*This is a short story that I entered in the Hope in Disaster Short Story Contest. I'm so thankful for the ladies who put this together during this time of quarantine. Even though I did not finalize, I'm grateful that I got to participate, for everyone who read the story to get it ready to go, and for the chance to share it all with you!*
“Why don’t you paint, Annabell?”
I turned my face towards the wall.
The mattress sagged as he sank onto the edge of my bunk. “It might make some things . . . clearer.”
I clenched my fist.
“It could help you . . .” My brother, Benjamin’s voice swam. “I don’t even know what I’m saying, Annabell.”
My throat ached, but still I said nothing.
“We have a few months left. Don’t you want to make the most of it?”
I pulled myself up on my elbows and yanked my hair out of my face. “What’s the point? I’m dying, Ben!” Oh, how I wanted to deny it, but there sat the letter from the specialist on the side table.
Mr. and Mrs. DeRose,
I regret to inform you of what I have just informed Benjamin and Annabell. Annabell’s condition was much worse than I could have imagined from your letter. I fear only a few months remain.
“I’m dying.” The whisper died on my lips.
He pressed his fist to his mouth. “It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.”
I flopped down and faced the wall. “No, I don’t want to paint.”
With a sigh, the weight lifted from the bunk. “If you don’t want to, you don’t have to.”
A rumble shook the ship. “It’s been doing that for the past two hours.” Ben held out a hand. “Come on. We could go see those icebergs L’Angley told us about.”
I curled deeper into the bunk.
The door crashed open. I turned just enough to see a steward poke his head in. “Everyone in their life jackets and up to the main deck!” The door slammed, only for the one next door to bang open. “Everyone—!”
I pulled myself up on shaky wrists. “Ben?”
He stared at the door. Another rumble shook the ship. He shook false cheer into his voice. “You heard the man. Life jackets and up to the main deck.” Ben pulled my life jacket from where I’d tossed it in the bottom drawer. I hadn’t imagined I’d ever need it. Nothing could sink her, they said.
He fitted it over my gown, which I hadn’t bothered to change out of after the night’s insufferable dinner, and eased me into my wheelchair.
But instead of shoving out into the passageway, he doubled back and yanked open one of my drawers. “Benjamin, honestly!”
He pulled out my newest set of watercolors, just purchased in Southampton, where this wretched journey began. He pulled out a canvas from the furthest corner—a painting I’d done of that very city as our ship pulled in.
“You don’t need to—”
Ben set the watercolors and canvas in my lap. He flung open the door and pushed my chair out into the passageway.
People sprinted up the ladder to the deck without a care for anyone or anything else. One mother dragged her child straight into my wheelchair. I huffed and crossed my arms over my middle. “Ben, why—”
“I don’t know.” Ice laced both his words and his breath. He lifted my chair.
A gentleman bumped us with his suitcase on his own charge up the ladder. Ben lost his grip and we both tumbled to the floor. I shrieked and gripped the arms of my wheelchair.
Ben took the paints and canvas back, lifted me from the chair, and sprinted up the ladder.
My chair clattered, abandoned behind us.
Our charge ended in a wall of people. Stewards scurried about. Crew members examined instruments I’d never seen before, tugged on ropes, clambered up and down ladders. And always the people pushing and shoving . . .
“Ben, what do you see?” I craned my neck. For the first time, I realized we stood at an angle.
Not us . . . The ship rested at an angle.
“The women and children are boarding lifeboats.” The frozen breeze frisked his hair as he gazed down at me. “That means you.”
“No, Ben. We stay together.” I clutched at his lapels.
He laid the paints and canvas in my lap. “It’s only for a little while.”
Ben kicked and elbowed his way to one of the lifeboats in time with my protests. He laid me in the seat. I wouldn’t let go. I couldn’t let go. This wasn’t real. It couldn’t be.
“Cut the ropes!” bellowed a crew member.
“Ben, come quickly, now!” I tugged on his coat.
But Ben only pried my hands free. “Soon, Annabell. Soon.”
The lifeboat lurched, then plunged downward. Splash! Water soaked my hair, coat, and canvas. I dabbed it with my sleeve.
And there we remained. We could do nothing more than row in circles—I could do nothing more than clutch the canvas to my chest and stretch out a hand—as the RMS Titanic slipped beneath the icy waves.
As Ben slipped with it.
The colors bled.
I didn’t watch as we pulled into New York City. Not that I had the chance. Everyone must have forgotten I still huddled down here alone.
I didn’t want to watch anyway.
I pulled the canvas away from my chest. The surface had dried, but I knew the layers beneath still shuddered from the water. No matter how it dried, I could never repair it. I couldn’t even make out that Southampton dock from oh so long ago.
I didn’t remember. Didn’t care to.
At last, a steward deemed it fit to see to me. He dragged me up to the main deck and pushed my new wheelchair down the gangplank. All around me people dashed off the ship, embraced their families, sobbed at their loss, laughed at their good fortune.
No one stood there for me. Father and Mother were late.
The canvas bled against my chest.
The steward left me on the pier across from a young woman not far from my own age. She wrung her hands in the most aggravating manner and stretched up on her tiptoes.
I followed her gaze until I saw what had so enraptured her.
A young man, not far off of Ben’s age. Ben. . .
He ran towards the nervous young woman and caught her in his arms. She mumbled against his shoulder and laughed so hard she cried.
I turned away. Once more, I pulled the canvas away from my chest. Bruised colors smeared against my fingertips.
I tossed the canvas into a pile of crates.
“Why don’t you paint, Annabell?”
Ben’s question. Mother’s voice. I didn’t even grace it with a reply. Only stared out the window in the same manner that I used most of my time as of late. The world went on beneath me in a brilliant rehearsal for how it would in three short months when I no longer joined its dance.
Mother gave up. I leaned my head against the back of my wheelchair.
Only moments passed before footsteps pattered in. They couldn’t hire a decent maid for our stay here? “Marion, I don’t want anything. Please leave.”
“Finally, I’ve found you!”
The voice most certainly did not belong to Marion. It even caused me to drop the hand from my eyes and turn as best I could.
I needn’t have bothered. The footsteps brought a boy of ten to stand in front of me. He carried a bulky cloth-wrapped object under his arm and tatters on his clothes. He looked as out of place in this fine parlor as a mouse or some other such creature might.
“Forgive me for sneaking past the maid, but I’ve been looking for you for months!” A grin lit up his freckled face, like the lights from the Carpathia had lit up the waters.
I laid my head back once more. “I believe you’ve made a mistake.”
“No mistake! See, your signature, right here.” The boy tore the cloth off the object to reveal a canvas.
“I had a time of it deciphering the signature, since it was so smeared and all. Suppose it must have gotten soggy in those crates. But I waited for it to dry, and now . . .” He set the canvas in my lap. “Here.”
I didn’t touch the canvas. The wounded colors wept even more in the sight of day. My shoulders sagged. “Thank you. But I’m sorry you went to so much trouble for this piece of trash.”
He looked at me in horror. “No, no, miss. It’s not trash. It’s too beautiful to be trash. It’s just not finished yet.”
I stared down at the bleary canvas. A drop of orange graced the corner. Like a spark. Like a light from a rescue ship.
“I guess God hadn’t finished it either.” With a wise little bob of his head, he brushed his hands together. “Well, I’m off.”
“Wait.” I brushed his arm and fumbled for my purse. “Please. Let me reward you.”
He frowned and stepped back out of my grip. “But I didn’t come for a reward.” He scrunched up his face. “Wait, I know! If you want to reward me, then reward me by finishing the painting. That’ll be a good reward.”
He gazed at the blur of colors. And I let myself do the same. I tucked my purse away. “Very well, then. So I shall.”
He grinned wide enough to reveal a missing tooth.
“Would you do something for me? Let Marion know to bring my watercolors up.”
“Straightway, miss.” He tipped his cap and scurried away. I turned to the window just in time to watch him skip down the street.
“Your paints, miss.”
I dipped my brush into the cup of water. I lingered over each color I dripped the water into. Where to start? What to paint?
Marion was so kind as to bring up my easel as well. I set the canvas atop it and pulled my wheelchair closer. I looked at the canvas. I looked at my palette.
I dabbed my brush in the sky blue. Ben’s favorite. I brushed it across the canvas. I followed it with a streak of lilac, my personal favorite. The strokes bled together into the sky beyond my window.
Perhaps God hadn’t finished after all.
I turned a corner of my mouth up. “Yes, I’d love to paint.”
(c) Rachel Judith Leitch