Piracy as a rule is forever swaying back and forth between pure terror and grinding tedium, that’s a given. But Oluwande would swear on any sacred thing you could name that over these last two weeks—ten days? just a week? he's no longer sure—it’s all been compressed and ramped up, time winding itself up into a hurricane slamming him from one the-most or the-hardest or the-worst into another and then another faster than he can take it in.
Two weeks ago today (maybe) he was sitting in the kitchen of a one-nun convent, eating cake and listening to Jim’s Nana (whom he’d never known existed until just that morning) tell one horrendous childhood story after another while Jim looked out the window and down at the table and literally anywhere at all rather than meet Oluwande’s eyes.
An hour later, in the one shady spot at the edge of a weed-choked field with the sun beating down and insects humming everywhere, Jim had met his eyes, at last, at last, and the air between the two of them glowed like sunlight and the space between them nearly disappeared. And an hour after that everything went cold and bleak.
That first night was the worst night. He’s had a lot of worst nights since then, but that was definitely the first worst night. The next day was the first worst day. Oluwande had heard of broken hearts but he’d always thought that was just a fancy figure of speech. He knows better now. It’s not unbearable anymore, but that first night and first day? Every minute ticked along, dragging him forward, further away from Jim:
Wande! Hey, man! It’s me, Time. Have you seen the shit I’ve been pulling? Did you realize it’s now fourteen, eighteen, nineteen hours since you last saw Jim? Nineteen hours since they shrugged and said, You know me, with an unsure half-smile and a happy-sad look in their eyes you’d never seen before? Crazy, yeah? And now it's nineteen hours and one minute. And now it’s just exactly one minute since you realized that You know me might be the last words Jim ever speaks to you. Wild, innit? I can keep this up forever!
The time when he and Jim were together was right back there, only a scrap of time away, so close but so unreachable, and no matter what he did he couldn’t stop moving further away from it. And it fucking hurt his heart. Real, physical pain. Boulders bearing down on his chest, every breath a fight, tears and snot squeezing out every now and then and he wouldn’t even realize it until he had some reason to touch his face and his hand came away wet.
By the end of that first full day alone, Oluwande found himself hating everyone a little. All fucking day, slogging through his chores, slogging through most of Jim’s too because the Revenge really hadn’t got any crew to spare and shit had got to get done, and as best he could tell no one even noticed Jim’s absence.
No one had done a formal head count when they weighed anchor and left St. Augustine, and no one had said a word that evening or night or that awful first full day that followed. Everything that needed doing was done, what did Jim matter to any of them? Fuck-all, that’s what. Fuck Oluwande, too. Wet and snotting and could barely take a deep breath without throwing up and could barely choke down a bite when everyone knew on a good day he was a goddamn bear of a trencherman—did they see anything, ever? Selfish dicks, all of them.
And Lucius and Pete making eyes at each other all day, and Captain and Ed with their whatever-the-fuck was up with them. Just looking at the two of them, the four of them, the two twos—shit, he couldn’t even form words anymore—them. Just looking at them hurt. By the time Oluwande’s gritty eyes closed and his sour twisting gut stilled itself and his brain finally shut down that second worst night, he’d almost decided to pitch everyone overboard when he woke up next morning. Or maybe just himself.
Of course he’d done nothing of the sort. When he’d woken up the next morning, everything was still utterly fucking rotten but he couldn’t work himself up into another good mean hate-on. The more he thought about it, the more Oluwande had to admit that Jim had always made a point of keeping to themselves and warning everyone off, and even after they’d let the beard and the nose and the mute act fall away there’d still been a fair few days when they didn’t say more than three words to anyone but him. Everyone liked Jim well enough, but it wasn’t like anyone but him knew them. Only him, and that was why this gutting pain was his and his alone. No one else to blame for it—he was the only one Jim had come close to letting even partway in, of course he had to bear the full weight of Jim’s absence.
Even with the rage fading away, the boulders on his chest remained and the thought surfaced, Can’t sleep here another night. Too many echoes. This room is gonna bloody kill me. Before he could second-guess himself to death, Oluwande swooped round the room stuffing his and Jim’s few personal belongings into his little canvas knapsack and flung it out the door. He could sleep on deck like everyone else, not in this haunted place all alone. It’d be good. It’d be healthy. A fresh start! He could shake this off and be all right again. Sort of. As long as he was out of this room. That’s all he needed; that’d fix everything.
Didn’t fix a fucking thing.
It might have, eventually, had Oluwande not stepped on out, full of sorrowful resolve, and then tripped coming up the second-to-last step. He came down good and hard, the lip of that last step sucker-punching him right where the top of his gut reached the bottom of his lungs, and that was what did him in. First he gagged, then the tears came, and to top it off because apparently none of this was sad and stupid enough already he started laughing at what an colossal idiot he must look like, and then he couldn’t stop. “Christ, I’m a mess,” he wheezed. “Good job getting gone, Jim; I’m a wreck.”
As he sat himself up properly, leaking and giggling, his eye fell upon a bottle of rum that someone had stashed under the lip of that top step. It took all of one second for him to decide that since the step had sucker-punched him it owed him, the bottle was fair recompense, and whoever had stashed it there was just fate’s chump and sorry, fella, whichever crew member you are, it’s not like I hate you anymore but maybe if you’d noticed Jim was FUCKING GONE fate wouldn’t have pinched your bottle to pay me back, too bad for you.
In retrospect, starting day-drinking before eight o’ the clock on the thin pretext that the stairway shouldn’t have sneak-attacked him and that bottle-hoarding Jim-forgetters deserve to be burgled was probably not the wisest decision of his life. But: bridge, water, gone daddy gone. Up sprang the pretext and out came the cork and he was off and running.
The one good thing that came of that first bottle of rum (the less said about the second, the better) was that Oluwande had cracked and spilled his grief twice and ended up strangely comforted. Not by the Swede, who only cared about the suddenly up-for-grabs room, but, of all people, Buttons—once the question of whether or not Jim was dead had been settled, Buttons understood altogether.
“Was it very bloody? Jim always liked a bit of blood.”
For half a second, the hate almost reared back up. Two days gone, anything could have happened without him there. Jim was alive when Oluwande left, but now… But Jim dead was an obscenity Oluwande could not countenance, not even as the faintest of maybes. For that half second, he wanted to crack the bottle over Buttons’s head to smash those words. Then the rest of him said to the bit holding the bottle, Bullshit. You think you wouldn’t know if Jim was dead? If Jim was dead, the sun would go flat and all the stars would snuff themselves like candle flames being pinched. If Jim was dead, nothing now could ever come to any good. But the sky is full of sun and the wind is rising and we’re all here and I can hear someone shouting and laughing, and so Jim is alive. I know it. All Oluwande said was, “Jim’s not dead,” but he said it with utter certainty.
“Oh,” said Buttons. “I thought ‘ee was dead.”
And the grief came crashing back down—the world still spun, all pink and gold and morning-joyous, and so Jim was still in it, but Jim was not here. And Oluwande took another pull at the bottle and then said mournfully, “Nay, they an’t.”
Buttons leaned on the railing beside him in commiserating silence, followed almost immediately by Karl the seagull perching on his other side. Ought to have been weird or annoying or just wrong, but he found he didn’t mind it. They all listened to the sea and the ship striving against one another. Someone was yelling and hooting off somewhere up near the bow, but Buttons clearly intended to studiously ignore whoever it was, and Oluwande felt no urgency to go investigate himself. It was quiet and companionable here.
“I fink—” the Southwark lad in him was slipping back out after all these years, his th’s clipping down into f’s more with every gulp “—they’ve got to deal with some old family business. ‘At’s what they told me. Can’t leave it hanging no more.”
Buttons nodded. “Aye. Family can weigh heavy on a soul. Betimes ye canna move for’ard with what ye want of your future till ye’ve settled with your past.”
“I could’ve helped. If they’d wanted. I could’ve.”
“May be. May be no. May be ‘tis summat ‘ee has to do alone. Family matters is often that way.”
“Maybe.” Oluwande tilted the bottle at Buttons, who waved it away, so he took another long pull at it himself. His stomach, nearly empty going on two days now, complained but he ignored it.
“I canna tell ye dinna fash yoursel’,” Buttons said, “for you’re here and Jim’s ye know not where and ye’ve got to be in your feels for a bit. But ye both be all in all to one another and just because ‘ee’s got private business to tend to don’t change that a bit. ‘Ee may not be back for days, or not for years, but back ‘ee will be.”
“I hope you’re right,” Oluwande said.
“I’m wrong oft enough, but no’ on this.” Karl made a small decisive cree! and Buttons nodded. “Nay, no’ on this. Also, ye may want to set the bottle down.”
Oluwande considered. I could. I could just put it down and soldier on and be good steady sturdy old Oluwande, so reliable, just a rock. Or, I could let myself get good and pissed and be stupid and good for nuffin—NOTHING—for one fucking day. He considered again. That one, that second one, that sounds good, yeah? Yeah. One fucking day.
An absolute terrible fucking day as it turned out, the worst one fucking day he could have chosen for this particular holiday, but how was he to know at the time?
Buttons watched Oluwande shrug and down another swallow, and then shrugged himself and wandered off toward the stern without another word, as was ever Buttons’s way. And Oluwande pushed himself and his bottle back from the railing and turned toward the bow.
He’d hardly taken two steps before Blackbeard tackle-hugged him out of nowhere, crying joyfully, “Oluwande! Fuckin’ perfect! Just who I wanted!” He spun Oluwande around and pushed him, so hard he lurched and almost lost his footing, in the direction of someone Oluwande had never seen before: a tall, narrow-faced sandy-haired white man with stupid facial hair and one arm pink and mottled with scars and something in his bearing that put Oluwande on his guard. A pirate, yeah, but with the same mean little glint in his eye as those arseholes back on the French pleasure boat. Oluwande almost decided to drop the bottle then and there—better off keeping all his wits about him stuck on a ship with a white man with that look in his eye—but the stubborn determined-to-fuck-off-for-the-day part of him mutinied with a deathgrip on the bottle.
Blackbeard slapped the new fella on the chest and wrapped an arm around Oluwande and pulled them both in for a hug. Both he and the new fella smelled terrible, like they’d been downing rum with gin chasers all night. “This is Calico Jack,” he bawled in Oluwande’s face. “Old friend, great friend, this fuckin’ bastard! Jack, this is Oluwande! I was—I was tellin’ you about him, right? Smart man, steady hand, just who we need.”
“Hullo, Jack,” Oluwande said, and extended a cautious hand.
Calico Jack practically pumped Oluwande’s arm right out of its socket. His hand was faintly, unpleasantly sticky. Oluwande just barely managed not to wipe his own on his pants after. “Great to meet you, Arlo? Orlando?”
“Fan-fucking-tastic to meet you, guy! You’re the cannon man, right? This fuckface here tells me you’re the cannon man, and a cannon man is exactly what we need. Is that you?”
“Yeah, guess so,” Oluwande said, leaning back as much as he could with Blackbeard still pinning him and as much as he dared without making it obvious.
Calico Jack didn’t notice; he appeared not to be a noticing sort of fella. He just fist-pumped the air and shouted, “All right all right let’s fucking GOOOOO!” When Oluwande didn’t move (because as orders went, fucking goooooo really wasn’t one), he scowled. “I mean you, Ol’ Dandy.”
“Oluwande,” Oluwande repeated.
“Yeah, totes. Hop to, buddy!”
Blackbeard gave Oluwande a hug-shake-wrestle that ended in an oddly gentle shoulder pat. “What Jack means, see, is we’re gonna do some target practice, just for fun. We just need help getting one of the cannons up on deck. And some cannonballs. And some gunpowder. And some fire. Not just Jack and me, though, everyone can take a shot. We just need the blowing-shit-up supplies. You’ll help us get everything up on deck, right? We need you, man!”
“Yeah, I can help,” Oluwande said, and got another gleeful I fucking love this guy! shake. “Be right back, then. Hold my bottle for me?”
“Not if you want to get it back,” Jack said cheerfully.
“Right, then. Swede, hold my bottle a sec? Oi, Pete, come with me. I’m not lugging all that crap up on deck by myself.”
Once the cannon was up and loaded and he had his bottle back, things got a little blurrier and a lot noisier. The cautious voice at the back of Oluwande’s head grumbled and sighed for a bit, but he’d committed to a day of irresponsible fucking around and he was going to stick to it. After a bit the cautious voice gave up and packed it in, and then things got even blurrier.
There were a fuckton of explosions and some old box or something obliterated, and to be honest it was kind of fun standing with everyone cheering every time Blackbeard chucked another piece of whatever-it-was and Jack set off the cannon and it exploded. Before long, everyone was there and a few bottles were being passed around and it felt like a happy and extremely loud holiday.
The further into his own bottle Oluwande got the more agreeable Calico Jack seemed—definitely a little mean, but at least he was a little mean to everyone. Even-handed, no favourites, a fair and square dickbag all around and not stingy with it. By noon CJ was everyone’s new favourite (except Captain’s--cautious Oluwande would have had concerns about this, but holiday Oluwande just found Captain and his cattiness and moping and the stick up his arse annoying as hell) and whatever CJ wanted, everyone was all in on.
By midafternoon they’d planned and executed a raucous field trip to Dead Man’s Cove (had he heard of this place before? He thought he had and the reason might mean something but he couldn’t remember why and before long he stopped trying) and Oluwande saw some fairly gross shit and did some fairly gross shit that he thought he might regret when the holiday ended (as, indeed, he did). But, fucking hell, it was fun, the kind of stupid fun he hadn’t had since he was a city kid larking about London with his mates.
“Boys,” his mum would groan as she mended yet another pair of trous with the knees blown out, or cleaned and bandaged up a swollen bloody kneecap or elbow or temple, “why are they this way? Third time this week, as if I’ve not got enough to do and more every minute of the day.”
“Boys his age are goats,” Mamamama would say, every time. “Just butting heads and being brainless. The day their voices crack it’s all up for years to come, and not a thing you can do about it. They do all settle down; it only takes time.”
“If they survive,” his mum would grumble, but she’d patch up his clothes or his joints and send him off again with a kiss just the same.
He hadn’t felt like that in a long while, but this, today, felt just like that. Dumb loud goat-boy nonsense, fart jokes and farts and punching games and throwing games and dodging games and wrestling pummeling drop-kicking games and a farting contest because that was some seriously funny shit, farting, and it all felt bloody fantastic. Even the actual blood. Just letting off steam, yeah? Fancy doctors did it with leeches or a razor and a silver bowl and charged you an arm and a leg for it, and it didn’t leave you feeling half this good.
The shine started to come off the day as the sunlight faded and they all headed back to the ship. It’d been stupid hot and no one had eaten and everyone felt sun-dazzled and headachey and by now they were all pretty ripe—not the usual shipboard salt-water-bath stink but the hormones-and-endorphins goat-boy funk Oluwande now remembered and realized he hadn’t missed at all. He thought for a second about not waiting for his turn to ride the dinghy back and just swimming to sluice some of the funk off, but he was still just sober enough to recognize he wasn’t nearly sober enough to do it.
So he waited his turn, and as he waited the revelation hit him that he’d miraculously not thought about Jim even once since morning and it had been pure oblivious bliss. And with that, Jim rushed back in and his stomach rolled right over.
Lucius, standing with a protective arm around a simultaneously sunburnt and greenish Pete, gave him a sharp look. “Are you feeling quite well?”
“Fine!” Oluwande lied. “Never—never better. Fuckin’ peachy.”
“Okay. ‘Cause, you could sit down for a second if you want. Dinghy won’t be back for a couple minutes.”
“I could,” Oluwande said, “but I think you’ll find I’ll not be doing that.”
It felt suddenly terribly important to impress upon Lucius how thoroughly in control of himself he was, how rational and measured his judgment. “Quite sure. And I’ll tell you why, ‘cause it’s an excellent reason. Very sound. If I sit down, y’see, I may not stand up again, and that would be very unfortunate. So, and therefore, I have decided that I shall remain.” Then, dimly aware that he’d left something out, he clarified, “Remain standing.”
Lucius frowned slightly. “But won’t you have to sit down anyway when you get in the dinghy?”
“Yes. Probably.” This presented a problem well past the limits of his current capacity, but still Lucius looked at him expectantly. Pete drifted in Lucius’s embrace and didn’t seem to be looking at anything at all. “That,” Oluwande said at last, “is a challenge I will face when the time comes. But just right now, I’ll stand. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, I suppose.”
And they lapsed into a dull, queasy silence as the darkness marched on and the dinghy full of laughing raucous goat-boys receded to the Revenge, and returned for the stragglers.