Excerpt

I Dreamed of Falling: First Look

Julia Dahl

The following is an exclusive excerpt from I Dreamed of Falling, by Julia Dahl, forthcoming from Minotaur Books in September 2024. Dahl's new book takes a small town reporter on a quest to uncover the truth after the death of a loved one. In the following passage, a young mother is nowhere to be found after an argument with her husband, and people are beginning to get worried.

I hadn’t planned to go anywhere that night. Tara made mac and cheese on the stove and I watched Octonauts with Mason until she called us in for dinner. It was just the three of us: me, my son, and his grandma. Mason’s dad, Roman, was in the city, and Tara’s fiancé, John, was working late. We finished eating and I washed the dishes while Mason and Tara built Lego spaceships in the living room. I opened a beer and scrolled through my phone.

When I heard Tara say, “Time for bed,” I met them at the bottom of the stairs.

“I’ll do bedtime,” I offered.

“I want Gerty to do bedtime,” said Mason, touching Tara’s leg.

“Mommy can do tonight,” Tara said.

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“No.”

I wasn’t going to make him say more. I knelt and opened my arms. “Can I have a good night?”

Mason gave me a big hug, both arms.

“Good night, Mommy,” he said. He kissed me on the cheek.

“Sweet dreams, baby. I love you.”

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“I love you, too.”

I watched them walk up the stairs, his rejection scratching at my heart. In the kitchen, I finished my beer and was about to open another when the text came in. What else did I have to do? It was eight o’clock on a summer Friday night. Why not distract myself from the fact that my child loved his grandmother more than he loved me?

It wouldn’t always be like this, I told myself as I put on my new sandals. The ones I bought because I knew Roman thought ankle straps were sexy. Soon, everything would be different.

*

Roman answered the call reluctantly. He was hungover and hungry and squinting into the sunlight as he sat in traffic on the Palisades headed north from Manhattan.

“I’m so glad you picked up!” said Daniel. “Ash is an hour late and she’s not answering her phone. Can you tell her to get her ass in here? I’ve got to pick up my mom.”

“I’m not home,” he said. “I left early.”

It wasn’t exactly a lie. He’d left yesterday and was just now driving back. Daniel could be a gossip, and he didn’t need the whole town wondering why he hadn’t slept at home last night.

“Are you sure she’s on?” Roman asked. His longtime girlfriend and the mother of his four-year-old son, Ashley Lillian, rarely worked at the local coffee shop anymore, though the owner did occasionally ask her to cover shifts.

“She’s supposed to fill in for Bobby and train this new girl. I guess it was last-minute. But it’s not like her to forget.”

If Ashley had forgotten her shift, or slept through it, she had probably been out the night before. She’d been going out more the last few months. Not that he could judge: he’d vomited in a trash can outside a Starbucks on Lexington Avenue this morning.

“I don’t know what to tell you, man,” Roman said. “You could go by the house.”

Koffee was on the town’s main street and the Grady house, where Roman and Ashley and Mason lived with Roman’s mom, Tara, and her fiancé, was barely a quarter-mile east toward the Hudson River.

“I don’t think I can leave the new girl alone.”

“I’ll be home in a half hour, forty-five minutes.”

Daniel sighed dramatically. “Tell Ash I said she’s too old for this shit.”

Roman hung up. He checked the GPS—blood red for the next three miles. The app indicated an accident. He pressed his fingers to his eyes. The air conditioning in his 2007 Accord was spotty, blowing cold out of one vent, hot out of the other three. They’d paid $600 to have it fixed two years ago, and he wasn’t going to do that again.

He inched forward, surrounded by city couples and families with kids and dogs in their rented Smart cars, mountain bikes or kayaks attached to the roof racks. They were all headed out to enjoy their summer weekend in the mountains or on the river. They were smiling. At least some of them were. He felt like ass, but looking at those weekenders Roman Grady decided that he was going to do his best to enjoy his family this weekend, too. Tonight was the monthly town-sponsored outdoor movie. They’d all go with a picnic. They’d watch the fireworks and carry Mason home to bed, asleep.

He texted Ashley:

you up? call daniel

He added a goofy face emoji. Ashley had been prickly and distracted lately, and instead of allowing her the space to work out whatever needed working out, he’d used it as an excuse to be exasperated. On Thursday night, he picked a fight while she put the dishes in the dishwasher and he prepped coffee for the morning.

“Did you forget to get half-and-half?” He knew she had. It wasn’t in the fridge.

“Was it on the list?”

Ashley was in charge of grocery shopping, which had been challenging lately because her car was acting up.

“I don’t know,” he said, though probably he’d forgotten to add it to the little notepad on the counter.

“You have to put it on the list.”

“You didn’t see we were out?”

“I don’t drink half-and-half.”

“Yeah, but you look in the fridge.”

His heart withered in his chest as he thought about her disregard. She doesn’t see me. She doesn’t know me. She doesn’t love me.

Ashley said nothing, which enraged him. He’d lived with this woman since he was a teenager and she knew he drank his coffee with half-and-half every morning, but she couldn’t be bothered to check if there was a carton in the refrigerator door before she went shopping? She checked for Mason’s snacks; she checked for Tara’s tea; she checked for John’s fucking energy drinks. His heart withered in his chest as he thought about her disregard. She doesn’t see me. She doesn’t know me. She doesn’t love me.

“I’m going to bed,” she said.

“I’m just saying that it would be great if you remembered what I like to drink. And if I forget to put it on the list, when you pass it in the store, you could pick it up.”

She met his eyes. Roman was ready to have it out. He was ready to defend his grievance. But all she said was, “Okay.”

Thinking about it now, he cringed. He’d been an asshole. He would apologize and he would make it up to her. As the traffic cleared and he passed the Bear Mountain Bridge, headed up the mountain, he felt ready to make real changes.

*

Connor was hammering at the roof when Roman finally got home. Classic rock trickled weakly down from a speaker balanced on the gutter. Roman’s grandparents bought the circa-1875 house in the 1980s and when they died—in a car accident when Roman was seven—Tara inherited it. Eight years ago, when Roman left for college, his mom had taken out a small loan, gathered some handy friends, and created a suite on the first floor to use as an Airbnb. But she should have spent the money shoring up the house. Two weeks ago, the ceiling in the suite collapsed and his mom had to refund $800 to the couple who’d had it booked in order to save her “superhost” designation.

Tara’s fiancé, John, was in charge of fixing the ceiling and the leak that had felled it in time for the mother-daughter pair who were scheduled to arrive next weekend. John was a handyman. He’d worked construction crews in his twenties and thirties, and after his divorce started picking up freelance jobs. John could do everything from carpentry to drywall to tile, but he’d had to enlist his friend Connor for a couple days while he finished a job for a client up in New Paltz.

Roman parked along the curb. With Connor’s tools and the detritus he’d dropped spread across the lawn, their house showed its age. The porch needed sweeping, the hanging flower needed water, the shutters needed straightening, and the whole thing needed paint. Ashley’s PT Cruiser was in the driveway but his mom’s car was gone. Tara must have taken Mason on some outing.

Bang bang bang. Connor’s hammer echoed down the street. How could Ash sleep through this? He entered through the kitchen door and called for her.

“Hello?”

Was it possible Ashley crashed somewhere else last night?

Bang bang bang.

Roman opened the refrigerator and drank from the carton of milk. He grabbed a cheese stick and walked up the stairs to the third floor. Technically, Mason lived in the apartment upstairs with Roman and Ashley, but their kitchen was an afterthought, and the family mostly ate meals downstairs together with Tara and John. Roman often worked evenings. He was the sole reporter for the local paper—the Adamsville Advocate, circulation 8,000—and he covered meetings and retirements and dedications and graduations in three towns over a ten-mile radius.

Tara, whom Mason called “Gerty”—the “g” sound for Grandma and “tee” for Tara—had Roman at nineteen years old, so she was just forty-four when Ashley gave birth to her grandson in the middle of Covid lockdown: April 12, 2020. None of the family was allowed in the hospital, and there were complications. When Ash and the newborn finally came home, she was barely recovered, and Tara became the boy’s caretaker.

Roman peeled off the plastic wrapper and pulled down a string of white cheese, pleased with the symmetry of the strip. He folded it into his mouth. If Ash was here and not in a terrible mood, he’d walk to work with her and get a free bagel.

“Ash?”

He pushed open their bedroom door. The bed was empty, coverlet tossed over the pillows. Her toothbrush was dry in the bathroom.

Roman went back to the refrigerator downstairs and the first thing he saw this time was a jar of strawberry jam. His son’s favorite meal these days was “jammich,” and damn if that didn’t sound good. He spread a thick layer between two slices of bread, and as the banging on the roof started up again, he called his mom. The call went to voicemail. Tara had a whole life on Facebook, but was fastidious about not using her phone around Mason, or while she was driving.

He texted: call me pls

Roman’s phone rang. Daniel again.

“Is she on her way?”

“She’s not here,” said Roman. “I’m sorry, dude, she must have forgotten. Maybe her phone is dead. I’ll have her call as soon as I see her.”

Roman stepped back outside to check on the progress of the roof, and his phone rang again. This time it was his boss, Larry Mullins, the sixty-eight-year-old editor, publisher, and opinion columnist of the Advocate.

“Hi, Larry.”

“Did you forget about the bench?”

Shit. Yes, he’d forgotten that he was supposed to cover the unveiling of a plaque on a bench in the town park that morning.

“They’re waiting for you to start,” said Larry.

It was the curse of working at a small-town paper: pretty much every event was important enough to cover, and yet almost nothing was so important they couldn’t wait for the reporter.

“This is our bread and butter, kid,” said Larry. “You definitely can’t be making podcasts if you can’t remember the important stuff.”

Roman knew better than to try to create some Mason-centered emergency as an excuse. Larry didn’t care. Although his boss had to pretend to embrace the family-friendly nature of the town whose newspaper he ran, privately he was a man with a heart as atrophied as his calf muscles. Recently Roman had asked if he could watch the live stream of a school board meeting instead of attending in person so he could take Mason to gymnastics class. Larry almost laughed: he’s got two moms, doesn’t he? Thinking back, Roman marveled at Larry’s ability to cut straight to the throbbing heart of the situation. Crudely articulating Roman’s silent, chronic fear: the boy doesn’t need me.

“I’m on my way.”

__________________________________

From I DREAMED OF FALLING, forthcoming from Minotaur in September 2024. Used with the permission of the publisher. Copyright © 2024 by Julia Dahl.




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