Copyright © 2012 Mike E. Miller
All rights reserved.
“Come on, Andy. It’s time to get up.” The voice was far away and muffled as though I were under water. “Rise and shine.” It was louder that time as I emerged from the depths of sleep. My eyes fluttered open and I strained against the fogginess that enveloped my consciousness.
“Mom?” I squinted at her as I pushed up onto an elbow. “Is everything okay?” I reached across the bed to wake my wife, but I hit empty air. She was gone. In fact, her whole side of the bed was missing. I was in a twin bed.
“Everything’s fine, hon. It’s time to get up for school.” She leaned against the doorjamb, an amused smile crossing her lips.
“School?” I blinked my eyes, trying to coax them into focusing. The room wasn’t my own, but it was strangely familiar. And my mom wasn’t really my mom; she couldn’t be. The woman standing in the doorway couldn’t be any older than I was. But she was also undeniably familiar. I knew her, but I couldn’t quite place how or where. Where was I?
I surveyed the room around me and felt my heart rate rise as the sense of familiarity became recognition. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader were on my blanket, fighting an eternal, lightsaber duel. An old, beaten up, puke-green dresser stood in one corner. On the wall next to it, there was a poster of the U.S.S. Enterprise emblazoned across a backdrop of stars. It felt like I had been here before because I had. It looked just like the room I grew up in.
I sucked in my breath as I shot up into a sitting position, pushing myself backward toward the corner of the bed. This bedroom was not the only replica from my past. I looked again at the woman in the doorway and she did look like my mother after all, only not in this decade. That was why I could recognize her. She could be my mother’s twin, only the gray was gone from her hair and the coarse lines that framed the corners of her mouth and eyes were smooth. She was an impossibly young version of herself.
I was in my old bedroom. My mom looked like she stepped straight out of the past. I thought through the implications and lifted the blanket that covered me, terrified of what I might see. My terror became real as I saw that my feet were only about half as far away from my body as they should have been. They were the short, skinny legs of a child. I jumped backward again, only there was nowhere else to go. I ran out of bed and I fell off the edge, landing in the space between it and the wall.
My mom started to laugh as she watched the spectacle. “What in the world was that about?”
I righted myself and looked up at her from my cubbyhole, still unable to believe what I was seeing. She was looking back at me with a grin and I was at a complete loss. To her, the only odd thing was that I had fallen off the bed. The fact that I was a child seemed to be perfectly normal.
Realizing that she was still waiting for a response, I said the first thing that came into my head: “Spider! There was spider on my bed!”
That made her laugh even more. “Babe, that spider is more afraid of you than you are of it. It thinks you’re a great, big giant.” As her giggles trailed off, she added, “I’ll bet you’re plenty awake now, though.”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I am.” The past several seconds had definitely ripped away any leftover remnants of sleep.
My mother threw me a wink and turned, walking out my room and down the hall. She left me to my predicament, only I didn’t know what to do with it. What I wanted to do was climb back into bed. I wanted to pull the covers over my head and go back to sleep. I wanted to wake up normally. Instead, I looked down at the miniature version of myself, my heart thumping in my chest as my brain still tried to comprehend what my eyes were seeing. Everything – my room, my mom, me – was as though the past twenty-five or thirty years had never happened, except for the fact that I knew things. My child-sized brain contained my entire life and I knew things. I knew things. I remembered graduating high school; I remembered my father’s death. I remembered marrying Sarah. I knew how to drive, how to cook, how to… be a man. I knew things that this body could not possibly have experienced.
I climbed up and across the bed, dropping off the other side. As I swept back the curtains, I stood in amazement as I saw my old neighborhood below me. The Johnston’s house was across the street, untouched by the flames that caused them to rebuild when I was a teenager. Next door, the Mitchell’s Toyota truck was in the driveway, a sticker across the back window that read, “A man’s gotta have a Toy.” A white dog named Cat lay under the large oak in their front yard.
“This can’t happen. This can’t be real.” But as I looked down on the neighborhood, I knew it had to be. I could feel the carpet between my toes. The rough texture of the curtain’s underside was a scratchy contrast to the velvety surface of the front. This was too real to be a dream. I had somehow stepped directly into my own past; I had walked headlong into the impossible.
I let the curtain go and turned back to face the insanity that was my childhood bedroom. I felt completely stunned as I tried to take it all in. It took most of my energy just to keep myself from hyperventilating. None of this made sense. This kind of thing didn’t happen in real life. It just didn’t.
I sat down on the bed and put my head into my hands. “What am I going to do?” I asked the walls around me. They didn’t answer. There was only a silence that reflected my own feelings of hopelessness. I wanted to run away, but there was nowhere to go. I wanted to scream for help, but who would help me? I was alone without even a clue about what to do next.
All I could think of was that it had to be some big, cosmic joke. In my imagination, I could see God having a huge belly laugh at my expense. And He didn’t even have the common decency to let me wake up on my own. No, my mom had to be standing in the doorway, increasing my freak-out factor by ten. But that was assuming God even had a part in it. As I sat there with my head in my hands, I knew nothing. I didn’t understand what happened or why. I didn’t know what was going on or what to do next.
The only thing I did know was that my mom was going to come back to my room soon to check on me. I didn’t want to be sitting on my bed in my miniature tighty-whiteys with my head in my hands when she did. I had to get some form of control over myself so I wasn’t a babbling idiot.
“Okay, Andy. You’ve got to get up,” I told myself, surprised at the sound of my own prepubescent voice. It was alien to me. It was high pitched and it sounded nothing like the voice I remembered. But still, I pushed myself off the bed. I had to get dressed. I had to play along and hope things would start to make sense. I could only pray that something would reveal itself. There was nothing else to do.
I slid open one of my drawers and the clothes inside were, without a doubt, from my childhood. There were corduroy pants and there were stiff, dark, blue jeans. There were mesh t-shirts and Izod knockoffs. I saw white tube socks with big, red or yellow stripes at the top. I let out a sigh as I sorted through them. I thought these clothes were so cool when I was a kid. Now, I wanted nothing to do with them.
I settled for a pair of jeans and a white and red shirt. After taking care of my morning business, I braced myself for the trip downstairs. I knew it was going to be an equally shocking reflection of my past. And I was right. The carpet, the pictures on the walls, even the ugly, white couch with the gold, embroidered vines were straight from my memories. They were simultaneously stressful and comforting.
My father’s old chair sat on the far side of the room. It was a gigantic thing compared to my small form. The tan, corduroy fabric was old and worn. I hadn’t seen that chair in decades. It was one of the first things to go after my dad died. Looking at it now, I could see myself climbing up into my dad’s lap. We would watch The A-Team or The Fall Guy. Many of my memories from this time were vague, but I could remember loving the excitement of the shows and the closeness of my dad.
My eyes began to tear up as I saw his coffee cup sitting on the small table beside it. The morning paper sat alongside the cup, opened to the daily crossword puzzle. “He’s still alive,” I whispered as I ran my hand along the fabric of the chair. He used to sit here in the mornings, sipping his coffee as he worked through the puzzles. I picked up the cup, cradling it in my hands. I had hoped that there would still be some warmth to it, that there would be an additional confirmation that he had been right here. It was cold.
As I sat the cup back in its place, I started to wonder what else might be different. I thought about my mom. She was nothing like the woman I remembered. And it wasn’t just her age. Almost everything about her was different. She had been smiling and laughing. She actually winked at me. She was waking me up.
Thinking back, I could only remember the times I had to wake her up. Pounding on her door almost never worked, so I would have to make myself walk through her door. I would often find her lying uncovered on her bed, sometimes still in her clothes from the night before, sometimes not clothed at all. There would be an empty bottle lying next to her on the bed or maybe on the nightstand. I would shake her; I would yell at her that I needed to go to school and that she needed to get up.
She would eventually stir, but it was often a long and painful process. And when she did wake up, she would always look embarrassed – as though she wanted to climb inside a deep hole and hide. She would sit there for a moment, not speaking and not moving except to pull the sheet over her nakedness. She would stare off into nothingness, telling me to get some breakfast.
Then she would come downstairs and do her best to pretend nothing had happened. She would try to be upbeat and she would make herself smile and laugh in spite of the incessant pounding in her skull. I could always tell it wasn’t genuine, though. Even with my child’s eyes, I could see. We both knew it wasn’t right and we knew it was no way to raise me. But we would go about pretending until the next time it happened. It might be the next morning or the morning after that. Sometimes it was a few days or maybe a week. On very rare occasions, she might even go a month before she shattered the illusion that things were getting back to normal. But she always did.
Shaking off the memory, I hurried to the kitchen and grabbed one of the barstools, pulling it behind me as I crossed the linoleum. I slid it up against the cabinet and clambered up, reaching out a hand to steady myself as the seat tried to spin beneath my weight. I had to see. I had to see if she really was as different as she seemed.
There was an old tea set in the cabinet above the stove. There was a turkey platter and a deviled egg tray, too. What wasn’t there was the assortment of booze. There was no rum, whiskey, bourbon, or any of her other vices, which usually included anything she could get cheap. In my memories, she would stock up on as much as she could afford, sticking them in this cabinet where she thought I wouldn’t see them.
Back down on the floor, I swung open the pantry door. The trashcan inside held some papers and a used bologna wrapper, but no empty bottles. The couch cushions weren’t hiding any bottles either: none were stashed in the recesses beneath and behind them. I breathed out in relief each time I came up empty, but I was almost afraid to believe it. Dad wasn’t dead; Mom hadn’t fallen into her pit.
Maybe it was my pessimistic nature, or maybe it was too many years of watching her drink away her pain, but a new question formed in my mind. It threatened to vanquish the spark of hope before it had a chance to ignite. How old was I? Where in my past did I land? I thought of my dad’s newspaper on the table and I scooped it up, looking at the date. April 23, 1983. A feeling of dread replaced any hope as I realized how close it was to another date that was branded into my mind forever. It was only four days before the date inscribed on my father’s tombstone.
“Oh, man,” I said. The paper fell from my hands, doing a half turn and then flopping over as it hit the carpet at my feet. My dad was alive and my mom was carefree because it hadn’t happened yet. I was standing on the precipice of my own living hell. Things just kept getting better and better.
From upstairs, I heard the sound of my mom’s bedroom door opening. “Hey babe, did you get something to eat? I’ll be down in just a couple minutes.” Great. She was going to come back down and I would have to appear normal. I couldn’t be babbling about time travel, being married, and my father dying. She would think I was nuts.
“Getting it now,” I said, barely able to get the words out. I didn’t want to eat. I didn’t want to talk to my mom. I just wanted some time to myself so I could figure something out. I had no idea what I was going to figure out, but it couldn’t be too hard to know more than I did right then. As it was, I knew absolutely nothing. Zero, zilch, and nada.
I fixed a bowl of cereal anyway. Conflict didn’t seem like a good idea in my current state of mind. I was already stressed out enough. So, instead risking confrontation, I sat down to a bowl of Cookie Crisp.
I actually started to relax as I ate and I added that to my mental list of things I couldn’t believe. And, before long, my mind started to wander. Almost everything around me brought back some kind of memory. Even turning my world upside down couldn’t change that. I was practically swimming in nostalgia. The cereal itself, even the ceramic bowl with its multi-colored, concentric rings brought back scenes from my youth. To my right, I could see the burn marks covering the cabinet by the sink. The whole side was black as a permanent reminder of my independent nature.
When I was maybe five or so, I had gotten up one morning to a quiet house. I was hungry and I decided to make some toast. The only problem was that I had never actually done it before, but I wasn’t going to let a thing like that stop me. So, I grabbed the bread and climbed up, sitting cross-legged on the countertop in front of the toaster.
I couldn’t remember for sure, but I must have put butter on the bread before I put it in the toaster. I dropped the bread into the bread slots, pushing down the levers to activate the toaster. Everything was as it should have been for a minute. The wires inside glowed a bright red and the bread started to turn a golden brown. But then, everything went horribly wrong. Little flames started to flicker up from inside the toaster.
The little flames became big flames and those flames became what seemed to be a raging inferno. I flipped backward off the countertop, falling onto and off of the stool behind me. I lay there on my back looking up at the flames as they shot up the side of the cabinet, scorching it. I jumped to my feet, watching with wide eyes, terrified that the whole house was going up. It must have been luck, but I hit the toaster on the side and knocked it into the sink. It managed it to land upside down and the fire went out as it lost its oxygen.
“Lanie should be here soon,” my mom said, startling me out of the memory. I hadn’t heard her come down the stairs. I didn’t remember the house being this quiet.
Lanie. That was a name from the past. What was her last name? Parker, I think. Lanie Parker. I hadn’t thought of her in years. She was a couple years older than I was and she lived just up the street. We had started the tradition of walking to school together when we were younger and the habit just stuck. My mom walked us to school and Lanie and I walked home. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I would hang out at her house in the afternoons until my dad got home. That was a long time ago.
My mom pulled a cup from the small mug tree on the counter and poured herself some coffee. She lifted the cup so that it was just under her nose, taking time to inhale the scent of the dark brew. She was not the woman I remembered. I knew she was still this way because my dad was alive, but I just couldn’t remember this side of her. Her future self was distant and morose. She was only a shell of the woman standing in front of me and it only grew worse over the years. Once I moved out and there was no one to take care of, she no longer had to pretend that things were okay.
The woman in front of me was vibrant. She was alive. Most of the differences were subtle and dramatic all at the same time. The facial expressions she made when she talked, the way she was smiling now as she enjoyed her coffee. I had only been around this new version of her for a few minutes, but she was so different that I almost couldn’t fathom how it could really be her.
We sat in silence for a while as we waited for Lanie. I imagined her thoughts were filled with the tasks of the day. I couldn’t remember what she did for a living back then. So many of those subtle details were lost in the years that had passed. They were distant tidbits that lay just beyond my grasp.
Three quick knocks floated in from the living room. Lanie was here. I followed my mom into the living room and another memory from the past took me by surprise. I couldn’t get away from them. Only this time wasn’t like the others. Not really. This memory overtook my vision in a flood, immersing me in the vision. The doorbell had rung and I was standing here as my mom went to answer. She opened the door, but it wasn’t Lanie outside. No, it was no one as pleasant as Lanie. It was one of the many ghosts from my past that still haunted my dreams from time to time, even as an adult.
My mom swung open the door, revealing a policeman standing on our stoop. He somehow managed to look disheveled even though the creases in his pressed uniform looked sharp enough to cut like a knife. He was holding his hat, looking grateful that he had something in his hands because he didn’t look like he quite knew what to do with them. He was stiff. He was nervous, awkward.
She opened the screen door a few inches, hesitating before she spoke. “Yes, officer?”
“Mrs. Myers?” he asked. There was a mask of seriousness over his anxiety that said he was not here to sell us tickets to the Policeman’s Ball.
“May I help you?”
“You are Donna Myers?”
“Yes. What’s this about?” Her look of concern was quickly transforming into one of fear. It was never good when a policeman comes to your door asking for you by name.
The officer looked at me, but quickly lowered his eyes. He lifted his gaze back to my mom and asked, “Could you come outside for a moment?” He looked like he didn’t really want her to come outside. He looked like he wanted to climb back inside his cruiser and drive away. He ran his fingers around the perimeter of his hat as he waited for her to respond.
My mom pushed the screen door open enough to squeeze through and then stepped outside. She let it fall closed behind her, but she forgot to close the actual door.
“Ma’am, I…” He paused for a moment as he gathered his resolve. My mom stood tensely, leaning slightly forward onto the balls of her feet. I thought she just might come out of her skin in that brief moment. “I don’t know how to say this, but there’s been an accident. Your husband. He… He didn’t make it. I’m so sorry.”
I did believe the officer when he said he was sorry. He was sorry he had to be the one to deliver the news. He was sorry that she had to hear it. And he was sorry that she would be without a husband and I would be without a father. My mom could only look at him as he stood there holding his hat. She was frozen in place as though she had forgotten how to move, how to speak. It was only a moment, but it seemed to be a minute or maybe an hour. Maybe a week.
Finally, she spoke in a flurry. All of her words spilled out in a rush of desperation. “No, that can’t be. He was just here this morning. He dropped me off and left. It was only an hour ago. There’s a mistake. You must have made a mistake.” The terror in her eyes gave way to a fiery anger as she fought to believe her own deception. “How could you do this? Scaring a person this way without checking. Without knowing for sure. I’m… I’m calling your superior.”
“Look at him!” she yelled, pivoting at the waist and flinging the screen door open, pinning it behind her leg. Her eyes were wild. They were feral. His eyes, in contrast, said that he had seen this reaction countless times before. They were full of pity. “You should be ashamed, coming here and telling me that his father is dead!”
“Ma’am, I’m sorry, I really am. But, there is no mistake. He had his identification on him. I’m so sorry.”
“He can’t be. You don’t understand. He… he can’t be.” Her voice was starting to break. She couldn’t hold back the truth. She was starting to believe. She was starting to believe what she didn’t want to believe, what she couldn’t believe. If she believed that he was dead, her entire world could collapse. And it did collapse. In that moment, everything changed.
“Earth to Andy. Come in, Andy.” Slowly, I blinked back into the reality of the moment. Lanie was standing in the doorway, a silly grin pasted on her face. “It looked like you were on Mars or something. Or maybe Pluto, dog breath,” she laughed. I think she was quite pleased with herself, coming up with that Pluto bit.
“Shut up, Lanie.” It was the best nine-year-old comeback I could think of. I wanted to tell her that Pluto wasn’t even a planet anymore.
“All right, you two. Be nice,” my mom said. “Ready to go?”
We stepped out the door and into the bright, morning sunshine. Spring was in full bloom, but the mornings were still a bit crisp. Lanie’s blonde hair flew out behind her as the breeze picked up into a stronger wind. As we started the short trek to school, the idea of sitting in a classroom all day was about the most unappealing idea I could come up with. The bright side, if there was one, was that it would only be fourth grade material. Maybe I could actually spend some time trying to figure out what to do.
“So, anything big happening at school today?” my mom asked.
“Not that I know of.” I really had no idea, of course.
“Didn’t you say you had a spelling test? What words are on it?”
“Um…” I had to think for a second. Not to remember, but to make something up. “Tornado, electric, principal, I can’t remember all of them, but I know how to spell them.”
“How about dork?” Lanie chided. “Is that on your list?”
“Very funny, Lanie. How about annoying? I’ll bet that’s on your list.”
“I don’t have lists anymore,” she smiled. “My teacher said I was too smart. I get to sit and watch all the other kids do the work. I just have to go because it’s the law.”
“Okay, you guys. How about stinker? That’s got to be on both your lists.”