One summer morning when I was seven, I awoke in a cold sweat from a bad dream.
It was so very real. Jason Rivera, a boy in my class, was darting across Main Street on his bike when he was hit by a red pickup truck. He was thrown from his bike, arms flailing in the air. The scene was so terrifying that I was jarred awake before Jason landed and I could know what happened to him.
I sat up. I was shaking. I pulled back my blanket and went to find my mother.
She was in the kitchen, feeding my baby brother in his high chair. His round face was covered with orange baby food.
“Morning, honey,” she said.
I stood in the doorway and said nothing. She looked at me.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“I had a bad dream.”
“Another one? Oh, sweetie. You’ve got to stop eating so close to bedtime.”
“But I didn’t eat anything after supper last night.”
“Well, it was only a dream.”
“It was awful.”
“Why don’t you make yourself some cereal?” she said. “If you want, you can tell me about it.”
I made a bowl of Frosted Flakes and sat down at the table across from my mother. My brother, Matthew, was squealing and smearing baby food all over the tray of his high chair.
I took a bite of my cereal.
“It was about Jason Rivera,” I said.
“Uh, huh,” my mother said, trying unsuccessfully to get Matthew to eat. “What about him?”
“He was hit by a truck.”
“Oh, honey. That’s terrible. You’ve got to stop watching TV before bed.”
“But I didn’t watch TV last night, Mom.”
“Well, something is giving you these nightmares.”
“It seemed so real this time,” I said.
“Some dreams are like that,” she said, finally giving up on Matthew.
She went to the sink and wet a washcloth to clean his face and hands.
“But this wasn’t a dream,” I said. “It was real.”
That afternoon, I was playing kickball in my backyard with my brother Alex and the neighbor kids. It was a hot day, and we didn’t have air conditioning, so all our windows were open.
It’s funny. These days, everybody has smart phones, and the ringtones sound pretty much alike. But in those days, the ringers on people’s landline telephones were unique, like fin-gerprints. Our phone had a high-pitched ring. It rang twice, in a short burst, with a long pause between rings.
That afternoon, playing kickball, I heard our phone ring. A few minutes later, I heard our patio screen door slide open. I looked over and saw my mother step out, shading her eyes with her hand.
“Sarah!” she called.
“Come here for a minute.”
“I’ll be right back,” I said.
When I got to the patio, she told me to come inside. I knew something was up.
“Sit down,” she said. “I want to talk to you for a mi-nute.”
I sat down on the sofa in our family room. She sat down in an arm chair across from me.
“Mrs. Simpson just called,” she said. “There was an acci-dent this afternoon.”
My mother’s face looked pale, and her eyes looked serious.
“Yes,” she said. “Jason Rivera was hit by a truck on Main Street.”
“Is he okay?”
“No, honey. I’m sorry to tell you Jason is dead.”
“Yes. Sarah, tell me more about the dream you had last night.”
I was born with a small, light brown birthmark in the shape of a star on my right cheek. My mother called it my beauty mark, but I hated it.
She took me to see a dermatologist about getting it re-moved. After examining it, he said, “We could try to remove it, but that would leave a scar, and there’s no guarantee it wouldn’t grow back.”
“I’m sorry, honey,” my mother said.
Ms. Davis, my third grade teacher, told me people with star-shaped birthmarks have the “gift of prophecy.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means you can predict the future,” she said.
I didn’t want to be able to predict the future. Most of my dreams scared me. One of the most frightening of all happened when I was 10 years old.
I got up early that morning because I had had a dream that was so disturbing that I woke up crying. I had seen two big airplanes crash into two big buildings. The buildings burst in-to flames and collapsed. The people inside were all killed.
I told my mother as soon as I got up. By then, she tended to believe me when I told her about my dreams, but this one seemed too outrageous to be possible. Still, she seemed to be as upset as I was, and she gave me an extra long hug before I left for school that morning.
They released us early that day. I still remember my moth-er sitting in our family room, watching TV, tears streaming down her face, when I got home. She gave me an extra long hug then too.
Not all my dreams were about tragic events, though. Soon after my grandmother died, she came to me in a dream. Grandma had never seemed happy. I once asked my mother why. She told me Grandma she had done some “bad things” in her life and that those things made her sad. When she told me that, my mother looked sad too.
But in my dream, Grandma was in heaven, laughing. I had never seen her laugh.
“Grandma, are you okay?” I asked.
“Oh, Sarah,” she said. “Yes! I’m so happy. All is for-given!”
When I told my mother, she cried. She cried for a long time.
Not all my dreams were about bad things or dead people. When I became a teenager, sometimes they were sexual. I would dream about certain boys at school, boys I thought were cute. I would dream I was with them. But in my dreams, when I got to know them, they turned out to be creeps. I ended up steering clear of those boys.
I didn’t tell many people about my dreams. I didn’t want people to think I was strange. Some people, especially guys, didn’t believe me anyway, my father included. I don’t know why.
But my mother always believed me. Over time, she was the only one I would tell about my dreams.
I grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I suspect most people don’t know where Wyoming is. Some, I guess, would know Old Faithful is there, and a few might know it’s the home of the first female Secretary of Defense, Jennifer Stanton.
Jennifer Stanton is the great, great, great granddaughter of Edwin Stanton, who was President Lincoln’s Secretary of War. He was at Lincoln’s bedside when he died.
Edwin Stanton never got over Lincoln’s death. He claimed he had dreams about Lincoln the rest of his life. He told friends Lincoln spoke to him in his dreams and warned him about “world wars” in the twentieth century.
It was rumored that all the Stantons were “dreamers.” Jen-nifer, even as Secretary of Defense, talked openly about her dreams. That made me feel a little better about my “gift.”
By the time I turned 40, I was having far fewer dreams, and they were becoming vague and hard to remember. That made the dream I had one particular night all the more vivid and dread-ful.
I had just gone to bed, kissed my husband good night and fallen asleep.
In my dream, I had risen high in the sky, and I could see everything on the Earth perfectly well. I saw missiles being launched from different places around the world. Within minutes, there were thousands of missiles in the air, criss-crossing the globe. I watched them explode, creating great mushroom clouds everywhere.
Finally, the explosions stopped, and I began slowly de-scending toward the Earth. When I reached the ground, I looked around. Everything had been obliterated — buildings, trees, people. All that remained was a charred crust.
I felt sick. I tried to wake up, but I couldn’t. I kept dreaming.
I saw something emerging from the smoldering rubble. At first, I couldn’t tell what it was. But then I realized it was a man. A man! He was naked, his entire body burned. He was whimpering, like a dog in pain. He was looking for help, for his loved ones, for something to eat or drink.
But there was no one to help him, no loved ones left, no food or water. He staggered forward, a few steps more, then stumbled and fell to the ground. He did not get up.
The sky rumbled and cracked, the clouds rained down ash and the whole Earth went dark and turned cold.
I woke up screaming. My husband tried to comfort me, but I couldn’t stop crying. I had seen World War III and, in a matter of minutes, the end of life on the planet. Worst of all, I knew it was all going to come true.
I wandered around my house all night, checking on my chil-dren, looking out my windows, sobbing, too afraid to go back to sleep, wondering what I should do.
In the morning, I called my mother and told her everything. She always tried to calm me after my bad dreams. But now, she too seemed shaken.
“What should we do?” I asked her.
“I think we need to tell someone,” she said.
“I think you need to tell the President.”
“Yes,” she said. “She’s the only one who can stop this.”
“Do you think she’d believe me?”
“I don’t know, but you’ve got to try.”
My father had spent his career working as a civilian at Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne. It’s one of only three strategic missile bases in the US. We never knew what my father did there. He never talked about his work.
Jennifer Stanton was stationed there when she was in the Air Force. My father had worked with her, and they’d kept in touch over the years.
But when my mother told him about my dream and asked him to reach out to Stanton, my father wanted nothing to do with it.
“That’s crazy,” he said. “I won’t do it.”
So I went to see him. Most men can say no to their wives more easily than they can say no to their daughters. After much pleading and a few tears, he agreed to call Stanton.
What my father didn’t know, what very few people knew, is that the US and Russia had been quietly preparing to strike one another. Neither, though, had anticipated a broader conflict.
I flew to Washington and met with Secretary Stanton at the Pentagon. She listened closely to my story, studying my face. I wasn’t sure if she would believe me, but she did.
“What do you think we should do?” I asked.
“We must tell the President,” she said.
She picked up her phone and arranged for a meeting at the White House the following morning.
Just before I left her office, Secretary Stanton sat across from me, looking at me, saying nothing.
“Is there something else, Madam Secretary?” I asked.
“No,” she said, averting her gaze and seeming a bit flus-tered. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
I lay awake in bed in my hotel room that night. I couldn’t fall asleep. Not because I was afraid to dream. My dreams had suddenly stopped. But because I was anxious about meeting with the President.
Yes, Secretary Stanton had believed me, but she’s a dreamer too, I thought. Would the President be so quick to believe me? Was I really going to the White House to tell the President of the United States about one of my crazy dreams?
But then I remembered that dream. I remembered seeing whole cities engulfed in flames. I remembered walking the scorched, barren Earth. I remember hearing that poor man whim-pering. My dreams had always come true, and I knew I had to do all I could to prevent this one from happening.
The following morning, as Secretary Stanton and I waited outside the Oval Office, I noticed she was staring at my face, just as she had been the day before.
“It’s a birthmark,” I said.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to stare. It’s just—“
“Well, most people don’t know this, but the President has the very same birthmark on her arm.”
Don Tassone is the author of four short story collections and a novel. He lives in Loveland, Ohio.