Carlos Alonso Chism


Carlos Alonso Chism is an MFA fiction candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park. He graduated from Penn State in 2015 with a BA and MA in English. This past year he taught college composition and creative writing in the Philadelphia area, where he also helped found the Frontyard Writer’s Workshop. He is a first year contributor for The MFA Years and his fiction is forthcoming in Reservoir.

Dream Catcher


Arturo and his sister-in-law Francisca eat mostly in silence, occasionally remarking in Spanish about passerby. They sit across from Manuel, legs splayed out on a yellow quilt embroidered with red and green flowers, on a hill overlooking the Schuylkill River. A plate of chicken quesadillas simmers in the sun between them. He has yet to touch any of the food, his fingers instead dancing across his phone’s screen, his back hunched away from them. Most of the morning so far has been spent in silence.

After a brief pause, Francisca asks Arturo how he slept. Some days she asks and others she doesn’t.

“Let’s not get into this again.” Manuel says, not looking up from his phone.

“It helps him.” Francisca rummages through the basket.

Arturo tells them that in the dream from last night he woke to a familiar morning at their house: Birds singing out the window, the sweet aroma of Mexican coffee drifting through the doorways. But some details were different. Their old wooden cabinet wasn’t in the family room. There were new coffee cups in the cupboard. There was a fresh coat of paint on the walls, beige instead of laurel. The confusion turned to horror when he went to shave and looked in the mirror.

No reflection.

At first, confusion. Then it was as if all the air was sucked from the room, as if a vise slowly clenched around his neck. His heart pounded and gasps rasped from his throat. He waved his hand, but it was as if he wasn’t standing there at all. Nothing. He waved both arms in the air, panic consuming him. He stopped for a moment and picked up the razor. The blade floated in midair where his hand should be. He dropped it, and that was when he woke.

He tries to explain why this dream has shaken him more than the others. He has died in dreams. Countless deaths night after night. Slow deaths. Quick deaths. Deaths where he experienced it first hand and then watched it unfold from above. He’s seen the fear in his own eyes many times before. When he’d been consumed by flame at a stake. When his friends had crowded around him with knives. When he was buried up to the chin in twisted scrap metal. But seeing the fear in his eyes was nowhere near as bad as being unable to see them at all.

“What does it mean?” Francisca asks.

Ever since Arturo moved in with his brother Manuel and Francisca, she has tried many ways to rid him of the dreams. She’s taken him for massages. On skiing trips to the Poconos. Paid for acupuncture and aroma therapy. Several times per week she has suggested solutions as small as a walk in Center City and as large as weekend-long camping retreats in the wilderness.

Despite their efforts, every night without fail the dreams return.

“These dreams. They are like what the doctor said: symptoms of a chemical imbalance in your head. They mean nothing.” Manuel waves his hand as if shooing a fly.

They lapse into silence once more. The sounds of the park flutter back into the space between them: dogs barking, people laughing, the Schuylkill river lapping against the riverbank. Francisca points to a small dog peeing on a tree in the distance and asks what breed it could be. She and Arturo lob guesses into the sunlight.




“Whatever it is, I want one.” she laughs, leaning on her elbow.

Manuel looks up from his phone. “We can’t afford a dog, Francisca. We just got married, just bought the house, and we support him.” He points to Arturo before looking back at his phone.

A brief but pregnant pause follows. Waves of heat radiate around Arturo’s face. No one looks at each other.

“I’m sorry if that came off the wrong way,” Manuel says, standing up. “Excuse me, but I need to take this call. The King of Prussia store is opening soon, lots to do.”

He walks toward the river, phone to his ear.

“We’re not supposed to be working,” Francisca mutters.

The farther away Manuel walks, the more Arturo feels like his stomach is being constricted, as if there is an imaginary rope drawn taught. He leans back with his hands on the blanket to either side. Francisca does the same and her hand falls on top of his. He expects her to recoil, move it slightly, but instead she does nothing. Her skin is warm, but her ring’s metal is cold. Arturo waits a few moments then pulls away. Looking for something to do, he grabs another quesadilla and continues to eat, even though his stomach feels ready to burst. Francisca says nothing, and watches Manuel pace along the riverbank.

Arturo wanted to believe at first that the dreams were only a side effect of depression or anxiety, but time has beaten any possibility of coincidence from his mind. One night soon after they started, he dreamt their father fell off a boat into the ocean. The next morning, they woke to calls from Mexico because his father had slipped while in the shower and broken a hip. A few months later he dreamt Francisca was hit by a car while jogging. He woke to find her in the kitchen cutting vegetables in her sleep, one of her fingers nicked and bleeding. 

He still has a cold sweat from last night’s dream, and his hands feel limp. They have been the greatest casualties of the nightmares. Before, he played the guitar every day. In Mexico City he performed at local bars in a jam band with friends. His fingers sliding up and down the fret board, punching strings of notes together into solos, smashing chords through the amplifiers. He had never been able to keep his hands still. This was one reason he’d loved working as a barber in both Mexico City and Philadelphia: the cutting, snipping, combing. Scissors snapping and razors weaving through clumps of hair. His hands were always busy.

Since the dreams started a year ago, he has felt no itch for movement. His fingers no longer ache for strings or scissors. They have changed him both inside and out. It is always difficult to laugh. He used to enjoy sipping wine on his brother’s patio during summer evenings. He loved the glowing green lights of fireflies, like illuminated pixie dust spilled from the clouds. He faintly tastes red wine on his lips whenever he sees them. Now when he and his brother sit out and drink, the lights seem dimmer. Less like bright pixie dust and more like dying embers.

That night Arturo dreams he is driving a small car up a winding mountain, Manuel next to him. Anxiety gurgles in his gut. What seem like hours go by, and they climb higher and higher into the atmosphere. At times everything is enveloped in the thin fabric of clouds, and Arturo can’t see. Manuel talks on the phone, his tone professional, yet brusque.

After emerging from a long spell of clouds, Arturo peers over the edge of the mountain. They are so high he can’t make out the shapes of trees or roads; everything is a sea of green and gold and blue. Forests, farms, and oceans? Arturo can’t examine for too long and accelerates away. Soon after, the dips and curves in the road become more routine and familiar. His muscle memory guides the car around sharp bends and long u-shaped curves. He finds satisfaction in the twists and turns; they remind him of roads that wind through the mountains around Mexico City. The sky grows from deep blue to milky white. The sun seems to be directly above them, its light heavy on the air in every direction like a vast luminescent blanket.

Just as Arturo relaxes his grip and begins to enjoy the ride, they hit a sharp bump in the road, and the car squeals off the asphalt. They crash through the steel rail, the hood of the car lurching over the edge as the back wheels grind to a halt. The car leans back and forth, groaning under gravity’s grasp. Arturo’s pulse roars in his chest and ears, and only after a moment does he hear Manuel’s yelp.

His brother clings to the car door, which has swung open over the emptiness. Manuel’s face is drained of color, blanched with panic. He screams at Arturo to help him, please help him, what has happened, what has he done? Arturo reaches his hand out the door, the veins throbbing through his arm and into his fingertips. When he is only an inch away, Manuel’s hand stiffens, then slips off the handle, and he plunges toward the clouds, careening across the sky.

Arturo doesn’t bother shaving the next morning. He doesn’t shower. Instead, he shutters the blinds and drinks cup after cup of coffee. The first scald his tongue, but he gulps more, to keep the warmth washing down his chest and trickling into the corners of his body. He is chilled to the bone, like most nights, and now feverishly worried about his brother’s safety. But last night’s dream did something none of the others have done in two years: if only for a moment, it let him be happy. Every other dream has been full of dread, or terror, or crippling anxiety. This one contained more happiness than all the others combined. None of it makes any sense. They don’t even own a car.

He contemplates texting his brother, who’s back at the office after his day off. He wants to warn him: Be careful driving. Or around bannisters. Or on the phone? But this would ultimately be useless. Manuel has refused to believe that Arturo’s dreams can tell fortunes. When he first told him about the dreams, Manuel laughed. Weeks later, after Arturo quit his job and didn’t leave his apartment for five days straight, Manuel insisted he see a psychiatrist. Arturo went, desperate for a release from the nightmares. They ran tests. Bloodwork. Eye exams. MRI’s. Maybe he had a tumor pressing on some part of his brain?

They found nothing.

The psychiatrist chalked it up to severe depression, said he could write a prescription for Prozac or Zoloft, and referred Arturo to a therapist. She’s the best in the city, the doctor said, patting Arturo on the shoulder. Arturo went once a week for two months, until his insurance was up, and never went back.

Manuel insisted they would find a solution. Even after Arturo’s nightmare predictions began to come true, albeit partially, Manuel attributed it to coincidence. Francisca believed Arturo, and thought they should fly to Mexico City and find an old priest famous for exorcisms. Manuel disagreed, and the bitter ensuing argument was the first of many fights Arturo felt guilty of starting.

After Arturo moved in and stopped seeing the therapist, Manuel stopped talking about solutions, stopped imagining out loud the time after this “dark period” in his brother’s life. For the past several months, he has acted as if Arturo’s presence in the house is normal, routine. When he can’t solve a problem, he simply refuses to acknowledge its existence. On the days Arturo feels the emptiest, the numbest, he appreciates this strategy. On the days where the pain from his dreams lingers, prickling everywhere from his chest to his fingertips, he wants to scream at his brother.

I can’t help it! he wants to yell. I wish I could return to normal, but I am paralyzed!

Manuel hadn’t always been cold and aloof. Two years older than Arturo, he had been calm and quiet, whereas Arturo could hardly sit still. Sometimes on their morning walks to school, they would encounter the crumpled corpse of a street dog on the side of the road. Manuel would stop and look at it, despite Arturo’s complaints. He would kneel by the body, genuflect, and pray to the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe to care for the dog in heaven. When their parents fought at home, the brothers would retreat to their room and close the door. Arturo’s restlessness made him claustrophobic, but Manuel would calm him by talking about the animal shelter he would open when he was older. He was going to save all of the dogs in Puebla, and Arturo could help if he wanted. They would drown out the sounds of their parents’ screams by coming up with names for all of the dogs, or by listing what duties they’d be responsible for. It had calmed Arturo to outline his daily routine: wake them at seven, play with them for an hour, feed them breakfast at eight…

But after their parents divorced during Manuel’s first year of secondary school, he had had grown more reserved. He no longer stopped when he saw a dead dog in the street, and instead muttered a quick prayer under his breath as they walked past. In college, he interned for a prominent pet store franchise. When Arturo asked why not work at an animal shelter, Manuel sighed wearily, as if he’d answered the question many times before. A dog shelter, while noble, would never be financially stable, he said. It was better to try and make the lives of pets and their owners easier.

After graduation, he worked for Mascotas, a corporate chain, and was eventually promoted to Philadelphia regional manager as part of the company’s United States expansion. Manuel asked Arturo if he would move to Philadelphia with him, because the transition would go more smoothly with a familiar face around. It would only be for a year or two, he said, and you could consider it just another adventure. He found a job for Arturo in a barbershop that paid significantly more than his current shop in Mexico City. Through some connections at the American Embassy, he was also able to get Arturo a visa.

When he first moved to the United States, Manuel took in foster dogs waiting to be adopted. He hosted a few in his apartment for the first six months he lived in Philadelphia. Arturo, whose elderly cat had died shortly after he moved to the US, enjoyed the time he and his brother spent together playing with the dogs after they both returned home from work. For an hour or two at a time, he’d witness his old brother again, like he’d been before their parents’ divorce. Dogs loved Manuel; even the random ones on the street would strain their leashes and tug their owners down the sidewalk whenever he whistled at them. He connected so well with the last foster dog he took in, a Labrador/Husky mix named Buffy, that he decided to adopt her for himself. He hadn’t owned a pet since their family dog, Atun, died during his last year of college, and for the few weeks Manuel and Buffy spent together, Arturo had never seen his brother smile, joke, and laugh so much – not even a couple years later, when he met Francisca.

For that brief moment in time, he thought his brother’s dour demeanor would become a thing of the past. That the bright, caring young man he’d once known would return for good. But when Buffy’s harness snapped and she hurtled into the street right in front of an SUV, Manuel became miserable again. The next morning, as Arturo helped his brother dig a shallow grave for the small, mangled corpse, he knew they were burying more than a dog.

On one of their many therapeutic outings, Francisca had told Arturo that she’d always wanted a dog. Her father had been allergic, and she’d only lived on her own for a couple years before marrying Manuel. When Arturo told her about Manuel’s love for dogs as a child, and his adoption of Buffy, her eyebrows arched in surprise. He never told me about the puppy, she had said. I guess if you want to get to know who someone really is, she continued, you should marry him and let his brother move in.

Arturo stops drinking coffee as the sun reaches its zenith in the sky. Francisca marches through the door while he cleans the dishes. She tosses her purse on the table and falls onto the sofa.

“Came home for lunch,” she says, “a little tired.”

“There’s some quesadillas from yesterday left in the fridge.”

“Any of the chicken kind left?” 

Her eyes brighten at Arturo’s nod. A wave of cool air washes over him as she opens the fridge. Suds and bubbles rise in the coffee cup. Francisca faces him, her back leaning against the counter.

“You haven’t cooked in a while,” she says, chewing. “That usually makes you feel better.”

Arturo shrugs.

She pushes his shoulder playfully. “And you’re such a good cook! I love your arroz con gandules. And your stuffed poblanos – ugh,” She throws her head back. “Amazing.”

Arturo smiles faintly. While Francisca has been extremely supportive this past year, she doesn’t always seem aware of personal space. It had been something he’d noticed the night Manuel introduced him to her a couple years ago and has become more apparent since he’s moved in. At first, he found her defiance of boundaries annoying. But since the dreams started, twisting many of his days into cold vacuums of numbness, he’s found some welcome warmth in her voice, a spark in her laugh.

“Come on,” she says, smiling, “What do you say? Cook up something great, it’s a win-win?”

“I can do that,” he says, “although we may be out of peppers.” The road from the dream, with the void creeping past its edges, winds itself back into his mind. He coughs. Francisca’s smile drops into a frown as she notices his stubble for the first time and asks him what’s wrong. She knows that shaving is part of his destressing ritual every morning. He tells her about the dream.

She sighs, arms falling limp to her sides. “Should we say something to him?”

Arturo shrugs. 

“I want to tell him,” she says, closing her eyes, “but we’ve tried to convince him for a year. We’ve fought so much, and it’s been tense lately. Remember yesterday? I don’t have the energy to talk to him about this right now.”

For a few minutes, he plunges his hands in and out of the soap suds and lukewarm water, while she resumes munching her food.

“Plus, don’t they only warn you of something small? Like the time I got hit by car in your dream but only nicked my finger sleep-cooking?” She asks.  

Arturo nods, deciding it best not to pursue the topic further. He puts the last plate on the drying rack, crosses from the kitchen tile onto the hardwood of the living room, and collapses on the couch. Francisca says they should see about dinner, and sits down next to him and pulls out her phone to see if Trader Joe’s has the peppers they want. She is unusually close, her left thigh pressed against his. Just as Arturo is going to ask her to give him a bit of space, she cries out triumphantly, showing him something on her screen.

“I’ll see if I can get out of work a little early,” she says, pecking him on the cheek as she stands up. The patch of skin above his chin burns. Before he can say anything, she slings her purse over her shoulder and walks out the door.  


On the way home from the store, a text from his brother: gotta catch up on work missed yesterday. Be home past midnight. save food for me?

Arturo shows Francisca the message. She grunts and says nothing.

Back at the house, she lingers near the kitchen to take in the cacophony of odors: cheese, onions, garlic cloves, black beans. Pepper, tomatoes, jalapeno chile, cumin. They sip wine on the patio as they wait for the food to finish, and eat outside too. They continue to drink on the patio after dinner. Arturo waits for the faint green lights to glimmer in the twilight, but it is April, and still too early for fireflies.

They move inside once it’s dark, the bottle almost finished. The wine sloshes around his stomach, its warmth spreading out from his chest into his arms and legs. The last time he’d sat on the patio and drank wine, it was with Manuel just a couple months after he’d moved in. They’d nearly killed an entire bottle, yet he hadn’t felt this light or warm. Manuel has been cold to him, but Francisca hasn’t. Her presence is warm and relaxing. He tells her this, the words slipping from his mouth, his hands waving slowly in the air. She laughs softly.

“Since the dreams started, I haven’t felt the same comfort around other people as I’ve felt around you,” he says. “Even if sometimes you don’t care too much for boundaries.”

She laughs again. “I have to admit that even though I wish you were better and back on your own, I’m also really glad you’ve come to live with us.” She stands up from the chair. “I’ve grown used to talking with you when I get home. I expect it, look forward to it.”

She begins to move towards him slowly, as if she can only walk as fast as she can speak. “I’m sorry if I’ve made you uncomfortable. But I’ve always felt that intimacy is one of the best medicines.” She stops once her face is less than a foot from his, the air suddenly smelling of pinot griot and lavender perfume.

“Friends and loved ones make great medicine too,” she says, leaning in, “and I want to make you better.”

She kisses him, her tongue searching. He grabs her shoulder and pulls her toward him. After a few moments she breaks away.

“Manuel doesn’t understand how much love helps.” she says heavily.

His brother’s name clangs in his ears. An explosion shudders deep in his chest. Tremors ripple up his neck, down his arms. He shuffles away from her, brushes his hand to his lips as if to wipe something away.

“Oh,” she says, eyes widening as if waking up. “Oh.”

“I should go to bed, it’s late.” he turns toward his room.

“I’ll put away the wine.” she says.

The room is freezing, as he normally prefers it, but his skin seems to simmer. As soon as she said Manuel’s name, he saw his brother’s face from the dream, drained of blood, almost as white as the clouds beneath him. He turns over in bed, flipping the pillow. The cloth is cool for a moment, and then burns against his skin, as if shot from the sun. The guilt pangs so painfully in his gut he almost prays for the dreams to take him. For the first time in a year he deserves whatever torture the night will bring.


But the dream is unlike any he’s had before. He sits on the top of the hill where they had lunch the other day. The sun is bright and warm, gleaming off small waves in the river. People walk their dogs up and down the sidewalk, and he can smell the melted cheese of chicken quesadillas.

Francisca taps him on the shoulder. Instead of guilt, he feels happy surprise, as if she’d told him she couldn’t make it but came anyway. They kiss briefly and she holds a quesadilla up to his mouth. He takes a bite. She grins and brushes hair out of her eyes. After eating, they walk up and down the riverbank. They guess the breeds of all the dogs passing by. Labradoodle, pit bull, pug, Spanish terrier. In the back of his mind, Arturo waits for something horrible to happen. For the twist. For Francisca to slip and crack her head open on the pavement, for some freak accident where one of them wind up drowning in the river, or, worst of all, for Manuel to find them.

None of the premonitions come true. When they stop at the end of the walkway, Francisca turns to him and wraps her hands behind his back, smiling widely.


The next morning, it’s as if his heart pumps electricity through his veins. His alarm clock reads 7:08 AM, the earliest he’s been up in months. He shaves quickly, barely looking at himself in the mirror, and goes for breakfast. Manuel is in the kitchen, reading something on the tablet and sipping coffee. Arturo walks past him and rummages in the cupboard for his favorite cup.

“Well, damn, you’re up early.” Manuel says, raising his eyebrows.

Arturo flashes a quick smile and a slight glance at his brother. Unusually, the skin under his eyes seems to sag, and his eyes are red. Grabbing jelly and toasted bread, Arturo pours coffee into his cup and sits at the table. Manuel stares at him as if he’s grown an extra head. Arturo munches his toast and tries to ignore him.

“Do you have something to do?” Manuel asks.

Arturo shakes his head and stares into his coffee.

“Couldn’t sleep?”

“I always sleep,” Arturo says. He stops just before saying he also always dreams. His leg practically jumps up and down under the table. He wants Manuel to leave so he can…he can…

“Where’s Francisca?” he asks, trying to keep his voice level.

“At work,” Manuel finally looks away. He sets his cup in the sink, opens the fridge, and pulls out the near-empty bottle of wine.

“You guys have a party last night without me?” he asks.

Does Arturo imagine the sharp edge to his brother’s voice? He grins and shakes his head in response. To his horror, Manuel lowers the bottle and stares at him again, one eyebrow slightly raised. “Reminds me when we’d sit out on the patio and drink,” he says after a few moments. He puts the wine bottle back in the fridge, grabs his suitcase and jacket, and opens the door.

“We should do it again sometime.” Arturo says.

His brother stops at the door, turns and gives him a blank look, and nods.

After he’s gone, Arturo paces laps around the living room. He sits outside on the patio, in the safety of the umbrella’s shade, until his muscles ache again with the urge to move. He doesn’t know what to make of this enthusiasm. It feels like a lifetime has passed since he felt this alive and aware.

He sits down on the couch again, hoping to distract himself for a little while. Guilt churns in his stomach. But at the same time, the energy that pulses through his muscles and sinews makes him want to run ten kilometers. Last night was the first happy dream he’s had in over a year. The quiet elation, the comfort, was so refreshing and welcoming that he would take a nap to try and dream again, if he could actually sit still.

That’s it. He jumps off the couch. It doesn’t take long to find it: the guitar case is dusty, hidden behind boxes of summer clothes. Sitting on his bed, holding his breath, he opens the case. The zipper catches at the same spot it always did. The strings flash in the sunlight and the wooden neck is cool. It’s been so long since he’s played that it feels like the first time he ever held a guitar all over again.

He moves into the living room to get a better look at it. He used to polish it every day, making sure the sunburst pattern gleamed. Now it does not shine, but is rather dull with neglect, and he almost apologizes to it out loud. Sitting the bottom on his knee and slipping his hand over the fretboard, he turns the tuning pegs until each string strikes just the right pitch. He begins to play. At first, lone, irregular plucks. Then slow but steady arpeggios. Soon, he’s strumming old chord patterns. Then songs learned long ago come back to him, the memories of their notes and chords bursting through his fingers as if they’d been hibernating in his bones.

He has no idea how much time has gone by when the door opens and Francisca walks in. He’s drinking water from a glass, looking towards the door, and their eyes meet momentarily. He coughs, puts the glass back down, and thumbs the guitar strings silently. She drops her purse in a chair and walks down the hall to her bedroom. It’s as if his torso is caught in a vise of fear, guilt, and excitement. What is he supposed to do? What happens now? What do they say?

She comes back into the living room, having discarded her pantsuit and blazer for an old Juanes t-shirt and baggy sweatpants. Her hair is in a bun. He keeps her in the corner of his vision, pretending to inspect the guitar.

“So,” she says, after piling leftovers onto a plate and putting it into the microwave, “You’re playing your guitar again.”

Arturo nods.

She remains silent until the microwave tones. She puts the plate on the counter and sits down, facing him. “How was your day?” she asks.

He stays silent for a moment, afraid the beating of his heart will cause his voice to skip. “It was good.” he replies.

She nods. For a few minutes, he fondles the guitar, unsure of what to do, while she eats her food. Sometimes she looks at him and sometimes she keeps her eye on the plate. When she’s finished, she lays the silverware down slowly.

“I’ve thought all day about what happened last night,” she says evenly, not looking at him. “And while I was at first torn, I can’t ignore why it happened.”

Arturo nods.

“I don’t want to think about the future right now. I don’t want to think what last night meant, long term. I simply want to know if your actions reflect your feelings,” she pauses. “Because mine do.”

Arturo looks down at the floor.

“I had a happy dream last night,” he says finally, “and I have felt like I could climb mountains all day. Like I could run ten kilometers or lift a car clean off the ground.”

Since she arrived, Francisca’s face has been expressionless, but at this she looks surprised. A smile starts to curl at the edges of her lips. “That’s wonderful,” she says. “Did you go outside?” When Arturo shakes his head, she asks why.

“I… I felt like I couldn’t leave…” he says.

The smile crumbles from her face. She asks him what happened in the dream.

“There was a picnic,” he says, “and we walked along the riverbank.”

She looks at him, confused. He searches for the words.

“We guessed the breeds of dogs.” he says finally

Her eyes flash and shoulders droop.

“I’ve been thinking,” he says slowly, “All day, that maybe this has happened because of last night.”

Francisca nods.

“But…” he says, his voice trailing. He gesticulates, his hands flailing in the air. The guitar slips from his lap and crashes to the ground in a dissonant din. She looks away from him. He palms the strings and they go silent.

She gets up, puts the plate in the sink, and faces him again. “What do you want?” she asks.

His stomach churns more.

“To get rid of the nightmares,” he says, “I want another way.”

She looks at him for a moment, mutters something about that priest in Mexico City, then walks down the hall to her room.

He waits for several minutes after the door has closed, then plucks a couple strings halfheartedly. Without realizing, he starts slowly to run up and down several minor pentatonic scales. Maybe they should find the email address for that priest in Mexico. The thought sputters in his mind, and he knows he will never actually look for it. He glances at the door, expecting, hoping, for Manuel to walk in. Minutes go by and the knob doesn’t turn. The hinges don’t squeak. He looks down the hall again, at Francisca’s door sitting at the edge of the chandelier’s pool of light, and one of his fingers slips from the string. He looks down and rubs them together. His hands are covered in a thin film of sweat. Drops from his forehead splatter onto the dull sunburst finish.

  Throwing the guitar aside in another dissonant clatter, he marches down the hall, feet pounding the floor. He raps on the door. After a moment it opens and her face is level with his. He puts his arms on her waist and kisses her. She pulls him towards the bed, dribbling his pants to the floor. He puts his lips on her cheek, up and down her neck, on her breasts as she tosses the t-shirt aside. He runs his hands up and down her sides. Before she turns off the lamp, he can see the hair on the back of her neck standing straight, her skin prickled with goosebumps, as if splashed with freezing water. He kisses them as her nails dig into his back.


She takes the next two days off. They walk in Center City together. They see a movie and share popcorn. They walk along the bank of the Schuylkill River and ask each dog walker what the breed is. They’re right more than they’re wrong. They climb the steps to the Art Museum, sweating on the first warm day of the year, and find shade around the side of the building. Once it’s certain there’s no one around, they unbutton each other’s jeans. They are giddy, as if they haven’t stopped drinking from that bottle of wine.

He only thinks of how stupid and foolish they’re being when he is alone in his bed and she’s down the hall, sleeping next to Manuel. But the more time he spends with her, the better his dreams become, and the more normal he feels.

 The dreams are not only happy, but short. He remembers less each night. After a week, he can only recall brief glimpses, or the passing thrills of emotion. Surprisingly, he only feels quick pinpricks of guilt when he sees his brother in the mornings, stirring his coffee absentmindedly, his eyes staring at the same spot on the tablet. Does he suspect anything? Does he know? But Arturo only says that the dreams have miraculously gone away, and his brother smiles halfheartedly while he cleans his dishes.

“Sorry I don’t seem happier,” he says, “but that new store in King of Prussia is opening in June. It’s crunch time at the office now.” He gets up and gathers his things. Halfway out the door, he stops and says over his shoulder, “But as soon as this is over, we’ll all go out to drinks.”

Arturo won’t admit it, but each day makes it easier to ignore his brother. Francisca comes home during lunch breaks. Arturo spends most of his days walking around the neighborhood, listening to the birds. He spends evenings in the backyard, playing the guitar. Manuel usually calls out the window when he arrives, but by the time night falls and Arturo comes back inside, his brother is already asleep. Francisca says Manuel sleeps fitfully, mumbling incoherencies in his sleep.

As the grand opening of the new pet store approaches, Arturo knows he and Francisca must figure out how they are going to handle Manuel. They haven’t spoken about their plans, but he knows they don’t involve his brother. He brings it up, one week before the opening, when she’s home for lunch. She shushes him, placing a finger on his lips, and says that they will figure it out after. Manuel has become so busy and sleeps so much, why should they waste their time together talking about him? And when was the last time Arturo had a nightmare?

After a few attempts at a retort, he agrees. All he can smell is her lavender perfume, and at the mention of his nightmares, his stomach clenches.

The next morning, he is shaken awake from a vague and pleasant dream. Manuel’s face comes into focus in the dark. Slants of light from the blinds cast shadows on his face. Purple bags hang under his eyes, and his hair is sweaty, plastered to his forehead.

“Arturo,” he says, “Please, tell me what’s going on.”

“I can explain…” Arturo mumbles, sitting up, fireworks of fear crackling in his gut. He found out. He must know.

“How do you get rid of them?” Manuel asks hurriedly.


“The dreams. I fell off a cliff last night, Arturo,” he swallows loudly, “Over and over again. I lost count – over and over.” He grabs Arturo’s shoulder, his skin so drained of color it almost glows in the darkness.

Arturo gapes at his brother’s form. “You fell off a cliff?” he asks slowly.

“Again and again,” Manuel says, stepping off the bed. “I’ve been having them for weeks, Arturo. At first I thought it was stress… but this… this isn’t normal.”

Arturo says nothing for what feels like a long time. He may know the answer. “Don’t you remember?” he asks finally. “We couldn’t get rid of mine.”

“But you don’t have them anymore!” Manuel is on the verge of tears.

“I…I don’t know how that happened.”

Manuel stays half standing at the foot of the bed for a few more minutes before he gets up. Turning toward the door, he trips on a shoe and falls, his hands smacking on the hardwood floor. Arturo starts to get up after him, but his brother quickly scrambles to his feet, momentarily leaning against the wall, before he lurches forward and shuts the door behind him.


He tells Francisca what happened that morning. That night, she climbs into his bed. When he asks her what she’s doing, shouldn’t she go back to her room with Manuel, she shakes her head and pats his chest. He’s been toiling in a fog of confusion and guilt all day, and instead of insisting she leave, he falls sleep with her next to him.

His dream that night is the most vivid since he dreamt of being dead.

Francisca stands at an island counter in a large kitchen. The floors are tile, the walls rough stone, like his grandfather’s lake house in San Juan. Small dogs burst through the door behind him, brushing past his legs and dancing around Francisca’s feet. She cuts avocados, and their tangy scent mixes with her lavender perfume. The smells linger when he goes outside and takes the massive house in: three stories of stone with a Tejada tile roof, alone on a long beach. The ocean’s lonely drone is pierced by sudden barking. Arturo likes how the sounds seem to clash in the air, almost tactile. His brother would find the dogs annoying.

Manuel. Arturo runs back inside, his flip flops smacking desperately behind him. He scrambles up the steps. The house has bedroom upon bedroom, each painted a different color, each containing only a bed and an empty vase. He opens door after door, looking for a telltale sign: a tie thrown over a chair, a wrinkled shirt cast on a bed. He listens for the blunt staccato of his brother’s voice, or the small clicks and taps of a phone keyboard. The rooms seem to have no end. As he approaches each one, an image of Manuel tumbling to the ground flashes before him, disappearing as he reaches the door.

Over and over again, the sequence of his brother’s mirage, a swinging door, and an empty room. The barking bounces between the walls of the hallway and echoes around each room. Every time he swings open a door, he catches a whiff of lavender perfume. No matter how deep into the house he runs, no matter how many doors he swings open, no matter how many mirages stumble before him, he can’t get away from the sound and the smell.