ALL OF THE NIGHTMARE
An ancient moon rose like destiny, its illumining rays a cruel beginning. A monster was digging Owen's grave; crooked, deformed hands clutched the shovel. It rose and fell, heaping up damp clay at graveside. The hostile being existed in a shadowy corner of his mind. Jagged white teeth flashed on a face made hideous by hate. Owen's brown eyes fluttered open. It was pitch dark, the air was stale, he struggled to rise, but his forehead struck an upholstered surface and he fell back. He explored with his hands and feet and pushed with all his strength, but it was no use; he was sealed in a coffin, buried alive.
Panic electrified him and he writhed until his clammy flesh surrendered. A loud scream tore across his mind and he snapped awake and clambered out of bed. “Nightmares again,” he thought, and he buried his face in his hands.
Forbidding creaking and scraping came from the window and he turned to it. Something was moving in the velvet darkness outside. It brushed against the glass, a liquid smear gained clarity -- it was the face from his nightmare. Owen felt his hair lift and his mouth tremble. He tried to reason away the twisted lips, pocked and lumpy cheeks, canine teeth and moon-bright eyes.
The front door shook with thumps and the hinges groaned and gave way. Owen clutched the back of a chair. The window shattered and the door crashed to the tiles; two savages were in the room. He swung the chair, but they knocked it away as they tackled him -- crazed with fear he fought with twice his normal strength, countering their holds and blows time after time. Their attack was relentless; they kicked, punched, bit and clawed him and their foul body odor was on him like a wet blanket when he passed out.
Broken tombs and crumbling walls leaned out of coagulating darkness and a prowling wind carried chill whispers through the damp cratered spaces. There were four men; naked, hairy and deformed, and two of them carried Owen. They passed deeper and deeper into a nightmarish land. Moonbeams lanced through clouds that were like the dark angry brows of evil gods. The beams swept over spindly trees and burial mounds, and the twisted uppermost branches of the trees quivered in the wind. A huge fire was climbing from the bottom of the night. Owen heard logs hissing, scrolls of smoke were rising up the metal spikes on a tall pole. Fright was rising from his belly again as he realized a person was being burned at the stake. Hungry flames licked the body, and there were more of the gruesome nightmare men, doing a ritual dance around the stake and showering the fire with drops of blood.
Owen was carried past the stake to the edge of a pit on the other side; light flickered on the steep walls -- the pit was lined with spiders and its bottom teamed with snakes. They pushed him in without warning and he gasped violently. It happened too quickly for him to scream.
He remained buried by snakes while a fire was built at a new stake and he wouldn't let go of the rope they pulled him up with so they used it to bind him to the stake. Owen burned; a living torch -- his blood boiled and his flesh cooked and charred, but death escaped him. Pain rioted through him and he lived! He lived until his bed was a heap of coals. He was the stuff of nightmares when they dragged him from the ashes, and he begged for death. They tossed him back in the pit and he clawed the earth, trying desperately to bury himself.
Owen looked in the mirror again, unable to believe he was hallucinating. He was scarred, scratched, bruised, burned and swollen. The welts and burns on his puffy face left only his eyes recognizable. A busted tooth ached wickedly. He turned back to Rob and locked his slit eyes on him. Rob's face was straight and serious. Owen looked as healthy and pink as a college boy to Rob.
“No one believes me,” Owen said flatly, almost in a whisper. “Janet thinks I've been swallowing the hard stuff. She'll wish she hadn't doubted me when she has to tell Jenny that Daddy is dead. They'll return from Florida and find my wasted remains.”
Rob seemed unconcerned, he poked at the fireplace and the light played with his absent expression. “You ain't dying. It's all in your head. The stuff you describe can't be real -- finding yourself suddenly alone has tipped your mental balance.”
Owen eased into his armchair and stared at the ashes curling on a log. “I've undergone every sort of torture and horror. I'm like a one-man dark age. There's nothing more real that what I'm suffering from now.”
A web of shadows touched Rob's frown. “It's real then, but as an inner conflict that doesn't touch the rest of the world. A screwball side of your personality has surfaced, and since you're afraid to let it loose you can only fight it. Next time these men come, confront them with logic; tell them they're not possible, tell them you want to merge with them -- you'll find out what they want and what you need.”
“I know what they want,” Owen said, shaking his mop of black hair. “They want to put me through the most horrible ordeals imaginable. I don't feel at odds with myself. I'm at odds with evil beings that have real substance. I'll try confronting them, but if I fail to win against them, I want you to shoot me -- make it look like an accident. I can cheat them with death, and then they can't make me suffer any more.”
“It won't come to that,” Rob said, morbid interest hanging on his face. “I'll stay the night and make sure no one really does break in -- concentrate on confrontation. You own the dreams they travel in, and you can call the shots on the outcome.”
An empty wine bottle glowed burgundy with light from fading embers, some of its alcoholic haze warming Owen. He rested on a cot. Rob was sprawled across the couch; the wine had delivered him a knockout punch. Owen felt no tension in the air, he entertained no dark imaginings, and there were only the sounds of the night. A truck's engine was gunning proudly on a nearby highway. The horn of a train blew, and then there was the familiar rumble of big wheels that often carries people to dreamland. Deep in the woods a dead branch split and a cascade of dust, rot and twigs hit the duff. A rising song of the wind told of its ascent of faraway hills, long gusts rushed in the treetops and raced north like a giant dragon's tail. Musical sounds of a running stream, wind chimes and the gentle tinkle of breaking glass drifted with a quiet dream. Friendly footsteps kicked through the quilts of autumn leaves, and the call of a loon emerged from some distant stillness. Time flickered as torchlight till a greater fire than it began to roar. It roared louder, drums raced, and then inhuman screaming paled the night's soul.
Owen awoke with a jolt. Lightning was in his mind and he felt a storm of panicky emotions swallowing him. He'd been spirited away while he slept; a vista of shattered tombs, bonfires, spindly trees and morbid shadows had settled on the night. Autumn leaves whirled in dust devils as they skipped over open pits. A Mars-red moon glowed in the grim sky. Owen tried to rise but found himself bound to stakes in the ground. He lifted his head and saw Rob roped naked to a dead tree. Bright flames from a bonfire made Rob's anguish clear; his head hung limp and his sweaty hair stuck to his chest. Rob shivered, then he lifted his pained face to the sky; his eyes were fixed on something horrible. He let out a bloodcurdling scream. Owen squinted and saw that much of the flesh had been stripped from Rob's right leg, and in such a way that the bleeding was unnaturally light.
Heralds of a nightmare they slipped silently out of darkness, and the bright fires cast back their cloaks of shadows. There were five rough-cut men and a woman who was equally primitive. Perverse hunger warped their crude faces. Their eyes released a pure and sheer light of evil like they had taken cruelty into their breasts to replace their hearts. Thick hair made their nakedness natural. They drew up to Rob's limp body and the tallest man held up a stone blade with knotty six-fingered hands. They stared at the blade with hollow eyes and weighed some unknowable bestial thoughts. Rob moaned, his face twitched and his head rose then dropped against his chest.
A hopeless cry echoed through the tombs; the blade was stripping Rob's other leg, slowly so that there wasn't too much blood. The woman turned to Owen, and then she slipped over to him. She slithered down in the dust and smiled viciously; her tangled hair mercifully hid most of her face. Her bluish breasts were a gruesome sexual promise.
Rob continued to cry out and Owen glimpsed the four men sitting by the fire devouring strips of raw flesh. Owen ground his teeth with fury as the cries stabbed at his conscience; a mad grimace froze on his face and his mouth was hot and foul like he was biting on a thick electric wire. He strained against his bonds, and then he fell back from exhaustion. The woman's coarse hands caressed him, moving slowly over his body and between his legs. His shock peaked and terror was transformed to evil rapture. He surrendered to her. Her sweaty body was on him and he cried out ecstatically as fangs, venom and shifting dark faces penetrated his mind. Owen felt his body melt to hot zombie flesh, and the taste of blood grew sweet on his lips.
Sunset turned the picture window to red foil. Owen awoke. Awesome guilt was a great stone crushing him. His hands trembled, he felt unreal like he was still in a dream -- but what was a dream? Rob had been eaten alive in a dream, and he had tasted human flesh in a dream -- how could it be true? He looked around for Rob, and then he covered his face with his hands. Rob's half-eaten body lay in a pool of blood by the door. A terrible thing had to be true; madness and cannibalism, he had devoured his best friend while thinking he was dreaming. He fell forward to his knees, vomited and sobbed.
When the tears stopped coming Owen looked up and saw the dark figure of one of the nightmare men; he was haloed by the red window and wore a loose gray robe. Brilliant silver light streamed off his face, and this gave great strength to a being that had seemed only hideous before.
“You're a product of my madness,” Owen said stonily. “What is it you want, or what is it I want?”
“Your friend, we killed him and ate him,” said the dream person, his voice deep and hollow. “We are preparing a path for destiny and he was a fool who was in the way.”
“Destiny,” Owen laughed bitterly. “You make destiny out of nightmares that only want to be forgotten.”
The nightmare man stepped away from the darkening window. “There are certain things that have to happen, and they belong to destiny. For there to be any nightmares there must be a most-frightening nightmare. We are part of this nightmare, this most-frightening nightmare we are preparing for you. Each night you grow stronger so that this very special gift can be yours. You are the man who will know all of the nightmare.”
“No!” Owen cried, “not more!” He clenched his fists and shook his head, but he paid little attention to the window. Beyond the glass sunset had faded to dusk and hordes of evil nightmare beings waited -- all possible nightmare beings. In this, the moment of Owen's anguish, they worshipped him. What they called bows belonged only to Owen, and their infinite horrors belonged only Owen. They were offering him it all.
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