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       Dreamshade, p.1

           A. J. Lath
 
Dreamshade
Dreamshade: Niamago

  A. J. Lath

  Copyright 2010 A. J. Lath

  1

  While he was still young enough to believe that he would never become older, Benjamin Crosskeys had a dream that changed the way he saw the world. It was not simply a nice dream, a happy dream, or even a fabulous one; it was a great dream, and it left a mark on his waking life that would never fade.

  There were other great dreams to follow, of course. They were few, and very far between. Yet that, in part, what was made them special. And none proved so special as the first.

  It was a dream of fireworks, essentially. But that was like saying a child's doodle could be the equivalent of a Da Vinci masterpiece. For in this dream the fireworks cannonaded across a sky that was infinite, unbounded by the horizon of a land beneath, and it shone with stars so plentiful that it seemed as if all the galaxies of the universe had come to meet him here. He was alone amid this majesty, and he was not afraid. In this place he was the master, and the fireworks were his to command.

  It was true: the screaming rockets, the fiery plumes, the flares; all were subject to his whim. If he so wished it, then the rockets might fall into formation, or divide, or change course; or the whole display might rearrange itself, becoming a vast, cartwheeling fire show that served him as solely as an orchestra serves its conductor. Astonishingly, there was a substance to these flames also, for he could ride those screaming rockets, or jump the cresting flares as easily as if he were using stepping stones to cross water. And when he tired of skating the sparks and catching comets by the tail, he reclined against a soaring blaze and simply let it carry him for miles and miles and miles. With the forbearance of a contented king, he saw no need to rush nor any need to be frivolous. His power in this realm was absolute. Nothing could challenge it.

  Except the stars, perhaps. Gazing out to them, he began to wonder if they too might be just as compliant to his will. If it was so, then he would certainly have to be closer; his ability, he suspected, had little purchase on things so distant.

  He therefore summoned a fresh flare, and ordered it to carry him further, ever further. But the stars ahead did not come any closer. So again he commanded: Further! More! And again, the stars stayed put, twinkling dimly and distantly. He thought, perhaps, that his flare was slower than it seemed, as an age had already gone by and he had made no headway. Yet when he turned and looked, he saw that he had travelled so far from the fireworks that they were now but a glimmer of glints to his eye. He realised then that to reach even the nearest star would take more than a lifetime. And with dawning awe, he understood that maybe even a thousand lifetimes would not be enough.

  No matter how much he journeyed, he would never get close to them - and this saddened him. But then he heard singing birds and the chime of a clock; and saw the stars, once unattainable, slowly resolve themselves into the flecks of daylight that pierced the weave of the bedroom curtains every morning. He was awakening, and in a little time he had awakened enough to know that it had all been a dream ... and to know, also, that the dream had not entirely ended.

  Because something, he felt, was with him in his room, and it was something remarkable. Being older now, he doesn't remember what it was, though he is sure that it was silky and shiny, and moved with the sinuous grace of a falling ribbon. He knows that it drifted away from him and slipped out through the gap at the bottom of the bedroom door. But he does not recollect how he spent the rest of that day searching for it, peering under the chairs and tables and rooting in every cupboard he could find; nor does he remember how his parents kept on asking him if he was feeling upset. To them, he looked like a small boy with too much of an adult frown on his face. They did not understand that this was a child who’d had his first ever great dream. Neither did they understand that, as with all great dreams, it had taught him something - in this instance, something to do with want and sacrifice and distance - and left him a little more grown-up as a result.

  It was not long afterwards that Benjamin Crosskeys began to believe that he would become older.

  ***

  In truth, the great dreams of his life had little impact that he was aware of, and at the age of eleven years and four months, Benjamin Crosskeys remained a largely ordinary boy with ordinary concerns and preoccupations. Age and wisdom aside, the only change of any note was that his father was now gone. He did not know why he had left; he was very young when it happened, and his mother refuses to elaborate upon it. “He just went,” is all she will say, when asked. Nothing else. He ‘just went’ and was never seen again. So far, all he has learned of his dad was that he ‘liked to travel’ and ‘enjoyed long walks’. In other words, he was precisely the type of person who could ‘just go’ and be never seen again. The only things he had left to his son were his surname, and a small but palpable sadness that sometimes arose whenever Benjamin wrote down his signature.

  Nevertheless, it was a slight sorrow, and there were consolations. His stepfather Pete, for one, and the sister he had brought into the boy’s life, Maddie. She was four now, and loved cats. Occasionally stroppy, as all little sisters can be, but always ready to laugh. Pete was a good guy too; he wore a beard, had long hair that was tied back into a ponytail, and his favourite photograph was one that Benjamin’s mother had made for him, where she had used her computer to substitute a picture of an Afghan hound’s head in place of his own (like his mother, Benjamin also enjoyed using the computer to tinker with photographs: he tended to be subtler though, preferring to impose very tiny changes such as making someone’s fingers a little bit longer than normal or putting a shadow in the wrong place). He hung the picture in the downstairs lavatory, next to the original untouched photograph, and added a caption that invited the viewer to spot the difference. Benjamin’s mother had cracked up at that. Since Pete has been around, she has laughed a great deal.

  His home was a happy home, then, if not a tad eccentric. But in all other respects it was ordinary. He lived at twenty-three Chapterhouse Street, in a town that sat so deeply between London and everywhere else that he could never be sure if was part of London or everywhere else, and had a few good friends but not many. School was a vaguely bearable chore, and his favourite place beyond home was Wandringham wood, which lay only a short walk away from his back gate. Admittedly, he was regarded by some as slightly odd, but not to the extent of seeming outright weird. A few may have occasionally thought that there was something different about his eyes, but they could never say what, while the rest were just happy to let him go on by, an everyday sort of boy in an everyday sort of world.

  ***

  Benjamin Crosskeys’ life became extraordinary on a springtime night which followed a day as unremarkable as any other.

  He had gone to school as usual, and returned knowing just a tiny bit more than the day before. Mrs. Dunstable, his teacher, had told him with some relish that Queen Elizabeth the First never took a bath, and Jack Beesley from form 3c farted during assembly. At break time, Benjamin’s team lost the football match; Martin Linklow also lost his jumper, which had served as a goalpost. At lunchtime, a grave discussion amongst classmates about jellyfish had given them all a bit of a scare (“The sting of the box jellyfish is so painful,” had piped Miles Kingdom, over macaroni, “that you scream even when you’re unconscious!”) while afternoon break time brought only the faint satisfaction of a score-draw. Just before the bell had rang for home time, Mrs. Dunstable reminded the class that the latest batch of essays needed to be in by noon tomorrow. Benjamin Crosskeys therefore departed with the sombre slouch of a boy condemned to spend the entire evening doing homework.

  So went the day.

  After tea, Benjamin’s mother, tired of again having to explain to Maddie why she preferred to be called ‘Jen’ rather than ‘J
ennifer’, sought relief by engaging him in a conversation about vacuum-cleaners. Apparently, ‘Old Dougal’ had drawn his last breath, and she was now in the market for a state-of-the-art bagless model. “But that doesn’t mean it moves around by itself,” his mother had chortled, pre-empting the obvious joke. Benjamin grinned, shook his head, and told her that he hadn’t even thought it.

  “Oh? Thought what?” asked his mother sharply. Judging by the tilt of her gaze and the barely contained half-smile, it was obvious that this sudden display of tetchiness was only pretend. Unfortunately, Benjamin had been caught completely off-guard by the reply, and his mother was now of a mind to capitalise on it.

  “Well - nothing. You know. Hadn’t thought of anything. Really,” he said, hesitating a little.

  “Hmmm,” said his mother, eyes narrowing. “You think I’m an old bag, don’t you?”

  “No. Really. You’re not - you’re not old at all.”

  A bellow of laughter ensued, along with a loud clap. “Good one, Benjy boy. Nice one,” his mother said. “Blessed is the mum whose son would rather think of her as a bag than old. Big good-guy points are hereby awarded. Well done!”

  “No problem,” Benjamin returned, laughing also. The mirth, however, did not last long. There was homework to be completed, and his mother was not shy in reminding him. Sighing, he withdrew to his bedroom, opened his books, and spent a long time puzzling over the two incomplete essays that had to be finished by tonight.

  He began work on the one about life as a crew mate of Odysseus first. It was his kind of thing anyway - a story about a quest involving monsters and all manner of strange stuff. He’d so far written it from the viewpoint of a seasoned old sailor who’d seen it all before, and when he took it up again, he continued in a similar vein. Though he did not know it, he was the only child in his class who had approached the essay in this way. Everyone else had taken to it in the spirit of wonderment and discovery, writing as fledgling adventurers caught in a constant daze of awe. He completed it about a good hour later, and when he reread the final few lines - ‘that is my story then and I hope you like it. I have many many more just like it,’ - he realised that it didn't really sound like it was finished. Nevertheless, with another essay awaiting, and tomorrow fast approaching, he had to concede that it would have to do. He stretched, yawned, pondered - for all of two seconds - upon why he hadn’t had the sense to complete the essays earlier, and took a short break. After an interval involving a close up study of his nose in the mirror, and a quick session of faux martial-arts poses, he settled back down to his desk and brought all his attention to bear on the night’s second piece of homework: a report of a recent class trip to a local museum, to be written as a stranger unfamiliar to the town. Grumbling with boredom, he sharpened his pencil, shuffled his exercise books, and set himself to the tiresome task ahead.

  He was surprised to find that he was nearly finished by the time Pete knocked on his door. It had been another long shift for his stepfather, and he’d brought himself a takeaway on the way home. “How do, mate,” he said, holding up a greasy brown paper bag as he peered in. “Got some prawn crackers - want me to leave you some?”

  Despite not being the biggest fan of Chinese food, Benjamin was nonetheless a sucker for prawn crackers. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Thanks.”

  Pete nodded. “Had a good day?”

  “It was okay.”

  “Hm. Ah well.” He paused. “Got some homework there, eh?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Right. So I’ll leave these crackers for you in the microwave. Don't have too many though. Your mum’ll skin me if you do.”

  “Thanks,” Benjamin said again.

  “S’okay,” said Pete. “See ya.” And then he departed.

  As ever, Pete had left Benjamin bemused. It always seemed as if he had more to say, yet could never quite get round to saying it. Still, that was Pete: he made mum happy, and knew a lot about Star Wars. Not the best talker, but good enough in all other respects. And he was still here, even after all these years, which was excellent. Unlike -

  But Benjamin didn’t finish the thought. He had homework to be getting on with.

  The second essay was as good as done when his mother brought Maddie into the room to say her goodnights. Half-hiding her face behind her favourite rag doll, she mumbled “Bye,” then ran out onto the landing with a giggle. Benjamin’s mother raised her eyebrows in mock exasperation, and asked him how the homework was coming along.

  “Fine. Finished,” said Benjamin, closing the exercise book with a snap.

  “Good stuff. Want to watch some telly downstairs before bed? You’ve got about an hour and a half to spare.”

  “I wan’ telly,” piped Maddie from behind her mother. “I wan’ telly.”

  “Yep,” said Benjamin, with more than a little delight in his voice. It looked as if the evening wasn’t going to be completely wasted after all.

  “As for you,” said Benjamin’s mother, turning to Maddie. “It’s the land of nod for you, my girl. And no misering about it, either.”

  “All righty-ho,” said Maddie, making sure not to huff so much that she might get told off for it. After that, both she and her mother were gone from Benjamin’s doorway, and Benjamin himself was soon ready to exercise his Right as an Older Sibling to stay up longer than his little sister.

  So went the night.

  He watched a game show, then a nature programme about sea birds. Laughs aplenty came when one particularly annoyed sea bird attacked the presenter by being sick at him, and when Pete made a certain crack about how ‘a nasty shag on the cliff-face will do that to you’ - at which Benjamin’s mother had almost exploded - Benjamin found himself in the embarrassing situation of pretending that he didn’t get the joke. Later, he had a handful of the snack that Pete had promised, and then it was time to say his due goodnights. He took himself off to bed at nine o’clock, as was soon fast asleep. Nothing of the day, or the eve succeeding it, had offered any indication whatsoever that the twilight hours ahead were about to become the most amazing of his life.

  ***

  When he awoke it was still dark. A quick, bleary eyed glance at the luminous figures of the bedside clock revealed that it was two forty-eight in the morning, and he would have turned over and gone back to sleep had he not heard that strange swishing, sighing sound. It seemed to be coming from the room next door to his - Maddie’s room - and when he was sure that the noise was not just a trick of the quiet, he sat up, turned his head to where his right ear felt like it could catch the murmur at its loudest, and listened. The sound, without a doubt, was real. He was not imagining it.

  Sometimes it was like the sea, but distant; a rush and crash of waves against a faraway shore. Sometimes it was like a whisper in a foreign language. Sometimes a breath, drawn-out and long. Sometimes it was the whirr of a breeze in tall grasses.

  It came from nowhere else; only beyond the wall that divided his room from Maddie’s. It did not stop, either.

  Benjamin wondered what he should do. The sound wasn’t really frightening - but at the same time, he didn’t quite want to know what was causing it. Should he call out to his mum and Pete? Probably not - if it turned out to be something ordinary, then a tongue-lashing from a mother who hated to be roused at night was as likely as a poor result at algebra. Perhaps it was just the wind. He knew that his mother left Maddie’s window open at night, as her room tended to accumulate stale air. So perhaps that was it, then: just the wind.

  Perhaps.

  But then again, wasn’t there something familiar about the sound, too? Something infuriatingly recognizable about it, even though he was nearly certain that he had never heard anything like it before. I know it, though, he thought. I’m sure I do. But how? When? Maybe it was deja vu - that odd feeling that he (and most people, he knew) sometimes got, where it would suddenly seem as if something has already happened. It could be, he supposed. But whether it was this deja vu thing or not, it didn’t really help matters. Th
e swishing noises continued; their provenance remained a mystery.

  Then came a sudden, terrible notion: what if it means Maddie is in danger? His heart skipped at beat, as if struck by a ghostly dagger. What if it means Maddie is in danger? He lifted the sheets and swung his pyjama clad legs over the side of the bed, but hesitated before going any further.

  If it’s dangerous to Maddie, then won’t it be dangerous to me as well?

  Yes, it was a horrible, nasty, craven thought. But as horrible, nasty and as craven as it was, the thought wouldn’t go away. What if it wants to get me? What if it wants to -

  He took a deep, trembly breath, and ordered himself to get a grip. Aware that his imagination was getting the better of him, he decided to curb it by taking action: he stood up, reached out for the dim shape that seemed likeliest to be his dressing gown, and pressed his chilly feet into his slippers. It’s simple, he told himself, in as strong a tone of mind as he could muster. It’s just the wind, blowing in through Maddie’s window. Nothing to worry about at all. And if it does turn out to be anything more than that, then I’ll -

  He knew exactly what he would do: he’d stand at the entrance to Maddie’s room and scream and scream and scream.

  But to think now would be folly. To think now would cause him to dither, and in dithering he’d only become even more upset. The horror behind the door, he remembered reading once, is horrifying merely because you cannot yet see it. And very few things turn out to be as horrifying as you imagined when that door is opened. And though it was probably true (he had already watched enough of Pete’s old Dr. Who videos to know that the man in the monster suit was never so scary as when he was only being glimpsed in the gravel pit) it still wasn’t much of a comfort. But by the time he’d become aware of the depth of his reluctance, he’d already exited his room and gone out onto the landing. Beside him, in the dark, Maddie’s bedroom door awaited. He pulled the dressing gown tighter to himself, then reached out with a shaky hand to take hold of the doorknob. Before realising that the best thing to do now would be to knock, the door was already open. And there, just ahead of him, was the reason why all those whispers, sighs and stirrings had seemed so evocative.

 
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