Read The Stranger in the Lifeboat Online
Authors: Mitch Albom
Tonight, Tyler Brewer completes his tribute series on the victims of the
yacht with a profile of a famous name in swimming who, tragically, was lost to the sea.
Thank you, Jim. Geri Reede was most at home in the water. From the age of three, she was swimming at a local pool in Mission Viejo, California. Before she was ten, she was competing in national events. A self-described “pool rat” and the daughter of a swim-instructor mother and an oceanographer father, Geri qualified for the US Olympic team when she was nineteen. She went to the Games in Sydney and won a gold medal in the breaststroke and two silvers in the relay events. She made the team again four years later and captured a silver medal in Athens before retiring from the sport and spending a year as a global ambassador for world hunger.
At twenty-six, Reede decided to try medical school, but left after two semesters. Describing herself as “restless” without competitive sports, she spent a year crewing with the yacht
, an America's Cup challenger.
Eventually Reede partnered with a fitness company to create
Water Works!, a health-care line for athletes that
blossomed into a hugely successful company. Reede's signature spiked blond hair and smart if somewhat acerbic style endeared her to fans, and she became a spokesperson in the Water Works! ad campaigns.
Although Geri Reede never married or had children, she often spoke about the importance of early swimming lessons for kids. “Fear of the water is one of the earliest fears we have,” she once said. “The faster we get over it, the faster we learn how to overcome others.”
Reede was thirty-nine years old when she vanished with nearly four dozen others aboard the
“Geri was a trailblazer and an inspiration for young women everywhere,” said Yuan Ross, a spokesperson for USA Swimming. “She was somebody you wanted on your team, in the pool and in life. Losing her is a tragedy.”
My dear Annabelle. It's been days since I last wrote you. A weakness has taken hold of my body and my soul. I can barely lift pen to paper. So much has happened, some of which I still cannot accept.
By our nineteenth day, hunger and thirst had completely overtaken us. We'd eaten every part of the bird that was edible. Geri balled up some of the flesh in an attempt at fishing. She fashioned a hook from a small wing bone and dropped the line in the water. As exhausted as we were, we pulled ourselves over to watch.
Then Yannis yelled, “Look!” In the distance, gray clouds were packed together, with a funnel-shaped darkness dropping to the sea.
“Rain,” Geri rasped, her voice thin from dehydration. We perked up at the idea of fresh water. But the wind began
gusting wildly. The waves increased. We rose and fell and rose and fell, the raft floor slapping with each new bump.
“Grab on to something,” Yannis yelled. Geri, the Lord, and I hooked our arms around the safety rope. Lambert ducked under the canopy, as did Nina, Alice, and Jean Philippe. The raft bounced like an amusement park ride. We had not been this tossed since the night the
sank. The skies darkened. We rose sharply. I saw Geri staring over my shoulder. Her eyes widened.
“Hang on, Benji!” she yelled.
I spun in time to see a giant wave opening wide behind us, like the yawning mouth of a water beast. We were sucked up into it and tilted to the edge of flipping. Then an avalanche of white water crashed overhead, and I gripped the rope for dear life. Through the bubbly rush I saw a body shoot out from the canopy and wash over the side.
“Nina!” I heard Yannis yell. A second passed. Two. Three. We flattened out. I heard Nina's voice against the surf, screaming for help. Where was she?
“There!” Geri yelled. “To the left!”
Before I could react, Yannis had hurled himself into the water and was swimming toward her.
“No, Yannis!” I screamed. Another swirl lifted us, and a wall of water slammed down. I wiped my eyes furiously. In the distance I saw Nina's head bobbing up and down. She was a good twenty yards away now. Another wave
smashed against the raft. I saw Geri trying to row, and I scrambled toward her, yelling, “Give me the other paddle!” Another crash. Another white shower.
“Where are they?” I screamed, wiping my eyes. “Where did they go?”
“There!” Jean Philippe yelled.
They were off to our right now, but farther away. I saw Yannis finally reach Nina. I saw them grasp each other. Together they went under, then resurfaced. Then another wave hit us. Then another. Then I couldn't see them anymore.
“Geri!” I yelled. “What do we do?”
“Row!” she hollered.
She spun her head. For the first time, she didn't have an answer, because there was no answer. Yannis and Nina were gone from sight. I paddled madly, as did Geri, ripping into the waves that broke on all sides of us. The wind whipped my face so hard that tears streamed down. I could barely see. For all I knew we were spinning the raft around like a record player.
We never found them. After ten minutes, my weak muscles groaned in pain. I dropped back and wailed “
!” and was soaked by another wave, as if to shut me up. The wind howled. The raft was calf high with seawater. The others held their ropes and stared at the horizon, avoiding looks that said the obvious. Two more taken. Two more gone. I
could hear the boast in the ocean's torturous roar.
You will never escape. I will have you all.
*Â *Â *
No one spoke for hours. The storm passed, the rain never hit us, and the sun returned in the morning like a tireless demon punching in for its daily shift. We stared at our feet. What was there to say? Five dead from this lifeboat, plus dozens lost the night the
went down. The ocean was collecting us.
Lambert mumbled incoherently now and then, something about phone calls and “Security! Call security!” Gibberish. I ignored him. Little Alice was draped over Geri, squeezing her arm. I thought about the morning when Mrs. Laghari straightened Alice's hair, licking her fingers and flattening her eyebrows, the two of them smiling and hugging. It felt like years ago.
And Nina? Poor Nina. From the moment I met her on the
, she looked to believe the best in people, and she went to her death believing the stranger in our boat would save her. He did not. He did nothing. What more proof of his charade do we require? She told me once that she had asked the Lord about prayers. He'd said all prayers were answered, “but sometimes the answer is no.”
I suppose it was no for Nina. It infuriates me. When I glare at the man, he returns my look with a placid expression. I
can't imagine what he is feeling or thinking, Annabelle. Or if he feels and thinks at all. When we had food, he ate it. When we had water, he drank it. His skin is chafed and blistered like ours. His face is hollow and bonier than when we discovered him. But he utters no complaints. He does not seem to be suffering. Maybe delusion is his best ally. We all search for something to save us. He thinks it is him.
*Â *Â *
Yesterday morning, I awoke to see Geri fussing with a patching kit.
“What are you doing?” I mumbled.
“I've got to try and patch the bottom, Benji,” she said. “We don't have enough people to keep bailing. We'll sink.”
I nodded wearily. Ever since the shark attack, which ripped a hole in the lower tube, one of us has been constantly shoveling water out of our tilted raft bottom. It's an endless, tiring task, only tolerable because there were many of us. But Lambert is slow at bailing, and lately he has been out of it. Little Alice tries, but she fatigues quickly. That leaves only me, Geri, Jean Philippe, and the Lord. Even collectively, we don't have the strength anymore.
“The sharks, Miss Geri,” Jean Philippe protested. “What if they come back?”
Geri handed him a paddle, then handed one to me.
“Bang 'em hard,” she said. When she saw my reaction, she lowered her voice. “Benji, we have no choice.”
We waited until the sun was high, when sharks are least likely to be prowling for food. With Jean Philippe and me leaning over the sides, paddles up like two exhausted sentinels, Geri took a breath and dropped into the water.
The next half hour was like sitting in a darkened house, waiting for a killer to reveal himself. Nobody spoke. Our eyes darted across the surface. Geri kept coming up then diving back under then coming up again. She found the hole, which she said was small, but being underwater left the glue and patches useless.
“I'm going to try some sealant and stitch it,” she said.
Again, we watched the water intensely. After twenty minutes, Geri said she'd fixed all she could. Then she dove back under one more time.
“What's she doing now?” I asked.
She resurfaced with her hands full of weeds and barnacles. She tossed them into the raft, and we pulled her in.
“There's a wholeÂ .Â .Â . ecosystemÂ .Â .Â . on the bottom of this raft,” she gasped. “Barnacles. Sargasso. I saw fish, but they scatteredÂ .Â .Â . too fastÂ .Â .Â . They're living off what's growing on the bottom.”
“That's good, right?” I asked. “The fish? Maybe we could catch one?”
“YeahÂ .Â .Â .” She nodded, still panting. “ButÂ .Â .Â . that's what the sharks are after, too.”
*Â *Â *
Now, Annabelle, I must share one more thing, and then I will rest. The writing takes a lot out of me. Processing thought. Thinking about anything besides water and food. I helped Geri pump air into the repaired tubing. It took us an hour. Then both of us fell back under the canopy. Even that simple act was draining.
Still. Last night, in a moment of grace, we witnessed something otherworldly. It was after midnight. As I slept, I felt a sensation through my closed lids, as if someone had turned on the lights. I heard a gasp, and I opened my eyes to witness an utterly amazing sight.
The entire sea was aglow.
Patches below the surface were illuminating the water like a million small light bulbs, casting a Disneyland bluish white all the way to the horizon. The ocean was dead calm, as if it had parked itself in place, and the effect was like looking at a massive sheet of glowing glass. It was so beautiful that I wondered if my life had ended and this was what came next.
“What is it?” Jean Philippe whispered.
“Dinoflagellates,” Geri said. “They're like plankton. They glow if they're disturbed.” She paused. “They're not supposed to be this far out.”
“In all my life,” Jean Philippe marveled, “I never see anything like this.”
I glanced at the Lord. Little Alice was asleep next to him.
Wake up, child
, I wanted to say.
See something astonishing before we die
I didn't. In fact, I barely moved. I couldn't. I kept staring at the glowing sea, awestruck. At that moment, I sensed my insignificance more than at any other moment in my life. It takes so much to make you feel big in this world. It only takes an ocean to make you feel tiny.
“Benji,” Jean Philippe whispered to me. “Do you think the Lord created this?”
Lord?” I whispered, nodding backward.
“No, Jean Philippe. I don't think he created this.”
I saw the blue light reflecting in his pupils.
“Something must have.”
“Something,” I said.
“Something magnificent,” he added. He smiled. The raft rocked gently in the water.
The next morning, Jean Philippe was gone.
LeFleur and Commissioner Sprague watched the man in the blue blazer approach the orange raft. LeFleur shifted his shoes in the sand.
There was no way this guy knew about the notebook, right?
“You think anyone from the
actually made it to that raft?” Sprague asked.
“Who knows?” LeFleur said.
“Crap way to die, I'll tell you that.”
LeFleur's cell phone rang. He glanced at the display.
“My office,” he said.
He turned his body and lifted the phone to his ear, keeping an eye on the man by the raft.
“Katrina?” he answered, low-voiced. “I'm busy nowÂ .Â .Â .”
“There's a man here for you,” his assistant said. “He's been waiting awhile.”
LeFleur glanced at his watch.
Rom. He had told him to be there by noon. LeFleur watched the blue-blazered man lean into the raft and run his hand across the edges, near the now-empty pouch. Was he stopping? Did he notice something?
“Jarty?” Katrina said.
“He asked for an envelope. Is that OK?”
“Yeah, yeah, whateverÂ .Â .Â . ,” LeFleur mumbled.
The man stood up. “We need to transport this thing out of here!” he yelled. “Can you get a truck?”
“Right away,” Sprague yelled back. He waved a finger at LeFleur.
“I gotta hang up, Katrina,” LeFleur said. “Tell Rom not to go anywhere
This is what I found in my notebook the morning Jean Philippe disappeared.
When you were sleeping, I think a lot. I reach into the water to touch the blue light. Suddenly, I see a big fish. It swims close to the boat. I take the paddle and I wait. It comes back and I hit it hard. I hit it just right. It stop swimming and I grab it.
I feel happy because there is fish to eat. But sad because I kill it. I don't want to be in this world anymore, Benji, taking things. I want the last thing I do to be giving. You and others please, eat the fish. Stay alive. I want to be with my Bernadette. I know she is safe.
I think last night she let me see Heaven. She is saying God waits for me.
I pray you get home. I leave the fish in the bag.
May the Lord protect you, my friend.
I closed the notebook and dropped my head. I cried so hard my chest hurt, but my eyes stayed dry as dust. This is how empty I have become, Annabelle. I have no water left for tears.
*Â *Â *
That was yesterday. When I told Geri, she took the notebook, read the words herself, then handed it back and went straight for the ditch bag.
The fish was large, as Jean Philippe had promised. “A dorado,” Geri said. Using her knife, she quickly dissected it into the edible, the useful, and the rest. The five of us ate some right away. (The five of us? Can that really be true?) Then Geri used a piece of line to hang the remaining fleshy pieces. They will dry in the sun and feed us for another day or two.
I was staring at those pieces and grieving for Jean Philippe when the Lord slid over and leaned against the raft edge. His mop of hair was wet and shiny, and his dark beard was now quite thick.
“Did you know about Jean Philippe?” I whispered.
“I know all things.”
“How could you let him take his life? Why didn't you talk him out of it?”
He looked me straight in the eyes. “Why didn't you?”
I began shaking with rage. “Me? I couldn't! I didn't know! It was something he decided to do on his own!”
“That's right,” the Lord said, softly. “He decided to do it on his own.”
I glared at him then, this haughty, deluded stranger who enjoyed acting as if he manipulated the world. At that moment, I felt nothing but contempt.
“If you were really God,” I seethed, “you would have stopped him.”
He looked to the sea and shook his head.
things,” he said. “Man stops them.”