The nightmare is always the same.
In the nightmare, Bess is having a fistfight.
In the nightmare, she is winning.
It was just one fight, three years ago. Maybe four. She has almost forgotten the details. The man had been drunk, the kind of drunk that goes wrong. He’d put his hands on Bess, grabbed her back and her arms. And when Bess had turned around — laughing, ready to tell the guy to back off, ready to assume that there had been some mistake — there had only been his furious face and his grasping hands. One thing led to another (that’s how Harriet tells it, one thing led to another, with a laugh) and it turned into a fistfight. That’s all Bess can really remember: face, hands, hey what the hell are you doing, and then her knuckles were throbbing, and the guy was on the ground.
Her friends remember every detail that she’s lost, and they love to tell the story. Usually Harriet tells it. Every time someone new comes with them for drinks, the story comes out, like an inside joke that needs explaining. Seamus does not like it when Harriet tells the story, because he was there and should have been the one to get into the fistfight with the drunk guy. Should have defended her. Bess tries not to mirror Harriet’s teasing disdain for his softness, but sometimes she can’t help it. Seamus wouldn’t hurt a fly, but you don’t want to fuck around with Bess, Harriet will say, and Bess will smile a little yeah I really did that smile, and Seamus will look bashful. Her friends will pour more wine as they tell the story, and the new people will look at her one of two ways.
The people who she’s going to get along with will look at her with surprised respect: Wow, I wouldn’t have guessed.
The people who she’s not going to get along with will look at her with evaluation: Yeah, but I could take her.
It was the first time she’d ever hit someone, that fistfight. She can’t imagine ever having to hit someone again. She can’t imagine it — but she can sure as hell dream it.
At least a few times a week she has the nightmare and the nightmare is always the same: Bess is having a fistfight, and she is winning. She has tried again and again to warn them away, but they won’t listen, and so the fight begins. Her faceless opponent doesn’t stand a chance. Her fists move as slowly as if she is punching through honey, but it doesn’t matter — the blows land with terrible accuracy, and their bones collapse under her knuckles like rotted squash. Her opponent turns to pulp, and she wakes sweating and shaking and bitterly victorious.
Bess is not scared of what another person might do to her. She is not scared of losing.
She is terrified of winning.
The nightmare is always the same.
In the nightmare, Bess has her back pressed to a door. Fingernails are scratching around the edges of the door. Someone (something) is pounding hard on the wood.
But the door is holding.
In the dream it lasts for hours. This strikes Bess as unfair, since the reality only took a few minutes. It was three months ago that she pressed her back to the door of her condo, the woodgrain imprinting on her bare shoulders as Harriet and Seamus dragged her grandmother’s antique armoire across the floor. It was heavy enough to make a good barricade. Heavy enough to replace Bess’ weight.
Harriet tells the story when they find new people to spend the night with. She tells it around campfires, and in abandoned grocery stores, and under bridges when the rain is coming down hard. Harriet is always the one who tells it, since Seamus hasn’t spoken since the day with the door. The day with Harriet’s sister.
(Except that of course, it wasn’t Harriet’s sister anymore. That’s what Harriet and Bess have been trying to tell Seamus. For three months, they’ve been trying to tell him.)
Harriet tells the story whenever the where-were-you-when-it-happened part of the night comes around. That comes after the part where people talk about how much they miss cigarettes, but before they get into theories about What Happened. When Harriet tells the story, she talks about her sister turning into One Of Those Things. She talks about Bess holding the door against that inhuman strength and hunger. She ends the story well: and then Bess goes, 'well, I guess it’s a good thing I bought toilet paper today!’
Everyone laughs at that because they all remember what it was like to be barricaded inside waiting for outside to be safe again, and because it’s funny to think of Bess having the foresight to realize that it would be a while, and because it’s a badass thing to do, holding the door closed against one of Those Things and then make a quip about toilet paper.
And the people around the fire look at Bess one of two ways.
The ones who will try to make conversation with her late into the evening, trying to stave off sleep, look at her with grim humor: remember when we thought toilet paper was important?
The ones who will try to steal from her in the night look at her with calculation: She may be able to hold a door, but she couldn’t take me in a fistfight.
Harriet has stopped telling the fistfight story in favor of the barricade story, so Bess supposes it’s fair that they don’t know any better. She has won a lot of fistfights, since Harriet started telling the story about the door. She has learned to recognize the people who will hear the story and try to make her prove that she is the kind of woman who can hold a door shut.
It had been hard to hold the door, and she doesn’t think she remembers much about it beyond the feeling of Harriet’s sister pounding on the wood again and again. (What was her name? Bess feels like she should remember. So much of her life is made up of feeling like she should remember.) She doesn’t think she remembers anything else, but in the dream, she can feel her own fingernails sinking into the wood of the doorframe, and the sweat trickling down the small of her back, and the way her feet are slipping against the carpet. In the dream, she can hear Harriet’s sister’s voice pleading with her, let me in let me in let me in.
In the dream, Seamus begs her to move away from the door, to let the thing that was his sister-in-law inside the house. He begs until the pounding on the wood is replaced by slow, steady scratches along the doorframe, and then he moves to help Harriet with the armoire, and he goes silent. He goes silent forever.
In the dream, Harriet does not flinch at the sound of her sister’s voice screaming for blood. Bess does not remember, but she suspects that Harriet did not flinch when it really happened, either. She cannot imagine Harriet flinching.
Bess is not afraid of the things that used to be people. But she is a little afraid of Harriet.
The nightmare is the same every time.
In the nightmare, Bess is slitting Seamus’ throat.
(Except it isn’t Seamus anymore, that’s what she tells herself when she wakes up.)
In the nightmare, Seamus is dying.
No one tells this story. Harriet does not ever tell the story, because it makes her sound like a coward. Bess does not tell the story, because it is not the kind of story one tells. Except she does tell it to one person, just one — a man she spends a night beside in a half-collapsed Home Depot. Both of them are half-drunk on moonshine, not pretending they’ll ever see each other again, trading the kinds of stories that come out when it’s too dark to see the other person’s face. He kisses her cheeks softly after she tells him, as though there might be tears there, but of course there aren’t. Tears are like wine and toilet paper — lost artifacts, part of the way things were before. Incompatible with the way things have to be.
Bess is good at coping with the way things have to be.
In the night, when she wakes in his arms with the nightmare still fresh and immediate, she bites down hard on the flesh at the base of her thumb to keep from making a sound. To keep from waking him. She does not know how he will look at her in the morning, and she needs to be long gone before he wakes up.
There are a lot of things Bess doesn’t remember, but she remembers killing Seamus as cleanly as if she’d dreamed it. Sweet, soft Seamus. She remembers the way he changed. She remembers watching him fight it for a day and a night. She remembers him holding Harriet’s hand as he began to go animal around the eyes, and she remembers the way Harriet peeled his fingers away from hers, one by one, until she could drop him entirely.
She remembers Harriet looking at her and saying you have to do it. I can’t. I’m not like you. And all the stories were in that ‘not like you’ — the fistfight and the door and the man with the gun and the collapsed library and a dozen others. Somewhere along the way, Bess realized, she had been assigned a function. She had been given a job, and the job was to be a different kind of person from Harriet. .
She had wanted to say I’m not like me, either. But then Harriet had turned and walked away, saying she couldn’t watch, and it was Bess alone with the thing Seamus was becoming, and it had to be done before he got too strong to kill.
And of course, Harriet was right. Bess was the one who could do what had to be done.
In the dream, it goes quicker than it had in reality. In the dream, the knife slides across his throat smoothly, without catching on his skin. In the dream, it’s like unzipping a jacket, but instead of a shirt underneath, there are loosely curled ribbons of blood waiting to unfurl.
In the dream, Seamus does not fight. In the dream, Seamus (but it isn’t Seamus, she reminds herself, not anymore) holds still and waits patiently to be murdered while Harriet lies and says she can’t watch.
And in the dream, Bess does what Harriet tells her to do. Because she is not afraid of losing the thing that used to be Seamus, and she is not afraid of turning into the thing that Seamus has become. She is not afraid of darkness, or death, or the kinds of scars that come from being the person who does what has to be done.
Bess bites the flesh at the base of her thumb in the pitch-dark, and she listens to the nameless man breathe. She swallows fear.
She is not afraid of turning into the thing that Seamus became. She is not afraid of that.
She is not even afraid of turning into the thing that Harriet has become — the thing that looks away while others do things that change them, the thing that closes its eyes in order to stay soft enough to tell stories. She is not afraid of that.
But the thing that Bess has become — the thing from the nightmares. The thing that can win. The thing that is strong. The thing that will survive no matter what.
She is afraid of that. She is so very, very afraid of that.