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T. Fox Dunham

T. Fox Dunham resides outside of Philadelphia PA—author and historian. He’s a cancer survivor and writes about his experience as both catharsis and accusation. His friends call him fox, being his totem animal, and his motto is: Wrecking civilization one story at a time.

By His Grace (Dreams Where the Dead Go)

Peter slept little since starting chemo, and he felt grateful for the insomnia. When he dreamed, he dreamed of Grace. He wondered if dreams are the realms where the dead go. He lay awake on the floor, and his mind astral projected into space, reaching for the sun. On its molten bloody surface, he witnessed the big-head race building an orange pyramid from parts of themselves—legs and arms and ribs and bums flattened when several of the race sat on the bits for several days.

His alarm keened. He showered, quick now without hair, and dressed in his black suit jacket.

Peter paused at the door. He placed his black aluminum cane against the wall to free his hand. He touched each of the snow globes placed on the two shelves on the wall. He moved down the rows, shaking each globe: depictions of holiday scenes, of three dimensional U.S. state cutouts, of lions on the veldt and ducks in ponds, forest scenes and waterfalls, and happy couples dancing. Many of the globes he’d bought at yard sales. Their glass had cracked or the plastic leaked; their tiny realms blurred and faded. Still he agitated them all equally. He’d want no less for himself. He grabbed the cane, locked the door to his apartment and took the stairs one step at time, leaning on his cane. He paused at the front door.

“Today, it will snow.”

He dragged the weighted door. It scraped over the tiles, following an eroded path from sixty years of the same motion. He scanned the parking lot, looking to the sky for snow. Perhaps God had shaken his snow globe and the weather had not obliged.

He sighed, then fished out a black bandanna from his suit jacket pocket. He wrapped it over his shorn head.

He drove out to the Lansdale Terminal and waited on the platform for the R-7 to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. He gazed at the magnolia trees, listening to his heart beat in his ears, and he attempted to speed time. He imagined his mind an 8-millimeter camera, and he was turning up the play speed. For several moments, he perceived a bud dangling from one of the branches swell and split, a nascent white blossom daring to bloom early, even under the threat of a late snow.

A Septa train flowed past the station, and he studied the faces staring out of the greasy windows, each face belonging to Grace. Each Grace watched the world, sucking on her thin lips, silver eyes chained down. She touched her fingers to the greasy glass, and he reached for her. The train passed down the track and faded into the single point perspective.

Cut a paper doll for each lost soul, he made a note to himself.

His train slowed to the platform, blowing steam. He climbed up into the car, took to one of the torn seats. His heart pounded on his ribcage. His black jacket hung on his papyrus-thin body like a kite on a still day. A silvery-haired woman seven days from death looked at him and sighed. He couldn’t practice telepathy, but he knew her thoughts: Sad to see a young man so sick and probably on his way to feeding the daffodils.

He eased back into the seat. Hummingbirds poked at the scar tissue in his throat, so he pinched a white pill from the bottle in his jacket and swallowed down the poppy powder. It would do little to assuage the pain, but he felt better for having the illusion. He looked up at earth’s star—the deaf father. Grace infected his thoughts, and he meditated to bury her, to drive her from his mind to the pit where the lost belonged, the hole filled with cut paper dolls. When he let his mind wander, it always found her. When he’d succeeded in diverting his thoughts from her and securing a little peace, she manifested in his dreams.

He gazed at the sun till his eyes stung and melted like burning candles.

Then as in the dream, they made contact. He could remotely see them as if his eyeballs took flight and traveled via tesseract, the single astronomical unit that marked the distance of daughter earth to stoic father star. On the sun, the alien race dwelt and loved and died.

“GUNNA HO BOB-BA,” their chief spoke. Their heads expanded like balloons. Their stick-figure bodies dangled below, a fraction of size in comparison. They gambled on their toes over the beclouded surface of the plasma world.

“I know your kind,” he transmitted his thoughts through his spectral avatar. “The late eighteenth century astronomer William Herschel predicted you lived on the sun.”

“We watch you microheads. Sometimes you stop and move no more. Then the still-moving ones burn you up or put you in the brown stuff or cut you up and feed you to the flapping things. Why?”

The train wailed and broke his concentration. It slowed into his destination. It stopped, and the momentum knocked him back. He leaned on his cane through 30th Street Station, pausing beneath the black marble angel holding up the heavens. He grabbed a cab to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, followed the gleaming corridors to the chemo room.

The nurse sliced an IV into his forearm. The vein rolled, and she tried twice more.

“Stubborn little snake,” she said. Her accent spoke of tropical islands, of tanned skin and hot thighs. “Don’t be a naughty snake like the bad one in da’Garden.”

“We owe that snake our knowledge,” Peter said.

He ground his teeth from the pain on the third stick.

“People would rad’er be stupid and happy,” she said. “Da’serpent brought death into the world. And our tears filled the oceans. Now honey, don’t you worry none. I’m going to take care of you. So young.”

He couldn’t stand an obsequious nurse. She finally hit vein and hung a saline bag. She injected the purple elixir into his IV. Over the hour, he sensed the poison souring his body toxic, sickening every cell and turning his stomach.

He faced away from Grace’s usual seat in the chair circle. He struggled against the gnawing, toothless gravity ripping at his limbs, sucking him into the hole she’d left in the world. He’d never told her of his love. He’d forgotten the words. His head had filled with the words from the books he read about snow globes, so instead, he’d cut the pages into paper dolls for her.

Doctor Helsinki galumphed over to the chair circle. He waved to the elderly patients, then he pressed under Peter’s chin, down his neck.

“What’s new, pussycat?” he asked.

“I’m seeing men with giant heads who live on the sun’s surface,” Peter said.

“When I was a lad, I thought God lived on the sun,” he said. “I was wrong.” Peter looked down and spotted the oncologist’s shoelace on his left loafer, dangling and flopping as he walked.

“Where does God live then?” Peter said.

The doctor shrugged.

“Close perhaps,” he said. “Maybe a homeless old man living in a box under the Walt Whitman Bridge.”

“The orange pyramid in the courtyard,” Peter said. “The old bastard is there.”

“I’m going to ask Nurse Wolfe to take some blood. I’m not liking this. Not one bit. I think I’m going to get you a room upstairs.” Doctor Helsinki pinched his nose then strolled off to call the admitting desk. His shoelace dragged on the floor.

“Just peachy, Doc,” Peter said.

A lithe lady stood at the doorway, her back to the chemo room. Tea roses blossomed on her white summer-dress. Grace adored that scent. Crimson hair bloomed and flowed down her neck, just as Grace had described her appearance before the chemo.

Peter switched off his pump. He disconnected the plastic tub from his IV. He grabbed his cane. He got up to speak to her, but she stepped into the hall. He gave chase, but she flew like a birch leaf on a storm wind, gliding down the corridors. His body weakened, his limited potential spent on the trip to the hospital. Nurse Wolfe looked down both ends of the corridor, and Peter ducked into one of the smoking lounges. The reek of sour smoke turned his stomach, and he lifted the collar of his black turtleneck over his nose.

“Where is my Grace?” he transmitted through his avatar, asking the bigheads on the sun. “Look down and see.”

“UG GLOG. Gone to the temple where your kind goes when your bodies stop. We build it to understand, but we never understand. Why your kind just stop?”

He renewed pursuit. The rubber end to his cane beat the tiled halls. He jogged, paused to catch his wind, then hared, taking the elevator and exiting the building through the cafeteria. He glimpsed her red hair just ahead. Sunlight stung his tender eyes, and he waited for them to adjust.

“Grace!” he called to the wind, hoping she was near enough to hear. “I never told you. I didn’t want to have anything to lose in my life. I couldn’t stand the gravity pulling on me.”

He gripped his cane till his fingers tingled. When his vision restored, he climbed the cement stairs, passed the metal picnic tables, and passed student flocks on their way to class. He bumped into one of the tables, knocking over empty Pepsi bottles. One rolled off the edge and shattered on the concrete.

The pyramid glimmered in the light. Orange paint smeared down its metal frame, sealing the glass triangles that composed its body and soul. He knew the pyramid well but had never seen it with open eyes. He’d dreamed of decorating its railings with snipped paper dolls cut from books of faith—dressed in tiny black words that crawled like ants on their skin.

She walked to the orange membrane and pressed her hand through the glass. The pyramid absorbed her soul. She merged with Anubis, the jackal keeper, the watcher who dwelt in the vacant heart of the sculpture, the machine. Her spirit filled the pyramid like a wasp replacing the pit within a peach.

Air lashed his lungs as he struggled to catch his breath. He grabbed a glass bottle from the table. He had no pen, and he’d cut all of his paper into dolls. He searched for the means to write her a note. He picked up a glass shard and sliced into his skin, but no blood dripped from the hollow vein. He wept. He aimed the bottle’s mouth to his eyes and captured his tears.

His love had gone now, and she was always his love. If he’d told her, perhaps Grace would have grown roots to keep her in this world. She’d drowned in his silence. Now, he drowned in God’s. Humans mouths failed speaking such words till they could speak no more—mute paper dolls tied with string and kite-flown.

He tossed the bottle at the pyramid. He fell to his knees. It struck the glass and cracked. Three shards split, and they scattered to the base. The orange painted glass declined to fracture. The snow globe wouldn’t crack. He struggled to stand, to close the distance and beat on the pyramid, but his racing heart denied him strength. He opened his mouth to speak, to break down the structure with words ancient and true, but his heart strained his wind. His lungs twitched and skipped.

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