It was on a cold, cloudless, blue night that Peter went to sleep.
His mother had made sure that he was tucked in snugly and that the window was closed to keep any draft out while Peter had worked his sheets into a comfortable mess.
"Goodnight, young man," called his mother from the doorway to which he had replied, "Good night, mother," and the door was shut, closing Peter and his tiny room in darkness. It was in this darkness and on this night that Peter fell asleep to enter a world that he would only dream about.
He awoke to the sweet smell of flowers and rich soil.
Keeping his eyes firmly shut, Peter inhaled deeply to further taste the world around him, feel the soft leaves and petals brush his face and skin, feel the velvety soil crumble and form to his body beneath him. He had never felt so at peace and warm.
Slowly, ever so slowly, Peter opened his eyes to find himself in Wonderland.
He sat up to see the sunshine floating down upon him, landing on his exposed skin and warming his pyjamas. His hair felt like it was cooking slightly. Rubbing his eyes, he glanced around, aghast, at the world around him.
He lay in a flowerbed, complete with blooming lilies, roses, tulips, and daffodils, all of whose scents filled the air and mingled to form an amazing bouquet of aromas which felt like a drug, intoxicating young Peter to the point of dizziness.
This was no ordinary flowerbed one might find in any garden or in a park; no, this was a mammoth, monster flowerbed – more of a flower land - that stretched as far as the eye could see, along hills and valleys and streams, below giant, puffy clouds and above a uniform, deep brown soil, where the constant moving of worms and ants and insects of all species made for a low hum throughout the garden.
Peter sat motionless for a minute, soaking up his new surroundings in confusion. How had he arrived at this new world? Had he been kidnapped while he had slept? Abducted by aliens? Or, judging from the flowers, rogue hippies? Perhaps even an aging gardener who required an heir to care for this vast landscape?
Slowly, so as to not disturb any flowers, Peter stood up and looked around again. The view was exactly as it had been when he had been seated – flowers stretching off into eternity. There were no houses or streets to disturb the natural views, indeed there were no humans either. No sign of life other than the constant thrumming of insects at work. Slowly, a bee ambled its way past his line of sight, perhaps on its way to collect pollen for the hive, or, perhaps, returning to the colony with a full load of pollen ready for turning into honey, or whatever it is that bees use pollen for. With this thought in mind, Peter carefully followed the bee through the flowerbed, eager to get a mouthful of honey.
For what seemed like hours, the boy followed his unknowing guide from flower to flower as it picked up pollen, gathering it onto its tiny legs before moving on to the next one. Before long, Peter grew tired of this game, having lost his urge for honey and again looked around him. The view was still nothing but flowers and the occasional stream. For all Peter knew, he might have been walking in a circle for what felt like the past few hours.
It was then that Peter heard something that he had not heard before in this strange land: laughter.
Crouching in surprise, Peter followed the melodic laughing through the flowers, crouched so low that some petals tickled his chin. Coming over a slight rise in the ground, Peter saw before him a narrow, clear stream with more flowers along its muddy banks. Wading in this stream was a young girl, her nightgown hitched up to her knees, busy kicking pebbles from the bottom of the steam. Beside her, on the banks, lounged a large racoon. What surprised Peter most about this scene was not the sight of another human, or that it was a girl, or even that she was accompanied by a racoon the size of which he had never before seen. No, what surprised him most about what he saw was the fact that the raccoon was seated on a yellow and pink striped lawn chair with its legs crossed and a sunhat on its head.
As he watched, the girl kicked at the rushing water and sent droplets splattering all around her, some hitting the reclining raccoon who awoke with a start and hissed at the girl who only laughed her sing-song laugh before continuing her watery war against the pebbles of the deep.
Seeing no danger from these two strangers, Peter slowly stood up and, before he could hold up his hand in greeting, was sighted by the girl and her animal who started in surprise. The racoon jumped up out of his chair and faced Peter with his paws held ready and teeth bared while the girl gave a scream and hopped out of the stream to hide behind the raccoon.
"What are you doing there, coward, spying on us like that?" snarled the raccoon in a gruff and menacing voice.
Peter was so stunned by the fact that this animal spoke to him that he immediately forgot his indignation at being labelled a coward and a voyeur. His mouth hung open and he dropped his arm to his side. He stood dumbly for a moment.
"Well? What have you to say for yourself?" demanded the girl in what sounded like an English accent.
Peter brought himself out of his muteness to respond. "I'm sorry. I was not spying on you. Really I wasn't. I had heard your laughter from a distance and, since I had not heard any other people in this strange land, was curious. I had just stood up to greet you when you noticed me."
Peter must have looked as honest as he felt, because the raccoon and the girl relaxed and ushered the boy closer. As he neared the couple, he could see them inspecting him and his every move, their moods culminating in surprise as he came to a halt a few feet away from the banks of the stream.
"Who are you?" asked the girl, who was definitely English.
"My name is Peter."
The raccoon shook its head. "No no! She doesn't mean your name. She means are you real or a dream?"
"I'm real, of course."
"There's no 'of course' about it here," said the girl testily.
Peter looked around him at the miles of flowers. "Where exactly is here?"
The girl and the animal exchanged looks. "This is the dream world," said the raccoon.
"How did I get here?" asked Peter.
"You must have fallen asleep. You're dreaming right now."
"Thus dream land," quipped the raccoon.
"But if I'm dreaming, then how are you in my dream?
"We're not in your dream," said the girl. "We're in everyone's dream."
"Why haven't I been here before?"
Together the strangers shrugged. "People usually just show up," said the girl.
The three suddenly stopped speaking, as a conversation is sometime wont to do, and stood around looking at everything but each other, thinking of something else to say.
"I'm Peter, by the way."
"Oh! I'm terribly sorry," cried the girl. "We haven't introduced ourselves. How rude of us. I am Rose." She curtsied and Peter felt compelled to bow in return.
"I am Lot," said the raccoon, offering his paw.
"Now that we all know each other," said the girl, Rose, "let's follow the stream to see where it takes us! This was what Lot and I had begun when you found us."
"We were taking a break, you see," explained Lot.
"Will you join us, Peter?"
"Of course I will!"
Raccoon picked up his lawn chair, adjusted his sunhat and turned to the humans. "Ready?" Both Rose and Peter nodded and together the three of them set off into the sunshine and swaying flowers.
"So where are you from, boy?" asked Lot of Peter after the trio had walked for what felt like miles.
"Me? I am from Philadelphia."
"Oh! The new world! How exciting!" exclaimed Rose, clapping her hands together. "I've never seen America! What is it like? Are the buildings really as high as they say they are?"
Peter could only blush at how attentively Rose was suddenly staring at him. "Well, yes. There are many buildings in the cities, especially New York, where they seem to touch the sky; you can bend your head backwards following them up and up and up, until you are looking straight at the sky and still not see the tops of them."
"Amazing…" gasped Rose in awe. "There is nothing like that in England."
"Really? Why not?"
"I do not know. The tallest building I've seen must be Big Ben. Or maybe the Eiffel Tower."
"Does Europe not have tall buildings?" asked Peter, dumbstruck. "Not any?"
Rose sadly shook her head. "No. For some reason we do not like not being able to see the sky…"
"And what about you?" asked Peter of the raccoon. "Where are you from? I can't say I've ever met a talking animal before!"
Lot gave the boy a level stare. "I am not an animal. Animals cannot talk or think or walk on their hind legs." Seemingly accepting Peter's mumbled apology, Lot continued. "I am a creature of the dream world. This is the only world I know, so I don't know anything about Philadelphia or London or anything like that."
"You're a dream?"
"Yes. Perhaps someone, somewhere dreamt me up and I came into existence. If they did, I don't know who they are or where they are."
Rose put her arms around Lot and buried her face in his fuzzy head. "I think he's always existed! He's as real as you and me!"
Lot opened his mouth the answer when he suddenly stopped in his tracks and pointed ahead of the trio. There, on the next rise, stood a massive, truly gigantic tree. Its branches were all laden with lush green leaves and its bark was a deep brown, almost black colour. The shadow it threw spread like a disease along the flowers around it, marking a stark contrast between the sunny, happy world of the flowers and the dim, sad world of the tree. From the base of this tree sprang the rushing currents of the stream that the three were following, tumbling around the wormy, writhing roots that protruded from the soil to splash down the hill and create a small pool from which the stream emerged.
Slowly, the three walked up to the shadow of the tree, pausing just outside of its reach and looking in, craning their heads up, and up, and up.
"Wow," muttered Lot.
"That's a big tree," exclaimed Rose.
"It's a great climbing tree!" cried Peter as he raced off into the gloom toward the base of the tree. Hesitating just a moment, Lot and Rose followed him, laughing happily. Reaching the trunk first, Peter hoisted himself up onto the lowest limb and then again onto the next, slowly climbing higher and higher. Halfway up he paused to look down and he saw Rose and Lot climbing after him. Waving to them he said, "This tree is brilliant! I can see for miles and I'm not even at the top yet!"
He busied himself with swinging on several branched while the others caught up with him, out of breath.
"This is awfully high," said Lot, glancing downward to the dim flowered ground.
"I wonder if we can get to the top?" asked Peter, glancing upwards, shielding his eyes against the glare of the sun that filtered through the canopy of leaves.
"Let's find out! Race to the top!" cries Rose, scurrying to the upper branches, with Peter suddenly in pursuit. Lot heaved a sigh and waved them on.
"I'll just wait here."
The two children rushed hand over hand up the massive tree, flying over branches and leaves, headed toward the glistening sunlight that hovered tantalizingly close.
Without warning, the leaves stopped and the branches ended, revealing to the climbers a leafy floor supporting an unending azure sky. The sunlight played off of the greenery, shimmering with the breeze, reflecting this way and that. The only sounds to the climbers were the wind and the rustling of leaves. The world was warm and bright.
Shielding her eyes from the glare, Rose gasped. "It's so quiet. Peaceful."
Peter could only agree, silently nodding his head and closing his eyes to allow the silence and calmness to wash over him. In this peacefulness, Peter's mind was opened to the curiosities of this new world: how did he get here? Why had he not been here before? it all felt so real – was it all truly a dream? Was everything here a dream, including Rose and Lot, or were they real and only the world false?
The children were interrupted from their peace by a rustling in the leaves to one side of the mammoth tree. Eyes open in an instant, Peter was eager to see what surprise this world now held for him.
"What is it?" he whispered. "Another talking animal?"
Rose shook her head. "I don't know. It could be anything." Peter only faintly recognized a look of fear in her eyes.
Slowly and carefully, Peter worked his way along the branches of the tree to edge closer to the disturbance. As soon as he set his foot down less than a yard from the rustling, the movement stopped. Holding his breath in anticipation, the boy ever so slowly reached out and pulled apart the canopy before him, revealing the darkness beneath.
In a flash of movement and an ear-piercing howl, and dark shape sprang from the depths and rushed into the bright air, surprising and hitting Peter, so much so that the boy was forced backward, losing his precious footing. In an instant he was falling, falling down, pushed around left and right by the many branches between him and the quickly approaching ground. Dimly he heard Rose call out to Lot, and a dim furry shape try in vain to grab at the boy's wrist. He fell and fell the sound of rushing air filling his ears before being replaced by another rushing sound.
With a frightening splash and a heart-stopping sudden stop, Peter hit the pool of water beneath the roots of the verdant goliath, his breath lost from his throat and his sight robbed from his eyes; he was sinking deeper into a primordial abyss with no hope of ever reaching the surface. Dimly, almost sadly, Peter curled himself into a ball and sank deeper and deeper into the wicked darkness that now threatened to snatch his young life.
Gasping and flailing about him, Peter awoke.
His eyes open and seeing, Peter could see his own room in his parent's small flat in the city. His curtains and his bed. Dim sunlight peeked in through the window to reassure him that all had been a dream and that the real world was still there to welcome the boy in its harsh embrace.
Sitting up, he noticed that his pyjamas were soaked through, as were his sheets and his hair. Thoroughly drenched. Had it all been a dream? It had all seemed so real and he could remember every event so clearly, unlike so many of his normal dreams. No, he decided, it must have been real.
Casting his gaze about him one more time to reaffirm himself of his bed and room, Peter promised himself that one day he would return to that world with the English girl and talking animals.
((((Author's Note: I'm thinking of continuing this. Let me know! BTW I am aware that this is similar to the Little Nemo comics.))))