He knew her— or rather, his body did —instantly and dramatically. The familiar softness of her skin, bare hip and breast, her lush warmth against the length of him, leg thrown over his thighs, possessive and provocative and wanton. Every nerve ending seemed to be on fire where she touched him, and the flame spread.
He tried to say her name with lips that would not move, to raise an arm to pull her into him. The heat and smoothness of the perfect skin of her perfect, bare leg was the sweetest feeling he could remember. He wanted it to last forever. He wanted to feel the rest of her, surround her, fill her and make love to her forever. The sudden rage of lust consumed him.
Her eyes were large and dark, simultaneously calculating, teasing, sad and amused. He fell into them. Head tilted back, she parted her lips slightly. She rolled halfway onto him and kissed him with lips and tongue. Then the kiss changed, became slower and more tender, and a look of sadness crossed her face. Her eyes closed, then opened slowly, her hand softly on his cheek. She pulled away, face back in the shadows. And then she was gone. A feeling of loss and panic overwhelmed him.
“Miriam….No!” At least, that was what he wanted to say, but it came out a strangled cry.
The big Lab sleeping on blankets in the room raised his head at the sound.
Ted smelled faint perfume, her perfume, fading fast.
He sat in the half-light, fighting to come out of the dreamworld, and looked around, legs tangled in sweaty sheets, heart pounding.
Bluish-white moonlight cast distorted shapes from the bay windows onto the marquetry floor. A wing back chair, his clothes draped over the back and heaped on the floor beside it, lurked along another wall. An old armoire and matching dresser huddled darkly on the third. His bed was in the middle of the wall opposite the big, solid mahogany door, now slightly ajar.
Chest bursting, he leapt, naked, to the floor and spun around. She was nowhere in the room. He ran to the hallway, down the house’s formal center stairs and out onto the lawn. The grass was cool on his bare feet.
Nothing moved in the late-night silence. The air was still, cold and silent. A sound escaped his throat, something between a grunt and a cry.
Nothing was there. Loneliness and grief were cold fingers around his heart. A dog barked in the distance, the sound echoing between the walls of old houses.
Ted Brown became aware of the sound of someone sobbing and then slowly realized it was himself. His cheeks were wet with tears, and he touched them with one finger. The lawn was damp with dew. He shivered, becoming gradually aware that he was outside on his lawn, au naturel. The eastern sky was just lightening but the streetlights in the next block were still on.
Shocked awake and self-conscious, he hurried on bare feet up the stone stairs to the open front door, hoping no one saw him. Sleepwalking during the nightmares meant his grieving was anything but over. It was embarrassing. He glanced around and saw that the windows of all the nearby houses were still dark in the pre-dawn. He hoped his new neighbors hadn’t seen him on another of his nocturnal episodes, but couldn’t count on it. Small-town people tended to be observant — most would say nosy— and he could imagine someone tossing out a snarky question at the coffee shop, to general chuckles. Some would just look at him and shake their heads, if he happened to be there. Others would exchange knowing glances and smile to themselves, tapping their finger to temple. As a newcomer to the community, he was automatically assumed to be a bit odd; he didn’t want to add to the impression. But incidents like this weren’t helping.
He slumped up the big central staircase of the old mansion he was restoring, turned down the hall and hurried past buckets and drop-cloths, step ladders and stacks of paint cans and re-entered the bedroom. The musty but pleasing smell of fresh plaster was fading after a month. Soon, the painters would come and work on the next phase of the restoration.
The lanky old chocolate Labrador rose stiffly from his jumbled bed of foam and well-worn blankets near the chimney wall and padded over, toenails clicking on the hardwood to meet Ted at the door. He touched a cold nose to Ted’s hand and flicked a tongue tip to his fingers in greeting.
Brown absently scratched behind the big ears and stroked the wide head. Happy to get some response, the big dog glanced up with raised ears and inquisitive eyes to see if there was any chance of an early breakfast. Ted looked down at the silent pleading and smiled, then shook his head.
“You’ll have to wait,” he said sleepily, trying but failing to sound stern.
Ted flopped back into bed, the damp sheets cold and clammy. He didn’t shift them around, welcoming the cold as a kind of reality that seemed to never be far from his life. Hearing the “wait” word he hated, the big animal realized there was no chance of food yet and moved back to his own bed. He collapsed with a disappointed grumble but held his eyes on Brown for a few seconds, unblinking. His eyes drooped and he plopped his big head down, tucked his nose behind curled paws and was asleep in seconds.
“Wish I could do that,” Brown said, glaring at the dog and then stared back up at the fine cracks in the horsehair plaster overhead. He knew it would be some time before he could do the same. Seeing the cracks depressed him, a reminder that the long process of restoring the house was not finished.
The red LED display of the clock radio said 4:47 a.m. He rolled out of bed, slipped into a T-shirt, robe and sweatpants, stuck his feet into a pair of slippers, and wandered out into the hall again and down the wide flight of stairs to the kitchen. A window taller than he was let more moonlight in to bathe the hall in blue and grey. There was enough light to see by.
As he descended, he remembered the dream and the memory of the woman. There was seldom a day that he didn’t think of her, or wonder where she was, whether she was safe and whether she ever thought of him.
He sighed once, put the tea kettle on the stove and sat at the kitchen table without turning on a light. The moon lit the room through the tall Victorian window, and he stared up at it, sadness settling in his gut.
The tea was ready. He poured and sipped it with no cream or sugar.
Bitter. The hot liquid burned his tongue.
He welcomed it.