Updated: Apr 15
This is the ninth chapter of an ongoing collaborative novel project. Click here to start with
chapter one, or here to see all the chapters.
I'm standing at the bow of the ship now, watching the dark blue disappear beneath us as we bob over the waves.
If I look straight down, it feels like we're exploding through the sea, like we're flying over the earth in low orbit and nothing could slow us down; in reality, you're lucky to get a sailing vessel moving at more than six knots. Someone running at a brisk pace on the shore could probably keep up with us right now.
The freedom of the sea is mostly illusion.
I'm sure Tote Bag Lady has called the Falmouth police by now, and I'm trying to decide what the odds are that they took her seriously instead of just laughing and hanging up. Probably low, but I have no desire to return to the shore and find out. Not that we need to, exactly—I had the kids load up their luggage this morning, had the steward fully stock the galley last night. We're set for a six-week voyage, which would be great if there were some way to make it to Africa in six weeks.
For some reason, I can't stop thinking about the student evaluations we get at the end of every term. Every summer, they're all the same: This is a great program! they'll say. I learned soooo much and made soooo many friends. Except—what's the deal with Captain Doug? He seemed nice on the shore, but as soon as we went to sea, he was distant. Angry all the time. Never stopped scowling.
They don't get it.
They don't understand that, from the second we pull away from the dock to the moment we disembark, every single one of their lives hangs around my neck. Every storm within a hundred miles, every ship in the Atlantic, every piece of jetsam we might encounter, is my responsibility, twenty-four hours a day. I have to keep track of the entire ocean, adjust our course moment-by-moment, be ready to be awakened any time of the day or night with news of an unexpected gale or a man overboard. It's not the sort of weight any human was designed to carry, and yet, someone has to carry it. A ship needs a head.
Not a head. You know what I mean.
I mean, it needs that, too, I guess.
"You all right, Dougie?" Ted is standing behind me, practicing wacky sack, badly.
"Yeah, I'm just—trying to figure out what the hell I just did, what the hell I'm going to do next."
"The usual, then."
I laugh. I shouldn't, it just encourages him, but I do. Sit on the forecastle, rub my eyes. "How's Gabe doing with the helm? Holding it steady?"
"Sure, but you really ought to let someone else have a turn at some point."
"I know." The words are carried off by the sea breeze. We're having to tack against the wind to sail generally south, which seems like a waste of time, since it's not like we have anywhere to go. In twenty minutes or so, we'll be back at O.C.E.A.N. campus, but then we'll sail past it, and then—I don't know. "I have to keep some kids fresh for the night watch," I shrug.
"Ted, why me?"
"What do you mean, Dougie?"
"Why do I have to be responsible for both the living and the dead, Ted? Every single voyage, I save two dozen lives, a hundred times over, and no one even notices. It's like, Yep, you did your job, cool. And this time around, it's like, Thanks Doug, now this time, raise the dead, too. That's not too much trouble, is it? Thanks so much in advance. And sure, why not, I can probably do that. And once again, no one will notice."
"I will, Captain. I'll notice."
He's staring into the blue, trying not to make eye contact. He's never called me "Captain" before. Sighs, gets up, drifts away, fast. Headed down below. "Ted, wait—wait—"
I'm following him, I'm not sure why, I know he doesn't want me to, but I need answers and no one else has them. No one else even understands the question.
My eyes take a sec to adjust from the gray light of topside, but I find Ted down in the mess, gazing wistfully at the peanut butter and marshmallow fluff that sit out perpetually for hungry students and sailors. (I still can't stand fluffernutters, even after two decades in New England, but Ted has always said that one would be the first thing he'd eat, if he could eat again. It's strange how having something withheld always makes you crave it.)
"Ted—" I repeat.
"What do you need, Captain?"
"Stop calling me that. It's weird."
"Dougie, I'm not good at this 'being supportive' stuff. Even when I mean it. You know that."
"Ted, I don't need a pep talk."
"Well, what do you need? A sandwich? I could probably pick up the knife if I concentrated really hard—"
I laugh, "No, Ted, I don't need a sandwich. I just need—an idea, I guess? I'm adrift here—"
"You're not adrift, you're under sail."
"You know what I mean."
I sit on the bench under the stairs. "I don't think we should dock, Ted. I've made too many enemies on the Cape. We need to get to Africa, but—"
"—but you don't know how to get there on a tiny schooner."
"You really should have thought this through before you robbed the museum."
"Yes, thank you, that's exactly the sort of thinking I need. Come on, Ted, you're dead. You never have to worry about sleeping or eating or pooping or anything—you've had a lot more time to think about this than I have. You don't have any thoughts on this at all?"
"Well—hmm. You need...more wind, I guess?"
"Yes, great, thank you, that's brilliant. Call Poseidon and let him know, or whatever."
"But wind is just...breath."
"I mean, sort of, I guess."
"And your breath is your...spirit. Wait. I've got it."
"You've totally lost me."
"Doug, you're not thinking this through. We're about to sail past O.C.E.A.N. campus. Now what does O.C.E.A.N. have an excess of?"
"Investments in shady overseas firms?"
"Entitled bluebloods who think they own the place because they gave us a million bucks once?"
"Doug, you're not even trying."
"Sad old men stuck in dead-end careers who—"
"I'm talking about ghosts, Doug."
"Oh. Right. Yeah, we have a bunch of those."
"Something in the neighborhood of three dozen of them, and most of them have very little to do. They just wander around moaning all the time."
"You don't have to tell me. It's super annoying."
"So annoying. But they're souls, Doug. They're breath. They're wind."
"Wait—I think I get it."
"And they listen to you, Doug. If you just asked—"
"I get it!" I yell, standing, banging my head on the stairs. "I get it! That makes—that's actually—that almost makes sense. Where are we? We must be—"
"Yeah, I think we're sailing by campus right now, Dougie. Better go up top before it's too late."
"Thanks, little bro!" I charge up the stairs, rubbing my head. "Dock the ship! Dock the ship!" I nearly trip over Jenny, who was sunbathing in the middle of the deck (we need to have the talk about safety again).
"Wasn't that the plan all along?" she says, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes.
I see the cliffs and Theseus's mansion coming up on the starboard side fast. Five knots isn't that speedy, but it might as well be lightspeed when you need to make an emergency stop.
"Gabe!" I yell. "Turn the wheel hard to port!"
"Hard port!" he yells back, because, yeesh, what a sailing nerd.
The sails shift in the wind and the boom swings across the ship as I yell "Duck!" and the ship heaves into the dock.
I jump the ship's railing and charge up the rickety steps toward the mansion, while Gabe yells, "Should we tie up the ship, or—?"
"No time!" I yell back. "Get the square sails set!"
I push through the back door and past Jacinta, who demands, "What's going—" but I ignore her, don't stop sprinting till I'm standing in the entryway between the winding twin staircases.
"Hey!" I yell.
Slowly, the moaning builds. Descends from upstairs, rises from the cellar, pours out of the walls, permeates me, chills my bone marrow brittle. "Weeeee haaaavvvvvve naaaaaaaammmmesss, youuuuu knoooooowwww...."
"I know, I know, I know—"
"Yoooouuuuuu really haven't booooooottthhhhhherrrrred to leaaaarrrrn any of themmmmmm...?"
"Well, maybe if more of you had come and introduced yourselves—"
"Dooooonnnn't make thiiiiisssss about yooooooouuuuu..."
"Yeah—that's fair," I nod. "Totally fair. And you know what? This isn't about me. It's about you, and how you were robbed of your lives, by a curse you never asked for, and I can fix it, but I need your help."
"I've got the golden centaur!" I say. "It's here, in my pants!"
"Thaaaaaattt's a weeeeeeird plaaaaaaace for ittttttt..."
"We're going to take it back to the Gold Coast and break the curse, but..."
"I need wind. In my sails. And you guys are..."
"You're...wind. Right? Souls? Air? Breath?"
"Huuuuhhhhh? Weeeee arrrrrrrre...?"
"Yes! Obviously. Because ghosts are souls, and souls are—dammit, this made so much more sense when Ted was saying it. Just pretend I'm Ted for a sec."
"Tedddddd? I can't staaaaaaaannnnnnd that guy..."
"Teddddddd ooooooowes meeeeeee mooooonnnnneyyyyy..."
"Look, I just need you to blow some air into my ship's sails, so I can make it to Africa in six weeks or less."
"Yooooouuuuu loooooosssest ussssss..."
"I said, uh—Ted's on the ship, and he's got the money he owes all of you."
"WHHHHHAAAAAATTTT???" comes the mighty roar, and I yell "Follow me!" and charge for the back door again, grabbing Jacinta by the wrist and pulling her along to save her from the screaming mass of spirits blazing behind us. A bulbous cloud of angry faces, yelling half-finished epithets that burn through my marrow as we trip-fall down the creaking stairs toward the Heraclitus's lonely sails.
"Go-go-go-go-go!" I yell at the kids and the mates, as the rampaging spirit cloud collides with the sails, turning them into white face-silhouettes that rocket us out to sea. Gabe is nearly thrown over the stern by the jerking helm, but he holds steady, and the mansion disappears behind our exploding wake.
"This is a perfect idea that absolutely cannot possibly go sideways," nods Ted.
I know he's being sarcastic, but I hope he's right.
We're going to Africa. I hope the endless repeats of The Lion King my niece made me watch don't fail me.
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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