Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#25 (Reprinted from SS #11)



Lifeboat

By Talbot Pratt


When the Centennial Pride sank, it almost took Tobias with it. It might have been better if it had...



The ocean is far, far colder than you could ever have imagined. It literally takes your breath away. You hit the water and start to stroke, but you hardly notice the cold. You have other things on your mind.

Behind you, the foundering schooner rears up like a breaching whale. There is an eerie whistling as air, trapped within, blows out through portholes and hatches, like a final dying sigh. In a moment, it will go down and it will take you with it, if you aren't fast enough. And so you swim. You swim for all you're worth.

And you're worth quite a lot.

For a moment, you feel the water pulling at you, sucking, as the deadly vortex forms around the sinking ship. You begin to slide backwards, helplessly. No! Dear God, no!

But then, in an instant, you are free as the schooner, Centennial Pride, glides smoothly beneath the waves, down, down to its dark watery grave.

And then you are alone -- alone in the middle of the ocean. Dimly, it occurs to you that you are hardly dressed for the occasion. Black tie and coat-tails, cummerbund and cufflinks -- an ensemble more suited to a night at the opera, than a shipwreck. But there were five of you on the schooner, all rich as Croesus, celebrating a business acquisition certain to make you all even richer still. Certain, that is, until a scream of "Fire!" came from below and put the tin lid on your little venture with startling finality.

Then there was smoke, and, then an explosion. The next thing you knew, the schooner itself was pitching at a weird angle and you were diving overboard, diving for your life -- coat-tails and all.

And now, here you are, alone. The others almost certainly went down with the ship. You're sure of that. There was barely time for you to escape.

It is a dark night, illusively lit by a quarter moon on the horizon. Suddenly, by the soft light of that moon, you see it. The schooner's pinnace -- it must have broken free as the ship went down. It is a miracle. Much longer in the water and you would have frozen to death.

Desperately, you swim to the bobbing pinnace and haul yourself up and over the gunwale. You lie a moment in the bottom, coughing and struggling to catch your breath. You can hardly believe your luck. Then, finally, you sit up on one of the rowing benches and survey your salvation.

You find two large oars and, under a bench, there is a package wrapped in oilskin. Opening this, you discover a canteen of fresh water and some food rations. A survival kit. Enough to last several days. Thank God.

Setting down the canteen, you stare out into the darkness, where the schooner sank. Damn, you think. Those were my friends.

Well, perhaps "friends" is too strong a word. Still, the five of you have known each other a good long while, twelve years in fact, ever since that party at Madeleine Perry's to ring in the new century.

You'd hit it off from the start, all of you of one mind, and the combination had taken the world of high finance by storm. Railways, newspapers, the Boer War, there seemed nothing you couldn't turn to your advantage. And now, to see it all end like this? It was more than a tragedy. It was a crying shame.

For a moment, you sit in silent melancholy reflection. Then, from out of the darkness:

You hear splashing.

You straighten as if hit with a jolt of electricity. Ears alert, eyes straining into the night, you listen and search. And then you see him. He must see you at the same moment, because he calls out, sputtering breathlessly.

"Tobias! Thank God! I thought I was done for!"

Reginald Abercrombie III. You'd recognize that balding dome anywhere. He starts to swim toward you, his technique poor, to say the least. He swims like a drowning cat, pawing at the water and raising a flurry of foam just in front. It might almost be comical -- but you aren't laughing.

You watch him come on, hear his relieved (if choking) laughter. And you think about the canteen at your feet.

There's barely water enough to last you a few days. With two of you, you'll have to share the water. Your chances of surviving long enough to be rescued would thereby be proportionately reduced. You do the math.

"I say, old boy, could you throw me a line? I'm not as fit as I once was, you know."

But you don't throw him a line. Instead, you calmly set the oars in the oarlocks, your back towards the prow, and, just as calmly, you start rowing. It is a moment before he notices. His voice reaches you in a startled shout.

"I say, Tobias! Not that way, old man! Over this way! Here I am, over here! Where are you going? My God, come back!"

You keep rowing, grimly forcing yourself to ignore his cries, the horrible sound of his drowning-cat thrashing. Sorry, Reginald, old boy, you think, it's just business. Any one of us would have done the same. Just looking to the bottom line. Nothing personal.

His voice grows steadily fainter with distance, even as hysteria takes hold -- hysteria and exhaustion. More and more, his cries are interrupted as he sinks beneath the surface, only to come up again hacking and coughing, calling to you, pleading, then sinking again.

Then, finally, with a last anguished sob, he falls silent. The splashing stops. An eerie stillness settles in your wake. But you don't stop rowing, not for a good long while after that. You row and you row, and you keep on rowing, until you have left even the memories of his cries far, far behind...

***
Morning comes but you haven't slept. Thankfully, the sun shines bright and warm, taking some of the chill off the autumn air.

You ration the water carefully, aware that each drop consumed now, is another drop which you won't be able to drink later. You take a little bit to eat, but you aren't very hungry. The events in the night have left you mildly depressed, and destroyed your appetite.

Damn that Reginald Abercrombie, you think bitterly. Why couldn't he have simply gone down with the ship, like everyone else? Why did he have to put you in such a unpleasant situation? That was so like him, always making things more difficult than they need be.

Though you keep a keen look out, there is no sign of any other ships. Still, the schooner was sailing in the main shipping lanes. Sooner or later, someone has to happen across you. You just have to survive that long...

Night time comes and the moon peers timidly over the horizon. You settle into the bottom of the pinnace, pulling your dinner jacket close about your shoulders, and try to get some sleep.

When you next open your eyes, the moon has nudged only a little higher in the star-crusted vault. You blink sleepily, yawning, and wish there was enough light to see your pocket watch by.

And then you hear it.

You stiffen. A chill ascends your spine. Slowly, you sit up and stare wide-eyed out into the darkness. It's a dream, it has to be. But, no, you know you aren't dreaming. And yet, it isn't possible.

Is it?

From out of the dark comes the sound of splashing. And not just any splashing. You would recognize that sound anywhere, it is so indelibly imprinted on your memory. It is the same drowning-cat thrashing that Reginald Abercrombie III made. The exact same.

There can be no doubt, the laboured splashing rings clearly out of the night, its source barely a dozen yards off your bow.

Feeling queasy, the night spinning, your eyes strain into the darkness, but even with the moon, there is too little light. And the splashing keeps coming, steadily coming closer and closer. Another minute and you will be able to make him out.

But you don't wait that minute. You don't know how to explain this. It's impossible for him to still be swimming. Anyway, you heard him go down that last time. He drowned, you know he did. Whatever's out there can't possibly be -- but that doesn't make it go away.

With a horrified yelp, you grab the oars and begin rowing again. Swinging the pinnace away from the splashing, you row and you row, frantically, frenziedly even. Dressed as a gentleman, there is nothing gentlemanly about this retreat. To coin a phrase -- you run like a girl.

Gradually, the splashing falls behind, growing dimmer and dimmer, then finally fading away altogether. You row for fifteen minutes more, for good measure, than finally let the oars drop with a double thud. Out of breath, panting, it is a moment before you can muster silence enough to listen again. When you do, you listen with a tense fearful acuity, afraid the horrible splashing will resume, afraid to hear that hideously impossible sound pursuing you implacably out of the dark and frosty night.

But there is only silence in your wake.

A dream? Surely it must have been. Some sort of hallucination, at least. Even if the man hadn't drowned, there was no possible way he could have followed you so far. No, none at all.

But you know it wasn't a dream. Whatever it was, it was very, very real.

Whatever it was...

For the first time, a thought enters your head. A silly thought. A chilling thought. You try to laugh it off, but the sound of your laughter is hollow and false. Ridiculous, you tell yourself. But another voice replies, Really? Is it really?

What if, you find yourself wondering with a shiver, what if Reginald Abercrombie III has come back as a ghost? What if he has come back to haunt me for letting him drown? God knows, if any man had reason, he certainly does, doesn't he?

Suddenly, you find yourself looking around with huge frightened eyes, staring into the darkness of the surrounding black ocean, every nerve fearfully tight. You feel so exposed in this little pinnace, nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide. A ghost? Rubbish. But how else to explain it? How else to explain that horrible --

Suddenly you hear it again.

You straighten with a cry of despair. Your hands form claws before your twisted features.

Out of the darkness, the splashing drifts, faint with distance as yet, but growing quickly louder -- louder as he approaches. Splash, splash, splash -- you can picture him, ludicrously paddling away, the water foaming under his chin, like a drowning cat. Comical. Oh, yes -- a regular scream.

He hasn't given up, then. He's still out there, still coming on, still following you, incessantly following, like death itself.

You don't even wait as long as you did before. Seizing the oars, you row for your life. Stroking wildly, you dig at the black surface of the sea as if digging a grave. Again, the splashing fades away in your wake, but, this time, you don't stop rowing, not until exhaustion forces you to stop. Even then, you only pause long enough to regain your breath and your strength and then you start rowing some more...

***
It must be an hour later that you spot the lights.

You have stopped rowing. You squint. A ship on the horizon, dead ahead.

Unfortunately, it is too far away to hear you were you to call out, and you are too exhausted to row any further. Anyway, you know it would be gone long before you could reach it. You study those distant lights, so near but so far, and curse bitterly.

Then something thumps the bottom of the pinnace.

You don't move. You don't even breathe. It was your imagination, you tell yourself. Certainly, that's all it was.

But you don't move, anyway.

The black, midnight waters are placid. There's hardly a breeze to ruffle the mirror-calm surface. So, when you hear another thump, you can't even tell yourself it was the waves. There are no waves. There's only you, the pinnace, and whatever is under the pinnace.

Only the three of you.

Swallowing past the constriction in your throat, you carefully reach for one of the oars, lifting it quietly from the oarlock -- for all the good it will do you. What good is an oar against a ghost? you ask yourself. And, suddenly, that canteen of water seems a poor reward for this nightmare.

Then, another thump -- this one almost under your feet. Your eyes shoot downward, wide as portholes, brimming with terror. A small sob trembles on your lips. Go away! your mind screams shrilly. Please, please, go away!

But he doesn't go away.

Suddenly, two hands thrust up out of the water. They rise in a glittering explosion, two meaty hands, with rings on the fingers, hands you instantly recognize. They catch hold of the gunwale, nearly capsizing the pinnace, and a balding head follows behind. In the darkness, he is only a vague glistening shadow struggling awkwardly to clamber aboard, but his voice -- his voice bubbles with the salty water that fills his lungs.

"I say, old man, throw me a line, will you?"

You scream and you swing the oar both at the same time. It lands on his bald head with an appalling thud, beating him back down into the water. His hands fall away.

And then, somehow, you get the oar back in its oarlock and you are rowing once again. You thought you were exhausted, thought you couldn't row another stroke.

Boy, were you wrong.

From the darkness behind, you hear that horrible drowned-cat splashing resume. It sounds so harmless, like a child paddling in a pool -- it chills your blood. His voice calls out, echoing in the dark, gurgling wetly: "Throw me a line, old man -- throw me a line, won't you?"

But you don't throw him a line. You didn't throw him a line before, and you're sure as Hell not throwing him one now.

You keep rowing, eyes throwing imploring glances over your shoulder toward the lights of the ship ahead. You have only one thought now -- to reach that ship, to find people, to escape that ghastly splashing horror in your wake.

"Throw me a line, won't you?"

You don't know how long you keep rowing, maybe an hour, maybe more, but terror drives you, and terror doesn't punch a clock. Gradually, to your surprise, you find yourself gaining on the ship. Steadily the gap closes. Then, at last, you stop rowing as your bow nudges against its towering black hull festooned with portholes. Thank God, you think.

You scream at the top of your lungs. "Help me! For God's sake, somebody up there help me!"

But no faces appear at the railing high above. Rowing a bit, you come upon a mooring line hanging down to the water and you find the strength to climb up to the deck. Clambering over the railing, the deck is deserted, but, from somewhere forward there comes music and laughter.

You start toward the merriment -- then turn in surprise at another sound, just in time to see a figure disappear through a doorway.

"You there! Hold on a minute!"

You stagger to the doorway and cross the threshold into darkness.

"Hello?" you say, feeling blindly with outreaching hands. "I need help here. My ship went down and I've been rowing for --"

Something slips past you in the dark. The door slams shut, cutting off what little light there was.

"Hey!"

You grab at the door but it won't open. The bugger locked it.

Abruptly, you hear voices, many voices all shouting at once. There is the thrum of countless feet filling the deck outside and the bedlam rises quickly.

"Hello out there!" you shout, banging on the door. "Can someone open this door?"
But you know no one can hear you, not over all that racket.

And then you notice something else. The handle of the door is wet. Touching a finger to your lips, you taste salt water.

For the first time, an uncomfortable thought enters your head. What if the thing in the water -- you can't actually bring yourself to call it a ghost -- what if it wasn't actually trying to climb aboard the pinnace? What if it was just trying to scare you -- to frighten you into rowing in a certain direction?

But then you stumble backwards, and a string brushes your face, interrupting that particular train of thought. Relieved, you jerk the string, turning on a hanging lightbulb. You find yourself in a storage closet, cluttered with folded deck chairs.

Almost instantly, the light flickers and goes out again.

"Damn."

But you aren't really worried. Not now. Someone will find you eventually. You just have to wait.

And so, in the darkness, you settle down to do just that. After the horror you have been through, you finally feel safe. Sorry, Reginald, old boy, you think, a tad vindictively. You'll just have to catch the next one.

This ship is mine.

Then you recall the name glimpsed on one of the deck chairs.

Oh, yes, Titanic is mine...

The End








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Lifeboat is copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)