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Lonely Fish

The singed oak tree bent low, grazing the sterile ground with its mass of fingers, reaching to the foundation of the house with its many feet. A broken swing lay flat on the ground next to the oak, independent of it except for the chips of rusted steel that punctured the side of the tree and curling around the rotted wood of the swing seat. One large, lichen eye, partially veiled by a sagging, wise old brow, peered into the recesses of the crippled house, which had long ago been scorched by a lonely fish in an amber sea.
Sophie brushed the tired, aching sides with the stroke of a long-lost friend, pulling away sooty fingers.

~
“What have you been doing with your hands?” The disgustingly familiar man in front of Sophie took a long swig from a frothy mug and continued the inspection, turning her around. “Not too bad. Not too bad. You’re a little plump, though.” He plucked her belly like a guitar string. “Alright. Don’t wipe those filthy hands on your new dress. I bought that for you special. I don’t want everyone to think my daughter’s been working in the mines all day.” He sent her away with a quick smack on the bottom and focused all his attention on the drink in front of him.
~

The eves of the house bowed low with the weight of thirty-two years of turbulent existence. Sophie ducked into the narrow entryway, where hand-stenciled, happy spring flowers greeted her, barely visible. She folded back the yellow paper to see the memory of a signature in the corner: Mary Hayes. Sophie sighed and turned into a study lit with buttermilk puddles that stretched across the floor. Her father’s favorite chair still sat in the corner, accompanied by a steadfast lamp that rested whole on the checkered carpet. On the opposite wall, bookshelves drooped with the weight of untapped knowledge and age. Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald awkwardly supported Ernest Hemingway, and a window wreathed with a brief woman’s silk curtains separated Dorothy Parker from Edgar Allen Poe.
Sophie’s father had picked the grey curtains in the kitchen that had gone up in flames on one day that was infamous to the surrounding town. The pernicious gossips, starved for fresh rumors, still whispered of “that British girl who destroyed him.” Wrapped in paisley scarves and bulky black dresses, the widows filled coffee shops with stories of a single father “turned to the bottle” who set a fire to his curtains “that could be seen for miles around.”
The curtains in the study were silk and striped with pastels, the last expensive, female touch before the artist’s exodus. The sofa beside them in the study was brown, wide, and the most beautiful thing in the splintered house.

~
Daddy was drinking again. He wasn’t a depressed drunk, or a happy drunk. He was the worst kind of drunk: an angry drunk. When Sophie tiptoed into the kitchen for a glass of milk before bed, she saw the twinkle of red-hot hell in his eye. She felt familiar fear balloon to her throat, and she slipped out of the kitchen, berating herself for walking in on him in a more than slightly inebriated state. It was Friday night. Hardly anything else could be expected. Sophie tiptoed into the study, got down on her hands and knees and moved the lacquered lamp at the side of the sofa as quietly as possible. “Sophie…” It was spoken at first, softly, as if it was an egg waiting to hatch. “Sophie! Where are you?” The question was playful, and then grew louder, demanding an answer. Sophie slipped behind the sofa. “Your mother was a b****, Sophie!” Sophie moved the lamp back to its original place. “She’ll pay, Sophie! You can’t hide from me forever, girl. I’ll find you. You look like her. I’ll kill you in her place!”
~

An unfrightened thirty-year-old moved the lamp at the side of the sofa, and slipped behind her trustworthy sofa. She could feel his worker-boot-stomping reverberating through the flimsily crafted floor even now. The quilt her mother had made her still resided in its rightful place, folded on the top hidden shelf. Sophie blew the dust off of a worn “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” The pages were wrinkled with use and salty water, and written on each was a secret message from a Sophie of a different decade. Next to the picture of Charlie and his grandparents, little Sophie had written in finger-staining charcoal (that was her father’s only clue): “family: Roald Dahl wasn’t right.” Over the picture of Mrs. Bucket, she had written: “Mary Hayes,” and in the margin, she had written: “she liked to draw and paint. She was from England. She went back.” Over the picture of Charlie and his grandpa dancing with joy, she had written: “I don’t know how to dance. One day, a prince will teach me. He will have a rose in his teeth like the Spanish dancers on the Sunday television.” She had written above every picture, annotated every line. It was the work of the year she had discovered her sofa. The year she had left.

~
Her father stumbled into the study. “Sophie! I work all day for you! Come out here now!” She pulled out her favorite book, industrially printed pages turned, rough against a lonely child’s fingers. She devoured every candy-saturated passage with ravenous passion, drowning out her father’s clumsy footsteps as they grew closer with every passing minute.
~

A set of charcoal pencils and a photograph of a beautifully cruel brunette rested next to the quilt, defying the clammy clutches of fire and time. When Sophie had no courage, no hope, and no sofa, when life was hardly worth living, she had found the drawer.

~
Her father had passed out on his bed on the night of the butter moon, occasionally murmuring about Mary and Sophie, sometimes in the same sentiment. Sophie unfolded herself from the corner of her room, examining the rich eggplants and zucchinis that welled up on the new lumps in her arm. She snuck into her father’s room, knowing the calm would shut up his eyes for at least eight hours. She had noticed that there was an unopened drawer in her father’s dresser, and the eight-year-old’s insatiable curiosity dissolved any fear like a tooth in diet Coke. A sweet perfume wafted out of the drawer as she pulled the copper handles towards her. A false bottom revealed a photograph of a brief brunette and a full set of drawing charcoals. Her father let out a foghorn snore, and Sophie picked them up and fled. She awaited her father’s realization of the theft with dread and a zing of anticipation that electrified her spine. Little Sophie then went looking for her hiding place.
~

Big Sophie scooped herself up and pushed back the sofa, allowing the slaves of the sun to pry into her sacred refuge. She walked out of the crumpled old house and down the hill with firm resolve, stopping at the little marble monument beside the burbling stream that had cost her a month’s salary exactly a year before. She stood on his beer-soaked bones and smiled. A lonely fish in an amber sea. She hung a silent goodbye in the air, and glided away, leaving little Sophie behind. She never saw her again.



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