I wake up from a nightmare. It goes like this:
Dad and Mom come back together to settle the score, numbers and wills and totals and tallies from recent years and beyond. They wait with pencils, magic erasers. I’m at the head of the table, where I always sat, only no one faces me at the other end—just Dad’s empty throne. Instead, he sits at my right, in my sister’s spot, her ghost his halo, glowing and fawning, helping him read, checking, correcting. Mom is at left, near the stove, for easy access. They drown in paper and long division; numbers, loose-leaf, crinkled scraps, chalky purple mimeographs. My handwriting in pencil from second grade; stories and art my mom had saved, things I hadn’t seen since 1981.
“Holy fuck. She remembers.”
My dad’s voice springs aloud in my slumber. I’m unconscious but I hear him.
“PTSD. Who the fuck is she? Goddammit. You will respect me. I could do it. You know it. Every time you think of me you know that I’m gonna. Don’t know when, don’t know where, but it’s in you, like I am. ‘Is it time?’ All the time. Mimi knows too. Laundry, shit stains, headaches– she hides. I pulled a ring from behind her ear; I made a vow: she’ll disappear. A magic trick, a sleight of hand, to keep you all in my command.”
When I wake, I hear the neighbors talking about me. Are they? Their murmurs swirl with woozy shadows. My dream rhymes repeat in dad’s voice in my mind. 5:41. Rise and shine. I lie on my side but it crushes my spine.
* * *
My mom hired a magician for my second birthday party. A friend of the family, teenage amateur with acne. He asked for a volunteer to enter his magic box, a dark closet with a black curtain. My cousin Dawn jumped up. Idol, first love, best friend Dawn. Gorgeous Dawn. Beloved Dawn.
She smiled wide and stepped inside. The curtain closed a place to hide. Magic words, he waved the wand. Open curtain: “Poof! She’s gone.”
This is how I remember it. The vacant closet on the big reveal. Curtain swish, then eerily still.
Mom panicked. “It’s ok! She’ll be back.”
We still have the pictures. Everyone is smiling around my blood red howl.
“Honey, sweetheart, it’s just a trick!”
Nothing calmed me down. Baby guts know: Dawn could vanish. Leave no trace. Happy Birthday, gifts and cake. What babies fear in dreams and wake. Toddler nightmares of boughs that break.
What I did not have words for, tear-soaked, bereft, is that I disappeared with Dawn the moment she left.
“Come back. Come back. I wanna come too. Please don’t leave me here without you.”