Author's Note: Those of you who have read my short fiction collection, These Haunted Dreams will recognize the following tale. This is the story which opens that collection and, I feel, helps set the tone for the rest of the book. This particular tale was inspired by Blue Oyster Cult's classic Don't Fear the Reaper (if you've never heard the song, listen to it here). You can see distinct echoes from the song in some of the imagery at the end. For a live reading of this haunting tale, click here.
He came to her in dreams. Not every night. No, that would have been too kind. Instead, he teased her with his presence, coming every once in a while, seducing her twice in one week, and then disappearing for almost a month at a time.
The dreams, when she had them, were wonderful. In her waking hours, she would hear the velvet of his voice, the soft breath against her ear. The memory of his words was so vivid that it drowned out every other sound on her morning ride to work.
And his touch. Whenever he came to her at night, all the next day, she could feel him still, like soft electric fire burning in her skin. Sometimes she would sit at her desk for hours, staring blankly at the computer screen, completely caught up in the memory of his hands all over her.
She did not know him, this strange dream lover. His face was one she had never seen before – the high, sculpted cheekbones, the thin, perfect nose, the lips that seemed chiseled from living stone. He was pale – pale as the moon in her dreams, and it seemed that his skin nearly glowed. Jet-black hair, like a raven’s wing, spilled over his forehead and down the back of his neck. His eyes, too, were black, or so it seemed. In the dreams, these held a strange dark-light, and she could never gaze on them for very long.
He would just arrive in her twelfth floor apartment, moving from the balcony to the side of her bed. She never asked how he got there. It was, after all, a dream. And yet how vivid, how sensuous these dream-visits were, until she felt that she truly had a lover, even though this lover had no name.
Months into this strange seduction, she began to go out looking for him. Somehow, she knew to seek him only at night. She went to the bars and the nightclubs, dressing in velvet and her slick vinyl boots. Over the weeks, she saw many strange, pale people. Once or twice, she thought she spied him, but then the young man would turn and the cheek wasn’t right or the eyes were too dim. It seemed like he was always one step ahead of her, and she could feel his presence lingering everywhere she went.
If a club wasn’t open, she would wander the Village, sitting and watching the people walk their dogs through WashingtonPark. Sometimes she could feel his presence moving behind her, but then she would turn, and there was nothing but shadows and the sound of the wind. She knew that he was teasing her, leading her along in some deft seduction. The harder she sought him in the waking world, the longer it would be before he returned to her dreams.
She had resigned herself to being patient, some time after the leaves began to fall. It was getting too cold to sit all night in the park, although she would still sometimes go out to one of the clubs.
The chill of November was in the air the night she lost her wallet. She had money in her pocket, but it wasn’t enough to pay for cab fare. With a bitter wind coming off of the Atlantic, she didn’t relish the thought of walking ten blocks home. So she found the F train and tried to look inconspicuous as she waited on the platform, shivering in her fishnets and her thin vinyl coat.
It was a Sunday night. She expected the train to be empty, but instead it had a crowd. It was nothing compared to the hoards on the morning commute, but she still had to work to find herself a seat. Several people were standing, fingers twined in the loops overhead. Others were stretched out across three or four spaces, vagrants escaping the night’s chill by riding the train endlessly back and forth
As it was so often lately, her mind was on him. She gazed out the window, not even seeing the shadowed, stained walls as they sped past her eyes. She was focused so completely on her internal landscape that she almost didn’t see the pale face reflected beside her in the grime-smeared glass. But for some reason, her eye caught the image and stuck. It took a moment for the face to sink in.
He was sitting on the other side of the train from her, his dark eyes focused on something far away.
She turned around, half expecting him to not be there when she looked. Like some phantasm, she feared that he existed only in the glass. But there he was. The lights of the subway played upon his pallor, till it seemed he should glow with a light of his own.
The train plunged into a tunnel, rattling wildly along its tracks. Yet he hadn’t disappeared.
“You! I know you!”
She couldn’t help herself. The words echoed through the train.
Slowly, he turned and regarded her. Those strange, dark eyes seemed to sizzle on her skin.
“Hush,” he said, drawing his dark coat about him. “Don’t make a scene. I’ll come to you tomorrow. Just before the morning.”
The train was jerking to a halt. He stood, and it was as if the train was moving for everyone but him. His hands were in his pockets, and he didn’t even seem to brace his legs. And yet so effortlessly he rose and glided to a door. She sat riveted to her seat, her eyes, unblinking, fixed on him. She wanted to run after him, but he was out and the door was closed before she could get her legs to work. Her heart fluttered against her ribs like a panicked bird in a cage.
It was only after he exited the train that she realized his lips had never moved.
* * *
Tonight, she thought, and stared through the letters on the screen. Tonight, just before morning.
In agony, she struggled to focus on her work. His voice had been exactly like it was in her dreams. But had she dreamed it? His lips had never moved. The other passengers, though they reacted to her outburst, seemed insensible to him.
And the way he glided, as if gravity held no power over him! The train could have shaken itself off its tracks, and he would have been standing there, calm and poised, with everyone else thrown to the floor around him.
What was he? All those weeks, all those months, that question had never come. Had she never wondered? Or had she been afraid to ask? Was there any chance that he would have answered as he whispered to her at night? No, he spoke to her in dreams, but it was the language of the bedroom. In all the time he had been coming to her, she had not even learned his name.
The day dragged by. And then it was evening, and she made a point of taking the train. She searched the faces, but of course, he wasn’t there.
Just before morning.
She stopped at the vegetarian diner a block from her building. But she couldn’t eat. Every time the door opened, she almost jumped up, looking for him.
The elevator ride up to her apartment was torture. There were five other people, all standing too close. And of course, the worst of it was, none of them were him.
She stripped out of her work clothes and took a hot bath. But the steam and the scent of lavender did nothing at all to soothe her.
Those eyes, those high, pale cheekbones!
She turned on the computer and surfed the ‘net. She found herself checking forums over and over again, desperately searching for some new topic, some line of conversation that could occupy her mind. In the reflection of her face on the screen, she could almost see him.
At nine o’clock, she took off her bathrobe and slipped on her black lace gown. She turned off all the lights but left one candle burning, a lone tea-light in a votive holder that glimmered on her nightstand. She lay on her back among the pillows. She stared at the ceiling, and the flickering flame of the tea light made the patterns in the plaster come alive.
What was she waiting for? Should she sleep? Or did he mean he’d really come, for the first time more flesh than dream?
Eleven o’clock found her tossing, her long red hair tangled on the pillowcase. Midnight came and went. She got up and put on music, hoping the quiet tones would ease the wait. The clock seemed to draw her eyes to it every quarter hour. She turned her face away, and then would look again: one-thirty, one-forty-five, two AM.
Sometime, she dozed. She woke to a sound on the balcony. Somehow she heard it over all the city noise. A gust of chilly wind greeted her as she sat up, kissing her skin through the thin lace of her gown.
There was a light out there. She could see it glowing faintly through the muslin of the curtains. Twelve floors below, motors growled and horns blared. Four-thirty in the morning. New York was never asleep.
She pushed the covers back and placed bare feet upon the floorboards. The chill brought her more awake. She was awake. She was sure of it. This was no dream.
And then that figure moved behind the curtain. The soft glow upon the balcony marked his stately silhouette. He was thin, so thin and delicate, and yet she knew the strength that vibrated in those limbs.
He didn’t have to call to her. She threw open the doors. He was leaning against the balcony railing, arms crossed upon his chest. The wind blew his hair about him and she thought of ravens taking flight.
She ran to him, her arms outstretched. She had no words for the joy she felt, the profound sense of completion. When he moved, the wind caught the edges of his long silk trench. It made a sound like wings.
Then the wings were everywhere, and the wind, and the lights of the city as they streamed by like a river that had burst its banks. And the stars that were streetlamps and the stars in the sky went all topsy-turvy until finally she felt herself in his arms.
They were standing on the pavement, twelve floors below the balcony’s edge. She could still see the cars and streetlights, but strangely, the city seemed to hold its breath. The sounds were distant and muffled. Even the sirens were quiet as they came, heralded by flashing lights.
“I can be with you,” she murmured, breathless.
“You are with me,” he said.
She felt his hands squeezing her shoulders. They were cold, but they were his. She laid her head against his chest. She heard only the wind.
“You have no heartbeat,” she whispered.
“No,” he said. “I never have.”
Softly, he stroked her hair. She gazed up at him, and found she could meet those dark and distant eyes.
“How did we get here?” she wondered. “I mean down here, on the street?”
He pointed to the pavement behind her. She almost didn’t look.
The flashing lights were a blur around her. The cars and people screaming were hazy and indistinct. It was like standing in an impressionist’s painting of the city, everything too blurry to be real.
“How did that happen?” she asked. She cringed away from it, clinging to his chest.
“Isn’t that what you wanted?” he responded. “You wanted to be with me.”
“To be with you…” she sighed.
His arms were cold around her, but still she found comfort in that embrace.
“Take me away from it,” she pleaded. “Take me away from it all.”
They turned away from the mess on the pavement. Her hand in his hand, they danced away on the wind.