The Waking Dream

Jonathan was hanging from the noose for roughly three hours before his younger brother found him. Tommy, twelve years old and still unable to watch the latest horror film without wincing, watched his brother’s empty stare until his mother gently pulled him away. Every night since then, he’d dreamed he was in that exact spot watching his brother gather dust; he could see the spittle shining on his lower lip, the raw skin where the rope dug deep enough to tattoo his neck, even the colourless iris’ that were once an icy blue. In these nightmares, Tommy would try to reach out for him but his arms felt heavy as though they were melded to his body. Instead, he would just watch his older brother and best friend hang like a macabre Halloween decoration.

That day, as the medics cut his brother down and wheeled him away, Tommy was sat on the settee only half-aware his father was trying to talk to him. His father, David, was what his Uncle had termed a ‘poor man’s Mark Twain’; Tommy had no idea who Mark Twain was but he assumed he was a guy who never once shut the Hell the up. Both men shared the same long nose and dimples formed in their cheeks when they smiled, but Tommy was grateful that he didn’t inherit his ability to imitate a broken record.

“We don’t know why he did this but it isn’t your fault, son. It shouldn’t have been you that found him; if only I’d just gone to fetch him myself.” David said. He reached out and grabbed his son’s shoulder, hoping to catch his eye.

“He killed himself. Like that Cobain guy did.” Tommy replied. He remembered his brother idolising the musician and playing his band almost every day and was surprised to discover he felt nothing. No tear bubbled around his eyes, he didn’t want to storm away nor did he laugh. He had to be feeling something but what? “I wanna go to my room.”

David nodded as his son stood up and left the room. Each step felt too practised as though bumping into the Ottoman would revive the conversation. Just as the door shut, it opened once more to reveal Helena. She brushed her considerable mane of raven hair back as she looked at her long-term partner. They’d been together almost twenty years but never once considered marriage as she’d deemed it pointless; I don’t think financial stakes will do much for our love life, no? she’d joked when he’d breached the subject.

“How are you holding up?” David asked.

Helena snorted loudly before wiping her eyes for what must have been the hundredth time since they medics took their son away.

“I’m fine. I just need to-” she said before breaking off into watery sobs. “I’m sorry.”

Her face disappeared behind her long fingers as another bout of tears threatened to overcome her. David leapt up and embraced her. Her face sank into his chest and for one bizarre moment, he wondered if she was snotting onto his t-shirt.

“Sweetie Pie, go see Tommy. I’ll go to the hospital, alright?” David soothed. “He’s a little numb right now but it’ll hit him soon enough. Just be there when the floodgates open. You know he can get emotional and he’s just about to become a teenager. That’s a deadly combo.”

Helena hiccoughed and hugged her boyfriend once more before leaving to see her son. From the window, David could see the sickly yellow/green of the ambulance as he realized he didn’t want to leave his girlfriend and son to say goodbye to his firstborn.

*

Jonathan’s room was usually off-limits to him unless he was told otherwise. Everything, from the retro Sega Mega Drive game collection to the Harley Quinn posters fascinated Tommy and he wanted nothing more than to emulate this in his own room. Sadly, his own tastes revolved around teen horror novels like the Skull Cross series to Pokémon plush toys which, in his brother’s eyes, made him very uncool. So, with every opportunity he had, he had, he’d gotten in what was his promised land.

Even though Jonathan had been cut down and taken away, part of the rope was left on the floor almost flippantly. As though the medics had a twisted sense of humour or they were just neglectful. Either way, it was the first thing Tommy saw before he pushed the door open. A moth surfed across the room and almost slammed into Tommy’s half-open mouth; he batted it away half-heartedly but still wondered why the little sods seemed to have a creepy thing for flying at him in such a way.

Moth habits aside, Tommy felt unwelcome in this haven even though he wasn’t about to be yelled at anymore. He didn’t even know why he came in here but he looked around anyway like in one of those old point-and-click games he’d played on his father’s ancient PC. He stepped by his bed and his right foot bumped into a heavy, plastic box. Annoyed, he wondered why such a big thing would be stuffed all the way under his bed. Nothing resided under here other than a family of dust bunnies and the memory of the NUTS magazines he used to collect. Even in his state of numbness, he was still curious enough to pull the container out and was surprised to see it was filled with paper. Just reams of A4 covered in scrawls, bad handwriting and weird sketches. He rooted around until he felt the leather binder of a notebook that he vaguely recognized; it was one of his presents from when he entered that poetry competition and placed third. Footsteps became a crescendo as he stuffed the notebook behind his jacket and zipped it up. Whatever this was, it was Jonathan’s and he wanted nothing more than for it to be just his. Like a parting gift from his dear brother.

“Where’d you go, Tommy?” Helena said before she spotted him crouched in his brother’s room. She hesitated before willing herself forward. As she entered the room, she saw the piece of rope on the floor and repressed an urge to shudder. Tommy stood almost immediately but kept his gaze on the ground in that guilty way of his. Although he wasn’t stealing spoonfuls of Nutella or breaking curfew, Helena’s instincts were telling her something was up.

But Tommy wasn’t interested in what she had to say. He rushed out and his bedroom door slammed behind him. Helena’s eyes drifted back to the cut rope which she eventually willed herself to pick up and dispose of.

*

Tommy lay down on his bed and pulled his brother’s notebook from the tight folds of his jacket. The plastic cover gleamed as he turned over the first few pages which were nothing but disconnected sketches. Pencil lines thatched and irregular like ashen fireworks that would have made Willem de Kooning proud but there was no meaning. At most, he saw little men with butterfly-esque wings. He flicked past page after page but nothing stood out. Tommy even wondered whether it was worth going back and looking through the rest of his pages but decided against it; Jonathan’s short-lived art hobby was nothing more than that. He turned a final page before something caught his eye.

Maybe Jonathan was developing as an illustrator but this was something else. Within a sea of scratched out ovals and rubber smears was a shaded face that wasn’t exactly a face. Tommy didn’t know how to describe it but it was a slanted oblong that lacked eyes, a nose and ears. A mouth was scratched into the side of it at an unnatural angle with a multitude of what looked like tiny teeth in two rows.

His door knocked making him wince. It was then he realized his heart was beating a tattoo within his chest and he took several breaths before he responded.

“Yeah? What is it?” he called out.

His mother mumbled something so Tommy replied in the affirmative. Guilt washed over him but all he wanted was his solitude. In the coming weeks, he knew it would be hard to come by.

*

Less than a week crawled by and Tommy wished he was still on his bed waiting for the days to end. Relatives he never knew existed came by to express their condolences. Some cried within their tissues and laced fingers whilst others recited their sympathies with the tact of a B-movie actor. Not many of them spoke to Tommy and he was fine with that; he’d thawed a little and only wanted his parents around him. His mother had retrieved old photos of their past holidays whilst his father seriously debated whether to buy a dog.

Once more they were among distant relatives but this time, they were in the St Giles Church. They sat in the uncomfortable pews and watched as a wiry old man in a robe recited Jonathan’s life in a few pitiful sentences. David cried silently as Helena squeezed his hand but Tommy could only focus on the wooden box where his brother now lay.

Someone sneezed rather abruptly as the vicar spoke of Jonathan’s interest in music. It was an oddly whooping sound that rose a little too forcefully. Tommy bit into his right knuckles as he repressed the bizarre urge to laugh and hoped his parents didn’t catch him or else it would be a light slap to the head.

“The Hell?” his father murmured. Tommy leaned back and did his best to pick up on his father’s tones. He wasn’t as quiet as he wanted to be. “Was that Harry Cooper?”

Helena nodded. “I’m surprised he came. Mavis as well by the looks of it.” She peered over, tilted her head to get a better view. “I’m glad they did though for Jonathan’s sake. At least he and Michael can make amends now.”

“People are strange, huh?” David managed before the vicar finished his eulogy.

Everyone rose as it was time to take the coffin to the grave. David stepped away to join some uncles and cousins that Tommy rarely saw and the pall-bearers took Jonathan down the aisle. Tommy remained with his mother and watched them disappear before the rest of the congregation joined. Everything was in slow motion, framed with black blazers and the shining surfaces of the pews.

As Tommy followed his mother’s lead, he caught a glimpse of two of Jonathan’s best friends. Helena turned to see Omar who offered a wan smile. Beside him, Hayden slouched into view and offered a half-interested nod.

“Condolences, Mrs Lawson.” said Omar. “And you, Tommy.”

“Thank you, Omar. You look so smart.” she said, gesturing to his clothes. Indeed, his threads were a cut above the second-hand items that those around them wore.

“Mom would tan my hide if I went out looking like a scruff.” he grinned. Hayden snarled beside him as he did his best not to make eye-contact. Unlike him, Hayden was dressed in his school blazer sans the badge and he lacked a tie to look even halfway presentable. His closely cropped hair made his skull look more angular and gave the impression he hit enough trees on the ugly tree to sue for damages.

Helena ignored him as did Tommy who shrank by her side. Together, they walked out and joined David as they watched Jonathan being lowered into the ground. The vicar spoke, they threw tiny clumps of dirt on his coffin and the grey clouds swarmed without breaking. People murmured, some of them no doubt wanting to beat traffic and get home for the England match or whatever. Tommy wanted to stay with his parents by his brother’s resting place even though he knew he wasn’t coming back. Even having Omar and Hayden there did not unnerve him and he didn’t care what either them would say.

Out of the crowd behind them, Raveena Patel reached out and gently tapped Helena on the shoulder. Before Tommy could turn his head, the two had embraced with any attempts of conversation being smothered. She was always so exotic and classy to him, even at her young age of sixteen. But to Tommy, those were adult years. Her nails were long and painted black which matched her black mane that was tied back in a pitiful ponytail. Her sister Ruby lingered at her side, much younger than Tommy but nonetheless, she inherited some of her sister’s innate grace.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs Lawson.” Raveena managed. Ruby shot a look of curiosity at Tommy who suddenly found his shoes to be an interesting sight. “I wish I could have come down before.” she added.

Helena shook her head and brushed Raveena’s cheek. Because he was watching this, Tommy missed Ruby’s swift embrace as she muttered her condolences. He wasn’t one hundred percent comfortable with this but at a funeral, he felt he had no choice. You can’t make a scene, no, he would get a slap upside the head and some form of reprimand. As Ruby pulled away, her sister beamed at her act of empathy.

“Such a sweet girl. Thank God she has you as a sister.” Helena marvelled. “My boy was lucky to have you.”

Raveena smiled but even Tommy could see her dark cheeks mist with pink. David nudged his son and spoke in a tone only deaf people would believe quiet.

“Aren’t you going to respond to your friend?” David said, gesturing at Ruby.

Tommy mumbled something he hoped sounded genuine as he wanted to avert their collective gaze. Go stare at Hayden’s awful dress sense or the weird Uncle reciting memories with Jonathan that never really happened.

“Jonathan took up drawing. Before he died. There’s like tons of drawings under his bed.” Tommy stammered.

“That’s nice, Tommy.” Helena said before giving that my-son-means-well smile that most parents have when their child says something off-colour. As bashful as he felt, Tommy tried to catch Raveena’s eye and hoped for some form of recognition. It was stupid and it was fruitless, but he wanted some meaning and some purpose behind this. His former girlfriend would know, surely?

“We’re going straight home after this. Would you like to join us?” David asked.

Raveena shook her head and smiled. “I can’t, sadly. I need to take this one to her friend’s and I’m helping Mom with the housework.”

Tommy rolled his eyes knowing his mother would riff this into a criticism of his lack of housework. As her ‘you could learn a thing’ spiel turned into forced laughter, he found himself staring at the ground. He was glad there was no gathering after this procession, he wanted nothing more than to be alone.

*

After what felt like eternity, Tommy was finally in bed as the sky faded to a deep lilac smear. Since they returned home, Helena and David spoke about what to do with Jonathan’s possessions. As Tommy played on his PlayStation, he listened to them debate storage, preservation and even donation. It was at the latter when Tommy piped up they should leave his room as is; he added quite simply ‘I wouldn’t want anyone touching my stuff if it were me’. When Tommy was finally sent to bed at a late nine forty-five, his parents went on about work, the council and then back to Jonathan. Although they believed they were speaking quietly, he could hear them through the thin walls quite easily but he never protested that he couldn’t sleep. The fact they were speaking to frankly about the situation made him feel he were a part of the conversation. It was his brother after all.

“…will we be able to get his things moved?” David asked. His voice appeared to fluctuate in volume.

“Do you want to? I mean, just thinking of his room makes me feel ill. He died there, David.” Helena replied. Tommy thought of that bit of cut rope and felt sick to his stomach. If he had one wish, it would be to scrub that memory from his brain.

“I know, I remember.”

“And I agree with Tommy. We should leave it be. Might wanna get rid of that old bike in the shed though.”

“You kidding me? That’s a gift for Tommy.”

“I don’t think that would make Tommy’s birthday, do you?”

Silence. David grumbled something before they settled into silence. Minutes flew by and a thin haze of sleep patterned Tommy’s vision before he was brought back by the baritone of his father’s voice.

“I still find it weird that he tried to hang himself and all. It just makes no sense.”

“Suicide makes no sense whatsoever.” Helena replied.

“Yeah but, he knew about your gun. Wouldn’t have it been painless to just…”

Tommy imagined his father cocking a finger-gun against his head as an example. He also pictured his mother’s revolted response as their conversation faltered once more. As he settled into sleep once more, Tommy did wonder why Jonathan would take such a painful way out. Whenever they played a video game, he was always looking for every cheat or every shortcut just to beat him; there was a reason they never played any fighting games anymore. But the fact Jonathan would neglect his mother’s prized gun made no sense to his father or him.

*

His room was bathed in deep shadow as he stirred from his sleep. Rubbing his eyes, Tommy found he could barely feel his hands as though he were shot up with novocaine. That odd, there-but-not-there feeling was the reason he almost cried when he received his first filling at the dentist. He thought of that weird science programme he watched with Jonathan once about ‘waking dreams’ where the dreamer was aware he was asleep. Maybe this was the case; unnatural shadows criss-crossed his room which made him feel he was at a great height. But most of his dreams consisted of fictional characters, video game worlds and that one Walking Dead episode that scared him half to death.

shhnnkkkk… shhhnnnkkkk…

Tommy froze. Whatever that sound was came from beneath his bed. He wondered if a crow or a cat had snuck in during his sleep and gotten lost there.

shhnnkkk… shhhnnnkkkk…

Goddamn cats. He’d preferred dogs but Jonathan was allergic. Just thinking that stung him but he would have done anything for a big Saint Bernard or a German Shepherd at that moment. He knew, all he had to do was turn and look at the window. He’d see where the bird or cat had crawled in. Simple as.

But then, why couldn’t he turn his head? Was it the instinct that any movement would betray him to whatever was under his bed? He felt an insane urge to scream for his parents but his own voice was strangled in his throat.

shhhhnnnnnnnkkkkkk…

His quilt shuddered with movement. Something slender was pulling out from under his bed. Tommy shrank into his pillows and pulled his blanket over his vision. A rattling breath filled the air and he could feel the moist cloud wash over him even under his covers. He imagined a snarling face hewn in carrion and veins with teeth that would bring pain. Pain no one before had ever experienced.

It’s just a ‘waking dream’ or whatever it was. He could be Superman and fly away if he wanted to but if there was a way, he didn’t know. Against his instincts, he slowly pulled the sheet down and saw nothing his empty bedroom. He breathed a sigh of relief as he slumped down into the crumpled mess of his sheets. He’d have to make his bed eventually but not tonight.

shhhnnnnnkkkkkk…

Something cold snared his left ankle and yanked him off the bed with such force, he hit the clammy ground without even trying to break his fall. Tommy felt his body being dragged under the Cherrywood of his bed as he snatched for his mattress in desperation. The grip on his ankle rose to his waist like a rough lasso as a mental image of a cartoon character being torn in half sullied his mind’s eye. He tried screaming for help but his throat could only manage a weak cry that died in the still air.

Something dark and rectangular smashed through his window leaving the double glazing in splintered quarters. A strong force grabbed his hands and pulled him free from the sweaty grip of whatever invaded his room. As he stood, he saw the haggard face of Jonathan.

“Tommy, get the lead out.” he said, launching him out of the window. Despite being upstairs, they climbed outside as though his room was on the first floor. Tommy wouldn’t question this until much later as adrenaline compelled him only to escape. He ran down Newhall Street that seemed to stretch on forever as every house, every car and even every flickering streetlight repeated as though this dream lacked imagination. It was only Tommy slowed, his brother addressed him once more.

“You shouldn’t be here.” Jonathan breathed. Tommy didn’t care how he got here; he embraced his big brother with a grip tighter than the thing in his room.

“Steady.” Jonathan said, gently pushing his brother away.

“You’re back, bloody hell. I mean-” he said, attempting to embrace his brother again who kept him at arm’s length. “What the Hell was that thing?”

“I don’t know.” Jonathan replied, shaking his head. “It’s been following me around for a month now. I didn’t think he was gonna try this. Fucking Hell.”

“What do you mean?”

Jonathan frowned at his surroundings as he scratched his neck. As the dull amber glow of the streetlight cast him in relief, Tommy could see the bruise of the rope and despite being asleep, wanted to throw up.

“Has Mom or Dad told you about any weird dreams? You heard them say anything?” Jonathan asked.

Tommy shook his head. His father was dreamed of winning the lottery and his mother had that weird cottage by the sea but that was it.

“What about Raveena?”

“I don’t know. I only saw her at the funeral.”

Those words felt strange to say but still, Tommy nodded as though it were a perfectly normal conversation.

“Tommy, listen. This thing, this monster is chasing me and now you’re here, it’s gonna go after you. You need to find out how to stop this.” Jonathan said. As Tommy backed away, he could see his little brother freaking out. “Tommy, please.”

“But this is a dream.” Tommy moaned.

Jonathan shook his head. “No, this was the last month of my life. Please, you need to tell them. It’s not just me here. I saw Michael Cooper, I’m sure of it.”

Even in the dim light, Tommy could see his face darken.

“Your friend’s here?” he asked.

The whole street took on a hazy quality as though it were already being forgotten. Tommy reached out for his brother who disappeared as light poured into his vision. He awoke in bed, his bedsheets neat and made with nothing but the cold sweat on his brow to remind him of his dream.

*

David had to call Tommy three times before he got changed and shuffled downstairs for breakfast. With the six-week holidays in full swing, he had no reason to be up early but his parents thought otherwise. His mother told him he’d regret sleeping the days away but he’d dismissed her with that belief all parents were full of it. Looking back, with secondary school looming, he’d wondered if she was right after all.

Tommy entered the kitchen with a bowl of chocolate flakes awaiting him. Wordlessly, he dug in and shoved spoonful after spoonful into his mouth as his parents waited patiently. Sensing an awkward conversation, he slowed his chewing and kept his eyes on the flakes still floating on the milk.

His eyes flickered to the clock which showed it being just a little past eight. With the silence becoming agonising, he relented.

“You not in work today?” Tommy asked.

“I will be, I just wanted to ask you if you were up for a day out sometime. You, me, your mother and maybe one of your school friends. We were gonna go up north to Sternport.” he said, his expression expectant.

Of course, Tommy loved Sternport and would always suggest it whenever his parents would plan a day-out and, more often than not, he’d get his own way. Mostly because it was Jonathan’s idea and this was something they agreed on.

Tommy shook his head and shovelled away the last few bites of his cereal.

“I’m going out to Ash’s. He’s got the new Dead Island.” he muttered. He hadn’t spoken to Ash in over a month and even his brother’s death hadn’t warranted a message of sympathy. Before either of them could respond, Tommy was out the door.

“He just wants to forget.” David said. He pulled out his phone and swiped until he found what he was looking for. “Oh, it’s gonna be cloudy all week. I was gonna clean up the garden.”

“I’m going to clean out Jonathan’s room today. I don’t want to hear it.” she announced, raising her right hand to quell his protest. David didn’t reply but instead kept his eyes on his phone. “Tommy was in there yesterday and I don’t want him finding anything he shouldn’t.”

Her thoughts went back to that broken rope and it was then she decided she was going to skip breakfast.

*

Bradford Street stretched on for longer than any street Tommy had been on. Thirty seconds down the road and he could have run a marathon on this stretch of tarmac. Despite its length, it was mostly nondescript with brown-brick homes and long lawns which were either perfectly kept or in disarray (his mother would always comment when they drove past). It was at the end of this road where Raveena lived with her parents and her sister. On occasions where he accompanied Jonathan to the shop, he’d have to wait as his brother would always knock on for his girlfriend. Their home had a long lawn that was neatly kept thanks to Prisha Patel’s tireless work ethic.

His footsteps dragged as he approached the front door. He’d never spoken to Prisha before and Ruby had that weird fixation on him. Even so, he knew he wasn’t Raveena’s favourite person but if what happened last night was real, he had no choice but to speak to her. As he knocked, he unzipped his jacket and pulled out Jonathan’s notebook.

The door opened to reveal Ruby, who broke into a big smile upon seeing Tommy. Feeling his cheeks mist pink, he began a stare at his shoes before speaking.

“Hi, uh, is Raveena in?”

“Nice notebook. You write poetry?” she asked, her voice lilting. “My teacher writes poetry and he’s really good, like-”

“Ruby, who you talking to?” came a stern voice. It was Raveena whose presence only made Tommy’s face turn a darker shade of maroon. Perhaps conscious of this, she invited him inside. As he stepped into the hallway, he found the courage to raise his head.

“Raveena, can I talk to you?” he managed.

She nodded, pointing upstairs. She marched up and he followed leaving Ruby to wave at him. She pushed into the first door and closed it behind them. To Tommy’s surprise, it was the bathroom.

“What?” he asked.

“I don’t let people in my room and my Mom’s mooching about downstairs. Sorry about this but it’s just weird, you know?” she replied. She rubbed her arms in that odd habit of hers as she gave a tinkling laugh. “Besides, there’s nothing special in there but some CD’s and a Harley Quinn baseball bat. I was a fan, what can I say?”

“Uh, okay. I don’t know how I should say this but I had a nightmare last night and Jonathan was in it.”

Raveena placed both her hands on his shoulders gently as her eyes met his. One sudden movement and he’d have broken into thousands of pieces.

“Sweetie, I know you’re going through a tough time and I’m here for you. But dreams are dreams, you just miss him.”

He shrugged her off and instantly regretted it as she frowned at him. He didn’t know why but when she lost that sympathetic expression, something within ached.

“No, not like that. It was real, he was telling me to warn you. This thing was after me and he said it was after him before he died.”

Raveena shook her head. “Tommy, this is a bit much. I know you’re dealing-”

“Listen.” he snapped. “I was asleep and then this thing tried to drag me under my bed. Jonathan saved me and told me to warn you. Whatever this thing is, it’s messed with his mind. God, he said he even saw Michael there.”

The more he spoke of it, the more it felt real to him. Most of his dreams faded by the time he was out of bed but this one felt absolute; he could still remember the moist breath of whatever that monster was. He needed her belief, for her to somehow find a way to make sense of this and make everything go back to normal. But she wasn’t understanding and ready to formulate a plan. She was shaking her head as though he were insane.

“That sounds like some Nightmare on Elm Street stuff. You been watching your brother’s film collection again or something?” she asked. “And please, don’t bring up the Michael situation. That’s just bad taste.”

Desperate, he thrust the notebook into her hands and flipped it open. Random sketches jumped from the passing pages and he prodded at each to accentuate his words.

“This one. This one. All this.” he said. “He has a whole ton of these under his bed. He saw something and it’s now in my dreams. Raveena, please.”

Backing away, Raveena dropped the notebook and watched him retrieve it. Something in his voice stung her.

“Jonathan was a little weird in the last few weeks.” she said, rubbing her arms again. “I didn’t know about those sketches but he cut off from everyone and became a bit of a dick. I’m sorry but he was. I didn’t know what to say but he kept telling me to get away and leave him be.”

“But you’re his girlfriend. You could have said something.”

Careful to lower her voice, she leaned in and replied.

“Jonathan broke up with me as soon as he got weird.”

A silence fell between them. It was only when Raveena opened the door he knew his time was up and decided to leave. A flurry of footsteps told him Ruby had attempted to eavesdrop and Raveena’s harsh sighing confirmed that. They trudged down the steps slowly with nothing but the murmur of television from the living room. As Raveena reached the front door, she gave Tommy one last look of sympathy before turning the handle and showing him out.

“If you dream of it, please, let me know. Even if it’s brief or something.” he said.

Raveena nodded before closing. The guilt pulled a tight knot within her but she knew she’d done the right thing. Tommy may have dreamed of Jonathan and some crazed beast, but he was in mourning and there was probably some psychological explanation for it. Ask Dr Phil or one of those famous people that always had articles on Slam Media.

*

Not long after Tommy left, Raveena trudged back up the stairs to be greeted by her sister. Before Ruby could open her mouth, she told her little sister quite simply to get lost. As her bedroom door shut behind her, Raveena lay on her bed and sighed deeply. Jonathan haunted most of her thoughts and seeing his brother didn’t do much to help. She could see the hurt in Tommy’s eyes but what could she say? Closing her eyes, she felt the weariness of the past week threaten to drag her into sleep.

Those dreams Tommy spoke of. Raveena knew full and well what he meant but dismissed it. Collective Dreaming as one of her brief forays into Witchcraft had termed it. With the billions of humans on the planet, surely it would happen eventually? Her dreams had consisted of her room with the strange scratching that felt like Polystyrene being rubbed together (the sound always made her cringe).

But it was stress. Jonathan was gone and he wasn’t coming back. No weird dreams were going to change that, even if she privately wanted to settle for just one illusion. One night where she could see his bright smile with the dimples in his cheeks. Now that Tommy had awoken that ennui, she reached for her phone and hit the first number that came to mind. It rang twice before being answered.

“Hey Rav.” came a smoky voice.

“Omar, are you free right now?” she asked, rubbing her right arm with her free hand.

“I’m fine, thanks, and how are you?”

His sarcasm was usually endearing but now she wanted to reach through the line and slap him.

“Omar.”

“Is everything okay?”

“I just need to talk with someone.”

“No problemo. I’ll meet you at Rosewater Park?”

“I’ll head out now. I just need to have one conversation that doesn’t involve people being all over the top with sympathy. I feel really numb right now and I just want to rant.”

“Woah, woah. That’s fine by me, it’s what I’m here for. See you in a few.”

She hung up before burying her face in her hands. She’d washed, used her face cream and even gone through the trouble of applying make-up yet she still felt the mask of sleep upon her skin.

Her door tapped twice.

“I’ll listen to you.” pleaded her sister.

“Go away.” Raveena ordered. Reluctantly, Ruby left and it was only when she heard her door shut that Raveena took leave.

*

Rosewater Park was a stretch of field partly moulded into astro-turf and a disused tennis court. For a long time, it was the place for teenagers to hang in the day and junkies to enjoy at night until the police made a crackdown and it was closed after dark. Before his death, Jonathan would hang with Omar and Hayden on the odd Saturday where they’d smoke pot, talk about girls they liked and kick around a football (usually Omar’s).

Raveena came across Omar and his winning smile at the lone set of swings by the basketball court. He swung a few times in mock-anticipation before getting up to embrace her. It was brief but she appreciated it all the same; when it came to Jonathan, she could always talk to him.

“What you wanna talk about?” he asked, sitting back on the swing. Raveena sat on the next swing and wrapped her hands around the chains. It was strange how she had all those emotions within her with no words to describe them.

“I miss him.” she said, feeling the sting within the corners of her eyes. She coughed, shaking off this melancholy cloud and continued. “His brother came over today.”

Omar’s smile didn’t falter. The guy was a rock when it came to her venting.

“He had a nightmare about some monster thing trying to drag him away and Jonathan warning him about it. I don’t know why but it really bothers me, like everyone’s on me about him and what am I supposed to tell them? I didn’t know how he was feeling in those last few days. I think he’s reaching.”

She thought of her own dream in her room where she heard that awful scratching in the darkness. Just saying it made it seem more ridiculous. Even that old Twilight Zone show wouldn’t accept this rubbish.

“Dream, eh?” Omar said. He turned on his seat to look her in the eye. She didn’t laugh or add ‘I’m only joking’ as she usually did when she indulged in her odd humour. “It’s funny you mention that.”

“What’s up, shitheads?” came the adenoidal voice of Hayden. Clad in a baggy t shirt and tracksuit bottoms, he was the type of person to look down on others for what he saw in himself. He was chewing on an apple which he then threw aside upon greeting the duo. Grimacing, he spat out the partly chewed mess just inches from where Raveena sat. She stood up and moved over to the bench as he took her seat on the swings.

As she passed Omar, she glared. He could only look down at his lap as Hayden went on his spiel.

“What the fuck is up with you two? It’s the holidays and I say we go to Omar’s, get high and Xbox it for the day.”

Raveena began a dead stare at the pigeons marching near the metallic bins. She knew he hadn’t addressed her and was grateful for it.

“I guess we could. Dunno what my Mom is gonna say though.” Omar replied.

Hayden tutted angrily before arching his body back and swinging several times before looking over at Raveena. He swung his head back and forth and even waved in her line of sight before he begrudgingly responded.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I invited Omar out.” she fired back. Though she was composed, she wanted to slap the smile off his bullet-shaped head. “What are you doing out here?”

Throwing back his head, Hayden laughed. It was a wheezy, nasal sound that cut through the air like razor-wire. He caught her eyes and did not look away; Raveena was sick of this ‘alpha male’ bullshit and kept her composure.

“I didn’t invite you.” she added. To this, Hayden stopped laughing and sprang up on his feet. She noted he looked away from her rather hastily.

“Omar invited me. He’s my best friend after Jonathan died and all.” he said. It was impossible to tell if he was being sincere or if it was a passive aggressive dig. Raveena learned long before to just nod and smile whenever she couldn’t grasp what he had said. It made most conversations a lot easier. “He always used to invite us both out. And you.”

Raveena rolled her eyes. Sensing the tension, Omar stood up and moved between them, laughing nervously.

“Uh, Hayden. Nice to see you and all. Rav invited us out to talk about something.” he said. Raveena glared at him; she invited him, not the dumb prick with the manners of an invalid.

“Yeah, that’s a point.” Hayden began, twisting on his seat to face them both. “Your boyfriend left us anything in his will?”

Had Omar not been standing between them, she would have marched over and swung for him. Omar could only chuckle to save face and gave Raveena a ‘what can I say’ look. Instead, she took a deep breath and slowly counted back from ten. Just one more comment you stupid asshole, she thought.

“His brother came to me and told me he had a weird nightmare about him. He said something was scratching around his room. I don’t know if I’m going mad or something but I had the same dream too.” she said.

Hayden snorted and began to thrust forth on the swing. His feet were arching up for the third time before Omar spoke.

“Yeah, I had that dream too. I heard something but I couldn’t see it; like the more I’d look at it, the more it would like disappear or something.” He wasn’t smiling nor did he look at Hayden for reassurance. “I told my Mom and Dad and they just said I was stressed. Too many horror films. I don’t know, it felt real to me.”

Raveena believed him though she wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or not. Hayden’s trainers hit the ground with a scrape before he jumped onto his feet.

“Fucking Hell, it’s just a weird dream. No guy with a machete is gonna chop you up. Fuck’s sake, it’s nothing.” he scowled.

“That’s Friday the 13th.” Omar muttered before Hayden advanced on him. He silenced almost instantly. Raveena stepped between them and stared Hayden in the eyes until he backed off, childish laugh and all.

“So, we had a collective dream.” she said.

“Collective dream?” Omar asked.

“Same dream, basically. All of us, well me, you and Tommy in the same dream.”

“Oh, okay.”

Hayden sighed but they continued.

“And I wake up in my bed, in my room. Three times now.”

Omar’s eyes bulged as though she had just read his mind. “Me too!”

“What if, next time, we meet up? See what the rules are. See if we imagine each other or if it’s really our consciousness. Tommy saw Jonathan, who knows, maybe-”

She broke off and sat back down on the bench. Omar sat beside her and nodded.

“Could be a fun idea. It’s like that lucid dreaming thing but without the need to practise.” he said.

Raveena almost smiled. She patted him on the shoulder and felt somewhat intrigued by this possibility. Years ago, she’d kept a dream diary after the third time of her nightmares of falling from a great height. She’d abandoned it after two days but the idea always stuck with her every time she woke after a bad dream. The dreamcatcher she’d bought off eBay had been enough since then.

“You know, Tommy told me apparently his brother saw Michael. I’m guessing he means Michael Cooper.” she mused.

The atmosphere changed so suddenly that Ravenna wondered if the police had marched past. Omar began rubbing his hands together in that weird way he did when he was anxious. Hayden raised his hands as if to congratulate her sarcastically.

“Anything else you wanna add? My Nan died three months ago. Wanna throw her into it to?” he spat.

“Easy.” Ravenna said, backing away from them both.

Omar shook his head. “It’s okay. It’s still a sore spot for us.”

“We watched him die. Fucking prick went to play in traffic; you don’t forget shit like that.” Hayden added.

“I know, I know.” Raveena said.

The moment had passed and Hayden sat on the swing set and resumed his childish fun. Omar relaxed but wouldn’t look at Raveena who began to paw the ground with her boot. For the longest time, no one said anything until Omar finally caught her eye.

“What about the monster?” he asked.

Hayden must have still been stewing about Michael because Raveena expected a sarcastic response. Instead he remained silent and focused on his swinging.

“We run, I guess.” she replied.

“Is there more than one or is it the same?”

“No idea. I don’t know how it works. I just hid under my covers.”

She felt ashamed to admit this. But whatever it was stirred a primal fear within her. There was no way on earth she was going to confront it.

“Me too. I don’t know why but I couldn’t even look at it. When I tried… yeah.” Omar said. At that moment, Raveena felt grateful she had him in her life. Jonathan, Omar and to an extent, Hayden, were the only real friends she had.

“So, tonight?” she asked. Omar nodded whilst Hayden continued to swing. “Meet up here. It’s easiest.”

They lapsed into silence once more as Hayden attempted to rise high enough on the swing for what he termed a ‘perfect dismount’. Minutes passed before he slowed and stood up; he claimed his hangover would have made the task near impossible.

*

It was a little past ten before Helena told Tommy to go to bed. He was curled up on the sofa half-watching some film his father had put on. The details were scant but it was about a dog, a remote cabin and a werewolf. Normally, he’d have lapped this type of movie up but his father ruined any atmosphere as he rustled through boxes of Jonathan’s old possessions. Occasionally, he’d regard a photograph or a cassette with admiring eyes that shone with tears that he refused to shed. Helena had told him to stop but relented when he found an old homework assignment about his hero from when he was seven (he’d picked his parents).

Something about his father’s emotional side felt weird to Tommy. Normally, he’d eschewed any emotional niceties with his sons barring some minor cases like birthdays and big occasions. Now he was doing his best not to cry as he relived his other son’s short life. When David found something tied to Tommy, he’d drown out the movie with his deep, loud voice and ask him if he remembered. When it was clear Tommy wasn’t interested he’d given up. After a period of silence, his mother decided enough was enough

“Tommy, it’s bed time.” she said. Her voice was calm but the authority was there.

He thought of his dream and the sound of those claws scraping filled his head. He felt a sudden compulsion to vomit as though he were ill and, as he caught his mother’s stern gaze, he realized he couldn’t tell her. The day was pattered over the memory of Jonathan and telling them he saw him in his dreams would seem like spite.

Raising himself, he trudged out of the room and upstairs leaving his parents in silence. As he entered his bedroom, he collapsed onto his bed utterly defeated by the late hour. He shut his eyes, hoping to stay awake but not wanting to look out at the lonely space around him. Everything was hung in shadow and had an unfriendly appearance. Sleep stole over him in no time but he wasn’t aware when he opened his eyes.

Afraid, he wanted something to assure him. His father’s heavy footsteps, a slither of light from under his door or even the caterwauling from when his elderly neighbour imbibed too much sherry.

“C-can I get some squash? I’m really thirsty.” he called out, ashamed of his cowardice. But he didn’t care, he wanted to be embarrassed.

“Hello?” he shouted. This time he wasn’t pretending. But no one replied nor was there any movement from downstairs.

Getting up, he pulled on his shoes as he realized how damp the floor was. He shuffled over to his door, pulled it open and took a step outside. The first thing he noticed was his brother’s door. It was boarded up as though it were a poor design choice being altered too late. He wondered if his mother had decided to block off his room because off a weird breakdown; then the sickening realisation crept in that he was dreaming once again. Rushing down the stairs, he bounded into the living room where his father and mother were watching the end credits just moments before. But their seats were absent and the television was reflecting his vague presence.

Something thumped above. It was brief but it reverberated through his body like a bass line. Adrenaline began to charge through his veins as he rushed out the room and through the front door. The outside world was a horrific parody of itself illuminated by the flickering streetlights that appeared to stretch on into forever. Not knowing where to go and trusting only his instincts, Tommy ran down his street that appeared to fade in and out of darkness. As he walked, he saw the vague outlines of others but felt no compulsion to call out to them. Looking around, he had the sensation he was falling into a spiral slowly but forever even after his soul dissipates.

The vague outlines appeared to notice him and in his peripheries, Tommy could see them approaching. Breaking into a run, they were gaining on him despite their static movement. Something reached out and grabbed him in a vice as strong as the intruding monster. In a blind panic, he thrashed out expecting pain more horrendous than his imagination could conjure. He screamed out before striking something that felt very human and very pissed off.

“Motherf-” Raveena cursed, rubbing her left eye as she let go of Tommy. Relieved, he embraced her and was surprised when she didn’t swat him away. Even in this dream, he smelled her strawberry perfume that she applied a little too liberally as always.

“Okay, okay.” she said as she gently pushed him away. Nonetheless, he could sense the relief in her voice before he broke out in a stammered apology as he realized he had socked her one.

“It’s alright, I shouldn’t have grabbed you. It’s just you were running and I didn’t wanna lose sight of you.” she sighed, looking around. “I’m really, really worried you’re telling the truth about all this.”

“You seen that monster?” he asked. She shook her head and the same dread filled them both. “What do we do now?” he pressed.

Raveena shrugged. “I’m going to the park to meet Omar. I have a theory to test.”

“Really?” he replied. They began walking; Tommy was grateful to have someone to follow even if she wasn’t that much older than himself.

“I have a theory. Our dreams are linked because of Jonathan. Problem is, I don’t know why. He wasn’t practicing black magic and he’s only appeared to you. Something has happened that we don’t know.”

“I thought it was that monster. Brought us into this place to eat us or something.”

“Then why wouldn’t it just kill us? Why mess around? Why even wait till we’re asleep?”

Tommy went silent. His perspective on motives were typical for those his age. Television shows had out and out bad guys and the good guys always came out smelling of roses. Raveena had indulged herself in authors and screenwriters who loved to mix things up; the hero is a killer, the bad guy sympathetic etc.

“What happens when we meet Omar?” he questioned.

Raveena admittedly had not thought that far ahead. The little endorphin boost proving they weren’t alone was what kept her putting one foot in front of the other. But what if they met Omar? Would there be others or was that thing trying to force them together for some sick game?

“We’ll cross that bright when we get to it.” she answered. She wasn’t fully confident in this but there was hardly anything else to pin her hopes on. As they turned onto Milton Road, they were taken aback by the hollow homes that appear to hang stationery in the air.

“The Hell?” Tommy breathed.

“This place has its own rules.” she mused. “But then this is a dream right? So why not?”

“We can’t fly.”

That was a point. Though the thought hadn’t occurred to her, shouldn’t there be some unexplained ability to break the laws of physics? Neither of them wanted to explore that particular avenue so the subject was dropped when they entered the iron gates of Rosewater park.

The place was a black canvas where light had splashed to provide little visibility. The trees and bushes rustled unnaturally as they stepped past leading Tommy to question Raveena about them.

“Sod that, I’ve seen Evil Dead. I don’t want to find out.” she answered.

Continuing, the rustling continued until it soiled the air. Tommy shrank into Raveena who looked around as the shadows appeared to spill towards them. Aberrations, humanoid and cancerous, slouched towards them. Their bodies were bloated and bruised, devoid of any characteristic. They sniffed the air hungrily and groaned with acrid bile that spilled down their ugly, nude forms.

“Run.” Raveena yelled as she grabbed Tommy and pushed him forward. Together, they fled down the tarmac path as the Aberrations followed in their multiplying numbers. The path ahead was nothingness as they tried to look for remnants of the park. Maybe it was the dream, but the path appeared to stretch further than it should have. No matter how far they ran, the Aberrations appeared to be gaining on them despite their slow movement. Fuelled by her survival instincts, Raveena dragged Tommy and they cut a hard left. The stone wall covered by overhanging trees covered the winding path ahead but, as she shoved the branches aside, they could see the side entrance just hinted by the long iron gate.

Tommy froze and was almost thrown onto his stomach by Raveena’s strong grip. Even in dim ochre of the distant streetlight, he could see she was scowling.

“What the Hell? We need to get out of here.” she ordered.

Tommy pointed ahead. He tried to turn and run but she held him there as her eyes followed where he’d pointed. The thing that had stalked them both was crawling down the path towards them. Its lopsided mouth shrieked at them as it’s many teeth twitched and clenched hungrily. Aberrations groaned behind them as they closed the distance. Before them, the Monster clambered from one side of the path to the other as though it were stopping them.

“I don’t wanna be here. I don’t wanna be here.” Tommy moaned, backing into Raveena. He looked to her almost expectantly as though her age dictated their situation. No fear lurked behind her eyes, she was scouting for an exit. Behind, Aberrations and in front, the Monster. Either side was the long, metallic fences that had served the park well from those trying to sneak in after hours.

“When I say so, run.” Raveena said. The Aberrations stumbled past the flaky branches and began to sully the air with their phlegmy cries. The Monster watched as though it were anticipating their movements. She slipped out of her jacket before charging The Monster and smothering it with what was a gift from her father.

“Christ in Hell, run!” she yelled as Tommy goggled in awe. His mind numb, he broke into a canter that felt detached from the voice in his head screaming at him to break the land speed record. He looked back to see Raveena being thrown back by the force of the Monster. It snapped into the air and, with a graceful arc of its contorted limb, slashed her across the face as she stumbled in a daze. The Aberrations closed in as the dim light above them disappeared and to Tommy, they were nothing.

“Raveena. RAVEENA!” he shouted. “Fuck.” he moaned. He rarely swore, even when he was at school amongst his foul-mouthed peers. But that seemed facile to him now, he had seen Raveena being swamped by those things. He wanted to run back and save her but this wasn’t some film; she had done that for him and he would be undoing that if he were so foolish. He walked away from where she was and to the empty exit.

A shape loomed out of the darkness and Tommy saw it was Omar. His usual smile was replaced with a look of stern resignation. Tommy didn’t realize but he’d been crying and Omar could see though he said nothing. He didn’t care; Tommy wanted to sock him if he so much chuckled.

“You seen Raveena?” Omar asked. Tommy looked back at the darkness and he understood. “This place is fucking weird.” he added.

Tommy began to walk away. Omar followed a little too closely before grabbing him and both boys locked eyes.

“What happened?” he asked.

Tommy sighed. “That monster thing got her. She tried to stop it to let me get away and it attacked her. She ran into those fat things and disappeared.”

“Fat things?” he exclaimed. Tommy shrugged as the word Aberration floated into his thoughts. He’d read the term before in a novel and it made sense to him to call them that.

“I don’t know. Aberrations then.”

“We gotta do something.” Omar said, braver than he felt.

“How? We have no way to do anything. They could kill us like that.”

“Doesn’t your mother have that gun?”

“That doesn’t help us now.”

“I don’t know then.”

Omar exhaled and took a few steps to gather himself. The street around them was frayed as though it were struggling to exist. What wasn’t shrouded in black was a patchwork of unknown colour.

“We should move on.” Omar said and so they did. They followed the path around the iron fence of the park. They walked in silence though Omar buzzed with a thousand unasked questions. Tommy was too numb to care and he wanted nothing but silence. But every ten seconds or so, they’d cast a worried look at the void framing their walkway. Something sparkled in the din that was either below them or a reflection from above. It moved as they did and gained more focus the faster they walked. It walked at an impossible angle until it crossed their path almost surprised to see them.

“Michael?” Omar said, barely a whisper.

Michael looked at them and spoke. Omar backed away but Tommy approached, confused and curious. But the closer he stepped the more Michael would flicker like the signal of a television signal.

“Tommy, wait.” Omar called before the black enveloped him. The embers of Michael extinguished, leaving Tommy to claw at the vast emptiness before him. His lungs deflated and felt twisted within his chest as he tried to make his way back to the tarmac path. The ground beneath him gave way and he fell into what the tiny doors of human perception could not comprehend.

*

The sun broke over Tommy just as his eyes snapped open. The dull, flaky ceiling was the most beautiful he’d ever seen it as he leapt from his covers and into the cold light of day. He felt a sense of euphoria that soon evaporated as he remembered Raveena’s sacrifice. Everything, from the bile of the Aberrations to the way she gripped his arm with the strength of ten men. For one horrible moment, he imagined two contorted limbs reaching from under his bed and snaring his ankles. He jumped back onto his mattress and remained there until he stilled himself. It’s not there, this is real world; the worst we have are the nutters on television who the news people laugh about. No, they weren’t in the real world and that very thought left a nasty aftertaste. Ravenna was left there to suffer whatever it had in store for her.

He remained on his bed hugging his knees as he wondered what next. His brother was apparently alive in his dreams and he didn’t see Omar die so maybe he wasn’t alone. But Michael was there even though by rights, like Jonathan, he should not have been there.

“I need to find Jonathan.” he said. His voice was quiet but saying it felt real to him. Like a personal errand he knew he could do. This should have been something he dismissed but after seeing those lumbering tumours, he was willing to believe in anything.

“Tommy, your friend’s coming up.” his father called.

Friend? He had those at school he spoke to and sometimes shared a table with. His ‘friends’ were an insecure bunch, some looking for a way to avoid sitting alone and some looking to climb the popularity ladder. After a particularly vicious incident where his own thin-skinned submissiveness hit its apex, he realized his ‘friends’ were nothing but a studio audience for the bigger and mouthier kids looking for validation. Since then, he’d kept to himself and bonded with pupils in the year above. A blank slate never hurt him.

The door knocked twice before it was pushed open. The wounded face of Raveena reluctantly rose and a tiny smile was implied by her lips. Tommy bounded forth and hugged her despite her aversion to such contact. To his surprise, she waited for him to break it off and didn’t even raise her palm as if to slap him.

“How are you still alive?” he asked, lacking all subtlety. Raveena slammed the door behind her and sat upon his best. The slash on her face crossed her left cheek all the way to missing her right eye by mere millimetres.

“You wouldn’t let me in your room.” he remembered. He had no idea why this thought occurred to him but Raveena broke into a laugh that was music to his ears. Her voice tinkled with a pleasant melody before she replied.

“I guess I got lucky. I remember those things surrounded me and I sorta fell through the floor. It’s odd, all this effort to mess us around and we’re still alive. I don’t know why.”

Tommy walked over and sat beneath his window, just adjacent to Raveena. He could see the rubber soles of her boots and tried to remember if she’d been wearing them the night before. They certainly would have been useful.

“That weird monster. That was in my brother’s notepad. I bet all those other sketches are of everything else he saw.” he mused.

“You know, I’m really worried you’re right.”

“I saw Michael.”

Unconsciously, Raveena crossed her arms over her lap. Tommy searched her face for any clue of Michael; he’d never known the person except for the odd reference from his brother. As far as he knew, he could have been an extra in Jonathan’s life with no importance or meaning.

“You guys never talk about him. I know how he died, I’m not a baby.” he continued. With what they faced in their dreams, this seemed an idiotic thing to still be distant over. “Jonathan never really spoke about it. I don’t know why everyone had to be so weird about it.”

But he knew more. There were rumours at school that even the teachers were privy too.

“Tommy, I-” she began. Tommy recognized her tone at once; it was the voice of someone lecturing a child with the this isn’t for you and if you don’t like it, tough speech.

“Don’t do that. I don’t know why you’re all so weird about it but I think with what happened last night, I deserve the truth.” he snapped. Raveena mimed the ‘shush’ action with her raised forefinger as she looked on, embarrassed.

“Alright, alright. Just keep it down; your parents will end up calling the police on me if you word it like that.” she said. “Did Michael say anything? Tell me everything.”

Tommy didn’t know why his parents would call the police and didn’t care to wonder but he shook his head when Michael was mentioned.

“He sorta blipped and disappeared.” he admitted.

“Damn. We’re not getting much luck, are we? And my heroic sacrifice landed me back here. I tell you, it sucks being the hero.”

Chuckling at this, Tommy was almost shocked to hear such humour from someone whose words to him were usually bathed in dismissiveness. The laughter faded as both of them mused about Michael. He was an awkward kid; Tommy never met him but knew him from Jonathan’s stories. He’d often complain of stomach aches on more arduous days at school to the point his mother would be called to take him home. He was once off school for almost two terms and returned with no explanation. Still, he’d garnered a reputation for being quiet and only had a couple of friends.

“Did you know him?” he asked, knowing full well she did. Raveena knew what he was asking and bit her lower lip before giving in and responding.

“I know Jonathan wasn’t friends with him. Or at least he was. Hayden absolutely hated him because he always got off with not doing his homework. Or so he says. I know Michael wagged a lot of school and there was all that about him being a Mommy’s Boy.” she said. She began rubbing her elbows again and Tommy was certain she wasn’t even aware of it. “I didn’t see much of him but I know Hayden and Omar gave him grief. I’m pretty sure Jonathan isn’t exactly innocent either. But if he’s caught in this, then he’s in trouble even if he is dead. Whatever that place is, we’re all fucked when we’re there.”

Tommy winced at the prospect of his brother being an asshole to some quiet kid. As his older sibling, Jonathan had a typical relationship; they argued, Tommy was always player two on certain video games, Jonathan always got first pick of dessert. His own school years were ordinary though punctuated with the bruising words of insecure half pints who found solace in their circle of friends. The possibility Jonathan could have been cut from the same cloth nauseated him yet made him even more curious.

“Jonathan went on and on about these nightmares he had. We all thought he was talking crap and then he sorta went weird and happy. Before he died, I mean. Do you think Michael went through the same thing before he died?” he asked. Raveena stopped rubbing her arms and cast her eyes upon the window. It was ajar and a cool breeze was pooling in.

“I don’t know.”

“I know it sounds desperate but what other choice do we have? We can’t exactly tell our parents. I doubt your Mom will be thrilled; she’ll probably put you on pills or something.”

She sighed deeply and nodded. Encouraged, he pulled the door open and waited for her to take the hint. Instead, she frowned.

“I need to get changed.” he said.

“Oh.”

Raveena hurried out, leaving him to close the door and pull a clean t-shirt and jeans. As she waited, Helena stepped onto the landing still rubbing the sleep from her eyes. Any slumber was gone as her dark eyes widened upon seeing the wounds on Raveena’s face.

“Hi Miss Lawson.” she began, dropping her gaze to the floor. “I had a little cat trouble.”

Ever concerned, Helena stepped over and observed the damage. Had Raveena not raised her hands protectively, she’d have touched her face to get a better look.

“I didn’t know you owned a cat.” Helena replied. Her tone was the same of all concerned parents. This kid has obviously been cage fighting or beating away drug dealers.

“Mom bought one last week. Old fella. I was sleeping and he randomly decided to slash my nose off to wake me up.” she laughed. “I didn’t realize how bad it was until I saw all the blood on my covers the day after.”

Helena gave a small smile before stepping into the bathroom. Tommy came out just as she closed the door and they both rushed down the stairs. Raveena got the feeling he was waiting until his mother had left.

“Bye Dad. Going out with Raveena.” Tommy called, just as his right hand yanked open the front door. They were both down the drive and gone before David could tell them to have fun.

*

Omar killed roughly twenty people after jacking the police car. The newest Grand Theft Auto had eaten up most of his free time ever since he received it in the post. A flurry of missed school days went by until his Head of Year called in since then, Omar promised to have perfect attendance lest he lose his Xbox. Being the six-week holidays, he could play all day provided he kept up appearances at lunch and dinner. But today, his television wasn’t playing ball; the image smeared as though it were catching up with the rest of the screen. After buying his latest ounce of pot, he wouldn’t be able to afford a new television for months.

The nightmare prickled at his mind’s eye, threatening memories of that strange place where everything perspired and moved only in periphery vision. He remembered Raveena’s proposal and was concerned she was actually correct. God knows, he saw Jonathan’s little brother and he could easily corroborate this.

As he gunned down wave after wave of private security hitmen, he could not help but be distracted by this. He’d have given up his Xbox just to never discuss this again; Hayden would have been at boiling point for the mere fact he was left out.

The adage ‘talk of the devil’ came to mind as his phone lit up and blasted an obscure Guns N’ Roses demo. Hayden’s name glimmered as he dragged his thumb to the answer icon.

“What you doing right now?” Hayden demanded.

Omar winced. “Uh, just on GTA. What-”

“Fuck that. Listen.”

The phone line crackled as he spoke. Omar reluctantly asked him to repeat himself which he did with a pained sigh.

“Those weird fucking dreams. You know? That Jonathan’s missus went on about? I think I had one. I woke up in bed and the floor was all sweaty and this anorexic thing was scuffing up my floor. I saw Michael. Saint fucking Michael. I think I’m going mad but you had those dreams too, right?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

A shuffling at the end of the line as Hayden continued. The line crackled once more and Omar could only make out the last part of what he said.

“Hayden, the line’s messing up. I don’t-”

“For fuck’s sake. I said Michael appearing there isn’t good news. If Jonathan is and he’s not a zombie or something, then what’s to say Michael won’t blab about what happened?”

The possibility scared Omar. He was suddenly aware of the cold sweat on his brow.

“It’s just us and Raveena and that Tommy. It’s just a weird bad dream we all have.” Omar countered. Even Hayden could tell he didn’t believe that.

“Whatever it is, we need to keep an eye on them two. Rav likes to blab and Tommy’s a kid. All kids are stupid. He’ll blab even if he doesn’t know he is.”

“What can we do?”

“Keep an eye out. Listen out for anything. We can’t let this get out or shit’ll hit the fan.”

“Okay.”

The line was cut off, leaving Omar to contemplate what they had just said. On Grand Theft Auto, he’d been killed and failed the mission but he didn’t even notice.

*

Michael Cooper’s home was a lonely green house adjacent to a block of flats that had the reputation for being housed by vagrants and drunks. Since his death, his parents had cut themselves off from the world only venturing out for shopping and the rare church visit. Raveena only knew where he lived after a school trip to the theatre was cut short after Michael complained of a stomach bug. To the ire of the class, he was dropped off first and would have set himself up for some serious mockery had he not been absent for the rest of the term.

Raveena and Tommy walked in silence as each contemplated the scenario before them. They both imagined the offended expressions of Michael’s parents, the brief conversation that would follow and the door slamming on them. Tommy hung back and followed Raveena’s footsteps tentatively; the idea was now a bad taste in his mouth that, spit all he like, it wasn’t leaving.

The lime-green paint job looked even more pathetic upon closer inspection. Though this was a choice from the previous owners, Michael’s family nonetheless inherited the sneers of everyone who passed it. Raveena knocked on the front door and hoped no one would answer. The place always made her think of the mushy pea mixture her primary school used to serve up in large scoops. The one and only time she took a bite ended in her vomiting on her new cardigan.

A few moments passed before the door reluctantly opened. The mousy face of Mavis peeked around, alarmed at this unexpected house call. Raveena was stunned with how much she resembled her erstwhile son; the same eyes, pallid complexion and the flurry of freckles.

“Hi, Mrs Cooper. I’m Raveena and this is Tommy.” she began, weighing her words carefully. “We were friends of Michael’s.”

It took all of Tommy’s will power to not let his eyes bulge in shock. He never knew Raveena to lie to any adult but here she was, making Jonathan proud.

Mavis nodded several times as though she were still processing the information. She opened the door and waited for them to step inside before closing it. The first thing that they noticed was the odd, mildew smell that clung to everything empirical. Both held their breath and their tongues out of politeness but decided this was going to be a short visit. They were led into the small living room where Michael’s father, Harry, was sat in his easy chair reading an old book.

Following Mavis’ lead, they sat on the worn sofa and almost sank into the depressed cushions. Harry set down his book and together, the parents stared at them as though they’d just caught them breaking in.

“Hello, Mr Cooper.” greeted Raveena as Tommy repeated in a quieter voice. Harry merely nodded before clearing his throat. He looked back at his book leaving Mavis to reply.

“I’m so sorry about what happened to your brother.” Mavis said. Her voice was a reedy whistle that prickled the skin to listen to. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away and all that.”

Tommy blinked and began a dead stare on the floor. The carpet was smeared with dust and crumbs as though the Coopers had neglected their chores. Raveena nodded with solemn respect and placed her hand on Tommy’s shoulder. He did not look up even as the knot inside his stomach tightened.

“He’s still dealing with the loss. We all are.” Raveena said, her words perfectly composed. She kept her focus on Mavis’ grey eyes even though she felt an odd revulsion. Suddenly, the view from the window was the most beautiful thing in the world to her. “Michael meant so much to Jonathan, they were good friends. I wish we could have had more time together, all of us.”

“Really now?” Harry snapped. He set down his book and rose to his feet. Despite barely scraping 5’7”, his expression was thunder. Tommy looked up and was instantly reminded of a raucous Yorkshire Terrier.

“Michael didn’t have many friends. He certainly never spoke of someone like you.” Mavis snarled.

Raveena stiffened. “What do you mean?”

“Michael was frail. He didn’t belong at that school but we had no choice. And people like you made him worse.” Harry continued.

“Wait a second. You don’t know me or Tommy. I always spoke to Michael and I was always nice to him. Yeah, he was a little quiet but we never had any problems.” Raveena countered. Tommy nodded stiffly but still felt out of his depth. As Harry took a step, for one second he imagined him leaping at them in a violent rage.

“Why did you invite us in?” Tommy asked. His voice was almost a whimper but it disarmed Harry who sat back down.

“Sometimes you wish everything you hear is wrong.” Mavis said. “He wanted to be happy and have friends but you were the wrong type of friends. I’ve seen you with that Hayden kid and the other one in the park smoking blow and causing a nuisance. If the police here were decent, you lot would be doing community service.” As she spoke, Mavis had continually bobbed her head to accentuate her points but Tommy had to stuff a curled fist into his mouth to stop laughing. His own father had done a similar mockery of someone guilty of the same movements and it was returning with a vengeance.

“Are you sniggering?” Harry asked. At once, the laughter faded as Raveena abruptly changed the subject.

“In the week before his death, Jonathan had these weird nightmares. Now, we’ve all been having them. I wanted to ask if Michael had said if he’d gone through anything like that? It would really help us, I mean Tommy’s been freaking out and he is scared.” Raveena pressed.

Mavis shifted in her seat as her mouth hung open. No words came out as she glanced at her husband whose frown was in danger of bruising his eyebrows.

“Please.” Raveena begged.

“Enough.” Harry growled. He stood up once more and thrust his open palm to the doorway. “You can leave now before we call your parents. How dare you come here and try to pin my son’s passing on some silly prank.”

Mavis croaked something unintelligible as though something watery had claimed her throat as its own. Her arms pushed her upwards as she rounded on Raveena and Tommy. Not wasting time, they rushed out missing her bitter remarks that only made sense to her.

The door slammed as they rushed down the road and turned the corner. They stopped in the shadow of one of the trees that council maintained as part of the block’s image.

“Well that sucked. Now what?” Tommy asked. He kicked at the ground before settling into a strop. “This thing is gonna kill us and we can’t get any help. Fuck.”

That last word hung in the air like a bad stench. Raveena was surprised to hear him curse as, even away from his parents, Tommy was the golden boy. Only Jonathan had the mouth of a sailor in that family. A thought occurred to her, desperate and almost taboo, but in that moment, it made sense.

“We’ll wait till they go out. Then we’ll break in and have a look around.” she said. Tommy’s mouth dropped into a perfect ‘o’ as she added what she hoped was justification. “We’re not gonna take anything or mess the place up. You said Jonathan had journals, right? What if Michael did to?”

“But what if we get caught? Mom and Dad’ll kill me. Besides, what if we do find journals? Then what? We have no plan.” Tommy protested. “Maybe these dreams will just fade or something.”

Raveena stepped into Tommy’s comfort zone, glaring into his eyes. Though she was a foot taller, he could see the wounds upon her face as guilt pooled inside him. As he looked away, she knew he was onboard.

“But how we gonna get in? What if they catch us?” he moaned.

“They’re old people. They always go out together shopping or whatever.”

“You sure?”

She was. Often when Raveena tagged along with her mother to go to the local shopping centre, she’d seen the old couple creeping along the high street together. He’d grumble about the pub and fishing supplies while she’d bleat on to the friends she had about how brilliant Michael was. Even after his death, they still went out though recently she’d noticed how subdued they became. Her mother would always make a sympathetic comment whenever they passed which was either ‘those poor souls’ or ‘may their son rest in peace’. This would usually be levelled with Ruby commenting they were the ‘mole people’.

“It’s the holidays and we have nowhere else to be. I say we hang back a bit and see if they go out. When they do, we strike.” she said. Her confidence was unnerving but Tommy, not wanting to let her down, nodded silently. They walked together down the street and onto the next, all the while they kept within radius of the Cooper home.

*

An hour had passed before Mavis and Harry slowly ambled their way into town. Tommy saw them pass by as they were about to step out of the local newsagents. Seeing them, Raveena had pulled him back into the shop and together they waited for them to pass, to the bemusement of the owner.

As they tottered out of view, the shopkeeper had snapped at them to leave and they did though not without upending a display of lollipops. Raveena had to drag Tommy away as he clumsily attempted to shove all the spilled sweets back onto the stand.

“Jesus, Tommy. No time.” she said, as they went outside. They rushed down the street until they came upon the Cooper household once more. Raveena stepped forth with purpose which was alien to Tommy; he hesitated and managed to irritate her as she shadowed the front door.

“Second thoughts, really?” she fired.

“This is wrong. We’re gonna get caught.” he replied, shuffling his shoes among the gravel. Their driveway was a patchwork of bad paving and it showed. “Can’t we ask-”

But she was gone. She ran around the house and disappeared, leaving him to contemplate his position. For one moment, he imagined just walking away and leaving her be. He’d go home, curl up on the sofa and watch whatever the television had to offer. But then his parents would invariably end up speaking of his brother and that familiar coldness would descend upon them all.

The front door opened to reveal Raveena’s grinning face. Anxious, he hurried inside and as she closed behind him, expected to see a sea of broken glass.

“I came in through the kitchen window. Thing was half-open so I just wriggled in. Old people are way too trusting, you know?” she explained before he had the chance to ask.

“I guess we find clues.” Tommy said.

“Okay Scoobie, let’s split up.”

“Shut up.”

But they kept together as they decided to climb the stairs. Like most of the house, the stairs was pounded in by neglect and dirt. Flat indents gave the impression that the family must have regularly raced up and down the steps. Old family photos patterned the walls with Michael as a young child being the most prominent. Younger photos of Mavis and Harry showed that even in youth, they looked beyond their years.

Upon reaching the landing, the dirty scent of aged sweat swept over them like an unwelcome breeze. Raveena gagged as Tommy pressed his jacket sleeve into his mouth, grateful for the faded scent of deodorant.

“These guys ever hear of air freshener? Old people.” Raveena muttered.

They looked over each of the doors and found each was labelled with a small wooden plaque. Harry & Mavis’s Room, The Bathroom (Subtitled For Poems and Short Stories Only) and Guest Room. But not Michael’s Room.

Tommy tried the guest room and found it was empty save for a bed and a dresser. He looked around, knowing it futile but desperate for anything. It felt so cruel to be forced so far out of his comfort zone just to be left wanting.

“Tommy?” called Raveena.

Giving up, he stepped out and found her looking at a lone door at the end of the landing. It was missing a plaque but a dust-rimmed rectangle implied it was recently removed.

“Buckle up.” Raveena said, pushing the handle.

The door swung open, letting out a dusty spray of dead air. A moth fluttered out, brushing her face and causing her to violently spasm. She swiped at it but the insect flew out of sight. Tommy stifled a laugh as she pushed her long hair from her face.

“I hate those things. They always fly at my mouth.” she grumbled as she stepped into Michael’s old room. Tommy had a mental picture of an oversized computer and several ten-foot-high stacks of games. Perhaps posters of scantily clad women with body proportions made impossible by ordinary genetics.

“Oh great.” sighed Tommy. He was wrong on all counts. The room was completely empty; even the carpet was stripped to reveal the skeletal floorboards beneath. “Now what? We broke into an empty room.”

Raveena shrugged. She opened her mouth to respond but Tommy waved her off. His eyes bulged with the fear of a boy whose worst punishment was no television before bed. Then she heard it.

The front door slammed shut.

Both intruders looked to each other, hoping that somehow either of them had a way out. Footsteps shuffled back and forth beneath them as Raveena contemplated the window. Instead, Tommy pushed the door shut gently and held a hand to his mouth. Quiet.

“We’re screwed.” Tommy whispered. “Can you call anyone or something?”

Raveena shook her head. Who could she call? Ruby would just tell her on her, her mother would just ground her and Omar would want to stay as far away as possible. Hayden would just laugh and tell the Coopers they were in their deceased son’s room.

The staircase creaked with more haste than they expected before stopping as if to ponder their next move. Raveena raised her fist in a foolish gesture and faced the door. Tommy grabbed her arm and shook his head violently.

A heavy breath punctuated the air from outside. Either Harry or Mavis then moved away from them and they heard another door open.

“We might get out of this. If we play the long game.” Raveena murmured. A smile played around the corners of her mouth that Tommy recognized as relief. “Just gotta be very careful.”

“Get out. Now.” came a stern voice.

Shoes stomped across the hallway and a powerful fist was brought down on Michael’s bedroom door.

“NOW.”

Raveena pulled the door open to reveal the canine face of Harry. Despite his short stature, in that moment he towered over them. His eyes were electric with disgust causing them both to stare at the ground ashamed.

“Mavis, get up here. I was right, wasn’t I?” he growled.

Mavis employed the same expression of utter dislike as her husband as she slowly joined him. Her colourless eyes were wide and accusatory as she stood beside him.

“You evil scumbags.” she said. “How dare you.”

Renxiang took a step forward as she raised her hands in innocence. A protest had barely left her lips before Harry pinned her to the wall with surprising strength. His free hand pummelled her chest and the promise of bruises shadowed her breast. Tommy tried to pull the old man away but Mavis swung a powerful right hook leaving him to stumble in a daze. She then grabbed a hank of his hair and dragged him over to the stairs. Seeing this, Raveena raised her knee into Harry’s groin before dropping her forehead into his nose. It exploded into a red mist as Harry was then caught in a painful sneezing fit. He reached out for Raveena who knocked him into the wall as he slammed his head off the brick covering. She watched surprised as he slumped unconscious. Blood cascaded from his nose and his yawning mouth until it stained his beige trousers. A brief moment passed where Raveena almost burst out in insane laughter reminding herself it wasn’t ‘that’ time of the month.

“You bitch.” Mavis snarled. She released Harry just inches from the stairs and charged at Raveena, knocking her onto her back. She raised her right foot, ready to slam it on Raveena’s throat. Then, with a force she could not comprehend, Mavis was knocked flying into the ajar window and could do nothing as her face and outstretched arms crashed through the glass. The Cooper’s had always been frugal with their purchases and double-glazing was never a priority even after the recent cold spells.

Mavis shrieked and it was an ungodly sound. She pulled out of the broken window frame to reveal that numerous shards had torn into her flesh. Her right eye had been punctured by a particularly long piece that also wounded her cheek, revealing the sinew that hung useless. The silvery remains of her eye dribbled and pooled in the exposed cavity.

“Fuck.” Raveena breathed. Instinctively, she pulled Tommy behind her.

“I didn’t mean to hurt her like that. It was an accident.” he moaned.

Harry stirred as Mavis approached, her face still etched with broken glass. Again, she cried out in that awful, shrill voice. Raveena backed away, her hands waving Tommy to retreat. But he remained, partly out of fear and partly out of loyalty. Then without warning, Mavis leapt at them both. Raveena tried forced her away as the splintered shards cut into her hands. Mavis screamed something violent as she forced Raveena to her knees. Her hands, merely beige gloves with deep liver spots, wrapped around Raveena’s throat and began to squeeze. Tommy could only watch as she thrashed at Mavis, trying to scratch and punch her way out of the vice grip. But Mavis’ grip was cold and determined; Raveena began to choke, her lips coated in spittle as she spoke only in choked vowels.

The long shard of glass that was lodged in Mavis’ eye socket was twisted, releasing her grip on Raveena. Tommy forced the old woman to the edge of the landing as he forced the pane deeper into her skull. She cried out in an impossible crescendo before he pushed her backwards. The glass came out of her socket with a wet flumk as she fell down the heavy, wooden staircase. With each impact, something within her contorted and broke and she was long gone before her skull collided with the last step. Tommy looked over the crumpled remains of her body from the first step and before stumbling to the ground. He buried his face within his hands but could feel the accusing glare of the departed Mavis.

“Tommy-” Raveena said, reaching for her arm before he shrank from her touch.

“I killed her.” he moaned. Tears fell from those indigo eyes that begged Raveena to tell him otherwise. She knelt and gently pressed her hands upon his. He obeyed her, feeling younger at that moment than he ever had in his life.

“You saved me.” she replied.

“But she fell down the stairs and hit her head.”

“She was trying to hurt us. I’d have done the same thing for Ruby.”

She pulled him into an embrace as she tried to rid the weight of their reality. He’d saved her at the cost of his childhood and now she could do nothing but let him mourn it. Harry stirred feebly by them before exhaling into stillness. He was still bleeding profusely and it was starting to flood the trampled carpet. She stood and he obeyed, still crying silently.

“We need to leave. God knows, we need more help.” she said. Together they stepped down the stairs in single file. With every step, they became more conscious of the body of Mavis that was sprawled upon the last few steps. Her skirt had hiked up to reveal the unpleasant view of her soiled undergarments causing them both to look away as she descended.

Raveena passed her first, using the railings to leverage her jump over her body. She looked up at Tommy and offered an encourage smile as he attempted the same thing. With a long exhale, he leant into the railing and jumped over the body before joining Raveena. He didn’t smile but she could tell he was happy he was able to imitate her.

“They… are… try-ing to lea-ve… Ha-rry.”

They looked around, their worst fears realized as Mavis’ head snapped to their direction. Her remaining eye was bloodied as she shrieked. Her right arm flailed at them but it was nothing more than a snapped forearm on a moving stump. Glancing at the top step, they could see blood trickling down in increments.

“Shit, we should leave.” Raveena said, grabbing Tommy. “Wait. Back entrance.”

Mavis tried crawling to them but her broken limbs could afford her movement by mere inches. Raveena yanked the backdoor open and together they took off down the street until the Cooper household was buried behind several residential blocks. As they slowed with fatigue, Tommy began to tremble as the reality of what had happened began to set in. Noticing this, Raveena grabbed his shoulders and looked deep into his eyes. She spoke tenderly, not caring of the odd trickle of strangers that were passing them by.

“Tommy, relax. We got out and we’re alive. They can’t hurt us now.” she soothed.

Tommy nodded. He could not meet her eyes but felt compelled to go along with what she said.

“You want to come to mine? We’ll watch something with Ruby and plan something else. There’s more to this, I know there is.”

Shaking his head, Tommy took off before she could stop him.

“I just wanna go home. This is too much, I mean, they tried to kill us.” he replied. He’d already made it across the road before Raveena rushed over and blocked his path.

“You need to promise me something. You cannot tell your Mom and Dad about what happened.”

“You kidding me? What the Hell?”

Tommy was indignant. He glared at Raveena but felt regret wash over him when her eyes returned his look with sadness.

“Because something about this feels weird. Think about it; they attacked us. It was like they were possessed or something.”

“We broke into their home.” hissed Tommy. He was quite aware he was attracting a few stairs even though he managed to keep his voice down. Conscious of this, they took a small detour down the adjacent alley and found refuge between the white slats of the parallel fences.

“They’re two old people. Don’t you think it’s weird they’d try to attack us? I mean, they were out for blood. This just doesn’t feel right.” she said. Her expression was manic and her movements very rapid; her hands shook and pushed with every word. “We just need to come up with something. Maybe an anonymous call to the police or something but they won’t believe us if we come right out and say we were defending ourselves.”

Tommy understood. As bitter a pill it was to swallow, the reaction of his parents was not something he wanted to see. His father’s temper was legendary as his cool demeanour was almost constant whilst his mother knew exactly what to say to procure the most guilt. The blood of Michael’s parents felt warm on his hands even though they were clear and unblemished. Nodding profusely, he understood and took off alone leaving Raveena to watch him in thought. Before, he’d have done anything to be a part of her company but now he believed he’d be happier had he never met her.

*

The evening passed by without a second thought. David and Helena were curled up on the sofa watching some crime drama that Tommy was oblivious to. His mind was reliving the confrontation he had with Hayden which was still fresh; his hands still stung with the deep scratches of gravel and he could even remember his sour breath that felt moist upon his face.

“Look at that guy in the background. He’s gonna come into it, look.” David exclaimed. His tone was lighter than the day before; though he was still mourning his deceased son, he seemed lighter. Tommy’s own sullenness worried them but they decided he was having a harder time dealing with it than they were.

David looked expectantly at his son who nodded until he was left alone. His father had that annoying habit of including him in every talking point of whatever they watched. It was alright when it was Better Call Saul but now he just wanted to be with his thoughts. He wondered if it would be better if he were alone but then the memory of that awful scratching filled him with fear. Going outside was out of the question; Hayden was there plus where would he go?

“You okay there, chief?” David asked.

Tommy nodded again.

“You’ve been really quiet.” Raveena added.

He wanted to tell them. All of it; the dreams, Jonathan’s notebooks, what happened at the Cooper household. But then what? It all felt facile as though no amount of words could accurately portray the desperation he felt. He wondered if they’d dismiss the dreams before settling into the horror of what went on at the Cooper house. No police had come knocking; all the same, he’d been incredibly jumpy whenever he saw a car pass or the time when the phone rang.

“Just thinking.” he muttered. He tried to smile but it must have looked as fake as it felt as his parents’ concern turned to worry.

“You miss your brother, don’t you?” Helena asked. “It’s okay. We miss him too.”

“If you want, we can go out to Sternport tomorrow.” David offered. “I know it’s a little cloudy but it’s holiday season so they’ll have the ice cream vans out.”

Tommy nodded again. “Sounds nice.”

He thought of Jonathan and Raveena and stood up. He hurried out of the room and up the stairs leaving his parents to watch with sympathy. As he hit the landing, he slowed and listened out for any footsteps. Though he heard nothing, he half expected either his mother or father to climb up and speak to him. He let thirty seconds pass before gently pressing his parent’s bedroom door open. What he wanted was in an elaborately carved wooden box no larger than his PlayStation. Pausing once more for the possibility of parental meddling, he lifted the box from the wardrobe and lifted the lid. Within was the Smith & Wesson Ladysmith his mother had as a gift from her own father. Jonathan had been obsessed with the weapon and had often pestered his mother for shooting lessons. “No, no. It’s not a toy.” she’d proclaim even though she was guilty of posing with it in several of her Facebook profile pictures.

He picked it up carefully as though touching the cold steel was enough to set it off. The gun felt heavy in his hand and not in the least bit reassuring. He thought of the nutjobs on the news and shuddered. But still, it was this or nothing though he felt dirty for accepting this. He pressed his finger on the chamber and saw six bullets gleam in the landing light. Pressing it closed, he put the box away and darted to his own room.

Now to wait for sleep. It was only nine but he felt as though he’d been on his feet all day. The memories of Mavis, Harry and Hayden congealed in his mind as though he were anesthetized. All that mattered to him now was the cold metal of the gun against his hand as he pondered his dreams once more. He wondered if the room he saw there was his; if the town was corrupted then wouldn’t the same apply here? But then he went to that place fully clothed and Raveena retained her wound from the monster. Maybe the rules are different. It couldn’t hurt to try unless he killed himself or Raveena with the thing. The gun felt unfriendly and he did not feeler safer in its presence. He closed his eyes and awaited the sleep that would steal him.

*

A road twisted from darkness as footsteps echoed upon its surface. Whatever was back there was gaining on them and though the Aberration was unseen, imagination painted a crueller picture. Under the ochre streetlight appeared Ruby who panted with exhaustion she’d not known since her cross-country days. She closed her eyes hoping that when she reopened them, she’d be in her room once more with the Twilight posters and her stuffed pony collection. But she was out here, in the cold with the grunting of cars in the distance and every passing home looking more strange and unfriendly. She’d had nightmares like this before but they usually ended with her being roused by her sister’s order for her to awaken or her phone ringing. Then like most dreams, it would fade with the morning.

But here felt real. Everything had a sour quality that made her think of petrol mixed with sweat. Ruby wanted to call out for someone so she could be taken home but she dared not raise her voice. What if someone did reply?

Silhouettes folded from the darkness and disappeared before she could get a second look. Her pace had slowed and she had the feeling whatever was out there was ready to surround her like a deer caught in the middle of a Pride. She thought of The Lion King and suppressed the urge to laugh as a curled fist met her trembling lips. But this was funny! This was some bizarre dream and it would end with a punch line. Like her dream about Robin Williams or when her mother introduced a clown as her stepfather.

“Ruby? You’re here too?” came a voice familiar but still alarming.

She froze as the dark shape formed in the pale light. It was Omar though without his smile Ruby almost didn’t recognize him. Maybe that was why he always smiled, she thought, his glum expression doesn’t suit him.

“You seen your sister?” he asked.

Ruby shook her head. Seeing Omar should have reassured her but instead she just felt more afraid.

“What is this place?” she questioned. The more she looked around, the deeper the shadows became,

“I don’t know.” Omar replied. “I think we should look for the others though.”

“Others?”

“I saw your sister and that Tommy kid before. I think Jon-” he cut off and shook his head. “Let’s just see if we can find your sister, alright?”

Ruby began to rub her elbows much like her sister would in that scenario. Her mouth opened with the ghosts of desperate questions she dared not ask. She would have given anything to be called gullible just for all of this to be a practical joke.

“Come on.” Omar pressed, holding out his right hand. She took it wordlessly but was grateful. Together, they walked down the tarmac that faded to concrete as they observed their surroundings. The houses had contorted into clustered, diagonal shapes that defied the laws of gravity. Without a strong light source, they could have been Aberrations themselves.

“Is this real?” Ruby asked. Omar nodded glumly but she could not settle into silence. Something clinked in the distance and she wanted to ignore it, whatever it was. She imagined a metal gate being thrown into its open lock by an unruly wind. “Where’s my sister?”

“Last time this happened, she was at the park with Tommy. Apparently she saved him from some weird things. I don’t know. Sooner we all get in a group, the safer we’ll get and we can find a way to wake up.”

“Why am I here?”

“I have no clue. But you are and we have to change that.”

“I just wanna wake up. This doesn’t feel right; everything here is so gross and clammy.”

“I know what you mean.”

They walked on but she still buzzed with questions. Her hand felt cold within his but he dared not let her go.

“You miss Jonathan? I know he was your friend and all.” she asked.

The question had caught him off-guard. He remembered what his mother had said, following their talk about bullying at school “Kids aren’t like adults. Their level of sympathy is different because they don’t understand the things they say.” He had felt a brief flash of shock at her comment but instead cleared his throat and replied as gently as he could.

“I do miss him. He was one of my best friends.”

“You know how he died? It spread all over school.”

At this point, he did glare at Ruby and she looked away out of guilt. She scratched at her chin with her free hand before continuing.

“I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just you don’t think it’ll happen to someone you know. After that Grunge guy died, all the metalheads were upset and I don’t get why. He ended it, he wasn’t murdered, you know?”

“You mean Chris Cornell and it was a shame. You just don’t know what’s going on in people’s heads. I know you’re young and all but there’s always more to it.”

Ruby pursed her lips as Omar felt the same contrarian vibes as he did with her older sister. Her hand tightened within his.

“I’m not that young. I know about death. Mom told me about it when Grandad died.”

His mother’s words about the sympathy of youth echoed in his mind once again as he looked out at their surroundings. On the path they took, he expected to be down the road from the park but the buildings surrounding them looked as though they came from the high street. They looked to be chewed up and spat out beforehand.

“Shit.” he murmured. “This ain’t right.”

“Where are we?”

“I’m looking for the park. It’s where I met them last time.”

“The town square isn’t far off. We could try there. Maybe they changed plans.”

He mulled her words over and shrugged. It wasn’t impossible; there might be even more out there roaming lost as they were.

shhhnnnnnkkkkkk…

Their footsteps halted. Ruby looked around and saw nothing as Omar began to tremble beside her.

“Hey.” she said, nudging him.

shhhhhnnnhnnnnnkkkkkk…

“Omar.” she hissed, her voice more alert. That seemed to rouse him as he cantered forward into a loping run. With a violent yank, she was brought forward with him and almost tripped.

“Come on.” he breathed. They ran leaving the scratching to become a broken him in the background. They passed what was once the local pub and they found themselves in the town square. Soaked in the pale light of the overhanging lamps, it looked almost ordinary. The building wasn’t a grotesque parody of itself compared to those around it which filled Omar with a slither of hope.

“Omar.” Ruby moaned, pointing at a dark shape that approached him. He tensed, not knowing what he would do lest the intruder attacked but as the light cast them in relief, the scowling face of Hayden loomed.

“So, you’re here too. Great.” he said, whistling in annoyance. Omar frowned; Hayden was never the most open but in this scenario? Was he expecting the cavalry?

“Yeah, we are. I thought you didn’t have these dreams?” Omar replied.

Hayden shrugged. He cast his colourless eyes over to Ruby and rolled them.

“You owe Raveena an apology. She was right about this place.” he continued. Ruby stirred beside him, curious as to what he meant.

“Piss off.” he snapped but he’d lost some of the authority in his voice. “Maybe it was that pot I bought a while back.”

“Explain how Tommy got here then.” Omar countered.

“Maybe he got a contact high or stole Jonathan’s stash or something. I don’t know.”

“Come on, Hayden.”

Ruby stepped between them. “We need to find shelter or something. This feels creepy.”

“You’re right.” Omar replied. “Thing is, where is okay?”

Hayden stepped out of the cone of light and over to the adjacent pub. He pushed the door open and entered leaving it ajar. Omar grabbed Ruby’s hand and together they both rushed inside. Every surface gleamed with polished wood tops and pint glasses as though the place was abandoned during its busiest hour. Hayden slammed and locked the door behind them as they observed their surroundings.

“I could turn the lights on.” Hayden suggested.

Omar shook his head. “We don’t wanna advertise our whereabouts.”

Hayden scowled and stomped over to the bar. He began to pull on each of the taps and was rewarded with a dry sputter.

“Fucking place is tapped.” Hayden grumbled. A deep line dug into his forehead as he spoke. “What a waste.”

Ruby sat herself down at the nearest table along with Omar who sat opposite. He said something to her that made her smile briefly before turning his attention to Hayden.

“So? It’s a dream, isn’t it? Why would it matter?” he questioned. He did wonder, did it? If you drank in a dream, wouldn’t you get drunk because of the suggestion? He had no idea of the rules and for matters of alcohol, it wasn’t high on his list of priorities. “I think we should think about sealing this place.”

“It couldn’t hurt. Nothing’s gonna happen to us.”

“Raveena had a scratched face. Was that because of this place?” Ruby asked. Her eyes were wide with the dim reflection of the distant lamplight.

Omar hadn’t seen her since the previous night and wondered if that was indeed the case. Nothing would surprise him anymore.

“Can’t have made her any uglier.” Hayden said, jumping onto the bar and letting his feet swing over the wooden stools.

Ruby frowned as Omar shook his head. Grinning to himself, Hayden began to feel comfortable. As she began to protest, something slammed into the building as glass shattered over them in a diamond dust. The wooden foundation squealed in protest as though the earth itself was rejecting this little building.

“The fu-” Hayden yelled as the same force slammed into the building once more. This time, the ceiling began to crumble under the seismic blow as furniture from above rained upon them. Omar and Ruby were inches from being crushed by a heavy television that smashed into sparks and serrated plastic on the table before them. Hayden disappeared beyond the bar and through the back exit leaving Omar to weave a path with Ruby. Chairs slammed before them before a coffee table nearly crushed him. They splintered harmlessly around them as they pushed on to the doorway.

Then the pub was hit a third time.

The roof was torn from its structure like soft apple skin revealing the rotting innards. Cold air washed over them as they saw the monster, the long-limbed being with the awful claws, leering down at them with its misshaped mouth. It was the size of an albatross; impossible yet here it was as though it were made by God. It rattled a lusty breath as it swiped at them with the intent of an executioner. Ruby screamed but followed Omar’s lead as they improvised their exit. The doorway was buried under the rubble of the upstairs so they climbed over the remains. The monster exhaled its moist, acrid breath over them in apparent enjoyment before slamming its left limb upon the pub. The last of the skeletal foundations disintegrated as Omar and Ruby fled into the car park. As the monster watched, they snaked into the back alley as the sodden ground splashed beneath them. The monster swiped at the corrupted buildings which were obliterated into a haze of debris. They hacked and coughed behind curled fists as they thundered down the walkway.

Ruby tried the exit that led to the main street before Omar called her back.

“This way.” Omar shouted. He pointed to the where the path forked and they took the other route down the back alley. Home after home passed with every step as the monster began to tear at the houses they left in their wake.

Ruby looked back, not knowing why or if she even needed to. Her periphery caught something that momentarily caused her to slow her running. It was Hayden who was climbing over the fence of one of the many homes in the firing line of the monster’s assault. He saw Omar and Ruby before racing over. Ruby pulled on Omar’s arm causing him to slow much to his consternation.

“What? We need to run.” Omar said before he saw Hayden. “Come on.” he yelled to his best friend.

Hayden bombed past and together they ran as the monster followed. The alley eventually gave way to the open road leaving them to the mercy of the large Aberration. As the remnants of the buildings spat loose pipes and destroyed furniture, the trio ran even as their lungs ached with protest. The monster was gaining on them with each lunge it was only mere feet from them before Omar cried out.

“We need to split up. Go.”

He waved at Ruby to go down the high street but she looked reluctantly from him to the monster. Hayden took advantage and broke away from them. Omar tried to peel away but was transfixed by the sloping, angular arm of the Aberration which tore through the air with the force of a tank. It slammed down on Hayden, crushing him into the tarmac and causing the land to tremble around them. It rose its claw and observed the remains of him as though it were an interesting curio. Omar gave up on the splitting up idea and took Ruby’s hand once more. They crossed the road and took the forked road down into the residential area; Omar kept glancing back at the monster which seemed intrigued with the corpse. For now, they were safe.

Ruby slowed, holding onto her side as a cramp threatened to overcome her. Omar collapsed upon the knee-high brick wall of who he knew to be the Turner family home, awaiting the vomit promised in the pit of his stomach. After a round of dry heaving and messy spitting, he stood up and faced Ruby who was watching the distant Aberration crawl away into the darkness.

“What the Hell was that?” she breathed. Omar didn’t answer as he sank to his knees. At that moment, he thought of Jonathan and felt a heavy weight in his chest that was nothing to do with fatigue. He looked at Ruby and raised his hands in a ‘well, now what?’ gesture before slamming them down at his side.

“We’re fucked.” he said.

“Don’t say that.” Ruby replied. “My sister-”

“You saw the size of that thing. We are fucked. We’re all dropping like flies and there’s fuck all we can do.”

“But-”

“Don’t.”

He began to weep silently into his hands. Sniffing, he tried to fight back but his sadness was a fusillade he could not contain. Ruby stepped over and embraced him. Even as the suggestion of more aberrations fumbled in the distance, they remained until the morning light stole them away.

*

As Ruby’s eyes opened, she jumped out of bed as though she never slept. Pulling her door open, she forced her way into Raveena’s room and shook her sister’s sleeping form until she reluctantly woke. Annoyed, she almost pushed Ruby away until she saw her alarmed expression.

“Rav, you need to call Hayden. Please.” she begged.

“What? Why?” Raveena groaned. She picked up her phone from her nightstand. “It’s barely eight. What the Hell?”

“I had this weird dream. Omar was there. Please, you gotta call him.”

Raveena was still rubbing the sleep from her eyes as the word ‘dream’ flooded her consciousness like a torrid memory. Finally blinking into clarity, she swiped through the menus of her phone and hit ‘call’ on Hayden’s number. Knowing him, she expected some vulgar joke or vicious response for being called so early. But it continued to ring for what felt like an eternity until the voicemail answered. It crackled with static as though each word spoken was closer to breaking the connection.

“So, you’re in that place now?” she asked as Ruby nodded. “What did you see?”

“A big monster thing. Its mouth was at the side of its face and it was big, like really big.”

“What do you mean big?”

“It was bigger than anything I’ve ever seen. It was destroying the buildings.”

Raveena climbed out of bed and began pulling on her shoes. She slept fully clothed knowing it was help when she went to the corrupted world. But she did not dream that night, like Tommy she had an empty sleep that left her feeling hollow.

“It’s dark in here.” Ruby muttered as she wandered over to the curtains. Raveena swiped on her phone once more and tried to call Omar. The curtains pulled open with a reedy clatter to reveal a dense skyline shrouded in darkness.

“Hello? Omar? You there?” Raveena said before putting her phone down. “It’s all static.” she added, before looking out the window. It was as though the sun had been extinguished leaving the earth to surrender to eternal night. The hint of amber soaked through the window pane and flickered angrily.

*

Omar discovered the town had fallen to darkness not long after Raveena. He too was dressed in his casual clothes after deciding there was little reason if his dreams were to be corrupted. Hayden’s broken form cast a shadow over him to which he felt completely indifferent to the darkness.

Someone knocked on his door. He remained sullen and hoped they’d disappear. Probably his mother asking him if he wanted tea or something.

The knock repeated. It was an odd signature as though the person were inebriated and uncertain if they had the wrong room. Omar roused and sighed before inviting them in.

The knocking continued. This time it became a perfect metronome until he rose and opened. His father greeted him with a dead stare; his eyes were glassy and lacking. He tried speaking but a tarry substance fell from his lips. Omar retreated as something resembling speech rose from the sickly liquid.

*

“RAVEENA.” screamed Ruby.

Ruby had left the room for the bathroom, promising her sister she’d be quick. During this time, Raveena had pulled on her heavy jacket that Jonathan had gifted her the previous month; she had also picked up her Harley Quinn baseball bat that felt oddly reassuring in her hands. It was during her second practise swing she heard Ruby call out and so, she followed her sister’s voice.

Her mother, Prisha, the Senior Property Manager who helped spearhead the new developments in Old Regis, was strangling her youngest daughter. Raveena tried to drag her mother away from her until, with the strength of someone beyond her years, Prisha slammed her arm into her and knocked her to the ground. As Ruby slumped and caressed her aching throat, Prisha set her sight on Raveena. The baseball bat clattered out of reach as Prisha pulled her right fist back and slammed it into her eldest’s chest. The flesh of her arms began to tear as various sharp appendages rose like bloodied diamonds.

What was Prisha groaned as her eyes clouded with a deep crimson mist. She arched her newly formed arms and began a crude joust at Raveena’s scrambling body. Ruby could only watch as Raveena managed to avoid the worst of it. Her upper right arm was shredded by the assault and even her thick jacket could not protect from the strength of the blow. Prisha collapsed and turned around in a jerky pose as though she was forgetting how the basics of her movement. With her good arm, Raveena grabbed for her bat and swing it wildly at her mother’s snapping face. It connected and broke her nose into a red cauliflower. She spat blood with every exhale before rounding on Ruby once more. Like a bull seeing its most hated colour, she charged at her youngest who could only watch in frozen horror. But Raveena had leapt at her, yanking her back by the collar of her shirt. Despite being inches from her, Raveena swung the bat once more as Prisha’s jaw shattered upon its hinges. Almost in slow motion, Ruby tried to reach for her sister who looked to h0er. There was no fear in her eyes only a strange serenity that made her disconnected from what was about to unfold.

Prisha collapsed into Raveena causing them to both fall down the steps. Each heavy, wooden stop emanated with the sickening connect of bone upon surface. Ruby watched the forms of her mother and sister descend in a sick ballet and could do nothing until they reached the bottom step.

Raveena stirred beneath her mother’s dead form as she tried to pull herself up. Ruby was carefully descending the stairs as she watched her sister struggle to stand. But Ruby saw before she did why she could not. Her mother’s arm, sharp with the growth from her corruption, had impaled her sister in the stomach. Before she even reached the landing, Ruby fell to her knees and began to cry.

“Ruby.” Raveena breathed.

But Ruby could not hear her above her sobbing.

“Ruby.” she repeated.

Her tears fell as Ruby begged silently as though her words would confirm the dreadful reality. She’d have given anything to be woken up by her mother and sister arguing about something trivial. Recently it had been her staying out time and the possibility Raveena had been smoking.

“It hurts.” Raveena moaned. Her voice was gentle and had Ruby been sobbing, she would not have heard her. She exhaled almost in relief as she looked down at the limb that had pinned her. Her blood was now soaking everything below her chest and it only grew in volume.

“What do I do?” Ruby cried. She held her big sister’s left hand softly within her own. Moments passed but Raveena did not reply.

“Raveena?” she begged.

*

Like Omar and Raveena, Tommy woke to see the sky shrouded in darkness. Unlike them however, fear flooded him like a powerful narcotic and he was already out the door rushing downstairs.

“Mom.” he called out. “Dad?”

Nothing but silence. His house was hung in unfriendly shade as he entered his living room. The television was on but nothing but a dead glow filled the screen. The kitchen was also vacant leading him to fear the worst. Was he still dreaming? Had he been dragged deeper in this? At that moment, he remembered the gun that was laying on his bed and suddenly felt very vulnerable without it. He rushed back up the stairs and into his room only to be stopped by the crooked figure by his bed.

Michael Cooper was facing him as though he’d never died. He was also holding Helena’s gun.

“Hello Thomas.” he said. His voice sounded very brittle as though his very speech could have been broken by a simple retort. As he stepped away from the window, the vague light washed over him bringing him into detail. His cranium was dented severely leaving his two blackened eyes to suffocate beneath his considerable forehead. Broken ribs poked through the torn threads of his t shirt and glinted with each breath. Michael looked as though he had crawled from the scene of a violent accident yet he spoke as though he only had a minor cough. Despite this, all Tommy could focus on was the broken noose wrapped around his neck like a crude fashion accessory. The last time he’d seen it was on the floor of his brother’s room.

“How do you like it here?” he said, waving his gun at the surroundings. Tommy shook his head in confusion before he clarified. “Not your room. The surroundings. The other side. The corrupted world as some of you called it. Not bad, huh?”

Tommy didn’t respond. His eyes were focused on the noose. Michael noticed this but said nothing even as a mocking smile curved his lips.

“We’re going to find your brother. He’s around here somewhere. He can’t stay in one place, no, he has to wander all about the fucking place.”

He was still lingering in the doorway. Michael seemed content to soak in all the attention he was receiving and didn’t seem to notice Tommy took a small step back. His left foot disappeared into the hall as he pulled back his leg. Then, as though a switch were flipped inside of him, he bolted down the hall once more and jumped down the stairs three steps at a time. Hitting the landing, he bounded through the front door and almost made it halfway down his drive until a powerful grip caught him by his collar. His feet found the air before slamming down under him as strong arms wrapped around his throat and chest. Within this vice he was powerless even as he screamed to be let go.

“You don’t get to leave.” snarled Michael as he closed the front door behind him. “You can drop him, he gets it.” he added.

Tommy was dropped like a marionette whose strings had been cut. His lungs found oxygen as the pressure lifted from his frail body and it took several moments for him to gather himself and stand. He first saw Michael whose shattered jaw protruded at an odd angle. However, it was the slumped shape opposite him that caused his chest to tighten once more.

“D-dad?” he sputtered.

His lungs felt twisted as he tried to catch his breath. It was his father but the blank eyes staring into the distance as his bloodied mouth bared the white teeth within told him otherwise. Whatever this supplanter was, it wasn’t his father. David Lawson ceased to live just after Tommy fell into his empty sleep.

As if on cue, his mother stumbled over and bumped into David but they could only trade glassy stares that revealed no connection between them. Tommy remembered one night years before where they’d came home very late from a friend’s birthday. He’d stayed up late to see them with Jonathan who insisted on watching some horror movie his friends at school raved about. As the credits of Trick or Treat rolled, his parents stumbled in inebriated and chuckling. As the aberrations that were once David and Helena stumbled into each other, he was reminded of that night when all four of them were together and it was then he felt truly alone.

“Why?” he moaned.

Michael laughed. An anger born of his sadness grew as Michael continued to chortle at his loss.

“What is your fucking problem?”

Michael stopped his laughter before inhaling deeply. Something dark glimmered in his eyes as he approached Tommy and only stopped when they were a few inches apart. Tommy could smell the fermented mixture of rotting flesh and dry blood and resisted the urge to retch.

“I’ll show you what my problem is. Your brother is what my problem is. That arrogant prick.

Tommy flinched as Michael shoved past him. He raised the gun as though he were picking a destination and held it high and firm. A form stumbled into the open and it apparently earned Michael’s ire as he fired upon the person until the gun clicked harmlessly. The gun was cast aside and it hit the footpath with a dull clunk. As Michael began to kick the person who, by all rights should have been long deceased, Tommy snatched up his mother’s gun and held it close. Michael, not caring, continued to kick the being as they groaned in apparent agony. As his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, Tommy could see the beaten form was Hayden.

“Who’s the little ladyboy now, huh?” Michael growled. His voice was caught in the pendulum swing of breaking and certain words were lilted with an embarrassing soprano. Hayden stirred beneath his repeat beatings but appeared not notice. His body was mostly splintered with broken bones yet he moved as freely as he ever did.

“Want in on this?” Michael asked. His demeanour changed abruptly as though he were offering him a turn on a new video game. The aberrations behind him pushed him forward as it was apparent he had no choice in the matter. Hayden squirmed pathetically on the ground but did not attempt to crawl away. Michael gestured to his head and Tommy reluctantly swung his left shoe into the back of his cranium. Despite the little force, Hayden’s face planted on the ground before rising again, ignorant to this attack.

“That’s it?” Michael scorned. “After everything? This guy tormented us both. You should be like me. Watch.”

Michael kicked him once more, sending his face into the ground. Something crunched as his lifted his head and revealed his nose had broken from the blow. Blood poured in a fusillade as Hayden showed no sign of pain.

“I remember when he pushed you down in front of that girl. You cried and everything.” Michael teased.

The anger within Tommy began to simmer once more. He remembered the incident as clear as day. It was following an arduous math lesson where he earned a detention for not handing in his homework. Of course, he never planned to attend detention as nobody did but the fact he’d forgotten really irritated him. The girl in question was Stephanie Smith, the only person in that school who made him feel both awkward and relaxed at the same time. She had spoken to him after they’d been let out as she too had earned detention for the exact same reason. They left the block and was well on their way to the courtyard until Hayden and Omar passed them by in a haste. Hayden had knocked Stephanie aside causing Tommy, much braver than he felt, to call him a ‘shitbag’. Not surprisingly, Hayden took offence and knocked him to the ground before threatening to stomp him. As pupils gathered by the number, Omar watched with a smile he could never tell was genuine or forced. Tommy fired back he was a ‘pussy’ to which Hayden stole his bag and scattered his lunch to the masses who let his sandwiches and chocolate hit the ground.

Shame welled up inside him as Hayden began to kick him. Each plant of the boot a reminder who was dominant. No teacher came to usurp until Hayden grew bored and wandered away, Omar in tow. Mr Lucien, the PE teacher he never comfortable around merely told him to get to class. Any protests were met with indifference until he was palmed away. Stephanie had left him so, for the first time, he gathered his spilled lunch and walked out the iron gates. He spent the rest of the afternoon near the local graveyard just losing himself in the peace. He expected his teacher to call his parents about his absence but he never did so skipping certain afternoons became a habit. Especially since Stephanie spoke to him only with pity ever since.

Tommy had kicked Hayden’s unfeeling body several times before the red mist lifted. The dull thunk of his chest impacting the concrete became very sickening as Hayden tried crawl away despite being pinned down by Michael.

“Enjoy that?” he asked. Tommy remained silent as he continued. “Come on, I wanna show you something.”

The Aberrations that were once his parents pushed him forward as it was clear Tommy had no choice in the matter. Around them, the town slowly began to corrupt.

*

Ruby held her sister’s bat close as she moved down what was meant to be Hurst Street. It was a small road with the grotty newsagents and that creepy alley she always tried to avoid. But this road was a blank slate with nothing but the suggestion of outlines where the buildings should have been.

“Ruby?” came a familiar voice. Hope rose inside of her as she turned to see Omar, bloodied but alive. A stainless-steel knife gleamed in his right hand as approached her. Her eyes locked on it as a sense of familiarity washed over her. Noticing this, he moved his arm until the blade was behind him.

“My parents attacked me.” he mumbled. His eyes found the pavement as guilt weighed upon him.

“Raveena was killed by my Mom. She was all weird like she was a zombie or something.” she replied.

“It’s this place. I think it changes people.”

shhhhnnnnnnnkkkkkk…

They tensed, eyes darting all over the concrete Hell around them yet they could not see the source of the noise.

“Omar.” moaned Ruby as her bat swiped at nothing.

“I can’t see it. Where is it?” he said.

shhhhnnnnnnnkkkkkk…

Ruby grabbed Omar and, fuelled by their adrenaline, they ran down the empty road. It was when they slowed from fatigue the Monster clawed its self into view.

*

The main road was mostly untouched from corruption. The faded tarmac stretched on for what seemed like eternity with cracks that denoted the broken promises of renovation. Michael stopped and looked over the road with a wistfulness that made him look almost normal. Tommy knew why he’d brought him here but kept silent. All the while, the corrupted forms of his parents remained behind him sentinel.

“It begins and ends all here.” Michael announced. Aberrations began to stumble across the black top; men, woman and even children were among them, their skin sallow and mouths bloodied. “You know, after I died I sorta woke up. Like life was a dream. I woke up and saw this and yeah, I was really scared. But then I saw Phobetor and he showed me this wonderful place.”

He saw Tommy’s confused expression and clarified.

“Phobetor is the one who haunts your nightmares. It helped make all of this real. It dragged my soul here and showed me how to mess around with you lot. It feels great.”

He snickered as the anger inside Tommy woke once more.

“I guess I better cut the dramatics and show you why I bought you here. So you’ll understand before I hurt you.”

As though they read his mind, Tommy’s corrupted parents grabbed him as his legs kicked out attempting to flee. Their dead fingers pressed bruises into his arms but he didn’t notice. Everything around them shimmered and flaked until it was a patchwork sewn into the current nightmare. He, Michael and the Aberrations faded until they were merely invisible spectators.

Michael ran though his lungs ached in protest. Behind him, three figures gained on him each laughing as though they were playing a particularly simplistic video game. He pushed past the bushes even as they sliced his cheap jeans before stopping for breath at the roadside barrier. Stepping into view, the three figures revealed themselves to be Jonathan, Hayden and Omar. Each wearing the same grin of a child who has discovered something they could easily brag about to their peers.

“Jonathan.” whimpered Tommy. He felt a strike across his face he was sure was Michael.

“Leave me alone.” Michael cried. His breath laboured as he held onto the barrier for support. Omar looked to his friends with uncertainty but verbalised nothing. Hayden stepped over the bushes and into the shrinking form of Michael.

“You really are a fucking pussy, right?” Hayden asked though it wasn’t really a question. “Bet you’ll have the term off school now. Stress? Shit yourself? What will be the excuse this time… in fact, why were you off all May?”

Nothing. Agitated, Hayden shoved him and sent him toppling over the barrier and onto the busy road. Cars flashed by, dangerously close to his frail form.

“Answer my fucking question, shithead.”

Michael mumbled something. Hayden then laughed before turning his back on him.

“What’s he say?” Jonathan asked. He glanced to Omar who only offered a wan smile.

“Stomach ache.”

The trio laughed and the sound felt poisonous to Michael who tried to crawl away. Hayden instead stomped down on his trailing leg and pinned him down. It was then Jonathan hesitated as he and Omar joined them. Something about Michael’s immobilised figure felt all too familiar to him but as Hayden’s eyes flashed dangerously, he felt he could not argue.

“Believe this? This little pussy can skip school and we can’t? It’s not fair.”

“Yeah, it’s messed up.” Omar added. “You could dial it back a little though, Hayden? I think he pissed himself.”

Michael hadn’t pissed himself but Jonathan concurred.

“I say we hit the park. Rav should be out from her aunt’s.” Jonathan suggested. “Leave him to run back to Mommy and Daddy.”

Hayden listened them and shrugged. “Sure, why not.”

He stamped onto his aching calf once more as the trio made their way back across the greenery. Though traffic roared past, they heard Michael cry out to them as clear as day. Together, they turned and stomped over to Michael who tried to run away in vain. His hurt leg gave way and he hit the concrete once more. The trio stood over him like a child tormenting ants with a magnifying glass.

“Come again?” Hayden asked.

“You called us retards, didn’t you?” Jonathan added.

“Bit rich coming from him.” Omar joined, thrice.

Tommy tried to wrench himself from this scene that felt all too familiar. But his body felt as though it were shot up with novocaine; no matter how he tried to wave his arms or kick out his legs, his consciousness felt detached from his body.

Michael stood up and sniffed loudly. Tears fell upon his cheeks but he eyed his tormentors with defiance they had not expected. Before they could react, he swung his right fist and caught Hayden’s jaw sending him staggering with shock. Omar retreated leaving Jonathan to be knocked onto his back. Michael struck him with little power as he thumped his chest over and over. Hayden punched Michael causing him to spill onto the ground. With help from Omar, Jonathan stood and swept the gravel from his clothes.

“The little shit has some fight in him. Although if the year sevens find out he’s this weak, they’ll skin him alive.” Hayden snickered.

“Fuck you all. I hate you.” Michael sobbed. “I wish you were all dead.”

Together they laughed. No one laughed harder than Hayden who seemed to relish this breakdown.

“I thought you were my friend.”

That last sentence would only be revisited when these events would rehash in their memories. What was replayed over and over beyond testimonies and media interest was Michael launching himself up at them. Once more, he managed to strike Hayden before trying to grapple Jonathan. Struggling with his grip, Jonathan shoved the boy who stumbled into the road and ended up caught by a passing car. He was dead long before the vehicle screeched to a halt leaving him to be thrown into the road once more like a rag doll.

Tommy struggled against his invisible binds once more and they gave way. The scene melted to its current corrupted state along with Michael in his bloodied body.

“Now you know.” Michael said. His tone was indifferent as he began to cross the road.

“This was an accident. You attacked him.” Tommy yelled. His own voice was rich with anger as he began to forget about his corrupted parents behind him.

Michael turned around at glared at him. He marched up to him until Tommy could see the stained whites of his eyes as his youthful frustration threatened to boil over into something worse.

“He fucking tormented me. Don’t you get it? How blind are you?” he snarled. “You never understood. You had such an easy life. You didn’t have him and those friends of his always picking at you until you couldn’t stand it.”

Tommy thought of Hayden and felt both revolted and somewhat emphatic. Sure, he’d wanted Hayden to leave but he never wanted to stomp on his clueless form. All his hatred felt like vomit he’d yet to throw him; like poison swilling within him ready to be expelled. As Michael stepped away from him, he pointed at the ground and the decaying body of Jonathan crawled up from an angle that should have been impossible.

“Jonathan.” Tommy exclaimed, reaching down to his brother whose empty eyes glanced with dull surprise. He embraced his older brother was vaguely aware his sibling was even beside him as Michael let out a spiteful laugh.

“He’s not there. Just an empty shell. This place can torture anyone, it’s so awesome.” he said with the excitement of a child detailing their favourite video game. “You always wanted a dog, right?”

Tommy glared as Michael snorted and shrugged. “What? It’s a joke.”

Michael walked on as the Aberrations behind them forced them forward. Tommy sighed as he lifted his brother who only seemed half aware his own parents were forcing them further into the nightmare.

“To-m-my” Jonathan groaned. His voice was gentle but it was heard by Tommy who did his best to hide his shock.

*

Phobetor, formerly known as The Monster, chased Omar and Ruby with a pace that suggested it didn’t intend to attack them. Every time they tried to take a different route, be it the earlier roundabout or another road, it would dive and crawl its way into forcing them dead ahead. Omar wondered what would happen if they tried to split up but imagined Raveena would brain him for even considering leaving her sister alone.

They ran on, labouring under their lack of exercise with their weapons to hand. Phobetor tried to coerce them down the street but Omar, feeling the months of cheese-favoured puffs and chocolate snacking fighting back with a vengeance, dragged Ruby across the street into the yawning alley.

“Trust me, this will take us to Bachman Street and that’ll lead us out the town.” he panted. Phobetor lunged across the road and lingered around the entrance, apparently angered as its claws cut the pavement in a contemplative circle.

Though their path was splashed with deeper shades of black, they slowed to catch their breath. Ruby wondered if her chest would collapse just from the stress inflicted on herself. Images of her mother and Raveena flickered in her mind as she reacted with a resigned indifference. She knew she was upset yet the tears did not come unlike when her father was taken away from her. In her hand, she gripped her sister’s baseball bat designed in the style of that movie character she enjoyed. Of all the times she was forbidden from even looking at it and now she was smacking whatever those fat things were like some insane whack-a-mole simulation.

“We’ll make a run of it in a sec.” Omar said. He wiped his knife on the sole of his boot and considered the dull surface with a sad smile. “I don’t ever wanna use this thing again.”

Ruby nodded. The image of her mother impaling her sister with that weird serrated arm flashed in her mind. She wanted to cast the bat away and open her eyes to a new morning; this would be a nightmare and she’d tell an indifferent Raveena as her mother would listen with rapt attention. She always found whatever she had to say interesting, no matter how mundane.

“Let’s go.” Ruby affirmed.

They walked on, their weapons held high in justified paranoia. Their vision limited but the glinting amber at the end of the alley promised progress.

“How quiet-” Omar as a dark shape overcame him and wrestled him to the ground. A pair of veiny hands wrapped around his throat as the vague light revealed Harry Cooper as the assailant. Ruby swung her bat at his skull disintegrating it into a red mist. Chunks of skull fell as she yanked the bat free of its fleshy stump. She swung it once more and popped his right eyes until it spilled into a silvery trail down his face. Despite this, Harry kept strangling Omar until his eyes fluttered into unconsciousness. Ruby swung once more turning Harry’s head into a mushy mess of broken bones and punctured matter. What must have been his brain slithered down through the wound amongst the haemorrhaging yet his hands remained a noose.

A powerful blow hit Ruby in the throat and knocked her to the ground. Mavis glared down at her before kicking her face sharply. A brilliant bolt of pure white stole Ruby’s vision before she passed out into the welcome embrace of nothingness.

*

Ruby and Omar eventually awoke in a room that could only exist the imagination of someone who has lost their grip on reality. The walls heaved as though they were organic and bore what appeared to be wounds in a criss-cross fashion. Some even drenched in a substance much darker than blood. Looking around, they saw Tommy propping up the slumped form of Jonathan along with his parents who had corrupted into being barely recognizable. The noose that Michael had pilfered was now hung over Jonathan once more.

Between them lay the unconscious figure of Raveena. A deep hole where her heart was still leaking blood which spilled over the dirty floor. Michael took centre stage as he drank the attention from every conscious being in the room.

“Let’s do this.” Michael said. The floorboards rattled beneath them, startling them all except for Michael who began to slowly pace back and forth. He appeared to be waiting for something as his patience dwindled.

“Why?”

The weak groan came from Jonathan. His chin was resting on his chest as he spoke giving his voice a flat delivery. Michael had stopped his pacing and eyed him with a mixture of interest and disgust.

“No.” he groaned once more. He forced himself forward, his hands barely finding the ground as he tried to stand. As though he were shaking off heavy sedation, his face rose and he fixed Michael with glare. However, as he replied, he collapsed back onto the wall as though his body found the request too arduous. “Too far.”

Michael sputtered before stomping on the ground like a petulant child. The boards began to shudder, revealing the gaps within that yawned with shadow. Before anyone could react, a bubble of insects dribbled through the floor and flooded the room with a symphony of tiny legs scuttling. Michael had to shout over the metronome of tic-tic-tic.

“I love these guys. I caused that Barnett kid to have a heart attack with these fuckers. Anyway, I’m gonna make you watch as every last person you love is gonna feel what I felt.” he said as his eyes swept over the incoming insects. He laughed, shaking violently as though he were enduring a spasm. Two appendages forced their way out of his back in a bloodless bloom. They resembled two large seashells as they split and flapped almost in triumph. They grew to shadow his body yet he appeared to be comfortable with them hung over his back. Everyone backed away from this development but no one spoke as though words could not justify what they had seen.

Michael then pointed at Ruby who had clambered onto Omar to avoid the strange bugs that claimed the ground. A cluster had gathered by Omar’s boots trying to climb and snap at her; they had the texture of Frosties which made her feel even more revolted. The corrupted forms that could have been spiders, centipedes and scorpions all burrowed into each other like a palpitating blanket.

“Here, now.” he growled. Omar shook his head and flipped Michael the bird with his free hand. “Have it your way then.” he said, motioning to him instead.

The corrupted forms of Tommy’s parents stumbled across the room and seized Omar by the arms with surprising haste. Ruby fell to the invaded ground before climbing to her feet once more. Like Tommy, she cringed as the assorted insects crawled over her shoes but said nothing. The still form of Raveena was merely inches from her and she was torn between watching her deceased sister or whatever fate was to befall Omar.

“You always laughed. Every time. Hayden or Jonathan said something dumb at me and you thought they were oh-so fucking hilarious.” Michael said, observing the defeated figure of Omar. His wings clicked in excitement. Stripped of his knife, Omar was quite ordinary within the vice of the Aberrations. Without warning, Michael struck him and dug his fingers into his right eye socket. His vision punctured, Omar felt the cold fingers explore his facial cavity before locking around his cheekbone. He screamed at such a volume that he wondered if he was going to go deaf. It was when Michael tore his cheekbone out he felt a blinding light of pain explode in his remaining eye. Then, mercifully, he was gone.

The Aberrations dropped Omar’s body to the ground as the strange insects crawled over it in apparent fascination. Most of their number had taken to the pulsating walls and began to gnaw at the fleshy texture. Michael grinned upon it, the cheekbone still lodged in his hand.

Jonathan glared at Michael with complete hatred. Tommy cringed away from his brother, feeling sickened at both Michael’s actions and his response. The iconoclastic experience he’d been through made him feel weary with the whole scenario. He looked to Ruby and tried to silently relay to her let’s run, now! But she was focused on the corpse of her sister as though she was about to rise.

“Jonathan, if you hate me now then you’re gonna loathe what I’m gonna do next. Then again, by the time you become corrupted, you won’t care.” he laughed. His voice had the consistency of rusted metal. “Tommy, step up.”

But Tommy shook his head. As the insects around them began to burrow into the carrion walls, he stood defiant. He wished at that moment he still had his mother’s gun and that it was loaded. As his corrupted parents began to close in on him, he backed away and ended up in the adjacent corner of the room. Michael rolled his eyes as he waited for the inevitable. Absently, he scratched his left arm with the cracked bone pilfered from Omar’s face.

“What’s the point? There’s nowhere to go. Just be a man and accept I’m gonna make you scream like a little bitch.” Michael remarked. “Unless, Ruby gets next honour? I mean, I was gonna let her go but if you’re too chicken-shit.”

He turned to Ruby who shrank from his eyes. They had lost their brown iris’ and were now stained with the tiny smears of what were once black pupils.

“F-fine.” Tommy said.

His corrupted parents approached him once more, sparing Ruby of their dreadful attention. Their cold hands closed around Tommy’s arms as the foundations shook around them. Perhaps it was will or maybe she’d just had a little life left in her, but Raveena rose and tackled Michael causing them to slam into the wall which accepted their collapse and enclosed upon them. Like a plastic bag being torn by strong hands, the room began to split and disintegrate under the voracious appetite of the insects. Ruby found herself hitting the wooden floor as the ceiling slammed upon her though it hit her with the impact of an oversized water balloon. The entire house collapsed under its fleshy form until it was nothing more than a miscarriage of Michael’s psyche. As she pulled a long strip of organic tissue aside, she saw Jonathan being pulled out of the bulbous mass by Michael, who also had Tommy held by his collar with his free hand. Her sister’s assault flashing through her mind, she lunged at Michael knocking him back once more. However, he brushed her aside with surprising strength sending her sprawling onto her back.

“No, this ends on my fucking terms. You’re all coming to the other side with me. Hayden’s waiting and so are all your parents. And I’ll torture the everlasting fuck out of you all.” Michael said. Whatever humanity was in his voice had given way to a cold, almost mechanical roar. His previous wounds had deepened and now he was soaked to the bone with his blood.

Tommy looked around wearily as something sharp had been stabbing into his upper arm. Raising it, he found Omar’s cheekbone glinting at him. Gripping it, he prayed silently to no one as Michael began to pace over the remnants of his home.

“Jonathan. After everything, you should know you brought all of this on yourself.” Michael said, waving his arms at the corrupted surroundings. “We could have been friends but I wasn’t good enough, was I?”

He observed Jonathan’s slumped body with a strange sadness that was foreign to him now. With great effort, Jonathan raised his head and glared at him.

“Fuck you.” he mumbled.

Michael barked with laughter. He bounded over and pulled on the noose. His smile split upon his face and his wings rose in an almost sexual response. Jonathan struggled against the familiar strain but could do nothing to fight back.

Ruby stirred and tried to crawl away before Michael snatched at her ankle and dragged her back like a broken doll. He then reached for Tommy who allowed his free hand to grasp his left arm. As soon as his eyes flickered away, Tommy stabbed the cheekbone into Michael’s throat. For a few seconds, he did not react. As black blood fell in congealed bubbles, he realized he was wounded and pulled back Tommy’s arm in retaliation. His forearm bone snapped instantly causing a white-hot rose to explode in his vision; a million painful sparks flew up his arm through his veins causing him to cry out. His left arm fell useless as Michael rounded on him with an almost lusty interest.

“Stay back. I’ll sort it.” Michael ordered, as Tommy’s corrupted parents remained still.

Ruby, free of his hold, lunged at the bone fragment lodged in Michael’s throat and began to twist. For the first time, Michael screamed out in agony. He kept wailing until she forced the serrated cartilage and blunted his larynx until it severed. His cries came out in strangled chokes until he regained his composure. He grasped Ruby as he yanked out the makeshift tool. Silenced, he could only react by knocking her to the ground and, as Tommy watched useless, he leapt upon her and began to pummel her. His fists connected with the force of concrete as he punched her face until she struck out at his groin with a reflex kick.

Then, with the last ounce of strength in his corrupting body, Jonathan charged into Michael and sent him tumbling into the dirty ground. He mouthed something at Ruby and Tommy before falling to his knees. Everything that was Jonathan faded until he rose, an empty slate. His parents stumbled over and the trio looked to each other apparently recognizing each other. Michael got to his feet and threw his arms in the direction of Ruby and Tommy. But they did not obey.

Michael stomped over to them and began to argue. Though no words left his lips, his pained groans merely passed over the damp, phlegmy mess that was once his trachea. Tommy watched his brother and parents stare dumbly at the boy who had brought them so much pain and felt the urge to step over them.

Ruby pulled him back the sleeve and shook her head. Beneath the fleshy mound of the fallen house, her sister lay among the dead insects unknowing and at peace. He knew she was trying to find her as her eyes scanned the debris before understanding. They had to leave.

Helping him from the broken folds of the home, Ruby looked ahead for the clearest path. Michael saw they had left and tried to scream out to them. As his useless vocal cords ruptured in protest, he instead began his pursuit. Something pale and elongated materialized in his path as though it crawled the ground and stared at him almost accusatory. Phobetor circled around Michael with that leaning mouth snapping at him. He tried to plead with it but even as his thoughts screamed, he knew he could not bargain with it. As his mouth fell open, the ghost of his last words spilled out as Phobetor clawed his very being into nothingness. His empty shell collapsed and was nothing more than a minor image of interest to the corrupted Lawson family who then began to follow Phobetor into nothingness.

*

Tommy and Ruby ran for some time until the sky above them began to lighten rendering the streetlights around them useless. The clouds didn’t break however, a thin film of grimy grey still clung to the atmosphere smearing everything in the distance. Perhaps it was the corruption but most of the buildings around them had contorted beyond their foundations and some even disintegrated into nothingness. A few blocks over, the road had even spiralled upwards until it eventually collapsed under its own weight. Tommy gritted his teeth even as the boiling hot tears threatened to spill down his face; his arm still burned with pain and the image of his corrupted family was still fresh in his mind. He wanted to believe they had gone on in peace but he knew, they were trapped.

Eventually they tired. Tommy slowed and gently lowered himself to the pavement, sticking his feet into the gutter. Ruby followed suit albeit reluctantly; together they sat expecting whatever was out there to strike.

“I hate this.” Ruby said. Her words were numb. Tommy nonetheless nodded in agreement. “I don’t know what to do. My Mom’s gone, Raveena is gone. I don’t know anymore.”

She buried her face in her hands and began to sob silently. Tommy wanted to say something meaningful, something sympathetic. Sadly, the words did not come as she withdrew from her palms and glanced at him.

“Does that monster thing come out and kill us now?” she asked. The melancholy in her voice was replaced with a resigned boredom. “I saw it slice Michael.”

“Bastard had it coming.” Tommy snarled. But even as the words came out, they felt petty. An uncomfortable coil in is stomach tightened as he continued. “No, I don’t know. I know he didn’t feel that bad out of nothing. I guess he really resented my brother.”

“But all this nightmare stuff? Where did all this come from?” she protested. She rubbed her arms anxiously almost hoping he had the answer.

But he didn’t. He shook his head in defeat. “I don’t know. Jonathan didn’t really write me a manual. All I know is he had bad dreams before he died and it must have been about Michael and that monster thing.”

The clouds finally broke as a pale blue sky gleamed upon them. The sun began its steady climb over the town as they looked up confused. Any remnants of the nightmare had faded with the sunbeams.

“Is that sunlight?” Ruby said.

Tommy stood almost immediately. He winced at the pain in his broken arm as he looked around. People, tired and haggard, stumbled out of the woodwork into the street. Some looked over at each other in shock as though they had each been a prisoner released. A hefty man cried out in what was supposed relief as a skinny blonde woman fell to her knees and began to hyperventilate. More and more appeared, some wounded and clad in blood whilst others appeared to shrink from view behind fences and parked cars.

“What happened?”

“That monster…”

“…I can’t find my wife…”

“I watched them die. Those things tore…”

Ruby and Tommy glanced to each other, their worst fears confirmed. Yet, there was an odd relief that their nightmares were validated by the experiences of others. They weren’t alone after all.

“Holy shit, kid. You need to get that checked out.” blurted a middle-aged woman who was nursing a wound just below her eye. A canary yellow scarf was in a losing battle with the mass of her hair. “If that sets, you’re in trouble.”

Tommy looked at his broken arm and shuddered. Ruby took Tommy by his other arm and they walked until they reached his house not long after. People were still spilling out into the street confused at what had unfolded. As they entered his home, she tried to call an ambulance but the line was dead. None of the electrics worked as they discovered when they tried flicking the television on.

“We’re not giving up.” Ruby urged, though Tommy wondered if that comment was aimed at herself rather than him. He followed her with a silent acceptance as his thoughts were with Jonathan and his parents. He thought of Raveena, Omar and even Hayden and wondered if they too were trapped or if they had been allowed to move on.

The local hospital was only a twenty-minute walk. As he and Ruby began the long walk, he wondered if the electronic equipment there was still usable and, long after he was admitted, he was grateful to find it did.

Epilogue

The day was a crisp, frosty Thursday caught in the grip of a heavy snowfall. Porter’s Café was sparsely populated though, due to the owner’s insistence of being open despite the weather, the employees lumbered around the place frustrated with their eyes solely on the clock.  The brunette waitress passed by the table occupied by four customers who only wanted coffee and tea as the deep chill from outside leaked over the faulty central heating. Whether that was frugality or a clever decision from the owner to ramp up sales of tea and coffee was anyone’s guess.

Ruby was talking with the same command as her deceased sister and even looked like her with her long mane of raven hair tied back over her shoulder. Tommy, his arm now mending in a clean sling, opened his mouth only to back up his friend during her most crucial points.

“It hasn’t happened since. But nothing in the town that runs on electricity will work.” she said, checking her guests for any hint of mocking or disregard. But they regarded her with utmost seriousness. “We don’t want to leave, it’s our home. We lost our families to it and…”

She broke off. The older of the two guests nodded sympathetically. The younger beside her spoke to her and only her.

“I think she’s telling the truth, Ren. It feels real. I can sorta see it.” Samson said.

Renxiang glanced at her brother before returning to their confused stares. “He can see things past what we can. I know this sounds crazy but he lived in it for years. It’s like an extra sense to him now.”

Like Ruby, Renxiang had a weariness to her as though she had not slept in months. Her eyes were soft but with her default expression being almost a frown, Tommy and Ruby felt wary in her presence.

“Will you help us?” Tommy asked. His voice tentative and traitorous of his young age.

To their relief, Renxiang and Samson nodded.

“Lead us into town. We’ll go from there.” Renxiang said. “We can’t make any promises though. We’ve done this a few times and we’ve had mixed results to say the least.”

“We understand.” Ruby replied, looking from her to Tommy. “You think this will work?” she asked him.

Tommy sighed. “I don’t know. I just think we should try. We may as well move back to that Goddamn shelter if we’re gonna keep going back to the town.”

The local Government had opened resource centres and shelters for those affected by the corruption. It had been widely reported all over the world but, like with all charitable events, it became a footnote on the news and was only brought up as a counterpoint in an argument. Tommy and Ruby had ended up at one of these shelters which had deteriorated under the rule of local volunteers who cared more about getting on television than caring for the needy. Relatives had reached out to them offering them a home to which they acquiesced but only if they were within walking distance of each other. So forth, Tommy moved in with his Aunt Eileen whilst Ruby moved in with her Cousin Shubhi who gratefully lived only ten minutes away on the main road. Even so, they would traverse through the dead town every day hoping for a resolution to the madness they suffered.

“We’ll head out now then. Any place of interest we should keep an eye out for?” inquired Renxiang. When she saw their confused reactions, she clarified. “Some of these places have a main source. Like where it’s centered. In Old Regis, it was a brook.”

Samson pressed on. “Are you sure it’s empty? No police or anything?”

They shook their heads in unison. After the devastation, the remaining populace had departed the town and the few who remained joined them when the electrics refused to work within the borders. Nothing worked except for the streetlights which came on as soon as it became dark.

Renxiang threw a ten pound note onto the table as she and Samson stood up, readying to leave. She shook Ruby’s hand and then Tommy’s good hand as Samson smiled good naturedly.

“What are you both going to do now?” Renxiang asked.

“We’re going back to my cousins. She brought hot chocolate and she’s going on about how she’s the perfect cousin. Ugh.” Ruby said with the suggestion of a grin. Tommy nodded as she spoke before chuckling at her groan.

Nodding, Renxiang walked to the exit and pulled the door open. “We’ll call you if anything comes up.” she said as she and Samson disappeared into the snowy outdoors. Ruby and Tommy remained in their seats and watched them fade before contemplating their next move.

*

Renxiang and Samson entered the town after what felt like an age. The cold stung her bare faces, biting her cheeks red and making her regret not picking a warmer day. In contrast, Samson walked freely as though this were a stroll on a sunny day.

“I hate you sometimes.” Renxiang rasped.

Samson chuckled. “I can’t help it. I was dead for so long I forgot how to be cold.”

His dark humour usually irked her but her focus was on the thickening snow that made her vision past a few feet very difficult.

“We’re in a residential area. Something bad happened here.” Samson called out.

Renxiang nodded. Past the flurry of flakes, she could see the former homes shaped into twisted husks. The scene was horribly familiar to her but she pushed on. Even as the cold numbed her fingers, she felt a burning desire within her to expunge whatever it was that was poisoning this town.

Without warning, Samson took off across the road and disappeared through the thin slice of alley that was barely visible. Annoyed, she followed just about tracing his movements through the snowfall. As they reached the parallel road, Samson knelt abruptly and pulled something out of the snow. It was a gun; dissimilar to the Ladysmith that Renxiang had sheathed behind her thick coat.

“Found something.” he said. His pride was obvious as he pressed the weapon into her gloved hands.

“Samson.” she began. She weighed her words carefully knowing him to overreact whenever she lost her temper. “You can’t just run-”

But he was already back into the snow and pulling something else out of the pale depths. A body, lukewarm and untouched by frost was dragged into view. Their clothes had decayed and torn with time yet their flesh was like porcelain. Even stranger, the person had what appeared to be sea-shell shaped wings that were shrivelled perhaps by the cold. Samson whistled softly as he saw that a noose was affixed around their neck in what felt like an afterthought.

“Nicely done.” Renxiang breathed. “Get a read and let’s see.”

Samson acquiesced. He closed his eyes gently before brushing his fingertips over the corpse’s forehead. Something in his expression caught her by surprise.

“I think we found one.” he said.

Renxiang felt a wave of relief wash over her as she joined her brother in pulling Michael’s body out of the thickening bed of snow. Finally, after two years of searching, they had found their solution.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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