Rip awoke from easy and uneasy dreams: flashes of banquets, warm applause, his pretty wife presiding at a table covered with a smooth white cloth, and him standing behind her, a painter or maybe a soldier, with arms folded across a doughty chest; and one dream in which he was a beetle scuttling around the baseboards of a room. That dream he wanted to forget.
He had helped carry a barrel for the elves up the mountain. Struggling with the front end, his foot slipping, he dropped to the ground and the barrel rolled out of his hands, banged against his knee. He remembered thinking there would be a purple bruise. The oldest elf told him to pull up his legging and applied a cold compress, which appeared when he snapped his fingers.
Rip tried snapping his fingers now, and the hands were like his father’s, thick and short and spotted with age. He thrust them in his pockets.
He remembered a baby daughter, but was that in a dream? He remembered a friend, who had played a fife that propelled his legs to dance. Now his knee hurt.
He was hungry and thirsty. When he bent over a stream, he saw an old man staring back, his father perhaps, but with a wild beard. He levered himself up, brushed away the soil from his knees. A spike of pain shot through his knee. He limped along.
At the curve of the stream was the familiar egg-shaped boulder, but as he walked farther the village seemed strange as a dream: two general stores, four taverns, three churches. His eyes watered as if he’d gotten ash in them.
People strolled on the street. He forced a smile at these strangers with odd clothes. The women wore their hair in loops; the men had tall hats. A boy in short pants stared at him. “My grandpa has breeches like that.”
In front of his cottage door lay his dog, Duchess, now grizzled and scrawny. Duchess awoke, yipped a welcome, flicked her tail, rubbed around his ankles. Why was Duchess so scrawny? This must’ve been a dream. Duchess tried to jump up, her front paws reaching toward her master’s chest, and dropped suddenly to the ground. She lay limp on her side. Rip knelt down, patted her unmoving ribs, and tears coursed down his cheeks.
He rattled the doorknob. The door was locked. Nobody was home. Where was his wife? If he went to sleep again, would time run backward? He rattled the doorknob again. When he caught sight of his spotted hands he thought he had slept through his life.
He turned toward the mountain and took a deep breath. If he squinted, he saw in the distance castles, pennants flying in a light breeze. He smelled roses and looked around and heard birdsong. He could climb back up. The sun streamed across the shimmering leaves.
Perhaps it was all a dream. He rubbed his bruised knee, and snapped his fingers, but no compress appeared. The knee still hurt.
His need to sleep was overwhelming. He was sliding into a warm river, gliding along in a dream. When he woke, he would remake the world.
He remembered when his dog slept and the eyelids twitched in sweet dreams and she whimpered softly.
Cezarija Abartis’ Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in FRiGG, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Pithead Chapel, Tinge, and New York Tyrant, among others. Her flash, “The Writer,” was selected by Dan Chaon for Wigleaf’s Top 50 online Fictions of 2012 and “To Kiss a Bear” was selected for Wigleaf’s Longlist 2016. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University. Her website is here.