The road wound through the woods, a pale streak through the darkness, dimly illuminated by the ancient headlights of an equally ancient blue pickup. Rusty around the edges and stiff in the door hinges, but with a well maintained engine that purred reassuringly in the heavy darkness of the night, the truck had been expressly chosen for its nondescript reliability. Behind its wheel a man worked the gearshift with his right hand —the only one he possessed— steering the vehicle using a special prosthesis fitted into the brace on his left wrist. When the road straightened again the man shifted in his seat, rolling his shoulders and flexing his legs, trying to stretch his stiff muscles. Driving an automobile was not unlike steering a ship in many ways, he reflected, but the hours of sitting did put rather a strain on his old bones.
He glanced over at the boy in the passenger seat, curled up in it in a way that seemed uncomfortable, his head propped awkwardly against the window. His brown hair was mussed and sticking to the glass and the man noticed with a mixture of amusement and exasperation that he still had that infernal beeping device clutched in his hand. Even in sleep he couldn’t let the thing go.
He looked like his father when he slept, the man thought, though when awake his expressive face and eyes always recalled his mother.
As the man steered the truck around another curve, lights from a motel and rest stop appeared on the left. It might be a good idea to stop for the night, he thought, refuel the truck and get some proper rest. According to the navigational device he’d rigged to the dash they weren’t much more than two hours from their destination and he judged it preferable that they arrive the next morning; their appearance was bound to cause enough of a stir without them turning up in the middle of the night.
He pulled into a parking spot in front of the motel, and shook the boy awake.
“Wha— where are we?” he asked, blinking sleepily in a way that reminded the man painfully of his mother.
“We’re going to stop here for the night, lad,” the man replied. “Get some sleep, in a proper bed. I’m going to go secure us a room, you collect the luggage.”
The man smiled.
“I need a room for the night, please. Two beds.”
“How many occupants?” The man behind the motel desk tapped at his computer, not looking up.
“Two. Myself and my son.”
“Where’s the boy now?” asked the desk clerk, still tapping.
The man’s thick eyebrows snapped together at this invasive line of questioning, but he’d learned that staying inconspicuous meant putting up with a number of things that would have triggered him to take violent action in his old life. “He’s in the truck.”
This appeared to be a satisfactory response for the desk clerk was silent for a moment, tapping away, apparently engrossed by whatever he saw on his screen.
“You got some ID?”
The man handed over his driver’s license, his breathing calm and heart rate steady as the clerk examined it and recorded the information on his screen. He had no need to worry. If anyone were going to spot the fraud of the small plastic card it would not be this man behind the desk. The forgery was an excellent one, and the man’s recent experiences had confirmed his suspicion that the people of this realm would only look closely at a card when they had some reason to suspect that the bearer intended to misuse it. The nearest thing to critical assessment he had yet encountered was a woman who’d informed him that the picture was far too flattering to be real. His heart had stuck in his throat for a moment before he’d realised she was attempting to flirt.
The clerk handed his license back and tapped for a further minute or two before reaching behind him and grabbing a key off a hook attached to the wall. “One room for one night, two double beds. Here’s your key.” He handed it over, and the man felt a wave of relief that it was a heavy, substantial metal one, and not one of those flimsy bits of plastic that he never failed to struggle with. “Checkout’s at eleven.”
“We’ll be gone well before then. Cheers,” he replied, taking the key.
“You a Brit, then?” asked the clerk, looking at him for the first time.
“Aye.” That seemed to be the consensus of this realm based on his accent and speech patterns, and he knew that when one was trying to remain inconspicuous it was best to quietly meet expectations.
“Bristol.” His research suggested that the historic English naval port was the closest thing this realm possessed to the city where he had attended the naval academy, a city long since lost to the sands of time. Although the haze of that same time had settled heavily on the memories of his years there, far more heavily indeed than his youthful face would suggest, he recalled them as some of the happiest of his life. Bristol seemed a fitting point of origin for the man he was claiming to be.
“Huh,” grunted the desk clerk, his brief spark of interest clearly extinguished.
The man nodded and returned to the truck where the boy was waiting, a suitcase, duffel bag, and battered leather satchel at his feet. The man slung the satchel over his shoulder and scooped up the duffel with his blunted left arm, leaving the boy to handle the wheeled suitcase. “Room 5, lad,” he said, then indicating the suitcase “Are you okay with that?”
“Yes,” sighed the boy, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. He always took the suitcase and always had to reassure the man that he could handle it.
The man opened the door with ease, thankful again for the style of the key, and automatically tossed his bags on the bed closest to the door. Once they were securely locked in the room, with the curtains tightly drawn, he withdrew a large, gleaming hook from the satchel, clicking it firmly into his brace and sighing in relief. He had come to appreciate many of the wonders of this realm, including the remarkable medical technology, but as impressive as the new mechanised, lifelike prosthesis buried in the duffel bag was, nothing carried deadly reassurance quite like his hook. The likelihood of anyone, or anything, having followed them on their winding path from New York was slim, but he was taking no chances.
The room they found themselves in was both odd and familiar, with the grim, grimy aspect shared by the many others they had inhabited on their journey— the stiff and serviceable bedding, the solid furniture, the black box whose controlling devices were barely functional all exactly what he had come to expect. Yet something in this room called to much older memories of a more faraway place. Something about the pattern on the bedspread, the colours of the walls and curtains, the large iron tub in the bathing area, the old-fashioned key. Perhaps the influence of their destination was more far-reaching than they had expected, the man thought. Perhaps some of it was seeping out.
The boy removed his coat and scarf, hanging them carefully on a hook by the door as the man watched in approval. He wheeled the suitcase over to the far bed then flopped himself down upon it, still holding his beeping device but not looking at it. The man could sense he had something on his mind, and waited.
“How much farther is it?” the boy inquired, after a long silence.
“Another two hours or so.”
The boy nodded, but did not move.
“Are you sure you’re prepared for this, lad? You know it won’t be—”
“It won’t be easy, I know. We’ve talked about it enough. I’m ready.”
“It’s okay to be nervous, you know. I certainly am.”
“At least you’ve seen her recently.”
“Not the her we’ll see tomorrow. It’s going to be painful, meeting that her.”
“I know, Dad—”
“You know with your head, but you may still be surprised by the reaction of your heart.”
The boy sighed, suppressing another eyeroll, for which the man was grateful. His mother would certainly not have suppressed it.
“You should get some sleep, lad. Would you like to use the bathing room first?”
“Bathroom, and yeah, thanks.”
He slid off the bed and headed for the bathing area, careful not to leave his device behind, the man noted with an internal sigh. He picked up the controllers for the black box —the television, he reminded himself with a grimace. Appalling name. Nothing good ever came of blending Latin and Greek— and fumbled with them for a moment before identifying the correct sequence of buttons to turn it on and locate a channel broadcasting the local news. His hand clenched on the controller as anxiety twisted and rose in his gut, gripping his throat tightly for long minutes before slowly, gradually relaxing as the broadcast revealed that nothing out of the ordinary had occurred that day —if one discounted the seagull that had taken over the pet food aisle of a supermarket and forced its closure, that is. The man discounted it.
Further exploration revealed that the television was able to receive precisely five and a half channels. One was showing the news, another a comedy programme he had never found amusing, the third a film he and the lad had watched some months ago. The fourth and fifth channels featured the baffling athletic ritual known as “football,” and the half appeared, from the audio, to contain some rather explicit sexual activity, though the blurred and flickering images failed either to confirm or deny. The man observed this in amusement for a moment or two before recalling that the boy would be finished with his ablutions soon, and turned the television off. This realm’s peculiar attitude to sex was something he doubted he’d ever grow accustomed to.
Pulling a thick book from his satchel, he lay back against the pillows and read until the boy reappeared, clad in his pajamas and still clutching his device. He crawled into his bed and fiddled with the device for a few seconds before placing it on the table next to his head. “I’ve set the alarm for seven,” he said.
The man knew he would awaken naturally well before that hour, but he nodded. “That will give us plenty of time,” he replied. “Get some sleep now, lad.”
“Mmmmm,” said the boy, his eyelids already drooping. The man watched him until he was fully asleep and snoring softly in a way that sent another brief stab of agony through the man’s heart. The boy’s mother made that exact noise when she slept.
Once assured the lad was asleep, the man retreated to the bathing room, drawn by the large, surprisingly ornate bathtub, wrought in iron with clawed feet and gracefully curved copper piping. He fiddled with the taps, pleased when hot water gushed forth at a generous rate. As the tub filled the man removed both his clothes and the heavy leather brace strapped to his left arm. He was going to have to wear the prosthesis for their arrival the next day so he may as well give the old stump a good clean, he thought, with the merest trace of his old bitterness. He slid into the faintly steaming water, sighing as its heat eased the ache and strain from his muscles. There were days when he could swear he felt every one of his years, even if he decidedly did not look them.
Tomorrow, he feared, would likely be one of the hardest days of his life. And for him, that was truly saying something.
He sighed again, deeper this time, closing his eyes as he leaned his head back against the curve of the tub. He forced his mind to clear, forced away the thoughts of the day he both craved and dreaded, allowed himself to be soothed by the gentle lapping sounds against the sides of the tub as the warmth of the water and the strain of the day lulled him into sleep.
He is in a large, airy room painted in dusty blue with creamy trim. Wide bay windows with generously cushioned seats below them stand open on one wall, the breeze that flows through them bearing the crisp and salty scent of the sea. At the centre of the room is a large bed with a sturdy wrought iron frame and the softest mattress he’s ever known. Curtains billow around the bed and at the windows, light linen ones that match the room’s wooden trim. The sheets are cool and smooth, and she is there upon them.
“I wasn’t expecting this tonight,” he says, sliding into the bed and taking her in his arms, the heat of her skin a delightful contrast to the sheets. She sighs in contentment and nuzzles her nose into his neck.
“I wanted to see you before you arrive tomorrow,” she says. “To— to warn you about something. Something I think you need to know beforehand, so you don’t overreact and spoil the plan.”
“I think I can be trusted to carry out a plan,” he grumbles.
“Of course you can, but you do have a temper, babe.”
“Aye,” he agrees. “I do at that. So what is this something?”
“It’s—” she begins, but the words seem to stop in her throat. “I’m— It’s about my— my—” She struggles visibly and he wishes he could help, but he knows he can only be patient. “It’s how I’m— argh, damn it, no, I can’t say it.” She looks distraught for a moment as she tries to work out how to tell him what she needs him to know, without telling him. “Just be prepared for my— my personal circumstances to be not quite what you expected,” she says finally, clearly frustrated with herself.
He’s not surprised that she was unable to say what she wished to. They have learned that the dreams allow them to discuss anything, so long as they both already know what it is. Conveying new information, however, may be done only obliquely, and with caution. He holds her close, stroking her hair in a way he hopes is reassuring. “I don’t really have any expectations to speak of, love. We’ve tried to prepare for anything, the lad and I. But I’ll keep that in mind.”
She relaxes and snuggles closer and for a moment he pushes it all away, the worry, the anxiety, the anger, and just relishes this, her, this miraculous thing they share that allows her to be in his arms despite the hundreds of miles that separate them. He wants to stay there forever in the peaceful place they made for themselves alone, wants the monsters and demons and villains that plague them to vanish away and just let them be. Let them have their love and their boy and their life. It’s all he wants. He holds her tightly against him, treasuring the smell of her skin and the feel of her hair, knowing that the next time he sees her will break his heart.
“I love you,” she murmurs, reading his mind. “Don’t ever forget that.”
“Promise me,” she says fiercely. “Promise me you won’t give up, no matter how hard it gets.”
He wonders if he should be insulted, but realises that the plea is more for herself than for him. “I promise you, my love,” he says firmly, “I promise I will never give up on you, on us. I couldn’t. I would die first.”
She nods, then kisses him, her passion tinged with anxiety. “Make love to me,” she demands, and he chuckles. She is beautiful when she’s bossy. He kisses her, open-mouthed and hot, as his hand buries itself in her hair and he drags his handless wrist down the curve of her body, pressing it between her legs, right on the spot that makes her moan. She’s brought him here without the hook, despite how much she loves the cool metal on her skin, and he knows that means she wants it soft and slow and blisteringly intense.
She bucks her hips against his wrist, moaning at the friction of the roughened scars against her clit, and he watches her. Watches her eyes flutter closed and her face flush pink with pleasure. She’s hot and dripping wet against him and he loves it, loves making her fall apart just with this, but tonight he wants to be inside her when she comes. He pulls his wrist away, chuckling at her whimper of protest, and pulls her mouth back to his, kissing her deeply, his tongue dancing with hers in the way he knows makes her wild with need. He could write books on how to pleasure her, give seminars on the subject, and he brings all of his knowledge to bear as he caresses her, his thumb across her nipple, his cock through her folds, his fingers tracing along all her sensitive places until she is gasping and pleading beneath him.
“Please,” she whispers, “Please.”
She is only submissive like this when she’s feeling insecure, when she needs his strength to comfort her. He files that information away for tomorrow, and sets about making her feel cherished and protected. Carefully he reaches out with his mind and manipulates the dream as she taught him, dimming the room until only the bed is visible, shifting the pillows to create a cocoon around them, focusing her mind on him alone as he nestles between her thighs and thrusts himself into her, smooth and deep and true, perfect as only dreams can be. She throws her head back against the pillows, her hair in chaos behind her, and rocks her hips in time with his thrusts.
“You feel so damn good,” she moans in his ear. “So perfect inside me.”
“And you feel perfect around me,” he replies, “Never anything but perfect.”
He knows, of course he does, that the dream has filed all the rough edges off their lovemaking, the awkward angles, the ruder noises, the concerns about pregnancy and the young sons who like to enter rooms without knocking, yet he still means it, as he knows she does. Whether it takes place in dreams or reality, nothing has ever been as perfect as them joined like this in the physical expression of their love. Nothing else could even come close.
She wraps her arms and legs tightly around him and he buries his face in her hair, quickening the pace, angling his hips to hit her just right every time. Her breath begins to hitch and her fingernails dig into his back, and soon she is coming apart around his cock, squeezing it, milking his release from him. He moans into her neck as he comes, her name on a gasping breath as he rides it out as long as he can before collapsing onto the bed and pulling her close, holding her as their breathing slows and evens. They lie entwined for as long as they can, foreheads touching, gazing into each other’s eyes, clinging to the precious moments of their time together as it nears its end.
“I love you,” they say in unison and the man woke abruptly in the ornate bathtub, shivering, the water around him cold and milky with his semen.
Better than on the bedsheets, I suppose, he thought wryly, pulling the plug to let water and seed drain away. As efficiently as possible he used the attached shower hose to rinse himself off, lathering his skin and hair with the contents of the small bottles beside the tub, then drying quickly and preparing for bed.
It was a long time before he slept again.
The morning dawned grim and grey to match his mood. Clouds lowered over the treetops, heavy as the fatigue that weighed upon his shoulders, a testament to his restless night. The boy at least seemed rested, his eyes bright and alert as he scoffed his breakfast in the grimy diner attached to the motel. The man ate at a more measured pace, dutifully fuelling his body though he had no real appetite.
“You saw her last night, didn’t you?” inquired the boy. “I can tell.”
“Aye,” the man replied, staring moodily into his coffee cup.
“What did she say?” the boy asked, somewhat hesitantly. The man suspected that this clever lad had divined something of the nature of their dreams, if thankfully none of the details, and was ever careful not to ask anything too personal despite how he clearly burned with curiosity.
“She couldn’t say much,” the man replied. “Though she hinted at some… unpleasantness regarding her personal circumstances.”
“What do you think that means?” asked the boy around a mouthful of eggs and pancakes.
“Chew your food first, lad. I don’t know what it means.” He had his suspicions, but wasn’t prepared to share them with the boy. “Have you any thoughts?”
The boy swallowed hugely and gulped his orange juice before answering. “Maybe she has a weird job or something. Like maybe she’s— I dunno, a garbage man or a dog catcher.”
The man smiled at that despite his mood, entertained as always by the boy’s expansive imagination. “Perhaps you’re onto something,” he played along. “What other jobs might she do?”
The boy grinned widely and launched into an increasingly absurd litany of potential employments that soon had the man laughing despite himself. He felt lighter as he paid their bill and walked back to the truck with his hand on the boy’s shoulder. Not for the first time he felt grateful for the lad’s presence, for his cheerfully upbeat nature and ceaseless optimism.
As they turned onto the road the boy attached his device to the truck’s dash and after a short squabble they settled on a playlist to carry them through the rest of their journey.
“Classic rock,” sighed the boy in the tone of one who suffers greatly. “Of course. Typical for someone as old as you.”
“Oi, lad, less of the ‘old’, if you please, I’m only thirty-four,” said the man with a grin. “It says so on my driver’s license.”
The boy snorted a laugh.
“And what’s more, I’ve heard you singing along to this song on more than one occasion,” retorted the man.
“I have not!” The boy was indignant.
“I may not be your mother, lad, but even I can spot a lie that blatant,” the man teased. “Why, just last week in the shower-bath—”
“It’s just shower, and that’s so not true…”
The forest they drove through grew denser and darker as they progressed, its shadows taking on an ominous aspect as mist began to rise from the ground, swirling around the moss-hung trees and muffling the usual woodland sounds. Within the truck the playful bickering between man and boy soon devolved into a who-can-sing-the-wrong-words-loudest contest, handily distracting them from the gloom of their surroundings, and by the time they reached the outskirts of their destination they were bellowing about the dawning of the age of asparagus at the very top of their lungs, almost loudly enough to drown out their anxiety over what lay in wait for them.
Yes: I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.