Extract: The Dive by Sara Ochs
Scuba diving instructor Cass leads her students out for their first dive off the beautiful coast of Koh Sang, Thailand’s world-famous party island. It’s supposed to be a life-changing experience, but things quickly spiral out of control. By the time she gets back to the shore, one of her students is dead, another badly injured, and she knows that her idyllic life is about to be smashed to pieces on the rocks.
Someone has discovered Cass’s secret, and on an island as remote as this, accidents happen. Plenty of backpackers choose to stay here for ever – but some are never heard from again…
Read on for the opening chapter of The Dive by Sara Ochs.
The bass thumps from somewhere behind me, echoing the beat of the blood pulsing in my ears. I look back at the group I’ve left behind. Bodies painted in flashy greens and sickeningly sweet pinks rub against each other. Cheap beer froths out of gold and green bottles while friends sip collectively from fishbowls filled with noxious blue liquids. Further down, a dancer swirls a hula hoop of fire for the acclaim of an impressed – and extremely intoxicated – crowd.
Everything suddenly seems hazy, like I’m watching it
all unfold from outside of my body. A neon cacophony of colour set to music that’s become nothing more than one long, blurred note, deep enough and loud enough to shake my chest bones. Sweat slicks my skin, my flesh too warm even for the heat-soaked night. My muscles are heavy, and I need to remind myself to breathe, like my body has forgotten to engage in its normal functions. Maybe they put something in my drink to make this easier. Or maybe I’m just intoxicated on the knowledge. The awareness that time is running out. That I have only seconds left.
I call back towards the group, pleading for anyone to help me. But it’s no use. The raucousness blasting from the party’s speakers sweeps down the beach like an avalanche, picking up my voice and carrying it away into the silence.
I thought I could do this myself. That I was smarter than them, that I could figure out the darkness that lives on this island and stop it from hurting anyone else. So no one else would have to die.
But I was wrong.
I made a mistake. I trusted the wrong person. I should have known better after everything that happened.
I feel a palm on my lower back. It’s light, and I know what it would look like to any onlooker, even one who decided to walk this far down the beach away from the party. Two partygoers escaping the dancefloor for the romantic seclusion of the moonlight. It’s so far from true it almost brings a smile to my lips, a bubbling euphoria that nearly escapes.
But it doesn’t.
Because I know what that palm signifies. And I feel what the others down the beach don’t. The thin prick of a knife digging into my lower vertebrae.
I hear a voice close to my ear, the tone hard and cold, the music doing little to muffle it.
I look before me, the ocean stretched out to the horizon, black waves glittering in the light from the moon – as round and full as a pregnant belly. I’ve looked at this view in awe several times since I arrived here, a beauty like nothing I’ve ever seen.
I do as I’m told and walk. What choice do I have?
The pulsing bass emanating from the bars’ speakers recedes with each step, until I’m far enough away that the music becomes nothing more than a memory. This distance from the party, the beach is bathed in darkness, the shops lining this stretch long since closed. The only light comes from the smattering of stars over my head.
As I feel the water lap against my toes, I take one more look over my shoulder. The people are only small blurs at this distance, but I can still make out the bodies grinding together, so many aching to make contact any way they can. Despite the sloppiness – the drugs and drink making them flop on to each in lurid movements – there’s a beauty to it.
For so long, I’ve felt nothing but coldness, even with the heavy humidity of the island cloying at my skin these past few days. People always talk about rage burning, but it sat inside my stomach, as hard as ice, freezing my veins. I couldn’t think of anything besides revenge. A need to impose pain that I’ve never felt before.
But now, as the ocean water grazes my kneecaps and I
watch the people down the beach from me dance in the glittering moonlight, so far removed from the rest of the world, it’s as if that ice finally melts, the brief giddiness from earlier returning.
I wonder if she felt this way before it happened to her. An appreciation for life that comes only at its end.
And before I can think about it any more, my feet stop moving, and the single palm on my back turns into two, pushing me hard, face first into the water. I gasp for breath as I fall, my forehead striking one of the rocks that litters the ocean floor. But it’s not enough. The hands grip my neck tightly, holding my head under, legs now wrapped around my hips, pinning me down. Even though I fight back, the person barely moves. I lift my arms up, reaching for anything to grab hold of, but it feels as if I’m draped in a weighted blanket. My fingers finally grasp around wrists, and I drag my nails across flesh as hard as I can. But the water turns everything soft, and I barely make a dent.
My eyelids force open against the sting of the salt water. Small fish flick by me, deftly avoiding the bubbles erupting from my lips, seemingly unconcerned with the life seeping from my lungs.
My hands release, floating back downwards as if my muscles have realized the futility of the fight before my brain does. And I picture her again, as I have so many times since she left. She’s the reason why I’m here. Why I’ve sacrificed everything.
It’s her I’m thinking of when the beauty of the water fades to black.
Fourteen Hours Earlier
The hotel room already smells like death. I know realistically it’s too soon for that, that the body isn’t anywhere near decomposing. But still the stench filters into my nostrils, cloying and visceral. A thick, wet substance smears through the cracks in my toes, and time seems to stand still when I see the blood seeping into the carpet fibres. Each droplet holds little pieces of me that will stay long after I’m physically gone.
His body looms large in front of me. And then I feel the weight in my hand, the sturdiness of the knife. My eyes flick to it, the lamplight illuminating a rust-coloured substance that lines its sharp edge. Blood. My blood.
I try to pause, to take stock of what’s happening, to piece it all together. But before I can, my arm plunges forward as if of its own volition, angry and desperate. And then it comes. The connection of the blade to the flesh. That satisfying feeling of contact.
I hear the scream erupt from my lungs as if it comes from someone else.
I clamp my hand over my mouth, and my eyelids snap open. And then I’m staring into Logan’s eyes, at the ocean waves he carries in his irises.
‘Cass, I’m here. You’re home. You’re okay,’ he soothes.
Slowly, I register Logan’s palms on each side of my face, the sight of his concerned gaze, the sound of his deep Scottish brogue. I inhale a deep breath through my nose, the familiar scent of salt-tipped air flooding my nostrils. In for two, out for two.
I can feel a headache forming at the back of my skull, and it takes me a minute to understand what Logan’s asking.
‘Yeah, I guess,’ I answer noncommittally. He doesn’t know about the terrors that haunted my dreams every single night for the first year after that day in the hotel room. My unconscious mind replaying the memory on an endless loop, every viewing becoming darker, more frightening.
‘What was it about?’ he asks.
My heart is still beating erratically, and I swipe away a bead of sweat from my forehead. I force myself to breathe slowly, using the trick I teach my students. In, two, out, two. ‘I can’t remember,’ I lie.
I realize with a start that my fingerprints are tracing the line above my heart where my jagged skin has turned soft and stretched. Logan thinks it’s from an accident. A car crash when I was little. A piece of glass from the windshield piercing my chest. The accident I managed to survive, but which left me an orphan, my two remaining family members torn away in one fast movement of destruction. He thinks that because I’ve made him think that.
I pull my hand away from my chest, not wanting to draw
more attention to the scar than necessary.
Logan’s face slowly morphs from concern into his signature lopsided smile: his lips opened slightly, one side pulled up just a touch more than the other, a glitter reaching his dark blue eyes. A stray strand of curls has broken loose from his messy ponytail to graze his chin, and the sight of it sends a flutter to my abdomen.
He leans his face closer to mine. ‘Well, whatever that dream was, it wasn’t real. But you know what is?’ he asks teasingly.
He lifts my left hand up to his mouth, his lips grazing my knuckles, giving me a clear view of the gold band that, as of last night, has taken up permanent residence on my ring finger.
The thought still sends a ripple up my spine. He’s mine. I’m his. We’re all we need. No one else matters.
My eyes travel downwards from his face to the identical ring hanging from the chain around his neck, perched upon his tattooed chest.
I think back to last night, letting the good memories replace the residual panic from the nightmare. Logan had gently pulled out that ring from where it lay tucked under his T-shirt moments after he’d held out a matching ring in a small red box in my direction. Time seemed to freeze, my brain temporarily glitching, nothing making sense until I watched him lower himself to the vinyl flooring of our patio, taking position on one knee. He timed it perfectly as the sun descended into the sea, a fiery ball drowning in the water that left the sky smouldering in pinks and shimmering blues.
I held the ring in my hand a moment before slipping it on my finger.
‘Look on the inside,’ Logan had instructed, and I did.
There, engraved in delicate cursive, lay our words. The phrase we say to each other before bed every night, or whenever we separate. Our version of I love you.
‘Forever us two,’ I managed through the emotion growing thick in my throat.
‘Forever us two,’ Logan echoed. ‘It’s official now.’
It was the moment I had been waiting for since the night I first met Logan, two years ago. Since the first time I saw him, I knew. He would be the one to save me.
I lean forward to him now, craving the feeling of his lips on mine. But just as they touch, a sound comes crashing into our bedroom.
Thud, thud, thud.
I feel my body go rigid, my muscles clench.
‘It’s only the door,’ he says, frowning, his statement carrying a question.
‘Of course,’ I say in a rush, hoping he doesn’t notice my embarrassment. ‘That dream just felt so real.’
Logan rolls over, shifting his legs off the side of the bed as if making to get up.
‘No, you stay,’ I command. ‘You don’t work until the
afternoon, and my alarm is about to go off anyway. It’s probably just Greta with an engagement present. You know how she is.’
I can already picture her at the door, ready to wrap me
in a huge hug and shout about how difficult it was for her to keep this a secret for so long. I feel a brief tinge of pity, thinking of Greta’s recent breakup. The way Alice just up and left her and the entire life they built on this island without notice or apparent explanation. But I push it away. This morning is for celebrating. I deserve to be happy for once.
‘Look at you. Already the best fiancée I could ever ask for,’ Logan says. His comment sends a warm flush to my stomach, and I gently kiss his smiling lips before grabbing clothes that lie crumpled at the side of the bed – casualties from last night. As I slip Logan’s T-shirt over my head, I pause briefly to look through the floor-to-ceiling windows that line our bedroom, giving us unbridled views of the sparkling, mountain-studded ocean.
Just like it always does, the beauty takes my breath away. We moved into this house a year ago, each of us fed up with our respective living situations – Logan crashing in an apartment near Kumvit with Neil and Doug, and me in one of the hotel rooms that Frederic rents out to resort staff at decent rates. As soon as we saw it come on the market, we agreed we didn’t have a choice but to put in an offer. It’s one of the only buildings this far up the hill, situated right next to the Khrum Yai trailhead. But the view sealed the deal, the beauty of the island on display, as if it’s ours for the taking. And in a way it is. Koh Sang is our home, nestled in the Gulf of Thailand, far enough away from all the other backpacking islands that it hasn’t yet been tarnished by an overflow of tourists, like neighbouring Koh Phangan or Krabi.
Today, the sea looks placid. Good news, given that we’re still very much in the rainy season. Every day is a gamble with the weather. But the sun is already well above the water, steadily ascending in the cloudless sky.
I walk through our living room and past the adjoining kitchen. With each step, I expect the knocking at the door to come again, but Greta seems to have given up for the time being. Either that or she’s heard me moving around.
I pause when I reach the front door, smoothing my hair
down, hoping it doesn’t look like I’ve just rolled out of bed – which I have. No need to rub the engaged bliss in Greta’s face more than necessary. As I open the door, I’m smiling, ready to feign mock surprise at Greta’s presence.
But there’s no one there.
I step out, the humidity instantly sticking to my skin. Could Greta have gone already, thinking that Logan and I were out? I look down the sharp hill that leads back to the rest of the island. If she’d left, I would at least spot her motorbike speeding down the hill, but the road is empty.
My forehead scrunches in confusion. I think about texting Greta as I step back into the doorway, but my foot brushes against something. It’s small enough that I managed to step over it without noticing. A plain white envelope with my name – CASS – written across it in small capital letters in a handwriting I don’t instantly recognize as Greta’s. But it must be hers.
That explains it. She must have dropped it here as she
knocked on the door, eager to make a quick getaway so as not to bother us. I find myself smiling again. I pick up the envelope and take it inside, stopping at the kitchen table to open it. It’s light enough to be only a card, but knowing Greta it’s likely something more. Maybe tickets to some new destination? She can be a bit over the top when it comes to gifts.
I rip the envelope greedily, not bothering to wait for Logan. I’m excited to surprise him with whatever this might be.
Once opened, I realize it’s nothing more than a folded sheet of computer paper. I unfold it, curious.
Immediately, I drop it on the table, my fingers buzzing as if it’s burned me. I instinctively step back, away from the unfolded paper, my heart rate accelerating, my thoughts racing. I stumble a few steps and grab at a chair.
The whole time, I keep my eyes trained on the paper, at
the black and white photo of a girl staring up at me, wide-eyed and crazed, guilt splayed across her face. Reporters and cameramen rush at her from all sides, buffeting her in a media circus.
The photo sits in a sea of dense, black text, the sole image in the printed news page.
At the top sits a note, sprawled in red marker.
I know who you are.
Then, beneath the article and the photograph lies more handwriting.
And soon everyone else will, too.
I feel bile rise in my throat as the meaning of those words settles heavily around me. Everything I’ve accomplished in these last two years – this new identity, this new fiancé, this new life – comes crashing down.
‘Was it Greta?’ I hear Logan ask from the bedroom.
It takes me several tries to answer. Each time I open my mouth, the sound sits trapped in my airway, my vision goes black and I’m back in that hotel room. The knife in my hand, my blood on the blade.
‘No – no one there,’ I finally manage, praying that Logan can’t hear the strain in my voice. ‘Greta must have given up waiting.’
‘Good,’ he says. ‘Then come back to bed. We’re not done celebrating.’
I walk as if in a trance, stopping in the kitchen to fold up the paper and shove it in our junk drawer beneath a pile of takeaway menus, somewhere I know Logan won’t find it. I should destroy it, but part of me needs to see it again, with a clearer head. To make sense of how this could happen.
Even when it’s out of sight, those words remain emblazoned on my mind. I know who you are. And the photo of that girl is everywhere I turn.
A girl I haven’t seen in years, who I made sure no longer exists.
The version of myself I left behind a long time ago.
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