She was beautiful, huge, as graceful as a racing liner. She was a floating Crystal Palace, as magnificent as anything J.P. Morgan could conceive. Designed by Alexander Carlisle and built by Harland and Wolff, she wore the golden band of the company along all nine hundred feet of her. She rose one hundred seventy-five feet, like the side of a cliff, with nine steel decks, four sixty-two-foot funnels, and more than two thousand windows and sidelights to illuminate the luxurious cabins, suites, and public rooms. She weighed forty-six thousand tons and her reciprocating engines and Parsons-type turbines could generate over fifty thousand horsepower and give her better than twenty knots. She had a gymnasium, a Turkish bath, squash and racket courts, a swimming pool, libraries, lounges, and sitting rooms. There were cubicles and suites to accommodate seven hundred thirty-five first-class passengers, six hundred seventy-four in second class, and more than a thousand in steerage.
She was the R.M.S. Titanic, and Stephen met Esme on her promenade deck as she pulled out of her Southampton berth, bound for New York on her maiden voyage.
Esme stood beside him, resting what appeared to be a cedar box on the rail, and gazed out over the cheering crowds on the docks below. She was plain-featured and quite young. She had a high forehead, a small, straight nose, wet brown eyes that peeked out from under plucked, arched eyebrows, and a mouth that was a little too full. Her blond hair, though clean, was carelessly brushed and tangled around a barette in the back.
To Stephen she seemed beautiful.
“Hello,” he said. Colored ribbons and confetti snakes were coiling through the air, and anything seemed possible.
Esme glanced at him. “Hello, you,” she said. Then she turned away.
“I said, ‘Hello, you.’ That’s an expression that was in vogue when this boat first sailed, if you’d care to know. It means, ‘Hello, I think you’re interesting and I’d even consider sleeping with you if I were so inclined.’ ”
“You must call it a ship,” Stephen said.
She laughed and for an instant looked at him intently, as if in that instant she could see everything about him — that he was taking this voyage because he was bored with his life, that nothing had ever really happened to him. He felt his face become hot.
“Okay, ship. Does that make you feel better?” she asked. “Anyway, I want to pretend that I’m living in the past. I don’t ever want to return to the present. I suppose you do, want to return, that is.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Look how you’re dressed. You shouldn’t be wearing modern clothes on this ship. You’ll have to change later, you know.” She herself was perfectly attired in a powder-blue walking suit with matching jacket, a pleated, velvet-trimmed front blouse, and an ostrich-feather hat. She looked as if she had stepped out of another century.
“What’s your name?” he inquired.
“Esme.” She turned the box that she was resting on the rail and opened the side facing the dock. “You see,” she said to the box, “we really are here.”
“What did you say?” Stephen asked.
“I was just talking to Poppa,” she said, closing and latching the box.
“I’ll show you later if you like.” Bells began to ring, and the ship’s whistles cut the air. There was a cheer from the dock and on board as the ship moved slowly out to sea. To Stephen it seemed that the land, not the ship, was moving. The whole of England floated peacefully away while the string band on the ship’s bridge played Oscar Straus.
They watched until the land had dwindled to a thin line on the horizon. Then Esme reached for Stephen’s hand, squeezed it for a moment, and hurried away, without a backward glance.
Stephen found her again in the Café Parisien, sitting in a large wicker chair beside an ornately trellised wall.
“Well, hello, you,” Esme said, smiling. She was the model of a smart, stylish young lady of the times.
“Does that mean you’re still interested?” Stephen asked, standing before her. Her smile was infectious. Stephen felt himself losing his poise as he couldn’t stop grinning inanely.
“But mais oui,” she said. “That’s French, which no one uses anymore, but it was the language of the world when this ship first sailed.” She relaxed in her chair, slumped down as if she could revert instantly to being a child, and looked around the room as if Stephen had suddenly disappeared.
“I believe it was English,” he said.
“Well,” she said, looking up at him, “whatever. It means that I might be interested if you’d kindly sit down instead of looking at me from the heights.” Stephen sat beside her. “It took you long enough to find me,” Esme said.
“Well, I had to dress. Remember? You didn’t find my previous attire —”
“I agree, and I apologize,” she said quickly as if afraid of hurting his feelings. She folded her hands behind the box that she had centered perfectly on the damask-covered table. Her leg brushed his; indeed he did look fine, dressed in gray striped trousers, spats, black morning coat, blue vest, and a silk cravat tied under a butterfly collar. “Now don’t you feel better dressed up?”
Stephen was taken with her; this had never happened to him before. A tall waiter disturbed him by asking whether he wished to order cocktails, but Esme asked for a Narcodrine instead.
“I’m sorry, madam, but Narcodrines and inhalers are not sold on the ship.”
“Well, that’s what I want,” she insisted.
“One would have to ask the steward for more modern refreshments.”
“You did say you wanted to live in the past,” Stephen said. He ordered a Campari for her and a Drambuie for himself.
“Right now, I would prefer a robot to take my order,” Esme said.
“I’m sorry. but we have no robots on this ship,” the waiter said before turning away.
“Are you going to show me what’s inside the box?” Stephen asked.
“It might cause a stir if I opened it here.”
“I would think you’d like that,” Stephen said with a touch of sarcasm.
“You see, you know me intimately already.” Esme smiled and winked at someone four tables away. “Isn’t he cute?”
“The little boy with the black hair parted in the middle.” She waved at him, but the boy ignored her and made an obscene gesture at a woman who looked to be his nanny. Then Esme opened the box, which drew the little boy’s attention. She pulled out a full-sized head of a man and placed it gently beside the box.
“Jesus,” Stephen said.
“Stephen, I’d like you to meet Poppa. Poppa, this is Stephen.”
“Who is Stephen?” Poppa said. “Where am I? Why is this going on? I’m frightened.”
Esme leaned toward the head and whispered into its ear. “He sometimes gets disoriented on awakening,” she said to Stephen confidentially. “He still isn’t used to it yet. But he’ll be all right in a moment.”
“I’m scared,” Poppa said in a fuller voice. “I’m alone in the dark.”
“Not anymore,” Esme said positively. “Poppa, this is my friend, Stephen.”
“Hello, Poppa,” Stephen said awkwardly, trying to sound casual.
“Hello, Stephen,” the head said. Its voice was powerful now, commanding. “I’m pleased to meet you.” It rolled its eyes and then said to Esme, “Turn me a bit now so I can see your friend without eyestrain.” The head had white hair, which was a bit yellowed on the ends, neatly trimmed at the sides, and combed into a rather seedy pompadour in the front. The face was strong, although dissipated. It was the face of a man in his late sixties, lined and tanned, with deep-set eyes.
“My given name is Eliot,” the head said. “Call me that, please.”
“Hello, Eliot,” Stephen said. He had heard of such things but had never seen one before.
“These are going to be all the rage in the next few months.” Esme said. “They aren’t on the market yet, but you can imagine their potential for both adults and children. They can be programmed to talk and to react very realistically.”
“So I see,” Stephen remarked.
The head smiled, graciously accepting the remark as a very generous compliment.
“He also learns and thinks quite well,” Esme continued.
“I should hope so,” said the head.
“Is your father alive?” Stephen asked.
“I am her father,” the head said, its face betraying impatience. “At least give me some respect.”
“Be civil, Poppa, or I’ll close you up,” Esme said, piqued. She looked at Stephen. “Yes, he died recently. That’s the reason I’m taking this trip, and that’s the reason —” She nodded at the head. “He’s marvelous, though. He is my father in every way.” Mischievously she added, “Well, I did make a few changes. Poppa was very demanding of me when I was growing up.”
“You’re ungrateful —”
“Shut up, Poppa.”
Poppa shut his eyes.
“That’s all I have to say,” Esme said, “and he turns himself off.”
The little boy, who had been staring unabashedly, came over to the table just as Esme was putting Poppa back in the box. “Why’d you put him away?” he asked. “I want to talk to him. Take him out.”
“No,” Esme said firmly, “he’s sleeping now. And what’s your name?”
“Michael, and can I please see the head, just for a minute?”
“If you like, Michael, you can have a private audience with Poppa tomorrow,” Esme said. “How’s that?”
“I want to talk to him now.”
“Shouldn’t you be getting back to your nanny?” Stephen asked, standing and indicating that Esme do the same. They would have no privacy here.
“Stuff it,” Michael said. “She’s not my nanny. She’s my sister.” Then he pulled a face at Stephen; he was able to contort his lips, drawing the right side toward the left and left toward the right as if they were made of rubber. Stephen and Esme walked out of the café and up the staircase to the boat deck, and Michael followed them, to Stephen’s annoyance.
The boat deck at least was not too crowded. It was brisk outside, and the breeze had a chill to it. Looking forward, Stephen and Esme could see the ship’s four smokestacks to their left and a cluster of four lifeboats to their right. The ocean was a smooth, deep-green expanse turning to blue toward the horizon. The sky was empty, except for a huge, nuclear-powered airship that floated high over the Titanic. This was the dirigible California, a luxury liner that could carry two thousand passengers.
“Are you two married?” Michael asked.
“No, we are not,” Esme said impatiently. “Not yet, at least,” and Stephen felt exhilarated at the thought of her really wanting him. Actually it made no sense, for he could have any young woman he wanted. Why Esme? Simply because just now she was perfect.
“You’re quite pretty, you know,” Michael said to Esme. He was in earnest.
“Thank you,” Esme replied, warming to him. “I like you, too.”
“Are you going to stay aboard the ship and die when it goes down?”
“No!” Esme said, as if taken aback.
“What about your friend?”
“You mean Poppa?”
Vexed, the boy said, “No, him,” giving Stephen a nasty look.
“Well, I don’t know,” Esme said. Her face was flushed. “Have you opted for a lifeboat, Stephen?”
“Yes, of course I have.”
“Well, we’re going to die on the ship.”
“Don’t be silly,” Esme said.
“Well, we are.”
“Who’s we?” Stephen asked.
“My sister and I. We’ve made a pact to go down with the ship.”
“I don’t believe it,” Esme said. She stopped beside one of the lifeboats, rested the box containing Poppa on the rail, and gazed downward at the spume curling away from the side of the ship.
“He’s just baiting us,” Stephen said. “Anyway, he’s too young to make such a decision, and his sister, if she is his sister, couldn’t decide such a thing for him even if she were his guardian. It would be illegal.”
“We’re at sea,” Michael said in the nagging tone children use. “I’ll discuss the ramifications of my demise with Poppa tomorrow. I’m sure he’s more conversant with these things than you.”
“Shouldn’t you be getting back to your sister now?” Stephen asked.
Michael made the rubber-lips face at him and then walked away, tugging at the back of his shorts as if his undergarments had bunched up beneath. He only turned around to wave good-bye to Esme, who blew him a kiss.
“Intelligent little brat,” Stephen said, to be ingratiating.
But Esme looked as if she had just now forgotten all about Stephen and the little boy. She stared at the box as tears rolled from her eyes.
“I love him, and now he’s dead,” she said. She seemed to brighten then. She took Stephen’s hand, and they went inside, down the stairs, through several noisy corridors — stateroom parties were in full swing — to her suite. Stephen was a bit nervous, but all things considered, everything was progressing at a proper pace.
Esme’s suite had a parlor and a private promenade deck with Elizabethan half-timbered walls. She led him directly into the plushly carpeted, velour-papered bedroom, which contained a huge four-poster, an antique night table, and a desk and stuffed chair beside the door. The harp-sculpture desk lamp was lighted, as was the lamp just inside the bed-curtains. A porthole gave a view of sea and sky, but to Stephen it seemed that the bed overpowered the room.
Esme pushed the desk lamp aside and then took Poppa out of the box and placed him carefully in the center of the desk. “There,” she said. At rest, the head seemed even more handsome and quite peaceful, although now and then an eyelid twitched. Then she undressed quickly, looking shyly away from Stephen, who was taking his time. She slipped between the parted curtains of the bed and complained that she could hear the damned engines thrumming right through these itchy pillows. She didn’t like silk. After a moment she sat up in bed and asked him whether he intended to get undressed or was just going to stand there.
“I’m sorry,” Stephen said, “but it’s just —” He nodded toward the head.
“Poppa is turned off, you know,” Esme said.
The head’s left eyelid fluttered.
Michael knocked on Esme’s door at seven-thirty the next morning.
“Good morning,” Michael said, looking Esme up and down. She had not bothered to put anything on before answering the door. “I came to see Poppa. I won’t disturb you at all.”
“Jesus, Michael, it’s too early —”
“Early bird gets the worm.”
“Oh,” Esme said, “and what the hell does that mean?”
“I calculated that my best chance of talking with Poppa would be if I woke you up. You’ll go back to bed, and then I can talk with him in peace. My chances would be greatly diminished if I were to put it off.”
“The steward in the hall just saw you naked.”
“Big deal. Look, why don’t you come back later. I’m not ready for this, and I don’t know why I let you in the room.”
“You see, it worked.” Michael looked around. “He’s in the bedroom, right?”
Esme nodded and followed him in. Michael was wearing the same wrinkled shirt and shorts that he had worn yesterday; his hair was not combed, just tousled.
“Is he with you, too?” Michael asked.
“If you mean Stephen, yes.”
“I thought so,” Michael said. Then he sat down at the desk. “Hello, Poppa,” he said.
“I’m frightened,” the head said. “It’s so dark. I’m scared.”
Michael gave Esme a look.
“He’s always like that when he’s been shut off for a while,” Esme said. “Talk to him a bit more.”
“It’s Michael,” the boy said. “I came in here to talk to you. We’re on the Titanic.”
“Oh, Michael,” the head said, more confidently. “I think I remember you. Why are you on the Titanic?”
“Because it’s going to sink.”
“That’s a silly reason,” the head said confidently. “There must be others.”
“There are lots of others.”
“Can’t we have any privacy?” Stephen mumbled, sitting up in the bed. Esme sat beside him, shrugged, and took a pull at her inhaler. Drugged, she looked even softer, more vulnerable. “I thought you told me that Poppa was turned off all night,” Stephen continued angrily.
“He was turned off,” Esme said. “I just now turned him back on for Michael.”
“I’ll tell you all about the Titanic,” Michael said confidentially to the head. He leaned close to it and whispered intensely.
Esme cuddled up to Stephen, as intimately as if they had been in love for many days. That seemed to mollify him.
“Do you have a spare Narcodrine in there?” Michael shouted.
Stephen looked at Esme, who laughed. “No,” Esme said, “you’re too young for such things.” She pulled the curtain so that the bed was now shut off from Michael and the head. “Let him talk to Poppa,” she said. “He’ll be dead soon anyway.”
“You mean you believe him?” Stephen asked. “I’m going to talk to his sister, or whoever she is, about this.”
Michael peered through the curtain. “I heard what you said. I have very good hearing. I heard everything. Go ahead and talk to her. Talk to the captain if you like. It won’t do you any good. I’m an international hero if you’d like to know. That girl who wears the camera in her hair already did an interview with me for the poll.” He closed the curtain.
“What does he mean?” Esme asked.
“The woman reporter from Interfax,” Stephen said.
Michael opened the curtain again. “Her job is to guess which passengers will opt to die and why. She interviews the most interesting passengers, then gives her predictions to her viewers, and she has a lot of them. They respond immediately to a poll taken several times every day. Keeps us in their minds, and everybody loves the smell of death.” The curtain closed.
“Well, she hasn’t tried to interview me,” Esme said, pouting.
“Do you really want her to?”
“Why not? I want so much for this experience to be a success. Goodness, let the whole world watch us sink if they want. They might just as well take bets.” Then in a conspiratorial whisper she said, “None of us knows who’s really opted to die. That’s part of the excitement.”
“I suppose,” Stephen said.
“Oh, you’re such a prig,” Esme said. “One would think you’re a doer.”
“A doer. All of us are either doers or voyeurs, isn’t that right? But the doers mean business,” and to illustrate, she cocked her head, stuck out her tongue, and made gurgling noises as if she were drowning. “The voyeurs, however, are just along for the ride. Are you sure you’re not a doer?”
Michael, who had been eavesdropping again, said, referring to Stephen, “He’s not a doer; you can bet on that! He’s a voyeur of the worst sort. He takes it all seriously.”
“Now that’s enough disrespect from both of you,” Poppa said richly. “Michael, stop goading Stephen. Esme says she loves him. Esme, be nice to Michael. He just made my day. And you don’t have to threaten to turn me off. I’m turning myself off. I’ve got some thinking to do.” Poppa closed his eyes and turned himself off.
“Well,” Esme said to Michael, who was now standing in front of the bed and trying to place his feet as wide apart as possible, “he’s never done that before. He’s usually so afraid of being afraid when he wakes up. What did you say to him?”
“Come on, Michael. I let you into the room. Remember?”
“I remember.” He shrugged. “Can I come into bed with you?”
“Hell, no,” Stephen blurted.
“He’s only a child,” Esme said as she moved over to make room for Michael, who climbed in between her and Stephen. “Be a sport. You’re the man I love.”
They discussed the transmigration of souls. Michael believed in it, but Esme thought it all too confusing. Stephen had no real opinion on the subject.
They finally managed to lose Michael by lunchtime. Esme seemed happy enough to be rid of the boy, and they spent the rest of the day discovering the ship. They tried a quick dip in the pool, but the water was too cold and it was chilly outside. If the dirigible was floating above, they did not see it because the sky was covered with heavy, gray clouds. They changed clothes, strolled along the glass-enclosed lower promenade deck, looked for the occasional flying fish, and spent an interesting half-hour being interviewed by the woman from Interfax. Then they took a snack in the first-class smoking room. Esme loved the mirrors and stained-glass windows. After they explored cabin and tourist class, Esme talked Stephen into a quick game of squash, which he played rather well. By dinnertime they found their way into the garish, blue-tiled Turkish bath. It was empty and hot, and they made gentle but exhausting love on one of the Caesar couches. Then they changed clothes again, danced in the lounge, and took a late supper in the café.
He spent the night with Esme in her suite. It was about four in the morning when he was awakened by a hushed conversation. Rather than make himself known, Stephen feigned sleep and listened.
“I can’t make a decision,” Esme said as she carefully paced back and forth beside the desk upon which Poppa rested.
“I’m still scared,” Poppa said in a weak voice. “Just give me a minute. This was so sudden. Where did you say I am?”
“The Titanic,” Esme said angrily, “and I have to make a decision. Come to your senses.”
“You’ve told me over and over what you know you must do, haven’t you?” Poppa said. His voice sounded better; the disorientation was leaving him. “Now you change your mind?”
“I think things have changed.”
“And how is that?”
“Stephen. He —”
“Ah,” Poppa said, “so now love is the escape. But do you know how long that will last? Not long, I’d wager.”
“I didn’t expect to meet him, to feel better about everything.”
“It will pass.”
“But right now I don’t want to die.”
“You’ve spent a fortune on this trip and on me. And now you want to throw it away. Look, the way you feel about Stephen is all for the better, don’t you understand? It will make your passing away all the sweeter because you’re happy in love, whatever you want to claim for it. But now you want to throw everything away that we’ve planned and take your life some other time, probably when you’re desperate and unhappy and don’t have me around to help you. You wish to die as mindlessly as you were born. You’re hopeless.”
“That’s not so, Poppa. But it’s up to me to choose.”
“You’ve made your choice. Now stick to it, or you’ll drop dead like I did.”
“Esme, what the hell are you talking to your father about?” Stephen said.
Esme looked startled in the dim light and then said to Poppa, “You were purposely talking loudly to wake him up, weren’t you?”
“You had me programmed to help you. I love you and care about you. You can’t undo that. Nothing can.”
“I can do whatever I wish,” Esme said petulantly.
“Then let me help you as I always have. If I were alive and had my body, I would tell you exactly what I’m telling you now.”
“What is going on?” Stephen asked.
“She’s fooling you,” Poppa said gently to Stephen. “She’s using you because she’s frightened. She’s grasping at anyone she can find.”
“What the hell is he telling you?” Stephen asked.
“The truth,” Poppa said. “I know all about fear, don’t you know that?”
Esme sat beside Stephen on the bed and began to cry. Then, as if sliding easily into a new role, she looked at him and said, “I did program Poppa to help me die. Poppa and I talked everything over very carefully. We even discussed what to do if something like this came about.”
“You mean if you fell in love and changed your mind about living.”
“And she decided that not under any circumstances would she undo what she had done,” Poppa said. “She has planned the best possible death for herself, a death to be experienced and savored. She’s given everything up and spent all her money to do it. She’s broke. She can’t go back now, isn’t that right, Esme?”
Esme folded her hands, swallowed, and looked at Stephen. “Yes,” she said.
“But you’re not sure,” Stephen said. “I can tell that.”
“I will help her as I always have,” Poppa said. “I will make her sure.”
“Jesus, shut that thing up,” Stephen shouted.
“He’s not a —”
“Please,” Stephen said, “at least give us a chance. You’re the first authentic experience I’ve ever had. I love you. I don’t want it to end . . .”
Poppa pleaded his own case eloquently until Esme told him to shut up.
The great ship hit an iceberg on the fourth night of her voyage, exactly one day earlier than scheduled. Stephen and Esme were standing by the rail of the promenade deck. Both were dressed in the early-twentieth-century accouterments provided by the ship, he in woolen trousers, jacket, motoring cap, and caped overcoat with a long scarf; she in a fur coat, a stylish Merry Widow hat, high-button shoes, and a black-velvet two-piece suit edged with white silk. She looked ravishing and very young, despite the clothes.
“Throw it away,” Stephen said authoritatively. “Now.”
Esme brought the cedar box containing Poppa to her chest, as if she were about to throw it forward, then slowly placed it atop the rail again. “I can’t. I just can’t.”
“Do you want me to do it?”
“I don’t see why I must throw him away.”
“Because we’re starting a new life together, and you don’t need it anymore.”
At that moment someone shouted, and as if in the distance a bell rang three times.
“Could there be another ship nearby?” Esme wondered.
“Esme, throw the box away!” Stephen snapped, and then he saw it. He pulled Esme backward, away from the rail. An iceberg as high as the forecastle deck scraped against the side of the ship; it almost seemed that the bluish, glistening mountain of ice was another ship passing, that the ice rather than the ship was moving. Pieces of ice rained upon the deck and slid across the varnished wood, and then the iceberg was lost in the darkness astern. It must have been at least one hundred feet above the smashing of the waves.
“Oh, my God!” Esme screamed, rushing to the rail.
“What is it?”
“Poppa! I dropped him when you pulled me away from the iceberg.”
“It’s too late for that —”
Esme disappeared into the crowd, crying for Poppa.
It was bitter cold, and the boat deck was filled with people, all rushing about, shouting, scrambling for the lifeboats, and, inevitably, those who had changed their minds at the last moment about going down with the ship were shouting the loudest, trying the hardest to be permitted into the boats, not one of which had been lowered yet. There were sixteen wooden lifeboats and four canvas Engelhardts, the collapsibles. But they could not be lowered away until the davits were cleared of the two forward boats. “We’ll let you know when it’s time to board,” shouted an officer to the families crowding around him.
The deck was listing. Esme was late, and Stephen wasn’t going to wait. At this rate, the ship would be bow down in the water in no time.
She must be with Michael, he thought. The little bastard has talked her into dying.
Michael had a stateroom on C deck. Stephen knocked, called to Michael and Esme, tried to open the door, and finally kicked the lock free.
Michael was sitting on the bed, which was a Pullman berth. His sister lay beside him, dead.
“Where’s Esme?” Stephen asked, repelled by the sight of Michael sitting so calmly.
“Not here. Obviously.” Michael smiled and made the rubber-lips face.
“Jesus,” Stephen said. “Put your coat on. You’re coming with me.”
Michael laughed and patted down his hair. “I’m already dead, just like my sister, almost. I took a pill, too, see?” He held up a small brown bottle. “Anyway they wouldn’t let me on a lifeboat. I didn’t sign up for one, remember? I told you all that.”
“But you’re only a baby —”
“I thought Poppa explained all that to you.” Michael lay down beside his sister and watched Stephen like a puppy with its head cocked at an odd angle.
“You do know where Esme is, don’t you? Now tell me.”
“You never understood her. She came here to die.”
An instant later Michael stopped breathing and was still.
Stephen searched the ship, level by level, broke in on the parties where those who had opted for death were having a last fling, looked into the lounges where many old couples sat, waiting for the end. He made his way down to F deck, where he had made love to Esme in the Turkish bath. The water was up to his knees; it was green and soapy. He was afraid, for the list was becoming worse minute by minute. The water rose even as he walked.
He had to get to the stairs, had to get up and out, onto a lifeboat, away from the ship, but he walked on, looking for Esme, unable to stop. He had to find her. She might even be on the boat deck right now, he thought, wading through a corridor. But he had to satisfy himself that she wasn’t down here.
The Turkish bath was filling with water, and the lights were still on, giving the room a ghostly illumination. Oddments floated in the room: blue slippers, a comb, scraps of paper, cigarettes, and several seamless, plastic packages.
On the farthest couch, Esme sat meditating, her eyes closed and hands folded on her lap. She wore a simple white dress. Overjoyed, he shouted to her. She jerked away, looking disoriented, and without a word waded toward the other exit, dipping her hands into the water as if to speed her on her way.
“Esme, where are you going?” Stephen called, following. “Don’t run from me.”
An explosion pitched them both into the water, and a bulkhead gave way. A solid sheet of water seemed to be crashing into the room, smashing Stephen, pulling him under, and sweeping him away. He fought to reach the surface and tried to swim back, to find Esme. A lamp broke away from the overhead, just missing him. “Esme!” he shouted, but he couldn’t see her, and then he found himself choking, swimming, as the water carried him through a corridor and away from her.
Finally Stephen was able to grab the iron curl of a railing and pull himself onto a dry step. There was another explosion, and the deck pitched. He looked down at the water, which filled the corridor, the Turkish bath, the entire deck, and he screamed for Esme and looked around, frightened.
The ship shuddered. Then everything was quiet. In the great rooms, chandeliers hung at angles; tables and chairs had skidded across the decks and seemed to squat against the bulkheads like wooden beasts. Still, the lights burned as if all was quite correct except gravity, which was misbehaving. Stephen climbed, followed by the sea as if in a bad dream.
Numbed, he found himself back on the boat deck. Part of the deck was already submerged. Almost everyone had moved aft, climbing uphill as the bow dipped farther into the water.
The lifeboats were gone, as were the crew. There were a few men and women atop the officers’ quarters. They were working hard, trying to launch Collapsibles C and D, their only chance of getting safely away from the ship.
“Hey,” Stephen called to them, just now coming to his senses. “Do you need any help up there?”
He was ignored by those who were pushing one of the freed collapsibles off the port side of the roof. Someone shouted, “Damn!” The boat had landed upside down in the water.
“It’s better than nothing,” a woman shouted, and she and her friends jumped after the boat.
Stephen shivered; he was not yet ready to leap into the twenty-eight-degree water, although he knew there wasn’t much time left and he had to get away from the ship before it went down. Everyone on or close to the ship would be sucked under. He crossed to the starboard side, where some other men were trying to push a boat to the edge of the deck. The great ship was listing heavily to port.
This time Stephen just joined the work. No one complained. They were trying to slide the boat over the edge on planks. All these people appeared to be in top physical shape. Stephen noticed that about half of them were women, wearing the same warm coats as the men. This was a game to all of them, he suspected, and they were enjoying it. Each one was going to beat the odds, one way or another; the very thrill was to outwit fate, opt to die and yet survive.
But then the bridge was underwater.
There was a terrible crashing, and Stephen slid along the deck as everything tilted. Everyone was shouting. “She’s going down!” someone screamed. Indeed, the stern of the ship was swinging upward. Her lights flickered. There was a roar as the entrails of the ship broke loose: anchor chains, the huge engines and boilers. One of the huge, black funnels fell, smashing into the water amid sparks. But the ship was still brilliantly lit, every porthole afire. The crow’s nest before him was almost submerged, but Stephen swam for it nevertheless. Then he caught himself and tried to swim away from the ship, but it was too late. He felt himself being pulled under. He was being sucked into the ventilator that was in front of the forward funnel; he gasped, swallowed water, and felt the wire mesh, the air shaft grating that prevented him from being sucked under. He held his breath desperately.
Water was surging all around him. Then there was another explosion. Stephen felt warmth on his back as a blast of hot air pushed him upward. Then he broke out into the freezing air. He swam for his life, away from the ship, away from the crashing and thudding of glass and wood, away from the debris of deck chairs, planking, and ropes, and especially away from the other people, who were moaning, screaming at him, and trying to grab him as a buoy, trying to pull him down while the great ship sank.
Swimming, he heard voices nearby and saw a dark shape. For a moment it didn’t register. Then he realized that he was near an overturned lifeboat, a collapsible he had seen pushed into the sea. There were almost thirty men and women standing on it. Stephen tried to climb onto it, and someone shouted, “You’ll sink us. We’ve too many already.” A woman tried to hit Stephen with an oar, just missing his head. Stephen swam around to the other side of the boat. He grabbed hold again, found someone’s foot, and was kicked back into the water.
“Come on,” a man said. “Take my arm, and I’ll pull you up.”
“There’s no room!” someone else said.
“There’s enough room for one more.”
“No, there’s not.”
The boat began to rock.
“We’ll all be in the water if we don’t stop this,” shouted the man who was holding Stephen afloat. Then he pulled Stephen up. Stephen stood with the others. Truly there was barely enough room. Everyone had formed a double line now, facing the bow, and leaned in the direction opposite the swells. Slowly the boat inched away from where the ship had gone down, away from the people in the water, all begging for life, for one last chance. As he looked back to where the ship had once been, Stephen thought of Esme. He couldn’t bear to think of her as dead, floating through the corridors of the ship.
Those in the water could be easily heard; in fact the calls seemed magnified as if meant to be heard clearly by everyone who was safe for the time being as a punishment for his or her past sins.
“We’re all deaders,” said a woman standing beside Stephen. “I’m sure no one’s coming to get us before dawn, when they have to pick up survivors.”
“We’ll be the last pickup. That’s if they intend to pick us up at all.”
“Those in the water have to get their money’s worth. And since we opted for death —”
“I didn’t,” Stephen said almost to himself.
“Well, you’ve got it anyway.”
Stephen was numb but no longer cold. As if from far away, he heard the splash of someone falling from the boat, which was very slowly sinking as air was lost from under the hull. At times the water was up to Stephen’s knees, yet he wasn’t even shivering. Time distended or contracted. He measured it by the splashing of his companions as they fell overboard. He heard himself calling Esme as if to say good-bye, or perhaps he meant to greet her.
By dawn, Stephen was so muddled by the cold that he thought he was on land, for the sea was full of debris: cork, steamer chairs, boxes, pilasters, rugs, carved wood, clothes, and of course the bodies of those unfortunates who could not or would not survive. And the great icebergs and the smaller ones called growlers looked like cliffs and mountainsides. The icebergs were sparkling and many-hued, all brilliant in the light, as if painted by some cheerless Gauguin of the North.
“There,” someone said, a woman’s hoarse voice. “It’s coming down, it’s coming down!” The dirigible, looking like a huge white whale, seemed to be descending through its more natural element, water, rather than the thin, cold air. Its electric engines could not be heard.
In the distance, Stephen could see the other lifeboats. Soon the airship would begin to rescue those in the boats, which were now tied together in a cluster. As Stephen’s thoughts wandered and his eyes watered from the reflected morning sunlight, he saw a piece of carved oak bobbing up and down near the boat, and he noticed a familiar face in the debris that seemed to surround the lifeboat. There, just below the surface in his box, the lid open, eyes closed, floated Poppa. Poppa opened his eyes and looked at Stephen. Stephen screamed, lost his balance on the hull, and plunged into the cold, black water.
The Laurel Lounge of the dirigible California was dark and filled with survivors. Some sat in the flowered, stuffed chairs; others just milled about. But they were all watching the lifelike, holographic tapes of the sinking of the Titanic. The images filled the large room.
Stephen stood in the back, away from the others, who cheered each time there was a close-up of someone jumping overboard or slipping under the water. He pulled the scratchy woolen blanket around him and shivered. He had been on the dirigible for over twenty-four hours, and he was still chilled. A crewman had told him it was because of the injections he had received when he boarded the airship.
There was another cheer, and, horrified, he saw that they were cheering for him. He watched himself being sucked into the ventilator and then blown upward to the surface. His body ached from the battering. But he had saved himself. He had survived, and that had been an actual experience. It was worth it for that, but poor Esme —
“You had one of the most exciting experiences,” a woman said to him as she touched his hand. He recoiled and she shrugged, then moved on.
“I wish to register a complaint,” said a stocky man dressed in period clothing to one of the Titanic’s officers who was standing beside Stephen and sipping a cocktail.
“I was saved against my wishes. I specifically took this voyage that I might pit myself against the elements.”
“Did you sign our protection waiver?”
“I was not aware that we were required to sign any such thing.”
“All such information was provided.” the officer said, looking disinterested. “Those passengers who are truly committed to taking their chances sign, and we leave them to their own devices. Otherwise, we are responsible for every passenger’s life.”
“I might just as well have jumped into the ocean at the beginning and gotten pulled out,” the passenger said bitterly.
The officer smiled. “Most want to test themselves as long as they can. Of course, if you want to register a formal complaint . . .”
The passenger stomped away.
“The man’s trying to save face,” the officer said to Stephen. “We see quite a bit of that. But you seemed to have an interesting ride. You gave us quite a start; we thought you were going to take a lifeboat with the others, but you disappeared below deck. It was a bit more difficult to monitor you, but we managed — that’s the fun for us. You were never in any danger of course. Well, maybe a little.”
Stephen was shaken. He had felt that his experiences had been authentic, that he had really saved himself. But none of that had been real. Only Esme —
And then he saw her step into the room.
“Esme?” He couldn’t believe it. “Esme!” She walked over to him and smiled as she had the first time they’d met. She was holding a water-damaged, cedar box. “Hello, Stephen. Wasn’t it exciting?”
Stephen threw his arms around her, but she didn’t respond. She waited a proper time, then disengaged herself. She opened the box and held it up to him.
“And look,” she said, “they’ve even found Poppa. Isn’t that marvelous?” She smiled. “I’m going to have him reprogrammed, though. He almost had me talked into going through with it this time.”
“But I really do love you,” Stephen said.
Esme opened the box and said, “Poppa —”
Poppa’s eyes fluttered open. “I’m scared,” he said. “I’m all alone in the dark. I’m so afraid, and it’s so dark. Oh, please. Esme, please help me; don’t let me die. I dreamed that I was a head in a box, and I’m so frightened —”
And then Poppa began to cry.
[ THE END ]
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