By Sue Kite
The wardroom was filled with the sound of merry laughter, piles of brightly colored wrapping paper and a table filled with opened gifts. Lee Crane looked on in amusement as a very self-conscious executive officer thanked everyone who had contributed to the festivities of a delayed birthday celebration.
“Okay, old man, one last gift,” Lee reminded Chip with a grin. The brightly colored, almost square, flat package had seemed to be pushed aside all evening.
“Jeez, Lee, I have more than I can count as it is. Certainly more than I deserve,” Chip protested. He surreptitiously pushed the package another inch further from his person.
Lee leaned over and glanced at the tag. “From your sister, Carol. What gives? You almost act like you don’t want it.”
“Well, it’s not like that….”
“Then what, Commander?” a deep voice asked. The admiral sounded serious, but the twinkle in his eye contradicted the tone.
“Well, Admiral….” Chip looked beaten. Most of the well-wishers were gone. There was only Lee, the admiral and Chip. Cookie and a messmate were cleaning up in the galley. “Uh, well, to be honest with you, I do know what it is. Mom kind of let the cat out of the bag during my last call.”
“Okay, then what’s the problem?”
“Oh, hell. If the truth be told, I really don’t want it.”
The three men eyeballed the package and then each other.
“Why not, Chip?” Lee asked.
“It’s a long story starting back when we were kids,” Chip began.
“Sounds like something that requires a fresh cup of coffee,” Nelson said, his voice filled with curiosity.
“I’ll get a pot,” Crane said. “Carol just had a show in a gallery, didn’t she?” he added over his shoulder.
Chip nodded. “She’s quite an artist.”
“Looks to be one of her paintings.”
“It is,” Morton confirmed. “But not a recent one.”
“I’d like to see it. Her landscapes are beautiful and her portraits are quite insightful,” Nelson prompted.
“This is really neither,” Chip admitted, even as he drew the small picture toward. Reluctantly he began to undo the wrapping. A fresh mug of coffee appeared at his elbow but he ignored it. The paper fell away and all three men stared at the painting in silence. Chip finally broke the silence. “Now you know what I mean?”
Lee coughed and then finally quipped, “Put it up in the nose. It will scare off any alien or monster that tries to come aboard.”
Nelson snorted. “That one would give nightmares. Reminds me of Munch’s The Cry or Scream or whatever it’s called.”
“Believe it or not, that’s the source for this,” Chip
replied. He stared at the twelve by twelve inch oil painting of a large piece
of cherry pie sitting on a
Nelson sat down across from his XO and took a sip of the fresh coffee. “Sounds like a story coming up.”
“Mmmm,” was all Chip said. “Kind of . . . silly.”
“No, no, it’s perfect for this time of the year,” Nelson replied with a wave of his hand. “Halloween and all.”
Chip cleared his throat. “Carol was taking Art II in her senior year and studying famous works of art.”
“Munch,” the admiral interjected.
“Munch. Some of the German impressionists, too. And the assignment was to create something with a similar kind of emotion or psychological impact.”
“It certainly has emotion,” Crane said. “Enough to give nightmares.”
“Funny you should mention that. Shortly before she painted it, I had a nightmare and had made the mistake of telling Carol about it.”
“What, your food coming back to haunt you?” Lee smirked.
“As a matter of fact, it was,” Chip retorted, glaring at his
“Okay, so the cherries were biting you back in your dreams.” Lee took a hasty sip of coffee to stifle his laughter. “The revenge of the killer cherries!” Now he really did laugh.
“Ha, ha!” Chip snapped. “Actually, it was a cow. We’d had steaks that night and I swapped my loaded baked potato to Carol for her steak. They were wonderful steaks, but for some reason they didn’t set well that night. I remember that nightmare vividly to this day. A steer and a cow were at the table holding sharp knives and forks, eyeing me hungrily while a Brahma bull was sharpening a butcher knife. Oh, and yeah, there was several different kinds of potatoes on their plates and pies and cakes on a sideboard.”
Nelson said evenly, “So Carol decided to change it to something more benign.”
“Doesn’t seem more benign to me,” Morton responded.
“Amen,” Crane said.
The admiral took another sip of his coffee and gazed at the bizarre painting thoughtfully. “Kind of reminds me of something that happened to me when I was much younger.”
The two younger men looked at him eagerly. Finally, Chip urged, “Care to share, Admiral?” Only Nelson’s eyes showed his willingness to divulge a childhood tale. Not many such stories had been forthcoming over the years. Most of the admiral’s stories were about Naval adventures. Not that Nelson’s life was a mystery, or that there was anything secret about his past; it was just that the admiral just didn’t like to talk about himself that much.
“I suppose it’s only fair, since you did,” Nelson finally said. He took another drink of his coffee. “Edith was eight and I was twelve. One week, late in the summer she began acting quite strangely, so strangely that my parents began to worry. During the day, she’d sit by the pond and just stare. At night, she’d tiptoe out of the house, shoebox in her hand. Mother and Father didn’t know she was going out at night, but I did. Since it was summer, I was staying up late working on experiments or just reading. I saw her white nightgown reflected in the moonlight and I was worried that she might be sleepwalking. I remember thinking that she might walk right into the pond. Indeed, that’s what she pretended to be doing when I followed her there. She was bent over the water, her toes barely wet. When I touched her, she started, looked at me in surprise and then asked innocently what we were both doing out there.”
“The next night she went out again; same result. I followed several more nights, but after four days of this, I simply watched and didn’t ‘wake’ her up. Like before, she had her shoebox under her arm. This night she had taken my mother’s butterfly net. Edith set the box down and kneeled at the edge of the pond. She held the net just above the water, poised. It dawned on me she was trying to catch something. But what? Fish? We had a great many exotic koi. But if she bothered them, Mother would be mortified. What the devil is she doing, I asked myself?
“After several minutes, I watched as the net swooped down into the dark water and disappeared for a moment. When it came back up, something was wriggling inside. I couldn’t tell what it was, but she put it in the box, laying a rock on top to keep whatever it was from pushing the lid off. I was amazed that my younger sister could have better luck fishing than I was. And with a net! She did that two more times.
“The problem, though, was that my parents would be extremely upset if she killed any of the fish. I really didn’t want her to get into trouble so I dashed down to the pond to grab the box and put the fish back into the pond.” Nelson paused and drank more coffee. Then he grinned. “Never could say that Edith was any whit less observant or resourceful than I was. She jerked the box away from my outstretched fingers. I hadn’t even seen when she had dropped the net!”
“’Don’t put them back!’” she hissed.
“’But fish can’t breathe in a box!’”
“’They’re not fish!’ she retorted, clutching the box to her chest. ’You don’t know everything!’”
“’Then . . . then what are they,’ I asked.”
“’You promise you won’t tell Mother?’”
“She hadn’t exacted a promise to not tell Father, so in case it was something dangerous, I promised,” Nelson continued with a sly smile.
“’Okay, take a peek, but don’t let it out.’”
“Even though the moon was full, it was still hard to see, but I was astonished to see three large frogs in the box. One gave a half-hearted hop, then seemed to be resigned to its fate and uttered a miserable croak. The others had already given up. I looked up at Edith. ‘What in the devil are you doing with these frogs?’ I asked her.”
“’Saving them,’ she pronounced in great solemnity.”
“I didn’t say anything for a moment. Then I asked the inevitable.”
“’Silly!’ she exclaimed. ‘Didn’t you hear Mother saying we were going to have frog legs for dinner tomorrow? That Marcel was going to cook them? I’m just trying to save these poor things. I don’t want to eat their legs. I don’t want to eat any part of them!’ Then she burst into tears.”
“I certainly couldn’t laugh, so I just hugged her and reassured her that these frogs were safe. Marcel would get the frog legs from the fish market. I think she believed me, because she put the frogs back into the pond. However, she didn’t eat any frog legs at dinner the next night, and she was back at the pond on Saturday morning, counting frogs.” Nelson calmly finished his coffee and set the mug down. He gazed at his two officers, who were doing their best to stifle their laughter.
Lee was the first to give in. He laughed until he was gasping. “That was too good! Did your parents wonder why she didn’t eat dinner?”
“I’m sure they did, but they didn’t question her on it.” The admiral yawned. “I’m tired, gentlemen. I’m going to bed.” He fixed each of them with a blue-eyed gaze. “Unless you have a story, Lee, I think you both need to do the same.”
Lee shook his head. “No story.”
Chip shrugged. "You owe us one, you know, Lee. And you can't make me believe you didn't have some kind of wild adventure when you were a kid, even if you were an only child."
"I can't top yours or the admiral's, so I'm not even going to try. Besides, I'm too tired to think."
"Good point, lad," Nelson agreed. "Good night, gentlemen."
Chip nodded and set his mug down. “Good night, Admiral.” He gazed ruefully at the painting and then wrapped it back up in the fancy paper. “I’ll decide where this should go tomorrow.”
Crane just quietly got up, deposited all of the mugs on the mess room counter. “I’m just going to check aft and then I’ll hit the sack, too. Get a few hours before my watch.”
Soon the weary captain, sustained at this point by caffeine
was heading aft toward the rear most point of the sub. Repairs had been
completed recently on the boat's propulsion units and he wanted to make sure
everything was holding up satisfactorily. Tomorrow would be a full workday with
a variety of activities. Crane didn't want any surprises. The turbines' humming
grew louder as he went through the door and into the corridor that led to
the main engines. As he entered the room that housed the starboard turbine he
frowned. The lights had been dimmed to a twilight that was not only
uncharacteristic, but against regulations. Even if there was no one in the
room, there had to be a certain level of light. Crane felt the slight
niggling of extra awareness that he usually felt when he was on an
off-boat mission for ONI or some other entity. Without moving more than his
eyes, he looked around and listened. There was a slight whispering of
sound, unidentifiable at the moment and Lee tried to pinpoint its source.
Despite the size of the room, there were pipes, shafts and a variety of
machines filling it from one side to the other. It would be a perfect place for
a saboteur, he thought, then squelched the thought. Why would an enemy agent
wait until they were on their return leg to do something? Why wouldn't he
sabotage the boat earlier, when they had received the sensitive documents; before
they had been sent to
Again, he listened and noted remotely that the engines were running smoothly. That was one good thing. Shadows from the few lights seemed to waver and Lee stopped. The shadows continued to move softly, some toward him and others away. He was reminded of that shadow-man they had encountered not too very long ago. There was a slight draft, cold against his skin and the captain thought briefly of his encounter with Krueger. That brought a shudder.
Suddenly, there were spectral white figures all around him, groping, pushing and closing in on him. They wailed like banshees and laughed like ghouls, their voices bouncing off the walls with fiendish delight. Their hands were grasping and icy. But they were solid, and though they seemed cold as death, Lee knew he could inflict damage on them. With energy doubled by anger and determination, he struck out, hitting one in the face, another in the torso. He was gratified to hear a whoosh of expelled breath. These were no ghosts! Still, as he karate chopped another and turned to kick the fourth, Crane wondered what this was all about. Not saboteurs, not real ghosts, although dressed like them. So what were they?
His fist connected again and again and he heard muffled curses. Crewmen with a vendetta? As he drew back for another punch, he felt something behind his knees; making his legs buckle. He pinwheeled his arms, trying to regain his balance, but it was useless. He fell over one of his assailants, crashing against a pipe. The dark was absolute this time.
Lee Crane woke to the bright light of sickbay and several worried faces gazing at him. His head was throbbing in cadence to his heartbeat, but what astonished him was the shape of the men around him. Only Doc and Chief Sharkey were unscathed. Kowalski had two black eyes, Ron had a split lip, Miller’s wrist was bandaged and Riley had a bandage around his head and seemed slightly bent over.
“You okay, Skipper?” Sharkey asked, his voice anxious.
“I’m fine,” Crane replied, realizing that he was certainly more okay than the crewmen around him. “What the hell happened?”
Sharkey glared at the rates. “These knuckle heads were trying to play a Halloween prank on me. I responded to a call to check out something aft and found you laid out. Four sheets on the deck and them nearly the same way.”
At that moment, Nelson burst into the room, bare-foot and in his pajamas. “Are you all right, lad?” he asked Crane. At the captain’s nod, he studied the rest of the men. “What happened?”
“I think the Chief was explaining a prank gone very wrong,” Doc said mildly, rolling his eyes.
As Nelson switched his attention from his captain to his CPO, Lee slowly sat up. “You mean I did that?” he asked, pointing to the injured men. They all looked sheepishly at the floor.
Sharkey grinned. “You sure did, Skipper. They couldn’t look much worse if they had brawled in a bar with a contingent of leathernecks.”
“Are you saying that you were laying in wait for Captain Crane?” Nelson asked the rates tersely.
“No, sir. For Chief Sharkey, sir,” Ski replied. “We really thought it was the chief. Um, it was kind of shadowy, sir.”
“It was only a joke, Admiral. I promise,” Riley added. The others nodded.
Nelson gazed at each of the men and then back at Lee. He looked at Doc who was shaking his head in exasperation.
“You men get on out of here,” Doc ordered the rates, his ire clearly rising to peak level. “And there will be no medical excuses for your next watch, so you’d better get some sleep and hope the captain’s in a good mood in the morning.”
“If you don’t need me, sirs, I’ll make sure those goof-offs don’t pull anything else and then I’ll get back to my duty station,” Sharkey said. Doc nodded and the CPO headed out almost as fast as the rates had.
Nelson watched silently. Then the comedy of the situation struck him and he started to chuckle, then he burst out laughing. When he had control of himself, he wiped his eyes and said, “Lee, you said you didn’t have a story to beat ours. You’re wrong. You’re a story in action.”
Crane frowned. Then he, too, caught the humor and smirked. “At least I came out on top of this fiasco,” he quipped.