Penelope never wanted children, even as a little girl. When she and her friends played house or castle, her friends would pretend they were mothers to over a dozen kids while Penelope collected lilies and daisies to place in her hair. Once she’d accumulated enough to make a proper crown, both of her friends and all their little children would gather around and watch Penelope wed her imaginary husband. She may not have wanted children, but getting married to the man of her dreams was another story entirely.
Eventually, in real life, her friends would go on to have a dozen children between the two of them, and Penelope would find the man of her dreams. Just like when they were little girls, down to the pairing of fresh-cut daisies and lilies crowning her braided black hair, they all gathered around and watched as Otis and Penelope Seehus were pronounced husband and wife.
Otis was a battle-hardened soldier when they were first wed, and he didn’t show much interest in having children either. It was difficult enough for him to leave her behind when he was called off to fight, but he grew ill at the thought of leaving her behind alone and with child.
Otis served in three different wars before his twenty-third birthday, earning a name for himself along the way. He was a brilliant strategist and master tactician. For his efforts in that third war, he was rewarded a much-welcomed early retirement, untold wealth in the form of gold, and a castle on the coast of Ithaca overlooking a blanket of teal water. King Otis and Queen Penelope Seehus. They were as welcomed by their new people as they were happy. Life could not have been any better.
The two spent their days lazing about on the beaches, swimming, eating, making love, and napping—mostly in that order. For some reason or another, Penelope had a tendency to worry the most when things were going their best. So, rather than live in the moment she was in, she began to worry. Mostly, she worried that Otis’s royal status would bring pressure. Pressure from the elders. Pressure from the people. Pressure to have kids and ensure that his royal line didn’t start and stop with the two of them.
Otis could tell that something was bugging her. He often could. Once she’d told him what had been keeping her so distracted, he laughed it off, relieved that this was her only worry in life. He assured Penelope that he was perfectly happy just being with her. Then one morning, she woke up, and a little baby was growing inside of her. She was frightened, but only at first. All the previous thoughts she’d had of being a mother changed right then and there. Penelope was elated. So was Otis.
There aren’t enough words to describe the pride she felt knowing that there was a miniature version of Otis or herself living inside her belly. There was nothing she wanted more than to be a mother. It was a positively joyous experience, and it hadn’t even begun. She was going to watch the baby learn to crawl, then walk, then talk, and she would teach him or her all kinds of things. Oh, did Penelope have plans for this child. Her body didn’t respond well to the pregnancy, however, and they lost the baby. It was painful and challenging, but it didn’t dissuade them from trying again. Then again, when they lost another baby.
The physical pain wasn’t quite as bad, knowing what to expect when things began to go wrong. Emotionally, however, she was drained. Penelope began to think. Too much so, perhaps. She thought. Being a mother is not in my destiny. She thought she was being punished by the gods for all the time she’d spent wishing away children. She thought herself to tears on more nights than she’d care to remember. Nonetheless, they kept trying.
Otis, seeing that she needed to release a swelling collection of maternal instinct, got them a puppy. Grace was the sweetest little black Lab, full of love and kisses, and that unmistakably gentle whiff of puppy breath.
Otis had just finished teaching her how to stay as Penelope approached him in the courtyard with news of another baby. She was cautious with her joy and reluctant with her optimism, but one month gradually turned to nine, and the little miracle baby was still growing strong in her ever-expanding belly. Then it happened. Miraculous. They named him Mac.
Those first few months were so much more rewarding than either of them could have possibly imagined. Penelope was the eldest of four siblings, and helping to raise the younger three had muted any ambition for parenthood. She was often told by her grandmother, “It’s different when they’re your children.” As usual, her grandmother was right.
About three months after his birth, Penelope was rocking Mac to sleep in his nursery when Otis came into the room. He lowered his dull eyes and let out a sigh before telling her that he was being brought out of retirement and called in for duty on the battlefields of Troy. She begged him—pleaded with him—to stay. Every word brought forth its own stream of tears. But he insisted that it was his duty as king and that he’d be back in a month or two.
Two years passed. Penelope waited patiently and tried to stay strong for Mac, but every day was filled with a heavy dread that at any moment, she’d get word of Otis’s demise. Then, on a rare gray and rainy June afternoon, it finally happened. Word got back that the war had ended and that Otis was alive and well. Tales of his wit and bravery began to circulate as more information came in. Apparently, Otis had been one of the men responsible for the strategy that would eventually end the war. Over the next several weeks, sporadic fleets of ships filled with hero soldiers returned to Ithaca—but Otis was nowhere in sight.
He had originally been scheduled to arrive on a ship dedicated to the elite unit of soldiers who had served on the front lines and penetrated the Trojan king’s walls. According to the ship’s route, however, the scheduled portage of Ithaca was one of the last. When an opportunity to leave sooner presented itself, Otis took advantage.
He and two other men from the elite unit loaded up on a flat iron vessel with limited occupancy. The small boat had been smeared with several aging coats of olive-green paint meant for camouflage. Having been designed for use in a previous war, however, the boat did little to conceal itself, surrounded by lush, lime-green vegetation on either side of the serpentine river.
Mowgli was the youngest of the three. He was also the youngest to have fought in the war, enlisting just after his sixteenth birthday. He was something of a free spirit and the only soldier in the elite unit with long hair. Mowgli had very little to say unless he was correcting someone who had just mispronounced his name. “It’s Mowgli,” he’d say with an irritated brush of his hair. “Like cow. Not Mooooogli.”
He was a simple kid, a great navigator, but best known for his hand-to-hand combat skills. He’d spent his childhood in a small village somewhere in the jungle and was part of an indigenous tribe known to outsiders as “berserkers.” Their ability to enter a trance during a fight was something that many had heard of, but most needed to witness it firsthand to grasp the concept. On the battlefields, berserkers induced fear into their enemies by growling, screaming, and foaming at the mouth like rabid animals.
Mowgli was no exception to the rule of their behavior and showcased every one of these eccentricities while on the front lines of the Trojan War. In no time, he had a reputation as a “wild man.” Hyperbolic tales centered on his youth became something of folklore around battlefield campfires. The most common attribute of these fables was that Mowgli had been raised in the jungle by a pack of wolves.
Curly was the other fellow traveling aboard the dark-green vessel. At twenty-eight, he was just two years younger than Otis, but his sloppy ambiance and wavy, unkempt hair made him appear about twenty years Otis’s senior. Curly was in charge of overseeing the provisions. Other than that, very little was known about him. The few who do recall knowing him have all mentioned that he never knew his parents and say that he often spoke of starting a family and settling down on a farm once the Trojan War was over.
As the gentle stream guided them (and a cloud of mosquitoes) toward the peaceful sunset, all three men knew the war was over but still felt its lingering presence nipping at their shoulders. They had little to say, and each one was grateful that the others weren’t trying to force conversation. Mowgli gently steered the boat, Curly dozed off on his sweat-stained cot, and Otis indulged in daydreams in which he and Penelope were reuniting after two lonely years apart. He allowed his fantasies to continue on past the sunset and into the night, which made it even more difficult for him to sleep. And sleeping was no easy feat directly after serving time in the battlefield—at least that’s how it had been after the others. On this evening, however, Otis laid his heavy head on the softest pillow it had touched in over two years, and he was out.
His eyes blinked open and into focus after what felt like only a few seconds. It was unclear how much time had passed, but the darkness was overpowering. As Otis managed to squint fragments of his surroundings into view, he knew that he was still on the boat, still surrounded by jungle, and docked next to a cavernous opening at the base of a large rock wall. Lured by the flicker of friendly candlelight coming from inside the cave, Otis stepped forward, exercising extreme caution. With each step, the light grew brighter, and deep chitchatting voices grew more obnoxious. There was a handful of them, none belonging to Mowgli or Curly.
Otis peeked around the noisy corner, catching a glimpse of roughly two dozen men he didn’t recognize except for Curly. Curly was sitting at a weathered dining table next to a man who seemed to be the other men’s leader.
“I’ll tell ya, boys,” the mystery man said. “This. This is good livin’.”
“You can say that again, Captain,” one of the men replied.
Three roasted turkeys, beers steins, rum and wine bottles, and an assortment of pastries were gobbled and guzzled as if they were all about to turn.
“Why don’t you come on out here and join us?” the man said. “Yes. You.”
Otis took hesitant steps around the corner, slipping out from the veil of shadows.
“Please, pull up a seat.”
Otis pulled up one of several empty chairs and sat across from an apprehensive Curly, who didn’t appear as jolly as the company he kept. He took the tiniest bites of a turkey leg and avoided his drink as if someone had spit in it.
Over Otis’s left shoulder, Mowgli and several other men lay in a dark corner. Thick clouds of burning opium poured from the damp area, faces only revealing themselves through an occasional flick and flash of a match. Mowgli was in his own little world, ignoring everything that wasn’t necessary to acquiring his next flowery pull.
After several minutes of idle prattle from the leader, the man proudly introduced himself as Captain James. After a few steins, he revealed himself to be rather chatty. “But enough about me already. What’s your name, stranger?”
Just as Otis was about to answer, he felt someone kick his foot under the table. When he looked up, Curly’s wide eyes sent out the warning.
“My name?” Otis asked, still unsure of what to make of Curly’s kick, and even less of his look.
“Well, I’ve already met these two,” Captain James said, with a cavalier tone suggesting he’d already bored of them. “Chester and Mowgli. I honestly think I’d throw my own mother down a set of stairs if she’d stuck me with either of those awful names.”
“My name’s Nobe,” Otis said.
“Yes, sir. Nobe. Ahhdie.”
“So I take it your mom didn’t like you either.”
“Can we leave the moms out of this, please?” Curly asked.
“What’s it to you, Chester? You don’t even know your mom.” Captain James let out a shrieking whistle before three of his men swarmed Curly and dragged him away from the table. They pinned him against a jagged rock wall as two more men stepped in and pressed their swords against Otis’s throat. Mowgli paid little mind, as his glossy eyes and dazed demeanor kept him idle.
“What are you doing?” Otis asked.
Curly struggled and squirmed within the men’s collective grasp, but his effort was for nothing.
“You didn’t think I recognized you, didja?” Captain James either sobered up fast or was faking it as he inched closer to Curly’s face. “A lot of you guys probably remember the name. Others may be too young. But Chester here, as he calls himself, actually goes by the name Curly…he is a former captain of the Lost Boys. But more importantly, he’s the one who drove his sword into Mr. Smee’s heart.” Captain James leaned in closer for a more intimate moment. “Your face has aged quite a bit, but it is you.”
Curly reared back and spit at the captain’s face, hitting his nose and mouth. Everyone went silent. Captain James, as calm as he’d been all night, pressed a handkerchief against the middle of his face.
“Yeah. It’s me,” Curly said. “And I’d do it again, and again, and again. That’s what Lost Boys do to pirates. Especially ones as vile as Mr. Smee. And don’t think I forgot about you, Jimmy Seashells.”
Captain James’s self-satisfied manner shifted to a stern look as hints of red overcame his face. “What did you just say?”
“What?” Curly asked. “Are there guys here who don’t know about that?”
“Shut your mouth.” Captain James began to tremble with rage as a smirk began to root on Curly’s face.
“About ten years ago—”
“I’m warning you.”
“Your brilliant captain here traded off every bit of gold his band of dipshits had stole—in exchange for some rare gemstones. The only problem was when they opened the bags, there weren’t any gemstones inside. I mean, there were some. A few—on the top. But once they dug through that first layer, nothin’ but seashells.”
“I gave you fair warning.” Captain James shook his head and pinched his nose.
“Your ship had to be sold off. Ended up a stack of firewood, as I recall.” Curly chuckled for a moment but stopped when he realized that he was the only one doing so. “What a lubberwort,” he said. “I still can’t believe none of those guys killed you over that one.”
“A few of them tried,” the captain said. “The ones I let live call me captain now. In time, you will too.”
“Nah. ’Fraid not. You’re always gonna be Jimmy Seashells to me.”
Captain James licked his lips, gazed off into a random corner of the cave, and let out a regretful sigh as he gently placed his hand on Curly’s shoulder. “I really wish you hadn’t told that story.
“Nobe. Mowgli. You both seem like a couple of nice fellows. I think in another time, in another place, we could have been dear friends. I mean that. Truly, I do. But you happened to show up here with him, so I’m afraid you’ll have to—”
Mowgli broke from his pipe-induced trance and into one more fitting of a wild berserker. He let out a screeching war cry as he leaped toward Captain James and wrapped his smoky hands around the captain’s throat. With zero hesitation, one of the pirates pulled a bow and fired an arrow into Mowgli’s shoulder. Otis reacted in horror as three more arrows zipped into Mowgli’s chest, putting him on his back. Captain James sat up, grinned, and ran his fingers over the arrow feathers sticking out of Mowgli’s lifeless body as if playing a musical instrument.
“Whoops.” Captain James started to cackle. “I don’t think Mooooooogli’s gonna make it, boys. Ope…excuse me. Mowgli.”
Otis sat motionless as the pirate wielding the bow stepped forward and aimed his next arrow at Otis’s heart.
“Whatcha say, Nobe?” The captain let out another laugh. “Feelin’ brave tonight? Wanna test your luck?”
Still restrained, and fighting back tears, Curly lowered his head and closed his eyes.