CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE BY COMMITTEE (22)

In the artificially muted sunshine of the Islander Express ’s passenger cabin you step away from Ernesto with a slight and manufactured grin and after a moment Pauline comes back to your side. You go and sit down on the front row of the port-side blue upholstery of the airplane-like seats and Pauline sits next to you and leans forward with her elbows on her skinny knees and the black-covered spiral notebook held loosely in one hand. Before you under the cartoon-emblazoned beach towel is Mrs. Shorter’s body and you look at it for a long while, the immobile shape of her turned into bright terrycloth pastels, the delicate outline of her old-woman’s form muted and abstracted into minute hills and valleys. You can tell through the folds of the cloth that her hands are joined simply on her chest like at a viewing, her own elbows heavy on the thin carpeting of the passenger cabin. There is a faint rush of forced air from overhead.

‘Pauline,’ you say, ‘What am I doing.’

‘I saw that guy’s clipboard,’ she says eagerly. ‘I couldn’t like make out everything though. But it was a crossword puzzle. Does that help you? It was torn out of a newspaper or whatever.’

You are still looking at Mrs. Shorter’s body. It is very still. You feel the slow rocking of the boat beneath you and it seems somehow immense, exhausted, unending. A Sisyphean motion. ‘Go find Drew,’ you say to her. ‘He’s on the open-air deck up above. You two can puzzle out whatever you want.’

‘Are you okay?’ she says.

You stand. It seems a long way down to your feet in their cheap flip-flops. ‘I’m going to talk to the daughter,’ you say.

You step out onto the bow with Pauline beside you. She smiles at you encouragingly and turns and heads up the ladder to the left. You watch her go and turn and see Gavin grinning at you. Behind him is the woman with the young boy in the plaid shorts—the woman is peering at you—and over Gavin’s left shoulder, at the bulwark, Mrs. Shorter’s daughter and her boyfriend are exactly where they were the last time you saw them.

‘Guy’s a nut, right?’ Gavin says. You assume he’s talking about Ernesto, inside.

‘Gavin,’ you say, ‘Mrs. Shorter’s purse is missing. It’s a clue. It’s somewhere on this boat. I need you to find it. Keep it quiet.’

He winks at you and raises one long arm and places his hand on your shoulder. ‘For God and country,’ he says, and heads straight past you and into the passenger cabin.

You shake your head. You look up at Mrs. Shorter’s daughter’s back, the boyfriend’s hand flat upon it, and you wish, somewhat remotely, that you had your notepad and pen with you, if only to hide behind. You approach the two of them at the bulwark and ignore the gaze of the woman with her son.

‘Excuse me,’ you say. Your voice squeaks.

The boyfriend turns first and you get your first real look at him. He is average height, scrawny, with a large adam’s apple that is only emphasized by the dark two-day stubble swirling along his neck and jaw. He has sandy blond hair and a hollow look about the eyes despite his squinting into the sunlight. His hand is still squarely on his girlfriend’s back and you see the tendons stand out a little as he takes in who you are.

‘I was wondering if you’d make your way over here,’ he says. His voice is sandpapered-down, the sort of voice that comes with a long history of soft sarcasm.

Mrs. Shorter’s daughter turns her head and regards you over her shoulder. Both of her hands are holding tightly onto the bulwark railing that she’s sitting on and her arms form a gentle pyramid. ‘Fuck off,’ she says quietly.

You raise both of your hands, the fingers spread open. ‘I’m trying to help,’ you say.

‘Don’t,’ she says. She turns back to the ocean, the bright blue waves.

‘Listen,’ you say, ‘I’m sorry. I want to help. Let me explain.’

Neither of them says anything although the man continues to glower at you. You decide to interpret this liberally as invitation to continue and you swim into your story—the open-air deck above, the old woman smiling kindly at you, the tears in her eyes, the mass movement down to the bow, the queasy feeling of identifying a body bobbing in the Pacific. You do not attempt to proclaim your innocence but rather to lay out in simple terms the events as they’ve occurred to you. As you speak your voice take on an unpleasant plaintive quality in your ears which you are unable to overcome. You feel your eyebrows raised in apology.

You stop after detailing Joan’s ultimatum. The woman sitting on the railing straightens her back after a moment of silence and she lifts her legs in order to swivel around and face you.

She is pretty and slightly overweight in a compact way that you normally associate with women twice her age. Her hair is pulled back into a high ponytail and her eyes are rimmed with red. Her mouth is set, her expression stern and tinged with emotion.

‘So, what?’ she says. ‘We’re in the same boat? Ha ha. Why don’t you tell the truth.’

‘Please,’ you say. ‘I just need some information from you. It wasn’t me. I’m finding out the truth. I need your help—to help you. I want to help you,’ you say.

The boyfriend crosses his arms over his chest and leans back against the bulwark and frowns deeply. ‘You’re just about to crack this shit wide open, huh,’ he says.

‘What do you want,’ the woman says. She is looking down at you from her perch atop the railing.

‘The three of you were together,’ you say. ‘What were you doing on Catalina?’

‘Snorkeling,’ she says. ‘It’s my birthday today.’ She twirls one finger minutely in the air in front of her.

‘I’m sorry,’ you say. You feel like you are saying this too much. ‘Happy birthday, I guess.’

She does not respond.

‘Do you know Bob?’ you ask.

‘Bob?’

The boyfriend turns his back to you and puts his hands to his face and looks out at the water.

‘He went to high school with your mother. He’s on the boat,’ you say. You gesture behind you, toward the ladder up to the open-air deck.

‘Oh,’ she says. ‘You mean my father.’

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