Dead Dreams

Prologue

Sweat stung his eyes. Breathing proved laborious. His stomach churned faster each minute. Donald Nuss leaned his fatigued body against the bank’s exterior brick wall. Hidden by the building’s shadows and a nearby maple tree, he could see the entire parking lot. The bank, which sat in the corner of the large lot, shielded him from a nearby security light, but the temporary safety could not last.

All of the stores in the shopping plaza had been closed for hours. The large home-supply store that anchored the shopping plaza, the quilt shop, a pet store, a bicycle and skateboard shop, and the other retail outlets which seemed to come and go every few months, all closed by 8 p.m., if not earlier. Customers and employees alike possessed the good sense to be in bed at this now-late hour. Inside the home-supply store, a security guard likely made his rounds- if he were still awake. Outside, nothing and no one moved, except the desperate young man who abandoned the idea of caution.

The parking lot lights obscured the starry sky above. Donald was oblivious to Jupiter, the various constellations, and the infinite number of stars which floated overhead. He was also oblivious to the occasional car which drove by on the main road below, down the gentle hillside from the bank. Passing cars could not see the parking lot because of this hill. Only Donald and his pursuers knew of the life-and-death struggle playing out in their own little world.

The young man looked toward his favorite possession: his red 2015 Mustang. Escape was impossible without it. Parked next to Donald’s car sat a blue Ford Taurus. Though he could not see for sure, he believed Kenneth waited inside. Kenneth knew Donald would return, understanding- as did Donald- that the car served as a lifeline.

Distracted, Donald gazed at the skid marks to the side of the Mustang. He could not remember when or why he slid his car sideways to a halt and fled on foot. He could not remember why he faced this pursuit. Donald could only remember that he was about to die.

The twenty-six-year-old caught his breath as he mulled over a plethora of ideas- some good, some bad, and some outright foolish.

It seemed that Carl had different ideas. Unlike Donald, the broad-shouldered fifty-two-year-old huffed and wheezed, in no physical condition for the arduous activities this night presented. He looked as though he had run a four-minute mile. Minutes earlier, Carl ditched his pickup three blocks away under the belief that one shot would end the pursuit.

Donald heard the stout man’s desperate gasps for air and immediately made the decision to conclude the mad attempt to murder him. He could not see Carl’s Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol, but he knew that the man’s sweaty hand clutched it. Donald sprinted out of the darkness and into the open parking lot. Because Carl closed in and the front end of Kenneth’s car pointed toward the bank, Donald knew that being spotted was imminent. He had to hope that Carl was too winded for a good shot and that he could find a way to avoid Kenneth.

The intensity of the moment continued to pump blood through Donald’s body at an unhealthy rate and pour endless sweat over his skin. The emotions, the thoughts, the fear- it all seemed so vivid, but more than once the thought entered his brain: maybe this is all a dream.

The blue Taurus’ engine fired up, shattering the silence, and the car lurched forward. Carl saw his opportunity and dropped to one knee. Donald instinctively understood the meaning of the action as he leaped to avoid both the bullets and car. The first bullet streaked by a second later.

Tires screeched on the asphalt. The car raced toward Donald, on a collision course. He leaped out of the way. Kenneth’s foolish move increased Donald’s hope of escape. Two more gunshots from Carl.

The car spun to reverse its course. The short race unfolded as Donald sprinted to the Mustang, but the car covered the final forty yards before he could on foot. A fourth shot rang out, this time passing close enough for Donald to hear it rocket by his head.

In a blurring of sounds, images, and pain, Donald leaped away from his car just as he reached for the door handle. Rubber scraped asphalt. Metals crashed together. A fifth shot blasted into the night. What felt like a ball peen hammer crashed into his arm. Glass shattered. He heard his own voice scream. There was a thud as his back smacked the asphalt. Silence.

Donald felt the pounding throb of pain as blood oozed from his left arm. Reflexively, he grabbed his left triceps with his right hand, but pulled it away, surprised by the amount of blood. With great pain, he climbed to his feet in one last attempt to open the door of his Mustang.

As he stumbled, he saw the two damaged cars. The driver’s side fender of his Mustang caved inward, leaving the tire tilted inward at an odd angle. The Taurus’ entire front end was smashed. Steam spewed out from the crumpled hood. The pinkish-red of transmission fluid and green of anti-freeze flowed underneath and around Donald’s tennis shoes. Motor oil joined the pool of chemicals. The car was of no use to him.

Kenneth raced up and pointed a .38 caliber revolver at the injured young man. “Stay there, Donny.”

Energy drained from Donald’s body. All remaining hope flowed away. The desperation that he felt during his entire ordeal magnified. Before his pain-wracked body could veto the thought, his brain sprung him into action, but too little strength remained as Kenneth easily stepped aside and avoided Donald’s desperate rush. As a defensive reaction, Kenneth karate-chopped him on the back, knocking him to the ground.

Escape was impossible.

Sounding more like a broken-down steam engine train than a human, Carl huffed toward the pair. He looked as though he just finished playing in the sprinklers with his grandson. As he stopped his forward momentum, he nearly fell to the ground. Wheezing replaced words when he tried to speak. Instead of further tries at communication, he gave up the attempt, dropped to his knees, and leaned against Donald’s Mustang.

With Carl’s arrival, Kenneth became nervous. He eyed Donald while shooting quick glances at Carl.

“I thought,” Carl growled. “I told you to stay where you were.” His heavy breathing slowed enough to allow a gruff expression of dissatisfaction.

“He was getting away!” Kenneth protested.

“You idiot! He couldn’t go anywhere without the car!” Carl pointed to both cars. He could not muster the strength to express his anger boiling inside his gut, so he settled for repetition. “You idiot!”

Donald sat, incredulous. He could not believe they would torture him with an argument before completing their murderous task. “Get it over with!” he shouted.

“What are we gonna tell Mom?” Kenneth asked Carl.

“I had it all figured out ’til you bashed your car.” He paused as he surveyed the damage. “And his!” Carl snarled, his strength returning.

Embarrassed and angry, Kenneth looked at the ground and gently kicked a small group of pebbles toward Donald’s car.

Donald wanted to flee, but given his physical condition, that was out of the question. Instead, he waited, with great impatience, for the impending bullet while Kenneth spread around more pebbles with the bottom of his shoe.

“Don’t ya think we should get out of here?” Carl asked after a few seconds of silence, sarcasm dripping from every word.

“We have to think of a cover story first, don’t we?”

Carl could not hide his amazement. “Why first?”

“All right, all right,” Kenneth responded.

Donald was struck with the thought that Kenneth still acted like a weak little boy. He never seemed to fully mature into a man. He always whimpered about something, particularly in front of their father.

“Shoot me!” Donald barked. Blood covered his bullet wound. His strength and patience were long gone. He trembled visibly from the combination of pain and lack of blood. He would rather die- now!- rather than listen to Kenneth whine.

Carl flashed a stern look at Kenneth and nodded.

“Here?” Kenneth asked.

“No! In friggin’ Aruba!” Carl snapped.

“All right. But I’m not moving the body.”

Donald managed a small, warped laugh. “Just give me the damned gun so I can get this over with! I promise I won’t shoot you!”

Kenneth turned to his brother, paused as he looked him in the eyes, and pointed the revolver at Donald’s forehead. The end of the barrel bobbed up and down, three feet from Donald’s head.

Click.

“Well, crap!” The elder brother studied his weapon. “I was hurrying and forgot to load.”

Carl closed his eyes and dropped his head.

Kenneth reached into his front pocket, pulled out two bullets, and loaded them into the empty cylinder of his revolver.

“I’ll never have to hear your whiny trap again,” Donald said, forcing a smile. His defiance knew no bounds in his final moments. He wanted to laugh. He wanted to slap his brother. “The last thing I’ll ever see is your incompetence.”

Kenneth’s eyes narrowed.

Donald only saw the brilliant white flash.

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Chapter 1

The two-story house blended in with all the other one- and two-story houses on the street and throughout this entire small section of the city. The ten-year-old cookie-cutter neighborhood had an almost-new look, with a hint of maturity: trees in both front and back yards stood similar in size; the composition shingle roofs appeared equally worn throughout the area; paint colors faded; open windows revealed dangling rubber seals; and cracks in driveways and sidewalks had yet to grow large.

This was not the house in which Donald and Kenneth Nuss grew up. This white house was roomier and better lit by the Sun than the white house where Donald spent his first 16 years. Not long after his 16th birthday, his father, Carl, decided that the time had arrived to move. Never mind that Kenneth was only months from graduating and the family was two years away from having no children in the house; the Nuss family could afford a nicer house, so a nicer house they must buy.

With little more than the disruption of a Thanksgiving break, the boys embraced their new adventure. The two-mile move was of little consequence to them, and in fact only Louise, their energetic and overly-worrisome mother, saw the change as stressful.

In this house, Carl and Louise felt a little bit of relief to close a chapter in their lives that had been rewarding but troubling. Only they knew of the troubling part, but to close the chapter seemed important to them. A new house and new neighborhood would bring new memories to sweep the old away.

Now, with old troubles out of mind, they waited for Donald to arrive for dinner.

“I don’t think he’s coming, Mom,” Kenneth offered from his seat at the dinner table.

For her part, Louise traversed the kitchen once every few seconds, grabbing various bowls, utensils, and ingredients to add to various foods. The whirlwind of motion lacked gracefulness, but the activity demonstrated efficiency.

“We can eat without Donald, that’s no big deal,” Carl chimed in.

Louise paused to glare at Carl, then returned to her work. Carl shot a quick glance at Kenneth, both of whom tried not to laugh.

“Donald’s never late for anything. Something must’ve happened.”

“That’s not funny, Kenneth!” Louise lectured. Carl frowned his disapproval at his eldest son; he had crossed the line. They needed to stay civil when harassing his wife.

“Sorry.” Kenneth paused to gulp down a mass of celery and cheese that littered his mouth before continuing. “Sorry, Mom. I’m just kidding.”

Louise dumped a large pot of hot water down the sink without spilling the potatoes with it. Steam flooded the entire sink area. The men quietly watched, waiting for a more opportune time to tease her again. When she at last returned the pot to the stovetop and checked the boiling corn, Carl tried again.

“Is there any reason why we’re not eating now?” Carl asked, with a hint of aggravation in his voice.

“Donald! We have to wait for Donald! You know that!” Most of Louise’s words were punctuated with exclamations, at any time, on any day. The petite woman’s energy translated to every aspect of her being. She was exuberant in word and deed; happy- almost to a fault, some said; a servant to her family. She was enjoyable to be around, charming, caring, and loving. Carl knew he was fortunate to have her and had not taken her for granted in over twenty years.

“Donald is sloooowwww,” Kenneth failed to finish his sentence without laughing and therefore ruined his own joke. Before he could stop laughing and continue with his next line, his father moved the conversation along. The younger man was enamored with his own sense of humor, but no one else shared the attraction to his jokes.

“The food’s gonna get cold, Ma,” Carl teased.

Louise turned off a hand mixer she had been using. She grabbed a two-tine meat fork for effect, pointing the utensil at her husband from across the kitchen and squinted her eyes as she spoke, “Why are you sitting at the kitchen table now?! Go! Go!”

Carl leaped to his feet, already moving toward the family room before Kenneth thought to act. She was all show, but Carl liked to have fun. “Come on, Kenneth, before things get dangerous in here.”

Louise smiled as the two men left her alone. Her light brown hair, which barely reached her shoulders, needed coloring again. She got a chuckle out of blaming her husband for the gray, but at 50 years old, she was not about to complain that the time had arrived to begin the hair coloring routine.

Soon she would be surrounded by her men again- the thought filled her heart with a joy she could not describe. She only wished the circumstances could be better.

Carl peeked his head around the corner, “But honey, what if Donald doesn’t show up? Should we try calling his cell phone?”

Louise’s shoulders dropped, but before she could turn around to face her husband, the doorbell rang. “Oh!” she squealed. As she hurried toward the living room, to get to the door, Carl and Kenneth felt it safe enough to return to the kitchen table to munch on more celery sticks slathered in Cheez Whiz.

At the front door, Louise swung it open to find her youngest son standing, looking rather hesitant to even move past the front step. “Honey!” She warmly hugged, then kissed the cheek of the 26-year old, his brown hair flopping in the soft breeze.

“Hi, mom.” He paused, offering a slight smile. “I need a key. I lost my key.”

“Okay. Okay. I’ll get you one after dinner. The food’ll be ready in just a couple of minutes.”

Entering the kitchen first, Louise sounded almost triumphant. “You acted like he wasn’t gonna show. Well, here he is, and just in time.”

“Hey, Dad. Hey, Kenneth.” Donald’s lack of enthusiasm was naked, but not unusual.

“Your dad and brother were just about to put odds on whether you’d show up, it sounded like to me.”

“You ’bout ready to eat, son? Me and your brother are starved.”

“Yeah. Sorry I’m late.”


As Louise set a bowl of black olives on the table and sat down, the time arrived to eat their Sunday evening dinner. Carl reached in first to get a piece of the roast. Louise gave him a firm but loving slap on his hand as he reached forward.

“We gotta pray! We gotta pray!”

“Yeah, pray our microwave still works,” Carl bellowed. “The food’s gonna be cold in seconds!”

“It is not!” Louise retorted. They all laughed. It was an odd moment for just the four of them to be together. Times had changed; it was not supposed to feel like it did when they moved into the house ten years prior. The family had grown in number, yet at this moment only four sat at the table.

As they all bowed their heads and Carl asked for God’s blessings on the meal and the family, Donald could not focus on the words being spoken. He wondered whether the others felt as uncomfortable as he did. ‘Of course not- how could they?’ He wondered how long the arrangement would last. ‘Not long,’ if he could help it. He wondered whether he should tell them about the prior night’s dream. That was an easy ‘no.’ He wondered a lot of things in the short seconds it took for the prayer to conclude.

When heads lifted, Kenneth spoke first. With nostalgia in his eyes and voice, he remarked, “It’s good to be back, and not just visiting.”

Carl and Louise smiled, though to Donald they both appeared to be uncomfortable. Both sets of eyes turned to Donald.

“Uh, yeah. Me, too.”

Carl and Louise both nodded. To Donald, it was clear neither parent knew what to say or how to respond. He wanted to tell them that he did not want to be here, but no one would understand, so he dug into the roast and potatoes while trying not to listen to Kenneth drone on with one of his meaningless stories. ‘Yup,’ Donald thought. ‘Just like the old days.’

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Chapter 2

What made his Mustang GT look so cool, he thought, were the black rims. With the bright red of the body, the standard silver rims would not have looked right. Every time he got into the car, he glanced at those black rims. He knew he could afford a more expensive car, including the more expensive sports cars, but he loved Mustangs, and he loved red muscle cars.

He was not a convertible kind of guy, so the hardtop suited him just fine. So did the power and the guttural growl of the V8 engine. The feeling that if he only pressed hard enough on the accelerator, the pony might just fly. The feeling of driving his favorite car, lost deep in thought, either soothing classical or grinding rock blaring through the speakers. Heated leather seats. Leather steering wheel. Heated exterior mirrors. All the bells and whistles. But it all came back to the engine and the power.

On this morning, his mind long ago forgot the power of the Mustang, now snarled in an unexpected traffic jam on a surface street. It was common for 23rd Street to be a hassle, but something was wrong. This felt more like the six weeks he spent in northern California with his company. This was real traffic, and no one was happy about it.

After ten minutes of rolling a few feet and stopping, repeatedly, Donald came upon the hazard. A brown Kia Soul sat stalled, serving as a four-wheeled traffic cone in the right lane. Most drivers in the left lane showed courtesy and allowed those stuck behind the disabled car to blend in, on an every-other-car basis. No one, it seemed, possessed the needed courtesy to stop to help the driver. With cell phones in the possession of even small children, motorists helping other motorists seemed to be something of the past. On this busy Monday morning, drivers were more concerned about arriving at work and clocking in on time.

Donald took it upon himself to help the stranded motorist. He came to a stop behind the Kia just as the driver stepped out. Donald froze, his gaze locked on her as she moved toward his car. Not wanting to appear foolish, he broke the gaze and exited his own vehicle.

The brunette's image began burning into Donald's memory from the moment he saw her. He tried to push aside his mental observations to hear her words, but focusing posed an instant challenge.

"Thank you! Thank you so much for stopping!" Her soft voice caused Donald’s heart to begin melting inside his chest. "It won't start. I've tried and tried. What should I do?" Her question was punctuated by a painful expression on her face, which settled into her dark brown eyes.

Donald hesitated. Before he allowed his eyes to delay his reaction further, he managed a reply. "Get back in the car. Put it in neutral and I'll push you. Steer it up the curb, and take the car to the right until you feel the left wheels hit the curb, then stop. It'll be okay for a little while with part of it on the sidewalk, but that'll get you out of the road. Got it?"

"Okay." She turned and trotted back to her car. Donald stood and watched, unable to look away from the way her beige slacks hugged her legs and hips. With the cut of her blouse, he could not miss that she had a great figure. 'That's why she bought that outfit, now isn't it?' he thought with a grin.

Once he coached her through turning the steering wheel to the correct angle and she mastered the street curb, the rest progressed smoothly. He built up a little speed, she turned the wheel, the car climbed the curb- and scraped the fender on the curb in the process- with both right-side tires before the car straightened, to remain parallel with the street.

They met on the sidewalk. "Whaddya think I should do?" the striking brunette asked, a certain helplessness permeating her tone. The light breeze blew straight into her face, just enough to kick up her hair a few inches. Instead of hanging to her mid-back, her long, big curls lifted into the air.

Donald stood motionless, mesmerized. His eyes flitted between her inviting dark eyes to her dark brown hair flowing behind her to her perfectly shaped pink lips that he just noticed. If life were acted out on a stage, her walk up song would be Robert Palmer’s Simply Irresistible.

"Well…" He stalled for time. Something about her high cheekbones highlighted her gorgeous face- but those lips! 'She asked me a question,' he thought. 'What was it? Something about doing something?'

"I probably shouldn't leave it here by itself, should I?"

"Oh, uh." Donald’s brain re-engaged. He realized he should answer before he began acting like an abject fool.

"I'd suggest you stay here. It won't be long before a tow truck will be by. Or you can call one. But you'll be better off to stay with the car and just go in to work late."

"Yeah, that makes sense. You're right." A sudden thought captured the stunning young woman's mind as she shot out her right hand toward him. "I'm Lucy Thorp."

"Oh. Hi. Nice to meet you. I'm Donald Nuss." He shook her hand as if it were sculpted from expensive crystal.

"I'm your damsel in distress, but my hero's not even breathing hard."

"That's 'cause you drive a little box car," he said with a laugh. It worked; she laughed, too. Her smile lit up her face- and his eyes and heart. His insides reeled. He could feel his pulse throughout his body.

"Well, next time I'll have to buy one of those big pickups. You can push one of those."

"Yeah, no thanks." They laughed together again. As he tried not to stare at her, he realized that an awkward moment of silence developed. "Hey. Listen. I gotta get my car out of the road. I'm still blocking a lane here." He did not move. He looked like a hotel bellboy hinting that he was waiting for a tip, but he wanted nothing from her except more time to enjoy the view.

"Oh. Okay. Well, I have to thank you later." She again turned and trotted in her three-inch heels to her car. He again watched her go and come back to stand in front of him, business card in hand. "Call me at... well. Here. Shoot. Call me at work today and I'll give you my-” She scanned her card as she spoke haltingly. “E-mail me. That'll be easier. Call or e-mail me and I'll give you my phone number and personal e-mail.”

Donald smiled a warm, triumphant smile. "I'll do that," he promised. He knew he could not- would not- mess this up.

She looked at him and paused. A broad smile crossed her face. "Okay then. And thank you again." She reached out her hand and they shook for a second time.

“I hope your car’s cheap and easy to fix.”

"Yeah. Geez. It’s practically brand new. Thank you!"

Donald walked back to his car and spotted the faces of two different drivers. They did not understand the glow that lit up his face, and they did not care. Within seconds, the Mustang rumbled to life and, with a quick wave to the dark-headed, dark-eyed bombshell who had just stolen his heart, Donald once again headed off to work.

Standing on the sidewalk, in front of her car, Lucy Thorp watched him go. She spoke to herself, with no one close enough to hear her words. "Well now, am I just the luckiest girl around?” She stared as the Mustang disappeared, still lost in thought. "Donald Nuss. What are the odds? Lucy, you’re ahead of schedule."