“What are you doing here?”
He glanced at me over his shoulder. His eyes were red, and the crow’s-feet at their corners made them look dry enough to crack. He hadn’t shaved; the stubble was harshly gray against the wind-frozen redness of his cheeks.
After a moment, he moistened his lips and looked back out to sea. “What do you want?”
“You not to jump overboard, for one.” He didn’t look at me again, but his body stiffened beneath the blanket over his shoulders. He hadn’t left that blanket out of his sight since I’d draped it over him two nights before; it was the only thing aboard the RMS Carpathia that had given him any comfort.
I cleared my throat — needlessly, since I was already certain I had his attention. “The doctor told me to get the young man sulking around the railings and bring him in for a cup of soup. You can’t stand here in the rain all night.” It had stopped raining — for the moment, at least — but he didn’t bother to correct me. That was a bad sign. I asked, my voice as gentle as I could make it, “What do you think you’re going to find out there?”
He looked over his shoulder again, not at me, but at the stack of lifeboats in the center of the deck. They were white as ghosts, and the name Titanic written about the prow seemed as ominous now as The Lady of Shalott from Tennyson’s poem.
“We were supposed to be buried together,” he said. His voice held no pathos, only weariness.
“Like Romeo and Juliet, walled up forever in the Capulets’ tomb?” I shook my head. “There’s no audience for this play, sweetheart. It doesn’t matter to her now.”
His eyes flicked back to me. I didn’t bother to compose my face, but met his gaze steadily, letting him read there what he would. I knew the moment he discovered it, the moment he gave in to the sixth sense that lets one widow recognize another. “When did your husband die?”
“Two years ago,” I said. “This is the first time I’ve sailed without him. He was always the one who loved the sea.”
“How did it happen?”
I inched closer to the edge of the deck, resting my hand beside his on the railing with the same gentleness I would use to avoid frightening a caged bird.
“That must have been awful,” he said. The lift in his voice may have been uncertainty — or disparagement. Either one was an improvement.
“It was,” I said. “Do you know how she…?”
His face reminded me vividly of the moment — was it only two days before? — when we pulled the last of the lifeboats out of the water. A line of women had stood at the railing, watching for their husbands and children. I remembered the awful looks on their faces as they realized their families were not on board.
“We were already seated in the boat,” he said. “On the starboard side, where First Officer Murdoch was loading; he let me stay with her. Lightoller on the port side wouldn’t have let me board. I almost wish…” He didn’t finish the sentence, and like a coward, I was grateful for it. After a cold silence, he began again. “She was looking for the elderly couple from the cabin across from ours — the old man was ill, and she was afraid they hadn’t made it to the deck. That’s how she was, always looking out for people who interested her. And she never thought of the consequences. Before anyone could realize what she meant to do, she scrambled out of the boat. That was the last I saw of her.” His fingers clenched around the railing. “I should have stopped her. I should have gone with her.”
“She died bravely,” I said. My friends had told me the same thing about my husband; I couldn’t remember if it helped or not.
“They always do,” he said. “Either she was brave enough to fight death, or she was brave enough to accept it. I don’t even know which. But I know she didn’t die a coward.” He clenched the railing tighter, as if he wanted to snap it with his bare hands. Hesitantly, I moved my fingers closer to his. “Cowards only survive,” he said.
“Sometimes, surviving takes more courage.”
His laugh was like ice in the darkness.
“You don’t believe me?” I covered his hand with mine. “If it isn’t so much harder to survive, why aren’t you stepping back from the rail?”
He looked at me. He looked at the water. I felt him shaking through my grip on his hand. Without wanting to, I felt my own hand tremble, remembering the feel of my husband’s razor against my wrist. I remembered every scrap of courage it had taken to put that razor down.
I felt, so slowly as to be almost imperceptible, his fingers uncurling from the railing.
He took a step back.
I caught him as he started to collapse; I had known it would happen, even if he didn’t. I knew that single step had taken all the strength in his body.
“Come on,” I said, arranging the blanket over his shoulders. He took a deep breath, draping his arm around me, and managed to steady himself on his feet. I smiled at him, and if he was not quite ready to smile back, there was still a lightness in his eyes that hadn’t been there before. “Let’s go get you some soup.”
Megan Arkenberg is a writer and poet from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her work has recently appeared in the Lorelei Signal, New Myths, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She also edits a small fantasy ezine, Mirror Dance.