Joanna Kayson’s gray eyes stared into the darkness of her bedroom. When one of “those” dreams hit, she always found herself needing to process it for a while. “Those” dreams were always distinct from the ordinary dreams you told your friends about. No being naked in class or having your teeth fall out in these bad boys. These were slices of real life in staggering detail, complete with smells and tactile feelings in many cases. Although the dreams weren’t always warnings, they bore careful consideration because often they were and she took each one seriously.
She always cautiously accepted warnings about things relating to her own life (she basically felt she had to, she’d been burned too many times trying to ignore her premonitions). Yet what to say to others was another question entirely. Her mother always told her that her dreams were prophesies from God, His way of communicating to others through her as his chosen vessel, and they should be shared because that was why she’d had them. Then again, mom said a lot of things. She said, for instance, that she too was a prophet. And for most of her early childhood Joanna assumed it was true. Jo knew things were going to happen sometimes, why shouldn’t her mother? When she’d broken her leg at 9, her mother had said she’d known it was going to happen. But why hadn’t she warned Jo then? She’d asked but mom said not everything was supposed to be shared and God worked in mysterious ways. And while mom seemed happy to tell anyone at church who would listen about the “gifts” in her family Jo had begun to have her doubts by 10 or 11 years old. The dreams her mom shared were supposed to be warnings, but they seemed either incorrect or patently obvious. She told Joanna about dreams in which she forgot to wear her coat to school in the snow and got sick, for instance. One day, as a test, Jo had left the coat off all day and slipped it back on just before mom picked her up. Not only did she not get sick, but when she asked her mom about it, mom had claimed God spoke to her, telling her that Joanna would be healthy because she’d been “obedient to his commandment” by wearing the coat. Beginning then, she’d questioned her mother’s advice about prophesy and dreams. Even if it was sinful not to obey your mother, was it sinful simply not to trust her?
Now, sitting in bed, breathing hard and still emerging from an intense set of visual images, it wasn’t her mother’s advice that was echoing in her head, but Grandma Lou’s. Her maternal grandmother had died when she was only 13, but even at that young age Jo had known Grandma had real dreams. For one thing, she didn’t tell people much about them. When she was young, she’d had an idea that this made her grandmother seem more credible somehow, but now, at 26 the many years of experience with strange insight into other people’s lives had taught her that anyone with a real tendency towards precognition learned to mostly keep their mouth shut. She remembered Grandma handing her an umbrella during a weekend visit when she was about 7. When she pointed out that the sky was cloudless and grandma had confirmed that the forecast didn’t call for rain, her grandmother had insisted but she’d started to whine that none of the other kids had to take umbrellas. Finally, grandma had simply shrugged and told her to suit herself. She’d left the umbrella, and when she came back from the park drenched, her blond hair sticking to her forehead, her grandmother suppressed a laugh.
“You should have told me it was from a dream!” said Jo as Grandma toweled off her hair.
“Who said it was from a dream?” grandma had asked, watching Jo’s face carefully.
“If it happens, and you knew it would even though nobody told you, it’s always from a dream, isn’t it? How else would you know?” Jo had asked.
This had started a conversation about meaningful dreams, and she’d learned much from her grandmother that day. Firstly, people’s lives were personal and they didn’t always want to know things about them, even things that would help. Second, the two of them were alike in more than just the greyness of their eyes. Although Grandma Lou wouldn’t say so outright, it seemed clear that she believed mom’s dreams weren’t the same as the dreams the two of them experienced. And finally, her grandmother had said something that had always stuck with her, both when dealing with her dreams and at times of trouble in her general life.
“When the moment comes to make an important decision, you already know what you should do. You just don’t always know that you know. You just have to listen to your gut.” Grandma Lou had explained.
“Your gut doesn’t argue like rationalization. It doesn’t repeat itself like anxiety. It’s just that quiet voice inside of you that you have a feeling you should listen to.”
It was this final piece of advice that stuck in her head tonight, causing an internal wrestling match between caution and a strong sense of urgency the dream seemed to impart. If it had been about anyone else she probably would have known what to do immediately. But it wasn’t about just anyone, it was about Ron.
Ron Nester had lived with them for 7 years while she was growing up. Of the several terrible boyfriends her mother had invited to live with them over the years, Ron was there for the longest and was by far the worst. Before Joanna and Ron had even met, 8 year old Jo had approached her mother and told her about a man with a crooked nose and a red mustache who was very dangerous. In her dream, a very distinct man’s head (one she instantly recognized from her dream the first time she met Ron) was attached to the body of a snake. The snake lunged at Jo and mom over and over, but instead of biting it rammed them with its head, leaving them covered with bruises. Her mom had said that sometimes dreams were just dreams and when Jo adamantly insisted the dream was real and important, mom had gotten angry and said that maybe if her daughter spent more time reading the Bible and less time trying to get attention, it wouldn’t be so easy for the devil to put dark thoughts in her mind. The actual bruises Ron later inflicted actually hurt less than that particular statement.
Eventually, mom finally had enough and kicked him out. That should have been the end of it, but he showed up half of the places they went around town and they noticed his truck parked across the street from their house frequently, her mother had filed (and later dropped) a request for a protective order. Ron had somehow convinced her mother to “stay friends,” a compromise Jo felt Ron had only made because he had recently become infatuated with his now-wife, Tammy. Still, it seemed he couldn’t let go of his influence on them, and Ron and her mother talked every few weeks to this day, catching up on life and talking about Jo and about Ron’s daughter Cara just as if he had never been a corrosive poison on their lives. To this day, Jo thought Ron was a judgemental and fairly controlling influence on her mother (especially where other men were concerned) and that the friendship was odd and toxic. But she’d learned long ago that on some subjects there was absolutely no reasoning with Sarah Kayson and this was evidently one of them.
Still, as much as she would have expected to enjoy seeing Ron turned into a stain on the pavement, she found herself breathing hard and clenching her blanket in both fists as the vision of his accident dissipated. She’d seen him in stark grayscale, riding along the freeway in his rattly old neglected truck. One hand dangled a cigarette out the window, and he had a look on his face that she’d come to recognize as suppressed rage, an expression he’d worn on a near-daily basis by the last year of his relationship with her mother. She looked up from her odd vantage point, floating to the right of the driver’s seat to see him weaving through freeway traffic at an unreasonable speed and understood he must be in a hurry and very upset. He swerved to the right to pass a gray sedan and suddenly there was a shocking pop as his right rear tire blew. She watched as he tried to stabilize his trajectory, overcorrected to first one side and then the other and within moments had rolled his to an almost instant stop as the truck was embedded into a light pole alongside the thoroughfare. She was thankfully far enough away to avoid seeing the carnage, but the velocity of the crash and the horrific thud couldn’t be interpreted as anything less than instantly fatal for the driver.
The dream had lingered on that image of the truck, crushed like a soda ban into the concrete foundation of the light, then consciousness had returned to her abruptly, so that the last part of the dream seemed to happen when she was totally awake. A child’s voice whispered with a stutter,
Now she looked down and saw her grip on the blanket and released it. She needed to move. She got up and went to the bathroom, submerging her face in a double handful of cold water. She wasn’t going to face it. It couldn’t be faced. It was a dream. People had them all the time. No need to let it ruin your day, much less anything else. She would focus on work at the bookstore. There were a few things she should really tell Sheryl to order. Historical fiction seemed to be getting really popular the last few months. What was she supposed to say to Ron anyway? They hadn’t talked in any real way in years. It didn’t matter. She’d order the extra copies of War Won, War Lost and tell Sheryl later. That was the thing to think about, work. If they could ever get the author to do a book signing it would be a real boon for the store. What was with the voice in the dream anyway? She’d never heard voice in a prophetic dream before. This certainly seemed like one but did that mean it wasn’t? Who cared this was none of her business anyway. Right? But still…
A noise of frustration left her as she turned off the water and walked away from the sink without bothering to dry her face. She needed to let this go and get back to sleep.
But she didn’t sleep. She lay looking into the darkness, seeing the wreck over and over. What was she supposed to do? The man had basically ruined her childhood. She couldn’t even be around people today when they were drinking because the smell brought back the fear, the feeling of helplessness, sometimes even the taste of blood from times he’d hit her when he was drunk. But every time she thought she had it settled in her mind she would think about Ron’s wife and their 10 year old daughter Cara. At first she’d been concerned when she found out Ron’s wife was pregnant, sure that she would be in for the same kind of brutal terror that characterized those terrible “Ron years” from her own childhood. She mostly tried to avoid the topic of Ron entirely when she talked to her mother, but she had learned that Ron had been in AA for years and that since his drinking had stopped, he said things in his life were pretty stable. Good even. She kept thinking of the time she’d seen Ron and his daughter Cara at the fair a few years ago, how excited the little dark haired pudgy girl had looked watching her daddy squint at the wooden clown face and raise the water gun, trying to win her a stuffed frog. Had it been her concern for the girl’s safety that made this memory stick in her mind for so long? Or could it be that everything was fine for Cara and she was just superimposing her own experiences onto a happy, healthy little girl? By morning, exhausted of running circles in her own mind, she’d resolved to call her mother and see what she could find out about Ron without drawing too much attention to her interest in the topic.
Sarah answered after two rings, skipping hello and going straight for
“I was starting to wonder if you forgot I was alive.”
It had that familiar I’m kidding but you know I’m not kidding tone, but Jo laughed as naturally as she could.
“Yeah sorry about that. I was just thinking about you and I thought I’d see how you’re doing.”
It occurred to her that she’d called for a conversation just because she was thinking about her mother maybe never. For a moment she was concerned her mom would reject what seemed to be an obvious lie, but apparently she was anxious to talk about herself, her job and the fact that she was in charge of Sunday School for 9-12 year olds now. Normally, Jo would be playing muted video games or giving herself a pedicure while getting through this obligatory part of the conversation, but today she was listening for a casual-sounding way to turn the topic to the conversation of Ron and try to get more information.
As mom was finishing a story about a boy in her class who had a habit of “swearing” (oh my gosh he says “crap” call the cops, she thought), Joanna decided now was as good a time as any to make her move.
“Yeah, you definitely raised me better than that. Ron used to get so mad if I said a swear word.”
Her mother was silent for a moment and Jo suddenly had a feeling that getting info on Ron surreptitiously was going to be harder than she’d thought.
Her mother finally responded in a flatly icy tone,
Apparently she’d underestimated just how aggressive she’d been with her mom on the topic of Ron over the years. Convincing her now to talk casually about him was going to be tricky.
“I watched a really interesting documentary about Alcoholics Anonymous the other day,” she lied, “Apparently it can really change people drastically.”
“Yeah Joanna. It can.”
Another long pause.
“I guess it just made me wonder about Ron and how he’s doing lately.”
“He’s not drinking anymore if that’s what you’re accusing him of. He hasn’t even touched alcohol since you were a teenager.”
“I’m not accusing him of anything! I’m just… curious about him.”
“Since when? I haven’t been able to mention that man to you from the minute he left this house. And now you’re just curious?? What’s going on?”
She had an almost overpowering desire to end the call, but was sure that would only make the situation even worse.
“Look, could you just tell me about his life? What’s he like? How’s his relationship with his daughter now?”
“It’s fine. Excellent actually. When he talks about her, it’s like she’s the only thing in the world.”
This provoked a physical ache in Joanna’s heart that she wouldn’t have thought possible after all these years. Why hadn’t anyone loved her like that?
“He was going through a really rough time when he lived with us,” her mother continued. “The man you think you knew isn’t who he really is. People change.”
No, she thought they don’t. Not people like him. Not people who attack their helpless family and then tell you what a good person they are afterwards. She wished she could point out that he wasn’t always drunk when he’d attacked them. That sometimes it seemed like he was actually having fun hurting her as a little girl. And perhaps most importantly, that her foundationless faith in him was putting an innocent child in very real danger! Was she so indoctrinated about the idea of forgiveness that the prospect of risking a kid’s well being meant nothing to her??
On the phone, her mom was continuing, “ ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debters,’ remember? You used to say that prayer every night. If we can’t learn to forgive everyone who has hurt us, we never find any peace, Joanna. Not in this life and certainly not in the next. Now are you gonna tell me what exactly has got you so upset?”
You!! She wanted to scream into the phone. You and him and the fact that I’m the only one who seems to remember what it’s like to be afraid to laugh because someone might decide to slam your ****ing head into a wall for being noisy! Does no one else care if another child goes through that!? Instead she clenched her jaw.
“God gave you a dream about him, didn’t He??” Mom asked.
“Is he in danger?” she pressed, “Is his family safe? Joanna answer me!”
“Someone’s here, I gotta call you back,” she said suddenly and terminated the call before her mother could push her any further. When her mom immediately called back, she couldn’t even deal with the phone, itself. She left if ringing and went into the bathroom to start getting ready for work.
She started in the bookstore at 10am. Work was fairly slow, even for a Wednesday, turning what would have probably already felt like a long day into a practically eternal one. Several times she found herself standing totally still with books in her hands before realizing that she’d even stopped restocking. What was she supposed to do? What if the accident was happening right now? Or it could be weeks or even years before it happened. What if she was stressing over nothing and it was never going to happen at all? Suppose she warned him and he said he’d already replaced his tires or no longer even drove that truck, and he told her she was just insane! Suppose she was just insane and it was only her own imagination that caused her to lose touch with reality to the point where she’d convinced herself she was some kind of psychic in the first place! On the other hand, she felt that she knew perfectly well what was going to happen, and could she live with herself if she just went about her business while a human being died because of her negligence? Was it really her place to decide whether possibly abusing a child warranted death? What would Cara want her to do?
By the time her shift ended, her brain was so burned out from over-thinking that it felt as if her brain had gone to sleep like a foot that wasn’t getting enough blood.
She drove home in a mental fog, pondering what it would be like to get into an accident with the cars around her, asking herself what her grandmother would have done in this situation. By the time she walked into her door she was so exhausted from over-thinking that she found herself just kicking off her shoes and falling onto her bed, hiding her face in her pillow to hide from the lingering daylight.
The dream came again, in a colorless world, she watched Ron lose control and crash. The little girl’s voice spoke again, this time saying
“Something b-bad is going to happen. P-p-please stop it!”
When she woke, it was to the sound of The Eagles’ Witchy Woman playing as her phone buzzed in her pocket.
If she had been fully awake, or perhaps if she hadn’t just had such an intense experience, Joanna probably would have skipped the call, since her mom was bound to be pretty pissed about being hung up on. But blinded by the bright light (was it morning already?) she pulled her phone out of her pocket and accepted the call.
“Joanna. I know you’ve had some issues in the past with the fruits of the spirit, but I’m confident I’ve taught you well enough that you’ll do the right thing.”
There was a pause but before she could fill the silence a man’s voice said “Hello?”
“Ron, Joanna is on the call,” her mother said “and she has something to tell you.”
Now wide awake but too stunned to react, she listened to the quiet hiss of the phone as no one spoke.
“Joanna? Something is going on and I want you to tell Ron what it is. She’s had one of her dreams Ron, and I can tell it concerns you.”
Goddammit!! Joanna thought, This was not your decision to make! Surely her mother couldn’t force her to speak. Surely she could just hang up right now, nothing was stopping her. But for some reason she didn’t. Suddenly, the strongest and clearest instinct of her life overtook her. She stopped trying to decide whether to warn him or stay silent because in that moment she felt she knew exactly what she needed to do.
“Look I can’t talk now,” Ron said “I’m busy.”
“Are you driving today?” someone else seemed to ask with Joanna’s voice. Why was she even speaking? She hadn’t decided what to do yet. Was she making a mistake.
After a moment he responded “Yeah.”
“With Cara or alone?”
“Cara’s already at school, it’s 9:15” he replied in his angry why do I have to explain things to a moron tone.
“Surface streets or freeway?”
“None of your ****ing business,” he said in a quiet, defensive tone.
“Ron!” Sarah interjected, less scolding and more genuinely surprised at her ex’s use of language she hadn’t heard from him in years. “Look you’ve seen how accurate her dreams are, don’t you think you’d better at least talk civilly to her for one minute and find out what’s going on?”
There was a silence long enough to make Jo check her phone to make sure the call hadn’t ended before he finally said
And at this moment Joanna remembered her Grandma Lou’s words so clearly that she could almost physically hear them ringing in her ears. “You already know what you should do.”
“Don’t. Take the freeway. Otherwise you won’t make it.”
Mom let out a sigh of relief.
“Alright, I knew you’d do the right thing, hon. You know, Ronnie, it might be best to avoid driving at all today. You have to take residential streets to even get to the freeway, right? Ron? Did you hang up?”
What did I do!? What did I do?? Thought Joanna, shaking. Why would I do that? Can I still have her call him back?
“...first step on your road to forgiveness,” her mom was continuing. “You’re never going to live a happy life until you can forgive. I was just telling--”
Joanna cut her mother off. She should tell her to call Ron back and say she was wrong.
“Mom!” she said “….my phone is about to die.”
She ended the call. Sitting in the aftermath of her decision, she felt disconnected from her body. Maybe this was the dream, now. Not a meaningful dream but just some strange guilt nightmare stemming from her anger at her former stepfather. The thought calmed her slightly.
In a haze she paced the living room not able to really think about what she’d done but not really able to think about anything else. Unable to think clearly at all. Not knowing what else to do, she stripped, dropping her clothes on the bathroom floor and stepped into the shower. She stood there letting the water hit her and staring unblinking at the tiled wall for so long that the water had lost all trace of heat before she came back to herself enough to notice. Then she just sat on the floor of the tub, repeating over and over in her mind What did I do? What did I do? The dream had specifically told her to help. Had she helped? She’d killed a child’s father. What if her instincts were wrong and Cara was fine? Maybe she’d made a terrible mistake. What if, without realizing it, she’d done it out of jealousy or something? She was angry about her own past, had it been an act of vengeance? And even if he was hurting Cara, the death penalty wasn’t imposed for child abuse, did she really have any right to make that decision? Then why did she feel sure it had been the right thing? Had she really heard that inner voice Grandma Lou called her “gut” telling her what had to be done? Why did part of her refuse to worry, as if she’d taken the only proper course of action. Her mother was bound to find out what she’d done. What was she going to say??
It took 3 days to find out. After worrying and wondering if the dream had been true, if her actions had led to someone’s death, it was almost a relief when she finally got a text from her mother on Tuesday, 3 days after she’d spoken to Ron. The text read
“WHAT DID YOU DO”
Jo instantly knew exactly what she had done. She’d killed someone. She guessed she’d known she had from the moment the words had left her mouth. The texts piled up quickly, and from them she learned that Ron’s mother, her mutual friend on Facebook, had posted about his sudden death in a freeway accident. At first her mom wanted to know if she knew, if she had done it on purpose. But it seemed she gradually became more sure that it must have been a deliberate “murder” (her word) and became angrier and angrier. She speculated that maybe Joanna had ignored God’s directive. She said she thought maybe her daughter was so sinful that she actually believed she was helping by sharing a dream that had actually been given to her by Satan. She even asked if Jo had knowingly asked Satan to help her find a way to murder Ron and get her revenge for what had been “a sweet man’s mistake.”
At first she considered many ways to respond. She even started typing “I didn’t” then she thought what? Mean to? Know? Of course I did. And so she hadn’t responded. She left the texts read and unanswered at first out of shame. But as the days passed, she began to realize that knowing she wasn’t going to communicate with her mother and knowing she wouldn’t have to listen to any comments or judgement from mom about her life was making her feel… happy? Could it be that she was happy? No, that was perhaps too much to hope for with the guilt and confusion nettling her, but happier might not have been entirely inaccurate.
She considered seeing a therapist about these feelings, reconsidered because her mom had always said that God was the only true therapist and people who went into counseling that wasn’t Christian were looking for substitutes for the truth. Then she reconsidered again. Who cared what mom said, she wasn’t talking to her mom.
At first therapy had been awkward. It had taken several sessions before she felt comfortable enough to take a chance and tell the therapist about her dreams. She had a distinct impression that he didn’t necessarily believe her, but he was helping so she didn’t really care. Helping her see things from a new perspective. Helping her think for herself. Before long it became evident that most of the feelings troubling her were deeper than just that one incident. She began talking to the counselor about the traumas she’d suffered at the hands of her mother’s boyfriends and realizing how the men (particularly Ron) had effected her view of the world, of herself. When the therapist recommended that she try group therapy at the local women’s shelter, she hardly hesitated at all.
The women’s shelter, Natalie’s House, was basically just a large, re-purposed home. The group therapy for survivors of domestic violence was held in what Jo believed used to be a kitchen. Both her therapist and the director who had led her into the room had said that most people didn’t speak the first time they attended and that suited her fine. She thought just knowing that she wasn’t the only one who’d been treated this way would be helpful enough for her first time. She mostly looked at her own lap as she listened to the first few women and young girls share their experiences, watching as the tissue in her hands became a small pile of papery lint between her fingers. Then a voice caught her attention and she looked up to see a familiar young face.
“My d-dad used to hit me a lot,” stuttered the pudgy little dark-haired child who sat in her folding chair looking down with her shoulders drawn tightly in.
“He hit my mom, t-too. N-nobody knew though.”
Joanna sat in god-smacked silence as she watched little Cara, Ron’s daughter describe the exact same type of abuse that she’d survived. Right down to his habit of bending one of her fingers back until she cried and then accusing her of having no sense of humor when she cried.
It turned out that the day of the three-way call happened after the night Ron’s wife told him she was taking Cara and leaving. Tammy, Cara’s mother, dropped the girl off at school so she could file a restraining order and move their things into a local battered women’s shelter. She’d told Cara not to go anywhere with her father and informed the school of the situation so that he couldn’t take her while she filed for a protective order.
Cara’s mother had checked that Ron’s truck wasn’t in the driveway and then gone inside with a couple of friends to pack as many of their belongings as possible when one of them saw a note on the kitchen table labeled in large letters “WHY I DID WHAT I DID.” Apparently, Ron was about to head to the school, loaded down with firearms and ammunition, when Jo had spoken with him. He’d intended to shoot not only his daughter and himself but every other child in the building. Apparently Ron had said that if “a good man like him” didn’t deserve his child, no one did, ranting about how women had treated him unfairly his whole life and he wasn’t going to take it anymore.
Cara had talked to the police when they shut her school down at the end of the day, but if it hadn’t been for the accident on the freeway, it would have been far too late by the time they got there. After hearing about some of what she and her mother had been through, the police had recommended that both of them get into counseling, and although they didn’t have to move into the shelter anymore, they still came to the shelter for group and it was helping a lot. Her speech therapist said it seemed like she was improving since she’d been under less stress. But she said she still thought a lot about the days leading up to Ron’s accident.
“I had a really b-b-bad feeling that something was going to happen,” Cara said, welling up a little, “I d-d-didn’t know he would do something that bad, of c-course, but I had this feeling in my stomach. I k-kept praying that if anyone could hear me, please d-do something and help us. He d-died on his way there, though. He crashed his t-t-truck. I d-don’t know if that means someone heard me or not.”
Someone did, Joanna thought in astonishment, someone did.