Book 1 of the Hemlock Bay Series
by Amber Jaeger
Copyright 2012 by Amber Jaeger. All rights reserved.
Proof Reader: Diana Cox, novelproofreading.com
Cover Design: Streetlight Graphics, streetlightgraphics.com
The characters and events portrayed in this book are a work of fiction or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Table of Contents
About the Author
Other Titles by Amber Jaeger
For my husband, family, and friends, your encouragement and support means everything to me.
I WAS ALMOST TO THE front of the school when the door to the counselor’s office swung open and Mrs. Tort stepped out.
“Your English teacher called, said you left class.”
“Hard day,” I muttered, trying to step around her. She stepped faster.
“I told you it would be.”
I gritted my teeth and tried to edge around the other way.
“Care to talk about it?” she asked, pointing towards her office.
“Not really,” I said, finally dodging past her.
“Bixby, you’re going to have to talk about this sooner or later,” she called after me.
The wheezy groan of the double doors was not nearly as satisfying as a good slam would have been.
I cinched my backpack tight and stomped through the crunchy leaves littering the sidewalk. Following the main road led me through downtown and at the end, between the old brick storefronts, I could see Lake Michigan. It was a shining gray mass below the dull gray mass of sky. Considering my options, I reluctantly decided to head home rather than get sandblasted sitting on the beach while a storm came in.
Grandma was still folding the same load of laundry she had been when I left for school hours earlier. The Alzheimer’s had been getting slowly worse for years but in the weeks since Linc had died, her mind had just seemed to crumble.
“I’m home, Grandma,” I said from the doorway.
“How was work, Katherine?” she asking, folding a towel.
“Grandma, I’m Bixby.”
She looked up, her eyes slightly unfocused. “I would have made supper but the stove’s not working.”
“It’s actually lunchtime.”
She didn’t say anything, just unfolded the towel in her hand and rematched the edges to fold it again.
With a sigh, I went into the kitchen to fix something to eat. I had to fish around in the cupboard above the stove for the oven knobs. Grandma had left the burners on too many times and the last time had almost started a fire.
Lunch was depressing, each of us eating in silence. I was regretting making Lincoln’s favorite sandwiches. The food was salty clay in my mouth and Grandma had only taken a few bites. My eyes burned with sadness or sleeplessness, I wasn’t sure which.
At Grandma’s fifth yawn, I asked, “How about a nap?”
“That sounds lovely,” she said with a sigh.
I peeked in on her after clearing the dishes and she was soundly sleeping.
Lying in my own bed, I wondered how long sleep would evade me. I watched the dappled shadows of the autumn leaves slowly fade as the storm rolled in and blocked out the sun.
I woke up in the general store, standing next to the display case. “Wow,” I thought, taking in the familiar surroundings, “I actually fell deep enough asleep to dream.” It had been almost two weeks since that had happened.
It was dark and quiet, the taxidermy animals arranged in groups in the corners and hung from the ceiling by wires. They cast unsettling shadows but the familiar smell of homemade jerky and dust was comforting. The antique wood and glass cases held the same displays they always did.
It was cluttered, dusty, old, and not real. Not for the first time, I wondered if other people had as detailed dreams.
“Bixby!” Abe shouted, coming out from the back. “Where have you been, girl?” He dumped a case of root beer in front of an old fridge and came to hug me.
“Not around here,” I said. “I haven’t been sleeping very well.”
Abe nodded but didn’t ask about my other life, my real life. Nobody here ever did.
I left the general store and turned left past the two ancient gas pumps and ambled down the gravel, tree-lined road to my house. I wondered what would be different. Each time I visited there was something new or changed or remodeled. When I was little I thought the house and town were just an elaborate recurring dream. But each new dream built on the ones previous, showing me more rooms in the house or areas of town. And the idea of it just being a recurring dream didn’t explain how I knew things like where the Christmas decorations were stored. Whose dream self kept track of decorations that had never actually been dreamed about?
My house loomed in between two sand dunes, its stone and cedar exterior warmed by a wraparound porch and second floor patio about the garage. The outside was deceptively small. Over the years I had discovered dozens of rooms and passageways that led to other parts of the town which I had nicknamed Nightmare Town.
I walked up to the house, slipped in the side door and almost fell to my knees.
“Hey, stupid,” Lincoln greeted me, not taking his eyes from the video game he and his Nightmare Town friends were playing.
“Linc?” I breathed.
“Yeah, hang on a sec, let me kill this guy,” he muttered, totally focused on the huge television screen.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “This is a dream, this is a dream,” I reminded myself. My brother and his friends took no notice of me as my face turned red and tears squeezed between my lashes.
“Effin awesome!” Lincoln yelled cryptically at the television. “Save point, in your face!”
I had dreamed of him in Nightmare Town many times before but not since he had died. I hadn’t expected to see him, in real life or otherwise, ever again and the surprise was shooting pains through my chest. Linc finally looked me full on and his smile was brilliant. “What’s up, stupid?”
I whispered his name again. His friends, finally noticing me, gave snotty little grimaces. Not much different than real life.
“You finally up for Zombie Domination Three?” Linc asked.
“Linc, are you ... are you okay?” Without waiting for a response, I threw myself at him, wrapping my arms as far around his muscular shoulders as I could.
“What’s the matter with you?” he asked, hugging me back fiercely. I barely noticed his friends slipping out the door, embarrassed by my emotional outburst. Stepping back, I tried to stop shaking and took my time blowing my nose while thinking how to frame what I wanted to say.
He waited while I gathered my thoughts, only the wrinkle between his eyebrows revealing his curiosity and impatience.
Finally I asked, “You know how when I’m not here, I’m awake in real life?”
“So you say,” he replied, rolling his eyes. He thought I had it backwards.
“Well, the real Linc—”
“I am the real Linc.”
“No,” I whispered. “You’re not. He’s dead.”
“No, I’m not. Obviously,” he whispered back.
“No, Linc, you are. In real life, you’re dead.”
“This is my real life.”
I stamped my foot and wiped my nose on my sleeve. “Well, this isn’t real life to me. In my real life, you died in a car accident. And you’re the only one in my real life and in Nightmare Town too, so how you can you be here if you are dead there?”
“Well,” he said, flopping down into a gamer chair, “if this all is you dreaming, and I died in real life, you would have to be jump-off-a-cliff devastated.” He paused to wink at me. “So don’t you think you would dream about me?”
I thought about it and finally nodded. “I guess you’re right.”
“Of course I am. I’m much smarter than you.”
I woke up just as he started showing me which buttons on the video game controller caused which zombie killing moves. Grandma was standing over me with a can of biscuits in her hand. “The oven is broke,” she said.
I sighed and closed my eyes, trying to fix the dream in my memory. “It’s okay, I can fix it.”
Neither of us ate very much again and dinner ended badly when she couldn’t remember she no longer had little children to give a bath to before bedtime. She was still fighting me about taking her pills when the phone rang at seven o’clock.
“Oh crap,” I muttered.
“Katherine! Language!” Grand scolded, and then batted her pills from my hand onto the floor.
The phone rang again shrilly.
“Here,” I said, punching a button on the television. “Watch this.” Jeopardy lit up the screen.
The phone was dangerously close to being picked up by the answering machine when I snatched it off its base. “Hi, Dad.”
“Bixby, I get any mail today?” His brisk greeting hurt just as much as every other one had. I pushed my thoughts aside and cleared my throat to read him his bank’s newsletter. There was no good-bye at the end or questions about how I was doing, just an, “Okay” and a click in my ear.
When my mom was alive, he never took a truck driving job that made him stay away overnight. He was always home at night and always happy. But after she died, everything changed. Grandma came to stay with us and Dad started taking longer and longer trips. He was once gone driving a truck for twenty-three days in a row.
But I had Grandma and I had Lincoln. And when Grandma had started to change, I still had Lincoln. I wiped the tears off my chin with sleeve of my sweater and went back to the living room to fight with Grandma about her pills.
When there was nothing left to do for the night, I picked one of the dozens of books I had checked out from the library. Sometimes I wished I had friends, but I had never really had the time. It seemed as if every moment had been spent in survival mode: surviving mom’s cancer and death, dad’s disappearing act, Grandmas Alzheimer’s ... and now Linc. The idea of adding back biting gossip and high school crushes seemed pointlessly exhausting. I had even picked my sport, swimming, not because I was naturally good at it (which I actually was) but because it was the only sport I didn’t have to interact with anyone. I could be on the team without having to be a team player.
I had been staring at the same page forever, lost in my despair. With a sigh, I tossed the book at the nightstand and clicked off the light.
I pulled the covers up, fully expecting not to sleep after my long nap. But if I didn’t go through the motions of getting ready and going to bed, Grandma wouldn’t do it either and if she caught me up prowling around the house then she automatically assumed it was morning—no matter what the clocks or moon in the sky said.
I woke up in my house in the hall outside the master bedroom I had recently discovered. The power was still out up there. My Nightmare Town dad, who was not the same as my Real Life dad, hadn’t gotten around to fixing the old wiring or repairing the plaster on the wall.
That was what my dream mind was thinking. My real mind was thinking, “I am so weird.” I made my way down the back stairs, into the kitchen and out through a pair of French doors onto a wooden deck lined by benches rather than rails. Tiki torches poked out of the ground around the perimeter every few feet. I could smell the autumn leaves and hear them rustling in the breeze. In the dark, Lake Michigan was a constantly moving reflection of moon light and stars broken up by a sparse dune forest. And someone was coming up the trail from the beach, swishing a long piece of beach grass ahead of him.
I started backing towards the doors then stopped. “This is dream,” I reminded myself. “I can wake up anytime I want.”
My visitor walked up to the edge of the deck and paused, his head cocked. “Good evening,” he called, twirling the grass around.
“Hello,” I replied cautiously.
“I hope I didn’t frighten you,” he said, still casually swishing the reed of beach grass around.
“Nope,” I lied lightly, edging back towards the French doors.
“Wonderful! I just couldn’t resist making the acquaintance of the owner of such an unusual house. Architecture is one of my passions but I just can’t seem to get a handle on the design of your home.”
“Oh. Well, I didn’t design it.” Was he not from Nightmare Town?
“No?” he asked, stepping up onto the deck. He stopped short when I leapt for the door. “I’m sorry! Really, I didn’t mean to frighten you.” He snapped his fingers and the tiki torches sprang a soft glow. “I only wanted to introduce myself, my name is Jordan.”
“Jordan?” I repeated, trying to get a good look at his face. The flickering glow of the torches cast uneasy shadows on everything making it hard to determine features but I could see large dark eyes and dark hair waving to his shoulders.
He watched me watch him, his smile growing into a grin. “Aren’t you going to introduce yourself?” he finally asked.
“Oh, sorry, I …” I frowned. “Wait, you really don’t know?”
“Should I?” he asked.
I shifted on my feet, unsure of what to do with my arms. “I guess not, it’s just that everyone here just knows who I am and I just know who they are, even if my real self knows I just met them, you know? Well, except for you,” I added lamely. Amazing, I thought to myself. I can’t even talk to imaginary boys.
“Well, I really don’t know your name and none of your friends seem to want to tell me,” he said with a thin smile.
“Oh,” I said politely, trying to cover my confusion. That wasn’t really how things worked in Nightmare Town. Jordan was patiently smiling. “Oh! Right, Bixby. I’m Bixby.” I’m an idiot, I thought.
“Bixby? That’s rather unusual,” he mused, coming a little closer. He sat down in one of two wooden rocking chairs facing the lake.
“It’s a nickname, from a kid’s book. My name is really Bianca,” I told him, cautiously taking the other chair. I looked over his clothes, gray trousers and vest over a white shirt. To my embarrassment, I noticed his pants didn’t seem to have a zipper but were held closed by a row of buttons. His black leather shoes didn’t have laces either. “Wait, what?” I asked, totally distracted. I hoped he couldn’t see how red my face was.
“Which children’s book?” he repeated.
“A Dr. Seuss book.” I had had to explain this to every person I had ever met. “Oh the Places You’ll Go.”
“Hmm,” he mused, settling back in the chair. “I’ve never heard of him.”
I stopped rocking. “Dr. Seuss? Green Eggs and Ham? Horton Hears a Who?”
“Does this doctor have many books out?” Jordan asked.
“He’s not a doctor, and yeah, about a gazillion.” I couldn’t believe Dr. Seuss books didn’t exist in Nightmare Town. Every once in a while I would discover something like that, but usually the things that were missing had to do with technology. Abe still teased me about “computers.”
“Well, no, I’m dreaming. Are you dreaming?” I flushed at my stupid question. Nightmare Town seemed so real at times I didn’t remember everything in it was made up by my sleeping mind. Including the stranger I was embarrassing myself in front of. That made me feel a little better.
He nodded and leaned back to look up at the night sky. “I’m not from here either. Tell me, is this place so different than where you’re from?”
The way he assumed we weren’t both from the same place was disquieting. I reminded myself again it was just a dream.
“It seems mostly the same. Except for the technology, of course.”
“Technology?” he asked. In the dark his eyes lit up. “And what are those like?”
“Okay,” I said, jumping out of my chair. “Time to wake up.”
“Wait!” he cried, holding his hands out again. “Please, I’m sorry to frighten you, it’s just that I’ve never been to where you are from and I’m just dying of curiosity. I was hoping I could talk to you, learn from you.”
“Where are you from?” I asked, not really wanting to know. I had my hands full with one Nightmare Town; I didn’t need my brain adding in another dream country. Or world.
“I met your brother,” was his reply and I dropped back down into my chair.
A little squeeze of hurt gripped my chest. “Yeah, Linc’s usually around here somewhere. How did you know he was my brother?”
“He seems ... disoriented.”
I shrugged, unsettled by the change in conversation. I had never really been scared in Nightmare Town, it was my town after all. But Jordan was creeping me out—and starting to piss me off.
His eyebrows turned down and his mouth narrowed. “I would almost say he’s disjointed.”
I gulped and stood up again. Disjointed was not a word I liked. Lincoln’s funeral had been closed casket. It had to be, because of the accident and the fire it caused.
“It’s almost like he’s in three places at once,” Jordan pressed, standing up to face me.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, preparing to wake myself up. My eyes flew open at Jordan’s touch, him gently taking my chin in his hand. “I think we could help each other,” he said softly.
“I don’t need help with anything,” I said, afraid to pull my face from his grasp.
Up close I could see he was older and more handsome than I had thought. My head only came up to his chin and with his face so close and tilted down towards mine I could see his eyes were a dark green framed by thick lashes. His eyebrows matched his chestnut hair perfectly and there was a trace of stubble along his jaw.
“Your brother needs your help,” he said, bringing me back to the conversation. “Wouldn’t you do anything to help him?”
The anger that had been brewing over his intrusion quickly overcame my school girl daze. “My brother is dead,” I snapped, jerking my chin out of his hand.
“I think you’ve misunderstood me,” he said, suddenly apologetic.
“It’s fine,” I said coldly, making my way for the open French doors.
“I just want to be able to speak with you, learn from you, about where you’re from. And I can do something for you. I can help you get your brother back,” he cried just as I made it to the door.
I swallowed hard, blinked hard. My anger at this intrusive dream stranger was expanding in my chest. I spun on both heels and walked back to him. “This is a dream. You are a dream.”
“This is a dream,” he agreed. “So what’s the harm? You agree to ... meet with me, talk with me, and answer my questions. And I help your brother, wherever he is.”
I wanted it to be true, that I really could give something and get my brother back in return. But it wasn’t. “That doesn’t ... that doesn’t even make sense. He’s dead, this is a dream, you aren’t real—”
“Those things aren’t exactly true and you must know it,” he said, his face darkening.
“Know what?” I cried. “I’m a sad girl who has recurring nightmares, end of story. No, end of dream, because I really don’t like this one.”
“What I think,” he said quietly,”is that your brother still needs you. He needs your help. And I’m the only one offering.”
“I ... I, uh,” I stammered. My eyes were huge and scratchy and full of tears, I was turning red from the waist up and I was screaming nonsense at a not-real stranger. “I have to go.”
The sad, faraway look in his dark eyes almost made me apologize for my outburst but he cut me off with a short nod. “Think about it,” he said quietly, then stepped off the porch and started back down the beach path.
I sighed, closed my eyes, and woke up.
Falling by Amber Jaeger / Fantasy / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on16 votes