The umpteenth set of waves pummeled the port side of the ship and tossed Rex away from the last cleat. He grabbed a taut line and mopped his brow, his clearing sweep knocking back the hood of his slicker. The sunny-yellow jacket, however, had long since proved useless.
Rain and sea spray soaked him from curly black bangs to his rubber boots, and each staggered step squelched. Tipping forward, he leaned into the squall and ensured the rope knotted around the metal remained fast.
The howling gales sliced up Smyth’s order from the starboard rail. Rex, however, suspected what the Captain wanted him to do. Swiveling at the railing, he aimed toward the wheelhouse.
A sudden rock of the boat cast him into a lurch toward the single bulb sputtering in the small hut sprouting out of the deck. The light swayed with each list, and blinked in and out like a lighthouse signal. With each arduous stride, Rex grabbed onto the strapped crates, the bulkhead leading into the hold, and on barrels locked under tarps, and dragged himself nearer to the tempting beacon.
The next shift of the ship, however, shoved him against the wheelhouse wall. The tilt nearly pulled his feet out from under him and he gripped the window sill, fighting to stay upright. Peering down the sloped deck to the starboard side, he gasped when he made out water against the clouds.
The wave rose, its frothy lip towering half as high as the ship was long. In his similar slicker and neon-orange life vest, Smyth climbed from the railing, looking like star in a sparse sky.
“Grab on,” shouted Rex, although he felt the words ripped from his tongue and flung overboard, like Eddie and Wane what seemed like hours earlier.
Shuddering at the thought of joining them, Rex clung to the sill. He closed his eyes and gripped tight.
The wave crashed, and water barreled into his chest, threatening to carry him away. Then, something even harder smacked his torso. The something gained fingers or arms, and in his weary mind, Rex imagined a sea monster, tentacles and all, wrapping him up for dinner.
The beast clung, but sputtered as well and out of the pounding rain and whoosh of waves, Rex thought he heard his name. He squinted through the sheet of water and found Smyth latched onto his arm. With a pull, he dragged the Captain toward the relative safety of the sill where they both held on until the ship righted. Finding his feet again, Rex steadied and the Captain thumped an appreciative slap on his back.
“Inside,” said Smyth between catching his breath.
Rex nodded and arched his arm, providing a handhold for Smyth to complete the journey to the door now swinging open like an untethered sail and revealing the bulb’s weakening throb. Smyth labored to the threshold, held onto the frame, and stuck out his hand. Rex grabbed on and with the Captain’s help and his own shaky legs, he made his way into the wheelhouse.
Like his body beneath his slicker, the walls, windows, and roof of the cabin had failed to keep the inside dry. Sparks and sizzles emanated from the dials on the communication panels and the navigation system had darkened. A flash of lightning and thunderous boom shook the remaining panes in the windows, but the brief flash illuminated the wires strung overhead.
“The cables are still up,” said Rex.
The observation though seemed less than satisfying when the machinery they meant to power sat sopping.
“Check our position,” said Smyth.
He pulled the door shut through the ankle-high water flooding the cabin and then turned to the radio where he began testing dials.
Rex spread his feet wide and braced one hand on the soaked calendar pinned to the wall. He bypassed the inert panels where more exact details might have been calculated and leaned over the map pressed beneath the clear plastic of the navigation table. Spray obscured much of the coast and depth markers but he rubbed the surface with his freshly calloused palm and smacked a finger down at their last known position. Keeping his finger set, he peered at the compass imbedded in the counter and began a bit of mental arithmetic. The speed of the gales and their general south to southwest vector set against the time on his still ticking watch provided a rough gauge. He drew his finger along the map, following their probable path off Hatteras and out to sea.
“35’50” by -70’30,” he shouted, and then quieted his voice as the walls at least cut down on the winds’ howl, “or somewhere close to that.”
“It’ll be good enough,” said Smyth.
“If we can even reach anyone,” said Rex.
“Working on it.”
Squatting before the radio, Smyth pried the front panel free with a flat-head screwdriver. He did the same with the intercom’s front face, then handed over the tool and removed sheets. Rex clutched both close, and caught himself from falling upon the Captain when another swell threatened to capsize the ship.
Smyth slammed his shoulder into the map hutch, the pitch helping him yank a cluster of wires from the second system. He did the same with the radio and then began weeding through the black, brown, yellow, and red lines. Filtering through the tangled mess, he traced a few back into the darkness beneath the counter and separated two, a red and black, from each.
Rex tossed the panels aside and dug into his rubbery slacks for his Leatherman. He pried out the blade with pruned fingers he could no longer feel and then set the handle into the Captain’s hand. He propped himself on table while the Captain stripped the wires and then crossed the copper ends.
The bulb overhead brightened and the radio dials sputtered to life. Smyth snatched the receiver.
“Mayday, mayday,” he said, “this is the Pauline V. Our location 35’50” by -70’30 and drifting south-southwest. We need—”
The radio whined into static before falling silent.
Smyth tweaked the wires then cursed and stuck smoking fingers into his mouth. With a frustrated grimace he chucked the receiver onto the counter.
Rex winced when the next tilt flung his hip into the table’s corner and caused the bulb to pop. In the sudden darkness, he imagined the deep purple his various bruises might achieve if he lived long enough.
“You think anyone heard?”
“I’m not sure,” said Smyth, “keep your fingers crossed.”
“Hell,” said Rex, “I’ll cross my toes and arms and anything else I’ve got if it’ll work.”
Smyth bared his teeth in what Rex thought was supposed to be a grin. In the pale gleam of lightning and foam, the expression looked more like the smile of a skull.
“We’ve done all we can,” said Smyth.
“Tell that to Eddie and Wane.”
The Captain’s features turned grim. “Maybe we’ll get the chance.” He pivoted and wedged himself between the map hutch and the counter. “Until then, we’re just going to have to ride it out.”
Pocketing the tools, Rex followed suit on the other side. He pinned his soaked and weary muscles between the navigation table and the darkened electrical paneling for the rig. Crossing his arms, he buried his hands into his armpits, seeking what remained of his body’s warmth.
Sleep seemed out of the question given the rocking of the ship, but fatigue overcame his fear and he found his eyes closing, his chin falling to rest on the bulky front of his life preserver.
He couldn’t say how long he sat there, bombarded, utterly numbed and half-woken every time the door swung and allowed in another gulp of the sea. The fits and starts of slumber, however, continually revealed the dark night, the hurricane’s rampage, and the delicacy of their condition.
Taking refuge in his sporadic dreams, Rex listened to sea gulls and the shouts of welcome from the docks. Hearty handshakes wore out his arms. Hanna’s hugs made tight and kisses made fervent from worry left him breathless. They had moment of quiet for Eddie and Wane, of course, but their memorial shifted into the savory meals and celebration of life and the hash mistress that held their livelihood. From the pier afterwards he watch the sun sink into the sea, Hanna at his side, and wondered how the storm had ever been so bad, how the thrashing had seemed to never cease.
The calm he stared at in his imagination seeped out and cradled him in a bubble of sudden stillness.
The Captain’s voice drifted over the placid waves, and the next shake felt like a hand on his shoulder rather than water beating at the hull. When Rex surfaced, he found himself staring at the Smyth’s anxious face.
“What is it?”
“Listen,” whispered the Captain.
And then, out of the fog and quiet, Rex heard a gull’s squawk right before the muffled bellow of another ship’s horn.