Read The Stranger in the Lifeboat Online
Authors: Mitch Albom
LeFleur sped down the island's main road in his jeep. The car with Sprague and the man in the blue blazer followed. Behind them was a truck carrying the raft.
Again, LeFleur's cell rang.
“Yeah, Katrina?” he barked, expecting his office.
“Inspector, this is Arthur Kirsh with the
We spoke the other night?”
LeFleur exhaled. He didn't need this now.
“We didn't really speak,” LeFleur corrected him. “And I don't wantâ”
“We have it confirmed that a life raft from the
was found on Montserrat, and that you were involved in its discovery.”
“That's not true! I just got a call.”
Damn it, LeFleur thought. Why did these guys always play tricks?
“If you want information, you should speak to the police commissioner.”
“Were there any remains? Of any passengers?”
“Like I said, Mr. Kirsh, call the police commissioner.”
“You're aware that the Sextant people are sending a team to your island?”
“Sextant Capital. Jason Lambert's company.
And if I were to arrive there tomorrow, where would I find you?”
“Find the police commissioner,” LeFleur snapped. “And don't call me again.”
He hung up and checked his watch. Three o'clock. Three hours later than he'd told Rom he'd meet him. It couldn't be helped. LeFleur first had to stop at headquarters and explain to Sprague why he hadn't immediately called him with the news (“It was Sunday, Lenny!”) and how he'd discovered the raft in the first place (“A drifter found it in Marguerita Bay.”) Sprague wasn't happy. He said reporters would want to talk to that drifter, so LeFleur had better produce him quickly.
“Don't screw this up, Jarty. It could make a big difference to Montserrat.”
“What do you mean?”
“Tourism is in the crapper. Who's coming here now
except creepers who want a death tour of the exclusion zone? This is our chance to change that.”
“By changing the story. Let Montserrat be known for something besides the volcano. This guy was rich, Jarty. All his friends were richâand famous, too. There'll be a lot of eyes on this.”
LeFleur was taken aback. “People died in that raft, Lenny. You don't build tourism off of that.”
Sprague tilted his head. “How do you know people died in that raft?”
“IÂ .Â .Â . don't,” LeFleur stammered. “I assumedâ”
“Don't assume, OK? Just bring me the guy who found it.”
*Â *Â *
When LeFleur pulled up to his office, he was thinking about the notebook and the pages he had read. He thought about the stranger on the raft refusing at first to save the others.
I can only do that when everyone here believes I am who I say I am.
LeFleur balked at that part. But then, he'd stopped relying on God right after his daughter died. There was no place in his mind for a benevolent force that wasn't benevolent when it came to a four-year-old. Praying was a waste. Church was a waste. Even worse. It was a weakness.
A crutch that let you dump your misfortune on some make-believe scale that would balance when you died and reached a “better” Heaven. What crap. The way LeFleur saw it now, you either ran from a volcano or you stayed and shook a fist at it.
As he entered his office, Katrina was hanging up the phone. She seemed upset.
“There you are. I've been trying to call you!”
“I turned my cell off. A reporter was bugging me.”
“The man is gone.”
“He never told me his name. He sat on the porch for two hours. I offered him some ginger beer, and he said OK. But when I brought it out, he was gone.”
“Where did he go?”
“I don't know, Jarty. He was barefoot. Where could he go? I tried to call you ten times!”
LeFleur raced out the door. “I'll find him,” he hollered over his shoulder. Katrina got worked up easily; he didn't need that now. He hoisted the briefcase into the passenger seat and hopped into the jeep. Rom. He was beginning to wish he'd never met the guy.
We saw an airplane today.
Geri was the first to spot it. We are so weak that most of the day we just lie under the canopy, drifting in and out of sleep. Geri had dragged herself to the rear of the raft for another futile check on the solar still. She looked at the sky, guarding her eyes with her hand.
“Plane,” she rasped.
“What did you say?” Lambert mumbled.
Geri pointed up.
Lambert rolled over and squinted. When he saw it, he tried to stand, something he hasn't done in days. “Hey!Â .Â .Â . I'm here! I'm here.” He tried waving his arms, but they dropped like heavy barbells.
“It's too high,” Geri rasped.
“Flare gun!” Lambert croaked.
“Too high,” Geri repeated. “Never see us.”
Lambert flopped across the raft bottom toward the ditch bag. Geri threw herself in his direction.
“It's a waste!”
I was too exhausted to move. I kept glancing from the two of them to the sky. I could barely make the plane out. It was like a spot shifting through the high clouds.
“They're here for me, damn it!” Lambert yelled. He knocked Geri backward and dumped out the bag.
“No, Jason!” Geri yelled.
But Lambert had the flare gun now. He swung his arm wildly and fired off-balance and the flare shot out sideways across the ocean surface, a hot-pink light that fizzled in the water maybe forty yards away.
“More!” Lambert yelled. “Give me more!”
“Stop it, Jason! Stop it!”
He was on his knees, his fat hands rifling through the items on the floor, knocking them aside in search of another canister. His belly was heaving.
“I'm here, I'm here,” he kept babbling. Geri spotted the two remaining flares and dove for them. She pulled them to her chest and scrambled back to the raft edge.
“Give me those!” Lambert bounced on his knees, coming after her. “Give me them nowâ”
Bam! Out of nowhere, the Lord smashed into him and knocked him backward with the full force of his shoulders. He moved so fast, I never saw him coming.
Lambert groaned in pain. The Lord lifted Geri to her knees, then turned to me calmly and said, “Benjamin. Put the things back in the bag.”
I raised my eyes to the skies. The plane was gone.
*Â *Â *
I realize I have not written about little Alice. Sometimes silent people go unnoticed, as if their lack of words makes them invisible. But being quiet and being invisible are not the same thing. She is on my mind much of the time. As much as I cannot fathom my own death, it is the potential of hers that haunts me the most.
Back when there were more of us, and we had the energy, we'd discussed where Alice could have come from. Lambert didn't recognize her, but then he didn't know many people on his own yacht, including me. Yannis said that on Friday afternoon, a rock band arrived on helicopters and he remembered seeing children. Maybe she was one of them.
We've asked her many times, “What's your name?” and “What's your mommy's name?” and “Where do you live?” She seems incapable of communicating. Yet she is aware of everything. Her eyes move even faster than ours.
Speaking of her eyes, they are two different colors. One is pale blue and one is brown. I have heard of this conditionâGeri knew the name of it, though I've forgottenâbut it's the first time I've ever seen it. The effect is that her stare is somewhat eerie.
Mostly that stare is reserved for the Lord. She stays by him, as if she knows he will protect her. I think of the lessons I learned in church, about Jesus and the children and the kingdom of Heaven belonging to them. The priest would often speak that verse, and my mother would rub my shoulders when he said it. I felt, in that moment, sheltered from all evil. There is no faith like the faith of a child. I haven't got the heart to tell Alice it's misplaced.
*Â *Â *
It is morning now. I'm sorry, Annabelle. I fell asleep with the notebook in my lap. I must be more careful. It could drop in the soggy bottom of the raft and become unreadable. Geri had a plastic bag in her backpack, and I have taken to storing the notebook inside that bag for extra protection. You never know when a wave will soak us. Or when I might not wake up at all.
It's been three days since Jean Philippe left us. We have eaten all the meat from his fish. Geri has brought up more barnacles and weeds from the bottom of the raft, which contain tiny shrimp that we gobble down. They are morsels.
Less than a bite in normal life. But we savor them like a meal, chewing slowly and not swallowing for as long as possible, if only to remind ourselves of what it is like to eat.
Fresh water remains the biggest problem. Geri has tried the solar still a hundred different ways. It will not hold. Without fresh water, we are withering to death. Last night, I opened my eyes to see Lambert's large, meaty back bent over the side of the boat. At first I thought he was vomiting, although none of us have done that in a while. But then I saw his head tilt back and his arm lift up to his mouth. In my sleepy haze, I didn't make much of it. But this morning, I told Geri, and she leaned over to where Lambert was now asleep as if searching for something. Finally, she tapped my arm and pointed. There, partially covered by his left leg, was the bailer.
“He's drinking seawater,” Geri whispered.
There's breaking news tonight in one of the most tragic maritime accidents in recent memory. Tyler Brewer reports:
It was nearly a year ago that Jason Lambert's
yacht sank in the North Atlantic Ocean, fifty miles off the coast of Cape Verde. Today, a report from the Caribbean island of Montserrat, some two thousand nautical miles away, claims a life raft from the
washed up on its shores.The raft itself was empty, but marine experts hired by Sextant Capital are examining it for clues as to who might have been in it, and whether it offers any information on what happened to the
Forty-four people were believed lost in that tragedy, including world leaders in politics, business, the arts, and technology. Today's discovery has already renewed calls for a search of the waters where the
went down. Earlier attempts were blocked by Lambert's firm, Sextant Capital, which called it “a fruitless endeavor that would only lead to more heartache.” There were also disputes over who
held control of those international waters. It is unclear how today's developments might change that.
Tyler, do we know how the raft was discovered, or by whom?
Not at this time. Police will only say it was spotted on the north shore by someone who was on the beach.
And what are the chances that a raft could make it all that way across the ocean?
Hard to say. One expert we spoke with said it was extremely unlikely, but that a raft's chances were still much better than those of anyone who'd been inside it.
Two left now, AnnabelleÂ .Â .Â .
So much has happened. I wishâ
Dear AnnabelleÂ .Â .Â .
Goodbye, AnnabelleÂ .Â .Â .
God is small
“What do you want me to do, Lenny? I can't make him appear out of thin air!”
LeFleur banged down the phone. Three days with no sign of Rom.
I should have locked him in a damn motel.
Reporters were clamoring for “the man who found the raft.” Short of that, they were swarming LeFleur. A few of them waited at his office every morning.
Sprague had been right about one thing. The interest in this story was crazy. In addition to a former American president and some big tech billionaires who were on the guest list, a rock band, a couple of famous actors, and a TV reporter had also died on the
. They'd all had fans and followersârabid followers, LeFleur realized, based on the endless phone calls, social media posts, and shouted
questions from the press, whose presence on the island increased every day.
LeFleur and his staff had spent many hours combing and recombing the other north-shore beaches for signs of anything else from the
âSprague's idea, strictly for show. What did they think? Because a raft miraculously made its way across the Atlantic, the rest of the boat would follow?
Of course, one thing had made it to the island that no one knew about. The notebook. LeFleur had hidden it in an old briefcase at home. It was too risky to bring to work. Each night, he would wait until after he and Patrice had finished dinner and got ready for bed. Once she was asleep, he would sneak downstairs and continue the story.
His knotted stomach confirmed that he was breaking the rulesâthe strict ones of police protocol, and the unwritten ones of a trusting marriage. But the notebook had narcotized him. He fell into a spell when he read it, and he needed to know how it ended. The pages were delicate, and deciphering the handwriting was tedious. Doing it after midnight made it that much more fatiguing. He had started taking notes, keeping charts for the actions of each of the eleven people on that raft. He searched old news articles about the
's passengers, trying to match the names to the account and ensure that
this wasn't some crackpot fantasy that a delirious passenger had made up.
He justified that as the reason to keep it secret. The whole thing could be a hoax, and, if so, what would revealing it accomplish? Only confusion and heartache. This was the story he told himself, and the stories we tell ourselves long enough become our truths.
*Â *Â *
That night, LeFleur asked Katrina if she could drive him home. He wanted to get a drink, and the police jeep drew too much attention.
“OK,” she said, rising. “You coming?”
“Drive your car around back.”
As he waited for her to pull around, he glanced at the photo on his desk: Patrice and Jarty swinging Lilly above a beach towel. Each parent held a hand as Lilly lifted her feet in the air, her face pure joy. Patrice loved that picture. LeFleur had, too. But every time he looked at it now, he felt further away from his daughter, as if a rope had been cut and she was drifting off in space. Four years? She'd been gone from this world as long as she'd been in it.
Katrina dropped him at a rum shop not far from his house. This way he could walk home. He took a chair and ordered a beer and glanced around at the locals, some of whom were playing dominoes. He recognized a few, and
nodded their way. It was a relief to be away from the foreign media people. LeFleur's mind drifted to the notebook story and the man writing it. Benji. Benjamin. A deckhand. Not one of the famous passengers. None of the reporters was asking about him.
Suddenly, the door swung open and a man walked in. LeFleur knew immediately he wasn't local. The way he dressed, black jeans and boots. The way he looked around. They made brief eye contact. The man sat by the window. LeFleur hoped he wasn't another journalist trying to blend in with the locals so he could wander over and ask “innocent” questions.
LeFleur sipped his beer. Twice he caught the man looking at him. That was enough. He laid a few bills on the table and walked out, catching a good look at the stranger as he did. Fair complexion. Long stringy hair, slightly gray. A lined face that suggested years of hard living.
LeFleur's house was six blocks away. He knew Patrice would be waiting. He walked slowly, breathing in the warm night air. His phone sounded, a text message. He pulled it from his pocket to read:
Any luck finding that guy? âLen
LeFleur exhaled deeply. As he walked, he thought he heard a second set of footsteps. He stopped. He turned.
The street was empty. He continued walking. There it was again. He spun around. Nobody.
He was two blocks from home now, so he quickened his pace. Again, he heard the footsteps, but resisted looking. Let whoever it was get closer first, so he could identify them. As he came around the corner, his yellow house was just ahead. LeFleur felt his muscles tighten. He was bracing for a confrontation when he heard a man's voice say, “Excuse me?”
He turned. It was the guy from the rum shop.
“Excuse me?Â .Â .Â . Inspector, right?”
He had a slight accent that LeFleur couldn't place.
“Listen,” LeFleur said, “I told the other reporters everything I know. If you want more informationâ”
“I'm not a reporter.”
LeFleur looked the man up and down. He was panting, as if the six-block walk had tired him out.
“I knew someone. On the
. He was my cousin.”
The man exhaled deeply.
“My name is Dobby.”