Gone for so Long
I was being roasted alive and suffocated at the same time.
An orange-and-black tiger perched on my chest, a lounging cat loaf that resembled nothing so much as a great furry slug. He radiated like a blast furnace and weighed more than a two-ton anchor. If heatstroke didn’t kill me, then my chest would be crushed.
Drenched in sweat, I tossed and turned, trying to escape. I lacked the strength to dislodge the beast, and I could not catch my wind. Wheezing, I hissed, “Get off, you fat fustilarian.”
The tiger morphed into a tigerman. He lowered his muzzle, baring his fangs. Muggy meat-breath washed over my face. With a throaty chuckle, he said, “Oh, is that you, Captain? Imagine running into you here.”
“Off or I’ll trim your whiskers.” Fighting the weakness pervading my limbs, I swung my hook at his head. The rubber ball capping the end bounced off his skull.
“Ha, you’ve been declawed.” Starkey caught the ball in his mouth and gnawed on it. Laughing, he rolled aside. As soon as the pressure on my torso lightened, I breathed easier.
Twin feelings warred in my heart: disbelief and delight. Tears brimmed in my eyes and tightness constricted my throat. I fought to master myself. Once I managed, I whispered, “You came back.”
Great emerald eyes gleamed in the darkness. He slow-blinked. “Look at this mess you’ve gotten yourself into. Our ship is wrecked. You’re almost dead. I was only gone a few hours…”
“You’ve been gone a lot longer than that.” The rasp of my own voice sounded strange and far away. Humming. I may have been mistaken, but I believed I had ceased to exist. Or maybe I never had in the first place.
What if Peter Pan made me up?
Starkey batted my face with his paw. “Am I still your first mate?”
“What is a first mate to a captain without a ship?”
A distant murmur intruded on our privacy. Fuzzy words, but I could make vague sense of them. A spritely voice asked, “Who is she talking to?”
“Starkey,” a man answered. “He’s always here, even when he’s not. Don’t ever try to come between them. You’ll regret it.”
“Why not? I love sandwiches, especially cheese sandwiches. If I were in a sandwich-hug, I imagine being smooshed all comfy-cozy against the cheese. I could wear the cheese. I am the cheese!“
“You’re insane,” the man said and chuckled.
The desert stretched all around us. Sand dunes for miles. The fiery sun beat down with blistering heat. Perspiration stung my eyes. Lids weighed too much, so I closed them.
I was falling.
Starkey swatted my cheek, jarring me awake. “Am I still your first mate?”
“Tired,” I snarled. “Let me sleep!”
A German woman said, “We must bring down her fever.”
Starkey gathered me into his arms, cradled against his chest. “You said her stiches shouldn’t get wet.”
“I’ve changed my mind,” the German said. “If we don’t cool her down, wet sutures will be the least of our worries. Bring her over here.”
Sailing turned rough. The sea tossed me about like a ragdoll.
Starkey’s long tail tickled the underside of my chin. “Am I still your first mate?”
“Yes, always. Now shut your mouth.” Sparks ignited my fuse. My eyes snapped open and I got the shock of my life to discover that it was Rackham who was holding me. My fever-soaked brain registered the vaguest notions. Impressions.
Doctor Chopp and Buzz entered the periphery of my vision. The pixie hovered over a clawfoot tub. He sounded worried. “I’ve conjured as many ice cubes as I can. The tub is close to overflowing. Is it enough?”
Dr. Chopp moved out of view. “It will do. Lower her in.”
Rackham grunted by way of reply. He bent and swung me over. I dropped straight into a vat of freezing water, sending a cascade over the sides. The piercing chill brought me even more to my senses. I thrashed, and my hook banged against the bronze tub.
“Submerge her all the way,” Dr. Chopp ordered from a safe distance.
Gasping, I wedged my elbows over the edges and propped myself upright. That awful chattering might have been my teeth. The cold numbed my flesh, but my temper burned like a balefire. I tilted back my head to glare at the man standing over me. “Drowning won’t work. You might try chopping off my head.”
“Sorry, Hook. It’s for your own good.” Rackham met my stare with a mean smile. He placed his hand on the top of my skull and pushed me down.
I resisted with all the strength I had left. Not much, but enough to slow my descent. A sudden and irrational bout of insanity possessed me—the need to make a deathbed confession. “Wait!” I gasped as my chin sank toward the water. “You need to hear the truth.”
Rackham hesitated. Never had I seen a man so haunted. “Which is what?”
“When you left, I was devastated. You broke my heart.”
“Jayden…” Rackham dropped his guard. Slight smile. Soft mouth. He cupped my jaw, lifting my face, and feathered a kiss over my lips. When he withdrew, in his eyes were tiny beating hearts—all the attached veins and arteries severed, so only a few inches remained. Each beat of his pulse caused those blood vessels to writhe like tentacles. The heart-shaped pupils narrowed. Cat’s eyes. Rackham became Starkey. Beaten and bruised Starkey—dull gaze, matted fur, covered in lacerations and burns. Mutilated Starkey, whose ears and tail had been sawed off, leaving bloody stumps.
A horrified gasp escaped me. The extent of his suffering sickened me. I recoiled, emotionally and physically, sinking further into the icy water.
Starkey pleaded, “Hook, can you help me?”
Rackham asked, “Hook, can you hear me?”
“David.” Rage replaced revulsion. I surged upright, determined to rescue and revenge him. The brute that had dared abuse my first mate would pay.
Rackham grunted. His scowl grew thunderous. “I should have known better.”
“Wait.” I scrambled to escape the tub. Rose, slipped, crashed. Buckets of water sloshed over the sides.
“No more waiting for you, Hook.” Rackham smashed his hands down on top of my skull. He shoved me under. I inhaled water. Choked it down. In the past, my first instinct was always to fight, but this time the blessed coolness felt too good. Quenched the fire, soothed the fever. For the first time in perhaps ever, I didn’t resist the transition from air to water breathing. I exhaled a torrent of bubbles. Surrendered. Inhaled easily and relaxed into it.
I chose to stay submerged where it was tranquil. Floating so much like flying. From far and away came the loveliest lyrics. Ah, my sisters… I wanted nothing more than to join their chorus, but I was so very tired. Maybe later. For now, I needed sleep.
I drifted off, serenaded by sirens.
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