In a dream that terrorizes me when I’m nine and recurs a few times a year until I’m twenty, I’m walking home from school for the hour lunch break. My cable-knit knee socks are drooping, the heels bunching up in my new saddle shoes. I stop every four steps to yank them up, reciting Miss Mary Mack Mack Mack to distract myself from the dreadful sock situation.

The accident took place on I-84 near where the entrance to the Taconic snakes around the perimeter of a rolling cattle farm. Though I didn’t see it happen, the back door of the tipped-over trailer must have flung open upon impact. I arrived just as the goats, startled but unharmed, righted themselves and walked through it.

It’s my daily routine to go home for lunch; it’s the early ‘70s and only the bused kids stay to eat in the cafeteria. I walk the two blocks to my building and climb the dark stairwell to our apartment — 2B. In the dream, my stomach rumbles. I’m filled with uncertainty and hunger. Will my mother blame me for my drooping socks? Will she notice the scuff on my shoes? And which sandwich will she serve for lunch? I’m hoping for peanut butter and jelly, but it might be tuna. Will she see my disappointment if it’s tuna? Will my disappointment trigger her sadness? Send her back to the bed she forced herself to leave to make lunch for her ingrate-daughter?

I was about two or three cars back from the wreck with a clear view of the goats. Some went towards the grassy divider and crossed the highway, stopping westbound traffic. Some wandered into the hills on the outskirts of the cattle farm. Some trotted in the direction of the cars behind me. How many there were, I couldn’t tell, but when a green-eyed mama goat and her baby walked up to my minivan — the one I use for my flower shop — I pushed the auto-open button, and they climbed onto the seat next to the sealed box I’d set out to deliver. I glanced at the other drivers to see if maybe they’d seen what I’d done, but either they were videoing the chaos or wrangling the goats away from their cars.

I put my arm on the passenger seat, turned around to my hitchhikers, and said, “Mama-girl, Baby, lay low and I’ll get you to safety.” I had no idea what that meant, but it came out like a promise.

My hunger has me cranky. At morning snack, Danielle and Susan shared a few Oreos in front of me and made fun of my Fig Newtons. I threw them away despite Miss Keller’s warning about starving children. And why couldn’t my mother pack me cookies I actually like? My emotions make my hands shake. Too young to carry my own key, I make a fist, bang on our apartment door, and wait for my mother to appear. Instead, a stranger answers. She tilts her head and asks, “Can I help you?”

 Three police cars and one ambulance wove through the back-up. They cleared one lane, and soon traffic began to glide past the wreck. As I made my way east through the Hudson Valley, it occurred to me that I’d either conducted a badass rescue or committed a punishable crime. Or both. I drove on, hoping a solution would present itself.

In my terror, I check that I’m standing at the correct apartment. In gold against the red door, 2B. This is my home. This is the door where just this morning I stood deliberating on the other side — should I attempt a hug? Or will she stiffen like the day before and the one before that? This is the hallway where just yesterday, against my mother’s instructions, my father snuck a tip into the hand of the seltzer delivery man. This is the hallway where the matted poodle from 2A licked my brother’s fingers, wet-sticky from an orange Tootsie Pop. This is the apartment where I taught my infant sister to hide her eyes behind her hands. This is the apartment where I visit with my mother in her bed, where in isolated tender moments, our fingers trace images of whales and sharks in National Geographic and elk and prairie dogs on our wildlife calendar. This is the apartment where my parents never fight but don’t talk either, their angry silence directed in currents across low-pile carpet, over a creamy Formica tabletop, through thick, hot apartment air.

 I want to ask the stranger where my parents are, where they’ve gone. “This is our apartment,” I want to declare, but before I can, she says, “I’m sorry. Your family left. They no longer live here.” When the lock clicks into place, I startle and wake up.

My brain went a little nuts. I wondered if Mama-girl had goat friends who would miss her. I wondered if there was a goat dad looking for his baby. I didn’t know anything about goats, certainly not enough. I pinched the bridge of my nose with two fingers. Sometimes this helps me think. I considered turning around, returning them to the scene of the wreck, but the wreck was probably cleared, and I couldn’t leave them in the middle of the highway. I scanned the radio looking for a song that might calm me, but every station had a beat — loud and frantic.

My hair is wet with sweat every single time. At nine I lie shivering, my blanket pulled tightly around my ears, as if to keep out any sound which might suggest the dream is a possibility. At thirteen I turn on my lamp and trace the shape of the sweat on my pillowcase. I decide it’s an amoeba, straight out of my science textbook, and I put my finger where the nucleus would be. At seventeen I open my bedroom window, light a joint, and turn on the television to muffle the rising fear that my college roommate will hate living with me, the girl who sweats herself awake.

Finally, the accident was reported into radio airwaves from a helicopter hovering over I-84. I picked it up on a classic rock station whose announcers were having a wild time with the goats-all-over-the-road story. One cracked a bad joke —  “Are they honking their horns?” — which made the others laugh a little too hard. Finally, they delivered some information I could use. The goats were on a trailer belonging to a Hudson Valley rescue organization. They were headed to a sanctuary where they would live out their goat-lives in tranquility. The driver of the trailer was an older man who suffered chest pains and veered off the road. Fully conscious, he instructed the EMT’s and the police to make sure the goats reached the sanctuary while he was in the hospital. Most of the goats were recovered from the wreck and placed (gently) on a different trailer which would complete the mission. I called the sanctuary, and through spotty cell service, with a tone that was both confessional and boastful, explained what I’d done. “Yes,” I said. “I have them both.”

The last time I dream the dream, I’m with a man I’ll choose to never see again. He sleeps through my sudden start and later assures me that my sweat is no big deal as long as it’s not the sign of something contagious. He jokes that the pattern of sweat on my pillow looks like ringworm, a skin infection he once suffered as a boy after playing with goats at a petting zoo. He says he tried to comfort a baby goat who’d been separated from his mother. He imitates the cries of the baby — baaaaa, baaaaa — until it is too much for me, until the sound persists in my ears, the sound of a young goat torn away, the sound of terror, the bleating for what she will never have, the sound of irreparable trauma, of relentless recurrence, recurring on and on until it beats down — or up — what it set out to beat — the possibility of repair, of wholeness.

Mama-girl lay curled around her baby in the middle row of my minivan, both sets of green eyes, soft, tired. I kept checking on them, even when the sharp memory of a man I once knew interrupted my thoughts — made me cringe and shake out the unpleasantness of his voice in my head. Made me curl my fingers tight around the wheel. Made me step hard on the gas without a plan. Made me wonder where Mama-girl and her baby might sleep if I took them home for just a little while, wrapped them in blankets, let them sleep on my floor, gave them a little break from their adventure, their stress, this wreck they’d endured. When the little one stirred but was too unsteady to stand, I took hold of my thoughts. “Focus,” I said out loud. “Just get them to safety.”

It felt serendipitous to me that the sanctuary was just a short distance from where I was going to deliver the box anyway. I never knew it was there. When I pulled onto the gravel drive, a rugged woman in coveralls peered into my minivan, saw the goats, revealed a tender smile, and waved me into a spot near the barn. Two volunteers in matching t-shirts carried Mama-girl and her kid into a stall bedded with spotless shavings, a mound of grass hay, and a low, pristine water trough. One volunteer said the two would join the herd after they rested. “You did a good thing,” she added casually.

In a different recurring dream, my mother searches for my father who has gone missing from our apartment. She opens closet doors, peers under our beds, moves the couch to look behind it. I alone know where he is, but I’m sworn to secrecy. It’s a game we’re playing, a joke on my mother. I am both thrilled and guilty because I know what I cannot tell my mother — that my father does not want to be with her. 

 My mother’s room is decorated with cutout photographs from animal calendars. Majestic-maned horses, droopy-eared beagles, curled hedgehogs, feathery cheetah cubs. Each photo, the animal of the month for some year in the way past. I place the box of calendars I’ve been collecting next to the closet where she can unpack it. My father, who sleeps in his own room, will help her cut out photos and add them to her walls.

My father reaches for me from the chair beside her bed and says she’s doing well, walking more, a little tired but taking her meds — the ones that steady her moods. He repeats what he has always said, what he has always tried so hard to believe: that her illness makes her cruel, that she wasn’t always this way, that when they met she was an absolute delight. And stunning, too. Maybe a little unpredictable, but what a charmer she was. He pauses, puts the back of his hand to his nose, and says, “It’s not her fault, love. It’s hard to take, I know, but it’s not her fault.”

I want to add to this picture he’s painting — to make a note about his idea of fault. I want to shout that there are plenty of sick people who aren’t mean. She’s both, Dad. She’s both. You know it like I know it.

I don’t say it, though. What would be the point.

He tells me that my brother and sister were there a few days ago, that they brought the balloons attached to the weight on the window sill. He doesn’t know that I ordered the balloons for them. When my father walks out to pour me a glass of iced tea, I sit down on the edge of her bed and face my mother.

Our conversations are often limited to the impersonal — a bit of television news, school district politics, the pharmacist’s unusual hair. I’ve become an expert diverter, allowing no space for digs about my clumsy manicure or my decision to keep my flower shop small. But today I tell her about a goat I gave a silly name to and her tagalong kid who followed her right into my car. How I rescued both. My mother smiles and asks me about the goats’ eyes. What color. What shape. She wants to know if their coats were pretty.

I give her as many details as I can — the wreck, the chaos, the danger the goats faced. I speculate about the terror the young goat must have felt until her mother soothed her, right there on my minivan’s seat. I see her scanning for a goat on her wall, so I tell her I took pictures before I delivered them to the sanctuary. No use trying to show her the photos on my phone; instead, I promise to print them for her wall, if she’d like. She says that would be very nice if only there were room on the wall for photographs by amateurs.

When I try to stand, I realize my mother is holding my hand. Despite the fact that her gaze rests elsewhere, her grip is unyielding.


Born and raised in New York, Karen Zlotnick lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband and their Newfoundland dog.  Some of her work has been featured in Pithead Chapel, Typishly, jmww, Stonecoast Review, and Moon City Review. In addition, one of her stories was nominated for Best Small Fictions 2022.