Sam didn’t realize just how weakened the stern floorboards had become until one of them snapped beneath his feet. The boat rocked atop the rage of the ocean and the storm was a real bitch, fierce and without mercy. Sam’s old rubber boots were slippery on the deck and his weight was displaced. He skidded futilely and slammed against the guardrail just as the prow shuddered from a sidelong swell. Furious but helpless, Sam screamed a curse as he went over the side into the cold, black ocean.
Icy, salty water jolted every bone; the fight for air invigorated muscle. Tossed about in the current like a plaything, Sam remembered life and kicked and clawed his way to the surface for it.
He surfaced in a panic. As he sputtered for air he vomited ocean; frantic eyes squinted and sought the familiar light and shape of his vessel, The Spero. Her light was the only thing to be seen for miles in every direction, and Sam homed in on it quickly. He sprinted as fast as he could.
It only took 30 seconds until he had to stop from exhaustion. How could Spero have gotten so far? No stranger to the ocean and even slightly embarrassed for his flub, Sam shed his boots beneath the waves.
‘Let them sink’, he thought. ‘I have to get there.’
Renewed for the moment and barefoot in the ocean, Sam set out through the storm once again for the glimmering lights of The Spero, which by now were a little bit dimmer.
After another two minutes he relinquished his baggy yellow rubber pants; ten seconds later he abandoned his trademark yellow jacket. They slowed him down tremendously and he’d be faster without them. Already, his feet and arms were numb.
Almost naked, Sam choked up water and felt the warmth dribble down his chin. The Spero was further now, fainter. Sam caught himself wondering about the headline that would be in the paper when she was eventually found, captainless, crewless and adrift. Then he snapped out of it.
The heat of Sam’s fury and adrenaline surged through his limbs and actually fought against the chill that was spreading through his body. He’d been a strong swimmer in his youth and was no stranger to the ocean; he’d even been overboard once before. Sam disregarded it all and swam with all of his energy. Sam swam for his very life.
He stopped only when he was completely drained. His arms and shoulders were on fire and his legs felt like lead weights. Sam was out of shape and he hadn’t taxed his body this way for years; already he was beginning to cramp. As he struggled just to tread water and stay afloat, Sam realized that The Spero was no closer. No, it couldn’t be. The waves were relentless and the storm hadn’t slowed at all. He grasped the reality of the situation and felt his heart jolt into his back. He would die here, he thought.
He started to thrash and curse in denial and a wave smashed over his head, muting him, defeating him. He rubbed the salt water from his eyes and spat out another mouthful of the sea; it was all he could do to keep from drowning right then and there. He would die here, he knew. Cold and alone.
He suddenly missed The Spero more intensely than any feeling he had ever felt before. The unique and uneven waterline of her bow, the warm homeyness of her cabin, the rusty chains and anchor, everything – even down to the creaky old stern floorboards which had finally broken and spelled his own doom.
Then, Sam experienced a rare moment of clarity.
This was his fault.
There’d been so many warning signs he had seen with his own eyes and ignored. He’d been directly in charge of so many factors that had lead to this outcome. He saw the past few years of his life for what it was; a series of actions and decisions bound together, calculated for the sole purpose of keeping his self neglect intact.
Why was it that Sam had never gotten around to addressing any of the replacements or repairs that The Spero so obviously needed? He remembered the day when the radio had snapped free from its mounted fixture, and how he’d haphazardly screwed it to the inside of the cabin wall that afternoon. “That’ll do.”
He remembered the first time he’d had real trouble with the motor out on the open sea, and how he’d given himself such credit for fixing the problem with duct tape. He hadn’t looked at the motor since. “Great job, Sam.”
The Spero had lost the ability to turn full starboard when the rudder had become stuck one especially cold winter. He’d been fully aware of this, and had compensated his steering to accommodate it for years. “Good problem solving.”
Why hadn’t he replaced or maintained the rusty chains and ancient anchor? Why was his gear so comically outdated? Why was he so out of shape? Why hadn’t he upgraded his tech? He concentrated and remembered where his life beacon was – unopened in a dusty drawer in the same box that it had come in, beneath a pile of old receipts in the cabin.
Sam remembered the first day that the stern floorboards had groaned in protest as he’d walked over them. “I should probably get those looked at” he’d thought. But over time he’d gotten used to the creaks and the groans, to the objections and various compensations he had to make for The Spero and for himself, in order to avoid change. He had always seen it as ‘keeping an even keel’; he had even defended this logic to others who had expressed their concerns.
Sam saw that the lights of The Spero were distant, just a flicker by now, and his rage abandoned him. He wept. He wept for the realization that his life would soon be over. He wept for everything he hadn’t gotten to do and everything he’d never be able to try. He wept for all the time he had spent walking over and navigating past his problems, but not fixing them. Sam wept most deeply because he knew he’d never get the chance to make any of it right.
If he had one more chance he knew he would. If only he had one more chance! He’d keep his passion for sailing and renew it with a fresh, brand new start. He would buy all new gear, make repairs, hire a crew – he’d had enough money for years now. He’d fix and address every problem with The Spero and he would finally start taking care of himself again like he used to. There would be no more problems resolved by duct tape or rusty screws, no more nights that end with a crossword and a whiskey, because Sam would love himself again.
And that had been the true problem the entire time, the single note which had spawned his self neglect and lead to his self defeating spiral. Deep down, with nothing to hide from witnesses who were not present, naked, freezing and alone, at last Sam acknowledged the truth. It could only have ever ended this way; he had seen to that. It wasn’t The Spero’s fault or the storm’s fault; he had done this to himself. Inch by inch, in each neglected rip and tear and crack and groan, Sam had ensured that his worst fear would come true.
Unwilling victim of his own insidious trap, Sam resigned himself to his fate. He was out of chances to turn this around, out of chances to love himself. If only he had more time! – but he didn’t and he never would.
The Spero was nowhere to be seen, perhaps she was over the crest of the next wave in the far distance, perhaps not. Sam looked around. Giant waves continued to roil and smash in the dark, the freezing wind howled in his ears, numbing his skull and stinging his eyes, but Sam didn’t mind anymore.
Out of chances, void of love, without hope, Sam exhaled and closed his eyes. Then he let himself sink, down into the cold black sea.
As he sank into the depths he looked up and surrendered his final breath. Sam watched the last of his air bubble up towards the surface, to become part of the world that he had abandoned long ago. He belonged here.