He could see her standing at the end of the long dock that extended over the dark waters of the river. She was so tiny in the distance, it seemed as though he was looking through a telescopic lens. He knew that she was in a sullen mood from the set of her shoulders and the fact that her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Then again, in this wind, the ponytail could be a matter of practicality. And maybe she was cold with the wind nipping off the water. October is, after all, a chilly time in Center City and at this time of day, O-dark-thirty, as his father used to call any time that wasn’t securely anchored in daylight, the sun wasn’t high enough in the sky to offer any warmth.
The sunrise over the city was muted, its normal pinks and oranges battling with dark gray rain clouds moving in from the south. Maybe he was reading her all wrong and she was simply hunched down inside her jacket trying to stay warm. As he got closer, he could see that his first impression had been correct. There was a certain tilt to her head, her eyes downcast as he approached.
“Hey, Sweetheart,” he said. “What’s got you up and out so early?” Fitz glanced behind him to see if he was being followed down to the end of the dock where his daughter stood waiting. In this part of town at this time of the morning, there weren’t many people up and about. Fitz was, by nature a cautious man, and he’d come close to being mugged a time or two while out for his morning jog. While he wasn’t happy that his daughter had chosen to stand alone on this particular dock, he knew she’d chosen this location simply because it was on his morning route, and a quiet, out of the way place to meet.
“Hey, Daddy,” she said stepping into Fitz’s embrace and wrapping her arms around him. Fitz held on tight, taking advantage of this rare opportunity to hug his daughter and offer her his warmth. The thoughts that crashed through his mind finally settled into a steady hum as Fitz listened for his daughter’s jagged breathing to settle. When she’d caught her breath, Fitz pulled back a little and looked down at the top of her head. She didn’t look up.
“So, what’s got you spooked?” he finally asked, anticipating a disjointed answer or no answer at all.
“I’ve been having these dreams,” she said.
“These dreams or ‘the’ dreams,” Fitz asked. “There’s a difference, you know, between new dreams and old dreams.”
“They’re not about the accident or Mom or Heather,” she said with a sniffle. Fitz pulled a tissue out of his jacket pocket and handed it to her. “They’re not really even about you or me, but you’re there. I can feel you hovering.”
Fitz smiled at this, remembering his daughter at sixteen pushing him out of her room while she begged him to stop helicoptering her.
“In a good way or a bad way?” he asked with a grin.
She tilted her head up and smiled at him at last. “There’s my girl,” Fitz said and hugged her again. “So, shall we go for coffee and you can tell me all about the big, bad scaries or do you want to just walk?”
“I’d love a coffee but I don’t want anyone to overhear us.” She glanced up the dock toward the street as the first rumble of traffic made its way toward the river.
“Then let’s head to my place,” Fitz offered.
“I don’t want to be inside right now,” she explained.
“Okay,” Fitz said. “Let’s just walk over to Temple’s and grab a muffin and a coffee and walk.”
She nodded and they walked back up the dock to the street. The sun had finally topped the tall buildings of Center City and the wind had abated by the time they reached Temple’s. Fitz left his daughter standing on the sidewalk as he went in to get their coffee and a blueberry muffin to share. They set off in the direction of City Park, dodging dog walkers and joggers.
“You have to work today?” he asked between sips of coffee.
“No, I’m on a five-day rotation. Five on, two off. I’m working nights again.”
Like Fitz, his daughter was a night owl, preferring to work her shift at the hospital through the long dark hours rather than in broad daylight. Daylight was for sleeping, he’d always thought, unless you were on a beach vacation at some tropical resort. But that was only in theory. Fitz had never been on a vacation in the tropics. He preferred the city and the night and the quiet. His work, however, pretty much forced him to be available during the daylight hours. Fitz was a therapist, of sorts. He’d practiced psychiatry, psychology, and marriage counseling, and dabbled in hypnotherapy.
“How’s Ben?” he finally asked when she wasn’t forthcoming with conversation. He held his breath. He’d been sincerely hoping that whatever his daughter wanted to talk about had nothing to do with her boyfriend. Fitz hated the idea of having to beat the shit out of the young man his daughter was living with, especially a skinny little guy like Ben, but his sense of fatherly responsibility had won that battle on the jog to the dock. If Ben had hurt her in any way, he’d pay.
“Gone,” she said. “And no, that’s not what this is about. Ben left weeks ago. He moved back to Seattle to be closer to his family.”
“I always knew that guy was a mama’s boy,” Fitz said.
“His mother’s dead,” she responded with a grim look. “Here,” she said handing him the rest of the muffin. “Eat this while I talk.”
The gazebo in the center of City Park was deserted as they’d known it would be. It also offered a little buffer from the chilly wind that kicked up sporadically so Fitz sat down on a bench and watched his daughter pace.
“Just spit it out,” he prompted.
“I’m not sure where to begin,” she replied. “I’ve had the same dream off and on for the past couple of months. At least it feels the same. I’m in a warehouse with white walls and it’s hazy, you know, with this smoky cloudy stuff all around. It’s like the vapor from dry ice, you know, all spooky.”
“Stop saying ‘you know’ and get on with it,” Fitz said with a grin. “What, have you reverted back to junior high?”
“Shut up, Dad,” she replied. “I’m trying to tell you how it feels.” She glared at him and Fitz could see that she wasn’t really stalling. She was trying to wrap her mind around something she was afraid to talk about and doing the best she could. His normally eloquent, intelligent daughter was grasping at straws which scared Fitz almost as much as the thought of having to kick Ben’s ass. No, wait. That would have been fun.
“Sorry, go on.”
She hesitated and he held out the remains of the muffin. When she shook her head, he tossed it into the trash can beside the bench and finished his coffee, still waiting.
“There are men in the dream, all in dark clothing, all whispering and moving in and out of focus.” She sat down on the end of the bench and pulled her knees up. “At this point in the dream I don’t feel afraid, just curious. I want to move closer but I get the feeling I’m not supposed to see what they’re doing. It’s weird.”
“So, you don’t feel threatened, you’re not being chased or harassed or anything, but this dream scares you. What do you think it means? What’s going on with you?”
She wrapped her arms around her knees and closed her eyes. She was holding something back.
“What are these guys doing, Alexandra? What is it about this dream that has you shaking in your boots?”
“I don’t know,” she said keeping her head down.
Fitz put his hand on his daughter’s arm. “Then why did you call me in the middle of the night to meet you at the dock before sunup if everything’s okay with you? C’mon, Sweetie, something’s up and if it’s not this dream, there’s got to be something bothering you. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to meet you anytime, anywhere, but you were pretty shaky when you called earlier and I want to help you with this.”
Alexandra looked up but there was no smile on her face, no hint of the little girl giddiness that he usually saw when he looked at his daughter. She was dark and brooding, a scary aspect in itself.
“I think they’re moving body parts,” she said. “I couldn’t see what they had in their hands, but it looked like arms and legs. Then I realized the warehouse was a meat packing plant. There were empty hooks dangling from the ceiling and machines and saws and it scared the shit out of me so I ran.”
“And then you woke up?” Fitz asked.
“No, I didn’t wake up. Not yet. The white walls went on forever and I finally came to a door. I was afraid to open it, afraid of what was on the other side.”
“Did you open the door?”
“No, but the door kinda dissolved, like it was there one minute, strong and solid, keeping me safe from whatever was on the other side. Then it was just gone and there was nothing behind it. Just emptiness. I knew that if I stepped into it, I’d be falling into a black hole, gone forever.”
Fitz shook his head. “And then you woke up.”
Alexandra just looked at him with one crooked eyebrow and a frown.
“Not exactly,” she said. “Well, I’m not sure, really. You know how it is sometimes when you’re coming out of a dream, not quite sure whether you’re still in it or waking up? Anyway, I heard a whispery voice coming from the darkness. I remember putting my hands out to keep my balance and I leaned into the void.” Alexandra shivered. “Then I woke up.”
“So, you didn’t fall, you didn’t go hurtling through space or fall to hell in the darkness,” Fitz said.
Alexandra shook her head.
“Sounds scary enough but I don’t get the message. What do you think it means?”
“I have no idea,” Alexandra said. “But it really scared me, Dad. I can’t tell you why exactly, besides the body parts and the whole black hole thing. There was something strange and freaky about it, a familiar feeling like there’s something I should remember, something that means something to me that’s buried deep down in my subconscious, something that I’m supposed to be doing or remembering or . . . I don’t know.”
“Well, I’m not sure what to say to make you feel better, but I’m sure we can figure this out. Maybe it’s something as simple as feeling like you’re at a dead end in your job, or that you’re losing yourself in your work. The white walls could be the hospital hemming you in.” Fitz grinned. “Or you’re starting to feel your age.”
That got him a snarky smile as he knew it would. At twenty-seven, Alexandra was in great shape.
“Maybe you’re letting your job in a little more than usual with Ben gone. I know you’re working long hours. I haven’t heard from you in weeks.”
“I am,” Alexandra admitted. “And I’ve thought about the body parts. It could just be that I’m trying to put my life back together, reassembling myself. That makes sense, doesn’t it?”
“And the empty hooks could symbolize your relief that Ben is gone. You’re off the hook.”
Alexandra shot her father another snarky smile. “That’s really not fair, Dad. You hardly knew Ben.”
“And whose fault is that? You kept us apart.”
“With good reason! I didn’t want you telling him all the gory details of my childhood. Not that there were that many.”
Alexandra had perked up a little, setting her feet back down on the ground, relaxing enough to lean into him. “I guess there are reasons for what I’m dreaming. I knew you’d be able to help me sort it all out. It doesn’t feel as scary now.”
“Happy to be of service,” Fitz said. “That was pretty easy, Alexandra. I was expecting something really wicked.”
“Talking about it out loud does put things in perspective,” she said. “It just feels so sinister and weird. It’s one of those dreams that stays with me all day.” Alexandra sat up straight. “Which is kinda strange. I guess maybe my sleep patterns are off. I didn’t sleep yesterday at my normal time. I went to bed around midnight which is usually my busy time at work. Yeah, that makes sense,” she said with a grin. “I’m just whacked out of my normal routine. That’ll cause nightmares.”
“Yes, it will,” Fitz agreed. “Now, if there’s nothing else I can help you with, no boyfriend to beat up or creepy-crawlies to scare away, I need to finish my jog and head home. I have clients in about an hour.”
“Me, too. There are a couple of old people in my building I check in on when I’m off.” Alexandra stood up and stretched. “Two sisters, cat ladies, kinda strange.”
Fitz laughed. “Have fun with that,” he said and pulled Alexandra into a bear hug.
“Love you, Sweetie,” he said.
“Love you, too, Dad.” Alexandra pulled away and smiled. “Oh, one more thing. I forgot until just now. The voice in my dream, the whisper? It was a message for you, I think. It said, ‘Martin Vane says hello.’”
Fitz stopped breathing.