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  • I have no idea why I signed up for a cruise. I can’t swim. I have severe anxiety being trapped in confined spaces. I’m frightened by sharks. In fact, there’s nothing about the experience that speaks to me. Nothing.

    But, my shrink said that I needed to face my fears. I had made great progress in the past few months. I was finally able to ride elevators. The subway, which held a special terror for me, was no longer inaccessible. Thanks to years of therapy, hard work, and copious doses of Xanax, I was finally able to stray from mid-town Manhattan to the Village, to Spanish Harlem, to Brooklyn.

    As I waved goodbye to the pier side crew as the ship departed, there wasn’t a trace of moisture on my palms. The ocean breeze, the sunshine, the movement of the huge ship invigorated me.

    That is, until the promised mandatory lifeboat drill. I had been told many times that this drill was mandatory for all passengers and crew. The klaxon would sound and all passengers would leave their staterooms and head down the narrow stairways to the muster areas on the starboard side of the ship. A ship announcement even said it was coming, but when the klaxon sounded, I felt the familiar stomach-jerking rush of panic. My palms immediately began to sweat, and I tried desperately to control my breathing. To no avail.

    On the way down the steps, I blacked out, sliding slowly to the floor under a bust of Caesar, who watched my little demise dispassionately.

    I awoke to the smell of ammonia – smelling salts – and a Spanish-accented nurse holding a cloth to my head. I’m sure they thought something was seriously wrong with me. An overweight 35-year old man, with strangely thin legs under a large torso. I’ve been called Stork most of my life because of this. I’m used to the derision and pitying looks from others, so I was unswayed by this nurse’s feigned concern as she took my pulse and spoke soothingly to me in Spanglish.

    “Ah pobrecito. Just a little fall. Tu es muy borracho? No?”

    “No,” I replied with a sigh, “Just a panic attack I guess.”

    “Ah” she said wisely, nodding vigorously. She must think me blind as well, because I clearly saw her roll her eyes to the stiff, white uniformed physician standing close by with a clip board.

    “Senor, you are better?” he asked, peering over his readers at me.

    “Much better. I suffer from anxiety disorders” I told him, “Just another in string of fainting.”

    “No history of heart problems or hypertension, Senor?”

    “No, I’m healthy in body, just not in mind” I replied, unable to meet his eyes.

    I was released shortly after, and told to rest in my cabin until supper, which I gladly did. Of course, I wasn’t prepared for the vivid dreams that invaded my pre-dinner nap.

    I stood on the deck of the ship, and it was burning all around me. The superstructure fell forward, crashing into and through the decking and the flames arched upward through thick plumes of smoke. The ship tilted violently, throwing me off the railing into the black water below. Passengers screamed for help or cried out in pain or fear. A bump against my leg told me that the sharks were already in the water all around. As I realized this, I felt the sharp tug and accompanying pain, as I was pulled under water surrounded by a shroud of my own blood.

    I awoke gasping, soaked in sweat. I lay on my bed panting, watching the sunlight through my cabin’s curtains. I wished immediately that I had not been so hasty to test out my new freedoms. Day one of a ten-day cruise. This was going to be an eternity.

    And so it went. Each day a new humiliation as I found that my fear of enclosed spaces kept me out on deck, but away from the edges, since fear of heights was one more thing that kept me from doing what I needed to. On the second day, I had a panic attack next to the pool, as I watched small children unattended by gabbing, drinking parents. I vividly imagined their little bodies floating lifeless in the pool while their stupid, inattentive parents drank colored, frozen drinks garnished with umbrellas and fake fruit. I could sense the eyes of the other passengers raking over my fish-belly white body, some pitying, some disdainful. I clenched my jaw and fought down the urge to scream, to cry out for the crew to save those about-to-be drowned children.

    I found myself in the water, clutching a crying girl to my soaked rayon shirt, screaming at the goggle-eyed adults on the pool deck. The irate father of the girl took his daughter from me and then, without warning, smashed me in the mouth. I fell back into the water, my face numb and watched rivulets of red float upward to the surface. I wanted to die.

    Another trip to the ship’s medical center. This time, the faces of the staff seemed less sympathetic and more annoyed. Stupid, fat American passenger. Can’t handle sitting at the pool without flipping out. The physician in his starched white uniform sat me down and, after a cursory examination, asked me sternly to stay on my medication. I assured him that I was taking my meds diligently. To this, he merely clucked and nodded.

    Four days out from our departure, and I was once again trapped at home. My home away from home. The ship held terrors around every dark narrow corner. Each night, my dreams destroyed my hard-won self-confidence. One night I drowned in my cabin, unable to exit while the ship sank. I watched as my stupid straw hat floated near the ceiling while I breathed in water and woke screaming.

    Another night I burned to death when the engines exploded in a spray of diesel and hydraulic fluid. I was trapped in a pile of deck chairs which burned around me and coated me with melted plastic until my skin burned and again, I woke screaming and in a cold sweat.

    On the fifth day, while sitting on the small deck outside of my claustrophobically small cabin, the captain came over the PA system. I dreaded these announcements, knowing that eventually one of these unwelcome electronic voices would tell us about the upcoming lifeboat drill, and a whole new string of humiliation. Instead, the captain began with an apology. I sat up slowly in my chair, my sunburned legs aching.

    “Ladies and gentleman, please excuse the interruption. We must make a small diversion from our course to Jamaica. We’ve received a distress call, and under maritime law, we are obligated to respond. We are certain that the authorities will also respond, so we expect that this will only be a short diversion. Again, my apologies for the intrusion into your vacations but we must oblige the law of the seas.”

    The ship slowly turned as most of the other passengers with decks came out to see if there was something to see. Chatting and shouting up and down ensued, and I had a vivid picture of what people looked like passing automobile accidents, slowing down dramatically, hoping to glimpse some gore or death. It sickened me.

    Within a few minutes, we could all plainly see an orange speck out on the ocean. I peered into the sun, visoring my hand above my sunglasses to see better. Yes, that was a lifeboat, very much like the ones stationed below us on Deck 4. Twenty to twenty-five feet long, bright life vest orange and covered with an orange canvas top.

    We watched as the crew of our ship descended ladders from the bow, some with grappling poles, others with ropes and life rings. They secured the lifeboat to our hull and I watched as the crew opened the canvas top and shouted up to invisible officers on the ship. Wire mesh gurneys were lowered by rope down to the reaching crewman, and I saw the physician in his ridiculous starched whites, picking his way carefully down the ladder, as if afraid to muss his impeccable looks.

    Shortly after, the first of the hapless lifeboat passengers was lifted in a wire mesh gurney. The babbling and shouting from us passengers muted immediately as we saw the emaciated condition of the person being drawn upward in the wire coffin-like basket. The mesh gurney was dropped many more times, each time drawing a gaunt, exhausted looking woman or child from the orange life boat to waiting hands above.

    As the bright sun began to pink over the horizon, the crew pulled the last of the passengers up from the now-empty life boat. These were somber moments – the remaining passengers were pulled upward not in the mesh gurney, but in black plastic bags. Even through the thick plastic, the shape of human body was unmistakable, like a mold of a stature or an unformed golem in the making.

    I made it to dinner that night rather than taking my meal in my room, anxious as we all were about what had happened, who the passengers were, and what grim stories they would have to tell. None of the life boat passengers were in the dining room that evening, but the crew and officers present were bombarded with questions. They deflected all of these questions, smiling tense smiles but adamantly denying any knowledge of what had happened, or the status of those we had seen rescued.

    The next morning, several of the emaciated passengers, wrapped in blankets, or in too-large borrowed clothes, made an appearance in the dining room. They sat mute at the officers’ table, sipping slowly from steaming mugs of coffee or tea, not looking at us or each other. The crew kept the curious passengers away, again smiling but insisting that we give these poor people some time and peace to recover.

    My maladies had fallen into the background for the moment, as I was desperately curious about what had happened with these people and their tragic story. The disdain of my fellow cruisers diminished as well, as curiosity about the rescued became more interesting than the nut-case they had been traveling with.

    By supper that evening, the gaunt passengers of the lifeboat were taking meals with the rest of us in the dining room. A total of seventeen women and four children – two boys and two girls – had been pulled from the lifeboat. Another six people – two children and two adult women – had been pulled aboard in rubberized shrouds. Apparently some of the better informed passengers were getting information from the crew.

    The story creeped out in pieces, some parts contradicting others, but the overall narrative slowly unfolded. All of the rescued had been aboard a cruise ship heading out from Jamaica, returning to port in Baltimore. A day out, some terrible mechanical disaster forced the passengers and crew to abandon ship. Our rescued passengers were one of the first off the ship, and supposedly watched in horror as their ship exploded and sank almost immediately. One other life boat was visible for the first few days and then they drifted apart during the night, never to be seen again. This was over a week ago. As many as ten days before, according to some tellings of this story.

    I was fascinated with this tale and anxious to get my changes to ask the other passengers about what they had heard, piecing together parts that sounded “true” and discarding apparently-incongruous parts.

    Our ship steamed steadily toward Jamaica, our ranks swelled with the rescued passengers. I was anxious to get onto land again, but couldn’t take my eyes off of the somber, haunted eyed women and children who took meals with the rest of us in silence, not even speaking among themselves.

    The following morning, still a day away from our destination, I found myself on the swimming pool deck, gazing over the flat surface of the endless ocean. I had been relieved from the worst of my anxieties by the plight of our rescued passengers. I was gratified and only a little saddened. My fears were the only thing I had sometimes.

    I happened to glance around and noticed one thin women standing at the railing not far away from me. Wrapped in a blanket despite the heat, she looked skeletal, drained of color and life. I surprised myself by sliding up to her. She slowly looked up to me and I saw the face of suffering. No Holocaust survivor could have looked much worse than this woman. Her face was peeling from terrible sunburn or burns of other origins. Her eyes looked huge in her emaciated face, her hair was lank and lay limply on her shoulders.

    “Hi there,” I said lamely, regretting my vapid first words immediately. Despite my apparent gaffe, she gave me a wan smile.

    “Hi,” she replied, her voice croaking out. “Sorry, my voice isn’t really back yet.”

    “Oh, no worries. You’ve been through plenty.”

    She nodded slowly, her big eyes staying steadily on mine.

    “Do you need something to drink? Some water?” I asked, not sure what to do for this thin woman.

    “Actually, that would be wonderful,” she said, again, with a thin smile, “Water tastes wonderful.”

    I nodded and headed toward the beverage bar, glancing over my shoulder to see if she was still standing there. She watched me go, still with that weak smile.

    I quickly asked the bar tender for two waters, gesturing toward the thin woman at the railing. He glanced at her, and something like fear swept over his face for a moment. He handed me two large plastic cups full of water, and then touched my arm lightly.

    “Esta cuidado,” he said to me, looking at my face.

    I shook my head. “No hablo Español, amigo.”

    “Be careful,” he said, with a glance over my shoulder to the woman at the railing.


    But he had moved off to another passenger, still glancing toward the woman.

    I took the two sweaty cups back to the railing.

    The woman watched me approach, still smiling thinly, and took her cup.

    “Would you like to sit down? There’s a couple of chairs there I can pull up?”

    She nodded slightly, the water cup at her lips.

    I scrambled to pull the two chairs over, afraid that she would leave, or another passenger would come up to speak with her in my absence.

    After arranging both lounge chairs at the railing, I held her now-empty cup as she slowly sat down, arranging the blanket over her cotton crewman jumpsuit. I could still see how thin her arms and legs were.

    Once settled, I glanced over at her, and found her looking back. She looked better, a little color in her cheeks, pinkish under her overly large eyes.

    “My name is Rachel,” she said.

    “I’m Winston,” I replied, reaching over the arm over my chair and hers.

    She took my hand with hers, and shook it earnestly, a smile on her face.

    We chatted amiably about nothing in particular until the sun was high in the sky. I looked at my watch. Three hours had gone by like a flash. Rachel had color in her cheeks and a glance at my forearms showed the beginnings of a severe sunburn. Rachel noticed my glance and said “Oh, Winston, you’re burning. You should put on sun block.”

    “I hate the sun. I didn’t bring any because I wasn’t planning on being out. I’m not exactly a tanner you know.”

    She laughed, the first time I’d heard her do so, and patted my arm gently.

    “I’m tired Winston. I need to take a nap and you need to put some lotion on yourself. See you later?”

    I could only nod dumbly and wave as she slowly got up from the chair and walked back inside. I sat there for a few moments more, thinking how strangely I felt. I was… happy.

    Later that afternoon I found myself primping in front of the smallish mirror in my cabin, wearing the best of my still-clean clothes. My face, neck and arms were cherry red but the pain was a mere dull ache. I was actually anxious to see Rachel again. I felt protective of her. This was completely foreign to me. I realized then that I was focused on something other than my own problems. I felt like a man.

    Rachel sat with the other rescued and staff in the dining room. When I walked in, she noticed me and gestured me over. I saw several of the crew smile snidely at each as sat down next to her. Rachel introduced me to the two rescued passengers next to her, a gaunt woman of indeterminate age and one of the children, a boy. Both were still thin, white and sickly looking. As Rachel introduced me, they simply nodded at me and went back to staring at their plates.

    With a bit of color in her cheeks, Rachel looked almost normal. She had borrowed some clothes from one of the female crew, a skirt and blouse, both white. Her arms and legs poked out like sticks.

    “I see you found some clothes,” I said. Master of the obvious.

    Rachel nervously fingered the blouse. “Does it look all right? I’m swimming in it. I was always a bit petite, but now…”

    “You look great,” I said, seeing her discomfort with her physical condition.

    She ate mostly little bites, pushing the food around her plate and sipping water. I kept up the conversation by talking about music, books and films.

    Looking about me, I saw that the other people at our table had left. Rachel looked tired.

    “You look tired, Rachel. Why don’t you turn in?”

    “I’m just a little tired. Maybe I’ll lay down for a bit. Perhaps I’ll see you on deck later,” as she slowly got up.

    “Of course. Go rest.”

    I walked back to my stateroom in a daze. Inside, still daydreaming about holding Rachel’s thin body, I noticed the lights flickering.

    The night air was still damp, as it always was on the ocean, but the crisp, continuous breeze made it feel much cooler than it was. I pulled two deck chairs next to the railing and sat down, looking at the dark water sliding past.

    I must have dozed off, because I awoke to a light touch on my face.

    “Winston, you were crying out,” Rachel said. She was sitting in the adjacent deck chair, the light from the bar shining in her face. Despite the dark, her large eyes seemed to have a light of their own.

    “I was… dreaming,” I said, still trying to escape from the nightmare.

    “I have bad dreams too,” she said, looking out onto the water.

    “I’m not surprised. You’ve been through a lot.”

    We sat in silence for a few minutes, the sound of Caribbean music playing softly from the bar.

    “I don’t know if I can talk about it,” Rachel said suddenly.

    “You don’t have to. I mean, you can if you want to. I’m a good listener.” That was a lie. I liked to talk. I was a terrible listener. But if Rachel wanted to talk, I wanted to listen to her voice. I was smitten.

    She nodded in the darkness, still looking at the water.

    “We think it was the man from Pittsburgh. Always wore a Steelers cap. A real big mouth,” she said softly.

    “What?” I responded stupidly.

    “It was his fault. He started it. He was so…irreverent about everything. Making too loud jokes. A real bigot about everything.”

    “Started what?” I asked, feeling silly. She was talking and I needed to shut up.

    “All the bad things that happened.”

    I nodded so she would know I was listening.

    “When we first docked in Jamaica, I heard him making fun of people’s accents. Him and his stupid wife, saying ‘Mon this’ and ‘Mon that’. Such an idiot.”

    “Uh huh,” I said.

    “I only know this from what people said later. I wasn’t there. But he thought the voodoo stuff was stupid. Kept calling it ‘poodoo’ and laughing at the locals’ beliefs. He really had it out for them.”

    She was wearing a light jacket, which she pulled around her more tightly.

    “I heard that he went to see one of their voodoo priestesses. Was going to pay them to do some magic for him. But as stupid as he was acting, I’m not surprised that she kicked him out. He was pretty angry. I overheard him telling everyone he wasn’t going to be insulted by no ‘island nigger.’ I don’t talk like this, I’m sorry,” she said, looking at me.

    “No worries, you’re telling a story.” I was fascinated by this.

    “Apparently he left the ship that night and went back.”

    “Back where?”

    “To the priestess’ place. Her house or whatever.”

    “What did he do?”

    “He stole something.”


    “He stole something from her. Some kind of amulet or trinket. I’m not sure what it was.”

    “Wow. That was stupid.”

    She looked at me in the dark, her face dominated by those big almost-luminous eyes.

    “Worse than stupid. She was standing on the dock screaming at him. The crew wouldn’t let her on the ship. So she stood there screaming at him and shaking her fists at him. It was horrible.”

    “Wow,” I said again, not knowing what else to say and wanting her to continue.

    “He stood on deck and laughed at her, called her names. The crew asked him to stop but he didn’t, and they finally sent him down to his cabin. It was upsetting everyone.”

    “Well, I guess so. Did he give it back?”

    “No. He must not have given it back. I was standing on deck when we left, and that woman stood there and shook her fists at the ship, at us. I think… I think she cursed us.”

    I sat there for a moment, not sure what to say. “Cursed you? You’re not serious. Do you think so?”

    She looked at me and pulled her jacket tightly around her and said nothing.

    “I’m not judging,” I said quickly, “It’s just, I don’t know. It sounds strange.”

    “I don’t believe in that stuff either,” she said, “But bad things happened.”

    I let the silence unfold over us, not wanting to say the wrong thing.

    “Bad things,” she repeated softly.

    “You don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to.”

    She nodded. Finally she spoke again.

    “The lights were flickering on the ship. Right from the beginning.”

    I thought about the flickering lights in my cabin. “You mean the whole ship? Or just the lights in your cabin?”

    “Everywhere. At first no one really thought anything of it. Then things started to stop working.” She shivered visibly.

    “Rachel…” I began.

    She waved me off and pulled her jacket around.

    “The water wouldn’t work. There was no water in the cabins. They had crew running around everywhere trying to fix that. Then the gas tanks in the kitchen were somehow empty. Nothing was working.”

    “Why didn’t they turn the ship around?”

    “I think that’s what they were going to do. But things went downhill so fast…” She looked out over the ocean. I could see she was crying.

    “No need to go over this. Why don’t you get some rest,” I suggested.

    She looked at me, those large luminous eyes wet with tears, and shook her head. “Can we go inside? I’m cold.”

    “S...sure,” I stuttered, not wanting to part, but afraid to ask her to go anywhere.

    “Is there room in your cabin to sit?” she asked.

    “Umm, sure. I mean, yes, there are chairs.”

    She rose slowly and waited for me to lead the way. I almost tripped over the chairs heading back inside.

    I fumbled my keys at the stateroom door, nearly dropping. I was afraid to look at Rachel, afraid of that snide smirk but knowing that she wouldn’t laugh at me. I finally got the door open and we bumbled around trying to get into door at the same time.

    Laughing broke the uncomfortable silence, and I let her into the room first.

    She stood near the deck, pulling out a chair for herself but waiting for me before sitting down. I pulled the other chair out and sat down, careful not to let our legs touch.

    We sat there for a moment, in silence. She abruptly began speaking.

    “So everything was broken on the ship. The engines stopped working. They couldn’t get the radios to work. Nothing was working. It was terrifying. We were in the middle of the ocean getting tossed around and no way to steer or go anywhere.”

    “I have nightmares about that,” I admitted quietly.

    She looked at me and nodded. “That’s what it was. A nightmare. The crew was trying to keep everyone calm, but the food was spoiling because the refrigeration was not working. There was no water and no A/C. People were angry and demanding that the captain do something.” She looked down at her hands.

    At that moment, the lights in my cabin flickered.

    “Did you…?” I said, looking around, my heart pounding.

    “What?” she asked, panic on her face.

    Maybe it was just my overactive imagination. Not wanting to upset her, I smoothed out my face. “Nothing, I thought I heard something. It was nothing.”

    Rachel looked at me for a moment, then continued.

    “After the third day, so many people were getting sick. The ship was rocking and there was nothing to eat. The smell of the food rotting was horrible. There were fights over the fruit and vegetables that were left. The crew had guns and nightsticks. You know, like what police carry?”

    I nodded, imagining the chaos.

    “Then, that night…” her voice trailed off. She covered her face and sobbed softly. Awkwardly, I reached over to her and touched her arm. She took my hand and cried.

    After a few moments, she sniffed, wiped her eyes, and smiled that thin smile.

    “I didn’t think I could talk about this, but I guess I can. Thanks Winston.”

    “Oh, it’s OK. And, you don’t have to, if, you know, if you don’t want to.”

    “No, I want to. I need to tell someone.”

    “OK” I said, feeling strong.

    The lights flicked off for a second. When they came back on, Rachel didn’t seem to notice. I started to wonder if I experiencing some kind of stroke. Something else to worry about. Just as I started to spiral down into a panic, Rachel began speaking again.

    “That guy from Pittsburgh? The big mouth? He was calling for us to take over the ship. He got in the captain’s face. Screaming at the top of his lungs and waving his arms. The captain took a step back and just shot him. Right there,” She pointed to her chest, “Just like that. Bang.”

    “Oh my God,” I said, incredulous.

    “Except the guy didn’t stop. He looked at his chest and then…”


    “He laughed.”

    “What? Did the captain miss?”

    “Oh no. I saw the whole thing. The captain shot him from this far away,” she gestured at the space between us.

    “Huh, maybe the gun had blanks?”

    Rachel shook her head. The lights flickered as she did so.

    “No. Because big mouth took the gun.”

    “He did?”

    “Yes, and then he shot the captain in the face.”


    “Yes. The gun was loaded with real bullets. He took the gun and shot the captain. Oh God…”


    “And, then, and then, the crew attacked him. They jumped on him from all sides. Passengers too. The guy just stood there, laughing and he threw them around like they were dolls or paper.”

    “How big of a guy was he?”

    “Not that big. Fat and sloppy but not like Arnold Schwarzenegger or anything. He just tossed people around. And then…” She looked at her hands.

    “And then?”

    “He turned around. And…”


    “His eyes. They were wrong.”

    “What was wrong with his eyes?”

    “They glowed. They were like… green. Like green lights. There was no electricity on the ship. It was getting dark. There were only flashlights at that point. And his eyes were glowing green.”

    “Come on, maybe it was a light shining on his eyes…”

    “No! Winston, I was there. It was…horrible. It was like he had someone else in him. I think that voodoo lady cursed him. Put a demon in him or something.”

    I sat there looking at Rachel, not knowing what to say. She’d been through so much already. I wanted to take care of her. Protect her.


    She looked at me. “You don’t believe me.”

    “Of course I do. It’s just, you know, when you’re frightened, the mind plays tricks.”

    She sat in silence, and I couldn’t tell if she was angry or not. Finally, she smiled and said, “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I was, hungry or sick.”

    The lights flickered.

    “Maybe,” I said, worrying about me again.

    Rachel stood and the chair fell over. I was startled.

    “Maybe I imagined the whole thing. The ship burning, the explosion. Maybe none of it happened.”

    The lights browned down and came back up, over bright.

    I sat there, looking up her, suddenly very afraid.

    “Maybe none of it happened,” she said softly.

    Outside the stateroom, the emergency klaxon began blaring.

    “None of it.”

    The lights went out, and the only light in the room was the green glow from Rachel’s eyes.

    I should have stayed home.
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