Friday, 3:23 a.m.
I used to think dreams were just your brain rebooting for the night, not a big deal—until they were. Then I wanted them to go away, but they kept coming, wouldn’t leave me alone. That may have been the biggest gift my mom ever gave me, but I didn’t want to believe it for the longest time.
On this night, I woke in a cold sweat. Not the hot, hormonal one of my cycle. So, I knew the time without looking, but I checked anyway. 3:23 a.m. Again.
“Chingado.” I kept my voice low so as not to wake Sydney. I’d never understood how she could sleep through low-flying LAPD helicopters but startle awake at a creaking floorboard. She’d once explained it was due to her time in Afghanistan, but I thought it had more to do with growing up in LA. I stayed in bed and reached for the comforter, careful not to pull it away from her, and stared at the ceiling fan’s faint outline in the dark.
What was that dream? And why had I felt faint at the end of it? That was new. I tried to recall if I’d ever felt that in other dreams, but nothing came to mind. After several attempts at a relaxation exercise Sydney had taught me, I gave up on images of my body melting and returned to my catatonic examination of the ceiling fan. Wait, was that Joey melting in my dream? Was I remembering that right? Creepy!
I was still trying to remember, when Sydney stirred ahead of her six o’clock alarm. She moaned from deep in her throat the way she always did upon waking and turned to kiss me lightly on the lips. I loved that she kissed me before getting out of bed. Now that she was an attending, her schedule at the hospital was more sane, the morning kisses more regular.
“Earth to Yolanda,” she said when I continued to stare at the ceiling after returning her kiss. “Awake long?”
“Since three twenty-three.”
“Uh-oh. The juju’s back.”
I gave her a noncommittal grunt.
“Be careful today, okay?”
“No worries, love. Just collecting on a Workers’ Comp case and dropping by Dad’s. You coming to happy hour at Mel’s later?” Our group of Friday regulars would be at the Highland Park dive.
“Yeah, but don’t change the subject. Promise me no heroics today, okay? No climbing into lockers and fighting off bat-wielding men.” She smiled, propping herself up on her left elbow, but her eyes turned serious. She rested her head on her upturned hand, her durag sliding a bit off-center.
“I promise.” I didn’t want her to worry. I knew she was thinking of the last time I’d woken up at that time. That night, I’d brushed off an odd, claustrophobic feeling. But later, while on stakeout at a baseball field, I’d hidden in a utility shed to record and expose a fake shoulder injury. Some nosey Little Leaguer made me, and my subject took a bat to the shed. I got shaky video on my phone, timed my escape between swings, and got away with just a few scratches and bruises from a less-than-graceful, tumbling exit. Ace move by your friendly, neighborhood private eye.
“What else?” Sydney brought me back from the memory.
I yawned. “What do you mean?”
“A dream, a feeling…?”
“Just one dream.” I sighed, knowing she wouldn’t let it go. “I was browsing for a book for Joey’s birthday. That’s all.”
“I said, that was all.” I left out the part about Joey’s image melting away. I wasn’t sure of my recollection, and I didn’t want to get into it anyway. Sydney connected these early morning wakeups to my mom because they’d started after her death. A few weeks earlier, Sydney had started pressing me to “work through these issues,” but I didn’t want to dredge up old regrets and nagging guilt.
“There’s always more to these dreams, babe.” I’d never liked that term of endearment before hearing it from her. I liked it fine, now. “So, then?”
“Well…I felt a little dizzy. Must’ve been cuz I was in the kids’ section and kids have cooties.” I hoped making light of it would get her to drop the subject. It didn’t.
“Look at me,” Sydney said in that soft voice that always got my attention. “Turn your head and look me in the eye.”
I did as instructed.
“That’s it. Just felt like I was losing my balance.”
“Are you interrogating me?”
“Trying to get you to remember all of it.” She caressed the scar on my left arm and kissed me on the forehead.
“Okay, I’ll play.” I hoped to get the retelling over quickly so she’d leave me alone. “I was at Espacio 1839 over by the Mariachi Plaza. I was looking for bilingual chapter books. Everything’s fine, and then I get a little vertigo when I move a dust cloth from the shelf…Funny, I just remembered that. Wonder what that was doing there.” I stopped and looked at her, but she only nodded so as not to interrupt. “That’s pretty much it.” If I’d mentioned the image of Joey melting, she’d never let it go.
“How did the dream end?”
“Um…kinda like a movie. You know how things fade to black between scenes? Like that. Nothing special.”
“Feel anything other than vertigo at the end of the dream?”
“Now that you mention it, maybe a little anxious. But, really, I think it’s just cuz I haven’t gotten around to getting Joey’s gift. I’ve been so busy.”
“I think maybe you should consider your brother’s advice and at least give this stuff the benefit of the doubt.”
“Aww, Syd, you know I’m not into Jesse’s woo-woo stuff. Dreams are just your brain rebooting for the night. No. More like clearing your browser history. You click on ‘clear’ and you move on.”
Sydney frowned, so I tried to explain. “Otherwise your brain gets clogged up and you…and you can’t focus on what’s important, you know?” My voice trailed off, Mom coming to mind. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to block out the memory. Sydney picked up on it.
“Babe, look at me,” she said again. She caressed the side of my neck with the back of her warm, brown fingers, a gesture I usually loved, but not so much today. I opened my eyes to meet her gaze.
“Can you repeat after me? Please?” She waited for me to nod.
“I did not kill my mother.” When I hesitated, she insisted, “Say it. Please.”
“I did not kill my mother,” I repeated. Why is she making me do this?
“I am not responsible for her death.”
“Why are you doing this?” My voice caught, and tears welled.
“Please,” she said in a near whisper.
“I am not responsible for her death.” Tears flowed. “You’re lucky I love you, cuz now you’re pissing me off. Okay?”
“I’m sorry.” She held me tight. “And I love you. That’s why I needed to hear you say it, even though your eyes tell me you still blame yourself.” She ran her fingers through my spikey, bed-head hair and gave me a sad smile. “I’ll let it go, but only if you promise to check in with Carmen on Joey, and talk to Jesse about it too, okay?”
“Okay.” I held her close, confident there was nothing to the dream. Carmen would’ve called if there’d been anything up with Joey. She’d been my best friend since third grade, when we’d agreed to baptize each other’s kids and be comadres. So far, being a godmother was enough motherhood for me.
“Okay, then.” Sydney ran her thumb over my wet cheek. Her alarm sounded with its gently rising trill, and she leaned over to stop it before it reached the annoying level. “Gotta hit the shower if I’m gonna check in on the new residents. But promise me you’ll be careful today, okay?” She gave me a peck on the cheek.
She gave me another peck, this time on the lips, accompanied by a concerned frown, but she said nothing else and got out of bed.
I lay back with my forearm over my eyes and tried to block out the guilt and shame that engulfed me every time I thought of Mom’s death. Sydney was right; I did blame myself. It was my fault. If I’d focused on what I’d already known at the time, instead of chasing a stupid dream, Mom would be alive today. I remembered it like yesterday.
The morning of Mom’s funeral, I got a call from the Highway Patrol investigator. The man who’d run my mom off the road had been killed instantly when his car crashed into a freeway pylon. They’d had trouble identifying him because he’d used several aliases. Blood drained from my face at the mention of three names all too familiar to me—an identity thief I’d been tracking. I’d followed a stupid dream vision about his location, instead of the one real lead I had—a license plate that could have led me to him earlier.
“Stupid, stupid, STUPID!” I’d said over and over, pounding my forehead with my fist after that call. Sydney had tried to convince me that I couldn’t have done anything to prevent the road-rage accident. That it was a freak coincidence. The guy had no way of knowing I had conducted Internet searches for him. But I wouldn’t listen. I was numb with guilt throughout the funeral and went through the motions of accepting condolences without feeling anything. Sydney told me later that she was afraid I wasn’t letting myself grieve. But how could I? I was too busy blaming myself. I vowed, then and there, to be done with this intuition and dream crap, and stick to the facts. If I’d done that, I would’ve traced the old license plate, found the guy, kept him off the road somehow, and saved my mother. She’d be alive. She was dead because I hadn’t done detective work the way they’d drilled into us at the Academy a lifetime ago.
Maybe it was a good thing I’d left the LAPD. Maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a cop after all. No. I was a good cop. Damned good. But that was before I’d been shot, long before all this juju stuff surfaced.
I fidgeted under the covers, antsy with guilt all over again. Sydney may get me to say otherwise, but I was never going to believe I wasn’t responsible for Mom’s death. I sat up and tried to slow my breathing, biting my lower lip.
“Syd,” I called out when she stepped out of the shower. “Why’d you do that? Why’d you make me remember? I am not going to repeat that mistake. It will never happen again.” I wiped a lingering tear.
“Babe.” She stepped back into the bedroom wrapped in a towel, her smooth, dark skin glistening with moisture. “I just think the juju can help with the guilt.”
I started to protest but flopped back onto my pillow when she continued.
“You know deep down that it wasn’t your fault, but you won’t acknowledge it.” She sat beside me on the bed, her own scar—“my Taliban tattoo,” she called it—highlighting her right biceps. “I just want you to be all of you, love.” She placed her hand over my heart, her kind, brown eyes locked on mine. “I know I can’t tell you how to grieve, but acknowledging anything—even this psychic stuff—has gotta be better than that unjustified guilt. It’s been almost a year.”
I knew she was trying to help, but the psychic thing was a step too far.
“Please. I am not psychic. And even if I had some…what do you and Jesse call it? Psychic intuition? It could never be reliable. It’s just a distraction.” I sat up again and hugged her. “No, love, don’t worry—this juju stuff’s not for me. Besides, it would never hold up in court. I’d be laughed off the witness stand. Nah…If Mom’s death taught me anything, it’s that we shouldn’t let the juju get in the way. And it won’t. I’ll call Carmen now. You’ll see. Joey’s fine.”
I dialed Carmen on speaker and heard road noise when she answered.
“Hey, mujer. Off to work already?” I tried to sound unconcerned, calling her “woman,” one of the terms we used for each other.
“Buenos días, comadre. Have a deposition downtown. Gotta get in early and kick some butt. My client waited until last night to tell me about another witness. Can you believe it? Chingado. What’s up?”
“Um, just checking in on Joey’s party tomorrow.” The little white lie couldn’t hurt. “What time should we be there? What can we bring?”
“Ah, you’ve turned into your mother, Yolanda.” I felt her smile through the phone. “She would never arrive to a party empty-handed.”
“No Ávila would. What can I say?”
“Well, now that you mention it, how about your potato salad? Or Sydney’s awesome mac and cheese? Either would be fine. Say one o’clock? Joey’ll be getting hyper before the party and you and Sydney are so good with him.”
“Carbs and entertainment for a six-year-old. You got it. Good luck with the depo.”
We hung up, and I raised my eyebrows at Sydney, feeling justified. She gave a curt nod.
“You’ll still be careful today, right?” she said, standing up.
“Absolutely!” I jumped out of bed, pretending to feel much better about the rest of my day. I knew it would take most of it to shake off the resurfaced guilt. I’d done it before. All it took was concentrating on my work, keeping busy. The thought made me feel a little better—perhaps prematurely.
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