This is the thirteenth chapter of an ongoing collaborative novel project. Click here to start with
chapter one, or here to see all the chapters.
In between voyages, you always forget what the stars look like.
You remember there are more of them, obviously, but you forget what they look like. You forget that coming onto the deck at night is like falling into an endless sea of diamonds, that the whole universe sparkles seemingly just for a handful of eyes on an obscure rock.
I'm coming up the stairs onto the deck now, my footfalls echoing through the hull of the ship, but when I reach the top, they disappear into the shining nothingness that surrounds us.
After the stars, the first thing I see is Gabe, manning the helm as usual. "Hey Captain."
"Do you ever sleep, or...?"
I shrug. "Fair question. But I'm the captain. I have an excuse."
"All right," he says. "Better question: Are you ever going to fill me in on where we're really going? What this voyage is all about?"
"That's, uh—I'm not sure you really know what you're asking, Gabe."
I sigh. Lace my fingers behind my head. Stare at the bowl of diamonds above us. "Meaning, how much apparent nonsense do you feel like absorbing tonight?"
"I helped you steal a priceless artifact from an underfunded museum, Doug. I think I deserve at least a partial explanation."
"All right, well—remember when Sunny died?"
"You mean when a teen girl I'd just met was violently killed right in front of me, barely a week ago? Yeah. Yeah, Doug, I remember that."
"Yeah, yeah, fine, point taken. You remember the legends about Theseus's property?"
"About ghosts being trapped there forever?"
"Yeah, that. Anyway, it's all true. And I can see them."
"You mean that—"
"Yeah, I can see Sunny. She's still around. She's on the ship. And I can talk to her."
"Will you tell her that..."
He sighs. "Never mind."
"Okay. Well, anyway, she thinks that if we take the centaur back to Africa, it will break the curse and she'll be alive again."
"Will it? Will she?"
"I'm increasingly sure it won't."
"But at this point we're basically in over our heads, so..."
"Got it. So—what's the plan, then?"
"I'll let you know when I know more."
"Okay, but maybe I could help—"
"Listen, Gabe," I tell him, "I got something I gotta do right now. Just—just keep her on course."
I leave my prodigy at the helm and duck back into the shadows. Make my way toward the foremast, reach out for the ladder to climb it. Grab a woman by mistake.
She screams. Calms down. "Doug?"
"Yeah, sorry, Jacinta. Didn't see you there."
"It's, um—yeah." She shakes her head, hugs herself against the cold. "Are you—are you doing okay? Since the laundry incident?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. Are you sure you're all right? I know you're not crazy about actually going to sea—"
"Just finished puking my guts out for the third time tonight. Other than that, I'm fine. I just wish you'd given me a warning, or—"
"Yeah, yeah, I know. I didn't exactly—you get it. I didn't plan on, basically, anything that's happened in the last two weeks."
"Hey, have you met Sunny? She's impossible. And she's even worse dead than she was alive."
"Well, Doug, you're the one in charge of the ship, so I'm just hoping you have a plan."
"I will let you know as soon as I do."
"Dios mío. I'm going to catch another hour of sleep before I have to vomit again." She disappears below deck as I start to climb the mast. I'm not sure what I'm hoping to see up here, really—get a better look at the ghosts billowing in our sails, I guess? See if I can pick out any souls germane to our predicament?
(Walter, are you in there?)
A ship's crow's nest has the effect of exaggerating each pitch and roll of a ship. If the ship tilts five degrees, that could mean a foot or two of motion on the deck; up here it means swimming as much as fifteen or twenty feet. Even in fair weather, it's like a theme park ride.
But with the vengeful spirits in our sails, there's no such thing as fair weather.
I peer into them, billowing bright white against the night, flapping with the angry and mournful screams. Are you really all still angry? Are you really all still trapped? I'm trying to make out individual faces in the swirling morass. It's not easy. In the roiling spirits, faces blend into torsos and hands and feet and arms and legs. Is this what the human form eventually succumbs to? Even with the immortality of the afterlife, do we all finally melt into a moaning miasma of entropy and bitterness?
Is this what Sunny has to look forward to? What Ted will become?
(I can't let that happen...)
I'm half-shouting, half-whispering, just firing the words out into the night air, where they mix with the ghosts until word is indistinguishable from flesh and sinew.
"Walter?" I say it again. I don't know why. What am I hoping he'll say? What am I hoping he'll do?
The silence goes on. The ship glides, too fast, over an empty sea of stars.
"Walter, is it true?"
I think I hear a voice, something creaking and moaning. It's probably just a rope. Something bumping against the hull in the night. I'm standing, clinging onto a line, peering into the mass of souls, slowly noticing the one that looks just like...
He's barely there, the color of night, teetering on the edge of whatever oblivion waits for forgotten souls. And it's all there: the beard, the icy eyes, the thinning hairline. I'm looking at my own face, if I had lived two hundred years ago and had slightly worse teeth. It has to be him. I don't know how I know, but I know.
He sees me. Staring with those eyes made of night air.
I look away. I look away, close my eyes, and I suddenly see it all: Angry beaches, a blazing sun, a shining talisman and a drooling lust for gold. Black Alice's eyes as she begs for mercy and a slow knife against her throat. It's over in a second but it's all so hard and fierce and bottomlessly cold. Cold and hard like the rocks scraping against the bottom right now as I force my eyes open and scream "HOW COULD YOU" at the face that could be my own.
But it's gone now.
The sun is up. And the ship is still.
We've run aground. Somehow.
I'm thinking it's time I updated my résumé.
Project CoNarrative is an ongoing multimedia experiment in collaborative storytelling from two award-winning authors. We're taking turns writing chapters and building on each other's work, improv-style. You can read them for free, here on the internet, as we write them.
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