Dull, icy-blue eyes slowly opened. Wrinkles of an aged face formed like shipping routes across the ocean; a lifetime of routes and familiar expressions. Looking up, a slowly sharpening focus followed the lazy swaying motion of the baroque brass lantern hung by a chain from the ceiling. Aflicker - a faint glow cast soft light around the restricted cabin from a depleting candle. Stiff elbows helped to lift a head of short, silvery curls from the comfort of the plush pillow.
“We’ve been over this, George is gone.” The head gently resumed its rest on the pillow. With a long drawn sigh, the man went back to watching the lantern rock back and forth. “Taken from me.”
In the corner, a wraithlike African Grey Parrot sat hunched on its perch with its head cocked to one side. A yellow eye glowing like a full moon in autumn stared at the man. Expressionless. Its gaze penetrated deep into the old soul, a pitch black pupil hiding unknown thoughts.
The man sighed. Again with that question... With great effort, he lifted himself up from the bed and kicked his bare feet out from the warmth of the covers onto the cold wooden floor of the ship. He paid no mind to it; his feet were always cold these days. Just part of getting older, he thought. Attempting to stand, he stumbled with the support of the bed to balance himself from the slowly rocking of the ship. Steadfast, failing knees and stiff hips did their best to support the weight and handle the constantly shifting center of gravity.
The bird carefully watched him without emotion as he fumbled towards his cage.
Bony fingers connected by arthritis-ridden knuckles involuntarily shook as they lifted the brass bar latch. It watched as they trembled on their slow journey towards him. Swiftly, and with force, it bit one of them using its powerful curled beak, but not with the strength to crack the hard shells of nuts that it was intended for. A little gray tongue probed the surface of the skin looking for the taste of salt.
The old man pulled his finger away and tapped the bird on the beak. Pointing aggressively, “Hey! No biting! Come on. Come on.” He forced the outstretched finger to the bird's legs. Its pupils contracted - the closest thing to an emotion it could express. Reluctantly, it lifted one foot onto it, wrapping its sharp claws around the bone, the second soon followed. Escorted out from one cage to another. Together, they sat at the edge of the bed in the dark of the night.
“I always told myself I wouldn’t let this happen. That I would sooner peacefully, and of my own volition, fall asleep in the cold embrace of the sea before my ship would be taken from me.” He used his other hand to scratch behind the bird’s neck. Knowing the routine, it lowered its head to separate the feathers for deeper penetration and closed its eyes.
“When did this happen? I don’t remember how I got here. Mutiny.” He scoffed with a chuckle, shaking his head. “I used to be the Captain of MY ship. Captain Lee Gordon, of the HMS Royal George, the biggest warship in the Royal Navy’s Fleet.”
He looked around the tight, unceremonious quarters in which he was confined to. Thick timbers groaned with the rolling of the waves; the candle of the single lantern cast moving shadows along the walls giving the illusion of the ship gently breathing in then exhaling.
“She’s a beautiful, living, being, Quasi. She’s more than just a ship, more than a finely crafted collection of wood and nails. I can no longer recall when she was built, or how many adventures we’ve been on together. I wish I could, I really do. It’s terrifying, not knowing… my ship.”
Quasimodo looked up at him, taking a temporary break from the neck scratch to ask, “Where’s George?”
He leaned in closer to the bird. Lee sensed if he got close enough he would slip and fall into the infinite void in the black pupil of his eye. His own image reflecting over the convex surface made him feel as though he were being stretched infinitely across two directions with no clear beginning or end. A forever being. He pulled his face away to straighten his sore, misshapen back. Years at sea, working hard to maintain this ship have taken a toll on him.
“George will always be in my heart,” he said, with a loving sigh. “I suppose it had to happen eventually.”
The cabin groaned as the waves grew taller, and increasing in frequency.
A strange thought occurred to him.
“And why do you speak with a woman’s voice? There’s no women permitted aboard this vessel. Where on earth did you learn to speak like that?”
Wider swaying of the lantern caused longer motions of the shadows; deeper, labored breaths of the ship. The old Captain observed them with silent concern.
“Storm’s coming, Quasi. Come, let’s get you back in your cage for now.”
Timing with the rolls of the ship he stood, knees painfully bracing the movements as he outstretched his hand to put the bird back in its cage. As the latch reengaged, a rogue wave collided with the side of the ship sending him crashing to the floor, striking his head against the corner of the wooden bed frame.
Quasimodo screeched loudly in a womanly voice, “Where’s George?! Where’s George?!”
Lee held his hand to his head and felt the warmth of life blood steadily flowing from the injury to his temple. “I don’t know! I don’t understand what’s happening!”
Quasimodo continued, “Where’s George?! Where’s George?! AAGHK Where’s George?!”
The ship rolled and pitched side-to-side with violent force, at this rate it was sure to take on water and sink to the bottom of the black sea. The hapless captain tossed side-to-side at the mercy of tempestuous forces of nature beyond his control.
“Please!” he cried, out into the dark of the night, “Someone! Let me take control of my ship! I can weather this storm! Please!”
“Granny, are you okay? Granny Lee?” asked a strange man’s voice, gently rocking her shoulder side-to-side. Dull, icy-blue eyes shot wide; panic stricken and scanning for clues, clues about who this man was and more importantly, where they were.
“Granny Lee, are you okay? You were screaming, ‘Where’s George?’ over and over in your sleep.” He looked upon the expression of terrified confusion on her face with concern. The wrinkles on her forehead bunched together forming mountain ranges like that of the mountains in the distance from the view of her little window. “Did you have a nightmare?”
The young man walked across the room, her heavy eyes followed him, still unsure of who he was. The stranger came back with an ornate pewter picture frame and sat next to her on the bed. Bony, arthritis-ridden fingers trembled as they grasped onto the frame; blue veins clearly visible through her translucent skin. A woman with short, curly red hair looked up with a sideways glance. Smiling eyes shone lovingly at a taller, semi-balding man with a dark grey bird on his shoulder. He smiled awkwardly for the camera in his favorite blue and white striped shirt, squinting at the sun in his eyes.
“Who are these peonies?” Her small dull eyes looked up at the still mysterious man for answers.
Calmly, he leaned in and pointed. “This is Papa George,” pointing to the man in the blue and white striped shirt, “and this is Quasi, Quasimodo.”
Wonder, excitement, and confusion took turns expressing themselves on her face as she tried to piece together the lost fragments of memories. A bony finger landed on the woman.
“That’s you, Granny. Do you remember when you dyed your hair red like that?”
She laughed wildly - child-like. “I doughnut think cherry grass like that!” She looked upon the photo again with unbound amazement. “Wooow.” Another chuckle of disbelief formed into a fond, familiar smile.
The man joined in the laughter, it wasn’t as genuine as hers. “Y-Yeah, your hair was really red like that. Hey, maybe if you ask the nurses kindly, they’ll let you dye it again.”
Her smile dropped, eyes gone blank. Slowly, she scanned the small room looking for more clues about where she was. Exquisite quilted tapestries hung on wooden dowels, expertly crafted by a mysterious person. They sure were beautiful. Her gaze went down to see the gardening books on the bedside table. She put her hand on the bar of the bed to lean in closer to see them clearly, she paused when a bracelet on her wrist caught her attention. Squinting to see, she tried to read the enigmatic symbols on it.
“They give you some pretty interesting jewelry around here don’t they?”
She looked at him, expressionless, and nodded her head because that’s what she thought she was supposed to respond with. Resting her silvery head back onto the comfort of the pillow she closed her eyes. This place is too confusing.
“Are you tired, Granny?”
After a moment, she opened her eyes again to see the man who smiled with his mouth, his eyes expressed something else. She wondered what.
“I’m wheel, Ned, red. Going see… Elvis!” she said, punctuated by a deep chuckle.
“Alright,” he leaned in to give her a kiss on her forehead, “You get your rest, I’ll visit you again Granny. Merry Christmas.”
Her frail, cold hand grabbed onto his as tight as she could manage before he could leave. “Where have you been my whole life?”
He gave her hand a gentle squeeze back and a pat with the other, then got up to leave, he had to. At the doorway he smiled softly to hide his own pain. She waved weakly to him from beneath her covers as he slowly closed the door behind him.
“Oh, is she awake?” asked the passing nurse.
“Yeah, but she’s going back to bed. I think she said she was tired.” Clandestinely, he took his glasses off to rub his eyes and wipe away the held tears.
“She’s going to need her rest, after the Christmas dinner tonight we have a special surprise for them. There’s going to be an Elvis impersonator coming in to sing them some songs!”
The young man unexpectedly let out a burst of laughter into his wrist, then put his glasses back on. “So… that’s what she meant when she said she was going to see Elvis. Alzheimer's really jumbles up her words doesn’t it.” He sighed deeply. “I didn’t think she was being literal.”
Inside her small room. Dull, icy-blue eyes became increasingly heavier. They struggled to focus on the photograph by her bed of the younger couple and their pet bird. They look so happy. She wonders who they are. Too tired to hold it off anymore she closed her eyes.
A man awoke in his bed from the question. With great effort, he lifted himself up, kicked his bare feet out from the warmth of the covers onto the cold wood floor of the ship. Instinctively, he stood with caution to make his way to the bird cage in the corner of the room.
Bony fingers with arthritis-ridden knuckles shook as they lifted the brass bar latch. He supported the African Grey with his outstretched finger and sat both of them on the edge of the bed. New morning light shone through the porthole, strokes of lemon and peach reflected on the surface of a calm, endless sea.
Lee smiled softly, and stood once again, it was much easier now. Stepping closer to the round window the view within the restrictive ship’s cabin became smaller - less important, as the expansive sea ahead of them became larger. The infinite warmth of the sun caressed his cold translucent skin, loving vibrations resonated within. The once stiff latch of the window opened effortlessly. A long, drawn, breath took in the familiar salty smell of the sea.
“George is out there, let’s go see him.”
A ragged ball jittered to a stop, finding temporary rest amongst the debris on the vacant road. The decaying city remained mute except for the rhythmic sound of,
Click, Squeak, Squeak, Click, Squeak.
Small, silent steps. Little Viktoriya tailed behind her big brother.
Rusty wheels ceased their complaining for a moment. Without looking up from the road, he lifted his dust covered leg, paused, then kicked it again. Off it went to scout ahead. Viktoriya stopped and stood beside him in silence; her hands folded behind the small of her back, resting on the back of her clean, blue floral dress. Agonizingly, he gripped the splintering wood handle with blister-ridden fingers. The red rusting wagon moved forward with a heavy lurch. Wheels continued their cries of protest.
Wind following them from behind carried her hair into her face, a small hand tried its best to hold it back. Wide, expressionless eyes stared up through him as they walked, his dull gaze remained fixed on the road ahead. She watched on as he worked tirelessly despite the fire burning in his arms and the throbbing in his legs.
Even with his efforts to kick the larger chunks of building materials and pieces of garbage out of the way, the wagon still skipped and bounced when it hit an obstacle - causing the contents to shift about and resettle. He didn’t complain when he had to reposition things, just like he never complained about pulling their wagon.
What was the point in complaining anymore?
Steadily, they progressed through a capacious lot partially filled with vehicles in various states of deterioration. Their windows shattered - forcefully exploded into countless tiny fragments on the pavement. Some remained only as burned-out husks casting dark shadows along the ground.
Walking alongside the wall of a crumbling building, they passed several dark figures frozen in place on its surface. A macabre photograph of just another normal day running errands. Viktoriya stopped to look at them out of curiosity as he struggled forward.
Ghosts. At least, that’s what they called them.
Click Cli—Click Click
“Don’t fret, Viktoriya. They can’t hurt you.”
She looked at him, back to the ghosts, then swiftly ran to catch up with him - afraid to be left alone with them. He gave the ball a harder kick to reach the broken tempered glass doors of the market ahead. It came to rest beside a faded mechanical ride, a once brown galloping fiberglass horse. At one point it would’ve given any child lucky enough to have a coin a one minute ride through imaginary fields. Now, it waits, hoping for the day to be played with once again.
He pulled the wagon alongside it, letting the handle fall to the concrete with a sharp slap and a bounce. Inspecting his raw hands, he was glad they were at a market as they would probably still have bandages. His attention switched to his little sister looking up at the horse with a question burning in her unblinking eyes.
“It’s no use, Viktoriya. It’s just a statue now.”
Grabbing an empty canvas sack from the front of the wagon, he went shopping. Inside, the market was dark and difficult to see, save for a few sections where the roof collapsed in. Viktoriya waited for him far ahead, standing quietly with her arms behind her back in a ray of light next to a rack of batteries. Her little figure glowed like an angel in the shimmering radiance of a light beam.
Partially fallen aisles of shelving twisted and torqued, barely held together by their interlocking connections. Traversing them, he picked through cans that had fallen to the floor, looking for food that would still likely be edible. Meats and vegetables high in sodium and other preservatives were sought after. Each can had to be inspected for rust or dents before going into the sack.
Viktoriya appeared behind him, expressionless.
“I know, Viktoriya. I’ll look for the canned cherries for you.”
Continuing on, he made his way to the battery display. The old rack leaned on a broken wheel, mostly cleaned out. The sound of metal grinding against metal echoed through the silent building as he gave it a slow spin looking for a specific type.
“Did you see the right ones, Viktoriya? The ones for Dad’s ghost detector?”
It’s what he called the device on his belt. For her sake.
Soon he found the pack he was looking for, just one left.
“Look at that, Viktoriya. The last… one.”
A small pause to reflect on his statement before shaking his head and continuing on their shopping trip. Wandering through the long aisles, he marveled at how much food this place must have had. So much space. People must’ve been so happy to have so much.
Coming across a first aid section, he stopped to tear open a box of bandages so he could wrap his bleeding, blister-covered hands. Viktoriya watched silently with one eye half hidden by the shelves at the end of the aisle.
“There, you see, Viktoriya? I’ll be alright.”
The heavy canvas strap dug into his shoulder, he decided it was time to put it back in their wagon. Viktoriya hung back to continue studying the artifacts on the shelves and admire the floating dust illuminated by the light from heaven above.
Near the registers, he scanned the wire racking for a specific treat. After a couple moments he found what he was looking for. The unmistakable gold foil packaging of his favorite chewing gum. Promptly, a piece was unwrapped and put into his mouth. The hard stick shattered between his teeth. Slow, cautious chewing to break it into smaller pieces, reducing chances of cutting his mouth until it became malleable by his saliva.
While waiting, he picked up an old newspaper by the register. Shaking the dust off, he held it up to the light. The headline above a photo of a now deceased politician read:
WAR COULD BOOST THE ECONOMY
With the threat of war looming on the horizon, economists say our economy is seeing a welcomed growth to our GDP. The President released a statement yesterday: “While we strive to prevent it, a potential war would see the creation of thousands of new jobs to support the war efforts, reduce unemployment and…”
Looking around at the dark, collapsing market he scoffed - tossing the newspaper causing it to spin apart and spread around the floor.
“What do you think about that, Viktoriya? I’m getting our food without the need for money… Seems so pointless now.”
He shifted the weighty sack on his shoulder to leave. Viktoriya silently followed behind him.
Outside, his eyes pained to adjust to the bright light. Viktoriya was riding the motionless horse next to him. Her little body swayed slowly back and forth, pretending like she was riding it for real.
Rolling his shoulder, the heavy sack slipped off onto the concrete with a crash. Using both arms, he lifted it into the wagon, cans banged against each other as they settled.
A strong gust of hot wind blew through the vacant lot, bringing with it a blast of blinding dust that choked his lungs.
The ghost detector on his belt clicked rapidly as he leaned in closer to grab a small, pale, cold arm that slipped out from a wrapped blanket. Holding onto it for a moment, he looked over to the lone mechanical horse with the child-sized shadow burnt into the bleached wall behind it.
With care, he lovingly placed it back into the protection of the blanket.
Painfully, bandaged fingers gripped the handle of the now heavier wagon. Rusty wheels squeaked, resistant to continue on.
“We should keep going, Viktoriya. The ghosts are coming.”
With a lift of his tired leg, he kicked the ragged ball ahead, carried further by the wind against his back.