published by The Nabu Review, Issue 2
Amelia leaned her burning cigarette in the ashtray beside the armchair. Tendrils of smoke rose from its red ember and danced in the air. They spiraled in the glow of the television, clouding the dim room. Amelia’s eyes glazed over, staring unfocused at the images flickering across the screen. She thought about that night, as she had nearly every moment since. Amelia shook her head.
She picked up her cigarette again and flicked ash off its end. Amelia took a long drag and closed her eyes, leaning her head back as she breathed smoke through her nostrils. She shouldn’t be smoking, but she enjoyed the nicotine’s euphoric buzz. Maybe she should pick up a couple bad habits while she was at it. Amelia heard smoking weed messed with your memory but maybe it would help with the nightmares. But more bad habits would suck her into a black hole she couldn’t risk.
Maybe she should talk to someone. The thought crossed her mind at least twice a day. Sometimes at random, when she was in the shower or letting her mind drift while driving the regular commute. Other times, it was more intense; her inner critic scowled upon her, tearing down each small solace she used as temporary bandage.
The final strands of smoke faded as Amelia stubbed out her cigarette. She relaxed into the large cushions behind her. The armchair was always too big for her; it suited James better. Amelia promised to call someone in the morning as she let her mind drift off into nicotine-glazed nightmares.
Amelia appraised the woman sitting across the room. Dr. Julianna Barnes was plump, mid-50s, peering behind black-rimmed spectacles. Crow’s feet perched at the corners of her eyes as she smiled warmly.
“How are you, Ms. Lark?"
“Please, call me Amelia.”
“Amelia.” Dr. Barnes smiled. “What’s troubling you?”
Was it obvious? Amelia cleared her throat. “I’ve been having trouble sleeping.”
“What sort of trouble?”
“I keep having these nightmares that feel like memories.”
“Memories,” Dr. Barnes mused.
Amelia stared down, twirling her thumbs. She wet her lips then gnawed on the lower one. Her voice was soft when she spoke but grew louder like a magnificent shadow in the room. “Everything is so dark. Vivid. I feel the night air around me. Rushing. Speeding. I’m driving too fast. I don’t have time to stop…”
Amelia couldn’t bring herself to continue. The nightmare loomed in her mind’s eye, sending chills through her. She traced the scar on her wrist where it curved toward her thumb. Touching the slightly raised, pale slice of skin reminded her too well.
Everything had been heightened that night.
Dr. Barnes gestured around, encompassing the faded yellow walls, two armchairs squared off on opposite sides, a fake fern in one corner, and cheerful pictures of serene wilderness. “This is a safe room.”
Without thinking about it, Amelia reached up to brush a finger across the twin scar on her forehead. Her skin tingled as she ran a finger over the spots she had lost so much blood. She remembered waking up disoriented, her mind full of foggy images and strange voices. “James?” she asked aloud. Her voice had fallen flat in the stillness of an empty hospital room.
Later, she was told James sat with her for hours. She pictured him hunched by her bedside, hair hiding his face as he held her hand and wished for her to wake up. She wondered if he put up a fight when they came to arrest him, or if he held out his hands complacently. “At least let me say goodbye to her,” she imagined him pleading.
“So these dreams, they seem real to you?” Dr. Barnes’ voice broke through Amelia’s thoughts.
She nodded, speechless.
“How does the dream end?” the therapist pressed.
Amelia’s voice quivered in her chest. “There’s something in the road,” she said. “I can’t slow down; my foot can’t find the brake. Then I hear a thud. That sound, the feeling of the car, running over it…it’s a jogger. A woman.”
Amelia took a deep breath, and rushed on. “The car is out of control. My husband, he’s the passenger. He grabs the wheel, tries to steer us to safety but we’re going too fast. Then there’s a tree in my vision…and that’s all I remember. I wake up.”
“How does that make you feel?”
Amelia sucked in her breath. “Scared…and guilty.”
“What do you think your husband’s role is in your dream?”
She thought for a moment. “He’s trying to save me, protect me.”
“Do you think these dreams reflect some of your fears in real life?”
Amelia stiffened. “They could.”
“Is there something your husband is protecting you from?”
Amelia cocked her head, chin up. “What if I don’t want his protection?”
“Why do you think that is?” Dr. Barnes looked at her.
“I want to take responsibility for my own actions, whatever the consequences.”
“You seem to know what you want.” Dr. Barnes smiled. “Now what about your husband? Why do you think he feels the need to protect you?”
“Well,” Amelia’s lips pulled up. “I just found out a couple months ago, I’m able to get pregnant.”
“Have you struggled with this before?”
“Yes,” Amelia said. “It almost tore us apart.”
“How did your husband respond when you told him?”
Amelia hesitated. “He didn’t seem as thrilled as I expected.”
“How long have you been married?”
“Three years now. We never discussed children seriously, but I always thought…” Amelia broke off and shrugged. “One day.”
“How did his reaction make you feel?”
Amelia’s heart fluttered. She hadn’t seen James since the accident. “It definitely put a strain on our relationship.”
“You want to nurture your relationship with your husband in the process of beginning a new family; try to understand his fears so you can move past them together.”
Amelia nodded. The remainder of the session passed with Dr. Barnes’ words ringing in her mind. They were the confirmation she needed. Amelia didn’t think she could avoid it any longer. Tomorrow she’d visit James.
The next day, Amelia walked inside prison walls for the first time. All rough brick, bland and colorless, congested with the smell of stale air and confined humans. She resisted the urge to pinch her nose when she walked in the lobby.
The wait seemed to take forever. Children fussed as they waited to see parents. Amanda’s cigarettes called to her from the car, stashed in the glove box. She’d allowed herself one on the way over but flicked it out the window before finishing it, sneering at her own behavior. She could only imagine what James would say if he found out.
After close to an hour passed, the prison guard called “Ms. Lark” and she moved through the metal detectors. They beeped. The guard motioned at his chest, then pointed at her. Amelia’s face flushed. The guard motioned her through. She heard the click of the door in front of her, and she pushed it open.
On the other side, a different prison guard met her, a woman. Her nametag read Jenkins. She instructed Amelia to lift her arms above her head, and did a quick, polite patdown of her lower torso and shoulders, then waved a flashing wand over Amelia’s body. It beeped around her lower chest and back.
“Underwire bra?” Jenkins asked.
Amelia’s cheeks felt like they would never fade from a deep red as she nodded.
“Follow the dress code next time, please, Ms. Lark.”
“I will, I’m sorry,” Amelia stammered, nerves shot to hell.
“Follow me,” the correctional officer said. Jenkins led Amelia to the visiting room. Inside, she could see James sitting in a plastic chair with his face hidden. She’d know the shape of that head anywhere.
Her whole body quivered; she ground her teeth together and clenched her fists with the effort to stop shaking. At least three other couples were in the room but James sat in the center. Amelia lowered herself into the plastic seat across from him. James looked up when he heard her sit down. He was a little less clean-shaven, she observed, haggard and strained like he hadn’t seen a good night’s sleep in weeks. The orange jumpsuit hung on him, giving him the appearance of losing weight. Amelia felt a sting inside her as she looked at him.
James’ whole face lit up when he looked her over. He smiled like no time had passed, nothing had happened, like they were on a getaway - isolated on their own make-believe island. Amelia almost felt the warmth of the sun on her face, the caress of sand underneath bare feet, the smell of saltwater lingering in the air. Then she blinked, and the salty air was remnants of sweat left over from all the visitors, all the fingerprints and greasy hands, the tears shed in these chairs. The weight of it anchored Amelia into the seat.
“I didn’t think you would come,” James said.
Amelia was sure her smile didn’t reach all the way. “Here I am,” she said.
“I’m not supposed to touch you,” James said. A teardrop hung in the corner of his eye. “But I can’t help myself.” He grabbed her hand and lifted it to his face with such haste, Amelia felt herself jump a little. James brushed his lips across her fingertips and breathed in the scent of her palm. Just as quickly as he had taken hold of her, he let go and Amelia sat back feeling the ghost of his touch on her skin.
James looked at her with accusations in his eyes. “You’ve been smoking.”
Amelia opened her mouth to say…what? Nothing would excuse her behavior. “I can’t sleep,” she heard herself say.
She watched James’ eyes soften. “You need your sleep.”
Amelia almost laughed. “How am I supposed to?”
He waited for her to look at him, but she wouldn’t meet his eyes. “You look good,” he said.
“What am I supposed to do with you in here?” She couldn’t voice her silent question of why he was in here in the first place.
“Finish your degree, Amelia. Take care of yourself.” His face was set with serious lines when she looked at him. His eyes searched hers.
She didn’t understand. She stared down at her fingernails.
“Listen,” James hissed. “What’s done is done. If you tell anyone, I’ll be back in here for obstruction of justice. Tell me, what’s the use of us both being locked up?”
Amelia stayed silent, and shook her head. The movement felt feeble, as if her neck bobbled on a spring.
“Two years at most, that’s what the lawyer said.” His shoulders hunched at her words. “I’m doing this for us,” he said.
Amelia shook her head. “You don’t deserve to be in here. I do.”
There. She’d said it.
“No, you don’t.” Her husband’s voice rumbled. Amelia couldn’t tell if he choked back anger or sorrow, maybe both. “We don’t have much time. I know this isn’t how you want things to be, but I’ve made my decision. Don’t do anything to try to change my mind.” He looked at her, and his eyes grew soft again. “I love you, Amelia Rose.”
Amelia tried not to cry as tears burned her throat. Jenkins came to escort her out. She didn’t look back as she walked out of the room. Her heart weighed heavy and tugged at her feet as she left the prison. Amelia hadn’t even told James what she intended.
“I had the nightmare again,” Amelia said. “It was longer this time.”
Dr. Julianna Barnes sat across from her once more. One more session is all she needed, Amelia told herself.
“More detailed?” Dr. Barnes asked.
Amelia nodded. “My husband and I were arguing. That’s what caused the accident.” She cleared her throat. “When the police came to arrest me, my husband said he was driving instead.”
“Did they believe him?”
“They arrested him.”
Dr. Barnes searched her face. “Where did that leave you?”
Amelia shrugged. “Alone.”
“Are you having any doubts which might influence this dream?”
She held her breath for a count of three, then released. “I’m not sure I’m ready.”
Dr. Barnes looked at her with her crow’s feet and spectacle eyes. “Ready for what?”
Amelia cleared her throat. “To be who James wants me to be.”
“It shouldn’t matter who James wants you to be. Who do you want to be?”
Amelia held Dr. Barnes’ gaze. “I guess I’m not sure,” she said. The faded-yellow room burned behind Amelia’s eyelids as she leaned back, trying to concentrate. She stood without a sound. “Thank you for your time,” Amelia mumbled as she went.
That night, Amelia accompanied her cigarette with a whiskey on the rocks. She might never understand her actions. She decided it didn’t matter, and settled into James’ armchair. He used to sit in that overstuffed mammoth chair every night before and after dinner watching the news, “catching up on the world,” he called it. Sometimes she’d look over and see him staring at the television with a blank look. Lost in his mind.
Amelia wondered what he thought about but never broke his stare to ask him. She secretly thought he sat there so he wouldn’t be bothered. But now she felt she connected with that emotionless stare. It was the same distant, troubled look she fell into every night.
Amelia coughed on a drag of her cigarette and stubbed it out. She got up from the armchair, thinking of James’ accusing eyes. Amelia walked into the bathroom and flipped the toilet seat up. She took out her pack of cigarettes and crushed it in her fist, then threw them in the toilet.
As she turned, she caught a glimpse of her reflection. Amelia tugged up the hem of her shirt. Flatland waiting to be conquered, waiting to expand.
Waiting for life to bulge beneath it like a planted seed. Amelia shuffled over to the armchair where she sipped her whiskey to the lullaby of the television. Some things never changed, but she wouldn’t be like them. She allowed the ice in her glass to melt and condensate. Amelia looked at the drops of water beading on the sides, reminding her of the tear hanging in James’s eye.
The smoke that once clouded the room cleared, leaving Amelia alone with her thoughts and the blue glow of the television. She absently traced the scar near her left thumb.
A tiny flutter in Amelia’s stomach caught her full attention. Like the brush of a butterfly’s wing, the kiss of eyelashes on skin, the promise of possibilities and more to come.
A smile captured her lips. You’re a survivor.