You Are My Sunshine
by Kathleen Wolak
“Who killed you?”
The dream never changes. I am sitting in the kitchen of our old house, at the big oak table that my grandfather made. Across from me sits a little boy, about five years old.
“When?” I lean toward the boy.
“When the wolf cried.”
For some reason at this point, I always correct the boy. “When the wolves cried.”
He nods his head and gets up from the table. He walks around to me and holds out his little fist. I instinctively put my hand under his and feel something drop into my palm.
I look down at my hand but, before I see what the boy has given me, I wake up.
I had the dream six nights in a row when I decided to tell my therapist about it. I had been seeing Dr. Shapiro for five years, ever since Emily left for Dallas.
* * *
“So, Greg, you mentioned on the phone that you’ve been having a disturbing dream. I take it this one is different than the dreams you had after Emily left? After the accident?”
I nodded before fixing my stare on Dr. Shapiro’s left hand. I’m not sure why, but my gaze was drawn to his shining gold wedding band.
“Uhm, yes.” I described the dream, to the last detail. Dr. Shapiro looked at me intently, intermittently jotting something in his small leather bound notebook. When I finished, he put the notebook down.
“Did the little boy look like Chris?” He squinted his eyes in that way people do who try to look sympathetic when they know they’ve broached a painful topic.
I shook my head. “No. Chris had blonde hair. He had big green eyes. This boy... he, well, he’s got brown hair and brown eyes. He did look familiar though.”
Dr. Shapiro nodded. “It’s possible the boy in your dream is a composite. He represents all of your anxiety formulated over the past five years. Chris’s death and Emily... It’s no wonder these events have manifested themselves into this little boy. A little boy is lost because of his circumstances. The little boy is you, I think.”
I shrugged. “That could be it. Listen, Doc... I don’t want to dissect the dream. I just want the dream to end. I... I’m sick of constantly being reminded of what happened. I need something that will knock me out, at least at night.”
Dr. Shapiro scratched his chin. Whenever he didn’t like a request I had, he bought time by scratching some part of his face.
“I don’t know, Greg. With all of the medications we have you on already... I just don’t think it would help or be ethical of me to prescribe something else. What about the support group? Hasn’t that helped?”
I hadn’t bothered attending the meetings Shapiro was talking about. It was a group for people dealing with loss, but I didn’t feel that sitting in a dingy church basement and talking about feelings would do me any good.
* * *
The accident happened five years ago. Emily and I were bringing Chris camping for the first time. It was late October, and getting cold out. I remember the three of us sitting next to the fire, all cuddled up together under an oversized blanket. It was going to be a perfect night. Chris had just had his tenth birthday, and all he wanted was his very own tent and for us to have a camping trip before winter.
We caught our own dinner that night. I brought Chris with me down to the lake near the grounds and we waited patiently for something to bite. He looked so excited when my line finally caught something, he hopped up and started jumping up and down, crying, “Reel him in, Dad!”
I pulled in a good-sized bass, which flopped weakly next to us as soon as I unhooked him. Chris watched the fish take its last look at the world before drowning. His smile faded when the fish stopped moving.
“I kinda forgot he had to die.” Chris looked up at me sheepishly. “I don’t know if I can eat him.”
I patted Chris’s back. I had felt the same way at his age, when I saw my father shoot a deer. “It’s okay. This is the way it’s supposed to be. Where do you think the fish Mom cooks at home comes from?”
Chris shrugged. “The store?” His fair complexion was starting to fade to a pale green.
“Tell ya what, bud: I’ll fry this up, and by dinnertime you won’t even remember him this way.”
He nodded, but looked unmoved. Chris was always a sensitive kid, which his mother adored. The two of them were attached at the hip until he went off to kindergarten. Even at age ten, he preferred her company over that of his friends.
We walked back to the site right around sunset. The owls had already started their conversations for the night, and the fire was crackling.
Emily smiled at us as we trudged up with our dinner. “You boys caught something, I hope? I spent the last few hours getting this going.” She gestured to the fire before setting eyes on Chris. “Oh honey, what’s wrong?”
“He just saw how the meat was made.” I held up the fish to show Emily. As soon as she saw Chris look back at it she hissed at me to put it away.
I rolled my eyes and went into our tent to retrieve my gutting knife and some tinfoil. I set up a prep station on a stump about three feet away from the fire. Chris sat next to his mother and stared into the fire as I carefully took the bones out of the fish, leaving plump fillets for Emily to cook.
In the distance, I could hear coyotes barking at each other.
“Here that, Chris? All the coyotes? They’ve caught something. You can tell by the way they’re talking to each other. Just like us, bud: circle of life.”
Chris looked up from the fire and smiled weakly. “Yeah, I guess.”
After dinner, I noticed that there was still a huge chunk of fish on Chris’s plate, which I finished off. Emily had brought him a bag of chips just in case he got hungry. I noticed that he had left the half-empty bag on one of the camping chairs and I reminded myself to bring it into our tent in case any raccoons were nearby. I placed my gutting knife next to it, as a marker. I would never forget that knife with Chris around.
When it came time to roast marshmallows, we brought out the big blanket and huddled together so that we could all feel a fiery glow on our cold faces. I couldn’t remember ever feeling more content. As Emily started to nod off, Chris leaned his head against my arm. Both of them fell asleep smiling.
An hour or two later, I awoke to find us all still in our little nest, with the smoldering fire sending dancing smoke into the air. I gently nudged Emily and Chris awake, and we all stumbled into a standing position before tripping over to our tents. It wasn’t until hours later that I realized I had left the chip bag and knife outside. I debated if it was worth it to go outside and retrieve them. I hadn’t heard any rustling and it would be morning soon...
My bladder on the other hand, decided I should get up. I groaned, cursing the beers I had put away at dinner, and rolled myself onto my knees. I looked to my left and noticed that Emily was not in our tent. As my senses caught up with my mind, I heard a shriek come from outside, followed by a low howl.
“EMILY!!” I shouted, “Emily what’s wrong?!” I scrambled to get to my feet, almost uprooting the tent. I burst through the flap to see Emily shaking three feet away from a light gray wolf. He snarled, baring his huge yellow teeth at her.
“Emily, don’t move.” I crept towards my knife, keeping an eye on the wolf the whole time. He howled again, summoning his pack.
In the distance I could hear his family respond. There wouldn’t be much time...
The knife was right behind Emily, and still a good four feet away from me. “Em,” I whispered.
She made a guttural sound of acknowledgement but never took her eyes off the snarling beast in front of her.
“Em, slowly grab the knife. It’s right behind you.”
Emily’s shaking arm appeared from her front and felt around in the darkness until she brushed her fingers across the blade. She dragged it up from its resting place and held it in front of her.
“NOW STAB HIM!” I screamed as I rushed toward the wolf. I closed my eyes for a split second as I ran and heard the worst sound I’ve ever heard in my life.
First it was a shriek, followed by the squish of metal making contact, and ripping through flesh. Finally, there was wheezing.
I opened my eyes and saw my son, his little body limp, and being held up only by the knife that my wife was holding. Emily’s mouth hung open as she began to realize what she had done.
“NO NO NO!” Emily screamed into the freezing night. She let go of the knife and Chris fell to the ground like a rag doll. I fell to my knees, next to my boy and howled like the wolf who had run away when I advanced, leaving my son in harm’s way.
In his hand, which lay out oddly to one side, I saw he was clutching a miniature baseball bat that he always brought with him on trips. He had heard the wolf and was trying to help.
I fell across Chris, hugging his lifeless, warm body. All my senses were gone. I had nothing left.
* * *
I don’t remember much after that minute. The last full memory I have was lying with Chris in the dirt, and holding him close to my chest. The police coming, the hospital, the funeral and the medication were all a terrible blur.
Emily lost her ability to talk after Chris died. She refused to eat and became completely catatonic. Her hair became frayed as she stopped showering, and her eyes became cloudy and unfocused. We worked fast to get her into the best facility we could, which happened to be in Dallas. It was a nice, clean hospital and the administrator told me that many of the patients at Highland were there because of severe trauma.
“It’s an incredibly slow process but we provide the compassionate care that most ‘mental hospitals’ tend to lack. We don’t rely on medication, but we do provide it. And I’ve been told that you plan on moving down here, which is very important. More than anything, Emily needs her family.”
I nodded dumbly at the administrator. She was a plump, middle-aged woman who wore a brooch shaped like a key on her lapel. The rubies surrounding it glittered in the fluorescent light of her office. When I got up to leave, she looked up from Emily’s folder.
“Mr. Sales? Just remember that it’s going to take a long time, especially with Emily. But I am confident we can get her back.”
I nodded and forced a smile. “I know. Thank you.”
A few weeks later, I was driving to my rental unit near the hospital when my phone rang.
“Mr. Sales? This is Glenn Ukridge. I’m the attending physician in the psychiatric wing at Highland Hospital.”
“Oh, hello.” I responded numbly. I was numb all the time at this point. If someone told me the earth was melting, they would get the same reaction from me as if they told me it was supposed to rain today.
“Mr. Sales, I... uh... I have some news. You should probably be sitting down for this.”
I pulled the tiny rental car into a grocery store parking lot. “I’m sitting.” I already knew what he was going to tell me. Emily was dead. She had hanged herself in her room, using a bed sheet. She hadn’t even been in for a month.
The last time I visited Emily, there had been a different look in her eyes. The doctors said she had started speaking again but was crying non-stop. When she came out to see me at that round little table in the visitor’s room, however, she looked so clear.
She didn’t say much, except for the fact that she had been singing in the hospital choir. “We sang ‘You Are My Sunshine’ today. I used to sing that to Chris at bedtime when he was... when he was really little.” She smiled. “I just want to sing to him again.”
When our time was up, and Emily was back to being patient Sales in room 3, she looked deep into my eyes. “I love you forever,” she said before being ushered gently back to her room by two smiling, pleasant orderlies.
* * *
I snapped away from my past to find myself back in Dr. Shapiro’s office.
“Well? Is the support group helping?”
I don’t know what came over me in that moment, but I felt the need to be honest. “No... no, Doc, it’s not. Have you ever lost someone? Do you have any idea what it’s like to lose your only child and wife because of something that YOU DID?”
Dr. Shapiro looked taken aback, but intrigued. “What do you mean, that you did?”
“IT WAS MY FAULT!!” I screamed, sending Shapiro a foot in the air. “I left the knife out. I scared away the wolf that was in front of Chris. I told Emily to stab whatever was in front of her. My family is dead because of me. And you know what else? I haven’t said a thing until now. And you know what’s worse? I did blame her. In my heart I did blame her for what happened.”
I sat back, almost relieved. I felt like I had just vomited up the worst meal ever made.
Dr. Shapiro tried to hold his composure, but I could tell he was disturbed. “The guilt you’re feeling is perfectly normal, Greg. You need to realize though, that this was not your fault. None of this was your fault. You need to get rid of this. Guilt is a demon, Greg, and it will destroy you.”
I put my head in my hands and groaned over Dr. Shapiro’s assurances. “It was my fault.”
I was a coward and didn’t even tell Emily how I felt when she was alive. Maybe if I had said what I was feeling, a bit of her guilt would have gone away and she wouldn’t have felt that she was fully responsible for the death of our son. In my numb state, I watched her take the fall as though it was a cheesy cable melodrama. This wasn’t my life. It was somebody else’s.
Dr. Shapiro sighed deeply before speaking to me in his authoritative, parental tone of voice. “Greg, I can’t prescribe you anything heavy, but here is something that may help. Please, please be sure you don’t drink when you take this.” He scribbled something on his pad and ripped it off. Before handing it to me, he paused. “You’re right, I can’t imagine what you’ve been going through these past few years. And given the fact that Emily was pregnant, I just can’t even begin to...”
His words trailed off into nothingness. I had no idea she was pregnant.
When he realized what he had said, Shapiro snapped up to a ninety degree angle. “Good God, they didn’t tell you that? Oh, Greg... I’m sorry... I...”
It didn’t matter what he was saying. I was already bearing the weight of killing my family. This news merely broke the last of any connection to the world I had.
I don’t remember how I got home. I don’t remember driving my car or entering my house. All I remember is falling like a redwood tree onto my bed.
* * *
“Who killed you?” I asked the little boy, who I now realize looks like me as a child.
“When the wolf cried.”
“When the wolves cried.”
The little boy came around to me, as he always did, and dropped something in my hand. This time, when I looked down, I saw what it was: a key. The key had the number 3 etched into it.
“My son,” I say. But when I look back up, he is gone, replaced by a snarling, barking wolf, who lunges directly at my throat.
Copyright © 2016 by Kathleen Wolak