Lifeboat: a very short story


To starboard, there was only sea: calm and reflective. To port, more of the same.

“How did we get here?” I asked.

“Best not to think about it, mate,” came the cheerful reply.

At the bow of the boat, three men were playing cards, gambling on a game of War. The man who had cheerily replied to my question reached for a mound of poker chips at the center of their makeshift table. Another man collected the cards. Another sipped coffee.

Beyond them, I saw only more sea.

It was hard to think, but my mouth carried on instinctively. “But, wouldn’t it help, help to get us out of here, if we knew how we got here?”

“Don’t worry about it, mate,” replied the cheerful man. He placed a large bet. Each player was dealt a card face down. “Things will take care of themselves. Join the game. There’s a place for you at the table.”

I looked aft instead.

Over the stern of the boat, the sea lay flat, still, and almost endless. At the horizon, directly behind us, dark clouds marked the space between sea and sky.

A voice came out of me unexpectedly, “There’s a storm coming. I can see it. It won’t be long.”

“There’s no storm,” came the gruff reply. “You’re lying.”

I turned towards the bow. One man fiercely threw his card to the table. Another laughed. They smoked cigars now, drank rum from a bottle, and eat our rations. They didn’t look up from their game.

“You shouldn’t lie about storms, mate.” It was the cheerful man again. “Everything is going to be just fine. Join the game. There’s a place for you at the table.”

I looked again at the storm. It seemed closer: a littler wider and darker across the horizon.

Out of habit, I dropped my eyes. Seawater lapped at the toes of my shoes. I scrambled to the stern of the boat to investigate. At its deepest, the seawater was at my ankles. Although I couldn’t be sure, it seemed to be rising.

“We’ve sprung a leak,” I shouted. “We’re taking on water.”

A harsh voice replied, “Shut your mouth. Otherwise, you might get hurt.”

I turned quickly to the bow. The men were passing out pills from the first aid kit, washing them down with the last of the rum.

The cheerful man smiled at me. He dealt the cards.

“You know the old saying, mate,” his smiled widened. “If you haven’t got anything nice to say...”

I looked for the leak below the water. Then, I realized I had nothing to plug it with, even if I could find it. I splashed water over the side of the boat with my hands.

“Maybe, when the game is over, you could all help me bail water.” It was like someone else was speaking. “We might be able to stay afloat, if we all pitch in and help bail water.”

The cheerful man laughed congenially. “Mate, the game never ends. If someone busts, we give him more chips and reshuffle the deck. The game is the only thing that matters, so long as we’re at the table. Why don’t you join us?”

I looked up instead.

The clouds were angelic. The sun filtered through gently, making the clouds dance. They were light, free, joyful.

“No, thanks,” I said. “I’ve got to bail the water. I’ve got to try at least.”

I splashed sea water on my face. My mind cleared sharply.

I didn’t mind the storm or the leaks so much. Death would happen one way or the other. No, it was the men at the bow of the boat and the game they played. If I didn’t dwell on them or the game too much, I could be happy in the time that I had left.

The boat rocked slowly. The first waves of the storm had reached us.

I bailed. It didn’t seem to make a difference. I watched the clouds. I basked in the blue of the sky. I enjoyed the sea’s sparkling show. The winds of the storm blew fresh, clean, and cool against my face. Sometimes, I looked at the storm directly. Every time I did, I knew it was closer.

Two very long paragraphs: a very short story



Stephen felt a stumble of movement and looked up from his book.

A girl. Cute. Young woman. For the past twenty years, during my service on the boards of directors or advisory boards of most of the major global conservation organizations and in my research in this field, there has been...

Stephen sat at the very back of the bus. The bus pulled away from the station, turned right onto Laurier, and then turned sharply left onto Nicholas. The girl sat near him, at the other window, three seats away.

Wearing strange pants. Jogging? Fuzzy pink. She’s cute. Not fuzzy. Like little balls. She’s taking her coat off. Sneakers. Yellow socks. Greasy hair in face. In fact, to push for one means to push for the other, and to let the one go means that you let a lot of the other go. What?

He concentrated.

And in my research in this field, there has been. Now her sweater too? Tank top.

He concentrated.

And in my research in this field, there has been...

Wordless concern moved through Stephen's body. He felt her dishevelment, out of the corner of his eye. The girl slumped: her feet on the seat in front of her, arms on her knees, head on her knees, hair spilling over.

In fact, to push for one means to push for the other, and to let the one go means that you let a lot of the other go.

He felt her crying.

Was that? The major global conservation organizations have long since included in their programs. Yes. She’s crying. An emphasis on economic development. No? On-site pilot programs, and fundraising to improve economies in areas of high conservation value on a sustainable. Yes.

She sobbed deeply, with her face buried in her arms.

She’s really crying. I should say something. Should I? Are you OK? Stupid question. Obviously she’s not. Could make a difference. Little things make a difference. From a stranger. It’s going to be all right. No, not that. Denies her feelings. Boyfriend? Breakup? It’s early. Maybe a pick up that didn’t work out. Went wrong? Something serious? Talking might help. Maybe she needs help! Maybe she wants to be left alone. She might lash out. Leave me alone. I want to be left alone!

He felt the intangible silhouettes of the women he knew who would have reached out to her instantly without a second thought.

Feelers would act. Without thinking. Not me. Even if there was a crash. Is it safe to stop? Should I? Is it safe? Will pulling over make it worse? Am I supposed to? I feel it too, but, I assess. That’s all. Is it the right thing to do? That’s all. I am pulled too. The bottom line is that the two great goals of the twenty-first century are. What? The major global conservation organizations have long since included in their programs an emphasis on economic development...

The girl sobbed into her arms again.

Stephen focused on the page, narrowing his field of vision.

The girl sniffled loudly.

Stephen narrowed his field of vision even more.

The bottom line is that the two great goals of the twenty-first century are. If I were crying on a bus, I’d want to be left alone. But she’s not you. The platinum rule. She might want help. If she wanted help, she’d ask. Maybe crying is her way of asking for help. I can’t! I’m a man. It might come off creepy. Threatening.

Two women got on the bus at Hurdman station. Stephen watched them sit at the front of the bus. He had hoped they would come to the back of the bus and talk to the girl, comfort her. He realized it only after they sat down, when there was no possibility of it.

The girl was quiet now: face up, rivulets on her cheeks.

She must think I am dick. A douche. Ignoring her. One more heartless zombie middle class commuter. Reading his book. Dead to the world. Dead to her. Trapped. Blinders on. A drone. We will obtain the kind of better world that people everywhere believe. What? If someone comes back here, she could blame me. For her tears. We’re alone back here. She could say anything.

He concentrated.

Fundraising to improve economies in areas of high conservation value on a sustainable basis. And it turns out that it works. I could spend hours talking about the examples and ...

The bus drifted onto Alta Vista.

There’s no time! I can’t try to help, if I’m not going to see it through. It could be worse. Get her talking and then leave her. Abandon her. Hey, open up! Whatever, bye! I could get drawn in too. Miss my stop. What if she is crazy? Just attention seeking? If I had more time. There’s not much I can do. A stranger on a bus. If it’s serious, I might have to really get involved. Call the police. Take her somewhere safe. A shelter? I could probably call my manager. She wouldn’t care. She’d probably be impressed. It’s the sort of thing she would do. No one would fault me. It would even look good on me.

The girl’s face was turned away.

Stephen concentrated.

First, raising people around the world to a decent standard of living, particularly the 80 per cent of the people living in developed countries, and second. I will smile at her when I get off. I can do that. I will smile at her and let her know it’s going to be OK. That’ll mean something. It could make a difference. A smile from a stranger. Acknowledgement.

He concentrated.

If we can do this, we will obtain the kind of better world that people everywhere believe should be our major human purpose. What? I’m not getting any of this. Fuck.

He closed the book. He held it with both hands on his lap. He looked straight ahead. He sat unnaturally still, looking straight ahead down the aisle to the front of the bus. He interrupted his stillness. He took his backpack from the floor. He opened the largest pocket. He slipped his book into it. He took out his toque and put it on. He rearranged his scarf and zipped up his coat. He put on his gloves and rang the bell. He took a breath, stood, and opened himself to her, ready to meet her eye and smile.

The girl faced the window. He saw only her hair, disheveled, and her back, tank top.

Stephen exited the bus. He looked over his shoulder, back through the windows towards the girl. He couldn’t see her. The bus drove on. He turned and walked towards his place of work. By the end of the morning, he had forgotten her. On his bus ride home, in the smooth flow of his commute, he reread the two paragraphs and easily finished the essay.