Somewhere in a remote part of the ocean, a massive, luxurious warship sat still in calm, peaceful waters. In the comfortable, oversized bed sitting dead center in the captain’s quarters, Captain James lay, massaging each side of his forehead with his fingers, humming a repetitious tune. It was something he often did to relax after a long day.
He was in a so-so mood this evening, but as of late, he’d actually been down, feeling that time had left his best moments in the past and that life had little, perhaps nothing, left to offer. He had reached middle age. No amount of coffee could keep him from feeling tired all the time. No amount of whiskey could drown the feelings of sorrow long enough to help him sleep. When his back wasn’t bothering him, it was his knees. The one on the right popped and clicked with every stair he climbed, and the left felt as though something was grinding it away.
He couldn’t relate to his men anymore either. Their brand of humor was juvenile, and he was constantly feeling as though their inside jokes were making him the figure of ridicule. Every time he assumed this to be the case, he reacted with the rage of a proper pirate captain, and every time, they all looked at him as though he’d lost his mind. When such offenses used to call for a death sentence, these days he had lost his grip on the reality of what it took to keep a crew loyal. And he worried that sentencing the wrong man to death would ultimately result in his own.
Whenever they stopped at port now, the best whores paid him little mind. They didn’t care that he was the captain of the magnificent Jolly Roger, as they had once upon a time. Now he was just a weird old man that the better-looking and younger crew members had to tolerate and take orders from.
Every night Captain James went to bed hoping that he wouldn’t wake up. But if I do, give me a glorious battle tomorrow, and my life’s work will be complete. He’d been saying this, or some variation of this, for the past five years. But late one rainy night at a random location offshore, Captain James was about to rest his head when a large glass bottle rolled down his wooden stairs and into a corner bedpost.
A chill wrapped around his neck and ran down his back as he recognized the bottle’s unique shape, and immediately knew where it had come from. Feeling his heart pirouette, as it hadn’t done in years, he grabbed the bottle and twisted it open to reveal its contents.
“Otis Seehus,” he said, skimming and mumbling through the first document. “Blah, blah. Ithaca. Blah, blah.” He picked up another document. “Blah, blah, blah. War hero. Blah. Personal.” Then another. “Blah Blah. Riches beyond belief…now we’re cooking with whale blubber.”
Twenty years earlier, he would have leaped about the cabin, overcome with joy. But at this age, he didn’t expect to live long enough to enjoy the reward she was promising. He knew that a task like this, pulled off successfully, however, could be a great send-off for the twilight of his career. And if he were to make his crew rich, retirement would be filled with glory. He’d finally have their undying respect and loyalty. They’d tell stories and sing songs about him for years to come. And he could finally retire—on top.
Captain James stood up and stepped into a pair of slippers before spreading the papers over his desk. He shook a pair of spectacles open and looked over several worn maps and a few hand-drawn pictures of Otis from when he was in his mid to late twenties.
“Where do I know him from?” Captain James asked. He studied the drawings at various distances from the glasses resting on his nose. “Otis Seehus. Otis. Seehus. Otis Seehus. Doesn’t ring any bells. But I know that face. I know, I know, I know that face. Where have I seen you before?” He looked closer. “No. No. It couldn’t be.” Captain James grabbed a nearby feather and drowned its tip in an ink jar before scribbling over one of Otis’s portraits. “Impossible.”
The captain’s erratic scribbling came to a stop. Suddenly, the song he had been humming for the past several days was no longer stuck in his head. He looked over the marked-up picture. A beard and cage had crudely been scribbled over young Otis’s likeness.
It had just reached lunchtime on the Elvira, and emotions over Nibs’s death were still running too high for any of them to hear the grumble jumping from belly to belly. Mac’s stubble was growing thicker but still was clearly the stubble of a teenager. His tanned face soaked up more sun as he leaned against the railing on the ship’s bow, gazing at the path ahead and unable to shake the feeling he’d been carrying since seeing the Sea Witch. He’d never watched anyone die before, and there was no doubt in his mind as to whether or not Nibs was dead when he hit the water.
Mac was starting to beat himself up, replaying the event and watching himself cower in fear. Nibs’s death began to weigh on him, to the point that he began to wonder when the Lost Boys would start to agree with Peter and hold him responsible. The more Mac watched the scene unfold in his young mind, the more he wished that he could travel back to that moment. He would have done anything in his power to stop it. And he was hurt and disappointed when he awoke each morning, only to find that he’d moved forward another day instead of back.
Up in the crow’s nest, Peter sat alone and questioned the validity of his current universe as well. It was increasingly difficult to accept the fact that Nibs was really gone. No more teasing him or getting bashed by his witty responses. No more sending him into a crowd of pretty girls to make introductions. No more paintings. No more late nights discussing the meaning of life, the universe, and maritime politics over a bottle of whiskey. Just no more.
Peter’s emotions inspired a tickle to pinch his nose, which nearly caused him to cry, but the shuffles and steps of someone climbing up snapped the young captain out of his disconsolate gaze.
“Mind if I join ya?” Jinni asked, stepping in.
“Of course not. Have a seat…sorry I shoved you.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“I know…knew…Nibs better than anyone,” Peter said. “And you were right. There was nothing you could have done. Even if it was a stranger getting attacked by the Sea Witch, he still woulda dove in headfirst. Just the kind of guy he was.”
“I sure wish I could’ve saved him.” While Jinni didn’t prefer that Nibs had died, something in his psyche made him care very little. Perhaps it was his age, or maybe he just thought differently than most of those around him. But Jinni wasn’t all that bothered by these sorts of human emotions. Oftentimes, he struggled to find the words that would fan out the smoke of their release. “I don’t know if this helps at all, but back when I was a young man, about your age, I traveled to Atlantis for the first time.”
“Oh, yeah,” Jinni said. “It was wild. None of us had ever seen anything like it. The lights. The colors…the women. It really was wild. Late one night, I went into a bar by myself. Just wanted a steak, potato, and some ale. Maybe a little privacy. So I went to this little place off the beaten path owned by a guy from the Americas. You know how you and the fellas come from Cherokee Country…this guy came from a place he called Navajo Country.
“For some reason or another, he started talking about times he’d traded with them and technology they used. And eventually, he started talking about their language. They had six or seven words for everything under the sun and nine to ten for everything that’s not. But one word that had no translation was death.
“He said, ’Of all the places I’ve traveled, and all the people I’ve traded with, they’re the only ones that ain’t gotta word for death. The closest one they have translates roughly to not here at the present moment. As if here is just some…place we visit for a short time.’”
“That sounds nice,” Peter said. “But. Unfortunately, we do have that word in our language. And I know I’m young, but I’ve had to watch a lot of my favorite people die over the years. Ain’t none of ’em have been easier than the last. But I think I can take a little comfort if I think of ’em in terms of not being here at the present moment.”
“You OK then? We OK then?” Jinni asked.
“I’m gonna head back down,” Jinni said, standing. “If you need anything, just holler down.”
Peter nodded as Jinni began his initial descent.
“Land!” Tootles shouted out from on deck.
If it were up to Mac, the Elvira would have sailed through the night, but with Ithaca being four weeks away with no stops in between, Peter wanted to treat himself and his crew to a one-night stay on land. Mac, eager to get back home, didn’t leave the Elvira while they went into town for drinks and companionship, nor did he get any sleep that night. Then, the next morning, much to his chagrin, Mac would learn that the Elvira would be docked for at least the next three days. Time stood still.
He spent all of his time on the ship, lying under the sun, attempting to breathe his anger away and failing with a lack of patience. On what he was told would be the final night at port, Mac stood on the stern, watching the ripples. He had a throbbing suspicion that when the morning finally hit, Peter would decide to stay for another day, or two, or week.
“Dammit,” Mac said, under his breath. He stared back down at the water. For a moment he was able to clear his mind of all thoughts and just gaze upon the tiny waves. That’s about the time something burst through the water.
Mac recoiled in horror but returned to the ship’s edge when he realized that whatever it was that had burst through was of no threat. He looked down and saw the top half of a middle-aged mermaid sitting idle in the water.
“Is this the Elvira?” the mermaid asked.
“Yeah,” Mac said hesitantly.
“Is Jinni on board?”
“I’m here, Athena,” Jinni said, stepping into the conversation.
“I was hoping I hadn’t missed you.”
“What’s up?” Jinni asked.
“That guy you’re looking for—Otis. He’s on a small vessel right now headed for Ithaca. Not sure how far he’s gone, but he is on water.”
Jinni’s eyes widened. “How did you find this out?”
“The Sea Witch,” the mermaid said. “She’s put a bounty out on him. Dead or alive.”
Otis awoke to an area shrouded by fog. It looked like dusk but felt like dawn. He stood from his hammock and walked around the hazy vessel, trying to get any kind of visual of his surroundings.
Thump…thump. Otis watched as the thumps scraped the bottom of the boat, moving from front to back. He looked over the stern, relieved to see that a random tree branch had been the source of the forbidding sound.
He turned back toward the bow. Suddenly, the vessel began to shake and shudder, coming to a halt and sending him face first to the deck. He closed his eyes and buried his fingertips into the wood, waiting for the vessel to splinter and disappear beneath him. He cringed, waiting. But nothing happened, and the air remained silent.
He opened his eyes calmly and stood up. As if afraid to wake some sleeping giant, he slowly approached the bow and looked down through the fog. The vessel had burrowed itself in the moist sand of some mysterious beach. “Thank the gods,” he said, hopping out the front and into the spongy sand greeting his feet. “Great. Where the hell am I now?”
As he observed the area, each step brought forth more sunshine. The beaming rays’ refusal to be ignored sent the fog on its way at a rapid rate. That’s about the time the beach’s tree line came into view. It wasn’t just any tree line—it was an olive tree line.
Otis dropped to his knees and burrowed his forehead in the sand, just as the vessel’s bow had done moments before. He kissed the ground and scooped two handfuls of ocean water to his face before running his fingers down his shaggy cheeks in joyful disbelief. “Ithaca.” Tears welled up in the bottoms of his eyes. “Ithaca.”
Between the mental torture caused by the unknown whereabouts of her only son, and the physical anguish caused by the lack of laudanum in her life, Penelope wasn’t getting much sleep around this time. She’d never make it through the night, and only once or twice during the day would she doze off, only to be jolted from her slumber an hour or so later.
As the fog cleared for Otis down on the beach, Penelope was still in bed, guarded from the sun by two large drapes. She opened her eyes slowly until she realized that someone was in the room with her—in bed with her. Penelope rolled away from the strange man in a panic until she realized who it was. Aside from casting the most disturbing of stares on her sleeping face, she was certain he hadn’t done anything to her, so she was able to keep calm while still backing away.
“I was just watching you sleep. You really are quite lovely when you sleep.”
Her shock packed its way into a lump in her throat where it clung. “Wh-what do you want? What can I do for you?” Penelope stood up and walked across the room. She didn’t know why, but she felt the need to undo the drapes and allow the sun into the room, as if it were somehow going to protect her in the event that he decided to become physical.
Eury stood with a nonthreatening presence while his didactic expression carried something of a neutral tone. “I was down by the docks last night, and I learned some things.”
“What did you learn?” she asked.
He turned to her, offering a soft face. “You may want to sit down for this, Penelope.”
“No, no,” she cried. Penelope threw herself into Eury’s arms, pressing her tear-streaked cheeks into his chest. “He was my only son. How could I let this happen?”
“Penelope. Calm yourself,” he said. “I’m sorry; I should have been clearer. Mac is fine.”
“Oh,” she said. “Are you certain?”
“As far as I know, Mac is alive and well and on his way back here right now.”
“Oh,” she repeated, wiping her eyes. “Well, that’s great news.”
“Yes, it is. But it’s not all great,” he said. “You remember when I told you he went out looking for Otis?”
“Well, he found him. Sort of. Penelope, I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, but Otis died on an island called Calypso. It was sometime after the war. I’m so sorry,” he said.
Penelope felt a new wave of tears gather in her eyes, but none of them fell. It was almost a relief to hear Eury break this news. At the very least, she knew that Otis wasn’t suffering somewhere. On a more self-interested level, she was relieved that he hadn’t fallen out of love with her, or lost interest in the life the two had built together. For so long she had refused to believe that Otis was dead, while so many people tried to tell her otherwise. This was the moment she finally let it all go.
“Is there anything you’d like me to get you?”
“No. Thank you,” she said.
“Is there anything I can do? You want me to leave? You want me to stay? Whatever it is, you say the word, and it’s done.”
“I think, for now, I’d like to be alone.”
“Absolutely,” Eury said. “You got it. And again—if you need anything, you know where to find me.”
“Thank you, Eury. You’re a great friend.”
Insulted by the patronizing label, he let out a smirk and squared himself in the area separating her from the door.
“You see, that’s where you’re wrong, Penelope. Whether or not you realize it, or want to admit it, we’re much more than friends.”
His friendly demeanor was gone. He was imposing, intimidating, domineering, and all-around antagonistic. It was as if he’d been waiting this whole time to reveal his true nature and shed the skin of the Eury whom everyone knew and seemed to enjoy.
“What do you mean?” she asked, failing to prevent the dismay in her heart from making its way into her voice.
“If you and I were just friends, I don’t think I’d stop those guys downstairs from killing Mac when he got back here.”
“Why would they do that?” Penelope asked, now struggling to control her breathing.
“I guess, somehow, they got wind of his little journey, and why he was out on it. And let’s just say, if Mac is old enough to go looking for his dead daddy, he’s old enough to fight for his crown. When he gets back here, that’s exactly what he’s going to have to do.”
“No. He won’t. There’s still plenty of time for me to choose a husband. And if Otis is dead, like you say, what threat does Mac pose? He’s just a boy.”
“A boy who understands that his crown is being threatened. Going out and looking for Otis was just the first step. Since it didn’t work, he’ll move on to another. Any way you slice it, that puts me, and all those guys downstairs, in something of a quandary. Wouldn’t you say?”
“This is still my castle, and my time to decide isn’t up.”
“Maybe not. But people are getting very impatient with you, Penelope. A lot of people. And I know you like to use that little shroud of yours as an excuse—and how it’s not done yet, but, say, where is that shroud?” Eury looked around the room, only pretending to care.
“I keep it tucked away in my dresser when I’m not working on it,” she said, defensively.
“I see,” he said, not believing her. “Well, if you were serious about finishing it before getting remarried, I suggest you finish it soon, because sooner than later, if you don’t choose a husband, one’s going to choose himself.”
“Get out of my room. And don’t come back.” She pointed an angry finger at the door.
He grinned. “Don’t get mad at me, Penelope. And seriously think about this before you send me away. Weigh your options. We’d make a good match. And I’d treat you like the queen you are. Maybe one day there will be a time and place where women aren’t so limited on who they can and can’t marry. But you live in this time. And you live in Ithaca. And if you want your castle to stay your castle, you’re going have to choose one of us.”
Eury turned toward the door and peeked over his shoulder to let out one last smirk. He had Penelope right where he wanted.