Eventually I settled into the routine of a broken and haunted family. We never spoke, just went through the pantomimes of life in a pained silence. A full month of this and my suspicions about the Dum-Dum woman hanging around me in my waking hours was confirmed.
I turned a corner in the hall, walking into the living room with a basket full of clothes that need to be folded, and there she was standing directly in front of me. I let out a little shriek and dropped the basket; clothes where scattered all over the floor.
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That night I dreamed about the woman with the Dum-Dum again. We were sitting on two large rocks in the center of an impossibly vast field. The sky overhead was clear and the temperature perfect. We sat and talked and giggled like lifelong best friends. Her Dum-Dum this time was candy-apple green and I realized as we sat and talked that it never got past its midway nubby stage. I think she could've sucked on that thing forever and it wouldn't have dissolved an inch more.
She was telling me a story about bees.
"They weren't meant to fly, you know," she was telling me, taking a long suck on her Dum-Dum. I noticed today that she was very pretty, with large brown eyes and a little snub nose. She looked as if she was close to my age, if not exactly the same as me. She had long honey-brown hair that was straight as an arrow, but lusciously thick. Her full lips were painted a bubble-gum pink and her cheeks were dusted with light freckles. Before I only remembered her head, but today she was wearing a pink shirt that matched her lips underneath a pair of denim bib overalls. Her feet were bare.
"Who? Bees?" I asked, wondering if she had an extra Dum-Dum in one of her overall's many pockets.
"Yes, bees. When they were created, the wings were really only for ornamentation. They weren't strong or big enough to support the weight of the bees' bodies. But no one told the bees that. They saw the other insects flying, so they just did it, too."
She suddenly dug in her pocket and pulled out a watermelon Dum-Dum and handed it to me. It was as if she'd read my mind. I took it and began to unwrap it.
"That doesn't make sense," I said, popping the small sucker into my mouth. "If they weren't made to, then they wouldn't have been able to."
She smiled at me. "But they thought they could."
I shook my head. "That doesn't matter. I might think I can sing - it certainly doesn't mean that I can, even if I want to. Trust me!" I belted out a quick line from "Amazing Grace" and we were both laughing by time I stopped croaking.
"But bees do fly," she pointed out, stifling another round of laughter.
I thought about that. "They do. But it doesn't make sense that just your belief in something not real could make it reality."
"It makes about as much sense as not believing in something real and making it reality."
I woke up still tasting the watermelon Dum-Dum on my tongue.
Two Weeks Later
Adam hadn't spoken to me, and he hadn't returned to our bed; instead taking up a permanent residence on the living room couch. Tyler had started coming home in the evenings again, but he was very down about something. He moped around the house and wouldn't talk to me or his father, from what I could see. I cooked him breakfast every morning, but he never ate it. I knew he must be eating at school because he didn't appear to be losing weight. I was troubled, wondering what could have happened to make him so depressed. I hated that he didn't feel he could talk to me about it. I wished he would talk to me period.
I had been feeling pretty strange myself lately. I was normally a very direct person. If I wanted to know what was going on, I didn't stop until I had figured it out and pestered everyone until they spilled what they knew. But as of late I'd been so very lax about the events taking place in my house. I wasn't demanding Adam to talk to me anymore, but started ignoring him, too. I accepted Tyler's depression and silence whereas before I would've been stark raving mad trying to fix my son and shower him with love and find out what was hurting him. I still couldn’t make myself get into my car, and I had just accepted this rather than try to figure out why or fight myself until the deed was done. Was this what happened after you hit your 30's? Did you just begin to accept life's little nuances and aggravations rather than fight to change them? Did you just shuffle along and not care enough to make things right?
I dreamed about the Dum-Dum woman three more times and we always talked like old friends and about the strangest things. I could swear that I felt her around me during the day when I was awake, and a few times was sure I'd seen her out of the corner of my eye. I knew this was impossible, but I couldn't shake the feeling that she was with me at all times.
I woke up the next morning with what can only be termed as the absolute worst migraine I have ever had in my life. I'd never had my head hurt so badly - I was in so much pain that I couldn't get up. Moving even the slightest made me feel violently nauseous, so I curled into a ball and squeezed my eyes shut and tried to breathe softly without moving a muscle. I was in pure agony. I hoped Adam would come into the room, so I could ask him to get me something - though I seriously doubted that any medication in the house would help even the slightest. I seriously considered calling an ambulance a few times - but didn't think I could make it out of the bed much less to the phone in the hallway. A few times I wondered if I was dying - surely a person couldn't be in this much pain and not be.
Adam never came into the room and I assumed he'd left for work without a goodbye or a 'I'll be home late' or even so much as a 'fuck you'. But that was pretty standard fare when we were fighting. I thought about how guilty he'd feel if he came home and found me dead - and I almost wished I could die right there just to put that on him. I was still furious at his actions the night before. How dare he pick up Tyler from school and bring him to my mother's and not tell me about it - or even explain why. What in the world was wrong with him?
Eventually I began to doze - going in and out of fitful sleep, dreaming in flashes of my entire life. Eventually I slipped into a light slumber and I found myself floating in a warm, safe place. I felt very at peace and very calm as I floated in this strange dark space that was neither here nor there. There was light, but it wasn't direct and only dimly shone through the walls that surrounded me. I could hear muffled voices from quite some distance away, but could not make out what they were saying. The voices didn’t bother me - in fact, I found them very soothing and I felt comforted by their presence. I never wanted to leave this peaceful sanctuary. My mind felt free to wander - free from the constraints, pressures and worries of everyday life. There was no stress here, nothing to do or worry about doing. I had only to exist.
It seems I floated in this non-place for a very long time - though that doesn't even seem right to say because I was completely oblivious to the concept of "time". I simply was - had always been - would always be. Suddenly there was a violent trembling all throughout. Suddenly everything changed - my peaceful space became alive with noises and movement. I felt a tremor of excitement run through me - was it anticipation? Another wave of violent shuddering and then I felt a tremendous force. I couldn't tell if it was pushing me or pulling at me but I felt as if it might tear me in two. My emotions actually were - part of me felt like giving in to the force and letting it take me, yet another longed to stay in my peaceful little world. I began to cry - I was so confused and the pulling-pushing feeling caused my entire body to cry out in pain. I felt a myriad of emotions: terror, excitement, uncertainty, hope, pain and even some pleasure. My mind was in chaos, my body in agony and my very soul wept with a mixture of joy and sorrow.
At that moment a woman appeared before me. I really only saw her face and it seemed to float in front of me. A thin white stick protruded from her mouth and she looked at me with a sparkle in her eye. I immediately recognized her, but couldn't put a name to the face. I knew that I knew her, but I had no idea who she was as well. A hand came up and pulled the white stick from her mouth, revealing the nubby cherry-red remnants of a Dum-Dum sucker.
"Hey, you," she said as if we were old friends. "It's almost time. Isn't this exciting?! Oh, and it's going to be 'Stella'. You told me to let you know - so there it is. I'll see you soon."
And then she was gone.
Suddenly the force changed and I was no longer being pulled and pushed at the same time, but being sucked downwards - away from the warmth and sanctity of my space - away from all peace and contentment. I truly began to cry in earnest, deep wracking sobs as I tried to grab onto something, anything, that would prevent me from being sucked down into the dark hole that had begun to open up underneath me. My fingers slid uselessly against the slick walls of my chamber - I could find nothing solid enough to hold onto. My hands flailed wildly, seeking something to safe me from the abyss that drew me ever closer with tremendous strength. My flailing hand struck something and with sudden jubilation I remembered the soft, yet strong, cord that bound me to my chamber. I reached down and grabbed the cord where it began at the front of my stomach and began pulling it to me, soon I had a good length of it in my hands - I could use this to make a rope! I could tie the rope around myself - my cord was connected to the walls of the chamber and it would prevent me from going down into the hole. I began to try and wrap the cord around me, starting at my head. It was then that the abyss made one long, last suck and I felt myself going down into it - the pressure was incredible and I thought my head might explode. I tried to scream, but as I quickly went downwards, my cord tightened around my neck and I could not breathe. Pure terror washed over me - I was being sucked slowly through a dark tunnel. Eventually I began to see a light at the end. The tunnel was soft, but it undulated around me, sometimes closing so tightly over me that I thought it might crush me. The light got closer, but I knew I would not make it - the cord around my neck grew tighter still and I was beginning to see bright spots in front of my eyes. I no longer feared what lay beyond the tunnel entrance - where the bright light led to. I knew I would never make it - I stopped fighting for breaths and I knew that I was about to die. I wasn't afraid; only felt a bit disappointed. 'This is it,' I thought and everything went black.
Sun shone in through the window. It was a crisp autumn afternoon, the first real cold snap we'd had that fall, and Mama was helping me into my favorite sweater. I couldn't wait to get outside and throw myself down in the big piles of colorful leaves Dad had been raking up all morning. We had just had lunch - ham and cheese sandwiches. I was seven years old.
"Tell me again, Mama," I told her as she buttoned me up.
"Tell you what, Stella?"
"About how I was a blue baby."
She smiled at me. "You've heard that story a thousand times."
"But tell me again!" I said, bouncing on my heels.
"You were just about to be born when I told the doctors something was wrong with you," she began, getting that look on her face that told me she was lost in the past, remembering. "They said everything was fine. A few minutes later, you were born but you were blue."
I giggled, as I always did, at the thought of being born blue.
She went on, bringing me out of my reverie, "The umbilical cord had wrapped around your neck and you weren't breathing. I was so scared - the doctors took you away before I could even touch you. Your daddy and I held hands and cried and prayed that you would be okay. Then I had a feeling that you would be fine - and I felt so relieved. I stopped crying and told the Lord, 'Thank you!' and at that moment we heard you crying. You were a perfectly healthy little baby girl. Our Stella."
At this I would always jump up and down and clap. I loved stories with happy endings.
I woke up with a little cry. I sat straight up and looked around the room. My bedroom. It was 1999 and I was in my own room, still in my clothes that I fell asleep in from the night before after fighting with Adam. I put a hand to my head realizing that it no longer throbbed in agony - but a small ache remained somewhere in the back of my head.
"How odd," I said aloud and to no one at all. "I think I just dreamed about my own birth!"
It was late, nearing 2pm I noted, as I crawled out of bed. I never stayed in bed this late, but I also had never been stricken with such a debilitating migraine before. The house was eerily quiet again as I walked through it - Tyler would still be at school and Adam at work this Wednesday afternoon. I decided I should call Mom and ask why Adam had dropped Tyler off with her the night before.
Mom rarely left the house during the day, so it was odd when the phone rang from more than five times. I waited, however, knowing she was home. Finally I heard her pick up the receiver but was greeted at first with silence.
"Mom?" I said, wondering if she was okay.
"Hello?" I heard her almost whisper into the receiver.
"Mom, it's me..."
"Is anyone there?" I heard her ask again. Her voice was trembling.
"Mom? It's Stella," I said. We must have had a bad connection. "Hey, can you hear me?" I asked.
A long silence followed. When she spoke it was so low that I could barely hear her. "Stella... Is that you?"
"Yeah, it's me, Mom," I yelled back into the phone, realizing the lines were messed up. "Can you hear me? Is everything alright?"
I was answered with a click. She'd either hung up, unable to hear me, or the phone had gone dead. "Great", I thought to myself.
I decided to start on supper.
Adam came home early again - looking better than before, but not by much. I was sitting at the kitchen table when he came in, but he didn't so much as even look at me.
"Still ignoring me, huh?" I asked as walked through the room. I nodded as this was confirmed. "Tyler didn't get off the bus. Did you bring him to Mom's again? I tried calling, but there's something wrong with the line."
I hadn't panicked too much when Tyler had failed to come home again; pretty sure Adam had brought him to Mom's again. But I was tired of being kept in the dark and wanted to know what was going on.
He went to refrigerator and pulled out a beer. I rolled my eyes. I hated it when he drank.
"Adam..." I started, but was interrupted by the ringing phone.
He was closer so I let him get it.
"Hi, Jena," he said.
"Let me talk to her," I said, standing. He, of course, ignored me.
"No," he said into the phone, frowning. "I wasn’t here today. After we left the home, I went riding around to try and clear my head."
I tried to interrupt him again, "Tell her I tried to call her earlier today."
"Around 2:30? No, I wasn't back yet - I didn't call you, Jena."
"I called her!" I said, exasperated. "Jesus, Adam - don't you hear me? Tell her it was me!" This ignoring-the-wife crap was getting on my last nerve. I know he heard me, I was standing right next to him.
"Alright. Where's Tyler? Sleeping? Okay - give him a kiss for me. Bye."
He hung up and I put my hands on my hips. "You've got a lot of explaining to do!" I nearly shouted at him.
But when he turned to face me there were tears in his eyes. I was taken aback; my anger quickly forgotten. Adam who never cried was crying two days in a row. He walked past me and into the living room, lying down on the couch.
"Adam," I said, softly, going to stand in the living room's doorway. "Honey don't sleep on the couch again. Come in the bedroom - let's talk, please?"
He wouldn't answer.
I went back to the bedroom and lay down on the bed, picking up the latest book I'd been reading. What in the world was happening around here, I wondered. I tried to calm myself by getting into the story, but it wasn't happening. Since yesterday morning things had been going so very strange - I was beginning to wonder if I'd woken up in the Twilight Zone or something. A noxious smell filled the room and I looked over the other side of the bed to see Pooper asleep and snoring lightly. Somehow the smelly fart was comforting; at least some things never changed.
10:23 am, March 18, 1999
I opened one eye cautiously and peered around the room. All was quiet. I gingerly picked up my hand and pinched my nose. That felt real. I opened both eyes and sat up, looking around the room. Sunlight poured in through the windows. So it had been a nightmare after all. A terrible nightmare.
I couldn't quite remember what the nightmare had been about, but I knew I'd had one. Vague traces of terror and anguish lingered with me. I shuddered and climbed out of bed, glancing at the clock as I did so.
"Shit," I muttered aloud, realizing I'd missed getting Tyler off to school. Hopefully he'd taken the initiative to dress and feed himself. I found it odd that he hadn't woke me, but apparently I'd been sleeping like the dead.
I paused as I walked through the hall, a strange feeling washing over me at my last thought. Slept like the dead. I shook my head and continued down to Tyler's room. The door was open, the bed unmade and empty. I hurried to the kitchen, but he wasn't there either. In fact, the house was eerily quiet. Apparently Tyler had gotten himself off to school and Adam to work without ever waking me. How had my two unorganized and careless men managed that?
Pooper barked behind me and I jumped. I turned to face him and bent down to pat his head. "If they keep this up, Poop, I'll be out of a job." He wagged his tail and licked my hand. "You're sure feeling good today!" I noted, scratching him behind the ears. He responded with a satisfied and rather loud fart. "Thanks, Pooper," I said, standing and waving my hand in front of my face to try and ward off the stinky fart.
There were dishes in the sink so I started on those. The entire house needed to be cleaned and I didn't know that I'd get it all done before needing to stop to make supper - not with the late start I'd gotten. Plus I needed to run to the store if I was going to have anything to cook for supper besides.
As I cleaned and straightened, my mind began to wander as it always did when I was doing household chores. I was angry at Adam - very angry and hurt - but the strange thing was I didn't know why. I know we'd gotten into a fight the night before, but I only remembered bits and pieces of the argument, as if I'd been falling asleep during a movie. It was a terrible fight, I remembered that, maybe one of the worst in our nine year marriage. But what had caused it? What was it about?
I tried as hard as I could to remember, but disjointed fragments were all I could recall.
"You don't mean that, Stella - you're just angry," Adam had said.
I also remember him saying, "We need to talk, Stell" and "You can be a total bitch, you know that?"
But I couldn't remember in what context any of it was said or where in the conversation. Something floated back to me about threatening to take Tyler away from him - why would I do that? I would never! None of it made sense.
I loved Adam, had loved him since I met him my first semester in college; I was 20. We married a year later and I never finished. He did, but was never able to put it to any use. A year after that I was pregnant and we were broke. My parents helped us rent a small house in my hometown of Maringouin, Louisiana, and we moved there; my step-father got Adam a job at a plant in Bunkie. Everything seemed idyllic. We were happy, just well-enough off and madly in love.
After Tyler was born I sometimes thought, in those early years, that no one should be allowed to be as happy as the three of us were. Looking back now I wonder how I'd ever made it this far with such a corny and naive view of the world. We bought a house in Baton Rouge when Tyler was three, and by that time my childish fancies had begun to be replaced by the cold, hard indifference of real life.
Adam was a brooding person who liked to be alone a great deal of the time. He would go off, sometimes for days at a time, to "reconnect". I was okay with his absences at first - until he started coming back drunk. Adam didn't drink all the time - and I wouldn't say it was even "often", but I hated the person he became when he'd had a few too many. My normally quiet, withdrawn and genteel man became loud and obnoxious - and mean. He never hit me - never hit Tyler - but as the years went on his cruel words during these times began to leave marks on my very soul.
On the outside we were a perfectly normal family - but the inside was silently crumbling around us. I knew it, I'd felt it for years, and I'm sure that Adam had, too but neither of us ever seemed to want to face it. Somewhere along the way Adam and I simply grew apart. It was like a giant oak that had started as one, strong sapling and then had, unexpectedly, branched off into two separate trunks. I know longer really knew Adam and he no longer really knew me.
But I assumed, as I'm guessing he did, that was just what marriage did to people; that everyone experienced this detached yet functional relationship after a certain number of married years. For us it began around the six year mark. My friends seemed to be going through the same thing - some had even divorced when they reached this stage. But I loved Adam - Adam loved me. For all intents and purposes we were happy together - well, we were content together. Comfortable. What more could you ask for? Somewhere along the way of raising a child, paying bills, working on a marriage and all the other grown-up things I'd lost any fantastical notions of a perfect love and a forever-passionate union. Life with Adam worked - and so we plodded on, ignoring the slowly rotting parts.
I was weighted down with these thoughts - so much so that I hadn't realized how late it had gotten. 2pm - I barely had enough time to run to the store and grab something to cook and make it back before Tyler got home. I decided I'd hurry and grab something quickly - I should be able to make it home before him. Even if not, he'd be okay alone for the few minutes more I might be gone. I grabbed my purse and keys, opened the door, stepped outside...and froze.
I could not force myself to take the few extra steps that would put me at my Explorer's door. I could not force myself to even think about getting in the car. It just wasn't happening. I felt a mild panic, but I wasn't necessarily scared. I'd had panic attacks before and this certainly wasn't one. It all seemed very simple to my conscious mind - "No, Stella," it told me, "You can't do that." But another part of me wasn't getting it so easily. "Why in the hell not? Take the next step, Stella - just one foot in front of the other. Get in the car, silly." But no matter how I tried to talk myself into walking towards the car, I could not. I just simply wouldn't.
Don't ask me how you can not doing something you're consciously telling yourself to do - don't ask me how my entire body "wouldn't" do something I was fully capable of doing. I couldn't explain it but there was obviously no use in fighting it. I quietly turned around, walked back inside, set my keys and purse back down and took a deep breath. Maybe it was time to call my therapist again - Adam had been hounding me to start going again, but I'd refused. Maybe I did need to go after all, however. I didn't allow myself to dwell on the incident for long. I quickly turned my mind to something else. I dug through the cabinets until I found something that would make a decent meal for my family - almost immediately forgetting about what had just happened.
I was in the middle of cooking when Adam came home. To say I was surprised was putting it mildly - he never came home early, not without calling first.
I was still upset with him, but figured it would be wrong to be pissy with him when I couldn't even remember what I was pissy about. "Hey, hon, what you doing home so early?" I asked him, turning from my cooking. I gasped when I saw him.
He looked horrible and it was obvious he hadn't come from work. He was in a t-shirt, a dirty one picked right off the bathroom floor I noted, and wrinkled jeans. He had dark circles under his eyes and his hair was so mussed as to be comical. It was the look on his face that had shocked me so, however. He looked as if he'd aged 20 years in one day. I noted lines I'd never noticed before and he looked the grimmest I think I'd ever seen him.
"Adam..." I started, quietly, but he walked right past me and into the bathroom. He slammed the door behind him and I heard him being sick. Bewildered I went and began banging on the door, "Adam! Adam, open this door!! What's wrong? What's going on?! Adam!!" He wouldn't answer me and I could hear him drawing a bath. Adam only took baths when he was very upset and I began to get even more worried. I continued yelling and banging on the door, but he continued to ignore me. After awhile I gave up and tried to listen. I heard him climb into the tub and then he began to cry.
If I'd been worried before now I was terrified. Adam hadn't even cried when his father died two years ago. What in the world could be making him do so now?! Instinctually, I turned to look at the clock in the hallway. 4:30pm. Panic and terror washed over me, squeezing my heart in a vise-like grip. Tyler should've been home an hour and a half ago.
"Adam!!" I screamed through the door, banging so hard now I was sure I was going to put a hole in it. "Where is Tyler!?" My voice was shrill, and whiny with terror. "Has something happened to Tyler!! Adam, please answer me!! What's happening!"
The phone rang then and I heard Adam getting out of the tub. The door whooshed open in front of me and I stepped back, surprised he'd gotten out so quickly. He hurried down the hall; a towel wrapped around his waist, and grabbed the ringing phone. I followed him.
"Jena," I heard him say with a sigh. "Yes, I'm fine. How is Tyler? Can I talk to him?"
I could tell he was talking to him in the next second and I breathed a deep sigh of relief. After he hung up, I tried to query him again.
"Why is Tyler at my mom's?" I asked.
He walked past me and into the living room. He sat on the couch and stared at the wall.
"Damnit, Adam!!" I yelled, wanting to throw something at him. "I know you're angry with me and its fine if you don't want to talk to me, but don't keep me in the dark about our son!!"
He just kept staring at the wall. Frustrated and angry, I went into the bedroom and slammed the door. I curled up in bed, fuming, and soon fell into a fitful sleep.
That reminds me of little Susie Anderson in the 6th grade. I was telling her that my pet gerbil had died in his sleep the night before.
"He just woke up dead," I informed her sadly.
"You can't wake up dead, stupid," she'd said, rolling her large brown eyes at me. "If you're dead, you don't wake up."
Looking back, I should've taken much less stock in Susie Anderson's views on life and death. She obviously wasn't well-versed in its finer points for the fact remains that on March 18, 1999, I, just like my beloved gerbil, Herbie, before me, woke up deader than a doornail.
The problem with waking up dead is that you don't realize that you are. At least, that was my problem.
On the morning of March 18, I arose and went about my daily business. Or at least I thought I did. There were a few things that were strange, things that might've tipped me off had I not been in such great denial of my fate. My husband wouldn't respond when I spoke to him, but we'd fought badly the night before so that wasn't all that odd. I was sad to realize that my 8 year-old son, Tyler, was ignoring me as well, but he could be pretty moody sometimes. The only one that seemed to acknowledge me was Pooper, our 12 year-old bulldog that barked and wagged his tail anytime he saw me and began following me around the house. Had I really thought about it, I would have found this a bit odd as well, considering the fact that the most activity Pooper had engaged in prior was fumigating the house with noxious dog farts.
You'd think after days of being ignored by my family members that something would've clicked. Yet there is nothing quite like the obstinate tenacity of the dead-who-don't-want-to-be. And I've always been extremely stubborn to boot - then and now. I could not accept that I was dead and had pushed the truth so far into the back of my mind that I actually had no clue that I even was.
It was only a month after my death-that-I-was-unaware-of that Cherise moved in. And that's when things got interesting.
And that is, also, where my story begins...