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Author’s note: Ah, we were such inquisitive, experimental youths in our college days. My group of friends talked about everything—with few limits—and one series of conversations centered on dreaming. We peered at every angle we could see, and when someone found research suggesting we could actually control whether or not we remembered our dreams, we all agreed to see if it worked and share what we remembered.

It was during this trial week back in 1989 that I had an eerie, erotic dream so powerful I awoke still feeling every detail, as if I’d been there and lived it right through to the end. I skipped classes in an effort to record it all. And now thanks to Lit’s newest contest, I’ve been motivated to rewrite it into more than a feverishly written rough draft (the original pages I referenced were yellowed with age).

Looking back, I wonder if the experience was the first real visitation from my muse, who often shares story ideas while I’m dreaming. Neither my friends nor I could maintain the process of heightened dreaming, for even as young as we were, the strong dreams exhausted us. Fortunately, the process could be reversed, and we returned to normal sleep patterns. This dream had never been shared with anyone until now.

Thank you, Copycarver, for the quick edit, proving once again that even editors need editors.

***

Crickets and the river created a background symphony of sounds for the campfire. Collin placed another bundle of sticks on top, producing a chorus of cracking and popping, and he stepped back to view his handiwork. A light aroma of smoke tinted the fresh air. Above him stretched the wilderness’s night, endless and beautiful, made more enchanting by each pinpoint of light.

“Yeah, not so bad after all,” the young man mused to himself, and he glanced down to see Suzy grinning at him. She patted the camping chair beside her in invitation.

“We’ll make a believer out of you yet,” she promised.

He sat down and took the beer she offered before answering. “Wouldn’t go that far, Suzy dearest, but there is something peaceful and exciting about this place. I won’t deny that.”

“The peace comes from Mother Nature, and the excitement comes from me in your sleeping bag.” The heated stare she gave him prompted a laugh. True, there were definitely worse ways to spend a summer week, though it might make going back to school more painful. From across the campfire, his friend Brett seemed to read his thoughts.

“Nice break from the routine of crowded beaches and smoky bars,” Brett admitted, taking a pull from his beer, “though this smoke makes my eyes sting like crazy. Still feel good.”

“Might be nature, but my vote is it’s Beth snuggled up under your arm.” Collin motioned to them with his beer.

“I’ll drink to that,” Brett grinned back at Collin, squeezing his girlfriend closer to him and raising his bottle in a toast.

Later that night, Suzy lay in Collin’s arms as they listened to Beth’s faint giggling, which occasionally rose above the river’s murmurs. Suzy traced her fingers along Collin’s chest and stomach.

“Not so bad as you thought, huh?” Suzy loved pointed out his mistakes to him, but this time Collin didn’t mind.

“Nope. This is a great final adventure before school. Exactly as promised.” Suzy’s fingers snaked beneath the blanket to caress his stirring cock.

“You just have to try new things more often.” And with her point made, Suzy lowered her mouth to his erection for a moment before climbing onto his chest and settling around him with a soft sigh.

* * *

“Yeah!” Brett whooped as they crashed through another haystack and were showered with cool river water. The raft careened over water-worn rocks, through powerful chutes and walls of spray, over chaotic rapids, and past majestic canyon walls, which stood as testaments to nature’s creativity. They agreed this section of the river felt more exhilarating than the one from the previous day—everyone except Beth, who now sported a worried look.

“You sure we can handle this?” she shouted above the sounds of the river. “It seems to be getting worse.”

“Don’t worry,” Suzy yelled back. “Remember, the guidebook said nothing over class III, and we can handle that in our sleep.” Beth didn’t look comforted, as they were swept between giant boulders and down a tiny two-foot waterfall. It was clear she preferred the quiet, sensual evenings to this daytime ruckus.

The haystacks became muted by the strength of the flow, and the adventurers were rushed around a bend.

“Oh, shit,” Brett murmured an irreverent prayer. Their joy forgotten as they met enormous foaming rapids and a distinctive roar of hostile water. Crosscurrents seemed to be fighting the normal river trajectory, creating mists from the pulverized water. They accelerated dramatically, being driven, and Collin glanced around for an eddy, a safe haven of water that would shelter them from the main current. Though the river’s width couldn’t have been more than canlı bahis twenty feet, nothing seemed to exist but foamy spray and boulder-lined banks.

Suzy stared at Collin with wide, frightened eyes, her look pleading with him to help. Another instant to gasp and they were hurled into the maelstrom, the raft flipping violently, dumping them and their gear into the water in a tangle of limbs.

Collin felt Suzy rip away from him, felt their paddles and cooler slam against him as the river claimed them all. Someone kicked off of him in desperation, thrusting him deeper, below the violent surface currents; slamming into the riverbed almost cost him the breath he’d snatched when they were dumped. Desperately clutching at a boulder, he realized the confused bottom current had nothing of the violence of the surface. So before his lifejacket could float him back into the madness, he clawed at its latches.

Survival instinct kept him scrambling for handholds as he shrugged out of the jacket, kicking against the buoyancy that would draw him to the top and into the unforgiving boulders. Blindly groping for a path toward the closest bank, his mind wailed: How could this be possible? What was he going to do when he ran out of breath? Had his friends found a way to safety?

Questions for another lifetime.

He groped for a rock, pressure building in his lungs beyond what he could stand; he needed a sweet gulp of oxygen, and he needed it now. Even the watery vision hazed over as Collin’s struggles weakened. Knowing he was so close, and knowing he just wasn’t close enough. He growled with the last of his energy in a bid to keep the water from his lungs, and clutched at another rock. Liquid force crushed him against the bottom of the river now, and he feebly hoped his friends had fared better.

It was then he felt a hand grab his wrist. Gripping it as a man seeking salvation in that final instant of life, Collin went limp while he was tugged through a wall of suffocating water.

Quiet…it’s so quiet.

That first thought, his initial grasp of reality, resounded in his head as he gulped blessed air. He heard the echo of his ragged breathing, and watched droplets fall from his nose into a thin layer of mist that coated the floor. Muscles throbbed and blood beat against his veins, yet his mind cleared enough to realize he still clasped the hand of his savior. Trembling, he tried to raise his head, but was drawn into a lap, held against silky material and warmth.

“Shh,” coaxed a soft voice, “you are safe now.” Soothingly feminine and equally as mystifying with a subtle accent, the tone urged him to rest, to release the trauma of the past minute. Collin let himself be cradled in her lap, shivering and trying to calm his sobs.

“What the hell happened?”

“Shh.” A gentle hand caressed his face as if the touch could still his racing thoughts.

“Are my friends okay?”

“Shh.” Her serenity draped over him like a shroud. Collin’s breathing slowed, his muscles began to relax, and he closed his eyes with a sigh. He cherished the silence, the warmth and satin against his cheek, the aura of relaxation. If he didn’t feel so abused and conflicted, he’d have been quite sure he died. Even with his worries still out in the river, he couldn’t summon the energy to press for answers.

When he felt able to stand, Collin pushed himself to his knees and faced his rescuer for the first time. As he suspected, her breathtaking beauty only accentuated her compassionate gaze. Her cascade of golden-blond hair framed clear blue eyes and creamy skin; the light gown did little to hide the perfect curves beneath it.

“You will have your answers soon,” she promised in that same low, comforting voice as she rose and offered a delicate hand to help him stand. His muscles quivered yet held his weight. “My name is Asrelle, and you are welcomed into my world.”

A glance around showed what looked like a small cave of fog-softened gray walls. Its ambient light seemed to come from the vapors, which added to the surreal quality of his experience. There was no hole where he had come from, no roar of the river. “What is this place, and—” In contrast, Collin’s voice was harsh in the surrounding calm, and she raised a slender finger to his lips to hush him.

“I will show my world and will explain. Later. For this moment, please trust me.”

Too bewildered to speak, Collin allowed her to lead him through a stone archway. The next room was similar to the first, bare and empty except for the soft vapor that turned each rock surface hazy. Each opposing wall had an archway in it.

He paused, too tired and too overwhelmed, but Asrelle stroked his arm with a comforting palm and urged him on. She drew him toward the left corridor, which opened into a cavern of stark beauty. Swirls of fog were thicker, stretching away into the distance. The view was dominated by enormous stalactites hanging from the high ceiling, where the mist took on a shimmering quality that echoed the bahis siteleri colors of the rainbow. A faint breeze stirred the thick vapors, and movement made the colors shimmer as far as he could see.

Collin heard distant trickling of a small stream and realized it was the first ambient sound he’d noticed since being pulled from the river. She led him to a small pool of milky water just inside the cavern entrance. While she unbuttoned his shirt, he tried to divine her intent, and again he asked about his friends.

She sighed and the pitying look held his answer. “If you would wait, the news would be easier to take, but I see you will not. You are the only survivor.”

Knowing what the response would be seemed to replace any sting with mourning, and he hung his head after a brief nod. She slid the shirt off his shoulders, hugged him and stroked his back. After a long minute, Collin took a deep, shaky breath. “I should’ve died with them, but you saved me somehow. Why?”

“You have been injured.” She softly touched a few scrapes and bruises as if to emphasize her point. “Both inside and out. Before I tell you more, you must begin to heal.”

“Suzy and I had just met this past semester—at the end.” His voice shook as he watched her steady, concerned gaze. Need drove his recounting, though he’d not be surprised if she somehow knew. “We were… Brett has been a good friend since rush, almost two years ago, and…” He watched her eyes water, and he was again crying, hunched over and pressed against her soothing warmth. “Will miss them. So much.”

While caressing his still-wet hair and shaking back, she murmured, “I wish I could have saved them. Cherish the time you spent with them. Let your pain go. It cannot bring them back and it will only cheapen their memory.” When his weeping subsided, Collin hung limply, unresisting, as she pulled off his swim trunks in a slow, non-threatening manner. “Come,” she urged once he had numbly cooperated and stood naked.

The water swirled around them as they entered and exhaustion washed over him as the soothing liquid now gathered around his waist. Asrelle guided him to sit and then lie back on a soft rock ledge just under the water. How could stone feel this soft? The water lapped gently at him and seemed to lull him, even as Asrelle lay beside him and wrap her wet skin and silk around him. He barely felt her hands on each side of his head, caressing his face. He stared at her with unfocused eyes, into her calm beauty.

“Sleep,” she cooed at him, tracing his forehead and shutting his eyelids. “Let go of your pain.” He felt a fingertip draw down his nose and brush his lips. “Sleep.” The hand caressed his chin and slid down his neck. “Sleep.”

And he slept.

* * *

Collin awoke in the pool, alone except for the company of the lapping water and a pulsing erection. He was relieved that Asrelle wasn’t around; were matters different, her presence would be sure to make him throb, but now it was only the energy surging through him and the mighty need to pee. Life hummed with meaning and zest after such a deep sleep, and he nearly jumped from the pond, ready to explore this strange reality.

Noticing a thick robe that seemed to have replaced his clothes, Collin shrugged and drew the soft garment around him before looking for his hostess. He didn’t figure he’d find any toilets, and wondered what she used. Not wanting to get lost, he headed through the archway he knew and met her coming from the opposite direction. When she saw him, a genuine smile brightened her face.

“It warms me to see you feeling so much better.”

Her smile was contagious. “Thanks. How long was I out?”

She shrugged. “As long as you needed to be, it seems. You look so much better.”

“I feel better, except…ah, where do you go to the bathroom?”

Her smile turned into a light laugh, and she answered, “That is one of the easiest questions you will have, but for now, you can use the stream.”

“Okay, I’ll just follow the sound,” Collin said, not wanting her to watch him.

“I bet you are hungry. Hurry back, and I will show you our lounge,” she called as he turned to find the stream. “You can explore later.”

It did take several minutes of exploring, since the trickling did not have a distinct direction until he got closer. The stream couldn’t have been more than two feet across, and the clear water slid leisurely over a shallow bed of rounded pebbles. With a twinge of guilt, he watched the stream carried his sacrilege under the rocks by a wall.

When he found his way back through the boulder garden, Asrelle was waiting for him. She reached for his hand and led him through the opposite archway and into another cave that was smaller; the mist covering on the rocks was less noticeable, and a large silver bowl containing a variety of fruit adorned the center of the room. Three mats surrounded it.

Asrelle picked a mat, and settled her thin gown around her ankles as she sat, motioning for him bahis şirketleri to join her. When he raised an eyebrow at the third mat, she replied, “That spot is for my sister if she feels like joining us. Though, I think she is nervous about meeting you.”

“Oh?” Collin knew so little about his situation, and he felt a return of anxiety.

“Eat, and I promise to explain.” She exuded calm, watching him closely for his reactions. “The simplest answer is that this is paradise for us—my sister and me, and you, if you will join us.”

“So, you’re saying I really died back in the river? That this is some kind of heaven?”

Asrelle shook her head with a grin. “No, Collin. Though I am as close to an angel as you will find in the spirit world. Long ago, my sister and I passed into this realm, and quite simply, I chose you.”

While Collin didn’t doubt she was angelic, he had trouble breathing normally, and his hunger was forgotten. “It’s…a lot to grasp. You didn’t feel like—I mean…”

She shared his blush and lowered her eyes before continuing in a small voice, “We can be together—I can be yours—if you stay with me.”

The odd undertone pressed him to ask, “But we don’t really know each other, and…” He shrugged, at a total loss to put his swirl of emotions into words.

“I was drawn to you, pulled by who you are,” she answered, raising her head to give him a loaded stare, full of hope and confidence and perhaps a million other things. “So, I know you better than you can imagine—that is, until you get to know me. Let me tell you the basics: I feel no passage of time, in terms you think of it. I…” Spots of color appeared again on her cheeks. “…feel just like normal.”

“Or like heaven?” Collin found her blush adorable. But his anxiety returned with thoughts of the river, and he sighed. “I have so many questions, I don’t even know where to start. Can I see my friends? Are they here?”

Asrelle shook her head and reached across to hold his hand. “This place, this system… I created it, with my sister.” Before he could ask one of the hundreds of new questions that arose, she plunged on. “Death is a subject so few grasp, but even then, most are correct in their assumptions. Because our minds can make what we believe, and I think only spirits who believe in similar realms can interact with each other.”

“And those who don’t believe in anything?”

“They are the most flexible of all,” she answered with a pointed stare. “Like you.”

“And Suzy?”

A cloud seemed to pass across Asrelle’s face, and she straightened. “Honestly, I do not know. If she can find us, or if you want to find her, then you can try.”

Collin’s stomach felt upset. “This is hard to accept, that I might never see my friends again. That they are dead and I’m here.” Collin used the sweep of his hand to include the surroundings. “That you somehow drew me here and yet you say I’m still alive. You said I have a choice?”

“Of course,” said Asrelle with a returning smile. “You can stay with me or return to your time, but know that I cannot keep you here—cannot save you—for long. You must choose soon.” As if she read his mind, she stood and pulled him up with her. “Take a walk while you think about it. Explore my home and return when you have more questions.”

He managed a stunned nod and left the room, wishing he had pockets to bury his hands in. Walks had always helped clear his mind and work out his problems, but he had to admit this was the mother of all problems. He saw no reason to doubt Asrelle’s statements, and he was definitely interested in knowing her, but the unknowns were oppressive. Though, he had to admit the only difference was the magnitude of the choice, since unknowns always plagued him.

At the junction, he tried the one archway he’d not been through, and after winding down a tunnel of stone and light mist, he walked into another small room with more doorways. Faint music, the sounds of soothing voices falling through harmonies, seemed to emanate from his right, so he tried that way first, now fully distracted by his curiosity.

Collin stopped to stare; the passage opened into an enormous cavern that sported rock structures of a fascinating variety. The music seemed to ghost through the vast area, and he could not even see the back of the cavern, since the mist just swallowed the distant walls. The swirling, colorful fog and the promise of more novelties drew his attention, and he made a point to explore it after he checked the other paths.

The nervous giggle was so soft Collin almost mistook it for part of the background, but then a small voice said, “You feel so strong and warm.” Movement caught his eye, and he watched a girl almost his age walk from behind one of the boulders. Her hair was red and freckles dotted her cheeks, but otherwise, she could have been a slighter, younger version of Asrelle.

“You must be Asrelle’s sister.” Her timid approach caused him to smile. “I’m Collin.”

She nodded, toying with a strand of hair. Stopping just short of him to give him an open, appraising look. He caught the distinct smell of peppermint as she spoke. “I’m Liana. Come and see my favorite spot here. Are you going to stay with us?”

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