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.