Ranchers

Ranchers

A long time ago I had a dream about an autopsy. This is what I remember.

* * *

A doctor pulls a white glove over his hand, snapping the elastic against his wrist. There’s hair all over the body, leg and chest hair and a beard that stretches halfway down the neck. “You don’t think of them as hairy,” a nurse says to no one in particular. “Hair reminds me of life.” She brushes a lock from his brow, black bangs against sallow skin, and runs her thumb over a vertical incision that runs from his sternum all the way down to his waist. She continues talking to herself about how he had a seizure, that he’d entered the hospital claiming that an atom bomb was inside him.

She turns to the doctor saying that he’d been committed after smashing a mirror with his fist. He’d grabbed a jagged shard of it with both of his hands before threatening to plunge it into his stomach to “stop the ticking.” When they found him he was tracing the glass down his arms and hands, turning a piece over in his palms. They’d strapped him into a straitjacket and given him a heavy dose of sedatives. He died on his fourth night in the psychiatric ward. Nobody had known he was epileptic.

Then the young man’s mother appears in the room. “He came here claiming an A-bomb was inside him,” the doctor says to her. “Fully out of his mind. I’m so sorry. We had no idea he had prior health issues.” When she walks away, he jokes, “who knows? Maybe we’ll find an explosive in his stomach.” And then he and the nurse erupt into laughter. That’s where the dream ends.

For months after that dream the boy would visit me in my sleep. Sometimes the visions took place before he died, sometimes after: risen from the underworld, he’d appear barely half-alive with a gaping wound between his ribs. Sometimes he’d say that he wanted to take me away from my uncle’s house, talking about a place that floodwaters can’t touch.

The other day I met someone who resembled the boy I saw in my dreams. His hair was mostly gray, however, not black, and he was at least ten years older than me — a man, not a boy. He approached me as I was walking home after a late-night movie.

“Are you here all by yourself?,” he asked, and I nodded. “I’ve got a ranch house in the desert,” he said. He drove up to the curb in a pink Jeep with a brown leather roof, and I hopped in. We were still driving as the sun rose from behind the flat roofs of the suburban stripmalls, and to tease him, I twisted my hair into pigtails with some of the grimy rubber bands I found in his glove compartment.“Why do you have so many of these things?” I asked, but he didn’t reply.

When we got to his house, he ushered me to the side of a swimming pool whose edges seemed to disappear into the salt flat. He told me it was called an infinity pool. “But the desert doesn’t stretch on forever,” I said, and he grinned. He gave me a plate of fresh pomegranate seeds arranged in a delicate snowflake pattern. “You’ve got a beautiful name,” he said. “You should speak it so that you feel the vowels hum in the back of your throat.” Then he rose from his chair, took my chin between his forefinger and thumb and tipped my head back. With his other hand he found a depression above my sternum and pressed in hard with three shaking fingers.

“That’s the part that’ll vibrate if you do it the right way,” he whispered.

When the sun rose from behind the mesa, he brought me into his bedroom and tucked me in to bed. “To feel fully alive,” he said, “you must get a good night’s sleep.”

I woke some time later to an orange-streaked sky of deep blue and a new dress laid out for me at the edge of the bed. He tipped his hat to greet me, swaddled me in a fresh towel and kissed my neck. I felt clean.

The following night, I couldn’t sleep; my memory of the previous day felt like it belonged to somebody else. At any rate, all of the details were hazy. The man had left me with a warning to leave the city. I told him that I couldn’t do that; everywhere else is dangerous. City people never think about the floods elsewhere, the wars caused by all of that water. So I forget, too, and I prefer it that way. I’ve always felt protected here.

The next day, the man came by my house. I’d told him that I’d be alone once when my uncle left for work. He gestured me into the Jeep and away we sped.

“I want to hear about what dreams you had when you were in my bed,” he said. When I told him that my sleep had been dreamless he looked like I’d just reported a death in the family. I said that the last dream I remember having was months ago. The boy visited me in the house I grew up in as a child, indicating a chest wound that kept soaking his t-shirt through with blood. He ushered me through a secret passage, down a series of stairs and into a basement room that I knew didn’t exist in the real world. Ticking clock-faces hung suspended on heavy brass chains, swinging with the almost-imperceptible slowness of a corpse on a noose. Neither walls nor a ceiling were visible in the room; everything around us receded into a musty nothingness. The only forms I could make out were the clock faces, which emitted a hazy yellowish light. Whenever I focused my eyes on one of them, though, their numbers blurred and melted together. That’s the only piece of the dream that I remember. Each night since has enfolded me into an opaque blackness, a place that memory can’t touch. I don’t mind.

After I was done, he arranged another plate of food for me, fresh strawberries and cut figs in a spiral pattern. We sat by the pool and sunned ourselves in the last of the day’s rays. I asked him why he was so interested in my dreams. “You’re intuitive,” he replied. “I thought they might be prophetic.” He eyed me head to toe, lingering on the spot where the right corner of my bikini bottom met my hip, and asked me to release my hair from its rubber-band ties.

He’d hung on my every word, giving his full attention to my feeble description of the young man, the basement, the hanging clocks. “Like a surrealist painting,” he said. After I finished eating he pressed me with more questions about the boy. I confessed that this was not the first time he’d visited me in my sleep. The more I told him, the more interested the man became, but I didn’t have very much to offer. We went to bed not long after.

I awoke with a start just a few hours later and found him gone. The sun hadn’t yet risen and I had no idea what time it might be. Frozen with anxiety, I rose from the bed, summoning the courage to search for him. I started in a small office to the side — the man had mentioned that he occasionally worked in there late at night, but the only face I saw was my own. I continued on through the bathroom,  the kitchen, and into a small room he’d arranged for watching films, though there was only one well-worn seat placed before the projection screen.

I found my way to a screened-off porch and out behind it to the swimming pool, which reeked of chlorine and gave off a perversely artificial hum. An alien intrusion on the desert calm. With slow and deliberate footsteps I made a circle around the property. The full desert moon cast the landscape in a brilliant icy white, bringing every plant, stone and tiny animal into sharp focus. Even the eyes of the nocturnal spiders that know how to curl up in shadows at high noon were clear in the moonlight, and I could see that I was the only person around for miles. I resigned my search, tracing my steps back through the house in hopes of a few more hours’ sleep.

I entered the bedroom to find the man sitting on the edge of the bed, turning a piece of glass over in his palms. “I’ve been waiting for you,” he said. He showed no sign of worry or suspicion at my absence. In fact, he sounded almost pleased.

When I put my head against the pillow he demanded I take my hair down again, lunging at me when I didn’t immediately oblige. I swiftly followed his order, and he kissed me on the forehead after I laid down to rest again. Hours later I awoke to his mouth pressed against my ribs.

On our next visit he told me he worked as a forensic scientist in a laboratory uptown.

“I’ve lived in the ranch house for six months,” he said. “My old place was in the city proper.”
“You’re a scientist, but you believe that dreams can predict the future?,” I said.
“What makes you say that?”
“You told me you’d thought my dreams would be prophetic. And you wanted to hear so much about the boy.”

We were sitting cross-legged on the bedroom’s nubby orange carpet. I stared out the French doors as I ate my fruit, watching the evening wind move sheets of dust across the mesa. A swarm of birds made a sudden U-turn from the southeastern horizon, heading quickly away from the house. I was trying to guess how many miles lay between the ranch property and the city border when a face appeared behind the glass. It was a little boy’s, pale and smooth with a gaping mouth and green eyes that should have belonged to a cat. It only appeared for a moment. “Someone’s on your property!,” I cried. I recalled him saying that he’d chosen this land for its privacy.

“What?,” he asked. He’d been leafing through a magazine. “Nobody ever comes out here. You must be tired.”
“There was definitely a face there. A boy’s face. I saw it just a moment ago.”
“Maybe one of the neighbor’s kids strayed too far.”

That didn’t make any sense; there were no other houses in sight, nothing to indicate to a wandering child that anything might be out here besides the spiders and deadly flies warned of on a rusting sign at the nearest store. Fourteen miles away. But the man’s demeanor never lost its placid serenity.

“You’re very sleepy, I can tell,” he said, and I conceded. Into his bed I crept again, and he tucked me in with a gentle stroke of his index finger against my cheek.

The following night, the Jeep appeared at my house again. “You have to leave,” I told him. “My uncle will be home any minute.” I didn’t know why the man was there; we hadn’t planned this visit and he already knew my uncle’s work schedule, when he left and arrived home from work.

“There’s something I need to tell you,” he said. “It’s urgent.” I’d never heard so much anxiety in his voice.

“Just tell me now, then,” I replied.

“It’ll take a while to explain.”

“Can we talk about it over the phone?”

A weird fire appeared in his eyes. “Okay. Call me at seven thirty. Make sure nobody hears you. Use a landline if you can.”

I nodded, though I wasn’t sure  that I could place a call privately through the house line.

“Don’t forget,” he said.

“I won’t.”

At seven fifteen that night, I sidled up next to the telephone in the kitchen. With a cup of tea at hand, I monitored the line to intercept any other incoming calls. The minutes passed painfully slowly; my thoughts were impressionistic and weakly formed. Visions of the man and boy flowed through my head, disembodied faces suspended in a milky blankness. They overlapped to form a translucent collage for barely a second before blending into one. It was a pretty strange face, but I found it handsome.

At seven twenty-nine I dialed his number. Dispensing with formalities, he started talking at a manic pace as soon as he picked up.

“Nobody’s listening in?”

“Nope.”

“Here’s what you need to know, okay, first of all. That boy in your dreams isn’t just in your dreams. He’s real.”

“What do you mean he’s real?”

“The boy with the bomb in his stomach. The chest wound. He’s real. I mean, he was real. He’s not alive anymore. But his death wasn’t all not too long ago. He lived in the same city as you.”

I continued to listen without raising any objection.

“The boy was fighting in the wars,” he continued, his speech becoming even more pressured. “He was captured by the soldiers outside the city. They cut him open and implanted a tiny bomb in between his ribs, then they drugged him so that he’d forget the whole thing. But he figured out what had happened to him. The ticking sound coming from his chest drove him crazy. That’s what led him to the hospital. To his death.”

I maintained my silence.

“This is all absolutely true,” he pressed on, “and I can prove it. He’s been trying to contact you telepathically, to tell you that the explosive inside of him is still active. You’re intuitive, just like he was. This story came to you through the subtle realms and it manifested in your dreams.”

“So what you’re telling me,” I replied with a sharp breath, “is that the boy from my dreams was a real person, and that he died in a hospital – just like in that one nightmare? And now he’s visiting me in my dreams from beyond the grave?”

“That’s right. To tell you about the bomb between his ribs. We don’t know when it’s going to go off.”

He paused for a moment, then said in a simple and unaffected tone: “We’ve got to go figure out how we’re going to detonate it safely. We don’t know the extent of the damage that it could cause. It’s only a small explosive device, but if it’s the right kind, it could destroy the entire city. For all we know, the fallout could reach even further. Out to the desert.”

I wanted to tell him that I didn’t believe this at all, that I was fearful for his sanity. I couldn’t find the words.

“The cemetery he’s buried in is within city limits,” he said. “We need to go exhume him before it’s too late.”

“Excuse me?”

“To get the bomb out of his chest. We have to dig up the corpse first, of course. You should meet me at the city cemetery at quarter to six tomorrow evening. Bring work gloves.”

“There’s no way I’m going to dig up a body,” I replied. “Let’s see each other on Tuesday. I’m busy tomorrow, anyway.”

“We both know you’re not. Promise you’ll meet me there.”

Thoroughly panicked, I thought it would be better to demand that we see each other  sooner. Maybe at midnight that very same night. I was about to suggest that we’d meet at the corner; I could drive away with him in the Jeep again, leave a note saying that I was staying over at a friend’s. But right at that moment, I heard my uncle’s footsteps coming toward the door.

“I have to go,” I said abruptly, and placed the phone on the receiver as quietly as possible. Three knocks came.

“Were you just talking on the landline?,” my uncle asked, cracking the door a half-inch. I pretended to be fiddling with my cell phone.

“Yup,” I said. “My phone’s broken and I really needed to call a friend. She’s having a hard time in school right now.” Quick lies.

“Everything’s okay with you, though?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Oh yeah. Everything’s fine.”

I locked the door behind him after he walked away.

* * *

At five on Tuesday, I caught a bus to the other side of town, a pair of my uncle’s work gloves stuffed into my backpack. I’d tried calling the man through my own phone a few times since our phone call, explicitly breaking his instructions. “You should throw that thing away,” he’d said one day, noting that he hadn’t owned a cell phone in years.

But backing out of the situation never really felt like an option. Crazy as it seems, my dreams of the boy were just too lifelike. Something felt a little too real about this. I thought of the face I saw through the French doors, the cat-eyed boy. If this was real, that little boy had something to do with it. I just knew it.

The man met me in front of the cemetery gate and we walked in together without saying a word. He carried a brown leather briefcase; I assumed this concealed any instruments he’d brought along for the mission. Side-by-side we strolled among the neat paths and groupings of the local dead.

The graveyard was enormous., with tombs placed so close together it seemed almost disrespectful. “I don’t want to be buried here,” I thought to myself, but then realized that if I never left the city that would certainly be my fate.

Although he clearly knew where to find the tomb, we walked slowly occasionally pausing to observe a tomb or mausoleum. I figured  that he wanted us to appear as normal visitors — not draw attention to the unusual task at hand. But I saw few other people there and no security personnel at all.

After an hour or so, we stopped at a grave bearing the inscription: ROMAN J STOGICI: 1923-1979. Beloved husband and father of five. I pretended to take an interest in it, kneeling down as if to make a grave-rubbing, though there was nothing particularly interesting about it. To my surprise, however, the man began to circle around the tomb slowly, eyeing it over.

After a moments’ observation, he nodded his head.

That couldn’t be the boy’s grave, I thought, judging by the dates on the epitaph. I was disappointed; I’d been excited to learn it. I didn’t understand how he would come to be placed in somebody else’s lot, but at this point, I didn’t see much use in asking questions. He hurried over to a nearby tree under which he’d  hid a few shovels. He tossed a small one to me and we began to dig.

The moon was high in the sky before we saw any sign of a coffin under the thick black soil. My arms were about to give out, and I was starving.

“Half an hour more and then we’ll rest for a while,” he finally said.

For the first time since the previous night’s phone call, I wondered what would actually happen when we opened the coffin. Either we’d be face to face with the remains of Roman J. Stogici — or we’d be intervening on some sort of supernatural terrorist conspiracy, an incident which I could only ascribe to the wars.

“Or maybe it’s something else,” I thought. My stomach lurched. I turned to the man and whispered, “are you absolutely sure this is the right grave?” But almost as soon as I said it, our shovels hit something hard. Our grail.

The coffin was lighter than I expected, but hoisting it out from the ground was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The man had included an assortment of lockpicking tools in his bag, removing them one by one after I’d cleared the top of soil. He went to work on the coffin buckles, springing the final one open under my careful watch.

“Are you ready?” he asked, and I gave him a little smile.

With him kneeling at one end and I at the other, shining our flashlights into the center of the coffin, we threw back the lid.

And I nearly fainted.

In a suit still decorated with a fresh-looking rose boutonnier, against a shining interior of white satin, lay the body of my brother. My twin brother, Orin.

And then the body’s eyes opened.

“Sabrina!,” he cried, leaping out of the enclosure. I nearly fainted.

Orin dusted himself off gracefully and ran over to hug me, which sent a chill down my spine. I backed away.

“Sabrina, I’m alive!,” he exclaimed, and I burst into tears.

“They never said that you died!,” I shouted, barely able to form the words through my sobs. “I thought you were fighting in the wars! That’s what they told me! They said you’d been in the East for four years now!”

“I was,” he said. “They captured me.” Then he removed a small vial of clear liquid from his suit pocket.

“I had to fake my death. I knew my body would be taken back to the city. Then I could connect with the friends I still have here in the city via the subtle realms.”

He’d always spoken about that, the subtle realms, the planes he claimed he could travel in and communicate through. I was shaking. The man, meanwhile, had become very angry.

“That boy was supposed to be dead!,” he said, though he appeared to be talking less to me and more to himself. He was thumbing through his tool stash.

“No, no, this isn’t the boy from my dreams,” I assured him, wiping the tears from my face with the back of my dirty glove. “My dreams must have somehow lead us to the grave of my brother instead.” I turned to Orin.

“I don’t talk to dad much anymore, but I would have thought he’d have told-” but Orin stopped me with a finger to my lips and whispered something in my ear, a command.

I stepped back from Orin’s embrace to meet his gaze. We nodded in unison. He walked toward the man as I headed toward the coffin, whose lid had fallen shut.

In a single, artful motion he grabbed the man by the throat and poured the remainder of the vial’s liquid into his mouth. He slumped forward on his briefcase and then onto the ground.

“That won’t kill him,” I said softly. “That’s the drug you took, right?”

Orin suppressed a laugh. “No, that’s not what I drank. That will only knock him out for twelve hours or so.”

We placed his body gently into the coffin, locked it up and worked through the night to replace the grave’s soil. I whispered a prayer for poor Roman J. Stogici, wherever he was.

“Wait a second, Orin,” I said. “How did you get into somebody else’s tomb?”

He gave me that famous grin again — the one I could never forget. “We have a lot of catching up to do.”

I lifted my backpack onto my shoulders.

“Hey,” I said, “we should get a bus out to the desert. My friend has a ranch house there that’ll be empty for a little while.” Orin gave me a thumbs-up sign.

“They’ve got a swimming pool, too,” I said. “I want to hear all about what you’ve seen.”

The next bus out of the city came at dawn; we sat up talking at the bus stop all night. On the bus we fell asleep on each others’ shoulders, closing our eyes to keep out the morning light as we headed out.

⚡️ emma stamm / 2016