The Gladiator

By Dusty Middleton                                     book II Snippings

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“Listen,” Captain Caine said. The four of them were sitting in the small, open helm of the sailboat. Captain Caine was at the wheel, his eyes on the horizon. “Cat. Tonight you can stay up and talk as long as you like. When you’re ready to sleep, you can sleep in my bunk. I’ll stay out here and do the night watch. When you wake up in the morning, you can work with Pete and Gene. I’ll sleep.”

He went silent. The sails were up now. The motor silent. There wasn’t much of a breeze. But the boat was holding a course, moving slowly, splashing through black water. Cat was watching the blinking lights of hundreds of oil rigs ahead of them.

She was holding her backpack like a baby on her lap. Everything she now owned. She felt naked of possessions, but she was thrilled at the same time.

The captain knew that her time on sailboats was minimal. He had asked if she was a hard worker. If she had the capacity to learn. He had asked, was she really sure she wanted to leave for months, maybe years. She had answered confidently to all. Held his eye. Her posture had been strong back there on the dock during their first conversations. She was proud that she had held herself so strong. And now, as Mobile County sank away behind them, she was willing her body to stay strong and capable now. She willed the butterflies in her stomach to stay happy and bold.

“Tomorrow.” The captain looked at Cat and she held his gaze. “I don’t want you out in the sun from 10 to 3.” He took a sip from a tall, covered coffee cup and then clicked it back into its holder. “If you get a bad sunburn at the beginning of this crossing you’ll cause all of us trouble. I need you to stay inside in the middle of the day.”

“Ok, got it. Inside from ten to three.” Catherine tapped at the wristwatch that she was wearing. Caine had asked her to buy one, simple, digital, waterproof. Even though she had chosen the smallest watch at the drug store, a seventeen dollar purchase, it felt clunky and strange on her wrist.

He had also told her to get two pairs of polarized sunglasses and three sticks of SPF lip balm.

“In the kitchen there, you’ll find a few sun hats, a long sleeve sun shirt, and sunscreen. I’ll get you a pair of gloves too. Try and cover up, from first thing in the morning and until the sun sets. All day.”

Cat felt a small tinge, a bite to her pride. She had a good tan going. Her skin wasn’t pale and weak. Her job of the last months had her out in the sun for hours… Usually the afternoon sun, and only three hours at the most… She knew that she wasn’t used to being out all day, and she understood that he was watching out for her. Cat swallowed her pride and internalized that this first round of instruction, though a little harsh, was in her best interest.

“The food in the galley there is for everyone to share,” he continued. “We try and take turns cooking meals for everyone. You cook lunch tomorrow. Something simple. Get familiar with what’s in there and ask us questions about all the kitchen gear. If you get nauseated while you’re making food, get out into the fresh air, and if you really feel sick we’ll pull into irons and you’ll grab a rope and jump in for a swim.” He smiled, “We try and swim every day.”

“Tonight Gene can make us a little supper.” He looked around at his crew. “It’ll be nice for all of us to show our new sailor here a little bit of everything in the coming days. She’ll soak up the information. Let’s try and teach her good habits.”

Cat’s mind was starting to swim, and she was happy that Captain Caine took a break and went quiet for ten minutes. She digested her last hour. She sat back, checked that no one was watching her, and she closed her eyes and counted out ten slow breaths. She blinked her eyes open and let her shoulders relax. They all sat comfortably. A calm silence. The night was cool, but not cold and Catherine Gowels felt blood pump through her veins with adventure and pleasure. Her heart was strong in her chest, emotion in her throat. She had done it! She was off on her own. Her initial instinct was telling her that she had made a great choice on this boat she had connected with. She liked Caine. She liked that he wanted her to learn. She had a belly full of questions. She knew that watching and listening would be more important than talking, for now.

Cat watched as Gene stood and stretched, moved carefully past her and opened the hatch to the forward galley. She flicked on a light inside the tight compartment. Gene smiled up at Cat and then fiddled with the stereo, some soft music came on from inside the cabin. Gene started carefully pulling supplies out, a frying pan, a chopping board and knife.

“Pete,” said the captain, “can you take the wheel for a bit? I’ll show Cat the boat.” Captain Caine smiled at Cat as Pete stood and took the helm. Caine pointed out the heading on the GPS, the dots ahead that marked the rigs they would skirt. Pete nodded, said ‘roger’ and tapped his fingers on the wheel. The Captain touched the boom lovingly, he stared ahead, and then looked down at Cat. “Always know where this is, and watch your head. Eventually it gets everyone. Try not to get knocked out.”

He moved back toward the stern of the boat, and un-clicked a hatch. He crawled in and turned on a small light. “Come on in.”

Pete glanced at her, made quick eye contact that wasn’t innocent, and then looked ahead again.

Cat carefully stood using her hands, a whisper of doubt now in her brain, she ducked low under the boom, she climbed back and lowered her backpack in first. Caine took it from her and hung it on a hook. He reached out his hand to her and helped her climb down into the tiny cabin.

“We’ll figure it out with our schedules so that this can be your bed while I’m up top, and while you’re on watch, working, I’ll sleep.” There wasn’t really space for both of them to stand. Caine was squatting just to the side of the bed, and Cat awkwardly got low, put both her hands on the mattress and looked around.

A smile blossomed on her face as she took it all in. The cabin was cluttered, but cozy. The air was clean and fresh. The bed looked comfortable. Three small canvases were the only decoration besides tools, clothes, and fishing lures. The little paintings grabbed Cat’s attention, and she moved close to them in the soft light, crawling over the bed, and spent a minute with her nose close fascinated by the thick layers of paint.

Caine watched silent, appraising.

She stayed awake for two more hours, learning what she could of the boat. They ate a simple meal of rice and vegetables and beans. Gene and Pete talked softly to each other. Caine stayed at the helm eating, watching the GPS, watching distant oil rigs. Cat used the head, it was the smallest bathroom she had ever been in, basically the same set-up as on the fishing boats she cleaned.

Gene encouraged her to drink a large cup of water, telling her that the best way to avoid dehydration was to avoid getting thirsty. The water tasted tinny and bad.

She sat out in the night, bundled in a blanket that Pete brought up from the front of the boat where their cabin was.

When her eyes began to blink against sleep Caine nodded back at his cabin. “Go lie down. You can leave the hatch open. I’ll close it if it starts to rain.”

Cat said a quiet thank you and a goodnight. She climbed down into the cabin. Settled into the bed and turned off the light. The sounds of the boat and the sea were strong when she closed her eyes, and her sleepiness backed off a little. She pulled the pillow tight to her, and for a moment she wanted to cry. She closed her eyes. She felt the soft rocking of the hull in the waves. She felt safe and that was all that really mattered.

The thought crossed her mind that as an adult on this boat, not a child, Gene and Pete were a couple and the Captain and her should be one too. It seemed logical. She was after all sleeping in his bed. The thought was thrilling and at the same time unnerving. But, so far, it didn’t seem that the captain had any desire for her. Not that she considered herself stunning by any means, but in the last few years, her teenage years, she had learned quickly the hungry looks of older men… and Caine hadn’t given her one, and it stung a bit. She knew that if it were the opposite… if he were aggressively courting her, or being to forceful, it would get uncomfortable real quick… But she still wanted to be hunted a little.

She peeled the blanket back and crawled silently to the foot of the bed, to the open hatch, and lifted her head just enough to see out into the cockpit. Caine was stretched out under the blanket she had been using twenty minutes earlier. He had his cup in one hand. His right toe touching the wheel. He was looking off to the east.

Cat stared at his profile for a minute, curious about this man, who all of the sudden was her captain… Then she silently slid back down onto the bed, and pulled the sheets over her, and two pillows close, and she slipped away into sleep.

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