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There was no warning. One moment the old freighter cruised on a gentle sea toward a narrow, rocky shoreline backed by towering green mountains whose summits were cloaked by silky bands of stratus cloud. The next, the temperature plummeted and the cloud rolled down, metamorphosing into a dense, impenetrable fog. For days only a gentle easterly had dusted across the bow, playfully riffling the crew’s hair and carrying just enough of a chill that the men were grateful for the covering of their threadbare sweaters. Now a hard southerly shrilled across the deck and the ship yawed violently to port as the first rising wave struck the starboard flank. Though he was no sailor, Kim Hoai knew they were in trouble. His instinct was confirmed when the next wave slammed the 120-foot-long ship over so sharply that its portside gunnel was almost broached by the foaming white water.
Clutching the handle of the bridge’s starboard door for support, Kim heard the fear in Captain Liou’s voice as he snapped an order that set the man at the wheel spinning it sharply to bring the ship around to face the rushing waves. Even Cheng, wearing his trademark black leather jacket over a white shirt and stonewashed jeans, was pale faced, white knuckles locked on the edge of the map table. His wide eyes were fixed on Liou’s back. You brought us to this, Kim thought. Despite your guns and knives, you too are powerless. The ship started to come about; engines roaring, throttle opened wide. The bang of a hard impact, followed by a violent shudder that coursed down the length of the ship, and then the rattling vibration caused by the straining engine abruptly ceased. The only noise remaining was the screaming wind and the hiss of water sloshing across the outside deck as the steep waves broke over the starboard side. In thirty-six days of sailing there had been three engine failures. Each had taken at least two hours to repair. They did not have two hours. There was a coastline and they surged toward it, carried by the current and the rising fury of the waves.
The captain yelled more orders, something about rudders. Kim wrenched the door open and dragged himself onto the catwalk, staggered downstairs to the door that led below decks. A wall of water cascaded across the lower deck and bitingly cold spray drenched him. Wearing only a white T-shirt, black denims, and sneakers, Kim was left shivering almost uncontrollably. The boat heaved perilously over on its port side. Kim grabbed the slippery rail and hung on grimly. Directly below him was nothing but the swirling madness of sea. With a shudder and a shriek of twisting steel the ship righted itself. Kim sensed it turning slightly, riding the waves so that its stern faced the next approaching wave. They were shooting forward with the waves, the rusty freighter transformed into a surfboard. Heading toward shore. Through the fog, Kim could dimly see the wildly bucking outline of the bow. Anything could be out there directly ahead of them. If the stern bore up too high on a following wave the bow would cut so deeply into the sea that the old ship might flip. Or, given its dilapidated condition, just break into pieces.
There was very little time. Kim made his way inside, lurching wildly from one side of the hallway to the other as he staggered toward the radio room. In the cargo hold, from which the stench of unwashed bodies, spilled urine, vomit, and fear had increased with each passing day, things must be far worse. No time to think of them now. The radio room was deserted. Kwan should have been there. Or one of the others. Someone should send a distress signal. Kim was only a cook. He knew nothing of radios. The satellite phone. A minute, not even that. A handful of words then, no more. His fingers fumbled with the controls. The slip of paper was in his pocket, as it had been since he had scribbled down the information that day in the square in Phnom Penh, but he knew the number by heart. Had looked at it so many times. He waited, prayed to a God that had betrayed them all long ago, this, His final joke.
A voice, surprisingly casual, foreign, yet familiar, speaking in the cadence of one talking to everyone and yet to no one in particular. English language. She must be saying to leave a message. Surprisingly, he had not prepared for this, never even considered it. All the words that had been in his mind to speak were Chinese, Khmer, or French and he had always imagined her listening attentively and joyously to his words, then answering in French. He knew only a few faltering, utterly inappropriate words of English. He could not speak to her in the language of America. “This is Cousin Kim,” he was acutely aware of how timid he sounded as he resorted to Khmer, the language he had been forced to speak for so many years, instead of the French or Chinese which had come more naturally, the languages of the family home. “I tried to reach you. But, my cousin, it is not to be. Sorry. Live for us.” What else was there to say? There was no time to explain the hope the little card found in the square that day had engendered. To describe the reason he was here? Or even where here was? All that was meaningless now. Kim broke the connection. Let her live. She was the last one.
Behind him a noise. Kwan staggered from the head, pale faced, bile running putrid yellow down his shirt from a gasping mouth. “You should give a Mayday signal,” Kim said. The two of them were abruptly thrown the length of the corridor to crash with sickening force into the wall at the other end. The starboard door flew open way back up the tunnel of the corridor, which Kim realized was now almost directly above them, and a solid mass of water hammered down onto the two entwined men. Capsizing, Kim thought. Just as suddenly as the water suffocated them, however, it boiled away and the world turned mostly right side up.
Kwan rolled off of him, screaming. The man’s right arm was pulled far back from his shoulder. He fled down the corridor, ignoring Kim’s cries for him to send a Mayday alert. Kim staggered after him, then, as the bow dug deep into the sea and suddenly chucked upward, hung onto a fire extinguisher bolted to the wall. Down the corridor, Kwan blasted up into the ceiling like a rag doll and there was a frightening crack. No time to check. Kim threw himself into the radio room and yanked at the handset. How to send? He had no idea. He squeezed the button on the handset like they did in war movies and shouted: “May Day. May Day.” There was a knob on the set in front of him that looked like it could turn through channels and he remembered something about a distress channel. Perhaps he should turn the knob and try to find that channel. As his hand reached out for the knob, Kim sensed a presence behind him. Looking over his shoulder, Kim stared into Cheng’s dull, flat eyes.
“Get away from it,” Cheng snapped in Mandarin. He held a long, thin-bladed knife like those used by fishermen to gut their catch. Kim placed the handset gently on the table. The radio room was too small for him to move away. Cheng’s breath was warm and bitterly scented by the endless cigarettes he smoked.
“We should call for help,” Kim said. He loathed the quaver he heard in his own voice. It reminded him of past failures of courage, of bowing to other killers.
Then the ship clanged hard against something immovable, there was a terrific grinding and Kim slammed into Cheng, sending him sprawling across the corridor. Kim popped out of the radio room like a cork from a bottle and tumbled dizzyingly down the narrow hallway toward an open door that was swinging wildly back and forth. Another wrenching twist that bounced him up and down on the floor and the ship was at least momentarily right side up. Kim groaned, found his feet. Cheng was there, the knife still in his hand. “The radio,” Kim said, and moved toward the cabin. It was, he believed, their only hope.
“No,” Cheng barked and the knife flashed. Kim felt a cold shock slice across his abdomen from just above his navel to the outside of his right ribcage. There was the grating sound of steel on bone as the knife scoured along one rib and then swiped out of him and rang against the wall of the corridor as the ship again heeled over. Kim was once more bowled down the corridor and this time he allowed the momentum to carry him all the way to the doorway, kicked the door back with one leg, and threw himself out on the deck. Water boiled around his waist and across the deck before him as he managed to grasp a swinging line of rope with one hand.
He could hear a terrible chorus of screaming voices coming from the bolted down hold. They would die in there. He hesitated, the thought of trying to cross the open deck terrifying. The fear, too, of Cheng catching up to him. Kim gauged the moment, waited until the deck rolled almost level and dashed across the twisting deck to fall gasping on top of the hold cover. It was large and heavy, requiring the shoulders of several men just to budge it. Kim’s strength was fading, bleeding away through the wound in his stomach. There was only one thing he could do for them. Kim grasped the slick, wet bolt on one side of the hatch and undogged it. Crawled to the other end of the hatch and worked the bolt there loose. Then, although he was sure the wind and racket being made as the ship lunged over or up onto something must drown the sound out, he hammered a fist up and down on the hatch to draw their attention toward it. If enough of them pushed together, they could lift the hatch free. Then they would have some chance. As much as any of them did.
Kim imagined the noise coming from under the ship’s hull was the shrieking sound of steel against unyielding rock. We are aground, he thought. Cousin, I tried to reach you. He cupped the little slip of paper with her name, address, and phone number in his hand. When the next wave broke across the deck and hammered against him, Kim let go, allowing the sea to carry him toward eternity.