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Robyn Meta Herrington has lived in Calgary, Alberta since moving to Canada from South Australia 18 years ago. She's been writing speculative fiction for a number of years. Her work has appeared in Talebones, Parsec and in the Return of the Dinosaur and Tesseracts 6 anthologies.

Dark Planet is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments, please contact her at lusnyde@cyberus.ca.

All materials copyright 1996-1997 by their respective creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).

In Places Between

by Robyn Meta Herrington

     On Jeremy's sixth birthday, the family gathered to sing songs, play games, and most importantly, eat cake. Oh sure, Jeremy liked the presents and liked the fuss -- but he liked the cake most of all.
     He blew out the candles, every one, and watched as the smoke curled toward the ceiling. He watched the grey wisps coalesce into funny faces with sharp, angled heads and deep, black eyes. They laughed at him, and he laughed back, pointing.
     "Yes," his Mother said, "it is a lovely cake, isn't it, Jeremy?"
     That's not what Jeremy meant, but no-one was in the mood to listen.

     Jeremy was a little older than six the first time he paid attention to the in-between places -- the shadows at the border of light and dark, the dawning and the dusking between day and night. They were magical times, when his imagination stretched beyond what he could see, where things lived that were there, but not quite.
     Jeremy's favourite time, besides the in-between times, was when Granda Harry would come and visit.
     "You like the dusking, Jeremy boy?" Granda Harry sat next to him on the porch. The sun was setting behind the house, but Jeremy liked to sit out front in the shade, on the painted rail, legs dangling. The dying sun made the clouds a rusty red, made the trees glow like fire -- and he could see things in the knitted, gnarled branches, things most grown-ups couldn't see.
     "There, Granda Harry! A dragon, twirling and twisting!" He knew Granda Harry was a kind of grown-up, but Granda Harry was kind of different. Jeremy pointed. Granda Harry sniffed the air, heavy with the smell of rain to come, and scratched his beard. Well, not really a beard, just bristles of grey with peppery black here and there. Mom always told Granda Harry to shave. Granda Harry never did. He always kept his whiskers at comfortable scratching length. Jeremy liked to rub his face up against his Granda's. It made his skin tingle.
     Granda Harry adjusted his glasses, and obligingly looked. His eyes opened wide.
     "So it is, Jeremy, so it is," he said, his gravely voice all hushed. "A fine dragon, Jeremy boy, as fine a dragon as I've ever seen!"
     Jeremy dove on the words like they were made of cotton candy. "Do you see dragons a lot, Granda?"
     "Well, boy," Granda took his glasses off and rubbed them on the sleeve of his old, yellow cardigan, "I don't see near as many as I used to. Keep thinking it's because my eyes are gettin' bad, but then I think it's because I'm forgettin' how to see." Granda Harry leaned down low, his face right next to Jeremy's ear. "Is anything else there, Jeremy?" he whispered. "What else do you see in your trees?"
     Jeremy squinted. "Nothin' right now, Granda Harry. That dragon musta scared everything else off. He's starin' right at me with his big, red eyes."
     Granda Harry's eyebrows shot straight up, then lowered real slow. "You can see his eyes, boy? He's lookin' right at you?" Jeremy nodded. Granda Harry nodded. "You can see into in-between places -- and they know it."
     Jeremy didn't know what Granda Harry meant, but he didn't ask either, because the dragon was moving, slithering around the tree, green on brown, a barbershop pole from twilight times.
     Jeremy liked the dragon. He saw him almost every day, always off in the distance, always watching. When no-one was around, Jeremy would sometimes wave. The dragon would blink slowly, and blow grey smoke rings from his nose.
     There were other things, too.
     In the early morning, Jeremy liked to play high-wire walker, a daredevil balancing on the shadow line the gabled roof made on the grass. Early morning was best, when the dew was still heavy, and his footprints showed up clearly on the glistening blades. Jeremy noticed that, very often, there were more footprints than his, like someone danced around him while he played.
     And then, one day, the dragon came closer.
     Jeremy sat on the porch, like always, dangling his feet over the railings, like always, looking at the trees. He heard a wuffling noise and felt a tickle. He looked down, and there was the dragon, out of the trees and under the porch -- the dragon with his nose stuck up right against Jeremy's sneakers, sniffing. Up close, the dragon didn't look so nice. Up close, the dragon looked like he wanted to grill Jeremy slowly, feet first.
     He ran inside and told his Mom.
     "There's a dragon under the porch!" he yelled, grabbing her sweater sleeve and tugging.
     Mom smiled. "Maybe he's roasting bugs and marshmallows," she said.
     "Come and look," Jeremy pleaded, "come and see!"
     Mom sighed, her smile fading a little. "Honey, there's no dragon under the porch." But she took Jeremy's hand and went with him anyway.
     Jeremy lay on his tummy and peered through the wooden slats of the porch, while his Mom knelt on the grass. They looked under the house. Jeremy could see the dragon, curled up, red eyes blinking in the damp darkness.
     "There's no dragon, honey," Mom said, smiling up at him, not watching the darkness as she should. The dragon twitched. The dragon moved.
     "Mom!" shouted Jeremy.
     "No need to yell -- I'm right here." She was on her feet, brushing off loose blades of grass from her front. The dragon's jaws snapped shut right where her head had been.
     "The dragon almost got you, Mom!" Jeremy's voice was barely a whisper.
     "I didn't see a dragon, Jeremy." She ran her fingers through his brown curls. "Maybe he's an invisible dragon, huh? Good thing I'm fast. I wouldn't want to be a dragon's dinner."
     Jeremy didn't want to be a dragon's dinner, either. He lay awake that night, listening to the house rumble and creak, knowing there was a dragon under the porch, knowing the dragon wasn't friendly, and knowing that the dragon might sneeze by accident and burn the house down. Or maybe not by accident -- and that was the most scary thing of all.

     At a few weeks more than six and a half, Jeremy's parents had to leave him for the night. They were going on a business trip, and Granda Harry was coming over to stay.
     "I don't want to hear Jeremy spouting any stories about goblins or things that go bump in the night," Jeremy's Dad said to Granda. "He's got a wild enough imagination as it is, Harry. He doesn't need your help."
     When they were gone, Granda Harry eyed Jeremy, who was sitting on the landing at the top of the stairs.
     "That true, Jeremy? You don't need my help?" Granda Harry shook his head. "Grown-ups. They mean well, but there are some things they just don't know -- aren't there, Jeremy boy?" Granda Harry shrugged out of his overcoat, and waited.
     Jeremy sat thinking, legs hanging through the railings, face pressed up against the turned, wooden spindles.
     "They don't see the dragon," he said at last.
     "Of course they don't," Granda replied. "You come on down and tell me all about him."
     Jeremy did. Granda Harry listened, scratching his chin, nodding, making all the right listening sounds.
     "I'll tell you a secret, Jeremy," he said. "Knowing about the in-between places gives you some measure of power. They can't sneak up on you, that dragon and the others. You've seen the others, haven't you, Jeremy? Maybe out of the corner of your eye, hiding in the murky area where sunlight meets shadow? Have you seen them, just from here," he pulled the edge of his eyelid down, "dancing along the line between Light and Dark, but when you look at them full on, poof! They're gone!"
     Jeremy nodded. He'd seen 'em.
     "You gotta watch for them all the time," Granda Harry said, gathering Jeremy up onto his lap. "If you know they're there, and they know that you're watching for them, they can't hurt you. But you gotta watch, Jeremy boy -- watch and be careful."

     Sometimes, in the bright sunshine, Jeremy almost forgot all about the in-between places. Sometimes, when he was playing video games, the dragon seemed very far away. He didn't think much about the dusking or the dawning, then, or the shadows, until he was in bed, the daylight and video games replaced by darkness and night.
     Then he'd think. He'd think long and hard, until his eyes grew heavy -- and then he'd see things. . . a shape lurking here, a scratching sound there. And while he lay between waking and sleep, the dragon would come. No longer was he content to lurk beneath the porch, or wind through the fire-bright trees.
     He'd come every night and sit on the foot of Jeremy's bed, his long, green neck arched over, his dragon face poised above Jeremy's. There he'd take in every sweet breath that Jeremy breathed out -- and he'd wait. He'd wait for Jeremy to fall fast and right asleep, scheming to take all of Jeremy's breath.
     Jeremy tried not to sleep. He'd watch the dragon, and with big, red eyes, the dragon watched him. And the dragon blinked, ever so slowly, its big eyelids drooping lazily. Jeremy yawned, his eyelids drooping the same, sleepy way. Then the dragon put its snout right down over Jeremy's mouth and inhaled deeply, very deeply. And in the darkest corner of the room, the closet door opened with a crying whine, just a crack.
     Jeremy woke with a shout, in time to feel the pinch on his foot, woke so quickly that the dragon scrambled back, bumping against the thing that was biting Jeremy.
     Jeremy pulled his knees up to him and rubbed his foot. He looked around, but there was only the dragon, perched once more on the foot of his bed. Mom and Dad didn't wake, didn't come in to see what was wrong.
     Jeremy sighed. He sighed, and stared at the dragon, and knew that he shouldn't fall asleep, not ever again. Jeremy knew the dragon would always be there, the dragon and -- something else. Jeremy knew he shouldn't fall asleep, and Jeremy didn't.

     "We don't know what's wrong with him," he head his Mom tell Granda Harry. "He's nodding off at school, his grades are slipping, he's losing weight. No matter what we do, Jeremy seems to be fading away. It's a weird sort of flu. The doctor said if we can keep him in bed for a few days -- if he just gets some rest -- he'll be better."
     "I'll talk to him," Granda Harry said, and when his Mom was gone, Granda Harry did just that.
     He stood there a long time at the end of Jeremy's bed, arms folded, old yellow cardigan smelling of cherry pipe tobacco.
     "You're not s'posed to be smoking," Jeremy said.
     "Keeps the dragons away," Granda Harry said. Jeremy hunkered down in his pillows and pulled the covers up over his head. Soon, Granda Harry sat beside him and grabbed his toes. Jeremy yelped, just a little.
     "I know you still see 'em, Jeremy boy. You might think you've forgotten how, and sometimes, in the bright sunshine, you really, truly do forget. But they're still there, aren't they? The dragon and the others?"
     Jeremy peeked out, first only his eyes, then his nose, and sometime later, his whole face. But the covers were still there, close under his chin, close at hand, in case he needed them.
     "Tell me," Granda Harry said, leaning down close, "what else is there?"
     Jeremy's eyes locked on the closet. "Something lives in there, in the place that Dad hasn't finished building yet -- something that moves between the walls and comes out at night."
     Jeremy nodded. "Something smaller than me, something that makes clicking noises when it runs across my floor, something with long, draggy hands and tiny yellow eyes."
     "Something that has a hunger for the toes of little kids, huh?" Granda Harry picked up Jeremy's foot and looked at the line of jagged marks that were still bright and scarlet on his skin. He frowned, but knew they'd fade. He'd seen worse.
     "And you haven't told your Mom or Dad, have you, Jeremy boy? No, not wise to tell them, either. They wouldn't believe you -- or worse yet, they might! Can you imagine them falling asleep? Can you imagine what might happen if Mr. Knucklesdraggin Onthefloor was to catch them as they nodded off?"
     "I can imagine," whispered Jeremy, pulling his foot back under the covers. "Granda Harry, there's more of them."
     Granda Harry stroked his itchy scratchy beard. "I know. I seen 'em all, Jeremy boy. Old Knucklesdraggin Onthefloor kept me up many a night when I was even older than you are now. You seen Shadowman Underbed yet?" He bent down and lifted Jeremy's quilt. The bed was solid, and went right to the wooden floor. Granda Harry chuckled. "Good. You got him stumped, that's for sure."
     He looked back up at Jeremy and sighed. "And who else's been sneakin' in here?"
     Jeremy shrugged. "Some things that chase around in the corners, knocking my stuff on the floor, some things that flutter around my hair, but always -- the dragon. He sits on the end of my bed and waits. He waits for me to fall asleep."
     "But you don't, do you," Granda Harry said.
     "I did, only once, and only for a little while. But not any more."
     Granda Harry nodded. "You're a good one, Jeremy. You've done just what you ought. But you gotta be more careful, Jeremy boy."
     "I will," promised Jeremy.
     Granda Harry smiled a sad sort of smile, and wiggled Jeremy's foot, very gently this time. "Well, Jeremy, I got some news for you. I figured it would get better as you grow up, and for a time, sure, it does. But what I found out is, it gets worse again when you get old, old like I am. I'm going to places in-between life and after-life, each night when I sleep. If it wasn't for a certain little something I have, well," he shrugged, "I sure would've wasted away long before now -- wasted away, or worse. . .if you know what I mean."
     Jeremy's nod was barely noticeable. He did know.
     Granda Harry reached deep into the pocket of his old yellow cardigan and pulled a little something out. It was a stone, a green stone, small like a quarter and worn all flat and shiny.
     Jeremy sat up, bolt straight. "What is it?"
     "A talisman," Granda Harry said, rubbing his thumb over the surface of the green. "I got it from my Granda, long ago, and he got it from I don't know where. He told me it was magical, and I believed him, because my Granda never lied to me." He winked. "Have I ever lied to you, Jeremy?"
     "Nope," said Jeremy, "never."
     "And I won't start now. Here," he pushed the stone into Jeremy's hand, then closed his hands over and around Jeremy's. "I don't think I'm gonna need this any more."
     Jeremy's eyes went wide. "But the dragon -- Mr. Knucklesdraggin! Granda, what if they come? You'll need the stone!"
     Granda Harry rubbed his bristly face against Jeremy's cheek. "I can take them now, I think. It's been a long time, but I'm not afraid of that dragon or his friends, not any more."
     "But what if they come for you?" Jeremy felt himself starting to cry. He didn't want to cry. Only babies cried. Granda Harry winked again. "I can take 'em, Jeremy, I can take 'em all. And if I take 'em, the won't bother you ever again, whether you keep the stone or not."
     "But, I'll keep the stone anyway," said Jeremy, rubbing the cool stone against his still tingling cheek, "just in case."
     There was a twinkle in Granda Harry's eyes. He kissed Jeremy on the head. "Just in case, Jeremy. That's a good idea." He stood up and stretched. "You take care, Jeremy, and you sleep well."
     "I will, Granda Harry." He looked at the stone again. "You sure you don't need this?"
     "Oh, I'm sure. But tell you what -- if you ever meet a special kid who sees the in-between places, who needs it more than you, you pass it along, you hear?"
     "I hear, Granda Harry. I promise I will."
     Granda Harry stopped, his hand resting on the door. "Think I'll go home now, and wait. Maybe I'll beat the dragon, and if I don't. . .well," he grinned, "don't you worry about me, Jeremy boy. You know I can take care of myself."
     "I know, Granda Harry."
     "Well then," he said, his voice whisper soft, "good bye." Granda Harry closed the door with the softest of clicks and Jeremy rubbed the stone, eyelids growing heavy.
     "Good bye, Granda Harry."