I wake with the familiar feeling that something has gone horribly wrong. The smell of blood fresh from my memory permeates the room. The dark corners of the room look haunted and unknowable.
It’s just a dream, she had said in the same room, the same bed. Same sheets. Shh, baby.
I force myself to stay in bed until my heartbeat slows. The sense of panic still has not quite faded away. All I want is to run out of the room and into the kids’, check that they are there and okay and sleeping.
But they aren’t, are they? They aren’t there. Not for the reason that has me so afraid, but for the simple fact that Claire has taken them away to their grandmother’s. Until the government lets her take them for good. I asked her what she was planning to do, where she was planning to go. She’d just said, “Away.”
I don’t want to think about her, but I can’t stop. She presented me with a decision yesterday that she wouldn’t let me make. And I had agreed. I’d signed it. Everything was going to change.
I step carefully onto the floor. The silence surrounds me, clutches at the edges of my ears as though there isn’t space enough in the room to contain it all. Not even the motion of my feet across the floor seems to cut through it. Outside, I can hear the grinding of a lawnmower, but it sounds like I am listening to it through a long tunnel. This reality seems so much less real, less authentic, than the one that exists in my dreams.
In the moment between realities, on the teetering edge of wakefulness, I had been aware that I was irrationally filled with rage, an anger so detached from everything I understood about the person who I am while I am awake that I knew—or hoped—that it had been just a dream. That the man who I was within that state of mind was simply a figment of my imaginings, a product of my dreamstate disorder. I can recall it all so clearly—the emotions, the thoughts, the feeling of becoming real to myself. It was a dream that felt different from the others.
I step out into the hallway. The door to the children’s room is closed, as it had been the night before. I’d shut it right before I went to bed, after uncounted minutes of watching blankly the perfectly-made sheets, dressed just the way Claire had taught Rachel and Michael. I twist the doorknob, feeling the cold metal yield smoothly beneath my hand. The beds are the same, empty and untouched. It is as I expected.
I can feel the beat of my heart escalate as I walk closer and closer to the scene that feels branded into my mind. I remember exactly how I cut across the living room in the dream, how the texture of the carpeting feels beneath me, how the light reflects off the mirrors and picture frames along the wall. Everything is the same, so real it feels staged. Down the stairs to the garage, a single flick of a finger for light. The door looks perfectly normal and innocent. I open it and tell myself it didn’t happened—I didn’t actually do it. Claire must be right about this. I need to believe that right now.
There is no sign that she was here at all. The space next to my car is empty. All of the kids’ toys and bikes are still down here, piled in the corner of the garage. I can let the dream go.
Only—there’s a scent in the air. It is incredibly familiar, though I can’t pinpoint it exactly. It smells a little bit like the compost Claire and I used to dig up in the fall to garden, after all the spring and summer’s flowers had broken down. Floral. But it is the wrong season now and we stopped that routine a long time ago. I rub my eyes hard enough to see spots. Then, between one blink and another I remember how the pale arm looked in my dream, but I shake it away. It didn’t happen.
Except that now, from where I am standing, I can see a slender, white form sticking out from underneath the pink rocking horse in that corner. And it smells. It smells like her. It’s Claire’s perfume, the scent I’ve always known her to wear, and it smells like that but sweeter, thicker.
This is another dream. It has to be. I am dreaming within a dream. I will wake up in a matter of moments and realize that I have just fallen asleep at the dining room table where Claire and I met for the last time, my tea grown cold and the papers still unsigned. Or I will wake up and she’ll still be curled in bed with me, her soft hand covering my heart, her blond hair tickling my ear. Or I will be daydreaming back on that corner on that windy night and this time, when she steps off the sidewalk, I will let her walk on past me.
I think we can both agree that would be best.