Copyright (c) 2017 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.
By R. Peterson
The smoke and the flames were visible blocks away. The Cloverdale police had the street barricaded and only allowed emergency vehicles through. I parked my truck and ran past a line of ambulances and quick response units, ignoring the officer shouting at me to stop. Two dogs ran past, barking with excitement. Fire trucks continued to spray water on the still smoldering building. Mrs. Childs stood across the street with a group of bewildered and frightened residents. Two of her assistants were covering the trembling old people with blankets even though the night air was at least eighty-degrees. “Where’s my mother?’ I yelled and then silently counted to ten as Mrs. Childs held up her index finger. She was talking to someone on a cell-phone and as I listened I could hear her assuring a family member. “Mary is going to be fine,” she was saying. “She can’t talk right now because they have her wearing oxygen. No! It wasn’t smoke … just the excitement of having to leave the building!” I glared until she finally clicked off the call.
“Your mother is in the QRV being checked-out for smoke inhalation,” She said pointing to a white van with a crowd of people milling around it. The family contact names must have been programed into her phone; she was already talking again as I ran toward the truck. They wouldn’t let me in to see and I waited at least three minutes before a fireman lifted her from the back door.
“It was those incense candles we were using to hide the kittens,” Mom said as she pushed away the hand of an EMT trying to force an oxygen mask toward her face. “Big-nose cat-hater Florence Hicks put two burning candles under her box springs to conceal the imagined litter-box smell coming from down the hall and her bedspread caught the curtains on fire! Even if that grumpy woman didn’t have Alzheimer’s … she’d still be dangerous!”
Mom looked fine and relief swept over me. “Are you okay?”
“I’ll live,” she said holding up a photo album in clenched fingers. “I had to scratch a fireman’s face before he’d let me take my memories. What’s wrong with people these days?”
It was then that I noticed the county morgue van; two white clad workers were loading a cloth covered gurney into the back. “My God! Someone died?”
Mom looked at me with the same compassion she had when my pet collie Skipper had been ran over by a truck when I was ten. “Jennifer succumbed to smoke inhalation,” Mom said. Tears of sympathy welled in her eyes. ‘I thought you knew. The firemen went through the building calling out to anyone who was left inside; there was so much smoke, it was hard for them to see. No one thought about a woman unable to speak!”
It wasn’t until the funeral that I realized Jennifer’s married name was Jennifer Kruger Roker. I sat in the row behind the family holding the program in my shaking hands too stunned to speak. The picture on the front had probably been taken when Jennifer was about thirty. She looked stunning. It could have been my imagination, but I thought I noticed a hint of sadness in her eyes. I’ve seen that look many times as if not just the passing of years but a lack of love somehow dims the light that a person has inside them. If she was married to a bully like Rex Roker how good could her life have been? It wasn’t just the sadness over finding her again after all these years and then losing her so suddenly. I felt like I’d caused her death. I still remembered Rex’s car bursting into flames in my dream and I felt responsible. I remember reading that some of the world’s most brilliant quantum physicists think that everything we perceive about the universe — height, width, depth, and time, including time — may be actually a hologram, a flat surface with information in the boundaries. What I took that to mean was this: Anything that you can create, even in the corners of your mind has the possibility of becoming real. Right now, that theory made sense. It seemed too big of a coincidence; Jennifer burning in my dream in a fire and then succumbing to smoke inhalation in real life.
A woman, who introduced herself as Jennifer’s younger sister Beth, talked to me for a minute and invited me to a luncheon afterwards put on by a local church. “Jen wrote about meeting you again and visiting with you these past weeks,” she said. “I think you made her happy … something she didn’t get enough of in her life while she was married to Rex Roker. Did you know he cheated on her? My God! Someone like him should have been grateful that he found anyone decent. ”
I didn’t remember Beth from school and was too stunned by everything that had happened to attend the lunch. I wasn’t surprised at Jennifer’s sister’s reaction to Rex. He was trouble from the time he learned to walk. Try as I might I just couldn’t see Jennifer ending up with someone like Rex. She was caviar and he was burnt macaroni and cheese without milk.
After the funeral, I didn’t feel like driving so I left my car in the lot and decided to go for a walk. Guilt is a heavy burden to bear. The wind came up and blew dead leaves, rustling across the sidewalk as I trudged through the town without a destination. Anything that you can create, even in the corners of your mind has the possibility of becoming real. My God! What had I done?
I didn’t have any more dreams, how could I when I wasn’t sleeping? I lay in the double bed in my apartment, hogging all thee pillows and with two bestselling novels that I read cover to cover, even though I couldn’t have told you five minutes later what they were about. I was hypersensitive and was conscious of everything: the dripping water-sound of the alarm clock ticking on my nightstand, a freezing wind bending over the arborvitaes planted just outside my window with hushed shouting and the ominous sound of isolated silence … that loudest and most annoying distraction of all.
After the fourth night without sleep I decided to wear myself out. I actually ran around the block. At sixty-five years of age I figured that if physical exertion didn’t knock me out at least I’d have a heart attack. Anything was better than suffering through insomnia. I had only a quilted ski-parka on and had forgotten gloves when I found myself walking through the city park later that afternoon. A long shelter open to the public by reservation was enclosed and bricked at one end. The stone from a wood-burning fireplace was still radiating heat from an earlier fire with a large pit of coals. My numb hands were more than grateful. Best of all, someone had left a folding chair, a recliner, near the warmth and I sat down just for a minute. Night was still a couple of hours away. I wouldn’t say I felt happy or any relief from the guilt that seemed to hang like an unwanted albatross around my neck … Did I destroy Jennifer by bringing her into my dreams? How selfish of me. I could no longer hold back the tears. At least with my hands in my pockets … I was warm. I wasn’t aware of when the darkness came … only that it did.
It’s strange to be inside a dream when you know where you are. That same long hallway with doors on both sides loomed once again before me. I could see the light seeping from beneath the door that I’d went through twice before and I almost opened it. Why I didn’t I’ll never know. Perhaps I had no desire to witness the horrible accident as Rex’s Chevy struck the white station wagon just on the other side of the bridge and then careened into the service station in a fiery ball of finality. I turned my head and when I did I noticed something I’d never noticed before. The next door down on the opposite side had a faint light coming from underneath. It’s often said that in order to get new results you must pick up a different rock or else pitch at a different window. Perhaps this is how fate is broken.
The sweeping strobe beams illuminating the floor of Starlight Skating were like threads of colored light weaving a hippie-style tapestry in a magical era. Three Dog Night’s Easy to be Hard was booming over the wall mounted speakers. Jennifer was like the sister with the icy powers in the Disney feature Frozen with blue-white sequins reflecting all the colors of an indoor rainbow as she twirled around the floor. I was happy again and joy is a key that can unlock any ability. My roller-skating moves matched hers, perhaps not with the same elegance and choreographed grace but still with an acceptable resolve. One realizes after a lifetime of looking back that there is never a next time … for anything. We didn’t skate to all of Billboard magazine’s top-forty songs but we must have enjoyed a good number of them. It’s odd how the most euphoric dreams can turn into nightmares with the simplest of sounds. Rex Roker’s steel toed work-boots as he crunched on the gravel behind us as we walked to my dad’s car had the same spine chilling effect as the shrieking tones of the Teen Slasher horror-movies to come twenty years in the future.
I wish I could say this time I put up a better fight, but I didn’t. People are who they are inside, even when they’re dreaming. He knocked me down and his friends pushed my face into the gravel as Rex forced Jennifer into the back seat of his car.
The next thing I knew I was following Rex’s speeding Chevy in my dad’s car. At first I thought it was blood running down my cheeks but there really isn’t any physical pain in dreams … it was liquid fear. Probably a cold sweat while I slept. I almost started honking my horn again with the justification that I could get the attention of a cop and that somehow he’d rescue Jennifer. I don’t know why I didn’t. I think it must have had something to do with realizing that the world is like a hologram … everything is controlled by a projection from the outside and if you want to change things you have to pick up a different stone or choose another window. I know this all sounds confusing … but that’s the way our imaginations are and it’s the only way they work. My honking horn had caused the person driving Rex’s car to drive faster. Timing is everything; a second faster or one second slower and Rex’s car would miss colliding with the white station wagon. As it was I had to slam on my brakes and slid sideways in a near miss with the same vehicle.
I followed Rex’s bouncing car down River Road and I knew where they were heading. Mawkat Lake, named for a Blackfoot Indian Chief, lay just inside Motha Forest where Comanche Springs fills a ten acre depression before joining the Cottonmouth River on the way to Magician’s Canyon. It was a favorite teen hangout and a place for underage drinking parties. The kids called it Make-out Lake for good reason. I got my first kiss there when I was fifteen and later scared the daylights out of Nancy Groom and her friends while they toasted marshmallows around a fire with a homemade lake monster costume me and my pals had hidden beforehand in a hollow tree.
I was glad to see the figures in the backseat were no longer fighting but strangely I felt a twinge of jealousy at the thought that they might be talking. Surely Jennifer is trying to talk herself out of being ravaged by the brute I reasoned. There is no way she couldn’t help but hate the guy. But she had married and divorced him in the future hadn’t she? Maybe I’m not really aware of everything going on here. Reality invades all dreams and the defenders are always unprepared.
It was a party. At least ten cars were parked in a meadow just two hundred yards from the lake shore. I could hear music blasting from someone’s stereo and the sound of raucous laughter. Most of the cars in the lot had a “Shadows” decal in the back window: a silhouette of a hot rod burning rubber with spinning 45 RPM Chuck Berry records for wheels. It figured; most of Rex’s pals were non-paying car club members, oily-comb-in-the-bathroom addicts and reform school graduates.
I followed and hid in a clump of cottonwood trees … This wasn’t my crowd although I knew they’d love to have me show up … for some fun and games at my expense. There were roughly as many girls as there were guys. Chicks with tight pants, mouths full of Juicy Fruit gum and greasy Levi jackets with the Shadows logo stitched on the back.
The Shadow bitches were trying to talk Jennifer into going swimming … al la nude. “Come on … it’s initiation,” one of them told her as she tried to pull off Jennifer’s jacket. The others had noticed Jennifer’s skating outfit. “My don’t you look like a sparkle!” When Jennifer protested that she didn’t want to go swimming or join the club … she just wanted to go home … they began to get indignant. “Think you’re too good for us, do you?”
“Rex,” One of the girls yelled as Rex helps tap another keg. “Your date is talking bad things about you!”
“She just needs to loosen up!” Rex said as he walked over. He chugged a quart sized paper cup filled with beer and foam ran off his chin as he belched. “Take me home,” Jennifer insisted, “or I’ll have the police charge you with kidnapping!”
“Aw, common baby we’re just out here trying to have us a little fun,” he told her.
`”I mean what I said,” Jennifer told him, ignoring the laughs from the girls.
“I’ll tell you what,” Rex told her. His puffy lips formed into a ridiculous amorous pout … as if he’d been practicing in a mirror. “I have to get something for my trouble … after all I brought you all the way out here on our first date!” He threw his arms in the air as if in resignation. “Just one little kiss and I’ll take you home!”
Jennifer was fuming mad. I could almost feel her fury as she looked at the ground. Maybe Rex was telling the truth. She surely had plenty of witnesses … even if they were his friends.
“Okay,” she said at last. “But make it fast … I want to get out of here!”
Rex walked toward her smiling. “Just relax, baby … it’s not the end of the world!”
As soon as their lips touched a camera bulb flashed. One of the girls giggled as a Polaroid photo popped out of the camera and began to develop. “We got proof that nobody forced you to come here … and that you were having a good time,” she cackled.
“A picture is worth a ton of words in court my dad says!” Rex was laughing as he put the picture in his wallet.
I felt sorry for Jennifer as the girls began to strip her. There were just too many of them. If I charged in I was sure to be killed. Even though you know it’s only a dream reason still drives your nerve. I could almost imagine my parents and the cops finding my beaten and bruised body floating face-down in the lake tomorrow morning.
The girls were pulling Jennifer into the water and the guys were all taking off their own clothes. I’d never been to an orgy but I’m sure this was the way many of them started.
I don’t know what made me think of the gravel pit monster costume that I hoped was still hidden in the hollow tree. Looking back, scaring Nancy Groom and her friends had been one of my best teenage moments. Things rarely go the way you planned usually any attempt to change fate makes you end up looking ridiculous. I could hear laughter coming from the water. I thought I could hear Jennifer’s voice mixed in with the others. She didn’t sound as angry … she married him after all didn’t she?
The hollow tree was at the far end of the lake hidden behind a huge clump of mulberries. The costume fit better than I remembered … the water was even colder. I pulled clumps of last summer’s moss off the bottom and tucked them into the spaces around my waist and where the hood attached to my shoulders. When I could see the people swimming I submerged and swam just below the surface. My heart was making the shark noises from Jaws as I moved toward the kicking legs.
Seldom do our dreams explode in euphoria … this was an exception. When I burst from the water with a low bellow like a cow that has missed three milking’s all the eyes in the water were like full moons with terrified white faces. I was aware of the screams and the thrashing madness as everyone scrambled to get away from me. Fear is the ultimate weapon to those who can wield it and I charged after them utilizing a morbid lurching gait that would have made even the great Lon Chaney squirm with envy.
The cars were starting up and moving out too quickly. Clouds of dust drifted toward the night sky as flying gravel struck the trees and bushes like buckshot. I heard two girls arguing and a last pitiful cry as one girl was pushed to the ground just before the car sped away. I walked toward her forgetting for a moment what I had become and what I now looked like. Somehow I knew it would be Jennifer and it was. Crouched low on the ground so that I couldn’t see her nakedness. “Are you okay?” I mumbled.
She sprang from the ground like a cornered wolverine moving too quickly for me to comprehend what was happening. A chunk of firewood the size of a baseball bat struck me squarely on the side of the head and I was seeing stars … too many for a single galaxy as small as the Milky Way. Then there was only darkness.
When I woke up the gravel pit monster hood was under my head. Jennifer had placed it there as a pillow. She was dressed and warming her hands by the fire. “What were you thinking?” she demanded. “That’s the worst monster costume I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s a wonder they didn’t put you on a stick and roast you over the fire lie a hot dog!”
“This is some date,” I told her as we walked toward my car.
“I’ll never forget it,” Jennifer said as I opened her door. All the stars seemed to be in her eyes as she kissed me and then suddenly all those same stars were falling … shooting across the universe and taking me along for a ride. This time there were no white rectangles … no doors to pass between what was and what might have been. With a touch of sadness I knew there would be no return.
The fire was out completely in the park shelter and the fire-pit stones had lost their heat. It was the cold that had taken me from Jennifer’s warm dreamy embrace and back to reality. There were dry leaves on my head and shoulders as if I were some kind of Rip Van Winkle just waking up after a century of slumber. If I could have gone back to the same dream and stayed forever … I would have.
My car wasn’t in the Alpine Meadows parking lot … in fact there was no assisted living center on that corner of the block … there was an Ace Hardware store … I checked the street signs twice. I walked to the apartment that I had rented for the last three years but a large Negro woman with children wrapped around her legs answered when I tried to use my keys on the front door. She was threatening to call the police as I ran into the night.
An hour later I finally found a listing for my name in the white pages hanging in a phone booth. The address was only two blocks away and by this point I had nothing to lose. The house was a split-level with a nice yard and a two car garage. Jennifer looked surprised when she opened the door in answer to the doorbell. “It wasn’t locked was it?” She squinted at me obviously bemused. We were both the same age, midway through our sixties. There was a touch of grey in her dark hair but she still looked great. Best of all she was talking and wasn’t writing on a pad. “Dinner has been ready for a half an hour,” she said, and gave a mock pout. “It’s our anniversary … did you forget?”
“Of course not.” I lied. The memories were beginning to come to me … forty years of the most happiness I could have ever hoped for. What looked like a three course gourmet meal had been placed on a lace-covered table with place settings for two and three candles. The roast beef looked delicious and then I remembered it was my favorite. Everything was coming back with uncommon clarity while other things were fading.
“You look like you’ve been sleeping in the woods,” my wife mused as I sat at the table and she brushed a bit of leaf from my hair. “That’s what I get for marrying a wild-man. You said you were just going for a run … I hope you had sweet dreams?”
“The best,” I told her.