So I was standing once again on a beach of gray sand, with two—my eyes were blurry, maybe three?—red moons dropping down toward the horizon. The water churned in a wide, furious whirlpool, and a thick red tentacle shot from the waves.
“Uh, what is this?”
I twisted around. Rachel wore a chain mail bikini, the kind you see in comic books—Red Sonya!—and media conventions. I tried not to stare at her legs.
She planted a fist on her hip. “Okay, I’m guessing this is your dream, not mine.”
“Sorry.” I closed my eyes. Part of me hoped I could burn the sight of her body into my memory before I woke up. Mostly I hoped she wouldn’t just slug me.
When I opened my eyes, she was wearing combat fatigues—jacket and boots, and dark aviator sunglasses. Still sexy. “Better?”
She patted her pockets. “Lots of extra ammo. But I still don’t know how to reload. Can you work that into your next dream without having Princess Leia fantasies?”
I swung around, the heavy sword shaking in my hand. “Let’s just . . .”
“Get down!” Rachel fired her rifle as the monster rose from the sea. Four thick hairy legs, three white eyes, and too many red tentacles to count. It marched forward through the water, roaring like a bull elephant.
The monster thrashed and lurched forward, and we backed away. More blood poured from its hatchet-shaped face, staining the sand, but it only roared again and surged toward us.
Rachel threw her rifle down, the clip empty. “Run, you idiot!”
I managed to hold onto my sword as we raced toward the castle. Rachel yanked the bell cord. The door slid open. Harry looked up at us. “Hi.”
“Harry!” I pushed Rachel through the door. “Take care of her.”
“What are you talking about?” Rachel stood up, panting. Somehow she was in the metal bikini again, and Harry was staring at her. “Oh, this is just great.”
“Come on.” Harry led us through the same narrow passageway into the square, and this time we got a lot more attention from the citizens at the food carts. Probably because of Rachel.
“Sorry.” We ran toward the temple, or whatever it was.
Diamond came out in her black robe. She didn’t welcome me this time. Instead she looked up at the castle wall, where the monster’s arms were clutching the platform inside. Archers fired arrows and soldiers plunged swords and daggers into its thick skin, but this time it heaved its huge body up and over, its white eyes pulsing with furry.
The platform collapsed. Defenders fell and died as the monster landed on the ground inside the square. Screams deafened the air as townspeople fled, seeking safety inside the temple.
Harry cowered next to me. “You can save us. Please.”
I didn’t know how. The monster lurched forward. Harry screamed and ran. Rachel tried to grab him, but he was lost in panic. Like everyone else.
We watched, helpless, as a slender tentacle wrapped around his legs and lifted him high. Rachel’s scream was louder than anyone’s.
I stepped forward and threw my sword as hard as I could. I missed.
Harry looked back at my, his arms and legs flailing, and then he went into the monster’s jaws. I turned away.
Diamond stood behind me. “You were supposed to be our hero!”
“I don’t know how!” I stared at her. “Tell me what to do!”
But she only stepped away. “You know.”
“This is stupid!” Rachel punched my arm, but she looked ready to strangle Diamond. “Why are you bringing us here? I don’t know how to shoot a gun, Tom doesn’t know how to swing a sword—what do you want?”
The monster howled behind us. Diamond just shook her head. And then she closed the door of the temple, leaving the rest of the city to face the monster.
“Damn it!” Rachel pounded her fist on the bed. “What did we do wrong?”
The room spun over my head. I grabbed a cord and hit the call button. “Hey, uh, we need some help here . . .”
“Oh god.” Rachel rolled her head. “Oh god, I’m going to . . . Uh-oh.” She leaned over the bed railing and threw up on the floor.
A nurse burst into the room. “What’s going on?”
“Check on my girlfriend.” Rachel was twitching as if she was having a seizure. I clutched my water, my arms shaking. “And me too, when you have the time.” Oh hell, what had I done to her?
Eventually Rachel settled back and breathed normally. A doctor and two nurses crowded around her bed.
The first nurse pressed some kind of digital thermometer into my arm. “The fever is spiking. “Hey! Get this guy more fluids!”
The doctor turned from Rachel’s bed. “Mr. Jurgen? I’m Doctor Brown.” He had a mild Jamaican accent. Your wife is fine, but—”
“Not my wife.” My head was swimming. “I mean, I’m Jurgen. That’s Rachel, she’s my girlfriend—”
“In your dreams, you jerk!” Rachel raised a hand, but she was too far away to hit me. “I mean—okay, yeah. Girlfriend. Dreams. Make sure he’s okay, all right? I need to . . .” Her head dropped back onto her pillow.
“Help her.” My throat felt raw. “We’ve got to help all of them.”
“Okay, okay.” Dr. Brown felt my forehead and checked my pulse at the same time. “You’re both going to be fine.”
“But not the rest of them.” I struggled to breathe. “We’ve got to help them. Rachel? Are you there?”
“Ohh . . .” Rachel groaned. “Do we have to do it again? That little boy—Harry? I don’t want it to happen again.”
“It won’t.” I closed my eyes. “Stay awake. I’ve got this.”
“You idiot. I . . . don’t do anything stupid.”
“More fluids.” The doctor’s voice was harsh. “And get them both on . . .”
I closed my eyes. Okay, I was ready now. Maybe.
I’m standing on a beach of gray sand. Again. At least now I’m in jeans and my windbreaker. No sword. No weapon. I’m just watching three red moons descend into the sea.
“Hey, Tom.” It’s Rachel, right behind me. “Where are we going?”
I twist my head. Rachel’s in tight yoga pants and a loose tank top. So whose dream is it now? I don’t know. I don’t want to take my eyes off of her. But I know the monster is rising from the water.
I take a step back. “We have to kill that thing. Somehow.”
“No. I mean . . .” Her breath whispers at my neck. “About us?”
Oh god. Definitely my dream. Or my nightmare. “Can we talk about this later?”
“We may not have time.” She points. The creature is stumbling out toward the shore.
“Okay, okay.” I swung around and grab her arm. “I love you. You know that, right? Let’s go.”
“Good enough.” Rachel runs. I follow. The beast from the sea pursues us as we race once again toward the castle.
Rachel reaches the gate first and pulls the bell. It rings high in the air.
The door slides open. It’s Harry again. I push Rachel through first. “Take care of her.” My voice is raspy. And my heart is pounding.
Harry squirms, but then he grabs Rachel’s arm and plunges down the passageway. “Hurry!”
We’re out in the courtyard. The same food carts serve the same desperate people, all looking for a hero to save them.
Diamond gazes down at me. She opens her arms and smiles.
“Citizens!” she shouts. “Here is Tom Jurgen! The hero who will save us! Welcome him!”
Hero? I search for Rachel. She’s standing next to Harry, looking up at me. Shaking her head as all around her citizens run from the sound of booming feet outside the castle walls.
Some of the fleeing townspeople gaze at me. Their faces are desperate. Some are crying. Men and women are grasping children in their arms, running as fast as they can toward the temple hatches.
Harry pulls Rachel. She slaps his hand away. She plants her combat boots on the pavement and shoves him away. He shouts at her. Rachel crosses her arms and stays.
No. No . . .
The creature clambers over the wall. Archers shoot and scatter. Citizens flee for the temple doors. I don’t see Harry anywhere. But Rachel is right down there . . .
Then the monster leaps down into the square, its tentacles flying around. One knocks over a soldier trying to stab it with a sword. Another arm slams an old woman into the ground. A huge foot tromps on a young man pushing a screaming kid out of its path. Screams split the air.
The monster rises up, roaring in fury.
I don’t have any weapons. But somehow all these people expect me to save them. I turned around, glaring at Diamond in her short black robes “What do I do? How do I kill it?”
She stands by the door, ready to lock herself up inside. “You don’t kill it, Tom Jurgen. That’s why you’re a hero.”
Oh god. No. Does she mean . . .
“Wait a minute!” I grab her robe. “Rachel’s down there! You can’t—”
“We looked for someone to save us. Someone from another world. The creature chose you. That’s why you’re here.”
Why they kept drawing me back and back. “Okay! What about Rachel? Do we wake up? Like in Inception? Is that what happens?”
“You save us.” She glides away. “That’s all I know. But that’s why we need a hero.”
Oh no. No, no, no, no, no . . .
The monster pounds forward, its tentacles swinging left and right. An old man falls beneath one heavy foot. A little girl runs zigzag, narrowly avoiding one of its heavy, thrashing arms. People flow toward the temple hatches, desperate to escape.
I can’t do this. I’m a coward. I run at the sight of trouble. No one’s ever called me brave. Or a hero.
But screams pierce the air. Damn it. I have to do something.
My life streams past me. It’s not all bad. Okay, professional disgrace, divorce, scraping money to pay the bills . . . but I’ve helped some people. And then there’s Rachel. Standing out there, looking at me. Maybe I could have done more, but . . .
But for whatever reason, these people need me. Harry, and all those kids . . .
So I stagger down the steps to meet the monster. “Hey you!”
The creature actually seems to hear me. It pauses in its rampage, its hatchet head looming around.
“Yeah, me!” I lean back. “Tom Jurgen! You want a piece of me? Come and get me, you asshole!”
Tentacles rise up. Legs bend down. That big ugly face drops, and the jaws open wide.
Okay. Okay. I can do this. Maybe. I take one last deep breath. “Do it, you bastard! Come on, are you scared? Why don’t you—”
Oops. Sharp fangs tear at my body. I’m high up in the air, my body flailing around. I look back down at the square—
And there’s Rachel gazing up at me from the middle of the square, one arm raised high. Giving me the finger.
I laugh. I’m spinning, dizzy, nauseous, but somehow it’s okay. I bite my lip and close my eyes. I hope it won’t hurt too much . . .
I opened my eyes, breathing hard. At least I was breathing. “Is this heaven?”
Rachel glared down at me. “I’m here. What do you think, jerk?”
Dr. Raje patted my shoulder. “Your fever is down. How do you feel?”
“J-just happy to be here.” I reached for my water. “What about—”
“Your heart stopped!” Rachel loomed over me. “I’m legally prohibited from hitting you just now, but once we get home, oh boy . . .”
My heart? I turned my head and saw two nurses packing up a crash cart. I knew it was a crash cart because I’d seen them on TV. My chest felt raw. But my heart was beating.
Dr. Raje glared at Rachel. “Please don’t upset him.”
Rachel backed away. Which almost never happens. “I was just scared.” She sat down on her bed. “Just make sure he’s okay.”
Nurse Andrea was checking my blood pressure. “You’re back to normal. But you need to rest. No excitement.” She shot a glance at Rachel. “Either of you.”
Rachel nodded. “Fine.” This was almost scarier than the monster.
Dr. Raje pushed a jug of water at me. “You should rest. You’re getting better, and your girlfriend is almost completely free of the infection, but I want both of you here for another night at least. We’re starting another antibiotic, which should knock it out for good. In the meantime, lots of fluids. And rest. You too.” She smiled at Rachel. “Especially now.”
Rachel hopped into her bed. “I was just nervous. I watch a lot of medical shows, you know?”
“Watch something else tonight.” She tossed the remote. “I think there’s a Star Trek Next Generation marathon going on.”
“Ooh, Captain Picard!” She started flipping through the channels.
“You hate The Next Generation.” I closed my eyes.
“I had to make her leave, didn’t I?” I could feel Rachel’s breath on my face as she leaned over me. “Are you okay?”
“Harry’s fine.” I leaned over for my water, and Rachel pushed the straw to my lips. After a long gulp I leaned back, spilling water over the sheets. “How much did you see?”
“People running. Screaming. And that thing climbing over the wall.” She rubbed her eyes. “And then some idiot yelling, ‘Do you want a piece of me?’”
I smiled. “Someone gave me the finger.”
“For Christ’s sake.” She leaned down to kiss my forehead. “What the hell were you thinking?”
“I didn’t have time to think much.” Which was probably good. “They needed a hero.”
“Jerk.” But she kissed me again. On the lips this time. “I need you too.”
* * *
I stand on a beach of coarse gray sand. Two red moons in a smoky twilight sky sink down slowly toward the surface of a dark sea.
Oh no—not again? But the water is calm now. And I don’t have a sword in my hands, or armor over my shoulders.
The walls of the black castle rise high. Flags fly from its tall towers. I stare for a long time. Meat cooks from faraway stoves, and happy songs drift through the air.
They never did identify the bacteria that caused the infection. Apparently that’s kind of common. The best Rachel and I could figure was that Diamond pushed it into our world and sent it straight to me, hoping I’d save her city. How she knew about me—and why she thought I’d be willing to sacrifice myself—was a mystery.
I sink down on my knees and sift the sand through my fingers. Okay. Maybe it was all worth it. At least I know how to die.
“Get up.” Rachel leans down to grab my hand. She’s in a red bikini top and tight black shorts “This outfit is a favor, so don’t get used to it. We’re going home.”
I stand up. “Thanks.”
Another kiss. “Don’t be a hero next time, okay?”
“Whatever you say.” I close my eyes and wait to wake up.
# # #