Chapter Five

Vashti rushed below followed shortly by Isaac.

Nils lingered topside, sipping on a refill of coffee. He didn’t want to leave Neville and Raphael alone together.

Neville came back to the wheel and took the helm without a word. Raphael sat on the bench opposite Nils, turned on the sat phone and glanced at the satellite messenger while the phone powered up. The messenger — which was never turned off — indicated it had no satellite lock but the internal tracker may have captured some positions overnight.

He looked at the phone. There was no connection. He wasn’t expecting it to work but seeing words on the screen detailing the failure punctuated all his fears. They were alone. They were now as ancient mariners were, blind to the rest of the world.

He stared at the phone for a moment longer. “Nothing. Nothing at all,” he said. He lifted himself and his frustration from the bench and leaned through the companionway, facing Vashti.

“This thing might have a few positions on it.”

She was gathering the electronics on the salon table and saw him poke his head below. He tossed it underhand to her.

She caught it with two hands and placed it on the table.

Isaac was in the forward cabin grabbing the yard-long roll of paper charts collected from around the world.

“I need the table to spread out,” Isaac said, stepping back into the salon.

Vashti continued without responding. Powering up each device, she organized them in a line by type. He stood, wrapping both arms around the thick roll of charts, waiting behind her, jiggling a leg impatiently. As the seconds and then minutes passed, he chewed on his tongue.

Then he sat down on the settee behind her with a “harrumph” that he meant her to hear but she didn’t react, again. “Err, Vashti, do you mind?”

As the last of the devices booted up, she turned to Isaac, rubbing both palms together, preparing to work. She was surprised to see his annoyance.

“What?”

“I was talking to you,” he said.

Vashti glanced in the direction of the companionway and then back at him. A bit nervously, Isaac thought.

“Isaac, I will need your help a bit,” she said. “Can you keep something between us? Just for now?”

“Depends,” he replied, wary.

“Raphael knows, don’t worry,” she said.

Isaac ratcheted his fingers back and forth along the edges of the rolled charts.

“OK,” he replied. “What is it?”

She explained how her hearing aids were causing her problems and she could not hear. She had tested them a couple of times since the sun came up but all she could hear is static.

Isaac frowned, motionless.

“So you can’t hear me now. But I can see them in your ears?”

“I turned them off. I am reading your lips. I get most of your words.”

She clicked a switch on one of the aids off and on for Isaac’s benefit. Isaac turned his eyes away from her, distracted by thought and loosened his grip on the rolls of charts.

“Did the static start when the compass started wobbling?”

“No. It was hours after that.”

Isaac nodded. People are queer, he thought. Why would she be hiding this? Just like Raphael was always hiding something, holding back.

“So you don’t want me to say anything to the other two.”

“And I want you to face me when we talk.”

Nils came down the companionway ladder, each step creaking under his weight.

“Isaac, Vashti, what a night, huh. Don’t worry, I’ll figure this out.”

“No worrrrrrrries.” he said.

Isaac tapped Vashti’s forearm and pointed toward Nils. She turned around and smiled.

“Right. Getting to it,” she said.

Raphael came down behind Nils and pulled a frying pan and a bowl from a galley locker. He arranged eggs, bacon, an onion, a red pepper, and a pack of tortilla wraps on the counter.

Nils grunted his way around the cabins, gathering the tools he needed: Two screwdrivers: a Phillips-head, and a slotted-head. Two pairs of pliers, one needle nose. Wire cutters. Tape and a few butt connectors.

“Where is it?” he grumbled, casting about his eyes for one more item.

“In the forward sail locker,” Isaac said.

When he came back to the salon, Nils held an electrical tester. “Right, thanks, Isaac. I forgot.”

And off he went into the aft cabin to check the batteries, carrying a plastic shopping bag filled with tools.

“He’s whistling Vashti,” Isaac said. “And singing.”

“Really?” she said with feigned surprise.

The two of them smiled and Vashti moved the electronics, reaching for two hand-held, two-way radios that were on the galley counter, and organized them on the settee.

Isaac unrolled the charts on the salon table and flicked through them, in search of the one he was most likely to use.

Coastal Portugal. The Gulf of Maine. Morocco. Long Island Sound. The Isle of Wight. Nantucket. New York Bight. The Mediterranean. Cape Horn.

“He has Cape Horn here, you know that?”

Barcelona Harbor. The North Sea.

“OK, here it is,” Isaac said.

He pulled the chart of the Northern Atlantic out from a roll and lay it on the table, holding it flat with a magnet, a coffee mug, a beer can, and a bottle of sunscreen.

Aft, Nils grunted and cursed.

Slowly, Nils wedged his 350-pound frame into the engine compartment.

“Fuck. Piss. Eeeeeeat me.”

His back was jammed against the engine, his shirt scrunched up to his shoulder blades. A hose clamp etched an angry jagged line from his bottom to the middle of his back.

And he whistled and sang.

“Eat, eat, EAT ME Paralos,” he sang to something approximating an old calypso rhythm.

He unlatched a three-foot-long drawer of batteries and inched it toward his body, further squeezing him against the engine block. He felt the clamp dig deeper into his back.

“Sorry, Paralos. No offense. You are lovely, but you can be a tight cunt sometimes.”

He heard someone walk into the aft cabin.

“Do you need something, Nils?” Isaac asked.

“Not unless you can suck 150 pounds from my body,” he said.

Isaac looked down at the bottom half of Nils’ body, his top half wedged through a small door into the engine compartment. He could see Nils fleshy backside smiling above his trousers’ waistline.

“I think I could take that much from your ass but I really don’t think it would help you right now.”

Nils’ face lit up in a smile releasing the beads of sweat on his brow to flow into his eyes. He squeezed his eyes closed.

“Wow, Isaac. That’s good. You made a good joke. The world must be really upside down. I am good man, thanks.”

Nils, unlike Neville, liked Isaac. When the man wasn’t worshiping Raphael, or being infatuated with Vashti, or retreating from Neville, Isaac was brainy, funny and kind.

“I just wish he would not be so fidgety,” he said while holding his breath and continuing to work the battery tray out.

“You mother fucker, Paralos. Sorry sweetheart. No offense.”

After numerous incremental efforts, Nils was getting frustrated, he lifted and pulled with all his might. The shelf lept out, and over his body. A corner of the drawer wedged into his left boob, pushing his back harder into that hose clamp.

He reached behind his head for the plastic bag that he had laid on the compartment floor before he climbed inside. He grabbed the electrical meter and brought it to his face and clicked the dial to direct current. The display wobbled between a negligible positive and negative reading. He frowned. It wasn’t connected to anything and should have shown 00.00 volts.

“Piece of shit,” he said.

There were two banks of batteries in the tray, each with four car-sized batteries connected together with heavy cables. He twisted up and ran his hands along each side of all eight batteries. Cool to the touch. Good, he thought.

He didn’t have to check the voltage for each battery, just one in each bank. Connecting the leads to the closest battery in each bank, however, took him the better part of 10 minutes to twist his arms into position and his triceps ached with the effort.

The first one wavered around 12.75 volts though movement of the needle troubled him. It should have been steady. The second bank wavered around 12.40 volts, to be expected, as that was the battery bank currently in use.

As he disconnected the leads, he heard Isaac walk into the aft cabin again.

“Hey, Nils? I’ve been thinking,” he yelled at Nils’ feet. “Why did you pull out the battery banks if you want to test the voltage? Couldn’t you have just checked the cables at the battery charger? They run independently back to each battery bank, no?”

Nils dropped his chin to his pinned chest.

“Well yes Isaac, I could have done that. Where were you with that brilliant idea an hour ago?”

“Sorry, Nils.”

“No, not your fault. Keep thinking friend, you will save our asses one day, one way or another.”

He heard Isaac head back into the salon. Above him, Neville stepped into the well of the cockpit and rattled the latch on the bench above his head.

The bench folded open and the morning sunlight poured into the engine compartment. Nils struggled with the brightness but could see the shadowy frown on Neville’s face turn to a toothy smile.

Despite his smile, Neville had stewed since the rest of the crew went below.

Here he was, by far the most experienced sailor on the boat, and he was standing at the wheel on a boat that wasn’t moving.

How had Raphael done this? He came on this trip expecting to be the de facto skipper. In the last 18 hours, and through no mistake of his own, or lack of judgment, it was now the opposite.

Raphael, meanwhile, had steered the boat off course. Raphael had lied to him and deceived everyone. Maybe not Vashti, but she didn’t count and should not have been part of this crew anyway. And Isaac barely counted.

But Nils? He wasn’t even fully on his side.

He had called Raphael out, yes, but that was his job. Everyone on this boat should have joined with him. Instead, they sat mute. Worse, they got up and went about his orders.

“What the fuck?” he said out loud but without any audience.

The sun was hot on his brow and nose. He reached for his jacket, pulled out a baseball cap and yanked it down over his forehead, the brim nearly touching his nose. Without any wind to cool him off, he felt like he was cooking.

Neville felt alone. And strangely, despite his anger, he longed to be below, to feel he belonged. He shook his hands in the air trying to release his weakness but it didn’t go away. He stepped forward, pushed the cap back on his head, and lifted up the bench.

Below him was Nils, contorted and squashed, his t-shirt pulled up, twisted under his armpits and around his neck. He was jammed in a space that would be tight for a man a third of his size. Nils’ face was scarlet and his hairy cheeks puffed with each exhale. Neville laughed.

“What are you doing? Why didn’t you just check them at the battery charger?”

Nils sighed. “You too? A little late for that.”

“Here take this,” Neville said, handing Nils a bottle of warm water.

Nils lifted his head enough to suck on the bottle and then handed it and the bag of tools up to Neville, keeping the electrical meter. He then summoned all his mass and embarrassment, filled his chest, and jammed the batteries — all 200 pounds of them — back into place.

“Impressive big man,” Neville said.

“I will be up in a bit and will need those tools. I want to look at the charger first.”

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