Fiction – “Rosie the Riveter Saves the Day!” by Bernie Mojzes
They called her Rosie here.
“Hey, Rosie!” The voice tried to sound jovial, good-natured. All in good fun. But it just came out ugly and spiteful. “Wanna play wit my rivets?”
Esther kept her head lowered and didn’t respond. It was worse here than it’d been back at the shipyard. She’d thought maybe out at sea the common mission would put a damper on the nastiness: all for one and one for all. But then, the Three Musketeers had been an all-boys’ club, too. No, all that being at sea meant was that there was nowhere to run. No escape and no refuge.
The jerk wasn’t letting up. A thousand men on a boat and you’d think just once they’d come up with something original.
“C’mon, baby. I hear you like ’em hot.”
What, nothing about seamen? Esther turned and appraised her antagonist. She tilted her head to the left, and then shrugged. “If it was long enough, I could weld it to your leg. But I don’t think I can help you.”
The new kid reddened and blustered, but the other boys shouted him down. They’d each felt the barb of her tongue and delighted in seeing others fall prey.
Still, three months in and she was getting mighty tired of it. And you never knew which fragile male ego was gonna break and come looking for her late at night. There were times when she’d thought of calling it quits, but she’d come to love the creaky old battleship in a way she couldn’t explain. The throb of the old girl’s engines lulled her to sleep at night, like a lover’s pulse under her ear.
And there was always Taverner. On the two occasions when things had gotten ugly, Taverner had intervened. Taverner’d always been there to blacken an eye here or bloody a lip there, if it was needed. As long as it was all verbal, all posturing, he kept out of it – he understood that she needed to build her own reputation. He only stepped in if things got more physical than she could handle by herself.
“My sweetie’s a Rosie,” he’d explained. “I’d hate to see Leslie treated like this.”
Esther and Leslie had worked together in the Philly shipyard until Esther had taken the job on the USS Arkansas and Leslie had left to get married. She’d said she didn’t have much choice. She’d said it was just one stupid mistake, one drunken evening. But Esther knew better, and she thought it was unconscionable that Leslie would marry and not have the decency to tell the man she claimed was her true love.
Leslie even kept sending Taverner letters. “I don’t want to hurt him,” she had said.
Now that Esther had met Jason Taverner, she could see why. That only made it worse.
“Yo, Kaplan, make some space for a hungry man.” Taverner always called her by her last name, like she was just one of the guys. He set his lunch tray next to hers, and gave her ass a fond pat as she slid over to make space. He never did that in private, only in public. My woman, he was telling the other men. Don’t touch. It worked, mostly. And because it worked, she didn’t mind. Mostly.
But mostly she just regretted sticking her nose into it when they first started pulling the men out of the shipyards and sending them to sea. She could do this job as well as any of them, and she had the solder burns to show for it. So here she was, on the Arkansas, probably the oldest battleship in the whole damned fleet, doing daily inspections of the welds in the hull. Why they needed daily inspecting, nobody was saying.
But there were rumors.
Rumors of welds failing. Rumors of plates coming loose. Rumors of strange sounds in the middle of the night, and strange marks the next morning, deep gouges that threatened the integrity of the hull.
And while it was true that German U-Boats were taking their toll, there were rumors of a few ships just disappearing. Radio contact would stop, and when rescue teams arrived all they’d find was debris. Lifejackets. Bits of paper. No survivors – not even any bodies.
Of course, they were just rumors.
But that’s when the riveters started getting pulled out of the shipyards and put onto the boats, ready to repair the mysterious damage at a moment’s notice.
“It’s almost like something tasted us,” said one riveter, in words that got passed from ship to ship across the Atlantic. “Like it tasted us and decided to go to a different restaurant.”
The thought gave her chills. She poked at her food halfheartedly, teasing the ham to one side of the plate so that she could concentrate on the beans. God only knew what was in the hot dog.
She ate it anyway. If God wanted her to help fight the Nazis, He would just have to deal with some dietary indiscretions. You can’t starve yourself and still climb around on a battleship’s hull while it was at sea.
“Any sign of our sea monster?” Taverner asked.
She laughed. “There’s no such thing as sea monsters. And if there are, they better stay outta our way. We’ve got real monsters to fight.”
“If this old heap ever sees any real action, she’ll probably fall apart like the Spanish Armada.”
Esther stroked the wall tenderly. “Not my girl. Not if I have anything to say about it.”
November in the North Atlantic was no time to be hanging off the side of a battleship under full steam. Esther and a handful of other riveters scampered across the hull, hanging from the rigging that had been draped over the sides like scaffolding, looking for signs of damage. If they found anything, they had everything they needed to fix the problem—welding torch, solder, and yes, rivets—or at least patch it to hold long enough for a crew inside to deal with it. It was treacherous work, and the wet suit and life jacket seriously cramped her style, but it was all part of the job.
Esther reinforced a few welds just so she felt like she was doing something, but as always, saw nothing out of the ordinary. Eventually, she signaled to be hauled up and made her way across the deck. Due to the heightened priority given to the riveters’ task, they had been assigned storage lockers in bunker-like sheds bolted to the deck, strategically located for quick access to whatever section of the hull they’d been assigned.
Normally, all this work would have been done from below deck, fresh plates welded over the damaged parts from the relative safety to be found inside. Working on the outside of the hull was a madman’s task. Or a mad woman’s.
But again, there were the rumors. Ships that looked like a bear had sharpened his claws on them. Deep, v-shaped grooves shaved out of the metal. It was the sort of damage that could weaken a ship disastrously, but wouldn’t be immediately obvious from within.
Not that the officers had anything useful to say about it. Just new orders. New regulations. A new routine. They’d shrug and mumble something unconvincing about insurance policies and bean counters. But there wasn’t a soul on Esther’s ship, or any other, that believed a word of it.
Once her gear was stashed, Esther headed toward the mess hall to see what culinary abomination awaited her. But one of the officers stopped her.
“Did you see anything while you were out there?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Anything unusual. Anything at all.” He seemed very nervous.
“No. Nothing strange. Why?”
“Nothing,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”
But she did, and she mentioned it to Taverner that evening.
“I’ve been hearing rumors,” Taverner said, “that we lost radio contact a couple times today. Nobody’s saying anything, but everyone up there has been on edge all day.” ‘Up there’ meant the command deck.
“What do you mean ‘lost radio contact’?”
“I dunno. I’m just saying what I heard. Whatever happened, it’s got them spooked.” Taverner stuffed a forkful of mashed potatoes into his mouth and then spoke around them. “They say all the instruments went crazy at once—radar, sonar, the works.”
Esther was staring at her lime jello, trying to decide what category it fit in—animal, vegetable, or other—when the lights flickered and dimmed.
One of the boys laughed. “Boy, I hope they retire this old heap before it falls apart on us,” he quipped.
Scattered laughter. Esther’s jaw tensed. This ‘old heap’ wasn’t sinking, not as long she could still hold a welding torch.
The laughter stopped suddenly as the Arkansas shivered. All the food slid across the tables. Esther’s jello dropped face-down on the floor.
The lights quit entirely, and for a moment in the darkness there was chaos. People who weren’t seated securely tumbled to the floor as the ship jerked suddenly. Esther felt as much as heard the scream of protesting metal – felt it in her teeth.
Dim red emergency lights flickered to life. It did little to calm the sailor’s panicked shouts.
“Listen,” someone said. “Everyone shut the hell up and listen!”
The voices died to a murmur, and for a short moment it was quiet. Too quiet. Something was missing.
“What happened to the engines?” It was Taverner’s voice.
Esther grabbed Taverner by the collar and dragged him to his feet. “Come with me.” She had a suspicion that she didn’t have time to gather her team, not if she had any hope of saving the ship. She ran, and didn’t look back to see if Taverner was following; she knew he would.
The battleship drifted, listing slightly in the choppy waters. The heavy thrum of the engines vibrating through the walls and floor, through the very essence of the ship, had been so omnipresent that Esther was barely conscious of it anymore. Until it wasn’t there. It was as if the Arkansas’ heart had stopped.
The sounds had come from near the prow, according to the men who’d been on deck. None of the radios were working, including the Arkansas’ intercoms, and people were scrambling across the deck like a disturbed anthill.
Taverner helped Esther with her wet suit and harness while she gathered the tools of her trade. She tested all the knots and checked the rope for frays; it was so rote it took her less than a minute. Then she strapped the acetylene and oxygen tanks to her back and reached for the door.
Taverner stopped her.
“Listen,” he said. “This might be the real thing. And…” He glanced away, and when he looked back his jaw was set. “If you make it through this, and I don’t, I need you to do something for me. Tell Leslie I forgive her.”
“I don’t know anything. But I know how to read, and I know she ain’t mine anymore. Anyway, just tell her that. Tell her it’s okay.”
Esther nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, okay. And if you make it and I don’t, you tell Leslie I said thanks.”
“Thanks? For what?”
Esther smiled. “For this.” She pulled Taverner close and kissed him.
“Yeah,” Taverner said, when they finally pulled apart. “Yeah, I can tell her that. But I have a better idea. Let’s both live, and we’ll tell her together.”
Esther was so far down the side of the hull that the spray had soaked her completely. Though it was too dark to see him, she knew that Taverner was on deck, spotting her, waiting for her signal to be pulled up.
From what she could see, it was going to be a while.
One of the plates just above the waterline had come loose. It looked, she thought, like it had been peeled up, breaking the welds and popping the rivets out into the sea. The inch-thick armor had even been bent, a little. With enough solder, she’d be able to make a solid seal–at least enough to get the Arkansas safely to a shipyard–but she couldn’t imagine what could exert that kind of force.
She didn’t have long to wait. She was halfway through the first weld when the thing attacked.
The ship lurched, sending Esther swinging wildly. It pitched sharply to one side, dipping her waist-deep into the ocean. Dark tentacles rose silently into the air, up the sides of the ship. They wrapped around the hull, gripping it with suckers larger than Esther’s head, and pulled.
The USS Arkansas groaned. Men screamed as they were thrown off the deck, or were dragged.
Esther looked up. She could still see Taverner loyally at his post, dimly silhouetted against the sky. He started pulling at her lifeline, and she scaled the rigging as quickly as she could. As she rose, she made the mistake of looking down, her headlamp illuminating the dark waters below.
It was massive. Like an iceberg, the bulk of its body lay under the waves; what rose above them was big enough to map, if it had been an island. Its skin was as black as oil, with pallid, luminescent splotches, and it had far too many tentacles—more than any squid Esther had ever seen. The thick tentacles had fully wrapped around the Arkansas and were squeezing. She could hear the metal starting to give. Several dozen thinner tentacles whipped around, snatching victims off the deck and dragging them through the cold waters to feed into the monster’s wickedly curved beak. The Kraken’s single eye rolled in its head, surveying the entire ship through the water.
Gunfire popped ridiculously from the deck, the bullets sinking harmlessly into the creature’s mountainous hide, or losing their bite in the water. The only potentially vulnerable parts of the creature—the mouth and the eye—lay well below the surface.
The ship’s big guns never moved. Whatever was interfering with the engines and the electronics was clearly affecting all the other systems as well. Esther wasn’t sure if they could be aimed at something this close anyway.
Esther’s lifeline jerked suddenly, then went slack. She felt the rope start to slide toward her. Taverner called her name, panic in his voice. The sound was closer than it should have been.
She saw him clearly for a moment, his face straining as he pulled at the tentacle that encircled him, pulling him toward the monster’s mouth.
“No!” she screamed. “You can’t have him!”
Esther lit her welding torch. She swung her weight against the tattered rigging to close the distance with the ship. Bringing her feet up, she kicked hard against the hull and let go of the rigging, launching herself into the air, and toward the great, unblinking eye.
Falling half the height of the hull, she landed with a splash that knocked the breath out of her and drove her deep under the surface. Gasping, she inhaled salty water. The twin tanks on her back dug into her, and she felt ribs crack. Better that than my spine, she thought, as she forced herself to move.
She only had a few seconds before… She pushed the thought out of her head, and rolled.
Her aim had been true. She was staring directly into the pupil of an eyeball the size of a lifeboat. She didn’t hesitate before bringing her torch to bear against it. The flame burned white and blue, blinding in the dark. The soft tissue sizzled and disintegrated in heat designed to melt steel. She cut wide swaths across the cornea; dark fluids spurted everywhere, swirling around her like ink. She felt herself being sucked into the rapidly deflating eyeball.
Salt water burned in her lungs. She was drowning. But maybe, just maybe, she could save the ship. And Taverner. She cut deeper.
The thing screeched, a gurgling, tortured sound that ripped through the water like a rusted blade. A tentacle swept her from the blistering eye, lifting her into the air and smashing her face first against the hull. She dropped, limp and unmoving, into the waters below, and sank, pulled down by the weight of her gear.
She woke screaming.
A hand touched her face, gently.
“It’s okay.” Taverner’s voice. “It’s all okay.”
It hurt. There were tubes and wires everywhere. And bandages. She couldn’t move.
“Oh, God, Jason. You’re alive? I’m alive?”
“Against all odds.” Taverner laughed. “How are you feeling?”
“Like a sea monster beat me with a baseball bat.”
“More like, the sea monster beat the ship, using you as the bat. Fortunately for me, you’re a tough old broad.” He stroked her hair. “Thank you.”
“You happened. You jumped on that thing, screaming like a banshee, and fried its eye like a crème brulée. As soon as you did, it let go of everything—and everyone—and swam away as fast as it could. I saw you go into the water, and as soon as it let me go, I went after you. Dove right in, fought off a couple sharks and a barracuda with my bare hands. Good thing those headlamps are waterproof, or I’d’a never found you. Also, your lifeline got tangled in the rigging, which kinda made it easy.”
It sounded forced. Rehearsed. Esther watched Taverner’s eyes carefully, watching for the telltale look of pity that would tell her what she was afraid to ask: whether she’d walk again. She saw concern, and something else—something she was afraid to even think about, but no sign of pity. “I can’t move,” she said.
Taverner took a deep breath. “You have a lot of broken bones. Just about every rib, and your collarbone. And your hip. And…” He hesitated.
“Say it.” It hissed softly from a place inside she’d never known. A place of deeply instinctual, overwhelming fear.
“Your funny bone. It’s all messed up.” He grinned. “You’re in a body cast, and in restraints to keep you from moving while your bones set, but you’ll be fine.”
“When I can move again, you’re gonna wish the sea monster ate you.” She fell silent, and then let out a long breath. “It really is gonna be okay, isn’t it?”
“So what’s that on your face, then?”
Taverner touched a circular red mark on the side of his forehead. “This? A kiss from a sea monster. I got more. Lower.” He chewed his lip. “I’ll show you, once we’re married.”
A smile played across Esther’s lips. “Do I have to wait that long?”
“That depends. Will you still respect me in the morning?”
Esther laughed, even though it hurt. “Whaddaya mean ‘still’? Maybe…” Mischief twinkled in her eyes. “Maybe I’ll ask Leslie to be my maid of honor. I know exactly what dress to make her wear.”
About the Author
Much to his embarrassment, Bernie Mojzes has outlived Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Janice Joplin and the Red Baron, without even once having been shot down over Morlancourt Ridge. Having failed to achieve a glorious martyrdom, he has instead turned his hand to the penning of paltry prose, in the pathetic hope that he shall here find the notoriety that has thus far proven elusive.
Should Pity or perhaps a Perverse Curiosity move you to seek him out, he can be found at http://www.kappamaki.com, wherein one might find a list of other titles to avoid, including his illustrated book, “The Evil Gazebo,” which began harassing the general public in late November of this year.