Streamers twitch and move in the soft breeze of the ceiling fan. A balloon comes undone from its string and floats a lazy path upwards. An ancient phonograph drones out Don Mclean’s Jerusalem in the scratch and tic of old vinyl.
“A surprise party? Really?” I call, amused and tired. But no one jumps out, “Are y’all really gonna make me find you?” I move through the living room, checking behind the mismatched furniture. No one behind the big couch. No one behind the armchair. The music feels louder and louder in the otherwise silent room. I turn to the source, the big antique record player with the large metal horn. Joel or Margaret must have picked up the old relic last night, as I’ve never seen it before. I lift the needle off the record but the music doesn’t stop.
“Guys, this isn’t funny, it’s weird. Where are you?” I pick up the vinyl off the device but the music keeps droning from the horn. I turn around and look at the living room, all the worn furniture seems colorless in the dim light. It’s normally sun-drenched in the morning. I look to the window but all that’s there is a brick wall covered in streamers.
“Joel!” I shout, shrill and scared, “Margaret! Somebody!” I turn to face the kitchen but behind the big couch is another wall that shouldn’t be there. I run towards the hallway, nothing but bricks. I clutch at the record in my hands, the music blaring into my ears from all directions. The vinyl digs into my palms too sharply. I look down and it’s no longer a record but a large black handled knife I’ve got by the blade. I drop the knife and there’s no noise of it hitting the ground, only music. I look at my palms, at the old scars there, cut open anew right along the original lines. I run at the the wall where the hallway should be. It’s false, has to be, an illusion or magic or-
I slam against hard brick and mortar. My elbow cracks against it and tears open. A feral shriek rips out of me. Trapped. Again. I face the living room, the cage, and see a person standing there in a ripped and bloody white shirt, a paper party hat on his head. An empty smile slides onto Patrick’s pale face.
“Happy birthday, Diana.”
I launch myself onto my feet, screaming. Standing on my bed, blankets tangled around my feet, I’m awake. I’m awake, and it was a dream. Early morning light drifts in the window of my small bedroom. I take great heaving breaths, trying to slow my racing heart. It was a dream. I look down at my elbow to see it unblemished, because it was only a nightmare and I didn’t run crashing into a solid wall. I look at my palms and see blood, little crescent moons of it where my nails tore into the skin. Not knife cuts, just an overactive fear response and too long since a manicure. I’m okay. I’m fine. It was just a nightmare.
The bedroom door creaks open and a pair of dark brown eyes peek at me. For half a moment the movement makes me jump out of my skin all over again, but the recognition calms me down.
“Sorry if I woke you,” I give a halfhearted smile to Markus.
“You good?” His voice is scratchy with sleep.
He closes the door and I’m alone again. I rub my tired eyes and sit cross-legged on the bed. A glance at my alarm clock tells me it’s ten minutes after five in the morning. Just a nightmare, I remind myself, trying my best to banish the imagery from my brain. Just a nightmare. It’s been over a year since my dreams had any bearing on reality. Over a year since opening a Hell gate and banishing demons to the depths. Over a year since I’ve had any reason to worry about monsters or the end of the world or watching my friends die.
There have been lots of bad dreams in that time. Lots of sleepless nights and screaming in the dark and slow, painful healing from trauma. Lots of determined trudging back into the world of normal and day jobs and grumbling about traffic. Everyone in the firehouse went through it together. Learning how to live again is a bitch of a thing. Recovery is a narrow staircase covered in slick ice, with a howling wind battering you backwards the whole way. You slip. You fall down. You retread the same steps over and over feeling like you never make progress. But slowly, imperceptibly, there are less sleepless nights. There are less tears and panic attacks. There are more smiles and bad jokes.
This nightmare is not the end of the world; we’ve faced that already and won. We paid for that victory. We earned it. This nightmare is just part of healing and moving forward. I nod my head at my own thoughts. I’m moving into a new chapter of life tomorrow, and the worry and stress triggered a bad dream. That’s all. That’s normal, in fact. Worrying about the future, about growing older and moving on to new things, is normal.
There’s still a chill on my skin, and my nerves are jangled, but all notes of hysteria have passed. I turn off the alarm I had set, knowing already that falling back to sleep is not in the realm of the possible. I get out of bed and slowly stretch, deciding to get a head start on getting ready for the day. First day nerves replace post-nightmare fear. Big day today.
I shower and get dressed in the outfit I’ve had planned for two weeks, then change my mind and pick a new outfit. Then panic and put my pjs back on and stare at both outfits laid across my bed while I go through a mild existential crisis. The crisis is resolved by picking an entirely different outfit and leaving the room before I can change my mind again. Comfortable dress shoes, nice slacks, and a blouse dark enough to hide any sweat just in case. I walk to the kitchen, flapping my hands hard enough to shake the nervous energy out.
“Good morning,” Jackson grins at me, bright eyed and fully dressed. He’s seated at the big kitchen table, halfway through a bowl of cereal, “Big day,” he seems to vibrate with excitement.
“Big day,” I agree, with far less enthusiasm and much more dread, “Good morning,” I barely manage to return the smile he’s giving me.
“You shouldn’t be nervous, Diana. Me and Margaret will both be there, and you’re a great teacher.” He shrugs like it’s an indisputable fact.
“Margaret and I,” I correct him as I start pulling the ingredients for french toast together, “and I’m glad you’re excited, little man, but there’s a big difference between substituting a little last year and actually teaching a class of my own.”
“You taught me,” He nods, dark eyes wide and suddenly serious, “I wouldn’t be going to school today without you.”
“That was a group effort,” I smile at him as I crack eggs into a bowl, “Getting you caught up on seven years of public education took all of us... and you’re still gonna be a year behind most kids your age.”
“It’s more than the reading and math and stuff,” He stands up and starts washing his empty bowl in the sink, “You see the good in people. The potential. You know how to make them see it in themselves, too. You did for me.”
I can’t stop the sappy grin from taking over my face. I just stare at him. He’s changed so much in the last year. He’s taller than me now, and his black hair has grown shaggy like Markus’. He looks healthier, less thin and pale. Still, his dark eyes carry that same innocence as the first time we spoke. I clear my throat as I drop slices of bread into the egg mixture.
“I’m going to remember you being this sweet when you start making friends your own age and hating all the adults in your life. When you’re too cool for us old people I’ll remind you that you used to like us.”
“I’ll never be too cool for y’all. Besides, Will says popularity is a game with no winners. Even if you succeed at it you spend all your time and effort trying to stay there. Sounds exhausting and pointless.”
“That it is, my dude. Will speaks the truth.”
Jackson sets the table as I finish making a mountain of french toast and bacon. The others slowly filter into the room. We all sit down together, eating and drinking coffee and getting mentally prepared for the day. Will leaves first, on his way to a shift at the fire department. Markus and Joel offer to clean the kitchen and wish Margaret, Jackson and I good luck on the first day of the year at South Columbus Middle School.
“Remember,” Joel leans over the railing of the stairs as we head towards the garage, “Stay quiet, and keep your arms covered. If anyone sees-”
“I know,” Jackson smiles, “I tell everyone that I was raised by a cult and routinely got in knife fights. While I’m at it I’ll let everyone know my school records are all fake and I see ghosts.”
Joel purses his lips, not amused, “Diana, you’re a very bad influence on the kid.”
“Joel,” Jackson chuckles, “If anyone sees my arms, I’ll tell them I fell out a window as a kid. I’ll keep my head down as I acclimate, avoid personal details, and not get busted. Thank you, again, for the records. For everything. I won’t mess this up.”
Joel makes a huffing noise in the back of his throat and nods, “You’ll do great, kid.”
“If we aren’t late,” Margaret cuts in, ushering Jackson in front of her, “We’ll be back around four! Stay out of trouble while we’re gone!”
Margaret makes small talk during the short ride. Jackson occasionally responds, sounding increasingly excited. I manage to nod my head and hum when needed. I thought I was too old to be nervous about the first day of school, but now that it's here there's something ominous in the air.