June 20, 2016 by The Citron Review
by Sarah Abbott
I dream I can’t sleep.
Dad’s footsteps echo down the hallway. The floorboards creak in the pattern that is his and only his. I can always tell my parents apart by their footsteps. Dad walks into the kitchen of our small house, and I jump out of bed in my pajamas without consciously deciding. I need to get him in sight. I can’t let him disappear, not again.
I sprint to the top of the stairs, the kitchen tile cold against my bare feet, and watch him descend (or was it ascend? I can’t quite remember). Quietly I follow. He sits on the couch in a room that is like our family room in the basement, but not exactly. The furniture is arranged differently, and the walls are white instead of their cheery yellow.
His face is blank, his eyes unfocused—devoid of worry, pain, or fear. He doesn’t look directly at me, just over my shoulder. Fear drums inside me. He is my dad, and he isn’t. It’s like he’s sleepwalking. I don’t want this to shatter, don’t want him to leave, don’t let him leave.
I open my arms—always our signal for can I have a hug?—and he stands and wraps me tight in his arms, this place where I have felt safe since I was a little girl. He has to bend down, as always, because I’m short. We don’t move for a long time, a curiously desperate won’t-let-go-first hug, my face resting against his chest. I have missed the smell of his aftershave, the one Mom bought him for Christmas because he sniffed it in a magazine and liked it. Don’t tell him Ralph Lauren is expensive, she warned me.
Finally I break, unable to pretend anymore that everything is normal. Tears slip out and I shift away from this sleepwalking father—only slightly, but he feels it. He walks into another room to the right, a room that doesn’t exist in our house, but I don’t question it. I am too terrified to say something, desperate to stay wherever here is.
The room is small and white, with an open door on my end and a closed door on the other. There is no furniture except a bare white counter that runs along the left side. It’s a passageway, a place where you’d put your muddy shoes and wet clothes when you come in from the rain.
The question that kindled in me as he held me, that made me cry and step back, burns on my tongue. I look into his mercurial blue-gray eyes, knowing that I have to break this peace to be at peace. He looks back at me, and finally I see through the lifelessness to the spark inside him. He knows the question I’m going to ask—how could he not? He’s my father. He knows me better than I know myself. He waits with that characteristic patience, sadness creasing his eyes and mouth.
It is better than the uneasy blankness, so I ask.
“Daddy?” My voice is high-pitched. He cocks his head at me. “Is this real?”
He smiles—a true smile, but a small one, tempered by the fact that we both understand. “I think so,” he says gently. When I wake up, I will still remember the way he said it. Like I wouldn’t believe him, but it was okay, because he knew the truth.
The dream begins to fade, and panic takes root as I lose him—again. I knew that asking would end the dream, but I had to know.
I can’t fully remember what I did next, as the tide of my subconscious swept me on to its next feat of magic. I think I hugged him one last time.
Sarah Abbott received her MFA from the University of Kentucky. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Devil’s Lake, Rappahannock Review, Easy Street, and Polaris, among others. She loves traveling and coming home.