You can hear me read this story on Episode #57 of R.B. Wood’s Word Count Podcast. The three-word story prompt was: pirate, island, rat. (And who can resist pirates? Right?)
In this episode you can also hear stories by C. Thomas Smith, Rob Edwards, and Bill Kirton.
So: why write for the Word Count Podcast? Here’s what podcast-master R.B. Woods has to say about that (and I totally agree with him):
What is The Word Count Podcast?
It is a free broadcast by writers for writers. Simply put, a theme for each show is announced via this site, Twitter and Facebook and writers are given a week or two to write AND RECORD their stories based on said theme.
Why not, says I. It’s a great way to practice writing and public speaking. It’s another way for writers to get their work “out there.” And I love to meet fellow authors and have a blast putting the show together. It’s just that simple.
In the dark, Pete hears the creak and groan of a wooden hull, the snap and flutter of sails, breathes the smell of salt sea air.
I must be below-decks, he thinks.
He hears shouting, far above, and it sounds like his own voice, though it can’t be, because he’s here, below, not in the crow’s nest: “Land ahoy!”
The slap of running feet on the deck, excited hollering.
I’ve had this dream before, he thinks and sits up, touching his aching head.
He remembers now. He’s in the tunnel where he fell out of the rickety carnival-ride cart, the one painted as a pirate ship: Jolly Roger, cannons, anchor. It went off the rails, turned over, spilling him on the ground.
Run, Pete, run!
The words echo in his mind. He can’t remember who shouted it, or when. Must have been in the war, the one where he lost all his memories.
“Could be you were a navy lad. Judging by your tattoos and that rolling walk,” Madam Minverva told him when she hired him as helper at the carnival last year. “Lots of lost boys coming here. I let ‘em stay until they’re found again.”
Pete begins to crawl along the track. It won’t be far, it can’t be, the ride is small, no larger than the roller coaster.
I should have known not to get on this ride, he thinks. He’d never even seen it before today, and as soon as that woman called his name outside, he felt a flicker of unease and fear.
“Ahoy, Pete! Want a ride?”
She was dressed up as a pirate wench: tight vest, low-cut shirt, black curls spilling out beneath a hat, red mouth wide, a glint of teeth. On her shoulder, a rat perched – its fur a lustrous grey, a golden chain around its neck.
The tunnel is getting lower and narrower. There is no track here for a carnival-ride cart to travel on, only cool, damp sand beneath his fingers. His head is spinning, stomach turning inside out.
Run, Pete, run!
That voice again. Far-off, from the-can’t-remember place.
The tunnel is so constricted now that he’s on his belly crawling forward, but he can see a light up ahead, bright and promising. He still smells nothing but salt and sea, but soon he’ll smell the popcorn and spun sugar, hear the carousel music and the carneys shouting.
A strangely familiar panic stirs inside:
I must get out. Must find a crack, escape.
“How’d you know my name?” he asked the woman but she only laughed, stroking the rat on her shoulder until it squeaked, almost as if in pain. Her eyes a shiny yellow in the dusk.
He tried again.
“I’ve not seen you here before. Or this ride. When did you set up?”
“I come here now and then. Minerva always has a place for me. She told me about you.”
Behind her, the ride’s façade was brightly painted, mesmerizing in its detail: turquoise water, beach, palm trees, treasure chest spilling gold and gems. Flowers, parrots, a snake curled around a tree. A cliff and a small dark cave by the shore, and at the top: TREASURE ISLAND in scarlet letters.
“Is it like a haunted house ride, then?” he asked.
Her smile widened.
“Something like that. Come on! I’ll let you ride for free!”
And now here he is, crawling. The bright light is close, but the tunnel is so narrow that every move claws and bites his skin.
Like whispers from a dream, he hears voices: “All ashore!” Faces he hasn’t remembered in a long time appear and fade like smoke, names coming back, too: Frankie, Tuvalu, Seamus, Llewellyn, Captain Garcia.
Were we in the war together? he wonders as he crawls. Everything suddenly like a déjà vu.
He crawls. Sand beneath, rock above, closing in. He remembers the rat’s black eyes, how its mouth moved, almost as if to speak, voice hidden in a squeak:
“Run, Pete, run!”
But rats don’t talk.
When he comes out of the tunnel, he squints. The sun is bright. It’s not dusk or evening anymore. The carnival is gone. There’s the sound of waves, the whisper of palm trees, the screech of parrots, smell of flowers. A glint of gold and rubies in the sand: just like the painting. And just like in the painting, there’s a shipwrecked hull sticking out of the water offshore, beams and mast like broken ribs.
A sloop. Gabriel’s Revenge.
Laughter behind him. He turns, still on his belly in the sand.
“You found a crack, Pete,” the woman says, her voice a hiss. There’s a ripple through her face as she peers down at him, as though another face is hidden underneath. “Such a sneak. No one leaves my island without my say-so, didn’t I tell you that when you and your thieving friends got here?”
“No,” Pete whispers, remembering too much, too late.
“Oh, yes. You found a crack, wriggled out and got away, left the rat-skin that I gave you behind. Took a while to find you, when and where, but you won’t get out again.”
He remembers: the map, the lure of the doubloons, the gems, the pearls. Sees the white bones scattered in the sand, rat bones: Frankie, Tuvalu, Seamus, Captain Garcia. So many more.
“I told you boys not to touch my treasure, and still you put your filthy thieving pirate pawssss on it.”
He looks up. The woman looms above, as though she’s growing taller and more sinuous as she speaks. And the rat…no, not rat: Llewellyn, first mate, pirate, friend, is calling out (as he did last time), voice trapped inside a squeak:
“Run, Pete, run!”
And Pete runs, naked tail slinking behind him, rat fur sleek and grey, he runs as the woman sheds her curls and vest, turning into something hungry, scaled, and cloven-tongued. Pete runs, thinking of the painting, and how it held not a single rat.
© Maria Haskins 2016.
Note: Skull & crossbones image is taken from a Barbary pirate flag in the Åland Museum, Finland; believed to be early 19th-century. More here.