Just Another Nightmare
by Jessica Shepard Carlson
Their house is still dark, the windows black, only stillness behind them. A familiar dread is settling in — I haven’t seen movement for days.
“There you are, dear.”
A voice behind me. It’s Gary, my husband. As if I am so very hard to find. Every afternoon since my retirement, I sit in the backyard on this same rusty lawn chair, cigarette in one hand, sudoku book in the other, watching ants crawl over the mossy lines crisscrossing our brick patio.
I use the book to disrupt a trail of smoke heading Gary’s way. A show of respect, I think. He frowns into his beard, mostly gray now.
“Dinner’s in the oven,” he tells me, wiping his hands on a dishtowel. “I’ve got to run. Emergency council meeting.”
But he doesn’t run. He just stands there, his eyes fixed on the cherry of my cigarette. He’s waiting for me to ask about this very important meeting of his. There are things you understand about a person after 30 years of marriage.
“Have you seen Dave or Sheila?” I nod in the direction of their darkened house. “Out of town you think?”
He looks up at the house, reluctantly, dutifully.
“Not since the potluck, I suppose.” He sighs and turns back inside. “I’ll be back around eight.”
The potluck. That was ten days ago. A moist and suffocating Tennessee Saturday. The kind of oppressive heat that leads to divorces and fistfights and car accidents. I made my mother’s macaroni salad, one of the few things Gary lets me cook. We all sat fanning ourselves at the Henderson’s splintering picnic table, swatting flies off our watermelon rinds, my mother’s macaroni festering between us.
Dave drank at least 13 beers that afternoon, lining up each empty bottle on the porch railing like trophies in the sun. Gary circled the picnic table with a pitcher of lemonade, always topping off my glass before I had the chance to fill it with something else.
Sheila sat across the table from me, still as a tree stump, smiling vacantly behind dark sunglasses. The sweat collected on her upper lip like dew. She had been acting strange lately.
I was halfway through an ear of corn when Sheila abruptly reached across the table with all the speed and grace of a startled rabbit, plucked up a butter roll, and inadvertently revealed proof of something I had long suspected — deep purple bruises on her forearms, yellowing at the edges, a bloody outline of Dave’s fat sausage fingers trapped under the surface of her thin, almost translucent skin. She reflexively tugged her sleeves down to her wrists; both of her pinky nails were wrapped tightly with flesh-colored band-aids.
Nobody said a word. Maybe they didn’t see, maybe they just didn’t care. I stared hard at Sheila’s pale face, watching closely as a bead of sweat pooled at the tip of her nose and dropped to her plate. She was otherwise still, detached. Even her wiry yellow curls seemed to slink.
Then Dave grunted or coughed or spat, whatever loud disgusting noise he was always making, ruining everything.
That night, I had one of my dreams. The doctors call them “dream-reality confusions.” Gary calls them nightmares. Gary is the one who often has to shake me awake and try to convince me it’s not real. He moves his head to my pillow, a circle of drool between us, and calmly strokes the hair behind my ears. In those moments, I want to believe him. But to me, these aren’t dreams or nightmares. They’re memories. As real as every other memory swirling around the turbulent seas of my brain, stirred up and summoned unexpectedly, drawn out by a familiar smell or just a funny feeling in the air.
Few know about this condition of mine. You see, ambiguity doesn’t sit well with most people — they need a yes or no, night or day, good or evil type of world. Dead or alive. Dream or reality. It makes them feel safe, the sureness of it. Of course, life isn’t always so simple, so obvious.
A month or so ago, passing a jar of blueberry moonshine back and forth between us, I told Sheila all about it. The diagnosis, the symptoms, my dreams and the troubled roads they’ve led me down, my murky and sometimes hostile relationship with the truth.
After I finished, Sheila squinted up at her house on the hill, then turned her eyes down to a pile of sand some ants were assembling at her feet.
“That must be real nice,” is all she said.
As I sit here waiting and watching, the sun is right where I like it, below the trees and above the roofline, raw beams hitting my eyes and reflecting off the page — Puzzle #32, Very Challenging. It’s a ranch, our house, modest and small, built in the ‘50s. The trees are much older, ancient oak canopies hovering over us like some folks might imagine God. Ever watchful but always silent, unmoving.
I had a dream once that these trees revolted, shaking the earth and uprooting our house from this rolling hill like a dead tooth, sewer lines and cables dangling like severed nerves and blood vessels. This one I could tell was a dream. I woke up to Willie Nelson on the stereo, our house comfortably nestled in the ground, Gary hidden behind the spread-open pages of the Johnson City Press, the trees outside still quiet, leaves waving reassuringly.
As I told Sheila, when I was a kid, everyone chalked it up to an overactive imagination. My mother mostly nodded, a cigarette dangling from her ruby lips at the kitchen table, her gaze fixated on the small black-and-white TV just over my head. “That’s lovely, dear,” she’d always say.
Daddy was more easily persuaded, at least until the time I found a body down at the river by our house. He called the sheriff and they brought dogs and officers with big flashlights and even a man on a horse. I led them all through a narrow wooded trail to the riverbed, Daddy beside me, proudly hacking aside wayward branches. But when we got there, it was just slippery rocks and rotting logs. No flesh, no strands of hair, no body. The dogs whined in disappointment. Daddy shook his head. But I still remember: a girl, not too much older than me at the time, bloody auburn ringlets strewn across slate rocks, her head bashed in like a deflated basketball, a smell so powerful and rancid it stayed with me for weeks.
I need another cigarette.
I wonder what Gary has in the oven. He’s not a great cook, but much better than me. He definitely tries. But that’s Gary, always trying. The day we met, he was standing outside of the student center at East Tennessee State collecting signatures for some ballot initiative, a nerdy hippie with long brown hair pulled into a neat ponytail, eyes magnified behind thick black frames.
The way he looked at me when I signed his petition, so earnest and hopeful, I couldn’t shake it. I came back an hour later and asked him out. He said yes, of course — I was quite pretty in those days, feathery blond and slender, a young and sarcastic nursing student, no outward signs of my strange condition.
By that point I had mostly learned to live with it, to keep my memories to myself and parse out what was real and what was not on my own. Turns out when you assume everything is a nightmare, reality is a lot easier to deal with.
I became an ER nurse, mostly because I knew I could. The most catastrophic, gory human carcass could roll through that hospital door and I wouldn’t blink. Twenty-five years of broken bones protruding from skin, severed limbs wrapped up in blood-soaked towels, open flesh wounds battered and red and wet like roadkill, panicking eyes looking up from the gurney absorbing the scene around them, their own grim reality setting in.
Whatever it is, I’ve seen and done worse.
Two years into our marriage, I cheated on Gary. It was a one-time thing, a smartly dressed pharmaceutical salesman I met during a smoke break at the end of a long shift. I changed into a purple sundress I kept in my work cubby and we met at a hotel bar down the street from the hospital. All it took was a couple vodka martinis, some bar nuts, and his hand slowly creeping up my inner thigh. I demanded his room key and told him to meet me there in five minutes. We had sex three times. I left before the sun came up.
The guilt was immeasurable. It took the flavor out of food, colored my every last thought and word. I couldn’t breathe without a memory seething in; purple dress at my waist, tan hands on bare skin, the smell of vodka and cologne and cum.
A week later, I confessed to Gary over breakfast. Staring into an empty coffee cup, I told him everything. He sat there quietly for a minute, maybe the longest minute of my life, then got up and went into his office. He came back smiling.
“I knew it!” He was holding his appointment book up like a preacher with a bible. “Honey, you didn’t do this. You couldn’t. You were with me that night. It’s all right here!”
He pointed to the date in his book. There, in Gary’s tidy handwriting: “Pick up K at hospital. Dinner at Light Horse. Play at 8.” Two ticket stubs for the 8 o’clock showing of Blithe Spirit at the community theater were paper-clipped to the page.
As I said, I want to believe him.
The strange thing about the dark empty house is also the empty backyard. Usually at this time of day, Dave is out back aimlessly sawing or chopping, fussing over some project he’ll never finish, eventually losing his temper over his own incompetence. He never waves. He once asked Gary why I’m always sitting back here on this lawn chair, smoking, sudokuing, watching.
Gary, bless his heart, put his hand on Dave’s shoulder and said, “Dave. A word of advice. Women are meant to be loved, not understood. Ok?”
But the problem with Gary isn’t that he doesn’t understand me. It’s that he never believes me.
Earlier this year, Dave walked himself into the hospital, his right arm wrapped up in a bloodied towel, his face hot pink with rage. He unwrapped the towel to reveal a deep stab wound right in the meaty hump of his bicep, about two inches wide and curved slightly at the edges, like a smirk.
“An accident,” Dave muttered at the tile floor. He takes a blood thinner for his gristly heart, so the blood seeped out surely and freely, any chance to escape. As I cleaned out the wound, I swear it was smiling at me. I smiled back.
The next morning, I walked up to their house and found Sheila under an umbrella on the back porch with a large stack of supermarket tabloids and a coke.
“You missed,” I said, nodding towards Dave’s bandaged arm. He was trying to start the mower with his left hand, his stomach flopping around like a water balloon with each pull of the starting cord.
Sheila took a long, slow sip of coke.
“How do you figure?” she said, tilting her head to the side, puppy-like. She was paging through a magazine indiscriminately, flipping two or three pages at a time.
When she reached the back cover, Sheila started laughing -- and do I mean laughing. More of an explosion, really. A howling joyful burst out of nowhere, free and loud and rapturous, the kind of laughter you can’t fake or control. The kind that spreads. Dave stopped what he was doing to glare over at us, see what all the fuss was about.
“Sorry,” she said finally, tempering herself, wiping the corners of her eyes. “I guess I’m just in a good mood today.” I recognized a familiar spark of mischief in her eyes. That’s when I learned Sheila is a fighter.
“Please don’t go meddling in other people’s business,” Gary said to me later that night, when I told him what happened, what I was sure was happening. “Nothing good can come of it.”
The night of the potluck, I waited until dusk, the air heavy with imminent rain, lightning bugs like tiny sparks of burning ash across our thirsty lawn. Gary had to leave for a fundraiser, some sort of fancy cocktail picnic for the mayor. “I just have to show my face,” he had said, but I could tell he was looking forward to it. “I’ll bring you back some shortcake.”
I waited until all the neighbors were chased inside by mosquitos and sick of sitting in their own sweat. I waited until Gary’s Honda cleared the driveway, his headlights heading west toward the nicer side of town, where he had wanted to buy a house and I refused. I waited until Dave and Sheila’s kitchen light flickered off and the bedroom curtains were drawn, just an eerie orange glow behind them.
What happened next is why I’m sitting here now, four cigarettes and three sudokus later, watching for movement in their windows, searching for clues.
By the way, they found the girl, the body down by the river. Years later, I read in the paper that a troop of boy scouts found her femur under a log while searching for salamanders. Her family thought she ran away.
But back to the potluck. That night, I remember pouring myself a glass of scotch from a bottle hidden in the linen closet. I took off my clothes, underwear and all, sweaty and sticky from watermelon juice and barbecue sauce. I stood in front of our bathroom mirror, examining my body in the unforgiving fluorescent light. My face was tired, lived-in: the corners of my mouth turned into a permanent frown, the skin under my chin sagged familiarly. I looked like my mother. I took a moment to study every wrinkle and unruly hair in clinical silence. Then I turned off the light, crawled into bed fully naked, and sipped on my scotch until the darkness came.
But I also remember stepping into Gary’s office later that night, into the small closet where he keeps the safe. He didn’t tell me he bought a gun, but the thing about marriage is you’re always finding out things the other person doesn’t want you to know.
I opened the safe and there it was, under our birth certificates and Gary’s dusty passport. Ominous black metal, smooth and textured and intricate. A Beretta handgun, not unlike the one Daddy kept on his hip as a police officer.
It was heavy in my hand, much heavier than I thought it’d be, but in a good way, like how you can judge a good piece of furniture; solid wood, quality craftsmanship.
I remember holding the gun stiffly at my side and slowly walking through our house. I hadn’t bothered to put my clothes back on. The lights were off. I was not afraid. Tough as a pine knot, that’s what Daddy used to call me.
In the kitchen, I placed the gun in an empty casserole dish. Weird, I remember thinking. Perfect fit. I poured some uncooked rice on top, shaking it around gently until it was in an even layer, just like Gary does with his jambalaya. You could just see the outline of the gun, black metal hiding under opaque rice. I covered the dish with a piece of tin foil.
I remember leaving the house, careful not to let the screen door slam behind me. Carrying the casserole dish with both hands, I walked up our sloped backyard, up and over the retaining wall that separates Dave and Sheila’s property from ours. I tiptoed over a rock bed and into their unkempt lawn, disturbing a row of dried out dandelion petals.
Peering through Dave and Sheila’s back window, I saw flowers on the table, water in the vase going green and rotten, fallen petals all around. A clown figurine on the mantle, smiling inappropriately. No sign of Sheila.
I figured Dave was passed out; too much sun and beer and rage for one day. Somewhere in the house, I imagined Sheila reveling in the silence, letting the tension out of her body, tending to her wounds.
I remember moving to another window, trying to get a better look inside. Suddenly, a light switched on and there she was, standing in the hallway in a pink bathrobe, white like a ghost. We locked eyes and I held the casserole dish up to the window for her to see, pulling the tinfoil back just enough to reveal the outline of the gun. She looked at the dish, then down at me, still naked and tense, lit up only by her light.
“Take it. Please.” I mouthed, but Sheila had already turned back into the dark hallway, her bathrobe trailing behind her.
I remember tiptoeing around the side of the house, around Sheila’s thorny hedges. I placed the casserole dish on the welcome mat and re-tucked the foil. I paused, considered ringing the doorbell, but didn’t.
I remember turning around just as the rain broke loose, hobbling back down the slope of the yard to our house, whispering curses at the pinecones under my bare feet. I crept back in through the screen door, back into bed, Gary beside me, scotch in hand.
The next morning I woke up in an itchy sweat, naked and certain that Dave was dead. Gary reassured me, stroking my hair, the usual routine. Just another nightmare, he said.
But ten days have passed and their house is still dark. Not a sign of life. And my casserole dish is nowhere to be found.