Stand Watch
by Victoria

There it is, winding thin and dark and glossy across the table, shifting
direction with every roll of the ship to pen a sickeningly delicate scallop.
There is only a little now, and here will come the choice. It always
comes with the blood. The moment when they see the black gleam in Jack's
eyes and know that he is unafraid - indeed, that his grotesque heart longs
to - beat them until the trickle becomes a torrent.

It's at this moment that the mettle of each condemned man is tempered. Some
crack, spewing forth the secrets Jack demands, crafting the keys to their
own hell, but securing themselves a negotiable demon. I have stopped
knowing if these revelations prove the flaw in their forge, or if they are a
form of wisdom that goes deeper than apparant cowardice. Is there a glory
in the fools that defy him? Those that absorb the blows with no more sound
than the gasped benedictions of their pain and the various rhythms of Jack's
rope, Jack's fist, and Jack's boots into flesh and wool.

The soft young flesh under my hands has grown tense, and I can feel the
ropes of sinew and the staffs of bone roll within his wrist as he struggles.
He's strong, this one, but he's still a lad, and his single arm is pitiful
resistance to my sixteen stone pressing it to the table. His face twists
to the side, his skull thudding dully into the wood as he scrapes his cheek
raw avoiding the pressure from behind that would soon have broken his nose.
His mouth has all but disappeared, his lips pressed bloodless together, and
the scarlet smear from the corner seems a strange richness of colour.

Yet it's his eyes that hold me. Always, the eyes accuse. They hate me.
They all hate me. All except for this one. These eyes seem unnatural in
this stinking wooden darkness where all eyes fall black as the millers that
scuttle in the shadows. Vivid blue, the colour of the sky from the world
Jack cannot command. These eyes that do not meet me with the familiar hate
that I have learned to shiver and ignore, but with something else that makes
my stomach twist and my bowels loosen. And I know how Judas felt as the
silver burnt cold in his hands.

I look away. Beneath my hands, I seem to feel his corded wrist grow plump
and thick, becoming my own. Jack's breath is hot and heavy with rum on the
back of my neck, and his elbow digs hard into my kidney, dribbling tears to
that damnable table. I haven't been aboard ship a week yet, and now I know
the reason for the furtive, fawning respect Jack commands. His demands
grate my brain, and I hear my own lips blubber away the secrets that drove
me to sea. The pressure eases, and I am allowed to stand, tears and sweat
and spittle cold on my cheeks, piss warm on my thighs. No blood.

I remember his wordless command some four weeks later. The boy's name was
Wythe, but I never learned his Christian name. Son of a Jamaican sea
captain, skin as dark as ebony and eyes white-rimmed and bulging as Jack
drove him to the table. Jack's scowl flashed like black lightning, and I
was catching one thin wrist, turning away as the blood flowed sticky and hot
against my hand. I remember seeing his teeth bared like an animal against
the pain, and the sound of his scream later as he plummeted from the
rigging. Jack wept proper for the Captain of his attempts to catch the lad,
but it doesn't matter. I could hear the joy in that scream, the
satisfaction in the muffled splash.

When the blood trickles across the table, I tell myself that my complacency
to the monster is gallant. My littly family secret is safe so long as Jack
has no reason to whisper round that I, shall we say, strikingly lack
resemblance to my mother's husband. I do it for her, for her honour, her
reputation.

And do I do it for the forbidden thrill that horrifies and delights me when
they turn their frightened, respectful eyes to me on watch? Or the dull
satisfaction when I note that Jack allows me and his others little nicities
that he confiscates freely from those not a part of those bastard inquiries?
Do I even dare to see that monster who so smoothly slips his rotting
fingers through the comforting veil of my cowardice?

No. I tell myself that I'm still not capable of such things. I do it
because I must. Only someone like Jack can take satisfaction from something
like this. I'm nothing like Jack. Nothing at all. I'm still quite myself
- a coward, but nothing worse.

Jack's demands bark again into the tight space, and I hear the anger begin
to grow at the boy's silence. I cannot watch those eyes, and it's almost
better to watch as Jack grabs a thick handful of fair hair and wrenches the
lad's head harshly back. There's a sickly little gurgle, but not the answer
Jack wants, and I feel the deck shudder under my feet as the boy's face is
slammed hard into the table. He's a pretty one, almost girlish if it
weren't for that square jaw, and Jack always likes to brutalize the faces of
the pretty ones. As a boy, I reckon he made fine sport of the wings of
butterflies.

His skin is slick with sweat, and as Jack pulls his head back again, I am
caught off guard as his wrist suddenly jerks and twists in my hand. I lunge
forward as his hand rips free, suddenly not caring of the blood streaming
down his face from a cut somewhere in that golden hair or the animal
desperation in his eyes. He snatches his sailor's knife, but Jack only
laughs. The paltry defense is struck away before it can even be lifted, and
the resistance turns to terror as the boy attempts to scramble away over the
table.

I see myself catch his ankle, drag him back, but before I can take hold of
his wrist again, Jack has him by the collar, his knuckles twisted up under
the boy's chin. The boy's hands are stark white as they grip the table as
though it will save him from being lifted almost to Jack's grinning lips.
There's a flash of mischief in Jack's smile, but the humour is only his own
as he plants a cheerful, maidenly little kiss on the tip of the boy's
bleeding nose.

Then all humour - even Jack's humour - is gone in rage again, and the boy is
driven back. I press myself into the bulkhead, as far away from the table
as I can get. Dear God, but that heavy platform is quivering as the boy is
driven into it again and again. His head lolls and bounces between each
strike, the blue eyes rolled white. The sound is like a baker beating
dough, and a fleck of the boy's blood is on Jack's teeth as he grins in the
lantern light. My thoughts scream through my mind until they escape my lips
in a tenative warning. "Jack-Christ, Jack, stop it! He's gone!"

To my astonishment, Jack does stop. The boy dangles limp from his fist as
he turns to me. "Are you presuming to give me an order, Mr. Cleveland?"

I manage to swallow enough of the dust in my mouth to speak. "No, Jack,
it's only.the lad's unconscious. He's had enough. He's learnt his
lesson!"

Jack's eyes darken further still, all natural colour lost in a blackness
that seems as much spirit as absense of light. "Mr. Kennedy must learn
respect for authority, Mr. Cleveland, and he has learnt that respect when I
bloody well say he's learnt it, and not before." In punctuation, he
untwists his hand from the lad's collar, flinging him down hard into the
table once more.

His back arches as he strikes, and for a moment, I think that he has somehow
come to and is actually rising to resist. But the strange screams the lad
makes now are not screams of defiance. He seems to have gone mad, crashing
hard to the floor as Jack steps back, twisting the rope around his hand as
he watches this spectacle through narrowed eyes. The boy's entire body
leaps and writhes like a puppet tossed into a bonfire, his mouth frothing
scarlet spittle as unearthly cries and moans rip from his lungs. He vomits,
chokes, coughs, his body still twitching in the mess of ship's biscuit, salt
beef, and bile that mixes with sweat and blood to cake that yellow hair into
dark, ugly ropes.

No one speaks as the fit subsides. The boy lies there, smeared with his own
fluids, a sharp stench rapidly rising in the tight confines of the mess.
Jack is motionless, and I wonder if he will strike the lad even now.

He doesn't. Perhaps in some remaining scrap of human compassion, he senses
he may have gone too far. He wraps the rope once more around his hand, then
simply turns and goes to his hammock. As he takes off his boots, he glances
distastefully towards the sprawled figure of the boy, towards the frozen
members of his puppet court. "Someone clean that up before the smell gets
any worse."

We move, more afraid of Jack's mercurial wrath than of whatever fit has
seized this poor young creature. His eyes open slightly as I mop his face
with a rag, but he doesn't seem to see, and I shake my head. One of these
days, Jack is going to kill someone.

One hand moves, clutches at my arm with filthy fingers, and I shudder, even
as I am grateful for the excuse not to look him in the eye. I feel a quick
flush of anger when I see that he has stained my shirt, blotting the
carefully embroidered initials my mother stitched before I was sent ever so
quietly away. EC. Edward Cleveland. I push his hand away, then stop,
seeing the bruises on his wrist. My own meal joins the lad's on the deck.

Could it be that Jack already has?