Celeste reached for the remnants of last night’s dream. She’d woken, gasping for breath, throat raw and sore as if she’d been screaming in her sleep. A woman at a window, bushes blowing in a soft breeze. A shadow coming at her from behind. She’d scribbled down the disjointed images in her journal before she’d even opened her eyes, but now the morning had whisked the rest away. Still, she couldn’t shake the feelings of panic and guilt. She tried again to find a thread that would lead her back in, but it was too late.

Battered old Mr. Coffee burped and spluttered the last drops of java into the carafe. Celeste poured herself an oversize mug and stumbled back to bed to see what she could figure out. Propped against a pile of pillows, she opened the black leather notebook and sipped her coffee. Nothing in the trio of lines she’d scratched out in black ink explained why the dream left her feeling both frightened and ashamed. At least nothing she could figure out on her own. She wondered what Larry would make of this dream—the last she would share with him after four years of therapy.

All that time, Celeste had tracked her dreams, learning to decipher the letters and words she’d jotted down, often with eyes still closed, on the unlined pages of her journal. She’d poured out hundreds of dreams–some just scraps or a single startling image, others pages long, like surreal short stories. But now, if she could stick to her plan, she was done. Today was the day she was going to tell him she was quitting, and there was no way he was going to talk her out of it again. She’d had enough of Larry Blatsky, his Dreamers, and this thing he called the “Dreamscape,” the thing Jake called a cult.

Celeste tossed the journal onto the heap of library books, magazines, and last Sunday’s New York Times that littered the floor next to her side of the bed. Jake’s side was as neat and uncluttered as it had been since he’d moved out six weeks earlier. She rolled over onto the smooth, cool sheets. There was no trace of Jake there, no scent on the pillow she hugged to herself. She wanted to touch his body, then run her hand through the tangle of dark curls on his chest, pat his beer belly. She wanted to feel his legs stretched long against hers and play footsie under the comforter. She’d allowed Larry to take it all away.

“Larry will destroy you,” she remembered Jake saying the night he left, as he jammed his clothes into his duffel bag. “This isn’t a game, Celeste. He’ll turn you into someone you don’t know or even recognize. That’s what he does. Believe me, I’ve seen it. I can’t stay and watch that happen to you.”

She shook her head trying to dislodge the memory. If Jake were still there, lying where he’d been the whole six whirlwind months of their engagement, she knew she could go through with her plan.

“Get down there and tell him it’s over,” he’d say, the calloused fingertips of his guitar strummer’s hands on her cheeks, pulling her face to his for a good-luck kiss. He’d say, “You’re tough. Larry’s no match against you in a fight! Go get it over with.”

Without Jake to back her up, though, Celeste wondered if she had it in her. She’d tried to stand up to Larry before, but she’d always left her therapy session feeling defeated and hopelessly mired in what he called her “Demon Mind,” the labyrinth of self-loathing and doubt Larry had unearthed and then used to control her.

Not this time, she thought, getting up to raise the shade to the wan November light. Larry wasn’t going to win while she still had a chance at happiness. She’d waited too long for the enlightenment he’d promised. Now all she wanted was love. She was going to get Jake back in her bed where he belonged.

Celeste shuffled through the pile of clothes she’d left thrown over the back of the folding chair the night before. With Jake gone, she had no reason to fold her sweaters, or hang up her skirts, or even clean the apartment. Not like she had much to control anyway. Some yard sale furniture, pots and pans from Salvation Army, a functional but minimal wardrobe from New To You—all things she could put out with the trash or recycle if she needed to make a quick getaway, like she had from the last couple of towns where she’d lived before landing in River- ton Falls. She could still fit everything that mattered into two suitcases in the back of her trusty old red Jetta and hightail it out of town.

“Not this time,” she said out loud to herself. “This time you’re going to stay. But not with Larry.” Celeste pulled on a pair of crumpled brown cords, then gave her russet sweater a quick sniff to make sure it was relatively free of sweat and booze.

You’re wearing that? Right on cue, her mother’s voice rang through her head.

Better hurry! You’re going to be late again, her father added.

Even Larry hadn’t been able to silence her parents’ critical comments, though they’d both been dead for years. She combed back her mop of wiry blonde hair into a ponytail. As usual she struggled to get up and organized for these early morn- ing appointments, even if early morning for Celeste was actually noon. Sometimes she thought about giving up tending bar and getting a serious day job, but she liked having her mornings and afternoons wide open. Besides, with Jake out of the picture, the bar at least kept her from some lonely evenings. For now.

Teeth, face, juice, another cup of coffee. She ran back into the bedroom and from her dresser she grabbed the tiny verdigris mermaid, one of the few possessions that had traveled the world with her. Her good-luck charm. A present from her mother one long-ago birthday. Celeste grabbed her journal from the heap in the bedroom and banged out through the doorway into the damp, late autumn morning, zipped up her ratty down vest, and took off at a brisk pace for Larry’s house, fifteen minutes across town.

It was the kind of morning that made her dread winter’s arrival— dark and damp, with the threat of sleet hanging in the low gray clouds. The big Victorian houses along the way looked as dreary as the day, their porches emptied of summer’s wicker furniture, tired perennial gardens cut down to spiky stems, front stoops dotted with wrinkled, worn out jack-o’-lanterns. Dry brown leaves scuttled across the sidewalks in the raw wind, and a raucous murder of crows wheeled above the bare trees on the hills overlooking the town. Once winter actually arrived, Celeste would feel better, but the anticipation of the increasingly dark weeks ahead made this transition hard to take. Everyone seemed depressed and cranky between Halloween and the first week in December when the Christmas lights went up at last and, with some luck, an early snow brightened the rolling New England landscape.

Celeste hugged her journal to her chest as she walked through town, head down, trying to figure out the dream. Maybe it was one of those “big” dreams Larry had always hoped she’d have. Like the one about the whale bones she discovered with the Indian elders. Or the one with the tall, African man in his sky-blue caftan holding her hand as they gazed out to sea from atop a grassy bluff. Maybe she’d finally broken through into the Third Level dreams Larry promised would emerge when she joined the Dreamers, Larry’s hand-picked group of advanced clients. Great. Right when she was about to jump ship and leave all that craziness behind, she may have finally crashed through the barrier that had kept her on the fringes for almost a year. No. One dream was not going to crumble her resolve.

Celeste began to practice her lines. “Larry, I’m done. Larry, I’m leaving you,” she chanted under her breath right up to the walkway leading through an overgrown lilac hedge, across the patchy brown lawn to his little brick Cape. It stood out in this town of wooden clapboard homes, always reminding her of the third little pig’s house— too sturdy to be blown over by the big, bad wolf.

She hesitated before stepping onto the flagstones, stuffing the journal into her pack. She could still skip the appointment. She didn’t need to tell Larry she was quitting. The old Celeste, the one she’d been before Larry, wouldn’t have had any trouble just walking away; but Larry had huffed and puffed until her defiance finally crumbled into compliance. Besides, she was curious about that dream. She felt for the mermaid in her pocket. Squaring her shoulders, she marched up the walk, past the weed-choked flower beds, through the front door, and into Larry Blatsky’s waiting room.