Fiction: Great White
By Harold Hoss
Joe Ross Gibson checks his arms for scratch marks and his shirt for any flecks of blood. Satisfied he’s clear, he climbs into the car, adjusts the seat to move it way back, and looks around. No matter how many times he does it, the shift from a backseat passenger to a front-seat driver always feels awkward. There's an adjustment period where the memory of the car's previous driver lingers like a footprint in the mud. It’s not just one thing, but a hundred little things, like the smell, the coins in the cupholder, and the curve of the seat.
Most of these ties to the past are easily severed. It’s easy for Joe Ross to move the seat way back to make room for his long, gangly legs, just like it’s easy for him to dump the coins from the cupholder into his pocket and the candy out the window. But even after Joe Ross rolls down the windows, the mixture of human odor and a cornucopia of fruits emanating from the rainbow of Christmas tree-shaped scents lingers.
Reaching towards the rearview mirror, Joe Ross hesitates, noticing the stain of a fresh purple bruise forming on his hand. He grunts and rips the air freshener free, the tiny elastic bands giving way together with one a muted snap. Then he peels the congealed ball of Christmas trees apart one by one, each layer revealing a new smell and a new color underneath.
When he’s finished tossing all the air fresheners out the window, Joe Ross taps his fingers on the steering wheel. He gives the sunset playing out like eye-scorching technicolor on a movie screen through his windshield only a passing glance. Instead, he looks at the flowing grass, watching the way it rolls in the wind. In the fading light, the grass looks like the rolling waves of the ocean. Squinting at it now, he pictures a shark fin poking out of the surface. At first, he sees only the fin, but then through the blades of grass he catches fleeting glimpses of the coral gray skin against the white underbelly, and he knows it’s a Great White. Nature’s perfect predator, pushing through the grass with great sweeps of its tail.
Joe Ross thinks of a photo he once saw. It was of a crowded beach filled with people taken from above but at an angle. Maybe by a plane, or one of those drone things. Either way its close enough to see that everyone on the beach and out in the water was just existing. Not a single one of them aware that just between a fat man pushing his son on a raft and a pair of bikini-clad teens splashing in the waves, swam the twelve foot shadow of a Great White.
Joe Ross can’t remember the caption beneath the photo, or anything he else about the book. He can only remember the stupid expressions on the people’s faces. He’s seen that same expression on a lot of people’s faces. People on the street. People in cars. Rude people in lines. Bored waitresses at diners. He sees that look everywhere he goes – and it makes him mad. It makes him want to hurt them.
Joe Ross feels his hands clenching into fists and he takes a deep breath. He blinks and the ocean outside his windshield is gone, replaced by an empty field. The ocean is gone, but the feeling remains. The anger at all those stupid people living their dull, stupid lives. He begins to look around the car, although he isn’t sure what he’s looking for until he notices the decals bordering the car’s windshield like a frame. Decals for every rideshare company in existence, from the original OkTaxi to the newer ones like SafeRide and HomeSafe.
An idea forms in Joe Ross's head. It isn't a new idea. It's a tried-and-true idea, and those are always better. It's an idea that will work better at night, so while Joe Ross waits for the sun to finish setting, he reaches into his jacket pocket for his Moleskine.
Joe Ross doesn't have a calling card. He doesn't have a clever nickname or taunt the police with ciphers and letters. He just has the Moleskine where he keeps score. He pulled the Moleskine off a college kid in Stillwater, so the first few pages are doodles and notes about due dates that have long since passed, but after that are the tallies.
Tally, tally, tally, tally, and then the sweet release of a long line through all four. The first four tallies are just like the others. There’s nothing unique about them. But the fifth? The fifth is always special. He’s only done it twice before, in all the years he’s been doing this, but there’s no feeling like it.
He adds a fourth tally now and almost sighs with regret that he doesn’t have a fifth to add. He’s so close. Just one more and then he can scratch his pen down through the other four.
Joe Ross closes the Moleskine book and starts to put it away, then stops. He opens the book again. He’s so close to that fifth tally. So close he can taste it. Almost feel it, like a charge of static electricity running up his arms and down his spine. He knows he shouldn’t. This too he learned from sharks. One shark attack is an isolated incident. Any more than that and suddenly it’s open season on sharks.
Still, Joe Ross wants that fifth tally. He wants it bad.
Closing the book he tries to push the thought from his mind. It’s dumb. Not only that, it’s risky – but he can’t stop thinking about it. It would feel so good. He reaches into his other pocket for a can of Red Man Wintergreen. Even after all these years, he can't pack a can. He can't flick his wrist like that. He has to be patient, kneading the tobacco between his thumb and forefinger, working it until he has a small, packed clump big enough to jam in his lower lip. Joe Ross may not be able to pack a can, but he isn’t a spitter. He doesn’t need a cup. He was raised to be tougher than that. Swallowing the spit is way more impressive than just being able to flick his wrist and pack a can. Everyone knows that.
Joe Ross sits and waits, still thinking about that fifth tally and watching the sun sink down beyond the horizon. The Oklahoma skyline is completely flat, without even the hint of a mountain or hill for the sun to hide behind, so the sun gets to take its time. Joe Ross sucks the bulge in his lip, watching as the sky changes from pink and red, to pink and purple, then from purple to blue, and finally from blue to black.
When the stars begin to poke through the big black blanket of the night sky, Joe Ross turns the key in the ignition and pulls onto a bumpy dirt country road. With the headlights off, he feels even more like a shark. A Great White swimming silently through dark ocean waters, relying not on its eyes but its senses, feeling the road beneath his wheels the way a shark feels even the tiniest change in current. A higher power guides him. A higher power that has chosen him. That has a plan for him. The thought makes him smile until the road gives way to something else and the car begins twitching and shaking like a drunk, sending him scrambling for the headlights as he slams on the brakes.
Outside, bathed in the glow of the car’s headlights, sits an old stone well next to a rusty playground. They remind Joe Ross of sunken ships he’s seen pictures of, only instead of seaweed and barnacles, they’re caked in dirt and dotted with spots where the paint has chipped away to reveal the color underneath. Staring at them now, Joe Ross’s mind immediately fractures, one part cursing himself for being so reckless, while another half runs through, in detail, what could have happened if he hit the brick wall of the well. But another part, a stronger part, tells him that there’s no guarantee of a tomorrow. No guarantee he will ever get that fifth tally if he doesn’t act now. The strain of all these fractures leaves him paralyzed, fluttering from side to side like a flag caught in the wind.
He isn’t sure what happens next. One second he’s staring through the windshield at the stone well and the rusty playground, the next he’s driving north on I-35, passing signs for Riverwind Casino that promise whisky, women, and gold for those bold enough to take a chance.
This happens sometimes. It’s like his brain has to reboot sometimes, and while it reboots, he takes a backseat and the rest of the system goes into autopilot mode. He never does much when he’s in autopilot mode. At least, doesn’t think he ever does anything more complicated than driving or walking.
Up ahead, Joe Ross sees a sign that says “University of Oklahoma, exit Lindsey street” and he pulls off at the next exit.
Joe Ross has been to Norman before, although he likes Stillwater better. Stillwater is where the country kids go, while Norman is full of kids from the City, or worse, Texas. Norman is a city split into two halves by the highway. On the eastern half are the suburbs where the locals live, and on the western half is the college. Neon signs advertising fast food and promises to buy and sell textbooks line both sides of the street, while crimson and cream flags screaming “Boomer” and “Sooner” fill the air.
It all makes him sick. He longs for Stillwater, where the colors are orange and black, occasionally adorned with the glowering face of Pistol Pete. Joe Ross would stay in Stillwater if he could, but he knows he can’t. He thinks again about sharks. Joe Ross thinks a lot about sharks. He understands sharks, much better than he ever understood humans. He understands the way they need to keep swimming or die, the way people fear them, and how they have to migrate from hunting ground to hunting ground.
The neon signs of the restaurants slowly drop off, giving way to the first layer of student housing. Joe Ross knows the University of Oklahoma is like an onion with the Greek houses and the university itself kept pristine and protected near the center, while the lower-income students, like the flaky tunic of an onion, form an uneven and unappreciated barrier around the outside.
Joe Ross passes Berry street and turns off down a side road. He passes a group of girls in heels, strung out in a wobbly line, and multiple pockets of students gathered on porches drinking.
Nearing the outskirts of the Greek houses, Joe Ross slows. Trolling for drunk students with his rideshare decals as bait. It doesn't take long for him to get a nibble. His headlights flash across a girl dressed in a short, black skirt that matches her jet-black hair, and what looks like a red bandana tied around her chest. She sways like a palm tree caught in a windstorm, squinting at him as he slows to a stop and rolls down his window.
Joe Ross lets her speak first.
“Samantha?” The word comes out slurred and she grips the windowsill to steady herself.
Joe Ross says it back to her, “Samantha?”
Samantha stares at him. Her green eyes are so glazed over they could be encased in ice, but she doesn't move toward the backseat.
“Your car is different,” Samantha says. She leans away from the car. “It’s supposed to be a red Prius.”
Joe Ross smiles. He wants to tell her to just get in the fucking car, but he doesn’t. He knows better than to scare away the fish by reeling in at the first nibble. He knows how to take it slow.
“Yeah, I got a new car. I need to update the app,” Joe Ross says.
He looks at Samantha. She's still clinging to his windowsill, still swaying back and forth. She squints at him like she's trying to read something far away.
Joe Ross waits another minute, then he repeats her name. “You’re Samantha?”
“I’m Samantha,” she agrees.
He considers asking if she’s going to the dorms, but decides it’s too risky. She could be going to one of the sorority houses or, even one of the apartment complexes on the opposite side of campus.
“You still need a ride?” Joe Ross says.
Samantha nods, but instead of getting in she says: “and your license plate is different.”
“Yeah, like I said, I got a new car.” Joe Ross lets himself sound a little annoyed. It isn’t an act. He is annoyed. He’s been parked here too long and like a shark, he can’t sit still. He has to keep swimming. If he stops, he knows he’ll die.
“Hey listen, Samantha, if you’re not getting in, will you at least cancel so I can grab another ride? I can’t do it on my end, you know?” Joe Ross has no idea if he can cancel on his end, or if each app is different, but it sounds good.
Just like the last time he used this line, he sees a sudden shift in the listener. Samantha’s eyes widen and Joe Ross knows he’s won. He’s forced the issue. He’s told her doesn’t care what she does, but she has to do something. She has to make a choice. He can see her weighing her options. If she takes the car, she can be home in five minutes and in bed in ten. Nothing in Norman is more than five minutes away in a car. She pushes away, tottering on her high heels, then takes a step towards the back seat.
Joe Ross feels a pressure begin to release. It’s a pressure he didn’t even know was building, just behind his eyes. A pressure he can feel finally dissolving as she takes another step towards the backseat.
She’s reaching out a hand to grip the back door when Samantha stops. Her eyes bulge and, instead of gripping the door handle, her hand flies to her mouth.
"Shit," Samantha says. She stumbles back, careening off one parked car and then turning and stumbling towards a trash can in the front yard.
Joe Ross hears the sounds of Samantha’s stomach emptying itself, followed by a series of whoops and cheers from students nearby.
Joe Ross doesn’t wait for Samantha to come back. He peels down the road, a little too fast because the tires screech, and then he pulls, hand over fist, on the wheel to shoot down another side street. Joe Ross tries to get his breathing under control. Before, he was just a random car picking up a random student. Nobody, especially not a bunch of drunk college students, would ever remember that. People would remember a girl puking in the bushes. They would remember the car she got into. They might even try to help her into it.
The corners of Joe Ross's vision start to fray, glittering like silver fireworks before turning to darkness. The darkness starts at the corners of his eyes but quickly spreads, encircling his vision before tightening like a noose so that soon all Joe Ross can see is a tiny pinprick of light, like he's looking through a long tube. And then that flickers out like a candle.
When Joe Ross comes to, he’s back on I-35, still heading south. His hands ache from his vice grip on the steering wheel, and he has to strain to unclench his jaw, but he’s still moving. And a shark that is still moving is a shark that’s still alive.
Again his mind threatens to fracture, but the voices telling him it’s too dangerous to try again are drowned out by a deep yearning in his chest. An aching need to scratch that fifth tally out on the paper.
Shaken, and feeling a little weak, he pulls off at Harrison Avenue and follows the fork towards downtown. He lets the car cruise down 10th street, imagining it’s the tail of a Great White pushing him past the rows of empty garages, over a set of train tracks, and towards the twinkling lights of the downtown bars.
He sees a young woman with a hoodie thrown over a skirt fumbling with a lighter at the corner, stumbling back and forth like a drunk sailor trying to ride out the waves beneath her feet. When the young woman finds steady waters, she plants her feet, focuses on the lighter in her hand and gives it a firm click. A single flame flicks up before her face and, after one practice shot, succeeds in getting the tip of the cigarette lit.
She’s taking her first drag when Joe Ross pulls to a stop nearby and rolls down his window. The young woman looks at him blankly. She has the same, glazed over, eyes frozen in ice look as the last girl, but the ice is thicker here. Any spark of intelligence is buried deeper.
“Did I call a fucking rideshare?” The young woman says, laughing to herself.
Joe Ross mimics it back to her. “Did you call a car?”
The young woman takes a few steps back, like she’s revving up, then stumbles head first into his car with a loud thump, before sliding slowly down to look in his window. “I’m sorry. Are you here for Bobbi?”
Bobbi takes a drag of her cigarette and exhales. She tries to wave the smoke away, but succeeds only in pushing most if it inside the cabin of the car.
“Are you Bobbi?” Joe Ross says.
“Holy shit,” Bobbi says. Her laugh sounds like a revving lawnmower that’s broken by hiccups before the engine can catch. “I ordered a fucking car.”
The image of the shark’s shadow, bending quietly between the swimmers on the beach, flashes through Joe Ross’s mind. He imagines the girls splashing in the waves. Imagines their looks of terror when the shark’s head turns, its mouth opening wide to reveal row after row of sharp teeth.
Another voice, still feminine, cuts through the air. “Bobbi! Bobbi what are you doing?”
Alarmed, Joe Ross looks up as another woman, dark-skinned with great, golden hoop earrings, comes around the corner.
“Bobbi, what the fuck?” The woman says.
“Angie,” Bobbi says. “I ordered a rideshare.”
“Bobbi, no you didn’t, I have your phone,” Angie says.
She’s a few steps away from the car now. Her heels clatter along the pavement like she’s skipping stones across a gravel path. Joe Ross can see her hand, with the long, painted red nails raising a cell phone. He sees her matching red lipstick. He sees her lips moving as she says: “Bobbi, get away from the car.”
“What?” Bobbi says, leaning up unsteadily.
The panic, the animal instinct to flee, hits Joe Ross like a tidal wave. He doesn’t question it. He doesn’t take the time to think. He slams on the gas and pulls out into traffic, narrowly swerving as a pair of headlights, followed by the boom of a car horn, shoot past him in the opposite direction.
He chances a glance up in his rearview mirror and sees a purple sedan parked across the intersection light up, transforming in a flash of blue and red lights into a cop car as the shrill call of a siren fills the air.
Joe Ross tells himself to keep moving, as he tries to keep one eye on the road ahead and one eye on the rearview mirror, but it’s too late. His breathing is coming faster now, ragged in and ragged out, each gasp deeper than the last but somehow his lungs remain empty. He feels a sharp prick at the corners of his eyes, then he feels hot tears begin to stream down his face.
He isn’t a Great White he realizes. He never was – and if you’re not a shark, then your prey. He’s always been afraid he was just like the others. Just like all those stupid people on the beach, living their stupid, pointless lives – and now he knows it’s true. He’s nothing. He’s small. He’s worthless.
He feels the edges of his vision beginning to fray again, the darkness closing in from all sides. Tightening his grip on the steering wheel, he tries to push the darkness away, to keep his eyes open just a little longer. As his vision shrinks to a pinpoint, he glances one last time up at the rearview mirror. Sure he’ll see the cop car racing after him, but instead he sees it stopped at the end of the block. The cop is out of his car and the girls are shouting at him and flipping him off.
Then his vision goes completely black.
Joe Ross wakes up to a heavy thump, followed quickly by two more heavy thumps and a deep voice shouting: “Hey fuck face open the door.”
He blinks and looks around. He’s parked on the side of the street near coin-operated parking meters that blinks “no service.” The closest streetlight is out, and the only light comes from a circular, neon blue sign that reads “Nic’s Place” around a giant “N.” The neon blue from the sign bathes the street in a pale blue light, which through his windshield makes the street look like its submerged beneath the ocean.
“Yo, the door, man, it’s fucking locked.” The voice outside his car says again, followed by another thump.
Joe Ross takes a breath, the Great White inside his chest stirring to life. He glances at the electronic clock on his dashboard. It reads: 2:15 am. Closing time for the bars. Feeding time for sharks.
Taking another breath to steady himself, Joe Ross rolls down his passenger side window. There’s the sound of feet scuffing along pavement then a man’s face, red and puffy beneath a pile of blonde curls, fills the window.
“You’re here for Seth, right?” The man says.
Joe Ross clears his throat. “You’re Seth?”
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Seth says. “You see anyone else on this street? Open the door, man.”
Joe Ross reaches to the side and unlocks the door. He can feel that same pressure, the one that builds up between his eyes, the one he never knows is there, begin to release.
“This is why you’re a fucking uber driver, man,” Seth says, swinging the back door open so it scrapes along the pavement before climbing inside.
“Good night?” Joe Ross asks, but Seth ignores him and instead takes out his phone.
“Yeah, I finally got my ride,” Seth says into the phone then, after this pause. “Yeah, this whole time. No, he was parked by Nic’s.” Seth pauses. “I did set it to The Garage.”
Looking at Seth in the back seat, it’s easy for Joe Ross to imagine him in that picture of the beach. Just another stupid face in the crowd, blissfully ignorant of the shark swimming in their midst.
“Yeah, oh yeah dude, that was funny as hell. Hey, hold on a second,” Seth looks up from his phone in the rearview mirror. “You know where you’re going, right?”
Joe Ross nods and pulls slowly away from the curb. He knows exactly where he’s going and exactly what he’s going to do.
Harold Hoss is the penname for Blake Hoss a film producer and genre writer. His most recent film, The Unheard, is streaming on Shudder now.