The boy was not sleepy, and he said just that.
“I’m not sleepy.”
He rubbed sleep from cloudy eyes with one tiny hand and said it again to the quiet room.
“I’m not sleepy at all.”
The moon poured bright and full through his window, a splash of pale warmth that stretched over pieces of the room, leaving only splotches of shadow here and there. That moon was full, or near enough. A kind of moon with edges that seemed to move, swaying to and fro as the boy looked up, daring not to blink for fear of the moon disappearing if he took his eyes away.
It was late, far past his bedtime, but he was not sleepy and the moon was so bright. Bright enough that surely a boy could walk all the way up to that vibrating glow without ever losing his way. And so he decided to do just that.
His window slid open with ease and he flopped out, dangling first one foot and then the other over the edge before dropping to the ground with a dull thud. Somewhere a bird griped about the noise and once more fell silent. The boy did not know what kind of bird stayed up at night. The kind of bird that wasn’t sleepy.
Twisting cracks ran through the sidewalk in places, each piece not quite level after years of living above shifting earth. Grass nudged its way through cracks here and there, not every crack but some, and long, healthy green blades waved in a thin breeze that walked along beside the boy as he traveled closer and closer to the moon. The slap of his feet along the loose pavement was loud, like hands slowly clapping along to the rhythm of his step. He listened to that sound, the soothing drumbeat of his walk, and soon he was humming a tune to match the pace, a slow note that played out and out until it might never have ended but for the yawn that pulled at the boy’s mouth, stifling the impromptu song.
“Excuse me,” said the boy, covering the yawn with his hand. No sooner had the hand slipped away that another yawn forced its way out, this one twice as strong as the last. His mouth pulled wide and his eyes grew heavy and he yawned with all his might, a yawn so mighty that his eyes were pulled tight from the effort. A long moment passed with that yawn, but soon enough his mouth closed and his eyes opened and all was as it had been, or almost. The moon wasn’t where it should have been. A cloud or the sky or some unknowable thing had obscured the moon. The boy looked at the spot in the sky where he knew the moon was, waiting for it to reappear, his foot tapping out an impatient tune that was strikingly similar to the one it had played before, but the moon would not return to its spot.
“Pardon me, little one, but do you know the time?”
A man stood before the boy, casually staring out at nothing in particular. This man made no sound and could easily have been there all along, standing in that spot as the boy wandered headlong into the night with his eyes turned up to the moon before its departure. The man waited a beat before turning to look at the boy who still looked to the sky, only with great reluctance allowing some attention to slip from the spot where the moon should have been, lest he missed its return.
“I only ask,” continued the man, “because it is quite late, and little ones should be at home in bed.”
The night had grown quite dark without the moon in the sky, but as the man turned toward the boy a certain pale glow illuminated his features. He wore a fine white suit cut from a fair, delicate fabric. The collar was turned up, as if to shield a chill wind, but the night was warm, and from that collar sprung not a neck but an enormous head shaped like a sphere, the center of which held a friendly, smiling face.
The boy looked up at this smiling stranger with the big round head and gave a slight pout.
“I’m not a little one, and I’m not sleepy.”
The round-headed man went on smiling.
“Is that so, little one?”
“It is just so, mister. I don’t need sleep.”
“Are you sure, little one? Everyone needs sleep. Even I need sleep.”
The boy’s bottom lip protruded slowly, making an audible pop as it did so, an indignant punctuation to go with the look his face was making.
“I don’t need sleep and I’m not sleepy, mister.”
“Very well. If you’re not using it, then I will take your sleep for myself.”
“What?” said the boy. His eyes first narrowed and then widened as he looked up at the man. The boy felt he had missed something but was not quite sure what that something was. Take his sleep? What could that mean? He opened his mouth to ask just that question, to ask just what the round-headed man had meant, but the boy found himself again interrupted by an unexpected yawn, the biggest yawn yet. Again his mouth stretched open and again his eyes pulled shut tight and again, soon enough, the yawn ended. So satisfying was this biggest of yawns that several seconds had gone by before the boy realized that the man with the big round head and the fine white suit was no longer standing before him. Neither was he anywhere nearby, neither up nor down the sidewalk, not anywhere along the street. The boy could tell with ease, could see quite clearly. The pale full moon was once more visible in the clear night sky.
“Read the sign.”
She didn’t have a name, or if she had one it wasn’t on a nametag the boy could see. Nothing easy to read or find. She wore a tattered apron stained with remains from a wide assortment of pies and at least one dense blot of ink. She tapped a pen on the sign as she spoke in case there was some confusion. CUSTOMERS MUST WEAR SHOES read block letters faded with age. A bruise of ink appeared each time the pen tapped the sign. She didn’t smile.
The boy craned his neck to first look up at the sign and then at the woman, the same alarmed expression on his face as he took in each.
“I forgot my shoes.”
Toes wiggled on the floor as they waited for what might have come next. A line of dirty smudges along the linoleum marked a trail of footsteps leading from the door to the spot where he stood. The woman looked at the wide-eyed boy with the concerned face and let out a breathy sigh.
She let out the flimsy syllable like she was thinking it over, but her decision was already firm.
“Have a seat. Order something.”
The boy looked over his shoulder as he padded to a table, throwing words as he went.
“May I have a menu?”
An ink-stained hand produced a folded paper menu from her apron as if by magic, a flick of the wrist and there it was. Every line was colored with unearned honorifics like Homestyle or County’s Best. The boy sat in a booth several times his size and studied the writing on the bent and shabby list of greasy specials as if there might be a test later.
Movement caught the eye. The boy turned to see a man walk past on the other side of a thin pane of window glass. He moved with a lithe step, like he wanted to skip but was tired or had worn the wrong shoes. A wiry enthusiasm flowed in him, was visible in his every movement, from the swing of his arms to the wide set eyes that never blinked. As he walked, there drifted on the air a swirl of wandering flakes. Snow, but something wasn’t quite right. The light seemed to disappear as it fell on the flakes, not shine the way snow should. The boy looked to the waitress who herself was busy letting her leaky ink pen dance over the page of an order pad, wandering doodles, pictures of innocent nothings.
“It’s not cold out. Where is the snow coming from?”
The boy said this with a sheen of bewilderment spreading on his face. A bell rang out as the enthusiastic man came through the glass front door. His face was thin and his clothes were faded, old but clean. He walked in long steps like a man used to walking on stilts, who had not yet learned to be disappointed with only legs. The nameless waitress looked from the boy to the window and back.
“It’s warm out,” was all she said.
The boy stared up at her a moment longer before turning back to the window. The slow fall of not quite right snowflakes had disappeared. He looked to the woman for explanation or to lay blame, but she seemed to have already forgotten.
“Something to eat or what?”
The boy mumbled something, a few crumbs of words too low to be found by the ear. The waitress frowned.
“What’s that? Speak up.”
“I don’t think I have any money.”
He looked at the menu again, hoping for an answer to jump out. A touch of panic began to set in. The enthusiastic man halted his long stride as he heard the boy’s words.
“He’ll have a coffee.”
The pen tapped at the order pad, splashing misshapen shadows on the page. She eyed the man with a narrow glare.
“You can’t give coffee to a child.”
“Hot chocolate then. You can give a child hot chocolate, can’t you?”
The order pad fluttered like a paper dove as the waitress escaped to the kitchen. The enthusiastic man ignored her departure, taking great care to dust each shoulder as he took a seat at a table several tables over from the one at which the boy still studied the ramshackle menu.
“Is that snow?” asked the boy without looking up.
“Is what snow?”
“What you’re dusting there. Is that snow?”
The man leaned over as if he were going to share a secret with the empty space beside him then turned to look at the boy who still had not taken his eyes off the menu.
“You say you saw it snowing? It’s a perfectly warm night out.”
The menu slowly came down, where from behind appeared the boy’s eyes staring back at the enthusiastic man with palpable skepticism. His voice held a clear accusation.
“You dusted your shoulders.”
Just then the waitress returned, setting a chipped mug in front of the boy and a styrofoam cup in front of the enthusiastic man. The man sipped, grimaced, smiled at no one in particular, and left a wad of bills on the table as he stood up. The boy watched this with that same incredulous glare. As the man headed for the door he caught glimpse of that glare, halting again his exuberant march.
“What’s your name, pal?”
The boy let loose a pout, watching the tall man sip his bitter drink again.
“I do not know you, sir. You may call me Mister.”
The man’s laugh was a wild, shrill thing that bounced around the walls before escaping into the ether.
“That’s a good name, Mister. And you can call me Lam.”
“Lamb? Like the animal? Lamb is a dumb name, sir.”
“That it is. But my name is Lam. L-A-M. You say you could see snow falling outside?”
The pout had started to loosen but once again was back at the question.
“Of course I saw the snow. Why wouldn’t I?”
The man took another sip, the grimace not coming this time. He stood there, quiet, pondering. After a moment he spoke.
“Shouldn’t you be at home, Mister? People sleep at this time of night.”
The boy’s answer was instantaneous, as if he’d been waiting for just this question.
“I gave my sleep away because I didn’t need it.”
He thought the man would laugh, but the man only stood, once more thinking. At last he nodded, satisfied with some strand of thought that had been caught in his head.
“It was nice to meet you, Mister. Watch out for that snow.”
With that the man left, his steps still enthusiastic but with some of their earlier flair now deflated. Even the bell above the door tolled with less zest than before, as if it had lost some of its spirit. The boy watched the steam swirl above the rim of his mug, little tufts of warm air forming lazy clouds over the hot beverage. Once the hot chocolate was gone the steam would be too. The boy wanted to take a drink of the hot chocolate, but not yet. For the moment he only waited, enjoying the way the steam went wherever it wanted, never hurrying and never resting, leisurely dancing up and away until it faded away altogether.
He wished he had a watch. Not for the time—it was late, but that was okay. Bedtime had long since come and gone and he spared neither worry nor care for its passing. It was the quiet that was wrong, that strong-willed emptiness that lounged undaunted in place of the natural noise of life. The empty streets, a cavernous black marching off in every direction as he stood in the center of an intersection devoid of traffic at this late hour, this is what left the boy unsettled. The friendly ticking of a nearby clock would set things to rights, would ground his searching imagination in the normalcy of the everyday.
It wasn’t all quiet, though. Every few minutes somewhere in the distance a dog would bark, repetitive chortles that came more as a bored, uneven cough than a threatening snarl. The direction from which the barks came was vague, each bout bouncing off wall after wall as they traveled through the canyon left by buildings that crawled up to the sky. The boy walked toward the sound each time it came, but it never seemed to come from the same place. Each street corner passed was the same as the one before and the distant bark of that ethereal dog drew him ever deeper into that hedge maze of urban sprawl.
The yawns came from time to time, those invisible hands that tugged at the jaw or squeezed eyes shut tight, and with each yawn came an accusatory look from the boy, a stern glare meant for some unseen someone, a mystery wraith attempting to slip sleep back into his world after he’d only just gotten rid of that time-wasting nuisance.
The moon stayed put, always hovering in the night sky like a streetlamp of the gods. The boy looked at that moon from time to time with a hazy frustration that he did not understand. He would stand for minutes at a time watching the glow of the moon. It seemed to pulsate at the edges, as if the body of the thing were not quite there at all, an indistinct dream that was not fully formed.
When he looked back to the earth there was a dog in the street. Maybe not the same dog that barked on and off, the mystery laughter of a far-off animal that he’d been following for he knew not how long, but then again, maybe it was the dog that belonged to those barks. Perhaps all this time the boy had headed for those barks the dog had headed for the boy, each passing the other in the night, sometimes by only a block or even a few yards, the shadows of the buildings obscuring each creature’s search for the other.
But probably it was a different dog.
The boy approached with care, each slow step taking seconds to execute as he crept closer and closer to the animal who merely sat on its haunches, watching with frank bemusement at the furtive slinking of this small child. The breed of the dog was unclear, a smooth dark coat and a long face, its mouth hanging slightly open and its tongue bouncing lazily along with the beat of its pulse. It could have been anything, a combination of a thousand types of animal, an amalgamation of them all. At a half dozen feet or so the boy stopped his approach and stood watching, his own expression a mirror of the dog’s.
The dog’s ears shrank and its mouth shut, the pink bouncing tongue disappearing inside. It looked around, not sure if it was the boy who spoke. And then it was gone, running in full flight down the dark street, fading in and out of the warm pools of yellow light left under streetlamps. The boy ran after, his bare feet slapping slap slap slap on the pavement, but the dog was faster by far and the boy could not hope to keep up.
Still the boy ran, and soon keeping up ceased to matter as the smooth dog with the long face stopped in one of those yellow pools of glow and sat again on its haunches, the very pose it had moments ago broken. It sat that way as the boy again slowed his run, transitioning to an advance whose method was this time more careful still, beginning a full block and more from where the dog sat. Full minutes passed as the boy took slow step after slow step, but as time passed he began to grow confused. Slow though his approach may have been, he never seemed to gain any ground, never grew any closer to his quarry. He walked on, losing all sense of time as each step took him ever onward but left him nowhere near the dog who sat watching this all with the same look of the amused.
Finally the boy stopped, his feet tired from the run and from the long, fruitless walk that followed. He thought of running again, of catching the dog by surprise, but as he watched, the dog seemed to lose something of its essence. First its color was less vibrant, but this could be shrugged off as a trick of the light. Next was a slow dissolving of features, a growing cloudiness that softened the sharp lines that made up the animal’s being.
“Dog?” he said, hoping the animal would take pity, but the dog only sat there, slowly fading away until only a vague outline was left in its place. Soon enough, that too was gone.
At first there was a rumbling. A hum that became a thump and soon it had found the boy’s attention, drawing those wandering feet forward until it was impossible to pretend the sound wasn’t there. Thunderclaps under the pavement, like the footsteps of an unseen cave troll, stomping along some dark underground tunnel. The boy followed that sound, tried to match its steps to his own as he walked along the darkened street, holding back yawn after yawn.
The lights were off behind windows, showing only blacked out suggestions of the darkened worlds behind. Along the way on walls were chalk designs left long ago, fanciful patterns imagined by those who had been there before. No clear message ran through the pictures on those walls, no lone hand gave them life. Only the enthusiasm of their creation held them together as a distinct entity. Stick figures standing side by side with smiling faces fashioned from few lines but with a sincere joy shining in that simplicity. A single line that ran for a block before curling up and over, and inside a simple figure on what could have been a surfboard rode a wave toward the darkened window of a first floor deli. These wandering chalk pictures told their stories for blocks upon blocks, takings breaks at times for a door or an alley and picking up on the other side as if they hadn’t noticed, leading the way as the boy followed their tale, the hum of that underground thunder matching every step.
He didn’t know hopscotch. He’d seen the grids, seen hopping strangers on days in playgrounds, but he didn’t know hopscotch as an art, didn’t have hopscotch as an old friend. He could do nothing but stare as he found the oversized hopscotch grid drawn in a careful hand along the wall, this hopscotch setting far larger than a normal grid. An individual section stretched from the ground to a height almost matching that of the boy, and the whole thing ran the length of the building. No feet could hop along that game. The numbers in each section were missing and the only writing was in a square marked rest. The boy tossed a rock at the grid, but this only bounced off and fell to the ground, leaving a chalky splotch in a section where a number seven should be drawn.
“I’m not sleepy,” said the boy to the empty night, and with that he leaned against the rest square. A huff and a pout were what was intended as he crossed his arms, but the rest square moved and his brief bout of self-pity was cut short.
The underground thunder became louder.
The underground thunder was music.
He put more weight on the square and the music grew as a small door opened in the wall. Inside was a soft light that came from further along, flickering firelight but with no source in sight. The boy moved into the narrow hall, at first looking to find the place from which that light emanated, but as he rounded one corner and then another with still no source he soon succumbed to the budding fascination with this stumbled upon curiosity.
Corners became curves and the hallway turned inward, turning round and round as it moved inward on an ever decreasing spiral. The floor angled down, its slope almost imperceptible at first, but as the curving hall moved inward the angle grew increasingly extreme until the boy had to put out his hands and steady himself with the walls to keep from sliding. The music increased as he descended, his feet keeping the beat, and soon he was humming along with the tune that carried him spiraling down and down in that otherworldly glow.
The lack of change in decor left the boy bored. Looking at the empty wall and its endless ghostly flicker had a dizzying effect, allowing his mind to spin with the turn of the hall. He felt much the same inside, his mind sinking slowly in and down as he dozed inside himself, the texture of the walls running across his fingers coming from far off, the one-two, one-two of his step matching the drum of his pulse, the way the humming seemed to no longer come merely from the room but also from within, his head filled with the music that seemed to come from both within and without. His eyes closed for a blink and seconds had passed before he noticed they’d forgotten to open. He pried at them with a thought, but they flatly refused. Only the gentle touch of a breeze had the strength to startle those eyes to action.
As the world came into view the boy took notice of his surroundings with calm acceptance. The turn of hall had given way to an empty sidewalk, and beyond that a darkened street. He couldn’t remember when he’d stopped walking, couldn’t remember any change in so long except for that gentle touch of breeze. He cleared his throat and found he’d stopped humming, and with that knowledge came the understanding that the music was gone as well. The boy leaned back against a wall, cool to the touch, and turning his head he found an oversized hopscotch grid drawn along the entire length of the building. If he cleared his mind he could almost remember the tune of that song.
The rich scent of a strong coffee settled on to the moment with a warm hand. The boy looked up to find the owner of the scent and the thrower of the words approaching at a casual saunter. He looked first at the huge steaming cup and then at the man it belonged to.
He’d changed. His faded clothes were still faded, but now they were a faded blazer and slacks, not the worn rags from before. He wore a tie pulled loose around his neck, and a handkerchief trailed casually from a side pocket of the ancient blazer he left unbuttoned. His wide set eyes stared out of that gaunt face with sincere fascination. He sipped coffee as he began to speak, showing genuine fear at having to choose between the sip and whatever thoughts were about to come from his mouth. Speaking won out, but the victory was not a landslide.
The boy shrugged like he hadn’t a care in the world.
“I’m not sleepy.”
Lam responded with an identical shrug.
“I wouldn’t dare to presume otherwise. Was that some other little boy whom I just saw wander out from a hole in a wall?”
The boy stared with wide eyes at Lam who casually found time for that sip.
“There was music and I followed it into a hallway.”
Lam considered this a moment, swirling the steaming liquid in his cup as thoughts swirled in his head.
“How long have you been awake, Mister?”
The boy thought this over, not quite sure of the answer. Lam didn’t seem to need one.
“Be careful of dreams.”
Not knowing what to make of this, the boy squinted, but the statement was no closer to being in focus.
“Dreams can be scary when you’re sleeping.”
A moment passed as the boy looked at nothing in particular, calculating some arcane equation presented just beyond his understanding.
“They can,” he managed at last.
“But some dreams are much scarier when you’re awake.”
He sipped and stopped, about to say more, but the more was left unsaid as without warning Lam turned and strolled away under the vigilant watch of a bright pale moon.
The plop didn’t startle. It was a flat sound, like a hand clapping without its echo. A dull smack and a stream of silence that followed. The boy’s ears perked up, doing the search his eyes should have jumped to. Nothing, then plop. Another one. The streets were empty as the boy turned around, except for a misshapen lump of mush sitting idle under a streetlamp.
The boy approached with care, not sure of the lump’s intentions. As he neared, the thing took shape, pinks on top with sprinkles of color mixed in. A sickening sweetness settled like fog, filling every intake of air with the scent of a thousand thousand bakeries.
The lump was a mashed cupcake, ruined and pulped in its own misshapen mess. A few feet further along sat another, this confectionery manifestation leaning crazily to one side and pink frosting drooping down in a swooping sugary ski slope.
A stomach gurgled. The boy looked around at the empty streets and his stomach spoke up again, insisting it was the culprit. The haze of sugar on the air made his mouth water. How dirty could ground cupcakes be? He leaned down for a closer look.
Mountains of frosting climbed high above the still warm cake. A ring of candy corn encircled the edge, a necklace of sweets only slightly out of place after whatever tragedy landed the cake on the ground. Tiny sprinkles were held suspended in the mound of pink frosting. The sprinkles came in many colors, all colors, so many colors some hadn’t been named yet. They formed a rough pattern, like eyes looking out of a pink snowbank.
The cupcake blinked.
The boy let out the surprised noise before he could stop himself. Even after its escape his mouth tried to catch the fragment of word, that errant syllable, but it was too late. The cupcake rocked in place, those sprinkle eyes shifting and turning until they looked up at the boy leaning down from above. Moist cake legs extended from the creatures’ sides until standing in the dim light thrown from the streetlamp above was a crablike creature in a pink frosting shell. The creature stared back at the boy looming over its perch, pondering whatever crab cakes do, when from somewhere in the shadow behind the boy came a familiar plop.
The gasp that came from the boy was as unexpected as his earlier declaration. It shocked the crab cake as much as it did him. The creature trembled as it looked around, its sprinkle eyes widening in shock or rage. There followed a rearranging of sorts. Where once there had been a necklace of candy corn there opened a waiting maw, its teeth made of those same candy corns, but somehow sharper. And hungry.
The last thing the boy heard before he began to run as fast as he could was another plop somewhere along the block. As his bare feet carried him away into the night he heard plops and splats again and again in the dark places where even the moon could not reach.
The likelihood of falling down as the boy attempted to come to a halt was a genuine worry for a step or two, but his feet made the transition and he remained upright as he scanned with wild energy for the voice that called out.
“You could fall down, running like that in the dark.”
The sidewalk was bunched under the feet of the man who spoke, leaving him slightly elevated, like a podium of earth. He stood leaning against a cart that held something vaguely food-like. An old newspaper hung limply from his hands. The smell of salt was all around like an intangible armor.
“What’s in your cart, sir?”
The man eyed the cart like he couldn’t quite remember what it was he’d been peddling.
A snort rolled out of the man.
“No, no cupcakes.”
The boy was visibly relieved.
“Can I borrow a pretzel?”
The paper rattled like tiny paper applause as the man folded it neatly in half and took care to lay it squarely on the cart.
“You can buy one. I don’t have any loaners on hand.”
The boy’s frown was genuine and heart-wrenching. The man’s wrenched heart gave in.
“Look kid, just take one. You can owe me.”
A scent of salt was an explosion in the air as the cart was opened. The pretzel the man pulled up was giant, as big as the boy’s head. He handed it over wrapped in a glossy sheet of wax paper that was slick to the touch. The boy stood eating and watching the empty street for several minutes. The man tried to read his paper.
“Why do you work so late?”
The man looked up to find the boy looking at him. The pretzel was gone, undergoing a slow digestion in another world.
“Somebody has to.”
The boy nodded like he understood.
“I’m not sleepy,” said the boy.
“Have you seen any cupcakes?”
“On the street. Cupcakes. Running around. You know.”
The snort was there again, and a chuckle that followed.
“Not that I remember.”
The boy nodded again.
“I have to go.”
His feet smacked on the ground as he went. He wished he’d brought shoes.
The dark was there all at once, as if the light of the moon had been snatched away by some unseen fiend. Even the glow thrown from streetlights dimmed in reverence to the depth of that shade. The boy’s footfalls came to an abrupt end as he found himself wading through that endless black, a yawn the only thought he had to offer.
A spot of light appeared in the distance and grew, slowly at first, like a shining coin expanding as it neared. A piece at a time, it resolved into something more pronounced, the features of a man appearing and smiling upon that luminous facade until it could be seen for what it was, the round-faced man coming ever closer at a leisurely stroll. His voice was amused as he spoke.
“Those eyes are sleepy, little one.”
Sleepy eyes gave a theatrical roll as the boy offered up his solemn rebuttal.
“Hello, Mr. Round Face.”
“How has the night been treating you?”
“I’m having tons of fun.”
The boy waved one hand around to encompass the night, pointing out all the fun he’d had with that unaimed gesture. The man nodded his giant round head. After a moment the boy added a tentative postscript.
“But it’s a little dark, sir.”
“Is it? I hadn’t noticed. The night is a dream, don’t you think?”
The boy shrugged, bony shoulders going up in an exaggerated huff.
“I don’t know much about dreams, sir.”
The round-faced man blinked and for a moment his face shimmered in its own visible light. Then the moment was gone and he spoke up with a wistful air.
“A dream is a friend who only visits at night. A dream is like a memory you didn’t know you’d forgotten, or a movie you’ve sat down to watch only to find yourself a part of the story. Dreams can do anything if you let them.”
“Sometimes dreams are scary.”
“That they are. And sometimes scary is okay. Sometimes scary is part of the fun.”
Wheels turned in the boy’s head as he considered this. He spoke with an inner confidence.
“I’m not sure you make sense, sir.”
Time passed. The man stood with hands in pockets, passing the time away with no real concern, as if he’d spent eons idling away without knowing or caring. It seemed he might never say another word when at last he did.
“Do you like books?”
The boy nodded at once.
“I love books.”
“In a book, when you meet a scary part and you are a little scared, aren’t you also having fun because you know the thing that scares you isn’t really there?”
The boy offered that same melodramatic shrug, words falling from his mouth like an outright dismissal of the very concept the man had conjured and all it brought along.
“My books have pictures.”
The round-faced man nodded as if he understood just what the boy was saying. His response came in a slow, solemn voice.
“All books are picture books, little one. Sometimes you just have to find their pictures in your head.”
The boy chewed on his lip for a moment, a face wrinkled in concentration.
“It’s very late.”
The words fell on emptiness as the boy found himself speaking to an empty street. The man had slipped off once more and up above the moon gave the world light, having reappeared as quickly as it had gone, perhaps returning from behind a cloud.
A traffic light blinked yellow over and over as the boy loitered on a sidewalk, unsure of how to spend what was left of that seemingly unending night.
“Kid, you can’t just stand around like that.”
The boy turned. A hole in a wall opened in a small room filled with newspapers and sandwich parts. Coffee-filled pots sat on hot plates, various bland flavors made from old beans. One lonely jug of warming chocolate sat in one corner. A round man with a sweaty face gawked out with intensity at the world beyond his newsstand hole.
“I don’t have any money. I can’t buy anything.”
The man’s mouth opened to let out a retort, but the words got lost in a void that opened as darkness poured out of that gaping maw, a spreading ink stain that swelled and strengthened as it soaked up the color of the world around. The boy wanted to scream but dared not open his mouth, fearing the thought of that blackness escaping from his own face in place of voice. He looked around, a desperate turning that brought him full circle and more. The street was not quite deserted. A man some distance away stood watching the turning boy. The stranger wore a coat with tails that trailed down behind, unfurling on the street and rolling back until somewhere in the distance beyond they spread and widened in sprawling seas. Upon those seas sailed ships, tiny dots crossing imagination, mere thoughts passing through time on their way to the nowhere beyond.
The boy did scream then, his mouth unable to contain its shriek any longer. He raised his eyes to the sky to cry out to that moon above, and as he did he witnessed the fall of the heavens themselves as one after another the stars slipped from their places to rain down in brilliant arcs.
The boy closed his eyes and ears to those stars and his own screams, for there was nothing more to do.
“Can I get a coffee? And a hot chocolate for him.”
The way his shoulders were arched, almost swallowing his neck, his head, his whole being, the way he gritted his teeth and held his eyes shut painfully tight, the way he was locked away in his own head the boy almost didn’t hear the words as they were spoken. One eye opened at a time, lest the world come rushing in before he could retreat once more behind those lids.
“Drink up, Mister. Chocolate’s gonna get cold.”
The boy opened the other eye to find Lam sipping lukewarm coffee from a dented cup. The round man with the sweaty face stared out of his hole in the wall with that same intensity, his attention gobbling up the world around. The man with the coat of seas had vanished, if he had ever existed at all.
“I don’t think I want any chocolate.”
Lam shrugged. It made no difference to him.
“You could get a coffee instead.”
The boy considered.
“You drink a lot of coffee, Lam.”
Lam stared into the dented cup, gleaning cosmic wisdom from the swirls of steam.
“I drink coffee when I can’t sleep. Fight fire with fire. You know.”
The boy nodded in complete agreement. He understood.
The boy nodded again. Lam nodded too.
“It happens. Only so much I can do. What if I’m a dream too?”
The boy’s face visibly paled. Lam pretended not to notice, pointing at the vast array of beverage choices to change the subject.
“You sure you don’t want some?”
The boy’s head shook back and forth once, twice, a vigorous negative. Lam sighed and walked his exuberant walk into the night. A mechanical beeping sounded among the pots of brewing machines in the hole in the wall stand. The boy yawned. The yawn was loud.
The first flakes took the boy by surprise. He’d walked for blocks without aim, his mind turning more and more to the cup of warm steaming chocolate he’d left idling on the coffee man’s counter. He could almost taste that sweet melting goodness in his mouth, in his mind, when a flake of something drifted softly down to land on his cheek. He saw it before he felt it, this splotch of color that wandered into view and stayed. Then another, a lazy falling that took its time. After that it was flake after flake, a snow that was wrong in a way the boy didn’t understand, falling and falling and soon pouring down upon the world. He laughed and spun, turning circles and enjoying the flakes as they piled all around. The night had no chill in the least, but the flakes fell just the same. He opened his mouth to catch a flake, and that was when the fear took hold.
The snowflakes tasted of chocolate.
More fell every moment. All around lay mounds of fallen flakes, cocoa sent from the heavens to create sweeping dunes that went away in every direction. A desert of dessert.
A fear took hold. Panic. The boy did not understand his fear but knew that fear was to be respected. He wanted to run but could not make his legs go, could only wade through the now heavily piled dunes, a desperate clawing at the loose chocolate sand for purchase.
More flakes swirled in the air, the snow turning from a flurry to a storm, winds dragging at the sweetened topsoil, sending fingers of dust into the air to form a sugary cloud. The boy could not move, and if he could he knew not where to go. In every direction was more desert.
A lump appeared in the sand. A stirring, visible even among the chaos of the chocolate sandstorm. That lump grew and broke open, spilling a hand onto the surface of the dune before the boy. The hand was a bony thing, something out of a scary story, a skeletal apparition that belonged to an arm and the arm belonged to something else, something worse, but that something was not seen by the boy because he found his feet and somehow he made himself stand and run, eyes closed, awkward step after awkward step on that sand, in that storm, running away from whatever lay beneath the chocolate dunes, until at last he felt solid ground underfoot.
The dark was everywhere. A thick sheet of black met the boy as his eyes slowly found they had been open for some time. He did not remember opening them, but it did not matter. Open or closed, the world looked the same.
Except for that bright spot in the distance.
The boy waited, knowing just what was coming. His patience was strained, but the round-faced man made his casual way ever closer, minute by minute drawing ever nearer.
“Hello, little one.”
The boy chose his words carefully, as if he’d pulled each one from a bag and weighed it before laying it down in the sentence he provided.
“Sir, I think I would like my sleep back.”
The round-faced man nodded, but his look was grim.
“I’m afraid I let it go. Your sleep, I mean.”
The boy wailed, a forlorn moan that cut through the night.
“Don’t fret,” said the man. “I’m sure it will come back to you when it’s ready. It could very well be at your home right now, wondering where you are.”
The boy thought this over, then thought it over again. He yawned and thought it over once more. Another yawn followed, and soon he was thinking and yawning at the same time. He did so much thinking and so much yawning that he failed to notice the round-faced man’s departure, failed to notice the warm light that had returned to the world as the moon in the sky once more bathed the world in its glow. He followed that glow as it led him home, followed it through twists and turns of unfamiliar streets until at last he came to his window. He crawled through that window into the bedroom beyond, still thinking, still yawning, and climbing into bed, yawning and thinking. The boy stared out at the moon as he waited for his sleep to come back.
Craig Rodgers has an extensive collection of literary rejections folded into the shape of cranes and spends most of his time writing in North Texas. His newest release is novella The Ghost of Mile 43.
Robin Basalaev-Binder is a visual artist and illustrator based in Montreal, Quebec. She creates watercolor paintings inspired by all things urban and non-urban, animals and botanicals. You can find more of her work on her website, published in Pidgeonholes, and at various markets and fairs in the Montreal area.