“Catch and Release” by Grace Holtzclaw

An oil rig lights up the ocean at midnight. She’s a glowing dutchman of rusted iron and cement. The suspended crustaceans and barnacles below the surface stick themselves to the edges for an anchor. The black water knows no limit but the impending horizon.

It’s harvest season in California. The strawberries that grow in the next town over are on the cusp of rotting. Soon, the families who vacation in town for the summer circuit will hop in their minivans and go home. The beach will become badland again.

It gets dark early. The sun sets while the baseball players are still on the field. They wash the turf off in the tide pool on their way to the house party.

If one of them gets too stoned after practice, he’ll linger on the beach past sundown. He’ll lock eyes with the oil rig and recall the words to the old Morrison tune that his dad used to put on the record player. “The crystal ship is being filled. A thousand girls, a thousand thrills.” He wants to reach out and touch it.

He calls out to the friends who left him on the shore some time ago that he can no longer measure.

“Johnny? Finn?”

The tide is high to the point that he’s unsure of what’s below him. For all he knows a phantom kraken could be swimming between his legs. He catches that feeling of uneasiness that could only be compared to a ride through your childhood neighborhood where no one lives anymore. Still, there’s a greater pull of curiosity that tugs him deeper.

The ball player’s name is Oliver Whigham. He’s a starting pitcher for the Oxnard Orioles known for his curveball. His father taught him how to catch on his fifth birthday back when they still lived in the suburbs of Illinois. Two years later, the family moved to Monterey where Mr. Whigham got a job on a commercial fishing boat.

A year after coming to California, Mr. Whigham drowned at sea during a storm. The funeral was done with an empty casket. The body was never found.

There’s a video somewhere in the basement of Oliver giving a speech at the service, but he’s never got around to watching it. At least that’s what he tells people. He doesn’t let himself swim out deep anymore like he did when he was young.

Drawing him from his daydream, something grabs hold of his foot beneath the surface . He’d write it off as a fishing trap or renegade lobster claw, but Oliver can feel the fingerprints pressing into his heels. The divots of pruned, weathered skin make it clear the beast was human. Familiar.

He does what he can to escape its grip on him. He tries crushing it with his weight. He tries to bury it in the sand and never speak of it again. He tries running. It is only when Oliver reaches his arm into the abyss that the creature lets go.

Oliver pulls the hand up from the bottom so he can get a good look at it. A severed left hand. A silver ring. Fingernails bit to the nerve.

He recognizes that ring from old photographs. There’s a picture on the old fireplace mantle of his mother and father at the opera when they were young. In the faded photograph, Mr. Whigham wears his best tuxedo with a glimmer of the silver ring. It’s an heirloom from his grandfather. It was meant to be Oliver’s in time.

He pries the ring off the stubborn finger and rolls it around. He considers throwing it out to sea. He considers blaming the events of the evening on too much time spent alone. But more than anything, he considers slipping on the ring.

So he does. He feels it hug his finger bone like the hand from the deep. It fits like a glove.

He carries his dead father’s hand in his own. He knows it by the curve of the joints, the fisherman’s finger, the familiar pressure of Mr. Whigham’s touch. He studies the palm. He runs his finger over the heart line, the head line, the life line. He lingers where the life line ends, knowing the fate that his father never did.

He gives the hand a lasting crush, and with his pitching arm tosses it into the dark.

Grace Holtzclaw is a third-year Writing and Literature student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her album reviews have been published for The Young Folks and she has released two features for Inside Wink. When on the move from place to place, or when sitting completely still, you’ll catch her listening to music on full blast (maybe Jefferson Airplane, Pinky Pinky, or Nirvana). Her short stories always involve music in some capacity as she seeks to tap the vein where music, literature, and emotion intersect. “Catch and Release” is her first piece of short fiction dedicated to Isla Vista, CA and all its passers-through.


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