From A Fifth of Luna City: Baby Dreams

Midnight, and Jess dreams.

She dreams of a hot dry desert, a desert where the winds blow dust as fine as talcum powder. But overhead, the sky is harsh and blue, and the world around here is the color of dust. Dusty green, dusty brown, dusty beige, dust without any color at all. Dust the color of tents, of motor vehicles, veiling the uniforms that they all wear, smudging their faces. He wears goggles over his eyes, stepping down from a Marine hummvee, shoving them up to his forehead as he does, the grin across his face making a cheerful boyish mockery of the strapped-on body armor, weapons and helmet which add to the male bulk of him.

“Jessie, darlin’!” he says in her dream, the quicksilver grin from ear to ear. The guy that she has loved since they were both eleven, the two of them horse-mad and given freedom of the Wyler stables and paddocks. “Fancy meeting you here, in the garden spot of the near east. We gonna go dancing tonight, or should we just sent out for pizza and watch an old movie?”

“Jamie, you nutcase,” she exclaims, wishing that they could embrace and kiss exuberantly – but they cannot, as there is a war on, they are both in uniform and there are people around, most of them male and of much higher military rank than Jess the reservist. He kisses her anyway, a brotherly peck on the cheek, and she whispers, “How long can you stay?”

“Just long enough to top up,” he answers. “MarDiv’s on the move. Can’t say anything more, even if I did know. Op-sec.”

“Of course,” she says – her heart sinking within her, but her voice as calm, stoic as a Spartan woman. “Be careful out there, Jamie.”

“Always,” he answers, but he simmers with suppressed excitement. She casts around for something to say, some brief gesture to make. “I got a care package from home last night – Pops sent me some Moon Pies that didn’t get too much melted. You wanna take some with you?”

“Whatever you can spare,” His eyes gleam with anticipation. Moon Pies are his favorite sweet. The first summer that Jamie spent at the Wyler Ranch, it was their special excursion to ride out to the Tip Top Icehouse, Gas & Grocery to buy Moon Pies with their allowance money, and to eat them by the riverbank, dangling bare feet in the cool river, while he tried to frighten her by telling long-ago stories of the scar-faced tramp who lived out in the woods below the old Sheffield place.

“Wait right here,” she commands him; Jamie grins again.

“Yes, ma-am!”

She runs to the quarters that she shares with the other Air Force woman officers; spartan but more comfortable than a shelter-half over a slit-trench. But when she returns with half a dozen Moon Pies, Jamie is not where she left him; a moment of panic – where did he go? Oh, there – already back in the vehicle, leaning out the driver-side window, waving to her.

She passes the Moon Pies up to him; the engine already turning over, no time, no time, only a hasty word of thanks from him, she forms the words “I love you” with her lips, and then the line of drab-tan vehicles rumbles away, sending up another cloud of dust, and they are gone, anonymous in the featureless desert.

 

That was the last time she ever saw Jamie, in anything but dreams and memories. The air conditioner unit is an older one, and when it clicks on it does so with a wheeze and a rush of cooler air. This wakes Jess, or brings her up to the edge of wakefulness. The summer in South Texas is as hot as always; Jess and Joe both sleep best in a cooler room, and so the air conditioner runs all night. Her hands feel numb, and her wrists ache a little; a weird side-effect of pregnancy. She rolls over and settles in to sleep again. Joe’s arm goes around her, in that new position; an automatic gesture, for he is soundly asleep.

 

In the small hours of the morning, Jess dreams again.

 

In that new dream, she is eleven years old; it is her birthday and Pops – widowed and grieving the loss of Jessica’s mother not two months before – has promised her a special birthday present. Jess swings her feet as she sits at the breakfast table, wondering what the present can be, since it was not wrapped in paper and tied with ribbons, like the gifts from her grandparents.

“Tell me, Pops!” she begs again, and Martin Abernathy smiles, teasing her in a way that had been in abeyance for months, all the time that her mother was so sick.

“Can’t tell you, Jessy-bell. It would ruin the surprise. I will tell you one thing, though … it’s bigger than a bread-box!”

“Pops! That’s no fair! What is it?”

“A surprise,” Martin says, and Jess pouts a little.

“Pops, you can be so provoking!” she exclaims. That is a word she heard her mother say, now and again. Jess knows what it means, but has never actually said until now. Martin’s amusement dims, just a little, like a candle flickers in a sudden gust of wind.

“Part of my happy inconsequent charm, Jessy-bell,” he replies. Jess is not quite certain what ‘inconsequent’ means, although she knows the other words. She would question her father more, but for the sound of a large pickup truck, bumping down the long gravel drive past the house. The house where Martin and Beth set up housekeeping is on the edge of Luna City, in a small post-war bungalow built on a large lot with a corral and a large shed at the back – a shed divided into disused horse stalls, where Martin keeps the gas lawnmower, and Jess the bicycle that she rides to school, where she must wear thick glasses to do school work and the other children tease her by calling her “Jessie Four-Eyes.”

The truck tows a horse trailer; both trailer and truck adorned with the logo of the Wyler Lazy-W exotic game ranch. Everyone in Luna City knows the Wyler brand, and knows Doc Wyler by sight. Jess is no exception; he is an important man, even aside from being the veterinarian. And why should Doc Wyler be driving around to the back of the Abernathy house? They don’t have any pets. Jess does not know the boy with him, who climbs down from the passenger side of the truck and stands looking at Jess, standing on the back-door stoop. The boy is her age; wiry and with a grin that lights up his face. If he were from Luna City, she would know him, and if he is the same age, they would be in the same grade at school. It is a puzzle; Jess cannot resist questions and puzzle-solving.

“You best come and meet your birthday present, Jessy-bell,” Martin comes up behind her, resting his hands on her shoulders. At first, Jess does not comprehend. What present? But Doc Wyler is opening the back of the horse trailer and leading out the horse in it by the halter, with many soothing words. The horse is a chestnut quarter horse with a white blaze on it’s nose, small even for a quarter horse; a young gelding who dips his muzzle into Jess’s hands and blows out an alfalfa-scented gust into her shirt-front.

“Here you go, young lady,” Doc Wyler gives the halter-end to Jess. “His name is Stinker, on account of having been painfully surprised by a skunk when he was a colt, but I reckon you can call him anything you like. He was sired by a champion cutting horse, his mama was showed by my daughter Pamela in dressage events, but he growed up a mite dwarfish, so your father thought he’d be a perfect horse for you.”

“Mine?” Jess couldn’t comprehend at first. A whole horse, a real horse of her own? Only twice in her later life was Jess Abernathy rendered completely speechless. At last, she finds words. “Oh, Pops – he’s beautiful! And mine, really all mine?”

“Yes indeed, Jessy-bell – all yours.” Martin squeezed her shoulders in reassurance. “Your …” his voice broke, just for a second. “… Mama said that you should have one, when you were old enough. I reckon that you are, this very day. He’ll live here; out at the back – but you have to take responsibility for him. You must ride him every day. Give him a good brushing, make certain that he has good feed, is watered every day, put away in the shed at night …

“We brought along one of Pam’s old saddles,” Doc Wyler was saying. “Should serve well enough. Jamie, you want to get it from the truck? You haven’t met my grandson, have you? Pam’s son. He’s going to spend the summer with us. Jamie, this is Jess and Martin Abernathy. Martin and his folks keep the hardware store on the Square.”

“James Wyler, Junior,” the boy put out his hand and shook Jess’. “But mostly, I’m Jamie. Pleased to meet you, miss. Mr. Abernathy.” His grip is firm, adult, his gaze direct.

“Hi…” Jess is at a complete loss and stares at the ground. She likes boys as friends, but this one is a stranger. But she begins to like this one, when he offers to help saddle Stinker. And she likes him even more, when he promises to come over the following day on his own horse. And he doesn’t know any of the other kids their age, since he is only visiting for the summer. Jess barely notices the satisfied look that Martin and Doc Wyler exchange over their heads.

 

Jamie spends every summer at the Wyler Ranch, until he drops out of college in the second week of September, 2001, and enlists in the Marines.

 

 

The bladder complained. Jess sighed and slid out from the bed, from under the embrace of her husband and the tangle of bedclothes, obeying the call of nature. The bedroom was comfortably cool. That being done, she crept back into bed, curling herself spoon-fashion against the bulwark that was always and forever Joe.

 

Jess dreams some more.  She has been living in Arlington for three years and working as a traveling CPA.

 

She has just completed a demanding temporary job in Corpus Christi, another starting in San Antonio – and a too-brief weekend at home in Luna City between them. A good reason to rush, in the little yellow Wrangler with two suitcases, her laptop carrier and her briefcase thrown into the back seat. Oh, to be at home for a couple of days in the spring, when the fields around Luna City are ablaze with yellow and red Mexican hat, purple field verbena and blue and white buffalo clover, which everyone calls bluebonnets, and esperanza splashes flaming yellow in all the hedges … and that is flaming yellow, red, and blue lights on Route 123. Jess, absent-minded and thinking of nothing but home – after months away, sorting out other people’s financial woes – does not think at first that she is the driver at fault.

Until the police car flashes headlights emphatically at her. And she is the only driver on 123 at that moment. Jess is a law-abiding person – as a licensed CPA, she can be nothing less, not without escaping severe penalties. She signals an obedient right turn, comes to rest on the shoulder, half on grass and half on asphalt. The police cruiser rests in similar position behind her. Jess waits, heart hammering with apprehension. The economic penalty she can easily cover, the absolute humiliation of a traffic ticket within a few miles of Luna City is … humiliating.

The cop gets out of his car, Jess observing in the rear-view window; he is tall, muscular, well-built, walking with an Alpha-male swagger; she estimates his age as in the late thirties, and approves – setting aside all other considerations. A nice bit of man-flesh, all told. Clean-cut, not run to seed in the least. Mirrored sunglasses hide his eyes, as he approaches her Wrangler. Jess sighs and rolls down the window.

“Good morning, ma’am. Do you know how that you were going?”

“Well, over the speed limit, obviously officer … or you wouldn’t have pulled me over.” Even in dreams, Jess has a smart mouth. The officer sighs – a bit on the theatrical side, Jess thinks. She also thinks that he looks familiar, somehow. He has sergeant’s stripes on his sleeves, and the name-plate on his tan uniform shirt is a clue. “Vaughn.”

“I know you!” she exclaims. “Joe Vaughn – you were the quarterback with the Moths, when I was a freshman in high school.”

“Yes, ma’am; varsity, in my senior year. May I see your identification, please?”

Jess sighs, resigned, and reaches into the enormous hand-bag/briefcase which serves her as both. It’s been fifteen years and a lot of water under the bridge, but no one could forget Joe Vaughn, high school hero – and besides, he took Jamie’s older cousin Patricia to the prom. The all-American golden couple, back then. He probably believes that I’m trying to charm him out of issuing a ticket, Jess thinks, as she hands him her drivers’ license.

He takes off his mirrored sunglasses to look at it more closely, and exclaims, “Hey – Now I remember; you’re little Jessie Four-Eyes! Used to hang out with Pat’s cousin Jamie all the time. Gotta admit I like the improvement; makes all the difference in the world.”

“Lasik surgery,” Jess winces. That nick was something she had managed to bury, along with all the usual adolescent humiliations heaped on the plain but clever of the female of the species. Still, she is not immune to male admiration, especially from one who had been well out of her reach, back then.

“So, what have you been doing with yourself since then?” Joe is still holding her drivers’ license; Jess doesn’t quite have the nerve to take it back from him.

“This and that,” Jess replies. “The usual; college, a turn through ROTC and the Reserves, now I’m working for the Manfred Group out of Arlington, but I hope to set up my own office in a couple of years. Too much time on the road. Sorry – I guess I do have a bit of a lead foot. I’m home for this weekend. I didn’t know that you were back in Luna City – I thought you were still in the Army.”

“Was,” Joe finally returns the drivers’ license. “Short version is that I blew out my right knee, the other isn’t in much better shape. The Big Green machine called it a disability and wouldn’t allow me to reenlist, so I hired on with the Luna City PD once I was home. So … you’re gonna be home this weekend. You wanna meet for a burger or something?”

“That would be nice,” Jess is flattered. For the big man around the high school campus, the teenaged Joe Vaughn wasn’t nearly as much the insufferable asshole that he could have been. And he is improved now in a good way, and Jess approves wholly. Now he is scribbling in his notebook. Reading upside down, she realizes with mild dismay that it is the ticket book.

“I still gotta write you a ticket,” he confesses, with a touch of embarrassment. “You were going 85 and the limit on this stretch is 70. I can’t be … well, making exceptions. For anyone. Matter of principle with me, I guess. But that’s my cellphone number. I’m living in my grandparents’ old house on Oak Lane. Your pop has the number for the dispatcher; they can get ahold of me any time, if your still serious about that burger.” Joe seems a little apprehensive – as if he thinks she isn’t interested at best and despises him at worst, for just doing his job without fear or favor.

“Or something,” Jess accepts the ticket with mixed feelings and a smile.

“You can pay it at the city offices during the week,” Joe says, kindly. “Or go online anytime. See you … um, Saturday work for you.”

“Sure.” Jess has decided that she will go out with him, even if it is only as far as the Dairy Queen in Karnesville, just to be assured that she has left Jessie Four-Eyes in the distant, distant and painfully adolescent past. “See you around.”

“You too.” He grins, obviously relieved. Jess sets the Wrangler in gear, and as she drives toward Luna City, she sees the cruiser pull a U-turn, and vanish in the opposite direction.

 

Jess wakens from that final dream; there is dim daylight behind the curtains of the bedroom, but that is not what has disturbed her sleep, or the complaints of a stressed bladder. No, something else, a funny tentative flutter low in her abdomen. It happens again – no, not a bubble of gas working through … but independent, deliberate. Something not of her body.

“Joe?” she whispers; they are still lying spoon-fashion in the bed, she is tucked into the curve of his body. “Are you awake? It’s nearly morning.”

“Mmm. Sure, Babe. I’m awake.” He mumbles indistinct and sleep-fogged. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she answers. “I just felt the baby move.”

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