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Apr 22, 2010

In. Flash me, please!


Apr 22, 2010

The Survival of the Swaggart
Sea Story
1,749 words

We had been only a week from making port in Canton when the storm overtook us, but it was not the storm that proved our undoing.

There was no telling which sailor had erred in the night. The only ones who knew were dead – either from the fires in the wake of the lightning strike, or, when they failed to smother it in time, from the explosion that consumed the powder room.

Had there been survivors on the deck below, I would have had them all been flogged. The powder room was unsecured, and the entire ship had paid the price for it. As it was, I had to settle for the bloody triage of keeping us afloat. One who has held command on a ship knows that sailors are a dark-minded, superstitious, and vice-riddled lot, but fear and pain condition them to act in a disciplined fashion. There are a thousand tasks to keep a ship seaworthy; the fact that the Swaggart was in such peril only heightened their urgency.

Mr. Gifford had done everything he could to aid the injured, but the doctor’s attention and medicines were drawn thin between the further wounds of the second mate and a dozen sailors. Twice he had asked me permission to open our cargo, to ease the pain of the dying, and twice I was obliged to refuse him. We had a duty to bring our cargo to Canton, and to go sniffing about its wreckage like common scavengers was to undermine the dignity of every man on board. The doctor prevailed upon me for some hours in the name of mercy, but I was finally obliged to rebuff him: what good is rest or mercy when it comes at the cost of an entire crew’s future?

Still, discipline among wounded and desperate men only holds so long. Isolation and uncertainty take root in the minds of the latter, and conspiracy to mutiny follows not long after. Wounds would rot in the bodies of the former, if they did not kill their owners outright. Three days I was able to sustain us before the steward Mr. Shay emerged from his cabin to tell us the captain awaited me.


Captain Paul was a vile, stubborn, godless man on his most sober of days, and he had grown more so in the wake of his injury. Half-invalid as the wound had rendered him, he still drove away everybody who inquired about his well-being, including the doctor – everybody, that is, outside of myself and his steward, the lanky, boyish-faced Mr. Shay. Shay was a quiet but firm soul, whom the crew and I knew mostly by his lilting voice and sinister smile; thankfully, he and I barely exchanged a dozen words in a day as he tended to the captain’s needs.

The captain’s cabin reeked of incense and of his wound, a smell that had been getting worse as the days wore on but had become particularly wretched overnight. Of reflex, I held my sleeve over my nose in a futile attempt to block out some of the stench, but Captain Paul’s voice cut through the sudden nausea: “I have little time, Mr. Thomas, and you have none to spare. Come closer.”

The words were spoken through a mouth full of gravel, raspy and abrasive, but there was more clarity in his eyes now than I had seen since the disaster. I stepped closer and sat down on the stool next to his bed, the one I had seen Mr. Shay occupying so often over the last few days. Captain Paul regarded me there for a long moment, and though I did not permit my weakness to show in my bearing, he must have known our situation. “The damned Chinese are coming for us, aren’t they?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, hesitating only a moment. There was a subtle fury in him the likes of which unnerved even me. “We’ve counted three pirate junks, filled with fighting men. Fishing boats, no cannons, but seaworthy enough.”

The captain sneered, and drew a ragged breath to say more, but his bravado disintegrated into a series of wet, hacking coughs. Mr. Shay was at his side in an instant, supporting him, and what hope I had for his recovery was broken. Several moments passed before Captain Paul was able to breathe freely again. “I won’t have it!” he said at last, gaze fixing on me. “I won’t have it. You’re a God-fearing man, aren’t you, Mr. Thomas?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, mustering my oatience, half-expecting another blistering tirade, but the captain only sank back onto his bed and smiled wickedly. “What of it, sir?” I pressed.

“Do you think you’re a good man? Do you think God will save you from the heathens?”

“By the blood of the Christ we are saved, not by deeds or words.” We had disagreed about this many times before. “There is nothing that the heathen can do to my body that will imperil my immortal soul.”

He made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a hiss. “What a good little missionary you would have made, Mr. Thomas,” he said, venomously. “Come, now. Mr. Shay will get my left side; you will get my right. I must see these Godless bastards with my own eyes.”

His body was light, much lighter than it should have been, and his clothes were full of gangrene stink. Mr. Shay took his other shoulder with utmost gentleness, and as we hoisted his body up between us, I remembered other nights where we had done much the same under much more benign circumstances.


Sailors trailed off in their work when we emerged from the darkness of the cabin, only snapping to when I roared at them to continue preparing for our guests. By measures, the two of us hefted Captain Paul to the starboard rail. He squinted at the distance, mumbled for a spyglass, and Mr. Shay held one to his eye. Some moments later, he nodded. “Those aren’t blue-water ships,” he said, breath coming in wheezes. “How did they know we were here?”

“I sent men off to the coast to seek help. I had hoped to meet friendly natives.”

Captain Paul hissed through his teeth. “Not so friendly, these Chinese. Not when they suspect what we keep in the hold. Do you want to live another day, Mr. Thomas?”

“Yes, sir,” I said in all honesty.

“Even if that day stains you in the eyes of God?”

He laughed one last time despite the chill of the morning, forestalling any answer. “I despise men like you, Mr. Thomas,” the captain said, gaze fixing on me again. “Full of love for God and Queen and Country. That’s why I’m making you let the devil’s leash loose.”

I stared at him wide-eyed, thinking him mad, as he craned his neck closer to me. His smile was full of hate, and his eyes were full of malice. “The choice is yours, Mr. Thomas. If you want to live another day, you’ll tell Mr. Shay to murder every man on that ship.”


“Mr. Shay will do it. You only have to ask.” He no longer had eyes for me. His head lolled towards his left, and he whispered something to Mr. Shay – something almost musical – and then, unceremoniously, his head rolled backwards.

Silently, Mr. Shay and I lowered the body of Captain Paul to the deck. I could feel a dozen eyes on me from all directions, but most of all, I felt them from Mr. Shay. He gazed at me placidly, unaffected by what he had seen and was seeing, or by the passing of his master. “Shall I do it?” Mr. Shay asked me in a clear voice – higher-pitched, womanly. “Bid me slay your enemies, or release me from my oath.”

For a moment, I could only I stare at the steward as he proceeded to shuck off his jacket. How his countenance had changed in so short a time! “How, Mr. Shay,” I asked, “do you propose to do what he claims you can do?”

“That is unimportant, Mr. Thomas.” He knelt, and began removing his shoes. “But you must tell me to do it, or I will not do so.”

“Not even to save your own life?”

Mr. Shay pulled off his cap. “Life and death are worries for mortal things,” he said as a full head of hair spilled outwards. The crew gasped to see the sight – and things which had been unclear about Mr. Shay were suddenly understood. “But if you wish to live beyond today, you must order me to murder these men, who want your boat for the opium you have taken such care to preserve in your hulls.”

I froze and regarded Mr. Shay with more alertness than before. That had not been public knowledge. Not in the wake of what had happened in Canton the previous year. And it was not unknown for a woman to take to sea, disguising herself as a man, but to what end had she revealed herself?

But in my heart, I found I feared death. Perhaps in war, perhaps surrounded by family, I would have thought differently – but here, in this godless ocean, with only crabs to keep my bones company?

I let go of my breath. “Do it, Mr. Shay.”

She laughed, and I could feel her eyes on me, full of cruel joy, as she stepped over the rail and into the waiting sea.


I will not commit to paper what transpired next.

The next day, we were discovered by the freighter ship Jolly Work. They blamed our moods on the shock of our ordeal, and ferried us the last several days to our destination, what remained of our cargo in their holds.

The East India Company offered to make me a captain, for my clear-headed, decisive action. In haste I almost accepted the offer – but before I spoke, I remembered Mr. Shay, who had not returned to port with us.

I do not know who she was. I do not know what she did. But I remembered her delight when I let her loose, and that there might be more like her out there. All taste for the sea fled from me in a heartbeat.

We did not want to die.

But they did not deserve to die the way they did.

And she, and things like her, are still out there.

Apr 22, 2010


Apr 22, 2010

Watch Party
Prompt: The Detroit Lions won the Superbowl the same year the Detroit Tigers won the World Series
975 Words

“Where’s my loving money, MARK?!”

The noises that Diane was making could have been cackling or sobbing -- it was hard to tell through the closed door. Neither noise suggested she was going to put down the axe she had been using. Christy had thrown every piece of furniture she could in front of the doorway, and the barricade had kept Diane out for now, but -- well, it also closed off their only point of escape.

And help was not coming.

It had been Mark’s idea to rent an AirBNB in the better part of town for the Super Bowl watch party. That way, when the riots inevitably broke out for the second time this year over Detroit’s ‘inevitable victory over the goddamn Pates’, they’d all be safe and sound. But nobody had counted on Diane being actually crazy enough to follow through on her ominous threats, because she prefaced and concluded all of her posts with hearts and duck emojis, and everyone knew Diane was a little too cowardly to assert herself.

Distantly, through the window, she could see the fires licking higher as Lions and Tigers fans continued rioting through the streets of the city. They had been at it for two hours now, both teams united as a single, monstrous force, surging through the streets through police blockades and firefighter safety nets. The police were not coming for them, not when there was property and rich white people to protect.

“Give me my loving MONEY, Mark!” Diane shrieked, renewing her assault on the door.

Christy flinched backwards, racking her brain to try and figure out what exactly was left for them. Mark was next to useless at this point, curled up on the floor, crying his eyes out. He’d been that way ever since they’d found his brother’s corpse, killed by the same axe Diane was carrying. Sssst was fading in and out of consciousness, a bedsheet the only thing holding most of his insides in after Diane had almost spilled his guts all over the coffee table with a machete.

Think, Christy commanded herself. Do something. Out through the window? Third story. She would probably survive the impact; Ssst probably wouldn’t. Hide in the closet? Even if she could manage to silence Mark’s blubbery weeping, it would be the first place Diane would look. It was the first place -she- would look.

For a fraction of a moment, she wondered: had they brought this down on themselves? Was this the righteous vengeance of a just and wise God?

“I’m getting my loving money, MARK!”

No, she decided, it wasn’t. That was bullshit. She didn’t deserve to die for the crime of accepting Mark’s offer to watch sports commercials and eat snacks in someone else’s snazzy house. Not even Mark deserved to die like this.

Power out. Cell towers down. Cops occupied by rioters. Dark room. Bedroom furniture, some upended or pushed against the door. One person she kind-of cared about, bleeding profusely. An rear end in a top hat, incoherent, the subject of their would-be killer’s fury. Think. How did they -all- get out of here?


“Hey, Forestt?” Christy said softly, kneeling next to him. “This is going to hurt. A lot. I’m sorry.”

He moaned in reply. She had to suppose this meant he was okay with that.

It was a solid door, and a decent barricade, but it was ultimately just wood and cheap particle board against a sturdy axe wielded by someone fueled by a cocktail of cocaine and a handful of ADHD meds. Diane’s first breach of the door was center-mass; she snaked an arm through the hole and fumbled for the handle, but when the barricade held, she instead turned her attention to widening the hole in the door.

The barricade, built only out of what Christy could drag over to the door, was only waist-high. Thirty more seconds of relentless hacking opened the way.

Diane snaked her way in through the hole with disconcerting ease. Inside, she noticed three things: a wide trail of blood from one wall, across the floor to another wall, to the windowsill; the window itself, letting in cold winter air and distant echoes of emergency sirens and civil unrest; behind the closet door, the sniffly blubbering of someone who had her loving money.

Diane traced the path of blood to the window and glanced outside, discovering the other two had escaped -- but faced with the choice between chasing peripheral victims down or finding her real target, there was really only one option. Unceremoniously, she dropped the axe on the floor and drew the machete from its thigh sheath.

Mark was huddled in the fetal position when she opened the closet door. “My loving money, Mark,” she hissed at him. “It’s time to pay up.”

“Babe, I don’t have your money!” Mark said, cringing further into himself. “I don’t have your money!”

Diane brought the machete down.

A fraction of a second later, Christy brought the lamp down on her head.

For a moment, Diane reeled forward, and Christy dared to hope -- but Diane kicked backwards and caught her in the chest, pushing her back several steps into the room. “Clever bitch,” Diane snarled, bracing a foot on Mark’s body and prying the machete free from bone. “Hiding under the bed with Forestt. Too slow to save him. Tonight’s the night I get my loving MONEY--”

She spun around sharply, swinging wide -- and turning right into the arc of the axe Christy had picked up from the floor.

The machete tumbled from Diane’s grasp. She slid bonelessly off the blade, landing with a wet thud on the floor, gasping for breath that did not come. Christy loomed over the fallen woman, axe raised in both hands, an awful awareness of what she was doing settling over her heart.

It didn’t stop her from finishing the job.

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