The child was going to drown.
The truth slammed into Tony Freeport with the force of a sledge. A stunning truth, considering she lay tucked safely in bed in the Shell Room of Seascape Inn and, in his fifty years as a ghost working with his beloved Hattie in assisting others here to heal, he’d never before seen anyone come to harm under the inn’s roof. But in Suzie Richards’s dream, all the signs of real-life drowning were evident: panic, an inability to breathe, and fear. So much fear. . .
Dream or reality, if Tony didn’t do something quickly, the nine-year-old daughter of Bryce Richards and the deceased photojournalist, Meriam, was going to drown.
What could Tony do? What should he do? Suzie taking on the burdens of family no child should ever have to carry had been the catalyst insisting he intercede this far. But to intercede into her dreams? Did he dare?
This had to be a near-miss warning. Had to be.
He looked through the closed bedroom door, out into the upstairs hallway. The paneled walls deepened the night’s shadows and the only light was that seeping through the bank of mullioned windows centered inside a small vaulted alcove at the far end of the hall. Tall hand-carved mahogany bookshelves flanked those windows. Tony couldn’t clearly see the books in them, but he didn’t have to see them to know each book’s title, to know each spine stood straight. Nor did he need to see the pillows on the thick-cushions of the window seat nestled between those shelves to know they’d been fluffed. Hattie Stillman nurtured everything in her care, which included all of Seascape Inn, most of Sea Haven Village, and, at one time, him.
He scanned the polished plank-wood floor from the far end of the hallway back toward the end where he stood. On the left, facing the Atlantic Ocean, was the master bedroom, dubbed the Great White Room years ago, and the bath. On the right, the L-shaped staircase leading down to the first floor, and the Cove Room where Bryce Richards should have been sleeping but wasn’t. Instead, the man dozed slumped on the hallway floor, his head lolled back against the paneled wall, his slippered foot rumpling the edge of the white Berber rug that stretched from the stairway’s landing nearly all the way down to the Shell Room, about a yard from Tony’s feet.
Bryce was a man on a mission. Two sets of his friends from New Orleans, T.J. and Maggie MacGregor and John and Bess Mystic, had found “magic” at Seascape Inn, and Bryce had come here with doubts but hopes that enough magic remained to grant his daughter peace from the emotional demons haunting her sleep since her mother’s death two years ago. But even in sleep, Bryce was despairing; Tony sensed it. Despairing that, though armed with its angelic innkeeper, Miss Hattie, the charming old inn couldn’t hold that much magic and, without it–God knew Bryce had tried everything else–Suzie’s nightmares would be an endless source of her suffering.
And Bryce despaired that she’d dream and, asleep in the Cove Room across the hallway, he’d not hear her cries, not know to come and comfort her. For reasons of his own, he had forsaken sleeping in the comfortable, stuffed chair in her room or in the luxury of a soft, king-size bed and had chosen to stand guard on the hallway’s oak floor outside her door, listening, waiting, and praying he wouldn’t be needed.
The agony of the situation had broken Tony’s heart, and he’d aided the quiet of the house in lulling the reluctant Bryce to sleep, agreeing with his darling Hattie’s assessment that Bryce was worn to a frazzle. But who wouldn’t be? Worried sick about his three children overall, Suzie and her nightmares in particular; fighting a constant battle of wills with that dour-faced Mrs. Wiggins, whom Bryce’s wife had hired to care for the children when Jeremy had been born four years ago; and then–right on the heels of the narrow-miss divorce between John and Bess Mystic–that blasted Tate divorce case. It was a wonder Bryce Richards was still upright!
In the days since their arrival at Seascape Inn, Hattie had mumbled repeatedly that no more a devoted father than Bryce ever had graced the earth, and Tony wholeheartedly agreed with his beloved on that appraisal, too. Bryce was a fine father, a fine man, and a fine attorney.
Yet that hadn’t spared him from challenges.
As if he hadn’t had enough on his plate already, he’d been tossed a moral dilemma on the Tate divorce case that would have brought even the most avid believer, the most confident man in the world, to his knees. A shame he had represented Gregory Tate. Not only disagreeable, the man had proven himself unscrupulous and coldly calculating.
Though the divorce had been granted and the case was behind Bryce now, it had left him weary, his opinion even more jaded about the odds for successful, happy marriages–and it’d left him admittedly curious about the mysterious Mrs. Tate.
So was Tony. He leaned against the doorjamb, propped the toe of his shoe against the floor, then rubbed at his neck. Why had the woman never once appeared in court? Never once attended the attorney/client meetings with Bryce, Gregory, and her own attorney? Her behavior was curious.
Tony grimaced. Now, because he had given Bryce this brief but much-needed respite of sleep, Suzie fought the fiendish nightmare alone. Tony shouldn’t intercede further–dream intervention was expressly forbidden–but she was suffering uncomforted, and that was his fault. He couldn’t deny responsibility and condemn her to this. Hattie would never forgive him. Worse, he’d never forgive himself.
Protocol be damned. Tony shoved away from the wall. Rules and regulations, too. What more could be done to him? Already he lived in the house with his beloved Hattie and yet he couldn’t talk directly with her, couldn’t hold her, couldn’t love her as a man should love a woman–as he would have loved her had he been given the chance. What could be more challenging? And a child’s life hung in the balance. Likely her father’s, too–if anything should happen to her.
Theoretically, people didn’t actually die just because they died in their dreams. But what if Suzie did? In Tony’s experience, dreamers always had awakened prior to actual dream-state death. So why wasn’t Suzie awakening?
Soaring heart rate. Gasping something fierce. She might not drown, but she could have a heart attack. Drowning or a massive coronary, dead was dead.
He tried several tactics to nudge her into awakening.
Having no idea, Tony scowled, feeling inept and agitated. The bottom line was Bryce Richards had little more left to lose. Tony had to intercede.
He stepped into Suzie’s nightmare, into a raging storm.
The wind stung, bitingly cold, whistling through crisp brown leaves that had fallen from the poplars and oaks near the shore. Familiar poplars and oaks. Familiar low stone wall running along the rocky ground to the pond. And familiar white wrought-iron bench, north of a familiar, freshly painted gazebo.
Criminey, Suzie was in the pond behind Seascape Inn!
Did she realize this yet? That her recurring dream actually took place here?
Odd. Before three days ago, Suzie never had seen Seascape Inn or its pond, and yet she’d suffered this same nightmare for the past two years.
Agitated by the blustery wind, Tony squinted against the darkness and glimpsed the shadow of a little rowboat–the very boat he himself with his lifelong friends, Hatch and Vic, had fished from as boys. Rocking on turbulent waves, the boat dipped low, took on water. And–sweet heaven, it was empty.
“Suzie?” Where was she? “Suzie?” The wind tossed Tony’s words back to him. Nearing the water’s edge, he called out again and stumbled over a giant oak’s gnarled roots. His foot stung.
Startled, he winced. Physical pain? How peculiar. It’d been half a century since he’d felt physical pain. . . .
He frantically scanned the dark water. Later, he’d think about the pain. He had to find Suzie now–before it was too late.
Midway across the pond, something flashed white. Her nightgown? No. No, it wasn’t. Just froth from a wave. Fear seeped deeper, into his soul. Where was she?
Straining harder, skimming, probing, he spotted her. Near the bow of the boat, floundering in the water, arms flailing, head bobbing between the waves.
Oh God, she really was going to drown. Unlike her other dreams, this one wasn’t a near-miss warning!
He cupped his hands at his mouth. “Suzie! Hold on to the boat. I’m coming. Just hold on to the boat!”
“I can’t!” she shouted back. Swallowing in a great gulp of water, she choked.
The sound grated at his ears, tore at his heart. Why in the name of everything holy did she feel it vital to hold on to the oars? Though wooden, they wouldn’t offer enough stability in the turbulent water to keep her afloat. Still, she held them in a death grip.
He had to find out why. Though dangerous–fear of him, in addition to the fear and panic she was suffering already, could worsen her situation dramatically–to help her, he needed to understand her rationale.
She screamed. A shattering scream that pierced his ears and reverberated in his mind. A chiseled hollow in his chest ached. Whatever the risks, damn it, he had to take them.
Focusing, he tapped into the child’s thoughts.
You have to get both oars in the water and keep them there, Suzie.
Not her voice. A memory. Something she’d been told by a woman. Someone older–twenties or thirties maybe. And that accent–definitely not anyone from Sea Haven Village, or from Maine. Southern. Distinctly southern.
The child took a wave full in the face, sputtered, then coughed.
He hurried toward her, resenting that in her dreams he obviously lacked his special gifts, his abilities and talents with the physical that would allow him to fish her out without getting so much as a toe wet. In dreams, it appeared he was as weak or as strong as a normal man. And while at times he’d love to again be a normal man, when Suzie was clinging to life by an oar wasn’t one of them.
What did it all mean?
He returned his cupped hands to his mouth. “Suzie, let go of that oar right now and grab hold of the boat. Do it! Do you hear me? Do it!”
Her wet hair swept over her face and clung to her tiny cheek in a clump, her eyes wild with fear. “I’ve got to keep both oars in the water! I’ve got to, or I’m not gonna get better.”
This was new ground, and Tony waffled on what to do. His heart told him to go get her. His logic warned if he touched her, with her body temperature as low as it surely was already from the frigid water, the cold could result in pneumonia and she’d die. But if he didn’t physically get her out of the pond quickly, she’d die, too. Simply put, he was in a lose/lose situation here. Damned if he did, damned if he didn’t.
He had years of experience. He just had to not panic. Had to think about this. He cleared his mind, then weighed the pros and cons, mentally searching for alternatives less risky to Suzie.
There were none.
He hated any but win/win situations, yet the core in this one rested right where it had before he’d begun his search: She had a fighting chance with pneumonia. She didn’t with drowning.
Tony dove in. Hit the frigid water that sucked out his breath, then stroked furiously toward her.
The lack of true physical exercise for too many years had him winded and tiring quickly. Soon, his arms and legs felt like lead and he couldn’t seem to get enough air to feed his starving lungs. They throbbed and ached, and the physical sensations of weight and gravity and oxygen deprivation had him sluggish, tired, moving about as quickly as a hyperthyroid snail. Without his special gifts, could he get to her in time?
“Please, don’t let her die. Please, help me help her.” She was so close. So close. . . . “Please!”
He dug deep, scraped the remnants of his reserves and pulled a mighty stroke.
His fingers snagged the collar of her nightgown.
He tugged, grabbed her more securely with his left hand, the boat with his right, then curled her tiny body to his and hugged her to him. She latched her arms around his neck, squeezed so hard he sensed she was trying to crawl into him. And then she began to cry. Deep, heart wrenching sobs that jerked viciously at his heartstrings. “Shhh, it’s okay, little one. I’ve got you now. I’ve got you now.”
She breathed against his neck, her voice a rattled whimper of sound. “Promise?”
This crisis, she’d weathered. This time, she’d survived. Awash in gratitude and relief, he swallowed hard. “I promise.”
Water swirled, tugging at his clothes. Awareness stole into him and he recalled stubbing his toe on the gnarled oak’s root. His foot actually had stung. And now, more awareness of the physical dragged at him. Her moist, warm breath at his shoulder. Cold as she was from the frigid water, the warmth of her tiny body. The feel of her fingers digging into his neck. His own need for oxygen, for rest. The weight of his uniform. Sensations.
Lifelike . . . sensations.
His hands began to shake. Awed, humbled, he shook all over. He’d not felt any physical sensations since he’d returned home from the battlefield for burial back in World War II and, because he hadn’t, now he couldn’t be sure which of them, he or Suzie, groped with greater emotional turmoil.
She was alive.
And, for the first time in half a century, he was feeling the actual touch of another human being.
His eyes stung and a tear–a tear–slid onto his cheek.
An uneasy niggle nagged at him. He’d been in many situations in the past fifty years and had felt nothing physical. So why now? True, he’d never before entered anyone’s dreams–and he fully expected to pay a steep penalty for trespassing into Suzie’s now–but there had to be some deeper reason for this. His sixth sense screamed it. And it screamed that something about these particular “special guests” made this intercession, and their situation, different from the hundreds of other special guests he and Hattie had assisted at Seascape Inn.
Suzie wheezed. Feeling the rattle against his chest, he prayed Seascape would protect her from almost certain pneumonia. Over the years, many had called the inn “The Healing House,” and how fervently he hoped its reputation proved prophetic for Suzie.
These special guests are different. A woman’s voice echoed through his mind. This situation is different.
She sounded urgent, yet calm and dispassionate. Who was she?
Who I am doesn’t matter. My message is what is important, Tony.
You’ll have to find the answer to that yourself, I’m afraid.
No, you don’t. That’s part of the problem. But you will, Tony. I’m rather, er, persistent.
Just what he needed. Another stubborn woman to contend with. Well, I’ll have to figure it out later. Right now, I need to get Suzie out of this water and wind before she freezes to death.
Ah, I’m encouraged. The woman sighed.
Excuse me? Kicking his feet, he steered toward the shore, holding on to Suzie and the boat for fear his strength would fizzle.
You’re mired in a quandary yet still putting Suzie’s needs first. I’m encouraged by that. And, yes, I expect you will figure it out–eventually.
Terrific. Stubborn and snooty. A barrel of sunshine. I’m encouraged that you’re encouraged.
Save your sarcasm, Tony. The woman laughed, soft and melodious. You’re going to need your energy.
He wanted to kick something. Actually, he wanted to kick “Sunshine.” Wicked of him, but did she have to be right about the energy bit, too? His muscles were in distress; he didn’t have the energy for this verbal sparring–or the time for it. Not right now. Suzie had stopped crying, but she still clung to him as if she feared he’d forget and let go of her. He’d promised, but promises didn’t hold much value to Suzie Richards; that much was evident. At least not those aside from her father’s. In the chaos of what had been their family life, Bryce somehow had retained his children’s trust. That in itself, considering the circumstances, was a miracle.
To reassure her, Tony smoothed her frail back until her shudders eased. When they subsided, though vain, a sense of satisfaction joined those of relief and gratitude inside him. He’d catch hell for breaking protocol, but feeling Suzie inhaling and exhaling breath made whatever price he had to pay worth it. The last thing she needed was more tragedy in her life. It wouldn’t do Bryce any good, either. The man had suffered his share of challenges and then some.
Unfortunately, from all appearances, he was fated to suffer a few more, but at least those challenges wouldn’t include the death of his oldest daughter.
They might, Sunshine commented.
Tony’s skin crawled. Not if there’s any way in the world for me to stop it.
You might want to recant that statement, Anthony Freeport.
A shiver rippled up his backbone. Images raced through his mind. Images of Suzie again in the little boat, trying to do something with the paddles and falling into the pond. Images of her in the water during a storm, gasping.
Drowning. And images of Tony standing alone on the shore, his hands hanging loosely at his sides, his shoulders slumped, watching and yet powerless to help her.
Powerless? Shock streaked through him. But he’d never before been powerless here. Never . . .
Sunshine’s softly spoken warning thundered through his mind. His knees collapsed. He locked them, stumbling and shuddering hard. God help them all.
This wasn’t an ordinary dream.
Bell Bridge Books
December 24, 2011
AUDIO coming in 2013
First Published by St. Martin’s Press in 1996.