Ephraim looked up into the clear bright Nebraska sky. No clouds, no points of reference or interest between him and the hard blue sky. He flicked the reins once and his horse walked on, heading endlessly east, back to civilization in the form of Chicago. It’d been a long hard summer, but this year’s cattle drive would be profitable, despite the increase in rustlers. Ephraim leaned back in the saddle a bit, wiped his brow again, closed his eyes…
..And woke up.
He wasn’t Ephraim Coulter, he was Jeremy Davis. He wasn’t riding a horse back to Chicago, he was a journalist for a trendy new tech website. He looked around, getting his bearings. Julia, his wife of four years now, lay asleep. He slid out of bed quietly and got started on his day. Four nights in a row, now. For nights of that stupid Nebraska dream, four nights of dreaming about being a…he didn’t even have a name for it. Plains accountant? Jeremy worried that his imagination didn’t seem to have anything better on offer.
He showered, shaved, dressed and headed into the kitchen. Julia was sitting at the breakfast bar eating cereal and flipping through the paper. She didn’t really care about the news, but it kept her mind off of work for a few minutes while she woke up.
“Hey Jer. How’d you sleep?” She asked as he gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“Fine, I guess.” Jeremy said, grabbing a bowl out of the cupboard and making a mental note to fix that cupboard door one of these days.
“You’re not sure?”
“I mean, I slept fine, but I keep having the same stupid dream.”
“Poor baby! Was it the one where you’re in high school naked, and you have a test coming up?” She hugged him as he sat down next to her, then put down her paper and turned her full attention to him.
“What? No. I’ve never had that one. That might be better, actually. No, I’ve just been surveying the livestock coming up from Texas to Chicago, and I’m riding ahead of the herd to report on the numbers. I’ve been riding alone for, like, four nights now.”
“And you’re afraid you’ve still got a long way to go?”
“I’m afraid I’ll actually get there. How many nights do you need to have the same dream?”
“How far are you out of Chicago?” she asked, her green eyes strangely intent.
“I don’t know, maybe another day or two? Why?”
She shrugged and smiled. “No reason. I’m just trying to take an interest in your very dull dream.” She rinsed out her bowl and put it on the drainer. “Time for work, time to get dressed,” Julia said as she rose, kissing Jeremy on the forehead. “Love you honey.”
Ephraim would be in Chicago tomorrow. He’d made it to the Last Inn, a quiet little place outside of town where he could get cleaned up and presentable for the big report tomorrow morning. He trimmed and then shaved his beard, polished up his boots, filled the inn’s tin bath and washed off the dust of Nebraska. With that done he went back to his room, changed into his nightshirt, climbed in bed…
…And woke up.
He groaned, remembering his dream. “Great. Now I’m dreaming about frontier hygiene and grooming,” he thought as he went to get ready for his real day.
As usual, Julia was already in the kitchen, eating breakfast, but no newspaper today. She was just looking out the window. There were dark circles under her eyes, and she yawned and stretched as he walked in.
“Morning, Jer. How’d you sleep?” she smiled weakly and poked at the chunks of grapefruit in her bowl.
“Meh. I dreamt about spending some time alone in an inn outside Chicago.” Jeremy grabbed a bowl and made another mental note to fix that cupboard door.
“I guess I’ll be there tomorrow? Is it weird that my dream is following a course, and that it seems to be moving in real time?”
Julia shrugged, but her eyes were smiling.
“Don’t laugh at me,” Jeremy said, hugging her. She giggled.
“I’m not! Who knows, maybe when you get to Chicago everything will be better.”
“Maybe I’ll actually have random dreams about flying bundt cakes like normal people.”
“Jer, your idea of ‘normal’ leaves something to be desired.” She giggled, tousling his hair.
“Hmmm. All I know is that if I start having dreams about filing paperwork I’m going to a shrink and asking for a great many pills. Anyway, what’s your day look like today?”
“Oh, the usual. I’ve got two developers who are being divas and a client who is being an even bigger diva,” Julia sighed, then stood and rinsed out her bowl at the sink. “The feature they’re arguing over won’t take all that long, but you know how devs get when asked to add something to a project.”
Jeremy laughed a little. Until a year ago Julia had been one of those developers. She worked at a software company downtown. After finishing her MBA she had been promoted to project manager. Depending on the day she either loved the responsibility or wished she was back in the Java trenches.
“I don’t know how you handle it, Jules. I just write stuff, my editor tells me it’s crap and I write it again. Easy.”
Julia giggled and stood up, cleared her bowl and hugged Jeremy where he sat. “Okay sweetie. Looks like we’ve both got our work cut out for us. I’ll go tell some developers they’re special genius snowflakes and you go write some crap. Sounds fun! See you tonight!”
“Ain’t that always the way,” Ephraim thought as he sat in the reception area at the home office. “Spend two months in the saddle, riding through rain and snow to get back on time and once you get here they’re all too busy to see you.” He stewed and drummed his fingers on the documents he’s carried all the way up from Oklahoma. He opened the document case and started going over its contents one more time, then sighed in exasperation and flipped it shut. He knew it all by heart anyway.
A receptionist walked over. “Mr. Morton will see you now,” she said. Ephraim stood to follow her, silently wishing she’d walk faster. He hated places like this, closed in and noisy. She led him through the busy office to Mr. Morton’s door and peeked in ahead of him. He couldn’t hear exactly what she was saying, but it was obvious that “now” was a bit optimistic. A loud argument inside Morton’s office had subsided just long enough for the receptionist to announce Ephraim, then resumed at full volume before she closed the door.
She turned to face him, and he tried to hide his exasperation. “It’ll just be a few minutes. If you would care to take a seat,” she said, gesturing to a row of chairs along the wall outside Morton’s office.
Ephraim sat, and waited. Again. He was completely out of place in this office. All these people, their whole job moving paper around and talking about it. Looked like it was mostly talking.
One of the secretaries caught his eye. She was pretty, young, and seemed to move with a lot more energy than the others. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail, which bounced as she walked across the room. He watched her put some papers on the desk of a scowling man. She said a few things in a low voice and laughed. The dour man smiled as well. She patted him on the arm, a surprisingly familiar gesture. Jealousy rose in Ephraim’s heart, confusing him. He didn’t know this girl at all, why should he be jealous?
Still, she was familiar in a way he couldn’t quite put his finger on. He knew that smile, that laugh, that little wrinkle to her nose. He knew that if he saw her up close she’d have green eyes with a little brown fleck in the left one, right next to the pupil…
Suddenly aware he was staring, Ephraim started and turned away, looked hard at his documents. He felt someone sit down next to him. He could smell her perfume, a bright, springtime scent, somehow exciting and comforting all at once.
“Hey, Jeremy! You made it! You’re right, this place is boring!”
Ephraim looked up in surprise. The pretty secretary had sat down next to him, and was looking at him, her green eyes sparkling, but worried. Slowly he realized where he knew her from. She was from…she was…
“Julia?” he said. Suddenly he wasn’t Ephraim Coulter, he was Jeremy.
“I made it in, and I caught up with you!” She said and hugged him.
“What do you mean, you made it in? In where?”
“Into your dreams, silly boy. I finally found out how to get into your dreams.”
Jeremy sagged. “Ah, this is all just a dream.”
Julia smiled, wrapping her arms around his and leaning on his shoulder. “Of course it is. But now it’s a dream that we can have together. Come on, let’s get out of here. There’s got to be something interesting to do in Chicago.”
For a moment Ephraim fought back, stopping Jeremy from standing up and following his wife out of the office. But deep down even Ephraim had wanted to walk out of this place all along, and Jeremy didn’t owe these figments of his imagination anything. He felt Ephraim’s approval as he dropped the documents he’d carried for days—well, nights— on a desk and walked out into the bright sunshine…
…And woke up.
Julia was still asleep, breathing regularly, but even in her sleep she seemed to be smiling slightly. Odd. She was wearing her hair in the same ponytail she’d had in his dream. His subconscious must be more perceptive than he gave it credit for. He grinned and walked off to shower. At least this morning he’d have a better story to tell her when she asked how he slept.
“Morning Jer. You left too early! I found a great little general store that had all kinds of weird hard candies,” Julia said as Jeremy walked into the kitchen.
“In Chicago, silly. I mean, you probably wouldn’t have liked them, they were kinda gross, but they were interesting.”
“When were you in Chicago?” Realization dawned, but that was impossible. “You don’t mean…”
“Jeremy, it was only like twenty minutes ago, in your dream. You can’t have forgotten that quickly.”
“Julia, are you saying you were actually in my dream? That was really you? That’s…that’s crazy, that’s not possible.”
“Of course it is, Mr. ‘Ephraim Coulter’. If it were impossible I wouldn’t have been able to do it.” She smiled, her point made.
“I mean, I did dream about you last night, I dreamed you were in Chicago…”
“And I met you in your boss’ office, and you said ‘this is just a dream’, and I said ‘yes, but now…’”
“‘Now it’s a dream we can share,’” Jeremy finished. He still didn’t believe it, because it was simply unbelievable.
“That’s right!” Julia said. “And now, if you want me to, I can share in all your dreams. Would you like me to share your dreams?” She asked, walking over to him and putting her arms around his neck. Her eyes worried, even as she smiled up at him.
“I…I, yes, of course! “Jeremy said, holding her close. “I just don’t see how it’s possible. I mean, it’s not possible…”
“You just leave that to me,” Julia said, and walked out of the room. “See you tonight!” She called over her shoulder.
Julia was cheerful, almost giddy the next night as they went to bed. She tied her long blond hair back into two pigtails instead of her usual ponytail, and wore the huge pink fuzzy pajamas that Jeremy had bought her as a joke.
Jeremy wasn’t sure how to take all this. He was excited as well, and scared. What if he had some really terrible dream? It’s not like had a say in the matter; dreams just happen. But they climbed into bed, Julia gave him a kiss on the forehead, smiled, and said “See you on the other side, Jer!” Then she rolled over and went to sleep.
Jeremy thought it would be hard to drift off; you can’t really fall asleep if someone’s expecting you to, right? But he slipped unto sleep quietly and much more quickly than he thought.
Julia was sitting on a deck chair, dressed in a striped top and long pleated white skirt. Her hair was short and tight against her head. Somewhere a foghorn blew.
Jeremy looked down at himself. Black suit with white pinstripes, check. Shoes with spats, check. That was impressive, actually. He never really knew what spats were, but apparently his subconscious did. He took off his hat (of course he was wearing a hat!): a white fedora. So presumably he was a good guy in this dream. He sauntered up to his wife and slipped his arm through hers as she leaned on the railing.
“Hey sweetheart,” Jeremy said in his best gangster impression.
She looked down at herself, then over at him and smiled. “1920’s cruise ship, eh? You’ve been watching too many Marx Brothers movies. Oh well, let’s see what kind of fun we can have. But if Harpo comes around you have to protect me.”
“Sure doll face, anything you say,” Julia led the way to the buffet. She had the advantage over him there; she could eat and taste food in her dreams, he couldn’t. But it was fun watching her enjoy all the weird and exotic stuff. Jeremy relaxed. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
But it didn’t last, dreams rarely do. One moment they were at the buffet. Suddenly the scene shifted and they were strolling around Manhattan, taking in 1920’s New York City. A few seconds later they were out in a suburb. They were still new at this and weren’t in complete control of the flow of the dream yet.
And it flowed even more. The trees that had been neatly pruned and tied back started twisting, shedding their spring green leaves, turning bony and black against a blood-red sky. Jeremy noticed that Julia was nowhere to be found. And something was chasing him. Something huge, angry, malicious, and hungry was after him. Worse, it was after Julia as well. The thought was like ice water poured over his heart. He tried to run, tried to find Julia. Screaming her name he stumbled and clawed his way forward along the broken pavement, swatting away the trees that were bending over to tear at him.
Julia was up ahead. The…the whatever it was hadn’t caught her! She was standing perfectly still, looking at him with a somewhat worried look on her face, a look that seemed altogether too mild for the danger they were in.
“Jer, what are you doing?” She asked as he screamed and tried to reach her.
“Julia! Jules, it’s coming, it’s going to get us both!” Jeremy yelled, trying to get her to move, to realize the danger.
“What is?” She looked around. She didn’t see it, didn’t know about it, and it was going to get her. Jeremy almost cried. But he had to get to her first, to save her.
“It’s right behind me, Julia! Run!”
“Jeremy, there’s nothing there. Stand up, silly boy.” And she reached out her hand and pulled him back up to his feet.
The moment her hand touched his the world changed. He stood up in the sunlight, the trees returned to their normal shapes and sizes, the sky was blue again… he held Julia close and breathed, just breathed.
… And woke up.
It was Saturday morning. There was no monster, no cruise ship. Jeremy went and showered and shaved as usual, and decided to make a nice breakfast for Julia this morning. She didn’t like getting up as early as he did on the weekends, so he had time. Orange juice, grapefruit halves, English muffins, nah, blueberry muffins…and a flower in a tiny vase, that looked about right. It wasn’t really enough, though. She’d saved him from a nightmare, that deserved something special. But for the life of him he couldn’t think of what it should be. How do you pay someone back for that?
Of course, none of it was real, how could it be? This, Jeremy told himself, isn’t how the world works, nor can it.
“Jer, what was chasing you?” Julie asked as he was arranging the meal on the table. He jumped and turned around, Julie smiling in the doorway, hair wild, drowsy and gorgeous in her fuzzy pajamas.
“You really were there? How is any of this real?”
“Yes, silly boy, I was really there. This is old magic, if it is magic. I don’t really know. All I know is that any woman can do this. It’s not easy, it takes time and work and patience, but it’s always been possible.”
“But not men.”
“Nope. Well, probably not. It’s not like there’s a school for dream sharing. Well, I mean, there is, but it’s on the other side, and it’s not like here, it’s not a school. It’s more like a book club, or a support group, kinda.”
What followed was a long and confusing conversation trying to frame uniquely feminine perspectives in a way that would make sense to a male brain, and even worse, that would fit into spoken word. So much of what Julia was describing seemed to be…ephemeral. There was no solid, clear action involved, no set of steps, no process. You just worked at it and eventually it happened. You had to “feel” right, you had to “understand” and “be open to” someone in ways that were fleeting and apparently very hard to explain. There were a few things that Jeremy was able to pin down, though.
“Men really can’t do this?” he asked again.
“No, Jer. Sorry. It’s what we do. We move into your dreams, we help you see what the world really is. And sometimes that means saving you from a monster that doesn’t really exist.”
“Can women share other womens’ dreams?”
“I dunno.” Julia answered, slicing sections out of a grapefruit. “Maybe.”
“What about, like, transgender women?”
“And men definitely can’t do this.”
“I’m gonna have to go with ‘I don’t know’ again. But I don’t think so.”
“So we men just go through life thinking the world is boring and follows rules and you women have this…this. I’m not complaining, love. It just feels unfair. I should be able to save you from nightmares, too. But it feels like you’ve got all the power here.”
“It’s not like that, not at all. We may be the ones who can initiate the process, but think about what we’re doing. It’s a lot of work, a lot of time, a lot of lost sleep, and tons of really poor sleep. And once you get in you have no idea what you might find. What if I found my way into your dreams, and find you surrounded by women twice as pretty as me? Or killing people and laughing about it? Or killing me and laughing about it?”
“It happens. It happens a lot. That’s part of why dream sharing is dying out. It’s too hard, it’s too scary. But sometimes you think you’ve found the right person, and you take the risk. The risk of that person not being who you thought they were, the risk that they’ll push you back out of their dreams, get angry at you for invading their personal space… there’s a lot of danger here. We put it all on the line, Jer.” Her eyes suddenly brightened. “But you welcomed me, you let me join you, you let me in.” She hugged him close.
“Julia, my dreams aren’t always good… I mean, I’m not always a good guy in my dreams.”
“Sure Jer. I know. But we can work through that together.”
The years passed and they grew older and grew together. Spending time in a shared dream only enriched their shared reality. Their shared dreams became more personal, more attuned to the pair of them. After a few years most of their dreams were based on memories. Sometimes shared memories, but more often they would be from their teenage years, before they met. When they found themselves in a memory they would explore it and explain it through their eyes as a couple. It was no longer “his” or “hers”, it was theirs. She came to know his point of view as an oldest child and he learned to understand the securities and insecurities that came from being the third of seven kids.
They were standing outside a little yellow house standing on a street corner in a quiet suburb. Julie didn’t recognize the place, but Jeremy did. “We lived here for a few years, while Dad was getting settled, building a career.” He explained and walked unconcernedly through the front door. Memory dreams seemed to accept them, doors were rarely locked. The living room was decorated in 1980’s couture: earth tone couches and a small television with faux woodgrain on the side. Jeremy’s mother sat reading in a thick green rocking chair, a blue afghan draped over the back of the chair. The end of the blanket swept back and forth across the carpet as she rocked.
“Hey kiddo, where’ve you been?”
“Hi Mom. Just out playing. I’m going downstairs now.” She seemed to accept that. And Jeremy knew he had to go downstairs. He’d known it the moment he saw this house, knew what was waiting.
The basement was long, the entire length of the house upstairs in one large room. Off to one side was a small kitchenette. Behind the fireplace was a bare concrete storage area. But that wasn’t where Jeremy was going. Unconsciously he reached for Julie’s hand as he headed past the kitchenette to a small doorway near the back of the basement. Through the doorway she could see a furnace, a small bathroom, and a bedroom. Eyes determined, but still scared, Jeremy walked to the bedroom door, and pushed it open. The furnace sprang to life, roaring and casting reddish shadows on the opposite wall. The bedroom was papered in tall, hideous tree patterns. The trees twisted around one another, branches splayed everywhere. The paper seemed to move in the flicker of the furnace light. With a snap the furnace shut off, but the trees on the wallpaper still writhed.
“I slept down here alone for a while. I don’t know how long.” Jeremy said, sitting on the bed and pulling Julie down next to him. She put an arm around his shoulders.
“Nothing bad ever happened. It was never a terrible place to be. But every morning I would get out of this room as quickly as I could, get back upstairs. My parents gave me a clock radio,” Without looking he reached down behind the bed and retrieved it. The clock radio’s dimly glowing red LED numerals were illegible. “And sometimes I would listen to the radio at night. Sometimes that would scare me more. Jules, if I ever seem nervous about dreams, this place is why.”
Dream language is so much richer than waking language, Julia thought. When he spoke of music she could hear the songs that had haunted his young dreams. Tears for Fears melted ominously into Depeche Mode. She knew these songs, could sing along with them. But in the language of Jeremy’s dream they were laced with menace and grief. Or perhaps they had always been so, and now she was hearing them as an eight-year-old boy.
She glimpsed the fires from his nightmares. The furnace in the hall had given birth to a number of recurring dreams.
She understood the separation he’d felt. He hadn’t been old enough to be sent downstairs, away from his parents, into a room that was surrounded by fear.
She put an arm around him, held him close, let him sit and listen to the songs that had terrified him most when he had been a child. She rocked gently back and forth as he leaned on her shoulder, and she held his broken heart as only a wife can.
The years went by and the kids all moved out, off to college, off to their own families. Julia and Jeremy spent their time traveling, both while waking and sleeping, although their dreams had settled down somewhat. They had worked together through the trials of youth, the scars and the realizations. They had both forgiven their parents for pains they hadn’t realized they were harboring. They shared the things that had hurt them and finally gave them to each other. Other people’s burdens are surprisingly light.
But now, in their older years, their dreams were sedate. Often they would sit and talk over the day’s events, spending the time together in sleep that they could rarely find in waking hours.
One night they were standing on the coast of Alaska, watching the otters play. Julia had always loved otters. Loved watching them splash and play. Jeremy had always been partial to ravens, especially in Alaska. They were clever, interesting, and he suspected they had a sense of humor.
Presently Jeremy looked over and Julie had turned into an otter, ran to the edge of the pier and jumped into the water, swimming straight down as she often did, even in real life, even at this age. Jeremy waited. He liked the shore, the sky, the puffins.
But after a while it was too long. Even in a dream she should have come back up by now. He jumped into the ocean as well. But the dream had changed. Jeremy didn’t transform into an otter. Instead he spluttered and eventually hauled himself back to shore. Wet and cold and scared he sat on a rock…
…and woke up.
Julie didn’t. She was old; it was just nature. Everyone said that she went the way she wanted to, and nobody but her husband knew how right they were.
His dreams felt desolate. A small sitting room with two chairs is a perfectly acceptable dream if your wife is in the other chair. Alone it’s just a reminder that you are alone. A year or so after her death he found himself out on the prairie again, in that same dream where Julia had first found a way to share. It was almost too much. In his indignation he started walking east, back to the office, back to the place he had first seen her. He would complain. This wasn’t fair treatment, and he deserved better. He didn’t care if he was complaining to a figment of his own imagination, this was intolerable.
He arrived at the surveyor’s office, and was told to take a seat, the surveyor would be with him shortly. He sat down and tried to keep himself angry. If he was angry he couldn’t be sad. Dreams had been such an important part of his life for decades. They felt as real to him as the waking world now. Having them turned against him like this was intolerable. Having his memories thrown in his face–
Someone sat down behind him. He could smell her perfume, a bright, springtime scent, somehow exciting and comforting all at once. His breath caught, and he thought he might cry.
“What’s got you so worked up?” she asked. He knew that voice and he did cry. He spun around, looked into those green eyes with the brown fleck near her left pupil, and held her close.
“Julia? Is it really you? How… how?”
“I found a way in! It was incredibly hard to find.”
“Isn’t this against the rules? Is this real?”
She just laughed, young and vibrant and beautiful as she had always been.
“You should know better than to ask questions I can’t answer. And to stave off your next question, no, this isn’t a one time thing. I’m not going to go to all that work and trouble just to visit once. I’m here to stay, buddy.” She looked exactly as she had that first night, decades ago. He looked, well, seventy. “I always wanted to date an older man,” she said as she ran her fingers through his snowy hair.
For the next two years Jeremy’s children worried a little that their dad seemed to sleep a lot more than was normal, but in his waking hours he was happy and kind to the grandchildren and told great stories of their grandmother that made it almost seem as if she were still alive. And, when he finally passed away, it was exactly the way he wanted to go.
As a puffin.