By: Callie Hart

The sound of the sea.

That’s one of my earliest memories: the sound of the sea and eating an ice cream. A boardwalk by the ocean—not sure which beach—and the feel of the sun, baking hot, warming the crown of my head.

I dream about the beach. Unlike most people, I don’t have the luxury of a variety of different dreams. I only have two. When I do dream, it’s either that sunny day on the Californian coast when I was four years old, or…it’s not. It’s the other dream.

Tonight, thankfully, I’m visited by the lesser of two evils.

“Come here, baby. You’ve got it all over you.” Gentle laughter. The scent of fresh flowers and soap, my mother’s long fingers folding tissue to wipe me clean. The bright glare of the sun has stolen my mother’s face. She’s been a sweet-smelling ghost wrapped in a floral dress for the past twenty-five years, and in all that time I never see her face. Or at least I don’t see it until later, anyway.

“Where’s Daddy? Shall we go find him? It’s almost time for me to go to work, baby.” My mother takes my hand and guides me down the boardwalk—the sounds of the amusement rides, the arcade machines, coins rattling and the smell of candy. These combined sights and sounds have created a physical place that exists within me.

I squint into the sun. I lick my ice cream. I hold my mother’s hand, and I walk with her down the pier. A man is waiting for us at the end of the pier; my father. He’s dressed in faded blue jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt; his dark hair is being lifted in the breeze. He turns and waves, but for some reason he’s not smiling.

“There he is, baby. You wanna go hang out with Daddy for an hour while I do my work real quick?” My mother lets go of my hand and bends down to straighten my Danger Mouse T-shirt. “I won’t be long, sweetheart, I promise.” The sunlight glints off the loose blonde curls that flow around her face. I should be able to see her properly now, but I can’t.

Then I’m with my father. He smells of the ocean—that’s where he was; he went down to the water for a swim. He lets me walk without having to hold onto his hand. He doesn’t complain that I’m sticky with melted ice cream. We visit the rides and the arcade games, and my father lifts me onto his shoulders, carrying me up high so I can see everything over the tops of the crowds.

He needs to leave me for a moment, he says. I wait by the mechanical fortune-teller, tying knots into the drawstring of my fluoro pink shorts (this was the eighties), watching the groups of people who pass by become smaller and smaller.

It gets dark.

I get scared.

A man comes and asks me where my parents are, but then I see my mother over his shoulder and tell him that I’m fine. I go to meet my mother. Her back is to me, and a tall man I don’t recognize is holding her by the arm. She’s making soft crying sounds, and it looks like the man is pinching her skin. Her legs collapse from underneath her and one of her shoes comes half off her foot, but the stranger has a tight hold on her. He pulls her up again.

“That’s the last time. The last fucking time you’re ever gonna say no to me, bitch!” he snaps.

My mom cries and cries and cries. She sees me—her hand reaches out, open, gesturing me to stay back, and her palm is covered in blood. “My son. My son. Please, not in front of—”

The stranger hits my mother across the face, and her crying cuts off abruptly. By this time I’ve started crying anyway. I cry for the both of us. Why is the man hurting her? Where is my dad? I look for him, but there’s no one around now. Everyone has gone home from their day at the beach.

“You shouldn’t have brought him with you,” the stranger says, towering over my mom. “If you didn’t want him to see your true colors, you should never have brought him along. Now stand up properly and fucking kiss me.”

Even at four I know a bad word when I hear one. Fuck is a very bad word, and my mother isn’t supposed to kiss men who aren’t my dad. That’s not how it works. My mother shakes her head. She reaches into the pocket of her flowery dress—torn at the hip now—and holds out a bundle of crumpled bills to the stranger.

“We don’t do that. Here, take it. Have it back. I just want to go.”

The man grabs hold of my mom with both hands now, and he shakes her. He shakes her hard. “I want what I paid for. And I want a fucking kiss. Now.”

“No. I’m sorry, I—” He hits her hard once more, this time with the back of his hand. My mom stumbles backwards, holding a hand to her cheek. Her shoe has come off all the way now; I pick it up and hug it to my chest, watching as she gets dragged toward the man again.

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