For the third morning in a row Edna wakes from a dream that doesn’t belong to her. She wakes stunned again by the sadness of the orphaned dream. Beside her Alan is sound asleep, oblivious to this thing that has grown unchecked and unbidden in her unconsciousness; this foreign thing that has supplanted the predictability of her own circadian rhythms.
She sits up in the grainy darkness of the bedroom, comforted by the geometric regularity of nightstand and dresser and recliner. She is comforted by the predictability of Alan’s breathing; by the certainty that he is dreaming the same dreams that he has dreamed for years now. Understandably she is discomfited by the intrusion of this dream that she is certain does not belong to her. Even now the residue of a stolen dream is sticky pollen against her eyelids.
Her threadbare T-shirt adheres to her skin as she shifts her legs towards the edge of the bed, careful not to wake her husband. Reaching for the glass on her nightstand she finds less than a sliver of water visible in the dimness. She is parched. Dying for water.
Wakefulness and sleep begin to fuse like the two halves of a broken bone knitting themselves back together as she shuffles from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen to living room. She leaves a trail of cast off things in her wake. Half empty mugs of tea. A crust of bread on a torn paper towel. A shopping list for things that they haven’t run out of yet.
In every dream that she’s ever owned she has been able to recognize herself. When Alan asks her how she slept she says fine. She must be coming down with something. This is not a complete or intangible lie. She does feel as though there is a virus settling into her tendons. Her appetite wanes.
Alan picks up the thread of a former argument. An I-hate-to-say-I-told-you-so smugness slithers onto his face. Perhaps she has returned to work too soon after Liam left for college after all. Perhaps she should allow the empty nest to settle in around her.
“Nest,” he says, “empty nest.”
Alan bends to tie his shoes, car keys jangling in his hand. He is standing by the front door, his briefcase perched beside him on the floor. She watches the swift, precise movement of left over right, left over right. When he is finished tying his shoes he lets out an almost inaudible groan as he straightens. Edna is not convinced that this is a true groan. Perhaps it is only a telegraph of what he thinks is old age now that he is the father of a college student.
Edna’s reality is crippled and limping; the stranger’s dream gnaws at the edges of her consciousness. The act of recall has become, in itself, an act of censure. She tells herself that this is only a matter of a dream that has escaped the fenced in confines of its owners mind. She tells herself that the dream must be returned.
On the morning of the fifth day she sits in the kitchen as day slowly emerges from night. She fusses with the wording of a lost and found ad, penning and repenning, crossing out words and thumbing the tattered thesaurus that she’s retrieved from the shelf above Alan’s desk. Maybe, she tells herself, not all dreams are intimate and personal. Surely the majority of dreams are inane and incomprehensible even to the dreamer, making little to no sense. But own, in the haziness that exists between night and day she wonders if the dreams are out there, hanging in the air like radio waves, waiting for the right transceiver to pick up the sound. Waiting for the right conduit to pick up the frequency.
For the longest time Edna could barely remember her dreams, let alone comprehend them, but there is something in this dream that seems to make her believe that this dream bears the weight of importance to the dreamer. And, in the meantime, she can’t help but wonder where her dreams have gone. Is there some strange chain reaction of misplaced dreams, dominoing one after another?
She walks the aisles of the dollar store, skimming her eyes over things that she would never buy. She can’t remember having ever come into one of these stores before. She is dimly aware of a memory of her mother. Her mother would frown at these dollar stores as places for people too petty to spend the extra money on quality. She feels like someone else.
An overly helpful employee pauses beside her and she shakes her head no. No, she does not need any help just now, not the type of help that could be offered. Only if the employee were able to explain how and hwy such things happen. With increasing regularity she wonders whose life it is that she is living and whether or not a true self stumbles down these aisles. Exhausted she shuffles through the dollar store and nearly collides with strangers, muttering incomprehensible apologies that tinkle like broken glass on the floor behind her.
Part way through the morning of the sixth day she wakes to Alan’s hand on her shoulder. It’s the odd warmth of his hand that dislodges her from sleep. The dream fractures, spider-webbing at the edges and finally imploding. At first the things in the dream begin to change, and then she realizes it’s only the intrusion of a familiar voice that exists outside the dream itself.
“You’re having a bad dream,” he says.
“You were talking in your sleep.”
“What was I saying?”
“Couldn’t make it out. Not words, really. Sounds.”
For a moment she wants to berate him. Interrogate him. What had he heard exactly? What could he tell her about the dream that she was having and who it might belong to? Why would he wake her from the first dream that she can ever remember having in color?
The woman who answers the ad is not what Edna would have expected. She has a lupine face – all angles that seem pulled sharply towards the tip of her nose. The sharpness is intensified by the tight sweep of her ponytail, so precise that Edna can see the crisp rows that the brush has raked through her hair. She is easily twenty years younger than Edna.
“Sometimes it seems as though we go about carefully engineering gaps in our own lives,” the woman says.
“Dreams aren’t necessarily gaps,” Edna says, “they’re filled in spaces.”
“Are we speaking metaphorically?”
“It’s always hard to tell when we talk about dreams.”
The woman picks at the edge of the Formica table, where the narrow bordering strip has come loose. As she lets go of the edge it’s like a ruler vibrating against a tabletop, the pitch sliding down a smooth scale. It’s an idle thing. Edna can’t help but wonder if this is how a million little things begin to fall apart, not out of maliciousness, but out of distraction.
Edna follows the young woman down the street, oscillating between strangers, consumed by the feeling of swimming upstream. The overcast sky spits down on them. She has known this woman only an hour, maybe less, and she is following her now, slightly too close and slightly to fast, on a street that she barely recognizes. This woman is moving quickly, she knows, because she is desperate to get her dream back. For better or worse it is still her dream and perhaps she has slept in a vacuum for a week now. Sleep without dreams, without this specific dream as though locked into a purgatory forever waiting in the hollowness of a sleeping brain that refuses to entertain itself with a fumbled montage of scenes cobbled together from a day’s fragments. Divorced from reinterpretations and translations of events big and small. Peccadillo and triumph.
The lobby of the old apartment building has the thick smell of must and the combined cooking of hundreds of past and present tenants, diffused into something like two day old Chinese food left on the kitchen counter.
The woman turns key in lock and the apartment reveals itself: cluttered with hanging tapestries and mismatched furniture that looks as though it was salvaged from street corners and garage sales. It’s a college student’s apartment. A girl barely older than Liam. It is homie without feeling claustrophobic. A dream catcher hangs mockingly in front of a broad window.
The women lie timidly on the bed, side-by-side like strangers suddenly aware they are sitting too close to each other in an empty movie theater. It is impossible too tell how long this will take. Edna inhales the stranger’s unfamiliar smell. A mixture of sweat and dusky perfume. Slowly they are drawn into the relative gravity of each other, forming on oroboros of dreams.
Michael Overa was born and raised in Seattle. After completing his MFA at Hollins University he returned to Seattle. Michael is a Writer in Residence with Seattle’s Writers In The Schools program. His work has appeared in the Portland Review, East Bay Review, Fiction Daily, and Inlandia, among others.