Dreams. Sometimes they’re pleasant. Sometimes they’re nightmares. You jolt out of sleep, stare at the ceiling and ask yourself, where the hell did that come from? What does it mean? Does it mean anything at all?
What’s going on in your life? Is it a warning, fantasy, or just a dream?
Maybe it was something you ate before you went to bed. Upon being confronted by Marley’s Ghost in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge declares: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
This month, D. Z. Church and Janet Dawson offer two very different short stories that feature dreams. Enjoy!
D. Z. Church
“I had my recurring dream again,” my sister Lynn said. We were sharing a booth in our local diner. She took a sip of coffee from a mug, a saying emblazoned on one side. “You know the one.”
I put my logoed-up coffee cup down. “The one where you’re standing over my open grave? You have that dream whenever I irritate you and have ever since I smacked you with my rattle for stealing my bottle.”
“It’s just … it felt real this time. There was blood on your face, your hands, your chest.” Lynn’s normally perfect hair was in some weird updo.
“Open coffin then,” I snickered, stabbing a stack of maple syrup-drenched pancakes.
Lynn scanned the people trailing out the door pre-pandemic style waiting for one of the packed booths. When no one was looking, she snuck a fillet knife from her handbag. “I found this on my welcome mat this morning.”
“Why would you bring it here?”
She shrugged, munching on a forkful of eggs while stroking the knife.
“Amos?” I ventured.
“I saw you with him two nights ago.”
“We did a little window shopping for your big birthday.”
“He didn’t get home until after midnight.” She folded her napkin and slit it along the fold. I guess to show me how sharp the knife was.
“I dropped him off outside your flat around 8:30. I was home at nine. Unfortunately, my only witness barks.”
“Amos told me he was with friends.”
I narrowed my eyes and sipped coffee. “My guess is he hooked up with his buddies at the corner bar and played pool.”
“I suppose,” she shrugged, forking more eggs. “It’s fishy though.”
I laughed, “That’s what the knife is for, fish, right?”
She twirled it on its point until people stared. “Amos and you?”
“You’ve had the same dream since you were five. I’m always dead. I’d have to be crazy to provoke you. Wouldn’t I?”
“I was six. The rattle hurt. And Mom yelled at me.” She slurped more coffee, her fingers busy caressing the blade. “Mom always took your side.”
“Put the knife away. Then call Amos and ask him where he was. Trust me, he was playing pool. He hasn’t looked at another woman since your first date.”
“Already called him. He was evasive.”
The waitress came by with the coffee pot and refilled our cups. The knife caught her eye. “I have one just like it. It’s the best. I can take the bones out of a trout before it stops wiggling.”
I didn’t like the sounds of that. “I’ve never asked, do you kill me in your dream?”
“Not sure. I always kind of blackout and then wake up to find you awaiting a shovel of dirt.” She poured ketchup on her potatoes, enough that rivulets ran on her plate. It was unsettling. “The dream was so real I thought I might have done it this time. Doesn’t that worry you?” She tucked a piece of her dark hair back into her bun with the curved knife’s tip.
I cut another triangle in my pancakes. “It’s your dream. Though finding a filet knife on your doormat is a bit freaky.”
“And bloody. I wiped it off and threw the towel in the trash chute. Are you sure you’re okay?” Her eyes came to rest on my chest. She poked it with the knife. “There’s a red stain spreading down your blouse?”
“You’re crazy.” Still, I checked for ketchup.
“You can’t see it? It’s there. Should I call someone over?” She whispered, glancing here and there until people stared at me.
“Quit gaslighting me.” I jammed my fork into my last pancake and ate.
She jabbed a home-fried potato with the filet knife, dipped it in ketchup, and raised it to her lips. “I’m not afraid to use this. I do in my dream. Oops. Whether I will or won’t now depends on you. I know you and Amos are having secret meetings. I hate the whispered calls.”
“Surprise party. Your favorite restaurant. Invites are sent.”
“Amos, that rat, what a liar.” Lynn laughed, waggling the knife, then whispered, “Still I had that dream. You were dead. Dead. Dead.”
Rachel was falling, her body plummeting off a high cliff toward the roiling water far below. The sheer, rocky face of the cliff sped by. One minute she was looking up at a dark, cloudy sky, then she was staring down at surging blue water, white sea spray frothing as the ocean pounded on the jagged rocks below. She pawed the air, frantic, as the water and rocks got closer.
Then she woke up.
Her heart pounded with terror. She gasped for breath. Her body felt sweaty. Was it from the dream? Or was the down comforter too warm for this night? Early morning, she corrected. The readout on the nearby clock said it was 2:47 AM. She sat up and threw off the comforter, propping herself with the pillows, willing her breathing to slow.
She’d had the dream many times over the past few months. When it started, she was aware of being somewhere high, a windswept cliff, a barren mountaintop. She’d get a peculiar feeling, as though something bad was about to happen. Then came the long fall toward the water.
Why? There must be a reason. She’d consulted the Internet. Dreams about falling might signify loss of control over an important situation. Or difficulty making a decision. Dreams about falling into water might mean fear of swimming or of the ocean. Which really didn’t apply, since she wasn’t afraid of either.
Could it be her job? Maybe. Things were hectic at work and she was up for a promotion. She’d gone after the new position, with its higher salary and increased responsibility. But was this a warning? Be on your guard? Perhaps she wasn’t ready to move up.
What about the breakup with Zack? He was angry when she ended the relationship. The phone calls finally stopped. She hadn’t heard from him in months. No, that was over and done. The dreams must be due to her uneasiness over the promotion.
She turned off the light, hoping to get back to sleep, but it was slow to come. A few hours later, she joined the commuters at the Alameda ferry terminal. When the boat docked in San Francisco, she stopped at the Ferry Building for coffee and pastry. As she headed out the front door and waited for the walk signal to cross the Embarcadero, she thought she saw a tall figure wearing a gray hoodie, caught a glimpse of a face that looked familiar. A coworker? Not sure. The light changed and she crossed the street.
She hadn’t discussed the dreams with anyone, but today she mentioned them to Carla, a work friend. They ate lunch together a couple of times a week. Carla immediately went into Dr. Google mode, looking up dream interpretations on her smartphone. Nothing that Rachel hadn’t already found out from her own web searches. In the end, Carla agreed with her that it must be about the promotion. Surely once the decision was made and Rachel settled into her new position, the dreams would go away.
She was late leaving the office that evening, rushing across the Embarcadero, just in time to catch the boat back to Alameda. She took the stairs to the upper deck, where she stood outside at the stern, leaning on the railing. As the boat headed across the bay, she looked up at the bridge, high overhead, glad she wasn’t driving. She shivered. Dark clouds in the distance promised rain.
Suddenly she had that feeling, the one she got early in the dream, that something bad was going to happen. She turned, back against the railing, feeling disoriented. A man rushed toward her, tall, head covered with a gray hoodie pulled low to obscure his face. But she recognized him. Zack! Before she could cry out, he shoved her hard against the railing. Gathering strength, she pushed back, then stepped to one side as he renewed his attack.
But it was he who fell into the surging blue water, white spray frothing against the boat.
Other passengers cried, “Man overboard.” The ferry crew pounded up the stairs and the boat’s whistle shrieked.
She gasped, feeling cold. The dream. It had indeed been a warning, a premonition.
D. Z. Church
A Lovely Place to Die: Vicksburg National Military Park
Over the years, I have visited several Civil War battlefields, some more than once. Antietam, Gettysburg, and Vicksburg among them. The crosses at Gettysburg are arresting. And there is an uneasiness where Pickett charged. Antietam has a weird peace to it. But Vicksburg, oh my!
The first time I visited, I was eight years old. My father was an inveterate stopper at memorials, so we stopped at each, including that of the Illinois battalions being Illinoisans. It sits at the edge of a mown area that recedes into the tangled scraggly trees of the deep south.
The usual displays of cannons and the drawings of the battle are all there. But there is more … a hum on the breeze that nags at you.
Late in the day, Dad parked at another monument near the base of a hill topped by a white gazebo. The Mississippi flowed below the bluffs, charting its way to New Orleans. I ran up the hill toward the small structure. Voices stopped me. I heard them all around me. Men, whispers, anguish, hunger. I couldn’t move.
The moment my family joined me, they vanished. Perhaps. My sister and I ran the rest of the way uphill, Mother just behind us. But Dad stopped where I had and closed his eyes.
Years later, while working in Jackson, MS, I made a special trip to Vicksburg – wondering. I followed the guided tour, accidentally in sync with a family on vacation from Michigan. They had two kids, a boy and a girl about ten and eight who considered me part of their outing after the second stop.
In the lead, I rounded the hill in my rental car and there was the gazebo. I parked and mounted the path expecting the shift of time to dull my perception. But there they were, the cries, the huffs, the whispers.
The Michiganders parked. The kids ran full tilt up the path to join me. The girl stopped. Her brother looked at her, then spun. She turned to me, her eyes the size of walnuts. “Do you hear them, do you?” she asked. “The voices?”
“That was a cannon,” the boy whispered.
Joining us, his father responded, “They shoot them off throughout the day at the visitor’s center.”
The boy shook his head, looking up at me. I nodded and put a hand down for each of the kids. As we walked up to the gazebo, the girl said, “My heart hurts.”
Go to the battlefield if you can. And, as for me, those voices inform me as I write the Wanee Mysteries.