When we were kids my sister and I shared dreams. Recurring, vivid scenes of the wrinkled old man at the end of the cul-de-sac, his cool, orange-freckled grandson, the boy who’d built his own tree house. Trees that turned to witches after sunset, twisting down to small, frail bodies, their dresses the dark brown of bark. Bats that flew through our house and stopped to eat fruit from our palms, bright beautiful apples or pears we’d stolen from Grandma. The only fruit in our house sweetened peaches in cans.
The winter of the dreams, we were taken by what could be strange in this world, certain we’d tapped into that other 90% of the brain my sister had read about, the part most humans aren’t capable of accessing. Looking back I think we might have exaggerated the whole thing. Maybe one of us would wake up in the middle of the night and whisper into the other’s ear, whisper about the man we’d dreamt walking down the highway, wearing only a diaper, causing truckers to swerve and slam on their brakes. Did we just feign shock, the next mornings, when we each shared details the other couldn’t possibly know?
We lived with our mom, but our dad and his new wife had come for dinner one night to say they were ready for us, one or both, whatever we decided. His new wife Sharon had described our new bedrooms, plural, one for each of us. Dad had said we could pick between the purple and blue rooms, or paint the walls a new color we liked.
“Blue’s your favorite, isn’t that right?” Sharon had said to me, this woman so blonde and pretty, so clean she made our entire house seem like a dusty wreck in comparison. Our house was always spotless, though, and Sharon didn’t know color like my mother.
We lived in the worst part of town, the Parish section, so bad it wasn’t named for its zoned elementary school like everywhere else, but the soup kitchen Parish Pantry. Our neighbors on both sides were registered sex offenders who couldn’t walk past our house without breaking parole. The shingles were falling off and the siding had gone gray, but Mom had a way of decorating ugly into downright beautiful, and it was sort of amazing to have guests show up with these awful, low expectations on the front porch, to watch their badly hidden disgust turn to awe, when they got inside.
When we first moved in, we helped Mom strip down the thick wallpaper, dousing the walls with spray bottles full of hot water, scraping away with these flat metal tools. Peeling off a long, wide strip of paper was as satisfying as ripping a whole scab off your leg without drawing blood. As Mom primed the walls, my sister and I made a tiny blueprint from construction paper and crayons, each square colored in with the paint she planned. Mom kept singing old Jackson Five songs and my sister would screech and turn her tape player louder, TLC, “Waterfalls.”
One afternoon Mom picked us up from school and announced it was car wash day, though we’d never gone through it before.
“It’ll be fun,” she said. Mom asked the guy who was working how much for a used squeegee. He laughed, she laughed, and he gave her one for free.
My sister didn’t look up from her book, but said, “What the heck she gonna do with that thing?”
“Hush,” Mom said, “it’s a surprise.” She winked at me in the mirror, always happy when she had a new project, though the squeegee stunk up our whole car with chemicals.
Mom let the squeegee dry out then cut little triangles into the rubber. She dipped it into paint and ran it down the walls to make these beautiful, textured stripes. That was our bedroom, a pale yellow with bright sunny yellow stripes squeegee-ed over it. At night, I loved to run my fingertips along the raised lines. It calmed me, how perfect they were, how mom’s hands were steady enough to paint in such straight lines.
I don’t remember my parents ever being in the same room, except for that dinner about whose house we’d pick. That night Dad said eleven and thirteen was old enough to decide for ourselves, the courts be damned. He said he’d never sugarcoat anything; we could ask him anything, and he’d be honest, but we knew not to ask where he met Sharon, or when, considering Grandma said they were dating the entire time Mom worked up the nerve to leave.
Mom was in a frenzy about the whole thing, I could tell, though my sister was too focused on making the smartest decision, for both of us, to notice Mom’s dazed, sad look, the way she wandered around the kitchen, finding old chocolates from Christmas to offer Sharon, refilling water glasses. After the dinner, I kept catching Mom staring into mirrors and dark windows, looking completely spaced-out and blank.
That was the winter I started playing the clarinet and my sister took it upon herself to make me a prodigy. Two years older, she was always up for improving me, for teaching me things she’d only just learned so I’d be smarter than my classmates. I remember being bored out of my skull in first grade when they taught us how to print, because I’d already been writing in cursive for a year. My sister said it was best to get a head start, at everything, always.
1-234, 2-234, 3-234
My sister taught me time signatures, how to count measures of rest, while the other kids still struggled with single lines of single note “songs.” I’d sit with a reed between my teeth, savoring the warm, wooden taste as it drained the spit from my mouth. She somehow knew, right from the start, that clarinet wouldn’t be enough for me; she advised I pick up sax and flute next so I could get into jazz, this years before any sweetly dissonant blues scales twisted up my gut in love. I’d sit and she’d call out another scale: “A Major this time.” “Now C Sharp, I want two octaves.” I’d sit and she’d lecture on the necessity of a metronome. She’d lean in and say I’d hate the sound and want to turn it off, but if I were to surpass my classmates, I’d learn to love it.
I wouldn’t appreciate her coaching until high school when I realized I didn’t have to waste time practicing to stay the best in concert band. The metronome drills, the long tones, the endless scales she forced me to run weren’t all that bad — at the time, because I thought it was a game, and now because it’s proven more effective than any of my friends’ $200 an hour private lessons. I landed first clarinet as a freshman and this spring second in county youth orchestra but I didn’t even memorize my audition. There’s talk of conservatories next year, scholarships.
For the past few months I’ve been playing this brunch gig with two friends on Sunday afternoons. Sharon’s sister owns an old pink Victorian off Route Five that she turned into a B&B and she gives us $50 each for the four-hour shift. Dad says being paid means I’m officially a professional musician. It’s like heaven, alternating between alto sax and clarinet, while Jake slaps his bass and Tommy’s hands run along the keyboard like a couple of insane spiders. But we just mess around. We have a few standards but no one who eats brunch in this town knows “Bye-Ya” so no one can tell how far we depart from the set key changes.
1-234, 2-234, 3-234
When we were little, my sister used to play these annoying music boxes to fall asleep. She had two lined up on her nightstand, one with a ballerina twirling to “Swan Lake,” and the other with a creepy plastic clown spinning to a robotic, off-key song neither of us could place. I used to beg her to stop. I used to cry and beg Mom to take them away, but my sister was convinced she couldn’t sleep without them. The night of our first shared dream we had listened to one “Swan Lake,” followed by two clown songs, but that combination only worked the one time. So she tried “Swan Lake,” clown, then back to “Swan Lake” — nothing. Clown, clown, swan — nope. No matter the sequence, we dreamt by ourselves, or not at all.
One night before bed, I told her I wanted to practice keeping time with the metronome, I was that desperate to avoid her obnoxious music boxes. 1-234, 2-234, 3-234 I lay in the dark on my top bunk counting measures, the metronome below ticking its sharp, steady beat. I tapped my fingers on the raised lines of the wall as if they were keys. 4-234, 5-234, 6-234. My sister kicked her feet hard into my mattress anytime I dragged the beat. 7-234, 8 — She stopped the metronome and pulled herself up toward my bed, her head popping over the railing, her eyes wild.
“I know what’s missing,” she said, her head disappearing again as she ran to the other side of the room and slapped on the light. “Why we can’t do it every night. The music won’t work because it’s outside of us. We need a trigger, a phrase we say together, you know? Something to tell our brains to go into that shared state.”
I didn’t know how her eyes were immune to the sudden brightness, or why she was always so wide awake.
“Counting sheep?” I suggested. She glared. “Too obvious?”
“Think, when you hear the metronome, you think music.” Regular dreaming, just sleeping, wasn’t enough for my sister anymore. She was certain we could learn things, if only we could control it, understand. I idolized my sister back then, thirteen and so naturally smart, with these thoughts I was sure no other kids thought. She climbed back into her bed and I hung my head over the side of my mattress. I watched her leaf through a dusty copy of Robinson Crusoe, sneezing and wiping her nose on her sleeve and pretending she liked the musty antique smell.
I thought hard about our trigger. I figured the dreams could help us decide where to live, though I felt terrible even considering Dad’s offer.
“How about counting llamas?” I said, thinking of my long-time favorite book Llamas in Pajamas. I figured it was far enough from sheep and weird enough to give us the weird dreams she craved. I idolized her so much I didn’t even care when she yelled.
“Llamas? That’ll never work. And will you stop with that book? If our dreams are going to show us anything important you need to start reading important books. You need to stop with this frivolous, illustrated drivel.” I knew I was too old for it, but that didn’t matter. It was like a worn, good-smelling blankie, and it’s all I had since she had cut my actual blankie into strips that she then threw into the trash, one by one, night by night, over the course of a very painful month for me.
I even had the stuffed llama, though I had lost its pajamas ages ago, back when I still read the book for fun instead of routine. I held the llama up, as proof of my idea’s understated brilliance.
“He’ll be a talisman,” I said, “the titular llama in pajamas.” I used the word titular, because I had learned it in my sister’s new favorite book and also since it sounded dirty, and I was supposed to be the funny one, but she rolled her eyes and called him “eponymous.” She said counting any animal would never work.
We went to bed frustrated. Our dreams in our own separate heads.
1-234, 2-234, 3-234
The winter of the dreams, my sister was obsessed with a GRE vocabulary workbook she’d found in the library’s dollar bin. Neither of us knew what the GRE was, but we liked the book’s lists of words. “Grr,” we called it. “Grr Vocabulary Prep.” If we’d said it in front of Mom, she wouldn’t have corrected us. We didn’t know anyone who went to college after high school so had no clue there could be more school after college.
The day after I suggested we count llamas as our trigger, my sister insisted we go to the library. Mom was always happy to take us because she could use the computer while we wandered around, relatively supervised. Sometimes Mom would read decorating magazines in the lobby or the oversized atlases and maps. My sister had two tote bags, a dirty tan thing Grandma brought back from the Mall of America and another blue and yellow one Grandma got at the SPAM Museum. Mall of America was for borrowed books. SPAM for ones she bought with her quarters and dimes.
My sister brought the “Grr Book” with her and pointed at the list of suggested reading at the back. I had to choose something new, she said, something grown-up, or else she’d tear a page each night from Llamas until it was just two sad, cardboard flaps.
“Remember,” she said, “This is for the good of our dreams. It’ll make you smarter, too. Studies prove reading builds emotional intelligence.”
I looked at the list and my eyes dropped straight to the L’s, thinking of my beloved Llamas. I found, then carried Lolita to the circulation desk, where the librarian looked down at me above her large, wire-framed glasses, and asked: “Do you know what this is about?”
“Yes, of course,” I said, feeling defiant, thinking she should have black cat-eye glasses, little rhinestones in the corners, thinking eleven was plenty old enough and remembering what my sister had said, moments prior in the Classics section. I looked at the librarian and said, “Nabokov is the least depressing Russian, is he not?” I knew full well adults got kicks from kids like me and my sister, kids who said smart things with confidence and good posture. Looking back I think my sister might have dreamt the idea of Lolita into my head because she was too embarrassed to borrow it from the library herself.
A few nights later, Lolita and Llamas tucked under my pillow, we fell asleep counting measures of rest together, synced with our loud, clucking metronome.
1-234, 2-234, 3-234
That night the bats came back. In our kitchen, the floor tinted blue instead of morning pee yellow, the bats flew above our heads, swooping low, begging us for a taste of the canned peaches we were opening. Blue light filtered through the window, coloring everything in. We each had a can, each a can opener, and that’s how we realized we were in a dream. Funny enough, it wasn’t the bats or blue light that clued us in, it was the absurdity of a kitchen needing two can openers. My sister smiled wide in that dream, that night, so wide the corners of her mouth extended off her face and she laughed, tapping her fingers on the pointed corners of her long, long smile, admiring how she could grow her face to look happy.
My sister and I liked those two bats because they were just like us, a duo facing the world, feeding on canned food, not minding at all. We each opened our can, then ran the tap water until it went cold. We were careful to fork each quartered peach into a plastic baggie, as provisions. We knew to do this without talking. We were in sync in our minds, in our minds, too. Once the peaches were in the bags, we filled the cans with tap water, letting the thick juice thin a bit, diluting the tooth-decay sweetness into juice suitable for the road. The bats landed impatiently on our shoulders, kneading their little claws into our skin until we gave them each a peach. They flew up ahead, fruit in their tiny fangs, drips of juice falling down as rain.
The things I remembered from Lolita, the saddle shoes, the road trip, ended up in our paired dream that night. My sister told me the old man from the cul-de-sac was the very same man we’d seen in a diaper on the highway. She said it all star-struck, wowed. It wasn’t that he needed a diaper, she explained, but he was going on a road trip by foot and wore it for practicality. He shunned all possessions so clothes were out. My sister had fallen in love with the old man, and at thirteen, she worried it would never happen — she was either too old already or would always be too young — but the details I recounted, as we slept, the curious details I didn’t really understand, reassured her anything could happen.
We walked, sipping from our cans, careful not to let the sharp edges cut our lips. We passed the dark houses on the right side of the street, the darker woods to the left. We reached the cul-de-sac, and the bats rushed to the tree house to eat their peaches. The redheaded grandson cried on his doorstep and my sister couldn’t bring herself to ask what was wrong. She already knew it had to do with his grandfather leaving, her love leaving. The boy’s tears washed the freckles off his face, and he sat, shocked, staring at the orange scabs in his hands.
I sat with the boy on the chipped wooden stairs, patting his back, worrying about splinters in the backs of my legs, wishing I’d worn jeans. Wishing my sister had worn jeans too, to cover her long, long legs, tinted an impressive blue in the dream’s inky moonlight.
The boy pointed to the woods and said, “He just left.”
My sister nodded and walked away. At the edge of the trees, she turned back and said, “Aren’t you coming?”
“I’m not leaving Mom,” I said, surprising myself, and the boy put his arm around my shoulders, as if he were my mother, grateful for my allegiance.
“We’re going. You can have the blue room.”
“I’m not leaving Mom,” the boy said this time, stepping forward. He brushed the freckles off his hands, off his lap. They looked like bits of pollen on the grass. Bright red and yellow fireworks burst above the woods, and the trees started swaying, twisting their trunks in time with the bang, bang, bang of the fireworks, their trunks like hips swaying on a dance floor, their branches now long, pale arms stretching toward the sky, their fingertips tapping rhythmically on the moon and stars.
“Don’t be dumb,” my sister said.
“Don’t be mean.” I admired how stern the boy was, how clear-sighted. But I couldn’t stop watching the tree women, couldn’t stop wishing I could dance like them, so fun and free.
“Mean? It’s mean to do what’s best for yourself? If we live with Dad we’ll go to a better school, we’ll have normal neighbors. A nice life.”
“And Mom would be so lonely,” said the boy.
I thought Mom would like to dance with the trees, too. It’s the sort of thing she’d find really funny, trees like people. I looked closer and realized the trees all had the same arms, the same hands. Their hands were Mom’s hands, each with a bright gold ring on the pinky, just like Mom; she’d shrunken down her wedding band from Dad as a reminder, she once said, of how love can get smaller.
“Then only one of us goes.”
“I’m not leaving Mom,” the boy repeated.
“Fine,” she said. My sister looked satisfied, like she’d always be one step ahead of me, always two years smarter. She walked into the woods, and the trees snapped back rigged, life-less, their branches just bark. I worried she’d never come back. Worried I’d have to be an only child.
I asked the boy to count with me. “We can’t lose them both,” I said, figuring counting would trigger us out of the dream, as it did in, figuring he’d care more if he tried to bring his grandfather home, too.
1-234, 2-234, 3-234, 4-234
My stomach ached with thought of my too smart sister meeting an almost naked old man in the woods. The bats flew from the tree house, their smiles jutting off their tiny, sated faces. The most beautiful clarinet concerto started softly, crescendoed as we counted.
5-234, 6-234, 7-234, 8 —
I remember waking up and my sister wasn’t in bed and I was terrified. Waking up and seeing her school shoes and being slightly reassured she hadn’t left. Getting dressed all in blue, blue t-shirt with a butterfly on it, blue jeans, blue socks and underwear, too. I knew if she was wearing blue, everything would be okay, but I had no idea how. No idea Mom would eventually understand Dad and Sharon just wanted someone to care for. That I was the one who was always taught, looked after, cared for. That Mom would understand Dad and Sharon just wanted some brightness in their life. That I was the lively, easy one. That my sister was the one who did the teaching in Mom’s house. That she couldn’t ever leave.
Creeping down the hall, I heard my sister laugh before I opened the door to the kitchen, where she sat, eating a sliced canned peach, blue turtleneck on, blue headband, her smile so wide it would have left her face if we were dreaming, teaching Mom all the words she’d learned, telling Mom there was more to this life than what we thought we knew: aberrations, she said, anomalies.