Published by HQ on April 6, 2017
The first thing I see is her pale hair, all lit up in the rosy, polluted glow of the Houston sunset.
Then her face — ashen skin stretched thin over wide cheekbones flushed red across the top so that the dark circles stand out under her sunken eyes. The face looks both young and old. She wears worn-out jeans with holes at the knees, a T-shirt. She opens her mouth to speak, and I see that her feet are bare.
There’s something familiar about her, but it’s like my entire body has become fused with my surroundings, my brain rewired to resemble blind hands fumbling, the sensory data bumping uselessly around in search of something to latch onto: Hair. Eyes.Young. Bare.
Her eyes widen, and the color drains from her face.
My hands stretch out in front of me, palms out, fingers spread wide, ready to shield me from the nuclear sunset or as if I’m about to fall down, but it’s the girl on the porch who falls, her knees buckling so that she folds up neatly as she collapses onto the mat, blond hair catching lightly in the azalea bushes on her way down. I open my mouth and I think I must be yelling for Tom, although I can’t hear it because my brain is still blinded by the sunset glancing off her face. He comes running up behind me, stops, and then thunders through the doorway. When I look again, the girl has all but vanished into his arms, the loops and tangles of her hair crushed between his fingers as he hugs her to his chest, rocking back and forth. “Julie, Julie, Julie,” he is sobbing, like the chorus of the nightmares that I now know have never stopped but have been unreeling every night for eight years, and perhaps all day long as well, in a continuous stream I have simply chosen to deny.
The sight of Jane standing stock-still in the hallway flips the light switch back on in my head. “Call 911,” I manage to say. “Tell them we need an ambulance.” To Tom, who is making strange, animal sounds of grief I have also heard in my dreams, I say, “Bring her in.”
And just like that, the worst unhappens. Julie is home.