The Stranger in the Lifeboat (2 page)

BOOK: The Stranger in the Lifeboat
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Sea

Lambert throws up. He is on his knees, heaving over the side. His fat midsection protrudes from his T-shirt, and he is hairy at the navel. Some of the vomit blows back in his face, and he groans.

It is evening. The sea is choppy. Others have been sick as well. The winds are fierce. Maybe it will rain. We've had no rain since the
Galaxy
sank.

Looking back, we were still hopeful that first morning—shocked at what happened, but grateful to be alive. The ten of us huddled inside the lifeboat. We spoke about rescue planes. We scanned the horizon.

“Who here has children?” Mrs. Laghari suddenly asked, as if starting a car game. “I myself have two. Grown now.”

“Three,” Nevin offered.

“Five,” Lambert said. “Got you beat.”

“But how many wives?” Nevin poked.

“That wasn't the question,” Lambert said.

“I've been too busy,” Yannis said.

“Not yet for me,” Nina said.

“Have you got a husband?” Mrs. Laghari asked.

“Do I need one?”

Mrs. Laghari laughed. “Well, I did! Anyhow, you won't have any problem in that department.”

“We have four sons,” Jean Philippe announced. He rested a hand on his sleeping wife's shoulder. “Bernadette and I. Four good boys.” He turned to me. “And you, Benji?”

“No kids, Jean Philippe.”

“Do you have a wife?”

I hesitated.

“Yes.”

“Well, then, you can start when we get home!”

He flashed a broad smile, and the group laughed a little. But as the day went on, the waves grew bumpier and we all got seasick. By evening, the mood had changed. It felt as if we'd been out here a week. I remember seeing little Alice sleeping in Nina's lap, and Nina's face streaked with tears. Mrs. Laghari grabbed her hand as Nina whimpered, “What if they can't
find
us?”

What if they can't? Without a compass, Geri has been trying to chart our course by the stars. She thinks we are
heading southwest, away from Cape Verde and farther into the wide, empty Atlantic. That is not good.

Meanwhile, to avoid direct sunlight, we spend hours tucked under a stretched canopy that covers more than half of the boat. We must sit inches from one another, stripped down, sweaty, foul-smelling. It's a far cry from the
Galaxy
, even if some of us were guests on that luxury vessel and some of us workers. Here we are all the same. Half-naked and scared.

The Grand Idea—the voyage that brought us all together—was Lambert's brainchild. He told invitees they were there to change the world. I never believed that. The yacht's size. Its multiple decks. The swimming pool, gym, the ballroom. That's what he wanted them to remember.

As for workers like Nina, Bernadette, Jean Philippe, and me? We were only there to serve. I have labored under Jason Lambert for five months now, and I have never felt so invisible. Staff on the
Galaxy
are forbidden to make eye contact with guests, nor can we eat in their presence. Meanwhile, Lambert does what he wants, barreling into the kitchen, using his fingers to pick at the food, stuffing his face as the workers lower their heads. Everything about him screams gluttony, from his flashy rings to his obese midsection. I can see why Dobby wanted him dead.

* * *

I turn away from Lambert's puking and study the new arrival, who is sleeping outside the canopy with his mouth slightly open. He is not particularly striking for a man who claims to be the Almighty. His eyebrows are thick, his cheeks are flabby, he has a wide chin and small ears, partly covered by that dark nest of hair. I admit I felt a chill when he said those things yesterday:
I am here . . . Have you not been calling me?
But later, when Geri handed out packets of peanut butter crackers, he ripped open the plastic and devoured the contents so quickly, I thought he'd choke. I doubt God would ever get that hungry. Certainly not for peanut butter crackers.

Still, for the moment, he has distracted us. Earlier, as he slept, we gathered to whisper our theories.

“Do you think he's delirious?”

“Of course! He probably banged his head.”

“There's no way he survived three days treading water.”

“What's the longest a man can do that?”

“I read about a guy who lasted twenty-eight hours.”

“Still not three days.”

“He honestly thinks he's
God
?”

“He had no life jacket!”

“Maybe he came from another boat.”

“If there were another boat, we would have seen it.”

Finally, Nina spoke up. She was the
Galaxy
's hairstylist, born in Ethiopia. With her high cheekbones and flowing
dark locks, she retains a certain elegance even here in the middle of the sea. “Has anyone considered the least likely explanation?” she asked.

“Which is?” Yannis said.

“That he's telling the truth? That he's come in our hour of need?”

Eyes darted from one to the next. Then Lambert started laughing, a deep, dismissive cackle. “Oh, yes! That's how we all picture God. Floating like seaweed until you pull him into your boat. Come on. Did you look at him? He's like some island kid who fell off his surfboard.”

We shifted our legs. No one said much after that. I looked up at the pale white moon, which hung large in the sky. Do some of us think it possible? That this strange new arrival is actually the Lord incarnate?

I can only speak for myself.

No, I do not.

Land

LeFleur drove the man called Rom to the north shore of the island. He tried to make conversation, but Rom answered with polite deflections: “Yes, Inspector” and “No, Inspector.” LeFleur eyed the glove compartment, where he kept a small flask of whisky.

“You live up by St. John's?” LeFleur tried.

Rom half nodded.

“Where do you go liming?”

Rom looked at him blankly.

“Liming? Chilling? Hanging out?”

No response. They drove past a rum shop and a boarded-up disco/café, with turquoise shutters hanging loosely off their hinges.

“What about surfing? You do any surfing? Bransby Point? Trants Bay?”

“I don't care much for the water.”

“Come on, man,” LeFleur laughed. “You're on an island!”

Rom looked straight ahead. The inspector gave up. He reached for another cigarette. Through his rolled-down window, he glanced back at the mountains.

Twenty-four years before, Montserrat's volcano, Soufrière Hills, erupted after centuries of silence, covering the entire southern part of the island in mud and ash. The capital was destroyed. Lava smothered the airport. Just like that, the nation's economy evaporated in dark smoke. Two-thirds of the population fled Montserrat within a year, mostly to England, where they were given emergency citizen status. Even now, the island's southern half remains uninhabited, an ash-covered “exclusion zone” of abandoned towns and villas.

LeFleur glanced at his passenger, who was tapping annoyingly on the door handle. He thought about calling Patrice, apologizing for this morning, leaving so abruptly. Instead he reached across Rom's chest, mumbled “Excuse me,” and popped open the glove compartment, removing the whisky flask.

“You want some?” he asked.

“No, thank you, Inspector.”

“Don't drink?”

“Not anymore.”

“How come?”

“I drank to forget things.”

“And?”

“I kept remembering them.”

LeFleur paused, then took a swig. They drove in silence the rest of the way.

Sea

Dear Annabelle—

The “Lord” has not saved us. He has worked no magic. He's done little and said even less. He will apparently be just another mouth to feed and another body to make room for.

The wind and waves kicked back up today, so we all squeezed for shelter under the canopy. This puts us knee to knee, elbow to elbow. I sat with Mrs. Laghari on one side and the new man on another. At times I brushed against his bare skin. It felt no different than my own.

“Come on, ‘Lord,' tell us the truth,” Lambert said, pointing at the new man. “How did you get on my boat?”

“I was never on your boat,” he replied.

“Then how did you fall into the ocean?” Geri asked.

“I did not fall.”

“What were you doing in the water?”

“Coming to you.”

We looked at one another.

“Let me get this straight,” Yannis said. “God decided to drop from the sky, swim to this raft, and start talking to us?”

“I talk to you all the time,” he said. “I came here to listen.”

“Listen to what?” I said.

“Enough!” Lambert broke in. “If you know so much, tell me what happened to my
damn yacht
!”

The man smiled. “Why are you angry about that?”

“I lost my boat!”

“You are in another.”

“It's not the same!”

“True,” the man said. “This one is still afloat.”

Yannis chuckled. Lambert glared at him.

“What?” Yannis said. “It's funny.”

Mrs. Laghari exhaled impatiently. “May we stop with this nonsense? Where are the planes? The ones that rescue us? Tell us that, and I will pray to you right now.”

We waited for a reply. But the man just sat there, shirtless and grinning. The mood shifted. Mrs. Laghari had reminded us that, despite this newcomer's odd distraction, we remain hopelessly lost.

“Nobody's praying to him,” Lambert grumbled.

News

REPORTER:
This is Valerie Cortez, aboard the
Galaxy
yacht, owned by billionaire investor Jason Lambert. As you can see, it's raining, so I'm tucked in here. But the exorbitant fun continues on this fifth and final night of the Grand Idea.

ANCHOR:
What took place today, Valerie?

REPORTER:
Today the attendees were treated to discussion groups led by a former US president, the designer of the world's first electric car, and the founders of the three biggest computer search engines in the world, the first time they were ever on the same stage together.

ANCHOR:
What's that music in the background?

REPORTER:
Well, Jim, I think I mentioned that this yacht has a helicopter landing pad. They've been bringing people back and forth all week. Earlier today, the popular rock band Fashion X was flown in to perform. You can hear them in the ballroom behind me. I think that's their big hit, “Coming Down.”

ANCHOR:
Wow. That's impressive.

REPORTER:
It is. And once they are finished, there's—

(Loud noise. The image shakes.)

ANCHOR:
Valerie, what was that?

REPORTER:
I don't know! Hold on—

(Another loud noise. She falls.)

REPORTER:
Oh my god! . . . Does anybody know what that—

ANCHOR:
Valerie?

REPORTER:
Something just hit . . .
(static)
 . . . sounded . . .
(static)
 . . . see where . . .

(Another loud noise, then the picture is lost.)

ANCHOR:
Valerie? Valerie, can you still hear us? . . . Valerie? . . . We seem to have lost the connection. There was a loud noise, several, as you heard. We don't want to speculate. But for the moment, we are unable to . . . Hello? . . . Valerie? . . . Are you there? . . .

Land

When his jeep reached the lookout point, LeFleur killed the engine. He had requested the area be marked off by the local authorities, and was relieved to see yellow tape by the walking path.

“All right,” LeFleur said to Rom. “Let's see what you found.”

They stepped over the tape and started down the path. Marguerita Bay was a stretch of rocky green hills that dropped off in craggy white walls, framing the shore and the narrow, sandy beach. There were several ways to get down, but not in a car. You went by foot.

As they reached the flat ground and approached the discovery site, Rom slowed his pace, leaving LeFleur to draw near on his own. He felt the sand give way to his
work shoes. A few more steps around a low rock formation and . . .

There it was: a large, half-inflated, dirty orange raft, drying in the midday sun.

LeFleur felt a shiver. Wreckage of any vessel—ships, boats, rafts, yachts—meant another losing battle between man and sea. There were stories in their remains. Ghost stories. LeFleur had enough of those in his life already.

He leaned in to examine the raft's edges. Gashes had deflated the lower tubing.
Sharks could have done that.
The canopy had been ripped away, leaving only frayed pieces where it once attached to the frame. The faded words
CAPACITY
15 PERSONS
were etched on the orange skin. The inner floor was wide, maybe fourteen feet by sixteen feet. Sand and seaweed filled it now. Tiny crabs moved about the tangle.

LeFleur followed one crab as it moved past the etched words
PROPERTY OF THE GALAXY
and up to what appeared to be a sealed pouch along the front edge. A small lump was pushing the pouch outward. He touched the raft skin then pulled his hand back.

There was something inside.

LeFleur felt his pulse quicken. He knew the protocol:
owners of a vessel are to be notified before any lifeboat contents are disturbed
. But that could take a long time. And
hadn't the owner died in the explosion? Hadn't everyone died?

He looked back at Rom, who stood a good forty feet away, staring at the clouds. What the hell, LeFleur thought, his Sunday was already ruined.

He opened the flap and pulled the contents out a few inches. He blinked twice to make sure he was seeing correctly. There, sealed inside a plastic bag, were the remains of a notebook.

BOOK: The Stranger in the Lifeboat
11.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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