The room swirls around me with groans of shock and sick horror.
“He’s gone. He’s gone. He’s gone,” Jesse keeps repeating, hunched over on the floor with the wall against his back, his hands clenched into trembling fists at his temples.
“How could this happen…?” I say in a frail whisper.
“You. You let it happen,” Jesse says without looking up.
“Jesse, please don’t blame me for this, I can’t–”
“What, like you blamed those others for leaving your husband behind? It’s the same thing, isn’t it?”
“I lost Walter too, Jesse. I’ve lost everyone. I’m hurting, too,” I say, pleading.
“You. It’s always about you. Do you ever stop to think about anyone else?”
“That’s not fair, Jesse. I didn’t ask to be–”
“No, it isn’t fair! After all my parents did for you, after all they sacrificed!” Jesse is yelling now, jabbing an accusing finger in my face.
“After all your parents did for me? And what about you? You abandoned them years ago! Didn’t even bother contacting them until the very end when you were out of options. You call me selfish! What makes you think you even deserve a spot on this ship?” I hiss.
We glance up, alarmed at the size of the crowd surrounding us, a circle of disturbed and anxious faces wondering whether to intervene. No one speaks. Jesse backs away from me, tumbling through the crowd and disappearing in the mass of bodies.
There’s a rumbling bellow as the ship’s foghorn lets out a double cry. The stragglers from the last truckload of evacuees clamber aboard as the lights dim by a fraction and our vessel begins to move. I turn to the window as the harbor slips quietly away, almost peacefully, but for the ghostly black cloud mushrooming in the distance where the explosion occurred.
Below us, spindly gangplanks retract and disappear into the sides of the ship. I stare numbly at the docks, where an angry mob rushes from a break in the fence, jeering and screaming at us with wild abandon. Some throw rocks and bottles. A few plunge into the water to give unthinking chase. Rabid animals in a dark place beyond sanity’s reach.
The humidity spikes as the coast fades behind us beyond the wake. The seas are choppier out here, though we can barely feel the swells in a ship this large. White bundles of foam spill like cotton from the wavetips as the wind howls by. Looming clouds blacken and swirl.
“Brothers and sisters,” says a somber, tired voice over the PA system. “Welcome aboard the Cornelia. We’re glad you’ve made it here safely.” A long pause, a search for words. “We know you’ve all made tremendous sacrifices, but it will be worth it, in the end. Continue to stand firm… According to our weather data, we’ll be skirting around a tropical storm early this afternoon. The seas will be rough. Keep movement around the ship to a minimum to prevent injuries…”
The voice drones on for a few minutes but my mind is elsewhere, somewhere back on shore with Walter and the other unfortunate souls at the facility. Or with Luke, wherever he is.
I inch my wheelchair closer to the glass window and lean my cheek against it, feeling its coolness and the vibration of rain droplets as they pummel the other side. The engines hum a low frequency into my head and it’s something like comfort.
I close my eyes and try to think of calmer times. Before the tribulation began, perhaps. Back when Luke and I were still together, when he was inching his way towards a promotion. But even then, all I could envision at night during those long graveyard patrol shifts was the dreaded call from Captain Pryce or one of Luke’s buddies at the station. Hello Mrs. Harding. Are you sitting down? We have some bad news. You see, there was an armed robbery… Would you be able to come down to the morgue…?
And of course there was Luke’s first real brush with death. That kid that he killed at the pharmacy. Just a bottle of Oxycotins. That’s what he’d died–and almost killed–for. Then the subsequent nightmares. Luke flailing in bed, his side of the sheets drenched with cold sweat as he relived the horror, waking up, swearing he could still feel the bullet lodged in his shoulder, stumbling around our apartment, rooting through drawers for a pocket knife to inspect the wound… Horrors upon horrors.
Was there ever a time when things were right? When life was peaceful and perfect? As far back as my mind goes, all I can remember is gloom. The light at the end of the tunnel only appeared after I met Chelsea and Walter, and now they’re both gone…
“Amy Harding?” asks a voice. I turn to see a man in a wet raincoat, hair damp and plastered to the sides of his face, deep wrinkles creasing his features into a permanent frown.
“Can you come with me, please?”
“Ok. Is something wrong?”
“We’re not sure. But there’s someone on the radio, and he’s asking to talk with you.”
“He says he’s your husband.”
“Luke, is that you?” a voice bursts through the crackle of static like a sunray through rainclouds.
“Amy?” I say, not ready to believe, not ready to expend too much hope.
“Oh Luke, where are you! What happened! Are you safe?” she asks, voice shaking on the line. I hesitate as a sheet of paper slides across the table in front of me. Meade’s finger taps the words silently, his look stony. FISHING BOAT. CAROLINA COAST.
“I… I’m on a fishing boat. Off the Carolina Coast…”
“A fishing boat! But how? Marc said you were shot and captured by soldiers, and–”
“Marc? Marc and Ashley? Are they there with you now? Are they safe?” I ask, straying from the script as Meade and Admiral Hawkins exchange unsteady glances.
“…Yeah, they’re all here. We’re safe, Luke. How did you find me?” More words pointed out on paper.
“It’s a long story, babe, but… I was able to escape. Again.”
“But you were shot? How serious is it? Are you ok? Baby, I miss you so much, I…” the words come quickly. She’s sobbing now, and it’s impossible to hold my tears back. I can visualize Amy cradling the microphone as we talk, her voice warm and full of love despite the static interference from the storm and the coldness of electronic communication.
“I’m ok, babe. I’m ok. I miss you too. What about Walter and Chelsea? Are they with you? Are they all ok?”
“Chelsea’s here with me, but… Walter… he’s gone. There was an explosion. It was an attack…”
“I’m so sorry, babe,” I say, feeling the anger and the hate swell again in my chest. The hate for being so helpless and so far away, for not being able to hold Amy in this crucial moment. Anger at knowing that Walter has been taken. He never deserved this. He’s a casualty in a twisted war waged by criminals in uniform with endless resources and no one but God to check their hands.
I glance up at the faces of my captors, both clearly unsurprised by news of the attack. Almost smug, I think. Smug and callous. Meade leans forward and slides the paper closer. Coordinates are written in large blocks letters at the bottom of the page. It’s the last part of my message, the most crucial.
They’re lying, of course. There will be no capture of suspects for interrogation. They plan to sink the ship, maybe while my wife is still on board. My message to them, these coordinates, is just to get the target where they want it. I’m no expert on naval vessels, but I can guess by the Admiral’s total lack of concern for the building fury of the storm outside that this ship is enormous–perhaps a destroyer, maybe even an aircraft carrier. They’re armed to the teeth and in no way interested in taking hostages. They’ll shoot without question. And I am their trigger.
“I need you to listen carefully, Amy. Do you have a pen?” A pause. Noises in the background, the shuffling of faraway things.
“Ok. What is it, Luke? Is everything all right?”
“Just fine, babe. I’m going to give you some coordinates, as in latitude and longitude. Got it?”
“Uh, ok, sure. But what for?”
“Just write it down, ok babe? Make sure you get it right. Latitude: thirty-six point four eight. Longitude: minus seventy-three point five nine. Can you repeat it back to me?” She does. No mistakes.
“What’s this for? What am I supposed to do–”
“Just listen, baby. I love you so much. I always have. There’s never been anyone else and there never will be. You understand? I’m sorry for doubting you or your friends. You made the right choice, Amy, and–”
Meade and the Admiral lean another inch in my direction, scowls forming on their faces, their eyes boring into mine. It all comes down to this moment.
“Luke, slow down, what are you saying?”
“Please, just listen. I want you to take those coordinates to the captain of the ship you’re on. Can you do that for me?”
“Uh, ok. I guess. And then what?”
“Tell him that whatever happens, get as far away from those coordinates as possible. Do you understand Amy? DO NOT GO THERE! THIS MEANS YOUR L–”
The words stick in my throat as a terrific pain explodes from the back of my eye sockets. I crumble to the cold, metallic floor of the radio room, the wires and cables dangling over my head like jungle vines, and everything goes black.
“Luke! Are you there? LUUUUKE!” I scream into the headset, hearing only the whine of static and feedback on the other end. I try for another five minutes without response. Frustrated, I rip the headset away from me and toss it back onto the table.
“What did he say?” one of the brothers asks. He’s the one with the raincoat, the one who fetched me just minutes ago with news of my husband’s message. Brother Michaels. There are five or six others in the room now, all huddled around me carefully, arms crossed, leaning inwards, waiting. Brother Harris is one of them. Marc is another. I think for a few moments before answering.
“He said… He said he was on a fishing boat off the coast. He said he was ok. Then he gave me these coordinates, told me to tell the captain to stay far away,” I say, holding up the scrap of paper for them to see.
“Not far from here. Not far at all,” says one of the men, grey hair swept down over his wide-eyed stare.
“How far?” someone else asks.
“Less than a hundred nautical miles north, I’d say. Three, maybe four hours away.”
“Amy, did Luke tell you why we had to avoid this particular spot?” Marc asks.
“No, he didn’t have a chance to. Something happened.”
“Maybe a bad signal. Could be this storm,” Brother Michaels suggests. I give my head a vigorous shake.
“No, I don’t think so. He sounded scared.”
“I know my husband. It takes a lot to get him that way, but… He was terrified. Not for himself, but for me. For us. I think someone was there with him, telling him what to say. I don’t think he delivered the message he was supposed to. So they cut him off.”
“Those men who captured him,” Marc says, his voice trailing off. He takes a step back from the circle to look out at the brewing storm. The rain droplets are thick and heavy and rattle against the glass windows.
“This is when you were boarding the train, right Marc?” Brother Harris asks thoughtfully, his eyes hard and serious.
“Yeah. He took a bullet in the leg for us. Without him, my wife would’ve never made it out of there alive.”
“It all adds up, then,” Brother Harris says with a grimace. “We have to assume he’s still their captive. Maybe they let him on the radio thinking he could get us to head right into some kind of trap.”
“No way he’s on a fishing boat, that’s for sure,” says the brother with the hair in his eyes as he glances out the window behind him. “Not in this storm. It’d be suicide.”
“Then we avoid those coordinates like he said,” brother Michaels says with a questioning look around the circle of men.
“What about my husband, then?” I ask feebly. The brothers cast me pitying glances or avoid my stare completely.
“I’m sorry, Amy, but it’s just too dangerous. Luke risked… who knows what… to send us this message. We have no reason to doubt him. We’d be foolish not to heed his warning.”
“Your husband could have very well just saved the lives of thousands on this ship,” Marc says, crouching next to me. “Jehovah won’t forget it. Just like I won’t forget all that Luke did for us back at that train.”
“Jehovah knows how to deliver people, Amy,” Brother Harris says, reaching over to grip my arm. “Keep your faith in him. Our deliverance is near.”