The black water shocked my bones, as if the cold burrowed through my skin and hollowed out the marrow. Nancy screamed as the water swallowed me. I flipped around trying to find the surface. I couldn’t tell if I was swimming up or down, my body twisted and pulled as the cold constricted my chest. The salty seawater burned my eyes as I tried to open them.
The muted sound of the storm surrounded me. But from a distance, I heard the swooshing blades of a motor. I focused on the sound, a signal leading me to safety. Kicking and pushing, I followed the reverberation around me. As I lifted above the surface, a wave smashed into me, the grit of the sea carved tiny roads of pain across my face, and the taste of blood filled my mouth. The icy water swiped the blood away leaving only the biting sting of salt.
The waves lifted and dropped our small boat, reminding me of the toy sailboat I played with in the tub as a child. The black letters of Star Crossed seemed to fade with each wave that crashed into her white hull. The rain and lightning filled the night sky. I yelled for Nancy, realizing I was only a few feet from reaching her. I tried to swim to the boat, each stroke pulling me closer while the waves pushed me further away.
I watched Nancy try to stand, the rocking of the boat slapping her down each time. She frantically scanned the water for me. The skyline of the city, distorted by the sheets of rain, lorded over us like an obdurate judge waiting to pass sentence.
The harbor patrol, a white dove floating across the choppy sea, sliced into view. The spotlight bounced across the water, like a child shining a flashlight on the ceiling. I knew if I could hang on a few minutes longer, they would rescue us. As I prayed for Nancy to stay down, she stood. She saw the spotlight moving closer. She waved her arms. Her white sundress, torn apart by the winds of the storm, seemed ridiculous now.
An icy wave from deep below lifted me up. I yelled for Nancy to get down, hoping that my voice would carry on the crest of the wave. The harbor patrol pulled close, the bright lights illuminating Nancy as the wave struck the hull. Nancy wavered, losing her balance. She tipped over the edge of our boat, her arms flailing as they reached for something to grab. I screamed, a useless gesture in a concert of noise.
After the harbor patrol pulled me aboard, I begged them to keep searching. The officer said they would find her, for me to relax. But the fear in his eyes betrayed him. I rushed for the wheel, my legs wobbling on the slick deck. The officer forced me down, the back of my head connecting with something metal and unforgiving. The roaring sea was the last thing I heard before the world went dark.
They didn’t find her body. They told me they would continue to look, but they weren’t hopeful. The storm had swept her away. Twelve years together shaping a life eradicated in one terrible moment.
I blamed myself for taking Nancy out that day. I’d ignored the weather report, thinking it wouldn’t be so bad. Nancy’s mother had wanted us to come over for a barbeque and I’d talked Nancy into canceling so we could take the boat out one last time before it became too cold. Nancy came out of our bedroom dressed in an old purple sweater with a picture of a Baltimore Raven stomping on a Pittsburgh Steelers terrible towel. The jeans she wore whenever we painted hugged her legs tightly. She stared at me with her arms held out wide to present her outfit. The tiny grin that started in her eyes and lifted her cheeks into a devious smile made me laugh. She placed her hand under her chin, contemplating my laughter while pretending she didn’t know what I was talking about. She kept playing the dumb girl routine until I promised that we would spend the next two weekends with her mother. She had changed into the sundress, partially to please me, but mostly to show me up.
As I packed her clothes into boxes for the Sisters of the Purple Heart, I picked up the Ravens sweater and jeans that rested on her side of the bed. I let them drop from my trembling hands. Her perfume still lingered on the clothes and each morning I thought I smelled her next to me, the sweet lilac bringing back memories of our first meeting.
We met at a fantasy football draft. Nancy showed up with my best friend Bill’s brother, Kevin. We didn’t talk that first night, but I couldn’t stop looking at her. A shy smile provided her only response to my stares. As I watched her sitting next to Kevin with her hands folded in her lap, I felt an odd need to protect her. Something deep down told me to hold her and keep her safe. I don’t know whether it was her nervous little laugh when she talked about her family or the way her shoulders slouched forward whenever Kevin touched her, but I had an overwhelming urge to hug her, like she needed to be held or she would break. I couldn’t stop thinking about her.
When I heard that Kevin dumped her for a checkout girl at Applebee’s, I wanted a chance to give her better. I asked Bill for her number and he told me he would handle it. He and his wife set up a double date for us. We met at Phillips in the Inner Harbor. We sat outside under the large red umbrellas overlooking the harbor, the heat of the day replaced by a soothing breeze. The smell of Old Bay wafted from our plates. Nancy wore a light aqua top that showed off her tanned skin. A silver necklace hung from her neck. She explained the oval with the horizontal lines on the end was a cartouche that spelled her name in Egyptian. Her mother had surprised her with it when she graduated high school. She always wore it.
“The first time we met, I thought you hated me”, she told me after we had dated for a few months. We spent every night and weekend together. Our dates consisted of having coffee or walking along the paths around the Inner Harbor. We were both drawn to the water, to the calm of the bay and the safety we felt walking and holding hands. Going out with other couples or drinking in Fells Point didn’t interest us. We only wanted to learn about one another. Each hour spent with her confirmed what I felt on that initial date; that I loved her.
When I proposed to Nancy, I confessed that I knew after that first night together we would be married. She laughed and told me the same feeling had overwhelmed her, that she had cried herself to sleep worrying it was a teenage girl’s fantasy, a crazy dream. I promised I would never make her cry again.
Our wedding day on the banks of Gibson Island came one year after we first met. I stood on the edge of the water, the little platform overlooking the Sillery Bay. My family and friends smiled at me from the wooden chairs that formed a semi-circle around the platform. The green grass, moist with the rain from earlier in the day, added vividness to the setting. The rain had stopped as if it didn’t want to disturb our union. The crisp air bounced off the water and the golden sunset illuminated the cerulean blue sky.
The sails appeared from behind the boathouse. Bill jabbed me.
“I’ve never seen you smile this much.”
I only chuckled, wanting to save my words for Nancy. The sailboat eased into the dock, the wind whipping the ivory sails and filling the air with a cracking sound, like sheets on a clothesline. The hushed murmurs of the crowd anticipating Nancy’s entrance hovered under the cloudless sky. She appeared on deck, her white dress sparkling in the fading sunlight. She gingerly walked down the ramp, concentrating on each step. When she reached the shore, she looked up and her eyes found mine. The music commenced and she walked slowly to me, our eyes never leaving one another. As she stepped next to me, the crowd let out a collective sigh. Our hands found each other.
We listened to my Uncle Nicholas recite our wedding vows. Our grip tightened as the moment of our kiss arose. When our lips touched, I felt a tremor inside my belly and my heartbeat quickened. We danced and laughed all night and I understood what forever meant.
After the accident, I couldn’t work. The flood of memories engulfed me with such remorse I needed to be somewhere to remember her without the claustrophobia of guilt. Randall, my supervisor and friend of ten years, granted me a leave of absence. I decided to return to the Inner Harbor where we were our happiness, hoping for something to click inside to help me move on with my life.
Each day I sat on a bench in front of the USS Constellation and watched the tourists with their crab t-shirts and Oriole hats glide back and forth. She towered over the other ships in the harbor, like the T-Rex fossil in the Smithsonian, ancient and mysterious. The turquoise keel was the only color on the black and white ship. The majesty of the sails lost as orphaned lines clung to the mast. Even after all this time, she was quite impressive. But most of the tourists didn’t appreciate the history they were seeing. They mentally checked her off their list of attractions, taking a picture or two and moving along to the next exhibit.
One day, I decided to follow one of the tour groups on board. The grey clouds advanced from across the bay and the smell of rain filled the air.
“Nice boat,” said a heavyset man in our group. He wore a pink polo shirt and white pants. He looked like cotton candy.
“She’s a ship sir. A frigate to be exact,” corrected one the guides who wore a navy blue cap with USS Constellation printed across the crown.
“Boat. Ship. She doesn’t look like much of anything, cept a buncha drift wood.” The man guffawed, his large chin reminding me of the bullfrogs back at my grandparent’s house by Deep Creek Lake.
I walked to the prow and leaned over the edge. Across the bay, I saw the Francis Scott Key bridge and the spot where Nancy disappeared. It amazed me how close we were to land. A small drop of rain splashed in the water just below me, expanding rings from the center. More drops followed and I held my breath, thinking of Nancy. As I stood on the deck of the USS Constellation with rain peppering my face, I knew what I needed to do.
Working as a tour guide for the USS Constellation was an easy transition for me. Being a history buff and having lived in the area most of my life, I already knew a great deal about Baltimore’s past. I educated myself on the history of the ship so I could point out key facts for the tourists. Most people were interested in the ghost stories and not the history. I didn’t believe any of the ghost stories, but I had become a good liar. I didn’t care about the truth or doing a good job. I just wanted to be close to Nancy.
Charles, the ship’s caretaker, allowed me to stay after hours. When I’d told him about Nancy, that I wanted time alone with her, his body slumped and his face grimaced. His wife had died eleven years ago in a car accident. Permanent bags puffed under his eyes. The weight of loneliness pulled his skin down and even when he smiled, his eyes remained dark and distant. I wondered if I looked that way to people and if time would ravage me as it did him.
I talked to Nancy every night as I walked the creaking deck, the wind whisking around me. I waited and hoped she would talk back. God, I missed her.
I remembered when we returned to Phillips for our fifth anniversary. I don’t know whether it was the rain or the oysters that caused us to get frisky, as Nancy called it. A bridge arced across the street from the Inner Harbor to the parking lot. We crossed with the rain at a drizzle and the city smelling clean for a change. We walked down the spiral staircase, our shoes clacking loudly against the metal. Nancy stopped and turned so quickly I almost ran into her. She kissed me hard, pressing into me. Her hands slid up my neck and the raspberry of her lipstick melted in my mouth. She grinned as she pushed away from me, the lipstick smeared across her mouth. She kicked off her heels and backed up to the cement wall. Her manicured nails, long and pink, gestured for me to come closer. I went to her, eagerly kissing her again, slowly moving down to her neck. Her skin damp from the rain and the salty taste on my lips drew me closer until I felt the warmth of her body, hot and yielding against me.
“I took my underwear off in the bathroom,” she cooed.
I pulled back to gaze into her brown eyes and she smiled while hiking up her dress. I reached under and felt how warm she was on a chilly night. She unzipped my pants and pulled me close.
“Sorry they’re chapped,” she said, her eyes dropping down to her hands.
With the far off sound of thunder, we made love in the stairwell. When we walked to our car afterwards, we couldn’t stop giggling.
I hurt inside for Nancy.
My last night on board the USS Constellation was a Saturday. Charlie told me to lock things up and I could spend the night if I wanted. I’d told him that tonight was our anniversary, the first since the accident. He patted me on the shoulder, a forlorn look on his wrinkled face. We hugged, a moment of shared pained between two lonely men.
I set up a small table overlooking the water, a place setting for each of us. A bunch of lilacs, Nancy’s favorite, placed in the vase my mother gave us for our wedding. The gold lining on the vase circled into figure eights on a white porcelain background. Nancy always kept fresh flowers in the vase and I knew she would appreciate my effort. The cold air nipped at my cheeks. I poured a glass of her favorite wine, a rare Calliope Muscat we found in Italy. The sweet, cherry smell caught the cold wind. I lit the lone candle, the light dancing and flickering around the wick. I began to cry.
“I miss you.”
I drank the wine, allowing the warmth to fill my chest. The clunking sound of the water hitting the ship was the only disturbance in the quiet night. It was as if the city faded away. As I stared into the blackness of the bay, a hole appeared in the water, like the breathing hole of crab on a beach. A fog rose, rolling toward me from the aquarium, the outline of the building engulfed in seconds. It looked like storm clouds from a tornado; light vanished as it rolled closer. I heard a click behind me. A small boy, dressed in rags, rushed at me firing an old gun. Before I could react, he passed through me and sunk below deck.
“Don’t mind Jake.”
I spun around. Sitting in Nancy’s chair was a man in a security guard’s uniform.
“Just wine? No food?” he asked.
I couldn’t answer. The moment tore the words from my throat. He motioned to the chair across from him, signaling me to sit down. He poured himself a glass of wine.
“I’m Carl, Carl Hansen.”
I recognized the name immediately. Carl Hansen had been a night watchman on the USS Constellation in the fifties. I’d never seen a picture of the man, but many of the ghost stories I’d read included Carl Hansen in some way. He was either chasing people from the ship or playing cards with sailors. There was even a tale that he would give people tours of the ship. But it couldn’t be Carl Hansen because Carl Hansen was dead.
The thing that called itself Carl stared at me through his horn-rimmed glasses, a smile creasing his mouth. “It’s me all right. Have a seat.”
The boy whisked by again, a whistle escaping his pursed lips. Carl removed his black cap and placed it gently on the table. He slicked back his auburn hair with one hand and poured me another glass of wine.
“We don’t usually let people see us. I mean all of us at the same time. But tonight is special, isn’t it?”
He waved his hand across the table as if he were a floor model at a car show. The gold cufflinks of his suit caught the light from the candle. White specks of light twinkled inside his blue eyes and I had trouble looking at him. If I stared at him, my eyes watered like looking into the desert on a sunny day.
I grabbed the glass of wine and gulped it down in one motion. Carl laughed as he filled my glass again.
“Don’t drink too much. You’ll pass out before the main event.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts.”
He smiled. “Of course you do.”
“This is a hallucination caused by grief. You’re not real.”
A large man dressed in full naval regalia strode down the deck. He walked deliberately with his head held high and his hands placed behind his back. A large gold and dark blue coat with golden tasseled shoulders draped over his enormous frame. White frills covered his bulbous neck and the buttons on his vest stretched to hold his girth. He paused at our table and regarded us. A pudgy dollop of a nose on an unremarkable face moved closer. His eyes were soft and tired. He nodded at us both and continued his journey forward.
“Glad I didn’t serve under him. A bit of grump that one.” Carl swallowed his wine. “I understand this is a lot for you to take in. But we’ve been told you need some help.”
“Who told you?”
“Life is a gift. You mustn’t waste it.”
“My life ended when Nancy died.”
Carl poured another glass of wine. Sweat beaded his forehead. “This is very good, by the way.”
“Glad you like it. I just wish this would end. I don’t want any company. Even imaginary.”
Carl put his hand on his chest and shook his head.
“Now don’t be rude. After all, you are our guest and a guest should be more respectful of his host.”
Carl’s smile faded and I felt a pulling in my stomach making me rise. The muscles in my arms and legs twitched and I tried to stop the momentum leading me to the edge of the railing. The pain flared, like grappling hooks dug into my skin, as I climbed. Teetering on the smooth railing, I looked down. Fog engulfed the entire ship in a misty gray soup. The fear encased me as I felt myself tipping forward.
“Now, can we agree to discuss the night’s festivities as gentlemen?”
“Yes, please let me down.”
I felt the tug inside me release, like letting go a rope in a game of tug of war. Carl grabbed me and yanked me back onto the deck, his strength surprising for such a small man. He walked back over to the table and sat down, waving me to join him again. He smiled as I eased into the chair across from him.
“So, you see that you do want life. Yes?”
“Good. Have another drink. I apologize for the theatrics. But showing you works over telling you and there isn’t much time. I need you to know this isn’t a delusion.”
I took the glass and swallowed the wine, hoping I would pass out soon and be released from this torture. The warmth of the wine eased my shivering. My teeth chattered and all could think was that I wanted to be alone with Nancy.
Carl looked up, examining the skies like a sailor at sea.
“I hope you’re ready. It’s time.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Hi, sweetie.” Her voice sent chills down my arms. I turned and Nancy was there. A nervous bubbly laugh slipped through my lips. Her yellow and white sundress flowed around her as she reached for me. I wanted to run my fingers through her short brown hair, to feel her touch on my skin.
“I’ll leave you two alone.”
Carl’s words were distant, like an echo of an echo. I took Nancy’s hand, her skin warm and soft. She helped me up, the wine rolling in my stomach. Her dark brown eyes softened as she touched my cheek.
“You’re here? This isn’t a dream?” I said, cupping her chin to kiss her again. She eased back, her hands clasping mine.
“I’m here. For now.”
“What happened to you? How’d you get here?”
“I don’t have a lot of time so you need to listen to me.”
I pulled her close and kissed her. Her lips soft and warm filled the need that suffocated my heart. She wrapped her arms around me and I drew her into me. After a moment, we eased apart.
“This isn’t helping.” She struggled to speak as if each word sapped her breath. I took her hands in mine.
“I missed you.”
“I know. But this isn’t forever. I have to go soon.”
“No. What are you talking about? Go where?”
“I’ve lingered here waiting for you to move on without me. But you didn’t. Each day you got worse. I waited for our anniversary. Carl told me I could see you then, because it’s our night. But I can’t risk staying here any longer. I came to tell you that you need to move on without me.”
“No. How could I? Where are you going?”
“I don’t know. Away.”
“I’ll come with you. Take me with you.”
“Oh, sweetie. It’s not your time. You have so much life left to live.”
“To hell with that. I’ll make it my time.”
I broke her grip and scurried to the edge of the ship, my feet slipping on the polished deck. I climbed up the lines and gazed into the pool of fog swishing below. Hands formed and reached out to me, beckoning me to fall forward.
“No! This isn’t the way to me.”
“It was my fault.”
“It was an accident.”
“We never should have been out there. I killed you.”
“This isn’t the way. Please, take my hand.”
I turned to face Nancy, her eyes soft and pleading. All I wanted was to go back to her, to be with her forever. I took her hand and she gently pulled me down from the railing. We embraced as the cold whipped around us. The wind howled as the fog started to pull away from the ship.
“What am I supposed to do without you?”
“Live your life. Make me proud. You’ll always have me in here.”
She placed her hands on my cheeks and kissed my forehead. The memory of her stepping off the sailboat in her wedding dress blossomed in my mind, her dress a cloud of white against the blue backdrop of the sky. Our gaze interlocked.
I felt her soft lips touch mine, the only warmth as the cold enveloped us.
She was gone.
The last of the fog receded into the sea and disappeared into the clouds. A siren blared, the sounds of the city interrupting the silence. I collapsed onto the deck. Something jabbed at my back. I pulled Carl’s black cap from underneath me, the cotton soft in my hands. Staring into the blanket of black above me, I saw a single star blink.
“I’ll make you proud.”
I placed the cap on my head and walked into the future.
Eric Scott is the author of several articles in the field of psychology. He is a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health located in Baltimore, MD. He is currently a member of the faculty in the Department of Mental Health and his research involves improving school achievement, and reducing attention/concentration problems and aggressive and shy behaviors, by enhancing family-school communication and parenting practices associated with learning and behavior. His story, My April Girl, was published in the April issue of Skive magazine and Addicted to Losing Love appears in issue #10 of Writers Haven. His story, Contrition, will appear in the Horrors of History anthology in October 2013.