The Sea Urchin Diver and his Brother by Alex de Cruz

“Where the hell have you been? You’re 30 minutes late. I wanted you here at 6am. Get your worthless butt aboard, so we can get going,” Eric Hemming, who was standing on the stern of his fishing boat Juanita, shouted to his brother Eddie. 

Eddie had sped into the parking lot in his beat-up old pickup and run down the pier, where Juanita was moored in the harbor at Santa Barbara. Darkness still enveloped everything, except where illuminated by the overhead lights along the harbor’s waterfront and the beacon at the end of the harbor’s breakwater. 

Once Eddie was onboard and had stowed his gear, Eric moved to the helm and Juanita’s 195 horsepower diesel-marine engine sprang to life. Eddie knew what to do, but Eric said it anyway. “Pull in the lines and bumper guards, so we can get underway and out to the Islands.” The Islands, in this case, were the Channel Islands, which lie 20-30 miles off the coast of Southern California.

Their days had begun very differently. Eric’s alarm went off at 4am. Eric fixed himself a six-egg omelet with lots of cheese, which he ate with five slices of whole wheat toast and three cups of coffee. He burned a lot of  calories doing strenuous work in cold water. Before he left the house, Eric checked on his little girl, who was sleeping peacefully and his wife Juanita, who looked beautiful with her silky black hair spread out on the pillow, framing her face

Eddie awoke sprawled on a couch in a stranger’s living room. The floor was covered with crumbled beer cans, empty bottles, cigarette butts, and other debris from a wild party, including two people who were sleeping or passed out. Eddie grabbed his shoes and tiptoed out the front door. On the drive to Santa Barbara, he picked up three egg McMuffins and a large coffee at the drive-thru of a 24-hour McDonald’s.

As Jaunita glided down the narrow waterway between the boats tied up on adjacent piers, they passed Dave Chase, one of Eric’s buddies. Dave was bent over working on his boat’s engine, but when he heard Juanita’s motor, he looked up. He hollered. “You’re not headed out today? Are you, Eric? If you are, you’re crazy with that big storm that’s coming.” 

Eric yelled back over the engine noise. “Gotta, I’m in a tight spot, money-wise. We’ll be back in plenty of time before the storm arrives.”

Eric had needed a sizable loan to buy his boat and the bank still held its title as collateral. He was behind on his monthly payments and in two days he’d be in default. If he didn’t pay the balance due, the bank could seize Juanita. Eric was desperate and needed a good haul today to make that payment.

The sun was rising behind Stern’s Wharf, as Juanita cruised down the harbor’s main channel. Eric took several deep breaths of fresh sea air.   Any anger at his brother had dissipated. He loved being his own boss and working outdoors, especially at sea with its ever-changing colors and moods.

Eric was’t a typical small commercial fishermen, but had one of the few hundred licenses issued by the State of California to harvest sea urchins. The spiny, hard-shelled animals are found clinging to rocks and other hard surfaces on the bottom. They are the source of uni, served at many upscale sushi bars 

After clearing the harbor breakwater, Eric gave the helm to Eddie, so he could get the diving gear ready, saying, “Head to the open-ocean side of Santa Cruz Island, south of that first rocky point. You know where I mean, right? There should be lots of urchins there, since other divers won’t work that near the rocks.” 

Eric glanced up at the azure blue sky, noticing the high wispy cirrus clouds, which foretold of a weather change and the approaching storm. With the sun staying low in the sky in January, the temperature wouldn’t rise much above the current 56 degrees, which was just about the same as the surface temperature of the ocean.

As they crossed the channel to Santa Cruz Island, Eric listened to the latest Coast Guard weather forecast on Juanita’s VHS marine radio. The forecast called for the winds to increase to 20-25 mph by late afternoon with whitecaps forming. But the major storm, with winds up to 45 mph and waves of 12-15 feet wasn’t expected to arrive until after 9pm. 

As a young boy, Eric had idolized Eddie, who was three-years older, but that changed one day when they were in the 7/11 store near their home. Eddie had said to Eric, “Hey, the clerk isn’t looking. Stuff this candy in your pockets.” Eric had done it, and they’d gotten away with it, but Eric swore that was the last time he’d let Eddie be his guide, which proved a wise choice. 

Their mother had talked Eric into hiring Eddie as his urchin boat tender, when the previous guy quit. Eddie had recently gotten out of prison, serving time for robbery. When businesses found out about his felony conviction, they lost any interest in hiring him.

As the boat’s tender, Eddie looked after everything onboard while the diver was underwater. As Eric moved along the bottom harvesting urchins, Eddie followed along in the boat. He monitored the air compressor, the yellow air hose and 3/4th inch rope connected to Eric. The hose supplied Eric’s air and the rope was for hauling in the net bag, hopefully full of urchins, and also served as a safety line for Eric.

As Eric climbed up the boats’ ladder from his second dive, he was shivering and his teeth were chattering, even though he was wearing a custom-made, extra thick wetsuit. He told Eddie, “Pour me a mug of hot tea from my thermos. Damn, it’s cold down there. The chill seeps into your bones.”

Sipping tea from the steaming mug, Eric felt the warmth radiating into his body. As Eric poured a second cup of tea, he pointed further down the coastline, where a sheer cliff dropped into the water, and said. “Let’s try that spot over there. Do you see where I mean, below that cliff face? That’s a place where I’ve found lots of urchins in the past.”

Eddie replied with a note of surprise, “Are you sure you wanna go that close to the cliff. The wind and waves have picked up.” Eric had already noticed the heavy cloud cover that had moved in, blocking the sun and turning the ocean from a brilliant cobalt blue to a dull blue grey. 

After assessing the conditions for a moment, Eric said, “Yeh, we should be okay for another couple of hours. A good haul there should fill the urchin tank and we can head to port. We’ll be at the dock and unloading by dusk. As the only boat bringing in fresh urchins today, we should get a good price.”

Before Eric entered the water again, he told Eddie, “Keep a sharp eye on my position, since I’ll be working near the rocks.”

Driving to Santa Barbara that morning, Eddie had guzzled a couple of beers just before arriving at the harbor. Since he had supposedly stopped drinking and was going to AA meetings, he couldn’t drink in front of Eric. Eddie had popped two mints in his mouth to cover his breath. That was now several hours ago though, and Eddie needed a drink bad, having a splitting headache and starting to get the shakes.

Eddie remembered that he’d hidden a pint of rotgut in one of the boat’s lockers. He dug through the spare air hose and extra ropes, where he’d buried the bottle. After finding it, he took several long swigs, which burned his throat going down. He reached into his backpack, grabbed the egg McMuffin he’d saved, and ate it in three bites, which proved a mistake.

With the boat in constant motion, pitching and rolling on the big waves, Eddie rushed to the boat’s rail in time to heave his guts over the side. Feeling dizzy, Eddie lay down on the  bunk in the boat’s little cabin. He intended to be back on his feet in a few minutes.

Once on the bunk though, the urge to close his eyes was overwhelming. With the rolling of the boat, Eddie fell asleep and soon was snoring. 

He awoke when a large wave slammed into the boat and threw him from the bunk. He landed on the deck with a heavy thud. As he got up, what Eddie saw caused raw panic. The cliff face loomed over Juanita. The deafening sound of the waves crashing on the cliff was terrifying. 

Eddie rushed to the boat’s helm, swung the wheel and gunned the motor. He was lucky. Within seconds, Juanita was clear of the cliffs and breaking waves. Eddie glanced at his watch. He’d been asleep for 35 minutes.

Although his brother was still in the water, Eddie assumed he was fine and still harvesting urchins on the bottom. Eddie pulled in the slack of the air hose and rope and gave them a tug. If Eric was okay, he’d answer by pulling back, but nothing happened.

Eddie pulled in the rest of the rope and air hose as fast as possible. When the basket broke the surface, it was full of urchins. The end of air hose appeared next entangled with a big clump of kelp, but without his brother.  

Scanning the cliff face, Eddie spotted a black shape on the rocks. He grabbed the binoculars. It was Eric’s battered, wetsuit covered body.

Eddie was frantic. He brought the boat in as close to the cliff as he dared with the big surf breaking. Eddie got the handheld bullhorn Eric kept onboard, and yelled, “Eric, Eric, Eric,” several times. Eric didn’t move. 

As Eddie watched, a large wave broke on the cliff and smashed the limp body against the rocks. Eddie let out an anguished, gut wrenching scream. 

“Help!” 

But no one in this world could help. Eric was dead. Eddie called in the tragedy, with the location of Eric’s body, to the Coast Guard on the boat’s radio. 

Eddie didn’t head back towards port in Santa Barbara though. He pointed Juanita west towards the open Pacific and the approaching storm, and pulled back on the engine’s throttle.

He’d made a mess of his life and it was time he stopped hurting other people. When the Juanita sank in the storm, there’d be no trace of the boat or Eddie left.

Alex de Cruz has had a passion for fiction since reading Hemingway as a teenager. Recently, he’s become a devotee of flash fiction and short story writing. Alex has flash fiction pieces forthcoming in Scarlet Leaf Review and Flash Fiction Magazine. He lives in Santa Barbara.

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