Fiction: The Room Between Dreams
By Jack Moody
Abner awoke from a wonderful dream. Sunlight poured into his room, the unadorned, white walls reflecting the sun’s rays like layers of snow. He squeezed his eyes shut, focusing on the images that had played in his mind, reaching for the remnants before they dissolved behind his waking life: A beach with golden sand, a young woman in a pink-striped bathing suit, a boy and girl laughing in the shade beneath a leaning umbrella. He strained to put together their features, but the faces melted away into a gray blanket of static.
On the bedside table was a glass of water and a piece of paper. He reached for the glass and put it to his lips, letting the water sit on his tongue before swallowing. It was cold and dry in the room, and his skin felt taut, and it stung when his hand stroked across the deep wrinkles on his cheek.
Abner detested the brightness of early morning. There were no mirrors in his room, but under the unavoidable lightness of day, the liver spots and spider veins decorating the backs of his hands became glaring and disturbingly vivid. He had taken good care of himself, or he had tried to, for as long as he could remember, and the imperfections on his hands were a painful reminder that his efforts later in life hadn’t staved off the inevitability of aging. But there was nothing now that could be done, and each morning invited the daily ritual of acceptance of his circumstances. Death itself no longer frightened him, but a healthy mind and body is a terrible thing to lose.
As Abner sat up in bed, his daughter Caroline entered the room, wearing light blue scrubs. Her hair was different. She was always changing the color of her hair. He didn’t understand why she felt the need to do this; he loved the natural black locks that she’d let drape over her shoulders. It reminded him of his mother. But Caroline had never met his mother. If he had mentioned how lovely it was to be reminded of her whenever he saw his daughter, then maybe she would keep it.
“Oh, Abner, don’t get up. Hang on.” Caroline rushed over to his side, placing her small hands on his shoulders to help steady him as he shifted. “Good morning. Did you sleep well?”
“Fine, fine,” he said. “I had a dream, but I can’t seem to remember it. Funny how that happens, isn’t it?”
Caroline reached into her front pocket and took out three orange pill bottles, placed two on the bed stand as she removed the top of one, and dropped a little white capsule into her palm. “It really is. Sometimes I wake up and all that’s left is the feeling it gave me. But that’s the best part, I think. Starts your day off right.” She took the glass over to the sink, refilled it with water, and handed the glass with the pill to Abner.
He stared at the little capsule. “I don’t need that, Caroline. And what happened to your hair? Why do that?” Abner took one of the blonde curls between his fingers and lifted it up to her face. “I always thought it was wonderful the way it was.”
Caroline softened her tone as if speaking to a child: “Abner, we’ve been through this. It will help. Don’t you trust me?”
“Then, you take it. Silly girl.” Abner scoffed. “I haven’t taken medication all my life, and I’m as fit as I’ll ever be.”
“Please, Abner. For me.”
He watched the light creases form at the corners of her mouth as she frowned. She looked so much younger lately. “Fine,” he said. He took the pill from her hand, placed it on his tongue, and washed it away with a swig of water. “But when I start growing extra limbs I know exactly who to blame when I call Social Services.”
Caroline laughed, her face lighting up pink, showing the top row of teeth. “That seems only fair.”
Abner paused for a moment, studying the details of her face. “Have you had work done? I don’t know how you can afford that on a painter’s wages.”
She ignored the question. “Would you like to listen to some music? And it’s such a lovely day out, why don’t we go for a walk around the garden while the sun’s up? Then we can get you back for breakfast.”
“I’m not hungry,” said Abner. “Music, yes. Put something on. The records will gather dust and warp if they’re not put to use.”
Caroline stood and walked to the cardboard box sitting beneath the windowsill. “Well, once we get some exercise, maybe afterward you will be. Your other pills need to be taken with food.” She began rifling through its contents until pulling out an old vinyl cover with the artwork peeling away at the corners.
“Other pills? Jesus, Caroline, are you trying to kill me?”
“No, Abner, I’m trying to help you. You’re fussy this morning.” She removed the record from its sleeve, fit it onto the player resting atop the windowsill, and placed the needle upon the black grooves. A soft and slow piano melody filled the room.
Abner closed his eyes, listening to the music, breathing in through his nose. “Wonderful choice. No one played the piano like Satie—except your mother. Do you remember her placing you on her lap when you were little while she played? It used to be the only thing that could stop you from crying. You were a loud, incessant child. It seems things never change.” Abner opened one eye to wink at his daughter and grin. “But don’t think you’re off the hook now about this medication business. Do you even know what’s in those things? You’re an artist, not a nurse for Christ’s sake, Caroline. I’d hardly trust your opinion on the matter.”
Caroline pursed her lips and drifted over to the bed stand, eyeing the sheet of paper. “Did you read your letter?”
“Your son left it for you.” She tapped on the page and smiled, dimples forming on her cheeks with her teeth hidden.
“Adam? That bastard.” Abner began fumbling around in the drawer. “Good for nothing. He can write a damn letter but can’t be bothered to actually visit his own father? Caroline, where are my glasses?”
Caroline glanced around the room. “They’re not in your drawer? That’s where we always leave them.”
“I know that. What the hell do you think I’m doing this for?” Abner began to tear through its contents, tossing photographs and empty pill bottles onto the floor. “See? They’re not here.” He slammed the drawer and shifted his feet flat on the ground. “I’ll find them later. It can wait, I’m sure. Another pity plea asking to send more money for liquor—I know what he does with that damn money. Everything goes straight into his liver. If you can’t trust a man with a drink, what else can’t you trust him with?” Abner exhaled and pinched the bridge of his nose. “He could stand to be more like you, Caroline. You understand the duty of a daughter. Leaving an old man all alone like this, after all the years, all the money I threw into the trash for that boy—it’s ingratitude. That’s what it is.”
One of the discarded photographs caught his eye. Abner leaned over with a grunt and picked up the Polaroid, bringing it close to his face as he squinted to focus upon the image it contained: Two young men sat together, their faces unblinking and blank, their leather jackets accentuated black by the age and quality of the camera before them. He stared at the image for a long time, and Caroline leaned in to make sense of his reaction. “That’s odd,” he said. “How… odd.”
Caroline said nothing, but continued to watch Abner’s facial muscles twitch and his brow furrow. Satie’s piano weaved its way through the broken memory hidden in his mind somewhere behind the picture, filling the cracks that briefly glowed, but then floated away with the black and white moment into an empty chasm before it could become tangible. “That’s… odd,” was again all he could muster about his ephemeral recollection. “That looks almost like your brother, doesn’t it? That looks like Adam.”
Caroline placed her small hands upon his—the skin rough like worn leather but paper-thin—and gently coaxed the photograph out of his grasp. “Why don’t we go for a walk? Maybe we’ll find your glasses on the way.”
His eyes followed the picture as it was placed back into the drawer. When it was gone, so too was the weak thread of something his brain had desperately clung to, and for a moment had almost held with clarity before slipping away. A profound sickness washed over Abner, and his hands began to tremble. A film of stinging tears welled from his eyes, but stopped short of falling into the cracks carved throughout his face. There was a vague emptiness growing inside the ever-darkening recesses of his memories, where something important once existed, and without understanding what that something was, his mind remained just aware enough to grieve its absence. A flickering and dying light, swaying by a frayed cord attached to the ceiling of an empty room, still cast a weak shadow of the ghosts far deeper within.
Struck with unexplainable fear, Abner flailed and attempted to stand before collapsing back onto the bed. His eyes searched desperately around the room, aching to find something within view that could provide an anchor to reality before the four walls fell away into a spiraling vacuum. “Something’s not right,” he sputtered. “Where am I?”
The nurse squatted before him to pull his erratic gaze back to her eyes. “Abner, breathe, honey. Breathe.” But Abner had found an anchor: Hung on the center wall by the locked door was an oil painting of the ocean, and a wide, sweeping, golden beach. He couldn’t look away. The nurse’s face blurred into his periphery as the painted beach began to vibrate with life and memory.
She turned around to see what had magnetized Abner’s attention, and stood, unlocking and opening the door, leaned out into the white hallway, and called out, “I need some help in here.”
Abner rose to stand like an ancient machine being turned back on, and shuffled across the room towards the painting that hummed in tune with his arrhythmic heartbeat. His fingers brushed against the dried, acrylic colors, cold and distant to the touch, but something beneath them cried out behind his eyes. There was an ember somewhere in the void, and he could feel its warmth, but didn’t know in which direction would lead closer. Somewhere was a key that he had lost a long time ago, and until this moment, he had never realized there was anything to be unlocked.
Two orderlies rounded the hallway corner and entered the room with Abner’s nurse. In one of their hands was a thin syringe. “It’s happening again,” said the nurse.
Abner glanced back only long enough to register that his nurse had returned, paying no mind to the new strangers who had joined. “My d—my daughter painted this.” He pulled away from the painting to face her when he next spoke, his eyes glimmering and wide: “Caroline—my daughter painted this. Didn’t she?”
“Yes,” said the nurse, “it’s lovely, isn’t it? Why don’t you just lie down, honey?”
“I don’t understand.” Abner held a trembling hand over his mouth, unable to keep his eyes away from the artwork. “I don’t understand at all. Where—where is my daughter? Where’s Caroline? Someone call her. Someone call her NOW. I want to go home. I want to go home. I want to go home.” The words swelled with anger, inflating until they burst, and released themselves to a torrent of fear before drowning beneath the sobs of a lost child. Abner wailed and cried, his legs giving out, and collapsed upon the floor. “Where is my daughter? Please help me. Someone help me. Caroline.”
The nurse sat down beside him, reached her arm around his wasting, convulsing frame, and whispered into his ear like a cooing mother, “Shhh, honey, shhh. It’s just a dream. You’re just having a bad dream. It’ll all be over soon.” She nodded to the orderlies, and one of the men leaned on a knee with the syringe in hand, and like a pinch from a ghost, the cocktail flooded into Abner’s blood, and the world became very, very quiet.
There was a beach with golden sand, a young woman in a pink-striped bathing suit, and a boy and girl laughing in the shade beneath a leaning umbrella. Abner strained to put together their features, but the faces melted away into a gray blanket of static.
You were born on New Year’s Day, one minute past midnight in 1955. Your mother held you against her chest in a hospital bed somewhere in the United States, and she pointed out the window at the fireworks exploding in the sky, and told you the world was celebrating your first breath.
Your father was a pilot in the Air Force, and he flew planes that dropped bombs on Korea. He drank and smoked and boxed and swore. You placed me on his withering body when I wasn’t yet a year old, and he met his grandson for the first and last time as he lay dying in another hospital bed somewhere else in the United States. I don’t remember this, but it’s one of the things you still do, and you loved to tell me. He had two tattoos of gnomes on his chest. You still cry when you see one of the little statues in someone’s garden. He must have been a lovely man.
When you were younger than me, you graduated college and joined the Peace Corps. You went to Morocco to teach children English. You learned to speak and write French and Arabic, and you smoked unfiltered cigarettes and hashish that you’d buy from the old men in the Marrakesh market. The local police once arrested you because you fit the profile of a white foreigner who had murdered a man in the town square. You were placed in a small and dirty jail cell, pressed against a wall by the other sweating bodies all packed into the space like sardines in a can. Twenty-four hours later you were released, and you went to a café in the dry, morning air to smoke cigarettes and drink ruby-red tea.
You would return from Morocco two years later, promptly leaving for Scotland and Ireland, spending time with extended family who lived in a little cottage in County Meath. They had acres of hilly, green land, and sheep, lots of sheep. Influenced by your Irish-Catholic roommates, you would become very religious for a time. You thought about becoming devout, dedicating yourself to the cloth and staying in your family’s homeland. I don’t know what caused you to change your mind, but I’m glad you did, because you came back to the United States and would meet your life partner, with whom you brought me into the world. It feels an odd thing to tell you, but I’m thankful that you did. Regardless of how many times I may have told you otherwise.
You were married twice. I don’t know much about this first person. You never seemed to deem them worth mentioning. I know they were epileptic, and that you lived together in a trailer park outside of St. Louis. I don’t know how you got there, or why you ended up there. I haven’t asked you enough questions about your life. I’m sure you would have loved to tell me.
You met your life partner at an AA meeting. You weren’t supposed to date others in recovery, but you did anyway, and ten years later you were married. You are over thirty years sober, and you still attend meetings when you can remember to. Because of you, I’m three months sober. You once showed me the little plastic baggie containing all of your chips, and though you don’t talk about it much, I could see the pride in your eyes for silencing a very loud demon. I am proud of you too. I hope you’re proud of me.
The two of you found out you were pregnant with my sister on your wedding day. There were many things to celebrate that day. She’s done the best she can, and she will be okay. I don’t want you to worry about her. She looks like your mother. You loved to tell her that.
There’s an old black and white photograph in your drawer of you sitting in the back of a car with your brother when you were nineteen. Your hair is long and wild and black, and your skin and your eyes are untouched by the passage of time. You showed me the picture when I was twenty, and it was like looking at a photo of myself in another life. I look so very much like you. One day I’ll look like you do now, and I’ll look back on my own photographs like you look upon that Polaroid in your dresser.
Your brother in the photo is now dead. You didn’t attend the funeral. You didn’t forget; you just refused to go. I don’t mind telling you this, because you didn’t like your brother. I liked him fine, but I didn’t know him like you did. There are many other siblings, and they live in different places. They love you, and they haven’t forgotten. They’re taken care of; I don’t want you to worry about them. We’re all taken care of. You’ve done everything you needed to.
There are some things that I’m glad you won’t recall, and they don’t need to be remembered. Not everything is worth writing down or photographing or reminiscing on. Those things are lost in the ether, and you can rest knowing they won’t return. I don’t think on them either. Life is a long, long journey, even for me. Things change, and you are the most wonderful personification of that fact. That is all I wish for you to remember when it comes to these things. Dust blows away even when swept with the lightest breeze. The world moves forward. People do too.
If there’s anything else, I’ll add it in here for you later. Take your medication and listen to Nurse Alice, she’s the pretty blonde you like. She’s a sweet person and is there to help you. Read this as many times as you need to, don’t worry about misplacing it. I can always write another one. I’ll see you soon.
Jack Moody is a novelist, poet, and short story writer from wherever he happens to be at the time. He is the author of the short stories collection Dancing to Broken Records, released through Beacon Publishing Group, as well as being a staff writer for the literary magazine and podcast Brick Moon Fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in multiple publications including Expat Press, Horror Sleaze Trash, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, and The Saturday Evening Post. Moody's forthcoming debut novel Crooked Smile is set to release March 15th, 2022 through Outcast-Press. He didn't go to college.