Jack’s fingers slipped from Green Eggs & Ham. He glanced down at the sketch pad in his lap, even though he knew better than anybody just what was drawn there.
“What did you say?” he asked.
Ellie pointed. “Your princess. She looks like the girl I dream about sometimes.”
All of the things his parents and sisters had said when he first mentioned his dreams when he was close to Ellie’s age floated through his head. She must be somebody at school. Or on TV, or in a movie, or some of the kids at school were talking about someone who looked like that…
Jack swallowed, resisting the urge to tell Ellie any one of those things. Those weren’t right, and it had stung a bit when Jack realized that his parents hadn’t simply believed him, that they’d try to second guess his dream.
“When did you dream about her?”
Ellie shrugged. “Most times I dream, there she is.”
“Maybe she’s always there and I just don’t see her. I’m very busy in my dreams sometimes.”
Jack knew how busy some of her dreams could be. He’d sketched out several of them while she rambled about them over Saturday’s breakfasts. Pink pony stampedes. The unicorn congress. The circus, where elephants sat in the stands and watched the people perform….
“Does she… ever say anything? Does she ever play, too?”
Ellie shook her head. “No, just watches. I tried to invite her, but she just smiles. But it’s not a ‘I’m happy’ smile.”
“So she just watches you?”
Ellie shook her head again. “Not me. My dreams. Does she watch your dreams too?”
Jack blinked. He never mentioned the girl around Ellie. While their parents hadn’t strictly forbidden any talk of the girl, nobody spoke of her, by some unspoken agreement.
“You didn’t tell Mom and Dad about her?”
Ellie frowned. “Why would I do that?”
Jack leaned forward, put his elbows on the pink comforter. “Ellie, I want you to tell me if you ever have… bad dreams. Or if the girl says anything to you. Okay?”
“I never have bad dreams,” she said, and then her expression grew thoughtful. “Maybe… maybe she keeps the bad dreams away. Maybe that's what she’s doing there.”
Jack nodded. It would explain why he hadn’t seen the girl in so long.
“She has a ring, too. She plays with it like you do, turning it around and around on her necklace.”
Jack closed his hand over the ring. He hadn’t even realized he was fiddling with it.
“Her ring is prettier, though. It has a sparkly in it like Mom’s.”
* * * * *
Jack read through Green Eggs & Ham, and then the two Horton books. Ellie wanted to dream about elephants, apparently. Maybe the elephants would hatch green eggs.
He watched for long moments after her eyes had drifted shut and her breathing slowed and steadied. He checked the inhaler on the top of the bookshelf, giving it a shake. Still plenty of medicine left.
He got up, tucking Charlotte’s chair back under her desk. He left the door open, and left his own door open when he slipped up the small flight of stairs to his room.
He worked for a while on the next drawing for his fairytale, hoping that losing himself in the lines and curves and colors would do something to smooth out his turbulent thoughts.
It didn’t help, and he wound up tearing out three pages before he finally gave up.
Even though it was still early, he went ahead and got ready for bed, anyway. He pulled the comforter up, and stared at the ceiling. Moonlight winked through the clouds, painting silvery-blue shadows across the star map. He’d have to change it next month, when summer officially started.
Wind howled, and rain slashed down from a low gray sky. The sea was whipped into a white-topped frenzy, and spat and hissed as it smashed into the rocks at the base of the cliff. The spray mingled with the rain, and Jack blinked back tears as the salt stung his eyes.
He blinked again, eyes watering.
Salt. She was here. Somewhere.
He glanced up and down the beach, but besides wind and rain, the sandy stretch behind him was empty. He looked up, and saw the top of the cliff outlined against a shimmering orange-yellow glow.
His heartrate picked up. He knew that glow.
He ran to the rickety steps. The sign hung, crooked and sea-worn, from one of the support posts. Jack ignored it, and started up the stairs, two and three at a time.
His side ached after four flights. After seven, his legs burned. By the ninth, he was having to use his arms to pull himself forward.
When he reached the twelfth landing, the glow from the cliff top washed over him, and he could hear the crackling roar, the hiss as the fire consumed the rain along with the house. The upper floor and roof were ablaze, as if the house wore a crown of fire.
Jack fumbled with the rusty latch on the gate, his arms shaking with the fatigue from the climb, his fingers numb from the cold rain. He threw himself into the gate when the latch finally lifted clear. He avoided the garden, skirting its low wall and charging across the rain-slicked grass of the long yard that stretched before the burning house.
Shadows flickered at the edges of his vision, not the low, squat red-eyed menaces that had prowled around the yard the last time he’d trespassed, but tall, upright things, shaped like men in hats, or women in long dresses. They moved and milled about, only to vanish when Jack turned to look at them directly. He felt their presence, an icy prickling washing over his skin, or the unsettling tickle across the back of his neck that came with the feeling of being watched. But he didn’t feel that they were watching him, but the house.
He had the feeling that they were satisfied, enjoying the fire.
A job well done.
That thought, not his own, skittered across his mind, whispered by the shadows as he passed.
Jack sprang up the three porch steps, had to check himself against the front door, clipping his shoulder against the frame. He ignored the pain, was across the living room in six steps, and then raced up the stairs.
The heat pressed down at him, but he pressed right back, turning, taking the rest of the stairs to the top landing. Two doors along the balcony, one gaping open and filled with flames, the other door shut, with the red-orange glow licking at the gap between the floor.
Jack reached for the handle, gave it a turn.
It was locked. As was the antique iron lock that hung from the hasp above the knob.
He listened at the door. At first he didn’t hear anything, save the crackling of the flames. Then he heard the sobs. He pounded on the door.
“Open up!” he shouted, and knew immediately that it was a stupid thing to say. The girl couldn’t have opened the door from her side if she’d wanted to.
“Hey!” he shouted. “I’m going to get you out of there!”
He ran back downstairs, found a heavy chair, and dragged it back up the stairs behind him. He blinked the tears from his eyes, leaning down every few steps to try to catch some cleaner air and to stop the whole house from spinning.
He wrestled the chair up, dragging it behind him. He stood on the hinged side of the door, grabbed the chair by the back and the seat, hoisting it up. He swung, and the sound of wood-on-wood seemed even louder than the crackling of the flames. The door shuddered, the lock and the latch both rattling.
Muffled, barely heard through the door.
“Get away from the door!”
He swung again, and there was a hard crack from the door. The whole house shook. From above, maybe the attic, Jack heard several crashes, and the fire roared louder.
His lungs burned, it was like he was breathing in hot needles. His shoulders ached, from the lifting and the force of the impacts. At least his fingers weren’t cold anymore, he thought.
Another crash, this one from downstairs. Glass, and red-orange light bloomed from somewhere at the base of the stairs.
Jack gritted his teeth, hauled back on the chair and swung again, leaning into the blow as he rotated towards the door. He closed his eyes, and was immediately glad he did as he felt a sting of splinters and lance across his face.
The latches gave way, and the door slammed back into the room. The flames inside the room leapt and crackled, surging from the drapes by the window, curling up over the ceiling.
The girl sat on her bed, along the same wall as the door, staring up at Jack. She was wearing a long dress, not her usual white gown, but something with sleeves and an apron and several layers of skirts.
“What are you doing here?” she cried, and it wasn’t relief in her expression but… anger?
Jack reached for her arm, but she pulled back against his grip.
“Come on!” he shouted. “If we wait too much longer, we won’t be able to get back downstairs!”
She tried to push him away, but he held on. Barely. She was stronger than she looked.
“Leave me alone!” she shouted.
“In case you hadn’t noticed, your house is burning down!”
She glared at Jack.
“It’s not my house,” she said. “Mine burned down long ago.”
“Well, this one is, too! Why are you just sitting here? Come on!”
“I’m tired, Jack. I can’t do it anymore. There are too many of them to keep them away. Let me go. It’s better this way.”
“Them? Do what? You’re not talking any sense.” He pulled at her arm, harder. “What about your Grandfather? We have to—“
“Jack, who do you think locked me in here?”
Jack stared. “What? He wouldn’t—“
“It doesn’t matter,” the girl said, wrenching her arm from Jack’s grip. “He’s gone, and I’ll be gone soon, and then it just won’t matter anymore. Now go away!”
Jack stayed where he was. Though the fire raged around him, suddenly, it didn’t sound so loud. The heat fell away until it was only mildly uncomfortable. The air was thick and scratchy, but it wasn’t making him woozy any more.
“What are you doing?” the girl asked. She was glancing around, as if she were seeing where she was for the first time, and finding herself sitting on a bed in a room half-consumed with flames.
“You want me to leave, and you won’t even say goodbye?”
The girl blinked. “I— No, Jack, you don’t understand. I—“
He reached up, curled his fingers around the ring. He ignored the stinging bite of the splinters.
“You want me to go? I’ll go.”
“Jack?” her voice cracked.
His fingers tensed around the ring.
“Jack, don’t — you have to wake up first!”
He jerked at the ring. The chain snapped at the back of his neck.
The flames plunged in, the roar and the heat crashing back against him.
He thought that the flames would have been orange-red as they closed over him, but they were a brilliant, shining gold.