Captain Lee


Lynn Mundell

          On the morning news, the gorilla stood in the middle of the pontoon boat, the ocean churning around it, like when you open the lid of the washing machine during the rinse cycle. The animal shivered, from fear or cold. Every time the rescue boat neared it, the gorilla jumped up and down, threatening to fall out.
          “No one knows who launched the gorilla on a boat, where the animal came from, or why someone would do such a thing.” The lipsticked newscaster paused—three, two, one. “But we do know this: gorillas can’t swim and a storm is coming in.”
          “I’m going to save it.” This from my little brother, who still believed in the Easter Bunny, that a gentleman-sized animal would leave chocolate eggs for feral little humans.
          “It’s a goner. Don’t bother.” This from my older brother, who hadn’t believed in anything in a long, long time.
          Ignoring him, I packed the Toyota with beach chairs and sandwiches while Lee added bananas, his old water wings, and the ridiculously long rope from our long-dead grandpa’s old trawler. Troy sighed, throwing in his bottle of Bain de Soleil and selfie stick.
          The overcast beach was a crazy quilt of towels. Somewhere in the crowd Bowie sang about fame from a boom box. Along the shore, a girl on a unicycle deftly skirted the news cameras. Next to us a German shepherd sat alone on a towel advertising Marlboros. The gorilla huddled on the pontoon maybe twenty yards from shore while the rescue boat putted some ways away. It began to rain, big drops like Lee’s tears after Mom went to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and a year later I told him she probably wasn’t coming back. Still no one left. The waves began to grow, pushing up the pontoon. Dropping it down. The gorilla clung to the edge and began bellowing.
          “Don’t worry, Captain,” Lee shouted. “I’m coming for you.”
          While we’d been watching the gorilla, Lee had put on the water wings and was nearly at the shore in his board shorts on little pigeon legs, lugging the heavy rope.
          “Lee, dammit, come back here!” Troy tore off his hoody and ran after Lee, the tattoo of Shadowman on his back seeming to run, too. There was nothing for me to do but to follow.
          The cold water was a gut-punch—a slap in the face. A wave dumped the abandoned rope nearby, and both Troy and I grabbed it. Lee plowed ahead, the best swimmer in the YMCA Level 2 class. The ocean rolled us all back and forth, like pennies lost from a change purse.
          Looking back at the beach, I saw the crowd had moved as one to hover near the shore. Someone yelled “Captain,” another shouted “Lee.” Everyone began calling until it sounded like “Captain Lee Captain Lee Captain Lee.”
          Troy reached Lee first, stuffing the rope end in his hand. Seaweed had encircled Lee’s neck, and our little brother looked like an ocean prince. Tethered by the rope, we crested a wave and plummeted down a green, watery canyon toward the pontoon. Yards away, the gorilla sprawled on its stomach, two huge hands clutching the boat’s side, its face an expressionless Halloween mask.
          “Now! Pull!” I called, and Troy nodded, his dark head slick as a seal’s. Together we yanked on the rope, drawing Lee back like a fish on a line.
          “No, guys, we’ve almost got him!” Lee shouted. He waved at the gorilla. It waved back.
          Just as Lee dropped the rope, I felt a tug on the other end. A heavy man in a swim shirt bobbed behind me, a woman behind him, maybe twenty more people clutching the rope all the way to shore, where the crowd anchored us, still chanting “Captain Lee.”
          A crack of lightning lit up the scene. Lee was nearly at the pontoon with Troy right behind him. From the lurking rescue boat, a disembodied voice blared, “Move back! For your own safety! That’s a wild animal!”
          There was a moment when “wild animal” overlapped “Captain Lee.” When my little brother and my big brother simultaneously swept on to the pontoon. When the ocean waves and the rain were indistinguishable, like Lee’s hand and mine when we walked together. Then the man behind me said, “Dios mio.” Lee was putting a water wing on the gorilla’s beefy forearm as it groomed his head. Troy tied the rope around Lee’s waist, turned, and motioned toward shore before grabbing Lee and throwing him off the pontoon toward us.
          I yanked the rope hard and Lee accelerated through a wave and into my arms, spluttering water and automatically wrapping his legs around my middle.
          “I wasn’t done yet,” he whispered hoarsely into my ear. “I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to ask him if he’d seen Mom.”
          “Lee, gorillas can’t…” But before I could tell him there were so many things we would never know about this crazy world, the animal cuffed Troy, hard, knocking him off the pontoon. It ripped off the water wing and jumped after him into the ocean.
          I felt the rope dragging us steadily back to the beach, but now the crowd was silent, the man behind me patting Lee’s shaking back. The abandoned pontoon rocked over another deep wave. The rescue boat started its engine, dropping its big net and training the searchlight on the sea. Underwater I felt a furred limb brush across my legs, followed by big hands scrabbling up them. Then Troy shot from the ocean, gasping for air. I grabbed him to me, Lee squashed between us. Together we made an island. Not the kind where people are marooned and try day after day to escape. The other kind, where you have what you need—so much so you wouldn’t dream of leaving.


Lynn Mundell is co-editor of 100 Word Story and its anthology Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story (Outpost19). Her work has appeared in Tin House online, Booth, The Sun, Five Points, and elsewhere, with more forthcoming in New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (W.W. Norton & Company, August 2018).

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