Lying in his cot listening to music on his iPod, Jake peeled flecks of dead skin from his left hand under the 2:07 AM glow of the bedside clock. Raw and red and swollen his skin was a mess, sloughing off like a reptile molt. He rolled the shed skin into little balls and flicked them across the room. The salt water was really taking a toll.

Though he recognized the condition as peculiar and potentially even harmful, with so much on his mind it hardly registered on his internal map. Peeling off the sea-shriveled skin, he felt strangely disconnected from the action, but it somehow seemed like the right thing to do, almost instinctive. Peel, peel, peel…roll and flick. A response to trauma, he theorized, some kind of primitive survival mechanism drawn in notochord Fortran, a psychic device to help levee the rising tide of stress. Weird as it was, it seemed to help.

Removing the dead skin made sense though, didn’t it? Debride the damage, prevent infection, clear the field for healing. He held up the hand and balled it into a tight fist. He thought his hand looked larger, must be the swelling. Under the dim light his fist looked like a perfect meat sculpt of his psyche. Time to do the right hand, he then thought without caution. And began peeling skin from the other hand with the detached focus of a neurosurgeon.

He had tried to sleep but it simply wouldn’t come, his mind awhirl with concern, his muscles sore from working the crop all day. Unable to sleep he figured it important to try and rest. He was already running on fumes, struggling to keep it together. He had to do whatever he could to prevent further physical decline.

With sleep elusive and options few, he had heeded his inner guru, dialed up some binaural beats on his iPod and immersed in the moment. Going through the motions trying to meditate. Lying flat, reciting affirmations and visualizing physical recovery and success. It seemed to be the best course of action. But the practice that had helped him find balance in the past was ineffective in this setting. He had been at is almost an hour before finally giving up. Unable to sleep or meditate he had begun to peel dead skin. Methodically, mindlessly, ceding to reflex; less a matter of counting sheep than adult onset stimming.

Jake was aware of the risks when he’d first embarked on the mission. He knew before stepping foot on board the Phantom Run it was going to be a colossal test of his mettle, a quest for the ages, possibly impossible. Prepared and determined as he was to bring the Phantom to justice and find out what had happened to Gavin, he knew that the probability of failure was great. There was even a chance he could be hurt…or killed. It was the simple reality of the situation and he’d accepted the risks as such.

But now, after nearly a week out to sea, the equation had suddenly changed—as of earlier today—escalating from serious to a whole other level of grim. They had a bead on his mother. Cuing up a surveillance image of her on the monitor to prove it, using her as a remote hostage, the threat of harm implied if he did anything to rock the boat. From what he’d been told it was standard practice with all new crewmembers. A backup plan to insure acquiescence, just in case, a clever exploit of basic human affection as leverage. With the Bluuke so effective in its influence, the tactic was seldom utilized, however. Only a few other times he’d been told. Jake couldn’t help but wonder if they had used it on Gavin.

Ever since boarding the ship in Tijuana the situation onboard had steadily intensified. Like a video game the level of difficulty ratcheting up the longer the player played. The recent revelation of the earth under threat of ruin had been a huge new development. One that had upped the ante vastly and had him scrambling to process.

But it hadn’t changed how he played the game, did nothing to alter his overarching mindset. Despite the multitude of new worries, he had pressed forth with the rowdy swagger of a gunslinger, carelessly confident even staring down the barrel of waning odds. If he were to get gunned down in the fight, so be it. Dying trying was something he could live with.

The instant he saw his mother up on the monitor his mentality had changed, however. On an intellectual level he understood that his mother was in danger even prior to that, given the riot of doomsday death-paths sucking the oceans dry would likely incite. But the image had served to personalize things, stripping away the protective edits of a rationalizing mind, sharpening his call of duty with a new edge of urgency.

Now, lying there in his cot, compulsively peeling flecks of sea-pickled skin, four words shined stanch amid a turbulent undercurrent of thought. I. Can. Not. Fail.

He had to get this done, find a way to survive. Rise to the occasion and somehow defeat this scheme. It didn’t matter that he was vastly outmatched, alone and with very few tools—even the SAT phone now rendered impotent—he had to find a way to prevail

     I. Can. Not. Fail.

Though his objective was clear there was still the little matter of how. He had no clue. In truth he was no closer to solution than he was fourteen-hours earlier when he’d first seen his mom up on screen and had his I Can Not Fail moment. Since then his brain had been working tireless, incessantly searching for solution, tentacles of thought sifting through fissured gray matter like a cephalopod probing benthic crags for shellfish. And still nothing. One thing he did know was he wasn’t getting anywhere here. Despite efforts at calm, his brain was fogged and gelled with frustration, and growing progressively more so with each breath.

He sprang up and quickly threw on clothes. He needed some fresh air, find some place he could think. The room itself was getting to him as much as the upset of mind. The fumes, the winding turbines, the confining metal walls. It was making him queasy, seasick without the slightest pitch or roll. He couldn’t bear to stay there another second.

Reaching down to put on his shoes he realized they didn’t fit. Like his hands his feet had swelled. He had grabbed a larger pair of rubber deck boots earlier from storage and he put those on instead. Maybe not the ideal fashion choice with blue jeans and a tee shirt, but he doubted anyone would notice, let alone offer critique aboard a trawler at 2am in the middle of the Pacific. Without second thought, he was out the door and heading topside. Maybe a quick stop along the way first.

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