“Mommy, Mommy!” Anne ran out the front door crying, blonde strands of hair sprouting like dandelion pappi from her once tightly woven pigtail braids. Tiny fists wiped away the tears from her crystal blue eyes, then reached up to be held.
“Honey, what’s wrong?” asked Mrs. Smith. She leaned beyond the swinging porch bench she sat on to pick up her six-year-old daughter in a strong, sweeping hug. Carefully smoothing the wrinkled forehead, she gazed into the fearful face.
“I—I dreamed of a scary monster,” she stammered. “He was ugly and had yellow teeth and wanted to eat me.” Although she had stopped crying, she still whimpered in short breaths.
Not these nightmares again, thought Mrs. Smith. They don’t usually happen during naps. She held Anne closer for a few moments before responding. “Look around at our home,” she began. “You see the poppy fields we always play hide and seek in? Or the tire swing you and your brother always take rides on?” she asked. She pointed to the left of the white farmhouse at the red poppies dancing in the cool breeze, then to the tire swing dangling from a limb of the stalwart oak tree in the front yard.
Anne slowly nodded her head, looking.
“You can touch those things and smell them. They’re real.” She stroked Anne’s hair absentmindedly. “But that monster is imaginary. It’s just a dream.”
“But how do you know?” Anne whispered. “It was right behind me.” She hugged her mother’s neck tightly with clasped fingers.
Mrs. Smith hummed softly and rocked her daughter close to her heart. “I won’t let it hurt you. Remember, it’s just a dream,” she said.
“Just a dream,” Anne repeated. “You promise?” Her blue eyes, now dried of tears, looked up expectantly.
“I promise,” replied her mother.
“Okay.” Anne played with the beginning of a rip in Mrs. Smith’s blue jeans, the crisis now averted. For a few minutes, mother and daughter sat motionless on the smooth wooden swing as the breeze tickled the silver chains mooring it to the roof.
Peace and quiet. Mrs. Smith breathed. She closed her eyes, inhaling the metallics of the freshly turned dirt in the garden and cleanness of her daughter’s golden hair. If she listened hard enough amidst all the background noise of farm life, she could hear their amber waves of grain rippling in the distance. Beautiful.
A bark erupted from the opposite side of the house as a flash of fur and paws careened around the corner, narrowly missing it by mere inches in pursuit of a rabbit.
“Yankee!” Anne squealed. Before Mrs. Smith realized it, her daughter had jumped from the security of her lap, skipped down the stairs, and run after the silly dog.
“That doodle,” Mrs. Smith huffed. “Such a wild child.” She shook her head in mock scorn and rolled her eyes. At least the kids love him, even if he isn’t the farmhand poster boy, she thought. Anything that made her kids happy made her happy too.
If only they could stay that way.
That’s what the red lettering on the white page had screamed days ago when she had come in from the fields for lunch. Dirty, tired, and back aching (thirty-two years old wasn’t for the faint of heart), she had climbed the steps to her model-white, perfectly symmetrical two-story farmhouse. Dainty smoke wisped from the red brick chimney, evidencing the wood-burning fireplace inside.
She could barely read the rest of the letter as hot, unwelcome tears blurred her vision, blurred her life. After all these years of working hard, of building the perfect life . . . this is what we get? she had thought. Surely all of that was worth something.
“No, give it back!” A high-pitched screech arrested her thoughts in the present.
“George Washington Smith,” she said in her most authoritative, don’t-mess-with-Mom voice. Immediately the tussle ceased, and the dust returned to dust.
Coming down from her seat like a judge, unhurried in the blazing white righteousness of her T-shirt, Mrs. Smith walked to the scene of the crime in the front yard. “George Washington Smith and Susan B. Anne Smith,” she addressed the guilty. “What are y’all doing?” She crossed her arms and waited for the defendant’s answer.
“Mooom,” whined George as he poked the dirt with the toe of his cleat. He tried to hide the evidence behind his back unsuccessfully as the wrapper stuck out of its own accord. “I had it first,” he said.
“But you said I could have some, and I didn’t get any,” Anne whined. She crossed her arms to mimic her mother and stamped a foot impatiently in the dirt.
“Hand it over,” Mrs. Smith instructed. With a sigh of defeat George slowly revealed the half-eaten honey bun and handed it to the judge. He adjusted his Starz baseball cap and continued studying the ground, hiding his blue eyes lest they give something away. Looks like he’s finally making friends on the bus ride home, Mrs. Smith thought with a pang. She hadn’t bought honey buns for the twins in years. Perhaps the boys George always talked about had been nice to him. They couldn’t leave the farm, not now. Not when things were so good. “Father and I will discuss this later,” she said. “But for now, I’ll keep this, especially since dinner is soon.” She gestured with the contraband, her verdict ringing in the stillness.
Two pairs of blue eyes looked at her inquisitively. “Daddy isn’t home yet?” asked Anne first.
“But his other job doesn’t start until after we go to bed,” added her copied-and-pasted brother.
Mrs. Smith sighed in the deepest part of her being. He would be home if he wasn’t pleading with the bank right now, she thought to herself. Pleading for more time, more money, something. If they refused . . .
Instead she said, “He’ll be home soon,” mustering her most cheerful voice. “Why don’t you both clean up, and we’ll get supper all ready for him.” She hugged the twins, carefully raising the half-devoured sugar loaf high above their reach. “I love you both,” she said with a smile. Her voice sounded brighter than the looming storm cloud she felt rising over their happy twenty-five-acre farm.
“Love you, Mom,” they said in unison and raced to the house.
“George, take off those cleats before you go inside,” called Mrs. Smith. She shook her head and smiled. Those kids, she mused to herself, letting the rest of the sentence die away unthought. They didn’t need anything to ruin their helter-skelter bliss prematurely. Life is perfect, as it should be, she forced herself to think. She watched the tumble and bumble chaos plow through the perfect door of their perfect house, heard their feet slapping up the stairs, and the indistinct chatter of their six-year-old voices engaging in some new debate.
The American flag draped behind the porch swing caught her eye. It seemed to stare at her in disapproval with its pointy stars and unending stripes. Is this how the Dream looks? Feels like? Ends? she thought. “It’s not supposed to end,” she whispered.
The ugly monster with yellow teeth was real, and it wanted to eat them alive.
“Daddy’s home, Daddy’s home,” came the voices of the twins from upstairs. In the background the rumbling noise of the red pickup truck died. George and Anne slid down the polished steps on their bottoms, thump, thump, thump, then bolted out the door.
“Be careful,” called Mrs. Smith from her place over the stove. The water bubbled as corn cobs rolled over each other in the hot pan. Those kids sure do love their dad, she thought. After college she and Mr. Smith had settled down on the farm and created a life they loved beyond words. Our American Dream. That’s what he had whispered in her ear the first time they held their children, followed by a soft forehead kiss.
“Oh, and you even scored a homerun in practice!” Mr. Smith repeated. His wife could hear the pride in his voice. “That’s my boy.” The muscular frame of the man of the house towered through the door with a wiggly child on each foot. The black suit and navy blue tie he wore commanded attention; he almost looked like he could’ve been a businessman by day. “Mrs. Smith,” he said, kissing her, much to the children’s dismay.
“Ew, grosss,” they said. They covered their eyes, not quite in time to miss the scene.
“Mr. Smith,” his wife said, catching the scent of his nice cologne. She embraced his presence as it completed the room—her partner in fighting to keep their red, white, and blue hope alive. She raised a questioning eyebrow and received a slight shake of the head in response. She bit her lip and raised her shoulders. Later.
“What’s for dinner?” asked Mr. Smith. The tanned hands of a farmer loosened the tie and carefully laid the suit coat over the back of a rocking chair.
“I wanted hot dogs,” George said. He pretended to blow a bubble in his imaginary bubble gum and threw what might’ve been an imaginary curveball.
“I wanted hamburgers,” Anne added. She picked up her baby doll and put it on the sofa with a very small pacifier.
“So, I guess we’re having hamburgers and hotdogs,” Mr. Smith chuckled. He walked over to the sink and washed his hands while the twins took their places at the table.
“And corn on the cob,” Mrs. Smith said. She shook her head at the little mess of a family she had. Friday nights the children were allowed to pick the meals. But of course, she always had veto power. At least it’s not as bad as last Friday, she thought. All the children wanted was a chicken—a whole chicken. Thankfully they had enough chickens on the farm to compensate for a delicious dinner. After saying grace, the family dug into their delicious spread. “Daddy, is Uncle Sam coming over again tonight?” asked Anne. Her clear blue eyes looked up in all their innocence and hope. “Will he bring us new toys again?” She clasped her hands in a prayer.
“Yeah, the kites he brought last night were awesome!” George chimed in between mouthfuls of hotdog.
“Son, don’t talk with your mouth open, please,” Mrs. Smith said. “It’s not polite.” She wiped the ketchup from the corners of her mouth with a white napkin. At least they haven’t caught on yet, she thought. They needed all the help from her husband’s lawyer brother they could get.
“You’ll just have to wait and see,” replied Mr. Smith with a twinkle in his eye.
When dinner ended, the children raced upstairs to begin their hour of reading before Uncle Sam arrived—or didn’t. Mr. and Mrs. Smith sat at the newly wiped table in silence, waiting to hear their children’s movements subside.
“So, it’s a no?” Mrs. Smith let out in a gust of disappointment when the time was right. Her strong shoulders sagged under the burden of a weight she couldn’t see, couldn’t touch. If only there was a way, she thought.
Mr. Smith sighed the sigh of a man twenty years his senior. “It’s a no.” He shook his head and folded his hands. “We can’t sell wheat we don’t have yet, and if we sell the land, we’ll lose the house.”
“What does Sam think?” Maybe the only option now, she thought. Why did simply living have to be so expensive?
“He’s doing his best, but I don’t think he can help us out in time.” Mr. Smith ran tired fingers through his hair. “After all, we’re still paying off college debt and George’s hospital bill from his broken arm last summer.”
“Repairing the tractor wasn’t cheap either,” his wife added. It felt like the harder they tried, the harder things got. They both tried to get second jobs to bring in more money, but no one needed or wanted Mrs. Smith’s skills. She could drive large vehicles, train pedigree dogs, and memorize almost anything in about five minutes—to name a few. Still, gas was expensive. Food was expensive. Everything was expensive. “Do we have to move, then? Where will we go? What about the children’s schooling? What about our jobs? The farm?” The fear rose in her voice with each question asked. The monster was chasing, and she could almost feel it snapping at her heels.
Run faster, try harder, do better, it mocked. Be patriotic, happy, poor. Faster, faster.
“Hey, it’s okay.” Mr. Smith enfolded his wife’s hands into his own. Their strength and warmth comforted her. His deep blue eyes gazed directly into hers. We’re okay, they said.
“But how do you know?” she whispered. All she could see were the sharp yellow teeth and the nasty claws. Its breath reeked.
“It’s just a dream,” her husband whispered back. He squeezed her hands tighter in reassurance and attempted a small smile.
“But I can touch it, smell it,” she said. She felt the callouses of her husband’s fingers against her skin, the wooden table under them, and the hard back of the chair. The house, the farm, the field of poppies, the tangle of twins and life they brought to everything. She looked to the pile of bills beside her, the eviction notice on top . . . the things they kept hidden from their kids to protect them.
Run faster, try harder, do better, the monster echoed.
“Dear,” he crooned. He wiped a tear as it fell from her blue eye. “We’ll be okay.” His fingers brought hers to his lips, and he gently kissed them.
She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. It’s just a dream, she thought. A dream she didn’t know how to breathe without. The house and flowers and farm—beautiful, thrilling, but not what mattered most.
Not being rich but being . . . happy. At peace. Quiet. With the people that mattered most.
She opened her eyes and saw the world differently. “Our American Dream,” she whispered. She looked at the red flowers mixed with baby's breath Anne had picked nestled in a blue vase on the table. She smiled at George’s stick figure family drawing secured on the fridge door. Last, her eyes locked with her husband’s eyes. Courage. Peace. A monster-free world.
“Our American Dream,” he repeated with a faint shimmer in his eye. The corner of his mouth tugged upward in hope.
Without breaking her gaze, she called out, “Kids, who wants some apple pie and ice cream?” A response of scampering footsteps echoed throughout the house as Yankee awoke from his nap at the commotion and barked his happy bark.
“It’s not about what but who,” she murmured.