The roar of the engine coughed and then died. The jaws of darkness and total silence swallowed him whole. For a moment he was too shocked to do anything. Had the engine broken? Had he made a mistake and allowed it to overheat? He sat there, the girl sleeping against his chest, his heart racing.
He saw the veil of stars, not beautiful but cruel and too bright, and now he could almost hear the small stellar roar, the sound of a silver jet crawling through the high heavens.
What’s real? He wondered.
Everything is real. Everything is fucking real. The little girl, who he’d expected to cry had steered the boat and then without a word, she’d crept into his arms after the sun went down and soon she was fast asleep. He remembered they’d been up well before dawn that morning.
Now she was twitching. After some minutes whatever she was dreaming startled her so much, she woke up, her arms flailing.
“You’ve been dreaming.” His voice was warm, and throbbed in the blackness of space.
Slowly grainy reality bore through the umbilical films of dream-feel. There was no sound at all. It took her a full minute to realise that the soft warmth behind her head was Hugh’s t-shirt covered chest, and a small splash reminded her that they were floating somewhere off the north western coast of the Palawan island dagger. There were stars everywhere.
“What were you dreaming about? You were twitching and plucking the air like Pinocchio’s sister.”
She punched him hard, hurting him. “I didn’t know Pinocchio HAD (punch) a sister.”
“Neither did I. Stop that! Well?”
“Tell me what you were dreaming about. Looked fucking intense.”
Stella glanced about, the cups of her dark hair swinging slightly against her cheeks, her eyes glistening like dark wet pebbles. She paused now, turning herself inward and taking time to submerge, to drop down below the austere grip of present reality, to sink into the soft silky sponge of dreams.
“Have you seen the movie X-Men, The Last Stand?”
“Remember near the end, when Jean Grey, or what was left of her, her spirit, is this phoenix like creature, with flaming red hair and dark eyes…”
In the darkness Hugh nodded.
“The veins in her face harden, her eyes turn black and her red hair catches the light. She rises slowly into the air, like dark fire. It’s like fire without any light, the fire of incredible rage.”
He felt her head turn against him. “I remember, go on.”
“And then everything around her is destroyed, turned into ash, or fibres. People, buildings, everything smashed or turned to dust. And her rage just increases, a silent, terrible rage – but you can’t really blame her for it – against the whole world.”
“And then I saw you, moving towards me, with one of the X-Men…Wolverine.”
“You mean ‘moving towards her’.”
“That’s what I said.”
“And the skin’s being torn off his body, showing the shiny adamantium underneath. Your clothes are also torn off, and at your stomach, you start to bleed.”
“Me and Wolverine?”
“And she says to you, from her black eyes: ‘You would die for these people?’ And together you say: ‘No-.’”
“I would die for you,” Hugh finished, his forearms prickling with goose pimples.
“Shush,” she said, slapping his knee. “Stop interrupting!”
“Okay, I’m sorry, go on.”
Stella made a dramatic sigh, then continued: “Well then she says to you: ‘Save me,’ and then I woke up.”
“Damn. I’m dying to know whether I saved her or not.”
“Do you think I did?”
“I don’t see how. Wolverine loved her and she loved him. I’m not sure what you were doing there.”
She decided not to tell him now that Wolverine got blown away at this point, leaving just him, standing there.
“Well maybe I was doing my bit to save the world,” Hugh offered, with a generous wave of his hand, and a small smile.
“Unless you were along for the ride, trying to save your own skin. Piggybacking on Wolverine.” Now she was purposefully misleading him.
“Is that what you think?” Hugh said, looking sadly up at the bright Milky Way bicycling around them.
Still staring at the cosmos Hugh said: “But you must have some idea where your dream was taking you?”
“I think in the next moment everything was about to be destroyed. Wolverine wasn’t sure what to do because you were there.”
“So I screwed everything up eh. I shouldn’t have asked you to tell me about your dream. I shouldn’t have asked.”
They sat in the silence for a few seconds. It was cool and soothing under the stars, not cold, and cotton soft.
She put an arm around him: “So why did we stop?”
“Well, we ran out of fuel, and I didn’t want to wake you.”
“That’s twisted man. So how long have we been floating here?”
“Long. I saw a boat pass by that was on fire. I sat and watched it until the dark swallowed it up.”
“Well, can we go now.”
“I suppose so. I could do with your help refuelling her.”
“I’ve done it plenty of times.”
“My sick grandfather often took me on boat trips.”
“What was wrong with him.”
“He was just a total sicko.”
They both shifted now, careful not to loose their balance in the narrow boat, and passed along the second jerry can, and filled up the engine. When they were done Stella screwed on the fuel cap. It was obvious now that Stella had been on these boats many times before. Without her help, Hugh reflected, he would not have made it this far.
So Stella ripped once, then again, and then a third time at the cord to turn the engine. On her fourth try, the engine roared to life.
“Good girl. Good job Stella.”
It churned up the water and as it did, a luminous tin foil spread around them. Stella turned them a little to bring them on course.
“Do you know where you’re going?” Hugh asked.
“I have an idea. But at night, and without light, it’s difficult.”
High looked at the foil wake trailing behind them. At first Hugh thought it was merely a reflection of the stars, except the light stayed for an extra instant in the water before being extinguished.
Hugh leaned over and saw where the wood spooned the water into curling troughs of silver snow and stars. He watched the water break and freckle into silvery gray light that slowly fizzled into dark water behind them.
Both of them felt the past, the two dead children, mingling with the magic around them. It somehow made it a far and more magnificent universe than they had ever dared believe.
For two more hours they drove the engine over the calm waters, and after the engine died a second time, and filling the engines with the second drum, they felt a breeze blowing them forward. They had been moving forward in a blind fashion, but they saw the yellow sponges of burning forest on their right, and used these as successive beacons to navigate the sickle sections of coast. Sometimes they bumped into strange objects floating in the water that turned out to be bodies (some of them human), or coconuts, or flotsam.
After a particularly hard knock and the sight of a face whirling in watery circles, screaming silently out of the water, Stella said: “I know what the dream meant.”
“I was Jean Grey. And I knew Wolverine wasn’t going to save me, because he’s not real, and after all, it was just a movie.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well how do you know for sure?”
“Because I know, okay. Why do you have to be such a dick. It’s a compliment that I dreamt of you like that. Don’t you get it?”
“No, I don’t get it. Stella I’m not sure I have saved you at all, or me for that matter. We could drown tonight. We could get lost. Even if we arrive at El Nido, people on that end are going to ask questions. What happens if Eric has radioed them and warned them in advance?”
“Stop worrying. Eric is dead. I’m sorry he is, but he is, and that’s it. The soldiers are running that place now.”
Hugh was quietly surprised by this strong GI Jane persona. “Maybe,” he offered, equivocally.
Then in a voice that seemed to belong to someone else, Stella said: “Look. My step grandfather was abusing me. He has been for a long time now.”
Hugh cleared his throat, a sound drowned by the steady throbbing of the engine and the rush of churning water behind the boat. Some moments passed.
“How old are you Stella?” Hugh said, into the breath of the wind.
“Almost sixteen. And you?”
“More than twice your age. Listen, I’m sorry -.”
“Yeah yeah yeah.”
“No, I really am sorry about what happened. You didn’t deserve that – not that anyone does. But listen, I don’t deserve any credit here. I didn’t save you; you saved yourself.”
“Hey, you know what, you’re right. I saved both our butts.”
“Well don’t let it go to your head.”
She offered him a small, mischievous smile.
The smile softened, then slipped away. Neither mentioned at this point what they were both thinking: that their actions had also led to the deaths of the twins. Each time they knocked into something floating in the water, the memory of dropping them into the sea revisited them involuntarily.
The man and the small girl in the little boat moved through the great gulf of night, a single engine making a soft moaning noise as it moved across the sea. Stella pointed her small fingers, and Hugh saw the silhouette of Palawan’s ridges blocking out the high black fields of star strewn space. Wind began to push now at their backs, the boat knocked unpleasantly against rising swells, around them the tops of waves were torn off. Angry wind whipped spray into the boat. Next warm and silvery foam splashed over warm and woollen feet, and drove the waves into surging columns of an ocean that was triangulating around them.