Authors: Helen Harper
I find the woman huddled beneath a tree, shaking. Every time her shoulders jerk, another shower of snow falls from the pine-needle covered branches above.
‘What happened?’ I ask her.
She moans softly and hugs her knees to her chest, apparently not hearing me. I crouch down and touch her arm. She still doesn’t register my presence.
‘You’re putting yourself in danger,’ Dante grinds out, appearing behind me once more. ‘She’s only dreaming.’
‘Piss off.’ I take hold of the woman’s head and tilt it up. I feel her tremble in my grasp. ‘Hey,’ I say gently tone. ‘You’re alright. This isn’t real. Wake up.’
Nothing happens. I purse my lips. Okay, I might not yet be at the level of making snowmen but I’ve got pretty good at both communicating with dreamers and waking them up. I pinch the woman’s arm and she jerks but we’re all still here. I stand up and scratch my head.
‘Zoe,’ Dante sighs, ‘you have to see how dangerous it is to flip in and out of dreams. You’re far from infallible. Until you have a better grasp on your dreamweaving skills, you need to be more careful.’
I throw up my hands. ‘The only way I’m going to become more skilled is by practising.’
‘So practise,’ he says. ‘Just don’t do it where you’re likely to get killed.’
I give him an exasperated look and glance at the woman. She’s started rocking back and forth. It doesn’t make any sense. ‘What’s wrong with her?’ I ask.
‘Who knows? She’s dreaming, Zoe. It doesn’t matter.’
‘She’s suffering.’ As if to add weight to my words, her trembling turns to violent shivers.
Dante exhales loudly and shrugs off his jacket, draping it round her shoulders. ‘I thought you didn’t want to manipulate people through their dreams any more.’
‘I don’t. But…’
‘But nothing. You’re doing it.’
‘I’m not manipulating her. I’m trying to help her.’
Something indefinable crosses his face. ‘She’s not your problem. It’s only a nightmare. Who is she anyway?’
‘What kind of a name is that?’
I give a half smile. ‘And I thought
didn’t get out much. She’s in my zumba class. It’s dance fitness. I don’t know her name.’
He gazes at me in mock horror. ‘Dance fitness? Eighteen months of agoraphobia and you’re celebrating your newfound freedom by going to dance fitness classes?’
‘And skiing,’ I remind him.
‘That doesn’t count.’
I pinch the woman’s arm again. That normally works for waking someone up, and not just for me as a dreamweaver, but she only starts to sob quietly. Damn it.
‘Anyway, why are you here?’ I ask Dante. ‘You said you’d been looking for me. Has the Department…’
‘No,’ he answers immediately. ‘There’s still no sign of them.’
‘They have to show up sooner or later.’
‘If you spent more time in the Dreamlands and less time doing daft things like this, you’d know whether it had appeared or not.’
I sigh. ‘I don’t want to bump into Ashley. She’s still pretty mad at me.’ Even the thought of the soft-hearted blonde Traveller who befriended me at her own cost makes me wince.
‘She’ll get over it.’ His voice softens. ‘You did the right thing.’
‘I used her to get rid of the Mayor. Now everyone thinks she’s the dreamweaver. When the Department does show up then…’
He places a calming hand on my shoulder. ‘Then we’ll deal with them. As I said, that’s not why I’m here.’
‘The Somnolence forum is up and running again. And I’ve found a contact in the States who might be able to help us.’
I feel a rush of excitement. ‘In that zone?’
Dante smiles. ‘Actually there are nine zones in the States. But yes. There’s a plane leaving Dyce airport at noon. I’ve got us tickets.’
I beam at him. We might have rid our own zone of the Department by dint of the Mayor’s death but it still has its hooks into the rest of the dream world. Until we know more about what is going everywhere else, we have no hope against the Department. ‘Seriously?’
His smile broadens. On impulse, I lean over and kiss his cheek. The silver in his eyes darkens. He stares at me. ‘Zoe…’
My zumba compatriot moans once more. Just then I feel the familiar tug on my body; she’s waking up of her own accord and that means both Dante and I are going to be flung out of her head.
A moment later, I’m back in my own bed and blinking. The Chairman pads over and meows, then paws at my face demanding breakfast. I ruffle the soft fur by his ears and sigh. It’s almost 6am. If I could have just had a few minutes more…
Dante sends me an email with the flight details and I spring into action. It takes me a bit of time to locate my musty suitcase from the overflowing cupboard in the spare room – after all, it’s not as if I’ve done much real travelling over the last two years. I sniff it dubiously. There’s no sign of mould or mildew but it definitely reeks. The Chairman isn’t bothered; he simply hops inside and curls up, as if he expects to be packed away with the rest of my clothes. I put my hands on my hips and frown. Then I leave him to it and call my mother.
She arrives in a cloud of heavy perfume. ‘I’m thrilled that you’re going away, Zoe. Just thrilled. You could have given me a bit more notice, that’s all. I was only up because I had to say goodbye to Henry.’
She says the last without thinking and I immediately stiffen. ‘He stayed the night?’
She belatedly realises that she’s given the game away and colours slightly, looking at her feet. ‘His wife is away visiting her parents.’
‘What? You think that just because I’m approaching retirement age, I shouldn’t have any fun?’ Despite her words, her blush deepens.
I try hard not to be disapproving. It’s her life, after all. Despite my forced light tone, I don’t do a particularly good job. ‘I’m sure you could find someone who’s unattached. There are lots of dating agencies…’
‘Zoe Lydon. The day you get to lecture me on my love life is the day that I see you stepping out with a man of your own. Who are you going on holiday with?’
‘He’s just a friend,’ I mumble. How on earth did she manage to turn the tables on me so quickly?
‘And why haven’t I met him? What does he do for a living?’
I frown. ‘I think he’s a lawyer.’ Well, that’s what he’d said when he came to rescue me from the local jail.
She brightens. ‘That’s something. Although you do know a lot of doctors. Why don’t you speak to some of them? I’m sure they’d be thrilled to go out with such a charming young lady as yourself.’
I groan. ‘Mum. Let me just enjoy being me again for a while first, alright?’
She regards me seriously then smiles. ‘I’m really pleased you’re going away. You deserve it. Your employer works you far too hard.’
Shit. Jerry. ‘Thanks for bringing the suitcase and for looking after the Chairman,’ I say quickly. ‘I just need to go and make a phone call.’ I press my spare key into her hand and avoid the tremor of fear that ripples through me as I effectively hand over my personal security to another person, whether she’s my mother or not.
Somewhat nonplussed, she blinks at me. I beat a hasty retreat while I still can.
Unfortunately, Jerry is unimpressed at my late request. I might work from home but he still needs me to complete the latest coding for a new client’s website. ‘You had time off last month, Zoe. I know you’ve not taken many holidays recently but I need some notice. This isn’t how we do things. I have my boss to answer to as well.’
I wince. Companies and their leadership structures. A mere cog like me, who works from home, is often far removed from such matters. It doesn’t mean I don’t remember what it’s like. ‘I’m really sorry.’ It’s not so long ago that Jerry was delighted when I took a holiday. Much more of this and he’ll be convinced I’m taking advantage.
I twist a curl of hair round my fingers. ‘It’s kind of an emergency. I’ll still get the work finished in time, I promise.’
‘Do I have much choice?’ he asks huffily.
I’m quiet. ‘There’s always a choice.’
I’m starting to see how easy it would be to misuse my dreamweaving abilities. If I could hop inside Jerry’s head while he’s sleeping, it would probably be a simple matter to convince his subconscious self that I deserved another holiday. My intentions might be pure but I have to be bloody careful about how I carry them out. This wasn’t like trying to wake up someone from a nightmare. This would be Manipulation 101.
He tsks. ‘Complete the Macgruber work and I can delay the next project.’
I heave a silent sigh of relief. ‘Thank you.’
‘This has to be the last time though, Zoe,’ he warns. ‘From now on, you need to go through proper channels like everyone else.’
‘I will, I will.’
‘Super.’ He still doesn’t sound particularly thrilled.
If I want to put food on the table and continue paying my bills, I’m going to have to find some other way to stop the Department for good. I can’t afford to spend the next year travelling around the world to every single Dreamlands zone. I’ll just have to hope that this trip to America sheds some light on what can be done. I nibble at my bottom lip. The Mayor founded the Department and he was evil through and through but maybe the rest of them aren’t that bad, despite what the others have said. I have a nasty feeling that’s wishful thinking.
When the taxi honks its arrival, I grab the Chairman and give him a farewell squeeze, much to his disgust. My mother promises to lock up. Old habits die hard and I can’t help throwing a nervous look at my steel-reinforced door. ‘You will check that it’s secure?’
She rolls her eyes. ‘Yes.’
‘And all the windows too?’
‘Zoe. You’re not going to be here. No one’s going to come and attack you because you’ll be on the other side of the world.’
‘You’re right.’ I nod. It’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. I am a rational calm person who no longer suffers from debilitating agoraphobia. I’m doing what normal people do every day of the week and simply leaving for a short trip. No problemo.
I’m moaning like a caged animal in the back seat of the taxi. The driver keeps looking anxiously in the rear view window.
‘Are you okay, miss?’
I can feel the pressure building in my head. I feel like I’m going to throw up. ‘I thought I was over this,’ I whisper.
‘Stop the car.’
He pulls over to one side. ‘Are you hungover?’
I shake my head and push open the door, retching violently. With no breakfast in my stomach, nothing comes up other than foul-tasting yellow bile. When I’m done, I pull back and try to breathe. The driver silently hands me a crumpled tissue. I wipe my mouth and push back the tears forming in my eyes.
‘I’m fine,’ I say. ‘You’d better keep going or I’ll miss the flight.’
He puts the car back into gear. He’s barely three metres away from the curb, however, when I start feeling light-headed again. I begin pinching the tips of my fingers, one after the other. Come on, Zoe, I tell myself. You can do this. But my chest is tight and the panic is overwhelming. Much like the zumba woman, I’m shaking all over.
I cough and croak. ‘No.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I manage. ‘You’ll have to turn back.’
‘Are you sure?’
I nod miserably.
He’s a decent guy. He doesn’t demand explanations or even look upset at the loss of a lucrative airport fare. He simply gives me a worried smile and makes a U-turn.
The instant that the car is facing back in the direction of home, the pain in my chest begins to lessen but it doesn’t stop me from feeling utterly defeated. I’m meant to be over this. I’ve been leaving my house now for more than a month. There haven’t been any panic attacks or any problems. The hold that Dean Salib had placed on me to ostensibly keep me safe was supposed to have gone.
I curl my fingers into the palms of my hands and feel the sharp pain of my nails digging into my flesh. A single tear rolls down my cheek. It’s not fucking fair.
When we get back to the familiar street and my house, I almost fall out of the taxi door. The driver helps me stagger up the pathway. I keep my eyes trained on the ground. The concrete slabs are all as they were. The crack in the fifth one still looks like a deformed bolt of lightning. There’s moss edging round the seventh one, reminding me I should do some gardening. I focus on shallow breaths and gulp in as much air as I can.
I fumble into my pocket and pull out my purse, giving him a large tip. He shakes his head. ‘It’s too much.’
‘Please.’ My eyes implore him. I’ve already messed up once today. For some reason, giving him more than necessary will assuage my feelings of helplessness.
He pats me on the shoulder and I flinch. He almost looks sorrier than I feel. ‘You’ll be alright,’ he assures me.
Misery shudders through me. Alright: maybe that’s something I’ll never be.
Once he’s driven off, I search for my keys, eventually dragging them out of the zipped purse compartment. I have to compose myself because my hands are shaking too much for the key to fit in the lock. I fall in through the door, my knees buckling underneath me. When I hear the murmur of voices and a bark of loud laughter, I’m almost completely undone. The fear is paralysing.
‘Is that John?’ I stare up from the very spot where Dean Salib breathed his last as my mother waltzes in from the kitchen and stares at me. ‘Zoe? What on earth’s wrong?’ She rushes towards me.
There’s more laughter. Blood rushes in my ears. I look past her with dread to the kitchen. I don’t know what I’m expecting: an axe-wielding murderer, a scarily dressed clown, someone from the Department, even the dead Mayor... My mother’s eyes follow my gaze and she slumps in a mixture of pity and sympathy as she recognizes my expression. ‘Oh, Zoe. Not again.’
‘Who?’ I gasp. ‘Who is there?’
She places a cool hand on my forehead, just like she used to do when I was a child and I was ill. ‘I’m sorry.’ She sounds like she really is. ‘I thought our bridge group could do with a change of venue. With you away…’ She swallows. ‘It was wrong of me.’