Dream Wide Awake
He felt her eyes on him before she spoke.
Her breath warmed his cheek. She stood so close remnants of last night’s snack—her mom’s favorite, watermelon gumdrops—mingled with mint toothpaste and reminded him she was a little Lisa, only fearless.
He lie still. Held the sweet smell for a moment and waited for the familiar poke. The prod came. One miniature finger pecking three times, knocking at his shoulder.
“Daddy? Are you in there?”
He loved that she pictured him inside his own head. Yet, he hated it, too.
“Yes, Mikala.” He stretched his legs, careful not to wake Lisa. “I’m in here.”
“Marky is close now.”
His eyes snapped open.
“How close, sweet pea?”
“In my room.”
Jack Daly sat up and swung his legs over the bed, feeling for his shorts on the floor with his toes. He placed his feet in the leg holes, stood, and pulled them over his boxers.
“I can see the movie better,” she said lowly, shuffling her pink, puppy slippers backward to give him room.
“Quiet, darling, let’s not wake Mommy,” he whispered, but the request was in vain. The covers rustled as Lisa rolled over. She tugged a pillow over her head to muffle their words. She didn’t approve of their morning chats.
“Okay,” Mikala whispered softly from the doorway. A ray of moonlight cheated its way through the corner of a window blind and fell faintly on her eager form. She stood hands raised, fingers wiggling.
He whisked her up in his arms, her one-size-too-big flannelled pajamas bunching over wiry arms and legs, and her long blond locks cascading over tiny shoulders. He turned and backed out of the room, closing the door behind him. When he released his hand, the doorknob clunked to the floor, and the door drifted ajar.
“Damn it,” he whispered, tucking Mikala close as he leant to look for the handle. “Oops, sorry, sweetie.”
“It’s okay, Daddy.”
Normally, he refrained from swearing around the kids, but his procrastination had thrust him into a parental slip of the tongue. Shirking home-upkeep chores naturally accompanied tough work cases. Plus he hated odd jobs. Twirling a screwdriver and dipping a paint brush had never been his forte. He hoped the knob-less door didn’t remind Lisa he hadn’t patched the wall in the boy’s bedroom or touched up the kitchen backsplash. Their homey little tri-level needed a makeover.
For lack of vision, he swirled one foot over the hall carpeting until he felt the knob against his foot, and then he kicked the nuisance to the side and glanced down the hall toward the fluorescent yellow lights of the cartoon clock in Mikala’s bedroom. 4:44. The time was always about the same when the dreams called her from the night. His fingers found the hall light switch, and their world lit up.
“Let’s go downstairs, so we don’t wake your brothers.”
“We don’t have time for coffee.”
He smiled. She knew the routine. Milk and coffee in their favorite mugs at the kitchen counter. He shouldn’t be amused. He knew what was coming, but despite all, her youthful wisdom still grabbed him.
“Okay, sweetie.” He sat down at the top of the staircase, and her little frame collapsed into his lap. One of her arms landed squarely around his shoulder. “You said Marky is in your room?”
“Yes, he played the movie, bigger.”
Her voice tickled his eardrums. He loved its young, high-pitched tone that hadn’t kept time with her six years. He savored the youthful shrill, knowing when she grew older, like Lisa, the years would age her sweet voice, and life would cloud her innocent interpretation of the dreams.
He yawned and thread the thick, caramel-colored hair garnishing his forehead with his fingers, smoothing an annoying clump to the side. The tuft bounced back defiantly. He frowned. “Can you see the other little boy, yet?”
“Yes, but I didn’t look at his face. I wanted to wait. So I am safe with you.”
“You’re safe, sweet pea.”
“I’m scared.” Her fingernails pressed into the skin on his shoulder.
Her dreams seldom frightened her. He could lead her away from the bad parts, talk her around the murder, so she didn’t experience the horror. He wasn’t completely sure about all this. Her psychologist said she didn’t seem damaged in the least from her nightmares, but then they hadn’t been completely truthful about everything. These weren’t really nightmares. “Why? You aren’t normally afraid.”
“Because I recognize the room in the movie.”
He turned to face her. “It’s familiar?” He scratched an itch at the back of his neck with his free hand.
“What do you recognize about it?”
“It’s Danny’s room.”
He stopped breathing.
Doubting his daughter’s words had long escaped him. Since she first explained about the movies—dreaming wide awake, she called the phenomena—their accuracy had dissolved any disbelief. But this couldn’t be. She must be wrong this time. Marky, the boy in her dreams, relayed movies of strangers. Visions that remarkably resembled abductions in their hometown.
Years before, he merely suspected she inherited her mother’s gift. Now, he knew. She was Lisa’s replica. The one difference? Mikala was strong willed like her aunt Rachel, grounded at age six. Lisa couldn’t handle the dreams. Mikala could more than handle them. Like a miniature newscaster, she announced each scene to him until she came too close to the scary parts, and he nudged her by them.
An investigator promoted from the police force three years ago, the fact his own daughter had a sixth sense was anything but coincidental. After all, his occupation and this curse of a trait so alive in his in-law’s family is what had led him to Lisa.
But this was different. Now the gift—curse—befell his daughter.
“Danny? As in your cousin Danny?”
“Yes. Can I close my eyes now?” She poked her chin out and shut her eyes before he responded.
“Sure, sweetie, but I think you’re confused.”
“No, I’m not confused.” She scrunched her lids tighter. “I can see Danny’s Superman bed.”
“There are lots of Superman beds.” He kept his arms around her still while she concentrated. As if absence of movement could clarify her vision, erase his nephew from her mind’s view.
“No, it’s Danny’s. I can see the three Batman stickers. The ones Aunt Janice yelled at him for putting on his bed.”
This wasn’t normal. Typically, she described streets, houses, faces of strangers, never people or places she knew. Two months ago, after Marky Blakley turned up missing, she’d described the boy’s lisp to perfection. Said he came to her. Showed her the scar on his finger where the spokes of a neighbor boy’s tricycle had cut a piece off—a bit of information never released by the department. Then Marky began showing her movies of other little boys. In her head. Scenes of an abductor targeting children of single mothers flooded her mind.
But this couldn’t be. This was Danny, his sister’s son.
“The bad man broke the glass of Danny’s window and then held up the white washcloth—the sleepy cloth.”
“Mikala, look at the boy in the bed, his face. You’re confused.”
She was quiet, still, her expression soft. Lip relaxed against lip. Then her eyes opened.
“He can see me.”
At first, because of her casualness, he thought he’d surely heard her wrong.
“Who can see you?”
“The bad man.”
His calmness faded to confusion. He tightened his eyebrows. Premonitions, they called these episodes. His wife experienced them, now his daughter. But they were never interactive.
“What do you mean he can see you?”
“He said my name. He has a guide.”
“You know, Daddy, someone who shows him movies. He knows who I am.”
“No, Mikala, the bad man does not know who you are.”
“Yes, he does, Daddy.” For the first time, he heard panic in her voice. “That’s the reason he is at Danny’s house.”
A creak in the floor behind him grabbed his attention, and he turned his head. Lisa darted from the bedroom, ripped Mikala from his arms, and handed him something in her place.
“I told you not to allow this. I said you were playing with fire.”
“Lisa, she’s wrong. He can’t see her.”
“Yes, he can, Daddy.”
“No, he can’t, Mikala.” He lowered his voice to sound stern.
“Yes—yes he can. He’s with Danny right now. Run Daddy. Get Danny!”
“Go.” Lisa screamed so loud one of the boys in the next room woke crying.
Jack looked down at his lap—at the ratty sneakers Lisa had placed there. For the moment it took him to put them on, he wondered if he should run or drive the block and a half to his sister’s house. He decided, descended the stairs, and bounded out the front door bare-chested, leaving Lisa behind switching on lights and talking into the scanner. She would call for a cruiser to go to Janice’s house, to her own house. But Mikala was wrong about Danny. She had to be. He was going to be in a heap of trouble with the chief later.
He ran down the driveway and disappeared into the black night within seconds. His legs turned over like an Olympic sprinter’s, his breath labored, and sweat beaded on his upper lip. He rounded Third Street and nearly slipped in the wet grass on Nevada Drive but caught himself. He saw her house in the distance. Janice, four months separated from her husband, was alone there with her son. Alone like the others. Three single mothers of three abducted little boys.
His mind raced. The police would be at his house in two minutes. At Janice’s in three. They protected each other’s families.
When he was four houses away, he began screaming his sister’s name. Trying to scare anyone off. Make the bad man drop the child? Leave without the child? He didn’t know why he screamed. By the time his feet hit her driveway her light had turned on. The front bedroom window opened.
“Jack?” Janice’s voice slithered through the screen.
He passed her window and ran toward the back of the house, toward Danny’s room. He could see broken glass on the ground shimmering with the reflection of a street light.
Dear God, no, he thought. It couldn’t be. These abductions could not have hit his family.
“Danny,” he yelled.
When he reached his nephew’s window, the whites of Danny’s two little eyes glowed in the dark room. He was there. Standing. Looking out the bare, open window back at him. Waiting.
“Hi, Uncle Jack,” Danny said, his little face peeking over the window ledge, his stuffed bear, Tony, nudged under his chin.
Jack leaned hands on house and huffed, trying to catch his breath. Trying to decipher Danny was okay. Alive. Mikala was wrong.
“Thank God, thank God,” he uttered out loud. When he caught his breath, he gazed up at his nephew.
That’s when horror seized him. Above Danny’s little face, secured on the broken glass, a scribbling on Christian stationary paralyzed him. It was the abductor’s fourth message, but the first to make Jack’s blood circulate like an electrical current. The words he read flowed over his lips in a whisper, expelled with terrifying breath.
“One mulligan for Mikala.”
2 Lenny; dreamer number one
His eyes barely ever made contact with humans and one occasionally wandered. The skin on his face bragged of a bad case of childhood chicken pox, and his pours reeked a glandular smell even after he bathed. His long scaly thighs bled because his thick fingers dangled below two long arms and never stopped scratching. Always scratching. Burrowing right through wax-coated jeans.
His gait was fine. In fact he could run with the litheness of a cheetah, but when he stood still, he swayed. One foot positioned itself a bit in front of the other, one massive shoulder pointed downward, and he rocked slowly in a slight, nervous seesaw.
He hated mirrors, glimpsing his frightening guise. Because of his ugliness, he ran to the dark-screened porch or hid in the tree garden when children neared. He tried not to scare the little ones. Often found excuses to go inside when he heard the dismissal bells sound at the nearby grade school.
Yet, he did enjoy standing on the wide sidewalk when sixth-grader Robby Redgrave strolled home after Friday detention. He liked planting his feet in the middle of the walkway and rocking harder when he spotted Robby bouncing down the street. Even grunted a bit, as he neared. Robby was the neighborhood bully, born of a bully. Lenny remembered Robby Senior—Rob Robby, he called him—at age eleven, throwing punches at the smaller boys, lifting little girl’s skirts, and bullying him into his stuttering ways.
Rob Robby never bullied him anymore. In fact, he and his son crossed the street if they saw him. Everyone did, except the little ones. And LeeLee, of course.
His face reddened and his pox scars deepened. He grew calm and sweet when he thought of her. For the rest of his life he would lurk in the shadows just to catch a glimpse of her, protect her as she had done for him when he was a child.
Life was funny. He laughed when he thought about it. How his scrawny little arms and legs had grown such mass and muscle. How sometimes people who looked big to you when you were little, looked little to you when you were big. And how one punch of a fist could forever stop the name calling, the badgering, and the pranks that he would take to his grave because he could never forgive or forget those boys, like Rob Robby, who did not know he would grow so big.
He could protect LeeLee now. There was a time he couldn’t. But that was before they sent him away to the prison that wasn’t a prison. To the pale building on the flat, hot land with the other children who were different. Kids like him and LeeLee’s big sister and the boy from New Jersey and the girl from Kalamazoo, Michigan. A place where the scorching sun spilled onto miles of barren land around you, and the night sky lit Orion up so brightly you felt you could stretch an arm upward and touch Rigel with your fingertip. A makeshift village where you could almost taste the sandstone dust of the buildings and smell the burning sage and honeysuckle left over from the Indians. A phrontistery of square, bleak structures with basic rooms, their ceilings so low you felt entombed. And when you sat in them for hours and watched the movies in your head of bad places and bad planes and bad, bad men, you believed the vibration of your thoughts might dislodge the sun-dried bricks of the adobe walls.
There were secrets he could not tell and anger he could not tame. But for now he could not think of such things. It was time.
He climbed the old cherry staircase and entered the first bedroom.
“M-Ma, I’m leaving for w-w-work.” He set a glass of water on the faded antique bed stand, leaned over, and kissed his mother’s cheek.
“Lenny?” she answered. “Already? I must have dozed off.”
“Here, t-t-take your p-pills.” He took her knuckle-cramped hand in his, gently turned her wrist, and slipped two pills into her palm.
“Okay, thank you,” she said, then propped herself up on one elbow, clumsily placed the pills on her tongue, and reached stiff-shouldered for her water.
“G-good night, Ma, sweet dreams,” he said and made his way toward the door, the floorboards of the old home creaking beneath each step. “I’ll b-be sure to set the a-a-a-alarm.”
He turned and glanced at her small frame in the king-sized, four-poster bed. She looked tiny. Seemed lost in the brocade coverlet that matched the big roses on the fading wallpaper and the lavish drapes that covered the old, beveled windows.
“Promise me something?” She said as she lay her head back down on the silky pillow and drew the quilt to her chest. “Promise me you’ll stay away from the boys?”
“M-ma, I don’t know what you’re t-talking about.”
“Lenny,” she said, but Lenny was closing the door behind him. “Lenny—”
“I’s ok-k-kay, Ma,” he said and wrenched the door shut.
He descended the stairs quickly, grabbed his gear, set the alarm, and went out the front door, so he could not hear her call after him. He threw his backpack of clothes and sandwiches and coke over his shoulder and started down the dark street. Working the graveyard shift had advantages for a man with an ugly face. He walked three houses, jogged three houses, and then took off in a sprint. The night air made his big ears tingle and his blood shot eyes water, but the feeling of freeness he experienced while running beneath the stars far outweighed any discomfort. No one gawked at him. No one tried not to stare. The distance was a mere three miles from his home, eighteen minutes. Sometimes, if the wind pressed his back, he could run the route in seventeen.
He rounded the corner and picked up his pace as he turned onto the empty four-lane street. He would stop and check on the boys after work. His ailing mother wouldn’t be awake until late morning, so he’d have time. He glanced down the street toward the corner store, and his lips stretched into a wide smile. Three teenage boys leaned against the store’s brick, yelling and guffawing, and throwing profanities at each other. When they heard the loud click of fast feet against pavement, they looked up and squinted their eyes to see who was coming. When they saw him, they silenced, then scattered into the dark like cockroaches running from light.
Lenny smiled and scratched and ran after the boy with the fastest dash. How much grander it was to be feared than to fear.
3 1994 – Lee Lee; The attic
On the night LeeLee met fright, the smell of fresh plaster mingled with saw dust and lingered in the air around her. A small gas heater, positioned at the top of the staircase, warmed the upstairs sitting area and two bedrooms that had no doors. The small tiled bathroom with the claw-foot tub did have a door, and they had to remember to shut it after they used the toilet because PopPops didn’t want the warm air to escape up the long ceiling vent and into the black night.
Three days before, eight little children had helped LeeLee celebrate her third birthday. Five came to the Chuck E. Cheese party from her old neighborhood—the hoodlums-will-get-you area, PopPops called it—and three from PopPop’s neighborhood—the good-families-live-here place.
Only a dim light from the streetlamp squeezed through the small front window and into her new bedroom, but LeeLee didn’t mind the darkness. She felt safe and warm and loved sleeping upstairs beside her sister in her grandparents’ attic with the new walls and cushy carpeting that felt springy when you jumped out of bed in the morning. She and Sissy moved there with her parents shortly after her grandmother—G’Ma, Gee for short—came home from the hospital. Mama had to be close to Gee to help her.
PopPops had explained the situation to LeeLee.
“G’Ma went under the knife,” he said, fists clenched. “That bastard of a doctor cut her spine, and now she’ll never walk again.”
“Dad.” Mama put a hand on her forehead. “Please don’t swear in front of the girls.”
But he didn’t hear her. PopPops hardly ever heard anyone. He was full of hot wind that swirled around and made too much noise between his ears her dad said.
“Because of that son-of-a-bitch, now you and your sister and your mom and dad will live with us until you can find a house in the neighborhood.” His arms flailed and his voice bounced off the walls. “So your mom is close. So she can help the nurses with G’Ma.”
“Why can’t we live in the attic above you and Gee forever, PopPops?” LeeLee begged.
“Because those son-of-a-bitches are going to have to pay,” he yelled, froth oozing from one corner of his mouth.
“Dad!” Mama hollered.
Pops ignored her. “And you’ll have a big new house with your own bedroom on the street around the corner, where no imbeciles roam the back alleys like in your old neighborhood, and your sister will be safe walking to kindergarten next year because old-man Johnny the fireman crosses kids at the corner.”
But LeeLee liked sleeping in the attic, where she wasn’t as afraid of the nightmares. She could inch over and snuggle up to her big sister when they came.
“I don’t want my own room,” she whined to Daddy.
But Daddy agreed with PopPops that they needed their own home.
“This is only temporary,” Daddy yelled and then talked about hell. Said if it froze, they could stay.
LeeLee prayed hell froze. She didn’t understand why Daddy and PopPops couldn’t live in the same house. They both liked to swing their arms and shout words Mama never used.
Sometimes at night, PopPop’s voice drifted up through the floor and woke them. Momma said Pops was venting—like the bathroom—but her sister said he was gulping down the crazy yellow drink with the suds. She said he was angry about and sorry for Gee. Sorry that now Gee had to sleep in the narrow bed with the push button that rolled her up and down, or slump over in the living-room chair with the foot rest and the lever on the side to help her lie down.
“A tragedy,” PopPops called Gee’s situation.
But then the loiterers came and drank coffee in the parlor downstairs, and everyone talked and smiled about how much money PopPops and Gee would get. PopPops said the cash would help pay for the nurses, and that Mama could buy a house one street over.
Until then, her grandparents slept in separate first-floor bedrooms—.with the brand-new, wide-doored bathroom in between—and LeeLee’s family filled the space between the new walls in the attic with their belongings. They had a big garage sale beforehand and sold a lot of things, like her inside playhouse and Barbie castle. Everything remaining had to be stored far away in the tin garage with no windows, because Pop’s garage was “busting at the beams.”
“This place isn’t big enough for all of us. Pop’s dad, your great grandfather, built this house during the Second World War,” Gee told her one day while LeeLee was downstairs in her bedroom, playing on the floor. When Gee talked, LeeLee liked to jump in bed with her and pull the covers to her chin and listen. Gee was a good talker, her voice soft and flowy.
“He wasn’t able to enlist due to a boyhood injury, so he worked at the electric company downtown throughout the thirties and forties.” She stopped and whispered to LeeLee, “Made a lot of money,” then continued in a normal voice, “passed out dimes and quarters to the bums who lined up outside the back door for him on payday. Your great grandfather was a good man. So is Pops.”
“I love PopPops.”
“He loves you, too.” Gee squeezed her weakly. “We both do.”
“I like living with you and PopPops, Gee,” LeeLee told her.
“It’s only temporary.” Gee’s face sobered. “Until your Mama can find a home close by.”
“I don’t want a new home. I want to stay here forever,” she glowered, crossing her arms and banging them against herself.
She meant what she said. She loved their new home—until the bad night, that is.
LeeLee had lots of dreams that woke her in the night. But she felt safe in the attic even when the worst of the dreams came because the bed she and her sister slept in sat only a few feet from her parents in the next room, and because PopPops and Gee slept right downstairs. Sometimes, when the wind died down in his head and his ears worked, PopPops would hurry up the stairs when she cried. He would grab her up in her blankets, carry her downstairs in his warm arms, and lay her beside Gee for the night. Gee would hold her with her weak arms and stay awake all night, chasing the dreams away.
“Don’t be afraid.” Gee would tell her. “Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and watch for the feathers of the white angel to come.”
LeeLee loved to watch for Gee’s white angel.
“The white angel will protect you,” Gee would say with a voice as soothing as a gentle summer breeze. “Turn the bad dreams off and think of nice things—the beach and the waves and PopPop’s sand castles—and then count the feathers as they come: one feather, two, three.”
“Four, five, six.” LeeLee would close her eyes and watch as the wings of the white angel formed in her mind. She had troubled counting the big numbers, but Gee helped her.
“Ten, eleven, twelve,” Gee would whisper. “Thirteen feathers, fourteen.”
Falling asleep was so easy when Gee chased the dreams away.
LeeLee tried hard to be the dream chaser on her own, in her own bed. “One feather, two, three…” she would whisper as she snuggled up close to her sleeping sister and closed her eyes, “nine, ten, eleven, fourteen feathers.”
But she was not as brave as Gee and her sister. So on the night she met fright, where for an entire lifetime afterwards she would not dangle an arm over the side of a bed, she let out a blood-curling scream that sent both her parents and grandparents into a shaking frenzy.
“Eeeeeek,” she screeched. “Help meeee! Momma, Momma!”
“LeeLee.” Her mother crossed the short distance to her bed and grabbed her up in her arms within seconds of her wails. “What happened, my precious?”
LeeLee gasped for air and for a long time, she couldn’t talk. “Momma,” she repeated over and over until Daddy turned on the light, and PopPops came up the stairs with the baseball bat.
“My god,” PopPops said, “I thought someone was killing her.”
“We can’t get her to talk,” her dad said, his eyebrows furrowed into one long, black line. “Sissy, do you know what happened?”
Sissy shook her head, shrugged her shoulders, and leaned toward her sister. “What’s wrong?”
LeeLee raised her hand in slow motion and stammered, “My, my—”
“Did something happen to your hand?” Momma’s soft fingers reached around her wrist.
She nodded and sniffed, trying to control her sobs.
“What?” Her father knelt down on the floor beside the bed and latched onto her hand, inspecting for blood.
“He, he, he—”
“He?” Her dad grew angry. “He who?”
“He, he, he,” she cried. She couldn’t bring herself to say his name. “He grabbed my hand.”
“Who grabbed your hand?” her dad hollered.
LeeLee turned to face the headboard, wiping her eyes, and pointing one little finger.
“My hand was there.” She motioned to the space between the mattress and the headboard. “He grabbed it and pulled and I woke up and he wouldn’t let go.”
Her face fell to her mother’s arms, and she sobbed dramatically.
“My god.” Her father sat back on his legs. “Just another dream.”
“No,” she hollered, “eyes open. Eyes open.”
“LeeLee, darling.” Her mother pulled her close, stroking her hair and rocking her small frame in her arms. “It was a dream, a bad dream. Nothing more.”
“No,” she screamed and pushed her away. “He grabbed my hand. He pulled me. Bad, bad, bad!”
There was no comforting her. The three of them tried for a long time, repeatedly looking under the bed to convince her no one had grabbed her hand. But she insisted and they were unable to comfort her. After a time, PopPops went downstairs, and her father went back to bed. Sissy lay back down and their mother slipped under the covers beside them and held LeeLee close, murmuring reassuring words.
When her mother finally fell asleep, her arms still tight around her, LeeLee turned toward her sister and realized she was still awake.
“I saw him,” her sister whispered. “The black devil.”
LeeLee wiggled down under her mother’s arm and moved closer to her sister. “Did you hear him?”
“He said I’m going away someday.” LeeLee tried hard not to cry again.
“When?” Her sister looked alarmed.
“After the big buildings fall.”
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know,” LeeLee answered, the side of her face sinking into her sister’s pillow. “What’s a desert?’
Her sister raised her eyes to the ceiling, “It’s a place far away where the sun is hot and the floors are sand.”
“I don’t like sand floors.” Her head sunk deeper.
Her sister lowered her eyes to meet LeeLee’s. She bit her bottom lip then quickly wrapped her arms around her and shook her head. “Don’t worry. I won’t let them take you.”
They would not mention that night again until they were much older, and LeeLee would never sleep with a hand dangling over the bed until the day she died.
Read an excerpt from Project Dream to find out what happened to the kids in the desert before Dream Wide Awake. Or, if you couldn’t put Dream Wide Awake down, read the excerpt from her psychological thriller, The Suicide Gene.