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Theresa O’Sullivan (Ireland)

I jerk wake as a wave crashes against Boat; its damp, mouldy walls creak as if they’re about to cave in. My stomach sinks as I remember where I am. I search the crowded floor; my little sister leans against a woman with a tired, sunken face. She has grown fond of Ola; I suspect she’s missing her own son. I still recall the sickening screams the day he died, too young and frail for such brutal conditions. I glance around at the other faces, all thinner and darker after months on Boat.

My sister used to curl up to mother like that; mother’s warm brown eyes always melted my worries. She gave up so much so we could travel on Boat to safe foreign lands. I think of my cheeky brother, who dreamed of becoming a nurse. His dreams crushed by the war. My strict yet kind Pa. Where they are now?

I squint to see Boat clearer. The only light is through holes in the roof. The smell, rotten and stale, hits the back of my throat. This thick air has grown familiar. I check my delicate hands; my long slim fingers are grimy and cracked, my nails bitten and filthy. I wonder how my neglected hair and face look. I haven’t seen my reflection in months. I remember hours spent gazing in the mirror back home before the war. Trying to perfect my makeup or get my hijab to sit perfectly. I lean back as a sudden sadness comes over me. Tears stream down my grimy face. I imagine Boat crumbling into nothing, just black – a hole of infinite sadness. I hate Boat, yet I feel attached all the same.

Sudden shouting rings out above us, followed by muffled footsteps. We move towards the noise. My stomach rumbles and moans. A horrific smell rises as everyone shifts. Panic sets in. I must get to my sister, but there are too many bodies pushing against me. It’s hard to breath. ‘Ola’ I call desperately, but my voice is hoarse and drowned out. ‘Ola.’ I’m forced to depend on the strange woman.

I continue pushing, catching the occasional glimpse of Ola’s purple hijab. A radiant light shines at the other end of Boat. Stranger white figures yank bodies up in twos and threes. I watch as Ola is lifted. My mind races. Are they throwing us off? Is Boat sinking? Weakened, I doubt I can stand much longer.

Eventually, a strong figure heaves me up. I’m blinded by the bright daylight and collapse at the top. On my hands and knees I inhale the fresh sea air. As my eyes adjust, a huge ship comes into focus. I finally reach my sister. When we embrace, she is small and warm. My heart fills with love.

That night, the moon and stars light the sky. I focus on the calming ripples in the water. Finally, I feel hope in the pit of my stomach. Our journey has only just begun.