Uncle Leonard stood at the prow of the ship, a 42-foot Ketch, looking every bit the captain in the blazing late afternoon heat. The trade winds riffled through his crew cut, and Austin wondered if that sheaf of smoky hair hadn’t had more to do with his success than his understanding of computer parts or printing of newspapers. Uncle Leonard might be able to afford the luxury of insanity. Austin could not.
He took a swig from his bottle of tangerine soda. The taste made his tongue numb, and he wondered what the tangerine cartoon character was really saying on the bottle.
“It’s saying, ‘Better head back soon, Señor,’” he mumbled to himself. The little tangerine with the Mexican accent winked evilly at him.
“You know you’ve had too much when the drink starts talking, Tex.” Uncle Leonard gave his crazy-old-redneck smile and held the rudder straight on course.
Straight into what, God and Uncle Leonard only knew.
Acapulco de Juarez had been the last stop on their summer trip through Mexico. Of course, Uncle Leonard had paid for the rooms and food, but Austin was there to supply the entertainment. He had taken them both on a walking tour of the vast stone structures left behind by the native people, ending at a quaint restaurant overlooking the ocean at the northern edge of the city.
That night, staring up at the mosquito netting in the dingy pieza, all Austin could think about was how tired he was. Uncle Leonard was distracted, pensive, and bored. The idea turned in his brain like a stripped screw, unable to hold any other thoughts in place. A bored Uncle Leonard was illimitably dangerous. He would be there in person, all right. His weathered hat crooked rakishly across his left brow, mustache nodding in time to whatever the tour guide or gondolier or martial arts instructor had to say. But, his eyes wouldn’t be. They would already be on to the next moment, finding ways to access the ulterior motives for coming to these strange places.
How many countries had they travelled together? China, Spain, Rome twice. He couldn’t keep up with his uncle’s perpetual vigor and insatiable curiosity. If he didn’t think of something new and interesting soon, he had no doubt there would be dire consequences. His mind rolled the problem over, grinding into the smoothness of sleep, drifting reluctantly into darkness.
He had come down into the bungalow kitchen early, rubbing puffy eyes. Uncle Leonard paced across the wooden plank floor, entangled in a web of telephone wire. His terrycloth robe with the elbows worn thin wafted between his muscled legs as he smoked a cigar that smelled like seaweed. Austin coughed loudly.
“Excellent!” Uncle Leonard had said. “When can it be ready?” He nodded into the phone, fingering the tips of the handlebar mustache. He dropped the phone into the yellowing receiver.
“What was that all about?” Austin yawned and stretched, again feeling the paunch that had begun to form at the beginning of this year’s expedition. His mother would be so proud. She had a perpetually furrowed brow for Austin, especially over meals –what he ate, how much he ate, who he ate with – and took inventory like it was the manifest of a potentially sinking ship. Since worry was one of the four main food groups at his mother’s table, this wasn’t entirely shocking. What was shocking was the outright paranoia she displayed at his mention of escorting Uncle Leonard on another weird-of-the-world expedition.
“But you said you were going to stay home this summer!” she had pleaded with him. “Maybe do some summer sports. Go on a date. I can’t even remember the last time you brought a nice girl home.”
He hadn’t told her that he was uninterested in dating anyone from school, and the neighborhood was worse. Mrs. Montgomery always telling him about her “very nice, respectable,” granddaughter. Polly Phipps and her piggy eyes winking at him when he went into the 7-11. Besides, he didn’t want to worry about girls. Or think about college next year. He wanted one last adventure before he had to figure out what to do with his life. He might have argued his case, but his mother’s ample chest had begun to scarlet, the tell-tale signs of what he and his sister Bethany called, “A rager.”
“It doesn’t matter. The point is, Uncle Leonard is a scoundrel and a wreck, and it’s time you told him “no”. Besides, he’s a bad influence on you.” She had gone on to list the several dozen times he had already been in trouble one of Uncle Leonard’s excursions. This included a detailed and colorful recounting of a trip to Jamaica, where Austin had gotten inside-out sick from eating a particularly rare purple fish.
“It was pretty good,” he admitted. “Besides. He always gets us out of it. It’s like he has a horseshoe up his ass.”
His mother gave him a withering look and clucked. “Language.”
He shrugged. “It’s true, ma. You know better than anyone.”
“He’s got more than good luck, my brother has.” She pounded bread dough as if it had personally offended her and deserved a violent punishment. “He is smart, and crazy as a koo-koo clock with a screw loose. Well, there may come a point when he really does go off the deep end, and take you along for the ride.” She gave the bread a final slap and reached over to pinch his cheek. “I would hate to have my baby boy disappear from the face of the earth and never know what happened.”
Would that be so bad? Austin had thought.
He had floated through his last year of high school, barely existing. He’d gone to a couple of parties, kissed a couple of girls. Made the second-string football team and managed not to get his brains smashed out. But, at night, he’d lie in bed and the future would eat him up. All the questions he couldn’t answer in the daylight fluttered like moths drawn to a black and voided flame.
Where are you going to school next year?
What are you going to be when you grow up?
What are you good at?
Who are you going to be?
What are you doing this summer?
Well, that one he could answer. Like he’d been answering every year since he was 14.
I’m going travelling with my rich, crazy, potentially-suicidal Uncle Leonard. And then, I’ll figure the rest out from there. You see, Uncle Leonard might be a crazy bastard, but he is definitely not boring.
Even in a rage, a drunken stupor, or in the interrogation room of a small African country, Austin could see something special in Uncle Leonard. A magical quality that his mother called “Texas-toast charisma.” Uncle Leonard knew that everything was going according to some unseen plan. He was like the sun, huge and dangerous, pulling Austin along in his gravitational force. It was definitely a symbiotic relationship: Uncle Leonard put them into unusual situations and Austin went along for the ride.
While Austin was choking on ever-increasing doses of reality, and Uncle Leonard’s funhouse of the fantastic was the cure. So he had assented when Uncle Leonard had asked him to go on this “short” final excursion.
He was now beginning to regret that decision.
Austin slumped into the chair and tried to ignore the vigorous wobble of the table as Uncle Leonard sawed into his country-fried steak slathered in applesauce, a morning ritual regardless of the locale. The sheer force on the unsuspecting meat warned Austin of an extremely unusual level of excitement, the last time being just before they had been taken to the Roman departimento de polizia for desecrating a national treasure. Who knew you couldn’t swim in an ancient Roman bath? The image of Uncle Leonard’s hair attempting escape from under the orange swim cap still remained one of Austin’s funniest mental photographs. Less amusing was the police response when Austin mentioned that Uncle Leonard thought it had been the fountain of youth.
Uncle Leonard cleared his throat. Whatever he was planning now, Austin was sure it would make the Roman police look like lap poodles at a doggy day spa.
“So. What’s up?”
“We’re gonna navegó con el Valero.” Uncle Leonard cracked the English-Spanish book open, then thrust it towards Austin. The unused pages gleamed for a moment before being baptized with applesauce. “Look it up.” Uncle Leonard’s eyes glimmered with gleeful confrontation, like a kid making a double-dog dare.
“Um…sail..sailboat. Jesus, Uncle Leonard. What are you talking about? We’re going to sail somewhere?”
“I found a fella who’ll give us a ship. A boat, really.”
Austin’s stomach lurched.
“Have some toast with frutas. It’ll clear up that pasty-faced complexion. You smell like you been eatin’ otter all night, boy!” He sawed back into his own breakfast, but not before giving Austin That Look. Try to stop me, Tex, the look said.
Uncle Leonard grinned widely.
Austin pondered the past as he watched his uncle devour his breakfast with shocking gusto. Despite the vigorous “questioning” by the Roman polizia, Uncle Leonard had definitely regained a dangerous level of energy after the illicit swim. The police had laughed all right (mostly during the parts when they were punching Austin in the face), but Uncle Leonard had come out of that fountain looking pretty chipper. It’s all psychosomatic, Austin had told himself as he limped behind Uncle Leonard, tonguing his new loose tooth. That’s what happens when you’re old and you have too much money. Craziness and jail.
Uncle Leonard had that same craziness-and-jail look as he brandished his fork, and Austin could feel a prickle of apprehension about the boat they were about to take into the wide blue ocean.
“Have you ever sailed a ship before, Uncle Leonard?”
“Of course not.” He burped into his fist, and picked up the crispy blueberry bagel lying on Austin’s plate. He smiled, winked and took a bite. “You gonna eat this?”
“I guess not.”
“Excellent choice, my compadre. Can’t let food just set like that around here.”
“How are we going to actually sail somewhere if you don’t know what you’re doing?”
Uncle Leonard laughed. “Always worried about the wrong things. Tex, yer a hoot, ya know that?” It was like having a sit-down conversation with Yosemite Sam.
Now, just hours later, a far less cartoonish Uncle Leonard was at the rudder. He checked the sails and tack every few minutes, just like his historically short training had taught him. Austin cursed the Mexican man who had eagerly traded the rickety boat for easy green American money.
The sun dipped down towards the ocean, like a slice of lemon atop a giant tangerine drink.
Hey, Senor. Don’t you theeenk eet’s time to go home?
It was hard to say how long they had been out on the water, although it had been long enough for Austin to take a short nap to regain some of his lost toss-and-turn time of the night before. At least he was almost sure it was short, although the sun was disconcertingly low in the afternoon horizon.
“Where are we going, Uncle Leonard?”
Uncle Leonard surveyed the blank expanse of blue and nodded. Not really much of an answer, Austin thought. He came over to peer at the map that had been supplied them by the codgy old sailor. He had been grizzled, with a peery eye, pointing stiff fingers across the map and jittering Spanish like a warlock spewing charms. Good thing Uncle Leonard knew Spanish. Austin had just nodded resentfully as Uncle Leonard said one of the few phrases he could recognize. Gracias.
Austin had wanted raise some kind of alarm, make some rational statement about the dangers of this spree, but his mouth was thick with words. He didn’t think either De nada or Donde esta el bano? were going to make much difference in the final outcome anyway. Uncle Leonard was either a brilliant secret agent or had been intimate once with the Luck Donkey.
There had been something different this time, though. Austin couldn’t quite place it, but he was sure of it. Every time they had gotten into what Uncle Leonard call a “snat,” (Austin wasn’t as creative in what he called it), he had ineffably risen to the top of whatever conflict had arisen. When they had pushed off from the shore, Austin had seen something in his eyes, a tremor that he had never seen in the 20 years they had known each other.
He’s scared, Austin thought. The idea needled down into his stomach and sat there to fester.
“Where are we?”
Uncle Leonard motioned vaguely to the paper.
“I think we are somewhere over in this direction,” he pointed to a number of converging lines on the paper. His uncle’s face was rigid and set, there was no trace of fear there anymore, but there was no outlandish excitement either. Austin felt it again. Something was very wrong here, and the looming bank of dark clouds didn’t make him feel any better. A chill caught his breath, and he shivered.
“Anyway, this is crazy. There’s nothing out here but a bunch of water.”
Uncle Leonard set the keel of the drifting boat straight and brought the yellowing paper over for Austin to see. The paper was cracked and beaten, stained multicolored by years of use, followed by a long period of disuse and neglect. The land markings were familiar, most of them, but the script was scrawling and incomprehensible. In a smaller style, more careful blocky letters marked the date 1632. The edges of the map were blank.
“See, here’s where we sailed from this morning,” he pointed to one of the large familiar-looking shapes on the map. “And here is where we are now.”
“Uncle Leonard, this map is from 1632. It’s not even printed on paper!”
“I know.” He looked out over the water, a dark shadow crossed the sun and it suddenly felt like evening was closing in. “It was an easier time, then. No cell phones, no television. If a man told you he had caught a 16-foot fish, you had to take his word.” His voice fell and he searched the fog for answers. “There is no mystery now. This world has nothing to offer an old relic like me.”
The words pierced through the air in classic Uncle Leonard style. To Austin, they were the words of ancient prophets. So saith the Lord, Uncle Leonard is not for this world. It would have been funny, but the words stuck in his throat as he saw the deathly pallor that consumed his uncle’s face. It was not self-pity that moved in his voice, but a deep sense of loss and regret. And fear. Austin, so used to the safety of Uncle Leonard’s sureness, panicked at the prospect that he really was just a old man with nothing left to lose.
“You brought us all the way out here on an old shitty map? Where are we, Uncle Leonard?” He could feel his face getting hot, icy drops still rolling down the back of his shirt.
The older man pointed to the edge of the page, the image on the old map of a great waterfall that dropped into nothingness.
“I was going to tell you, but I thought you would have stayed behind.”
“Hell yeah I would have stayed behind! Where exactly do you think that map is gonna take us, Uncle Leonard?”
“I just wanted to see what was out here, what was possible.”
Austin looked sideways at him. Even when faced with the reality of the situation, Uncle Leonard still stood at the fore, searching the horizon in the hope for a miraculous resurrection of his wavering faith.
“Do you really think I’m crazy?” Uncle Leonard looked hurt for a moment, a crimping around the corners of his eyes that only Austin could have seen. Without the magnetic aura of his belief, Austin could see the truth. The real Uncle Leonard was a sad, lonely old man looking for a way to escape the inevitable fade of age and death. Austin realized his grave mistake of believing a 20-year lucky streak was anything but that. Austin mulled. Twenty years of good luck means that the odds are not in our favor. He looked up and felt a drop of rain tap his lips.
“Let’s get the boat back to the dock. I think there might be a storm coming in.”
“Well, Tex, I’m not sure how to break it to you, but we’re not going back.”
The words chilled Austin to the core. There was a kind of brittle sharpness in this reply, and the old dusty cowboy had found his way back into the saddle. It was the kind of ballsy matter-of-factness that had made Uncle Leonard excel at everything he had tried, from newspapers to networking. For Austin, it marked the end of caution and the beginning of necessary action. Maybe he had followed Uncle Leonard around for too long. It was definitely time to take the wheel.
Silence surrounded the boat for a few minutes, the sounds of the waves intensifying as the wind began a steady moan. They were moving towards the rain clouds, Austin thought with a jolt. More droplets fell on his hands and face, and he saw one hanging precariously from the edge of Uncle Leonard’s mustache, suspended like a tightrope walker on the verge of falling.
The boat began a patterned thumping against the heightening waves, the wind picking up the prow and slapping it back down in rhythm, ka-thwack, ka-thwack, ka-thwack. Austin realized that he was squinting to see beyond the prow. It sure is getting dark fast, he thought. If I’m going to take control, I need to do it soon.
“At least slow it down a little.” Austin’s voice cracked at the strain against the mounting force of the wind. The clouds were no longer a hint of grey against the skyline. They had completely blocked the sun and a constant drizzle settled on the two-man crew.
Uncle Leonard yelled something back, but the words got lost in the screech of a wind gust. A wave smashed into the side of the little boat, sending the gib cattywompus and into the back of Austin’s head in the same beat. Tangerine soda bottles spilled out of the cooler, party ice surging down into the berths below deck. Uncle Leonard slipped and fell on the fiberglass floor, the safety nubs doing little to hinder him from sliding all the way down into the lower deck of the boat.
Austin saw his chance. In a flush of thought and action, he pulled the wooden slatted door that connected the top and lower sections of the boat closed. There was no sound from below, he thought, although there was no way to hear anything against the fantastic crash of lightning that burst almost directly above the mast. Rain poured out of the sky, blinding him as he fumbled to find something to enclose the door. A small bit of twine floated on the watery deck, and he was able to coax his cold hands into the best damned granny knot he had ever tied.
He jumped back to the rudder, which was swaying drunkenly, shifting the boat precariously amongst the growing waves. The wind howled against them as a huge wave, at least 15 feet tall, deluged the boat, sending the ship dangerously on its side.
Uncle Leonard screamed from below deck, pounding on the cedar door. The noise shot a wave of adrenaline thought Austin’s skull, and he knew what to do. Sorry, Uncle Leonard. This time I really will keep you out of trouble.
Another wave hit. Luckily it came from the other side of the ship, almost fully righting the mast. The blackness was almost directly above them now, and Austin grabbed the cord attached to the jib sail. He pulled it down as quickly as he could, remembering a friend who had taken him sailing on the lake once. You can’t keep your sails up in a storm, he had said. That’s the best way to sink your ship. He turned and began to bring down the mainsail.
There was a resounding thwock as he felt an iron fist against his jaw, and Austin vaguely felt ice beneath his body. It was clear that Uncle Leonard was no longer below decks. He now looked every bit the madman, raising the sails against the howling wind, drenched in water, rivulets of blood streaming from his broken knuckle skin.
He appeared in Austin’s field of vision, strangely calm against the backdrop of flashing light and harsh, cold spray.
“If we bring the sails down, we’ll never be able to make it.”
Where, Uncle Leonard?
“Where?” his voiced croaked as he pushed himself up against the slickery sluice of icy water.
“The end. The end of the world, Tex. See?”
Austin lunged for the rudder, pulling it sharply from Uncle Leonard’s hands. Rain spattered across his grizzled face. A flash launched out from beneath a black cloud, catching the mast in its electric coils. The deafening boom almost swallowed Uncle Leonard’s response.
They grappled against each other, pulling the rudder in a childish game of tug-of-war.
“I don’t want to fight you, Tex!” Uncle Leonard screamed into the twisting wind. Another wave hit the side of the ship, shaking loose a litany of ropes. “We’re almost there!”
“We are going to die, Uncle Leonard! Let go, now!” The crack and sizzle of ozone shocked again through the skyline of growing black, to great thunderous applause. The mast groaned sickly, the strain of the lightning multiplying the feverish pull of the storm winds. Even though their faces were inches apart, Austin’s voice was ragged with screaming.
Another wave, twice as big as before, drenched the ship. There was just enough time for Austin to think, we’re drowning, before the wave knocked him into Uncle Leonard. The rudder broke free from it’s underpinnings and flew up into the air. A sharp ripping sound swallowed the ship, and Austin crazily thought it was another bolt of lightning. He looked to see the main sail whipped by the tumult, the sturdy fabric torn almost in half. The sky and sea had been muted somehow. Black stars swarmed over Austin’s vision until them pulled him into unconsciousness.
When he came to his senses, the sky was still dark, but the rain had let up. The thunder crackled, but it was an echo through a muffled glass. Either that or he had permanently lost his hearing. He put a shaky hand to his ear to test the theory. Uncle Leonard’s voice disappeared, then reappeared. Still alive, still hearing.
“Austin,” Uncle Leonard helped him up, the previous violence gone from his face. Austin realized that Uncle Leonard was no longer screaming. “It was wrong of me to strike you. I just…I just wanted this one more than anything in the world.”
The storm no longer was above them, but it was clear that they were moving towards some other unknown danger. A thick fog surrounded the boat, maybe a side effect of the storm, Austin thought. A primal instinct told him that they needed to leave now, while there was still a chance of escape.
“I see it!”
Uncle Leonard was squinting into the fog, the rain almost gone now. Seeing him stand there, a man born out of time, Austin could almost believe that he could see something. Perhaps it was the poisoned tangerine soda or the knocks to his skull, but Austin thought, if he could just squint hard enough…
“What do you see, Uncle Leonard?”
They stood there for a moment, in the anticipatory breath between shocks of spray. The ocean had quieted again and the fog was lifting. It was a moment to be holding one’s breath, and neither man realized that they were.
“What is that?” Austin’s voice seemed far away, like one through a tin-can telephone.
In front of them, at the edge of seeming endless ocean, was a razor-straight line of black that swallowed wave after wave.
If there were words to describe the vision, Austin didn’t have them or couldn’t find them. As in some ancient mariner’s dream, the black yawn of the starry sky met the edge of the ocean in a dangerous kiss. There are worlds out there, Austin thought. He couldn’t recognize the constellations here, just the brilliant shimmer of stars, and stars, and stars forever.
“Is it night?” Austin whispered. Lightheaded, legs floaty, yes I think I will faint again.
Uncle Leonard’s strong hand pulled him back from the edge. Austin sat, feet bathing in the leftover seawater from the storm. The rain had drifted into a misty spray, a foggy cloud of droplets on his skin.
The boat edged closer, its prow reaching towards the inky maw.
Austin wanted to fight again, a part of him anyway. There was a part that wanted to go back to the house in Arizona, play video games and fall asleep with a girl he barely knew. There was a part that suddenly wished he could have spent the summer with his friends, smoking weed and screwing around with co-eds on the beach.
The blackness came upon them, inexorable. The waves pushed them towards the line of sky and water.
“What is this, Uncle Leonard?”
Uncle Leonard waved the map. “It’s the end of the ocean, Tex. Right where it’s supposed to be.”
As they came towards the line, Austin felt his sanity begin to slip. “It’s not really there, is it? I’m just imagining this. I think I really hurt my head during the storm. Or, maybe we’re dead. That would make more sense.”
“This is real, Austin.” Uncle Leonard turned to him, allowing the boat to move on it’s own, the water calming as they crept closer to the unknown shoreline.
“You don’t have to come with me, Tex,” he said. He motioned to the small life raft that hung at ready on the side of the ship, a simple exercise in breathing in and out and it was sea worthy. Austin knew that there must be a compass in the small backpack he had found in the sleeping berth, enough food for a few days. Surely one of the cruise ships would find him in only a few days, he could survive that long. He could go back.
He turned towards the dingy, and Uncle Leonard’s voice sounded clear in his ears.
“I’ll miss our adventures,” he said. “There is a reason I came to the end of the world with you.” Austin turned to him. “I always thought that you’d want to stick around. Keep me out of trouble.”
“Goodbye Uncle Leonard.”
The current had begun to pick up again, and the boat was surging towards the empty rift. Uncle Leonard brought Austin’s things up from below while the life raft filled with air. Austin watched the growing blackness around the ship, the prow just beginning to move over the edge of the water. He suddenly felt panic return.
“Uncle Leonard, what’s going to happen to you?”
Uncle Leonard eyebrows knitted for a moment.
“I don’t know.” He paused to consider the question, then shook his head and laughed. “I don’t know!! Isn’t that just the God-Damnedest!”
Austin threw the lifeboat over, the oars securely attached to the side. The peaky water clasped at it, gobbling it up just to spit it back out at the water’s surface. The current towards the edge of the ocean began to pull the little raft along with the ship. If he was going to get away, this was his last chance.
With the supplies strapped snugly across his shoulders, Austin climbed down the emergency ladder and into the boat.
The Ketch began to teeter, its front hull inching out over the edge. Austin pulled at the knots holding him to the sinking ship. He fumbled, his fingers cold and the spray whipping into his eyes and mouth. Despite the cold, he was able to unleash the life boat from the ship. He sat in the choppy water, suddenly fascinated by what he saw.
Austin watched as Uncle Leonard rushed towards the front to see over the edge. The ship leaned sharply, teetering like a toy on the playground. He looked at Austin, his face flushed in brilliant joy and smiled as the ship began to fall.
In a rush of instinct, Austin grasped a loose line of the ship and pulled as if to keep if from falling. The boat pitched forward and over towards darkness.
The moment suspended in time, a great note of tension hung in the starry sky. Like a slow motion freeze frame, Austin was flying through the air, his arms clasped in the wet ropes. His tired muscles strained to pull his body onto the deck of the falling ship. Uncle Leonard turned and grabbed for his hand, and there was just enough time to pull him to his feet before the inevitable fall down, down into oblivion.
It was here that the law of the known universe shattered.
The boat did not fall into the darkness of space so much as jaunted sideways from it. Instead of falling, Austin and Uncle Leonard were thrown against the rails in a jumbled heap.
For a moment, he was sure they were dead. There was no feel of waves under the hull, no wind, no weather. Just a gasp of stars, glimpsed briefly through the ragged rip of sail.
Uncle Leonard helped him up from the ground, and straightened his captain’s jacket. He brushed his hair back and picked up his trusted hat, floating in the debris among their feet.
“Glad you decided to stay, Austin.”
Austin could breathe again. He looked back and saw the life raft, spinning off back towards the real world. The tide has changed, he thought. The two men stared into the limitless horizon, the galaxies spread out like contrails of 4th of July firecrackers.
“Where are we going, Leonard?” The words fit on his lips like they always had, although he felt that there was a deeper conviction in them. They stood together, equals in an unknown territory.
Uncle Leonard smiled and gestured to the sails, full and lofting despite their ragged appearance.