Growing up, it was common knowledge that my cousin, Ben, was afraid of seaweed. Naturally, we terrorized him with it. Pieces in his bed, pieces in his shoes, and my favorite: pieces in his bathing suit. Every time, we were guaranteed a scream and a scramble as he tried to get the seaweed away from his delicate self.
Nothing, though, compared to what we’d do to him at the beach.
I’ll fully admit that we were bullies back then. We didn’t know what we did was wrong; we just thought it was funny. And since Ben laughed it off at the end, even if he’d cried while it was happening, we thought it was okay to continue. Kids will be kids, right?
I was the oldest, and therefore the biggest. Ben was always really skinny and small. I could manhandle him pretty effortlessly. I’d dunk him underwater, I’d toss him around; all that. But I’d also hold him still as my other cousins draped him with seaweed.
Oh, how he’d scream.
Eventually, our parents would get involved. I’d get in trouble, maybe even catch a beating, but nothing severe enough to dissuade me from terrorizing my cousin.
One summer, we took a family vacation to California, a little north of San Francisco. Before we left, Mom took me aside and said under absolutely no circumstances was I to tease Ben with seaweed or do anything whatsoever that might provoke his fear of it. It turned out he’d been in therapy for the last few months. I was probably supposed to feel bad, but I didn’t. I was 12. I was a dick. Still, I agreed. I wouldn’t taunt the poor kid with the stuff.
We arrived in California and had a few days of fun in the sun. The water was a little too cold to go swimming, but we still enjoyed a lot of what the beach had to offer: cool rocks, tide pools, crabs, and all that. True to my word, I didn’t do anything mean to Ben. We all had a pretty good time.
On the fourth day, Dad announced that he’d scheduled a boat trip for Ben and me to see the seals and maybe even a whale or two. It was just the two of us, plus the tour guide: a pudgy, kind man named Ron. I guess Dad wanted to see if he could help rebuild the relationship between Ben and me; we’d been getting along pretty well since I’d agreed not to torture him anymore.
We set off around 10:30 in the morning while our parents and younger siblings attended a lecture about a timeshare that included a free breakfast. Ron was lively and engaging. He enjoyed asking us questions to see how much we knew about marine life, then, if we didn’t know, told cool stories about the biology and history of the area.
We saw a ton of seals. They were interested in the boat and followed us along. There was quite a few colorful fish, too. We hung our heads over the edge of the boat as Ron regaled us with fun facts.
After a little over a half hour of sailing, we stopped.
“This is the spot where you’ll see a ton of biodiversity,” Ron told us. “I’ve seen whales, seals, octopodes, and even a shark or two right around here.”
I peered over the edge. I saw movement below us. “What’s all that stuff,?” I asked, pointing.
“Ah,” Ron replied, apparently delighted by my question. “That’s one of the reasons for such great diversity out here. That, Max, is a kelp forest.”
“What’s a kelp forest?,” Ben asked.
“Great big towers of plant life – some of it grows almost 200 feet long.”
“Plant life,” repeated Ben, his voice quiet and uncertain.
“That’s right!,” replied Ron. This is where you’ll find some of the longest and most abundant seaweed in the world. It’s also the fastest growing plant on Earth and can grow a foot and a half a day!”
My gaze shot to Ben, who’d turned pale. I had to give him credit, though. He didn’t scream or anything. He just took his seat on the boat and stared at the floor.
“I don’t feel too well,” he said. “Can we go home?”
Immediately following his words, a whale breached only 30-or-so feet away. The seaweed forgotten, Ben hurried to the side and watched, awed, as the colossal mammal launched itself into the air again and splashed back into the depths.
The ripples lapped at the edges of the boat and I heard wet sounds coming from all directions. I stared at the spot, hoping the whale would leap again. Ben was looking down at a chunk of seaweed on the surface. I knew he was wondering how far down it went.
Feeling uncharacteristically charitable and wanting to take Ben’s mind off the hated weed, I asked over my shoulder to Ron, “what kind of whale was that?”
Ron didn’t reply. Ben and I stared at the foamy touchdown site of the whale, still hoping it’d make an encore leap.
“Ron?,” I asked again, not turning around. All we heard was the lapping of the waves and the strange, squishy wet sounds.
Again, no answer from Ron. Then Ben shrieked so loudly and suddenly I heard something inside his throat tear.
I whirled around and shouted in surprise and fear.
A thick column of dark green kelp had pushed itself into Ron’s mouth. Other pieces held his arms and legs, rooting him in a standing position to the boat’s deck.
Ben was wheezing and backing away. The kelp wormed its way around Ron, tightening its grip on him. More ropes of it slid up from the depths and joined the others in his mouth. His lips stretched and tore as piece after piece rammed its way down his throat. His eyes bulged in a combination of horror and from the terrible pressure being exerted on him.
“Help!,” I shouted to no one. Over and over and over the words flew from my lips as bones inside Ron splintered and his flesh tore, dousing the deck and our shoes with his blood. Then, with a mighty jerk, he was pulled off the boat. He remained in mid air, held aloft by heavy tendrils of kelp. They turned him over and around, then tore him in half. Entrails plopped into the water where fish waited. They began to feast.
Soon, everything was quiet, save for Ben’s torn throat whistling every panicked breath. I’d stopped calling for help. We sat, huddled in the corner of the boat. I wrapped my arms around him and we shuddered together for a while.
I saw Ron’s radio and I turned it on. “Help us,” I pleaded. “Ron died.”
That was all I said. Before long, a Coast Guard boat came to our rescue.
There was an investigation. No one believed what Ben and I told them, but the presence of Ron’s blood all over the place, as well as his torn clothing that was found floating in and around the spot we’d been, made them think twice. Eventually, it was ruled a suicide. Ben and I went to therapy together for a couple years.
We’re adults now, and I’ve long-since apologized for how I’d treated him when we were younger. You won’t catch us at the beach anymore, though. We learned our lesson.
Privately, I’ve wondered if somehow he knew that would happen to Ron – if that was the reason why he was always so frightened of seaweed. I guess I’ll never know. Still, it makes me wonder what else he’s scared of. I already know he’s terrified of bees. Has been forever. Whenever I hear one buzzing by, I expect to see it, car-sized and angry, ready to impale me with its stinger.
Maybe I just need more therapy.