SHIP OF ONE HUNDRED

We landed on a small island after drifting for a day on the lifeboat. We didn't have time to grab the sea chart from our burning fishing rig, but old Bernie was sure that it was Altulka Island. The name sent a chill down our hungry, wet, battered spines.

Altulka Island stood in relative solitude from the myriad islands off the coast of British Columbia. Ships and trawlers made a point to steer well around it. Those who ventured near were usually overcome with quiet fear, perhaps anticipating some unimaginable evil to rise from the blankets of fog surrounding the shore. The isle itself rose to a steep peak of marbled rock inhabited by shrieking seagulls and brooding birds of prey. Their cries seemed to dull unnaturally as they floated from the precipice. Gnarled pines and undergrowth growing from spots of soil seemed as ancient as the rock itself. Indians shunned the place millennia before white men learned to fear it. They warned explorers that it was a bridge to a world of terror and darkness. Those who laughed at their earnest warnings rarely returned with their lives or sanities.

The three of us brought the meager supplies from the lifeboat to a stand of pines on a small ledge above the surf and made camp. We managed to build a fire, but we still shivered, our superstitions keened by desperation. Our last radio transmission had been made on the burning boat. It would take at least a day or two more before rescue crews found us on this remote rock. Tom grinned, retelling the story of how his father had survived on an island for two weeks after a fishing accident.

That night we slept restlessly, haunted by nightmares and the caws of birds above us. At last a gray dawn broke, and we emerged from the tent, cold and aching. As we prepared breakfast, our trained ears heard something wonderfully familiar. The sound of waves lapping against a ship!

We ran toward the opposite side of the island and cried out with joy. A small white cargo ship floated in the fog maybe two hundred yards off shore. We jumped and shouted, waving our arms and laughing. I thought the crew must be asleep, because no one stood on deck. A few minutes passed, and our cries died down. Nobody appeared. We decided to row the lifeboat out and try waking them up again. As we inched closer to the sleeping craft, the icy fog closed around us like a ghostly hand, and the squawks of the island birds suddenly sounded miles away. I shuddered. God, I couldn't wait to leave that place.

"Hello?" Tom called hoarsely as we rowed along the port side. "We need help!"

No cracks, water marks or barnacles marred the ship's white hull, but I couldn't help but feel that this ship was unnervingly old. Perhaps as old as the island we landed on. The thought was defeated by what sane logic I had left. We reached the bow and came upon the only marking we'd seen on the ship thus far. In small black letters near the deck were the words ONE HUNDRED.

"Where the hell is everyone?" Bernie said, grunting between paddle strokes. We rounded the stern and started down the starboard side. Through the fog, we saw a narrow ladder leading to deck. We stopped at it and gazed up for a moment.

"I don't like this thing," I said.

"Same here," said Tom. "But let's just wake up the crew and tell them what happened, eh?"

We followed Tom onto the deck and walked the length of the ship, letting out still-unanswered cries. I crept into the wheelhouse. Empty cobwebs and a layer of dust choked the corners, chairs and equipment. But as I looked at the wheel longer, I noticed that no dust or cobwebs had accumulated on or around it. Something had recently touched it, and it had moved.

I staggered out, fighting a rising wave of nausea.

"See anything, Aust?" Bernie asked. "Damn, you look sick."

"I'm fine."

Tom approached at a sullen pace from the forecastle.

"Piece of crap's deserted. Lucky it drifted over here."

"You sure?" said Bernie. "Don't see why anyone would just abandon this thing."

"Other than it's creepy as hell?" Tom said.

"Did you check the hold?"

A tame argument ensued, and in the end we gathered our wits and decided to see if anyone was in the hold. I almost told them about the clean wheel, but decided that would wait until we were safely drinking beer in a dockside bar. We opened a door in the dusty forecastle and were assaulted by a wave of thick, musty air that smelled more like an ancient basement than a cargo hold. For some reason, we ventured into the darkness. As we reached the bottom of the stairs, my hand found a light switch. When the lights finally buzzed to life, we froze.

A long row of coffins lined either side of the brig. Each was identical, plain and made of dark, polished wood. The filth of neglect that had invaded the rest of the ship was absent. Only a thin veneer of dust coated the lifeless hold. Not a single coffin was out of place. Each was spaced with disturbing, precise care. They didn't shift, even as waves rocked the ship.

"Oh my God," Tom muttered, his voice suggesting none of the horror in his wide, twitching eyes.

I wanted to run back to the forecastle, lock the door and put as much distance as possible from the ship, but I only slumped against the wall. The longer I gazed at the neat rows, the more I found myself unable to move. There were a hundred of them. I knew that, even though I hadn't counted.

I've been here for so long so long I hate it please open the coffin Austin open the coffin for the love of God open the coffin!

It was my first time hearing the voice, and I would give anything for it to be my last. A vision of horror wracked my mind; a writhing gray form with bloated white eyes that had been human ages ago, howling and clawing in eternal silence. The apparition passed in an agonizing moment. Tom was shouting something, and through hazy eyes I saw Bernie shuffle towards one of the coffins, his face twisted into a grin.

"No!"

I rushed Bernie, dazed, nearly tripping over one of the foul coffins. I dove and grabbed one of his bulky legs and dragged him down. He let out a strange howl and struck the side of my face with his free boot. Tom shouted again. I drove my fist into Bernie's side. He couldn't open the coffins. For God's sake, you don't know what's in there. Those gray things, oh God…

His boot struck my nose and he slipped from my grip. I felt Tom's hands.

"He doesn't know what's in there those gray things they can't come out!" I cried.

"The hell's wrong with you two?" Tom screamed.

Tears of pain clouded my eyes, and I tasted blood. I blinked furiously. Bernie kneeled at the side of a casket, that horrible grin dancing on his face.

Open the coffin, Austin! Oh please, it's not bad…Bernie wants to open.

I struggled in Tom's grip, but my strength was slipping uselessly away.

"No! Don't do it!" I sobbed.

Bernie grabbed the edge of the cover and started to pull.

Open open open…

"Bernie!" Tom shrieked. "What the-"

Bernie! He will open! Why not you?

"Run," I said.

A new strength flooded me, and we sprinted up the stairs and through the forecastle. I leaped over the rail and plunged into the sub-arctic water and swam to the shore, not daring to look back. Tom cussed at me, and I heard him try to scramble to the lifeboat. Then I heard his last breath, a short, agonized squeal. I trudged to our camp, stripped down and ducked into the tent, hugging my legs to my chest.

The Coast Guard said they found me there two days after our last radio transmission, naked and half-dead from cold, staring and muttering like a madman. The story I told came back to me in time, pieced together from troubled dreams and sights, sounds and smells that suddenly invoked terror. I moved in next to relatives in Wyoming, married a good woman, and spent the rest of my active life raising cattle or growing wheat, never setting foot on a boat again. Still, on quiet, gray mornings, I might hear the voice of the gray thing, pleading to let it out of its coffin. I hope that telling this story will exorcise him, and not drag him back up to haunt an old man dreams.