Featured August 13, 2020 Fantasy Romance like where do they go I dreams contemporary fantasy Slight horror slight romance what happens to dreams after we

Choking on Red Flowers

By Mari Ness
Aug 13, 2020 · 6,973 words · 26 minutes


From the editor:

At first he thinks the grey girl who appears every night is just a strange dream. But when dream-violence turns to real-life danger, he realizes he’ll need to find out what she wants from him—before it’s too late.

Author Mari Ness lives in central Florida, and her work has appeared in Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Uncanny, and many other fine publications.


From the author: The girl has been stealing his dreams. And now, she's coming after one of his friends.


Each night the little girl came to lead him into his dreams. Dreams of familiar cities he had once known turned strange; dreams of strange cities that became familiar as he wandered through them. Dreams of orgies, ah yes, orgies, where he fondled women and men, strangers and old friends alike, and began to cry out in ecstasy just before he was pulled away from them for whatever reason. Dreams with animals, dreams barren of any life other than his own. Ordinary dreams, for the most part. For the most part.

Only the little girl remained the same.

She was entirely grey, from her clothing to her skin to her hair, so grey that when he had first seen her he had assumed that she must be very old indeed. He was not sure when he had realized the truth: that he skin was entirely unwrinkled and clear, and that she moved with the lightness of a young child, not the old. Her eyes – grey, like the rest, with even the whites of her eyes tinged with grey – were wide, clear. He could not have said if they held the wisdom of years or a child's innocence. They were clear and blank and grey.

In any case, it was her hands he focused on, her cold grey hands.

It happened each night. He would climb into his bed, and lie in his back unmoving, or sometimes turn on his side, curled up for comfort, a blanket drawn over him, and try to sleep. Sleep always eluded him, at first, no matter how many ways he tried to make his body relax, or lose himself in counting sheep or other things. He would simply lie there, trying not to move, trying to find sleep, until she came in with softly pattering feet and touched a cold hand to his body.

He always flinched, or leapt up in the bed, or quivered at that touch, but her hand never moved, holding him until he slipped into the dream. And no matter what he dreamed, he could still feel that hand. And some nights, her hand pulled, and he found himself rising from the bed and following her from his bedroom, down fog filled passages, into dark realms of water and shadow and sharpened stones. He would have assumed that those, too, were merely dreams, except that when he woke, his feet were soaking wet, and something had cut and bruised his feet. And sometimes, his feet were covered with mud.

"She's not real," Trix said. "Not at all."

Trix herself never seemed quite real in the mornings, before he'd had his coffee, or more accurately until the coffee slid through his veins. He had never been much of a morning person; now, since the grey girl had started leading him to his dreams, he felt utterly drained and disoriented each morning, unsure of what was real or not.

Trix – her real name was Beatrice, but she'd never liked the name – constantly changed her hair color and her look on a regular basis: this morning, she had bright purple spiked hair which contrasted ludicrously with her pinstripe business suit. She clutched a mug of chai in one hand while playing Bejeweled on her cell phone with the other. His eyes hurt to look at her.

"My feet were wet," he managed.

She shrugged. "Sweat, that's all. Or you sleepwalked yourself into the shower. That sort of thing happens all the time. I was reading in the New York Times about these people, you know, who like sleepwalked themselves to the kitchen and were basically eating themselves to death, well, not to death, but eating like three meals at night and not even –"

"She's not leading me to the kitchen," he interrupted.

"Well, those are those people's dreamwalking things. You're walking to the shower, or the bathtub, soaking your feet without even knowing it and coming to bed."

"And the cuts? The mud?"

Trix shrugged. "So you also head outside in your bare feet. Maybe, actually, that's what you're really doing, and sometimes in sleepwalking you're just enough aware of it that you need to shower afterwards." Her eyes stayed on her chai and her game. "Go to one of those sleep clinic things."

"Trix. I'm telling you –"

Now her glance did flicker at him, and he found himself blinking: to match the purple hair, she had inserted some odd contact lenses that – he shook his head. He had not had enough coffee to deal with Trix. "Telling me what? That some ghost thing is coming into your locked house every night and doing strange things to you?"

"I didn't say she was a ghost."

Her eyes went back to her game. "Grey. Cold. Ghost."

Something was wrong with that logic, but he had not had enough caffeine or sleep to figure it out.

"Go to a sleep clinic," she ordered, eyes still on the game. "You could probably use that anyway."

He sipped his cappuccino. Perhaps she was right.

And yet, when he later began Googling the names of sleep clinics in the area, he felt the cold touch of those grey hands on his. When he clicked on one of the websites, the grey hands seemed to tighten, and he shuddered as cold seemed to rush down his spine. He lifted his fingers from the keyboard, and the cold seemed to lift.

He called Trix. "Watch me go to sleep tonight," he said.

"Oooh, how exciting. I mean, I was considering the danger of approaching my large pile of laundry, but –"

"I'll throw in dinner," he interrupted. "I really, really just want you to watch me fall asleep."

"I hate to tell you this, but even with dinner included, the laundry is sounding more enticing."

"I need to know what's happening."

"You're sleepwalking. I told you."

"And this way, you'll be able to see if you're right."

He waited, twitching for her answer.

"You really just want me to watch you fall asleep."

"Yes."

"What if that makes me fall asleep?"

"Then I'll keep buying you breakfast and dinner until you actually watch me."

"Ok," she said, finally. "But I gotta tell you. This may be about the worst come on ever, and I include the guy that told me not to worry about coming up to his apartment because it wouldn't take long."

"It's not a come on."

"Good, because it isn't working. And bad. Have you considered that this is only happening because you're not getting laid?"

"Please, Trix," he said, and he could hear his voice cracking. He hung up the phone.

Somewhat to his surprise, Trix did pound on the door later that night. She had traded in the pinstriped suit for a horrifically bright green velour tracksuit. He shut his eyes briefly and then gave her a light hug. "Thanks for coming."

"You did mention dinner."

"Right."

Afterwards, he couldn't have said what they talked about over dinner, although he was fairly certain that neither one talked about their dreams. He did know he'd allowed Trix to do most of the talking, which she tended to do anyway, allowing her chatter to roll over him. He hurried them back to the apartment after dinner, not wanting to linger. "I'm going to have some wine," he said as he walked in. "You?"

"You are trying to get me drunk," she said.

"I need to make sure I sleep."

"And to think, I was just feeling flattered."

He had pulled his easy chair from the living room into the bedroom so that she would have a place to stretch out in, a little, while she watched him sleep. He pulled out a couple of blankets, and then poured himself a glass of wine. Trix refused when he offered wine again. He wasn't surprised. She'd never been a heavy drinker. He downed the first glass, then another.

"Time for bed, I guess," he said.

"I'm beginning to understand why you don't get laid enough."

"This isn't about my sex life, Trix," he said, impatiently. "Honestly. Could you just –"

Her eyes widened a little. "I am taking this seriously, hon. I just think you need to relax a bit, that's all. Or get laid. Both of them might help you with this dream girl thing."

"Just watch me. Please." He began taking off his shoes, socks and pants.

"Fine," she said. "Do you need me to sing you a lullaby?"

"If you want," he said, crawling into bed.

"I think I'll just read my book, thanks," she said, and retreated to the easy chair, clutching her book and her reading light.

Perhaps it was that dim reading light, or perhaps just sensing Trix's presence, but sleep was even harder for him to find that usual that night. He forced his muscles to relax, shut his eyes, forced himself to start counting. His eyes kept flickering open anyway, seeking Trix, who had apparently settled deep into her book. He should tell her to watch him. But if she did, he would never fall asleep. He should tell her…

…he felt a pair of cold grey hands touch his arm, and looked up.

The grey girl stood there, unsmiling as always, and she pulled. He found himself rising from the bed, and following her, not even glancing at Trix in the corner. The grey girl pulled at him again, and he found himself entering a dark corridor full of fog. She pulled, and he followed.

He had already forgotten Trix.

They walked down the hallway, then down a deep spiral staircase full of fog that was yet oddly dry – no, not fog, but smoke, dry smoke, dry gas, he thought, trying to organize his thoughts. Something. Whatever it was, whatever dream substance, he soon found that he could not see below or above him. He should have panicked. Instead, he continued to walk down, the little girl's hand gripping his almost painfully.

They emerged in a garden drenched with red flowers. He turned to look at the girl, who was still holding his hand, if a little less tightly. She looked back at him, her expression grave, her eyes utterly blank. Surely she was older, or perhaps younger, than she looked. Which was what? Ten? Beyond her, the flowers exploded, red petals firing into the air, and two trees he had not seen began swaying and dancing, rising into the grey sky, spraying petals and flowers into the wind. Spraying petals and flowers onto Trix.

Trix.

Who was here, spiked purple hair turned to long brilliant blue, as in the way of dreams, but here. Sleeping. Sleeping in the flower drenched garden, although she had promised to be awake, to watch him. Here. He knew it, knew that although he was dreaming this (because everything he felt, everything he saw, was so clearly dreamed, so clearly no more than random flashes from his brain, or Trix's brain, or – his mind exploded, dazzled --) she was also here. Utterly and truly and really here, even though she couldn't be.

He looked down at the little grey girl, who was still clasping his hand and gazing at Trix. He opened his mouth to speak, and, as in so many dreams, found he could not. He turned back to Trix. In that quick second, her hair had transformed back to its purple spikes, making her, if possible, even more here than she had been. He tried to rush towards her, but found his way blocked by piles of flower petals, piles that kept growing and growing. He opened his mouth. He meant to cry out her name again, and instead, as in way of dreams, found himself saying something about fish. But it was enough. Trix opened her eyes, and saw him. And at that moment, he knew that although this was a dream, most certainly a dream, this part, Trix seeing him, was not. Her eyes widened; he watched her start to move and look with puzzlement at the red petals that surrounded her, at the two dancing trees, at the still grey sky. She opened her mouth, and petals began to fall into it, before she could say a word.

The hand on his wrist was icy cold. He pulled at the grey girl, slowly moving towards Trix, and then, he and the grey girl were there, kneeling beside Trix. Trix grabbed at his free arm; he felt the touch almost as a shock of warmth. With her other arm she pointed. He followed her finger –

To see the grey girl, her expression blank, her eyes clear and calm. One hand still gripped his wrist – no, his hand. With the other, she was methodically grabbing petals from the sky, and as he watched, the little girl knelt, and began pushing petals into Trix's mouth.

He had to stop her. He couldn't stop her. He could not move; the petals had seized him. He thought he heard the trees start to sing; he thought he was trying to say something, and he could not. He had to stop her. He could not.

Trix's eyes were wide; he could feel her body stiffening, as beside him, the little girl methodically placed petal after petal into her mouth, allowing some of the petals to trick Trix was panicking, choking. She was not able to breathe, he saw with horror. He tried to use his free hand to move the petals from her nose and mouth, but he could not move quickly enough, he was trapped in the dream and moving at the speed of dreams he could not move quickly enough and Trix was going to die and –

"TRIX!" he shouted, or said, unable to tell in the manner of dreams. "TRIX! You have to wake up, you have to wake up, wake up Trix, wake up, oh god, wake up wake up wake up –"

His free hand reached down and shook her shoulder. He felt her move, shift. He shook harder. She was not waking. She was not waking. How did you wake someone in a dream?

And it came to him. He bent and kissed her on the lips, just briefly, then shook her shoulders again, shaking and shaking –

To find himself shaking her in his easy chair, shaking her shoulders as her head lolled around before she snapped up, hissing. He stepped back. She breathed, hard, and then placed her head in her hands. He looked around the room. Normal. Normal. Depressingly normal.

The grey girl was nowhere to be seen.

He turned back to look at Trix. She was now shaking, as someone might after a nightmare. He pulled the comforter over her shoulders, wrapping her in it. He sat on the armchair's edge, wondering how much he could touch her after that, after he'd held the hand of the grey girl who had tried to kill her. After awhile, Trix's shaking slowed, and her breathing evened out, and he looked about the room again.

Only then did he notice the red flower petals on the floor.

"Remind me to never stay over at your place again," Trix said.

It had taken two cappuccinos to get her to say anything at all. When sunlight had hit, not long after Trix had stopped shaking, they had wordlessly fled the apartment, heading to the brightly lit café not too far away. He'd ordered for them, and after Trix had downed her first cappuccino, swiftly ordered another. She was on her third drink now, a latte with shots of orange syrup, but her body was still hunched over, and he could see her knee pulse with tension.

"I'm sorry," he said again. He'd lost track of how many times he'd said it. "I thought – I genuinely thought I was making it up. Or that you'd tell me I was making it up, because you being there meant she wouldn't come."

"Does she always –"

"Oh, no," he reassured her. "She's taken me to good dreams too. Delightful dreams." He sipped his drink. "So, you think it's just my place?"

"The rest of us don't have small grey chicks walking into our bedrooms and later trying to choke us with flowers. Even those of us into that kinda thing."

"Point," he said. "So, I get rid of the apartment. Move. Problem solved."

"Maybe," Trix said. "Not that I'm exactly an expert on this sort of thing, but from what I've heard, these things follow you around."

"These things?"

"Ghosts or what have you."

"You just said it was my apartment."

"It started in your apartment. But for all you know, she'll follow you to any place that you call yours after this. Or follow anyone that gets involved in this now."

He brooded over his own coffee. "At least now you've seen her, so you know I'm not going nuts, and we can figure out –"

"No, we can't."

"What?"

She rose abruptly, still clutching the latte. "I sympathize with you. Really, I do. But I can't go through that again."

"Trix."

"Later."

She was out the door within seconds. Only an hour later did he realize that he had driven them to the coffee shop, and that she must have walked back to his apartment to rescue her car. He wanted to care, but he was too exhausted, and suddenly too hopeless.

Sleep eluded him that night as well. He'd done the usual tricks – exercising, eating a heavy meal, downing a glass of wine, and then a second. He watched TV until his eyelids seemed too heavy to stay open. His eyes closed.

But he did not sleep.

The vision stayed with him – of Trix in the garden, of Trix choking on….something….here in his bedroom.

He should have tried a hotel.

The television droned on, and he tried to let its voices drown out his own thoughts. His skin itched. Christ, if this had made him blow everything with Trix – he wouldn't think of that. He wouldn't. Jon Stewart came on for the second time that night. He did not change the channel. He tried to force his body to relax. He would have to sleep sometime. The audience laughed. He opened his eyes.

She was standing there, clear eyed and grey skinned, watching him. Her dress, he noted vaguely, either for the first time, or not for the first time, was in tatters. Her feet were bare.

"You're not going to go to her, are you?" he asked.

The grey girl's face remained blank, expressionless. Her hand reached out to touch his wrist, lightly stroking him.

"I didn't want her involved – I just wanted her to watch—"

And with that he was falling again, through something that might have been a tunnel, or might have been a deep slide that twisted and turned. The slide, definitely; he could almost feel the metal on his back. No, a tunnel. He was moving, not sliding.

He was going down, far down.

She had not always taken him down in his dreams, before. Sometimes, they had merely walked through his walls, and found themselves – elsewhere. This time, however, they were going down. He could not have said how long they walked, but even at the end, they had not reached the bottom – whatever that bottom was. They found themselves on the top of a fragile spire, the top of a high tower of a castle – the highest tower of a castle. They were surrounded by a dark verdant sky with heavy dark clouds, so dark and green as to be almost black. He shivered, although he was not cold; it was a dream. This castle did not exist; this spire did not exist, the room he needed to find in the castle probably did not exist, Trix –

Trix existed. And she was there. In the highest room of the tower, looking up at him.

"Oh, shit," she said.

Definitely Trix.

He moved into the room as the little girl clutched his hand. "I'm looking for a room in this castle."

"Oh my god," she said. "Tell me I'm not still in your dream."

The grey girl's hand grew colder.

He wanted to tell her that. Perhaps saying that would allow Trix to leave, allow her to explore her own dreams. "I'm looking for a room in this castle," he said instead. His entire arm felt cold. He shivered.

"Oh god," said Trix.

He looked around the room. It was almost barren, except for a small rug on the floor, and Trix, and the girl, who was gripping him tightly. Outside the glass windows he could see a grey sky.

"We need to get out," he said. "I have to find the room."

"Gotcha on the first part," Trix said. "Lost on the second. Why do you need to find this room?"

"I don't know," he said, and he did not: this was a dream, and in this dream he had to find a room, and he did not know why. "Are you really here?"

"God, I hope not."

And with that, he knew she was. He used his free hand to grasp her shoulder. "I need to find the room," he said, although that was not entirely what he meant to say.

"Right, because this is a dream, so of course you don't know why you need to find the room, just that you need to find it. Damn it." Her eyes widened, and she reached out towards him. He felt the little girl tug at him. "Wait a minute. If this is a dream, how do I know it's a dream? I shouldn't know."

"I have to find the room," he repeated. He wanted to hit himself, but his arms felt trapped by two cold hands. No, that was wrong; the little girl was only holding one of his hands, right? Or both? He could not tell. He knelt down on the floor, and moved the rug aside, finding only another rug beneath it. He pulled that second rug, and another.

Trix sighed. "If this is a dream, we'll probably never find the damn room. That's how they work. Unless you can remember why you have to find the room. If you can remember that –"

He knew, and yet he didn't know. "I always know why I have to find the room," he said. "Always. No matter how crazy it is. I have to find the room because I have to find the room." He threw more rugs behind him, and yet, no matter how many he moved, he kept finding another rug on the floor.

"And I thought my dreams were irritating and pointless," Trix said. "Ok, then. Come on. Think. Why do you have to find the room? No matter how crazy it is, no matter how stupid. You always know why you have to find the room. That's what you just said, right?" He heard her sigh, but he did not look, caught up in the process of removing rugs from the floor. He could not have that many more to life, and then he would start exploring the castle, he and the girl and Trix, and they would find the room and –

"What are you doing?" said Trix.

"I'm looking for the room," he said, only of course he wasn't, he was removing rugs. He moved them faster and faster, only marveling a bit at their softness, their bright colors, their –

"Not you," Trix said, and with that, he looked up.

The little girl was still holding his hand firmly; she had not let go of him even when he knelt on the floor. But she was not looking at him, but at Trix, and at the rugs that were falling on Trix, trapping her against the floor – the same small rugs that he'd been flinging behind him. They'd seemed light enough when he'd been throwing them before, but now, he suddenly knew that how heavy they were, how they would crush her and trap her and –

"Trix!" he shouted, struggling to stand up, struggling to move towards her. "TRIX!" But he, too, was getting buried in rugs. He fought, and the rugs were coming up against his mouth and pressing against him and he couldn't breathe and his arm was cold, cold, from that grey hand and her icy grip and he was not going to reach Trix in time, not going to – he wrenched his arm free from the grasp of the grey girl and felt his arm burn and –

woke up in terror in his bed.

The little girl was nowhere to be found. But in his hands he held two strips of thin grey metal, and his right arm was covered with burn marks.

He ignored the burns, calling Trix over and over, pestering her with emails, phone calls, instant messages – anything and everything to get through.

Silence. He drove to her place and pounded on the door. More silence. He headed home, wondering if he should call the police. But what could he tell them? "Officer, I may have killed my friend in my sleep?" He headed home and paced back and forth. He could try to nap, try to find her in his dreams. But what if he made it worse? He couldn't sleep. He didn't dare sleep.

Hours later she knocked at his door. "Damn you," she said.

Trix, in all the years he'd known her, had never been one for crying. But she was crying now.

Much later, after they'd both been somewhat revived with coffee and wine, Trix sighed. "I don't even believe in this shit," she said.

"I know," he said. "I don't either."

"That's helpful." She sipped more coffee. "So what the fuck are we supposed to do?"

"Oh, so it's we now?"

"I'm the one getting killed in your dreams. So, yes. We. What the fuck are we supposed to do now?"

"I don't know," he said. "I'm so exhausted. I haven't slept, not really, since she showed up. Not once."

"Not surprising, if she's running around killing people in your dreams."

"But she doesn't," he said, surprised to find himself defending the grey girl, but feeling an odd impulse to be honest. "Sometimes she's led me to nightmares, yes, but most of the time, they're just dreams. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, weird, you name it. But this – this is new."

Trix frowned. "There's something important there," she said. "But damned if I can figure out what just now."

"Anyway, since she's shown up, when I wake up, I feel I haven't rested at all."

"I feel the same," Trix admitted. She yawned again. "I'm going to call into work tomorrow and tell them I need some personal time, no matter what happens tonight."

"Stay," he said, without even thinking about it. She looked at him. "Not to watch this time," he added. "But since we're apparently going to dreaming together anyway –"

"Point," she said. "And I can just call the office from here." She yawned again, and he found himself yawning along with her. "I'll take off a week. That's about all I can give. We gotta get this thing solved by then."

He saw her again, being covered in heavy rugs, falling beneath bright colors. He shivered.

"Sleep next to me," he said.

Her mouth twisted. "The come-on jokes aren't exactly that funny anymore."

"It's not that," he said. "I just – I'd feel safer, somehow, if I had someone to touch during the night. I can't explain it. Any more than I can explain the rest of this."

"Just crazy enough for me," she said. She shivered, and looked at him. "Ok, I'll sleep next to you. Something's making me want to do the same thing. Of course, sleeping next to the guy whose dreams are trying to kill me –"

"I don't want to kill you."

"I know that," she said. "Maybe if I sleep next to you, you'll get that."

And she did, the two of them spooning together, she fitting beneath his chin.

That night neither one of them dreamed.

"Well, that worked," he said, awkwardly, rubbing his hand through his hair.

"Right," said Trix. A night of uninterrupted sleep had done wonders for her spirits, if not for her hair, which had spiked up into terrifying purple curls again. "Maybe. We don't know if it will work every night, and in any case, it's not exactly a practical solution. Not to mention the hell it would do to my social life."

"Yeah," he said, sighing. "So. Other idea?"

"Now that I'm rested, well, yes, actually." She put her chin on her fist, resting her arm on the counter. "But I must be bribed with coffee before you can hear it."

He gave her a look, but started to make some coffee. Once she had it in her hands, she took a sip, sighed dramatically, and looked at him. "Simple enough: we either always sleep in each other's arms, or we ask the girl what she wants, and give it to her."

"Simple enough."

"Yes."

"She never speaks. What makes you think she'll answer?"

"I'm so flattered you immediately leapt to that solution."

"You did mention that the other alternative played havoc with your social life."

"True enough," Trix said. "Meanwhile, I suggest a heavy day of ghost reading stories and other materials, so that we have a kind of idea about what she might want."

The answer came to him. He did not know how he knew it, but he knew, without hesitation, without any doubt that he was right. "Our dreams," he said. "She wants our dreams."

"Our dreams," Trix said.

"Yes," he said. He leaned forward. "What if I've been wrong, and she hasn't been so much leading me to my dreams as following me – no, that's not right. She's leading me, but she's leading me because she needs my dreams."

"Which fails to explain why she tried to kill us."

"Because she must have realized that I was trying to do something about her. It was a threat. And she didn't actually kill us. Although she could have."

"We don't actually know that," she said.

"Well, I don't know about the killing part. But the dreams. Yes. Think about it. She didn't do anything to me, other than lead me through dreams, until I brought you here to watch me and stop it from happening. And somehow or other, she knew." He looked at Trix. "She tried to scare you because she knew I wanted you to stop her dreams."

"So why did I still get dragged in even after I left you to her?"

"Either she didn't know about that, since it happened in the day, or maybe she wants your dreams now too." He paused. "Look, I don't think I can make this entirely make sense. It's just, somehow or other, I know she wanted our dreams. At least, she wants mine." He frowned. "The chief problem is that I have no idea how to give our dreams to her."

"That's what you regard as the chief problem?"

"I'm sure we'll think of others."

"I'm sure we will." She looked around the apartment. "Got any good ghost stories?"

"There's always the internet."

"It's a start."

She headed towards his computer without asking, then turned to him. "You're really planning to give her your dreams?"

"If that's what it takes to get her to go away, yes. And somehow I feel – no, I know – that that's what she wants."

"But what will you do without dreams?"

He shrugged. "It's not like these are dreams of things I want to do, you know? Not like hoping that I'll actually get out to Peru someday or become a major rock star or win the lottery or whatever. These are just, you know, dreams. Crazy stuff that happens at night. I think I can live without that. Hell, I've had nightmares that I could have done without – still could do without, actually. I've never really forgotten them."

"And what if all the psychologists who say that we need dreams to process all the things that happen to us in the day are right, and we go mad because we aren't dreaming?"

He shrugged again. "Then we go mad." He walked over and touched her shoulders lightly, looking into her eyes. "Look, I was already starting to go mad anyway. Maybe we can't live without dreams, but we sure as hell can't live without sleep, and barring the alternative of holding each other every time we get tired – I'm not sure we have a choice."

"Ok," she said. "But that doesn't mean I won't be trying to think of one."

They spent the day reading and surfing. Trix, to his surprise, turned out to be a dedicated researcher, frowning a little as she took notes, refusing to leave the computer, occasionally tossing out various concepts and warnings to him. He read books, feeling this was all entirely useless – why would one ghost be like another? Especially since he was not convinced that this was a ghost.

They took a break only at dinner, when they went out to get some Thai. The meal seemed to cheer Trix up. Afterwards, at his insistence, they hit a movie, mostly because he could not stand the thought of waiting in his apartment for the dream girl, and sleep. The movie was a waste of time for both of them, but that had kinda been the point.

"Remember, we just offer her our dreams."

"Offer her our dreams," Trix said. "As if it is that simple."

"It is."

"And if she actually wants us to find the ghost of her buried father or find a magical fruit or slay a dream dragon or –"

"We can dream that for her, I suppose," he said. "Not that I've ever had any luck at controlling my dreams. But I could try. In the meantime, we have to try to dream tonight."

"I'll take the chair," she said, sighing.

"No, I think it's ok if we're both on the bed. We just shouldn't touch each other."

"Always what I want to hear from a guy," she said.

They removed some of their clothing – at least enough for comfort. He remembered, far too late, that he had a spare pair of pajamas around that wouldn't have fit Trix anyway. He told himself to stay focused. Trix's hand brushed his arm.

"Don't touch me," he murmured sleepily.

"Sorry," she said.

His eyes were heavy, heavy. Beside him, he could hear Trix's breathing evening out as she fell asleep. He felt his own body relax, felt two cold hands on his –

And then he was elsewhere.

The city – it was a city, but he did not know how he knew that – was twisted, broken, its buildings at odd angles. He had to find a mall, a turtle, a gift – no. That was only a distraction. He turned, and saw the little girl in the tattered grey dress, for once seemingly not touching him, but watching him quietly. Someone else should have been there, he knew. He turned around, but saw no one else there. He had to explain. He walked to the girl and touched her.

"I need to know where I can give you my dreams."

The little girl looked at him, face blank.

"Please."

She seemed to hesitate, and then, she interlaced her fingers with his, and began pulling him down the street.

If this was a dream of his creation, he must have dreamed it from Dr. Seuss – tall twisted spirally buildings all at odd angles, seemingly falling, but not, stairs that looked as if they were going up when they actually went down, doors he felt certain could not be opened and solid walls that could. The angles of the building made him feel faintly sick. He allowed the girl to lead him down streets that went up and around curve after curve, until they reached the base of a spiraling tower. It might have been, he thought, the same tower from the earlier dream, pulled from its castle –

But he'd had no earlier dream, and this was no dream but the here and now –

He shook his head. The grey girl squeezed his hand, in a gesture that might have been meant to be reassuring, but was not. Cold raced through his arm.

"Is this the room we are looking for?"

She stared at him with grey blank eyes, and then looked up.

"It's up there, then. The room we are looking for. In that tower."

She did not answer.

"Well, then," he said, and with her, walked through the wall.

He had expected to see rooms, or spiral stairs climbing upwards. Instead, he saw pale yellow stairs leading straight down. He walked towards them, and down. As he walked down, his fingers tightly laced together with the grey girl's, he felt certain that they were walking up, no matter how many stairs they walked down. "Are you doing this?" he asked.

But she did not speak.

Sometimes, they passed doors, but she continued to walk past them, so he ignored them as well, until they reached a dark yellow door on the left side of the stairs. The stairs continued down (or up) from there, but she did not move.

"Is this the room we are looking for?"

She nodded.

"The room where I can give you my dreams."

It might have been a dream, but he thought he saw her grey lips curve into a smile. He pushed the door open.

If it was not the room where he had been before (you have never been to this room before, a voice whispered to him) it seemed somehow very familiar: round, its walls palely golden, long thin windows showing a grey green sky outside filled with dark clouds, small rugs and red flower petals lying scattered around the room. Something terrified him about those rugs, but he could not remember what. In the center stood a small golden fountain, topped with a red stone, a stone that pulsed. And he knew – he knew – that if he placed his hand on that stone, he could give the stone his dreams. He could sleep. He could give it – her – all of his dreams. He stepped forward, the girl's cold fingers in his.

"No," said Trix's voice sharply behind him.

The girl turned to Trix, blood red petals in her hand.

"Not all your dreams," Trix said. "Just the dreams you've already had." She stepped forward, placing a soft warm hand on the little girl. "She can have all of those past dreams. The new ones – the ones you have not yet dreamed – those she can have, but after you've dreamed them. After."

The girl's face turned a darker shade of grey; her mouth tightened.

"He cannot live if you do not let him sleep," Trix said. "And he cannot sleep unless he dreams alone."

For the first time, he thought he saw something in the grey girl's blank eyes – tears? Fear?

"If he dreams alone, his dreams will be brighter, richer," Trix said.

And he knew, as you know in dreams, that this was true, and knew the girl knew it as well.

"You can still join me sometimes," he said. "And at the end of those dreams, the ones where you walk with me, we can come here, and I'll give you everything that I've already dreamed."

"Nod if you agree," whispered Trix. "Like this." And she slowly nodded her chin.

The grey girl looked at him, and at Trix, and then she slowly nodded.

He placed his hand on the red stone, and felt it pull at him. The grey girl stepped up, and placed one hand on the stone, and one hand in his. He looked at her, and saw stains of red and purple begin to creep up her dress.

And then he was back in his own bed, undreaming, and even in sleep, he could feel himself smile.

When he awoke, Trix was already up and clanging things in the kitchen. He yawned and padded out to join her.

"How do you feel?" she asked.

He thought about it. "Not bad," he admitted. "Drained. But also, a little lighter somehow."

"Good," she said. And without warning, she leaned over and kissed him lightly on the lips. "Maybe it's good to be drained of dreams every once in awhile."

"Maybe," he said. "Maybe I won't even notice the difference."

"Maybe," she said. "And maybe the new dreams will be brighter, without the burden of the old."

"Uncharacteristically optimistic of you."

"You have excellent coffee here. That helps." She poured him a cup. "So, what will you do now?"

"Today? I'm going to watch TV, and then maybe take a nap."

"Sounds good. And later?"

He took a long sip of coffee. "I haven't dreamed that up yet. You?"

"I'll see what I dream up," she said.

"Would you really have objected that much to me holding you every night?" he asked.

"As I said, it wasn't practical." He could not completely see her face, but he sensed she was smiling.

"We're talking about dreams here, not practicality."

"True," she said.

He reached out and took her warm, soft hand in his, a hand without a single trace of grey, brimming with potential dreams.

This story originally appeared in The Edge of Propinquity, May 2009.


Mari Ness

Mari Ness has a tendency to let coffee and chocolate creep into her tales.