The boat went down. He didn’t know why. Or where exactly. He only knew it was dark out. And that the baby was screaming. And that the boat went down.
The cabin was sideways and black water poured into the room from above. The lights flickered. His son screamed louder. Screaming until his tiny voice broke.
His wife dug her nails intohis arm. In her dark eyes he saw terror.
He lifted her up through the door. Through the rush. She held the baby’s face away from the stream. He pulled himself up and took her hand.
They sloshed through a foot of racing water littered with cups, napkins, and matchbooks. Leaning to the right as the boat creaked that way. And all he could think about was how lucky they were that they were in the Mediterranean and that the water was warm.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“For this. It was my idea.”
He shook his head and put his bicep around the back of her neck. He pulled her close and kissed her on top of her dark hair. He kissed his son on his forehead. And for a moment the boy stopped wailing.
At the end of the darkening hallway he saw another couple. Thin and tan with gray hair. In their fifties. From England. He’d met them last night and although they got along fine, the man couldn’t help being jealous of the British man’s stories of travel and hunting and of all the money he must have to do it with.
The British couple waved them over. And as they moved toward themthe man was struck by how quiet everything was. No sound from other passengers. No sound from the boat sinking.
“I don’t know. I woke up when I fell out of bed,” he said, with a calm, English accent that made it seem like he wasn’t the least bit concerned.
The boat slowly creaked further to the right and they all stumbled across the floor until they leaned softly into the wall. The lights flickered again and the entire hallway went dark. Backup lights clicked on and then off. And then it was completely black except for a beam of moonlight shining through a window above them.
The man pointed to a doorway and they splashed toward it. Then there was a sound. Almost emanating from inside the walls. A young girl crying. And in the dark a chubby man, an equally chubby woman, and a thin young girl dressed in white pajamas emerged in front of them.
The chubby man was an American and he yelled out, ‘We’re going to die. All of us.” And his daughter cried harder.
“We’re not going to die,” the man said, to all of them. Then he looked at his wife and whispered, “I promise.”
She half-smiled in the dark and rubbed the back of the baby’s head. The baby who was quiet and sleeping in her arms.
Then something metal in the distance snapped and the entire frame shook above them. They covered their heads.
And the boat started sinking faster.
He kicked open the door and they pushed through a river of running water and down another hallway. It was higher there. The water. Up to his thighs. Up to his wife’s waist.
The chubby man pulled at his arm. “Why are we going this way? We’re walking right into it. We should be going away from it.”
“We’re going toward higher ground,” he said, yanking his arm away.“To get above the hole. So we can find the lifeboats. Maybe find some other people.”
But as much as he wanted to believe what he’d said, the man knew something was very wrong. The fact that there were no alarms and no sounds of people screaming. No captain or crew handing out lifejackets or ushering people to life rafts. He didn’t know why none of those things were happening. He only knew that something about it was wrong.
But just as the man had hoped, they’d risen above what he assumed was a monster gash in the side of the hull as the rush of water slowed and eventually stopped.
They walked further up an incline, toward the sideways bow of the boat. All eight of them. The man, followed by his wife holding their son. Then the British couple. And finally the chubby man and his family. And the only sound was the gurgling of the water below and the daughter of the chubby man and woman crying still.
They stepped through glass doors and onto the shiny wooden deck at the bow of the boat. The man scaled the face of the sideways deck, leaning forward like an ape, until he reached the four foot high white wall that bordered the entire bow.
He leaned his head over the side, hoping to see several life-boats and people treading water in the calm sea. Instead he saw nothing except the bulk of the sixty foot boat disappearing into blackness.
He looked back at the seven of them. He’d told them to wait there and they did. Then the man looked at his wife. Her dark hair straight, hanging on her shoulders. Her face mostly pale despite spending the last five days in the sun. Itwas her idea to go on this trip. And the man had saved for two years for it. Their first vacation since getting married five years earlier. It was her idea to go on this trip. To take a boat from island to island. Because she was afraid to fly. Because boats are safer than planes.
He gently walked, with his feet out in front of him and his hands held close to the wood behind him, toward the lower side of the boat. There was still hope that he’d find the captain or some crew members floating in the water on that side. In fact he thought, getting his hopes up during the fifteen second walk, that it made perfect sense that they’d be on the lower side as it was much easier to slip into the water from there. He smiled as he skidded into the white wall. Smiled at how stupid he was to think they’d be anywhere but right in front of him.
But when he peered over the side, resting his elbows on the ledge, looking as far as he could in each direction, he saw only a glowing, yellow half-moon and millions of stars dotting the sky. But below the skyline he didn’t see anything but a world of black.
He called the men over but only the British man came. The chubby man refused.
“What do you think?”
“I think we should wait for help,” the man said. “There must’ve been a distress call. There’s probably someone coming for us right now.”
“Okay,” the British man said.
They half-slid back to the others and relayed the plan. Everybody agreed to it. Even the chubby man who mumbled, “We’re all going to die out here. I’m telling you.”
The man looked at the chubby man’s daughter. Four feet tall. Skinny. Scared. He nodded at her and whispered, “You’ll be okay.”
Then he rubbed softly the head of his own sleeping child. Only eight months old. Out in the world for less time than he’d been in the womb. The child who changed him in ways he could barely understand. The child who made him want to be a teacher. Who made him want to be a protector. Who made him want to live forever.
He kissed the child on the head and then kissed his wife on the cheek. Then the entire boat gulped from below. And what little boat was left above water started to move quickly beneath it.
“Let’s go,” he said, scooping his child with his left arm and taking his wife’s hand in his right.
They tried to run upward against the direction of the sinking boat but it moved too quickly and they all fell to the deck and slid back against the glass doors. The man cradled the baby against him, using his body to absorb each blow.
“Get ready to hold your breath,” he yelled, over the shrieks from the others. “When I say so, breathe in deep and hold it. Okay, now.”
The last few feet of bow raced at them. He held his forefinger and thumb over his son’s nostrils and clamped his jaw shut with his bicep and forearm. The four foot ledge at the front of the boat grabbed hold of them and dragged them all under water.
The man grippedhis wife’s arm, used his feet to push off from the deck, and swam furiously upward. They emerged, his son coughing and wheezing and his wife taking frightened breaths like crying.
One by one the five other people hit the surface.
Gasping for air.
And the boat, it was gone like it never existed.
“What do we do?” the chubby woman yelled.
The man held tight to his screaming son while he squirmed and scratched him. He kissedhis son’s head over and over to calm him. The boy tasted like salt water.
The mantook long swooping strides with his legs in order to keep them both afloat. His wife clawed at his arm and shoulder, trying to keep her head above the water. And when she got a strong enough grip she pulled herself into him and nuzzled against his chest and the baby’s head.
“What do we do?!” she yelled again.
And the man realized that the other five people were all treading water and looking directly at him.
He kicked his legs sideways, spinning not only his body but the bodies of his wife and child as well. Spinning, looking for anything. Life rafts. The rescue boat. The rock formation he was convinced brought the boat down to begin with. But there was nothing except a shimmering line of yellow moon across the water and all the stars there ever were. Living and dead.
And for the first time since he’d woken up, the man was beginning to doubt whether or not they would be okay.
He kissed his son on the head again and squinted. Seeing something in the distance. Maybe. A light. Not a star. Too low to be a star. A light.
“There,” he said, pointing. “We need to swim. Toward that light.”
“What light?” the chubby man said, taking big wet breaths.
“Right there. Follow my finger.”
“I can’t see your finger,” the British woman said.
“There’s a light. I see it. We need to swim toward it.”
The chubby woman said, “There’s no light there. I don’t see it.”
“There is a light there. And where there’s light there’s land and people and help. We need to swim toward that light.”
His wife pulled on his arm. He looked down at her. She was thin and shivering. Despite the almost seventy-degree water.
“I don’t see it,” she said. “Are you sure there’s a light?”
“There’s a light. I promise.”
And they started swimming.
The man in front. The baby on his back with his face between his shoulder blades. His wife next to them both, swimming with her right arm with her left wrapped around the baby and the man. The baby cried miserably at first until the movement in the water calmed him.
“This is insane,” the chubby man yelled from behind. “I can’t even see you.”
The man kept swimming.
“Do you hear me? You’re going too fast. I can’t see you. Do you hear me?”
“I hear you. But you need to swim. Stop complaining and swim. Swim faster.”
“I knew we’d die out here. You said we wouldn’t but I knew we would.”
“You won’t die if you just shut up and swim. Shut your fat mouth and swim.”
And it was quiet except for the sound of hands slapping water.
“He’s just scared,” the wife whispered.
“He’s just scared. Like all of us.”
“Not like all of us. I’m not scared.”
The man swam harder toward the sparkling light in the distance.
“What are you doing?”
“I can’t keep up with you,” she said, gulping water.
“You have to.”
“I’m not strong like you,” she said.“I can’t go that fast.”
He stopped. Treading water. Looking at her in the moonlight and holding tight the tiny hands around his neck. “You will make it,” he said. “I promise. I’ll swim slower. And I’ll swim for you.”
“And you…you swim for me.”
“And we’ll both swim for him.”
“And if we do that, we’ll make it. I promise.”
He kissed his wife’s head.
“I swim for you,” he whispered.
Then he nodded at her and she said, “And I swim for you.”
And in unison they said, “We swim for him.”
They heard yelling. Two female voices. In front of them. They swam toward the sounds and found the two women. One treading water, the other hugging onto a piece of broken wood. Trying to use it for support but only pushing it under with her weight. They screamed in Italian while the man tried to calm them.
The rest of the group caught up and the chubby man yelled at them, “Speak English!”
And so they tried. And they told of drinking in the cockpit with the captain and the first mate. Of drinking and kissing and more drinking. They told of a soft bump against the bottom of the boat. Too soft for a hole is what the captain said. But then the boat started to sink. And the captain and the first mate took the lifeboat. No alarms. No mayday.
“So no one is coming for us?” the British man said.
“No,” one of the girls said. “Is no one coming.”
Then they both cried and said, “Mi dispiace. Mi dispiace.”
“I thought I told you to speak English,” the chubby man said.
“They’re saying, ‘I’m sorry’ you oaf,” the British woman said.
“Well, they should be sorry. They’ve killed us all.”
The man looked at the chubby man’s daughter. She was wet everywhere. And shivering. Then he looked at his own wife.
“You can help them,” she said. “We can all go together.”
The man looked at the entire straggly-haired crew. At the two Brits. At the chubby man’s family. And the two Italian women. And they looked at him. Hoping.
“Okay,” he said. “We’re swimming toward that light. We’ll swim together. But I have two conditions. First is,” he said, pointing at the chubby man, “I want you to shut up about everyone dying. Stop saying it. In fact, stop saying anything except exactly what I tell you to say.”
“What’s that? What should I say?”
“You’re number Six. I’m number One. She’s number Two,” he said, pointing at his wife. “Our son is Three but my wife will call out for him.”
He pointed at the Brits.
“Four and Five.”
Then he pointed at the chubby man and his wife.
“Six, Seven. Your daughter is Eight.”
She pushed out, “That’s my lucky number.”
“Good. Then you say Lucky Eight. Can you say that?”
Then he pointed at the Italian women.
One of the women replied, “Nove. Dieci.”
“Fine. Nove and Dieci,” he said. “We’ll swim and I’ll call out every few minutes. All you need to do is call out your number. This way you’ll know you’re not alone. Even if it’s too dark to see. You’ll hear the numbers.”
“What’s the other condition?” the British man said.
He looked at the Italian women. Specifically, the one hanging onto the piece of wood.
“I want that piece of wood. For my son.”
She shook her head, No.
“What do you mean, no? We can leave you here. Leave you here to drown.”
She sobbed, and in broken English said, “I cannot…swim. She…she…pull me.”
“Jesus Christ,” the chubby man said. “What kind of imbecile takes a boat trip when she doesn’t know how to swim?”
The man pointed at him.
“What did I tell you? What did I tell you was the one thing you’re allowed to say.”
“Six,” he mumbled.
“Say it louder.”
“Six, dammit,” he belted out.
“Good. Good,” he said, treading in a half-circle. “Good. Okay, we swim toward that light.”
“I don’t see a light,” one of the Italian women said.
“There’s a light. There is a light.”
And they started swimming into the blackness.
And the voices were loud and close and hopeful.
“How long have we’ve been swimming?” she said.
“About forty-five minutes.”
“It feels much longer.”
“I know. But don’t say it. But I know.”
“Are you tired?”
“Good,” she said, and smiled.
Then he called out his number. And one by one, all the numbers followed. But they were soft and further away. Like ghosts in the blackness.
“Don’t leave them too far behind,” she said. “I don’t want to be alone out here either.”
“I won’t,” he said. “But remember, I swim for you.”
“And I swim for you.”
“And we swim for him.”
They were two hours in when the baby, who’d been largely silent while they swam, awoke, startled. Confused. Whining. Smacking at the man’s back and head. The blows didn’t hurt but the shifting baby weight made it harder to swim.
“He’s hungry,” the wife said.
“He’ll have to wait.”
“If I feed him, he might calm down,” she said as the baby’s whine grew into a full scale wail.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay.”
And he stopped and pulled the screaming baby from his back.
The wife faced them. The baby screeched and smacked at the water. The man held him under his armpits. Kissing his head.
The man shrugged his shoulders and said, “How?”
The wife, treading water, and breathing hard, slid her right arm out of her shirt, exposing the top of her swollen, white breast. She reached for the baby who nearly leapt from the man to grab hold of her. The baby clawed at her hair with his right hand and tried to reach for her breast with his left hand and mouth. But it was underwater and he couldn’t get to it. He screamed harder.
The man swam up behind the wife and put his arms under her armpits. He leaned backward, easing her weight onto him, exposing her nipple. The baby latched on and sniffled at first while he fed. Until he stopped sniffling and ate silently, only moving the fingers on his right hand. Opening and closing them over and over, scratching softly at the woman’s shoulder. And there they floated. In the abyss. Under the uncaring moon.
Slowly the sounds of the others infiltrated and the British couple appeared. The British man’s eyes opened wide and he whispered, “Oh my.”
But the British woman simply smiled and smacked him on the arm.
The others appeared, forming a circle around the family.Bobbing up and down in the pitch black ocean. Watching. Silently.
“One,” the man whispered.
“Two. Three,” the woman whispered.
And down the line, they all whispered their numbers, treading water, all of them staring at the feeding baby.
And then the baby was done and asleep and smiling. His little nose scrunched, his fleshy, white cheeks puffed out, his plump lips pursed, and his thin hair sideways on his head. And all of them looked at him and some smiled and even those who didn’t smile had life in their eyes and not death. Even Six, Seven, and Lucky Eight, who’d had death in their eyes the entire time. They had life.
And it was beautiful. And the man was convinced that they’d make it. Until he looked up and felt the weight of the ocean crush every bone on his chest. The light that he’d been following the entire time, it was gone.
“What is it?” his wife whispered, following his eyes as they scanned back and forth.
“What about it?” the British man said.
“I…don’t see it.”
“I knew it,” the chubby man said, smacking his hands against the water,wheezing. “I knew we we’re following a fool.”
“It’s blocked,” the man said. “I know it’s that way.”
“Blocked by what?” the chubby woman said.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Rocks…or…a building. I don’t know.”
“That makes no sense,” the British man said. “It wouldn’t become lessvisible the closer we got. If it was visible from where we started, if it was thattall, it wouldn’t be hidden by something now.”
And the man knew that the British man was right. And he wondered if he’d killed them all.
“We’re swimming that way,” the man said. “There’s land that way. We’re swimming toward it. You can come with us or not.”
“We can’t trust you,” the chubby man coughed out. “I bet you’re leading us further out to sea.”
The chubby man’s wife, barely keeping her head above water, tried to calm her husband by rubbing his arm. But he smacked her hand away.
“We’re going to die out here. Because of you and your invisible light,” he said, pointing at the man. “And because of you.”
He pointed at the two Italian women.
“Partying with the crew while we slept. Getting them drunk. Getting them so drunk and horny they crashed the boat and left us. Two whores and a blind man have killed us.”
“Shut up…fat pig,” one of the women responded in broken English.
“I will not shut up,” he screamed, splashing water at them. “I will not!”
His daughter, Lucky Eight, who was so thin and so pale you could almost see through her, pulled on his arm and whispered, “Daddy, please stop.”
And then, the chubby man looked at his daughter, maybe for the first time all night. He turned his head sideways and squinted and smiled an awkward smile. Then he clutched at his chest. First with his right hand. Then with both. Smacking at it. Tearing at it. Trying to rip it open to let the air in.
His wife screamed a hole in the night and the rest of them swam toward the chubby man. But it was too late. They tried to hold him above the water but he was dead weight and they had to let him go. He sunk and his wife and daughter cried miserably.
“We’re swimming that way,” the man whispered. “You can follow us or not.”
“We’re not following you,” the chubby woman cried. “We’ll never follow you again.”
The man swam back to his wife and baby. His wife’s eyes were wide and her lips were shaking.
“I swim for you,” he said.
But she didn’t respond.
“I swim for you,” he repeated.
Then he smacked his hand against the water.
“I swim for you.”
“And I swim for you,” she mumbled out.
“And we swim for him.”
Then the man grabbed his wife’s arm and said, “You need to forget about him. As hard as it is, you need to.”
She nodded and then they placed the baby in between the man’s shoulder blades. The wife wrapped her arm around the man’s back, strapping the baby to him. And they swam.
Then silence from Number Six who was sinking to the bottom of the sea. And from his wife and daughter who might have gone in a different direction. Silence.
More silence until a soft voice whispered, “Lucky Eight.”
Then a cough. Then another.
The man half-smiled.
They swam for hours. At points the wife slept and he dragged her. At other points the baby cried until she fed him. And at those times the entire group was able to catch up. And it helped them all to see the faces of the others.
The man allowed tired swimmers to hold onto his legs when they needed and he’d swim only with his arms at those times. And on two occasions, the man held the chubby woman above the water line so she could catch her breath. Even though it meant that his head was underwater for most of that time.
“What time do you think it is?” the wife whispered.
“Do you see the light?”
And the man knew that the sun would be up soon. And while all night he’d wanted nothing more, he knew that if the sun revealed that they’d been swimming for hours toward nothing but endless blue ocean that many of them would surely give up hope. He knew more death would follow.
It was the daughter of the chubby man and woman.
“What is it?” the man yelled.
“I can’t move my leg!A shark bit me!”
The Italian girls started shrieking, “Shark! Shark!”
“It’s not a shark,” the man said.
“How do you know?” the British woman said from the black, panic in her voice.
“Because if it was a shark, the sound of her voice would make your ears bleed. She has a cramp.”
The man turned back toward the group. Some barely visible. Others, hidden in the night.
“Follow my voice,” he said. “Seven, drag her this way.”
And in a moment, they appeared.
“Which leg is it?”
The man reached down to massage out the cramp but as soon as he touched her thigh she squealed.
“I know. But I have to do it. I need you to be strong. Can you do that?”
He massaged the frozen muscle through grunts and soft crying. And when she could move her leg again, they swam. But when the man reached his wife and son, his wife’s eyes were fluttering and she struggled to keep her face above water. She held the baby afloat by placing him over her shoulder. But even he was inhaling and coughing out water.
The man took his son and placed him back between his own shoulder blades. He put his right hand beneath his wife’s lower back. He tried to keep her face out of the water but she was almost limp and couldn’t help at all.
Just then the sun exploded across the sea. The world lit up blue and orange. And the British man called out, “Look.”
He was pointing at a lighthouse, about a half-mile away, in the exact direction they were swimming. Its light spun across the water, just above a giant cliff.
“Look! We’re saved,” he said, patting the man on the back and swimming loudly past them. “You were right. The cliff must’ve blocked it from sight because we’re so low. In a ship we would’ve seen it the entire time. You wereright.”
The British woman followed closely behind her husband. Trailed by the two Italian
women. And behind them, the chubby woman and her daughter.
But the man, his wife, and their son didn’t move. The wife couldn’t.
The man shook her, but she only babbled incoherently.
“Help us,” he yelled. But they were all swimming furiously toward the shore and only the
chubby woman turned around. She turned back the other way and kept swimming.
The man attempted to pull his wife but she went underwater, inhaling the sea as she did. He used allhis remaining strength to lift her up above the water line. And in a moment of coherence she whispered, “Leave me.”
“I can’t move. I’ve gone far enough. You can make it.”
“We can all make it. I’ll drag you.”
“No,” she said. “It’s too far. And look at him. He’s purple. He needs help.”
The baby shivered and groaned with his eyes closed, his hands curled up into him, under his neck.
“If you try to pull me, even if you can get me there, hemight die before we reach the shore.”
“Don’t say that. We can all make it,” he whispered. “I swim for you. Remember?”
“Shut up with that.”
“Say it. Tell me.”
“No. I won’t. It’s a lie.”
The man watched the group swimming in front of them. Leading the way toward the jagged rocks and the blue and white lighthouse atop them.
The British man called out, “Four.”
His wife yelled, “Five.”
“Say it,” he said.
The chubby woman yelled, “Seven.”
“I swim for you. Say it.”
“Say it,” he said. “Please.”
His wife grabbed his arm, digging her nails into his skin. He looked at her. Then he kissed his son’s tiny hands. And they all bobbed up and down in the endless blue sea.
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