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Chapter Five

Net’s body slumps as he tries to help me through a doorway not nearly big enough for two, even if we are just kids. A bed with a moth-eaten wool blanket catches me when Net lets go of my arm. Something like the pointy end of a pine needle jabs into my palm. But it must be my imagination. Who would use dead leaves and hay for a bed, anyway?

“Now, don’t move,” Net says, stretching to the small chest of drawers between the two beds. “I have just the thing for that busted ankle.”

A cotton strip of fabric rolls from the drawer and across the small room as Net hoists my leg over his bent knee. He wraps the scratchy material around my swollen ankle over and over like he’s done it a million times.

“How much of that stuff you got?” I ask.

“Enough.” Net cut the end with an ivory-looking pocket knife and tucks it into the folds. “It comes in real handy for all sorts of things.”

“Is this your room?”

“Our room! I used to share it with the cook, and I’m super glad he’s gone. How does a man reek of sauerkraut all the time? He must’ve bathed in the stuff,” Net says, knocking on the wall. “The captain’s room is here on the starboard side. Having a room so close is a privilege, except for the nights when he snores real loud.”

A bookshelf over Nets’ bed has lots of royal blue and deep red spines with gold lettering. “You got your own library here. Do you have Treasure Island?”

“I did, but the captain borrowed it, and I can’t bring myself to ask for it back.” Net dropped onto the bed. “You need a new name. Using Hensen won’t end well and it’ll earn an awful nickname.”

“My name is Hudson, and I don’t want to change it―it was my grandpa’s name.”

“Have it your way, but don’t blame me when the crew calls you something awful like Totter-wart!”

Suddenly, a bug bigger than the size of my fist drops from the ceiling onto my leg. Its prickly feet crawl past the bandage and onto my bare skin. Adrenaline rushing through my body sends me scurry to the corner of the bed, where I curl into a ball. As far as I know, I didn’t get any vaccines for the kind of diseases ancient bugs might carry.

“Careful!” Net yells as he moves calmly toward the beetle, cupping it in his hands, and returning to the first drawer. The creepy crawly slid into the glass bottle lined with weeds and half an inch of water swishing around the bottom. “There you go, Mister Bug.”

“Is that your pet?”

“He is more than a pet! He’s the original occupant of this room. What right do I have to kick him out into a world of stomping feet and snapping fish? I have no choice but to keep him alive and happy.”

The busting of a wooden crate outside the door has Net sealing the bottle and hurrying to the small window on the door for a look. Crew members yell insults at each other and shake their fists. But like a clap of thunder, the captain’s boot’s stomp onto the poop deck. The black poof of gunpowder drifts on the wind as the captain lowers his hand and pistol to his waist.

“What’s ye damage?” the captain yells. The crew stands trembling, staring at the ground like kids caught drinking out of an orange juice carton.

“I might be wrong,” I whisper, “but a pirate ship is the worst place for us kids.”

“Being stuck here ain’t so bad,” Net says. “I’ve had some of the best adventures with Captain Brian. He’s a real hero, not fake like Superman in his tights and cape.”

Pounding in my left ear grows as I slide from the corner to face Net. “How do you know about Superman and dentists and braces? And why is the vortex a secret?”

Net turns from the glass with that same distant look Mom gets when she thinks about Dad. “I know what it’s like to travel through the vortex because one also captured me. Me and my friends were reading Superman comic books, and the swirl opened in my room. My friends had the smarts to run, but I was mesmerized by the thing. I’ve spent years searching for a way home, but the only swirl I found was the one that dropped you here. I got there too late to jump back inside.”

“How would that even work?” I glance around the room, trying to solve the puzzle of the vortex. “Furniture in the room was sucked inside like a vacuum, making it impossible to travel in the other direction. Right?”

“What do you want me to say? You think I got all the answers? I’m the same as you―only I have more time under my belt in this pirate world. I’m lucky that the captain keeps me protected from the more hostile crew members and that’s only because I know things! Sometimes he calls me The Fortuneteller.”

“What kinda things would a kid know that would help a pirate?”

“When I first met the captain, I had a job lighting the lanterns on the dock. Captain Brian saw me one day and tossed a gold coin. When he returned later that summer, he said most of the crew had died at sea. Then that chapter in my history textbook popped into my head!” Net’s finger points in the air. “The crew must’ve had scurvy and needed lemonade. With a new crew plus myself and a crate of lemons, we all survived the next journey. So he let me live on board.”

“The captain seriously didn’t know about the lemon thing. I can’t imagine what he thinks about the race to colonize Mars!”

“What are you talking about, colonizing Mars?” Net’s eyes jerk to the door as the ship rocks side to side in tempo with the clanking chain, no doubt from the ship’s anchor.

Net bolts out the doorway and hangs his head over the wood railing of the ship, where the small waves ripple off the boat’s hull. On the dock, workers kept moving cargo toward the town center. Not a single person waved goodbye. Apparently, pirate ship departures are different from the cruise ships of the future that toss confetti and play dance music. But what else should I expect from a crew that didn’t know if they’d survive the high seas?

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“In search of treasure, of course! We’re sailing to Coconut Island, where coconuts drop from the trees this time of year.”

“Since when are coconuts considered treasure? I can buy them at the grocery store all year with my allowance, not that I would waste it on something so boring. Cursed gold coins and pearls seem more like treasure.”

“Ya, and carrying them on your ship could get you sunk! The captain sticks to practical cargo that won’t attract attention from the privateers that had their contracts with the French navy dropped.”

“Contracts? Pirates have lawyers?”

“Did they have schools where you came from?” Net asks. “The French had…has…contracts with sailors to raid boats and share the booty with them. When the contracts are up, the sailors call themselves privateers or pirates cause it sounds super cool. They raid ships for their own profit and become enemies of the government.”

“When you put it that way, it makes sense, I guess.”

“But when we do find gold, our ship’s reputation allows us to pass with no problems. Why are you asking? Don’t tell me you want to load the cannons and fire on a pirate ship.”

Nope and nope! My anxious belly gurgles. “I thought that’s what pirates do. Pillage and plunder.”

“I used to think that too, but now I know pirates are the truck drivers of the oceans, transporting stuff other people buy. Don’t worry. We always run across crazy pirates that make trouble just for attention. You might get to shoot a cannon after all.”

Great. My tiny reflection ripples on the waves as the ship sails further from the port. There’s no turning back now. And even if we did, I’d still have no idea of how to get back home.

The shiny gray skin and rounded snouts bouncing alongside the ship’s hull perk my enthusiasm for the voyage.

“Look, Net! Dolphins!”

Horror replaces my huge grin as the razor-sharp teeth of an alligator-shaped creature bursts from the water and snatches a peaceful dolphin by the tail. Waves from fleeing dolphins scatter from the ship as the pod races for the safety of the sea.

“I almost forgot to tell you,” Net says, unfazed by the gory display. “Don’t swim in the water. It’s not safe.”

“Sure. No swimming. Got it.”