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It was during the spring thunderstorms, when he was eight, that the nightmares began. When the air was full of electricity and the wind was strong enough to vibrate moans from the windows, H.R.’s dreams changed. He would cry out in the darkness; the fear in his voice waking Jill with a shudder.
Moving down the hall, the floorboards creaking under her feet, she would push into his room, the wedge of light expanding over him. She would usually find him sitting upright, eyes glazed, breathing hard. She would ask if it was the same dream; a he would always nod—being buried alive, insects eating him. She would brush his hair back and try to soothe him while H.R.’s dog, Luke, a broad-chested, dopey Labrador, sat at the foot of the bed and watched them. She would stay with him until he had calmed down, fending off sleep by thinking of him—what she would pack in his lunch tomorrow or his lobbying for high-sugar cereal, but mostly she thought of his eyes, those two unfathomable depths. She suspected that every mother believes that her child is special, one-in-a-million, but when he was born and Jill had seen those green eyes of his she knew it was really true. Just looking at them had made her want to laugh out loud. With him in her arms and the phone pinched to her neck she had described them to H.R.’s grandmother. “They are like nothing I’ve ever seen,” she said. “They are cransparent…crystalline. Like the drops of water saved on leaves after a rain.”
But sometimes she wondered. Like all beautiful things they had a strangeness that suggested something more.
* * *
In the daytime H.R. spent every waking moment in the woods playing with Luke.
From across the yard, where shirts hung from the clothes line like sale banners, over and beyond the vacant lots, and down to the riverbed, you could hear H.R.’s patented whistle and his dog’s faithful reply
Here in the woods, with Luke as his lieutenant, H.R. led valiant campaigns into perilous theaters. Under the twenty miles of canopy there was no place uncharted, no bend in the river unnamed, and no tree saved from H.R.’s weight as he would ascend to the heights to survey his realm. Weaving through patrols of man-eating reptiles and saber-toothed tiger prides, they searched in caves, in meadows, and under trees for fossils and dinosaur bones, tirelessly searching for the key to the drifting of Pangea.
One afternoon that spring a storm system rolled in from the west. It was a massive thing that filled the horizon, its boiling clouds back lit by gnarled fingers of lightning, the thunder booming and echoing away. H.R. and Luke, just returning from a morning of pteranodon hunting, were in the backyard under the willow tree watching the storm creep over the cornfields. H.R.’s father had said this was God bowling, but H.R. was too old for that. To him this was a living thing. He could feel it’s heart, the cadence, the rhythm—a flash, a pause, a flash, and then a chain of flashes. Within each pulse of lightning he could feel it building, condensing, inhaling. H.R. was mesmerized by it. As soon as the echoes of each thunderclap began to fade, they were reincarnated in even louder bellows.
He knew he would get in trouble for staying outside, yet he couldn’t resist. Luke circled around him nervously, sitting on his haunches, then standing, then sitting again. H.R. folded down the flaps of his ears to muffle the sound.
The willow tree kept most of the rain off of them, but every now and then a gust of wind would blow a mist under the branches that tickled H.R.’s bare skin raising goose bumps. Then lightning struck the driveway. There was click, and the light of it bleaching his skin, then the crack of thunder and the moaning bass that sent vibrations through his ribcage. He cringed instinctively, then laughed out loud, giddy. All that energy so close he could feel a tickle in the air.
* * *
In the house, the lights flickered. “Hold on, Mother, let me call him.” Jill took the phone from her mouth and called into the TV room.
“Just a minute mom,” Jill said, “I have to find him.” The phone crackled with feedback.
H.R. had left the TV on. Jill’s expression was more curious than perturbed as she turned from the test pattern and headed for the back patio. Spray from the downpour stung her face as she caught sight of her son and his dog, facing out towards the fields, lightning raining down around them. Her eyes went wide.
“H.R. Areson! Are you crazy! You get in this house this instant!”
Discovered, H.R. broke for the door on the far side of the house, laughing in glee as the clouds rumbled above him.
Jill watched him bound over the wet grass, his feet kicking up water that stained his shorts and bare back like chocolate milk. The electricity in the air was making his hair stand straight up. Luke galloped at his side and barked out his excitement.
“And hurry up! Your grandmother is on the phone!”
H.R. and Luke cut through the kitchen, leaving tracks across the tile floor.
“Gramma, there’s a big thunderstorm outside!”
“Uh, huh, I can hear it, sounds like a big one. Now, tell me, are you behavin’ yourself?”
“Uh, huh. You know your mama was just tellin’ me that you’ve been gettin’ ornery on her, and that she was thinking about taking you back to Wal-mart for a trade in.”
“No she wasn’t, Grandma.”
“Sure she was! She said she was gonna upgrade and get herself a little girl instead.”
“Oh, Gramma, she’s just saying that so you won’t spend your whole month’s check on a present for me when you come and visit.”
“Oh, so that’s what you think, huh, baby?”
“Yeah,” his voice was cautious, “cause that’s what Mom said you did last time.”
“You think you got it all figured out don’t ya? Well you need not worry, ’cause all yer gettin’ from me now is a whole-lotta-nothin.”
“Oh, baby, you know I’m just kidding, but….”
He was pretty sure she was there but she didn’t answer.
“Gramma?” he repeated.
“Hold on a second, H.R.”
“What is it?”
“Do you hear it?” she asked.
“I don’t hear anything.”
“Well, if you’d be quiet a second, maybe you would,” she scolded.
H.R. listened to the line. “All I can hear is a little static.”
“No, H.R.. Listen to the static.” He listened harder. “Most time you can’t hear them,” she said. “A sound below the hiss. Can you hear them? Tell me you hear them H.R. Tell me you hear them.”
“I…I hear them Gramma, I hear them.”
* * *
That night he had the nightmare again.
He couldn’t see. It was so dark that he couldn’t even tell if his eyes were open. He knew he had been trapped here for days, unable to move and unable to see. His ears had told him they were coming for him. A subtle shifting in the earth above him that slowly changed from a whisper to a rustle, the scurrying of tiny legs and the clicking of mandibles. They were working hard to reach him. Now, through their collective hole, they began to spread over him. His skin awakened to the tickle of insect wings and legs, thousands of legs. They wasted no time with him; the maggots clasped on, the beetles tore out large pieces, and the centipedes bore in. They wasted no time in picking him clean.
* * *
In the morning H.R. found that a spider had built its loom outside his bedroom window.
H.R. watched in dismay as a butterfly was ensnared in the web. The spider waited as it struggled and became fatigued then nimbly descended from the roof lattice to bind it. The spider was thick and meaty. Its legs were long, thin stilts. It had a green and yellow abdomen, like a fuzzy Easter egg, which at first seemed to be somehow moving. When H.R. looked closer he found, to his horror that it was crawling with hundreds of minute babies.
“Dad! Kill it!”
“It’s just a spider, H.R.” David replied, inspecting the lace work. “She’s a big mamma, though, isn’t she?”
“You don’t understand. You have to get rid of it!”
“Don’t worry about it. She’s outside, she can’t get you. Besides, your top window doesn’t open and I don’t have a ladder that can reach that lattice.” David didn’t say it, but he thought it was about time that H.R. got over his entomophobia. His son kept a bug trap next to each leg of his bed, he slept under mosquito netting, and sprayed the perimeter of his room—doorway, closet, window frames–with Raid each night before bed.
“No, you don’t understand!” H.R. cried, but David was already halfway down the staircase.
Within a few weeks the loom was as wide as H.R. was tall and dressed with hollow skeletons. H.R. felt compelled to watch, in part because the horror of it hypnotized him, and partly because he had to make sure that it didn’t go anywhere, that it didn’t get inside.
H.R. knew that the legged things would eat him if they could, eat him and his dog. The nightmares had taught him that. That was what they did. For H.R. the spiders, beetles, and millipedes were forever feeding off the living, somehow belonging to that ancient race spawned in a timeless ocean, archaic antecedents of the horseshoe crabs, hammerhead sharks, and giant, twisting crocodiles. They were just biding their time now, waiting to reclaim their lost dominion. And waiting for him.
* * *
Luke made his escape from the dog kennel five days before the family returned from vacation. He snapped a three hundred-pound test cable, pushed a carrying cage in front of a six-foot fence and leapt over to freedom. It was fifteen miles from the kennel to the house, and Luke was not waiting for them when they arrived home. H.R. made David drive the distance to the kennel and back six times to search for him. At one in the morning, David pulled out of the kennel for the last time. “I’m sorry, H.R., but we’ll have to wait until morning.” H.R. surveyed the roadside again and again for any possible clue, his determination never faltering, not for the bright opposing headlights or the water in his eyes.
The next morning was very hot. The spring rains had passed, leaving the sky clear like polished turquoise, the trees thick and lush.
A bowl of sugary milk sat on the kitchen table, accompanied by an undersized spoon and several cast away Rice Krispies, too soggy to eat. H.R. stepped through the sliding doorway and on to the back patio. He scanned the wooded lot behind the yard, turning slowly like the periscope of a submarine. He rocked onto his tiptoes. “Luke!” he called.
He stood there for a long time, the sun heating up his creamy skin.
“Luke!” he called. He had barely slept and had had nightmares. “Luke,” he called again, his intermittent cries momentarily interrupting the chatter of cicadas that filled the yard.
Soon there was a rustle in the wood and Luke was born out of the greenery and received onto the thick grass, his broad, Labrador chest throbbing in his gallop. “Luke, come ‘ere,” H.R. yelled, trying to sound angry. He bounded up the steps onto the wood porch, his claws tapping out a tune like hailstones. Luke’s tail wagging uncontrollably. H.R. rubbed his gold coat, and Luke’s neck tightened in enjoyment. “Where have you been? Huh? Where have you been?” H.R. cupped Luke’s head in his hands. He had been in the woods for almost a week and his hair was matted and dirty.
Overwhelmed by the attention, Luke rolled over, relinquishing his belly.
H.R. was down on his knees reaching out to rub his stomach when he saw them.
They were everywhere. Some were small and black, but most were bloated like pale jellybeans.
H.R. snapped his hand away. For a moment, his heart seemed to slip out of place and slouch against his stomach. They got him.
Luke rolled over and scampered with his front paws, pleading for more attention.
H.R. turned and ran through the house to the garage.
A moment later, he returned with a giant plastic cup half filled with gasoline and began to brush Luke’s matted coat. Luke rolled on to his back again; his deep brown eyes looking up at H.R. like a child’s. H.R. gathered his courage. He pinched the first tick and felt it writhe between his fingers.
The plastic cup filled quickly. As he dropped them in, the newcomers scrambled over the mass of corpses trying to scale the smooth plastic walls. For over an hour H.R. labored. Try not to think about it, he thought. But there were so many of them. The big ones were the most difficult. If he pinched too hard, they would burst between his fingers. Luke would start to bleed a little in some places and when H.R. would come back to that spot later he would find other ticks crawling toward the wound, drawn by the blood, and three times he stopped when he saw a small black disc was crawling methodically up his arm.
He knew that these ticks and the spider outside his window were connected. They were communicating now, all of the legged things. They too had memory. They had unfinished business with him, and after this, after killing so many, they would want him even more.
It took almost two hours to get them all off, and all the while Luke lay still, never whining or complaining.
Jill would recall her relief upon returning from the neighbors to find that Luke had returned. She found her boy asleep on the sofa with the Labrador licking the sweat from his forehead.
* * *
“Mom! Dad! Hurry up! Grandma’s plane’s gonna be here any minute.”
H.R. raced down the moving sidewalk, achieving supernatural speeds. He gained her arrival gate and began inspecting the passengers as they appeared at the end of the tunnel. When he caught sight of her, he waved, but she paid him no mind. And when she emerged from the passageway he ran to her and tugged at her dress.
“Hello there, young man. Can I help you?”
“Grandma, it’s me,” he said, pointing his thumb at his chest, “H.R.”
“H.R….hmmm, H.R.? What’s that supposed to mean?”
She savored his confusion for a long minute before exploding on him in a flurry of hugs and kisses.
“Just look at you! Yer growin’ like a weed!” She gripped him by the shoulders and sized him up. “And look at those muscles!” She grabbed his arm. “They’re huge! Like bowling balls.”
H.R. beamed at her proudly. “But you just remember,” she said, holding up her fists, “I can still take ya!”
* * *
H.R. watched Grandma as she cooked. She stirred the contents of an immense pot that took up half the stove. To him she was like some benevolent witch conducting an art from times long past. Hours ago she had begun with teaspoons of paprika, oregano, chili powder and cumin, then poured in a bottle of beer and swore H.R. to secrecy.
“You forgot the other bottle, “ H.R. said.
“I didn’t forget nothing,” she said grabbing the bottle and taking a long pull.
Soon the whole house was filled with the intricate vapors of cooking spices.
“How was school today, baby?” she said, passing to the refrigerator.
“Your mama tells me you’re doing real well, says you’ve got a lot of friends. That’s good. Yeah. She also tells me that your teachers say you remember everything.”
He looked up at her from his cup of apple juice. His eyes glistened like forests under glass. Grandma paused, intoxicated by his eyes.
“H.R.” she continued, “did I ever tell you that your Granddaddy had a memory like yours. If he read something – anything – once, he could recite it word for word. Ya know, he used to recite love poems to me, claiming that he made them up all by himself. Of course, I never let on that I knew. I’d just kiss him and tell him how clever he was. Which was the truth, in a way.” She pondered the memory for a moment, then smiled a sad smile.
“But he stopped being able to remember when he got sick. Just trauma, the doctors had said. Surgery and then chemotherapy had been too much for him. They said that his mind had simply wiped out all those memories because they were too hard to bear. He didn’t remember me coming to see him, Christmas in the hospital, the doctors, nothing. But I guess it was okay that he forgot, because they were mostly bad things.
“So you, young man,” and she lifted a wrinkled finger at him, “you take good care of that memory of yours. It’ll be more important than you can imagine.”
H.R. smiled. “Yes, Gramma.”
With that she took some cuts of meat from the counter. Luke started up and swaggered toward her, his tail fanning the air. “Here you go, Lucas,” and the lab inhaled the scraps from her hand. She petted him for a moment and scratched behind his ears. Then something caught her attention, and she held his head steady and looked into his dark eyes. “Hold still there, honey.” Deep within the chocolate orbs, almost indiscernible, minute clouds were forming.
* * *
Up until his ninth year, the singularity of H.R.’s dreams had barely concerned Jill and David. An aversion to insects and the occasional nightmare on stormy nights were viewed as expected symptoms of the incurable malady of boyhood. Indeed, they would genially say that H.R. had been ‘visited’ on those nights when he would be awakened by a particularly odd dream. In the morning he would relate incredible stories of people and places, places that Jill and David were surprised he’d even heard of.
But then the dreams began to change, coming more frequently and with horrific vividness, invariably involving anguish and loss. One night he woke up screaming for his mother. She had rocked him back and forth in her arms while he whimpered deliriously, “Mom’s gone…Mom’s gone.”
“No, baby, I’m right here,” she soothed.
“No,” he corrected her. “My mother is dead…she’s dead.”
What’s more, the ‘visitors’ began to take their toll in the daytime. He lost sleep, and they began to get reports that he was dozing off in class. Then came a phone call from school. The principle said that H.R. had started a fire in the science room. No one was hurt, but it had tripped the alarms and the building was evacuated. At first, Jill couldn’t believe it.
“It appears that H.R. lit a Bunsen burner and placed a small cage filled with beetle specimens on top of it,” he said. Then Jill did believe it.
H.R. shrugged off his parents questioning. He was unwilling to admit to anything: unwilling to admit that he was afraid of bugs and unwilling to admit that the beetles were after him, how they had tapped against the plastic with their mandibles whenever he was in the room. Watching him with their compound eyes.
* * *
After the Bunsen burner incident Jill and David decided it was time to get professional help. Every week Jill would accompany him to the psychologist’s office. They would talk about his nightmares. They would try to track his neural activity by taping sensors to his forehead and telling him to try to sleep, which was not easy for him on a stainless steel table in the middle of the afternoon. All the while Jill and David consoled him and lavished him with affection, fearful of possible insecurities that could arise from acknowledging that H.R. was ‘different.’ But the tests and the counseling illuminated nothing, and the doctors, for all their education and methodology, could draw no conclusions.
“H.R.’s case remains mostly a mystery to me,” the third doctor admitted. Despite the lack of answers, Jill liked him anyway. He kept a box of Junior Mints he kept in his coat pocket that he gave out to the children and unlike his two predecessors, he was candid about not understanding H.R. “Our first month was fruitless,” he added.
“You need a thunderstorm,” Jill said.
“What is the most fascinating to me is that the way his dreams work is different from anything I’ve studied or seen before. Oddly enough,” he went on, “H.R. reminds me of several patients I had during my residency at the VA hospital. There was a vet there who had seen his whole platoon wiped out–Eddie Adams…from Santa Fe. He had the same nightmare over and over again, like H.R.”
“A lot of people have recurring dreams,” Jill said.
“Yes,” he agreed, “but not exactly the same. See, H.R. swears up and down that when he dreams about bugs, it is exactly the same every time. This is very unusual because dreams should always be a little different.”
He read Jill’s blank stare and continued. “There is a lot we don’t know about the process of sleep but we know that dreaming is mostly a survival mechanism. Every night when we go to sleep our minds keep working, making links between new experiences and old ones. For trauma victims, dreaming is how the mind recuperates. For example, if you were in a bad car accident today, you would likely dream about it in connection with another life threatening experiences that you survived, like when you fell off your bike as a kid and got a concussion. By linking the near fatal car accident to the more commonplace bike wreck, the mind lessens the shock. As a result, the original memory of the car crash is slowly rationalized and changed so that the next time the mind encounters a traumatic situation like the crash, it will be better prepared to deal with it.”
“What is different between most trauma victims and H.R. is that trauma victims never dream the exact same dream twice. They will always change it…soften it…so that the memories are bearable. But H.R.’s dreams never change. From his brain activity and what he relates to me, he can dream the same dream over and over again.”
“Okay, but what does it mean?” Jill asked.
Well,” and the doctor leaned back in his chair and exhaled, “I honestly don’t know. But it could develop into problems as he grows older. Human beings are designed to have defective memories. We know from working with trauma victims that the slow changing of dreams, that is to say imperfect memory, assists their emotional recovery, but what happens in H.R.’s case when he encounters a real traumatic event? He may not be able to recuperate like the rest of us and that could make his recovery very difficult.”
* * *
By the middle of his ninth year, H.R.’s dreams had reached a new intensity. He would awake in the morning with memories of events that spanned years. He felt like he was living in two worlds: One where he was raised as a normal boy, another where he was raised amongst these ‘visitors’ in grim fairy tales. He could recall the intricate details of things: the layout of corsairs and frigates, methods of night navigation, phrases in other languages, and the geography of cities long swept away. H.R. wanted to tell his parents, but he sensed that they did not want to hear it. He knew it made them uncomfortable so he learned to keep quiet about them. They needed him to be a normal boy, so he did his best to accommodate them. And after a while, confident that he had outgrown the nightmares, Jill and David stopped taking him to the doctor.
* * *
The soldier in front of him collapsed, his head split open by a musket ball. But for a moment he tottered in his step, blood sprinkling the ground like a miniature rain shower, before falling with a thud on to the road.
But he, he didn’t flinch. He kept moving, knowing that at any second it could be his head.
The men behind him kicked the corpse into the ditch to make way for the horses and carts.
More musket fire crackled from the woods, and more men fell. As they made their way towards the coast, the colonists were picking them off from the woods; shooting several rounds, then moving parallel to them, repositioning, and shooting again. For three hours it had gone on like this. Who knew how many had fallen, a hundred, two hundred? With no orders to engage them, it would go on for hours more. He was sure now that it would go on until they were all dead.
He listened to the report of muskets and the hiss of balls as they sailed near him. He walked like a zombie, expecting each shot to end his life. The tension had made him mad long ago. Please, Mother Mary, don’t let me die here. Please.
In front of him a cart was filled with pieces of men. Their drummer had lost his arm below the shoulder, but the boy still clutched to the bloody limb, holding it in place as if he expected it to fit back on.
Then he had the sensation of being slammed in the back and he felt a tingling breeze on his chest, like a cool wind on exposed skin. Then he was on the ground. I’m alright. He tried to raise his hand, but his arms didn’t respond. Help me up.
Rough hands grabbed his uniform and dragged him to the side of the road. No.
“Sweet dreams, mate.”
His eyes were open: his view of the gray sky was partially obscured by the grass that blocked his stare. God, it hurts. Make it stop.
Time passed. But neither a great darkness, nor light came to his eyes. Above him the clouds grew darker and the gun shots faded like far off thunder. After a time, a fly landed on his cheek, then scurried over and into his ear. Make it stop, make it stop…
H.R. came awake with a start. Outside his bedroom the thunder boomed. And each flash of lightning drew the spider’s loom across the floor.
* * *
By H.R.’s tenth year, Luke’s eyes had gone from deep brown to the color of dirty milk. Even though he was almost completely blind, it was still amazing to watch him, running through the forest with H.R., relying on his remaining senses and memory to get by. He could still play fetch with his old tennis ball, tracking the object with his nose as it moved through the air, and with his ears when it finally hit the ground. Of course, he rarely strayed far from H.R., usually following right in his footsteps. But sometimes, he was seduced by a familiar scent and would go tearing after a neighborhood cat, only to wander home some time later, his face scratched and bruised from barreling through a bush or thicket. During their expeditions, he would bark at the slightest sound, howling madly at the hum of a locust, sure that he was warding off danger.
* * *
The phone rang.
“Hello………Yes………Yes, Rebecca Barnes is my mother, is she alright?………….When?……….How bad?” Jill sat back into a chair. The motion pulled the phone from the counter, she watched blankly as it crashed to the floor. “Can she speak?………..How soon will she need to be moved?”
H.R., investigating the falling telephone, peeked into the kitchen. “Is that Gramma?” H.R. asked.
Jill shooed him away with her hand. “Can I speak with her?” Jill said into the phone. “Put her on.
“Hello, Rebecca, this is Jill, your daughter.”
H.R. bolted for the bedroom and the spare phone.
“Hold on, Mom,” she took the phone from her mouth. “H.R., don’t you dare pick up that phone!
“Mother,” Jill continued, “do….do you remember me?”
H.R.’s voice broke into the line. “Hi, Gramma, how are you?”
“Hello?” Grandma’s voice was wet with saliva.
“H.R., Grandma can’t talk right now. Hang up the phone.”
“Who’s there?” Grandma asked meekly.
“It’s me, Grandma!”
“H.R., I told you! Get off the phone!”
“Grandma, it’s me.”
Barely audible over the static, H.R. heard a voice. “Young man,” Grandma said, “I’m sorry, I can’t…I don’t…” she paused.
“Who is this? I want to talk to my Gramma,” H.R. said.
Jill stormed into the room and in one motion snatched the phone out of his hand and smacked him on the arm. “You listen to me!” Her voice cracked as she said it. “Now go hang up the other phone!”
H.R. cowered away
* * *
That night it stormed. The wind raged over the wheat fields and heavy gusts pounded the house like the fists of a giant.
H.R. listened to the howl of the wind as it blew over the chimney, and waited for sleep to come.
He dreamed he was a Knight in the crusades. But this dream was so clear, so sharp that it seemed like everything was in slow motion.
He and his horse were alone in a village square. The trickle of water was the only sound. Under a moon that was far too big and cast far too much light, he guided his horse to a fountain. He was aware of every drop of water that bubbled from that fountainhead and could contemplate the ripples that each drip made. As he drew near, he felt the pulling of his tendons and his calves as they electrically balled and eased and the shifting of his shoulders in his gait. There seemed to be no particle or sense of his being that was not alert and alive.
He pulled the Templar helmet from his head, and he and his horse drank from the fountain under the exaggerated moon. The water, so cold, seemed to instantly engorged the flesh of his throat.
Another horse and rider moved out of the shadows, approaching the far side of the fountain. The pale horse snorted and jerked, its mouth full of foam. The rider said nothing, dismounted, and knelt down to the edge of the pool. He was dressed in a dark cloak and when he pulled the hood away from his head he saw that the sockets of the stranger’s eyes were so profound that in the moonlight, it appeared that he had no eyes at all. The figure began to drink, sending ripples out from his hand.
He too reached down to drink, but something made him stop. There in the water was his own reflection: the thick black hair, the full lips; and there, set like emeralds, were his eyes: glassy, fabulous, green eyes.
Like the horror of a man buried alive awakening in his coffin, H.R. Areson awoke. He stared into the darkness; outside the wind screamed out his terror. The face that had been reflected in the pool was burned into his memory cells. The eyes. The eyes were unmistakable. At last he understood. There were no visitors, only memories.
* * *
The next morning, H.R. sat on the back porch playing with his cereal. Luke lay beside him, taking up almost all of the picnic bench. His mind was burning, raging, overloaded. After the moment of realization it had been like a great dam had burst; memory after memory had flooded into his head.
He felt like he was on a treadmill and couldn’t get off. Memories of his dreams. Memories of loss. Memories of a thousand lives and deaths. They were a part of him, permanent, and they played over and over in perfect clarity. They might have all happened this morning as far as his mind was concerned. Each remembrance caused its own spurt of adrenaline so that soon his guts ached. His neurons were stretching and fusing frantically, hoping to weave some new connection that would make all of this reasonable. It was shock, he knew. Like all the other periods of pain he had ever endured, his mind was doing the logical thing: linking the new trauma with the old, to make it bearable.
He wondered what he was made of that allowed him to endure these shocks. If there were a breaking point or if he would keep on storing the pain forever. He imagined his mind would succeed once again. In a few weeks or a month he would digest all of these memories.
His heart was another matter. He didn’t know if he could go on. Start over. Let new friends take the place of the friends he had lost in his dreams, if he could open his heart again. It was impossible. How could he, when his neurons were linked by association? He wanted to close his eyes and never open them again.
Luke stirred and slipped to the floor, giving a low growl. H.R. put out a hand to pat his head, welcoming the distraction. “What is it?” He gave another growl, and a jackrabbit bolted from beneath the porch, heading for the road in long strides. Luke darted after him, barking madly as he tore across the yard. “No, Luke!” But Luke didn’t respond, he was gaining on his prey, moving toward the road at a full run. “Luke!” H.R. was now on his feet, moving after them, fully aware that things were out of his control.
The hare leapt across the road with a single thrust. A moment later, Luke’s claws scraped across the asphalt. Perhaps he was surprised that he had reached the road so quickly, or perhaps he heard the truck at the last moment.
To H.R. the semi didn’t really hit Luke, it ate him. With tremendous force Luke was clipped, then sucked under the metal beast. His flesh was spun and entangled among tires and steel axles, then wrenched out the back with such force that he was momentarily suspended in the air on his nose.
H.R. staggered toward the road, toward his dog, his jaw quivering.
Luke, still clinging to life, arched his neck toward H.R. His deep brown eyes, full of confusion, met H.R.’s, then he was still.
It was her boy’s wailing that brought Jill from the kitchen to the front door. There, by the road, H.R. sat clutching the limp body, sobbing uncontrollably. She stood on the steps for a moment, disbelieving, her hands covered in flour up to the elbows. Like opening up a photo album, Jill’s mind flashed Luke’s life before her: from the day they had brought him home, a month old puppy, to the time when H.R. had ridden him around like a pony, to this very moment.
She made herself stop.
Jill walked out to him, and she held them both, smearing whiteness across H.R.’s face.
“No,” H.R. said, “no.”
* * *
After his eyes had gone dry, H.R. moved away from the cooling body and let Jill’s hand slip off his shoulder. He walked down past the vacant lots, taking the path down to the riverbed. After wandering about for a while he came to the bend in the stream at the far corner of the Lethe farm. Here the water was deep and still. H.R. took off his clothes and lay in the shallows. He stayed there for many hours, watching as the shadow of a mango tree grew long across the water.
H.R.’s heart was speaking to him. He felt guilty, angry and helpless. Luke was dead and he hadn’t saved him. He would be buried, food for the bugs. He didn’t want this. He didn’t want to remember all this. He didn’t want his mind to try and rationalize it.
The mangoes hung all above H.R. like ornaments: little green ones, smaller than H.R.’s fist, firm yellow ones; ripe ones painted like the sun with vermilion shades; and the old ones, blue and purple. They were scattered around him like the broken pieces of a rainbow. H.R. thought about how he loved to sit amongst the mango branches on lazy days. How much he loved the fruit when it was orange with just a patch of scarlet. He would gnaw it in the middle and tear back the skin. He thought about how Mom would always know when he’d been out to the mango tree because he would leave sticky sugar on every door handle in the house. And here, drooping over the water just above his head was the perfect mango: bloated and succulent like a human heart, red and sticky.
He closed his eyes and began to forget.
* * *
Later that afternoon Jill would remember looking out into the backyard where David and H.R. stood over Luke’s grave. David, one hand holding a shovel, the other on H.R.’s shoulder, had consoled his son. “Luke will live forever in our memories, H.R.”
But H.R. seemed determined to prove his father wrong. In the months and years that passed, H.R. never again mentioned his dog. Never expressed any interest in another pet, or even uttered Luke’s name. He seemed to have erased the existence of the big Labrador completely.
What’s more, he began to forget things. For the first time ever, things began to slip his mind. David was forced to buy a day planner, after H.R. forgot to remind him of Jill’s birthday and their wedding anniversary. He developed the habit of forgetting his lunch and went from straight A’s to C’s and B’s.
His lapses got so bad that Jill was soon convinced that he was forgetting on purpose. But perhaps, as David suggested, that was okay. He reminded her to count her blessings. They still had a perfectly normal and healthy boy.
By the end of that year H.R. had taken up sleep like a full time job. On Saturdays he would sleep until two in the afternoon and be ready for bed again at ten. He stopped having nightmares and would wake up in the morning and, like many people, have no idea what he had dreamed about.
* * *
It wasn’t until his fifteenth year that some of the memories began to come back.
“H.R., don’t forget the S-hooks when you pick up the ladder from Mr. Jorgen,” Jill called from the kitchen.
“Okay,” H.R. said stepping onto the back porch and stretched in the sunlight, his mind bristled with thoughts of baseball games and the pretty girls who might be watching from the stands. He moved into the yard, the grass taking his weight like an emerald sponge, and headed for the woods and the Jorgen’s house on the far side.
Once in the woods he felt oddly alive and soon found himself jogging, then running down the trail. Light filtering through the maple trees struck his eyes in flashing moments of blindness. His eyelids flickered electrically at the high dosage of light.
Soon he gained the Jorgen’s backyard. Then he heard a sound that seemed to come from another lifetime. He stood still.
It was the sound of a puppy crying.
In the adjacent yard, shaded by a dogwood tree, was a small area enclosed with chicken wire. Inside lay a mother German Shepherd dozing on her side. Her litter of pups suckled quietly from her belly. All save one, who had caught sight of H.R. and was yelping frantically – jumping at the chicken wire.
H.R. drew closer, his mind searching through forgotten passageways for the source of his intrigue. In the back of his mind there was a gentle snap, like a wild seed pod that springs open when touched.
The black and tan puppy seemed crazed, jumping and clawing at the fence with all its might. Then, preternaturally, the pup jumped, gained a foothold, and scaled to the top of the fence. He teetered there for a moment, letting out the yelp of a full-grown dog as the chicken wire dug into his pink belly. But he was over, and he fell to the ground face first. The pup hit the ground at a full sprint, yelping with the richest enthusiasm.
Baffled, H.R. sat down to greet him.
Before the puppy had even reached him, H.R. was crying. He could see that its newly opened eyes were the deepest brown.