Saturday, November 8, 2008

Ships in the Night

Sara jumped when Mrs. Anderson, the librarian, walked up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder and said, “You have to leave now, I need to lock up.” As she gathered up her things, Sara glanced up at the huge clock that hung next to the entrance door and saw that it was after six. Then she looked out the huge windows overlooking the river and noticed that it was dark and there was fog starting to settle on top of the murky water.

“How did I manage to sit here for so long,” Sara wondered. She knew that by the time she walked the four blocks to her bus stop and then made the long ride home that it would be 8:30 or later. Her mother would be worried again.

The last of her things shoved inside her backpack, Sara headed out the door onto the upper level of Factor’s Walk. At that point she really had planned to run the four blocks and try to catch the 6:30 bus but then she heard the tug boat and knew that she wouldn’t make the 6:30 bus. She rushed down the walkway and headed for the steep stairs leading down to River Street. Hearing the horn on the tug boat Sara knew that a ship was headed into port and she wanted to watch it go by. She had sat all afternoon at the library and not a single ship had come through. Sara loved the huge cargo ships and loved to stand and fantasize about what part of the world they had travelled from and the lives of the men on board.

The ships were the big reason that she came down to the library almost every day. She would sit in front of the big windows in the library snuggled in one of the huge overstuffed chairs and dream of going to all the exotic places the ships would travel to. Reading was of course the other draw to this cozy little branch of the library. Sara loved to read more than anything. She could read for hours and did. Most nights she stayed up until midnight or later reading some mystery or love story. The next morning she would be dragging when her clock went off and she had to get up for school but in her backpack were five new books. That should keep her busy for a few days or at least until Monday when she would be back at school. The library was too far to go on weekends and besides she had to work on Saturday.

Darkness came fast when it was foggy like tonight and Sara had to watch the steep steps to keep from falling. Huge oak trees blocked most of the light from up on Bay Street and down below on River Street the lights were always dim because most of them were gas lights which she loved even if they provided so little lighting. She could see the outline of the huge ship coming up the river but the visibility was poor due to the fog.

Sara noticed that there were very few people down on River Street and realized that everyone would be hurrying home from work and not hanging out to watch ships come into port. Watching the ships coming in or heading back out to sea was exciting to her but most people didn’t pay that much attention.

As she headed over closer to the river, Sara noticed a young man standing by the rail watching the ship as it slowly made its way into the channel. The tug boated tooted every now and then to let the ship know that it was headed in the right direction. The young man turned as she walked closer and smiled. Sara wasn’t really thrilled to have anyone else share the experience of watching the ship come in with her but smiled back to be polite. She thought to herself, “What strange clothes he’s wearing. They look so outdated.” But then her attention was back on the ship and trying to see where it was from. It appeared to be from an Asian country judging from the writing on the side and the flag looked like one that she had seen before that was from China.

The young man moved closer to where she was standing and said, “Don’t you think that ships are exciting to watch? I come here often and wait for one to come in. Oh, I’m so sorry, forgive my manners. My name is William Palmer. I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss?”

Sara was so surprised at the way he spoke that she took a few minutes to reply. “Hello, I’m Sara McLean. Nice to meet you, William. And yes, I do love the ships and find them to be very exciting. In fact, I find them so exciting that I missed my bus to come down to watch it.”

With that, William smiled and told her that she shouldn’t be down on River Street after dark alone and asked what her parents would say if they knew her whereabouts. Sara was a little indignant and said, “Well, my father is deceased and my mother knows that I can take care of myself. I come down here all the time and I really don’t need some stranger telling me what I should and shouldn’t do, thank you very much.” This was only partly true because while her mother knew that she walked down to the library from school, she didn’t know that she came down to the lower level of River Street. Sara wasn’t sure that her mother would be pleased with that knowledge.

William immediately began to apologize for being so rude as to question what she did but he explained that River Street was a very dangerous place at night and really wasn’t safe for a young woman to be wandering around alone. He assured her that he meant no disrespect and was only concerned for her wellbeing. Sara had to smile because he was so serious and also because he really was so good looking. She had already noticed but after talking to him, she thought he was about the best looking guy she had ever seen. His eyes lit up when he spoke and his smile was so sincere.

The ship was almost directly in front of them now and it was so huge and magnificent. There were lights on every level and she wondered what it looked like on the inside. She knew that it was a working ship and probably wouldn’t be elegant by any means but still it was from a foreign country and she was curious about it and its occupants. William turned to her and said, “You should be careful standing so near the railing. If you lost your balance, you would fall right into the river.” Somehow, Sara didn’t mind nearly so much this time when he gave her advice and smiled to herself.

The ship was slowly moving past and the fog down the river gave it an eerie look, like a ghost ship. Sara knew she should head up to Bay Street and start her walk over to her bus stop but she really was enjoying William’s company and didn’t want to leave just yet. She was jolted out of her thoughts by William’s voice asking, “Sara, would you like to walk for a while or do you have to leave? I hope you don’t have to go just yet because I want to know more about you.”

The two walked and talked for a long time. Sara was so attracted to William that she had forgotten all about why she had been upset earlier when she came to the library. The betrayal of her friend and boyfriend seemed so long ago yet it was only earlier in the day. How could one of her very best friends, someone that she had known from second grade do such a despicable thing? Judy knew that Sara and Jimmy were dating and yet she had invited him to a party and had not invited Sara. But then, Jimmy should have told Sara instead of going to the party. Oh well, he had gone and apparently, he and Judy were now the “item”. Sara had felt like such a fool in school when she found out. All the girls who had been at the party on Saturday night had made comments all week and she had not paid any attention. But then, she had been sick most of the week and had missed school a couple of days. She had wondered why Jimmy hadn’t called to see how she felt. “What a coward! He should have had the decency to at least tell her, and Judy, she was such a bitch,” Sara thought to herself as she recalled how much pleasure Judy seem to get from telling her that she and Jimmy were together.

William had been talking all this time that her mind had been wandering back to the day’s events and now she was trying to catch up with his conversation. “No more wasted time on Jimmy and Judy,” Sara told herself. “William is much more exciting and definitely better looking. He’s older and more polished and I can’t wait to show him off!”

Realizing that they had walked all the way to the end of River Street and would have to either turn around and head back the same way or go up the steep stairs to Bay Street, William said, “We should go back down to the better lit areas because this is so out of the way and I’m not comfortable with your being here. There’s been problems with gangs of ruffians robbing unsuspecting townspeople and then beating them up and throwing them into the river.”

Sara was speechless. “Ruffians? Unsuspecting townspeople? Where did William come from to talk like this?” It sounded like something someone from decades ago would have said not a young man in 1964. And those clothes he was wearing. “Who wears a suit with that funny little collar and she could see a watch chain from underneath his jacket.” He was still talking and as she looked up to see his face, she saw shadows moving from behind the end of the building.

“William,” she said quietly but with fear in her voice, “there’s someone behind the end of the building watching us.” “No, don’t turn around. I don’t want him to know that I saw him.” William took her had and slowly started walking back towards the better lit section of River Street and told her to keep walking and not stop for anything. They tried to pick up their pace and suddenly from behind they heard, “Hey, what’s the hurry? Don’t you want to stay and visit with me and my buddies?”

“Oh no,” Sara thought, “There’s more than one of them.” She hoped that they weren’t planning to rob and kill them but immediately discounted that idea as being ridiculous. She had not heard of anyone being mugged down here in a long time. But then, she didn’t really pay much attention to the news. William kept moving and pulling her along but stopped when two guys stepped out from the shadows of the building up ahead. He turned and looked behind them and there were two more standing a few feet behind him and Sara. “What do you want?” William asked. “Money? I’ll give you my wallet and inside you’ll find all my money.” The guy who had spoken before laughed and said, “Oh, we’ll definitely take your money, pretty boy, and we’ll also take that watch hanging from the chain underneath your jacket and then we’ll see what the little lady here has to offer.” His laugh was not pleasant and his eyes were dark and full of malice. He and the others came closer to William and Sara and grabbed William’s wallet which he had pulled out to give them. Then the one who had done the talking reached over and jerked the watch from its chain. “Wait,” William said, “My grandfather gave that watch to me and it’s worthless to you. Please don’t take it. You have my money.”

All of the guys laughed and then one of them snatched Sara’s backpack from her arms and then grabbed her. William tried to stop them and got a jab to his jaw for his trouble and then a hard punch to the stomach. When he fell to his knee from that, one of the guys kicked him in the ribs. William groaned and tried to get up but fell backwards. They all laughed and when Sara tried to pull free, the one holding her held her tighter and put his smelly face up to hers and said, “Oh, you’re not going anywhere, missy, you are going to spend some time with me and my friends.” “We have a great little spot to party and we won’t have to worry about any one interrupting us.” Again, the group of hoodlums laughed.

William was partially up by now and with the guys’ attention focused on Sara, he had managed to pull a small derringer from his inside coat pocket. When the guys turned and saw the gun pointed at them, the look of surprise on their faces was priceless. Sara tried to pull herself from the smelly one’s grasp but he held tighter. “Please just let me go,” she said. “Leave before someone gets hurt.”

There was no laughter now but you could tell the group was not planning to just walk away. They had all been drinking and they didn’t appreciate anyone interupting the fun that they had planned. They had been watching Sara and William for quite awhile and had waited until they walked down to this dark, deserted section of the river to make their move.

“Let her go now and I won’t shoot you,” William said. “We can all walk away with no damage done.” One of the boys spoke up, “You can’t shoot us all with that little wannabe gun.” “It probably only holds two shots at most.” Sara could see that William was trying to think what his move should be and he was not overly confident. She felt the hot breath of the one holding her on the back of her neck and could feel him moving his feet pushing her along in front of him. They were getting closer and closer to the river’s edge and the railing here was not very high. She tried to shift her weight to make it harder for the guy to move but she stumbled and started to fall. The dark water below was getting closer and then she was in the cold murky Savannah River. As she was falling, Sara heard commotion and thought she heard a gun shot. Then everything was dark and she lost consciousness.

Sara felt someone pulling her from the water and she remembered being turned over and patted very hard on the back. She coughed and sputtered and water came up and she was finally able to breath. In the darkness, she saw William’s face and she knew that it was he that had pulled her from the water. Then everything went black again and she awoke to people over her and saying, “Miss, are you okay? Were you in the water? Can you speak?” Sara looked for William but he was no where to be seen and she asked the men around her where he had gone. “No one was here when we came along”, the man in the suit said. The other man who was so fat that he could barely bend down said, “I heard this man here yelling for someone to come and help him and I came over but no one else was here but him and you.”
The man in the suit asked the fat man to stay with her so he could go down to a tavern and call the police and an ambulance. When the police came they asked Sara what happened and she told them about the gang that had attacked her and William. The kindly policeman asked what happened to her friend and Sara told him that she didn’t know. When she fell into the river, the gang was still there and William had a gun trying to stop them from robbing and hurting them. An ambulance arrived soon and it was determined that Sara should go to the hospital to be checked out but she insisted that she was okay and she needed to find William to make sure that those awful thugs hadn’t hurt him. The policeman assured her that he would look for William and the guys who had attacked them.

Later at the hospital, Sara was deemed to be okay and extremely lucky for someone who had apparently fallen into the Savannah River. Not many survive from that, she was told. Her mother and brother arrived to take her home and she was so happy to be in her own bed but she couldn’t sleep. The soup that her mother had insisted that she eat was barely touched and her mind kept racing back to the scene on the river. Sara’s mother hinted that there would be some discussion the next day on her being down on River Street but for now she was just happy that her daughter was safe.

The next morning a policeman came to Sara’s house and wanted to ask her some more questions about the night before. He had no answers for her about William’s whereabouts or about the guys that had snuck up on them in the dark. “There are so many tunnels and hiding places along there that they could have gone anywhere after you fell in the water” the policeman said. “You are one lucky little lady to be here, I can tell you. We’ve had so many muggings along that stretch of River Street and I can’t even imagine why a young lady would be down there alone at night.” Her mother was quiet but Sara knew that wouldn’t last for long. She was in for it when the policeman left for sure. She tried to tell the policeman and her mother that she had not been alone, that she had walked down there with a young man that she had met and his name was William Palmer and he was really nice and he had saved her life. He had pulled her from the water and had pounded on her back to make her spit up the awful nasty water from the river.

The policeman looked at Sara and said, “I’m not sure what you think happened, Sara, but I’ve been on the Savannah police force for twenty-five years and when I was a rooky cop, the first dead body that I ever saw was on River Street. It was a young man that had tried to stop a gang of thugs from killing a young woman. She was okay but they shot and killed the young man. His name was William Palmer and he fits the description that you gave me perfectly. You must have read something somewhere about that happening and dreamed that he tried to rescue you. I can assure you that it couldn’t have been William Palmer. He is very much deceased.”

After the policeman left, Sara was in shock. There was no way that she had dreamed this. She had met William while watching the ship come by and they had walked and he had held her hand and …….. “No, no, no,” she cried. “I will not believe that he wasn’t real. He saved my life. I have to find him.” Sara’s mother had planned to give her good talking to when the policeman left but her daughter looked so distraught that she didn’t have the heart to say anything to her just yet. “Later,” she thought.

Sara spent the day crying and sleeping in that order. Her mother had to leave finally for work and had told her to stay in bed and rest. Her brother would be home later and would check on her. “Okay,” Sara said. “I’ll stay put.” No sooner than her mother had gone, Sara jumped up and dressed. She barely took time to brush her hair. The bus was late and for a change, she was happy about that because otherwise she would have had to waited an hour for it to arrive. The ride into town seemed to take forever and she knew that she must look like death warmed over to the other riders. She tried to keep her face down so no one could see her red, swollen eyes.

The bus stop closest to River Street was about four blocks away and Sara was exhausted by the time she ran most of the way. She went down the steep stairs two at a time and hurried down to the area where she had met William the evening before. Surely, he would know that she would come and would wait for her there. Not too many people were around and those that were didn’t pay her any attention as she walked down River Street. She looked at everyone that she saw but none of them were William. “Where could he be” she wondered and kept walking. Soon she found herself getting near the area where they had been the night before when they were attacked. She couldn’t believe that she had come back to this spot but in the daylight it didn’t look nearly as frightening. No sign of William anywhere. Sara walked all the way down and looked where she had fallen into the river the night before and marveled at the fact that she was alive to tell about it. “All because of William” she thought. She shuddered to think about what would have happened otherwise. Finally, she turned and started to walk back and then she saw something shining from the sun’s reflection. She walked over and reached down and picked up William’s watch. He was real and he was there. “I knew it all along” Sara said to no one. She put the watch in her bag and rushed back up to Bay Street.

The police station was several blocks away but she made it pretty quickly. She was so excited about finding William’s watch that she barely noticed the walk. When Sara asked to see the policeman that had visited her house earlier that day, the lady at the desk motioned for her to go down the hall and turn right, first office on the left. Sara hurried down to his office and knocked on the door. When the officer saw her, he was surprised to say the least. He had thought that was the last of Sara McLean he would have to deal with. Sara walked in and took the watch from her bag and said to him, “See, this is William’s watch. One of the guys snatched it from its chain and must have dropped it when they ran away.” “I went down there to look for William and I found it lying next to the spot where we were last night.”

The officer looked at the watch and saw the inscription on the back which left no doubt who the watch had belonged to. He looked very tired and when he spoke, his voice quavered a bit. “I didn’t tell you the whole story this morning.” He had to wait a minute before he said, “William Palmer was my cousin and when I had go down to the river that day, no one knew who the body was so when I walked up and I saw William’s face, I was heartbroken. We had been more like brothers than cousins and I could not believe that he was lying there dead.” I told my boss, the officer in charge, who he was and they told me that I should leave. Someone else would handle it because it was a family member.” “I wanted to stay but I felt sick and I also knew that I had to go tell his family.” “This watch belonged to our grandfather and he had given it to William in honor of his having been accepted to the University of Georgia.” “He was to have left the next day and had gone down to the river to watch the ships come and go as he often did.” “Apparently a young woman was being harassed by some thugs and William went over to help her. One of them shot him pointblank and then ran off. The others were so scared that they ran, too, but one of them told what happened.” “No matter, William was dead and none of us would ever be the same.”

That’s when Sara saw the tears on the officer’s face and she felt so badly that she had brought up such painful memories but how could any of this be true? “I don’t understand any of this” she said. “If William is dead, then who did I meet on the riverfront last night and where did this watch come from?” “I can’t accept this. I know what I know and I met him last night.”

The officer took her arm gently and asked her to go with him. They went out to his car and drove to Bonaventure Cemetery. When they went through the gates, Sara said, “Is this where he’s supposed be buried?” “Yes, he’s buried near the back by the river so he can hear the ships when they pass” he said. They got out and walked to the back and there it was, a lovely headstone that read, “William Edward Palmer, Born January 15, 1921 – Died March 28, 1940”. “March 28?” Sara whispered. “That was yesterday. How can that be? He died on March 28 but twenty-five years ago.” Sara was crying now and could barely speak but she said, “I don’t know how this can be happening. I met him, I talked to him and he held my hand. He saved my life.” Grasping for straws, she said, “Maybe he had a son and I met his son.”

The officer quietly said, “No Sara, he didn’t have a son and I don’t know what happened last night but we never found his watch until you found it today.” “He died twenty-five years ago trying to save a young woman from being attacked and he appeared last night to save you.” “I think we should let it go at that.”

Sara was quiet as the officer drove her home and before she got out of the car, he said, “Sara, sometimes we don’t know everything about this world and this is one of those times. You needed William last night and he was there. That’s the way he was. Go on with your life and don’t dwell on it.” “Our family will always be grateful that you found his watch.”

As the years passed Sara spent many days and evenings watching the ships come and go but she never saw William again although she looked every time she went down to River Street. She moved away and it faded from memory somewhat but when she went home to visit last year; she saw an article in the newspaper that made her heart jump. A young woman had been attacked on River Street and she told the police officers that a young man that she had just met had saved her. She had been knocked down and was left unconscious and when she awoke, the young man had gone and so had her attackers. The police were looking for the young man to see if he could help identify the attackers. Sara looked at the newspaper’s date and saw that it was March 28, 1989.

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