He finds her the same way every time. It’s mid-morning in Athens and he takes a break from his family’s bakery, Kafé Biskóta. He closes his eyes, and he’s in the Pedion Areos public park. He thinks about Lee Anne as he walks along the path lined with maple and oak trees that are tall and full and form a leafy canopy over the faded asphalt walkway. It is sunny and the overhanging branches filter the bright light to create iridescent shapes that shift and change as the breeze ruffles the generous foliage on the boughs. Stephan knows the path will bend to the left up ahead, and when he reaches that point, he’ll see her walking toward him. Although it’s hard for him to make out her facial features from that distance, he knows it’s Lee Anne by her thick brown hair and petite build, which creates a stride that is uniquely hers. And he knows that when she sees him, her gait will quicken, and she’ll wave. And even though he won’t be able to see it because she’s so far away, he’ll know that her mouth has formed that smile she dons when he approaches her—the full smile, not timid or tentative but big and toothy, that makes her whole face crinkle up.
Today, after a brief but substantial hug, he suggests they ride bikes. “We can rent them by the hour.”
Lee Anne nods in agreement. “That sounds fun,” she replies.
They walk along and come to a small, brightly painted metal hut with dozens of shiny bicycles around it. Stephan talks to the counterman. They both emerge and the man steers him toward two bikes parked near the end of the cluster.
“This one is for you, Leanna,” Stephan says as he points to a pearlescent pink bicycle with a white basket mounted to the handlebars. He grabs the silver bike next to it for himself and rolls it to the pathway. She maneuvers her bike until she is standing next to him. “Let’s head this way.” He points to a wooded path and starts pedaling.
Since Stephan is about six inches taller than Lee Anne, he sets a moderate pace so it’s easy for her to keep up with him. He looks over at her and smiles. She loves riding a bike. He knows this and planned the outing just for her. She tilts her face upward toward the sun overhead and breathes in the air.
Somehow, Stephan can probe her thoughts and determine precisely what she wants and needs. He assumes it’s a dream thing since he can’t read anyone’s mind when he’s awake.
He asks her about her roommate. “How are things with Sasha? Has she warmed up at all?”
“It’s about the same,” Lee Anne responds, averting her eyes from the pathway to glance at him. “I’m planning to tell her about my dreams, about you.”
“You are?” he asks. His eyebrows arch in surprise. “I didn’t think you would ever talk to her about me.”
“Why not?” Lee Anne shrugs her shoulders and grins at him. “Are you supposed to be a secret? Besides, I don’t think it matters. I doubt she hears a word I say.”
He had sensed Lee Anne’s distress before today. “Disappointed?”
“Maybe.” Her grin fades. “That girl is not interested in anything I have to say. Our encounters include little more than a perfunctory greeting and one-word comments she occasionally throws at me. It’s like I don’t have a roommate at all, just some stranger who breezes in and out to eat and sleep.”
“It’s only been a few weeks since school started, Leanna. Maybe she needs time to adjust.”
“You’re probably right.” She breathes out a low sigh.
Stephan and Lee Anne pedal along the path, each lost in their thoughts. Stephan knows an ice cream stand is up ahead on the path. He slows his pace until the bike comes to a stop in front of the cart. Lee Anne stops, too. He faces her and grins.
“Gelato? It’s the best in the city.”
She nods and points to the container of strawberry nestled in the ice. He orders two double-scoop waffle cones. As they nibble on the frozen sweets, Stephan takes a breath. His mood turns somber.
“Leanna, I sensed you were feeling lost and alone. That’s why I came.”
She reaches out and touches his arm. “You always say just the right thing.” Her hand warms his bicep, and he strokes her fingers with his.
“We’re connected,” he says. “We have been ever since we were children.” He watches her face as he speaks.
Lee Anne reaches across her bike and wraps both her arms around his neck, pulling him into an embrace. He feels the ice cream brush against the back of his head. “Stephan, you are my best friend. I don’t know what I would do without you,” she whispers. “But the relationship we have… I don’t understand it. You feel so real that sometimes I think I’m crazy. I can’t help but question my sanity.”
“I know you’ve had questions for a while,” he replies. “The time is coming soon, you know.”
“Time for what?” she responds uneasily.
He stares at the trees ahead of him, carefully wording his next comment. “You and I will face a major turning point in our relationship.”
“What do you mean?” she asks.
“When I know you’re ready, it will happen.” He wants to—needs to—convince her he is a living, breathing man, not an imaginary character in a dream. Finding the right words is difficult, but he must succeed before he makes the trip to the United States to save her.
Suddenly, the loud buzz of her alarm reverberates in his head. He opens his eyes. He is sitting at a table in the back of the bakery. The dream is over, and Lee Anne is gone.
“Every few weeks, for the past year now, I have the same dream, and I had it again last night,” Lee Anne comments to her roommate Sasha as she stirs her coffee. “Well, not the exact same dream, but almost. It’s always about the same thing, though. A man.”
“Mmm,” Sasha replies, half-listening while she butters her toast. “What man?”
“Is he someone you know?” Sasha asks, looking up.
“Yes… and no. I’ve been dreaming about him for years. On and off, ever since I was a kid. The thing is, he was a kid then, too,” Lee Anne explains. “We’ve grown up together in my dreams.”
“Have you ever met him?”
“Not in real life. I only see him in my dreams. But they’re getting more frequent.”
“Weird,” Sasha mutters and heads out the door of the apartment.
Although they have a deep connection, Lee Anne realizes she doesn’t know much about Stephan, not even where he lives. This is unusual since her mind fabricated his existence. Based on the park where they meet, she doesn’t believe he’s from Baltimore, Maryland, or the United States. When he speaks, Lee Anne detects a slight accent that she can’t attribute to any particular area. She assumes he is either Greek or Italian. Maybe it’s his thick, dark brown hair. It has a wave that makes him look disheveled, like he just rolled out of bed. He often wears a blue pullover crewneck sweater, sometimes with a white t-shirt underneath, sometimes without.
As she sips her coffee, Lee Anne listens to the icy winter rain tapping against her kitchen window and ponders the previous night’s dream. She and Stephan were in a familiar park, but not one that she has ever visited while she was awake. In contrast to the biting cold in Baltimore, the air was warm. Flowers were in bloom. She smelled their sweet scent drifting through the air. Children’s laughter floated on the breeze, which also carried the sounds of birds chirping, dogs barking, and couples chatting as they strolled. In her dream, the men wore untucked shirts with open collars, not the Baltimore Ravens or University of Maryland Terrapins sweatshirts she normally sees in Patterson Park. And the women, slender with olive-toned skin, were dressed in breezy pastel skirts that fell just below their knees. No jeans or sweatpants.
Ten minutes into their walk, Stephan pointed out a bright metal hut that stood near the sidewalk. Rental bicycles crowded it. He suggested they ride and Lee Anne was quick to agree. They pedaled along a wooded bike path and talked about school and work.
Conversation with Stephan is easy for Lee Anne. Although she only sees him in her dreams, every experience with him feels real, genuine. Like high-definition digital versus analog. She considers him to be her closest friend. And that worries her.
Stephan spied an ice cream cart at a turn in the bike path, and they stopped for waffle cones filled with handcrafted gelato. While devouring the frozen confections, their exchange took on a mysterious undertone that alarmed her.
“The time is coming soon, you know.” Stephan watched her face as he told her.
“Time for what?” Her heartbeat increased and her breath stalled in her chest.
He licked his waffle cone and stared at the trees ahead of him. “You and I will face a major turning point in our relationship.”
Lee Anne’s head swam as she processed his words. They gripped her stomach and stole the flavor of the ice cream from her tongue, leaving it thick and dry.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“When I know you’re ready, it will happen.”
As she opened her mouth to reply, a loud buzzing sound assaulted her ears. Her eyes flew open and she saw the ceiling above her bed.
The dream put her on edge. Until now, Stephan had never said anything she construed as a warning. They typically discussed mundane topics. Then she remembered the last time she saw him. He talked about driving and his comments were tinged a sense of urgency.
“Do you drive?” he had asked as they walked along the same tree-lined path in the park. His eyes probed hers, and the smile faded from his face. The question intrigued her, and she admitted she drove a fifteen-year-old powder blue Mustang.
“You see Mustangs everywhere, but not as old as mine,” she replied, laughing. “It runs well. I can make it to Ocean City from my apartment.”
“Where is this city?” he asked.
“It’s on the east coast of Maryland, about 120 miles from Baltimore. It takes about two hours to get there, depending on traffic.”
“Is that the farthest you’ve driven?” His brows pulled together, but Lee Anne thought nothing of it. Sometimes he frowned when a thought took over his mind. “I was hoping your driving trips were longer.”
“Farther than Ocean City? But that’s at the end of the continent. How much further could I go?” she responded playfully.
“You never know when you must travel a great distance, Leanna.”
Lee Anne tried in vain to remember the rest of that dream. At the time, Stephan’s comment seemed innocuous. But now, as she ponders them, his words seem more menacing. Like a warning.
Find out how Lee Anne first met Stephan in “The Boy in the Woods,” a short story on CoffeeHouseWriters.com.