Jillian Oliver


               The valleys on the popcorn ceiling came into focus and I looked around the bedroom at my oak end table under the window, the white cubicle encasing my books in the corner, and the organizer that held my clothes. I sighed—the dream was finally over. I rose, threw on my oversized Green Day tee shirt, and ambled into the kitchen. The air was aromatic with the smell of sizzling maple syrup, which Mom spilled on the pan when she made pancakes. She liked to heat the syrup on the pancakes while they cooked. I sighed again and thought with relief I’m awake.
               “I had a strange dream last night.” I began. I hated starting that way. Aren’t all dreams strange? As if she read my thought, Mom said, “All dreams are weird in some way.” She then sighed as she peeled a sloppy, slightly undercooked pancake off the pan and onto a large plate of four other sloppy pancakes. She had a hot shine across her aquiline nose and coils of brown hair clung to her forehead. Her stout body through that floral-patterned, puke yellow house dress irritated me. Seeing her widen year by year disgusted me, though I never told anyone that. I hated Mom’s neglect of herself.
               I was reluctant to carry on at first, but I went ahead.
               “There was the man in a wife-beater and plaid again. He hung over me in bed, laughing at me struggling and his hand was grabbing at my underwear. Felicity was there, but wouldn’t help me. She only stood at a vanity, shaking her head and occasionally yelling an expletive at him.” The summation felt tepid and I knew it had no impact to on her. She was noisily gobbling her pancakes while I had barely touched the bowl of Cheerios I had absently poured for myself.
               “Maybe you should see a therapist.”
               “I should’ve known you’d say that.” I studied the remainder of my dark red nail polish, spattered like sprayed blood.
               “You walk around here like a corpse half the day, unless you’re drunk. Don’t you think you can do better than this?”
               I began scraping flecks of nail polish into my cereal.
               My voice raised a bit. “And what does this have to do with my dream?”
               “Nevermind.” She shook her head and turned down to her plate with a twitch on one corner of her downturned lips and a slight furrow of her brow; a flash of disappointment. She looked up.
               “So what’s on the agenda for today? You’re obviously not going to work since you should’ve been there an hour ago. Going to be nursing drinks at Belle’s again, I guess.”
               I sighed, and not looking at her, I got up and brought my bowl into the kitchen and poured the cereal down the disposal, thinking that it looked like so many lifesavers in a milky ocean.
               “Are you even allowed back there after this past Saturday?”
               “I sure am.”
               “And what did your young man do again?” She said with an arrogant smirk.
               “He wasn’t mine. He was someone Felicity hung out with once and wanted to cold shoulder. And he didn’t do anything except not listen to me when I told him to fuck off.”
               “Nice. And when do you think you’re going to start writing that readmission letter? You’re going to need more of those student refunds if you’re not going to work.”
               I didn’t want to fight and yell back with a reminder that she was living on her dead husband’s social security. I wanted peace and to feel something course through me that would cleanse the grime that weighed me whenever I left arguments with her. I walked out in silence and went back upstairs to my room where I showered and slipped on my polka dot dress.
               With heavy limbs, I sat on the bed and looked over at the encyclopedias and Victorian novels gathering dust on my closet shelves. Back when I bought all those books, I read four a month. Now I averaged half a book a month if I had enough focus. I looked out the window. The other apartments were bland and uniform, and the trees stood as rickety and gaunt as old women.
               I forced myself off the bed and approached the window. The water flowed through the canal with last night’s downpours impelling it onward. It glistened like so many sequins against the golden sun. Two girls on bikes, sisters I assumed, twisted their handlebars as they zig-zagged and sent pink and white streamers dancing like horses’ tails. They tried to get close to the grassy edge that led to a small slope and then the canal and squealed from the adrenaline rush of being close to the dangerous edge. I remembered how exciting it was at that age to get close to danger because I felt it would never truly touch me. But now, I often felt unnerved, like there was danger that wasn’t fully in my view.
               My text alert sliced through my reverie and I reflexively lifted my phone. I knew it was Felicity, and texts from her were of the utmost importance. I excitedly read the message, “What are you getting up to tonight?” and quickly responded, “thinking of going downtown later. You?” Upon hitting “send” my elation diminished, remembering last Saturday night. I thought of Cliff falling limply against the railing that lined a ramp at Belle’s. His dreary eyes, black as the Guinness he was spilling onto his white tee shirt, looked confused at my sudden attack. I felt pity thinking back. Though I wanted to believe he had done something horribly wrong, he hadn’t. And though I’m the girl who used to be passive—always sitting at my desk in my room on weekend nights, reading books like Villette by the light of a scented candle—I wanted to hurt him.
               At the time, even his helplessness made my blood boil; made me want to hurt him worse. The way his limbs turned to jello as he collapsed. The weak, drunk bastard didn’t even try to break his fall. God, I wanted to kick him hard again and again, but instead, upon seeing the bouncer from my peripheral vision coming up beside me, I shouted at Cliff, “You’re not following us around again!” Thus the bouncer thought he was harassing us and Cliff was dragged up the stairs. Felicity and I hurriedly set our empty vodka glasses on the counter and rushed up the stairs like spectators late for a gladiatorial game. We devoured the sight of Cliff lying on the gravel at the landing, looking up at the bouncer with stunned, doleful eyes, now flashing a glint of sobriety.
               “Coolio. See you at Belle’s at 10ish?” Felicity texted.
               “See you then!!!” I sent.
               I stood at the window, looking down at the street again envisioning those little girls, while my insides felt weak. Before we went our separate ways that night, Felicity said with a playful lilt, “You might be a wee bit violent when you’re drunk.” I felt stung and sorely tempted to remind her of the time we were at a house party and she pulled a knife on a guy for his crime of pouring cherry coke with her rum instead of regular coke, but I stayed quiet because I knew she exempted herself from accountability if she was blackout drunk.
               Instead of ruminating, I decided to grab my benodril from the end table and take enough of it to sleep until evening.
               After a fortunately dreamless sleep, I awoke at 9 pm and rushed to switch on a table lamp atop the cubicle and the overhead light. I felt fearful with no light in the room once night glided in. I looked in my wall mirror and confronted the clusters of broken blood vessels beneath my eyes; the auburn hair showing dark roots, with dry ends that forcefully tried to frame my skinny neck and square chin with its sharp layers. I was far too pale and thin, though I still looked young for twenty-six, maybe even as young as 18, with lips still plump, though flaky with dry skin. I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths. I left the mirror satisfied that I could change what I saw wrong with my face because none of it was permanent, as long as I quit drinking soon.


               I descended the stairs at Belle’s. Felicity looked like a bold streak of crimson at the bar, sitting within a flurry of many colors that seemed to bleed together. I became an expert at looking for the spaces between people so an entire crowd could be a mere collection of obstacles through which I needed to chart a path. I didn’t even look out for Cliff.
               As I approached, she turned to me. Her titian hair was pulled back into a tighter ponytail than usual, and her hazel green eyes looked dully in my direction as her frosty lips beamed. She’s had a few of those liquid marijuanas, I thought. I crashed on the torn blue stool next to hers and shouted over “Old Town Road” to order a whiskey sour. Within a casual conversation about our day, I mentioned the recurring dream—though I eliminated her role in it.
               After knowing each other for three years, and having worked together as IT assistants on campus, we felt comfortable enough with each other to spill our inner thoughts without reticence. Hearing her talk was a release from my mother’s prudery and her tales about her large family allowed me to live vicariously through her, as I had never met my cousins or grandparents. She was like a bird of paradise in her iridescence and liveliness. Besides, despite her air of whimsy and impetuousness, she was true and loyal. I relished the sincerity in her bold, throaty laugh and when alone I’d smile just thinking about it. Because I couldn’t risk breaking this bond, I now had to hide that strange aspect of the dream.
               She looked at me with concern, which was somehow magnified by the dark, veined circles that stood out against her porcelain skin and narrow face. Her eyes were adorned with liner and shadow that only drew attention to the fact that she appeared to have grown old from worry far too soon.
                “You’ve mentioned this a few times. When did you start having that dream? Do you remember?”
               I glared vacantly into the crowd and searched my memory for any hint of what had triggered the dream. It must not have made an impression until it recurred a few times, but I still thought strenuously.
               “I think . . . it was roughly around the time of the Gatsby parties at The Fox Tail. I think.”
               “Well, I don’t know, man, it went over three nights and I vaguely remember them.” A playful half-smile formed, and she raised her glass. “That’s how I know it was a good time.” She shot down the last inch of her liquid marijuana.
               “Same. I don’t remember much, except showing up, of course, before we started drinking whatever absinthe nonsense we had.”
               She paused a moment looking serious.
               “I remember you disappearing, though. I walked into the alley to see if you were out there. I guess I first looked for you inside but didn’t see you.”
               I could remember hearing the fiddler next to the piano player and I saw a group of women clad in flapper costumes trying their best to Charleston around the fiddler in a narrow space; the three-foot-long portrait of Al Capone hung beside a brick wall on which a silent film was projected. Nearly everyone was in costume save for a few men in regular clothes. A green plaid shirt wisped by Al Capone. But why did that matter? It had no bearing on where I went when I disappeared.
               “I’m not sure I remember when I went outside.”
               “I eventually assumed you went home.” She shrugged.
               I had woken up in my bed with my wool peacoat over my naked body and my high heels tangled up in my sheets. The smell of vomit smothered my nostrils and the look of it with bits of green olives and flecks of pasta made me gag again, but my head was too heavy and my limbs too sore to get up and change the sheets. With quivering fingers, I grabbed my phone off the nightstand and checked my messages through dry eyes. I sent Felicity a thumbs up when I saw she texted four times to ask if I was safely home.
               I had assumed I tried to get into my nightshirt and, failing to do so in my drunken stupor, collapsed naked and pulled my coat over me for warmth. I wondered if going to The Fox Tail might help me recall something, although I wasn’t sure if such things actually worked.
               “Perhaps I wouldn’t mind going to The Fox Tail tonight.” I suggested. “Mainly because we haven’t been there in a while and I really don’t want to run into Cliff.”
               “Fair. I gotta say, I don’t think he’d be thrilled to see you either.” She called for the bartender to settle her tab.
               Disease washed over me. I wasn’t sure if it was the prospect of seeing The Fox Tail or Felicity’s flippancy.
               “You think it’s going to bother you because of your dream?”
               “I don’t know. Probably not.” I shrugged.
               I examined The Fox Tail’s massive liquor wall, admiring for a second time how elegant the bottles looked, almost like a miniature glass castle whose majesty belied its true function. The percussion of the bartender’s shaker clashed with the piano, which softly played “Sentimental Journey” while a black and white film played above the liquor wall. Like Siamese twins we looked up at Rita Hayworth shouting in a fiery rage at Glenn Ford; a fury that was as silent as a memory and stifled by the terseness of the captions.
               “Remember anything yet?” Felicity asked.
               I looked around at the grey divan under the Capone portrait and the rickety staircase in the center of the room that led to the upstairs bar. I only recalled the crowd and the green plaid flashing by.
               “No, nothing important.” I shrugged and looked back at the screen.
               Felicity ordered her cocktail before I had time to look away from the film. I ordered a cocktail whose name I forgot right after I ordered it and when the green drink came I pulled a wrinkled twenty from my wallet and handed it over to the bartender. When he made change I tried to hand him his five-dollar tip, but he pointed to a glass vase filled with bills. Realizing it was out of my reach, he gripped the neck and slid it over to me with a polite nod and “thank you.”
               I saw the plaid again, closer to my face this time. There was a warm hand around my neck, gently squeezing, only threatening to constrict. I closed my eyes to see more of the memory and believed there was a pale face, but it was so dark, and I thought, what if I’ve filled in with fantasy what I simply can’t remember?
               I jolted back to the present, realizing the bill was still sitting in my suspended hand. I dropped it in the vase.
               “I was just thinking of something.”
               When we finished our cocktails we wandered the streets in search of another bar. Felicity wanted me to suggest another place, but wasn’t thrilled with any of my choices. Finally free of ideas, I suggested we go back to Belle’s and she readily agreed. At Belle’s, Felicity launched a liquid marijuana and vodka-coke binge as we sat listening to “Uptown Funk” on the jukebox and swiping this way and that on our phones.
               “Oh look who’s here.” Felicity said sardonically. She leaned close to me and looked at me wryly with her smokey eyes. “Try not to beat him up again, huh?”
               I looked across the room and a tall man in a black tee shirt and light wash jeans caught my eye as he lingered with a group of men by the foosball table. Just as he turned his eyes in my direction I quickly looked down at some cat meme on my phone and began scrolling with increasing rapidity through what seemed like a barrage of hollow information. “Dear God” slipped out from under my breath as I sat feeling like I was caught in the midst of a crime. My cheeks burned and my stomach turned like a weather vane.
               “Don’t worry, he’s not going to come over here. Lord knows he doesn’t want to encounter you again,” she said.
               I looked at her looking at him. She was thoroughly fixed on him for a moment until her eyes glimpsed almost imperceptibly in my direction then down at her phone. I got up the courage to look toward him and my eyes fell to the light wash jeans with a slit in the knee and his heedless air as he swung his beer while gesticulating.
               I fixed him for what felt like minutes, and after a while I could see those jeans against my wool coat. I could feel the back of my coat rubbing against the course brick like a nail filer, and a hand on my wrist, then a hand on my neck, then under my coat, under my dress. I drew in a labored breath to quell my nerves.
               Cliff was looking at her as well and kept his eyes upon her when he leaned over to talk to his friends. I knew I had to tell her what I remembered to spare her from being taken advantage of by someone so predatory.
               “I remember something from that night,” I exclaimed importantly.
               “What is it?” she said with a glint of interest in her eyes. I told her of the fragments of memory and how I believed . . . no, how I knew beyond a doubt that Cliff had attacked me in the alley. I speculated that he was hanging around us too much that night, trying to get to one of us, then I stepped out in the alley, maybe to be sick, and he followed me and pushed me against the wall and touched me.
               “I must’ve just run home after all that because . . . because I was scared.”
               She looked ahead somewhat stoically, then after a long pause she turned to me and said, “Are you sure you’re not just, you know, filling in with stuff you wanna believe? Like, I know you hate Cliff, but when you think about it why would he attack you in public like that?”
               I was hurt and dumbfounded and it must have shown on my face as she rushed to placate me.
               “I didn’t mean anything. You could be right, but don’t jump to conclusions yet.” She turned solemnly to her phone again and started checking snap stories perfunctorily between sips of her liquid marijuana. She didn’t mention the incident again.


               The day after my excursion with Felicity, I wished I could shift my thoughts toward something other than Cliff and that alley, dank and reeking of rotting food. And, of course, I wanted to once again forget the hands that were so strong, so dominating that I could hardly believe it was real. I had never had a man’s hands on me in such a way before. My struggling was met with arrogant insouciance, as if I wasn’t anything but a moth he’d caught in his fist mid-flight.
               While sitting in my room, I decided I would go down to Belle’s as soon as it opened at 4pm, just to have a drink on a languid Sunday under the belief she wouldn’t be there. But I was only trying to fool myself out of the suspicion that she would be there.
               After slipping on a stiff, denim dress, I slumped onto my unmade bed and wondered why I cared. I wondered if I hoped to preserve the integrity of my ego by proving to myself that I didn’t grossly misjudge the character of such an important person in my life, since I’d never known anyone as long as I’d known her. I heard people mention their friends of five, ten, fifteen years, but it might as well have been written in an academic journal, it was so far removed from what I experienced.
               Outside my window there was a magnolia quaking as if, with enough effort, it could uproot itself from its confines, and trees swaying and rattling percussively amidst bombarding rain. I hurriedly ordered an Uber and tramped the stairs, unconcerned with being heard by Mom.
               When I made it downtown, the ponded streets and glistening sidewalks were scattered with gleeful college girls and boys running through needles of rain. They disappeared in underground bars, iridescent clubs, and late-night coffee shops. A man on the corner stood indifferent to the rain as he belted out a message about Jesus and the Antichrist. He stood out as one of the loudest and loneliest people on the street, who Marines heckled and others arched around as if he could attack. I wanted to think about life from his eyes to keep from thinking of my own. I found something therapeutic in that exercise, imagining loneliness greater than my own but being able to keep living just the same—not taking a pill to sleep through it all. These thoughts left me as soon as the car pulled up in front of Belle’s.
               After I got out of the car the bolt of worry returned in anticipation of something I didn’t want to face: going back to a life where I’d sit in my room on weekend nights with no one to meet up with, no companion to text with whom I could share every thought and adventurous idea. I could end up never seeing her again. But I couldn’t go back to that life. It wasn’t going to happen.
               I descended the first set of stairs leading to the door and just inside was an old, framed portrait of a man who once owned the property back in the turn of the century, his face was austere to the point of being silly. I almost laughed but withheld it because I knew it would only come from nerves. The next short set of stairs began and my feet fell stolidly on each concrete step. I became cognizant now of people swarming the place. It sounded like a thousand crisp voices competing to be heard, but in reality it was only ten or twelve boisterous people in the acoustic space, most of whom were scattered about, some in clusters of three shrilly laughing near the TouchTunes box on the wall and others lonely and huddled somberly at one of the bar’s sharp corners.
               And there, on one of the brown leather couches in the far left corner of the room, just under the mounted heads of a buck and doe, sat Felicity with Cliff. He wore a slightly different black tee shirt this time, one with a Celtic cross on the front. The same tattered jeans hung baggily and displayed gaping knees, like hungry mouths. That hawkish nose was grossly close to her ear. I could remember now the breath, dragon hot against the winter gusts that hurried down the alley. His hand, thin and clawlike, like an old man’s, gripped her knee as if it was the only thing keeping her shin attached to her thigh.
               I had no choice but to stare, because I didn’t believe it, even though I’d expected this sight just on instinct. I moved away from the threshold hoping to get back to the stairs unseen, but for a second, Felicity’s eyes met mine with a gleam of consternation. But she was out of my sight almost as quickly as her eyes made it to mine.


               At home, I sat on my bed looking at the wound-red sun descending behind the trees. I became fixed on the asphalt, using its rain-glossed surface as a canvas on which I painted fantasies both violent and amiable. In one, Felicity convinced me that I really did invent the memory from the alley and I attacked Cliff mercilessly for no good reason. So lost was I in this narrative that I felt a sense of hope that I could apologize and make it alright and see Felicity wave it off with me over a glass of liquid marijuana and say everything was fine again.
               In another scenario I walked doggedly over to the leather couch, preying upon her like an alligator ready to ambush. I clutched her titian ponytail and in one swift thrust, sent her flying down the platform’s steps and onto the cold grey concrete. The impact was enough to bruise her, then render her still, with blood trickling out on the floor’s grooves and cracks.
               After many minutes went by, I was finally lulled into a sense of calm when the tender, monotonous cranking sound of a child’s bike became audible from the end of the block. One of the little girls from earlier emerged, rolling along the white line. My text alert dinged once, then a second time. A familiar impulse told me to see what the messages said, but since they could only be from one person, I reined in the urge.
               Slumped on the edge of my bed, feeling like a child or an infirm woman, I watched the girl in front of me, who was now subdued by solitude as she cranked innocently into the complex. She turned onto her corner at the farthest end and was swallowed by a shadow that resisted the bright sconces. I felt a bolt of fear cut through my despondency and it only worsened when my text alert let out another sharp command. Against my better judgement, I slowly reached for the phone, still watching the lonely shadow that had consumed the girl.

Jillian Oliver lives in New Orleans and works full time as an article and script writer for Revelry Tours. When she's not working and studying for her master's degree, she practices fiction and creative nonfiction. Her short stories have appeared in Gargoyle Magazine and The Blotter Magazine.
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