2

The evening had a sleepy look to it. The clouds rolled low, as if ready for bed. The sky turned from it’s usual blue to a graduated color of yellow to red to an even deeper blue, with a few stars making an early appearance. The crescent moon decided to take this as a cue and headed below the horizon. The waves even felt it, going from a hardy chop to a milder, more serene lap against the dock, and the ship that had pulled in. The ship’s crew had begun to work, tying off the ship and unloading the cargo, moving like a well oiled machine. Well, the veterans were; there was a new face on board who stumbled more than walked off the ship. He steadied himself on a post and straightened up, looking for all the world like a lost puppy. Mitch took this as his cue to straighten the fellow out.

“You’re new here. What’s your name?”

The lost puppy turned about to come face to face with the grizzled face man who addressed him. “I’m Justin, Justin Blake. I was saved from an attack by the crew and brought on board. I can’t wait to start working.”

“I’m Mitch” was the reply, taking Justin’s hand in a firm grip. “I’m guessing you don’t have a job yet. What did the captain say?”

“He didn’t say much, just put a mop in my hand and made me swab the decks. Is he always like that?”

Mitch chuckled. “Yeah, that’s his way. It doesn’t matter who you were before or what you can do, you always start at the bottom here.” Mitch looked him up and down. “Well you look capable. You got any skills?”

“Well,” said Justin, “before this all started I was a reporter. I worked for the local paper in Greensboro, just outside of Charlottesville, North Carolina. I was thinking of starting a paper here, you know, like a news letter or something.”

Mitch chuckled again, “Well, maybe. I guess folks here could appreciate that.” 

The crew was still unloading the ship and were heading down the dock. In the midst of men, women and supplies came the Captain.  He was a tall, dark swarthy man, with a rugged face and bushy black hair. There were two handles springing up from his back which led to the two machetes he’s never seen without. His walk was full of intent, strong and steady. He walked past Mitch and Justin, giving Mitch a nod, which he returned.  

Justin watched him go by, then turned to Mitch. “He’s really something. What’s his name, Bren, Bun,…”

“It’s Captain Bern, and don’t you forget it” Mitch said, very seriously. “Hey, shouldn’t you be working too? Get that ship unloaded!” 

“Right, but before I go, could I talk to you later, maybe over a drink? I’d like to get an idea about how things work around here.”

“Sure, sure, now get to work” was the reply. Justin thanked him and headed for the ship, arms out to catch whatever was being handed down. 

The next day Justin managed to catch up with Mitch at the bar on the south end of the island. He apparently spent a lot of time there, so he was easy to locate. The building was a leftover from the apocalypse, one of the few buildings that survived the fires. The rest of the buildings were either refurbished or torn down and replaced with newer buildings. The island itself was a decent size off the coast of Virginia, large enough for a small population. It used to be a tourist attraction, offering beaches and shops and off-shore fishing for vacationers. Now it was the home of the few people who were lucky enough to run into Capt. Bern. He turned it into a stable, safe place where you could live without fear, and everywhere you walked there were people either working, training, or laughing. 

Inside the bar there were a few people sitting and laughing at the bar. They were trading jokes with the bartender, a tall, skinny woman with short auburn hair who looked like she was used to being hit on, and could hit back. Over by the far wall was Mitch. He was sitting in a booth with two other men, each of them with cold beers in front of them. They were quietly talking when Justin approached.

“Hi”, he said. “I’d offer you a cold one but it looks like someone beat me to it.” His attempt at humor was met with stony stares. “Uh, I’m Justin, we met at the dock yesterday. I asked you if we could talk.” Still, silence. Now he’s feeling awkward. “If this isn’t a good time, uh, I could talk to you later.” The silence was deafening. “Um, ok, I’m just going to uh, go, if you feel like talking, I’ll be around, uh, nice meeting you.” 

Justin turned to leave but was stopped by a word from Mitch. “Hold yer horses young man”, he said. “Pardon me fellas, he wants to talk.” The two men with him nodded and slipped out of the booth, taking their beers with them.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt…”

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” replied Mitch. “Sit, sit. I wasn’t aware you were in such a rush to talk.” He motioned to the bartender, who brought over a beer for Justin. 

After she left, Justin took a long swig of his beer. Mitch just watched, ready for whatever questions were coming his way. After Justin finished he wiped his mouth and looked directly at Mitch.

“That is the coldest beer I’ve had in a long time” he said with satisfaction. “You folks have really come a long way here.”

“Yeah, we have”, Mitch replied. “But you didn’t come all this way just to talk about beer. Did you get a job?”

“Yes, well, for now I’m working in the warehouse. Moving stuff around.” He paused, then added “Does everyone here have a job?”

“Everyone here works and fights, no exceptions. If you have a particular talent, we put you to work there. We have doctors, masons, ship wrights, tailors, cobblers, carpenters, gardeners, welders, and whatever else you can think of to run this place. Otherwise you work in the warehouse moving things around, or clean, or train. We even got brewers who make a mighty fine beer.” Mitch took a swig of beer, never taking his eyes off of Justin.

Justin was astonished. “Shipwrights? Cobblers? Where did you find those?”

“When we go scavenging we don’t just look for food and clothing. We also gather books. Granted, book smart isn’t the same as experience, but we learn what we can and put it into practice. And we have a lot of folks who want to learn new skills, so it all works out. We even have a guy who hand built a loom for fabric making.” Mitch picked up his mug, and while looking over the rim, said to Justin, “So what can you do?” Then he took a sip.

Justin was beginning to feel awkward. “Well, I’m just a writer, and I’d like to start a newsletter. I was hoping to hear a few stories about the Captain to start my first issue. If that’s ok I mean. I don’t want to presume that you don’t have a newsletter already…”Justin trailed off, hoping this would give Mitch the incentive to fill the silence, which was getting heavier and heavier. 

Mitch, being in no rush, took another sip of his beer. He gave Justin a curious look, then looked at the others at the bar. Justin couldn’t see their reactions because they were behind him, but when Mitch turned back to him and started speaking he felt some relief. Some, not all.

“I’ll tell you a story,” said Mitch, “but not of the Captain. I’ll tell you about Sophie, his daughter.”

Justin exclaimed “Captain Bern has a daughter?”

“She’s not really his daughter” replied Mitch. “He kinda adopted her. It all began in the early days, back when we were getting used to the Captain and being on the sea. We had sailed up and down the eastern seaboard looking for supplies. By then we had acquired a schooner called Betsy. It was a quick ship with plenty of room in the hold. We would occasionally pick up survivors, and the captain would ask them all the same question: Are you crew or passenger?”

“Yeah” said Justin, “He asked me that too. Say, what happens if you say you’re a passenger?”

“Then you have to pay your way” replied Mitch.

“How, when money’s no longer an issue?”

“With knowledge” came the answer. Where ever we pick you up from, we want to know what’s there, what kind of shops, stores, the layout of the town, what ever you know that will lead us to booty.” 

“But, when I said “crew” I was still asked about those things.”

“That’s right, you were”, came Mitch’s sharp reply. “Just because you want to be crew doesn’t mean you just join up. You have to earn it. There have been many times when we kicked people off for not earning their keep. And those who want to be passengers get a ride as long as we’re heading in that direction, otherwise we leave them off at the next dock. Does this sound harsh?”

“Um, yeah, it does” replied Justin, a little sadness creeping into his voice.

“Good” was Mitch’s reply. “That shows we’re doing it right. I’ll put it like this, as the Captain told me on that first day. He said, ‘We can either be nice to each other, or we can survive with each other. Those who want to be nice can get off now’. No one did, and I’m grateful every day that he came. He set us up to survive with each other, and not against. Being nice just means that you want to apologize to the zombie for not being more tasty. Is that what you want?”

“No, not at all” said Justin. “I’m just as much a survivor as the next guy”. 

“No you’re not” said Mitch. “Cuz we’ve seen our share of the next guy. The ones who think that we should do things their way, or the ones who want to be nice. Or the ones who were famous before the apocalypse and think they deserve special treatment. Or the ones who think this is still a democracy. Those are the guys who crack me up the most.” Mitch laughed at that, then turned to one of the guys sitting at the bar. “Hey George, remember that guy who kept spoutin’ off ‘this is ‘murica, this is ‘murica’”. Justin turned to see George and the others laugh along with Mitch. 

“I remember him”, said George. He was trying to get us to mutiny, said the Captain wasn’t allowing him his civil rights. We tossed him right off the keel. Not the side, the keel! Didn’t even have to wait for the Captain’s say-so. You should have seen his face, bobbing up and down in our wake, trying to stay afloat.” Then he laughed again. In fact everyone was laughing.

Justin turned back to Mitch. “I don’t understand what’s so funny”. 

“That’s  because you don’t get it” said Mitch. “There is no more ‘murica, or Canada, or Europe or Africa or Australia. It’s all gone, with nothing left but us survivors. The same goes for all religions too. They’ve all reached their inevitable end, according to their own bibles. It’s done, and if you’re trying to hold onto the notion that it’s not, you’re an idiot.” Mitch took another swig of his beer, found the glass empty. He motioned to the bartender and she brought him a new one. “You see,” said Mitch, in a more intimate way, “the world, the old world, has ended. The only way to move forward is to realize that, and to start new, fresh. You hold onto those old ideas and you’re just, I don’t know, living in another time that’s long gone. Get it?”

Justin slowly nodded, not really understanding, but he didn’t want to upset Mitch.

Mitch continued, “This is why everyone starts at the bottom. You want to be crew, you swab the decks. If you can do that then you may have a future with us. Otherwise we let you go, like the movie star we picked up. He thought swabbing was beneath him. He did a very sloppy, lackluster job, and the Captain told him he had to go. He fussed and fought and told the Captain he should be working for him, to his face! All it took was for the Captain to draw one of his blades, real slow like, and that guy jumped over the gunwale so fast…” Mitch turned away and chuckled again. Justin sat there, drinking his beer slowly.

Justin said “He just kicked him off  the boat? No mercy? I thought you folks were about saving people.”

“Well we’re not” Mitch barked. “We’re about survival. We don’t have time to coddle anyone, and no one is special. You’re either working with us or you’re off the ship. No exceptions.” Then Mitch looked at Justin closely. “Are you gettin’ this?”

Justin didn’t know where this was going, but he didn’t want to make waves. “I do. I just thought that saving lives was important.”

“Well it’s not” Mitch barked again. “We’re not the red cross, we’re not whatever search and rescue group you can think of. And if you think saving lives is more important than survival, then you would be one of those guys who would save the wrong life, the one that would stab you in the back when you’re not looking. We’ve had our share of those. Guys who would smile to your face and then plot against you. Guys who would come aboard and challenge the Captain for control of the ship. The Captain would always see right through these guys and send them packing, if not out right killing them.”

“Wait, wait, wait, so you’re telling me that the Captain never accepted a challenge?”Asked Justin, a bit surprised.

“Hell no” replied Mitch. “Think about it, anyone who is looking to challenge you for your ship isn’t interested in your survival, just their own. And these people wouldn’t think twice about tossing you into the sea with a meat jacket for the sharks. They’re only interested in themselves, and that doesn’t help us at all.”

“So it’s not, well, I mean, the Captain…”

“If you’re thinking the Captain is a coward, you should get that thought out of your head quickly” said Mitch in a very serious tone. “Captain Bern is the bravest man I’ve ever met. He’s also the smartest man I’ve ever met. He had this whole apocalypse figured out long before we met him, zombies and survivors. On top of that, I once watched him walk right into the middle of a bunch of bandits looking to steal our booty. They had followed one of the teams back to the ship and were trying to rob us at gun point. The Captain took them all out so fast if you blinked you would have missed it. 

“So whatever you’re thinking about the Captain, you’re wrong. It was his idea to take to the sea. He trained everyone on this island personally, on surviving, fighting, sailing, scavenging, living, everything. Without him, we’d still be drifting around half dead and half out of our minds.”

Mitch took a long swig of his beer, but his eyes never left Justin. Justin sat quietly, patiently waiting for him to continue. 

“Anyway” said Mitch, coming back to the story, “I was telling you about Sophie. Beautiful little girl. When we found her she was, I guess you could call it panic stricken, or something like that. We picked up her and her mom, Marge, south of Jersey. Marge was carrying Sophie in her arms, walking quickly along the shore line. When she saw the ship she started waving at us, but wouldn’t stop walking. I looked to the Captain and he just shrugged and left me to it. 

“Yes, I was still first mate and pilot back then. We switched through enough ships by then and I thought at some point someone else would get my job, but no one did. Those first days were rough. I was the only sea man there, and all I knew was motor boats. When fueling up is as dangerous as standing still in zombie territory you quickly learn that a sail boat is the way to go. We started off with a small skiff, and everyone tried their hand at it, even the Captain. It took a while, but when being on the sea is your life now, we learned. We went from the small skiff to bigger and bigger ships until we we settled on the Betsy, a fine craft. A schooner that was big enough for the crew and had plenty of room in the hold. We also learned to turn sea water into drinkable water. That was a tricky one there, as you have to…

Justin interrupted. “I don’t mean to interrupt, but you were saying about Marge and Sophie…

“Right, right” said Mitch, taking another swig. “Anyway, I stop the ship and send out a launch to go pick them up. The launch had to move ahead of her; as it turned out they were being chased by zombies, that’s why she kept moving. The launch gets in close enough to pick her up, and she jumps in the water with Sophie. The zombies try to follow her, but they can’t swim, they just make these arm motions like they’re trying to swim, but it’s exaggerated to the point of uselessness. So they make it to the launch and back to the ship, and we’re back under sail.

“So the Captain says, ‘Are you crew or passenger?’  But this woman is too busy crying and blubbering to even look at the Captain. I mean she’s a mess, cold and wet, just sitting against the hull, hugging Sophie tightly. After watching her for a moment the Captain says ‘I’ll just assume you’re crew’. Then he gives the order to take care of her. So I get her to her feet and lead her down to the lower decks and get her situated in a bed so she can rest. 

“A few hours later I take the Captain down to her berth so they can talk. Marge is just so grateful that we picked her up, saved her life, blah blah. The Captain starts telling her she’s got to work if she’s going to stay on board. She starts crying that she can’t leave Sophie alone. 

“Now Sophie is looking pretty catatonic. I think she was eight or nine, too young to see her daddy die like that which was why they were running. They had camped somewhere close that they thought was safe, but it wasn’t. She watched the zombies eat her father alive, and they’ve been on the run since dawn. She don’t speak, she barely moves, and her eyes are locked open. I mean locked, like they’re open even when she sleeps. I don’t know if they were, it just looked like that. 

“So the Captain is pretty firm about this, either she works or she leaves. So they work out a deal where while she’s swabbing the deck her daughter can hold onto her skirt, which is pretty awkward when you think about it. There she is trying to swab the deck, but Sophie is slowing her down, just clinging to her. 

“Finally the Captain had enough. He goes up to them and takes Sophie by the hand. Marge starts to complain but the Captain is adamant. She can’t work while the girl is slowing her down. Sophie doesn’t even fight, she just let’s go of Marge’s skirt and grabs the Captain’s in a firm grip. Marge almost panics, but manages to keep herself calm. The Captain isn’t going anywhere, he just stands there holding Sophie’s hand. So Marge starts swabbing, hard and fast. She doesn’t want to leave the ship, and she especially doesn’t want little Sophie to leave. They’ve been through enough. She finishes the deck, never taking her eyes off her daughter, which is another neat trick. Once she finished she grabbed her kid and went back down to the hold.

“This becomes their routine. They’d come up, the Captain takes Sophie by the hand, Marge works, and then they’d go back into the hold. After a while they actually stay on deck and get some air. We find out that Marge is a cook, so we put her to work in the galley. Whenever she’s working, the Captain has Sophie. He of course has work to do himself, so where ever he went, Sophie went with him, never letting go of his hand. We still stopped to make forays into the wilderness, that’s what we call it now. But the Captain couldn’t go because he had Sophie, which was fine. We had our routine down by then. Every time we went scavenging the Captain would be standing by the gunwale, watching, which meant Sophie watched too. I went on one such foray, and when we got back I saw that the Captain had picked her up and was holding her in his arms. Seems like she started bawling. I didn’t ask, just reported the haul and squared everything away. 

“This went on for a few weeks. Marge was working more and more in the galley, which was fantastic. She practically took it over, and began giving us a shopping list. And what a cook! I think that if we had nothing to do we would all have been fat. When she wasn’t working she would spend time with Sophie, either below decks or on. The Captain took to taking Sophie to his quarters if it was late and letting her sleep there. Marge would come and get her when she was done working. Sometimes the Captain would let her sleep there too.”

“So did anything happen between Captain Bern and Marge?” Justin asked.

“No, no” Mitch answered absently, “I don’t think the Captain was interested in her at all, now that I think of it. I know this because whenever I had to wake the Captain for his turn at the watch, I would find one or both in his bed, and the Captain sitting in his big chair against the far wall next to a porthole, sound asleep. Hmmm…”

Mitch seemed lost in thought. Justin decided to let it go, allowing Mitch a moment to gather his thoughts.

“Anyway”, said Mitch with a start, “Sophie was beginning to look better. She lost that shocked look in her eyes, and her sullenness seemed to be fading. She still hadn’t said a word, but she was getting better. Even Marge was feeling better. Her working in the galley was doing it’s job at keeping her busy and her mind off of their tragedy. But then we’ve all experienced a tragedy, a loss. And we all deal with it differently, don’t we?”

Mitch was looking directly at Justin, who sat their getting more and more uncomfortable. Did Mitch expect an answer? Justin had a feeling he was meant to fill the void when Mitch jumped back into his story. 

“And then one day, it happened. Somehow a fishing net got caught up in the rigging from the the mainsail. I’m still trying to figure that one out. We were bringing in a net and trimming the sails at the same time. One line got loose and pulled the net up the mast as the sail was coming down. Of course the Captain starts yelling at me, so I start yelling at whoever screwed up. We were all still a bit new to sailing, although we had most of it down. A little mayhem ensues, and the Captain let’s go of Sophie’s hand.”

“Wait, a fishing net?” asked Justin. 

“Yes, a fishing net. What, you thought we ate the finest food that we could find? We fish. And sometimes we fish a lot, that’s why the net. If we didn’t fish while you were aboard then we had enough fish or whatever canned meat. Can I go on with the story?” 

“Yes, please, sorry for the interruption” said Justin.

Mitch looked a little annoyed, but continue with his story. “So now Sophie’s just standing there, I think. All I know is the Captain is yelling and I was yelling and the crew were running around. I guess Sophie took this as her cue to walk around un-attended, which she did. Me and the Captain were so busy with the net, we didn’t notice that Sophie had climbed up on the ratline on her way to the top of the mast. It wasn’t until the crew started shouting and pointing that we noticed. The Captain orders her down but she starts pointing at the tangled net. She wanted to help untie it. But the Captain was firm, told her to get down now. She did, slowly. We took places under her in case she fell, but she did just fine. 

“As soon as she was down the Captain grabbed her and started lecturing her. Told her about discipline on a ship, and that all commands have to be obeyed for the ship to work right, and not to go off and do things without checking. She stood there and took it quietly. Then the Captain says ‘Do you understand me?’. And she nods her head. The Captain goes ‘No no no, when you answer me you say Aye Captain.’ Then he turns to me and says “Right Mitch?’ and I say ‘Aye Captain’. Then he turns to another crewman and says ‘Right?’ And he says ‘Aye Captain’. Then he turns back to Sophie and says ‘Right?’ And in the smallest, meekest voice I ever heard, she says ‘Aye Captain’. The first words she ever spoke. Kind of a little miracle. But the Captain wasn’t finished. He shakes his fists in the air and starts stomping around, turns back to Sophie, tells her if she’s gonna say it then he has to hear it. Then he leans down, gets right in her face, and tells her he wants to feel it. She looked right at him, and then shouts ‘AYE CAPTAIN!’ The Captain shudders, looks at her, and says ‘That’s the stuff’. He even gave her a little wink. She giggled at him and tried to cover her mouth with her hands. The Captain stopped her, told her that she has a pretty smile and she should never cover it up. 

“So I’m standing there watching this all happen. It was so sweet. She’s been talking ever since. The Captain really took to her, and she took to him. What I hadn’t noticed all this time was how the Captain was influencing her. Captain Bern does that with everyone, with his strength and confidence. Even when he’s wrong he’s wrong confidently. He doesn’t put on airs and talks to everyone like their all his responsibility. He’s the hardest working man I’ve ever met, whether he’s actually working or overseeing the work. And I guess little Sophie saw this and was encouraged to some point.

“Anyway, the Captain decides to put her to work learning knots. He tells me to fix the net, and when I turn around I see Marge standing at the door to the lower decks. She had heard the commotion and Sophie’s name being shouted so she ran up to see what was happening. Her eyes are wide and her hands are covering her mouth, just watching and listening to Sophie. There were even tears in her eyes. Never seen a mother happier than that. The Captain sees her and asks if she has work to do, not in a harsh way, just to remind her of her duties. She says ‘Aye Captain’, but hasn’t moved yet. So the Captain sends  Sophie over to her and they start hugging. It was so sweet. When they finish Marge goes back below decks and Sophie begins her career of being a sailor. She took to it like honey to a bee. The Captain even taught her about weapons. She took to that really well. She sucked in every lesson she got, absorbed them, from the Captain or whoever had her for the day, she even took lessons from me. She got stronger and turned into a real chatterbox, always with the questions. 

“At some point I catch the Captain and Marge talking on the fore deck. When they were done he says to me it’s time to take an island. We were getting heavier with crew, and it would be good for the few kids we had to have solid ground under their feet. There were a few, and you could see that some of the couples were thinking of getting into the family way. Plus it’d be good to have a place we could call home. So because of Sophie we traveled north and found this island. We cleared it of zombies and started to rebuild what ever could be rebuilt. It’s also because of Sophie that we made the Wall of Remembrance. Her daddies name was the first name on it. Once a year we have a little celebration in front of it, to remind ourselves how lucky we are, and to remind us of those we lost. 

“I think Sophie was as good for the Captain as he was for her. The Captain used to be focused on three things: survival, the ship, and the crew, in equal measure. It was all he talked about. He didn’t really try to make friends or get chummy with anyone. He was focused, straight ahead, no time for his own happiness. Even when he was training the crew. He would comfort and cajole as much as he would yell and discipline. And the discipline was no joke. Don’t let him catch you asleep at the watch, is all I’m saying. But Sophie seemed to have cut off one of his edges, as she did with all of us. Now she’s commanding one of her own ships. All thanks to the Captain.”

At this Mitch took a big swig of his beer. When the glass was empty he signaled for another one. Justin waited patiently, sure there was more for Mitch to say. When his beer came and he said nothing more, just drank his beer, Justin spoke up.

“Thank you for the story, but I was more interested about stories about the Captain.”

“I just told you about the Captain” was the reply.

Justin stared at Mitch, not sure of what was happening. Mitch responded, “What I told you was a lesson about how the Captain brought out the best in a little girl, who is now a fine woman. That’s what he does, brings out the best in all of us. Doesn’t matter who you were then, or what you were capable of. Captain Bern would find the thing that makes you you, and pull it out of you. It wasn’t just training and surviving that helped us, it was knowing who we are. That saved us more than anything. And I don’t know what he told Sophie about herself, but I do know what he told me. He tells everyone something different, he digs for your inner self, and he brings it out. Marge was a simple housewife when we met her, now she’s chief cook and quarter master for the island and she provides the supplies for the trips out. And Sophie was a scared little girl who just lost her dad, now she’s a Captain with her own ship. If you want to know more, ask any one around what he did for them, and what you will find is a group of people who aren’t just in it for survival. You will find a community of people who are connected to each other, and who are in touch with themselves.”

Then Mitch gave Justin a narrow gaze. “But you won’t be around much longer to ask more questions, will you?”

Justin started, even more not sure of what was happening. “What do you mean?”

“I mean” said Mitch “the Captain is a very smart man, something you didn’t pick up on in my story. He knows you better than you know yourself. That’s how he knows you’re a spy.”

Justin was in the middle of sipping his beer when Mitch said that. It all came spluttering out, making a mess on the table. “What do you mean?” he said, trying to get his breath back. “I’m just a survivor, same as you. I’m here to find a place that’s safe, really!”

“Yeah, well, the Captain knows better. Like I said earlier, he had this whole apocalypse figured out way before anyone else did. He knows there are those who wish to take what’s ours. He also knows the only way they can do it is with some…, shall we call it recon? Why do you think you’ve only been as far as the warehouse?”

Justin became aware of a panic that was rising from his gut. He looked around and saw that the few people in the bar and the bartender were looking at him. Mitch was just slowly sipping his beer, as if he had all the time in the world. 

“Justin turned back to Mitch, then asked “If what you’re saying is true, then why did he pick me up?”

“Well” began Mitch, in the calmest voice, “The Captain wasn’t completely sure, but now he is. You’re circumstance for asking for help was so contrived. You got on the ship so easily. You were so willing to do whatever job he gave you. And you kept looking to the shore line. Yes, he knows you were being followed. And now that he knows by who, he wants to give you a chance. Just this one.”

Justin was beginning to shake slightly, hoping this was his way out. He knew he was careful, but maybe he wasn’t careful enough. After all, they had no proof, just what the Captain said. He tried to defend himself, saying “Look, I don’t know where this is coming from but I can assure you…”
“Save your breath” Mitch interrupted. “The Captain want’s you to take back a message. You tell Johnny…”, at this Justin gasped. He knew! “That’s right, Johnny. You tell him that we know he’s there, we know he’s plotting, and we’re ready for him, and not in the ways he expects. We have surprises galore, so what ever he’s thinking, don’t.” 

Now Justin’s inner tremors had reached his hands. Mitch sat back in his seat, holding his beer for another sip. 

“Down at the dock” Mitch said, “you will find a rowboat, just for you. You will leave this place, go straight to the dock, get in it, and row your ass back to the mainland. Are we clear?”

Justin, after a moment, stuttered “Bu…but it’s a long…w..way…”

“Do I make myself clear?”

What could he say, except. “Crystal clear”. Then fell silent.

Mitch looked at him, then shouted “So what are you waiting for? Git!”

Justin half lunged, half stumbled out of his chair, ran for the door, and made it outside.

The evening had a sleepy look to it. The clouds rolled low, as if ready for bed. The sky turned from it’s usual blue to a graduated color of yellow to red to an even deeper blue, with a few stars making an early appearance. The crescent moon decided to take this as a cue and headed below the horizon. It was still light enough for Justin to see there were still people on the street, and they were all looking at him. Whatever they were doing they just stopped, just to look at him. Justin shoved his hands in his pockets and started walking. He walked past a couple, who watched him as he went. He walked past a man who was closing his shop who stopped so he could watch him. He walked down an alley where there were a few teenagers hanging out. They stopped talking to watch him. Everywhere he went, the eyes were on him, like a blanket. At one point he got lost. Someone who was watching him pointed the way. He walked hurriedly until he made it to the dock, where there was indeed a rowboat waiting for him. He untied it from the post, got in it, and started rowing as hard as he could away from the island. 

As he rowed several people wandered down the dock to see him go. Justin never felt so unwanted, and so in fear of his life. They were all in on it, every single one of them. He never felt watched before. He was sure people did, but he never felt it. He looked up and saw a tower, almost hidden by the trees. He figured they were still watching him so he increased his rowing through the water, just to get away. He didn’t like that feeling of being watched, like being on stage as part of an exhibition. And he wasn’t sure how Big John was going to take this. He failed in his mission and Big John doesn’t like failures. 

But he did learn one thing. The folks on Bern Island weren’t to be trifled with. They could have killed him at any time, but rather than do that, they played with him, toyed with him. They were of a single mind, completely connected, and thoroughly ready for anything. And they know about Big John. Hopefully this information will do. It will have to, because that’s all they would give him. 

Perhaps he should take his chances on his own. Big John wasn’t a forgiving man. Even if he was, whatever assault he had planned for that island was sure to fail. Justin knew it, deep in his bones. Those people were scary in their one-ness. He would have liked to have called it home, but it’s too late for that. He would just have to hope for the best. So he continued rowing, not sure of his immediate future.

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