Despite his intention to take it easy so soon after their ordeal at sea, he was still sore and stiff from an afternoon of training, but satisfied none the less. A day of training and sightseeing had done him good, as he suspected it had for Max and Ma’Quiver. Justin, on the other hand, had spend most of the day in bed, and was still in a foul mood.
That’s why they call it hangover, he had explained. And Justin tried to deck him. But he was too out of it to hit the broad side of battleship, and no nauseous, he couldn’t even sleep aboard the ship, complaining about its every movement.
Mumbling and muttering at him every step of the way as he hauled his friend back from the Hang Ten to the docks. Wondering every step of the way why Justin had to pick a place with no taxis. Still, he was grateful it wasn’t someplace crawling with lowlifes like Bodeen. After Justin woke up just long enough to hurl over the side of the dock, Shades nearly regretted eating so much of Kalika’s delightful seafood.
More than anything, he just hoped Justin learned something from that.
Naturally, Max was concerned at first, but Ma’Quiver had served on his fair share of ships, with his share of sailors, and knew what to do. And set about making preparations, while reassuring Max that Justin would be just fine once he slept it off. Bandit, meanwhile, just sniffed at him for a moment, then sneezed at him.
Between last night’s hassles, and today’s training, it just dawned on him that he’d been too busy to even get around to discussing his peculiar conversation with Rod yesterday. Then again, the last couple nights were the first time in ages that he had no worrisome dreams about John or Amy, though he still wasn’t completely certain if it was just relief after such a desperate week or so at sea, or if it was something about the island itself. Figured he would probably have a better answer after a few more days.
To be sure, it was a relief, not to be burdened with such worries in his sleep, but his conversation with Rod, with Roulette, did little to allay his concerns while he was awake. Training had provided a few hours’ distraction, but now that things had settled down, his mind just kept revolving back around to it. Especially the part about Quincy— not just that he turned out to be a real person, and not a figment of his imagination, but also that he died in his sleep.
It was even less reassuring in light of Amy’s entry in the Book of Fate. (Will wake up dead.) Made him wonder just how many of the adversaries he faced in those dreams might have been real people. The monsters, he was quite certain, were native to that plane, some of them, he suspected, alien even to that world, yet Rod’s words called every human enemy into question, in a way he was not at all comfortable with.
It was troubling enough at times, reflecting on the life-or-death battles he had participated in, both willingly and unwillingly, in the last few months. All the enemies he’d run into in passing. Wondering if perhaps he hadn’t already picked up a body count since he walked into this world. Guards, random shootouts, Striker’s crew, marauders in the Konas, Nikopol… Reminded himself that they did try to kill him first.
For the hundred and eighth time, he wished he could talk to Master Al about it. Yet to think that he may have may already soiled his hands as a kid, without even realizing it, was a most unsettling thought. Akin to playing a video game, only to find out later that he was controlling real-world events. But even as he worried about what Amy would think of him, it dawned on him that she may well have been fighting alongside of him through whole swaths of it.
…A different evening, a different dock.
This time on Flathead Lake, rather than the boundless Ocean of another dimension, though he often imagined it as such, with only the fact that he could see the other side to intrude on his fantasies. Paddling around about mid length along the dock, where the water was just starting to inch up over his head, and he could tread water to stay warm. For as the setting sun cast the mountains’ shadows across the lakeshore, he could feel cold water from deeper in the lake shifting in around his feet, and even the surface waters were not as warm as they were an hour ago.
Wearing dark goggles in place of his shades, staying out where simple buoyancy would keep his bare feet from pressing too hard against the sharp rocks along the bottom. After a year of so of training with Master Al, he actually ventured out this far without shoes; a couple more years of training would harden his feet to the point where he would no longer give it a second thought. His sandals, shirt, and towel sitting near the foot of the dock with the others’ gear.
Much like the shadows creeping across the lake, the final days of summer before his seventh grade year were slipping through his fingers just like the water he was treading. Though it was rare for him to receive invitations outside of his tight circle of friends, when told at the store that afternoon that there was a party down by the lake, he nearly declined before hearing that the water today was warmer than usual. Flathead Lake was not only the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, it was also one of the deepest, so most of the time it was too cold for his taste even in the summer. Unlike some of his rare excursions to Foy or other smaller lakes in the surrounding mountains.
There were only two public docks in Lakeside. One of them was at the marina, right next to the boat ramp. Just down the road from his house, on the other side of the highway. Right next to the boat ramp, giving the water a shimmering, oily surface he never trusted for swimming. Fortunately, the party was being held at the other dock, which, despite also having a boat ramp, was in a less enclosed space than the marina, so the water stayed much clearer.
Naturally, he came expecting to hang out at the fringes of his upper middle class neighbors’ company. Though not in the habit of mooching off folks like them, he also felt no shame in partaking of their barbeque, scoring a couple free hot dogs and a soda from the cooler of people who drove mini-vans hitched to trailers hauling toys that cost more than his mother made in a year. Not like he wasn’t invited. Came expecting to get in some swimming without having to go all the way to Kalispell.
What he didn’t come expecting was Amy.
In hindsight, he really should have seen it coming, seeing how many of her friends were in attendance, swimming and sunbathing and hanging out on the dock and the shore. Still, he nearly turned around and went home, chiding himself for getting cold feet before he even dipped his toes in the water. Instead, he decided to stick it out and enjoy himself even though, much as he feared, he never did find any opportunity to talk to her without her friends around.
He was about to take his leave, when he heard one of the partygoers call out that Amy’s beach ball had somehow gotten bounced past the edge of the dock, slowly drifting out into the lake.
Having already glided out to the end of the dock by the time the older guy who first went after it just gave up. Looking back, Shades wasn’t really sure what got into him, maybe he was just looking for a way to ingratiate himself in her memories, even if it was only a cheesy act of chivalry. Kicking off the last piling, he went all out.
Wanting to catch up with the ball before it could get any further out. Not that he lacked confidence in his swimming, but only now did he realize that any inner tubes or other floatation devices were all back on the shore, so he was on his own as he came against the colder water that likely prompted the other guy to turn back. Just beginning to dawn on him that the water out here was deeper than any pool he ever swam in, as several people called out for him to let it go, it wasn’t worth the trouble.
Even Amy, standing up and nearly shrugging out of the green jacket draped over her shoulders, still wearing the bubble-gum pink one-piece she was swimming in earlier, with that breezy sort of modesty most valley girls were trying so hard to dispense with by her age, and a reminder that the wind coming down off Blacktail Mountain was warmer than the water he was now swimming in, yet he was almost there, so he resolved to go the distance.
By the time he caught up with the beach ball, he was genuinely alarmed at how far out he was. The dock a daunting distance longer than any swimming pool, he was surprised he could still hear them. Getting behind the ball and pushing it forward as he swam, he tried not to dwell on the contrast between the brightly colored segments rolling before his eyes, and the looming shadow he swam back into.
Reminded himself that he still had plenty of energy left, that the distance was all in his head, as Master Al always taught him, those onlookers’ anxiety was exaggerated.
All the same, when he made it back, he was a little disappointed to find himself handing off to the guy who turned back, who in turn gave it to Amy, acting triumphant as if he went out and retrieved it himself or something. Amy, in turn, acting more embarrassed than flattered, as Shades gave her the V. And giving Shades what he hoped was a meaningful look before handing the ball off to another one of her friends.
And then, just like that, the party partied on…
…It was only later, sitting on a dock in another world, that he traced the exact moment he gave up on the notion of the Amy who appeared in his wildest dreams, and the Amy of the waking world, being one and the same. As if to confirm that it was too good to be true. It wasn’t as if he expected a medal or something, but it was only thinking about it years later that it occurred to him that all he’d really done that day was fetch a ball, like a dog.
In retrospect, found he wouldn’t have minded if she patted him on the head, but given the company they were in, decided that he got off lucky since no one else had, either.
Still, like most of his memories with Amy, it held a special place in his heart.
Recalled that he would later take even more foolish risks feet-first, just this past summer at John’s bandmate, Becky Chandler’s place down on the lake. They were lucky enough to buy an older property, before they started subdividing the lakefront into narrower slices than a cafeteria pizza to keep up with demand. So preoccupied hanging out with his friends, he had forgotten what he was dealing with, jumping right in.
And freezing solid, sinking nearly ten feet before he was able to force himself to move, lucky his lungs froze up, too, or he would have let out all of his air, putting himself in absurdly stupid danger, so at least fetching a ball for Amy wasn’t even the dumbest risk he had taken out there over the years.
As he stared out at the Ocean, he realized that he had never really thought about it from her perspective before. After all, if his childhood adventures on the dreamplane really had involved real people, then that meant she had also had weird dreams about fighting monsters and stuff with him, and he wondered how she felt about that. Did she believe it herself? His mind chased its own tail trying to figure out what sort of conversation he might have had if he’d ever upped the nerve to actually talk about it back then.
Now it made him wonder if that might have been where Amy was really trying to go with it at the mall when she asked him about paranormal stuff.
It was about this point he finally noticed he wasn’t alone anymore. Hearing footfalls on the dock planks, he turned to see Twyla ambling along. Turning back to the sea, he waited for her to make her way over to see what she came for.
“So there you are,” she remarked, making it clear she had come for the conversation rather than the view.
“I thought you had a show tonight,” Shades answered, wanting to be alone with his thoughts.
“Yeah, but not for a while yet,” she told him. Taking a seat on the next post, getting right down to the point: “You know, Rod doesn’t really talk much about his dreams, despite saying that he gets a lot of inspiration for songwriting from them. But today, he was a lot more talkative about it than he’s ever been.”
“You don’t say.” Shades turned to face her, deciding that perhaps he was not as alone with his thoughts as he previously believed.
“Usually, he doesn’t say, but something you said yesterday really got him talking. He said you used to fight together in his dreams. Zero Hunters, you called yourselves. What is a Zero?”
“Well, it’s hard to describe,” but Shades attempted to anyway. “They could take a lot of different forms, and could manipulate the dream, sometimes just as much as we could. The only thing we were sure about was that they didn’t belong in our dreams, and they seemed to be ‘after’ something, though we never figured out what. Hell, even in this world, I was pretty sure it was all in my head, right along with having the girl of my dreams along for the ride. But after talking to Rod, now I’m not so sure.”
“I see,” Twyla nodded. “You’ve seen how big this world is— from what I can tell, you’ve seen a lot more of it than we have. How long do you plan to keep searching for these friends of yours, and what will you do if you never find them?”
“As long as it takes.” Shades surprised even himself with his own resolve, given how fruitless his search had proven thus far. “John’s one of the best friends I’ve ever had in my life, and I’m responsible for him being in this mess. And Amy, if it’s true about our dreams…”
“So she’s that important to you, huh?”
“Yes, she is,” Shades told her.
“Then I wish you luck,” she said as she stood up, smiling. “You might just be her best hope, wherever she is. Anyway, it’s almost time for our show, so I gotta get going. Maybe we’ll talk about your dreams again later.”
“Let’s,” Shades agreed, now glad she’d come along. “And see if you can get Rod in on it, too. There are still some things I’d like to talk to him about.”
Then Shades faced back out to sea.
“And whatever you do, don’t you dare give up.” Twyla turned around. “If your dreams really are connected, then your strength is also her strength. Don’t let her down.”
“I won’t,” Shades assured her, and promised himself.
As she turned and continued on her way, Shades realized that he truly meant it, more than he previously thought he had. Found a new sense of confidence in the possibility he had beaten monsters even as a child, that it held out hope for her. Especially since she had fought them, too.
I’m stronger than I was back then. If I could do it before, I can do it again.
This he thought as he watched the tide roll in.