
Sophisticated, he thought, then smiled, recalling childhood fishing trips with his father in a tiny wooden skiff on a bay. His mother would scold them when they came home late to a cold dinner. His parents were a complementary pair: Dad a source of fun, Mom the protector. He missed them. They weren’t really gone, but he missed them just the same.
It took thirty minutes, though it felt like only three when they arrived at the beacon buoy that marked the reef’s edge.
The anchor sat on top of a neatly coiled pile of rope. John tied its end to the cleat, then tossed it into what appeared shallow water until the line continued to zip down into the sea.
“How deep?” he asked.
“About forty feet.” Thomas said. “You look nervous. You sure about this?”
“I’m sure,” John said, “and I’m excited, not nervous. You look nervous.”
“I am, dammit.”
Methodically, they put their gear on while neither spoke. Buoyancy compensator vests with weight pockets went on first, followed by tanks and fins. Sitting with their backs to the water, they gave each other nods, a “thumbs up,” and plopped into the sea.
John led the way down, and Thomas followed. The clarity of the deep took him. Sounds of inhales and exhales and the freedom of weightlessness made him feel as if he had entered another dimension.
The curtain of blue haze opened to a reef where coral castles sat high on colorful ridges. The two divers swam by colonies of small fish: red-lipped blennies, crimson damselfish, blue angels, and bar jacks that flashed silver. Below the castles were cliffs of older grey coral, mostly dead. Within these were the caverns.
Reluctantly, Thomas followed John into the first opening, a short tunnel that led to a dark chamber with a single beam of light stretching down from the top. They carefully made their way through the room to discover other tunnels leading to more caverns, some well-lit, others dark and foreboding. As they explored the maze Thomas felt relieved that there were no sharks to be seen. There were few fish for that matter, and soon Thomas felt comfortable enough to wander off on his own.
He spotted a nurse shark about five feet long, tucked inside a dark crevasse. He knew them to be passive and drew closer. The creature appeared to be sleeping with its eyes open. Its only movement, small whiskered jaws that slowly opened and closed.
Reaching out, he touched its sleek, flanked torso. He noticed that it had smooth skin, not sandpaper-like, and gently he began to pet it. Almost instantly, the fish bolted from its crevasse and darted for an exit. Its tail slapped Thomas’s head, just enough to set his mask ajar and fill with water. His eyes stung, and he impulsively swam upward, then banged his head against the coral ceiling. He struggled to stay calm, knowing what panic would mean. Then he breathed evenly through the regulator, readjusted then cleared the mask. Quickly at first, he swam for the nearest tunnel. The sting on his head reminded him to slow down and, as he paddled into the next chamber, he was relieved to find John waiting.
John gave him two thumbs up and Thomas responded in kind. Then John pointed to the top of his head. A translucent red swirl dropped into Thomas’s view.
Thomas pointed upward, and together they swam for an exit to return to the boat. The cavern had several, but John grabbed his arm when Thomas tried to exit the closest. A grey torpedo-shaped torso with a white belly and blunted nose swayed just outside. Thomas recognized it instantly, an aggressive bull shark with a stout body that gleamed in the sunlight, both beautiful and terrifying, as it passed by then disappeared into the blue haze.
John pointed to a ledge on the opposite side of the cavern, and they crossed together, but Thomas paused at the opening as tiny trails of blood continued to float by his view. He looked at John, who understood, took the lead, and exited into the light. Thomas followed.
Emerging from the reef, Thomas looked upward to see the sun’s reflection on the ocean’s surface just thirty feet above. Now he panicked, knowing both safety and danger were seconds away as he rushed upward past John.
It didn’t take long before a small juvenile reef shark the size of a barracuda darted out and bolted for Thomas’s head. He extended his arm instinctively and pushed its head to the side, but the juvenile was fast and persistent. It spun, snapped, twisted and finally latched onto Thomas’s leg. Dozens of tiny daggers crushed down in a burning microsecond. He pushed the shark and punched helplessly as the sea turned red. The pain abated as he drifted into shock.
He saw John swim back down through the clouded water, then behind him the silhouette of a bull shark. The bull was slow at first like a battleship, then it knocked John aside and sprang in quickly.While it may have wanted Thomas, the bull chomped down on the reef shark, and Thomas watched helplessly as its chainsaw teeth slashed down, then side to side, as its eyes rolled white. The shark’s five-hundred-pound torso then knocked Thomas aside as it swam away.
Thomas opened his eyes as John shook his shoulder and he looked down at his right thigh, half wrapped in a red-stained white towel. The pain was sharp and relentless as if his thigh were still clamped in the shark’s jaws.
“How bad is it?” he asked.
“That shark was shaking your leg pretty good,” John said. “I expected far worse.”
After the blood-soaked towel was removed, Thomas was surprised by the ferocity of his pain from small, eight-inch semicircles of narrow puncture wounds. Blood oozed slowly from each puncture.
While John poured tequila over the area, Thomas bellowed obscenities he hadn’t used in years, but after his leg was wrapped and the job was done, the compression and remaining tequila eased his pain. As his head cleared, he remembered the sharks, John pulling him to the surface, flopping over the boat’s stern, then nothing.
“Are we back in port?” Thomas tried to stand up and collapsed.
“No, stay down. The engine won’t start.”
Thomas’s heart raced. Shark bites have bacteria.
“C’mon, help me up,” Thomas said. “Let me try it.”
“John, let’s go!” He held up his arm, and John reluctantly placed it over his shoulder then helped him to the console. Thomas turned the key, and a loud, rapid click sounded, then faded to a slow tapping until there was just the sound of waves lapping the bow of the boat.
Hours later, they sat quietly side-by-side, watching the sunset spread beams of gold light onto the Caribbean until John finally broke the awkward silence. “Where the hell were the sleeping sharks, anyway?”
“I saw one,” Thomas said. “Nurse shark sleeping in one of the crevasses.”
“Pretty big. Slapped me in the head with its tail. After I petted it.”
“You petted it?” John laughed.
Thomas smiled. “I guess that wasn’t the best option.”
They sat quietly until the sun faded to the west beyond Mexico. The breeze cooled, and Thomas shivered. John helped him back to his bed of towels with backpack pillows, where he fell into a deep sleep.
During the night, John opened his eyes to a star-filled, half-mooned sky. Something was off. He heard the breeze, felt the boat sway, but something was different. Then he realized the boat was rocking, and a dreadful thought came to him. The anchor rope that he tied, not Thomas, was gone. He scanned the area for land or a ship. Thoughts raced through his head, and he dropped to his knees.
“What’s going on, John?” Thomas’s eyes were open now, gazing at the stars.
John looked down. “We’re adrift.”
Thomas sighed and said nothing.
“I’m sorry I pushed you into this, Thomas. Sorry about the sharks, the attacks, the anchor, everything.”
Thomas got on his elbows next to an empty tequila bottle. “Help me to the side; I need to sit up a bit.”
Once there, he looked at John. “I’m a big boy, John. You didn’t talk me into anything, and honestly, this whole thing has been pretty exciting.” Thomas raised his finger, “It’s not death a man should fear, but never beginning to live.”
“Shakespeare?” John asked.
Thomas turned away and heaved. It was a dry heave, and when he turned back his pallid face dripped sweat and his lips quivered.
John reached out, “C’mon, lie down, too much tequila, my friend.”
Thomas pulled away. “It’s not the tequila.”
John carried him back to the makeshift bed and Thomas lay back watching the stars.
“You want to know what I fear most?” Thomas asked. “Being alone. Not adrift in the Caribbean, but alone, and right now, I’m under God’s stars with my best friend, Besso.”
“Too much tequila, Einstein.”
John watched him as he shut his eyes, then closed his own just for a moment.
In the early light of dawn, John spotted a distant boat beyond the gentle morning waves. His heart pounded as it drew closer and he made out a rickety, wooden skiff pushed along by a tiny outboard engine sputtering silty clouds of smoke. His shoulders dropped.
Sitting in the stern were an old man with sunbaked white hair and a girl, maybe fourteen or so. Her long black hair matted against her head as she leaned against the old man’s shoulder.
“Saludos señor,” the old man shouted as they motored up. “Es bueno verte.”
John could see their boat was taking on water through its planked bottom. A supply of food, water, and a folded canvas tarp sat by the bow.
“Buenos dias,” John greeted them. “Do you speak English?”
“Yes,” said the girl standing up now, hands on her thin hips. “We speak well. Can you take us to land?”
John leaned over, grabbed their bow, and took the rope from its cleat.
“Sorry, we’re stranded. Looks like we’re in better shape than you, though. You from Cancun?”
“No,” said the old man as he began handing supplies up to John. “Honduras.”
“Honduras! We’re in the Gulf of Honduras?”
The man laughed. “No, we traveled north through Mexico, bought this boat to cross over to Cuba and maybe America.” He spread his arms. “But the boat has different plans. We’re maybe fifty miles east of Cancun. I am Pablo, and this is Lucy.”
“Welcome, señorita.” John helped her aboard the Whaler.
Pablo looked at Thomas. “You do not look well.”
“I don’t feel well. A shark nipped me in the leg.”
Pablo knelt by him and opened the dressing. The gashes on Thomas’s thigh had swelled into deep red and puffy white ridges, with pink veins extending downward.
Pablo spoke to Lucy in Spanish and pointed to a small green duffel bag. She brought it to him, and he pulled out a sealed plastic baggie holding dark green, blade-like leaves with pointed ends. Breaking open the leaves, he squeezed a clear gel-like liquid into Thomas’s hand.
Thomas winced as he lightly tapped the liquid along his wound.
“So, why are you stuck?” Pablo asked. “We have petrol.”
“We have plenty of gas,” John said. “Battery’s dead. It worked fine when we left Isla Mujeres.”
Pablo leaned over the big Evinrude, released a latch under the lower side, and swung the top half of the engine’s cover outward. The massive engine head, its large, flat steel flywheel two and a half feet in diameter, was surrounded by electronic components and covered by long black rubber strands.
“Alternator belt broken,” Pablo said. “Probably when you left Isla Mujeras.” He pointed to a round metal object on the engine’s side with a smaller flywheel. “This charges your battery. No belt, no battery. Is this your boat?
“No, we rented it,” John said.
“Good,” said Pablo. “Then there will be a search party. Now we wait.” He looked at Thomas. “They’ll find us. Do you have a flare gun?”
John and Pablo went to the front of the boat and opened a latch door to the bow compartment while Lucy sat down beside Thomas. She studied his wound while tilting her head.
“Does it hurt bad, señor?”
“It doesn’t feel good, but it looks worse.”
“Mi padre was a doctor,” she said. “I will be doctor one day.”
Thomas was about to ask the obvious, but Lucy’s expression stopped him. She was small again, distant.
“I’ll bet he was a wonderful doctor.”
“Si.” Her eyes swelled with tears as she looked out on the Caribbean, quietly mouthing words he could not understand. He could feel her detachment, a silence louder than the waves or the commotion at the bow. Then with a sad smile, he recognized himself in her. Orphans are special, he thought.
“We have a medical kit, a flare gun, and three life preservers,” John said from the bow.
“Only three?” Thomas said. “How fortuitous, John.”
“Don’t worry, pal. We won’t need ‘em.”
By late afternoon they sat side-by-side beneath the tarp, splitting the last sandwich and Pablo’s dried fish and plantains. Thomas ate little but drank water as the Tylenol from the medical kit relieved his fever and pain.
“So, Lucy, is Pablo your grandfather?”
Her smile faded as she looked at Pablo, “We are two amigos, like you and John.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to ….”
“That’s okay, señor,” Pablo said. “Ask anything. We are tired of running now.”
“So, you’re not just migrating?”
“No, refugees. We flee.” Pablo’s tone lowered, and Lucy placed her head against his shoulder.
“Soy agricultor de cafe,” he said. “I farm coffee for Antonio, Lucy’s father, for many years. He was a very good man, a doctor. He helped everyone in the village, including me. But farm is gone now, everything gone. Muerto. Criminales come, banditos, drug dealers. They want to share Antonio’s farm for poppy, but he say no. They threaten him, and he tell la policia. Then banditos come at night and burn the house, but they not see me. I stop their capitano with machete.”
He looked down “I could not save Antonio.” Lucy leaned into him, and he put his arm around her. “We run. They follow. We get to Mexico. Still, they follow. Then I buy the boat.”
They sat quietly, then Pablo asked, “How about you two amigos?”
“We’re a couple of physics professors on vacation from New York,” John answered. “And our dream vacation turned into a nightmare at a reef called Caves of the Sleeping Sharks.” He looked at Thomas. “They weren’t sleeping.”
“Physics?” Lucy asked.
“Yes. We study the universe,” Thomas told her. “Everything from subatomic particles to the stars, like the sun up there.”
Lucy pointed to the sun. “The closest star.”
“That’s right. Ninety-three million miles, or just eight light-minutes away.”
“Light-minutes,” she said. “Space-time.”
John gawked at her, and Pablo laughed. “Lucy and her father would look at the stars with a telescope. She knows the stars. Ask her anything.”
She smiled. “Galileo saw the stars with his telescope.”
“That’s right,” Thomas said, “and he discovered the Milky Way was made of individual stars.”
“Sí, Milky Way. Via Lactea.”
“Well, it looks like we have a child prodigy on board, John.”
Thomas shivered. His leg was swelling, the Tylenol was wearing off, and he welcomed her distraction. “Lucy, did you know that time is the fourth dimension?”
“Si.” She stood up and waved her hands. “There is left and right, up and down, forward, backward, then time, the fourth dimension.”
“Then you know of Albert Einstein?”
“Si, he was an immigrant like us,” she said proudly.
Thomas studied her a moment. “I think we have a lot in common, Lucy. I lost my parents in a car accident when I was younger than you. I miss them very much. But I think that my thoughts of them are not just memories, but connections—thanks to Einstein and the stars.”
Lucy scowled a little. “I don’t understand.”
“Einstein believed that we live in a universe where everything is connected. Time is a dimension—linear like a straight line. The distinction we see of the past, present, and future is just an illusion, although as he said, a very convincing one. So, the past still exists on that linear, straight line, and so do they.”
She took it in. “I still don’t understand.”
“In his universe where everything is connected, the existing past grows with the present as time moves into the future.”
“Nonsense, the past is gone,” Pablo interjected.
Thomas ignored him. “Lucy, picture yourself standing on the road in front of your farmhouse. Then you walk down the road until you can’t see the farmhouse anymore. Does that mean it is no longer there?”
“No,” she said.
“Like your house, the road behind you is still there even though you can’t see it. That’s the illusion of time.”
“So,” Pablo said, “could Lucy walk back to the farmhouse?”
“No,” Thomas admitted.
“It would take an act of God. Right, señor?”
Thomas shivered. “Probably.”
“Then farmhouse gone. Past gone. Good to leave it alone.”
“Past is not gone, Pablo. It’s just … elsewhere. Best word I’ve got for the moment.”
Thomas looked to the west where the sun was setting on the horizon.
Lucy laid down using a towel as a pillow. “You believe your parents are down the road?” she asked.
“Señor,” Pablo whispered. “You mean well, but tragedy is in the past. Look to future, have faith. Better than science.”
“Theories take faith, Pablo, and what if God is the universe?”
“Then maybe God is time.” Pablo stretched out, resting his head on a backpack.
It was still dark. Thomas watched the moon pass, then Aries and the North Star. He made out the others sleeping along the deck and felt grateful for their company. His chest was heavy, but the wheezing had stopped. He remembered a sickly childhood after his parents left—having bronchitis, then pneumonia, with fever dreams of spinning away from a cluster of stars into space.
But now the stars know of me, and I of them. I can handle anything, he thought.
He looked at John, his lifelong friend lying by the console, then little Lucy, the prodigy child, and Pablo, the protector by her side, who was right; after all, if God is the universe, then God is time.
His body was shutting down, but he found peace knowing friends surrounded him beneath the cosmos. Thomas spoke to the stars. “Let that child know she is not alone. You took so long for me.” He closed his eyes.
In time, a spray of seawater crossed the deck. It awakened everyone.
Pablo sat up first, then slowly made his way across the boat. He and the others gathered around Thomas. “How are you, amigo?” He placed his hand against the nape of Thomas’s neck.
Thomas smiled. “No problemo, Pablo.”
Pablo sighed. “Still a sense of humor.”
Lucy squeezed gently past the men and sat down next to Thomas. She took his hand into hers. He looked upward and she followed his gaze to a faint, milky band of glowing light just above the horizon.
“Oh, Via Lactea, señor!”
“There it is,” he said, “where everything is connected.”
“And the past is not gone,” she said. Then she looked into his eyes. “You said it would take an act of God to go back. You know what God would say?” She squeezed his hand, “I love you, Thomas.”
He choked with emotion. “And there it is.”
Then he saw it—a ship’s beacon on the horizon. Closing his eyes, he heard the waves lapping and felt the boat’s rhythmic motion. God cradles me with the sea. Thomas inhaled the salty air and felt the lulling breeze and, still the scientist, observed how his brain selectively chose what to allow and deny. His final thought was of his childhood — a church pew.
In his universe where time is an illusion, where one can feel loved and live forever, where Galileo discovered the Milky Way, as Einstein formed his theory of relativity, as a little boy sat elsewhere in a church on Long Island where the chestnut trees were taken by blight fungus, and potato farms were replaced by vineyards while the roads stayed—there, a little boy heard Latin chants echo off hallowed walls: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” He smiled, lonely no more, and pointed to a milky streak on the back of a church pew whispering, “Via Lactea!”
Joe Roubicek is retiring from a career in public service to pursue his dream of writing fiction with epiphanies. He lives in south Florida where he is surrounded by water and loves to dive in the local reefs.
Photo of sea scape by Joe Roubicek.
Photo of bull shark by Gerald Schömbs on Unsplash.