Copyright 2016 by Dan Nimak
All rights reserved.
It was a treacherous climb, made even more difficult by having something to carry. At least they were young and in good physical condition. He carried an empty basket. She held her baby. As they reached their destination, he wiped a tear from her eye and reminded her what they had talked about.
He pounded on the weathered wood with a clenched fist. She softly placed a hand on the door with hope, and they ran without looking back. The basket was no longer empty, and a four word note was attached: “Her name is Lourdes.”
It was my hero’s ring. I sat silently and fidgeted with it during the first funeral I had ever been to. With any luck, the next funeral I attended would be my own.
I tried my best to ignore everything, to block out the hour, the morning, the past several days. But that was impossible. My worst nightmare had occurred, and I was fully awake for it.
Although a few others had come to the small church to pay their respects, I sat by myself. I was all alone – except for my thoughts. Why did this have to happen? It’s not fair. I’m only twelve. Why did she–
“Zach.” I shuddered at the announcing of my name. Someone was reading the names of the relatives, with about as much passion as one would review a grocery list. G-ma deserved better. It didn’t take long: two names, and I wanted to correct the speaker’s mistake with the second name. No, she is not survived by her son, Robert. His name is Uncle Grunt.
My uncle never married, hated children, and not once did I see an animal that didn’t growl, hiss or run away from him. Fortunately, he didn’t visit very often. And though I tried to be nice whenever he was around, his normal reply consisted of hoarse, grunt-like sounds. So, between G-ma and me, he was Uncle Grunt.
I slid the ring on and off my finger, focusing on its inscription of ZHN, my initials. Mom and Dad gave it to G-ma on my first birthday. It was her favorite piece of jewelry. She never took it off, and it didn’t feel right in my hands. Uncomfortable. Strange. Lonely. Words that I was very familiar with. But the words were unspoken.
To most of the world, I had no form of communication. I could hear, read and write, but I could only talk with my hands. My language is thoughts, and thoughts can be very lonely.
Someone sang a lousy song. No one had bothered to ask me what her favorite songs were. They were afraid of me, like I was contagious or something. Only my grandmother loved me, the one I had lived with since I was two years old. And she was dead. I had no other friends – except for one maybe, but I wasn’t sure if she was real.
I met her on my twelfth birthday. That day was actually not terrible. And for me, not terrible translated to good. G-ma made my favorite dinner, and her death-by-chocolate birthday cake was almost worth dying for. The guest list for my party included only G-ma, but it didn’t matter that no one else joined us. I went to bed happy that night. I was twelve years old, an age of hope, an age of excitement, an age where anything was still possible. And my dream that night proved it.
Although parts of my dream escaped as I woke, I knew that some of the details would stay with me forever: the music, the mountains, the river, the sunset – and there was something about the rain – something special, or different. It was one of the things I couldn’t totally recall, but I did remember it was a light rain, the type of rain one could walk in and enjoy.
On the outside, everything was beautiful. But it was the feeling inside that overpowered me. Happiness, joy, peace – sensations I had never truly experienced, at least in such an unimaginable degree. I couldn’t explain it, but I wanted it. And maybe even…I needed it.
I had been transported to an amazing place that felt real to me. I didn’t know if it was real, but I did know I wanted to go back so desperately it hurt.
There was also a girl.
I talked to her, without sign language. I verbally spoke, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do. Like lifelong friends, we talked for several hours. And I had the strangest feeling she had been there before – even though it was my dream. At the end of the dream, she told me something I knew would be the most important thing I would ever hear. She whispered a message in my ear…but it was gone. I tried so hard to remember. What did she say?
Someone started speaking again at the funeral. Probably a sermon or eulogy, not that it mattered to me. I only hoped it would be short and sweet. God, I’m going to miss my talks with G-ma.
G-ma didn’t care that I talked with my hands. When I first told her about my dream, she was as excited as I was, although my hands were moving so fast she had to ask me more than once to slow down. And though she knew I was upset from not remembering and understanding everything, she never once tried to convince me to stop worrying about some hidden meaning. She actually encouraged me in my attempts. She gave me hope. I didn’t know if she really believed my dream was all that remarkable, or if she was just being a good G-ma. Maybe it was some of both.
I talked often about my dream with G-ma, except for the week during the summer when Uncle Grunt came to visit. Things were generally much quieter whenever Uncle Grunt was around. We had a celebration dinner after he left. I knew G-ma loved her son, but a day or two of Uncle Grunt went a long way. That particular dinner turned out to be so special, and it wasn’t just because Uncle Grunt had gone home. More importantly, that was the night G-ma shared some astonishing thoughts with me – a conversation I would never forget.
“Thanks for dinner, G-ma,” I said with my hands. “It was great.”
“Sharing it with you is what makes it so good.” The words across the table were as cheerful as always, but her smile seemed unsteady.
“Is something wrong?”
She shook her head. “No, nothing is wrong. Only…there’s something I haven’t told you before, and I think maybe I should.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s about your dream…and your parents.”
I didn’t know what to say, but G-ma certainly had my full attention.
“The description of your dream reminds me of another place, a place not far from where your mom and dad lived.”
“When they lived by Uncle Grunt?”
“Yes,” G-ma answered. “But their dream was to build a house, a home for their family. For you, Zach. They knew where they wanted it to be. And even though it was just a few miles from where they lived –”
“They wanted something bigger?”
“That’s only part of it. It was the location they loved.”
“It looked like my dream?”
I made the sign for sad. “They never got the chance to build it.” It wasn’t a question I had for G-ma, because I knew the answer. Death got in the way.
G-ma frowned as she responded with an identical hand gesture. “But I did get to go up there with them once. It was a very special day and a memory I’ll never forget, Zach. I held you in my arms, standing next to your mom and dad as we admired the beauty all around us. It was as close to a miraculous feeling as I’ve ever experienced. And it wasn’t just the scenery. The emotions you had with your dream, the extraordinary joy and peace you described…that’s exactly how I felt. Then, just before we went home, a soft rain began to fall toward the horizon. And we stood there – above the rain.”
“Wow, that’s amazing,” I signed.
G-ma told me where this place was, and we talked some more about my mom and dad before I went to bed.
G-ma always got up early, well before I did. She loved to watch the sunrise while she enjoyed a cup of coffee. Then she would make breakfast, aromas of which happily greeted me every morning.
I woke up the next morning, however, before G-ma. So did the sun, which shined brightly on the darkest day of my life.
Another song, slightly worse than lousy. What a terrible singer.
G-ma loved music. Some of my earliest memories were of G-ma singing to me, and I could still hear her songs when needed. Her music played in my head often that day. Music. Rain. Stars. I love these things, at least good music. Seriously, this is really bad. I wonder if I stand up and start clapping if she’ll shut up and sit down.
I felt bad for thinking that. This was G-ma’s funeral, and I needed to give her the respect she deserved. I bet G-ma thinks her singing sucks too.
That thought made me feel better. It shouldn’t have – because I always got so mad whenever I heard someone say that they couldn’t sing. No, you can sing. I wish I could. I wish I could sing in the rain, under a nighttime sky of shining stars.
Some things were impossible, and many dreams were unexplainable. At age twelve, I began to discover this. At age twelve, I slipped a ring inside the casket of the most special person in the world. At age twelve, I moved in with Uncle Grunt.
For the next several months, I existed. Nothing more, nothing less. I went to school. I came home. I thought about G-ma. I thought about my only friend and escaping to the world of my dream. And that made me even more depressed and angry – because the only thing that gave me any hope for happiness…was a dream.
Uncle Grunt didn’t hate me, but he didn’t like me either. Uncle Grunt didn’t care much for anyone or anything. He certainly didn’t like the fact that he felt obligated to take me in because of G-ma’s death. He did provide food and shelter for me, so maybe he deserved a little credit. But he always seemed very nervous around me, because of my muteness no doubt. It bothered me tremendously that he never tried to learn sign language. And though I wasn’t surprised, it still would’ve been nice if he had at least mentioned my thirteenth birthday.
On the night exactly one year after the best birthday I could remember, I slept outside. Whenever the weather cooperated, I always took advantage of the opportunity. Outside, under the stars with my dreams, was my refuge. Many of my dreams took me to G-ma and that last evening we had together. A clear night with inviting stars awaited me, and I hoped I would doze off quickly.
G-ma sat at the dinner table for our final night together, once again. As I joined her, however, her expression was different. Her eyes stared at mine, unblinking, and seemingly not even there. I wasn’t sure it was G-ma, until our hands touched when she offered me a small piece of paper.
A bolt of lightning, with its accompanying sound of thunder, jolted me into consciousness. As I ran through the rain to the safety of my bed inside Uncle Grunt’s house, I thought I saw some twinkling stars.
Sleep returned, but the dream did not.
Stretching into the new morning, my hand felt something under my pillow. Doubting my dear uncle had begun to leave inspirational notes to start my day, I recalled the prior night’s dream dinner with G-ma. I immediately sat up and began to read a very peculiar letter:
Although it has been a year since that special time and place we met, I still think of you every day. I don’t think it’s possible for me to come to you. Please come find me. I’m so sorry I don’t know how to tell you where I am – other than what I whispered in your ear. I am beneath the stars, but above the rain. Please come find me. Your friend, Lourdes.
It was Wednesday, the day after my thirteenth birthday, and I gave myself a belated gift: I took the day off from school. I grabbed some food and water and started walking toward the road that led to the never-built home of my parents. I didn’t know how long it would take. I didn’t care. I had waited a year and could wait longer if needed. But I was going to find my way back. I had to.
And this time, it would be no dream.
She didn’t know her last name, and she hated her first. She called herself Phoenix and would not answer to anything else. In a remote, rural setting, The Phoenix Home for Children was her place of residence – a place for the abandoned, the orphaned, the troubled and abused. It had been the only home she had ever known.
Phoenix knew everyone there, not just the other children, but all of the workers as well. The groundskeepers, cooks, maintenance staff – most of the employees had served less time at The Phoenix than she had. Everyone was friendly, or at least nice enough to make things as pleasant as possible for a group of youngsters who would have preferred to be elsewhere.
Phoenix liked her housemother. So did the other seven girls who shared House Number Six with her. A housemother might be nice, but Phoenix found it difficult to think of someone who received money to take care of her as a Mom. She had lived with five different housemothers in her life, as far as she could remember.
Her favorite place was the enormous Community Room, shared by everyone at the complex. A separate building at the center of The Phoenix, both noisy and quiet regions existed within the Community Room. Pool and ping pong tables, music and video centers, tables for cards and other games, snack bars and other non-quiet activities filled the left side of the room. The right portion included several different areas for relaxing and studying. Numerous chairs, sofas, tables and desks were dispersed throughout. Bookshelves served as a floor-to-ceiling boundary for the three sides of the quiet zone, running along the border of each of the large walls.
In the front center of this vast room, cordoned off by ropes on each of its four sides, stood a sculpted phoenix over six feet tall. She had always loved this sculpture, even before she had read a description of the mythical creature. It symbolized renewal, rebirth. Out of the ashes of its predecessor, a phoenix obtained new life. She was seven when she changed her name to Phoenix.
Although Phoenix could be found occasionally on the left side of the Community Room playing or chatting with friends, she spent most of her time relaxing in a comfortable chair on the opposite side. Immediately after finishing any homework due the next day, she would read. She loved reading more than anything, and she often fell asleep in the Community Room with a book on her lap. She once thought she could spend her entire life on the quiet side of this room. And if she never had the opportunity to leave The Phoenix, she could probably accept that. Overall, things were not terrible.
Except for graduation, rarely did anyone leave The Phoenix. A somber joke amongst the residents was that one had to die in order to leave. This particular anecdote had some significance, and every occupant of The Phoenix knew of Trey’s Room. It might have been a rumor or simply a good ghost story for children who lived there many years ago, but the rumor had taken on a life of its own.
Phoenix first heard about the legend of Trey when she was eight. Surrounded by a group of friends, she sat at a table in the Community Room. A couple of older kids turned out the lights, and they began their ghoulish tale. Trey moved to The Phoenix because his parents had been murdered. During his time there, he never spoke a word to anyone. He never smiled. He just walked, slowly and grimly, from one room to another as the day required. Late one night, while cleaning in the Community Room, a worker heard a noise from the storage room in the very back of the building. As she made her way back to inspect, she saw some writing in red marker on the storage room door next to the rear exit. The words “I did it” were scribbled on the outside of the door, and a low thumping noise whispered to her from the inside. Every two seconds, thump, thump, thump. She opened the door and screamed as she discovered the reason for the sound. Twelve inches above the floor, Trey’s feet slowly moved back and forth, tapping a metal bucket with a deadly accurate rhythm. Above, Trey’s head had a rope around it.
Although the story of Trey was probably more about the initiation of younger residents than the actual truth, it seemed real enough for Phoenix and her friends. Phoenix didn’t sleep well for months, and she never wandered anywhere near the back of the Community Room. Until one night, about a year later, when she and her two best girlfriends Tori and Harris decided they were going to be brave. No longer babies, they wanted to prove that Trey’s Room should not be something that kept them from closing their eyes at bedtime. Three young girls, hands held in the dark, stood outside the storage room door. The moon shone through a nearby window, allowing them to read the single word “Phoenix” on Trey’s door. The words “I did it” were nowhere to be found, but Phoenix felt her heart skip a beat upon seeing her name written on such an eerie door.
Phoenix took a deep breath, released the hand of the friend on her right, and turned the knob. Unlocked. “Crap.” It was the only crude word in her vocabulary. She didn’t know if she wanted the door to be locked or if she just wanted to get this night over with. End the nightmares. Push open the door and show her friends that nothing evil lived inside the room. Surely, the door would have been locked otherwise. Phoenix released the hand of her other friend and shoved the door open. Three girls screamed and ran. By the time they reached House Number Six, giggles had replaced the screams. Nothing evil or even remotely scary existed inside of Trey’s Room, unless one’s nightmares included brooms, paper towels and toilet tissue.
The giggles continued for several weeks as Phoenix, Tori and Harris relived their adventurous night through storytelling amongst themselves and others. Ultimately, however, Phoenix thought very little about the storage closet, whether it was Trey’s Room or the room with her name on it. She returned to her familiar routine on the quiet side of the Community Room – finding a good book and a comfortable location.
Phoenix slept as much in the Community Room as she did in House Number Six during the next few years. It had been a long time since her housemother took any notice of this occurrence. If The Phoenix Home for Children had a role model, if they needed a poster child, it would be the girl named Phoenix. Her grades were excellent, and she never caused any trouble. She got along with everyone and served as the peacemaker when others didn’t get along so well. Everyone loved Phoenix. Most had long forgotten her other name, and many didn’t know another name had ever existed. She was Phoenix, and no one cared if she wanted to spend her sleeping time on a sofa instead of a bed.
And though they all cried with her when she lost one of her best friends, no one had any idea of the frightening secret she kept to herself.