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Compass of the Heart

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Ray's mark was a compass. Could not have been more fitting. He'd always been a little mechanic growing up. Compared with the loud and bustling world of schoolboys his age, he preferred the company of revolving cogs, rollers and clockwork. But none was as exquisite as the compass on his skin. Lying in bed at night, he would hold his wrist to his ear, like a conch shell, and pretend he could hear the ocean, wondering about the other person with the same mark, whether he or she was listening to the same sound at the same moment.

He thought he might find him on the ship he served on - by then he was pretty sure it'd be a he. But the ship was not much different from school. Sailors were a rowdy bunch. They took to mocking him, the lone man who buried his head in the engine room, fingers forever covered with black sludge. The captain was merely a voice on the phone. Life at sea consisted mainly of dim underdeck space rocking in ever shifting rhythm, silent but for the heavy humming of machines.

The Pendleton was not his first ship, but had been his home longer than any other. Sometimes he'd think, maybe his soulmate was a 'she' after all. He secretly pressed his wrist to the wheel, not sure whether hoping or dreading, a magical beam would light up to connect him to the lifeless machine.

***

The tanker broke in half in the worst nor'easter they'd ever seen, her captain gone down with the bow. "No one knows the ship better than you. You are practically married to her." That was one thing the surviving crew agreed on, the one thing that convinced them to accept Ray's command, after much reluctance and wavering. Against all odds, they eventually managed to run the ship aground, perched precariously on a shoal, awaiting rescue.

It's not coming. The bow had sunk without sending out an SOS. Finally catching a signal on the short wave radio, they could only listen in disbelief the split of Ft Mercer, where all the rescue resources had been directed to. No one knew they were here. No one was coming for them. All their efforts exhausted, as the electricity went out, the pumps stopped working, everything slowly submerging into a watery tomb.

"You are one man, always hiding down there in the engine room. You have no one waiting for you on shore."

"I have a life, same as you." And he had someone too, someone out there with the same mark on his wrist. Ray would never know who he was, whether he would continue to listen, wondering when and where they would get to meet.

***

Then it came, a tiny search light bobbing up and down in the turbulent swells of blackness. The jubilant seamen rushed to the rails, waving their flashlights.

It was but a small rescue boat, unlikely to pick up more than 20 people.

No one pointed that out. The crew lined up to climb down a Jacob's ladder, jump into the frothy surf and then get pulled aboard the boat.

Standing at the end of the line, Ray tried to reassure the teenage sailor who was shaking with fear and get him to go down as soon as possible, fully expecting the rescuers to raise their hands at some point and shout out "The boat is full. We'll come back for the rest of you." Surely they'd make it sound like they meant it.

It never happened. As he cast one last glance across the abandoned tanker, climbed down the ladder and stepped calmly onto the boat, the rescued men packed at the bow spontaneously opened up a narrow path, leading to the position next to the captain.

Perhaps he had been wondering this whole time. What kind of a man could navigate a tiny boat over mountainous waves and locate half a skeletal ship as dark as the night sea? What kind of a man would take 32 men onto a boat made to rescue 8, and tell them "We all live, or we all die"?

They called him Bernie. His eyes were the color of the sea (not right now, for the sea had been stormy grey for days on end, and bottomless black at the moment), radiating warmth next to halo of the search light.

He was smiling mildly. "We lost our compass. But I will get you home. Don't you give up on me now." Like he did mean it. Ray smiled as well. Why not? They'd made it this far, away from the dungeon of a ship, out here on the open sea, amid crew mates who went through it all together (at the side of the blue-eyed captain). A perfect end.

***

The storm was wearing down. Soaked and frozen to their bones, one by one the men nodded asleep, perhaps for the last time. Seeing Bernie's eyelashes struggle to stay upward, Ray knew he had to talk to him, keep him awake for as long as possible.

"How did you find us without a compass?"

"I don't know." In the dark depth of night with no one else listening, Bernie's voice sounded quiet and mellow, his eyes smiling bashfully, and he looked so very young. "Just lucky I guess. As if there was something pulling..." One hand went absently to the other sleeve, stopped short of lifting it, and gave it a light stroke instead.

Suddenly Ray's heart flew higher than it ever did since the ship split. Since ever. Could it be him? Him with eyes as blue as the sea, heart as big, who would not give in to any challenge the ocean threw in his way, yet had a shy smile like a young boy? What if he wasn't, what if he didn't want to...For a fleeting moment Ray just wanted to run, to clutch his sleeves tight...But he was no longer the loner hiding underdeck whom no one liked. It was he who led his crewmates and his machines in the battle against impossible forces of nature, sent his mates onto Bernie's boat, and himself to Bernie's side.

With the same determination as when axing the doomed life boat, he pulled up his own sleeve to reveal his wrist, then looked up into those eyes so close in front of him, and saw in them what he anticipated - surprise, realization; followed by what he prayed for - joy, relief.

The next thing they saw, the identical compasses on both wrists gave out a soft glow, as the needles started turning, pointing in the same direction. Over there, beyond the waves and darkness, a golden thread of headlights lit up the horizon, beckoning home the weary souls.