Fiction: The Almost Was

medium_shutterstock_129521153Saltwater lapped gently against the hull of the little sixteen foot Almost Was, and it rocked like a baby by its mother. It was the only sound besides Ray’s heavy breathing and Ed’s clomp clomping around the boat pointlessly. John sat quietly, trying to ignore the breathing and clomping, focusing on the calming sounds of the water, but his ears kept coming back to those sounds. Ray had his windbreaker propped up on some fishing poles, creating a makeshift shelter from the sun. His head lolled back, and despite the shade his face was very red, his lips cracked. John’s own lips were cracked, too, but he spent more time in the sun and had a much darker complexion, and so was faring better than both Ray and Ed, the owner of the boat they currently wallowed in. Ray was the worst, by far. His soft pink skin was like a solar panel, sucking in the rays of the harsh Atlantic sun, and the little pleasure craft that was so gently rocking them offered nothing in the way of protection from that sun.

John popped a button into his mouth to try to relieve some of the dryness, a trick he’d seen on a movie once. Thank God for Hollywood, eh? Ray stirred and made a sound, and John wondered if he was starting to suffer from heatstroke. He gave a nervous look back at Ray, who was pointing listlessly off into the horizon. John scanned it, but saw nothing, and looked at Ed. Ed had his hand up over his eyes and was turned in the direction Ray pointed, a frown of concentration on his face. John tried to lick his lips but it was like licking shredded cardboard.

“Holy crap,” Ed said finally. “I think Ray spotted a boat.” Ed went to the small footlocker at the back of the boat and began to rummage through it, finally pulling out a flare gun.

When Ed dropped the lid of the locker closed, his foot knocked over the empty gas cans, and John felt a flush of anger again at Ed. If it weren’t for those empty cans, and the three-quarters empty tank, they wouldn’t be on their third morning of floating around in the goddamn Atlantic ocean. They’d have relaxed happily in some beach-side bar on the keys and been home for dinner. If Ed weren’t such a fucking cheapskate he’d have a decent radio for them to call for help.

“I’ve only got one flare,” Ed said, stepping back to the side of the boat to gaze at the horizon again, and John’s anger deepened. Of course, John thought. He was so fucking thirsty, and it just fed into his anger at Ed. They sure weren’t going to be spending Christmas together this year, or any year. Once they got out of this, if they got out of this, John was going to white-out Ed’s name personally from his family’s address book. Delete his name from his contacts list. Hire a lawyer and sue his ass.

The boat had floated a little closer, and John could see it now. It was impossible to tell anything about it except that it was moving slowly, but in their direction. “Don’t waste it, then,” John grumbled.

Ed just nodded, focused on the boat. “Yeah, yeah, wait till we’re sure they can see it,” he nodded again. There was a thick line of sweat salt crusted into a ring around the armpits of Ed’s shirt, and John was reminded of when they’d tried the transponder the first day. “No worries, guys,” Ed had said as he flipped the switch, but nothing had happened. He flipped it several more times, then pulled open the panel to check the batteries. They sat in a thick layer of white and yellow crust. “Damn,” Ed had said. Damn, John thought. Ray had puked at the sight.

Ed must have seen John out of the corner of his eye, pacing and sort of snarling at him, because he jumped a little and turned in John’s direction. “Man, you ok? Calm down, we’ll be ok.”

Ok?” John spat. “Ok would have been plenty of drinking water and some emergency rations instead of McDonald’s and a twelve-pack of Old Milwaukee. Ok would have been the captain,” John poked Ed’s chest, forcing him back against the rail, “of the fucking” poke “boat” poke “making sure we had enough gas to make it.”

“Hey man,” Ed stammered, his hands fumbling with the flare gun. He almost lost it into the ocean. John looked down at it and went a little pale, backing up.

“Hey, sorry, Ed.” John wiped his face. There was barely any sweat, and his head was spinning. He realized suddenly that he’d swallowed the button, and when he looked down at his shirt he discovered that there were five buttons already missing. He didn’t remember five buttons. His shirt flapped open, the tails listing a little to the left, pulling against the single top button that was left. Tommy Bahama, his mind said. He shook his head a little, and Ray made another sound. They both looked back at the boat and it was much closer. John shivered in excitement and started to shout, waving his arms. His voice was hoarse and dry, though, and came out rather less passionately than he felt.

Someone on the boat waved their arms, and John could see that the boat was filled with people. As it drifted closer and closer, it became apparent that the boat was actually smaller than theirs, a dinghy really, and was brimming with men and women, their extremely dark skin glistening in the hot sun. People were sitting on the thin rails and holding onto each other to stay in. Some of the women held heavy bundles on their heads with their long, slim black arms. Their voices began to drift on the wind to where the men sat silently, and John could detect some French Creole. Suddenly the flare launched itself from behind John and he jumped, turning.

“What the hell, Ed?” John chirped. “Do you realize what that is?” He pointed at the boat behind him.

“It’s a possible rescue,” Ed replied. His eyes fell on the boat, squinted, and went wide. “Oh, crap.”

The boat was close enough for them to see the faces of what John suspected were Haitians. Their bright white eyes were all turned on the three men, and they chattered quickly among themselves. The women spoke louder than the men, and underneath it all was the strained hum of the tiny motor pushing against the weight of so many people.

“What if they try to board us?” John whispered. “They might have guns.”

Suddenly all the Haitian eyes turned and looked past the Almost Was, and the voices of the women rose in pitch. The men’s dark faces grew angry, and they began pointing and shouting at John, Ed, and Ray, as they passed them. John and Ed turned to look behind them, and John’s body went cold with relief as the distinctive cut of a U.S. Coast Guard boat came into view. It approached the two boats at a swift clip. The Haitian boat swung around and began chugging slowly back the way they came. “This is the United States Coast Guard,” the ship boomed. “Please turn off your engine and await further inquiry.”

The Haitian boat’s engine cut out, making a sort of coughing sound at the end. A man fell out and began to swim away from the boat and the Guard, one woman in particular yelling at him loudly and flailing her arm. The Coast Guard pulled up on its starboard side, leaving the Almost Was on its port side. One of the officers leaned over the rail and shouted down, “Hey, you guys doin’ ok?”

“No!” John and Ed shouted at the same time. “We ran out of gas,” Ed continued. “We’ve been here three days and I’m pretty sure my buddy is suffering from heat stroke.”

The officer shielded his eyes and took a good look at them, then disappeared back into the boat. Ed and John stood speechless until he returned, tossing them a few bottles of water and some Power Bars. “The refugees take priority, but we’ll radio a nearby ship to pick you up.”

“Wait, what the fuck?” Ed shouted. “We’re tax-paying Americans and we could die out here, man. We should take fucking priority.”

The officer grimaced. “Look, sir,” he said carefully. “It’s not our job to pick up assholes who run out of gas. We have better things to do with our time.” He hooked a thumb back over his shoulder.

John sat down on the locker next to Ray, and turned to give him some of the water. He heard the officer shout behind him, “Don’t let your friend drink too much all at once. He’ll throw it up, won’t do him any good. Soak his clothes to help cool him off.” He tossed some more water over to them, the bottles bouncing onto the floor of the boat as they hit. “We’ll get you some help, don’t worry. Sit tight a little longer.” He gave a short, tight little wave and went back to the other side of the boat.

Ed watched helplessly as the Coast Guard sailed away with the Haitians, while John poured water onto the collar of Ray’s shirt. Ray’s fingers grasped for more, but he was weak and John was able to pull the bottle away. “More like asshole, singular,” Ray rasped quietly, nodding at Ed’s pacing, sweaty back, and a loud, barking laugh escaped John before he could catch it.

“What’s so funny?” Ed asked, taking huge gulps of water. John took a couple of small sips himself, not trusting his own physical state to take more. Instead he poured the rest of the bottle down the back of his neck, soaking his own shirt. Neither John nor Ray answered.

John felt overcome by calm after having seen the Coast Guard and heard the officer’s voice, though once the ship disappeared back over the horizon the whole experience began to fade like dream, a heat mirage. Still, having seen the crumbs of civilization after three brutal days of endless blue oblivion snapped John back into sanity, and he began to realize that they could make it out of this alive. A few hours ago, they might as well have been floating on the forgotten oceans of Mars for all they saw around them; not even so much as a dolphin snorting at them from the side of the boat or the flecks of gull shit on their unsuspecting backs and heads. The Coast Guard had put John’s world back into perspective.

Ed leaned over the side of the Almost Was and retched up the water he had gulped too quickly. John frowned but helped Ray drink a little more water. There was a Power Bar by John’s foot. He leaned down and grabbed it, ripping open the golden wrapper with his teeth and taking a small bite. The texture was a little rubbery, but the vanilla flavor was about the best thing he’d ever tasted. He pulled off a small bite and handed it to Ray, who ate it gingerly; his lips were in pretty bad shape. John gave him another sip, squirming a little on the uncomfortable lid of the locker. Ray’s windbreaker shade was falling across John’s face now, too, and a breeze picked up, cooling them from the water that now soaked their shirts. John closed his eyes and sighed, the water soaking into his skin, into his soul. Ray patted his shoulder and he smiled without opening his eyes, nodded. They were going to be okay.

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