Beth, 14, and her crewmate, Silas, 45, have lost their families to violence. They sail the S Pacific, seeking solace for their grief. But Death has a task for them. When Beth’s best friend joins her in Australia, followed by her abusive father, Beth and Silas discover where Death’s journey is leading them.
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An excerpt from Ancient Mariners.
San Diego, CA
On a beautiful clear day under a stiff breeze Montegar, a forty foot sailboat, rigged and equipped for bluewater sailing, slips into San Diego Bay past the Harbor Police office on the tip of Shelter Island.
Silas Tufts, working up to fifty, weathered and hardened, sits behind the helm. His movements sure, he looks only ahead.
Beside him, Beth Portman, recently eighteen, stands easily beside Silas, hand on his shoulder. Exuding confidence, she, too, only looks ahead. They had no need to talk. They’d lived and sailed together for four years, they each knew what to do. And after the events of that morning, what was there to say? No use looking back.
There’s no family or friends to wave goodbye to. This is not our home anymore, and it’s likely we’ll never be back. The last four years prepared Silas and I for this day, this morning. It’s said that bad memories prepare you for life. If so, we’re ready. If I hadn’t met Silas, I wouldn’t have any memories any different than any ordinary eighteen-year-old girl. If I hadn’t met Silas, there’s a good chance I’d be dead. Funny how things work out.
FOUR YEARS AGO
Little ripples left behind by the colorful, eight foot Sabot sailboats as they darted back and forth over a protected area of the Bay sparkled in the late afternoon sun. Kids screamed and yelled and taunted each other as they rounded the windward mark and ran downwind to the finish line.
Arms held tight around her slender body, Diane Portman stood on the dock, following with a practiced eye the Sabots scooting across the water, a thin smile on her thin lips. She enjoyed watching the little boats flitting about. As a child she’d been one of those kids and they reminded her of the freedom of her own sailor kid days. Diane took little pleasure now in the dashing about. She had news that both saddened and disappointed her. Even worse, it would sadden and disappoint her daughter, Beth.
A pink Sabot shot into the channel between moored boats leading to the dock. On a broad reach, the breeze over the port side, it raced toward the dock, closer, closer, narrowly missing the line of boats in their slips. With no room to spare, the skipper rammed the tiller to starboard. The boat headed up into the wind, lost way, and gently kissed the dock at Diane’s feet.
Beth, a cute, normal, sparkly, fourteen year-old, unleashed a grin on her mother. Her arms shot into air, index fingers extended.
“Did you see me? I won! I won! Ha! Ha! I left that Nicky Albert in the dust. That’ll teach him to call me a “deck scrubber.”
Diane forced a quick smile. “I saw you. Congrats.” In truth the win wasn’t that big a deal, except for beating Nicky Albert. Beth rarely lost and had had her sights set on bigger boats and bigger water for some time.
Beth held up a hand for a high five.
Her mother’s lackluster response and the swift disappearance of her smile clued her in that something was up.
Silas knelt on a cockpit seat, deep into the greasy intricacies of the mast winch for the headsail. He’d been rebuilding winches for twenty of his forty-five years, that particular one four or five times, but he was never quite sure he’d gotten it right until it was all together and actually performed as it was supposed to.
“Hello, Silas,” Diane said from the dock. “May we come aboard?”
Silas glanced over his shoulder. He couldn’t help but think of “Two peas in a pod” whenever he saw Diane and Beth together. A beautiful woman and a beautiful girl. A crooked little smile quirked up a corner of his mouth, even as a tear, not the first and not the last, formed behind his eyes.
“Of course. You’re crew now. You don’t have to ask.”
For more than four years Silas had sailed Montegar single-handed, keeping mostly to himself. He traveled throughout the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal, into the Pacific and then to the US west coast. Though he’d avoided people, preferring to suffer alone and had only recently joined “The Living,” he could still pick up on a bad vibe.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, when they’d boarded and settled on the cockpit seat opposite him. Beth sat cross-legged shoulder to shoulder to her mom.
“My mother passed last night. Heart attack. Right out of the blue. So I won’t be able to sail to Cabo with you.”
Silas stopped wiping the grease off his hands. “Ah, I’m sorry. I only met her the once, but I remember her.”
Diane managed a small smile at that. “She did have that effect on people.”
“In a good way.”
“My dad’s been pretty sick and she was taking care of him. There’s only a couple distant cousins left in the family, and none of them has any interest in taking care of my father. But, there’s a lot of money involved, and the scavengers are circling. So I’m going back to look after him.”
Beth bumped shoulders with her. “Mom’s the white sheep of the family.”
Silas said, “I know she is. Lucky for all of us.” A look passed between Diane and Silas that spoke of past pain shared. “I can wait a week or two. I know how much you were looking forward to the trip.”
“Thought about that. But who knows how long it will take to settle my mom’s affairs, and I have work commitments coming up, and Beth has school. It’s pretty much now or never. Or next year, anyway.”
“Well, I can’t say I’m not disappointed. For once I was looking forward to some company.”
“Mom.” Beth nudged her mother – Ask him. Ask him.
“Neil and I discussed that this morning. We thought maybe Beth could go. It would be good for her to get away at this time. If she would be any help in handling the boat.”
Another nudge. “Mom. Duh.”
“Oh. Well. I was planning to spend the week in a drunken stupor, so I guess she would have to handle the boat some.”
“Not funny, Silas.”
Silas took Diane’s hands in his calloused ones.
“Diane, Beth is a natural sailor. I have no doubt she actually could sail to Cabo by herself if she had to. But are you sure you don’t want to wait until you can come with us?”
“Like I said, she has school and–.”
“That’s not what I meant. Neil and I, and you, have been friends for a long time, but some people might question the intentions of an old fart like me sailing out of the country with an unrelated minor.”
“Silas, it’s not like you’re kidnapping me. Please. I really, really want to go.”
Diane looked into Silas’s eyes for a long moment. “We trust you. Beth trusts you.”
Visibly touched, Silas nodded gratefully. “And Neil’s really okay with it?”
“Anything to do with being near a body of water larger than a kiddies’ wading pool is not okay with Neil. But, for some reason he loves this little water rat, so yes, he’s okay with it. He did want me to remind you that he was a Navy SEAL and an FBI missing persons expert.”
Beth’s face lights up at being called a water rat.
“And I thought he was a science geek specializing in desert geology. I’ll take care of Beth as if… she was my own.” A darkness passed over his face. “Better than my own.”
Diane tenderly touched his cheek, gripped his shoulder. “We know you will.”
Appreciative, Silas attempts a smile. “And I was a Navy SEAL.”
A few days later Neil Portman, a rangy, handsome, bespectacled man with searchlight eyes and tousled hair, stood hands-in-pockets at the west end of Shelter Island. Beside him, Judy Winehouse, Beth’s best friend forever, held tight to herself and hoped her tight-lipped frown and jittery stance would keep the tears away.
On the water, Montegar slipped past with only the main sail up. Silas worked at the mast, raising the foresail. Beth was barely tall enough to see over the leather covered wheel. She couldn’t keep still. Her skinny ass wagged to a beat only she heard. Her hands beat an occasional tattoo on the leather. When she spied her father and Judy onshore she flashed them a grin of pure excitement and waved both hands until Silas yelled at her to mind the helm. That didn’t dampen her grin the least bit.
Neil understood water coming out of a shower, or in a desert mud hole formed by a geologic anomaly, but he didn’t get his daughter’s fascination with large bodies of water, or her desire to travel over them in a small boat. She was a healthy, happy, smart kid, her enthusiasm hard to resist. He grinned and waved back at her, his heart thumping to see her so happy.
Judy waved, too. Though she couldn’t bring herself to smile. For two weeks Judy would be alone, and though it wouldn’t change anything, the idea terrified her.
Montegar swiftly sailed into the bay and with a last wave, Beth turned away, looking forward to the open ocean.
Father and best friend finally turned away. Judy wiped her leaking tears. Neil had known Judy for over ten years. He worried about her as much, if not more, than Beth. For Judy was a thin, frail girl with little happiness in her. Beth being the only one able to coax a real smile from her.
“She’ll be back soon, Judy.” He told her. “Two weeks. Maybe less.”
Neil touched her shoulder for reassurance.
Judy jerked away. Swiped at her tears.
“Judy, you okay? Everything all right?”
Judy glared after the quickly diminishing sailboat, her mouth twisted in a very uncharacteristic sneer. “My father would never let me leave like that. Never.”
Eyes narrowed in thought, a chill that had nothing to do with the weather, made Neil Portman shiver in the San Diego sun, as he slowly followed Judy to his car.
Behind Montegar, high and away, an outsized, black Albatross soared. Not of any known species, its kind had followed vessels as long as there had been vessels, from the first primitive rafts to the latest huge warships. Unseen by any crew, the bird’s presence could never be denied when the time came, as it always does, to make itself felt.