Sarah rolled over and laid her hand on the empty spot next to her on the bed. It was indeed warm; Frank was just in the bathroom. Sarah sighed softly and went back to sleep.
Frank knew that he was anywhere but in the bathroom. He believed he was floating in oblivion. Where was he? For that matter, when, who, what or why? Unanswerable. . .
Sarah stirred in her sleep again and noticed vaguely in her twilight state that there still was no Frank. Was it a second ago, a minute ago, an hour ago that he still wasn't there? Perhaps a lifetime ago? With a major effort, she lifted her eyelids and called thickly for him. She was answered only by blackness.
Frank stood on something solid or perhaps it was only in his mind. Solidity. It was good. Much as one must be adaptable to change, too much fluidity is insanity. Frank's pride rested in his sanity, resting on his reality. His own reality, to be sure, but it served. It served.
Sarah stumbled to the bathroom. She could not void her growing concern about Frank's whereabouts, but she could void her bladder. By degrees more awake, the darkness was no longer a thick clot of unreality around her but only a barrier to her senses.
Frank coalesced into a beingness that was becoming more real. He opened his eyes, if they were indeed eyes, and gazed out into a mist of illogic. He touched himself, with what he did not know, but it felt to be him.
Sarah turned on the living room light and went to the front door. It was still locked and chained. There was no other way out of the apartment. She re-checked the kitchen, then the spare bedroom, then all the closets. Under the bed. Under the kitchen sink. Frank had disappeared.
Frank began moving forward. The surface on which he seemingly trod was firm but giving. He walked slowly, carefully, being unable to see what it was he walked on, the mist still cloaking whatever there was in this place. Nothing was to be seen; only swirling grayness.
Sarah was desperate. She checked all the windows. They had not been opened. There was no chimney. She checked the cold air return for the furnace. Nothing. She searched the apartment again. Nothing but emptiness; nothing but loneliness.
A shape loomed out of the mist before Frank. He stopped and stood and watched. It loomed nearer, and he could make out detail. It appeared to be a cross between a comic- book superhero and some nightmare animal. But it seemed real, for this place. It belonged here, wherever here was. Frank was not sure that he belonged, and felt a fear of that which he could not name.
The being came up to Frank and stopped and spoke.
Sarah thought back over the night carefully. Frank, yes, had gone to bed with her. They had made love. Then went to sleep. That was around quarter after eleven. It was now 3:20; she had been awake for twenty-five minutes. The only way the chain could be on the apartment door would be if she had put it back on after he had left. Could she have been walking in her sleep? Why would Frank have left?
Frank listened, petrified. There were no words, only a deep rumbling thunder that coursed through him. But he understood.
"You are here by sufferance. You do not belong here. You are here only for a short while. Do what you can while you are here and know who you are. Know who you can be and how you can act. Do not waste your time."
Sarah was weeping. They were trying so hard to reconcile after a long separation. They had been divorced; he had been so unfaithful to her, so wrapped up in himself, but he had come back. Tonight had seemed so comfortable, so right. How could he leave without telling her?
She suddenly stood and walked to the door and opened it. She looked around the landing, then walked in her bathrobe down to the building's door and looked out at the parking lot. No Frank, and both their cars were still there.
Frank nodded his agreement, numbly, not knowing what he was to do. He stumblingly followed the creature through the mist. It walked swiftly, not looking back, but Frank knew that it knew that Frank was following.
They came to a coppice in the dim light. Around the coppice, the mist was clearing. There were no large trees here, only saplings. The creature rumbled to Frank:
"When the tree is cut, the sprouts return from the roots. They are not as strong as the tree once was, nor will they be until only one remains, growing over many years. Only by enduring can anything really reach its true strength. You humans often find your lives cluttered by the outgrowth of uncertainty, of yearning for other ways, other things, other directions, other people. You must find your most important direction, cut the unimportant sprouts, and cultivate the most important. Then your tree will grow strong."
Frank gazed at the coppice. Did one of those saplings seem to have Eileen's face on it? And did one seem to be Sarah? Did they know everything about him, here?
Sarah reviewed the situation again. The chain HAD been on the door. It could not have been put on from the outside. She had never sleepwalked before. She searched the apartment again, all five rooms (including the bathroom).
They continued on through the mist. Frank worked hard to keep up with the creature. It looked back at Frank once, twice, as he fell behind. Those looks, the gleaming, glaring eyes. . .Frank redoubled his efforts.
They came to another tree, singly, in the middle of what was perhaps a field. The tree was much larger, but it was also sickly and dying.
"Look at the tree," the creature said. "See how its branches are tight against one another, how the tree competes against itself."
It grabbed the tree and pulled it up, as easily as one might pull a carrot. Frank felt his breath catch in the back of his throat. "See the roots, too, how they girdle the tree, cutting off its draw of the moisture and minerals from the ground. This is what happens when people become too much taken with themselves, when they believe that they are the world unto themselves. They strangle themselves with their roots, and their branches crowd one another. Only by reaching out and connecting with the world around us, and with other people, can people grow as strong as they might."
Frank scrutinized the tree. And was that his face on the tree?
Sarah picked up the phone to call the police. She held it in her hand and gazed at it. Would they think her crazy? Probably. Would they believe her? It hurt to try to think it through. She gazed at the phone she was clutching, aching with her pain.
Frank and the creature walked further, much further, seemingly forever, and came to yet another tree. This was larger yet than the last one, yet a large open gash gaped on its side, revealing the hollow heart within.
"Many people's lives are like this tree," the creature said. "They grow to what they believe is fullness, yet it is all hollow inside. It is not solid and strong as it should be, so that when the wind comes a littler stronger than before, the tree and their life is no more."
It waved its paw, and a sudden wind caught the tree and its roots wrenched from the ground even as the trunk splintered. The ruined remains of the tree toppled to the ground.
Sarah could not call the police; she was certain they would not believe her. She rose and walked into the living room. She could not bear to stay in here on the bed where Frank had been. She sat down on the couch and wept some more.
Frank followed the creature further. Suddenly, it whirled on him.
"What are you doing still here?" it bellowed. "You have a life to live, a life to repair, a life to offer your wife and the world. Go! Go! Or I shall devour you!" Fangs glinted as a spray of spittle showered him.
Frank ran away in panic, screaming and felt himself dissolving. . .
Sarah in her agitation could not stay sitting on the couch, either. She stood again and walked back into the bedroom. There seemed to be a glimmer in the room. She bent over the bed and saw the forming figure of Frank. He was shaking, even as she startled back in terror.
She reached forward and touched him. He screamed, and sprang to the head of the bed, cowering in terror. She started to flee the room, and he recognized her.
"Wait, don't!" he said, sobbing. "I need you! Please come here!"
She slowly walked forward. "Frank?" she asked, hesitantly.
He took several deep, long breaths, and his shaking diminished. The familiarity of the bedroom was soothing him, helping him center. "Yes, Sarah, he said, "It's me. I'm here."
She sat next to him on the bed. He pulled her to him, and talking softly, gently, almost crying again, "I need you. I need us to build our life together. I need to be with you. I want to make up for all the time we've lost, the parts of our life that we've wasted."
She lay down with him and clung to him, burying her nose in the strange scent that clung to him, mingling with his man's scent, and he burying his nose in her familiar, warm, feminine scent.
"And I need you to hold me," he said. "Please hold me."
"Oh, Frank. . ." she said. This was so unlike him. But she liked it. It was unlike him, but she knew he was Frank.
Frank. But changed, somehow. And he was hers.
And she rejoiced in her heart.
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