-A Ship Story -

#3: The Tag-Along

Read Time: 55 min

Ben is a child prodigy whose reputation as a teacher’s pet tags along with him wherever he goes. But when he ventures into an off-limits area with a pair of older boys, they unearth something more rare than they could have imagined.

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Ben sat quietly while the teacher looked over the assignment he’d turned in almost an hour ago. One by one, he sat watching, as Mr. Murphy scrutinized each mock-battery and motor experiment; the standard for a junior electrical student’s final exam.

Each student in their turn tensed up as the instructor examined the most minute details, even using an old magnifying glass. This experiment was the first real place a bright student might get noticed, and although Ben was already used to standing out, this time he was actually hoping to.

Once the teacher was done choosing the top three models out of the thirteen presented to him, they’d be made into working models and tested. There should’ve been fifteen, but two of the students had failed to complete their models, and were off cleaning the bathrooms as a result.

Now it was Ben’s turn to tense up.

Please like it. Please like it.

Mr. Murphy pulled out his magnifying glass just as Ben had hoped, and was inspecting the winding on his motor. From time to time while examining the models from each student, the instructor gave a nod or a head shake, but to Ben’s eye, the magnifying glass and various harrumphing was mostly for show. Sometimes the old teacher would scowl at work he’d later praise as exemplary, and vice-a-versa, so there was no telling who he’d pick out as an example, or why.

There were times that Ben could tell the man was actually looking at something through the lens, like now, but other times he seemed to enjoy using it as a prop to make himself look like he was doing something technical. Ben knew better though; he’d seen the inside of an antique cell phone once, so he knew you didn’t need a magnifying glass for basic electrics.

“Mr. Benjamin?” said Mr. Murphy, in an almost accusatory tone.

Ben looked up nonchalantly from his sketchbook at his teacher. He was trying to play it cool, as if he hadn’t been staring for the last hour, “Yes?”

“Please come over here for a moment, I’d like to ask you a couple of questions.” the teacher pushed up his glasses, careful not to damage the hand carved wooden frames he’d bought at the market last Ship Day.

Ben walked up to the front of the classroom and caught the sounds and the scent of freshly-quenched soldering irons busy at work, wafting up through the old dusty wooden floorboards. The other students, most of whom had been chatting idly, or doing other classwork, quieted to a whisper so they could listen in. He could feel twelve sets of eyes staring at him.

“Mr. Benjamin, where did you get this wire?” Mr. Murphy asked, wrinkling his nose around as if he had an itch, his white bristly moustache imitating a broom.

“Well…” Ben felt nervous, but he didn’t want to show it in front of all the older kids.

“Well, speak up. This wire here,” he paused, thinking, “It looks… just where did you get this?” Mr. Murphy’s glasses slid down as he looked skeptically at the wire with the magnifying glass again. Some of the students closest by could be heard stirring, trying to get a look at whatever this special wire was all about.

Ben sighed nervously, “I had it, uh, pulled… by someone in the, at the shipyards sir. Is there something wrong with it?”

“Wrong? No, no, no… nothing wrong, it’s just that,” Mr. Murphy cleared his throat for the intently listening class, “Ahem… It’s just that most of the models are dismantled, and we unwind the wire to be reused by the next class. This wire is much thinner than standard-issue, and now it can’t be reused for its intended purpose,” he pushed his glasses back up and raised an equally wiry eyebrow, “The question I suppose I have is… why? Why have it pulled Mr. Benjamin?”

Ben hadn’t thought of it as damage until now.

All of a sudden, instead of feeling like a clever little kid, he felt like he was about to be expelled from electrics for damaging school property, in front of the whole class. He knew it was a solid experiment, so he decided to ignore the damage part, and answer, hoping for the best.

“I wanted a higher resistance motor to test, in case I were to place in the top three, Mr. Murphy, sir. I thought… well, I was hoping if my work was good enough to be picked, it would double for a good experiment.” he shrugged, trying to act cool, like his older friend Drew had taught him.

The teacher pushed back his chair and spun the motor around its axis, considering something quietly, while the class sat in suspense.

Breaking the silence, Ben chimed in without thinking, “About the wire sir, I can replace it. I’ll go out scavving by my house, or… or…”

Mr. Murphy cut him off with a raised hand and a smile, “No, Mr. Benjamin. You’ll have your experiment. We can always use a thinner gauge somewhere around here. It isn’t as if you ran off and traded the school’s wire for a pile of candies,” he chuckled, inducing the rest of the class to laughter.

Ben’s ears instantly flushed red, and he felt younger than he had since his first day in school. Tears had already begun to prick at the backs of his eyes, when Mr. Murphy winked at Ben, and quickly shot the rest of class a withering stare.

The whole room went silent, the class sensing a rebuke incoming.

“You think it’s funny do you?” the teacher demanded quickly, looking from student to student, “Most of you were still learning the difference between amps and volts at his age, probably with some sweets in your back pockets yourselves. No, no… Mr. Benjamin here has turned in an excellent bit of work. Better than most of you cocky lot,” Mr. Murphy looked to Ben, “You’ll have your experiment, son. I’d be curious to see the numbers on this motor myself,” he patted the boy on the shoulder, “As for the rest of you, just remember you could learn something from…”

I did it.

Ben tuned his teacher out, standing there, smiling. Looking out at the rest of the class he saw a familiar mix of surprise and misplaced anger among his peers that had marked his short education thus far. No matter, he thought; he’d done what he’d set out to do.

“…tomorrow at the regular time for the live demonstration of the top three. Mrs. Pirad from Ship advanced electrical will be here to observe and enjoy the festivities. We’ll see you all then,” Mr. Murphy looked back at Ben again, winking once more, “and good job, Ben.”


“Why’d you have to laugh too though, man? In front of the whole class?” Ben looked up at his older friend Drew as they walked toward their regular meetup spot, the Shore Shack.

The Shack, as most people in the area knew it, was a regular haunt for the local teenagers. Tucked into an old concrete underpass by the pier, it was a favorite outdoor spot to grab lunch, gossip, flirt, or settle scores. With a view of the water, and consistently good food, the ramshackle construction and run down look of the diner itself was easily ignored.

Drew smiled down at Ben, who was a good foot shorter, showing all of his teeth, “It was funny, that’s why. Say what you want about Murphy, but that was funny,” Drew chuckled again, stepping over a pothole-puddle; an ever present nuisance when walking in the sprawl.

“And mean…” Ben said sullenly, thinking of his embarrassment.

“C’mon, Benny, don’t let it get to ya. Murphy let us have it, and the rest of us still gotta show up tomorrow to see if we even passed the class,” he shook his head, impressed, “You showed up guys four, five years older than you man. Lighten up.”

They walked a few more blocks and turned toward the waterfront, facing into a cool salt-tinged breeze that helped to blow the excretive smells of the sprawl inland. It was a mild day, bordering on cold, but at least it wasn’t raining.

“That’s part of it too. Next time I see everybody, now they’re gonna give me a hard time about being a suck-up.” Ben complained.

“But you are a suck-up, man.” Drew laughed again, nudging his younger friend, “You always go for that extra little bit, at least as long as I’ve known ya’.”

Ben reminded Drew of his little brother, except smarter, and less of a pest. Ben even kind of looked like him.

“Hey, it’s not my fault! I mean, it is, but… I kinda can’t help it, I just…” Ben stopped short, kicking at the dusty concrete, “I just try to do my best, like my mom says. It’s not my fault that I can think of a better way…” his brown mop of hair shook in tandem with his head, “And if I do think of one, I have to do it, right?”

“You don’t have to. Besides, it’s not like you just got accepted to the senior electrics program because of it or anything,” said Drew with a bit of jealous sarcasm in his voice, “If I were you, I’d just be glad to be smart.”

The older boy started walking again, hoping to get to the Shack’s walk-up counter for a quick lunch before everybody else showed up, “Speaking of smarts… you know Pam’s little jerk of a brother, Davey?” Drew nodded at Ben gravely, “They already got him working the weights. Kid’s only a couple years younger than you, and they already have him on track for manual.”

“Geez,” Ben looked down, thinking, “Maybe it’s just because he’s so dang big. How old is he anyway? Nine? Ten? I wouldn’t want to fight him,” Ben’s already unkempt hair blasted backwards in a long-lasting gust, and he raised his voice, almost yelling to compensate, “I mean, I could probably take him, but I might have to fight dirty.”

As they rounded the final corner, the prevailing wind abruptly died off. Ben heard a group of teenagers laughing and he realized how far his voice must’ve carried.

“Ohhhh, hey tough-brain! You gonna try some pit fighting out in the squall after you teach us dumb juniors how to build a fancy ol’ motor?” a boy called out.

He was leaning comfortably against a weathered concrete post with a few other kids, smiling wickedly.

“Leave off, Genetti, it was a joke,” said Drew defensively, walking past the tall skinny teenager with a smirk.

Ben had an insult ready, “Yeah, whatever, fart breath.”

Genetti shot Ben a mocking smile, “What is this, a playground? Fart breath?”, he looked at Drew as if puzzling something out, “Wait, I got it… you let the kid tag along so he’ll do your classwork.” looking back down at Ben he winked, “Yeah… the kid’s your little calculator, is that it, Drew?”

Defensiveness crept into Drew’s voice, “I said leave off, Steve.”

“All right, all right… just havin’ some fun with the junior brainiac,” Genetti gestured at Ben, “I figure a little bit of razzin’ will toughen the kid up. Especially if he’s gonna have a pit fight with Pam’s little brother!” Genetti chortled, ribbing Ben in a friendly gesture.

A few kids at the surrounding tables laughed again, but most had fallen back into their own conversations, realizing the three were friends.

“I’m plenty tough, Genetti. Plenty. And by the time I’m your age…”

Genetti cut him off, “By then, I’ll be working on my apprenticeship. But sure, Benben, I’m sure you’re plenty tough.” Genetti thought of patting Ben on the head, but looked at Drew’s expression, and decided better of it.

“Look, Genetti, if I remember right, you chickened out last time we went exploring over in the OB, said you were scared of getting caught by maintenance or something…” Drew trailed off.

“Maybe ghosts and monsters?” Ben poked back at the older boy, faux-quivering.

“The Ship, that’s who,” Genetti interrupted, lowering his voice dramatically, “Out of bounds is out of bounds man. I don’t want to get sent off. And if I were you I’d be a little more careful.”

“Gimme a break,” Drew rolled his eyes, “Anyway, Bennie here stuck around. Took most of the day, but we ended up finding a few really nice plastic bits for trade,” Drew smiled, reaching into his pocket and producing a small handmade folding knife. Genetti drew a sharp breath when he got a look, and Drew beamed, “Traded at one of the junkers and got ourselves each one of these.”

“Dang man, that’s nice.” Genetti admitted.

“Well, we’re going out that way again today, if you want to come along.” Drew offered.

Ben pulled out his matching pocket knife, and held it up like a prize, “He means, you could come along with us, if you aren’t too scared,” Ben thought of unfolding the blade, but thought that just holding it made him look cool enough.

Genetti shook his head, lowering his voice again, “Geez, Bennie. Put that thing away.” he looked around guiltily, “Look guys, let’s not talk about it, at least not where everybody can hear,” he eyed the pair of knives enviously, and indicated some far tables with a directed glance, “Look, I already ordered. I’ll meet you guys over there and you can try to talk me into it.”


Ben walked toward his house with a breeze at his back, hoping to duck in and out before his mother got home from work at the clinic. He wanted to grab his satchel and his jacket in case it started to rain, but mainly he wanted to grab a secret weapon: his own homemade flashlight.

His new knife was something he could show off to the other kids without being called a nerd, but he hadn’t made it himself. The flashlight though, that was his pride and joy. He had worked on it for nearly a year, with some help off and on from Drew, and another older kid from his chemistry class helping with the battery.

He had found the functioning light bulb himself, and he was still looking for someone to make him a nicer one with a filament that wasn’t such a dingy-yellow color. For now he didn’t care about the battery being bulky, or that it only lasted about an hour at a time; it worked, and it was his.

Ben walked past a couple of friendly faces amid the usual bustle of people mingling and talking outside his building. He was used to a bit of smoke, and the smell of cooked fish, but there was something sweet and fruity in the air that turned his stomach a little bit. Usually he cursed his height, but at the moment he was happy to be walking mostly beneath the thin smoky layer as it wafted down the hall, and behind him outside.

He swiftly made his way inside, and down a long hall, to his small apartment.

Unlatching the front door quietly, he crept quietly inside, in case his mother was already home from the clinic.

He listened for a moment, and walked quietly to the curtain that separated his room from the short hallway of their tiny apartment, and he froze; a floorboard creaked. He didn’t want to have to lie to his mother again, or hear her warnings about him getting lockjaw from cutting himself on rusty metal.

After a long moment he sighed with relief, and stepped into his room, placing his handmade flashlight and a few other items into his satchel as quietly as he could. Tossing his jacket over his shoulder, he patted the knife in his pocket, and assumed a sneaking stance.

Creeping back across the hand-knit rug on the floor, he managed to get all the way to the door without making a sound, but he felt a sudden urge to take a glance back toward his mother’s bedroom as he reached for the door latch.

“Off to impress the older boys again?” Ben’s mother had her hair in a braid for some reason, and she was wearing one of her old dresses.

“What… uh, just going to meet a couple of guys from class. Yeah,” he was too distracted by his mother’s odd appearance to make anything up, “What are you doing mom?”

His mother glanced down and smoothed her dress, absently tugging at her braid, while blushing and looking self-conscious, almost like a teenager herself, “Well, Ben. I… I’m going on a date. I suppose I should just spit it out.”

“Nelson,” Ben said without missing a beat, “It has to be that Nelson guy, right? You always tell stories about him and the stuff that happens at the clinic.”

Her ears reddened just like Ben’s did when he was embarrassed, “Nothing gets past you. Yep, Nelson asked me on a date. In the city,” she began rifling through already-searched containers, “And I’m looking for my necklace.”

Ben walked over to their kitchen nook and produced a silver chain necklace that had been wrapped around the base of an oil lamp, “That thing’s been there ever since…” his voice caught.

His mother took a few steps and put her hand on Ben’s shoulder, taking the necklace from his outstretched fingers.

“I know Benjamin. I know. Thanks for remembering,” she sighed, “I’d forgotten you’d put it there.”

You’re the man of the house now. Act like it.

Ben sighed, and added some false baritone to his voice, “Well, it probably needs cleaning. We have some chemistry alcohol here somewhere.” he began moving toward their set of rough wooden cabinets.

“No, I know where it is, hun.” she waved him toward the door, “Now you go ahead and go run off with your friends… you just don’t try to be a show-off, okay?” she gave him a stern, loving look, “Now, I won’t be back until after dark but I’m trusting you to be, and I’m trusting you to be safe. No running around looking for scraps in rusty junk piles either. We aren’t so poor that you need to do that, and I don’t need my little man getting lockjaw.”

Ben somehow managed to suppress his eye roll, and raised a skeptical eyebrow instead, “Lockjaw? Mom, how many people have you ever seen at the clinic who ever…” he saw the look on his mother’s face and knew it was useless, “Okay mom. I’ll be extra careful. I’ll be as careful as I’ve been every other time, okay? Good enough?”

She gave him a long look, “Good enough. I’ll bring home some food for you, or I’ll grab you something on my way home. If you get hungry before that, there’s some cured cheese and sausage in the pantry.” she tapped her temple, “Come to think of it, why don’t you just bring something with you?”

“I just had a skillet of potatoes and eggs over at the Shack, I’ll be fine.” Ben replied.

His mom smiled, looking at her necklace, “Well, then. Have a good time with your friends, and be careful. See you tonight.”


Going into the OB was always always a bit of a thrill. Drew had first snuck in with his older cousin and some of his buddies, and he had been the one to first bring Ben past the boundary over a year ago.

To the extent that there were once actual barricades, the off limits area was now mainly enforced by fencing, which was covered by a seemingly impenetrable and endless wall of shrubs, all the way from the gate to the north pier. Every few hundred feet there were ‘Boundary’ signs, and there were occasional Ship patrols making their rounds along the perimeter of the seawall.

The exact place they were going used to be a big area for parking giant trucks, and loading trains. They were loaded with big metal containers full of all kinds of mass produced plastic goods that used to be brought into port by cargo ships from all over the world.

There wasn’t much left to find now though, at least not easily. Everything useful had been picked clean over the years, and the unyielding combination of rain, sun, and rust, had ruined the majority of what remained.

Most of the container stacks had fallen over at different points, many by pressure and time, others toppled intentionally, to be looted. As a result, there were piles of bent, half decayed shipping containers, scattered about a vast concrete field covered in thick settled dust and dirt.

Scavvers had long since picked or broken open any locked containers, and at first glance it seemed all that was left was a few small bits littered here and there.

Ben and Drew had found a small jackpot of plastic lids and bowls last time, and they’d found some bits of remoldable number-one the time before that. There were still some places to explore where Ben could fit, and others couldn’t, like the hole in the fencing he would soon be squeezing through.

“When we get there, I’ll open it from the inside like last time… you guys whistle or something if anyone’s coming, okay?” Ben smiled, “Like the patrols,” he winked at Genetti as the three continued walking across an old car parking lot, down the road toward the loading yard.

Ben and Drew thought the patrols were mostly for show, but Genetti was constantly looking over his shoulder.

“It’s those creepy looks of yours that are gonna get attention, man, not Benny. You’re acting like you have something to hide. Relax, man… this isn’t the city, and it ain’t by The Ship. We’re just some school kids, walking somewhere.” Drew scoffed at his friend.

“Yeah Steve, lighten up. My mom says ‘bad feelings make for bad luck’, and I believe it.” Ben followed up.

“You probably believe there’s a magic fairy who trades sugar for kids’ teeth too, right, Ben?” Genetti chided.

As if on cue, a group of Ship military came into view from the direction they were just headed.

“Oh no…” Genetti swallowed hard, and put on a forced smile, trying to hide his anxiety.

Ben looked up at Drew mischievously, and called out to the patrol, “Hey! Hey you guys?! Can you help us out?!” Ben waved a hand over his head and began hurrying toward the group of soldiers.

One of the patrol broke ranks and began walking toward them, meeting Ben halfway, “Hey there, Benny. Haven’t seen you in a while.” he shook his head and sighed, “What did you get yourself into now?”

“Hi, uh… I’m glad it’s you again,” he scratched his head innocently, looking back to enjoy the priceless expression on Genetti’s face, “You guys haven’t seen a pet dog around here have you? Not a mutt, I mean, a pet. He’s got a red collar, about this big?” Ben held his hands out in front of him, about two feet apart, “He’s got a bell too.”

The man thought for a moment, “Can’t say we have. What’s its name?” he asked, “In case I spot it?”

Ben hesitated, “Uh… Scruffy.”


“Yeah. My mom let me name him when I was little.” he made a sheepish face, “Kinda dumb name…”

“It’s a fine name, kid. Just fine. Y’know, we’re on our way back inside,” he said, peering back at the other soldiers waiting. He leaned in close, “Look, I’ll take him to the gate and leave him there, if I find him… and if he comes when called… and he doesn’t bite me.” he looked suddenly regretful for agreeing to the imaginary task.

“Thank you, sir. Thanks so much!” Ben said, trying to sound genuinely relieved.

“Good luck on finding your dog,” replied the soldier, turning back toward his patrol. They began walking along the path that ran along the boundary to the old loading yard, “Lost dog…” the soldier’s voice trailed off, as he rejoined his small group, turning back and pointing at the boys momentarily.

Ben walked back to his friends with a swagger, smiling impishly.

“Just what in the flying fu…” Ben cut Genetti off.

“Scruuuuffffyyy!” Ben bellowed, waving Drew to follow suit. Without missing a beat, Drew waited for Ben’s voice to die off, before he added his own contribution.

“Scruffy! Here Scruffy Scruffy Scruffy!” Drew called, grinning like an idiot.

“What are you guys, crazy?” Genetti looked at them with a mixture of horror and wonderment, as Ben began leading them toward the long thick hedge, and the secret entrance.

Genetti took a deep breath, almost feeling like he was in someone else’s skin.

Ben looked over to make sure the soldiers were still walking away, and bellowed for the imaginary dog one last time, “Scruuuuffffyyy! Here Scruuufffyy”

Drew quickly took up the lead before turning to Genetti, “Look, Steve. Benny and me know what we’re doing. That’s the third time he’s talked to that patrol guy now…”

“And he even remembered my name,” Ben interrupted.

“See? He even knows his name. And now even if we were to get caught past the fence, we’ve got a pretty good excuse,” Drew clapped Ben on the back, “Sharp thinking.’

Ben beamed a cocky smile at Genetti.

“So you just keep telling this guy you lost your dog?” Genetti scoffed.

“No Steve,” Ben said, dismissing the idea with disdain, “Last time I told him we lost my cat,” he and Drew both laughed.

“Wha..” Genetti sputtered.

Drew spoke up, “We told ‘em some creep was following us around. They walked us back to the gate… you know Genetti, you really should get out more.”


There was more to worry about than just being caught by The Ship when searching for bits of salvage out of bounds. There were no prying eyes out that way, or at least not often, so if someone wanted to do something that ran far afoul of street law, or you wanted to keep something a secret, that’s where it usually happened.

Ben remembered the time they saw something with familiar proportions wrapped in cloth sheeting, and he tightened his grip on the short piece of rebar he’d found. They didn’t unwrap it, but they knew it was a body, and ever since they both carried weapons.

Drew hadn’t found a good club yet, but he had his knife at the ready, and Genetti eyed it jealously, casting his eyes around, looking for something to defend himself with just in case.

When Genetti had heard the story about the body, he had nearly turned back, but after all the boasting, he couldn’t bring himself to let a kid show him up. Now he was afraid, and just wanted something he could club a junkie with if he needed to.

“Hey, look at that!” Drew called out excitedly, jogging across the lot toward the water. His shoes kicked up dust, but a spittle of rain had begun to fall, and if it really started raining hard, it would get muddy.

The musty smell of dampening dirt became thick in the air as Genetti and Ben approached Drew to get a closer look at what he’d spotted.

“Hell no guys. Hell no…” Genetti shook his head vigorously, looking at the slightly twisted, rusty metal gangway in front of him.

“It’s big.” Benny said, matter of factly, “looks bad though…”

“Whaddaya think the odds are that most scavvers don’t try to cross this?” Drew said, rubbing his chin as if he were calculating.

“Well, I ain’t crossing it. I’ve made that pretty clear. You dummies can fall in the water and swim all the way around if you want, but I’m outta here.” he turned dramatically as if to leave, but he was transfixed, watching Ben gingerly step out onto the gangway.

The fall into the ocean was probably fifteen feet, and the twisted metal walkway was bent downward as it spanned the distance between the pier’s edge and the partly submerged slanted, half-sunk cargo ship. The water sloshed against the rusty steel of the hull, foaming white as it collided against the clinging barnacles.

Drew looked on breathlessly as his friend crossed the halfway point without incident.

Ben smiled and walked back up the crooked ramp, stepping heavily, almost bouncing as he got closer to the others, “Your turn Drew. I didn’t even feel it wobble,” Ben looked over at Genetti, who still hadn’t made good on his threat to leave.

“Alright. I’m going all the way across,” Drew said, taking a deep breath, and hoping to alleviate the fear in his friend’s eyes, “If I make it Genetti, you can too,” he patted his stomach as if he had a large gut, “I’m probably fifteen pounds heavier than you. If it can hold me, it can hold you,” he shrugged, “And hey? If I fall, I fall. It’s just water.”

Drew set out across the bridge stepping heavily, almost tempting it to give way. He was hoping to instill confidence in Genetti, while still being careful to keep his footing on the drizzle-slickened metal.

Halfway across, he halted, “Moment of truth,” Drew announced loudly, beginning to bounce up and down. As he found the natural rhythm of the bridge, it began to creak near the top and bottom, wobbling so much that he nervously decided he’d made his point, and finished crossing.

Ben didn’t waste any time, “Come on Genetti. I don’t hear you razzing me about bravery now,” he tried to sound cool and tough. Inside though, Ben was a bit nervous about slipping, and wanted to show Genetti up. He tried to look nonchalant as he walked intently over to the small cargo ship and stood next to Drew.

To both of their surprise, Genetti quickly mustered the courage to cross, only barely keeping his hands out to his sides for balance.

“Well I’ll be, Steve,” remarked Drew, “You actually have a pair.”

Genetti swallowed his pride a bit, “Well, I figure if Ben here ain’t scared, how can I be, right? Plus he’d probably be the one giving me a hard time after this…” he laughed nervously.

“You’d deserve it too. I’m sick of people treating me like a little kid,” Ben said petulantly.

Realizing he was making things worse for himself, he quickly changed the subject to something more pressing, “Anyway though. We made it over okay, so where to start?”


Ben’s flashlight was his secret weapon, and he treated the remaining battery-life like its ammunition. They hadn’t gotten more than fifty yards onto the tilted cargo boat when Ben had noticed a metal hatch door, descending down into darkness.

“I’ll go first,” he volunteered, hoping to show off his light.

As he took the first few steps down a rusty steel staircase, he saw that the darkness was broken in a number of places. Daylight was shining in from holes in the ship’s deck above, but it was just barely enough to explore by.

“It’s crazy in here guys. Like somebody took the most of the walls out with welding torches, or maybe even old tech,” Ben looked at a few old edges where the floors had been burned through as well, “There’s a lot of open space in here, but it looks like they cut away at the floor too, so watch your step.”

The boys made their way down onto the upper floor, sticking to the pools and beams of daylight where they could. The sound of the ocean slapping against the outside of the boat reminded Ben that down at the lowest points, the ship they were exploring was totally underwater. Looking at the tilted floor he began imagining what would happen if some giant wave were to crash into them, and he took a deep breath, suppressing a shudder.

While Ben stopped and readied the hand-lamp, Genetti and Drew made their way across the floor of the large, echoing space, continuing from one ray of light to the next, attempting to reach a large area where there appeared to be some full-size shipping containers. The two older boys were straining their eyes at the darkness, when Ben popped up behind them, switching on his handheld lamp.

“Boo!” Ben shouted, startling what must’ve been some rats, who made rustling sounds off in the distant darkness.

“Dang it Ben!” Genetti protested.

He smacked Ben in the shoulder too firmly, sending the flashlight skittering across the floor.

The light blinked out and disappeared off into the darkness, arcing and sliding downhill with the slope of the floor. The tumbling and sliding sounds lasted for what felt like an eternity to Ben, before finally it stopped with a >thud-clink<.

Nobody said anything for a long moment, the only sound was the sound of water sloshing and swirling along the outside of the ship, almost like the inside of a gigantic seashell.

None of the boys wanted to be the first to chicken out, but their silence made it clear that nobody was going to be first to volunteer to look for the flashlight, either.

The wire connecting the handheld portion to the battery pack dangled limply from Ben’s backpack, still visible in the scattered daylight that Drew and Genetti had been using to see.

Drew’s mouth hung open as his eyes moved back and forth between Ben’s empty hand, and a dumbfounded Genetti. Eventually, all three were gazing silently in the general direction where the flashlight had disappeared into the blackness.

Finally Ben spoke up, “We all have to go. It’s just math, really,” he looked at Drew pleadingly, but tried to sound confident, “One: Genetti has to go, it’s his fault,” Genetti tried to interrupt, but Ben bulled ahead, “Two: I’m going with him, since it’s my flashlight,” this time it was Drew that tried to speak up, but Ben looked him in the eyes “Three: You’re my best friend Drew, you gotta back me up. And you helped build it!”

Drew and Genetti looked at each other and shook their heads, both smiling in disbelief, but it was Genetti who spoke up first, “You know, you little pipsqueak, you’re gonna get us all killed.”

“Knock it off, Steve. Worst that happens is we can’t find the handheld,” Drew said, “And I bet it sounded farther than it was.”

“Well, I say we all go together anyway. Just take it slow, and walk right to where it sounded like, right? Ben pointed to where he thought it was, “I say it’s right about there.”

Drew took the few first steps confidently, but as the scattered and reflected daylight grew ever more dim, his conviction dwindled. Soon he began gingerly testing each step to be sure there were no holes or missing sections. Every time they looked back the light grew more distant and appeared more bright.

Ben remembered something his mom had taught him, “Hey, my mom says your eyes can’t adjust to the dark if you use a flashlight at night. Something about pupils and irises or something. But I bet looking at the daylight does the same thing. I’m going to test it. Just don’t look back again…” Ben stepped forward as he trailed off, ahead of Drew, but only barely. Genetti reluctantly followed, beginning to regret his decision to come along.

They began to move more quickly after a few moments, their eyes now adjusted to the dark. They moved cautiously, but in the gray fuzziness, all three boys could now roughly make out each other’s faces, and even the deck floor in front of them.

Drew began veering off to his left, while Ben felt that going straight downhill from here was where they’d find it. Genetti decided to stick with Ben, figuring if the kid got in trouble Drew’d never forgive him.

A few dozen steps more, and Ben abruptly stopped and called out, loud enough for Drew to hear, “Hey, I think I see it! It’s…” he cut himself off as he realized the entire floor was bowed downward in front of him. As far as he could make out in the darkness, it was like the ship had slowly buckled over time, the lower part bending toward the ocean floor.

“It doesn’t look too steep to walk on, and I can for sure see my flashlight. It looks like it landed up against some old shipping containers or something.”

Genetti came up alongside Ben, peering down into the fuzzy gray darkness. The sound of the ocean slapping against the outside of the boat was becoming louder, the lower they went. He could see the broad side of the old container, but the rest disappeared into the haze, possibly butted up against even more cargo crates.

“Go get it Genetti.” Drew said, approaching the pair.

“Alright, alright,” Genetti replied, nervously approaching the edge of the dropoff, “But I might need somebody to give me a hand getting back up, it’s pretty steep.”

“It’s not that steep. Just toss it back up to me and climb up on all fours if you have to. It might be steep to walk on, but probably not to crawl up,” Ben said confidently.

Genetti sighed quietly, and lined himself up for a half-shimmy, half-slide down the dusty incline, toward the crooked shipping crate.

Scooting an inch at a time, the reluctant tag-along slowly got far enough out that a combination of loose debris and gravity took control. He slid twenty feet down before he had a chance to scream, stopped only by the shipping crate, landing right next to Ben’s flashlight.

>Thummm!< The container rang out like a large hollow drum, followed by a sharp, brittle cracking sound.


The pair of zombies hadn’t heard any loud noise like that in ages.

Before frantically shutting themselves inside, Mandy and Raf had thought they were goners a dozen times already. From the convenience store pop cooler they’d had to hide in, to a rooftop leap of faith over shrubbery and fencing, they’d managed to survive so far.

“What’re we going to do Raf? What are we going to do?!” Mandy pleaded in the darkness, the newlyweds now shut inside the container by the weight of a dozen bodies.

The small horde behind them banged and clawed wildly at the metal doors, and Raf knew the pressure bearing down from outside was the only thing keeping them shut safely inside.

Raf groped around in the darkness vainly, hoping to find some kind of weapon, as if anything short of a miracle would help them if those things managed to get in.

The couple hadn’t even had time to take stock of what was in there before pulling the doors closed behind them.

Now they were trapped. Every time one of those doors allowed a sliver of light though, another group of undead surged against it, bringing complete darkness, rendering the couple blind, but safe.

“Shhhhh….. As long as they’re pushing up against it, they can’t get in. Maybe they’ll give up,” Raf tried to sound reassuring, but he couldn’t hide the quivering in his loud whisper. He knew from everything they’d seen today that more were probably on the way.

They stood silently, nearly holding their breath.

As if in answer, the door swung open a crack as the pressure momentarily let off, and a single arm reached in.

Mandy screamed in terror, and quickly covered her own mouth, wide-eyed.

There was a hair’s-breadth of silence, and then the massive group crushed back in on the container even harder, snapping the groping arm, and leaving the door wedged open by the compressed flesh and bone. A slim beam of light remained, and the mangled arm slid to the floor, as the crush of zombies trampled down the one who had reached in.

“Shhhhh.” Raf insisted, taking a step, pulling his new wife close to him, “Maybe they’ll give up.” he repeated with less confidence this time.

But the raspy exclamations of hunger only increased, and the banging and thumping began to come from all sides of the container. Eventually the couple could make out high-pitched clicking and tapping sounds, as the most frantic of them tried getting inside face-first, by biting at the metal.

It was clear to both of them; they were totally surrounded now, with no way out.

“What if they don’t go away?” Mandy whispered into Raf’s chest, shaking.

“Then we’re stuck here until someone comes to help. The army or something.” Raf whispered, remembering seeing police who had changed into those things. He realized that maybe nobody would come after all, but kept those thoughts to himself.

“I’m scared, Raf. I’m so scared.” Mandy sobbed in a whisper, gingerly rubbing the warm mark on her calf, just one wound among many nicks she’d acquired over the day.

“Me too.” Raf hugged her closer, “Me too.”

“Ow! Damn, that hurt a little,” Genetti grumbled out loud, still in a half-squat. He reached down by his feet and grabbed Ben’s hand-lamp, “Hey! It levels back out down here!” Genetti yelled up to his friends.

The boom of Genetti’s rough landing was still reverberating around the hollowed out container ship, and he stood up, brushing some dust off of his pants.

Genetti rubbed his thumb along the lens and found it still intact, “Well, the glass ain’t broken!” he yelled up to Ben, “Here!” he saw Ben and Drew’s dark profiles silhouetted in hazy-gray. They were looking back down at him from the top of the incline, and he made an exaggerated, underhanded tossing motion their way, “One… two… catch.”

“Whoa!” exclaimed Drew, the flashlight arcing perfectly and landing in his outstretched hand, “Nice toss, Genetti. Risky as hell, but nice. Now get yourself back up here too.”

Drew handed the handheld portion back to Ben and kneeled down to offer Genetti a hand up once he got close, while Ben immediately began trying to examine it, despite the dark.

After finding no obvious damage, Ben plugged the wire-leads back into their sockets, and clicked it on, being careful not to shine it in anyone’s eyes.

“I knew I built it good,” Ben said excitedly.

“Alright Ben!” exclaimed Drew, simultaneously happy for his friend, and glad to be able to see clearly.

Ben cast the yellow-white glow around as far as it would reach, first illuminating the container where Genetti had landed. It was butted up against a wall of other containers, which had presumably all slid into each other as the ship listed seaward over the years.

Ben shined the beam on the treacherous floor to assist Genetti, who was slowly and carefully walking up the incline.

“It isn’t too slick to walk on when the dust is all over your butt instead of under your feet, eh, Steve?” Ben called out with a friendly jibe.

“Yeah, yeah,” Genetti said, not enjoying being mocked, even less so that it was deserved. He swiped at his backside, and a brownish cloud of dust poofed out, hanging and swirling, illuminated in the dull-yellow of the flashlight beam.

The sight was too much even for Genetti, and all three boys erupted into laughter at the juvenile sight. Drew, already ducked down, nearly fell over as Ben played the light around in the dust cloud, almost animating it.

Still laughing and distracted, Genetti continued on, but before he could regain his composure, he took an incautious step. Half-twisting, he flailed his arms crazily, slipping down to his hands and a hip, prompting even more laughter from Ben and Drew. His shoes didn’t make for much better traction than his pants had, and sliding back down, Genetti banged up against the side of the container again.

>Thuuum!< The container boomed out, though not quite as noisily this time.

The laughter stopped abruptly, as Drew spotted something odd at the same time as Ben.

“Hey look check out the side of it! It’s open a little!” Ben shouted, indicating the side of the container from where Genetti stood, and a narrow, dark gap between the frame and the door.

Ben illuminated something jutting out near the bottom of the container door. It was gray and white, but from that distance he couldn’t quite make it out.

“What is it, Steve?” Drew called down.

Genetti walked along the crate, toward the edge, where the floor continued its downward slope, “Hey, shine the light down there!” Genetti shouted up, while pointing down into the darkness, “I’m not sliding down to some watery grave!”

“Nothing to worry about. Look,” Ben lit up the wall of gravity-wedged containers, “That’s as far as you could even go. And you said it’s more level down there anyway.” Ben remarked.

Genetti moved to get a closer look, following Ben’s flashlight beam until it was trained on the steel door, and the gray-white object holding it open.

“Ahhhhh!!!” Genetti shouted, recoiling as if a snake had bit him.

“What is it?!” Drew called out concerned.

“It’s… it’s… it’s a bone!” Genetti shouted back.

“Grab it Steve! It’ll make a cool trophy!” Ben’s shout echoed as he winked at Drew, “Should we go take a peek?” Ben whispered mischievously.

Drew lowered his voice, “Cut him a little slack. Remember how we felt the first time, after we found that…” Drew’s voice trailed off. He didn’t have to finish, Ben remembered.

Genetti called back, “Gross, Ben. I’m not grabbing some old bone, man. No way. You come get it if you think it’s so cool.”

“Now I just want to get a look inside that crate, that’s what,” replied Ben, nudging Drew with his elbow, making his way toward the mostly dust-free skidmarks Genetti had left.

Ben took a few more steps forward. Drew followed his lead, “Alright Genetti, we’re coming down to have a look.”


The two zombies heard voices a little while after the second boom, and for the first time in ages, they stirred. Breaking loose small bits of their leathery, dusty skin, they began moving toward the flickering rays of light.

Something that might have passed for a distant memory came and went, but it was a mad hunger that drew them toward the door.

“What do you think’s inside?” Ben asked, to nobody in particular, as he warily examined the crushed bone on the ground with his light.

In horrific answer, the door shuddered with a massive boom, then slowly swung open on its rusty hinges with an ear-piercing squeal. Reflexively, Ben shined his light at the source of the sound, revealing something from every child’s nightmares.

Two real-life zombies burst out of the container, one of them running into the other, sending both tumbling to the floor. They landed in a tangle, not even a dozen yards from the three boys.

Ben looked at the creatures with a horrified fascination, like someone in shock might look at a mortal wound.

“What the hell man?! Let’s go!” Genetti cried out, scampering back up the incline on all fours, into the darkness. Drew was close behind, but he stopped halfway up the slope, expecting Ben to be at his side. When he looked back down, he nearly panicked.

Ben was still standing in the same spot, transfixed; everything else around him was black, and his light was shining directly on the zombies.

The newly-freed horrors seemed so focused on the boy that they were having a difficult time regaining their feet. The zombies fell repeatedly, until one of them threw its head back in a rage, letting out a gurgling wail that bubbled up from deep inside its lungs.

A moment later, the flailing creatures gave up trying to stand, and began awkwardly scurrying across the ground, trying to get at Ben and his light.

Still frozen, he watched in horror as bits of flaky caked-up skin began crumbling and falling off of them at their joints, revealing a light brownish-tan layer with a waxy, leathery surface beneath.

Their eyes were frantic, reflecting his light back at him like the glowing lenses of wild animals in the darkness, and Ben could see and hear their teeth snapping together madly.

Like a bolt, the voice of a distant, screaming Genetti came into focus, and he felt a tug on his shoulder. It was Drew.

“…are you doing, man?!” he cried frantically, pulling Ben out of his daze, and back up toward the dusty slope.

Ben rapidly regained his wits, and the pair raced towards the sound of Genetti’s frantic shouts. The zombies were close enough that the boys could hear the clicking teeth, and the creatures’ hands and kneecaps slapping and banging the floor haphazardly as they made chase.

Ben and Drew flew up the slope on all fours, the now-dustless path making for easy traction. As Ben neared the top he looked up, and could just barely make out Genetti extending his hand to Drew, who in turn reached out toward Ben with his free hand.

Genetti pulled with all his strength, hoisting the other two up quickly, “Let’s get outta here!” he yelled, pointing in the direction of the nearest shaft of light, “Back the way we came!” Genetti pointed again, his voice full of urgency.

Ben risked shining his light behind them to see how close the zombies were.

But they weren’t there. The grade was too steep for them to climb.

At the bottom of the hill, the ravenous pair regrouped, and tried clawing their way back up, but their dry dusty clothes and leathery skin could barely get any traction on the dry metal ship floor. Their eyes reflected back like a pair of raccoons as they slid backwards again, and they both let out a terrible scream when Ben pointed at them with his light.

They tried once again to stand upright, as if compelled by instinct. This time though, one of them half-succeeded, its back letting out a series of cracks and pops, as if it had been stuck in the wrong position, and had finally broken loose. It charged at the hill more quickly than either of the zombies had moved before, taking a couple of steps up the hill without slipping.

If the boys had been lost in their macabre fascination for a moment, that moment was gone.

“Ruuuuuunnn!” shouted Ben, making a beeline for the nearest daylight. Drew and Genetti were out in front of him, with Ben lighting the way as best he could.

>Thuuuuum!< The zombie slid down, banging hard into the side of its old home.

They can’t make it up. We’re going to be okay.

Another angry, guttural scream rang out, echoing all around them, driving the boys faster upwards, into the more well lit parts of the ship.

Their footsteps alternated between wet and dry as the rain had apparently begun falling hard while they had been under cover. Water was now running along the floor, along well-worn channels of rusty, flaked metal.

“Keep moving,” Drew panted, as he saw Ben turn his light back toward the monsters. The beam disappeared into the blackness, with no sign of zombies.


A zombie let out another wild scream, this one deteriorating into a choking wet sound.

Ben turned back around and followed the boys, half jogging, directly toward the steps they had walked down.


Standing in the pouring, gray daylight, the boys stared at each other in disbelief, shaking. They’d made it out in one piece, and they’d seen something impossible.

“Let’s get out of here Benny.” Drew looked to Genetti as well, walking and motioning with an unsteady hand, “C’mon, Steve.”

“We gotta go tell somebody.” Ben said flatly, following Drew toward the shore.

“Oh, no.” said Genetti, looking at the dilapidated metal gangplank, crooked and dripping with runoff.

“We gotta, Steve. It doesn’t matter if we get in trouble. This is a big deal, guys,” Ben made sure to include Drew in his pleading glance.

“He means the bridge, Ben,” Drew pointed.

“Oh,” Ben put on his best confident tone, “It’ll be fine Steve, you saw what Drew did when he crossed. It held up. Heck, I’ll go first,” he said, marching ahead.

Suddenly a rotting shape, and then another emerged from behind them, bounding up the stairs, where they’d just come from. The zombies were half falling-half running, their crazed, snarling and hissing noises were loud enough to cut through the sound of the rain and the ocean.

Seeing them in the daylight, the boys’ horror was only amplified, and they ran as fast as they could for the rickety bridge, leaving the zombies far behind.

Ben began crossing first, nearly at a full run, Drew close behind, moved more cautiously.

Genetti was right behind him, but the knots of fear in his stomach had him nearly doubled over on the edge of the gangplank. He stared down at the swirling water and the frothy foam, imagining a sea full of zombies.

“I can’t do this!” Genetti yelled, almost crying.

Drew stopped halfway, looking at the zombies advancing on his friend. He worried the bridge wouldn’t support both their weight, but he couldn’t just stand there.

Rushing back, he grabbed Genetti by the jacket, “We’re crossing together. If you fall, I fall.” Drew looked him in the eye with all the conviction he could muster, and hastily led Genetti out onto the dripping wet bridge.

“Slow and steady!” Ben shouted, watching as the zombies gained ground on his companions, not wanting them to fall off into the ocean and risk drowning.

The old bridge flexed, but it held, and the two older boys were most of the way across when the zombies finally got to the gangplank themselves.

Without a moment’s pause, the zombies scrambled out haphazardly onto the crooked bridge, causing it to creak ominously, tilting the whole thing to one side. Drew and Genetti nearly lost their footing, but with only a few paces to go, they managed the last few steps to shore.

The zombies lost their momentum and started slipping toward the edge, still trying to clamber toward the three boys, wailing and hissing, when then the bridge gave way a second time, sending them tumbling into the roiling ocean.

There was a peacefulness in the sound of the wind, and water. The boys stood silently for a while, sorting their thoughts out, before Ben turned to them, smiling impishly.

Ben held up his flashlight for everyone to see, “Well, thanks guys,” he chuckled, nearly giddy with relief. They all laughed, still shaking.

“We still have to tell somebody though.”


“Well, Mr. Benjamin, where is your latest experiment?” Mrs. Pirad asked Ben.

“I’m sorry Mrs. Pirad, it… it should be here already. Ben looked around the advanced electronics class, scanning for any sign of Drew or Steve. All he saw were the faces of young men, some of them easily twice his age. He gulped nervously.

They should have been here by now.

Not a moment too soon, the painted door rang out as Drew unlatched it with his foot and made his way into the room backwards, carrying one end of something that rested on a large plank.

“Watch the corner, Steve. It’s a tight fit.” Drew muttered out into the hall.

After a bit of jostling, they made their way to the front of the class with Ben’s experiment, and set it on the demonstration table.

“Thanks guys,” he said, nodding to his friends, “They helped me out, too, Mrs. Pirad.” he said to the teacher, grabbing the sheet of cloth that was draped over his experiment.

He drew back the sheet, revealing a clear glass bulb with a tungsten filament, mounted in a large housing, with a couple of electrical leads hanging off the back.

“Very impressive Mr. Benjamin,” said the button nosed teacher at first glance, raising a pencil-thin eyebrow as she approached to get a closer look. She nodded, and lifted a small cover on the housing to peek inside, “Clean work. Did they help with this, too?” she asked Ben, looking at Drew and Genetti, who immediately straightened up, standing at attention.

“Sure did… uh, Mrs. Pirad, ma’am.” Ben batted his eyes sheepishly.

“Very good. You two are dismissed,” she said curtly, gesturing toward the door. Ben and Genetti scampered toward the metal door obediently, “Perhaps you’ll find your way back after another year of studies.” she added.

The door clinked shut, and the teacher looked back at Ben, lowering her voice between them and batting her eyes dramatically, “Work your charms elsewhere Mr. Benjamin, this class is for students who can make the grade, nothing more,” her mouth pursed into an indifferent, flat line, but she couldn’t hide a hint of a smirk, “Now let’s see if your work is half as good as Mr. Murphy says it is…”

“I miss my family,” said Drew gloomily, taking another bite of sweet roll, looking out the porthole window, toward the sprawl.

“I’m sorry man. They’re still trying to work something out though, right?” Genetti asked, trying to sound hopeful.

“That’s what they keep telling me,” Drew replied, “But who knows? It’s been what? Two months? More?” he sighed, “I mean, this place is fantastic, don’t get me wrong,” he eyed the honey frosting on his pastry, “I just miss seeing them all the time. It’s… weird still. Lonely.”

Ben looked at Drew, thinking about his own mother working down in the infirmary, and how lucky it all was. For weeks, he’d been feeling guilty about the fake-crying, and using his age to help get her on board, but it turned out that they really did need another good nurse on board, after all.

“It’s better than not being able to visit your folks at all, or…” Genetti trailed off, shrugging, “Who knows? Maybe they’re worried you’ll tell ‘em, and they won’t be able to keep it quiet…” Ben shushed Genetti, and gave him a hard look.

Ben whispered, trying to appear nonchalant to everyone else in the cafeteria, “Listen, I’ve been asking around… some of the other kids my age. They’re scared to talk. Some of them saw something like we did, I’m almost sure of it,” he looked around seriously.

“One of them said if you squeal about Ship secrets, that’s what gets you sent off. They said that’s what the work camps are really about,” Ben concluded dramatically.

Drew thought for a while, “Makes sense. Probably why they say some of the ‘accidents’ out there aren’t really accidents, you know?”

“C’mon fellas, I don’t want to think about this stuff. I’m getting seconds again!” Genetti exclaimed with a gluttonous grin.

The friends sat back down together in lighter spirits than they had left, the trays of fresh food pushing their concerns into the background.

Genetti couldn’t decide where to start on round two, “You know, I’m not sayin’ squat, and that’s a fact. The sweets are too good here,” he smiled, taking a drink of his tea, and shoveling a piece of blackberry crisp into his mouth.

“Not to mention there’s no rats,” Drew chimed in, eyeing his own spread of food.

“And clean water all the time,” echoed Ben, taking a bite of a hard, tangy cheese.

“Clean hot water,” Drew corrected him.

The boys sat for a long while, continuing to list off the new perks and improvements to their living situation, sometimes repeating the best ones just to hear them again.

Ben was dimly aware of the complex machinery and machinations that must take place behind the scenes, and he was happy to leave it a mystery for as long as he possibly could.


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