“You don’t belong here!”
Bernadette Bingham was walking past the drab brownstone apartments on her way to work. She looked at the little girl playing on the stoop, puzzled.
“You don’t belong here!” the child said again, looking her straight in the eye. It was not the look of a little child; her expression was intense, disconcerting. Then, abruptly, the girl grabbed her doll and scurried up the steps and into the apartment.
A chill ran down Bernadette’s spine. She rubbed her eyes and continued walking to her office building.
Bernadette’s life was uneventful. Every weekday morning she took the same walk to work and returned home by the same path. Her office routines were bland and automatic, and each day ran into the next. At day’s end, she was so fatigued that all she could do was snap on the television and snack on whatever was in her cupboard. When sleep finally took her, she had no dreams. And the next morning, the cycle would begin again.
Bernadette was only thirty, but she had come to think that, as drab as her life was, it was not likely to change. She didn’t really know whether she was pretty or not, but she thought she remembered dating men in her younger years. Things must never have turned out, because even those encounters now seemed foggy and confused in her mind. And since the world economy was ever teetering on the edge of recession, she clung tightly to the seeming stability of her job, trying not to think of what she would do if she ever was laid off. She trudged on, scarcely noticing the passing of weeks, then months, then years.
But then the dreams began.
She remembered the first one vividly. Someone was calling her name. She knew his voice, and it was that person that she loved more than anyone else in the world. She was in a murky and unkempt wood, and though she tried to follow his call, it became ever fainter. She knew that if she could reach him, everything would make sense. And she recalled, startled that such a thing could have been forgotten, that this man was her fiancé; they would soon be married, and they would start a family together. But her way was blocked by bristles, and she became ever more tangled in trailing vines and grasping tree roots.
She awoke in tears. It had been one of the sweetest experiences she could ever remember: this sense of belonging, and the knowledge of being loved and cherished. And when she awakened to the barren walls of her apartment, she could not control her sobs.
But the dreams continued, becoming more elaborate each night. Sometimes, she was in that forlorn forest once again, trying to find her way out; at other times, she was surrounded by small, indistinct figures in colorful garb, but she could not understand what they were saying. And each time, when she awoke, she became more anxious and frustrated with the featureless world that awaited her.
Then Bernadette started noticing strange events during her waking hours. She would see someone scowling at her inexplicably over the wall of her cubicle, or she would pass clumps of co-workers who were speaking in low murmurs amongst themselves, only to become silent as she approached. Now and then, she sensed that she was being followed on her way to and from work, and she even thought she saw figures peeping from alleyways as she passed, but they always vanished before she could discern them clearly.
She started leaving the television turned off in the evenings, and occasionally she would pull a book down from a shelf and consider reading it. But the titles she discovered in her apartment were not what she sought; they were self-help manuals, or books on exercise, or on economics. She couldn’t even remember having bought them.
But of all the incidents that had occurred since that first intense dream, the most disquieting was seeing the little girl stare at her with such intensity. What was it about the child? Bernadette thought it was the fact that she hadn’t acted like a child. But, what should little girls act like? She wondered. Then it struck her. She couldn’t remember seeing any children before in her neighborhood. This girl was the first. And she realized that, everywhere she went, she was surrounded only by adults.
Concerned, she decided she would talk with the staff doctor at her workplace to see if there was anything physically wrong with her. She submitted to a full exam, and then discussed her dreams afterwards.
“Well, Miss Bingham, there’s nothing wrong with you that I can find,” said the woman. She appeared to be in her fifties, and her graying hair was pulled severely back into a bun. “You said something about a relationship you were in. Are you anxious about that relationship? I know a lot of women worry about becoming pregnant. I’d be happy to prescribe some form of birth control for you.” The woman looked at her expectantly. “Almost eagerly,” thought Bernadette, and shuddered.
“No, no…I’m not in any relationship. That was just the dream. I don’t want anything like that,” she replied.
“Well, would you like me to refill your prescription for sleeping pills? You have been taking them, haven’t you?”
“Sleeping pills? I don’t remember taking sleeping pills.”
“Ah, then you must have run out. I’ll get you a new prescription. Once you’re back on them, I’m sure the dreams will go away.”
“But the dreams aren’t my problem! My problem is with everything else!”
“Well, there’s nothing wrong with you,” repeated the doctor. “Just get back on the pills and you’ll be fine.”
In the end, Bernadette had agreed to accept the prescription. She went to the company pharmacy to fill the order, and the man behind the counter came back with two bottles. Bernadette looked at them, puzzled.
“Those are for sleeping,” the pharmacist told her, “and those are your birth control pills.”
Bernadette looked startled. “But, I told the doctor I didn’t want birth control pills.”
“Suit yourself, Miss Bingham,” said the pharmacist, taking back the bottle and putting it beneath the counter.
That evening, Bernadette noticed an empty bottle in her medicine cabinet. The label matched the one she had just brought home. “So, I was taking sleeping pills,” she thought. “I wonder why I didn’t remember that before?” She took both of the bottles and stood by her 2nd story living room window, looking out into the waning evening light. Below, she saw a child standing on the street corner. She looked more closely. He was a little boy, dressed in a billowy white shirt, green baggy pants and a bright red waistcoat. He had golden hair, and was looking up at her window.
“I wonder where he came from?” she thought. As with the little girl she’d seen before, there was something odd about the child. The boy waved his arms back and forth in front of him, as if telling her to stop. “Stop what?” she wondered. Then she looked down at the bottles in her hand. She held one aloft, and the boy gestured as if he was throwing something away. She repeated the motion with the bottle, and the child nodded approval. Then, he looked furtively around, and scurried off into the gathering dusk.
Bernadette stood looking out the window for some time, holding the bottles. Then, she turned and dropped both of them into the trash bin.
On subsequent days, Bernadette began to notice more and more children, both in the streets and, startlingly, even in her office building. They would peep out at her from behind parked cars, or smile and wave from the ends of hallways. They all seemed to wear brightly-colored clothing, cut in styles that were bewildering in their variety.
And, although they were timid at first, with each passing day they became bolder, often coursing in groups of two or three together down staircases and through board rooms. Astonishingly, no one else in her office seemed to notice them, even when they began to rearrange the office furniture or stood openly giggling as some department head droned on and on about the need to improve sales.
Her dreams continued each night, and although waking each morning was painful, all of her anxiety passed away when she saw the first of “her” children on the way to work. And their antics in her office often made her laugh aloud, something that shocked and disconcerted her co-workers. At the same time, Bernadette noticed that her apartment and all of the buildings she passed each day seemed to become more and more dilapidated. Once shiny skyscrapers became rusty and stained, and she noticed that some of the empty lots she passed in the mornings had sprouted grass around their edges, where no living thing had been before.
These odd events continued for some weeks until she once again had a dream that was nearly as vivid as her first. She was back in the forest. But this time it was not pitch black. There was a rosy glow in the eastern sky, and she followed that light. She came to a break in the trees and beheld a small valley below her, replete with a chattering stream and a bridge.
She heard the sound of a twig snapping behind her and turned around. A boy stood there, wearing a blue tunic and a black leather belt with a sword hanging from it. He had long, jet black hair held back by a circlet of gold.
“Listen for the trumpet,” the boy said.
“Just listen for the trumpet…”
She awoke to the sound of her alarm clock.
On her way to work that morning, Bernadette saw the little girl again; the one who had so startled her weeks before. She was wearing a crinkly pink dress with lace on it. This time, the child smiled and waved at her as she passed.
Once at her desk, Bernadette saw a note requesting that she see the staff doctor as soon as she arrived. Alarmed, she went down to the clinic.
“I was told that you needed an additional consultation,” the doctor said.
“Who told you that?”
“Your office manager. Apparently there have been complaints.”
“Yes. I’ve been told you’re distracted and aren’t able to focus on your work.”
“I don’t know who would have told you that….”
“We need to make sure that you’re improving, Miss Bingham. You’ve resumed taking the sleeping pills that I prescribed, correct?”
“Well, I…” Bernadette paused.
Behind the doctor, she saw a toddler, dressed in a yellow polka-dotted frock. She was peeking out from behind the woman’s lab coat. The child looked up at the doctor with astonishment, as if she were seeing an elephant or a bison for the first time. Then she burst into giggles and scurried out of the examination room.
“I decided not to take the sleeping pills,” Bernadette said, trying desperately not to burst into laughter. “I don’t think I….”
“Miss Bingham!” interrupted the doctor, “Those pills are absolutely critical! And I would not have prescribed them unless I thought them necessary for your continued success here at the company!”
Bernadette looked at the floor and was silent. The doctor glared at her. “Now, I’m going to let it pass this time, but you need to start…”
“I’m not taking them.”
“I am not taking them!” Bernadette lifted her head and looked the doctor in the eye. “And you cannot make me take them.”
Then Bernadette heard the trumpet.
She ignored the doctor and ran to the window. Five floors below her, a youth, dressed in black, was sounding a clear, steady note on a coronet. The sound grew louder with each passing moment, and echoed off the walls of the adjacent buildings. It grew louder still, and beneath that single, crystalline note, Bernadette heard a rumbling and felt the building begin to shake around her. She ran out of the clinic and toward the stairwell. As she passed her co-workers, she saw that they were continuing their routines as if nothing was happening; they walked down the hallway, or conversed by the water cooler, or bustled into their offices. They hardly noticed her as she passed.
Flying down the steps of her building, Bernadette reached the street level only to find that the corroded grey structures all around her were swaying. Some in the distance were crumbling even as she watched. Yet, the street was deserted; no one had followed her out the door, and she could still see people through the office windows, sitting at desks, chatting with each other, as if nothing was wrong.
The boy with the coronet ceased playing, but the echoes continued. Then Bernadette noticed that cracks were forming in the sidewalks and streets, and green grass was sprouting where once only asphalt and concrete had been. Green swaths sprang up the sides of the rusted office buildings, and Bernadette saw that huge vines were enveloping each of them. Leaves sprang from the sides of the structures, and soon each building was an enormous copse of trees with branches and leaves that interlaced above her head. The air was filled with petals that showered down from flower-laden boughs above her.
That’s when all of the children reappeared.
There were dozens, nay, hundreds of them, pouring from among the tree trunks, playing tag and chasing each other through the meadows that had once been city streets. A score of them gathered around Bernadette and grasped her by the hands and tugged at her skirt.
“We’ve come to take you home!” several of them told her in giddy voices. “Taik ooo wome!” cried the toddler in the polka-dotted frock.
“But, where have I been all this time if not home?” she asked, but received no answer.
The boy with the coronet came up to her and bowed. He seemed older than most of the others, and more subdued. He smiled at her and offered her his arm.
“You had to break out on your own,” he told her. “All we could do was help you find an opening.”
“Yes, just a few times when you could remember who you really were.”
“But who am I? And who are all of you?!”
He smiled, and as she looked at him, he seemed to change. He grew taller, and his face became more mature and more familiar. The light around her turned golden. And then she remembered that first dream, when she had been lost in the woods, seeking the owner of a voice that called to her….
“Yes,” she said, “I’m here.” She opened her eyes. She was lying in a bed in a sunlit room. Flowers filled every nook and cranny, and above her was the face of her fiancé. Daniel smiled, and then she remembered the traffic accident.
“You’ve been out for a very long time. We were all…” he paused, tearing up, “we were all so worried. But now you’re back, and they say all you need is rest – lots of rest.” He brushed back a lock of her auburn hair.
Bernadette looked up at him. “I was in a horrible place,” she said. “I needed to find you, and I didn’t know how! But then the children came; they were all laughing and playing….”
“There were so many, many people praying for you,” Daniel said, “especially when the doctors told us you weren’t likely to recover. We were storming heaven; there must have been hundreds and hundreds of prayers sent to help you.”
“Then that must have been who they were…” Her eyelids fluttered closed for a moment.
“Who they were?” he asked, squeezing her hand.
“The children. They were prayers, Daniel; all of them were prayers….”
“The center of every man’s existence is a dream. Death, disease, insanity, are merely material accidents, like a toothache or a twisted ankle. That these brutal forces always besiege and often capture the citadel does not prove that they are the citadel.” (Twelve Types; G. K. Chesterton; 1902)
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