"Didn't you see the blood, Daddy?" Nathan cried, his father's soothing words only seeming to cause him more anxiety.
The question gave Thomas a start, but he pushed aside the memory of what he had thought he'd seen in the shadows moments earlier. There was nothing in Nathan's room but Nathan, and the phantoms always created by a night-light and a little boy's imagination. And the pain of a part-time family.
"There was no blood, Nathan," he insisted. "Whatever you dreamed, it was only a nightmare. Not real. You know that, buddy. You're a big boy. Now, tell Daddy about your dream, and I'll show you that it wasn't real."
Nathan stared at him doubtfully for a moment, sniffling. Then his eyes wandered around the room as he remembered the dream, and the wailing began again.
"They came after me, Daddy," Nathan cried. "They came after me, wanted to take me while I was asleep. But Crabapple stopped them, Dad. He stopped them from getting to me . . . and they killed him!"
A terrible feeling of dread began to roil in Thomas Randall's belly. It reminded him, in the kind of awkward observational moment that had become familiar to him over the years, of the feeling he would get when he knew without a doubt that he was going to be sick, and just as surely knew he could do nothing to prevent it.
"Nobody could kill Crabapple, Nathan," Thomas insisted, tilting his head to look his son in the eye. "Crabapple isn't real. I'm sorry to say it, but he isn't. He's just in your imagination, and I've a feeling you know that already, don't you? He's no more real than the characters I created for Strangewood."
"No!" Nathan shouted, getting angry now. "Crabapple saved me and they killed him, Daddy! I saw them. They killed Crabapple!"
"I don't . . . who's they, Nathan?" Thomas asked, finally, though he suspected he knew the answer. "Who killed Crabapple?"
Nathan froze and stared at Thomas. The terror was gone, replaced by grief and shock. All too real emotions for a flesh and blood child to feel over the dreamworld murder of an imaginary friend.
"Nathan?" Thomas prodded, his heart already aching.
"It was them, Dad," Nathan whispered, a chilly calm having descended over the boy. "They were after me. They wanted to take me away, from you, and from Mom. Mostly from you, though, I think. But Crabapple . . .
"It was Feathertop and Grumbler," the boy said, and then the tears returned, and Nathan buried his face in his father's shoulder once more, and cried until he fell back to sleep.
All that time, Thomas didn't say another word. There was no more comfort he could summon, so stunned was he by his son's nightmares. He'd had no idea that the divorce had affected Nathan as profoundly as it obviously had. So much so, that his nightmares now consisted of what he must perceive as his father's imaginary friends slaying his own. But what was worse was Nathan's insistence that the creatures of Strangewood had been after him, had wanted to do harm to him.
For several minutes he could only sit and stare at his beautiful son and stroke his hair, overwrought by the horrible things his divorce had done to Nathan's imagination.
It seemed clear that Nathan's nightmares and daydreams had something very specific to do with some kind of resentment against Thomas. The vulnerable part of Thomas Randall didn't really want to hear what Dr. Morrissey had to say. But he was a father, and whatever it took, he wanted to secure the health and happiness of his only child.
Thomas lay Nathan back down in his bed and kissed the boy's forehead. He pulled the spread over his son and walked back across the hall to his own room without even glancing down to see if the green feather was still there.
It took a long while before Thomas was able to get back to sleep. Even then, he rested fitfully, with nightmares of his own, all of which he had forgotten mere seconds after rising with the dawn on Sunday morning.
It felt like cheating. That was the bitch of it. No matter how many times Emily told herself that Thomas wasn't her husband anymore, it still felt like cheating.
The early morning sun slashed across the bed, a world of light and shadow where she curled under a burgundy cotton sheet. Her legs were warm in the sun, her left foot jutting out from the covers. But her upper body, her face burrowed into her two thick pillows, was pleasantly cool in the shadow that was all that remained of the dark.
All that remained, except for Joe Hayes, the man she'd accepted into her bed last night. Into the bed where she and Thomas had conceived their only child, had made the baby boy they both loved so much.
It felt like cheating.
Emily kept her eyes closed for a time, long minutes after she'd come fully awake. She didn't want to know, didn't want to think. She enjoyed the cool morning breeze on her face, the warmth on her legs, and the mere sensation of a presence next to her in bed. The weight of a man there.
Finally, Emily turned, sheets rustling, and was relieved to see that Joe was still sleeping. She watched him, the rise and fall of his chest, the benevolent expression on his face, an innocence that belied the power men had to crush a woman's soul without a single malicious intention. That was the worst thing about them, Emily thought. So often, they wreaked havoc, left destruction in their wake, all with only the best of intentions. They just didn't think the same way.
Well, maybe there were more similarities than Emily liked to admit. After all, she'd ended up in bed with him. Joe was kind and sincere, intelligent and funny; maybe a little arrogant, but she liked that in small doses. Those things had been what convinced her that last night was the night to consummate their budding relationship. But what attracted her to him in the first place? What made her flirt with him that night the girls from work dragged her out to "meet men?"
He was really good looking, and he didn't seem to know it.
And, yes, he was fully seven years her junior, and there was something intoxicatingly unattainable about a man his age. Well, at least he'd seemed unattainable the night they'd met. Apparently not.
Suddenly overwhelmed by her attraction to him, Emily leaned forward, the sheet slipping down to reveal her nakedness — and when was the last time she'd slept naked? — and kissed Joe hard on the mouth. His eyes flickered open instantly and he was returning her kiss seemingly before he was fully awake. His arms came up and encircled her and she moved on top of him in a languorous crawl. His body tensed a moment, a physical query as to her motivations. But it wasn't sex she wanted just then; it was intimacy.
She found it, and was delighted that Joe was able to give it so well. He kissed her passionately, fingers twirling in her hair as her breasts pressed against his chest. Then the kiss ended, and the lovers pressed noses and grins together, and then parted, Emily almost falling away from him onto the bed.
Suddenly, and happily, it didn't feel like cheating anymore. It felt like the best decision she'd made in a long, long time.
"Good morning," Joe said huskily, sleep still in his voice.
"Yeah," Emily agreed. "It is. Although if you'd gotten up before me and made breakfast, it would have been even better."
"Do I look like a houseboy to you?" he asked with a smirk.
"Well . . .” she teased, and he slapped her ass lightly. Lightly enough that it felt good. "Oooh," she cooed, "do it again."
"Forget it," Joe said, feigning insult. "You don't deserve my spankings."
"Don't I?" she flirted.
They were quiet then, just looking at one another.
"I'm glad I didn't take off last night," he said.
An alarm went off in Emily's head.
"You were going to leave last night?" she asked, not bothering to hide her hurt and annoyance.
"I don't usually like to stick around till morning," he replied matter-of-factly. "It's crossing a line, when sex comes into things, and you never know if a woman's going to regret it in the morning. It can be really uncomfortable, and sometimes it's better to leave, and see how things shake out later."
"So why didn't you leave?" Emily asked, guarding her emotions better now.
"Isn't that obvious. I didn't want to go. Is that okay?" Joe asked hopefully.
"That's very much more than okay," she replied.
"So you don't regret it?" he asked.
The question lay there between them for a few seconds, and Emily flashed on the nuns walking around her eighth grade school dance telling the girls and boys to leave room between them for the Holy Spirit. She almost chuckled, but stopped herself. Joe would probably misinterpret that. And she found herself wanting to be very careful what she said next.
"Em?" he prodded, brow furrowed, and sat up on his knees in bed to look at her.
She liked that it all seemed so important to him. It had been so long since she was with a man other than Thomas, since she'd even been in the race, that she'd been terrified. She remembered the mind-bending gender games of her singlehood, and not at all fondly. Being with Joe was a relief. She'd lucked out.
"No," she said finally, and with a gravity that seemed to alter even the temperature of the room. "I don't regret last night, or that you're still here this morning. It feels . . . frighteningly good just to lay here with you."
"I can hear that 'but' coming a mile away," Joe said grimly.
"But," Emily said, and smiled wanly, "I'm a lady with a lot of baggage, you know? Thomas is going to be a part of my life as long as I live, even if I want to kill him sometimes. He wasn't just my husband, he was my best friend as well. And he's the father of my son. He's going to be around, whether I'm pissed at him or still love him a little, a state that changes from day to day, that's not going to involve you. That's a part of me you can't ever touch."
Emily stared at him.
"Well, you're not beating your chest and doing a Tarzan yell, and you're not running for the door, so I guess that's a good sign," she said after a moment.
But it was Joe's turn to be quiet now. His eyes flicked back and forth, looking for something in her face that she wasn't sure he'd find. Then he looked down at the bed and took a breath. The sun had stretched across the entire bed now, and the way he held his head, his gray eyes were in shadow. He rasped his knuckles across the scraggle of overnight beard on his chin.
When he finally looked at her, Emily felt, for a dangerous heartbeat, that she could love Joe Hayes if he played his cards right. Dangerous because she'd never been very good at card games.
"Emily, sweetie, listen," Joe said. "We're still in chapter one of this thing, whatever it might become. Me? I want to see where the story goes. What happened in the last book doesn't interest me outside of what it contributed to making you the amazing woman I believe you are."
Emily smiled broadly, wrapped the sheet around herself and got up from the bed, leaving Joe naked behind her.
"Whew," she said, without turning. "I'm trying to play it cool, here, Mr. English Professor, but that's about the smoothest line I've ever heard. I hope it isn't just a line, though, Joe. See, my world is pretty much Nathan Randall right now. That little boy is my entire heart and soul, and the idea of letting somebody else in, somebody whose presence is likely to have an effect on him one way or another . . .”
"It's no line, Em," Joe said confidently. "And it's up to you to decide how much of our relationship Nathan sees, or even knows about. It's your play all the way."
"Well, when you put it that way . . .” Emily let her words trail off and turned to face him. She let the sheet fall to the floor and stood before him, naked in the sunlight, overcome with the eroticism of it. She hadn't stood so naked, so vulnerable in front of anyone for years. There was a fear in it, and a freedom as well. And she revelled in it.
Emily took two steps and leaped onto the bed, bouncing and laughing as she wrestled with Joe. He kissed her, caressed her face, and they made love until it was too late for breakfast and too early for lunch.
* * * * *
After breakfast that Sunday morning, Nathan escaped into the backyard to play in the big sandbox his father had surprised him with on a visit several weeks earlier. It was shaped like a dragon. More precisely, it was a big plastic version of Fiddlestick, the skinny, fussy little dragon from Strangewood, who made music like a monstrous cricket, rubbing his wings together to create a melody.
Fiddlestick was lime green, with darker wings and bright orange scales on his belly. But the sandbox Fiddlestick didn't have an orange belly. His belly was a big hole full of dirt. The plastic dragon lay on his back, improbably small wings spread on the ground, and Nathan Randall played on his sand-filled stomach.
Thomas watched his son through the window above the sink as he did the breakfast dishes. All seemed well this morning, without a trace of the previous evening's nightmares. The boy hadn't mentioned Crabapple once, and yet Thomas couldn't shake the feeling that something was going on inside Nathan's head.
Maybe the nightmare had just been Nathan's subconscious getting rid of Crabapple. No more need for an imaginary friend, or something. Thomas wanted to believe that. It would ease his own conscience a great deal. But it struck him as odd that Nathan hadn't brought it up. He'd been horrified, terrified, the night before, and Thomas couldn't blame him. To come up with that dream, that Crabapple had been . . . well, murdered. In a moment of levity, he might blame it on the boy watching too much television, but it had to be more than that.
Sister Margaret had been right. They never should have had Nathan stop seeing Dr. Morrissey. He'd seemed to be handling the divorce all right, even the doctor had said so. But that was what both Emily and Thomas had wanted to believe as well. His son was a perfect, healthy, funny, imaginative little boy. With all that could go wrong during and after pregnancy, with all the pitfalls to avoid during the first few years, they had been so fortunate.
Then, because they couldn't bear to live together anymore, Thomas and Emily had shattered that perfection. It tore Thomas apart even to think it, but since last night he had been unable to stop the voice in his head that said he and Emily had tainted Nathan in some way.