The Life-saver (new fiction)


by Laura Kathryn Rogers

 


Adam Molden was a good man. If you wanted proof, all you had to do was ask him.

Anna, his wife, had been his high school sweetheart. She came from a poor family. This was something that Adam’s parents warned him about during the courtship. Couldn’t he find someone more suitable? She would only make him unhappy. When Adam’s father suggested this to her, she broke up with Adam shortly before his high school graduation.

Adam, however, was in love. He defended her. Won her back. Told her that it didn’t matter that she was the illegitimate daughter of a morally suspect alcoholic mother. Even after he married her, he reminded her of what his love has rescued her from.

His family bought them a large house, across the street from them. At first, Anna took care of the housework. But then, Adam, embarrassed that his wife would act like a maid, hired staff to replace those efforts. Told her he understood, coming from her background, why she’d want to do manual labor, but as his wife, it simply wasn’t necessary.

Adam never considered what his career would be. It would be law, like his father, grandfather and many other family members. His father paid the tuition for law school, and hired him after graduation at his firm. Adam was good at what he did, and made a princely salary. When he was 35, he was made a partner. 

Anna had always been shy, but Adam had hoped that she would come out more once he began to be prominent in the town’s social life. Told her he understood that she wasn’t used to socializing as he was, coming from such a slovenly and backward life. However, it was important for his career, and she simply had to make an effort. She would comply by playing bridge with friends of his associates, but was tongue-tied and seemed to suffer through it. He just didn’t understand her. 

He thought her taste in clothes hideous, as did his mother and sisters. One day, when they’d been married about five years, his sisters had disposed of most of her clothing while she was out. Replaced it with things they no longer wore. Things that were stylish and costly.

Anna was outraged.

She demanded her clothing back. Adam, upset at her lack of grattitude refused to tell her where the clothes had been taken. Anna wore her sisters-in-law’s clothing, but the items hung on her. She seemed as if she didn’t care how she looked.

Six years into their marriage, Anna wanted to take piano lessons. Glad to see her interested in anything, Adam hired a teacher who had worked for several of his family.

“Does she have any talent?” Adam asked, while Anna sat at the piano silently listening for the verdict.

The teacher,  irritated, smiled at Anna protectively. “Of course. But Anna is in the room. Shouldn’t we include her in this conversation?”

Adam felt himself growing red-faced and defensive. But he was later proud of his remarkable restraint. “Mr. Burkett, I was merely asking if my wife could benefit from the lessons. You see, she wasn’t raised to take an interest in fine things. Quite the horrible and poor upbringing. But I rescued her from that.”

Indeed.” Mr. Burkett said, and Adam did not catch the irony in his voice.

Then, both looked up and saw that Anna, had silently left the room. Mr. Burkett was not invited back for further lessons. Anna said, listlessly, that she was no longer interested in learning to play. Adam thought it was just as well, and didn’t inquire further.

A year later, Anna wanted to finish high school, then take college classes. Adam put his foot down. Why should she do this? There was no need for her to earn money. She had a home that was the envy of their town. She had charge accounts wherever she wanted to shop. Besides, women in Adam’s family did not work. It was common. They volunteered, of course, or entertained, neither of which Anna seemed interested in doing.

I’d just like to learn.” Anna said gently, not meeting his eyes. “I didn’t finish high school, remember? We got married, and I never went back….”

I  don’t understand why its so important.” Adam said crossly. “You never will be anything. You don’t need a degree. If you want to learn something, join the Friends of the Library. We donate to them all the time. They’ll probably put you on the board.”

Anna dropped the subject. Then, he saw her doing homework. He looked at it when she wasn’t there, and saw that she was taking correspondence courses to earn her high school diploma.

He saw a composition that she had done, quite good if you didn’t mind all the mistakes in spelling and grammar. To help her, he took a red pen and corrected large parts of it, so that it would look, once re-done, like something worthy of a Molden.

The next day, he saw the red-marked pages, torn up, and mostly burned in the fireplace. Anna never spoke of furthering her education again.

Adam had taken a mistress, of course. All the men in his family had one, even those with wives who seemed to still care about their husbands. It didn’t occur to him to ask himself why.

Anna had been strangely cold to him for most of their marriage. She submitted to his sexual overtures, but seemed to endure them, not enjoy them. Adam felt offended by this, as he thought of himself as quite a tender, skilled and creative lover. But perhaps, it was some complex she had. He never asked, and she never told him.

They had known for some time that Anna was unable to have children. She had been born that way. Adam was disappointed, but  made sure that Anna knew that he would not divorce her. He had an elder brother with three fine sons to carry on the Molden name. Anna’s bodily failures would do nothing to change the way he felt for her. He told her this frequently. Anna began sleeping in the bedroom next to the master suite.

Finally, happy with his mistress, and not missing the coldness of his wife in bed with him, he suggested that she decorate the bedroom she now slept in alone to suit her.

Anna got excited about something at last. With the help of a decorator she picked out without telling him, she changed the room to something he found somewhat hideous. The walls were green-blue wallpaper, with sea motif border. 

Anna’s bed had a robin’s egg blue quilt and many nautical themed pillows. He told Anna that the room made him sea-sick. Anna got a ghost of a smile on her face, walked into her new bedroom, and closed the door.

After the room was completed, he often commented on how the room displeased him. Anna did not seem to hear him.

He finally stopped, realizing that she would have her way about this silly matter, and didn’t care about his feelings at all. He was sad to see such a childish stubbornness in a wife he deeply loved, but he supposed that she couldn’t be perfect.

And, so, he forgave her about the room. And made sure that she knew he forgave her.

Anna spent most her time in that hideous bedroom, door closed. Sometimes he would hear her laugh. He resented that, because she never laughed with him. And, he told her jokes all the time. Jokes that brought the room down. Stories that others swore were absolutely priceless.

Yet, the crystal-tinkle of amusement that sometimes was heard on the outside of the bedroom door never graced Adam’s world.

Could we go on a cruise?” Anna asked suddenly, one day. “Our anniversary is coming up. Ten years.” She said. Adam noted that all of the words were said in a happy way, except the length of time. The time had been said as she’d been serving a sentence.

Yet, before he let this color his opinion of this wild new idea she had, it occurred to him, that in ten years of marriage, she’d never asked him to take her anywhere. Never really left the house except to shop for their home, and do the things he insisted that she do with him socially.

They’d never gone on a vacation, even a honeymoon. After all, he’d reasoned that rescuing her from her mother’s drink-broken home was event enough. Every day with him was a honeymoon compared to that, wasn’t it?

Okay. What sort of cruise?” He said, willing to humor her. She looked stricken, as if she expected him to make light of her thoughts, which of course, he would never do. “Comon, its me. Your loving husband, Silly Girl. Tell me what you want. Where do you want to go.”

To the South Seas. Tahiti, the far islands. I want to see parrots and maybe even a lion or a gorilla.”

I don’t think they would have lions and gorillas in the the South Seas, Silly. Maybe in Africa, but you wouldn’t know that…hey, don’t cry, okay, okay. Call Terry Mendies at the place my parents use. Book it, we’ll go. You can buy a whole new travel wardrobe. I think you’re still wearing those things my family gave you five years ago.”

Anna became animated, a reminder of the fun, perky girl he’d picked from the sophomore high school class when he was a senior, class president, and most likely to succeed. How long had she been gone? And why? She had no reason to be unhappy. She had a wonderful home, a secure life. She had him. She had everything.

Anna chose travel clothing that he and his family found garish, and somewhat embarrassing. Thankfully, Adam told them, she would only be wearing it on the boat, and perhaps could be persuaded to part with them after the cruise was done.

Adam lost count of how many times he stepped on his tongue in the six weeks before the cruise. This was making her happy in a way that nothing else seemed to. And he was a good husband. He wanted to make his wife happy.

The trip was a four week cruise from Hawaii to Tahiti and the many islands in between, Adam grimaced at the expense, but paid it without comment. His mistress was unhappy about him being gone so long, but he told her that Anna was being quite unreasonable about it, and he simply had no choice.

The first few days showed Adam a side of Anna that Adam didn’t know existed. A woman who spent freely, drank and ate with gusto, and didn’t seem to notice his frowns, or disapproving comments about her choices. At times, it seemed as if she were a newly freed prisoner, grabbing at everything she was denied while she was incarcerated.

This idea took temporary tenancy in his mind, but he soon rejected it. Anna was just being silly. She didn’t know how to act in the bored, blasé manner that his family would have greeted such exotic experiences. It went back to her lack of breeding and the family that had raised her. He managed not to tell her this, and was proud of his patience.

They were in the minor islands, on the twelfth day of the cruise when the unthinkable happened. A ferocious storm whipped up, and somehow, the cruise ship was disabled. The crew and passengers were put in large life boats while help was radioed. Then, another storm came up, not quite as bad, but one that sent the lifeboats in many different directions.

When the seas were calm, there was just the three of them in a lifeboat. Adam, Anna, and Otto, this blonde beast of a unruly fellow, complete with tattoos that covered his sickeningly muscular arms. He had gotten on the boat with them at the last, as Adam had insisted that they wait until the last…surely the problem would be fixed and things could go on as usual? Wasn’t this overreacting?

Otto, with eyes the color of the horrendous wallpaper in Anna’s room seemed intent on making Anna’s better acquaintance during the worst of the storm. When she was scared, he would joke with her. When she was seasick, he would gently hold her hair back while she leaned over the side of the lifeboat. When she looked to be getting a sunburn, Otto produced something that stank like raw coconut and helped his grateful wife put it all over any exposed skin.

Adam didn’t like this monster of a man touching Anna. He also felt repulsed that Anna would allow Otto to touch her. Anna pulled away when Adam touched her. Told him she didn’t like to be touched. Why didn’t she stand up to Otto the same way?

But somehow, in a way, that his brain rejected, it seemed that Anna wasn’t repulsed by Otto. In fact, she welcomed Otto’s care of her, the touches which seemed more like caresses than just the help of a new friend.

They didn’t have a radio in the boat. There was no ship or other boats in sight. They each had a life preserver. They had some food, not much, maybe enough for three days. There was, about a half mile away, a small island which Otto insisted that Adam help him use the oars to get to.

They made the island quickly. Once there, Anna leaped out of the boat, impulsively caught Otto’s hand and said “Let’s run!’

Laughing, the two run up the beach and back. She came back, grabbed Adam,s hand and encouraged him to do the same with her. He gave her a disapproving look and shook his head. He told her not to be childish.

Oh, don’t mind droopy pants, Anna! I’ll run with you!” Otto said, heartily. Again, the two raced up and down the narrow beach as if six year olds, laughing and kicking at the water.

Adam yelled that he thought that they needed to build a shelter, explore the island for food, look for other people such as savages who might want to eat them, or for wild animals that might want to kill them. He was ignored until he said it about three times.

Then, Otto stopped and wiped sweat off his handsome Nordic face. “You know he’s right. First order of business. Survival. You stay with him….I’ll go and tell you what I find.” He pulled out a lighter out of his damp camouflage pants. Threw it at Adam. “Build a fire. You know how to do that, right, Adam?” Then, smiling wickedly, Otto was gone.

Adam, as it turned out, didn’t know how to make a fire. Anna had been in Girl Scouts for one brief year that her mother had been able to work steady and had gone on a few camping trips. She knew the basics of camping.

She assembled the wood, piled it up, and started the fire, despite Adam telling her throughout that she was doing it wrong and that it wouldn’t possibly catch. When it did, he sat glumly by it and allowed his clothes to warm and dry. Anna started looking up and down the beach, a bit nervously.

“Where is Otto?” She asked.

I don’t care,” Adam said, resentfully. “Just a big show off, if you ask me.”

“Well, I like him. And I don’t care if you don’t! I’m going to find him.” Anna said, the first cross words of their marriage.

Before Adam could recover his shock, she was gone inside the island’s forest. She did not respond to calling her to come back. He began to worry as time passed. What would he do? He had what remained of their food, nothing that needed to be cooked. But what if something wild came out the forest and attacked him? There was strength in numbers. How could Anna be so selfish?

Close to dusk, Otto came up, carrying a limp and seemingly lifeless Anna in his arms. Adam got to his feet, all rage and impotent fury. “What did you let happen to her?” He sputtered.

Whoa, chief.” Otto said, taking off his shirt and fashioning it into some sort of absurd pillow. He put it under Anna’s head as he lay her down in the sand. “I found her like this. Something bit her. Look at her arm. It wasn’t a snake. Those are like human jaws.”

How ridiculous…human?” Adam saw the bite mark on Anna’s arm. A mark that was red and ugly, with just a bit of blood seeping out from some of the deeper bite marks. And it looked liked human teeth…or humanish…maybe like those of an ape?

We have gorillas in the woods there. Big ones. One jumped out at me, and acted pretty hostile. I threw a piece of wood at it, and that scared it off. But we want to keep that fire going. To scare them. Wild animals don’t like fire.” Otto was saying, while looking about the campsite. “Hand me that blanket in the boat. It’s dried out. She will need it.”

Otto spoke in the self-assured way of a man used to making commands, not suggestions, without having to raise his voice. Adam acquiesced. Adam was a tall man, well over 6 feet, but he was not one to bulk up, like this testosterone crazed beast. It seemed quite vain, actually, Adam thought, feeling proud of his leaner, wiry frame.

Anna woke about an hour later, and got up. She said she’d seen a large gorilla, unusual, because she’d always imagined them to be dark haired. This one, however, had been blond. With huge, expressive eyes. She had felt drawn to it, and walked towards it. But at the last moment, before she could touch it, it had gone freakish on her, and bitten her arm. The fear and pain must have made her faint.

Before Adam could launch into a lecture about trying to touch wild animals, Otto had put his arm around her, and given her a comforting hug. “We put some salt water into it while you were asleep. It already looks better. It probably will heal right up. But no more petting wild monkeys okay?”

Or even trying to.” Anna agreed and smiled at him. Adam watched this exchange with a inner fury he could not explain. Otto had told her not to do something, and Anna had accepted it without shutting down. And he’d done it the same way Adam would have, hadn’t he? So, why did she have to smile at the beast so?

In the days to come, Adam came to hate Otto with an intensity that he usually reserved for his legal opponents. No one came to rescue them.

Otto proved to be quite the survival artist, fashioning a bow and crudely shaped arrows and getting them all the manner of birds, fish and small animals with it. He knew how to clean and cook all this vermin as well, and make it taste wonderful, although Adam would have died before admitting it, even while devouring his share of the food.

Anna was very forthcoming with compliments. She began to treat Otto as if a young girl with a crush. Otto enjoyed the attention, yet never seemed to cross the line. At night, when the stars came out and the fire burned hot, he would tell stories of his life before being a cook on the cruise liner, a job he took simply to see to this part of the world.

Adam listened, and would tell his own stories, about a particularly hard case of tax law he’d managed to win for one of his father’s wealthy clients. He noted that Anna seemed bored by his story. But she hadn’t acted like that when he told her the story before. She seemed to totally change on this island.

And not just change in personality. Perhaps it was the heat and the shock from the experience, but Adam thought she was changing in appearance. Little ways. Her eyes seemed to be getting wider, more narrow. Her once high forehead, a bit lower. Her straight brownish red hair, somewhat curlier. Her thin body…a bit more plump somehow?

One night, as they sat around the fire, they heard the distant horn of a boat.

Adam jumped to his feet and ran for the sound. He heard his wife and Otto closely behind him. In the distance they saw the unmistakable lights of of a large ship. Otto had the idea of grabbing pieces of wood, lighting them, and waving them until the fire made it impossible to hold. For a time, the ship seemed to come closer.

Then, it turned, and with a feeling as close to despair as he’d ever felt, Adam watched the great ship fade into the dark of the night.

Just as well I guess.” Anna said as they returned to the shelter she and Otto had built. The shelter was very well done, for amateurs. It had three bamboo sides and a ceiling. Their lone blanket was the cover for the front.

Their supplies were kept in the shelter. At night they slept there….or Anna and Otto did. Otto would take a shift by the fire, and Adam was expected to do so as well. Adam had no interest in going in the lean-to that his wife and the beast had created, so he usually slept curled up by the fire when he slept at all.

That night, as they changed shifts, Adam noticed a great scar on Otto’s forearm. He thought it resembled the one on Anna’s arm that had, in two weeks, healed without infection. He commented on it.

I used to work in a wild game zoo. Those creatures are unpredictable. The one that got me was probably the same family as the ones who live out here in the islands. That’s why I knew Anna would be okay. Just keep her still and warm and the wound clean.”

What do you know about Anna?” Adam bristled.

The two men locked eyes for a moment over the dwindling fire. Otto raised one sardonic eyebrow. “You might be surprised what I know.”

The next morning a horn’s blast startled all of them. The ship that they thought had moved on was quite close. They could see crew getting in several boats and paddling towards them. They had been found!

Adam was thrilled. The nightmare was over! They could go home and resume their lives. Otto would go wherever the Otto’s of the world went…his next adventure, Adam supposed. Anna would go home with him, Adam. They would be the way they had been.

This weird adventure would be a reminder of why Adam would never allow his wife to plan another vacation, no matter how many anniversaries they had.

As the crew got within communicating distance, Adam ran out as far in the water as he could safely go. He was aware that he must be a disheveled wreck. But that was as it should be. They’d been shipwrecked three weeks. How else should he look?

He turned to call Anna to join him. She and Otto were nowhere to be found.

He ran back through the shallow water to the beach, and saw the footsteps…..Anna’s smaller feet, Otto’s larger ones. They seemed to stop at the campfire that had protected them. From there, other prints….and what seemed evidence of a brief struggle. No blood…just a lot of sand kicked up.

But Adam had heard nothing. If there had been a struggle he would have heard it…where were they?

The ships crew were behind him now, encouraging him to get in their boat.

But my wife…and Otto. We had this guy who got in the boat with us…they’re here somewhere. They have to go too.” Adam insisted.

The next few hours over 20 crew from the boat searched the island. They saw parrots, many other birds and two gorillas. Beautiful blonde ones that seemed quite curious about them, but not curious enough to approach. No other humans. No one. Was he sure that he’d had others with him?

Adam insisted that his wife and this cook, Otto, who’d made their lives miserable, had gotten in the life boat with him. Another search ensued.

Finally, the crew began to reason with him in the careful, measured way that a person is addressed when others question their sanity. He allowed himself to be taken to one of the boats, and rowed out.

Just as he got in and got settled, he saw a flash of reddish brown hair and heard Anna’s laugh. He yanked his head towards the island, and saw her standing there, arm around Otto. Smiling at him. Waving. Goodbye?

Suddenly, the human forms melted, and he saw the two gorillas standing there. Then, they melted again, before his eyes and were his wife and the despised Otto again. He opened his mouth to call to her, but could not find his voice.

He thought about the bite marks on their arms. Could such bites transform them into something other than human? Or only for a time? Would they alternate human identities with the identity of the animal that had bitten them?

And what had bitten them? Otto said his bite had come from a zoo long ago…but what of Anna’s? Had it come from Otto, in the form of the gorilla, desiring to make her into something that he could possess as his own?

Before his eyes, the human shapes began to again transform, melt, change. They were the blond gorillas that the crew had seen on their travels. Obviously a couple. Obviously mates. The two stared at him curiously, but with no seeming desire to investigate further.

Then, they began to run up and down the beach. Then, just as the rescue boat took him into the deeper parts of the water where he could climb the cruiser, he watched the pair jump into the water. This startled him…could gorillas swim? Then Adam saw something he hadn’t before. Around each of their necks, from the boat they’d arrived on the island, were life preservers.

Anna, or whatever she was now, chose to hold onto, yet not cling to her new mate. Otto, or whatever he’d become, didn’t seem to mind. They splashed, played, cavorted happily with one another. They seemed lost in a world of their own. Then, they began to swim away….around the corner of the island. He heard the crew members comment on how beautiful the animals were, and how well suited they were to a remote South Seas island.

Adam felt differently. As he watched the two swimming off, happy in a way he’d never seen Anna before, he was confused. He was hurt. He was angry.

As they rounded the corner of the island and out of his range of vision, Adam shook his head

And to his dying day, he never understood why such a thing could happen to a nice guy like him.

Advertisements