The Stranger in the Lifeboat (7 page)

BOOK: The Stranger in the Lifeboat
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We have survived our tenth day at sea, my love. This is due to fate, blind luck, or the Lord in the boat. Honestly, I don't know what to think anymore.

Yesterday was another test. Much of the morning we sat in silence, hearing the waves splash. None of us wanted to speak the obvious.

Finally, Yannis did.

“How are we going to stay alive,” he asked, “without water?”

Just the mention of water made me thirsty. I haven't written to you about thirst, Annabelle, because the less I focus on it the better. But it is a powerful need. You never think about it until you can't quench it, and then the thought consumes you. Your lips crave moisture. Your throat feels dry as wood. I try to create saliva on my tongue by fantasizing
about beverages, Coca-Cola over ice cubes, or a cold beer filling a tall glass, thoughts so real I can feel the liquid going over my teeth. But that only makes me thirstier. It is a unique suffering to be denied the thing your body most craves. All your concentration funnels down to one thought: How can I get it?

“What about that solar still?” I asked Geri.

“There's a hole in it,” she said, shaking her head. “Every time I patch it, it blows again.”

Nina turned to the Lord. He was rubbing the dark whiskers on his chin.

“Can't you do something?” Nina pleaded. “I know you want everyone to believe in you first. But don't you see how worried we are?”

He squinted against the sun.

“Worry is something you create.”

“Why would we create worry?”

“To fill a void.”

“A void of what?”


Nina drew closer to the man. She put out her hands. “I have faith.” Jean Philippe scooted over and put his hands on top of hers. “So do I.” Little Alice glanced up. Perhaps that made three. I felt a sudden division in the boat, as if we'd been sorted by our beliefs. I suppose, when I think about it, much of the world is separated this way.

“Please help us,” Nina whispered. “We're so thirsty.”

The man looked only at Alice. Then he closed his eyes and leaned back. It seemed like he was taking a nap. What type of response was that, Annabelle? As I keep saying, he is maddening.

But as he slept, the sky began to change. A ribbon of white clouds grew to large puffs, and those white puffs began to gray and thicken. Soon they blocked the sun.

A few minutes later, raindrops fell. Slowly at first. Then heavier. I saw Lambert tilt his head, his mouth gaping open, swallowing the droplets. Nevin gasped, “Is this real?” Yannis ripped off his shirt and so did Jean Philippe, rubbing the fresh water over their salt-crusted skin. As the shower turned to a downpour, I heard Nina laughing.

“Grab anything that can collect water!” Geri hollered.

I found the notebook tub and dumped the contents under the canopy. Then I raced out to catch the raindrops. Geri was doing the same with the bailer. Jean Philippe held up two empty cans and let the fresh supply splash into it.

“Thank you!” he screamed to the heavens. “Oh, thank you, Bondyé!”

We were so busy rejoicing in the storm, we didn't realize how much water was collecting in the bottom of our raft. I moved my knees and slipped. The plastic box spilled its water everywhere.

“Damn it, Benji!” Yannis yelled. “Get back up! Fill it again!”

Lambert still had his mouth open like a fish, and Nevin, lying on his back, was angling the tray on his lower teeth, funneling rainwater to his lips. I saw Alice smiling; she was soaked from top to bottom.

Then, just as quickly as the storm arrived, it ceased. The clouds parted and the sun returned.

I looked at the plastic box, which was mostly empty thanks to my fall. I turned to the Lord, who was awake now, watching us.

“Keep it going!” I screamed.

“So you believe I created that storm?” he asked.

It caught me off guard. I looked at the empty tub, then said: “If you did, it wasn't enough.”

“Wasn't one raindrop enough to prove who I am?”

“Just keep it going!” Yannis yelled. “Give us more water!”

The Lord looked up at the thinning clouds.

“No,” he said.


Day twelve. The water from the rainstorm will buy us a few more days if we ration correctly. Yannis wanted to gather what was in the raft bottom, but Geri said no, we don't know how much seawater got mixed in. We can't take a chance. Drinking seawater is potentially deadly. It leads to muscle spasms, confusion, and, of all things, dehydration. How strange, Annabelle. So much water everywhere, and all of it undrinkable.

We have also suffered another small casualty. The handheld fan. It died an hour ago. Geri had been holding it up to little Alice's face when the blades stopped. Most of us were watching, and a few of us groaned. Lambert groaned the loudest.

“You wasted it,” he said.

“Shut up, Jason,” Yannis said.

Earlier this morning, Geri, Yannis, Nina, Lambert, and I sat outside the canopy while the Lord slept underneath it. We don't stay outside for long, as the sun is brutal. But we wanted to speak where he couldn't hear us.

“Do you think he created that rain?” Yannis whispered.

“Don't be stupid,” Lambert said.

“We still don't know how he survived in the ocean,” Geri said.

“He got lucky. So what?”

“He gets hungry and thirsty like we do,” I said.

“And he sleeps,” Yannis added. “Why would God sleep?”

“What about Bernadette?” Nina asked.

“That's hard to explain,” Yannis admitted.

“No, it isn't,” Lambert said. “What did he actually do?”

“He brought her back to life.”

“You don't know that. She could have woken up on her own.”

“She did die a day later,” Geri said.

“Yeah,” Lambert added. “Where's the miracle in that?”

“The rain could be a coincidence,” Yannis said.

“Then how come it hadn't rained before?” Nina said.

“But why would God stop it when we needed it most?” I asked.

“Read the Old Testament,” Lambert scoffed. “God is
fickle, mean, and vindictive. Another reason I never took to religion.”

“You've read the Old Testament?” Geri asked.

“Enough of it,” Lambert mumbled.

Jean Philippe crawled out from the canopy, so we stopped talking. He wants to believe what he chooses about his wife's passing. We should respect that.

Meanwhile, I fear Nevin is slipping badly. He is quite pale and his leg wound, despite our best efforts, is only getting worse. An hour ago, when I began writing you, I heard him call my name. His lips were covered with blisters and his voice was feeble and halting.

“Benji . . . ,” he croaked, waving two fingers. “Can you . . . come here . . . ?”

I crawled over to his tall, thin body. His injured leg was elevated over the side.

“What is it, Nevin?” I said.

“Benji . . . I have three children . . .”

“That's good.”

“I . . . I see you writing in your . . . uh . . . notebook. Might you be able to . . . transcribe a message for them . . . from me, I mean?”

I looked down at my pen and said, “All right.”

“The thing is . . . I've not spent . . . the time with them . . . that I should have . . .”

“It's OK, Nevin, you will.”

He grunted and forced a small smile. I could tell he didn't believe me.

“My youngest . . . Alexander . . . he's . . . a good boy . . . a bit bashful . . .”


“Tall, like me . . . married a nice woman, a . . . a history teacher . . . I believe . . .”

He voice grew thinner. He rolled his eyes away from me.

“Keep going, Nevin. What do you want me to write?”

“I missed their wedding,” he rasped. “Business meeting . . .”

He looked back at me as if pleading.

“My youngest child . . . I . . . told him . . . it couldn't be helped . . .” His right hand fell limply across his chest. “It could have been helped.”

I asked again what he wanted me to write, even though I already knew. He blinked his eyes.

“I'm sorry,” he said.


LeFleur entered his house quietly. The sun had already set. He had the notebook tucked into a briefcase.

“Jarty? Where have you been?”

Patrice appeared out of the kitchen. She wore jeans and a lime-green T-shirt that draped loosely on her thin frame. Her feet were bare.


“You left this morning, you didn't call all day.”

“You're right.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing. Some junk floated up on the north shore. I had to drive up and check it out.”

“You still could have called.”

“You're right.”

She paused, looking at him. She scratched her elbow. “So? Anything interesting?”

“Not really.”

“I have dinner.”

“I'm tired.”

“I made all this food.”

“OK, OK.”

An hour later, having finished the meal, LeFleur said he wanted to watch the soccer game. Patrice rolled her eyes. He knew she would. He remembered a time when their communication was kinder, their exchanges tinged with the gentility of love. They had lost that in the wreckage of Lilly's death.

“I'm going upstairs then,” Patrice said.

“I won't be long.”

“Are you all right, Jarty?”

“I'm fine.”

“You're sure?”

“Yeah. If the game's boring, I won't watch the whole thing.”

She turned without response and climbed the steps. LeFleur went into the back room, flicked on the television, then carefully removed the notebook from his briefcase. He knew everything he was doing was wrong. Taking this notebook from the raft. Failing to inform the higher
authorities. Lying to Patrice. It was as if he had tumbled into a rabbit hole and couldn't stop himself from falling in deeper. Part of him kept pushing to go on, take the next step, learn the secrets of this unexpected entry into his life.

He reread the message on the notebook's inside cover:

To whoever finds this—

There is no one left. Forgive me my sins.

I love you, Annabelle DeChapl—

Who was Annabelle? Did the writer believe this notebook would find its way to her? And how much time did these pages represent? Did someone last days before succumbing to the sea? Or was it longer? Weeks? Months?

Suddenly, the phone rang, and LeFleur jumped like a caught thief.

He checked his watch. Nine-thirty on a Sunday night?

“Hello?” he said tentatively.

“Is this Inspector LeFleur?”

“Who's this?”

“My name is Arthur Kirsh. I'm with the
Miami Herald
, just checking up on something.”

LeFleur took a moment to respond.

“What is it?”

“Can you confirm that a life raft from the
has been found on Montserrat? Did you find such a raft, sir?”

LeFleur swallowed hard. He stared at the notebook in his lap.

He hung up.


Nevin is dead.

Yesterday, he turned ghostly pale and slipped in and out of consciousness. He couldn't eat a thing. At times he moaned so loudly, some of us covered our ears.

“Something got in that wound,” Geri whispered. “Some metal, or whatever he gashed himself on. The infection can't clear. If sepsis has set in . . .”

“What?” I said, hesitantly.

“He's going to die?” Jean Philippe asked.

Geri looked down. We knew that meant yes.

Little Alice was the first to discover him. Just after sunrise, she tugged at my T-shirt. I thought Nevin was sleeping. But she lifted his hand and it dropped limply. Poor Alice. No child should have to bear witness to what she has seen on this raft. No wonder she doesn't speak.

We had a small ceremony. Nina said a prayer. We sat quietly, trying to collectively cobble together a eulogy. Finally Lambert said, “He was a hell of a programmer.”

The Lord rose to his knees. “Surely there is more to say about him than that.” He was wearing the white dress shirt Yannis had on when the Galaxy went down. He looked around at all of us.

“Nevin had three kids,” I offered. “He wanted to be a good father.”

“He had a nice singing voice,” Yannis added. “Remember when he sang ‘Sloop John B'?”

“Did he love others?” the Lord asked. “Did he tend to the poor? Was he humble in his actions? Did he love me?”

Lambert made a face.

“Show some respect,” he said. “The man's dead.”

* * *

Last night I had a dream. I was sleeping in the raft when a noise stirred me. I looked up and the horizon was blocked by a giant ocean liner. Its white hull was enormous, dotted with portholes, and its decks were jammed with waving people, like those arriving in New York's harbors at the turn of the century. Only somehow I knew these passengers were from the
I heard them screaming “Where have you been?” and “We've been looking for you!” In the middle of them all was Dobby, with his long
hair and toothy smile. He waved a bottle of champagne, motioning me to come join him.

I awoke with a jolt and squinted into the rising sun. The horizon was empty. No ocean liner. No happy passengers. Just the world's longest straight line, from here to oblivion.

I felt my body physically deflate. At that moment, for some reason, the enormity of death began to hit me. I'm not sure why. I had never focused on dying before, Annabelle. I pushed the idea away. We all know we are going to die, but deep down, we don't believe it. We secretly think there will be a late reprieve, a medical advance, a new drug that staves off our mortality. It's an illusion, of course, something to shield us from our fear of the unknown. But it only works until death presents itself so plainly that you cannot ignore it.

I am at that point, my love. The end is no longer a faraway concept. I imagine all those souls who went down with the
I picture Bernadette and Mrs. Laghari, now Nevin, all swallowed by the sea. Without rescue, the rest of us will suffer the same fate, we will perish in this raft, or in the water outside it, and one of us will watch the others go first. Man's instinct is to find a way to live, but who wants to be the last to die?

As I was thinking this, I looked up and realized little Alice had crawled over to me. Her eyes were wide and her expression gentle, the way children sometimes look when
they first wake up. A minute later, the Lord pulled himself alongside her. He looked at me, too. It made me uncomfortable.

“I don't need company,” I said. “I'm just thinking about things.”

“Your fate,” the Lord said.

“Something like that.”

“Perhaps I can help.”

I actually laughed. “Why? If I were God, I would have given up on me long ago.”

“But you are not,” he said, “and I never will.”

He crossed his fingers in front of his lips. “Did you know that when I created this world, I made two Heavens?”

created this world,” I mocked.

“Yes,” he continued. “Two Heavens.” He pointed. “Above and below. At certain moments, you can see between them.”

Little Alice was staring at his face. Why she idolizes him so, I can't say. I don't imagine she understands anything he's talking about.

“Just stop, OK?” I said. “Can't you see we're slowly dying here?”

“People are slowly dying everywhere,” he said. “They are also continuously living. Every moment they draw breath, they can find the glory I put here on Earth, if they look for it.”

I turned toward the dark-blue ocean.

“To be honest,” I said, “this feels more like Hell.”

“I assure you it is not.”

“I guess you would know, huh?”


I paused.

there a Hell?”

“Not the way you imagine it.”

“Then what happens to bad people when they die?”

“Why, Benjamin?” he asked, leaning forward. “Is there something you want to tell me?”

I glared at him.

“Get away from me,” I said.

BOOK: The Stranger in the Lifeboat
2.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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