Fragile Dreams

Recently I wrote a short story loosely based on a 30 page script that I wrote titled “Folded Dreams.” Feel free to comment with your critiques and questions.

Fragile Dreams

Jacob walked briskly down the hospital hallway, clutching the flowers tightly to his chest. They were white roses. Her favorite. He was afraid if he squeezed them any tighter, the stems might break.

I shouldn’t be here.

The pungent smell of chemical odors wafted through the air like deadly gas. The sound of heart monitors faded as he turned the corner and came to a stop. A sign reading Intensive Care Unit hung above closed double-doors. He looked to the nurse at the nearby reception desk, and she nodded at him. Jacob had been here so many times the past eight days, he didn’t need to say a word to anyone.

A loud buzz sounded, and the doors clicked open. He stepped inside. There were hospital beds lined up along the walls, separated by only curtains. Taking a deep breath, he headed straight for her bed. Bed Eleven. He came to a stop right in front of it. Her heart monitor beeped rhythmically, slowly. She was asleep as she had been for most of the past week. With no parents or family around, Jacob had been her primary visitor.

He took the visitors seat next to her bed. Rachel didn’t move. A nurse walked by in light blue scrubs.

I shouldn’t be here.

Jacob removed the wilted Gerber Daisies from the vase on the corner table and tossed them in a nearby waste basket, carefully replacing them with the white roses. He took out a pitcher of water and poured some into the vase. He glanced at Rachel, but she remained motionless besides the occasional rising and falling of her chest.

She was so young. And yet so close to death. He had to tell her the truth about what happened. But not until she was strong enough. For now, he would do the only thing he could. It was the only thing he had ever wanted to do—be with her.

He could still remember the first day of college, and he’d caught a glimpse of her. Now, five years later, she was just as beautiful. Her tangled ash blonde hair cascaded on and around her pillow. A thick bandage was wrapped around the back of her head and attached to her chin. A large patch of hair had been shaved off for the surgery. Another smaller bandage patched her right cheek where shards of glass had lacerated her face. Her right leg was propped up above her. The translucency of her skin was exaggerated by the fluorescent lights. The color in her cheeks was gone. Her arms had lost most of their muscle for lack of proper nutrition. Hospital IV bags could only go so far.

The nurse had told him that she had lost about twenty pounds. But at least she was stable now. She looked pitiful and sickly, but no less beautiful. Her hands looked soft and fragile on top of the bedsheets. The nurses had removed her engagement ring and given it to him for safekeeping. He reached into his pocket just to make sure it was still there, sealed in a small envelope. He closed the curtain around her bed, leaving it open just a crack in case the nursing staff got curious.

His heart ached for her.

Rachel’s foot twitched at the end of the bed, uncovered. Jacob took the entangled piece of the blanket’s end and wrapped the foot. By accident, he brushed her toes. They were ice cold. Jacob placed both hands and rubbed softly to warm it faster. He immediately thought of a night in his apartment where they had dined in, worn each other out with the latest game system called the Wii, and cuddled on the couch while making fun of a bad movie with her legs propped up in his lap, as he massaged the soles of her feet.

But that was a long time ago.

“Jacob?”

Rachel’s voice was soft, like a child’s, but clear. Her eyes were half-open but no less striking. Jacob fumbled for the pitcher of water, poured it into the cup, and held the straw up to her lips. She sipped eagerly until nearly half the cup was gone. She inhaled deeply and leaned back against her pillow again. She held his gaze and smiled.

Jacob couldn’t help but smile too. Her eyes still shined like stars, in spite of everything. He didn’t want to tell her. He didn’t want to break this moment.

“How are you feeling?”

“Okay, I guess,” she looked at the cup in his hand, and he offered her another sip. She licked her bottom lip where some water had leaked out.

“You look so tired,” she said. He couldn’t help but be entranced by those eyes of hers, locked on his, like time had stopped just for them. Like nothing could stop them from being together now. That’s when he realized—Rachel was in love with him. It was that familiar look in her eye. He didn’t know how to feel or what he was going to do. She suddenly grimaced a little.

“Are you okay? Is there pain?” he asked.

“No, I’m fine.”

“I can get the nurse, she can give you more morphine.”

“No. I don’t—I need to know, Jake.”

He felt his heart sink.

“About what?”

“They aren’t telling me. What happened?”

Jacob felt his breath catch in his throat. She knew something was wrong. He was going to have to tell her. He cleared his throat.

“What do you remember?” he asked. Her eyes misted.

“I remember—you.”

Jacob almost broke down right there, but he bit his lip.

“I remember you,” she repeated. She glanced at the vase. “And I remember white roses are my favorite,” she smiled. Jacob grinned, and she giggled, shaking her head a little. Her smile faded, and they both grew somber again.

“Did I kill someone?”

“No, no,” he said, putting his hand in hers. She squeezed back.

“Then why won’t anyone tell me?”

Jacob shook his head once, running his thumb over her finger.

“They said when you finally woke up, you were asking for me,” he said. Rachel nodded. “You don’t remember the accident at all?” She shook her head, her face somber. Jacob took a deep breath. For her to understand, he had to tell the beginning.

“Do you remember the time when we went cliff jumping at Leopard Falls?”

After a moment, Rachel nodded.

“I remember that.”

“Do you remember what I told you?”

Rachel said nothing, though her brow furrowed. Jacob took a deep breath.

“I told you, that day, that I was taking a job in Philadelphia. And then, you said you wouldn’t be coming.”

He could see in her eyes that she was remembering.

“How long ago was that?” he asked.

She held his gaze a long moment before answering in a hoarse whisper, with great effort.

“A month?” She looked lost. She shook her head back and forth.

“Two years.” He said it, searching her face, wishing he wouldn’t have to spell it out. She looked down at her hand in his and released her grip. Jacob pulled his own hand away.

“There was someone else.” Her eyes darted from Jacob’s face to the bed to her own hand, and all over again. She stroked the fingers of her left hand absentmindedly.

“You were—” Jacob paused, searching for the words.

“I was engaged. Wasn’t I?”

Jacob nodded, a lump forming in his throat.

“It’s been two years, Rachel,” he said, fighting to control his emotion. He willed himself not to say anything more.

Jacob reached into his right front pocket and removed the plain white envelope, opening it with a tremor in his hands. The engagement ring fell into the palm of his hand. This was a moment he had known was coming, but he had hoped it never would. Jacob placed the ring in her hands, then returned his gaze to the tile floor.

“I should have told you sooner,” he said. His stomach turned, and he clenched his jaw. Rachel sniffed, and he summoned to courage to meet her stare. Her brow was furrowed and her eyes damp. Jacob felt his own eyes well up.

It had been over two years since she had loved him, but he had never gotten over her. He didn’t think a coma from a car crash would be the thing to bring her back. He wanted to hold her. Wanted to tell her so many things. He stood up, and she immediately reached for the “emergency call” button and pressed it.

“I need to be alone right now.”

Her eyes were closed, tears leaking through the edges. She didn’t want him there. Jacob couldn’t move. He mouthed his sorrow, and the tears began to stream down his face. Two nurses elbowed their way past him.

“Please, sir, we need some privacy right now.”

Jacob left.

He shouldn’t have come. He had caused her enough pain two years ago. And every living moment since then, he regretted. He had thought Rachel the selfish one after refusing to go with him. The only option had been to follow his dreams.

It felt like he was losing her. Again. Jacob had gotten on with his life as much as possible over the past twenty-six months. Now, everything was coming back. All the memories, good and bad. All the reasons he fell in love with her the first time. They made sense again.

*                    *                  *

“My parents are over there,” she said, pointing to a plot about twenty yards to their right. Jacob pushed Rachel’s wheelchair along the gravel path that wove its way through the old graveyard behind Saint Paul’s cathedral. Thick gray clouds hung over them like a sign of foreboding.

A month had passed, and Rachel’s leg was still severely broken, but she had regained most of her normal body weight and the color was back in her cheeks. They had removed the bandage from her face, revealing some awful scarring. She looked directly ahead, very somber, finding little to draw the attention of her gaze. Finally, he stopped the wheelchair next to a newly-carved gravestone.

The name was Marcus Becker, age twenty-six.

“Do you want to be by yourself?” he said, barely above a whisper.

“No,” she said in monotone. Jacob couldn’t see her face, so he stared at the back of her head and at her hair, which she had pulled up into a bun.

He didn’t know where they went from here. Every day for the past month had felt like agony, though it was the only thing he knew to do. Without parents and without someone close, Jacob thought himself responsible and willing to care for her. His love for her was now resurrected from the tomb inside his heart. He feared he would never learn to accept the way things had gone.

Rachel opened her mouth to speak.

“You know, I hated you that day,” she said, gripping the wheels of the wheelchair tightly. “When I realized you weren’t him.”

“You should have,” he said. “I just didn’t want—”

“You didn’t want to lose me again?”

Jacob swallowed. Rachel spun her wheelchair around to face him. Tears were streaming down her face, and her lips were trembling.

“Yes,” he said, dropping his gaze to the ground. “I’m sorry.”

“The truth is, when I woke up and saw your face, I had never been so happy to be alive. You made me feel loved.”

Jacob stood awkwardly in silence.

“When I look at that tombstone,” she said, “I don’t feel a thing.” The tears really started to flow, and she buried her face in her hands, sobbing violently.

Jacob kneeled beside her, and she placed her head against his neck.

“We—” she gasped through a sob, then sniffed. Jacob removed a handkerchief from his back pocket and dabbed at her eyes, brushing back the lock of hair that had fallen in front of her face.

Jacob searched her face and swallowed. Could he become the man of her dreams? Perhaps that man died in a car crash, never to return. Would Rachel ever let go of the one she had loved, though she couldn’t even remember that person?

Rachel turned back toward to the tombstone and reached into her pocket. She removed a ring, the engagement ring she had been wearing during the accident. She looked at the tombstone a long time. Then, with great effort, she reached out and placed the ring on top of the tombstone.

She sat back in her wheelchair and stared at the tombstone for several more minutes. Then, she reached for Jacob’s hand and squeezed it.

“Let’s go,” Rachel whispered. Jacob nodded, and turned the wheelchair back down the path the way they had come. The future was uncertain, but his mind was made up.

All rights belong to the author.

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The Watcher

The following is an early draft of a short story I recently wrote. Feel free to comment with your critiques and questions.

The Watcher

He ran through a deep, muddy puddle, sploshing water in all directions, dampening his tattered jeans. Holding back a curse, he quickened his gait as the splash echoed against concrete walls. The trash-strewn alleyway had obscured any street lights from illuminating the way. It always felt like eyes from above were watching him when he made his way through this dark, ominous passageway. The familiar pulse-racing and heart-thumping rendered memories of venturing down the basement steps of his father’s house when he was a kid, where it seemed anyone—or anything—could be lurking. That was ten years ago. The adrenaline sparked a rush that cried for escape, both then and now.

This is where he could escape without being detected. But it could also be where he disappeared forever. The alley opened to an empty street. A street light blinked red above him. He turned the corner up the sidewalk.

He had to hurry. He didn’t want to miss her. The other day he had gotten there five minutes late, only to see her jump into a car that drove off immediately. He had spent the rest of the night watching a drunk try to stumble his way home, and a feral cat get in a fight with a scavenging raccoon. The raccoon won.

His backpack’s weatherworn straps dug into his shoulders, and the weight of it bounced against his lower back with every step he took. The weary trek up to Main Street, the steepest part of town, was grueling. He hated it. But he had to focus. He was fighting for breaths by the time he reached the summit. He consciously relaxed his shoulders and crossed Main Street.

Appear normal. Be calm. Act like you belong, like no one should mess with you. If anyone happened to be watching, you are just passing through.

The Watcher allowed himself to take a few nervous glances in his peripherals. He could feel the tension tonight. It was in the magenta hue against the thick fog that hung over the city’s towers of aging brick, weathered concrete, and shimmering glass. Or maybe it was in the way the street lights reflected off the grimy, wet streets, soiled with car oil and rubber tread. His head buzzed with it.

Tonight was one of those nights. Tonight there was something different, something new. It rattled him more than usual. Made him wish someone else was by his side, or perhaps just keeping a watchful eye.

He stepped off the sidewalk as a car sped by, throwing a cool air mixed with the odor of burning marijuana leaves. It reminded him of green shag carpet and aged floral wallpaper, and beer cans lying hopelessly abandoned on the front porch of his dad’s house.

A three-story parking garage, mostly empty, was situated to his left as he continued up the hill, turning off of Main Street and onto Fifth Street. Section Six, as he like to call it. This was one of his many perches. Tonight, he broke his habit. He never came here on a Sunday. But tonight was different. The orange hue of the streetlights was brighter. The air felt cleaner, or maybe it was just dampened by the humidity.

The girl fascinated him, but he didn’t know why. She was no different from the others. Perhaps because she was so young—her childlike innocence stolen from her. Maybe it was just her pretty face.

As he came to the end of the block, he turned into the quiet parking garage. He edged around the corner and stepped onto the stairs. He scaled four flights of stairs before coming to the top level. Exposed to the open air, he allowed his lungs to inflate with the crisp night air. After a long moment his heart rate finally slowed. He dropped to his stomach to survey the area. No lights lit up the lot; just the gray glow from above. Even the moon liked to hide sometimes.

Only one vehicle in the lot, but that was more than normal. From where he lay, the SUV was positioned at his ten o’clock, pointed towards Main Street. He checked for any movement, scanned the lot one more time. No signs of life from the SUV, but he would be thorough.

Hard gravel and blacktop digging into his palms, he crawled forward with slow, fluid movements. The front seats were empty. He crept toward the rear and slowly pushed himself into a crouch, then peeked into the back of the SUV. No surprises here; only beer bottles, cigarettes, and fast food wrappers.

Satisfied, he crawled on his palms and toes for the far corner overlooking Main and Fourth. He raised his head just inches above the concrete ledge, gazing through the rusted security fence. An LED sign in front of a bank flashed the temperature, then the time.

12:49AM. Almost time.

The Watcher shrugged the pack off his shoulders and it fell with a thud to the ground. He unzipped the main flap and rummaged through it with one hand as he looked up at the cold, bright moon, shining through a break in the fog. He felt a little exposed under the soft light, but another layer of clouds would soon move in and settle over the area. The moon would be blanketed with thick vapor soon enough. Besides, he was safe up here, above the streets.

He felt the fabric of a glove, the plastic of a candy bar wrapper, an apple core, the stub of a half-used cigarette. There! He removed the item and examined his old, trusty companion, Michael. That’s what he called it. The camcorder, its outer finish scratched, had to be ten years old. A fissure ran through the plastic under the lens, and a layer of grunge coated its outer shell, making it sticky in various places.

The zoom stuck sometimes, and the colors on the view screen were a bit off, but it worked just fine. Fresh off a battery charge at the local coffee shop, and having uploaded last night’s footage to his personal website, Michael was ready to go for another night.

It was hard to believe that Michael and he still slept in the abandoned train station on South End. He switched the camcorder on, selected the playback option, and rewound from the end of the tape. The perspective of these clips was from the top of the court house in West Side. That building was always difficult breaking into, but it was necessary so that he could climb onto the roof. Difficult, but not impossible.

The screen showed a bunch of cars and occasionally people traveling in fast motion. The middle-aged woman with gray hair in a ponytail sauntered backwards along the sidewalk, pulling a baby carriage. A kid passed her her by, and dime bag of drugs returned to his hand from her cart as she returned his bills. They never made eye contact.

His eyes glazed over as the video sped past the scene he captured through the window of a fourth floor apartment. A man had hit a woman repeatedly in the stomach before she fell to the floor, out of sight. The man had given her a few more kicks for good measure and stomped off toward the hallway. He had watched for several more hours with the camera switched off, but dawn came so he left without knowing if she got up again.

These were the actions of the creatures of the night. It was in these quiet hours that people shed their masks of civility and goodness. This is what they became, when no one else was watching. Well, there was someone watching. He was keeping score. But they didn’t know that. They didn’t know they were being recorded or that their actions were being seen by thousands of people. One day, maybe, it would be millions. Whether it did any good, he didn’t know. But they needed to be exposed.

The camcorder beeped as the tape reached the beginning, and he switched it to the record mode. The inner motors whirred within the camera as he opened the flip screen. He zoomed in towards the street corner on his right, in front of an abandoned shop, boarded up and covered with graffiti, the bricks weathered and decaying.

He had to see her again. There was something about the way she walked. Something about the way she held her mouth just slightly open, looking lost and vulnerable. Something about the way she held her hands together and fidgeted as she waited. Something about the way her eyes seemed to be watching and searching. He hoped she would show. He had risked so much to be here tonight.

Then, a slender figure emerged from the shadows. She carried a small black purse, as she always did. He zoomed in on her face as much as the camera allowed. There were her big brown eyes that reflected the street lights. A light shade of lipstick accented her soft lips, and her long brown curls flowed over her shoulders. Her delicate complexion was obscured by a mask of eyeliner, fake eyelashes, and a layer of pancake and blush. She wore fishnet leggings and a short black skirt under a tan trench coat.

But those were not the reasons that she tugged at his heart strings tonight. It was the black and green bruise on her left cheek. And if he wasn’t mistaken, she had a black eye too. Was her upper lip trembling? He couldn’t quite tell. Unlike the usual loneliness and yearning, her eyes looked a little blank, not bothering to watch the cars that passed her by. She wasn’t making an effort to grab anyone’s attention.

But she had his attention. He had watched her for the better part of a month now, daring to come more and more often. He had never uploaded any footage of her to his website. He wasn’t sure if she deserved it. Now he was sure that she didn’t do this with any pleasure. Perhaps she was even being held captive, forced to produce at the profit of a sick, greedy pimp, the piece of scum who hid in the shadows, waiting for the nightly return on his human investment. The bruise was proof.

Suddenly she raised her head and looked up at him. He instinctively ducked down behind the concrete wall. He held his breath. He thought he had been far enough away from her field of view. He thought about checking the tape to see if they indeed had made eye contact, but decided against it.

He peeked over the concrete edge and looked to the street corner again. She was still there, leaning against the abandoned building now, looking dazed. She was no longer looking up. If she had seen him, she probably only saw a shadow or momentary blur. He ducked back down again, then glanced at the SUV. He had to save her, before someone picked her up, and she spent another night in Hell.

He crawled up to the SUV. A siren sounded in the distance. It was a fire truck. Knowing the door would be locked, he dug into his pack. He slipped on his black gloves, then pulled out the lock rake he had pawned off an old man. With it, he could get into any older vehicle. He shoved the tool into the lock, twisted it and jiggled it. The door clicked open.

He immediately dug out his switchblade, plunged it into the tan plastic of the steering column. He cut a fist-sized hole. Making sure his black gloves were secure, he used his knife to cut the red power wires and twisted them together. He also cut the brown starter wires, and stripped the ends of them. His fingers were getting sweaty inside his gloves. Moments later he rubbed the two starter wires together.

It was taking forever. He glanced around the lot for the hundredth time, and stroked the two wires against each other furiously. The engine coughed to a low roar. He jumped in the front seat, throwing his backpack in the passenger’s side. He unzipped the front flap and removed the wad of cash, strapped together with a rubber band. He had counted it a thousand times. His life’s savings. All of three hundred fifty-seven dollars and eleven cents. It wouldn’t get her far, but it’s all he had. He zipped the pack up again, shoved the stick into Drive, and coaxed the car towards the exit lane. With every turn in the parking garage, he bit his lip harder, afraid someone might see him. Someone might know his secret.

He was on the bottom level now. He realized that he didn’t know what exactly to say to her. He didn’t want to scare her. He had to save her. He would take her to the church lady on Hickory Street. She would take her in, he hoped.

Or maybe they could flee this town, get away from everything they knew, and start a new life. Maybe they would become best friends. Maybe he could be her savior, her knight in shining armor that risked his life to save her from everything dangerous and evil.

He poked the nose of the vehicle into the street. No cars. Nobody but her. He turned onto the street. There she was. He tried to take a deep breath, but his heart beat all the stronger. She was so beautiful, he wondered how she could have ever been caught up in such a horrible life. He pulled into the parking spot directly across from her, parallel to the sidewalk and abandoned building. She had yet to look up. He rolled down the window.

She was so beautiful. Up close she looked like a creature from Heaven that had been captured and imprisoned, tortured and used. Besides the rumble of the SUV’s engine, and that distant firetruck siren, the street was silent

“Hey,” he said. After a long moment, she looked up at him. Her eyes nearly destroyed him. They were so alluring, so young, yet so blank, as if the light had been stolen from them. She eased away from the building and moved towards him with unbalanced, inconsistent strides. He cleared his throat.

“Get in,” he said. She looked left and right, then nodded, coming around the front to get into the passenger side. As the vehicle pulled away from the curb and continued down Main Street, the overwhelming aroma of her perfume made his head hurt.

“Turn down this street up here,” she said. “I know a place. It’s private.”

The Watcher said nothing and obediently made the turn.

“Do you have the money?” she said, fiddling with something in her purse.

“It’s in the pack, on the floor.”

She unzipped the main part.

“Turn onto Rosewood up here,” she said without looking up. “There’s a motel on the left.”

“I thought that place was abandoned,” he said. He took the turn onto Rosewood a little fast, and the tire’s screeched. She said nothing.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

She looked up at him with a quizzical look, still digging through his pack.

“What does it matter?”

He shrugged.

“What is this?” she said, pulling the camcorder out of my bag. His chest tightened. “Is this for tonight?”

“No, no,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t do that kind of thing.”

“Why did you bring it?”

She switched it on.

“Please, don’t, that’s my personal property.”

“Turn up here,” she said, hitting the play button. She seemed like she might be difficult to talk to.

He turned into the empty parking lot quickly. The motel was dark and quiet, having been abandoned for several years. The place had dilapidated beyond repair.

“Why were you recording me?” she said, holding up the viewfinder to him, unbuckling her seatbelt and throwing open her door.

He couldn’t think to say anything. Getting her to go along with his plan was getting more difficult, and he didn’t exactly have a way with words.

The Watcher got out of the vehicle and walked around to her side of the car. But she wasn’t there. Some blunt object struck the back of his head, and he fell to the ground face down in the gravel, head throbbing with pain.

The next thing he felt was cold metal tightening around his wrists. Red and blue lights cast long shadows on the abandoned motel. Shadows of people.

“You have the right to remain silent,” a booming, gruff voice said. Someone drug him to his feet and threw him up against the SUV. His vision was blurry, and he could feel spittle on his lips. Nothing was making sense.

“You have the right to an attorney…” He looked over his left shoulder. The girl was talking to a man in a cop’s uniform, several yards away.

“I found plenty of money in his pack,” she said. “And this.”

She handed his camcorder to the cop. His camcorder.

“He was spying on me. I think he’s done this before.”

“This is good,” the cop said. “This is going to be an easy one. We ran those plates. Car’s stolen too.”

“Sick freak is getting what he deserves.”

And as he looked up at the street light above, the distant sounds of dogs barking and sirens wailing filled his ears.

All rights belong to the author.