a novel by Carley Eason Evans
All Rights Reserved
Ben Spillman doesn’t know he is about to fall. The black sea water below appears exactly like the black ceiling above. In between, only the rope is visible. Ben clings to it like a lifeline in that it is his lifeline. He dangles, bouncing his feet against the starboard inside wall as the whole ship lists far to port. The ocean swells are calm; otherwise Ben would not be on the rope climbing down at the end of his shift. Suddenly, he hears Max from the deck: “Ben! Ben!” Then the rope goes slack for just a moment before he’s falling. Ben hears his own screams as he falls. Then, he sees the steel stanchion emerge from the darkness below; he strikes it with a mighty thud and for a split second feels the blood gush from his right temple. Then, he loses consciousness.
Max shouts, “Ben! Ben! Oh god, Ben!” He quickly pulls up what’s left of the rope.
Three other men attached to loops of rope on the deck lean out to look down into the dark. No one can see Ben. No one can even see the surface of the slack water. Each man looks to the other.
Finally, Lon says, “Oh god; I think we’ve lost Spillman.”
Max, Randy and Skip look at one another. Skip protests, “That’s not possible! Spillman’s our best!” Then Skip says the obvious, “My god, he’s got an unlimited master’s license. He can pilot any ship out there!”
Max and Randy nod in agreement, peering once more into the deep black. Randy yells, “Ben! Ben Spillman! Yo!” He hears only the sound of his voice as the ship lists into the sea. Lon ventures, “He must of drown.” Max shakes his head. “No,” he says, “more likely, he died on impact. That’s a long way down, fellows.” Indeed, the Striker Ace is as high as a seven-story building and as long as two football fields. “Maybe,” offers Randy. “Maybe, he managed to grab ahold on his way down. Maybe he just can’t hear us.”
Lon shakes his head. He looks to Max who holds up the frayed end of what’s left of the rope; Ben’s lifeline still tied – not clipped, oddly enough – to the upper deck. “I’m afraid that’s not possible, Randy. He fell.”
The four Sea Cowboys, as they jokingly call their salvage team, grow quiet. Lon protests again. “We have to climb down; we have to make sure.”
Randy vigorously nods in agreement. Max shrugs his shoulders, hands the frayed rope to Lon. “Okay, I’ll climb down. Randy, you get to Captain Lawrence. Have him radio to get the Coast Guard back with a rescue helicopter.”
“Roger. Wilco,” barks Randy and moves off as quickly as he is able.
Before Max climbs out of sight, Lon says, “We’re gonna have to let the main office know. Cindy’s gonna want to get a report, asap.”
Max continues Lon’s thoughts, saying, “And we need to let Rob, Greg, and Pete know, too.”
“Jesus,” says Skip. “I don’t wanna do that.”
“Well, we have to,” insists Max. He hesitates. “Well, we’re probably gonna have to, that is.” Then he climbs down. Every six or eight inches, he ties a rope loop to any nearby sturdy structure, and anchors himself so that he won’t fall like Spillman.
Meanwhile, Lon and Skip follow Randy as he gingerly walks along the deck which is nearly perpendicular to the black ocean below. When they come to the ladder leading to the bridge; each one hooks in and climbs it in the same manner a mountain climber scales an overhang. The effort each makes is enormous. The three men are sweating as they come through the door to the bridge. Captain Lawrence is at the helm. He looks up as they enter. He greets them, “Hey guys. Everything okay? Did Ben find a gash in the hull? Did he find the first row of cars? Are they intact?”
Randy shakes his head. “No sir. Ben fell. We think he’s dead.”
The Captain looks shocked. “He’s dead? You’re kidding me; right?”
Lon says, “No, we’re not kidding! God, why would anyone kid about that?”
The Captain strikes a button on a panel before him, and a claxon begins. He barks, “Man down!” into a loudspeaker. Then, stops. He looks at the three men, drops his chin. “I’m sorry,” he says. “No point to it?”
Randy nods, agrees. “Yes, sir. The fall probably killed him; Max is climbing down now to make certain.”
“Belay that,” says Captain Lawrence over the loudspeaker. He strikes the button again; the claxon stops blaring.
Randy says, “But, Max wants you to get a rescue helicopter from the Coast Guard asap.”
Ben Spillman is a career man; he’s been with the Sea Cowboys since the beginning, over 30 years of service. He leaves a wife and four boys – grown men now. He leaves grand-children, too – three girls, two boys. Max holds back tears as he stands on the bridge, staring out at the black sea.
After contacting the Coast Guard to secure the helicopter, Captain Lawrence offers his office so that Randy can relay a message via the ship’s satellite phone. Randy waits for the phone to connect to the mainland. He knows there is a 20-second delay between when he speaks and when Cindy hears him. He’s careful in his approach.
“Yes. Over.” responds Cindy, seconds later.
“Randy here. Over.”
“Hey Randy,” she says. “What’s up? Over.”
Randy swallows; his tongue is so dry it seems glued to the roof of his mouth. He starts, “We’ve had an accident.” He waits for the signal to reach Cindy. He hears her sharp gasp before he continues, “Ben Spillman fell.” He waits. “We think he’s dead, Cindy. Over.” Randy doesn’t hear any response, so he repeats. As he begins, he hears Cindy’s voice, “Did you say Ben’s dead? Did I hear you right? Ben Spillman? Over.”
“Yes,” confirms Randy. “Ben Spillman’s dead. Well we think he’s dead. His line broke; he fell from just inside the deck into the cargo hold not more than an half an hour ago. We’re waiting on a rescue helicopter now. And Max is climbing down to him now. Over.”
“Oh god,” says Cindy. “I’ll need to call Jane. How am I going to tell Jane that her husband is dead? Over.”
“I don’t know, Cindy.” Randy weeps quietly. “Do you want me to call her? Over.”
From the distance, Randy hears Cindy say, “Well you know her better than I do. It might come easier from you. Over.”
Randy nods to himself. He speaks into the satellite phone, “Okay, Cindy. I’ll call her. Over.”
“Do you need her telephone number? Over.”
“No, it’s stored in my cell phone down in my berth. Over.”
Cindy says, “Tell Max that I’m so sorry. Over.”
“Thanks. Will you let the big guys know? Over.”
“Yeah, sure. Over.”
Randy says, “Signing off.”
“Okay,” says Cindy. “Over and out.”
Randy puts down the satellite phone, and steps out of the Captain’s office. He doesn’t say anything; instead, he walks out of the bridge and starts down the ladder, hooking in again so as not to fall himself. What happened to Ben’s climbing gear? Why wasn’t he anchored to the inside hull?
He reaches his cabin about ten minutes later. He steps in, and holding on to various fixtures, he pulls himself around the small enclosure. He finds his cell phone in a drawer beneath his berth. He turns it on, finds the Spillman’s home telephone number. He scribbles it on a slip of paper which he stuffs in his front pocket. He leaves his cabin, goes back to the Captain’s office, walking by both Mr. Lawrence and the Sea Cowboys.
He listens as the Spillman’s phone rings and rings. Finally, a connection.
“No, this is Rebecca. I’m her granddaughter.”
Randy says, “You have to say ‘over,’ Rebecca.”
“Oh, okay. Over.”
“Rebecca,” begins Randy. “Is your grandmother at home? Over.”
“No sir. Over.”
“Do you expect her soon? Over.”
“In about half an hour, maybe. Over.”
“All right,” says Randy. “I’ll call back. Over.”
Rebecca asks, “What’s wrong? Over.”
Randy refuses to answer. He knows if he speaks again, his voice will betray him. He shakes his head; tears sling from his eyes. He suddenly thinks he shouldn’t be the one to tell Jane this anyway. Max is the one; he’s closest to Ben.
“What’s wrong? Over.”
Randy gives Rebecca only silence. He hears her once more, “What’s wrong? Hello? Hello? Over.”
“I’ll call back. Tell Jane. Over.” And he hangs up the satellite phone.
Randy steps out of the office. He leans against the wall, suddenly exhausted. He realizes it’s very early still; the night sky remains dark.
One of the ship’s crew – Randy doesn’t recognize him – comes onto the bridge. “Captain Lawrence, sir; we didn’t strike anything. It’s the starboard ballast tank sir. It failed to refill so we’re listing. We’re definitely capsizing sir.”