“Why on earth do you want to go there?”
Mom looked at me over the rim of her coffee mug, displeased at the idea of me leaving unsupervised to visit a strange city.
This time I was prepared.
“We have to do a big history essay next year and there’s a museum where I can get some background info for it.”
“That sounds like a great idea to me,” Grandma beamed over her breakfast – immaculately dressed and coiffured as ever. “And as a matter of fact I have an old friend there that I could go and meet, while I drop Dana off at the museum.”
“Perfect!” I said before Mom had any more time to think of objections. She somehow always managed to come up with reasons not to do anything Grandma wanted to do. Sometimes I felt the teenager in our family was not me, but Mom. And Mom’s behavior seemed to worsen every time Mom and Grandma were together. I often wondered if it was something to do with me.
“That sounds like a good idea!” Dad commented cheerily in between big bites of toast laden with bitter orange marmalade, his favorite. “You can’t start too early when it comes to preparing for big essays!”
He winked at me as a sign he was on my side, as if to say he was in on a conspiracy. The real conspirator, however, was Grandma.
I had finally fallen asleep, with the lights on, and slept like a log. Grandma came to wake me up for breakfast, noticing the dream book on my bedside table.
“Been reading all night, sleepy head?”
Grandma took the book into her hands and flicked through the pages, ending up at the list of names at the end. I did not tell her about the message I’d discovered in the book.
“How interesting, all these names – just think of the many hands through which a book as old as this must have passed.” She looked across at me with a curious, penetrating gaze. “And this is quite an unusual name, too, wouldn’t you say?”
She tapped her finger on the fifth name in the list. I hoped my face did not reveal anything when I pretended to be seeing it for the first time. Then Grandma surprised me by digging her phone from her pocket.
“Shall we look him up in the phone book?”
“Yes, just for fun. Let’s see if we can find if someone with that name, shall we?”
She spent a few moments wiping her phone screen – I noticed how short her fingernails were.
“Ha! Thought as much… Reginald Rowan, professor. And by coincidence, he works at a university in a nearby city… and this particular Reginald Rowan is an old acquaintance of mine, in fact. We – er – go back a long way together. He’s quite a character. Tell you what – let’s pay him a visit. It would do you a world of good to get out of this neck of the woods for a while and see some city life. You can say it has something to do with your studies, if your mother doesn’t like our impulsive decision. I know what she’s like.”
I couldn’t believe it all sorted out itself so easily. Literally. It was a bit too convenient… Grandma being there when the book appeared in my bag out of nowhere, and knowing the very person I was told to meet in the lucid dream. I decided I would get to the bottom of this, but with my parents within earshot I could wait until later.
I was still puzzling over all this when we set off within the hour, Grandma and I.
I had chosen to carry the dream book with me. It fit into my handbag well. I had selected this bag because I could wear it over the shoulder, and its zipper was hidden under a flap. I also kept it in front of me, and held the strap with my hand. Safer than to leave the book inside Nugget’s pillow. I never knew when Mom would get it into her head to attack my room and clean it. She did that occasionally, and I had learned to keep my most private things with me. Like now, Kitty’s letter and the book.
I’m not saying Mom is nosier than an average mother, but the temptation might be too much if she saw either of these things. I had written fairy stories when I was younger, and could never forgive my Mom when I heard her talking about them to someone on the phone – she had read them without telling me. So it had happened before. Once bitten, twice shy, as the saying goes. Mom was not the only one in our family who wanted others to respect her privacy.
For some reason Grandma wanted to join the motorway as soon as she could, when she could have chosen pretty back roads with barely any traffic where she might have had fun with her small car. She also seemed disinclined to talk. I didn’t comment, though, as we drove along in the midst of other traffic, following the speed limits, heading towards an attractive campus university on the edge of the urban sprawl of the midlands.
That is also why we were at the museum’s door a few minutes before the museum even opened.
“I have some things to attend to,” she said, “so you might as well have a look round the museum, if you like. We could meet the professor in an hour or so. I’m not sure where his office is located on the campus now, but you can ask from the info desk. It’s close by, in the building at the back of the museum. I’ll meet you at his office in an hour, OK?”
Grandma zoomed away before I had even time to answer.
This whole thing seemed so irrational I looked at my hands. Four fingers and a thumb. Everything as it should be. I sighed. Sometimes it would be good if reality turned out to be a dream and you could wake up from a particularly scary or sad bit.
Once Grandma had disappeared, I considered whether to take a look round the museum, which did look interesting, but then turned on my heel and hurried past the building to the gates of the campus. I went straight to the university information desk, which was in the building right next to the gates just as Grandma had said.
“Yes, can I help you?” a young woman was sitting behind the counter. I had expected older people and was a bit surprised – this one did not look much older than I was. Then I got it. Summer job, of course.
I told her who I was looking for, and she gave me a printed map of the campus area. She circled the right building for me. I thanked her and went on my way. There was no point looking around the museum – my mind was worrying over the message hidden in the dream book to such an extent that none of the objects in the collection would have registered. I would go and wait by the professor’s office until Grandma came.
I don’t quite know what I expected, but his office didn’t look too impressive to me from the outside – an ordinary door with his nameplate on it. I stopped in front of it, and for the first time felt nervous. So far the momentum had just carried me along, but now I had to decide what exactly I was going to say to him about the dream book – if anything. “Hello, have you heard of the buffer zone? I was given this interesting book that tells me that you do – I have no idea where it came from – but I was told to meet you in a dream?”
Yeah, right… If the whole book was a hoax, the professor would most likely consider I had bats in the belfry.
Thinking that I probably had half an hour or so till Grandma appeared, I was musing on the book and its curious message when the door suddenly opened and an elderly, tall man hurried out, almost knocking me over.
“I am so sorry, miss!” he exclaimed, “a bad habit of mine, reading while I walk!”
He was standing there with his glasses perilously near the tip of his nose and a thick book pressed against his chest.
“That’s quite all right,” I said. “Are you… Professor Reginald Rowan?”
“Indeed I am – ah – sorry, I don’t seem to recall your name? Do we have an appointment? I am sure my secretary has forgotten to inform me… or I have forgotten to check my appointments. Probably the latter one… can’t blame the secretary, dear heart, a very efficient lady as she is, and probably rather desperate to be stuck with me.”
“Well, yes, we have a meeting, sort of. Or rather my Grandma has, and she brought me along. She isn’t here yet, though…” I interrupted when he had to stop talking for a second and catch his breath. Then, deciding this was as good a time as any, I inhaled deeply and asked: “But if I said yours was the fifth name on a list, would that mean anything to you?”
He looked at me straight in the eye (he was quite tall), and suddenly his somewhat scatterbrained demeanor changed. There was a very sharp intellect there staring at me over his glasses.
“Fifth, you say… Where is this list, if I may ask?”
“In an old book…” I said.
“Now this wouldn’t be a book about… gates?” he whispered.
I stared at him for a few seconds before answering, as if his looks would reveal whether he was trustworthy or not. The knowing look in his eyes convinced me to answer honestly.
“Are you sure you were not followed?”
“I don’t know. Probably not…”
“You haven’t seen odd…shadows?” his voice was so low I almost did not hear it.
He clearly knew.
“No, I haven’t seen any here. At home I did, once. And then there is this odd young man who pops up out of nowhere and…”
He straightened and suddenly I wasn’t sure anymore that he was old at all.
“In here, quick.”
He opened the door and practically pushed me inside, while already talking on his cell phone, canceling some appointment. Then he closed the door and took off his glasses. I noticed there were no wrinkles around his eyes.
“Now. You and I need to have a serious talk. But first, show me the book so I know you are the real thing. And to convince you, here is my signature, so you may compare it to the fifth name.”
He scribbled his name on a piece of paper. I could immediately see the signature was similar. He used quite extensive loops for his R’s. My dream had led me to the right person.
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