Welcome to the special content for readers of The Gayle Gazette. In celebration of Valentine’s Day, I am sharing a short story I wrote back when I was writing romance. This one is very different as it has elements of paranormal–not my usual genre. I hope you enjoy it.

Beautiful woman in red dress walking to opened window with moon.

She’s spent a lifetime escorting the dead on their final journey.
Why does this time feel different?

Awarded a Certificate of Achievement in the Genre Short Story Category, 80th Annual Writers’ Digest Writing Competition

The Dream Walker



I pull the monogrammed silver-handled brush through my long, poker-straight hair one last time.

One hundred.

Poker straight. That was my mother’s term. Not poker straight like the sequential five cards sought by gamblers, but rather, like the long steel rod used to prod a fire. It made my mother jealous that my hair was so fine and controlled. Her curls, so soft and bouncy, so full of life, were my envy. Why couldn’t I be more like her and less like my father?

I stand up and go to the window, placing my thumb between the bottom of the glass and the frame to make sure it’s open just enough to let in some fresh air. Then, once again, I leave my bedroom and walk out through the sitting room to the kitchen to check that the oven and stove have been turned off. They have, of course. I checked them earlier this evening. The garbage has been removed. The dishes are done. The kitchen is clean.

I move on to the front door and rattle the doorknob to the apartment. Still locked.

One last look around the living area. Everything is in its place. The magazines are neatly stacked on the coffee table, the books have been put back on their alphabetized shelves, the CDs returned to their genre-specific slots in the rack, and today’s newspaper has gone out with the recycling.

In my bedroom, I straighten my brush on the vanity so it lies parallel to its matching comb and hand mirror, and adjust the perfume bottle so the label, Shalimar, is aligned to face out at me, perfectly parallel to the front edge of the table.

I look around and sigh. There is nothing left to do but sleep.

I don’t go through this routine to avoid bed. That would be futile. Sleep—and what comes with it—will arrive regardless of what I do. I’ve tried staying awake all night but failed. And even those brief few minutes that I succumbed to slumber were enough to capture a lifetime—someone else’s lifetime. Someone else’s death.

I didn’t have a choice in this. It is an inheritance from my father, who, as I was told, had inherited it from his father. I don’t know what he thought of it. It was never discussed. I didn’t even know about it until after he was gone. I sometimes wonder if he hoped that by having a daughter, he’d avoided passing it on—like a genetic defect that runs through only the male line. It didn’t of course. And I’m not naive enough to think that even my decision to not have children will stop it. Someone will replace me. I just won’t know who, and for that I am thankful.

I know I am not the only one. There must be hundreds of us—more maybe—that each night help the dead accept their fate and escort them to their ultimate destination. I’ve never met another like me—it’s not the type of thing that generally comes up in conversation—but there must be others. Dream Walkers.

When my father died, my mother was tasked with taking him to his destination. She could have stayed with him but chose to come back to help me understand my new role—my inheritance, she called it.

I remember sitting in front of my vanity as she brushed my hair, explaining as much as she could, but not enough because, in all their years of marriage, my father hadn’t shared knowledge of his “gift” with her, either.

“Ninety-eight. Ninety-nine. One hundred. Such lovely poker-straight hair,” she cooed, leaning forward to kiss my temple.

That night I took my mother to be with my father. It was my first dream walk. I don’t know what else to call it. It feels like a dream. And, as with dreams, you just know what to do. Even what makes no sense when you are awake is perfectly reasonable at the time.

Every night since then I have escorted someone to his, or her, destination. Sometimes it’s easy; the elderly and the sick understand what’s happening and are often prepared to go. Many times, though, it’s more difficult. Children are hard, but mothers—young mothers especially—are heartbreaking.

Although for me the journey only happens during the brief period I’m sleeping, it can seem to take many days—long, gut-wrenching days of consolation, negotiation, and ultimately acceptance that they are dead and that all will be well in the end. At least I hope it will be all right. Until we arrive, I never know what to expect.

I slip my thumb between the windowpane and its frame to exact the opening one last time and slide into bed. My hand reaches to turn out the light and pauses while I stare at the ceiling and count the tiles above me. One-hundred-and-forty one-foot-square tiles. I turn out the light and lie in the darkness. Eyes open. Waiting.

I never feel myself falling into sleep. Suddenly, I’m there.

I see him standing a dozen yards ahead. He is an older man—seventy maybe—tall and well built, with thick silver hair. He’s dressed in black jeans and a cream-colored polo shirt.  Well-kept, I think. He hasn’t succumbed to the ravages of growing older.

He’s looking around, confused. A troubled look creases his brows. That’s never good. It must have been quick, then. Unexpected.

I inhale deeply, bracing myself. These are often the most difficult people to convince that they have died.

He sees me and his expression clears. He smiles and comes towards me, hand extended.

Well, this is a little better. Often, they’re afraid of me. Afraid of who I might be or what I might represent. Sometimes they think I’m an angel. I used to try to dissuade them of that notion. I am definitely no angel. But I’ve learned it’s better to let them believe whatever they want at first and slowly bring them around to the truth.

“Hello there.” His voice is a deep baritone, strong and sure for a man his age. Pleasant. He takes my hand in a firm grip. “Are you who I’m supposed to meet?”

“Yes,” I say, caught up in his deep blue eyes. The wrinkles don’t detract from his appearance and it is clear he was once incredibly handsome—still is. The force of the attraction I feel towards him takes me aback and I quickly drop my gaze to his polished black boots.

“John,” he says giving my hand an extra squeeze before releasing it.

Names. I try to avoid names. It makes things too personal. “Katrina,” I reply reluctantly.

He nods. “Good. So, what do we do now?”

“Well, it’s up to you, really. Often, we go to a place that’s been significant in your life. Someplace important. Someplace you want to visit again.” Maybe I misjudged him. He certainly seems very calm. Perhaps this won’t be as difficult as I’d first feared.

“Well, where would you go? If it was you.”

I’d never been asked this question before and the image that comes unbidden to my mind throws me off balance. No! I push the rogue thought away, unwilling to face it. This isn’t about me.

I decide he’s stalling; perhaps he’s not ready, after all. “It doesn’t matter where I’d like to go,” I tell him. “Where would you like to go?”

He mulls this over for a few seconds and then smiles. Perfect teeth, too. Straight. White. Devastating.

In my many dream walks, I’ve been to all sorts of places. Not the kind of places you’d expect, like the Seven Wonders of the World or safaris and the like. We aren’t tourists, after all. No, usually the dead choose mundane personal places—a family home or cottage, a school or a playground. Sometimes they’re surprising places; places so desolate and desperate you’d wonder why anyone would choose to go back there one last time. Still, home and heart aren’t rational, are they?

There’s no need for him to actually tell me where we’re going. As soon as he decides, we are there. I look around, curious. I wonder if I will know it; I rarely do. I have been to so few places in my lifetime. Dream walking robbed me of my youthful love of travel, and these days I rarely venture beyond the route between my home and my drab little office in the accounting firm.

We are on a quiet, narrow street; in an alleyway, I think. I can hear the drone of cars along a nearby road, and the buzz of people talking, laughing, nearby. I can tell it’s an older area by the cobblestones at my feet and the chipped plaster walls of the buildings that hem us in. I smell fresh bread and rotting fish.

My heart beats faster. I know this place. I have been here before. But not as a dream walker.

John is looking at me expectantly. As if he knows. I can’t breathe and I quickly walk out of the alley into a street teeming with people. I spin in a long slow circle, looking for it. Yes, there it is, the Basilique du Sacré Cœur. The white dome of the Roman Catholic church sits at the highest point in the city and is Montmartre’s most recognizable landmark. We are in Paris.

John comes up behind me and places his hand on my shoulder. “Are you all right?” he asks.

“Yes,” I lie.

“You’ve been here before?”

“A long, long time ago.” I give myself a shake. I have to pull myself together. I don’t know how these things work, but given the law of averages, I shouldn’t be surprised that I would eventually end up someplace familiar, especially a city as large and with as much significance as Paris.

But why here? Why Montmartre? Could my conjuring of it a brief few moments ago have somehow affected his thoughts?

“My best memories are here,” John says, looking up and down the street. “Of course, it’s changed a lot.”

I nod. It’s changed for me, too. I always thought it was too bad I couldn’t take people back to see the places as they were in their own time. But then, perhaps that would defeat the whole purpose of getting them to understand that they are dead and need to move on. The world has moved on, you need to move on, too.

“There’s a lovely brasserie on rue des Abbesses—or at least there was. Can we go there?” There is a childish excitement in his voice.

I swallow past the lump in my throat. “Of course.”

He takes my hand and leads me south through the maze of streets that even all these years later are as familiar to me as the lines on my hand. There are tonnes of brasseries and restaurants in Montmartre, and in the two years that I lived here, I’d probably eaten at them all.

I know where he’s going before we arrive. I’m anxious to step, once again, into the mirrored, art-deco bistro. My taste buds begin salivating with memories of the farm-fresh produce La Mascotte has been famous for serving for more than a century.

“I never thought,” John says, stepping over the threshold. “Can anyone see us? Can we order a plate of mussels? A glass of wine?”

“No,” I say sadly. “We aren’t really here.”

“Damn shame,” he says, holding the door open for me.

I agree.

He ushers me through the bistro to a quiet table in the back corner. Perhaps I should be surprised that of all the tables he picked this one. But I’m not. My memories don’t have any more claims on Montmartre, La Mascotte, or this table than anyone else’s. It’s just a coincidence. It’s a terrible, terrible coincidence that I am going to have to find a way to deal with.

I can’t block out the memories that have come crashing into my consciousness. The happiest two years of my life were spent here. I was young and carefree. I had come to Paris to study art and fell in love with the bohemian lifestyle of Montmartre. This was, after all, where all the greatest painters had lived—Degas, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, and Picasso. But it wasn’t just artists who came to Montmartre, there were writers, too. And that’s what had brought—

   Damn! I hadn’t thought about him in a long time. Hadn’t allowed myself to. But here, in this place, how could I help it? He breathed through my every memory of Montmartre. He was Montmartre to me.

I scan the bistro half expecting him to appear from the among the crowd, his apron tucked around his waist, balancing a tray piled high with glasses of wine, plates of mussels and other delicacies, a bright smile on his face. He was a writer, but unlike me who had the financial backing of my parents while I studied, he had to work to pay his bills.

I met him here. I was sitting at this very table, and he was supposed to be my waiter. But as he approached, he pulled off his apron, threw it down on the table, and then he sat down and began talking to me as if he belonged there—as if we’d know each other forever. And to be honest, it felt as if we had. Eventually, one of the other waiters came over and served us. I don’t know how he didn’t lose his job that night. He was so smooth and charming; I suspect he sweet-talked the owner’s wife out of firing him.

After that, we were together as much as possible. Johnny— funny, his name was John, too—and me, his Alley Kat. He called me that because I was always in such disarray. With paint splattering my mismatched outfits and my tendency to get so lost in my work that I forgot to eat, he said I reminded him of the raggedy cats that rummaged for scraps in the alleys behind the restaurants.

I was a different person back then.  

I try surreptitiously to wipe away the tear that has appeared in my left eye. John has stopped his own surveying of the room and sees me. He reaches into his pocket and hands me a handkerchief. I can’t help smiling at his old-fashioned habits.

“It seems you have some ghosts of your own here,” he says. “Care to share?”

 I shake my head. This isn’t about me. “Is there anything you’d like to talk about? Anything that will help you?”

“I’m not sure how this is all supposed to work,” he says.

I shrug. Me neither, but I don’t tell him that.

After so many dream walks, you’d think I’d have figured out a strategy that would make the transition quick and smooth. But I haven’t. I don’t know why I am able to order my own daily life so perfectly but can’t manage to organize the chaos of my nights.

“Why don’t you just talk about some memories? Why did you want to come here?” I ask.

“No surprise, really. It was a girl. Do you think anyone can come to Montmartre and not fall in love?” he says.

“What happened?”

“Same sad cliché. She left me.”

“I’m sorry. She must have been very special for you to still remember her and want to come back here.”

“Yes. Very special. The one that got away.”

“You never found anyone else, then?” I feel so very sorry for him, and at the same time at war with myself. Part of me hopes he had found happiness with someone else, while another part wants him to have remained eternally loyal to his lost love.

“I tried. I married. Twice. But it never worked. All my fault, of course. They were lovely women, they just weren’t—” He looks up at me sheepishly and shrugs.

Her, I finish quietly to myself. They just weren’t her. “Children?” I ask.

He shakes his head.

“Are you ready now?” I am anxious to get moving. There are far too many ghosts here and his story has affected me more than I want to admit. Another lost love in Montmartre.

“What happens now? What’s it like?” he asks. “Do we ascend to heaven? Go the other way? Is there a light to follow? What exactly is the process?”

“You’re very direct,” I say.

“I like answers. It’s probably my journalism background.”

“A journalist? Really? Did you write for a big paper?”

“No. I mostly worked in P-R, for a big chemical company in Chicago. What about you? What did you end up doing when you left Montmartre?”

I could kick myself for opening up this line of discussion. “Accountant,” I say as if the word explains everything or at least is boring enough to end the conversation. In truth, it explains nothing, and he knows it. His reporter instincts have gone on high alert.

“How does one go from living as a free-spirit in Montmartre to becoming a nine-to-five accountant?” he presses.

“Maybe the same way as a freethinking journalist becomes a corporate flack,” I say more sharply than I’d intended.

“Touché.” He’s still smiling so I guess I didn’t offend him as much as I feared.

I don’t know how he moved from Montmartre to the corporate world, but I am quite certain his route was different from mine. My life ended the day my father died, and my mother came back to tell me my future.

I didn’t really believe it at first. I thought it was a dream. It had to have been because I remember being at home with my mother—her combing my hair while she tried to explain. But in the morning the phone call came telling me both my parents had died and I needed to leave Montmartre and return home to make the funeral and other arrangements. And of course, that night, and ever since, there was the dream walking.

I didn’t return to Montmartre. I sold my parents home, moved, and didn’t leave a forwarding address. I left everything—everyone—behind. I couldn’t imagine sharing this curse with anyone nor could I bear to keep such a terrible secret from someone I loved. I’m certain my father’s premature death was due to his decision to live a lie and keep us all ignorant of the truth. 

I’ve always believed I did the right thing; that I spared Johnny and the others I cared for from knowing the horrible truth about what I’d become. I made other friends—well, they were never more than co-workers and acquaintances—but I wasn’t lonely. Not until today. Not until now.

“Do you remember everyone you’ve—ah—taken?” he asks.

“Yes,” I admit. It’s one of those terrible ironies of being a Dream Walker. While most dreams are quickly forgotten, or remain as only the barest whisper in consciousness, my dreams never fade. There must be thousands of them, each one a crystal clear in both in its circumstance and its emotion.

 “And do we all end up at the same place?”

“No.” I pause trying to think how best to explain it. “When you’re ready, we walk towards what I guess is like a misty curtain type of thing. Then you go through it.”



“And is there someone on the other side of the curtain to meet us?” he asks.

“I believe so.”

What I don’t tell him is that it’s not always the same curtain. Sometimes it’s light and airy, and you know there are good things on the other side. Other times it’s dark and dense, and I can’t wait to get away from it. I don’t know how what we do in life affects our ultimate destination, but to equate a light curtain to heaven and a dark one to hell would be too simplistic an explanation. I’ve seen many distinct curtains over the years, and I haven’t been able to reliably determine how they relate to the person I am escorting.

One thing I do know is that the curtain is for the person I’m escorting, alone. In the beginning, desperate to break free from this curse, I tried to follow the person through. But what seemed a tendril of fog became a steel barrier that wouldn’t let me pass.

“How do we get there?” he asks.

“I don’t know for sure,” I say. “I think it’s when you’ve made peace with your life.”

“Do you think anyone ever truly makes peace with their life? Is it possible to die without regrets?”

I’ve been wondering that myself since we arrived in Montmartre. Do I have regrets? Knowing how my life turned out would I make the same choice again? Would I isolate myself from everyone I cared about to carry my burden alone? Or would I allow myself to live the dreams I once had—to paint, to travel, to love and be loved, the dream walking be damned?

I am spared answering both John’s question and my own. We have left Montmartre and are standing on a barren plain. The misty curtain ahead of us shimmers; its undulating colors of blue, green and purple beckon us forward.

I turn to John. I am truly sorry to see him go. He has touched my heart in a way it hasn’t been touched for many, many years. I don’t even resent the memories he has dredged up from my past. I am thankful for them.

“It’s time for you to go,” I say and start to walk towards the curtain. I have found that it is easier for people to go through when I walk with them right up to the edge.

“Are you sure, Alley Kat?”

I trip at the sound of my pet name coming from his lips. I must have heard wrong. “Excuse me?” I say. “Katrina’s my name.”

“Yes. Katrina suits who you’ve become, but you’ll always be my Alley Kat.”

We’re standing at the curtain now. I can feel a soft breeze blowing from beyond, and the mist reaches out to caress our bodies. He steps closer to me and tucks a loose strand of hair behind my ear. His palm rests against my cheek.

“I didn’t think I’d ever find you again,” he whispers and bends his head towards mine.

His lips are firm and soft, exactly as I remember them fifty years ago. Of their own volition, my arms reach up and encircle his neck. I lean in closer, unwilling to break the embrace. I can feel tears running down my cheeks; taste their salt in my mouth. When he pulls back, I realize the tears are not mine alone.

How can this be? How can the fates be so cruel as to let me find Johnny again, to hold him in my arms, to savor his sweet kisses, only to take him away from me?

“Now?” he asks.

No, I want to scream. Not now. Not ever. Instead, I nod and step away from him, sliding my hands down his shoulders and along his forearms until finally I release his hands and watch them drop to his sides.

He doesn’t move. He just keeps staring at me with his beautiful blue eyes. It’s torture this waiting. I don’t want him to leave me and yet the longer he stands there the more painful the thought of his absence becomes.

I can’t bear it any longer and I drop my gaze. “Go. Please. Just go.”

He hasn’t moved when I dare to raise my head. He’s smiling at me as if he hasn’t a care in the world. “I don’t think you understand,” he says. “I’ve come for you.”

All the breath rushes out of my body and I feel as if I’m about to collapse. “It’s me?”

He nods and, wrapping his arm around my waist, walks with me through the misty curtain. “But you’re not going to be alone ever again.”

(c) Brenda Gayle, 2011

Have you checked out the Charley Hall Mystery series?

Click here for Charley’s Field Notes and the Bessie Stormont Whodunits.