Great Point by Dan McKeon
Great Point is the third place winner in the Summer 2023 Quarterly Short Story Competition.
A deafening clash of lightning illuminated Eric’s sleeping quarters through the tiny porthole on the trawler boat’s starboard side. As the storm pelted the hull, echoing through the cabin, Eric slept soundly. The waxing moon cast ominous shadows through a deluge of rain, making the bunk beds appear to be crying or bleeding. Eric’s arm hung from the top bunk. He bent his knees toward his chest, unable to stretch without slamming his foot into the bulkhead. The room was six feet by three feet, with bunks on one side, a window on the other, and a sliding door in between. Below him sat a vacant mattress and underneath that, two inches of rising ocean water.
Thunder exploded like a cannon, jolting Eric awake. His brows knit together in pain as he smacked his head onto the low ceiling. “What’s going on?” he mumbled, massaging his temple, and dropping back into a deep slumber. Every inch of his body burned from hauling nets, weaving steel cables, and gutting fish. Sleep was all he was capable of. He was blissfully unaware of his missing bunkmate, the slight port-side tilt of the fishing vessel, or the tear in the keel that slowly filled the ship with water.
Eric pulled his threadbare blanket to his neck and groaned as he turned toward the bulkhead. All his on-board possessions fought for space on the narrow mattress—a canvas duffle bag, a waterproof goose-lined coat, and a long metal thermos. Each item bore a ragged stretch of masking tape with “FROGGY” scribbled across in capital letters. There was only one person in the world who called him Froggy, but when he boarded the trawler as a first-time deckhand, he decided that’s who he was now—Froggy.
Eric was ten years old in the summer of 2011, Miranda was seven. Their mother had recently received a promotion, and the family celebrated with a vacation to Nantucket. They spent their days on the beach and their evenings exploring. Eric had stumbled upon a pond filled with several varieties of wildlife. He doused himself with a cloud of bug spray, just as his dad instructed. Miranda, however, refused with her arms crossed and lower lip pouting.
“Natural consequences,” their father conceded.
They chased fireflies, blew seeds off cattails, and caught frogs, which fascinated Eric the most. He spent the night hopping around, croaking like a frog, the wet grass staining his bare knees green. The next morning, he woke up with a sore throat and Miranda arose, scratching the mosquito bites that covered her body. Eric stumbled into Miranda’s bedroom as their mom tended to the insect bites.
“Morning,” he squawked through his raspy throat. Miranda laughed hysterically, the dried calamine lotion cracking on her cheeks, spreading pink flakes onto her pillow.
“You sound like a frog!” she guffawed.
“You’re one to talk, Skeeter,” Eric retorted, pointing to her mosquito bites.
Miranda laughed even harder. Eric smiled. There was no better sound in the world than his sister’s laugh. From that day on, he was Froggy, and she was Skeeter.
Eric shook himself awake and frantically patted his duffle bag. A sigh of relief billowed through his chapped lips as he gripped his thermos. “This is some storm.”
“Curt, you up?”
Eric hung his head down toward the lower bunk.
He tossed his blanket to the side and slid down from his bunk. Goosebumps radiated throughout his body as his feet plunged into the icy water covering the cabin floor. “What the…?”
A flash of lightning momentarily lit the room. The water crept just below Eric’s knees. He fought off panic, hoping the water was rainfall that meandered in through a cracked seal in the porthole. He reached down, wet his hand, and brought it to his lips. The acrid salt puckered his cheeks.
Waves crashed against the hull, rocking the boat further port side. Eric gripped the bed frame to steady himself. His eyes stretched wide, and his heart pounded in his ears. He inhaled deeply and thought of Miranda.
On the northern tip of Nantucket is a narrow stretch of beach, reaching out into the Atlantic like a hand beckoning you home. At the apex is the Great Point lighthouse, towering sixty feet toward heaven. Miranda thought the name was hilarious and snuck it into conversation whenever she could. Her father would say something like, “We should take a family picture by the lighthouse,” and she would reply, “Gee, Dad. Great point!” and laugh until she couldn’t breathe. When Eric would help with her math homework, he would sharpen a pencil, hold it out, studying it with one squinting eye. “Now that’s a great point!” he would say, and Miranda would shriek with laughter.
Once they climbed to the top of the lighthouse and stared off into the miles of ocean, awe and peace washed over them all. Whenever Eric or Miranda had a bad day, she would rest her hands on the side of his face, close her eyes, lean her forehead against his, and say, “Froggy, take me to Great Point.” They would sit like that, imagining the wind in their hair, the sun on their cheeks, the salt on their lips, and everything would be okay.
There were many times after their father lost his job, after Eric flunked a test, after Miranda got cut from the softball team, after the car accident, when life felt impossible. “Nothing’s impossible,” Miranda would say. “Just close your eyes and take me to Great Point.”
Now, with the ocean creeping up over his thighs, Eric clenched his eyes, leaned his forehead against his bunk, and said, “Nothing’s impossible, Skeeter. Let’s go to Great Point.” A slow, steady knock on the cabin door pulled him back to reality. “Coming,” he shouted as he reached for his watertight thermos and stuffed it under the waistband of his jeans.
Eric trudged through the frigid night water toward the door. Lazy knocking continued as he gripped the door handle. When he yanked the door open, a gush of water overcame him, knocking him over. He flailed his arms, straining for proper grounding in the dark. The water now covered him up to his chest as something hairy slid by. Beyond the sliding door was a small landing, flanked by another sleeping quarter. Clamped to the bulkhead were life vests and waterproof flashlights. He ripped a flashlight off the bulkhead, turned it on, and saw what was “knocking” at his door. Carl floated on the water’s surface, bloated and dead. His head had been smacking into the door as the boat rocked. Eric screamed, reached for his bunkmate, and then vomited.
A few months after Eric began studying at the University of Southern Maine, he received the sort of phone call everyone dreads. He flung some clothes into a bag and darted home, a mere ten-minute ride to South Portland. His family had been driving home from dinner when a trucker had fallen asleep at the wheel, plowing headfirst into his father’s sedan. The eighteen-wheeler dragged their car two miles before the driver woke up and slammed the brakes. His parents died on impact. Miranda, who sat in the backseat, had her legs crushed and her spine severed. She never walked again.
Eric immediately withdrew from school and became a full-time caretaker. When family and friends admired him for giving up school and sacrificing any sort of social life, Eric shook them off. For him, it wasn’t a sacrifice. It was just something you did for the people you loved, and there was no one in the world he loved more than Skeeter.
With the water up to his neck and only three inches between the top of his head and the ceiling, Eric’s breath quickened. His entire body shook with fear and cold as he tightened his jaw.
In front of the sleeping quarters’ landing was a set of submerged aluminum steps leading to a trapdoor, which opened onto the main deck. He didn’t know what awaited on the other side, but the only egress below deck was the porthole in his bedroom, and it was only large enough to fit his head through. He had no other options. The frigid waters were nearly at the ceiling, and a bolt of panic spread through his body. Eric tilted his head back, filled his lungs with air, hesitated only briefly, and plunged into silence.
He clenched the flashlight between his trembling teeth, gripped the aluminum railing with his left hand, and pushed up on the trapdoor with his right. His arm moved sluggishly through the weight of the water, producing a weak force against the door. Eric stepped up another rung on the ladder and slammed his shoulder upward. The door opened half an inch, the force of the ocean above fighting against him. Water gushed in through the narrow opening, filling the lower deck completely, and fully submerging Eric.
By her eighteenth birthday, Miranda was accustomed to her wheelchair and resigned to the fact she would never walk again. After her twelfth surgery and countless rounds of dialysis, she also knew her time was limited. Eric placed a dinner tray on her side table. She patted the bed, and Eric took a seat next to her. She held his hand between her feeble, trembling fingers and stared into his eyes. “Take me to Great Point,” she said.
Eric leaned his forehead toward hers, but she stopped him with her palm. “Not like that, Froggy. Take me to Great Point, for real. I want to look out at the ocean from the top of the lighthouse.”
He scanned his sickly sister, glanced over at her wheelchair, and thought about his empty bank account. “Skeeter, it’s… just not possible.”
She leaned her forehead against his and whispered, “Nothing’s impossible, Froggy.” When he saw a job posting months later for a deckhand to travel on a fishing expedition from South Portland to Nantucket, he knew he had no choice.
Her words echoed through his memory as his lungs screamed in pain. His throat sputtered, fighting the instinct to breathe. With the water pressure now equalized above and below deck, the trap door pushed open, and Eric swam upwards, passing his captain’s floating corpse along the way. The light of the moon warped through the thick ocean current. He couldn’t tell how far it was to the surface, but he kicked and pulled as hard as he could, his head dizzy from lack of oxygen. The surface had to be close by, but he couldn’t swim fast enough.
Then everything went black.
When consciousness crept back in, Eric jerked himself awake, gasping for air, only to find himself in a hospital bed. The steady beep of the monitor to his left calmed him back to reality. The nurse explained how the trawler capsized during the storm, and the rescue vessel arrived just in time to save him. Unfortunately, he was the only survivor. Eric grimaced at the thought of his lost crew. They were honest, hardworking men. Fathers, husbands, and sons. He choked back a tear before a rush of anxiety overcame him. “Where’s my thermos?” he nearly shouted as he sprung up in bed. When he spotted it on a table next to the window, he eased back onto his pillow.
A few days later, Eric was released from Cape Cod Hospital and boarded a ferry to Nantucket. He chose to walk the seven miles of beach to the tip of Great Point, his shoes in one hand, and his thermos in the other. He allowed the sand to dance between his toes, cherishing each step. By the time he reached the lighthouse, his legs burned, but he climbed each painful stair up to the top.
He gazed out at the ocean, inhaling the salty sea breeze as it swept back his hair. The warmth of the sun kissed his face. He removed the top from his thermos, tilted it to his forehead, closed his eyes, and said, “Nothing’s impossible, Skeeter.” He tipped the thermos to the side and scattered his sister’s ashes. Some blew into the ocean, some onto the sand. Some scattered onto the tufts of grass that stretched impossibly toward the marble-blue sky.
“I should have driven,” he mumbled.
He could almost hear Miranda say, “That’s a great point!”
Then he laughed.