Nightmare Jack, II
by Tamara Podella
|Nightmare Jack appears in issue 418.||
I awoke with the pleasant pressure of something warm and soft on my chest. Something that purred.
“Hey you,” I croaked at the slim, pitch black cat, which only curled up tighter in response. “What’s your name?”
I raised myself groggily onto one elbow, took off my sunglasses and rubbed my eyes. “His name is Renegade,” said a man’s voice behind me.
Grabbing the tomcat, I scrambled to my feet and turned around. Renegade wriggled free and disappeared into the trees.
He was standing at the foot of the rock, a dozen or more dogs of all colours and sizes surrounding him like shaggy statues. He was wearing the clothes I had found. His hair, which hadn’t been combed in a while, was more brown than blond now, and it was streaked with grey. Strong. A man. Same eyes. “Hey, Jack.”
“Hey, Ramona.” He held out his hand to help me down and I took it. My own hands were shaking, and I felt nauseous. And then I was standing in front of him and twenty years meant nothing.
“I’m sorry for leaving,” I said.
A shadow of a smile played at the corner of his mouth. He knelt to reach into a leather bag and handed me a bottle of water.
“Thanks.” I drank it down to the last drop. He stood still, watching me.
“I’m here now, Jack.” And I reached for his hand, but he moved away ever so subtly, so that I ended up grasping at thin air. And that’s when the lump in my throat, the desert I had carried inside of me, disappeared. It simply gave way, and the next breath I took was empty, was loss, and I felt the pressure of twenty years’ worth of tears pouring out of me. I couldn’t hear anything, I just felt them flow. I couldn’t see anything. I could only feel. Feel again.
He didn’t touch me, but I could feel that he was still there, silent amongst his animals. At one point, crouching on my hands and knees, I felt fur brush my leg. I cried and cried. For Jack. For Harry. For their mom. For my mom. For Aunt Cathy and Evin. For me. I cried for Maggie. How she’d stood by me all this time, even though I had never really been there. How she’d believed in me when we’d started the band. Loved me although I was broken. Accepted me for who I was.
It wasn’t guilt. The wails and screams, the gut-wrenching sobs had nothing to do with that. They were simply me, coming back to myself. I was blind. I was free. When the pressure got a little lighter, I unlaced my boots, scrambled out of the black velvet. Tore off my necklace, bra and panties.
I crawled to the river, got shakily to my feet, and jumped into the cool water.
And here, finally, here I was. Small but strong, hair floating like seaweed. Feet paddling water, growing lighter and lighter, until laughs bubbled up inside me. I broke the surface, slick as a seal.
He was kneeling by the shore, surrounded by his animals that watched with quiet eyes, like guardians.
“You coming in, or what?” I shouted.
He ran a hand across his face, slowly shook his head.
“Come on, Jack! We only have this one life!” And saying the words, I felt I had never said anything as corny, and at the same time as true.
He got up and, crossing his arms, he shook his head. “I can’t, Ramona. And you shouldn’t be here.”
“If you’re not coming in, I’m coming out,” I said, and started swimming back towards him.
“Don’t, Ramona. Please,” he said, taking a step back as I climbed up, nearly slipping on the smooth stones.
I felt invigorated by the swim, my hangover evaporated, my lungs full of air, my heart anchored. Standing in front of him naked, dripping wet, I didn’t feel an ounce of shame, or even self-consciousness, like I normally would with other men. I didn’t care what I looked like because I knew with a certainty I had spent twenty years not knowing I missed, that he loved me.
I reached for his cheek and this time he didn’t turn away. His eyes were red and wet with tears. Whenever he cried his eyes stood out even lighter against his dark lashes, like they were illuminated from the inside. “I love you, Jack.”
He took my hand that was stroking his cheek and held it there. His eyes moved across my face, my body, and he tensed, as though he were fighting himself. “I don’t want to hurt you, Ramona.”
“Yes, I will. I will. I’m sick. Like my father.”
“What, so you want to drink my blood?” I stooped to pick up a broken stone and scratched the back of my hand until a little blood welled up. “Here, is that what you want?”
He took my hand, wiped it with his shirt and threw the stone in the river. “Don’t do that. Don’t joke about it.”
“You’re not your father, Jack.”
He looked at me. “You don’t know... ” He looked away, into the water.
“Harry told me about your sleep walking,” I ventured.
His eyes grew hard. “It happens every night. Every morning I wake up somewhere in the woods. Once, when I woke up, there was blood on my hands, blood on my lips.”
“Maybe you hurt yourself running in the dark?”
“Yes. Or maybe I killed someone.”
“What, and gobbled up the body? Jack. You didn’t.”
He took my still bleeding hand and raised it close to his face, sniffing it, as though to see whether it would awaken some kind of vampire instinct in him.
“Well, I can’t see your eyes turning yellow or any werewolf fangs popping up,” I said.
“Come on, Ramona, it’s not funny.”
“Sorry. I know. I’m sorry.” And then I couldn’t take it anymore, I had to touch him.
I reached for his waist and pressed my wet body against him, and when he wouldn’t return my embrace, I clung on tight with all my strength. I slipped one hand into his shirt and dug my nails into the hollow below his shoulder blade. I pressed my face against him, ripped at the buttons of his shirt with my teeth, until I could feel his skin on my mouth. I moaned desperately into his chest, the vibration of it tingling on my lips. I could feel his heart beating now, and it was fast and strong, drumming to my own heart’s beat.
And then he gasped and took me into his arms, his mouth so hard on mine, river water, salty tears, our breaths mingling. The world turned upside down. The willow swayed above our heads, the river flowed, the sky was a scintillating Cape Town blue, just like it had been on the day we met. We were young again, we were alive, the dogs started barking and the cat meowed like crazy, or maybe that was me...
When I awoke this time, in Jack’s bed made of pallets, to Renegade lying half on my face, it was bathed in sweat and with a start, with a fear that he wouldn’t be there. I woke up ready to grab one of the bottles of aspirin from his stash in the bathroom and go search for him in the woods. But when I wriggled free of the tomcat to sit up, he was lying right there next to me. He lay on his stomach, facing me, his hair sticking up in all directions, his mouth half open, his palms slightly curled, one leg under the sheet, one foot peeping out the side of the bed, looking like he had no intention of ever leaving it again. There were no twigs in his hair, his feet were clean from the shower we had shared before bed, and the heavy cabin door was closed, the curtain to the bed niche drawn.
I checked the time on the old radio clock on his bedside table. Five past ten. I breathed in deeply through my nose, relishing the new feeling of lightness in my chest. My phone’s battery had died, but I remembered Evin’s brunch invitation for twelve. A warm wave of gratitude washed over me at the thought of my new buddy Evin. I couldn’t wait to witness Jack and him having a conversation. I suspected they’d never talked much before, or else Evin would have long since coaxed all that bullshit out of Jack. Smiling to myself, I set about making coffee with Jack’s camping gear in the little kitchen. I watched over him, studying his sleeping face, enjoying every crease and fold, every line of laughter and woe, every grey hair, until eleven. Then I gently kissed him awake.
He grinned and stretched like a cat. “Huh?”
“Wake up, sleepy head. We’re invited to brunch at Evin’s,” I said.
“Where am I?” he muttered, but he couldn’t keep from grinning.
“In your bed. With me.”
“Oh,” he said, chuckling and pulling me close. Then he stiffened. “Oh, did I -”
I stopped him with a kiss. “You slept like a baby.”
He tried to straighten his hair and bunched the pillow under his armpit. “Hm, certainly feels that way.” And he looked at me as though I were the most amazing faerie creature he had ever seen.
“You didn’t try to kill me, either, just by the way.”
He cheekily raised his brows. “Are you sure? Because you look really tasty in the morning. I wouldn’t mind sinking my fangs into that butt of yours... ”
“Stop it! Jack!” I drew him up with both hands on his cheeks and held his face there, close to mine. “Now say it.”
“Okay, okay, just one more bite, please... ”
“Ok, so maybe I was wrong. Maybe I just missed you. Maybe I spent my nights running through the woods howling your name at the moon.”
“That’s right,” I said. “But you can stop doing that now, because I’m here, and I’m not leaving you, ever again. I want to live with you until we’re old and grey. In fact, ever since you saved me, I’ve wanted nothing else.”
“But I didn’t save you, Ramona. And I think that’s what it is. I wanted to. Ever since I met you, I wanted nothing more than to protect you, to keep you safe. Even though you’re strong. And when you left, it was like you took my life’s mission away with you.”
“I want to keep you safe too,” I whispered.
“You do,” he whispered back, indicating the bed. “It really was the best sleep I’ve ever had.”
“Good. But that’s not what I meant when I told you to say it.”
He kissed me, gently. He stroked my hair and let it run through his fingers the way he had done as a teenage boy. Then he sang the Ramones, in his man’s voice that sent shivers down my spine. “Hey little girl, I wanna be your boyfriend. Sweet little girl, I wanna be your boyfriend.”
I just waited patiently, blissfully and contained, for him to say it, and when he did, he didn’t only say it to me. He said it to my demons, too. And when they heard it, they didn’t fall down dead. They just clutched their little knives and whiskey bottles tighter. Because the world wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows and there would be bad days again. And Jack wasn’t the answer to all my problems. But he was a part of me, and I of him, and they could feel it. They could feel that they were in for one tough ride.
“I love you, Ramona. I always have, and I always will.”
Copyright © 2020 by Tamara Podella