One

 

MOTHER SAID there was no change in Reeves at the hospital.

Something must have happened at work for her to come home early enough to visit him, but to find out what would require discussion. I wasn’t in the mood to speak with a Magic 8 Ball: shake her up and get nothing but two-word answers. Not that I could blame the woman. When a single day puts your husband in a morgue and your son in a coma, it changes life from being a triple-time waltz to a demo session for hell.

That didn’t mean I couldn’t resent the emptiness. More family members were lost than those lying on their backs.

She told me about the visit over dinner. I nodded like it was news, then took my leave. The sound of nothing but forks against china was as unbearable as her vacant expression.

I ran down to the basement to stretch; the sting of being a well-practiced ballerina was liberating. When I turned eleven, my dad had installed a large mirror in the basement and a proper floor so I could practice at home instead of having to rely on the studio. It was a safe haven in my own house.

Looking into that mirror now proved even havens were no guarantee of protection.

Earlier that day I visited Dad. His gravestone was starting to lose its reflective sheen and the short, bristly grass no longer shied away from its edges. His soul was whittled down to a few clichéd words, long since memorized, that even he would have laughed at:

Forever in our hearts

Abe James Dinham

Too well loved to ever be forgotten

That was complete crap. Every other headstone in the place bore a similar sentiment yet was left weaponless against the forces of nature, even if they were just the mild New Jersey winters and summers.

Eventually the edges crumble off all our graves.

I wasn’t going to say everything else in the world melted away as I danced, but it allowed my thinking to become more mechanical. I stretched on the hardwood floors, now scuffed from hundreds of solo rehearsals, until my thighs burned so fiercely it was impossible to focus on anything other than the sensation.

Impossible to think about the shriveled remains of a greenhouse massacre I found every week on Dad’s grave from the blossoms I lined up each visit.

Impossible to think about the driver’s license under a year’s worth of thrown shoes and forgotten books at the back of my closet. Cars put my father six feet under; I didn’t need to add another to the road.

I laced my calloused feet into the stiff pointe shoes and warmed up. Straddle. Splits. Barre work. There wasn’t any need to think about them. It all led up to pirouettes, which I lost myself in until the room refused to stop spinning and my inverted toes were suicidal.

Lazy. That’s what I was. It was less than two weeks until my auditions with the Manhattan Dance Conservatory, and if I didn’t get in, I was screwed. Still, stewing over my fears seemed less painful than actually practicing my choreography. At least Mother had agreed to drive me to the city for the audition. That was one small blessing.

Eventually Mother tapped on the door and told me it was time to go to bed. I didn’t dare disagree.

That night, when the lights went out, my brain flashed on as it did so often in the past year. I ended up lying on my mattress watching the fluorescent numbers of the alarm clock, counting them down and focusing on the shapes of the lines turned sideways by my tilted head. I felt like I was floating or on the tipping point of dropping off into slumber.

Generally, when I dreamed, nightmares flickered behind my eyes; whether they sprang from perpetual nervousness or the demise of my family was up for grabs. That night something beautiful swirled through my mind instead. A beach.

Mist hovered over the ground, blocking my view of the sand that was undoubtedly below. This fog was so thick and milky it was as if I was in the middle of a cloud, with cirrus tendrils lapping onto the shore instead of waves. Every sound was subdued under the dove-gray skies and heavy air. Even the splashing waves seemed distant.

I was walking along barefoot, making sure to dig in my toes with each careful step, when a figure appeared in the distance, a small shadow that enlarged as we neared each other. I was soon able to make out the outline of a cloak, flowing around its wearer and fluttering like butterfly wings.

No woman in reality could ever possess such grace. That’s how I realized it had to be a dream. Her skin was barely lighter than the dark of night and a hood was pulled so far over her head it was impossible to make out whether she had any hair. The whites of her eyes stood out greatly in contrast to her skin, matching the intense purity of the lace parasol hanging over her right arm. Her clothing was iridescent and looked almost like oil as it reflected cloudy rainbows with her movements. Whatever mystical material it was composed of was also utilized in the creation of the long dress she wore, which dragged along behind her but failed to leave a trail in the sand. We were close, barely two feet apart, when she began to speak.

“You are Victoria Lindy Dinham.”

It was not spoken as a question, but silence began unfurling between us, so I responded with an affirmative and she nodded pleasantly.

“Your brother wants me to thank you. This is from him.” Her voice reminded me of the calm after a thunderstorm. She reached into her cloak and fiddled around as if trying to find something, then removed a single white carnation and held it out.

“My brother?” I asked incredulously, too taken aback to reach for the flower.

She looked a bit unsure with her arm still outstretched.

“Yes. He wanted to thank you for the stories and inform you that he’s found a new kingdom.”

Sleepless, nightmare-ridden nights that sent our prepubescent selves running to my closet, nicknamed The Kingdom, to read stories lurched into my memory. Those days were as dead as my father and reliving them didn’t make things any easier.

Her patience seemed to be wearing thin. Either that or her arm was growing tired, so she took the flower and tucked it behind my ear.

“The stories,” I began, ready to cross-examine some answers out of whoever this was, “How do you know about The Kingdom? Who are you?”

“Oh, I’m just a friend. A friend of your brother’s, that is, although I have met you before. Admittedly, not as often as I’d like, but that’s how it goes.”

Was she kidding me? I finally get a dream with neither car accidents nor hospitals, and the star of it is a delusional stalker. Figures.

“I’m not taking that as an answer. Seriously, who are you?” I looked around at the unreal situation. Even asleep I knew there was no way to communicate with Reeves and decided just to cut to the chase.

Remembering something I had read once, I said, “This is a dream, correct? It’s impossible to dream of someone you’ve never seen, and I know for a fact I’ve never met you before.”

Endearing giggles slipped past her closed lips. “You’re clever. I like you. How do you know you’ve never seen me before? Dreams are filled with random passersby you hardly even noticed on the street. You have a lifetime of unnoticed faces to work with.”

“No, I’d remember you. I’ve never seen someone so perfect in all my life.”

That wasn’t a compliment; it was a fact. The girl looked like she could’ve walked off a cover for some sort of intergalactic edition of Cosmopolitan magazine. Her face lit up like a fireworks display.

“I’ll take your word for it. If you must know, my name is Ashlinn and I create dreams. Your brother is happy and did, in fact, send me. That’s all I’ll disclose for now.”

I nodded as if this was a perfectly normal thing to hear in everyday conversation, but my confusion was Titan-like in its enormity. She spoke of my brother as if he weren’t comatose, but out there interacting. Living. Now, I may not have seen the car accident firsthand, but I knew the damage it had done wasn’t easily reversible.

“I want proof,” I said, like the star of some B action movie.

She raised an eyebrow at me and swung a foot in front of her, creating crescent moons in the sand.

“Proof? If that flower isn’t proof enough once you awaken, then how about this: I know more about The Kingdom than what his message gave me to work with. The sandman, huh?”

My eyes grew so wide I might as well have been an animated princess. Ashlinn saw I wasn’t going to be able to form sentences any time soon and threw in another comment.

“I must say I am flattered, especially considering you are the one so interested.”

The waves were starting to sound even farther away than they had before, and she looked up at me.

“You’re going to wake up soon. It has been nice meeting you. An absolute pleasure, even.”

She nodded and turned to start walking off again, much in the way she had come, but before the fog could envelop her I reached out, shouting, “Wait!”

With my hand around her wrist, which felt almost insubstantial in my grasp, she turned back to me and lifted a questioning eyebrow.

“Let me see you again. Please.”

At the time there was no good reason to have said it; the whole thing was completely impulsive, but looking back I could at least pretend I stopped her because she was my only connection to Reeves. I wanted so badly to believe there was a way to communicate with him. My brother was gone forever in my eyes, and if the amount of machinery they had hooked him up to couldn’t bring him back, I was doubtful anything could get through, yet she delivered words he might have once thought. Even the hope of such a miracle was better than nothing.

She started shaking her head “no,” and I released her wrist dejectedly, but then she sighed in frustration and growled.

“Fine. I’ll see you tomorrow night as long as you try to tell yourself what just happened was only a dream, and the next one will coincidentally feature the same girl.”

Before I could nod, the sand rushed away toward the direction of the ocean like an hourglass tilted sideways.

As the alarm clock screeched on my bedside table, I remembered having dreamed but was too exhausted to try and recall it completely at the moment. Only two thoughts swirled through my head: there was a girl in a magic cloak I had to see again, and nothing was more important than actually managing to get to sleep that night.

As I tumbled out of bed to begin preparing for the day, something fell from my head to the floor in front of me. I reached down blindly to pick it up, then turned on the lights.

A white carnation. Creamy petals that dented with a touch and a stem that could be marred by fingernails. Real.

It made me seven minutes late running out the door in the direction of my high school because of how long I spent trying to ensure its existence.

And if the bloom just happened to find its way into my bag there was no need to mention such a thing.