Fields of Dream
by Bob Gunn
Bob Gunn lives near Salem, Indiana, with his wife Mindy. His short stories have appeared in the Northwoods Journal, The Armchair Aesthete, Eureka Literary Magazine, Chaffin Journal and The Griffin. In addition to his writing endeavors, he owns a modest two-acre vineyard consisting primarily of French hybrid varietals and a half-acre orchard featuring cider apples.
Rain machine-gunned the side of the barn; the trees swayed violently as the storm blew in. Lightning flashed. Thunder growled. Raising his head in the building wind, Sam leaned upon the shovel. This is the way the weather should be, he thought, when you were burying a loved one. Postcard-perfect days were for baseball games and parades. Weddings, too. He sighed; the sky had been crystal blue the day he had buried his parents.
He resumed digging. For sixteen years Chancellor had been his faithful companion. But the inexorable march of time had worn her down until one day he realized she was old. Walking had become an effort; chasing rubber balls a memory. On pleasant days he would carry her to the vineyard and sit her in the shade beneath the vines; when it was hot he left her sleeping on the bed in an air-conditioned room.
People either snickered or stared mutely when he told them he had named his dog after a grape. Most of his four-acre vineyard consisted of the French-American hybrid that produced a ruby-red, full-bodied wine. Each year he made a few gallons for himself and then sold the rest of the grapes to a winery in Columbus. The profits earned barely covered the expenses, and when one factored in the time spent tying and pruning and spraying, his hourly wages were less than the Mexican laborers earned working in the nearby strawberry fields. That was the primary reason he worked alone. A thrifty lifestyle and a hefty inheritance made it livable. No family to support made it comfortable.
When he had shoveled the last damp clod, he straightened his back and wiped the sweat and rain from his face. Thunder sounded repeatedly as the wind whistled through the rafters of the barn. Two nights ago he had heard a coyote howling; a scavenger like that could commit the unspeakable. Disappearing inside the building, he emerged moments later with a sawed sheet of plywood that he placed upon the grave. After securing it with three cinderblocks, he muttered a brief prayer before turning away.
Tossing the Frisbee low to the ground, he watched the blue merle dash across the grass. He marveled at her speed and grace, mentally kicking himself for not giving her the proper training. She could have been a champion in agility competitions, he thought, if only he had known. Like an acrobat in a circus, the dog leapt into the air, catching the disc between her teeth, adroitly dodging a gooseberry bush in her path.
"Good girl!" Sam cried, clapping his hands. "Bring it to me!"
Chancellor trotted toward him, ears flapping in rhythm with her gait, and placed the Frisbee on top of his shoes. She sat back on her haunches, eyes intent on the next toss. He bent down . . .
. . . and caught the tractor tire a second before cracking his shin on the trailer hitch. He blinked several times, feeling disoriented as if he had just awakened from a nap, the sound utility lines made in damp weather sizzling inside his head. The scene with Chancellor had come without warning. One moment he had been walking through the barnyard, the next he had been playing with his now deceased dog. It had been so lifelike, so real. Frowning thoughtfully, he lowered his shoulders and continued home.
By the time he reached the house, the storm had knocked out the power. From behind the French door he squinted into the sheeting rain. Lightning flashed repeatedly, creating a dreamscape of electrically charged intensity and advancing and retreating shadows. Now more than ever he felt Chancellor's absence; she would never have left his side in weather like this. He knew it was useless to think it, that it wouldn't change a thing; but he did it anyway. Life could be so indifferent, so damn cruel. You loved unconditionally and that love is returned, and then it is gone. He shook his head. Everyone must think this way when this happened to them; death was something so universal yet so personal. He turned and walked away.
Sara stood behind the cake as the flames from the candles flickered. She took in everyone in the room, her gaze lingering long upon Sam, a Mona Lisa smile tugging at her lips.
"Time to make a wish," her mother said. "You're sixteen now. Make it a special one."
With another glance at Sam, she closed her eyes and blew out the candles. Everyone clapped and began to sing.
Later, when all the guests had left, Sam and Sara sat on the carpet, their backs against the sofa, thighs touching. She was running her fingertips over his arm, his hand upon her knee. Their lips met then parted, Sam's pulse thundering inside his head.
"Love me, Sam," Sara breathed. "Give me my birthday wish."
Sam's throat knotted into a tight ball. He knew what she wanted. He wanted it too.
"But . . . but your mom," he stammered. "She's . . . she's here."
"It won't matter. She never wakes up."
"On the floor?"
Then, as if shackles had fallen from their wrists, their hands began to tear at buttons and zippers. Sam felt the fullness of her breasts and . . .
. . . awoke entwined in the bed sheets, his heart racing as if he had just hiked a steep hill. Several heartbeats passed before he recognized his room, the crackling buzz loud in the dead of the night. A patch of moonlight flickered before withdrawing from the floor; shadows wavered, creeping closer. He sensed movement by the window; gooseflesh erupted down his back. "Sara?" he whispered. The curtain fluttered again. Feeling foolish, he got up for a drink of water and came back to bed; sleep did not return for a long time.
As he had done every morning for sixteen years, Sam reached to pet the warm fur lying next to him; instead, his fingers touched the upraised stitching of the quilt. He could hear moisture dripping off the eaves as a thick fog hovered against the window screen. A dull ache pressed into his eyes. Slipping on a pair of work shorts, he walked into the kitchen and made coffee.
On the porch he sat down and sipped from his mug. He could distinguish no shapes in the mist. It seemed as if he were stranded on an island surrounded by a gray sea. Condensation trickled from the roof; a damp, cool breeze blew against his cheeks. Huckleberry and Finn, Regis Westmoreland's two burros, brayed somewhere in the fog.
Dreams about Sara Henley? Now, that was weird. Before going to bed, he would have bet the vineyard they would have been about Chancellor. He couldn't even remember the last time he had thought about his high school sweetheart. He had bumped into her a couple of times after graduation, the last several years ago at a shopping mall in Columbus; but they had said little more than hello. He didn't know if she had married. Had children. He knew nothing about her.
"Come on, Sam!" Sara yelled. "Jump! I see feathers sprouting from your butt!" She started making clucking sounds and flapping her arms.
"Hold on!" Sam replied. He pressed his toes into the diving board, feeling for a secure position. Rachel and Ross were watching from beneath the table umbrella, grinning and elbowing each other. "I'm not used to this height."
"Oh, please!" Sara said, snorting, making more clucking sounds. "My three-year-old cousin has bigger ones than you do! And she's a girl!" She stood with her hands on her knees, breasts floating on the surface of the water, dark hair smooth and shiny against her head, bright eyes sparkling. Sam could see her plump thighs and round bottom distorted by the chlorine-colored water, and thought about how she always responded whenever he caressed her there. He felt a growing pressure in his loins. Oh my God! Now he had to jump!
He sprang off the board, hitting the surface hard, chlorine burning the inside of his nose as he . . .
. . . blinked and shook his head, sweat beads breaking out over his skin. There had been no seams from the porch to the pool and back, no distinction between memory and foggy morning. He could almost taste the chlorine, feel the water smacking against his face. The crackling, buzzing sound impossibly loud. His eyes darted about; something was watching him. "Enough!" The last thing he needed right now was paranoia. He sipped the cold coffee, took a deep breath. For the first time in sixteen years, he would be working without Chancellor. He had stalled long enough. With heavy legs and heart, he stepped off the porch and disappeared into the gray.
"Bloody odd weather," Regis Westmoreland said. "I feel like I've stumbled onto the Baskervilles' estate at Dartmoor. I can almost hear the baying of that cursed hell-hound."
"I hope it clears up soon," Sam replied, smiling at the word "bloody." He had never heard him use it, no matter how aristocratic his name sounded. "It could spell murder for my grapes."
Sam poured him another glass of wine. They were sitting on the porch, gazing over the misty vineyard. Five days had passed since he had buried Chancellor; he had almost forgotten what blue sky looked like.
"I'm terribly sorry about Chancellor's passing," Regis said, raising his glass. "She was a true champion. A grand dame." Wine stained the burly man's white beard and lips; the faded purple spots dotting his T-shirt told tales of missed opportunities. Five times married and five times divorced, Regis lived on the adjacent property with his two burros and grew tomatoes and herbs — some, Sam believed, were legal — and sold them at the local farmer's market. Three years ago he had retired from his job as a marriage counselor.
"The manor halls must be deafeningly quiet."
"Like vaults containing casks of Amontillado."
"Time to find that first ex, eh?"
Sam snorted. "Doubtful. Your, ah, success rate is enough to make a life-time bachelor flee from such cruel and inhuman punishment."
Regis laughed, placing his hand over his heart.
"Nevertheless, I shall go to my grave extolling the virtues of holy matrimony. Like Don Giovanni, I have the gift of seeing the intrinsic beauty in every woman I woo. On the other hand, each additional Mrs. Westmoreland seemed more problematic than the previous one."
"Indiana's version of Henry the Eighth?"
"Sans the beheadings. Though my spirits might have improved if a couple of them had been introduced to Dr. Guillotin's 'humane' invention." Then. "So tell me . . . why no Mrs. Samuel Clemens Jenkins? Surely, with your dashing good looks and sizable fortune, you have had numerous opportunities."
If someone other than Regis had asked, Sam would have clammed up or changed the subject. But he was used to his friend's bluntness. Besides, depending upon the quantity of herbs smoked that day, he wouldn't remember the answer.
"I've come close a time or two," he replied. "There was a girl I dated in college. We talked about it. Considered becoming engaged. You know . . . engaged to be engaged. But it didn't happen. No therapy sessions afterwards. Got caught up in living. Woke up one day and realized I wasn't young anymore. After that, it didn't seem worth the effort."
"At least you never had to remember a new anniversary date or change the monogram on your towels." He turned to replenish his glass. "Say, old chap, what have done to your face?"
Sam's fingers involuntarily reached for the wicked-looking scratch below his eye. "This? Ran into a trellis wire the other day. Daydreaming, I suppose."
"I'm quite familiar with altered states of consciousness."
Sam fell silent, staring into the mist. It was a lot more than that. How could he tell him that it had happened while fantasizing about someone he had dated over thirty years ago? And that the fantasies had been increasing in number and duration? He would slip into reverie and emerge to find that several minutes had elapsed. What was worse, scrapes, cuts and bruises covered his arms and legs. Once, he had stepped into a mole hole and had twisted his ankle. Another time he had walked into a tree in the front yard. His misadventures might sound like fodder for America's Funniest Home Videos, but he was starting to worry he might seriously injure himself.
To call them daydreams was misleading. They were like visions; the clarity was so intense, the sensations so vivid, that he felt more like a Biblical prophet than a vineyard owner. There was no blurring between dream and awakening. There were times seconds would pass before he could distinguish between the two. And all of this combined with the unnerving feeling that something was watching him, stalking him, waiting for the opportunity to pounce.
But why the girl he had taken to his high school prom? Had romped about in the backseat of his parents' Ford? True, they had given each other something that could be given only once. Big deal. Their relationship had been no more special than any other adolescent romance. He had had other loves. Some more intense, most of little lasting value. Sara and he had ended long before the spread of cell phones and iPods. Before ESPN and MTV. It didn't make sense.
"Regis," Sam said. "Do you ever think about your exes?"
"Not if I can help it." Then, realizing he wanted more, said, "Of course I do. It is human nature to reflect upon one's miscues. You know, try not to repeat them. Even when the total has reached the number five."
"But not all of one's past is a . . . miscue. There are triumphs. Victories to savor."
"Depends upon your perspective."
Sam lightly touched his cheek. "Have you ever become obsessed with a memory? Maybe preoccupied is a better word. Let's say something about Mrs. Westmoreland Number Three came to you and wouldn't leave. The way she curled her legs beneath her rump while flipping through a magazine. How sunlight glistened off her hair."
"Sure I do. Though she's not one I recall with any degree of fondness. The 'Epic Brandishing Butcher Knife Affair' tends to skew any warm reflections."
"What if you thought about her all the time? Twenty-four-seven. And the more you tried not to, the more you did?"
Regis cocked a bushy eyebrow. "If that happened, then I would confront her or, as you say, her memory. Find out why I'm obsessed . . . preoccupied . . . with it. Ignoring it is the worst possible thing to do. When something from your past demands center stage, you must give it your undivided attention. Once it has been exposed, it will fade like mist in the morning sun."
"Absolutely. Repression leads to regression."
Sam fell silent. Regis had counseled untold couples over the years, and though it was obvious he had not always practiced what he preached, Sam was certain he knew what he was talking about. He sipped his wine and gazed into the gray.
Finally, he said, "Speaking of repression, if this fog doesn't lift soon, the odds of black rot affecting my harvest increase dramatically. And that could mean a decrease in wine production. Both in quantity and quality."
"Merciful gods upon Olympus! When I return to the temple I will pray to Dionysus for deliverance."
"I'll take it!"
Standing inside the barn, Sam began to chuckle. Three days had passed since his conversation with Regis, and since that time the sun had been shining bright and hot in a cloudless sky. There must be something to praying to ancient Greek gods, he mused. Maybe he should try it as a bird repellent. It had to work better than the things he had been using.
As he made his way past a garden tiller and a push mower, his eyes fell upon an old chainsaw in the corner. Grease, dirt and sawdust clotted the chain; cobwebs stretched from the wall to the handle. He paused, frowning. He really needed to clear the fencerow separating his vineyard from Regis's farm. Overgrown with black locust and honeysuckle, it was a haven for rabbits and other four-legged pests. What was worse, it harbored wild grapevines that carried diseases that could affect his crop. But he hated chainsaws. Had hated them ever since he had watched his father slice open his leg while cutting firewood. Nevertheless, that was the price he paid for being both the boss and the work crew.
When he reached the vineyard, he realized something was wrong. Then a dart pierced his heart. Chancellor wasn't there. Leaf-covered vines clung to trellis wires running in straight rows over the rolling terrain. Clusters of green grapes hung from canes; a scattering of purple could be seen as the fruit entered veraison, the French word describing the ripening process. Taking his pruning shears, he clipped a shoot dragging the ground and tossed it into a wheelbarrow.
Sam approached Sara's locker, the gnawing inside his gut making him sick. And angry. He knew David Libs was talking to her. Flirting with her. Trying to take her away.
Gripping his notebook as if it were David's neck, he turned the corner. The gnawing intensified.
"Hey, Sam!" Sara said, smiling brightly. "David was just telling me about the hit you made on Mike Banet at practice yesterday."
"It was awesome, dude!" David said. "You've got to be a shoo-in for all-conference linebacker. I bet you'll get a scholarship. Mike said he saw stars!"
What an ass-kisser, Sam groused. It's a wonder your lips aren't stained brown! Aloud, he said, "We'll see. The season's still young."
Sara placed her hand upon his arm. "I'll be cheering for you."
"David. I've got to talk to Sara . . . alone."
"Oh! Sure thing, dude. See you at practice."
Sam's eyes bore holes into his rival's back as he walked away, and for one moment he considered tackling him into the lockers.
Sara stepped closer, her perfume sweet and alluring. All at once, he felt lightheaded. "My parents are going out tonight," she whispered. "They won't be back until late."
Sam swallowed hard. He wanted to tell her to stay away from David. He was a parasite. A human cockroach. She was his girl. But he couldn't think clearly. As he gazed into her eyes, all thoughts of David Libs vanished. He pulled her to him, drinking in her scent as . . .
. . . searing pain exploded in his hand. Dropping the pruning shears, Sam yanked an old rag from his pocket and pressed it against the gash, staunching the flow of blood. After several heartbeats had passed, he lifted it off the wound. Jesus Christ! He needed stitches.
As he dashed toward his truck, an icy chill swept down his back; cold sweat broke out over his forehead; the crackling, electrical humming was deafening. Something was after him; he had to get away. There had been no warning. No buzzer signaling the end of reality and the beginning of dream. It had simply taken over where the other had left off. Glancing at the bloody rag, he thought about what Regis had told him and realized he was more than just worried. He was scared.
Sam took the ramp off the Interstate in the drizzling rain; wisps of fog clung to hollows and haloed the tops of the trees. The afternoon air was cool and damp, more like late autumn than mid-summer. When he found the right sign, he turned and drove down the twisting road, the pickup's headlights reflecting off the shiny black surface.
Cautiously flexing his bandaged hand, he recalled what the doctor had told him. Another inch this way and a quarter of an inch deeper and he would have severed a tendon, perhaps causing permanent damage. He once again told himself he was doing the right thing. Rational people didn't have visions. They didn't fantasize like this. Reality was reality. Dream was dream. There were distinct differences between them, clearly defined borders that every sane person recognized.
He had been somewhat surprised she had agreed to it. He hadn't known where she lived, but a Google search had netted her address and phone number. He hadn't realized she had moved out of the Columbus area; though, on the other hand, how would he? They had lost touch years ago.
How should he approach it? He knew how crazy his idea would sound to someone on the outside looking in. How completely insane. But no one knew what he had been going through. How it was affecting his life. He didn't care if she were married, dating or single. This had to work.
She had been cordial on the phone, neither warm nor cool. Her voice had changed since the last time they had spoken. It was deeper, raspier, as if she were a heavy smoker, though when he had known her she wouldn't even enter the room if someone was smoking a cigarette. There had been an edge to it as well, as if she had taken a few knocks and had learned to counterpunch.
As he drove down the winding road, he wondered what she looked like. When they had dated in high school, she had had long dark hair and blue eyes that twinkled with humor and a hint of mischief. She had been of medium height and on the plump side, but pleasantly so; he always told her she had all the right curves in all the right places. But, like him, she would be nearing fifty; probably she colored her hair coal-black. Probably her curvy figure had ballooned into a shapeless mass.
The truck hydroplaned when he rounded a sharp bend. He eased off the gas. For the umpteenth time, he checked his watch. She only had a few minutes to spare before she had to be at work. He picked up the scrap of paper with directions to the meeting place, put it back on the seat next to his cell phone and increased his speed.
A warm breeze blew through the open door of the car, caressing Sam's back. Beneath him, he could feel the heat radiating off Sara. Moonlight bathed her breasts and stomach in silver; shadows hid warm, pleasurable places.
"Oh, Sam," she said, gazing up at him, her fingers touching his lips. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if it were always like this? Just you and me. Let's run away and get married."
He gently lowered his body; she arched her back. All of the sudden, he stopped.
"I don't have one."
"I don't care. I want it. I want it now."
"I love you, Sam."
"I love you, too."
Needing no further encouragement, he eased into . . .
. . . a horseshoe-shaped curve, tires skidding on the pooling water. He slid off the shoulder onto the soft ground. Whipping the truck back onto the pavement, he overcompensated and veered off into a ditch on the other side. His bandaged hand couldn't keep its grip on the steering wheel; the pickup began to row. Then everything went black.
It was the pounding inside his skull and the throbbing in his hand that brought him back. When he opened his eyes, he stared through a thin veil at the cracked windshield. He winced when he touched the swollen knot on his forehead. After a quick examination he found no broken bones, though blood stained the bandage where he had busted open the stitches. The cell phone lay in three pieces; the scrap of paper was gone.
The truck had come to rest on the driver's side, so he climbed through the passenger window. He cursed when he saw the damage, shook his head and started walking; the drizzle was now a steady rain. He glanced at his watch; it was broken. On either side large trees crowded in yet provided little shelter from the rain. There was no traffic, no houses; the only sound was the beating of the drops upon the pavement and the leaves in the trees.
After an hour or two — he wasn't sure how long — he came to an intersection with a flashing red light. A half dozen cars had passed; none had bothered to stop. To the left was a convenience store with two rows of gas pumps; on the right was a low-ceilinged metal building fronted by a potholed parking lot. A faded sign read The Hideaway Bar and Grill; and from a greasy, smoke-stained window a neon light advertised a beer that had been popular forty years ago. He headed toward the bar.
The interior reeked of stale tobacco and beer; three gray-haired men sitting hunched over drinks at the bar didn't bother to look up when he entered. On the wall by the restrooms hung a pay phone. He dug out some change, plopped it in, and punched her number. He let it ring for almost a minute before putting it back in the cradle.
He slid into a booth, jeans squeaking over the vinyl seat, and ordered a beer. Rain dripped from his hair and ran down the back of his neck. His clothes were soaked, the chill penetrating to the bone.
When the waitress brought his beer, he downed half of it. Grabbing a handful of paper napkins, he wiped his face and forehead, involuntarily sucking in his breath when he touched the knot. From the depths of his subconscious, he could hear a faint humming sound. His teeth chattered as he stared into black nothingness.
Someone coughed. Blinking, he was surprised to find the waitress sitting across from him. She was staring into his eyes, an unreadable expression on her face; blue smoke from her cigarette curled upwards toward the ceiling.
"You look like a drowned rat."
Startled, Sam said, "Excuse me?"
"Did you walk all the way from Columbus? Swim the White River?"
"Do I . . . ?"
"You don't," she interrupted, taking a long drag from her smoke, her hoarse laugh sounding like a bark. "You don't know who I am."
Then he did.
"Were you expecting Eva Longoria?"
Sam shook his head, scattering drops onto the table. She looked nothing like the girl he had known in high school. Or what he thought she might have become. Instead of soft and plump, she was hard and lean. Her hair was dyed blonde and cut severe above her ears; her once playful eyes carried a flinty glint, lines cracking the corners; her smile held the sharpness of a razor blade.
"Well, say something."
"I don't know what to say."
"Let's start at the beginning. How you been?"
"Fine. And you?"
"Lousy weather, huh?"
"Good God!" she snorted. "I'm gonna puke if we keep this up."
Sam laughed to hide his embarrassment. "Sorry. Honestly, you're the last person I expected to see right now." His fingers touched the knot. "Had an accident. That's why I didn't make it in time. But I really wanted to see you."
"Because . . . ?"
"You know . . . to reminisce . . . about the good ol' days."
She crushed out her cigarette, lit another one. "You didn't track me down just to talk about the times we grubbed on the living room carpet. I'm on the clock. What gives?"
Sam swallowed, fingered his mug. This was going nowhere. And fast. He had been expecting the girl from high school. The one who giggled chasing butterflies. Who cried when she found a dead toad in the driveway. Who liked to tease and play. Instead, he was facing a woman who had learned to bury impulses like those a long time ago.
"How'd you wind up here?" he finally asked, smiling. "I remember a time when you wouldn't go near a cigarette unless you had three gas masks and a backup tank of oxygen."
Sara's eyes darted toward her hand. Her severely plucked brows came together; then she sighed. "Ah, the usual way. Got the royal shaft my last divorce. Number three. Willie Dick was his name . . . how appropriate, eh? The Prick took my kids. Told his uncle, the judge, a lot of bullshit about my sleeping habits, and the cocksucker believed him. Now, I can't see them except every other week end. But a girl's gotta eat. Pay the rent. Didn't want to market the goods, if you know what I mean. Knew Nicky, the bartender, before I met the Prick. A regular Heartland soap opera."
"Sure." He finished his beer.
"What'd you do to your hand?"
"Got careless with the pruning shears. Twelve stitches."
Sam watched her walk toward the bar, her stride purposeful. Yet it seemed as if she was carrying a heavy weight upon her now bony shoulders. Her jeans fitted tightly, though her figure consisted mostly of straight lines and sharp angles, the curves from her teenage years a faint memory. Her button-down blouse was pink and loose-fitting and hid what might remain of her once prominent bosom.
When she returned, she had two mugs. "Mind if I join you?"
"By all means."
They clinked glasses.
"I've got to level with you, Sara. I really did come here to talk about the old times. Like you said, all those carpet grubbings. A few days ago I had a dream about you and have been thinking about you ever since. We used to have a lot of fun together, didn't we?"
Like snow melting off an early spring flower, Sara's eyes softened; a smile eased into her lips. She took another drink from her beer. "That's really weird, Sam. I also had a dream about you. Several, actually. In fact, I was thinking about you when you called. Remember the time we went to Kings Island and rode the roller coaster?"
Sam chuckled. "How could I forget? I almost threw up. I think that was the last time I combined three corndogs with a large chocolate milkshake."
Sara laughed. "That was pretty stupid, especially before getting on a ride. But it seems to me you loved to eat almost as much as you loved to . . . well, you know."
"An appetite's an appetite."
A faint blush rose in her cheeks. "Same ol' Sam."
"Same ol' Sara."
She shook her head. "No. I'm not. I've done a lot of stupid things in my life. Things I should've known better. Thought I was in love; turned out to be in lust. You do that often enough it changes you."
"But you're still Sara Henley."
"She died the day I took out my first restraining order."
"But only she would've remembered my obsession for pork byproducts rolled in corn batter and stuck on a stick."
She thought about this for a moment before shaking her head. "That's only a memory, Sam. And memories are like photographs. You pull one out of your grandma who died years ago. You look at it. Remember who she was. But that doesn't bring her back. It's always one-dimensional. Never three. That's what Sara Henley has become. A three-by-five to look at every now and then."
"But we all possesses something of what we once were," Sam replied. "Sure, we age. Our hair turns gray. We sag in unsightly places. But we're still the same person inside. That spark, that essence, never leaves us. You just have to find it and rekindle it."
"You really believe that?"
"I've got an idea. Let's go to Cincinnati. Ride the roller coaster. Check out the water slide. The penny arcade . . . if that's what it's still called. I promise I'll only eat two corndogs before strapping in. And I won't go near the malted milkshake stand."
She smiled. "My amusement park days ended about the time J. R. got shot."
"How about a movie? The Columbus Drive-in's still open. We could pop some corn, ice down some sodas and watch a couple of creature features . . . like we used to do."
Something flickered before going out in her eyes. "I don't want to go back."
"It's not going back. It's . . . ah . . . revisiting."
"I'm not sixteen. Look at me. Look at you."
"That doesn't matter. As long as we stay together this time."
"What did you say?"
"I . . ."
Sam sat there stunned. He had not meant to say what he was thinking; the words had tumbled out before he could stop them. He opened his mouth once, twice, but couldn't make a sound.
Sara stared long and hard, eyes narrowing to mere slits, and then she started to laugh. It was not a pleasant sound. "Now, I see what's going on. You've been fucking with me the whole time. Willie Dick put you up to this. That lowlife son of a bitch!"
"No! I mean it. I want us to try again."
"Goddammit! We were teenagers, Sam! What the hell did we know?" She rose abruptly from the booth and started to walk away.
"Sara! Wait! I need you! You need me!"
She stopped as if rooted to the floor before turning and pointing a trembling finger at him. "Listen," she said, her voice low and intense. "If you say that one more time, I'm going to have Nicky kick you out. We had a good time together . . . thirty goddamn years ago. Don't ruin those memories for me, Sam. They're all I've got left."
She spun and disappeared behind the bar.
For a long time he sat there staring at the foam oozing down the sides of his mug. All energy had drained from his body; he couldn't move his arms or legs. Summoning his remaining strength, he stood up, took one last look at the door through which she had disappeared, tossed down some bills, and stepped out into the rain.
Sam walked slowly toward the fencerow, the chainsaw gripped tightly in both of his sweaty hands. The day was thick and humid; heavy, gray clouds were building in the west. The strengthening wind was hot and damp, providing little comfort from the heat.
As he passed through the vineyard, he thought about Chancellor. Maybe some day he would get another dog. Perhaps name her after a grape. Chambourcin? Cayuga? Frontenac? He smiled. Well, he had time to work on it. Then his thoughts turned to Sara. My God! How could he have been so stupid? So blind? But he had to admit she had been right. Photographs. Nothing more; nothing less.
He had not had another dream about her since their meeting at the Hideaway. There had been no more waking journeys into fantasy land. The barrier between reality and dream had sealed itself. The door shut and locked. Maybe all he had needed to do was talk to her. Pull out the photograph. Look at it. And then put it away.
When he came to the fencerow, he set the chainsaw on the ground. Sweat dripped from his armpits. He swallowed uncomfortably; his pulse quickened. He reached down to start it, then snatched back his hand. Circled the saw once. Paused. Did it again. He didn't have to do this today. There was always tomorrow. Maybe the day after. Gritting his teeth, he abruptly dropped to a knee and yanked the starter rope; the saw growled into action. With pounding heart, he got up and moved toward a thorny locust tree. As he raised it to the trunk, an electrical humming began to vibrate inside his skull. He felt dizzy, as if he had stood up too fast in an overheated room. Through rapid blinks, his vision changed as the teeth of the chainsaw began to bite into the bark.
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