“I returned to find him no longer alive,” he said and drifted back from a dream so real he must have lived it time and again. With the corpse of a friend, he was alone again, alone on an island shrinking smaller in the tide, soon to disappear beneath waves. Cold, the curtain of twilight drew night from the east, erasing colors from vision, leaving only a sketch and the sound of waves washing through kelp, crashing to rock, the drops spattering near him.
“My head,” he said to himself as he gently probed his brow with cold fingers, senses returning, but his hands were too numb to make fists. He forced a breath. “I must have hit my head.” Searching his thoughts for pieces that came together as an answer, his mind could no better understand than his eyes could focus on the lighthouse across the sea, flashing in the clouds. All he knew was that his friend was dead and the boat, thudding and scraping, thrashed on rocks like an empty barrel.
He tried to stand, but fell back dizzied. Each breath he took chilled him further and the clothes, those wet clothes, sucked life from him. He must do something or be taken. “His coat! I must get his coat.” Crawling on knees to his gone friend, he tore at the buttons of the jacket, pulled it from the body and wrapped it around himself, not bothering with the sleeves. The sounds of the sea became muffled as he huddled to the rocks to escape most of the wind.
The island was covered in darkness and the only noise above the wind was the sound of the buoys marking the rocks, one a clanging bell and one a horn, moaning randomly through the evening waves. The boat knocked against the rocks and, again, a crash and a wave swept over. The current streamed so fast that the island seemed to leap through the troughs of waves as if it were moving forward. A wake trailed swirling.
Am I to die here? Too tired to stay awake, he knew he must. As the wash of mortality flooded his mind, he saw the image of his fleshless skull. Teeth clenched, he pulled himself closer to the rocks and shuddered, chilled to where he could not warm himself, cold more overwhelming than fear. Darkness grew deeper, the air stilled, and he could not help but be engulfed in the dream once more.
There in his visions, a morning unleashed before him as a dog weaved through his knees and out the screen door to join his two boys at play in the yard. He called a farewell to his wife and children and took two stairs in one bound. Late and with a long ride ahead, he made swiftly down the clam shell path, past the gate and onto the stones that wound down the hill toward the town and main harbor. The clock on town hall chimed like a ship’s clock, striking two bells to tell he was late. Two boys greeted him as they puffed up the hill to the house.
“Good morning, per-fessor,” one prodded.
“Morning Robby…Malcolm. You boys well today?”
“Better than you, per-fessor!” laughed the jester.
“You’re going to Stage Island today, Doctor?” the other called as the distance grew between them.
“I thought so,” he yelled and turned to walk backwards. “Want to come?”
The boys weren’t listening anyway, talking amongst themselves in heavy breath as they plodded up the hill, one exaggerating the steepness of the road by pushing his knees with the palms of his hands. He turned back around and stopped short by a fence to meet the earthen face of an older woman whose head appeared suddenly from chores in the garden. Through the years, her face had frozen stern, even though she was actually smiling.
“Good morning, ma’am”, he said and slowed out of courtesy.
“Good morning, Doctor Wyman,” she said as she posed with one hand holding a shovel on her hip and wiped her brow with the other sleeve. With a deep breath and quick exhale, she asked, “Did I hear young Malcolm say Stage Island?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m going out there to—”
A man’s voice called from the porch. “Be careful out there, Professor!” the man warned. “The rocks around that island are quite fond of taking boats for their own,” the man said and then fell into a wheezing cough. As Dave moved along the fence, he met the eyes of the man, a cheery salt with his face shining in the morning, his coughing fit now over.
“Ayuh, fine one,” he rasped, sucking on a cold pipe. “Approach her from the north-east. You’ll see the rocks better that way.”
“Thank you,” Dave said, wondering if the man was kidding, “but I don’t think we’ll be going ashore…Good day.” Before he could move along, the man stopped him.
“Oh, Professor,” he said, dragging out the last of the word with a rising inflection. “Professaah…anything special you want a see out theyaah? It’s just a pile o’ rocks.”
“I know, but it’s a great place to dive.”
The man nodded slowly, silent. Dave went. The road was lined with other small houses whose gardens spilled over fences, filling the air with a sweet life its own. Cobblestones led to the village, though a path broke off to the left and meandered down a steep hillside. The harbor appeared like a photograph pulled up slowly from an envelope of high grass.
The scent of flowers was replaced by salt and fish, borne on a freshening breeze, and the sun glistened on cat’s paws as it bathed those already working among the boats. His pace quickened down the hill, his knees nearly buckling from the added burden of the slope, and soon he was waving to Thomas to bring the boat to the dock. A chill bit him as he stood in the early-morning shade of the fish house and squinted over the inlet towards the sea. Thomas released the Elizabeth from her mooring and she neared with the drone of lumbering diesels. The silence broke as he boarded, the engines ever present.
“Morning, Tom. Are you ready?” he asked in a raised voice, already knowing the answer since the man at the helm glared at him with one eyebrow raised. Elizabeth slipped by the dock in one motion and roared toward the shimmering slice in the beach.
Then something was wrong. Swimming to consciousness, freezing, shivering, rubbing his arms to warm himself, a ship’s horn breached the rhythm of silence. A light swept past, a light from a searching boat.
“They're searching for us!” he yelled, forgetting.
He pushed to his feet and stumbled over the rocks, toward the sound of an engine. Again, the horn called. Where is it? Where is the boat? The light shined and blinded him.
Someone yelled, “There! See him? It’s Dave Wyman.”
“Keep the light on him!” another voice called out. He heard men talking. One said something about keeping the boat where it was and holding the lamp, but Dave couldn’t see out as the spotlight made him wince. “Stay there, Dave!” one of them yelled over a loudspeaker. “We’ll come and get you!”
A young man came in a small boat, the lamp from the larger boat lighting his way as he rowed through the rocks and onto the island. He slipped to one knee getting out of the boat, grimacing in pain for a moment as Dave approached.
“What the hell, Dave? Where’s Thomas?” he cried over the waves.
Dave pointed to the other side of the mound where in the distance the Elizabeth rocked in waves crashing over her sides. “I think he’s dead,” he whispered in the wind. The man stared expressionless.
“Hold the boat,” he said and started away. Dave took half a step and fell hard to the ground. Waves came over the rocks, washed the boat sideways and pulled it away. The man ran to it and took a line tied to the bow, then came back to Dave. He looked at him with a small flashlight, seeing a man almost unconscious, then glanced around the rocks, nowhere to anchor.
“Hold this, Dave,” he said to no response. “Dave! Dave, wake up!” he shouted, pushing at him with the rope in his hand. Still no response. The danger set into his mind as another wave took the boat and tugged at the line. He had no radio and looked out to the boat with its light shining on him and held his hands out to the sides, palms up. He thought for a moment.
“I’m gonna tie the rope to your arm, Dave. Don’t let go of it,” he said, knowing he was talking to himself.
The next thing Dave Wyman remembered was struggling to get himself into a boat with a stranger who he was sure he knew. The man rowed them through the rocks and waves, past the wreck of the Elizabeth, out toward deep water. The spotlight silhouetted the rower as they approached the larger boat waiting. Then the water sucked out from below and they were atop a rock with a wave breaking down on them. They nearly swamped, but the rower pulled hard away from the rock as the sea filled around again. Dave fumbled in an effort to bail, but they were alongside the other boat before any water had been cast over the side. Dave clambered over the gunwale and flopped to the deck. He looked up to see the silhouette of what seemed to be the chief of police.
“One hell of a sight-seeing trip you took today, Doctor Wyman,” the chief said. “A guy in an airplane radioed just before dark and said he saw a boat on the rocks here…Jesus, you’re in bad shape. I’ll get you a blanket!”
The other man stepped onto the boat and tied the dingy line to a stern cleat, calling out, “Thomas Soverge is dead!”
The chief paled and said, “Are you sure? We should go back.”
“He’s dead, all right. I couldn’t lift him by myself. He’ll make it through the night where he is. That’s more than I can say for us if we go back ashore. It’s easier on the way in, but you can’t see a damn thing comin’ back. The light blinds you. Let’s go. I brought soup, Dave. I’ll get you some. Just sit here. We’ll be home soon.”
The chief returned to the helm as Dave Wyman struggled to sit up and wrap himself in blankets as the propellers engaged, pushing them from the island. The man who was familiar to Dave, his name still forgotten, handed him a steaming mug. The liquid was hard to contain for the waves and spilled over his hands, burning the numbness. The nameless man went to the wheel and talked to the chief. Dave couldn’t hear what they said as he spilled the soup, but he thought, How did he know Thomas was dead?
The engines yawned to life and the boat plowed into darkness, toward a beacon by the harbor. The warmth of soup flowed into Dave and fear began to leave his body, overwhelmed by exhaustion.
“Coast Guard Portland, Coast Guard Portland, this is Harbor Patrol Wianno on Channel One Six, over,” said the chief into a microphone, slowly, as if an exclamation point followed most of the words. The other man steered the boat through unseen waves. Dave watched with his eyes half open and chin to his chest, his nutant head shifting with the seas.
“Vessel calling Coast Guard Portland, switch to Channel Two Two, over.”
The chief switched the radio and called back, “Coast Guard Portland, Harbor Patrol Wianno, over.”
“Harbor Patrol Wianno, Coast Guard Portland, go ahead, over.”
“Coast Guard Portland, this is Chief Prence from Wianno. We’ve just picked up a man from a wreck on Stage Island. We are headed back to Wianno. Apparently, another man is dead and his body remains on Stage Island. Repeat, a man is dead and his body remains on Stage Island. Male, Caucasian, mid-forties, over.”
“Harbor Patrol Wianno, Coast Guard Portland, that’s a Charley. We will dispatch to Stage Island, over.”
“Roger. I’ll call you when I get to the harbor on Wianno. Harbor Patrol Wianno out.”
The chief came to Dave and asked what happened.
“I returned to find him no longer alive,” he said, and drifted.
The chief looked at him with a flashlight and asked, “Did you hit your head, Professor?” There came no answer. “I’ll get a doctor to come down to the pier. You just sit tight. I’ll get some more blankets.” He made his way back to the helm and radio and told the other man to keep Dave warm.
Awake, Dave was in bed. A dream, he thought, for an early-morning confusion made him feel like he awoke into a dream. The lamp seemed upside down in the sunrise and gulls laughed outside, but the pain he felt as he sat forward forced him back to the pillow with a wince. His wife came to the room, kissed his forehead and told him not to speak. He whispered for her to say what she knew.
“Honey, you were in a wreck. You hit your head on something. You have a concussion. Do you remember?”
He nodded painfully. “Sort of.”
“Do you remember about Thomas?”
Slowly, he recounted, “He’s dead.”
“Yes,” she sobbed, burying her head into his chest and hugging him. “I’m so sorry.” She sniffed. He tried to hug back, but the pain was too much. They lay there for a while, both crying for a lost friend, and then she sat up, composed, and wiped her face with her wrists. “Honey, the police want to talk to you. They said that they would come this morning. Do you remember anything?” He could only shake his head.
“I’ll bring you some tea and toast. Do you want anything else?”
He shook his head once again.
Through the pane beside his bed, Davis Wyman followed a flock of starlings as they approached, darting back and forth like schooling fish, flashing black, then silver, then black again. In unison, they landed on a tree, then they took to wing and landed by a puddle to drink. Their heads dipped to the water and rose to the sky, the fluid flowing down their desperate throats. Each skittish bird turned its head and looked around before taking another drink. At once, they all flew again, flittered in a silver circle through the air, then back to the tree, then on wing, the puddle, the tree, the puddle and so on until the puddle was nearly gone. Then they flew away, leaving the island.
The sky was dim, but the sun broke through the clouds every now and again. The room brightened each time and as soon as he no longer needed to squint, the light faded and he had to wait for his eyes to readjust. He closed his eyes for what seemed a while until he heard a car approach.
An unmarked police car is as obvious as one with lights flashing on top of it, he thought as one approached. Perhaps it’s the fact that it looks like a cop car, perhaps it’s the headlights, or maybe it’s the look of the person driving. Dave noticed them because of his driving record. He used to drive like James Dean. Nevertheless, such a car came up the hill and into the driveway and he was stricken with a feeling of flight, a feeling never before had in his body. Perhaps he was simply anxious.
Two men climbed from the car and stepped to the front door. His wife greeted them as he watched from the window by his bed. He heard them speak, but could not discern the words. Then the three of them clogged up the wooden stairs, Dave’s wife first to announce them.
“The—” she said, cutting herself off when she knew it was obvious what she was going to say.
“Send them in,” Dave said.
The men entered the room with hats in hand. His wife opened the window, then left after asking if anyone wanted coffee or something to drink. Dave recognized one of the men as the local police, Chief Jim Prence. He did not know the other man, but his matching socks told that he was not from the island. So did his jacket and tie.
“Good morning, Dave,” said Chief Prence. “How are you feeling?”
“I can’t think of a witty response, Chief, so I’ll just say fine,” he answered with a half smile.
The chief cracked a sad smile back. “Dave, I can’t tell you how sorry everyone is about Thomas. We know you were friends.” Dave looked away for a moment. “This is Sergeant Kipridge. He’s with the state police.”
“Hello, Doctor Wyman,” the sergeant said with a nod.
The chief continued, “There seems to be a small problem, Dave. Can we talk?”
“What sort of a problem? Thomas is dead. That’s not a small problem,” Dave said, realizing he was being short with them. “Please,” he said, “excuse me. Please sit down.”
Sergeant Kipridge took a seat on the windowsill, but Chief Prence, after looking around to see only a rocking chair, remained standing by the door. The sunlight again crept from behind the clouds and in through the window like a spotlight on the bed, keeping the faces of these visitors cloaked in shadow while Dave’s eyes adjusted.
The chief started slowly. “The problem is…that we…we haven’t found his body.” Silence clutched the room for a moment, with no one knowing what to say and none having the urge to speak. “There’s more,” he continued. “But first, are you sure he was dead? You were in bad shape when we brought you in.”
“I’m pretty sure. I can’t say I’m positive, but... Who was the kid who rowed me out to the boat? He was sure, wasn’t he?” He paused. “What more is there?”
“That was one of my officers, actually the assistant harbormaster. He agrees that Thomas was dead, but—”
“But what,” Dave flared.
“He insists that Thomas had a gunshot wound.”
Dave’s cheeks fell and crumpled in disbelief and Sergeant Kipridge stood up. “We’re not making any accusations, Doctor Wyman,” he said. “We just want to find out what happened. We’ve been out to Stage Island and found nothing. Was there anyone else with you yesterday? Anyone at all?”
Dave could only answer no, but bits of his memory were jostled. He became apparently confused. A gunshot wound?
Copyright © David Brinning. All rights reserved.