This and Sarah’s nudge in the back hit Thomas like a slap with a wet towel. He jerked his head off the pillow; by the bedside clock it was three a.m., meaning he’d been asleep for just two hours, and he had an important meeting in the morning.
“You go, love,” he groaned.
Sarah nudged him again, more forcefully this time.
“C’mon Tom! I went last night. And you said you wanted to share.”
“I know, but …”
He could hear Laura crying from along the corridor.
“Ah, all right.”
He grunted as he swung his sleep-heavy body up to sit on the edge of the bed, searching for his slippers with his toes. Although it was clear to him now that Laura was very upset, he sat there for several seconds to fully get his bearings.
Finally, he stood up with another grunt and shuffled out and along the corridor to his daughter’s bedroom.
“Hey, sweetie. What’s up? Have a bad dream?”
“Come here, lovely girl.”
Thomas sat on the side of the bed and took Laura’s tiny frame in his arms, giving her a long, consoling hug. The tinge of annoyance he’d felt when he was so rudely awakened melted with the warmth of this little body and the love glowing around his heart.
“There, you see?” Thomas spoke to the top of Laura’s head. “Daddy’s here and everything’s fine.”
Thomas began to stroke her hair and hum a lilting tune he made up as he went along. After a while Laura’s sobs became sniffles. He tried to lay her down.
“Daddy, don’t leave me! I don’t want the dream to come back. Horrible dream.”
“Listen, my lovely. It’s only a dream. It’s not real. It can’t hurt you.”
“This one can! This one can!” Laura was sobbing again.
“No, it can’t Laura, now don’t be silly.”
“This one can, daddy. The woods. It’s the woods.”
Thomas turned on the bedside lamp. Laura squinted in the light but he could see the tracks of tears on her cheeks.
“What can woods do to you? They’re just … woods. Like the ones we went to last summer, when we were camping.”
“Those were nice woods. These ones are horrid. And they hurt.” She held up her forearm. Thomas took it and turned it gently towards the light; sure enough, he could see what looked like recently-made scratch marks.
“That’ll be you scratching yourself, you daft thing. In your sleep. We do that sometimes. We don’t mean to … it just happens.”
He kissed her arm to make it better.
“It was the woods, daddy!”
“No! Now don’t be naughty. I’ve got to get up early; I’ve got an important day tomorrow.”
“But I don’t want to go back to sleep. I don’t want to be in the woods again.”
Thomas paused to think. He could take Laura to sleep with him and Sarah, but they’d been trying to wean her off that type of dependence. Or he could sleep on the floor next to her bed, but his meeting …
Then he had an idea.
“Do you know what a dreamcatcher is, Laura?”
“No. What is it?”
“Well, it’s a funny net thing that you can use to catch bad dreams, and then in the morning they just disappear. Now, if we had one of those, we could use it to catch the nasty dreams before they get into your noggin.” He tapped Laura lightly on her head.
“Ooh. That’s a good idea. But have we got one of them … them … dreamscratchers?”
“No. But do you know what? I can be a dreamcatcher. I’ll be like a goalkeeper. I’ll stop the dream before it gets to you.”
“What do you mean, daddy? How?”
“You see, before they get to you, dreams have to come into the house somehow. How do you think they get in?”
“Through the front door?”
“Exactly! So the dream will come in the front door, climb up the stairs and … what’s the first bedroom it’ll get to?”
“Yours and mummy’s!”
“That’s right! It will have to go past our bedroom, and as it does, I’ll catch it like that!” He grabbed at the air with his hand. “And it will never get to you!”
“But how will you be able to catch it if you’re asleep?”
She had a point there. Thomas stroked his chin.
“Look, I’ll tell you what. Where are your crayons?”
He got up and went over to Laura’s desk, rummaging around until he found a crayon and a pad of paper. Returning to the bed, he read aloud as he scribbled.
“Dear Mr Dream. This is Laura’s father. Please don’t go to her room because she doesn’t want you. Pop in and visit me instead – first room on the right. Yours sincerely, Laura’s father.”
He put the crayon down and showed the note to Laura.
“What do you think of that?”
Laura eyed it suspiciously.
“Do you think dreams can read, daddy?”
“Course, lovely. I’ll just leave this on the top stair and you won’t need to worry about that nasty dream any more. I’ll have it covered! Now, get back to sleep, okay?”
Thomas kissed Laura on the forehead and could see that she was already calmer. He tucked her in, turned off the light and returned to bed, first placing the note at the top of the stairs, just as he’d promised.
Sarah stirred as he got into bed beside her.
“Everything okay?” she mumbled.
“Yep. I’ll tell you all about it in the morning.”
Thomas lay back and drifted into sleep, thinking about Laura and his meeting. And woods.
The woods were steeped in a malignant dark grey, the only sound that of the heavy rain thumping into the undergrowth around Thomas’s feet, and the wet crick-crack of snapping twigs as he moved. He was stumbling along, not knowing if he was heading somewhere … or escaping from something.
He caught sight of a glowing light to his right and made for that. Through a dense wall of what seemed like brambles he could just make out a form, lying in a warm, orange bubble. As he got closer, he saw that it was Laura, sleeping soundly.
Thomas made to push through the brambles to get to her, but they began to unravel. He watched on, fascinated and horrified in equal measure, as the elongated stems swayed before him then … swisssh … they began to swing and whip him, the thorns slicing into his face and then into his hands as he tried to protect himself.
He began to scramble away but the stems swooped down in front of him and wrapped themselves around his legs, throwing him face-down into the sodden undergrowth. He lay there, waiting for the whipping to continue, yet all he could feel was the rain, pummelling him in the back as he gasped for breath.
He turned over and blinked up at the skeletal canopy of the surrounding trees, barely visible through the rain and against the blackness beyond. As he gazed, he fancied that the bramble’s stems were approaching again. Yes, they were close now.
Two thicker stems isolated themselves and hovered above him. Their ends were sharp, like the product of an old man’s whittling.
As Thomas watched, half mesmerised, they started jabbing.
He screamed with the shock of the pain, oblivious to Sarah’s desperate cries close by.
“Tom! Wake up! Your eyes! Dear God! Your eyes!”