The freighter rode in on the high tide, under a night with gorged moon, when all the harbor had either a mug to the lips or a head on a pillow. Two dock workers unlucky with the late shift witnessed the ship slide into a berth but noticed no crew working the sails and tending the rigging. The deck had been vacant upon initial examination. The only sounds their ears could pick up was the limp flapping of lack sail cloth and the creaking of the masts.
Inspired by superstition and loose bladders, the dock workers rushed to a well-known tavern neighboring the docks. There they found and shook Rackham from a comfy bed and the warm embrace of a buxom wench. In their haste, they’d hoped the senior worker had slammed back enough ail earlier in the evening to dull his wits. Then he’d be easier to coax into taking their place and boarding the docked freighter to investigate the crew-less vessel.
They were right. Rackham’s head pounded and his crotch itched. Eh obliged with little prodding.
“Keep your damn voiced to a whisper,” Rackham ordered. “I’m comin’.”
Along with the freighter, the sea had dragged in a storm.
Rain dosed the docks mercilessly.
A lantern in hand, greatcoat already soaked, Rackham had the two craven dock walkers place a gangplank up to the gloomy freighter and he ascended to the ship. Quick look over his shoulder showed him the retreating workers. Cravens! Rackham cursed the workers for their cowardice, asking the sea god Tridon to swallow them whole during the next storm.
Rackham sighed, rubbed his face, and waited for his head to stop ringing. When it didn’t, he proceeded onto the ship anyways amid protests.
He could feel under his boots the harbor’s gentle sway rocking the freighter, lulling his already sleepy mind.
He yawned while walking to the captain’s quarters.
The door was ajar. Hinges creaking. Banging against the frame.
Light from the lantern he shined inside showed an empty, cramped space. The bunk’s sheets and blanket were tucked neatly as if not slept in. The floor was bare, swept recently. The writing desk was clear of clutter except a map held down by trinkets. Rackham allowed his eyes one last turn around the captain’s private cabin before shutting the door, tightly this time.
A quick hop up to the quarterdeck and the helm revealed nothing. The wheel wasn’t even tied in place. How the ship managed to navigate into port was beyond Rackham.
Something didn’t feel right. But Rackham’s brain didn’t want to move faster than a crawl. He placed a hand over his mouth to stifle a yawn. His head continued to pound mercilessly.
From the quarterdeck he couldn’t see inside the crow’s nest, not even with the moon full and shining bright, turning the undulating, pitted waters of the harbor a mirrored silver that reflected the dark night.
Where did they all get to?
Animalistic survival growled at Rackham to chalk this ship up to abandonment. To wait until daybreak to search further, to inventory the contents and look through the manifest.
Gulls squawked sleepily, shifting wings to beat away the rain slicking their feathers. The noise of rearrangement was far off, nowhere near the abandoned freighter.
There was an unsettling quiet about the ship, with Rackham at the center.
His back prickled with unease. His legs wanted to carrying him down the gangplank and back to the dock.
Yet against his better judgment he went down into the ship’s hull.
On his way down into the bottom of ship’s guts, Rackham quickly explored the mess areas. There appeared to have been dinner in progress but no one had clean up. It was just like everyone had gotten up and left. Likewise the hammocks hung limp. Empty. Like everything else on the ship.
That growl was turning into a scream now. Leave now. Somethin ain’t right. Yet he pressed forward… or rather downward.
His boots sank into two inches of water upon climbing down the ladder to the hull. Immediately Rackham felt the hull was empty. Normally he’d feel the pressure of crates, barrels, something pressing against the air of the ship’s belly, forcing the air in the space out to make room for whatever the ship was transporting. But the hull felt open as the sky on a cloudless day.
After a couple breathes Rackham began to choke. A stench had crept into his lungs and shit in his belly. He doubled over and unloaded what remained of his dinner all over his boots.
Blinking away tears he wiped his mouth and opened his eyes. Bent over he was nearly nose deep in the water. Water the color of blood with bits and chunks floating about that reminded him not of his supper.
Again, Rackham retched until he was dry heaving.
What’s going on here? What happened?
Fear flung Rackham to stand straight.
His lantern held out protectively, Rackham attempted and failed to control his desperate breathing.
He opened the hood on his lantern wider, extending the flame’s illumination further, wider.
In the light from his lantern he finally found the crew of the ship. Bodies lay facedown in the bloody water. Clothes in taters. Shirts torn open. Flesh eviscerated by long, deep cuts that seemed inhuman to Rackham’s imagination.
Rackham traced the sign of protection over his torso and mumbled prayers to all the gods he knew.
Once more he tried to catch his breath but the reek of death was too overwhelming. From his pocket Rackham shook out a handkerchief and pressed it against his nose and mouth. Deep breathes. He took in breath after breath, sucking deeply, slowly until he could hear his rapid heartbeats more than his frantic inhales and exhales.
Gathering his wits, Rackham did the most charitable thing he could muster. He called out. “Hello? Anyone alive here?“
Ears pricked up, Rackham counted ten mugs of ail to himself before wheeling on his heel for the ladder.
Then he heard the breathing.
He tried to ignore the sign of life. Walking through the dead bodies was something he didn’t want to do. He wanted to head back to bed. He wanted a couple mugs of ail to drown out his memories of this damned ghost ship.
The breathing came louder. Heavier. Unignorable.
Rackham hissed out several curses.
Sucking in a breath to muster his courage, Rackham turned around and strode forward. He said again, “Is anybody here? Anybody alive?” His voice sounded weak this time. He hoped, secretly, no one would hear him. He wanted to turn around.
Except as he trudged through the bloody water, the disembodied breathing became louder. Wheezing. Nasally. The breathing of someone with a broken nose or a bad cold with a running nose.
After a dozen steps the breathing suddenly issued from beside Rackham. Right in his left ear practically.
He had his eyes shut tight as he turned to face the breathing. His mouth trembled and he heard barely intelligible sounds stumble out as he asked the question, “Someone there?”
He swallowed the knot in his throat and opened his eyes with difficulty.
A small child-like form of no more than ten crouched against the curving wall of the hull. A boy by Rackham’s estimation, dressed in nothing else but a loin cloth, all else bare. His arms were bathed up to the elbow in blood, making it appear as if the boy had coat sleeves. Those two bloody sticks hung over bent knees, the hands wading in the pool of red. His hair was matted with dirt. Rackham couldn’t tell the boy’s skin tone. Either he was as dark as the locals or he was filthy. The boy’s head was bowed. Eyes hidden by hooded brows. Blood stained the boy’s mouth. But that was not the jarring sight. Oh, no. To either side of boy lay two bodies. One missing an arm. The second had half a cheek torn out to show leering, yellow and brown teeth.
Rackham hunkered down, legs wobbly. He licked his lips, tasted his own bile.
“Ai! Boy! You a’ight?”
The boy’s chest rose and sank calmly. He was alive by all accounts. Perhaps traumatized. How long had he traveled in this hull made into a coffin? Not long if the ship made its way into the harbor unmanned.
Louder Rackham said, “Boy! You’re safe. But you’re gonna need to–“
Out of the bloody water the boy’s hands shot up and in the lantern’s glow something flashed.
Rackham fell back on his arse, dropping his lantern in the muck of death.
He shuffled back, away from the boy who’d struck out at him.
Savage anger warred on the boy’s taught and heaving face. His eyes glowed a piercing blue. His mouth had stretched open to a snarl, to reveal brilliantly white teeth contrasted against a red smeared mouth. In his hand was a knife commonly used by sailors to cut rope. It dripped with blood.
Suddenly Rackham felt his breathing come wet. He was finding breathing difficult. Each breath… it tasted like copper. Rackham was breathing his own blood.
Reaching up he felt his neck. When his fingers came away they were glistening red.
Across from him, the last living boy on this ghost ship grinned madly before lunging with mouth agape, teething gnashing.