Paul Wassermann was awake, on account of the full moon. At this time of year and this time of evening, the moonlight always seemed to find its way through the sliver of an opening between the window curtains, and hit Paul right in the face. No matter how often he adjusted it, the light came through eventually, as if there was some physical weight to the moonlight, pushing the curtain aside.
In waking him, the moon did an especially terrible thing, because Paul was in the midst of a dream about the red-haired woman.
He’d been having these dreams or as long as he could remember. When he was a child, they were uncomplicated: she would arrive and tell him it was important that he go with her, he would go with her, and then they’d walk into some kind of mist or something. It varied after that. The dream might take him into a favorite tv show, or to his own living room, or a friend’s house, and then things would happen that usually happen in dreams, like he would learn to fly or show up in town in his pajamas. The red-haired woman wasn’t around for any of that stuff, so he thought of her as sort of a guide to his personal dreamland, accessible by way of a mist-covered portal.
Paul didn’t discover that the red-haired woman was something other than an invention of his unconscious—that she was a memory of someone he met once—until he was twelve, when he perhaps foolishly mentioned her to his mother.
Paul remembered the moment very clearly, because he’d never seen his mother afraid before.
They were sitting in the courtyard, having breakfast. It was early summer, and the vineyard at the bottom of the hill was greening, and pleasantly aromatic. A man named Alfonse stood near the closed, wrought-iron front gate, looking serene. There was a handgun on his hip and a semiautomatic rifle slung over his back, neither of which Paul had ever seen employed for any reason.
(He grew up in a home that was under heavy guard at all times. It would be years before he realized this was peculiar.)
Paul made an offhand comment about a dream he’d just had; he no longer recalled the nature of that dream, just that he prefaced it by mentioning the redhead who brought him to the place where said dream played out.
“What did you just say?” his mom asked.
“Oh, just…never mind,” he said, sensing he’d erred in some inexplicable way. He knew enough to try and back out of the conversation, but it was too late for that.
“No, no, not never mind,” she said, grabbing him by the wrist as if he were about to run off. He wasn’t about to run off, but she was frightening him, so maybe he would have if the opportunity presented. She squeezed his wrist so tight it would be sore the entire day.
“Have you seen her?” she asked, urgently. “Has she visited you?”
“It’s just a dream, and I-I see her sometimes, that’s all. In dreams. Not for real.”
“Not for real,” she repeated, letting go of his wrist. “I see.”
Another reason this memory stuck out was that after she released him, she made a hand-gesture to Alfonse, who gave her a cigarette. She’d never smoked in front of him before, and wouldn’t do it again after.
“Paul, how much do you remember of her?” she asked.
“I don’t understand. From my dreams?”
He felt like his head was going to explode.
“She’s real?” he asked.
“Yes, she’s real.”
“I thought she was someone I just made up, I swear.”
“You don’t remember meeting her?” she asked.
Paul didn’t know how to respond. It felt like there was no right answer.
“You’re not in trouble, Paulie,” his mother said, when he failed to resolve how to answer. “But you need to promise me something: if you ever see her…not in dreams, I mean when you’re awake. If you ever see her, you run away and you find me. Do you promise?”
“I promise,” he said. It was an automatic response he didn’t really think about, because he was too busy considering the implications of the red-haired woman being someone he might meet one day.
“Thank you,” his mom said.
“I promise, okay?” he said, still not sure if he meant it. “But how come? Is she dangerous or something?”
“Yes,” his mother said. “She’s incredibly dangerous. She took you when you were very young and threatened your life and the life of your father.”
Everything Paul knew about his father could be summarized in two sentences: he wasn’t “around anymore”; and Paul’s mom would tell him more when he was older. Whenever he pressed the first point—to try and figure out if “not around” meant dead—mom would repeat the second point.
“Yes, and…” She caught herself, and he sensed that she nearly went off-script and started to tell him something new about his father.
“You really don’t remember any of it, do you?” she asked.
“I guess not,” he said. “Except for her.”
* * *
The dreams took on a darker tone after that conversation, at least for the next couple of years. The red-haired woman began prefacing nightmares, and sometimes didn’t leave at all. One involving a street filled with blood came up often enough that he began to wonder if that was a memory, and not just a dream, but he knew better than to ask his mom about it.
Around the time he hit puberty, the nature of his dreams featuring her changed even more significantly. He became preoccupied by how pretty she was, and the striking nature of her blue eyes, and then instead of dropping him off at the start of a regular dream, she began starring in them. These were definitely not the kinds of dreams he would share with his mother. Not ever.
He was in the middle of that kind of dream when the moonlight woke him up.
Or, he thought he was awake. The red-haired woman was standing right there in his room, next to the offending window curtain, which obviously meant he wasn’t actually awake at all; he was just starting a new dream from a particularly mundane location.
It didn’t make a lot of sense, though, to go from one dream involving her, to another one. Also, in the dream he had just dropped out of, the woman wasn’t wearing any clothing. Not only was she clothed now, she wasn’t wearing something even mildly flattering, like a dress. (Dream-version redhead had impeccable fashion sense.) She was now in something that looked like hospital scrubs.
No, it didn’t make sense at all.
“Hello, Paul,” she said.
“Hello,” he said back. “Are you here? You’re not really, right? Here, I mean. Are you?”
“I am, yes,” she said. It was a stupid question, and he said it stupidly. Now she was going to think he was stupid.
He rubbed his eyes and shook his head, as the dream-version of the red-haired woman and the real version resolved their differences.
I really am awake, he thought. Which meant he was in terrible, terrible danger.
It didn’t feel that way.
“You’ve grown,” she said. “How old are you?”
“Fifteen,” he said. “And a half.”
She smiled. He smiled back. He should have been asking her important questions, like, was she really dangerous, or, how did she get into his bedroom when the entire compound was guarded by men with guns. But when she smiled his brain emptied out.
“Paul, I’m going to ask you a very odd question,” she said.
“Please be honest.”
“Do you remember the last time you got sick?”
“You mean, like, throw-up?”
“No. A cold, or flu.”
He had to think about it, but no examples came to mind.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “Why?”
“Just in the last five or six years,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be anything serious.”
His mother was constantly checking him for things. It was almost obsessive. Every time he was a little more tired than usual, or if he woke up during the night for some reason, she’d pull out a thermometer. There was all this cold medicine in the house that had never been opened, because not only did he never use it, neither did she.
It wasn’t something he thought about before.
“No,” he decided. “I can’t remember being sick ever.”
“That’s excellent. It’s possible you’ve passed the Trials.”
“That’s what we would call it, a very long time ago, when our children reached about the same age as you are now. We knew to look out for it; Clara, I suspect, did not.”
He shouldn’t have been surprised that the red-haired woman knew his mother’s name, but it was pretty jarring to hear it.
“Oh, okay,” he said. “Then yes. Is that important?”
Paul sat up properly, and was embarrassed by the fact that he didn’t have any pajama pants on. If he ran out now—like he promised his mother he would—his guest would see him in his underwear, and he thought he’d probably rather die.
He wondered if he should ask her to turn around so he could put on his jeans, and then he’d run away.
“Why are you here?” he asked. “And, like, how did you get in?”
“I came in through the veil,” she said. “You’ve been there before; I took you through it, when you were younger. Do you remember?”
He nodded. “I kind of do. It was fuzzy.”
“Yes,” she smiled. “That’s right. As for why…I have a favor to ask. I need for you to come with me.”
Then his mom kicked open the bedroom door, and things got really awkward. Mom had a shotgun, and it was pointed at the red-haired woman.
“Don’t fucking move!” she shouted.
The woman just smiled. She didn’t look worried at all.
“Hello, Clara. You’re looking as hale as ever.”
“Shut up. You’re not gonna Peter Pan him out of here as long as I’m still breathing, Eve.”
Eve, Paul thought. What a cool name.
“I don’t understand what that means, Clara…”
“It means take him away. You’re not gonna take him away, dammit. Get out of here.”
Paul was hardly a dispassionate observer in this, but it seemed to him his mom was overreacting a tiny bit.
“Mom,” he said, “she just wants me to…”
“I heard what she wants.”
“I can’t leave,” Eve said. “This is too important. Please, put that down and we’ll talk.”
“Are you joking? You threatened to break Paul’s neck. Did you think I was going to forget that?”
She what? Paul thought. Surely that couldn’t be correct.
“Clara…” Eve said. “I’m not here to do anything of the kind. You must realize this, just as you must know if I did want to kill him, no power on Earth could stop me.”
The barrel of the gun trembled.
“You want to take him away,” his mother said. “I heard you. If you’re gonna do that, just kill me first. It’d be easier that way.”
“Mom, don’t be so…”
“Paulie, you do not understand.”
“Just listen to what I have to say,” Eve said calmly. She only ever said things calmly, Paul decided.
His mother sighed, and lowered the gun.
“Fine,” she said. “Talk.”
“Thank you,” Eve said. “I promise, I wouldn’t be here if I had any other choice; I know how important it was for you to keep him away from the life of his father, for as long as that was possible. I would have done the same.”
“What do you know about my father?” Paul asked.
“A great deal,” Eve said. But when she said it, she was looking at his mom’s face. “Only I think it would be best if we saved that for another time. What’s important, Paul, and Clara, is that the time for keeping Paul away has elapsed. He needs to become involved in his father’s world, right now.”
“Why?” his mom asked.
“Why is complicated,” Eve said. “Trust that I am not prone to hyperbole, so when I say to you that the lives of perhaps everyone on the planet depends on your son coming with me right now, please believe it.”
Clara—and Paul had never once looked at his mother and thought Clara, not before now—looked conflicted. He was mystified, both that the beautiful woman of his dreams was in his bedroom, and that she thought he was important enough to save the world somehow.
He knew he was different from other kids; he didn’t know how different.
“Then I’m going too,” Clara said. “It’s both of us or neither.”
Eve smiled gently.
“All right,” she said. “But we have to leave right now.”
“Paulie, put on some clothes,” his mom said, not at all caring that he was currently in his underwear.
He grabbed the jeans from the floor and slid into them, while staying under the blanket almost completely. It was incredibly awkward, especially with the two women just standing there and waiting. Then he got down on the floor and tied his shoes. Eve was holding out her hand as he stood.
“You said you know my father,” he said. “My mom…Clara said he’s not around anymore, like he’s not alive. Before we go, I wanna know if that’s true.”
“Paul,” his mom said. “This is not the time.”
“It’s never going to be the time,” he said. “I deserve to know that much, okay?”
To Eve, he said, “tell me, please.”
“Yes, it’s true,” Eve said. “Your father is dead, Paul. That’s exactly why you’re needed. Now both of you, take a hand. No matter what happens next, do not let go.”
Join my mailing list, to receive my newsletter Writing from the border of Sorrow Falls. You can sign up from here.