Bess blinked and found herself in the boat. It was wider than it had looked. She could lie down and have room to sprawl if it weren’t for the boards nailed to the top. Seats? Ribs? She didn’t know boats.
She scanned the countryside for her mother, but saw only growing shadows and morphing hills. The outlines shifted as if worms were wriggling atop one another in a mad game of King of the Hill.
The waters had cleared though. They were the brightest blue she remembered seeing and sparkled as if catching stardust. Frowning, she took a seat on one of the boards, gripping the wood tightly. A mast grew from the bottom of the boat with a groan that was almost painful to her ears, and a golden sail snapped as it caught the wind.
She sailed down the winding creek, the wind tugging at her long, brown hair. The scene didn’t change much, remaining all shadows and worms. Sometimes, she passed by tall mountains of them, other times, buildings and structures.
The boat didn’t stop and the creek didn’t widen.
“Why are we stuck?” she asked the air.
She’d been with River, trapped in the dream net, for months. She’d picked up a thing or two about Dreamland, things he probably didn’t realize she knew. Then, when she’d possessed him, slowing the progression of his illness, she’d learned a great deal more about Dreamland.
She knew she was in a nightmare pod. She knew a nightmare, a person, was somewhere in this pod with her. She knew there was a message.
She knew she wasn’t alone.
“Hello. Nightmare. Where are you?”
The wind continued to blow. The boat creak as it went around a bend. The hillscape shifted into the two towering mountains in the distance again.
“I am here.”
Bess jerked and stared at the board in front of her. A man sat there, dressed all in black. Silver adorned each shoulder, but she couldn’t make out what they were in this light. The gold light from the sail glinted off his bright, red hair and made his freckles take on a sheen.
But the thing that caught her off guard was that his eyes glowed black.
A dark expression floated over his rather angular face. “I should not be here, Bess.”
“Then why are you?”
His Adam’s apple bobbed. “You are a special case.”
She nodded. “Because of what happened on the river boat.”
The captain of the river boat had been a dream killer, a failed nightmare who had been shot out of the Sea of Dreams to wander without purpose or means. He’d discovered the riverboat and had started collecting others the Sea of Dreams spat out. They fed the motor, the roaring heart of that white and red beast dreams.
River had said he’d seen dreamers kill themselves after their dreams were eaten by the dream ships. He’d even come to see her, wanting to know how she was, ready to talk her out of suicide if the thought crossed her mind.
But she was still here.
“You know Dreamland, how She works.”
“Is that why I’m stuck on a boat going nowhere?”
He tipped his head to the side, his brow furrowing as he let out a sigh. “No. The boat is going nowhere because that is where you’ve chosen to go.”
She took off her wire-rim glasses and rubbed her eye. Symbols. Always symbols. “Mom told me to get in the boat.”
“Repeatedly.” That word was laced so much meaning, the air grew thick with it.
“Okay, fine. She repeated it repeatedly, and, yes, I know that when someone special comes into a dream and repeats something, it needs to be noted, but I noted it, Nightmare. I noted it.”
“And ignored it.”
“She told me my girls were in the boat, but it’s an empty boat.”
“And now it is not.”
“Look.” She cleared her throat and slid her glasses back into place. “Dreaming of having a life with my daughters is what got me here in the first place. It’s the reason my dreams were out there to be caught. It’s why I’m stuck in a dead-end job. It’s why I can’t get out of this financial rut I’m in. It’s the reason I can’t move forward. Why, when someone asks me what I like to do for fun, I have no freakin’ clue because I don’t know. Fun? I’ve been afraid to have fun.”
The nightmare’s expression slid into cool stone.
Bess grabbed the base of her ponytail and flipped it, gesturing with her hand to the scene around them. “What?”
“Nothing. I’m listening, Bess. No one has heard your side of your story. You don’t tell it. Everyone changes it for you. So I’m just listening.”
She raked her teeth along her bottom lip and stared at the morphing shadows. “Worms? Really?”
“You conjured them. I merely gave them shape.”
She fingered the wood edge. “What am I doing here, Nightmare?”
“Finding peace, I think.”
“This is peace?” She gestured to the shadows and looming gloom.
“For you, yes.”
She ran her fingers along her lip, her emotions churning inside her chest. She wanted to let go of the suffocating sorrow, of the assaulting grief. She wanted to release the stabbing betrayal, the shooting pain of broken trust. She wanted to forget the emptiness of loving people with all her heart . . .
. . . who refused to love her back because she hadn’t earned it.
“I don’t want to talk about it, Nightmare.”
“Then change our course.”
She shook her head. Her heart had nowhere to go. Her mind lacked direction. Her every waking moment for the past ten years had been to create a life for her and her daughters. Acknowledging that would never happen had stripped her of the one thing she had left.
Will through reason.
She’d always been the type of person who created goals and then met them. But now? Those goals just slipped right by.
She should have a full collection of artwork ready for the gala scheduled in a few months. She should have three sculptures complete. She should have her Etsy store open, taking in new customers a normal brick and mortar store couldn’t reach.
Without purpose, though, without reason, she had no will to make any of those things happen.
“I don’t know where to go.”
The nightmare breathed, his chest rising and falling the darkness. “My name is Danny.”
A surprised ghost of a smile lifted the corner of her lips. “That’s not a terrifying name.”
“I’m not here to scare you.”
“Then why are nightmares so terrifying?”
“To make it easier to deal with you real life by comparison.”
She raised her eyebrows and leaned to the side to see what the shadow worms were doing next. The setting had changed. Instead of the tall building coming up next, they built what appeared to be a pedestrian bridge, crossing the two banks in a wide arch. Her heart skipped a beat. “We’re safe in the boat, right?”
He lifted one shoulder.
She gripped the side of the dinghy as her heart raced. “They’re building a bridge.”
“Why should that concern you?”
“What if they get in the boat?”
“Then you are no worse off than if you had stayed.”
She let out a frustrated breath. “Why did you want me in the boat so bad?”
He looked up at the golden sail, glitter raining down on his cheekbones, accentuating the shadowy glow seeping from his eyes. “I didn’t tell you to get in the boat.”
“My mother is dead.”
“You called up the image of your mother.” He propped his booted feet against one side of the boat and folded his hands behind his head, leaning against the mast. “All I did was open the dreampod.”
The worm bridge drew closer. The muscles in Bess’ neck tightened as she shied away from that, away from—
—away from the black hole inside her, sucking every last dredge of life she had.
The bridge grew further away as if they’d back peddled.
The isolation. She’d pushed everyone away, protecting herself. This did feel like relief, this break from the wearying anguish. She didn’t trust people, didn’t want them around.
Her soul was already filled with the shadow worms.
As one, they raised their heads. Tiny beads of light shot from their little, worm heads as though they had eyes as they stared at her.
She didn’t want to . . . She didn’t want end up like that, without emotion, without meaning, without . . . without.
Danny opened one eye and peered at her. “You know what I always liked about you? You’re a quick study.”
The shadow worms slithered into the ground and disappeared, leaving only rolling hills of muddled earth.
“That’s going to come in handy.”
She looked around him and the sail, trying to pierce the darkness beyond the glare of the sail.
He sat up and slapped his palms against his knees. “I have a proposition for you.”
The shine from the sail grew, piercing Bess’ eyes with daggers of pain. “What?”
“Come with me. It’s a locked and protected dreamplane. Months there will be mere hours on Earth.”
“The Red Queen has a program for people like you.”
Bess opened her eyes to mere slits, blocking out the sail glare with both hands. “Like me?”
“She has a place for you. You can grow there.”
“You said months in Dreamland?”
“I have obligations on Earth.”
“That you won’t miss.”
Her heart trembled. A chance? To be someone? To be something? To be someone to someone else?
Danny set his warm hand on her bare knee. “Bess, please. Do this.”
“If I don’t?”
He licked his lips and dragged his gaze to the surrounding landscape before returning it.
She swallowed hard. “And if I fail?”
He smiled. “We all fail, Bess. It’s what we do afterward that defines us.”