It wasn’t like we didn’t know what we were getting into. We all knew our history.
I wish we could have made a few preparation runs first. You know, just going back to visit, to get our feet wet, get the hang of that long-vanished world that’s got to have a hundred and one surprises. That’s how I’d like it. That’s how I’m sure we’d all like it. But maybe that would just make it too easy.
The month is November. The year is 2018, and the day is the twenty-first, wearing on towards evening.
I’m sitting at a table in a nameless bar on the North Carolina coast. Some college guys have commandeered the jukebox on the other side of the room, and it pounds out a steady stream of rap. Supposed to at least—the bass drum drowns out the rest, shaking the floor with each thump so that we only hear quick snatches of patter between them.
The Pirate Contingent, as I’ve come to call our group over the last year, huddles around a table near a window, and outside the window the beach slopes down to Ocracoke Inlet. This is the first time we’ve all met in person.
“He won’t be caught with just nineteen men this time!” Joe roars. Big and middle-aged, he’s a Rhode Islander like myself.
“He’ll be hung over,” someone else observes, the quiet Toshiro from Yokosuka, Japan. “He held that drinking party the night before.”
(Like we are now, I think, propping my head up on my elbow.)
“The sight of us will wake him up.” Brandon, the smallest at a hundred and ten pounds, bangs his fist on the table. “Reinforcements, matey!”
The air smells of sawdust and beer—too much beer, foam-specked empty mugs crowding our table. Some of us talk with slurred voices, slouch with eyes lidded, when tomorrow we must be at the top of our game. I stare in disbelief.
Al pounds the table harder than Brandon, bragging about his AK-47 again. We work together, Al and I. He boasts and I listen, he blasts his radio and I endure it, in his little company-mailroom empire. I flew here from Providence; he drove all that distance so he could bring his rifle. The empty mugs clink, along with Sheggs’ little dessert plate. “Gonna personally shred Maynard with my rifle. Bugger won’t know what hit him! Ha ha!”
That’s the fifth time he’s said it. In the mirror behind the bar, I see our reflections: Al throwing back his head, dreadlocks flying. The AK-47 lies in a gym bag by his feet, and I really wish he wouldn’t shout about it like he wants the whole state to hear. He hasn’t told me if it’s properly licensed. Sheggs from England, noticeably overweight but wearing a killer leather tricorn on his head, forks up another bite of cheesecake. (“This could be our last meal, you know,” he reminded us when he ordered.) Justin wears buccaneer boots, Brandon a bandolier stretching shoulder to waist. Joe’s more practical: he’s wearing a black bullet-proof vest. Al’s the only one going all-out, frilled shirt, breeches, boots, the whole bit. And he’s the only one of us wearing earrings, dangling silver hoops.
Me? Just jeans and a white frilled shirt. Bandanna, too. I was never much one to dress up. I do wear my own bandolier with two antique boarding pistols I found on E-Bay, and my sheathed saber is propped on the table beside me. I won a trophy in high school, but it’s hard to imagine going at it without a mask or chest guard, much less actually stabbing a man. Most of the others carry .45’s, and Sheggs wears a .38 tucked into his boot, but…
“Sure modern weapons are gonna work there?” I ask.
For the first time, Al notices me.
“It’s just that…well, we’re not even supposed to be there ourselves. It might be too much to expect, that we can bring things like assault rifles with us—”
Al howls with laughter. Sheggs forks up the last of his cheesecake and grins, smacking his lips. The others go on watching me. Only Joe keeps his eyes on the table.
When Al is done laughing, he crosses his arms on the table and leans forward. “Do you know how this works, fool?”
I stiffen. He knows full well, none of us do. There’s no physics, no machine, no alchemy that we know of. All we have is our common conviction that somehow, some way, we’ll be there. An idea that sparked in each of us years ago and grew, magnified despite all the obvious things we told ourselves. Impossible! But some things have a life of their own, and won’t be dissuaded by logic, and now here we are and here I am, light-headed, feeling unreal, knowing for a fact I’m going to be there. Don’t ask me how.
It’s as if history means to correct its error.
I push back my chair and get up, and in doing so accidentally knock over my saber. It clatters loudly to the floor. That’s all Al needs; he howls anew, and pounds the table, and the glasses and empty plates make a noise of tinkling. That sets off some of the others, like Sheggs, who guffaws so hard he spits out cheesecake crumbs.
I grab my saber, and my mind reels with thoughts of slashing Al’s head off, but instead I spin around and retreat to the men’s room.
No one’s in there, thankfully. The music, muffled now, continues out in the bar. There’s only one stall and I lock myself into it, propping my sheathed saber against the wall by the toilet. I stand there with lips tight.
Why? I think. Why can’t they take this seriously? Don’t they realize what we’re heading into? There’s going to be blood. There’s going to be gore, men slashing at each other, shooting at each other point blank. We’ve had years to get ready.
I breathe in, breathe out, and the burning in my stomach starts to subside, and I begin thinking, damn, old Al could really be in for it if my hunch is right, better stick by him if I can.
And then I remember—the three hundredth anniversary of Blackbeard’s epic defeat is tomorrow. This is all taking place tomorrow morning.
Crap! I stare into space, not really noticing the graffiti all over the stall wall. We’re heading into the apocalypse. We all know how it started: Blackbeard fired a broadside, and one of Maynard’s two ships ran aground, but once the pirates boarded the remaining ship all hell broke loose. Blackbeard fought “like a mad bull” according to my grade school history textbook. Men got their limbs hacked off. Their heads hacked off. I think I’d pass out if I saw that.
I to put out a hand and steady myself. What in the hell am I doing? The closest I’d ever come to actual combat was working at a naval communications station in Naples, Italy during the first Gulf War. That deck is going to be slippery with blood! Does anyone realize that?
Joe’s shouting my name out there. Other voices join him.
“Jon, Come on!” “”It’s happening!”
My heart leaps into my throat. Now? I break out in a sweat, grab my saber and bolt from the men’s room, almost flattening a lumberjack with whiskers who’s just coming in. He jumps aside, and his eyes spring as wide as my own must be.
The floor drops out from under me, and just as I’m aware I’m falling, I’m on my feet again. Except now I’m tottering on planks, the deck rocking beneath me, the air smells like I’m at the beach, the hull creaks and my senses are scrambled, trying to process all these new things at once.
Except it’s dim. There are wooden bulkheads around me, and an overhead above me. I’m below decks.
I gasp and clutch my chest. The air doesn’t feel right as I pull it into my lungs. It’s clammy, it’s scratchy, it’s not what I’ve always breathed. I cough. The passageway is too dark, the light streaming through a nearby overhead hatch seems too far away and too bright. My senses are shocked, they don’t know what to make of all this.
I shake my head, violently. My hand still grips my saber–my pistols, yes, they’re snug in their bandolier holsters. But where am I?
And then I realize I’m not alone.
“Who are you?”
British voices, two of them, bark and bray this like English versions of Al. They’re unnaturally loud, punching my ears. I don’t really notice that; what I do notice, through the too-dim light, is that the two men are wearing clothes like street toughs in a Dickens novel. To me they’re costumes in a play. Royal Navy uniforms regulations didn’t exist until 1748.
It all comes to me in a flash. Curse my blood, I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. The others were all together, but not me. After nearly a year of researching, finding my weapons, saber practice, planning my trip from Providence to Ocracoke, I blew it. I blew it, the big moment caught me away from my post, and now…
“‘Oo the bloody ‘ell are you?” A man with serious grog breath pushes his face up next to mine.
I wince and shrink back. What to say? Oh, yes, I’m Royal Navy, sure! Just dressed a little different is all. You like it?
I blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. “I’m a stowaway.”
They look at me like they don’t know the meaning of that word. Maybe they don’t—was it in use at the time? This place could have any number of surprises, none of which I’m prepared for.
Then I realize, maybe it’s my accent that’s got them puzzled. Americans didn’t sound like Americans back then. There wasn’t even such a thing as Americans.
“I’m here to help! To take down Blackbeard!” I roar. The men flinch back, startled. I stamp about, brandish my saber. “Yeah!” All the while having no idea what to do.
“Where did you hide?” the first sailor asks.
“The powder magazine.”
What? I jolt. What did I just say? And something flashes to mind, something I read in a pirate novel that even includes old Teach himself. It brings a swell of hope, a rush that electrifies my body, sheathes my saber and pulls both my pistols, so that I have both men covered. They gape like fishes.
“Arrrrrr!” I growl.
Yes, I actually say that.
The sailors raise their eyes from my weapons to me. “‘Are you drunk, man?”
“Keep quiet, and take me there now. The powder magazine. Where’s Maynard?”
If they’d tilted their heads and asked, Who? I don’t know what I would have done. But the first man says, “He’s—he’s topside.”
“And he’s hiding you all down here, right? Gonna give old Thatch a surprise?”
And then a new voice floats in from outside, faint, but unmistakable. “Damnation seize my soul if I give you Quarters, or take any from you!”
My head goes light. My knees nearly buckle. Blackbeard’s actual voice, blaring as deep and as proud as I’d always imagined. I picture him him raising a glass as Maynard watches, drinking to these words.
Right on cue comes Maynard’s retort, recited in the proper English of an aristocrat: “We expect no quarter, nor shall we extend any!”
“Now where is it? The powder magazine?” I growl this out too, need to sound convincing, like Blackbeard. My head’s spinning. This has to be a dream. “Lead the way.”
“Why you askin’?” Grog-breath wants to know.
“Go!” My voice almost cracks, and I cringe to hear it. Luckily they comply. We head aft…but then, of course, we run right into more crewmen.
My hostages bolt. “Murder!” “He’s going to blow us up!”
They guessed my plan. I didn’t know how I’d carry it out exactly, but I was sure I’d think of something. My heart leaps into my throat again and my sight blurs, I nearly panic but I fight it down and wave my pistols and the crewmen all scatter like roaches when the light’s turned on.
Mr. Grog-breath has a big mouth. I can hear him long after he’s stampeded out of sight, shouting words like “blow” and “kingdom come.” Over and over, like his speech is stuck. Strangely I never thought anyone besides myself might panic. But he does, and a rumble of footfalls shakes the passageway, men running, clambering, clattering up ladders. Cover blown, matey!
Pulse racing, I dash up the passageway and join the men scrambling up the ladder.
The sun’s rising in the east, and the blue of the sea, the pink glow underlining the scattered clouds, the saltiness of the air all assault my senses anew, and I go dizzy still again. Deep breath. I stand among uniformed men, yes, lots of them, aren’t there? Ship’s not so empty after all! And not only can I see this, but practically kissing the ship’s starboard bow, is the port bow of the sloop I know to be the Adventure—Blackbeard’s newest flagship.
I’m on board the Jane. Maynard’s other sloop, the Ranger, is out of the fight by now, blasted and run aground. The Adventure ran aground also, according to my history, but freed herself and confronted the Jane, seeing only a few men on deck.
The pirates line the rails, and who do I see among them but Brandon! Joe and Justin, Sheggs and Al! My heart leaps at the sight of those skugs. I’m not alone! We all made it! They gape at me, and I wave at them. How on earth did the pirates react to them? Did they get the same sense over the past year as ourselves, that something impossible was going to happen?
And there, poised among them: their captain.
No photographs exist, of course, only some artists’ best guesses. But I know him the instant I see him, and it’s like seeing the president thirty feet away.
He towers a head above the rest, with broad shoulders. Yes, his inky beard and hair do cover most of his face, and while he doesn’t have those sizzling fuses twisted into his beard, I’m far from disappointed. The knee-length boots, the long scarlet coat with a brace of three pistols over it, all are in place. And up on the mast, billowing out in a gust of wind (Holy hell, it’s just like in the pictures!) his battle flag, the red devil holding a spear and a bleeding heart, same as on all the tee shirts, buttons and mugs sold online.
Some of the pirates hold ropes and grappling hooks. Getting ready to throw them, right? Swing aboard? Not now. The cat’s out of the bag. One pirate drops his rope, then another.
And then a thought paralyzes me. What now?
Before, I knew everything that was going to happen. But now I’ve gone and changed it, and all bets are off. Maynard, however, wastes no time: before the Adventure can pull away and fire another broadside, he shouts the order to board and attack.
Sailors stream past me, and I stare like a deer in the headlights as the slashing and clang of blades commences. Shots punctuate the fray, banging every few moments with puffs of smoke. All I’ll say is: Yes, there’s blood. More of it than I expected. I’m nauseous, think I’m gonna puke, but I stay conscious. And Blackbeard, cutlass in hand, is a whirlwind.
I snap back to reality when I spot Al. White-faced, jostled by the shouting pirates, he looks as lost as I feel.
I cup my hands to my mouth. “Your rifle!” I scream over the din. It looks like Al was right; his AK-47 made it and he’s clutching it with both hands, more like a shield than a weapon. His knuckles are white and he’s trembling.
“Al!” Oh, damn it! Raising my saber, I scream and lunge forward.
My plan? I spot a sailor aiming a pistol at Blackbeard, and realize what it is. I run up and cut his hand, and he drops the weapon with a yell. I leave only a red line across the back of his hand, nothing spurting; I’m relieved at that. He staggers away. Another man, an officer I think, points another pistol at the roaring, slashing pirate king, looking to give him one of those five bullets they found in his body afterwards. A bang concusses my ears, something bucks in my hand and I’m the deer in the headlights again, staring at the smoking pistol I just fired.
Slowly I realize what I’ve done. My head jerks up and I glance about for the officer. Did I hit him? I don’t see him—crap, I’m just standing there! If anyone had attacked me, I’d have been dead to rights.
Joe’s holding his ground off to my right. Face glistening with sweat, he swings and parries with his heavy cutlass like he’s in Blackbeard’s league. He stabs a sailor as I watch, now blood does spurt and my stomach rises to my mouth, I go dizzy and I totter, no, damn it! I force the bile back down, grip my saber and race over to join Joe.
“Ha!” He sounds like he’s having a good old time. “Saw you shoot that officer, Jon! Good on ya!”
These men around us, navy men and officers, they sword-fight all the time and they’re pros at it. How long can we last? Through a blur of dancing bodies I see a mound of bright clothes twitching on the deck. It’s Sheggs, his tricorn beside him—someone steps on it—his arms out to his sides. He lies in a pool of blood. And over by the bulwark is another one of us, dueling with an officer. I look just in time to see him get run through and collapse over the side.
Another officer with a pistol aims at Blackbeard. A sailor with a rapier looms between us and him. I lunge, locking swords with the man whose teeth-clenching face never changes as his arm flies everywhere at once, while Joe sweeps around him and whacks the officer with his blade. The sailor’s almost as tall as Blackbeard and might weigh two hundred and fifty pounds, and he uses his size, backing me up, bringing down his blade; it’s all I can do to parry lunge after lunge.
Then he finds an opening and sticks my left leg. Sticks it deep. I wince, this is it, it’s over. He’s going for my artery. He pulls it out and I’m crumpling, clutching my leg and forgetting all about my defenses; my saber only dangles from my free hand.
Then a pink cloud bursts from the side of his head. I watch him stand still for a moment and then fall, slowly like a great tree, until he slams face-down on the deck.
Toshiro appears beside me, holding a smoking boarding pistol. His white bandanna with the red sun is wrapped around his head, and his face is sweaty and grimy, but he’s beaming like he’s come home.
“You owe me,” he says, and jumps away.
My leg is throbbing, but I tear my own bandanna from my head and wrap it around the wet tear in my trouser leg. Bodies lie strewn around the deck, most of them not in one piece, and the blood is everywhere like I feared, you can’t move in any direction without stepping in it. Only a few Navy men remain, and the pirates, who clearly have the superior numbers now, are keeping them busy.
Then I see, huddling against the mast, Al. His knees are drawn up to his chest now and he’s still holding onto his rifle, but he’s got his head down, hugging himself. Rifle must have jammed. I limp the few steps over to him.
“Here.” I press my expended pistol into his hand. The hand is trembling. “And I got some…know how to reload?”
A flurry of activity to my left catches my attention. A man in a lieutenant’s uniform and a sailor are converging on a pirate, the pirate, driving him back against the bulwark.
“Al! Know how to reload? Look, here’s a paper cartridge, and a ball, and—ah—”
I throw them at him and go tottering across the deck. My leg screams every time I put weight on it. Stars swim before my eyes. I trip over a dead pirate and almost go sprawling. Won’t make it in time. I scan the deck for dropped pistols, but there’s no way to tell if they’re loaded.
“Guys!” I shout.
Brandon races into view. The sailor spots him, but Blackbeard pulls a pistol from his brace and bangs off a shot. The sailor staggers, and Brandon finishes him with a thrust.
Staggering up, I level my saber at the lieutenant, for there’s only one man he could be.
“Lieutenant Maynard.” I want to it to sound official, somehow, but my leg’s killing me and I can do little more than rasp it out. “Surrender now—”
I jump back, and for a moment forget even my leg. Maynard topples, run through right in front of me, and Blackbeard stands wiping the blood off his cutlass.
All is quiet. I bend over, brace my hands on my upper legs. The bile works its way up my throat again, and I have to force it down. I’m panting for breath. Joe and Brandon support each other, arms around one another’s shoulders. Joe’s bleeding from cuts in the chest and right arm, and his shirt is cut to ribbons. Toshiro steps up to us, picking his way over corpses. He’s got a black eye and is holding his side, lips tight.
Once I’ve caught my breath I say: “The Ranger…still out there.” Still grounded, so far as I can tell.
Blackbeard looks at me. His attention is on me. “She’ll not worry us.”
And that was it.
And now what? Go up and introduce myself? Extend my hand? Hey, I’m a big fan, can I get your autograph? But I’m pressing a hand to the wet patch on my leg. It feels like someone’s drilled through it.
I recognize the voice before I look. Al comes bounding up, his now-useless AK-47 in hand. He’s got his color back, and he’s striding toward the pirate with his free hand extended. But Blackbeard’s walking back toward his weary crewmen; he’s got other matters to attend to. Like finishing the Ranger, maybe looting and burning both ships, then getting with Governor Eden to come up with some tall tale to cover this up, like when Blackbeard found a supposedly deserted French ship that just happened to have a hold full of sugar. Lots to do for a man who’s been through a scrap and is still hung over from last night.
So Al pounces on us instead. He’s excited and out of breath, like a kid after a roller-coaster ride. “Did you see me?”
Strange question. “What happened?” I ask. “Rifle jam?”
“What?—Oh, yeah, yeah! But only for a minute, I cleared it. Just in time, too. This big old gorilla was coming at me, like seven feet tall, and I blocked his sword with my rife and then I blew his head clean off!” He shuts up, thankfully, and tilts his head. “What’s so funny?”
I can’t help but laugh. Somehow I’m glad to hear this. It brings me back down to earth after this baptism of fire and chaos. And I never want to see this much blood again.
Al mutters something and walks off. Joe yells something after him, and an instant later I realize why: the deck is dropping out from under us, like before. Joe’s voice ceases as if cut off with a switch. My feet hit solid ground and pain shoots up my leg, but wouldn’t you know it? I’m back in the same men’s room, same stall and everything, hearing the muffled music from the jukebox, hard rock this time.
I reek of sweat, my ears are still ringing from the shouts and clangs and pistol shots, and I brought my leg wound home with me, too–steadying myself, I leave a red handprint on the wall.
Out in the bar, I find Joe and Brandon and Toshiro. They look as beat up as before, sprawled on chairs, panting, but faces alive with joy. They’re glad to be home.
“Did that just really happen?”
“I don’t believe it!”
“I’m gonna end up thinking I dreamed it all, I can’t remember it any other way.”
“Did anyone grab anything to take back?”
“Sheggs.” Joe shivers. It’s going to be some time before we settle down, and we likely won’t get much sleep tonight. “I knew he wouldn’t make it.”
The barman and the dozen customers are all on their feet, watching us. What did they see? Did we all vanish and reappear in a flash, or—what?
I pull out a chair and sit down with care; my leg’s throbbing. “Anyone see Al?”
We turn our heads. He’s standing by the jukebox, sweaty but radiant, arms crossed and feet apart like he’s the conqueror of the bar. Then he charges us, laughing. “Drinks are on me!”
He’s holding something. Brandishing it now, so I have to lean away. It’s not his firearm.
“Al.” Joe eyes the cutlass in Al’s hand. “Where’s your rifle?”
The color drains from everyone’s face. They’re thinking what I’m thinking. “You didn’t,” I say in the silence.
“Are you kidding?” He swipes the sword forehand, backhand. “This was Blackbeard’s own cutlass, the one he used in that very fight! Who else can say they own one of these?”
“But you gave him your assault rifle?” Toshiro’s voice rises.
It’s then that I notice something across the room. I point. Toshiro, then the others, look. Above the fireplace hangs an ancient rifle, rusted and long out of use. It has the same curved magazine.
Al alone doesn’t seem to notice, but keeps on talking. “Well, sure, guys. He won’t have us to help him next time, will he?”
If I wasn’t already sitting, I might have lost my balance. He gave an AK-47 to Blackbeard. To Blackbeard.
“And six clips of ammo,” Al adds, as if reading my mind. “Hey, barkeep! Beer all around.”
The jukebox still blares, the singer’s voice gravelly, and I catch the words keel-haul and yo-ho-ho. The barkeep, an overweight man wearing a tricorn, pulls up green bottles and sets them on the counter, one by one. I’m sure he was slimmer before, and he definitely didn’t wear a hat.
We’re all getting up, scraping back our chairs, except for Al–he’s watching the barkeep bringing the beer bottles on a tray—when the door bangs open and a giant of a man swaggers in. I freeze when I see him. Taller even than Teach, he wears a wide-brimmed black hat and the same buccaneer boots we’re wearing, but a leather jacket over his white cotton shirt. His belt is studded with holders for ammo clips, all filled, and a wicked-looking handgun in a side holster. There’s a patch on his shoulder, and the patch matches the horned-demon flag we’d just battled under. Two men stride in behind them, one of them also wearing a tricorn.
The giant halts when he sees us. “Well avast!” His voice cuts through the din from the jukebox. “Who have we here?”
This is not the kind of attention I like. I’m about say “Excuse me” and blow by him, when he breaks into a wide smile. “Where ye going in such a hurry, lad? Sit. Converse a while. We’d like some company before we set sail.”
Brandon guesses what I didn’t: “You’re a pirate captain.”
“Of Queen Anne’s Revenge the forty-first! Barkeep!” He signals the fat barman, who’s setting the bottles around our table. Only Al sits there now, and the way he’s eyeing them, he might actually drink them all himself. “Three more if you please.”
Joe has his smartphone out, thumbing like mad. “Guys.” He holds it up.
We crowd in to see. The ship is steel, decked out like a battlewagon, and flying Blackbeard’s banner. “Teach got a new warship,” Joe says, “and named it the second Queen Anne. Pirates kept the name going after he retired to Madagascar. The current captain is—”
“William Roberts!” The giant roars with pride.
My ears prick up. “Really? Ah—by any chance, I know it’s a common name, but you wouldn’t be related to Bartholomew Roberts, would you?”
His eyes tell me I’ve hit the mark. “The very man, my friend! Captured more prizes than old Teach himself, and I’m his direct descendant. Say, lad,” he flops down in a chair and picks up a bottle. “I’ll come right to the point. We sail tomorrow for Madagascar, and we need one more hand.”
I take a moment to process this. “You do? Well, ah…I’ve been in the Navy, and…” Why am I hesitating? I can say it with confidence: “And I can handle myself in a fight.”
“Pleased to meet you.” Roberts extends his hand. I pump it—it squeezes mine nearly to cracking–and the others two, Quartermaster Vane, crewman Bonnet. In this reality everyone seems to have a pirate’s name. Could this be a good omen?
The others are gawking at me, especially Al. “But Jon–we gotta go back to work…”
“Move over.” Vane practically shoves Al aside, taking the seat beside him. I stifle a laugh with my mouth and accept a beer bottle from Roberts. Al staggers out of his chair, his face a glory of bewilderment.
Joe leaves right away; he wants to get back to his room. One by one, the others follow. Al goes last, casting a spiteful look over his shoulder as he slinks out of the door.
And I sit back, sip beer, listen to Captain Roberts’ sea stories, and settle in to stay a while.