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Elizabeth Hall wakes in a strange bed in a strange room with the strange feeling that her sheets are trying to smother her.
Liz (who is Elizabeth to her teachers; Lizzie at home, except when she's in trouble; and just plain Liz everywhere else in the world) sits up in bed, bumping her head on an unforeseen upper bunk. From above, a voice she does not recognise protests, "Aw hell!"
Liz peers into the top bunk, where a girl she has never seen before is sleeping, or at least trying to. The sleeping girl, near Liz's own age, wears a white nightgown and has long dark hair arranged in a thatch of intricately beaded braids. To Liz, she looks like a queen.
"Excuse me," Liz asks, "but would you happen to know where we are?"
The girl yawns and rubs the sleep out of her eyes. She glances from Liz to the ceiling to the floor to the window and then to Liz again. She touches her braids and sighs. "On a boat," she answers, stifling another yawn.
"What do you mean ‘on a boat'?"
"There's water, lots and lots of it. Just look out the window" she replies before cocooning herself in the bedclothes. "Of course, you might have thought to do that without waking me."
"Sorry," Liz whispers.
Liz looks out the porthole that is parallel to her bed. Sure enough, she sees hundreds of miles of early-morning darkness and ocean in all directions, blanketed by a healthy coating of fog. If she squints, Liz can make out a boardwalk. There she sees the forms of her parents and her little brother, Alvy. Ghostly and becoming smaller by the second, her father is crying and her mother is holding him. Despite the apparent distance, Alvy seems to be looking at Liz and waving. Ten seconds later, the fog swallows her family entirely.
Liz lies back in bed. Even though she feels remarkably awake, she knows she is dreaming, for several reasons: one, there is no earthly way she would be on a boat when she is supposed to be finishing tenth grade; two, if this is a vacation, her parents and Alvy, unfortunately, should be with her; and three, only in dreams can you see things you shouldn't see, like your family or a boardwalk from hundreds of miles away. Just as Liz reaches four, she decides to get out of bed. What a waste, she thinks, to spend one's dreams asleep.
Not wanting to further disturb the sleeping disturb the sleeping girl, Liz tiptoes across the room towards the bureau. The telltale sign that she is, indeed, at sea comes from the furniture: it is bolted to the floor. While she does not find the room unpleasant, Liz thinks it feels lonely and sad, as if many people had passed through it but none had decided to stay.
Liz opens the bureau drawers to see if they are empty. They are: not even a Bible. Although she tries to be very quiet, she loses her grip on the last drawer and it slams shut. This has the unfortunate effect of waking the sleeping girl again.
"People are sleeping here!" the girl yells.
"I'm sorry. I was just checking the drawers. In case you were wondering, they're empty," Liz apologizes. "I like your hair by the way."
The girl fingers her braids. "Thanks."
"What's your name?" Liz asks.
"Thandiwe Washington, but I'm called Thandi."
Thandi yawns. "You sixteen?"
"In August," Liz replies.
"I turned sixteen in January." Thandi looks into Liz's bunk. "Liz," she says, turning the one syllable of Liz's name into a slightly southern two, Li-iz, "you mind if I ask you a personal question?"
"The thing is"-Thandi pauses-"well, are you a skinhead or something?"
"A skinhead? No, of course not." Liz raises a single eyebrow.
"Why would you ask that?"
"Like, ‘cause you don't have hair." Thandi points to Liz's head which is completely bald except for the earliest sprouts of light blond growth. Liz strokes her head with her hand, enjoying the odd smoothness of it. What hair there is feels like the feathers on a newborn chick. She gets out of bed and looks at her reflection in the mirror. Liz sees a slender girl of about sixteen with very pale skin and greenish blue eyes. The girl, indeed, has no hair.
"That's strange," Liz says. In real life, Liz has long, straight blond hair that tangles easily.
"Didn't you know?" Thandi asks.
Liz considers Thandi's question. In the very back of her mind, she recalls lying on a cot in the middle of a blindingly bright room as her father shaved her head. No. Liz remembers that it wasn't her father, because it had been a man near her father's age. Liz definitely remembers crying, and hearing her mother say, "Don't worry Lizzie, it will all grow back." No, that isn't right either. Liz hadn't cried; her mother had been the one crying. For a moment, Liz tries to remember if this episode actually happened. She decides she doesn't want to think about it any longer, so she asks Thandi,
"Do you want to see what else is on the boat?"
"Why not? I'm up now." Thandi climbs down from her bunk.
"I wonder if there's a hat in here somewhere," says Liz. Even in a dream, Liz isn't sure she wants to be the weird bald girl. She opens the closet and looks under the bed: both are as empty as the bureau.
"Don't feel bad about your hair, Liz," Thandi says gently.
"I don't. I just think it's weird," Liz says.
"Hey, I've got weird things, too." Thandi raises her canopy of braids like a theatre curtain. "Ta da," she says, revealing a small but deep, still-red wound at the base of her skull.
Although the wound is less than half a inch in diameter, Liz can tell it must have been the result of an extremely serious injury.
"God, Thandi, I hope that doesn't hurt."
"It did at first; it hurt like hell, but not anymore." Thandi lowers her hair. "I think its getting better actually."
"How did you get that?"
"Don't remember," says Thandi, rubbing the top of her head as if she could stimulate her memory with her hands. "It might have happened a long time ago, but it could have happened yesterday, too, know what I mean?"
Liz nods. Although she doesn't think Thandi makes any sense, Liz sees no point in arguing with the crazy sorts of people one meets in a dream.
"We should go," Liz says.
On the way out, Thandi casts a cursory glance at herself in the mirror. "You think it matters that we're both wearing pj's?" She asks.
Liz looks at Thandi's white nightgown. Liz herself is wearing white men's-style pajamas. "Why would it matter?" Liz asks, thinking it far worse to be bald than underdressed. "Besides, Thandi, what else do you wear while dreaming? Liz places her hand on the doorknob. Someone somewhere once told Liz that she must never, under any circumstances, open a door in a dream. But since Liz can't remember who the person was or why all doors must remain closed, she decides to ignore the advice.
Curtis JestLiz and Thandi find themselves in a hallway with hundreds of doors exactly like the one they just closed.
"How do you think we'll find it again?" Thandi asks.
"I doubt I'll have to," Liz answers. "I'll probably wake up before that, don't you think?"
"Well, just in case you don't, our room number's 130002," Thandi says. Liz points to a hand-painted sign at the end of the hallway.
ATTENTION ALL PASSENGERS OF THE SS NILE!
"Hungry?" Thandi asks.
"Starved." Liz is surprised by her own response. She cannot recall being hungry in a dream before.
The most remarkable thing about the ship's dining room is the people; the are all old. A few are her parents' age, but most are even older than them. Gray hair or no hair, brown spots and sagging spots, and sagging skin are the norm. It is by far the largest number of old people Liz has ever seen gathered in one place, even counting visits to her grandmother in Boca. Liz scans the dining room. "Are we in the wrong place?" she asks.
Thandi shrugs. "Beats me, but they're coming this way." Sure enough, three women are making a beeline for Thandi and Liz. They remind Liz of the witches in Macbeth, a play she just finished reading for tenth-grade honours in English.
"Hello, darlings," says a pygmy-like woman with New York accent, "I'm Doris, and this is Myrna, and this is Florence." Standing on her tiptoes, Doris reaches up to pat Liz's moulted head. "Good Lord, would you look how young she is?"
Liz smiles politely but takes a step back so as to discourage further patting.
"How old are you?" Doris the pygmy squints up at Liz. "Twelve"
"I'm fifteen," Liz corrects her. "Almost sixteen. I look older with hair."
The one called Florence pipes up, "What happened to you girls?" She has the scratchy voice of a life-long smoker.
"What do you mean ‘happened'?"Liz demands.
"I was shot in the head, ma'am," Thandi volunteers.
"Speak up, says Myrna who has a fuzzy white caterpillar of a moustache. "My hearing's not so good."
"I WAS SHOT IN THE HEAD."
Liz turns to Thandi. "I thought you said you didn't remember how you got the hold in your head."
Thandi apologizes, "I just remembered."
"Shot in the head!" Florence-scratchy-voice says. "Oy, that's rough."
"Aw, it's nothing special. Happens pretty regularly where I'm from," Thandi says.
"WHAT?" asks Myrna with the mustache. "Say it toward my left ear that's the good one."
"I SAID, ‘IT'S NOTHING SPECIAL,'" Thandi yells.
"Maybe we should go to the healing centre?" Florence suggests. "There's one on the Portofino deck. We've already been twice."
Thandi shakes her head. "I think it's healing just fine on its own."
Liz doesn't understand this conversation at all. Her stomach growls loudly.
Hearing Liz's stomach, Doris the pygmy waves her hand toward the buffet line. "You girls go get something to eat. Remember, you gotta get here early to get the good stuff."
For breakfast, Liz selects pancakes and Jell-O. Thandi has sushi, caviar, and baked beans. Liz eyes Thandi's food selections curiously. "That's certainly an interesting combination," Liz says.
"At home, we never get half the things they got on that buffet," says Thandi, "and I'm planning to try all of it before we get there."
"Thandi," Liz asks casually, "where do you think ‘there' is?"
Thandi considers Liz's question for a moment. "We're on a boat," Thandi says, "and boats have to be going somewhere."
The girls secure a table near a bay window, slightly away from the other diners. Liz polishes off her pancakes in record time. She feels as if she hasn't eaten for weeks.
Scraping the bottom of her Jell-O container, Liz looks at Thandi. "So, I've never known anyone who was shot in the head before."
"Can we talk about it after I'm done eating?" Thandi asks.
"Sorry," Liz says, "just making conversation."
© Gabrielle Zevin
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