Authors: Helen Harper
I use my shoulder to force open the passenger door and get out, my feet squelching in the gloopy earth. Something hot and wet is trickling down my forehead. When I realise it’s blood, I curse and hold the cuff of my sleeve against the wound. I dread to think what I’ll look like when I wake up.
I edge a few steps forward. Maybe the shape was nothing more than a mare, flitting in from the Dreamlands to cause havoc. For all I know it may even have been my old pal, Pegasus. Beyond the dark undergrowth and heavy trees, however, there’s nothing to be seen. I stand stock-still for a moment or two, cocking my head and listening hard, then I shake it off. I’m jumping to conclusions. I’m hardly an expert in the minefield of the subconscious. This is probably all perfectly natural.
Making the decision to try and wake Archie, I pivot. Not a moment too soon; something flies towards me out of nowhere. I glimpse long dark claws and a vast body that seems to be a cloud of black just before I throw back my head and force myself away at speed.
There’s a roar of what could be thunder and then I’m panting and falling forward onto a familiar lino-covered floor. It’s my own kitchen but I’m still not awake. I squint at the table and see my mother seated next to the Queen of Hearts. Both of them are holding playing cards. Shit. I will myself away again once more. I most definitely don’t want to see what’s going on in my mum’s head.
I find myself in an alley. I look around quickly, double-checking that there’s nothing to be wary of, then push back against the far wall. My forehead is still throbbing but at least the bleeding seems to have stopped. I rub my eyes. What the hell was that thing? It didn’t feel like it was part of the dream; there was a sense of wrongness about the creature and, without a single action or thought or my part, it knew that I was there. Usually, unless I consciously make my presence known, dreamers are oblivious to me.
Despite my desire to avoid Ashley at all costs, I need to get to the Dreamlands. In Dante’s absence, someone there will be able to explain what that black creature was.
Staggering to my feet, I hear a noise to my left. Alarm fills me again but I start to relax when I see who it is,. Adam. Of course. He was the last person I touched today. That means his dreams will be the last ones I experience of the day. He smiles slowly in my direction, causing me to frown. Can he see me? Then I realise he’s looking at something over my shoulder.
I should snap myself out of here but I can’t help turning round to see what’s there. When I do, I blink in shock. Wearing some kind of atrociously frilly pink negligee is the unmistakable form of me. I swing my head back to Adam then back to my dream self. This is so not right. I’m in Adam’s dream watching him dream of me.
I wonder what would happen if I made him – and as a result, my dream half ‒ see me. Would one of us immediately wink out of existence?
I cringe as my dream self saunters past me and towards him. There’s a sway to her hips that I’ve definitely never had. When she reaches him and curls her arms around his neck, kissing him passionately, my cheeks suffuse with embarrassment. Good grief. I’ve really got to get out of here.
‘I had no idea you were so passionate,’ Dante remarks in a bland voice.
I nearly jump out of my skin. ‘Bloody hell,’ I hiss. ‘Someone should put a bell on you. You need to stop creeping up on me like that. How did you get here anyway? Aren’t you supposed to be in a different zone by now?’
He completely ignores me in favour of eyeing the kissing couple. ‘Who is that?’
I stare at him. He looks more ruffled than normal, no doubt as a result of falling asleep in an awkward position on the plane. ‘It’s me, of course.’
‘That much I can see. Interesting choice of clothes. But that’s not who I meant.’ He continues to watch the noisy, slurping action.
My mouth turns down in disgust. I don’t sound like that, do I? I’m certain I don’t try to eat people’s faces. When Adam reaches down to start pulling off my dream self’s negligee – which is barely covering her arse as it is – I hastily step in front of Dante and block his view. I’m going to assume that her thighs aren’t any more toned than mine.
‘I didn’t know you were a voyeur,’ I say nastily, although the spite in my voice is more from embarrassment than anything else. ‘Let’s get out of here.’
‘You’ve not answered my question. Who is that man? He looks familiar.’
A muscle jerks in Dante’s cheek. ‘Ah, yes. The ex-boyfriend.’ He finally meets my eyes. ‘So you’ve been talking to him today, have you?’ The silver in his eyes sharpens until I feel that I’m pinned in place by nothing more than his gaze. ‘Touching him?’ There’s an edge of a sneer.
‘It’s not like that. Listen, I was in another dream a few moments ago. Something happened.’
Dante raises an eyebrow, looking over my shoulder. ‘Something more than that?’
I twist my head round. My dream self is grinding her hips against Adam’s body. ‘Can we please leave?’
‘Did you really have a panic attack today or did you blow me off so you could blow him off?’ There’s no mistaking Dante’s meaning.
‘Good God!’ I explode. ‘I’m not responsible for what goes on inside other people’s heads! There’s something far more important we need to worry about. I’m leaving. I’ll meet you in the Dreamlands forest by the clearing in a few minutes and we can talk about it there.’
I step away from him and look up, allowing myself to snap out of Adam’s ridiculous dream. A heartbeat later I’m surrounded by familiar trees. I sit down on a patch of bare ground and wait for Dante to catch up. I guess even though he’s now out of the country and in a different time zone, Dante can still use his tracking abilities to find me. But why, oh why, didn’t he try to find me when I was with Archie? The embarrassment of Adam’s wet dream is almost too much to bear. It’s not my fault but it feels like it is.
I press my palms to my hot cheeks and pull myself together. Dante can’t really be pissed off at me for what my ex-boyfriend is dreaming about. He’s a control freak, I decide; he needs to get over himself and I’ll tell him that the instant he shows up. He should learn that he’s not the only person in my life. I nod decisively. He was very kind with my failure to get to the airport but that doesn’t give him carte blanche to control who I speak to – or what they dream.
Ten minutes later, when Dante’s still not appeared, I grit my teeth. My forced insouciance evaporates. The idea that he’s stayed behind to watch Adam take matters to a conclusion is particularly galling and I’m equally annoyed that he thought I’d faked my freak-out. Doesn’t he realise how close I was to the brink? I shake my head and sigh.
The ring of scorched stones around the long-dead campfire is next to me. When I finally stand up, dusting myself off, I inadvertently kick a stone out of place. I bend down to return it to its position and notice the scuff marks on the ground. I purse my lips and look closer. They seem fresh. Someone has been hanging around here recently – probably tonight, in fact ‒ and I know it wasn’t Dante.
My stomach churns at the thought that it might have been Ashley, waiting to confront me once more. She was determined that I stay away from her, though, and it’s unlikely she’s had a sudden change of heart since I last saw her. I hope it was Bron or Esme. Either of them might help me with the mystery of the dark cloudy beast.
I give up on waiting for Dante to stop jerking off (and sincerely pray that’s not what he’s doing) and plunge into the dense woodland. I know from past experience that it’s a bad idea to touch any of the trees as they tend to be icy cold, so I take my time, keeping my eyes trained on the ground for further signs of a trail.
It’s not long before I pass the first tree with a crooked Z carved into the trunk. Apparently it’s one of the signs that I’m a dreamweaver. By being able to alter the appearance of a Dreamland constant, even something as weak-arsed as a silly mark in a tree, I can do more than any other Traveller. If I follow all the marks, I’ll eventually end up in the bright sunshine of the town. It’ll make a nice change from darkness. Dark shapes attacking me, dark alleys, dark Dante, dark thoughts…
I scowl. How things can change in a day.
A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.
I make a beeline for the pub, ignoring all the wide-eyed looks I receive from other Travellers. I march ahead with my shoulders pulled back, trying to quash the nervy butterflies attacking my stomach at the thought that Ashley might see me. No one approaches me directly. Even Kevin, Ashley’s friend and one-time Department stooge, allows me to pass without a word. It’s just as well. I don’t even pause at the multi-coloured fountain where Dean Salib’s statue gazes down. I’m on a mission.
The second I push open the door, the hubbub inside dies a death. Every head turns in my direction. I force a smile, wondering what they’re all thinking and what’s been said about me. I’d like to say that it doesn’t bother me and that I’m more than used to feeling isolated but it still burns.
At least Bron’s burnished head is visible in the far corner. He makes a point of avoiding the stares and beckons me over with an easy grin. It’s a relief to see a friendly face. Bron looks like someone who’s permanently willing to be your best friend. He’s good-looking, with tanned skin and sparkling blue eyes; he wouldn’t look out of place in a glossy American magazine. I rather think, however, that I prefer dark and brooding. Goodness knows why. I suppose I’ve never been one for taking the easy route.
‘How’s it going?’ I ask as I pull up a chair. And then, even though I know the answer, ‘Any sign of the Department?’
Bron shakes his head. ‘Nada. There haven’t been any strangers at all. Three outliers in the last week but that’s it.’ He looks at me curiously. ‘Is that why you’ve been keeping your head down?’
I decide against mentioning my forays into different dreams in search of some fun and murmur noncommittally.
Bron points at my forehead and the dried blood that’s crusted over half of it. I grimace and take a napkin, dabbing ineffectually and brushing away his worried looks. When the buzz of conversation around us returns to normal level, I focus on what’s really important. ‘Listen,’ I say, keeping my tone low and my expression serious, ‘I need some help. I’ve been seeing some strange things.’
Bron pauses, his glass halfway to his mouth. He puts it down. ‘Go on.’
I describe the cloudy jungle monster.
‘Where did you see it?’ he asks, crossing his arms and looking concerned.
‘In a dream. It was only a flash because I was so bloody terrified that I yanked myself out of there. It definitely saw me though, Bron.’ I shivered. ‘I swear it was out to get me.’
He relaxes. ‘Oh. I thought you meant you’d seen it here in the Dreamlands.’ He waves an airy hand in the air. ‘People dream weird shit, Zoe. I wouldn’t over-think it.’ He leans forward. ‘You wouldn’t believe what I’ve seen lately. The Mayor had all these cards in a cabinet in one of the offices in the main Department building. I’ve been going through some of them.’ An amused gleam lights his eyes. ‘There’s a certain well-known actor who dreams every night about dressing up in women’s clothing before going to Buckingham Palace to depose the Queen and take her place.’
I squint. ‘You’ve been going into the Bubble?’ I ask, referring to the strange section of the Dreamlands which is home to millions of white doors, each one leading to the dreams of different slumbering minds.
He shrugs. ‘Everyone has. We’ve got to enjoy it while we can. As soon as the Department shows up again, it’ll be locked up.’ He gives me a grin. ‘Assuming the Deaprtment ever shows up, that is. We could go now if you want. Pick a door at random and see who’s inside.’
I try to stick to the point. ‘I don’t think this monster is just one person’s dream, Bron. It seems more than that. And it’s not the only thing. Yesterday I tried to wake up a woman because she was getting really distressed and I couldn’t do it.’
‘You’re very new at this. You’re still learning what you’re capable of. You’re probably reading too much into it.’
I shake my head. ‘Something’s not right.’
He watches me carefully. ‘You’re really worried.’
I can see Bron considering. ‘Very well,’ he says finally. ‘Why don’t we go and talk to Esme? If anything strange is going on, she’ll be the one to notice.’
I’m grateful that he’s at least pretending to take me seriously. I wait while he murmurs his farewells to the barman and then we wander outside, to the obvious interest of two dozen pairs of eyes. Bron hooks my arm under his.
‘I wouldn’t worry about all of them,’ he says. ‘They’re just jealous that I get to spend so much time with you.’
I sigh in frustration. ‘I don’t get it. They all think that Ashley’s the dreamweaver, not me.’
‘Yeah,’ he admits, ‘but you led a string of night mares through the town. And they all kind of think that you, well, killed the Mayor.’
What? I turn to him, mouth agape. ‘I’m no murderer,’ I protest. ‘That was Pegasus.’ I’m referring to the night mare I befriended in the forest. Considering the Mayor had held her captive and tortured her, one might say her actions were justified but it was still the most brutal thing I’d ever witnessed. There’s no way I’m capable of something like that, regardless of how much I despised the leader of the Dreamlands.
Bron grins again. ‘Have you spent much time down at the river?’
I’m confused by the question. ‘I guess. I used to talk to Ashley a few times at the oxbow lake.’
His grin broadens. ‘You didn’t go to the mill?’
‘Come on. This’ll be fun.’
I begin to protest. ‘But Esme…’
‘A minor diversion, Zoe. It’ll only take us ten minutes but it’ll be worth it, I promise.’
I sigh inwardly. I could do without this but if my suspicions that something is wrong aren’t entirely unfounded, I’m going to need all the help I can get. If Bron will humour me, then I’ll humour him. ‘Fine,’ I say. ‘Lead the way.’