Dreams Awake, Excerpt

On some summer afternoons, clouds would roll low and quick across the basin. The sky would turn a murky yellow. The air would fall so quiet at ground level that your footsteps on pavement seemed to echo. You could see for miles but feel like you were in a room, under a microscope, being watched.

Some in this town would say that they were being watched, by angels, by loved ones that had passed, by Almighty God himself. Kim wasn’t superstitious. No, the hollow world she walked through was uncommon but natural. A storm was coming.

Kim followed a little girl along the shoulder of the country road. Tornados rarely touched down here, but the conditions were right and they were a mile from home.

The child wore a sundress. Puffy short sleeves, smocked bodice embroidered with pink daisies. The skirt had lost its hem in one place and the fabric was frayed where it curled out. The attached laces that were supposed to tie in back hung loose to both sides. And finally, as the child darted out from the barrow ditch to run to the other side of the road, Kim noticed her dirty sneakers were missing laces.

Kim glanced over her shoulder and then hopped across the road to join the little girl.

“We need to get inside,” Kim told the child.

The girl shook her tangled blonde head. “We have to find guacamole!”

Kim looked up at the churning sky, then around her, marking nearby shelters. This end of South Flat Road was sugar beet fields on the east side, but populated on the west. There was an auto garage behind her. Several houses of people she’d never met. Kim looked back up at the clouds and decided there was time to find guacamole, as long as they did so walking back toward her house.

The child was loyal to her task, and indifferent to Kim’s. However much Kim prompted, pushed, and pulled, the threat of storm only intensified the girl’s resistance to going inside. “Guaca-Mo-lee,” she cried across the barrows into the fields and pastures. Again, she cried ‘guaca-Mo-lee” as she skipped across the deserted street without bothering to look for traffic, only to scream the word again.

Kim looked over the steering wheel of her car at the low mess of clouds as the first raindrops hit the windshield. She knew she had gotten home in time. She would make it inside before the hail began to fall.

The little girl in the yellow dress jumped into a dead run from the shoulder, into the road. Kim stomped on the brakes with both feet. Her heart accelerated as she pushed down hard as she could. As the little girl picked up the tortoise-shell tabby cat, Kim’s skin flushed and her throat burned. She saw a glimmer at the cat’s neck that flashed green in the headlights as they passed over it. She saw the look of shock on the child’s face as she squeezed the life from the struggling cat. Her stomach rolled over and knuckles turned white.

Stop. Stop! Damn you child, run!

But she kept sliding, and the child stood there. In the last second, Kim closed her eyes tight and screamed.

“Kim!” Henry’s voice snapped in her ear.

As a pair of strong hands shook her, Kim felt her insides turning to rot. “I killed her!” Her eyes were still shut tight against the scene. She felt strong arms wrap tight around her, rocking slightly back and forth.

“No, Kim,” he whispered near her cheek.

“I killed her!” she cried again, gasping. She couldn’t draw breath, couldn’t hold it. And as she shook, stuttering the word ‘I’, her limbs tingled into numbness. Henry shushed her softly and stroked her hair.

“Breathe, Kimmy,” he said, holding the back of her neck in one hand as he rubbed her back with the other. He kissed her cheek as he continued to slowly rock her. “You were dreaming,” Henry told her firmly. “It was just a dream.”

Finally, when she took a whole breath and held it, Henry turned and flipped on the bedside lamp. She let the breath out with a shudder and looked around her, to the walls, the dressers, the doors, and finally to her concerned husband. She took another deep breath, held it, and released it, this time with more control. It took a moment longer to convince herself that she was not sitting in a car. She was not driving in the rain. And she was not about to slide out of control into a little girl and her cat.

“Thank you,” she said finally, turning toward Henry as he put his arms around her again. “I’m so sorry.” He kissed his cheek as his stubble scratched her lip.

“Sorry?” he asked, sounding confused. He pulled his head back, brushed her tears away with the back of his hand, and smiled at her. “Don’t be sorry.” She leaned in and laid her head on his chest. He rubbed his hand up her back and played with her hair for a moment. “I’ll get you some water.”

“It’s okay. I have to pee,” she said, letting loose an embarrassed chuckle while exhaling heavily. “Keep the bed warm for me.” She slipped her feet into her cozy slippers on the floor beside her.

“Yes, Mrs. Kim,” he said lightly with his southern charm. He kept the lamp on and watched her with worried eyes. She smiled and shook her head at him as she closed the bathroom door. Standing up had shifted the weight of things inside her; an air pocked slipped into an uncomfortable kink on her right side. She sat down on the commode to try relieving the building pressure. She rested her elbows on her knees, and then her forehead on her hands. Holy hell, she thought, remembering the scared little girl. Henry had gotten her to calm down and breathe, but her heart was still pounding. She could feel her pulse throbbing under her fingertips. Her limbs were still shaking. What a nightmare.

Kim’s elbow slipped off her knee, startling her awake. Her bellyache was gone now. Who falls asleep on the toilet? she wondered with annoyance. She finished up and then gulped down a glass of water. The pain returned as a cramp, hard and tight, twisting her guts into knots. She grabbed onto the sink for balance and took short, shallow breaths until the cramp passed.

Gas? Stomach flu? She didn’t want to entertain the thought really on her mind. It couldn’t be labor pain. It was too early for labor. She was only 26 weeks along.

She held onto the sink and took deliberate breaths until the thoughts of premature labor and vehicular homicide fell still, until her heart slowed, the heartburn faded, and her stomach settled. Then she pushed away from the sink and tiptoed from the room she shared with her sleeping husband to the one next door.

The moonlight painted the room in silver shades that made the pastel green walls appear gray. The oak crib that Henry’s father built sat on the south wall. Kim padded quietly across the floor as if fearing she’d wake a sleeping infant, but as she laid her hands on the front rail, she found the bed empty. She reached inside and picked up the stuffed fox that Henry’s mother sent with the bedding. ‘The Little Prince’ was illustrated in the quilt squares. Henry’s mother made it herself.

A pair of warm arms wrapped around her and held her swollen belly. She laid down the fox, crossed her arms and laced her fingers through his on both sides. “You okay?” he asked her.

“I think so,” she replied.

“Come back to bed.”

Henry walked her back to her own side of the bed and pulled the covers over her shoulders. But rather than walking around, he climbed over top of her. He slept on top of the covers more often than not, even in the winter. Kim curled into his arms.

“Your nose is cold,” he whispered.

“Your neck is warm,” Kim replied sleepily.

“Tell me about your dream,” he said.

“Dream?” Kim wondered aloud. “What dream?”

Henry pushed her hair back from her face. He smoothed her long locks down her shoulder and then trailed his fingers back up her arm. “You woke up screaming,” he reminded her.

She had already forgotten and when she tried to focus her thoughts on the dream, the details slipped away as she tried to name them. “It’s gone.”

Henry hummed. “Don’t worry. You’ll remember.”

Kim shook her head, feeling sleep take her once again, “I don’t want to.”

“You have to, Kim,” Henry said, pulling away from her. “You have to find guacamole.”

Kim’s eyes snapped open and her breath caught as she woke with a start. Henry’s scent held onto his pillow as she did, but he was gone. Raising her head slightly, she searched the soft shadows and golden afternoon light for the phantom playing the organ. The shift of air pressure at the open window barely breathed into the sheers, causing them to dance against the wall. The air smelled sweet, like wildflowers and dirt. The organ played its refrain once more, summoning her from the last threads of sleep. She sat up in bed and rubbed her belly. No bump. She wasn’t pregnant. She let the disappointment go and scrambled out of bed, putting thoughts of December out of her mind.

The clock on the bedside table read 4:45 pm. And the doorbell was ringing.

Kim tossed the pillow aside and pulled her layered shirts back to rights as she jogged down the stairs. The coat closet door as open, as it always was, and she closed it to open the front door.

“Can I help you?” she asked the man in a cowboy hat standing on her front porch.

“Evening, ma’am. Are you Mary Mulholland?”

A shiver washed across her skin, leaving goose bumps. Mary was her first name but she only used it on legal documents. “I am.” Kim replied warily.

He offered her a manila envelope. “You’ve been served.”

“Thank you,” she said. He tipped his hat to her and then turned and walked back to his truck.

Kim stepped outside. April was a grab bag in Wyoming. Some years you had barbeque weather. Others you were making snow angels in fresh powder. Today was pleasant. There was a very slight, cool breeze, but the temperature was in the 60s.

She sat down on the porch swing and held the sealed envelope in her hand, weighing her dread against her curiosity. It was certainly bad news, and while no time was a good time for bad news, now was the epitome of ‘bad time’.

Finally, she held her breath, ripped open the envelope and pulled a short stack of papers out. As she read the top of the first sheet, her stomach jumped into her throat. Her mouth flooded with bile. Her blood boiled in her skin. She heard an anguished cry. It took several seconds for her to realize it was hers.

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