“Mr. Abernathy’s Music Box”
I looked at the passenger manifest, twice. Being a sea-faring man, I had my share of superstition. While this didn’t meet any known superstitions I could think of, the fact that Mr. Abernathy was listed as a passenger left a sick feeling in my stomach. That was enough to salt my drinking water.
To call Mr. Alistair Abernathy strange, would be like calling President Lincoln tall—it was just fact. Everyone knew it, and everyone accepted his strangeness with a subconscious apathy. We ignored his odd mumbling, the way he shambled about town hunched over and constantly searching about, we even ignored his yearly tour around the town when he’d knock at each and every door asking the whereabouts of his wife. She died over ten years ago when his boat sunk near Sorrow Reef. A fisherman found him on the beach the next morning, and said Mr. Abernathy just stood there and stared out to sea, pieces of his boat washed up all about him. Story goes, Mr. Abernathy had nothing on his person but that music box he carries around tucked in his coat pocket. The authorities searched for his wife, but couldn’t find her. Bad business all around.
You can imagine my curiosity when I found Mr. Abernathy listed on the manifest. To my knowledge, the man hadn’t left the Bay since he and his wife arrived from the Utah territories. Wasn’t due to monetary concerns; supposedly he owned a mining outfit in Utah by the name of Angus. We assumed he stuck around after the accident because he waited for his wife. Yet, lest my eyes deceived me, his name sat atop of my manifest—Longboat Bay to London, England.
“Captain Bonnie, have you gotten a look at the manifest?” I asked.
The Captain was a giant of a man. He always ducked when going through doors, and nobody ever looked down at him. With a large belly threatening every button on his shirt, and an ashen grey beard, Captain Bonnie was a formidable presence.
“That I have Mr. Grimes that I have. Is there something wrong?” he said.
“Everything’s in order sir, with the exception of one passenger. Mr. Alistair Abernathy is booked to London, sir.”
The Captain raised an eyebrow and stroked his beard. Crumbs of bread fell to the wooden deck of the ship.
“And the problem is what, Mr. Grimes?”
I found myself having trouble trying to formulate a proper response to his question. What was the problem?
“Do you think it wise to let someone in his state on board, sir?”
“And what state would that be?”
“His mental state, sir.”
The Captain let out a sigh that could have filled the mainsail. He took the passenger manifest from me, folded it up and stuffed it in my coat pocket.
“Mr. Grimes, the poor Mr. Abernathy paid in full for this voyage. He paid extra, in fact. Enough to convince me to alter our course slightly.”
I opened my mouth to protest but the Captain held a finger up and stopped me before I could utter a word.
“The alteration won’t delay us any, Mr. Grimes. Now I suggest you let him be, and get back to ensuring we are ready to go. Do I make myself clear?”
The steely glint in the Captain’s eye was enough to tell me to drop the matter. He wouldn’t budge and it wouldn’t do to argue further in front of the crew. It was bad enough that we’d have to make the voyage with Mr. Abernathy.
“Clear as mermaid’s tears, sir.”
“Good. Now make ready. The winds are in our favor.”
As we made preparations to depart, the passengers boarded. We didn’t have many this time, and I could understand the Captain’s willingness to allow anyone aboard if they had the money to pay. Yet, as Mr. Abernathy stepped onto the deck, Death used my spine as concertina. Mr. Abernathy slunk on board, looking all about as a criminal would. He’d bring nothing but bad luck on the voyage. I would have to keep a watchful eye on him.
Mr. Abernathy slipped beneath deck to his quarters and remained unseen for the rest of the day. We pushed off from the bay and made our way to open water. It was good to be out at sea again. The rise and fall with the waves, the salty spray in the air, it was heaven.
“Have you seen her, my wife?”
I spun around to find Mr. Abernathy behind me. He clutched the wooden music box in his hands, his knuckles white with exertion.
“Mr. Abernathy, your wife is dead. You know this. Please stay out of the crew’s way. The deck is very dangerous.”
I tried my best to keep my wits about me, but being so close to the man put me on edge. My hands shook and I couldn’t help but stare into Mr. Abernathy’s dead eyes. I would be happy when we pulled into London and offloaded him. We’d all be better off.
“Not dead, sir. Just waiting.”
He fiddled with the music box and twisted the crank. The old gears whizzed and sputtered, but no music came out. Yet that fact didn’t stop Mr. Abernathy from swaying to and fro to a tune which apparently only he could hear.
“Waiting for what?” I asked.
He stopped swaying to the imagined tune and stared me direct in the eyes.
“Waiting for me.”
With that, he scurried off below deck with the music box to his ear. The winds picked up and licked at the sails. The sun dipped low beyond the horizon and cast the sky in a sanguineous glow. Following the luck with Mr. Abernathy, the red sky didn’t bode well. We were in for a bumpy ride.
My prediction blossomed to life at twilight. Dark clouds rolled over us and brought with them all the moaning and groaning Poseidon could muster. The waves tried to drag us under, but the Scarlet Whale was a stubborn bitch. It’d take more than a squall to send us to the deep.
The heavy footfalls of the captain vibrated behind me. The big man looked to the storm, then to me.
“Mr. Grimes, make sure all the passengers are safely secured down below. We wouldn’t want anyone taking a midnight swim.”
I accounted for everyone, with the exception of one passenger—Mr. Abernathy. Thunder boomed above deck and the sea decided it was a good moment to throw the ship. I had good sea legs, but still fell. My head hit the wall and for a moment, I couldn’t see straight. The rush of waves and the creak of the ship sang to me, but something else floated to my ears, a melody of some sorts. The sound came as fast as it went, but I couldn’t shake the song from my head.
Lightning cut across the dark skies and left a squall of light floating in my vision. The same music crawled into my ears again, and just as I thought I recognized the tune, thunder bellowed and drowned the notes away. I grabbed the railing and heaved up to my feet.
The Scarlet Whale rode the waves as if they were made of broken glass—beautiful and sharp, yet deadly if handled wrong. Captain Bonnie had more experience on the sea than most people I had ever met; therefore, I wasn’t worried about the ship. I was, however, worried about the safety and wellbeing of the people on board the ship, even Mr. Abernathy. Whether I cared for the man or not didn’t matter, I was in charge of his safety, and I intended to keep him safe.
I found Mr. Abernathy at the bow. He stood at the very edge of the deck, and if it weren’t for the railing, I had the feeling he would have walked right into the dark waters below. A tall fellow by the name of Jacobo stared at Mr. Abernathy. Jacobo had a thick island accent which many couldn’t understand, but he did his work and could lift more than anyone else I had ever seen. He simply stood and wrung a red cap in his large hands, over and over again.
I walked behind him and placed a hand on his shoulder. Jacobo started at my touch and whirled around to face me. His eyes were wide and the whites were clearly visible which created a strange contrast the man’s mahogany skin.
“Go check on the cargo, if you would. It would be our end should it come unsecured during this swell,” I said.
Jacobo didn’t say anything, just nodded. He made his way below deck, but not before casting another glace toward Mr. Abernathy. I motioned him below deck. He nodded and disappeared.
The sea shook us and caused the ship to list to the side. I grabbed onto the rail again to keep from falling overboard. Somehow, Mr. Abernathy stayed onboard during all this. The man clutched the music box tight to his body and stood motionless. He was on the lookout for something.
“Mr. Abernathy! We must get below deck!”
If he heard me, he didn’t show it. I inched closer to the man. The waves came at us harder and faster, which made any movement difficult. The ship swam with the sea, but walking was almost impossible; up and down, side to side. Even Captain Bonnie would have a hard time moving through this.
“Mr. Abernathy! Please, I implore you we mu-”
Music cut me off. It came clear, as if I sat center theater next to an orchestra. A soft melody that rode the wind as we rode the waves. The music seemed to overpower the thunder and the storm’s bluster. Soon, the only noise in my head was the sound of my own breathing, and the music.
Mr. Abernathy lifted the music box over his head. He closed his eyes and smiled. The Scarlet Whale listed with a violence that took me off my feet. I slammed on the deck and for a moment, only a high-pitched ringing filled my ears. Then the damnable music washed up in my consciousness again.
Salt water came aboard once more and slammed me against the smooth wood. This time, instead of knocking the sense from me, it gave me focus and pulled me back to reality.
Mr. Abernathy’s cackle of joy cracked into the night air. I struggled to get my feet under me while the ship fought the sea. Finally, I stood.
Mr. Abernathy dropped the music box at his feet. The man stared out into the inky darkness.
“We need to get below deck!” I said.
He didn’t say anything, but continued to search. Perhaps if I could get the music box the man would listen. It would be a last attempt before I left him to Poseidon’s will.
I used the rail to get close. Even with its support, movement was very difficult. The ship tried several times to throw me into the drink. A sense of duty kept me moving even though I wanted to turn around and head to the safety of the hold. Let the Sea take Mr. Abernathy and his lunacy. I almost turned around right then, but I was so close. The wooden box was nearly within arm’s reach. With one hand clamped onto the rail, I extended my other arm out. The tips of my fingers brushed across the intricate carvings of the music box, then the ship lurched and the box rolled away.
I cursed and crawled toward the box. I knew if I tried to walk, I’d only risk more injury. The box sat on its side, with the lid open. The music still played in my head, but not from the contraption only an arm’s length away. It came from the sky. It played from the sea. The waves and wind worked in concert to produce a haunting melody which saturated the very core of my being. I knew if I survived this storm, I would never hear another song so lovely and haunting. The box was just within reach. I stretched out to grab it, confident it would help lure Mr. Abernathy below deck.
Mr. Abernathy grabbed my arm, his hand clamped down on my wrist like a crab-claw. A smile was perched upon his face, but his eyes were distant.
“My wife, Mr. Grimes. I know you’ll like her. She’s such a lovely lady and always enjoyed company.”
I tried to wrest my arm away, but something caught my eye. It was just a glimpse of shadow in the darkness, silhouetted in a flash of lightning. A crag of sharp rock loomed in front of the ship and stretched high into the air told me where we were—Sorrow Reef.
Mr. Abernathy sunk to his knees and whispered into my ear.
I closed my eyes as the ship careened into the reef.
The sun beat overhead. A gull cried out nearby. Water caressed my feet. These were some of the first sensations that came to me as I lay on the sandy shore. A dream perhaps? Yet I knew better. The aches and pains in my body from crevices and corners that I never thought of told me differently.
I rolled to my side and opened my eyes. The bright light stole my vision and made it impossible to see any details. I rolled to my back and just focused on breathing. The simple act of survival came with some difficulty, and that’s when the real pain started. My side burned, a fire that grew with each ragged breath. I reached down and my hand ran across a jagged shard of wood lodged between two ribs.
My vision adjusted to the light. A piece of the Scarlet Whale’s railing jutted from my abdomen. Blood trickled from the wound and soaked into the brine covered sand. The waves licked the wound causing further discomfort and pulled red ribbons of blood back into the sea.
I rested my head on the ground and watched the sky for awhile. The thought of moving further inland sat patiently in the back of my mind. Finally, I took a deep breath which elicited a grunt of pain, and sat up. Debris from the shipwreck littered the beach all about me. Bodies of my shipmates were scattered about like ragdolls. I tried to call out to them, but it came out a whisper dragged across a rasp.
Something washed up with the next wave and brushed against my hand—the music box. It looked none the worse for wear. I picked it up and moved to open it, but hesitated. If the music played, I wasn’t too sure if I my mind could handle it. Yet curiosity got the better of me and flipped the lid open. Nothing but silence greeted.
I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding and threw the box away. With great effort I got to my feet and shambled down the beach. Storm clouds gathered in the distance, a promise of more foul weather to come.
A soft melody drifted into the air and stopped me dead in my tracks. It became louder and louder until I had to cover my ears. I dropped to my knees and curled into a ball, aware of the pain in my side but uncaring. Laughter boiled up from my guts and spilled out into the salt-brushed air.