Do Not Become Alarmed

Do Not Become Alarmed

Maile Meloy

Americans learn only from catastrophe and not from experience.


It is a fact that it takes experience before one can realize what is a catastrophe and what is not.

   —RICHARD HUGHES, A High Wind in Jamaica


THE CRUISE SHIP towered over the dock in San Pedro like an enormous white layer cake, or a floating apartment building. The one thing it didn’t look like was an oceangoing vessel. Liv and her family surrendered their bags to porters and carried their backpacks into the terminal building. Her husband, Benjamin, was fascinated by the quay, built to get thousands of people onto fifteen-deck ships.

As they checked in, Liv filled out a form attesting that neither she nor her children had been sick in the last two weeks. It was a lie. Sebastian and Penny were eight and eleven, and it was December—they were walking germ vectors.

“You’re saying no illnesses, right?” her cousin Nora murmured beside her. Nora’s son, Marcus, was eleven like Penny, and they’d both had the same cold. Nora’s six-year-old, June, had a cough.

“Yes,” Liv whispered back.

They turned in the forms. Surely everyone lied and no one was fooled. An agent with bright green glasses took their passports for safekeeping, in exchange for plastic IDs to serve as cabin keys and charge cards.

Penny gazed at her own ID. “So I can buy things with this?”

“If your mom authorizes it,” the agent said.

“Authorize it!” Penny said, brandishing the card at Liv.

“What are you going to buy?” Liv asked.


Two pert young Australian women in white uniforms made them stop for a photograph in front of a life ring. Benjamin put his arm around Liv, with Penny and Sebastian in front of them. These were never satisfying pictures, the family photos. Liv was the same height as Benjamin and she felt herself slouch, even though it was ridiculous to care. The day was unseasonably warm, and she ran a hand up the damp back of her neck, feeling hot and flushed. She kept her hair cropped short so she could swim before work without losing time, but she was reminded by photos that her usually no-nonsense mother thought she should grow it out. Sebastian, blond like Liv, always looked a little wild-eyed in photos, the flash catching him by surprise. Penny had taken to striking poses, as if the world were her own red carpet.

They moved away and Raymond and Nora took their place in front of the life ring with Marcus and June. Liv watched. They were so handsome, Raymond with dark, smooth skin, Nora pale and brunette with a glossy ponytail, the kids tawny-limbed. They looked like an ad featuring a happy biracial family, one that would get horrible troll reactions online. Marcus was tall for eleven and had the beginnings of an Afro, and Junie wore tiny braids. Raymond had cut his hair close for a movie role as a cop.

“Is this the ‘before’ picture?” he asked, after the camera flashed.

“Something like that,” one of the Australians said, smiling. “But you look like the ‘after’ picture.”

Liv couldn’t tell if they had recognized Raymond. She thought not. “He always looks like the ‘after’ picture,” she said.

“I bet,” the girl said.

“Oh my God,” Nora said, as they moved on. “We’re not even on board and they’re flirting with him.”

They made their way among milling passengers, across a central court with a patterned marble floor. A giant Christmas tree rose up through three decks.

“Wow,” Sebastian breathed.

“It’s like The Nutcracker,” Penny said. “But real.”

They went up in a glass elevator, past the top of the tree, then down a blue-carpeted corridor. Liv and Nora had booked cabins next to each other, and Liv opened hers with the key card. There was a bottle of champagne and a bowl of fruit inside. The cabinets were pale wood, the bedcovers nautical navy and white. A couch in a little sitting area would pull out for the kids, so the cabin counted as a “suite.” Mirrors made it all look bigger than it was, and the California sun glared bright through the balcony doors. Penny and Sebastian ran outside to look down.

“No going on the balcony unless an adult is here,” Liv said. “Deal?”

“Deal,” they sang in chorus. They ran back in to investigate the clever cupboards and the drawers that latched shut. Marcus and June arrived to compare notes.

“This is exactly backward from ours,” Marcus pronounced.

“That’s so weird,” June said, flopping back on the bed, braids bouncing. “I feel like I’m in mirror land!”

A voice came over the loudspeaker, right into the cabin, announcing the lifeboat drill.

“What’s that?” June asked.

Their stewardess put her head in the open door. Her name was Perla and she was tiny, her black hair parted in the middle. She showed them where to find the blocky orange foam life preservers in the closet, and pointed out their muster station on the ship’s plan.

“Do we have to get in the lifeboats?” Sebastian asked.

“No,” Perla said, laughing. “They only show you.”

The two families headed down the carpeted stairs, past crew members on the landings. In the muster station in the Yacht Club bar, a graceful young man with a microphone—a dancer?—explained the emergency procedure. All the other passengers seemed to be eighty. There were no other children. Penny and Sebastian feigned agonized drowning, and Junie skipped across the carpet. The old people smiled warily at them. Marcus sat beside his parents.

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