Jack dreamed. He knew it was a dream, because he was back in the strange meadow. The sunlight that seemed to come from everywhere was muted, the light a steely gray rather than the warm and golden. The air came at him in stiff, hard gusts, edged with cold. The tall grass bent and scratched in the wind, dry and brown and brittle.
There was no scent of strawberries in the air, just the sharp tang of impending rain.
He’d been here before. Briefly, for only a few seconds, or minutes… It was difficult to judge time in a dream.
Another gust of wind tore through, this one hard enough to knock him off balance, and as he staggered, he thought he heard the grass, sighing, whispering.
He stood up, sharply, glancing around, turning a full circle. It was windswept grass and clouds so dark as to be black, and seemingly nothing between them but Jack.
Another gust of wind hit him in the face, and he closed his eyes against it, turning to shield himself from the icy blast. As he turned, the wind felt for an instant like slender fingertips, sliding across his shoulders. Beth’s giggle echoed in the last breath of the wind. But it was a brittle and frost-rhimed imitation.
Beth’s hands were always warm, as was her laughter.
“This isn’t right. This isn’t her!”
Jack didn’t know who he was shouting at, but he had to do something.
Something stirred the grass behind Jack, as if answering his call. The grass swayed, back and forth, parting, flowing in the wake of whatever it was that darted this way and that, but gaining speed as it got closer.
The grass fairly buzzed as whatever it was drew closer, and the movement giving rise to the hissing, sighing whisper:
Give her back! Give her back! Give her back! Give her—
* * * * *
Jack struggled up and away from the claws of the dream, a short, ragged cry all he could manage as he started awake.
Beth’s shrill yelp was actually much more impressive sounding, as she pitched perilously close to the edge of the couch.
Jack reached out, reflexively, pulling the girl back against him where she’d been sleeping, and they both lay in a heart-pounding silence.
“Bad?” Beth asked, when her breathing finally slowed.
“Yeah,” Jack said, his voice shaking.
“You could at least be… I don’t know… manly or something and try to deny it first.”
“Too spooked to play that game. You’re laying on my arm.”
Beth pushed herself up, shivering. “What are you doing with your arm there?”
“Losing circulation,” Jack said, as he sat up, leaning awkwardly on the tingling arm. He got up, and fumbled the blanket back around Beth’s shoulders. She took one of his hands in hers, squeezing it.
His still shook, but hers was warm.
“I’m going to make some tea.”
He slid away from her touch, made his way to the kitchen, clicking on the light over the stove.
Light was good. His fingers shook a little less, and even less by the time he’d filled up the tea kettle and clicked the burner on.
He nearly jumped again when Beth ghosted into the kitchen behind him. She wore the blanket around her like a cape, and it dragged the floor as she rummaged through the cabinet beside the sink.
She rinsed out the small saucepan, dried it, and then took the kettle off the burner.
She took the milk from the refrigerator, and poured some into the saucepan. She plucked the spoon from Jack’s hand, and began stirring.
“Beth, you’re not allowed to—”
She turned, and fixed a steady, level, green-eyed stare at Jack. It was almost as good as the one Jack’s mother used.
“You need this.”
“When I have a bad dream, I drink hot chocolate. It calms me down. It helps me get back to sleep.”
“I’ll be fine with a cup of tea.”
“I think I know a little more about dreaming than you do, Jack. You need this. You should have had it after that very first nightmare you had.”
Jack looked in the saucepan. “That’s more than just one serving.”
“Be useful. Get the cocoa.”
“Are you going to baby me, or boss me around?”
“You need to get your mind off the dream, so you need to move around. Middle shelf of the cupboard, over there.”
“I know where it is!”
“Well, chop chop. The milk is almost ready.”
“You sound like my mom, when Dad makes the mistake of coming in here when she’s cooking.”
There was something in Beth’s grin that gave Jack a shiver worse than any inspired by the nightmare.
The dream had shaken him, left him cold with dread of the unknown, the uncertain.
Beth’s grin was quiet, warm, and radiated a deep sense of certainty.
Jack wasn’t sure which he should be more worried about.