Here I am, done with my third draft of The Storm. This milestone happens to coincide with another: I have now worked on the project for 26 weeks, or half of a year! I did not expect the process to go on for this long. I specifically chose The Storm because it was one of the shorter pieces I had available to work with. This has been a very eye-opening experience as to how small a percentage that first, rough draft is in the entire story writing process!
26 weeks and I’m certainly not done yet. I already know a few changes that I’m looking to make, such as removing redundancy in the challenges that the sailors face and changing some of the visual descriptors for smells, sounds, and temperature. There is also my ongoing concern about whether the pacing in the middle is working or not.
Before delving any further, though, I’m going to lay out the entire draft here in one, neat place, which I will use as a reference when discussing my next edits.
For those who like numbers, my previous draft more than doubled my wordcount from 3,894 to 8,720. This next pass trimmed off a bit here and there, bringing me down nearly 10% to 7,885 words.
And now, without further ado, here’s draft three.
The Storm: Draft Three)
Oscar regarded the sea behind him. The gray of the water below was matched perfectly to the gray of unbroken clouds above. Off in the distance was a similarly gray wall of rain, that bridged the gap between ocean and cloud, so that there seemed to be no separate bodies at all, only one massive volume of moisture. And in that elevated sea there was only a narrowing bubble of air, where Oscar and his trawler were scurrying forward, trying to make land before the wall of rain did. For that rain-wall of rain was no trifling shower, but the face of a much darker storm laying beyond.
That storm had not been expected until later that evening, but it had arrived several hours early, cutting Oscar’s excursion short without so much as a minnow to show for his effort. So there had been fuel and time spent, but nothing gained.
Oscar wasn’t surprised by that, though. Most of the time the ocean yielded just enough for the sailors to pay their way with, 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 man grew a penny poorer each day for trying to live by it.
Though sometimes the cost was more than just a penny. Oscar knew better than most that in sudden, greedy moments the ocean took far more than it ought. More than could ever be excused.
That you, Oscar? the voice crackled over Oscar’s radio.
“Yeah, Sam, it’s me.” Oscar raised his eyes to the red-and-white lighthouse in the distance, which cast its broad light into the gray. Sam was their lighthouse keeper, the 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 but Harry.
Oscar’s radio crackled static, signifying that Sam had released the mic, signifying that Sam would say no more until Oscar did. Oscar sighed heavily, dropping his eyes from the lighthouse to the long pier below, where each of the local sailors had their permanent station. On the far left was Oscar’s own berth, and as far away as possible to the right was Harry’s. The only empty ones.
Oscar grabbed the mic. “Do you know which way he went?”
Went for mackerel. Around the cape. Probably why I haven’t been able to raise him.
“He woulda seen the storm coming even so.”
“He shoulda made it far enough back by now that we’d already see him.”
Crackling static again.
Sam wouldn’t say it. He wasn’t the sort of person to tell people what they ought to do. He was the sort to let them figure it out for 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 Sam would go out himself then. And he would be that much more delayed, that much more in danger of the storm.
Oscar swiveled his head around and surveyed the horizon. Not a single 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, that moment where he was still pointed toward the docks, but then his entire world shifted. Pier, berth, and the 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 stretching beyond.
Oscar corrected the turn, steadying himself towards the storm. Where before he had only given the mounting clouds a cursory glance, now he held them in serious scrutiny. It seemed to him that the muddled gray had grown suddenly much darker, and for the first time he noticed how the wind whistling around the wheelhouse made a constant, forbidding moan, and now that he was moving against the tide he felt it under his feet at double strength.
“Turn a little back to the north,” he ordered himself. “Steady and brisk pace round the cape.” He turned the wheel until the cape came back to the forefront. Of course this made the oncoming waves buffet 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 best. Sam had said Harry went around the cape, so that was where Oscar needed to get to.
Once Oscar’s vessel had settled itself to the cadence of the waves he accelerated to full speed. He bounced vigorously up and down in the water, throwing up a high, white spray on the starboard side, and it wasn’t long before he closed upon his destination.
The Broken Horn it was called, and it rose very quickly from the otherwise flat coastline, outstripping the grass and the trees so that its promontory cliff was nothing but black and jagged rock, broken in a thousand places by the brunt of the sea.
Oscar worked the radio from time-to-time, trying to raise Harry, but to no avail. Clearly the man was still somewhere on the other side of the cape, and that meant something must have gone wrong indeed.
Of course, it wasn’t the first time things had gone wrong in a storm for Harry.
Oscar spun the wheel to the right. He didn’t dare draw any nearer to the cliffs of the Broken Horn. There were treacherous shoals at its feet, and if one of those snagged his boat he would be held like a fish on a spear until the endless flow of water overran his vessel. Or if the waves managed to dislodge him instead, they would push his boat past the shoals and pound it into the jagged edges of the cliff beyond, tearing everything to shreds in an instant! Had Harry run into trouble anywhere else, Oscar would 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. Rescue was the only option.
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 fully into the face of the storm, and here the water ran much deeper. Here the waves did not merely bounce Oscar’s boat on the surface, they were long and deep, miniature mountains and valleys, which his vessel had to scale and descend in turn. And the longer he stayed out here, the more steep and treacherous those mountains and valleys would become.
Holding the wheel steady in one hand Oscar grabbed the mic and called out through the storm.
“This is the Last Horizon. This is the Last Horizon. Does anybody read me?”
Nothing. Oscar kept calling, though, once every minute as his trawler extended itself past the point of the Broken Horn. Once he had enough distance he turned his vessel slightly back to the north, cutting across the front of the cape. As he went by he roved his eyes over its shoals and cliffs, searching for any sign of a freshly broken boat.
But again, nothing. Everywhere he looked there was only the black abyss of rock vaunting up into the sky and the black abyss of water spinning below, and his own vessel as the only white speck in between.
“Last Horizon calling Broken Wing. Broken Wing. Broken Wing are you there?”
A gust of wind picked up and Oscar let go of the mic as he used both hands to wrestle his boat back into line. As soon as he his vessel was stable again he roared his frustration into the mic.
“HARRY! DO YOU EVEN HEAR ME?!”
At long last 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 to the right. There, in even deeper waters, veiled by the mists of storm so that it appeared almost like a ghost, was the faint outline of a boat.
“What’s your status, Harry?”
“Not good. I’m having lots of engine trouble, in fact it’s barely turning at all! I can’t make it around the cape, so I’ve just been tryin’ to hold her steady. I don’t mind telling you I’ve been real scared out here, Oscar!”
“Yeah, well I still am! Stay put, Harry.”
Oscar spun the wheel until he was in alignment with Harry’s vessel, then opened the throttle and surged forward. As he went forward his vessel finally pressed through the misty curtain that stood at the edge of the storm. Large and heavy raindrops broke across his windshield, momentarily obscuring his vision. Then the heavy rain subsided, and darker forms were revealed beyond!
It was a world of muddled black. Pitch skies hung low overhead, whipped by strong winds into long wisps, thin and fragile, yet so numerous as to entirely crowd out the evening sun. Under the grim ceiling lay a landscape of fomented waves, rolling in endless agony, and colored the green-black hue of ink. Shocks of lightning bristled every second at random places, each bolt immense but straight, efficiently transferring energy from darkness above to darkness below.
And caught in the thick of everything, was Harry’s vessel, twitching and swaying erratically, entirely at the mercy of the storm. Only on occasion it would surge to life, just enough to jerk back into line with the rolling waves, and then the engines would die and it flounder. The boat must have taken on a great deal of water already, growing more sluggish by the minute. Growing more difficult to haul out by the minute.
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 steady, Harry! I can’t come up alongside just for you to swing into my hull!”
“Okay…” came the timid reply. “I’ll try, Oscar.”
Oscar spat and shook his head. He knew it was a hard thing he was asking, but it was necessary if they were to pull this off.
“Yeah, you gotta hold her straight. 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, running through the next maneuvers in his head. They would need to move with precision and speed, minimizing the number of seconds that their boats would be so treacherously close to one another!
Oscar glanced to the raised beam back at the center of his boat. He punched the release, dropping the net at the end of it. Then he pulled a lever, letting the rope run out until there was about fifty feet of it unfurled on the deck.
“Alright now, Harry,” Oscar called into the mic. “You ready?”
Harry didn’t respond. Oscar raked his eyes over the other sailor’s ship and saw that the man was already out on his own deck, waving his arms.
“You’re supposed to be keeping your boat straight!” Oscar said in anger, turning the wheel for an even wider berth between the two of them. Then he turned the throttle up, pushing his vessel 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 in that moment 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 run it through the bow cleat. Meanwhile Oscar dashed back to his own wheel and spun it rapidly to correct for drift.
“Harry, are you ready yet?” Oscar spoke into the mic, but there was no response. He raised the throttle, moving a little beyond Harry’s boat, but not so far as to pull the line out before Harry had it secured.
It was very difficult to hold the boat steady in the rolling waves, but the true challenge would only begin after Harry had his end of the rope secured. Towing another boat was dangerous even in fair weather. They would have to maintain constant tension, since the more often the rope slacked and snapped taut the more likely it would break. They would have to gauge their speeds so that Harry’s boat didn’t come careening into the back of Oscar’s. They would have to account for the fact that Oscar’s boat would be riding up the crest of one wave while Harry’s was still down in the valley of another and vice versa. They would have to keep the line straight between them and not at an angle, or else they might roll each other 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 destruction. For any other fisherman in their hamlet Oscar would have faced those dangers gladly. But for Harry?… Well, evidently he would still face them, but there was nothing glad about it.
Why did it have to be Harry, Oscar wondered. 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 came from the radio.
“I’ll pull forward until the line gets tight,” Oscar returned to the matter at hand. “Then you throw your engine on and give whatever you’ve got to keep us aligned. I’ll do the pulling and warn you for every turn.”
“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 the engine hummed loudly. Slowly his trawler edged forward.
As Oscar came close to the end of the rope’s length he eased back a little so that he would hit tension as gently as possible. Even so, there was a powerful jolt when the last feet of slack pulled out of the line. Oscar’s vessel shuddered from stem to stern and its boom groaned ominously, but nothing broke, and at last the boom gave a counter-groan as it settled into place.
“Alright,” Oscar said into the mic. “I’m going to bear a little to starboard here. You just follow the turn.”
“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 right turn to starboard, go until they were past the cape, then turn the rest of the way around until they were pointed back at the docks.
Of course making this turn meant that Oscar’s boat would be at a slant to the waves, and they were much larger than before. Each one of them thundered against his hull and drenched his deck with their foaming spray. Oscar looked west to see where the Broken Horn lay, but anything further than three hundred yards was shrouded in murky black. It was as if they had been submerged in an ink bottle.
Suddenly Oscar heard a reverberating whine from behind and he turned to see Harry’s boat sliding to starboard, failing to keep up with the turn and pulling Oscar’s vessel 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 gave a cry of frustration, but spun his wheel towards port. They would just have to try a shallower angle, one that Harry’s waterlogged boat could still handle. Oscar took the angle-of-attack from forty-five degrees to thirty, but the rope was still moving the wrong way, now scraping across the corner of his deck.
He reduced down to twenty-five degrees, but still no. The rope wasn’t slipping anymore, but it continually wavered back and forth.
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 around the cape, meaning they’d be spending that much longer in the heart of the storm.
But he didn’t have time to dwell on that misfortune. The storm’s darkness had become complete, so that each wave was hidden behind the streaking, black rain until it was already upon them. Oscar had to strain all of his senses to guide them through every change with only a moment’s notice. He led them forward as the waves rose like sheer mountains, tipping their boats skyward and then breaking across their bows in a fury. Oscar gripped his wheel with white knuckles and locked his knees in place.
“I can’t do this,” he said to himself. “I just don’t have it in me anymore.”
Then another side of him replied. “I don’t think you have any choice in the matter. You’re already committed.”
If at all possible, his weathered face grew even more wrinkly and 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 side 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 tumbling across the floor.
“Keep it together!” he commanded, clambering back to his feet and spinning the wheel to correct his drift.
Trying to cut across the waves at an angle was proving extremely difficult. It meant that the port side of their boats were constantly slammed by the onslaught of water, which pushed them back to starboard. As they came down the crest of each wave Oscar had to crank his wheel back to port to compensate for the diversion, but his boat was becoming sluggish, weighed down by the weight of more and more water in its hold. It taking too long for his boat to turn back into its line, he wasn’t even able to get back to the proper slant before the next wave was already upon them and pushing them further off-course.
“Whoa there!–” Harry’s voice cautioned over the radio as the next wave nearly turned Oscar’s boat completely broadside.
Oscar snatched the mic to his mouth. “Alright Harry, we’ve got to go head-on into those waves. Hitting them at an angle just isn’t working.”
“I don’t think there’s enough time between waves to turn at them head-on!”
“Well there’s going to be some tricky maneuvers coming up…but you leave them to me, just do everything you can to keep up!”
Oscar locked the mic button down and set it on the panel. He would need both hands on the wheel for this next part, but would also need to call it out instructions as they went.
Of course, not cutting across the waves at a slant would mean giving up the shortest path around the cape. Now they would have to turn fully into the waves, push for as much distance as they could from the Broken Horn, then turn around and come back again. Then, as they then thundered back towards the cape, they would slice to port, hopefully pulling enough in that direction to skim past the dangerous shoals on their right.
How far out would they need to be able to make that turn? Oscar wasn’t sure. Did they have enough fuel for it? It didn’t matter. They just had to deal with the situation at hand and worry about the rest as it came up.
Oscar tapped his fingers in anticipation on the helm as the next wave roared up to them. The 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.
The foam burst high into the air as the boat crested the wave at an angle, then Oscar swung his head around, watching until Harry’s boat burst through the top of the wave also. As soon as it did he sprang into action.
“Harry, hold that angle, but give me a little slack!” Oscar called down towards the mic. Then he 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 movements of the vessel through his boots. He could tell the shift when the water down in the hold collided with the hull wall and started to slosh back the other way. Now he spun the wheel back to port as quickly as possible, encouraging the water’s momentum, flowing it back across the hold until it slammed into the opposite side of the hull. The port side. The rudder and the rushing water combined to give Oscar that needed extra push, just enough to finally pull his boat out of its angle and pointed head-on towards the next wave.
“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 at Oscar’s.
“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 muster to push through.
Oscar’s boat spun its propellers valiantly, but it grew slower and slower as it crawled towards the peak of the wave. And as it lost its momentum the stern tried to follow the path of least resistance, wanting to fall off to either one side or the other. Oscar spun the wheel back-and-forth and applied the throttle in controlled bursts, trying to counter the boat’s shying and keeping it pointed forward.
Then came a sudden blow from behind and the sound of crunching! Oscar’s boat had slowed down faster than Harry could turn out of the way, and Harry had rear-ended him!
“Harry!” Oscar shouted in anger, but then he felt the push. Harry’s engines had come to life and he still had considerable momentum, even against the slope of the wave! It gave Oscar the push he needed and he was able to steer his way through the crest of water. Then the two boats rushed down the wave’s backside, restoring both to their full and proper speed.
“Alright Harry, that was lucky,” Oscar pulled the mic back to his mouth. “But you keep your distance, you hear?”
There didn’t seem to be any response, but then Oscar realized he still had the button on the radio 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.”
Together the two men settled in to the next dozen waves. Oscar tried to keep the two boats moving forward at a steady clip, but that meant consuming a lot of fuel, which they were running dangerously low on. Harry, who had been fighting against the storm for more than an hour longer was running particularly low on it.
“Uh-oh” Harry’s concerned voice came over the radio.
“What is it?” Oscar demanded, but then he felt the strain of Harry’s boat pulling 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 sliding backward with the wave. Harry gave a cry as his own boat cut low through the wave’s summit, totally flooding his deck and threatening to smash the windows of his wheelhouse.
“You still 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 the 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 flung the canister through the air and into Harry’s waiting arms.
As Oscar looked backwards he tried to pick out the Broken Horn and determine if they were far enough away from it to turn around. That spare tank wouldn’t carry the two of them for even an hour, so did it even make sense to keep pressing forward?
And in answer to his questions he saw only blackness. The Broken Horn wasn’t visible at all. Oscar couldn’t even see forty yards distant. During this last hour they might have pushed well away from the cape, or they might have been sliding even closer to it! He just couldn’t tell. And whenever they made the decision to turn, whether now or later, they still would have no way of telling what their situation really was.
“Oscar!” Harry’s voice called 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 and he had to grab the nearest line for dear life. His feet swept out from under him as endless gallons of water poured into his body. All the world was confusion, and all he could do was hold fast to the line and hope to come through the other end without washing out to sea!
Finally the flood did abate and he was still standing upon his deck. But he was standing sideways! For without his guidance the boat had been entirely at the whim of the wave, and was now careening far to starboard, likely to capsize at any moment!
“NO!” Oscar shouted, fumbling hand-over-hand along the rope, trying to make his way back to the wheelhouse. The next wave would surely roll his boat the rest of the way over, leaving him hanging upside down in the water, boat suspended overhead!
Suddenly there came a great creaking sound and the entire boat was yanked back to port, returning to its hull. As the upper edge of his boat rotated downwards Oscar found himself facing the Broken Wing. Harry had moved to the Last Horizon’s side and used their tether to pull the boat back upright. Oscar gave a grunt for his thanks, then dashed to the wheelhouse and took hold of the 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.”
He released the mic and his whole body trembled. His eyes welled up in tears but he refused to let them run out. He had to suppress the emotional breakdown that was lurking in his periphery, had to push through to survive. Do that first and then collapse in a heap on the floor.
“Harry, let’s get out of here,” Oscar decided.
“You mean turn around?”
“Yes. We’re taking too much of a beating. Let’s hold steady through this last wave, then turn back.”
The next wave passed without incident and the two men began the arduous process of turning around. They were not able to make the turn in a single passing of the waves, and so they had to do it in degrees, slicing up and down the crests at angles, until at last they had their backs to the rolling tide and were pointed towards the shore.
“Alright, now we keep a steady pull to port!” Oscar instructed. And so, at the low point of each wave the men pulled their boat towards port, pumped the throttle forward, then straightened back out and slowed down whenever the tide rose in another wave.
“And keep your eyes open wide!” Oscar shouted into the mic as he stared intently through his own window. “If you so much as wonder whether you’ve seen the cape, you call it out!” He reached up and turned off the overhead light and covered the blinking LED on the radio, casting himself into complete darkness, the better to see through the storm outside.
Of course they might not be able to see the cape, even if it was right before them. The storm-mist that pressed in on every side was so black and thick that it was probably indistinguishable from rock face. What would truly let the sailors know where they lay was if they saw the beacon shining 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 be upon a stone-hard reckoning?
“Further to port!” Oscar commanded.
Oscar spun the wheel thirty degrees further to the left, and he did not straighten back out when the next wave came upon them. This would take them around the cape more quickly, but it also created the unsettling sensation of being tilted to starboard as they glided up the wave, then rolled to port as it left them in its wake. The boats threateningly sloshed back and forth, but it wasn’t enough to roll them onto their sides.
“Whatever fuel you’ve got left, burn it now!” Oscar ordered, turning his own throttle up to maximum. With new life his 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 exclaimed. “There we go!” he crowed as his engines came back to life. “Oh wait, no!” they cut out again after just a few seconds, causing the rope to snap taut again.
Oscar ground his teeth together. This constant relaxing and tightening of the line would snap it in two. Much as he wanted to surge on ahead, he would just have to pace himself off of 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 accelerated, but very gradually this time. The line eased back to full tension, and the two boats began gaining speed as one. Eventually Oscar was back to full throttle, dragging Harry’s waterlogged hull through the waves. It was working…but they were less than half the speed that Oscar’s boat could have gone on its own.
“Come on, Harry,” Oscar willed the other man’s boat to spring to life. But it didn’t. It just hung there as an anchor, constantly weighing him back into the storm. And he found that he despised Harry for that. “How many sailors have to die under your hand before you’re through?” he muttered darkly.
Oscar turned his attention back to the front, still watching for any sign of the cliff-face or, better yet, of the lighthouse. He saw neither, but by looking so earnestly his mind was starting to play tricks on him, making him think he had caught a glimpse of one or the other out of the corner of his eye.
Was that a moving light?! No, just a reflection of sheet lightning on the rolling wave. Did a rock just spring 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…”
“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? Were they actually headed away from the shoreline?
“Forty-five degrees, Harry! Make it forty-five!”
The next wave came rolling up from behind the trawlers and tilted them so far that Oscar had to plant his foot against the side of the wheelhouse to keep his balance. They seemed to hold in this position for an eternity, and Oscar’s hands twitched on the helm, ready to throw it to starboard at the first sign of the floor rolling out from under him.
But it wasn’t his boat that started to roll first. Suddenly there came a sharp tug from behind as Harry’s started to fall onto its side, reeling the line in as it went!
By pure instinct Oscar threw his wheel the rest pf the way to port, swiveling his boat to be fully parallel with the wave. The torrent of water slammed against the side of the wheelhouse, flooding over his vessel and threatening to swamp him at any moment! But all that force against the side of Oscar’s trawler made it pull back sharply on the rope, like a kite on the end of a string, hauling Harry’s boat out of its roll and back onto its hull!
Oscar had gotten them through the moment, but the entire situation was quickly getting out of hand. There were now too many competing forces for him to keep up with: the mad sloshing of water down in his hold, the erratic swaying of Harry’s boat at the end of the line, and the sporadic buffeting of the screeching wind.
“Come on!” Oscar snarled, desperately fighting to take control of the situation. But the more his hands fumbled back and forth over the controls, the more his boat fell into over-correction and only added to the rolling chaos.
The next wave was nearly upon them, and Oscar gave up trying to find a clever maneuver to get back stability. His nerves were too worn down, and he surrendered everything, reverting back to holding the helm for dear life!
The wave hit, and all the world became water. Its torrent poured into the wheelhouse and slammed against Oscar, knocking his feet out from under him. He tried to get his bearings, tried to make sense of the wind and the sea, tried to figure out what way to maneuver his vessel…but his mind refused to process these things anymore. The last drop of resolve had been wrung from his body, so that all he could think to do was surrender to oblivion.
“Oscar…” Harry’s voice came softly over the radio. “Let’s face it. 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 anymore that is.”
“But I am towing you.”
“Oscar, I knew it would be you who came for me. I just knew it would be you. 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 stretched twice as high as any previous. Oscar let go of the mic, fastening both hands to the wheel and bracing for impact as Harry continued.
“I told you that when I took your son out sailing he forgot to tie down his safety line in the storm. But James was too bright for that. He secured one for himself and for me. He did it just as soon as we were in real trouble. Then 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.
“Each wave swamped us, half drowned us! I was praying and cursing with every breath I took. Some of the rigging was loose, so I made my way back to the mainmast and threw knots off and back on, pull them tight as I went.”
Oscar flung his arms our for balance as he slid down a water-hill sideways.
“Then the next wave fell on us, the biggest one yet. It was a froth! I couldn’t see. I couldn’t feel what was in my own hands. It seemed like an eternity, but finally it washed away. I was facing towards the rear of the boat and…and I saw nothing. James–he…he just wasn’t there anymore.”
A tide of water swept into Oscar’s cabin. He slipped and fell to his knees, head rolled back, fingertips gripping the wheel.
“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 all the other knots and then that wave hit us and took him out to sea. 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. His hands twitched on the edge of the wheel handles.
“And I didn’t have the courage to tell you the truth, Oscar. I let you believe your son was lost because of his own mistake, because he forgot to tie his lifeline in the first place. But that was nothing but a pure lie.”
Oscar’s heart beat heavily inside him. Beat like it would tear him right in two. The pounding of his heart was matched only by the pounding of the waves against his boat. They buffeted his vessel where they would and he did nothing to stop them.
“I undid the wrong lifeline that day, Oscar, and for fifteen years later I’ve been waiting for someone else to untie my line because I’m too much of a coward to do it myself. So…so why don’t you go ahead and cut me loose now? Let me go and make for shore while you still have a chance.”
Oscar clenched his fingertips and contracted his arms. By force of will he raised himself back to his feet, stood at the wheel, and 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 now, and it would cut the cord that bound him to Harry.
As Harry had said, they couldn’t survive this together, so why shouldn’t Oscar save what he could: himself? No one would say that he hadn’t done his duty. No one would say that he hadn’t tried. He had! But there had to be a limit, didn’t there? There had to be a point where he had done all that he could, but it just didn’t work, so he could cut ties and be clear of any blame!
Oscar rested his palm on the control panel, fingers stretching for the button, but his arm refused to extend enough to let them reach it.
Because no matter how justified he might be on paper, there was no way for Oscar to press that button without a vengeful heart. There was no way to separate his emotions from the action, to be able to honestly say that it was a simple matter of procedure and nothing more. The truth is there would always be malice behind it. It could never be innocent.
Besides—Oscar sidestepped the controls, exited the wheelhouse, and looked out at the black horizon—what did it matter anymore? It was already too late. Whatever life had remained in him was now expired into the storm. This struggle had taken all that he had, and there was no more desire to find his way out of this place. Cutting Harry loose wouldn’t change that.
And as Oscar stared out into that void, welcoming oblivion, a strange discoloration appeared in the dark before him. A small patch of black 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 all the mist and dark, crossing the great void of night, and filling Oscar’s eye!
“Sam?” he croaked.
“Oscar?” Harry’s awed voice crackled over the radio. “Is that–is that the lighthouse?”
“Yes,” Oscar said to himself. “I do believe it is.”
And in the face of that light Oscar could no longer consign himself to the watery depths. Dark thoughts belonged to dark places, and now that the path was illuminated ahead all he could think to do was follow it. So he stepped back into his wheelhouse, placed his hands on wheel, and slowly raised the engine back to life.
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. Oscar wondered how long ago the two sailors had made it around the treacherous shoals and didn’t even know it!
But never mind that place. Never mind it ever again.
Now with the wind and the waves behind them and the lighthouse and the shore ahead, they pounded forward with all the power of the sea. The buffeting of the storm ushered them forward. As they came into the shallows the deep waves broke into a rapid chorus, giving them a lively rocking on their way.
When the two boats were within a thousand feet of the shore the lighthouse beacon stopped circling. Sam must have spotted their vessels, so now he kept the giant searchlight fixed on them, casting 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 had only enough nerve remaining for one unmissable target: the beach.
Closer and closer the shore loomed, and at last Oscar’s hull crunched across the sand and the boat keeled to its starboard side, and finally the whole thing came to a rest. Oscar tried to let go of the helm, but his clenched hands would not accept the order.
“Let go!” he cried, awkwardly wrenching them loose and immediately stumbling sideways, over the tilted deck, and into the railing! He tried to lower himself over the railing’s other side, but halfway across his arms gave out entirely and he flopped unceremoniously onto the wet sand below, coming to a sitting position with his back against the 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 any of those things. Not a one of them mattered. He just sat in silence as Harry’s trawler rolled onto the sand twenty feet away.
“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 sitting 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 sorry. I am!”
“You killed my son,” Oscar mumbled brokenly.
“I–” Harry could think of nothing to say, so he clenched his mouth and nodded solemnly.
“I don’t know what to do, Harry,” Oscar said. “I just don’t know what to do. I’m too broken to feel or think anymore.”
“I know, Oscar.”
“I know I should hate you. I’m sure I will when I can feel things again. I’ll probably even want to kill you.”
“I know. It’s only natural that a man in your place would feel that way.”
There was a long silence, and the two men just stared at each other. The coast was dark and wet and cold, and the two men seemed all alone in each other’s eyes. And though they may have been ill companions, they were together in that dark and lonely place even so.
But then, after a few more moments, they were not alone. For now there came the sound of a voice calling out through the night. It was ringing down from the hill that sat at the back of the beach. That voice was accompanied by a lantern, too, bobbing through the darkness towards them. It was Sam was coming to find them.
“Oscar…” Harry slowly extended his hand. “Oscar, what do you say we go and see Sam?”
“Let’s go meet Sam. He’s a good man, you know. He’ll get us warm clothes and food and rest. He’ll take care of us. Sam will know what to do. He’ll know what matters for right now.”
Oscar thought for a moment, then slowly reached out his hand and took Harry’s. Harry pulled Oscar up to his feet, then got his arm around his shoulder to support him. Together they turned their backs to the shrieking sea and hobbled away, making their way towards the solitary swinging light.