Clarity, p.1
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       Clarity, p.1

           Myanne Shelley
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  Myanne Shelley


  The Ghost Family

  Copyright © 2011 by Anne Shelley

  Chapter 1

  I don’t make friends easily, but I had come to know a delightful old woman named Yvette through a mutual friend at the nursing home where they resided. She died suddenly, unexpectedly – well, unexpectedly for someone who was 86 years old. And I became aware of her passing through unconventional means.

  That day, that morning, I think is where I’d put the bookmark in my life and say, here, this is where the path less taken most clearly presented itself. Were there earlier sign posts? Yes, of course, and no doubt many twists still to come. I was only 48. (Now there’s a benefit of hanging around the nursing home: I say that without irony and with only mild regret.)

  But back to that morning. It was before dawn, a Monday. My husband Doug slumbered heavily beside me, confident that either the alarm or my insomnia would wake him and launch him into his work week. I lay there silent, awake and vaguely aware of a spring storm gathering outside. I’m nearsighted, but could make out dark outlines of the trees out the window bobbing around as if preparing for a fight.

  A disturbing dream had startled me awake a few minutes before. I had shifted awkwardly under our light comforter, and then focussed on my breathing, trying to match Doug’s slow rise and fall. I put the images out of my head. But then I wondered, as the dream world faded to insignificance, what had spooked me? Because the dream seemed fairly benign, with people I didn’t know, some sort of picnic scene. An abrupt end to the picnic, that was the disturbing part.

  I was relaxed again, half asleep when I heard a quiet voice speak as clearly as if it was a few feet from my ear. “Yvette is gone now, I’m so sorry. She didn’t suffer.”

  My eyes flew back open. I actually fumbled for my glasses and looked around the room. Of course it was empty, quiet except for Doug and the shuffling of the trees outside. A car rumbled by, and there was a distant yip that could have been a dog or possibly a raccoon; we have both in the neighborhood. No people to attach to the voice though, and I told myself I’d been dreaming. Tried again to ease back into sleep, and finally slept, dreamless.

  Doug left for work as usual, precisely at eight. Not two minutes later, the phone rang. I felt my chest tighten and that dance of adrenaline that kicks in when I know something’s wrong, and I considered just not answering it. As if that could prevent the bad news.

  But I picked up. My aunt Mags got right to the point. “Clarissa, dear,” she said. “I need to tell you that our good friend Yvette passed away in the night.”

  “Oh, Mags, I’m so sorry,” I said, aware that I was echoing the earlier voice. “What happened?”

  It had probably been another stroke. She had died peacefully in her sleep, Mags added quickly, the best way to go. I could tell from her quick summary of the facts and the dull tone of her voice that she had already repeated this story several times. Naturally, I thought, I was neither family nor elderly; others must have gotten called with the news at seven or even six this morning.

  The service wouldn’t be until the weekend, Mags thought. Yvette’s family was widely scattered and they would want to make sure her various sets of friends could hear about it. We chatted in clichés for a few minutes more. She apologized for being the bearer of bad news and I assured her I was glad she had thought to let me know right away. She said she’d “let me go about my day,” but I suspected she had more of these calls to make. I wondered if she had already called Liza and Curtis, her children.

  Mags, Margaret Henley, is not really my aunt. She and my mother were close friends for years, though, with the kind of sisterly bond that made her seem like family. And after my mother died – twelve years ago now, so young – Mags had been a life line to me, pulling me through grief and into some semblance of maturity with the strength and vivaciousness of her personality and sheer presence in my life.

  As a child I used to think of my mom and Mags as the moon and the sun, dark and cool versus warm and bright. What did that make me, some small asteroid off in the distance? But Mags was a friend when I was in the agonies of adolescence, and she saw me through those darkest days after cancer took my mother.

  Our closeness had no parallel with her children, however. Liza and Curtis had each other, had Mags and their dad, the happy Henleys, as my father used to call them. They’d had little connection to my folks, now long gone, in the first place. Liza and I had never seen eye to eye, though we were close in age. (I was ever grateful for having been bumped up a year back in New Jersey, so as not to have been in her same grade.) Curtis and I had a goofy and fond friendship at least. We could go for a year without contact but then jump right back into our comfortable teasing mode.

  I saw more of Curtis these days than I used to, and I imagine more of Liza than she would choose. Because of Mags. Because of the stroke that had left half her body useless and immobile. Her mind still functioned though. The brain injury had affected some of her emotional reactions and impulses, I could tell, although I’m not sure how much of these changes Mags understood. But she had been left in the frustrating position of needing near full care along with the full awareness that she needed it.

  Together, they had agreed for her to live temporarily in the convalescent facility. That was almost two years ago. One of the odd staples of our weekly conversations, me and Mags, was discussing changes she should make to her small house in preparation for her return to it. Something patently impossible, of course, given her situation, but something that clearly pumped her up to ruminate about.

  These conversations made Liza angry. Not that she was a participant, but she would hear about them later when she phoned Mags. It would take a miracle at this point to change her physical disability, or some sci fi leap of bionics and nano-tech. Liza’s reaction was to painstakingly explain how these things just couldn’t possibly happen, and why not.

  My perspective was, it made her happy to talk about it, so what’s the harm. Anyway, why rule anything out? None of us could have guessed that Mags would wake up one morning with a headache, prepare her breakfast and take a short walk over to the community garden where she volunteered, then collapse and within the space of hours lose her independence entirely.

  Mags told me she still dreamed of being able to walk. It was odd at first, she said, her legs would be shaky, but suddenly there she would be, balanced and strong and back in her home. The way it was supposed to be.

  That reminded me of my dream from the morning, and the distressing news. Poor Yvette. My heart just sank to realize that I would never see her again, never hear her cheerful summary of the activities at the nursing home. She could find something positive to say about the dreariest day or silliest little gathering over there. They would all miss her gungho attitude, I thought, blinking back a sudden rush of tears.

  I made a note to myself to send flowers, and amended it to make sure they went straight to the church where they would have the service. I would have to wait until that was set. I didn’t know Yvette’s family well, but I had met her granddaughter a couple times. She was young enough that she’d probably think to post the information online as well as in the newspaper.

  I got ready for work as usual, but my mind was obviously distracted. I dressed and brushed back my hair, made a sandwich to take, cleared our cereal bowls and my coffee mug. Idly stroked the cat, who wound around my legs whenever there was a chance I might drop some food. He purred at my touch, his long-whiskered face seeming to smile up at me. But he looked sleepy. He knew the routine; he would commence his morning nap the moment I left.

  My office was a short bus ride away.
I worked at the Gallagher Illness Prevention and Research Center, at the University. We’re technically a separate, nonprofit entity, and not a part of the university system. But the office is on the campus, our efforts directly support the staff’s research on disease prevention, and we regularly even claim credit when they make a breakthrough.

  I usually ran through my email on my phone during the short commute, a task possible even when standing and wedged in at the back of the bus. But as I stared at the tiny screen, the letters became a jumble, not worth even registering. A light rain was falling, and my eyes turned from the phone to the window, watching the water trickle down the glass like tears. I put away the phone and wondered about the voice in the dream.

  It occurred to me that Mags must have called. Her sense of time could be a bit off and it wouldn’t have been unusual for her to forget, and then call again. I must have taken the call still half asleep. I checked my phone, though. No calls had come in.

  Well, we still had a land line. Doug thought that when a major earthquake came, it would be the only functioning phone. I didn’t argue – anyway we’d had that home number for so long now, people like his mom or aunts wouldn’t know how to reach us otherwise. Mags must have called it. I could confirm that later with Doug, even if Mags herself couldn’t remember. Nodding to myself, I stepped off the bus at my stop and walked purposefully up the hill toward the campus.

  It’s a good thing my work is long familiar, and nothing critical like a pilot or doctor or something. Because I was just off all day, unable to focus, easily distracted and even a little jumpy. I did apologize to my immediate supervisor, Wally, although there was a fair chance he hadn’t noticed. Like me, he’s been on the job for a good long while, and pays more attention to results than the details of process.

  I explained, death of an elderly friend, not a huge surprise, but still. He nodded slowly, sympathetic and understanding. Both of us, unfortunately, had reached a point in our lives where it was a relief to think that someone struck down suddenly was at least not a peer. Wally asked if I needed to leave early, but I thought not.

  Actually, I tend to find my work a comfort. It’s administrative work. I didn’t do the actual research, I didn’t cut open cadavers or field test new drug therapies, they won’t be naming a wing of the hospital after me. But I ran things around here. My efficiency enabled that work to take place, my organization kept the teams on track and rolling ever forward.

  One needed a good deal of patience with human foibles here. A significant whole area of the research we fund points to some pretty basic facts about poor eating choices and sedentary lifestyles. More vegetables and fiber, less high fat and cheap corn syrup and over processed stuff – that plus an hour of vigorous exercise a day, and watch the current ballooning cases of Type 2 diabetes level off. Just as an example.

  Naturally, the drug companies are hesitant to jump on board with that whole concept. They would much rather fund investigations into the exotic stuff, especially things chronic and requiring a lifetime’s expensive medications.

  Aside from that bigger picture perspective – which I’d learned to tune out or risk my own regular hormone infused melt downs – our little group had its comic ups and downs. Nobody likes to stick to a job for long anymore, so Wally and I seemed to spend inordinate time training and retraining an ever changing set of young people on the basics of record keeping, gracious letter writing, and why not to yank things out of the copier. More recently, it’s become standard to have to explain that the person at the reception desk should not wear ear buds or spend more than a few moments a day on necessary personal calls, but be alert for the phone or office guests. In other words that here at work, they were expected to work.

  I do the more complex of my own data entry, and I have a detailed manual for the oft changing administrative assistants who update our primary database. Even so, I could and often did answer basic questions – things that I couldn’t help but think a person with just a tiny bit more gumption could figure out on their own – simply and politely.

  But not this day. I had weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual tasks, and I threw myself into the quarterlies. Just let the mild concentration needed to copy and save, update, double check, print and analyze consume my mind. Yes, this is a coping strategy I’ve had since forever, but what can I say, it works. By 5 PM I felt calm and comfortable, detached even, from the wellspring of emotion that had been seeping through my mind since the morning.

  Frankly, that’s no small matter anymore – things I used to be able to glide right past have recently been harder to quell.

  Doug hates it when I blame my mood shifts on hormones. Or when I mention hormones, or when I display actual moods. We’ve been married for nine years now, so really, I don’t know that we pay all that much attention to such things anymore.

  But still, I got dinner started with an eye on the clock, waiting for his arrival. His evening schedule is less regular than mine, depending on his case load. But he generally knows of changes pretty well in advance. And he’s been good about calling ahead since we met; he was well trained by his first wife, who was given to panic just from listening to the traffic report when he was late coming home.

  Clark, the cat, perked up his ears suddenly, and a moment later I heard Doug at the door. Clark trotted out in his dog-like way, and I followed. I waited for Doug to say something about this morning, but he didn’t. He hung up his coat, greeted me and the cat with equal enthusiasm, and walked down the hall to change out of his work clothes.

  I followed, waiting till he at least had his pants on before saying, “Did you hear me take a call this morning? Early, maybe five?”

  Doug shook his head.

  “Are you sure? Just that the phone might have rung?”

  “No, I’m pretty sure I would have heard it. Why, are we expecting something?” A faint frown crossed his brow.

  Now it was my turn for a head shake. I swallowed hard, remembering again. “Yvette died,” I told him. “You know, from Hillside. Mags told me this morning.”

  “Oh, honey,” Doug said, his voice low and tone changed to gentle sympathy. He reached out to embrace me.

  I leaned into his shoulder, and wrapped my arms comfortably around his back. We stood like that for a moment, he stroking my arms and the back of my head, and me reminded suddenly of when we had first gotten together. How we had spent time with one another but lived apart, how often we used to embrace.

  “I’m okay,” I said. I told him about the probable timing of the service, and how Mags seemed to be holding up pretty well. And that Yvette had died peacefully in her sleep, and we both nodded, eager to find something good about the situation.

  I followed him back into the kitchen. I’d left the makings for a simple stir fry out, and Doug got the oil heating and reached into the fridge for another handful of fresh herbs.

  Doug likes to cook probably more than I do. I have my few solid staples that I like and make well, that come out the same every time. He prefers to improvise. Over the years we’ve adjusted to each other’s styles such that we hardly need even speak about what we’re making. I sat down, the day finally weighing in on me and my earlier calmness dissipating. I tried to regulate my breathing, just sitting and watching him move about the kitchen.

  Doug is a nice looking man. For his age, I have to amend, for the over 50 set. He’s kept his weight and his somewhat slender build. He’s only a couple inches taller than I am – okay, we’re both on the short side – but perfectly proportioned. He wears his salt and pepper hair a little long, and we both pretend not to see where it’s thinning. I noticed his eyes right off, deep brown and probing, and to this day I find his resting expression soothing.

  He doesn’t talk a lot. Or rather, according to him, he needs to be on and talking all the time at work, and then enjoys the quiet the rest of the time.

  He turned to me, spatula in hand as the
food sizzled, and asked why I thought someone had called at five.

  It’s funny, I thought. You could even pin a frilly apron on him, and that lawyer look would shine through when he was in interrogation mode.

  “I thought I heard a voice this morning,” I said. I got up to set out our plates and silverware, avoiding eye contact. “I heard someone say Yvette was gone and that she was so sorry – I figured it was Mags.”

  “But you said you heard it from Mags.”

  “Mags called later. I thought she must have called twice. That we were half asleep because it was so early.”

  “Wait a minute,” Doug said. He snapped off the burner. “You’re saying you heard a voice and it told you Yolde died, but it wasn’t somebody on the phone?”

  I handed him one, then the other plate. It sounded ridiculous to me now, too, but there you have it. “She – the voice – just said she was gone. I didn’t really put it together till the phone rang. Then I knew.”

  “Clarissa,” Doug said, with the sigh he used when he felt someone was being imprecise. “You put it together after you talked to Mags.”

  “No.” I needed to be honest here. “I knew when the phone rang. I had absolutely no doubt. I didn’t know who was calling but I knew it would be about Yvette. About her death.”

  He rewarded me with a long silent stare. It was the sort of expression he might get when the older of his daughters made some proclamation about her chiropractor, or someone we didn’t know well mentioned astrology.

  “I’m not making this up, Doug. Come on, let’s eat.”

  He pulled out his chair. We both took a first bite, and sat back with probably mirrored expressions of satisfaction. I think maybe both of us now, with concerns about cholesterol and arteries and so on, hate to waste a meal. Our dinners tend to be tasty.

  “You have to admit it’s a little bizarre,” he said.

  I shrugged. “I feel worse about the news itself than my dreams at this point,” I answered.

  “You dreamed it. You dreamed this voice.”

  “Well, obviously. Since it wasn’t the phone.”

  He swished his water glass around idly, thoughtfully. “I guess it’s just a coincidence. She was elderly, after all. In fact, I wonder if you didn’t overhear something at the home on Friday, a doctor or a nurse. Some tip off.”

  I sat up straighter. He was right, that was certainly possible. Somebody’s off hand comment could have burrowed right into my subconscious. Something Mags wouldn’t have known – the staff had to keep things private about the residents and did what they could to avoid worrying anyone about other people’s health.

  Finally, I felt ready to set aside the uncomfortable sensations that had been nagging at me all day. There was a reasonable explanation. I was, as usual, distracting myself from the actual problem at hand by focusing away on something less important.

  “Zoe called,” Doug said, also clearly ready for a new topic. “I spent probably 15 minutes of billable time telling her she needs to focus and manage her time better. And that when I was 25, I worked late nights and weekends.”

  “It’s hard for her, though,” I said. “You had a wife at home. She’s on her own.”

  Doug harrumphed, pointing out the myriad technological advances that made the life of a lawyer easier now. Zoe was the younger of his two daughters. After a brief rebellious interlude as an AmeriCorps teacher in the deep south, she had followed daddy’s footsteps through law school and into corporate practice. She claimed this was just to pay off her huge student loans, that she planned to switch over to public interest soon enough.

  I wasn’t so sure. Zoe took for granted an awful lot of little luxuries to live on anything less than a pretty significant income. Daily fancy coffees, frequent nights out, spur of the moment weekend getaways and so on. She loved shopping for the latest high tech gadget and cute new shoes with equal devotion.

  I smiled over at Doug, who was still randomly naming changes in the field from decades back. Regardless of whatever lifestyle differences we had, or any lingering resentments about my role on her part, I enjoyed Zoe’s company. She reminded me of Doug, of his lighter side, his humor. She was bright and intellectually curious about pretty much everything. Plus she had an endearing earnestness to her – she still, as a young adult, clearly strove to live up to her father’s standards.

  Heather, his older daughter, resembled Doug more in appearance. But in every other way, she was much more firmly aligned with her mother. She lived in New York, and I had never really gotten to know her very well. Although Doug and his ex had split up amicably, Heather made it quite clear who’s side she took, even when it didn’t seem like there were sides anymore.

  She worked at a large gallery back there, and regularly sent Doug fancy invitations to openings and events – things he would read over carefully before sending his regrets. I felt at somewhat of a loss talking to her, on the occasions she stopped by the city. Doug too, I think, and these rare dinners together always went better when Zoe came too. Really, he had not been that big a part of their lives – his ex had kept custody and he had been an every other weekend plus a summer month dad. It was Zoe’s determination (and career choice) that brought the two of them closer now.

  Doug and I performed our standard after dinner dance of dishes and leftovers, and eased into the living room for our quiet evening. He put on the TV, but muted it at my probably pained expression. Doug liked to watch a game after dinner, but I wasn’t up to the sound of perky beer commercials just yet. I reached for the crossword puzzle, in another attempt to keep my mind off of Yvette’s passing and the inevitable eventual decline and death of us all.

  The Chronicle’s puzzles, unfortunately, are not terribly challenging. Simple clues, repeated clues, left my mind wandering again. I thought about Yvette’s children, probably near senior citizens themselves, spread far and wide. All of them making their travel arrangements, laying out clothes, fighting off or surrendering to their grief. Calling their own children, disrupting the plans and weekends and even custody arrangements of all those families.

  Unlike Doug’s graceful divorce and more traditional custody settlement, my first marriage had ended with ugly power struggles about pretty much everything you could assign value to. Our joint custody over our child Sam led to seemingly endless further negotiations and rearrangements – although as an upshot, we eventually came to communicate with greater ease than we did during the ten year marriage.

  On the other hand, the reason for the divorce was completely typical: Keith fell in love with his assistant at work. It had come so suddenly – from my perspective anyway; he claimed later to have had silent dissatisfaction building up – that I could hardly be blamed for my defensiveness. I had at least been working again since Sam started pre-school, so it’s not like I worried about being destitute. But there’s a security to a marriage – even a mediocre one – that just disappears compared to the prospect of being a single mom.

  Of course in retrospect, I could see that we had both failed in some pretty fundamental ways to be good partners to each other. Now that I’ve done better. Keith and I had dated from senior year in college. We had followed the path our friends and family expected, the next step every couple years: moving in, engagement, the wedding, pregnancy. It had made me feel normal, doing what I was supposed to do, and it galled me that Keith would just toss all that away. With hindsight, I’d tell my younger self to be glad of Keith’s departure, give up on phony normalcy, to get out there and locate Doug ASAP and don’t look back.

  Sam had just turned nine when it happened. In fact we’d waited a couple weeks to sit him down for that awful somber talk. (As if aside from Keith’s cheating and then walking out on us, wasn’t he a fine fellow for not wrecking the boy’s birthday.) But Sam had adjusted to the thing pretty well. He’d had a couple months of flat out denial, followed by a kind of disturbing distancing of himself fro
m both of us. But by that Christmas, he was actually boasting to his friends about getting two Christmases.

  He was able to put a finger on the material advantages (for him anyway) without much regret about the love lost between parents. Perhaps he had been aware in a way that even I had missed, that Keith and I had trouble really connecting. More likely, I thought, he came at it from self interest.

  Sam, even as a small boy, had a huge interest in computer games and programming and that sort of thing. Where other kids whined to go to the zoo, Sam would beg to visit the electronics store. With two bedrooms, two sets of holidays, two parents quietly seeking to outdo each other in weekend fun, Sam could indulge himself nicely. He didn’t seem to mind being shuttled back and forth between houses, and was smart about knowing his own schedule. Anyway, he was a city kid, comfortable getting around on public transit and not stressed about the occasional late pick up from school or aftercare. He would just sit and fiddle with his gameboy or whatever latest gadget till someone arrived. It would not even occur to him to worry that he had truly been forgotten.

  Nonetheless, I had eventually taken him to a few counseling sessions, extravagances I split with Keith, who had not much of a leg to stand on being the one who left and remarried within the year. We had nothing to worry about, the young therapist had assured me. She wished all her clients were so bright and level headed. He was ahead of his age intellectually, about even physically, and perhaps lagging a bit socially – but showed no hints of trauma. His reticence with both parents was normal; lots of people just liked to keep their emotions to themselves. In all these ways like his mom, I thought.

  The fact is, Sam would have withdrawn from me regardless of my marriage, former or current. He was a boy becoming a teenager, it went with the territory. Over the years, in fact, Sam’s intellect and fascination with the latest high tech thing have forced me to keep up more than I would have on my own. Texting, smart phones, the migration from Friendster to Facebook, his zillion iPhone apps – I needed to be somewhat tech savvy just to hear from him these days.

  Sam was a junior in college. He went directly from 11th grade. He chose Davis, in large part for their Electrical and Computer Engineering program. Also he was big on biking, something the campus was known for. And while Keith and I would have come up with the cash to send him to MIT if he’d asked, we were both pretty relieved to have him stay in California and at a relatively inexpensive school. It’s true that even the UC system cost more than seemed imaginable a couple decades back. But we had both made good sized investments in his college fund – Keith, with his ever growing salary, managed a monthly contribution. For my part, I’d started the thing with a portion of the cash I had inherited after my dad died.

  That was back when Sam was tiny, a pre-schooler; it had seemed absurd. But so had the money, something my dad’s lawyer had set up in his will with Mom’s blessing to work around tax issues. I remember not wanting to even handle the paperwork, as if I was somehow dishonoring or cheapening the meaning of my dad’s life.

  Now, I couldn’t be happier with the investment, which could probably see Sam through grad school, unless he suddenly developed Ivy League tastes. And that was pretty unlikely, I thought. These days, every time he visited, he looked less like my sweet bright boy and more like a member of the Taliban. Scraggly beard, tattered clothing, the works. Still hooked on the latest devices though. Pushing himself excitedly toward graduation as if worried that guys a few years ahead would invent all the apps in creation before he got out of school.

  I wondered what Sam would make of the whole visionary dream thing. Although, really, Î wasn’t sure if that was something I should share. It was pretty weird, first of all, plus I doubted if I could even tell the story without shedding more tears for my friend. I wasn’t the sort of mom who embarrassed her kid, at least not loudly so, but Sam had always been a bit squeamish about emotional displays of any sort.

  He was like Doug in that way, actually. Well, and like Keith, his biological dad. I sighed to myself. When it came down to it, a person just meeting Doug and also Keith might well find a good deal in common in addition to the fact that they had both married me. It was more than a little disheartening to think that the biggest differences in the two relationships had to do with my level of maturity and ability to cope. That and the cuteness of the help at their respective law firms. The greater fear of sexual harassment suits Doug might have now versus Keith 12 years ago.

  Ridiculous, I told myself. Stupid, unworthy. I decided to go up to bed. I could read a little, at least get a head start on my insomnia.

  Not long later, there I lay. Doug had joined me, done his own reading, which in his case lasted about five minutes before he conked out with annoying ease. I had clicked off my little light and found myself, as this morning, gazing at the blur of slow moving trees.

  The wind moaned softly, a familiar and reassuring sound. Things are still moving, growing, living, it seemed to whisper. The back window was cracked open, and the air smelled fresh, rich and earthy from this morning’s rain. In the swirling play of streetlight on the trees, I thought I could make out tiny fluttering new leaves.

  Or perhaps I imagined them, but it made me hopeful to think of the new greenery emerging. Every April I can remember, I’ve enjoyed the sense of renewal that comes with the season, and watched for the point where it’s comfortably light in the evening and pleasantly warm in the day. Some cause for optimism, even when everything else might be going poorly.

  With a shiver, I remembered something. There was a night like this, breezy and fresh with the start of spring, more than 25 years ago, I thought. I had awakened from a frightening dream. I had still been living in Berkeley, barely out of school and clinging to the shared apartment I’d been renting since senior year. This was before Keith and I had moved in – we’d been sleeping apart, in fact, because I had a bad cold.

  But in my harsh and realistic seeming dream, it was not a cold I had scratching at my throat, but radiation sickness. I was sad and also furious that this had happened, that such human irresponsibility caused a radiation leak that was poisoning me in my own bed. I had come awake, blown my nose and maybe taken an aspirin, and slept some more. Fast forward to my catching up on the news – and the big story of the day? Chernobyl. The meltdown, the leak, the radiation cloud hovering over Europe and Asia. My God, it still blew my mind that the human population had come that close and not immediately closed down all those types of plants.

  I shifted uncomfortably, moving farther from Doug so that I could stretch my arms out and unclench my fists. The point wasn’t nuclear power, the point was the dream, the awareness that had come to me that way. I had not really told anyone. I had put it out of my mind, because I was 21 and busy and striving to be closer to normal than psycho weird. Which, I’ve got to say, even in Berkeley, if I’d gone around the next day saying yeah, Chernobyl, I dreamed about it, would have been seriously out there. I’d had a cold, I had told myself. I felt sick, I dreamed about being sick, end of story.

  Except for one little thing. Even that was not the first time. I swallowed hard. It was uncomfortable, almost painful for me to admit these things to myself. But buried back there somewhere deep in my head, pushed away but now bubbling back up, I realized I had even heard the dream voice before. The sound of a woman’s voice, I mean, distinct and clear as a bell, speaking to me while I was asleep.

  Age 14, easily flustered, skinny, nearly flat-chested and convinced I would be gawky and geeky my whole life long – I had gone to bed suffering from menstrual cramps, unused to and unnerved by the heated pulsing pain emanating from body parts I tried not to think about. In my dream I felt pain and a voice spoke next to my ear and told me to let go and not suffer any longer. The next morning, my mom sat me down after breakfast to tell me that my grandmother had died the previous evening.

  My mom had found out the night before, had known but not tol
d me yet, for reasons that still don’t really make sense to me. I mean, this was her own mother, I was her daughter, wouldn’t I be the most important person to tell? But as I said, I was in the throes of adolescence, a not very communicative person to start with and now overrun by hormones.

  Grandma had been ill for some time at that point. She had had a mild stroke and a series of falls, more than one case of pneumonia. She died in a hospital back in New Jersey, 3,000 miles away. My mom had been making plans to go visit her, and these changed into buying tickets for all three of us to fly back there to bury her.

  The voice had not even mention Grandma, I told myself now. Or death. But that hardly mattered. What I recalled was the lump in my stomach, the absolute knowledge of what my mom would tell me that morning at the breakfast table, even as she composed herself to form the words. The same clenching of fists and nerves that I felt this morning and that I felt now. Thinking about other little instances. Things I might have known without knowing. After my dad’s fatal heart attack. Aunt Lila, my mom’s older sister. Those dreams were fuzzier, but I recognized them, sat waiting, later both those days, for Mom’s phone call. I’d become aware too that something was terribly wrong before I even turned on the radio the morning of 9-11.

  Any one of those things could be coincidence. Or coincidence combined with the poor health of an elderly person or a perhaps a horrified neighbor exclaiming over the terrorist attacks. But reviewed all together like this? Much more disturbing. Made my insomnia seem like a smart choice, given the alternative.

  But I was being melodramatic. The vast majority of nights were like every other one the past year except for last night, once I finally fell asleep – soothing and restful, with just the occasional disruption from Doug’s snores or my middle aged need to creep out to the bathroom and back. Nothing strange or ominous. Sleep, I told myself. Close off the voices. Let yourself rest.

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