Dee wakes to the fantasy I created.
I pray the fantasy awakens her will to live.
Amber sun shines through lodgepole pines. Clear water rushes over a granite cliff to land in a foamy boil far below. A thin trail of smoke drifts from the chimney that tops our cabin. She sits on a bed of pine needles, her back against the rough bark of a tree. The dry needles crunch under her weight as she shifts to smell the fresh coffee on the breeze.
We spent our first out-of-town weekend in this cabin, two days floating on all-consuming infatuation. Back when quirks were endearing, instead of annoying. Her insistence on sleeping with the bathroom light on didn’t bother me and she didn’t complain about my need to straighten the covers. We spent those two days idealizing each other. Maybe that ideal can pull her back.
I watch from the porch of the cabin, holding two mugs that warm my hands. She walks to me and I meet her on the steps. We sit and sip our coffee, shoulder to shoulder.
“Hike today?” she says.
“Hmm. I was thinking the falls trail, maybe a swim.”
She puts her head on my shoulder, sarcasm creeping into her voice. “You know I didn’t bring my suit.”
I kiss her forehead. “So now you need a suit to swim?”
“You hungry?” I ask.
“We’ve got the stuff for pancakes.”
I stand. “Of course I got blueberries.” I rub her head, turn and walk inside. Gathering ingredients from the shelves, I set them on the counter. The porcelain bowl rings as I crack eggshells against the rim. “You going to mix the batter?” I ask.
She doesn’t answer.
I walk back to the door to see her heading away from the cabin, towards the cliff. “Dee? Honey? Aren’t you going to help me cook?”
She doesn’t respond. I follow after her, towards the rumble of the falls.
At the edge, she stops and looks back.
I ask, “Dee, what’s going on?”
As if I don’t know.
Her eyes are empty. Her shoulders fall away from her ears. Her fingers extend away from her palms. I break into a jog.
She steps off the cliff and disappears over the edge.
I stop. “Damn.”
A squirrel chatters, mocking me from a nearby branch. I answer with a rock; it hops deeper into the tree and the rock flies through the empty space between branches. Its chatter continues from a new perch, just audible over falling water. I dig the remote from my pocket and end the simulation.
Back in my basement lab, I sit up and disconnect the electrodes from my head. Stacking them on the metal tray next to my chair, I breathe through my nose to calm my nerves.
Dee lies in the chair next to mine, sedated by her IV drip. Electrodes connect her to the computer I designed to save her life. Or rather, to end her desire to die.
I sigh. “Damn it, Dee.”
Dee opens her eyes to a dark room. One cheek rests on the cool concrete floor. Inches from her face, a spider web extends from the concrete up to the ceiling. The web shakes. A black widow descends towards her head. She sucks in the air to scream.
Too afraid to make a noise, her nostrils quake, she struggles to breathe. Holding in the air, she pushes herself up to a sitting position. She backs away from the web, crabbing her way along the concrete floor on her hands and feet. Ten feet from the web, she stands and runs to the far corner of the room.
This is the exponential manifestation of her greatest fear. A phobia I didn’t truly appreciate until shortly after we married. I’d killed countless spiders for girlfriends over the years. Like opening the pickles, it was just a thing I did. No big deal. Until the night a spider crawled into our bed and onto Dee’s exposed leg. I bug-bombed the house and we spent the night in a hotel.
I spent all the years between then and now squashing anything with eight legs and dutifully clearing cobwebs; I hated the idea that anything could scare her that much. It was a fear unlike anything I’d ever felt and I never wanted her to feel it again.
My only hope is that it’s powerful enough to shake something loose inside her, some force of will she’s lost along the way.
The spider twitches its legs and tremors shake the edges of the web. More spiders answer the call. Crawling from the dark corners of the room, they advance. A sea of twitching black motion dotted with red hourglass underbellies covers the walls, the floor, and the web.
Trying to back further into the corner, Dee darts her eyes around the room. It’s small, dark, and has one exit. That exit waits in the corner to her left, just fifteen feet away. I stand there holding the door open, calling to her, flashlight in hand.
“Dee. Over here.”
She looks at me, pupils dilated in panic, her hands shaking. She turns back to the spiders. They cover the floor, the walls, and the web. They climb over each other, legs upon legs, teeming forward.
“You can make it. I know you can,” I say.
A monstrosity emerges from the dark, a spider the size of a dog. Black eyes rotate in unison and it pushes through the web. Thousands of smaller spiders rain down to scrabble in every direction. It stops and rocks back and forth, the claws at the end of each leg click-clack on the concrete. The feelers outside the jaw twitch, testing the air.
Dee shakes her head, her feet frozen. A whine comes from her throat.
“I’ll distract it,” I say. I take a coin from my pocket and toss it over the spider into the far corner. The spider rotates, looking for the source of the noise.
It takes a step back towards that corner.
She sprints. The spider sees her move and comes for her, closing the distance. The claws scrabble on the floor, the jaws open wide. The black spiders under its claws boil. In just a few steps, she reaches the door.
But then, she stops.
She just stops in the doorway. The fear drains from her face, the adrenaline evaporates. Her expression changes in an instant, the panic becomes resolve. A memory takes control. “Let go.” She slams the door.
I suck in a breath. Scratches and scrapes come through the metal. She doesn’t scream.
I wrap my arms around thin air and hug the empty space. She’s not gone. I know that. But, each time she makes this choice, she goes further away.
“Dee, just come back to me.” I say. Anger washes away loss. I slam the heel of my fist against the door. “Damn you, why won’t you come back?”
The faint whispers of moving spiders are my only answer. Resigned, I pull the remote from my pocket and end the simulation.
Dee takes steady breaths in the chair beside me. I stand and take her hand. A white bandage wraps around her wrist, hiding the fresh scar below. Below that, her pulse still beats, despite her latest choice.
“Why won’t you let me help you?” I say.
The heart monitor beeps my only answer.
The car vibrates when the tires roll into the rumble strips at the edge of the highway. The noise snaps Dee awake in the driver’s seat. She jerks the wheel out of instinct, pulling the car back onto the road.
The headlights stab out into the darkness, lighting up the road ahead. I recline in the passenger seat, eyes closed. Opening one, I look over at her. “Everything okay?”
She nods. “Must have dozed off there for a second.”
“You need me to drive a while?”
She rubs my leg. “No, I’m good. We might need to stop for coffee, though.”
I cross my arms and lean back into the headrest. The light from the gauges shines orange on her face. The seams in the highway thump past in a steady rhythm as we roll down I-40 at 70 miles per hour. I nod off, remembering the first time we made this trip.
It was August, the summer I lost my mother. We drove straight through from Memphis to Oklahoma City on a Tuesday night so I could say goodbye. I was numb, afraid of the emotions we were driving into. I hoped against certainty while coming to grips with the inevitable.
She managed to keep me afloat, and our relationship deepened by fathoms that week.
She shared my pain. The scar tissue we grew pulled us closer together. I thought that’s what scars did. The bond they left behind ran as deep as the wound they closed. The jagged pink and white fibers sewed us together. That is, until the loss that tore us apart.
We lost our girl. Our little girl.
We tried to share the grief. But while I let the hot fire of my own loss burn to ashes, Dee’s only grew. She raged at God, at the world, and then at herself. The black flames of her grief peeled the skin from my face and set our relationship ablaze.
The horn starts far away, creeping into my dream. Again and again it intrudes, more insistent each time. I blink my eyes open, wondering why we’ve stopped. I turn to my right to see the oncoming train.
It grows in the distance, riding on tracks that run right under our car. Red crossing lights above us strobe while warning bells clang.
Dee sits in the driver’s seat, both hands on the wheel. She stares straight ahead, her eyes focused somewhere out over the hood.
“Dee? There’s a train.” I say.
“And it’s coming.”
She turns to me. “I’ve done this before, haven’t I?”
“Before? I don’t know what you’re … But there’s a train” — I point down the track — “coming at us. You parked the car on a train track.”
Another blast of the horn punctuates my sentence.
Her eyes follow my finger to the approaching train. “How many times?”
“What?” I feel sick.
“How many times have I done this?”
My mouth dries. The memories shouldn’t carry over. “What are you asking? How many times? That question doesn’t make sense.”
She interrupts, “I remember. Only pieces, but” — waves of pain cross her face, her shoulders spasm, her neck tightens — “I know this isn’t the first time.”
The horn wails again. My stomach turns. “You can’t remember.”
“How could you know what I remember?”
“It was to help you,” I reach for her hand.
She pulls her hand away from mine. “You? You’re responsible? How could you possibly —”
“It was a simulation. They were all simulations.”
She remembers. I see it on her face. “The cabin in the mountains. Trips to the islands. Cookouts with my Dad.”
“The things you loved,” I say.
“But that didn’t work,” she says.
I look down. “No.”
“So then you … I remember being buried alive. Drowning. And spiders, the spiders?”
“I hoped it might trigger your survival instincts.”
“You made me choose to die? More than once? Jesus, Josh. How many times?”
“It was to help —”
Anger chills her voice. “How. Many. Times?”
I count. Swallow. “I don’t know.”
I shake my head. “More.”
“More? How many more, fifty? A hundred?”
“Hundreds. I’ve tr—”
“Hundreds? Hundreds! How could you?” Hurt collects in the corners of her eyes.
“I couldn’t give up. I had to keep trying.”
“And this?” She motions to the car. “This is what? You still trying?”
I shake my head. “No, this is different.”
“Different? How is this one different? Because you’re here?”
“No, Dee, it’s not that. This isn’t —”
“Just stop. Okay? Just stop.”
Again, I reach for her hand. “I can’t.”
She pulls it away. “Do you know how it feels? Do you have any idea how much it hurts, how much I hurt? Do you know what you’re asking me to suffer through?”
She grips the steering wheel with both hands and stares straight ahead.
“It’s time to let me go.”
“Dee, we can fix it. I know we can fix it.”
“No, we can’t fix it. I’m broken. All the doctors and all the pills and all your simulations aren’t putting me back together. Your nightmares won’t wake me up from mine.”
She points to the oncoming train. “It won’t work.”
I hold up empty hands. “Dee. This is different. This isn’t a sim—”
“Here’s the difference.” She pulls the key from the ignition and jams it into the slot in my seat belt buckle. “This time you get to feel what I feel.”
She pushes her door open and steps out.
I yank at the seatbelt. It won’t budge. “Dee, it’s not a simulation!”
The train’s horn sounds again.
She shouts through the open car door. “No more lies, Josh. I’m not listening. I want out of your nightmares. Out!”
She slams the door and steps off the track.
The train’s headlight fills the car.
The horn and the engine and the rumble of the train overwhelm my senses.
I shout and I wave and I bang on the window, but Dee won’t listen.
She mouths, “Let me go.” A heartbeat before the train plows into the car, I realize I can. And then, I do.
Brad Preslar’s fiction has appeared in Metaphorosis and The Colored Lens.