Jack dreamed of fire. He was scared — sheets of flame all around, the wind searing his throat and lungs as he drew breath, things on fire falling all around him, who wouldn’t be scared?
In some dim corner of his sleeping mind, he knew that he was dreaming. And that part was scared, too, because it knew that Jack never dreamed of fire. Or he hadn’t, until now.
He thrashed — he was burning up, he had to get up and into cool air.
He thrashed himself awake, gulping in air that wasn’t hot, wasn’t even warm. His window was open a few inches, and a cool October breeze was huffing and puffing at the curtains. He was drenched in sweat, his shirt nearly plastered to him, his arms slick.
In the cool air made cold against his skin, he began to shiver. Thinking on the dream, he shivered even more.
He threw the blanket and comforter off — even his socks were cold, turning clammy. He got up and changed into another pair of pajama bottoms, pulled on another old tee shirt. He left his feet bare.
Wide awake, the lingering fright of the dream dulling to a dread of going back to bed, he slipped out of his room, and down the stairs, hugging the wall, skipping the seventh step.
He heard the rustling at about the fifth step from the bottom. It wasn’t loud — if he hadn’t known Beth was down there, he would have thought a bird had somehow gotten in and was fluttering about. On the third step, he heard her voice — not words that he could make out, but just… sounds he’d probably been making himself not too long ago.
By the time he stepped into the living room, Beth’s breathing had again calmed, slowed. Jack stared — he didn’t kid himself and say that he was ‘just looking.’ He couldn’t help it — her skin practically glowed in the ribbons of moonlight streaming through the living room’s side window. Her hair, fine and blonde in sunlight, turned into what he imagined “white gold” looked like. He couldn’t think of any other way to describe it.
But most of all, her expression was serene, relaxed. No hint of whatever had her thrashing in her dreams moments before. No speed-of-light thinking and calculating going on to crease her forehead with thought, or scrunch her nose up if she thought of something displeasing.
Okay, Jack told himself, that was enough of that. Downstairs for a drink, then back to bed. He turned, made his way to the kitchen, got a glass, filled it.
He meant to drink it there, then go right back to bed. He took a sip, making his way back out around the dining room table. He set the glass down, went over to his dad’s chair, a lived-in (his dad refused to call it “beat up”) Lazy-Boy type of rocker. The leather sighed and gave a rough burp of leather-on-leather as Jack settled. It was a pretty big seat, though neither Jack nor his dad were nearly big enough to fill it. Jack had to spread his arms a bit to get his elbows to rest on both armrests at the same time.
He held his breath. Had her breathing changed? Had it caught just a bit as he sat down?
Stupid idea, sitting here of all places! he thought to himself. But he’d make even more noise if he tried to get up.
So he sat, watching her sleep since he couldn’t sleep himself. When he closed his eyes, he still saw the dancing, red-orange flames. No, he wouldn’t fall back asleep, go back to that dream. He looked around, saw one of his sisters’ notebooks. He caught it with the tip of an extended toe, slid it close enough to grab, and flipped through it to a blank page. There was a pencil scrunched down in the wire binding, and he wiggled it free.
When he was bored, or needed distraction, Jack drew. His school notebooks were crowded with doodles, figures, caricatures. Some of them had to do with the subject at hand. The english units on Tom Sawyer, for instance, were illustrated along the margins, as were the social sciences sections of mythology and legends. A teacher had taken one of Jack’s notebooks once, only to hand it back the next day, marked with suggestions for further reading, and a critique of his depiction of the cyclops.
Absently, Jack found his hand sketching lines of flame along the bottom of the page. Thinking about what else he’d seen in the dream, he added dark figures, barely discernible. Eddies of smoke. Putting it on the page, it didn’t look so bad. Alien, maybe. Odd, not like anything he’d drawn before, but some of the hard edge of fright he’d felt had slipped away.
He turned his attention outward, then, changing subjects. He worked quickly — he didn’t want to lose the way the light fell just so. Eyes on the page, then up to his subject, sleeping peacefully on the sofa. Jack was glad she was such a sound sleeper. He doubted if she could stay so still if she’d been awake. In the sunlight, she was all movement, even when sitting still, like a tightly wound spring. The moonlight cast her in marble. But could a sculptor ever capture such a likeness?
The wind gusted outside, tree branches scraping against the roofline. The moonlight dimmed, eaten up as a cloud drifted across it. The drop in lighting jarred Jack from the thoughts that had been spooling out as he sketched. It was almost done, and he only remembered just beginning it. Not much time had passed, the moonlight hadn’t drifted too far once it came back from behind the cloud.
He glanced back down at the drawings, added a bit more shading, looked back up.
Beth stared back at him, eyes wide, bright in the moonlight.
Jack jumped, as if the marble statue had magically come to life.
“Jesus!” he gasped.
Beth frowned. “What? You act like you’ve seen a ghost or something.”
“You were— I thought— Jesus, don’t scare me like that,” Jack stammered.
“Like what? I just opened my eyes.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“You sit rather loudly.”
“I’m sorry, its the chair—”
“And fidget. Thats loud in that chair, too.”
“I wasn’t fidgeting. I just… had a bad dream and came down here for a glass of water.”
“Which is still sitting on the table, full.”
“Well, yeah. I put it down, then sat down, then didn’t want to get up, ‘cause I thought it’d wake you up…. But … I guess I already did that,” Jack finished slowly, turning the notebook this way and that in his hands. He got up — the chair did indeed make much more noise then it had when he sat — retrieved the glass, sipping at it.
“No, don’t sit back in that noisy old thing,” Beth said. She wiggled and twisted, shimmying to a sitting position, folding her legs to make room next to her.
Jack paused between the chair and sofa.
Beth hauled at the blankets, clearing off one of the sofa cushions. “Is that better?”
Jack sat, more delicately than he had when he’d lowered himself into his dad’s chair.
Beth held out her hand. “I want to see what all that pencil-scratching was about.”
Jack coughed as the sip of water slid down the wrong pipe.
“No,” he croaked, “its nothing. Just doodling, to pass the time.” He wedged the notebook between the cushion and the arm of the sofa.
“You’re supposed to pass the time at night doing things like sleeping,” Beth said.
“Well, I was doing that,” Jack replied, coughing a bit. Beth leaned over and gave him a couple whacks on the back.
“Good, you can breathe now,” she said, nodding. “So. You were sleeping. And dreaming. What were you dreaming about?”
Jack shivered. “It wasn’t rainbows and bunnies.”
“I didn’t ask what you weren’t dreaming about,” Beth said.
“It wasn’t a dream. More like a… a nightmare.”
“Well, duh. I guess it was bad, since you’re still shaking.”
“I’m not—” But he was.
Beth shrugged out from the blankets, stood up briefly on the couch before hopping off, landing lightly on the floor.
“Come on,” she said, grabbing Jack’s hand, pulling him up.
“Wha— Its the middle of the night! Where—”
“Its just across the yard. I guess we won’t need coats if its just that far,” Beth was saying, more to herself than to Jack.
It wasn’t marble that moonlight transformed her into, Jack found himself thinking as he staggered and hopped after Beth across the yard, barefoot. She was something closer to quicksilver.