Blood. Blood everywhere. Gnashing teeth. Limbs being torn from bodies, all in hazy detail, like trying to watch through frosted glass. A woman, her face obscured in the fog, fighting unseen enemies, with a blanket wrapped bundle strapped to her chest. And then pain. Pain so deep and so ruthless that it ached within my chest, my heart, my very soul.
I bolted awake, chest heaving, skin slick with sweat. I checked my arms, my legs, my chest, to make sure it wasn’t blood, and a temporary relief washed over me when my hands came away wet but clear. It was just a nightmare. The same nightmare I’d had every night since I’d turned eleven.
I’d thought after nearly seven years of having it that it would stop scaring me, but it still rattled and unsettled me. The pain always lingered, aching in my joints and somewhere deep in my chest. I always wondered who the woman was. My first guess was always that it had to be me—it was my nightmare, so it had to be me—but then why did I see it all as if I were watching through someone else’s eyes?
I sat up in bed, wiping the sweat from my brow and pushed my hair back behind my ears. The sheets underneath me were soaked through with perspiration, and I rose on shaky legs with a sigh. I would worry about changing the sheets later—I needed a drink. Mundane, everyday acts like eating, drinking, and cleaning helped cement me back into reality after having a nightmare.
I didn’t bother turning the lights on as I walked. I knew the house like the back of my hand—knew where the creaky floorboard on the landing was, which step in the staircase was just a few millimetres lower than all the rest that always tripped Dad up the first few days he was back home. I had learned to navigate the kitchen by moonlight, and found a glass with ease, filling it with crisp, cold water, gulping down a few desperate mouthfuls. I didn’t feel quite so alert or overheated afterwards.
I stood at the window, looking out into the forest beyond. The last remnants of the storm rattled the treetops to and fro, but otherwise the wooden giants were still. The sight of it made me long for summer, when the nights were warm enough to sit out on the back porch and listen to the sounds of the forest, until they withdrew along with the sun. Maybe it was because I’d grown up in such seclusion, but I never felt threatened by the woods or the creatures that lived in them. Just the people that decided to use the trees for cover.
The clock on the oven flickered in the corner of my eye as it's illuminated face changed from 3:59 to 4:00. Christ, was it that early? I gulped down the last of my water, refilling the glass to take upstairs with me, ready for if I had my nightmare again. I did.
The morning that greeted me was just as bleak as the one the day before. Black clouds hugged the sky, like mother and child, the comparison alone to send twinges down the part of me that still hadn't gotten over Mom's death. Or the fact that I'd been the cause. I knew that wasn't true, but she'd died giving birth to me—what kind of monster would it make me if I didn't feel even a tiny bit guilty about it?
After a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal, I was up and in action. While most girls my age went shopping, or on dates, or hung out with their friends on Saturdays, I had been resigned to a fully adult life of housework. Not that I made much mess, but whenever I was expecting Dad home, I ended up giving the house a full spring clean. Even on bleak November mornings. I threw a CD in the stereo—some indie band equally as bleak as the weather—and set to work, only stopping at lunch for a quick bite to eat.
I cooked a big meal that night. Spaghetti and meatballs, Dad's favourite. I thought for sure he'd be home that night, but as I ate alone I realised it was just stupid old me getting my hopes up again. I didn't bother to put Dad's portion in the fridge for the next day.
I jolted awake from another nightmare, my heart hammering against my ribcage. The glass of water I'd taken up to bed with me that night lay shattered on the floor, the wooden floorboards still damp. Had I really been thrashing that much in my sleep? I picked up the largest shards, discarding them in the trashcan in the corner of my room. The steady moonlight seeping in through my curtains told me enough about what time it was, and I had no intention of cleaning up the rest of it until well after sunrise.
I made my way down to the kitchen in my usual nightly routine, and froze as I caught sight of a shadow across the kitchen window. A decidedly man-shaped shadow. My heart skipped a beat. Dad. It had to be him. He was home.
I raced out of the door to greet him and skidded to a halt when the man standing on our back porch wasn't my dad. With fashionably cut sandy hair, and olive skin like an Italian, he definitely wasn't my dad.
"Excuse me, this is private property," I said sternly, not waiting for him to notice me.
He turned to face me, and for a second I got lost in his eyes. Pools of green so deep you could jump into them and get lost. Moss, and fresh grass, and spring flowers, and all things new and good burst into my mind at the sight of them. The panic that had been residing in me from my night terror receded like the tide, leaving behind it a clean spread, all the dark edges and corners scrubbed clean by it all.
"Pardon the intrusion," he said brightly, though his voice held a wary edge. Like he expected me to attack. "I just... It's a beautiful night, isn't it?"
"You can admire it off my porch."
I didn't want him there. I didn't care if he had the most beautiful eyes I'd ever seen. I didn't care if he was polite. I wanted him gone. I'd had enough run ins with strangers lately, and now they'd come to invade my home. The one place I felt safe. Fuck that.
"If you want me to go, I'll go. It just seems a shame to waste a view like this. The moon, I mean, I'm not... That wasn't supposed to sound so much like a pick up line."
I laughed in my head, but didn't let it slip out. I didn't want to give this weirdo the satisfaction. I risked a glance up at the moon, and the cloudless sky that had finally dawned. Away from the lights in town, if only by a few miles, the sky really was beautiful. Inky black, diluted in places like paint water by the light of the stars, twinkling away like light eternal. But all things must come to an end, and so did my peace in the night.
"Why are you on my porch?" I asked, looking back at the stranger.
"I honestly don't have a good reason for it. I'm Fletcher, by the way. Fletcher Pope." He paused, holding out a hand for me to shake but seemed to think better of it, changing his mind and pulling his hand back. "Do you want me to go?"
I surveyed him once more. He didn't look suspicious. And while his circumstance was a poor excuse for trespassing, he didn't seem like he had ill intentions. Wasn't that how all the best conmen worked, though? And just so happening to stumble onto my house, when it was the only one for miles, and the only one that wasn't well defended.
"Where are you from?" I asked, still making my mind up about him.
"Where in town?"
"5 Sunset Square."
That was one of the terraced houses. The ones that looked empty. He could have been lying, I told myself, but what would he have to gain? If he wanted to break it, what difference did it make? I studied him a minute longer, the trees rustling in the gentle post-storm breeze that had sprung up.
"What did you say your name was?" I asked.
"Nice to meet you, Fletcher. I'm Hallie."
He gave a polite, courteous nod. "Nice to meet you too, Hallie."
I joined him on the porch after making the both of us something warm to drink, and the chill of the hand that brushed mine told me he needed it desperately. He sat there in just a t-shirt, jeans, and a thin jacket, but he didn't let the cold bother him. Meanwhile I was trussed up in a sweater and my slippers, and was tempted to go and get a blanket as well.
We didn't talk at first. Fletcher seemed happy just gazing up at the moon, and I didn't want to disturb him. I knew what it was like to want and enjoy your own company, and even though he'd extended the invitation to me, I didn't want to intrude. The hours trickled by in a comfortable silence that draped over us like a blanket, warm and fleecy. I could have spent all night there, I think, just enjoying the quiet company. I couldn't even remember the last time I'd had company that wasn't Dad, or the very distant aunt that had looked after me for a while when I was too young to take care of myself.
But eventually I found my tongue, and my confidence tied to it. I shifted in my seat, my legs frozen and cramped where they were folded beneath me, and studied Fletcher's face.
"How old are you?" I asked, not able to tell from his appearance alone.
He looked like he couldn't have been much older than twenty five, but he carried himself like he was a lot older. Well, when he wasn't tripping up over his own tongue, anyway. Then he just seemed like a dorky teenager.
"Twenty two. You look like you're about sixteen, seventeen."
"Ding ding, we have a winner," I said a little sarcastically, but he laughed it off. "Shouldn't you be off at college or something?"
"Never saw the point." He shrugged as he spoke, a gentle rise and fall of his shoulders. "Shouldn't you be doing homework?"
"You think you're so clever, don't you?" I said with a smile.
Silence fell again, but only briefly. Fletcher was the one to break it this time, and his question threw me.
"So, Hallie, why did you decide to spend the night out here with me, instead of telling me to clear off and going back to bed?"
I didn't know what to say. Just like he hadn't had a good reason for being here, neither did I for staying. I was just lonely and desperate, though for what, I wasn’t sure. Company, friendship, security. They’d all be so far off my radar for so many years that I didn’t think I would ever adjust to having them again.
“Isn’t this how all those cheesy love stories start?” I asked, deflecting his question, if only a little. “Mysterious guy shows up in the middle of the night to win the heart of the pretty girl.”
“We both know you don’t believe that. I could be anyone, Hallie. I could have come here to murder you. Or rob you. Or rape you. Or all of the above, and not necessarily in that order.”
“Have you?” I asked flatly.
I looked away from him, out to the forest. I could feel the confession on the tip of my tongue, just waiting to be uttered. To have life breathed into the words, and for them not to fall on deaf ears for once. I almost did it. I almost took the plunge, opened myself up and let my metaphoric insides spill out for Fletcher to see, but I faltered at the last second. Stuffed everything back in and stitched myself back together like some horrible, misshapen rag doll. I wondered if he could tell just from looking at me. If he could see the hastily returned stuffing, bulging out in all the wrong places. If he could, he didn’t say anything.
“I guess I thought I’d just take a chance. You don’t need my permission to come in and kill me.”
He chuckled at that, but I didn’t get the joke.
“I suppose not.” He was quiet again as he looked up at the sky.
Pink was just beginning to tinge the sky as the sun emerged from its slumber, refreshed and ready for a new day. I wished I could say the same.
“Listen, Hallie, I don’t have time to explain how I know, but please give me the benefit of the doubt and accept that I do. I know you don’t think so, but you’re destined for greatness. You just have to make sure you’re here when the world’s ready for you.”
He got to his feet, without giving me a chance to question him, and walked off into the forest, waving lazily at me as he walked while I was left dumbfounded on the porch. As I shuffled back up to bed to catch up on my missed hours of sleep, I could only hope the whole encounter had just been one really weird dream.