Dead Boats

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📅 Published on September 1, 2019

"Dead Boats"

Written by Jeff Hartin

Estimated reading time — 8 minutes

I worked a shrimp boat called the Melissa on the gulf. Hot, sweaty work but all the shrimp you can eat, so there’s that. Captain Mike was my boss, a wizened old salt. Rough around the edges, but a good man and a good boss. I worked with him out on the open waters for years before we split. Here’s what happened.

So one day we were out. Early, in an attempt to beat the other boats and get a good haul. I start cranking up the nets, position them over the collecting bin and let them go. Whole shit-ton of shrimp this morning. Today is going to be a good and profitable trip at this rate. I look up at the nets and I see something caught up in it. Probably driftwood, but I gotta get it down or it’ll rip the nets. I drop them down so I can pull it off. It’s definitely not driftwood. I don’t know what it is.

It looks like a small arm. Like a child’s arm but it’s not. It’s a mottled green with brown flecks, but the texture almost seems like sharkskin. Thin, long fingers, almost five inches long. I almost can’t call them fingers. They’re webbed to one another with a thin layer of skin, almost translucent in the sun. I’ve never seen anything like it. Short pointed claws where fingernails would be in a person. I look down to the end of the arm and I see it’s been twisted and broken caught in the nets. At the end, it looks like it was sawed or gnawed off in a hurry, by something dull. Dark red blood drips off it, pooling on the deck.

I must’ve been in a trance staring at the odd thing, because the next thing I remember is Captain Mike screaming at me.

“GET THAT FUCKING THING OFF THE BOAT RIGHT NOW!”

I snap and quickly work it free, tossing it in the water as fast as I can. Some of the blood stains my hands and my shirt, but I rinse it off. Not the first time something’s bled on me out here. As I clean up I realize that Mike has turned the boat around. We’re heading back to port. It’s not even 10 and he’s calling it a day? I have bills to pay, and maybe a hundred pounds of shrimp ain’t gonna cut it. I’m about to have a few words with the Captain but one look at him and I see something is clearly off. He keeps glancing at the sides of the boat as he speeds up. While I’m tidying up I see him pull out the emergency flare gun and check it, pulling out the extra flares too. I guess this isn’t the time to bother him.

We get back, and as I finish up Mike comes over to me and palms me $400. Hell of a lot more than I’d make normally. As I take the money, his hand grabs mine tightly and he pulls me in.

“Today’s a short day. The extra is for you to keep quiet about why we had a short day.”

“Alright, see you tomorrow?”

He lets my hand go, and starts looking to the water. He seems lost, uneasy. This is a man who spent his whole damn life on a boat. I feel uncomfortable just seeing how uncertain he is.

“Yeah, I guess. Go out and have a few drinks, I know I will.”

Odd morning, but with pay like this, I hope I find one of those arm-things every damn day.

That evening I find myself at the local bar. Closest one to the waterfront, where all the working stiffs congregate. We’ve been buying rounds for a few hours, bullshitting around about work and sex and general nothings. I’ve got a pretty good load on, and my curiosity gets the better of me.

I ask in a low tone, “So what’s the strangest thing you’ve ever brought up in the nets? And don’t fuckin’ say tires. I mean a whole car would be weird but a tire’s like all the time.”

I get a couple of answers: Will once found one of those inflatable sex dolls. Rick found a box with a whole set of Encyclopedia Britannicas. John found not one individual but a pair of boots. Not that that’s odd. What was odd is that they were his exact size. Hell, he was even wearing them.

I push a little further, “Yeah, but you ever see anything like unnatural? Like you couldn’t explain it?”

I get a chorus of “Nahs.” But Kirk suddenly gets real quiet, and starts staring intently at the sweat beading off his glass. I think I got all I can now, information wise. Now for a couple more beers. I’m flush today.

My alarm goes off dutifully at 7:30 the next morning, and I dutifully go off at my alarm in a swarm of profanity. My head feels like it’s going to explode. I wish it would. I dutifully crack open a club soda, swallow some ibuprofen, and turn up a hot shower. By 8:00 I’m recovering and on my way to the docks. I wander up to the Melissa, Captain Mike’s boat. He’s muttering something under his breath staring at the deck. The deck’s been all scratched to hell. Deep long rakes intently scratching all over the place. Most of them seeming to congregate where the nets release. Where the blood spilled yesterday. I stand behind Mike for a couple of minutes until he acknowledges me.

“Not going out today. Not like this. Sorry.”

“Alright, but I gotta work, you know? I’m gonna ask around see if anyone else is short a deckhand.”

“Do what you gotta do. See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, sure.”

I luck out and find another boat short a man. I like Mike, worked with him for years. But I work for paper, not a man. If he doesn’t get his shit together I’ll have to find another ship. We have an uneventful day out on the other ship.

I’m at the docks again, 8 AM sharp. Captain’s got a whole load of bleach and cleaners. I wonder what’s up. “I’ll pay you double if you help me lathe the scrapes off, bleach down the whole thing and refinish the deck. These scrapes and stains are bad for the boat.”

Shit, that’s a lot of work. But double pay is double pay. Mike might be losing it, but I won’t stop him from paying that much. I agree. It’s a long day, much harder than our usual trips out. Still, profitable. Before I leave Mike asks me to help him pull down the nets. That request stands out to me, as they’re a bitch to move, heavy and unwieldy. You usually only do it if you’ve got a rip or something but these are perfectly good. As I leave I see Mike pile them up on the beach, pour some diesel on top, and light them up. Doesn’t make any sense, burning good nets like that. And why burning?

After working my hands and back that hard, I need a beer. I head out to the bar. I spot Kirk at the bar and fall in next to him. We talk a bit, starting with the weather. For other people that may sound like tepid conversation, but out on the water it’s vital information. Eventually, I get enough in me and we start talking about our boats; bitchin’ about the bosses. It starts off as a good-natured pressure release. But when I start bitching about all the extra work I had to do today with the deck and the nets Kirk cuts me off abruptly,

“He’s not crazy. You need to find another boat, maybe somewhere a little further up the coast.”

That’s all I get out of him. He’s like a stone wall after that. I’d assumed Mike had spent a few too many years under the sun, baking his brains. But Kirk is usually pretty good with advice. Still, the next morning I head in to talk to Mike.

We finish restoring the decks, now he’s on talking about possible residue on the sides of the propellers. Says he wants to scrape those down next. This is crazy! It’s way beyond a two-man job. You need to dry dock a boat for all he wants. It’s the start of the season, and I know he doesn’t have enough cash lying around for that. I spend the day trying to pressure wash the sides of the boat as a cheaper fix. The end of the day, Mike slips me a few hundred dollars, and looks me right in the eye.

“I don’t want to go out there. Not with the ship like this. It’s not ready.”

“Alright, but if there’s no work for me, I need to look elsewhere.”

“I understand. It’s been good.”

He gives me a firm handshake, and looks me right in the eye. Something is welling behind those eyes but he fights it back. He turns to organize up the ropes. I notice that he’s got a heavy revolver clipped to his side. It’s not unusual for a boat to have a gun on board, but a hand cannon on your person? I’m starting to really worry about Mike. This is not normal behavior. I’m not sure if I can talk about this to anyone just yet.

I flounder a bit but find a job after a few days. I still see Captain Mike cleaning off the Melissa every day when I go to the docks. He’s there scrubbing when I leave, and he’s still scrubbing when I get back. There are new scrapes all over the hull, like something was scratching its way climbing up. Mike’s become a pariah on the docks, no one wants to talk about it and when they do it’s in low hushed tones.

Eventually, Captain Mike decides Melissa is finally clean. Or he can’t afford to go on without another day’s bounty. He hires Carlos, the new guy on the docks and they go out. I make a point of breaking the silence and talk to Mike to check in after they return at the end of the day. They’ve been catching much less than usual, like half if not worse. Still, he’s getting back out on the water, and that’s gotta be good for him. Carlos says he’s been a little freaked out by the sharks that seem to tail them. I try to put him at rest, tell him sharks aren’t that big a deal, they’re really just opportunistic bastards. I lie and make him feel a little better. Is that really a lie?

One day the Melissa doesn’t come back. I wait at the docks searching the horizon. It gets dark. Mike doesn’t usually stay out this late. I go to the bar and try to drink my body weight in vodka.

Weeks later, another captain finds the Melissa floating a few miles out to sea. I wasn’t there, so the rest is hearsay and rumor. The police report is still sealed. Apparently, it was a bloodbath. Blood dried onto the decks, most of it right under the nets. Pieces of viscera scattered everywhere, at least the pieces the seagulls hadn’t eaten. The pilot room saw some of the worst of it. Just guts spread everywhere, some tufts of hair and skin too, like someone was flayed by somebody who either didn’t know what they were doing or was too enthusiastic to do it right. Mike used to sit there when we were out.

Mike’s revolver was found there too. Four shots fired, but no idea if anyone was hit. Who could even tell whose blood belonged to who?

In the deck, they found a long piece of metal embedded deep in the wood. Looked like it was a piece of an old boat anchor. It had been crudely sharpened.

The investigation wrapped up (definitely foul play was the conclusion). Maritime law says that dead boats found at sea become the property of whoever finds them. Here’s the thing: the captain who found it wanted absolutely no part of it. Refused to even set foot on it. He had it sunk over by the reefs. He even took his own ship and put it in the dry docks for the season to scrape off the wood and have it sanitized and refinished. He was talking about selling it and moving up to different places.

He said the waters weren’t as hospitable as they used to be.


Credit: Jeff Hartin

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