L. Jordan James
Of nightmares, witches and monsters
Johnny Reese was in the middle of washing dishes when his best friend of forty years, Bill Hicks, finally rolled out of bed. He stumbled into the kitchen, his hair wild, unkempt, his bony legs appearing too fragile to carry his weight. He sat down heavily at the kitchen table with a noticeable grunt. His naughty bits, as the English call them, were hanging out of his boxers, on display for all the world—and Johnny, in particular—to see. The Full Monty, as some of those same Brits might say. Johnny, who had seen this side of his friend before, averted his eyes and gave an internal exasperated sigh.
Bill, oblivious to the state of his displayed water works, ran his hand through his gray hair to attempt to bring order to something that preferred disorder. "What are you doing here so early, washing my dishes?" Bill asked.
"Just helpin' out is all," Johnny answered.
"Helping out? Humph. Maybe Carly can get you an apron and some fake boobs so you look like a real housewife." Bill scrunched up his face and then he nodded. "Yep—I can see you now, fake tits, high heels, and all." Bill smiled his best "Ain't I a fucker?" smile and blew his friend a kiss. Johnny rolled his eyes heavenward and sighed.
"Very funny," he said as he turned back to the soapy dishes.
Bill grew silent, which was all right with Johnny, but then the silence stretched out and Johnny felt an undercurrent of tension that thickened and made the atmosphere uncomfortable. It wasn't like his friend to be so quiet. He, Johnny, was the quiet one. He was the one who was described as shy and hard to know.
Johnny turned away from the dishes, looked at his friend's face, and saw that the age lines were deeper and more pronounced than before. His brow had darkened, and it seemed as if his jovial spirit had drained away leaving something only faintly resembling his old friend, a dim husk of the man. Bill looked all of his 65 years and then some.
A shaft of sunlight slipped its way through the space between the curtains and chased the shadows away where it touched, but still it left a good portion of the kitchen gray. Dust motes lazily danced and passed through the light at the whim of the air currents.
"What's the matter?" Johnny asked.
"The witches were riding me last night," Bill paused. "They rode me hard."
Bill slipped back to old southern sayings at times, but Johnny understood. The "witches" were nightmares.
"What did you dream about?" Johnny asked, turning back to the dishes. Johnny bit his lower lip and his back stiffened. That nightmare was the last thing that he wanted to know about, but he stood there at the sink with a sponge in one hand and a cup in the other, his back to Bill, and dutifully listened.
"God, it was awful. I woke up screaming last night. I had to jam my hand in my mouth to keep from waking up Carly and the kids."
The kids. Will Jr. and Samantha's pictures peppered the walls throughout the house; the living room mantelpiece was jam-packed with photos of the smiling kids. There was a photo of Baby Samantha pulling herself up to a standing position by grabbing hold of a bedspread and smiling a triumphant one-tooth smile. Will Jr. rode his bicycle for the first time without training wheels. His intense look of concentration, with his tongue stuck out and his brow furrowed, was comical. All of those pictures of captured moments in time showed Bill's family life at its happiest. Every time Johnny came into the house and through the living room, he walked quickly and looked neither left nor right.
Johnny peered over his shoulder at Bill and saw him staring out into space while his thumb massaged a wound on the side of his index finger. Johnny didn't want to look any closer because he knew the wound would be a deep bite pattern. In Johnny's mind's eye, he could see Bill waking up screaming, trying to muffle the sound and only really succeeding after shoving his hand deep into his mouth and having blood run down his hand and arm. Johnny shook the image out of his head.
"We had gone out to eat at Marilyn's. You know Marilyn's, out there near exit six off the highway?"
"Yeah, I know it," Johnny said, reaching down into the dishwater to retrieve another plate.
"Well, we had dinner there, and you know me—I can't resist having a beer with my dinner. Maybe it was two, probably more. I don't know. It was just a dream, anyway."
"Mmmmm," Johnny said.
Bill paused, his brow knitted and he stared out into the dim space of the kitchen. A cloud moved. A soft breeze shifted the curtains and the sun's light expanded, deepened and eclipsed the shadows. The light fell across Bill's cheek and he turned to face the brightness. There was something, on the tip of his tongue, aching to be said, something the sun worked to dislodge. Johnny had just finished washing a dish when it slipped from his hand into the dish rack. It made a loud clatter against the other glassware and startled Bill out of a deep reverie. The breeze slowed and then stopped altogether. The curtains fell back into place, blocking the sun. The kitchen dimmed and the light left Bill's face. He blinked and looked around. He seemed to be slightly disoriented but he knew that he missed something. Something important that made it seem as though his reality was him standing on shifting sand waiting for a fall. Then he saw Johnny's back and felt his concrete, comforting presence. There was still something there that wanted to be said but it had slipped away from him like the tide going back out to sea. It wasn't as important now. Telling his best friend about his dream was important. He nodded to himself and continued.
"Well, while we were inside, it had started to snow, and by the time we left the restaurant, it seemed that a full-blown blizzard had set in. But I was a man. I was a man with a few beers in him and a tank full of testosterone. It was my job to get home with the wife and kids."
Bill's eyes recessed as he spoke and Johnny believed he was reliving the dream in all of its horrible detail. Johnny knew that it was probably important for Bill to tell his tale but, God help him, he didn't want to listen anymore. He'd rather walk buck naked through a snake pit filled with copperheads.
"I remember hearing the snow crunching under the tires," Bill continued, "and how my beat-up Oldsmobile's backside slipped sideways a bit while we were leaving the parking lot. I was a little nervous about driving in the snow, and so my internal pacifier kicked in and I started to bite my thumbnail. Carly reached over, as if on cue, and without looking, gently pulled my thumb from my mouth. It was something that only a wife of a lot of years could do.
"We had just gotten onto the highway, and I noticed that it hadn't been plowed yet, when it happened." His voice cracked at these last words, and a look of desperation passed over his face. Even with Johnny's back turned he knew the anguish that his friend felt.
Silence filled the kitchen; it hung there, intimidating, not moving, daring someone to talk. It was quiet but Bill knew that his friend was crying and even in the silence the tears spoke volumes about the man and his pain.
"We were hit by one of those big snowplows. Hell, he must've been doing 60 and lost control and hit us. I thought to myself: Maybe if I hadn't had those beers at dinner, maybe my reflexes would've been quicker. Maybe I would've seen him and stopped short. Maybe I would've had the presence of mind to not take the highway at all.
"I can remember the feel of the steering wheel in my hands, moving like it had a life all its own and refusing to go where I wanted it to go. I saw the light pole along the side of the road just as we crashed and wrapped around it like a kid molding Play-Doh around a stick."
Bill sat there for several moments when he took in a deep breath. "There were several minutes of silence where I only heard myself breathing and moaning in pain. I was pinned in the car by what felt like the entire engine on my lap. Moving my legs brought agony."
Bill shuddered but kept going. "I finally called out to Junior and Sam, and I didn't hear anything back. Call it paternal instinct, but I already knew that my boy was gone. The passenger side of the car took the worst of it, and that's where Junior always sat, behind his mother, so he could ask a question or pretend he was driving. Then I heard Sam. I heard her say, "Daddy," and it sounded like she was talking underwater, like she had bubbles in her throat. She said, "Daddy," again, but it was quieter and farther away. I heard the same thing a third time, but it was barely a whisper, like she was talking from the farthest end of a tunnel. Then I didn't hear anything at all. And I knew…I knew she was gone.
"I saw my wife beside me. I hadn't said anything to her because she looked fine, but she was silent. She was so still.
"I said her name and I just touched her, and she kind of slumped forward, and her head lolled to one side, and I could see that half of her head was gone. I could see…I could see all of the blood and I could see inside her. Then…then she blinked. That's when I woke up screaming."
Johnny didn't say anything as he kept washing the same dish over and over again.
"Well, what do you think the dream meant?" Bill asked.
"I think it was just a dream."
"What do you mean 'it was just a dream'?" Bill's face darkened. Outside the clouds moved in front of the sun cutting off light from the kitchen, making it feel smaller and more confined. Bill slammed his fist on the table and stood up. It seemed as though the old man had grown several inches in anger as well as lost twenty years of age. His mouth worked, making the muscles along his jawline tense and relax.
"Where's Carly and the kids?"
Johnny stepped away from the sink and approached his friend.
At first, after Carly, Will Jr., and Sam had died that night 15 years ago, Bill had tried to drink himself to death. He believed that he was the cause of that accident and didn't deserve to live. There were many nights when Johnny had come over and found him in various states of drunkenness. Bottles of alcohol and empty pill containers littered the house. But Johnny had persisted in being there and offering words of encouragement and hope. After a while, Bill's drinking and his pill-popping declined, and he entered Alcoholics Anonymous, which seemed to work. But then his memory started to slip like a defective transmission that refused to move forward. Bill, it seemed, was stuck in one spot and time.
Bill would be at home working on something that needed to be worked on when he realized that he needed a hand, or he would need an item from the Quickie King down the road, and he would start to call his long-dead children or wife to come to help, only to have no one respond. After one of those episodes, it would take a good long while to calm him down.
Sometimes he would believe that his wife and kids had walked off, leaving him alone, and he'd wonder what he had done to have them desert him. Other times he would think that someone had come into the house and kidnapped them. The police knew Bill on an intimate basis after his frantic calls and wild claims, which prompted them to put Johnny on speed dial.
Several trips to the doctor revealed that Bill had Alzheimer's. Maybe the alcohol and pills had let the Alzheimer Monster into the house, or maybe it was just bad genes. Whatever the case, the Monster had taken root and had started to send out its tentacles to destroy Bill, one memory at a time. For some reason that defied explanation, those tentacles never reached his dreams, and it was that part of him that held on for dear life, even if it meant that the witches would ride him into the ground.
There were times when Bill was clear as a bell, but balancing out those good times were the bad occasions that felt like the Monster had already won…like this one, where he thought that his wife and kids were alive and walking about.
Maybe his family was alive but in a different way. The whole situation felt like Johnny was living a ghost story day in and day out. There were ghosts that hung on the walls whose eyes followed him everywhere he went. He wouldn't take down any pictures that filled the house because the eyes would begin to stare at him, and sometimes they began to talk. Not the regular talk between two people but roiling emotional chatter that escalated in volume and intensity when he neared. This chatter, which was felt rather than heard, started feelings within Johnny that he didn't want to examine. He didn't want to listen, so he let them be. He let them stand in their picture frames, frozen in time. He left them to hang on the walls, yellowing in their frames, their stares thankfully fading with time.
Johnny, a long-time divorced bachelor and good friend, had moved in with Bill to make sure he would be okay. There was a moment of hesitation on Johnny's part that evaporated after he saw the institution where the state proposed to send Bill. It was clean and well manicured but the patients were so doped up that most of them drooled on their state-issued white tennis shoes, and those that didn't drool had the flat empty look of the recently lobotomized. After 40 years of friendship Johnny felt that he owed his best friend more than what the state offered. Much more.
Johnny put his hand on Bill's shoulder. He knew he had to act quickly or this anger would grow too hard to handle proportions. Johnny also knew that if he didn't act fast enough that Bill would see the tears beginning in his own eyes and he would know that his wife and children were gone. He mentally composed himself and looked into his friend's face.
"Johnny, where are Carly and the kids?" Bill asked. There was an emotional edge to his voice that made him lose some of the height and the youth that the anger gave him.
"Carly and the kids went to the grocery store. They'll be back in a little while." Johnny turned his back quickly before Bill saw the tears start to well up. Johnny fought to keep his emotional balance. He coughed, cleared his throat and the tears receded.
Johnny had heard "Where's Carly and the kids?" at least three or four times every day for quite a while. The day would go on and later he would ask the same question unaware that he had asked the question before. Johnny would give the same answer. Johnny hated to lie to his friend, but he had seen what happened to Bill when he was told the truth. He had seen the pain and tears on more than a few occasions when Bill was told what had happened. Replying with those simple words: "They went to the grocery store" kept his best friend on an even emotional keel, but the lie always tasted like bitter ashes as it left his lips. Unfortunately, Johnny would hear that question over and over and taste the ashes of his lie for quite some time to come.
Johnny turned his head slightly and eyed a picture that hung not too far from where he stood, of Sam and Junior smiling broadly for the camera, arms around each other.
Don't look over there, he told himself. Nothing hanging on that wall will help you. So, don't look over there. He finally heeded his own advice and closed his eyes and turned his head. He reached into the lukewarm water, felt around the bottom of the sink and retrieved a cup. But just glancing at the photo on the wall shook the rust from the workings of his memory and left him with no choice but to remember taking that picture.
• • •
Samantha tore past Johnny, screaming, with Junior in hot pursuit. Junior had a frog clasped in front of him and was using it as a tool of terror. Johnny turned and watched them, a smile on his face, until Sam changed course and ran directly towards him. He was going to be her refuge.
He put up his hands to try and stop her or, at least, slow her down but it did no good. She ducked his outstretched hands the way children always elude adults and their clumsy attempts at catching them and grabbed onto the back of his shirt. He lost his balance but quickly regained it. Junior faked left and went right and tried to push the frog to her face. Sam tightened her death grip on his shirt and let out a yelp.
"Okay! Okay! Stop it!"
For a moment there was a kind of stalemate where everyone was still but then a mischievous smile touched the corners of the boy's mouth and he lifted the frog to his eye level.
"C'mon, just give him one kiss. I just want to see if he's a prince." Junior puckered his lips and made kissing sounds. Sam shrunk back away from the frog and her nose wrinkled in disgust.
"Let me have the frog," Johnny said.
Junior shrunk back slightly unwilling to give up his fun and power.
"Give it to me."
Junior halfheartedly handed it over. Johnny walked a few paces away into the tree line, squatted down and let the frog go. Sam followed, clutching his shirt, peeking over his shoulder to make sure that it was gone. When she felt safe she turned her attention to her brother. She was older and larger. Johnny saw the dagger look pass from her to him and understood that Junior was probably going to get a beat down somewhere along the line. It wouldn't look good to bring Carly back to his godchild with a black eye, especially if he was okay when he left home.
"If you guys make up, I'll take you out for a movie."
Sam wasn't moved. She had that "wait until I get you alone" look.
"Ice cream afterwards?"
Her look softened.
"Just think of all that chocolate," he said, knowing that it was her favorite.
She looked at Johnny and then at her little brother. Johnny could see her thought processes go into overdrive.
"Darh-ling!" She said suddenly. She began to hug Junior.
I have to try bribery more often, Johnny thought.
"Wait a minute," Johnny said as he fished in his jacket pocket. He brought out his camera and aimed it.
"Everyone say: Ice cream!"
• • •
When Johnny opened his eyes he saw the cup still in his hand and he was nodding his head. It was as though some part of him were saying: Yes, it happened that way. A tear found a chink in Johnny's armor and fell for Carly and his godchildren. He cleared his throat and moved his shoulder close to his face and wiped the emotional evidence away.
Johnny glanced over his shoulder and saw that Bill seemed to have already melted back to his normal, old man size with a bit of a stoop. Bill looked around himself a little confused. He finally got his bearings and sat down, still ignorant of his displayed genitalia. The memory of the anger was completely gone. The sun started to pierce the clouds.
There was always a dark corridor of thought that Johnny refused to wander down at moments like this. Would there ever be a time when his friend would look at him and wonder who he was? Would Johnny exist only in Bill's dreams? A stranger who bumped into Bill's reality only when an errant memory fired itself up, like an old hand-cranked automobile that only sometimes caught, held a spark, and flared to life? Would Bill need reminding of the 40 years of friendship? Some thoughts are better left unexamined, unopened, closed to the light of day and shoved into a dark corner underneath a bed.
There was silence in the room again, but this time it was the calm, comfortable type of quiet, the kind that existed between two friends who had known each other for years. The only thing that could have completed the moment was if both of them had a cold beer to soften the edges a bit, but it was too early in the morning and it would've also defeated the purpose of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Johnny broke the moment. "Eggs or pancakes?"
"Pancakes, of course."
Johnny retrieved the pans.
"Hey, remember that gal from the rodeo?" Johnny asked.
There was a sharp bark of laughter from Bill. "Remember her? How could I forget her? I was there when you whispered something to her and she slapped you so hard you, your daddy and your granddaddy all felt it." Both of them laughed so long and hard that tears came.
As the two sat at the kitchen table, pancakes finished off, the moving sun illuminating more and more of the home and the pictures and memories that it held, they talked of old girlfriends, time spent together, wives and children. Laughter and light chased the Alzheimer Monster and the gray shadows away, leaving the two old men temporarily riding the witch.