Read The Stranger in the Lifeboat Online
Authors: Mitch Albom
The ride back was mostly silent. As the sun fell, the exclusion zone took on an eerie grayness. LeFleur never liked being here late. It was ghostly enough during daylight hours.
“You understand I'll have to hold you in custody,” he said. “Until I can check your alibi.”
Dobby looked out the window. “Yeah. I get it.”
“I'll have to charge you with something.”
“What should I charge you with?”
Dobby turned. “You serious?”
“How about drunk and disorderly?” Dobby said, looking away. “I can do that if you're buying.”
LeFleur was so tired, he had to blink his eyes open as they drove. The adrenaline rush of the afternoon had evaporated, and his body felt like it had been hollowed out. His hands shook on the wheel.
At this point, he didn't know what to believe. Dobby had an answer for everything, but he'd heard the whole notebook before having to explain himself. Was he that clever? That quick with a lie? Or was it Benji, the author, who was delusional? And perhaps responsible for the
Dobby had mentioned Annabelle, but after saying that she'd died from a rare blood disease and that Benji had struggled to find money for her treatment, he offered no more details. His patience for gunpoint had expired. “I'm not saying any more until you swear I'm not a suspect. I can prove I wasn't on that yacht. Just get me back and let me make some calls.”
LeFleur reluctantly agreed. What choice did he have? Deep down, he hoped Dobby
telling the truth. He didn't care to be this close to a man who could lie that well.
“You never told me how you found that raft,” Dobby said.
“I didn't find it.”
“A guy. A drifter.”
“Where is he?”
“That's what everyone wants to know.”
“Did he have a name?”
Dobby turned. “Rom Rosh?”
“What?” LeFleur said.
Dobby shook his head. “Strange name.”
Through the windshield, LeFleur saw the large sign that read “Now Leaving Volcano Hazard Zone.” He felt a pang of relief. They were back on the island's north side. Back to the living.
“Another twenty minutes,” he said.
“Can I get something to eat?” Dobby asked. “Before you lock me up?”
*Â *Â *
Two hours later, after dropping Dobby at the island's only jail, LeFleur returned to his office and flicked on the lights. He was bone-tired. He took the notebook from his briefcase and placed it in on his desk. Then he leaned his forehead into his hands, shut his eyes, and rubbed hard, as if to shake loose an answer from his brain.
Nothing came. He was back to where he'd begun. A sunken yacht. A discovered raft. An unbelievable story. An accused with an excuse.
He wanted a drink. He pulled open his lower drawer,
where he stashed small bottles of rum that he picked up at the island factory. Katrina, his assistant, would periodically throw those bottles away. A churchgoing woman, she didn't approve of him drinking on the job, but she wouldn't dare say that to him directly. So he'd get the little bottles and they'd be there for a while, then one day they'd be gone and he knew she had tossed them. He never confronted her. It was their little game.
This time, when he opened the lower drawer, something else caught his eye. A large tan envelope with the precinct's stamp on the upper left-hand corner. Except the envelope was sealed.
He dialed Katrina, who sounded surprised to hear from him.
“Where were you all day?” she asked. “People were asking for you.”
“Yeah,” he said, “I had to take care of something. Hey. Did you put a sealed envelope in my desk?”
“In my drawer. You know. The
“Oh, yeah. That was last week, from that guy. Remember? That day you were stuck in Marguerita Bay?”
“I don't know his name. He never told me. He asked for an envelope while he was waiting, so I gave him one. You said it was OK, remember? And then, like I told you, when
I came back out to find him, he was gone. But he left the envelope on the steps, so I put it in your desk.”
“Why didn't you tell me?”
“I did.” She paused. “I
I did. Oh, Jarty. There's so much going on. I'm sorry if I forgâ”
But LeFleur had already hung up. He ripped open the envelope to find a stack of folded pages. The edges were frayed and the handwriting was familiar. LeFleur knew exactly where they had come from.
He started reading so fast he didn't even feel himself drop back into his chair.
My Dear Annabelle.
One final time, I beg your forgiveness. It's been months since I wrote you anything. I am still at sea, but no longer at war with it. I may live. I may die. It doesn't matter. A shroud has been lifted. I can say all I need to say now.
I'd be quite a sight to you, my love. There is much less of me. My arms are scrawny. My thighs are thin chops. Some of my teeth are loose. The clothes I used to wear are just shreds of fabric, chewed away by the pervasive salt. The only thing there is more of is my beard, which is growing unfettered toward my collarbone.
I don't know how far across the Atlantic I have traveled. One night I saw a large boat on the horizon. I fired a flare. Nothing. Weeks later, I spotted a cargo ship, so close
I could make out the colors on her hull. Another flare. Nothing.
I have accepted that rescue will be impossible. I am too small. Too insignificant. I am a man in a raft, and if I am to survive, the currents hold my fate. The oceans of the world are all connected, Annabelle, so perhaps I am meant to pass from one to another in a ceaseless looping of the planet. Or maybe, in the end, Mother Sea will take me, as a mother bear takes her weak and sickly cub. Put me out of my misery. Perhaps that would be best.
Whatever awaits, that's what will be. The sick and elderly sometimes say, “Let me go. I am ready to meet the Lord.” But what need do I have for such surrender? I have met the Lord already.
*Â *Â *
Looking back on these pages, I see I stopped writing after little Alice spoke for the first time.
I remember only darkness after that. I must have blacked out. The shock of losing Lambert and Geri, the effort of swimming after weeks of inactivityâall that left me a gasless tank.
When I came to, the sun was gone and the evening sky was an indigo blue. Alice was sitting on the edge of the raft, lit by moonlight, her narrow arms crossed in her lap.
She wore one of Geri's white T-shirts, which hung over her knees. The bangs of her hair fluttered with the breeze.
“Alice?” I whispered.
“Why do you call me that?” she said.
Her voice was childlike, yet clear and precise.
“We had to call you something,” I said. “What's your real name?”
She smiled. “Alice will do.”
My throat was dry, and my eyes were sticky with sleep. As I turned my head, the empty raft brought a sickening wave of grief.
“Yes,” she said.
“The sharks got Geri. I couldn't save her. And Lambert. I couldn't save him, either.”
I thought about those final moments in the water. Then I remembered.
“Alice?” I said, lifting to my elbows. “Did you say you wereÂ .Â .Â .
“What do you mean?”
“Just what I said.”
“But you're a
“Isn't the Lord in all children?”
I blinked several times. My thinking was foggy.
“WaitÂ .Â .Â . then who was the man we pulled from the water?”
She didn't answer.
“Alice?” My voice rose. “Why did that man die? Are you just mimicking him? Who are you really? Why didn't you speak before now?”
She uncrossed her arms, got to her feet, and walked toward me without the slightest wobble. She crouched by my side, and crossed her small legs in front of her. I stared, wordless, as she lifted my right hand and placed it inside hers.
“Sit with me, Benjamin,” she said.
And we sat. Through the eveningâand through the nightâwithout saying another word. It's not that I couldn't speak, Annabelle. It's that the inclination was suddenly gone. I know it sounds strange, but all protest within me had vanished. Holding her hand was like a key turning a tumbler. My body melted. My breath calmed. As the minutes passed, I seemed to get smaller. The heavens grew enormous. When a spread of glowing stars took over the sky, it drew tears from my eyes.
We sat like that until the dawn, when the sun broke over the horizon and its rays shot out in every direction. The reflection sent a path of glimmering diamonds through the chop and all the way to our raft. In that moment, it
was possible to believe that the world was nothing more than water and sky, that land was not even a concept, and all that man had built upon it was inconsequential. I realized this is what it means to forgo everything and be alone with God.
And I knew that I was.
“Now, Benjamin,” Alice said softly, “ask me what you wish.”
My voice felt buried deep in my windpipe. I dragged the words up like a bucket from a well.
“Who was he? The man who called himself the Lord?”
“An angel I spoke through.”
“Why did he ask for food and water?”
“To see if you would share it.”
“Why was he so quiet?”
“To see if you would listen.”
I looked away. “Lambert killed him.”
“Did he?” she said.
I turned back. Her expression was calm. I swallowed hard, unsure if I wanted to ask the next question, but knowing that I had to.
“Was Jason Lambert my father?”
She shook her head no.
I was instantly overwhelmed with emotion. The hate I had held for that man, the anger I had harbored toward
the world because of him, it all came gushing out of me as if I were being socked continuously in the stomach. How wrong I was! How misdirected my rage! I banged my fists into the wet raft floor and howled until I reached the bottom of my soul. And there lay the question that has been driving my life every minute since I lost you.
I looked straight at Alice, and I asked it.
“Why did my wife have to die?”
*Â *Â *
She nodded as if this were expected. She placed her other hand on top of my palm.
“When someone passes, Benjamin, people always ask, âWhy did God take them?' A better question would be âWhy did God give them to us?' What did we do to deserve their love, their joy, the sweet moments we shared? Didn't you have such moments with Annabelle?”
“Every day,” I rasped.
“Those moments are a gift. But their end is not a punishment. I am never cruel, Benjamin. I know you before you are born. I know you after you die. My plans for you are not defined by this world.
“Beginnings and endings are earthly ideas. I go on. And because I go on, you go on with me. Feeling loss is part of why you are on Earth. Through it, you appreciate the brief
gift of human existence, and you learn to cherish the world I created for you. But the human form is not permanent. It was never meant to be. That gift belongs to the soul.
“I know the tears you shed, Benjamin. When people leave this Earth, their loved ones always weep.” She smiled. “But I promise you, those who leave do not.”
She lifted a hand and motioned upward. And at that instant, Annabelle, I can hardly describe it; the open air seemed to sweep aside, and the blue reflection of the atmosphere melted into the most brilliant light, a color for which I have no word. In that light, I saw more souls than there are stars in the sky. Yet somehow I could see the contented faces of each and every one of them. Among those faces, I saw my loving mother.
And I saw you.
I need nothing else.
There were more pages, but LeFleur stopped reading. He stuffed them into his briefcase and wiped his eyes as he raced from the office.
He drove home trembling. He entered the yellow house and ran up the stairs. He put his hand on the doorknob of his daughter's room, and for the first time in four years, he turned it open. As he stood there, staring at the small bed and the pink stars he'd painted on the ceiling, Patrice stepped up behind him and said, “Jarty? What's going on?”
He turned and grabbed her close. Through heaving breath, he whispered, “Lilly's all right. She's all right. She's safe.” And Patrice began crying, too.
“I know, sweetheart. I know she is.”
They hugged each other tightly and later would not remember how long they held that embrace. But they slept that night without waking up once. And when LeFleur opened his eyes the next morning, he felt something he had not felt in a very long time. He felt peace.
Tonight, an astonishing development in the search for the
. Our Tyler Brewer is aboard the exploration vessel the
That's right, Jim. A discovery has been made. On the far end of the five-mile “search box,” researchers spotted a large wreck on the ocean floor, about three miles down. It appears to be lying on its side. Ali Nesser of Nesser Ocean Explorations is with us here in what's called the “offline room” on the ship. Mr. Nesser, what are you seeing?
Late last night, our sonar system detected a large mass on the seabed. The data suggested a vessel approximately the size of the
, which gave us a strong suspicion that we'd located it. We then sent the Remotely Operated Vehicle or ROV down to take pictures of the wreckage. We received those images here on the screens behind me, and we're analyzing the data.
What does the data suggest?
Well, it's pitch-black down there, so everything we're getting is from the lights of our ROV. Still, we're
confident this is the
. You can see the markings. And that was a pretty unique vessel.
Can you determine what caused her to sink?
No one should speculate on that until we have more data. But these images tell you a lot. Look at the hull. It's light fiberglass, which makes it susceptible to damage.
And by damage, you mean the hole we see?
That's just the bow. Look at this shot from the stern, where the engine room was located.
Those holes are even bigger.
That's right. Whatever happened, happened more than once. It wasn't one hole. It was three.