This is a little longer than my usual flash fiction. It’s a short story called Thrice to Dream.
‘Oh, come on,’ I say when the car grinds to a stop in the traffic jam that blights my commute. The windscreen wipers judder and squeak through the shower of rain, and although overtaken by the urge to slam my head into the steering wheel, I switch the radio on instead. Static sounds out, so I change a few stations – all play the random signal of white noise. Great, just great. Like I need the expense of a new radio.
My mood is as dreary as the weather by the time I arrive home.
‘Amanda,’ Michael calls from the sitting room. ‘Cable’s out.’
‘Give them a call, and I’ll boil the kettle.’ I toss my coat over the bannister, kick off my shoes and trudge to the kitchen.
Michael meets me there. ‘Tried that. Recorded message, there’s problems in the area.’
Even with a crewcut, he looks like the kind of man who belongs on the cover of a romance novel. At twenty-four, we’ve been together eight years, married for three.
‘So, they’re working on it.’ I take two mugs from the cupboard. ‘Tea or coffee?’
‘Internet’s down too.’
I make coffee.
The evening drags. We uncork a bottle of wine, watch a couple of old sci-fi movies, and go to bed.
The clock reads 2:27 a.m. when I wake to a flash of light behind the curtain.
‘Michael,’ I say. ‘Wake up. Did you see that?’
‘Probably a car.’
‘I didn’t hear a car.’ Was it a car? My car? Should I call the police? The internet, cable and radio were down when we went to bed, and the mobiles out, but the landline works to make local calls. At least it did earlier.
I crawl out of bed and go to the window. Warm air circulates the house, and the lush carpet envelops my feet, yet I shiver picturing a lurking presence waiting outside. I open the curtains and peer out. Nothing.
A soft drizzle veils the night. The glare from the lamppost reflects on the damp road about ninety feet away, bright and blinding. Wait. Is someone out there? A menace beyond the shadows. My heart flutters to the pitter-patter of the rain. For some time, I keep vigil, but catch nothing in the dark stillness.
‘Come back to bed, Amanda,’ Michael says, then grumbles and rolls on his side.
After one last search, I draw the curtains shut. A waft of strawberry-scented fabric softener greets me as I slide under the bedding. Though the blanket might as well be made from thorn bushes for all the comfort it gives me.
I shut my eyes. Unable to rid myself of the creeping unease, they pop back open.
It’s all in my imagination, I tell myself. Too much bad sci-fi and wine. Everything will be fine in the morning.
With effort, I force my mind away from the dizzying need to dive under the covers and hide. I focus on Michael’s breathing, try to match his soothing pace. The gentle snore intensifies, becomes turbulent, like the buzz of a thousand voices. I vow never to drink red wine on a weeknight again.
Yanking the blanket up to my chin, I snuggle beneath it and stare at the back of Michael’s head. His crewcut needs a trim. Maybe he should grow it out. He looked good with long hair.
My eyelids grow heavy. I close them. An inner voice screams, tells me to be afraid and not to sleep. Then silence, everything becomes quiet and still as blackness enfolds me, and I drift away to whatever dreams await me.
Music swells. The orchestra fills the room with a magical melody. People laugh and dance, swirling in an explosion of colour and merriment.
I stand to the side and watch the ball. Then my sight fixes on a figure amongst the sea of bodies. Michael: resplendent in a black velvet frock coat, matching breeches and gold vest, looks as though he stepped out from the pages of a vampire porn novel (at least that’s what he calls the books I like to read). Long dark hair falls over his eyes, rebellious and carefree. Our gazes lock and remain connected as he moves through the throng of bodies towards me. A roguish smile plays on his lips. ‘Shall we dance?’ he asks.
I accept Michael’s offered hand, and he leads me around the room in a series of twirls and flourishes. Red satin caresses my figure like a second skin, cascading down my torso before reaching the ground in a flourish of pleated skirt. I’ve never looked so good. With a deep awareness of my movements, I dance as though born to do nothing else. Gliding and sliding, body pressed against body, we drift to the music as one. Nothing exists, but the music and Michael. The other guests become a blur of motion that sparkles in the light from the chandelier. Their voices become a nonsensical hum.
We dance on and on. When one song ends, Michael claims me for the next. I laugh as my pulse races and my chest feels a lightness not experienced in years. Beautiful music, such as I have never heard before enchants me.
When my feet ache, my breath comes in gasps, and my heart pounds so fast I think my chest will explode, I slip my arm into the crook of Michael’s and drag him from the ballroom to find refreshments.
Buffet tables, garnished with champagne fountains, hors d’oeuvres, cakes, and chocolate delights, fill the antechamber. Enticed by the aroma, I reach for a strawberry.
‘Champagne?’ Michael offers, handing me a flute.
‘Let’s go to the garden,’ I say, pulling him with me through the crowds.
The night air hits me as we step onto the veranda, cooling my skin and refreshing my mind after the close confines inside. Flowers glisten silver in the moonlight, their perfume sweet and calming. An overtight corset cinches my waist and elevates my breasts, accentuating my deep cleavage. Diamonds drape my décolleté. I’m caught in a cheesy romance and loving every minute.
My heart swells as I turn to gaze into Michael’s face. Lips quirk in the smile I love. But when I peer into his eyes, my stomach turns. No emotion shines through. No look of love. No affection. If anything, I see disdain.
A metallic tang floods my mouth, pain sears my brain. I drop the strawberry and champagne as the room crumbles out of existence around me.
As the sun beats down on the rippling ocean, I breach the surface like a playful dolphin. Spray cascades in a fine mist, leaving a glistening trail like a halo around my head.
The tropical water laps at my body with its movement. Birds shriek, flying through the air as they wing their way closer to the shore. I feel a sense of calm in the soft tumble of waves and the salty tang of the air.
Leaning back, I float on the open water and view the sky. The nourishing sun caresses me as I sway and relax in the water. The day seems endless, with the sun high in the sky above me.
As time drifts by, I dive beneath the surface, explore the coral and its inhabitants. A magnificent sea garden teeming with colour. Green, yellow, orange, each as bright and majestic as blue ocean washing over them. Tiny fish dart in and out the twisted structure of coral heads and swaying fronds. After one last look around at a life so different and alien to my own, I swim to the surface head to the shore.
Warm, powdery sand shifts under my bare feet as I amble along the deserted beach towards my towel. Heat dries my skin. I pull the string to my bikini top, which spills to the ground, before I settle face down by the shoreline.
After a short time, a shadow passes over my shoulders and I feel a weight in the sand next to me. When I turn to check, Michael smiles down and pushes a stray lock of hair behind my ear.
‘You need protection,’ he says, reaching for the sunscreen. ‘You don’t want to burn.’
I shut my eyes, relax and breathe in the strawberry-scent as he massages lotion into my back. His hands slide over my skin, caressing my flesh beneath his fingers.
My skin tingles, as Michael leans down and trails kisses across my shoulder, and along the nape of my neck. His fingers wind through my hair, tighten around the auburn stands and pull my head back. A soft moan escapes as the slight pain causes my lips to part and warmth to flood my body. He leans in and nuzzles my neck before claiming my lips with a demanding kiss that tastes of the salty air.
When his free hand moves to my knee, I shiver in the breeze. My breathing becomes short and laboured, the thought of his body pressed against mine makes my skin crawl and leaves a bitter tang in my mouth. I don’t want Michael touching me. I don’t want him near me.
‘I’ll be off, then love,’ Michael says, then leans close and delivers a quick kiss on my cheek.
‘Bye.’ I give him a quick nod in parting, open a packet of cereal, pour some in a bowl and add milk, before placing it on the table. A girl of two or three scampers into the room smiling, plonks herself in a chair, and starts to devour the breakfast.
‘Can we go to the park?’ she asks between spoonfuls.
‘Don’t talk with your mouth full,’ I say, my voice too light to carry any real admonishment. Then add not to rush when she shovels the food into her mouth.
Before long we head outside and down the street. I relish the cool summer breeze, and the chatter of the skipping child as I clutch her hand. The park seems welcoming with the aroma of fresh cut grass and wildflowers. With the sun beaming down on our heads, the exuberant girl breaks free from my grasp and dashes towards the play area. Children race, giggling and chasing each other in every direction. I perch on a bench near the lake and watch their games.
‘Mummy. Mummy. Look at me.’ The little girl scurries up the steps to the slide, squeals in delight, and slides down with her arms raised high in the air. She repeats the act at least another twenty times, before she gives up and darts towards the swings with the demand of ‘Push me. Push me.’
‘Umph,’ I say, ‘you’re getting heavy, my girl.’ I hoist her into the bucket swing and push.
‘Higher. Higher.’ Hair, a shade or two lighter than mine, streams behind her, as she is propelled through the air, kicking her feet in delight. Laughter floats through the park, followed by the shout of ‘I’m flying like a bird.’
I laugh, unable to deny her infectious excitement.
‘See-saw. See-saw.’ She wriggles in the seat trying to get out. I bring the swing to a halt and lift her free.
As soon as her feet touch the ground, she shoots towards the see-saw, then stumbles as her tiny legs buckle under the swift movement. I want to cry out, to tell her to slow down, but as the words form on my lips, I realise I don’t know the little girl’s name.
A sinking sensation hits my stomach. My dream child stands before me, and I’ve been happier than I’ve ever been. But that’s all this is: a dream. She isn’t real. She doesn’t even have a name. When I wake up, she won’t be there. My throat grows dry and a sharp pain pierces my temple as the little girl winks out of existence before me.
Tears glisten on my lashes when I open my eyes. I blink, and they flow down my cheek. When I try to wipe them away, I can’t move.
A ringing sounds in my ears and a weight crushes down on my shoulder blades, pushing me deeper into the mattress. With the blanket drawn snug around my chin, I struggle to catch my breath, and not to panic.
‘Michael.’ The name sounds in my head, but no words escape my lips, no movement shakes them.
I cord the muscles in my arms and back with the effort of trying to move. Trapped and paralysed beneath the unnatural weight, I want to yell out, to scream for help, but can’t. Though my head aches, my heart pounds in my chest, and the ringing in my ears grows louder, I take deep breaths, and strive to calm down. Everything’s fine, I think. Shift one thing and the rest will follow. I’ve read about sleep paralysis, there is nothing to worry about.
With all my concentration, I focus on my finger, visualise it on my hand and will it to move. A clammy sweat breaks out on my forehead, but my finger remains motionless.
Sudden dizziness threatens to overwhelm me. ‘Close your eyes,’ I tell myself. ‘It’s all in your mind. Count to ten. When you open them, everything will be fine.’
I seal my eyes and count: One, two, three…
I open my eyes and sit up in bed. The clock displays 3:41 a.m. A light flashes behind the curtain, and Michael sits up next to me.
Without making a sound, I rise and walk to the window. For several minutes, I monitor the sky. A slight haze drifts like wispy smoke across the moon.
A moment later, Michael stands next to me and looks outside.
‘Amanda.’ His voice quivers.
I don’t respond.
He clears his throat. ‘Did you… Did you dream?’
The rest of the night passes sleepless and in silence. When the television comes back on at around ten in the morning, we learn that the satellites have been down and that people have been dreaming. Over the coming days we hear that everyone dreamt. Three dreams showing them three truths.
Chaos abounds. Some people kill themselves— I dread to think what they learnt from their dreams.
The news teams with speculation, with theories surrounding alien visitations, supernatural phenomena and government experiments. Nobody knows the truth of what happened. Me. I don’t care.
Michael and I talk. There’s no point in trying to save our marriage. He doesn’t love me, and the romantic hero I pegged him as no longer exists. If he ever did.
Michael moves out taking what little he wants with him. The rest: photos, posters, gifts no longer wanted, is all tossed out with the rubbish.
At first, I cry. How had we come to such a place? But then after a while when the speculation settles down, and all that remains is the memory of the dreams— still vivid, though I grasp the futile hope they’ll fade— I go back to work.
After the divorce is finalised, I begin dating again. Who knows, this time I might find someone to love, who loves me in return. Someone who can give me a daughter, with hair a shade lighter than mine. The daughter who never existed, but whose loss I bare every day.