Frank sat bolt upright, tangled in bedding. How’d he wind up on the floor? Soaked in cold sweat, senses on high alert, he scanned the room. Something moved around the end of the bed toward him in the barely visible light. He fumbled with the drawer on his nightstand, then relaxed at the sound of Sofia’s soothing voice.
“Hey, it’s all right. Just a bad dream.” She gently rubbed his back. “Same one?” When he didn’t respond, she tried again. “Frank? Breathe, cariño. Everything’s okay.”
Frank exhaled. “I can’t stand the thought of you and the kids—” he began, then leapt to his feet, startling his wife.
“Frank, they’re fine.” But he was already halfway down the hall.
She was probably right, but he had to be sure. First the girls. Both Lisa and Jodie slept soundly. Farther down the hall in Sam’s room, he stood for several minutes watching their five-year-old sleep. It calmed him and helped soothe the terror of the nightmare. Funny, though. When Sofia put him to bed early that evening, Sam had grabbed his favorite stuffed bear—the one he never went to sleep without—and slipped past her, then ran out of his room over to where Frank sat checking his email at the dining room table. He solemnly looked at his father and put Little Bear in his lap. “Why, thank you, Sam,” he’d said, but when he tried to hand the stuffed toy back to his son, the boy shook his head and ran back to his room. As if he knew his dad was about to have a rough night. So Little Bear slept with Frank and Sofia that evening.
When he got back to bed, Sofia greeted him sleepily. “Everything okay?”
“It is now.” He climbed under the covers and nestled close to his wife. “What would I do without you?”
“You’d be hopelessly lost,” she murmured before drifting off to sleep.
Frank lay staring at the dark ceiling, thinking about the recurring nightmare, his heart still beating faster and harder than normal. In the past, Sofia had suggested he get help with the dreams, but she couldn’t know some things were beyond help. Those dreams were based on what could never be fixed or undone. He’d willingly give up his own life for the safety of any one of his family members. If and when that time came, however, he might not have a choice.
He sighed and rolled onto his side. A minute later, he was sound asleep.
Sofia didn’t mention the dream the next morning. She had only kind and soothing words for him—as usual the day after a nightmare. As if they were like any happily married couple: deeply in love, caring, and affectionate with each other.
Over the next couple of weeks, however, things slowly and inevitably drifted back to normal. The way they always did.
* * *
Frank checked his watch and slapped the steering wheel. Damn! Late again. When he’d arrived ten minutes behind schedule last time, Sofia took it as a lack of commitment to their marriage. Wasn’t taking time out of his workday to show up for counseling proof enough of his commitment? She didn’t understand that leaving work wasn’t simply a matter of shutting down his computer. If he had exposed wiring or anything like that, he had to “make it work or make it safe,” as the sign on the wall at the shop reminded him.
The day hadn’t gone well. The mistake had been telling his crew about the counseling. Everyone gave him a hard time—even Jason. They teased him all day, and though Frank tried to laugh it off, the teasing bothered him. He even had some ugly thoughts. What if they couldn’t make things right? What if their marriage didn’t pan out? Frank experienced dark moments when his mind went there.
HR had announced another round of updates to their employee handbook that morning, for the second time that year—and it was only February. That meant another useless meeting to discuss all the new changes. Working for Lake Oswego Public Works had other downsides as well. Everything had to be politically correct and checked at least three times, then discussed ad nauseam.
Which today put him far behind schedule.
Portland traffic worsened each year, and he hated how much it slowed him down. Especially today. A freezing drizzle and the gray Portland sky made everything feel even slower. Burnside would most likely be jammed, so he’d have to cut across on Fourteenth Street. No point in trying to explain any of that to Sofia. He’d still get a black mark for being late. Of course, she had to choose a counselor in the Pearl District rather than someone close by. He knew it was for the “greater good of their relationship,” as she liked to put it, but still. Getting away from work was never easy. Too many people depended on him.
It’d been over a month since the last nightmare. The subject probably wouldn’t even come up. Not that it had anything to do with their relationship, anyway. Digging up the past meant a lot of wasted time. For him, the best therapy meant being home in the garage working on his quadcopter. But if this counseling business helped their relationship, it was a good thing. He just had to keep telling himself that.
After ten minutes of not advancing even a full block, he activated the flashing yellow lights on his roof. With no police in sight, he crossed the solid white middle line into the empty oncoming lane and took an illegal left turn at the next corner. If a cop stopped him, he’d say a utility emergency had just come up. That line had saved him from a ticket on more than one occasion.
When his GPS told him he’d arrived, he saw no place to park save for a public garage the next block up on the right. Better than nothing. He stopped even with the entrance, his right blinker expressing his intent to turn, waiting for the constant stream of pedestrians—bundled up against the cold and wet—to take their sweet time passing by so he could turn in. Did any of them think to stop and wave him in? No, that would be way too courteous. His irritation increased by the second. Finally, he got a break. He revved the dirty white City of Lake Oswego pickup and made the sharp right into the garage. Unfortunately, the truck slid sideways on the slick sidewalk at the last moment and hit the edge of the entrance full-on. The impact was hard enough to deploy his airbag and slide his .45 auto out from under his seat into plain view. He grabbed the pistol and hurriedly stuffed it back under the seat, moments before some guy in a two-piece suit and holding an umbrella knocked on the window.
“You okay, bud? Want me to call someone?”
Frank waved him off, reversed, and renegotiated the turn. He moved forward slowly and found a parking space without further difficulty. Feeling as though he’d taken a hard punch in the mouth, he checked himself in the rearview mirror. No blood showed, but the airbag had scuffed his cheek and bruised his lip. The yellowish powder on his face made him look jaundiced.
He had a slight headache, which seemed normal under the circumstances. He got out and examined the damage to the truck’s front left corner: bent bumper, smashed headlight, and some serious wrinkles on the fender. The office manager wouldn’t be happy, but that was why they had insurance. He locked the truck, checked his watch, and ran for the exit—already ten minutes late.
On his way to the counselor’s office building on the next block, he ran past a homeless man camped on the sidewalk, bundled up against the cold drizzle, a young girl sleeping in his arms. His cardboard sign said “Combat Vet—please help” in black marker. Frank waved encouragement to him as he ran past.
Sometimes that was all you could do. He shook his head as he walked across the lobby. Portland had a massive homeless problem that the city seemed unable to fix. He punched the Up button on the elevator and checked his pockets. Uncle Gino had fought in Vietnam and told him horror stories not just of the war, but of some of the things veterans went through when they came home. And this guy had his daughter with him, who appeared to be around Lisa’s age. Surprising that Child Protective Services hadn’t picked her up. They frowned on children living on the sidewalk.
The elevator dinged and the doors opened. He stepped inside and hit the fifth-floor button, but right before the doors closed all the way, he stuck his hand out, opening them back up. Swearing under his breath, he ran back into the lobby and out onto the sidewalk. He handed a ten-dollar bill to the veteran, who looked at him incredulously at first, then mouthed a silent “Thank you.”
Waiting for the elevator a second time, Frank noted he was now more than fifteen minutes late. He was definitely going to get an earful about this—if not now, then later. Grateful for the men’s room outside the counselor’s office, he ducked in and washed off the airbag powder. He looked at his face in the mirror as he dried off with paper towels. He was ready for this.
Tossing the used towels in the trash, he opened the door and took a deep breath.