The Stranger in the Lifeboat (3 page)

BOOK: The Stranger in the Lifeboat
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It is just after noon now. Our fourth day in this lifeboat. We have witnessed something highly unusual, Annabelle. It concerns the new arrival who claims to be the Lord. Perhaps I was wrong. There may be more to him than meets the eye.

Earlier this morning, Yannis was leaning on the raft's edge, singing a Greek song. (He's from Greece, an ambassador, I believe, even though he's quite young.) Geri was doing her navigation charts. Mrs. Laghari was rubbing her temples, trying to relieve her constant headaches. Alice, the little girl, was sitting with her arms wrapped around her knees. She was staring at the new man, as she has done much of the time since his arrival.

Suddenly he rose and moved across the raft to Jean Philippe, who was praying over his wife, Bernadette. Both
are Haitian. Good people. Upbeat. I met them that first morning in Cape Verde, when the crew boarded the
to await the guests. They told me they'd been cooking on big boats for years.

“We make the food too good, Benji!” Bernadette said, patting her belly. “We get fat!”

“Why did you leave Haiti?” I asked.

“Oh, hard life there, Benji, hard life,” she said.

“And you?” Jean Philippe asked me. “From where did you come?”

“Ireland, then America,” I said.

“Why did you leave?” Bernadette said.

“Oh, hard life there, Bernadette, hard life.”

We all laughed. Bernadette was often laughing. Her eyes made you feel welcome, and she would nod her head like a bobbing doll if you said something she agreed with. “Oh,
!” she'd intone. “You speak true!” But now she was unresponsive. She'd been badly injured escaping the yacht Friday night. Jean Philippe said she fell on the deck when the ship listed, and a large table crashed into her head and shoulders. She's been slipping in and out of consciousness for the last twenty-four hours.

Were we at home, she'd be in a hospital for sure. But out here, adrift, you realize how often we take our placement on this Earth for granted.

The new man leaned over Bernadette. Jean Philippe watched, his eyes widening.

“Are you truly the Lord?”

“Do you believe I am?”

“Prove it. Let me speak to my wife again.”

I glanced at Yannis, who raised his eyebrows. How quickly we trust someone when the life of a loved one is threatened. All we really knew of this stranger was his wild claim, and that he'd wolfed down a package of peanut butter crackers.

Then I saw little Alice take Jean Philippe's hand. The new man turned toward Bernadette and put his palms on her shoulder and forehead.

Just like that, her eyes opened.

“Bernadette?” Jean Philippe whispered.

” she whispered back.

“You did it,” Jean Philippe said to the Lord, his voice reverential. “You brought her back. Thank you, Bondyé! Bernadette! My love!”

I have never witnessed anything like that, Annabelle. One moment she was unconscious, the next she was awake and talking. The others began to stir and take notice. Geri poured Bernadette some water. Nina hugged her tightly. Even rigid old Mrs. Laghari seemed pleased, although she mumbled, “Someone must explain how this happened.”

“The Lord did it,” Nina said.

The new man smiled. Mrs. Laghari did not.

Eventually, we gave Bernadette and Jean Philippe their privacy and moved to the back of the raft. The stranger followed us. I studied his face. If this was a miracle, he was taking it in stride.

“What did you do to her?” I asked.

“Jean Philippe wished to speak to her again. Now he can.”

“But she was nearly dead.”

“The distance between death and life is not as great as you imagine.”

“Really?” Yannis turned his way. “Then why don't people come back to Earth after they die?”

The stranger smiled. “Why would they want to?”

Yannis made a snorting noise. “Whatever.” Then he added: “But Bernadette, you healed her? She's going to be good?”

The man looked off.

“She is not healed. But she is going to be good.”


My watch reads 1:00 a.m. Our fifth night lost. The stars are so thick I can't tell where some start and others end, as if a barrel of glowing salt just exploded in the heavens.

For now, I focus on a single star that sparkles so brilliantly, it's like someone is signaling us.
We see you. Wave. Do something and we'll come get you.
If only. We remain adrift with this magnificent panorama all around us. It has always been a mystery to me, Annabelle, how beauty and anguish can share the same moment.

I wish I were staring at these stars with you, from a beach someplace safely on land. I find myself thinking of the night we met. Remember? The Fourth of July? I was sweeping the floor of a pavilion in the municipal park. You approached in an orange blouse and white pants, your
hair tied back in a ponytail, and asked where the fireworks were being launched.

“What fireworks?” I said. And at that instant the first of them boomed in the air (a red-and-white starburst, I remember distinctly), and we both laughed as if you had made them appear just by asking. There were two chairs in the pavilion, and I set them beside one another, and we spent the next hour watching those fireworks like an old couple on their porch. Only when the explosions finished did we say our names.

I remember that hour as if I could walk inside it and touch its edges. The curiosity of attraction, the stolen glances, the voice in my head saying
Who is this woman? What is she like? Why does she trust me this way?
The possibilities of another person! Is there any anticipation on this Earth quite like that one? Is there anything lonelier than being without it?

You were educated and accomplished and tender and beautiful, and I confess, from the moment I saw you, I felt unworthy of your affection. I never finished high school. I had few career options. My clothes were dull and worn out, and my bony frame and straggly hair were hardly attractive. But I instantly loved you, and incredibly, in time, you loved me back. It was the happiest I have ever been and the happiest I imagine I ever will be. Still, I always sensed I would disappoint you in some future way. I lived with that
silent fear for four years, Annabelle, right until the day you left me. It's been nearly ten months now, and I know it makes no sense writing. But it nourishes me through these lost nights. You once said, “We all need to hold on to something, Benji.” Let me hold on to you, that first hour of you, the two of us staring at a colorful sky. Let me finish my story. Then I will let go of you and this world.

* * *

Four a.m. The others are asleep in contorted positions under the canopy. Some snore with gurgling noises; others, like Lambert, are as loud as a buzz saw. I'm surprised he doesn't wake up the whole boat. Or raft. Geri keeps telling me to call it a raft. Boat. Raft. What difference does it make?

I fight sleep desperately. I am fatigued beyond measure, but when I sleep, I drift into dreams of the
sinking, and I am back in that cold, dark water.

I don't know what happened, Annabelle. I swear I don't. The impact was so sudden, I cannot even tell you the moment I was thrown into the sea. It was raining. I was by myself on the lower deck. My arms rested on the rail. My head was down. I heard a booming noise, and next thing I knew, I was hurtling toward the water.

I remember the splashing impact, the sudden bubbly quiet beneath the surface, the heavy roar when I came back up,
everything cold and chaotic as my brain began to process and then scream at me,
What the hell?
You're in the

The water was rough, and the rain drummed on my head. By the time I got my bearings, the
was a good fifty yards away. I saw dark smoke starting to billow out. I told myself I could still swim back to her, and part of me wanted to, because, even wrecked, she was something solid in the otherwise empty sea. Her decks remained lit, beckoning me. But I knew she was doomed. She began to list, as if lying down for a final sleep.

I tried to see if a lifeboat was being released, or if people were jumping off the sides, but the constant crashing of waves impaired my vision. I tried to swim, but where was I going? I remember things drifting past me, things that had been blown off the
just as I had, a couch, a cardboard box, even a baseball cap. Gasping for breath, I wiped the rain from my eyes and spotted a lime-green suitcase floating just a few feet away.

It was the hard-shell kind that apparently doesn't sink, and I grabbed that suitcase and clung to it. Then I witnessed the
final moments. I saw her decks go dark. I saw eerie green bulbs light her frame. I watched her slowly drop, lower and lower, until she sank out of sight and a swooshing wave passed overhead, mopping the surface of her last remains.

I began to weep.

I don't know how long I was in the water that way, crying like a little boy, for myself, for the others who were lost, even for the
, which I felt strangely sorry for. But I tell you again, Annabelle, I had no part in destroying that ship. I know what Dobby wanted, and the things I may have inadvertently helped him plan. But I was thrown into the sea with nothing but the clothes on my back, and I tossed in those frigid waves for who knows how long. Had I not found that suitcase, I would be dead already.

I began to hear voices of other passengers in the water. Some were howls. Others were clear enough to distinguish actual words—
Help me!
—but then, in a rush, the sounds disappeared. The ocean plays tricks with your ears, Annabelle, and its currents are so strong that someone could be a few yards away one moment and gone for good the next.

My legs felt heavy; it was all I could do to keep them moving. I knew if I cramped up, I could not swim, and if I could not swim, I would sink and die. I clung to that suitcase like a frightened child clings to his mother's midsection. I was trembling with cold and my eyes were about to shut for good when I spotted an orange raft, drifting in and out of the waves. Someone on board was waving a flashlight.

I tried to yell “Help!” but I had swallowed so much salt water, it burned my throat to make a sound. I kicked toward the raft, but could not move fast enough while holding the suitcase. I had to let it go. I didn't want to. Strange as it sounds, I felt a certain devotion
to it.

But then the flashlight shone again, and this time I heard a voice yell, “Here! Over here!” I released my grip and started swimming, my head above the surface so I could keep sight of the beam. A wall of water rose and crashed. My body twisted wildly and I lost all sense of direction.
I yelled to myself.
Not when I am so close!
I broke the surface just as a new wave hit me again. Once more, I was spun and yanked like a fish on a line. When I resurfaced, I gasped for air, my throat burning. I turned my head left and right—nothing. Then I turned backward.

The raft was right behind me.

I grabbed the safety rope along its side. Whoever had been waving that flashlight was gone. I can only imagine he or she was thrown off by those waves. I tried to look for a body in the water, but another wave began curling into form, so I gripped the rope with both hands, and instantly I was tossed again. I lost all sense of up or down. I squeezed that rope so hard my fingernails broke the flesh of my palms. But when I burst through the surface, I was still holding on.

I pulled myself along the outside of the raft until I found
a handle for boarding. I tried three times to yank myself in. I was so weak, I failed each try. Now another large wave was forming. I didn't think I could hang on through that one. So I screamed into the darkness, a guttural “
!” And with every ounce of strength I had left, I heaved myself over the side and fell onto the black rubber floor, panting like a mad dog.


What you're seeing is the area of the Atlantic Ocean where the luxury yacht the
reportedly went down Friday night, some fifty miles off the coast of Cape Verde. Our correspondent Tyler Brewer filed this report.

Miles and miles of vast ocean, as search and rescue teams fly over the Atlantic, hoping for any clues as to what happened on the
, a $200 million yacht owned by billionaire Jason Lambert. The ship sent a distress signal around 11:20 Friday night, reporting some type of event. It is believed to have sunk shortly thereafter.

What about survivors, Tyler?

The news is not good. By the time rescue teams reached the area, the
was completely gone. Bad weather and strong currents may have carried debris—and even the bodies of any survivors—miles from the original transmission site.

Have they discovered anything at all?

There are parts of the yacht's exterior that rescue teams say they have spotted. We're told the
was constructed of a very lightweight fiberglass that allowed it to
go faster than similar yachts. Unfortunately, that also made it more susceptible to impact. An investigation is underway.

An investigation into what exactly?

Frankly, if there was any foul play involved. There are many things that can happen to a ship at sea. But an event this destructive is quite extraordinary.

Well, for now, our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those lost—including our own Valerie Cortez and cameraman Hector Johnson, who were reporting from the
when this tragedy took place.

Indeed. I'm sure many loved ones still hold out hope that at least some of the passengers survived. But the ocean is cold in these parts. And hopes dim with each passing hour.

BOOK: The Stranger in the Lifeboat
9.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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