“When you dream something—something awful—what does it say about you?”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“If you have a nightmare about something terrible happening, does that reflect upon you as a person? Or does that sort of thing have no bearing? Just a coincidence of an otherwise tranquil mind.”
“I don’t like it when you talk like this,” she said. “It makes me uncomfortable.”
“It leads me to believe there’s something rumbling within you. An unquiet thing that seems to come out at night lately when we’re getting ready for bed. I wish you wouldn’t do it.”
“You’re right,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
She drew back the blankets and set the throw pillows onto the old oak rocking chair by the closet door. He remained seated on his side of the bed.
“Are you having nightmares?” she asked.
He brought his hand to the rear of his head and cupped the back of his neck.
“No,” he said. “My dreams are all the same. You know that.”
Throughout his life, Miles had always had rather mundane dreams: forgetting to study for a math exam in school, picnicking with his parents on Belle Isle, driving his first boxy car down Woodward Avenue on a busy Sunday. It wasn’t nightmares that unsettled him now, but the awareness that many of his waking thoughts had lately turned to black. At any given moment, he felt encumbered by some horrific realization within his consciousness; the world was changing dramatically and felt as if it were spinning into a fever of living nightmares. Despite a once-confident outlook, he could not help but to stay awake long into the nights—the black mass of something malevolent gathering over him, pressing its substantial hand upon his chest. He need not dream to conjure a nightmare.
In troubling times people search for distraction. Miles had always been curious by nature, looking deeply into topics for an evident meaning, and he could always reconcile it with something of worth—some secret understanding that brought logic to whatever it was that ailed the world. This was one of the things that his wife had most admired. Karen had fallen for his sentient nature, as she too scrutinized difficult matters with an erudite eye.
Together she pictured them as two old souls challenging the world, attempting to shine a light on the incomprehensible. But she could no longer draw logic from the latest news stories. The senselessness of it frustrated her to a new end, so she cast it all from her mind like old porcelain trinkets at a garage sale—everything must go. There were nightmares in this world and she suffered through her share of them after the lights went out, but she would no longer devote her conscious efforts to them.
Miles knew what a sensitive soul she was, yet within that sensitivity was a demanding reasoning for accountability and he respected that. As two they had spent countless evenings conversing over the issues of the world: what this meant and whom it affected, why one thing was this and not another, and so on. It was the tie that bound them on a molecular level and each believed that it would carry them through the rest of their lives as a single cerebral unit. These days though, Miles could feel her restless body squirming upon their bed and he knew that she was wrestling a nightmare. He would put one hand on hers and lightly squeeze it. As she toiled through her dreams he lay awake staring at a crack in the wall—the awful thoughts foisted into his isolated mind like the warnings from a pervasive town crier.
Each night a new dread surfaced—some fresh terror strained from the happenings of the day. He spent hours with his nose in the newspaper and both eyes fixated to a television. Something awful would fester on the screen and gradually transpose itself into a translucent entity, attaching itself to him like a leech, feasting on his frayed nerve endings. Sometimes he was lucky enough to brush it off for some of the day, staying focused at work or sitting down for a nice dinner with Karen, but when they settled for bed the awful thing settled with him, perched upon his shoulder like a nascent ghoul.
Their dog had stopped sleeping at the foot of the bed. For two years it shared the space with them, but no more. Now it took to the rug at the corner of the room near the dresser, just below the crack in the bedroom wall that he kept reminding himself he needed to repair. Miles would often look at the dog while he sat awake; he envied it. Some nights, when the thing was strong, he would gently rise and walk over to the rug and lie down next to the dog while Karen rolled back and forth. The dog did not mind having to share the wide space of the floor.
He wondered if it would just be better to dream the awful things like Karen—to let his subconscious take full command of the fears consuming his mind. Miles was an obsessive person and loathed to cede power to something out of his control, but his thoughts were becoming a considerable burden. He didn’t know why he had asked Karen the question regarding the nature of nightmares. Lately he had been asking her little questions about awful things as they prepared for bed. He told himself it was because he had missed their thoughtful conversations concerning the happenings of the world before the world turned dark.
Miles had noticed that she no longer wished to speak of troubling times. Their lively dinner conversations had transformed into well-meaning small talk about the events of their day—colleagues they had run into and friends’ new extravagant purchases showcased on social media—safe chit chat that aided digestion. He didn’t blame her for handling things in her own way, but he certainly missed his boon companion.
The brain has a rapid-fire thought mechanism that kicks in right before a person falls asleep, like a Gatling gun rattling off rounds of lead-tainted worries into the forefront of the mind. No longer distracted by the menial duties of daytime, the mind churns out scores of comprehensive thoughts concerning uncomfortable subjects. Miles knew this better than some. Those early hours of the night spent concentrating on crack in the wall comprised his dream world.
Dreams are truly unique in that way, thought Miles. Like the most concrete thought, they can be harnessed and controlled in the light but let them out of your mind’s sight for only a moment and they slip into the subconscious and fall prey to nightmares. In better times, his thoughts were encouraging, giving way to splendid dreams. But as uncertainty and grief overtook the world that they shared, as trepidation wove itself into the thread of everyday life, Miles tried to keep those sinister thoughts penned up, one arm hanging over the corral fence and an eye on their constant whereabouts. He wondered what Karen did with the awful thoughts she collected throughout an average day from the screens and newspapers. Where did she let them roam? Did she set them free like wild horses in her mind, knowing that they would have free reign as she slept?
It was late now. Karen was motionless for the time being and he thought about rising to go over and lie with the dog, but he decided against it. The wretched thoughts ricocheted inside his skull. And whether by a trickery of dim light or some other malicious influence, the crack in the wall appeared to grow wider.
Karen regularly rose early, beating her alarm clock to the punch. As she watched the sun rise and coat their bedroom with bright colors of gilded metal, she thought about the troubling nightmare she had during the night. The dream had greatly unsettled her. She knew Miles hadn’t been sleeping well and she liked to let him snooze while she showered and readied for work. It was a small gesture, but one that Miles greatly appreciated.
When he did rise to use the bathroom, after she had walked over and woke him with a kiss, he commented on the pleasing smell of shampoo and perfumes in the air. Karen smiled and he could see the cheerfulness return to her face. Everything within the bathroom was warm and alive and brilliant.
“How’d you sleep?” she asked.
“Not too bad, honey,” he replied. “How ‘bout you?”
“Oh, about the same.”
He nodded and walked towards the bathroom, yawning and scratching his head, feeling the small bumps and imperfections on his scalp.
“I was thinking that we could order a pizza tonight,” Karen said. “How does that sound?”
“I think it sounds great,” he said with a wry grin, turning his head sideways at her, his eyes still closed. It was a playful face he had made for years. She returned the teasing smile.
As Miles showered, Karen sliced open a grapefruit in the kitchen, pleased to see that it was nice and ripe on the inside; it was always difficult to know what was on the inside just by looking at the outer flesh. She took a pear and placed it inside the paper bag and wrote a little love note onto a small piece of paper and folded it carefully in half, sliding it between a sandwich wrapped tightly in waxed paper and a small bag of raw broccoli. She enjoyed packing his lunch for him and relished in placing little surprises to be found when he opened it each day at his office, imagining him doing so. Then she put the bag into the refrigerator to keep it all cool until they each had to leave for their respective offices.
Karen looked out the kitchen window as she washed a knife and saw the dog running from one end of the yard to the other, chasing something.
During many of his past daily meetings at work, Miles had been a warm and sensible addition to conversations. When those discussions focused on the news of the day and became heated, Miles was always ready with a thoughtful quip that could bring the table of men and women back into a consensus. After some meetings, coworkers would drop by his office and stick their head in for some continuation of their conversation or to seek clarification for some point that he had made and these pop-ins would morph into a deep and meaningful confab. During his performance evaluations, Miles’ supervisor frequently noted that he was an individual of high moral character and a palliative presence within the office. So when it came time for his latest performance evaluation, Miles was surprised when he was not greeted with a warm welcome from his supervisor, but was instead asked to close the door and take a seat.
“Miles,” the supervisor began, “I hope you know just how much I value having you on our team. What I want to discuss with you is not a criticism at all, so I hope it doesn’t come across as such, but rather just as a concern… as a friend.”
Miles could feel the tie grow tighter around his neck as the blood within his jugular began to pump aggressively.
“Okay, yes, Chuck, I mean, Charles, please,” said Miles. “Please go on, Mr. Douglas.”
His supervisor waved his hand in front of him, dismissing Miles’ comment.
“No, come on, Miles, none of that. Don’t feel like this is some sort of formality or anything. Don’t even think of this as part of your performance evaluation. Your work is still quite good and that’s not really the issue here. What I am concerned about is your demeanor… the way you’ve carried yourself lately. I don’t think I’m the only one here who’s noticed a change in your behavior. You seem distracted… quiet.”
Miles lowered his head but swiftly lifted it back up. He looked the man squarely in his eyes as he searched for the right words. There was a rising impulse within him to say something, to tell someone about the sleepless nights. Miles thought about the crack upon his bedroom wall and back to that morning’s drive listening to the news on the radio. It was all there, at the tip of his tongue, just waiting for him to coax it out.
“I really appreciate you bringing this to my attention, Charles,” Miles said.
“Miles, please, just Chuck.”
Miles managed a courteous grin.
“Chuck,” he said. “I appreciate you telling me this, Chuck. I really do.”
Miles took a moment to adjust himself within his seat, his mouth hanging open all the while.
“I think I’m just a bit exhausted lately. Perhaps I haven’t been getting enough sleep.”
The supervisor leaned in closer, resting his forearms on his desk in front of him, then brought one hand up to rest his chin on.
“Is everything alright at home?”
Miles flashed a quick glance at his supervisor that caused the man to ease back off his desk.
“Or, rather, would you prefer to talk to someone from H.R.? You’re not in any trouble or anything like that, Miles. Quite the contrary. My only basis for bringing this up is strictly one of concern for a friend. I do miss our chats.”
“That’s quite kind of you to say, Chuck,” said Miles, relaxing. “I really don’t think it’s necessary for a chat with H.R., but thank you for the concern. How about we plan to catch a game soon down at the ballpark? Give us some time to catch up?”
“I’d like that very much, Miles,” replied his supervisor. “Let’s do that.”
Miles went to the break room to retrieve his lunch at noon. He placed the paper bag on his desk near the newspaper that he had gathered from his yard on the way to the car that morning. He opened the bag and saw the top half of the note sticking out from between the two items. Smiling as he opened it, Miles read the note slowly. He read it a few times then opened the bottom drawer of his desk and slipped the note into a manila folder with the others.
He unfolded the newspaper and spread the front page to his left and began to scan the headlines as he took out the pear and placed it onto a napkin before him. It was a fine-looking pear, free of blemishes and bruises. When he took his first bite, he could sense that something was off, for there was a strange texture and a foul, dank taste. He looked down at the pear and saw a matted and crude spoilage inside of it. Something black and foul was near its core. He absentmindedly chewed a bit more, looking at the rot as he did and tasting the unpleasantness. He picked up the napkin and opened it, letting the masticated filth drop from his tongue. Looking it over, he saw the awful thing wet and ruined—spoiled and wasted.
Dropping the napkin into the wastebasket, he took out a small knife from his desk and cut around the rotten section of the fruit, digging the dark mass out like a frontline surgeon, making sure that it had all been excavated. He looked the pear over carefully and examined it under the overhead fluorescent lights of his office, then he took another bite.
When Miles turned into the driveway, he could see that Karen’s car was not there. She had been working late the last few months in order to be eligible for a promotion. He pulled into the garage and as he opened the door into the home, he readied himself for the dog who had been anxiously awaiting his return. The dog jumped up at him the moment there was enough room for it to slip through the door. Miles laughed as he chased the dog to the back sliding door and watched as it darted out into the yard. He took the refolded newspaper out from under his arm and tossed it onto the table.
It was near seven in the evening when Karen finally arrived. She had sent a message to Miles saying that she would be home shortly. He had ordered a pizza so that it would arrive soon after she did. After setting her things down, they settled at the dinner table without saying anything to one another as Miles spread out the National News section of the paper in front of him. He reached for a slice of pizza and looked at his wife’s eyes and noticed how tired she appeared; those hoary eyes, half open and drained of their regular vivacity. He reached over and set the piece of pizza he had taken onto her plate.
“I really loved the note you put in my lunch,” he said. “What luck I have to be married to a woman who despite being so hard-working and active still finds the time to drop me unexpected displays of compassion.”
As she smiled back at him, he could see some of the morning’s light return to her eyes.
“I like doing it, Miles,” she said. “I think it’s important.”
He put his hand on hers for a moment and kept it there, then pulled it back and brought the newspaper closer. As he began to scan the photographs, he paused. He looked over at the dog and watched as it sat and returned his stare. In the next moment, he picked up the newspaper and held it over to his side, folding it over and over until it was back to its original compact shape. He then got up from the table and went over to the recycle bin and dropped the paper into it. Returning to the table, he sat down and began watching his wife. She was reading a magazine set next to her plate.
“Karen, honey, may I ask you something?”
She looked up after finishing the line she was reading.
“Why did we stop talking to one another about certain things?”
She chewed her food with as thoughtful of an expression as someone in the middle of chewing food might. Once she swallowed, she leaned back and put her hands onto the napkin on her lap and gripped it tightly.
“I don’t know why,” she said. “I think at some point we just started handling all of this bad news lately a little differently.”
He motioned at her plate.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know you’ve worked late. We don’t have to talk about this now. Why don’t you go ahead and eat.”
“No,” she said, ignoring her plate. “I’m glad you brought this up. I want to talk about it. I think we need to talk about the things happening out there. It’s important.”
“Maybe we should just ignore the rest of the world for a while?”
“That would be the easiest solution, sure,” she said. “But it’s not like horrible things aren’t going to continue happening out there. And more importantly, it’s not like we’re going to not hear about those things and not think about them.”
He leaned across the table.
“That’s what I’ve been thinking,” he said. “I want to be honest with you. I want to let you know what I’ve been thinking. I want to know what you’ve been thinking. We’re like a mystery to one another lately. At least, that’s how I feel.”
She nodded in agreement.
“Though, I do have to say,” she began, “I feel like I’ve been getting a pretty good picture of your mindset lately from your comments at night.”
At this, Miles lowered his head. “Yeah, I’m sorry about that. Sometimes at night I think things just boil over.”
She nodded again. “I think I’ve just been trying to push all the world out of my mind.”
“You’ve been having more nightmares lately.”
“The dog won’t sleep with us on the bed anymore.”
“Poor guy. The problems of the world affect him, too.”
She gave him a puzzled look. “Have you gone on the floor with him?”
“I have,” he replied. “I haven’t been sleeping well lately.”
“I know,” she said.
“I don’t spend the whole night on the floor, just a few minutes or an hour at most.”
“I hope you don’t mind. It’s got nothing to do with you.”
“I know that, too,” she said.
The pizza on their plates had lost its warm, greasy sheen and faded, hardening.
“I’m tired of having nightmares,” she said.
He put his hand onto hers once again.
“I’m tired of laying on the floor with the dog, honey.”
She smirked and he scooted his chair next to hers.
“We should talk to one another more,” he said. “Perhaps one of the reasons why things are so screwed up with the world at large is because people don’t take the time to talk to one another anymore. Everyone just listens to themselves in one way or another.”
“Maybe it’s a cliché thing to say,” he said with a smile. “But it’s probably at least partially true, right? Who knows. Sure, talking to one another isn’t going to solve all the world’s problems, but it certainly can’t hurt, right?”
“No, I doubt it’d hurt,” she said.
“Right. So let’s lead by example and talk to one another again. If something affects us, let’s discuss it like we always used to. I can’t tell you how many of our old conversations I’ve cataloged into my brain. Lately my well has run dry. I miss our lively rap sessions—we need each other. It’s a lonely world for an isolated mind.”
“But let’s talk about the good things too, Miles” she said. “Let’s talk about the very good things that make us happy and also about the things that trouble us. The world gets uglier and more frightening each and every day and talking through it helps to make reason out of the senselessness but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about what is decent. When we first fell in love, we talked all down the spectrum of things.”
“We did,” he said. “We sure did.”
“I’m not happy with the world right now, Miles.”
He pursed his lips and squeezed her hand.
“But I know I can’t ignore it either,” she added.
“It’s true,” he said. “We can’t ignore what makes this world a worthwhile place. We’ll take the out with the in, the yin and the yang.”
“Oh god, that sounds so hackneyed,” she said while wincing.
“Doesn’t it?” he said as he closed his eyes and turned his head sideways at her.
“Can we finish eating first?” she asked.
While they ate the dog kept a silent watch on the yard by the back sliding door.
That night, after wading through a lengthy and fruitful conversation that had long been percolating, Miles and Karen both slept and their dreams came as soft and light as the burgeoning dawn. Something awful set to slumber.
Michael A. Ferro‘s debut novel, TITLE 13, will be published by Harvard Square Editions in early 2018. He was awarded the Jim Cash Creative Writing Award for Fiction and his writing has appeared in numerous journals in both print and online, including Crack the Spine, IBPA’s Independent Magazine, Chicago Literati, Splitsider, Random Sample Review, The Avalon Literary Review, The Corvus Review, Potluck Magazine, and elsewhere. Born and bred in Detroit, Michael has lived, worked, and written throughout the Midwest; he currently resides in rural Ann Arbor, Michigan. Additional information can be found at: www.michaelaferro.com and @MichaelFerro.