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Chapter Four

My busted ankle grows hotter with each step I take to the pirate town surrounded by the sea. So far, my public-school education hasn’t included chapters on pirates, so I rack my brain to remember every pirate movie I’ve seen.

Black and white pirate movies always made the scourge of the sea fashionably dressed and very witty, while the newer ones covered their teeth in so much yellow and black gunk you could barely enjoy your salty popcorn. Captain Hook would definitely be the best pirate to meet right now. Maybe it’s a baby movie, but it’d be awesome to fly with a fairy and not be run through with a sword!

Dirt near the last step is more compact than it looks. Pain shoots from my ankle to my hip bone, but Net doesn’t seem to notice, or more likely, he thinks my hurt ankle is the least of his worries.

“The first thing we need to do is get you a change of clothes,” Net says, turning back to me. “There’s no place to buy stuff our size, so I’ll have to do some wrangling. Wait here and don’t talk to anyone.”

What else can I do but trust him? So far, he’s the only friendly face I’ve seen since being whooshed out of my grandma’s house. That entire trip was a big mistake. Mom and me should have stayed home and binged on old tv shows. Being the main character in a real-life Twilight Zone isn’t as fun as you’d expect.

Pulsing from my ankle tells me to sit. A few hobbles to the first step, and I stretch my leg across, tightening the sock that went from being drenched to slightly damp. What I wouldn’t give for a used, overstretched strip of an ace bandage to wrap it up nice and tight. Elastic. That’s a modern luxury I won’t see in this town.

Gusty winds blow in my direction. My gut tightens. Burning inches up my throat at the reeking of animal dung and stinky armpits—much stronger than the halls of my school! Heaving turns up nothing but slimy stomach snot. I wipe my lips and start mouth breathing to avoid another go-round.

Two men carrying crates on their shoulders walk from the town. Long wavy hair and a bunch of silver buttons on their jacket give them a menacing look, like the bad guys from an old 80’s cop movie.

My hands tremble when they turn in my direction. Nope!

Scurrying off the step, I duck under the stairs, dragging my dud leg behind me. Slow breaths are hard to manage when their scuffed leather boots pound up the stairs. One of them stops and looks around.

“Do you smell that?” he asks.

“You don’t smell nothing,” said the other. “Why you spend so much time sniffing stuff, anyway? Come on, we gotta deliver these packages quick, or we’ll miss the boat and be stuck on this dreary rock of an island, again.”

They step onto the cliff, and I can literally see my heart pounding under my shirt. What is taking Net so long? I’m a sitting duck out here by myself!

A good squint toward town and the bushy top of Net’s hair ducks into the bright red doorway. Net moves among the locals easily and hasn’t a lick of fear. Can’t say the same for me.

What are the chances that Net is a pirate himself? His job could be roaming the shoreline to find kids who come through the vortex, only to enslave them in some kind of magical realm with elves and orcs and their endless wars for dominance!

I need to lay off the movies for a while!

Finally, Net pops out of the shop with a burlap sack hanging over his shoulder. A burly man stares at Net with steely eyes, grabbing Net by the arm and throwing his bag to the ground. Net’s legs kick in the air when the man lifts him into a bear hug and slaps him on the back. They have a brief conversation before the man enters the shop himself.

“What in the heck is going on?”

Net picks up the sack again and runs toward me and my protective stairs. A pirate town is no place for a kid wearing a light blue shirt with a rainbow-eating shark and denim jeans. I should have worn my Pirates baseball jersey. The locals might appreciate such a gesture unless they found the term offensive, then I’d be in a world of trouble.

“Wait till you see these rags!” Net said, crawling under the stairs and tugging open the bag. A pair of short pants, like I wore during my t-ball years, and a very stiff shirt falls to me—both made from wool. Just draping them on my arm would likely give me a rash.

“What do you think?” Net asks. “Scoots gave you sturdy fabric this time. Gonna be great for working.”

“Scoots made me clothes? Did he know I was coming?” Yep, he’s definitely working for the pirate mafia!

“Naw!” Net says. “Captain Brian made a bargain with Scoots years ago. We bring back fabric from our journeys, and Scoots makes the crew a new set of clothes. Sailing the seas is grueling work, and our clothes take a beating. When we come back to this port, we have a bonfire with the old duds to kill the bugs and all.”

“So, these are yours? I can’t take your clothes.”

“Ain’t no problem. I don’t work as hard as the crew, so mine last longer. Besides, who needs fancy pants on the high seas? Mermaids don’t care what you’re wearing. They only want your soul!”

“Sure, mermaids. Why not?”

Arguing over the clothes is a waste of time, and I know I can’t walk around town dressed like a kid from the future. Net keeps a lookout, waving to passing locals while I switch out my clothes. But pulling the wool shirt over my head kicks on my sweat glands, and my pits drip like it’s a May afternoon in Florida. If I walked into my middle school dressed like this, I’d be in real trouble, yet I’m about to walk into a city of pirates who pillage the sea, so I guess it’s cool!

“Are you sure this will help me blend in?” I say, deciding to keep my rainbow shark tee shirt on underneath. It would help with the scratching.

“We ain’t got time to argue. Tie off the end of that shirt, so you don’t get caught in the ropes.” Net looks over me with a squint. He reaches to the ground and scoops up a handful of mud. “Hold Still.”

Chunky, moist dirt spreads across my forehead, face, and arms. “That looks about right, but try to keep your mouth closed. Those pearly whites are a dead giveaway.”

“For what?” I dare to ask.

“That you came from the swirl. No one goes to the dentist around here, and those near-perfect, ‘just got-out of braces’ choppers will get you killed. Remember, the swirl is our secret.”

Net’s comment about dentists leaves me confused, but there’s no time for that now. Net is frantically shoving my old clothes into the bag. He ties a fancy knot on the open end and tosses it into an enormous pile of burlap bags. My chest tightens at the thought of losing my best pair of jeans. They were my dads when he was my age—I found them in the attic. They are super soft and loose around the waist. I sneer at my short pants and catch my breath at the bright green sneaker’s double knots.

“What about my shoes? Won’t people notice them?” But Net is already halfway down the street like he forgot about me tagging along.

Something nags at my brain. Something in my pocket is missing. “The pen!” My sneakers carry me toward the burn pile, where a couple of kids dig through the bags. Mine’s on the top and out of my reach.

“Hey?” I say to the tallest of the two. “Can you get that bag for me?”

“Not for nothing. What you got to trade?”

“It’s in the bag. You wouldn’t understand what it was even if I told you.”

That’s enough for the boy to leap to the top and toss down the bag. I hobble close to untie the knot. My jeans all crumpled up like trash makes me sad. Shoving the pen and map from the office back home into my new pants, I reach for the smashed fruit roll-up.

“Here you go. It’s food,” I say, but he isn’t convinced. A quick tear of the wrapper releases the strong strawberry scent. “Smells good, huh?”

They aren’t impressed, but they should be. I could trade that roll-up for a six-pack of Oreos. Running from the burn pile before the kid gets angry is what I need to do, but my ankle resists. Maybe it’s for the best. Running will draw a lot of unwanted attention, so I walk fast and keep the limping to a minimum.

Small buildings at the edge of the town line each side of the main roadway. My eyes dart to the large woman with matted hair sitting in front of a vast collection of bells. She spit-shines a massive tarnished one while two baby kittens scuffle at her feet—I mean her foot and peg leg. A sign over the doorway reads Horatio Ship Supply Company.

But the rotten scent from the shop next door comes from rows of dead de-feathered chickens hanging from hooks. Flies swarm their yellowed bodies, but the man sweeping dirt from the stand didn’t seem to mind so much.

There’s not a single game store or coffee shop on this main street, but I guess they wouldn’t be the same without internet, or electricity, for that matter.

“Come on, pokey!” Net yells from the road ahead. “Were gonna be late!”

A fast walk is all I can muster. Kids way younger than me hurry past on the road carrying wooden boxes and fists full of dead animals. Mud, at least I hope it’s mud, squishes between their bare toes. They look nothing like the kids at my school with perfect hair and flashy clothes, but more like the kids in my history book that used to work in the cotton mills.

Net disappears around the corner of the intersection where tall posts with flaming lanterns swing on curvy hooks. Fishy winds blow off the water, reminding me of my family’s trip to Sea World nearly a decade ago. That was a safe trip. Thick glass walls separated me from the killer whales, leaving a very slim chance that I might get eaten. Don’t get me wrong, I think fish belong free in the ocean, but I can’t promise that whatever happens today won’t change my mind!

A ship, much larger than my grandma’s house, rocks with the tide at the end of a long, rickety dock. Haggard men with dark circles around their eyes rush up and down the ship’s plank, unfazed by my hobbling. Net’s clothes help me fit in, but I’d still feel better wearing my old jeans. At least it would be a bit of home. A bit of my dad.

Pain shoots through my neck, down my right arm, and my feet point as they leave the ground. Curly locks of red hair flash in and out of my view. I don’t know who’s got me, but they could easily break my neck with little effort.

“Wait!” Net races back to me and lays his hand on the man. “Don’t hurt him. I found him on the shoreline, sir. He is our new deckhand.”

Pressure on my shoulders has me spinning around to meet the man’s glare. “This scrawny thing? What help could he be? Are ye certain he was from the shoreline?”

“Yes, I found him just now! He tells me he is a five-star chef back home.”

“Five-star, you say?” The pirate’s skeptical look softens when he stares his laser beam eyes into mine. “Have we picked up this kid before? Looks familiar.”

“Not unless we tossed him overboard in the first place. I think we might remember him returning.” Net takes my arm, and the tension on my neck lets up. “I’ll get him settled in, Captain Brian. No need to worry. He’ll be making the best food we’ve had in months! Filet mignon! Paella de Marisco! Pepperoni pizza!”

“Ay. See that he does. There ain’t no room for stowaways on me ship.”

Net drags me up the plank, driving too much pressure to my ankle, and I fall to the wood. But he quickly wraps his arm around my back and under my armpit. My climb to the ship’s deck is hardly a victory as the gruff men moving crates to the lower deck stop and stare at my small frame. I’m pretty sure I heard one growl like Big Billy, the bully in my gym class.

“I shouldn’t be here,” I whisper to Net. “Might be better for both of us if I go back to the shore and wait for the vortex to open back up.”

“And die waiting?”

“What’s the difference? You told him I’m a chef. When Captain Brian tastes my cooking, I’m as good as dead, anyway!”