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I’m trying to get her to move, but panic has rooted her to the spot. There is no time to calm her; we have to get out. Now. The floor is tilting – tremors run through the wooden slats – reminding me that, iron though the hull may be, this ship is not indestructible.
“Come ON!” I scream, frustrated.
Her fear is silent and blank-faced, in stark contrast to the wails and stampeding of the other passengers. Their yells resound in my ears, echoed by the cries of my mind, urging me to run, to get out. To abandon my sister and save myself.
My heartbeat is an animal rattling the bars of its cage. Water comes pouring down the slanted floor through windows that have already cracked under the pressure. The sensation of cold water through my battered leather boots is enough to send me over the edge.
I jerk her arm again, to no avail. A fish flops by, thrashing in the rising water. I scream her name.
She hardly seems to blink, her eyes following the path of the fish as it is swept along by the churning water. I turn and run, splashing my way out of the hallway and towards the back of the boat, forgetting everything except my need to GET OUT.
Up on deck, pandemonium reigns. My white uniform, now soaked, draws panicked passengers to me like vultures. They latch on to me, grabbing my arms, my shirt. One man goes down, wrapping himself around my ankles. As if that will do either of us any good.
"Help us! The lifeboats... HELP!"
I look away from their desperate eyes - I can't afford a conscience. But even as I try to shake them off, they drag me forward. I twist my torso, flail my arms. Using my free leg, I stomp on the arm of the prostrate man. He howls and lets go. Ducking, I escape the crowd and flee, where all I want to do is to run, to yell and scream at everyone to LEAVE ME ALONE.
The thick material of my shirt sticks to my skin, the color leaving me nothing but my shame to hide behind. I snarl at the growing crowd and pull off the sodden garment, as if I can remove my responsibility and my guilt in one symbolic move. My fists are clenched; perhaps by sheer willpower I can keep the desperate hordes off me.
I’m shoving people aside mindlessly, barreling through any obstacle in my path. I’m not sure where the lifeboats are, or where _I_ am; all that is in my mind is to get off the ship, in whatever way possible. I’m screaming at nothing, a wolf howling at the moon, and the world is black and white. I knock over a crew member handing out lifejackets to the terrified passengers. The white jackets scatter like a pile of leaves in a gust of wind, a dispersal that has everyone fighting for their lives.
I’m at the rail. Without hesitation, I throw myself over and into the seething waters below. I’m swimming wildly, desperate to get away, away from the ship, away from the duty I tried to abandon in a torn pile on the deck.
I don't know which way is up.
I don’t know how far I swim, or for how long, before strong hands are hauling me out of the water and into the belly of a lifeboat. Someone wraps a blanket around my shaking shoulders, removing the water, and ever so slowly, the terror. Faces come into focus, and I see Will, with a dark bruise near his temple. I wipe water out of my eyes and brush damp hair out of my face. I look around me in the water, watching the other lifeboats bobbing like corks. I wonder who was saved and who was left behind.
“Matt, I’m sorry,” Will says quietly. He means he has not seen her either.
“There are a lot of boats,” I croak, hopeful even when I know I don’t deserve it. “A lot of people…” My knuckles are white as I clench the fabric of the blanket in my fists. Noises reverberate oddly, as if detached from the scene in front of me. Lights flicker oddly in the corner of my vision before I realize they are fires burning on the water. Will wraps an arm around my shoulders, a gesture that means that he understands what I did, and forgives me.
"Get some rest," he murmurs. "You look terrible." Even after all this, there's the faintest of smiles in his voice. I nod and curl up in the bow, but I leave my eyes open. If I try to close my eyes, what I have done will haunt me, twisting day dreams into nightmares.
The other occupants are silent, making the rocking of the boat, the monotonous sloshing of oars in water, almost deafening. They spare me only a glance before turning back to their own thoughts. These people had family and friends aboard. Maybe they knew the man I stomped on, or the woman I shoved. Perhaps they once kissed the cheek of the bawling toddler I spared only a glance.
The enormity of what has happened – and what I have done – comes crashing down. I almost wish for my uniform back so that these people might understand what I have done, can become the inquisition I so deserve. But the shirt is lying on the deck of a sinking ship, leaving me alone with my guilt. No one blames me for saving myself.
Evil, after all, is relative.