Chapter 8: Midnight Plus 2 Hourswritten by fallingwthstyle - illustrated by Hausinge and Sifl-senpai
Robin Shelby had never felt two hours of sustained terror before, and imagined it must be like what wartime soldiers on the front lines must feel. He had experienced brief moments of it in the doctor's office when he learned he had to have a vaccination, and his fear of the pain of the needle filled him with terror for a minute or so; and he had felt it to a lesser degree on the first few days of each new year in school, when he had gone to his new classrooms with a feeling of dread that had tied his stomach up in knots for days before he finally settled in. Pete had protected him from bullies last September at the start of the new school year, and this had been his best year yet.
Nothing in his almost eleven years' of life had prepared him for being on board one of the largest ocean liners ever built suddenly capsizing in the middle of the night, leaving him and a few people struggling to survive.
Reverend Scott had gathered a dozen other survivors from the dining room and led them through the galley, and higher and deeper into the ship, their goal to reach the engine room where they hoped for rescue through the hull of the overturned ship. Mr. Acres had been killed a half hour after escaping the dining room when he fell from a ladder on the inside of a ventilation shaft they were climbing after the second explosion. They had continued onward, finally arriving at Broadway with only one deck to go before the engine room.
Mr. Scott had suggested a short rest break (primarily for the Rosens, who were struggling to keep up) and had suggested a few of them go looking for things they could use. They had encountered another, much larger group of survivors, and he wanted to convince them to follow their group, instead of going toward the bow of the ship which he was certain was under water. Robin had set out with two goals, the first one being to find anything useful like Mr. Scott had said, and with the five lifejackets he was carrying, he had found the first item on his list. He had actually found a dozen lifejackets, but could only carry five of them: Two around his neck, one over each shoulder, and one in his hands.
He had just found the second thing he was looking for, and he tipped his head to the side to read the upside down sign on the door, which read: GENTLEMEN.
The doorknob was just above his head. He reached up to pull it open and stepped over the foot high transom into the reversed men's room. The stench hit him first, before the sight of the carnage. Only the cramping in his guts made him step further inside. Four upside down toilets were suspended above him, each enclosed in a stall, their doors swinging slowly on their hinges to the gentle swaying of the ship. Each toilet had spilled the contents of whatever holding tank they emptied into onto the ruined ceiling. Long streamers of toilet paper hung down beside each one. Along another wall, urinals and sinks also hung suspended, a geyser of water shooting straight down from one of the faucets.
Then Robin spotted the body and cringed. He had seen plenty of dead people in the last two hours; the worst had been the ones he had seen as his group had made their way through the ship's kitchen. Many of them had been burned beyond recognition, even after having been torn up and broken during the capsizing of the ship. Burned flesh smells like burning rotten potatoes.
This body ignited a sense of pathos in Robin that none of them had before. He had always had a good imagination, and it was a curse now as he tried not to picture the terror of this young man's final moments. He was laying directly under one of the toilets, curled up on the ceiling, one side of his head crushed and bloody. His pants and underwear were bunched up around his ankles.
Robin stared for several seconds, then stepped away from the filth under him and set the life preservers he was carrying down. He took off his suit jacket. He had wanted to hang onto it, even though it was now covered with dirt and stains; it had been a gift from his grandmother. He felt like he was giving up something more important than just a piece of clothing as he leaned down and carefully placed his jacket over the body, not covering its head but trying to preserve whatever modesty it might have left in its final resting place. The thought that this room could be flooded at any moment, and most certainly would be eventually, never left him for a moment.
As he straightened up, he saw something orange on the ground in front of the body. He reached down; it was an orange Bic lighter. There was a pack of cigarettes in the man's shirt pocket as well. Robin flicked the lighter several times, satisfying himself that it worked, and then put it in his pants pocket. After a moment's thought, he took the cigarettes too, putting them in his shirt pocket, silently thanking the dead man. Adults sometimes functioned better when they had cigarettes and he was depending on adults to save him, and he told himself he had now found two more possibly useful things. Just let his parents try to take either of them away from him now!
Then, because he couldn't wait any longer, he turned away and walked toward the nearest corner. One of the emergency lights was right next to him as he dropped his pants, squatted down against the wall and relieved himself, hoping that no one else walked into this room in the next minute, burying his face against his knees trying to be brave and not cry.
Once the cramping in his stomach had passed, he looked at the toilet paper streamers hanging down from above beside the upside commodes and finally used the monogramed handkerchief that his grandmother had also given him to clean himself. He wiped his eyes, told himself to be strong, and stood back up, buckling his pants again.
He picked up the lifejackets, giving the body he had covered one more look. "I'm sorry," he said to it, having a hard time looking away from its slack and motionless face. He didn't remember ever seeing this man before during any of his trips through the engine room with Charlie. He put two life jackets around his neck again, and carrying the other three like before, he made his way back over the door's transom and into the hall.
There were more people passing through the corridor now, all heading toward the bow of the ship. Robin noticed that they seemed like they were walking ever so slightly downhill, and realized that it meant that the ship was beginning to settle that way. Soon—minutes, hours, he didn't know—the stern of the ship would rise high up into the air, just like the Titanic did, as more water filled the capsized ship and pulled the bow deeper underwater. He went a few feet in the direction they were going, wanting to tell them that they were headed the wrong way, but he knew he was just a kid in an upside down world of adults and no one would listen to him. He turned to look over their heads for his group, and spotted his sister and Mr. Scott about thirty feet away. There were probably fifty people between Robin and them, and Robin felt himself being pushed along as they tried to hurry in what Robin was now certain was the wrong direction. He saw they were walking toward the open pit of a set of upside down stairs, and started to turn around to return to his group.
At that moment, the ship's emergency lights flickered once and went out. There was a moment of shocked silence as everyone stopped talking, then in the distance a man screamed as the unrelenting darkness drove him to panic. "Oh my God!" someone else yelled, and Robin felt people running past him, one of them almost knocking him over.
Just before the lights had gone out, Robin had spotted a doorknob a few feet away. He felt along the wall desperately for it, hoping to be able to get inside somewhere away from what he knew was about to become a terrified stampeding mob. His own urge to bolt madly was overwhelming, but he forced himself to stay calm as he ran his hands along the wall. He wrapped his fingers around the doorknob for a moment, then someone pushed him, and he felt himself being carried along in the darkness by a mass of bodies all rushing in the same direction. It was all he could do to keep his feet underneath him and not fall and be trampled. He was being carried toward that hole up ahead, and wondered if these people realized they were heading toward a death trap.
The hallway turned into a mob of panicked, screaming people. Robin heard cries of pain coming from a few feet away in the blackness, and realized it was people falling by the dozens into that pit. He tried to stand his ground, but there were too many people pushing him along, and he screamed when he felt the ceiling disappear from beneath his feet.
Robin landed hard, but the life jackets he was carrying cushioned much of the fall. Now he had to get up and move quickly, because people were still falling from the deck above, and one of them could land on him at any moment.
He took two steps into the terrifying darkness and felt someone shove him. Robin fell to his knees, then was pushed down onto the ceiling. Even over the bedlam, he clearly heard the wet snap of the index and middle fingers of his right hand breaking as someone stepped on them. The pain hit him a moment later and he screamed in agony and fear. It felt like two of his fingernails had been torn from their beds.
No one had fallen from the deck above for several moments, and even the sounds around him were getting quieter as the panicked people continued to scatter. Robin rose to his knees, holding his right wrist with his left hand, then slowly stood up. He wasn't even sure where the nearest wall was anymore, and he took a careful step forward, his foot hitting something that felt like someone's head.
He started crying harder, but even as he was crying, he was also trying to think of how he could help himself.
He remembered the lighter he had found. He had put it in his right front pocket; he had to use his left hand to reach for it, and as he did he felt his cell phone brush his fingertips, and had a better idea.
He took out the phone instead of the lighter, and still working with just his left hand, he brought up Pete's school photo. Even as he gazed longingly into the eyes of the boy in the picture, he also realized that the phone made enough light for him to see a few feet around him. He deliberately didn't look at his injured hand, not wanting to see it. He held the phone in front of him, using its faint light to guide his feet carefully over the wreckage on the ceiling. The faint shadows on the walls and floor above were just one more thing that terrified him. He knew his progress was slow, but at least he was moving. He also knew his cell phone battery wouldn't last very long...but there was still the lighter.
He looked up at the hole he had fallen through, and knew there was no way he was getting back up there without help. He screamed: "MOM!" and there were only echoes, then silence. "Mr. Scott! Help!" There was no answer. Robin looked around desperately, wishing he had more light. He knew there was another way up to that deck he had been on, one that would be possible for him to climb, and started slowly walking, looking for familiar landmarks.
He looked at Pete's picture on his phone, and began talking to it as he made his way slowly uphill. "I'm glad you're here, Pete. I mean, I'm glad you're not really here. I'm glad you're at home safe. But I'm glad you're here with me like this." He held the phone close to his face, wishing he could touch the glowing screen with his other hand. "I love you, Pete." The tears started coming again, only this time it wasn't from the pain in his broken fingers, it was from his longing to see Pete for real again, to be wrestling in his backyard on his trampoline or watching television with him while they made fun of the people in whatever show they were watching, laughing hysterically while eating pizza. "If I get out of this, I have to talk to you, okay?"
His eyes blurred while he imagined Pete whispering words of encouragement to him, telling Robin that he loved him too, and Robin slowly continued walking. It was all he could do not to scream from the agony of his broken fingers.
He continued in the same direction for some twenty minutes, what he sensed was uphill toward the stern and the direction that should take him closer to his group one deck up. He was just coming to a small connecting passageway that he thought he recognized when his phone began flickering. "No!" he cried out, bringing the phone close to his face for one last look at Pete. The phone died, once again plunging him into that terrifying blackness. He sank to the ground and buried his face against his knees, crying miserably. He was alone again, his hand was in agony, there was so much destruction around him that trying to move without some kind of light was dangerous, and he was ready to just give up. He never thought he would ever be hoping for a quick death.
After five minutes, he forced himself to move again. He exchanged his phone for the lighter and held the flame over his head, looking both ways at the new corridor he had reached. The flame only lit about ten feet around him, and he couldn't spot anything else that looked familiar. He finally decided to keep going in the same direction and began walking again. He wasn't sure if it was his imagination, but he thought he saw, just for a moment, a flash of light a long way off in the darkness.
Robin put the lighter out and stared into the inky blackness. There it was again, a quick flash of light, just for a moment, far ahead of him. Then he saw another one, even farther away.
"Help!" he screamed. "Help me!" He had no idea if whoever was out there would be willing to help a frightened, injured kid in the middle of this disaster, but then from far away, the light shined directly at him, and began bobbing from side to side as it came closer, sending harsh shadows swaying across the walls. Robin began stumbling toward it, holding his injured hand in front of him, looking at it for the first time. The index and middle fingers were unnaturally bent at the first knuckle toward his palm; blood dripped from the torn nails, and his shirt sleeve was drenched with it. Robin couldn't see into the glare of the approaching flashlight, but the person holding it should be able to see him by now. He hoped that whoever was coming toward him was kind.
"Jesus Christ!" The voice was familiar. "Robin?!"
"Stan!!" Even as he was crying, he had never felt such relief as he did when he saw his friend Stan coming out of the darkness towards him. Stan lowered the flashlight toward the ground. Robin held his injured hand up higher, and Stan's face went from relief at seeing him to shock and horror.
"Oh Jesus," Stan said quietly, leaning down slightly to Robin and putting his hand on his shoulder. "Okay, okay. You're going to be all right now. We're going to take care of you. There's a doctor with us. Come with me—can you walk?"
Robin began stumbling alongside Stan back the way he had come, crying even harder, but now it was with relief. Stan kept talking softly to him, his hand never leaving his shoulder, telling him over and over he would be okay, and Robin knew he was right. He knew the doctor would probably set his fingers, and it was going to hurt terribly and probably make him scream, but then it would feel better and it was the right thing to do. His friend Stan would take care of him while it was happening, and even though his broken fingers ached more than he ever imagined pain could hurt, and he knew he could die at any moment if the ship sank, for the first time in nearly three hours, he felt momentarily safe.
Other people were coming toward them out of the darkness, flashlights casting more of those terrifying shadows. "Wendy!" Stan shouted toward them. "We need help here!" She stepped forward, Kyle right behind her.
"Robin?" Kyle's voice was horrified as he knelt down beside him.
Wendy was already reaching for his arm to examine him. "I'm not going to touch your fingers yet, Robin," she said when he tried to pull his arm away. "I just need to look at them, all right?" He reluctantly let her take his wrist to examine him; Stan and Kyle both aimed their flashlights at Robin's hand. Stan still had his hand on Robin's shoulder.
"You're going to be all right." Kyle said, and Robin gave him a grateful look, wiping tears with his left hand. A moment later, he shrank back against Stan, overwhelmed by the sight of four more people approaching him. It was the whole group from Colorado, his friends as well as the fat guy he hadn't really gotten to know. Tweek was staring in horror, his hands covering his mouth.
"Hey guys," Stan said before they had closed in on them completely. "Let's back up and give him some air, okay? Wendy's got to examine him...and probably set his fingers." He looked at Kyle and shook his head, trying to silently tell him he should go too.
"You're going to stay, right Stan?" He was still crying hard, terrified of the far greater pain to come. Stan looked up at Kyle, and he shook his head, trying to convey the message I gotta do this one myself, dude. Kyle nodded and looked down at his flashlight.
"Of course I will, Robin."
"Come on guys," Kenny said, grabbing Kyle's arm to lead him away. "Let's go." He leaned closer to Kyle and whispered, "I need to talk to you anyway."
The group walked back down the corridor, stopping some thirty feet away beside the upside down stairs. Kenny put his arm over Butters' shoulder and kissed his cheek. "Stay here for just a minute, okay? I'll be right back." Butters looked terrified but nodded.
Kyle and Kenny walked a little farther up the hall and Kyle asked quietly, "What is it, Kenny?"
"The ship's not floating level anymore," Kenny said. There was fear in his eyes. "I just noticed it a couple of minutes ago. I think the bow's starting to sink."
Kyle looked down at the shattered ceiling beneath his feet. He could feel it now too, a barely perceptible tilt in the once-level surface. "How long do you think we have?"
From far down the dark hall came a sudden, sharp scream of pain, followed quickly by another. Kenny closed his eyes painfully and Kyle put a hand over his. Robin was sobbing hysterically while Stan's voice quietly uttered unintelligible comforting words.
"I don't know Kyle!" Kenny said. His eyes were damp. "Minutes...hours? I don't know. Oh my God, I just want to get us out of here. I want to get Butters out of here...and him." He looked in the direction the cries were coming from. Kyle looked closely at their leader and saw that he was starting to fall apart.
"Yeah. I know Kenny. We just have to keep moving. It's the only plan we've got." Robin's crying was tapering off.
"I'm going to mention what I just told you to Stan. I don't think we should tell anyone else yet, though. They'll figure it out soon enough." He stopped talking because Butters was walking toward them from the shadows. He didn't stop until he had his face pressed to Kenny's chest and they were holding each other. "It's going to be okay, baby," Kenny whispered to him, rocking him gently from side to side.
They could see Stan's flashlight moving toward them now, Stan leading the way with an arm around Robin's shoulders, shining a flashlight at their feet. Wendy was two steps behind them, holding a second flashlight aimed at the ground in front of them. Robin was looking down as he walked, rubbing his eyes with his left hand; his right had a large, bulky white bandage on it.
"Hey Robin," Kenny said when he joined them a moment later.
"Hey." Robin sniffed once and looked up, his eyes shiny in the glow of their flashlights.
"You were really brave back there," Kenny said awkwardly.
"Uh!" Robin shook his head. "No I wasn't! I screamed like a girl."
"Damn right you did," Kenny said immediately. Kyle looked at him sharply, and Kenny finished: "And so would any of us if we'd just had two broken fingers set without anesthesia. I stand by what I said: You were brave back there."
Robin nodded. "Thank you, Kenny." He was still fighting tears, but the corners of his mouth twitched with a slight smile.
"Robin, what happened to you?" Kyle asked. "Why were you...by yourself?"
"Mr. Scott sent us out to find stuff we could use. I got separated from them when the lights went out. I fell and...someone stepped on my hand."
"Jesus, Robin." Stan squeezed his shoulder. "You're with us, now, okay? We're going to take care of you...and we're all going to get out of here."
"Who were you with, Robin?" Kenny asked. "Besides Mr. Scott."
"My sister and parents. The Rogos. Mr. and Mrs. Rosen, Mr. Martin, and 'Nonnie.' She was the singer in that band." Cartman and Tweek were walking toward them, giving up on trying to reach the next deck the way they had been.
"Jesus," Kyle said, relieved that a lot of their friends had at least survived the capsizing and were somewhere else on the ship, also trying to escape.
"Mr. Acres was with us, too." Robin looked down at his feet. "But he was killed an hour after the ship turned over—"
"Acres is dead?" Cartman exclaimed, sounding dismayed.
"Yuh-yes, sir. We were climbing up a ventilation shaft. That second explosion knocked him off the ladder. Mr. Rogo tried to save him, but..."
"Jesus," Stan whispered as he took in Robin's story.
"Robin?" Kenny said. He put his hand on Robin's shoulder. "Do you know where we are?"
"Yes, sir." Robin looked around at the wrecked corridor. "We're one deck above...I mean below... Broadway, and two decks below the engine room, near the center of the ship."
"We can't escape this way," Kenny said, aiming his flashlight toward the staircase they had been trying to get up. "Or...it's going to take too long. Do you know another way we can get to the engine room from here?"
Robin took Kenny's flashlight with his left hand and used it to look around. Even upside down, this part of the ship seemed familiar...but it wasn't an area he had spent a lot of time in. He finally spotted a familiar door with an upside down CREW ONLY sign and suddenly remembered exactly where he was, and something nearby that Charlie had shown him. "Sir, I do know another way up! We can all get right up to the engine room this way!"
"Where is it, Robin?" Kenny asked. "Can you take us there?"
Robin pointed the flashlight down the hall, downhill toward the bow of the ship. "It's that way, maybe a hundred feet?"
"Shit...toward the front. I was afraid of that." Kenny thought for a moment. "Stan, let's you, me, and Robin go check this out. Kyle...maybe keep them working on that pile of crap under the stairs, just in case, but let's keep Butters off of it. Robin, are you up to showing us this?" Robin nodded, eager to be useful.
"Kenny, can I come with you?" Butters asked nervously.
"Butters, why don't you stay here and help them, okay? We'll be back as soon as we can."
Butters nodded unhappily. "All right. Just...shine your flashlight at me once in a while, so I know you're okay."
"You bet I will. Let's go guys."
They set off down the hallway, Stan and Kenny carrying flashlights, Robin walking between them, holding his right hand awkwardly in front of him so he wouldn't bump it on anything. Kenny and Stan helped him over a couple larger pieces of debris. As they got closer, Robin began looking for familiar landmarks; he didn't want to let them down now that they were depending on him.
"I can't believe you guys went with me to find this," Robin said, finally spotting the short passageway he was looking for.
"Why wouldn't we, Robin?" Stan asked, genuinely curious. They stopped when Robin paused in front of a short connecting hallway and looked down it. Each side of it was lined with upside down lockers; what he wanted them to see was at the very end, maybe fifteen feet away.
"My parents...none of the group I was with believed I knew anything about this ship. I tried to tell them things a couple times, and they ignored me. Mr. Rogo told me to be quiet, even."
"Jesus Christ," Kenny said irritably. "You probably spent more time in this part of the ship than the rest of them put together."
"Yes sir, I did." He took Stan's flashlight and aimed it down the hallway. "This is it, sir."
Kenny's eyes widened as he looked where Robin was shining the light. At the end of this short passageway was a set of ladder rungs bolted to the wall. On both the ceiling below and the floor above were solid-looking hatches, each about three feet square with a large red handle attached to an elaborate locking mechanism.
"Those are water tight doors," Robin explained, stepping forward, Kenny and Stan following him now. "If you go up that first one, you'll come out on Broadway. There's another ladder and hatch above this one, and it'll take you to the ceiling of the engine room. There used to be a catwalk right underneath it."
"Amazing," Kenny said as they stood together, looking up at the first hatch. "This will be a piece of cake." He took one step up the ladder, holding his flashlight above him and shining it on the first hatch. "Hey, why don't you guys get back, just in case. And one of you needs to go back out into the hall and shine that flashlight at Butters for me."
Kenny waited until they'd moved away and done as he asked. Then he climbed eight steps up the ladder and reached over his head to open the hatch. It dropped open on its hinges, several gallons of water pouring from the deck above and splashing down below his feet. He shined the flashlight above his head onto the next deck. "I'll be goddamned," he said, climbing the ladder the rest of the way.
Stan and Robin heard him open the hatch on the deck above. A moment later, Kenny called down: "Stan! Start getting everyone down here. This is the way to the engine room."