I sat up, confused, and looked around. There was a picnic basket next to me, and other people were scattered around the grass enjoying themselves. Sheep Meadow. It was my favorite spot in the entire park, within view of the lake, but far enough away from the worst of the tourist traps that it didn’t feel gimmicky. My mother and I hadn’t been able to come here in years. I started to stand, determined to figure out what was going on, when my mouth dropped open.
My mother, looking as healthy as she had ten years ago, long before the cancer set in, walked up the gentle slope, wearing a long flowing skirt and peasant blouse I hadn’t seen her in since she grew too thin to wear it.
She smiled—a real smile, not a sickly smile or the smile she put on when she was trying to hide how much pain she was in. “Hello, sweetheart.” She sat next to me and kissed my cheek.
I was still for a moment, too stunned to move, but when it finally sank in that she was here, healthy and glowing and my mother again, I threw my arms around her, hugging her tightly and inhaling her familiar scent. Apples and freesia. She was no longer frail, and she wrapped her arms around me with equal strength.
“What’s going on?” I said, struggling to keep my eyes dry.
“We’re having a picnic.” She released me and began to unpack the basket. It was full of my favorite foods from when I’d been a child—peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, sliced tangerines, macaroni and cheese packed in plastic containers, and enough chocolate pudding to serve a small army. Best of all, she pulled out a box of baklava, just the way she always made it. I watched in amazement, wondering what I’d done to deserve such an amazing dream, even though it felt too real to be one. I could sense each blade of grass underneath my hands, and the warm breeze brushed the ends of my hair against my bare arms. It was like we were actually here.
And then a thought wormed its way through my mind, and I looked at her suspiciously. “Did Henry bring you here?”
Her smile widened. “He’s lovely, isn’t he?”
I gulped a lungful of air, and all the bad thoughts I’d ever had about Henry flew out of my head. He kept his promise. More than that, he could really do it. “Is this a dream then? Or is it—is it real?”
She gave me a container of macaroni, along with a look that only my mother could pull off. “Is there some rule I don’t know about that means it can’t be both?”
A sense of irrational hope filled me. “Is he really what he says he is?”
“And what would that be?” she said, unwrapping a sandwich.
I blurted out everything that had happened since we arrived in Eden. Seeing Henry after nearly crashing into an imaginary cow—the night by the river and how he’d seemingly resurrected Ava—the deal I’d made, and the way James had tried to stop me from taking it—the visit from Henry, and Ava dying the next day—my decision to go to Eden Manor to try to save her, and finally the deal I’d made with Henry that had gotten me this. Suddenly staying with him for six months didn’t seem nearly as bad, not if I got to see my mother every night.
“Curious,” she said, though her eyes were sparkling with amusement. I didn’t see anything funny about the situation. “I wish you’d told me all of this earlier, Kate.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, my cheeks flushing as I stared down at my hands. “I thought I was going crazy or something.”
“Hardly.” She reached out and cupped my chin, guiding it upward until I was looking at her. “Promise me you’ll tell me everything that happens from now on, will you? I don’t want to miss anything.”
I nodded. More time with her—it was all I could possibly ask for. “Mom?” I said in a small voice. “I love you.”
She smiled. “I know, sweetheart.”
When I woke up early the next morning, at first I didn’t know where I was. The heat of the sun from my dream still lingered on my skin, and I opened my eyes, half expecting to see my mother standing over me, but it was only the canopy of my bed.
Groaning, I sat up and blinked the sleep out of my eyes. Something wasn’t right, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then, after a long moment, the day before came flooding back to me, along with the deal I’d made with Henry, and my heart skipped a beat. So it hadn’t been just a dream after all.
“D’you think she’s awake now? She ought to be, yeah?”
“If she wasn’t, she certainly is now.”
I froze. The whispers were coming from the other side of the curtains hanging from my bed, and they weren’t voices I recognized. The first was bright and bubbly; the second made it sound like whoever it belonged to wanted to be anywhere but here. I couldn’t blame her.
“What d’you think she’s like? Better than the last one, yeah?”
“Anyone’s better than the last one. Now shut up before you really do wake her up.”
I sat there for a long moment, trying to absorb what I was hearing. I’d locked the door the night before, I was sure of it, so how had they gotten in there? And what did they mean by “the last one”?
Before I could speak, my stomach growled. Loudly. The sort of epic loud that makes everyone in class turn around and giggle while you duck in your seat and try not to turn red. Whatever chance I had at eavesdropping was gone, thanks to my traitorous belly.
“She’s awake!” The curtains snapped open, and I shielded my eyes from the morning light. “Oh! She’s pretty!”