Chapter 14: The Aramornis
Gwen emerged from the companionway onto the deck. The last rays of the sinking sun speared the purple clouds along the western edge of the wide open horizon. The Aramornis was entirely surrounded by dark water with no land in sight.
Anthony was at the helm, steadying the large wooden wheel with a single hand. The wind raked through his black hair as he flashed her a smile. "I sent Pau down for you because we might be getting some weather," he called over the snap of sailcloth.
Gwen turned in the direction of the sharp sounds. Two of the crew were on the foredeck lowering the headsails. "Is Pau one of those two over there?" she asked, strolling over.
"Yes, the larger one. That's Tibal to his right."
"So, a big storm is coming?"
"There's a growing low pressure system to the southeast, near Loreley Island." He checked the watch-like device he wore on his wrist. Gwen labeled it 'watch-like' because it didn't resemble any other watch she'd seen. The piece was quite intriguing – a luminous coin-sized disk suspended in an intricate woven silver housing. "It's a little odd," he went on, looking at her. "It came out of nowhere. I have my theories though." The sky had dimmed yet Anthony's ridiculously vivid blue-green irises had not. They shone in the twilight.
Gwen tore her focus from his eyes and scanned his evening outfit. The tailoring of his navy blue canvas blazer was flawless; his slim trousers were cut well too. I love his style. Strengthening currents pulled the fabric flush against his legs and torso. He's so fucking tight. "Are we going to wreck if we don't get to a port?" she asked, reconnecting with his gaze.
"We're far enough away it won't force us to shore. But we're battening down the hatches, just to be safe."
A third crewman came up and took the wheel.
Maybe this guy's Ramo…
"Shall we enjoy the evening air before it gets rough?" Anthony stepped off, leaving the helm to the crewman. "Would you like a drink?"
"If it's something good," she said, walking with him to the bow. He slung his arm around her shoulders, briefly, while they ducked under the boom of the massive mainsail. Her forearm stung for a second where his hand brushed her skin. It felt like a minor shock; like the time she touched a brass door knob at Auntie Miranda's after sliding across the carpet in her socks.
They came to the prow. Anthony opened a sunken compartment by the heel of the long wooden bowsprit that jutted out over the waves. He brought out two crystal flutes. "Champagne?"
"All right." She took them.
"It's a good one." He opened a dark green bottle with an old looking label and a cork secured with red string instead of the usual wire. "A small producer I know." He poured sparkling liquid into the glasses and took one. Then he tapped her flute. "To friendship." The crystal dinged.
"Sure. Friendship." The bubbles were tiny. The smaller the bubbles, the better the champagne. The taste proved the cliché, delicate, dry and delicious.
"Interesting dress you chose for dinner."
"I think so," she said, looking down. "Does it belong to your niece or Alix?"
"Stella's your niece, right?"
"Stella told you that?"
"God no. Stella and I don't chat. No offense or anything. We've just never had anything to talk about." Guess that's changed.
Strange lantern-like fixtures mounted above the forward hatch gave off a luxurious malachite-amber glow; the light gave Anthony's honey-toned skin a greenish, golden sheen. "So why do you think I'm her uncle?"
"I don't know. Maybe because you and her mom have the same last name and you're older and stuff. I mean, you and Stella are related, correct? Don't tell me you're not, with those crazy-color eyes."
"We're related. But I'm not her uncle. I seem that much older to you?"
"Well you are, aren't you?"
"How old do I look?"
"I don't know, thirty, thirty-five," She honestly thought he could pass for twenty-eight but she wanted to get under his skin. "Forty, maybe?"
"Forty years old, really?"
"What? Lots of forty-year-old guys are hot." The wind was rising, tossing her curls, coiling around her bare legs, puffing up the skirt of the dress.
"You Merriweather girls are all minxes." His irises glimmered.
"You call girls 'minxes' and people will think you're like eighty." She sipped with one hand while holding down the minidress with the other. "And it's Merriweather-Ross, remember?" What the fuck? The wind is like blowing up my skirt, touching me…
"Oh, yes." The blue-green colors shifted and quavered, like iridescent butterfly wings. "Won't forget again."
"Look, you come off older 'cause you have that old-school gentleman thing going on."
"I suppose I do." He poured more champagne in her glass and then tipped his own towards the mouth of the bottle. Gwen caught a gleam on one of the fingers of his left hand.
"Hey, are you married?"
"You mean the ring." He glanced at his hand. "Well, I am married, currently."
"You weren't wearing that last night, or earlier today."
"True. I often forget."
"What kind of old-school gentleman takes a girl on a cruise when he's married?"
"Different schools disagree on that subject." He smiled broadly.
"Certainly not. I'm serious." He moved closer. "I have no designs on your virtue, Miss Merriweather-Ross. I was being entirely honest with you last night." Champagne and black tea mixed with the briny air on his breath. "There's something I need done that I cannot do myself and you are the perfect person for the job."
"Why can't you get one of your crew to do it?" The wind slackened. Gwen let go of the dress.
"My crew are quite good at operating this ship, but, as I believe you may have noticed, their English isn't very strong. None of them can read more than their names, even in their patois. This requires someone literate, among other qualities."
"There are lots of people who can read. It's not like a rare skill or anything."
"Well, you were able to leave last night, and I expect to enjoy your company for the coming days aboard this ship." The wind picked up and tousled his hair. "You were…You are the only suitable candidate." He smiled again; bright crescents glinted in his eyes, mimicking the curve of his lips.
"Friendship. I get it." She took another drink and grabbed at her dress as a new gust rushed past her knees.
"Smart girl. I believe you'll find we have much in common." A bell sounded midship. "Ricard has dinner ready below deck." He motioned towards the stern. "Bring your glass."
She matched his stride along the boards. "So, how old are you?"
"I'll tell you when we're better friends."
Stella…I love you…I love you so much.
Light, energy, pulsated, broke into ripples, warped into waves. It crested and crashed, inside and outside. Westerlies, Easterlies, stratospheric currents, whirled together. Capillaries, arteries, rivers and oceans funneled into a single, tiny point. The pressure built and built until it was too much. The singularity exploded, a new universe burst into existence, bubbling up, overflowing, light, energy…
They were floating, sinking, soaring, melting–
There was a blinding flash, then hard, cold teak. The slam stung, yet he only sensed it for a second. Giant hailstones, bullets made of ice, were hammering his skull. It sounded like machine guns were firing on the deck. He tried to stand but the boards raised up. Mercy tilted at terrifying angle, shoving him into the water. The zinc cooler smacked the towering waves. Everything loose rattled overboard – the oyster tray, the wineglasses… Clay grabbed the life lines as his legs swept out under him and were swallowed by the roaring ink-black sea. "Stella!"
"I'm here." She was right by him, her eyes flickering. She reached under his arms, around his chest. "I won't let you go."
Why isn't she falling in? What's holding her?
The sky was in shreds. Great gashes of lightning tore open monster-headed storm clouds. Stella's wet hair whipped across their faces as she pulled him up onto the deck. She grasped his hand and they threw themselves against the rail ropes on the other side in a desperate effort to stabilize the ship.
"I've got to get to the helm!" he shouted through the raging hail. "Are you secured?"
She nodded. He saw a line tied around her waist.
"You need to be!" she called out, as they climbed to the cockpit, knuckles white, holding tight to the ropes.
"There's a harness in the locker!" He took hold of the wheel. Hailstones clattered around them, like a rain of knives.
"Which one?" she asked, flinging long wet locks.
"I have it!" She threw the harness on his shoulders. Her fingers grazed his chest as she fastened the front with a snap shackle attached to a tether. The cold steel clip chilled his bare skin.
He turned on the radio. Strobing static twisted and stretched into unearthly shrieks. "The storm, it's interfering with the signal…" He yelled over the blare before he turned it off. Then he started the motor with freezing fingers. The familiar whirring was comforting. Perhaps he'd regained some measure of control. We're going to be okay.
"I just have to raise the sea anchor," he said, tucking a rope of her wild hair behind her ear. The side of her face was warm; hot at her temple, "and we can return to shore."
"Clay, step back!" she shouted.
Thunder cracked just above his head, a searing white vein struck the water a few feet away, barely beyond the edge of the stern and his flesh and bone. His hands shook; he let go of the controls for the sea anchor and looked at the waves. Right below the surface the energy undulated, a ghostly residual glow.
Stella touched his shoulder. His nerves sparked and he turned. "It's all right," he said, trying to come off calm and confident, "Lightning can't strike the ship. It's conducted into the water."
"Clay… It's not going to work… It's going to hit us again. I feel it." Her eyes flared as she backed away from him, towards the helm.
A huge, hideous crack split the world in two. The deck pitched, throwing Clay to his knees. Scorching brightness burned his eyes.
"Stella!" he cried, his feet slipping on the slickened boards as he tried to stand.
He smelled burning oil and smoldering circuitry. Through squinted lids, blinking frantically, he searched for her. But he couldn't even make out the helm, everything was obliterated by blazing echoes of the white hot strike.
Ice pellets smashed to bits on the windshield of the Mercedes while Hildy wiped his face with a paper napkin he'd found in the glove compartment. He'd got wet trying to preserve the leather interior of Peter Berkeley's treasured Aston-Bromwich convertible; Clay had left the top down. The small red sports car looked forlorn and abandoned on the other side of the Mercedes' sighing wipers. The two vehicles were the sole ones remaining in the parking lot of the Boat Basin.
"Hail. In August," Hildy said aloud, his voice accompanied by relentless pings, as the little missiles battered the windows and roof. "Not unheard of." He recalled his mother and Màrcia mourning the loss of a carefully cultivated Bougainvillea vine to a freak summer hailstorm, some four years back. But still, the crazy hailstorm happens the one time Clay takes Stella out for cruise. Just like the Faxson twins' grandfather…
Hildy swiped the screen of his phone and sorted through the old clippings he shot at Auntie Miranda's for William Faxson's obituary. As he read he worried the Loreley Island Star would soon be publishing a tragically similar piece.
"August 22nd, 1966
Harvey Trumbull for the Loreley Island Star
Loreley Island lost one of its own yesterday. William "Billy" Bledstowe Faxson, a direct descendant of one of the original 1666 settlers, was a familiar face with a friendly word for many on our island, from the ferry porters and lobstermen to his fellow members at the Loreley Island Sailing Club. He was such a fixture in our lives that the next time I glance at the mirror behind the bar at Preston's or lounge in a deck chair at the Club Boathouse, I know I'll find his ghost seated beside me. He had a passion for everything good in life. He loved his family, his friends, and most of all he loved sailing. It seems a cruel irony that he met his death when his cherished yacht 'Desdemona' capsized during the sudden hailstorm that hit our shores at approximately 7 p.m. Sunday evening.
According to Chief Warrant Officer Ronald Feck, of Mercy Point Station, the Coast Guard were alerted of the disaster at 9:06 p.m.. Elliott Napier, the keeper of the South East Lighthouse, spotted the wrecked vessel coming aground after the storm subsided.
A second passenger who has requested anonymity and managed to swim to shore confirmed Faxson had drowned, and rescue efforts were called off early this morning. Coast Guardsmen and local police continue to search the beaches and Newport Sound for Faxson's body.
William Faxson is survived by his devoted wife of eight years, Abigail (née Rainsborough), six-year-old daughter Melanie, and two-year-old son George Nathan."
Hildy closed the photo app and pressed the phone icon on the Mercedes' steering wheel. Maybe Billy Faxson didn't have a friend looking out for him, but Clay still has me, even if he wishes he didn't. …As long as he's alive anyway.
"Mercy Point Station, Officer Trilling." A low male voice with a thick New England accent came through the digital audio system.
"Hi. My friend is out in this storm and I think he might be in trouble."
"What's your friend's GPS?"
"I don't know."
"You got any location information, son?"
"Not really. He went out around four, five hours ago. I'm here at the Boat Basin and he hasn't come in so I'm worried."
"What's his hull?"
"The boat's called the Mercy Sands."
"We haven't received any calls from the Mercy Sands. Did he call you from the ship?"
"No. I haven't heard from him."
"Okay son, I understand your concern. The weather service never saw this storm coming. But you see we have limited resources. We're running the coast right now and if we see your friend and he's in trouble we will do all we can to bring him in. To do more than that we gotta have coordinates or some kind of specific information, a landmark at least. We can't search the whole ocean. And frankly, your friend must have a radio. Don't you think he would call in if he was in danger?"
"I don't know…"
"'I don't knows' don't work for the US Coast Guard, son. We got to know some things before we send guardsmen out to risk their lives when the weather's like it is tonight. If you can't tell me where your friend is, there's nothing much we can do about it."
There must be somebody who can do something about it! Hildy yelled in his head after ending the call. And somebody who can tell me where Gwen is! He turned up the heat on the windshield. The snowy hail clumps melted into oblivion. I think I know where to find some of those bodies. Hildy raced out of the Boat Basin parking lot and took a left onto Cormorant Road. In ten minutes or less he'd be at the Castle.
© 2013–2015 m. b. whitlock
All Rights Reserved
A/N: Please let me know what you think. :D Next installment is in the works! If you are enjoying this story you may add it to your favorites/follows to receive updates when new chapters are posted. Again, feedback is greatly appreciated and really motivates me. Thank you! m.b.w.