Not a Dream Story
By Denise Robbins
It started two decades ago. I dreamt a dream almost identical to what had happened earlier that day. I was twelve.
In the dream, as in reality, I was delivering a very important letter. It was a letter to my father. I’ve been writing letters to him every week for the previous two years, ever since he moved away to what my mother called “the special healing place,” and what I’ve since learned is called “rehab.” For most of those two years, I received a weekly letter in return.
On this day, the day of the first Big Dream, he had been dead for five days. But I would not let that alter the letter-writing routine. I had much to tell him.
So I walked all the way through town, on the path I always took to the mailbox in which I always delivered my letters to my father. In the dream-version of this event, I hovered slightly as I ventured forth. In the real-life version, my feet surely made contact with the ground but it felt at times as if they did not, so subsumed was I in this quest.
My destination was the mailbox that was, to me, the most magnificent mailbox in town. It was the biggest one I had ever seen, with a sturdy brass handle and a heavy metal door that creaked open with the authority of a moat drawing down before a king’s castle. I could barely reach the handle--I had to stretch to my toes--but once I drew down the opening, I could place the letter inside and give a simple push to the handle, and watch it creak slowly close with a boom. I felt simply regal.
And the stationery! It was the perfect stationery for this perfect mailbox. It was beautiful; it made me imagine my late grandmother, bundled in scarves, using a letter set just like this while writing a letter to a husband off at war in Germany. (I had never met my grandfather but I knew he died before I was born. My mother still has never told me how it happened. But one time I dreamt that he died heroically fighting Nazis, throwing himself onto a bomb to save a young scared mother with five mewling babies, and the image stuck.)
It was made of thick tan cardstock with a simple black line cut in around the border. Simple, demure, perfect. And when I sat down to write this latest letter to my father, the most important letter I would ever write, the words flowed. Do you know how good that feels, when words flow from your hands like a river? If you’re a reader, it’s likely you’ve tried your hand at writing, so I would hazard a guess of yes. That feeling when you’ve written something wonderful with hardly a thought, why it’s practically an explosion of joy.
But before I dropped the letter in the mailbox that day--that dream--I realized something awful. The letter was incomplete!
I had forgotten to mention breakfast!
I can see you rolling your eyes. You think this is a silly diversion unworthy of your time. (Although perhaps a part of you realizes that without such a diversion, there would be no story, and you’re already here, so.) But listen. This was no ordinary breakfast. It was culinary perfection: Two toaster strudels with bacon in between. My father would have loved it.
And once I had started second-guessing myself, I also realized I had folded the letter all wrong. I had folded it in half twice, when I should have folded it in perfect thirds, like I had recently learned; it would fit in the envelope much more nicely, without rumples or bumps.
So I rushed back home to rewrite and refold the letter. But when I got there, there was food on the dining room table, so my mother made me wait until after dinner to write.
And here’s where the dream and reality diverged.
In real life, my mother made me go to bed after I finished the letter. I folded the letter in three and stuck it underneath my pillow.
In my dream, I decided to bring it to the mailbox right upon the moment of completion, even though it was past my bedtime. I simply told my mother where I was going and she said ‘Of course, dear,’ and then off I was.
I walked at a supernatural pace. The ground flew away from under my feet as I approached the mailbox, which loomed greater and more menacing than before.
But this time, as I reached up to place the letter inside, I could not reach the opening. It had grown to an impossible extent. I stretched and pulled, but it was no good. I tossed the letter upward instead, hoping it would fall down into its rightful place--but a sudden gust of wind snatched it from the air and whirled it away faster than I could hope to run. In a moment, the letter had disappeared into the mist.
I woke up the next morning feeling a horrible thought. I reached under my pillow to feel the letter, to remind myself it was still there.
The letter was gone.
On the other side of town that night, a boy named Carlos had a strange dream.
(He told me all this later, so I know how his story ends. But I consider it important you hear it from the beginning, as it was told from his perspective.)
In his dream, he was walking alongside a river of gold. It was as if a factory full of golden paint had spilled and penetrated a canyon through the land. Or perhaps it was just the glare of the sun. It was hard to tell the difference.
Even though he had never seen that river before, he felt at that moment that he knew every inch of it like he knew the back of his own kneecap.
As he walked, he realized he was not alone. He heard his group of friends from school straggling along behind him. No--wait, now they were in front of him and he was jogging to keep up. The movements of others are difficult to track in dreams; they can be nowhere and then everywhere at once. He tried to call out to them, but his words got caught in his throat.
The distance between them grew larger even as he ran faster, even as his friends ambled along at an easy pace; the faster he ran, the further he had left to reach them.
Then, something caught his eye in the river.
A piece of paper had washed up on the side of the riverbank, floating in a puddle of golden water, the radiance of which had mellowed to a shimmer. It was an unassuming thing, at first glance no more than a piece of litter. But Carlos was drawn to its oddness, its plain ordinariness within a river of such brilliance.
It was folded in three sharp creases, but beginning to unfurl, so that it looked as if it were reaching up, beckoning to Carlos.
He picked it up, still glistening with gold water from the river.
It was a letter. A letter to somebody’s father. But whose, he had no clue.
His friends suddenly gathered around. They began peppering questions at him.
“Yeah what’s that in your hand, man?”
“Give it here.”
Carlos held out the letter. The kid closest to him grabbed it, crumpled it into a ball, and threw it at Carlos’ head.
This resulted in hateful laughs among the others. One of them picked it up and threw it at him again, but Carlos couldn’t see his face; it was difficult to keep track of who was who and where; their number grew and faded in size. They began to pull up fistfuls of grass and dirt to throw at Carlos as well, socking them into his stomach, his knees, his eyes. He rubbed the dirt from his eyes as the others continued to throw whatever they could find at him, and when he opened them, the group had closed in on him, menacing, growing in number so he could not see anything else, and the attacks kept coming, this one a tennis ball popping into his shoulder, this one a rock into his forehead, cutting the skin. Blood dripped into his eyes.
Then the letter came hurtling back at Carlos and fell to the ground at his feet. He grabbed it and curled it into his hand.
He felt anger rip through his body. Realization came over him that these friends of his were nothing more than cowards, always picking on Carlos because he was the easy target. He was the outsider; he frightened them, so they turned on him, and he let them because he wanted to fit in. Pathetic fools.
He saw their faces turn cold; he realized he was saying these things out loud, shouting, yelling, heat rushing to his face. They cowered down and were covered in shadow. They became smaller and smaller. No, he was getting bigger and bigger; he had grown three times his normal height, and the shadows were coming from his body in all directions, as if there were suns in every corner of the horizon, beaming their light on Carlos and casting the others in darkness.
He stopped shouting and he stopped growing. He gripped the letter tightly in his fist. He was done yelling.
He was the leader now.
I can’t tell you how I knew this, but I knew one thing with certitude: Because I lost my letter in a dream, I would have to hunt through the world of dreams in order to get it back.
I didn’t know Carlos very well at that point in my life, and I certainly knew nothing about his dream that night. If I had, my quest would have been much easier. (But, again, where’s the fun in that?)
So the following night, I set to investigate.
After mother put me to bed, I set my alarm clock for 2 o’clock in the morning, when the rest of the house would be fast asleep, and turned the volume down low. My nerves kept me jittery and awake for so long I didn’t think I could fall asleep before then, but nonetheless, I was suddenly jolted awake by its soft buzz.
It was time to search the town. I had folded up a dark green trench coat and silver gauze scarf--my mother’s--in the back of my closet. I wrapped the scarf five times around my face and buttoned up the coat from my feet to my neck.
This outfit, while fabulously mysterious, wasn’t quite enough. I needed to fly. So, with a pre-teen resourcefulness and imagination that I long for now, I came up with a simple solution: two small pieces of cardboard cut into the shapes of wings, which I scotch-taped to the sides of my tennis shoes.
The neighborhood was asleep but the dreams were alive as I walked through silent streets. They hung above the houses as early-morning mist hangs above a lake.
With a running start, I leapt up to fly into them and explore.
I would go through the dreams above each house, one by one. First was my next-door neighbor Mr. Jones.
I watched from the sidelines before stepping in. I had to be careful about my first move. You can’t just sneak up behind someone in a dream. The dreamer can feel the presence of intruders. I’m sure you’ve had a dream that turned sour once you sensed that something was wrong, sensed something strange enough to make you realize that it wasn’t supposed to be there, or anywhere, that you were, in fact, dreaming and had now either to try and kill the thing or to escape by waking up.
It’s hard to know what exactly would have happened if Mr. Jones has considered me an intruder, but I knew that if he did, he could turn on me quickly. I needed him to instead welcome me as a pleasant, appropriate part of the dream that he expected all along.
It was a simple dream, with an almost overbearing sense of calm. Mr. Jones was pushing his lawnmower through a forest. He was mowing down trees like blades of grass. He razed through elm after birch after maple, carving a winding path. The trees fell away under his mower and immediately broke down into bundles of detritus. Mr. Jones barely had to push the mower; the trees were helpless before its power. He was clearly enjoying himself as he massacred tree after tree. As soon as he stepped over each murdered tree, the remnants evaporated.
I stepped in very quietly, hovering so my feet would barely touch the ground. Even though, in waking life, the roar of his lawnmower would more than drown out the sound of my footsteps, you can never be too careful in a dream.
Mr. Jones was mowing in a direction seemingly at random. He curved left and right, back and forth and back again. But as I observed, I found the pattern, the repetitive loop that often inserts itself into dreams when someone is mulling over a thought, like a scratch on a record.
I ran ahead and sat in a clearing where I knew Mr. Jones would find me, and soon after, he did, to see me sitting there bow-legged, calm as a rock.
He turned off the mower. “Oh, it’s you,” he said. Good. No sense of surprise or fluster.
“Have you seen my letter?”
He looked about his head. Letters, envelopes, papers, half-formed thoughts, appeared and disappeared around him.
“No, it’s not any of those,” I said. “It’s tan stock with black borders, just bigger than a postcard.”
He looked around at the letters hanging in the air again, watching his thoughts swirl around him, then shook his head no. He shrugged, then turned away from me and kept mowing. He was done with my role in the dream.
“Thanks anywa-” I tried to say but suddenly I was hurtled backwards, and found herself back on the street, hovering in the dreamscape above the houses.
On to the next dream, one house down, where a girl even younger than I was staring wistfully at the moon through her bedroom window.
As the girl gazed, the window grew larger and larger, stretching inward, taking over the whole of the room. The bedroom lost its walls, everything in it encapsulated in the glass ball of the window. And then it was flying, the glass room with the girl and everything in it, quickly through the open sky, and the stars open wide as the glass bedroom is hurtling towards the moon.
I flew alongside it, then dashed ahead and hid myself in the folds of the moon.
The little girl reached forward as she approached me, the moon, and finally she arrived, and I was waiting for her in the moon’s visage, so when I spoke, it was the moon’s voice the girl heard instead.
“Dear girl, have you seen my letter?” I moaned drearily. “It’s tan, with black borders, addressed to my father.”
“Who’s your dad?”
“You wouldn’t know him. But he lives in the stars now.”
“Is he the sun?”
I was getting impatient, but I could not break from the celestial mood of the dream, or she would recoil and cast me away as Mr. Jones did. “Yes, the sun is my father, and the Earth is my mother. My ancestors live among galaxies beyond.”
The girl nodded, mesmerized.
“Now, have you seen the letter?”
The little girl shook her head.
I could feel her desires; she wanted to leave me, leave the moon behind, to explore further into the endless expanse. Yet at the same time, the room was threatening to fall back to earth. The bedroom shook and trembled.
There was nothing I could do. The girl’s desire to venture forth could not overcome the weight of reality bearing down on her subconscious: the reality that a room belonged on planet earth.
In fact, I’ve since realized that it was the girl’s own strong desire to keep exploring that backfired. Once you name a desire in a dream, you also name its countervailing force. The young and unexperienced dreamer does not know how to strengthen one desire without strengthening the other and falling prey to the latter, more sinister force.
Gravity flowing from Earth’s core suddenly tightened its grasp on the girl and her bedroom, and together they exploded backwards through the sky, back to where it began on Ocean Lane, where the girl sat at her window and gazed at the sleepy house across the street. I was pulled along with her, watching as the night sky evaporates behind her.
And then nothingness took over and I was thrown back into the middle of empty dreamscape on my street, of dreams between dreams.
So it went the rest of the night.
Here was a dream with an entryway with front door that leads to an identical entryway with an identical door that leads into another and another and goes on so its dreamer is trapped in his home forever. But no sign of the letter.
Here were the dreams floating on the backs of pleasant-looking white horses, which from afar were beautiful and calm, neighing and purring like a cat--but upon closer look, one could see the horses exhaling breaths of silent horror, curling outwards, ensnaring what they could. From these nightmares I flew far, far away as quickly as I could.
Each dream hung above their respective houses like a color-shifting cloud; with a look, you could see blurry hints of forms and figures that gave form to the stories within; separate for the most part, but here and there a dream with particular strength would reach into the space surrounding and intermingle with its neighbors.
Here was a strange and drifting dream, with a letter that ripped into pieces and stitched itself back together. The letter was tan lined with black, crumpled and stiff, and covered in a scrawling, delicate handwriting. Familiar handwriting. The words bled together and blur, but I knew what they had once said. I had written them myself.
I reached out to grab the letter, inches away, nearly there, I could almost feel it--but then, out of nowhere, a hand grabbed it, crushed it into a ball, and evaporated with the letter inside.
And there was my mother, shaking me gently, telling me it was time to wake up and get dressed for school.
The next night, Carlos dreamt of dinner.
He was sitting at the dinner table with his mother and his uncle. His stomach was a cave; he hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
In the center of the table was a great white fish, gutted and scaled and baked to a crisp, surrounded by lemon slices. Its marble eyes stared at Carlos seductively. It was his favorite meal. His mouth watered. He clutched his empty stomach.
His mother leaned forward to carve the fish, pulling back the fins until they snapped. She sliced off a filet in one easy motion, flipped it over and sliced another.
She served her brother and herself, the filets so large they barely fit on the plates, and drizzled a thick garlicky sauce on top, first on his, then on hers. She didn’t give Carlos a passing glance. His plate remained empty.
The mother and uncle ate silently together, with pleasant “mmm’s.”
“Mom, can I have a piece?”
She made no move to respond or react.
“Uncle?” His uncle kept eating silently. It was as if Carlos was a ghost.
“How was your day?” his mother asked his uncle between mouthfuls of fish.
“It was going fine,” he said, “except that damn kid of yours left his crap all over the driveway.” The uncle speared a bite of fish with vicious relish. “That stupid model airplane nearly blew a hole in my tire when I was backing out.”
“You drove over my plane?” Carlos cried.
“You should really do more to discipline that child,” he continued.
“But I’m here!” he called out again. At least, he thought he did. But he couldn’t hear his own words.
He tried to lean over and cut himself a piece of fish, but he couldn’t reach. He moved to a different side of the table, closer to the fish, but the table seemed to grow so high he couldn’t even grab its edge. He moved to his mother and tried to pull on her shirt, but his hand lost all its strength. All the while, he called out “I’m here! I’m here!” But his words were stuck in his throat; all that came out was silence.
Giving up, Carlos moved to sit on the ground. He wanted to feel sorry for himself there, to be as alone as he felt. He shoved his fists into his pocket, to feel anything other than the pounding pang of hunger.
Then he felt something. The letter, in the bottom of his pocket, crumpled into a ball.
He pulled it out, unraveled it, and folded it carefully three times over.
He remembered he was in a dream, and in that moment, he had the power.
He had a thought of being back in his chair. In the next moment, he was there. Then he imagined standing on top of the table. So there he was. He imagined standing on top of the serving platter, trodding on the few scraps of fish that remained.
“Look at me!” he yelled. And his mother and uncle turned to stare. They looked him in the eyes for the first time he could remember. A piece of fish dropped from his mother’s fork.
He stomped on the fish, cracking the serving platter underneath his foot. He stepped on his mother’s plate and then his uncle’s. He felt full. He felt good. It felt good to yell.
He opened his mouth to yell again. Again he felt his voice struggle to get past the blockage in his throat but he pushed past it. Now he was not saying anything, but yelling wildly, anything, while his mother stared with a face of fear and reverence.
Then she evaporated.
There is no other word for it. The edges of her face began to dissipate, creeping in and down until her head had disappeared, so that a stolid, headless mother was facing impassively in Carlos’ direction, until her shoulders and chest and stomach disappeared, and everything else too. Then the room around him began to disappear at the edges, so that the world contracted but he did not feel restricted, he felt the restrictions falling away, a new freedom pouring in as the walls of his home disappeared into white nothingness.
He woke up to the sound of his own shouts. He heard footsteps running down the hall, and his mother opens the door and pokes her head in, angry brown eyes look black in the dim backlit hallway light.
“What’s wrong with you?” she hissed.
Carlos shook his head and mumbled, “nothing.”
“Good. I have guests. Go back to sleep.”
Sigh. This must be getting pretty frustrating for you, huh? All this switching back and forth? All I can say is: Don’t worry. You’re more than halfway there. And when a short story contains two different narratives, you know they have to intersect at some point. So please--don’t skip to the end!--just hang on.
I continued my investigations through dreamscape over the next several weeks (though I still stayed far away from nightmares). After that first night, after the dream with the letter so close, there was no more sign of it. I only ran into dead ends.
Not to mention, all this nighttime work started to take its toll. I would find myself waking up in the morning feeling like I had not slept a single wink. Every morning became a battle with mother, every day a battle with my teachers. I would pull the covers way up and curl at the foot of the bed and pretend I wasn’t there, until my mother would gently sit on my head. Only after several minutes of pulling would I finally get up. I tried to escape the bus stop a couple times, to sneak back to the house and crawl into bed. This worked exactly once, and I was able to get a beautiful hour of sleep before my mother found me and drove me to school--after that, she would walk me to the bus stop and and practically throw me up the bus steps until it pulled away with me on it.
One morning, my mother woke me up with a present. She had brought in a large trunk full of her old clothes and said I could have at it. Well, this perked me right up! There were dresses that fluttered and flowed, stockings of all colors of the rainbow, patterned reading glasses, jackets and sweaters that had seen the world. And the hats! Pillbox hats, sun hats, bowler hats, snow caps, hats with big floppy ears.
The clothes were humongous, of course, and the reading glasses gave me a headache, and the hats fell below my ears. But they made me feel brave, like my mother. She was the bravest person I knew.
And at night, in these clothes--which I wore to bed--I found new spirit. When I travelled through dreamscape the clothes and green pillbox hat fit perfectly and the huge thick reading glasses let me see for miles away.
They gave me the courage to travel even into nightmares.
These were the dreams of beasts and madness, the ones that twisted my lungs into knots--but still I ventured forth.
Here was a girl holding a tickle-me-Elmo, standing in front of a deep, threatening black wind. I watched from behind as trees and dust were pulled into a void. The dream was small, closely contained, and I could see right away that my letter was not here, but I was intrigued, my gaze itself pulled in to this ripping void.
The girl gripped her doll to her chest as the wind tried to rip it from her arms. She held strong, holding tightly… until Tickle-Me-Elmo began to mutate. The red fabric curled and turned brown, its plastic golf-ball eyes turned green and came alive, turning their gaze on the little girl in a sinister smile. The little girl watched with terror as her prized possession turned on her, but she could not shake it free. The toy opened its mouth to bare huge, glistening piercers that grew until big enough to envelop the child’s head in one bite, girl staring into its gaping maw like the abyss, and as the mouth closed down the dream evaporated so quickly I lost my balance and fell as I was thrust back into the liminal pasture between dreams.
Here was an odd forest of black grasses that stretched as high as trees. They were tightly bunched together, and though I was able to push my way through, it was highly claustrophobic; when I wasn’t holding them down, the grasses pushed up against my face and into my mouth.
A boy I didn’t recognize approached me, looking terrified. “Where are we?” he asked.
“You don’t know?” He shook his head. Of course not. I could sense the feeling of disorientation all around me. He was lost in a place that made no sense.
“Follow me,” I said, confident he would follow. This was a dream of feeling lost, and he would latch on to anything that provided a semblance of recognition--which he found in me, a person not too different in size and age from him. I led us in the direction that felt like uphill, to get a view and our bearings. We came to a clearing, a band of empty space; underneath our feet, there was a large pathway of brown leather, placed like a boardwalk cutting through a swamp.
I had a suspicion as to where we were. We crossed over the leather path and kept walking through. The way forward steepened. We pulled on the thick black grasses to keep us upright. Behind me, the boy whimpered. We reached a plateau, then down on a decline, until we reached what I had hoped to find: a giant yellow orb, cut through vertically with a black pupil. The eye of a midnight cat.
From here, the grasses--the cat’s fur--had shrunk in height around its eyes, so we could see our surroundings. A cavernous building we were in, walls of which I could barely see the tops, adorned with massive picture frames and giantous shelves. A living room, larger than life.
“Is this your house?” I asked. The boy nodded. “Is this your cat?” Another nod.
“Then you’re not lost,” I said. “See? You’re home.” He was visibly overcome with a look of relief, and leaned down to stroke the cat’s head.
Now was the time. “Boy, have you seen my letter?”
Before he could answer, though, the cat twitched, and we were upheaved. The ground rocked beneath our feet, side to side in sweeping waves. “Hang on!” I yelled to the trembling boy. “Grab on to me!” I scooped him up, jumped back to where the fur was long, and grabbed as many stalks as I could behind him into a tight pull as the ground rolled and hurled. The cat was wriggling, preparing, and then it took a great leap. We flew through the air, the walls rushing past, passing through dust particles and insects and hanging on for dear life. This was too much for the boy, it seemed, for the walls started to disappear as the cat sped up and soon we were hurtling only toward empty white space and I only had a chance to yell “wait!” before it was over.
No letter, then. But I had found a new courage I knew would take me further on my investigations.
The waking hours remained difficult, however.
So I began skipping lunch to find a dark corner to curl up and sleep instead.
One day during lunch, almost as soon as my eyes closed, I found myself in a crystal clear dream.
In it, I woke up in a field next to a river of gold. Stalks of lavender twirled in the wind to the tune of a slow waltz. From the sky a tune of trumpets and triangles drifted.
Deep and slow, the lavender stretched over me in one direction, then the other, giving me a few moments in between to examine the sky, each time blinding and freeing.
Open sky. Dusk-strewn light. Hazy rememberings of … something I couldn’t quite remember. But I felt as though I was in the right place. I felt presently myself.
I got up and walked out of my dream, further upriver, to examine the dreams of others. The whole river was filled with dreams today, skittish dreams of nocturnal things. There was no reason why my letter could not have been taken by an owl or a possum, so on I went.
Then I saw it, floating in the middle of the river: my letter. I could read its words perfectly from here. I could spot my own spelling mistakes.
Before I could jump into the river to grab it, the letter zipped up to the sky and through the air, to a house just over there. It was unmistakable, with its lime green roof and yellow siding. I could see garish purple paint through the windows, a family of two dining together, the letter on the table.
(Yes, folks, here it is. The moment you’ve been waiting for. Thank you for your patience.)
Carlos stayed home sick from school that day. There was a math test he was unprepared to take. It did not require much convincing; his mother barely seemed to hear him when he asked to stay home; merely gave him a nod and rushed him back to his room to sleep.
Sleep he did, almost immediately, for which he was grateful.
He dreamt he was eating lunch with just his mother. He sat at the head of the table, in a throne that towered over everything else. His plate was filled with chicken tenders on one side and chocolate ice cream on the other. She had also painted the walls purple at his request, because purple makes him hungry, and he likes that. His uncle was nowhere in sight.
“How was your day?” his mother asked.
He was not sure how to answer. He had forgotten all about his day. He thought only of that table, that meal, and the letter in his pocket. “Good chicken tenders,” he praised. His mother beamed. “Where is Uncle?”
“He is off on a work trip for a few weeks. It’ll be nice to not have him around, anyway. He was starting to get on my nerves.”
Carlos nodded, pleased. The windchimes tinkled through the open window in tune with his mood, and his mother hummed along. The chimes were joined by the sound of trumpets bleating softly underneath. He patted the letter in his pocket. This day was most perfect.
The doorbell rang. As the newly self-appointed head of the household, it was now his job to answer, a task he would undertake with valor and bravery.
At the door was a woman in a green pillbox hat and a long green coat buttoned to her knees. Her eyes, framed by thick round glasses, were stern. She looked vaguely familiar, like a teacher or something from school. But her voice was distinctly unusual, a commanding thrum.
“Where is my letter?” she demanded.
Carlos’ heart dropped.
“I’m looking for a letter. Where is it?” She glanced beyond Carlos down the hallway, into the living room, to the fireplace mantle, to the bookshelves, to the kitchen table.
He looked to the floor and mumbled, “I don’t know.” He could feel the lie pour from his mouth before he could stop it. “How’s it look?”
“Tan lined with black. A letter from a girl to her father.” She was stepping from foot to foot, getting increasingly impatient.
“Never seen it,” he said, as the dark cloud grew bigger in front of him. “You’re looking in the wrong place.”
“It’s somewhere in this house. It belongs to me.”
He thought quickly. “Go on and look, then. Try the bookshelf. It’s where my mother keeps her letters.”
With that, the woman shoved past him and stormed past the kitchen table, then to the bookshelf, throwing books behind her after examining each one. Carlos watched, getting increasingly worried about what would happen when she realized it was not there. He brushed his hand over his pocket to make sure it was still in place. Good.
He backed away slowly, quietly, into the hallway. The woman, engrossed in her task, didn’t seem to notice. Finally he was out of view from the living room, at the back door, and started to run.
Carlos didn’t know that the bookshelf and living room would fade away as soon as he left. But I saw it. I saw that the book I was holding was suddenly lighter and more transparent. I could see the outline of my hands behind it. I felt the room close in on itself and turn to grey. I felt my body lift and begin to come apart, threatening to throw me back out to the dreamscape.
He’s leaving the house, I thought to myself. He’s running!
“Hey!” Carlos had barely placed one foot outside when he heard the woman yell. He began to run, leaping strides, so that he almost flew with each. He ran through a field with the golden river on his left and a forest a hundred feet before him.
“Hey!” the woman yelled again. “This is your dream, but it’s my land. You can’t get rid of me.”
Carlos felt his legs start to slow, so he pulled himself along by reaching with his hands and pulling on grasses. The forest was quickly approaching.
And then he was in the forest, under the cover of branches. He kept running, dodging through trees, until a shadow stepped out in front of him. He tumbled into the woman, head into her belly.
She wheezed and doubled over, catching her breath, wind knocked out. “You know where the letter is,” she gasped. “This is your dream.”
Carlos reached to his pocket reflexively. The woman noticed, and lunged forward. He tripped her and kept running. This fear was like nothing else. It hurt. It grabbed him by the neck. But it pushed him forward.
“This is my dream,” he remembered. He willed the woman to disappear. But her footsteps sounded again, just behind him. “This is my dream.” He willed himself to fly. He began to flap his arms, and with a running leap, he was up above the trees.
He couldn’t believe it. He was flying up, passing the birds, above the trees. He found a comfortable looking cloud and landed to rest.
In the cloud there was a little girl. Carlos recognized her from school, but couldn’t remember her name. She was wrapped in a huge green coat and wearing glasses far too big for her, slipping down her nose.
She was crying. Her crying was so soulful and sad, like the sound of the stars all mourning the loss of the sun, it made him start to cry too.
“Why are you crying?” she asked between sniffles.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Why are you crying?”
She let out a sob. “I just wanted to let my dad to know that everything’s ok,” she cried. “But I’ve lost it.”
“Lost what?” he asked. But she couldn’t respond for crying too hard, snot dripping into her mouth.
But of course Carlos knew. He reached into his pocket and placed the letter at her feet. She didn’t notice with her fists in her eyes.
“Hey,” he said, giving her a poke. “This it?”
I don’t actually remember receiving the letter. I lost Carlos when he began to fly. For all I knew, that dream had ended in failure.
But that night, when I woke at 2:00 am and prepared to leave my bedroom for my nighttime adventures, I heard a small voice from the bed.
It was me.
Well, it was the small, uninspiring version of me, the one that didn’t fit into my mother’s old clothes and didn’t know how to navigate a world on her own.
This had never happened before.
“I have your letter,” she said. “Here.”
I was confused. This couldn’t be. But she pulled it out from underneath the pillow, and so it was: the tan and black letter I had perfectly described and fantasized over for the past several weeks.
But why did she--I--seem so sad? “Take it,” she continued. “And leave. Please.”
What was there to say but “Okay.”
I took the letter from her and began walking away. Was this really it?
“What will you do now?” I asked.
“I’ll be fine,” she said. “I will sleep.”
So I walked outside--the dream version of me--opened the front door, letter in hand. Then promptly evaporated, leaving the letter to float away in the wind, alone.
I woke up in bed the next morning to tears on the pillow. Then I sat up and began to write a new letter.
This one was to my husband, Carlos.
About the Author
Denise Robbins is a writer and environmentalist based in Washington, DC. Her work has been published in local publications including Red Tent Magazine, McSweeneys, the Book Smuggler's Den, and The Fable Online. She also co-authored a non-fiction book called Rising Tides: Climate Refugees in the Twenty-First Century, which was published by Indiana University Press in 2017. @deerobbs on Twitter