Chapter 4: California Dream
The droves of birds, hundreds of them, exploding from the branches into the air, fills the forest with electricity. Tom leaps out of his sleeping bag, grabs his jacket, gloves, boots, lights his lantern, kicks snow on the campfire, and pauses at his truck, considering the adventure he’s about to go on. He reaches for his rifle bag, just in case, and slings it over his shoulder, then runs after the trail of birds, the honking geese, chirping sparrows, and the loud trills of the small round owl. They lead him north, along the trail he explored last night.
Back home, Samantha lies awake in bed, staring at the clock, unable to sleep, wishing time would move ahead five hours so the bookstore will be open. She puts in earphones and finds last week’s podcast of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, closing her eyes again, hoping Paula Poundstone will help pass the time. Tom’s side of the bed is still tucked neatly, the sheets cold and lonely. She wonders if he misses her too, and feels like maybe she should have joined him on his camping trip this year.
Tom’s legs burn from jogging up a long, icy hill. He’s slipped and fallen twice now, hitting his knee in the same spot both times. His pants are ripped and his body is sore. The sun is starting to rise behind the clouds, so he hooks his lantern on a tree branch hanging over the middle of the trail where he won’t miss it on the way back. He’s been traveling north for over two hours, the birds guiding him back to the place where the trees are thicker and older and the snow is deeper.
Just ahead, the birds circle the clearing, lowering their voices, gliding round and round like a funnel cloud, signaling the destination is below them. Tom hesitates for a moment before he goes farther. What lies beyond the red door today? Tom wonders. Another memory? Another place? He steps out into the snowy clearing, with the lonesome red door a few yards in front of him. The hundreds of wings rustle and swirl above like a tornado.
Tom approaches cautiously. The door and the clearing look larger in the daylight than they did last night. There doesn't seem to be any evidence that he was here just a few hours ago. Did it snow enough to cover my tracks? The clearing looks completely undisturbed. He reaches the door and knocks three times. Nothing happens. He knocks twice, pauses, then knocks again. Nothing. The door looks sealed shut, like it hasn’t been used or opened for decades. He knocks louder and tries every combination of door opening savvy that he can think of, but the door never budges. It never activates and swings open. Tom sits down, tired and frustrated.
After a while, the birds begin to leave, slowly at first—one by one—perhaps disappointed that the door isn’t opening.
Tom shouts at them, “You picked the wrong guy! I can’t open it!”
Perhaps last night was just a dream. Perhaps the door never actually opened. Tom’s memory seems foggy. His stomach growls. His knees are sore. This has been the strangest and most emotionally taxing camping trip he’s ever been on. He thinks back on the old familiar pastor, and seeing his family at that old Christmas Eve service last night, and he misses his girls and Samantha so much. For the last few months he’s had a hole in heart for Joshua, a hole that hasn’t been filled by anything. Maybe this red door existed just to remind him of all the abundance of love and community that he still has around him. Maybe the magic of this trip was to remind Tom that there are still friends and neighbors he needs to invest in. The last bird, the small round owl whose trill is like the screech of childish adventure, quietly glides away, flying deeper into the forest. Tom agrees with the small owl: its time to go home.
The holidays come with the bustle of a few parties. Everyone who comes over loves the tree Tom brought home from his camping trip (he never mentions the red door) and Samantha shares with them that next year she plans to start camping with Tom in the woods south of their home. Maggie and her husband, Pete, move in for a whole week, and the oldest daughter, Hanna surprises them by flying in on Christmas Eve.
The night after Christmas, everyone but Hanna and Tom are asleep. Samantha sits upright on the couch with her head tipped back and her mouth slightly open. Her snoring sounds like a cat. Maggie and Pete are upstairs in bed. Tom pours himself two fingers of whiskey, and another for Hanna, who is sitting on the kitchen counter next to him. She was always so smart in school, and now she’s become such a talented, beautiful young woman.
“The pressure never goes away,” She keeps talking without breathing, “I present this stuff that sells itself, but the room is full of people constantly trying to reverse engineer our technology for themselves.”
Tom feels so connected with his daughter that he decides to tell her about his camping trip before Christmas. He tells her everything, the part of the forest he’d never seen before, the first night with the owls, the red door all by itself, the church, the green dresses—he leaves out the part about the pastor—and then shares about the next morning, the hundreds of birds, the most inexplicable phenomena.
“It was like the forest was trying to help me,” Tom slurs a little, and feels sheepish admitting this to her, because at this point he’s convinced himself he was just lonely and dreaming.
Hanna stares at him.
“Dad, I saw you too,” she says.
“Yes, well, you were so mad that Maggie got to wear the same dress as you,” Tom says.
“No, I saw you there,” she raises her voice.
“Maybe I was dreaming,” he replies.
“Dad, listen to me. I wasn’t going to come home this year, but something happened to me out in California. I started having this dream a couple weeks ago,” Hanna starts to explain. “Every night it was that Christmas Eve service, I was in that green dress and I was so mad at Maggie, and then I got to hold a candle for the first time and I just remember staring at that candle and I got it, for the first time, I got it. But then, on maybe the fourth or fifth night of having that same dream—I was a little girl, I wore the green dress, Maggie and I fought, we cried, we were in worship singing silent night, and you walked in. But you were standing by me, a different you walked in, like you, dressed in your gear, old you, no offense, but old you walked in, while young you was standing right next to me. And you walked right up front and stood on the stage and you looked lost, and we were all singing, and you were just there. It was the strangest dream ever! Anyway, I decided I had to come home for Christmas.”
Tom stares at Hanna. He sips his whiskey. This has to be a coincident.
“This isn’t a coincident! That red door took you into my dream and I saw you in it!” Hanna screams.