In the not so distant future, the cruise industry is serving a client with different aims than sunbathing and leisure. In Alex McElroy's dark satire, a member of the younger generation finds himself among them. Enjoy. -the ed
The passengers trudged up the ramp—clicking their canes on the steel surface, crewmembers guiding their wheelchairs—as Jensen shimmed up a rope flung over the side of the ship. He was seventeen, a month away from his senior year, and one of the most likable kids at his high school. A nice boy, according to family and friends. He never did anything wrong. Nothing like this.
He’d been dared to sneak onto the cruise ship—that white behemoth shadowing Lincoln Harbor. His friends had been daring each other to board all week, until Hank Lenders blackmailed Jensen into going. He threatened to tell Anna Mayne that Jensen was in love with her: that he fantasized about running his hands through her hair, dreamed he saved her from burning buildings, that he longed to take a bullet for her and had already planned his final words in case he died in her arms. The embarrassment would’ve scarred Jensen indefinitely. So he climbed the rope and tumbled over the railing, planning to snap a photo and scram.
He passed casinos and gift shops and bars en route to a dining hall the color of teeth. Curved beams vaulted the ceiling. In the center: a glass chandelier shaped like a squid. A middle-aged couple chatted pleasantly at a table. A mural of an iceberg covered one wall. Jensen took out his phone to capture proof that he boarded.
A crewmember gripped his hand. “I’m sorry,” he said. “No photos right now.”
“Just one,” Jensen said.
“You signed the contract.”
That’s where you’re wrong, Jensen thought.
“You should have turned it in.” The crewmember stuck out his hand.
“Ease up,” said Jensen. “I’ll put it away.” This placated the crewmember.
The middle-aged couple beckoned for Jensen, and he joined them.
“You’re a youngin’,” said the man. He had a meaty face and bloodshot brown eyes.
Beside him sat a branchy woman clutching a chilled glass, shivering so hard her necklace rattled.
“This makes me so sad,” she muttered.
“She gets sentimental,” said the man.
“Sentimental,” she scoffed. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Where’s your drink?” asked the man.
“Take mine,” said the woman. “I need something steamy.” She flagged down a waiter and ordered a hot toddy.
Jensen sipped her drink. Whisky and something.
The man leaned close. “What’s brought you onto . . . The Ship.”
“Oh stop it,” said the woman. “That’s none of your business.”
“It was a dare,” Jensen said.
“Balls on this boy,” said the man. “Sounds a little like me, right Tilly?”
The waiter arrived with drinks. She wrapped her hands on the glass, absorbing its heat. “Honey,” she said to Jensen. “Do you know where we’re going?”
“The Great Beyond!” The man lifted his arm importantly.
The ship’s horn sounded. Jensen rushed out of the dining room, but by the time he reached open air, the dock had already shrunk to a toy. The water churned and frothed behind them. Jensen considered jumping, but he didn’t know how to swim.
That night, Jensen traded in his last five dollars for Boat Bucks so that he could gamble in the casino. At the slots, his first pull jackpotted, netting an extra grand on his card. The second pull earned 500-something. Beside him, a young woman wearing a scarf over her head hit jackpot. Two seats down an elderly man shimmied in front of a flashing slot machine.
The woman leaned over. “It’s a morale, thing. Boat Bucks. Two grand gets you a soda. But it feels good—the beeping, the lights, the victory dance.”
“I’ve never gambled,” said Jensen.
“What a time to start!” said the woman. She hacked into her hands. “I’m sorry. That’s rude. I get nervous, say stupid things.” She cackled. “Nervous! Even now. Listen to me.”
Jensen nodded to hide his discomfort.
“So I hear.”
“I thought I was young. But you can’t even be—”
“Thirty-four. What a tragedy—but I’m over that now. Everything’s tragic.” She cackled again. “Ev-ree-thing.” She wiped a tear from her cheek.
“I’m getting hungry,” he said.
“Hunger,” she said. “Good for you. We’ll see each other again.” She smiled at him.
“It’s a big ship.”
“We’re young,” she said. “Let’s stick together.”
“I’m Amelia—Amelia Darlington-Riggs.” She extended her hand for a shake.
Jensen gave her his hand and she clutched his rather than shaking it, cupping both hands around his, caressing his palm. “I should go,” said Jensen. He twisted his hand free of hers.
“I’ll be here,” she said. Jensen didn’t look back.
Later on, at the main bar, he bumped into the meaty man from the dining hall: Lee Hastings. He bought them a round, asked Jensen about himself, then proceeded to inundate him with his life story: his varsity football career, the business he owned, pressuring Tilly into marriage. He bought a second round, a third. “You can’t take it with you,” he’d cheer, before laughing uncomfortably.
He wasn’t the only one saying it. Everywhere on the ship: You can’t take it with you, You can’t take it with you, You can’t take it with you, You can’t take it with you. The passengers said it, the bartenders said it, Lee wouldn’t quit saying it, and by the time he finished his fourth drink, You can’t take it with you felt like a spear in Jensen’s chest. Lee emptied his glass. “How ‘bout one more? I mean,” he leaned close, “You can’t take it with you.”
Jensen fled to the upper deck and vomited over the railing. It was freezing outside, so he wrapped himself in towels to keep warm and stretched out on a lounge chair.
A text from Hank Lenders waited on his phone: dude where u at? Nothing from Anna Mayne—no Hank told me you loved me and I love you too. Though, she might have sent that message. She might be sending it now. Hank’s text had arrived six hours earlier. Jensen no longer had service. His eyes grew heavy. Soon he was sleeping.
He spent the second and third days like his first, dining on the finest foods, letting passengers buy him drinks, gazing into the terrifying immensity of the ocean. He refused to ask where they were headed. That would give him away. But he wondered why no one discussed the destination. Shouldn’t they all be making plans for the Bahamian beaches, or for the shopping they’d all do in Paris? Instead, everyone drank. You gotta live in the moment. You can’t take it with you.
Jensen woke on the fourth morning to a hand on his arm.
“Morning stranger,” said Amelia. “Rough night?”
“You can’t take it with you,” he joked.
“I hate that,” she said. “Just hate it.”
“It’s pretty lame.”
“Sure you can’t take it with you but leave it to somebody else. So solipsistic.”
“You’re adorable.” She pinched his cheek. “Selfish. If my world ends the whole world ends. Yikes.”
Jensen didn’t follow.
“If I had a family, I wouldn’t be here. Better spend those last moments together, share a few dinners. Leave the money to them. But I don’t. No family—and you, yours must be heartbroken. That or sadistic. Sending you here. I hadn’t even thought of that.” She put her hands over her heart.
She reminded him of Lee—imposing her history on him. Maybe she was sick. Maybe they both were. Is this all the dying want? To preserve their lives in the memories of strangers?
“We should sleep together,” said Amelia, then reddened. “I mean, why not?”
“I’m seventeen,” he said.
“So what? The cops gonna nab us? We’re dying, Jensen!”
“Speak for yourself.”
Amelia imitated him. “You’re funny.”
“I’m not dying.”
“But you booked a ticket on the SS Iceberg—my term. Funny, right?”
“I snuck onto the ship. It was a dare—and they let me right on.” Jensen threw off his towels. “What is this ship? Where are we going?”
“You should talk to the captain.”
“Tell me where we’re going.”
“Nowhere,” she said. “This is a—it’s a . . . Jesus I can’t even say it. You really don’t know?”
“What’s wrong with everyone here?” She rested a hand on his shoulder and, sensing the gravity of what she planned to tell him, he didn’t wriggle free.
“Jensen,” she said. “We’re on course for an iceberg in the northern Atlantic, a hull-shredder, big enough to bring the whole ship down. Not the crewmembers. They’ll be long gone. Rescue boat. The details are spotty—and I didn’t read it too closely.”
He jumped up, pacing and clutching his shirt. “No sane person would do this.”
“Who wouldn’t do this?” she said. “First cruise ship to hit an iceberg in what—a hundred years? An iceberg that calved because of climate change? That’s a global tragedy. Guaranteed to leave those who die in the news for decades. Our faces burned into the collective unconscious. Remembered.”
“But I’m healthy,” he said.
“I really feel terrible for you, Jensen. I really do. It honestly—it’s a tragedy. Everything’s tragic—but this, it’s disgusting.” She wiped a tear. “This world doesn’t make any damn sense.”
Amelia Darlington-Riggs flagged down a crewmember. It was the same man who’d warned Jensen against using his phone. “This young man’s in trouble,” she said. “You need to take care of him, to get him to safety. There’s been a terrible error.”
“I’m a stowaway,” Jensen said. “I shouldn’t be here.”
“Lower your voice,” the crewmember said. Others on deck were staring.
“Make sure he’s safe,” Amelia said. She patted his hand, and he was grateful for the contact.
The crewmember led him into a stairwell to talk. “Calm down,” he said through his teeth.
“I’m just seventeen. I can’t—” Jensen was crying and had trouble talking through tears.
“It’s okay,” he responded. “We have a procedure for this. Come, we’ll get you to safety.”
Jensen followed the man below deck, heading, he thought, to the crew quarters. He repeatedly thanked the crewmember for his kindness. The crewmember said little. They continued through long, metal hallways, footsteps echoing tinnily. “My room’s up here,” said the crewmember. “You can stay here till it’s time.”
“Thank you, thank you,” said Jensen. “I just—I really appreciate this.”
At the door, the crewmember yanked the handle and shoved Jensen inside. He locked it immediately. Jensen slammed his fists against the closed door. “No use.” Jensen turned. Seven other people sat in the cold metal room, squeezed together on a single steel bench.
“What the hell is this?”
“The VIP lounge.”
“I need to get out. To get off the boat.”
“The passengers didn’t pay for regrets.”
“Nope—no way. Better not to think about the regrets. Just lock ‘em away.”
“But he said he’ll come for us,” Jensen said. “When it’s time for crewmembers to leave.”
“Young and stupid,” said the original voice. “Now join us. It’s freezing. We could use your heat on the bench.”
Two days later, a sound like a skyscraper screaming clanged through the ship. The door swung open. Jensen expected someone outside—the crewmember, maybe—but the hallway was empty. The others didn’t get up. “We’re free,” said Jensen.
“Free to go die on the deck.”
“We’ve got each other in here.’
On the mezzanine level, Jensen rummaged through the gift shop for a jacket before moving on. People were still playing slots in the casino. The ship lurched. Jensen was flung to the floor. Liquor bottles slid off their shelves. In the bar Lee and Tilly shared a stool, hugging and weeping.
On deck was the day, bright as a burn. The iceberg had flattened the nose of the boat. Passengers snapped selfies with the iceberg at their backs. Elderly men earthwormed over the railings. The ship lurched like an elevator starting. He pushed through the crowds. Someone shouted his name. Amelia stood at the front, iceberg towering at her back. “Jensen!” she said, with both confusion and worry. She blew him a kiss. A wave crashed the boat, knocking Jensen to the ground. When he stood, Amelia was gone.
According to those in the brig, the crewmembers set out on the lifeboats a day before impact, bundled up, hauling food and duffle bags stuffed with cash and credit receipts. A small yacht waited for them.
Jensen hunted for a life preserver but had to settle for a pack of balloons stashed behind a bar. He inflated them frantically, tied two to each belt loop. His frantic breaths clouded his face. The ship lowered indifferently. Jensen checked his phone. Two bars. He could’ve called his parents, his brother, his grandparents, his aunt. But he dialed Anna’s number. Four rings . . . five . . . six . . . voicemail. “Hi Anna, this is Jensen. Jensen Moore. I just wanna say—well I’m dying. And—since I’m dying—not because I’m dying, but because I mean it, and I’m dying, so I should—I love you. I should’ve said it earlier, but I love you. And I’m dying. I’ll be dead. Soon I think. So: I love you. And I hope you love me.” He lowered the phone and stretched his thumb to press END. His home screen already showed. The call had failed. But when? he wondered. But when?