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Alessandra was getting nauseous. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth; she’d been rocking for days, and the jostling was twisting her stomach. The oatmeal sloshing at the bottom was squirming to escape, but she held it in, shoving her fist into her abs as if that would keep the semi-digested mush from being regurgitated. She closed her eyes, allowing her long lashes to form dramatic shadows across her pale cheeks. As the gurgling ebbed, she leveled her breathing, counting to four as she inhaled and repeated this concentrating as she exhaled.
“Are you okay?” Tom, towering over the petite girl asked. He looked cautious; ill people made him almost unbearably nervous.
“No,” Alessandra curtly replied. “Obviously.”
“Do you want a bucket or something? The, um, floor doesn’t look like the proper receptacle for…” he trailed off: she glared at him as he awkwardly attempted to console her. He dropped his eyes and began shifting his weight from foot to foot. He coughed.
She took a deep breath and released her fist. “I’m fine, Tom. Really.”
He squinted at her apprehensively. A bit of the usual salmon-pink had returned to her cheeks and she stopped shaking.
“Okay. It’s just…Alice, ever since you steeped foot on deck, you’ve been so tense. It’s worrisome.” Tom’s eyes grew wide with sincerity – you could clearly see their oaky pigment. He felt responsible for her incessant angst and sickness.
“Tom, darling, don’t bother yourself with my silly moods. I just haven’t been getting enough sleep, is all.”
This was overwhelmingly true – Alice hadn’t slept since two days before boarding the boat, and her exhaustion was evidently taking a toll on her ability to handle any form of motion. The hide-away bed in her closet-sized cabin was uncomfortable. The meals were far from satisfactory. The damp heat had given her a piercing migraine.
Alice wanted out. Unfortunately, her voyage was merely beginning.
Two months ago, Tom, Alice’s childhood playmate, had approached her with a thrilling proposition: he had heard Alice explaining her boredom with the crowded English towns to her neighbor, Jane, and wanted to know if she would like to accompany him on his next trip to Philadelphia. Eager for a drastic change in her life, Alice quickly accepted Tom’s offer.
Since that warm August night, several more stressful situations had arisen, and Alice only grew more impatient with her irritating English life. The trip to America seemed to be a God-sent hiatus.
Now, even with the constant nausea, Alice was ecstatic to be removed from past problems. She felt liberated: it was as if she’d locked all her troubles in an iron chest that remained deep under the barren ground of England. No malicious spirits could catch her. The routine swaying of the ship became a meter with which to measure her wholesome independence. In four days, Alice would be given to glorious opportunity to being with a fresh first impression: she would be amidst thousands who were not accustomed to her pearly visage; thousands who were now waiting, unknowingly, to encounter a new person full of exuberance and a penchant for success.
Alice would meet young entrepreneurs, lively with the taste of creativity and grand schemes anew on their pink tongues. They would scavenge old warehouses and antique shops, looking for a useful cog or screw to build a splendid machine.
She would dine with sailors in their quant cocked hats and straight blue suits. They would chat about sea adventures and such nonsense, laughing gaily at jokes heard from drunken Irish pirates. She might even be invited to join them for a night or two aboard a shipping vessel where they would merrily drink in chambers filled with exotic smoke. (This would, of course, be some time after Alice had departed from her current ship.)
She aspired to be whisked away in dark carriages by scholarly figures of political importance, with whom she could openly discuss foreign affairs and the troubles with humanity. She saw it overwhelmingly possible for her to dance with painters at artists’ galas. Those skilled with brushes had such delicately vivacious style, she had been told. The thought of being adorned in embroidered turquoise gown as her partner flitted from side to side in a dashing vest and pin-striped pants absolutely thrilled her.
“Tom!” The yell of the ship’s captain violently pulled Alice from her lace-covered daydreams of splendor. She blinked into the startled face of her friend and, upon realizing his stare was coated with worry, confidently whispered, “I’m fine.” She gave him a meek smile, smoothly rose to her feet, and sauntered away. Alice had her mind set on attempted to eat a bit, as she though a few rolls may be able to fill her up enough to make her give in to the desire to sleep. Sleeping would help pass the time.
She walked down the dripping stairs, her thin dress sliding in the ocean grime, grabbing the slippery handrail as the ship jostled over the afternoon waves. She reached the below-the-deck corridors and could almost feel the pungent odor of the kitchens as she walked shakily down the hall: Alice’s exhaustion and nausea were beginning to catch up with her. The fumes of grease, salt, sweat, and dough hung harshly on the air, tangling in the silk of her skirt and extracting tears from her eyes. Alice, however, knew morsels of sweets and meats lay only a few paces ahead.
The door to the kitchen opened and released a burst of hot air, thick with tonight’s dinner. The cook stepped into its frame, struggling with a box of plates for the deckhands to wash. He grunted with the weight of the cheap china.
“Damn deckhands can’t come down and fetch their dishes themselves, eh? F-ing children ought to be grateful.”
“Sam, would you like some help?” Alice shyly asked.
“Alice! I didn’t see you – you’re so tiny, I’d bet you could hide in one of the spice cabinets! No, dear, I’ve got it.” With that, Sam purposefully dropped the dish box to the floor and kicked it from the entrance to the steaming kitchen. Alice was relieved. She stood in the corridor, eyes wide with inquisition. “It’s soup tonight, love,” the cook responded to the curious stare. “I can fix you up a bit now, if you’d like.”
Alice nodded, careful not too quickly or eagerly. She drew a large breath and completed her trip down the hall. She was immediately welcomed into the small room, lined with ovens and cupboards, by a smoking plate of rich soup, which she gulped down in one minute. She had been mentally preparing herself to force food to remain in her stomach without serious consequences, but knew she would need to lie down soon. A powerful yawn momentarily enlivened her face, and the cook deftly scooped her up in his grease-burned arms. Alice was asleep thirty seconds later.
Sam huffed down a short side-corridor to Alice’s sparse sleeping hole. He gently placed her on the short cot and covered her shaking body with a moth-eaten wool blanket that he found folded neatly at the foot of her bed. Despite her sporadic twitches and uneven breathing, the young girl looked unrealistically beautiful. She appeared to be at peace: her thin, rosy lips had been pulled in at the corners by a playful sprite who had draped her auburn curls across her supple cheeks and fragile shoulders. The tip of her doll’s nose was pink with sleep and satiation.
As Sam turned and softly closed the door to her quarters, muffling the noise by placing his handkerchief between the edge of the door and its warped frame, he sighed with contentment: if a young girl, enveloped in troubles larger than those nagging at the king, could find relative peace, there was hope.
Back in the closet-space, Alice began to toss about her thin mattress. An unbearable pain forced her to remain in the stranglehold of sleep. Her mouth started to burn with a spicy fire that slithered down her throat and quickly engulfed her stomach. She was tortured by visions of wailing children scratching at her parchment-thin skin. The infants clamored across her, squeezing at her neck as if it were a toy. The twisted her limbs and tugged violently at her limp curls. When they eventually bored of her and vanished, she was left a broken human alone in a suppressive silence. Her ears popped and seemed to bleed fiery liquid. She tried to scream, but began to wretch until she was entirely empty. Her body flailed as she continued to dry heave, seeking out some remaining piece of unhappiness to purge. Alice was alone. She was alone with a pile of her worries to her left an inescapable darkness all around, pressing upon her eyelids with increasing strength. The black weight gave a last push against her flattening eyes, and she awoke in her cabin.
The moonlight streamed in through her porthole, casting eerie shadows of story book creatures across her pale legs. Her dress was soaked and her bed clothes lay sopping on the floor to her right. She was on her side, one of her legs draped helplessly across the edge of her bed. She breathed heavily for some minutes, steadying herself and absorbing reality. After a bit, she was able to cease the shaking for periods of ten seconds, and she could hold her eyes open. She sat upright on her wet bed, shivering, with her arms wrapped around the legs she pressed against her chest. The thought of resting on deck in the warm summer night air crossed her otherwise blank mind, but the thought of moving made her queasy again. Instead, Alice remained on her mattress, hurt and sick and scared and tired and hungry and cold and worried. The basket of negative of emotions pulled at her delicate heart and she began to cry. The tears burned scars onto her cheeks. She could do nothing other than allow the twinkling droplets to fall. Each soft patter of dropping salt water took a portion of the weight Alice held, terrified, in her small hands. She glistened with conflicted relief as she remained unmoving. A smile twisted her blue lips, she coughed and fell off the edge of the bed, consciousness lost.
“Alice? Alessandra? Alice, wake up.” Tom was kneeling over her curled body, fanning her with the wind of his moving hand. Her eyes flitted open for a millisecond, allowing him to catch a glimpse of the hazel eyes that mystified onlookers with their hidden patches of color. Her face relaxed and she floated back to stressless oblivion.
“We have to go back,” Tom announced to the captain, standing three feet back, waiting with the rest of the crew alert in the doorway and spilling into the all. The pretty little girl would have to be returned to her home and the doctors trained to fix things for their flighty patients.
The captain solemnly pushed his way through the crowd and slowly climbed the short staircase. The moon, now starting to give way to the livid sun, threw incandescent shadows across the planks that creaked with his unsteady steps. He grasped the wheel with sweaty palms and spun.