A Ship Without a Name
I have worked the night shift in Port Elizabeth, New Jersey for about two years now. Its not the best job. My coworkers are assholes. Even with overtime, most of the time; my family lives barely above the poverty line.
But… one night I saw something that made me question my belief in just about everything.
During the day, the port oversees thousands of shipments from foreign seas and oceans across the world. Think of it like a constantly churning toy factory. That Wish gift ordered online from China has to get to your house somehow. It is the dockworkers’ collective responsibility to identify, birth, and transfer every single one of them to the corresponding and correct trucks.
At night, our responsibility is glorified security.
On typical shifts, there are several people assigned to inventory on the ground and a couple in the tower up top. But the combination of Summer vacations and hiring freezes had left us woefully understaffed. Three of us drew straws on where we would go. I ended up the unlucky fuck stuck in the rain alone with the boxes and cranes.
My main priority was finishing the job as quickly as possible while staying as dry as I could. . The storm that rolled through was expected to continue well into the following morning, and our work could take at least that long.
Around two-thirty AM, I looked out into the water for the first time in hours. The waves were growing by the minute. Some summer nights, the sea can upend the wall and seep all over the concrete dock. It’s a real bitch to clean up. I was examining that possibility when I saw a small light on the horizon for the first time.
I watched it for a bit. When it grew bigger, I followed protocol and phoned my partners on the radio.
“Mike, come in. Come in! We have an unverified… something approaching the port. Have you seen anything up there? Why aren’t we watching this on radar?“
There was a pause as my radio returned static. Then Mike came through with a cough.
“Uh… Roger that, Scooby Doo. We’ll be sending down the rest of the gang in the Mystery Machine to assist you out there. Do you think you will need more treats, over?“
“I’m serious, man. Are you seeing this? Are you two even doing anything up there?“
“Nothing on radar,” he paused. “Hang on, Tommy stepped out. I was on the shitter.“
“Okay. Isn’t there some kind of protocol, here…?” I asked.
“Hasn’t happened in my time. I’ll come down and grab a better look,” he coughed repeatedly into the radio before muttering a mumbled; “Over and out.“
By the time Mike got down to the dock, the swell had grown to epic proportions. Wind whipped at the cloth labels covering the containers while thunder cracked dangerously overheard the metal locks. I had to hold onto my heat to keep from losing it to the sea.
Mike really looked like shit. The bags under his eyes had grown bags, and both bore a deep shade of red. He wore a yellow smock over his drenched sweatshirt that he barely bothered to keep over his head.
“Where’s Tommy?” I asked.
“Had to run, wife is in labor,” he replied.
Amazing. Two of us running an entire port’s security. I pointed wordlessly to the growing light in the distance. Mike nodded, and we both walked to the closest corner of the pier to get a better look. After squinting into the ink black distance for a couple minutes, the outline of the boat became a little more visible.
Toe to foot, the entire ship must have been about two hundred feet long. As it drifted closer in the waves, it was clear to see that the white paint was chipping everywhere. The metal beams looked rusted and dented on the side. There was no name or call signs visible whatsoever.
“I’m going to call in the Coast Guard and tell ‘em we got a floater. Sometimes these things do float here, believe it or not,“Mike wheezed. He raised one arm over his head and flexed it awkwardly as he fumbled for the knob on his radio.
Then he paused for a long moment.
“You hear that?“
I listened intently to the sound of the lapping waves and pounding rain. Subtly, tucked underneath the endlessly dripping water, I heard it too.
A desperate, begging, blood-curdling scream.
We reacted instinctively. There is an old dingy that is kept by the dock for emergencies. I hopped inside in moments while Mike leaped to my side and pushed us away. As we kicked up the old single engine, the scream came through again.
I turned the motor up to its maximum. The waves turned the boat into a see-saw, and we were very much in danger of capsizing to the storm, but I didn’t care. If somebody was still on that boat or had gone overboard… they were running out of time.
As we tipped up and down, the ship came into full view over the current. It was a miracle the thing was still afloat. The deck was cracked and splintered while the railings were missing almost entirely. I threw a rope to what remained of the ladder and began to hoist myself up.
Mike called behind me.
“Kid, you sure about this? Coast Guard knows our position. Maybe we should wait!“
I ignored him. What if it was your kid on that boat? Wouldn’t you want someone to try anything, everything, to save them?
As soon as I got over the ladder, the deck creaked and groaned recklessly as it threatened to splinter. I stepped over the deck gingerly as I headed towards the cabin. A bright, white light shined underneath the crack in it’s doorway. I rushed forward and opened it.
I was greeted with a plushly decorated hallway leading to several closed rooms. It was carpeted wall-to-wall, with a high ceiling, fresh blue paint, and a few decorate paintings on the wall. There was a dimmed overhead light that illuminated the door to a small elevator at the other end. The cabin seemed to be padded and soundproofed. The din and chaos of the outside world disappeared as soon as I closed the door behind me.
Without warning, a middle aged man in a burgundy nightgown poked his head out of one of the rooms. Another scream echoed downstairs in response.
“Um, excuse me, what are you doing here?” the man asked in an annoyed tone, as if investigating an intruder.
I was flabbergasted. My entire body was soaked to the core. If it were winter, I would be at risk for hypothermia. And this asshole was treating me like a peeping Tom.
“We heard screams,” I said incredulously.
He tutted gently as he lifted a studded glass of whiskey to his lips.
“Pay them no mind. Some people just have no respect for the Ocean. That’s what got them into this mess. No, no. I’m here to make a pickup.“
I stared. “The dock is closed. You know its past midnight, right.“
He smiled as if it were a funny joke. Then he chuckled softly and said –
“Oh no, handsome, I pick up the people. Somebody has to, after all.“
“What people?” I asked dumbly.
“Oh, not you!” he laughed and slapped his naked knee. I even started to laugh with him a bit, absurdly. “You thought… one of those perverts…? Lord, no! I just pick up the dead ones.“
I stared at him again. He chuckled and jerked his thumb below deck.
“Those screams you heard…“
I gulped. “But, if they’re not alive…?“
“…How can they scream?” he finished. “Their last memory is like a cassette tape. It plays over and over again in eternity. That is the only thing that will keep them company, now.“
“Why do you have them?” I asked. It was the only thing to say that made sense at the moment.
“Souls can’t just die at sea unclaimed,” he said, as if I were being stupid. “No, no. Somebody has to shepherd them home. There’s a river, near here, that will be sufficient. Just like the old days.“
I sighed. “Just passing through? You’re pretty off course, mister…“
He smiled back. “Just one more pick up along the way,” he paused again at my concerned look and step backwards. “Oh you thought… still not you!“
The man laughed again and pointed outside.
I opened the door and went back into the storm. The rain was still drowning everything in sight.
And our boat was empty. No Mike in sight.
The man shuffled beside me in his pink house slippers and whispered in an understanding tone.
“*Not your fault. Or mine. The alcoholism really didn’t help, in the end. Or the drugs. He had a heart-attack and fell overboard. Died just two minutes ago.”
I turned to jump. The man grabbed my arm and held his hand behind his ear.
A familiar scream echoed from below deck.
“Maybe we should wait!“
The man smiled sadly and walked back inside.
“Pickup complete. Time to take him home.“
I started to cry. The overwhelming shift of events had wracked my emotions so badly that there was just no sense in any of it. I didn’t know if this was just a psychopath who planned everything. I cried in front of him like a baby.
Maybe Mike was still alive. I was about to turn to the sea to see for myself. I asked the man one last question.
“If you are who you say you are, how can I see you right now?“
He shrugged. “Sometimes the veil slips. You’re lucky. Today is not your day.“
Then he clapped his hands and disappeared.
The entire fucking boat disappeared from thin air.
I fell fifteen feet into the ocean. The waves cracked the back of my head like a brick. I can remember water filling my lungs. I can remember preparing to die. But the man told me that day was not my last. I think that thought is what kept me alive.
I woke up in a hospital bed two days later.
The Coast Guard had arrived sometime after my fall. A second body was recovered a day later. As promised, Mike’s sixty-six year old heart finally gave out after one too many steak dinners. He had just rehabbed his second open heart surgery and was six months away from his pension.
Since our position was radioed in ahead of time, and no ship was found nearby, foul play was not suspected. They just assumed we got spooked. I let that assumption lay and quit my job a week later.
These days, my main responsibility is to avoid the sea. The man said I was lucky. I know what that means. Eventually… his nameless ship could come for me.