This was created in January 2018 for the 12 Short Stories writing
I first saw Cookie while I was being shoved against a dumpster behind a shitty bar in Duluth. Cook hated that name about as much as I hated my own. My head was ringing and I was left crawling around, hiding from an unpaid tab that had left me fucked up and bleeding from the nose. He’d watched his buddy deck me and drag me outside, and then Cook flipped a coin. He helped me after that, because, apparently, it was my lucky day.
I remember his deep voice yelling at me to stay on the ground while his buddy paced, looking for a reason to finish me. I could barely tell what he was saying through his thick accent and the shaggy gray beard covering his lips. His buddy walked away like a good man. Cook did not.
I was too lost to care and too drunk to notice where I was being led, or by who, so when I woke up in a motel room, sore and still bleeding, there was no shock to be had.
Cook was a chef, a good one, and he fed me that morning and the next. He’d worked for twenty-five years in a boatyard – a familiar haunt for me, seeing as I grew up on one just off the Gulf. We ended up smoking and drinking and sharing more than just a bed for a few nights. We shared memories.
I was a kid during the war, thank God. He’d served and said he loved every bloody minute of it. I’d always wanted to be a cop when I grew up. He laughed because he’d never been anything but a cook and a crook.
When it came time to share the deeper, darker parts of me, I choked, but there was something in his lonely eyes that egged me on. I told him who I was and from where I’d run, and he listened with such rapt attention that I thought I might be speaking the words of God. When I described how I’d snapped and killed them all, he didn’t look at me like I should be thrown in the clink or a nuthouse. He just nodded and said welcome to the club.
He got me a job on his boat – the big one, according to the locals. I had nowhere to go and the earth was burning my feet, so I figured the sea might just wash away some of my sins.
It was a clear day in November when we set off hauling ore from some mill in northern Wisconsin. We were part of the twenty-eight-man crew plus the captain. He was a good captain – well-seasoned, as Cook called him – who stayed on the bridge, piping music through the intercom. The crew fucking loved it; hell, every port loved it. They were a treasured attraction on Superior. People came from miles away just to watch them dock: a salty, drunken family that danced and sang across the deck.
After what I had done, I had a hard time believing life could be as happy-go-lucky as a clear blue sky and careless merriment on a barge. I’d been branded a hero. They gave me the key to the city and a hefty raise without knowing the truth. They cocked eyebrows and shook heads when I turned in my badge and gun the next week. They said I was out of my mind to leave my post. They offered me more money and a better position – in an office rather than patrolling cells – but I couldn’t go back. They thought I had saved my boys, and I had. But I was also who’d started the fire.
They burned for days but screamed for what felt like longer. They smoldered and smoked – tall black plumes reaching for the heavens – until all that was left was a big brick box filled with a hundred locked coffins. It was declared an act of God, and maybe they were right. God does have a penchant for watching his children burn.
When people heard my name, they beamed and wanted to shake my hand – the hand that had chained doors, flushed keys, and sloshed gasoline across the floor. I was apparently made in God’s vengeful image, but no one was the wiser. I left town after that.
The lake afforded smooth sailing for my maiden voyage, and I felt free for the first time in years. The solid ground had carried too much weight for my taste, but the water and the breeze gave me life. I could’ve learned to love that.
Cook took me on deck and told me of the ports, kitchen, and who onboard had new wives or new babies waiting for them in Detroit. He didn’t care, but he knew. He called me a clever boy and a good friend. When my eyes glazed and my attention waned, he clapped my back and told me murder was a relative term used only by men. We were not men there. We were something different. We were divine, but caught between the devil and the deep blue.
That evening brought with it gray clouds and a dangerous wind. Cook called the gales a bad air. The gusts picked up, and the waves beat their fury on the sides of the boat. We rocked and the great hull bellowed into the night. The crew battened down but the good captain forged on despite the warnings. I, the coward, prayed like a child in Cook’s bunk. He didn’t like it, but he let me.
God came knocking on that boat, throwing our bodies and teasing the hungry water. We could hear him in the bones of the ship. We could see him in the flickering bulbs and the panicked faces of the crew. We could feel his wrath when he pelted us with an icy rain and twisted her so far that she finally cracked open.
A pitch black void howled above and a damp doom laid beneath, and no coin would let us pick which direction we preferred. That night we were all left drowning.
I could hear the tears and the frantic calls of dying men locked in their fate. I was one of them this time, and I welcomed the dark waters into my mouth and lungs, because you cannot play or battle God and expect a fair fight.
Days passed, and when I peeled open my eyes, I was staring at the hazy light filtering through the window of Cook’s motel room. My chest burned and my body shook, and he was studying me from the corner, smoke pouring from his broken nose like a serpent.
He didn’t smile or scoff, or tell me why my face was bloodied and my hair gritty with sand. He just helped me redress, tucked a map and his wallet in my back pocket, and said fortune favors the bold. He donned a pack, lit me a smoke, and opened the motel door. The room was flooded with the healing fire of the mid-morning sun and the gongs of a church ringing through the streets. Twenty-nine bells of mourning rang through Detroit, and I’ve yet to hear a sweeter sound.