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Somewhere, Sophie could feel the sensation of her thumb in her mouth. Or maybe it was her blanket. Her eyelids flickered. Bits of sound came to her, scraps of information she couldn’t understand. The loud tones told her not to wake up, not to wake up. Something was telling her that.
She could feel the dead soil beneath her feet now. With a smile, she dropped to her knees and placed her hands at her sides, brushing her fingers forwards and backwards in the muddy grit. She could feel the bugs and brush and mud all mixed together. The smell of rain stained the air like a bad cold. A storm had come through this place; maybe it was still churning.
A distinct shiver tore through Sophie at the vague sounds clapping by her head. She grabbed fistfuls of the mud, stuffing them in her ears to keep the sound out. It still came through in muffled snippets, but it would do for now.
This was the part she liked best. She opened her eyes and stood up, one ankle dragging through the mud until she found her footing. Her eyes wandered the flat plains and settled on the only point of shade for miles.
Under a banyan tree, a lone man stood holding a cane and open pocket watch. He had dark hair, round glasses, and a handlebar mustache. She walked up to him with mud in her ears and a scraggly bed head. The bronze of his eyes took her attention from the dark bags beneath. He had probably catered to many unhappy children in their dreams.
“Can you hear them?” he asked amiably. Sophie looked up at the man through her eyelashes then down at her toes. He waited.
Instead of an answer, she clutched at his jacket pocket. He uncurled her hand and knelt down. Waves of red sand pushed away from his knees and spilled onto her feet. He opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by a great thundering in the sky.
“You can’t treat me this way!”
Sophie flinched, and then nuzzled her way between the man’s legs. His heartbeat was slow and rhythmic, like a drum meant for the gods. He looked up at the stormy sky, waiting until the echo faded.
Still gazing up, he said, “Sophie, I want you to think of a good memory of your mother.”
She did, but this was one of the nights she got it wrong. She thought of the time her mother came home after midnight dressed in a white, silky dress and with confetti strewn in her wild red hair.
“Mommy.” She was sitting on the floor with a teething ring in her mouth. Her arms reached up, trying to pull the fiery angel into her circle of gravity. A trail of spittle dangled between her mouth and hand.
“You look just like him,” she said. Sophie mistook the disgust in her voice for awe and toddled toward her, unaware of the way she staggered or the fact that she’d come in alone. A strong, sour smell assaulted her senses the closer she got to her mother’s clean, white dress.
Sophie gasped and held her ballooned baby stomach. There was wetness in the corners of her eyes, and a cry that wouldn’t wrench itself from her throat. The man frowned, recognizing the memory and finally snapping his pocket watch shut.
Suddenly Sophie was older, a beautiful woman dressed in red scarves and a tight dress, pink lipstick painted generously over a cruel and provocative mouth. She wore stiletto heels that sank into the earth like knives. It was beautiful in a way she didn’t understand. Her mother never wore anything like this. Sometimes her lipstick was smeared harshly at the side, though. Sophie could only think of it as what a lady should look like.
The man took her snakelike hand in his and twirled her through the brush and uneven land. Somehow they never tripped. It wasn’t important, but she did wonder about it sometimes.
“Can you hear them anymore?” he asked. He smiled.
“Hear what? I barely even noticed it.” She could feel her heavily rouged cheeks lifting into a wrinkled smile. He sang under his breath to their dance, his voice the vibration of a hummingbird. The clicks of his tongue and deep intonations sounded foreign and pleasant. She never knew what he was saying, but always pressed her chest to his to feel how he felt.
He blushed and held her at arm’s length once more. His slight fingers pushed his glasses up before he continued to twirl her. The man did look astonishingly like her father. She could see herself clutching at his tie before he left again. At times, she wished the world would end so she’d see where he’d go in his last moments.
A peal of thunder rang out in the sky. “Scumbag!”
Sophie flinched. The man noticed.
They stopped dancing. His feather-like hold on her right hand comforted her. It always did. He knelt down and pushed his palm flat on the ground, moving from one spot to the next until his hand sank deep into a patch of mud. His fingers looked like thin white twigs where she could still see his skin. He then clenched his fist, and something gripped her heart. It might have been excitement. Maybe fear. Her waking hours taught her there was a fine line between the two.
He looked up and his mustache lifted in a smile. By that time, her shoes had sunk to the heels. He held up a mixture of grasses and mud, some of which oozed through his fingers. “Here, darling. I’ll make it stop.”
He let go of Sophie’s hand in order to rub his hands together and separate the mud into two equal parts. He gave her that bittersweet and scathing look she saw exchanged so often between her parents.
Sophie took his hands and placed them on either side of her face, feeling naÃ¯ve and hopeful. Their eyes locked; she had sunk almost to her knees now. He rubbed her temples, and she could feel the rough slime stick to her cheeks and eyelids. She shut her eyes as his thumbs closed over her ears and gently shoved the balls of mud in. It hurt. Oh, it hurt. But she couldn’t hear the voices anymore. And that was all she wanted.
She had sunk to her chest now, her scarves bogged down with mud. The man stood up. She should have known it wouldn’t change, that he wouldn’t change. The man said something, but she couldn’t hear him anymore. The mud dripped from her ears and down into her stomach like a poison. Only it was the red dirt now, and felt like sawdust in her throat.
The man’s shiny black shoe pressed into her shoulder, but the sole was smooth and didn’t cut into her shoulder blades. She could feel the knobby bone in her shoulder shifting from one side to the other as he fought for a better grip. Once her right shoulder was covered in the watery film above the mud, he removed his foot and calmly walked behind her to the other side. He did the same with this shoulder. Sophie could see the smooth indentations turning red on the first shoulder.
She bit her lip and sighed impatiently like her mother did when she was unhappy. She didn’t know how to feel, though. Not with him. Finally, he stopped. And she opened her eyes.
All the sound was back. Her blankets shuffled like hospital sheets around her head, and she threw them off so she could breathe. The scratchy, woven curtains in front of her window trembled. The shadows they made moved like dancers on fire.
She couldn’t hear her parents. The lights were all off. She cuddled up with her blanket and fell back into sleep again.