By CJ Hansen
Kowalski tilted his head back, resting it against the bulkhead behind him. Once again he bit back the urge to move. The broken piece of crate behind him dug harder into his spine. Both legs were so numb from their cramped position he’d had to check to see if they were still attached. His eyes wandered over the dark compartment, searching for a distraction. If he had a gun he’d shoot out those damn blinking red lights that kept echoing in flashes off the water in the hold, even if the result was total darkness. In the flashing crimson glare Ski could almost believe the warm wetness beneath his hands was blood.
The involuntary shiver sliding reflexively down his aching spine brought an answering moan from the man in his arms.
"Easy, sir…" Kowalski regretted the movement he hadn’t been able to control. Holding his breath he waited until the burden in his arms stilled again. The solid weight resting heavily upon his chest was a comfort. The too slow rise and fall of the lungs beneath his palms a reassurance badly needed by the seaman. He’d been convinced they were both dead.
Now he waited.
He was sure now. The water level had stopped rising. The repair crew must have been able to seal off the leak in the adjoining compartment. Five minutes ago it had been a flood; the rupture in the next compartment pouring through the adjacent cargo hold like a tsunami while Seaview’s alarm had pounded through tender ears.
Surprised and off-balance from the boat’s unexpected rocking, Kowalski, Henderson, and Captain Crane were ill prepared for the sudden assault. Instinctively heading for safety, Kowalski made it completely up the ladder, shoving the hatch open, the Captain right behind him. Henderson screamed the Skipper’s name, terrified. His grip knocked loose from the ladder by a rogue crate, the blast of seawater sucked him into a maelstrom of debris.
That cry of ‘Skipper’ struck the Captain like a stab in the back. His gaze locked with Kowalski’s, the look in those wide dark eyes… Dropping like a rock into the torrent, the Skipper was yelling fiercely for Ski to get out and secure the hatch.
Kowalski had secured the hatch—from the inside.
Henderson had been dead before the Captain could get to him. Crushed between a loose crate and the compartment wall. Desperate to get to his Skipper, Ski struggled to keep his balance against the force of the water and the crazed rocking of the ship. Seaview was having a real tantrum. Kowalski cursed Henderson silently, so the man was in trouble, did he have to take the Skipper down with him? Ski had just enough time to watch Captain Crane slam head first into the bulkhead before he was buried beneath colliding crates. Then the boat stilled.
Ski was still convinced his heart had stopped beating. The resumed pounding in his breast as he pulled the unconscious but still breathing man from the water had actually hurt. It was when he tried to drag the Skipper towards the hatch that he realized there was a problem. Somehow the Captain’s foot was trapped. Ski propped him up against the bulkhead. Letting go in an effort to lever away one of the crates, Ski only had time to quickly lunge for his Captain again as the lean body slid sideways back under the seawater. There was nothing close or portable enough to prop the Captain up with. Kowalski felt like kicking something. So he did. The crate didn’t budge. The bones in Kowalski’s foot did. Swaying from pain he still kept his grip on the Captain.
Laughing almost hysterically Ski slid in close behind his Skipper. Lowered both of them until he was sitting, his Captain resting securely against him. Exhausted, he rested his face against the soggy, wildly curling hair. His palms pressed against the lean muscled chest. It felt like sacrilege to be touching him in this informal manner. Like his hands should be feeling scorched. Seeing him this vulnerable shook the very foundations of Ski’s faith. He felt a surge of almost hatred for Henderson.
Eventually he realized they were both still alive. That the water was no longer pouring in. That it was quiet. Emergency lights blinked in the darkness. And some broken part of crate had become trapped between his back and the bulkhead supporting him. An attempt to move only brought a choked groan of protest from his charge.
It was taking too damn long for the rescue party to get here. The Skipper had to have been missed by now. Ski couldn’t rid himself of the terror that had gripped him the moment his Captain let go of the ladder; the only thing holding him together was the evidence of life beneath his hands. He stared fixedly up at the closed hatch. Listening with every fiber of his being for some sound of deliverance.
The clang and crash of metal almost brought tears to Kowalski’s eyes.
"Lee!" Mr. Morton’s concerned yell set off an answering reaction. The Skipper tried weakly to twist up and towards the safety of that familiar voice, his mumble of ‘Chip’ not quite reaching the man leaning down through the hatch.
"Yes sir," was the quick response. " The Skipper is hurt, sir. I can’t get him loose."
Kowalski looked down at his Captain as the man turned enough to see who was holding him.
"Kowalski..." His Skipper’s voice was reproachful and longsuffering. "I ordered you to..."
"I know, sir. Sorry, sir." Ski interrupted. Somehow those hazel eyes did not look surprised. There was a touch of tolerant frustration in the dazed expression that glared halfheartedly at the seaman.
"Just relax, Skipper."
Watching the sturdy Exec approach, Kowalski felt enormously reassured.
"It’s okay now, sir. It’s okay."