There were periods when I was younger where I was plagued with horrific nightmares about the end of the world. Bloody and seizing in their overwhelming sense of actuality, Armageddon would arrive in numerous ways on any given night. Sometimes dinosaurs returned and stomped everyone out, squashing me and everyone else in existence like scattering roaches. Occasionally, all of the magnificent structures of the world, from Mt. Everest to the Eiffel Tower, crumbled down and smothered everyone. There were a few times all the bridges collasped, causing catastrophic disaster throughout every country. Sometimes smoldering lava plunged through the city streets and flooded all of the houses. And one time, Jesus came.

One of the most memorable nightmares for me came not long after I had burned myself for the first time with a curling iron. I dreamt the heavens grew purple, yellow and black, relentless storms scoured the earth, and Jesus returned as I had been warned about through stories from other kids who went to church. I found myself in a towering building, one unfamiliar to me in reality, and many other strangers were crowded into this building as well. From the top story we gazed in awe as lightening bolts tore the sky open, and people ran helter skelter through the streets. A human form, which we all understood as the form of Jesus flew above us in the sky, picking up people to carry with him into heaven.

Jesus appeared in the window of our building with a flash, and the glass of the pane blew up, and suddenly Jesus was standing on the rim of the sill. He was garbed in white cloth and stood barefoot, not surprisingly. He moved his feet over the shards of glass unharmed by them.

What we all understood in that building was that if he took your hand, you were meant to follow him into heaven. If he did not take you with him, it meant you were condemned. He slowly began to pull on the peoples’ hands around me, picking perhaps five or six on the crowded floor. Jesus turned to me and leaned in for my hand, and I exhaled with relief and began to follow him out.

As we walked to the window I felt the glass shards puncturing my feet, and saw the crimson color of my tracks as I glanced behind. Before we reached the frame of the blasted window, Jesus stopped and turned to me again. He pressed my hand with great force, and I knew he was reading who I was and where I had been. His face remained solemn as he did this, virtually unreadable.

“You must wait here,” he said, and I could perceive nothing in his voice kind or harsh. I did not understand and grew desperate in fear.

“Why?” I pleaded.

He did not reply. In seconds he was back in the sky with others flying behind him, and I watched Jesus float away with terror flooding my stomach.

When I woke, I struggled with an indescribable pain for the rest of the day. I spoke of this to no one, hoping the hurt would disappear.

The next night I was visited by tornadoes.

What I eventually understood these dreams to signify were the reflections of my fears of lacking control. There is so much in life that occurs without anyone having any guidance or explanation for it, for there were events and people who are simply ineluctable, and I was living out the worst of this truth in my dreams. My confusion could consume me in the night.

I imagined that if I had the same dream today, Jesus would not even dare to touch my hand.

I still, on occasion, have these types of nightmares. Jesus has not appeared again, but massive mechanic robots have, and bombing airplanes, and flesh-eating viruses like the infamous Ebola.

Two weeks after moving into the house with Jack, I dreamt of hundreds of panthers invading the land, and they all crept silently toward the massive home we slumbered in. Looking out the window, I watched as hundred of pairs of red and gold haunted eyes descended on us.

And I awoke with a scream without Jack next to me.

*****

“You blame the world for your problems,” Michelle, my step-mother, once said to me during a rare, true-to-life conversation we had together. “That’s what all teenagers do. You don’t see what you are lucky to have. All you see is what you can’t have or are yet to have, and you want to blame others for your problems.”

She spoke almost flippantly as she wrapped Christmas presents for relatives in the dining room one year. Late November, when I was fifteen. I had performed four acts of self-mutilation by that point.

On that gelid Saturday morning, my father was out of town on a business trip and I was left to defend myself against Michelle, who seemed to survive off effusing angry comments at me for even the most minute reason. This was what made her comments so ironic. I had almost laughed – which I fortunately did not do – knowing it could prompt a whaling of horrific proportions.

She had asked me to help her wrap presents. Michelle, I had learned over the years, believed in keeping up outward appearances far beyond what truth existed. She was quite an expert at it all, really. She could smile to a guest or family member while at a gathering and let the sweetest words ripple out of her mouth, and then turn and rip the same person to shreds behind their back.

As I sat at the table that day I envisioned Michelle covered in shiny green Christmas wrapping paper herself, tied up with a red velvet bow, all of the decorations hiding the gaudy, cheap individual which lay inside.

The “conversation” we happened upon came after she scolded me for not making better use of my Saturday—telling me that I wasted time acting depressed.

“I know I’m lucky,” I replied, placing my finger at the center of a bow so she could tie it correctly. “I’m not so depressed. I like to relax on weekends.”

Michelle snorted. “Okay.”

“Well what did you do on Saturdays at my age?”

She stopped her hand movements and looked up at me.

“When I was fifteen, I was living on the streets in Chicago. I spent most of my time looking for meals or places to stay.”

She spoke so perfunctorily, then continued her wrapping, and I stared at her in consternation. I never could have imagined Michelle living on the streets. Until then, I don’t know if I could have imagined anything about her past, but the last thought to come to mind would be one of homelessness.

“Did you run away?”

“I had to,” she said, no longer looking in my direction. She was working furiously now. “Life at home was awful. The streets were better, believe me.”

“How did you live on the streets?”

“Well, I wasn’t a prostitute, if that’s what you’re implying.”

“I wasn’t implying anything.”

“I found other girls and guys in the same situation,” she explained, her voice coming out in the familiar cold monotone as she spoke. “And we found old buildings to live in. Sometimes we’d rent out cheap places where ten of us would pack ourselves into. I sold my hair and my fingernails to make money.”

“Your fingernails?”

“It’s amazing what people will buy in this world, but yes. I made sure to be careful about my hands, and after they would grow out to a good length, a guy would cut them and take them away. Fifty bucks a hand.”

I stared solemnly at Michelle as she twirled out more red ribbon from a brown roll, trying to picture the deplorably truculent woman dressed in a cashmere sweater and Donna Karen boots starving and inconsequential on a windy street corner, her hands trembling and nailess.

“The streets were better than home?” I pursued.

“Generally,” she replied, as if I’d asked her “So are you doing well today?” Then she sighed, picked up another gift to wrap.

“Although there were moments when it seemed like too much. Watching a naked girl being beaten with pool sticks and tortured with fire can make you think twice about all of it.”

“Where was that? Did you know her?” I began to scrawl names on a To-and-From sticker, staring intently at the rosy cheeked Santa winking at me below the word From.

“It was in the middle of the night at an old hang out and she was a stranger to me. But it just goes to show what can happen if you aren’t careful about your choices in life.”

Was she saying that if I weren’t very careful in life, I could easily be strung up and beaten?

“How did you meet my father?” I asked. The abrupt change of subject made her glance towards me, and though I was somewhat trepidatious about asking such a personal question, she did not seem too annoyed.

“I met Glen at a party three months after moving down here.”

That was all she seemed to want to offer, so I pressed further.

“And who spoke to who first?”

“I guess… we were introduced. And we just started talking. Next thing you know… we’re picking out a church and a preacher.”

Michelle laughed when she said this, although it was not a laugh for a fond memory, rather it sounded as though it were facetious.

“What was it that made you fall in love with him?”

Michelle sighed, looked up from her wrapping. “He was a good man. And nice. And everything else that is important. But just remember, Slade…” she looked hard at me, her eyes glacial and forceful. “All love comes out of needs, and out of fears. Those truelove fantasies, which I’m sure you still believe in right now, are crap. Men can’t offer half of what you dream about at night. Take what you can get.”

The table turned quiet after that, and I continued to help her with stickers and bows, wondering if what she said were true. Michelle had a cold bitterness deep inside of her, but now that I knew something about where she came from, perhaps she merely spoke of truths I was already wondering about. Her words were anguishing and dreadful, but I’d never seen anything to prove her wrong.

She had to be wrong, I told myself that night while tossing angrily in my bed. She was a bitter bitch and she had aided in making life miserable for me. Was her advice genuine? Was that her idea of a girl talk with a confused teen? I didn’t want her to be right, but my mind was on the rocky precipice of self-doubt.

However scourging they decanted, Michelle’s words proved tantamount to all I had experienced.

Excerpt from novel. Title here is taken from a Sylvia Plath poem.

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