Do you know if you're dreaming?
The house on Verris Way looked the same here as it did in the real world. Baby-blue window shutters swung gently in the wind, tapping out a rhythm above the tree in the corner of the yard. The tire, hanging from a low branch, rotated idly. Truly, I wouldn’t have known this place from its waking version if it weren’t for the sky--that orange maelstrom streaked with violet, a whirlpool of color and shadow. I tried not to look at it.
The watch. Get the watch.
I pushed open the white fence that led to the lawn and found myself facing the front door. Distances didn’t work right here--sometimes a step took me a few feet, sometimes the length of a block. I was used to it by now. Holding my breath, I opened the door.
The inside of the house hadn’t changed for fifteen years. There were the train-tracks I’d gotten for my sixth birthday, sitting atop the carpet we’d replaced when I spilled Grandma’s wine three years after, right next to the half-eaten plate of blackberry cobbler my mom had been eating when…
Just get the watch, idiot.
I stepped across the room to a crumbling staircase. Cracks wove through the wood, sickly and black, and the scent of decay filled my nose. No, no… I focused hard, concentrating on my oldest memories, and the staircase snapped into place. Soft white carpet lined each step, a mahogany handrail guiding the way to the top. That’s better.
I placed my foot on the first step and the whole staircase crumbled into dust, grey powder caught by the incessant breeze and scattered across the room. I froze, too scared to look over my shoulder.
“When your dreams--” I shook my head, dismissing my mother’s voice. This wasn’t the time.
I closed my eyes and placed myself at the top of the crumbled staircase. When I opened them I was there, looking down at my train-tracks. A hallway curved away from me to the left, lined with a pair of doors on either side. The one with the wreath, closest to the stairs… that was my parents’ room. I reached for the handle.
The door burst open before I could touch it, wood splintering, shards flung violently into the air. I threw up my hands, scrambling backward as a black, seething shape flooded the doorframe. The writhing mass twisted and fumed, tendrils coalescing vaguely into the form of a tall, broad-shouldered man. His features were hidden in shadow, the edges of his form distorted as if seen through thick glass, and the room at his back was only an empty void. His image flickered, losing substance, then jerked back into place.
I tried to scream, to run, but I was frozen. I watched with horror as the nightmare raised a hand to take me. I felt that clammy touch upon my forehead, cold like the way you feel when you’ve sweated through your sheets but the window is open, and I knew that it was the end.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I woke shivering, blanketed in moisture. The night seemed still, the wind silent. The clock on the desk read 4:30 AM. I released a slow, ragged sigh, unclenching my fists.
For a long time I did nothing but stare at my ceiling, watching the way the light from the streetlamp outside made shapes out of shadow. When the dream finally faded, I got up and found my bound edition of Sandman, settling into my bean-bag chair to wait out the night. There was no sleep left for me.
When the sun rose and my alarm rang and my mother called that breakfast was ready, I could feel the bags beneath my eyes. I knew she saw them, but she didn’t say anything. She gave me an encouraging nod from over the blooming centerpiece and took my bowl when I went to get my backpack. I could feel her eyes follow me up the stairs, but if she wasn’t going to say anything then neither was I.
I grabbed the watch from my bedside table before leaving, looping it around my wrist and fastening with it a snap, then met my mother at the car.
* * * * * *
“And…” I shook my head, growling with frustration. “He was there. He’s always there.”
“Why don’t you just… stay away?” Olive asked.
“I can’t! I mean, I’ve tried. It doesn’t matter.” I released a pent up breath, deflating. “Wherever I go… whatever I try to do…” I curled my fingers into a fist, barely stopping myself from slamming it on the picnic table. “I’m supposed to be in control. Free. That’s what it’s all about.”
“I’m sorry,” she said gently.
“It’s not fair. She calls it a gift, but...” I trailed off. The activity on the field was dying down, upperclassmen stuffing frisbees in their backpacks, freshmen breaking off from herds to head to class. The boys in detention walked around, scooping up trash under a blistering sun.
“I wish I could see what you dream,” Olive said quietly.
I smiled sadly, a limp thing. “You have your own dreams, Olive.”
“But not like yours.”
I met her eyes. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m just tired. I didn’t--”
“Emry, it’s okay.” Her warm fingers closed over mine, gently uncurling the fist I had formed. “I understand. But you need to fix this. You can’t live like this.”
“I know,” I said tiredly. I fished a pretzel stick from my lunch and eyed it with distaste. I hadn’t had much of an appetite lately. I offered it to Olive, but she only raised her eyebrows. Shrugging, I tossed it to the table and glanced at the clock.
Almost time for--
Olive’s startled gasp jerked my head back around. I looked from her to where she stared, to where the pretzel…
A chuckling football player bumped the table as he passed. The pretzel stick teetered and fell to its side.
Olive stood and picked it up, snapping it deftly in half. She took my hand. “Lucky bounce,” she said, pulling me up. Neither of us reached for my lunch. “Come on. You have Biology in five minutes.”
* * * * ~ *
The living room smelled of my mother’s favorite candle--blackberry cobbler. I inhaled deep, savoring the fragrance as I closed the door behind me and took off my snow boots. I could hear the soft Chopin from the kitchen that meant she was cooking. Too late, I tried to catch the door as it latched, but the slam of wood echoed through our too-empty home.
“Yeah, mom.” I placed a foot on the stairs.
Her face appeared around the corner, auburn hair pulled back in a bun. “How was school?”
“She’s fine, too, mom,” I said tiredly, taking another step.
“Did you get your test back?”
I stopped. Shit.
* ~ * * * *
“You can’t go on like this.”
“I know.” I poked at my mash potatoes absently.
“You’re going to fail out of school.”
“You’ll lose your friends. You’ll lose…” she stopped, catching herself.
“I know, mom.”
“Emry, look at me.”
I did so reluctantly.
“You have to do something.”
I threw up my hands. “Like what?”
She looked at me over our wilting center-piece. The flowers were drooping, their vibrancy faded. “You need to stop running,” she said quietly. “You need to face him.”
I shook my head violently. “You don’t understand. I can’t--”
“Of course I understand,” she interrupted. She leaned in, loose hair fluttering in the draft, and held my eyes. “You know that.”
“I know,” I muttered.
Silence filled the kitchen. I picked at my baked potato, scratching the skin, but couldn’t find the appetite to eat. All I wanted to do was sleep. Not dream, just… sleep.
My mother sat there, taking small bites and washing it down with wine. She looked old.
I frowned at her. “Did you ever… you know?” I asked.
“Yes,” my mother replied. “My sister.”
“The only way I could, Emry. I stopped being afraid. I stopped running.”
I met her eyes across the table, but said nothing.
My mother reached across the table to take my hand. “You have to be strong.”
“And if I’m not strong enough?”
She met my eyes and gave me a sad smile. Then she looked down at my potatoes. “Eat, son. You’ll feel better.”
~ ~ ~ ~ * ~
The tortured sky cast a hazy orange glow through the lone window at the end of the hall. I turned from it, examining the stark whiteness that stretched away from me. The hospital was empty, of course, every door closed and every desk vacant. Office chairs flickered in and out of existence in front of blank computer screens. A cold breeze wafted down the deserted hall, chilling me.
“This is where you were born, isn’t it?”
I turned to Olive and nodded. She wasn’t real, not in this place, but sometimes it was nice to have her along anyway. She helped me relax. “I think so.”
“How can you remember?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
I took a step and was at the end of the hall. Lab coats hung from a rack beside me, a pair of double doors to my left oscillating idly in the ever-wind. Olive was nowhere to be seen. I peered at the windows lining the hall, trying to see the rooms inside, but their curtains were thick and try as I might I could not force them to dissipate. Something about this place held on very tightly to what it was supposed to be.
The watch. Where is the watch?
I pushed open a door at random. Inside was an empty hospital bed, machines at its side dangling wires to a spotless floor. A sink in the corner dripped violet water into a stainless steel basin. There was an odd smell in the air.
I backed out of the room and checked another. Same thing. Closing the door beside me, I found myself in front of the first room I’d opened. Frowning, I moved further down the hall. Each time I closed a door behind me, however, I was back in the same spot.
Growing frustrated, I closed my eyes and willed myself away. When I opened them, another corridor opened before me. Bulletins on the wall held diagrams of the human body and helpful sanitation tips. The rooms behind them looked like offices. Again, I started opening doors, peering inside, but found nothing. I moved on.
The hospital was an endless labyrinth of intersections and lobbies and rooms. I turned a corner and found myself in the basement. Opening an innocuous door, I stepped into a room that was a dozen floors above the street, that sky peering through the window with incandescent eyes.
Finally, after what seemed like days of searching, I stopped and sat down on the tiled floor, resting my forehead on my palms. It was useless. The hospital was too big. The watch could be in any of its thousands of rooms, and search desperately as I might, I knew I’d never find it without help. I needed a guide--or a map.
I closed my eyes and pictured the entrance to the hospital, unsure how I knew what it looked like. There were couches arranged into pods where patients waited for receptionists to call their names. A wide arch opened to a room full of different types of reading glasses.
I opened my eyes and I was there, but I was not alone.
I spotted the hospital map in the corner of the room before I started running, before it came after me, but I didn’t get a good look. It didn’t matter. The shadow swept behind me with inhuman speed. I leaped ahead, jumping from one of a hallway to the next, but it was always only a step behind. I could feel the tendrils of its fingers as it reached for me, could smell the scent of berries on its breath.
It didn’t matter anymore. It didn’t matter what I did, where I went, or how I tried to find the watch. Always it was there, waiting… guarding.
Spurred on by the terror I knew so well, I took another corner at random, fully aware I would never escape this maze.
~ ~ ~ * ~ ~
“You look terrible.”
I tore my eyes from the ceiling as Olive stepped into my room. She was wearing her pajamas, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, and her midnight hair was tangled. I pushed myself up in my bed, resting my back against the wall. “What time is it?”
“Four thirty,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep. I figured… well…”
“You figured right,” I muttered.
She placed her key--the one I’d given her--on the table and sat down on the end of my bed. “Did you just--”
I shrugged. She sighed.
“Emry… you have to do something.”
I didn’t say anything. I’d heard it all before.
“Have you considered going to a therapist?”
I snorted. “What could they do?”
“You might be surprised.”
“No.” I shook my head. “This is my problem to deal with. Alone.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” she murmured.
I ignored her and glanced out the window. The sky was dark, the first traces of morning still hours away, and a steady wind shook the branches of the trees lining the street.
“Have you talked to your mother?”
“Of course. She said she went through it, too.” Shaking my head, I growled, suddenly frustrated. “Fuck this family. I wish I could just… dream. Like normal people.”
“Who wants to be normal?” Olive asked quietly.
“Me.” I sighed, letting my anger seep away. A dream I could not have, the only dream I couldn’t dream--that was what I wanted. Normal.
I let my head fall back to the pillow, eyes closed. Exhaustion suffused me like it always did. I didn’t remember what it felt like to not be tired anymore. Perhaps, if I just rested for a bit, I could find some relief. Not sleep--just rest. “What time is it again?” I asked.
I reached out a hand and felt for Olive’s. Wrapping her fingers in my own, I rolled over. “I’m going to try to lay down for a bit. If I fall asleep… will you wake me?”
* * ~ * ~ *
“Emry, honey, it’s time for school.”
I shifted, groaning. My hand, pinned beneath my chest, had kept me from sleeping, but I felt as if I’d just faded into a peaceful trance when my mother’s voice came in through the doorway. “Come on. That’s it.” I rolled over to see her peering in at me, smiling gently. “How did you sleep?”
“Didn’t,” I grunted. Blinking circles from my vision, I sat up groggily. “Where’s Olive?”
My mother frowned, giving me an odd look. “Haven’t seen her. Breakfast is ready when you are, honey.” She disappeared.
Olive? I rubbed sand from my eyes. Hadn’t she… ah, nevermind. It could have been a dream as easily as the rest of it. Who knew anymore. Muttering incomprehensibly to myself, I swung my legs off the bed and made my way to the bathroom to clean up.
* ~ * * ~ ~
“You see, Mr. Jung was interested in dream signs. Archetypes. Interpreting our dreams as the voices of our unconscious.”
I doodled absently at the bottom of my notebook paper, barely aware of the movements of my pen. Fall winds swirled outside, tossing leaves into the air, whispering ominously among scantily clad branches. My teacher droned on at the head of the classroom, one hand clamped around a large mug, the other scratching blue chalk across the board. The scent of burnt coffee was everywhere.
“He believed that everything we see in our dreams has meaning. Dreams are our minds trying to figure themselves out--only by confronting them can we make sense of them. We should take the time to analyze them, to understand them so that we may better understand ourselves.”
I snorted softly, gazing out the window.
It was one of those days where clouds kept drifting past the sun, casting the world in repeating cycles of illumination and drab grayness.
“Emry? Do you have something to say?”
Startled, I glanced up at my teacher. She wore a stern expression, eyeing me suspiciously. I opened my mouth to tell her it was nothing, but other words came out instead. “What about nightmares?”
She narrowed her eyes. “What about nightmares?”
“Did Jung believe they held significance, too?”
“Of course. More so even than normal dreams.” Her suspicious expression faded as the sun reemerged and she turned back to the class. “Good question, Emry. Jung actually believed that such emotionally charged dreams held the most significance. That each of their elements was representative of something powerful in that subject’s unconscious.”
My doodle had centered itself on a spoked circle, but I hardly noticed. I couldn’t stop myself. I raised a hand and waited for the teacher to notice me again. “What about lucid dreams?” I asked.
She hesitated in the middle of placing the white stick of chalk back on its tray. “I’m not sure lucid dreaming is actually real, Emry,” she said gently. “Jung believed that we can never have enough control over our unconscious to manipulate our dreams.”
I opened my mouth, then snapped it shut. She raised her eyebrows. Bad enough I was already failing school--no need to get in an argument with the teacher. Besides, she’s right… just not in the way she thinks.
“Oh,” I murmured, returning to my doodle.
She looked at me for a second more, then turned back to the board. She used an eraser to clear away the yellow chalk and began to scribble out more notes. “Now, Mr. Jung was far from the first person to…”
I let her voice fade into a dull murmur in the back of my thoughts. The late springtime sun beat down through the window, wind shaking through blossoming branches just outside. I noticed absently that my doodle had become a watch, the hands pointing to 4:30.
Even after class had ended and the students had filed out and I had taken my seat near the back of the bus with Olive, something my teacher had said still resonated within me.
...only by confronting them…
* * ~ ~ * ~
I pushed my beef through its sauce with my fork, watching as the thick gravy pooled back into the void left in its wake. Strange, how the world despises emptiness, filling vacancies with whatever substance it can find.
“There isn’t any way to… make it stop, is there?”
My mother watched me over the rim of her glass of wine. “No. He’ll always be--”
“Not that,” I interrupted. “The lucid dreaming.” I frowned, tapping my fork. “I mean, medicine or…”
“This is a part of you,” my mother said. “Just like it’s been a part of every person in our family for generations. It’s a gift, Emry. Our gift.”
“It feels like a curse,” I muttered.
“It isn’t easy,” she agreed, “but with time…”
“Does it ever get easier?”
She sighed. “No. You just learn more control. But the dream… sometimes it has a mind of its own.”
Something in the way she said that caught my attention. I looked up at her to find her staring into the table, forehead creased, lost in memory. My breath caught. “That… that’s why Dad left, isn’t it? Something you dreamed.”
She glanced up, startled, and met my eyes. Without a word, she nodded slowly.
I took it in. Mother said he’d never had the gift--it was part of her family. Could it have been jealousy? Or something… darker?
I pushed back from the table. “I know what I have to do.” Her eyes followed me as I stood. “I’m going to face him. I’m not going to let him ruin my life again.” I turned to go upstairs.
“Be careful,” she whispered. I held her gaze for a moment longer, then nodded and turned away.
I found Olive waiting in my room. “Are you ready?” she asked.
“I’ll be right here when you wake,” she murmured, leaning in to kiss me on the cheek.
I stripped down to my boxers and a t-shirt. Before climbing into bed, I wrapped my father’s watch around my wrist. Then I smiled at Olive, turned off the lamp, and put myself to sleep in the way my mother had always taught me.
~ * ~ * ~ *
The house on Verris Way looked the same here as it did in the real world. I fingered the latch on the fence, eyeing the tire swing as it rotated gently in the ceaseless breeze. The angry sky overhead cast an orange and violet sheen across the lawn.
I stepped to the front of the door, reaching out a ginger hand to take the handle. My heart thudded loud enough for me to hear, but I swung the door inward nonetheless. It was time.
The interior was just as I remembered. My mother sat on the arm-chair in front of the fireplace, picking at a slice of blackberry cobbler. The television played a soundless reel of sports highlights that no one paid attention to. There was the sound of closing cabinets from the kitchen.
My mother looked up as I entered. “Emry! Home already?” She gave me a big smile. “How was school? Cobbler is on the counter in the kitchen.”
“It was good,” I replied mechanically. Cobbler? That did sound tasty. The sound of sports hit my ears, the cheer of the crowd as someone smacked a home run.
No. I shook myself, steadying my mind. I couldn’t let myself be drawn into the moment. The tv went back to silent.
There was another noise from the kitchen--it sounded like a zipper. I took a step forward.
A man rounded the corner. High cheekbones framed eyes of startling blue beneath a receding hairline. A thin moustache sat above compressed lips. I stared at him for a long moment before I recognized him.
He saw me and his eyes went wide. His mouth worked soundlessly for a few seconds. Clutched in his hand was a suitcase, its pockets bulging. He had a backpack over one shoulder.
“Dad? Where are you going?” The words came out by rote.
That voice. It had been haunting my dreams for years.
“Eric?” My mother turned, setting down her half-eaten plate of blackberry cobbler on the floor next to her. “What’s going on?”
My father looked from me to my mother, his eyes dancing wildly as if searching for an escape. “This isn’t… I mean, I didn’t want…” He groaned. “Fuck.”
My mother frowned. “Hey,” she said. She stood, taking a step toward him. “Eric…”
My father tore his eyes from her long enough to peer into mine. I found that I couldn’t move. “I’m sorry, big guy,” he whispered. Then, so suddenly that he seemed to skip the intervening distance, my father hefted his bags and was out the door.
The watch. He has the watch.
“Dad, wait!” Without knowing how I did it, I was suddenly outside the house, watching my father close the yard gate behind him. He whirled about as I called to him.
“Go back inside!” he called.
“But where are you going?”
He shook his head. “Go, Emry!” He turned back to the street.
His shoulders seemed to sag, his bags dropping to the pavement. He raised his head as if to stare at the heavens.
I glared at his back, willing him to turn around, and that’s when I first saw it. A finger of shadow, just a blur under the unchanging sky, slipped across the street. It hovered near my father’s shoes.
He rotated slowly to face me. “I’m sorry,” he said wearily. “I’m so sorry, son, I--” The shadow leapt from the pavement, slunk up his leg and over his torso, then slithered inside his mouth nearly faster than I could see. My father froze his eyes widening.
“You want to know why I’m leaving?” he snarled, rounding on me. His bags lay forgotten in the street as he stalked toward me, kicking through the gate. I backed up against the front door. “Because you’re freaks. You and your mother both. That whole damn family.” He spat to the side. “An abomination.”
I shook my head, soundless but for a whimper. My hands couldn’t find the doorknob at my back, scramble as I might.
“I can’t deal with this craziness anymore,” he raved, coming ever closer. “This… madness.”
“It’s a gift…” I argued in a feeble voice.
“A gift.” He sneered. “Is that what she told you? Is that how she covers herself?” He was close now, taller and more menacing than I ever remembered him being. He loomed over me, casting a shadow across my shaking features. “You’re a ticking time-bomb, Emry.”
I focused as hard as I could, concentrating on my memories of this place, honing my control, but it was no use. The darkness around my father flickered for a moment, then returned twice as strong.
He had stopped now, only a pace in front of me. He bent to fill my vision. “You live a lie, boy. Everything you think is real…” He grinned, a manic thing that curled the corners of his mouth but never reached his eyes. “One day, your world is going to come crashing down on you. Both of you. And I don’t want to be here to deal with it.”
Those eyes came closer. They weren’t the same anymore, not the clear blue I’d always known. No, these eyes were black… empty. Dead. The terror I’d been holding desperately at bay came flooding in, bringing me to a knee as the darkness that was my father reached for me.
I willed myself awake, away from this dream, anywhere but here.
* ~ * ~ * ~
I woke sweating and shivering, my muscles burning. I sat up with alarm, flinging my sheets from me. Olive was nowhere to be seen, and a hazy orange glow came in through the window. It must’ve been almost sunrise--she’d probably gone home to sleep.
I swung my legs off the bed, trying to still my racing heart. It had seemed so… real. They always did, but this more than most. Almost like….
I shook my head. Forget it. I pushed away the pit of dread opening in my stomach, tried not to think of what that dream might mean.
I walked to window for a breath of fresh air and glanced up at…
It wasn’t sunrise. The sky was distorted by ripples, crests of royal purple and valleys of smoldering orange stretching from horizon to horizon like cosmic scars. Shapes swirled in the depths of their formations, twisted figures that stretched and strained before fading back into the maelstrom that had birthed them.
Someone opened the door to my bedroom. Whirling about, I found myself facing my father.
“Do you see?” he whispered, baring his teeth in a smile.
“No,” I whispered hoarsely. “Mom!” My father stepped into the room, closing the door behind him. “Mom!” But there was no answer. I backed into the wall. “Olive…”
“Olive.” He snorted. “She’s no more real than the rest of your dreams, kid.”
My knees buckled. No… My father raised a hand as he came toward me. His fingers looked long in the dusk-like darkness of my room.
“But sometimes,” he whispered, “dreams can be more real than reality.”
The last thing I saw before that finger touched me, before blackness flooded my consciousness and I felt the pillars of my thoughts crumble away, was the watch on his wrist.
Like a time bomb.
It read 4:30.