I blinked but saw only darkness. The space before my eyes was so opaque that I felt blinded. Fear mounted rapidly inside my chest, as if in attempt to smother my heart in the face of the unknown.
It’s only a dream. I told myself. I’m safe.
Just as I regained my composure, the strong stench of rotting garbage reached my nostrils. As I stumbled away from it, I felt a hard, gritty surface beneath the soles of my shoes.
Where am I?
My eyes registered a flicker of light that resembled a candle dancing in the wind. I squinted into the obscure abyss at fleeting illumination, and my pupils slowly adjusted. Finally, after a moment or two, I could see.
I stood on a narrow sidewalk in a dank, urban alley that I had never seen before. In one direction, a rusty dumpster sat next to a failing street light. In the other, posed the figure of a man. He stood on a curb about twenty feet away from me. I could just make out his general features from his locale on the shadowy fringes.
The fairly tall and slightly brawny man had a thick beard and long, neat dreadlocks. His stance exuded the air of someone who had once been great: head held high, chin up, chest out, and shoulders broad, but his stomach hung unflatteringly over the waistband of his pants. His glory days had long since been over.
He searched and waited for someone to arrive or something to happen. His movements constant, he checked his cell phone often. The phone illuminated his face and upper torso with an eerie, pale-white glow.
He wore a Miami Dolphins jersey over a black, long-sleeved shirt. The logo on the neck of the jersey twinkled in the radiance of the small device. His dark pants draped loosely over his long legs. His shoes stood out, impeccably white.
The dead of winter in South Florida could still be considered warm to some, but the chilly air caressed my neck like cold, unwanted fingers. I shuttered.
The male stranger looked towards me. For a moment, I thought I recognized him. An old acquaintance, maybe? I could not be sure, though something about this man made my heart ache.
He kind of looks like my ex —- but, no! That’s impossible!
I inched ever closer, careful not to walk into the cone of artificial light between him and me. I think I know that face. I sped up. If I can just get a little…
I lost my footing and stepped clumsily off the curb. To my surprise, I felt pain in my right ankle. He looked up suddenly as if someone had shouted his name.
“Who’s there?” he growled.
I froze where I stood, sure that he had spotted me. His head turned back and forth in my direction. Only ten feet away from him now, I dared not move.
Logically, he should not have missed me, even in that dimly lit area inside my dream.
In a desperate attempt to save face, I waved at him. At first, it was just a timid motion. After that received no response, I waved a little more. Nothing. I lifted both hands over my head and flailed them around as if hailing a taxi. He did not respond.
I’m invisible to him.
Even so, I did not step any closer. Whatever had caught his attention must have been a dreadful figment of his imagination. Undoubtedly, waiting restlessly in a dimly-lit, foul-smelling alley on a cool winter night is rocket fuel for the imagination.
He relaxed and checked his cell phone again, momentarily illuminated. I noticed a dark metallic object clenched in the hand closest to me. A black handgun.
Though it seemed an appropriate tool for his current situation, I did not like firearms. I stepped back hesitantly.
I realized I was not breathing when I gasped for air. I covered my mouth roughly, my hands slick with sweat. I both feared and hated guns. I was even more afraid of armed civilians.
I’m not really in danger, I reminded myself, I’m at home in bed, safe and sound. I could feel my heart beating wildly, thumping against the enlarged knot in my throat. My teeth were clenched and my lips pursed.
A howling wind swept through the alley, chilling the ambient air and rattling a nearby metal shutter. My heart pounded louder and louder in my ears until I could hear nothing else.
He is sure to hear it too and shoot me just to make it stop. He cannot see me, but maybe he can hear me, I reasoned.
I flattened myself against the brick wall abutting the sidewalk, and hoped to disappear within its cracks.
Wake up, Kaya, wake up! I screamed internally, staring straight ahead.
The corner of my right eye registered a flash of white. In the general obscurity of my surroundings, the white flicker had been like a pebble thrown into a serene lake.
I turned my head towards the source of the disturbance, but there was nothing there besides the old, smelly dumpster. Beyond its putrid stench, I knew that it had been there all along, undisturbed.
I looked back at the unidentified, armed man. Though he had been, until that moment, seemingly anxious, he was now on full alert. He too had noticed the glint of white. His gaze was fixed upon the dumpster with great anticipation, as was his gun.
Nervously, I too returned my attention to the garbage bin.
For what seemed like five whole minutes, he and I stared at the green hunk of metal labeled, Miami Waste Management. He did not lower his gun, nor did he utter a single word.
This is what he’s been waiting for, I suspected. But why?
Neither of us dared to do more than breathe as we watched and waited for something to happen. Nothing did.
I began to wonder if it had it all been an illusion. A piece of paper afloat in the breeze.
He must have been thinking the same thing because he slowly lowered his arms. About halfway down they fell limply to his side in a gesture of defeat. He dropped his head to the ground as if questioning himself.
At that moment, she struck.
A slender woman in all-white emerged from behind the dumpster like a bolt of lightning. Her long, jet black hair whipped behind her like a pirate flag. Her yellow-toned skin was eerily incandescent, brighter than the few stars visible above. Even as a blur, she was both terrifying and beautiful. Her face adorned with a demented smile, she exuded all the qualities of one plucked from someone’s dark, twisted fantasy.
She took no notice of me as she bolted towards her unsuspecting quarry, too fast to be real.
His gaze was still on the pavement below and it seemed that he had closed his eyes as well. I hoped that he was praying, because he was going to need it.
Look out! I screamed mentally, because I did not dare say it aloud.
His head popped up as if he had actually heard me, but it was too late. Before he could do anything more than freeze in alarm, she leap towards him. I remained frozen and silent.
I was not sure if I should do anything. Who is the real victim here?
In retrospect, it was clear that the woman hunted the man. Their bodies melded together upon impact with a deafening pop. Even as she mounted his torso, neither of us knew to what end. The man’s spine cracked as her swift advancement took him into a deep back-bend. Man and attacker fell onto the ground as one, the victor abundantly clear.
An alloy of predator and prey, they had collapsed in a heap upon the pavement. Though the woman could not have been much heavier than a fully grown greyhound, the man seemed quite unable to pry her off of him. She was like a tsunami, unshakable and engulfing.
The abandoned smart phone lay face-up on the ground near the man’s head, its glow cast on the ghastly scene. She grabbed the sides of his face and pulled his lips squarely to hers, their mouths now seamless.
I watched in horror as the man kicked and writhed, silent but obviously in pain. A passerby may have mistaken them for lovers, but I knew better.
The black handgun had fallen just next to the struggling pair, close to where I stood motionless. Ten seconds or so into the battle (though truthfully it was more of a slaughter) I could see the man reach in vain desperation for the weapon. It was his last hope.
I had the urge to go over and kick it to him, to help him in any way that I could, but I was transfixed by the terror I witnessed. I knew that if I moved, I would be killed just as quickly.
My dream had morphed into a nightmare.
I could hear the scrapping of metal on concrete as the man groped the ground in an attempt to coax the weapon towards him. The gun did not seem to get any closer to his hand nor his hand to the gun.
The alley became quiet again. His entire body ceased to move. I did not need to check his pulse to know that he was dead. Death was in the air, as distinctive as the breath of winter.
The assailant, in her pure, white jumpsuit, looked down at the man she had just murdered, almost as if seeing him for the first time. She tilted her head sideways, observing his face. She picked up his head with one hand as she ran her other hand over his chest. She held him tenderly for a moment.
Is she just realizing what she’s done? How could she not have known she was killing him?
Finally, she rose to her feet, her deed done. Upon release, the man’s head hit the ground with a dull thud, cushioned by his hair. His cheek hit the pavement. The devilish woman in white sauntered away towards the main street, disappearing around the corner of the building I still clung to desperately.
The man’s face was turned in my direction.
By the light of the phone, I could see that some of his dreadlocks lay across his face, shielding his eyes from the world he could no longer see.
Hot tears ran down my cheeks. It all seemed so real.
I turned away from him, unable to accept his fate and unwilling to see the look of horror that was now permanently etched on his face. The backlight of the cell phone finally timed out and darkness ruled once again.
The sky shown in an amalgamation of hues. The sun had not yet fully risen from the East. From zenith to horizon, it transitioned from indigo to purple to pink then orange, a heavenly watercolor for the world to witness as a testament to the beauty of Earth.
The ambient air had already begun to warm and thicken as the sunlight pushed the chill of the night gently away.
On my porch, bundled in a blanket around my flannel pajamas, I listened to the sounds of the early morning symphony as it rose in succession with the sun. Though my ears were full of various noises, my mind was preoccupied with images from last night’s bizarre nightmare.
Who could the victim have been?
I don’t personally know any men with dreadlocks, I thought, still preoccupied with the identity of the man whom I felt I knew even now that I was awake. The images would not leave my head even as I urged myself to forget them.
To the west, traffic roared like an assembly of mistuned and off-beat instruments. In my mind, I saw the stately man as he stood on the corner, soon to be attacked by the inhumanly strong woman.
To the east, a train progressed squeakily on its tracks as if dissatisfied with its duties. Mentally, I pictured the female assailant as she stood behind the dumpster, prepared to pounce.
Directly to the south, my neighbor’s rooster crowed irritably as if in protest of all the noise. In thought, I re-imagined the beautiful blur streak past me, a savage grin on her face.
Just behind me, my son’s neglected alarm clock whined despondently from his bedside table. In the forefront of my subconscious, the man’s body lay limp on the concrete completely void of life.
I blinked back tears as I turned my face back to the east and watched the sun ascended majestically into the heavens. I welcomed each progressive beam of sunlight that crept upon my porch, bathing my numb face in warmth and comfort.
This is the real world, I told myself. The nightmare was over. I had nothing to be afraid of now.
“Fear nothing, question everything.” These words were written to me in a letter from my late father, Diego Quchen Jerito. The letter and the memories of others comprised all I had left of him.
I gazed down to the empty chair on my left and smiled serenely to myself. As my mother described, that had been my father’s favorite seat from which to watch the world unfold before him for hours at a time. Whenever I lounged away on the porch, particularly early in the morning, I could not help but think of my father and his seemingly infinite wisdom.
Most of my father’s memories were preserved by my mother. Other input came from neighbors, family members, and family friends. A few times in my life, I had learned about my father from pure strangers or professional acquaintances.
My father had been kind, generous, humble, and wise. He had come to the United States from Southern Mexico alone at the tender age of seventeen. He had searched for a place to call his own and start anew.
“The American Dream is the infamous and incessant journey for the pursuit of happiness,” he so endearingly explained to my mother when they first met. She always smiled when she told that story even though his pursuit had been more difficult than he had expected.
As an Afro-Mexican immigrant, he has been subject to ridicule, racism, and prejudice from potential employers, other workers, strangers, and officers of the law both in his native country and in the United States.
Thankfully, none of these tribulations succeeded in his ruin because he passed away as a successful small business owner. His company, Jerito’s Jewels, restored and dealt in antiques and rare artifacts. My mother was still the largest shareholder, but she did not participate in the company’s day-to-day business.
My nostalgic trance was broken as a car horn blared followed by an ominous crash about two hundred yards away on Le Jeune Road, a main thoroughfare.
Even my neighbor’s rooster momentarily stopped his nagging. The relative silence was unsettling.
I leaped from my chair on the porch and raced South towards Le Jeune Road. Upon arrival to the scene, I saw the front end of a red sports car shoved neatly beneath a navy blue pickup. Both drivers were outside of their vehicles having a heated conversation about who was to blame. There were no signs of blood, physical injuries, or mental confusion on either of them.
I turned my back on them both and headed home. I was a neurologist, not a lawyer.
Before my world view changed, I served as Chief of the Neurocritical Care Division at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida as well as Associate Professor of Clinical Neurology at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. I specialized in neurotrama and traumatic brain injuries. These duties brought meaning into my life beyond my obvious obligations as a single mother and daughter.
I opened the front gate and followed the marble pavers leading to the front door of my house. Though I was sure that the two crash victims would be fine, I knew there were others out there who were not so lucky. Work was now on the forefront of my mind as I thought about whom I needed to text, instant message, call or email once I got to the office.
Back inside the house, I could hear my mother as she hummed melodically and clanked pots and pans around in the kitchen.
JJ’s alarm clock was no longer whining and I was sure my mother had finally gotten him up. I could hear the sound of the shower running down the hall.
I put more energy in my stride. If my mother was awake and JJ was showering, that meant that I had about twenty minutes to get ready myself before breakfast was served.
“Good morning, Mamí,” I said as I walked into the living room towards the kitchen.
“Mornin’, Sweetie,” she answered warmly, her Southern accent just noticeable. She was holding a mixing bowl and a spatula, vigorously stirring biscuit batter. “Where did you go just now?”
“I just heard a pretty bad crash in the direction of Le Jeune Road and went to investigate.”
“That’s what I thought,” she said nonchalantly. “Well, I called the police already and said a prayer for those involved.”
“Good.” I proceed to walk past her.
“How did you sleep?” She asked cutting me off, still mixing the batter.
“Fine,” I lied.
She stopped stirring. “You must think I’m dull.” Her tone had become low and sharp. It was less of an accusation and more of a threat. “I was born at night, but it wasn’t last night.”
“No ma’am, of course not.” I looked down with shame. I had never been successful at lying to my mother.
“I didn’t think so.” Her demeanor softened. “Besides, you only sit out on the porch in the early morning when something’s the matter. Tell Mamí what’s bothering you.”
She set down the mixing bowl and walked closer to where I stood, still holding the spatula.
“It was a dream I had.” I decided to downplay the nightmare aspect. I did not want to alarm her.
My mother took dreams deathly serious sometimes. I did not wish to continue the discussion, but she broke the silence, somewhat impatient with my reluctance to expound.
“Well, what happened?”
I could feel my brow furrow as I pulled the memory of the nightmare from my subconscious where I had intended to lose it. “There was a man standing on a corner waiting for something or someone in the middle of a dark alley.”
“Darn night owls…” That was a term my mother used to describe people that tended to operate after sunset.
“Yeah, well this ‘night owl’ was taken down by a hundred-pound woman.”
“Curious.” She narrowed her eyes and rubbed her chin with her free hand.
“Mamí, don’t worry about the dream. I’m sure it was nothing.” I took a few more steps towards my bedroom.
“Let you tell it,” she conceded. I knew better than to believe that we would not revisit the topic at a later date. She was only hitting the pause button.
I could hear my cell phone ringing from my bedroom in the back of the house. I recognized the ringtone as the hospital’s call-in app, only to be used for emergencies. I had completely forgotten to take the phone outside with me. How long has it been ringing?
“Dang it!” I hissed.
I needed to leave as soon as possible, but I still had to shower, get dressed, eat, and take JJ to school.
I cursed every step of the way as I jogged to my room, careful not let the foul words escape my mouth. My mother did not condone profanity, not even from other adults.
Who knew what horrors awaited me at work.
When I finally reached my cell, I silenced the alarm and opened the app. The message read, “Please hurry. A dozen deaths and counting. – Nurse James”.