"I have begun, in sleeping, to dream unspeakable dreams; and to wake, each time, in a confusion of longing and fear."
- Fingersmith, Sarah Waters
I know he's never had his hands on me (no one ever has), but watching him, I can feel them, strong and warm, curling protectively around my skull, tender at the base of my spine. He threads his fingers through my hair, all the knots and roughness disappearing, and I see myself whole (naked) in his long, narrow eyes.
And then he's laying me down, the sheets on my bed as warm as if we just rose from them, bending over me and laying his face on my belly, one hand slowly stroking my breasts, between them, and back again. My body is going hot while my mind is gibbering with fear.
My alarm rings, and the real world comes rushing back.
Mom meets my eyes for a second and I know she's rushing to be out of the house early today, skipping her morning coffee and not bothering to iron her blouse, anything to be safely gone by the time Dad leaves his other, better family and remembers that I'm waiting for him. Dad won't forget, but he won't be happy about it either. If I didn't need him for this, I'd tell him not to bother showing up; the monthly checks are going to dry up on my birthday anyway, and then he'll be free of us.
When Dad shows up, six on the dot, he's got a small gift-wrapped package in his hand, and I don't even have to look at his face to know what he's going to say.
"Early happy birthday, Rose. It looks like I won't be around on the actual day, so." He's gesturing with the box in his hand, so I reach out for it, more to stop him than from any curiosity. "This was your grandmother's."
That does take me by surprise; I thought he and Beth were going to try for a girl, since two perfect little boys weren't enough of a family for her. But he saved this for me.
I tear away the striped paper, let it drift off in the breeze (Dad makes a half-hearted grab for the largest strip), and open the plain white box. There's a necklace inside, the pendant a rose shaped in pink gold with green leaves, bursting full and vital and beautiful.
Dad steps forward like a man used to fastening necklaces around women's (Beth's) necks, and I take a step back. "Rose was your grandmother's name too," he says, frowning as I push aside my hair and clasp the chain around my throat.
The transitions between waking and dreaming have been getting smoother, and I don't want to see myself with him when I'm in the car next to Dad. It helps if I have something to concentrate on. "Dad. Can I drive for a while?"
He hesitates, and I see from his eyes that he wants to say no, but I don't plead or whine; he smiles and holds out the keys (being a good girl still works). We both have to adjust our seats and then we're off, heading east on the highway. I've got the windows rolled down and there's too much noise to really talk; Dad doesn't flip on the A/C, just lets the wind ruffle what's left of his hair.
Drive-thru at McDonald's, the biggest boxes of Chicken McNuggets (always with barbecue sauce for Dad, ranch for me) and those hot apple pies that burn the roof of my mouth every time.
We switch seats at what Dad calls the halfway point, and between the weight of the food in my stomach and the boredom of the highway drive, there's a moment when he slips in, tan skin and blinding smile, holding out his hand like the villain of every fairy tale, the one that the heroine can't help but be charmed by, the one who puts her into the deep sleep that another man's lips will break. His hand is rough around mine, coaxing me forward, drawing me close until my mouth is covered by his, hot and probing and silky. I can't breathe, don't want to breathe, but I can't open my eyes either, can't see what magic he's drawing around us until he pulls away, cups my chin for a moment, and steps back, becoming the tall, brown- and grey-haired man standing at the corner, waiting to cross the road.
"Oh, good, you're awake. We're here," Dad says, picking up his empty pie container (smear of golden filling on the white inside) and chucking it into the crumpled paper bag at my feet.
While I'm stuck in front of the administration building waiting for the tour to begin, and Dad's gone off to try to find a parking space (good luck with that), I call Mom.
"Monica Barry, please," I say when someone unfamiliar picks up; the turnover rate there is so bad that I even thought for a while about postponing college to make some steady money answering phones all day. It sounded nice, listening to people's voices without having to look at them and know what they're thinking. But Mom wouldn't hear of it, sent me out to tour nearby schools, and that was that.
"Rosie?" Mom says; she's always known when it's me.
"Yeah, Mom," I say. "Just wanted to say hi, let you know we got here safe."
"Good, that's good," she says, and I know something's wrong from the sound of her voice, frantic and hushed. I close my eyes and feel that wrongness rising all around me. How did I miss it before? I start running for the one oasis I can find, the shade of an enormous weeping willow (quiet guardian).
"Babygirl, please stay safe. You do whatever you need to, understand?"
I want to lie and say no, but Mom raised me better than that. "You too, Mommy," I say, panting, before I hear her scream and there's a flash that makes my cellphone shriek and the sky go dark.
When I open my eyes and look around, everything is red and black, seared and crusted over. My body is still shaking. I look up and the willow is green and fresh above me, long, thin branches brushing cool comfort against me (Mom's fingers tracing my face, smoothing back my hair).
There are no eyes to look into, to read intentions. I take a deep breath, choking on the rank, burnt air, and step forward. Moving away from the tree to give myself a complete panorama view of the charred landscape is quick but wrenching. I spin slowly, trying to figure out where to go from here. Dad is gone. But it's not like I'd ever been able to rely on him before, so it's kind of comforting in a way, not having to worry about his expectations or having to look at his face and see that he wished he were with his real family.
I've gone around more than once and suddenly he is there, standing in front of me, a strong dark line against the roiling sky.
This has to be real; no vision or dream has ever given me details like this. He walks with an awkward smoothness, like he's making room for someone next to him, but I've always seen him alone. And when he gets close, his voice is whisper-soft, rusty-sounding like he's given up on anyone hearing him. But his words are unwavering.
"I knew I wasn't the last one," he says. "Which one are you?"
He makes me sound like a zoo animal. I wonder if all the animals (panda bears) are dead too. Must be, if the earth itself has succumbed like this.
He's unreasonably tall and he uses it like he enjoys it, getting close and forcing me to tilt my head way back just to keep an eye on him. So far he doesn't seem to realize that I recognize him. "What is your name?" he asks.
He makes an impatient gesture (come on, come on, that's not all, just spill it) so I give it to him. "And you are?"
He barks a laugh, tight like his throat is too constricted for more. "Where are you from?" he asks; he's not nearly as sneaky about his evasions as he thinks (too much time alone).
He backs off, mumbling to himself, or at least his lips are moving; I can't hear a sound coming from them. "Rose from Iowa, Rose from Iowa," he repeats softly, like it's a chant or a charm, and then his face lights up and he bears down on me again. "Daughter of Monica and Charlie?"
I can't read anything in his eyes. They're not blank, just opaque. "I saved your life once," he says. "Over fifteen years ago."
It's like he expects me to remember something that must have happened when I was a baby, the way he's standing there looking at me. I shake my head.
"And now look what you've done, Rosie."
"Me? What are -"
"You can read people's minds, can't you?" he says, coming closer again and breathing me in. "Your mother mentioned that." He shifts and suddenly that big hand (warm, flexible, intimate) is curled around the back of my neck. His face is now right next to mine. "This is just more of the same, the next power in the row."
I shove away, feeling ridiculously cold when his hand drops easily from my skin. "I'm leaving."
"You've been dreaming about me, and here I am. You wanted me all to yourself and got rid of the rest of the world to make it happen," he says, holding up my new necklace like a jeweler examining gems in the light.
The rush of fear and longing he always brings floods through me again, and I bow my head. "And what did you want?" That's not what I meant to say.
His eyes go liquid, just for a moment. "I wanted to find someone like me again."
"Show me what you can do," I say, looking up at him, direct. I sweep my hair up off my neck (vulnerable) and he fastens the necklace around my throat again.
"Time enough for that," he says, then kisses me like we really are one and the same. Yes. This feels like my dreams, better even. This must be what I wanted.