Ship of Fools
By Heather Morris
The Last Museum on Earth is steaming towards Spring and the New Year. Sunday knows her level’s curfew announcement is about to sound, but she’s trying to delay it. Maybe if she wishes hard enough she can stop time, even for a second. Though she’s getting too old for it, she still believes a little bit in magic. And she really, really wants to spend every possible second of the last day of the year with her friends.
Well, with Timothy. The Huangs don’t matter; they’re just there.
Like always they’re all sitting in a row with their feet hung over the guardrail of Observation Deck: Timothy, then Red Huang, then Blue Huang, then Sunday. Timothy has a tape player that he nicked from the class trip to Music Deck last week; he’s been hoarding the headphones all night. But if she holds her breath Sunday can almost catch the hint of a tinny, wailing guitar.
If only the Huangs would shut up.
“Batman is a better costume than dumb old Louie Fourteen,” Red says.
“Idiot. Batman wasn’t real,” Blue retorts.
They aren’t related but when they bicker like this, which is always, Sunday sort-of thinks of them as twins. Like Gemini, like opposite poles.
“Course he was real. Why else would the Museum have whole books of him, and pictures and vids and that mask on Legends Deck? Louie Fourteen only has one picture in the Gallery.”
“Who cares how many pictures there are? He was a king. Spring is made for kings. Plus I get to wear my gran’s wig. Plus I get extra-credit for class.”
“Batman’s still better. And my mask is way more flash than your gran’s smelly wig.”
There’s a pithy remark on the tip of Sunday’s tongue. Something clever about how both costumes require tights. But her words always get knotted up around the boys. They’re older than her and infinitely sharper and she doesn’t want to risk saying anything that will make her look dull in front of Timothy.
Besides, Blue likes wearing tights. Since his dad moved off-ship to one of the cargo vessels in the fleet he’s been going through a femme phase, looking way more flash in skirts and scarves and glitter make-up than Sunday probably ever will. A joke might not sound funny as much as mean. Or worse, like jealousy.
“I wish I could go,” she complains softly to her knees. She’s never been on Festival Deck. She’s never seen Christmas or Diwali or Passover or Halloween or Beltane outside of class vids. But the one she’s always wanted to see most of all is Spring, the New Year, the Day of Fools, the first of April. And she’s about to miss it again.
“Your dad is such a stick,” Blue says. Sunday didn’t realize that her voice was loud enough for him to hear. “I can’t believe he always makes you stay in Quarters.”
“You should come anyway,” adds Red. “The whole ship will be there. Who would even notice you in the crowd?”
“Dad would know.” Sunday holds up her access bracelet: Natural History Deck and below. Curfew seven p.m., like a baby. Festival Deck is far out of bounds.
Just as she thinks of it, the curfew begins to blare. Timothy gives a weighty sigh and turns off his tape player. “He isn’t going to know if we pull off a trick.”
It sounds simple the way Timothy explains it. All Sunday has to do is find her mother.
When Sunday was a toddler her mother went to Festival Deck at Spring dressed as Helen and never came back down again. In the course of one night she transformed from a poor, lower-ship mechanic to the fleet admiral’s mistress. Sunday sees her every once in a while standing in the back of official photographs, or caught in the vids of state dinners. Sometimes Mother even calls on Sunday’s birthday. If she remembers.
It’s been a few years.
Though she hasn’t lived on the Museum for a long time, Mother’s always around for a good party. Approaching her seems fraught, but Sunday is willing to try. Especially since it gives her a chance to be alone with Timothy, while the Huangs run off to Quarters to assemble their costume supplies.
Timothy has fast fingers. He can nick almost anything that’s not nailed down, and plenty of things that are. While they search the length of the ship, he demonstrates what she must do, his hand on her wrist to guide her through the motions.
No matter how many times she’s been on ship in the past decade, Mother has never come down to see Sunday. Clearly she never expected Sunday to come see her. Sunday is not a good actress or a good liar, so it is lucky that when they find her mother, she is still smiling. Let Mother think the smile is for her. If their hug is a bit stiff, if Mother is a bit too visibly shocked at how short and dull and plain her child is, well, no one says anything about it out loud. Sunday can practically see the excuses roll through Mother’s mind as she tries to extricate herself from the ambush. Before she gets the chance, Sunday slips her access bracelet into her mother’s purse.
When he gets off shift and sees Sunday isn’t home, Dad will check her feed. All he will see is that she is with her mother, and though he won’t be happy there is absolutely no way he will come looking. Trouble averted, at least for a few hours.
Sunday lets her mother make her excuse and slip away, pretends that it doesn’t bother her at all. Compared to that, pinching an upper-level access bracelet from one of the tipsy celebrants already spilling over the outside decks is a breeze. Timothy flirts with a tall, bronze-skinned girl and Sunday only minds a little bit because it is all part of the game, and anyway he comes back to her with the bracelet and a tiny half-lift at the corner of his mouth that is almost a smile. He doesn’t smile enough, he is so often solemn or sullen.
Sunday tries not to shiver when he touches her bare skin, and looks down at the bracelet.
Tonight she will be Zora Bessick, a beautiful, older girl allowed anywhere on ship she wants to be. It seems an appropriately exotic identity to try on for Spring.
The Huangs reappear garbed in their holiday best. They toss veils and robes and shoes at Sunday and Timothy; Sunday doesn’t even know what the costumes are supposed to be but she laughs and pulls something on. It is like slipping into new skin.
Blue’s cyan hair is hidden beneath his gran’s wig, but he’s preserved a bit of his signature color with smeary eyeliner. Dad doesn’t let Sunday wear make-up, but she reminds herself of her temporary name and lets Blue fuss with her until they match. Red’s eyes are hidden behind his flash mask, but Timothy surprises everyone and submits to the eyeliner as well, his cornflower eyes popping vividly beneath the darker blue.
All around them people are screaming and laughing, running and dancing. On one of the outer decks above them a water fight has broken out, kids and grownups alike chasing each other with balloons and squirt pistols and buckets. The water sprays over the deck rails in dozens of tiny, spontaneous waterfalls.
“Do we start there?” Sunday asks. She’s heard the revelers above her every year as long as she remembers, and she wants to know what it feels like to be in the thick of things.
Timothy shrugs. “We can. Inside’s better, though.”
So inside they go.
Festival Deck is rarely sedate. There is always something being set up or taken down, because there are thousands of permutations of humanity’s celebrations and only three hundred and sixty-five days a year to highlight them. But Spring is the most important, the one that everyone spends all year waiting for. Spring means that the fleet has survived one more circuit of the oceans, one more lap around the sun.
Things are known to get a little wild.
Sunday knows from class that it’s a composite festival, a mish-mash of celebrations that people are free to pick and choose from at their will. But class couldn’t prepare her for the reality. Her whole body starts to shake when the elevator doors open to a place she has never been.
Noise and color and smell, crashing over her all at once. The boys try to pull her in three different directions, everyone having a favorite ritual to show off. Red likes the stage where comedians tell old jokes and vids of pranks and pratfalls run on a loop. Blue likes the color festival, where everyone decorates each other in bright and lurid hues. Timothy’s favorite part is the food: towers of sugary candies, delicate books made of pastry, traditional dishes from a variety of religious feasts, all laid out free for the taking.
But Sunday feels something strange and new swell up inside, and she wants to dance.
She has always been clumsy and self-conscious, but for now it doesn’t seem to matter. With Zora Bessick’s bracelet on her wrist she doesn’t have to be herself anymore. She rushes out onto the crowded dance floor, little caring if her friends follow, and finds a space to spread her arms wide. She realizes what the costume, with its diaphanous layers and fluttering movement, is supposed to be. She is a bird.
While the music roars, she twirls and leaps. Tonight she is not little Sunday Jones, trailing along behind the bright boys, tolerated and indistinct and ignored. She is a bird. She is a beauty.
She is going to be in so much trouble in the morning.
But for now, for right now, it’s like she lives in a bubble that nothing can pop.
She thought Spring would be full of adults, that she would stick out, but plenty of her classmates are here. They wave across the room, or jump in to dance with her for a verse or two. When Dad gets done being mad, Sunday will renegotiate her curfew and restrictions. He has to know that she would never run away like her mother, but if he keeps his hold too tight she’s at risk of falling behind.
But that’s a thought for later. For now, she is busy dancing.
Timothy catches her hands and spins her around. There is sugar dusting his lips and his eyes are bright. Timothy likes to stand on the edges of things, to observe and analyze.
She didn’t think he would want to dance with her. But here they are. It is Spring, and everything feels different, and everything seems possible.
They dance as different selves for a while, the selves they might one day really be. Around them colors fly and people laugh with joy. The Last Museum on Earth sails on.