Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - Tybee Island by Nick Santora
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A lobster fishing crew discover more than they bargained for in their nets in this wicked tale from novelist/screenwriter Nick Santora.

Tybee Island

"Good pot. Good pot," Ozzie chirped as he operated the winch.

Joseph Campo liked Ozzie for several reasons. For starters, at fifty-eight his deckhand looked forty-five and had the energy of a twenty-two year old. Ozzie also had six kids and a niece that he raised as his own and not a single one of them ever went without, even when the sea was desert. But most of all, Joe liked Ozzie because he was pretty sure the Cuban immigrant knew less than a hundred words of English, but every one of them was optimistic.

Each time one of the Terry II's eight-hundred pound cages was pulled from the Atlantic, the words "good pot, good pot" tommy-gunned from Ozzie's mouth before the metallic beast cracked the water's ceiling. But on this particular day, despite a storm that sent rain in sideways and heaved waves like the ocean was God's chest and He was breathing in long and deep, Ozzie's glasses were far from simply rose-colored.

For once, the Cuban was underselling the haul. It wasn't a good pot; it was a great pot. They had all been great pots that week. Everywhere they dropped a cage had been a honey hole. Terry II had picked up more crabs than a sailor on shore leave and it had Joseph feeling good. No… great.

"Let's get the last two moneymakers out of the water and we can head home!" he shouted over deafening wind. "Sound good to you, Buck?!"

It was too loud to bother answering so Buck just smiled and gave a thumbs-up with one hand while pushing the newly caught blues into a salt-water holding tank. Joe returned the thumbs up.

Buck was dumb as an ox (hence his name, short for Bucket-Head as in his head was empty as a bucket)...but he was strong as an ox too. Joe had once seen him lift a hundred pound rain barrel like he was lifting a spoon from morning mush. Buck was as sweet as he was big, and Buck was big as Texas. Joe loved the hell outta the guy.

Truth was, he loved all his crew.

He loved Solomon who had been sober for four years after a three month hiccup had broken a previous two year run. Joseph would never understand the allure of smoking crystallized household products but what he did understand was that Solomon, when clean, was as good a crabber as you'd find on Tybee Island. He also knew if Solomon didn't have his job on the Terry II, and his time away from land and all the temptations it possessed, he'd be dead before he turned thirty.

He loved Mr. Hare, seventy-two years old and worn tougher than the sea rope they tossed into the ice-capped ocean. Hare had had his own ship for years but lost it in the same dock fire that took the Terry I. Without funds for a new vessel, Joe took Mr. Hare onto his own, telling the old timer that he needed navigation help once they were out past the breakers—someone who knew the ropes, literally, out in the rough chop.

Hare could sniff out bullshit like he could smell the decades of pipe smoke trapped in his walrus moustache. He knew he had become a charity case—a used-up seaman with a weak heart that refused to give and a bad back that did nothing but.

But Joseph Campo was a fisherman's fisherman, a man with a strong will to make haul and an even stronger reputation—he was a winner, often dragging his catch to shore when other crabbers were dragging nothing but empty pots and their tails between their legs. Campo was a good man and Hare figured he could teach the youngster a thing or two, so maybe it wasn't charity after all. Plus, Hare needed to eat. The two men, despite the almost four decade age difference, became best friends within a few months of working together.

It was only the newest member of the crew that Joe wasn't sure about. He loved Donnie—more than any of the others. He loved him from the minute Dr. Long pulled him screaming out of Theresa and placed him in Joe's arms. But lately, at eighteen years of age, Donnie seemed to be doing more screaming than he ever had. Maybe it was just being a teenager. Maybe it was something Joe was doing wrong as a father. Maybe they were too close in age, barely seventeen years apart. But the two of them lately were always stern and bow, fore and aft. And Joe couldn't seem to fix it.

"Keep those pots burnin' and churnin'," Joe shouted to Donnie and Buck as he tied down the empty cages to the deck. The wind had picked up substantially and with it the waves. They were bouncing now—Poseidon had hold of the corners of the sea and was snapping it like a blanket—but it was nothing Joe hadn't handled before. "We gets these blues on board and then we turn 'er to home!"

Nothing made Joe happier than heading home with a once-empty hold now full of crab and still-empty pockets that would soon be just as full.

The final pot was swinging in the wind like a pocket watch, it's size and weight made no mind of the storm. Buck grabbed one side of the pot and tried to pull it onto the lift but Donnie had trouble securing his end.

It was clear to Joe that Donnie was intimidated. He stepped across the deck to help but then stopped—maybe that was part of their problem—maybe he needed Donnie to learn how to handle some things on his own.

Donnie held the pot but a heaving wave broke it free. "Dammit!" he shouted, or at least that's what Joe thought he said—the wind was just too raucous to be certain.

"Use both hands!" Buck called, but Donnie either didn't hear him or just ignored him. He held tight to the rail with one hand, and flailed out with the other. The pot soon yanked free of the lift and spun in Donnie's direction—he reached out to block it from striking him and he accidentally tripped the trap door. In a matter of seconds, the pot vomited scores of blue crabs back into the sea.

Buck lunged for the door. But in doing so, he had to let go of his end of the cage just as the boat fell into the trough of a wave. The cage, still attached to the rope wrapped around the winch, shot skyward, in the opposite direction of the Terry II, hung in the air for a moment, and then fell straight down at Buck.

It would have killed him if Joe hadn't tackled Buck out of the way. But the cage did tear through Joseph's raincoat and shirt, cutting a long gash in his arm.

"You're ok, you're ok," positive Ozzie echoed as he and Solomon helped Joe to his feet.

"Man, thanks Skip," Buck said as he pulled himself up. "But you're bleeding bad."

Joe had been fishing his entire life, since he was four years old when his father first took him out on The Dominica, the fishing vessel named after Joe's mother—and his father taught him much on that boat.

Always cast your line as far as you can in life—you can always reel it back in and you might catch something along the way.

Only Jesus can walk on water; so be careful near the rail.

And Joe's favorite: A Captain is not allowed to be hurt or scared. A Captain is only allowed to lead.

"I'm fine, just a cut," Joe reassured, remembering his father's words. "The pot's a goner though." They looked at the cage that Hare was pulling up—bent beyond repair it would cost more than a thousand dollars to replace. Luckily, this was a profitable trip and it could be covered. But that didn't mean it didn't sting. He turned to Donnie and tried to sound non-judgmental.

"I know we're on an elevator out here today but you gotta secure the pot with both hands. If you're in good position, you won't go over—"

"—I know," Donnie cut him off.

"Or hook up to a safety line if you're scared—"

"—I wasn't scared!" Donnie snarled. "I just lost my grip, ok?" He shoved past Joe and entered the cabin. Donnie took a beat, tried counting to ten, thought about ways he could've rephrased his words—all the things Theresa told him to try before getting into it with his son. Maybe he shouldn't have used the word "scared"—ah, fuck it! The little punk just gave him a shit sandwich to eat in front of his crew!

Joe stormed toward the cabin. Hare thought about getting his Skip to calm down a bit but then thought better of it. Joe Campo was not a guy you wanted to get in front of when he had a head of steam. Besides, Donnie was a good boy but he needed to get his ass handed to him a few more times in life before he got straightened out.

Joe threw open the door to the cabin. "First off," he barked as he entered. "Don't get pissed at me 'cause you're mad at yourself for screwin' up. And second, if you ever give me lip in front of my crew again you'll be swimming home…. Look in my eyes and tell me if I'm kidding."

Donnie didn't answer. He didn't even look at his father, which just made Joe's anger grow.

"Is this how you handle adversity? You pout? A seventy-two year old man just pulled up a pot that you couldn't handle—maybe this attitude's why you couldn't cut it at college either-"

Donnie's head jerked up at these words - words that Joe regretted as soon as he said them. He took in his son for a moment. His face was that of an angry and confused and combative man. But his eyes—his eyes were those of hurt child. Donnie still had the same eyes he had when he was five—big and brown and capable of expressing so much pain, capable of breaking his father's heart with just a look.

"Hey, I'm sorry…" Joe began, but he was interrupted.

"Skip, get out here!" Solomon shouted.

"In a minute!" Joe answered.

"I think you really need to see this, Joe," Hare called. Hare had seen everything there was to see on the ocean, so if he said you had to see something, then you had to see it.

"Well finish this later," Joe said. But Donnie didn't answer and Joe went back out into the storm.

The crew was crowded around the crab tank, looking at something Joe couldn't quite make out in the driving rain. But as he stepped closer, he couldn't believe his eyes.

It was a small loggerhead turtle. They were all over the coast of Virginia and sometimes, not often—but sometimes, they would get caught up in their works and they would toss them back. They were required by law to do so.

The turtle cocked its head up as if looking at Joe. There was nothing strange in and of that in itself.

But when it cocked it's other head—that's when Joe knew that despite the turtle protection legislation on the books, this one was not going back. Not by a long shot.

"It's coming on the news again," Theresa called. "Kids, it's on again."

Theresa turned up the volume and curled up next to Joe on the couch as Poe hurried in, her braces knocking into the coffee table, almost causing her to fall.

"Careful baby-girl," Joe cautioned.

"I'm fine, Dad," she said, sliding into her spot on the other side of her father. She was twelve years old and he still called her baby-girl. He coddled her, treated her like she was a china doll, which was ironic because her CP meant she could really only get so hurt.

When he worried she used to joke, "What's the worst that could happen, Daddy? I end up in braces?" But even though Joe would force a grin at her gallows humor, she could see how much it bothered him so she stopped doing that a while ago. She just let the man baby her. The truth was, she loved being a Daddy's girl.

"Shush, shush—here it is," Theresa said, turning up the volume so they could all hear the talking head.

Talk about the catch of the day. Today off the coast of Virginia, Tybee Island crab boat captain Joseph Campo brought in something that, well, you'll just have to see to believe.

The news program then cut to Joe standing on a dock holding the two-headed turtle. Theresa and Poe both shrieked at the sight of Joe on the local news.

It was just there in our pot with a few other crabs. Never seen anything like it.

And then the program was back in the studio where the talking head had on an anthropologist who blabbered about Darwinism and genetic mutation. Some redhead in a suit sat next to the anthropologist.

"You looked so handsome, Dad," Poe said.

"Thank you, baby-girl."

"You looked so sexy," Theresa whispered in his ear, giving him a little nibble. "Can't believe I get to go to bed with a TV star tonight."

That was all Joe needed to hear.

"Ok, getting late. Bed time."

"But Dad—"

"Nope, been a lot of excitement today. Let's hit the sheets—"

"Hold on." Theresa pointed to the TV. "This guy wasn't on the six o'clock showing."

The guy Theresa was referencing was the redhead. He appeared young, but redheads always looked younger than they really were. But his demeanor was serious and his voice authoritative and knowledgeable. He said he was with a group called The Coastal Survival Coalition and he was pissed.

In 1958 Air Force Major Howard Richardson was engaged in a routine mock bombing run off the Virginia Coast when his B47 clipped wings with another plane. He knew he'd have to make an emergency landing, made all the more dangerous by the cargo he was carrying—a Hydrogen bomb fully loaded with Uranium and Plutonium.

In order to protect the people of Virginia and a great deal of the eastern seaboard, he ditched the bomb which hit the water and embedded, still fully intact, somewhere in the silt of the Atlantic off Tybee Island. To this day the Air Force has been unable to locate it.

It is our belief that the radiation leaking from the bomb's weapons-grade nuclear material caused the genetic mutation Captain Campo found today.

"Fantastic," Joe deadpanned. "Now I'm gonna pee purple."

"It's not funny," Theresa said with more than a hint of worry. "People eat what comes out of that water. They could get sick. Not to mention it puts us out of business."

"Poe, would you tell your mother that the government checks every catch to make sure it's safe?"

"Mom, the government checks—"

"I got it wise-guys. It's just disturbing is all. Ok, you hit the sheets little miss. I'll be in in a minute for a snuggle."

Poe balanced herself on her braces and moved to her bedroom. Poe was tough, smart and independent. And she'd bite your hand off if you ever tried to lend her one. But every time Joe watched her bound around in those metal shackles it broke off a little piece of his heart that he never got back.

When their daughter was gone, Theresa turned to her husband. "He's still not coming out of his room."

"That's a Donnie problem. Not a me problem."

"It's an all of us problem because it affects our entire family," she countered.

"Ok, I'll hash it out with him. But not tonight. Tonight I'm tired from being famous and all."

Theresa laughed. She kissed him. And from the way he kissed her back she could tell he wasn't that tired.

The next few days Joe took a little bit of ribbing around the island. Sandy at the Island Mermaid asked for his autograph when she brought him his coffee. The boys at the dock took to calling him Hollywood and the whole crew, except Donnie, sang You Oughta Be in Pictures, Your Face Could Kill a Cow when they saw him the next day. But it was all in good fun and Joe laughed it off.

Besides, he was too focused on his new venture to worry about getting his balls busted. A few months ago he had started taking tourists out on deep sea fishing ventures in between crabbing trips. He had balked at the idea for years.

"I'm not The Skipper. I don't do three hour tours," he'd say. "I'm a goddam fishin' boat Captain. Not about to degrade my vessel pullin' accountants 'round the harbor for half the day."

But then in the spring, Ozzie mentioned he was taking his ten-year-old to the father-daughter dance. Poe hadn't spoken a word of it and her parents knew why. Theresa cried that night. Joe didn't. But he sat at the edge of his baby-girl's bed and watched her sleep for hours, an anchor knot in his stomach.

Theresa soon found a doctor at Johns Hopkins who had developed breakthrough procedures for the lower extremity tendons of Cerebral Palsy patients. She'd spoken with the surgeon and sent him Poe's records and in his words Poe was "a tremendous candidate who could achieve significant improvement through surgical intervention."

They hadn't mentioned the possibility to Poe yet. His insurance was minimal—solid for a self-employed crabber—but still minimal. But Joseph decided that whatever insurance didn't cover, he would. He was going to dance with his daughter come high school and she was going to look beautiful—in a fancy dress, a flower in her hair—just like all the other girls who ran and jumped and danced and never gave it a second thought.

So he took an ad out in The Tybee Times and spent many a weekend day away from his family and out with lawyers, dentists and other men who'd never had a blister and didn't know a gillnet from Aqua Net. Business had picked up come summer time and this particular Saturday was going to be especially lucrative, even after whacking the fee up evenly with his crew, which was the only way Joe would have it.

He had gotten a call from Nalin Singhal, an Indian computer programmer touring America with his grown sons for the summer. When he described their journey to Joe over the phone, Joe was envious—they were hitting east coast fishing (Tybee Island, Cape Hatteras), then mid-west landmarks (St. Louis Arch, Mount Rushmore), then Southwest National Parks (Zion, Yosemite) and finishing up on the California Coast.

It sounded incredible to a man who had spent the majority of his life on the same 22 square mile patch of land jutting out of the water. He tried to imagine what it would be like to do something like that with Donnie. He couldn't.

When he arrived at the boat Donnie, Buck and Solomon were already helping Mr. Singhal and his sons load their duffels. All the tourists were the same— they over-packed food, under-packed water and forgot to pack sun block. They brought too many towels and not enough t-shirts, which would invariably soak through with sweat not too long into the trip.

All three of Singhal's boys were large, almost strapping, and Joe wasn't surprised when Nalin told him that they were all expert cricket players at their university. They looked like athletes. Donnie was an athlete once—scouted by top Division II baseball programs—full of promise and potential. But that was two years ago. Seemed like a lifetime.

Mr. Hare untied Theresa II, Ozzie broke out the low-end fishing gear they provided and Joe brought them out to sea. He was looking forward to some time on the water and was hoping that maybe observing some father/son bonding would remind him and Donnie how it was done.

They fished for hours. Mr. Singhal was adventurous and kept asking to go to deeper waters, further away from shore. Joe obliged. He admired mainlanders that weren't instinctive curb-huggers, the ones that weren't scared to lose any and all sight of civilization.

The youngest son, Ankit, wasn't as hearty as his old man. He had to step into the cabin to lie down. Even though the sea was a baby's cradle, and the projected night's storm was still hours away, sometimes all it took for a stomach to sour was a slight roll in one direction and then even Dramamine couldn't save you.

It was Buck who discovered Ankit wasn't really sick at all.

Buck went in the cabin to sneak a beer. Joe had two rules on his ship—you can have one beer a day, that's all, so make it count. The other rule was that no one was to drink in front of Solomon. Solomon had never been treated for alcoholism and had never even liked booze that much, but Joe didn't want to do anything that could risk a relapse. So they kept a small cooler stashed under a bench seat in the cabin. The crew would pop in there, have their one allotted beer when Solomon was on deck, and then get back to work.

Except this time, when Buck entered, he had more than a cold beer waiting for him. He found Ankit on the radio, talking in some language he couldn't understand.

"Hey, you're not supposed to be touching that—"

At first, Joe thought the engine had backfired and he immediately worried it was the accelerator pump, which he had been meaning to replace but he wanted a little more money to free up before he sank any more cash into the ship. But when he turned around, he knew the bang he heard hadn't come from the pump.

Buck stepped slowly from the cabin, his hand on his stomach, looking more confused than hurt.

"Skip?" was all he could say, before his hands fell to his side revealing a stomach black with blood. He collapsed forward, dead before he hit the deck.

"By the rails! Now! Hands on your shoulders!" Mr. Singhal shouted as he and his other sons quickly produced guns from their duffel bags.

Joe didn't know much about weapons. He had an old shotgun for home protection but most people on Tybee Island didn't even lock their doors. He wasn't even certain how to load it. But Mr. Hare had been in Vietnam. He knew a semi-automatic weapon when he saw one.

He also knew the look of a man who was not fucking around. And Mr. Singhal had that look.

"I'm not going to do that, Mr. Singhal," Joe said as slowly and as calmly as he could. "This is my ship and I need to help my friend."

The business end of Singhal's gun cracked across Joe's face—the ocean spray quickly absorbed the blood that burst from his nose and sent it out to sea.

"Let me clarify all of the falsehoods you just stated," Singhal said matter-of-factly with no sign that he had just assaulted a man. "First of all, there is no helping your friend. He is dead. Second, this is no longer your ship—if you don't realize that then this is going to be much more difficult than you imagine. And lastly, my name is not Singhal."

Ankit exited the cabin. "He walked in on me. I didn't have an option."

"He's of no import," the man formerly known as Mr. Singhal said. "Did you make contact?"

Ankit nodded. "They're awaiting our response."

Joe looked at the two men, lost. "Who the hell are you people?" he asked.

The phony tourist looked to Joe—he took pleasure in the revelation because he had worked so hard to put this all together in just a matter of days and so far it was working perfectly.

"I am Bari el Bashir. I represent all the peoples of the world that are suppressed by your tyrannical government. A government that uses unmanned weaponry to rain death on those that have nothing. But after tonight, we will have something. We will have something very great."

"What do you want from us?" Joe asked. It was a simple question, but he knew it wouldn't be a simple answer.

Bashir stepped toward them. Joe instinctively stepped in front of his son. Bashir looked right at Joe, mere inches apart. The fisherman saw nothing behind the man's eyes but death and hate.

"It's very simple, Captain Joe… I want you to take us to where you found that turtle."

Joe swallowed as he realized the men pointing weapons at him were terrorists. They were after the nuclear warhead that was somewhere in that ocean which was like trying to find a dust speck dropped in a sand dune at night.

He knew the chances of finding it were next to impossible. And he was terrified of what would happen to them if these men with guns didn't get what they wanted.

But he was even more terrified of what would happen if they did.

But he couldn't show fear. He wanted to press his hand against his broken nose to stop the bleeding, but he also knew he couldn't show weakness.

He remembered his father's words: A Captain is not allowed to be hurt or scared. A Captain is only allowed to lead.

Joe knew these waters better than anyone on the boat. And from the way the gunmen moved on the deck it was clear he had home-court advantage. He'd take them into rough water, delay as long as he could and wait for the night's storm to come. When the Theresa II started rockin' and rollin', he and his crew would make their move.

Bashir's cell phone interrupted Joe's thoughts. He answered, listened for a moment, then handed the phone to Joe with a coy smile.

"It's for you."

Joe slowly put the phone to his ear. He was scared to hear what he suspected was on the other end.

"Joe…" Theresa sobbed. "There are men here … with guns … they said if you don't do what they want … they'll kill me and Poe …"

Click. The line went dead. Bashir smiled.

"So, Mr. Campo… about that turtle?"

About the Author

Nick Santora is the nationally best-selling author of Slip & Fall and Fifteen Digits as well as a writer/producer whose credits include The Sopranos, Law & Order, Prison Break and Breakout Kings. He enjoys Singles Double Dutch and being bald.