The Dream King's Daughter
Chapter One: The Sea of Tassels
When Aurora came to refill the Hendersons’ coffee cups at table six, she could see that Britney had been having that nightmare again.
The Hendersons’ four-year-old daughter sat by the window, studiously playing with her Barbie doll while her parents looked out at the dusty wheat fields and finished the dregs of their breakfasts.
The kitchen could be heard through its window behind the counter. Eggs sizzled and the coffee maker gurgled while aunt Matron scraped the grease trap. At the back of the room came the slosh of water as Polk washed the dishes. Country music played on the radio.
The stools along the counter were all empty, except for one. Most of the locals came as families these days, big men in plaid shirts with their wives and children. They chose the booths along the picture window looking out across the highway and onto Cooper Farm. Even the teenage farmhands clustered in groups of four or five. Not that there was much jostling for seats. The diner could seat twice the number of people who lived in the hamlet, and the number of people who drove up the road each week could be counted on the back of the hand.
At the end of the lunch hour, only Britney’s family remained, along with the Hobsons, an elderly couple that would probably have stayed the afternoon were it not for Matlock on television at home. They probably would stay the afternoon, Aurora thought, if the diner ever got cable.
Britney looked up from her Barbie doll and giggled as her father made faces at her.
She’s not even thinking of the nightmare she had last night, Aurora thought. She hardly even remembers it. But it’s there, waiting. It’s going to come again.
And when Britney looked up into Aurora’s eyes, Aurora saw it.
A flurry of legs, a scrabble of claws, the slimy green skin. A great leap of fangs arches down. Britney screams—
Aurora gripped her coffee carafe and swayed a little. She closed her eyes and let the dream pass through her. It was only a dream, after all. But try telling that to Britney. She approached the table with a smile. “More coffee, everyone?”
Mr. Henderson looked up, beamed, and held up his cup. “Yes, please.”
Mrs. Henderson passed her cup over. “Me, too.”
Aurora filled the coffee cups and turned her bright smile on the girl. “And what would the little lady like for dessert?”
Mr. Henderson grinned at Britney. “What do you think, Pixie?”
The girl sat so upright, her blonde locks bounced. “Ice cream!”
Her father’s grin widened. “Are you sure, now?”
The girl’s head bobbed.
Mr. Henderson nodded to Aurora. “Ice cream it is, Miss Kelso!”
“Well,” Aurora set her carafe aside and clapped her hands together. “Maybe somebody would like to come and help pick out their favourite flavour?”
The girl kicked her legs happily, then looked quickly at her father. Her father smiled and nodded. Britney hopped out of her seat and followed Aurora to the ice cream stand.
But rather than haul Britney up to show her the eight available flavours, she knelt so that her face was level with Britney’s.
“Britney,” she said, keeping her voice low. “Have you been having that nightmare again?”
Britney’s smile vanished. She nodded. Her lower lip trembled.
“You did what I told you, right?” said Aurora. “You imagined a door with a lot of locks?”
Britney nodded. She sniffed. “But it came through the window.”
Aurora looked away. Her fist clenched. Barriers never worked. Running away never worked. They always found a way through, and ran faster. There was only one way left to deal with this.
She turned back to Britney, “Okay. You want to make Mr. Scaly go away for good?”
Britney nodded vigourously.
“You’ve already imagined a fence, right?” said Aurora, “and it came true?”
Britney nodded. “But he jumped over it,” she mumbled.
“And you’ve already imagined a door, right?” Aurora continued. “So you know that you can imagine whatever you want in the dream, and it’s right there in front of you. Right?”
Britney’s brow furrowed, but she nodded.
“So, I want you to imagine…” What could she say? The kid was only four years old. It didn’t seem right to be giving a four-year-old a gun, even in their dreams. “A bicycle pump.”
Britney raised one eyebrow. It was amazing how sceptical a little girl could look.
“Trust me.” Aurora squeezed Britney’s shoulder gently. “A bicycle pump… with a big wad of gum at the end, so that Mr. Scaly’s teeth sink in and… get stuck?”
A smile spread across Britney’s face. Already Aurora could see how the dream would go. Mr. Scaly would leap, teeth clamping down, while Britney raised the nozzle of her bicycle pump like a dragonslayer. And the teeth would go… scrunch… and there would be Mr. Scaly, dangling off the nozzle, feebly trying to pry his teeth loose. Slimy claws catching and sticking to the big wad of chewing gum.
And Britney would clasp the bicycle pump and begin pumping. And Mr. Scaly would puff up like a balloon, making muffled, desperate grunts as his eyes bugged out like a blowfish. He’d puff bigger and bigger, until his skin paled and creaked. Then Britney would pause. He would stare at her. He’d make make one last pleading squeal as Britney reached for the pump and shoved it down hard…
Aurora closed her eyes at the sudden pop. Britney laughed. Aurora almost felt sorry for Mr. Scaly. Almost.
Definitely don’t give this kid a gun, even in her dreams.
She hugged Britney and hefted her up to the glass. “Now, what flavour would you like?”
“Chock-lit,” said Britney. Of course.
Aurora whipped off her apron as she entered the kitchen and strode over to the sink to wash her hands.
“I’m on break, Matron,” she called.
“You don’t have to shout it, Dearie.” Matron looked up over the sizzle of the grille. “And you’re not on break yet. Not until the Hobsons’ eggs are up.”
“Yeah, I know.” Aurora gave the sturdy, greying, red-haired woman a smile. Their eyes met.
The wind blows the surf against the beach. Palms wave in the breeze and the sky is a cobalt dome. The hot sand rubs between Matron’s toes, but she smiles as she walks with purpose. Up ahead is a Marguerita stand.
Aurora let the images wash over her and soothe her, even though she didn’t really need it. What was she going to do once Matron decided to retire and get that Florida bungalow?
“But those eggs won’t be up for a few minutes, will they?” she asked. When Matron refused to answer, she added, “Until then, I’m on break.”
“You could do the dishes, you know,” said Matron as Aurora reached for the back door.
“That’s Polk’s job,” said Aurora. She glanced at the sink, a mountain range of dishes and bubbles. “Where is that slacker?”
“Hey, Matron,” shouted one of the regulars through the window to the kitchen. “Those eggs up yet?”
Matron glared, and pointed at the man with her spatula. “They’ll be up when they’re ready, Tom Hobson. You just wait your turn like everyone else!”
In the dining area, Mr. Hobson chuckled.
Aurora shoved open the back door and marched down the back steps.
She found Polk, Matron’s foster-son, on the gravel parking lot, on the concrete lip that protected a battered stairwell leading to the basement storage area from flooding. He was stretched out on his back, an arm curled behind his head for a pillow, and his baseball cap planted over his face, snoring.
She stood over-top of him, her hands on her hips. “What are you doing out here, slacker?”
The snoring stopped, but Polk didn’t move. “I’m on break, Blondie.”
She kicked him. He fell into the stairwell.
He landed lightly on his feet, and jumped up over the parapet. The gravel scrunched underfoot as he stood in front of her, arms folded, cap on his dirty brown hair, a one-sided grin on his face. “What’s up?”
“There were a lot of dishes in the sink, last time I looked,” said Aurora.
“There were still eggs to be served, last time I looked,” said Polk.
“Well, I’ll go back if you go back,” said Aurora.
“Now who’s the slacker?” Polk’s grin didn’t budge.
They glared at each other a long moment, each waiting for the other to blink. Then their tension broke at the same time as both snorted with laughter.
“C’mon,” he said, nodding towards the back wall of the diner.
As she looked up at him, their eyes met. Instinctively Aurora braced herself.
Polk walks across the gravel lot behind the diner and pushes aside the stalks of wheat as he enters the neighbouring field. He grins at he wades into the waving sea of golden brown. The blue skies stretch on forever, and he shields his face from the sun.
And you say that you want to get away from all this, thought Aurora. Liar.
But as he broke the connection and leaned against the wall, Aurora reflected that this was, frankly, a relief. For the four years since she became a teenager here at Cooper’s Corners, it was getting so she couldn’t look any of the other teenage boys in the eye. It was just too embarrassing. But Polk had none of that. No crass thoughts about wet t-shirts. His dreams consisted of nothing but the ground on which he stood.
Liar, she thought. You talk big, but you don’t dream about anywhere or anything else. I like you.
“Fine,” she said, following him. “But call me Blondie one more time and you’ll regret it.”
“Sure thing, Blond—” He chuckled at her.
Aurora leaned on the sun-bleached siding next to him and stared out across the fields. The wheat rolled like golden surf in the hot, dusty wind. The sunlight settled on them like a warm cloak. Aurora scuffed the gravel with the toe of her shoe. Then her toe hit something. She looked down.
Knocked loose by her foot was a small, flat stone, dark where the gravel was white. She frowned, and picked it up.
There was heft to it, like a baseball. It narrowed from half an inch thick on one side to almost a knife’s point, but there were no sharp edges to cut her. Her palm and forefinger curved around the thick side perfectly.
It was a skipping stone. She knew it was a skipping stone, though they were miles away from any water to skip it on. She could picture herself leaning into the throw, bringing her arm around, letting the perfect stone go, and watching it catch the air like a sail and meet the water along its smooth, flat end, arching back into the air again, and again and again.
But before her, only a sea of tassels waved.
Polk shifted against the siding, bent down, and snapped a stalk of wild grass growing by the base of the building. He leaned back, put one end of the stalk between his teeth and started chewing.
Aurora rolled her eyes. “Polk?”
The grass stalk arched up. “What?”
“Take that out of your mouth!” She snatched at it, but Polk ducked away. “I swear, some city folk see you like that, they may as well pose next to you for photographs.”
He shrugged. “They could, if they paid me a dollar.”
She sighed. “Only a dollar?”
Then movement caught Aurora’s eye and she looked past Polk, past the diner, and the strip of asphalt that vanished in the distance. A cloud of dust was rising where big sky met the ground at the road’s vanishing point.
“Truck,” she said.
Polk leaned back and closed his eyes. “Hmm… It’ll be a B-train, double long semi, white, with a grain logo, and it won’t stop.”
“No points if it doesn’t stop.” Aurora levered herself from the wall and stepped out into the gravel lot, watching the growing cloud like a hawk. The whine of its engine and the growl of its wheels grew as it shaped itself into a dark cab and two points of light. Aurora walked to the edge of the wheat field, keeping the truck in sight until it passed behind the diner and roared past.
“Well?” said Polk when she came back.
“B-train,” she grumbled. “Double long semi. White. With a grain logo.”
His eyes stayed closed, and his lips quirked up. “And it didn’t stop.”
“I told you: no points for that. No one stops here. They’re either heading for Alberta or Saskatoon. You don’t deserve an extra point for that.”
“They could stop sometimes,” he said. “Call of nature and the like.”
“And seeing as we’re in Saskatchewan, I’m being extra generous giving you a point for the grain logo.”
“Four points, then,” said Polk.
She shook her head at heaven and leaned on the siding beside him. After a while, she said, “What are you going to do with your life, Polk?”
He shrugged, a quick jerk of his shoulders. “Well, you know me,” he said. “I’ve got plans. I’m going to see the world. Join a circus. Take a computer course and make it rich in Redmond. I’m going to ditch this little patch of nowhere, just as soon as I figure out what I want to do first. I can’t wash dishes for the rest of my life.”
Yeah, right, thought Aurora. But she bit back the next question: what’s keeping you?
“What about you?” he asked casually. “What are you going to do with your life now that you’re almost sixteen?’
She made a face at him. Lately, he’d always mentioned that she was ‘almost sixteen’, reminding her yet again that she wasn’t sixteen yet, and he was — almost seventeen, in fact. Like that made any difference. Except that it did.
“I’ll be sixteen in five days, twerp,” she said. But as she shoved aside the taunt and focused on the question, she frowned. “I don’t know,” she said at last. “Something. Anything. It’s not a life, serving coffee in some country diner. It’s something temporary. It’s got to change…” Her voice trailed off.
It’s got to change because it’s wrong, said a voice in the deepest part of her mind.
“You seem okay with your life here,” said Polk.
“Aunt Matron’s okay,” said Aurora. “She takes care of me and we get along. But she’s not a mom, though.”
‘Mom.’ The word echoed briefly, then was filed away.
“There’s nothing to do here,” she said, with more force than she’d intended. But the words had popped a cork, and more came flowing out. “It’s like I’m a prisoner!” She blinked. Where had that thought come from?
And just like that, the impulse to question hit a brick wall. In her mind’s eye, she was surrounded by dark, soft as a comforter, wrapped with the loving care of a mom, as insidious as a straight-jacket.
Polk arched an eyebrow. “A prisoner? Matron got you locked up in your bedroom, spinning gold from wheat, does she?”
Aurora sighed. The door didn’t even lock. “You know what I mean.”
She felt the heft of the stone in her hand again. She gave it a quick glance, then looked out at the sea of tassels. Then she stepped forward and threw it.
It arched like her imagination, cleared the driveway, and sailed over the tops of the wheat. It curved down…
The wheat splashed. Black erupted from the sea of gold. A crow, cawing angrily, rose from the waves. The stone arched back into the air, came down again a few feet away, and burst the wheat a second time as another crow soared and flapped away to the horizon.
The stone fell a third time and disappeared among the stalks.
Polk’s arms dropped to his sides. The grass stalk fell from his mouth. “Two birds with one stone? Great shot!”
But I didn’t mean to hit them, she thought. They were just there. I got lucky, I guess.
Why should I feel lucky that I hit two crows?
Movement caught her eye and she looked down the highway. Another cloud of dust was approaching. She pushed her strange worry down and nudged Polk. “Truck,” she said.
He leaned back and closed his eyes. “Hmm…” He frowned. “Tough one…”
She blinked. She’d never seen him uncertain before. She stared at him, riveted by the strange new picture.
“Uh…” He drew himself up. “Double rig, fourteen wheels. Red cab, white body, no logo. And it won’t stop.”
“No points if it doesn’t stop,” she said automatically. She strode out to the wheat field, keeping her eye on the road as the dust cloud shaped itself into multiple points of light. She frowned. The cab was black, not red, as was the container, single not double. Ten wheels. She grinned. He’d gotten this one way wrong.
Then her grin faded. The truck was stopping.
Her mouth dropped open, but there was no mistaking it. The whine of the engine rolled lower. The brakes rumbled. As she stared agape, the truck moved behind one side of the diner, and didn’t emerge from the other. By the wall, Polk had opened his eyes and was blinking.
Aurora ran to him. “It stopped!”
He turned to the back door. “I know.”
“New customers!” they shouted in unison.
Aurora yanked open the back door and both bolted through at the same time. Or tried to. There was a brief struggle as they squeezed past each other and burst into the kitchen.
“Ah, there you are,” said Matron, as she scraped grease off the grill and into the trough. “No rush. I served the Hobsons while you were out.”
“Thanks, but—” Aurora began.
The bell above the door jangled. Matron looked out through the cook’s window. “We’ve got customers.”
“I know,” Aurora pulled on her apron.
Matron frowned. “Not a local man.”
“Where’s my note pad?” Aurora tapped the pockets of her apron frantically.
“You never needed one before,” said Matron, wiping down her cooking utensils.
“He’s not a regular, I’ve never heard his order before,” said Aurora. “He doesn’t have a ‘usual’.”
She jumped as Polk held out a note pad and gnawed pencil in front of her. He’d taken it down from the top of a metal cupboard. He gave her a teasing smile. “Break a leg,” he said.
“Break your own,” she snapped. But she took the note pad and pencil gratefully, shoved them in the pocket of her apron, and strode out the kitchen door and into the diner.
The new customer was easy to spot, just by looking at the other customers. He’d reoriented them like another gravity. The Hobsons were eating quietly but casting curious glances over their shoulder. As the Hendersons gathered Britney’s entourage of toys and eased the girl out the door, both parents looked back occasionally, to where a man like a black hole sat on one of the stools by the counter, reading a menu.
Aurora grabbed a mug and pulled the carafe from the coffee maker. It made a sound like a knife sliding from its sheath. She shook the strangeness of this sudden metaphor from her head and pulled herself together. Walking along the counterspace, she eyed the new customer.
He was a big man, like truckers should be, dressed in black denim jeans and a black short-sleeved shirt with a collar. His muscled arms were matted with black hair, and he had thick black hair and a black beard.
In this weather, half his fuel costs were probably spent on air conditioning, Aurora thought. Stand by the side of the road and he could get a tan without taking his clothes off. The exposed parts of his skin would be the places that wouldn’t be tanned.
And he probably likes his coffee black, she added to herself. Without asking, she filled the mug and set it in front of him. Then she set down the carafe, took out her note pad and pencil, and stood ready. “See anything you like?” she prompted.
The man looked up at her. A feather stuck out behind his ear. The whites of his eyes were black.
“You,” he said. His eyes met hers.
Aurora staggered back into the cash register, which rang out and opened as her arm smacked the buttons. She tried to regain control of her knees, but they didn’t belong to her body any more.
There was a crash in the kitchen. Matron burst through the door, waving her spatula like a club. “Aurora!” she yelled. “Look out!” Polk was close behind.
Aurora fell against the counter. The coffee sloshed over the carafe and scalded her fingers before shattering on the counter, but she didn’t notice. She was out before she hit the floor.
Aurora dreamed of Lake Winnipeg.
The late spring sun rippled on the surface as she sat on a boulder and kicked at the stones of the beach. The waves crashed. The seagulls cried. The sky was the colour of canvas. The bracing north breeze flicked Aurora’s blonde hair into her face and made her pull up the zipper of her windbreaker.
“Find what you’re looking for, Honey?” asked her mom.
Aurora looked up. Her mother flashed her a grin as she sat on a wave-battered stump. She had her hands thrust into her jeans jacket, and the wind was blowing her blonde hair in front of her glasses. She’d sat with Aurora, looking across the waves as though she were waiting for a lost love.
Aurora said nothing. She returned her mother’s quick smile, then returned to her close examination of the stones beneath her feet. They clacked and skittered. Then she found it.
It was a round, flat stone, dark and mottled, while the others around it were white. Aurora picked it up. It had the heft of a baseball, and narrowed from half an inch thick on one side to almost a knife’s edge at the other, but there were no sharp edges to cut her. Her palm and forefinger curved around the thick side perfectly. Aurora cupped it in her palm, clasped it, then stood up. She eyed the northern horizon and took a deep breath.
She leaned into the shot, swinging the stone in a sidearm throw. It left her fingers, spinning, and caught the air like a sail. It met the water along its smooth, flat end, arching back into the air again. Aurora counted the splashes. She clenched her fist and smiled when she reached eight, and the stone finally disappeared.
Her mother clapped. “A new world record!”
She rolled her eyes at her. “Hardly.”
“Well, who’s to know?” said her mother. “It’s not like they keep records on that sort of thing.”
“Actually, they do,” said Aurora. She turned back to her seat on the boulder. “Some guy in Pennsylvania managed to get fifty-one.” She shoved her hands in her pockets and grumbled. “I looked it up.”
“Aurora?” The tone of her mother’s voice made Aurora turn. Her mother had stood up from the stump and had dropped her arms to her sides. “What’s been bothering you? You’ve been… withdrawn these past few days. I know that’s the default state of a teenager, but you’re only twelve, kid. And, besides, I’m a school counsellor with a psych degree. I know the difference between normal teenagerhood and when something’s bothering you. Please tell me.”
Aurora sighed. “Mom, nothing’s wrong.”
“Problems with your teachers?”
“Problems with Anne?”
“Problems with… boys?”
“Mom! No! — Well…”
Her mother drew herself up, visibly bracing herself for this moment. But it was not what she thought, thought Aurora. If only.
“You know about this boy at school, Roger?” Aurora began.
“The bully you fought?” Her mother nodded. “I know I shouldn’t condone violence, but that was still very brave of you.”
Aurora’s breath caught. “Er… No. It wasn’t. It… You don’t understand, I…” She halted and breathed deep. This was it. It all had to come out. She had to tell somebody or she’d explode. And her mother was the only person left she could talk to. “You see—”
A sound like the squeak of a rusty gate made her turn. On the branch of a stunted tree at the edge of the beach, a crow cocked its head to one side, then the other. It cawed. The north wind picked up and Aurora shivered.
Don’t be stupid, she thought. It’s just a bird.
A bird looking at me.
A bird’s got eyes, she thought. It can look at whatever it wants. It’s a free country.
But a bird shouldn’t look at me with intent. What was it that lawyer guy said on that television show? Malice aforethought? The look was that intense.
I must be imagining it, she thought.
She was about to turn away, dismiss the crow from her mind, when she heard a shout. A stone sailed over her head and struck the branch. The crow flew up, screeching.
“Get out of here!” her mother yelled, reaching for another stone. “Go on, get!” She threw the other rock, and the crow dodged out of the way. It aimed for the sky and took off, cawing.
“Mom!” Aurora shouted when she got her voice back. “Mom, what are you doing?” Then she looked at her mother, and her voice changed. “Mom, what’s wrong?”
She looked up at her daughter, then stood up sharply. She plastered a smile on her face. “What? Nothing. Nothing’s wrong. Let’s go home, honey.”
Aurora stood her ground. “Mom? What’s wrong?”
Her mother stepped towards her, walking carefully over the slippery stones while keeping one eye on the clouds. “Nothing’s wrong, Honey. It’s just that it’s late and it’s getting cold, so it’s time to go home.”
Aurora was about to protest when she heard cawing above, and looked up. There was a dotted line of black shapes weaving across the grey sky. Birds. Crows. Flying in a steady stream, calling out to each other as they migrated east.
Her mother gulped, then reached out for her. “C’mon, Honey, don’t argue, please? Let’s go home.”
Aurora hesitated, but then her mother snatched her hand and pulled. She was almost rough.
“Mom!” Aurora cried, stumbling alongside her to the car. “Mom, seriously, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, Honey,” said her mother, looking at the sky.
She let go of Aurora’s hand as they reached the car and opened the side door for her. As Aurora bent to slide inside, a caw made her look up.
The crow was watching her from the branch again.
She got in and slammed the door.
Her mother started the car and drove off in a spray of gravel.
When Aurora got home, her mother plunked her in front of the television set and put on Aurora’s favourite movie (The Princess Bride). She even made her popcorn and cocoa. But then her mother went to her bedroom and shut the door. And Aurora heard words.
She set her popcorn aside and crept down the hall, silent in her stocking feet. She put her ear to the door.
“Hi,” said her mom. “It’s Dawn… Yeah… We have a problem… I think he’s found us.”
There was a pause as her mother listened to the other side of the conversation. Aurora could picture her on the phone, standing by the bedside table, turning slowly, getting the cord twisted around her.
“Yeah, I’m sure I was followed,” her mother snapped. “If what you say is true, he has eyes everywhere.”
Then her mother let out a shuddering sigh. “I just don’t know what to do. You can’t let him take her, I know that. But I don’t know where to run.”
There was a long, listening silence in the bedroom.
“You’re sure,” said her mother at last. “But you’re in the middle of nowhere… You’re sure you can keep her safe? Do you promise? No, Matron, I’m not going anywhere unless you promise. If I’m going to trust you with my daughter, then you have to swear it! On whatever it is you people use as a holy book, swear it!”
Another listening silence. Then her mother let out her breath slowly. “Fine. We’ll do that. I’ll bring her over. It’s rush hour, so I should be able to lose him. How many blue SUVs can he track on the Perimeter Highway?” Then her breath caught. “Yes… I know what to do. I’ll… I’ll go tell her.”
Aurora heard her mother hang up and stride towards the bedroom door. She thought about running back to the couch as if nothing had happened, but decided to wait, arms folded, as her mother opened the door.
Her mother gasped to see her standing there.
“What’s going on, Mom?”
Aurora saw the parade of emotions steam across her mother’s face in the span of seconds: shock, horror, then getting things back under control, and then giving her daughter a small smile as she matched folding her arms across her chest.
“Hey, honey,” she said, a little breathlessly. “Want to make a little money?”
Aurora’s mouth opened to say something, then stopped. This wasn’t how she’d expect the conversation to begin. After a moment, she closed her mouth. “Okay,” she said at last. “Tell me more.”
“I just got a call from your aunt Matron,” said her mother.
Aurora nodded, and didn’t mention that she hadn’t heard the phone ring. Aunt Matron was a kindly older woman, though with red hair, she hardly looked like her mom’s sister. A good source of gifts whenever she visited, and always a cheque to be had when the birthday or Christmas cards arrived. But where did she live again?
“She’s been caught short,” her mother went on. “One of her hired hands up and left.”
Saskatchewan, Aurora thought. Northern Saskatchewan. The hired hand probably went crazy and made a mad dash for civilization.
Aloud, she said, “That’s too bad.”
“So, she asked if you could come out and help, for a couple of weeks, until she can hire a replacement,” said her mother. “It’s win-win. She’d love to see you, and she’ll pay the usual wage. How often do you get paid to spend some time with one of your relatives?”
There is that, Aurora thought. She looked up at her mother. “And this has nothing to do with why you were so upset back at the lake?”
“What?” said her mother quickly. “N-no! It’s just… helping out family, okay? You can do that, can’t you? And make a little money on the side.”
Aurora nodded. You’re not going to tell me why you’re so scared, are you? You’re a bald-faced liar and, worst of all, you think you’re doing this for my benefit. Oh, well. Visiting Aunt Matron might be a good consolation prize. If I play along, maybe I can figure out what’s going on. Maybe I can wear Matron down and get an explanation.
She smiled at her mother, reached out and brushed her cheek, knocking the dreamcatcher hoop that dangled from her mother’s ear. “Sure!”
“Pack a bag, Honey. We’ll grab a bite to eat on the road.”
Aurora blinked. “We’re going now?”
Her mother beamed. “Yup!” As though they were on their way to Disneyworld. And she sent Aurora to her room to pack.
As Aurora packed, she thought about arguing, or even throwing a fit, but at the back of her mind, a little voice told her to play along. There was something about the tension in her mother’s shoulders that made her keep her head down. To do otherwise, she thought, would be like putting a match to a balloon of gasoline.
So she packed up a week’s change of clothes, a bunch of her favourite books (Aunt Matron didn’t have cable! Augh!) plus Freddy, the teddy bear that she’d publicly sworn she was much too old for but had never deigned to recycle, and hauled the suitcase out of the house and to her mother’s SUV.
Her mother loaded the suitcase into the back of the SUV and hurried Aurora into the car. She kept on looking at the trees, but there were no waiting crows. Finally, her mother piled in behind the steering wheel and snapped on her seatbelt.
“You forgot to close the front door, Mom,” said Aurora patiently.
Her mother looked at her blankly a moment, then peered out the side window at their porch. The front door of their house stood ajar.
Her mother gave Aurora a quick, sheepish grin. “I’ll be right back.” The door slammed. There was the scuff of feet up the front walk, a slam, a click, more scuffling, and then her mother hopped back into the car. “Ready?”
“Are you?” said Aurora, eyebrow raised.
Her mother took a breath and held it. “No,” she said at last, and turned the key in the ignition. Aurora was pressed into her seat as the car shot out of the driveway. The dreamcatcher dangling from the rear-view mirror was pulled almost horizontal.
“Mom!” said Aurora.
“Sorry,” said her mother, and slowed down.
They pulled into the first McDonald’s drive-thru they passed and bought Big Macs and fries to eat on their laps as they drove. Traffic was heavy as they eased onto the Perimeter Highway, but it moved. As the cars, trucks and SUVs surrounded them, Aurora heard her mother breathing a sigh of relief, but the tension didn’t ease from her shoulders. Not completely, even as they pulled onto the Trans-Canada Highway.
They had the radio on, and they drove on in silence. Aurora kept her ear open for the news, in case some secret tsunami or some other disaster was on its way to crush Winnipeg behind them.
They pushed westward. The rocky land of the shield gave way to pasture, and then grain fields. They chased the sun as it disappeared over the horizon and kept driving as the farmhouse lights winked off and the interior of their car flashed dark to bright in the headlights of oncoming trucks. The radio stations gave way to static.
“Shall I put on a tape, dear?” asked her mother, not waiting for Aurora’s response. For the next hour, they listened to Mozart. Aurora curled her legs beneath her, rested her cheek against the headrest and stared out at the blackness, flecked with distant specks of light.
The tape clicked off. Mom fed a new tape in. It started softly, with the sound of rushing surf.
Then her mother’s voice washed over the car’s speakers.
“I’d like you to take deep, slow breaths. Imagine that with each breath, you are putting all of your tensions, all of your stress, into your lungs and breathing them out of your mouth. With each breath your eyelids are getting heavier.”
Aurora’s eyelids fluttered.
“Keep your breathing slow and steady,” continued her mother’s voice. “With each breath, you are falling deeper and deeper asleep.”
And Aurora slipped into a deep sleep. She’d be surprised if she hadn’t been so sleepy.
“Your name is Aurora Kelso. Not Perrault. Kelso.”
“Kelso,” Aurora muttered.
“You have lived in Cooper’s Corners all your life. You have no mother. You have no father. There is only Aunt Matron.”
A persistent light winked her slowly back to consciousness. Aurora snorted and fruitlessly tried to flick it away. She opened her eyes and shut them again at the sudden bright blindness. She raised her head and looked around, groggy. Her mouth was dry and tasted terrible.
She could barely take in what her eyes were telling her. They were on a black ribbon ploughing through a sea of yellow, the only car on the road. The horizon ahead of them was dark, but the clouds glowed like mountains.
Beside her, her mother hunched over the steering wheel as the prairie slipped past, staring ahead with the glazed look that suggested extreme concentration in the face of a desperate need of caffeine.
This wasn’t right, thought a small clear voice that was muffled in the addled confines of Aurora’s brain. The sun peeking over the horizon behind me is sunrise. They’d driven all night, and were still driving.
“Wh-where?” she croaked. She strained against her seat belt. Her joints ached from sleeping upright. “M-mom, wh-where—”
Her mom gave her a quick look. Her cheeks were wet, and she cleared her nose with a sniff. She adjusted the controls, and the side view mirror dipped, pulling the rising sun out of Aurora’s eyes.
“Just rest, honey,” said her mother, gulping. “J-Just go to sleep, and rest.”
She placed a hand over Aurora’s eyes…
That was four years ago.
A hand clapped on Aurora’s shoulder. She woke with a gasp, then looked around frantically. She was standing in the middle of the diner. Tom Hobson held her by the shoulder with one hand, and had taken the coffee carafe out of her hand with the other.
“Careful, there, young lady,” he said. “You almost spilled. Does Matron work you like a slave into the middle of the night as well?”
Aurora gathered herself and looked around at the diner. It was a normal end of the lunch hour. The Hendersons had gathered Britney’s entourage of toys and were easing the girl out the door.
The dark man was nowhere to be seen.
“You were out on your feet,” said Mr. Hobson.
In her mind’s eye, Aurora burst out of the controlling comforter and wriggled free.
Aurora’s mouth dropped open. “How long have I been asleep?”