The Montreal Review, August 2010
My ex-boyfriend, Jason, grins at me. His perfect smile, minus the front teeth overlapping slightly, is all too familiar. When he leans over to give me a hug, I brace myself against the onslaught of his cologne that is sure to come - the cologne that makes my extremities tingle every time I get a waft of it in a department store. But I don't smell anything. In fact, I don't really feel his hug, either.
I'm dreaming, I think, and relax slightly.
I let myself flow with the disjointed scenes of the dream that follows, unconcerned about waking up. I watch Jason kneel in front of me. I lazily note a flash of yellow. I see the lap of waves on a beach shore, their colour muted in the fog of my dream. "I want you back," comes his voice in my ear.
This brings on the first twinge of discomfort, so I decide it's time to wake up. I need to see Brad lying next to me, need to feel his warm arms around me. But instead of waking up, the dream switches again. Jason's words still linger in my ear as I feel the strong hands on my neck, and the hard, cold metal against my head.
The bullet plows into my brain. Before the sound of the gunshot even reaches my ears, I am dead.
I sit straight up in bed, my heart hammering. The dream wasn't vivid enough, nevermind realistic enough. I haven't seen Jason in four years, and the chances of him telling me he wants me back and then killing me are too slim to even consider. Still, my heart won't slow down.
I roll over, pressing myself into Brad's back. His arm snakes behind him and pulls mine forward, holding it tight against his chest. Secure, I fall back asleep, my dream forgotten.
Brad wakes me up after his shower in the morning. "Steph? You're going to be late."
My eyes fly to the clock. He's right. I have a client showing up at the gym in twenty minutes, and it takes me fifteen to walk there. Great.
"Bye!" I yell five minutes later, jamming my feet into my running shoes. "I'll see you around five!"
I am about to head out the door, but Brad comes out of nowhere, making me jump. He furrows his brows. "You're as jumpy as a field mouse, Steph. Are you okay?"
I shrug, pretending that my lungs haven't inexplicably shrunk in size.
Brad grins, pulls me to him, and kisses me hard and long on the mouth. "Remember, I love you," he says.
I blush. "You too."
What a crappy day. After all my rush to get to the gym, Ms. Fletcher didn't even show up until ten, the time she swears I told her. I am almost positive I said nine - I meant nine. That's what I get for spending to much time on .er, extracurricular activities, and not focusing on work.
I have a headache by the time I leave, my gym bag slung over my shoulder, my running shoes knocking against my hip as I slink out. A nice glass of wine with Brad and a hot bath is just what I need.
Seeing a break in the traffic, I step off the curb to jaywalk, but seconds later, I pivot right back onto the sidewalk and attempt to lose myself in the crowd.
Too late. He's already seen me.
Jason is head and shoulders above everyone else on the sidewalk - easy to spot, even though he is half a block away and on the other side of the street. How he saw me, I don't know. He always did seem to have a radar on me - creeped me out.
"Steph!" His deep voice carries over the traffic, so loud that several people turn to look. Short of making a scene, I have no choice but to wait for him. I consider the scene, though - breaking out into a run, pushing people aside, my shoes wapping people in the face as I fly by. I might, if I don't know that he would follow me.
He has to wait for the traffic to let up, and as I wait for him to cross, I remember my dream - hitting me like a pie in the face. The fleeing urge comes on stronger - so strong, standing there makes me want to puke. So I let myself get swept up in the crowd. Maybe I can duck into a store -
"Steph!" His voice comes first, then his hand on my arm. "Hold up!"
"Oh, hi Jason," I say, then felt stupid for feigning surprise when I all but waved at him moments before.
He gives me that near-perfect grin and my stomach lurches in four different directions at once - the same reaction I had five years ago, when we met at university. He is perfectly harmless and dangerous at the same time. It took moving and changing my phone number to finally get him out of my life - whenever I so much as saw or heard him, we were an item again.
I have been dreading this moment for four years.
"It's great to see you," Jason says, and leans over to hug me. Deja-vu. Only this time, the scent of him assaults my nose, despite my best efforts to hold my breath. Just like that, I picture him naked.
"What've you been up to?" he asks holding me at arm's length. "You look amazing."
I wave my hand in the air. "Oh, you know, this and that." Smooth, Stephanie.
"Let's grab a coffee. You free?"
"Oh, well... I have to get home..."
"Another time then. Give me your number, it's been too long." He smiles again, ducking his face closer to mine so that I am forced to look into his eyes. He's hypnotizing me, I swear.
"Sure yeah, let me see," I dig into my bag stupidly, like I need to find my number. I am unable to think of how to avoid him. He has his phone out, his thumb poised above the keys ready to type in my number. The running option would be easier than telling him no. Could I fake-number him?
There is a series of small slapping sounds at my feet, and I look down to see my business cards scattered on the sidewalk. Dammit! I bend down to retrieve them, but he beats me to it.
"Stephanie Carswell. Personal Fitness Consultant. Holden's Gym," Jason reads off the card. His eyes linger on my cell number before looking back up at me, turning the card over and over between his thumb and index finger. "So I'll call you?"
Like I have a choice.
I almost tell Brad about running into Jason, but the words get lodged in my throat. I remember the darkening of his eyes when I told him that I have lived with another man. He admitted to being the jealous type - like I couldn't see that with my own eyes.
I go to bed no less jumpy than this morning, except this time I know why. I enter into dreamland almost tentatively, but the dreams are harmless. I think I sprout wings and fly off a cliff once.
I have no doubt in my mind that Jason will call. I just don't know when. My cell feels like a grenade in my pocket. Every time it rings, I rip it out to check the ID. I'm determined not to answer it when he calls.
But at the end of work the next day, there he is, leaning against the courtyard fountain waiting for me. I don't even bother trying to run this time.
"Hi," I say.
"Want a drink?" he asks.
My head nods yes - the traitor.
At our table in the bar, he doesn't waste any time. "You have a boyfriend." It isn't phrased as a question, but I nod anyway. "Lucky guy. Is it serious?"
I take a sip of my wine, trying to get rid of the sudden dryness in my mouth. "We're living together."
Jason sits back in his chair. "Does he let you eat his pizza crusts? Does he hang up the bath mat for you? Do you make mustard smiley-faces in his sandwich?"
My face heats up. I hate that he remembers this stuff about me. I hate that all of the answers are no.
He smiles at me again. "It's great to see you."
"You said that already."
"Maybe I'm hoping you'll say it back."
I shrug. "It's been a long time." I mean that a lot has changed since we were together, but since he leans forward in his chair and grabs my hand, I don't think he takes it that way.
"Yes, it has. I've missed you."
I sigh and give a little tug of my hand. He doesn't let go and I don't give it much effort. His hand is like my old pair of fleece PJ's. Familiar. Warm. Hard to discard.
I drain my drink, tipping the glass almost vertically to get the last drops.
Jason looks at his watch and squeezes my hand. "I'll get a cab."
Good. Brad is probably home by now, waiting for me.
I follow Jason outside. He is flagging down a taxi. When it pulls up, I hop inside a little too quickly, eager to get away from him. But when I turn to say goodbye, he isn't there. The door opens on the other side of the cab, and he slips into the seat next to me.
"Harbour Street, please," he tells the cab driver, then winks at me as we pull away from the curb.
"Where are we going? I should really..." but my words fall away as he takes my hand again. His cologne fills the small space, and my head reals from either it or the wine, I don't know. Both intoxicate me.
"Just a little trip down memory lane," he says.
A few minutes later the driver pulls up at the end of Harbour Street, a block from the ocean. Jason pays him and drags me out his side of the car, our hands still linked. The salt air hits me, the wind stinging my eyes. My eyes are drawn to the brilliant blue of the waves.
Much more brilliant than they were in my dream.
I gasp softly, my muscles contracting. My dream was a joke - a freaky episode that turned out to be a freaky coincidence. But these coincidences are too many.
The hug. Him kneeling in front of me - to pick up my business cards. The flash of yellow - the cab we have just left. And now the waves.
I don't believe in the paranormal. But I'm not going to be one of those stupid heroines in a horror movie that won't face what's right in front of her. Yes, it may be just a series of coincidences. But I'm going to do everything in my power to stop it. If I'm not with him, how can be possibly kill me?
"We had our first date here," I say, hoping he doesn't notice that my hands are shaking. "Remember?"
His smile lights up his face. "Of course I remember."
"We went rollerblading, then we sat on the boardwalk," I say. I try not to pay attention to the memories I am dredging up. "You bought me an ice cream."
"From there," Jason said, indicating the tiny corner store. "Hang on."
He enters the store, just like I knew he would. The second the door jingles shut behind him, I run back to the cab.
"Wait!" I call, as it starts to pull away. The cab driver stops, and I hop inside. I give him my address then sit back, trembling.
Two minutes later, my cell rings. I know it's Jason before I even check. Staring it down, I let it ring out.
"I want you back," comes his voice in my ear.
I can change this, too.
When the phone beeps to tell me I have a voicemail message, I delete it without even listening to it.
Leaning back in my seat, I let the cab take me home. To Brad.
Brad is getting dinner ready when I get home. My nerves from earlier all but disappear as I walk in the front door and get a waft of the stir-fry he's cooking. He gives me a hug, his strong arms enveloping me in safety.
After dinner, we take up from where we left off this morning. I fall asleep with nothing but his body wrapped around me, feeling his warm breath on my neck.
I don't know what time it is when I wake up, but it's dark out, and Brad isn't beside me. I sit up and see him at the end of the bed, his face lit up like a glowstick against the light of the cell phone he is holding.
My cell phone.
"What're you doing?" I ask.
He glances over at me. "You've been busy."
I hold out my hand for my phone. He gives it to me, and I see that the screen is open to a new text message. I don't recognize the phone number, but it's pretty clear who it is from.
"I want you back," it reads. The words churn my stomach. Changing the course of my dream has not much altered my reality. Scrolling down, I can see five or six more messages from Jason. My fingers become so slick I can hardly work the buttons.
Remembering Brad, I glance up. He is close to me now, and I can almost feel his jealousy pulsating off him. I need to talk him down before I can figure out what do to. He needs to help me find a way to keep Jason away.
But before the words I haven't yet found leave my lips, a hand grips me firmly around the neck and squeezes. When the barrel of the gun touches my temple, understanding hits me.
I have been running the wrong way.
The bullet plows into my brain. Before the sound of the gunshot even reaches my ears, I am dead.
Julie Bernhardt is a member of the Victoria's Writers Society, and has recently completed her first novel.
Illustration: Aron Wiesenfeld. Aron's paintings depict enigmatic figures traversing desolate environments. Both the people and the places seem familiar, yet oddly out of place. He says about his personages: "They are refugees, pilgrims, and wanderers, trying to get to the other side of a river that is forever out of reach. I think they are answering a call that is not consciously understandable, but resonates somewhere inside them. It draws them to a place they forgot that they knew about, something like a return to Eden."
Aron says about his paintings: "If something is going on behind the surface, people are drawn to it but don't know why. They've connected to something in it. And that is a constant theme through my work, the ability to paint something to suggest something that isn't shown."
Wiesenfeld's works can be purchased at Arcadia Fine Arts Gallery (51 Greene Street, New York, NY 10013). Wiesenfeld's website: www.aronwiesenfeld.com