When she was twelve she stuck her hand in a slug. It was in her motherís garden, where Beth had been looking for her little brotherís pacifier in the dark.
She groped around the garden, because thatís where she last saw Ben, and her hand came upon something wet and rubbery. She thought at first it was Benís blinky, his word for his pacifier, but as Beth grabbed for it, her hand sunk into something unyielding and slimy. She screeched and pulled her hand out and then ran and looked at in under the porch light. There was a silvery strand of slug slime on it. She dreamed that night about the slug, about her hand sinking into its body.
It was not unlike the feeling she had just a few moments ago, when she stuck her hand into Paulís chest. He had been sleeping soundly next to her and she just sat up, reached over and pushed her fingers down towards his heart, as if there were no skin or muscle to stop her. She was wrist deep within in his chest, and he still lay there, sleeping, dreaming, snoring just a bit.
As her hand dug into Paul, she remembered the slug. She remembered the slimy trail. And after she squeezed Paulís heart and felt his blood running through her fingers, she pulled her hand out, leaving a trail of glittering, bloody sludge. Clasped in her hand was Benís blinky. Paulís chest closed beneath her fingers as though Beth had never touched him. She cradled the blinky in her arms as if it were Ben himself.
It was a dream, of course, but not really. She had this same dream yesterday, where it was Chris instead of Paul, and two hours later, Chris lay dead. Heart attack, they said. In his sleep. Her mother had called to tell her, sounding relieved, yet shamed at her relief. Beth immediately felt guilt surge in her chest. Yet, she had been nowhere near Chris; she was in New York and he was in Ottowa, although he slept next to Beth in her dream.
And now she dreamed of Paul and she dreaded both being awake and being asleep. To go back to sleep would be to invite the dream back. To stay awake would mean waiting for a phone call with the news that Paul was dead. It was happening again.
And then she felt the familiar push on her lungs (breathe! breathe!). The closing of her throat (Itís not closing, you know itís not). Her tongue swelling up, blocking any air from coming into her mouth (It is not getting bigger, you know itís not). Her breath was coming in short, quick bursts and her head succumbed to the tingly feeling, the one where she feels like sheís dreaming (this is not a dream), where nothing is real (breathe! breathe!) and she was going to choke and suffocate and die right now, right here, in her ragged old nightgown.
She fumbled around her nightstand for her list. 1. Do multiplication tables (9,18,27,36,45,54). 2. Recite a poem (Whose woods these are I think I know) 3. And on three she reached for the paper bag instead, breathing into it, sucking in the air and blowing it out (in with the good, out with the bad) and she didnít know why it worked, it just did and her panic subsided. Her breathing became more regular.
She chose the path of least effort; she chose to go back to sleep even though the dream would come again. She was certain that this time it would be Jake sleeping next to her.
Sleep came easy when she gave in and closed her eyes. She had the visions first; flashes of past dreams, maybe past lives that flitted before her like a frames of a movie playing on the back of her eyelids. Soon, the flash of images slowed down until there was just one and from that image she walked into her dream.
1. It wasnít what she expected, though. She thought she would be in bed with Jake, ready to squeeze his heart shut. She both dreaded and awaited this. But she wasnít in that place, her mind had taken her somewhere else, to the dream she least wanted to be in, but the one that came to her so often; the Ben dream. She knew it by heart now, and try as she might she could never change the outcome, never change which way she walked or what she saw even though she could do this in almost every other dream she had.
Her heart beat hard as she found herself in her motherís garden, calling Benís name. A quick, cold breeze shuttled through the tomato plants, twisting Bethís skirt around her legs, blowing her hair wildly around her face. She stood still, looking towards the wooded area beyond the garden, waiting.
It was dusk and the sky had the not-quite-day, not-quite-night quality, when the world became the color of shadows. Beth could make out shapes far off in the woods. She could hear sounds. But she could define neither. Her breath became shallow and quick and she gave in, letting the panic attack come, thinking it would keep her from whatever lay beyond the tomatoes. Better to die here, she thought, then find out what is there. But the attack consumed her then, clenching her lungs, sucking the air from her and she thought maybe, just maybe, I donít want to die here. She counted by tens, by nines, by fives, waiting for her mind to realize that the panic attack was all in her head, but her breathing only became more ragged.
A tree sprung from the ground right in front of her. The earth did not shake, the dirt before her did not crumble; the tree rose from the muddy floor of the garden smoothly, noiselessly, and then opened its top like an umbrella, sprouting branches that hung over Bethís head. On the branches were not leaves, but small, brown paper bags. Beth reached for one and quickly put it over her mouth, breathing in and out with the precision of one who had done this so many times before. As her attack subsided and her normal breathing resumed, the tree folded itself up and slid back into the ground, leaving Beth a clear view of the woods.
She watched the figures, four of them, off in the distance. They were just forms, black and thick and barely visible in the dusky light. But she knew what they were. She had been here so many nights before, watching the same scene unfold and she could do nothing to stop it from playing out again.
Of the four figures, one was very small one and three were much larger. Beth knew now who they were; Chris, Paul, Jake and Ben. She inched a bit closer, not even realizing that her bare feet were moving over plants and vines; she was practically floating. As she got closer to the figures, leaving the confines of her motherís garden and slinking silently through the gate into the woods, she could make out voices.
The three larger figures were shouting. Their voices were hollow and naked of any humanity. Beth put her hand over her ears and shut her eyes, trying to squeeze the dream out of her mind, to shut herself out from what came next. But there was no stopping it, no changing it. It went on as usual.
Beth opened her eyes again and she was still standing by the woods, still hearing the shouts of the boys and then the muffled cries of her brother Ben. Darkness had crept in and moved the twilight of dusk away. Beth could no longer see the four figures, as their blackened shapes had blended in with the night. No, not blended in. Became. They became the night, their voices louder, yet still undistinguishable, their very presence looming over Beth invisibly. She needed to go to Ben. She struggled with the darkness to figure out where her brother was.
She felt a slimy stickiness running over her bare foot and she looked down. There was a slug, crawling faster than slugs would do in the waking world, but leaving the same kind of glimmering trail behind it. The trail shimmered through the thickness of night, and she followed the silver streak into the woods, past the first tree, the one that Ben had climbed that very day, past the stump that had Bethís name carved in it, past the rusted old bicycle that was there when they moved in. The slug stopped, crawled back towards Beth and rested on her foot.
Ben. Ben. Ben. Ben.
She was saying his name over and over, but of course he couldnít hear her because the words were only playing in her head. They echoed inside of her, bouncing from her brain to her heart where they lodged themselves in and caused her such pain and anguish that she thought she would die right there in her dream.
The slug lifted its ugly little head and let out a small wail, a lonely, chilling cry. As it cried, the woods lit up with a silver light, which emanated from the slug itself. Now, Beth could see. And she wished she wouldnít, she wished this dream would just leave her alone and not make her face this so many times.
Ben was on the ground. His little boy body was on the ground and the three bigger boys were clawing at him, scratching him, stuffing rocks down his throat. Ben kicked and thrust his hands up and Beth could see the tears streaming down the dirty face of her brother. She was motionless. She could not move. She could only look as the rocks lodged themselves in Benís throat, as he gasped for air and his face turned blue and the boysí laughter grew louder and louder until the trees shook, and as they shook their leaves fell on top of the scene being played out in front of Beth, until she could see nothing but the tiny hand of her little brother, pushing out from the leaves, clutching his blinky.
This is where the dream would end, it always ended here. She would wake up with her breath coming in short gasps and she would reach for the brown bag on her nightstand and force herself to breathe normally.
1. But the dream, which had seemed to become an entity of its own, had other ideas.
The slug was growing. Its body was pulsing and beating like a sticky gray heart and Beth could not turn her eyes from it. It grew and as it did so it mewled and finally it was the size of a small dog, covered from end to end in what looked like thin glue, forcing itself into a cocoon of its own slime and excrement.
Beth tried desperately to wake herself up, to escape this grotesque nightmare, but she seemed to have no strength left. She felt her eyes closing. She would sleep within her dream.
She was laying next to the slug now, on a bed of leaves and dirt. She wasnít sure if this was a second dream within the first or if this was just a continuation of the Ben nightmare that she had never seen before. The slug was so close to her; strands of its clingy cocoon were sticking to her own skin. She closed her eyes, hoping to escape to yet another dream.
When Beth opened her eyes once more - what seemed like hours later - the creature was no longer next to her. Sleeping soundly by her side was, instead, Jake. His mouth hung half open, soft snores escaping from it.
How dare he sleep peacefully, Beth thought. He has no right to have undisturbed sleep when I have not had any rest since Ben died. Since he killed Ben.
The words she imagined she had said to herself rang out through the woods. She could hear her own voice bouncing back at her, stray words hitting trees and rocks and echoing through the dream-woods.
Those were the words that took on a life of their own and flew through the woods, getting louder each time, waking the owls and deer and whatever other creatures were sleeping under the brush.
Beth glanced at Jake in time to see his eyes flash open.
The words struck at Jake, invisible yet piercing and his eyes flashed with both anger and fear.
Beth panicked. She struggled to her knees and bent over the still prone Jake. She knew what she had to do if she never wanted to enter this nightmare again.
She reached down and pushed her palm onto Jakeís bare chest. Her hand sunk in, just like it had with Chris and Paul. But unlike those two, Jake struggled to escape Beth. He tried to roll over to the right, but Beth had already grabbed his heart and starting squeezing. And she squeezed and tightened her grip and squeezed some more, blood running between her fingers as she clenched and unclenched her fist, pumping the life out of Jakeís dark heart.
When the heart stopped beating and Jake lay still, Beth released her grip and pulled her hand out. Jakeís chest closed up with ease, leaving not a drop of blood or a mark on his skin.
Beth fell back, exhausted, and prayed for this to end. She tried to say the words out loud - please, let this stop, I want to wake up - but her voice was nothing more than a whisper that not even the owl peering down at her could hear her.
That very owl was standing on Bethís chest, glaring at her with yellow, filmy eyes.
They are dead. The owl had spoken to her.
They are dead, it repeated.
And then, the owl laughed. It shook its wings out and took off noisily, leaving Beth laying there on the ground, fighting for breath. She was suffocating. The leaves of each and every tree in the woods were leaving their branches and flying down towards her, covering her face and her chest and she fought these leaves and flailed her arms and cursed out loud, but to no avail. The leaves were the weight of stone even though they fell softly on her and she cried out for air, though her voice was gone.
She would give in. She would just lay there and have all of the life sucked from her lungs and eventually she would wake up in her bed and she would get a phone call from her mother in Ottawa that, strangely enough, Jake and Chris were also dead and perhaps they could get on with their lives now.
And somewhere, she did hear a phone ring. She tried to get up to answer it but found she could not move.
She was counting the rings now, hoping that whoever it was would not hang up until she could wake from this dream and answer.
On the fifth ring, she knew that she was not going to get out of this dream in time.
On seven, she heard a rustling in the leaves that covered her.
On ten, she felt the leaves soften.
On thirteen, she no longer felt like she wanted to answer the phone or even fully wake up.
On fifteen, the leaves started to move.
The phone stopped ringing. Beth opened her eyes again. The leaves were off of her now, swirling in the air before her, dancing in the heavy wind that had blown into the woods.
The slug was before her again, still much bigger than when she first saw it, but no longer the size of a dog. She could see its face now, ugly and wrinkled and she could swear it winked at her.
It began to move and she followed it, like always, chasing after the glimmering path it left in its wake.
This time she walked effortlessly, her feet moving swiftly with barely an effort on her part. She inhaled deeply and her lungs did not ache, even though she had moments ago been deprived of air.
The owl was following them, still keeping its yellow eyes on Beth. He talked to her as she walked and she no longer found it strange that this owl would speak.
When goals are finished, when your lifeís dreams are done, then you may rest.
Beth was startled. Those were the very words she had written on a piece of paper many years ago, when her obsession with killing the three boys who took Benís life almost consumed her to the point of suicide.
She had taken that piece of paper and put in the wooden box on her nightstand, right next to her brown paper bags and the bottle of pain killers and every time the dreams got to her, every time she thought she could no longer take the daily routine of hatred and self-pity, she would reach for the wooden box before she reached for the pain killers and read the words over to herself.
When goals are finished, when your lifeís dreams are done, then you may rest.
Her goals were not like the goals of others. She did not want success and marriage and family. She only wanted retribution, and she wanted it with a vengeance that ate at her so deeply that she often thought the pain killers were a better idea. The whole bottle, one at a time and then she would never have to think about Benís throat stuffed with rocks again.
She did not know how she would ever fulfill her dreams, until it came to pass that her dreams would fulfill themselves.
And now the owl flew above her, and uttered those words and then she pulled from under its wing that very piece of paper the words had been scrawled on, and when she held it, the paper burst in flames that went out in an instant and the paper was no more.
She kept following the slugís trail, sure of where she was going now and never feeling breath come to her so easily.
Her goal had been completed and the slug, the slug whose body she had grasped that night in her motherís rose garden, it was taking her to Ben, and to the place where they would lay in darkness forever. A most welcome, pleasant darkness, where one doesnít dream.