Last week I finished my second draft of the story. Now I need to read through the whole thing again, correcting awkward phrases and grammatical errors, correcting structural problems, and determining how I feel about the overall thing. First, though, I’m going to post the entire second draft here in one neat post that I can use as a reference throughout the rest of the process.
And, as it turns out, this is going to be quite long! I knew that I had added a lot of new material to this story, but I hadn’t realized how much. My first draft of The Storm weighed in at 3,894 words. This second draft is 8,720, more than double! Maybe it’s too much, but I guess I’ll see as I take it all in.
Oscar regarded the endless sea behind him. The muted gray of the water below was almost perfectly matched to that of the unbroken clouds overhead, and these were further blended by the distant wall of rain that bridged the gap between. It created the illusion that there were no separate bodies, but one massive ocean, and Oscar and his trawler were at this moment scurrying from that raised ocean’s advance, seeking to make land before the rain-wall did.
The storm had not been expected until later that evening, and Oscar had had to cut his excursion short without so much as a minnow to show for his effort. Fuel and time spent, but nothing gained. Oscar wasn’t surprised by that, though. Not anymore. Some days just turned out that way.
Most of the time the ocean would yield just enough for the sailors to pay their way, but from time-to-time it cut them short. “The ocean giveth and the ocean taketh,” one might say, but also “it taketh slightly more than it giveth,” so that a men grew a penny poorer each year for trying to live by it.
But also sometimes it was more than just a penny. Oscar knew better than most that in sudden, greedy moments the ocean took more than it ought. More than could ever be excused.
That you, Oscar?
Oscar fumbled for the mouthpiece of his radio. “Yeah, Sam, it’s me.” Oscar looked to the edge of the pier where the red-and-white lighthouse cast its broad light into the gray. Sam was their lighthouse keeper, their watchful guardian who never lost tally of each man’s going and coming.
Sorry to hear that, Oscar.
“It’s just how it goes. Everyone else in already?”
All in but Harry.
Oscar’s radio crackled static, signifying that Sam had released the mic. Signifying that Sam would say nothing more until Oscar spoke first. Oscar sighed heavily, dropping his eyes from the lighthouse to the long pier where each of the local sailors had their permanent station. On the far left was his own berth, and as far away as possible on the right was Harry’s. Both empty. Oscar grabbed the mic.
“Do you know which way he went?”
Went for mackerel, around the cape, came the ready response. Probably why I haven’t been able to raise him.
“He woulda seen the storm coming even so.”
“He shoulda made it far by now that we’d see him.”
Crackling static again.
Sam wouldn’t say it. He wasn’t the sort to try and tell people what they ought to do. He was the sort to let them decide it do it themselves. And what if Oscar said no? What if he said Harry was a fool for having gone around the cape when there was any storm warning at all, and that if he was caught in a gale now that was his own affair? If Oscar said that Sam probably wouldn’t even hold it against him. Sam would know as well as anyone that Oscar had reason enough for it. But then Sam would go out himself. And he would be that much more delayed, that much more imperiled by the storm.
Oscar swiveled his head around the spot and surveyed the horizon. No ship in sight.
“I suppose I better go after him,” Oscar rasped into the mic.
If you think that’s best, Sam approved. I won’t blink an eye until the two of you get back.
“I know you won’t, Sam.”
Oscar sighed, then slowly began to turn the wheel. There was that brief moment of delay between cause and effect, then the boat responded to his steering. Now his entire world shifted. The happy view of pier, berth, and road up to Lenny’s Tavern slid away to the left, giving way to the long, low coast, the rising point of the cape, and finally the bleak, open sea yawning wide.
Oscar spun the wheel back, steadying himself towards the storm. Where before he had only given the mounting clouds a cursory glance, he now held them in serious scrutiny. The muddled gray had grown darker since just a few moments ago, making it truly impossible to discern sky from sea, save for when a spike of lightning split the void. Oscar became aware now of the wind whistling around the wheelhouse, a constant, low, forbidding moan. And now that he was moving against the tide it rolled under his feet at doubled strength, raising and lowering him in a constant rhythm. All these particulars had had no weight on him when he was headed back to berth, but now that he intended towards them they were daggers of dread in his mind.
It was nearly enough to turn him back landward right then and there! But he gave himself a little shake and occupied himself with his work so that he didn’t have time to think about it.
“Back a little north,” he said to himself, “keep a steady and brisk pace for the cape.” So saying he turned the wheel until the cape came back to the forefront. Of course this made the oncoming waves buffet more strongly against the starboard side of his trawler, trying to push him homeward, but Oscar stubborned his hands against them. Never mind the discomfort, the fastest course was the best. These waves weren’t yet tall enough to roll him.
And so Oscar quickly advanced on the cape. The Broken Horn it was called, and it rose quickly from the otherwise flat coastline. Too quickly, in fact, for the grass and trees to keep up, thus its promontory point was naught but black, jagged rock, broken in a thousand places by the brunt of the sea. An ominous sigil to be sure.
From time-to-time he worked the radio, trying to raise Harry, but all to no avail. The man must still be around the rock, and something must have gone wrong with his journey.
Of course, it wasn’t the first time things had gone wrong in a storm for Harry.
Oscar had nearly made it to the cape and he quickly spun the wheel to the right. He didn’t dare draw any nearer to the Broken Horn, for there were treacherous shoals at its feet, and if one snagged their boat on those they would be quickly overrun by the endless flow of water. Or if not swamped, the constant surf would push the vessel past the shoals, then pound it into the jagged edges of the cliff beyond, tearing it to shreds in a single instant! If Harry had run into trouble anywhere else Oscar might have left him to run aground and wait out the storm on a rain-soaked beach, but here there was no “aground” to run into.
So Oscar pointed his vessel due east, letting the cape slip by him on the left. Of course due east also meant that the he was pointed back at the face of the storm, and here the water ran much deeper than before.
The waves did not merely rock Oscar’s boat now. They were long and deep, shallow mountains and valleys that his vessel now had to scale and descend in turn. And the longer he stayed out here, those mountains and valleys would only become greater and more treacherous.
Holding the wheel steady in one hand he grabbed the mic and began calling out through the storm.
“This is the Last Horizon. Repeat, this is the Last Horizon. Does anybody read me?”
Oscar reached to the throttle and pressed it up to full. Never mind the fuel spent, he’d have the surf to help carry him back to the shore. For now all that mattered was that he finish his duty as quickly as possible. Find Harry, or have done his due diligence and surrendered him to the sea, and then get straight back home.
With the extra clip of speed his trawler distanced itself past the point of the Broken Horn, to the point that he now turn back slightly north, cutting across the front of the cape. As he went by he roved the shoals and the cliffs with his eyes, searching for any sign of a freshly broken boat.
But again, nothing. Everywhere he looked, his vessel was the only white speck between that black abyss of rock vaunting up into the sky and that black abyss of water spinning below.
“Last Horizon calling Broken Wing. Broken Wing, do you hear me?”
A gust of wind picked up and Oscar let go of the mic as he used both hands to wrestle his boat back into its line. Being even a little bit broadside to the waves was becoming treacherous, and he didn’t like how much his boat tilted against each new crest. The gale subsided for a moment and he roared his frustration into the mic.
“HARRY! DO YOU EVEN HEAR ME?!”
All at once the crackle of static gave way to a small voice, timid and broken.
“Yes, yes, this is Harry here! I see you Oscar, I see you! Starboard side.”
Oscar turned his head from the cape and looked to his right. There, in even deeper waters, he could barely make out the outline of a white boat through the outer mists of the storm.
“What’s your status, Harry?”
“Engine trouble. It’s barely turning at all. I can’t make it around the cape, Oscar, so I’ve just been tryin’ to hold her steady for as long as I could. I don’t mind telling you I was real scared, Oscar.”
“Yeah, well I still am! Stay put, Harry.”
Oscar opened up the throttle and spun the wheel. For a moment his vessel rocked up and down without actually making any advancement, but then it built up enough momentum and lurched forward, pressing deeper into the storm.
The first layers of rain broke upon the windshield, large, heavy drops splotching across the glass. This heavy rain had a formed misty barrier around the edge of the storm, a wall to conceal its inner workings. But after a moment of clouding his vision the heavy rain subsided, and now that Oscar had pressed through those curtains, far darker forms were unveiled beyond!
It was a world of muddled black. Pitch skies hung low overhead, whipped by strong winds into long wisps, thin and fragile, but so numerous as to entirely crowd out the sun. Under that grim ceiling was a landscape of fomented waves, rolling in an endless agony. Oscar crested the outer ripples and saw leagues of the deep yawning wide. There was a great depression in the middle of that floor, pulling it down into a massive bowl some eight miles across. The water was the green-black of thick ink, the darkness of untold fathoms beneath. Seeing all at once the huge expanse of it and the under-weight of it was enough to make one agoraphobic and claustrophobic all at the same time! And across that rolling landscape several shocks of lightning bristled every second, each bolt immense but straight, efficiently shooting the immense energy above down into the darkness below. It was also the loudest storm Oscar had ever known. All about was the cacophonic din of sharp thunder mingled with crashing water mingled with screeching wind.
And there, caught within it all, was Harry’s vessel, twitching and swaying erratically, almost entirely at the mercy of the storm, but on occasion coming to life just enough to jerk back to a nearly perpendicular line to the rolling waves. The boat must be taking on water already, growing more sluggish every minute, growing ever more difficult for Oscar’s vessel to haul out of the foment.
Oscar’s heart fell, but he only allowed himself a moment’s dread before he grit his teeth and grabbed the mic. “You gotta hold it more windward, Harry! I can’t come up alongside just to have you swing into my hull!”
“Okay…” came the timid reply. “I’ll try, Oscar.”
Oscar spat and shook his head. It was a hard thing he was asking, even if it had been of a good shipman, but it was absolutely necessary. “Yeah, you gotta hold her straight. And I’m gonna come up on your starboard side and throw you a line as I pass. You be ready to catch it, and then run like anything to get it through your bow cleat.”
“Okay, Oscar. Okay. I’ll try.”
Apparently that was as good as Harry was going to give.
Oscar held firmly to the wheel, maintaining as straight of a line as possible to Harry. He tightened his grip, readying his nerves for the tumultuous waterscape ahead. They would need to maneuver with precision and speed, minimizing those treacherous moments when their boats would be in close proximity to one another, relying on the mercy of the unpredictable waves to not careen one of their boats into the other and leaving them both in mortal peril!
Oscar quickly glanced backwards to the beam at the center of his boat. He punched the release, dropping the net off of its line, then snapped his eyes back forward as he pulled a lever, letting the rope run out, unfurling on the deck behind him. He waited until there would be about fifty feet of line let loose, then locked the lever back into place.
“Alright now, Harry,” he called into the mic. “You ready?”
Harry didn’t respond, but when Oscar’s eyes slid over the other sailor’s ship he saw that the man was already out on his own deck, waving his arms.
“You’re still supposed to be keeping your boat straight!” Oscar said in anger, then turned the wheel to create an even wider berth between the two boats. Then he turned the throttle up, pushing to just a little ahead of Harry’s boat.
“Alright, alright,” Oscar told himself encouragingly, then cut the throttle and locked the wheel in place. As his boat slid backwards he ran back to the rope pooled out on the deck. With practiced skill he found its end and coiled it around his hand as he leapt to the port side. His boat came level with Oscar’s for just a moment and he gave a mighty fling, arcing the rope through the air and into Harry’s waiting arms. Harry pulled it to his chest for dear life, then sprinted towards the front of his trawler to ran it through his bow cleat. Meanwhile Oscar dashed back to his wheel and spun it rapidly to correct for drift. He wiped the back of his sleeve over his rain-soaked brow and tried to catch his breath.
“Harry, are you ready yet?” Oscar spoke into the mic, but there was no response. He raised the throttle, moving ahead of Harry’s boat and giving a safer distance between them, but he was very careful to not pull the line out before Harry had it secured.
It was very difficult to try and hold steady in such rolling waves, but the true challenge would begin only after Harry had his end of the rope secured. Towing another boat was dangerous even in fair weather. One had to maintain constant tension or else something would break from the intermittent slacking and tightening of the line. One had to keep enough distance between the two boats so that Harry’s wouldn’t come careening into the back of Oscar’s. One had to account for the fact that Oscar’s boat would be riding up the crest of one wave while Harry’s was down in the valley of the previous and vice versa. One had to be careful to keep the line straight between them, not letting the wind blow one off to an angle from the other. If that happened one or both might be pulled sideways into the drink.
In short, there were many things that could go wrong, that probably would go wrong, and any of them could easily end in disaster. For any other fisherman in their small town Oscar would have faced those dangers gladly. But for Harry?… Well, evidently he would still face them, but there was nothing glad about it.
Oscar paused to ask himself why it had to be Harry? Of all the men that could have been caught out here, why did it have to be the one he could never forgive?
“Alright, I’m ready to go now,” Harry’s voice broke from the radio.
“I’ll pull forward until the line gets tight,” Oscar immediately returned to the matter at hand. “Then you throw your engine on and you give whatever you’ve got to keep us level. I’ll do the pulling and I’ll warn you for every turn, you just make sure you stay right behind me and maintain the tension.”
“Of course Oscar. And…thank you, I really didn’t think anyone was going to come for me.”
“Don’t mention it.” It wasn’t a polite deference, it was an order. Oscar pushed the throttle control forward and his engine hummed loudly, slowly edging the trawler forward.
Oscar eased back a little. He didn’t want to hit tension on the rope too quickly and snap it. He watched as the last feet of slack pulled out of the line, and then his vessel shuddered from stem to stern and its boom groaned ominously. Nothing broke, though, and the boom gave a counter-groan as it settled into place.
“Alright,” Oscar called into the mic. “I’m going to bear a little starboard here. You keep going straight at first and let the rope pull you into line.”
“I know, Oscar. I know.”
If you know so much, then why are you the only one out here with a crippled engine? Oscar thought bitterly. Sure, bad luck hit them all, but it seemed to hit Harry a suspicious amount more than any of the other sailors.
Oscar turned the wheel, swiveling his stern twenty degrees. The most efficient route back home would be to make a wide turn right, continue until they were past the cape, then right again and back to the docks.
Of course making this turn meant that Oscar’s boat was now at a slant to the waves, and they were thundering against his hull and drenching his deck with their foaming spray. Oscar looked back-and-to-the right to see where the Broken Horn lay, but anything further than three hundred yards was shrouded in murky black, as if they had been submerged in an ink bottle, alone in their own, thick darkness.
A reverberating whine came from behind and Oscar saw Harry’s boat sliding to starboard, failing to keep up with the turn and pulling the rope at an angle.
“I said stay straight!” Oscar shouted into the mic.
“I’m trying!” Harry’s panicked voice shrieked back. “It’s just my motor can’t keep up! It’s too much!” Oscar bit his wrinkled lip and spun the wheel back to port. They would have to try a shallower angle into the waves, one that Harry’s waterlogged boat could handle.
He brought their angle-of-attack from forty-five degrees to thirty, then checked over his shoulder. No good, the rope was still moving the wrong way, scraping across the corner of his deck.
So he reduced down to twenty-five degrees and checked again. Still no. The rope wasn’t slipping anymore, it continually wavered back and forth, never settling.
Twenty degrees and at last the rope moved back to center.
“We’ve got it! We’ve got it!” Harry’s voice was flush with relief. Oscar wasn’t relieved, though. Far from it. At this shallower angle it would take more than twice as long to get past the cape, meaning they’d be spending twice as long in the heart of the sea.
Twice as long in the ink. The murky green glow from beneath the waves had extinguished, and somewhere beyond the clouds the last remnants of the sun had expired. All was pitch black now, and the men could barely see each wave before they were already upon it. And those waves had progressed from small hills to sheer mountains. Each yawned high above the sailors, tipping their boats skyward, then breaking across their bows in a fury. Then came the rapid drop down the trough on the other side. The wind seemed to shriek around their wheelhouses in every direction at once, and the rain pelted them sideways.
Well, they had arrived…. This was the full height of the storm’s intensity and they would be locked within this fearful epicenter all the way back to shore.
Oscar gripped his wheel with white knuckles, locked his knees in place, and stared ahead with unblinking eyes. Each successive wave was a new trauma heaped upon the last like an extra brick on his back.
“I can’t do this,” Oscar said hoarsely to himself. “I just don’t have it in me anymore.”
“I don’t think you have any choice in it anymore,” another side of him replied.
If at all possible, his weathered face grew even more wrinkly, his eyes shone with unshed saltwater.
“I should have quit after I lost James.”
“No,” his other side returned. “You should have quit before you lost your son.”
“I’m sorry,” his chest quivered and the tears finally dribbled down his cheeks. “I should never have trusted him to Harry.”
The next wave slammed against the front of Oscar’s boat like a slap across the face. His feet jerked out from under him and he had to catch hold of a shelf to keep from falling.
“Keep it together!” he urged, spinning the wheel further to port to account for how the wave had pushed him off his line.
The boat swung laboriously back, just in time for the next wave to collide with it. This again turned him from his line, and Oscar had to turn the wheel even further to port. The third wave struck and his boat was turned until it was nearly broadside to the rolling current.
“Whoa there!–” Harry’s voice cautioned over the radio. Turning broadside would get Oscar swallowed in the waves very quickly!
For a third time Oscar turned his wheel to port, but his helm hit its absolute limit. His rudder could not turn any further. His boat was moving very sluggishly now, weighed down by the weight of water down in its hold. It would still make its turns, but only if granted enough time. And Oscar simply did not have “enough time” available, he only had the narrow window that lay between each crest of the waves.
“Alright Harry,” Oscar snatched the mic to his mouth, “we’ve got to go head-on into those waves. There’s going to be some tricky maneuvers coming up, so you just do everything you can to stay with me!”
Oscar locked the mic button down and set it on the panel. He would need both hands on the wheel for this next part.
Oscar knew it simply wouldn’t work cutting across the waves at a slant anymore. They would forget about taking the shortest line past the edge of the cape. The plan now was to turn fully into the waves, push against them, and put some more distance between them and the Broken Horn. Hopefully they could get distant enough that when they spun around there would be time to slice through the water to port, skimming past the cape’s shoals on their right.
Did they have enough fuel for that? Didn’t matter. They just had to deal with the situation now and worry about the rest later.
Oscar braced his legs as the next wave roared up to them. The whole boat creaked as it was pulled upwards, bow pointed towards the sky. As before, the wave was slowly turning his boat to starboard, but Oscar still kept his wheel locked as far to port as possible.
Now came a great whooshing sound and a burst of foam as Oscar crested the wave at an angle. The man swung his head around, watching until Harry’s boat burst through the top of the wave also.
“Harry, hold that angle and give me a little slack!” Oscar called.
Now the old seaman thrust his wheel hard to starboard, opposite the way he needed to go! All the water in the hold rushed over, making the boat careen onto its side. Oscar splayed his toes wide, feeling the vessel through his boots. He waited until the water to hit the hull wall and started to slosh back the other way. As soon as he felt that rebound he spun the wheel back to port as quickly as possible, encouraging the water as it flowed back across the hold and slammed into the other side of the hull.
The rudder and the sloshing water combined to give Oscar that extra push, just enough to finally pull his boat out of its angle and head-on into the waves.
“Now, Harry! Get back in line behind me!”
There came a heavy thud as the rope between the boats ran out of slack and the full weight of Harry’s vessel tugged hard at Oscar’s. Oscar gave a shout and gripped tighter on the wheel as it tried to spin out of control. The water down below barrelled into the stern of the boat, then rolled backwards, slowing him down.
“Full throttle, Harry, full throttle!” Oscar cried, punching his own speed up to maximum. The next wave was already upon them, and they would need all the speed they could get in order to push through. Otherwise it would flip them over backwards!
Oscar’s boat was slow to answer the call, its propellers spun valiantly, but the vessel was nearly double its normal weight, and as it crawled towards the peak of the wave it grew slower and slower. The stern tried to follow the path of least resistance, tried to tip either to one side or the other, and Oscar had to spin the wheel back-and-forth to counter its shying. He poured everything he had into the engines, forcing the craft to obey!
Then came a sudden blow from behind and the sound of crunching. Oscar’s boat had slowed down faster than Harry could turn his own boat out of the way!
“Harry!” Oscar shouted in anger, but then he felt the push. Harry’s vessel was still pressing forward, and even against the slope of the wave, Oscar realized he was accelerating again. So he snapped his eyes back forward and steered his way through the top of the wave. The surf finally broke over his prow, and the boat gained speed as it rushed down the wave’s backside.
“Alright, Harry, that was lucky,” he pulled the mic back to his mouth. “But you keep your distance on the way up these waves, you hear?”
Oscar didn’t hear any response, but then realized he still had the button on his mic locked down. He released it just in time to hear the last of Harry’s reply.
“–and I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want your ‘sorry,’ Harry,” he shot back. “Just competence.”
Oscar dropped the mic to the desk and busied himself setting the throttle. Through the next dozen waves he tried to maintain a steady clip forward. It was an agonizing balancing act. They needed to move forward quickly enough to make headway against the waves, but that meant consuming a lot of fuel, which the two of them were running dangerously low on. Harry, who had been fighting against the storm for longer, was running particularly low on it.
“Oh–oh–” Harry’s concerned voice came over the radio.
“What is it?” Oscar demanded, but just then he felt the strain of Harry’s boat pulling back against his own and he knew.
“I’m out of fuel.”
“I–I think so.”
“Don’t you have a spare tank?”
“Yeah, I used it already!”
They came to the rise of the next wave. Oscar’s boat started to burst through the crown, but Harry’s boat wasn’t able to maintain speed. It held Oscar’s boat like an anchor, and he felt himself moving backward with the wave. Harry cried out in fear as his boat cut low through the water’s rise, drenching his deck, and threatening to smash the windows on his wheelhouse.
“You there?” Oscar demanded as they finally broke through to the other side.
“Run out to the front of the boat, here comes my spare tank.”
Oscar locked his wheel in place, grabbed the plastic tank from under a seat, and dashed to the back of the boat. He paused to pour a fifth of its contents into his own fuel-starved engine, then he stood with his foot on the stern and threw the canister through the air into Harry’s waiting arms.
As Oscar looked backwards he tried to pick out the Broken Horn, to determine if they were far enough away to turn around. That spare tank had only had a gallon of diesel remaining, and divided across the two of them it wouldn’t last even an hour. Were they far enough from the cape to turn around now?
And in answer to his questions he saw only blackness. The Broken Horn wasn’t visible at all through the darkness that pressed close to them. Oscar couldn’t even see forty yards distant. Perhaps they had pushed away from the cape, or they might have been sliding even closer to it. He couldn’t tell. When they turned, they would have no way of telling how near the dangers were until they were right upon them!
“Oscar!” Harry’s voice broke through the howling wind, his hand pointed fearfully ahead. Oscar turned around just in time to see his vessel sliding up the ramp of the next wave!
Oscar muttered a deluge of insults to himself for being such a distracted fool as he turned on the spot and sprinted towards the wheelhouse. Too late, though. The wave burst across the prow of his boat just then, and he had to grab the nearest line for dear life. The torrent knocked his feet out from under him, endless gallons of water poured into his face, and all the world became confusion! All he could do was hold fast to his line and hope that he would come through at the other end.
Did he even still hold the line? Had it even been properly secured to the boat? Oscar couldn’t say. The sensations coursing across his body were so numerous that he couldn’t say whether he was on deck or in the ocean or holding water or holding air. But he clamped his fingers in place anyway, there was nothing else he could do, and finally the flood abated and he still stood upon his deck.
But he was standing nearly sideways! For without his guidance the boat had been pushed to the side by the wave, and now was careening to starboard, likely to capsize at any moment!
“NO!” Oscar shouted, fumbling hand-over-hand along the rope, trying to make his way to the wheelhouse. If he didn’t make it there before the next wave hit he would be left hanging upside down in the water, his boat suspended over him for a roof!
Suddenly there came a great creaking sound and the entire boat was yanked back to port, forcibly drawn onto its hull. Oscar looked to the edge of the boat and found himself facing the Broken Wing. Harry had quickly moved to the Last Horizon’s side, using their tether to pull the boat back into its place. Oscar gave a grunt for his thanks, then dashed to the wheelhouse and took hold of helm and throttle.
“Are you alright there?” Harry’s voice called nervously over the radio.
“Yeah, I’m here–” Oscar said dismissively. “I was–I just had–I’m alright now.”
“Harry, let’s get out of here,” Oscar decided, anxious to change the topic.
“We’re going to turn around?”
“We’re just taking too much of a beating. So yes, let’s hold through this last wave, and then turn back.”
The two vessels made their way through the next wave and then began the arduous process of turning around. They were so waterlogged now that what usually would have been a simple maneuver had become a herculean labor.
“It’s too slow” Harry shouted over the wave. “We’re going to get hit broadside by the next wave!”
“Turn back slightly!”
The two men barely got their boats swiveled back to enough of an angle to slice up the wave diagonally.
“Now keep up the other way!”
By the time the next wave reached them they nearly had their backs fully to it. Close enough to perpendicular that they were lifted and rushed forward, making their way back towards the coastline.
“Now keep your eyes open wide!” Oscar shouted into the mic as he leaned forward to stare intently through his own window. “If you so much as wonder whether you’ve seen the cape, call it out! And keep a steady pull to port!”
Oscar settled his boat at a twenty degree angle from the onslaught of the waves. He pumped the throttle forward during the low point after each wave, then cut power to better feel the movements of the boat as it lifted into the air. He reached up and turned off the overhead light and covered the blinking LED on the radio, casting himself into complete darkness so that he could see more clearly through the storm outside.
Would they even be able to see the cape? Quite possibly not. There was no moon and no stars, and the storm-mist around them was so black that there may not be any way to tell it from rock face. All they knew for sure was that they weren’t yet around the cape, for if they were they would be able to see the beacon from the lighthouse. So long as there was no light, they were still in danger.
One dark minute slid by, and then another. Then another three. And each one of them felt like a greater pronouncement of doom upon the lost sailors. How many minutes could they spare before they would already be upon a stone-hard reckoning?
“Further to port!” Oscar commanded.
Oscar spun the wheel to the left, coming thirty degrees from perpendicular to the waves. The next crest rolled into them and there was the unsettling sensation of being tilted far to the right as they glided up it, then rolled steeply back to the left as it left them in its wake, the boats threatening as they sloshed back and forth to roll all the way over at any moment.
“Whatever fuel we’ve got left, burn it now!” Oscar ordered, turning his throttle up to maximum. With new life the vessel churned forward…then came a jerking halt as the line ran taut and Harry’s vessel dragged Oscar’s back.
“I’m trying, I’m trying!” Harry grunted as he struggled to get his controls to respond. “There we go!” he crowed as his engines came fully to life. “Oh wait, no!” they cut out again after just a few seconds, causing the rope between them to snap taut again. “I think–maybe–” the engines came back for another moment. “Oh come on!” the engines cut out once more.
Oscar ground his teeth together. This relaxing and tightening of the line would snap it in two in no time. Much as he wanted to surge on ahead, he would just have to pace himself with what Harry’s boat could handle.
“Is it steadier at lower speeds?” Oscar asked.
“Yes, the engine holds if I don’t throttle over twenty percent.”
“Alright. You keep it there. I’ll tug.”
Oscar slowed his boat down until both he and Harry were travelling at the same, slow speed. Then he gradually sped up, until the line between came back to full tension. From there he added more power, but only in small increments, accelerating both boats together as one. It was working…but they were less than half the speed that Oscar’s boat could have gone at on its own.
“Come on, Harry, come on,” Oscar mumbled, willing the other man’s boat to spring to greater life. Every now and again he looked over his shoulder to keep bearings on what was going on behind him, and each time he saw Harry’s boat being an anchor, weighing him back into the storm, and he despised Harry for that. “How many sailors have to die under your hand before you’re through?” he muttered darkly.
Then he looked to the front, still watching for any sign of the cliff-face, or better yet, of the lighthouse. He saw neither, yet by looking so earnestly his mind started playing tricks on him, making him think he had caught a glimpse of one or the other out of the corner of his eye.
Oh was that a moving light?! No, just a reflection of sheet lightning on the rolling wave. Was that a rock springing out of the dark in front of him?! No, just one cloud moving past another.
“Turn deeper, Harry. “Let’s bring it to forty degrees!”
“Alright…if you’re sure…”
“No, I’m not sure of anything anymore.” Oscar replied, but only to himself. He was surprised that they still hadn’t seen either the saving light or the damning rock. Had he become more turned around than he realized? Was he actually headed away from the shoreline? His compass said no. Had he somehow travelled further south than the lighthouse, so that now it would be on his starboard side and not his port? But he looked to starboard and nothing was there.
The next wave rolled under them. Harry gripped hard to the wheel and planted his foot against the side of the wheelhouse to keep his balance as he careened to the right and then the left. But his ship still held steady through it all.
“Forty-five degrees, Harry! Make it forty-five!”
The next wave seemed an eternity. By slicing up and down its sides they were spending a lot more time tilted precariously, which meant a lot more time for the water in the hold to collect on the downward side. Oscar tried to feel through his boots how near the floor was to spinning out from under him, his hands twitching on the wheel, ready to throw to starboard at the first sign of trouble.
But then, all at once, he felt a sharp tug from behind, and without even looking he knew what it meant: Harry’s boat had started to roll, and if it did so it would take him down with it! Without thinking about it, Oscar threw his wheel all the way to port, swiveling his boat to be fully parallel with the wave. A sudden torrent of water slammed against the side of the wheelhouse, flooding over his vessel and threatening to swamp him at any moment! But only for a moment, and then the boat burst through the crest of the wave, hung suspended in the open the air, then crashed down on the backside of the wave, hauling at Harry’s boat until it had pulled him back from his roll without a moment to spare!
Oscar reached for his mic to bark out new instructions but out of the corner of his eye he saw that Harry’s boat was careening down the back of the wave on a collision course for his own! So he clutched the wheel and throttle instead, frantically maneuvering to get out of the way. He nearly managed to clear a path, but the two boats still scraped their sides alongside of one another. Harry’s boat kept descending down, while Oscar’s lingered in place, and soon the line snapped taut between them again, spinning Oscar’s boat around in a circle.
“Come on!” Oscar snarled, desperately fighting to get control of the situation. But they were at the low point between waves, and the next one was already bearing down on them. They were anything but prepared to ride through it. Oscar’s own boat was sideways to the oncoming wall, and Harry’s boat was swaying back and forth unpredictably.
Oscar’s hands fumbled back and forth over the controls, but there were too many competing forces at play to account for them all. Each turn or acceleration just seemed to add to the chaos. He had worn his nerves all the way down, and he couldn’t keep doing this any longer.
The heaving wave was upon them now, and Oscar gave up trying to find a clever maneuver through it. He just held onto the helm, held onto it dear life. The wave hit, and all became utter chaos. The rolling torrent poured into the wheelhouse and slammed against Oscar. His feet slid on the wet floor, and his clenched fists twitched left and right as he fought to maintain his balance. His eyes roved right and left as he tried to get his bearings, tried to make sense of the wind and the wave and his vessel. But his mind failed to register these things anymore. It had had enough trying to be clever. All was a pure cacophony, and he felt as if this was his first time standing at the wheel, absolutely clueless in what to do.
Yet for all his confusion, there was at least one thing that remained perfectly clear and certain to him. And it was doom. A doom that was so wide and so vast that it crowded out any other comprehension from his mind. At long last, after years of threatening to do so, it had come for him.
“Oscar…” Harry’s soft voice spoke over the radio. “We’re going to both die if we keep up like this. But I’ll bet you still have enough fuel to get around the cape…if you weren’t towing me that is.”
“But I am towing you Harry.”
“Oscar I knew it would be you who came for me. I just knew it would be. The sea knows I’ve done wrong by you…and it’s brought you here to make things right between us.”
“Harry, please stop. I don’t want—”
“I lied to you Oscar.”
The next wave yawned twice as wide as any previous. Oscar let go of the mic, fastening both hands to the wheel and braced for impact.
Harry continued. “I told you that when I took your son out sailing he forgot to tie down his safety line in that storm. But James was too bright for that. He secured one for himself and for me. He did it just as soon as he knew we were in real trouble.”
The boats tilted upwards for the approach into the wave, like ants trying to scale a mountain. The wave’s broad slope created a wide surface for the wind to roar haphazardly down, shoving the nose of the boats erratically to right and left.
Still Harry went on. “That hour we dashed around the boat like mad, trying to tie everything down. I went up to the stern and he went aft. The boat just kept reeling from side-to-side, and each time seemed like the one that would finally throw us in the drink.”
A mighty crack sounded as one of the lines on Oscar’s boat snapped. He wasn’t sure which one it was and he didn’t check to see.
“Each wave swamped us, half drowned us! I was praying and cursing with all the breath I had left. I made my way back to the mainmast and kept throwing knots on and off at every turn. Trying to pull out the slack and tighten them better.”
Oscar’s boat broke through the crest, but rolled far to its side. He flung his arms our for balance as he slid down the water-hill sideways.
“Then the next wave washed over us, the biggest one yet. It was a froth. I couldn’t see. It seemed like an eternity, but finally it washed away. I was facing towards the rear of the boat and…and I saw nothing. Just nothing. James… wasn’t there.”
Oscar’s boat hit bottom and a tide of water swept into the cabin. Oscar slipped and fell to his knees. He gripped the wheel only by his fingertips, trying to hold his way through the wave unseeing.
If the storm still raged outside Oscar couldn’t say. Either the wind had actually gone silent and the waves had dissipated and the lightning had ceased flashing, or else he had just stopped hearing and seeing all these things. All that he could perceive were the words of Harry’s continued confession.
“I undid his safety line, Oscar. I–I don’t know how I could have, but I did. Somehow in all my blundering I pulled it up along with the other knots… I–I killed him!”
Oscar’s eyes flowed steady streams. His mouth was open but silent. His whole body heaved as it expelled the last of the air from his lungs. He gripped the wheel by only the very edges of his fingertips, his hands twitching on the cusp of letting go.
“And then I didn’t tell you the truth about it all, Oscar. I let you believe your son was lost because of his own mistake, but it was mine…. I undid the wrong lifeline that day, Oscar, and fifteen years later I’m still waiting for someone else to untie mine because I’m too much a coward to do it myself… So why don’t you let me go now and make for the shore?”
Oscar’s heart beat heavily inside him. Beat like it would tear him right in two. The pounding of his heart was matched by the pounding of the waves against his boat. They buffeted his vessel where they would and he did nothing to stop it.
He dropped his gaze to the controls before him. There, on the left, was the button to release the line from his boom. He could press it, and it would finally cut this cord that bound him to Harry. And there wouldn’t be anything wrong in pressing it. Just as Harry had said, they couldn’t survive this together, so he may save what he could: himself. Any other sailor would do the same. No one would say he hadn’t done his duty. He had tried, he had really tried. But there had to be a limit! There had to be a point where he had done all that he could and it just didn’t work and he could let it go now. At some point he had to cut off this weight that dragged him down.
Oscar rested his palm on the control panel, fingers stretching in the direction of the button, but his arm refused to extend enough to let them reach it.
Because no matter how justified he might be to cut off this rescue on paper, there simply was no way for him to press that button that wasn’t vengeful. There was no way to separate his emotions from the action, to be able to say in his heart that it was a calculated matter of procedure, and that it had no malice behind it. There would be a malice. The act would not be innocent, because he could not do it from an honorable heart.
Besides—Oscar looked out at the black horizon—what did it matter anymore? It was already too late. Whatever life had remained in him was already expired into the storm. The struggle had taken all that he had, and there was no more desire to find his way out of this place.
And as Oscar stared into that void, welcoming oblivion, a strange discoloration appeared in the dark before him. It was a patch of black that grew lighter and lighter, yellower and warmer, larger and larger. Or rather its edges grew larger, but it center grew smaller and more focused. And then, all at once, it pierced through the storm and became a shining light. A light that was tearing through mist and dark and night to fill Oscar’s eye.
“Sam?” he croaked.
“Oscar?” Harry’s awed voice came over the radio. “Is that–is that the lighthouse?”
“Yes,” Oscar said, though not into the radio. “I do believe it is.”
And in the face of the light Oscar could not consign himself to the watery depths any longer. He had been willing to quietly accept oblivion, but dark thoughts belonged to dark places, and with the path now illuminated ahead all he could think to do was follow it. So he placed his hands back on wheel and throttle and slowly raised the engine back to life.
“The waves,” he mused to himself, “the waves have been pushing us back home all this time.” The very forces of nature that had seemed to condemn them had actually steered them back to safety. Oscar couldn’t understand it, but if that was the will of the ocean, then who was he to refute it?
As the lighthouse beacon swung in its circle it briefly illuminated the sentinel figure of the Broken Horn. It was far to starboard and a little behind. How long ago had the two sailors made it around its treacherous shoals and didn’t even know it?
But never mind that place. Never mind it ever again.
Now with the waves and wind behind them and the lighthouse and shore ahead, they pounded forward with all the fury of the sea. The the wind, and the rain ushered them forward, and the shallower, smaller waves rocked them on their way.
When the two boats reached a thousand feet from the shore the lighthouse beacon stopped circling. Sam must have spotted them, and now he kept the giant searchlight fixed upon them, keeping their path in permanent illumination.
Oscar didn’t even try to navigate a proper landing at the dock, though. Any other day it would have been the most routine of maneuvers, but today he only had enough nerve for one target: the sprawling beach.
Closer and closer the shore loomed, until at last Oscar’s hull crunched across the sand, and the boat keeled to its starboard side until it came to a rest. Oscar tried to let go of the helm a few times before his clenched hands finally accepted the order. Then he stumbled out of the wheelhouse and tried to let himself over the railing. Halfway over it his arms gave out and he flopped unceremoniously onto the wet sand below, coming to a sitting position with his back against his boat.
The breaking waves lapped against his feet, the wind roared in his ear, and the rain pelted at his face, but he didn’t register them at all. He just sat in silence as Harry’s trawler crunched across the sand twenty feet ahead of him.
“Oscar!” Harry’s voice called out from above. “Oscar, where are you?!”
Harry flung himself over his own railing and onto the sand, almost running straight into Oscar before he finally saw him there.
“Oscar, are you alright?”
Oscar just looked up and blinked silently at the other man.
“Oscar, I’m sorry,” Harry cried. “I know that doesn’t change anything, but I’m just–I’m sorry.”
“I don’t know what to do Harry,” Oscar finally mumbled out. “I just don’t know what happens now.”
There was a long silence, and the two men just stared at each other. For the first time since James’ death, they really saw one another.
Then came the sound of a new voice calling out through the night. It came from down the beach and over the hill, where a single lantern was bobbing towards them. Sam was coming to find them.
“Oscar, let’s go talk to Sam,” Harry extended his hand out.
“Sam’s a good man. He’ll know what to do. He’ll know what happens now. Let’s just go talk to him and see what he has to say?”
Oscar thought for a moment, then slowly reached out and took Harry’s hand, letting the man pull him back up to his feet. Then Harry put his arm around Oscar’s shoulder and supported him as they turned their backs to the sea and hobbled away, making for the swinging light.