That painting’s a killer work of art.

Tyler laid down in bed as his father tucked him in.

“Now, go to bed, young man,” said his father. “I know we’re in a new house, but there’s no reason to be scared.”

“I liked the old house better,” said Tyler.

“You just turned four,” said his father. “You’re a big boy now. Sometimes, people have to move when times call for it. Your daddy has a better job, which means I can take you to more places…”

“Like the park?” asked Tyler.

“Yep,” nodded his father. “Like the park. Now, get some sleep.”

“But I’m scared,” said Tyler.

His father sat down on the bed and gave him a deep look of concern.

“Scared of what?” sighed the man. “There’s nothing to be scared of.”

“I don’t like the painting on the wall,” said Tyler.

He was, of course, referring to the painting hanging just above his dresser. The previous owners of this house had left that painting behind, much to Tyler’s misery.

The painting was of a large wooden ship, an old-timey thing called a “sloop,” but that wasn’t scary. It was the people on the ship that scared him, because they looked mean, as did their captain, a big man with a black beard and an eyepatch along with a funny black hat. This man looked to be the meanest of them all.

Even worse was the flag the ship had on its mast, because it was all black with a scary white skull-and-crossbones on it. Tyler did not like this flag at all. It made the painting look even scarier than it should have been.

“That painting?” asked his father as the man turned to stare at it. “That’s not scary. It’s just a pirate ship.”

“I don’t like the scary flag with the bones on it,” said Tyler.

“That just means it’s a pirate ship,” said his father.

“I also don’t like the man with the funny hat,” said Tyler.

“That’s just the pirate captain,” said his father. “He’s not scary…not unless you lived in the 1600s or…whenever pirates were around…It’s just a painting, Tyler. It can’t hurt you.”

His father sighed and shook his head.

“Look…” said the man unhappily. “I know we took Mr. Woogums away from you because…because we thought it was time you didn’t need him anymore…but maybe you need him tonight, huh? Maybe just for tonight?”

Tyler nodded in reply. He could really use Mr. Woogums right now.

“Okay,” smiled his father. “I’ll get Mr. Woogums.”

His father stood up from the bed, walked to the closet, opened the closet door, and took Mr. Woogums from the top closet shelf, a place so high that Tyler could never ever reach it on his own. The man walked back to Tyler’s bed, sat down, and handed Tyler the ratty, tattered, old teddy bear.

“Here’s Mr. Woogums,” said his father. “Now, this is just for tonight…and don’t tell your momma. She’ll have a fit if she finds out.”

Tyler nodded in understanding. He was only four, but he wasn’t stupid.

His father mussed Tyler’s hair in affection, stood up from the bed, walked to the bedroom door, and flicked off the light. He stood in the doorway for a moment before smiling at Tyler one more time.

“Goodnight, champ,” said the man, and then he was gone, the door closing behind him.

Tyler’s nightlight flipped on. The dim glow of the little light revealed the painting on the wall again, but Tyler did not like this. He did not like the way the strange work of art was cloaked in striped shadow.

He tried to sleep, but the creaking of the bed prevented that. The bed itself rocked slowly from side to side, and darkness crawled in from every wall. He could hear the faint voices of others from somewhere above him, but that was impossible, because his room was on the second floor, and the only thing above him was the attic.

Tyler did not know what was happening, but he did not like it, so he clutched Mr. Woogums tightly and got down from his bed. His feet touched floorboards instead of soft carpet, and this made his little heart race. Things were only getting worse, and he feared that the scary painting was the cause of it all.

He took several steps upon creaking wood in the dark before he realized that his nightlight was out. There was a faint glow coming from the ceiling, little lines of light from above, but from where, he did not know.

He turned to look back toward his bed, but it was no longer there. In its place were the dark outlines of wooden barrels and crates, nothing more.

Tyler clutched Mr. Woogums and made his way to where he thought the bedroom door was. He reached up for the knob, but there was no knob, and in its place was a flat handle, so he pushed down upon it and pulled hard to open the door.

The door opened up to reveal a set of wooden stairs that led upwards. There should have been a carpeted hallway in front of him, the bathroom on his left, his parents’ room on his right, but those rooms were no longer there.

Nevertheless, he took to the stairs, because he needed to know what was going on and where his mother and father were.

“Be careful,” whispered Mr. Woogums. “This is a bad place.”

Mr. Woogums sometimes talked to Tyler, but only when Tyler needed some encouragement. He had never actually warned Tyler that some place was bad before.

“I want Mommy and Daddy,” said Tyler.

“They’re not here right now,” whispered Mr. Woogums. “We need to go back.”

“Go back where?” asked Tyler.

“Go back to your bed,” whispered Mr. Woogums.

“I still want Mommy and Daddy,” said Tyler.

He reached the top of the stairs and discovered another door like the one he had just opened. He reached for the handle on the door, but he was stopped by yet another warning from his faithful teddy bear.

“Don’t open that,” warned Mr. Woogums. “This is a bad place.”

“I want Mommy and Daddy,” repeated Tyler.

Mr. Woogums simply did not understand this. The old tatty bear could not comprehend that only Tyler’s mother and father could fix things.

Tyler pushed down on the handle and pulled open the door anyway. He stepped out into sunlight, which was odd, because it was supposed to be nighttime right now. He knew it was nighttime, because it had been dark outside, and he only went to bed when it was dark.

Tyler’s eyes widened as he viewed his surroundings, because he was on a ship like the one in the painting. This old ship rocked back and forth due to the unsteady sea all around, and just like the painting, there were mean men everywhere, the mean men in the funny clothes with cloth hats on their heads.

“Hey!” cried one of the mean men as he grabbed Tyler by his little arm.

Tyler was too scared to even scream. He was dragged forward from the open doorway that led down into the ship’s hold, the mean man dragging him forward so that all of the other mean men could see.

“Look what I found, lads!” yelled the man.

The other mean men surrounded them in a circle, all of them yelling and laughing and saying bad words, but they were not what froze Tyler stock still in his rocket pajamas. No, it was the meanest man of them all that stomped forward in cuffed leather boots that terrified him. The meanest man of them all, that mean man from the painting, stomped forward and glared down at him with one good eye.

This man wore a funny black hat with an upturned brim. He had a black eyepatch over his left eye, and he was dressed in a seaworn, dark-blue coat with wide cuffs around his thick wrists. He had a mean, mean face hidden behind a bushy black beard and mustache, and Tyler was frozen solid from terror just by looking at him. Tyler’s father had called this man “Captain,” so that’s what he had to be.

“A stowaway!” yelled the captain. “A filthy little bilge rat eatin’ up the stores!”

The mean men around Tyler yelled and laughed and said bad words, and this terrified Tyler, but there was nothing he could do.

“He be too small for a powder monkey, lads!” yelled the captain. “Throw him to the sharks!”

The mean men that were gathered in a circle grew deathly quiet at the captain’s command. There was a black aura that had settled down upon them, something that Tyler could not form into words for a description in his own mind.

“But, Cap’n…” said the man holding Tyler’s little arm. “He’s just a little one…We could make him one of us…”

The captain stared this man down with his one good eye, his face a shrine of terrible fury.

“This ship be no nursery!” yelled the captain. “Are you a wetnurse, you fool! I said, throw him to the sharks!”

“But he be just a boy—” started the man that was holding Tyler’s arm.

The captain, the meanest of them all, the man with one eye, a bushy beard, and a funny black hat, drew a strange-looking pistol from his belt and pulled the trigger in a flash of fiery gunpowder. The loud “BANG!” went off, and then the man holding Tyler’s arm let go of Tyler as he pitched backwards to the floorboards below.

Tyler looked over to the man on the deck. This man stared up at the sunlit sky with wide sightless eyes, a look of surprise permanently etched upon his weathered face. There was a large hole in his dirty white shirt, and from that hole spurted blood, bright red in the sun.

The man was dead. Tyler knew what “dead” meant. That meant he was gone forever. Dead people got buried in the ground at the cemetery, and they were gone forever.

Tyler looked back up at the captain, but Tyler was still too frightened to move, so terrified that he could not so much as twitch a muscle.

The meanest man of all, the captain, raised his funny-looking pistol high and barked out a warning to the rest of the crew.

“I be Black Jack Crossbones!” yelled the captain. “I be the captain of this here Deadly Dirge! Is there any other scurvy seadog that be challenging me!”

A big man in a dirty striped shirt and baggy brown pants stepped forward and drew a sword that Tyler’s father had called a “cutlass.”

“You shouldn’a killed yer own, Cap’n,” growled the big man in the dirty striped shirt. “Rogue or no, there’s a law on the sea…so I be takin’ over now.”

The crew backed away in silence as the two men faced off against each other. The captain drew his own cutlass and leveled it at the big man in the dirty striped shirt.

“Mutinous dog!” yelled the captain. “I’ll hang ye from the yardarm for the birds to pick at yer eyes!”

Tyler wanted to clutch Mr. Woogums out of fear, but the old tatty bear had gone missing. He looked down to his left at the body of the man with the hole in his chest, and Mr. Woogums was there, right there next to that man’s still and lifeless form.

“Down here, Tyler,” whispered Mr. Woogums. “Look here.”

Tyler looked down at the funny-looking pistol resting across Mr. Woogums’ lap. The old bear must have taken the thing from the dead man that had first accosted Tyler.

“Take it,” whispered Mr. Woogums.

Tyler looked back up at the two men about to duel.

“I think I’ll be takin’ that hat,” growled the man in the dirty striped shirt.

“The only thing you’ll be takin’ is a watery grave,” growled the captain in return.

The two men went at each other a second later, but their duel was over in a flash. Their swords clanged against each other for a few brief hits, and then the captain backed away, drew a hatchet from his belt, and threw it with terrible force at the big man in the dirty striped shirt. The hatchet buried itself blade first right between the big man’s eyes, and then blood sprayed everywhere as the big man fell backwards to the deck without a sound.

“Now, Tyler!” said Mr. Woogums with all urgency. “Take the gun!”

Tyler bent down and picked up the heavy pistol while the crew was fixated upon their own brutal captain.

“I be Black Jack Crossbones!” yelled the captain as he raised his cutlass high. “I be the captain of this here Deadly Dirge! Now, I say again…is there anyone else who wish to challenge me!”

“Shoot the captain, Tyler!” said Mr. Woogums. “Point the gun at him and pull the trigger!”

Tyler was not supposed to play with guns. His father had told him so. Nevertheless, he was scared beyond belief, so he raised the heavy pistol with both shaky hands and pointed it in the general direction of the captain.

“I be Black Jack Crossbones!” yelled the captain yet again. “I be the captain of this here Deadly Dirge! Now, throw this little bilge rat to the sharks! He’s already cost ye two men!”

He turned to stare down at Tyler, his cutlass pointing in a straight line toward Tyler’s little chest, his one good eye a flash of rage and fury.

That look of pure malice caused Tyler to jump, and his tiny fingers pulled backwards on the trigger. The gun went off in a flash of powder, a ball round shot from the barrel, and the force of it threw Tyler to the deck.

The shot went right through the captain’s good eye and out the back of his evil head, leaving a small tunnel in its deadly wake. Tyler could see the sunny sky through that hole, the blue of it, and that surreal image burned itself into his brain.

The captain, the meanest man of them all, staggered backwards as the crew stepped aside for him. He pitched over the railing a second later, and then he was gone, gone forever under the rolling waves of the unforgiving sea.

“Now, run, Tyler!” cried Mr. Woogums.

Tyler did not even think to question his tattered old bear. He stood up and ran back down the stairs from where he’d originally entered the deck, but in his haste, he left Mr. Woogums behind. There was no time to go back for the old bear.

Tyler ran back into the darkness of the hold, but his pajama feet-bottoms touched down on soft carpet once he reached the bottom of the stairs. He could not feel floorboards anymore.

He could see his bed in the warm glow of his nightlight, so he pulled himself up onto his bed and hid beneath the sheets. He let his tears flow as the horror of it all caught up to him, and he cried out as he clutched his pillow in fear.

The light flipped on a moment later, and Tyler looked up to see the bleary-eyed, sleep-ridden face of his father as the man entered the bedroom.

“What’s going on in here?” asked his father.

Tyler sat up and wiped at his tears.

“I killed him!” cried Tyler. “I killed the mean man!”

“You did what?” asked his father.

The man sat down on Tyler’s bed and wrapped his arms around him in a caring embrace. He held Tyler close and stroked the back of Tyler’s little head to calm him down.

“Hey, hey, hey!” said Tyler’s father in a soothing tone. “You just had a bad dream…It’s all right, little buddy. It was just a bad dream…”

“The mean man wanted to…to throw me to the sharks…” wept Tyler.

“Throw you to the sharks?” asked his father. “You’ve been watching too much TV, little man…Look, look. It was just a bad dream. That’s all it was. Everything’s okay now. It’s going to be all right…Why don’t you tell me what happened, huh? Who’s this mean man that wanted to throw you to the sharks?”

“The mean man from the painting,” said Tyler in shaky breaths. “He killed the other two mean men, and he wanted to kill me too, but Mr. Woogums told me to pick up the gun, so I did, and I shot him…”

“You shot Mr. Woogums, or the mean man?” asked his father.

“The mean man from the painting,” said Tyler. “I shot him, and he fell in the water.”

“The mean man from the painting?” asked his father in slight confusion. “Do you mean the pirate captain?”

“Y…Yes,” wept Tyler.

He didn’t want to cry, but the memory of it, the horror of it, gripped him and would not let go.

“Oh, Tyler,” sighed his father. “I told you…that’s just a painting…I’ll tell you what…Why don’t I move that painting downstairs, okay?…Look, look…There are no pirates anymore. They were around a long, long time ago, but there aren’t any pirates anymore…Besides, they don’t even look that mean in the painting.”

The man stood up from Tyler’s bed and walked over to the painting.

“Even this pirate captain doesn’t look…that…mean…” said Tyler’s father as his voice trailed off in audible confusion.

Tyler looked up at what had caught his father’s attention. There in the painting, in the center of the ship, there was no pirate captain anymore. No, there was only the small painted image of Mr. Woogums, the tattered old bear in the center of the deck, a ring of pirates around him, their swords drawn and raised high, their faces lit with strange joy.

Black Jack Crossbones Copyright © 2021 Matthew L. Marlott

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