In the Middle: Prologue

In the dream, I am running.

That’s what it is at first: a pleasant, harmless dream.

In this dream, I am in third grade again, and I am racing the boy I loved to hate, Bradley Bean, though I preferred to call him Beano. I didn’t know what Beano meant, but I had heard my uncle talk about needing it one time, and since Bradley’s last name was Bean, I decided to call him Beano, and it just stuck. 

I was a regular at Beano’s house, although at the time, I wouldn’t have exactly called Beano a friend. He just happened to be the closest living human around my age in the Oklahoma Middle-of-Nowhereville our families called home. 

On this particular day, we had both been at the clubhouse we built in the smattering of trees near our houses, arguing about which color we should paint the walls. I was sure the walls should be purple--just as sure as he was that the walls should be red. The only thing we could agree on was that we were officially bored of the recycled-fencepost-wood color of our clubhouse walls. 

This isn’t part of the dream, of course, but in that ever-nostalgic part of my brain called memory. In the dream, it skips to the part where we are running to his house, fueled by our post-fight frustration. We jump over the fallen trees and stumps; up the steep, gravelly hill littered with pebbles, and rush across the always-traffic-free one-car gravel street, our lungs gasping, throats stinging, and legs pumping with the fire of determination. 

We burst into the garage, dodging the old car his father is half-way underneath as we jump over the peek-a-boo of his legs. Sometimes in my dream, I see two pairs of legs sticking out from underneath the rusty old convertible: the ripped-knee jean-clad legs of his father and the bare skinned, painted-toenail legs of the first stepmother Beano never got to meet.

The worst is when I see three with the addition of the skinny-jean and cowboy-boot-covered chicken legs I knew so well.

He reaches the door first, and turns around with one hand on the knob to stick his tongue out at me. I grin. His prideful pause has bought me just enough momentum to knock him to the side as I fly past him. He falls, and accidentally kicks a bucket across the room. 

“Hey!” his dad yells. “Watch it!”

I speed through the color of green with occasional pops of tropical color leaping out through the sticky sweet smell of wet soil and fresh herbs, my sight set solely on the glowing white light framing the kitchen door at the end of the path.

If I’m lucky, I’ll wake up just as I reach the door, enveloped in the shining bright light of sunshine peeking through my bedroom curtains. On these mornings, I can pretend I’ve found closure, finally. On these mornings, I have hope.

More often, though, I reach the door, and leave it open, the satisfaction of being first eliminating all previous frustration. I take a seat at the kitchen bar where I’m presented with a plate-full of cookies by his mother, my winner’s prize. When Beano stumbles into the room, defeated, I offer him a cookie, and he reaches his hand toward mine to take it, but then his eyes get that deer-in-headlights look and he runs right out the still-open door behind him. 

I panic. Where is he going?

I rush out the door so fast the plate of cookies flies off the counter and I can hear all the pieces of glass shattering behind me, but I don’t care. I have to find Beano.

This is where the dream always shifts. The clear blue sky has turned dark as ominous, black clouds hover outside, waiting to attack. As I walk through the greenhouse walkway, the plants conspire against me, their leaves sprouting thorns and growing like tangles across my path. I trip and bite my tongue as I fall to the ground. I can taste blood in my mouth and feel the sting of skinned knees as I reach the garage. Nobody is there, but the door is wide open, and I can see a flash of the blonde mop of Beano’s hair heading toward the clubhouse. When I take a step forward, a plume of black smoke, as thick as rainclouds, rises up toward the black hole forming in the sky.

I feel a twist in the pit of my stomach as I realize Beano is running into a trap, and I must save him. 

“Brad, no!” I yell, and suddenly I am fifteen years old, standing in front of the clubhouse, and Beano is now the cute-and-playful nickname I reserve for moments less serious than this.

I have a flashlight in my hands, but it won’t turn on. The clubhouse looks dark and dangerous as I approach, the branches of the trees around it twisting their crooked arms to reach me. I stop at the entrance of the clubhouse just as a crack of thunder lines up with a string of lightening that lights up the clubhouse enough to reveal another flash of blonde hair. 

“Brad?” The words feel like a choke in the back of my throat. 

I smell smoke, gasoline, and wet pavement. I cough, and suddenly there’s a blaring light in my face. Headlights and fire, I realize. The clubhouse has turned into Brad’s old truck—the one he spent years fixing up with his father, before everything spiraled out of control—and the truck is on fire.

“Brad!” I start to cough, my lungs and throat swelling with smoke. “Bradley!” I fall on my skinned knees, my head swimming, my vision blurring. “No! Please!”

Brad appears just in time to save me. He takes me in his arms, and kisses my forehead, and for a second I forget about the smoke and the fire and the danger. But then he looks at me with wide and terrified blue eyes, and says, “The ring, Sarah! I forgot the ring! I have to go back!”

I don’t know what he’s talking about. What ring? I don’t have time to ask though because he quickly kisses my lips, and steals the words from my mouth and mind.

“I’ll meet you at home, Sarah. I promise,” he vows.

There is a glimmer in his eyes that makes the pain melt away, and I feel myself nodding my head, assured that it will all be okay. He’ll meet me at home. He kisses my lips again before running back into the forest. The smoke clears and I see his house as though I’m floating above it, as if I’ve grown wings to carry me home.

I land on his front lawn, and watch the smoke rising from the trees. I wait and wait for him to come, to see his blonde hair like a halo running toward me, chicken legs stuffed into cowboy boots beating the ground in the rhythm of a safe return. But the cloud of smoke just gets bigger and bigger until I can’t even see the trees anymore, and the smoke in the sky swallows everything whole. 

I feel the rain on my skin like acid burning me alive, and hear the sirens speeding toward me, and realize I can’t move. I’m frozen, pasted to the ground like a wad of chewing gum. I look up at the black and grey sky full of smoke, and feel the dread growing like a weed in my stomach.

The dream shifts again. The clouds of black and grey fade to white, and suddenly I am standing in the heat of summer sunlight in a black dress that doesn’t fit me right. I can feel the fabric squeezing me around the chest so tight it hurts to breathe, and then I realize it’s not the dress, but Brad’s arms wrapped around me.

“Sarah,” he says, and squeezes me so tight I feel the bones of my ribcage breaking into pieces, “how could you?”

I open my mouth to scream, and I see his wide and terrified blue eyes staring wildly into mine, and even though I’m the one breaking, he dissolves into a pile of dust on the ground in front of me. I pick up the shiny silver ring from the pile of dust at my feet, wipe the grime from the diamond, and read the inscription engraved inside the circle: home is you and me. 

I slump down on the ground with tear-streaked cheeks, and wake up with a sob exploding from the center of my chest. My dream-turned-nightmare has ended, and left me with the scars of memory.

But that’s the thing about tragedies: you can’t escape them. 

Like storms, they come out of nowhere and leave nothing but destruction behind.

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