“You’re saying I pulled you out of your dream, and into… here?”
“Yes. No. That’s not entirely right,” Beth said.
Jack clutched at his head. “Now I’m getting a headache,” he grumbled.
“Yes, you pulled me back over, but it wasn’t my dream. I didn’t ever really sleep Over There.”
Jack tossed his hands up. “That’s it, I give up.”
“It’s like… this.” She got up, went to the kitchen window, and held her hand behind the gauzy white curtains.
“It’s like a curtain?”
“‘Veil’ is a much more poetic word, don’t you think?”
“Better than ‘drapes’ I suppose.”
Beth stuck her tongue out at Jack.
“There is this world,” she said, waving a hand in front of the curtain. “And there is the Otherwhere, on the other side of the Veil.” She waved her hand behind the curtain. “For most people, this is where you go when you dream. Well, your mind goes there. The rest of you stays here, asleep.”
“Most people?” Jack said.
“Sleeping, dreaming, waking. Nothing in between.” She pressed her hands together, with the curtain between them. “Some people project further into the dream world than others.” She spread her fingers, interweaving them, with the fabric of the curtains bulging between them.
“The ham and pickle sandwiches?” Jack guessed.
“Ham,” Beth said. “Maybe some mustard.”
“Pickles are very rare. They’re like… an Otherwhere delicacy.”
“What makes them so special?”
Beth slid the hand closest to Jack away from the kitchen curtain, moved it behind, next to her other hand.
Jack blinked. He kept his hands flat on the tabletop, focused on them so it wouldn’t seem like the rest of the room was tilting quite so much.
“Well… yeah,” Jack said.
“Walking on the moon, visiting other worlds isn’t?”
“It’s not the same thing,” Jack protested.
“It is exactly the same thing, Jack.”
“How many men went to the moon, Jack?”
He thought for a moment. “Twenty? Twenty five? But only twelve of them actually walked on the surface.”
“So it’s not impossible. Just… very rare.”
Jack nodded. “Twelve people out of billions, yeah.”
Beth folded her arms in front of her, leaned back against the counter.
“Okay,” Jack said. “So maybe it’s not impossible.”
Jack stared down at his plate. “You know, I really don’t feel like sandwiches.” He looked up at Beth. “What do you say we go over to my place for lunch?”
* * * * *
Jack’s sisters had managed to make macaroni and cheese without burning anything. And because Ellie’s eyes were always bigger than her stomach, there was plenty to go around, even with an extra bowl to fill.
Ellie spent most of lunch staring at Beth, despite Jack constantly reminding his sister to eat. When Hannah and Charlotte got up and cleared the table, Ellie leaned over to the girl.
“How come your hair is so much shorter?”
Beth gave a bit of a start, her hand going to her hair, which didn’t even brush the tops of her shoulders.
“It— I… had to cut it.”
“Why? I’d never cut my hair that short. Then I couldn’t make braids!” She whipped her head from side to side, the tightly-woven braids flying back and forth.
“Careful, there Helicopter-head,” Charlotte said, leaning out from the kitchen doorway.
Ellie stopped long enough to stick her tongue out at her sister.
“Why did you cut it? It was so pretty and long.”
Beth glanced over to the kitchen doorway, but it sounded as if Hannah and Charlotte were busy deciding who would have to wash and who would have to dry.
“You remember I told you about bridges and stairs in your dreams?”
“You said I’m not s’posed to go on any of them if I don’t know where they go. Same as with doors. I know the rules.” Ellie stuck her chin out.
Beth smiled. “Well, I had to sort of cross a bridge, a long one. And this,” she ran her fingers through her hair, “was part of the toll. You know what a toll is, right?”
“That’s what you have to play the troll.”
Beth nodded. “Right!”
Ellie frowned. “But, why did he want your hair? I thought you were s’posed to give him money.”
“Trolls like shiny things. I guess he mistook my hair for gold.”
“Did he take your ring, too? Is that why you don’t wear it like Jack wears his?”
Beth’s hand went to her throat, as if to twine a chain around her fingers. Jack had seen Hannah do it a thousand times, and he suspected he was guilty of it as well.
“Hey, Beth—“ Charlotte stopped as she poked her head out from the kitchen again. “Whoa. You don’t look so good.”
She’d gone pale, most of the color draining from her lips.
Hannah pushed past her sister. “Beth? You’re not allergic to dairy, are you? Or maybe wheat? Or—”
She blinked, giving a slight shudder, as if she’d caught a sudden chill. “What? No, I just…” She glanced around, and color crept back into her cheeks as she blushed. “Why are you all staring?”
“You look like you just saw a ghost,” Charlotte said.
“You did eat something Charlotte cooked,” Hannah said.
“The milk still had three days left!”
“Lunch was fine,” Beth said, pushing her chair out from the table. “I think maybe I just had too much excitement for one day. Maybe I’ll go home and rest.”
Jack was on his feet, but Beth waved his hands away. “I’m fine. It’s nothing, really.”
* * * * *
Jack caught up with Beth as she rounded the hedgerow, reaching for her wrist.
The girl tugged, but Jack kept his grip. “Let go, Jack.”
“Not until you tell me what has you so spooked.”
“Don’t tell me it’s nothing.”
She glared, her chin held high, the gold bits in her eyes flashing.
“What really happened to your hair?”
“I told you, I had to cut it.”
“And the ring?”
“I… lost it.”
Jack met her glare with one of his own. The silence stretched.
“Everything Over There has a price, Jack. Gifts are expected to be repaid, eventually. No give without take. To cross a bridge, open a door, pass a threshold, it all requires payment. Everything Over There is about balance, keeping the balance.”
“So… you had to give up your hair?”
“It was not given, Jack.”
“So then…” Jack thought, aloud, “it was taken. Your hair, and the ring… Which means they had to give you something.”
Beth didn’t say anything. But she also didn’t correct Jack’s thinking.
“Questions have answers Jack. Are you sure you want to know them?”