This story is by Sandy Juker and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
April 15, 1912
“Save—my—sister!” The words left my mouth but hung in the frigid night air, mingled with a din of frozen screams.
No one heard me. And no one in the lifeboat noticed when the shivering girl, jostled and pushed by women clinging to their own children, splashed into the black waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.
Allison’s cotton nightdress billowed around her like gauzy white foam. Her arms flapped erratically, and she gasped from the shock of icy water.
My breathing became choppy, barely reaching my lungs. I grasped the frosty railing. Everything stopped, frozen in a split second of indecision.
I was fourteen when my eight-year-old sister, Allison, and I boarded the RMS Titanic in Southampton. We were destined to join our father in New York City after our London-born mother passed away at our home in Camberley, England.
On her deathbed, Mother waved me to her side and in a barely audible whisper, said, “Edward Phillip, promise me you will take care of your sister.”
Had she not been so ill, my mother would have known I had been fulfilling that promise for years. I taught Allison how to count and write her name. I played hopscotch and hide-and-seek and made her laugh. Every evening after we tip-toed into our mother’s room to say goodnight, I carried my sister to her bed on my back. It was an easy promise to make.
Our mother’s sister, Olivia, a well-known London socialite, was our chaperone. However, her fascination with endless galas, attended by wealthy and famous passengers aboard the luxurious ocean liner, left Allison and me with complete freedom.
For four days we ate when and whatever we wanted. We explored every passenger accessible deck and enjoyed the First Class amenities of the floating luxury hotel; the pool, the gymnasium, the promenade deck and we even dared to ride a mechanical horse.
On the evening of April 14, I tucked Allison into bed. I pounced beside her, making the Pullman bed squawk until she squealed, “Stop Eddie. Stop.”
Then, with my long straight nose pressed to her up-turned cherubic nose, I said, “Allison Maya Moryson, you are beautiful and I love you with all my heart.” The very words our mother had whispered in her ear every day of her life.
I cherished and needed this ritual ending to every day as much as Allison. As long as we had each other, we could face the unknown. Together, we would make a new life in America with our father; a stranger who left England when I was ten. I cuddled my sister, stroking her mass of golden curls until her eyes closed and she slept.
My sister did not stir when the door latch clicked, so I stepped into the corridor of Deck B. Two steps at a time, I sprinted up one flight and exited onto the open-air promenade. I clutched my coat collar at the throat and with my chin tucked to my chest, hustled toward midship and the entry to the Grand Staircase.
“Young man!” A short, stocky steward materialized from the shadows. “Only passengers of age are allowed on this deck after nine o’clock.”
I lifted my chin, and at five foot eleven, looked down at him. In my most aristocratic tone, I said, “My Aunt Olivia Williams requested I meet her in the lounge at eleven o’clock.” I leaned in and whispered, “Should the champagne tickle her nose a bit much, I am to assist her return to our stateroom.”
Apparently satisfied with my noble, though deceptive cause, the steward waved his hand, granting passage.
Before returning to the luxurious warmth of the inner ship, I stopped at the railing. Under a dark new moon, the smooth waveless ocean reflected starlight, creating the impression we were afloat in star-studded skies. The calmness was mesmerizing, but the bitter cold drove me inside.
I wandered about the adult lounge, careful to keep my back to the stewards. My height and broad shoulders might fool them, but my smooth boyish face would not. To avoid eye contact with a passing waiter, I checked my pocket watch; Eleven forty.
The floor vibrated slightly, champagne glasses clinked together, and dominoes toppled. Wide-eyed passengers looked up, and the room fell silent as everyone held their breath. A silver-haired gentleman in a black tuxedo broke the tension. In a loud confident voice he said, “We must have hit an ice pack. Captain Smith has slowed the ship.” Everyone exhaled and returned to their games.
Curious about the ice pack, I pulled my coat snug around my neck and headed for the Starboard Promenade. The exterior door resisted, so I leaned into it with my shoulder. It swung wide, sending an ice brick scooting across the deck. I stepped over ice chunks and slippery shards to grasp the railing. My eyes rolled up and my mouth fell open. “Blimey!” An ice mountain loomed higher than the ship. “Did we crash into an iceberg?”
Without stopping, a crewman running from the stern yelled over his shoulder. “Yes, and we’re taking on water. Get a lifebelt and head for the Boat Deck.”
Shoulder to shoulder, I pushed against panic-driven passengers who were striving to reach the top deck and the lifeboats. I wove my way down the stairs muttering, “I’m coming Allison. I’m coming.”
Despite the clamor of frantic families, I heard the peel of her voice. “Eddie. Where are you, Eddie?” I could not see her, but I lowered my head and bulled through the throng toward the scream.
I found her crouched between banister rails clutching the lifebelt a steward had thrust at her after pounding on the cabin door. With my body braced against pressing passengers, I knelt beside her. She wailed and threw her arms around my neck, abandoning the lifebelt. A man reached for it, but I stomped it beneath my foot. “Don’t you bloody dare.”
With my arms wrapped around Allison, and the bulky lifebelt, I joined the upward movement of the crowd.
On the Boat Deck a crewman shouted, “Women and children only!” I fastened Allison’s lifebelt over her nightdress and draped my frock coat around her shoulders. It hung to her ankles, and I noticed as I lifted her to the crewman, she was missing a slipper.
Her forehead creased and her eyes glazed when she realized I was not going with her. With one last touch to her outstretched fingertips, I said, “I love you with all my heart. I must find Aunt Olivia.”
I did not find my aunt. After searching port and starboard decks and squinting at launched lifeboats, I stopped looking. Huddled amongst a group hoping to board one of the few remaining lifeboats, I shivered and rubbed my hands together.
With just two passengers in front of me, I saw Allison jostled from her lifeboat into the ocean. Her golden hair was like a beacon calling me. In my mind, I responded. I promised I would take care of you. I’m sorry. Panicked men pushed me toward my only chance for survival.
I had two choices. Board the lifeboat and suffer the eternal guilt of letting my sister drown alone. Or risk my life trying to save her.
I reached for the crewman’s hand, but then twisted away. With my hands cupped to my mouth, I bellowed, “Save—my—sister!” I stepped over the railing and jumped.
The chaos froze in time. Screams became a murmur, and lifeboats stopped rolling with the ocean. Stars streaked from the sky, pin pointing one thing. My sister, splashing, splashing, splashing.
My feet sliced the ocean’s surface. Without the lifebelt, I might have traveled to the bottom of the ocean like a bullet. Instead, I bobbed to the surface, gasping, coughing and inhaling brine. The wild splashing by my own arms shook me from the freezing shock, and I turned in search of Allison.
By whatever miracle I found her. Her arms were curled to her chest and her face dipped in and out of the water. She sputtered and I wrapped my arms around her, turning her face toward heaven. With the skirt of her nightdress twisted around my numb hands, I leaned back, knowing I could not save her. But I would hold her till the end.
My teeth stopped chattering and warmth spread to my fingertips. I opened my eyes and silhouetted against black starry skies; I saw my mother’s face. She reached out and a brusque masculine voice said, “Take my hand.”
As I watch my eight-year-old daughter, Maya Allison, play hopscotch, her golden curls take me back to the saddest day of my life. I recall my mother’s haloed face as it appeared in my freezing delirium. She drew my sister to her bosom and blessed me with forgiveness.
Aunt Olivia slumps on the bench beside me, guilt clouding her vacant stare. Her sister’s face haunts her nightmares of clawing to board the first lifeboat.
I am thankful for the choice I made that day.