The car breaks. Its engine makes a loud bang, then sputters as metal rips into metal. The noise reminds me of my father’s deathbed cough. I let off the gas and the motor shuts down. I coast in neutral, ease the car onto the narrow dirt shoulder and stop.
“Damn it to hell.”
I’d been speeding, pushing my old car through the shadows by Becker Lake, the place where the rich hide their weekend houses. The road is always smooth, each crack and pothole immediately patched and filled. A dark, burnt, oil smell emanates from the car’s hood, poisoning the clean scent of woods. My running shoes crunch through gravel as I walk. A glow of house lights shines through the trees and, when I find a driveway, I head toward the light.
It’s a big white colonial; no curtains or security bars. I see her clearly through the kitchen window, a slender woman with dark blonde hair. She’s pulling a tray of cookies from the oven. She senses me, I guess, because she turns and peers through the glass. A quizzical look crosses her features. I wave and offer a smile. She meets me at the door.
“You’re the guy who drives the Mustang, right?”
“Yeah,” I say. It just broke down on me, too.”
She holds the door open. The smell of baked cookies wafts out to welcome me. My stomach churns for one as I step inside. Cookies are everywhere; plates of them cover the counters and the kitchen table. I glance through the doorway and see a huge mound piled on top the dining room table.
“I like to bake,” she says and her hand slips to my arm, touches me above the elbow. All at once I see my life with this girl, laughing in the kitchen, long strolls through the trees together, holding hands and kissing at the water’s edge… It’s a lifetime in of one feminine touch. She smiles. It radiates. My knees buckle a little.
“So what do you do, Mustang guy?”
“I’m a writer,” I say. “I’m finishing my next novel now.” I like the smooth tone of my voice. I sound sure of myself, even cocky. I catch the look of my arms then, firm and muscular. My stomach, I see, has no bulge. I run one hand through my hair and find it long and, most likely, a boyish mess.
I’m dreaming. My mind seizes that thought; I am dreaming.
Then a man’s yell tears through the stillness outside. “Ou taah aaaah merr,” he says. “Ou et aahh aaaa merr ow!”
The woman just smiles at me, unalarmed.
“My ex,” she says. “He lost one leg in the war and every bit of his common sense went with it. Don’t worry about him.”
Immediately, I envision a one-legged man, limping through the woods on a robotic prosthetic, spying on her from behind an oak tree. The image of a crazy-eyed stalker angered me. Someone had to protect a girl like her from a man like that.”
“Pay no attention to him.”
The room begins to ripple, as if the walls are turning to liquid. Two children enter from the dining room; a boy in shorts, dark haired like me, and a girl in a summer dress, a child version of the mother.
“My babies,” she says. “Do you have kids?”
“Someday I will,” I say.
The whole room shudders.
“Next time plan to stay awhile.”
I woke up in my clothes, long sleeves still buttoned tight around my wrists. The oppressive darkness of my apartment surrounded me. I slid off my couch, limped stiff-legged to the balcony and smoked a cigarette. September’s wet air sent shivers crawling down my spine. The dream’s images, shards of my past stacked into nonsense, stuck in my head.
The Mustang - the first car I’d ever owned. I’d worked two jobs to buy that relic; ticket ripper at the Marion Theater and burger flipper at Hardee’s. My dad made me earn every dollar. “A boy’s first car should be all his own,” he’d said. We’d called it, “Ryan’s Red Wreck.”
Becker Lake - the last place I’d spent quality time with my dad. We hadn’t owned a house there. Poor people only rented. I remembered the boat oars in his meaty hands as he propelled us across the water’s flat surface. I saw the permanent engine oil under his nails as he uncoiled the anchor. By then I’d hated the constant grime on him. “I sure would love to own a house on a lake like this,” he’d said and coughed into one fist, the lung cancer already bristling in his chest.
It was a good dream, I decided, especially the girl. The doctor told me that the medication could trigger vivid dreaming. I’d been expecting nightmares, though. If this was all it could do to me I didn’t mind at all. I slammed the balcony door, stripped to my boxers and left the clothes on the floor. My stomach sagged over my drawers, a growing ball of soft fat. The girl from my dream wouldn’t look twice at me in this life. I pictured her, the curves of her hips, her luxurious hair…
A lone candle’s tiny flame sends lightning around her bedroom. We claw at each other, two bodies merging under white sheets. The flashes of light blind me. In the total darkness I hear her moan. Then, in a low and breathless whisper, she adds, “Ah, baby.” It almost makes me cry, the way she calls me baby.
She slides off me. My vision returns. I eye her alabaster body, then roll onto my side and pull her close so I can keep her a little longer.
“I’m falling for you hard,” I say.
The words sound loud, like thunder.
She turns to me and smiles. Again, it radiates.
Then I hear him screaming again, the man in the woods. His guttural yells penetrate the walls like a sudden blast of winter. “Ou taah aaaah merr. Ou et aahh aaaa merr ow!”
“He’s really nuts-o tonight,” she says and chuckles.
“We have to do something about him,” I tell her.
Her soft lips fall to mine and in that kiss a single moment stretches to what feels like decades.
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