Fiction: Dinoflagellates by Jessica Jordan-Wrench

Laura sat in the back of Abi’s Toyota, a bottle of murky water wedged between her thighs. The road was uneven, and with each jolt, the liquid glowed blue for a moment. A bright flash in the night, igniting the slogan etched into the glass: It’s only heavy if you hold it. It was not a sentiment that particularly resonated with Laura, but it was Casper’s bottle, and he went all in on that kind of shit. 

Abi shifted into fourth, pressed her barefoot against the pedal. Her shoes were tucked under the empty passenger seat beside her. Abi took them off at every given opportunity, an affectation heavily influenced by Jane Birkin, though she would never admit it. She liked to imply she was impervious to idols. Casper sat next to Laura in the back. 

—Take the next left, he said. —This is where I saw it. 

Laura didn’t ask why Casper had been out here at night, an hour’s walk from home, but they often left things unsaid. Casper didn’t ask why Laura’s eye had started twitching (it always did this time of year, like her body remembered before her brain did) or why she hadn’t left the building in a week. He noticed though. He left things around the flat that told her so; a cup of tea, fresh sheets, a packet of fruit pastilles. Today, the bottle with a note attached, shake me when it gets dark, we leave at 11. Laura held it to her face, watching the water settle to a rusty orange before shaking it blue again. 

She remembered blue lights outside her brother’s house back home. Christmas lights in November? She’d thought as she walked towards them, admiring the way they flickered and flashed, smudged by the drizzle. 

Abi turned onto a steep track that cut through the cliffs towards the sea. The air was heavy, even though the windows were open and it was approaching midnight. Laura’s legs squeaked against the pleather seats. She gripped the floor with her toes, so as not to slide into Casper.

Take it easy Abs, Casper said lightly. —No rush. 

Abi refused to brake for bends, considering it a submissive gesture. 

—Only dogs bare their throats, she said, grinning at them in the rear-view mirror. —Never show your belly.  

Casper smiled too, leaning his head back onto the rest, neck arched like a sapling in the wind. Laura liked thinking of them like that—compact and contained, three smiling bodies, driving through the darkness. Laura’s toes softened before she caught herself. She turned away from Casper, imagined squeezing her thighs together, heard shattering, saw glass piercing her skin, felt the algae soaking her legs and spilling across the seats. 

She took her phone from her pocket and began scrolling. Cats and guns and ten new ways to wear a vintage scarf, a dog playing the piano, a guide on how to embrace the now. Her thumb hovered over an unsent message to her sister. The days he wanted to stay he was so far from vanishing, it said. He was bright, he burned. We shielded him like birthday candles by an open window. She glanced at the clock in the top left corner of her screen and swiped the message away.

Abi flipped on the stereo, filling the car with sirening guitars. She tapped her nails against the steering wheel, singing along to choice words and phrases, seemingly selected at random. Pizza, horizontal, bird, knees, backyard, for sure. Abi could not hold a tune, but performed with the authority of someone that could. Her hair–still wet from the gym–was loose and long, dripping trails of ink across her light green shirt as she nodded in time to the music.

The track was unlit. Laura’s view was defined by the beams from Abi’s headlights. She flicked them from dipped to full, illuminating sand, tarmac, bracken. Each was made more vivid by the black surrounding it, like a room watched through a keyhole.

Dinoflagellates, Casper said to Laura.

—Dino-? Laura replied, her mouth settling awkwardly on the oh.

—Dinoflagellates, he repeated, gesturing at the bottle. —Bioluminescent dinoflagellates

—Algae, Abi drawled from the front. —How do you remember these words, Cas? 

Casper gathered information like a bowerbird collects trinkets, beauty before use. He could list every solar eclipse since 1976 but had only recently–at 24–learnt how to cook pasta.

—It’s a type of algae, Abi said over her shoulder to Laura. —They glow when they’re disturbed, like when they’re… uh… 

—Unsettled. It’s a defence mechanism. Casper rubbed the tips of his fingers together. —The flash. It startles what distressed it. 

—Like the fish or whatever.

—Though most of the time it’s just breaking waves. Jittery algae.

—Must be exhausting. Abi snorted. — Freaking out at every ripple.

—Sure, but it looks great. No one said beauty was effortless.

—True Cas, true. It takes practice to wake up like this. 

Conversation came easily to Casper and Abi. They leaned into each other’s sentences with an ease that Laura reasoned stemmed from a childhood by the sea. All that unencumbered horizon had to have an impact. Laura had grown up surrounded by trees, her words tangled before they formed: sounds caught in her throat, tumbled around her ribcage. The thud when she realised they weren’t Christmas lights. Like something heavy hurled into soft dirt. 

Laura watched the dancing specks of light in the bottle, every tiny flare a missed alarm. Casper nudged her elbow with his.

— Seriously though, you’re in for a treat. It only happens every couple of years and you never really know when. It looks incredible.

The track yawned into a clearing, beyond which they could see the beach and then the sea. Each breaking wave burned popsicle blue. Like something had split, revealing vast smears of milky way in the water. Abi turned off the engine and with it the stereo. They sat for a moment, gazing through the windscreen in silence. Laura thought about Casper walking to the shoreline–she pictured him taking the bottle from his backpack, filling it carefully with water–and felt full of air. She opened her mouth quickly, closed it slowly, and gave Casper a thumbs up. He nodded and gave a thumbs-up back. 

Abi opened her door and sunk her toes into the sand.

—Shall we swim? she asked, already running towards the sea. Abi phrased questions as answers, as solutions to challenges Laura wasn’t aware she faced. Her bare feet left a trace of glowing prints, algae disrupted in the wet sand.

—We shouldn’t let her swim alone, Casper said.

Here’s what you are going to do, Laura told herself. You are going to open the door and get out of the car. You are going to take off your shoes and run towards the water. With your friends. You are going to embrace the now. 

—I’m not really a swimmer, Laura replied.

Casper drew his eyebrows together, scoring four vertical lines on the land between them. The truth was Laura didn’t want to feel better. The ache in her belly was a reminder, a ringing in her ears. Material, solid, something she could hold. 

—I don’t know what’s going on Laura, Casper said, intently picking at a piece of skin at the edge of his thumb. —And I never will if you keep closing yourself off.

—Save me the therapy speak, Laura snapped.


He pulled the door handle and leant his weight against it, but it did not give. Abi had a habit of putting the child locks on.

—For fucks sake, Abi, Casper said, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. Laura watched the tops of his ears turn pink. —I don’t know what’s going on with you, he repeated, facing forward, fingers resting on his forehead.

Laura exhaled and squeezed her eyes shut. She spoke slowly, deliberately, as if she was finding the end of a spool of thread.

—It’s about my brother, she said.

—I didn’t know you had a brother.

—I don’t.


—Anymore I mean. As in, he’s not around. He left. 

Laura opened her eyes. Casper dropped his hands to his lap. Both kept their gaze forward. Laura appreciated him not looking at her: late night coach journeys, long quiet walks, the unraveling that comes from parallel perspectives. They watched the sea through the windscreen, a wobbling line of blue dissecting the glass.

—I have this daydream, Laura said. —A vision really, that I can’t shake. Like the tune you hum unprompted, you know? A default. 

Laura is looking at the surface of a lake. Or maybe it is bigger than that, a lagoon, an oceanShe doesn’t know, she is watching it all from above, so can’t make out its edges.

—The Antiques Roadshow theme, Casper suggested.


—The Antiques Roadshow theme. It’s always in my head.

It’s deep and still and through the water she can see a figure, a shadow really, rising. Slowly, sure, but definitely rising.

—A banger, she said, barely audible.

—Ha. Yes. A banger. 

As it gets closer, Laura can see that it is her brother. She can make out his eyebrows, the curve of his nose, the small crescent scar on his cheek.

—Is it getting brighter? Laura asked, nodding towards the great swathes of light moving through the water.

His clothes are soaked and clinging to his body. Green hoodie, a pair of ripped jeans. It makes him look so delicate, so fragile. Bone white knee jutting through dark denim, pale threads swirling at the edges like tentacles.

—It’s your eyes adjusting, Casper said. —Like when you stare at the sky and see more stars.

Keep going, Laura thinks, willing him to break the surface. Come up for air.

—Scotopic vision, Casper added.

I won’t beg you to stay this time. Just take one breath, then you can sink back down.

—Skotos, meaning darkness. Opia, a condition of sight.

 And maybe it’s only an illusion–

—Some things our eyes cannot resolve.

But Laura thinks this time he does it.

—Just for a moment.

She can feel him like the sun on her face.

—Until they adapt.

Laura could hear insects in the trees, Casper’s shoes shifting slightly on the mat. The moon looked like a torch, round and bright, hovering high above the horizon. Its beam reflected a path, wriggling on the water and clean across the sand. She pulled herself forward and pushed a button on the dashboard. The locks released with a clunk as she fell back into her seat. The movement disturbed the bottle, that phrase again, silhouetted against the flickering blue. 

—It came free with a magazine, Casper said quietly. —The bottle. 

—I think we should swim, she said.

—Yeah? He replied carefully as if he was holding something skittish in his hands.

—Yeah. Let’s do it.

Laura opened her door, kicked her sandals to the ground, and began walking towards the water. Casper jogged a few strides to join her. She matched his step, and then they were running too, shrugging off shoes, shirts, jackets, skin. They reached the shore and did not stop, wading into cool waves, gasping, dragging luminous trails through the water.

Laura held the bottle high, clear of the waves crashing against her midriff. Abi was floating on her back a few feet ahead, beyond the break. Laura stopped. She watched as Casper spread his arms wide, his shoulders, arms, and hands sparkled as if they had been dipped in glitter. She unscrewed the cap from the bottle and poured its contents back into the sea. Casper reached out and squeezed Laura’s hand. She held his fingers, and together they tipped back until they were drifting, suspended beneath an inky, open sky. 

—What’s it about? Casper asked. —This daydream.

Laura didn’t have an answer. 

—A jumble of clashing things, she said eventually. 

The empty bottle bobbed beside them, It’s only heavy if you hold it, rising and falling with the waves. Laura thought of blue lights spinning, of the sound her dad had made when she called him from her brother’s kitchen. Dinoflagellates clung to her eyelashes, framing her view with stings of light, indistinguishable from the stars. 

Jessica Jordan-Wrench (she/her) is a UK based artist, producer and occasional journalist. Her work often uses text, but this is her first published fictional short story. She lives by the sea in Margate with her partner, two small children and a red rescue dog called Finn. She can be found on instagram or twitter @jjordanwrench.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s