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Fiction

And We Were Left Darkling

I don’t remember her birth. My dream baby, the baby I have in my dreams, the one who crashed into my head one night and took roost. She is a day old, a week old, a year old, eight years old, three weeks old, a day old. She has fine blond hair, except when she has tight black curls. Once she had cornrows that lengthened every time I looked away.

“Her hair grows faster than I can cut it,” I said to my dream family.

My family in my dream is my family in real life, but less helpful. In my dream, they are standoffish. They offer advice or jokes or criticism. They never take the baby from my arms. Even my wife, my dream version of my real wife, sits on a couch on the far side of the room. She smiles and gives me the occasional thumbs up. I am supported and loved. I am panicked and out of sorts.

The dreams are so powerful my real breasts fill with milk. They ache. In the dream, nobody gives me any instruction on how to nurse, but we find our way. She never cries.

During the day, I try to explain to Taya. She doesn’t understand. Doesn’t understand the dream baby, the real milk, the disorientation I carry into my morning.

“What do you mean ‘she’s real’?” Taya asks. Does this have anything to do with giving up on getting pregnant?”

We tried and failed for five years. We’re too old, too broke for the treatments that might get us there. Can’t afford to adopt. In the last year we’ve just stopped talking about it entirely.

“It’s different,” I tell her. “It doesn’t feel like a wanting. It feels like she exists already. She’s real.”

I start taking naps. I go to sleep as soon as I get home from the store, setting an alarm so that I wake a few minutes before Taya gets home from the veterinary clinic. I hide what I can. I don’t know how to say that this is my baby, not ours.

It’s a variation on the same dream every time. Every night and every nap. I am holding my baby, cradling her [blond dark fine napped curly] head. My sisters are there, my parents, my wife. I remark that if I had known the baby was coming, I would have cleaned the floors, run a bath, made some food.

“When was the last time I bathed her?” I ask, though her head smells sweet and clean. Nobody answers.

She reaches for me and I fumble with my shirt. I’m unprepared, awkward. I look to my sister for advice, but she shakes her head and smiles. While the baby nurses, I look out the window at a composite of Georgia O’Keefe’s 1920s skyscrapers. They gleam silver against the velvet night. Giant windup toy monsters stalk the spaces between [the paintings the towers]. They are genial monsters despite their occasional exhalations of sparks. No buildings are stomped.

My dream baby grows older except when she grows younger. She is sometimes a toddler, except when she’s not. She has left home twice, but each time returned to be a baby the next night. I greet her with relief. I am always surprised to see her. For the first moment, I always wonder that she is mine, even as I know it is true. I try to remember giving birth, but that’s not part of [the plan the dream]. She is always here. She was always here. She is [fourteen eighteen one day] old.

I look online, using the search terms “dream symbolism” and “infants.” The results scroll past. Dreams of great earth changes, the divine child, responsibility, innocence. I dismiss most of it, but one link catches my eye: a bulletin board comment asking for other people who have had extended, repeating, real-feeling dreams of a baby. I click, scroll through the responses. There are hundreds. I don’t read them. I don’t want to find out if I share her. I don’t want to share her.

The third time she leaves home, she leaves for good. For the first time in a year I sleep without dreams. Waking is easier, bedtime is sadder. I miss her. I find the website with the dream babies again. There’s a follow-up post by the same woman, and I read it this time. She is no longer having the dream, either. Two hundred and seventy-two others report the same thing. I should add my voice to theirs, but I don’t want to share the loss any more than I wanted to share my child.

When the babies come back, they all return at once. I recognize mine when I see her on the news. They come out of the ocean, our dream children, naked and beautiful, all different ages. They appear on the rocks off southern California with the sea lions. I would know mine anywhere, even through the television. Her hair is chestnut, like mine. She looks to be eight years old. I remember all the times she was eight in my dreams. The year she broke her arm, the year we made chocolate chip cookies and let the wind-up monsters bake them with their breath. She has freckles and skin that browns quickly in the California sun.

I want to book a flight, but Taya refuses. “It’s too weird. And we can’t afford it.”

“The other parents are gathering, though. They’re flying in from all over the world. What if she needs me?” I ask. “What if she needs me and I’m not there?”

Taya shakes her head and scratches at a stain on her green scrub pants. “I’m trying to understand, Jo.” I know she’s trying. I see the worry in her eyes. I book the flight anyway, maxing out our credit card for a same day ticket. It’s irresponsible. I shouldn’t do it. I don’t even say goodbye.

I’m not the only one. There are other dreamers at the airport. We’re all easy to spot. The security lines loop back on themselves as the agents pull us aside for intrusive searches. We look too vacant, too gone. None of us have luggage. We accept the pat downs without complaint. We watch out the airplane windows, no books or tablets or crosswords in our hands. We’re the ones with our faces in the clouds, clouds in our faces.

We take cabs from the airport in Los Angeles, grouping in twos and threes and fours, telling the confused cab drivers to drop us by the ocean, by the niños del mar. Emphasizing niños, niños. They drop us at the beaches and piers, at the rocky cliff tops. Surfers stare at us with idle curiosity. We only see the figures off the shore.

My boss calls to ask whether I’m sick. I mean to lie, say yes, but what comes out is, “I had to leave town.”

She tells me not to bother coming back. I should mind, but I don’t.

We wait. It’s June, and the evening is crisp but not cool. The air smells like salt. We search our bags and pockets for airline peanuts, for apples and protein bars and whatever we stashed on our way out the door. Concerned locals bring us pizzas and bottled water. We eat with our eyes on the sea, even in the fading light.

The sunset reminds me for a moment that I have never before seen the Pacific, never seen this particular sinking sun. I feel a pang of guilt that I’m watching this without Taya. The children on the rocks are lit from behind, then fall into shadow. The sunset takes them from us afresh.

We tell each other stories about our dream children. They are different and the same. None of us have children of our own outside of dreaming. Those with families always report that our families appear in the dreams. I’m the only one with Georgia O’Keeffe skylines, the only one with windup monsters. Others have Chagalls and Rothkos and that overdramatic painter of light; they have Donkey Kong and Space Invaders and Loony Tunes characters.

“Like Mad Libs,” someone says. “We each fill in the blanks differently.”

It’s easy to poke at the other aspects of the dreams. Nobody pokes at the parts about the children. I don’t know how many others are doing the math that I am doing in my head. There are far more parents on this beach than there are children on the rocks. Does that mean some of us share? Are we all even seeing the same thing? We don’t ask those questions.

A group of reporters camps near us, their vans circled like covered wagons, their giant antennae piercing the sky. Occasionally one approaches us, but we don’t speak to them. It takes just a few minutes to discover the one who tries to infiltrate our group. Her details are wrong. She refers to “the baby,” not “my baby.” Her eyes aren’t haunted. When we ask her to leave, she smirks. I guess that she recorded us, and I wonder what she captured.

A woman arrives on foot. It’s unclear where she walked from, but her face blisters with sunburn. Heat radiates from her skin, even this long after nightfall. We lay her on the cool sand and pour a slow trickle of water into her cracked lips.

“Do you need a doctor? Medico?” Someone asks.

She shakes her head and points toward the dark sea. “Mijo.”

She is one of us.

• • • •

I sleep dreamless on the damp sand. I’m wakened by a familiar hand, a familiar voice. I curl into Taya for a moment before I realize where I am.

“What are you doing here?” My throat is scratchy and sore from sleeping outdoors.

“I could ask you the same fucking thing.”

I hear the betrayal in her voice. Ordinarily, I would hate to be the cause of that hurt.

“How did you get here?” I ask.

“I sold the car to pay for a ticket. We’ll have to figure that out when we get back. Come on, babe. Let’s go get breakfast or something.” She holds out her hand to help me stand.

I shake my head. “I can’t go anywhere. Not without her.”

She rocks back on her heels.

“I would leave if I could, Tay. But I need to be here when they —”

“When they what? You’re acting crazy. What are we doing here?”

I wrap my arms around my knees and look out at the ocean. The children sit on the rocks, watching us. She’s right, but it doesn’t matter. I ought to leave. I can’t leave. I still can’t explain.

She sits down next to me. “Okay, if you’re staying, I’m staying, too. We’re both going to get fired, but we’ve got no way to get home and no way to get to work, so we’re screwed either way. But you’re still with me, yeah?”

“Yeah,” I say. I don’t tell her I’ve already been fired. I know I should put an arm around her, but I don’t. I’m glad she’s here, but I wish she wasn’t.

The others stir and turn to face the water, to check that they are still out there.

“They’re talking about you on the news, you know.” Taya doesn’t look at me when she speaks. Her eyes are on the children, as ours are.

“Me? What are they saying?”

“Not you specifically. All of you. They’re calling it ‘mass hallucination.’”

“Hallucination? But they can see them too, right? Our babies were on TV.”

She winces when I say “our babies,” and doesn’t speak for a moment. When she does, her words are carefully chosen. “We see them. But nobody but you claims to recognize them. They’ve been taking photos of them since they showed up, comparing the photos to databases, missing persons, driver’s licenses. None of them are anybody.”

“Of course they’re not,” says the man sitting on Taya’s other side. I had spoken with him the previous evening; he had flown down from Vancouver. Mark somebody. “Why would they match your databases? They aren’t lost. We’ve been waiting for them to find us again.”

Taya sneaks me a look of “this guy is nuts.” How many times has it been me and her against the rest of the world? I know it hurts her when I take his side. If he’s crazy, I am, too. I don’t feel crazy. “What else are they saying, Tay?”

“There are only about two hundred and fifty children out there. There are more than three hundred of you on the shore, and more still arriving. There are people at airports all over the world screaming that they need to get over here, but a lot of them don’t have visas, or any way to pay for tickets. Some of us are throwing off the count, though. Me, I mean. For example.”

Mark doesn’t mince words. “Why don’t you leave, then? We don’t need you here.”

“I’m glad she’s here. I’m glad you’re here.” I direct the second one at her.

“So she can call us all crazy? There aren’t enough people doing that.” I guess he caught her “crazy” look at me a moment before.

“Maybe so she can explain that we’re not.”

He stands up in pretext of a stretch, then moves away.

“Asshole,” I say. Taya smiles.

• • • •

A few more of us arrive, from much farther away. One woman came from Namibia via Johannesburg, Dakar, Amsterdam, New York. She braces in the sand as if she’s still on an airplane. Others from Belize, Iceland, Sri Lanka. Some of the wealthier among us have arranged for food and water to be brought to us. I’m grateful. The sight of food reminds me to eat, but I’m not hungry. The children on the rocks haven’t eaten. They look happy.

• • • •

Taya leaves after three days. “I love you,” she says. “I love you and I’m worried about you. I would stay, but we can’t afford for me to lose my job, too. And I think this is something you need to finish for yourself.”

I kiss her. I want her to stay, but not as much as I want her to leave.

“I love you, too. I’ll see you soon,” I tell her. She turns away with tears in her eyes. Things we don’t mention: I have no return ticket; I have no money for a return ticket; I am waiting for my dream baby; I don’t know what happens next.

After she leaves, I find a note from her in my pocket. It reads:

  1. The California ground squirrel disguises its own scent by chewing the discarded skins of the rattlesnakes that would kill it, then licking itself and its pups.
  2. The cuckoo is a brood parasite. It lays its eggs in the nests of other birds, leaving them to do the hard work of raising the chicks.
  3. I do not consider myself an unreasonable person. I make rational decisions in my every day life. You do, too. We make reasonable, rational decisions together. Come back soon. Please. I miss you.

I fold the note up and put it back where I found it.

• • • •

We are there for a full week before the children finally leave the rocks. Our numbers have dwindled by then, but only somewhat. A couple of people have been dragged away forcibly. Others have been persuaded by their loved ones to return home. They don’t go willingly, but they go. I wonder what the rest of their lives will be like: if they will always wonder if they had stayed. I guess that depends on what happens next.

What happens next is the children dive into the water. We track their progress with whispered pleas, under breath. I am taken in.

“Come on,” we call to them. “We miss you.”

I realize my child doesn’t have a name. It’s the first thing that gives me pause in any of this. How am I here, in California, calling to somebody I am so sure is my own child, but I can’t say her name? I think she had one. She may have had many. It bothers me how I can’t remember.

Memories of my baby’s childhood flood through me. Her third birthday party, with the cake shaped like a rabbit; she refused to let me cut it. Her school play, where she played a queen and wouldn’t take off the crown for a week afterward. Looking for shapes in the perfect O’Keeffe clouds. I wonder how these memories will reconcile with the girl swimming toward me now. Will she be eight for me again? Did those things happen, or are they yet to happen? I don’t even know if she’ll recognize me.

I put my hand in my pocket and feel the folded note. I’m not sure what Taya meant, not sure if I’m the squirrel, the snake, the cuckoo, the other bird. I want to go back to the minute before I had that thought. I try to picture how she’ll fold into our life back home. How will Taya treat her? What will they be to each other? We don’t even have a second bedroom. None of this was thought through. None of it was meant for thinking.

They’re getting closer. They’re so beautiful.

I realize I never taught her to swim. They swim like Olympians, like fish, like creatures of the ocean, like they have always been swimming and have never stopped swimming. I’m scared now. She’s so beautiful, and she’s reached the shore, and she’s inescapably mine.

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Sarah Pinsker

Sarah Pinsker photo by Bill Hughes

Sarah Pinsker is the author of the novelette In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind, winner of the 2014 Sturgeon Award and 2013 Nebula Award finalist, and 2014 Nebula finalist, A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide. Her fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Lightspeed, and in anthologies including Long HiddenFierce Family, and The Future Embodied. She is also a singer/songwriter and has toured nationally behind three albums; a fourth is forthcoming. In the best of all timelines, she lives with her wife and dog in Baltimore, Maryland. She can be found online at sarahpinsker.com and on Twitter @sarahpinsker.