“I’m sorry, Jack.”
He looked up from his sketchpad. Patty stood beside the reading carrel. Catty stood beside her sister, and gave her a poke in the side.
“Patty doesn’t want you to be sad,” Catty said.
“I’m not sad,” jack said. “Well, not about that.” He sighed.
“Stop that,” Patty said. “You’re not allowed to be sad any more.” She stood on tiptoes and peeked over the top of the carrel’s wall. “What are you drawing now?” She sucked in a sharp breath.
“Catty, look, he’s drawing kitties!”
“They’re not—“ Jack moved to turn the page over.
“They have too many legs,” Patty’s twin said.
“They’re not cats,” Jack finished.
Patty lowered herself from the carrel, put her hands on her hips. “Why don’t you draw anything real?”
“Sea gulls are real,” Catty said.
“But the beach wasn’t, was it? Where is that?”
“I dreamed about it,” Jack said.
“And the house? Those stairs? That girl?”
Jack turned back to his drawing. Not in crayon, this one was pencil. Pencil and a lot of eraser.
“You dreamed all those up, too,” Patty said.
“So what if I did?”
“Come on,” Patty said, and she hooked one of her arms through Jack’s.
Her sister hooked an arm through Jack’s other arm.
“It’s actually sunny outside today, and we want to jump rope, and you’re going to help.”
* * * * *
Hannah giggled, when Charlotte told her about seeing Jack out on the playground.
“They made me,” he grumbled.
“It was cute!” Charlotte cooed. “It’s too bad we don’t live somewhere where they let you have more than one wife. Of course, you could just switch them back and forth, I suppose….”
Hannah, to her credit, tried not to laugh.
“What has given you two the giggles?” Jack’s mother said, poking her head out of the kitchen.
“They’re making fun of me again!” Jack wailed.
“Mom, you should have seen him. Those redheads in his class shanghaied him into holding one end of the jump rope at recess. It was… it was….” She burst into giggles again.
Jack’s mother patted his head. “You mean the Quincy twins? I remember when they were born, about the same time as Jack. The nurses actually argued over which of them Jack was going to marry.”
“He could always flip a coin if he can’t decide,” Hannah said.
Jack fled upstairs.
* * * * *
That night’s sleep was deep and dreamless, and it was still gray outside when he awoke the next morning. He heard the telltale clattering from the kitchen, and knew his mom was already awake.
“What are you doing up so early, sweetie? Breakfast isn’t for at least another half hour. Go on back to bed.”
Jack rubbed at his eyes, yawned. “Just woke up,” he mumbled.
“Did you have a bad dream?”
He shook his head, and climbed up on the stool by the phone. His mother poured him a glass of orange juice and handed it to him.
“Still no visits?”
Jack sighed, blowing bubbles into the juice. He took a sip, then shook his head. “I don’t think she’s coming back. Do you think she was just a phase?”
“And where did you hear that?”
“You said Charlotte went through one with Mr. Whatsit.”
“I think this is a very different situation, Jack. For one thing, you aren’t blaming broken dishes on this mystery girl. You don’t have tea parties with her… Not here in the waking world, anyway.”
Jack made a face. “Tea parties are for girls,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to see her again if she tried to make me go to one in my dreams!” He took another sip of orange juice, and his features fell again.
“Jack, there isn’t a chapter for this in the Mr. Spock baby books.”
“I’m not a baby!”
“Yes, I know, but there is advice in the back about various phases of growing up. Things that parents can expect. And while it mentions imaginary friends, it doesn’t say anything about friends appearing in recurring dreams.”
“Whats a recurving dream?”
“‘Recurring,’” his mother corrected. “It means to happen over again. It’s when you dream the same thing, or series of things, like chapters in a book.”
“That’s not normal?”
“Everything I’ve read about it says it could be something bad.”
“So it’s bad?”
“Not like that, Jack. The ‘something bad’ is underneath the dreams. Causing them.”
Jack sat quietly. “Does that mean I’m sick?”
“I don’t think so, sweetie. I’d know if you weren’t feeling well.”
“You should be a doctor,” Jack said.
“Jack? What have I told you about that word?”
He sighed. “That it’s not nice and it makes us sound like Granna when we use it.”
She tweaked Jack’s nose. “That’s right. Now I want you to make me a promise.”
“Only if it’s an easy one to keep.”
“Can you tell me if this mystery girl comes back?”
Jack nodded and smiled. “I promise. But… I don’t think she is.”
“I don’t want you looking for her.”
Jack nodded. “‘No Trespassing.’”
“Right. Stay in your own dreams, mister. Promise me?” His mom held up her pinky finger
Jack stuck out his own pinky, they interlocked them, and shook.
* * * * *
The sudden cough and then sigh from the furnace woke Jack, and he opened his eyes to darkness. Outside, wind howled against the house, and sleet clattered against the windows like the many-clawed feet of the catlike creatures he’d been drawing over the past few weeks.
The nightlight had gone out, as had the big-numbered digital clock that sat on the low bookcase by his bed. On his desk, an old brass wind-up clock ticked away, but the glowing paint on the hands had long since faded.
He really didn’t need the nightlight. He knew there wasn’t anything in the dark that wasn’t already here when the lights were on. But just because he knew his toys were on the floor, didn’t mean he knew where they were at all times, and his mom had insisted that the nightlight stayed so he wouldn’t break his neck.
If it hadn’t been cloudy and raining, he would have been able to see just fine. The weatherman had said there would be a full moon, and that tonight would have been special, since as it set, it was supposed to be eclipsed. Jack had never seen an eclipse, but the winter star map tacked up on his wall showed some pictures in one corner.
He yawned, and huddled deeper under the covers. The wind kept gusting outside, pushing the slivers of ice up against the window. Jack’s thoughts were conflicted as he drifted back to sleep. On one hand, he wanted the power to come back on so the house wouldn’t be cold in the morning… but if the power stayed off, then he wouldn’t have to get up to to school…
Jack found himself trudging down the beach. He felt the snow-like crunch-squish of sand beneath his feet, and heard the steady surge of the ocean, somewhere off to his left. He couldn’t see it, though, as everything was smothered in a thick, clinging fog.
He scratched his head. He’d already come here once before, but the beach had been sunny, the sea gulls cartwheeling through the sky and squawking their greeting to him. He wondered at the significance of a second visit in the same night when a breeze stirred the fog, making it shift and swirl around him. Jack tasted the sharp tang. He sniffed again. Salty, not flat and ironlike, like snow.
He started to walk faster, hands out in front of him, waving through the fog. It’d be a fine how-do-you-do if he fell and broke his neck before he could find the girl.
Jack knew if he kept the sea to his left, and just kept going, he would eventually reach the cliffs. He just wasn’t sure how far away he was. Some nights, the cliffs were right there. Other times, he could run until his legs got tired and wouldn’t even be able to see the rocks along the horizon. The beach wasn’t always clear. Sometimes, spurs of rock jutted out, like broken teeth along the sand and trailing into the water. What was a clear space of beach one night might suddenly be littered with driftwood the next. One particular night, Jack had spent a long time poking around in wreckage of a pirate ship that had washed up in several places along the shore.
He prayed that the cliffs were close and the beach clear, and shuffled on, listening for changes in the few sounds the fog let through.
Then he heard it: the breaking of surf on rocks rather than sand. It sounded close by, but took what seemed like another hour before the shadow of the stairway’s skeleton materialized from the gray murk.
Jack drew close enough to touch the rickety wooden railing, saw a darker shadow further up the steps, drifting down like some sort of ghost from the last landing. He held his breath, waited.
The fog brightened, curling and swirling away from her as the girl approached, treading softly, holding the long maroon coat up so it wouldn’t drag over the steps. She looked behind more than she did in front of her, and she seemed to leap nearly back to the top of the cliff when she turned to find Jack standing before the last step.
“Jack!” she said, something between a gasp and a squeak. “What are you doing here?”
He put his hands on his hips. “You’re going to visit my dream and you want to know what I’m doing here?”
She laughed. The fog boiled, and Jack thought he heard it hiss.
He smiled, then reached up a hand. “I know I’m not allowed up there, but you can come down here. You are always welcome here,” he said.
She let go of the coat, and the lower half of it hit the steps with a heavy ‘thud.’ She reached out a hand, then drew it back.
“I… I’d best not,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“What’s wrong?” Jack asked, leaning over so he could peer up beneath the fall of her hair.
Jack stood up straight, crossing his arms. “It’s something. Is it your granpa? Is he mean to you? Is he still punishing you? It’s been almost two months. Is he going to ground you forever?”
The girl bit her lip, and her hands closed into small fists. “No, Jack… it really isn’t that bad.”
Jack looked up. The fog swirled, parted, and Jack saw up the sheer face of the cliff. The clouds further above looked dark and bruised. A peal of thunder rumbled overhead. The girl paled when she heard it. She gathered up the extra length of the coat. “I have to go.”
“Wait!” Jack grabbed the elbow of the overly large sleeve.
“Jack, I have to go. He knows I’m missing.”
“Promise you’ll come back.”
The girl opened her mouth, closed it again, swallowing. She didn’t meet Jack’s eyes. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to.”
Thunder growled again, and lightning flickered, washing the fog in pale brilliance. The girl tried to go, but Jack clung to the sleeve.
“At least… Tell me your name. I promised my mom I’d ask.”
The thunder roared, and it seemed like the stairway — the cliffs themselves — rattled under the hammerblow.
The girl leaned close to Jack, and he felt her breath against his cheek, heard a quiet murmur of her voice behind the ringing in his ears.
He felt her take his hands, felt her tug her sleeve from his fingers. She closed his hands, and then turned, dashing up the stairs.
Thunder crashed again, and lightning turned the fog bright white. Jack clenched his hands into fists, pressed them to his ears….
..and awoke to the house shaking under the fury of rain and thunder. The clock by his bedside flashed 12:36. Jack sat up, scratched at his hair. He jerked his hand away as something sharp prickled his scalp.
That something clattered to the floor, spinning, flashing red in the light reflected from the clock.