This story originally appeared in the Fall 2014 edition of Blight Digest.
Mary took the disinfectant wipe from the smiling server with a reflexive ‘Thank you.’ She rubbed the astringent cloth against her wrists, watching to make sure that Bobby did the same. The line lurched forward, Mary tugged at her son’s hand to keep him apace.
The buffet wasn’t as crowded as it had been earlier in the week, the ship’s roiling probably had upset some tummies. Tired looking crew members stood behind each rack of heat lamps, ready to ladle out lunch. Rumor had it that some people had gotten sick and the cruise line wasn’t taking any chances.
The fat man in front of them scratched at a bright red splotch on his forearm. Tiny flakes of white drifted into the air. ‘Damn,’ Mary thought, ‘That’s a hell of a sunburn.’ Even though she’d already rubbed down Bobby’s shoulders, face and feet with sunscreen she vowed to reapply just in case she’d missed a spot.
She squeezed Bobby’s hand, smiled at him. Somewhere ahead of them, a woman stifled a cough.
“Can I get more fish sticks Mommy?” Bobby asked after she’d already put some on his plate. “Sure thing, sweetie,” Mary said, shifting the tray back towards the food.
They pushed through the excited bustle of families, seated themselves near the large portside window to watch the sunset over the white capped waters. Bobby chomped away happily while Mary shoveled food into her mouth, chewing mechanically. Dinner was the same militantly mundane fare they’d been serving all week. Even so, she must have gained five pounds on top of the twenty pounds she’d put on since Darrell filed for divorce. She had to suck in her stomach to button her pants every morning, fat rolling over her belt.
“Mommy, what’s that’s man doing?”
Mary looked up, aware of a sudden silence. An empty circle had formed around a man near the drink station, cruise guests and staff alike walking backwards to create a bubble. His mouth poured out a cascade of white froth onto his Hawaiian shirt and his mound of pale mashed potatoes. He kept wiping his face with his forearm, fear in his eyes. Every time he tried to speak, a spray of spittle misted all over the sneeze guard and tile floor.
One of the crew members, the cute Caribbean guy who had handed Mary her plate, pushed through the murmuring circle, asked, “Sir, are you ok?”
The man shook his head. He reached for the crew member, his fingertips almost touching. Then the guest spasmed, arms splaying out and back locking to an awful slanted angle. He opened his mouth and vomited a sticky cloud of hazy green particulate.
The dust drifted outward and the room erupted into panicked screams.
Mary stood under the shower head, a spray of too hot water washing over her and Bobby and their clothing. Somewhere far away she heard ‘Oww Mommy, that hurts’ as she dumped her full bottle of hand sanitizer onto Bobby’s head and scrubbed at him with the wash cloth. She didn’t know what was happening, didn’t even quite remember how they’d gotten out of the buffet area in the confusion of bodies and overturned tables. But she had, and then she’d flown down the four flights of stair to her deck; fumbled the keycard into the door. The scattered purse contents lay one the floor where she’d upending her bag to find the Costco-sized bottle of disinfectant.
The only thing Mary knew was that she needed to get Bobby and herself clean.
Later, Mary held Bobby close, each of them wrapped in oversized white towels. Their wet clothes lay in puddled heaps on the balcony. The ‘information’ channel on the room television blared smooth jazz at full volume. The screen displayed onboard time and location off the coast of Mexico but nothing more.
“We’re just gonna wait for the Captain to tell us what happened, honey. Everything’s going to be ok.”
Even with all the noise, she could hear, or maybe feel, people running around the deck above her.
The ‘Bing Bong Bing’ noise sounded, signaling an official announcement. The voice of the Captain came so loud Mary had to turn down the TV to make sense of it. The words spilled out of the speakers all around.
“Uhhh hello guests. Apparently there was an umm incident in the Beach Blanket Buffet earlier this hour. We just wanted to reassure you guests that we’ve had the shipboard Doctor go up and figure out exactly what happened and we’ll be sure to get everyone they help they need. We’ll, we’ll umm be sure to keep you all abreast of the situation and get you the most accurate information possible.”
The audible silence hung over them for a few seconds more before someone cut off the mic’s feed, returning the channel’s audio to the Muzak. Mary kissed Bobby’s head and looked out her porthole window.
In the distance, in a scrap of dark red sky below the blue black of night, glittering helicopters approached.
Dressed in fresh clothes–valuables and medication thrown into the rolley luggage–Mary pressed the ‘up’ button for the elevator. Her fingers wrapped tightly around Bobby’s. After a minute, the doors opened to reveal a tiny room filled with people. Mary moved forward, tried to press herself into the mass. Someone in the back coughed, and a man to the right used his wrist to cover a red blotch on his neck.
Mary backed out of the elevator, deciding that the stairs might be safer. She needed to get up top, that’s where the helicopters would pick them up. Why else would they even be sending so many copters?
When she found the others, it seemed like they’d had the same idea.
Two flights up, the stairs had become choked with guests. Frustrated tourists in button-up shirts stamped their feet, wanting to climb higher but blocked by the mass. A girl about Bobby’s age itched at her knee.
Mary backed down the way she’d come, moved towards the aft of the ship as the luggage and six year old bounced along behind, struggling to keep up with her. She heard crying and arguing behind the doors she passed.
She had better luck on the lesser used aft staircase; she reached the upper deck but was unable to move out onto the open deck because others stood in her way. Stopped by the crowd of people, she put her hands on her knees and gasped for breath on deck eighteen as yet more guests walked up behind her. A room dominated by big Plexiglass windows protected the stairwell from the elements outside, every square inch of which was filled with murmuring people standing on their tippy toes to see what was happening outside. Mary tried to push past the others, and only received scowls and hip checks for her efforts.
The helicopters rose above the cruise ship, hung in the sky.
People shouted to be heard over the roar of the engines, raising their arms. The doors of the floating helicopters opened, and black-clad gas-masked figures moved out to grab onto the rails. With an almost dreamlike slowness, a rocket arced from one of the helicopters towards the mast with all the antenna-type thingies.
The shouting stopped but the helicopter engines continued to roar.
The men in the helicopters turned their automatic weaponry down onto the cruise guests massed on the deck.
In all the noise, the gunfire was nearly inaudible.
The terrified press threw Mary backwards. Everything was a screaming cacophony, and in the kaleidoscope of limbs and faces Mary watched men, women and children jump or be thrown off the rails to the waiting sea below.
Still the men in the helicopter fired onto the crowd.
Pushed and buffeted by the stampede, Mary felt her grip on Bobby’s hand break as she tumbled backwards down the stairs.
Dazed from impact, Mary cursed and punched and scratched screaming ‘BOBBY!’ as she fought against the press. Step by step, she climbed the stairs. She’d bitten her lip, had to clear out her mouth of blood and spittle.
She reached the top of the stairs, the room nearly empty now. Stepping over the broken, bleeding people she found Bobby huddling against the wall closest to the elevators.
“Mommy!” he cried, eyes full of tears. She scooped him up, sobbing, and hugged him tight. Mary ran to the stairs, holding her child to her chest when the elevator dinged open. She looked towards the thing and back down the stairs, sprinted to the elevator. She pushed ‘4’ and jammed her finger onto the ‘close’ button over and over again.
As the doors closed, she saw the figures in the helicopters drop rope towards the top deck. Men slid down the lines towards the surface of the ship.
Sealed shut, calypso Muzak and her own breathing filled the descending silence of the empty elevator.
“What the fuck, what the fuck…” Mary said. With her off hand she reached for her cell phone, realizing that she’d left it with her purse in her room. Damn thing probably wouldn’t work anyway, she couldn’t imagine that whoever was killing them would let them phone friends and family while it was happening.
The elevator moved down towards the fourth deck. Mary had a vague plan of getting to where the life boats were kept, maybe if they released them all at once they might have a chance of reaching the shore before they were shot.
On deck twelve, the doors opened to an older man motorized wheel chair.
Mary didn’t want to even think about what she looked like right now because the man’s mouth literally popped open when he saw her.
“Just what the hell is happening???” he said.
“Top deck. Helicopters. They’re killing us, oh god they’re killing us.” Mary gasped, struggling to be speak over a fresh wave of sobs. “I’m sorry,” she said, pressing the door close button once again. The man sat outside, too stunned to try and wedge himself in.
On the deck floor, the doors opened again to confusion. People ran, screaming. One of the life boats launched. In the corner by the lounge, a woman fell coughing dust. There was barely any space, but Mary pushed out anyway. She passed Mrs. Johnson, who she’d met at the shopping seminar, saying what sounded like “Where’s Wendy, where’s Wendy?”
More and more people collapsed, coughing, and the air began to grow hazy in particulate. Mary put her free hand to Bobby’s mouth, held her breath. She looked this way and that, stutter stepping until a fresh peal of gunfire broke her indecision.
She rushed towards the side rail, picked up Bobby. Mary tossed her son over the rails, climbing to follow after him.
Hitting the water was like hitting cold concrete.
Mary bobbed in the water, Bobby’s eyes pits of blackness lit only by the starlight. She swam away from the boat, heard the engines cut out. After a few minutes, fires began to sprout along the boat.
Mary moved them towards a yellow life boat, paddling awkwardly with one hand to drag Bobby behind her. She stopped swimming when a spotlight from the sky illuminated the craft and bullets tore into the people inside.
When the light moved outward, probing, she floated facedown and held her breath–coaxing Bobby to do the same, praying that he would understand what she wanted-—in order to mimic the litter of corpses flung from the boat. After a minute the ’copters moved on.
They treaded water, watching. Eventually the cruise ship disappeared into the water, and what felt like an eternity later the men and the copters left, leaving the mother and her son alone.
Mary found a floating suitcase, and clung to it with Bobby.
Far in the distance, they could make out the peaks of land … mostly by the absence of starlight. Mary began to kick her feet, moving the two of them west towards the shore. She’d kick and kick, kick all night if she had to make sure Bobby would be safe. Even in the summer warmth, she could feel the water cooling her skin.
“Come on, son, you have to kick with me.” She said, not because it would aid her in moving towards land but just to keep him warm.
Bobby looked at his mother, but started moving his sandal clad feet through the black water.
“It’s going to be ok baby, we’re going to be ok.” Mary said, spitting to empty her mouth of the sea water.
“We’re going to be ok.”