Helena blinked into the dull half-light of a darkened bedroom. The digital alarm proclaimed 2:16. She had to rise at 5:00 to ready herself for her day before rousing the children from their beds. She turned onto her side, foggily aware that Jake’s side of the bed was empty. He must be in the living room of their small two-bedroom apartment. Sliding out of bed as softly as she could, she padded to the door and peeked. Jake was hunched over his computer, chain-smoking, his bursts of typing conveying irritation rather than pleasure.
Her husband was a PhD candidate in comparative literature. His future should have been bright, but things were not going well.
Helena wasn’t sure, but maybe Jake changed his thesis topic several times? She was not an academic; she worked as a receptionist at the local doctor’s office. But wouldn’t his advisor want him to settle on something? Jake wasn’t the settling type. Even their six-years-old marriage had been a mistake: a convergence of her family’s religious views, his insouciance, and her unrealized hunger for children.
She retreated back into the safe darkness of the bedroom when he raised his well-shaped head and looked at her.
“What is it this time?”
Helena paused. “I have dreams.”
“You mean we should get out of this dump? Go to Italy?” he sneered.
Helena curled her hands together in front of her. In hindsight, she wished she’d let it go at that. Why not let him think she was dreaming of better things to come? But something about the tone of his voice goaded her to tell him the truth.
“I don’t mean those kind of dreams. I mean the kind you have when you’re asleep.”
That got his attention. Jake considered himself an expert on the subconscious. He gave her a speculative look.
Helena’s embarrassment increased as she realized that she’d stopped having conversations with her husband unless they were about the children. Four-year-old Annabelle and eighteen-month-old Maia kept their parents busy, and Helena’s life had become folded into a logistical struggle of the little things in life: getting up in the morning, eating, going out, dropping the girls off at daycare, showing up for work, doing work, leaving, collecting the children, dinner, playing with her daughters, and getting them ready for bed.
She could feel her underarms becoming damp. What to say? How could she explain to her husband of six years that she was waking up in the middle of the night on the tail end of a dream, in which her darkly handsome professor was proclaiming his undying love for her, while he popped an expensive sparkler on her finger?
“It’s nothing,” she muttered.
His gaze sharpened. “Nothing?”
“It doesn’t matter.” A tendril of dream caressed her:
His laughter chimed with some unfathomable feeling as he drew something from his pocket. The chain gleamed in the sunlight as it swung in slowing arcs…
She forced her curving lips down, thrusting the half-open door wide.
“Helena!” he exclaimed in the whispered shout he’d perfected since the children had arrived.
He no longer had the power to reel her in by the sound of his voice. She closed the door, crawling into the secure tangle of sheets, telling herself he wouldn’t come for her because she wasn’t important to him any more. She swallowed, burying her face into the sweaty dimness. Helena had met Dr. Vanderzanden in a Statistics class she’d had to take for her business degree. She’d been number-phobic and miserable but, wanting to be a good role model for her daughters, she forced herself to attend Dr. Vanderzanden’s office hours. Somehow, she managed to learn enough to pass the course and graduate.
Helena left university one week and took a job in the doctor’s office the next, throwing herself into the busyness of a popular practice, working overtime to pay back her college debts. That was when the dreams started. Sleepless nights are hide to hard from a spouse, and Helena’s restlessness irritated Jake, perhaps because they impinged on his night-owl habits. Helena would slump in a corner of the couch, knocking back cheap red wine in the hopes that it would get her to sleep, while Jake glowered not ten feet away from her, chain-smoking in front of his computer, as he ground out his thesis.
“What is it this time?”
Helena paused in mid-sip. “I don’t know.”
“How can you not know?” he growled.
What could she say? This time, the dream had been vague, dark. She’d been with Jake and two other couples, business colleagues. She didn’t know who these other people were, but she sensed that they were her colleagues rather than Jake’s, perhaps Mary Beth and Nancy Anne from the doctor’s office with their husbands or boyfriends. They were in his garden, the professor’s garden, that surrounded his palatial house on top of a hill. Gnarled trees surrounded them, and the undergrowth hid a rushing stream that went down a slope into an artificial pool that everyone called “the tank.” The professor’s pool was murky, dark and sinister. Stagnant.