This story is an excerpt from my book, Curse of the NonSol Isles, which was pitched in early February and accepted for publication by Tales; Tales is an interactive story-telling platform that provides creators with data to find story/market fit and the economics to scale ideas into massive franchises.
By downloading the app, you can continue the story as chapters are uploaded here!
I led a pretty uneventful life, to tell you the truth. I wasn’t the strongest or the most popular. I wasn’t an athlete or particularly charming. I definitely wasn’t smart; in fact, I passed high school by cheating off the guy in front of me. And the worst part about it? I never bothered to learn his name.
Too bad, I say. Tough luck. School isn’t for everyone, anyway. Too much structure and way too much work. Once I’d finally escaped that hell-hole, I got a job instead, working for the only cruise line that would take some near high-school dropout with no education or experience: Euro-Cruise. Trade in a life of academics for one of adventure and get paid for it, too?
Sign me up!
And I did. With Euro-Cruise. You’d’ve heard of it if you’d been born where I’m from. Not a week went by that we didn’t make the front page of the paper:
Family Falls Ill Due To Undercooked Pork!
Euro-Cruise Pools Prove Hot-Bed For Pink-Eye!
Woman Falls Overboard Due To Crew Member Negligence!
Now, that one was technically my fault. Only partly, though. I did ask that woman nicely to get out of the way before the anchor rope snagged her foot and pulled her over. But did she listen? Of course not. But that didn’t make it into the paper. I nearly lost my job after she went blabbing to the press about her accidental midnight swim. But, as usual, it only took about a month before another headline took my story’s place. The cooks had a habit of playing hockey with the frozen burgers whenever business got slow. Allegedly, that is.
But all press is good press, as the saying goes.
Regardless, the pay was decent for the work I did. The food was decent, if not a bit flavorless, and there was always something to keep me entertained: the maids were always a good time if you caught them in the pool bar after midnight. My lodgings were decent enough for a cabin boy. I had a private room with a bunk to myself. It was long enough for me, so long as I pulled in my legs. I didn’t have lights: the ship’s electrician had “forgotten” to install them after he caught me stealing a picture of his wife. Whatever, I didn’t really need it anyway. I had a footlocker as well, where I stored my cash and other… unmentionables that are best left… unmentioned.
What? Sea life gets lonely, as I’m sure you’ve learned.
Of course, I didn’t have the luxury of a window in my room, as sleeping beneath the ocean didn’t offer much of a view. But I did have a mirror: it was just a bit bigger than a buffet plate and the pride of my eyes most mornings.
So before, when I told you I didn’t have much going for me, that wasn’t exactly true. Back during my Euro-Cruise days, I looked much different than I do now. I had a full head of dark, curly hair with a long beard to match. It wasn’t patchy either. My skin was the canvas for many a Caribbean tattoo artist; two were from the line cook who shared my tiny bathroom down the hall. My eyes had that youthful gleam in them, even after 30 years at sea. In short, I was an extremely handsome guy.
My face looks younger now, but I’d trade 10 years off this body to get 1 year back in the old one.
That certainly was the life. Or one of them, at least. I spent a grand old time on the Euro-Cruise. Being gorgeous, you see, had its own set of advantages: I made great tips whenever the maids needed help cleaning rooms. And I got picked to hose the Luau Night on the Upper Deck… twice! Nothing greases the palms better than a line full of Luau-enthusiasts willing to do whatever it takes for the best cut of a roast pig. And every now and then, some down-and-out widow would book herself a single room to find herself; only to find herself in her bed. With me.
The Euro-Cruise wasn’t the only thing rocking at sea.
But there were no widows on the last trip, though. No cook-outs or conquests or card games. Just some Category-3 that sprang up out of nowhere to track us down off the Amalfi Coast. I didn’t know Italy even got hurricanes that time of year. That’s what I was told, at least. Not that I saw it with my own eyes: I spent that long night tossing and turning in my bunk, courtesy of the line cook’s questionable concept of the word “expired”.
Needless to say, I formed quite the intimate relationship with our shared toilet that week, much to the cook’s dismay.
So as I lay there dying, my stomach twisting harder than a widow at Singles’ Night, I heard the telltale signs of a storm: the creak of steel rivets, the band of loose bolts, the ever-present tilt of the ship shifting just a bit more than usual. My bunk didn’t move much, as things didn’t sway too badly when your room was under the water. It pays to be the lowest man on the totem pole sometimes. I guess. It certainly did in my case, at least. I never did get my last paycheck, though.
I’d ask the foreman to mail it to me now but I doubt he’d know where to send it. I sure don’t.
I never found out what happened to the foreman or the Euro-Cruise. I couldn’t tell you the fate of the staff or any of its passengers. And I’m still a bit upset I missed the chance to really thank the cook for that questionable batch of crustaceans he gave me, but I’m sure whatever he dealt with ended up being a lot worse than a mild case of food poisoning. Not that I was thinking about any of that at the time. All I could focus on was the twisting and screeching of bent steel.
It’s a sound you don’t wanna hear when you’re floating 100 miles off-coast in the cruise-line equivalent of a floating tin can. Besides the sound of my own retching, I was certain it would be the very last thing I’d ever hear. That was, of course, until I heard something else more horrifying: even if I didn’t really know that at the time.
My life changed at that moment: the moment I heard Her.
It’s possible I was hallucinating. Or imagining things to help take my mind off things. It all might’ve been a mirage brought on by my meal of moldy mollusks. Whatever the explanation, or expiration, it certainly felt real at the time. A woman had said my name in the blackness of my broom-closet room, her Voice as clear and soothing as a glassVoice. Because my door wasn’t open to let light in from the hall, I lay in my bed sans sight, searching the corners of the room.
Then a light bloomed on from somewhere; of that much, I’m sure. And it didn’t take long to locate its source. The mirror. It glowed like it’d been backed with a blue light. Yet something was strange about it. It wasn’t coming so much from behind as it was… within it, somehow. I stared at it, at a loss for words.
The Voice spoke again.
“Joshua, can you heVoice?”
So it was real: my mirror was actually talking to me. The light bloomed a bit bright with each and every syllable, before dimming as it fell silent once more. The silence was broken only by the gurgle of my angry stomach; it repeated its question again.
“Joshua-” the mirror glimmered brightly- “can you hear me now?”
“Uhh, y-yes. Hello, mirror. It’s n-nice to meet you, I guess?”
What? As if you could’ve come up with a better response to some inanimate object that started talking to you. Well, maybe you could; but where I’m from, talking mirrors just aren’t normal. It’s an oddity, to say the least. The Voice didn’t seem to think so.
“JoshuaVoice crooned, “come to the window so I can see you.”
I stared around, perplexed.
“Window? I don’t have a window.”
The Voice laughed at me, its Voice fillingVoiceroom like music.
“OfVoicese you do! I’ve been watching you through it for quite some time.”
My face flushed as my thoughts dropped to the footlocker; shifting slightly in my bunk, I pushed it out of the mirror’s sight with my foot. When I spoke, I couldn’t help myself from chuckling nervously.
“O-oh, how flattering! How long have you… been watching exactly? Not a long while, I hope.”
“Long enough to learn that you, Joshua Friel, are the one I’ve been looking for.”
“Looking for? Why?”
“Come to my window.”
“But I don’t have a-“
“You do. I’ll show you.”
The mirror glared brilliantly in a blinding flash of blue. But only for an instant, before falling dark again. I rose from the bed and stood before it, but it wasn’t my reflection I saw. There was light… no, a series of lights. An island! It was far away by the look of it, and bobbing slowly. Up and down. Up and down. Even though the timing was off, it looked almost like it matched a ship’s rise and fall.
But it definitely wasn’t the Euro-Cruise.
Light from that island blazed like a beacon, stretching across a calm, black sea. I could see the sky from the mirror, too; ink-black, starless, as dark as the corners of my cabin room. I turned around, searching the room again. No lights. No pictures. Nothing whatsoever that might reflect in a mirror to play tricks on an old sailor’s eyes. I could barely hide the skepticism in my Voice.
“What is this? Some kind of prank?”
“No prank. No tricks. I only speak Voiceruth.”
“The truth, huh? So what is all this then?”
The Voice laughed again. It sounded like music but much sweeter. It almost made meVoiceet just how bizarre the whole thing was. And I was definitely way less annoyed by her avoiding my question than I should’ve been.
“I don’t understand what’s so funny,” I said. “What’s the deal with the mirror?”
“I’ve already told you, Joshua. Don’t you remember?”
After the Voice said my name, I realized I’d completely forgotten what I’d asked her. SoVoiceling flushed, I asked another question instead.
“Right. So what is it I’m seeing now?”
“The island that will become your salvation.”
“Salvation? From what?”
“Have you really forgotten? Your ship is caught in a terrible storm!”
As the Voice faded, the ship’s walls shook violently. The sound of rain thundered sudVoice above me; thunder cracked and boomed, growing louder and louder in the room. I heard the awful screech of twisting steel before… CRASH! Cue the sound of frenzied screaming. Fear filled me as my senses came rushing back: what the hell am I doing here, talking to a mirror? There’s a storm. A hurricane! The captain will need all hands on deck!
I leaped from my spot, bounding towards the door; as my fingers fumbled against the lock, the Voice rang out sharply.
“Stop at once! You must come back!”
I should’ve noticeVoicethen, that frenzied hint of desperation. I should’ve realized something strange was going on. But my adrenaline had seized me; the bizarreness of the situation clouded my head. And my name…
“Joshua, you mustn’t leave this room!”
“I have to though—” my fingers were frozen at the handle—“the crew needs my help!”
“Your crew is doomed, Joshua: come to me and I shall give you a new one!”
Ah, my name again; the instant I’d heard it, such calmness flooded me that I’d completely forgotten all about the storm. I stood at the door for a moment, trying to remember how I got there. Then, I hurried back to the window. The Voice sounded sweet, and her words were soothing.
“Yes. Precisely. Forget yourVoicebles and come to me.”
I smiled at the sound of my name. The island in the window bobbed up and down. It seemed closer now.
“Is that your island?” I asked.
“No, but it can be yours. A ship approaches as we speak.”
“No, your vessel cannot be saved. But I shall supply you with another should you chose to join me.”
“Yes,” the Voice said, sounding pleased.
“How is that possible?”
“Some things cannot be eVoicened; only done. I could be the one to save you.”
“What should I do?”
“I cannot tell you now, but you must make me a promise.”
Even in my current state, something about that seemed awfully suspicious to me.
“How can I promise something when I don’t know what it is?”
“It’s easy. I do it all the time.”
“Yes, but I shouldn’t agree to something if—“
“It’s an easy promise: simply answer ‘yes’.”
“Yes. When the time comes, I will ask you a question. You must promise me now that your answer shall be yes.”
Alright. That’s even more suspicious than before.
“I don’t know about all this.”
“Did you forget? Your ship is doomed.”
Thunder boomed overhead, followed by the ring of alarm bells. They sounded far away; I looked up at the ceiling, but the emergency lights weren’t flashing. Weird. The ship jolted, and I lost my footing; I clawed my way back in front of the mirror. I felt calmer, somehow, just by looking into it.
“Do you want to live, Joshua?”
I thought of all that had happened since the morning; the cramps and the craps and the fever dreams. Something didn’t seem right about all this. The numbers just weren’t adding up. And that’s saying something coming from me, given my academic record. I’d gone through damn near 30 years of emergency drills on the Euro-Cruise: did we even keep bells on this ship? Now, all of a sudden, I could barely remember.
“I’m not a man who makes promises he doesn’t know if he can keep.”
“But if you don’t make it, you won’t be a man for very much longer.”
Boom. Boom! BOOM!
A man was pounding at my door, his shouts muffled behind three inches of hard, brushed steel. I strained my ears to listen, but those bells only got louder; the sound rang in my ears until I could barely hear myself think. I thought I heard someone shout “fire,” but the alarms still hadn’t gone off in my room. I listened hard over the deafening sound of rain, but when the Voice spoke again, its words were crystal clear.
“Your time is almost up in thVoicerld. Join me so you might live.”
“Well, when you put it that way, it doesn’t really leave me with much of a choice…”
“So what do you choose, Joshua Friel?”
“Alright. I agree.”
“Fine. I promise.“
The mirror was glowing again: much brighter but no longer blue. It was red before turning orange. It flickered yellow, here and there. Then, just as I recognized it, a ring of flame burst forth from the mirror, surrounding it like a frame. Fear seized me as the blood rushed from my face. Fire. Fire! The wall was on fire!
As I stood there, my heart thumping louder than the fists thundering against my door, a realization hit me. Did I really want this, whatever this was? The Euro-Cruise had survived a dozen tropical storms before this one. So why shouldn’t it survive another? If I’d only opened the door to let the other men in, I might’ve made it on deck to help our ship brave the storm.
But by the time the thought occurred to me, the door had already been engulfed in flames.
“Touch the mirror now, before the spell wears off!”
Her words did nothing to free me; flames danced in my eyes, wide and round as saucers. The men outside my door shout for the hydraulics: the door was jammed shut. Maybe if I just unlocked it for them, we could…
The ship jolted forward again as her scream rang in my ears. Instinctively, I threw out a hand to stop myself from falling forward. Just my luck: it touched the mirror. When I tried to pull away, my hand wouldn’t budge. For a moment, I stood in a burning room with my fingers stuck to the cold glass, screaming as the steel-pinned door flew open.
Then, I felt my body lurch forward sharply; it was as if I were being pulled by the tips of my fingers through icy water. It stung my skin. The weight of it stifled me. White light streaked past me as I held my eyes shut. Terrified, I tried to scream, but my lips were drawn tight. I had the curious, uncomfortable feeling of rising quickly upwards. Like a cork, I rose. Up, up, up. Faster and faster until I was sure I would be sick. My lungs screamed for air, but when I breathed, they filled with liquid.
And just when I thought I had died and risen straight into hell, my mouth broke the water’s surface and breathed in mouthfuls of cold, night air.
I stared skyward for a long time before I realized I was floating. Cold water lapped my clothes which were soaked through to the skin. Had the fire eaten the floor beneath my feet, and I’d slipped into the ocean? I shifted my weight, suddenly aware of the solid wood beam supporting my upper half. Had I clung to it as the ship went down? The Euro-Cruise was made of steel, so where had this come from? I couldn’t remember anything.
I thought maybe I’d hit my head and gotten a concussion. If only that were true.
As I touched my head to feel for a bump, I gasped. A hard and extremely sharp something was protruding from my left temple; it went straight through to the other side, which also ended in a point. So a piece of the wreckage, likely a pipe, had lodged itself in my brain. At least that explained the memory issues.
I explored further, prodding gently around the base of the object. The skin wasn’t torn, and the wound didn’t seem to be bleeding. My vision and breathing seemed fine, considering the head injury. In fact, my head didn’t hurt at all. I pulled gingerly at it, but the thing wouldn’t budge. So I tugged on it. Hard.
Okay. Now it hurt.
I might’ve felt more anxious about it, but it didn’t seem to be a problem. Besides, I had more important questions to answer than what was currently lodged in my skull. How long had I been floating like this? I touched my face and, to my surprise: no sunburn. So I’d only be shipwrecked for a few hours, as a day adrift at sea would’ve scorched my skin raw. But something about that didn’t quite add up: it was well past midnight when that hurricane hit the Euro-Cruise.
Could I really have been floating for only a few hours?
There were no signs of life around me. No broken bits of burning wreckage, either. Just me, my beam, and the moon. Wait, but the moon isn’t blue. At least, not Earth’s moon. Okay, so I definitely had a concussion; no denying that one. What did I mean by Earth’s moon, and why did that color seem… right to me? Maybe the bizarreness of my situation or the thing lodged in my head tempted me to break the first rule of sailing: never drink from the ocean.
But as it passed through my lips, I was hardly surprised to discover the water was fresh.
So I’d drifted somewhere far away from the Mediterranean; the current was certainly strong enough, in any case. It pulled me along swiftly but in a peaceful sort of way. I couldn’t gauge the speed well or navigate either; the constellations overhead were mixed up. Jumbled. They certainly weren’t ones that I’d ever seen. I tried to make out the North star before I failed to find it, for the first time in my life:
Head injury: 2 Joshua: 0
If the morning ever came, I sure as hell didn’t see it. I drifted in and out of consciousness for I don’t know how long. I let the current take me where it would: I was always a go-with-the-flow sort of guy back when I was human. So I’d fall asleep to the sound of water to wake up beneath the same eerie, blue moon. Drink some water here and there if I got thirsty. Fall asleep again. I never got hungry, though; that was good, as I might’ve been drifting along for three days or thirty.
I didn’t count the days, you see, as I never saw a sunrise.
Near the end, I opened my eyes expecting to see something and I did. An island bobbed in the distance, a long way off, with lights blazing brilliantly beneath a starstruck, moon-blue sky. It was a place I’d seen before, in a picture or window maybe. Or was it a mirror?
No, that didn’t make sense.
I couldn’t paddle. Not that I really needed to, as the current was already taking me there. Perhaps it had been the entire time. Something told me I was right in thinking so, even if I didn’t understand it. I didn’t really need to, so I just closed my eyes.
When I opened them again, I was lying on a white sand beach that faced the sea. Propping myself up, I stared across a dark horizon which stood devoid of ships. The heady, steadfast silence was broken only by the sound of waves. And the stillness of the midnight sky, which housed an azure-mirror moon, broke beneath the beams of light burning like beacons behind me.
On the eve of that first night, the island of Lahn Doth received a wandering, wayward traveler.