Illustrator: Christian Colton
Author: Rick Chernicky
During his voyage South, Thomas remembered that he’d forgotten to pack an axe. He fumbled through his bags, while sweat dampened his dark, unkempt beard. The creaking of the floorboards beneath him quickly washed into the echo of laughter above his ceiling, as stomping could be heard from above. “How could it not be here?” he muttered.
Pacing lightly, he balled his hands in anger. He raised his right fist to his mouth, biting the middle of his clenched index finger, as he was trying to imagine where he could have placed his tool. He stopped pacing and opened his eyes; his bare feet were still against the beachwood planks that rocked back and forth. A ray of fading sunshine snuck through the murky octagonal window that Thomas came to know quite well. Brightness glimmered across his pale face. Tracing his thoughts, the answer was on the tip of his tongue.
The room resumed darkness, “Well it must be..” Suddenly he lost his balance and jarred his heel into a dangling sliver of floorboard. Traveling through the flesh of his right foot, his eyes peeled fast enough to rip themselves to the temple of his head, but they didn’t. Instead, he began to feel goosebumps.
As his face began to prune in disgust, Thomas was then jolted and slammed into his cabin wall. “We’ve hit land!” yelled one his crewmates from above, as a bookshelf came crashing down on top of him. Thomas laid still for a moment. It hadn’t been this still since he left home two months ago. Time itself felt like it had taken a lunch break, and the queasiness in Thomas’s stomach was beginning to fade.
Swimming to the top of his sea of books, Thomas sat up and rubbed his eyes. Half conscious, he pinched his fingers together trying to remove the needle-sized obstruction from his heel, but it didn’t make a difference. The painful bugger had been trapped by tender skin turned coarse. The stomping from upstairs was persistently growing louder.
Thomas hobbled to his feet and peered through his window, as he caught a faint glimpse of green and tan that highlighted the terrain he would now be investigating. Ignoring the pain in his foot, the voyager exited his living quarters and rushed to the upper deck through a suffocating corridor complemented by damp steps. The air was getting warmer with each step and when Thomas’ head became flush to the deck it looked as if a groundhog was just exiting hibernation.
Frantically looking left and right, he committed himself to the upper deck and exposed himself to the surroundings of a dark fog settling into the evening. The crew of the S.S. Majesty had been so blinded by the misty blanket that you could physically taste the salt in the ocean. Thomas looked to the starboard side of the ship as he watched the silhouette of John Hemminger leave a trail of vomit into the cloudy abyss that led to the ocean.
When the reality sunk in that everyone had let their guard down, Captain Moorley proceeded towards his now silent crew, but he didn’t say much, in fact he said nothing at all. He nodded his head without moving a single brow, and somehow they knew what to do. From there, Thomas found himself trying to push the rig from a dark misty beachhead with the men he’d gotten to know over the past eight weeks, and every push seemed more painful than the last, as his foot was now bloated and sluggish.
Relieving himself for a moment, Thomas wandered not far along the beachhead, where he could still hear his crew grunting, but he was far enough to where he was masked by a thickening fog. Falling with his back toward the sand, the sailor crossed his hands behind his head while he soaked his feet in the warm water that washed up and down his legs. “UGHH, PUSHHH,” were the only words that could be heard from the men in the near distance, and as the rolling water gave color to the legs that had been wobbling for quite some time.
Thomas removed a tiny booklet from the pocket in his shirt, as he cracked it halfway and scribbled slowly, “May 17, 1753 – We’ve made our first stop since leaving London, and it just so happens to be a deserted island. I seek medical attention, as a thick splinter has pierced my foot and turned it purple. It’s not often that the floors to the living quarters are cleaned, so I can’t help but wonder if I should expect an infection.” Thomas glanced at his foot and wiggled his toes gently, but despite the movement, his foot began to tingle with a sharp sensation of needle poking, as the feeling began to crawl up his leg. Inspecting himself with the light of a rising moon and setting sun, the only sound that could be heard in the distance was now the whisper of waves that seemed to say something different with every motion. The sailor rose to his feet as he tucked his journal into his shirt pocket; he shook his leg lightly, trying to rid himself of the needles that desperately wanted his leg.
Darkness had now settled beyond the cabins of the ship, as Thomas began to limp through the sandy footprints that subverted him from his duties. The fog began to fade and the palm trees that separated the beachhead from the mountainous terrain inside the jungle were now rustling against a cool draft that sent a shiver down the sailor’s spine. Thick, bulky clouds were now rolling in, and the blinding moon that once seemed to help guide Thomas was now being suffocated. Getting closer to the landing zone, Thomas could now see the outline of his ship below the dark clouds that felt an arm’s length above him.
The palm trees beside him were now rustling faster, as they pulled themselves in his direction. Clenching his jaw, he shouted for his crewmates. The only response was that of the sky, in which a low-pitched, heavenly trumpet radiated its coarseness throughout the atmosphere. The tone appeared to be coming from God himself, but it did not seem angelic, instead it was eerie and chilling enough to leave your bones feeling cold.
Approaching the landing zone of the unmoved rig, Thomas noticed floating lumps around the ship. “Why are there clothes everywhere?” He thought. Standing in the the footprints of his crewmates, he squinted at the objects and walked into the water. Thomas’s body was soon consumed by light mellow waves, as he paddled himself towards the nearest article of clothing
Reaching for the closest lump, Thomas was so startled by the texture of the object that he jerked his hand away and gagged after of gust of wind entered his nose along with the smell of his friend’s dinner. His hand was covered in brown vomit, and that’s when he recognized the outline of John Hemminger floating face down. Hemminger had been puking since the shipwreck, but Thomas didn’t think anything of it when they arrived.
Thomas treaded still against the light waves that seemed to grow louder in sharp whispers. His entire crew was now floating lifeless around him, while the trumpets from above were repeating themselves with greater force. He looked all around him one last time to see if it was true, and it was. Chunks of digested corn beef could now be smelled in all directions, while Thomas jumped back and paddled himself toward the shore.
Struggling to make a fast getaway, his arms were spinning uncontrollably, but he was going nowhere. The clouds were now clearing, and the moon was poking itself through the darkness that once blinded Thomas. Everything was beginning to slow down again. The trees were becoming less aggressive, the wind was dying, and the water was becoming still and whispering less.
However, in contrast to the elements that felt like they were slowing him down, Thomas looked into the water, as wispy blue lights could be seen swimming around his legs. The ghostly figures were holding onto his ankles, which gently pulled him into the abyss. Kicking and thrashing, Thomas was catching brief glimpses of his crewmates in ghost form. “Why are you doing this to me?!” he yelled.
Gargling the illuminated water, Thomas’s head was sucked below the surface, as he watched the moon eclipse with the sun. The ghosts of the sea had now meshed into a larger figure, which appeared to become one giant vortex of souls as they pulled him deeper into the sea. Struggling to resist his fate, the spirits were apathetic lanterns to his death chariot.
Thomas was now feeling the pressure of the ocean against him, as he fell along the slanted wall of the briny deep. He was positive that he was being dragged to Hell, and on his final breath to the depths of the deepest floors of the world, Thomas looked right and recognized his axe floating above and away. Slowly closing his eyes for the last time, he reached to grab it, but failed. Gravity was timeless, as bubbles released themselves from his mouth that once argued with his parents to leave home. His body went limp.
When he opened his eyes, Thomas was greeted by a breeze of wind that dusted him with a small group of maple, brown leaves. His back laid flush to the skin of the earth, and while he blinked to focus the object in the sky that left a white trail of fluff behind it, he felt a buzzing in his right leg pocket. He reached to grab his iPhone. It read: “Mom.”
He answered the call, as he watched the sun rise. “THOMAS WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?! YOU TOLD US YOU’D BE DONE CHOPPING WOOD AND BACK FOR DINNER LAST NIGHT?! DO YOU REALIZE HOW WORRIED YOUR FATHER AND I HAVE BEEN?! WE THOUGHT YOU DIED OR SOMETHING!” Thomas replied calmly, trying to ignore the pain in his foot. He apologized for not returning home and assured his mother that he was fine.
“I stopped by a friend’s house, I’ll be back soon,” he groaned. They exchanged goodbyes, while Thomas looked down his torso and noticed a slim tree branch, which pierced its way into his muddy boots and into his heel. He wiggled his foot away from it with apprehension and a shriek.
Escaping from the piercing inch, he looked right and noticed the tree he chopped, which laid inches from his head. He couldn’t believe it. He was surrounded by remnants of more timber, yet mostly unscathed. The maple tree that he chopped had not come down by itself either, there were two other trees that had been knocked over by the timber that came crashing down.
He lifted his head from the ground that knocked him out. Gently standing from the slippery terrain, Thomas almost slipped again, but he caught himself. He tried to brush his checkered, green long sleeve flannel from the dampness of morning dew and earth goo, but it was pretty much impossible. Just about his entire body had been damp, except for the front pocket of his flannel, which is normally where he stored his Marlboro Red’s.
He expected to feel a square, cardboard carton with his pinching fingers, but instead he felt grains of sand. Sand was not a common sight in the woods of a Pennsylvania forest, and he hadn’t even been to the beach in two years. Reaching for the bulk of the grains, he pulled a ball of it from his shirt, turning flatter, as it sifted through his fingers.
He watched the moon sink in the distance. Thomas was bummed to have missed the lunar eclipse, but was thankful that his head wasn’t crushed by the log that kept his axe in an upright position, pointing toward the sky.
That was the last day Thomas had even thought to smoke another cigarette. He exited the forest with hands protected by denim pockets, and a humble grin on his face. There was an elevating strength in his chest. It was the type of strength you feel after swimming across a lake. He was truly, and undeniably, alive.