1 A LITTLE CATFIGHT WITH MOTHER NATURE
“Shit! What the hell are you doing?” My body slammed up against the ship’s central mast and bounced off, not slowing down the slightest bit with the sudden change in direction. Immediately I ricocheted against Beau’s chest before crashing right back into the mast, the salt water splashing off the solid wood post, stinging my eyes like a hive full of hostile bees. My eyelids slammed closed in a last-ditch attempt at self-preservation. God, my eyes were on fire! It felt like they were going to burn a hole through my skin and go rolling across the deck any second.
The next wave crashed against the opposite side of the mast, pushing me back from it. But before I could take a breath, arms of steel locked around the post, sandwiching me firmly in-between, in the half an inch of in-between there was, in any case. “Now I know what the God damn ping pong ball feels like! Take it easy, would you?”
“I’m not going to apologize for trying my best to keep you in the land of the living one more day!” Beau’s voice growled into my ear, joined by the roaring of the next gust of wind. Half a second later the next wall of freezing water hit.
“Yeah, well, if you squash the air right out of me, there won’t be anything left to keep alive in any land, living or dead! Besides, who’s bright idea was it to wait until hurricane season to take a cruise through the Caribbean? I told you we should’ve left months ago, but no-o-o-o … we couldn’t possibly do something I suggested, something that actually made sense and might have even lowered our daily serving of stress. Of course not! Do you just lie there in bed at night dreaming up ways to make my life hell? Because you couldn’t do a better job of it if you tried.”
“Dammit, Syd! How many thousand times are we gonna have this same argument? You know exactly why we had to wait until now. So, could we possibly focus on the present and try to work together for five seconds to outrun this hurricane that is literally breathing down our necks?”
I shifted to look over my shoulder at him, “You are such a …” But just then, the Gulf of Mexico decided to finish my sentence for me, shoving a gallon of sea water down my throat. Actually, it felt like all that cold, salty, gritty water was pushed straight through my body and into my lower intestines. Suddenly I was choking, spewing up saltwater all over myself and gasping for air with everything I was worth. God, please, I’ll never ask for another thing! Just let me suck down one lungful of good old oxygen, even if it was reeking of fish and salt and heaven only knows what else!
And finally payday came … the air hit my lungs like a freight train storming through Chicago on a cold, snowy day. Oh! Never mind, God, I got it!
Once I finally filled up on oxygen, I licked my dry, cracked lips, then grimaced immediately. They were gummy from all the water and grittier than sandpaper. Shit! I wouldn’t need to salt my fries for the next year!
All this time Beau just held on tighter. Which was good in that it kept me from going overboard, but bad in that I could hardly breathe as it was, much less with arms of steel clamped around my chest! Damn, I was sure glad Sarah and T.J. weren’t around right now.
As soon as I caught my breath well enough to manage speaking again, I sputtered out, “That’s rich! I can’t believe you’re gonna stand here and tell me to focus on the present, Mister ‘Let’s take a nice sweet little heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, death-studded journey through time and place’ … and with Satan’s wet dream hot on our heels, no less!”
“Syd, just shut up. I damn sure didn’t schedule this hurricane and if I could have chosen to avoid it, I would have. Sorry to burst your bubble, but Mother Nature’s not on my speed-dial, and even if she was this just isn’t my idea of a good time. There are, in fact, about a thousand ways I would rather spend my time than getting soaked to the bone in a ping pong game between Hurricane Harold and the Atlantic Ocean, especially when we get to be the ping pong ball. Not to mention trying to save little Miss Sweetness and Life herself while she just pisses and moans about it the whole time like some bratty little five-year-old who lost the top scoop of her ice cream cone.”
“Ungh!” I lifted my foot and stomped back down for all I was worth, praying for gold. And, for the second time in two minutes, I got my wish. “Never, never, did I ask anyone to rescue me, least of all you, you little shit!”
Beau sucked down a groan, shifting closer by shoving my stomach up against the post, knocking the wind out of me in the process. Before I could even swallow down another lungful of air, strong legs straddled my body to avoid any more Syd-missiles aimed straight at his body parts.
Glaring over my shoulder, I spat out, “Dammit, Beau, you got us into this mess! Now get our collective asses out of it and get us to Sydney – Sydney, Australia, that is!”
“And how, exactly, would you like me to do that, Syd? There is a little thunderstorm going on right at the moment, if you hadn’t noticed. So, if we could put this pleasant conversation on hold and try to make it through this, we just might find ourselves back on track to Sydney, instead of at the bottom of the ocean.” He shifted gears on me then, adding, “I’m just glad Sarah and T.J. missed this.”
“Did you know this storm was coming? Is that why they aren’t here now?” I tried my best to sound pissed, but wasn’t sure I succeeded. I really was glad they weren’t here.
“No, Syd. I didn’t. But, I, for one, am awfully glad they aren’t. This is no place for the two of them right now.” Did he really have to stress the “for one” part? Didn’t he know me any better than that? Or was he just saying it like that because he was pissed, and pissed always wants company?
Either way, I hated that placating, judgmental voice of his! I felt those imaginary feathers that were plastered against the back of my neck prickle in response. “Well, no shit, Sherlock! I was complementing you on their not being here, you dumbass.” He deserved worse, but I decided to let him off easy … What can I say? I was still playing catch-up on breathing and my feet kept sliding out from under me on the moving carpet of rain and ocean.
Somehow, I don’t think he saw it quite the same way, though. His voice dropped even lower as he answered right in my ear. “Mm-hmm, yeah. How silly of me. How could I miss that, Syd? You were complementing me … while you called me a dumbass. Of course. It makes perfect sense, for you at any rate.”
Stupidly, I tried to stomp my foot down on his again, but he was holding us too close to the mast now for me to do anything other than scrape my knee … which is exactly what I did, badly. “Shit!”
Mr. Wonderful just laughed softly. “What’s the matter, Syd? Mother Nature won’t let you get another shot of your own in? Now, why don’t we put this stupid argument on the table until later and actually try to help keep this boat afloat, hmm?”
And what exactly could I say to that? Even when it was the last thing I wanted to admit, Beau did have a knack for staying on course, staying focused on the task at hand. And this one, this task, could have used a thousand more hands.
Fine. I let him win the battle. Go, Syd! There was plenty of war left … provided we actually could keep the boat off the bottom of the ocean until the storm called it a day, or we hit shore, or both.
So, for the next thirteen hours we did exactly that. I lost track of how many times I sucked down an Atlantic milkshake … of course, I was the blender … so NOT a good thing.
The good was that I was way too busy to even think about being scared after that. Between grabbing hold of anything and everything, to keeping from being shark bait, to trying to hear the steady stream of commands being barked out from everyone, it was all I could do to keep up.
I pulled ropes that were thrust into my hands when I was told to. I grabbed the mast when Beau yelled for me to do that. I watched waves crash down on us that I knew would haunt my nights for years to come. I lost count of the number of times I asked God for one more breath. And how many times I told Him never mind once I’d found it on my own.
Funny thing was, though, as the wind whipped around me and I stared through the rain into the freezing black water … knowing we could die any moment … all I could see was the raw beauty of it. It took my breath away. It was electrifying, exhilarating, energizing. Sunny days on the beach were great, but they could never begin to compare to the violent attraction of a wild thunderstorm, much less a wailing hurricane! It held me captive in its clutches … willingly so. Kind of like some relationships, I guess.
Another belly gusher came busting over the rail, jerking me back into the here and now. Scrambling wildly for something to grab, anything that wouldn’t go over the side of the ship with me as I was washed towards the rail, a cold stab of terror swept through me. Just before I ran out of boat, I managed to latch onto a pile of rope tied to the rail. I wove my arms through it, clutching it to my chest, praying it wasn’t me who had tied it off.
My feet touched down, but before I could regain my balance, another wall of water came ripping past, knocking me sideways off my feet. I slammed against the rail, clutching for dear life to the ropes, then they were all I could feel. The water rushing back out to the cold, hungry ocean pulled me over the side of the ship in its fury. This stupid, wonderful rope in my arms was the only thing keeping me from being just another fish in the sea, holding me suspended inches above the water, a thankful hangman’s noose of sorts.
Lightning exploded all around me lighting up the sky, its reflection answered back, mirrored in the ocean looming in front of me. A man was staring back at me from just below the surface, only he was so dark I could really only see his silhouette, just hints of the rest of him glinting in the blackness here and there.
Shit! What the hell was he doing out here? And what the hell was I supposed to do now, God dammit?!
Another thunderous clap of lightning illuminated him once again. It glistened on his dark, vibrant skin and shone in the whites of a pair of eyes blacker than that ebony ocean swirling all around them. That’s when I realized that the man was only a boy, maybe 20, 22 at most, not that much older than me. And he wasn’t afraid, he wasn’t even fighting the water. He was just kind of floating there, an arm’s length beneath the surface.
He lifted one arm, beckoning me to him.
Was he fucking nuts?! It didn’t even seem like he wanted me to rescue him. No, it was more like he wanted to go for a little stroll … in the ocean … during a hurricane …
I had to figure out how to pull myself back in and throw something out to the boy to catch hold of all at the same time. I looked away from him long enough to see the rope tied off on the rail, a few extra loops were twisted around it near the top, making the length short enough to keep me from taking a swim with Mr. Whoever-he-was out here.
Okay. If I could just pull myself back up the rope, then I could unloop the extra and toss it over. It looked long enough to cover the distance between the ship and the boy twice over.
But Mother Nature decided to ramp things up another notch. Guess she thought it was time for a little more fun than she’d already been having with me.
The sheer power of the water as it came raging over the side of the ship forced loose the excess coils of rope, taking them over the side and down into the depths of the ocean, dragging me right along with them. My head turned in slow motion as I plunged headfirst into the freezing water, feeling it bite into my body, a thousand tiny teeth tearing into my flesh.
Plummeting downward, the movement of the water suffocating in its strength, all I could see was blackness, nothing but certain death below me. Dark, cold, endless depths, from which there seemed no hope of escape.
I guess Mother Nature’d won our little rope-a-dope. But, then again, if it had really been that, I’d have stood the tiniest chance in hell. Like Muhammad Ali letting George Foreman take his best fifty shots before catching him off-balance, lashing out with all he was worth, and taking home the belt. Aunt Annalise had told me about that, she was a die-hard Ali fan. Kind of strange as she was just a whisper of a thing herself.
Nope, rope-a-dope didn’t even begin to apply here. This was more like a one-sided catfight at best. Yeah, a scrawny little hissing, spitting, litter runt lap kitten facing off against a blood curdling, fang-dripping saber tooth tiger on industrial strength steroids.
Huh! Guess which one I was. Yup. Just call me Toulouse from the Aristocats.
Or, better yet, just call me dead. Cause that was where my happy little train was stopping next. The Syd Express, now de-boarding permanently at platform 3. Not one single person around to even give a goodbye hug to, either.
As my head sank into the freezing water, it froze mid-thought. Numbed into stillness with a cold so fierce it burned, a silence so deep it screamed … a fear so complete it would have stolen the breath from the devil himself.