There’s this dream I have sometimes:
I’m lying on my back. It’s night and I’m adrift, floating down a river that smells like blood, banks cluttered with weeds and bones. The raft is old, the river boils red. It leaks up between the boards, soaking through my clothes, so warm I think I’ll scream. One by one, the stars go out.
This town is sick. It lets bad, sick things happen when it ought to be trying to stop them. I always knew that, but never really understood it. When you’re little, your town is just a town.
From the porch, I watched the world unravel. People walking around like zombies, all numb and dumb and stupid. If some degenerate wants to go on a shooting spree or cook drugs in some cheap motel room, they let it happen. Stealing cars? No problem.
And if you happen to get caught in the middle, they might even blame you. If you wind up in a gas station hold-up, get shot, get dead, it might be your fault, no matter how wrong, no matter how random. And if you left your daughter behind—well, what the hell? It was her fault, too.
I’d pretty much stopped sleeping.
There were a lot of things I did right before that—stopped going out, started smoking, cut off all my hair. In Group, they called my haircut a natural part of the grieving process—I was acting out the delicate science of mourning—but they missed the more practical function. Losing that extra mass makes you lighter. No one can grab hold of you, no one can catch you. If you have to, you can run faster than sound.
These were the things that were supposed to happen. The things they tell you, how damaged you are, how vulnerable. In response to all your intense and wildly unmanageable feelings, you will do your best to become emotionless. Drugged. Prick your arm on a hypodermic needle or down some tranquilizers, and bang, instant coma. Sometimes, you will kiss strange boys just to wake yourself up.
Except, in a town like this, you never want to kiss the boys. They take liberties, presume too much. On days when you want to be saved, they will always disappoint you. And then you go back to a sterile room filled with sympathetic witches who will tell you it’s what you want. Self-destruction is natural at this stage, the Masochism Charm. You believe in self-flagellation, even if you say you don’t.
The summer was one of those long, brutal ones, all house parties and traffic accidents and homicides. I lived off Tic-Tacs, nicotine, and my own adrenaline, sat running my hand over my bristling hair until the sun came up, because if you sleep, then someone might creep up behind you. If you sleep, there’s always the chance that someone will catch you. The house on Hanover Street was rickety, all cracked, buckling sidewalk and sagging roof. At night, I sat for hours on the porch in a beat-up rocking chair, jerking bolt upright when the floorboards creaked.
The porch was cool and quiet, and I kept the lights off, just this little smoldering ember, smoking and watching, smoking and watching as the world staggered by.
And then one night, something happened. Not in the physical sense, not to me, but something happened for me, and it changed everything.
The girl was drunk, trip-tripping down the sidewalk, purse dangling by its strap. She wobbled on precarious shoes and she was all alone.
From the next street over, I could hear drunken howls. She was moving away from one party and toward another. For one conscienceless moment after she’d turned the corner, I sat looking out at the street, just listening to the voices, the raucous boys in the meth-house on the next block. That moment is all it takes to decide whether someone else’s impending tragedy is your problem.
I knew the house, the people. I didn’t want to go there. She didn’t know it yet, but she didn’t want to go there either. Her face had been wholesome and round, like an apple pie.
And that was when the remarkable thing happened. I didn’t close my eyes, shut my brain, roll over to dream some other dream. I jumped up out of that chair and took off after her, skinny girl with plaid flannel shorts and no bra, tearing off after that pie-faced bambi like her life depended on it, like all the demons in the world were after her.
“Hey,” I yelled, reaching out at nothing, like I could catch her by the survival instinct with one flailing hand. “Hey, wait!”
I found her where I’d known I would. She’d wandered up onto the lawn, ruinously obliging when they’d called to her. I burst into their circle and grabbed her by the arm, shrieking in the gleeful tones of someone having a wonderful time, “There you are! What happened? I thought you were going to wait for me.”
Around us, boys with starved faces and bad teeth crept closer. In another town, they might be furtive, cowed by their own weakness. But here they ran feral. They could do what they wanted.
“Who the hell are you?” said one, giving me a sly, vicious stare.
I considered him.
Beside him, the girl was blinking uncertainly. The look she gave me was hazy, vacant as a sheep. And then her eyes changed.
She looked around at the jagged-toothed boys who laughed and called her baby, but they weren’t laughing now. No one was smiling anymore, and she pulled away like someone flinching from a burn.
“I’m her friend,” I said, and in the purest, most uncomplicated sense, I knew it was true.
I was barefoot on a stranger’s lawn in my pajamas, hair butchered, a cigarette clamped between my teeth and a mad woman’s promise in my stare. Brother, I will burn you down.
They must have seen it, because they all stepped back. They all dropped their gazes to the ground.
There’s this dream I have, on those rare, quiet nights when I fall asleep. The briars are like a wall. They go on forever. I’m alone, winding my way between them, not minding my scraped hands, my bleeding feet. I’m looking for drunk girls with dull, sleepy eyes. The ones who only need a whisper, and then they will turn blinkingly, turn willingly away from danger.
I walked her home.
We didn’t talk or look at each other, but in the light from her open door, she put her arms around my neck and mumbled, “Thank you.”
I walked back to Hanover Street alone and barefoot, not minding the boys in the yard. My cigarette had burned down, but I could breathe fire if I wanted.
Back on my porch, I reached for the lighter and lit another, not to suck it down, but just to let it burn.
There’s a princess. That’s the part everyone remembers. There’s a princess, with rosy cheeks and long golden hair, and she waits in the castle to be rescued. There’s a wicked spell and a handsome prince with a milk-white steed and a sword.
There’s a true-love kiss and a happy ending, and none of that matters, because what matters is this:
There’s also a dragon.
Photo by tyla