Although the details of his recurrent nightmare varied now and again, the outcome was always the same.
He and Sarah were at the movies. They had just settled into their seats when the lights in the auditorium lowered, and the silver screen before them came to life. He glanced over at his daughter. She wore a huge smile partially obscured by the bucket of popcorn in her eager hands. She was dressed in her plaid pajamas and pale blue tee. Her bright blue eyes were filled with excited anticipation; Joel wanted to feel that anticipation too, but it kept giving way to a nagging sense of dread.
He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. As the movie started, their seats began to rumble. At first, Joel assumed it was all part of the show, but the rumbling grew louder and the shaking more violent and he knew something was terribly wrong.
He glanced at Sarah. She had this strange look in her eye, a mischievous grin, as if she were in on a private joke. Everyone else in the theater screamed in excited laughter; only Joel felt a horrible misgiving. He wanted to get up, but his body remained frozen in his seat. He glanced around him and saw frenzied faces laughing hysterically. The dread was closing in on him along with the walls and ceiling of the theater.
The laughter grew to a feverish pitch and the theaters seats were now wildly bucking. Finally, he could stand no more and stood up, and without thinking, he grabbed Sarah’s arm in an attempt to leave but was surprised when she violently yanked away from his grip.
In confusion, he turned to look at her - and this was always the worst part of his dream - he saw his daughter’s eyes. They were cold and dark and filled with hatred.
His body shuddered as the cold finger of death traced its way down Joel’s spine. Sarah stared up at him as a dark red circle of blood blossomed on her chest, and she glared at him with cold, lifeless eyes. Her smile turned into a horrible grimace and she screamed at him at the top of her lungs: “WHY DIDN’T YOU SAVE ME?”
The panic threatened to drown Joel and he fought for air, viciously clawing his way to the surface of consciousness. His body bolted upright and his lungs panted for oxygen. Cold beads of sweat formed on his forehead. His shirt and jeans felt damp, his entire body compressed. Sleep had become the worst part of his daily existence; the nightmares forcing him to relive that terrible night nearly twenty years ago.
He found himself fully clothed on a worn mattress in a dark room with the blinds - bent and broken - closed. A gray morning light struggled to shine through them. He heard the hollow knocking in the hallway, and his mind struggled to make sense of it. It wasn’t a dream; someone was outside in the hallway, knocking on the door to his apartment.
He sat on the edge of the bed, still grappling with the visions that lingered behind his eyes. He sighed heavily, then rose achingly to his feet. After a couple of steps his body wavered, and he leaned against the door frame to find his footing and clear his head.
The knocking at the door persisted.
“I’m coming,” he called out irritably.
He shuffled out of the bedroom and across the kitchen toward the front door. The apartment was dirty and dank, it smelled of mildew and rotted wood. Stained cardboard boxes, empty pails and a propane tank sat in one corner of the room. Joel sucked in another breath and arched his back, letting the bones crack into place. He flipped the lock and opened the door, then released a heavy sigh at the sight of his early morning visitor.
She entered without waiting for his invitation.
“How was your morning?” she asked, but her tone lacked the friendliness the words implied.
She wore a tight maroon shirt, stained and ripped, with the tails out. The sleeves had been discarded long ago. Underneath was a dark gray tee-shirt that had, at one time, been a different color. Her raven hair was swept back from her face in a make-shift ponytail. Most noticeable was the purple bruise the size of a fist just below her right eye.
She went straight for the bottle of whiskey on the table in the kitchen and poured herself a shot. Joel hung back, watching her, waiting for her to explain it to him.
“Want one?” she asked casually, as if it were perfectly natural this early in the morning.
“No,” he said irritably. “I don’t ‘want one’.”
She made a ‘suit-yourself’ gesture and took a drink. As Joel turned away, the irritation within him grew. Tess leaned against the kitchen table and the tone in her voice softened.
“Well, I have some interesting news for you.”
“Where were you, Tess?” he interrupted, feeling irritation blossom into anger.
She regarded him coolly for a moment. The space between them filled with silence.
“West End district,” she said finally. And before Joel’s temper erupted, she added by way of explanation, “Hey, we had a drop to make.”
“We,” he said emphatically. “We had a drop to make.” He snatched a wet rag off the kitchen counter and approached her.
“Yeah,” she said with a nod. “Well, you wanted to be left alone, remember?”
The early morning light from a gray-soaked sky seeped in through the windows of Joel’s dirty apartment. He handed her the wet dish towel and turned away.
“So, I’ll take one guess,” he said, his back to her. “The whole deal went south and the client made off with our pills.” With hands on the counter, he glanced back at her over his shoulder. “That about right?”
A moment passed as Joel waited for an explanation.
“The deal went off without a hitch.” She reached into her back pocket and threw a folded wad onto the table. “Enough ration cards to last us a couple of months, easy.”
Joel motioned to the ugly welt below her eye. “You want to explain this?”
Tess sighed. “I was on my way back here and I got jumped by these two assholes, all right?”
She put the wet cloth back against her cheek. “And yeah they got a few good hits in, but…”
Joel rested his hands on his hips and shook his head.
“Look, I managed,” she said, her tone defiant.
Joel snatched the towel from Tess’s hand. “Gimme that.” He lifted her chin and, being as gentle as he could, dabbed away the dried blood from her wound.
Tess flinched, but her eyes never left his.
“And are these assholes still with us?” he asked.
She snorted and smiled. “Now that’s funny,” she said.
He eased the towel away and examined her face by gently turning her chin. “Did you at least find out who they were?”
“Yeah. Look, they were a couple of nobodies.” She removed his hand from her face. “They don’t matter,” she said. She stood and jabbed a finger in Joel’s chest. “What matters is that Robert fucking sent them.”
Joel recoiled. “Our Robert?” he asked incredulous.
“He knows that we’re after him,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief.
A surge of anger shot through him. He pounded a fist into his palm and turned away.
Tess continued, “He figures he’s gonna get us first.”
“That son-of-a-bitch is smart,” Joel said. He threw the dishrag on the counter to underscore his assessment.
“He’s not smart enough.”
There was something in her tone that caused him to hesitate. Tess leaned forward and whispered, “I know where he’s hiding.”
“Like hell you do,” he said, daring her to prove it.
Tess drifted toward the window. “Old warehouse in Area 5,” she said gleefully. She turned and spread her arms wide. “Can’t say for how long, though.”
Joel nodded to himself and motioned to the door. “Well I’m ready now,” he said.
“Oh I can do now,” Tess agreed.