The Dreams You Chose to Populate
Moira McAvoy

The week after you left, you were a snake, slithering—almost floating—with shimmering green scales lined with gold, and I told myself that meant you were a garter snake, which you always called gardener when we were younger—were we in the Garden then, in Eden? There was no tree, no fruit, no foliage at all, and no disembodied voice commenting in an off-hand fashion about what we did and didn’t wear—not then, not yet—but there was a light coming from all around, and it seemed to be drawn to the center of my throat, and to the snake, to you. I tried to follow your path, but you would wind and disappear only to suddenly uncoil on the opposite end of my line of sight. The light tried to follow you, too, only you recoiled instead of leaving, and when it failed with you it came for me again, a hundred hot needles teasing my skin. It continued to burn and you were gone and I was falling—the fall, the Fall—and I landed somewhere that looked like the street we grew up on, only the signs were blank and your dogs did not bark and our houses were inverted so the rooms faced outside. My walls were a moss green but dry and flat, your room unseeable from the street, and when I tried to cut across the yard and look, I heard you yelling from around the corner about how I was “it” last time and now it’s your turn to count to ten. You got to seven before I woke up, my hands gripping the bedpost.

*

She was trying to catch a lizard the first time I met her. We were on the neighborhood playground, both seven years old, and her lilac overalls had faded, deeply ground-in emerald grass stains on the hems. I was running up the twisty slide, trying to race my cousin, when I lost my footing and slipped down into the gravel right next to where she was hunting. Apparently, this was a devastating disruption to her hunt because she shot me the coldest glare I had ever seen—like wind rushing through my veins—and the lizard scuttled a few inches away from her outstretched palms. Silently as was possible, I crept over and watched her hands grasp the reptile, holding it without any room for it to move, nor for it to be uncomfortable, before shoving it in her left front pocket. I gasped in that way children do, all oohs and ahhs and the guttural hush that comes from things that are new, and she turned again, glare at the ready, until she heard my admiration; her face softened to a smirk, then a giggle, then uproarious laughter with eyes shut tight and small fists clamped to her chest, lizard squirming against the fabric as she ran off to her mother’s honking sedan.

*

The first time, a few months after we met: we were digging together. I found three sparrow bones, an old bullet, some teeth, a bucket, and as my mound grew, your hands clawed through clay and silt and sand only to grasp clods, shifting handfuls, broken ends of long buried twigs.

*

We didn’t become actual friends until months later when we both showed up in the same third grade class, four seats away from each other, two rows back from the board. We bonded over the funny way the teacher said “milk” and “coupon” the way little girls do, and created a black market during recess, which sold self-deemed necessities like twigs, rocks, and the occasional cup of pudding stolen from the cafeteria. We split the profits—the prettiest leaves the patron could find—fifty/fifty and, at the end of the first week, she came over to my house to tack them to my bedroom wall.

She slept over that night and I didn’t sleep at all, unused to the feeling of added pressure in my bed—this was my first sleepover, my first friendship that could warrant it. I spent all night tracing mites of escaped nightlight in the ceiling, finding a dragon, a racecar, a winding road, four different flowers, my mother’s cookies, a wasp, the lizard she caught the first day we met months ago. I focused on the lizard for a while, willing it to skitter or leap or come into being, but the light dissipated into my room’s thin sort of darkness, leaving me to focus on the scrape of the air conditioner blowing the leaves on the wall. She slept soundly through all of this, my rumination and imagination, her chest heaving in long, measured draws. The next morning, she bounced off to her mother and didn’t say goodbye or thank you but I’ll be back next Friday. And so it went—our manmade forest grew, greens turning to orange for a fleeting second and then crumpling brown by the time we woke, my mother vacuuming the dead leaves away each Saturday afternoon without a word.

*

A few years later: I’m biking on a mountain road, and, upon the first hairpin turn, I see a raccoon in the road. She dives under my wheels at the last second as I nearly skid over the ledge, and I turn and look back to find nothing but a fallen branch being blown across the path by the wind.

*

We had closed the recess shop down for good the week before Christmas Break in fourth grade, but she still stayed over every Friday night. In seventh grade, she helped me paint what had been the wall of leaves full of swirling, choking vines, shattered tropical fronds, maple leaves missing their final point—disjointed, arresting fragments mingling into something visceral. We added on every Friday night until the wall was a dense bundle of conflicting greens and reds and pitch blacks, and then we added more still, painting over and over and over until the mural became a mass of lines and boxes. When I still couldn’t sleep those nights, I’d lean closer to her sleeping face in a kiddish way and list what I deciphered from the incoherent forms around us—a roof losing shingles, constellations whose names I had been memorizing, the gnarled, warty face of the terrible algebra teacher we’d both had last semester. I don’t know if she ever heard—I never thought to ask—but she always rolled over when I spoke and pulled me closer until we were cuddling face-to-face, her breath hot and sticky against the linen and my cheeks. She slumbered soundly, and, in an effort not to wake her, I tried to breathe in rhythm and only shift when she rolled over.

*

The next time was light everywhere—tessellating in the scales of snakes, refracting in hubcaps, reflecting against the blades of knives, swarming like bees against my skin and my heart and my bones until it consumed me, bleached me, sheered away everything but a pulsing mass, a low echo, a diving lark.

*

Beyond the wall, we mostly spent our time hiking arm-in-arm in the woods behind my house. We took the same path every weekend for four years—two-and-a-third miles North, a quarter mile West, a mile South, and back around again—and yet we never seemed to find the right footing; she rolled her ankle four times and I managed to nearly break my arm chasing after a squirrel. Not that that mattered, though—we constantly sought out minor shortcuts, narrow paths forged by only one or two other past travelers as brave as ourselves.

After veering off onto one of these detours one afternoon in late October, we happened upon the gaping mouth of a cave. Ivy-covered and sunken several feet below the path, the entrance seemed to disappear behind several massive, precarious rocks, and, upon spotting it, she clutched my hand and dragged me toward the cavern. Peering into the blackness, she began shouting her name, her favorite food, my name, her favorite TV show, our names together, her wishes for Christmas, our names, our names, our names—all into the darkness, each an incantation booming and bleeding together in an all-consuming reverberation. As the last repetitions of our names quieted and the litany melted away, she thrust me forward, practically toppling over the shaky rocks upon which we stood. I stared at the cave’s entrance and I saw nothing and thought I felt the rocks shifting, falling below me and I turned to back away, to run away, but she gripped my shoulders and circled me back, looking at me with a ferocity I had only seen once or twice since we met. I thought of the dead leaves that once governed my wall, of the way our breathing sounded in dialogue, of the lizard. Facing the cave, I tentatively spoke my name, then hers, then ours in unison several times over, growing louder every time until the names tumbled out like whitewater and earthquakes and fallen limbs.

Later that night, we talked about school, far-off countries, the future—of who and where and when we’d be—and as she drifted off to sleep, I got the sense that these conversations were something larger, a promise I didn’t realize I was making, or that I wanted to make at all.

*

A few months later, you were a used car salesman, a stout man with bulging eyes and laugh lines around his eyes that didn’t match those around his mouth. The same woman kept coming to buy the same car—a ‘99 Subaru—but every time you gave her a different story. The first owner lost her to repo, and you bought it at auction. The first owner gave up the consumerist life to live in the woods and you graciously saved the car from wreckage. The first owner died and her spirit still lives in the car, but she told you she’s benevolent. The first owner was a government agent who was assassinated and you took part in the cover up. You were the first owner and are giving the car away for free! if the buyer promises to paint your name over the taillights. In every version you are the savior and in every version the woman walks away empty-handed as you pat your fat hands on the spoiler, talking about what a mighty fine beaut she’s become.

*

Our other time-killer was swimming. On the last day of the summer before high school, we charged the river at daybreak and dove into the frigid water amongst the feeding fish and milling egrets. There was a sort of stasis there, a rift in time and space where everything was what it was; we were there together and we were light, we were young. We spent the day talking about our fear of high school, what her mother was making for dinner, and boys in our class—she talked about Scott Keisling, and I talked about Josh Hickens—all the while we inched closer to each other and spent long moments in silence in the water. As the sun began to set and we wrapped up a discussion on which precise shade of blue Scott’s eyes were, she floated on her back, prostrated starfish, and asked what I thought it felt like to fall in love. I thought back on the day, how we flung ourselves into the water and off the tire swing and over the rapids as our shins hit rocks and legs hit legs, arms grabbed waists—hair intermingling and laughter falling on necks in the sequestration of the flowing tide; my pulse ran wild, like rocking forward on the top car of a ferris wheel, and I dove beneath the surface without an answer.

*

In next dream I had of you, you were different but in essence the same; you were wearing the same outfit you did that morning, but your shirt was red instead of blue and your hair was short instead of long and you rode a purple bike instead of walking when you told me that it would rain that afternoon—and it didn’t, it never does, but you strapped your boots on anyway and splashed your heels over dry concrete, slashing black form in gauzy sunlight, your heart pounding in my wrists and ears.

*

In high school, she divided her attention and spent half on me and the other half on trying to flip her hair just as Scott walked by her fourth period geology class. Our Friday night rituals had long abandoned painting and instead evolved into sprawling schemes to get the two of them together, most of which I think I sabotaged while we constructed them. Something changed in me after that day at the lake. I was drawn to her, a flame to paper—carnivorous, predatory, excruciating. I made a point to do my makeup when she did in the morning before school so I could see what our faces looked like together in the mirror. She didn’t seem to notice that, or how I wrapped my hand around her waist when we talked at our lockers when Scott walked by, or when I automatically cuddled and nuzzled her when we slept, and I didn’t mind, having finally adjusted to the precise weight she brought to the space. It was a singularity into which I happily tumbled, if unwittingly.

She and Scott started dating halfway through our Junior year, after several drunken almost-hookups and two interventions on his brother’s part for him to just grow a pair and ask her out already. She was staying at my house the night they became official, of course, and our arrangement fell into its regular pattern. I nudged my head onto her shoulder as we stared at the ceiling and tried to hash out plans for a camping trip next month, but she just kept gushing about Scott’s eyes and the way his mouth felt on hers and the rough scrape of his hands on her neck and something snapped; I broke in and mentioned that this is high school and she’s only known him for a few years, not as long as me, not like me, not like me, and I remembered the lizard she caught when we met, how she held it with love so that it fit perfectly and I reached for her hand and she fell very silent and very still on the pillow next to me. She pulled her hand back, searching my face for a long moment for something I could not identify. Whatever it was, she didn’t find it, but she seemed repulsed by what she did find; when I tried to snuggle later that night, she rolled to the opposite end of the bed, leaving me to stare once more at the violent mural we had painted years before. Letting the geometrics intermingle and dissolve and reappear and reduplicate until they looked like nothing at all, I didn’t try to find anything that night, didn’t whisper anything into her sleeping ear; instead, I looked at her face—round and stoic, with eyes shut too tightly. I bit the inside of my cheek and thought about the roughness she talked about, and softness, about two tongues in one mouth, unfolding petals on a bulb, the way bulb feels when said slowly, the wet, warm heat of a small room in the middle of winter.

This silence and distance was the new norm, and like every Friday night, every Saturday morning became the same; when I asked how she slept, she would just answer with a record of the same dream: she’s dangling over the edge of the Grand Canyon, except she thinks it’s ugly and can’t imagine a worse place to die. She lifts one leg over the other in a slow scissor kick and just when she goes to lift both I come and sit next to her and raise my legs too, at which point she wakes up.

*

It was midnight and we were lost at sea. You were the captain—of course you were—and I was a first mate despite the fact that I was new to the ocean. Something else was wrong, someone was missing, but everyone was accounted for when I looked down from the crow’s nest and there was no intelligible sound, just the cacophonous grate of the waves, shift of sails and slink of rope and the occasional slam of a door somewhere below deck. Everything was cold, and everything was a slimy sort of smooth—doused silk, leaves at the bottom of the gutter. You kept gesturing with a rolled bit of parchment and I responded by trying to set it on fire with the searchlight torch.

*

By senior year, she had started spending every Friday and Saturday night at Scott’s house by telling her parents she was still staying at mine, meeting me for brunch every Sunday to discuss the newest relationship developments and, briefly, our college plans. We were only looking at one common university, which neither of us ultimately attended, a fact I can’t seem to bear to chalk up to fate. We went with different groups to beach week but partied together every night, wistfully recounting our childhoods with slurred inside jokes, late night swims, hands on knees, hands on waists, hands cupping faces in dark kitchen corners until someone came in to get another beer.

Scott left for college a week before she did, so she spent her last Friday at home with me. We sat in my room, mostly brimming with half-packed boxes and devoid of adornment aside from the leaf wall—now peeling because of the excessive layers of paint—in uncomfortable silence punctuated only by overly nostalgic memories and practical questions about the year to come.

Right before we fell asleep, I asked if she still had the canyon dreams, and in response, she asked if I knew the answer to falling in love that day we were at the lake those years before. I said that I read too much into everything and pretended to fall asleep; her breathing labored all night, never falling into something regular or comfortable. I focused on the wall, on the light from outside playing on my ceiling, slipping into a sleep peppered with vivid dreams.

You were me, only in her younger years, only instead you were a blockbuster actress, only instead you hadn’t opened your eyes in forty years, only instead there were bees flying out of your ears and they built a hive around your neck and you whispered fondly about the lights, the lights before your windpipe withered beneath the comb.

I woke for a moment and groggily realized she was sleeping; I pushed a strand of hair away from her face, running my fingertips over her jawbone before she rolled over.

It happened the way these things happen, so then you were an architect, but you were also a writer, and some days an addict, and along with that you were a biologist—you obsessed over how things came to be. We were in a large group in a small room and everyone was formless, and the space felt like mahogany and rum and hazy afternoons and a maroon glow fell everywhere—when I looked up, the ceiling was cross-hatched with wide translucent veins, the color of licorice or Kool-Aid or something else I haven’t eaten since childhood, and the liquid pumping through was clear, bubbling. You stroked a crux in the tubes and I knew you built this system, I knew this was you, when suddenly the veins burst and everyone else was gone and the blood fell right into my mouth, tasteless and repulsive, thin and dribbling, and you laughed and laughed and fell away as the blood kept rushing.

I rubbed my eyes, checked my phone, saw the glare of 8:39 A.M. Her alarm would be going off in six minutes; she would not wake up any sooner. I turned on my elbow and watched her breathe, chest rising and falling, the air never quite fully expelling before a new inhalation. I picked up a strand of her hair and twirled it in my fingers absently before leaning in and gently kissing the top of her head. I lay back down, staring at the ceiling when her alarm went off.

*

In the most recent, I was standing in an old Georgian house. There were windows sheathed in curtains, wallpaper stretched as aging skin, a weathervane that didn’t move with wind, but because of sunlight. The doors disappeared when I walked through them and locked when I tried to walk back. A plane barrel-rolled into the yard, the floor was the sky, a snake fled into a corner. Light was a thousand brandished knives and there was no one here but me, and, in the corner, a lamp without a bulb or a shade but a glow, a mirror, a low rumble whenever I stepped in its shadow.

Moira McAvoy recently graduated from the University of Mary Washington, where she served as Editor of the Rappahannock Review. These days, she lives in southeastern Virginia and serves as Associate Editor and Business Manager at NANO Fiction. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, and she can be found tweeting @moyruhjo.