The Stranger in the Lifeboat (4 page)

BOOK: The Stranger in the Lifeboat
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Sea

Day six. Another strange occurrence to report. This morning, the skies grew thick with clouds and the winds whipped up until they sounded like high-pitched engines. The ocean is deafening in such moments, Annabelle. You must scream to be heard, even a few feet away. The salt water blows across your face and stings your eyes.

Our raft rose and fell, smacking the surface with each drop. It was like riding a bucking horse. We gripped the safety ropes to keep from bouncing out.

At one point, little Alice tumbled loose. Nina dove and grabbed her with both arms as a crash of water soaked us all. She scrambled back with Alice in her grip and started wailing, “Stop! . . . Stop!” I saw Alice reach an arm out toward the Lord, who was crouched across the raft, unfazed by any of this.

The man put his hands over his nose and mouth and closed his eyes. Suddenly, the wind stopped. The air went dead. All sounds disappeared. It was like that T. S. Eliot poem, “the still point of the turning world,” as if the entire planet held its breath.

“What just happened?” Nevin asked.

We looked around from our various splayed positions on the raft floor, which now seemed to be parked in place. The stranger made brief eye contact, then turned away and gazed over the sea. Little Alice hugged Nina around her neck, and Nina soothed her by whispering, “It's OK . . . we're safe.” It was so quiet we could hear her every word.

Moments later, the boat began to gently rock, and the ocean formed small, harmless swells. A light breeze blew, and the normal sea sounds returned. But there was nothing normal about that moment, my love. Nothing normal at all.

* * *

“Are the sharks still following us?” Nina asked as the sun tucked under the horizon.

Yannis peeked over the side. “I don't see them.”

We spotted the sharks on our second day in the ocean. Geri says they are drawn to the fish that are attracted to the raft's bottom.

“They were there an hour ago,” Nevin said. “I think I saw a fin—”

“I don't understand this!” Mrs. Laghari blurted out. “Where are the
airplanes
? Jason said they would be searching for us. Why have we not seen a single plane?”

A few of us looked down and shook our heads. Mrs. Laghari has been carping on this every day.
Where are the planes?
When we first pulled Lambert into the boat, he insisted his crew would have sent distress signals. Rescue would be imminent. So we waited for the planes. We scoured the skies. Back then, we still felt like Lambert's passengers. That has changed. With each passing sunset, our hope grows depleted, and we no longer feel like passengers of anything. We are souls adrift.

I wonder if this is what dying is like, Annabelle. At first, you are so tightly connected to the world you cannot imagine letting go. In time, you surrender to a drifting phase. What comes next, I cannot say.

Some would say that you meet the Lord.

* * *

Trust me, I have thought about that many times, given the stranger in our lifeboat. I call him a stranger, Annabelle, because if he were truly something divine, he must be as far from me as you can get. We are taught as children that we come from God, that we were created in His image, but
the things we do as we grow, the way we behave, what is godlike about that? And the terrible things that befall us? How does a supreme being permit them?

No. The right word is
stranger
, which is what God has been to me. As to who this man truly is, well, the boat remains divided. I asked Jean Philippe about it earlier, when we sat together at the rear of the raft.

“Do you think we're about to die, Jean Philippe?”

“No, Benji. I think the Lord has come to save us.”

“But look at him. He's just . . . average.”

Jean Philippe smiled. “What did you expect the Lord to look like? Don't we always say, ‘If only we could see God, we would know he was real'? What if He has finally given us a chance to see Him? Is it still not enough?”

No, I would say, it is not. I know we had that bizarre moment today. And the small miracle of Bernadette's revival. But as with any miracle left long enough in man's hands, more earthly explanations arise.

“Sheer coincidence,” Lambert said this morning when we were discussing it. “She was probably already regaining consciousness.”

“Or he roused her awake,” Nevin suggested.

The stranger emerged from the canopy, and Mrs. Laghari shot him a look as if she'd figured him out.

“Is that what you did with Bernadette?” she said. “Some sort of trick?”

He cocked his head. “It was not a trick.”

“I have my doubts.”

“I am quite used to doubt.”

“It doesn't bother you?” Nina asked.

“Many who find me begin with hesitation.”

“Or they don't find you at all,” Yannis said, “and they stick to science.”

“Science,” the stranger said, looking at the sky. “Yes. With science, you have explained away the sun. You have explained away the stars I put in the firmament. You have explained away all the creatures, large and small, with which I populated the Earth. You have even explained my greatest creation.”

“What's that?” I asked.

“You.”

He ran his hand along the skin of the raft. “Science has traced your existence back to primitive life-forms, and to primitive forms before those. But it will never be able to answer the final question.”

“Which is?”

“Where did it all begin?” He smiled. “That answer can only be found in me.”

Lambert stifled a laugh. “OK, OK. If you're so great, get us out of this mess. Make an ocean liner appear. Do something besides talk. How about actually saving us?”

“I have told you all you need for that,” the man said.

“Yeah, yeah, we all have to believe in you at the same time,” Lambert said. “Don't hold your breath.”

The conversation dwindled. The man is an enigma for sure, Annabelle, a source of confusion and sometimes even frustration. But, in the end, he is not the answer. We don't have an answer. When Mrs. Laghari asks “Where are the planes?” I know what many of us are thinking. If planes were coming, they'd have been here already.

* * *

I try to remain positive, my love. I think of you, I think of home, I think of a meal and a pint and a nice, long sleep. Small things. I try to stay active in the boat, moving from side to side, stretching the muscles that I can, but the relentless sun often saps my strength. I never realized how precious shade could be. I am redder than I have ever been, and my skin is covered in small boils. Geri had smartly grabbed a backpack before escaping the
Galaxy
, and it had a tube of aloe in it, but it is not nearly enough for all of us.

We share tiny dabs on our worst spots. Our only escape is to crawl under the canopy. But it is stifling with everyone inside, and you cannot sit up straight. Geri's backpack also held one of those small, handheld fans, and we pass it
from one to another, creating a miniature breeze. We shut it off quickly to preserve the batteries.

Fresh water remains our most precious commodity. What we have comes from the “ditch bag” of the raft, which also contained various emergency supplies: a bailer for emptying seawater, fishing line, paddles, a flare gun, things like that.

The drinking water, stored in small cans, is what matters most, and it is nearly gone now. Twice a day, we have been rationing equal amounts into a stainless steel cup. We sip it down, then pass the cup on.

Geri makes sure to fill it up for little Alice. This evening, following the strange wind incident, the child took her portion and crawled along the raft bottom toward the Lord.

“What's that weird kid doing now?” Lambert said.

Alice handed her cup to the stranger, and he swallowed the water in a single gulp. Then he handed it back with a grateful nod. What are we to make of him, Annabelle? Never mind the mysterious things that have happened since his arrival. Would God really drink water before a thirsty child?

Land

LeFleur's heart was pounding. Keeping his back toward Rom, he pulled the plastic bag fully from the pouch. The notebook's front cover was torn in half, and its back cardboard was decayed from salt water that had leaked inside. Was it some kind of log? Or
maybe a diary that explained what had happened to the
Galaxy
? Either way, LeFleur thought, he could be holding something of international significance.

And no one knew it existed.

The proper protocol was to replace the bag immediately and call in higher authorities. Pass it up. Step out of the way. LeFleur knew this.

But he also knew the moment he called his bosses, he would be excluded from the process. And something about the raft was gripping him. It was easily the most compelling
thing that had ever happened on this job. Montserrat was nearly crime-free. LeFleur spent many of his days in stifling boredom, trying not to think of how his life had come unraveled over the last four years, how his marriage had changed, how everything had changed.

He blinked hard. Today was Sunday. His boss was off. No one knew he was out here. He could take a peek inside this notebook, put it back, and who would know the difference?

LeFleur glanced at Rom, who was facing the other way, studying the cliffs, then slid the bag into the waistband of his pants and covered it with his shirt. He rose and walked down the beach, yelling over his shoulder, “Stay there, Rom! I'm going to check for any other debris.”

Rom nodded.

A few minutes later, LeFleur was alone in a cove. He kneeled down, putting weight on his knees, and removed the bag from his waistband. Then he slowly peeled it open, even as the rational voice inside him said,
You shouldn't be doing this.

News

ANCHOR:
Memorial services are being held today for billionaire investor Jason Lambert, who disappeared along with more than forty others when his luxury yacht, the
Galaxy
, sank in the Atlantic Ocean last month. Our Tyler Brewer has more from the site of today's services.

REPORTER:
That's right, Jim. The US Coast Guard officially declared the
Galaxy
lost at sea following twenty-six days of exhaustive search and rescue attempts. It is believed that the yacht blew apart after some kind of explosion or impact. The cause remains unknown.

ANCHOR:
Tyler, the list of those lost is extraordinary, isn't it? A former president, world leaders, captains of industry, popular entertainers.

REPORTER:
That's correct. Perhaps because of that, there are calls from foreign governments to investigate the cause of this tragedy, to ensure that it was not in some way politically or financially motivated.

ANCHOR:
But first, I imagine, comes the solemn tradition of funerals, made more painful for the lack of the actual bodies.

REPORTER:
Yes. Here, at the memorial for Jason Lambert, there will be no casket or gravesite ceremony. He'll be remembered by friends and family, which include three ex-wives and five children. We're told none of them will be speaking, only his longtime business associate Bruce Morris.

Jason Lambert, of course, was a controversial figure, an extremely wealthy man who seemed to enjoy showing the world his fortune. He grew up in Maryland, the son of a pharmacist, and started his working life as a vacuum salesman. Within three years, he took over the business. He soon leveraged his company to buy others, eventually earned a master's degree in finance, and started his now-famous mutual fund Sextant Capital, which has grown to the third-largest fund in the world. Among other holdings, he owned a movie studio, an airline, a professional baseball team, and an Australian rugby club. Lambert was also an avid golfer.

The Grand Idea was Lambert's final creation. It was hailed by some as visionary, and criticized by others who saw it as a frivolous gathering of the rich and powerful. Of course, no one knew what a dark turn the voyage would take. Jason Lambert, presumed dead at age sixty-four.

ANCHOR:
We should also mention that in addition to the famous names lost at sea, there were workers on that boat, the crew, the service staff, and the like, I imagine?

REPORTER:
Yes. They should be remembered as well.

Sea

Bernadette is gone, Annabelle! She is gone! I must calm down. I must keep my wits. I will write exactly what happened. Someone has to know!

I told you yesterday how the man we call “Lord” merely touched Bernadette's body, and she opened her eyes. We all saw her smiling and whispering to Jean Philippe. He was so happy. He kept saying “This is a miracle! The Lord has made a miracle!” I told you this, no? I'm sorry. I am so rattled, I'm not remembering things clearly.

Last night was an uneasy slumber, the raft rocking on the waves. I was out for maybe four hours. I dreamed of sitting in a barbecue restaurant. The smell was so real, so pungent. But the food never came, no matter how many times I craned my neck to look into the kitchen. Then, suddenly, I heard a customer howl.

I awoke to the sound of Jean Philippe crying.

I rolled over and saw him with his head down, his arms limp by his sides. The “Lord” had a hand on his shoulder. The space between them, where Bernadette had been resting, was empty.

“Jean Philippe,” I croaked. “Where is your wife?”

No answer. Nevin was awake, tending his wounded leg. When I caught his gaze, he just shook his head. Mrs. Laghari was awake, too, but she just stared out at the dark ocean.

“Where is Bernadette?” I repeated, rising. “Did something happen? Where did she go?”

“We don't
know
,” Nevin finally said.

He pointed at Jean Philippe and the Lord.

“They won't talk.”

BOOK: The Stranger in the Lifeboat
7.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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