Content Warning: violence, explicit language
Detective Marsden, followed by a nurse, walked into hospital ward twenty-two to meet Lee Baxter, the thirty-three-year-old who was shrivelled like an old man on his death bed; Baxter occupied his own bed, albeit not dying, yet hooked up to an IV drip which slowly replenished his vitality.
His tired eyes looked up in response.
“We have a detective Marsden here who would like to talk to you, something about the incident.”
“Thank you, Miss Raymer,” the detective spoke in a thick, sombre voice, “I’m sure Mr Baxter knows why we’re here?” He shot him a quick look.
Lee gave a feeble attempt of a nod; his neck looked so brittle that too large a movement might’ve snapped it.
“Let me reassure you, Mr Baxter, you’re not in trouble. I just want to talk to you about what happened if you feel up to it, would that be ok?”
“Yes,” rasped the voice.
“Great.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a voice recorder, flicked a switch and placed it onto the bedside table before nodding to Miss Raymer to excuse the room.
She complied and shut the door slowly as if desperate to catch a word of what was to be said.
“Now, Mr Baxter, the ship. Would you mind starting from the beginning?”
Lee’s eyes were fixated onto a small painting of a fruit bowl opposite him.
They didn’t blink once as he spoke.
“It happened in the storm.”
There was fire upon water. The eye could see no further than flames.
Lightning forked the sky; rain fell and thunder echoed seamlessly into the vast emptiness.
The great pleasure vessel carried bodies upon bodies of people that jumped off the burning barrage that sunk its way into the black of the ocean.
Life boats dropped; cries were audible as families were separated and people were lost.
“Get on quick!”
“Don’t leave without us!”
The night reeked of desperation. Fire emblazoned the surface of the ocean and beneath the gaze of the storm sailed a single wooden lifeboat which broke through the flaming ring of destruction.
Great waves pushed the insignificant raft aside, battering it and its few passengers, propelling them away into the darkness which left the dimming orange wreckage behind them.
The ocean steadied after many hours. Their energy was sapped and they stopped paddling, resting the oar on the hard floor.
Five bodies drifted through the night until the sun first glimpsed over the horizon.
All night, Connor Murphy, a young man, rocked a baby no older than six months in his arms, delivering it the occasional hush as it wailed through the night.
“Is it yours?” asked Sasha, her voice weak and body still shaking in the cold.
The boat came with supplies; marginal rations of several packets of dark, dense biscuits that could last fill someone for at least forty-eight hours, water and solar blankets which they all wrapped around themselves, including the child.
“No,” he said bluntly.
“Well, whose is it?” asked Lee Baxter.
“It all happened so fast. There was a woman who had her leg trapped back on the ship. She begged me to take it. I couldn’t say no.”
“Did you get a name?”
He shook his head in response.
As the sun rose it carried warmth.
“How’s he?” asked Connor, still rocking the child back and forward.
He nodded towards an older man who was covered in his own blood, his arm bent at a violent angle, showing bone, which was supported by Connor’s jacket tied around his neck.
They tended to him all night. Now, he slept, his breathing ragged.
“If we don’t treat his arm- “started Sasha.
“There are no medical supplies,” Lee butted in, “I checked.”
She raised her hand to his forehead, “He may be coming down with a fever.”
“Now that we can see better, check under the tarpaulin, you may have missed something.”
She checked and shook her head timidly. “I don’t understand how there can’t be any.”
“Well, looks like it will just be survival of the fittest,” primed Lee.
“So, Mr Baxter. You were on board this life boat with three other passengers, Connor, Sasha and Edwin, correct?” his voice slow and clear.
He nodded; eyes still fixed on the painting.
“Take me through what happened to them, one by one. Start with,” he looked down at his notepad, “Edwin Halper, the one you said had a broken arm.”
“I don’t know how long we’d been floating. Our food and water supply was low, but it hadn’t gotten bad yet. It was just the weather. It got so hot. Edwin,” his words faltered, “it may have been heat stroke, or perhaps his arm. It was infected.”
Detective Marsden never took his eyes off Lee as he spoke.
“I think his fever got the best of him.”
The sun blazed upon the lifeboat, punishing those on it. Connor rested the baby under the tarpaulin where shade was plentiful.
“I crushed the last bit of biscuit and mixed it with some water and gave it to him. Now we only have four packets left.”
Lee winced at the statement. “It’s hot,” he murmured, “and I’m thirsty. I’m gonna drink something.” His complexion was orange and the skin started to peel from his face.
“No,” said Connor, “you drank this morning.”
Lee looked at him with contempt. “He’s dying,” said Lee as he looked toward Edwin. His skin was sallow and his eyes sunken. He rested, asleep. “Yet we still give him half our supplies.”
“He needs to be somewhat hydrated if he’s gonna survive,” said Connor.
Lee scoffed. “Hydrated, no one’s fucking hydrated. We’re all gonna die sooner or later if we’re not saved. So, we just as well cut him off and drink his fill so we can last a little –“
“I said no, Lee.” Connor spoke in a low growl. “You drank your fill. Now, wait.”
“Here,” said Sasha, “take some of mine. I still have a bit left over from yesterday.”
“Don’t,” said Connor.
“Why not?” spat Lee.
Connor looked at Sasha and directed his words to her. “You’ll need it.”
She hesitated, then looked at Lee’s sorrowful face. “Just a cap-full.”
“Thank you, Sasha,” burst out Lee as he clasped his hands together, “you’re my saviour, thank you!”
Connor held his tongue.
The night carried a fierce wind.
They were in a half-daze, eyes closed and resting beneath their solar blankets.
Someone gasped for air and spluttered, coughing and groaning.
Connor awoke and saw Edwin writhing on the spot.
He rushed over and sat beside him, his moans growing louder.
The others woke.
“What’s wrong?” asked Lee.
“He’s sick. Real sick,” replied Connor. “I need to change his sling. Sasha, past me that dry shirt.”
She passed it over and took out her water bottle. “I’ll give him some.”
“No, let me,” said Connor.
“It’s ok, I’ve still got some left over.” She opened Edwin’s mouth and let the clear, cool liquid fall between his cracked lips.
Lee couldn’t help but feel hatred. “That’s it, waste it on the dead guy.”
She kept pouring.
“Ok,” said Lee, his voice on edge, “that’s enough.”
She didn’t stop.
“THAT’S ENOUGH!” his voice cracked and she jumped. The baby started wailing. “If you’re gonna waste it, save it for me.” His tone was bitter.
No one replied.
Connor peeled away the first sling. The smell was strong and filled the hot air with a rot-like odour. The sling was yellowed and crusty; the wound was swollen and green around the edges where the bone protruded.
“It hurts,” said Edwin, his voice no louder than a whisper.
“I know, buddy. I’m changing the sling for you. You’ll be alright.” His words were a lie.
They all knew it.
“Why isn’t there a medical bag? A lifeboat should have one,” said Sasha.
Edwin was moaning and Lee watched as Sasha screwed on the bottle cap. Some of the liquid remained inside. His body lusted for it.
“Just shut him up so I can sleep.”
As the groans quietened, they slept fitfully into the night.
Connor slept rough. His mind whirred in the agony of them not being rescued. They were still stranded in the bleak ocean, great waves rose besides them and prepared to fall – fall directly where they slept, washing them away into the nothingness –
He sat up to the sound of splashing.
It was too dark to see.
Someone was stood up, head over the edge of the boat. Water splashed against them.
Connor looked to his side and Sasha stirred in her sleep.
“Lee?” he spoke into the night.
The shadowy figure spun around and remained silent.
“What’re you doing?”
Connor looked around. He could make out the shape of the baby under the tarpaulin sleeping soundlessly.
He looked again. Where was Edwin?
The shadowy figure walked closer and let out a sigh. “Edwin’s gone.”
“The hell do you mean he’s gone?”
Lee looked overboard and remained silent.
“What did you do?” said Connor through gritted teeth.
“What did I do? I helped us. Now we have one less man to feed.”
The tension was palpable and Connor’s weak body filled with rage.
Lee killed an innocent. No one is safe around him.
“W-what happened?” asked Sasha who had just awoken, still dazed.
“Turn the boat around, now! We need to find him.”
“I don’t understand,” fear gripped her. Lee sat silently.
“EDWIN!” It was too dark to see anything in the sea. “EDWIN!” The baby woke up and cried.
“EDWIN!” There was no reply.
They drifted through the night.
“I see Mr Baxter. It must have been hot out there, and the wound, well, it speaks for itself.”
Lee gave a brief nod.
“And what about your fellow cohorts? Connor Murphy and Sasha Reiner?”
Lee blinked hard and stayed silent for several seconds before talking.
“They passed not long after. Dehydration. That’s what it was?”
“Yet you survived?”
“I – I rationed my food and drink from the start. A ship rescued me nearly a day or two after everything ran out. Lucky, I guess.”
No one spoke of rescue anymore. The idea had been abandoned.
The last of the water and food was left to the child.
Sasha was frail and her skin stretched over her bones. Connor’s cheeks were hollowed, his skin burnt and body weak. Lee sat on the opposite end of the boat towards the bow, away from everyone else. He wouldn’t move from there.
They didn’t talk about what happened. Despite it being cold-blooded murder, it kept them alive a bit longer. But was it worth it? Not a ship or plane had crossed their paths.
They didn’t speak of rescue anymore.
Sometimes at night, Connor went under the tarpaulin and wrote in a journal that he found in his pocket.
The pen had to be pressed down hard to work and the pages were spoilt and coated in dry sea salt, but it kept him sane and aware that he was still alive, his own little secret.
A seagull landed on the wooden edge of the boat. It pecked at its own feathers, unaware of the three, still bodies around it.
Connor noticed the bird first, Lee second.
They had an unspoken agreement and mouthed a countdown between them.
They both leapt forwards, hands stretched out and clawed at the air.
Lee missed, diving hard and collapsing on the floor. Connor, with a stroke of luck, clutched the bird’s leg and wrenched it down.
When Sasha woke, she joined the feeding ground.
No seagull’s landed on the boat again.
“I’m going to make the baby's food,” Sasha said.
“I’m hungry too, you know,” said Lee.
“We all are.”
“So why don’t we ditch the kid.”
“If you go anywhere near that boy, I’ll – “
“You’ll what, Connor? I can take the food and water. It won’t fight back. Especially if something were to happen to you two, who would stop me then – “
Connor mustered a roar and staggered towards him in an attempt to hit him, yet Lee remained quick on his feet, despite his poor bodily state.
Lee was expecting Connor’s rash attack; his hand already gripped the wooden oar behind him. With a timed execution, he swung it around himself, devouring what little energy remained in his body.
“Stop, no!” screamed Sasha.
Connor stepped right into the blow. The oar caught him on the side of his head and his body doubled over.
He looked up at Lee, eyes wide, a trembling hand reached to his head. His fingertips were wet with blood and it covered the side of his face like tribal war paint.
Sasha pushed Lee aside who fell back against the boat, panting heavily.
“Connor, it’s ok, you’ll be ok.” Tears welled in her eyes. If he was gone then it meant that it would be her and Lee alone with the child.
It couldn’t be that way.
Connor’s mouth moved, but a not a single word was uttered, instead, there were groans and whimpers.
“I just need something to wrap around your head”
“There were bandages,” said Lee, casually, “in the medical bag. There were plenty actually. Along with pills, cleaning alcohol. I forget the rest.”
“W-what are you talking about?”
“Oh, did I not say? The first night I looked around under the tarpaulin and found a bag full of supplies. I had a feeling we’d be stuck here for a while. I saw the state poor Edwin was in and thought, he’s a goner, why prolong his death?”
“S-so, you threw it away?”
“Of course! Not without taking some necessities I thought I’d need, but I didn’t need them, so they’re gone too. Although, it looks like your friend there could’ve done with them.”
Connor gave one last moan before his breathing stopped.
Sasha held him and rocked back and forth. Tears of fear streamed down her face.
Fear of not being rescued, fear for the safety of the child, fear of being alone with Lee.
He dumped two bodies into the sea that night.
His eyes rested on the child. It was asleep. The last of the water rested by its head.
Lee would save that and eat the biscuits first. But that child, an innocent life left in his hands. After the three passengers, he’d built up an immunity to his guilt.
There was no hope for any of them. Hope was cruel and had no conscience.
Still, he waited until his body couldn’t be deprived any longer.
The boy screamed in the mornings. Lee gave in and eventually made the child the rest of the rations, yet kept himself a mouthful of water.
It sustained him for the next few days. The boy would keep screaming. Lee couldn’t stand it and tied one of the dry shirts around his head to keep the cries muffled.
It helped for a while.
That was until he was certain the cries had stopped completely.
Then there was silence, apart from the groans of his stomach.
The hunger drove him crazy. Sometimes, he’d chew at his nails, right down to the stubs, leaving them bloodied and swollen.
It wasn’t enough.
“Mr Baxter, I’m sorry you had to relive it all. It must have been hard.”
Lee nodded silently, but the detective watched him keenly.
“Is that all?” asked Lee.
“Yes. Apart from one thing, before I let you rest. When you were rescued, the boat was searched. This was found.” He took out a small journal from his pocket. “Do you know what this is?”
“No, I don’t,” his voice calm.
“One of your cohorts kept a journal, Mr Connor Murphy. There’s some interesting stuff in here.”
He began to read:
We don’t feel safe around Lee anymore.
He’d kill, just to keep himself alive a little longer. He did the same to Edwin, he could do the same to us.
I thought about getting rid of him myself, but I just can’t do it.
The detective flicked pages:
The food is almost gone.
We left the rest for the baby.
Lee is on edge and I think he’s gonna hurt someone soon.
He won’t find it if I keep it somewhere hidden.
I hope this is found by safe hands if we’re ever rescued.
“Mr Baxter, you do realise this journal raises questions about the statement you gave to the police.”
Lee nodded and seemed to hold his breath.
“But you failed to mention anything about a child? A baby?”
Lee let out an audible groan and looked detective Marsden in the eyes.
“There was,” his voice was caught in his throat. His lower lip trembled and tears slowly ran down his face. “There was a boy – “
His own wail cut him off. He rocked back and forwards, clutching his knees while begging the detective to forgive him.
Marsden called in a nurse who rushed in with a sedative.
“I’m so sorry,” moaned Lee, “I’m so sorry.”
Marsden stopped the nurse who loomed over his arm. She awaited his ‘go’ signal.
“Mr Baxter, what happened to the baby?”
Lee jerked forwards and threw up over his white sheets.
The nurse leaned in closer, Marsden shook his head.
“Baxter,” his voice echoed inside the room, “what did you do to the baby?”
Lee couldn’t look him in the eye, he shouldn’t be here right now, on this bed, alive.
“What would you have done?”
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Oooh... Some people are capable of doing tragic things to one another, aren't they? Great story! You didn't shy away from the ugliness of what could happen in that situation and it felt completely natural. Great job!