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A Bed Within Dreams

by Lucas Díaz-Medina 5 months ago in Short Story
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A story from New Domangue

A Bed Within Dreams
Photo by Ján Jakub Naništa on Unsplash

Earl Baggaman didn’t quite agree with Winnifred’s view that their newfound relatives were a shiftless, impudent bunch. Living in her house didn’t have to also mean that he should agree with everything she said. Being her younger fraternal twin and a widower who had always longed for children he never had, Earl had come to accept Winnifred’s position on many subjects, but this time he felt himself being pulled away from her in a way he could not have anticipated.

As Earl sat in his recliner, in defiance of his sister’s wishes for the first time since he had married against her advice, he felt exhausted, not just because of the irregular schedule, but also because of the strain of doing things behind his sister’s back. He fell asleep in his chair as he waited for his relatives.

Earl was not used to falling asleep upright. Having maintained a strict regimen throughout his twenty years with Winnifred, Earl never took day naps, never ate excessively, and always retired along with his sister at the very reasonable hour of nine in the. Despite not sleeping well lately, Earl always climbed into bed at the same time after bidding Winnifred goodnight. He would check his old .45, which always had a fully loaded cartridge inserted, place it back inside the dresser beside his bed, and lie down. He would listen to the varied sounds of the ever-changing New Domangue nights for hours until sleep finally arrived.

Tonight, Earl had retired with Winnifred at their usual hour, but had deliberately returned downstairs not long after his sister’s bedroom door had closed.

Before falling asleep in the chair, Earl considered the situation and wondered if Winnifred wasn’t overreacting. He agreed with Winnifred that their nephew and two nieces, who had recently arrived in New Domangue, had a very unsociable tendency to pay late-night visits. It was impolite. But they were family, and it had been a long time since Earl had been around any of his own kind. He was constantly reminded of this by the recent changes in the neighborhood, in which more and more of the faces on the streets belonged to an increasing number of strangers. In fact, the last relative Earl recalled seeing was a distant cousin who had moved north to New Orleans over ten years ago. Only he and Winnifred remained in New Domangue, and Earl thought it was wonderful to have family around again.

When the three young relatives arrived a little over three months ago, Earl couldn’t have been more delighted to see them. They were their oldest brother’s children, and though Earl had not heard anything about them since his brother abruptly left the family some thirty-odd years before, Earl couldn’t deny family, even if they were practically Northerners now. And being family, Earl felt a natural desire to listen to them, despite Winnifred’s argument that they no longer had any family worth caring about who didn’t live in New Domangue.

Earl disagreed, although he did agree with Winnifred that they weren’t exactly the most heartwarming family members he’d ever met. Sissy, a bright-eyed twenty-eight-year-old who supposedly had an art degree, behaved as if she were a deaf-mute. Initially, Earl tried to get a word out of her, but he soon gave up. Winnifred said that getting Sissy to talk was like trying to get a horse to moo like a cow.

Sissy’s older sister, Alexis, was another matter. She had two children, she said, who were staying with relatives up north until she could settle in New Domangue. She had many plans, many goals, and each would be equally fulfilled, of course, if only one thing or another would work out. Winnifred had opinions about her as well, saying that her eyes were dull—in contrast to the rest of her, which moved and behaved like a nervous twig in the wind. Earl wasn’t sure what to think of Alexis, though the pictures she had shown him of her two children impressed him with the fact that she was a mother, and that meant something.

Mason, on the other hand, seemed more in control, and not just of himself. Winnifred said that Mason struck her as being as slick as a water moccasin, and that he was probably an insurance salesman. Earl was initially inclined to agree with her, though to him Mason seemed like able enough. In fact, Earl even commented on his sister’s remark, adding that, sure, he looked like a salesman, but like a decent-looking enough salesman.

Earl had been thinking of this—and about the possibility of seeing great-nieces and nephews running around the house—when he followed Winnifred to bed earlier that evening.

“Family’s family, after all,” he’d said to his sister right before she turned in. “And family’s all we have left in our old age.”

“Bah,” his sister said as she ascended the stairs heavily, her feet stomping on each step as if she were ten times heavier than her one-hundred pounds. “I, for one, could do without them.”

Earl disagreed. Though the thought hadn’t occurred to him at first, he had begun to think that the nephew and the two nieces were exactly what he and Winnifred needed.

“Anyone, family or not, who visits at all hours of the night like these people do is a troublemaker waiting to do his handiwork,” Winnifred said. “It’s not right, Earl, it’s just not right.”

“But what if they move in with us, Winnie?” Earl blurted.

Winnifred stopped at the threshold of her door and turned sharply toward Earl. “I don’t believe I heard you right, Earl Baggaman.”

“I just thought it would be nice, that’s all. It’s been a long time since we’ve known family in this house,” Earl said. He almost said our house but stopped himself just in time.

“No, thank you. We make do just fine, you and I. Goodnight, Earl.”

“Goodnight, Winnie.”

Earl’s brief sleep in the recliner as he waited for his relatives was disturbed. Distorted visions of his newfound relatives’ faces haunted him until he awoke to a soft tapping at the window. Pushing the strangeness of his dream aside, Earl touched his forehead almost instinctively and wiped away beads of sweat. He noted how the summer heat was settling in early this year as he walked toward the door.

“Hello,” Earl said. His two nieces walked by him and into the house. “Where’s Mason?”

“He’s not coming tonight,” Alexis answered.

Earl didn’t understand. He was supposed to meet all three. The clock on the wall read nine forty-five, and he hoped that Mason wasn’t going to come sometime later, as this was intended to be a short meeting that would be finished before Winnifred had a chance to notice.

Before Earl had an opportunity to ask about this sudden change, Alexis jumped into an extended explanation of the many plans they’d been working on, plans which would enable them to bring first the children down, and then eventually other cousins and family members.

Sissy didn’t speak, smiling and agreeing with emphatic nods of her head to everything Alexis said. Earl tried to listen, though it was a strained effort. He began to feel tired, and part of him began to search for that bed within his dreams, the one where he always slept next to his wife and awakened to children’s laughter. The rest of him thought with irritation that this was not working out as he’d hoped. As Alexis droned on, Earl thought of ways to excuse himself for the night, and in doing so accidentally let out a yawn. He didn’t mean to do it, but the yawn ran its own course and was so long and drawn-out that it interrupted his niece.

“Well, if you feel that way about my company, why don’t you just say so?” Alexis said. Earl wasn’t sure what to say, having surprised himself. Alexis turned toward her sister. “The problem with Uncle Bags is he doesn’t get enough rest,” she said. Sissy smiled in her usual silent manner. “And you know why he doesn’t get enough rest? Cause he’s got a house too big for his age. Poor Uncle Bags and Auntie Winnie can’t do all they used to do around the house. It’s so big.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Earl responded. “We get along fine.”

“Do you?” Alexis asked quickly. She took a deep breath and sighed. “I mean, this house is so big it must be difficult to manage.”

“No, not too difficult,” Earl answered. He hadn’t noticed before how their faces looked blank. Had they looked vacant like that when they first arrived? Earl couldn’t remember. Their expressions conjured up in his mind images of the glazed eyes of dead animals.

“No?” Alexis said. “I would think it would be. How many bedrooms is it? Four? Five? Why, Uncle, you should have an entire family in here, your halls filled with great-nephews and great-nieces. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

Earl had originally hoped that, with Mason’s help, the four of them could decide how to discuss this very issue with Winnifred, but hearing the words fall from Alexis’s lips made him feel uncomfortable, and a growing suspicion began to mount inside him.

“We could move in, you know,” Alexis continued. “We wouldn’t mind. Mason might. But Sissy and I, we wouldn’t mind at all.”

Not knowing what to think, Earl smiled involuntarily.

“It’s not funny, Uncle Bags. Really. In fact,” Alexis said, scooting closer toward him, “to tell the truth, we’ve been thinking, all of us, that is, Mason, Sissy and I, of another possibility that could work for everyone. Have you and Aunt Winnie ever thought of a retirement home?”

“A retirement home?” Earl asked. His stomach began to irritate him at that very moment, demanding his full attention while Alexis continued to talk. He tuned out her senseless talk about retirement homes and eventually managed to see her and Sissy to the front door. He had a fitful sleep.

When he awoke, he looked out of his window and saw Winnifred tending her flower garden in the backyard. He considered walking down to let her know what had happened, but he remembered that he had admitted them back in the house after she had clearly asked him not to.

Earl struggled over the matter the entire day, wondering how it was that the same people he had considered admitting into their home had suddenly suggested that he and Winnifred move into a retirement home. As he ran errands around town, he thought about what his nieces had said and wondered if he and Winnifred would be able to keep up with the two-story house in a few years. Were his nieces right? What if there was some sort of change, and he suddenly wasn’t able to fix a hinge, lift a ladder, or even turn a screw?

Later that evening, as Earl sat in his recliner and wondered how to speak to Winnifred about his concerns and his sister worked on a crossword puzzle across the room, the doorbell rang unexpectedly. Earl looked up at the clock. It was a quarter to nine.

“Well,” Winnifred said. “Don’t just sit there, Earl. Go see what they want.”

Earl opened the door.

“Hello, Uncle Earl,” Mason said.

“Hello, Uncle. Where’s Aunt Winnie?” Alexis asked.

“She’s in the parlor. Is there something you want with her? She’s about to retire.”

“Well, then, we better hurry, shouldn’t we?” Mason walked past Earl before he could be refused. Alexis and Sissy followed, waving their hands at him as they moved into the parlor.

As Earl walked behind them, he considered that despite Mason being a somewhat racy character, Earl had never really placed any judgment of any sort on his nephew. But something about Mason’s voice just now seemed rather inappropriate, rather belligerent. Earl knew that tone of voice from a life spent mediating legal contracts for other people, and he knew the state of mind people could get wrapped in once they fixed their minds on wanting something.

Earl noticed that Winnifred sat in his recliner in an exaggeratedly composed manner and Mason and the two nieces stood over her as if they were prepared to pounce.

“You have ten minutes before Earl escorts you back out,” Winnifred said. Earl felt she was being too strong with them, too sharp. They were family, after all.

“Aunt Winnifred,” Mason said, his voice suddenly very sweet, Earl noticed, “did Uncle Earl tell you about what Alexis said to him last night?”

“What are you talking about?” Winnifred asked. “No one was here last night.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Mason said, with a severely dramatic effect that wasn’t lost on Earl. Mason’s head slumped to one side as he turned toward Earl. “Didn’t Uncle Earl tell you?”

“Tell me what?” Winnifred asked. She shot a questioning look at Earl.

Suddenly Earl felt ashamed that he had entertained his nieces behind Winnifred’s back.

“I’m truly sorry,” Mason continued, “that you and Uncle Earl had to be subjected to the artless devices of my sister. You see, Alexis doesn’t know how to tell things right.”

“What in the world are you talking about?”

“Why, I’m talking about what Alexis said to Uncle Earl last night.”

“Mason, it’s getting late,” Winnifred said. “If Earl was disturbed from his sleep last night by your sister, then I have even more reason to remind you that you are being rude and inconsiderate by calling on our company so late. Please make your point.”

Winnifred’s tone signaled Earl that he could breathe easier: it wouldn’t matter any longer what he did last night, as long as he stood behind her now.

“Okay, Aunt,” Mason said. He placed an arm around each of his sisters and affected an excessively sweet tone. “It’s just that, well, with your age, we’re concerned about you and Uncle Earl.”

“Thank you very much, but we’re doing just fine.”

Earl loved that sharp tone of hers—it so often put people in New Domangue in their places, especially lately. Anyone who knew them around town had something to say to him about their age. Especially at the hardware store, which Earl visited on a monthly basis, and where old Jerry would ask him about his health as a way of leading into a conversation about getting a hired hand, or a cook, or someone to help them.

“Oh, I don’t doubt you think you are,” Mason continued. His eyes swept toward Earl then turned back toward Winnifred. “But you’re getting older. And the accident that could have meant a bruised hip yesterday may turn out to be a broken pelvis tomorrow.”

Earl noticed that Mason’s voice had the type of sweetness in it that mothers often use when they force horrible-tasting medicine down their children’s throats.

“Mason,” Winnifred said, this time in a lower tone than was usual for her, sounding as curt as she could manage without being rude, “I don’t like what I’m hearing from your lips, and I don’t think I’m going to like anything else that falls from that mouth of yours. Do not speak any more about my age, and definitely do not suggest anything concerning my life while you are standing under my roof.”

“But Auntie Winnie! How could you know what I’m about to say?”

Shiftless, Earl thought suddenly. The word appeared out of nowhere, as if whispered in his ear. He moved toward his sister and, standing beside her, placed a hand on her shoulder. He could see that her left hand trembled as it rested in her lap, and he realized that if neither of his three young relatives had the sense to respect her when she was obviously upset, then perhaps they were exactly what she said they were, relatives or not.

“Mason,” Earl cut in, “why don’t we leave this discussion for some other time, son? Your Aunt Winnifred is tired.”

“All right, Uncle Bags,” Mason said. “I was only trying to say that pretty soon you folks might be in need of medical assistance, and it’s only good planning to start thinking…”

“That’s enough!” Winnifred shouted. She slammed the flats of her palms on the armrests and stood up to face her nephew. “You have no shame. None whatsoever. Please leave my house.”

Mason turned toward his two sisters, who remained as still as two well-disciplined children.

“Okay, let’s go, little sisters. It seems the old guys are tired. It’s past their bedtime, anyway.”

The three walked themselves out.

“Earl,” Winnifred said, her body slumping back into Earl’s recliner, “don’t let them in again. Ever. Something’s not right, and I certainly don’t want to end up dead.”

“Now, come on, Winnifred. That’s a bit much,” Earl said. His sister had a tendency to overreact, and he knew it. They were certainly shameless people, he now agreed, but to be mortally afraid of them?

“No, Earl. I mean it. Didn’t you hear his words? If I didn’t know any better I’d say he was capable of making sure we hurt ourselves somehow.”

“Really, Winnie, I think you’re overreacting.”

“You do, do you?” Winnifred asked. “Then what does ‘you might need some medical assistance’ sound like to you?”

“It could be concern. Who knows? They might want to move in and help support us. They do have a point, Winnie, we are getting to where very soon we’ll be too old to manage things.”

“Don’t be so dense, Earl.” Winnifred stood up and walked to the stairs. “I’m going to bed. Make sure the front door is locked and the alarm is turned on. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” Earl responded.

He went to his room, where he fell into a troubled sleep that didn’t calm down until deep into the night when he began to dream. His dream-state offered him a series of pictures that were as palpable as reality and as surreal as an over-exposed negative. Each dream began with Earl in the middle of a scene in which he was the central figure. In one instance, he was a loving father who kindly reprimanded his children, and in another instance, he was a well-loved and much-admired grandfather of a large family with scores of little ones who laughed and ran around his feet. These brief apparitions quieted the apprehension and unease that had followed him into his bed. But some time before dawn, Earl felt an irritating sensation that brought to mind a trail of insects walking on his forehead. Though he was still asleep, he believed he could see a constant line of ants crawling across his face. He awoke with one hand in the air as he attempted to brush away the crawling ants from his dream. As he slowly came to, he became aware of a rustling noise that he couldn’t quite place. His hands instinctively flew up to the space above his face again, as if he could stop the noise by brushing it aside, but it made no difference—the noise continued. It wasn’t until he thrust himself into a sitting position in the darkness and touched his face that he realized that he was sweating profusely. Earl had forgotten to turn on his ceiling fan and open the windows.

As he wiped the sweat from his face, Earl once more heard the rustling noise, which he now believed was coming from the garden below. Complaining to himself about his neighbor’s inconsiderate cats, Earl lifted the window and threw back the shutters.

In the pre-dawn light, Earl could distinguish the vague outlines of his sister’s shrubs. When he heard the rustling noise again, he thought he saw movement and made shooing noises so as to scare away the animal. But nothing jumped out of the darkness, no cat or anything else. After a minute or so, he thought he heard more rustling noise.

As Earl peered into the barely distinguishable shadows at the far end of the yard, he felt the hair on his back slowly rise. He thought he could make out a man hiding in the bushes. Mason, he thought. He might have whispered it. His breath became shallow and uneven, and he thought that he saw a shape that looked like a man’s figure.

“Mason, is that you?”

The words barely escaped his lips when he reconsidered. Maybe his imagination was playing tricks on him. Without turning on the lights, he turned on the fan, made sure that his .45 was loaded, and lay back down. On his way to sleep, he made a mental note to check the garden in the morning.

When he had the opportunity to inspect the garden without drawing Winnifred’s attention, Earl had a look around but was unable to determine if the earth had been disturbed. Later that evening, his nieces returned without Mason. Earl could not refuse their company, despite Winnifred’s threat of the previous night. They called at a decent hour for the first time since they arrived in town, and Earl felt he couldn’t be rude.

As a gentleman and as a man experienced in mediating difficult deals, Earl felt that it was still possible for him to find a way to broker a decent arrangement. He invited his nieces into the parlor while still under this assumption. As they began to talk, however, Earl began to regret his own gentlemanly ideas about letting them in.

“Is Aunt Winnie still upset about last night, Uncle Bags?” Alexis asked.

“Oh no, of course not.”

“Where is she now?”

“Oh, she retired early,” Earl said. “She was tired. Had a lot of errands to run.”

“You know,” Alexis said, moving close toward Earl, “if she were in a retirement home, she wouldn’t have any errands to run. Isn’t that right, Sissy?”

Sissy smiled back the same blank smile as always, and Earl suddenly felt the urge to throw them both out.

Alexis continued on about the retirement home, but Earl didn’t listen. She droned on and on as before about the wonderful life that could be lived in retirement homes, this time even going so far as to describe a specific community she had looked into. As she spoke, Earl began to search for the most polite way to throw them out. But before he could muster up the nerve to say something that would clearly indicate that their meeting was finished, his two nieces suddenly stood up and said goodnight. On their way out, Alexis turned and touched Earl’s shoulder.

“Think about it, Uncle Bags. You may even meet the new Mrs. Bags there.”

Earl ignored the comment and quietly watched them jump into their car and drive away.

“Well?” Winnifred asked. She was standing at the threshold of her bedroom, clad in her nightgown. “What did they have to say for themselves this time?”

“Nothing,” he said and headed toward his room.

“Earl, they might do something drastic.”

Earl recognized sincere concern in his sister’s voice. Remembering the noise in the garden in the middle of the night, Earl felt that perhaps there was reason enough for it.

“I won’t let them inside anymore, Winnie.”

As he prepared for sleep, Earl took out his .45 and made sure that a round was in the chamber after inserting the cartridge clip. He placed the gun beneath his pillow.

Earl didn’t sleep easily. Nightmares visited him for the next few hours, and by one in the morning he was lying in bed awake, letting his anxiety run wild. When the rustling noise he’d heard the previous night returned, Earl immediately reached beneath his pillow and walked toward the window. But when he looked into the backyard, he couldn’t make out anything in the dark, foggy night.

“Who’s there?” Earl called tentatively. “Mason? Is that you out there? Mason? That’s enough playing around, son. Come out of there.”

As he began to distinguish the shapes of things, his gun pointed toward the far end, Earl couldn’t tell if the shadows he saw were those of a man or a bush. After what seemed to Earl like endless seconds of stillness, a sudden and loud crack shot up from the far corner of the yard, startling Earl and causing him to discharge his weapon not once, but several times. For a brief moment, the sparks from the exploding gunpowder illuminated the night and seemed to reveal the face of a man who sat crouched in the far corner where he’d aimed. The man looked like Mason.

Lights came on in the houses around him. The house alarm went off, and his sister came yelling into his room.

“Earl! What happened?” Winnifred cried. She flipped the lights to his bedroom, blinding him momentarily with a sudden flood of white.

“It was me. I shot my gun into the yard.”

“Shot at what, Earl? At what?”

Earl looked at his sister as if he were seeing her for the first time. She was wrapped in a thick, oversized robe, too thick for all this heat, Earl thought, and it made her seem as if she were hiding behind her clothes while at the same time attempting to fill them. Something about her awkward look, a look that contrasted with her usual tightly composed manner, made him want to put his arms around her. But he didn’t. He placed the .45 on top of his dresser and walked into the hallway.

“It was nothing, Winnie,” he said. “Just my nerves getting the best of me. I thought I heard things, but it was nothing.”

“Earl,” Winnifred began, but she didn’t finish.

The doorbell rang and Earl looked back into his sister’s eyes as she stared at him. He could see, as if for the first time, that she was waiting for him to take the first step.

“Winnie,” he said, “will you walk down to the front door with me?”

A concerned neighbor and a police officer who had responded to the alarm were at the door. Earl explained the situation to them.

“Next time,” the officer said, “please don’t discharge your weapon into open spaces, sir. You can get into trouble.”

Earl assured him that he would be more mindful next time, while in his mind he said to himself that he’d fire his weapon a dozen times over if tonight ever repeated itself.

“Winnie,” Earl said after the two concerned men had left them alone, “let’s have a drink.”

“It’s rather late for that, Earl, don’t you think?” his sister asked.

“I disagree, Winnie. The way I see it, it’s the perfect time.”

Winnifred laughed slightly at his comment but not without Earl noticing that she wore a nervous frown.

“What if those no-good relatives of ours try something, well, drastic?” she asked.

“There you go with your nonsense again,” Earl said as he opened a bottle of bourbon and placed it on the kitchen table.

“I mean it, Earl. What can we do with them? Should we put a restraining order on them?”

“That won’t be necessary.”

As Earl expected, Mason and his nieces didn’t return the next day, nor anytime in the following days, though Earl kept a watch out at night with his .45 in one hand and a tumbler of bourbon in the other.

One day, after several months had passed and the relatives had become no more than a story to be remembered over breakfast, Earl was in the process of emptying his .45 when a slight breeze rustled the bushes in the garden. It was morning, and Earl could see clearly that no one was in the yard besides Winnifred. Earl left the loaded gun in place, remembering how he’d once tried to help a young family keep a disturbed uncle away from them only to eventually read in the papers how this same uncle had murdered the entire family. He called his sister, and when she came he guided her to the kitchen. She watched in confusion as he poured water over ice in a tumbler he prepared for her and then filled the rest with bourbon.

“Here,” he said, setting the glass squarely in front of Winnifred. He lifted his own glass to the air.

“To family,” he toasted, and smiled before downing his drink.

Short Story

About the author

Lucas Díaz-Medina

I'm a Dominican immigrant living in the New Orleans area since the 70s. A father of two, I've been a service worker, war medic, ER tech, pro fundraiser, nonprofit leader, city bureaucrat, and a PhD student, but always a writer.

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