I gripped the wet, slick wood with trembling fingers, and pulled myself up to the edge so I could see in the window. It was a ridiculous position: I was fifty feet in the air, balanced precariously on an unstable structure, in the midst of the worst downpour the world had ever seen... and I was doing this mere hours after a cross-country hike (also in the battering rain) which had taken most of the day.
We'd tried to build a ladder, using anything available: bits of furniture the old man and his family had left behind, wood from a couple of outbuildings that we'd disassembled, bits of fence post, even some scrap lumber that looked to be left over from the construction of the old man's crazy boat. What we got wasn't really a ladder, let alone anything as useful as steps. It was just a very steep pile, held together by whatever we could find: bits of clothesline, belts, and as much of our clothing as we could spare.
I was the third one to try to climb it. The first attempt had been made by one of the teenage boys. Two-thirds of the way up, the pile had shifted and he'd lost his grip. The second attempt was made by the father from a young couple who had arrived with their small children on their backs. He'd made it halfway up, then came back down and refused to try again. He said that with all the rain he couldn't get a grip on the wood, but he'd also helped us with the boy who fell; he'd seen the bone sticking out of his shin, seen us force it back in and splint the leg. If his nerve had simply given out, I really couldn't blame him. The whole attempt was suicidal. Even if one of us made it up there, we'd never get anyone else up unless the old man and his family were willing to open the door, or at least lower ropes.
I couldn't blame him, but I couldn't afford to wait for daylight, either: the ground was giving the first faint hints of trembling, precursors to the unmistakable vibration that would herald the arrival of the devouring waters.
So I climbed. The gathering darkness may have helped, forcing me to feel for my next hold as I labored my way up. There was, at least, enough angle that I could stop and lean into the slope when I grew tired.
And now there I was, balanced against the driving rain, standing atop the pile and gripping the edge of the old man's ship. The exposed deck was covered by a massive roof, which was supported by a central structure (little more than a blacker area of the darkness) that probably held the stairs down to the lower decks. The edge of the roof was just above my head, forming a sort of window that went all the way around the boat. It was about a foot and a half high: enough room to squeeze through.
I shifted my arm, and got an elbow on top of the wall. Then I pulled myself up, feet scrambling against the slickness of the hull. If this didn't work, I wasn't going to be able to climb back down.
I got my head through, hooked my other elbow over, and pushed myself out over the deck. I tilted forward, then began to slip down; fortunately, it was in the direction I wanted. I crashed onto my forearms, barely shielding my head from the impact, and let the rest of my body slide down the low wall and flop to the side. For a long moment I could barely move; I just lay there on the deck, aching all over and trying to breathe.
I'd done it.
Then there were voices, and a flare of light that seemed shockingly bright. The old man's sons were spilling out of the central structure. They were just starting to spread out across the deck when one of them saw me and cried out. Then they were all approaching.
I flopped over and forced myself up to my hands and knees. I got a foot under me, then looked up. Kneeling was about as far as I was going to make it: they were standing around me now. The one in front of me held a shovel, and think one of the others had something else, but I didn't have the energy to turn my head and see. "We need--" I said, and began to cough. They just stood there, uncertain or maybe waiting. "We need your help," I said. "There are people down there. You have to get them onto the boat."
"I have to do no such thing," said a voice. The younger men parted to make way for the crazy old man. "I couldn't even if I wanted to."
I started to say, "You can--" but he cut me off.
"The Lord himself has closed up this vessel. He has determined to cleanse the evil from this world, and only we are to be spared. You and all your kind must perish."
"What?" I shouldn't have said that; I saw his expression harden. I took a deep breath and tried again. "You know me. I run a restaurant. What have I done that's so evil that... I don't know... the only solution is to kill the world and start over?"
"That is between you and God," he told me. "I know only what He has chosen to share with me: that the world has grown full of sin and iniquity, and that He will wipe it all away."
I couldn't believe this. All this way, all this effort to save my family, and this monster was going to stand there and let us die. Anger flickered briefly through my veins, but I was too exhausted to support it. Instead, I begged: "My daughter just turned two. She's too young to be wicked. You can raise her, teach her the proper ways of worship and obedience and..." I trailed off, uncertain of what else God might find us lacking in. "Whatever else God requires. At least save the children."
But the old man shook his head. "I would not dare. If the Lord Almighty intended to save them, they would already be aboard. To bring them on now would risk the safety of the ship. If I do not abide by His commands, none of us will survive."
I put a hand on the railing and managed to stand. With nothing left to lose, I asked: "This is your idea of righteousness? To stand by and save yourselves, while all around you children die? What good and loving God would have you make that choice?"
"No." The old man shook his head. "Your mockery did not shake my faith. Your whispers did not shake my faith. Your questions will not shake it now. Go back to your family. Enjoy what time is left to you."
"Enjoy...?" I looked at his sons, and knew I couldn't take them. They were too many, and I was too weak. I had nothing left. I hadn't even brought a weapon; I didn't dare try to climb with one. "You know what? Fine. But you're going to have to lower me down." I paused, looking around me. "Or you can throw me off, and have my blood directly on your hands. I'm honestly too tired to care, at this point."
The old man stiffened. He was silent for a long moment, but finally he said: "Fetch some rope." One of his sons hurried away.
A short time later I was bumping my way down the side of the boat. They'd tied a sort of basket or harness around me, and helped me squeeze back out the window. It was not a comfortable trip, but after everything else I barely noticed.
Then I was lying in the mud, with the rain steadily battering my body: defeated, fallen, and utterly damned. There was a slight tug on the rope, and then it went slack. A moment later it began to pour down on top of me, coil after coil. They'd released it entirely rather than risk that I might try to climb back up.
Hands found me, touched me, helped up. I couldn't see the figures beside me; it was too dark for that. I could barely hear their voices over the rain. But they put their arms around me, and carried me back into the old man's house.
I should have been broken by the knowledge that we were all going to die, but I wasn't. It was as if, with my death assured, my body gave up the last of its hoarded energy. Suddenly, I had enough strength to be angry.
The others were looking at me as they carried me in the door: expectant, hopeful, sure that nobody would knowingly leave us to die in the rising waters. I stood there, not answering, and saw the knowledge and despair spread across their faces.
"One final effort," I rasped. "One last thing to try."
I knew even then that I was lying. I would keep trying one last thing until the waters claimed my corpse, or until the Almighty himself rose up to strike me down. I was only sorry that we lacked the tools to put a hole in that ridiculous, oversized nightmare of a boat. If God was really out to destroy the world, maybe that would have forced Him to renegotiate.
But we couldn't do it. So instead we tried something else. One last thing, before the waters took us.
Continued in Part Five.