Ceilia’s dad kept a wooden ship in his office, a three-masted model frigate seated atop a glass shelf behind his desk. A plethora of old books and worn binders surrounded it, jetsam accumulated from his years adrift in the murky waters of the public school system. Inscribed with calligraphic grace onto the stern was a word she’d heard almost every day for the past seven years: Hope.
“It’s the thing that keeps me going,” he told Ceilia when she was old enough to ask about it. She was surrounded by toys, seated on the carpeted floor beside his desk while his ink pen — green, never red — dashed across the looseleaf sheaf in front of him. Illuminated by the evening light pouring in through the window, the frigate floated upon a sea of golden luminescence. It was their nightly ritual: Ceilia with her toys, her dad with has papers. “Most days, I run on it.”
“You could always quit,” Ceilia said.
“No,” he told her. “Never that.”
At eleven years old, Ceilia turned the ship over in her hands while her dad wiped a cloth over the shelf. She put it to her nose, sniffed it, and coughed as dust rushed into her nose. “I think you missed a spot,” she said.
“Oh? Sorry,” he said. “Can you clean it off for me?”
Ceilia picked up a rag and sighed. “Nobody every appreciates all the hard work that I do around here.”
She regretted it as soon as she said it. Appreciation wasn’t a topic her dad took lightly, even in jest. It usually ended with a lecture about the less fortunate, about kids who weren’t as privileged as she’d been. Ceilia hated that conversation.
It was like he didn’t remember how hard it had been when mom died. She sat the ship onto the carpet beside her, ready to roll her eyes at the first words out of his mouth. But the scolding never came.
“Appreciation is overrated,” he told her. “I hope you realize that one day.”
From her view in the corner of the office, the frigate sat stoic in the middle of the shelf. Between her tears, the sails looked warped and distorted, as if blown about by some freak wind. Ceilia buried her face in her hands and cried. Her dad could’ve asked a thousand things when he found her there — about her tears, about the fight, about the terrible things her friends said or did — but he didn’t. He just put his arm around her and caught her sorrow on his shirt sleeve.
“I wish your mother were here,” he whispered after a while. She looked up, saw him staring straight ahead, and followed his gaze to the ship as its sails flared gold with a rush of evening light. “She was always better at this.”
“What was she like?”
A smile touched his lips. “She always hoped you’d ask about her like that.”
Her father was trying to explain his reasoning, but Ceilia wouldn’t hear it. It was so stupid. Just because her boyfriend was a few years older than her didn’t give him the right to keep them apart. The office shook as she thundered around the room, digging her heels hard into the floor. From behind his desk, her father levied judgment. When he finished, Ceilia stormed out, a cascade of insults and objections screeching from her lips as she flung the door closed and marched to her room.
A stack of ungraded papers sat near the edge of the desk when Ceilia returned. She paused when she saw them. The old frigate took their usual place in the center of the workspace while her father worked frantically to repair the broken foremast and bowsprit. A crack ran alongside the starboard hull. The piece looked a wreck, a tangle of lines and canvas and splintered wood.
“What happened?” she asked.
“It fell. When you . . . left earlier.” He spoke without looking up. Somehow, that hurt worse than any kind of anger or frustration either of them could muster.
“Can you fix it?”
“I hope so,” he whispered.
Ceilia wanted to tell him she was sorry, but she couldn’t find the words. The night she’d broken the old ship put a fracture in their relationship that never fully healed. Her dad had thrown it out the next day, and her college acceptance letters came a day after that. Suddenly, her senior year became a whirlwind of college prep with her dad supporting her all the way.
“That old ship,” she said on the car ride to the university. “You never told me where it came from.”
“The frigate? It was the first ship your mother ever assembled. Took her months to figure it out.”
“Wait, mom made it?” Ceilia asked. “I always thought it was yours.”
Her dad chuckled. “No. Never had the patience for it. I think she hoped that I’d come around, but you know how it is.”
“And I broke it.”
“Things happen,” he said.
The tears welled up in her eyes before he could say anything. This was it, the last of the boxes, all piled into the corner of her dorm room. Ceilia flung herself into her dad’s arms for one final hug. He kissed her on the cheek, said goodbye, and closed the door behind him.
It was early evening before Ceilia started to unpack. She cleared the boxes in quick succession — clothes, office supplies, bedding — until she came across a small one buried behind all the rest. She lifted it out, opened the box, and gasped.
Nestled among a sea of packing peanuts, she saw a smoothed, wooden hull. Proud sails jutted up from the deck. Small fractures dotted the bowsprit and foremast. A faint crack, nearly invisible, snaked along the starboard hull. She eased it out of the box, lifted it up. Inscribed onto the stern with calligraphic grace was a word she’d heard almost every day for the past nineteen years: Hope.