The Dream Room
by Jill Hand
Grace and I were first cousins. We grew up like sisters, raised by our maternal grandmother in her rambling old house overlooking the Housatonic River in western Massachusetts. My parents were killed in a car accident when I was three. Grace was eighteen months old when she’d been more or less abandoned by her free-wheeling hippie parents, who had left her with Gran “for the weekend,” as they put it, before taking off for greener pastures.
Grace’s parents stopped by from time to time, falling into bed in one of the spare rooms upstairs and sleeping like the dead for twenty-four hours before coming down to the kitchen and eating enormous quantities of pancakes or whatever else they could find in the pantry that didn’t offend their vegetarian sensibilities before departing again.
Before they left, they would usually hit Gran up for a loan. Those loans were never repaid, as far as I know. They almost always brought along some wildly inappropriate gift for Grace. One time when she was six, it was a flea-ridden feral cat they’d found rooting around in a garbage can outside a diner on Route 78 in New Jersey. They named it Peace Flower. It scratched Grace’s face deeply and painfully, requiring ten stitches.
Another time, when Grace was eight, they brought her a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. I still remember how surprised we were by some of the illustrations. “My goodness!” Grace kept saying as she leafed through the pages. “Oh, my goodness!”
When Grace was twelve and I was fourteen, Grace’s parents took us out behind the little studio in the back yard where Gran did her watercolor paintings. Whispering excitedly while glancing furtively over their shoulders, they presented us with a plastic baggie containing a sinister little grey heap of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Grace emptied the contents of the baggie down the garbage disposal, her face creased in an expression of extreme distaste, as soon as her parents’ VW van sputtered down the driveway, clouds of thick blue exhaust fumes billowing extravagantly from the rusted tailpipe.
The fact that they were stridently opposed to air pollution didn’t prevent them from neglecting to repair the ancient van’s emission system. They were full of contradictions like that.
It’s not surprising that Grace became a hardheaded realist in order to rebel against her feckless parents, whom she dubbed the Lost Boy and the Lost Girl. She majored in mathematics in college and afterwards went to work for a big accounting firm.
“You can always rely on numbers,” she used to say, leaving unspoken the sentiment that you couldn’t rely on other people, not really. Other people, even those who professed to love you, were liable to dump you off at your grandmother’s and go live on a commune in Oregon.
Unlike her parents, Grace was reliable. She was normal, for want of a better word. She made it a point to vote in every election, returned library books on time and was vigilant about scheduling regular dental visits. She was the last person you would ever imagine who would disappear without a trace under bizarre and baffling circumstances, and yet that’s exactly what she did.
* * *
It started with a dream she’d had. Grace wasn’t one for recounting her dreams. In fact, I couldn’t remember her ever doing so before, but this dream made an impression on her to the point that she said she couldn’t get it out of her mind.
We had met for lunch, as we usually did on Wednesdays, at a café halfway between my house and Grace’s office. I worked at home editing romance novels, most of which were horribly written and had plots so ridiculously full of coincidences that they would have made Charles Dickens, whose books were notorious for them, shake his head in disgust.
The books I edited were full of phrases like “burning kisses” and “throbbing loins.” When the characters made love, which they did about every two and a half pages, they always did so feverishly, tearing at each other’s clothing while moaning that what they were doing was wrong but they just couldn’t help themselves. I hated those books heartily, and of course they sold like hotcakes.
It was good to get out of the house and get my mind off the awful book I was in the midst of editing. It was by a woman who called herself Aimee Swann who’d written a string of best-sellers, each one worse than the one before, in my opinion.
In this particular work, the heroine was having a devil of a time trying to decide between giving herself to the amiable hunk who had come to her aid when her car broke down by the side of the road one dark and stormy night, and the cold and arrogant billionaire who owned the company she worked for, all the while remaining completely unaware that they were one in the same person. In other words, she was an idiot, just like all of Aimee Swann’s heroines.
At the café, I slid into the red vinyl embrace of the booth where Grace was seated. “I’m editing a horrible book,” I told her. I noticed one of the buttons on the sleeve of my jacket was hanging by a thread and pulled it off, tucking it into my pocket.
Grace watched me critically. “You might lose that,” she said. “I have a sewing kit in my purse. Want me to sew it on for you?”
That was Grace for you: always prepared. “You’re always editing horrible books,” she said as she threaded a needle with black thread and prepared to sew on my button. “Listen, I had the strangest dream last night.”
I thought, It is a truth universally acknowledged that much as we enjoy telling others our dreams, we neglect to first consider how uninterested anyone is in hearing them. That’s what comes of being an English literature major: Jane Austen and her ilk are always lounging in the back of your mind, making snide remarks.
Grace recounted her dream as she sewed on my button. A lot of people report having had one similar, as I later found out. In the dream, the person discovers a door in their home, one they never noticed before. They open it and find a room. Grace described the room in her dream as being furnished like a Victorian parlor, with a Chesterfield sofa covered in faded red plush, a couple of balloon back chairs, and a bentwood rocker.
There were two or three potted palms and a curio cabinet with a curved glass front that was filled with taxidermied birds. The walls were covered in green flocked paper that I knew from editing a murder mystery called Come Into my Parlor — and Die! would have contained a dangerously high level of arsenic if it dated back to Victorian times. Oil paintings so darkened with age that Grace couldn’t discern their subjects hung from the picture rail. Everything had a thick coating of dust.
In short, it sounded like a thoroughly creepy room. I told her so, but Grace said she didn’t find it creepy at all. On the contrary, she was pleased to discover the room behind a door that she’d never noticed before in her upstairs hallway, between the bathroom and the linen closet. She remembered thinking that she could use the extra space.
“When I woke up, the first thing I did was go and look to see if the door was there. That’s how real it seemed,” she said frowning, the scar from where Peace Flower had scratched her all those years ago still faintly visible on her cheek.
“That’s interesting,” I said, although it wasn’t, really. The button restored to its proper place, Grace handed me back my jacket. Then we went on with our lunch.
I thought that was the end of it, but the next day, Grace sent me a text message. I saved it. It said: I HAD THE DREAM ABOUT THE ROOM AGAIN LAST NIGHT. THIS TIME, I COULD SEE A HALLWAY LEADING OUT FROM IT.
I texted back that the dream contractors must have been busy to have built a hallway overnight. Maybe next they’d build a conservatory or a billiard room.
She replied: IT MADE ME FEEL STRANGE.
I suggested she ask her doctor for sleeping pills if the dream kept bothering her. I’d heard somewhere that people don’t dream when they take sleeping pills. Grace replied that she didn’t like to take pills, an attitude I suspect was prompted by memories of her parents’ pharmaceutical adventures, which landed them in a couple of rehabs.
I didn’t hear from Grace for a few days. Then she texted for the last time: DREAM AGAIN. THREE NIGHTS IN A ROW NOW. I OPENED THE DOOR AND COULD HEAR SOMEONE CALLING MY NAME. THEN I WOKE UP. NEXT TIME, I’M GOING TO TRY AND GO INSIDE.
The following Wednesday, she wasn’t at the café at our usual time. I called her cell phone thinking she’d been delayed. The call went straight to voicemail. Then I called her office. She hadn’t come in that day and hadn’t called in sick. The person who answered the phone said it wasn’t like Grace not to call if she wasn’t coming in. There was no answer when I called her house. That’s when I began to feel frightened.
* * *
That was almost three years ago now. There’s been no word from Grace in all that time. I filed a missing person report with the police after I went to her house and found the place deserted. Her car was still in the driveway and the doors were locked from the inside. Grace’s purse with seventy dollars and her credit cards in it was on the spotless kitchen counter. All of her clothes were still hanging neatly in the closets or folded in drawers. All was in perfect order, just as Grace always kept things. There was no note, no sign of any disturbance, no Grace.
I looked in the upstairs hallway where she had said the door to the dream room had been but, of course, there was no extra door there, not that I expected there to be one. Wherever Grace had gone, it was somewhere I couldn’t follow.
As I said, Grace and I were like sisters. I couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t been part of my life. My earliest memories are of us quarreling over toys and running through the field behind Gran’s house. She’d always been there but now suddenly she wasn’t.
Her mother, when I eventually tracked her down to a senior citizens’ community outside Flagstaff, Arizona, was supremely unconcerned. Grace’s father had died years earlier, killed while driving drunk and slamming into the rear of a tractor-trailer.
“I wouldn’t worry about it, dear,” my aunt said airily when I finally got her on the phone. “She’s probably just gone off traveling somewhere. She’ll turn up.” I stood there, speechless and incredulous, the telephone to my ear.
Grace was the last person who would take off suddenly without telling anyone where she was going. I tried to communicate this to my aunt, but she wasn’t listening. “It was so nice hearing from you, but I’ve got to run,” she said sweetly. “My yoga class is about to start.” Then she hung up.
I wore my grief like a leaden cape. I’d wake up in the morning feeling okay then I’d remember that Grace was gone and the tears would come. I’d cry until my eyes were swollen and red. I’d go out to buy groceries and people would look at me and then quickly glance away. I must have looked like a wreck but I didn’t care.
Surprisingly, I found distraction in my work. All those horrible romance novels, with their unbelievable plots and cardboard characters took my mind off my grief. I sat up late into the night, correcting spelling and punctuation and reading about firm, heaving bosoms and manly rippling muscles as if spellbound.
If I thought about handsome Doctor Edwards and his secret passion for Eleanor, his beautiful coma patient who was married to his identical twin brother who’d been unjustly accused of murder, I wouldn’t have to think about Grace. Instead, I’d wonder whether Dr. Edwards would provide the crucial evidence necessary to free his brother or would he callously allow him to be condemned to death in order to woo and win the lovely Eleanor, assuming she ever woke up? I hung over this flimsy plot, enthralled, as if it were the most gripping piece of literature ever written.
* * *
Grace’s birthday came three weeks after her disappearance. I had bought her gift months before. It was a box of fancy soaps from a place called Soaps of the World. They came from places like France and Italy and India and Japan. Grace loved fancy soaps. She would have been crazy about Soaps of the World, but now they sat on the top shelf of my hall closet, wrapped in a page from the Sunday color comics the way we always wrapped our gifts to each other ever since we were children. I would see the box every time I opened the closet door and think, When I wrapped it and put it up there, Grace was still alive. Then I’d start to cry again.
Of course, Grace might still be alive somewhere, possibly in another dimension, if such things exist. It was the not knowing that tormented me. What if wherever she had gone was horrible? What if she was frightened and in pain?
The only thing I knew of that was remotely similar to my situation was a story that I’d read long ago. It was called “Brickett Bottom” by a man named Amyas Northcote. He was, I believe, the seventh son of an earl. Funny how you remember these things.
The story was quite chilling. In essence, it was about two young sisters, one of whom disappears after going to pay a call on an elderly couple who live in a quaint old house somewhere in the English countryside, a house that the remaining sister learns to her horror no longer exists, having been torn down many years before.
The story ended there, without any indication about how the remaining sister carried on with her life. I doubt she did what I did, which was to join a grief group. They didn’t have those in Victorian England. I joined the group hoping to find what the earnest man who ran it called “closure,” but I dropped out after four sessions.
Closure is a nice concept, but I’m not sure if I believe in it. My grief has eased somewhat, to the point that I still cry every day thinking about Grace, but not as long or as hard. Now it just feels like there’s a cold, heavy stone lodged firmly in my chest and that nothing much matters anymore.
The grief group wasn’t any help. I felt awkward sitting in a circle of folding chairs in a musty-smelling room in the basement of a Lutheran church that had been recently vacated by attendees at an AA meeting.
My fellow group members had lost husbands and wives to cancer, daughters to murderous ex-boyfriends, and sons to suicide. They were sympathetic when I told them my cousin was missing, but what’s a cousin compared to a spouse or a child? Some of them probably never even talked to their cousins, and wouldn’t have cared if they vanished off the face of the earth.
Even when I said that we’d grown up together, and were extremely close, there was still the matter of Grace being missing and not officially dead. Unlike the dead, a missing person might reappear. They didn’t say it, but I suspect the other members of the group thought my loss was small potatoes compared to theirs.
Of course I didn’t tell them I thought Grace’s house had eaten her. I was pretty sure they would think I was crazy. Houses can’t eat people, can they?
So I go on, hoping that Grace will return someday but not really expecting her to. If she does, what will she be like and where will she say she’s been? Those are questions that keep me awake at night.
Copyright © 2015 by Jill Hand