NIGHTMARES
Preview of a Novella

Jane tucked herself into the thick fabric of a winged-back chair, wishing she could disappear. She looked down at her folded hands, digging her thumb into one palm. She could feel Doctor Daniels’ eyes on her, but she dared not look up. He was getting too close to the truth.

She heard him tapping his pen on a notepad. “Jane, did you have any nightmares this week?”

“Yes. Almost every night. My uncle was in them too.”

“You know, Jane, you’re not alone. I’m sure you’ve learned in your college Psych class that families have a diverse range of dysfunction, ranging from unusual to insane, from mean to murderous. When a cruel gene pops up, it’s all too easy for families to explain it away. Most people want to believe it’s a distant phenomenon. That it exists only in remote places, under bizarre circumstances. But it’s often much closer to home than we’d like to think.”

She could hear the clock ticking in the silence as he waited for her response. “But, Dr. Daniels, I do feel alone. Most people are hurt by strangers. This was my own family.” She looked up at him, her eyes pleading for understanding.

“That’s a misconception, Jane. Almost every family has at least one member that’s, at the very least, mean-spirited. Maybe it’s a second cousin or a distant uncle, but there’s always that one we really don’t want to invite to Thanksgiving dinner. They may not be killers or hardened criminals, but we sense something cold, unfeeling. Sometimes it’s in their eyes, or something we just feel. Did you ever experience something similar with your Uncle Jake?”

She shivered a little and hugged herself. “I guess. He was fun. Sometimes. He laughed a lot, but there was something about his eyes. When I was a kid, they reminded me of polished stones.

“Were you ever alone with him?” The doctor’s face was expressionless, unreadable.

“Yes. My mother completely trusted him. After all, he was her little brother. She’d get so excited about his visits which were random and unexpected. On any given weekend, he’d show up asking to take me places. So off I’d go, whether I liked it or not. One day, he put me in my red wagon and pulled it across a major highway to a nearby carnival. It was a cool sunny day, but it was dark by the time we got home.”

Dr. Daniels leaned slightly forward and nodded encouragingly. “Tell me about the carnival.”

Jane looked away as she caught a hard glint in the doctor’s eyes. Was he angry with her? She took a deep breath and went on. “Well . . . there were lots of rides and plenty of junk food. For some reason, I can still feel the way the cotton candy stuck to my chin, and gummy candied apples to my fingers. I kept wiping my hands on my pants while we ran from merry-go-rounds to spinning teacups. Even though I got a little dizzy . . . it was all good. Until that final ride—The Cage.

It was a towering contraption with dangling round cages. The air was filled with screams, rising and falling. I told Uncle Jake I was scared, but he convinced me it would be super fun. When it was our turn, the attendant said I was too young, but my uncle slipped him some cash and we passed through. After we climbed into our seats, and the bar locked across our laps, I just wanted to run. But I said nothing. I didn’t want to disappoint him. I can still feel the way he patted my hands as I clutched the metal bar, warning me to hold on tight or I’d be sucked into the sky. I remember thinking that my sticky fingers would glue my hands to the bar and save me. Then our seats gave a sudden jolt and I felt myself being hurled into space—just as we hit the top, our seats turned upside down and freefell back to earth. I caught a glimpse of Uncle Jake’s face—the force of the descent was sucking his cheeks back from his lips. His mouth was stretched into a strange gaping smile. When the ride was finally over, my uncle said nothing. He put me back in my red wagon and we headed for home.

When we finally got home, it was dark. Inside, we found a note from my mom saying that she’d went to the store. Uncle Jake swore under his breath and told me to get in his car. Apparently, our adventure wasn’t over. He loaded my wagon into the trunk and drove me to his favorite spot on the intracoastal. He parked a couple blocks away, put me back in my wagon, and pulled it to the waters’ edge. I can still see the white sails waving in the breeze, city lights reflecting in the water. I climbed out of my wagon to get a better view. It was all so beautiful . . . until I looked down and realized how black and deep the water was. I hadn’t quite learned to swim, and it scared me to see how the tips of my shoes were hanging over the seawall edge. I started to take a step back when I felt the force of a sudden push from behind. I fell forward, and in that moment, I felt absolute terror.”

She stopped and bit her lip. “It has a taste you know. Fear. It tastes like blood.” She shivered and sucked in her breath. “When I hit the cold water, I expected to sink down into miles of inky liquid. But I didn’t. My feet almost instantly hit the mucky sea floor—the water was less than two feet deep. I remember looking up to see my uncle’s grinning face. I can still hear his words. “Now, you know Janie, why kids must learn to swim.”

Doctor Daniels’ stared at her. He didn’t seem disturbed in the least, but then he never did. “Why do you think your uncle did that?”

“At the time, I really believed he was trying to teach me something. Now, I know better.”

“Did you tell your mother?”

“No. I knew from experience she would make excuses for him. He could do no wrong. From that day on, I dreaded my uncle’s visits and the red wagon too. The strange thing was . . . he could be so nice. Sometimes he took me to movies, bought me things, even helped me with my homework.”

Jane watched as the doctor put down his pen. “Jane, I’d like to comment at this point. It seems you loved your mom, but you couldn’t trust her to protect you. Your uncle could be kind, but also cruel. Is it safe to say that you learned early in life to pair kindness and love with cruelty and mistrust?”

Jane tilted her head. “Yes. I guess you could say that. Maybe that’s why I date abusive men. It feels normal, familiar, but . . . I never do trust them.

“Is there any one you do trust?”

Jane looked down and then up again. “I trust you, Dr. Daniels.”

A broad grin lit up his face. “I’m honored, Jane. Trust is the hallmark of sound therapy. I have an idea. Would you be willing to go back to that same spot on the intracoastal, to revisit the trauma? The goal would be to create a good memory to overlap the old.”

She drew her legs up onto the chair, hugging her knees. “I’m not sure I can.”

“What if I went with you? To support you. I could talk you through it. Help you to take back the power from, what was once, a powerless situation.”

She looked at him. His expression seemed kind, but she couldn’t help noticing a drop of saliva forming at the corner of his mouth. She hugged her legs tighter. “Okay. If you really think it will help.”

Doctor Daniel’s gave her a broad grin. “Good girl. That’s the spirit. And you wouldn’t happen to still have that wagon, would you?”

Jane gave a tight laugh. “Actually, yes. Rusted but functional. But, obviously, I wouldn’t actually get into it.”

He laughed. “Sure, you can. You’re still young, slim, petite. The closer the details, the better.”

She looked down and studied her hands. “When would we do this?”

“Your address is in the file. I’ll drop by this weekend to pick you up. What do you think?”

Jane hesitated. She had so many plans this weekend . . . “That should be okay. If you really think it will help.”

He looked at his watch. “Well, our time is up. Make sure to plan on this weekend. I’ll follow up with a phone call.”

Jane closed the office door behind her trying to ignore a nagging sense of anxiety. She appreciated the doctor’s willingness to help her, especially on a weekend, but she wished he’d given a definite time. Suddenly she wanted to cancel, but then again . . . she didn’t want to disappoint him. As she climbed in her car, she found herself thinking how much Dr. Daniels reminded her of someone. . . but she couldn’t think who. She turned on the radio, pumped up the volume and drove off. As she sang along with the music, she felt hopeful the nightmares would soon end.