Do nightmares ever come true? That's what Benny wants to happen to his nightmares,
and he begs his brother Antoine to help him.
There he went, again. The crying and sweating and thrashing about. It isn't that I don't love my little brother, I just wish he could find some peace. He had been like this for weeks, always the same... every morning, just about four o'clock.
Born Benjamin Benoît, Benny was four years younger than me, a stripling at nine. He was always so quiet in the daytime. “Please! Just one night of quiet?” I whispered to myself.
Benny and I slept in the same room. It was not that we had too, I guess. Our parents were quite well off, our father was an attaché sent here to Washington just a month ago, and our Mama, who was an art restorer, had a position at the American National Gallery. I guess it was because we were both a bit homesick and needed the comfort of each other here in this strange place that we shared a bedroom.
On the couple of nights the crying had become intense, I padded barefoot across the room and slid in behind Benny, holding and petting him till he was able to fall back into a semblance of restful sleep. I was really beginning to worry about the squirt... his eyes had taken on a sunken, listless expression, and he was losing weight.
Upon waking in the mornings, Benny at first asked where he was. I was your average oblivious teenager, and answered in a peeved voice... “You know... Washington D.C., the States... Get a grip!”
Benny would look confused and shake his head, going to the frosted window and looking out at the dismal alley that bordered our Arlington apartment. “No! Not me, Antoine. Where is he?”
The bad dreams had become so steady I passed them off as homesickness and went about our early morning preparations of getting myself and the runt washed and dressed for school. Much of what we did, we did on our own. Father and Mama had very busy schedules; so many daily activities fell to me to accomplish.
“Antoine? Do you think Father Christmas will find us here?” Benny asked in a troubled voice as I pulled his school sweater over his head.
“Doesn't he always?” I spoke with more exasperation than I truly meant, but sometimes Benny's questions bordered on the bizarre. “You're getting a bit big to still believe in Father Christmas.”
The look I received was tantamount to blasphemous rebellion. “Stop it, Antoine! There will always be a Father Christmas!!”
I knew better than to continue this line with my little brother. Every year he would transform our room into a land of make-believe, cutting out snowflakes and stringing popcorn, hanging bits and pieces of colorful decorations that seemed to brighten our world just a bit more. He would hum and occasionally break out in joyful song.
“So? What do you want Father Christmas to bring you this year? A new bicycle?” I tried to get him into a better mood.
Benny shook his head. “A friend.”
“I don't think he can carry a friend in his pack, Kiddo. You have to make those on your own.” I chuckled. “If you don't start eating more, you better ask for some new clothes. These are almost dropping off you.”
“No Antoine... I have everything I need. Maybe Father Christmas could find him for me.” Benny spoke almost in a daze.
This was getting just a bit scary. Should I speak to Papa? If anything happened to the runt Mama would be beside herself. No, I would wait a little longer. Our parents had more important things to worry about.
The closer it came to Christmas, the worse the dreams became. Now Benny was begging in his sleep. He would complain of freezing cold and how hungry he was. He would wake with a scream some mornings, and some be so listless he looked almost dead on his feet.
It was always the same, though. “Antoine? I got to find him. He is so cold.”
“Hush, Sweetheart, it was only a bad dream.” I tried to comfort him as he shook in my arms.
I looked out the window, anywhere for inspiration this dark night. It had begun to snow earlier in the day, and now the alley and window ledge were covered in heavy blankets of whiteness.
“Look, Benny... It will be a white Christmas, just like home.” I held my brother, nuzzling his small blond head. “Please don't cry.”
“I'm so cold and hungry, Antoine.” Benny whimpered, his small body shivering, though it was plenty warm in our room, and I knew he had eaten all his dinner... I'd made sure.
Suddenly Benny jumped from my arms and bed, running to the window. “Antoine! He's there! He's there! We got to help him!”
I knew it. My little brother had finally gone around the bend. I got up and went to stand behind him at the window. I looked where he pointed, but all I could see were mounds of snow banked against the walls and basement doors.
There's nothing... nobody there, Kiddo.” I tried to console him. “Come on Benny, back to bed.”
But Benny would not be moved. “No. He's there, Antoine. Please? You got to see?”
“Shh! You'll wake Mama and Papa.” I tried to pull him from his grip on the window sill. “Come on, Benny.”
“Please, can't we just go look?” he begged. Then his entire demeanor and voice changed from pleading to fearful. “I promise, I'll be a good boy. I'll do anything you say. Just don't hit me again, please?”
I turned Benny to face me, kneeling to look at him more at eye level. “Benny, you're scaring me.” I had never hit my little brother, not even in the mock battles we played, wrestling about.
His eyes seemed to focus again. “Can't we just go look?” he begged.
“OK, but we have to be very quiet and not wake anyone.” I relented, hoping if I allowed him to see for himself that there was no one in the alley, maybe the dreams would stop and we would have a peaceful holiday. And maybe we’d both be able to sleep through the night.
I made sure we were both bundled in our heaviest coats and boots before allowing Benny to open the back door. When I did, the wind whipped in, biting our noses.
“See Benny? Nobody there.” I really did not want to go out into the winter maelstrom of Christmas Eve.
My little brother was having none of that, though, and stepped out into the alley, his small boots crunching the wet snow but barely making a dent. Gathering all the warmth that I could, I carefully stepped out onto the back steps that led down to the alley. Of course I slipped. Benny could float along as if a feather on a breeze, and I looked like an ape roller skating.
I followed as fast as I could as Benny went from snowbank to small mounds, shuffling through each one. “Please Benny, it's as cold as a witch's tit out here!” I called to him.
Right beside a particularly large mound, Benny turned to face me; his small, white face below his stocking cap was covered with tears. “Help me? Please?” His voice was so weak sounding, and it was not my brother's.
I ran to him and pulled him against me. “Come on, Kiddo, we got to get back inside where it's warm.”
Benny pulled away and continued to shuffle in the snow. The squeal that came was enough to waken the dead. “Antoine!!!!! Here! Look here!” Benny knelt in the snow he had pushed up with his boots. I peered down and saw he held what appeared to be a small, lifeless hand.
I quickly tried to pull Benny back, thinking of all the bad things you could find in a dark alley in this country. “Get away Benny, go inside!”
“No. I have found him! He needs help.” Benny struggled against my hold and continued to push away the snow clinging to a small body.
In the dim light I saw it was a boy of maybe Benny's age dressed much too light for a winter night... no coat; hell, not even socks! His face was ashen, the same sunken look Benny had started to have.
From behind, a larger than life male voice startled me. “Boys! It is much to early to be building snowmen, and you left the door wide open! What are you trying to do, heat all of Arlington or just freeze your mother and me to death?”
Our father was on the scene and I knew there would be hell to pay, even on a Christmas morning. “I am sorry, Father. It's all my fault....”
“Oh my God... is that a little boy?” Our father raced to where Benny sat in the snow holding the small form. “Tony, quickly, get me a blanket... get your mother and call the Gendarmes!” The shock of our father's transformation from a wooden marionette to a real human being was almost too much for me. It took a push on his part to get me moving.
The difference between a man and a boy was evident. By the time I was inside yelling for Mama to come help and holding the phone trying to remember the number for the police here, Father was coming in the back door carrying the snow-laced boy, Benny right behind trying his best to stay in contact with the child.
Mama arrived shortly and took control of the situation as only a mother could. “Here Charles, give him to me...” Mama sat on the divan no one was supposed to ever sit on, holding out her arms. Father deposited the boy in her lap and she pulled the heavy knitted blanket Granmama had made for Mama when she was a little girl, the one we were never to touch, over the boy.
“He’s breathing,” she said, and began murmuring a gentle lullaby to him.
“Looks like you boys found him in time,” Father said.
Benny held back only slightly and looked up to me. “See Antoine? Father Christmas really came.”
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