Authors: Matthew Stott
could hear a voice.
He sat up, blinking away the surprise. Had someone called his name?
'Ally? Ally, did you say something?'
Nothing. A heavy, dark nothing.
Sam switched on his bedside lamp, swung his legs out from under the covers, and placed his feet on the carpet. No. It hadn't been Ally, or one of his parents, it had been a stranger. Maybe not a stranger. No. He knew somehow it wasn't a stranger. Why did he know that? He didn't recognise the voice, could not put a face to it, but still his mind told him that it was true.
He looked around his bedroom, and he realised where he was. He remembered. The dream. He was in the other place. The place that looked like home, that looked like his own house, but wasn't his own house at all. It looked right, but it smelt wrong. His real house smelt of his Mum's perfume. A heavy, unsubtle, throat-scratching stench.
There was no such smell here.
In fact, there was no smell at all. Sam raised his hand to his nostrils and had a sniff; nothing. He cupped a palm in front of his mouth and breathed out, heavy and long, before attempting to inhale his no doubt stale and stinky sleep-breath up through his nose.
'No, Sam, you're not dreaming.' The voice. The familiar, unfamiliar voice.
The voice was right, of course. Sam remembered that now. He wasn't dreaming and this wasn't a dream. If his Mum were to go to his room now in the real world, the Awake world, and were to push open his door to check on his slumbering form, she'd see no bulge in the duvet. No gently rising and falling shape giving away the fact that something was underneath. That he was asleep. Because he wasn't asleep. Not quite.
He was Between.
The bed would be empty. His Mum would run over and throw back the covers, calling out his name. Well, a good Mum would. A Mum who checked on him as he slept. She'd rush from room to room, panic slowly rising each time she called out to him, telling him to stop this stupid game of hide and seek. Then she'd run outside, blind fear, up and down the street, shouting, crying, calling, a wounded animal. Lights in the other houses would flash on, curtains pulled back, a few people would even step out of their front doors to watch this mad woman as she ran up and down, up and down, shouting and shouting.
Awake happened in the real world. Asleep in your head. This place needed your mind and your body.
'Between Awake and Asleep is Between. Is here,' the voice agreed.
'Between Awake and Asleep is Between,' said Sam, nodding. Not quite awake. Not quite asleep. That was where he was. Another world. How had he been able to forget?
Not everyone was able to come to this place. Most slipped hurriedly right on by and dove deeply in the dreams. Some special folk were able to find their own way there, to instinctively hop off the tracks as they passed by.
Others still were brought here. A helping hand extended, took hold, and pulled them within.
Sam knew he wasn't special.
So whose hand was it that had reached out and guided him Between?
'My hand, of course.'
It was close, but not in his room. Sam stepped out into the corridor and followed the voice from room to room. He opened each new door to find it empty.
‘What’s taking you so very long, Sam?’ the voice asked.
Sam made his way outside, stepping into the forest. The forest, with its skyscraper trees, didn’t exist in the Awake. In that place there was an ordinary street outside, ordinary houses, but here there were the trees. A forest full of trees that whispered behind his back as he passed them. Sam didn’t like these trees; it seemed like they were in on some joke that he wasn’t aware of. Their leaves rustled and their branches creaked: the language of trees. Sam wished they would just tell him where the voice was coming from.
‘There you are,’ said the voice.
But this time it was more than just a voice. It had form. Physicality. It existed outside of Sam's mind, outside of his weakened awake recollections that itched and bothered and refused to be made silent.
'Aren't you even going to say hello?' asked the voice.
'Hello,' said Sam to the boy, who climbed down from the tallest tree in the forest and stood before him, smiling.
‘You forgot me again, didn't you?' the boy said, pouting, hands on hips.
Sam had, which was weird; how did you forget your very best friend?
need to remember. To really remember. Then we can be friends in the Awake.'
The words rolled and skipped and clanged around Sam's head as he wandered the playground aimlessly, not seeing or hearing or thinking.
'You need to remember. To really remember. Then we can be friends in the Awake.'
Just those words, and those words alone. He was a walking zombie with no other purpose but to unlock their meaning. He was sure he’d had it before. Before Awake. During Asleep. That's when he'd last known for sure.
But there had been another word, hadn't there?
'Then we can be friends in the Awake.'
Awake, Asleep and someplace else.
A football screamed past his nose and crashed into the wall, but Sam barely noticed.
No, not Asleep. At least, not dreaming. Something else. What was it? What was it?
'What's wrong with you now?' his Mum had asked, exasperated, that morning at the breakfast table as Sam had sat, blank-eyed, slowly stirring his cereal to brown mush, never once lifting the spoon to his mouth.
'Oi, your mother is asking you a question, dummy, answer the woman!' His Dad had thrown aside his newspaper and bellowed a few things or more, before stalking out. His Mum snatched Sam’s uneaten breakfast and emptied it into the bin.
‘You know there are children starving in Africa!’ said his Dad, leaning back into the room for a moment.
‘Sam! Sam will you pay attention!’ said Mum, waving a hand in front of his wide eyes. ‘He's losing his ruddy marbles. Perfect. Why couldn't I have had a son like Todd? Now there's a son to be proud of.'
Not a dream. Sam knew that. He knew that now for sure. Usually all he remembered was that there had been a voice. Not what it had said or who had said it, just that there had been a voice and that it was important. But now he had a little more.
'You need to remember. Really remember.'
The words were like hooks in his brain, sunk deep and fast into the grey matter, unable to be ripped away and forgotten. But what did they mean? Who had said them? He could feel the sharp sting of those hooks as he pulled at them; they made him want to cry out.
'Oi, watch where you're going, you div.'
Sam walked on, pushed slightly off-balance by whatever obstruction he'd just attempted to walk through.
'Oi, I'm talking to you.'
'He's mental. Look at him.'
'Didn't you used to be friends with him, Finney?'
'Yeah, but that was ages ago.'
Sam left them behind.
Not dreaming. He didn't dream at all these days. Not for the longest time, he was suddenly sure of that. How long? How long since he'd actually had a dream rather than the other thing?
What other thing?
It was months. Could it be? It felt right. Months and months. Slowly, he'd become aware of the voice. And the other place.
Now the hooks were in properly, the voice didn't want to be forgotten. It had to be remembered. Needed to be remembered.
'Don't you want us to be real life friends? Awake friends?'
Sam almost fell to his knees. More words! He reached out a hand to steady himself against the wall.
'Don't you want us to be real life friends? Awake friends?'
An extra piece remembered. The dam was cracking, unable to hold; more would flood through soon. Enough to drown him?
'Don't you want us to be real life friends? Awake friends?'
'Yes,' said Sam. 'That's what I want. That’s all I want.'
Whom was he talking to? If only he could—
What did that mean? Not Asleep, not Awake, but Between. Between Awake and Asleep is Between. His bedroom that wasn't his bedroom. The not-his house. The forest that mocked and joked with words he didn’t understand. The hooks pulled down a further chunk of the dam. The water was starting to gush through fiercely now; there was no going back.
That was where he'd been going all these months. He'd been going Between! Whilst others dreamt, he went Between and…
That wasn't all of it, there was more. The most important thing. The thing that wanted to be remembered.
A voice doesn't exist in isolation, how stupid he hadn't considered that earlier.
'Sam? Are you okay, Sam? Are you feeling sick?' An adult. A teacher? 'Sam, hey, shall we go to the Nurse’s office?'
The dam finally crumbled under the onslaught and Sam remembered all of it whilst awake, at last.
The boy! The Between! The boy!
Sam blinked and saw the teacher for the first time, looking down at him with concern.
'My friend!' said Sam, delighted. 'My friend is coming to stay!' He turned and ran out of the building, across the playground, leaving behind the concerned shouts of the teacher and the insults of the gang of boys. Out through the gate and down the street he went, smiling so hugely that it hurt his face, his stomach churning like it was the night before Christmas.
His friend was coming to stay.
The boy remembered would now Awake.
Sam let himself into his empty house; his parents were both at work. It felt wrong and wonderful and exciting to be there when he shouldn't be. Would he be in trouble? Probably, but what did that matter? This was the only thing that mattered.
He took the stairs two at a time. 'Hello? I'm here! I remember! I remember you!'
There was no answer; the house was empty. Was he crazy after all? Was this all in his head? No, not anymore, he was certain. What could be remembered could be made alive. His friend would be here. His friend would be waiting for him in his bedroom, his Awake bedroom.
Sam burst into his room, 'Hello? Where are you?'
Sam stopped and blinked twice.
There was an egg on his pillow.
Not like a chicken egg, or a snake egg, or any sort of egg he'd ever seen before, but an egg nonetheless. It was about the size of a bowling ball. Rather than brittle shell, it looked to be fashioned from an ancient, dark green leather.
'What can be remembered can be made alive,' said Sam. 'Well I remember! I remember you.'
The egg lurched, rolling off the pillow and coming to a stop on Sam's duvet. It began to rock and jump as if something inside fought to escape its bonds. A split appeared and tore the egg in two, and out of it crawled the most extraordinary thing. It was like a baby, but also not at all like a baby. Small and sharp and grey and mewling. It flexed its twisted limbs straight, snapping bones into joints, and then opened eyes that were too large for its misshapen head. Arching its back, it thrust its face towards the ceiling and let out a piercing scream from a mouth that ripped its way into raw reality across its face.
The creature sagged and panted, breathing air for the first time, gulping it down in a greedy rush.
Sam approached the creature, reaching out a hand to brush away the last remnants of the leathery egg that clung sticky to its sickly-hued skin.
'Hello, friend. I remembered you.'
The creature at last brought its breathing under control and curled into a foetal position, a satisfied smile on its face.
‘I remembered you, at last.’
The creature moved, turning its head to look up at Sam. 'Awake,' it said, with a voice that seemed to scrape its way uncomfortably out of its throat. 'Awake.'
got nothing to say for yourself, then? Typical, absolutely typical.'
Sam sat, quite calm and content, as his parents paced before him, red-faced and spittle-flecked. The school had, of course, informed them about his escape and failure to return.
Sam didn’t care.
He had a friend.
'What did you get up to, that's what I want to know,' said Dad. 'Stealing was it? Or just laying about the house like you usually do?'
Sam didn't mind the anger, the shouting, the accusations, because everything was different now.
Before he was a small boy alone. At school and at home. Alone and small and empty and sad. But now friendship and wonder and hope reached across the formerly dark sky like the most colourful rainbow you ever did see.
It hadn't been exactly as he’d expected of course. As soon as he'd remembered the boy he'd expected to race home to find him standing there, in his bedroom, just like he had Between. Same age as him. Same.
He thought of the small, odd creature that was curled atop a towel in a box under the bed. In the few hours since it had hatched, it had already grown noticeably larger, perhaps by an inch or three, and its eyes had become more in proportion to its gradually less-misshapen head.
None of this struck Sam as odd. Which he was aware enough to think was odd in and of itself. But he shrugged it off. His friend was finally Awake. He knew without knowing why that shortly he would become a boy too, the same age as him, and then they would share secrets and hoot and laugh and run.
'Are you even listening to us, boy?' screamed Mum, snapping Sam out of his mind and into the scene.
'Sorry? Did you say something?' asked Sam, genuinely. Dad's heavy hand struck Sam across the face, sending him tumbling to the floor.
Sam did not yelp or cry or scream. He lay on his side, slightly dazed, and turned his head to his parents, who loomed large and violent before him. 'Sorry about school, won’t happen again.'
Mum and Dad looked at each other with mute surprise.
Sam pushed himself to his feet. 'Can I go to my room now?'
One blink. Two blink.
'Yes,' said Mum. 'Yes, off you go. And … and you just think about … everything.'
'Yes, everything,' Sam agreed, as he walked out of the room, up the stairs, and into his bedroom, shutting the door softly behind him.
It was dark.
Scary late. The sort of hour during which even the most determined of young boys feels worry for being awake. But Sam didn't feel worried. Sam was curled in bed, eyes wide and unseeing, alive alive-oh.
'Awake,' came a scratchy voice from under his bed. Scratchy but much clearer than earlier.
'Awake,' said Sam.
'Friend,' said the voice.
Sam nodded. He knew the creature would feel his agreement.
Sam nodded again and his eyelids fluttered. They shut once. Then again. Then for the night.
And now Sam dreamt. For the first time in so long, no hand reached out to guide him Between, and he dove deep into the dream.
In his dream, he ran and he laughed. He held a sword and he was chasing something, his friend beside him. Ally, too.
'Get the creeps!' Ally shouted, and the boy and Sam laughed as they ran Sam's parents to ground.
They wept then, the parents, and begged and wheedled and whimpered, but the decision had already been made. The boy nodded and Sam pushed his sword through his mother’s neck. The look of surprise on her face made the boy snigger, and that made Sam laugh too.
He pulled the sword clear of Mum's neck and she collapsed. Turning to wet paper, she sagged and tore and was washed away.
Sam turned to Dad, but Dad would beg no more. Dad shouted and swore and spat.
'Look at him,' said the boy. 'Look how he curses and screams and threatens. What do we even need him for, really? We have each other, don't we?'
'And Ally,' said Sam.
'But she's a girl. That won't really do.'
Sam chopped off his Dad's head with one swipe of his sword and watched as it rolled away and away, still cursing all the while, until it was just a dot, and then nothing at all. A red slug slime was left in its wake.
He turned to see what Ally made of the whole thing, but she wasn't there anymore.
The boy was laughing again. 'Let's go find Dad's head. We could kick it, or pull out its tongue. Something fun, anyway.' The boy ran off ahead, following the blood ribbon.