O Brother Where Art Thou
David Jones let the pages he was holding fall from his hand. They drifted down, landing softly on his desk, the items he circled on each page like buoys in a sea of lost memories.
He ran his hand over his face and pinched the bridge of his nose as he closed his eyes, trying to pull the full memory he was seeking to the surface.
When all the fragments began bumping up against each other to form a clearer picture, David Jones' eyes snapped open and he gathered up the pages again to make sure he was seeing things clearly. There was no mistake.
"It can't be... " he said.
O, Brother, Where Art Thou
The jolly boat leaving The Sovereign was cramped with several other officers and midshipmen making their way to port, and newly-promoted Lieutenant Liam Jones had secured a seat at the bow with an unimpeded view of the approaching coast. From the inside pocket of his coat, he pulled out a spyglass—a gift from his father upon his first assignment to a ship of the Royal fleet—and trained it on the town in the distance.
Liam scanned the waterfront, expecting to see his little brother, Killian, with their father not far behind, running toward the jetty, barely dodging the crews unloading all the cargo meant for His Majesty's stores and treasury from the handful of cutters preceding them. When no dark-haired boy could be seen traipsing about, he lowered the glass from his eye and frowned.
He'd been eager to tell Father and Killian of his adventures thwarting enemies and pirates alike, and he wanted to show off his new rank to someone who would be genuinely impressed. Liam learned early on in his Naval career that very little impressed the crusty, old sailors he served with. Killian, on the other hand, found everything he did fascinating, and Liam liked to be reminded now and again that he was more than a cog in a war machine.
He let out a sigh and took another look at the shore with his glass. Still no Killian or Father.
Perhaps they were just running late, he thought. No doubt Killian had lessons, or his father was busy with his own duties as Permanent Secretary to the Admiralty. There were any number of reasons to explain the lack of welcome party. Liam gently collapsed the spy glass down to fit back in his pocket.
As he watched the town draw closer and larger, he picked out the crewmen he recognized as they hauled and unloaded cargo, and tried not to feel alone. This was the first time since joining the Navy that no one was there to greet him upon his return to their home port. He felt their absence keenly in that moment.
When they finally reached shore, Liam wished his fellow shipmates farewell, slung his duffel over his shoulder, and set off in the direction of his family's home.
The walk was not long, but he spent a fair portion of it wondering if he should be worried about his father and brother, or if he was overreacting. Shifting the weight of his duffel from one shoulder to the other, he, instead, turned his mind toward the joys of reacquainting himself with a proper bed, bread that was neither stale nor infested with weevils, and perhaps a tankard or three of fresh ale. Liam had been at sea for the better part of a year, and, as much as he loved the adventure and the work of being on the open water, he appreciated the benefits of what the land had to offer as well. At least for a little while.
Curving along the coastline, the road he walked along was coming to an end at the sea wall up ahead where a man sat, smoking a pipe and looking toward him rather than out at the sea. Liam nodded at the stranger, who rose from the wall and tapped the smoking ash from the pipe bowl into the sand, and tucked the pipe into the breast pocket of his worn-looking, mud-brown jacket.
The narrow lane to his house was on the left and meandered up an incline and through a field of tall beach grass that flourished in sandy soil. The house sat atop the small bluff, the midday sun glinting off the wavy glass window panes. For a man of his father's position within the Admiralty—and before that when he was a Commodore in the Royal Navy—their house was relatively modest. Its weathered, shimmering gray shingles warmed the large blocky house with its bright, white trim. It had an enclosed widow’s walk where both boys loved to go to watch the ever-changing view of the ocean, and when their mother was alive, neatly-trimmed rose bushes grew like sentinels on either side of the portico. Now they were a bit wild, but still beautiful. Generations of seafaring Jones men who spent little time at home themselves occupied the house, and someday, it would be Liam's.
Something felt off as his boots crunched over the crushed pink and white shells of the walkway to the front door. Even from the outside, the house felt unusually still.
As Liam stepped up under the portico, he dropped his duffel to his feet. He loosened his cravat and pulled a long cord from beneath his shirt. It held a key and a plain silver locket. He fit the key into the lock of the front door only to find it unlocked.
Odd, he thought. If someone were home, why wouldn’t they have met him at the docks?
Pushing open the door, he stepped into the home he’d been missing.
His eyes were still adjusting from being outside as he stood in the small foyer, making it hard to see anything for a few moments. Liam listened for a moment, but heard nothing. Not the creak of a board, the shuffling of paper, or the sound of conversation from the kitchen.
He cleared his throat and called out.
"Father! Brother! I've returned!"
Liam hoped more than anything during those next few seconds that the uneasiness he’d felt earlier was an aberration. Maybe his father was going to surprise him with a celebration for his promotion and this was all an elaborate prank. But the air in the house was stale from being closed up, and, his father, while amiable, was not one to play tricks.
Instead, the silence that greeted Liam in return was like something out of a childhood nightmare. Never in his 21 years did he think that he’d be left by his own family, yet here he was, alone, with no explanation why. Even after his mother died, it was unnatural for the house to be completely empty. His father had returned from sea and stayed to raise the boys himself.
Liam had faced far worse and more life-threatening situations on board ship this past year, but coming home to an empty house scared him more than an enemy cannonade at close range. Enemies were predictable. Life, he was learning, was not. For the first time, coming home didn’t feel like home at all. He wondered if it ever would again.
He cleared his throat and straightened his shoulders. “Well then,” he said, and took a step forward.
His voice sounded unnatural in the quiet, and his footsteps echoed loudly on the wood floors as he explored the house from top to bottom, finding no one or any indication of where they were, until he walked to his father’s small study off the drawing room. The door was ajar, and Liam eased it open. Finding the room empty, he could see it was in disarray—something his father would never allow.
Papers were scattered across the secretary and floor. He began gathering them up, put them neatly in a pile on the center of the desk, and glanced at each page to see what it contained, but found no obvious meaning in them. They looked to be lists of inventory or supplies of some sort. It was one of his father's jobs as Permanent Secretary of the Admiralty to manage the accounts of the fleet and report back to the King and Parliament, and this looked like nothing more than that.
Liam stood in the study, feeling the blood start to pound a little harder through his veins. Nothing in his naval career prepared him for this. The dread he was starting to feel was worse than the anticipation of battle. In a fight, at least, he had specific duties and orders he could count on to shift his mind away from the worry of oncoming danger. A job was exactly what he needed to keep him occupied and not thinking the worst.
There was never any question that Liam would join the Navy, and he welcomed it, but Killian, well, he craved that life. Liam could see how the sea drew Killian even when he was very small. If he went missing from the house, you could be sure he’d be out at water’s edge, staring at the horizon watching the ships come and go in and out of the harbor, or making his own star charts in the sand with rocks. He was a natural sailor, and a born navigator. If he were half as talented in that arena, Liam thought, he might be able to find Killian and their father sooner rather than not at all.
He certainly wasn't going to find them standing around, that much he was certain of. The beach was close by and a likely place to at least find his brother, so Liam figured that was where he should start.
Locking up the house behind him, he set out to the sea wall and pulled his spy glass from his pocket and looked up and down the sandy banks for Killian, but the only movement he saw were from the gulls and a stray cat scavenging for any dead fish washed up on shore. But no boys of any age in either direction.
His next stop was back towards town to the home of their house-keeper, Mrs. Tomkins. It didn't look like she'd been there that day at least, but he hoped she might have an answer for Liam. When he knocked on the door of their small cottage, Mr. Tomkins, a ruddy-faced man with large hands and a love of ale when he wasn't out on his fishing trawler, answered.
"Oy, Liam! What are you doing here, lad?" he asked, plainly surprised to see him standing there.
Liam gave a short bow. "Afternoon, Mr. Tomkins. Would Mrs. Tomkins be home?"
"No, son. She's off helpin' out Corrine with the newest grandchild, born just the week before last."
"Oh, uh, congratulations! That's wonderful news. I don't suppose she mentioned where my father and Killian were going?"
Mr. Tomkins looked perplexed. "Going? You mean they aren't home?"
"No, sir. And Father didn't not inform me of his plans to leave town if he did."
"I'm sorry, lad," Mr. Tomkins said, resting his thick hand on Liam's shoulder. "I don't know where he is. Do you want to come in for a sit and an ale?"
"Thanks, but I've got to see if I can track them down. Another time," Liam said, wishing he could stay and swap stories with Mr. Tomkins rather than hunt for his missing family, but that was not to be.
"Good luck, Liam," Mr. Tomkins said as Liam turned back toward the road.
He hoped that someone at the offices of the Admiralty would have some clue. Maybe Father had a last minute assignment in another town and he took Killian with him since Mrs. Tomkins wasn't around. He held onto that thought like a lifeline while his sense of panic rose a little further up from his gut.
When the clerk of the Commissioners knew nothing about David Jones' absence apart from his request for 2 weeks leave, which was not officially over, or his whereabouts, Liam began to feel sick.
Sunset had streaked the sky purple, orange, and pink when he approached the local tavern. He needed to think and figure out what to do next. All the people he thought could help him had nothing useful and now he was at a dead end.
Liam entered the small tavern—a favorite of his father's—and sat at a table not far from a small, cheery fire. He ordered an ale and a bowl of stew, and stared at the dancing flames, unable to think much at all now. He ate the stew without the excitement he'd had when he first stepped off the jolly boat earlier, but the ale did a wonderful job of numbing him. He ordered another.
Halfway through his second pint, someone sat down next to him and slapped him on the back.
"Jones!" the man exclaimed.
Turning to glare at the man, Liam stopped when he noticed the shocked expression on the man's face.
"Oh! You're not Davy! You looked like him from the back!" he said.
He nodded. "I get that a lot. I'm his son, Liam."
The older man held out his hand. "Philips. George Philips. Former shipmate of your father's."
"Pleased to meet you."
"Sorry for the rough greeting. I was surprised because I could have sworn I saw him getting on a ship last week. Couldn't imagine how he'd gotten back so quickly."
"You saw him getting on a ship?" Liam blurted out. He'd sat up and did all he could not to grab Philips' shirtfront and shake the information out of him. "Did you see my brother, too? Where were they going? What was the name of the ship?"
"Honestly, Liam, I don't know. I really didn't get a good look. I was on my way home after a long night and was a bit bleary. I didn't talk to him. Sorry. I don't know more than that."
"That's alright," Liam said, rounding his shoulders as he stared at his bowl of half-eaten stew. "I didn't know he'd been planning to leave. He didn't tell me. I've been looking for him and my brother all day."
He picked up his ale and drained it. He didn't know if he should be elated to finally have some news about his father, or furious that he'd left without a word.
Philips sipped from his own glass and told Liam the general vicinity of where he remembered seeing his father so Liam could go check in the morning with the harbormaster.
Night had fully descended when Liam returned home, and the house was thoroughly dark now. Exhaustion hit him hard as the gravity of the current situation settled in his mind. There was no way he was going to be able to do anything about his father or brother now. He might as well get a few hours of sleep and start at first light. Picking up an oil lamp in a daze, he went up the stairs to the room he shared with Killian.
The beds were made, and there were books piled on the nightstand next to Killian’s. Some were for his lessons, and others were about sailing. Liam spied a copy of some star charts he’d left behind after his last leave, sticking out from the middle of the stack. He pulled the book and flipped through it, noticing notes in the margins in an uneven, child’s scrawl beneath his own compact handwriting here and there.
Liam sat down on Killian’s bed, digging his elbows into his thighs and resting his heavy head in his hands, his mind unable to focus. This was all too much. He had no bloody idea what was going on, and it was maddening. The thought that he may now be not just an orphan, but an only child completely alone surfaced through the haze of ale, and it made him shiver.
He groaned in frustration, rubbing his calloused hands over his face. Clenching his jaw, Liam tried to suppress the fear and sadness making every muscle in his body tighten and burn.
Bloody, ever-lasting, hell.
Tears welled in his eyes and he wiped them away with the back of his hand as he lay down on the bed. Crying was certainly not going to solve the problem.
Sleep, on the other hand…
He dreamed they were sailing. A brisk wind filling their sails, sending their boat gliding over glassy water as if it had wings and could fly. He breathed deeply the ocean air, tasting the freedom he only ever felt on the open waters. His father was at the helm, guiding the boat with an ease Liam envied. Killian stood next to him, eyes alight, and pointed to something off in the distance that Liam could not see himself. He raised his glass to his eye and looked out across the water, seeing something small and dark at the edge of the horizon. As they raced toward it, the sky darkened. Liam reflexively grabbed onto the back of Killian’s shirt, keeping him close as the sea became choppy and the boat leapt and crashed down again and again. His father was doing nothing to change course and Liam looked back at him, yelling for him to come about. Something rose up out of the water—a tentacled creature. But as its arms crept over the rail, holding the boat in its grasp, they looked more like creeping vines slithering around his father and brother, snatching them both from the deck and Liam’s grasp. His father was sucked down beneath the roiling water, while Killian dangled, suspended in the air, his hand outstretched to Liam who was too far away to catch him now.
“Father!” Liam screamed. “Killian!! NO!!”
The last thing he saw were Killian’s stormy blue eyes, wide and terrified. The last thing he heard was the sound of Killian’s voice yelling for him to help.
“Liam! Brother, help me! Don’t leave me, Liam!”
Liam’s breath caught in a sharp gasp, the nightmare lost to him, as he bolted upright from where he’d been sleeping fitfully. Not quite fully aware of his surroundings, he was being shaken and someone was calling out to him.
“Liam! Wake up! It’s me, brother. Come on, now, Liam! Wake up!”
His eyes unfocused, chest still heaving, Liam whispered a strangled-sounding, “Killian?”
The blurry shape in front of him nodded, and Liam blinked, clearing his eyes.
“Ahoy, brother!” Killian said.
The pale moonlight cast a blue glow in the room; it was just enough for Liam to know for sure that standing before him was his little brother—albeit a taller and lankier version of the brother he’d left behind—looking dirty and bedraggled in rumpled clothes. Liam laughed with a joy he’d never felt before, born out of a relief that left him dazed. He and Killian had their fair share of arguments, as siblings did, but he loved his brother immensely. A life without him would have been dull, to say the least. To have him back after fearing the worst… he only hoped this wasn’t a dream.
Liam reached out and grabbed the front of Killian’s jacket, feeling the solidness of the boy, and gave him a gentle shake.
“That’s 'Lieutenant' to you, little brother,” he said, pulling rank with Killian as he had since the day he joined the Royal Navy.
Killian rolled his eyes.
Liam pulled Killian to him in a rough hug then released him, only to hold him at arm's length to check him over. He couldn't hold back the questions he had been asking himself over and over.
"Bloody hell, Killian, where have you been? Where's Father?"
His shaggy, black hair hanging into his tired eyes, Killian gave his brother a lopsided grin as he swayed on his feet with obvious exhaustion. At the mention of their father, Killian's grin slanted into a grimace.
"I was with father until a few days ago. He left me in the middle of the night on a ship bound for Iscandar. I tried looking for him, but I couldn't find him," he began to explain but yawned midway through.
Reaching into the pocket of his jacket, Killian pulled out a small black bag and emptied it of a few gold coins and a scrap of paper.
"Found these in my pocket when I got dressed that next morning after he disappeared," he said, handing them to Liam. "I used some of the gold to get home. That's just what's left."
Liam put the gold down next to him, then opened up the small, dirty, scrap of paper. His father’s looping script covered one side.
Find Liam. He will take care of you. I’m sorry.
Killian ran his hand through his hair and yawned again.
“Get off my bed. I wanna go to sleep.”
Liam scooped the gold into his hand and stood up. Killian was removing his coat and dusty shoes.
“Warmed it up for you,” Liam said, smiling.
Killian didn’t even bother getting under the covers. He flopped down on the bed, his arm tucking under the pillow, and his leg hanging over the edge.
“We’ll talk tomorrow, yeah?” Killian said drowsily.
“Aye. Tomorrow. Get some sleep, little brother.”
Killian sighed, his words coming slow and muffled. “Liam, he’s not coming back.”
If Liam had an answer, or some sort of reassurance that their father would return, it wouldn’t have mattered. Killian was already asleep.
He set down the gold on his own bedside table, then walked over to open the blanket box at the end of his own bed. He pulled out a quilt and covered Killian with it. Looking down at his brother, all he could see was the small boy who would chase after him no matter where he went. Thanks to his father, Killian was never going to be just a young boy again. Not now. Damn him.
Dropping down on his bed, Liam, read the note again and again. Not a single lead or indication of what was going on or where he was going. He was sorry. Liam thought if he did find his father, he would show him exactly what sorry felt like. He wasn’t sure he would be able to fall back to sleep, he was so preoccupied mentally confronting his father and dressing him down for abandoning Killian as if he were a deckhand not fit for duty. He felt a familiar prick of hurt and resentment tugging at his chest, and, not wanting to look at it too closely, he instead concentrated on the soft, rhythmic snores coming from Killian, and drifted off into a dreamless sleep.