Remembering that Ellie had been a ballerina for Halloween last year, Jack sketched out several designs that incorporated as much material already on hand as he could think of. Jack tried not to listen in too much on Bill Paying Days, but he was smart enough to know that his parents would not be able to afford the “poofy gown” or “fur-lined cape” that Ellie seemed to get into her head that fairy princesses “needed.”
She didn’t listen very well when their mother said “Its too expensive, dear.”
“Ellie,” Jack said, adding a few lines here and there to the no-gown-no-cape version they were trying to sell to the girl. “Look here. If you have a long dress, it makes it hard to fly. Too heavy. And a cape, well… that would get in the way of your wings.”
The girl’s eyes — still a bit puffy from crying — grew wide with wonder. She jumped up and down. “A fairy princess with wings and a wand and everything!”
And that settled it.
* * * * *
Jack dreamt again of fire.
Sheets of it engulfed the walls of his room, gobbets of fire fell from the ceiling. He coughed on the thick, oily smoke. The poster above his bed wasn’t the National Geographic map of the sky, though. It was a nearly full size replica of the sketch he’d done of Beth. And it was burning.
It peeled and smoked, blackening. He reached through the flames along the wall, trying to tear the picture free, to save it even though he felt his fingers blistering, charring.
He screamed himself awake, throwing covers and comforter off, flinching away from the wall beside him, even though he knew he was awake, free from the dream. His room was cool and dark in the moonless night, brightened by the faintest touch of starlight.
Jack got up, paced back and forth, waiting for his hands to stop shaking, for his heartbeat to slow, for the rushing surge in his ears to subside.
He went downstairs, tried a glass of water to calm himself. The glass rattled against his teeth. He finished the glass, paced across the dining room to the living room. He was still shaking. He grabbed the blanket off the back of the sofa, and collapsed into his dad’s rocking chair, huddling against one side. He pulled the blanket up high over his shoulders, pulling it close to ward off the chill that was partly from dreams, partly from the cold night.
He closed his eyes, tucking his chin down, slowed his breathing. The blanket smelled faintly of strawberries.
The chair gave a creaky, leathery groan. Jack felt more than heard the sound, but it was enough to bring his hearing back into sharp focus. He turned his head to look behind him, at the other side of the chair where the sound had come from.
“Sorry,” Beth whispered, bobbing her head in a sheepish apology. She was sitting on the arm of the chair, one arm in her lap, the other stretched across the back of the chair.
“Where have you been?” Jack asked, surprised at how sleepy his voice sounded. His thoughts seemed to be a bit more sluggish than usual, too. It was like he was trying to swim, but in gelatin instead of water. He tried to sit up straighter.
“Why is everything so… slow?”
“You’re still asleep,” Beth said.
“Kinda figured,” Jack murmured.
“No, like, really asleep. Deep asleep. Like ‘I’m really tired and worn out because of the nightmare’ sleep. This is like makeup work.”
“You were burning. Tried to save you.” He had to force the words out.
“I know, I was watching,” She sniffed, and Jack saw her eyes glimmering. She wiped at them, blinking rapidly. “I tried to get you out. But I can’t visit those kinds of dreams.”
“Don’t want you there, when they’re like that. Might get hurt.”
“Try for bunnies and rainbows next time,” Beth said, trying to smile. She stood, slipping off the arm of the chair.
“Don’t go,” Jack said, and he forced himself to sit up straighter.
“I’ve been here too long already. I’m breaking a rule, being here like this.”
“Its a dream. No rules in dreams.”
“If only that were true,” Beth said. Jack watched her walk slowly around the back of the chair, tried to follow the hand she trailed along the back of the chair. He wanted to reach up, take her hand, but his own wouldn’t respond. He turned his head to keep her in view, blinked, but she had gone.