Dearest the Shadows by Samuel Snoek-Brown

     All my nights here have been restless. Partly it’s these damned hotel pillows — They’re too flimsy, more rags than cushions. Also, I’ve been dreaming a lot. The first night at the conference, just into the hotel room and asleep in my clothes, I dreamed I was an animal wrestler, like bears and crocodiles, like at a country carnival. In the dream, I wrestle big dogs, Newfies and wolfhounds. I’m wearing one of those mucscle-man unitards from the ’30s and keep thinking I ought to feel embarrassed but I realize no one in the audience even knows me. And of course you aren’t there, either, which is somehow the greatest relief and the greatest sorrow. I wish you could see me, in all my ridiculous forms. Near the end of the wrestling match, I get into the dirt ring with a giant poodle as big as a pony and I’m hugging it, burying my face in its curled hair like wool, like a stuffed animal, but then it sinks its teeth into the back of my neck and I wake up with a migraine.
     The night after that, I dreamed you died but I didn’t realize it for a whole day. I bring you coffee in bed and it goes cold and I pour it into the freezer trays for iced coffee later. I run errands in a too-small car that I drive down unfamiliar streets; what I’m looking for I don’t know. When I come home, the house is dark and I call out for you and I think I hear you answer but it’s from far away, as if you’ve shut the bedroom door. I go to check and finally realize you’ve been dead the whole time, your eyes open and drying in the dark. Your lips are parted just a little, as though that’s the way you escaped yourself.
     My grandparents have a portrait of their grandparents, taken in those earliest days when it wasn’t even photography but something metallic, a tableau burned into tin, the image shimmering in a weird, silvery light that goes black when you turn it the right way. In the dream, I remember this photo, and I remember that the people in it were dead. A thing people used to do. My grandmother’s grandfather rigid in a chair, his wife propped up by a mannequin stand. The eyes are eerily bright because they’ve been painted on. There’s a blur on the floor between my great-great-grandfather’s knees; my grandmother says it was the family dog come running into frame during the session.
     In the dream, I see you dead in the bed and I make a decision. I get your makeup from the bathroom and paint your eyes, your lips, your cheeks. You used to ask me to paint your toes but I was hopeless at it, polish clear off the cuticle, almost to your knuckles. But in the dream, I am an artist: fine lines along your eyelashes, a faint blush in your cheeks. When I do your lips, you almost seem to be smiling. I close your eyes for the eyeshadow and I can’t bring myself to open them again. Then I light candles in the dream, arrange them on the dresser and place a mirror behind them, staging the scene, all this natural light aimed at your pillow. I lie on the bed beside you and aim the phone, take selfies with you: me kissing your face. Me sticking my tongue out. Me smiling at the camera, and when I time it so the wavering candlelight catches your lips just right, you’re smiling, too, though of course I’d caught you with your eyes closed.
     In the dream, I sit in bed flipping through the photos, a rapid montage in all these shifting colors from the candlelight, your face prismed through the phone screen into a whole spectrum of faces, and somehow I’ve forgotten that you’re dead. I’ve forgotten that you’re lying there beside me. I try to remember what I’ve been doing all this time, where you’ve been, where you are now. I try to look at your place in the bed beside me but I can’t seem to turn my head, and I start to panic, like my spine has fused and I’m going to be paralyzed, and I need you to calm me down but I don’t know where you are, and as part of me begins to realize this is a dream and I start to wake up, the rest of me is swiping at your face on the screen of my phone, trying to drag-and-drop you out of digital space and into the bed, but whenever I swipe at your image it scrolls left, flipping through photo after photo, past the ones I’d taken of us in your death and into other selfies — us on the beach, us at a bar, us on a mountainside — and your face gets less and less distinct in each photo, and mine does too, until I can’t really make out either of us anymore. We are just colors and shapes made from light.
     And then I woke up alone in this hotel. There were voices in the hall, a maid, I think, and also some kids staying here for a basketball tournament. It took me a long time to realize I was awake, a long time to realize I wasn’t breathing. Somewhere those two realizations got mixed up and I began to wonder if I was still dreaming, if this time I was the one who was dead. When the maid knocked on the door and called “Housekeeping!” I wasn’t sure how to reply, and when she opened the door and pushed in her cart I was still lying in the bed, caught like a secret lover. Alone.
     The third night of the conference, I stayed out with colleagues and drank too much and at some point got talked into smoking half a pack of cigarettes, and I slept hard and fast, and I woke with no memory of any dreams, just a sun behind my eyes and lichen on my tongue. Somehow I’d gotten so tangled up in the bedclothes that I had to disinter myself from sheets and blankets, those thin pillows slipping off the bed. They didn’t make any sound when they fell to the floor, and I was grateful for that.
     Last night, I dreamed I was back in Virginia with my cousin, carousing with a gang of his friends in the woods. We’re 12 years old in the dream, the age I was when I last visited. My cousin tells me about this ravine, a rope some of the older kids strung to a high tree so they could swing out over the chasm, and the young me thrills at the hope of such adventure, but the dreaming me can already picture the rope swing because, as an adult, I remember it. We hike through dense fern-growth and over mossy knots of tree root until we come to a massive trunk wider than all of us together can reach around and so tall it disappears into the surrounding canopy — bigger than it must really have been. There’s the rope, as thick as my wrist, and everyone takes a turn swinging out. We’re laughing and daring each other but after a while I notice our group has thinned; people who swing out don’t swing back. I can’t see where they’ve gone, if they’ve fallen or somehow landed on the other side. Then I see you.
     In the dream, I’m still 12, but you’re an adult and I feel like one, too, and then I realize you’re out over the ravine, and it looks like you’re falling except you’re not going down, you’re away from the rope but still receding out over the empty space, into the ferns and underbrush across the ravine, and I grab the rope and swing out to catch you, trapeze-style, but you’re too far gone and I swing back. I’m the only one not to disappear from the rope.
     I woke up in the night to the thin wheeze of the window AC, one of those flimsy hotel pillows somehow flattened and wrapped over my head like a towel. I remember that time you fell asleep with a towel around your head and you slept so long the towel dried stiff so when you sat up in bed, the towel-turban held its shape. Like a ghost — you still lying there. How I laughed and arranged the blankets to look like you were invisible underneath them, and then I took a photo.
     I lay awake in the hotel, stared at the tiny red light in the smoke detector and listened to the AC unit. I thought about that photo of the hollow towel-turban, of you without you, for maybe an hour. I thought about getting out of bed and wetting a towel, wrapping my own head, leaving it positioned on those flimsy pillows so I could take pictures of it with my phone. I wanted to evoke you, summon you into the void of a towel.
     I could hear the cart in the hall, soft knuckles on neighbors’ hotel doors, and I tried to remember which sign I’d hung on my door: Had I asked to be cleansed, or had I asked to be left undisturbed? I kicked loose the blankets, the deflated pillows falling soundlessly, but then I couldn’t move any farther. I could hardly breathe. I imagined how it would be if I fell back to sleep, how in dreaming again I might leave this room for somewhere else. The maid would enter and find me gone. Perhaps I was gone already and hadn’t even realized it. Perhaps I was elsewhere with you, and you are laughing at me in a unitard, swinging on a vine, weightless as you watch me from the trees. The cart came closer. And I lay there still, the blankets a bundle at the edge of the bed, my bare knees bent, my arms splayed and my fingers in a hard grip on the bedsheets, afraid that if I tried to get up — to change the sign, to wet a towel, to pack my bags — my feet might not touch the floor.

Samuel Snoek-Brown teaches and writes in the Pacific Northwest. He’s the author of the novel Hagridden and the flash-fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin. He also works as a production editor for Jersey Devil Press, and he lives online at SnoekBrown.com. His work has appeared on this site and in Bartleby Snopes, Eunoia Review, Fiction Circus, Red Fez and Timberline Review. He’s the recipient of a 2013 Oregon Literary Fellowship and has been shortlisted in the Faulkner-Wisdom competition, twice for short fiction and once for his novella. He was also a finalist in the 2013 storySouth Million Writers Award. In 2015, he was a contributor to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.