Nightmare Jack, II
by Tamara Podella
|Nightmare Jack appears in issue 418.||
I couldn’t remember having gone back to the hotel. Somehow, I was standing at my aunt’s grave wearing a black velvet dress, my boots and leather jacket. My hair didn’t feel washed and I had no idea what my face looked like. Luckily, I was wearing my sunglasses. Evin stood next to me, equally clad in black shirt, black jeans and leather jacket. A light rain drizzled onto our heads and a Scotsman in kilt was playing Amazing Grace on the bagpipes. There were around fifty people at the service, many more than I would have expected. Then again, Evin had made it clear that I knew nothing about my aunt. He winked at me even as tears were streaming down his rugged cheeks, blew his nose into a blue handkerchief and furtively handed me two aspirins and a bottle of water.
I washed down the pills and started looking around at all the sad, sympathetic faces. Some directed curious glances my way. Did they all know that I was the runaway niece? And suddenly I was looking straight into the calm, smiling blue eyes of a curly-haired man standing a little apart from the group of mourners, big shaggy dogs waving their tails to his left and right. Harry. My heart skipped a beat — I hadn’t for an instant considered that they would be here, but why wouldn’t they? They had known Aunt Cathy too. My gaze caught on the white writing on his black shirt: Sheldon Funeral Services.
Somehow, I made it through the rest of the music and the eulogies. In the end, Harry came up to me with a dozen white roses for me to drop on Aunt Cathy’s grave, and then it was over.
“Harry, it’s so good to see you,” I said lamely and opened my arms.
He hugged me tightly, good Harry who would never hurt a fly, let alone hold a grudge. “So good to see you too, Ramona. How are you holding up?”
“Okay, thanks. I mean, I was never really a part of her life. I’ve met her boyfriend, Evin, and he’s great. And you? Since when are you in the funeral business? Is Jack... ” My breath abandoned me at the sound of his name.
“Yes, Evin is a great guy. I see him at the pub sometimes. I’ve been doing this for a while now. A bit morbid, I know. But I really like taking care of things for people. No, Jack’s... ” a look of pain flashed across his face and my heart turned in my chest. No, please.
He must have seen the shock on my face because he reached out to massage my shoulder in what seemed like a routine comfort movement for him. “No, no, nothing like that. He’s just, well, he’s a writer, for one, but also, he lives alone in a cabin in the wilderness. We don’t see him much. He’ll take a trip to the internet cafe once a month to type up his stories and post them to his agent. Sometimes he drops by afterwards to see the girls.” He blushed, looking just like his twelve-year-old self when we first met. “My wife and I have triplets. They’re five.”
“Wow, congratulations, Harry. That’s wonderful. I knew you’d turn out okay,” I said. My dress was drenched in cold sweat. “So, what do you mean? A cabin? In the wilderness?”
“Oh, yes, you remember the abandoned property next to Uncle Sherman’s house? He bought it, you know, to give something back to nature. He had the old house torn down but left everything the way it was, for the birds and foxes and deer. They were talking about building a shopping mall. That was about five years ago. Ever since then, he’s a local hero. Everybody knows Sherman Maggle.”
“Oh, the Wilderness! Sure I remember, I used to play hide and seek with you in the fallen down house. Remember when we found the dove’s nest? So you don’t call him Uncle Shaggy anymore?”
He chuckled. “No, not since he met Aunt Lisa. She hated the name and made us call him Sherman. They’ve been married for fifteen years. They’re out in Knysna doing a yoga retreat, but they’ll be back next week. How long are you staying, Ramona?”
“Uh, just a few days... ”
“Oh, OK, I understand.”
“Well, sure. If it weren’t for Jack always looking out for me... I don’t know where I’d be now. Far away, probably.”
I studied his face. “It must be hard for you. Not to see him every day. How long has he been like that?”
Harry sighed. “About two years. But it’s not just that he lives like a hermit and we don’t hang out anymore. It’s- I don’t know how to say it. He’s, well. Or he thinks, he’s turning into... ”
“Into what? Harry?” Now it was my turn to rub his arm. His blue eyes had filled with tears and suddenly I had a flashback of the night at the hotel where I went to see Harry and Jack, after their mother shot their father and then herself. Harry had been sleeping peacefully while we talked all night. He hadn’t even been scared, because his big brother was there. The night Jack saved that girl, thinking it was me. “Your father?” I whispered.
His Adam’s apple moved, and he clenched his fists so hard the knuckles stood out white.
“But why? Why would he think that? What happened?”
Harry wiped his eyes and smiled politely at some mourners passing by. “Something about his nightmares. And waking up in the woods, not knowing how he got there. This used to happen when we were still living with Uncle Sherman. Uncle Sherman used to find him in the morning lying on the stoep, all covered in leaves. The doctor said Jack was a sleepwalker, and back then, you know Jack, he just laughed it off. In the morning he’d have a headache and Uncle Sherman would give him a double espresso and two aspirins and he’d be okay.”
The lump was back. Only now, the golf course had turned into the Sahara. “Then, what was different this time?”
Harry shrugged. “I don’t know. He thinks the same thing might have happened to our father. When his own father died, and he turned into a monster. Jack got these shadows under his eyes and grew a bit quieter, but I didn’t mind. He’s still my brother. The girls love him. He writes stories for them. But I wasn’t the one living with him, so I don’t know how bad it really was. His wives certainly couldn’t take it.”
A small grin stole across his face. “Jealous? The first was a girl from Japan who really missed her hometown and wanted him to go back with her. But he didn’t want to leave.”
“He would never have left his little brother.”
He smiled sheepishly. “His second one wasn’t happy anyway because she wanted kids and he didn’t, and when the sleepwalking started, she packed her bags. He had a great place in Camps Bay. Sold everything. He showed up for lunch at Uncle Sherman’s with a backpack one Sunday, and ever since then he’s been living in the Wilderness. Built the cabin from nothing, all by himself.”
“Sounds like she must have broken his heart when she left. His second wife.”
“Who, Sandra? No. If you ask me, he was glad she left. No, it’s something else. Something that’s been inside of him ever since we were boys, only this time round it’s different, because, well, we’re not boys anymore.”
We’d started walking slowly through the drizzle and were nearing the parking lot. “But never mind all that, Ramona. I shouldn’t have said anything. Jack wouldn’t want-” he stopped himself, lips pressing into a thin line.
“Did he- did he say anything about me? Does he know I’m here?”
“I’m sure he knows. Look, don’t worry about us, Ramona. Jack has always been a fighter. He’ll pull through.”
“But- why? Why wouldn’t he want me to know that he’s not well? Does he hate me?”
Harry cringed. “Of course he doesn’t hate you. It’s more like, well, we never talked about you again, after you left. After you told him you never wanted to see him again...But I just know he’d prefer- and it’s better- for everyone, if you stayed away from him.”
“Now you’re making me sound like a crazy person.”
Evin was waiting by the car. “Come on, party animal, I’ll take you back to your hotel. Oh, you two know each other?”
“Yeah, Harry is Jack’s little brother.”
Evin’s face moved into a fascinating mixture of shock and bemused horror. “Jack Sheldon? That’s your Jack?” His eyes wondered between Harry’s and mine. Then, seeing his answer confirmed, he climbed into the bakkie, Yellow already up in the back, and turned on the engine. “Go and see him, then. What are you waiting for? Come by your aunt’s place for brunch tomorrow at noon. I’m making pancakes.”
“Evin, wait!” Harry started, but Evin was already speeding off, taillights flashing in the rain. “Crikey.” He looked at me, actually looked down at me.
“Little Harry, all grown up,” I said and ruffled his hair.
He smiled politely.
“Can you drop me in town?”
He didn’t manage to hide just how relieved he was that I wasn’t going to heed Evin’s advice and see Jack. “Sure, come on.”
He put his arm around me and walked me over to his black company car.
We were silent on the ride to town. When I got out in Gardens he said, “Safe trip. And don’t go out alone tonight. It’s much more dangerous than it used to be.”
“Thanks. Take care, Harry. And tell Jack-”
He raised his brows as if to ward off evil.
“Nevermind. Just take care.”
In my hotel room, I took a long shower, set up my WiFi and tried to check in with Maggie, but she was out. I left her a message and decided to get some food. Sitting in a cafe on Long Street I had a sandwich and a coke, and suddenly ‘I wanna be your Boyfriend’ by the Ramones came on. It was the first song of the mix tape Jack had made for me when they moved back to Cape Town. Before I knew it, I was scribbling a poem onto my napkin. The air smelled of rain on tar, one of my favourite smells, all the better because I was in Cape Town, and the fragrance mingled with the smells of the city and the sea. At three o’clock I was ready to fall over by the side of the road, but instead of catching a rickshaw back to the hotel I hailed a taxi bus and rode to Hout Bay. I unlaced my boots and strolled barefoot along the beach. Not long and it stopped drizzling. The sun came out and the gulls screamed above my head as the waves rolled and crashed.
What was Harry afraid of? Did he really think I would make Jack’s condition worse? Did he think it was my fault? Because it was my fault they lost their parents? If it hadn’t been for me, would they still be alive? And what was happening to Jack? Was he really going crazy, like his father? Could something like that be hereditary? Did he really think he was turning into a killer?
I thought back to Harry’s face. He hadn’t been afraid for me; he’d been afraid for Jack.
I stopped dead in my tracks, wet sand squishing between my toes. Who the hell was I kidding, thinking I could come back here and not see him? Every single cell in my body yearned to see him, longed to look into his grey eyes, so brave, so steady, so Jack. And at the same time my cells knew what it would mean to look into those eyes again. Facing everything. My mom’s suicide. My teenage dreams. My first love. All my pain. All the loneliness. All the bitterness I’d tried so hard to escape. And still.
Pressing my boots to my chest, I gulped a breath of sea air and ran.
When I got to Uncle Shaggy’s house it was just like I’d remembered it. The bougainvillea on either side of the automatic gate, which I climbed without a second thought. The parking lot roof heavy with grapevine. Yellow leaves floating in the pool.
I headed down into the pines. The sun was getting so hot I had to take off my jacket. At the bottom of the garden stood a big cow gate in place of the old fence. Beyond that, the Wilderness engulfed me. I had no idea where to go so I followed the course of the river, thinking that a cabin would best be located near fresh water. I must have walked for about twenty minutes before I saw the first sign of human life. It was a bundle of clothes on a rock beneath a willow tree. Jeans and a linen shirt of faded grey. There was a ripple in the water and a big fish jumped out, making me start. My throat was parched by now and I inwardly cursed Evin for all the beers and shots. Suddenly exhausted, I stretched out on the rock, put my jacket under my head and gazed up into the willow. I remembered how we used to sit in the treetops listening to the wind, how free I used to feel. How none of it mattered, not my mom forgetting to make dinner, nor the Saturday mornings I spent shopping and cleaning our flat as she slept off her hangover on the couch, while other teenagers got pocket money for the movies and went surfing. How safe he had made me feel. How seen. A bit like Evin had made me feel the night before, only better, because, God. What was the name of the boy you loved?
Copyright © 2020 by Tamara Podella