Comrade Cruises – Contest Entry#2 for Liberty Island

My entry evolved into something that was triple the word limit, not a bedtime story nor a parody, so it didn’t make it into the contest, but it will be published in the ezine. Until then, here’s a sneak preview (scroll down)….As if the Feds haven’t done enough, now they have taken to telling Grandma that she only truly loves the little ones if she feeds them healthy snacks.  Worse, they’ve turned bedtime into an opportunity for government propaganda, enlisting Grandma in the effort to push the latest “approved” dietary standards with a special tale aimed just at the kiddies (an illustrated children’s book promising kids they’ll love it if they just take two bites to see for themselves.) This cheesy effort deserves to be either ignored or ridiculed; so of course, we’ve chosen the latter course. That brings us to announce Liberty Island’s second writing contest: “Can You Write a Better Bedtime Story than the USDA?” We’re looking for short pieces, 400-1000 words long. Draw inspiration from our first writing contest, “Can You Write Better than Maureen Dowd?” The winning entries will be collected and published on Liberty Island.

Comrade Cruises by Carol Kean

The cruise ship was so much bigger than Emmy expected, she couldn’t even think of a word for it. Gargantuan was one, but that sounded like a giant tarantula. Titanic was downright terrifying, for a girl about to set sail.

“Colossal,” she decided, saying it out loud–but not too loud. Emmy was learning not to sound smarter than other seven-year-olds. It wasn’t fair to them.

Her foster mother gripped her hand. “You lucky girl, Emmy. Think of the memories you’re about to make!” Leaning toward foster Dad, “FM” (Fake Mom) half-whispered out the side of her mouth, “If this doesn’t make her glad we saved her from those terrible people, nothing will.”

She got that right. Nothing would.

An old man wearing a hat with a feather in it stared at Emma as if he could read her wicked thoughts. His quirk of a smile might mean he was ready to get her in a lot more trouble. Then again, his eyes sparkled at her as if he might be on her side. She stared back, daring him to listen in: Nothing would ever make her glad the Department of Health and Human Services “rescued” her from home-schooling parents who let her run wild in the woods, eat dangerous foods and paddle a canoe all by herself to Grandma’s house. If the DNR agents hadn’t spotted her and “saved” her from the river, from “dangerously negligent” parents, she’d be safe from stupid rules and regulations…and the stranger who was still staring at her.

Emmy held her breath, waiting for him to frown or blow a whistle on her, but he tipped his hat to her and smiled, leaning on his cane. She let out a sigh of relief. Of course the cute little old man wasn’t a mind reader; Homeland Security wasn’t that good. At least, she hoped not. The man winked out of sight so fast, he could have been a spy or a freaking hologram.

“A cruise is good only if you come back new,” came a gooey-cheerful from the loudspeakers, with drippy, happy music. “Comrade Cruise will cure your blues! And teach you a vital thing or two!”

Cruises used to have names like Princess, but it was bad for little girls to think of themselves as royalty. The Ninety-Nine Percent were fighting for justice and equality for all. Hail to the Ninety-Nines!

“Stop grinding your teeth, Emmy, dear,” her foster mom said. “Emmy! Do you hear me? I said STOP IT with the teeth.”

The line of people finally started moving, and Emmy drew close enough to hear the slap of waves against the Colossus of Boats. So big! How could something the size of an entire small town even stay afloat?

“KIDS WILL LOVE IT,” chirped that loudspeaker again. “Our staff of experienced counselors are here to ensure your kids stay happy all day long. Art projects! Games! Enriching scientific activities!”

The recorded happy-voice kept cycling the same messages over and over again. Emmy tried to focus instead on the sounds of talking and laughter mixed with seagulls grawking overhead. She loved the smell of the sea, a fishy, salty scent that made Foster Mom wrinkle her nose. Emmy tipped her head back, taking it all in, the warm, wet breeze, sunny blue skies, and a hurry-scurry sense of excitement. They were going somewhere! Soon a whole city’s worth of people would be dancing, dining and meeting new comrades while sailing the deep blue sea.

Inside the ship, huge rooms with bright lights made her blink. A single buffet table was bigger than Grandma’s entire house, and everything on it was hidden under shiny silver domes. An ice sculpture of a dolphin stood in the middle.

“SAVOR EVERY MOMENT!” the happy voice reminded everyone. Emmy knew the canned words by heart, whether she wanted to or not. “We don’t know how you’ll choose from the variety of tempting fare, lovingly made from scratch. Fresh-baked twelve-grain bread, our signature whole-wheat pastas, cooked-to-order steaks and regional specialties made with fresh local ingredients! You can truly taste it all!”

The steak wouldn’t be as good as Dad’s. Real Dad didn’t trim the fat or spare any butter for the baked potatoes. But any steak at all would be better than the tofu and tofurkey she’d been eating since her “rescue.” Emmy’s fists clenched at the thought of her mom and dad in prison. It could happen. If not for raising their child all wrong, then for breaking some other rule.

After getting settled into their cabin, Emmy returned to the food fest with FM and FAD, aka Effing Awful Dad. Fake Mom turned lots of heads with her model-thin figure and porcelain white skin. No harmful UV rays ever touched that body! At forty, she looked younger than Emmy’s real mom, who had crow’s feet, laugh lines, ruddy skin and no hope of fitting into size 4 jeans.

“Remember,’ FM said, “just two bites. No matter how it looks or smells, give it two bites, and you’re sure to discover how delicious lentils and lima beans can be. Oh, I can’t wait to try the seaweed soufflé!”

The servers began lifting the silver domes away, and Emmy raced for the steak line. As the lid lifted, her heart sank. That was not steak. That was grilled…Something-Else.

“Now, Emmy,” FAD scolded her. “No sad faces on this ship! Meatless Monday is a great thing. It goes all the way back to World War I, when Americans did their part to reduce consumption here and help feed war-ravaged Europe. It’s only recently that we’ve blah, blah, blarg.”

Emmy managed a smile for him. Unless they decided to combine Meatless Monday and Wheatless Wednesday, she might survive the new food rules.

Then it hit her. This was Sunday.

Would real steak ever again be served, any day of the week?

The old man with the cane popped into sight at the dessert table. Emmy jumped up without permission and rushed over to greet him. He looked like the sort of guy who’d understand the horror of fake steak.

A beautiful woman appeared beside him.  Emmy gasped. She’d have sworn it was her Aunt Ruth, but her aunt was a college student, not a well-dressed business woman like this lady, whose silky skirt and jacket draped like the designer clothing of the One Percent. Still. If this was her aunt, Emmy might escape FM and FAD.

She hesitated. The man and woman seemed seriously deep in conversation. Emmy’s gaze shifted to the dessert table, and just that fast, she lost sight of the cute little man in the hat and the elegant lady.

That night, the “fun movies” turned out to be documentaries on Global Warming. Grandma had said there was an Ice Age coming, all right, but not because people were burning fossil fuels. The movie urged everyone to wear sweaters, crank down the heat when winter comes, and walk, don’t drive. Don’t paddle a canoe, either, if the DNR is watching, Emmy thought miserably.

In the morning, Emmy managed exactly two bites of whole-wheat pancakes, two sips of GreenGalore veggie smoothie, and all the strawberries she could get her hands on.

Most of the kids were trouble makers like her, on the cruise to learn the right way to think and be. A chubby girl named Hannah sneaked mints and cashews from her pockets one at a time. Emmy shook her head when offered some. A skinny boy named Marco acted like he forgot his attention-deficit meds. He couldn’t sit still. He swapped some contraband M&Ms for Hannah’s stash.

The counselors helped them make introductions. “Marco, tell everyone why you’re here,” the blonde counselor said sweetly. He drummed the table with his fingertips, he hummed, he smiled back at the blonde. “Tell them how your parents let you ride the subway all by yourself, in New York City.”

At the word parents, he held still. Very still. For about five seconds.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” the other counselor said. “When parents don’t guard their own blah, blah, blarg…”

Marco’s eyes shifted, and for a moment he and Emmy shared a look that told her they were on the same page. Or in the same boat.

“Okay, Comrades,” Blondie was saying. “I’m so excited to share with you all the things we’ll learn this week! Our Monday Meditation is Food for thought for hungry minds.” She laser-pointed at a screen, and a food pyramid came up. The old one, with lots of bread and hardly any fats. Emmy tried not to think about Grandma’s batter-fried catfish and raspberry pie.

What would happen to all the cookbooks, all the restaurants, all the fabulous food people weren’t supposed to eat anymore?

“Tomorrow,” Blondie said, “is Tell Me Tuesday. Be sure to come with lots of burning questions, because we’ll be having lots of fat-burning fun! Oh, and we get to taste tons of new recipes! Did you know dandelions are delish? Yes, dandelions can be picked by hand from the backyard, but not if your naughty daddy sprayed them with anything…not to mention your dear little doggies.” She giggled at her own lame attempt at humor. ‘We all know the safest place to get our greens is from a local Whole Foods Health Store!”

Emmy couldn’t wait for free time. She’d stand on deck with sun in her eyes and wind in her hair, until some thoughtful staffer came along with a hat and sunglasses to save her.

She never did find a minute of free time. “Keep them busy and keep them out of trouble” was the motto of caring, concerned adults–the kind of people Emmy’s parents supposedly were not. Her fists clenched every single time she thought of it. They did love her, no matter what anyone else said. They cared about her more than all the other millions and billions of humans combined ever would love her. They gave her a life jacket and let her go off in a canoe because they trusted her, not because they didn’t care. And she’d find her way back to them, no matter what.

“Fun” time finally turned to dinner time. Emmy sat with her friends at their own table. No ice cream tonight, and no pie. Fresh fruit had more than enough sugar to be “dessert,” their counselor said.

The voices in the dining hall were drowned out by a sudden, loud bang.

“Everything is okay, Comrades,” a crew member said over the intercom. “We had a little electrical failure but everything is under control.”

The boat, the great, big, city-sized boat, shivered and started shaking. So did Emmy. Dishes crashed to the floor. People got up, running and falling. Emmy, Marco and Hannah looked at each other and rose from their chairs. Hannah swiped an armload of biscuits and cupped the bottom of her T-shirt to hold them.

“The ship’s tilting to port side,” Marco shouted. In the noise and confusion of people shouting, running and falling, crew members handed out life jackets. Emmy gulped, blinked in disbelief, then helped Hannah hold the biscuits in place so she could slide into her orange vest.

“We have solved the problems,” came a crew member’s voice. “We invite everyone to return to their cabins while we get the ship turned around.”

No sign of FM or FAD, just the counselors, who tripped and tried to squeeze through tilting passengers. The ship listed all over again.

“I’m not going to the cabin,” Marco said. “We just went from listing portside to listing to the starboard side. Like, by twenty degrees.”

Marco might be only seven or eight, but he had a lot of knowledge floating around in that ADHD head of his. Hannah grabbed his arm to keep her balance, but also because he seemed more reliable than the crew members telling everyone to return to the cabins. Hannah hooked an arm through Emmy’s, then clutched her shirt with both hands again. Both girls looked at Marco with a “Now what?” left unspoken. He blinked.

“I say we head for the lifeboats,” Hannah said. Without a word, they moved toward the EXIT signs, trying not to slip in spilled salads and liquids that covered the floor. Emmy swiped a cluster of grapes from a tilting table, and Marco filled a linen napkin with cheeses cut into fish shapes.

“Emmy.” The voice belonged to the old man in the hat. He stood straighter than before. Up close, his face didn’t look old at all.

How did he know her name?

“Marco. Hannah. Follow me,” the man said. “And not to the lifeboats.”

Stranger Danger! All three kids stared at each other, then at the man.

“Your attention, Comrades,” the intercom voice said. “We are now boarding the lifeboats.”

The ship listed so far to the side, Emmy didn’t see how anyone would make their way into a boat. She’d seen that Titanic movie. Where were FAD and FM? Where were the other kids from their group, and how would anyone find parents in this mess?

“Come,” the stranger said, motioning for Marco to grab hold of the cane while he led them through the tilting, screaming people who jammed every path to the exits.

Definitely not the old man Emmy first thought he was.

At last, they all stood on deck, away from the bodies crowding to the lifeboats. “My foster parents,” Hannah said. “What about–”

“Mine too,” Marco pleaded. “They’re gonna be in so much trouble if they lose track of me.”

“Good,” the man said. “Let them suffer what your real parents have been charged with.”

He knew about them. He understood! Emmy trusted him completely now.

Every possible doubt fled when she saw a woman with strawberry blonde hair like her own, long and rippling. It was the well-dressed lady of the night before, dressed in jeans and a sweater today. “Aunt Ruth!” she cried.

“Oh, Emmy.” Aunt Ruth had tears streaming from her eyes. “Thank God, thank God! He was right. It worked. He was right. You’re still here; you’re still alive.”

Squeezed in her aunt’s grip, Emmy managed to ask who was right.

“The German.” Releasing Emma, her aunt smiled at Marco and Hanna. “There’s no time to explain.” A tall, dark-skinned man made his way over to them.  “Emma. This is my husband, Aaron. Hannah, Marco, your parents are waiting for all of us, along with Emmy’s, in a special place.”

It was hard to hear Aunt Ruth with all the screaming and thudding of the crowds, but they  squeezed into a boat that looked nothing like the other lifeboats, especially when the German clicked some electronic thing that made a dome close around them.

Hanna almost dropped her biscuits, but the German whipped his cane out and caught them all. “Not sure how food will survive the trip,” he said. “I guess we’ll find out.”

What trip? Emmy looked to her aunt, fear rising into her eyes.

“Will we have new food rules where we’re going?” Hannah asked.

Ruth smiled. “It’s a new place. We haven’t made up very many rules yet.”

The German winked at me. “There will be steak. Real steak.”

A creaking noise drew our eyes back to the cruise ship. Hannah’s eyes glistened with that stricken look of mothers waving goodbye to soldiers in old war photos. “All that food,” she whispered. “Sinking to the bottom of the ocean.”

“Just like the Titanic,” Emmy said.

The German gasped, as if struck by a thought, then smiled. “Wouldn’t it be great to steal an afternoon to dine on the Titanic…maybe snag a few children from steerage before they…”

“Emmy.” Her new uncle laid a hand on her shoulder. “We came here from the future. This is a time machine.”

“COOL!” Marco shouted.

“We came back to save you,” Aaron said, and Aunt Ruth sniffled, “because we know you three did not survive the sinking of this ship. You were among the missing bodies. That means it’s safe for us to take you today without messing up the space-time continuum.”

Emmy noticed the silver stud piercing his tongue. Her aunt, and the German, too, had them.

“If I’d had more time,” the German said to himself, his head tilted toward the sounds coming from the ship. The screaming, the terror! He faced the three children and a big, bright smile replaced the sadness in his eyes. “Well then! Let’s save the explanations for later. Right now we need to blink out of sight. So….without further ado…”

Emmy’s stomach dropped, the way it did when an elevator started rising, her head filled with stars.

Wherever they ended up, there would be steak, and she’d join Hannah and Marco at the all-you-can eat buffet.

With pie and ice cream for dessert.

# # # #

NOTE:

Lenore Skenazy  is a New York City columnist who let her son ride the subway alone at age nine. Critics called her The World’s Worst Mom, which inspired her to write a book on Free-Range Kids. She also hosts the new TV series Bubble Wrap Kids. “What interests me is how we got to the point in society where it is normal for parents to be on top of their kids 24/7,” Skenazy said. “This is the first time in human history that has been considered admirable.” http://www.torontosun.com/2011/12/16/taking-the-bubble-wrap-off-kids

Wikipedia: Meatless Monday is global movement with a simple message: once a week, cut the meat. Meatless Monday is not a new idea. During World War I, the U.S. Food Administration urged families to reduce consumption of key staples to aid the war effort. “Food Will Win the War,” the government proclaimed, and “Meatless Monday” and “Wheatless Wednesday” were introduced to encourage Americans to do their part. The effect was overwhelming; more than 13 million families signed a pledge to observe the national meatless and wheatless conservation days…The campaign returned during World War II when President Franklin D. Roosevelt relaunched it to help that war’s efforts on the home front. In the immediate post-war years, President Harry S. Truman continued the campaign to help feed war-ravaged Europe.

http://c3270052.r52.cf0.rackcdn.com/concordia-cruise-disaster-main.jpg
….. The president of Costa Cruises, Gianni Onorato, said normal lifeboat evacuation became “almost impossible” because the ship listed so quickly….After the grounding, passengers and crew were taken ashore from the ship by lifeboats and helicopters or swam to the island, leaving about 40 people missing. Half of these were later found inside the ship, most of them deceased.

Smithsonian magazine: Gunter Kuhnle, a food nutrition scientist at Reading University, said it was wrong “and potentially even dangerous” to compare the effects of smoking with the effect of meat and cheese as the study does. “Sending out [press] statements such as this can damage the effectiveness of important public health messages. They can help to prevent sound health advice from getting through to the general public. The smoker thinks: ‘why bother quitting smoking if my cheese and ham sandwich is just as bad for me?'” Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/everybody-chill-out-eating-meat-isnt-going-kill-you-180949979/#zpGOzhe0PVEuDoyh.99  @SmithsonianMag on Twitter  Follow @_ColinS_

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About carolkean

novelist, reviewer, editor, book critic for Liberty Island and Perihelion Science Fiction; native prairie/guerilla gardener; champion of liberty, indie authors & underdogs; one of the top two reviewers in Editors &Preditors Poll 2015; Amazon Vine, NetGalley Top Reviewer
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