The sky sobbed at the sight of Dover. Rain fell, heavy, as we huddled together under the umbrella and stared up at the boat.
As stupid as it sounds, I didn’t expect it to be so big. It felt as tall as a building, towering above us and casting a large shadow that ran far past us and across the port.
I took Maria’s hand and looked up at her expectantly, but she stared, open mouthed, in dumbstruck awe, still captured by the majesty of the vessel that sat before us.
Maria had spent many hours boring me silly with her boat talk, and there had been many hours more spent watching documentaries about various liners and warships when it was her turn to pick the movie on date night.
I was exhausted with my lover’s nautical obsession, but seeing the childlike glee on her face as she stared up at the Carrickfergus melted my heart. She was a complete nerd, but she was MY complete nerd, and all of the overtime I had done to afford the cruise had been worth it.
We couldn’t quite stretch to a suite, but we had a nice room, and a little luxury. After a few rough years with Covid and the general state of the world, I wanted to treat her to an experience that would replace all the bad memories with something new. I just didn’t know what they’d be replaced with. I couldn’t have expected what awaited us at sea. Nobody could have.
“Shall we go then?” I asked, squeezing her hand gently.
She snapped back to life with a smile, nodding excitedly, and we headed towards the boat. Once we were inside, I was even more shocked by the size of the boat. It just went on and on. Corridors, staircases, swimming pools, restaurants and bars. It was like we were in a town that just happened to be floating at sea.
My beautiful girl seemed to smile wider with every new discovery, her hand held tightly in mine as we searched for our cabin.
We were lost at first, but as we wandered the large and seemingly never ending halls, we were approached by a man. He wore a crisp, white uniform, with a black hat covering his sandy, almost white hair.
“I’m Captain Parris.” He said with a smile, and an extended hand. “Let me guide you to your rooms.” Maria enthusiastically shook his hand with an awestruck smile as I glared in disapproval.
“Room.” I said curtly, snatching her hand back and securing it tightly in my own. The lightbulb above us began to flicker, and together, we glanced up at it, watching in awkward silence as the light stabilised and we were left with nothing to distract from the uncomfortable atmosphere.
“Of course ladies.” He simpered beginning to stride down the hall. “My mistake.”
The first few days were smooth sailing, quite literally. The ship flew through calm waves, like a knife through butter and together, Maria and I enjoyed the pleasures of a life at sea. We sipped cocktails as the sun fell into the clear ocean, ate dinner in our fanciest outfits and watched dolphins as they chased the boat through the waves.
It was paradise. So many carefree hours under the sweet sun, with no idea of what was to come.
It all began with dinner on our third day. We had steak and potatoes. It’s so strange that I can remember it exactly. The steak was a little tough, and she tutted at me, affectionately, for using my knife and fork “the wrong way round”. Those were the last few moments of normality. The last few moments without the sense of terror that seemed to leak into the water and creep into every crevice of the boat.
As she leaned across the table to help her helpless girlfriend with cutting up the aforementioned tough steak, there was a sudden yell from the back of the dining room. Maria dropped the cutlery to my plate with a clatter, turning towards the sound. There was a commotion, some kind of struggle as brawling men spilled onto the Captain’s table. One seemed to be fighting back against the rest, snarling as he shoved and pushed back against the other men.
“What is going on?” She whispered, clutching my hand across the table. I shrugged, looking over at the table as the chaos unfolded. Confused whispers filled the air as they tore at each other. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the one I’d noticed before. He was hitting out at everyone around him, biting and spitting as he snarled at them. I looked around and saw the other diners, staring in horrified awe at the scene.
“Lets get out of here…” I said, pulling her from her chair and running from the stunned crowd as the officers and other men wrestled the wild stranger to the ground. As we passed him to reach the door, he fought against his captors, reaching out a hand to us, his eyes frantic and feral for a moment before they fixed firmly on my own. A little smile crept onto his lips as his hand clamped around my leg.
“You’d better run.” My blood ran cold as he spoke, as I stared down at the chaos, watching the officers and staff pull him to his feet and march him from the room. Maria dragged me from the room, pulling me behind the door so we could catch our breath. We watched the crowd of officers forcing the man, kicking, screaming and biting down the corridor, towards a large, steel door that with a lot of pushing, shoving and grunting, they finally managed to force him through.
As we watched, I felt fear rising in my body. The officers closed the door, locking it and then dispersing, and for a few seconds we stood in silence. I stared at the door, unsure of what was behind it, but sure that I didn’t want to find out. Part of me felt drawn to it, though, and as I stared, almost transfixed, I was pulled back to reality as the lightbulb above us suddenly smashed, plunging us into darkness.
Maria and I ran back through the dark hallway to our room in silence, only speaking when the door was closed and we were sure that we were alone and safe.
“What the fuck is going on?” She said in barely a whisper, beginning to pace the room with her hands on her hips. I shook my head, unsure of what I should say. “That man…” I pulled her close to me, halting her panicked pacing. “What was wrong with him?”
“I don’t know.” I muttered, her hair, soft against my neck as I held her close to me. “But it was like he looked right at me.” She nodded, breaking from my arms and throwing herself down onto the bed.
“So much for a relaxing holiday.” She stretched her arms across the bed with a loud sigh. I sat beside her on the soft covers, stroking her curls, fanned out across the duvet cover. “Whatever it was, we are keeping our heads down, right?” I nodded, kissing her cheek tenderly.
I wish I could have kept my word, but trouble has a way of finding you, no matter where you try to hide, and no matter how firmly you confirm that you do not want to be involved.
We went to bed, trying to forget what we’d seen, and as I watched Maria fall asleep, I tried to shake off the slight nervousness that was buzzing through my body. I couldn’t stop thinking about the man in the dining room. He had looked right into my eyes, as if he knew me, and he spoke in such a way that I knew he was talking directly to me. I just couldn’t understand why.
I struggled to get to sleep that night, but when I did, it didn’t last for long. As I woke up, there was a storm outside, and by the bedroom door was the shadow of a stranger.
I stared in silence, watching the shadow wander towards the bathroom, glancing to my left to see Maria with her eyes fixed on the shadow too. As the shadow tottered slowly into the bathroom, she grabbed my hand and pulled me down to the floor. As we fell, I saw the shadow turn, standing still for a moment before heading back towards the bedroom. Maria shoved me under the bed as we watched the shadow emerge.
The shadow shuffled towards the bed, legs bowed and worn to almost nothing, and I prayed that the moon’s light would not reveal any more of my tormentor.
I held Maria’s hand tightly, feeling her shaking in my embrace.
“You’d better run” That same, raspy whisper rang out across the room, thunder crashing in the sky as Maria dragged my hand to her mouth, muffling her terror as tears met our clutched hands.
The lightning outside filled the sky with brightness and for a second, I saw him. A rotting tower of flesh, white, wide eyes, water dripping down his drowned clothes onto the floor, but the intent, furious stare from those white, wide eyes was so familiar, even if it no longer had any direction.
“They’re coming to get you Louise.” He crowed.
It was the man from the dining hall. He was barely recognisable. His body mangled, dead, dank skin hanging from his limbs, with torn, terrorised muscles and the same, frantic,feral stare.
He stumbled around the room, bumping into furniture and toppling on unsteady feet, but he always rose back up, searching the room for someone to hear his message.
“Don’t you want to know what they’re hiding behind that door?” I shook my head, screwing my eyes up tightly and praying that it was just a bad dream. “I wasn’t enough, you see.” His voice was getting closer to our hiding place and as I opened my eyes, I saw his legs, inches from the bed, the skin, worn away until the bones were almost visible. “Nothing is ever going to be enough.” He continued, his knees dropping to the floor as he got closer to the bed. Maria and I scooted back, but it was too late. He had found us.
“The captain is very particular, you know.” A single, skeletal hand slunk under the bed, reaching out and grabbing mine tightly. I was frozen in fear, holding my breath as tears fell from my eyes. “You’re exactly what he’s looking for.”
The man released my hand, rising from his knees without another word and became to wander from the room again, tottering and falling as he did, but always getting back up, until he was clear of the door, and out of sight.
For a minute or so, Maria and I lay under the bed in silence. She was the first to speak.
“We have to get out of here.” I knew that she was right but I had no idea how we were supposed to do such a thing. “The lifeboats.” She whispered. “If we can get to them, we can get to the nearest port and escape.” Again, I nodded, unsure of how we would do such a thing, but willing to try.
We abandoned our things in the room, leaving with nothing but our lives, and crept through the silent halls, hand in hand. As we headed towards the deck, I spotted the door from earlier. Large and looming, made of shiny, unforgiving steel and seeming to stare with the same intensity as the man from the dining hall.
As much as I wanted to keep our heads down and escape, I knew that I had to know what was behind the door. I knew that it was the key to the man from the dining hall, and why he insisted with such confidence that I was somehow connected to this whole mess, and in such danger.
“Absolutely not!” Maria whispered as I rushed towards the door. She clutched my hand tighter and tried to pull me from my path but I broke free and ran towards it. “It won’t even be open dummy.” She hissed, chasing after me. I could hear her but I didn’t care. I had to try.
As I reached the door, I pushed on the handle, amazed to see it fly open without much effort. There was darkness on the other side, that didn’t look inviting, but I was one step closer to finding out the truth. Maria approached, reaching out a hand to me, and as I went to grab it, I was suddenly snatched away and pulled into the room by something in the darkness. I heard her cry out as the door slammed shut and I was alone in the dark.
“It wouldn’t have let her in anyway.” It was the same voice, scratchy and raspy. “It can sense what the Captain wants.” I shuddered, feeling my way back to the closed door and frantically trying to free myself from the room. “Almost like it can taste you.”
“What is this place?” I asked, banging against the cool surface of the door.
“Stop trying to get out.” His voice seemed to bounce in the darkness, as if he was moving around, circling me as he spoke. “You need to listen to me, or you and your little girlfriend won’t survive.”
“Who are you?” I cried, desperately trying the door again and again, despite his warnings.
“Have you ever noticed that nobody gets invited to eat with the Captain on this ship?” I hadn’t thought about it too much, but now that he mentioned it, it was true. The Captain had always dined alone, at the top table. “People aren’t invited, but some do still get that particular pleasure.” The man from the dining hall laughed, and while I had an idea of what he meant, I didn’t want to believe that it could be true. I shook my head, as the room filled with light, blinking it back as it stung my eyes. “Welcome to the restaurant.”
I stared around, my eyes adjusting to the new brightness of the room and my jaw dropped. It was filled with cages, small and cramped, and inside of each of them was a struggling, desperate person trying to get out. I recognised some of them from around the ship, but some were strangers. Over by the light switch was the man from the dining hall, clearly struggling to stand but wearing a sinister smile all the time. “The Captain is starving.”
“But…” I couldn’t stop looking at everyone around me. The sound of sniffling and sobbing was unbearable. “Why?”
“A Captain is the master of his ship, but every Captain has a master too.” The man said, hobbling towards me. “I heard from some of the others like me that this has been going back years.”
“Others like you?” I surveyed him with suspicion, taking a tentative step back as he continued to approach me.
“Ghosts, Louise.” I began to speak, my eyes wide in disbelief but he cut me off gruffly. “I wasn’t when we first met, but I was chosen that night.” He sighed in exasperation as he continued. “There isn’t enough time.”
“But…” He raised a thin, fragile hand that was mostly bones with a slight sprinkling of skin and I fell silent.
“I was trying to warn you, but I couldn’t get to you in time to explain… this.” He gestured at the cages around the room with a resigned sigh. “I’d seen the Captain watching you on the deck before they took me.” There was a sadness in his eyes now. I could see the marks from the knives that trailed down his skin. His flesh, stolen, for a reason that I did not yet understand, and still amidst all that, he had thought to try and help me.
“Why me?” I mumbled, almost choking on the words as I spoke.
“There’s something in our blood.”
“What about our blood?” I yelled, falling back against the wall in despair. Tears began to fall from my eyes again as he shuffled towards me.
“It’s different for each of us, but there’s something about you that he wants.” The man said with a nonchalant shrug. “I don’t know what it is, but I do know that he watches someone, and then they disappear.” He gazed with grief around the room at the cages. “And then he dines.” The door beside me suddenly swung open and as I looked up, the man gestured towards it. “Now run, like I told you.” I nodded, standing from the floor and running, without looking back out of the door. “And use whatever you’ve got.” The man called out as the door slammed shut behind me, and I looked around the empty, dark hallway, searching for Maria.
She was nowhere to be found, and I began slowly walking the halls, trying to keep out of sight but desperately searching for her.
As I made it close to the deck, I could hear officers approaching in the distance. Hiding down in the darkness, I watched them march past, one of them clutching a helpless, screaming child in his arms, dragging him in the direction of the steel door.
“The Captain is going to be fuming if we don’t find the dyke he was looking at earlier.” One of them said, struggling to keep the child still as he walked. “We’ll get this one in the pot and go look for her again.” Their voices faded into the distance and I stood in shock for a moment. I couldn’t believe that I was being hunted through a cruise ship by cannibals, and had somehow paid £954 plus VAT for the privilege.
Once I was sure that they had gone, I kept walking, eventually finding my way to the deck and the lifeboats. As I reached them, my heart soared and relief ran through every vein in my body and straight to my heart as I saw Maria, smiling from behind the control panel.
She gestured to the orange lifeboat before us, fiddling with controls to try and launch the boat. “Go and get in.” She said quietly, her eyes focused on the panel before her.
“Not without you.” I folded my arms, shooting her a defiant look as she glanced up and rolled her eyes.
“One of us needs to launch it Lou, just get in for God’s sake.” She insisted, walking out from behind the panel and pushing me towards the boat. I pushed back but she was relentless, shoving me inside the boat and forcing me down on one of the seats.
“I’m not leaving you here.” My words did not move her, she shook her head and kissed me, her fingers tangled in my hair as she held me close to her, as if it would be our last kiss.
“I’ll be right behind you, I promise.” Our eyes met, and I knew that I had no choice but to trust her. I wanted to believe her, but nothing about what we were living through made that easy to do.
“I love you.” I cried out as she stepped off the lifeboat and back towards the panel.
“Tell me that again in a minute.” She said with a smirk as the crane holding up the lifeboat began to whir into motion, lowering the boat down towards the waiting ocean. I kept my eyes on her as the lifeboat descended, and just as I was about to hit the water, my heart sank through my body and down to the deepest depths of the sea that lay beneath us.
Behind her was the Captain. I called out her name, but I was too far for her to hear me. I struggled in my seat, pulling off the belt and struggling with the metal door of the lifeboat, but it was no use.
Heartbroken, I had no choice but to watch as he grabbed her and I felt that familiar sense of dread wash over me as I watched her struggling with the Captain.
My heart was racing and my mind frantic as I screamed her name again and again, until suddenly, the panel before them erupted with sparks and a cloud of smoke.
I saw Maria rush back as the lights above them began to flicker, fighting from the Captain’s grasp.
“Give him hell, kid.” A familiar voice whispered behind me. I turned in shock, and beside me was the man from the dining hall, watching the chaos unfold above on the lifeboat deck. I tore my eyes from him, looking back at Maria as the Captain rounded on her again, my heart pounding. “Let me help you out.” He whispered, his eyes following the Captain with the same fury that had become familiar from my unusual ally. As he stared up at the Captain, the life jackets that lined began shaking, fluttering against the wall at first and then flying off the shelves and gliding towards the Captain. “Focus!” The man barked. I stared up, watching the Captain bat the life jackets away, as Maria stood in panic, with nowhere to run.
“Jump!” I screamed. “Jump!” The lightbulbs began to blow, one by one, my heart skipping a beat as each went out, shards of glass soaring towards the Captain. “Jump!” I begged, and as the Captain fumbled towards her, covered in blood and glass, Maria leapt from the deck, plummeting through the air and falling into the water with a huge crash.
With a smile and a lazy flick of his bony, broken wrist, the man glanced towards the door of the the lifeboat and it opened with ease. I leaned over the side, searching frantically in the water until I felt Maria’s body, soaked and shaking.
Pulling her up into the boat, I held her close, smiling as I heard her heartbeat thudding against her chest.
“I love you too.” She whispered, and with that, I rushed to the lifeboat’s control panel, setting a course for as far away as I could manage.