Thanks to Givemesomevamp for beta duties, and to HammerHips for the pre-read and the title
From the AP: Breaking News: F/V Mary Alice has lost radio contact. Suspect drifting with no power. Coast Guard scrambled from St Paul. No further information at this time.
From the AP: Breaking News: Coast Guard reports no radio contact with F/V Mary Alice. Seas hostile. Winds at Storm Force.
From the AP: Breaking News: No contact spotted. Coast Guard Helicopter to return to base. Source fears F/V Mary Alice is lost. Eight souls on board. Winds picking up to Hurricane Force.
We set out from Dutch Harbor on October 15th expecting the usual. Fairly rough seas, long hours and plenty of crab. We had a greenhorn on board but the rest of the crew were old hands, so I really wasn't expecting much trouble on this trip – apart from making quota, that is.
I'd been potting crab since I was eighteen. Not really any other choice. Family business means just that: family. My dad had been caught when a freak wave caught the pot and his greenhorn didn't have the reflexes to stop the swing in time. Broke his back and crushed his legs to pulp. Dad was left crippled. Old bastard was damn lucky to be alive, we all knew it, but he sank into a shell of himself when he realized he'd never be putting out with the other boats again. Now he just sits at home keeping an ear on the radio, grunting at mom and generally pissing off everyone who had anything to do with him.
Some of the other old-timers took him to The Locker a couple of times a week to re-live their glory days. Yeah, right. They all got shit-faced and gossiped about how the crab were better back then and how the young'uns didn't know their arses from their elbows when it came to crabbing. I couldn't say I blamed them, but The Locker was a run-down POS dive bar more used to fighting than cheering people up, so the conversation almost always turned mean and dad came home more miserable than he went out. Son of a bitch was cranky as hell at the best of times. Ah, hell. Maybe it would have been better if the pot had finished him off.
I was twenty-three when he had his accident, and he wouldn't let up on me until I agreed to take over as skipper. I was too young but he wouldn't have it any other way. At least I had a steady, older crew I'd known since I was a kid. They hadn't let me down yet. The other Captains were also pretty good at looking out for me at first. We're competitive – we have to be – but there aren't many of us and any kind of misfortune affects us all.
The losses in this business are staggering. The figures tell us an average of one man per week is killed each season, but that doesn't mean shit when it's a whole crew at once. It don't take account of those men like my dad – crippled and unable to work. That's like a death sentence for some of them, not to mention the money worries they're left with. Don't get insurance out here. It's just how much the skipper can afford to give and how much the government dole will pay. It's no work for pussies. We have a few greenhorns each year come aboard each of the boats – some of them escaping from "boring" lives elsewhere, some of 'em in love with the idea of the sea. You never could tell which ones would make it through a season – let alone come back. If they were lucky, they didn't end up as another statistic.
The 15th was fucking cold; colder than expected this early in the season. It's Opilio season in January that's real cold – down to minus 40 at times. But Red King season is usually a balmy 35 degrees. We made good progress over the first few hours with plenty of black coffee and smokes to get us going. The crew checked out all the equipment – usual shit. The weather center that broadcasted from the Coast Guard station in St. Paul gave no cause for concern, everything was copacetic. That's when I should have realized something was going to fuck this trip up. If everything is going well when we leave port, it turns to shit before we get home. Law of the Bering Sea.
It took two days to get the primo grounds. We were followed by the fucking birds for the first day. Seagulls – I hate the fuckers. Some of the fish guys love 'em. They show the weather or where a large shoal is close to the surface. Me? All I saw was the shit covering everything. The squawking alone drove me crazy. That old legend that they are the souls of the lost never really got to me, but sometimes when I'd have one that hung on for the whole ride, I couldn't help but wonder if there was something malevolent lurking in there – like an old, drowned sailor watching and waiting for us to join him. Thoughts like that don't ever, EVER, get spoken out loud. Not on this boat, not in this town – we're all macho men 'round here. Even if some of us dreamed of a life away from the fucking cold and the fucking crabs.
College would have been nice. Somewhere hot… Texas maybe. That's where my family was from originally. Gramps moved up here to work in the oil fields and somehow ended up investing in a boat. I still don't know why or how, but he persuaded his brother to go in with him and so Aaron and Leroy Whitlock bought the first Mary Alice. My Gramma went crazy - so they say - when he called the boat by some other woman's name. Gramps would never say why, just that he had a stroke of good luck after he met a psychic in Fairbanks and took her advice on buying stocks. I guess she was Mary Alice, so he named the boat after her. Not much of a compliment if you ask me, but I don't know shit about women.
The only woman I'd ever really wanted was the woman of my dreams. Literally. She'd haunted me for years, on and off, since I was around eighteen. I didn't know her name, nothing about her, really, but every now and then she would show up and tug at my heart, leaving an ache in my chest for weeks afterward. It was crazy, but I still believed that one day I'd find her in the flesh and she'd know me. Of course, that didn't stop me from enjoying myself with various other girls over the years, but I never made any kind of commitments to any of them, and I didn't regret it.
The temperature kept dropping as we lowered the pots for the first time and the sea began to swell, but it was nothing to worry about. We were used to the vagaries of the crab grounds and it really wasn't anything too out of the normal, yet. The first string was disappointing. Most of the cages were only a quarter full so after a consultation with a couple of the older guys, we headed further out into deeper waters for the next run. It was a pain in the ass, but we had a quota to fill and we weren't gonna do it hanging around this close to shore. I saw a couple of the other boats follow us out. We weren't the only one disappointed with the first haul. I called up the captain of the Anita and shot the shit for a while, same with the Nicky G, they told me they were heading on over towards Bristol Bay whereas we decided to shoot for Petrel Bank. Captain K of the Meteor was closest but she, too, went back toward Bristol. Best decision they ever made.
By the 21st we were exactly where we wanted to be and the pots were going down easy. Our greenhorn, Riley, was getting over his seasickness and was proving to be pretty able, all things considered. He hadn't once bitched and moaned – unusual enough that we all noticed. I asked him why and he said something about running away to sea to get away from some scary chick who was stalking him back home. He figured she couldn't find him out here. Poor kid was real shaken about it. She'd really done a number on him. He went white as a sheet and his hands shook when he talked about her – he could barely get his story out. Of course some of the other hands gave him shit for running away from a hot piece of ass, but there was something about his face when he told it that gave me pause. I mean, yeah, I gave him shit too, but I felt sorry for the kid. If he lasted the season, he'd toughen up enough to deal with the girl when he went home. I was sure of it.
The catch carried on with few problems. We had been at sea for nearly three weeks and the temperature continued to drop, but the pickings were good and the boat was doing just fine. The hold was over half full and spirits were still fairly high. Lack of sleep was taking its toll and the stink was thick, but that was nothing new. Eight men on a small boat, working eighteen hours a day, no-one cleaned anything up much and most of 'em didn't bother showering or shaving. I did. Couldn't stand to feel gross getting into my bunk when I had the chance to sleep. Tiredness makes for clumsiness and mistakes start to happen. It was no different this trip. We lost a hook overboard, had a couple of broken fingers, a nasty slice to Jimmy's leg when he was chipping ice off of the housing, but nothing too serious.
It was around 10 o'clock on the night of November 12th that things started to change. The swells were up and getting higher and the temperature had really started to drop. Ice covered everything and the wind was picking up. The Coast Guard weather center warned of an early winter storm rolling in our direction and recommended we leave the area and head back toward St. Matthew Island or Nunivak, whichever was closer. I was reluctant to go, maybe because I felt the CG were always over-cautious and the crabbing was good out where we were; maybe it was plain stubbornness on my part. The older hands agreed, said we could ride it out a few more days until we saw if it was going to be a real blower or not. We had time.
The other Captains out our way disagreed. Joey J on the Midwestern called me up on the VHF and told me to get my ass back with the rest of them, but I told him he was a grumpy old fucker and I'd see him in Unalaska for beer soon enough. The Lilith and the Claire de Lune followed him back, leaving only the Mary Alice and the Lone Star way out beyond the Petrel Bank.
The weather continued to worsen as we threw out the pots once again. The waves were at 40' and the winds approaching Storm Force, but nothing we couldn't handle. Couldn't see for shit but the radar and VHF were working just fine, along with the running lights and the Lone Star was in good shape 100 miles to our south. Riley had started to look nervous, but we all reassured him there was nothing to worry about. We were going to be fine. He didn't look too convinced, muttering something about seeing things from the bow that shouldn't be out there, things that were wrong. I shrugged it off and put it down to ice-blindness. Even if I had believed him, there was nothing I could have done about it anyway. The sea does strange things to a man.
By 3pm on the 13th, Unlucky Friday, we were definitely in the grip of a storm. We hauled as many pots in as we could before I decided we should mark the position of the rest and head back east to ride the weather out. It was getting too dangerous to be out on deck and the Coast Guard was now issuing Hurricane Force wind warnings. Prudence was definitely the better form of valor and living to crab another day seemed more important than trying to ride it out where we were. Lone Star had already turned back, so Mary Alice was the only boat left out on the bank. I radioed our intentions to the CG and to the Lone Star, and then told the crew to secure the deck before coming in. It took a while, what with the pitching of the boat and the freezing wind and ice, but we got it done and prepared to run.
Just as I had finished on the radio I heard a thud overhead. I figured it was a chunk of ice that had come off of the VHF mast and fallen onto the cabin roof. It had happened before and I shrugged it off until I saw that the light on the radar screen had gone out. I flicked the switch a couple of times but got nothing. I grabbed the VHF and called up the CG, giving them position and telling them I'd lost radar and that they may need to guide me in when I had to change course as I couldn't see a fucking thing out the window. Just as they asked me to repeat and acknowledge, the damn thing shut off. Dead. No amount of button-pushing and smacking the top of it would bring it back to life. I think that was when I began to get a little concerned. Out in the middle of the Bering Sea with no radar and no radio was bad, sure enough, but I still had engine power and the CG knew where I was. Facing potential Hurricane Force winds at the same time was trickier.
I called down to the cabin and asked Olaf, one of my more experienced crew, to get up top and see if we could work out what the hell had broken the antennae. We both suited-up and scrambled up the ladder on the outside of the bridge, nearly getting blown off the fucking thing before we even made it to the top. Once there we found no sign of the antennae - nothing at all. It was as if they had been simply pulled out of their mountings and thrown overboard. I'd never seen anything like it, and Olaf could do nothing but scratch at his beard in disbelief. We made our way back down below and I called all the guys together. I explained the situation, told them not to worry and sent them to get some sleep while I skippered. Riley offered to stay with me to keep the coffee and cigs coming. Good kid, that one.
I have to admit, by then I was feeling a bit uneasy. Losing the VHF was one thing but to have the whole assembly go missing was a bit . . . creepy. I must have been picking up on Riley's crazy. "Creepy" covered a whole bunch of shit. 99% of it perfectly natural and explainable. The other one per cent? Put it down to lack of sleep and too much coffee. I felt slightly better after I'd mentally slapped myself, well, until I felt the boat suddenly grind to a halt, that is. The Mary Alice was dead in the water, engines still running, lights still on, and not going anyfuckingwhere. Until we began to move backwards.
One pure, unencumbered moment of "what the FUCK?" before all hell broke loose. Riley was white as a sheet, clutching the edge of the chart table and gasping out a name "Victoria". He looked at me, sheer terror written all over his face and tears in his eyes. "I'm sorry! I'm so sorry, Jay. I didn't know she could come out here! It's my fault, all my fault. We're all going to die now . . ."
Before I could let that bit of weird sink in, the rest of the crew were reaching the bridge, shaken and scared, hearing the engines whine but feeling the boat getting tipped in all directions – we weren't moving under our own steam. Big Olaf crossed himself before ripping the survival suits out of their cubby and throwing them at all of us, yelling we should all put them on and that we must have run aground. I automatically did as he said, shoving at the others to follow. Riley was still shaking and sobbing by the table and I forced his arms and legs into the red suit, zipping it for him as he couldn't seem to move.
I was still in "what the FUCK?" mode. I did what I needed to, checked suits and mouthed platitudes, tried the VHF – just out of habit – and tried really hard to figure out what to do. I didn't know whether to turn off the engines or just throttle back – if we were caught on a submarine, somehow, we'd need the power when we were freed up. Yes, it was a longshot, but what the fuck else could I have thought? Ice and wind were pounding the shit out of us, water was breaching all over the decks and running into the bridge, the pots on deck were tied down but lurching ominously and to top it off, the power went out.
We were in deep, deep shit. We were still being pulled somewhere, powerless, light and radio-less, terrified and stuck in the middle of a fucking awful storm. We were all getting tossed around the bridge like rag dolls, and I heard at least one bone break. I had to make a decision and soon. Abandon ship or hope to ride it out – whatever the fuck it was. It still hadn't sunk in that nothing I did or didn't do at that point mattered in the slightest. I was no more in control than one of the crabs in the hold.
Maybe thirty seconds after the power died, the Mary Alice came to a stop. We were now completely at the mercy of the waves, and there was a real danger of capsize at any time. I ordered the crew out onto the deck and into the lifeboat, a sturdy 8-man Zodiac specially equipped for these seas, but not something anyone really wanted to spend time in. Thank God the emergency generator powered the deck's running lights or we would have been completely screwed in the pitch-black night. The wind was howling so loud we couldn't hear each other, but I counted six men onto the Zodiac. One was missing. I had to get back onto the bridge and find him.
I staggered back, trying to balance against the wild pitching of the icy deck and the screaming wind fighting to push me overboard. I was maybe halfway there when I saw them. Riley was in the arms of a woman with long, red hair. She was talking to him, screaming at him and then she pulled his head to one side and bit into his neck. I knew then that I must have hit my head. I was hallucinating or I was already dying. There was no way, no way on earth that a woman could be aboard the Mary Alice, let alone biting Riley the greenhorn. I felt my legs give way and I fell to the deck, scrabbling and sliding my way to the Zodiac winch. I shoved out as hard as I could and set it free. I was just about to swing myself over into it when a hand grabbed my ankle. I turned my head to see the imaginary Riley-eating woman glaring at me with very real hatred in her red eyes. I pissed myself.
She swung me back onto the pitching deck and said something I couldn't hear before launching herself over me and onto Riley. She grabbed him and appeared to finish him off like a good beer. I think at that point I shit myself. I don't have many memories of what happened after that. I know there was pain, and wind and dark and ice. I know I heard voices, and an awful screeching and grinding I thought was the Mary Alice running aground somewhere. I know I was afraid for my crew and for myself. I know I opened my eyes once to see the woman of my dreams bending over me, and I know I told her I loved her before the diesel started to burn me alive. And then I remember the fires of Hell.
1 year later
"And that, Nessie, is how I met your aunt," I finished.
Nessie leaned forward and placed her warm hand on my face, asking a question I had also asked when I was coherent enough to understand what was going on.
"Ah, well, you see your Aunt Alice saw me coming a long time ago. She always knew I was going to be with your Aunt Tanya, that's why she gave my Gramps the information he needed to buy the boat in the first place. The only thing she got wrong was the timing. I was supposed to die in a traffic accident when I was thirty, not be murdered by a psychotic vampire when I was twenty-seven. I'm glad she was able to get Tanya and Eleazar to me on time, though, even if I did lose the rest of my crew."
Nessie smiled and nodded at me, before running outside to play with her wolf. I sat back and looked at my family, more content than I had ever been, and thanked Mary Alice Brandon for the thousandth time for not only saving my great, great, great uncle Major Jasper Whitlock but also myself, Captain Jayson Jasper Whitlock, and bringing me home.