The first installment of a new spine-tingling short story by Terry O’ Brien (aka Cape May’s Stephen King)
ALL was quiet aboard the USS Eldredge as she sat in her dry dock home in the port of Philadelphia. Watches were stood, decks were mopped, and her hull was being painted by the same crew of seamen who had painted her hull not six weeks earlier. The US Navy was nothing if not free with the paint. To her crew, this was just another lazy Sunday night. Were it not the US military these men would be at home with their families, sipping a beer or cola and listening to Benny Goodman, waiting for updates from Europe. But as the navy considered any second not spent in service of the navy a wasted second, they instead did menial labor, like painting over paint that had only dried a week before, which had been painted over maybe a month earlier. The sailors joked that the destroyer had started as a small tug – it was the several thousand coats of paint that had swollen her to battle worthiness.
Most of the men were just returned from liberty, having watched a dreadful Phillies team lose to the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Baker Bowl, stuffed with beer and red hots and painful gases. Others were back from watching Richard Dix as the sea captain in the thriller Ghost Ship, though others, mostly salty sea vets recently debarked from a long stretch on a ship, preferred Sherlock Holmes in Washington to a movie about men on a boat.
Only her Captain, Frank Reno, on his third command in his 18th year in the navy, truly knew the gravity of the night. Only Captain Frank Reno knew that tonight was the Philadelphia Experiment.
The overhead radio whined.
“Go for Reno,” the captain said.
“We are green for go,” replied the voice on the other end, a voice with a distinctly German accent. Reno had heard the voice somewhere before, but could not quite place it.
“Aye,” he signed off and hung up the receiver. “Rinehart?”
Ensign Rinehart, barely 19 and fresh out of boot camp, instantly appeared at the Captain’s side. “Aye, sir?”
“Light the smoking lamp.”
Rinehart was nonplussed; it was not the proper time for the smoking lamp to be lit. “But… but sir, it’s 1940 hours, it’s 20 minutes ’til…”
Captain Reno fixed him with a stare that told Ensign Rinehart all he needed to know.
“Aye, sir. The smoking lamp is lit,” Rinehart replied and flipped a toggle on the light board.
Captain Reno said, “Commander Kammler, you have the con.”
Commander Kammler, Reno’s second-in-command, was also briefly taken aback. He stood with a quick salute and did as his captain asked. “Aye, sir.”
With that, Captain Frank Reno, the son of a welder from Cincinnati, Ohio, who had just spoken the last words he would ever speak, strolled out to the misty bow of the USS Eldredge, and lit the cigar he’d been given by his father-in-law, a banker, the day his first son was born.
In the control room, a nervous Ensign Rinehart sidled up to an even more nervous Commander Kammler and asked, “Commander? What’s happening?”
Commander Kammler shook his head. “I don’t know, son, but Captain Reno is a smart man. If he gave the order I’m sure he had good… what the hell is that?”
From the control room they watched as a thick green fog enveloped the ship. Kammler looked up at the clock, a habit he’d developed early on when anything out of the ordinary took place, and this was definitely out of the ordinary; 1941:37 hours.
He noted the time on a pad and reached for his radio.
Kammler looked up and the ship seemed to dissolve around him. He felt weightless, floating, falling. He looked at his hands but his hands were not there. Rather, his hands were there, but not there, stretching and pulling away from him. A high whine filled the space where his ears used to be. All around him the ship floated, distorted, melted. The whine grew so loud he was sure it would drive him insane.
All was solid again. Kammler, his legs back beneath him, took a moment to find his bearing. Without thinking he glanced at the clock; 1939:37 hours.
“What the hell? Rinehart!” Commander Kammler cried, the memory of Pearl Harbor fresh in his mind. If this was some kind of new enemy attack, he wasn’t going down without a fight. “Rinehart!”
“Aye, sir?” Rinehart responded sharply, but did not look well.
“Get on the horn to HQ, we may have a hostile…” Commander Kammler started, but stopped and looked more closely at the grey Ensign Rinehart. “Ensign?”
Only then did Ensign Rinehart notice that his right hand, which 10 seconds ago had been drumming idly on the iron railing, was now part of the railing.
Rinehart looked up with wide, wet eyes. “Commander?”
Frightened, but still in control, Kammler looked out to the bow where Captain Reno had stood. Only now Captain Reno was not there. Or was he? Squinting into the green fog Kammler saw what looked like Captain Reno’s shadow. He was there, and not there. Beyond that, through a break in the green mist, Commander Kammler saw the shipyard. It was where he had done the majority of his officers’ training and had met his wife at a nearby tavern where she was a hostess. In Norfolk, Virginia.
Commander Kammler’s heart leapt. Eyes wide with fear and wonder he turned back to the young Ensign Rinehart.
“Rinehart, sound the abandon ship!”
Ensign Rinehart said nothing.
“Ensign! Pull yourself together and sound the abandon ship! Now!”
Rinehart was silent.
The commander was furious, but suddenly understood why the young Ensign made no reply; the iron that had infected his hand had spread, rapidly, and now covered his face. Ensign Rinehart, out of Jasper, Indiana, with designs on one day playing professional baseball, was dead. Dead as an iron railroad spike.
“Dear sweet Jesus…” Commander Kammler prayed. “What is happening?”
The ship trembled again, then the commander heard it; his ship crying out in agony. The terrible sound of wrenching, twisted metal filled his head. But worse were the screams, from every part of the ship, over every radio, the screams of the men below decks who, moments earlier, were eating, playing cards or swapping lies about women. Now they all shrieked. An inhuman pealing that reverberated through the Eldredge like a tuning fork.
Commander Kammler fell to his knees. “Our father, who art in heaven…”
From over the railing he glanced once more out to the bow, where the shadow of Captain Reno stood. As the screaming men and tortured metal crescendoed, Captain Reno turned and looked back at him. He spoke but there was nothing mortal about him to convey the sound. But Kammler knew the words his lips were forming.
Kammler crossed himself and returned to his prayer “… on Earth as it is in heaven.”
Wildwood, NJ –May 10, 2010
VIC and Sue Lansing were very deeply in love, as anyone could tell within three seconds of meeting them. He was tall and bushy, dark hair flying willy-nilly, ragged beard announcing his love of all things Grateful. She was short, blonde, stacked, seven years his junior but seven years his senior in all things adult. Their divergent paths crossed five years before in a community theater production of Hair and the attraction was instant and palpable. They immediately starting dating and within six months had moved in together – that they would one day be married was a foregone conclusion. And so it was that they strolled the Schellenger Avenue beach at just about midnight on their wedding night.
“I so love you,” he said.
A ship’s horn blew in the distance.
“I so love you back,” she replied and threw an arm around his waist.
He could not take his eyes off her – she was resplendent in her wedding dress, an off-the-shoulder, semi-casual frock that accentuated her generous curves. In return, she could not keep her hands off him and kept rubbing and pinching the spot where his sizeable belly used to be.
“You look amazing,” she said.
Vic had spent the year leading up to their nuptials working out vigorously and dieting strenuously and had shed nearly 100 pounds from his six-foot frame. She adored him regardless, but in his new body he sure could wear a suit.
“So do you,” he told her and ran a hand across her bare shoulder. She shivered.
The ship’s horn sounded again.
“Want to sit for a minute?” he asked, pointing at the empty lifeguard stand.
“It must be done,” she answered and climbed up the eight-foot tall wooden chair.
He gave her an amorous boost and was soon sitting next to her.
“Great day,” he said and he was right, it had been an incredible day, warmer than expected. Their outdoor beach ceremony had been beautiful, a slight breeze blowing in off the ocean, her long hair gently lolling.
“Great day,” she agreed and gave him a squeeze.
The ship’s horn blared again, not quite so distant this time.
“Looking forward to our Wildwood honeymoon?” he asked.
“You know it,” she said and leaned across to kiss him. “Why don’t we start it right now?”
He blushed in the dark. She was always doing things like that to embarrass him. While he was, in every other sense of the word, a hippie, free love had never been his thing. He was a romantic conservative. And she loved to get his goat.
“Honey…” he said and leaned away.
She laughed and pecked his cheek. “You’re such a prude. Nobody’s around.”
He used his best grown-up voice on her. “Now Sue, there’s no need to rush these things. We have a beautiful room at the Starlux waiting for us. We have all night.”
She smiled. “And the rest of our lives.”
This made him tear up and she kissed him gently. The ship’s horn bellowed again into the night, this time much closer.
“Yes,” he said. “The rest of our lives.”
About this he was correct. What he did not know was that the rest of their lives consisted of three minutes.
He stroked her palm and asked, “So what do you want to do first tomorrow?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she replied. “The Sea Serpent? No, the Zoom Phlume. I LOVE that!”
He laughed. “Whatever you want, I’ll just follow you.”
“Well you better wear your running shoes; I’m going to put some miles on you tomorrow, baby.”
He said, “I’m up for it.”
The ship’s horn sounded. This time so close the lifeguard seat vibrated beneath them.
“Yeesh,” she said. “How close is that stupid boat?!”
“Don’t know. Maybe they’re lost.”
It seemed unlikely to Vic that a large boat could be lost on a clear night under a sky flawed with a billion stars. It then occurred to him that any ship that close should be visible on the water by now. As he scanned the horizon he saw nothing.
“Honey?” he asked.
“Do you even see a boat?”
She craned her neck and looked out at the ocean.
“Huh… no, I don’t. That’s weird. It sounded like…”
The force of the sound was such that it tipped the lifeguard stand over, Vic and Sue riding it down and landing with a thud on the sand.
“Holy hell!” Vic shouted and scrambled to his knees. “You okay?”
Sue spat out a mouthful of sand and rolled on her side. “I think…”
The sound swept them up and carried them 10 yards inland. Vic tried to hold onto her hand but they were wrenched apart mid-air. He landed hard on his side and the air rushed out of his lungs. Next to him, Sue landed with a disturbing snap.
“Honey?” he asked.
But Sue did not answer. Instead she could only look in horror at her right leg, which now sported several new points of articulation.
“Oh my God, honey…”
So much for their wedding night.
“I’m going to get you out of here, just hold on!”
He fished in his pocket for his cell phone.
“You hang in there, honey,” he implored her, but Sue had gone a sickly white, visible even in the darkness, and a crimson bloom began to spread across the lower half of her dress. The shattered bones of her mangled led had pierced the skin.
Vic mashed 911 on the cell and waited. He checked the signal; it was strong.
“911 emergency, how can I help you?”
“I’m on the beach at Schellenger, my wife and I were…”
The horn blared again, only this time it did not stop. This time there would be no escape. Vic screamed into the phone but he knew, in the dreadful pit of his heart, that it was no use. The sound swirled around them. He surrounded his wife, enfolded her in his arms. He would protect her for as long as he could.
“Honey! Honey!” he screamed at her, but she was gone. Not dead; she was still warm against his side, but something inside of her was broken. Her normally wicked blue eyes stared vacantly up into the night. Vic began to weep and hugged her close, cradled her head. He, too, looked up, and that’s when he saw it.
Towering above him, plowing into the beach, came the huge steam cargo ship with its terrible horn still wailing. It split the sand, threw it in tall waves from its prow, and advanced with ease. As it came upon them he read the last two words he would ever read, emblazoned on the side of the great boat – Ignis Fatuus.
Victor Lansing hugged his wife and kissed her for the last time. Their entire life was ahead of them. Now it was all before them. Then the ship crushed them.