– 1 –
DREAMS ARE THE DOOR to the soul, although, in my case, the door led to someone else’s – someone whose life just ended.
My feet pounded the secluded dirt track on the edge of town, as if I could stomp away my last nightmare. Blood rushed through me, the endorphins buzzing to the outer inches of my body. Why did she have to die? If she were five more metres down the road the rock would’ve missed her. She was gone before she knew what happened – the only blessing in an otherwise senseless disaster.
I stopped and hunched over, my hand resting on the rough tree trunk. Battered breath in. Aching breath out. I squeezed my eyes closed, trying desperately to rid my mind of the image. Thick auburn hair covered half her young face as she lay there, blue eyes wide open, blood pooling and coating her cheek.
I kicked the tree. Damn it.
‘Get a grip, Lucy,’ I whispered into the trees. ‘You’ve seen it all before.’
I tightened my hands into fists and launched my feet forward. I loved this track and the crisp gum-scented air that breezed past my face and cleared the relentless smog in my mind; a camera reel of the worst news headlines, shown in full, high-definition, blood-splattering clarity. Why couldn’t my dreams be filled with flying or snowboarding? Hell, I’d even prefer a constant recap of my maths lessons with Mr Blythe. Sadly, there was never any flying, only an eternal loop playing the end of life, arrival of death, and a series of last breaths.
Tree branches encroached onto the path as I raced through dense brush, and then burst into the clearing. The scrub dispersed into farmland and empty hilly paddocks, before melting into a backdrop of mountains towering our small town. I stopped at the flimsy wire fence and caught my breath. The rhythm from my earphones slowed, mirroring my heartbeat. The harmonious tune and soft breeze enveloped me, gave me comfort, peace. I inhaled, sucking it all in.
Beyond the fence, one of the three black-and-white cows lifted her head and acknowledged me, this thing that had interrupted her solitude. I stared back until she bent for another mouthful of grass, and then I spun toward home, my thick, dark ponytail whipping my warm cheeks.
The last of the track merged into road and part of the residential area of Antil Springs. I paused at the top of the steep hill stretching into town, where we came with our sleds on the rare occasions it snowed this far from the mountains. A bland row of half-empty houses lined either side of the street, patiently waiting for their winter inhabitants to bring them back to life. At the end of each winter the streets were like a slow evacuation – only the truly committed stayed behind.
Antil had a lot going for it, even if it was a tiny blip on the map. Tiny might be a slight exaggeration, but with only one set of stop lights, one lowly supermarket – which used the lack of competition as a green light to bump the prices sky high – and one high school, it was fair. Although the copious amounts of restaurants and cafes did lend to an appearance of something larger and more alive than what we knew for most of the year. We were a tourist town, the four backpacker hostels and six real estate agents shouting ‘Come live here!’ were evidence of that.
Winter was our attraction, and outside of that we slipped back into the quiet-town shoes we felt most comfortable in – even with no hospital, no library, and terrible internet coverage. With two hundred kilometres between us and the east coast of Australia, we were close enough to the busy cities if we needed them, but far enough away that we tried not to.
I started down the hill, my feet moving in time with the easy beat from Of Monsters and Men’s ‘Slow and Steady’. A flash of hair, the colour of my strong morning coffee, caught my attention. A boy climbed into a green removalist’s truck, and waves of familiarity coursed through me.
I stopped running, hands on hips, and caught my breath as I tried to place where I’d seen him. The truck sat reversed in the driveway of a red-bricked house across the road. The large ‘For Sale’ sign pegged into the dying front lawn now had a ‘Sold’ sticker plastered across its front.
I didn’t know anyone from out of town, except my grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Maybe he resembled someone from a dream. I remembered all of the victim’s faces. Obviously he wasn’t one of those, and yet I recognised him. Why?
He slid out of the truck, his strong forearms wrapped around a large box, muscles bulging at the weight – nice. In tight black jeans and a denim shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, he strode up the driveway. A smile tugged on my lips when I took in the black low-top Cons on his feet – my favourite. Tendrils of wild hair poked up haphazardly and flicked down one side of his forehead, awakening that unyielding familiarity again. I could almost guarantee someone in a dream had hair exactly like that. I needed to know who. For no more reason than not letting a question go unanswered. As much as standing there appraising him appealed, I suddenly itched to get home – I knew exactly where to look.
Walking down the hill, I turned back as he stepped through the front door, shouting, ‘Mum! You want this one in the back?’
* * *
The second I opened our front door and turned off my music, my senses shifted into overdrive. The TV blared in the lounge room; Dad reclined on the couch, his feet propped on the ottoman. The tangy spices of dinner filled my nostrils, a scent that told me my shift-working Mum hadn’t left for the hospital yet.
With a sigh I swiped the back of my hand on my sweaty forehead and slid off my sneakers. The air inside was stifling after being out in the fresh breeze. Holding my shoes, I crept past the kitchen. Please don’t spot me.
No such luck. ‘Hey, honey. Mind helping me with the last of dinner when you’ve cleaned up?’
I’d just as soon scrub the toilets; besides, I had a mission. I inched closer to the stairs. ‘Can you ask Jake or Ollie?’
‘Ollie’s still out and Jake’s working on an assignment.’ Who says I didn’t have one, too? A ‘find out who the new kid around the corner was’ assignment.
Mum spun from the sink with a handful of tomatoes and tipped them onto the chopping board. ‘Please, honey.’
My shoulders sagged. ‘Fine, sure. Give me ten?’
An apron covered Mum’s nursing uniform, her greying hair pulled back into a tight bun, ready for her shift. ‘Can you make it a speedy ten?’ She reached for a knife. ‘I’m trying to do too many things tonight.’
She always did. But her good intentions meant she raced against the clock to prepare it all before leaving for work. And I swear she never realised she needed me until she saw me. I ought to try harder to stay hidden, like Dad and my brothers.
Once in my room I tossed the shoes on the bottom shelf of the bookcase with the rest of my sneakers and Cons. The white bookcase sat beside a small, square window and held a vast array of books on art and dreaming, even books about dreaming in art. I didn’t read much fiction. Most of my entertainment occurred in my dreams – that was enough. But give me a book about art, historical paintings, and the interpretation of the ancient arts, or anything on dreaming, and I’d be lost for hours.
I placed my phone and earphones on the round table in the centre of the room. Mum and I found it at a garage sale for ten bucks last year, after I’d had a disturbing dream where a man sat with his back to the door. It didn’t end well for him, and I’d woken with a desperate need for a new desk for my room. Oblivious to my reasons, Mum suggested a round table – better Feng shui apparently. We found it. Old and round with the white paint peeling off the legs and top.
‘It’s shabby chic,’ Mum said, laughing, but I didn’t care about the design, I was more concerned about the purpose. Eyes on the door – don’t get murdered. Once we got it home, I piled it high with paper, pencils, and laptop; it wouldn’t have mattered if it had green and purple stripes.
I sped through dinner and retreated to my room, intent on discovering the reason the boy looked familiar. I yanked the stack of sketchbooks from the bookcase, dumping them on the table, and slumped in my chair. Dragging in a breath, I opened to pages and pages of faces I’d drawn from my dreams.
Granny Tess had suggested I record them. The day I discovered her own set of books was the first I knew she’d once been like me.
‘You have a gift,’ she said, as if it were a good thing. I couldn’t fathom why she’d call something as extraordinarily normal as closing my eyes a gift. But she was my own personal cheerleader, encouraging me in a sport I never wanted to compete in.
As a child I had more imaginary friends than Mum could fit into seatbelts. My dreams filled my days as much as my nights, but the best and worst part of my affliction was the lucidity of my dreams and waking with the ability to recall every single detail.
Granny Tess had sighed and held the books to her chest. ‘This is all I have of my dreams now. But whilst they may plague you and make you terrified to sleep, they can be a good thing. Draw the people you see, make notes of any details, it’ll help.’
And so I did. Not like Granny Tess’s; hers were colourful and abstract, where mine were realistic and always in lead. I stared at the first face I’d drawn, a young man I’d watched die in a bike accident four years ago. I flipped the page; a little girl – car accident.
My phone vibrated on the table. My best friend Max’s name flashed on the screen, and I placed the phone against my ear.
‘Hey hon,’ she said.
‘What’s up? How’d training go?’
She groaned. ‘Same as always. Coach pushed us hard, and I’ll pay for it in the morning.’
‘Do you ever learn?’
‘Well that’s the point,’ she said. ‘Learning. I won’t let those bars beat me.’
‘Like they did me?’ I joked. I gave up trying to perfect the uneven bars years ago, and then gymnastics altogether. It was no secret I’d been terrible at it. Max on the other hand – superstar.
‘Totally,’ she said with a giggle. ‘So hey, you finish that English assignment yet?’
‘Only like two days ago.’
‘Yeah, thought so. I’m so screwed.’
I curled the corner of the paper under my thumb and forefinger and turned over the page; a teenage boy – anaphylaxis. I sighed and closed the book. ‘What do you need?’
By the time I finished helping Max I no longer felt like rehashing the faces from my books and the curdled feelings that came with them.
I had enough to battle with my latest victim, the young lady who’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hopefully I could redream an alternate ending for her tonight. Alter the moments before the rock hurtled from the bridge, give my mind a nicer image to hold on to. I did that with most of my nightmares. By way of a slight change in events, the flicker of a second, enough to bring them back to life. Desperate to save each and every person – even if only in my dreams.
Without any freshly disturbing news stories, nothing had me on edge as the darkness encroached. But no matter how reassured I felt as I lay down, I could never foresee a peaceful night’s sleep any more than the nightmares. Predicting would lead to hopes being dashed, and I never hoped. Still, my eyes closed with little effort and I drifted to sleep.
Vibrations rumbled through me as an aeroplane flew overhead. A tinge of pink lingered in the dull light, the barest hint of dawn slowly departing like the planes on the runway. The frigid air from the night clung to me, refusing to let go, and I rubbed my hands vigorously together.
I scanned the area. I stood near the pick-up and drop-off zone. The cars flowed like worker ants in a nest, weaving in and out of one another with the flurry of travellers. A horn echoed in the enclosed space.
An elderly, silver-haired lady climbed out of a black BMW. Her eyes were hollow and shoulders slumped as if too heavy to hold up.
She hugged the man who’d dropped her off, a tender, lengthy embrace. As he drove away, she extended the handle on her small suitcase and ambled toward check-in. Her foot hooked on a crack in the concrete, and she toppled forward, landing on her knees. The suitcase fell with a thud, and her hands splayed out on the cold ground. People stopped and stared, but damn it, why didn’t anyone help?
Without hesitation, I rushed forward. At the same time a boy around my age, sixteen maybe, headed for the lady, his light brown hair flicked over half his brow as he strode toward her. He was a fair distance away and stopped when I reached her first.
I squatted beside her. She looked up; I was visible – she saw me.
‘Are…are you okay?’ I hesitated, always on edge when people saw me in their reality. ‘Do you need some help?’
‘Thank you, dear. That would be most kind.’ She didn’t quite manage a smile, but the beginnings of one drew creases around her eyes.
I held her elbow, and she released a long breath as she struggled to stand. I gathered her fallen suitcase and placed it into her trembling fingers.
‘You gonna be all right?’
‘Yes, I’ll be fine now, thank you again, dear.’
‘You’re welcome,’ I said, and she shuffled away. My heart ached for her; she was alone yet clearly needed someone by her side.
I lifted my gaze back to the boy. His dark, piercing eyes fixed on me. Squirming under his stare, my pulse quickened.
I admired him with a courage I rarely had in reality, but I couldn’t drag my eyes away if I tried; I was being sucked into the depths of his gaze like quicksand.
The spell broke, and his face took on a different shape. The sharp lines of his chiselled cheekbones softened as his lips rose. My feet urged to close the fifteen-metre abyss between us, but before I got the chance, he ripped his stare away. Disappointment poured through me, but it didn’t stop me appreciating the sight of him. He wasn’t overly tall but wouldn’t be the shortest kid in class either. My eyes raked down his grey hoodie, skinny jeans – and Cons. Hell yeah.
A couple, probably his mother and father, embraced, a small overnight bag sat on the ground by their feet. They broke apart, and then came together for a short kiss, her face lighting up as the man whispered in her ear. The boy stood to the side. He brushed his fingers through his unruly hair, and with an eye roll in my direction we shared a silent laugh. Yes, definitely his parents.
The woman climbed back into the car, and his dad said something, which the boy answered with a nod and words I was too far away to hear. They shared a brief hug, and the man grabbed the bag at his feet, threw it over a shoulder and walked away.
My dream pulled at me as the boy jumped in the front seat of the car, but I couldn’t avert my eyes, not yet. The car drove out of the parking bay, and he turned, giving me one last smile, moments before I was thrust into the next part of my dream.
My hands gripped the armrests as strong as any Olympic weightlifter. I winced at the seatbelt digging into my stomach, struggling to keep me in my seat. The plane dipped forward. Deafening wails of the passengers sliced into my ears.
The intimate knowledge that I, alone, would wake from this tragic reality did nothing to quench my fear. I was about to die, and the only thought rushing through me was, ‘I better bloody wake up’.
The lady by the window in my row was still, staring straight ahead, eyes fixed on the chair in front of her, resigned to her fate.
Between us sat the silver-haired lady. She mumbled the same words over and over. ‘My daughter needs me, she needs me.’ Her eyes pleaded with mine, as if I could somehow help, but I couldn’t relax my fingers enough to offer her any consolation. Guilt seized me, churning in my stomach, because, why else was I here, if not for that? She needed reassurance, and I had none to give her.
‘She needs me.’
I shifted my attention toward the woman sitting diagonally from me, hunched over the child beside her.
The middle-aged man across the aisle held his hands in his lap, almost as still as the lady by the window. Smoky black hair gathered in curls on top of his head, and his slim nose was far too small for his face in proportion to the broadness of the rest of him. His eyes were closed.
I was about to turn when his eyes opened and stared straight into mine. He sat silent and resigned, the worry evident by the slight furrow on his wrinkled forehead. Before he looked away his mouth lifted in a disturbingly crooked smile, but the hint of light in his eyes made me feel less lonely. We flew alone, but we were in this together. My lips lifted ever so slightly before a lump caught in the back of my throat and a solitary tear slid onto my cheek.
The plane jerked upward. I was thrust back in my seat before it tipped, jarring, and sent me sliding forward again. I clenched my hands tighter onto the armrests and held on for dear life.
The aeroplane speakers crackled to life. ‘Brace for impact.’ There was a pause before the captain repeated. ‘Brace for impact!’
I lowered my head to my knees and gripped my shins with shaking hands. My heart pounded against my thighs, and my breath thundered in my ears even though it was difficult to breathe at all.
The screams around me dulled, moments before they were abruptly overwhelmed by the deafening sound of explosive metal as it crunched closer. Flames engulfed me, scorched my skin, and my mouth opened in a silent scream.
What readers are saying:
“This was such a beautiful, creative story of sacrifice and love for others, I highly recommend!”
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“This is a solid start to a series, and I highly recommend this one for readers who love dark, unique stories.”
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