Leaning my elbows against the cool metal railing of the Star of Kendall, I breathed in the fresh salt air and felt an exhilarating rush of excitement speed through my veins. Turquoise waves of white horses crashed into the side of the ship, and the clear sky was as blue as a child who had to go to the dentist on his birthday.
Forcing myself away from the incredible scenery, I obeyed my rumbling stomach and looked around for a sign that might tell me which way the canteen was. Learning from previous experiences, I made a note of the exact staircase I’d walked down when leaving my room so I didn’t get lost trying to find my way back later on.
The smell of freshly baked croissants and iced tea wafted past my nose as I entered the ship. The Star of Kendall may have looked big from the outside, but nothing compared to what it looked like on the inside. High ceilings with crystal chandeliers, glass tables with white roses sprouting from their centres, and open glass windows providing a view of complete paradise. With a little twist, my skirt spun in a circle and I felt just a little like Maria from The Sound of Music in the very first scene where she is dancing in a field in the mountains.
“What can I get for you, ma’am?”
I jumped when I heard a voice behind me, and turned to see a friendly looking barista smiling at me expectantly.
“Oh! I’ll have a peach iced-tea, please,” I replied, handing her my money and taking a seat at one of the glass tables. I hadn’t been sitting down for two seconds when a guy with a mop of curly brown hair and honey-coloured eyes slid into the chair across from me.
“Can I help you?” I asked uncertainly.
The guy smiled. “I told my family I saw someone I knew so I could get out of going to a dance class with them. I’ve been on this ship for 3 hours and I’ve already been embarrassed enough.”
I chuckled. He had a nice voice, like the sound of a light summer’s breeze blowing through the palm trees. “I take it I’m the ‘someone you know’?” I asked, smiling at him as he leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest.
“Lucky you,” he responded, winking. “I’m Jake, by the way.” He stuck out his hand and I shook it.
“Claire,” I said just as the friendly barista came over and set my iced-tea on the table.
I thanked her before rising to leave.
“Wait a second, don’t make me go back to them!” Jake protested. “The dance class wouldn’t even have been going for five minutes yet!”
I laughed at the pleading look in Jake’s eyes. How could I turn down an attractive guy who was begging me to spend time with him? “It’s not like I have anywhere else to be,” I gave in, sipping my iced-tea. The peachy flavour made my tongue tingle, but it tasted beachy, and that’s how I wanted to feel.
“Thank you so much. Would you like to go for a walk? If you think the view’s great down here, wait until you see it from the top deck.”
My long leisurely afternoon seemed to pass by all too fast as Jake and I talked about almost everything under the sun. When the sky started to change from its deep blue colour to fairy floss pink, I realised that he was probably the only person I’d ever met who seemed interested in my life and was not completely set on talking about himself.
“Are you hungry?” Jake asked around six-thirty that night.
“I don’t think it matters what I say,” I commented playfully. “I can tell by the look on your face that you are.”
Jake raised his eyebrows, then, with a defeated look on his face, said, “You are not wrong.”
As we entered the main deck together, we made a beeline for the buffet. I hadn’t thought I was hungry, but when I saw the tray of roast potatoes and fresh garden salads, my stomach changed its mind. Just as I picked up a plate, I heard a scream coming from behind me and whipped my head around to see what was causing the commotion. My heart stopped when I saw what was lying on the floor a few metres away from me.
With sprawled appendages scattered across the floor, and a crowd slowly beginning to form around it, lay the body of a man who looked as if he was in his mid-twenties. My heart had suddenly started beating again, but faster than it had ever beaten before. My body went numb, and the only thing I felt was Jake slipping his hand into mine and gently pulling me away from the murder scene.
Suddenly, the ship’s PA system roared to life, and everyone went quiet.
“Good evening passengers, this is your captain speaking. As many of you know and unfortunately may have witnessed, there has been an accident on the main deck. If you could all refrain from making a scene and quietly make your way back to your cabins, it would be greatly appreciated by myself and the rest of the crew until we get back to you with further instructions.”
“Where’s your room?” Jake asked me when people started to shuffle past us towards the stairs that led to the cabins.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and took a deep breath. “217,” was all I managed to say.
“Lucky for you, I’m in 221, not too far from that. I’ll come straight to you as soon as the captain gives further instructions, okay?”
I only nodded, not because there was anything wrong with what Jake had said, but because I couldn’t force any words out of my mouth without a few tears coming with them.
It felt like the weight of the world was sitting on my shoulders as I took the stairs to my cabin one at a time. Everything around me was in slow motion, and all I could hear were the individual beating hearts of the people surrounding me. My sweet little cabin bed and its circular windows no longer felt like a holiday. When I sat down at the edge of the bed, it felt like I’d taken a seat on a very hard rock, and the pillows were much less comfortable than a pile of sand might’ve been.
The anticipation of waiting for the PA system on the Star of Kendall to roar back to life might as well have been worse than what they actually had to say. As far as I was concerned, it felt like I was going to be trapped in this cabin for the rest of my life. This tiny, airtight, starting-to-make-me-feel-claustrophobic cabin.
It had been so long since I’d heard another human’s voice that I jumped in fright when the captain’s voice filled my room.
“Good evening passengers, this is your captain speaking. I’d like to thank you for your patience and understanding as the crew and myself have been sorting a few things ou…”
The microphone seemed to fault, and a loud crackling sound took the place of the captain’s voice. A few seconds later, the crackling stopped and I could hear a voice, but it no longer belonged to the captain. It had been replaced by a low, robotic echo. However, it wasn’t the voice that sent more shivers down my spine, it was the words that came out of its mouth.
“The first contestant has fallen. Only 5,132 remain.”
With that, the doors all clicked and swung open.
I was too overcome with shock to move. First, there had been a murder on the ship, and now, it sounded as if the captain had been taken over by aliens who were making prophecies about the future of the Star of Kendall. I didn’t have much time to think because it only took about two minutes for the other people in the rooms next door to mine to emerge from their cabins and start going nuts. I heard screaming as footsteps hurried past my door, and it only scared me more. Then, remembering what the robotic voice had said – “The first contestant has fallen,” – I thought it wouldn’t be a smart idea to stay in my room. I had to find Jake. Surely, he would agree that this was probably some big joke that the crew put on to make their lives on board a little less boring…right?
Slowly rising to my feet, I walked into the hallway, only to quickly dodge a group of grown men who looked as if they were running for their lives. My pace quickening, I hurried down the hall to room 221 and walked inside. Jake was nowhere to be seen. Panicked, I ran back into the hallway. If I’d thought things were their craziest before, I was far from right. Children were screaming, mothers were crying, and fathers who were trying their best to be brave looked as if they had just seen ghosts. My mind was flooded with confusion as people flew past me. I ran towards the stairs and ducked under a very tall man holding a screaming baby. Whatever was going on on this ship was driving everyone insane.
Optimism was not my greatest strong point, so I did the only thing I could think of – I began to run around like a headless chicken, screaming Jake’s name as loud as I could. It was weird; I’d only spent about three hours of my life with Jake, but it felt like I’d known him forever. I felt safe with him, and right now, I wanted to feel safe amongst the madness that was rapidly overtaking the Star of Kendall.
When I reached the bottom of the stairs and saw people running everywhere, I felt the butterflies migrate into my stomach and set up camp. Putting a hand on my now aching stomach, I hurried to one of the large buffet tables and scurried underneath it. Thankfully, there was no-one else underneath it, and for about three seconds, I had some peace and quiet. That is until I heard a familiar voice screaming my name.
“Claire, are you in here?”
A curly head suddenly appeared under my table, and I’d never been as grateful to see someone as I was in that moment.
“Jake!” I practically screeched his name before throwing my arms around his neck and bursting into an embarrassing state of panicked tears.
“Shh, Claire, we’re going to be okay, I promise,” he soothed, running a hand through my hair. “But you need to trust me on this one and do what I say.”
I nodded, wiping my eyes and releasing him.
Jake’s honey-coloured eyes rested on me for a millisecond – long enough for me to understand his confirmation of loyalty – before he took my hand and pulled me out from under the table with him. The people aboard the cruise ship hadn’t calmed down – in fact, they’d probably got worse. I felt Jake’s grip on my hand tighten, and I did the same.
“Okay,” he said under his breath. “Okay,” he repeated a few seconds later, this time to me. “Claire, listen to me.”
I locked my eyes on his.
“I have no idea what’s going on right now, but I know that we need to get off of this ship. I think it’s the only way out.”
My stomach surged in a loop, making the now resting butterflies awaken and begin their fluttering routine again. “Off the ship?” I repeated.
It was a little hard to take in considering the fact that we were currently in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and the closest piece of land was the AstroTurf putt-putt course on the top deck.
Jake nodded. “Yeah. Off the ship. Whatever’s going on is killing people on the ship,” he explained. “So, if we don’t want to die, I suggest we get off and as far away as possible.”
“But the ocean…swimming…sharks…” I stammered. The only thing I could think of was the millions of sea creatures waiting to feast on my blood-filled body the moment I enter the water.
Jake was starting to get impatient. “Claire, I know you’re scared, but it’s the only thing I can think of. I told you to trust me. You said you would trust me on this one.”
I swallowed what felt like a lump of coal. “Okay,” I whispered reluctantly. “I trust you.’
Jake gave me a shaky smile. “Let’s go.”
I felt like I was walking through the Sunday markets as Jake and I weaved our way through the crowds of people, trying to stay together but also trying not to bump into anyone. Everywhere I looked, I could see people falling to the ground, and every time someone fell, another announcement would come through the ship’s PA system.
“Another contestant has fallen. 4,132 remain.”
“Another contestant has fallen. 4,116 remain.”
The number kept going down, and as much as I wanted to know why, and how, I didn’t have time to stop and think about it.
“Okay, Claire, we’re on the bottom deck,” Jake said to me as we dodged a frazzled-looking woman who was holding a screaming baby. “Are you ready for this?”
Before I had a chance to answer, another announcement came over the PA system.
“Passengers of the Star of Kendall, this is your captain speaking.” It wasn’t the captain, that much was certain. “There are 3,000 contestants left, but we’ve decided that the game isn’t going fast enough. We’ve come up with…a plan to help you out a bit. It will commence in 10,9,8…”
My heart jumped into my throat. Whatever plan it was, it wasn’t going to help.
“It’s literally now or never,” Jake said to me, pulling me towards the railing. A few more steps and we’d be in the ocean.
All I could do was nod. As the PA system counted down 5, 4, 3…
Jake brought my hand up to his mouth, pressed his lips to my thumb, and we jumped.
Just before my head submerged in the ice-cold ocean water, I heard an explosion, and the Star of Kendall was no more.
We’d made it.