The Stranger in the Lifeboat (12 page)

BOOK: The Stranger in the Lifeboat
3.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

My dear Annabelle. I am so sorry. Have I frightened you?

I see my last page. It was mostly scribble. I don't even remember when I wrote those words. Weeks ago, perhaps. The mornings and nights roll drearily into one another now. Given all that has happened, this is the first time I've felt the clearness of mind to write you.

I have been surviving on barnacles and small shrimp that cling to the raft bottom. A fish actually flopped into the boat one morning; that was food for three days. A recent rain shower allowed two cans to be filled with precious drinking water, which I am rationing, but it's enough to rejuvenate my cells, my organs, my mind. The body is an amazing machine, my love. With just the smallest nutrition, it can clank back to life. Not full life. Not the life I
once knew. Not even the life I had grown to know with the others in this lifeboat.

But I am here. I am alive.

Such a powerful sentence.
I am alive.
Like the trapped miner still breathing in the hole, or the man staggering out of a house fire.
I am alive.

Forgive me. My thoughts go to strange corners. Things are different now, Annabelle. We are still adrift in the vast Atlantic Ocean. There is still nothing but deep water for miles. The Lord still sits a few feet away, trying to comfort me.

But I survive on such meager intake because there is no one to share it with anymore.

I am alive.

The others are gone.

* * *

How do I explain? Where do I begin?

Perhaps with Lambert. Yes. I'll start with him, because everything starts with him, and all the things that start with him seem to turn bad in the end.

When I last shared news with you, I wrote that he had been drinking seawater. Geri warned us against this, many times, but I suppose at some point Lambert could not help himself. He was parched and all around him was water and more water, and he is used to taking what he wants. He waited until dark, found the bailer, and apparently gorged
himself on the ocean as he had gorged himself on so many things in life.

The effect, after several nights, was noticeable. Lambert changed. He grew incoherent. As Geri explained it to me, seawater is four times as salty as regular water, and since our bodies are constructed to balance things, we try to pee the extra salt away. Except we can't. So the more seawater you drink, the more water you actually expel, while retaining the salt in your body, which means you dehydrate even faster than lying thirsty under the sun. With dehydration comes a system meltdown. Your muscles weaken. So do your organs. Your heart speeds up. Your brain gets less blood, which can make you crazy.

And I suppose, looking back, Lambert did go crazy. He mumbled to himself. He became lethargic and semiconscious. Then, one hot morning, we woke to the sound of his voice screaming, “Get off my boat!”

He was standing over the Lord with a knife to his head.

* * *

“Get off my boat!” He yelled this repeatedly. The sun was not fully up, and the sky was fuzzy streaks of deep blue and orange. The waves were choppy, the raft unsteady. Drowsy and weak, I blinked several times before I realized what was happening. I saw Geri rise to her elbows and cry out, “Jason! What are you doing?”

Half of the canopy lay sliced on the raft floor. For some reason, Lambert had cut it into pieces.

“Get off . . . my
!” he screeched again. His voice was as dry as the rest of him. He swung the knife back and forth in the Lord's face. “You are . . . useless! Useless!”

The Lord did not seem frightened. He raised his palms in front of him, as if urging calm.

“Everyone here is useless!” Lambert railed. “None of you got me home!”

“Jason, please,” Geri said, getting to her knees, “you don't need a knife. Come on.” I saw her eyeing little Alice protectively, moving to a space between Lambert and the girl. “We're all worn out. But we're gonna be OK.”

“Be OK, be OK,” Lambert mocked, singsongy. He spun to the Lord. “Do something, you
! Call for

The Lord, too, glanced over at Alice to make sure she was safe, then looked back at Lambert.

“I am your help, Jason Lambert,” he said softly. “Come to me.”

“Come to you? Why? To do . . .
? Anyone can do nothing! Look! We
can do nothing! . . . You don't exist! You are useless! You do nothing!”

His voice dropped to a whisper. “I don't believe in you.”

“But I believe in you,” the Lord said.

Lambert's eyes fluttered closed. He turned away, as if bored with the conversation. For a moment I thought he
might topple over and pass out. Then, so fast I can barely remember it happening, he whipped himself backward, his arm outstretched, and slashed the knife across the Lord's neck.

The Lord reached for his throat. His mouth opened. His eyes widened. As if in slow motion, he fell backward over the raft edge and dropped into the ocean.

“No!” Geri screamed. I literally stopped breathing. I couldn't even blink. I stared like a mesmerized animal as Lambert yelled “Done!” and dropped the knife. Geri dove for it and pulled it underneath her, but as she did, Lambert thumped across the raft, grabbed little Alice, and heaved her over the side.

“Out we go!” he bellowed. “Out we go!”

I heard Alice splash into the sea, and my heart pounded so loudly it filled my eardrums. In an instant Geri jumped overboard to go after her, leaving Lambert alone with me. He rose to his unsteady feet and began lumbering my way.

“Bye-bye, Benji!” he screamed. I could not move. It was as if I were watching myself from behind. He rumbled toward me, his bloodshot eyes and beard-covered lips and yellowed teeth and purplish tongue—all of it so near I felt he was going to swallow me whole. He lunged for my head, and at the last instant, out of cowardice more than courage, I dropped as if the air had gushed out of me, and he stumbled over my body and belly-flopped into the sea.

My chest heaved. My head pounded. Suddenly I was alone in the raft. I spun left and right. I spotted Geri catching up with little Alice, who was flailing in the waves, the currents having carried her maybe ten yards away. I heard Lambert slapping the water on the other side, groaning incoherently. I could not see the Lord anywhere.

“Benji!” Lambert spit out. “Benji,
help . . .

It was the first time I'd ever heard him use that word. I saw his thick frame fighting the demon below the surface, the one pulling at his heels and cooing,
The end has come, don't fight it
. I could have left him to that demon. Perhaps I should have, given how aloof he'd always been to my very existence. I saw him go under, then resurface. A few more seconds, and he would be gone for good. No more of his selfish anger. No more ridicule. And yet . . .

“Benji,” he moaned.

I jumped over the side.

* * *

I had not been in the water since the night the
sank, and it was jolting. My legs had grown so weak from lack of use that just churning them took extraordinary effort. This was probably why Lambert, withered by his dehydration, couldn't navigate even the short distance back to the raft. I splashed my arms toward him. He saw
me but did not reciprocate. His eyes were glazed and his lips were open, and I saw him gulp a mouthful of seawater and barely have the strength to spit it out. I grabbed his right arm and threw it around my neck. He was so heavy, I didn't know if I could get us back to the raft. It was like towing a refrigerator through the chop.

“Come on,” I urged. “Kick . . . It's right there.”

He mumbled something, his left arm flapping weakly on the surface, like a dying fin.

“Benji,” he moaned.

“I'm here,” I rasped.

“Was it . . . you?”

I stared at his face, just inches from mine. His eyes were pleading. My legs were giving out. I couldn't hold him any longer. Suddenly, without explanation, he slipped his arm from mine and pushed me back.

“Hey, no!” I spat out as he drifted away. I splashed toward him. He went under. I inhaled a breath and submerged to try and lift him; he was even deader weight now. I finally raised him above the surface, but his eyes were closed and his head rolled back. He wasn't breathing.

“No!” I yelled. I tried pulling him by the shirt, grabbing for his shoulder, for his neck, but he kept slipping from my fingers. Then I heard Geri scream.

“Benji! Where are you?”

* * *

Geri. Little Alice. Who would help them back in? With no passengers to weigh it down, the raft was drifting away. I looked over my shoulder, but there was no sign of Lambert now, and no sign of the Lord. The orange raft was the only thing breaking up an endless panorama of water and sky.

So I swam, with my lungs bursting, until I reached its edge. I tried to pull myself in, remembering how hard this had been the night the
sank. It was even harder now. I had used my depleted strength going after Lambert. Every muscle from my toes to my jawbone felt unresponsive.

, I told myself. I tried. I slipped off.
Pull! Inside is life. Outside is death. Pull!
With a final yank I lifted myself to neck level, then flopped onto my shoulder, the weight of my body depressing the raft enough for me to fall forward, until the heft of my torso slid me down. I had to lift my legs in with my hands, that's how exhausted they were. But I hit the raft bottom and was never happier to feel any surface beneath me.

I heard Geri weakly calling my name, and I scraped across the floor to the side where she and Alice were bobbing in the water.

“Take her, take her,” Geri panted. Little Alice's expression
seemed a reflection of my own, mouth agape, eyes wide and horrified. Geri pushed her up, and my trembling hands pulled her in. She fell onto her back.

“Are you OK, Alice?” I shouted. “Alice? Are you OK?”

She just stared at me. I turned back to Geri, whose arms were resting on the ocean surface, her head down like a marathoner who had just finished the race and was considering the enormity of the distance run. I was flushed with admiration for this woman. At every turn she had shown such strength, such courage, the kind of courage I only wished I could possess. For a moment, even amid the horror, I felt a wave of hope, as if, with her help, we might somehow survive this.

“Come on, Geri,” I said. “Get back in.”

“Yeah,” she panted, raising her arms. “Gimme a hand.”

I steadied myself against the side, pulling the safety rope around my waist. I reached out to her.

Suddenly her expression changed. She convulsed, her head jerking forward.

“What?” I said.

She looked down, then looked up at me, as if confused. Her head tilted and her arms flopped weakly into the water, as if she'd been unplugged. Her body fell sideways. Her eyes rolled back.

“Geri? . . . ,” I yelled. “

A blossoming pool of red began darkening the sea
around her. Her torso rose briefly to the surface, but not her legs.


That's when I saw two blurry gray shapes circling for the rest of her. My body shivered in recognition, as all of Geri's warnings came rushing back.
Don't splash. Don't draw attention. Don't stay in the water for any duration.
The sharks had never left. They'd just been circling, as if waiting for us to make a mistake.

I turned away in shock. I heard a thrash in the water, and covered little Alice so she wouldn't see it, or hear it, or remember it. I prayed that the beasts would be satisfied with just one of us. It's horrible to say, but at the moment, that was how I felt.

As I held little Alice, I began to weep with the realization of all that had happened in a few terrible minutes. Everyone was dead. Everyone was dead but the child and me.

“I'm sorry!” I sobbed. “I couldn't save them!”

She studied my tears with a sadness that cut right through me.

“They're all gone, Alice! Even the Lord.”

Which is when the little girl finally spoke.

am the Lord,” she said. “And I will never leave you.”


“My name is Dobby.”

LeFleur's heart took off like a jackrabbit. Dobby, the guy from the notebook? Dobby, the guy with the limpet mine? Dobby, whom the author had called “mad” and “a killer”? Sentences jumped to LeFleur's mind.
I can see why Dobby wanted him dead . . . It was his idea to blow up the

“What do you want?” LeFleur asked, his throat suddenly dry. They were squared off on the pavement, maybe thirty yards from LeFleur's yellow house. When Dobby didn't answer, LeFleur added, “I live on this street. All the neighbors know me. They're probably watching through their windows right now.”

Dobby glanced at the homes, as if confused, then turned his focus back on the inspector. “My cousin,” he said. “His name was Benjamin Kierney. He was on the
. A
deckhand. I was hoping maybe you knew what happened to him. Something more than what they told us, anyhow.”

“Who's they?”

“The people from Sextant. The ones who owned the boat.”

“What did they tell you?”

“Nothing helpful. ‘All were lost. We're so sorry.' The standard crap.”

LeFleur hesitated. What kind of game was this guy playing? He knew what happened. He was the one who did it. Was he feeling out LeFleur to see if
knew? Should he arrest this man right now? On what charge? And with what? He had no gun, no cuffs. He didn't know how dangerous the guy was.
Find out more.

“It was just a raft,” LeFleur said.

“Were there signs of life?” Dobby asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Any clue that someone had been in it?”

LeFleur collected his breath.

“Look, Mr.—”


“Dobby. That raft had to travel two thousand miles to get here. That's two thousand miles worth of waves, storms, wind, sea life. What chance would anyone have against all that? For a year?”

Dobby nodded, as if hearing something he'd already told himself.

“It's just that . . .”

LeFleur waited.

“My cousin. He found a way to get through things. He had a tough life. Really poor. He could've given up many times. But he didn't. When I read about the raft, I thought maybe, crazy as it sounds, he found a way to survive that, too.”

“You flew all the way down here to find that out?”

“Well . . . yeah. We were really close.”

A car turned down the street, its headlights sweeping across them. LeFleur scrambled to the left, Dobby to the right. Now they were on opposite sides of the pavement. LeFleur racked his brain for more details from the notebook. He needed to get back to it, to learn everything about what part this Dobby had really played.

An idea formed in his mind. Risky. But what choice did he have?

“Where are you staying, Mr. Dobby?”

“In town. A guesthouse.”

LeFleur glanced at his porch, and the lantern that illuminated it.

“Would you like some supper?” he asked.

* * *

An hour later LeFleur was sipping Patrice's goat water soup and forcing a smile as Dobby talked. Patrice had taken it in stride. Her husband had come home with a foreign traveler. Could they add a chair at the table? It wasn't something that happened often, but privately, she welcomed it. The isolation they'd endured since Lilly's death had settled like a shadow inside their house. Any new visitor was a light.

“What part of Ireland are you from, Dobby?” Patrice asked.

“A town called Carndonagh. It's way up north.”

“Did you know they call Montserrat ‘the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean'?”

“Is that so?”

“Because it's shaped like Ireland. And a lot of people who came here years ago were Irish.”

“Well, I left Ireland when I was a kid,” Dobby said. “I grew up in Boston.”

“When did you leave Boston?” LeFleur asked.

“When I was nineteen.”


“Nah. I wasn't much for school. Neither was Benji.”

LeFleur felt as if a character from a book had come to life. He knew things about this man that the man himself had not yet revealed. He had to be patient, draw him out.

“What did you do after that?”

“Jarty,” Patrice said, tapping his hand. “Maybe let the man eat?”


“Nah, it's all right,” Dobby said, chewing on a roll. “I did a lot of things. Odd jobs. Traveled around. Wound up in the concert business.”

“You're a musician?” Patrice said.

“I wish.” Dobby smiled. “I carry the equipment. Set it up. Break it down. A roadie, for want of a better word.”

“How fun,” Patrice said. “You must meet a lot of famous people.”

“Sometimes, yeah. Famous people don't do much for me.”

“What about the army?” LeFleur said. “You ever serve?”

Dobby's eyes narrowed. “Now why would you ask me that?”

“Yes, Jarty,” Patrice added. “Why would you?”

LeFleur felt a flush. “Dunno,” he mumbled. “Just curious.”

Dobby leaned back and ran a hand through his long, stringy hair. Then Patrice said, “Is there a Mrs. Dobby somewhere?” and the conversation shifted. LeFleur silently cursed himself. He'd have to be more careful. If Dobby suspected that LeFleur knew what he'd done, he could disappear from the island before LeFleur could make a case. On the other hand, he couldn't just arrest the man without evidence. Evidence meant the notebook. The notebook meant explaining why he'd taken it. His
thoughts marched around this triangle so intensely he lost the flow of the conversation, until he heard his wife say, “. . . our daughter, Lilly.”

LeFleur blinked hard.

“She was four,” Patrice said. She placed her hand on her husband's.

“Yeah,” he mumbled.

“I'm truly sorry for you both,” Dobby said. “There's no words for that.”

He shook his head as if lamenting a common enemy.

“The damn sea,” he said.

* * *

That night, after dropping Dobby at the guesthouse, LeFleur parked across the street and killed his engine. Part of him did not want to take his eyes off of this man.

His phone buzzed. A text. Patrice.

We need coffee. Pick some up.

LeFleur bit his lip. He texted her back.

Having a drink with Dobby. Home in a bit.

He pressed send and sighed. He hated lying to Patrice. He hated the chasm that was now between them. The latest
chasm. Deep down, he'd also resented that his wife had seemingly made peace with Lilly's death while he was still at war with it. She believed it was God's will.
Part of his plan.
She kept a Bible in the kitchen and read from it often. When she did, LeFleur felt as if a door had been locked that he couldn't get past. He had been a believer earlier in his life, and the day Lilly was born, he did feel blessed by something larger than all of them.

But after her death, he viewed things differently. God? Why turn to God now? Where was God when his mother-in-law fell asleep in her beach chair? Where was God when his daughter got swept into the sea? Why didn't God just make her little feet run the other way, back to safety, back to the house, back to her mother and her father? What kind of God lets a child die that way?

There was no comfort in invisible forces, not for LeFleur. There was only what got put in front of you and how you dealt with it. Which is why this notebook had so engrossed him—and at times frustrated him. A group of shipwrecked people think they have God in the boat? Why not pin Him down? Hold Him accountable for all the horrors He allowed in this world? LeFleur would have.

He clicked open the glove compartment and took a long swig from the whisky flask. Then he reached over the seat for his briefcase, found the notebook, flipped on the courtesy lights, and returned to the story. He didn't
notice, in the guesthouse's second-story window, the small round lenses of the binoculars that Dobby watched him through.

* * *

It was after midnight when LeFleur finished the final page.

I am the Lord. And I will never leave you.

He dropped the notebook in his lap.
The little girl was the Lord?
He searched for more pages that weren't there.
The little girl was the Lord.
Storywise, it explained certain things. Why she was always giving her rations to the stranger. Why she didn't speak. She was watching them the whole time. She was watching over Benji. But who was the man who claimed to be God? And why was he allowed to die? Why didn't the little girl save him—or the rest of them?

He glanced at his watch. After midnight. The date on his display had just changed. April 10.

He froze.

Lilly's birthday.

She would have been eight years old today.

He pressed his fingers to his forehead and covered his eyes with his palms. His mind flooded with memories of his daughter. Putting her to bed. Making her breakfast. Holding her hand as they crossed a street in town. For some
reason, he found himself thinking about the last scene in Benji's story, the little girl in his arms, and what that little girl might have looked like. He pictured her as Lilly.

He got out of his car, walked to the back, and popped open the trunk. He pulled aside a pale-blue blanket that covered the spare tire. There, wedged inside the rim, was something he had hidden three years ago. A small stuffed animal: Lilly's brown-and-white kangaroo. He'd put it there the night Patrice was gathering Lilly's things in boxes. He hid it because he didn't want every piece of his child to be packed away. He chose that toy because he'd given it to Lilly for her fourth birthday. Her final birthday.

“Daddy,” Lilly had said that day, pointing to a slit in the kangaroo's belly, “baby kangaroos go in here.”

“That's right,” LeFleur said. “It's called a pouch.”

“Is the baby safe in the pouch?” Lilly asked.

“The baby is always safe with its mommy.”

“And its daddy,” she added, smiling.

Remembering that moment, LeFleur broke down. He sobbed so hard, his legs buckled. He squeezed the kangaroo close to his sternum. They hadn't kept her safe. It was all their fault. He thought about the words of the little girl in the notebook:
I will never leave you.

But Lilly had.

BOOK: The Stranger in the Lifeboat
3.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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