In the Paneling
I have dreams where we both don't make it. Yes, it's true. I don't want to admit it, I swear. But I have to. I am always dying while protecting you. There's been drowning and fires and automobile crashes, of course. The worst was gunfire inside of a shopping mall. I sat up and cried out and obviously I was not dead but I knew that the dreams weren't going to stop. I grew paranoid. I needed to make stronger walls for us. I needed to be a better husband in that respect. I just needed to grow a spine. Be a man. Finally, it was time now.
You told me that you were worried about me and that maybe I should go see a doctor or a therapist —you had stumbled, you almost said the word "shrink.” We all know what that word means. But you stressed the fact that I was going crazy. I agreed, but I told you, as we sat and had our morning coffee, that if crazy was trying to save your life every night, then I'm normal. I'm just having weird dreams of repeating harmful deaths. Scenes out of a movie, I compared them to. You hid the fact that you were tearing up by adding creamer to your coffee; you never use creamer. I knew I was hurting you. I had to change somehow. I went and bought a dream interpretation book but it did no good. I had two that same night. Gunshot to the chest. Getting pinned by a car while trying to save someone else. And still I cried even when I saw it coming, plain as day.
You went to work and I stayed awake.
I looked into rearranging things around the house, trying new formats, maybe repainting everything. It was not our love, our love was fine and alive and bright as anything, you even said so yourself, the night I dreamed you choked. You said, It's a bad patch. Something you ate. It's hard to blame that, though, when the body and soul just don't work together. I flipped the mattress and box spring around, I burned our sheets and bought new ones, I had the windows all replaced. Call them precautionary measures. I didn't want to take any chances. I stayed awake. I drank coffee. I did not allow myself to sit. I even narrated a possible dream out loud, so that my mind would use that instead of its own later, and I made sure to give it a perfect happy ending.
But you got off work and the night passed and you viewed my precautionary measures as "extreme," but you said nothing else. You got into bed and read a book while I stood by the window in the kitchen and thought of death, how it would appear tonight. Which ways haven't you experienced yet? I thought of your frail body falling, succumbing, vile, making me sick, your pretty figure amiss, scattered, left in pieces or in repose at my horrible choices. I thought of the lifelessness, the wreckage that my mind thought was acceptable, the ways that I was going to defeat it. No, this time, that was going to be something to remember—the time that I won, the time that I was a great husband, one that you would be proud of, one you could finally show to people you knew.
We made love and we went to bed. You thought it would help. It didn't.
I dreamed that my bones were snapping and that there was fire ripping me apart. You were watching behind a glass shield. You were wearing a wedding dress. You were laughing. You were talking to another man and your hair was blowing in some wind that I couldn't feel and you were speaking a language meant for younger people and there was no way I could connect to you, no way that I could get you to feel what I was feeling, until I remembered that this is what you went through every single night, and you were spared. That hurt even more, to see you live your life and mine not continuing. I woke up, screaming as always, went to the bathroom and got a cold shower. When I came back into the room, you were sitting up, shaking your head, weeping. What were we going to do? You asked it several times. I had no answer. I can't even have a good dream; there's no way predicting the future should be included in my responsibilities.
The next day, we didn't even eat breakfast. No words were spoken. I had a feeling that my day would need to be spent packing my bags and making hotel arrangements. I didn't even make coffee. I just sat staring at the walls. You gave me a half-hearted peck on the cheek; you were wearing a new perfume, I could tell that the writing was on the wall. I thought of thicker walls. I let the word roll around the roof and sides of my mouth, letting it rest on my tongue, letting it build up on my teeth. Walls. Support. Something to do with foundation and blocks and cement and beams. I couldn't stop looking at the dumb walls. They were mocking. Laughing. Poking fun. Having a good time. Watching everything going on, recording everything for posterity, not giving one suggestion on how to make anything better, like they knew a single thing about love. Love. Walls. I needed to be a better husband. I didn't want to have nightmares. It was time to do something different. I thought, walls.
I did what I thought what was right, you better understand that.
I waited until you came home. I let you call my name, I let you miss me, get scared where I was, feel frightened, so that when you saw me, you would need me to calm you.
It was a foolproof plan, really.
I heard you walk around the house and I held my breath, not trying to release any air, I would need it all for when I went to say my grand idea.
My name became a refrain to a prayer—again, louder, violent, finally, a crescendo of something powerful, whipping through all barriers unlike anything previous. You came into the bedroom where I was. I said hello, but you didn't say anything back.
You were just staring. I never felt a stare like that before. It was more than knives. It was a future being burned alive.
I said, come on, it's not that bad. It was the best idea I had.
You started whispering something I couldn't hear and began hitting me. You said it wasn't anything to do with dreams. That I was just a bad man with bad ideas.
Maybe you should just do this with me, I snapped. Maybe we can do this together and maybe it will help instead of you just losing your mind and being ridiculous.
You told me the one that I was losing my fucking, shitting mind.
I said, I did this to stop the bad dreams so that they wouldn't get to me. But you wouldn't have any of it. You continued to hit. For a woman with such tiny, smooth fists, they hurt. But mine were more developed. It was from all those times I saved you, I said.
You went for one last hit but my punch came right through the paneling and busted through the cheap wood, missing you by inches. You stopped and fell back, watched as I crawled out from behind the paneling, where I had a bottle of water and a pack of crackers in my other hand. You saw where I had a blanket, a pillow back there, just enough room for two to sleep behind the wall. It was going to keep everything bad away.
I pointed, Look, I made the bed for you.
Kevin Richard White is the author of the novels The Face Of A Monster and Patch Of Sunlight. His work has been previously published by Akashic Books, Sundog Lit, Crack The Spine, Digging Through The Fat, Hypertext, Foliate Oak, Dime Show Review, Lunch Ticket, Aji Magazine and Ghost Parachute among others. He lives in Pennsylvania.