Submitted into Contest #228 in response to: Start or end your story in a bustling street food market.... view prompt


Mystery Thriller Suspense

This story contains themes or mentions of substance abuse.

Bustle, gloomy faces, rotted food stalls, and all the lonely people. He stood in the middle of the market amongst the rabble, watching them. The sky was always gray in England, and he couldn’t wait to leave it – and the people under it – for another journey.

Jack Nelson was a good sailor. When he was sober. He had wits of steel when he could summon them, and a sense of direction so acute you would think he’d never get lost. But the man was lost, in a certain manner of speaking. 

He’d heard all the rumors, how he’d be a captain already if it wasn’t for his reliance on opium. At 26 years old he had the makings of a distinguished man, but squandered it all for Cuban whores and a good high six times a day at least. It wasn’t his fault though, you see, his old man was a bastard and his mother was some Welsh whore. Jack could still feel the bruises that his maker had left on him, the belt whips and the hot poker marks. Particularly when he was stressed, or even when he started to feel like he had earned his keep in this world, those scars would break out again. Hence the opium. If he can’t feel anything, he can’t feel the scars. 

Atop the deck of the ship on which he had been stationed, The Harpy, Jack Nelson stared at the gray clouds above him. The Year of Our Lord, 1693. In between the cracks in the concrete sky, pale light showed through like glowing tendrils of a cobweb.      But other than this small distinction in the color, the sky was a monotone gray to be sure. A sign of bad weather to come; a bad omen. Jack was stationed on this ship to carry rum, tobacco, and sugar from the Caribbean back to the Queen. It was a typical trade route by all means, save for the inescapable possibility of pirates. But what occurred was certainly not typical. Not pirates.

He started noticing things were off early, before anyone else did. And he was almost certain it wasn’t the poppy dust. Men on-shift would stare directly down at the waves, with no emotion whatsoever behind their glazed eyes. Like a man possessed, one of them even started to lean overboard before Jack pulled him back and asked the man if he was mad. The sailor snapped out of it suddenly and went back to work like nothing happened. 

At night, Jack would lie there in his hammock, floating off of his opium. He swooned in the ecstasy of his mistress drug, rocking back and forth in delirium with the sways of the ship. But even in this dumbing state, peering out of his window in the hull, Jack swore he could see heads on shoulders out there in the black water watching them pass. And he swore they were looking right at him, not just the Harpy. It was because of these advances that Jack ran through his opium supply. He would blitz himself with it every night. For the scars primarily, but also because of the happenings about the ship, and about the water, and from the low humming, almost chanting, he swore he could hear coming from below.

When he ran out of his dust he tried not to panic, mostly because it would only make him want more. But he was also worried the visions were simply leaking over from his severe state of addiction and withdrawal. That he had just reached a point where he had taken too much, that reality was peeling away from him more and more with every huff of heaven. That by being forcefully rid of it now, this journey might become typical again. Jack Nelson was wrong.

On the 26th night of the voyage, men started to disappear. The Captain nor the Quartermaster nor Jack himself could explain it, and Jack was sober now. He might’ve seemed very captainly if it wasn’t for his horrible withdrawals, his private war. The lifeboat was there, no one had attempted escape by paddle, no mutiny in the night. Overall, the Captain had more faith in this crew at the beginning of their voyage than he had in most of his crews. Jack had noticed that the sky never changed once, other than from day to night. Every morning looked the same as before, gray and plain with pale light begging to push through. There was not a sunny day, not even a rain for the sky to crack. The sky was pale gray, or it was all black. No stars, no sunrises, no sunsets. It rose and set of course, but the men of the Harpy only saw a distant and pale orb do this, like a lamp held up behind a thick fog. 

Sunny days on the ocean are why Jack Nelson wanted to become a sailor. Or at least that’s what he used to tell folk. He really wanted to run away from Bristol, from the gray skies that daunted him and the memory of a past that beat him every night while he slept in the fade. The sun on the sea was a reminder that gray England was gone for a while, and the rest of the world was here now. But this was no such voyage.

The Quartermaster suggested that maybe the men had taken their own lives. The disappeared were older sailors, maybe they were tired of their station on this ship and in life. That by walking off the deck into the waves they could finally live in a place under the sea. Where men don’t breathe, they just bob and float with empty eyes. Where color finally changes from its mundane gray to a numbing midnight blue.

More men began to disappear by the week, and Jack slipped and slipped further into a withdrawn panic. What men didn’t disappear started to go mad, yelling at things that weren’t there, cursing a voice no one heard. Jack did not sleep, how could he without his cure? And with the incessant banging coming from below the ship. Not from the deck above or from something hitting the side of the boat, like any reasonable sailor could infer. Like I said, Jack had wits of steel, and his brevity was elevated from how extremely sober he really was. He continued to hear humming noises blending in and out of chanting sounds, and rhythmic knocks at the hull of the ship. But as he would pace the hold of the ship at night he knew it wasn’t any of the crew. And the lower down he would go, the louder it would get. But he had no earthly explanation for this, other than blaming it on the symptoms of his withdrawals. It was as if the opium had manifested a voice that was calling out to him, making him go mad for it. He would tell himself this to get through the night, but some nights, these noises were far too real. One night, all of it was.

Jaaaack. He shot up in his hammock. He knew he heard his name, and from a female voice too. How could this be? Jack was drenched in sweat and breathing heavily. So distracted by the clear sound of his name that he almost failed to notice it was storming on the waves. So the sky finally cracked, he thought. Maybe now all this madness will too. He remembered the Captain telling him that morning that tonight they would cross the Brownson deep; the deepest point in the entire Atlantic Ocean. This thought distracted him from what awoke him. But as soon as he laid back down and closed his eyes, he heard the low humming again. This time it was definitely coming from above, from the deck of the ship, not below like from his dreams. Were they really dreams? Jack Nelson went to find out.

What he saw made him believe in all the ghost stories and sea shanties he had ever heard. What he saw shook him to his core. Bristol, his addiction, his father, they were no longer real. Whatever fresh hell he entered when he stepped onto the deck of the Harpy was now reality, everything before was folly.

He saw the Quartermaster on the bow of the deck with his sword in hand, carving bloody runes into the lifeless Captain lying on the bow below him. Amongst the captain’s depravity were sea creatures of all kinds. Some Jack had seen before, like octopuses and eels and fish. But some looked like machinations of hell. Massive eels with no eyes but large mouths, fish with lights to guide them in the blackness, fish with long necks and sharp teeth– you could barely call any of them fish. He had never seen these creatures before, only heard tell of them in the old sailor stories. But the most unusual facet of all was the lady lying next to the Captain. She had the head and torso of a human woman, and beautiful ones at that, but from the waist down she had the features of a giant squid. Black and green tentacles that looked poisonous to the touch stretched down from her hips, and she lay there cold and lifeless next to the Captain.

It was a horror to behold. The strange sea creatures seemed laid out to make a kind of pattern around the squid-lady. It looked akin to witchcraft Jack had seen paintings of back home in England– limbs and torsos laid out in runes or glyphs as a kind of ‘offering table.’ The squid-lady was bleeding green blood all over the scene, stretching out to the creatures and entangling them in this sick web. Her eyes darted back and forth in panic, it looked like she knew what was happening but was powerless to do anything other than look.

What in God’s name is this? Nelson screamed amongst the storm. The Quartermaster did not move to face him, but he did speak. His voice sounded like a legion of horrible men and women, not like the lovely Scottish man that Jack once knew. The storm did not muffle this voice, it was rather the opposite.

We are the Deep. We are His envoys. We paved His entry into this dimension, and we will see His dominion of the surface. When black water rises and drowns all, this world He will enthrall. 

I knew you as our Quartermaster, a good man! Who the bloody hell is We? And what have you done with our Captain? 

The Quartermaster, or whatever he was now, spun on his heels slowly. Jack had a strike of horror flash across his expression. At first the Quartermaster wore the face of his father, his abuser, his worldly strife. But as Jack strained his eyes through the storm and ironed his will, he realized it was the Quartermaster’s face, or at least half of it. The other half was draped in tentacles and covered in barnacles. It was an agony to witness, and Jack couldn’t stand any more of this hell. 

We know what ails you John Gerald Nelson. We have seen your dreams, your nightmares, your past. You cling to this world, but it is not yours. You are to be His first prophet. You will bring on the Great Maelstrom, and cleanse this world for His arrival.

For a moment, Jack considered the offer. A chance to be a distinguished man amongst the rabble, to purify the world of its suffering, to wipe the slate clean. To stop men from abusing their responsibility to their children. He felt the scars rise again. He could not trust his own father, why should he trust this demon? Now, they served as a reminder. And with no way to numb them, no safety pouch to pull from his pocket, he produced his flintlock pistol instead. He shot the Quartermaster dead, and the storm receded.

As Jack turned to reach the wheel of the ship to chart a different course, he heard a bolt of thunder and saw a flash of sickly green in the sky, which came from behind him. As he spun back around, there was another flash of green lightning, and his eyes reeled in horror and desperation. With each strike of lightning coming a few seconds after the last, Jack could make out the outline of something massive standing in the ocean out in the distance in front of the ship. It had large wings that stretched high into the sky and tentacles hanging down from its unholy head. He heard its ugly voice in his mind. It called out to him by name. 

The Harpy and its entire crew were never seen again, but the world didn’t fall to the devil under the sea in 1693. You can thank Jack Nelson.

December 14, 2023 18:36

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Marty B
20:37 Dec 21, 2023

Great characterization of the drug-addled Jack and his scars. What comes for us in the dark of night? Jack thought it was just his nightmares', however they came real and offered him ' A chance to be a distinguished man' But jack, cold sober knew it to be a lie, and sacrificed himself. Bes of luck in the contest! Thanks-


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David Sweet
20:16 Dec 17, 2023

This is a great story. Is it based on any actual lore? I felt you were hindered somewhat by the word count restriction of the prompt. I hope you will consider expanding it and to make it a longer narrative. I really enjoyed the suspense, especially the knocking on the bottom of the ship. Making it into a murder/thriller where the crew is disappearing one or a few at a time could really draw out the suspense. Even filling out the characters of the captain and quartermaster would be a huge plus. Even the fact that all of this could be a possib...


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