I forced my way out of heavy sleep. I felt like I’d been beaten with a bag of nickels. My world was fuzzy around the edges, my body heavy and useless. I’d suffered not the deep restorative sleep of a good night, but the drugged fog of a bad one.
I scrunched my eyes and moaned. “This is not good,” I told Pepper. “Three nights in a row,” I trailed off, thinking. There weren’t any crickets. Where had the crickets gone? They had not been so demonstrative lately, but they still chirped occasionally.
Shrugging, I went about my day, hoping for a better night’s rest soon. Mother phoned that day while I was at lunch, wondering how I’d been. We kept in close touch, but something told her to check on me, she said. “Call it mother’s intuition,” she said.
A friend took me out to supper to celebrate. “It’s not every day one turns thirty, even if today were your birthday,” she said while refusing to allow me to pick up the check. A glass of wine with my food felt heavenly, and I supposed another couldn’t hurt in my quest for a good night’s sleep.
I poured one and searched out the light floral scent wafting through the house. “That scamp!” I exclaimed. “ooh, ow. Not so loud,” I told myself.
Mother certainly had been busy: she’d sprayed lavender and chamomile in my bedroom, changed the bedclothes, and left a little note. She wished me a good sleep and pleasant dreams of fairy tales.
“I think it’d be best to follow Mother’s advice, Pepper.” He gave me a look that clearly said, “feed me, then we’ll snuggle. Do whatever you like as long as you hold still on a comfortable chair.” That is one of his five favorite expressions.
Continuing on with my wine plan, I pulled down some of the lighter of Grimm’s tales. I read and read, sipping occasionally, and continued to scratch Pepper behind the ears as he demanded. When my glass emptied and I felt I could stay awake no longer, it was time to crawl into bed. My head hit the pillow and my eyes drooped. Sleep claimed me in the comforting, cricket-free silence.
I fell and jerked awake. “Ugh. That’s always terrifying, isn’t it, Pepper?”
“Who is Pepper and why are you in my bed?” He shoved me away and rolled over, grasping my shoulders and shaking. “Who are you?”
“Who am I? Who are you, and why are you in my bed?”
I really didn’t feel he deserved an explanation. This was my bed, after all, though the sheets felt rather scratchier than those in which I usually sleep. Honestly, I’d prefer to just wake up from this dream and worry about who was in my bed later, I thought. I rolled over, snuggled back into the blankets, and tried to go back to sleep.
He pinched me. The man in my dream pinched me. Now, this was in no manner the first time a man behaved strangely in one of my dreams. Get your mind out of the gutter. No, you see, once I managed to successfully flirt my way into a date with a handsome stranger by wielding a large paperback dictionary as coyly as a debutant with a fan. I’m still waiting on dreaming the date, by the by, having managed a second dream where I called all my girlfriends demanding help in determining an outfit for said date.
I had pinched in return.
I smiled slyly. “Isn’t it axiomatic that one is woken from a dream if one is pinched?”
“You were not woken, so why would I deserve a pinch?”
“Turnabout is fair play.” This was fun, lying about, bantering with a handsome man. I checked: definitely handsome. Since it was apparently a dream, pinching notwithstanding, I’d have some fun.
He did not appear to be having quite as much of the fun. He looked puzzled.
“Perhaps this is my dream. Your foolish customs do not seem to work.”
“Pardon?” This had to be my dream. I was in it. “What foolish customs?” Everyone knows that dreams are ended with pinching.
“What balderdash, pinching and pain to end a dream,” he grumbled.
What a voice, I thought, noting that I am quite good at populating my dreams. I gave myself a mental pat on the back, distracted enough to miss his thoughtful look. The hand on my cheek pulled me back. As his head leant toward me, I took a deep breath. He stopped.
“Do you not know that the best way to end a dream is a kiss? I’ll not force one upon you, crumpet, if you do not wish it.”
Crumpet! Not an appropriate pet name, not even from a man I’d be signing up to butter up in real life. That started us on another round of apparent cultural differences.
“You’re telling me that I’ve dreamed myself to a place where a woman would accept a strange man calling her crumpet?”
“Neither do I know your given name nor did I ask you to appear in my bed, where you have undoubtedly remained, poppet.”
I sighed heavily and threw myself out of the bed. I stomped across the rushes on the floor, taking a moment to wonder at just how detailed my dreaming mind decided to be. I looked down. “Yes, just that detailed,” I muttered. My usual jersey nightdress had transformed into voluminous clouds of muslin. I began pacing, taking care to stay well away from the bed and the smirking man in it.
Once, when I was a little girl, my mother woke me from a nightmare. I had been trapped in a rock-hewn cave, a fire the only thing between me and a velvet dark night, until the mouth of the cave became ringed by a multitude of bears, with their shadows chasing from behind me, inside the cave. It was all very Plato and Socrates, except the bears were overlarge animated versions of hard plastic toys. They growled and snarled, and I woke shuddering.
Mum had been passing by and paused to soothe the lingering shadows from the corners of my room. I think she was more concerned that I wanted to know why I dreamed those bears instead of scary real ones. We lived where real ones could be spotted in the yard behind the house. I had a bin with two or three of those toy ones for playing.
“Oh, dear,” Mum said. Now I know that she was only glad that I wasn’t so much scared as inquisitive, but then it felt like she was laughing at me. Why couldn’t it be more important that I know why my mind made up what it did rather than dwelling on the fear I felt?
Small me huffed and threw myself back to the wall. She stayed for a moment, rubbing my back comfortingly, but when I made a point of flinching from contact Mum left, sliding the door mostly closed.
Goodness, I hadn’t thought of that dream in years. Thankfully, I hadn’t had it in years either. A small tickle on my left foot brought me back to my current reality. Well, not a tickle so much as a scamper.
“Gah!” I hopped back. Why couldn’t I have been a cave, surrounded by bears, I wondered needlessly. Or had slippers to go along with this romantic monstrosity and the mess on the floor. A chuckle and a clucking noise had me spinning.
“At least you’ve distracted her from her strop, friend Randolph.”
“Pardon me?” Mother would be pleased to see the manners lessons remained. I wasn’t quite certain whether I was more curious about what creature could be named Randolph or annoyed that we’d moved from stupid pet names to an inference of irrationality.
He held a hand down from the bed and clucked again. A small brown mouse hopped onto the stranger’s hand and grasped a finger, steadying itself for the ride to eye level.
“Randolph, meet the lovely lady who appeared in my bed. Lovely lady, Randolph.”
“Hello, Randolph,” I found myself responding. “Fancy meeting you here,” I added with a yawn.
The mouse squeaked delightedly. His human companion smiled and flipped back the bedclothes.
“If Randolph and I both promise to not even nibble in your direction, will you return to the warmth?”
He stared pointedly at my arms. I had no idea when I’d begun to rub them in the chill. As I slid back into bed, I smelled the lavender hanging from the bedposts. It soothed my mind and eased my worries until I softly drifted back to sleep.
I awoke in a conference room, the kind filling space on the lower levels of mid-price hotels the world over. People I knew to be my family and friends filed into the rows of stackable chairs, greeting me with hugs and kisses as they removed their coats and hats and gloves. I knew these people to be my family, but their faces were unfamiliar.
Our gathering did feel familiar, and the exchanges of, “I haven’t seen you since the last one!” and “oh, it’s only been six months since Genevieve and Samantha’s. They worked quickly,” indicated so. So many people, all of them shooting sly smiles and calculating looks my way. No time for pondering as an aunt whose face I don’t know shuffled me to the side of the room.
Time skipped without anyone noticing. I suddenly stood on the elevated platform in front of these gathered kinfolk. On the other side of the speaker stood a tall, thin man with the olive skin, slight stubble, and hollowed cheeks of an El Greco. Under his disinterested manner appraisal lurked.
I remember thinking him handsome enough and wanting him close enough to share snark about the ridiculousness of the proceedings. It dawned on me that we were an arranged match, announced at a family gathering. My apparent disinterest in finding a man of my own had triggered a search for a betrothed on my behalf.
I felt loved by this collective outpouring of support, one where the committee had taken the time to find just the right man. I wondered how he came under their jurisdiction, and it was only this lack of indignation that told me I was dreaming. Deep down I knew I would not have attended such a gathering, let alone allowed it to involve me, if I weren’t floating through my subconscious. As soon as I realized, I noticed a smirking man in the back row. He waggled his fingers in greeting, giving a thumbs-up in the direction of my apparent match.
I snorted as I wondered if Randolph the mouse also made the journey. For the first time, my eyes met those of the other affected man on the dais. I forgot dreaming entirely and motioned to the side door. As the familial audience rose to celebrate, we both slipped into the hallway.
Time flashed again. I had the impression that we had spoken, but of nothing consequential. Our eyes alighted and lingered, the dream neatly keeping away more awkwardness and sowing harmony. Then, the man whose name I still didn’t know flung himself on his back and stared at a large circular metal divot in the ceiling. I did the same, wondering if my dream forgot to tell me of something. A cylindrical plug descended towards us.
I squeezed my eyes shut, reminding myself that it was only a dream. Even if I were crushed, it was likely only a subconscious reminder of my headache. As the floor below me began to sink and I realized we were in an odd dream elevator, warm fingers grasped my own. I turned to the left, thinking to thank my match. The fingers squeezed and withdrew, leaving a small plush creature in my right hand and a quiet chuckle on the air.
Time flashed again. There was a horse. and Randolph the mouse in mouse form.
Time flashed again. I darted through a marketplace on a cobblestone street, playing cat and mouse with my match. He was ahead, those sad eyes smiling, then chasing me with laughter. I knew we were holding a dinner party that night and should be focused, but he was always just out of reach. Once I reached out to touch him, only to feel a tapping on my shoulder. A stranger handed me my dropped keychain with the little plush mouse I had named Randolph, but only in my head.
Suddenly, it was the party. The aftermath: stacked dishes, wilted flowers, friends lounging with wine, listening to the soap opera of shouting and hurt and betrayal coming from our kitchen.
I left in tears, only it was the dream, and I didn’t leave at all but found myself in a new place. That family I knew and didn’t know kept telling me to make it work. My familiar, real life sister was there and asking why I’d allowed the matching to occur at all. I couldn’t explain anything sensibly. She was hurt, and so was I.
Time flashed again. We’d reached a magical dream understanding, my sister and I, and I set off for my match.
I ran through the velvet darkness, gasping passed streetlamps. People stared as I pushed through their happy throngs. I looked ridiculous: a mask of pain and hope, bleeding from scrapes on my legs as I fell again. I knew I couldn’t give up, that fighting for what I wanted is the way out. I jumped and fell again as the fireworks began. Sure and familiar hands helped me regain my feet. I dropped my keychain as I fell, and the same warmth returned it to me with recognition.
“Friend Randolph has served you well, lovely lady.”
I knew that voice, from both dreams and somewhere else. I knew it, and I knew reality must be coming closer. We hugged, and as I leaned closer, I spotted my match searching through the crowds. We nearly kissed, the stranger and I from my first dream, before I wrenched myself away. Though all the flashes of time in this second dream, I had yet to touch my match. I raised my hand to that hollow cheek, and we kissed for the only time.
What was that dream? Too many fairy tales lately, I assumed. Thank goodness for Mother, bundling me into bed with a cool pack for my head and lavender sprayed to soothe. The headache had gone. I gingerly rubbed sleep from my eyes and pondered the dream. A dream within a dream; the same man in both. I knew that voice. It plagued me while I dreamt and continued to do so.
I rolled over and looked at the clock: another half hour before I had to get out of bed. Snuggling back into the coverlet, I heard a chuckle.
“Sleep well, crumpet?” the sheets asked.
“Yes,” I mumbled as I nuzzled into the pillow.
“That kiss must have been quite something to break you out of the dream, darling.”
I hmmed appreciatively. Kissing is fun, I thought lazily.
“Wait! What?” I sat up a bit too quickly and grabbed at the sheets. I stared at the sateen in my fists. “Mother! I’m going to have words with her.” Pepper opened one eye and looked as though I’d interrupted his own deep sleep
In her gentle bossing around, I had not noticed that she’d replaced my bland cotton sheets with the nefarious ones from the back of the cupboard. He chuckled darkly again. “Did you learn anything interesting whilst you slept, darling? Kiss anyone delightful? Manage to leave anyone behind in your dreams?”
I scrambled out of bed before he could grab me and threw myself into a chair. Fuming, I vowed to wash the sheets again and never put him back on my bed.