The hike, p.7
The Hike, p.7Drew Magary
He pulled himself back on board and flopped across the deck like a reeled-in marlin. Nothing but furious breathing for a good long time. After a while, he felt a tickling on his belly. In the moonlight, he could see the outline of Crab.
“Thank you,” he said to Crab.
“I think I broke the boat.”
When Crab moved out of the way, Ben noticed the moon. Well, one of them at least. There were two of them in the sky now.
NIGHT ON THE OCEAN
“You need to get up,” said Crab.
“I can’t,” Ben said. He was all wet and bloody. Breathing was the only thing that didn’t hurt right now. “I can’t move.”
“Get your ass up. We’re drifting off the path.”
That got Ben back on his feet in a hurry. Sure enough, he could see the hovercraft was floating off course, with one of the lines of glowing algae running straight underneath the ship and at an odd angle. If they drifted completely out of bounds, a sperm whale was probably going to come and swallow them whole. He raced back up to the cockpit and turned the key. Nothing.
“It won’t turn on.”
“I told you,” Crab said. “I broke the damn thing. I clipped the wire.”
“I don’t know. The right one.”
Ben looked underneath the console and found a frayed end. He frantically searched for a matching wire as the craft drifted farther to the . . . Christ, what direction was it?
Finally, he lucked out and found the match. He sparked the two wires together and the resulting shock offered his hands one final, painful insult. But it worked. The engine kicked up, and Ben moved the throttle forward ever so slightly to get the craft back on course. Within a few moments, she was comfortably within the boundaries of the path, cruising forward into the twin moonlight. The lights in the bridge cockpit were illuminated once more and now he could see Crab sitting up on the dash and the worthless phone deposited over in the corner of the room. He picked the phone back up and tried the power button again, but there was nothing, not even after he plugged it back into the working socket. He looked up to the heavens.
“I don’t know if I’m talking to God, or to this Producer I’m supposed to find, but I need a favor,” he pleaded. “I need my family. Let me at least see their faces. If you have an ounce of compassion . . .”
The phone flickered to life. It gave him one picture. Just one. It was the five of them at a Chuck E. Cheese’s for Rudy’s sixth birthday party. Ben was in the center of the frame, one arm wrapped around an indifferent Peter, the other arm clutching the birthday boy tightly as he tried to wriggle away and go back to eating his chocolate cake. Flora was peeking out behind them. She was making a face, because a nine-year-old never smiles for a camera with sincerity. And then there was Teresa on the right. As always, she was beaming and trying to wrap her arms around the familial mass to hold them together. She was rubbing her gold wedding band with her thumb, an old nervous tic of hers.
Then the screen went back to black. Ben looked up again, tears down his face.
“What do we do now?” Crab asked.
Ben knew the answer right away. “I need a shower. You stay here and make sure we don’t veer off course.”
“What if we do?”
“Come tell me.”
“Why do I have to sit here and do the patrol duty?”
“Would you prefer to shower first?”
“No. I guess not.”
“I’ll bring you something. What do you want?”
“I could use some barnacles and fish parts.”
“Yeah. Not the whole fish, man. Just some parts. Sharks get the fish first, usually.”
“I don’t know if the buffet had worms or fish parts.”
“Well, then, whoever made that buffet is a dick. You go shower, and when you get back, I’m gonna hop in the water and find some dinner. On my own. Fat lotta good you humans are.”
Ben went back down to the staterooms below deck. They were fully furnished, with crisply made beds and a vase of flowers on every nightstand. Each stateroom had a private bathroom stocked with fresh towels and washcloths and bathrobes. He tore off his wet shorts and tattered shirt and hopped in one of the showers. The second the fresh warm water hit him, he wanted to melt into the tiles. He shut his eyes tight and let the showerhead blast his face, then he opened up his slashed hand and watched the blood drain out of it. There were superficial cuts and scrapes all over the rest of his body from his little window plunge, but nothing that would require him to stitch himself up or cauterize a wound with a flaming arrow.
He stepped back out of the shower and put on one of the fluffy white robes, the soft terry cloth tickling his skin. He was remembering, albeit slowly, what it was like to feel good again. It was still possible.
There was a first aid kit under the sink, with a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and some gauze and medical tape and ibuprofen. He doused his hand in the peroxide and watched it bubble. He kind of liked the sting. Then he wrapped it all up, swallowed three of the pills (he prided himself on being able to swallow pills without the aid of water), walked upstairs, grabbed himself a lobster tail at the buffet, and chewed on it like a corn dog on his way back up to the cockpit. He found a roll of electrical tape under the console and used it to patch the ignition wire back together.
“You look refreshed,” said Crab.
“I have to sleep.”
“What about my food, asshole?”
Ben cut the engine. The craft slowed and began to drift. “Go now.”
Crab hurried down and splashed into the water. Seconds later, he was back.
“That’s it?” Ben asked. “Already?”
“Look at me, man,” said Crab. “Do I look like I need two pounds of food to go on?”
He sparked the engine back up and looked out at the glowing algae as they converged at the vanishing point.
“I have to sleep, Crab. But we need to stay on course.”
“We’ll take turns, then. I’ll watch. You rest. If I need you to steer, I’ll pinch you on the ass to wake you up.”
He went back down to a stateroom and tried sleeping on the bed but it was no use. His brain refused to shut down. He was aching to sleep. Just a few hours away from this was all he wanted. Sleep. Stop thinking. Just fucking sleep.
And yet, his eyes remained open. He pulled the comforter off the bed, grabbed one of the pillows, and trudged back up to the bridge. Then he swept away the last bits of broken glass from the back window and laid down on the floor. The air was warmer out here by the ocean. Wherever he was, it was no longer November.
“Why are there two moons up there?” he asked Crab.
“I don’t know.”
“Am I dreaming?”
“Do you know this Producer that the lady was talking about?”
“No. How’d you get that scar?”
“That big scar on your face. Where’d that come from?”
Ben was annoyed by the question. “I was in a fight,” he replied. “With a shark.”
“You’re right. That is complete bullshit. A dog did it.”
“What kind of dog?”
“Ah shit, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t do that. Don’t say you’re sorry. People always say they’re sorry when I tell them. It does nothing for me.”
“All right, then. Screw that dog. Is that a better way to react?”
Ben laughed. “Yeah, that’s closer.”
“You own a dog?”
“Why’d you come back up here instead of staying in one of those fancy bedrooms?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” Ben answered.
“It was a long day. Making friends with a talking crab was somehow the least weird thing about it. I have a lot to process.”
“Where are we going?”
“I have no idea. My fucking hand kills.”
“Think about your family, then.”
“What about them?”
“Nothing. I just figured thinking about them would take the sting away.”
“Yeah, well thinking about them hurts, too.”
“Maybe that’s a better kind of pain.”
And so he thought about the picture that flashed on his phone for just a moment. He could close his eyes and trace his wife and kids on the back of his eyelids. He could make a photo negative of them in his mind. The pizza parlor. The cheap red tablecloth. Teresa awkwardly rubbing her ring. He was coloring the image in when he finally drifted off.
• • •
When he woke up, he was in a bed. His bed. The queen bed upstairs in his house, white nightstands flanking either side. He looked over at the clock. 5 A.M. Weren’t you on that boat just now? Boat, what boat? There’s no boat. You’re home. Home just as you are every day . . .
He was alone in bed. No Teresa. She was still working the night shift at Shady Grove Hospital. He got up to piss and looked out the bathroom window at the moon. One moon only. He heard the front door downstairs open. So he walked out into the upstairs hall, clad only in his boxers. The other bedroom doors were closed, the kids fast asleep.
He could hear crying coming from the living room now. He tiptoed downstairs and saw Teresa slumped on the couch, still in her nurse scrubs and black clogs. She wasn’t moving.
She let out a deep moan. He sat down next to her and put his arm around her, running his fingers through her hair.
“Are you okay?”
“I can’t talk about it,” she said.
He patted her leg gently, doing his best to walk the fine line between compassion and smothering.
“It’s okay,” he told her. “You don’t have to say anything.”
She had a rule about never bringing work home with her. It was a deal they had made long ago—to keep work at work and not burden each other with those miseries. She lost patients regularly, but never told him about it. And her policy worked. She was so smart to implement it. They were comfortable in silence together. It was the nicest part of their day sometimes, given how goddamn loud the kids were. They were good at silence.
But she looked different this morning. Devastated. He took her hand and kissed her cheek and she curled into him, still not saying a word. They sat for an hour before she finally spoke.
“Oh, Ben . . .”
“Just this once, you can tell me.”
“I can’t,” she whispered. “I can’t tell you or it’ll kill me.”
“You saw someone die.”
She said nothing.
“More than one?”
A slight nod.
“I’m so sorry, T.”
She kept her eyes shut tight.
“It’s not your fault,” Ben said.
“It was my fault,” she said. “I killed them.”
“No, no, you didn’t kill anyone.”
She started to cry. “I can’t talk about it.”
Wait a second, you remember this night, don’t you? She canceled a few shifts after that, remember? And then she stayed stone silent for a couple of days afterward: barely saying a word, only getting out of bed to go paint in the basement. Took her a week to become herself again. Worst night she ever had on the job. Don’t you remember that?
• • •
When Ben woke up, the hovercraft had hit an iceberg.
The front deck crumpled like a cheap sedan. Ben was awakened in midair, with no time to boot up his mind before he slammed into the front of the console. His ribs were the first thing to feel the pain.
“We hit ice.”
“It was eighty degrees when I went to sleep!”
It was no longer eighty degrees. A hard, frosty wind blew through the busted bridge window. Ben stood and saw the iceberg jutting out overhead, a floating tower of blue cliff faces, with just enough melt along the bottom to keep the ice from puncturing the rubber skirt of the hovercraft. But the engine had died on impact and the skirt was starting to deflate. She wouldn’t stay afloat for much longer.
The cliff of the berg hung over the wreck, raining melt down onto the main deck in fat, heavy drops. It was like standing under a wet tree and then shaking it. There was no possible way to scale the side of the thing. Surrounding it was a loose, dangerous pack of ice: random polygons bunched together and swirling around. There was no solid land of any kind. The berg itself was a massive edifice of wiper-fluid blue glacier. The hovercraft looked like an ant compared to it.
Ben could feel the craft settling down into the water, the air whistling out of the bottom.
“The lifeboats,” he said to Crab. Crab jumped off the console and down the stairs. Ben grabbed his phone and the charger then rushed back to the stateroom, where he had dumped his belongings. He grabbed his backpack and stuffed it with two robes, four towels, and two washcloths. It all fit. Then he opened up a stand-alone closet and, to his shock, found it stocked with cold-weather gear: boots, wool socks, thermal underwear, sweaters, gloves, hats, crampons, ice axes, goggles, Gore-Tex pants, and a weatherproof shell jacket. All clean. All his size. None of it had been there the day before. He took everything, along with a nearby pen and blank notepad from a nightstand.
Outside the porthole, he could see the frigid ocean rising. He got dressed in the gear as fast as he could, ran back up to the main cabin, and dumped an entire bowl of wrapped saltines into the bag, plus a dozen extra bottles of water. Then he ducked through the double doors.
The craft was succumbing now, listing forward, with water rushing up the limp skirt and into the crushed front end of the hull. Off the starboard side of the deck, toward the stern, Crab pushed a button that automatically hoisted up one of the orange fiberglass lifeboats. The stubby vessel dangled from its davits over the edge of the ship, waiting to drop. The hovercraft was tilting starboard as well, turning into the berg, eager to smash back into it on its way down.
“Hurry the fuck up!” Crab yelled as Ben ran over and popped the lifeboat hatch. The water was creeping up the tanning deck, sweeping the lounge chairs back and gushing through the tears in the fiberglass. Ben jumped through the hatch and found himself inside a diesel-powered rescue boat designed to hold twenty-four people, with a rudimentary cockpit sticking up at the stern. Ben examined the ceiling and found a large red pull tab with a RELEASE label.
He gave it a yank and the boat came free from the davits, dropping barely an inch into the surf.
“We gotta hurry,” Ben told Crab. The sinking craft was still turning back into the berg, with the lifeboat sandwiched between the two. Inside the cockpit he found the thick plastic key to gun the engine. He turned it and pushed the throttle back to get away from the wreckage.
“Can you see the path?” he asked Crab.
“What fucking path? It’s an ice field.”
“The path continues somewhere. Look for it!”
Crab perched on the cockpit’s windowsill. This boat didn’t offer the same kind of sweeping, majestic view as its mother ship.
“There’s ice every goddamn place. The pack must have closed around us,” Crab said.
“Are we sunk?” Ben asked.
“No, but the good boat is. Too bad. That was a much better boat.”
Ben dragged himself back up the stairs and looked out to see the sleek yacht surrendering to the churning water. The waves reached the bridge of the mother ship and poured through the broken windowpane, gradually swallowing the craft whole, a snake unhinging its jaws for a big meal.
Meanwhile, the lifeboat had taken a blow, but its engine was still humming. Ben moved the throttle back to idle and gave the hovercraft a final salute as it went down, down, down . . . and then gone. Past the site of the wreck was a tiny opening between the berg and the rest of the pack, enough for an experienced mariner to circumnavigate.
Ben was not an experienced mariner. He piloted a Sunfish in summer camp when he was a kid, one of those sailboats that had a little chrome handle at the bow so you could drag the hull into the water. It didn’t even have a sitting area. You had to lie on top of the thing and pray you didn’t fall off. And you had to stick a daggerboard right through its heart, then steer it with a crappy wooden rudder at the back. Ben was terrible at every last possible task aboard. His knots always came undone. The daggerboard would get stuck. Whenever the boat had to come about, he would get nailed in the face with the swinging boom. He was not a mariner. He could swim, though. If you can’t sail, you better be good at swimming.
The Hike by Drew Magary / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes