THE LIFEBOAT

The crowd surged forward, making its way toward the lifeboat. Jack, Rose, Tommy, and Fabrizio pushed through the crowd, but it was already clear—women and children only. Only Rose could get on.

Jack glanced at Tommy and Fabrizio. "You better check the other side."

After a moment's hesitation, they hurried off. Jack and Rose continued to push through the crowd. People were shouting, crying, and calling out to each other as several women boarded the lifeboat.

Finally, Rose spoke. "I'm not going without you."

Jack shook his head and pointed in the direction of the boat. "Get in the boat, Rose."

At that moment, Cal walked up. "Yes. Get in the boat, Rose."

Rose looked at him in shock, stepping closer to Jack.

Cal looked at her, as she stood there shivering in her sodden dress, a steerage blanket wrapped around her shoulders.

"My God, look at you. You look a fright." He took off his coat. "Here, put this on."

Rose numbly shrugged into it, then backed away from Cal. Cal and Jack both looked at her, trying to think of a way to convince her to get on the boat.

Lightoller was still loading the lifeboat. "Quickly, ladies. Step into the boat. Hurry, please!"

Jack tried to push Rose toward the boat. "Go on. I'll get the next one."

"No. Not without you!"

She didn't care that Cal was standing right there, watching.

Cal saw the emotion between Jack and Rose and clenched his jaw angrily. Then, swearing under his breath, he leaned closer to them.

"I have an agreement with an officer on the other side of the ship. Jack and I can get off safely. Both of us."

Rose looked from Jack to Cal, wanting to believe him. Jack tried to smile reassuringly.

"See? I've got my own boat to catch."

Cal half-smiled at her. "Better hurry...it's almost full."

Lightoller grabbed Rose's arm and pulled her toward the boat. She reached out for Jack, gripping his hand, holding on until he was out of reach.

"Lower away!" Lightoller called.

Cal and Jack watched from the railing as the boat began to descend. Rose stared up at them, her face streaked with tears.

"You're a good liar," Cal told Jack as soon as Rose was out of earshot.

"Almost as good as you," Jack retorted. "There's…uh...there's no arrangement, is there?"

"Oh, there is. Not that you'll benefit much from it." He looked triumphantly at Jack. "I always win, Jack. One way or another."

Jack looked back down at Rose, not catching the worried expression that crossed Cal's face. In truth, Cal wasn't certain that he could get in a boat. Murdoch hadn't looked pleased when Cal had stuffed the money in his pocket, and had immediately walked off, more concerned with evacuating the ship than with worrying about Cal's bribe attempt. True, he had offered Cal a place in the boat on the other side of the ship, but he had also allowed numerous other men on, including a steerage passenger who couldn't possibly have paid him off.

Cal turned his attention back to Rose—just as she struggled to her feet and tried to climb over the woman sitting next to her.

"No, Rose! Stop!" Both Jack and Cal shouted at her. One of the women in the boat grabbed the edge of Rose's coat, tripping her. She was on her feet again in an instant, trying to climb out of the boat.

Several women shrieked as the boat wobbled precariously, threatening to tip. From the far end of the boat came a shout.

"Who's manning this thing?"

Everyone stopped, looking at the boat in disbelief. It was filled with only women and children passengers. No crew members or stewards had been allowed on, or even any stewardesses. There was no one to row.

Rose looked up. "Jack!" she shouted. She looked at Lightoller, who was eyeing the boat, trying to decide what to do. "Sir!" she shouted at Lightoller. "He knows how to row! He worked on squid boats and tramp steamers!"

Jack started to shake his head in protest. He couldn't take a seat belonging to an experienced sailor. Lightoller looked down at the boat below, judging how many more people could fit. Three, he judged.

The was one crew member standing nearby. Lightoller gestured to him to get into the boat, then looked at Jack. "Is she telling the truth?"

Before Jack could open his mouth, Rose tried to move again. "Rose! Sit down!" he shouted, as the boat wobbled and tilted slightly.

"Get down there," Lightoller told him, gesturing impatiently. He glanced around, his gaze falling on Cal.

"You! Get in there, too," he told Cal, remembering that he had glimpsed him trying a rowing machine earlier that day.

Neither Jack nor Cal hesitated. Titanic was listing ever farther to the bow, and the lifeboat needed someone to row it. With a quick thought of those who had been left behind, Jack climbed over the railing. Gripping the ropes that held the boat suspended, he half-climbed, half-slid into the lifeboat.

With a cry of joy, Rose threw her arms around him. Their joy was short-lived, however. Cal was not nearly so adept at climbing as Jack, and his evening clothes were never designed with such activity in mind. Halfway down, he lost his grip on the rope and fell, landing hard in the lifeboat. One of the ropes holding the boat aloft, already taxed by overuse, snapped. The boat lurched sharply sideways, threatening to spill out the people inside.

Most of the passengers managed to grab onto something to keep them inside—the seats, the side of the boat, each other. The crew member and Rose were not so lucky.

The sailor tumbled over the edge, landing with a splash in the icy water below. He resurfaced after a moment, spitting out sea water and shivering.

Rose, who had been almost back to her seat, let go of Jack, startled, as the boat tipped. Jack had managed to grab the edge of the seat, stopping himself from sliding over the edge of the boat, but Rose slipped over the side, barely grasping the edge. Her terrified shriek split the air as she dangled by her fingers from the edge of the lifeboat.

Jack, Cal, and two of the women rushed to her aid, but Cal got there first. Gripping Rose's hands, he pulled her back into the boat. Jack caught hold of Rose's coat, and they pulled her back inside—just as their combined weight caused the boat to tip further.

Lightoller had been lowering the boat as quickly as he could, but it was still a good ten feet above the water. With nothing to balance it, it lurched sharply to the side. Several women screamed, grabbing anything they could to hold on. Jack grabbed the edge of the boat, while Rose grasped the seat with one hand and Jack's hand with the other.

Cal tried desperately to find something to hold onto as he lost his footing. His hands grasped ineffectively at the edge of a nearby seat as he fell backwards. His head hit the edge of the boat with a sickening crack as he tumbled out. He hit the water face-down and didn't move.

One woman fainted in shock. Two others screamed, and mothers turned their children's heads away from the sight. Rose turned deathly pale as she looked down at Cal.

As soon as the boat hit the water, the crew member scrambled on board, helping Jack and Rose lift Cal from the water.

He wasn't breathing. A thin trickle of blood ran from the corner of his mouth. Rose pressed frantically on his chest, trying to get him to breathe.

At last, Cal choked, spitting up sea water and blood. Rose sat back with relief, scarcely noticing that they were now some distance from the ship.

Cal tried to sit up, but found that he couldn't move his arms. Frightened now, he tried to move his legs, to no avail. He couldn't move anything below his head.

He glanced up at Rose, who was looking at him with concern, and at Jack, who was helping to row the boat out of the way of the sinking ship. His mouth was filled with the coppery taste of blood, and the base of his head ached dully. He couldn't feel anything else at all, not even the bitter chill of his sodden clothes. His eyes were bleak as he looked back at Rose.

"Rose," he whispered. She leaned down, trying to hear him. Jack set the oar aside and leaned toward him also.

"In the pocket...diamond...sell it. It'll make you...wealthy."

Rose shook her head. "Cal, don't try to talk. You'll be stronger later—"

"No!" He cut her off. "Dawson...sorry I...I framed you...take care of her...she deserves the best. Take care of Ruth..."

Jack nodded. "I will, Cal."

Cal choked, breathing becoming more difficult. Rose tried to hush him again, but he ignored her, fighting against the blackness that tried to overtake him.

"Rose...I never told you...I love you...wish I had. Jack...a good man...stay with him..." He seemed about to say more. Rose waited, then realized he had stopped breathing. Jack reached for Cal's wrist, feeling for a pulse. There was none. He looked at Rose, shaking his head.

"Oh, God," she squeaked, staring down at Cal. "Oh my God, Cal..." She burst into tears, throwing her arms around Jack.

He just held her, letting her cry.

XXXXX

Rose closed her eyes, trying to ignore the screams coming from the water nearby. The ship had split in two and sank about ten minutes earlier, and the screams from the people in the water were just beginning to die down.

She leaned against Jack, digging her hands into her pockets. Her fingers found the diamond that Cal had placed there before putting the coat on her. She turned it over and over, feeling the individual facets of the cold, heavy stone.

She tried not to think of Cal, tried not to notice his body, now covered with a blanket, still lying at her feet. She hadn't expected to feel any grief for him, or the guilt that wracked her conscience, but they were present nonetheless.

She had never loved him, had had occasion to hate and even fear him, but he had been part of her life for the past year and a half, and his sudden death left a void. It was hard ending a relationship, even one that had brought misery.

More than grief, she was wracked by guilt. It was her fault that the accident had happened. If she had remained seated as she was supposed to, she would never have slipped over the side, and Cal would not have been hurt rescuing her. But it was too late now.

Rose realized that even if Cal had lived, she still would not have married him. She would have been miserable as his wife, and he would not have been happy with her for long. They would have dragged each other down. Still, she had never wished for his death.

The screams from the water had faded away, and a boat was going back to look for survivors. The other boats had been gathered together, and the seven hundred survivors sat waiting.

Rose opened her eyes to see the rescue boat returning, only a few extra people inside. So many had died that night, so many people's lives would be changed forever, including her own.

She looked out across the open sea. Even in the darkness, she could see scattered debris and frozen bodies. She shuddered at the thought that she or Jack could have been among them.

Rose leaned back, putting her head on Jack's shoulder. He had wrapped a blanket around both of them as they sat huddled together in the lifeboat. Jack put his arms around her.

A few of the women in the boat whispered quietly, glancing at Jack and Rose. They had noticed the engagement ring on Rose's finger, had noticed her reaction to Cal's death. Most felt they understood her reaction to the loss of her fiancé, but few understood why she had turned to a steerage passenger for comfort. Still, tragedy brought people together, and most were too preoccupied with their own worry or grief to be concerned with propriety.

Rose ignored all of them. She was beyond caring about appearances. As the first rays of sunlight shone over the ocean, and the Carpathia appeared in the distance, she whispered to Jack.

"I love you."

He looked at her in surprise for a moment, then whispered back, "I love you, too." He paused, then went on. "I'm going to try to take care of you, and your mother, if that is what you want."

"I think we can take care of ourselves—but I would like you be part of our lives. Mother won't like it, but she'll come around. I want us to be together."

He nodded. "I want that, too." He stopped, thinking. "Rose, I don't know if Cal ever told you this, but he and I met in Paris several weeks ago, long before Titanic ever sailed. He bought several of my drawings. He didn't seem like a bad sort—a little too concerned with what others thought, maybe, and a little too proud of his own position in life. I think the reason he hated me so much on board Titanic was because he viewed me as a rival for your affections."

Rose nodded, understanding now. "He did some awful things on board the ship, framing you and leaving you to die in that flooded room."

"But he redeemed himself in the end. Out of all the people here, I think he was the only one that found his absolution last night." Jack reached for the oar, rowing the boat in the direction of the approaching ship.

Rose looked toward the Carpathia. She would never forget Cal, or what had happened that last night on Titanic. But she could forgive.

As they moved slowly in the direction of the ship, Rose thought she heard Cal whispering to her, saying good-bye.

And in that moment, Rose forgave Cal of everything.

The End.