The older Doctor from Sydney gave me a half-wave from across the bow and I returned it calling out, “Goodnight, Mrs. Lodge, and Merry Christmas!” She replied with a good-natured, slightly drunk giggle, and ducked her head down to go down the cabin. A short, but humorous screech accompanied her like she had accidentally tripped down the stairs and I gave a wide smile to the vacant shelter.
I planted my hands on my hips and looked at the remnants of Christmas Eve drinks still out on the makeshift table on the deck. Holy shit, Australians. Could. Drink. I sighed and shook open the garbage bag, not even thinking about saving any of the tinsel, throwing everything into the bag. Bottles of champagne, wine, even a tequila bottle had made its way upstairs and was nearly drained.
The family that had booked the sailboat entirely for themselves were nice enough, grandparents and parents were doctors, children and cousins from the South, all looking to let loose for the holiday, and boy did they ever. I finished trashing everything and looked around the deck. Jackson was nowhere in sight but I had the suspicion he was helping out with the cleanup downstairs.
Suddenly, the dim spotlight on the deck went out and I looked back to the shelter, seeing Jackson’s shadowy outline moving around the interior, closing up for the night. The soft rock music was still playing over a speaker somewhere up high, so he mustn’t be going to bed just yet. I sighed and turned away from his silhouette. The last week since my birthday had been heaven and hell.
Angry, asshole Jackson had totally vanished, and it wasn’t because he was busy, as it might have been when we still were worried about the repercussions of the night out at sea. He was being...nice. Maybe even kind. But we were friends now, and since that word had been uttered, I hadn’t dared look for anything more in his kind actions and words.
If I even tried looking for something more and was wrong, I would absolutely curl up on my side and die from rejection. Better just to keep it locked up tight. Well, semi-tight.
The soft music continued, and the string of tiny Christmas lights hung around the deck railing, and partially up the mainsail continued to glow. Tieing off the trash bag, I let it drop to the deck and took off my deck shoes, sinking to the floor. Lord, tired didn’t even cover my state of being at the moment. The anxiousness of ‘the night’, as I was calling the event, had finally worn off. After two weeks of looking over my shoulder, perking my head whenever I heard a speedboat, and sleeping below deck, my body and mind were nearly done.
I sat down on the bow, and wrapped my arms around the low metal rail, pressing my chin into it, and staring out at the swaying black water, faintly reflecting the colored lights. My legs swung out over the side of the boat, and I let them freely dangle. The low sound of waves splashing up against an exposed reef about thirty feet in front spoke of a low tide. The moon wasn’t up, there were overcast clouds blocking the stars, and I had just washed down the remnants of passenger puke from the back of the boat after the drunk aunty discovered the Tequila and wine did, in fact, not mix. Worst. Christmas Eve. Ever.
I shut my eyes against the ocean and enjoyed the rise and fall of the tide against the boat. Christmas Eve. Back home, a standard cocktail affair for the closest forty or fifty friends in Foxwood Glen, starting at 6 to end at 10 sharp, unless Cameron Magness had a deal to broker. A murmur of apology to his wife on not seeing the other guests out and a kiss on my cheek to say goodnight.
Still, as long as none of the visiting sons of Foxwood Glen’s elite didn’t try to cop a feel or think they were being slick by asking for a tour of the house three drinks in, it was usually a good time. I gave the dark ocean and fish beneath it a smile. How far you can fall. From the sparkling lights and fresh air up on the mountain topped mansion, down to drowning in the inky blackness of a quiet ocean with blood on your hands.
I opened my eyes and took a deep lungful of salt air. Funny though, it didn’t feel like I had fallen. It felt like I had escaped. It smelt like freedom. Even after all the implausible events of the last two weeks, I still felt that this was better than the life I had been destined to lead back in Foxwood as a possible Magness Industries CEO.
Serving passengers meals, cleaning up after them, sleeping on a cushioned bench with a sparse blanket. My hands had so many calluses and blisters on them from hauling ropes and chains, I could probably put a match out between them and not feel the burn. I hurt, I always seemed to need a shower, and my hair was like straw after so much seawater and sunshine
But there was no one dictating my schedule, throwing eligible bachelors under my nose while they were ‘just visiting the house’, setting up informal and unknowing job interviews with one of the ‘old friends’. Hell, with only three sets of clothing and two bathing suits, I didn’t even really have to decide what to wear each day. The simple question was ‘what was cleanest’ usually decided for me. A simpler, easier life. If I didn’t fuck it up beyond all recogntion first.
The boat rocked a little harder on the rise of the wave, and something down below me on the exposed reef glowed slightly blue with the sound of a small wave. I forcefully blinked my eyes to clear them.
The water stayed black as the night, and I pinched the bridge of my nose against the lack of sleep. Opening them again, the water lit up, this time with a bright, unnatural blue. The patch of azure water splashed up against the reef, cascading against it in the dark and ran down. I flinched at the sudden and surreal sight. The glow slowly died, before another wave crashed onto the corral again and the light resurged.
I released the breath I was holding and let out a laugh once I realized what was happening with the crash of each wave. Bioluminescence.
A few more reefs, coasting above the low tide, lit up around the area. Below my dangling feet, the side of the boat also ignited with the rocking tide. I unconsciously laughed out to the reef and lonely ocean. This was beyond reality. Water was literally turning to lightning in the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Electric blue waves swelled against the side of the boat and lit up my feet hanging above. An electric blue reef.
Footsteps sounded at my back but I didn’t bother to turn. I had gotten so used to his heavy tread and style of walk, it was nearly as familiar as my own. Not to mention that every time we were in the same area of the boat, my body attuned itself to him and whatever he was doing so much to the point that I didn’t fight it anymore. Why should I? We were friends.
The footsteps came and sat beside me, leaning into and through the railing as I had.
“I heard on the scanner that this might happen. Once in a blue moon type of thing. And on Christmas Eve to boot.”
“This is breathtaking. I’ve never seen something so naturally beautiful in my life.” I murmured, still enraptured by the sight.
He was silent beside me, and I felt something decidedly move my hair. Turning to him, he had brushed some of my hair off my shoulder, looking at my profile, an appreciative look on his face as if he had seen something as beautiful. My cheeks flushed with heat and in the glow of the bioluminescence underneath and Christmas lights surrounding, I was sure he could see the blush.
His eyes wandered my face, and the grin stayed on his lips. Turning back to the water, I frowned with the sudden thought.
“Should we wake the others? I mean, I know they are all probably drunk as hell, but I’m pretty sure this is something they would want to see.”
Jackson pulled his arm from around the metal rail and draped it around my shoulders, molding his body against mine. I looked up to him, his attention still on the glowing water resurging with each crashing wave.
“No. This is just for us tonight,” his deep voice replied, almost in a whisper to himself. He looked down at me and squeezed me closer into his warm body and my breathing hitched involuntarily. The bioluminescence crashing onto the reef again and reflecting off of his face, softly lighting it. Oh lord, that face.
My body tingled with the contact, and from the way his fingers were lightly stroking my bare arm, maybe he meant it to.
This was not friendly, this was something else. I looked up to Jackson expectantly, but he stayed quiet and continue to look out at the water, the electric light flaring across his features. I followed his gaze down to the water, content to just stay like this for however long fate would allow.
A sound of a speedboat, somewhere behind us, faint and distant echoed over the water for a moment and Jackson’s draped arm tensed slightly. His head swiveled slightly to the sound but returned to press against my head a moment later. He was still tense about the dead men, hiding it well. So well I would have said that it might have never happened had we not had gone back to friendly professionalism. I leaned my head in and my body followed,
“Do you think we are… in the clear?”
Jackson’s chest deflated, his whole body limping enough that I erected myself to look across at him and he let his hand drop from my shoulder. His face had turned expressionless as he gazed out at the unnatural water without seeing it. Only after a few seconds did he reply.
“I think so, they asked me if anything happened. I said no, they left. Nothing since. I can’t see how anyone would find anything. The current would have taken anything far down the coast if no fish were interested in them.”
He fell silent as we watched the same black water roll past the boat, erupting in the electric blue with every rise. Warm wind whispered past the bow and Jackson’s hair rustled up against my forehead.
“Why did you do it?” I quietly asked, amending, “You know, why did you start?”
The heavy arm around my shoulders slid down further and I was drawn in closer to the wall of muscle and gazed back down to the phenomenon at my feet as he softly spoke.
“After my da...he died, it felt like the end for a little while. Then all these bills started to come in and it looked like I would lose the business and at first, I didn’t care. I was stuck in some kind of apathetic limbo. After a week, it didn’t look so bleak and I got my wits together, realizing I didn’t want to lose it but the only way was to sell the Fury.”
He let out a deep breath and my arm instinctively came around his waist, as if I could hold him together as he remembered the hardest time of his life.
“So, in a rush, I sold it to a family friend cheap on the condition that he give me a year to buy it back,” he said in a rush, attempting to get it all out in one breath, “Immediately regretted it of course. But I’ve got a year...had a year,” he gave a humorless smirk at the lapse of time and I did the math in my head, rather than ask. He, at most, only had a month or so left. Still, there had to be a silver lining somewhere,
“Well, I mean, there are always other boats, right?”
Jackson let out another long exhale and released me from his clutch, laying himself back on the deck with his hands behind his head, ignoring the water to study the stars.
“No, there’s not another ship like the Fury, at least for me. I practically grew up on that boat for a few years after my mum left us. My dad and I weren’t just father and son on that boat, we were friends.” His chest swelled with emotion, his shirt rising slightly to expose a strip of skin above his cargo pants on his lower stomach.
I heard the sorrow in his voice, the heartbreak that was now nearly a year old but still raw. What it must have cost him beyond money to sell something that held so much of his time and memories. Another flash of bright blue stole my attention back to the water, and I leaned my head over the railing, thinking about what it might mean to lose something like that.
His weight shifted on the deck beside me, slightly away, and I stopped myself from shifting with him, closer. My hands wanted to snake their way along that strip of skin, just for a moment. Instead, I kept them firmly clamped around the railing supporting my chin, remembering my place in his friend zone.
We couldn’t go forward but it seems I couldn’t go back.
“Ms. Jones? Are you feeling okay?” I pressed my hand to the older aunty’s back as she leaned over in her seat on the back of the boat. She gave a groan and clamped her hand on the side of the boat as it gently rocked, her skin looking cold and clammy in the bright morning sun. Jackson’s footsteps came down the length of the boat and I looked up to him, grinning at me knowingly.
I returned the smile, still buzzing with faint butterflies after last night. The more he smiled, the more I enamored I grew of it. How could he hide that smile from me for 2 months? It was like the clear blue waters we sailed, a clear open window to what was beneath.
The woman groaned again and he looked down to her, rolling his eyes before looking around the boat for stragglers. The rest of the family had their final hour of snorkeling, and were on deck, stripping off their wetsuits. I still had mine on, my wet hair still dripping onto my shoulders. Jackson walked over to us on the back platform, picking up a water bottle on his way from the shelter.
He handed it to me. "She’ll be right, just get her to keep drinking this until it comes back up.” I took the bottle from him, and nodded while he kneeled down to the very hungover woman,
“Miss Jones? The rest of your family is onboard, we are going to make our way back into Airlie now, okay? We are still about an hour’s sailing from it, and it's going to get bumpy. So if you need to, just lean over and let it all off the back.”
The ill woman nodded in agreement, and behind Jackson, the matriarch of the family came up along the side railing, looking at her sister in concern. Being an actual doctor, I moved aside for her so she could examine the new patient. “Jan?” she asked before feeling the woman’s neck glands and forehead. After another moment, she stood up, satisfied.
“Just hungover as hell,” she grinned to me and I nodded with a smirk.
From inside the shelter, Jackson called out to us on the back deck. “We are going to get going now, Doctor. It’s going to be a little rough. Carter, can you raise the sail, while I steer us out of the coral?”
I nodded to him and followed the Doctor back to her remaining family on the deck. They watched as the large deep-blue sail rose high into the sky and began to billow with the crisp wind coming from the north. Tying it off and making sure the family knew to stay out of its path if it suddenly shifted, I came back to the shelter to strip off, passing by the very hungover Jan.
I paused in thought. Jan wasn’t sitting in her seat anymore.
A glimpse of a hand coming through the waves from below, now a hundred feet behind the moving boat, caught my attention. Moving fast to the shelter, I grabbed the circular life preserver, always thought of more as a decoration, and quickly gestured to Jackson, “Man overboard,” I said hurriedly.
Holding the wheel, he spun his head towards me in confusion. Before he could say a word I ran along the length of the back of the boat, pulling the preserver through my arm and up to my shoulder, and dove into the water. The churning water of the boat’s wake pushed and pulled at me still in my dive. The preserver quickly brought me back to the surface and lifting my head to catch sight of Jan, I began to swim in her direction.
Far sounds of the boat, her family calling out to her from behind, could be heard as I continued my overarm stroke, never losing sight of Jan. I wasn’t wearing flippers but without any current to hold me back, I closed the distance between us quickly. Jan, however, wasn’t in distress as I imagined when someone fell overboard. In fact, it appeared that Jan was just floating, looking up at the sky while the waves bobbed her up and down.
She tilted her head up to look at me, a sheepish expression over her face. Breathing hard, I looked her over and pulled the preserver from my arm.
“Yeah, just feeling a bit stupid at the moment.” She came out of her float to pull herself upright to tread water. “Leaned over to puke and the boat bobbed at just the right time. Enough to fall in.”
She scrunched her eyes shut against a splash of water against her face and I grinned at her, pushing the preserver into her arms. “Did nothing for the headache though,” she added.
I started to egg beat the water with my legs and lifted myself up above the waves, “No, I suppose it didn’t.” Jackson had already lowered the sail, turned the ship, and was on his way back to us, and I waved my arm above my head for him. From the shelter, he must have spotted me because the boat angled toward us slightly. Jan’s family watching on the railing, at first concerned, now had smiles on their faces as the boat pulled up alongside us and I pushed Jan in the direction of the back deck.
The men of the family had moved to the back of the boat to help Jan back up and I watched with a smile as they gave her a ribbing for it, waiting for my turn on the ladder. I reached up for it, when suddenly something stung my bare foot, causing me to flinch and release the ladder with a gasp. Not just a sting but a burn continued and I fell back into the water.
The burning, precise, and aflame continued and I struggled to get above the water as if I forgot I had arms. From somewhere on the boat, I heard my name called out and two pairs of hands reached out, down into the cold ocean, grabbing my shoulders and suddenly I was on the back platform.
Gasping for breath, my heart was pounding in my chest, beating so fast if it had wings it could have flown away. The muscles in my chest started to constrict, and I felt my whole body start to seize, convulsing against the wooden platform beneath The doctor’s alarmed face blocked my view of the clear sky, “Carter? What’s going on?”
“F..f..foot.” I stuttered, not from my normal speech impediment but because my jaw and face were now seizing, straining against itself and the burn that was still wound around my left foot. Was winding its way around my chest.
Her face left my vision, and my heart started to sprint, pounding against my lungs till the thump was everywhere. I could feel it everywhere, hear it everywhere, my left arm started to numb. Then everything went dark.