As the days went on, I could sense Kyle's growing trust in me. It also became apparent that being around me protected him from being physically harassed by the rest of the crew, and he became more relaxed and cheerful as our friendship progressed.
Kyle's favorite pastime was standing at the bow of the ship, watching over the edge as the hull parted the waves before us, slicing through the clear blue water like a sharpened blade. On calmer days we'd often see dolphins swimming alongside the boat, jumping through the air as if they hadn't a care in the world.
"My dad used to say that he wished he was a dolphin," Kyle said one day.
"That might be the most bizarre thing anyone has ever said to me," I said, propped up against the railing at Kyle's feet. He shrugged.
"I guess I can see the appeal, maybe. They always seem like they're having such a good time, and when you're a lawyer who spends most of his time cooped up in an office in the city, such freedom must seem like a distant dream. Of course, I'm sure the life of a dolphin isn't as simple as we make it seem. It's probably not as fun as it looks."
"Kind of like your life, hm?"
"What do you mean?" Kyle asked, turning his gaze from the sea below to me.
"You wanted that kind of life, didn't you? Life at sea sounded like fun and games to you, but it wasn't nearly as simple as that. You had your freedom for a while, and then things just sort of turned to shit. But you saw how much the life your parents planned out for you made your father suffer, and you left. Do you regret it?"
Kyle sat down next to me with a sigh. "I don't know. Sometimes."
"Do you think dolphins ever have shitty days?" I asked.
"Probably not. I'll bet it's actually every bit as fun as it looks. Do you think they look up at us on the ship and think, 'Man, I wish I had that life.'?" he asked, laughing.
"They're probably smarter than us, anyway. Seems like all they ever do is play and have a good time. And here we are, working our asses off," I said, grinning at him.
We sat in comfortable silence for a while, before Kyle spoke again.
"What made you leave your home?" he asked.
"Have you ever been to Florida?" I asked.
"No. Well, except for stopping in a few port towns. But I've never spent more than a few hours there."
"Well, if you had you might not ask me that. But I suppose it was for the same reasons as you, at heart. I looked at my surroundings, and I didn't like what I saw. So I left. I wonder if that's a normal thing to do, or if people like us are just messed up."
"Oh, I don't know," Kyle said, absently scratching at a spot of dried pitch on his trousers, "I think it's pretty normal, but not everyone follows those impulses. Most people like to have safety and a routine, even if the idea of leaving all their problems behind them seems appealing. And then of course there's the fact that you can't really run from your problems. They follow you like an elephant on a leash."
We looked up as a shadow suddenly blocked our light. It was two of the deckhands, a surly-looking young man named Craig, and a man named Clyde, who always seemed to be following him around, saying little but providing backup when it was necessary. I had noticed them earlier, watching me and Kyle from the other side of the deck and muttering to each other, but I'd paid no attention to them.
"Having fun, Broflovski?" sneered Craig.
"I suppose I am."
"Well don't you forget your place, yeah? Or we'll have to keel-haul you again."
"Hey-" I said, trying to get to my feet. Craig placed a hand on my shoulder and pushed me back down to the deck with surprising strength.
"As for you," he said, "the Captain might be kissing your ass, but the rest of us know better. You'll get what's coming to you soon enough."
"What's that supposed to mean?!" I shouted as the two men turned to leave, but they just ignored me. "Hey!"
"Case in point," Kyle said as I huffed next to him, "I was unpopular in New York, and often got bullied. Now I'm unpopular in the Caribbean, and I often get bullied. It's getting rather old."
"What did they mean, keel-haul you again?" I asked.
Kyle sighed. "They keel-hauled me shortly after the mutiny, because I wasn't obedient enough. See? I still have scars from the barnacles."
His shirt was large enough that he only had to shrug the shoulders back a little to reveal the odd geometric scars across his back. Tiny scratched lines crisscrossed pale pink gouges, and there seemed to be no end to them. It looked a bit like a map of some badly-planned city.
"Jesus," I said, appalled, "I don't know how I didn't notice them before."
"They don't show up as much when my skin is sunburnt. They're on the backs of my arms, too, but those are less noticeable."
"Oh. I guess it would be stupid to ask if it hurt."
"Yeah. Obviously it hurt. As if nearly drowning and being dragged across razor-sharp barnacles wasn't bad enough, there was a shark tailing us at the time. I was terrified that it was going to eat me, especially with all the blood in the water. It was getting pretty close when they pulled me back onto the ship."
I couldn't think of anything to say to that, and they sat together in silence as the mainsail flapped above us. I felt sick to my stomach. I'd heard of people doing that, but I'd never witnessed it, nor had I ever met anyone who'd survived it. I wished I could do something to ease Kyle's suffering. There wasn't much I could do about the horrific events he'd lived through in his past, but I vowed to myself that I'd make whatever time we had together as pleasant as possible. I laid my hand upon his shoulder, and I was surprised when he leaned into me instead of jumping away. Maybe we were getting somewhere after all.
At the end of the fifth day, I had just about had it with our sleeping arrangements, and I was trying to think of a better solution that wouldn't offend Kyle too much. The nights I'd slept on the floor were excruciating, and when I had the bed I knew Kyle was suffering instead. I didn't think we could share the bed, considering how frightened Kyle had looked when I'd first suggested it, but apparently Kyle had come around on the whole idea. It was my turn to have the bed that evening, and as I tried to fall asleep I was kept up by the sounds of Kyle shifting around uncomfortably on the floor. Though the mattress was hard and lumpy it was still better than the floor. I was debating in my head if I should at least offer my blanket for Kyle to sleep on when I felt the mattress dip very slightly next to me. I opened one eye to see Kyle watching me nervously, biting his lip. We stared at each other in silence until Kyle finally worked up enough nerve worm his way under the blankets and lie down beside me, burying his face against my shoulder.
"Ok?" he whispered.
"Yeah," I replied, though I wasn't entirely sure it was.
I'd been attracted to men before, but I refused to act upon my attraction since the Church said such things were a sin. I had to remind myself that there was nothing sexual about sharing a bed with someone out of necessity, but it was hard to keep that in mind as the small size of the bed forced me and Kyle to cuddle up together. He was so warm, and his breath came out in soft puffs against my cheek. Very distracting.
I was afraid to move, worried that I might disturb Kyle, or accidentally reveal the physical side-effects of laying so close to another man that I was experiencing. I managed to drift off to sleep eventually, comforted by the warmth of Kyle's body and the soft sloshing sounds of the waves against the hull of the ship.
I only hoped that I wouldn't find myself in a compromising situation in the morning.
The next few days were spent like the previous days, lounging around on the deck. It was kind of boring after a while because I like to keep busy, and the comments we got from the crew became more and more aggressive, but it wasn't as though we had anything else to do. I'd offered to work again, and again I'd been turned down, so it wasn't my fault that I had all this free time on my hands while everyone else on the ship worked away. Still, bored though I was, I was really enjoying the time I spent with Kyle. I think it made everyone mad to see how nice I was to him, but I liked him a lot. He was smart and funny, and I felt like we were meant to be together. The way we interacted was so different from any relationship I'd ever had with anyone else. I felt like I could be myself, without having to worry about being judged for it.
I could tell he was enjoying my company too. When anyone else interacted with us, his posture was stiff, and his face was closed off, but when we were alone together he was relaxed and smiled easily. I could tell he was still worried about what might happen to me, but in the meantime he seemed pretty happy.
I'd been on the ship for a little over a week when Cartman called me into his quarters at mid-day. Usually he left me alone for most of the day until supper time, so I was pretty nervous about what this little meeting might entail. I guess I was right to be, because once I got to his cabin he sat me down and gave me an ultimatum.
"Listen," he said, "I know you know where the rest of your fleet is. And I know you know that I want to know, too. And I know you know that I know you know exactly why."
I heard Kyle sigh in exasperation behind me.
"I'm sorry, what?" I said.
"Tell me where the rest of the fleet is!" Cartman yelled, his face turning red.
"No, I don't think so."
"Ok, listen. If you don't tell me, I'll have both you and your little friend tortured and killed. Ok?"
Kyle made a choked sound, clearly not pleased to be involved in the punishment. I wasn't really thrilled about it either.
"That isn't fair," I said, "He has nothing to do with this."
"You just seem to need a bit of incentive," Cartman said, "I'll give you tonight to think about it, and if you still feel the same way tomorrow, well, you can enjoy watching Kyle get eaten by sharks before taking your turn."
It wasn't quite dark outside when we left Cartman's cabin, and though neither of us had eaten dinner, we decided to go back to our room, apprehensive about what might become of us.
"Are you going to tell him?" Kyle asked once he made sure the door was completely closed and latched.
"Tell him what? About the fleet? I don't know a thing about it, actually."
Kyle raised his eyebrows.
"I find that hard to believe. Shouldn't the Captain of a ship in a fleet know where the rest of the fleet is?"
"Well that's the thing," I said, "I wasn't really the Captain of La Gazza Ladra. I was just the carpenter. When this ship approached, the real Captain made me switch clothes with him, in an attempt to save himself. Obviously that didn't work out for him."
"Wait, wait, wait. This whole week Cartman's been trying to con you into giving him information that you never had in the first place?"
"Guess so," I said with a shrug.
"So this whole time... you just went along with it, knowing full well that you'd be killed if you didn't come up with the information he wanted?"
"Well, yeah? What was I supposed to do? If I told him straightaway that I wasn't the Captain then he'd have killed me anyway. I figured I'd enjoy the time I had left, and... you know..."
"I was hoping for a miracle, I guess. I guess if God wants me to survive, then He'll come through for me."
"You really believe in that kind of thing?" Kyle asked incredulously.
"Well yeah, don't you?"
"I've waited futilely for God's help too many times in my life to believe in anything anymore. If you want something to happen, you have to make it happen yourself."
"Well, what do you propose, then?" I asked, irritated and a little offended.
Kyle bit his lip and stared at the bed for a moment with a pensive look upon his face. I was waiting for some grand master plan that would fix all our troubles, but he just shook his head and shrugged.
"Do you still have that bottle of wine you stole?" he asked. I stared at him incredulously.
"That's your plan? Get drunk?"
Kyle shrugged. "What else can we do?"
I supposed he had a point.
We had no glasses, so we passed the bottle back and forth between us until it was empty. I never drank very much, and since I had hardly eaten all day the wine went to my head quickly. Kyle seemed to experiencing the same effect. Before long we ended up sprawled in a drunken heap on the bed with our legs entangled, and our arms wrapped around each other. I was too drunk to realize how compromising our position was.
"That was pretty shitty wine," I said, throwing the now empty bottle to the floor.
Kyle laughed. "Yeah, but it did the trick, huh?"
I hummed and closed my eyes, trying not to think about what might happen the next day.
"Do you regret it at all?" Kyle asked, seemingly reading my mind.
"What, lying about being the Captain? Nah. All those other fuckers on the ship got drowned anyway, so it's not like I would have just gone along my merry way if I'd have been honest."
"Aren't you frightened, though? I am."
I had to think about it for a moment, but I was too drunk to really assess my feelings at the moment.
"I suppose I am, yeah. I think I will be tomorrow, anyway. Right now it doesn't seem like it's really going to happen, you know?"
"I guess," Kyle said with a sigh. He pushed himself up on his hands so that he was leaning over me, and pressed the fingers of one hand gently against my cheek. I watched him in bleary confusion. We'd been physically affectionate with each other for days, but there seemed to have been certain boundaries which he was now crossing.
"I suppose this will be our last night together, won't it?" he said quietly.
"Oh," I said, "Yeah, I guess so. Nice knowing you, and all that? Sorry I got you killed."
"In that case, I'd really like to thank you for everything you've done for me."
"Wait, what? Did you miss the whole 'sorry I got you killed' thing I just said?"
Kyle shrugged, "I don't think it's going to work out that way. I have a few ideas. But still. You've been kinder to me than anyone has been... probably ever. I want to show you my gratitude. Just in case."
I was about to ask what he meant when Kyle pressed his lips softly against mine. He was so warm and sweet, and as odd as it sounds, I really enjoyed the way his stubble caught against mine. But I came to my senses and pushed him back gently.
"Um," I said as Kyle pulled back.
"Well, I just don't really... do that. I mean. I haven't before."
"Don't you want to?" Kyle asked, "I've seen the way you look at me when you think no one else will notice."
"I don't know what you mean," I said, feeling heat run across my cheeks.
Kyle leaned over me again, and stroked my cheeks gently with his thumbs. "Yes you do," he said.
"Isn't it a sin?" I asked nervously as Kyle moved to kiss me again. His hands seemed to be everywhere, and I was quickly losing my ability to think rationally.
"What isn't?" Kyle said, dipping his hand under the waist of my trousers.
Well, that makes sense, I thought, and let Kyle do as he pleased.
And did he ever please.
I awoke the next morning to an empty bed, and I looked around in groggy confusion. Kyle was nowhere to be seen. I wondered if he regretted what we'd done the night before. I certainly didn't. It had been eye-opening, to say the least.
I was kind of worried that God might strike me down for sinning, and then I remembered that I'd probably be killed that day anyway. Cartman would probably get to me before God did. I'd worry about the afterlife when I got there.
I pulled myself out of bed, and began to dress. I was pulling my shirt over my head when someone burst into the room. It was Cartman, and he looked livid. He forcibly dragged Kyle into the room behind him, grasping him tightly by the arm. When I looked to Kyle in confusion, he refused to meet my eyes.
"You thought you could get away with it, didn't you?"
"What's that?" I asked, still trying to make eye contact with Kyle.
"Lying to me and pretending you were the captain of your ship! How much food did I waste trying to coerce you to tell me what I wanted to know? How many hours of my slave's labor did I throw away, letting him sit on his ass for days trying to entertain you? You're in for it, now."
"Shit," was my only response.
"Yeah, shit. You see, Kyle was working for me all along. The moment you confessed your lies to him, he came running to me. How does that feel, hm? Just goes to show you that you can never trust a Jew."
I stared at Kyle in shock. I liked him so much, and I'd never once thought he was being insincere in his affections. The thought of being bedded by someone just as a mean of distraction or whatever it had been was nauseating to me. I stood there in a daze as two members of Cartman's crew pushed through the door behind him, looking menacing. I was too upset to really care.
"You're going to the bilge until I decide what to do with you," said Cartman, "There's no use in struggling."
I struggled anyway.
Half an hour and several bruised ribs later, I found myself in the dank, dark bowels of the ship. At the very back of the bilge was a small room, into which I was locked. I looked around to get my bearings, but there was very little to be seen. The only light came from the large grates in the deck, and very little of it filtered down to where I stood. I could make out shapes of barrels on the other side of the door, and heard the quiet shuffling of the livestock that was kept aboard the ship for food. I jumped as a rat ran over my foot, and then shook my head in exasperation. How had things come to this?
I desperately hoped this was all some kind of ploy on Kyle's part to get us out of our situation, but I wasn't sure how it could be. I didn't know which hurt more: the bruises I'd received in the fight, or Kyle's potential betrayal. I wanted to trust him, but I just couldn't see how any of this would result in anything other than my untimely death.
Feeling the need to vent my frustration, I started shouting curses at the men who'd locked me up, though they'd already returned to the deck. I hoped they could hear me through the grates, because I couldn't help but be impressed with the colorful array of insults my brain conjured up. I jumped in surprise when someone spoke behind me.
"Would you shut the hell up?" said a voice, somewhere in the darkness. The man, whoever he was, had a strong French accent. I hadn't seen anyone else when I'd been locked up, but of course I'd been putting up a fight against the crew members at the time, and it was too dim to see much of anything anyway.
"Who are you, then?" I asked, squinting into the darkness.
A rough-looking man stepped into the small patch of light where I stood. He was a bit taller than me, and though he was thin I could tell that given the right circumstances he would probably be pretty muscular. He looked strong, anyway. He was also white as a sheet, and the overall effect was frightening. I wondered for a moment if the man wasn't actually a ghost.
"I'm the Captain of this ship," said the man, eying me with disdain.
"Sure, ok," I said, trying to placate him. He was obvious a lunatic. Was that why he'd been locked in the bilge as well? Was I about to be killed by some crazy ghost man?
The man huffed in annoyance.
"That fat oaf held a mutiny. This is still my ship, even if he's stolen it from me."
"I'm not sure it works that way. But, wait, Kyle said the mutiny was like a year ago? You've been down here for that long?"
"Hm, has it been so long? I can't tell anymore."
"Why are you here, then? Why hasn't Cartman fed you to the sharks, or whatever it is he plans to do to me?"
A strange look passed over the man's face. I couldn't decide if he looked smug or resigned. Or maybe just insane. Spending a year locked below deck had probably divested the man of his sanity, I decided.
"Because he's a moron," the man said, "He thinks I know the location of great treasures, or some stupid bullshit like that. I'm not sure how many times I have to tell him that privateers aren't the same thing as pirates. There is no treasure, and as such there are no secret treasure maps, or whatever it is he thinks I'm hiding from him. He's a buffoon."
"Well, can't argue there," I conceded, "Who are you, anyway?"
"I told you, I'm the Captain."
"Yeah, ok Captain, but what's your name?"
"Captain Christophe Chevalier," he said, looking haughty. He seemed pretty impressed with himself, especially for a man who was covered in his own offal.
"Nice to meet you," I said, putting out my hand. Christophe ignored it. I was kind of glad, since his hands were disgustingly filthy.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"Oh," I said, awkwardly dropping my hand, "Um, I'm Stan Marsh."
"And what are you doing here?"
"Ah, well it's kind of a long story, you see-"
"Ok, I don't actually care," Christophe said, cutting me off, "Well, Stan Marsh, stay on your own fucking side of the room and we won't have any problems," he said, and then retreated back to his corner.
Slightly affronted, I shuffled over to the opposite side of the room, and gingerly sat upon the filthy floor. I wondered how long I'd be down there until my punishment, whatever that might be, was doled out.
It was terribly boring being locked up. I wondered how Christophe had passed a whole year in that smelly little room. Maybe Cartman would forget about me and I'd turn into a filthy, insane ghost-man as well. It didn't seem too appealing, but maybe it was better than dying?
I was trying to find ways to occupy my time, but Christophe completely ignored me, and it was too dark to do much of anything. I wasn't aware that I'd drifted off until I heard someone descending on the stairs outside our cell. I heard quiet footsteps approach the door, and then someone's head blocked the light from outside.
"Stan?" Kyle said softly from the window.
I stood and approached the door, wondering if I was walking into yet another trap.
"I'm surprised to see you down here," I said, irritated. My mood softened a little when I spotted new bruises across Kyle's face. Obviously the crew had already made up for his week of downtime.
"I, um... yeah. I'm sorry, Stan, really," he said, reaching a hand through the bars to touch my face. I moved out of his reach.
"You lied to me, Kyle. I can't believe- For a minute there I thought you cared about me."
"I do, Stan, I just had to do what I could to survive. Surely you can understand that?"
"I can, I suppose, but that doesn't make it any less hurtful. I trusted you and you threw me under the ...carriage."
"Do I really have to put up with this sentimental bullshit?" grumbled Christophe from his pitch black corner.
"Is that you, Christophe?" Kyle asked. His surprise sounded forced.
"Who did you think it was, Jesus Christ himself?"
"Might as well be. Cartman told us he killed you, and here you are, risen from the dead. It's the miracle we've all be waiting for," Kyle said, his voice completely flat.
"Hah, well if I am your savior then you must be having some kind of major crisis of faith."
"I'm Jewish, remember? We don't have a savior. You're just some guy, you know?"
"Yes, I can tell by how nonplussed you seem to be to see me alive. Where's our stupid emotional reunion, huh? I thought we were friends," he simpered.
Kyle snorted, unimpressed.
"You're messing up my apology," he said.
Christophe's response was in French, and though I couldn't understand it, it didn't sound very nice.
"I am sorry, though," Kyle said, turning his attention back to me, "I'm going to try and get you out of here."
"You think you can get me a pardon, or whatever?" I asked, surprised.
"Nope, I'm just going to bust you out," Kyle said, fiddling with the lock.
"To what end, Kyle? We're on a freaking boat. There's nowhere to go."
"Nonsense. I'm sure we'll be able to get away somehow. We're near a small island chain close to Cuba," he said, craning his neck oddly as though he was speaking to Christophe as well, "We can have a counter-mutiny or something. I don't know." He fiddled with the locks some more, ineffectually, it seemed. He was making an awful lot of noise: more than seemed necessary and I heard Christophe chuckling behind me. I began to wonder what I was missing.
"Aha!" came Cartman's voice from the top of the stairs, "I knew it!"
"Oh noooo," Kyle cried out, very melodramatically, "We've been caught!"
I would have laughed at Kyle's terrible acting if I had any idea where this was going. Something was definitely off, but I couldn't call Kyle out on it without messing up whatever he was trying to accomplish.
"Yes!" shouted Cartman triumphantly, "I knew you would sneak down here to rescue your butt-buddy! Craig, grab Kyle. Clyde, unlock the door and bring Stan to the deck. We're going to teach these two a lesson they won't forget for the rest of their lives. ...Get it? The rest of your lives. Cause I'm about to kill you."
"Yeah, we get it. Very subtle," Kyle said, futilely struggling against Craig's iron grip as Clyde unlocked the door to the brig and reached for my arm.
"Wait a minute," I said, fending him off, "What are you going to do?"
"Throw you overboard, asshole," said Cartman, "What do you think? After all the trouble you've caused you're lucky that's all I'm going to do. I just want you off my ship."
"My ship," Chirstophe muttered from his dark corner.
"Wait, wait!" I shouted, as Clyde moved in to grab him, assisted by some of the other crew members who'd been drawn downstairs by all the noise. I couldn't evade all of them, and before I knew it my hands were bound and I was being hauled to the deck, with Kyle being dragged behind me.
From the sound of Cartman's bellowing below deck, it sounded as if Christophe had tried to make a run for it behind us, but I had much bigger things to worry about. Like the fact that the whole crew had gathered upon the deck, jeering as Kyle and I were dragged toward the railing. I was being pushed around from all sides, and barely maintained my footing as one dark-haired young man lunged at my legs and tried to push me over.
The crowd thinned as we were pushed further to the edge of the ship, to one of the gaps in the rails.
"What, no walking the plank?" I asked, half-joking.
"Real pirates don't do that! It's just a cliché!" shouted Kyle over Craig's shoulder.
Oh, Kyle. Always so factual to the very end.
I yelped as I was unceremoniously shoved off the deck and into the sea. There were worse things that could happen to a person than drowning, I supposed, like maybe being burned to death, or like... hanging? Hanging seems worse. Yeah. Anyway.
The water was warmer than I'd expected, and much clearer. It hurt to open my eyes in the salt water, but I did anyway as I heard Kyle splash in next to me. I was surprised when he swam immediately over to me and reached for my left foot.
For a split second I thought of all the stories I'd heard about mermaids dragging sailors down into the depths of the sea, and I wondered if maybe Kyle wasn't some sort of shape-shifting merman. Maybe that's what Cartman had meant when he called him a daywalker? Perhaps he was a merman at night, but a human by day. But wait, I'd been with him at night, and he'd never had a tail.
My oxygen-deprived train of thought was derailed when Kyle reached into my boot and pulled out a knife. Where the hell had that come from?