Can you hear me?
His words became a tattered piece of paper, snatched by the wind and sent fluttering off into the darkness. He sat hunched in the snow, his gaze not meeting mine but instead staring just past me. Hazy, unfocused.
“I hear you,” I whispered.
His gaze shifted, still not quite finding mine, but alert. I could see the closest trees through his right ear and shoulder. The finger that worried at his jeans looked thinned, like a spool of thread unraveled.
A stiff breeze blew, and a few flecks of white flew from the back of his head.
“I didn’t catch that,” I said.
Distress etched his washed out features, sharpening them for a moment. With a frown of concentration, he opened his mouth, deliberately shaping the words. Can you see me?
“I can still see you.”
Good. The simple word trailed off at our feet, written in heavy dark marker.
Chewing at the knuckle of my thumb, I glanced around at the trees, on the lookout for shadows, for some imagined net or rope ready to haul this down.
The trees rippled, pale trunks swaying in a silent breeze.
Don’t leave me
In a blink, he was close as possible, on his hands and knees, his face inches from mine, like a cat investigating an object it wasn’t sure about.
Don’t leave me
The two notes fluttered to my lap, insistent.
I knew I could not say more. Our tenuous connection was already thin and frayed, ready to snap at the slightest wrong move. The dream never took much to destroy. In the past, I had tried to hold his hands, tried to comfort him, ask questions. But the questions were like rocks dropped onto a clear pond’s surface, and once those ripples distorted our images, the dream fragmented and broke.
In another blink, he was curled in on himself again, knees tucked against his chin and hands in his hair. Maybe his hair had once been curly, or maybe it was the tangle of branches and bramble I could see through him giving it texture.
We sat in silence as he rocked back and forth in the snow.
What’s happening to me
I knew every question. Weeks of these visits, always on the edge between sleeping and waking, and the questions were always the same.
“I don’t know.”
Soon the alarm clock would go off. Soon the ground would swallow him up. Once, he simply was not there anymore, and I woke with a sinking dread that clung for the rest of that day. A few more things were left in our routine, my least favorite part.
His thin fingers curled more tightly into his hair.
At the beginning, this forest we met in had been green. The sky was always cloudy, but the trees looked alive. Each visit seemed to take a little more out of the forest every time, and its season crept by, bit by bit.
I hooked my hand into the snow, scooping some up. Little black flecks littered it, like bits of asphalt caught in it. I smoothed it under my thumb, then crushed it into a little ball in my fist, then let the misshapen piece rock in my palm.
I can’t feel my body
There it was.
Something else is inside it
An old, familiar fear quaked deep inside me, but I pursed my lips and said nothing, studying the snow. Soon he would say he was numb, and again that he couldn’t feel his body. Maybe one of the questions reshuffled into the mix.
The word “it” settled onto my palm. I made a fist again, and when I opened it, the word had been crushed in with the rest of the snow, the dot of the i and the cross of the t the only discernible bits left. The rest had flaked off, becoming more black bits.
Can you hear me?
“I can hear you.”
His hand crossed into my vision, ready to grab mine. I flinched back, scooting across the snow and backing into a tree.
Wretchedness painted his fragmented face. One eye had turned completely hollow, a perfect hole in his head.
“I’m sorry,” I said, unable to explain our thin thread of connection, unwilling to risk it.
He stared, his eyes focusing and properly, truly, finding mine. Horror flooded my veins.
It’s almost over
A wind roared up, buffeting the trees. Their scant few leaves ripped away in its wake. He stared at me, features slowly collapsing and twisting.
Don’t leave me
Snow swirled up and around, marked with his words and fear.
Don’t leave me don’t leave me don’t leave me
The snow piled up around us, coming up to his knees, his waist, his outstretched hand.
Don’t leave me don’t leave me DON’T LEAVE ME DON’T LEAVE MEDON’TLEAVEME
Everything was white and flecked, my vision filling, my body paralyzed as the snow consumed him all the way to his neck. He did not budge, still focused only on me, a tattered remnant of a person struggling to speak as his fear screamed around us.
His mouth shaped the words, and his rough voice scratched out, “I’m scar
I jolted out of sleep and into a mess of cold sweat and blankets.
You know when you wake up from an unsettling dream, and it sets up camp in some corner of your brain? You eat, clean, get dressed, and it tickles from somewhere in the recesses of your subconscious, prodding at your mood and thoughts. You know it’s not real, and that it was only a dream, but the subconscious whispers “maybe” all day.
I stumbled through several days like that. The dream clung, a sticky residue that I could not seem to scrape off with dreamless sleep or copious amounts of coffee. The roar of wind sat in my ears, and his heartbeat of panic stayed in tandem with mine.
Several days later, I set up in a coffeeshop, staring at my coursework and unable to concentrate. The cafe was one of those small hipster ones that aimed at a cozy atmosphere. Soft lighting and round, soft looking furniture crowded the space. I’d picked it deliberately, needing the immediate warmth of people around me. Conversations flowed by, fragments trickling into my exhausted awareness.
“--too much homework. I’m dying--”
“No way you did that!”
“--know what’s going on with Peter?”
I took a clumsy sip of coffee, my teeth clacking against the type of heavy mug this cafe liked.
“--hi, and it was like he didn’t even know me.”
“--text you later about--”
“He gave this weird sort of smile, I dunno.”
The two guys sharing a table behind me didn’t bother to lower their voices. I heard the chair creak as one leaned back.
“It’s just weird, he didn’t seem, like, normal.”
I turned my head to stare out the window.
His face was an inch from mine on the other side of the glass.
I jumped a foot, sloshing coffee all over my hands, barely even noticing.
The man had cupped his face against the glass to see in, his breath fogging over his features, muddying them. As soon as he stepped back into the light with an apologetic grin, I could see him more clearly. His face had color and flesh, almost how he seemed the first time we met.
He strode the few steps to the cafe door and pushed inside with a bell merrily announcing his arrival. The two behind me had fallen silent, though now one called, “Hey, Peter!”
Peter said nothing, his grin plastered on as he walked to them.
As he came closer, my heart threatened to fling itself out of my chest, either by force or through the hollow pit that used to be my stomach. This had to be a dream again, seeing him in the flesh, but the burning pain on my hand and soaking wet on my sleeve said otherwise.
His feet caught my attention. No, not his feet. The crook of his knees. His legs bent at a weird, bowlegged angle, sinking more than necessary with each step.
“Yo, what’s up?” the other guy said behind me, and my dream’s visitor settled in next to them with a lot of scraping of chairs. I felt him inches away.
“Work was a drag,” Peter murmured, voice soft and slightly hoarse.
I could only sit and clutch at my long-forgotten coffee, an anchor for the rising panic in me. How the fuck was he here? Okay, rationalize. Maybe we’d passed each other several times, and my subconscious grabbed his face and set it in the staring role of my dreams. Unbidden, I remembered the last thing he’d said: “I’m scared”. What had his voice sounded like?
“Sometimes,” Peter said, “I don’t think they pay me enough.”
He laughed, but how a laugh is written, with two separate “ha ha”s, the briefest of pauses between each “ha”.
A shiver ran down my spine.
I wanted to continue to sit and satisfy my morbid curiosity, to pick up every word and sentence and dissect them until all meaning and clue had been pried out of them. But that laugh. I was a coward.
I slapped my laptop shut and began fumbling my scattered things into my bag. After knocking back the last of the coffee, I shot up, slinging the bag over my shoulder. The three of them looked up at the sudden movement. In the crowded space, picked earlier for comfort, his face was close. Peter’s. The dream visitor.
I stumbled mid-shuffle, and my bag knocked into the mug, sending it careening to the floor. We watched it spin, handle clacking once, twice, against the tile, until it came to rest a foot from his muddy sneaker.
He bent in half and handed it up to me, the same grin still on his face.
Trying not to tremble, I took it from him. His fingers were cold as ice. “Thanks,” I mumbled. My ears and cheeks burned as I dropped off the mug at the counter.
The cafe’s bell rang again as I stepped out into the brisk evening. A breeze snatched at my scarf. I wound it more tightly around me and then just stood there, blank with confusion and panic and embarrassment.
Autumn had settled over the town, an early chill nipping at everything. All of us were bundled up in sweaters and scarves now. Anyone’s fingers would be cold as ice.
I dragged my hands down my face with a soft groan and began shuffling back home, chewing on that embarrassment. As I passed the cafe windows, I glanced up at the trio. They were half-hidden by reflections of the sky and the first streetlamps flicking on, turning the trio into sliced fragments. Peter stared out the window, still grinning and unchanged. The reflection of the sky slid over his face as I got closer, hiding all but the profile of his nose and mouth. His head tilted, curious about something. His mouth formed words I couldn’t make out.
I shivered against the fall air and walked home, turning my thoughts to sleep.