A stand-alone story, place after the events of “Terror on Dinosaur Island.”
One minute I was sound asleep, the next my eyes were wide open and staring at the white ceiling over my head. I didn’t even know what had awakened me. I rolled over and grabbed up the pager on the bedside table. No number came up, so we hadn’t been paged.
There was a soft thud down the hall. I recognized the sound of the fridge door slamming shut. Glancing over at the clock, I wasn’t too surprised to see it was half past two in the morning. Had he even been to bed?
I slid out of my own, snagging the jeans draped across the foot of the bed and pulled them on over my boxers. I pulled an old tee shirt over my head and in my bare-foot I headed down the hall. The light in my roommate’s door was off and the bed was empty: rumpled, but empty. He still wasn’t sleeping then. When was he going to put this behind him and move on?
I turned on one heel and headed toward the kitchen. The light was still on over the stove and what was left of the pizza we had ordered for dinner was on the counter. The bent cap to a beer bottle sat forlornly next to the box. He wasn’t in the kitchen and he wasn’t in the living room. Where the hell was he? I just stood still for a second, listening.
Vaguely, I could hear music coming from the garage. I should have known. I moved toward the garage door then stopped with my hand on the knob. Should I try to talk to him about this? Maybe he’d be better off if I kept my nose of it. Obviously he wasn’t dealing with this well and the longer he kept this pinned up the longer it would take for him to get over it. I turned the knob and took the two steps down into the garage. The concrete floor was cold against my bare feet. The overhead light was white and glaring off the gray concrete walls and floor. There was the clink of tools and a muffled curse. A second later his dark head popped up over the seat of the vintage motorcycle that was his hobby when he wasn’t on duty.
“We get a call? I left my cell in the house.” Leon Kowalski said, turning his attention back to the undercarriage of the Triumph. I walked over to the radio on the workbench and gave the volume knob a swift crank, leaving the music still playing but low enough for us to talk.
“No, things are quiet. The exec promised us three weeks and barring a national disaster I can’t see him breaking that promise. Something wrong with the Bonnie?”
“She’s got a miss that’s driving me crazy. I thought I’d tinker with it for a little while. What'd you come down here for?”
“I heard you pilfering in the fridge so I thought I’d check on you.”
Ski shook his head and raked a hand through his jet-black hair. “You’re the exec now? I don’t exactly look like the skipper, now do I? Hell Pat, after the stunt I pulled, I’m surprised I’m still aboard.”
I sat down on the step and watched my best friend tinker with his toy. He bought that cycle after saving up for six months. It took another three months before he could scrounge enough parts, time, and labor to get her running again. It was Ski’s therapy, how he escaped the demands of what we dealt with when we were at sea. “You have to get over that. Nobody holds that against you. I keep telling you that, when the hell are you gonna listen to me?”
“Easy for you to say, you didn’t offer to lie against the skipper to save your own sorry hide.”
“Ski, you did what you had to do. The skipper knows, he’s always known, that you would never turn against him. Benson was out of control and if you hadn’t stepped in when you did he probably would have shot and killed the skipper. It’s the only reason he volunteered to go ashore anyhow. He had it in his head the skipper killed Grady.”
“I know. Still, I mean, I’d follow the skipper anywhere, anytime. You know that. What does that say about me? The fact that I could even think about turning against him like that. What does that say about my loyalty to man who saved our butts more times than I can count?”
“Benson can along with one purpose; revenge. He was going to kill Captain Crane. Then he’d have shot and killed us, too. The skipper couldn’t make him see reason and I couldn’t think of anything that would have been useful. I just play with wires. I’m not a negotiator.”
“I lay awake at night and I can’t get the words out of my head. I remember it like it was just this morning. You'll need a witness, I said. I can testify that the skipper blew his top, tried to kill you. You had to shoot him in self-defense. I'll testify that way. God, who would even have believed me?”
“Ski, it doesn’t matter. You got Benson off center. You got the gun away from him before he could hurt anybody.”
“Pat, how can you sit there and defend what I did? You stayed loyal. Nobody questions you. You’re not the one who socked the skipper when he first came onboard. When I found out who it was, I thought my days were number. You don’t go around punching commanding officers. I could just see my career going down the toilet."
“Ease up, Ski. What is it about Benson that’s got you so bent out of shape? I’ve never seen you obsess like this before. It’s not like you.”
Ski didn’t answer right away. He was clamming up on me, like always. Instead he fiddled some more with the Bonneville, but I could tell the attempt was half-hearted at best. Finally he put down the screwdriver and reached for the bottle on the floor by his side. He killed the rest of the bottle then lifted his gaze to look up at me. “What if I had been Benson and Grady had been you?”
I couldn’t breathe. It’s one thing to know what you would do for your friends. It’s another to hear what they would do for you. “Ski, when we got offered the chance to transfer to Seaview, the first thing I thought was ‘a sub with windows? This thing will last about five minutes’. Since then, I’ve decided that there isn’t another boat I’d rather be on. I’ve got the best crew, I get to work with my best friend and I’ve got the best commanding officers in the Navy. I couldn’t ask for more.”
“So you’re saying if you die onboard, at Crane’s orders, it’s okay by you?”
“I don’t want to die, Ski. We’ve been stuck on the bottom, eaten by mutant jellyfish, and God only knows what else. I don’t want to die. But if given the choice I’d like to go out doing something that matters. If it’s at the skipper’s orders, or even the admiral’s or the exec, than that’s the way it is.”
Again Ski was quiet. I wasn’t sure if I had said anything to him that made sense. I had seen the skipper get like this, dark and moody, broody-like. The exec or the admiral could almost always find the words to bring the skipper around. But I wasn’t the exec and I sure as hell wasn’t the admiral.
“What if I clock out on you?” he finally asked.
“You owe me fifty bucks. You’re not going anywhere.” I shot back. I didn’t want to think about Kowalski’s memorial service. So we commit his body to the deep…I fought back a shudder and tried to think of better things. I finally stood up. “You going to bed any time soon? I need some sleep.”
“I think I’ll stay up a little longer.”
“Whatever. Kill the lights before you go to bed. Electric bill is high enough without you roaming the house at all hours of the night.”
I turned to go back into the house and Ski called out to me one more time.
“Thanks. It still bothers me but I think I can work through this.”
“Anytime, man. Everybody feels like low tide sometimes. Just keep in mind you’re not alone.”
Ski snorted. “You’re just saying that ‘cause rent’s due next week.”
“Just looking after my interests. I’m going to bed. Catch you in the morning.”
Behind me I heard the radio cranked up a notch. I caught the strains of some random Rolling Stones song and a second later I caught Ski’s voice singing along.
Have I mention Ski can’t sing?