Phattie & the Tar Ball 2

Aboard the US Aircraft Carrier Enterprise, scheduled for decommission and sinking as an artificial reef, Seaman Edgar R. Benson’s job was taking out the trash. Good riddance to the entire stinking ship. He hated his fellow crew members, violent adolescents. How he’d landed on this depressing bucket of bolts after an outstanding four years at the academy, he avoided thinking about.

Twelve nautical miles off the coast, nary a boat, friendly or otherwise, relieved the unrelenting boredom. With no shore leave scheduled nor storm to be survived, the water stretched away from them on all sides as featureless as if their vessel had parked in an empty blue parking lot when the mall was closed.

To pass the time, Benson loaded up oily residues such as dirty ballast, tank washing water, and human waste products into Torpedo Tube number five and fired at will. Unbeknownst to Benson, the refuse contained the remains of a scientific accident–a mixture of metal fragments from exploded lab equipment and melted glass test tubes. Impervious to the ten thousand degree heat of the furnace and the cold embrace of the ocean, clinging inside one of the test tubes for its life, dwelled an oil-eating microbe, nick-named Phattie, developed to clean up disasters such as the most recent Alaskan oil spill. Phattie flourished in the near-freezing temperatures of the Arctic.

Propelled through the mild, relatively shallow waters off the coast of Florida, the organism would surely have died, but for its next encounter. The mini-creature collided with a floating raft of tar balls.

Food! it would have thought, if it had a brain. Indeed, with an estimated one million barrels of oil left in the water after the previous year’s oil spill, the little guy need never go hungry. Phattie tucked into lunch, an all-you-can-eat petroleum buffet.

Passing a mile off the port bow as Benson fired, a school of dolphin swam by, oblivious to the Benson blasts. Full of good humor and snook, they never saw the tar balls coming. The pod’s leader breeched and took a deep breath through her blowhole in mid-air, inhaling a tar ball straight down her windpipe. She sputtered and coughed, but the tar ball lodged in her lung, where it would irritate her very much.


At the Peg Leg, a rum bar the cruise ship tourists did well to avoid, Candice the resident shaman locked her motley bike next to the dumpster in back, where a few parking spaces looked over an agitated bay. Once inside she was known as Snow the waitress. But out here, she was still the shaman. Her gift was communing and communicating with all creatures. Sometimes her gift was a blessing, sometimes a curse. From beyond the sea wall, dolphins shrieked and called to her. They wailed a dirge to their fallen leader, who had choked on an evil black stone that consumed her from within. And they called, as always, for justice.


Five nautical miles from the coast, the Enterprise made way toward land. Normally, she would have weathered the freak storm off shore, her behemoth girth impassive in twenty-foot seas. But the minor explosion in the science lab now seemed connected to an overall power surge caused by a fault in the ship’s main generator. The chief engineer cursed and steeled himself to report to the captain. They needed more extensive repairs than he had tools for. The captain, four weeks from retirement and in no mood for further mishap, obtained permission to seek shelter at the nearby Naval Station.

Seaman Benson rode in an overfilled taxi through punishing tropical rain, one of a thousand pleasantly surprised, thirsty crew members on shore leave. As soon as they rolled to a stop, SN Benson slipped away from his fellow cab riders down a dark alley, ducking the crowd and his share of the cab fare. He ducked inside a doorway under a grimy sign, Peg Leg.

Inside, fishing nets filled with dried starfish, glass buoys and crab traps hung from a grimy ceiling. In the gloom, a man with waist length dreadlocks and a glass eye nodded at him. His companion, a florid, redheaded man in a flamingo shirt, poured a glass from a pitcher. Steel drum music floated uncertainly through the room.

Edgar caught sight of himself in the mirror behind the bar; a man in uniform always commanded attention. He straightened his posture and sauntered up to the counter with all the bravado and height of the top star in Top Gun.

He cleared his throat. The Indian girl polishing glassware pretended not to notice his gleaming uniform and teeth. He tried again. “Hey, Indian Summer. A thirsty sailor needs a draft.”

Avoiding eye contact, Snow poured the man a beer. She’d been aware of the sailor’s arrival before he’d pushed the bar door open. The dolphins had given her precise instructions. Just like last time. She parked a shot glass next to the frosted mug. “On the house.”

“Don’t mind if I do.”

“Of course you don’t,” said Snow. “Another?”

“What is this we’re drinking?” He peered at her through the glass.

“Local spirit. One more?”

“What’s your hurry?” he asked. “Pour yourself one.”

Snow pretended to drink a few rounds with him while the steel drummer searched for his lost groove. Benson closed his eyes, just for a moment. The next thing he knew, the waitress was shaking him awake. “Come on, sunshine. You’ve got a date.”

Snow steered a rumpled Benson out the back door, where the storm pushed cresting waves over the low coquina seawall meant to keep out the ocean. It was no use. The ocean and those who inhabited her knew no bounds.

“Look at the dolphins,” said the shaman. “See the fins?”

“I can’t see anything.”

“Get up on the wall,” she said.

“What? No.”

“Do it. Get up there already.”

“Why should I?”

Dolphins chattered and shrieked. Candice doubted Benson could hear them above the crash of water over the seawall. She drew the silver knife from her belt. “Get up there.”

His eyes went wide. “Crazy bitch!” He got up on the wall.

She smelled the stink of fear and petroleum around him. She advanced toward him, and he stepped backward involuntarily and fell into the black water. He surfaced and thrashed, and the fins found and circled him.

Candice waved her knife over the chopping surf, speaking low words into the howling wind–a blessing and a curse. She felt each little dolphin brain as a separate being, and she felt the community of swimmers and their intention. She slipped into the new alpha’s brain and saw through her eyes. The alpha swam circles, watching the group’s prey became more erratic.

Candice felt something else out there, too. Something tiny but multiplying with an insatiable hunger. Gorging itself on plastics and other petroleum byproducts like the tar balls. Becoming mighty.

Benson called out, “Help me.”

But there was no help for him. First the disembodied head and then the hands disappeared beneath the waves. Candice leapt out of the unknown consciousness, turned and took her leave.

Serena Schreiber

About Serena Schreiber

First published in Brooklyn in third grade, Serena Schreiber took a circuitous route through Europe to settle in Florida and write.

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