Read The Stranger in the Lifeboat Online
Authors: Mitch Albom
Leaning against a large rock, LeFleur removed the notebook and examined it closely. Its pages were stuck together, likely from the salt, and he realized this would be a delicate process. But there was writing. In English. He felt his hands shaking. He looked up at the breaking waves and contemplated what to do.
Most of his life, LeFleur had been a rule-follower. He'd done well in school, earned badges in scouts, scored high on his police tests. He'd even thought of leaving Montserrat for England to train as a constable. He was a good size for law enforcement, tall, broad-shouldered, with a thick mustache that hid his smile and made him appear quite serious.
But then he met Patrice. A New Year's Eve party, fourteen years earlier, part of Montserrat's annual festival that
features parades, costumed performers, and a Calypso King competition. They danced. They drank. They danced some more. They kissed at midnight and tumbled passionately into the new year. They saw each other every day for the next few months, and there soon seemed little doubt they would marry.
By summer, they had. They purchased a small house, which they painted yellow, and bought a four-poster bed where they spent a great many hours. LeFleur would smile just watching Patrice walk away from the bed and smile even more watching her walk back. Forget England, he thought. He wasn't going anywhere.
A few years later, he and Patrice had a child, Lilly, and they doted on her as new parents do, taking pictures of every move she made, teaching her nursery songs, carrying her on their shoulders for trips to the market. LeFleur painted their second bedroom a light-pink shade and added dozens of little pink stars on the ceiling. Under those stars, Jarty and Patrice put Lilly to bed every night. He remembered feeling so good during those days, it seemed undeserved, as if someone had accidentally given him a double share of contentment.
Then Lilly died.
She was only four years old. She'd been visiting Patrice's mother, Doris, and that morning they'd gone to the beach. Doris, who suffered from heart issues, had taken a new
medication at breakfast, not realizing it would make her drowsy. In a beach chair, under the hot sun, she fell asleep. When she blinked her eyes open, she saw her granddaughter facedown in the surf, motionless.
Lilly was buried a week later. LeFleur and Patrice had been in a fog ever since. They stopped going out. They barely slept. They crawled through their days and fell into their pillows at night. Food lost its taste. Conversation faded. A numbness draped over them, and they would stare for long stretches at nothing in particular, until one would say, “What?” and the other would say, “What?” and the other would say, “I didn't say anything.”
Four years passed. In time, to their neighbors and friends, it appeared as if the couple had reached an equilibrium. In truth, they'd become their own private Montserrat, blown apart, existing in ashes. LeFleur shut the door to Lilly's room. He hadn't entered it since. He grew withdrawn, and shook his head whenever Patrice wanted to talk about what happened.
Patrice found solace in her faith. She went to church often. She prayed every day. She spoke of Lilly “being with God” and nodded tearfully when her friends said Lilly was in a better place and never had to worry again.
LeFleur could not accept that. He disavowed God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, anything he'd been taught as a kid in church. No merciful god would take his child that way.
No Heaven needed his daughter so badly that, at four years old, she had to drown. Faith? What idiocy, he thought. The world to LeFleur became dark and irrational. He drank more. He smoked more. Few things mattered to him. Even the yellow house and the four-poster bed seemed stale. The power of misery is its long shadow. It darkens everything within view.
But this orange raft and its hidden notebook? They were a jolt to that misery. He wasn't sure why. Maybe it was the idea that somethingâeven a few pages of somethingâhad endured a tragedy and crossed an ocean to find him. It had
. And witnessing survival can make us believe in our own.
He carefully separated the front cover from the first page. He saw dense writing. On the inside flap, there was a message scribbled in blue ink.
To whoever finds thisâ
There is no one left. Forgive me my sins.
I love you, Annabelle DeChaplâ
The rest was ripped away.
Our eighth day in the raft, Annabelle. Blisters have formed on my lips and shoulders, and my face is itchy with a budding beard. I obsess about food all the time now. It enters my every thought. Already I feel my flesh stretched tighter over my bones. Without food, the body eats its fat, then its muscle. In time, it will come for my brain.
My feet sometimes go numb. I believe this is due to inactivity, and the cramped positions we must sit in to make room for the others. We shift to keep the raft balanced. At times, to stretch our legs, we lay them over one another's, like pick-up sticks. The raft bottom is always wet, which means our bottoms are always wet, which means constant blisters and sores. Geri says we must rise and move around regularly, or risk more sores and hemorrhoids. But we can't all get up at once without tilting the raft, so we take turns; one person walks around on their knees, then someone
goes after and someone after that, like exercise breaks in a prison yard. Geri also reminds us to keep speaking, to make conversation, it will help our brains stay sharp. It's difficult. It's so hot much of the day.
Geri was a guest on the
, but in the raft, she is the steadying force. She did some sailing when she was younger and she comes from California, where she spent much time on the ocean. Initially, others looked to Jean Philippe or me for answers, because we worked on the yacht. But Jean Philippe says little now. He is grieving his wife. And I only worked one other boat before the
, as a junior deckhand. I had to learn fire prevention and some basic first aid. But mostly I was cleaning, sanding, waxing. And attending to guests. None of that prepared me for what we are enduring now.
Our last can of water, according to Geri's calculations, will be gone by tomorrow. We are all aware of what that means. No water, no survival. Geri has been working on a small solar still from the ditch bag, a conical plastic thing that is supposed to use condensation to produce fresh water. She set it up so it drags behind the raft on a cord. But so far it has been ineffective. A rip, she says. The truth is, with ten of us, how could it come close to producing enough?
I did just write “ten of us.” I realize I have not told you
of Bernadette's fate. Forgive me, Annabelle. I could not bring myself to write it the last two days. The shock took time to absorb.
*Â *Â *
It was Mrs. Laghari who finally got an answer from Jean Philippe. He had been silent for hours, softly crying. The Lord, sitting next to him, twirled a raft paddle between his palms.
Finally Mrs. Laghari rose to her knees, still wearing the long pink T-shirt Geri had given her, her salt-and-pepper hair pushed back behind her ears. She is a short woman, but she commands respect. With a determined voice, she said, “Mr. Jean Philippe. I realize you are grieving. But you must tell us what happened to Bernadette. We cannot have secrets. After this man revived her”âshe pointed to the Lordâ“did he do something else?”
“The Lord did no harm, Mrs. Laghari,” Jean Philippe whispered. “Bernadette was dead.”
Several of us gasped.
“But she had woken up,” Nevin said.
“She seemed fine,” I added.
“We thought he healed her,” Nina said.
“Wait,” Yannis said. “I asked if he healed her, and he said he didn't.”
He turned to the Lord. “But you did say she was good.”
“She is,” the Lord replied.
“You smug bastard,” Lambert said. “What did you
“Please, stop,” Jean Philippe whispered. He put his forehead in his hands. “She was speaking to me. She said it was time to trust God. I said, âYes,
, I will.' Then she smiled, and her eyes closed.” His voice quivered. “Didn't she have the most beautiful smile?”
Mrs. Laghari leaned forward. “Did anyone else see this?”
“Alice,” Jean Philippe said. “The poor child. I told her Bernadette was sleeping. Just sleeping. BeautifulÂ .Â .Â . sleep.”
He broke down. Most of us were crying, too, not just for Bernadette but for ourselves. An invisible shield had been shattered. Death had paid its first visit.
“Where's her body?” Lambert said.
I don't know why he asked that. It was obvious.
“The Lord told me her soul was gone,” Jean Philippe rasped.
“Wait. He told you to throw her over the side? Your own wife?”
“Stop it, Jason!” Mrs. Laghari barked.
“You dumped her in the ocean?”
“Shut up, Jason!” Yannis snapped.
Lambert sat back, smirking.
“Some God,” he cracked.
*Â *Â *
This evening, when the sun went down, a group of us were sitting outside the canopy. Nightfall brings fear. It also brings us closest together, as if we are huddled against an invader none of us can see. Tonight, with Bernadette's absence, we seemed particularly vulnerable. A long time passed without a peep from any of us.
Finally, out of the blue, Yannis began to sing.
Hoist up the John B's sails
See how the main sail setsÂ .Â .Â .
He stopped and looked around. The rest of us exchanged glances but said nothing. Nina offered a feeble smile. Yannis let it go. His voice is high-pitched and warbly, not something you want to listen to for long anyhow.
But then Nevin shifted to his elbows. He coughed once and said, “If you're gonna sing it, lad, sing it correctly.”
He lifted his neck. I could see his protruding Adam's apple. He cleared his throat and sang.
Hoist up the John B's sails
See how the main sail setsÂ .Â .Â .
Mrs. Laghari took the next line.
Call for the captain ashore
Let me go homeÂ .Â .Â .
The rest of us began to mumble along.
Let me go home,
I want to go home,
Well, I feel so broke up, I want to go home
“It's break up,” Nevin interrupted. “Not broke up.”
“It's broke up,” Yannis said.
“Not in the original lyrics.”
“How do you feel so âbreak up'?” Lambert said.
“Broke!” Mrs. Laghari declared. “Now do it again.”
And we did. Three or four times.
Let me go home, let me go home,
I want to go home, yeah, yeahÂ .Â .Â .
Even the Lord joined in, although he didn't seem to know the words. Little Alice watched as if she'd never seen such a thing before. Our voices dissipated into the empty ocean night, and at that moment it was possible to believe we were the only people left on Earth.
As stunned families around the globe hold memorial services for their loved ones, we begin a series of tributes to those who were lost in the sinking of the
yacht last month. Tonight, Tyler Brewer profiles a remarkable woman who rose from abject poverty to one of the most powerful positions in her industry.
Thank you, Jim. Latha Laghari was born in the Basanti slums of Calcutta, India. She lived her early years in a cramped shack made of wood and tin. There was no electricity and no running water. She ate once a day.
When her parents died in a cyclone, Latha was taken in by a relative who sent her to boarding school. She excelled at chemistry and upon graduation was hoping to study medicine, but no scholarships were available to a woman of her background. Instead, she worked for two years at a meat-packing factory to save enough money to travel to Australia, where she found a job in cosmetics production.
Latha's chemistry background and tireless work ethic saw her rise from a product tester to chief development officer at Tovlor, Australia's largest cosmetics company. In 1989, she
left to start her own business back in India, which grew into one of the top twenty cosmetics firms in the world, and which now makes the popular Smackers lipstick line.
Interestingly, Latha Laghari wore very little makeup herself. Known as an elegant, no-nonsense businesswoman, she raised two sons with her husband, Dev Bhatt, who made his fortune in the cell phone communications field.
“Latha was the rock of our family. As firm as she could be in business, she was gentle and loving to our children. She always made time for them, and for me. She said our family was the gift she was given for the family she lost as a child.”
Latha Laghari was seventy-one years old when she was invited onto Jason Lambert's yacht for the star-crossed Grand Idea voyage. She leaves behind a grieving family, a Fortune 500 company, and a Center for Women's Education that she created in Calcutta. In an interview, Laghari once said that, for all the schooling she experienced later in life, her first six years in the Basanti slums taught her the most important life lesson. When asked what that was, she said: “Survive until tomorrow.”
Day nine, Annabelle. It is dark, and I am very tired. I tried twice to write you but failed. I am still in shock from earlier today. Death has struck again.
I was resting in the back of the raft when Geri crawled over on her knees. “As long as you have that notebook, Benji,” she said, “why don't you make an inventory? We need to keep tight track of our rations.”
I nodded OK. Then she turned and asked everyone to bring what we had and lay it out in the middle of the raft. Before long, we were staring at the meager spread of our possessions.
For water, we had only half a can left.
For food, we had three protein bars from the ditch bag, plus items we had pulled from the ocean the night the
sank, four bags of cookies, two boxes of cornflakes, three apples, and the remnants of a box of peanut butter crackers that Geri had thrown into her backpack before jumping ship.
For survival gear, again from the ditch bag, we had two paddles, a flashlight, a throwing line, a knife, a small pump, a bailer, a flare gun, three flares, binoculars, and repair patching kits. Also, one seasickness pill. We'd swallowed the rest in our first two days.
Geri's backpack added a first-aid kit, a small tube of aloe, several T-shirts and shorts, a pair of scissors, sunglasses, her little motorized fan, and a floppy hat.
Finally, there were the random items that we plucked from the waves: a tray, a tennis ball, a seat cushion, a yoga mat, a plastic tub of pens and notebooksâwhich is how I am able to write you right nowâand a car magazine, which, despite having been soaked and dried many times, has been read by nearly everyone in the raft. It reminds us of the world we left behind.
We also had the clothes we were wearing when we escaped the sinking ship: long pants, button-down shirts, Mrs. Laghari's blue gown. Perhaps the material will prove useful.
Nobody spoke much as I recorded the items in my notebook. We knew the food and water would not sustain us
much longer. We have made vain attempts at catching fishâfrom trying to club them to trying to grab them over the raft sidesâbut without a hook, there is not much chance. I don't know why hooks were not in the ditch bag. Geri says it all depends on who packs it.
Lambert, who was eyeballing the items, suddenly blurted out: “Do you know what my fund did last year?”
Nobody responded. Nobody cared.
“Eight billion,” he said anyhow.
“What difference does your money make now?” Nina asked.
“It makes all the difference,” Lambert said. “It's my money that will keep people looking for us. And it's my money that will ultimately find whoever destroyed the
. If it takes the rest of my life, I will hunt down the animal who did this to me.”
“What are you talking about, Jason?” Mrs. Laghari said. “Nobody knows what happened on the boat.”
know!” Lambert bellowed. “That yacht was top shelf. Every last detail was looked after. There's no way it sinks on its own. Somebody sabotaged it!”
He scratched his head, then looked at his fingers. “Maybe they were trying to kill me,” he mumbled. “Well, ha ha, you little pricks. I'm still here.”
He looked at me, but I avoided his gaze. I was thinking
about Dobby. I was thinking how much we both hated this man.
Lambert turned to the Lord, who was smiling.
“What are you grinning at, Looney Tunes?”
The Lord said nothing.
“For what it's worth, if you really are God, I never called for you. Not once. Not even in the water.”
“And yet I still listen,” the Lord said.
“Stop talking, Jason!” Nina snapped.
Lambert glared at her. “How did you get on my yacht? What do you do?”
“I style hair for the guests.”
“Oh, right,” Lambert said. “And you, Jean Philippe, the kitchen, correct?”
Jean Philippe nodded.
“And you, scribble boy. Benji. How come I don't know what I pay you to do?”
I felt his eyes on me. My body roiled inside. I'd worked on the
for five months. He still had no clue who I was. But I knew him.
“Deckhand,” I said.
Lambert grunted. “A deckhand, a haircutter, and a cook. Really useful out here.”
“Give it a rest, Jason,” Geri said. “Benji, you got this written down yet?”
“Almost,” I replied.
“I'm just going to say this now,” Nina blurted out. “If something bad happens”âshe pointed at Lambertâ“it's because of him!”
“Yeahhhup. It'll all be my fault,” Lambert answered. “Except, hey, look, nothing's happening. Oh, well.”
Just then, I noticed the Lord putting his hand over the side of the raft. It dangled in the water. I found that strange.
A moment later, the rubber floor thudded sharply, as if something were trying to punch its way through.
“Sharks!” Geri yelled.
Before we could absorb those words, the floor thudded again. Then, suddenly, the raft shot forward and we all tumbled over. It stopped after a few seconds, spun to the left, then shot forward again.
“They're dragging us!” Geri yelled. “Hold on!”
Everyone grabbed for the safety ropes. The raft surged ahead. Then the front half lifted and I saw the gray-and-white flesh of a massive fish, as if it were trying to tip us over. Geri, Nevin, and Jean Philippe tumbled forward and the goods were scattered, some spilling into the ocean.
“Save the stuff!” Lambert yelled. I grabbed the flare gun and the bailer, and I saw Mrs. Laghari raise up to retrieve the binoculars, which had tangled with her blue gown and
fallen into the water. The raft jolted wildly, and she lost her balance and toppled overboard.
“Oh my god!” Nina yelled. “Pull her in!”
I scrambled to the edge but Mrs. Laghari was just beyond my reach, flailing her arms and spitting water. She seemed too shocked to scream.
“Stay still!” Geri yelled. “Let us get you! Don't move!” She grabbed a paddle to pull us closer. Mrs. Laghari kept smacking her arms on the surface.
, Benji!” Geri screamed. I leaned over with my arms outstretched, but before I could make contact, Mrs. Laghari disappeared in a spray of seawater. It was like she'd been hit by a missile. I fell back in horror. To this moment, I cannot shake that image, Annabelle. She just blew sideways and was gone.
“Where is she?” Nina screamed.
Geri spun left and right. “Oh, no, no, noÂ .Â .Â .”
We saw a spread of red blood on the water.
We did not see Mrs. Laghari again.
I dropped onto the raft floor, gasping for air. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't move. I caught a glimpse of the Lord, who held little Alice in his grip. He turned my way as if he were looking right through me.