I wake to the far off echo of a recording announcing why someone’s train is stopped somewhere.
The ceiling above me is a mosaic of rugs, drapes, curtains, and interesting pieces Dad has found, stretched from wall to wall and dimming the lights. I look at the sunburst pattern he gave me on my 5th birthday, as I do every time I wake. It’s positioned so the burst is illuminated by a light directly behind its center. I still remember when he gave it to me.
“It’s the sun, shining through to the Princess’s Quarters, through her ceiling and the roof and her castle and even the earth, all the way to her bed, just for her.”
The light has faded it since then, but the memory still comes to me every day. We used to live in a castle, now we live on a ship. The bed creaks as I rise, throwing layers off of me as I swing my feet around to the ground. I see a pair of new red sandals on the floor next to my old black boots, with a white gift bow on the right one’s bridge. He always has a new gift for me the morning of my birthday, and my 15th is no different. I smile.
I slip on the new sandals, the molded rubber not quite fitting to the bottom of my feet. They’ll adjust in time. The bow will go nicely with my white sweater for special occasions. I know he planned that, and he’ll be looking to see if I’m wearing it. I don’t want to disappoint him, especially after he went through whatever trouble he went through for the sandals. I dig my sweater out of its drawer and pull it on, and grab the green pair of pants from the top drawer and pull them on as well. The bow fastens to my pin, and sits high in my thick brown hair.
We’re moving, I can feel the floor pitch under my feet. I wonder where the current will take us today. I can hear water falling outside the ship. It must be storming hard up above. We’ll probably keep on the move until it lets up. The ship pitches again and I stumble into my drawers, knocking them down.
“She’s up! Happy birthday, Princess!”
He’s up front at his perch, reading the current and steering the boat. I pick up the drawers and stack them back in their place. He’s always said the Princess can leave her Quarters however she likes, but the ship only has so much room, inside my Quarters and elsewhere. If I didn’t keep things to rights, he’d let everything devolve into a pile.
After I stack my drawers, make my bed, and clean up my books from last night, I pull back the thick curtain and step into his room. It’s as messy as it ever is, though he does manage to keep a strange order to his mess. The clothes things are in the clothes pile, the bed things in the bed pile, the cleaning things in the cleaning pile, and though only a curtain separates our spaces, he manages to keep it all within his own.
I see a bottle of water in the corner and splash some on my face, then step through and around his piles to the next curtain. As I pull it back and step through, it drags across my face and the top of my head.
I’m still rubbing the curtain’s threadballs and dust off my face when I step into the deck. The light, unfiltered and uncovered here, blinds me for a moment.
“There she is! Sleep well?”
He looks up from his panels and his buttons and out through the doorway of his perch to me, smiling. His eyes connect with mine, then immediately look to the top of my head. He frowns, but tries to hide it. I reach up and realize the bow has migrated to the back of my head after walking through the curtain. I correct it and he smiles.
“Yeah, just woke up.”
I move up across the deck to him.
“Sorry about the pitching, I had to get this old boat moving. I saw some lights a little closer than I liked. Don’t want them to catch us.”
The Empty A’s, the bane of Daddy’s existence, are always looking for him in his boat or his castle or whatever new place we’re living in. As long as we stay on the move, he says, they can’t catch us. We’ve been running from them as long as I can remember, scavenging for food, staying on the move when we have to, stopping only when he’s sure we’re somewhere they don’t even know exists. There’s a lot of room for our little boat in this world, Daddy says, but they don’t like us roaming around. We’re very good about staying away from them, and we’ve only ever come close to getting caught once.
It was when I was eight. We had stopped off at a dock deep in an abandoned cave accessed by a main route Daddy had almost been caught on, but he got enough ahead of the Empty A’s that he was able to slip away. He said it was impossible for them to even know where this dock was, or that it even existed. It used to be used by the people who lived above it, but the entrance was sealed off and forgotten about decades ago. We holed up and stayed quiet for a couple of hours, until we were sure we had lost them, then drew up to the old dock and turned off the engine. We opened the door and stepped off to stretch our legs a bit. He said I could look around, but only if I didn’t pass the dock gates and stayed within sight of the boat. If things went bad, he wanted to be able to get away quickly. He found some rodents nearby and set about to trapping them. I wandered.
The dock was pretty bare and simple, nothing to be excited about. Just flat, dirty concrete. Some ancient, ripped posters on the wall I couldn’t read, with nice people’s faces on them. Someone had drawn mustaches on them. Old, broken signs hung from the ceiling. All I could make out was EXIT and NO EXIT. The dock gates were somewhat more removed from the dock’s edge, much more than I had ever seen at a dock before, and up at the top of a short, wide staircase. I walked over and climbed the stairs. Daddy had never let me wander this far before, but I hadn’t passed the gates, and I could still technically see the boat. I heard him mumbling in a corner about the rodents, so I decided to press on.
The gates were at the bottom of another set of stairs, and I could see a very bright glow coming from the top of them, accompanied by a lively rush of sounds. Compared to the silent darkness of the dock’s cave, it was heavenly. I ducked under the gate and ascended the stairs. The sound grew louder. There were wooden doors with broken windows at the top, and through the windows I could see a bright, screamingly blue sky. My feet started double timing up the stairs before I could even stop to think about how far away the boat was. I never saw sky like this. I had never really seen the sky at all from our boat.
I reached the top and gazed at the blue. I took in that sky for a minute before I became aware of the world above that had suddenly opened up to me. I saw tall buildings, three or four stories high, with pretty colored awnings and curtains. I saw people walking across the street, cars passing and stopping and going. The rush of sounds filtered and separated and became clearer. Horns, engines, conversations, and music all filled my ears.
Across the street I saw something I had never seen before and have never seen since. Daddy says it’s called a playground, and it was swarming with kids just like me, climbing all over and up and down and through and around, jumping and running and fighting and screaming and laughing. I tried to open the doors only to find them locked with a thick chain wrapped around the handles, secured by a heavy padlock. I tried again, then pulled, yanked, banged, and even punched at the doors in my efforts to get past them to that playground.
I didn’t even notice the big man in blue with the shiny metal on his shirt until his hand was on my shoulder, reaching through the broken window.
“How’d you get in there?”
I froze, terrified. I had gone past the gates. The boat was nowhere to be seen, and I had alerted everyone within earshot that I was there. The Empty A’s had found us.
“That station’s been closed for years, what are you doing in there? You climb through the window? You the one who broke this?”
Tears began to well up in my eyes. All of Daddy’s work, everything he had done to keep us safe and hidden from them, was all ruined because of me. I was about to start wailing when I heard him behind me.
“Princess! There you are! I’ve got her, sir.”
He scooped me up and turned away. The man in blue let go of me, but grabbed him instead.
“Now who are you? What’s going on here?”
A second man in blue with shiny metal on his shirt joined him. Daddy paused, then turned to face them both.
“Just doing some track work down here. Couldn’t get a babysitter today.”
“How’d you get in without breaking the lock?”
“Came in from a ... another station.”
“There’s no line that comes through here, hasn’t been for years. Let me see your ID.”
The second man reached to the gun at his hip.
“I ... can’t ... show you....”
“We’re going to need you to step outside and answer some questions.”
The first man took his hand off Daddy’s shoulders to talk into the little black box on his shoulder. Daddy turned and hurried down the steps.
“Wait a minute, come back!”
“Got to get back to work, sorry!”
Daddy rushed down the stairs and vaulted over the gates, with me still in his arms. As he sprinted across the platform, I heard the men at the top of the stairs banging at the door, trying to break the chain. Then I heard the rest of the window break, and the light from the top of the stairs went dark. Daddy leapt down the short, wide staircase in one step. I saw the rodents nosing around his half-made trap scurry away as we sped by them and into the open doors of the boat. He put me down in a chair and ran up to his perch to get the boat engine up and running again. As I heard the boat thrum to life, I saw the two men rushing down the stairs on the other side of the gates. The lights and air vents whirred on as they jumped over the gates, and the boat’s announcement drowned out their cries to stop.
“Stand clear of the closing doors, please.”
Daddy took us out of there and deeper into the cave, switching from current to current to current, doubling back and doubling back again, not stopping for hours. We made it. I’ve never passed the gates since.
“I don’t mind the pitching, I’m used to it. I was getting up anyway.”
“Good. Don’t want to sleep through your whole birthday, Princess!”
He’s in good spirits today, which is good. It means he really slept last night. He’s always been a weird sleeper, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed him getting worse. He shouts in the night, mumbles, has violent fits. They’ve been taking over his daytime, too. His mood swings have been getting more severe, and there are times that I’m not sure he knows I’m there, with him. And he’s always, always on the run from the Empty A’s.
But today he looks rested, and confident, and happy. I wrap my arms around his shoulders as he gazes out at the track in front of us, and give him a squeeze.
“Currents are hot today! We’re picking up a lot of power off the third rail.”
I think he used to work down here, on this track system, before I was born. He talks as if he knows a lot about it, and it’s obvious that he does, but there are times that I’m sure he’s talking very convincing nonsense. I don’t think he knows anymore which knowledge is leftover from his old job, and which isn’t. It all seems to blend seamlessly together, to the point where it’s impossible to separate.
“Where’s this old boat headed today, captain?”
He doesn’t respond, just stares out into the dark.
“...Where are the currents taking us? Daddy?”
This happens sometimes. He’ll get quiet and withdraw into himself. I think it’s when part of his brain wakes up and starts realizing what’s real, and the rest of it shouts it down.
“Daddy, it’s okay. You’re here, with me–”
“This isn’t a boat.”
It’s best to just walk through these moments with him. He doesn’t need to be prodded, or pushed, or told what to think. I’ve tried that, and it just sets him off. When he gets like this, I just try to make sure he gets through it safely. I rub his shoulders.
“Oh. What is it, then?”
“You know it’s not a boat.”
“You’re right, I do–”
“You know it’s not a boat!”
“You’re absolutely right, Daddy.”
“I know it’s not a boat.”
We sit, silent again, for a few minutes. His head is wrapping itself around this instant, I can see it in his knotted face, reflected against the glass of his perch- no, his control booth. It’s not a boat anymore. I’ll found out what we’re on in a moment, I just need to wait.
“It’s a castle!”
“Didn’t we used to live in a castle?”
“So we live in a castle again?”
“We can’t, we already lived in one.”
“So this is...?”
“This is a submarine.”
“I’ve always wanted to live in a submarine!”
My dad goes deep into thought once more. I still believe there’s a part of who he used to be inside him, and it’s working itself out when it gets like this. I desperately hope it gets out one day. I’ve read, in the books and newspapers and magazines we find, that there are people above ground that can help that part of him take control again. But he won’t even consider going near the surface ever since the Empty A’s nearly took me away. If I were to leave him to go find someone, he could take off again and I’d lose him forever. I won’t leave him alone with himself down here.
“Hey! Check ‘em out.”
I lift my left foot up onto his lap and show him the red sandals. A smile spreads across his face from ear to ear.
“Oh, you’re wearing them! Do they fit?”
Of course I’m wearing them. Using or wearing his birthday presents are one of the few times in the year I get to see that huge grin beam across his face. I’d jump at any chance to see him this genuinely, clearly happy.
“Yep, mostly. They’ll break in and mold to my feet.”
“Oh, good. You like ‘em?”
I look down again at the red sandals, the chip at the front of the left one, the stain on the bridge of the right one. I wonder whose feet originally broke these in, and what happened that left them stranded on a platform somewhere. I look back my father’s face, at his enormous smile and waiting expression.
“Of course, Daddy. I love them.”
Our submarine presses on, ahead of and away from the Empty A’s. Somewhere above me, I picture playgrounds and a bright, screamingly blue sky.
Sean Curry is a writer, funny guy, and terrific dancer. He is 26 and a quarter and next year he gets to walk all the way to the store by himself. He resides in New York City with his wife and eleven dogs, and he even has a website: www.sean-curry.com. Sean is a staff writer for The Inclusive.