The Stranger in the Lifeboat (15 page)

BOOK: The Stranger in the Lifeboat
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These will be the last words I write, my love. I realize now that you are always with me. I can share my thoughts just by picturing you. But on the chance that someone else finds this notebook, I want them to know the end of my story, and perhaps decide if it means anything at all.

The day after Alice opened the heavens for my view, it rained, and we were able to collect fresh water, enough to energize me into taking on tasks I'd felt too depressed or overwhelmed to try. I studied the broken solar still, and used some raft patch repair to plug up the hole. With the hot sun burning on the plastic, the condensation formed and eventually fresh drinking water collected in the reservoir. I also used the fishing line from the ditch kit and fashioned a hook from one of Mrs. Laghari's earrings that I'd had in my pants pocket that final night on the
I attached it with a knot, gripped the paddle-like handle, cast the line over the side, and waited for hours. Nothing. But the next morning, early, I tried again, and this time was able to snag a small sunfish. I ate most of it, saved a little meat for bait, and with that bait was able to catch a dorado the next day, which I cut into pieces and cured on lines I strung from one end of the canopy to the other. It was primitive fishing, but the newfound sustenance gave me a sharper focus. I felt my brain reviving.

Since then, I have been able to build a small stock of fish and potable water. My greatest foe has been loneliness, but with Alice alongside, I held that at bay. We spoke about many things. Yet deep down, I knew I was withholding the truth of my role in the
's demise, just as I have been withholding it from you. I know it makes no sense, lying to the dead, or to the Lord. But we do it anyhow. Perhaps we hope that wherever they are, they will forgive us our shameful acts. No matter. In time, the truth comes out. Grief leads to anger, anger to guilt, guilt to confession.

Finally, one morning, I awoke to find the ocean as calm as a puddle. I blinked my eyes against the sun. Alice was standing over me.

“Go in the water,” she said.


“It is time.”

I didn't understand. Despite that, I felt myself rising.

“Take this with you,” she said.

I glanced down. My eyes sprang open. Somehow, there, in the middle of the raft, was the green limpet mine. It looked the same as when I purchased it from a man I found on the Internet. I met him in a boat warehouse. Our transaction took less than ten minutes. I hid it in a drum case that I carried onto the

“Pick it up,” Alice said. “And don't let it go.”

I wanted to refuse, but my body did not operate on its own. I lifted that mine, felt its metal edges against my bare skin, and did as I was told.

When I hit the water, its cold enveloped me, and the weight of the mine sank me quickly. I dropped deeper and deeper. I closed my eyes, certain this was my penance. I was to die at the bottom of the sea, like the others who died because of me. All you do comes back to you. God's circular judgment.

As the water grew darker, I felt my body crying out to breathe, to expel the carbon dioxide accumulating in my blood. In a few seconds, my human form would submit. Water would fill my lungs, my brain would lose oxygen, and my death would come.

And yet, at that moment, Annabelle, I felt something new wash over me. Something liberating. After all that had happened, and everything I had done, I accepted this as a just ending, because I accepted the world as a just place. In
that way, I accepted that God, or little Alice, or whatever force we all answer to, had justly determined my fate.

I believed. And in believing, I was saved.

Just as the Lord had promised.

Suddenly, my hands were empty. The mine was gone. Above me I saw a perfect circle of bright light, and in that circle was the entire sky and the sun, spraying rays like porcupine quills. My body began to drift up toward its center. I didn't have to do a thing. As I lifted, I felt certain that this is what it's like to die, and I saw there was nothing to fear from it. The Lord was right. A hovering Heaven is always waiting for us, visible from beneath the Earth's blue waters. Such a wondrous world.

* * *

Moments later I burst through the surface, gasping for breath. I saw the raft, maybe twenty yards away. I saw little Alice, waving her arms. “Here!” she yelled. “Over here!” And I realized I had heard that voice before, from someone with a flashlight the night the

When I reached the ladder, Alice helped me inside. I was gulping air as I tried to speak.

“It was you in the raft . . . that night . . . you saved me . . .”


I fell to my knees and confessed everything. “I brought
the bomb onto the boat, Alice . . . It was me. Not Dobby. I planned to blow it up. It was my fault.”

The words spilled out easier than I imagined, like a loose tooth that after hours of painful clinging suddenly slips onto your tongue.

“I was angry. I thought Jason Lambert was my father. I thought he'd done unforgivable things to my mother—and to me. I wanted him to suffer.

“I'd lost my wife, the only person who mattered to me. I couldn't afford her medical treatments. They cost too much money, money I never had but others did. I blamed myself. Everything seemed so unfair. I wanted revenge for all the suffering I'd gone through. I wanted Jason Lambert to lose as much as I did.”

“His life,” Alice said.


“It was not yours to take.”

“I know that now,” I said, looking down. “But . . .” I hesitated. “That's why I
never went through with it
. I never detonated that mine. I hid it away. Please believe me. Someone else must have exploded it. I can't explain. It's been torturing me ever since it happened. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I know I'm to blame . . .”

I began to cry. Alice touched my head softly, then rose to her feet.

“Do you remember the last thing you did on the
that night?” she asked.

I closed my eyes. I pictured myself in those final seconds on deck. The rain was beating down, my elbows were on the railing, my head was hanging low, staring at the dark waves. It was a terrible moment. I was thinking about how I had failed you, Annabelle, and the horror I'd been ready to commit in my grief, and what a pathetic, empty man I had become.

“Benjamin?” Alice asked again. “What was the last thing you did?”

My eyes opened slowly, as if coming out of a trance. Finally, with tears streaming down my cheeks, I confessed the truth, whispering the words I had been hiding all this time, from you, from Alice, from myself.

“I jumped.”

* * *

A long time seemed to pass before I spoke again. Alice had her hands clasped under her chin.

“I didn't want to live anymore,” I whispered.

“I know. I heard you.”

“How? I never spoke.”

“Despair has its own voice. It is a prayer unlike any other.”

I looked down, ashamed of myself. “It doesn't matter.
blew up anyhow. I saw smoke from her engine room. I saw her go under. I didn't do it. But it's still my fault.”

Alice walked to the rear of the raft. She stepped onto the tubed edge without the slightest hesitation. Then she turned back to me.

“Lift your head, Benjamin. You were not responsible.”

I slowly raised my eyes.

“Wait . . . What do you mean?”

“The mine did not explode.”

“I don't understand. Then what destroyed the ship?”

She turned her gaze out toward the deep. Suddenly, three massive whales burst through the surface, enormous charcoal monolithic bodies with flippers spread out like wings of a plane, easily the largest creatures I have ever witnessed on this Earth. When they hit the water, the spray from their impact flew through the air and covered us in seawater.

“They did,” she said.

* * *

Moments later, the sky began to glow. The air went flat. I somehow sensed our time was over.

“Alice.” I hesitated. “What do I do now?”

“Forgive yourself,” she said. “Then use this grace to spread my spirit.”

“How do I do that?”

“Survive this voyage. And once you do, find another soul in despair. And help them.”

She spun on the raft edge, never lifting her small feet. Then she crossed her arms in front of her.

“Wait,” I choked. “Don't leave me.”

She smiled as if I'd said something funny. “I can never leave you.”

With that, I collapsed, and my hands hit the wet raft floor. I was, at that moment, in complete submission. Alice looked at me one last time and recited the words that you, Annabelle, had spoken so often.

“We all need to hold on to something, Benji,” she said. “Hold on to me.”

She fell from the raft without a splash. I scrambled to the edge. I saw nothing but blue water.


We begin tonight with some startling findings in the strange saga of the
yacht, which sank more than a year ago. Here is Tyler Brewer from the island nation of Cape Verde.

Thank you, Jim. Last week, the robot probe from the
returned to the
wreckage, this time releasing an even smaller robot camera about the size of a toaster. That device was able to enter the sunken yacht through its shattered hull and send back sharp images from the inside.

And those findings were released today?

Yes. Preliminary reports claim that “repeated impacts to the yacht's exterior” created three sizable holes, and one of those impacted the engine room, which likely led to flooding and caused an explosion that quickened the sinking of the vessel. It was not believed to be a missile, as the holes in the hull do not conform to that sort of strike. One scientist postulated that whales, perhaps agitated by the loud music being played on board, could have been at fault, as whales are known to occasionally attack ships for such reasons. The
bottom of the yacht was also painted red, a color that can attract those massive creatures.

What about the passengers—or, to use the nautical language, the “souls” on the ship? What can you tell us?

Well, as you may recall, Jim, our own footage from that night showed that, due to a rainstorm, most of the guests were inside a small ballroom on the second level, listening to the band Fashion X, when the explosion occurred. Apparently, based on images from the probe, many of them died in that ballroom, and their remains can be seen and counted. Of course the
's actual manifests were all lost, and helicopters taking passengers back and forth make a definitive calculation impossible. But a Sextant spokesperson did tell us, “The number of identified remains is close to all the people we believe were on board.”

So it's unlikely anyone escaped or survived?

It appears that way.


LeFleur and Dobby sat inside the jeep, which was parked outside the small terminal of Montserrat's airport. A blue-and-white prop jet was landing on the single runway.

“I guess that's it,” Dobby said, reaching for the door handle.

“Wait,” LeFleur said. “I think you should have this.”

He popped open the glove compartment and took out the plastic bag. It contained the original notebook, with the added pages folded inside it. He handed it to Dobby.

“You're sure?” Dobby said.

“He was your family.”

Dobby examined the bag. He narrowed his gaze. “This can't get me in trouble, can it?”

“It doesn't exist,” LeFleur said. “Anyhow, you were never on the ship. And it wasn't a mine that sank it. Really, it was nobody's fault.”

“An act of God, huh?”

“I guess.”

Dobby scratched his head. “Benji was really messed up. But he was still like my brother. I miss him badly.” He paused. “How do you think he died?”

“Hard to say,” LeFleur replied. “A storm? Another shark attack? Maybe, in the end, he just gave up. It's hard to survive that long on your own.”

Dobby opened the door. “You know, you never did take me to where you found that raft.”

“It's just a beach,” LeFleur said. “Not far from here. Marguerita Bay.”

“Maybe next visit,” Dobby joked.

“Yeah,” LeFleur said. He studied Dobby's face, the crow's-feet by his eyes, the stringy hair, the pale complexion. He was dressed once again in his black jeans and boots, ready to return to his life.

“Listen, I apologize for what I put you through early on,” LeFleur said. “I just thought . . . well, you know.”

Dobby nodded slowly. “We're both mourning someone we lost, Inspector.”


“Jarty,” Dobby repeated, smiling. He got out of the car, took a step, then turned back. “Speaking of names, I think it's Rum Rosh.”


“Rum Rosh. It's in Psalms, the original Hebrew. It means ‘God lifted my head.' I learned it as a kid. A priest taught me. The Irish and their churches, you know.”

LeFleur stared at him. “What are you saying?”

“I think whoever found that raft was having a laugh on you, Jarty.”

He threw his duffel over his shoulder and walked into the terminal.

* * *

LeFleur drove back toward his office, thinking about what Dobby had said. He pictured the first day he and Rom had met, and their trip up to Marguerita Bay. Rom had let LeFleur examine the raft by himself. And every time LeFleur glanced over, Rom was looking away, staring at the hills, as if he'd never seen the place before.

But he
seen the place before. Otherwise how would he have reported the location? And Marguerita Bay was not easy to get to; you had to park on that lookout and walk down that path. Teenagers would often hang out there, smoking and drinking, because they could easily hide if they saw someone coming . . .

LeFleur hit the brakes and spun the jeep around.

* * *

Twenty minutes later, he was hurrying down that path to the water. When he reached the beach, he removed his shoes and splashed along the wet sand. The sky was without clouds, and the sea came up a turquoise blue. As he edged around a tall rock formation, he saw a thin, bearded figure sitting in the distance, leaning back on his palms, as small waves broke and reached his legs before retreating.

LeFleur got within a few feet before the man turned his head.


“Hello, Inspector.”

“A lot of folks have been looking for you.”

The man said nothing. LeFleur squatted down next to him.

“How long have you been on this island? Really?”

“A little while.”

“And that raft had been here long before you came to the station.”

“That's right.”

“You always knew I'd find that notebook, didn't you? You'd already read it.”


“And you left me those last pages in that envelope.”

“I did.”

LeFleur pursed his lips. “Why?”

“I thought they might help you.” Rom turned. “Did they?”

“Yeah,” LeFleur sighed. “Actually, they did.” He paused, studying Rom's face. “But how did you know I needed help?”

“When we first met. The photo of your family. Your wife. Your little girl. I saw the pain in your eyes. I knew you must have lost someone in that picture.”

LeFleur grunted. Rom raked his hands through the sand.

“Did you believe the story you read, Inspector?”

“Some of it.”

“Which part?”

“Well. I believe Benji was in the raft.”

“Just him?”

LeFleur thought. “No. Not just him.”

Rom wiggled his fingers and produced a tiny crab. He held it up. “Did you know a crab will escape its shell thirty times before it dies?” He looked out to sea. “This world can be a trying place, Inspector. Sometimes you have to shed who you were to live who you are.”

“Is that why you changed your name?” LeFleur asked. “Rum Rosh? ‘God lifted your head'?”

The man smiled but never looked his way. LeFleur felt the hot sun on the back of his neck. He stared at the empty
blue horizon. The distance from Cape Verde to this beach was thousands of miles.

“How did you do it, Benji? How did you survive all that way alone?”

“I was never alone,” the man said.

* * *

Over time, Montserrat quieted considerably. The journalists departed. The raft was shipped to a Boston laboratory. Leonard Sprague, the police commissioner, was disappointed that the media attention, while sparking curiosity, did not increase tourist travel to the island.

The TV reporter Tyler Brewer won an award for his extensive
coverage, then went on to other stories. The company that insured the yacht was forced to pay a large settlement after analysts concluded that the sinking was caused not by neglect but rather by a mammal attack that broke holes in the fragile hull and caused a catastrophic explosion in the engine room.

The families of those lost at sea felt a certain closure, knowing the final resting place of their loved ones. And in the weeks that followed, a few of those families received unusual correspondence. Alexander Campbell, the youngest son of Nevin Campbell, got an unsigned letter that stated his father's regrets at not spending more time with
him. Dev Bhatt, the husband of Mrs. Latha Laghari, received an envelope with two earrings inside it.

Six months later, Jarty LeFleur and his wife Patrice went to a doctor and learned that Patrice was pregnant. “Are you serious?” she said, then broke into tears and grabbed her husband, whose mouth dropped open in happy astonishment.

And not long after that, a rent-a-car drove to the lookout above Marguerita Bay, and a man in black jeans and boots walked down to the beach, holding a tattered notebook. When he spotted a thin man heading his way, they both started running, yelling each other's names, until they embraced in a long-awaited reunion.

In the end, there is the sea and the land and the news that happens between them. To spread that news, we tell each other stories. Sometimes the stories are about survival. And sometimes those stories, like the presence of the Lord, are hard to believe. Unless believing is what makes them true.

BOOK: The Stranger in the Lifeboat
11.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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