Saturday, June 1, 2013

   As I announced in yesterday’s blog post, ‘Sea Cruise’, one of the 23 short stories featured in my Storytime novel that will be free to download on Monday, is positioned at the end of this post.

   I chose ‘Sea Cruise’ because of the 23 stories that one garnered the most comments. 

   Others were more popular, especially the two comedies and the novella ‘The Eyes Have It” but it seems people needed to express their feelings about ‘Sea Cruise’. It apparently affected them in a number of different ways.

   I suppose it’s because the main characters are such everyday people. Everyone has an Ernie and Evie, the grumpy, elderly curmudgeon and the sweet little old lady somewhere in their lives and although it starts off as an emotional final goodbye between two lifelong companions, it certainly doesn’t end that way.

   Or… perhaps it does. You decide.

The following is a copyrighted document presented here with the permission of Ari Publishing. Ari Publishing owns all rights to this piece without exception. It may not be duplicated or reprinted in any manner without the expressed permission of Ari Publishing or the author Zackary Richards.

'Sea Cruise' is a work of fiction. any and all references to actual people, places or things is coincidental.

 Sea Cruise

Zackary Richards 

“I can accept the fact that it’s terminal, geez, I was a Marine in Nam, I’ve faced death before,” Ernie said as he pressed his hands against the padded arms of his recliner. “What I can’t accept is the slow decline that goes with it.”
Evie, his wife, sat down next to him and placed her hand on his. “We’ve had a good life together; three wonderful children, good jobs and this beautiful house. We’ll get through this.”
He smiled but shook his head. “There’s not going to be a happy ending to this story. You heard the doc. I’ll become disoriented, surly, short-tempered and God forbid, violent. I’d check into a nursing home but that would eat up all our savings and I didn’t work all those years to leave you and the kids with nothing.”
She took off her glasses, cleaned them with a napkin then stood. “It’s been a long day. Let’s go to bed and take another crack at it in the morning.”
Ernie nodded and rose from his chair. “Yeah, I suppose. Hey, if I’m lucky, I’ll drop dead in my sleep.”
She gently slapped his arm. “Don’t talk like that!”

Nearly a week passed and a solid plan to deal with Ernie’s terminal illness hadn’t been decided upon. Several ideas were kicked around but each was eventually rejected dues to cost, locale, or physical limitations.
Ernie was sitting in a near darkened room, battling a wave of depression when Evie returned from her weekly seniors club meeting and announced she had won a free 6 day cruise to the Virgin Islands.
“That’s great,” Ernie said with a feigned smile. “I’m sure a vacation will bring some color back to those rosy cheeks of yours.”
“Don’t talk nonsense,” she said, showing him the ticket package. “I’m not going on the cruise, you are!” She placed it on the table next to him. “You’re the one who could use some fun in the sun.”
Ernie’s expression soured. “I don’t want to go without you. I don’t…Hey, why don’t you come with me?”
He regretted the words the moment he said them.
She’s so pragmatic, he thought. I’m sure she’s already made plans to meet with the funeral director to pick out a coffin and burial plot. And having me tagging along would only make things more difficult. This cruise is just what she needs to get me out of her hair.
“Ernie, the trip is being hosted by my senior citizen club and they could only afford one ticket” she said. “From what I’ve been told, the ship is not one of those huge luxury liners; it’s more like a yacht.  It’ll be you and twelve other seniors from clubs throughout the state. Now stop talking nonsense and let’s go get you some sea-faring clothes.”

On the day of the cruise, Ernie and Evie stood at the dock and exchanged good-byes. She smiled and Ernie beamed.
I’m glad I gave in and decided to go, he mused. She looks like a huge weight has been lifted off her. Good. She deserves some time to herself.
“One thing, dear,” she said as she reached up and adjusted his collar. “Please don’t mention your illness to anyone. I had to lie and say you were in good health or the yacht’s insurance company wouldn’t let you on board.”
“Not a problem,” he replied. “I feel fine and the doc says I still have a month or so left before it starts to hurt.”
After a heart-felt kiss, Ernie headed down the dock to the gateway.

Evie was right about the ship. It certainly was no Queen Mary but having unpacked and taking some time to get the feel of the place, he decided it would do just fine.
As he looked out the portal and watched the shoreline fade in the distance, there came a knock on the door. Ernie turned, “It’s open!”
A man in a dress white uniform stepped inside. “Welcome aboard the Romero, Mr. Hastings. I am Captain Walsh and I will be your host during your cruise.”
Ernie gestured to the chair near the door. “Please, have a seat.”
The captain nodded, sat and folded his hands.
 “I have come to give you a quick overview of what to expect during our voyage,” he said. “There will be three official meals each day, breakfast between 8 and 10, lunch between 1 and 3 and dinner between 6 and 8. Of course you can always snack at the buffet across from the dining room whenever you like.  Orientation will be in one hour on the main deck. There I will introduce you to your fellow vacationers and tell you all about our ship. But, before that, is there anything you require? Are your accommodations acceptable?”
Ernie looked around. “Everything’s just fine, captain. You have a beautiful ship and I look forward meeting the others.”
“Excellent!” the captain replied as he stood, gave a casual salute and left the cabin.
An hour later, Ernie was topside. It was beautiful and sunny with warm, mild breezes. He chatted with fellow passengers, twelve in all, nine men and three women. All seniors like himself and although some were easily a decade older, they all seemed personable and friendly.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Walsh said as he stood before the vacationers, “welcome aboard the Romero. As your captain, it is my duty to make sure you have a pleasant voyage. Let me begin by telling you about this proud vessel. This version of the Romero is a replica of the original which was christened back in 1812 in Newport News, Virginia. It was designed as a treasury ship and used to transport gold during the war. You have no doubt noticed the hallways have numerous swords, daggers, flintlocks and pistols fastened to the walls. This is because the original was highly prized by the British who made several attempts to seize and board her. None, I am proud to say, ever succeeded. Now before I go any further please note that the pistols and flintlocks are loaded with live ammo for a sharp shooting demonstration to be performed near the end of our cruise. So be careful not to handle or touch them.”
A man standing next to Ernie called out. “Why are they loaded if the demonstration isn’t scheduled until later this week?”
“Good question” the captain replied. “Those weapons are on loan from the naval museum and are over 200 years old. Because of their age, special care is required to load and fire properly. We have a professional organization come in and perform those duties just before we set sail.”
The man nodded, apparently satisfied.
“One other noticeable difference is that the masts and rigging are merely for show. Unlike the original, this vessel is powered by twin diesel engines. Also please note that in order to provide the most entertainment for your vacation dollar, there are only four crew members aboard. In addition to myself, there is a helmsman, a mechanic, a chef and a waiter. We promise to do our best to make your experience enjoyable. All we ask is that you be patient during our peak hours, such as during meals and demonstrations. I assure you that all your needs will be addressed as quickly as possible.
“We will arrive at the Islands at approximately 6 pm. tomorrow evening. If you wish, you may sleep on board or show your boarding pass at any of the Island’s many hotel reception desks and be invited to spend the night at our expense.
Well that certainly is a good deal, Ernie thought.
“And that concludes my presentation. Are there any questions?” the captain asked.
No one spoke up, so the captain excused himself, leaving Ernie and the other passengers to chat among themselves.
As the day progressed, Ernie did some fishing, spotted dolphins swimming alongside and spent some time on the bridge chatting with the helmsman about his own experiences piloting a boat along the Mekong Delta. By mid afternoon he had planted a deck chair in a cozy spot and settled in to read the collected short stories of Mark Twain.
As twilight approached, Ernie closed the book and took his deck chair to the other side to watch the sunset. As the sun slowly sank behind the horizon, he removed a small notepad from his jacket pocket and wrote. I wish you were here, Evie. This sunset is the most beautiful I have ever seen and if it turns out to be my last, you can tell everyone, I died a happy man.  Love always, Ernie.
Later Ernie returned to his cabin intending to spend several hours watching TV, but discovered he was surprisingly tired. Then, remembering what a full and eventful day he had, he undressed, climbed into bed and fell fast asleep.

Midway through the night there came a thunderous jolt to the bottom of the boat. Startled, Ernie jumped out of bed, put on his trousers and slippers and ran to the door.  Looking out into the hall, he heard people running along the upper deck. The door across the hall opened and Jeff Healy, one of the other vacationers stepped out.
“What in heaven was that?” he asked, tightening his robe.
Ernie shook his head. “I have no…”
A woman, who Ernie knew only as Jill, opened her door and said. “I called services, but nobody’s answering.”
“Did you try the bridge?” Jeff asked.
 She nodded. “No answer there either!”   
“If no one’s on the bridge, something happened,” Ernie said reaching inside for his jacket. “I’m going topside.”
Jill pulled back. “Don’t you think we’ll be safer in our cabins?”
“Not if the boat’s sinking.”
“I’m going too,” Jeff said. “The captain should be on the intercom explaining our situation.”
“Maybe he doesn’t know what happened,” Jill said.
Ernie shook his head. “Then all the more reason he should be talking to us.” He turned to Jeff. “You ready?”
Jeff gave a quick nod, slipped on his jacket and the two men started down the hall.
“Be careful,” Jill said as she slipped behind the door. “And if the ship is sinking please, come back for me.”
Ernie was about to say, “We will,” but Jill had already closed the door.
As Ernie and Jeff raced toward the topside staircase three other passengers, also concerned, joined them. As they climbed the stairs they heard a gunshot ring out and then another. Above them the door swung open and a man, one of the other seniors on the trip, stumbled inside and fell toward them.
Ernie raced forward and caught him, and as he wrapped his arms around the man, discovered he was covered in blood and been shot in the back.
With Jeff’s help they carried him into one of the nearby cabins, closed the door behind them and locked it. They lifted the man who winced from the pain and laid him on the bed.
“What happened?” Ernie asked anxiously. “What’s going on?”
The man’s eyes tightened as another wave of pain washed over him. He took a labored breath. “I was on the bridge chatting with the crew when we saw another ship, just about the size of this one firing its emergency flares. So Captain Walsh… had us come alongside. Once there, one of the men from the other ship said their engine exploded, their captain was dead, and the hull had ruptured. Then… ”
The man suddenly coughed violently and vomited a puddle of blood to the floor. He grabbed his chest and winced from the pain. Still he took a gasping breath and forced himself to continue. “Captain had the mechanic go over. A minute later he came back, told Walsh… he needed help moving things out of the way. So Walsh went with the cook and the waiter. Two minutes later one of their guys jumped on the plank connecting the ships and ran over here, then another guy, then a whole bunch. The helmsman shut everything down and went for a look. A few seconds later I hear him howl in pain, then the guy from the other ship charges in with a bloody knife. I took off for the door when I heard a shot and felt a sharp pain in my back.”
The man’s face suddenly turned ashen. “They’re going to take the ship and kill… us…all.”  The man grimaced and coughed up more blood, then fell unconscious.
“Good God,” Jeff said stepping back. “What are we going to do?”
Ernie thought for a moment then said, “All right. Everybody listen. First we got to find a way to protect ourselves. Any of you pack a gun? Former cop maybe?”
When his companions shook their heads, Ernie remembered what the captain said about the pistols and flintlocks. “Wait! The main hall, those guns are loaded. Let’s go get them.”
“Swords too?” Jeff asked.
Ernie nodded. “I’m figuring those old guns and rifles only fire one shot at a time so we’re going to have to move fast. Get those swords to work for us.”
Simon Laquois, a fellow vacationer who was trying to stop the injured man’s bleeding clearly didn’t like the idea. “That’s crazy. We don’t know how to fire those things. It would be a lot safer if we locked ourselves in our cabins and waited for help to arrive.”
“Are you serious?” Ernie asked. “You think we should cower in our cabins and hope the good guys show up before these lunatics do to us what they just did to our friend here?” Ernie tilted his head at the man Laquois was trying to patch up. “Not a good plan.”
“Oh, so you think it’s a better idea to attack a group of heavily armed criminals with 200 year old rifles and swords? You call that a better plan?”
Ernie scowled. “If that’s how you feel, go back to your cabin. I didn’t survive 2 tours in Vietnam waiting for someone save me. I’m going, who’s coming?’
Surprisingly, everyone except Laquois raised their hand.
“Good,” Ernie said. “Let’s get all the other passengers, meet up at the main halls, grab the weapons and start killing these sons of bitches.”

As Ernie and the others stripped the weapons from the walls, Jeff stopped for a moment and took Ernie’s arm.
“Wait a second. If we’ve been boarded by criminals, why haven’t they come after us?”
“Don’t know,” Ernie replied. “Does it matter?”
“It does if our friend got his signals crossed,” he mused as he bit his lip. “He said the crew from the other ship has crossed over onto ours. What if Captain Walsh ordered them to?”
“Your point?” Ernie asked.
“Well, I don’t want to go charging up there with guns blazing only to discover the guy who got shot had the story all wrong.”
“Everybody got a firearm and a sword?” Ernie asked.
With all eleven passengers nodding their heads, Ernie started for the stairs.
“Wait,” Jeff said again taking his arm. “Aren’t you going to at least consider what I said?”
“I have, and here’s my answer. A fellow unarmed vacationer was shot in the back while running for his life by men who may have already killed our captain and our crew. The time has come to shoot first and ask questions later.”  
“Or maybe we could do the reasonable and intelligent thing and ask questions first!”
They all turned and saw Laquois, marching determinedly toward them. “Somebody has to be the voice of reason around here,” he said rejoining the group.
“You sure you want to do this?” Ernie asked. “If you’re wrong, you’re dead.”
“For heaven sake,” Laquois exploded. “This is the 21st century. And while there may be pirates off Somalia, we’re off the coast of Florida. And although this may be a luxury yacht, we’re all senior citizens. What possible point would there be to attack? If they wanted the ship they could have stolen it while it was docked. No,” he said determinedly, “I’m going topside to straighten this out.”
And with that he marched up the stairs, opened the door and disappeared behind it.
Jeff Healy took a breath and looked around. “Okay, so what do we do now?”
Ernie pressed his fist to his lips. “What if they lie to him?”
“What do you mean?”
“They feed him some line of shit. You know, like it was a terrible misunderstanding and that we should come up so they can explain. Then when we do they shoot us and dump our bodies in the ocean. I mean, they say boat was damaged but how do we know? Maybe they just told Walsh that so he and our crew would to go over.
“Geez, you’re a suspicious bastard, aren’t you?”
“Perhaps, but hear me out,” Ernie replied. “What if they know about these weapons? What if they were waiting for someone to go up to negotiate and then use him as a Judas goat?”
“Okay, so what do you suggest?”
Before Ernie could reply, the door opened and Laquois’ head appeared from behind it. “C’mon up, people,” he said. “Everything is okay, just a big terrible misunderstanding, just as I suspected.”
“Send Captain Walsh down,” Ernie called out. “We want to hear it from him!”
“But…” Laquois started, then his head disappeared behind the door. Thirty seconds later. “Captain Walsh is aboard the other ship overseeing the repairs.”
“Then tell him to get his ass back over here to explain our situation. His first responsibility is to his passengers, not to a damaged vessel at sea.”
“Ernie, you’re being difficult. There’s no need to…”
“I said send down Walsh! We’re not going anywhere until he gets here!”
“I…uh, well…just a minute.” Laquois again disappeared behind the door.
Ernie turned to the others. “There is something wrong. He’s talking to us like it’s a hostage negotiation. You five, run back to the other staircase, where the other guy was shot and wait. If this thing goes south I’ll whistle. I can whistle pretty damn loud so you won’t have any problem hearing me. When I do, you guys charge on deck and start shooting. When we hear the shots we’ll attack from the rear. Go!”
Ernie was so convincing the five, including Jeff Healy, immediately took off. They had no sooner disappeared down the halls when Laquois reappeared and said, “Look, I talked with the guys, and they said Walsh can’t be jack-assing back and forth. The other ship is owned by the same company that owns this one and is worth several million dollars. If he lets it sink, he’ll lose his job so, stop this nonsense and get up here.”
Ernie directed the others into the shadows, lifted his flintlock and cocked it. “Tell the helmsman we demand to be returned to port immediately. If Walsh wants to stay with the crippled ship…”
“C’mon guys… you know…be reasonable.” Laquois’ voice was becoming panicky. “Just come up on deck and we…”
“We’re not coming up and that’s final. Now tell your friends to turn this boat around and head back to…
There came a gunshot and Laquois fell down the stairs. The top part of his head was missing.
Ernie whistled to sound the alarm but it wasn’t necessary. They could hear their five companions charging across the deck, firing their pistols and flintlocks.
As their assailants returned fire, Ernie and the others ran up the stairs, burst through the door and opened fire from behind.   
 What caught Ernie by surprise was that the crew from the other ship was wielding flintlocks, pistols and swords as well. They were all dressed in black with Jolly Roger flags sewn just above their left breast pocket.
“Spill the blood of these sea-dogs and feed their bones to the sharks!” A red bandanna wearing pirate bellowed. Ernie turned and saw the man had a white adhesive name tag just above the skull and cross bones that read: Arrgh Matey! My name be Timmy the Pirate.
As the man raised his sword and charged Jeff Healy as he rounded the mast, Ernie drew his pistol and fired, striking Timmy the Pirate in the head.
Ernie had no time to put the pieces together. The moment Timmy hit the ground, Ernie was fired upon, the musket ball missed and whizzed by his ear splintering a piece of the doorframe. Ernie charged with his sword. Using the bayonet training he received on Paris Island he went head-to-head for several minutes.
 What the hell is going on here? Ernie wondered as he deflected several of his opponent’s blows. This guy’s easily my age. Why would a man in his mid sixties decide to become a pirate? 
Suddenly Ernie saw an opportunity and lunged, running his blade through the man’s torso.
As Ernie stepped back, the man collapsed to his knees, placed his hand over the gaping wound and muttered, “Well this ain’t so bad,” then fell over dead.
   Ernie rejoined the battle where the fighting was savagely intense. Probably would have been worse had Ernie not dislodged the connecting plank and dropped it into the ocean. As the Romero drifted out of reach, he saw several more ‘pirates’ from the other ship climb on deck and try to reconnect the two.
A half hour later, Ernie killed the last ‘pirate’ on board. It was a hollow victory as all his fellow vacationers had been slain. With the attack finally over, Ernie strode toward the bridge to radio the Coast Guard, the police and the FBI. But when he arrived he saw that the radio had been destroyed. Still shaken and unsure what to do, he restarted the engines, turned the ship around and headed at full throttle back to port.
It was early morning when he arrived. The pier was empty and the shops closed. Exhausted, covered in dried blood, and still shaken, Ernie docked the ship, shut off its engines, then quickly washed up and changed into clean clothes. Once back on deck he saw the bloody bodies scattered about but was too emotionally overwhelmed to deal with it.
I served 2 tours in Nam and killed more men on the deck of this cruise ship in one hour than I did during my entire time there.
He disembarked, tied the ship to the dock and searched for a pay phone. Finding none, he saw a cab happen by so he hailed it got inside.
As he sat, he considered his next move. He decided he would talk to Evie first. She was the one with her feet planted firmly on the ground. No flights of fancy for her. He would tell her the whole unbelievable story and she would, as always, come up with a clear headed, no-nonsense plan on how it should be handled.

Because it was still early, Ernie quietly opened the front door with his key and walked up the stairs to his bedroom.
He reached for the knob and turned it.
Locked? I don’t think we’ve ever locked that door in all the years we lived here.
But he realized this was one of the very few times they hadn’t slept together and she probably was a little uncomfortable with that.
“Evie, it’s me, open the door.”
“Ernie?” she called out. “Ernie what are you doing here? You’re supposed to be in the Virgin Islands?”
“I know, I know, just open the door. I got a real problem.”
“All right, just hold on for a minute and let me get my glasses.”
Almost a full minute passed and he was about to ask her what the holdup was, when she pulled open the door.
“Good heavens, Ernie!” she shouted when she saw him. “What happened!?”
 He shook his head and entered. “You wouldn’t believe it. Hell I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t…Wait,” he sniffed and looked around the room. “What’s that smell? Smells like cigarettes. Evie have you been smoking?”
There came a clatter from the garbage cans outside the house. Ernie looked at Evie then stormed over to the window. Below, he saw Art Jenkins, a family friend running across his back yard.
“Evie!” he said wide eyed as the color drained from his face. “How…how could you do…”
Evie’s face fell and her eyes welled up with tears. She ran her sleeve across them then took a seat on the edge of the bed.  “Look, you were never supposed to find out. And I feel just terrible about this. On our wedding day, I vowed to love, honor, cherish and be faithful to you as long as we lived. I never would have invited Art over if I thought you were still alive. When I signed you up, I was assured all the passengers would be dead by midnight.”
“Wait…what? Evie, what are you talking about?”
She sighed. “I loved you all my life, Ernie. And I couldn’t stand to see you so miserable. And the thought of you wasting away, becoming a shadow of the strong courageous man you had been all your life was something I knew neither of us could bear. So I went to a friend who used a service that catered to terminal patients who preferred to die in battle, rather than succumb to a long debilitating illness. Well, she gave me the name and I called and signed you up, then pretended it was a senior cruise package. Then once out at sea, beyond the three-mile limit, your ship would be attacked by other terminal patients, dressed like pirates whose job was to kill all those on board or get killed themselves.”
“Evie, I…uh,” Ernie muttered with eyes wide and mouth agape. “I…”
“As for Art, well, we’ve all been friends for thirty years and I didn’t want to be alone on the night I knew you were going to die. I just didn’t want to face that alone, Ernie. Didn’t want to be alone. You understand don’t you?”
Ernie put his hands to his head. “Dear Lord…” he said, but had no idea what to say afterward. He wanted to be furious with her. Wanted to strike out at her but couldn’t quite put his finger on what he was angry at. For her not wanting to be alone on the night she knew her husband of 45 years was going to die? For giving him the opportunity to die in battle like a man? For trying to spare him months of agony and slow painful decay?
No, that he couldn’t do.
As Evie eyed him, he took a deep breath and said. “What’s the name of that company you used?”
Evie stood. “Now wait, Ernie. Believe it or not, they provide a very useful service and if you turn them over to the police…”
He shook his head. “I’m not going to turn them over to the police,” he replied. “I promise.”
She shrugged. “All right then, the number’s on the back of the phone book, in the desk below the phone.
Ernie nodded. He walked into the other room and made the call.
“Hello, may I help you?” the voice answered.
“Yes, I’d like to apply for a position in your company.”
“Oh, and what position would you be applying for?”
“Pirate, I hear you have a hard time keeping that job filled.”

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