The sky was a children's storybook, written by cloud shapes and the moving figures of seagulls. It was twilight. Blue and gold merged together as the sun continued to sink below the horizon.
As I looked at it, I started to cry.
It was unusual for me to cry. The captain of a wrestling team wasn't supposed to show much emotion. Even a girl captain. I tried to hide it from Anna, keeping my face turned in the opposite direction, biting my lower lip to suppress the sob that was lodged in my throat.
"Are you cold?" Anna asked.
Slap slap slap went the sea against the edges of our lifeboat. I stared out across the water. Smelled the moisture in the air. "We don't have anything to warm ourselves," I said.
"We could huddle," Anna tried. Then glanced down awkwardly when I looked at her. "It's a survival technique. The transfer of body heat would keep us warm."
"I'll be fine, thanks," I told her.
"Want anything to eat? Last meal we had was yesterday."
"We need to save what little we have." What little we had was a few packs of variously flavored jerky and one canteen of clean, drinkable water.
Just then, the wind picked up. A heavy breeze surged past us, carrying sea spray with it. I shivered, sandwiching my goose-bumped arms between my hunched legs. "Might storm tonight," I said. It came out before I had time to realize what it meant—heavy waves against our little boat, darkness, rain, and nothing but each other to shield ourselves.
Anna let out a humorless laugh. And then another. And another. Now was not a time to laugh, but I understood why she had to do it. The only other thing to do was cry, and she'd already cried herself out. I let out a slight chuckle myself, just for the tension relief.
The tension itself was still there, wedged into my bones, coursing through my veins. My heartbeats seemed to splice the air, seize my breath. Terrified, but still trying to smile, I glanced down at my hands. Calloused and dry from all the rowing, hardened from all the headlocks I'd given while wrestling boys twice my size.
I should not have been there.
I should not have been me.
I should have been some boy who'd stayed firmly on dry land, who wasn't such a contradiction to life.
"I didn't have to come with you," Anna finally said. It was barely above a whisper. "Back on deck, when you grabbed me... I didn't have to come with you. I could have pulled away. I could have gone looking for others." She paused. "Why did you save me?"
I gazed back out over the water, which was getting darker and darker, and replied, "Had to save someone."
She let me leave it at that. No use questioning the past. She couldn't cry anymore anyway.
A few minutes later she asked, "Mallory? Do you think everyone else is dead?"
I felt the weight of the world condense my bones. My stomach butterfly-fluttered. I glanced up, hoping to rip out a page from the children's book sky and read the answer. I gave her the only response I could: "I think so."
I used to steal books from the SS Traveler's library. No one would have expected that from a wrestling captain, but I used to do it all the time. I would swipe all kinds of authors—Orwell, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Vonnegut—and read them in my cabin at night by flashlight.
I had been suspected once. A Hall Monitor found me tiptoeing to my cabin after hours. He warned me about "the library thief" and then searched the backpack I was carrying. Since I'd just returned my latest steal, he didn't find anything and ended up letting me go.
I never knew why I did it in the first place. I could have just purchased a library card and been done with it. Maybe it was the adrenaline. Maybe it was the need to remain a contradiction.
I had fallen asleep right after it happened. After Anna and I were safely on the lifeboat and had rowed away from the sinking ship. Strange to fall asleep at a time like that, but I did. I dreamt that I was swimming in the sea against a strong current, trying to make it to a hilly island just feet away. The island caught fire and started to burn. The trees and grass were swept up in a blinding red and gold inferno. The smoke blackened out the sky.
I stopped swimming, started to sob, and allowed the current to sweep me further out to sea.
I woke up dazed, Anna at my side, screaming into my face.
"You think we'll see sharks?" she asked.
"Be quiet," I said. I was starting to get a headache. I needed silence.
But my voice had been cold and Anna took offense. "What is your problem?" she snapped.
I sighed. I had no energy for anger. I was tired and hungry, scared and weak. And overwhelmed. Most of all, overwhelmed.
"I'm sorry," I said.
She nodded. "Me, too."
"If we see any sharks, I'll beat them off with my paddle."
She started to laugh that humorless laugh again.
"No one came for me. Only you." She was lying on her back, staring up at the sky. I could barely see her in the dark, but the moon outlined her profile. Her legs were bent upwards and her hands were crossed over her ribcage. She seemed peaceful despite circumstances.
"I'm sorry I had to be your hero," I told her.
She tilted her face. I couldn't see her eyes but I knew they were looking in my direction.
"I'm glad it was you," she said. "I'm glad."
Slap slap slap went the sea against our lifeboat. Slap slap slap.
I didn't realize I was shivering until I felt her body nestle into mine, her arm draping over my shoulder, her breasts touching my shoulder blades, her breath blowing over my neck. I stiffened, not knowing what to do. She was at least half asleep, perhaps not even aware that she had leaned into me. I thought maybe I should move, or push her away.
But I did neither.
Instead I rubbed her arm, hoping on some subconscious level she could feel it, and then dozed off.
"We could find land," she suggested, a semi-smile trying to split her face. I could tell she was feeling better that day. More optimistic. "The current's got to take us somewhere. We could find land and work on trying to get back to the U.S."
"How?" I asked, digging my hand into a bag of smoked beef jerky. I pulled out a small piece, stuck it in my mouth, and then handed the bag to her.
She took it. "I dunno. Someone's got to look for us eventually. They can't just let us stay missing. The captain sent out signals before the ship went down. People know what happened."
"They probably think we're dead like everyone else."
"And how do we know everyone else is dead? How do we know there aren't other lifeboats out there?"
I was silent. Anna took out a piece of jerky. Popped it in her mouth. For a whole minute, the only sound either of us could hear, besides the slap slap slap of the water, was her chewing.
I didn't know what to say. It wasn't like her to be this positive, this willing to hope. And it wasn't like me not to challenge her. "I don't think anyone else could have made it very long on the lifeboats," I finally spoke. "Too many people, too much panic. Besides, most of them died in the fire."
She rolled her eyes, affronted. "Why do you have to be so cynical? Is it really that difficult for you to have faith in someone else?"
I didn't respond.
"You want any more jerky?" she asked, holding the bag out to me.
I shook my head.
"You know, I think you don't want anyone else to have survived." It was an hour later and all of the sudden, she was livid. Something in her had snapped.
It might have been the lack of food. Malnutrition messes with the brain.
"Gee, thanks," I retorted. "It's nice to see you think so highly of me, especially after saving your life and all."
She groaned, exasperated. "What do you want from me?"
"Nothing," I replied. "What should I want from you?"
She rolled her eyes and turned her back towards me. We weren't going to speak for a while.
That night, she cried. It was so loud it woke me out of my sleep. She didn't just whimper and sob, she wailed, her voice trailing off into the dark, star-speckled, children's book sky, blending with the slap slap slap of the sea.
When I bolted up I was in a confused daze, thinking she was screaming in agony. I scooted towards her, my hand going to her shoulder, my face leaning into her hair. "Hey, hey, it's okay," I said softly. For some stupid reason I thought she was crying over our little spat. "Don't even worry about it. We're cool."
"Who... who am I kidding?" she managed to sputter.
"What do you mean?"
"You're right, everyone's dead. All those people... It's just you and me, Mallory."
"Shhh," I gently shushed her.
"We should just jump off the boat! Both of us, just jump off the boat and let ourselves drown. There's no point in trying to live."
"Shhh," I repeated. "Don't talk like that. Just go to sleep."
And she did, finally. She cried herself to sleep, in my arms.
I held her there all night long.
The following day there was nothing but silence. No laughing, no crying, no speaking... just calm. And yet, it wasn't calm at all. The looks we gave each other spoke, their gravity hanging in the air, dense like condensation. Almost suffocating us.
We spoke while we ate, spoke while we rowed, spoke while we ogled the water. Even though we said nothing at all, we spoke.
It was the best, worst, most profound conversation we'd ever had.
Yes, that is a contradiction. But it's absolutely true.
Midday was sweltering hot. Anna and I sat in discomfort, sweat gluing our clothes to our skin. We weren't speaking of course, but the expression of irritation on Anna's face said it all.
Unapologetically, I stripped down to my bra and panties.
Anna did the same.
We both sighed in relief, laid down on our backs, and started reading the children's book hanging over us. The clouds told us many stories.
"I want you to promise me something," she said matter-of-factly. I jumped, surprised to hear her voice. She was studying her fingernails, picking at them, which was a sign that she was nervous. "We don't know what's going to happen. We don't know if others are alive or not. We can sit here and play guessing games all we want, but the truth of the matter is we don't know."
She paused. I waited.
"We might die, Mallory. I know you told me not to say things like that, but you can't pretend it isn't a possibility." She waited for me to say something, to confront her. When I didn't, she continued. "And, well, one of us might go before the other."
"What are you getting at?" I asked.
She sucked in a long breath. Released it slowly. "If something happens to me, I want you to keep going."
I bit my lower lip, wanting to yell at her but knowing that I couldn't because she was right. "If I make you a promise, you have to make me one," I said.
She looked at me dubiously, but then nodded.
"Alright, I promise."
A slight smile tugged at her lips. "Thank you."
She turned her head to the side, towards the ever-expanding water.
"Anna?" I said.
"You've still got to make your promise."
She waited, her eyes finding mine.
"Promise me nothing will happen to you."
It stormed the following night. Our lifeboat went topsy-turvy over the waves, the white spray enshrouding us as we huddled in the back corner, holding onto each other for whatever dear life we had left. The water came at us from all sides, lunging like snakes, showering us in salt. It got in our eyes, noses, and ears. Once, the boat was nearly turned onto its side. Anna slid to the edge, shrieking as she grasped the railing to keep from plummeting overboard. I shouted her name, reaching for her, petrified at the thought of surviving alone. She was too far away to take my hand, but she stayed onboard.
The water pulsated, shoving our lifeboat this way and that. Thwack thwack thwack, it went. The children's book sky was at a climax, where the future was dark, where the hero and damsel were both in distress and all appeared lost. The boat hobbled up and down, helpless, and the sea cackled at its victory. Thwack thwack thwack, it went. You're mine.
A wave crashed along the boat's edge, battering me in my slightly-open mouth. Salt filled my lungs and I choked. I bent forward, coughing, retching. Anna wrapped her arms around me. My eyes were swimming, stinging. I couldn't breathe. For a moment I didn't know where I was or what was happening. I thought I was dreaming.
I heard screams. Deafening screeches all around me. I covered my ears. "Stop," I whimpered. "Stop."
"Oh my God..."
I barely heard Anna's voice, but I managed to open my eyes and see the wave. It looked merciless, ready to snap its blue jaws around our fragile bones and swallow us whole.
"Anna!" I shouted through the noise. "Don't let go of me!"
And she didn't. The blow of the tide knocked us onto the flooring of the boat, kicked us back and forth until we no longer knew which way was which, and thrashed our limp bodies, but she never let me go.
There was nothing but us—us and the angry wave trying to beat us into obscurity.
The storm passed us by early morning, and all we had left was the familiar calm. We were exhausted, but we decided to survey the damage anyway. The jerky was gone, the canteen was gone—both swept away by the tide. The boat was sopping wet, on the outside and in. And we were sopping wet, on the outside and in.
We stared at each other for a long time, sitting in our water-filled lifeboat, knowing—without having to say it—that we were done for. The children's storybook was at an end and there was no happily ever after. No ride into the sunset, no white dresses or suits of armor. Just salt and water, hopelessness and death. No one would know that we'd tried to live, that we did live, that all we had for God knew how many days was one canteen of water, a couple bags of jerky, a lifeboat, and each other.
But we knew, and somehow that was enough for the both of us.
We held hands as we sat in our lifeboat and looked up at the sky, telling each other the stories of the clouds. She leaned against me and I leaned against her, and we transferred our body heat.
We didn't do it as a survival technique.