The Tequila Sunset drifted twelve miles off the west coast of Florida. It was three days since the boat’s twin motors had run out of fuel. Danny had found a liter of water in one of the bow lockers. But on the second day, while Danny slept, Mark had finished it off.
A few cargo ships had passed by. Maybe if the flare gun had been in its case, Danny thought, they might have had a chance. But the case was empty and the ships were far enough away that they appeared as little more than small cubes on the horizon, like the blue and yellow wooden blocks that Mark had never let Danny play with, even though their father had made them for the two brothers to share. A case without cartridges or a gun translated into nothing. At first Danny had thought the Coast Guard would find them without it. Now he just hoped they were still looking.
Danny sat slumped on the bench seat with his feet propped up on the center console. For the first two days, the overhead canopy had shaded him from the worst of the morning, but by mid-afternoon, the sun had broken past the boundary of the canopy and scalded his neck and shoulders. Every wave the Tequila Sunset hit caused his soaked shirt to chafe his back, rubbing away layer after layer of blistered skin. He kicked a foot against the broken fuel dial that still read ¼ full and cursed himself for not topping up the tank.
It had been Jackie’s idea. Mark had been home from the hospital for a week, she said, but he seemed worse than before. He hadn’t been into work yet, and she was worried he would lose his job. She needed him to be happy again, she had sobbed on the phone.
“The only thing he has said to me is that he feels as if he’s been running and running and can’t find any place to come back to. I’m scared, Danny. Mark says he’s taking his meds, but I don’t think he is. He won't take them in front of me. He goes into the bathroom and locks the door. I think he's flushing them down the toilet. Take him out on the boat, will you? He loved that old thing so much.”
Jackie had been through a lot in the past five years. First there had been the affair. And then Mark had lost most of their money when the housing market turned bad. Danny felt for the poor woman. Despite all he had done to her, Jackie had stuck with Mark for the sake of their five year old son Bryan. Life hadn't been fair to Jackie - not that it had been fair to any of them - but she had had it especially rough. And Danny wanted to help. He tracked down the guy who had bought Mark’s 1981 25-foot Grady White and persuaded him to rent it out for four hours on Saturday morning.
The guy hadn’t been so sure – he said he was sending it in for repairs - a new radio, one of the fuel lines had been giving him a bit of trouble, a few areas needed sanding and repainting - but Danny had been persistent, they were just going out a few miles off shore to the place he and his brother had always gone, fish for an hour or two, and then head back in. “Hell,” he had argued, “when we were kids we used to go out in a 14 foot Boston Whaler eight, nine miles even.” Danny had promised that they would only fish until noon. He wanted to make it back for the Bucc’s opener. Danny only packed a couple Cokes and a bag of Lays.
The empty Coke bottles rattled towards the back of the boat as it went over another swell. Danny pushed the two plastic bottles away with his foot. He didn’t know why he couldn’t bring himself to throw those bottles overboard.
Danny could hear Mark behind him adjust the rope coil he was using as a pillow as he leaned into the side of the hull. Mark hadn’t moved from that spot for two days. Even when the cargo ships had passed by, it had been Danny who had stood on the bench seat waving the red towel over his head. Mark had not even registered their presence.
No wonder Jackie had sounded so desperate.
Danny looked back up at the sky. Two days ago the sun had been so hot it seemed to burn away the shadows. Now the sky had hardened into a flat pan of light gray clouds. When they had left three days ago, the weatherman on Fox 13 had been excited about the tropical storm headed their way. Danny studied the layered clouds. The storm was still a day or two away. The clouds were a blessing, at least for now.
Danny looked up as he heard the sound of a plane overhead. He knew there was no hope of the plane seeing them. No point to waste energy signaling. At 10,000 feet it was impossible to tell a small boat from the frothy white caps that warned of the energy to come. The Tequila Sunset would look like nothing more than a speck of spit in the water.
The boat bucked and reared and the raw skin on the back of his neck stung as he looked back at the horizon circling them now. So this was how it was going to be he thought. He remembered the time when he was headed to the trade show in Tallahassee on that small commuter plane, and they lost an engine. The plane had fishtailed to an emergency landing, and it had all ended fine, but he thought back to that moment when he sat in row 7 B and the oxygen masks had dropped from the ceiling. He remembered thinking he was in a steel coffin that was about to fall two miles down to earth. He remembered thinking, as he looked down, how he would give anything to be in a boat on the sea.
He thought about their mother. He counted on the tips of his fingers the number of people who would miss him. He stopped when he realized he would only need one hand. His fingertips were swollen and burned, and they hurt as he lightly tapped them with his thumb. He wondered if the Bucc’s had won.
A big swell rocked the boat sideways. Danny had given up trying to maneuver the boat to head into the swells. He needed three or four men, paddling with oars on one side of the 25-foot boat to try and swing the stern around. One man made no difference. If these swells kept building, it would only be a matter of time before one hit the Tequila Sunset broadside and rolled it over. He had clipped two life preservers to his belt. Danny closed his eyes and looked for peace. Maybe the rain would be enough to save them. A seagull landed on the bench seat, but Danny ignored it. He no longer had the energy.
It was nighttime when he woke. At first, the darkness gave him hope that it was over. But then a slap of ocean hit his face, and his damaged eyes began to pick out stars that weren’t there, and he knew that he was yet to trade a first hell for a second. The ocean had even more muscle now, and one of the Coke bottles bounced out of the boat as it plunged into a trough.
Danny moved his legs off the console and lay horizontally on the bench seat. The bow of the boat tipped up high and then suddenly jerked downwards into a near freefall. Danny lost his grip on the armrest and he rolled off the seat and smacked into the console. He lay still for a second and then brought a seared fist down against the deck in frustration. His fist caught a barbed hook that dangled from one of the three rods jammed into the holders behind the bench seat. The pain gave Danny a surge of sudden energy and he used his other hand to push himself upright against the side of the boat.
“Fuck!” Blood oozed out of the wound into the cracks of his skin. “Fuck!” His tongue felt like sandpaper on the roof of his mouth. “Fucking hook’s in my hand!”
“You should take that out,” Mark said. “It’ll get infected.” Mark’s voice was a flat line.
“No shit, I should take it out.” Danny raised his hand closer to his face. The wind daggered his salt-brittled hair across his face. Where were the coastguard choppers? Soon it would be too dangerous to fly.
“Those ones have curved barbs on the end,” Mark said. “They make them so they only make a small hole going in but need a much bigger one to come out.”
“I know how they fucking work,” Danny said.
“I would take it out.”
Danny prodded the hook with a swollen finger but did not remove it. It wasn’t about the hook. He knew that. It was about years and years of everyone always tiptoeing around Mark because of his moods. Both his parents had treated Mark as if he might explode at any moment. It had always been Danny, never Mark, who was called on to wash the car, or mow the lawn, or paint the garage. A fancy fishing pole when he was 16, a second-hand Boston Whaler with a AA 50 HP outboard motor when he was 17. Their parents would do anything to jumpstart happiness for Mark. And Danny had forgotten when he had started doing the same. Maybe that was why he had agreed when Mark was in one of his dark spells to write his older brother’s papers for him. The whole family had been complicit in this search for the happiness that Mark could not find for himself.
Danny felt the pain in his stomach and wished that they had saved the shrimp they brought along for bait instead of eating it raw on the second day. Maybe they could have used it to catch a couple blue fins.
“I saw a fishing boat earlier,” Mark said.
“What? When? You didn’t wake me?”
“A couple hours ago, heading in,” Mark said.
Danny raised his hand to his mouth and licked the blood around the hook. His swollen tongue filled his mouth. It had to rain soon, Danny thought. No God was cruel enough to deny them a final drink. He raised his head and looked at his older brother. “They didn’t see the towel?”
“Can’t hear you,” Mark said.
“The towel, they didn’t see it?”
“It was too dark,” Mark said. “They wouldn’t have seen it anyway.”
“Fuck man! You should have at least tried.”
Regret had a way of finding you wherever you were. Four days ago Danny had been so caught up by the fact that he had let the owner of the boat talk him into one hundred bucks for four hours, that he hadn’t wanted to spend any more money than he had to on gas and water. Gas had spiked up to $1.60 a gallon and Danny hadn’t wanted to return the Tequilla Sunrise with 50 dollars of gas in the tank. He had seen the 24 pack of Poland Spring at the 7-11 for $4.99 but decided they didn’t need it, as they would only be gone for the morning. At the time, $4.99 for 24 plastic bottles filled with tap water had seemed like highway robbery.
“You did shout though, right? At them?” Danny asked.
“Listen to my voice.” Mark tilted his head back against the rope coil and closed his eyes. “It’s broken in half. If you can barely hear me, how the hell was the boat gonna?"
“Christ, Mark! You do realize we’re gonna die out here unless a boat sees us?”
“They didn’t see us,” Mark said.
“Goddamit,” Danny slapped the life preservers against the side of the boat. “We need the damn flare gun. Where the fuck is it?”
A Coke bottle had nestled up against Mark but the boat rocked forward again, and the bottle started to roll away. Mark stretched his arm and blocked its escape route with his fingers.
“You know, I would appreciate a little help here.” Danny said. “I know you don’t particularly care if we make it back or not. But some of us actually like living.”
The hospital bracelet cut into Mark’s taut flesh as he squeezed and then released the Coke bottle, letting it rattle away towards the bow.
After a while Danny spoke again. “Sorry, I didn’t mean that.”
“It’s okay,” Mark said. “You’re right.”
“What the hell is wrong with you? You've stopped taking the meds again, haven't you?”
Mark looked at his brother but didn’t meet his eye. He seemed to be looking past Danny, into the ocean.
“I don't like what they do to my head.” He wiped the palm of his hand slowly across his face. “I can't think right. They make me feel like I'm under water, or all packed up in bubble wrap or something.”
“Jesus Mark! When are you gonna learn to think about someone other than yourself?” He struggled to get the words out. It was as if his mouth was full of sawdust. ”What about Jackie? What about Bryan? He’s five years old. Who’s gonna look after them?”
“Fuck Jackie.” Mark said and sat up. He met his brother’s eyes.
“What’d you say?”
“She’s a fucking, lying bitch.”
“That woman is a goddamn saint. I don't know why she puts up with you. She deserves better, you selfish sonofabitch.”
Danny could feel that the boat was about to be hit by another wave. He spread out his legs and pushed his body back against the side of the boat and braced for the impact.
Mark looked past Danny into the ocean again. “Is that right?”
“How could you leave your son like that?”
“Don’t you fucking lecture me,” Mark reached a hand into his pocket and left it there. “Look.” He raised his chin and looked over Danny’s shoulder.
Danny’s skin burned as he spun his neck. Even with his damaged eyes, he could see a glimpse of light.
“Christ! Is that a boat? Hey! Hey! Mark, yell at them too! Hey! Over here.”
The light disappeared. The boat had turned.
Danny looked back to his brother when he realized that Mark wasn’t yelling after the boat. Mark said nothing, but tugged at his pocket until a metal object tumbled out. Danny squinted to make certain it was what he thought.
“Is that the flare?” Danny asked.
Mark lifted his arm up and behind him so that the black gun dangled over the edge of the boat.
“I know, Danny,” Mark reached his other hand into a second pocket and dropped four flares into his lap. He pulled the gun back in from the edge and opened the breach and slid in a shell. Then he moved it back over the side.
“You’ve had the flare the whole fucking time? God Dammit! Give it to me!”
Mark held it further over the edge. “Make another move and I drop it.”
Danny sat still. The first flecks of rain touched his skin.
“I said, I know.”
“You know what? Give me the gun. We don’t have time for this!”
“I want to hear you say it.”
“Say what? Why are you doing this?”
“I want to hear you tell me that you slept with my wife.”
“What?” Danny looked at Mark and for the first time in more than a year he saw life in his brother's eyes. Those eyes, so often listless and glazed over, stared back at him with bitterness and rage. "What are you talking about Mark?"
“Don’t lie to me! Say it!” He tossed one of the flares into the choppy water. “Say it or I’ll drop the gun.”
Danny knew Mark’s demons had him now. “I don’t what are you talking about.”
“You think I’m blind, Danny? And in my own fucking home? Say it!”
“If you drop that gun we die.” Danny held out his hand. His voice filled with the weight of the past. “Give me the gun.”
“I will drop this gun unless you say those words. You have five seconds.”
Mark began to count down from five.
Four. Danny tried to stay calm and reason the odds.
Mark reached three.
Then two. He threw out a second flare.
“Sure. I slept with her.”
“Thank you.” Mark pulled the gun in from the edge of the boat. He placed it in between his teeth and pulled the trigger.
A few minutes later, the captain of a Coast Guard search vessel saw the orange arc of a flare and redirected towards the site of the flash.