When Jake opened his eyes he was too aware of the monitoring electrodes on his chest and belly. They peeled off easily and quietly, but he was disoriented, fuzzy in the morning light. He was naked apart from sticky padded hospital socks and they stuck to the dirty laminate floor. In front of him was an ancient mural of off-brand cartoon characters gathered together in unrealistic harmony. He pulled himself out of the bed, dragging his feet to the open window – he needed a fresh gulp of air. Outside and a few stories below the ebb and flow of the ocean tide lapped unnaturally against what was once the hospital’s circle drive entrance. He licked the salt spray from his lips and pulled out a cigarette from the pack he had hidden in the window frame, behind the curtains.
He would turn 18 next week, but it wasn’t soon enough. Water was eating away at the foundations faster than his surgery wound could heal. Jake was the last patient left in pediatrics after the emergency retreat order. A responsible adult would have to come get him, but he didn’t know any of those. The port where his morphine dripped started to itch, but he couldn’t spare a hand between holding the IV stand with his right and smoking with his yellow-stained left. As the nicotine rushed into his muscles, he wondered whether a hospital bed would float.
Carly stirred from under the sheets. “Come back,” she purred between her still glossed lips. They had met on the ward – she had leukemia and he had something as-yet-unidentified that required exploration of his abdomen. Jake loved stroking her downy soft hair, blonde and curly and cropped close to her skull after rounds of chemo. Carly loved that Jake smoked around her totally unafraid of her delicate constitution. Her parents had signed her out to take their chances at home on the first day of the retreat. They were not supposed to be together and yet here they were. “Last morning, come back,” she pleaded again.
Jake got himself back to the bed in the careful way he had learned. Hold the spine just so to not feel the squishy agony of the staples in his lower left side; drag the left leg because putting weight on it meant contracting muscles that were currently cut in half. As he slid in next to her, Carly danced her fingers just above the wound dressings in their practiced way and squeezed gently. They fell into each other in the manner only teenagers in love can.
“He’s gonna come,” she whispered into his shoulder.
“Not a chance,” Jake replied on a smoky exhale.
“He has to. Like, you have to go somewhere. Literally.”
“Nah, Father Michael and me are finally gonna get it in.”
“Shut up! So gross!”
“You’re just jealous of what we have.”
They laughed easily. Father Michael, the chaplain for pediatrics, was one of their favorite targets but they bonded over terrorizing everyone. They had a few long-haul friends before the evacuation – Paulie with pneumonia, Sara recovering from tonsil surgery – but mostly they were two punks against everyone else: other kids, doctors, nurses. As the water got closer, Father Michael came around more for comfort and his serious intensity earned him a new nickname from Jake and his gang — The Priest Who Fucks. They joked, but they were all starved for normal teenage flirtation and found themselves with secret crushes on this impossible man. When Jake and Carly had their first clandestine encounter in his room, messing around about The Priest Who Fucks discovering them made the weirdness of navigating open wounds and IV ports a little more fun.
Suddenly, there was a clatter on the closed part of the window. Tap, tap, tap. “There he is now, coming to whisk me away,” Jake joked knowing full well what this sound really meant. “They can wait,” Carly replied quietly. The two lay in silence for a few moments as if that choice alone could make time stop. Tap, tap, tap, tap. “Carly!,” came an impatient voice from below, “Come on, before they find you!” Carly kissed Jake lightly on his patchy, bearded cheek before slipping out of the bed and over to the window. Jake hid his quivering lower jaw as she brushed past Minnie and Mickey Mouse on the mural wall. They held each other’s gaze as Carly straddled the windowpane, half in and half out. They didn’t know the right words yet to express how it felt to know you would probably never meet again.
“Bye,” she said.
“’Kay,” he said.
Once she had shimmied down the drainpipe and into the dingy raft her friends ferried, it sunk into Jake that this was it. It was his last day at Holy Cross Health and he didn’t have a grift to get out of this one.
Florida was filled with towns like Juno Beach. By the time Jake was in middle school, it was painfully obvious that strategic retreat was the only way to beat the water. He had gotten used to wading his way to school and navigating certain streets by paddle boat. When he was young it was even fun – there was still an excitement to figuring it out. But, slowly the charged feeling in the air changed from determination to despair. When he started to become aware of such things, Jake realized that town was too small to know that many people who’d jumped off the same bridge. It all felt like the steady off-balance of surfing.
So, Jake never much worried about growing up and charged head first into how far his body could take him day to day. He was hard smoking and drinking and drugging in his first few years of puberty. Almost every visible patch of skin had a scar from some stupid idea he had had. Tumbles off of skateboards; run-ins with the law; and one very memorable airboat accident. By the time he got sick, he wasn’t as worried as the doctors about what it was that was making him lose weight and feel weak and go feverish – he always knew something was wrong and this just felt like the next thing in a line.
His father, Adam, took it differently. Juno Beach was his home and unlike so many other families from the neighborhood he was determined to stay even after the land was taken back by the sea. A shrimper many generations deep, he made it his mission to teach everyone in town how to live on the water. And it was a thriving mission at first, but as the tide gained on the coast people began to give up on the promise of a new kind of life as they sought familiar comforts.
Adam himself retreated into familiar comfort at the bottom of a bottle and grew over years to bitterly view anyone leaving Juno Beach as a coward, traitor, a personal affront to him. Jake’s journey to Holy Cross Health was no different. As Jake’s friends loaded him into their kayak to sail across the sound to the hospital for surgery, Adam stood carefully at their waterlogged porch and delivered an ultimatum: “You leave town and you will never see me again. You were born in this town and you should die in this town.” He hadn’t seen or heard from his father since.
Jake never thought again about where he would die until today. It seemed reasonable that if no one came to pick him up by sunset then future scientists would just find his bones here in the underwater ruins, next to these shitty cartoons. He didn’t like the idea and shrugged it off by lighting a new cigarette. He would think of something. He always thought of something, even if it was profoundly stupid.
The hallway was empty and they had already turned off the overhead fluorescents which made Holy Cross Health look post-apocalyptic. And it was. The playroom at the end of the hall was filled with blue-gray natural light bouncing off the water that only made it worse. Eerie silence on the ward was only broken by the rusting wheels of Jake’s IV stand and the distant rolling tide. Walking the halls was not giving him the brilliant plan he needed.
He sat on the musty playroom couch and looked out the floor to ceiling windows and beyond to the sea. Why couldn’t the order wait a week so he could turn 18 and take his chances with a makeshift dingy? Earlier in the week, Jake and Carly had stayed up late dreaming up all kinds of plans — stealing an ambulance boat and running away without permission; convincing The Priest Who Fucks to adopt him; giving in and leaping into the surf before someone on the skeleton crew could stop it. But, something always kept him from making talk into action. He could still feel this stinging nettle of boyhood in his belly; a potent mixture of fear and hope that maybe the good thing could happen anyway. Jake gritted his teeth and spit out a taste of tobacco.
“That’s not sanitary. Don’t you know you’re in a hospital, dipshit?” Jake recognized Paulie’s raspy voice immediately and it meant his girl Sara wasn’t far behind. “Be nice, Paulie. We’re here to cheer him up. You want one, Jake?” When he turned around Jake was met with a 40oz can of Natural Light beer and Sara’s still intact hospital bracelet. He felt that fear again; a hesitation to take it knowing that there would be consequences and yet wanting to abandon the rules. He grabbed it and cracked the tab. “’Sup?”
“We broke in! To see you on D Day! Had to break into the freight elevator and everything. Aren’t you psyched, dude?”
“Not really. I feel like shit. Did you bring a boat?”
“We came on the jet ski. But, we got you a carton for the journey. Used protection and everything.” Right on Paulie’s cue, Sara tossed Jake a sea-sprayed gallon-sized Ziploc bag with a carton of Marlboro reds in it. Jake turned it over in his hands and gave his genuine thanks without sounding terribly grateful.
“He’s gonna come,” Sara said as she shuffled her feet awkwardly.
“No. He’s not. But, it’s cool. Glad you’re here. Have enough beers to get fucked up?”
Always prepared to cause trouble, Paulie pulled a six pack of Bud Light out of his backpack. It was something he always managed to do when he was on the ward, too. He seemed to have an unending network of friends and inside connections who ferried him cigarettes, beer, and the really good drugs throughout his whole pneumonia spell. It was probably the reason they kept him for two months and his doctor nearly quit.
What followed seemed to happen in double time while Jake sat still. Paulie and Sara making out against the windows. Empty cans flying through the air or being crushed under fist. Cigarettes lit, burning, and then gone. Jake lay back on the couch and tried to breathe easy; sipping slowly on the cold beer and thinking about his dad. It hadn’t even been that long and he found it hard to imagine the guy’s face. It was easier to endlessly recall the sound: “You will never see me again.” Every time he repeated it Jake tried to look for a face and something revealing in it – the hint of regret or lying. He played it again and again until it started to sound like The Priest Who Fucks. It took him too long to realize that what he was hearing was actually The Priest Who Fucks.
“Paulie. Sara. I bet you thought you’d never see me again. Go now before I grab the National Guardsmen and have you escorted back to dry land.”
Paulie and Sara packed up without making excuses, offering Jake conciliatory pats on the back as they went. The Priest Who Fucks took his place behind Jake and waved after the others as they snuck back down the freight elevator at the end of the hall. He was a tall and imposing figure, but with a cooing tone in his voice. He wore small circular sunglasses inside like a blind man; it complemented his long gray hair and beard. He moved slowly, with purpose. He had the countenance of a punk who suddenly found God and devoted his life to service because that was precisely who he was. He was really fucking cool.
“Go with God, kids,” he bellowed gently.
Being walked back down the hall to his room wasn’t not like being walked to his own execution, Jake thought. His knees wobbled a bit from the Bud Light he shotgunned and the anxiety he felt about not having a cigarette in his hand. “Easy,” The Priest Who Fucks offered. “There is still time.”
Jake eased his was into the bed, careful not to get tangled up in the IV line. He turned his face away from where The Priest Who Fucks sat near his right ankle and stared at the maniacal looking cartoon duck on the wall. His stomach started to hurt when he remembered that this was not where he was sleeping tonight and that he didn’t know what he would open his eyes to tomorrow morning. He tried to imagine The Priest Who Fucks’ voice coming out of the duck’s mouth.
“How are you, Jacob?”
“You shouldn’t be drinking or smoking during your recovery. And you shouldn’t be bringing people back here. Especially Carly. You know all of that.”
“They came to me. It’s not my fault. But, yeah.” Jake shifted uncomfortably to look at The Priest Who Fucks. “No one is coming to get me, Father Michael.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Life is mysterious and you have to give it the opportunity to surprise you. Sometimes those surprises are disappointing and sometimes they are so good you wouldn’t believe it.”
“No surprises after the end. This is it, huh?”
The Priest Who Fucks was practiced in offering calming advice to the patients here, even in the face of imminent death. But, the threat Jake was referring to was so large and so global that it held them both in an icy grip. It felt briefly like the water already had them, pulling them down and pressing down with unimaginable pressure. The Priest tried anyway.
“No way to know the end until it comes to pass and then we will be at peace. Until then, here’s some personal advice: let yourself be young while you still can. The drinking and the smoking and what I am sure is intimate acts between you and Carly … that will all come. Be a boy.”
“I’m not though. Never been. Listen: I’m 18 next week and no one … no one is coming to get me. Right? Know what I mean? Besides it doesn’t matter. If the water doesn’t get me, my guts will so … fuck it. Right?”
The Priest Who Fucks knew that Jake’s agitation would not be soothed. So, he did what he thought he would want at a time like this. He reached out and held the boy’s hand. “I’m scared,” Jake whispered, barely audible. “He will come,” The Priest replied. Jake said nothing and instead pretended to fall asleep. A tear welled in the corner of his right eye and trailed down the side of his face. After some time, The Priest Who Fucks rose and left the room. This is when Jake fell asleep for real.
“Jacob. Jacob, wake up.”
When Jake drowsily opened his eyes, he assumed he had beaten the system: it was the next day and somehow, he had been allowed to go down to the bottom of the sea with the hospital. As his vision sharpened he realized that The Priest Who Fucks was back and shaking him awake in the golden light of sunset.
“Your father is here.”
This seemed so dreamlike impossible that Jake just went with it, packing his things and pulling the IV cord. It was surreal to take off the hospital gown and socks, and change into the old jeans and t-shirt he came in. Paulie probably devised some scheme; hey-mistered some bum into pretending to be his dad. Whatever worked. If this was real, he was happy to be getting out and would worry later about where he would stay when the grift wore off.
The Priest Who Fucks escorted him down to the first-floor lobby, which he hadn’t seen in weeks. It was filled with a shallow layer of water having already been evacuated when they announced the retreat. Two National Guardsmen in wet gear stood guard at the doors. He could just make out tiny fish and shrimp underfoot making their home in this new reef. The Priest Who Fucks waded him through carefully, wearing gaiters underneath his robes. “Through here, he’s out in the circle drive.”
When they went through the doors, the image in front of them seemed impossible for so many reasons. There was a beaten-up metal pontoon boat barely floating on the rise and fall of the tide. It was tied up to one of the circle drive columns with one of two National Guard-issued hook-ups. The boat had a handmade sail, stitched together from what looked like old windbreakers. It flapped dramatically and caught the dwindling light of the sun. And there in the center of it all was Jake’s father, Adam, looking every inch like the expert sailor he used to be.
“Sorry I’m late, son, had to dry out,” he said. “Have to go now before we lose all the light. And I’m gonna need your help, too. You all healed up?”
“Mostly,” Jake barely breathed out in his shock.
“Father, would you bring him over and throw his pack in? I need to show him a thing or two.”
The Priest Who Fucks pushed Jake forward through the water as it got deeper and deeper, wetting his jean legs up to the knee. As The Priest lifted him up into the boat, his father reached out a hand and pulled him confidently inside. What he found was that he was sitting not in a safe and dry vessel, but one that was lightly sinking. “Be well, Jake,” The Priest Who Fucks said as he waded back into the hospital. “Go with God.”
Suddenly alone with his father, Jake could only think of one thing to say. “Got a lighter?” He pulled the damp carton of cigarettes from its hiding place in his pack as his dad passed him a barely functioning bic lighter. “I’d say you were better off not, but the way things are … smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. Gimme one, too,” Adam said. As they both lit up, Adam took a hard look at his son for the first time in a while. Jake, too, finally saw the face he had been looking for: regret and the distinct look of guilt over something for which you have no intention of apologizing.
“So, here’s where we are, son. There is a hole in this boat that I thought I patched. It didn’t hold. What I am gonna need you to do is take this cup here and bail out as much water as quickly as you can the whole way home.” Adam handed Jake a large empty McDonald’s cup. “You got it? That’s the only way this is gonna work.”
That fear welled up in him again and the boy who would turn 18 next week felt very much like a boy again. “Are we gonna make it back home?” His father gritted his jaw hard in a way Jake found familiar – he did it, too, all the time. It was stupid determination; deciding to do something that would almost definitely not work but you were pretty sure you could pull it off, anyway. “We won’t know if we don’t try, right?” said Adam.
Jake started to take cups of water from the bottom of the boat and toss them out as Adam unhooked them from the columns. The National Guardsmen waved them off and radioed in that the hospital’s last patient was out; all clear. As the man and the boy sailed off into the orange and yellow light they could faintly hear the steady instructions. Delivered distinctly from the mouth of someone holding a cigarette in the corner.
“Bail, son. Bail. Bail. Bail. Keep at it.”