At The End Of The World – Snippet 06

July 6

It turns out that Chloe had problems in school. Discipline problems, mostly, but they spilled over into her academics. If she works too long, or runs into a dead end, she gets tense, which means she gets snippy and then resentful if you try to keep her at it.

Frankly, she’s okay at math. In fact, she’s better than average at almost everything. It’s her attitude that sucks. On the first day, she was so hostile that I figured I’d better start by finding her comfort zone. So I asked her what subject she liked best when she was in school.

“Gym,” she answered without batting a lash. And they are very long lashes.

Okay, I should have seen that coming. “So what made everything else so crappy? A school full of lousy teachers?”

She shook her head. “No. I just don’t like to re — to work.”

I shrugged and didn’t let on how I noticed that, at the last minute, she’d shifted away from saying “I just don’t like to read.” Instead, I got her started on the material we had to cover for navigation: basic math. At which she was okay, once I walked her through it. But when I asked her to go over some written instructions about procedures, we didn’t get anywhere.

We stopped early and I went to find the captain. Who was apparently waiting for me in his cabin. “Sir, I’m not sure that Chloe is going to prove the best choice for a back-up navigator.”

He folded his long, thin arms, and leaned back. “Is that a fact?” His tone was mild, almost amused.

Everything became a lot more clear. “So you already knew that she –“

“Quiet. My question was rhetorical. And yes, I still think she’ll be a good navigator. And yes, I do think you’ll be able to teach her to read. And no, I don’t bloody care that it will take longer, or that you’re likely to consider suicide before it’s over.” The last was hyperbole. I think.

“Yes, sir, but –“

“– But why is it worth all the trouble? Because, if you haven’t noticed, she’s healthy, reasonably smart, and jolly well the most aggressive of you all. Traits which mark her as a survivor.”

“A . . . survivor, sir?”

“Yes. The sort of person who will be useful in any situa — in any walk of life. Just needs a bit of work, a bit of fixing, to her education.”

That was the first time that I didn’t just suspect the Great Ghoul of the Ocean-Sea was bullshitting me: I knew it. Something was wrong. Really, big-time wrong. My palms suddenly felt cold. I couldn’t call the captain on it, but I needed to find out why it was so important that Chloe was a survivor. “Well, I’ll do my best, sir. Any particular subjects you want me to push her toward, in addition to the navigation?”

He speared me with his eyes. “Don’t be so clever, lad. I’m not her — what do you call them in the States? — her ‘guidance counselor.’ But you should know this: I get a file on each of you from the charter company.”

I couldn’t keep my eyebrows from raising.

“Nothing particularly revealing, usually. But in her case –” He shook his head and leaned forward. “Some of you come from pretty hard backgrounds. We get a little extra information on those. Just in case.” He waited for me to nod before he went on. “Her parents never married. Split up when she was young. Father tried, but fell down a bottle — the way only an Inuit can, according to the report. The mother either started as or became an addict; wasn’t even in Alaska, let alone Juneau, half of the time.” He stood, which, since it was his cabin, made it pretty clear that my time was up. “She had to raise — and protect — herself,” he muttered. “I just want her to have the tools she’ll need. For the future.”

Until today, I had never heard anyone utter the word ‘future’ like it was part of a eulogy for the present.

July 11

We should have been at our current location weeks ago, but the captain’s insistence on making us competent sailors has cost us speed and time. A few of us have wondered, out loud, how we’ll get back home when we’re supposed to. He just looks at the mounting swells beyond the bow and, after a few moments, recites the same tired explanation, “We’ll worry about that when Tierra del Fuego is behind us.”

Which is really no explanation at all. Which everyone else noticed, as well.

We’ve also noticed that he doesn’t hang on to the radio the way he used to. Now, he keeps it off. And it’s been almost a week since we’ve seen another ship, even though the Chilean coast is just beyond the eastern horizon.

A month ago, when I first noticed that the captain was starting to say some dire stuff, everyone else thought I was nuts, that there was no need to talk about how he might be acting a little hinky.

Now, they don’t talk about anything else.

July 17

So today, as soon as Tierra del Fuego disappeared behind us, the captain tried to raise Port Stanley, capitol of the Falklands. What he got back was fevered gibberish. While it lasted. He turned the dial, retuned, tried to raise our destination: King Edward Point, the small sub-Antarctic station the Brits maintain on South Georgia Island.  No reply. 

He turned off the radio slowly, then sat back. I waited for what was, according to the clock above the wheel, slightly more than three minutes. When he spoke, he did not look over at me. “Alvaro, we’re going to keep trying those stations. So, until someone replies, we’re not going to tell the others what we just heard — or didn’t. Your mates are far too twitchy already.”

I just nodded. Which made me complicit in agreeing to what he was really saying: “we’re going to keep this between the two of us until and unless there’s proof that the whole world has gone to shit.” Or as he would have said, “has gone pear-shaped.”

“Next steps, sir?” I asked.

He looked at me. “You don’t rattle easy, do you, Alvaro?”

“I try not to, sir.”

“That’s good.” From him, this was unthinkably high praise. “Do you know how to fish?”

“I know there’s a hook involved. Other than that, not a clue, sir.”

His jaw seemed to experience a momentary tic: whether that was a spasm of disappointment or amusement, I couldn’t tell. “Well, find someone who does. I suspect Chloe will have some experience. Tell them to meet me astern at 1400. We’re going to go off prepared foods for a while.”

“I see, sir. Anything you want moved into the ship’s locker?” Which meant, effectively, placed under lock and key.

He nodded. “Vitamins. Bottled water. Canned goods. Spare batteries.” He stood. “There will be more. But we will take this one step at a time. Eventually, we’ll need to collect any personal medical supplies — ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin — and anything else we might need to ration.” He finally looked at me. “Where’s your family, Alvaro?”

“My mom is in England. On business. Mostly. She’s my only family.”

He nodded, walked to the door: beyond it, the grey South Atlantic tossed fitfully, as if, far below, thousands of whales were having bad dreams. “From now on, whenever I’m not using it, the radio is unplugged and off limits. You understand.”

“I do, sir. And yes, sir.”

He went through to the weather deck looking like he had aged another ten years.