by David Crist
Alan pulled on his tall rubber boots. Although he’d grown four inches since Christmas, his older brother’s boots were still far too big for him. He didn’t complain. The boots would keep his feet warm and dry on the two-mile walk down to the docks from his parents’ house. On a cold, dark March morning like today, he needed all the warmth he could get.
He wrapped a scarf around his neck, pulled on his gloves and hat, and moved toward the door of the room that he used to share with his two older brothers, Will and James. He opened the door as slowly and quietly as he could. He didn’t dare risk waking his parents. They both had long days ahead of them and needed all the sleep they could get. Last night they had half-heartedly tried to convince him to stay home, but ever since his father got injured, the family needed every bit of food they could get. Some fresh fish for breakfast and maybe even a few to sell at the market might bring some cheer back into his home.
Alan had to cross from his room to the front door without making a sound. He tiptoed around the squeaky floorboards and traced a silent route across the room, just like his brothers had shown him. He crept up to the door, lifting it slightly while opening it to stop the hinges from groaning. Then he collected the lantern and matches waiting by the door and left without a noise. Once outside the house he struck a match and lit the lantern. A soft glow spilled out and formed a bubble of warm light around Alan as he walked through the pitch-black night toward Ramsgate, the port town where the family’s small boat was docked.
On his walk, Alan had no company but his own thoughts. He had taken the dirt trail too many times to remember, but this was his first time doing it alone. In all the years of his life, he had been accompanied by Will and James. James would heckle Will and Alan, and their joking made the walk seem short. Alone, it was a much longer journey.
As he came around a bend, Alan paused. Ahead of him lay Ramsgate, a pretty seaside town that drew tourists from all over during the summer. Right now, however, it was a city of shadows. He knew he was only a few hundred feet away from it, but he couldn’t see a single sign of life. Since the war began six months earlier, the government had enacted a blackout. All the lights in seaside towns had to be extinguished at night, making it more difficult for German submarines to identify British ships by only their silhouettes. The thought of U-boats circling underwater like iron sharks prickled Alan’s skin and tied his stomach into knots. He told himself to be rational, that he should be safe—the Zephyr was so small it would be a waste of a torpedo. Also, the seas here were full of underwater obstacles. It would be too dangerous, he hoped, for a submarine to navigate the numerous hazards. But being rational didn’t stop his nightmares of becoming trapped underwater, frozen in darkness.
Alan strained his eyes trying to see Ramsgate ahead of him in the night. He was in full support of the blackout, but it meant he would have to snuff out the lantern before entering the town. He took a breath, pursed his lips, and blew out the wick. Night enveloped him. He knew he was safer without the light, but he didn’t feel like it.
He entered the town, still silent at this early hour. Shadows glided by in the darkness. They were just townspeople getting an early start to their day, but there was something ominous about their indistinct faces. They could have been anyone—even Nazi soldiers in a secret invasion. Alan shook his head to clear it of such outlandish thoughts.
Dire fantasies like these had plagued Alan in recent months, ever since both of his brothers left home. James had joined the British Expeditionary Force, and in his letters from France, he complained that he spent all of his time digging trenches instead of fighting Nazis. As for Will…well, he didn’t really know where Will was. Gone, his parents told him, but Alan didn’t believe them. How could he be gone when Alan could hear him whispering in his ear, telling him to be brave? How could he be gone when Alan was sure that if he just reached out in the darkness, his hand would rest on the reassuring strength of his oldest brother’s shoulders?
Alan made his way down to the marina, maneuvering through the alleys by touch and memory. He found his way to the slip where the Zephyr was tied up. He had spent the last week scrubbing the hull for barnacles, inspecting for leaks, and generally making sure the vessel was seaworthy. Now he untied the lines securing it to the dock, and in one fluid movement he stepped into the boat and pushed it clear of the slip. He settled the oars into their locks and plied the waters with gentle strokes. It was easier to row through the narrow confines of the marina. Alan waited until he approached the sea, then hoisted the main sail. The Zephyr pulled out of the Ramsgate docks and into open waters.
In the darkness before dawn, the sea and the sky blended into a seamless wall of black. Dread clung to the inside of Alan’s chest. Years of these early morning fishing trips with his brothers had taught him which shoals were dangerous and how a surging tide could dash him against the rocks if he wasn’t careful. He had learned to respect the ocean but not to fear it. Fear led to panic, and panic was a deadly waste of time when survival depended on quick decision-making. No, his unease had little to do with the normal dangers of the sea.
The first hints of day tinged the sky. To the south, the magnificent Dover cliffs glowed orange and pink with the sun’s light. A cold gust blew down from the North Sea, over the stern of the boat, and into the outstretched sail of the Zephyr as it ran from the wind. Alan let it push him south and let out a line on his fishing rod.
He handled the small craft with ease, even without his brothers. The Zephyr was light and nimble, barely big enough for the three brothers when they used to scramble around hauling up lines or slicing up grub to bait the hooks. Alone in the boat, Alan felt like he was the last person on Earth, wandering through ruins.
Alan sailed right over where the Goodwin Sands lurked below. The same white chalk that formed the famous cliffs also jutted up, barely submerged, right off the coast of Ramsgate where the English Channel met the North Sea. The Goodwin Sands had claimed the lives of many sailors. Wrecked ships with their treasure littered the underwater precipice like ornaments on a Christmas tree. Two lighthouses flashed warning beacons to protect sailors from these perils. One stood to the south, near the big port of Dover. The other was perched on the northeast tip of the land, and it was home to Alan’s best friend, Sara. Sara’s father, Horace, operated the lighthouse and was one of the strangest, most interesting people Alan had ever met. Now that the blackout was in effect and the lighthouse’s beacon no longer shone bright, Horace busied himself with his numerous hobbies, including helping Sara repair whatever mechanical contraption she had scavenged that week.
The Goodwin Sands were Alan’s best defense against submarines, but there was also a chance that he might run aground himself. He dreaded hearing rocks grinding against the hull, but the Zephyr was a shallow-drafted boat that floated on top of the water instead of sinking in, and the terrible sound never came. Instead, there was the gentle swish of kelp slapping against the belly of the boat. It was an ordinary sound, but even the most ordinary things had begun to seem quite strange to Alan. One part of him knew that it was only kelp, but another part of him couldn’t stop imagining the outstretched hands of dead sailors reaching upward and running their slimy, half-decayed fingers along the bottom of the boat as it sailed by. The water was still murky at this early hour, so Alan couldn’t just look down and banish his fears. Maybe there were thousands of dead down there, clawing their way to the surface. Like the 519 sailors of the HMS Courageous who died when a U-boat torpedoed it. Like his brother, Will. The dark sea could be hiding anything.
The U-boats, now there was a real danger, Alan reminded himself. No point in making up ghosts when there were plenty of real, scary things lurking in the water. There could even be one out there right now—maybe the same one that sank the Courageous and killed Will.
Ten feet behind Alan, the water splashed. He jumped, turned midair, and landed in the bottom of the boat, gripping an oar like a cricket bat. He slowly lifted his head over the gunwale and peeked out over the ocean, fearing he’d find a periscope eye looking right back at him. To his relief, it was only a pelican. It must have dive-bombed out of the sky to pick up its morning meal. Alan loosened his fierce grip on the oar and felt his cheeks flush as he suddenly felt quite ridiculous. Just a pelican.
Alan decided that was good enough for his first time on the water alone. He turned the boat upwind and started tacking his way home.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, David Crist was a writer, educator, and traveler. He taught at USC, Crossroads School for the Arts, and beyond. In 2015 he received a Master in Professional Writing with a focus in Fiction from USC. He died in a traffic accident in December 2016. His memory lives on in his writing, his students, and his family and friends.