| After I Dream |
By Rachel Lee
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N ight blanketed Lower Sugarloaf Key, surrounding the cottage and threatening to bury it.
Chase Mattingly looked at the 9mm Beretta sitting on the table in front of him. He took it out from time to time to clean it, then sat staring at it with a mixture of loathing and need. Sometimes he came perilously close to putting the barrel to his head, but so far it had been enough just to know it was there.
Tonight was one of those nights when he was coming close. Every light in the cottage was burning brightly to hold the night outside at bay. He couldn't stand the darkness anymore. Out of the dark came the twisting, evil things to torment him. Out of the dark came monsters that had been spawned by a nightmare that had nearly killed him.
As long as the lights were on, he could cling to the edges of reality. As long as the lights were on, he could stare at the Beretta and know that relief was only one short act away.
He scorned himself for it. He scorned his weakness in needing that gun and needing the lights that drove the demons back. He scorned himself for not being strong enough to put a bullet in his brain.
Hell, he more than scorned himself. He hated himself.
So he sat staring at the pistol while the night whispered around the walls of the cottage, and he tried not to think about the pain that gnawed at him with hungry jaws.
There was a bottle of painkillers in his medicine chest. Two tablets would dull the pain and send him over the edge into sleep.
But he didn't dare sleep while night ruled the world. In dreams, he found himself clamped in the icy black grip of the merciless sea. While he slept, not even the lights and the locked doors could keep the night outside. It crept in, clawing at his sleeping mind with icy fingers, pressing the breath right out of his body until he woke screaming and gasping for air.
The monsters had followed him back from the depths of the sea. Now they inhabited the depths of night. They had almost killed him once, and he couldn't escape the feeling that they would never quit until they succeeded.
The doctors told him he was being irrational, and he knew they were right. They told him he had suffered some weird kind of stroke or embolism that had caused hallucinations while he was diving, and he believed them. His mind believed them. But in the depths of night, his gut ruled, and he knew with absolute certainty that demons had tried to kill him, and were only awaiting a chance to finish the job.
The gun wouldn't work on them, but it would work on him. So he sat with it for company, drinking coffee until his nerves buzzed, waiting for the night to find some crack by which it could creep in and attack him.
He clung to his pain because it kept him awake, and he needed to stay awake.
He listened to the clatter of palm fronds in the sea breeze, and heard taunting laughter. He listened to the wind rattle the windows and shutters, and heard the night trying to break in. The darkness had shape and form and evil intent.
And he didn't believe it, but he couldn't stop believing it. He was mad, and despised himself for it. Before, he had always believed that the insane didn't know they were insane. Now he knew otherwise. There was no such mercy in madness.
Alone with his insanity and his gun, he struggled to hold on to reality. He forced himself to hear the sounds of the night and put natural interpretations on them. He forced himself to pay attention to the pain throbbing in his hip and his back, a pain that was almost as solid as the chair on which he sat.
And with every cell he strained for the sounds that would herald his release from terror for another day.
At last he heard a boat engine turn over, then chug in the restless air of the inlet. Without looking, he knew that the first pink streamers of dawn were driving the night back from the eastern rim of the world. Pushing back from the table, ignoring the grinding pain in his hip, and the stabbing pain in his back, he limped to the door and threw it open.
Night was recoiling, vanquished as always by the approach of day. In the dim light, the taunting shadows were beginning to resolve into normalcy. He could see the Carlson boy across the inlet, jumping from the dock onto the battered thirty-foot fishing boat he shared with a friend. The two of them dreamed grand dreams of making enough to buy a good deep-sea fishing boat one day, something they could charter to tourists. He'd heard them spinning their dreams not too long ago as they'd worked on their old wood-hulled boat, fighting age and the elements to keep it seaworthy.
Once, he'd been like them. He'd had dreams . . . dreams that eren't filled with terror and pain.
Looking up, he saw the red streaks of dawn stretching across the sky like bloody gashes. Idiots, he thought, watching the boys' boat as it chugged out of the inlet toward the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean. Jerks. A sky like that in the morning shouldn't be ignored.
Then he turned and went back inside. The sun had driven the night back into the depths of the sea.
Now he could sleep.
Calypso Carlson opened her eyes with the certain sense that something was wrong. Another person might have called it foreboding, but she had spent many years rooting out that kind of mystical garbage from her thinking. She was a psychologist, and she knew too much about the mind's workings to fall prey to such intuitions.
What was wrongthe only thing that was wrongwas that she and her brother Jeff had been up half the night fighting. She simply dreaded opening another round with him this morning.
With a groan, Callie rolled over and tried to talk herself into going back to sleep. This was the first day of her month-long vacation, and there was no reason to drag herself out of bed. What was she going to do? Argue with Jeff again about how he should go to college and save his dreams of owning a charter service until after he had a degree?
She snorted into her pillow and wondered why she even bothered. Jeff had hit the nail on the head when he'd accused her of being afraid of the sea ever since their father had been lost out there. As far as he was concerned, that made her reasoning about college suspect.
And maybe it was, in part. God knew, the sea had taken enough from her.
But she couldn't stay in bed any longer. The morning sun was hammering on the walls of her bedroom, making it hot and stuffy, but not yet warming the rest of the house enough to make the air-conditioning turn on. But it wasn't the stuffiness that drove her to get up, though she told herself it was. It was the lingering, troubling sense of doom.
Groaning again, feeling far older than twenty-eight, she climbed out of bed and pulled on a pair of white shorts and a blue T-shirt. Coffee. Maybe Jeff had a pot going. For that she would forgive him anything.
A cloud scudded across the sun, darkening her room. She felt an inexplicable shiver of apprehension and forced it aside. Lack of sleep was making her ditzy, that was all.
In the kitchen she found coffee, but Jeff had pulled the plug, leaving it to grow cold. Impatient, she poured some into a mug and put it in the microwave to heat. She didn't remember whether he was supposed to go to work at the hardware store this morning, so she wandered over to the refrigerator to check the schedule he kept posted there, held in place by two magnets, one shaped like a whale, the other like a dolphin.
No, he wasn't supposed to go in until three this afternoon. The microwave pinged but she didn't hear it. Her uneasiness overwhelmed her.
Hurrying through the house, she ran out onto the front porch and looked toward the dock.
The Lily, named for their mother, wasn't there. And worse, storm clouds were building on the horizon.
The sea had called to her brother, and he had gone.
She forced herself to cook breakfast, grits and cheese, and made a fresh pot of coffee. It occurred to her that she was trying to distract herself by keeping busy because she wasn't at all hungry. She ate anyway, forcing the sticky grits down with orange juice, ignoring the way the food sat like lead in her stomach.
Jeff, what are you doing?
She'd asked her brother that question many times over the years she had raised him, and she wanted to ask it again right now. Maybe he only meant to do a little fishing before it was time for work, but with those storm clouds out over the water, the waves and wind would be strengthening. It was not a good day to put out to sea.
She turned on the weather radio and listened to marine advisories that warned small craft of approaching squalls. Finally, she used the marine radio to try and raise the Lily, but in answer to her calls she heard only the crackle of static.
She felt a surge of anger and frustration. It would be just like Jeff to ignore her calls so she couldn't yell at him. When he got back later, she was going to have this out with him once and for all. If he wanted to ignore her pleas to come home, that was one thing, but at the very least he ought to respond to her radio calls so she could know he was alive!
She walked out to the mouth of the inlet, marching along the path that wound through the mangroves, along her neighbor's seawall, and sometimes emerged onto sandy shore. Standing on the high ridge of limestone and caprock that reached out into the water, she used binoculars to peer out over the sea and try to pick out any small speck that might be the Lily.
The waves were high, she noticed, and the Intracoastal Waterway, calm on sunny days, was beginning to look dark and angry. The storms out at sea were causing the waves to chew up the bottom and toss all kinds of debris onto the shore. The distant thunderclouds were closer now, and with senses finely honed from years of living on the water, she could feel the changing barometer, could smell the approaching squalls.
Damn it, Jeff! Come home!
Thirteen years ago she had stood on this point, a girl of fourteen, awaiting her father's return from sea in the days after her mother's death.
For the better part of three days she had stood here, paralyzed by grief, needing her father as desperately as she had ever needed anyone or anything. She needed desperately for him to be there so she wouldn't be alone with her grief. Jeff, only six at the time, had not really grasped that their mother was dead, and he had played at her feet while she watched and waited as the women of seagoing families had watched and waited since the dawn of time.
Ten years later she had stood on this same point, watching her father's boat return from a six-week shrimping trip, impatient to tell him that Jeff had dropped out of school. But their father had never come home. He had been washed overboard at sea and his crew had returned the boat to her with sorrowful faces.
Her mother, her father, and now she was waiting for her brother. When she looked at the ocean now, she felt something akin to revulsion and hatred. It was far more emotion than an inanimate body of water deserved, she told herself. The sea had done nothing to her. It couldn't do anything. It didn't think, or breathe, or feel. It was just a force of nature.
But she hated it anyway, and never looked out over it without remembering her losses.
Two more times in the next several hours she walked out to the headland to look at the increasingly restless water and the threatening shapes of dark gray clouds. It was two o'clock now, and there had been no sign of the Lily, not even through the binoculars that hung heavy around her neck.
As she walked back to her house, she had to pass the cottage that faced her house across the inlet. This time a rough voice startled her.
"You're worrying about the boy."
Looking up from the path along the seawall, she saw the man who had recently moved into the A-frame cottage some snowbird had built years before. It looked out of place amidst palms planted by previous owners and the tropical foliage of the Florida Keys, as if it had been plucked from some alpine valley and accidentally dropped here.
He was sitting on his redwood deck, one leg propped out before him on a small wicker table. Now that she was only a few feet away, she could see that his face had been gouged by life, leaving deep cuts around his eyes and mouth. He had the permanently bronzed look of someone who lived with the elements, but beneath that burnt-in color, he looked pale. Dark, shaggy hair reached his collar, and his eyes were the color of a stormy sea. A diamond twinkled in his left earlobe, even though he sat in the shade of his porch.
He looked, thought Callie, like a pirate.
"I saw him sail out this morning," the man said. "The sky looked bad. I'm surprised he went."
Without warning, it all burst out of Callie. "When he gets back, I'm going to kill him. He has less than an hour to get to work."
A laugh issued from the man, and he nodded as if he understood her feeling.
"He's foolish! The marine advisories have been worsening all day. If he stays out there much longer" She broke off, unwilling to give voice to the possibilities. All her efforts to pluck superstition out of her life had apparently failed. She didn't want the sea to hear her speak her worst fears.
He nodded toward the radio antenna rising beside her house. "Have you tried to raise him?"
"He's not answering." The anger went out of her as she tacitly admitted her worst fear of all.
"He's probably ignoring you," the man said almost kindly. "He knows what you're going to say."
"Probably." She turned from him and looked back toward the mouth of the inlet. The tide was rising, and the waves were stiffening, becoming whitecapped even in this protected cove. The storm was still far out, but she had no idea how far out Jeff himself and his friend Eric might have gone.
"We fought last night." The memory filled her with guilt now, because it might be the reason her headstrong brother had sailed out that morning.
Lead settled in her stomach.
"About what?" the man asked.
"I want him to go to college. I think he should get his degree and see what else is available out there before he throws his life away on fishing boats."
"Mmm." He was silent a while. "When the sea gets into a man's blood there's not much you can do about it."
She turned to look at him. "He's only twenty. He's been like this ever since I can remember. Just before our father died he dropped out of high school to fish. It's been a major battle just to get him to complete his G.E.D."
"But he did?"
She nodded, her gaze straying back to the water. Why was she telling him all this? He couldn't possibly care.
"So he's your brother?"
"Yes." The rules of common courtesy dragged her gaze from the water back to him. "Sorry. I'm Callie Carlson. My brother is Jeff."
"Nice to make your acquaintance. I'm Chase Mattingly."
His name struck a chord deep inside her, as if she recognized it from somewhere, but other worries concerned her more. "I guess I'd better get back to the house and try to radio him again. I can't believe he hasn't been listening to the advisories."
"I can't believe he hasn't noticed the weather conditions," Chase said. "He may be only twenty, but he's a sailor."
She nodded, fear rearing its ugly head even higher.
"I'll come with you," he offered unexpectedly. "Maybe if I call him, he'll answer."
It was worth a try. She nodded her thanks.
He lowered his leg to the floor and rose from the redwood chair like a man much older than his apparent years. Even in her current preoccupied state, Callie recognized the repressed flickers of pain that passed over his face. "Are you all right?" she asked impulsively, before she could reconsider.
"As right as I'll ever be." With a movement of his hand, he dismissed the subject. But he limped as he came down the steps to the sand, and limped as they made their way around the inlet to her house.
"It's a nice old house," he volunteered, with a nod toward her home.
"My granddad built it with his own two hands out of cypress and tropical hardwood. My dad put the siding on it when I was little to make it prettier for my mom. It needs paint."
"Everything by the water needs paint."
She nodded. "I'm planning to do it during my vacation."
"If you need help, holler. It'd do me some good to work."
She wondered about that, wondered why he wasn't working, if he'd been in some kind of accident and was recuperating. But she didn't ask. He would tell her what he chose to. "Thanks," she said. Once again she looked back at the mouth of the inlet, hoping to see the Lily. The boat wouldn't be there, but she hoped anyway.
A gust of wind blew, ruffling the surface of the inlet and making the palms clatter noisily. A heron flew in and settled in the shallows a few feet out from shore, then stood as motionless as a statue.
When they reached her veranda, Chase climbed the steps carefully, as if each movement hurt. Inside, the house was cool and silent except for the tireless murmur of the air-conditioning. Callie showed him to the radio. Then, since he seemed to know what he was doing with it, she went to the kitchen to get them each a glass
of lemonade. Three walks to the point in the summer heat had left her feeling as parched as Death Valley.
When she returned with the drinks, she heard her brother's voice come out of the radio. Relief washed over her so strongly that her hands started to shake. Moving quickly, she set the glasses down on the table near the radio.
"Your sister's worried half to death about you," Chase said amiably into the microphone. "Have you looked at the sky lately? Over."
"It's getting a little rough out here," Jeff replied. "Tell her we'll be back in a couple of hours. Over."
"Hours?" Callie said, fear grabbing her again. "Hours?"
"You hear that?" Chase said into the microphone. "You're giving her a heart attack."
Jeff's laugh sounded tinny but genuine. "Hey, sis, lighten up. We found a boat!"
Chase looked at her and shrugged a shoulder. Leaning toward the mike, he said, "What boat? What's going on out there, Lily? Over."
"It's really cool!" Jeff said enthusiastically. "We found an abandoned deep-sea fishing boat. We're putting the pumps over right now to salvage her. Man, she's a beauty! Just exactly what I wanted Santa to bring."
Callie listened with dawning horror. Her baby brother was out on rough seas attempting to salvage a sinking boat? He was risking his neck for a boat?
She grabbed the microphone and pressed the transmit button. "Jeff, are you crazy? That boat's sinking, isn't it? You're not going to board it!"
"We already have, sis. Eric and I are setting up the pumps right now. She's not sinking any more anyway. Can you believe it? Somebody scuttled her!"
The hair on the back of Callie's neck prickled, and she found herself looking at Chase. His dark gray gaze, exactly the color of thunderheads, seemed to reflect her own concern.
"Jeff, salvage is risky even under good conditions! You're in dangerous seas!"
"Not that dangerous. Not yet, Callie. It's a little rough out here, but we're a long way from being in trouble. Besides, it's a boat! It's in almost-new condition, and she's exactly what Eric and I want for our business! I can't just leave her here!"
"Jeff . . . the boat was scuttled. Maybe there's a reason for that."
She was answered with a crackling silence, then, "I've gotta go help Eric, Callie. I'm going to sign off now."
Chase reached for the mike. "Jeff? Call in from time to time so your sister doesn't get any more gray hairs, okay?"
Silence, then, "Okay. Half an hour. I'll radio in half an hour. Out."
And once again the crackling of dead air filled the room.
Chase put the microphone back on the table. Callie stared off into space, fighting the fear that wanted to strangle her.
Not Jeff, too, she found herself praying. Haven't you taken enough from me? But she wasn't praying to God, she realized. She was praying to the sea. Talking to that monstrous beast out there as if it were alive and could hear. As if it could be bargained with.
With a start, she realized the day outside had darkened. The dimness inside was no longer solely caused by the wide veranda that circled three sides of the house. Turning, without speaking a word to Chase Mattingly, she hurried to the front of the house and out onto the porch.
The clouds had swallowed the blue sky at last. The mangroves and the trees on the hammock behind the house tossed wildly, and strong gusts of wind lifted the spray right off the inlet and slapped her in the face with it.
"It's bad," she said, almost to herself.
Chase had followed her, and answered. "Maybe it's not as bad where he is. You know the water's so shallow around here that it doesn't take much to whip it up. From what he said, I'd guess he's farther out, in deeper water."
She was suddenly aware of his eyes on her, and she turned to look at him. In those dark depths she saw the flickers of things that frightened her, but she also saw compassion. Time seemed to fade away, and a strange stillness came to the afternoon.
But then the spray slapped her again, jerking her back to reality.
"I'll stay with you until he gets back in," Chase said.
It was the neighborly thing to do, the kind of thing people in isolated locations had always done for each other, so it didn't seem out of place to her. She nodded her thanks. "We might as well wait inside. If he radios, I don't want to miss it."
The house was a cool cocoon against the weather building outside. The air-conditioning had been her own addition two years ago, an expensive job of running ducts through the attic in a house that had never had central heat or air. She and Jeff had done most of the ductwork themselves, laboring in the suffocating temperatures of the attic, finally deciding to add a better attic fan, too.
But now she could seal herself away from everything behind closed windows and doors. Everything except fear.
The speakers on the marine radio still crackled emptily. The weather radio was blaring another alert tone, and Callie hit the button, listening with trepidation as the U.S. Weather Service gave another small-craft advisory. Ten-foot waves were being predicted, and while the Lily could ride out such seas, it was another matter entirely if her brother was tied up alongside another boat, trying to salvage it.
She glanced toward Chase, and saw the awareness in his gaze. "Maybe I should call the Coast Guard," she said.
"I didn't ask his position."
"Oh. I should have thought of that!"
"Me, too." He glanced at the digital clock on the table beside the radio.
"He should be calling again in about fifteen minutes."
Waiting. "You know," she said, "the thing I hate most about the sea is the way it makes you wait. I have stood for days on that headland waiting for someone to come home . . ." Her voice trailed off and she looked away, feeling she was exposing too much to a stranger.
"It's not as bad as it used to be," he said. "Radio, radiophone . . . it's a lot better."
She shook her head. "It's never any better. You never know . . ."
She had the feeling he thought she was being extreme, but he didn't say anything, and she didn't bother to defend her feelings. They were her feelings, however irrational.
"No," he said finally. "You never know what the sea might do."
That was it exactly, she thought. She couldn't trust the sea the same way she could trust a ribbon of highway. If somebody took a long road trip, she just assumed they'd arrive safely. With the sea . . . with the sea Callie was always afraid.
She spoke. "You talk like you spend a lot of time at sea."
"I do. I did. Probably not anymore."
"I had an . . . accident."
Another one. Another person whose life had been blighted by the sea. She turned away, wrapping her arms around herself and looking out the window. The day had turned dark, almost bottle green. Come home, Jeff! "What happened?"
"I . . . don't like to talk about it."
"Okay." Fair enough. They were strangers after all.
"What do you do?" he asked, changing the subject.
"I'm a psychologist. I work in a program for abuse and rape survivors."
"That's gotta be tough."
She nodded, still not looking at him, and changed the subject again, wanting to stay away from memories of her job. That was the point of a vacation, after all, to get away from the mountains of horrible human tragedy she dealt with on a regular basis. "I started my vacation today."
"So you're planning to buy paintbrushes?"
She looked at him then, wondering what he meant. Then she remembered their earlier conversation. "I'm thinking about it. If I don't paint the house now, it'll have to wait another year, until my next vacation."
He nodded and opened his mouth to reply, but just as he started speaking, a long, low roll of thunder shook the house.
"Damn it, Jeff!" Callie said out loud. She looked at the digital clock and saw that the power must have fluctuated, because it was blinking steadily.
She suddenly realized the room had become almost as gloomy as night.
"Five minutes," Chase said, looking at his watch.
"If the power doesn't go out." Something new to worry about. God, she hated this! Crossing the room, she turned on the lamp beside the radio.
She hated that radio, she realized. It sat there, ugly and gray, in a corner of the living room, a constant reminder that the Carlsons went to sea. Her dad had bought it after their mother's death. When he died, she'd come close to throwing it in the trash, but then Jeff had started going out, and she couldn't bear the thought of not being able to get in touch with him.
So it sat there, a lifeline that she hated.
She probably should have sunk the boat, she thought now. When they had sold their father's vessel after his death, to get money to live on, Jeff had insisted they take some of it and get a smaller boat. "For pleasure," he'd said. "We can go fishing, or just cruise on nice days . . ."
She'd allowed herself to be persuaded, thinking that if Jeff could take the boat out for fun, he wouldn't feel as strong a need to go out as a commercial fisherman. How wrong she'd been. She'd never imagined that he would use that boat to follow the very lifestyle she wanted him to leave behind.
The radio crackled to life, Jeff's voice giving the call letters. "It's getting rough out here," he said. "We've got eight-foot waves . . ."
Chase picked up the microphone. "Are you still tied to the abandoned vessel?"
"We're almost done here. . . ." His voice faded away in a burst of static.
Callie came to stand beside the table, gripping the edge of it until her knuckles turned white. Chase looked up at her, his eyes opaque.
". . . most of the water out of the boat and . . ."
Another burst of static. Callie closed her eyes, praying.
". . . engine started. Over."
Chase spoke into the microphone. "Give me your position, over."
Another roll of thunder shook the house, and there was a sudden machine-gun rattle of rain on the tin roof.
No answer. Chase keyed the mike again. "Lily, give me your position. Over."
Still no answer, just the unending crackle of static from the speaker.
"Oh, God!" Callie could hardly stand it. Straightening, she began to pace the room, praying to God, praying to the sea to help her brother return safely. Seconds turned slowly into minutes as Chase kept trying to raise the Lily.
"The storm's playing hell with the radio," he said once.
Callie didn't even answer. In her mind all she could see was the Lily tied up along some other boat, rolling dangerously on rough seas, unable to keep her bow into the waves because of the floundering vessel she was tied to. She could see Jeff being washed overboard by a large wave. She could see the Lily being hurled by the waves against the other craft and breaking up.
All she could see was the sea taking the last of her family from her.
The minutes dragged into a half hour, then into an hour with no further word from Jeff.
The phone rang. Startled, she jumped and stared at it as if it might bite her. It had to be one of her friends, but she didn't want to talk to anyone right now. Chase keyed the mike again, and tried to get Jeff. Over and over, his voice remaining calm, he called the Lily and no one answered.
The phone kept ringing, and finally Callie reached for it, ready to give short shrift to whoever it was.
"Ms. Carlson?" asked an unfamiliar man's voice.
"Ms. Carlson, this is Warrant Officer Hemlich of the United States Coast Guard. I'm calling about Jeff Carlson."
Her heart slammed, her eyes closed, and her brain fell silent as she waited for the awful news she was sure must be coming.
"Ma'am, Mr. Carlson asked that somebody call you and tell you he's all right. We're escorting him to harbor right now."
Excerpted from After I Dream , by Rachel Lee . Copyright (c) 2000 by Rachel Lee . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top