Pirates: A short story by David Lee Holcomb

The visitor wore cargo shorts two sizes too big, a Dallas Cowboys t-shirt, grimy canvas deck shoes, and a blond ponytail.

“No, ma’am,” he said. “I don’t have a library card. I’m a pirate.”

Kellie Lovell didn’t bat an eyelash. Situations like this came with her job.

“In that case, you won’t be able to take any materials out of the building.”

The man smiled. He was missing a tooth on the left side, lower jaw.

“Yes, ma’am. I understand. Where I’m staying, I don’t have much room for books.”

The librarian nodded. She assumed that the visitor was living in one of two nearby facilities, a homeless shelter and an assisted-living center, which together provided a number of unusual library visitors every week.

“Tell me again the name of the ship?”

“It’s the Bountiful Bess,” the visitor said. “She was the Battling Bess, but me and my friends, we changed the name. We didn’t want to give the wrong impression.”

“And you want to know where the Bountiful Bess is at the moment?”

“Yes, ma’am. People I talked to, they all said that if you wanted to know something, this was the place to go.”

Kellie did a quick search for internet references to a seagoing vessel called Bountiful Bess but came up empty. Battling Bess yielded the same lack of results.

The visitor had given his name as Ezra Semple. He said he was a sailor—a ship’s captain, in fact—and that he had, due to circumstances beyond his control, become separated from his ship and crew. On impulse, Kellie searched for Ezra Semple.

Here, she had better luck. There was one Ezra Semple listed on an obscure history site. That Ezra Semple was, indeed, a pirate, sought by the UK authorities for having intercepted and appropriated a shipment of textiles headed for Jamaica. The warrant for his arrest was dated to 1807.

“I’m not seeing anything useful, Mr. Semple,” Kellie said.

Semple nodded, looking down at her fingers dancing on the keyboard.

“I don’t altogether understand what you’re doing,” he said, “but if you say you don’t have anything for me, then you don’t.”

Kellie looked up at him. He might have been handsome before life started kicking him around, a stocky little Viking with blue eyes and a gap-toothed charm. She guessed his age at about thirty-five, but the map of wrinkles drawn around his eyes added ten years to that, while his smile took away twenty.

“Wait right here a moment, Mr. Semple.”

Kellie got up and walked back to the “bullpen,” where the IT department explored mysteries beyond the ken of ordinary mortals.

“Willis?” A young-old man with heavy glasses and a haircut that could only have been self-inflicted looked up.


“Do you still belong to that group that tracks celebrities’ private air travel?”


“What about ships?”

Willis pushed his glasses up and frowned at her. “Ships?”

“Do you track ocean-going vessels?”

He looked surprised, then intrigued.

“Actually, we don’t, but I know somebody who does. Are you planning a cruise?”

“I’m looking for a ship. A specific ship. The ship’s captain is at the desk as we speak.”

Willis unfolded his praying mantis limbs from the chair. “Let’s get some more info.”

When the two librarians returned to the desk, Ezra Semple was gone.

“Damn,” Kellie said. “I really wanted to turn you two loose on each other. A man looking for a ship that probably doesn’t exist, and a man who delights in looking for information that may or may not be out there.”

“Maybe he’ll be back,” Willis offered. “You say he’s a ship’s captain?”

Kellie grinned. “In a manner of speaking.”


Kellie could hear the television from the driveway. She could also smell smoke. She rushed through the back door and into the kitchen.

The room reeked of burned food. On the stove, a two-quart copper-bottom Revere Ware saucepan, one that her mother had bought when Kellie was a child, was half-full of solid black char, and the outside of the pan was scorched. The handle had cracked where it attached to the body of the pan. On the floor in front of the stove were the shattered remains of a plate, a coffee cup, and a drinking glass.

Kellie stood in front of the stove without speaking, without tears. All the tears had long since been used up. She pulled a trash bag off the roll under the sink and collected the debris from the floor, then dropped the saucepan on top of it and tied off the bag. She carried the bag out to the trash can and stuffed it inside.

The sounds of Law & Order reruns reverberated off the privacy fencing, coming right through the walls of the house. She returned inside and looked into the living room where her father sat slumped in his chair, rage rippling off him like the heat from a burning coal mine. Old rage. Deep-rooted rage. Rage carved out of ancient strata of spite. She looked at the back of his head and sighed. He wanted her to confront him about the mess in the kitchen so he could bellow and curse at her about cheap stoves made in Communist hellholes, about her not being there to make his lunch, or about the pitiful excuse for a wife and mother who had the gall to drop dead just when he needed her most.

Kellie retreated to her bedroom and locked the door.

She wanted her father to hurry up and die, and she hated herself for feeling that way, which made her hate him even more for being the kind of person who could only improve the world by departing from it.

She took a Xanax and lay down on the bed.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, she thought.


A week and a half after his first visit, Ezra Semple returned to the library’s information desk. He was wearing the same shirt and shorts, but his shoes had been replaced by a pair of flip-flops that were a size too large. His feet were dirty, but his toenails were neatly trimmed.

“What happened to your shoes, Mr. Semple?”

He glanced down with a sheepish grin. “Somebody took ‘em,” he said.

“Did you tell someone on staff? They could probably track down who did it and get them back for you.”


“The people who work in the place where you’re staying.”

Semple laughed. “You mean like a butler and a cook and a maid and all o’ them? I ain’t nearly that fancy. I just got a little hut down on the beach.”

The nearest beach was …What? Five hundred miles away? There was something so plausible and guileless about Ezra Semple that Kellie was pulled up short when he hit her with nonsense like that.

“I’m sorry someone stole from you, Mr. Semple,” she said primly.

He shrugged. “I took enough of other people’s stuff when I had my ship under me,” he said. “It’d be foolish to complain.”

Kellie picked up the desk phone and called Willis.

“Our friend is here,” she said. “Yes, that friend.”

She hung up and smiled at Semple. “One of my co-workers knows someone who is an expert on finding ships,” she told him. “Maybe he’ll be able to help you.”

When Willis approached the desk, Semple extended a hand. “Captain Ezra Semple, at your service.”

“Willis Byrd, at yours.”

Willis looked at Kellie, and she smiled. “Captain Semple is looking for a ship.”

“I hope I can help,” Willis said. “Can you describe the ship to me, Captain?”

“I could just about paint you a picture,” he said.

“Let’s start with a verbal description.”

Semple smiled and nodded. Kellie was struck again by how strangely charming the man was, despite the smell of urine and sweat that clung to his clothes, the grime on his hands and feet, and his general air of someone who had been left out in the weather too long.

“She’s a sloop, not so big, but oh, so quick!”

Willis grabbed a scratch pad and started scribbling.

“Two-masted, Seventy foot keel, twenty foot beam, rigged fore-and-aft, Bermuda style. Twelve-foot bowsprit. Her hull’s painted black with two neat blue stripes. Twenty crew. Four guns—barely big enough to call ‘em guns—twelve-pounder carronades we took from a French merchantman off Marie-Galante. Almost more trouble than they’re worth on a little ship like the Bess, but one or two shots from a cannon—even a toy like ours—does a lot to let the other man know you mean business, so we keep the guns and use ‘em when we have to. We prefer—” He produced the word as though it were a prize of great value. “—to rely on speed and skill rather than guns to do our job.”

“What job is that, Captain Semple?”

“Privateering,” Semple replied.

Willis didn’t miss a beat. “What’s the name of the ship?”

“She’s Bountiful Bess. Used to be Battling Bess.”

Willis looked at his notes. “Where did you last see the ship?”

Semple smiled, his expression thoughtful. “Off the coast of Hispaniola, that was. About fifty miles north of Cap Haitien. We was on our way to the Caicos, to put in at the lagoon at Balfour Town. A storm came up, and everything went to the devil. I got knocked overboard, and I been looking for the Bess ever since.”

“Cap Haitien is just about a thousand miles from here, Captain Semple.”

Semple nodded. “I been at this a while,” he said.

Willis looked at Kellie, then extended his hand to Semple.

“Okay, Captain Semple. I’ll take this information and see what I can find out. Why don’t you check back with us in a day or two?”

The pirate shook Willis’s hand. Rather than a handshake, he offered Kellie a courtly bow.

“I’m sorry, ma’am; I don’t think I caught your name.”

“Kellie Lovell,” she said, tapping the ID card that hung on a lanyard around her neck.

“Mr. Byrd, Miz Lovell, I’m more obliged to you both than I can truly say. I’ve been trying to get back to my sweet lady for so long.”


Three days after Willis Byrd met Ezra Semple, Kellie came home to find her father lying on the floor outside her bedroom door in a daze, cursing and flailing but unable to pull himself up. Kellie rushed over to see to him, but when she bent down, he grabbed a handful of her hair, and she had to fight her way free.

Bitch,” he hissed. “Locked me out! My house!”

“Dad, that’s my bedroom, not yours.” And strictly speaking, it wasn’t his house anymore, either, since he mortgaged it and gave all the money to a televangelist, leaving Kellie to take on the responsibility for sorting things out. Now, at forty-two, she was making mortgage payments on a house that had been paid off in full a decade ago.

My house! All of it! Every fucking inch!” her father snarled.

While she waited for the ambulance to arrive, Kellie ascertained that her father had fallen while trying to bash down the door to her bedroom. He accused her of locking the remote for the television in her room. Kellie looked into the living room and saw that the remote was on the floor next to the entertainment center, where it always landed when he threw it at the television.

Three hours later, she was sitting on a bench in a remarkably depressing hallway, talking to an ER doctor whose stomach kept growling throughout the conversation.

“We have to do some tests, and the neurologist will need to see him, but my guess is that he has had either a TIA or a small stroke. Do you know what a TIA is?”

Kellie nodded. “Transient ischemic accident.” When the doctor looked surprised, she added, “I work in a library. You pick up all sorts of things.”

“I’m sure. Well, he may be back to normal in a day, or it could be longer. I have to tell you that there is also the risk of a more significant event in the future.”

“What kind of event?”

“A stroke. Is your father always so …?”

Mean? Hateful? Vicious? she thought. “Opinionated?” she said aloud. “Yes. He’s been like that ever since my mother died.”

“His general physical condition is good, but he has some circulatory issues—probably due to a sedentary lifestyle—and that very high-stress personality … There is a risk.”

Kellie nodded again. None of this was news to her.

“What do I do?”

“Are you the only caregiver?”

“Yes. My mother died eight years ago, and I’m an only child. He has a brother, but they haven’t spoken to each other in fifty years.”

“I’m sure that’s very difficult for you.” The doctor’s stomach made a noise, and he grimaced. “I’m sorry. Double shift. I missed lunch.”

“I understand. So what happens next?”

“We’d like to keep him overnight and let the neurologist look in on him in the morning. He may prescribe more tests, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“Can I see him?”

The doctor stood. “Of course. We gave him something to calm him down, so he might seem a bit woozy, but that’s natural.”

“I understand.”

The man in the bed looked up at her, and his face darkened. “Get me out of here.”

“Not until tomorrow,” she said. “They think you might have had a small stroke or something, and they want to be sure you’re going to be all right.”

“You ungrateful bitch.”

Even drugged and disoriented, his rage glowed like a beacon, burning Kellie’s face. She tried to say something, anything, but nothing came out. Words, like tears, had long been exhausted. She turned and walked out the door.


Kellie’s father ended up spending two more days in the hospital, after which the special-needs transit service brought him home while Kellie hurried ahead to make sure the television remote was where he would be expecting it to be.

A week later, Kellie came home from the library to find her father stiff and cold in his chair, his face more peaceful than she had ever seen it, his hand clenched so tightly on the remote control that the battery cover had popped off.


Kellie went back to work two weeks after her father’s death. She was, to all intents and purposes, her normal self. She had not so much processed her loss as simply set it aside, a box of awfulness that she would open and sort through when she felt the time was right. The people and habits and quiet, calm routines of her job gave her a sense of gravity, of orientation, and helped her keep the lid of that box securely fastened.

Willis Byrd came loping out to the information desk on a gray, wet, miserable Tuesday, grinning.

“What’s got you so effervescent on this crappy day?” Kellie asked.

“The Bountiful Bess—née Battling Bess—was a British sloop that began life as a military vessel but was taken by pirates off the Bahamas in 1798. It vanished in a storm in 1811.”

“Off the coast of Hispaniola, I presume.”

“You presume correctly.”

“Go on.”

“Ezra Semple was, at one time, mate on a completely different British sloop, until 1798, when he jumped ship.”

“In the Bahamas?”

“In the Bahamas. Next time we hear about him is 1807, when British authorities issue arrest warrants for one Ezra Hogue Semple, formerly of the Royal Navy, on charges of piracy. According to the warrants, Semple is the current master of the Battling Bess, which had—as we’ve just heard—been hijacked by pirates nine years previously.”

Kellie sat back in her chair, letting her head roll against the headrest.

“You okay?”

She nodded. “I’m fine. Our Ezra Semple seems to have researched his role very thoroughly.”

Willis pulled up another chair and folded himself into it.

“I got the info on the ship from an online friend in London who specializes in the histories of British ships from the age of sail. Does your pirate strike you as the sort of person who would have access to sources like that?”

“Obviously he is, because his story has been consistent with what you’ve learned all down the line.”

Willis grinned. “Or … ”

“Or what? Oh, no, you don’t! He’s not some two-hundred-year-old Flying Dutchman. Don’t even start.”

Willis slid a page of carefully organized notes along the desk and climbed out of the chair. “Keep me posted on what happens next,” he said. “I’m really digging your pirate.”

“He’s not my pirate,” Kellie snapped, but Willis had already gone back to his lair.


Kellie had always assumed that once her father was gone, she would be able to craft a life for herself based on her tastes, her comfort, her wishes. She called Central Thrift, and they came and took away the recliner and the television. She cleaned the house, top to bottom, and delivered a load to Goodwill: bags of clothes, bedding, an electric razor, a walker. Like turning a ship at sea, she slowly drew the house off her father’s course and onto one of her own choosing.

But she still couldn’t rest.

What should I have done differently? Was he right? Was it my fault he was such a terrible person? What does that make me? The questions came rushing at her every morning when she woke up and were waiting to greet her every evening when she came home.

Eight years ago, Kellie’s mother ate two bottles of hoarded painkillers and washed them down with tequila from a bottle shaped like a prickly-pear cactus. Kellie had been given no opportunity to grieve because her father immediately demanded that she give up her apartment and move back into her parents’ house to take care of him.

“I’m your goddamn father!” he told her. “You belong here!”

In a decision she questioned every day thereafter, Kellie did what he wanted—what she believed was the right thing to do.


A week before Thanksgiving, Kellie sat down to eat her lunch on the edge of one of the planters in front of the library doors. The air was chilly but not unbearable, and a thin, watery sunlight came and went with every breeze. From where she was sitting, she could see past the building across the street, all the way down the hill, the gentle slope marked off by four traffic lights playing through their cycles. Beyond the fourth intersection, the road curved away out of sight to merge with a bigger highway, after which it continued, now a mere tributary of a larger flow, into the east.

Across the street, she spotted a man in shorts, barefoot, strolling down the sidewalk. The weather wasn’t wintry, but it was far too cold for bare feet.

He stopped at the corner to look up and down the street, and Kellie saw that the barefoot man was, predictably, Ezra Semple.

“Mr. Semple! Where are your shoes?”

He looked up, surprised, then smiled and trotted across the street.

“Good afternoon, ma’am. Those little things I had just wore out, I’m afraid.”

Kellie stared at him. “Have you eaten?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Kellie thought for a moment, and then she handed her lunchbox to the pirate. “Will you be so kind as to watch this for me? I have to run inside for a minute. I’ll be right back.”

“Of course.”

Kellie had filled up a couple of bags with items that had belonged to her father: new clothes that he hadn’t worn, shoes he hadn’t liked, a quilt that was too small for his bed. She had distributed some of the contents to various co-workers who had use for the castoffs, leaving her with one bag. She pulled the bag out from under the desk and brought it outside.

She had half-expected Semple to have vanished again, but there he sat, holding her lunchbox as though it contained pirate treasure.

“Thank you, Mr. Semple.” She took the lunchbox from him and set it aside, then set the bag down next to his feet. “These are some things that belonged to my father. They’re new, or like new, and I have no use for any of this stuff. If you don’t mind wearing the clothes of a dead man, I would be grateful if you would take it off my hands.”

“Don’t you have sons or brothers or anyone who has a better claim than a stranger?”

“No, I don’t. Please accept it.”

Semple bent down and picked up the big brown bag, setting it on the wall next to him.

“Thank you, ma’am. It’ll be an honor to wear your father’s things.”

The giving of charity and the accepting of it created an awkwardness. Kellie chewed her sandwich as Semple sat gazing down the hill, his expression quiet, even serene.

“What made you decide to come here?” the librarian asked.

“Here, ma’am?”

“To this town.”

Semple narrowed his eyes, looking away into the distance. “Truth be told, ma’am, I don’t know. I just had a feelin’, I guess.”

A young woman with two small children in tow walked past, headed for the entrance. The younger of the children, a girl, waved and smiled at Kellie and Semple as she passed. Semple smiled back at her, and she giggled as her mother pulled her into the building.

“Sometimes,” Semple went on, “you hear a place calling out to you. It’s like the world sees you needing something, looking for something, and so it says your name, like a whisper. You have to be real quiet to hear it. I heard the whisper, so here I am.”

“Do you think you’ll find what you’re looking for?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. It’s all in the Lord’s hands.” He smiled and glanced over at her almost shyly. “But, you know, I’ve met some good people, kind and wise, that I won’t be so bold as to call my friends. I never learned to read or write more than my name, but now I’ve seen more books in one place than I ever knew were in the world. The trip is worthwhile just for those things. And who knows? My Bess is out there somewhere. Sooner or later, she an’ me will end up in the same place at the same time. Just takes a little patience.”

“A little patience.”

“Yes, ma’am. A little patience.”


Kellie spent the holidays quietly, staying away from crowds and festivity. She treated herself to a fancy restaurant meal on the weekend before Christmas and wondered what Ezra Semple was doing and how he was celebrating the holidays. Presumably, whatever facility he was in would provide a holiday meal.

Willis and his online friend in London were unable to gather any more information about the Bountiful Bess. They assumed it had gone to the bottom during that storm in 1811, and the story ended there. Did the man calling himself Ezra Semple know that? Or did he believe that both he and the ship had survived the storm and were now wandering the earth looking for each other more than two hundred years later?

What did Kellie believe? She no longer knew.

Life without her father was both remarkably pleasant and remarkably empty. All the routines of life took less time than they had before, leaving empty spaces. She could clean the kitchen, and an hour later, it would still be clean. Only one bathroom had to be scrubbed. With the television and the piss-stained recliner out of the house, she had more room in the living room to spread things out, to make things nice and keep them neat. On Christmas Eve, she bought flowers and put them in a vase on the kitchen table. On Christmas morning, they were still there, not strewn across the floor, along with the shards of the vase.

Two days after Christmas, she went out to a deli for lunch, not simply ordering takeout, but sitting on a stool, being waited on, being smiled at.

Her gratitude and relief were almost as profound as the guilt she felt for having such feelings.

In the bottom drawer of her dresser, where she kept clothes that she never wore but didn’t want to get rid of, she had hidden a photograph in a silver frame. It was just a snapshot, but in it, a handsome young couple and a big-eyed little girl stood in front of a tree eating ice cream cones. The woman was reaching down with a napkin to catch a blob of ice cream that was about to slide off the child’s cone. Kellie had kept that photograph hidden away for such a long time that those three people were strangers to her. She put the picture on top of the dresser, moving other bric-a-brac out of the way to give it pride of place, and then she stepped back to look at it. After a few minutes, she picked the photo up and returned it to the drawer, pulling sweaters and never-worn lingerie over it. She closed the drawer and walked out of the room.


New Year’s Day dawned cold but bright, with a thin midwinter sun touching up the colors of knitted caps, leftover Christmas decorations, and the poinsettias just inside the Post Office’s plate glass windows. Kellie put on the new coat she had given herself for Christmas and went walking.

Ezra Semple had not been back since the day she gave him her father’s clothes. Some people, she knew, were offended by charity. Had she driven him away? Did she care?

She did care. Maybe Semple had been some sort of con man, perhaps merely a lunatic, but his was a noble madness. The world might be a better place, she thought, if more people were that crazy. She wondered how he had spent Christmas and with whom. Did he have friends? Fellow inmates in whatever place it was that gave him a bed?

She found herself walking down the long hill from the library, her surroundings so familiar that she no longer saw them.

Someday, he’ll find his ship, she thought as she waited for the first light to change. Someday, he and Bountiful Bess and their crew will head back out to terrorize the shipping and pillage the coastal towns. He would be a polite marauder, she knew, always thanking the people he robbed—assuming he hadn’t found it necessary to shoot them—and apologizing to the women hiding in basements and attics for any inconvenience they might be suffering. I’m sorry about all this fuss, ma’am. We’ll just take the gold and the jewels and be on our way.

The second and third lights were green when she came to them, so she sailed on without slacking her pace, lost in thought. She loved her job; she loved the people she worked with and the books that were their stock in trade. She had a comfortable home—

Here, she stumbled. Someday, her home would be comfortable, but not just yet. The walls were saturated with so much pain and anger. Only time would allow that stain to evaporate. She would have to have a little patience.

A little patience.

A car honked its horn, and she realized she was at the fourth traffic light. She stopped, her vision blurring. She stepped back away from the curb and steadied herself against the light pole.

Just have to have a little patience.

The traffic sailed by, left to right, right to left. Beside her, other cars queued up, waiting for their turn. From here, she had a view of the valley below. The hospital there, its upper floors protruding from the trees that surrounded it. Over there, the Target where she bought her new coat. Down there, the garage where she got her oil changed twice a year.


The horizon was all wrong. Instead of suburbs rolling gently into the haze of distance, there was a line like the edge of a knife, slicing the world in two. Above the line was the winter sky. Below it was the subtle gray of—


Where was the hospital? There was no hospital. Instead, a ramshackle clutter of docks and piers spilled out into the—


To the south, a kind of slum covered the beach, makeshift huts thrown together from oddments of wood and fabric, hunkered low to the ground against the heaving gray bosom of the—

No. No. No.

Kellie wiped her eyes, only then realizing that she was crying. She took a deep breath, calming herself.

Behind her was the long slope of the hill, the main street with its shops and strip malls, and the library crowning the heights like a temple, her refuge, her home.

Before her—

Before her was the sea. One ship was out in the harbor, slowly turning into the wind, bringing its bow around to face the infinite, empty expanse that stretched to the horizon. One ship. It was a sloop; she knew that. It was a sloop because it had to be. It couldn’t possibly be anything else. Two masts. Probably rigged Bermuda-style, although she wasn’t an expert. It was hard to estimate size with nothing near it for comparison, but she figured … oh, maybe seventy feet along the keel, plus another twelve for the bowsprit, and twenty wide? She looked for guns, but the angle was wrong. Maybe they had gone overboard in the storm.

She was laughing and crying at the same time, and her vision kept doubling and redoubling: one ship, two ships, a whole fleet, then back to one.

The paint job was so dark it could only be black. Relieved by two thin stripes of heartbreaking sky blue.

The traffic light changed, and now the flow was down to the beach and up from the beach. Somehow.

The ship in the harbor finally completed its turn and began to diminish toward that terrifying horizon, a horizon so sharp and plain that it would cut your life in half if you tried to cross over it.

“Are you okay?”

Kellie started, shocked for a moment. A tiny, gray-haired woman in a Christmas sweater and a puffy pink coat touched her on the arm.

“Are you all right? Do you need help?”

“I’m fine. I must have looked like a crazy person. I was … I was thinking about someone.”

The stranger nodded, returning her smile. “It’s the season for that.” The light changed. “You’re sure you’re all right?”

“Yes, thank you so much.”

The good Samaritan hurried across the street just as the light turned yellow.

Kellie looked out and saw the hospital among its trees, and the Target, and the Jiffy-Lube. She saw the road curving away into Suburbia, and the houses and shops and hotels and malls rolling away toward the far, far horizon.

Still smiling, she wiped her eyes and turned toward home.

# # #

3 thoughts on “Pirates

  1. WOW!!!! David!! This is great! First, I listened to the audio and then I read it. I would be calling you right now if it weren’t nearly lunchtime in this loony bin. I am so impressed! I think it is a beautiful story…
    Expect a phone call soon…

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