"What's your name, boy?" Phillips asked the young man sitting across from him.
"Walker," said the man, keeping his eyes down and focusing on his food.
For the month or so they had been at sea, Phillips hadn't heard much from the fellow. Still, he couldn't complain. The lad seemed clean and focused, and he did what he was told to do. He didn't seem to get into much trouble either. The other shipmen his age would get drunk and cause a fuss, but never Walker. Phillips could appreciate discipline in a young man.
"Come on, now," said Phillips. "You needn’t be formal here. Loosen up. What's your Christian name?"
For the first time, Walker's eyes met the older man's. The purity of their icy color startled him. "Tom," he said.
"Well, hell," said Phillips, shaking off the strange feeling. "What do you know? That's my name, too! Good strong name, ain't it?"
Walker smiled. His eyes twinkled. Phillips caught himself staring into them for a little too long. He took another swig from his bottle of beer and pressed on. "How old are you, Tom Walker?"
"Twenty, sir," Walker replied.
Just hearing the number sent Phillips years back into his memory. "Good age to be, son," he said. "What I wouldn't give to be twenty again. Hell, I'd even settle for thirty!"
Walker stifled a laugh. Phillips noticed and seized the moment. "Oh, you think that's funny, don't you? What can I say? I'm an old shit." He shifted gears suddenly. "What's a young fellow like you doing on a ship like this anyway? Shouldn't you be in school or something?"
"School didn't have what I wanted," Walker said.
"And what is it you want?" Phillips leaned forward.
Walker was silent. He appeared to search for the word. "Adventure," he said at last.
Phillips gave a hardy laugh. "Well, now," he said. "Be careful, son, or you just might get it."
There was no more work to be done for the evening, and so the two men continued talking and drinking bitter ale. Before long, they found themselves on the deck, leaning dizzily over the railings, staring down at the churning blackness of the sea below.
Phillips had let his thoughts wander back through his own history. Faces, places, pains, and joys, all years or even decades old floated in and out of his consciousness. Soon, though, he was aware of something that rose above them all. A song of some kind. He had never heard it before, but it was beautiful. The haunting sadness of the melody nearly brought a tear to his eye. All at once, he became aware of his surroundings. Walker stood beside him, eyes cast downward toward the sea. He was the young man who sang so beautifully.
Phillips waited for Walker to finish before asking, “Where did you learn that?”
Walker was silent for a moment. “Someone used to sing it to me,” he said.
“Someone?” asked Phillips. Even in his state of drunkenness, he read the meaning in Walker’s words. "You’ve got a sweetheart," Phillips said at last.
"No, I don't," said Walker definitively.
“But you said---”
“I used to,” said Walker. “Not anymore.” He looked at the older man. "What about you? Do you have a wife?"
Philips chuckled. "Never. Ain't never had a wife, and never will."
"Why not?" asked Walker.
"There just ain't no living happily with a woman," Phillips replied.
The younger man's piercing eyes locked intensely with Phillips'. For the first time, Phillips realized that they were standing very close to each other. Were it not for the ale, he might have called it uncomfortably close. At last, Walker spoke. "I feel the same way," he said.
Before Phillips knew what was happening, lips were upon lips. The taste of another man swam on his tongue. He felt Walker's hard muscles press against him. His hands explored the young man's shoulders, his back, and lower.
With a sudden show of force, Phillips pushed Walker off of him. The young man looked stunned and red in the face. Before he could say anything, Phillips hit him a second time, right to the jaw. Walker stumbled. He lost his balance. Everything happened so quickly. The reality of the situation didn't truly hit Phillips until he heard the splash from below.
Sobered by the horrifying realization of what had just transpired, Phillips hurried to the spot where Walker had fallen. When he looked down, only the inky black water met his gaze, occasionally displaying a distorted reflection of the full moon above him. Walker was nowhere to be seen.
The next morning, the rest of the crew discovered Walker missing. When they'd searched the entire ship for him, the only thing to conclude was that he'd gone overboard, either by accident or his own hand. Neither of these possibilities were met with sympathy by the irritated men who had spent half a day looking for the missing man. Whether he'd been drunk enough or unhappy enough, his fate was his own problem, they decided. Through it all, Phillips hung in the background and never said a word to anyone.
Months passed without further incident and, at last, the ship returned to shore. The first thing Phillips did when he got his pay was head to the nearest inn and tavern. There, he ate supper and drank his fill of ale. When he had finished, he called the innkeeper over and asked if she had a room for the night.
"Ay," she said, the exhaustion perceptible in her voice, "but it's on the very top floor, and you'll have to go to it yourself."
"I'm not afraid of a few stairs," Phillips barked.
"Suit yourself," said the innkeeper. She gave him a price and he paid it willingly. After pocketing the money, she leaned in close. "Do you expect you'll be wanting some companionship, sailor?" she asked. She then looked across the room. Phillips followed her gaze over to a beautiful young woman. The innkeeper went on. "Me daughter, Catriona. She's lovely, ain't she? Won't cost you much more."
Phillips let his gaze linger over the lovely figure as he gave the matter some serious consideration. It was then that the young lady turned to look at him. He could see from that distance that her eyes were blue, the same ice blue he had seen on young Walker. The memory of that night came flooding in and Phillips shivered. Even if he'd wanted the girl---and he did---he could never make love to someone with eyes like that. Not without feeling the searing guilt of what he had done.
"No," said Phillips to the innkeeper. "I'd like to sleep."
The innkeeper sighed. "Suit yourself, sailor," she said before turning away and attempting to sell her daughter's affections to another traveler.
The hours ticked by and Phillips grew more and more tired. The time came at last for him to climb the stairway to the room he had rented. Halfway up the stairs, his knees began to ache, and he regretted being so proud in his conversation with the innkeeper. He had half a mind to stop right where he was and sleep there, but still he pressed on, eventually reaching a cracked wooden door that stood right at the top of the stairway. Past this door was a modest room with a bed in one corner and a window directly above it. Other than this, and a bedside table, the room was bare. Not so much as a rug was present to warm the floor.
Phillips laughed a little to himself in his tired state, thinking of the money he'd spent on such meager lodgings. Oh well, he thought, I'm here now, and here I shall sleep. He didn't even bother to undress, but flopped hard onto the mattress and fell asleep almost immediately.
When Phillips awoke, it was completely dark inside his tiny room. The first thing to stir his senses was the rhythmic pulse of waves washing ashore far below. Each swell of the ocean brought with it more and more awareness of where he was and what had brought him there. For a moment, he simply lay in the dark, letting the surf soothe him.
It was then that a different sound rose to his ears. It was faint, but constant, barely perceptible above the sound of the waves. What was it? It was unusual to say the least. A whale song? Certainly not this close to shore. As the seconds went by, the sound became more defined, as if it were getting closer. It wasn't long before Phillips could plainly hear that it was music, but not that of whales. No, it was the voice of a man. One he had heard before.
His blood ran cold. "No," he said to himself. "Too much to drink." But the song continued, growing louder and closer. It was the plaintive melody that Walker had sung on board the ship, just before the accident. It seemed to echo softly and sadly in the swirling wind.
Well, now, Phillips thought. Young Walker can't have been the only one to know that song. It must be a fellow in the street. I'll tell him to keep to himself. Folks are sleeping!
He opened the shudders on the window beside his bed and peered out. The street below was completely devoid of all signs of life, but a clear view of the beach beyond shook Phillips to the bone with fright. Standing just at the water's edge was a tall, lean figure, illuminated from behind by the pale moonlight. The face could not be seen, but Phillips knew who it was. There was no mistaking that this was young Walker, standing still as death and staring, Phillips was sure, up at the very window through which he peered.
Perhaps he survived the fall, Phillips offered himself hopefully. As little as he desired to see Walker again, the prospect of coming to blows with an angry living person was far preferable to the alternative, a thought which could not help but raise itself in Phillips' mind as he stared back at the moonlit man. As much as he wanted to believe that none of this was out of the ordinary, something inside of him could not. All the while, Walker's song, sweet and mournful, floated steadily through the night air.
Suddenly, the figure began to move. Phillips shuddered as, within his sight, the man lurched forward, taking step after awkward step, as if he were learning to walk all over again. It was no use wondering where Walker was headed. Phillips knew there could be only one possibility. "No!" he cried out instinctively. He slammed the window shut, pulled his limbs close, and began to pray. As Walker's song grew louder, so did Phillips' prayers. He tried to drown out the younger man's voice with his own desperate hoarseness.
A sudden bang on the door made him yelp in surprise. All was silent. Phillips could not move. He could only wait. The bang came again, this time followed by a voice from the other side.
Relief washed over Phillips as he recognized the familiar rasp of the innkeeper. Fearless now, he rose and opened the door. "Ma'am?" he said, as politely as a tired sailor could manage.
The innkeeper peered at him through a mask of tired annoyance. "As much as I can appreciate you being a man of faith and all," she began, "would you mind doing your praying a little quieter? I can hear you all the way downstairs."
"Apologies, ma'am," he said. The innkeeper thanked him and departed, muttering insults to herself which amused Phillips as he could hear them even through the closed door.
Once again, he was left in the dark silence of his room with nothing to stir the senses but the pale moonlight coming in through the open window. Gradually, the rhythm of the sea returned to his ears, bringing with it no dreadful song this time. All seemed quite well.
Even without any clear and present cause for alarm, Phillips was not completely without apprehension. After all, how could he be? Even a man with the strongest constitution is occasionally rattled by a nightmare, he reasoned. Still, to be sure he was entirely safe, he decided to take one more look out the window at the street below.
What awaited him sent a fresh wave of terror down his spine. There, once again, stood Walker, only now he was positioned in the street, directly below Phillips' window. The moon revealed him fully now. Phillips could see the light reflected in those pale blue eyes. They peered up at him from a face that was much whiter and more gaunt that he'd remembered. The young man's clothes were drenched and seemed to remain so no matter how much dripped off of him. As Phillips watched, Walker stood deathly still for a moment, as he had on the beach, before lowering his head and stepping closer to the door of the inn.
Phillips was paralyzed with fear, unable to move even after Walker disappeared from sight. The only thing that pulled him from his frozen state was the strangest of sounds coming from the base of the stairs. Instinctively, he scrambled down from the bed, threw open the door and looked down to the bottom step. Water gushed all around, rushing in from some unseen source and covering the bottom-most step. It was as if the inn had become a ship, and that ship's hull had been punctured.
Phillips marveled at the sight, almost forgetting his fear until once again, above the water's rush, he heard the ghostly song of the dead sailor. It was then that Walker himself stepped out of the blackness below, stepping out of the water and onto the staircase. He ascended slowly, but steadily, with broken, jerking movements that would have been painful to look at had sheer terror not had a firm hold of Phillips. He let out a yell, ran back to his room and slammed the door.
Once there, Phillips nearly leaped onto the bed. He cowered in the corner beneath the window as the sounds of rushing water and Walker's deathly voice grew nearer and louder. Before long, water began to trickle in from beneath the door. It sounded now as if Walker were just outside. Suddenly, all noise stopped.
Phillips could hear only the heaving in and out of his own breath as he waited, still and silent. A loud bang on the door suddenly made him yelp. It was followed by two more bangs, and then more silence. Perhaps, he thought, it's the innkeeper, come to complain about the noise. I have been making a fair bit of it. But his own thoughts were not enough to completely convince him.
The answer came soon enough. The door swung open without warning and dark water rushed in. Phillips could feel it splashing against him. It was freezing cold, and smelled of salt and decay. Bits of seaweed floated in with it. In the middle of the flood stood Walker, his formerly handsome face twisted with rage. The specter's ice blue eyes glared at the older man, as if demanding some kind of retribution. He lurched forward, and Phillips screamed. He pleaded with the dead man to let him be, but the ghost came closer. Before long, he was within striking distance. Phillips eyed the window. No, he said to himself, I won't let him touch me! The dead man lunged forward a final time. In almost a single motion, Phillips rose and heaved himself out of the window.
The scream and the sickening thud that followed were enough to wake the innkeeper and several of her neighbors. Before long, a crowd had gathered around the body in the street.
"He was a crazy one, he was," said the innkeeper to the people there. "I heard him praying up a mighty storm just before it happened. This is what comes of too much drink, I suppose."
Nothing was ever found to go against her belief. The room, when it was inspected, was as clean and bone dry as it had ever been, as if no water had ever flowed there, and there was certainly no sign of Walker.
Written by Jdeschene