The dream clung heavily to the edges of Aveny’s psyche as she eased slowly into consciousness. Its remnants hung in thick milky webs, draped between her subconscious and alert state. She fought to maintain it, to remain adrift in oblivion. Unlike her recent nightmares, this had been a wonderful dream.
She lingered for a long moment, reveling in the feelings that remained. Her body tingled with a kind of electric peace and her mind hummed with a simple, easy joy she hadn’t felt in recent memory.
She wished she could return to the dream – or recall it in its entirety; the pure bliss, the exhilarating freedom, the cool refreshment. There had been water. At least, she thought it was water. She was swimming – or maybe being pulled on a current. Maybe it wasn’t water at all; maybe it was sky. Maybe she was flying.
She recalled incendiary hues of aquamarine spiraling around her, hitting her body in tiny explosions of iridescent light. She was surrounded by darkness, but not the kind of blind obscurity that strikes fear of the unknown. No, this was the velvety depth of a puppy’s black fur; the shimmering surface of steaming coffee; a warm, enveloping blanket on a cold, dark night. And it went on forever.
She flew through its midst, tendrils of cerulean static spiraling away as she launched toward her goal.
Then she recalled; the light. That irregular blue light seemed to shift and flow, yet remained steady, always just ahead. It hung like a tantalizing blue sun, just out of reach. But though she yearned to reach it, she was already too whole with joy to truly long for anything.
Aveny had enjoyed sleeping once. In her youth, she could fall into unconsciousness as easily on a plane, train or automobile as she could in her own bed. But as she’d aged, she’d become increasingly restless in the night. Now, most of her dreams were nothing but a loop of thrilling chases interspersed by gut-wrenching nightmares.
It had been years since she could remember sleeping this soundly.
But already it was draining away. Aveny could feel its essence dissolving from her body, soaking straight through the mattress and off into oblivion. There was nothing for it. Just like that, it was gone.
She could hear her children – Luca and Brecken, by the sound of it – gathering their weekend bowls of cereal in the kitchen. She rolled over and felt empty space on the bed next to her. That’s right, she recalled, Brand’s still on shift.
It always took her a few minutes to remember if he was home the night before or not. With his rotating shifts, she was never quite sure if he was coming or going. Add overtime, a busy family schedule, and a sleep-muddled brain into the mix, and remembering his schedule became trickier than reciting the Fibonacci sequence.
Aveny rolled over, flipped on the lamp and grabbed her phone off the nightstand, clumsily ripping the charge cord from the wall in the process. She habitually scrolled through her Facebook feed until she felt fully awake and assured that nothing interesting had occurred overnight. Then she dropped the phone and stretched luxuriously. She loved the weekends.
Slowly, she pushed the covers to one side, preparing to swing her feet out of bed and onto the carpeted floor but recoiled with a gasp as her hand grazed something strange.
Rat! her mind shrieked instinctively.
She erupted from bed like an overstuffed Jack-in-the-Box. She half expected whatever it was to come rocketing out after her, but all was still and quiet. Aveny grabbed the lamp from her nightstand and used it to lift the edge of her comforter. Something peeked back at her from within – something long and hairy.
When it didn’t move, she flipped the blanket out of the way and lept backward, holding the lamp in front of her like a glowing sword. Thankfully, whatever it was did not protest. The shock calmed and settled momentarily in her chest, only to rise again as she registered the object’s identity. It was her grandmother’s seal skin.
Aveny shuddered. Gross.
Clearly, one of the kids had found it and were either playing an impish joke – or were trying to be sweet by sharing this strange fluffy blanket. Hopefully, it was the latter.
Just as she was about to call them in to investigate, her daughter, Tali – short for Tallulah, a name she’d inherited from Aveny’s Grandmother’s mother – came plodding into the room, swaddled in her massive pink comforter. A tuft of wild, blond-streaked hair shot out the top of her blanket like a volcano. The explosion was highlighted by a mass of tangled knots – a daily occurrence.
Tali’s fine baby hair had never thickened. It was still as soft and wispy as ever, even though she was now almost six-years-old. She flopped onto the edge of Aveny’s bed and struggled awkwardly to climb up.
Shoving the skin aside with her foot, Aveny sat down and lifted her daughter onto her lap. She encircled the giant ball of blankets with a hug, encasing the tiny girl within.
This was her favorite part … or one of them, at least. She liked being the first person her daughter sought out in the morning. She loved the soft warmth of her youngest child’s dewy breath on her neck and the way her long eyelashes – gifts from her father – danced along her cheek as Tali slowly blinked herself awake.
Brecken walked by the door and, noticing the pair of them, came into the room. “Can we have Saturday morning cartoons?” he asked.
Somewhere along the way, Brand had told him how he’d grown up watching Saturday morning cartoons and Brecken had really latched onto the idea.
Aveny had tried pointing out that Saturday mornings were the only times they could watch cartoons as kids, because that was the only time they were on. Now cartoons were always on Netflix – or Hulu – or Amazon. It wasn’t the same. “You don’t get unlimited cartoons just because it’s Saturday morning,” she had explained.
No one had seen this as a viable argument and the conversation had repeated weekly ever since.
“It’s Sunday,” Aveny said with a smile.
“Can we have Sunday morning cartoons?” Brecken asked – not missing a beat.
“How about you explain why this thing was in my bed this morning?” Aveny pointed to the discarded seal skin now crumpled atop the blankets.
“What is it?” Brecken asked, walking over and poking it with one outstretched finger.
Aveny looked at him for a minute. His cheeks were soft and rosy, his pale skin creamy in contrast to his thick mahogany hair. “It’s a skin I got from grandma when she died,” she said. “Did you put it on my bed?”
“Whose skin?” he asked, his eyes widening.
“An animal,” Aveny replied, then added, “a seal, actually.”
“Gross,” Brecken breathed, a grin blossoming on his face. He took hold of one end and pulled it toward him so it unfurled to the floor. “Can I have it?”
“No,” Aveny said. “Go get your brother.”
Luca was getting longer and lankier every day. Poised on the precipice of puberty, his limbs were extending at an impressive rate. He was still shorter than Aveny by a good 12 inches but she could feel the tension building in the small mechanism of his body, readying itself for a growth spurt at any moment. Every morning she half expected to find he had outgrown her in his sleep.
He was still munching on a mouthful of cereal when he walked into the room. “What’s up?” Luca asked, the words spraying a little as he chewed.
“Did you put this in my bed?”
“What is it?” he asked, stepping closer.
“Why is everyone asking that before they admit whether or not they put it here?” Aveny queried, exasperated.
Luca just stared at her.
“It’s a seal skin I got from Grandma Catherine,” she admitted. “Did you put it here?”
“Really? Like a real seal skin?” His eyes expanded and a grin drifted across his eager face.
Luca was a born biologist. His room housed a wide array of natural paraphernalia; from seashells to moss-covered sticks, bits of beetle shells and a large disembodied lobster claw. His pride and joy, an aquarium of live tree frogs.
He ran a hand over the skin, his eyes gleaming with delight at this most unexpected discovery. “Can I have it?”
“No.” Aveny said, her mouth tight. “Why did you put it in my bed?”
Luca stopped chewing. “What? I didn’t.”
“Well, somebody is lying,” Aveny pointed out. “It didn’t just wriggle in here on its own.”
She looked down at Tali. “Wait, did you put it here?”
Tali shook her head, no. This one, Aveny believed. She doubted very much if Tali could have even reached the box on the tall closet shelf, let alone lifted the weighty object down.
She glanced back and forth between Luca and Brecken. “I know one of you did it. Just tell me.”
They both stared back, looking wide-eyed and innocent.
Aveny never really knew what to do in situations like this. She wasn’t a natural parent – she had met enough people who were to know. She was often stymied by the basic demands of raising small children. Finding solutions was always a Herculean effort for her, especially when attempting to sleuth out a culprit.
She’d tried punishing everyone and she’d tried punishing no one. The latter just gave the kids free license to do whatever they wanted, knowing full well that she’d be powerless to discipline them as long as no one fessed up. But punishing everyone resulted in an angry escalating battle of wills and proclaimed injustice that, at least in this case, didn’t feel worth it.
“Both of you go clean the kitchen.”
They were responsible to do this anyway and they all knew it. It wasn’t really a punishment, just the punctuation that signaled the conversation’s end.
Brecken paused at the door, “So … cartoons?”
Aveny sucked in the corner of her lip and furrowed her brow. “Go do your job. We’ll talk about that later.”
Ah, deferment. Her favorite parental tool.
Luca seemed frozen in place, relishing the feel of the skin in his arms. He was mesmerized. For some reason, the sight sent a shudder up Aveny’s spine.
She reminded herself that the skin couldn’t hurt him. Still, a tingly sensation raced across her arms as goosebumps rose from her flesh. “Go clean up,” she told him, sliding the skin from his grasp. “And help Tali get a bowl of cereal please.”
He looked wistfully at the skin. “Can I have it when you die?”
“Go,” she urged, rolling her eyes, “and … maybe … We’ll see.”
This was one of her offsprings’ favorite tools – lining out the will.
Aveny strode into the office, where she found the box sitting open on the desk. She picked it up and carried it to her bed, where the skin still lay. There was something about the thing that made her not want to hold it any longer than was absolutely necessary. Something about it just … Aveny wasn’t sure what.
To say it creeped her out wasn’t quite right. It didn’t actually gross her out, either.
Unsettling – that’s what it was.
Perhaps it was that twinge of guilt that someone in her family had once been party to the killing of a seal … maybe even lots of them. She reminded herself again that it was a different time, but still, the sense of unease lingered.
Aveny wasn’t an animal lover – she’d never been infatuated with kittens or horses; never dreamed of being a vet; never taken up the cause of animal rights. She didn’t even own a pet. But for some reason, the skin still pulled at her heart.
She quickly grabbed the skin and moved to deposit it back into the box, but something stayed her hand. Luca was right. She remembered now how wonderfully silky the skin felt. Its soft texture was like catnip to her touch.
She skimmed her fingers down the length of it, stopping to examine each protrusion. It really was miraculous – every inch intact, from its nose to its taut whiskers. Well, almost. Two gaping holes belied the space where a living creature had once peered out into the world. She stroked its fur absentmindedly for a moment longer before discovering herself and hastily closing it back into the box.