We Build the City

Submitted into Contest #113 in response to: Write about two people whose dreams are somehow connected. ... view prompt


Romance Historical Fiction Speculative

New Orleans, 2021

Camille wakes with a gasp, just before the boy took her hand in his.

Why do dreams always end just before the most heart-wrenching part?

Closing her eyes against the gray morning light one more, Camille stubbornly tries to fall back into her dream. Just a few more minutes . . .

But her phone’s alarm breaks her resolve with a not-so-gentle tinkling of bells, and she wants to cry. Couldn’t she get just a couple of more minutes with him?

With a final, frustrated harumph, Camille rolls her limbs one by one out of bed and pads over toward the cozy aroma of her freshly brewed coffee pot, stretching her arms as she goes.

The warmth of the mug in her hand reminds her of the boy’s warm cheek against hers as they sat nestled together on a bench in Jackson Square. He had a timeless air about him, in his smile, in his crinkled brown eyes. Camille finds herself smiling into her mug.

Stop it, Camille, she suddenly thinks to herself, shaking her head in a desperate attempt to wash the boy’s image away. With a slight wave of embarrassment coursing through her, she gulps down the last of her coffee and pushes herself away from the little round table.

She shouldn’t be swooning over a boy who doesn’t exist. Even if he’s been the subject of six dreams this week.

With the next thirty minutes passing in a blink, she collects her canvases, brushes, paints and rushes out the door.


La Nouvelle-Orléans, 1721

“Good morning, Pére,” Andre says with a bright smile. He kisses his father on his stubbled cheek and sinks into the rickety wooden chair stationed beside the paper-strewn work desk.

His father looks up from his sketch, eyes wide under the wired rims of his spectacles. “Bonjour, mons fils.” He lays his pencil down and stretches his perpetually graphite-stained fingers. Andre sees the dark circles under his father’s heavy eyes, and droop of his shoulders.

“You need more sleep, Pére.”

His father gives him a side-eyed smirk. “I’ll sleep once the city is finished. You seem to be getting plenty for the both of us, anyhow.” Andre doesn’t miss the hint of accusation in his father’s tone. “If sleep makes me as chipper as you’ve been, perhaps I’ll continue burning the candle into the young hours before my colleagues think something is amiss with me. Honestly! What’s gotten into you, boy?”

His father’s taunt bears no malice, so Andre plays along. “Indeed, I’ve been getting excellent sleep. Only you would think it negative to feel well rested! You should leave space for a public square right here.” He points over his father’s shoulder to the area between the River and the sketched box labeled with a thick cross and the word église.

“Why on God’s terre verte should I waste this space?”

“That’s precisely why, Pére! Leave some terre verte in the middle of the city!”

His father shakes his head. “I am Adrien de Pauger, and I do not design parks. I design streets! I design cities!” Still, as he speaks, Andre sees him draw a rough box stretching to the bank of the river. “I’ll leave it to Mr. Pilié down the road.”

Andre prods his father’s shoulder before collecting his hat from the stand near the dusty doorway. “I’m off to the trading post. Do you have a need for anything else aside from the wicks and oil?”

“More paper! Please!”

Andre hides the roll of his eyes as he steps out onto the sooty carriage road. Always more paper.

And he finds himself whistling as he walks, hands in his pocket, his mind returning once again to the girl in his dream.


New Orleans, 2021

“Aw, c’mon, Marcelle! How can you be out of green? Green is everywhere and in everything!”

“Sorry, Camille.” Marcelle shrugs his shoulders and directs a teasing grin toward her. “You try making paint and see how it goes.”

Camille shakes her head, holding up her hand. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I just can’t believe I let myself run out.”

“Every artist’s mistake. Need anything else?”

“No, I think I’m set now. Thanks, Marcelle.”

Camille collects her bags and jostles her way through the crowd of the French Market. The hum of hundreds of bodies, voices, and vibes bounce through the livened air, and Camille breathes it in with gratitude. The constant energy is a beautiful thing to her, strums her creative heartstrings, and it follows Camille through the narrow one-way streets of the city. As she passes the street performers, the same every day, she drops a dollar in their collection buckets, hats, and instrument cases. The same every day.

Finally, she reaches her workplace—a piece of concrete sidewalk her studio, the black wrought iron gate of Jackson Square her gallery. She gingerly lowers her heavy bags to the ground, quickly works up a  display of her finished pieces, and sets up her easel. She used to bring a chair around with her, but after finding it too clunky and too far from the earth beneath her, she since opts for the concrete itself, nothing surrounding her but blankets, pillows, and paintbrushes.

Camille deeply breathes in the city’s autumn air, which is not so chilly today, and slowly dips her brush into her vial of paint. With her eyes closed, she lets herself recall the only inspiration she has felt this week.

She starts with the boy’s excited brown eyes.


La Nouvelle-Orléans, 1721

Andre waves away the rolling dust from a horse’s cart as he walks through the settlement, the staunch red, white, and blue of French flags bustling in the autumn wind.

The expanse of what would soon be called the Vieux Carré according to his father stretches before him, and the Mississippi River rushes behind him. The water runs so powerfully, rich and bold, that it reminds him of the girl. Her skin, the beautiful hue of chicory coffee, was so soft under his fingers. The memory of their light touch sends a thrill of goosebumps through him, his fingertips to her cheek as he tucked a stray curl behind her ear.

If only for the dreams he’s been having since his arrival one week ago, he is glad that he made the trip across the world to join his father here. His apprenticeship in Paris offered him little, aside from a new enlightenment of the inequality between the rich and the poor, and a realization that carpentry is not for him. This new adventure brings with it opportunity, growth, and a dream girl.

The sun is already beginning to set, and he cannot wait to see her tonight.


New Orleans, 2021

Camille unlocks the door to her apartment with a flourish and hustles inside out of the chilled darkness, careful not to bang her new piece against the doorframe. It will be weeks before she finishes this particular painting, but she already knows this one will never be for sale. No, she is sure that it will find its home upon her own walls.

Her cheeks feel warm with windburn, her paint-stained hands icy as she presses them to her face. She plans out her night, already excited to crawl into bed for more reasons than one now. A quick bath, and off to bed.

But as she slips out of her shoes and walks toward the bathroom, she decides she can spare a few more moments to relax and defrost in a nice, hot bath.

She knows it’s foolish to feel such excitement over a dream boy. She knows she’s setting herself up for a broken heart when her dreams of him cease.

But how can she not fall in love with Andre?

How can she ever ignore his calloused hands tucking her hair behind her ear? His heart filled laugh encompassing her in warmth? His honey-sweet voice whispering that she is beautiful, that she is talented, that she is brilliant?  

Who can ignore that?


La Nouvelle-Orléans, 1721

Mons fils, come to me for a moment.”

Andre’s father catches him as he is sprinting through their door, the night having crept in on him as he helped unload lumber for the new, and already reaching for the doorknob to his bedroom. He backs away from his door and stands before his father with his hands behind his back. “Yes, Pére?”

“You’ve been here for a week now. I’ve let you explore. Don’t you believe it may be time to settle down and learn?”

Pére, I—”

“You’ll need to support your wife. You’re seeing a girl, aren’t you?” His father looks at him through smug eyes. “That’s why you’ve been acting as you are, isn’t it? I should have seen that glint in your eye before now. I felt the same way about your mother.”

Andre chuckles. “I suppose I have—”

“And in only a week’s time, too!” His father whistles. “You will bring her here before long, yes? And you must be smart about this, Andre. A young woman is to be respected, both in public and in private—”

Pére, I understand.”

“Work with me tomorrow. No more simple errands to run. Give your future bride the life she deserves.”

His father’s words send a burn of agony through Andre’s veins. He cannot give this woman anything. But he cannot tell this to his father. “Of course,” he says instead. “I will stand by your work tomorrow. Good night, Pére.”

Bonne nuit, mon fils.

Andre escapes to his room and sits on the corner of his mattress, the horsehairs picking at him through the cloth and down feathers. As he unlaces his boots and dresses down to his knickers, he plays his father’s words in his head.

Time to settle down.

Yes, time to settle down in more ways than one. This girl in his dreams drives him mad. How is it possible that the first woman he loves is a figment of his restful nights? That she cannot be more than images his tired mind wishes to see? How can he conjure up someone so unique, so beautiful, so strong, when he was never met anyone of the sort?

Andre shakes his head. He is but a foolish twenty-seven-year-old man chasing a dream.

But God knows he will chase it until it ends.


New Orleans, a dream

The city here is different than what Camille knows. It is more like the New Orleans portrayed in the black-and-white film, A Streetcar Named Desire. Only, Vivian Leigh is not here playing Blanche DuBois, and Marlon Brando is not shouting for Stella, as far as Camille can tell. Also unlike the movie, and very unlike the city on a normal night, the streets are calm and quiet, with a sole trumpet cutting through the still air.

And for Andre, to see the city as complete as this should shock him. To see his father’s city laid out and built up before him should be overwhelming. But it doesn’t, and it’s not.

Neither of them feels confused. It is a dream, after all. Instead, this city feels right, as if it has always been this way. Of course it looks like this, with iron streetlamps and paved streets, massive oak trees canopying overhead. And of course Andre is here with Camille. And of course Camille is here with Andre.

What they feel is timeless.

They walk down a lit street together, Royal Street the sign says, and this time, they are hand in hand. Camille leans her head against Andre’s shoulder, and a happiness she only feels when she paints flows and flourishes through her. The kind of happiness that leads to hours of inspiration in front of her canvas.

“My sweet Camille,” Andre murmurs, burrowing his nose into her pillow of thick hair. Here, it feels as if they have known each other longer than ten lifetimes.

A left on Louis Street, a right on Chartres.

At the street corner, Andre turns Camille around in a dance to the floating jazz and takes her in his arms. He gazes down at her, taking her in—her relaxed smile, the shine in her amber eyes.

His sudden, bright laugh lights a tenderness in Camille, and she finds the courage to stretch on her tiptoes and kiss him.


New Orleans, 2021

Camille wakes, her hand to her chest.

It’s still dark through her curtains, and she would do anything to return to her dream. Instead of trying to go back to sleep, however, she gets out of bed, sets up her paints and brushes, and sits in front of her city scene, Andre front and center.


La Nouvelle-Orléans, 1721

Andre sits up in his bed, his lips still prickling from Camille’s kiss. It’s pitch black in his room, pitch black through his window, no lamps lit outside in the middle of the night. What a strange world his dream takes him to every night, where the lamps burn along the street all night long.

But he doesn’t think about that for too long. Dreams are a wonder.

Instead, he throws his thin sheet off him and laces his boots, dresses in his trousers. He leaves his room and finds just what he expects: his father leaning over his desk, oil burning late.

His father looks up at the sound of footsteps. “Mons fils, what are you doing awake?”

Andre shrugs his shoulders, but a gentle smile pulls at the corners of his mouth. “Just awakened from a dream, that’s all.” He walks over to his father and studies the thin lines of graphite stretching across the paper. “The Vieux Carré is looking fantastic, Pére.” Andre is not sure how he knows, but it looks just as it should.

Quickly, before he forgets, he points over his father’s shoulder. “This street should be named Royal.” The memory of Camille’s hand warms his.

“And this one here should be Louis.” Her head rests on his shoulder.

“And this one—Chartres.” He pulls her into a dance to the smooth brass instruments.

October 01, 2021 09:08

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01:49 Oct 06, 2021

Beautiful homage to the magical city of New Orleans. Very creative, congratulations!


Ashley Slaughter
03:31 Oct 06, 2021

Thank you so much for the kind words! New Orleans is indeed a special place!


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