When Caelum fell asleep, he dreamed of his wife, Monique. He remembered her exactly how she was; lips as red as wine and twice as intoxicating, hazel eyes glimmering like blinking stars, and skin as soft as silk and as pale as the moon, complimented by midnight black hair.
He dreamed that he was looking out the window, and that he saw her standing in the tree outside. It was an old, knotted tree, as black as charcoal—not fit for holding his glowing wife, who shone against it like the sun, chasing the night shadows away. She balanced on the branch, making her way over to his window and rapping her knuckles upon it.
He opened the window without a second thought, bathing in her surreal beauty as she floated towards him. She opened her arms, ready to embrace him—
And then he woke up.
The wind howled outside his house, and he realized that the rapping on his window was caused by a tree branch tapping it, and not by his wife’s knuckles.
Caelum stared at the tree listlessly, feeling a severe melancholy overtake him when he realized that he was alone in his room.
He heard one of his five children wailing, most likely terrified of the thunder and howling wind. Caelum shot to his feet, intending to check on his child, but climbed back into bed and ignored her when he felt icy pinpricks upon his arms, beckoning him to stay under his blanket.
Outside his window, a woman with ghostly white, stitched skin, rugged, frayed hair, and fingers as frozen as ice gazed at him while he slept.
The next morning, Caelum headed to the restroom to get ready for the day. He got rid of an oncoming beard in front of the mirror with his razor before jumping in the shower. He turned on the water and stood under the hissing waterfall, not registering how scalding hot the water was. He was preoccupied with staring at the other end of the shower, expecting to see his beautiful wife step in with him.
He stared vacantly for a time, willing her into existence. For a moment, he could have sworn that he saw the steam form into the shape of a woman—could have sworn he felt freezing hands on his back—but in a moment, the sensation left him, and the shape dissipated. He lowered his glassy eyes and went about his normal business in the shower after that.
When he emerged from the shower, he realized he felt decidedly weightless, like his body was tethered to earth and he had no soul to buoy his spirits. As he got dressed, his brain—like a bus with only one destination—would not let him forget that even on Sunday, he did not have a day off. He had his children to worry about and grocery shopping to do.
He finished dressing and left the bathroom, feeling something cold pressing against the back of his neck that made him gasp as he shut the door behind him.
He leaned into it, wishing, for a moment, that he could live the rest of his life in its addicting embrace. He felt like he was floating on a breeze—his soul, snatched away by his children--now returning and imbuing him with strength. The iciness blew open a door to another world; a world where his finest desires held him captive in a curtained paradise—a paradise where he could spend all his days making love to his wife. Unfortunately, a particularly high-pitched shriek from one of his children forced him to lift the curtain and come back to reality.
He went down his hallway expressionlessly, waking his children. His youngest daughter, Andrea, wanted a hug from him, but he was repulsed by the idea of giving such a blood sucking leech close contact for fear that she might devour what was left of his soul. She wept when he refused her, but he didn’t care.
Once they were all dressed and ready to go—each and every one of them speaking loudly, quibbling, and begging for breakfast—he simply grabbed his car keys silently and headed to his car. His children followed him curiously, going quiet, themselves.
When they were all in the car, he drove to the supermarket. On his way there, he could feel something captivatingly brisk nibbling on his ear. Outside the window, the wind bellowed, drowning out the din of the insipid arguments his children were having.
Leave them. Come with me. The voice embraced him, wrapping him in its adoring, addicting fervor. He closed his eyes. He could almost see his wife’s plump, red lips as she nibbled on his ear. The screeching of his car’s wheels brought him back to reality. He panted in shock when he realized he had almost hit the car in front of him. He drove onward, not realizing that his children had gone silent with worry.
When he arrived at the supermarket, Andrea gave him a worthless bead she had probably found lying around the house. “It’s for you, Daddy. I’m sorry for being bad. Can I have a hug now?” she begged.
Wordlessly, Caelum examined the bead. A puerile, empty gesture from a child who had the depth of the shallow end of a pool. He tucked the bead in his pocket ineffectually.
While he shopped, he continued feeling a cold breath brushing his body, blowing him out of his humdrum, stressful reality and into the arms of his enchanting wife. She hauled him to a soundproof room where she and him were the only people.
Gone was the begging for toys they couldn’t afford.
Gone were the pointless feuds for his attention.
Gone were the chains that bound him in misery and loneliness.
His wife, with her soft, satin hands, led him out of the grocery store and away from his ugly, earthly children. She dragged him into a sweet stupor of pleasant drunkenness that he thought was only possible by drinking too much.
And suddenly, he had finally arrived at the place where he wanted to be; a heavenly orchard where he was alone with his wife. He lay under her, naked, while she nibbled at his neck.
“I knew I could drag you away from that fake reality.” His wife whispered, massaging his back affectionately.
“All I could feel each and every day was your adoration. I resented everything else. I knew you were the only thing that could be real.” He murmured, hugging her close.
“You were right. I’ve been trying to wake you up—to bring you to this paradise where you belong.” His wife replied.
And everything felt unbearably indulgent as he held her close and bathed in the recognition that he had no responsibilities in this place. He stayed there in that same position with her for what felt like ages, swallowing the decadence of a world where making love was the only thing he had to worry about.
But then, he shifted onto his side, and as he shifted, he felt something pinching his hip. And something shocking to him sank in. I have been lying here for years, and the sedentariness has worn away at my body. It occurred to him that the pinching was a wonderful respite from
the soreness of stillness. He reached behind him and found the thing that was pinching his hip; it was the bead given to him by his daughter.
His eyes widened. It hit him all at once; this was his daughter’s most precious possession—her only keepsake left from her mother, who had given it to her on a stormy night to comfort her daughter. His eyes flicked from the bead to the face of the woman who he thought was his wife, and he gasped.
This woman was not his wife; it was a ghostly apparition wearing his wife’s face.
And he should have known better. He and his wife knew that one could not simply wake up and emerge into heaven; heaven was something that had to be earned tooth and nail by being a good person.
He was hurled back to earth, and he found that he had been passed out in a bar.
His eyes widened, and he shook off the ghost of his wife that had shackled him to an imaginary world for so long. He dashed out of the bar and sprinted back to the supermarket, where his children were howling in anguish, wondering where he was. When he found them, he wrapped his arms around them, finding his own piece of euphoria with them wrapped in his arms.
Gone was his unearthly euphoria.
Gone was his freedom.
Gone was a paradise unearned.
Granted was a fulfilling life filled with trials and tribulations with his children. Painful and real, as beautiful as it was heart wrenching.