8:1 Sure Shot at Sea

THE PACIFIC OCEAN  |  1889

Philomena awoke with a start in an opulent stateroom below decks on the Pride of Jefferson. A single electric bulb shone brightly under a Bohemian glass shade throwing colored geometric shapes against wood paneling of Hungarian ash and French oak. As one of the first steamships to be equipped with Thomas Edison’s invention, the company did not yet entrust the operation of the lamps to the passengers and cabin lights were controlled from outside the door, each switch encased in a locked rosewood box.

As major stockholders, The Lanthiers had left an open ticket for Fox to join them in Kaua‘i; a place for the preacher and his charge was easily found upon the lavishly appointed steamship. However fancy, the port-side cabin was cold and the blanket that Fox had found to cover Philomena as she slept offered meager protection.

Something in the girl’s dream had disturbed her enough to allow herself to be dragged back to consciousness by the bright lamp, but as she became fully aware, she wondered what could have possibly been worse than her waking life. Philomena only knew that the ornate, but oppressive, cabin was little comfort and the man who wanted her to call him father was nowhere in sight.

Driven by restlessness and an irrepressible curiosity, the girl rose from her berth, put on her sole outfit of jacket and fringed skirt—pleated except where she had sewn matching panels of embroidered roses like her hero Annie Oakley—and stole into the passageway. Although she looked ready to take on the world, Philomena quickly realized she had no idea where she was. Glimmering electric lights ran the length of the seemingly endless hallway, with unlit oil lamps at the ready should Edison’s folly fail. Should have paid better attention when we came in, she chastised herself. You only have your wits to rely on out here, Philomena.

A young man dressed in white sailor’s clothes stood before an intricately worked walnut panel at the forward bulkhead and she sheepishly called out to him.

“Excuse me, sir? Could you tell me which way I might find some air? It’s rather tight in my cabin, and I thought I might like to see the sky to make sure it still exists.”

The sailor neither turned nor acknowledged her request, only continued contemplating the likeness of a sailor cavorting with what Philomena took at first to be friendly mermaids, but on closer inspection turned out to be much more malevolent creatures—a fact that wasn’t lost on the wooden carving of the seaman, his face sculpted as a mask of dawning horror.

“Excuse me!” Philomena’s tone became more emphatic as she moved toward the sailor. “I would like to go up to the deck, could you … ?” As she reached out to touch the man’s shoulder, an unearthly chill suddenly rushed the length of the passageway, funneled and magnified by the cold steel hall, and dimming the nascent electric lamps as it came.

The sailor finally turned to face her in the half-light and revealed a white, ravaged face; wrinkled as if brined by the sea. The young man’s pale skin hung off the bones of his skull in layers that had started to lose their grip in places.

Philomena was frozen where she stood. Oh, please don’t open your mouth. Oh, please don’t open your mouth. She knew that if the sailor made to speak to her, she would finally lose her own grip on her wavering sanity.

The sound of someone approaching on the stairs adjacent to the dreadful frieze distracted her for a second, and when she turned back to the sailor, he was gone.

“Well, what have we here?” A husky voice inquired. “Why, little Miss Sure Shot, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.” A large, brutish gentleman in an ill-fitting suit stepped through the very door Philomena had been looking for. She took the opportunity to skirt the man and mount the stairs at a dead run. The man watched her disappear, a blur of brocaded roses, and chuckled to himself. “Children today.”

Moments later, Philomena burst out of the stairwell and onto the deck as if shot from a cannon.

“Hold up there, Bulls-Eye,” a young man in a uniform similar to the phantom sailor’s stopped her. “What’s the rush?”

Philomena stepped forward and poked the sailor hard in the stomach, which to her relief did not deflate, dissolve, or disappear.

“What was that for?” the sailor asked, bemused as he rubbed his abused abdominals.

“I’m sorry,” Philomena apologized, realizing just how strange it may have seemed. “I’m … I’m looking for my father.”

“Well, I’m afraid you missed the mark, Annie Oakley. You’re not going to find him in there,” the sailor laughed. “Let’s find him together shall we? We can’t have you going around poking the other passengers.”

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