I’m not a dreamy kind of guy. Ask anyone. I’m about math and hockey. And science. I’ll stop anywhere to watch a bug. But dreamy? Never.
Nightmares are a different story. My worst nightmare, the one I’ve had since I was just a kid, starts with me lying spread-eagle on a slab of wet cement. Bitter wind streams through me, whispering things I can’t quite hear. If I could understand the words I could keep the wind from stripping out my soul. But all I ever catch is my name: Shepherd.
I can’t scream as the wind guts me. I can’t move—except my arm. I lift it and flex my fingers in front of my face. It’s too dark to see.
But my fingers tremble.
Rain falls, and icy water puddles in my eyelids. The rain turns to hail. It cuts my clothing, digs deep into my flesh. Then one stabbing flash of lightning and everything stops, leaving me in dead quiet.
But not alone.
A girl says, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
I jerk awake, sweating.
I wake up when she talks. Always. But this time it’s hard to breathe, like I’ve forgotten how to process air. This time my heart throbs like pistons in my chest. I stare into the darkness of my room and a raindrop—a real, wet raindrop—splatters onto my forehead. I touch the water dribbling toward my ear. Taste it, cold and metallic, on my finger. Another drop hits my cheek.
“So . . . what is this place?”
I twist toward her voice and my vision swirls, black to gray. I can’t see the girl. “Who’s there?” My voice cracks. Panic surges into every cell of my body. I can’t see anything.
“It’s me, Shepherd. Duh. It’s Elly.”
“Elly?” Another raindrop hits me, then another. My nightmare has never been this crazy. It’s never been this real. And my kid sister has never, not once, been in it.
Footsteps, then Elly drops onto me. She smells like I remember her, baby-clean, sweet. My vision suddenly pops with pricks of light. I breathe—in, out, in. This doesn’t happen in my dream.
“Sorry,” Elly says. “You know where we are, right?”
I reach out, find her shoulder, and pinch.
She punches my arm. “Dork!” Pain spreads into my muscle, wrapping my bone like ivy does a tree. Her weight rolls off my legs.
But I can’t see her. I still can’t see me. I reach out again. She slaps my hand. “Knock it off.”
The air churns around me, swift as water around large stones. For a second I think I hear a jumbled rush of words. Then they’re gone. My hair whips my face, stinging my skin. I push it away with cold fingers. It’s lighter now, but something dark crouches at the edge of my vision.
Fear shreds my chest. “I can’t . . . see.”
A sharp thing pokes my forehead, digging into my flesh. “You’re right here.” Elly pokes again—her fingernail?—and I flinch. The wind gusts between us, peppering me with grit. I rub my eyes and blink. I see her! Cheeks blotched and bright red. Huge pupils.
I ask, “Are you . . . okay?”
“I have no idea. I mean, I feel seriously weird.”
“Why are you in my dream?”
She rolls her eyes. “You’re not dreaming, idiot.”
But I’m not so sure. I turn and face the dark thing behind us—scaffolding, maybe—it’s latticed with dozens of crossing rods. Then just like that there are more of them: not scaffolding but four steel legs surrounding us in four-square formation. The legs narrow as they rise, curving inward to connect to the corners of a common rail or walkway. From there they telescope into the sky.
“What—what is that?”
“You don’t know?” Elly’s furious. Or maybe she’s going to cry. I can never tell.
“All I know is we’re surrounded.”
She whirls around, her hair alive with wind and I swear, I swear, I hear whispering. “Is someone there?” she asks. “Do you see Dad?”
Suddenly I remember being small—a toddler. Mom holds my hand. The memory is so real I feel the warm moisture of her skin, the pressure of her touch. Her face is framed by blue; a painted ceiling, or the sky. Where does this memory come from? Mom died when I was three. I’ve searched for proof of her existence and never found so much as a picture or a faded lock of hair. I’d forgotten her completely, until—
“Oh, that’s so much better!” Elly’s eyes are brown again.
The fog disintegrates, like old newspaper in water. This is not my bedroom. I am not inside. Elly clings to me, like she used to do when we were little. I curl my arm around her and whisper, “You see that, right?”
Under her breath she says, “Unfortunately.”
Mirage-like, buildings shimmer into view. Beyond them hangs a sagging wall of dark clouds. Nearer is a car-packed road.
None of it is familiar.
Elly and I look at each other from the corners of our eyes. “This is getting weird,” she says. “Even for you.”
“Even for me?”
A sidewalk jammed with people materializes right in front of us. We scramble back, Elly’s eyes wild with fear. Some people carry umbrellas. Some stare at thin, rectangular clear things in their hands. Some talk to themselves. But no one gives us a passing glance, even though we sit like hungry strays only six feet or so away.
“Where are we?” Elly whispers.
I shrug. I still don’t know.
“We were at school!”
I’d forgotten that. Until she said it.
“This is not International Falls.” Her voice is too loud, though no one on the sidewalk seems to hear. “I mean, how can this be Minnesota? There’s no snow. It’s not remotely cold enough for snow.”
“Yeah.” I shiver.
“We’re sprawled on the pavement like dogs. You’d think someone would notice.”
I’m about to say something about dogs or people or maybe weather when my ears ring, like an alarm clock went off between them. I clap my hands to the sides of my head, the ringing fades and I hear—people walking, the sticky sound of tires on asphalt, a distant rumbling I take for thunder. I must be losing it. I didn’t even realize the sounds of this place were missing.
“You’re wheezing!” Elly’s eyes narrow. “Are you hurt?”
“No.” But I gasp and hack and suck in air. I almost hurl. “Let’s get up.” She doesn’t budge. I push her with my foot. “Get up! It’s raining.”
She brushes dirt from where I nudged her. “Like standing up will make it stop.”
A wet tabby darts between us then disappears into the crowded sidewalk. I see the cat again; its tail a dust wand of fur. Elly glances at me. “You brought Clockers?”
“What do you mean brought? I don’t even know how I got here!”
Her eyes flash, calling me a liar. Then without a word she takes off, following Clockers toward the street.
I’ve got to get her back, but—
Something bumps against my thumb. It casts a shadow like sunlight on the rain-blotched pavement. I pick it up—a heavy, clear-as-crystal marble—and hold it in my hand. The creases of my palm show through without distortion, like the marble isn’t there.
I look up, squinting into the rain. A girl stands so close to me our shoes touch. Where’d she come from? It’s like she stepped in while I blinked.
I shoot to my feet, bat my jeans and tug my sweater smooth. I shove the marble into my pocket. She tucks her short dark hair behind her ears. A smile flickers at the corners of her mouth.
I manage a wheezing, “Hey.” She’s pretty. My age. Seventeen, or close.
The girl sways a bit then steadies herself. Her forehead wrinkles, like she’s concentrating. Her lips turn blue—almost as blue as her eyes. She presses her palm to my chest. Warmth soaks through my clothes until I’d swear she’s touching my skin.
“Don’t be afraid.” Her soft voice has an accent. British, maybe.
“I’m not afraid.” Or at least I’m not about to let it show.
She pats my chest and wobbles. “It will pass. All of it. You will be all right.”
I barely hear her and step a little closer. “What?”
“It is really you, Shepherd, non?” Her eyes blur with tears and something else—an emotion I almost recognize. But before I say a word those fabulous blue eyes roll upward, revealing milky-white. I catch her as she falls, circling my arms around her body. She smells like cream soda.
My wheezing fades. My mind empties. I don’t feel panic or fear; in fact I’ve never felt better. But I’ve forgotten something. I swear I have. I’ve forgotten something major.
Elly runs toward me, yelling, pointing at the street. I shove my hand between us. “Wait a sec.” What did I forget? For reasons I can’t explain, I feel guilty.
My sister skids to a stop. She folds her arms around herself, like a mummy. Or a bat. She glances at traffic, then at me. “What did you do, Shepherd? This place is all wrong. I tried asking people for help, but no one can see me. No one can hear me! Some woman practically walked through me. Clockers made it across that busy road, but I didn’t dare follow. Why are you holding a girl?”
“Stop blaming me for this!” I wish she’d just shut up. I’ve forgotten—something.
Elly taps her foot. I zero in on the sound—wet, splashy. Sharp. “We can’t just stay here,” she says.
The girl’s head tips into an awkward position. Her mouth opens up, like geriatrics when they sleep. I tighten my hold on her and ease her head to rest against my chest.
“Who is she?”
“I don’t know.”
“But you’re touching her. I couldn’t touch anyone. We need to figure out where we are. We need to find our way home. Wake her up. Maybe she’ll help us.” Elly prods the girl’s back with one finger, like she’s testing the temperature of water. Then she freezes, staring over my left shoulder.
I turn as a black car bumps the curb and bounces onto the sidewalk, its tires spinning on the wet cement. People run, but it’s bizarre. No one makes a sound.
Elly dashes for one of the steel structures, screaming, “Move it move it move it!” I follow her, struggling with the dead weight of the unconscious girl.
I’m still making for the place where Elly cowers when the speeding car strikes a man, launching him into the air. As the man soars toward us his body rotates and I see his face. He’s looking at the street, the sidewalk, the ground, at me. A sort of understanding washes over him, like he knows who I am. In the few seconds that connect us, his expression hardens into hate.