The summer rain thrummed on the rooftop in the charcoal twilight. A wall-clock tapped in syncopation with their quiet breaths in the early morning of the cabin. There was an occasional percussive pop from the dying fire, rounding out the familiar symphony.
Winston Greer tightened his arms around the sleeping woman as they spooned under the stuffed quilt. Her mussed curls — their usual strawberry radiance dulled in the low light — tickled his lips as he breathed against her back. Scents of wood smoke and cedar mingled with the musk of her body, intoxicating him once again. He moved his fingers across the warm skin of her arm. She sighed, pushing back against him. There wouldn’t be time, but no matter. Tomorrow, as every night for the last month, he would lie awake through the night next to her.
A galloping ringtone tore Winston Greer from the euphoric dream. It deposited him, turgid and desolate, in the stark bedroom of a midtown low-rise. As he swiped his phone silent, there was no symphony in that room. There was only the cacophony of car-horns and rumbling trucks and a chorus of city voices. And a cold shower beckoned.
The woman with whom he’d spent each night in dreams, was also a presence in his every waking thought. He’d often heard of lucid dreaming, but until a month ago it wasn’t something he’d experienced. Before, he’d rarely ever recalled his dreams. When he did, they were typical nonsensical abstractions, the barely-accessible cognitions of one’s playful subconscious. But these new dreams — in these he had agency, he had clarity, he had purity of the senses … he had her. And he remembered every moment, of every night, as though he’d lived it.
Awake, when he closed his eyes she was there, always. These fleeting thoughts were more dreamlike than his nocturnal jaunts. Glimpses of her. Smiling at him with her crooked front teeth. Her ringed hair dancing in the sunlight like flames on her shoulders. Running from a downpour with their coats over their heads. Lying under the stars in an open field, her dilated gray eyes gazing into his. So many wordless moments. So many memories of things that had happened, but had never happened. So much time together, so much intimacy, so much passion. He knew her, without knowing her. He loved her, having never met her.
He was in love with a dream.
Night after day after night, he alternated between loving her and missing her, ever awake. Days bled into each other until he could scarcely discern which version of his life was real. Horribly, he realized which one he preferred would be.
So that afternoon, he nearly bruised his cheek against the glass when he thought he saw her from his window seat on the elevated train. She was strolling through the sooted downtown shops, her unmistakable hair a bright beacon against the dulled bricks and trash-strewn blacktop. A single firefly illuminating a sultry summer dusk. His heart wedged in his throat with promise, but the metro groaned and screeched along the track, tearing her from view as it wove between buildings. He dashed for the door when the train rumbled to its next stop, several blocks away.
The places on the concrete walk where her feet had been just minutes before seemed to glow. Distracted commuters bumped his shoulders and grumbled past as he stood, fixed in place, winded from his dash, scanning his surroundings in desperation for her. But she was nowhere to be seen. He trudged towards his apartment building as the sunset began to twinkle in the highest windows of the city skyline.
That night, when an elusive sleep finally took him, he sought her. He would try once again to communicate. She’d met his past efforts only with wry smiles, and eyes that spoke all he’d needed to know. Now his heart compelled him to learn her name — but how, without words?
He found her in the kitchen of the cottage, stirring mulled cider on the stove-top. When she turned to him, they fell into each other’s arms. A steam of orange and nutmeg swirled around them. The warmth of her cheek against his subdued his anxious mind, and he thought perhaps this would be enough, this version of him, with her. Contentment overwhelmed him, and he lifted her onto the counter, then trailed his lips across her cheek, dotting her pale skin with small kisses.
“I don’t care if you’re just my imagination,” he said, as they gazed into each other’s eyes with noses pressed together. She smiled, and her eyes reciprocated. Then her hands slid down his back, and pulled him against her, and she showed him exactly how vivid his imagination was.
Much later they sat, naked, huddled under a blanket beside the fire, sipping the spicy cider.
“I saw you today.” He chuckled. “I guess you could say it was in my dream.”
She looked at him with a question in her eyes. He realized that in all the time they’d spent together, he’d never ventured to talk about his real life. Why would he have bothered with something so mundane, amidst the perpetual thrill of this dream state? But after seeing her — or so he believed — in that dreary world, he was determined that she know him.
“I know you don’t speak to me,” he said, “but you do hear me, I think.” He paused to sip from their shared mug. “My name is Winston. Winston Greer. In my dreams — when I’m not here with you, that is — I live in a city called Everton. I go downtown every day to do something terribly boring for eight hours, and then I come home to find you. But today, on my way home, I looked out the train window and I could swear I saw you there. Right there in Everton. I thought for a moment I was hallucinating, that my sleep deprivation ….”
The woman pulled away. She was wide-eyed and flushed, her jaw hanging open.
“What is it?” he said. “What’s wrong?”
The woman pushed him, and he rolled onto the hardwood floor, spilling the cider, as she scrambled to her feet and dashed from the room. He called out to her as the bedroom door slammed behind her. And when he pushed open the bedroom door, she was gone.
A galloping ringtone tore Winston Greer from the heartbreaking dream. The midtown cacophony taunted him as he sat bewildered in his bed. What had just happened with the woman of his dreams? Would he ever see her again? He began his daily countdown to bedtime. “Only sixteen hours to go,” he said. A cold shower was not necessary this time. He let his blood boil all day.
Sixteen hours later he lay in his bed, restless. He had taken the day off from work to wander the downtown streets in search of the woman. With every dash of color that reminded him of her hair, his heart had spun wild with anticipation, only to crush in disappointment when each time it hadn’t been her.
When at last the twilight had painted the sky aubergine, he’d plodded home, utterly spent. Now he waited for sleep to claim him, tossing and turning in the sheets. Anxious for her, and cursing his insomnia. Eleven o’clock. Midnight. One AM. Two. Still awake, despite his exhaustion.
He was not sure what time the sandman visited him at last, and when the dreaded ringtone next galloped into his ears, he was suffused with sorrow. For the first time in over a month, he’d had a dreamless sleep. He thought the woman of his dreams must surely be gone, and he grieved for her as if there had been a death. He grieved for himself, having lost an entire reality which he’d preferred in nearly every way to his own. That man, too, had died. The wrong man. He wished that this Winston Greer — the one sitting alone — had been the dearly departed.
For a brief time, he contemplated making that happen.
Caught in the inertia of real life, though, he rose to re-enact the script of his typical weekday. He stared for long minutes at the man in the mirror, dark circles under his eyes, brow permanently furrowed, body soft with desk work. The man his younger self would not even recognize. He wondered where the missteps had been that had led him to this condition, this moment. The many roads not taken. The friendships not fostered. The ambitions not pursued. He felt a lump rise in his throat when he realized that this version of Winston Greer might as well have been the deceased after all.
Later that morning, he sat in a cafe in downtown Everton, on his fifth refill of black coffee. Outside a sheeting rain blurred the cityscape. Brake lights and neon banners seemed to melt in the crooked fingers of water on the window. He inhaled the rich aromas of maple and bacon, and sighed with contentment.
Quitting his job had been terrifying, yet exhilarating. He’d spent the next hours on his smartphone, breaking his lease, cancelling his subscriptions. In the suitcase beside his booth was everything he couldn’t part with in this world. A few necessities, plus a mere handful of sentimental things that had somehow survived his detached existence. A childhood photo, a ticket stub, a plastic friendship bracelet. Everything else he’d left in the apartment, advising the annoyed super to keep it or sell it or trash it.
His life had been so depressingly simple to uproot, he wondered why he’d ever felt so trapped.
The next stop would be the bank, to cash out his not-inconsiderable savings. Then to the train station, where he would close his eyes, spin on his heels, and allow his fingertip — and fate — to reveal his destination on the wall map. To reveal his new life.
The server stopped at his booth with a steaming pot of coffee. “Refill, hon?”
“I’d better not,” he said. “I might want to sleep on the train.”
She pulled his check from her apron pocket. “Where ya headed?”
“Not sure yet. Anywhere, really.”
“Ah.” She winked. “Nomad, huh?”
He liked the sound of that, and gave her a warm smile.
The train rumbled through towns. Trains have a special perspective, winding through the secrets of backyards and business lots. Places strewn with junk one can’t see from their shiny streetside facades. Winston Greer leaned his forehead against the glass and watched this private panorama, while his thoughts wound through the hidden backlots of his mind. Once he had dreamt of being a musician. Visions of backstage jitters, the joy of performing. Once he had dreamt of being an artist. Pride in pieces he’d once created flashed behind his eyes. Once he had dreamt of being a teacher. The educators who had most inspired him now immortalized in his memory.
How had he ended up as nothing but a cog, in a soul-crushing business machine, with no hope of such a legacy? Only a greasy component part, to be rusted and eroded over the years, and someday replaced with one shiny and new. Someone like he’d used to be.
When he’d stopped at the bank to extract the last root of his life, it was almost like pulling a weed. The pretty young teller counted out stacks of cash with mechanical precision, and as each pile grew, he felt lighter and lighter. When he stepped from the edifice he felt like a field of freshly tilled soil, rain-moistened and sun-warmed, eager for new seeds. As he gazed out the window of the train car, he felt a camaraderie with the vast swaths of farm fields on either side of the train tracks. What would he grow in his new farm?
The gentle rocking of the train car was a mother he’d lost long ago, her lullaby the rhythmic clicking of the train wheels. And he slept.
The woman was there. The woman of his dreams. They were standing in one of the cornfields as a train horn Doppler-shifted in the distance. Her face was enigmatic. Her bright eyes echoed the color of the sky above, while a humid, earthen breeze flicked through her hair and combed the waving green-gold stalks that surrounded them.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and she held both his hands. “I think I understand now. Before I dreamt of pulling you into my life. Such as it was. I thought you were the missing piece. You’re so alive — I’m so alive with you — that it consumed me. So completely that I began to see you in the daytime. But what you’ve really done is shown me just how dead I was.”
The woman smiled and nodded. Her eyes began to moisten with tears.
“That’s all changing now,” he said. “I would have been a parasite to you. When really what I needed to do was begin living. And come what may, that’s what I’m doing now. What I’m going to do, from now on. I wish I could share it with you, but even if I can’t, I want to thank you. For bringing me back to life.” Then he pulled her close, and kissed her warm, soft mouth.
He woke to the announcement that the Granby Train Depot was the next stop. The finger of fate had pointed him here to this small town in Colorado. He shook the cobwebs from his head, swigged from his water bottle, and gathered up his things while the train squealed to a stop.
Stepping from the train, he breathed the thinning prairie air, here at almost eight thousand feet. He marveled in the vastness of the horizons — one of which was decorated with dark, verdant hills. A peace settled in his chest, and he knew this was where he needed to be. He climbed the four steps under the entry arch of the the barn-red depot and pushed through the door. In the open chamber there were a few wooden benches on a tile floor. A few people were milling about, either coming or going.
Winston Greer sat on one of the benches and pulled out his phone to arrange for travel into town. From behind him he heard a woman at the ticket window.
“When is the next train to Everton?” she said.
He turned in curiosity, surprised to have heard someone going to the very place he’d forsaken. A woman stood with her back to him. A woman with curly locks of strawberry blonde. She had on a plain flannel shirt, tucked into faded jeans, tucked into high boots. Over her shoulder she lugged a stuffed canvas duffel bag. He stood, on shaky legs, watching her small movements — tucking her hair behind her ears, rooting in her purse for money.
“Well, darn it,” she said, “I don’t seem to have enough money for that.” She gave a nervous chuckle. “Sorry to have bothered you.” She moved to the side and leaned against the wall, then slid down to sit on the floor, head in her hands.
Winston had been unable to get a good glimpse of her face. He lifted his suitcase and stepped towards the woman, mindful of each step so as to appear neither hurried nor disinterested. The low, golden sun that filled the picture windows of the depot cast his shadow over her as he stopped. The woman sniffled, and then looked up at him with wet eyes.
“It is you,” he said, his voice cracked with awe.
“Winston?” Her surprise was as electric as his own.
She took his outstretched hand.