Fiction · 05/10/2017

Somniloquy

On a hot afternoon in late July, Daphne’s folks invite her to the kitchen. She hops onto her favorite, high-backed chair, folds her sticky hands in front of her, and waits. Her mother glances at her father. He nods. Her mother tucks her yellow hair back, takes a big breath through her nose, and starts.

“We know you love Montana, sweetheart. We’ve had a good run. But your father and I’ve decided it’s time for us, as a family, to move. We’ve rented a place in Seattle, and we’re selling this house at the end of the month.” Her face is long when she says this. Her father’s face is long. Daphne knows her own face should be long as well.

“I see,” she says.

“You’ll be starting at a new school,” her father says. His mouth is a hole in his beard.

“We know you’ll miss your friends,” her mother says.

Daphne looks down, allows her eyes to well with tears. “I’ll miss Natasha and Amber and Lily. And Paula and David and Lucy. But,” she looks up, “if Seattle is better for us, as a family, then I guess we’d better go there, right?”

Her parents slump and smile, laugh a little to each other. Her mother hugs her. Her father smooches her head. They look at her with wonder. “What did we do to deserve you?” asks her father. Daphne shrugs and smiles, basking.

Her parents don’t know she knew already. She had a good long cry with Beauty, her bighorn sheep, when she first heard the news. Overheard it, through the wall between her bedroom and her parents’ as they sleep-talked. She stays up most nights to hear the moment when her father’s gruffness fades, her mother’s twang returns, and, with an ease they rarely reach awake, they sift the rocks and boulders of their days. Work stuff, home stuff, her stuff. Often, wisps of Daphne’s future reach her on her parents’ whispers. Summer camps, swim lessons, chores. Now, after weeks of tense, softly talkative nights, the Move.

And after the nauseous swirl of high-stacked, shifting boxes, after the bare spots in the corners where her life had been, after the straps and clasps and vehicles and roads, after the family has resettled in a dollhouse-sized apartment, she hears her parents in the night again. They miss Butte as well. They say “what a trooper,” meaning her. They grumble and rustle and joke and tease, and Daphne, tucked between their laughter and the tapping rain, feels snug and safe and proud and loved.

+

Daphne starts at her new school. The kids there tolerate but do not need her. They keep their distance, observe that she wears high tan leather boots, that she calls roly polies pill bugs, that she speaks with a wide flat coppery strangeness in her mouth. And she takes an umbrella everywhere, when everyone knows you never need one. Daphne floats around the vast and aimless playground like a dandelion spore.

The weeks drift by. Her birthday looms. Her mother plans a sleepover with girls from school, the first ones Daphne names, the names she knows because everyone knows those unmissable girls. When they say they’ll come, the future unfurls before her — a red carpet, a Seattle sidewalk. At the party, they play dress up. Squeal at the wild genius of their outfits, giggle at the zany scary dopey faces they can make. When Daphne glimpses her reflection — barefoot, bedazzled — belonging fizzes in her chest. They eat pizza, sing to Daphne, gobble down head-sized slabs of ice cream cake.

Bedtime arrives with its dark regularity. Sacked out in the tiny den, the girls pick up a low-pitched back-and-forth.

“I wonder what they’re talking about,” says Jen.

“Maybe they’re fighting,” says Tess.

“What about?” says Jen.

“Daphne,” Katy tells them.

“Maybe they’ll get divorced,” says Jen.

“Maybe they’ll adopt a kid,” says Tess.

“Probably both,” Katy says. Everyone snickers but Daphne.

“I’m sure they’re just sleep-talking,” she tells them.

No one says a word. Daphne searches her friends’ dim faces. Their confusion tips her toward the brink of shame.

“Don’t your parents sleep-talk?” Daphne asks, her voice as thin and soft as Jen’s blond hair.

No one’s ever heard of such a thing. It’s strange. It is, in the fleeting but incontrovertible orthodoxy of children, wrong.

That wrongness dogs her back at school. The other kids no longer tolerate her. She eats and plays and rides the bus alone. Even on group projects, now, she’s stuck with the scissors, paper, glue, and markers, an empty arc of chairs around her. At field trip time, she’s not surprised when no one volunteers to be her buddy. She asks a few kids — a few boys, even — but only because she is a trooper. She knows the class has spoken.

The teacher pairs her with Kiara. Kiara, with her watchful sequin eyes.

+

At the science museum, Kiara blows the biggest bubble Daphne’s ever seen. It wobbles and shimmers: a rainbow of tension. Daphne swings a magnet on a string. It loops and spins and ricochets. It clangs, fastened at last to a bright metal wall, and Kiara squeaks in shock and wonder at the sound. They build an arch with blocks. They play with a prism. Lightning leaps and crackles in a plasma globe, a malevolent orb that frightens Daphne. But at Kiara’s touch it settles, its tendrils dance between her fingers, and Daphne laughs, relieved: it’s only an electric dandelion. The water cycle bores them till Daphne whispers, “What if it were pee?”

At lunch, the class plays tag, and Daphne’s It and It and It again, tagged by Jen and Tess and Katy. Her face gets hot. She quits the game. She cries beneath a big leaf maple.

“Maybe you shouldn’t wear those boots,” Kiara says.

“But I like them.”

“They make you bad at tag.”

“Shut up.”

“And they smell kind of funny.”

“I said SHUT UP!”

Daphne runs away, to cry beneath a different tree, but then the whistle blows. She has to line up for the planetarium show. She has to stand beside her buddy, to whom she gives the silent treatment. Daphne’s waited all day to see the rings of Saturn. To catch a glimpse of Earth from far away. To find out if Mars has icicles. She won’t let Kiara ruin it for her. But as soon as they relax in the up-tilted seats, they sink into sleep, lulled by the expansive, run-down darkness, and the show begins without them.

“I’m sorry for what I said about your shoes,” Kiara says.

“They make me feel like home.”

“I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”

As Daphne shifts, her head drops down to bob beside Kiara’s shoulder. The universe drifts past their eyelids.

“We had fun before lunch,” Kiara says.

“We did.”

“You’re really funny.”

“Thank you.” And then, as though it were a secret, “I forgive you. And I think you’re really smart. Do you want to be friends?”

A chaperone shakes the girls awake, and Daphne flinches as the theater’s gloom engulfs her. As a comet streaks fast and cold across her heart. But Kiara squeezes Daphne’s hand, and Daphne squeezes back, and side by side the girls lie back, look up, and fall together headlong toward an endless field of silent stars.

+++

Alex Blum is a canvasser and book reviewer living in San Diego, CA. Hobart has published his fiction. You can find him on Twitter at @a_blum.