SECOND INTERLUDE: GROWING UP

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Friends. I would've never imagined my uncle had friends.

Growing up, I thought that was something we had in common. We were both alone and yet always surrounded by people.

"Why do you always travel alone, uncle?" I asked him a few years before. I was so much younger, not old enough to wield a spade, and even then, my father cut my hair short. I may have been a girl, but to the world around me, I looked like any other six year-old boy.

Thankfully, I didn't care for stuff like than back then. I cared about different things, like my uncle.

"Well, Sophie. I never really travel alone," he said, playing with the brim of his hat. He looked younger in that memory; his hair was longer and a more vibrant shade of brown. My uncle always kept his face clean shaven. I didn't know if he shaved his mustache because my father grew his, or the other way around. They were both strange like that. My father kept his hair cropped and unruly, while my uncle let his well-combed hair come down to his chin. He didn't quite look like a gentleman from the smoke-cities, but he almost did.

"What do you mean?" I asked, looking up at him. He loved to play with his hat. It was tall and dark-colored like those the gentlemen wore, but my uncle was different. He truly was a gentle man.

"Oh, Sophie," he said, looking at me. "I take you with me everywhere I go. I keep you right here." My uncle tapped the spot over his heart with his index finger.

He was candid like that, always speaking as though he'd just sipped the sweetest tea.

"You're silly, uncle. I don't fit there."

My uncle shook his head and chuckled.

"No, you don't, that's why I gotta keep coming back here. Maybe someday my heart will be big enough that I'll be able to take you with me," he said, smiling... but he didn't smile at me. His eyes were out of focus, like he was looking at something that wasn't there - something far away - like a distant storm.

"But, uncle, what if I keep growing up?" I asked, reaching up to him with my little arms. I managed to grab the tips of his coat, but I wasn't strong enough to pull him down

"That's what scares me, dear. You get bigger every time I see you," he said, taking off his hat. He played with the brim of it one more time without looking at me.

I don't know if what he said next came right after, if he told me in the hours that followed... or if the words I remember were spoken several years later. My memory fails me. I'm not old, but I'm not young anymore, and my head has been filled with too many things, some wonderful and breathtaking... others as terrifying as the images of the bestiary.

I don't remember when, or why he said it, but he looked at me. He looked as timeless as he did when I was six years old. It could've been the last time we talked, years before, or that instant right after he told me he was afraid of me growing up.

He looked at me, as though we were the same height and age. He treated me like I'd seen the world like he had. He handed me his hat, so I could put it on and play with it, but as he did so, he said one more thing.

"Sophie, when it comes time for you to get older..." his eyes looked distant again. "Try not to grow up, okay?"

I looked up at him and smiled.

"How do I do that?" I asked.

He put the hat on my head, and pushed it down so it would block my eyes. In the darkness, I only heard his laughter, but it was a forced laugh- like that of a man who didn't have anything better to fill the silence with. "I don't know, sweetie. I couldn't find a way," he replied.

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