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 Asleep at the Wheel
a short story by Molly Brown

Carrie and Eric were dancing around the living room. Carrie didn't remember the music starting. She didn't remember when or how they'd started dancing. She didn't even remember coming back to her parents' apartment. But there they were, slow-dancing by candlelight on the rug between the sofa and the TV set, and it seemed to Carrie like they'd been dancing forever. She rested her head on Eric's shoulder, closed her eyes, and floated in lazy circles.

"Carrie," Eric said, holding her close against him. "There's something we've got to talk about. Something I've been trying to tell you. Something important."

His voice was so soft and quiet, she could hardly hear him; it seemed to come from somewhere far away. "Hmm?" Carrie said, her eyes still closed. Still floating.

"Do you remember the night you went to a concert with your friend Gina?"

Carrie stiffened, no longer floating.

She opened her eyes and sat up in bed, shaking.

She'd had a dream that had upset her, obviously. But she couldn't remember what it was; it was gone. Completely gone. She'd been having a lot of those lately: dreams that vanished without a trace except for the fact that they left her wide-awake and shivering in the middle of the night.

She looked down at her husband, Jack, lying beside her with his mouth open. Snoring like a tank engine. She'd never get back to sleep while that was going on. She lightly pinched his nostrils together. He batted her hand away and muttered something she couldn't hear. "You were snoring," Carrie told him. He rolled onto his side and went back to sleep.

Carrie lay watching the back of Jack's head, waiting for dawn.

"I had another dream last night," she told him over breakfast in the morning. "Can't remember what it was about, though."

Jack stood up, gulping down the last of his coffee. "Gotta dash or I'll miss my train."

Carrie looked up to see her teenage daughter from her first marriage, Tanya, standing in the kitchen doorway.

Tanya didn't budge an inch to let her stepfather through - wouldn't even look at him. Jack had to turn sideways in order to squeeze past her, flashing an angry, disgusted look back at Carrie, the kind of look that said: "This is your fault". Tanya just stared at the wall.

Carrie looked down at the table, gathered the breakfast things and carried them to the sink, trying to drown the nagging voice inside her head with the clatter of crockery and splash of soapy water.

Tanya didn't move until they both heard the front door slam closed. Then she crossed the room to stand beside her mother. "I dream, too, you know," she announced. "I dream I'm dead. Sometimes I dream I was never born at all, that I'm not even real, not even human."

Carrie stared into the sink. "Would you like some cereal?"

"You're not listening to me, are you?"

Carrie turned and looked at her daughter. "I'm listening, but I don't like what I'm hearing. You're fourteen years old, you should be dreaming about your future - what you want to do with your life - not about death and never being born."

"You don't listen," said her daughter. "I try to tell you things - important things. But you never listen."

"What do you mean? I don't understand."

"No, I guess you don't," Tanya said, walking away.

Carrie knocked on Tanya's door and got no answer. She turned the knob and pushed it open. The window was shut, the curtains drawn. Tanya lay sprawled across her bed, fully clothed, eyes closed, mouth open.

"Tanya," Carrie said gently. "Tanya."

In the gloomy half-light of the room, the pale figure lying on its back before her looked more like a doll than a person, a stick-thin department store mannequin, stiff and bloodless. Carrie moved across the room, reached down and touched her daughter's cheek. Her flesh felt cool and powdery. "Honey, are you all right?"

"So tired," Tanya mumbled.

"It's a beautiful day outside. Don't you want to get some air?"

Tanya rolled onto her side and pulled a blanket over her head.

One evening, they'd been out (to a party, to a movie, for a pizza, where? Carrie tried to remember and it all became a blur) and when they got back to her parents' place, Eric sat down beside her and took hold of both her hands. "Carrie, there's something I've been trying to tell you for a long, long time, and the time has come for you to listen."

"Listen to what? I always listen, don't I?"

"No, Carrie, you don't," Eric scolded her gently. "But you're going to listen now."


"I want you to think back, Carrie. Back to a hot August night when you were seventeen years old."

"What are you talking about? I'm seventeen now."

"You went out with your friend Gina; you had tickets for a concert, and then you took the bus back home. Do you remember?"

Carrie frowned and shook her head.

"Try, Carrie. Try to remember; it's important. You got off the bus at the corner of Belmont and Hamlyn. You only had to walk two blocks to get home..."

Carrie tried to pull her hands away. "Let go of me, Eric! You're hurting me! You're hurting me!"

Carrie sat bolt upright, drenched in sweat. She looked down at the mattress beside her. Empty. "Jack?" she whispered. "Jack?" she called again, more loudly. She got out of bed, threw on a robe, opened the bedroom door and stepped into a hot August evening in 1971.

Carrie sat down in front of the mirror, painting her lids with white eyeliner while Gina rolled joints and tried on one outfit after another. She finally decided on a long peasant dress and lace-up sandals.

Carrie chose a pair of brown hip-hugger bell-bottoms, an imitation suede vest, and a bracelet of silver bells.

It was late when she got off the bus. Moonless, dark, and still.

She glanced up at a streetlight and saw a large moth flap towards the light, throwing itself against the burning bulb. She crossed the main road and started to walk the two blocks to the apartment where she lived with her parents.

She'd walked these same two blocks many times before, but tonight everything seemed strange and threatening. The jingling bells on her wrist seemed to echo off the walls of every building she passed. The sound made her feel strangely self-conscious, as if she was drawing too much attention to herself. Though the street appeared empty, she had a feeling she was being watched. She held the bracelet still with her opposite hand. The street fell back into eerie silence.

She was halfway down Hamlyn when the silence was broken once more. The door of a parked car swung open. Two men leapt out and she started to run. Then everything went black.

She found herself behind the wheel of her car, Tanya strapped into the passenger's seat beside her. She came to with a start; she didn't remember driving into the city.

A cold wave of fear travelled the length of her spine. She had just driven through the downtown business district at the height of the rush hour and she didn't remember any of it. She didn't even remember getting into the car.

She felt as if she'd spent the entire journey asleep at the wheel. What if a truck had come at them head-on? Would she have reacted? She tried to tell herself of course she would have, but the truth was she didn't know.

She shivered at the thought of all the dreadful things that could have happened, all the ways they might never have arrived. "We're here," she said, turning the car into Hamlyn Street, where her parents lived.

She rang the bell several times, but got no answer.

"The door isn't locked," Tanya said, pushing it open.

The apartment was empty. The walls were streaked with grime, the floor covered in a layer of dust and leaves. "I don't understand it," Carrie said, thinking Tanya was still standing beside her. "Where are they?" She turned and saw she was alone.

Carrie found her daughter standing on the back porch, staring into space.

When Carrie was a little girl, she used to spend hours on that porch, watching the neighbours' laundry flap in the breeze, listening to their dogs bark, their televisions blare, their doors slam, their windows slide up and down. Now everything was empty: the neighbouring porches, the alley, every single window. Empty and silent. "I don't understand what's going on," she said. "Where is everybody?"

"I'm so tired of this," Tanya muttered more to herself than to her mother. "Tired of going through the motions. Tired of pretending."

"Tanya, honey, what's wrong? What can I do for you? Tell me."

Tanya turned to face her. "You really wanna do something for me? Then let me go. It's easy. All you have to do is wake up." She raised her voice to a shout. "Wake up!"

It was dark, and the street was empty. Carrie started to walk the two blocks back to her parents' apartment. The only sounds were those of her quick footsteps on the pavement, and the jingling of bells. Then she heard another sound: a constant tap, tap, tap, high above her head. She looked up and saw a moth, flinging itself at a streetlamp. Strange, she thought. How could she possibly hear such a tiny sound?

She tapped on her parents' window - tap, tap, tap, like a moth drawn by a light. She tapped on the walls and on the furniture. They didn't hear. She walked through the living room and the kitchen. They didn't see her. She touched them, but they didn't feel her.

Carrie stood on the back porch, clutching the wooden railing.

Eric touched her on the arm. "Come inside."

"It's different this time, Eric. I remember the dream - or part of it, anyway."

"Really?" he said. "So what do you dream about when you go away?"

"I dream I'm old and I have a daughter who hates me."

Eric shook his head, looking puzzled. "Why do you think she hates you?"

Carrie thought a moment. "I'm the one who dreamed her into existence, I'm the one who makes her jump through hoops, and she knows it. Somehow, she knows it. The last time I saw her, she begged me to end it."

Eric leaned forward, touching her hand. "Then let the poor girl go, Carrie. Let her go."

Carrie closed her eyes and nodded. "I will."

"Do you remember anything else about your dream?"

"I think I had a husband, and he wasn't very happy, either..."

"Jack!" Carrie shook him by the shoulders. "Jack, wake up!"

He sat up. "Whattsa matter?"

"I just had the weirdest dream!"

He groaned and fell back onto the pillow. "You woke me up for that?"

"I've got to tell you now, while I still remember."

"Can't you tell me in the morning?"

"No! If I wait 'til morning, I'll forget it again."

Jack sighed and made a face. "All right, what is it?"

"I dreamed that I died when I was seventeen years old, and that everything I've done since then, everything I thought was real - was the dream."

Jack scratched his head. "Let me get this straight. You dreamed you'd been dead for..." he closed his eyes and did some mental arithmetic, "...about twenty-five years. And everything you'd done over the last quarter of a century was just some dream you had after you died?"

"In the dream, I'd never left my parents' old apartment. I couldn't leave; I was a ghost. An old friend who died a long time ago was there, too." Carrie shrugged, embarrassed. "He was more than a friend, actually. We went steady all through high school, then he got killed in Viet Nam. Anyway, he told me we were there because we'd both died young and violently, but unlike him, I still hadn't managed to accept it, so I have this ongoing fantasy that I'm still alive."

"So what does that make me?" Jack asked, adding sarcastically, "According to your old dead boyfriend, that is."

"A fantasy," said Carrie. "A dead woman's fantasy."

"If I'm a fantasy, then how come you fantasized me with bunions? And why'd you give me such a crap job? And how come you fantasized a house with a leaky roof and a mortgage we can barely afford? Why couldn't you fantasize me rich and famous huh? A rock star, maybe. I wouldn't have minded being a rock star."

"He said he thinks I must be punishing myself for something, that this was kind of like my version of purgatory, if not exactly hell."

"Your version of hell? If you're the one being punished, how come I'm the one stuck with the crap job and the bunions?"

"Yeah, I know," Carrie said, laughing. "And I'll bet Tanya might have a thing or two to say about whose hell it was, right?"

"Tanya?" Jack repeated. "Who the hell is Tanya?"

© Molly Brown 1996, 1997

This story first appeared in Phantoms, November 1996, and is reprinted in Bad Timing and Other Stories.

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