Clouds Of His Own
by Käthe

The dreams always come to him in the dead of summer, when the air is thick with humidity, bordering on stagnant and putrid. Tommy wakes from them, sitting bolt upright, skin clammy with sweat and fear.

On these nights Tommy lays back in his bunk, consciously trying to slow his breathing. He lets his eyes unfocus as he stares at the ceiling of his Spartan room, and then he lets his mind wander.

The dreams are not of the many horrors to which he has borne witness, but of the happier times in his life. Perfect Tommy is haunted by his former purity. It's a perfectly contrary concept, he thinks, but then again, he's Perfect Tommy.

First he remembers the river back home: the lazy summer days spent on its green banks when he was a child, crickets chirping or frogs croaking in the evening. Tommy remembers the sweet smell of honeysuckle -- Anne always seemed to have a sprig tucked behind her ear while they were growing up. It was often in sharp contrast to her dirty jeans and the handful of mud she was about to hurl at his head.

His mother used to smile and say that he and Anne were the 'Becky & Tom' of Taylor County. Tommy didn't understand the allusion at the time, but he understood it now. It makes him smile.

In high school he used to park by that river, trying to make time with the girls from his school. It wasn't a challenge for Tommy, even as a somewhat gawky teenager. Thomas Collins McNeil was born with an over-abundance of charm, and by the age of five he was well aware that he could get anything he wanted just by smiling just so. His grace and charm carried him far during those years; lazy summer afternoons were quite different now from the ones of his childhood.

Tommy said goodbye to that river, that town, just before he left for college. He was going off to MIT, leaving his southern comfort behind for the harsh realities of New England. He wanted to leave with the image of the river in his eye, the sound of its lazy current in his ears.

It was late in the day when Anne arrived. She sat down next to him, laid her head on his shoulder, and took his hand in hers. They had drifted apart over the last several years, but as they sat there looking at the water, Tommy felt time and distance slip away.

Later he would brush it off as the fanciful na´vetÚ of his youth, but at that moment Tommy wanted nothing more than for time to stop -- he knew he was meant for Anne. It all seems silly now, and in the dark Tommy can almost convince himself it was all hormones and sentimentality. Almost but not quite all the way, because while he had had sex with all those other girls on that same river bank, that afternoon he made love to Anne.

They held hands when they walked home, neither saying a word, not needing to. The next day he left on the train. Anne was at the station with his parents, siblings, and half the town. He watched as she smiled serenely, closed her eyes slowly and turned to leave. The train was pulling out of the station then and Tommy watched Anne go, waving enthusiastically to the crowd to keep up appearances. But Anne never looked back.

He knew then, and knows even better know, that Anne had a future of her own to which she was looking forward. Her hopes and dreams were not wrapped up in his life -- she had set him free of obligation that day, though she had never bound him by it in the first place.

Anne had set him free, in more ways than one. Whatever successes or failures that were to follow in his life had their start that day. Anne had set Thomas Collins McNeil free from the small world they'd both known, set him free to explore the dangers that lurked at the edge of the map.

He gives thanks to Anne then, whispering her name to the ceiling as if it was the woman herself waiting to give Tommy absolution. He smiles when none comes and rolls over on his bed. He closes his eyes and falls asleep to the sounds of the crickets and frogs outside his room as a soft breeze flows in through the open window.

It will be morning soon and there are still infinite edges of the map to explore; dragons be damned.


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