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Authors: Nicholas Sparks

Dreamland: A Novel (22 page)

BOOK: Dreamland: A Novel
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Despite sleeping for hours,
she woke feeling as though she’d been drugged. She forced herself upright, her mind working in slow motion, the room gradually settling into focus.

“What a mess,” she remarked to no one in particular, amazed again by the clutter spread throughout the room, the cabinet at a cockeyed angle, the wall half primed. She rose from the couch and shuffled to the kitchen to get a glass of water. As she drank, she felt the throbbing in her finger, the deep bruising ache. When she looked at her hand, she saw that the blood had soaked through the Band-Aids, staining them brown. It was gross, but she wasn’t about to undertake an attempt to replace them, any more than she wanted to clean the living room or the kitchen or the rest of the house. Or make sandwiches or slice carrots, for that matter. She had no desire to do any of it, at least until she felt a bit more like herself.

Instead, she went to the front porch. She turned from side to side, noting the ever-present farmworkers in the fields, but they were farther from the house than they had been the day before,
working on another section of the crop under a grayish cloudy sky. There was a breeze, too, fairly steady, and she wondered if that meant it was going to rain.

Even though rain would complicate their escape, she couldn’t really summon the energy to care all that much; instead, she found herself lost in a memory of her mom. Her mom would get super tired, too, sometimes to the point where she’d spend two or three days in bed. Beverly could remember going to the side of her mom’s bed and shaking her, asking her to wake up because Beverly hadn’t eaten. Sometimes her mom would rouse and drag herself to the kitchen to warm up chicken noodle soup before retreating; other times, there was nothing Beverly could do to wake her.

As hard as those days were, though, they were nothing compared to the days that her mom cried and cried, no matter what Beverly tried to do to help. Beverly remembered being scared whenever that happened. Moms weren’t supposed to cry. But it wasn’t just the tears or the sobbing, choking sounds that bothered her. It was the way her mom looked, with her dirty clothes and hair poking out in all directions and the haunted expression on her face. She even moved differently, like every step she took was painful somehow.

Nor could her mom ever explain what made her so sad in the first place. It didn’t matter if Beverly cleaned her room or didn’t, or whether she played quietly or made noise; the blue days always came. That’s what her mom always called them.
Blue days.
When she got older and understood what feeling blue meant, Beverly assumed that she meant that figuratively; later, she began to think that her mom also meant it literally. Because that’s how Beverly was feeling right now, she realized—she felt as though she were slowly being enveloped in a dense blue fog. It wasn’t a pretty blue, either, like the sky or the color she’d painted
Tommie’s baby room. This was a midnight blue, so dark and deep it seemed to be turning black at the edges, unwelcoming and cold and heavy enough to render caring about anything almost impossible.

“I am not my mother,” she repeated, but even then, she wondered whether it was true.

She wandered inside, trying to
shake the idea that no matter what she did to get ready, she’d somehow make a mistake that would catch up to her sooner rather than later.

From the cupboard in the kitchen, she pulled down the cookie jar and reached for the small wad of bills. Thumbing through it, she counted, then double-checked the total, and again she felt the pressure build behind her eyes, knowing it wasn’t enough. Not even close to enough, and she conjured the image of her holding up a cardboard sign and begging for money, simply to feed her son.

What was the point in even trying any longer? And why couldn’t the owner of the house—
this house—
have been normal? Just an older woman who needed extra money, instead of a woman who wanted to use Beverly for whatever unlawful thing she was doing? In the silence, it was easy to imagine the man in the truck and the owner sitting around a battered kitchen table, with cash and guns and drugs spread in front of them.

The thought made her stomach turn and deepened the
dark-blue fog. She zoned out for a while before finally zeroing in on the counter. She saw the knife and the carrots marked with splashes of blood, which made her think about her finger, throbbing with its own heartbeat. Strange how it did that, like it had its own little ecosystem, unconnected to the rest of her. Reluctantly reaching for the knife, she washed the blood from the carrot she’d been working on, then decided there was no way she’d let Tommie eat it, even if she peeled it until it was no larger than a pencil. She tossed it in the sink and reached for another carrot, trying to concentrate, making sure she didn’t slip. When she was finished, she reached for the next carrot but decided it would be better to get the chicken going at the same time.

The meat was on the plate where she’d left it, thawed and ready to go. She searched for the cast-iron frying pan in the drawer, not finding it, then realizing that it was still on the stove from last night. Turning on the burner, she tossed in the drumsticks, crowding the pan, and returned to the carrots. But as she reached for the knife, she imagined Tommie soaked to the skin in the pouring rain, in the dark, while passing cars sent more water splashing in their direction. How long would Tommie last before he began to shiver or got sick? The image was heartbreaking. Consumed by it, she wandered aimlessly from the kitchen. She didn’t think about what she was doing or where she was going; it was as though she were being pulled by an invisible string, her thoughts fading away to nothing.

She went up the steps and stood at the threshold of Tommie’s room. There had been guns under the bed, and she understood that Tommie must have found them but hadn’t bothered to tell her. The realization made her mind go blank again; it was too horrible to contemplate. Instead, when the room came into focus, she saw
Go, Dog. Go!
and Iron Man on the nightstand, and she
reminded herself not to forget them, but even that registered only dimly. She wondered why she had come to his room in the first place, and it was only when she smelled something burning that she suddenly remembered the chicken.

The kitchen was filled with smoke, fueled by even more smoke rising from the pan. The odor of burned and charred food made Beverly rush toward the stove, instinctively reaching for the handle. It was white-hot agony as her skin audibly sizzled. Beverly screamed and dropped it, the pan crashing back to the stovetop. Tearing through one of the open drawers, she sent dishrags flying while reaching for an oven mitt. Slipping it onto the hand with the cut finger and trying to ignore the pain, she removed the pan from the heat. In another life—one where she didn’t have to account for every morsel of food—she would have simply run the pan under the faucet to stop the smoke and then dumped the remains into the garbage, but instead she set the pan back on an unused burner. From the cupboards, she reached for a plate, hoping she could somehow salvage the chicken. She tried to find a set of tongs to grab the drumsticks, but it was tangled with other utensils, and when she tugged it from the drawer, spatulas joined the dishrags on the floor. With smoke still pouring from the pan, she had to peel away the drumsticks, each with one side black and the other raw, and place all of it on a plate. Only when she’d removed all the food did she bring the pan to the faucet to douse the smoke, the surface sizzling as water hit it.

It was then that she felt again the agony of her burned hand, the pain coming in sudden, relentless waves. Blisters were already forming on her palm and fingers. She moved her hand under the faucet, but the cold water hitting her skin amplified the pain, and she jerked it away. Despite the smoke, she could still smell the stench of the burned chicken, the odor almost sickening. There
was no way that Tommie could eat any of it, which meant they had even less food to sustain them while they escaped. With one burned hand and the other with a gash in her finger, how would it even be possible to get anything done? It was yet another failure in a long line of failures that made her wonder how she’d ever allowed herself to believe she was fit to be a mother.

Beverly spent the next hours
doing nothing. She barely remembered drifting to the front porch, numb to everything but the dense blue fog that seemed to poison every thought. Her hand and finger throbbed, but, lost in a growing sense of melancholy, she barely felt either of those things.

I need to see Tommie
was all she could think.

Only then would things be different; only then would the blue fog go away. Dimly, she was aware that he’d become her lifeline, and she needed to see his serious little face as he stepped off the bus. She wanted to smooth his cowlick and tell him that she loved him. Rising, she peeked through the window toward the clock on the wall and knew the bus had to be coming soon. She left the porch and walked toward the road, uninterested in black SUVs or men in pickup trucks or farmworkers who might be watching her. There was only one important thing.

She took a seat on the stump, pain from the burn forcing its way to the forefront of her consciousness. It occurred to her that she should perhaps wrap her hand or try to find some medicinal
cream, but the thought of missing Tommie’s arrival filled her with anxiety.

The clouds had continued to thicken, gray thunderheads forming. Leaves in the trees murmured with the changing weather. On a fencepost across the road, a cardinal seemed to be watching her.

Beverly stared up the road, waiting. The pain rose and sank and rose again, making her wince. She opened her hand, allowing the breeze to caress it, but that made it feel even worse, so she closed it again. The cardinal flew away, growing smaller in the distance. Beverly could feel the dark-blue fog all around her, wrapping her in its tendrils.

The bus didn’t appear, and she continued to wait, then waited some more. Eventually, farmworkers loaded into the beds of pickup trucks, and the trucks left the fields and turned onto the road, vanishing from sight. The sound of distant thunder rolled across the fields. But there was still no bus.

She returned to the porch to check the time through the front windows. The bus was either half an hour or an hour late, but she couldn’t remember which. She walked back to the stump, curiosity slowly giving way to irritation and then to concern as more time passed. When fear finally took root, the blue fog began to clear, though it revealed no answers, only more questions.

Where was the bus?

Where was her
son
?

Beverly felt short of breath as she realized the obvious. She walked, then ran, toward the house and burst through the door. She tried not to think the worst but couldn’t help herself; she needed to figure out what to do. Did the bus break down, or did Tommie miss the bus? Was he still at the school? She’d have to walk or hopefully catch a ride. She suddenly wished there was a
neighbor nearby, a sweet old lady who brought over a pie to welcome them when they first arrived, but no one had come….

If the bus had broken down, she had to know. If Tommie was still at the school, she had to go get him. She tripped on a pile of detritus from the cupboards and went sprawling, her knee coming down hard on the linoleum floor, but she barely felt it as she scrambled upright again. She thought about the disguise she needed to wear, even though putting it on would take time she didn’t have.

She limped up the steps to her room and froze in the doorway. Her room was trashed, clothes strewn all over the floor, closet doors open, even the bed linens on the floor. She blinked, trying to make sense of it.

Had she done this? Yesterday? When she was searching the house? She could remember cleaning out under the sink and the pantry and the closet and the back porch, but by the time she went upstairs, she’d been in such a frenzy that her memories were fuzzy. She’d cleared out the linen closet, but had she done this, as well? She supposed it was possible, but she didn’t recall, and if she hadn’t…

Her throat constricted as she remembered the man with the truck.

Had he come into the house while she was digging at the creek?

She reached for the doorjamb to hold herself steady. She didn’t want to believe it, didn’t want to think it had taken her that long to dig, didn’t want to imagine that someone had torn through the house in her absence and done this, didn’t want to consider what might have happened had she been inside when the man burst through the door…

No, she thought, fear sharpening her focus. She couldn’t go
there, couldn’t allow herself to go down the rabbit hole. Right now, Tommie was the only thing that mattered.

Steeling herself, she moved into her bedroom, taking in the destruction. Her wig was just where she’d left it in the bathroom, along with her baseball hat. In the mirror, she noticed the blood on her shirt and she slipped out of it, exchanging it for the one that hung over the shower-curtain rod. When she looked more closely at her reflection, she barely recognized the gaunt, haunted woman staring back at her. But there was no time for makeup. The pain in her hand and finger made pinning up her hair almost impossible, and she winced as she did it anyway. After donning the wig, she put on the hat and looked for her shoes near the bed, which was where she usually left them, but she couldn’t see them anywhere. With so many clothes on the floor she had to kick through the piles, without any luck. She looked under the bed, but they weren’t there, either, and she suddenly remembered she’d slept on the couch. She must have taken them off downstairs.

She had begun to move toward the door when she happened to glance back at the now-emptied closet, the image slowly coming into focus. A moment later, she felt her legs buckle. Almost faint, she dropped to her knees, staring with a rising sense of horror at the Christian Louboutin red-soled pumps that Gary had once given her for her birthday, the ones she’d left behind.

BOOK: Dreamland: A Novel
12.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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