The dream and aftermath are always the same; a field of sorts, a path and the sensation that heís walking down the path at a great speed. Not running, just walking very fast. He never sees himself, only whatís on the path. Leaves, rocks, strewn bottles and cigarette butts. Sometimes he will stop to examine something, never with his hands, just his eyes. Heíll look closely at a leaf and marvel at its veins, heíll look towards a pile of dirt and wonder whatís buried underneath.
Nick does not determine the direction he takes or when he stops; something - or someone - else does that for him. Heís guided, or led.
Eventually he wakes up, or tries to. He recognizes that heís in his bed, no longer walking the path. He tries to fully awaken, to sit up, but heís frozen, corpse like. His arms are heavy weights, his legs immobile. He tries to scream, even though he knows he will not be able to. Heís in some purgatory between dreaming and waking, unable to go to either place. Thereís a great pressure on his chest, as if someone is sitting on him, knees pressed into his abdomen. Heís cold. Heís terrified. He imagines he will die momentarily, even though a speckle of clarity somewhere in his mind tells him that he will awaken, he will be ok, itís just like the other times.
No, not this one. This one has something else going on. Instead of just feeling the presence of someone or something bad in the room, a bad thing that is kneeling on his chest, he sees it. His eyes open briefly, breaking from the paralysis and he sees the boy. Although the room is dark, thereís a bright glow around the child that allows him to see clearly the person who is causing him such distress. Heís smiling, the boy. No, grinning. Heís dark skinned, maybe seven years old, wearing a yellow sweatshirt with the hood pulled up over his head. He can see the boyís eyes, squinted in a way that gives him the appearance of laughing at a good joke. He wants to reach up to touch the boy, but he still canít move his arms. Yet Nick knows that if he were able to reach out, he would grab onto nothing more than air. Despite the weight pressing down on his chest, Nick is aware that this boy is a product of his nightmares. Heís seen him before, on the path.
For years, the path was merely an hallucination. Nick would start the journey as soon as he closed his eyes, when he was still awake and aware of the night; Letterman talking on the tv that was always on; the hum of the radiator; the passing cars. Yet he dreamed anyway, as long as his eyes were closed, and he always followed the path gladly. Nick enjoyed the mystery of what his mind was offering him.
It wasnít until recently that he began to see people instead of just leaves and garbage. They are always gathered in small bunches off the side of the path and turn their heads slightly when Nick passes. He thinks they anticipate his arrival they were talking about him as he went by. After a few weeks the figures become familiar; a few old women, wearing housecoats and kerchiefs; a young girl, maybe a teenager, who stares at him intently each time. Sometimes whispers to him and itís weeks before Nick makes out the words. Help. Each night her voice raise an octave, becomes clearer and stronger, until she is screaming at him in a voice that shakes the trees. The hag. The hag wants you. And each night, next to the girl, stands the little boy in the yellow sweatshirt, always grinning, always with that soft glow around him.
Nick is always intrigued by the people; he wants to talk to them, to find out who they areand why they haunt him. But his impetus is not his own, he is forced to move silently past them. He thinks about them during the day, when the sunlight and business of life keep him from being frightened. There are days he canít wait to get into bed, to see the people again, to find a way to talk to them and find out who this hag is and why she wants him. But always, when he gets into bed in the dark of night, Nick becomes frightened at what may lie ahead and he thinks - no, he knows - the night fear is what is keeping him from being able to confront the people on the path.
Now, the little boy had somehow walked out of Nickís dream with him and, perhaps, closed the door to the waking world before Nick could get out. He realizes there is no way to go back and no way forward. Heís stuck in a constant battle to breath, to move, while this little boy grins down at him.
Finally, Nick is able to slightly move his left hand. He clenches and unclenches his fist, as if trying to get blood to circulate in a hand that had fallen asleep. The boy vanishes. Nick swallows huge gulps of air, hungry for breath, for waking life. He checks for signs of reality - in front of him, the tv is still on and a hyperactive chef selling knives moves across the screen. To the left, his alarm clock glows. He bends to the right to reach for the water glass on his night stand and lets out a muted whine of terror.
The yellow sweatshirt boy is standing there, holding Nickís water. The boy is an overexposed photo; the glow, the never changing smile, the small spikes of hair sticking out from his hood. He holds out the water for Nick. Nick shakes his head, not in response to the boyís offer, but to try to rattle his brain into a state of clarity. The shaking wakes his brain so he can grab seconds of reality to keep his composure, a trick he learned when he was much younger and had to much to smoke; it made the hallucinations disappear, if briefly. But his head shaking does nothing here; the boy remains, holding out the glass, grinning.
Panic rises in Nickís throat and he chokes on it. The boy pushes his arm out, as if to say, here, dummy, drink the water. Nick doesnít know what else to do. It seems absurd to be taking a glass from an leftover dream apparition, but he thinks perhaps it would be just as absurd not to take it, so he reaches his hand out toward the glass. In an instant, the boyís hand is empty, the glass of water vanished and he is holding Nick by the wrist. Heís strong for a child; Nick can feel himself being pulled off the bed. The boy whispers now, in the same scratchy voice as the girl. The hag wants you. He struggles with the boy, fighting to stay on the bed and briefly he remembers the game of sharks he played with his brothers years ago. Donít let your feet off the bed, he tells himself. The sharks will get you. The boy suddenly gives up and lets go of Nickís wrist. Heís gone. Nick heaves himself back to the middle of the bed and lays motionless, afraid any movement will conjure the boy up again.
He wakes when the sun reaches into his room. He doesnít remember falling back asleep after the fight with the boy; in fact, Nick determines it was all part of a dream, despite his sore wrist. He gets out of bed, struggling to gain some composure and begin the day as if it were any other.
He goes into the kitchen, thinking only of coffee. He senses their presence before he sees them and he turns slowly, convincing himself that heís just spooked, there really isnít two people sitting at his kitchen table as if they had every right to be there. Yet, there they are. The grinning boy in the sweatshirt and the girl.
Nick doesnít know what to say. What does one say to two figures from dreams?
Sheíll come for you tonight. Herself. Not us. The girls nervously plays with her hair as she talks.
You should have come with us, says the boy. Itís always so much easier that way.
Nick turns to the coffee pot. He will never go to sleep again, he tells himself. He will stay awake forever.
The girl laughs, as if Nickís thoughts were painted above his head in a thought balloon for her to read.
Thatís what they all say, she says. See you in two or three days, Nick.
And then they were gone.
All the text herein is copyright © 2004 Michele Catalano. All rights reserved.