I decided to start keeping a log of my dreams, like Nevah does when she’s awake. I came to this decision after months of repetitive dreams about her, although I’ve never met or known Nevah. I keep dreaming about her, every night in recent months. Still, I don’t know her. At least I don’t know her in the reality of my waking life. I know her in an alternate reality, nightmares composed of fragmented moments. These moments of Nevah’s life make it difficult for me to sleep well. She changes in most dreams, never truly allowing me to understand what she’s trying to tell me. Sometimes she’s just a little girl climbing trees in the woods, or with other children in the park. Sometimes she’s dolled up and wearing short skirts with tight shirts. Sometimes her hair is in a messy tangle draped past her shoulders. Her hair is always dark.
In my dreams about Nevah, Nevah wonders. She wonders if she can find a way to forgive herself for the past, and her past is hidden under piles of melting snow. In my dreams about Nevah, Nevah writes. She writes about her thoughts in a calculated manner, as though she’s trying to keep track of them, to make sense of them. In my dreams about Nevah, Nevah dreams. She dreams of falling asleep, and sometimes in my dreams, I don’t want her to wake up.
In my dream, Nevah was back in the depths of the white woods. She tripped over fallen branches and was helped up by her mother’s new boyfriend. He saw her fall from a distance and led her to his nearby cabin for some bandages. “You should be more careful out here. That cut looks pretty deep, kid,” he said. She gave a nervous nod and kept her gaze forward to her scraped knee as she felt him place his hands on her.
I wake up sweating. Feeling vibrations from my heart beating. Feeling a struggle at the very pit of my stomach. I wake up and pull my hair, imagining the pitch black strands stuck to me from the sweat of the night, only to realize my hair is short and in a tight bun, tucked back behind ears and pinned to my head. I wake up scratching at my skin, wanting to peel off layers of heat that itch deep beneath the surface. I wake up in a daze, not recognizing the corners of my walls that make up my room. I feel lost in another person’s prison, until I see a family photo of my mother and me on my dresser and the knitted scarf she made, draping alongside the mirror. Only then do I realize I’m awake in my room and safe. Only then does my heartbeat slow down and allow me to fall back asleep.
The redness beneath the bandages that he wrapped around Nevah’s knee stopped spreading. She knew this meant her wound would be fine, and she asked if she could leave. When he shook his head with a smirk, Nevah became scared and tried to open her mouth to scream––like she did when she had fallen––but instead, she kept her eyes on her knee and watched new blood trickle down and stain through the untouched layers of the bandages.
I’m awake, again. I guess it’s just that time of year: Winter. There’s an unsettling feeling of cold in my bones. My body shivers and my muscles ache under layers of blankets. It’s not late, it’s not yet midnight, and while most people celebrate the end of the year, my mother says I’ve always gone to bed early. That’s how I’ve spent the first and last moments of each year: in bed. In my bed, I wonder. I wonder why we celebrate years gone by, and I keep track of my thoughts in my diary. In my diary, I write. I write about how I’d rather spend time alone instead of celebrate with guests. My mother says it’s because I decided a long time ago to create my own tradition. She calls it a tradition of dreams, where I can be free to live in past years that have been missed or create pathways for my future realities. When I think about what my mother says, I close my eyes to say goodbye to today. It doesn’t take long for me to fall back asleep and dream.
He undressed her, layer by layer, until she was completely naked. He allowed each of the other men to take an article of her clothing home with them, but her pants were off limits. They were his trophy. He said he liked the tiny rip from when she had first scraped her knee. He never allowed the other girls to wash the pair of jeans, either. He said he liked to keep them dirty because he enjoyed how the mud stains smelled, unfading year after year.
Then Nevah is crying, “I don’t mean to make more money, I swear.” The other girls had turned against her for the many times they had been punished for not making as much. She started to steal a few dollars after each customer and hide them in the wall’s vent. She kept track of how much she was making by keeping careful notes on pieces of cardboard. She planned for the other girls to hand him the money along with their earnings. She counted thirty-seven dollars one night after hearing his snores and thinking his day had ended, only to be interrupted by his warm, sticky breath on the back of her neck.
I wake up panting, trying to gain control of my heavy breath and escape the thoughts that scatter in my mind. I want to sleep; that’s all I want. Or, so I tell myself. Perhaps I want to stay awake, so that I will never have another dream. I make my way down to the kitchen, not needing to turn on any lights—my mother’s candles are still lit. The house smells of oak and musk and it disgusts me, so I make a fresh cup of coffee, mostly to counter the smell. I turn the television on and watch movie after movie. Each movie is composed of scene after scene of desire and greed and this bothers me. On the screen, I see vivid images of women aroused by violence. I look away, and when that does not work I go back to my bed.
He threw Nevah a tight red skirt and an even tighter black top. She and the other girls danced for him and his customers until they—the men—grew tired of the lack of curves on the girls’ underdeveloped bodies. They didn’t pay for rhythm, they paid for flesh. After a while, the other girls were ordered to leave and the customers pulled Nevah’s long, dark hair back with heavy thrusts until they finished; her hair came out in clumps.
He fed her just enough to keep her feeding the appetite of men. The other girls tried to sneak Nevah some of their food, but they were also afraid of getting caught and of having to share her punishment for stealing from him. Some of the girls were in no condition to gamble their health on such a punishment, and Nevah understood that. That they wanted to help, and forgave her for all the times he had hit them because of her, was enough for Nevah. She looked down at her plate and took a bite of the dry meat, wishing she had a glass of water.
I toss and I turn in bed until I wake up completely still. My limbs ache. My legs feel particularly numb. I try to force myself to lift them, but they do not budge. They are paralyzed and I start to scream. My mother rushes into the room, turning the lights on and soothing me, “Haven? Haven, calm down, it’s only another bad dream,” she says. I tell her I cannot move my legs, but when she grabs my kneecap, I feel a rush go through my entire body and I call for Alexis and Jane to hold back my hair before throwing up.
“Haven, it’s just you and me. You’re seeing things, stay with me—”
Suddenly I can feel my mother’s arms around my entire body, rocking me while I continue to cry harder. I can feel my legs again and that realization does not bring me any consolation. I hold my comforter up to my face and cry into it until it is soaked. My sheets are soaked with sweat and piss, over layers of dried sweat from previous nights. I haven’t washed them in months; it’s tiring to have to keep them clean when they become dirty so often. My mother pulls my hair behind my ears and whispers repetitively that everything is okay. “It’s just me, baby. Just you and me, always just you and me,” she repeats. Then she walks over to the dresser and removes the scarf she once sewed for me. She wraps it around my shoulders and tells me to keep myself warm until she comes back with clean sheets and another comforter.
Only two other girls witnessed Nevah’s first drink. She remembered that one had held back her hair while she threw up; the other girl cleaned her and made sure she was pretty enough to go back out. There were nine other girls in the apartment then. She liked it better when they were only three. With nine other girls in the apartment, she had to sit on each of his friends’ laps until all the girls were back from throwing up after they had been forced to drink too.
I wake up to sirens sounding in the streets of the night. Their calling is loud and yet when I look out the window to scream back to them, there is nothing in sight but still trees and silent leaves that fall delicately to the ground. I pinch myself to make sure I’m awake. My fingernails leave a mark on the surface of my forearm, but the wrinkles quickly flatten out, the redness fades away, and I’m once again questioning my consciousness. I’m left wondering if I’m only awake in a dream. The walls that surround me seem closer to my bed than I remember, and the distance to my dresser from my bed seems only an arm’s length away––it should be further. It takes me a few moments of repetitive blinking to focus my sight before I can see a clear reflection in the mirror. When I finally do, I see a darker shade of black than that which engulfs the room. I continue to stare, squinting my eyes until they strain. Finally, I can make out the darker darkness to be thick, long strands of black hair smeared all over the mirror in wet clumps.
Nevah had detailed her escape in her mind for years, but she never had a plan. Her idea had always been to make a run for it while he was out at work. Five days a week, every week for years, he went to work and she stayed at the apartment with the other girls. She didn’t know where she was, or where she could have run to, but in her mind she always ran. All she knew was that she was just a kid. She knew this because that’s what he still called her.
The first year, Nevah awoke from her dreams yelling for her mother. In her dreams her mother was the one to find her playing in the woods, and took her home. In all her early dreams, she had known the woman in the woods to be her mother, but with time she became a woman Nevah did not recognize. He told her, her mother didn’t look for her, that she only looked to replace her. They were trying to have children of their own, he said. She didn’t believe him at first, so she kept calling out. But after a while her mother began to fade into the night that kept Nevah dreaming. Nevah’s past life and the memory of her mother were to remain in the woods under fallen leaves––that could have shaded her from the blaze of that day, if only they hadn’t fallen.
Although she knew the other girls were as miserable with him as she was, she feared if she shared her escape plans with them, they would convince her to stay. They always convinced her to stay, without even knowing it. She had developed a deep care for them. The girls became her family and not just because he called them a family, but because they were the only other people in her life that understood her confusion. She stayed because of that confusion, and because of that understanding.
“Cheers to Children Night” neared. Nevah knew because he had been bringing more drinks to the apartment than usual, which meant more of his friends than usual. A celebration that would carry on long after the shiny ball fell. These nights were different than any other nights she remembered. She and the girls were allowed to drink with the men on these nights, because they, too, had something to celebrate: a new member to the family.
I wake up to a movement next to me and am comforted to find my mother’s arms wrapped around me, now holding me tighter. I allow my tensed muscles to relax in her arms and thank her for not leaving my room since we changed the sheets, a few hours ago. It’s reassuring to know my mother is still by my side after a long night. She lights candles every New Years. It’s become her tradition, but this year, I think I like the smell of fresh linen a bit more. It smells like the beginning of a new year. I close my eyes and go back to sleep. I dream of Nevah sleeping; she is dreaming, I know. But this time I only dream of her sleeping through the night.