This is the oldest of the stories in this collection. The premise comes from my old back yard in Boardman Ohio, where we had a huge (at least to my 9 year old eyes it was huge) forest in the back yard and in front of that forest was a large stone fire pit, which almost looked like it was part of some archaic house. So the image of this and my fascination with dreams created the story. The twist at the end is a little juvenile, but hey, I wrote this thing over 12 years ago so I’m still fairly proud of it.
“Don’t worry about it son,” Justin’s father said, “Some people like to believe these dreams are a premonition of events in a persons life. This, however seems to be just a single ordinary, garden-variety nightmare. People have this type of dream all the time. All it means is you’ve been sitting in front of the T.V for too long or you spent too much time playing on the computer. It’ll eventually go away, all you have to do is try and ignore it. Try and wake yourself up while when you have ‘em and they should fade out.”
“But every time I have one of these I die. It’s really starting to freak me out dad! Especially ‘cause it keeps coming back.”
“Think very hard now son. At the end of the dream do you really die? You may think you do but if the dream cuts short, right before anything happens to you, you should be okay.”
“Well, I guess I never really die in it, it’s just that it is really startin’ to scare me. I’ve had this stupid dream for five days in a row and I don’t want to deal with it anymore.”
“It’ll go away, don’t worry about that. If it doesn’t we can always take you to the clinic and they’ll process the dreams and tell us what the underlying message is. One thing that you’ve got to be careful for though. If you keep getting this dream, right at the point where you’re captured and you fear death, do whatever you can, but don’t die.”
“Why? What’s the big deal?”
“If you are in a situation where you die in your dream, that means that in real life you’ll die.” His father finishes showing a small, almost imperceptible smirk.
Here it was again, the terrible dream that’d been haunting his every turn the past few nights. It started out innocently enough. He was hiking in the trail behind his house, no big deal, but though it was just a flat short trail he felt tired careening through the twists and turns. Everywhere he turned he saw birds lying dead on the ground giving him an omen for the events yet to occur. He could see his house in the distance and he could tell something was wrong. The house had been tainted somehow, there was some angle that was different, or maybe it was some brick laid wrong. There was just something about the house that was wrong, but still he moved toward it getting to edge of the woods, passing the brick fireplace and entering his back yard.
With each step fatigue grew in his muscles even though it was clearly a dream. His vision got blurry around his periphery, making it seem like one of those cheesy flashbacks he had seen so often in the movies.
Despite the knowledge that it was a dream the fireplace still scared him. Even now when he was almost seventeen the fireplace haunted his thoughts. He knew there was nothing there. Nothing that could hurt him. That it was just something the previous owner thought would improve on the house’s looks, but he still couldn’t shake the feeling. On top of that the dream seemed to deepen his neuroses of the brick structure. He looked at it and couldn’t help but think that it was some remnant of an ancient house which burned to the ground. Something from the civil war era, with the ghosts of the soldiers haunting it, bound by some unbelievable desire to right past wrongs.
He had always given it a wide berth when passing it, but in the dream, he wanted to go to it. He wanted to see what was in it, what it was made of, what was burnt in it. It was an antique, not meant for human contact.
But what if there were something from the other owners in the ashes of the fire? What if there were clues of the inhabitants still hanging around this place. He could be the one to find out. He could be the big hero. The headlines would show his picture with something like “Local boy finds out the mystery of the lost soldier.”
He walked up to it, feeling the absolute strangeness in the atmosphere; there was something wrong about the fireplace. It was the same feeling that he got from the house, something was wrong with it. But still he moved slowly along the small brick wall towards the deadly quiet fireplace.
There was some kind of vibe coming from it, as if it were a natural fan gently blowing air away from it, warning him to turn back before it was too late. He had come too far though. Curiosity killed the cat they say; apparently it could kill seventeen-year-olds too. He reached the hearth and put his hand into the ashes. He could see them sift around his fingers but couldn’t feel them. As though they were made of air.
Then, he realized what was wrong with the fireplace and house. They weren’t real. They had a presence of transparency, even though he couldn’t see through them.
Then the fog around his peripheral vision tightened and the whole world seemed to shift. They were transparent, he could see through them. He could make out the features of his surroundings, but there was something dramatically different. They had an aura of blackness surrounding them that seemed to be quickly spreading, dissolving the world. He felt his heart drop as he remembered what happened next.
The ground and his surroundings disappeared leaving him to freefall through the darkness. All he could see was the blackness of space. Just falling through the void. He experienced this same kind of feeling many times. Whether he was in school during one of his boring lectures, or just when he was lying on his bed watching the T.V buzzing in and out of reality. But it was a familiar feeling and every time it happened he jerked himself awake. He had even done this in English class, when their sexist teacher was lecturing about how Mary Shelley had not actually written Frankenstein, but her husband, Percy Shelley had. He had never totally understood the sexism, but it wasn’t a subject he cared about so he just shut down to get another half hour sleep. He started to dream fall again and jerked himself right out of the desk.
This dream, however, was completely different. He could make himself jerk around but he would never wake. He even knew he was dreaming, but when he tried to wake himself he would just keep falling.
He would just fall, and fall, and fall. After some time the blackness around him would begin to clear and he could see he was in trouble. He was falling into his back yard, only about thirty yards from the fireplace. He could see the house, as normal as ever, and he could see the old brick fireplace was normal as well, but he still felt apprehension. There was something menacing about its visage. He kept falling, and as he looked down he could see that he was going to land in the pool.
Every time he flew down at what seemed faster than terminal velocity into the pool sending him down into depths deeper than the pool was capable of creating. He was sinking into the earth not just elevated pool.
When he finally stopped he tried to break for the surface, but everything was black. He was back in the void, suffocating as it gently held him. This world was struggling to be created, not struggling to stay alive.
He swam and swam; not sure if he was going in the right direction, but every time he made his way to the top. He felt panic seep into his heart and brain, and fear of making it out of the dream alive ate at him. Then, just before he lost hope and gave up to sink back down into the void he breached the surface…just as he always did.
He reached up for the wall of the pool and pulled himself out. The blur came back, covering the outside corners of his field of vision and more powerful than anything was the pull to the brick fireplace.
He distinctly knew he wouldn’t fall through it like he just had. He was on a lower level of Hell, there would be something worse. He walked to the brick structure feeling no fear, as if the events he knew were about to transpire didn’t effect his thought process, as if he thought he were just out for an innocent walk.
The fatigue imposed itself again. Making it hard for him to reach his destination. His body was trying to tell him something. There was danger up ahead and he knew it. But his brain didn’t seem to want to listen. He pushed himself through the pain, sure he could get there, that he could uncover the mysteries that lay in that forlorn structure.
When he finally made it, he collapsed, sending ash from past fires into the air. He looked at them, with the backdrop of the dusk sky, thinking about their beauty as they flew. They were the lords of all creation; they could do whatever they wanted. They planned out their lives, their futures, and their pasts. It was amazing how so much beauty could come out of destruction. He made the effort to roll over to his stomach so he could look into the fireplace, to hold the ash and the burnt wood, to hold that destruction. He felt himself begin to cry for no reason. He knew it would happen but he had no control over it. It really was quite silly, to cry over burnt wood and ashes, but at that moment it was as if he could feel the pain the wood felt as it was burnt. Laying there, unable to move, as someone dosed you in lighter fluid. To watch them strike a match and throw it on you. To feel the flames burn through the fluid and catch a hold of you.
He shuddered, feeling goose bumps spread about his arms. He rolled over unable to look on the destruction in the fireplace and looked to the ash floating in the air. They all seemed so happy despite their horrible births. He caught his gaze on the largest as it floated down into reach. He reached up for it and felt its silky texture, but as soon as he grabbed it something grabbed him.
The tears immediately stopped flowing, and the goose bumps stood on end. He looked down to see another hand grasping at him, coming from the ground. He immediately jumped up despite his aching muscles and pulled an arm out of the ashes. The skin attached to it was rotten and flaking away leaving mostly dirty bone. He tried to pull back but all he succeeded in doing was pulling the arm out to the shoulder.
He changed efforts and worked on the fingers instead, peeling them off one by one, but he wasn’t strong enough to hold them because each one he pulled off went back down into the death grip as he tried to pry the next finger off. He backed away again, forcing a head to pop out of the ground. The head rotten just like the hand and the arm leaving mostly flaking skin and smiling skull.
The rest of it body came out on its own. Another hand shot through the ground grabbing his leg and pulling him off balance. As he tumbled to the ground he saw the thing pull up. It seemed to be a zombie, but nothing like the walking dead from legends. They had most of their skin. They seemed like normal people in a trance. This was much different. The garb on the creature was a union uniform from the civil war and the stink on its breath was almost unbearable, like his father when drinking. The teeth chattered together and the zombie crawled toward him.
He was too tired to get up off of the ground though so he just lay there and wait for his fate. Wait for the creature to do him in. To kill him.
When the zombie reached him, it slowly slid its boney hands around his neck and began to squeeze. That was when he always woke up, with the stench of death in his nostrils.
“It happened again last night.”
“The dream that I was telling you about! It happened again! The zombie got out of the ground crawled over and started to strangle me! I could feel the air cutting off! There has to be something I can do to stop this! I’m afraid to go to sleep at night because every time I have the dream I feel closer to death! I don’t want to die like this! I’m only seventeen years old!”
“There’s nothing that can really be done for dreams, son. I’m sorry but I don’t know what to tell you. I lied to you before though; you can’t actually die from dying in your dreams. I was just trying to scare you a bit and I guess I went a little overboard. You have nothing to worry about. The next time that you have this dream…”
“Tonight, the next time will be tonight!”
“Tonight then, the next time that you have this dream, let it span out. I didn’t mean to scare you as much as I did but the past is gone. So let it finish, try to stay asleep and you’ll see that you’ll get away from the thing.”
“Zombie. You’ll get away from the zombie and you’ll probably even beat he thing to a pulp. Dreams are the place you can be a hero. Where you save the day and come out all right. Even nightmares have their soft side. Think about it, no matter how bad they can get something good always happens. Or even if everyone else gets hurt or dies, in your nightmare you always come out all right. Whatever’s going on inside of your head just let it flow out, don’t stop it. That way you can let it play out and hopefully tomorrow it’ll be gone.” Justin’s father says as he takes another drink.
Things never turn out how they’re suppose to. The dream proceeded on with the unnatural slowness that was its course. The same events took place, in the same order, with the same lucidity. The zombie had a hold of his throat, the stench of death creeping in around him. He felt the evil invade his skin. The bony hands squeezing and squeezing his life out of his body. He felt like it was the last thing he’d see, this fireplace and the dying embers flying around him in the stillness of the night air. This zombie was going to take his life and take everything that was so beautiful in this place from him. Justin suddenly got angry and reached up to grab onto the zombies old decayed hands and pulled with all of his might…to no avail. The thing still held tight to his neck. The thing still squeezed his neck. He couldn’t stop it. The hope he held a second earlier was gone and he could smell death and vodka as it permeated his lungs. No air could get in, just that smell, that impending destruction of his human form. Tears fell from his eyes as the world around him slowly slipped into blackness.
“Help, please.” He said with a little voice. “Don’t.” He got this out more assertively. He somehow managed to look back into the gaping eye holes of the monster that was slowly taking his life for its own. He saw the grin on its face the thinning hair falling over its face as it applied more force squeezing his neck.
“I’m sorry,” it said to him. “I didn’t mean to do this.” He could hear the sorrow in the monster’s voice, pain it was experiencing. Though the monster was still grinning. “This was the only way it could be, you must understand Justin.” The grin widened and the grip faltered for a second, it was enough for Justin to get one breath of fresh air. With that one breath he felt his life and hope return, but the zombie gripped down hard again, settling into the bruises on his neck. “You just aren’t as good as me,” the zombie whispered into his ear. “I just can’t let you carry on my name.”
Justin looked back into the zombie’s face and for the first time noticed it had deep blue eyes. Those eyes penetrated his own, torturing him, for he knew the monster didn’t really feel bad. The monster was enjoying every moment.
The last thing that Justin saw was a name plate on the zombie-soldier’s coat. It said Frank. Then everything around him faded to complete blackness. Everything that was beautiful around him had faded out of existence. He felt himself wake for just a moment, saw the posters in his room, saw a shadowy figure before him, then his life faded away.
“Police,” The frantic voice of Justin’s father said. “I found my boy lying in his bed this morning dead. He’s dead. Someone came in last night and killed him in his sleep. All I heard was a whimper that sounded like “help.” I couldn’t really tell but when I went in he was dead, his face was blue and his neck had a line bruise around it. Please help me. Please.” He paused for a moment to take a drink before he gave them the address.
At the funeral Justin’s family stood around and mourned the loss of such a nice, if not a little special, young boy. They said how nice he always was and how cute he always was and how he’d always made them laugh.
At the end of the procession every one left but Justin’s uncle and his father. They were the closest to the boy. They stood there in silence for minutes until Justin’s uncle put an arm around Justin’s father and said, “I’m sorry that he had to die so brutally Frank.” The thinning hair fell down onto Frank’s forehead as he looked up and smiled with his blue eyes into his brother’s face. “Thanks. That means a lot.”