“I was young. All old men are young—they are seven, and twenty-three, and seventy-eight all at once. Standing at the peak of that hill, I was ten. Double digits were new to me, and I was wearing them in like new sneakers.
I took off, soaring past my friends still struggling their way to the top. They would have watched me as I passed, feeling the whoosh of the air as I went, my calls becoming distant as I disappeared into the tree line. They would have remembered how that stream of cool air feels on a shiny face and pushed forward, knowing the climb would be worth it.
‘Yew!’ I yelled, so my friends nearing the top of the hill could hear me.
A seagull had perched on the bow of Captain’s dinghy to watch him eat his breakfast. It was early morning on International Waters, and the Great Garbage Patch swayed as the town slept. The houses had been salvaged from the mess left over, from tarp and tin, and they moved with the wind and the currents. Storm clouds sat on the flat line of the horizon, waiting.
Captain sat in his ship, a carved-out stream twisting through the mess ahead of him. They used the stream for transport between towns, because now there were towns—dozens and dozens of them spread across the sea. Some he could see, and others he didn’t want to see. The morning mist covered them all, sometimes hanging around until late afternoon, when neighbours turned into strangers, and the children started to cough.
The seagull on the bow squawked.
“Cap!” a boy yelled from a nearby house. It was Opa. Captain waved in the boy’s direction but didn’t break eye contact with the bird. The gull’s eyes were round and yellow, with pinpricks of black at the centre. It closed them in a flash, unaware of the game. Captain only chuckled, handing it the last corner of his sandwich.
Opa clambered to a stop beside the boat, and when he noticed the small seagull perched at the end of the ship he bent down to pet it. The bird clamped down on the bread in its red beak, its head dipping under the boys touch.
“My parents need more samples of the water today, Captain.”
“To save the world?”
The boy stood to attention. He was a scrawny kid with shaggy hair, prominent ears, and a brown face scattered with sun-born freckles splayed like wings over his nose and cheeks. He stood straight as a poll until Captain nodded, and he relaxed into his usual slump. He scooped the seagull into his arms so that its yellow feet dangled out from under his elbow. The bird was perturbed but not particularly surprised.
Opa caught sight of something and froze.
A group of kids was approaching. Ruth, with her frayed pigtails, was at the head of it. The others swarmed behind her like little birds in a V formation, all in the same weathered and mismatched clothing. Opa threw the seagull from his arms and it flapped in a panic, landing behind Captain, puffed up to double its size.
“Oi,” Ruth yelped. She stopped in front of Opa and the others followed her lead, their skinny arms crossed over their chests, their noses in the air.
“You aren’t supposed to touch the birds,” she said.
“Yeah,” said a boy at the back.
“Yeah,” said the girl flanking her right.
“They’re diseased,” Ruth said.
“Yeah. They’re gross.”
“Shush Ellen,” Ruth said. She turned to Opa. “They aren’t pets.”
“They sure act like ‘em,” Opa said.
“Hey!” Ruth barked, her cheeks red. Opa shrunk behind her, cautious of getting caught in the crossfire. She looked down her nose at Captain until he frowned.
“Are you ready?”
He nodded, and with a wave of Ruth’s hand they moved into action, swarming around the ship.
“Ready?” Ruth said.
“Ready.” Opa said.
They felt for their footing in the rubbish. The stream was narrow and difficult to navigate because the waves didn’t always agree with the path the towns had made. It was too neat, and the ocean wanted chaos. So, as a well-wish and a routine, it had become tradition to launch Captain on his voyage. In the beginning it was about exploration, because a home never felt like a home until he had found its hideaways, its nooks and crannies, the spaces that made it a worthwhile place to be. Now it was about being in motion, and collecting whatever he could salvage, because sitting still made him older.
The kids shouted as they made their way downstream.
“How’s it down there, Cap?”
“Ellen, keep up!”
It was the towns wake up call. Parents poked their heads through windows, bed hair drifting in the cool morning breeze.
He didn’t look back as the boat picked up speed. He looked to the sun. When they let him go, the kids cupped their hands over their eyes, but he was just an outline: an old man and his boat. So then they scooped their hands around their mouths and hollered.
“Don’t forget the water,” Opa called out.
“To save the world,” Captain said to himself, saluting the sun.
Continue reading “Home”