“Good morning, sweetie,” Jack’s mother said, when he came downstairs. “No sketchbook?”
“You look like you’re feeling better this morning. You didn’t say much at dinner last night.” She felt his forehead, but shook her head.
“I was just sad,” he said. “But now I’m better.”
“A good night’s sleep can sometimes do that.”
Jack nodded. “Yeah. And sometimes crying helps, too.”
“Crying? Did somebody at school hurt you?”
“No,” Jack said, hurriedly. “It wasn’t a hurt cry. Kind of a sad one. There are different kinds.”
Jack’s mother considered that. “Yes,” she said. “I suppose there are. Whoever told you that is very wise.”
She pulled her chair out from the table, and sat down next to Jack.
“So, who is this wise and wonderful person?”
“I showed her to you yesterday,” Jack said.
“The girl from your dream?”
“You dreamed about her again?”
Jack nodded again.
“Did she look the same?”
“Except for her big coat.”
“It was cold, so she was wearing her big coat. She let me use her dad’s, since I didn’t bring one.”
Jack’s mother shook her head, ruffling his hair. “I don’t know where all those ideas come from,” she said, more to herself than to her son.
“Does she have a name yet?”
Jack looked up from his eggs. “Hmm?”
“Your friend in the dream.”
Jack shrugged. “I forgot to ask. I’ll remember to tonight.”
* * * * *
“What do you think?”
Jack looked over at the paper Patty had turned around.
“It’s a nice drawing of a temple.”
“It is not a temple, it is a cake!”
“Then its a really big cake,” Jack said. “But they shouldn’t be climbing giant cakes in their good Sunday clothes.”
“‘It’s not nice to should,’” Patty mimicked.
Jack blushed. “Sorry,” he mumbled.”You can draw it however you want to.”
“And what’s yours?” Patty stood up, leaning over the table. “Not that boring old beach again, is it?”
“Jack, that looks very good,” Mrs. Lombard said. “Is that someplace your parents took you on vacation? Visiting family, maybe?”
“No,” Jack said, putting the finishing touches on the gray of the cliffs. “Just someplace that popped into my head.” A set of stairs wound up the side of the cliff, and a house stood at the top. “I don’t know who owns this house.”
“It doesn’t have enough color,” Patty said. “Look, mine has red in it. His is just all brown and gray.”
“The ocean is blue,” Catty said, quietly. “I like how it curls up against the cliffs.”
“And see? Look on the stairs. There’s some yellow.”
Patty’s forehead scrunched up, and she looked across the classroom. Kelly was three tables away, trying to find just the right shade of hot pink crayon in the big box.
“Do I need to ask who these are on top of the cake?” Mrs. Lombard asked.
Patty’s scowl disappeared.
Mrs. Lombard raised her voice. “All right, class. Tonight, I’d like you all to take these pictures home and come up with a few sentences telling us just what is going on. Your parents can help you write these ideas down on the back...”
* * * * *
“That’s a bit of a moody piece,” Jack’s mother said, as he sat at the dining room table, looking at his drawing.
“Um… is that good?”
“Yes. And no,” his mother said. “Are you sure there isn’t anything going on at school that’s bothering you, Jack?”
He thought about it, then shook his head. “Nope. Well….”
His mother waited.
“We have to write a story about what’s going on in the picture.”
“It’s about time you got some real homework,” Charlotte muttered from her place across the table.
“I can’t do it,” Jack said.
“Sweetie, you know your sisters or your dad or I will help you if you need it.”
“No, I can do it. I just can’t do it now. And I know you want to help me. But I need her help.” He pointed to the small figure standing on one of the staircase landings.
“I think she knows who lives there.” He pointed to the house.
“And I’m going to ask her about it when I sleep tonight. And I won’t forget to ask who she is this time.”
Charlotte looked up. “‘This time?’”
“I dreamed the same place four nights in a row,” Jack said, sitting up straighter.
“Is that normal?” Hannah asked, from her seat in front of the coffee table.
“It’s Jack, so of course it’s not normal,” Charlotte said.
“Well… this time, Mom? Four nights in a row?”
“It’s… unusual. But Jack is plenty normal.”
“And how normal is it to have an imaginary friend without a name?”
“How is Mr. Whatsit doing these days?” Hannah asked.
Charlotte blushed. “At least he had a name.”
“She’s not imaginary. She’s… from a dream!” Jack said.
* * * * *
Lightning flashed, painting the cliff face brilliant white. Jack looked up, but didn’t see anybody else on the stairs. He climbed another flight, dividing his attention between the creaky steps, the landing, and the next-highest landing further up. It was raining, and the wood steps were old, worn, and slippery. The handrail was treacherous as well, the paint long peeled off. He’d already stuck himself twice on splinters.
“Where are you?” Jack called. His voice was swallowed by the gusting wind and a crash of thunder. At least he remembered to wear his coat this time. He dreamt he was wearing his long parka, the one with the big hood, even though he grew out of it last year. But in the dream, it fit. He wished he had remembered gloves.
He climbed, higher and higher, pausing when the lightning flashed, so he wouldn’t miss a step amidst the glare. It was cold outside, but he was toasty warm in his parka. Too toasty warm, he thought, as he climbed another flight of wooden steps.
After what seemed to be halfway till forever, Jack finally reached the last landing. The railing was higher, and along the side adjoining the clifftop was a gate. Jack had to pull at the latch to get it to lift, reluctantly, grinding through a thick crust of rust. The squeal of the hinges sounded like the sea gulls’ cries, but there wasn’t a bird to be seen.
Another flash of lightning washed the top of the cliff in harsh white light. An overgrown path wound across what might have been a garden, now gone wild and was more of a small forest. The plants and trees provided some shelter from the rain. More than once, Jack tripped over an upturned paving stone or a hunched tree root.
The third time, just at the edge of the garden, he sprawled in the mud. He rolled over and sat up, spitting and wiping at his face. He tugged at his hood, pulling it down and letting the rain clear the muck from his cheeks and forehead. His hair dripped, trailing water down his collar, to trickle down along his back. Jack shivered, hissing as he tried to clasp his arms around himself and succeeded in driving the splinters deeper into his hands and fingers. He tried to set his chin on his knees, only to find them stinging from when he’d tripped and landed on one of the paving stones.
“What are you doing here?”
Jack was just about to ask himself that same question, but somebody else did, only the tone was one of surprise rather than misery.
The sound of the rain had changed. It still dripped off trees and bushes and creepers, but between those sounds and Jack was now a hard “pat-pat” sound of water on cloth. He realized that he was the only thing dripping.
The girl stood over him, holding a large umbrella with two hands. The wind gusted, and she gave a yelp, taking a half step back before she wrestled the umbrella back into place over Jack.
“I have… homework and I need help,” Jack heard himself mumble through cold lips.
“You shouldn’t be here,” the girl said. It was the first time he’d heard her sound angry.
“How did you get here?”
Jack looked back along the path. He pointed. “I came through here. There were stairs. Lots and lots of stairs.”
“You climbed them? All of them? From the bottom?”
“It was the only way I could go.”
“You shouldn’t have—“
“It’s not nice to ‘should,’” Jack said.
“I came here to find you!”
“You can’t be here,” she said.
“I can too! I worked hard to get here! It’s my dream, I should be able to—“
“No, Jack, it isn’t your dream. Yours ended at the bottom of those steps.” The girl had to shout over the thunder. “Go back.”
“But I came all this way!”
“Jack, you are not safe here! You can’t— I can’t—“
Thunder roared again, and there were several brilliant flashes of lightning. Jack blinked, shaking his head. The ringing in his ears gradually faded, to be replaced by another sound: a gravelly rumbling. Several gravelly rumblings. The brilliant green after-image of the lighting was pierced by points of reddish light. They bobbed back and forth in the rain-silvered darkness.
“Go!” the girl shouted, again. She turned, facing the growling, glowing-eyed darkness of the storm. She looked over her shoulder as Jack slipped and slid to his feet.
But not before he grabbed her hands in his own.