Chapter 23: Canibals

The tide is coming in, waves slapping against the shore. Finegan and Joey are pulling in the fishing net and sorting out the catch, putting flapping fish and snapping crabs into a bucket and sweeping any twigs, seaweed, or coke cans that got swept up into the net back into the water. Gradually the incoming tide starts carrying more and more floating debris. A partially empty soda bottle, tightly capped, comes by. Splintered boards, a woven sewing basket, a child's rag doll with a smiling face, and finally a bloated dead body. The body has been partially eaten by fish, but the belly, covered by shirt and pants, is still intact and full of bloat. Finegan says,

I think I just lost my appetite.

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Finegan is at the rear of the houseboat, peddling to get some distance from shore. Joey, who is sitting on a box at the rear, is looking back toward shore. Joey says,

I think we're clear. . . Was that gross or what.

Finegan rolls off his bike seat and climbs up onto the houseboat roof to get some perspective, shielding his eyes with his hand. He looks back toward shore at first, then turns to look out toward deep water.

Oh Lord. . . Gets worse.

Joey jumps up to join Finegan, to see what he is looking at. They both stand side-by-side, hands shielding their eyes. In the distance is a conglomeration of rafts, made from pastel insulation boards, pink and baby blue. The raft city seems to almost fill the horizon, spreading from one side to the next, and is floating closer to them on the incoming tide. Some of the rafts have soggy cardboard boxes on them, half melted flat by repeated rainstorms. Some items of clothing are thrown on the insulation boards here and there, as though someone stripped and didn't bother to pick up afterwards. An empty pie tin, partially filled with rainwater, stands on one raft, the sole item that raft contains.

Except for items of clothing, the rafts seem empty, and devoid of people. The rafts are looped together by construction netting used to keep the public from construction sites. This netting holds a half dozen insulation rafts together in a neat rectangle, with each rectangle then tied to the others with rope. The raft city was constructed, in desperation, as flood waters were overtaking an island. One of the rafts has a sign laid flat, which says "Ellis Construction" in red lettering against a white background. What looks like rusty reddish/brown paint smears are amid the red lettering and on the pastel pink of the insulation board raft. An open pocketknife is laid on the construction sign.

One of the soggy cardboard boxes begins to bump around, and a leg sticks out. The foot is bare, no shoes, and the pants frayed and tattered. The box bumps around some more and the cannibal's head comes out over the leg and knee, hands to his head, rubbing his eyes. His hair is long, down to his shoulders. A young man, he is thin and without a shirt over his tan shoulders and hairless chest. The cannibal is not making any attempt to get up, as there is no activity that would be fruitful. He is adrift without oars. He has no expression on his face, no motive, and no agenda. Finegan and Joey are standing, silently staring in his direction.

Seems to be someone there.

Finegan turns to return to his bike seat and pedal closer.

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The houseboat is approaching the side of the raft city where the construction sign is located. The cannibal has now noticed the approaching houseboat and is moving from raft to raft. He is springing with a jump from the edge of one raft into the center of another, then gaining his balance, and then repeating this process. The rafts sway back and forth during this process, a bit of water temporarily splashing over the side used as the jump-off.

The cannibal speaks in a husky voice, as though his throat is dry.

Boy am I glad to see you! Been too far from shore to swim. We'd seen sharks. Can you give me a lift?

Finegan has left the pedals, letting the houseboat drift slowing toward the raft city for a gentle landing. He is also being cautious, wanting to be sure he wants to pick this man up before making a bridge with the gangplank. He climbs to the rooftop to engage in a dialog. Joey slips into the pedal seat and back pedals when he sees the gap of water between the houseboat and raft city closing. Finegan asks,

Where's the others?

The cannibal looks shocked at first, not the question he expected. Finally, he finds his voice.

They died. . . We been out here awhile, no land in sight. . . No food. . . Catch a little rainwater now and then. . . I'm the last.

Finegan is still highly suspicious.

How did they die?

The cannibal is realizing for the first time that he needs to concoct a story, as he has been taken by surprise by Finegan's arrival and the tide bringing the floating raft city close to shore.

Ah . . dysentery . . got a fever and the shits and just wasted away.

Finegan is glancing at the bloody construction sign and items of clothing tossed around on most of the rafts and does not buy this story.

All except you, eh? You look plenty well fed.

The cannibal is getting shifty eye'd, feeling trapped, and is starting to worry that he won't get a lift to shore. He is looking over the expanse of water and Finegan can see the mental wheels turning. Finegan looks over his shoulder toward the shore, then back to the cannibal. He says,

The tide's turning again now, pulling out.

The cannibal says,

Maybe I better start swimming then.

With one last look at Finegan's face to look for a change of heart, the cannibal grabs a corner of one of the insulation rafts and jerks it toward him, breaking a corner off. Holding onto this like a phalanx, he dives into the water and starts kicking his feet, paddling to shore using the insulation piece as floatation. Joey has turned the houseboat to follow the cannibal, keeping a distance to the side. After furiously kicking for a few minutes, the cannibal pauses to catch his breath, gasping furiously. The houseboat is about 50 feet away, moving in parallel to the swimmer as they head toward shore. The cannibal has his upper body heaved up onto the insulation board, his feet dangling in the water. He looks over at Finegan.

Not gonna give me a lift, eh?

Finegan says,

Not until you tell me straight.

The cannibal begins to relay his story.

We were losing all land. Had to do somethin. This was couple months back. We had no clue about direction. . . Just floated.

The picture he paints if of twenty people of all ages, including a little girl clutching a rag doll, climbing onto the floating raft city from the roof of a truck cab parked at a construction site. The rafts are turning in the swirling water, bringing empty rafts toward the truck cab, so each person or person with a child or couple can step onto their own raft. Those waiting to board a raft are standing back on the bed of the truck, waist deep in water. Cardboard boxes have been thrown atop some of the floating insulation boards.

The cannibal has now caught his breath. He starts kicking his legs again in ernest, moving in the direction of shore. Finegan is standing with his arms folded over his chest now, openly showing his suspicions. Joey pedals a bit to stay alongside the cannibal. The cannibal once again stops, out of breath, and glances up at Finegan.

So after a couple weeks some that were thin to begin with went blank, ya know. . . in a coma. . . The rest of us were starving, cramps. . . There was a guy who used to be a butcher. . .

The picture he paints if of the raft city at night, a man slithering across a raft to slip onto another raft where a thin man is lying on his back.

One night we heard him go over there, and in the morning we saw what he was about. That guy in a coma had his throat slit, blood everywhere. . . Pieces were missing.

The cannibal is still trying to catch his breath.

He had a knife. Said anyone wants a piece is welcome, but if they try to take him down he'd eat them too.

At this the cannibal starts kicking for another few minutes. Finegan turns his back on the cannibal to speak quietly to Joey during the splashing.

We're not taking him aboard, just so's you know.

The cannibal is again out of breath.

Long story short, that butcher fed well while the rest of us got faint. Next we knew another and another went into a coma, no food and little water. It'd get dark, and by dawn, he'd be on another raft, fresh meat. . . After awhile I saw that I'd be among 'em, if I didn't get something to eat, some blood to drink.

He paints a picture of a decimated raft city, down to a half dozen people.

I ain't proud of it, but I ain't the one slit anyone's throat.

Finegan asks,

So why are you here, the butcher gone?

The cannibal turns to splash away again, kicking furiously. He is trying to maximize his progress, while still hoping to get a lift in the houseboat. He's also trying to buy time to concoct his story. Finegan again uses the opportunity to speak to Joey over his shoulder, in a quiet voice.

I'll bet he's the damn butcher!

Suddenly the splashing stops, the cannibal gasping for breath again. Then all is silent. Finegan turns to look again to the side of the houseboat in the direction of the cannibal. He sees the cannibal no longer clinging to the floating insulation piece, but swimming in long strokes toward the houseboat, closing the 50-foot gap. Finegan motions for Joey to turn the houseboat away from the swimmer. He jumps down to grab a long pole. The houseboat is now churning away from the swimming cannibal, who is only a foot or so from grabbing the paddles on the water wheel at the back. This distance is increased to several feet. The cannibal sees that he has lost this gamble and treads water now. Finegan says,

The butcher ate and you starved, yet you're here and he's not?

The cannibal defends himself, saying,

We were running out of people to eat! It was gonna be me, next. He had to sleep sometime. There was a leg bone from the last carcass. . . Jumping rafts makes a lot of noise, slapping the water, so I slipped into the water and went under him, tipped his raft so he slid. Then I was up top, and had the leg bone. Every time he popped his head up, I'd club him again.

Finegan glances toward the floating insulation piece, seeing it still nearby.

You made good progress toward land. You keep it up, you'll make it. We're not taking you aboard.

The cannibal goes into a backstroke toward his floatation piece, glowering at Finegan as he does so, clearly enraged. As the distance between the cannibal and the houseboat increases, Finegan motions to Joey to get out of the bike seat and let him pedal.

Let's put some distance between us. I wanna be waaaaay down the coast. . . Watch my back, will ya?

Finegan shakes his head, pondering the story as he vigorously pedals away from the swimming cannibal.