It was always the same dream, night after night.
She was a pilot—the aviatrix—slim in an olive green flight suit, looking beautiful despite her leather flight cap and goggles. Climbing up the ladder alongside a silver propeller plane, she paused to wave to the crowd gathered nearby beneath a string of colorful fluttering flags. With a cheeky wink she then hopped into the cramped cockpit and took her place at the controls.
To cries of delight the aviatrix then opened up the throttle. Casting an eye toward the red and white wind sock, she noted it was blowing a stiff northeasterly. She then released the brakes.
Twin propellers roaring, the gleaming airplane began pulling away. Above the noise came more hearty huzzahs. But before long the cheers turned to gasps as she hurtled down the runway. “Pull up!” someone shouted. “Pull up!”
But the aviatrix just frowned. Squinting at the instruments through her grimy goggles, she saw something she didn’t like, a gauge against which she repeatedly tapped a fingertip. Nevertheless she roared onward. Glancing up, she finally pulled back hard on the yoke and, with only a foot of runway remaining, left the ground. Wings shuddering, the airplane began climbing, higher and higher until it appeared to onlookers like a silver dagger slicing through the sky.
From her position at the controls, the aviatrix looked out at the world. Far below, the carpet of swaying palm trees became shadowy reef and then an endless expanse of glittering turquoise. High above, the yellow sun burned brightly in a cloudless sky.
She smiled, blissfully alone in this singular universe. Alone she would remain until, many hours later, a sandy landing strip appeared out of the twinkling infinity.
Except it never did.
The dazzling blue turned to darkest night as Joy Wells yelped in fright. Arms out, she sat up in bed, still braced for impact with the great blue sea that had an instant ago been rushing up to meet her.
It had all seemed so real.
Joy could still remember every detail. From helplessly watching the fuel gauge dip until the needle shuddered below empty, to hearing the engines sputter and die. With nothing more to be done, she had then closed her eyes, tracking the plane’s descent by the sickening sensation in her stomach.
The shattering impact had awoken her.
Fortunately, it was only a dream, Joy assured herself. It was late at night and she was in her bedroom, she confirmed by the soft glow coming from Fizz’s aquarium heater. From down the hall she could hear her father’s snoring, and the familiar scratching of a branch against the shingles of her home at Number 9 Ravenwood Avenue.
After flipping over her drenched pillow, Joy lay back down. As her heart slowed its thumping, she stared up into the black nothingness until she finally fell back into a fitful sleep.
The next morning Joy arrived at the breakfast table looking shadowy-eyed and exhausted.
“What’s wrong, dear?” her mother asked upon witnessing the haunted look she had given her piece of toast. “My, oh my. You look absolutely awful today.”
If the repulsed expressions on their faces were anything to go by, Joy’s brother, Byron, and her father both appeared to agree.
Joy flopped forward over the table, her long blond hair trailing in the butter dish. She grumpily relayed how she’d been suffering from the same recurring dream for the past few weeks, a terrible one that felt curiously real, as if she had been somehow witnessing events that had actually transpired.
“Ah,” Mrs. Wells replied once her daughter had finished. “They’re called night terrors. I used to get them too when I was about twelve,” she confessed. “They’re basically nightmares but a lot more vivid and much, much harder to wake up from.”
“Can you die from them?” Byron inquired, his mouth ringed in raspberry jam.
“From what?” his mother asked.
“From a night terror.”
“No, Byron,” Mrs. Wells assured her son.
“Are you sure?” the boy asked. “Because Gustave says you can actually die if you dream you’re falling but don’t wake up before you hit the ground.”
Horrified, Joy turned to her mother, awaiting a confirmation or denial of Byron’s friend’s claim. Because when it came to medical facts, Mrs. Wells was considered the authority in the family. Although not a physician, she did have a PhD in philosophy, which meant she was still allowed to call herself a doctor. Which, she boasted, meant she could get dinner reservations just as easily as any practitioner of actual medicine.
“That is complete nonsense,” Mrs. Wells informed her children. “A dream is nothing more than the processing of memories and subconscious information,” she recalled vaguely from an article she’d once read. “It’s absolutely impossible to get physically hurt from things that just exist in your imagination.”
“Yeah, but what if the shock of going splat gives you a heart attack or something?” Byron persisted. “That could happen, couldn’t it?”
“Well, I guess so,” Mrs. Wells admitted. “But I’m sure it’s really, really unlikely. Especially when it comes to healthy young people like you and your sister.”
“Phew,” Byron said, exhaling. “Because sometimes I like to dream I’m flying, and I go pretty high . . .”
Joy shook her head wearily. Having slammed into the sea at least a dozen times now, she probably had nothing to worry about. “Anyway, I never used to get bad dreams,” she continued. “So why now?”
Actually, the statement wasn’t strictly accurate. Having spent many nights reading horror stories by flashlight, Joy was pretty accustomed to nightmares. Usually they featured terrifying creatures bristling with claws and fangs, or mind-bending supernatural occurrences that defied both sense and reason. However, these were the kinds of dreams she enjoyed most. They were like cool little movies where she got to be the star.
“Night terrors can start at any age, dear,” Mrs. Wells explained. “They’re usually caused by exhaustion and anxiety. To be honest, since you’re so sensitive, I’m surprised you didn’t start getting them earlier.”
“Sensitive?” Joy shrieked. “Me?”
“It’s not an insult, dear. It’s just a statement of fact. Wouldn’t you agree, Edward?”
“Your mother’s right, pumpkin. You are very sensitive,” Mr. Wells mumbled from behind his newspaper. “Is there any more coffee, Helen?”
“That was the last cup.”
“Oh shucks. Really?”
“You guys are out of your minds,” Joy protested. “I am not sensitive! Actually, I’m the total opposite of sensitive!”
“You’re completely insensitive?” her mother offered with a wry smile. “Well, true enough. Sometimes you can be like that, too.”
Joy stomped a foot, rattling the breakfast dishes on the table. Why did everyone always feel so free to comment on what sort of person they’d decided she was? And of all things to accuse her of—being sensitive? How ridiculous! If anything, being forced to go to school down in Darlington had given her a pretty thick skin, she had always reckoned.
But why bother arguing? So long as her parents didn’t start dragging her down for more therapy sessions at Darlington General, they could pretty much say whatever they wanted.
“Well, I’m sorry you feel that way,” Joy said, regaining her composure. “I just don’t agree.”
“And I’m sorry if you took my observation as a criticism,” Mrs. Wells insisted. “Really, these discussions are only meant to illuminate, my dear, to help you develop and refine your own personal philosophy. I think you might be wise to take a note from the great thinker Michel de Montaigne: ‘Of all our infirmities, the most savage is to despise our being.’”
Joy bristled. Out of all the dusty catchphrases Mrs. Wells had seen fit to shake out over the years, few got under her daughter’s skin quite like those of this particular dead French dude. Each one seemed to come out of the blue like a little nuclear missile that, despite her best defenses, Joy could never knock out of the sky. Even the man’s very likenesses were annoying. She had discovered this while looking him up on the Internet, his portraits all capturing the same sad face perched atop a white ruff as if on a serving plate.
Maybe it was time for Joy to change up her tactics a little bit.
“‘My life has been full of terrible misfortunes,’” Joy quoted, using her best impersonation of a cockatoo. “‘Most of which never happened.’”
“Another great thought from Monsieur de Montaigne!” Mrs. Wells squealed with delight. “And perfectly recalled. As I keep saying, your mind is a steel trap, my dear. Please do yourself the favor of putting it to good use.”
“Uh-huh,” Joy replied, unsure whether or not to be pleased with the results of her experiment.
“Anyway, perhaps I’m being hard on you, sweetheart,” Mrs. Wells admitted. “For once you do have a pretty good reason to feel a bit anxious.”
Joy’s eyes snapped open wide. Why the sudden turnaround? “What do you mean?” she demanded.
“Well, you are about to graduate, darling. That has to be fairly upsetting.”
“Upsetting?” Joy laughed, whacking a spoon off the table and snorting on top of it. “I’m graduating from Winsome Elementary, a dump I can’t wait to get out of.”
Mrs. Wells rolled her eyes. “Yes, yes. Everyone knows how much you hate your school. But look at it this way: At least at Winsome you already know your enemy. In junior high who knows what will happen?”
“What do you mean?” Joy demanded to know. “What could happen?”
“Oh, probably nothing,” Mrs. Wells answered. “In fact, I’m sure everything will be fine. That said, what if you end up feeling just as unpopular and persecuted as you did at elementary school? Or what if it’s even worse—”
“Hey, wait a minute,” Joy interrupted. “I thought you told me that junior high is when all the teasing stops, when everybody starts getting really serious!”
“Did I really say that?” Mrs. Wells put a hand over her mouth to cover a laugh. “I’m sorry. Maybe that was just wishful thinking. Anyway, all I am saying is that it is enough to give anyone in their right mind nightmares.”
That was just great, Joy thought, glaring at her mother. It was bad enough that she was having night terrors, but did such dread have to come out in the full light of day? Were there any hereditary family illnesses her mother thought she should know about while she was at it?
Now Joy was scared. What if whatever new world lay ahead of her turned out to be even worse than the current one? She had been so excited about finally leaving Winsome Elementary that she had never really considered what possible horrors could follow.
“Speaking of nightmares, Edward,” Mrs. Wells said, turning her attention to her husband. “Are you going to mow the lawn today?”
“The lawn?” cried Mr. Wells. “What on earth for?”
“I thought we decided last night that we would have Byron’s birthday party in the backyard this year.”
Eagerly anticipating his ninth birthday, Byron somehow managed to smile around the third piece of toast stuck in his mouth. There was just something about the number nine that was so much less lame than the number eight. At least in his opinion.
“Well, sure, but that’s not for another two weeks,” Mr. Wells replied. “What’s the big rush?”
“Have you looked at the state of the lawn lately?” Mrs. Wells demanded. “A herd of buffalo could be living in there and we would be none the wiser. In fact, I don’t think it’s been mowed once since last summer, if I recall correctly.”
“That’s because we had a really rainy fall,” Mr. Wells explained, folding his newspaper irritably. “You can’t mow wet grass. It just clumps together and clogs up the blade.”
“Well, whatever. I just wouldn’t leave it to the last minute, Edward. You know it’s always much more work than you expect. Better to get it under control now and then do a quick pass before the party.”
Mr. Wells took a swig from his mug and once again discovered it empty. Grumbling, he then turned to his son. “I think good old Byron here is getting more than old enough to add mowing the lawn to his growing list of skills,” Mr. Wells said, ruffling the boy’s dark mop of hair. “Hey, would you like to start earning yourself a bit of pocket money, Son?”
“Not really,” Byron answered honestly.
“Honestly, Edward, are you even being serious?” cried Mrs. Wells. “There is no way a seventy-pound child can push a thirty-pound mower through four-foot-high grass.”
Tuning out her family, Joy looked down at her breakfast. She was feeling a bit hungry now and took a bite of cold toast. As she chewed, her thoughts returned to her night terrors. Even if her fears about graduating were the cause, it still didn’t explain the dream itself, she decided. What could plummeting into the sea possibly have to do with heading off to junior high?
On this matter Joy decided not to further consult her mother, who had fortunately given over her full attention to the upcoming gardening duties of Mr. Wells. Having already heard enough about how alternately sensitive and insensitive she was, Joy didn’t need to listen to a bunch of lame metaphors involving fears of crashing and burning, and how you had to sink or swim in life.
Anyway, Joy felt pretty certain that she had already worked out the most important part of her dream: the identity of the person in whose body she kept finding herself trapped. Her name was Ms. Melody Huxley. And for the past two weeks, Joy had been reliving the last moments of her life.
Joy had first learned about Melody, who was one of her greatest idols, while rummaging through the forgotten old trunks in the cellar. Joy had been instantly fascinated by the woman who, like her, had once occupied 9 Ravenwood Avenue. With her knees going numb on the cold cellar floor, Joy had spent hours piecing together what she could of the woman’s extraordinary life. Rifling through old possessions and examining faded photographs, she had marveled at the contradictory images of the beautiful socialite and blood-thirsty game hunter, traveling the globe wherever wildlife and wet bars coexisted.
But that was before Joy had finally learned the full extent of the woman’s amazing life.
For it had turned out that the former resident of Number 9 was in fact a famous female aviator. And what was even more startling, just like Joy’s other idol—legendary horror writer Ethan Alvin Peugeot—the pioneering airwoman had also infamously vanished without a trace.
The revelation had come curiously enough via a special bulletin from the E. A. Peugeot Society. A huge fan ever since having been bequeathed a first-edition compendium of his work, Joy had been a proud member of the literary fellowship for the past year, during which an unshakable belief had taken hold of her. Finding uncanny similarities between the setting of Peugeot’s stories and Spooking itself, Joy had become convinced that he had once lived in her hometown.
But as the notorious recluse’s whereabouts were uncertain even in his own day, no one appeared to know much about him. He would appear unexpectedly at his publisher’s office before disappearing again. And when he eventually failed to resurface, an entire century would pass without the mystery ever being solved.
So it happened that Joy had decided to take the case for Spooking directly to the Society itself. By documenting the considerable evidence, she would prove once and for all that the town was once home to the great author. But despite her best efforts, Joy had been unable to deliver her arguments before a stunning revelation from the Society brought everything into question.
According to the special bulletin, the startling discovery had been made in Steadford Mines, a popular tourist town a few hundred miles away. Plucked from the basement of an old lakeside cottage, a bundle of correspondence and an unpublished manuscript had been discovered bearing the distinctive handwriting of the author.
The correspondence itself, the bulletin had explained, consisted exclusively of love letters penned to someone known as “My Sweet Semiquaver.” Joy had been delighted to learn that the previously unknown manuscript was entitled “The Crimson Pool.”
But even more astoundingly, further investigation had revealed that the cottage was once the summer residence of another celebrity—the world-famous female aviator Ms. Melody Huxley.
The shock had been so great, Joy had immediately passed out. Upon regaining her senses, Joy had believed the connection to be too much of a coincidence. How could the former resident of 9 Ravenwood Avenue have come into possession of the private writings of Ethan Alvin Peugeot? Joy had promptly ransacked her house looking for any clues, but had found nothing.
Unfortunately, there were few leads to follow. Ms. Huxley’s own disappearance proved equally baffling. She was presumed lost at sea when her propeller plane failed to arrive at a small island in the middle of the Pacific. With no wreckage recovered, some sort of tragic error of navigation or mechanical malfunction was presumed by her many mourners and admirers.
But as often happens in such cases, some people began offering more outlandish explanations. A few even began suggesting that Ms. Huxley had in fact survived by crash-landing on a remote island. Some claimed she had lived out the rest of her days in complete solitude, while others said she had been adopted by a tribe of natives who’d revered her as a goddess.
The latter theory was later supported by the discovery of a small camp on a remote island, with a nearby altar of worship fashioned from the remnants of an aircraft of the same era. But arguments had quickly raged over whether or not Ms. Huxley’s airplane had possessed sufficient range to reach the site.
Still others maintained that she had secretly been a foreign spy and had slipped away on an enemy submarine to escape justice. Some even argued that a series of lights spotted in the sky by rescue teams suggested that the airwoman might have been abducted by aliens.
After reading all the evidence, Joy had not initially been able to decide which theory she believed. Each had its merits—especially the one about the UFOs, in whose existence she most definitely believed.
However, that was before her night terrors had started. Now she felt in her heart that Ms. Huxley had simply run out of fuel and slammed into the ocean.
Still, it was a horrible notion. Somehow the idea of her idol living out her life as a tribal queen, in secret exile somewhere, or even hurtling through the vastness of space alongside a bunch of almond-eyed abductors seemed much more comforting to Joy than the thought of her lifeless body slipping silently into the briny depths of the sea.
Equally upsetting, it also meant that Melody’s secrets had sunk to the bottom of the ocean with her, the most important of which was her connection to Ethan Alvin Peugeot—a man last seen alive when she had been but a mere girl of seven. It was a mystery that weighed not only on Joy’s mind, but on those of everyone at the E. A. Peugeot Society.
However, just because Peugeot had stopped appearing in public didn’t mean that he had stopped existing. Joy speculated that he could have easily lived out the rest of his days in secret on her very doorstep and at some point met Melody here.
Unfortunately, no one was interested in this possibility, nor in any other of Joy’s many theories. Not her parents, nor her teachers—nor even her usually loyal brother, Byron, it seemed lately. But what did it matter? It was the truth, Joy knew, and all she had to do was prove it.
Unfortunately, no one seemed the slightest bit interested in her latest belief that Melody Huxley had once lived at Number 9. Even Joy’s own parents were unable to properly assess clear photographic evidence, having been already driven to the edge of sanity by her Peugeot obsession.
“I’ll agree, the woman does look a bit like her,” her father had conceded, scarcely able to contain a yawn. “But from my work on old deeds with Pennington, Plover & Freep, I can tell you that Huxleys once positively abounded in this area. Now, if this person really was the Melody Huxley like you think, why are there no pictures of her at the controls of an airplane?”
To that question Joy had no good answer. But now tormented by night terrors over the mystery, she felt more determined than ever to find out.
But first she had to go to school, she knew, looking up at the clock. Which unfortunately was yet another realm of nightmare—Winsome Elementary.
Groaning, she got up from the table and shuffled off to brush her teeth.
© 2011 P. J. Bracegirdle
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