If dreams count as experience, then I’ve died about 600 times. I pulled that number out of nowhere – I don’t actually know how many times I’ve dreamed of my own death, but I know it’s probably an abnormal amount. At least once a week. One sharp self-slap across the face was enough to know this wasn’t one of those dreams.
It seemed like it. The start of one, at least. Driving down an empty road through the woods which seemed to go on forever. The middle of the night. It was so dark. I could only see so far out in front of me or in any direction. It was too dark; I’d never seen a night so dark. Maybe my vision was fading, like my mom’s. Or maybe not. The rays of my car’s headlights were fighting for their lives against being engulfed.
There was all that, and the fact that I was caught in a smothering torrent of rain. That cloud. That menacing cloud seemed to have it out for me all day, chasing me like it had a personal gripe. And now, without the security of daylight, it finally released all of its wrath onto my helpless Civic. You wouldn’t even know my wipers were on; maybe they’d snapped off hours ago under the sheer force of it all. My strategy was to go straight. Straight and slow, and to hope I was still on asphalt.
I pried one sweaty hand from the wheel finger by finger to mess with the radio again, praying for an update on the forecast. Still just static. I tried to curse but my voice broke. Tears intruded on my vision as though I needed more water in the way. I forced my sleeve across my eyes.
On the passenger seat, my phone lit up and hummed a somehow unsettling tone. Andrew was calling. Probably wondering what was holding me up, though with the rain he would likely have guessed. . Driving was never a talent of mine, and in most cases, I’d been able to avoid it altogether. I responded to the shudder that ran through me by blasting the heater, and, without taking my eyes off the little section of road I could still see, fumbled for my phone. As soon as I felt the cool glass of the screen, it slipped into the crack between seats. Because of course it did.
It went on like that for a while, buzzing. The dim light of the screen still peered out from the depth, insisting on being answered.
‘You’re very persistent,’ I said.
‘Oh, please don’t say that,’ he begged. His smile, melting, constructed a permanent image in my mind. Unshakable. ‘It makes me feel like one of those guys.’
He was right, it was an unfair stereotype to push on him. He was not close to resembling one of those guys. But there was an opportunist in him. That much was clear.
It was something as simple and yet outdated as an introduction, then a proposal. Diving underwater head first. No fear of rejection. No fear of what comes next. My response surprised me with its openness.
‘Not like that. I mean, not in a bad way,’ I shook my head. ‘Not yet,’ I added, my mother’s voice reminding me not to encourage strange men for their strange behaviour. And he was definitely strange. He smiled again. Unshakable. Persistent.
Finally, the phone gave up. The weather didn’t seem to have that same sense of mercy. I could feel myself losing control of my car, wheels turning against the tide, only not where I told them to. There reached a certain point where I was convinced the tires touched only the stream overtaking the road, as though I could feel through the rubber. I toed the brake pedal and they were like extensions of my feet.
I was inching now. It was no longer an exaggeration to assume that I wouldn’t make it home that night. There was a new goal in mind. Make it to sunrise. Daytime felt safe. That seemed doable.
I was going so slowly that when I saw something as neck-craning and out of place as a treehouse in the middle of the woods, I was surprised at how quickly it faded from my vision. It couldn’t have been what I thought it was. I laughed at myself out loud, but not in a way that could pass as lighthearted. It was more of a delirious laugh. A treehouse, Kate. Imagine that, my mind mocked. It was probably one of those hunting tower things. The platforms that camouflaged men build themselves to shoot things from. That was a common enough sight in rural Ohio.
My phone rang again and I didn’t need to be able to see it to know it was still Andrew, thoroughly worried by now. I imagined the search party was already launched, which I actually wouldn’t have minded at the moment. As it turned out I was more of a sit-and-wait-for-help leaning person in dangerous situations.
I couldn’t explain to myself the feeling I had when the phone rang. It was sudden and physical. Like the feeling from hearing tornado sirens, apparently modeled on sounds of human distress. I always thought they sounded like a baby’s cry. My phone, however, just sounded like a phone. Yet I couldn’t help wishing it would quiet. Then maybe I could unfuse my teeth from my poor, helpless cheek.
‘Your mom seems really nice,’ Andrew said, his arm squeezing slightly around me like he was quite literally holding me together.
His empathy seemed almost supernatural at times. I thought I was doing fairly well at pretending not to be freaked out by my childhood home, and yet he knew exactly when it was time for ‘a walk’.
‘She really likes you,’ I said. ‘Obviously.’
He grinned. ‘I have a way with moms.’
‘Sorry about all the dead dad talk.’ My mother, bless her, had a way of always bringing the conversation back to him.
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Yeah, that was unforgivable.’
‘You know what I mean.’ The deeper we trekked into our homemade trail behind the yard, the louder it got walking through the long-dead winter foliage. ‘I know it’s a lot.’
He squeezed me again. ‘I think I can handle it, Katie.’
We reached the end of the trail. The treasure it led to rested weakly above our heads. ‘Okay, then I guess that means you’re ready to hear the truly depressing story behind this old thing.’ I pointed up.
‘Is that… a treehouse?’ he asked, cocking his head.
‘It was going to be. My dream growing up was to have one, actually. My dad promised it as a ninth birthday gift but the whole “stage four cancer diagnosis” kind of put a permanent halt on the project.’
The fact that it was still there and not yet downed by some storm spoke well, I thought, of the foundation he managed to finish. Really, all it was lacking was a roof.
Andrew didn’t say anything. He just kissed the top of my head and held me for a while. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. He was there.
The phone’s ringing stopped, but my relief was short-lived. There was a woman standing in the middle of the road. I slammed the break and my car skidded to a stop. She was just standing there, in the rain, on the road, not moving. I threw my door open and jogged her way, attempting fruitlessly to shield my eyes from the rain, to know what I was looking at. From out there, I could tell that my windshield wipers were still attached. They had quite a rhythmic hum to them, gliding back and forth across wet glass.
‘Are you okay?’ I yelled, feeling stupid about the question.
She didn’t respond but the shadow over her eyes seared into me. Maybe I just wasn’t hearing her over the downpour. My boots were filling with water, getting heavy. I tried to get closer to her, one laboured step at a time. The closer I got, the more familiar she seemed. Too familiar, her copper hair a deep brown wet, matted in twists and stuck to her face. If I were a rational person I’d say she was my long lost twin, but this was me. I knew she was me.
I wasn’t trying to get closer anymore. I wasn’t doing anything anymore. Not moving or speaking. Unless you count the other me, who seemed to be trying and failing to say something. As much as she struggled, she couldn’t open her mouth. A tornado-siren-like cry managed to come from her throat anyway. But there was something she had to say. She had to. It looked painful, the way she tried. Like her lips were wired shut. The wire snapped and her jaw fell completely open, but instead of words, what flowed out was water. Buckets and buckets of water.
I screamed, like I just remembered that that was an option, and fell backward. Instead of landing ass-first in a puddle, I found myself back in the car. Driving even, unencumbered by any blocks in the road. I pulled over to scream again, this time with my head between my knees (a tip I’d learned after years with an undiagnosed panic disorder). This was not a good time for a psychotic break. I just wanted to go home.
The phone started up again and I swallowed what was rising in my throat. Sunrise. I would deal with it later. I just needed to make it to daylight. My goal had to stay the same. I stepped on the gas. I went a little bit faster this time.
Sunlight wrapped me in its warmth. My skin absorbed it like it was a fresh drink of water after years of drought. In this case, it was the first break in weeks of rain and cloud. One rare and perfect day. I curled up on the floor right in the big patch shining in from the glass back door. Andrew leaned against the glass, greedy for heat like a reptile. I felt content like a cat, not quite napping but dazed in bliss. We both were. It was a perfect day. A perfect memory, probably my favourite one. Which is why it didn’t make sense to me at all that this time around, I went off-script.
‘I’m scared,’ I said. And it hadn’t been true. Not until I spoke it, and my hands were shaking and I was crying.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked, alarmed by my sudden shift.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, really crying now. ‘I think’ – my stomach sank – ‘I’m dying.’
He relaxed into his unshakeable smile. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Well, that’s okay isn’t it?’
No No No. I shook my head.
‘Well, I’m here,’ he said, holding my face. ‘So there’s that.’
That wasn’t good enough. I needed to still be here. ‘Is this real?’ I asked. ‘Is this happening?’
‘I don’t know, Katie,’ he said. ‘Could just be another one of those bad dreams.’
I stared at him.
‘Come sit,’ he beckoned, holding out his arms.
No. I had to wake up. I had to go. I stumbled towards the door and willfully threw myself back into the dark.
The ringing must have already stopped because the car was silent now, apart from the gentle tune of the windshield wipers and rain-pelting aluminium. I kept driving, kept chasing the sun.
I tried to ignore it. I tried to let it go. But I passed the tree house three more times before finally I shoved open my door and stormed up to it. I cut my face on low-hanging branches on the way but I didn’t care. I was pissed. And then there it was – my perfect tree house. Exactly as I pictured the final product of my dying father’s hard work. I ascended the slick ladder, and the longer I precariously climbed, the farther away it seemed.
Finally, I reached the top: by this time I was far above the treeline, naked from the shelter of the woods. I looked down and as horrifying as that image was, it couldn’t beat what was around me. Clouds. Black, thunderous clouds. I was in the storm. Seeking shelter, as well as answers, I swung open the hatch. For a second, I was consumed in absolute darkness, but in the next, I was back in the car.
I punched the steering wheel until my fist went soft. My tears fell silently now. The sun wasn’t coming. Andrew was calling again, he had been the whole time. Water pooled at my ankles and quickly started to fill the car. Now I remembered. I hadn’t been driving. Of course not, I never drove. Andrew was –of course he was. I watched him the whole ride, from the passenger seat, watching the way he furrowed his brow when he was focused. The rain, though, there was just too much and it got so dark. He lost control, I remembered now. We went over Foster bridge. We were at the bottom of the river now. How had I forgotten that?
Andrew was calling. He was calling the whole time. I guessed he reached the top of the treehouse before me. That was Andrew, always diving in head first, unafraid of what comes next. He was probably wondering what was holding me up. Just my mind, expending the last of its chemicals on one final dream.
Of course. Because I had a habit of dreaming of my death.
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