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Eric Fortrell lived a perfectly unremarkable life until he happened to have a very extraordinary dream. It wasn’t that it was an especially meaningful dream. In fact, he could remember nothing about the dream except that there was something about a bird, and even that vague detail was so far lost to his waking mind that only the word itself remained. “Bird.” It wasn’t any particular kind of bird, no bird of any particular color or size. It was nothing more significant than something about a bird. And yet this dream filled him with such a profound sense of urgency and foreboding that he immediately left his bed, dressed himself and fled his home in the middle of the night. By the time he came to his senses and realized that there was nowhere for him to go, he was already standing in his driveway with the door of his silver PT Cruiser wide open, ready to climb in and drive away.
He was confused, of course, and a little unnerved. After all, he wasn’t exactly known for being impulsive. It wasn’t like him to do anything without a reasonable amount of thought, much less jump up in the middle of the night and go running out to his car, inexplicably convinced that he desperately needed to be somewhere. But more than that, he was embarrassed. He closed the vehicle’s door as quietly as he could and gazed around at the darkened windows of his neighbors’ houses, very nearly convinced that at least one of them must be watching him, wondering where he thought he was going at a quarter past one in the morning, laughing at his ridiculous antics.
He was a reasonable enough man to know that this was utter nonsense. Even if someone was up and wandering around in their unlit home at this hour and just happened to be looking out the window as he hurried out the door, they’d have no reason to suspect that he was behaving strangely. Perhaps he’d lost something, his wallet, maybe, and was checking to see if he’d left it in his vehicle.
Still, he hesitated to lock the car for fear that the brief sounding of the horn would alert every nosy neighbor on the block to his presence and somehow instantly let them know that he was acting as if he’d utterly lost his mind.
He left the PT Cruiser unlocked in the driveway and returned to his house and his bed.
He wasn’t crazy. He didn’t have a history of insanity in his family. He had no excessive mental or emotional stress in his life. He was also intelligent. He’d earned a master’s degree in education and literature. With honors. He was a respected high school English teacher and he’d never in his life poisoned his mind with drugs. He didn’t even drink that much. Only seldom in his life had he drank enough to qualify him as being drunk, and never so much that he couldn’t remember what he did the next morning.
And yet here he was.
Karen was waiting for him when he returned to bed. She was concerned, of course, and wanted to know what had happened, why he’d risen and dressed, where he’d gone. He told her the truth. He always told his wife the truth. And of course she laughed at him and told him how silly he was because she was always equally as honest with him and it was, after all, a funny and silly thing that he’d done.
But long after Karen had drifted off to sleep again, Eric remained awake, staring up at the ceiling in the faint glow of the street light that filtered through the curtains and the nightlight that shined through the open bathroom door. He kept thinking of the dream he couldn’t remember and the odd compulsion that had driven him out of his bed and into the cool August night.
The following day was no better. He couldn’t stop thinking about the dream (something about a bird…) and that feeling of desperately needing to be somewhere (now). In fact, he still felt this compulsion. It gnawed stubbornly at him. His eyes kept drifting to the windows and doors. His thoughts kept returning to the parked PT Cruiser in the driveway. It was like an itch.
He very much wanted to get in the vehicle and drive down the road. Yet he remained unable to say where it was he wanted so badly to go.
That night, the dream returned. Like the first time, he recalled nothing but a bird (or birds, or something bird-like…he simply couldn’t remember) and like the first time, he awoke utterly convinced that there was somewhere he very much needed to be, that he was, in fact, desperately late.
He didn’t make it all the way to his car this time. When Karen switched on her bedside lamp, he stood frozen and bewildered, his pants only halfway on, squinting into the blinding glare and trying to remember where it was he thought he was going.
Soon after, he was back in bed, the lights back off. Karen didn’t laugh at him this night. She didn’t tell him he was silly. She urged him back into bed and he came willingly, ashamed of the concern he saw in her sleepy face. The desperation he’d felt was overpowered by the simple logic that he did not have anywhere to be. He returned to his pillow without a word and she snuggled against him as if determined to anchor him to the bed until morning.
Again, he lay awake, that feeling of being late still stubbornly refusing to release him and let him rest.
The next day was much like the one before it. He remained constantly distracted, his thoughts and eyes inexorably drawn to the parked PT Cruiser and the unknown roads it promised to carry him down.
Each time he forced his eyes away from the windows and doors he caught Karen watching him. She was no fool. No matter how many times he told her he was fine, she knew something was troubling him, and he felt terrible for worrying her. But still he couldn’t shake the urge to get up and go.
The third night inevitably arrived and Eric awoke once more from the same mysterious dream with the same maddening desire to rush out of the house.
This time, he didn’t bother returning to bed. When Karen came downstairs and switched on the kitchen light at a little before three in the morning, she found him sitting at the table, fully dressed, a steaming cup of coffee in his hands and his car keys sitting in front of him.
For a moment she stood watching him and for that moment he watched her back, admiring her. She was considerably heavier than she’d been ten years ago when he married her, but still as lovely as the day they met. In fact, he rather preferred her a little plumper. She’d been too skinny back when they dated, far too preoccupied with her weight. Now that she’d accepted that there was nothing wrong with being larger than a size zero, she’d filled out her figure with magnificently sexy curves. His eyes washed over her bare legs as she stood leaning against the doorjamb, clothed in only her favorite pajama top, her arms crossed over her chest as if chilled.
“You know,” she said finally, “there’s bound to be an easier way to sneak off and see your mistress.”
Eric smiled up at her. “I know. She told me to stop waking her up at two in the morning.”
“No girl’s horny at that hour.”
Still smiling, still admiring her lovely shape, he sipped quietly at his coffee.
“How far did you get this time?”
“Pretty well right here.”
“Far as I know. Still can’t remember it.”
She stared at him and said nothing.
He kept smiling. “It’s just a stupid recurring dream.”
She was silent for a moment longer. She wouldn’t admit that she was worried about him. That simply wasn’t her way. But he could see it in her eyes. And he didn’t blame her for feeling at least a little concerned. These dreams were troubling. They were interfering with his life. Neither of them had ever dealt with anything like this before.
Finally, she spoke: “What are we going to do?”
“I’m going to go,” Eric replied.
This surprised her. She stood up straight, her pajama shirt falling open a little at the bottom, where she’d left it unbuttoned. There was no force on earth that could stop his eyes from being drawn there. “Go where?”
Eric shrugged. “I’ll just drive. See where it takes me.”
“Okay…but there’s nowhere to go. It’s just a stupid dream. You said so yourself just now.”
“I know. Believe me, I know. But this is the third night in a row I’ve had it and for some reason it’s really getting to me. I’ve been so distracted. I constantly feel like there’s somewhere I need to be.”
“But there’s not. You know that.”
“I do know that,” he assured her. “But apparently some part of my brain doesn’t. That’s why I’m going. I’ll open myself up to it, do what it wants me to do. I’ll just get in the car and drive. After a while, I’ll prove to myself that there really isn’t anywhere for me to go. Then I can come home and finally sleep. I mean, why not? I’m already awake.”
She stared at him, studying him, considering what he’d said. He didn’t know what else to say to her, so he took another sip of his coffee and let his eyes slide down her naked legs while he waited for her to speak.
“I guess that makes sense,” she replied at last.
“I thought so.”
“Show that messed up little brain of yours it doesn’t know what it’s talking about.”
“Put it back in its place, right? That’s what I’m saying.”
She shifted her weight and continued to stare at him. He could almost see the thoughts swirling behind her lovely eyes.
“I’ll be fine,” he assured her. “And I can finally get this weirdness out of my system.”
“But what if it doesn’t work?”
“Then it doesn’t work. At least I’ll have tried, right? If I’m still having the dreams after this, I’ll call the doctor.”
Karen nodded. She knew there was no reason to be concerned. It was only a dream. It was irrational. So why not embrace the irrational and see what happened? Maybe then he’d at least be able to sleep through the night again.
And even if it didn’t work, he wouldn’t be any worse off for trying.
“I guess gas is cheaper than therapy,” she reasoned.
“Just a little, I think.”
“Just a little.”
Eric took another sip of his coffee and found his eyes drifting to the door again. He felt impatient to go, but he refused to simply rush out the door.
“It’ll be a fun little adventure for you.”
Eric returned his eyes to his wife and smiled again. “I’ll bet it will.”
“No picking up sexy hitchhikers.”
“But those are the best kind.”
“I keep telling you, you don’t know where they’ve been.”
“If my adventure has a serious lack of romance, it’ll be your fault.”
“I’ll just have to live with the consequences. How long will you be gone?”
Eric shrugged. “Long as it takes, I guess.”
She didn’t like this answer. She chewed thoughtfully at her lower lip. He loved it when she did that.
“Probably only a couple hours. I mean, really, where am I going to go? I’ll be fine.”
“Do you have your cell phone?”
Eric pulled the phone from the front pocket of his khaki pants and showed her. He hated cell phones, saw no value in them whatsoever, but she insisted that he carry one in case of emergencies. She was utterly unwavering about it. She’d even wanted to get him a high-dollar one with more functions than his laptop, like the one she carried, but he’d put his foot down. He carried nothing fancier than a cheap, pre-paid model from Wal-Mart. Even so, it had an obnoxious amount of extras built into it that he had no idea how to use. He didn’t even know how to add minutes to the ridiculous thing. Karen took care of that for him.
He returned the annoying device to his pocket, finished his coffee and then stood up and rinsed out his cup in the sink. When he turned back around, Karen was right next to him, slipping her arms around him.
“It’s okay,” he promised her. “I’m just driving around. I can drive at night, you know.”
“I just don’t like being left alone. You know that. You won’t fall asleep, will you?”
“I’ll stay caffeinated,” he promised. “Just go back to sleep. I’ll be home before you know it.”
“I won’t be able to sleep. I never sleep well when you’re not here.”
“You and your convoluted schemes to sneak off with your women.”
“I like to keep it interesting. I’ll tell your sister you said hi.”
She gave his arm a gentle smack. “Pushing it,” she warned him with an amused grin.
Eric smiled and kissed her again. “What’ve you got going on today?”
“Birthday cake for Joss.”
Karen was a talented baker and a freelance cake decorator. She’d earned an impressive reputation here in her home town and regularly earned fairly decent spending money.
“Toni’s coming by to pick it up this afternoon.” Toni was Karen’s cousin. Joss was Toni’s son, whose first birthday was tomorrow. He was an exceptionally adorable baby.
“That’ll be fun for you.”
“I know. Also, I’ll probably get started on those pies for Lana.” Lana was one of Karen’s oldest friends. They went to grade school together. Lana often organized social events for the church, a responsibility she inherited from her mother when she was diagnosed with cancer several years ago. Karen made various pies, cakes, cookies, whatever recipes she wanted to try out, and Lana regularly earned her new customers.
Eric had tried to talk her into starting her own website, but she wasn’t interested in expanding her hobby into an actual business. She was convinced it’d take all the fun out of it.
“Maybe I should just get started now,” she said, glancing at the clock on the stove.
“I think you should at least try to get more sleep. You don’t want to be too exhausted when you’re decorating that cake.”
“I guess so.”
“Go back to bed. I’ll see you in a little while.”
“Love you too.”
Eric kissed her one last time and then collected his keys and walked out of the house.
Karen watched him from the doorway as he backed out of the driveway.
Now he had only to convince himself that this wasn’t completely insane.
He settled back into the seat and again tried to remember the dream. But like always, all that came back to him was the bird. It wasn’t even an image of a bird. It was just the idea of a bird. As if that made any sort of sense.
He drove away with no idea where he was going, confident that he’d find nothing waiting for him in the great open world and hoped to soon return home satisfied and back to normal.