That night I awoke to a crinkling sound outside my bedroom door. I’d been in the middle of a punishing nightmare in which everyone in my eighth-grade class had to write their name on the black chalkboard in Mrs. Ahern’s math class. When I approached the board in my dream, my right hand scrawled Tatum in distressed, arthritic letters. Stepping back, I noticed how angry all our signatures appeared, like caged animals in a perverse zoo.
Mama must have been fighting phantoms in her dreams, too, because when I pushed the covers off and approached the commotion outside my room, I found her pacing the hallway, hunched over a spiral notebook.
“What’s the matter? What happened?” I mumbled.
Mama was dressed in a lilac pajama set. Her hair looked overblown as if she had scarcely survived a hurricane.
“Ssh. I have to write this,” she murmured.
Her right hand flexed as she scribbled an address in lower case letters.
When she finished, she blinked at me and said, “Tomorrow we’ll investigate and see if this place exists. Go back to sleep for now.”
Mama didn’t ask about my dreams. Ever since my great-aunt Fatima began rising through the Rosicrucian ranks years before, all our dreams had sharpened into lucid, prophetic episodes. Whether we wanted to or not, we received information, glimpsed foreign cities, and encountered people who were often displeased to meet us. By age thirteen, I had been dream-traveling for five years and already knew which of my dreams to divulge to my friends and which to keep within my family.
In bed, I pulled the duvet over my shoulders and thought about my Army pen pal in Kuwait named Awny. Though I’d never seen a photograph of him, I was infatuated with Awny—a brave soldier halfway around the world who claimed the highlight of his week was receiving my mail. In his last letter, he’d written, “I bet you’re popular and have a lot of friends.” The line stood out because I considered my letters to him to be somewhat lame. Usually I summarized the plots of library books I’d recently read or recounted the particulars of papier-mâché or clay projects I was creating in art class. In his letters, Awny reported the outcome of chess games he and his buddies played (he won more often than not) and the contents of care packages his mother sent him (comic books, Twix, fresh socks).
I studied my sad curtains. A dull ache in my throat reminded me it was my turn to write Awny back. For three weeks it had been my turn to write back.
By the time I rose for breakfast the next morning, my father had already left to teach his Saturday morning history class at the community college. My mother was sitting in the center of the couch. Instead of a newspaper, a map of San Antonio laid opened, accordion-style, across her lap.
After our encounter in the hallway, I had stayed up reading Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. Sleep lingered in my eyelids and I yawned out my grogginess.
“Good morning, Tatum. Migas are on the table,” Mama said, without looking up.
I wasn’t hungry, but the idea of cold orange juice rushing down my throat drew me to the refrigerator.
“I need your company this morning. We’re going to look for a house,” she said.
Based on the way her hands fidgeted with the map, I could tell she had struggled to let me sleep late.
“Go get dressed. I want to be back before your dad comes home,” Mama said, her fingers mimicking my soon-to-be moving legs.
I wasn’t in the mood to tag along. I was still dressed in sweatpants and an oversized Texas Folklife Festival t-shirt. All I wanted from the weekend was to visit Sound Warehouse and watch MTV’s 120 Minutes while my parents were asleep and unknowing.
“How long is this gonna take?” I asked, rolling my head to my shoulder to convey boredom.
Mama folded the map into quarters.
“Not long. I promise.”
Mama drove exactly the speed limit, her palms steady on the wheel and her dream vaulted inside her.
When I switched on the car radio, R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion” was playing. My parents, fervent Catholics, hated the song. The few times they’d heard me singing the lyrics they shh-ed me with stern annoyance.
I had once wanted to know everything about my parents. One afternoon when I was six and snooping around their bedroom, I found their wicker hamper overflowing with dirty underwear. I sniffed their clothes as deeply as I could only to have a moldy mushroom stench line my nostrils. As I shoved bras and briefs back into the hamper, I gagged with disbelief that my parents could secrete such rancid odors. Over time, my curiosity about Mama’s subconscious faded as well.
“Tell me the plan before we get there,” I both asked and stated.
“I don’t have one yet,” Mama admitted.
The wooden rosary wrapped around the rearview mirror swayed as we merged onto the highway and headed south.
“Does Papa know what we’re doing?” I asked.
Our dreams rarely perturbed me anymore, but it was uncommon for us to search for people in broad daylight. In fact, we never had, and I considered it a terrible idea.
“I plan to call your great-aunt later today, if we find this house,” Mama said. “I don’t want to worry her unnecessarily.”
I had secrets, too. My parents didn’t know about the slam book I had in my backpack. Monroe, a wealthy Scottish girl in my class, started the notebook a week before and it had been passed to me at lunch on Friday. The page with my name was littered with a menagerie of handwriting styles all confirming the same general opinion. In tight, preppy script the word zero slanted diagonally next to a willowy loser and a cursive ugly. My classmates had unflattering descriptors written about them, but the dozens of zeroes, numerical and spelled out, on my page left me unable to breathe. The most disturbing comment was written by a prick named Jeffrey who asked, “Who would even want to rape Tatum?” Nowhere on the page was there a j/k. None of the other pages mentioned rape.
It was a strangely powerful feeling having the slam book in my bedroom. Although I was tempted to trash it, I didn’t dare. Everyone would know it was me who had gotten rid of it. It was important for the class not to consider me petty.
I looked out the window as we exited the highway and thought about my pen pal’s overestimation of me. My clay sculptures seemed irrelevant, as did any other subject I could pluck from my life to cover the truth about how everyone felt about me. One person had written something neutral but it didn’t count because nice had been misspelled as niece.
“You’re awfully quiet” Mama said as we entered a residential neighborhood.
“So are you,” I replied.
The house existed. Sitting on the porch was a man reading a newspaper. His rugged chinos and leather work boots were visible, but the splayed open paper obscured his face and torso.
“I didn’t expect anyone to be here,” Mama whispered. “I figured we might find a vacant house, but that was it.”
“Now what?” I asked.
As I cracked my window, the smell of kerosene filled the car. I covered my mouth, expecting to cough.
The man on the porch lowered his newspaper. Over his face, he wore a wooden bird mask with Incan features and a hook beak. A camouflage jacket covered his chest and aluminum dog tags dangled from a metal chain around his neck.
“What the fuck?” I said, shielding my face with my hands. “Let’s go.”
Mama cringed at the man’s macabre appearance but ignored my plea. For a moment, I wondered if the person before us was my pen pal.
Mama tapped the steering wheel then caressed the rosary wrapped around the rearview mirror.
“Stay here,” she said. “Don’t follow me.”
Within seconds, Mama had climbed out of the car and was approaching the porch.
The birdman tunneled his gloved hands into the pockets of his army jacket, preparing for their confrontation. My heart threatened to erupt. I expected to see a revolver in his hands, but he retrieved what appeared to be white enamel seeds.
As Mama drew closer, the birdman sprung from his chair and proceeded to fling fistful of seeds at her. His form was as cylindrical as a totem poll and I studied him, trying to glimpse a patch of unexposed skin. A wrist, a neck, anything, but he was entirely wooden.
With trembling hands, I unlocked the passenger door and sprinted to them. Mama stood at the lip of the porch stairs, her chin jutted forward in accusation.
Strewn in the grass lay not white seeds but skeleton candy, a confection I had only seen during Halloween. Tiny white femurs and tibias continued to pelt us.
“Don’t you ever visit my dreams again,” Mama seethed in the birdman’s direction.
As we turned to leave, a Doberman pinscher appeared behind the screen door of the house. Its ears were elfin and alert. I sensed a definitive pulse in the animal.
I yanked Mama’s shoulder and announced, “Let’s go.”
Damp with sweat, Mama and I trudged through weeds back to the car. Bones continued to drizzle over us like wedding rice. We had come uninvited and would never utter a word about it to Papa or my great-aunt.
The next morning pinned to Mama’s windshield was a torn napkin with all the angry signatures of my dream. From my bedroom window, I spied Mama removing it from under a wiper.
Hours later I glimpsed the napkin on the kitchen table. She didn’t know the paper had trespassed into this realm.
We traveled individually in our sleep, never once overlapping paths.