Lee sat bolt-upright in his bed, a strangled cry still on his lips. Breathing as though he had run a marathon, Lee darted his eyes around the room as if expecting someone to emerge from behind his easy chair. It took a minute for his heart to stop pounding quite so hard at the sight of the familiar furniture coming into focus. He brought a trembling hand to his face and wiped the sweat away.
"Just a dream," he mumbled, relaxing back onto his pillow.
Though he knew he was safe, knew he was secure within the four walls of his bedroom, the nightmare lingered in his head like a toxic cloud. Every time he closed his eyes, he could see the images clearly, the horrifying details carved behind his eyelids. He smelled rotting flesh, saw grotesque faces staring at him, heard a high-pitched scream - a little girl's. The sound of her heart-wrenching cry and a loud bang following still echoed in his ears. It wasn't real, he firmly told himself. But the fear refused to loosen, and it was suffocating him. Lee threw the tangled sheets off of himself and left the room.
He flicked on lights as he descended the stairs. There was something less threatening with his path illuminated, even though he knew that nothing was about to jump out of the shadows. Lee reached the kitchen, shivering slightly as his bare feet settled on the cold tiles, and he filled a glass with water. He downed it in two gulps and filled it up again.
Lee had gotten nightmares before, of course. When he was about ten, night terrors were quite regular for him. He never remembered what the dreams contained. All he knew was that he would wake up screaming, blankets strangling him, until the heavy footsteps of his father approached his bedroom. "Nightmares again?" he would ask, deep voice reassuring. "They're not real, Lee. They can't hurt you."
The phase for nightmares had passed as adult life settled in, or so Lee had thought. Whatever had happened to cause this (perhaps he had eaten something?), the images remained, and the memory of the girl's scream hovered there, quietly strumming his heartstrings. Lee shuddered. His father wasn't around to tell him that everything was all right anymore.
Standing there in the bright kitchen should have put his mind to rest. This was reality, where rotting people didn't ceaselessly wander in and out of his line of vision. Lee was here now, safe in the warmth of his kitchen. But the strange dream nagged at him, and he was hit with an inexplicable wave of loneliness.
He was jolted out of his thoughts as he turned his attention to the entrance of the kitchen, where a small form was hunched over. The presence startled him at first, but his initial panic quickly melted away into concern. "Clementine?" Lee took a step towards the girl. The sight of her frightened face caused his heart to falter. "What are you doing out of bed, sweetie?"
Clementine stood with her arms held protectively around her small frame. Her hair looked as though she had just survived an electrical shock, and the image would have been comical if Lee wasn't so worried about her tear-streaked face. Her amber orbs shimmered in their pools as he knelt down to her level, and when he reached out to brush a tear away, Clementine broke. She practically fell into his arms, letting out shoulder-shaking sobs as he pulled her close. Holding her was like holding a leaf fluttering against the wind. She was so fragile there, quivering and sniffling against his chest. Lee kept up a steady stream of soothing words as he rubbed her back in little circles. "Shh…it's okay, baby girl. You're all right…"
After a few minutes, the girl's breathing finally evened. She took a few shuddering breaths before Lee gently pulled away enough to see her face. "I…I..." she began, inhaling deeply to control the cracking in her voice. "I w-was being chased by m-monsters. I k-kept calling for you b-but you…you didn't…" Clementine gasped and put her face in her hands. "When I w-woke up I went to your room but you…you weren't th-there!" Another sob wracked her whole body, sending more tears falling. "I th-thought they got you. I thought y-you were g-gone!" The last word escaped as a desperate wail, and Lee felt his heart break.
"Oh, no, no…Honey, I'm right here." Lee hugged her again, moving to sit on the cold floor as he pulled her into the security of his embrace. "Shh…it was just a dream."
"B-but it felt so real!"
Lee squeezed her firmly. "This is real. I'm real. I ain't going anywhere."
When Clementine looked up, her gaze practically swallowed him whole. It drank him in, searching his words for truth. She sniffed once and finally nestled her head in the crook of his thick neck. Lee gently rocked his little girl and stroked her dark hair. She fit so perfectly there, as if he was always simply meant to hold her. Clementine's sobs diminished into soft whimpers until she finally let out a shuddering sigh. They sat for what might have been minutes but could very well have been hours. The floor wasn't quite so cold with Clementine's body so close. Lee affectionately kissed the top of her head.
"You know," he began. "I had a bad dream, too."
Clementine looked up, brows furrowed with quiet curiosity.
"I thought I had lost you." The words had escaped before he had time to think about them, but he realized that it made sense. Though he hadn't seen his girl in the dream, there was only one voice he recognized, and her scream had rocked him to his core.
Clementine blinked, pulling back so she could study his face. "Grownups don't have bad dreams."
"We sure do. I was scared, Clem. I didn't want to lose you."
Clementine seemed to think for a moment, biting her lip the way she did when she was stumped, and said, "But I'm here, Lee. I ain't going anywhere."
A laugh burst from his mouth and he crushed her in a hug. "I know, sweet pea. I know."
After they sat comfortably for a few more minutes, Clementine let out a huge yawn, eyes drooping tiredly. It was time for bed. Moving so as not to disturb her too much, Lee scooped her up in his arms and she instinctively wrapped her arms securely around his neck. She barely weighed more than a sack of flour. When he reached the doorway of her bedroom, Clementine stirred anxiously. "L-Lee?" she asked timidly. "Can I sleep with you tonight?"
He answered with a loving smile and promptly changed directions. His bedroom seemed much less menacing now. In fact, the light of the moon streaming through the window glowed in a comforting sort of way. He set Clementine down on his bed, tucking the blankets securely around her frame. As soon as he climbed in on the other side, she moved nearer, snuggling close, breathing easily. Dark lashes fanned out against her cheeks, and the white moonlight caressed her skin. Her freckles were stars.
Lee's eyelids drooped heavily, and the sound of his girl's steady breathing made it very hard to stay awake much longer. He soon closed his eyes, and the two finally drifted into dreamless sleeps.