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It Was Called The Ship of Dreams
By Benjamin Darnell
I never understood why Albert kept that old pocket watch. It was an ugly thing. Its face was crushed, and its gears were stiff and lifeless. I was always the one who had to keep track of the time. Dammit Albert, why do you always have that clock on you? When did it start? What does it mean? Surely it means something. No, wait, don’t tell me. I can figure this out. What do clocks do? They tell time, of course. It's their gears and cogs that keep them going. Those are the organs that keep them alive. Time never stops. It can't. Except in death.
But your clock doesn’t work, does it, Albert? Why do you wear a clock that doesn’t work? Did you ever stop to think what that says to the world? Has time stopped for you? Are you just another wandering soul, trapped between this life and the next, a mere whisper of a memory of your former self? Perhaps there is some sentimental reason. I know how you humans love your sentiment. Hmm…wow, funny, I’m not sure when I stopped thinking of myself as human. It hasn’t been that long since…well, I’ve moved on anyway. But I’m not done with you yet, Albert. Why the lifeless watch? If your father had a favorite pocket watch, and he left it to you when he passed on, would you wear it in remembrance of him? And if you would, would it tick? The echo of a heart that once beat but is now forever silent. Or would you have it frozen? An heirloom in memoriam.
A person is like a clock. A collection of moving parts driven by rhythm. Tick-tock tick-tock. Thump-thump thump-thump. We are all painfully aware of time's passing, because our time is limited. But we spent our time well, didn’t we, Albert? I can remember…
“It's time to go down. They'll start rounds soon.” I would say it at 3 a.m.—Albert wanted me to always remind him at 3 a.m.
“Bugger that. If they would just get some bloody sleep instead of obsessing over our nightlives, maybe they wouldn't be so pissy in class every day.”
Albert would come anyway. He always did. But not before turning the hands on his pocket watch to pass 24 hours. Then, he would look to the sky. “Goodnight, Mom. Goodnight, Dad.” Then, turning to me, “Let’s dock the ship then.”
We weren't all orphans, but most of us were. The Home raised us to be a family. They took us from the street where we had been dirty, cold, and unwanted. It didn't matter how young. They even gave us uniforms, to remind us of the life we’d left behind and of the future that could be ours. The shoes were shined, the ties were straight, the coats were pressed, the buttons were polished. And if you carried a watch in your pocket, it had better be polished as well. As we grew older, we were given duties to help with bringing up the youngest. I changed my first diaper when I was twelve. Always, time moved on. Always, the Great Clock ticked.
We weren’t all sick, but a lot of us were. Doctor Cara ran a tight ship, and the hospital wing hummed with industrial efficiency. “You do not have my permission to be drifting off anywhere, none of you! You hear?” We heard her. We all heard her. I just wish more of us had listened. I helped bury my first corpse at fourteen. It was a part of life at The Home. Everyone helps. Everyone gets their hands dirty. Everyone stays a family.
It felt good to be up there on those nights between midnight and 3 a.m. It was like we really were in one of those airships, flying high in the clouds, where the steel claws of the city below couldn’t trap us, where the factories couldn’t shit their smoke on us. “Full speed ahead, Mr. Boulivard!” That’s what they all used to call me—Albert and the rest of them. Jeffrey Boulivard. It’s a nice name, isn’t it? I miss hearing it.
“Keep her steady as she goes.”
“Don’t worry, sir. I don’t think there’s any force around that can sink us. We’ve got the strongest airship in the world.”
“Aye, but there’s a storm brewin’ on the horizon. D’ya see it, Mr. Boulivard?” I see nothing. I saw nothing. Now, I see everything. There was a storm coming for us. For me. I just couldn’t recognize it for what it was. Maybe the Great Clock was in the way.
Every day we had class with Professor Porter, Albert and I would sneak into her storeroom and steal her cigarettes and gin. Old Professor Porter, she could never be admitted into any serious institution with her blasphemous lectures, preaching Mr. Darwin’s sermon. “Every one of God’s creatures is here because it has earned the right to be here. Because it fought to be here. The gift of propagation does not fall idly to those who cannot find their place in this world. The same can be said of us! Survival falls to the fittest, and we will survive, because we are a family and we are strong. Never forget that.” But she was wrong. Survival did mingle with the fittest, but that was not The Home. The urchins and the orphans, the unwanted and the broken. We weren’t really surviving; we were waiting. Maybe Albert and I could reach survival if we could just take our ship over that sea of stars, to a place where we could belong. But even if we could not survive, we could wait. And while we waited, we could live. And we could love.
We felt like proper sailors with our gin and cigarettes on the ship. I didn’t like breathing the smoke much after the first try made me cough worse than usual, so much, I thought I’d be sick and leaned over the side. “Ha, you airsick son of a bitch! It really is a ship now.” We didn’t inhale our cigarettes anymore, but we still let them smolder in our mouths. Miniature, life-stealing furnaces like the dozens below us. But if the smokes made us sick, the gin damn near killed us. It didn’t though, and we took a solemn vow to drink our stomachs as strong as the steel being forged in the fires all around The Home and the Great Clock and every-bloody-where else. “Cheers, Mr. Darwin.”
On a good night, we could actually see the stars from the deck of our ship, and in those rare moments, it felt as if we really were sailing over them. No cigarettes on those nights. We knew God would abide no smoke in heaven.
But even there, in our Ship of Dreams, in our little sliver of paradise, we were not safe. With enough years and enough smoke, we all fail. We all break. Even the fittest. Even their children. Time is the ultimate survivor. Only time perseveres. Somewhere, a Great Clock ticks.
Time had abandoned me. It left me behind in a race where I couldn’t keep up. Where I couldn’t even make it to the deck of the ship. But some nights, after Dr. Cara had gone to bed, Albert would carry me. I couldn’t sail anymore, but I could still keep time for him. And he was happy to make me his passenger.
“Sometimes I think I’d fight for the gift of propagation with you,” I told Albert once, during those last days. “I don’t think God’s given us that gift yet, mate,” he said. “Fight harder.”
And I did fight. Every day I fought. I fought until my lungs wept blood. But it was a losing battle, because the gift of propagation wasn’t the most enticing offer on the table from where I was sitting. I had the gift of Albert’s touch, and his closeness, and his thereness. He was my captain, and he was my friend, and that was enough.
I think I understand now, Albert. And I can see you, there on that roof that we used to call our ship. But I can’t touch you any longer. I am beyond now. Beyond The Home, beyond the ship, beyond even the Great Clock. There you go, revolving the hands on your watch, and you’re looking at me. “Goodnight, Mom. Goodnight, Dad…Goodnight, Jeffrey.”
Benjamin Darnell aspires to be a professional daydreamer. He currently works as a high school teacher, but as an emerging author, he is a member of the North Carolina Writers' Network, and recently attended their Spring Conference in Greensboro, North Carolina. Additionally, one of his other stories, "The Best Intentions," is under contract with Swords and Sorcery.
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