Chapters:

The Dreameater

rough draft


I TOOK SEVERAL SLOW BREATHS, STEPPED onto the carefully drawn circle and passed through the glimmering portal at its center. The world around me blurred and my guts shifted like I was on one of those spinning rides at the fair.

It took a moment for the vertigo to pass. I hated jumping, especially to the alter-world. Eldritch travel didn’t always agree with me, and the dimensional jump from Alter-Lafayette to my Lafayette was long, relatively speaking.

After a few more steadying seconds, the twisting, drunken feeling passed. When I first discovered my ability it was, admittedly, fun. When sealing dimensional breaches and handling the nastiness that came through became my responsibility, it turned into work.

But coming home was relaxing. Mully, the Scholar, once told me that because my body originated from this world, the physics of alternate worlds tended to cause undue stress that is relieved when I return. He was kind of a smart-ass sometimes. Generally right, but a smart-ass.

Stress or not, frequent trips always made me long for my small, comfortable Johnston Street apartment, empty now that Sharon had moved out to live with her new family. Excursions into alternate dimensions were difficult on any relationship. I guess couldn’t blame her for leaving. Maybe I would have done the same, were our roles reversed. Besides, she’s safer without me in her life. At least that’s what I tell myself when I miss her. The next few days would be peaceful. As peaceful as I generally managed.

I collected my things from around the jump site I set up in an abandoned machine shop and gathered up my walking stick with my free hand. It was nearly three years ago when I found a nest of energy-draining vampires called Aethers. These weren’t your typical Hollywood mainstream, sparkling-with-angst high-school vamps. These ones were not pretty, and their sole purpose was the utter consumption of every living soul in the material plane. That night, they were hell bent for me. I nearly lost my leg before I was able to destroy the artifact anchoring them to this plane.

Thanks to a strict regimen of physical therapy, a few surgeries, and a touch of otherworldly tech, I regained all of the leg and significant amount of mobility.

I made my way through the maze of boxes and crates filled with retired machinery and raw material. I paused at the loosely chained door near where my 1977 International Scout would be waiting outside. I expected it to be sitting right where I left it just a few moments (in this world) ago. It was severely devalued with rust, and since didn’t make the official list of desirable vehicles to steal for every year running, I could probably leave it here for months. The best deterrent to car theft is a crappy car, after all.

"She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts..." I told my half-brother James once. I’m not sure he was convinced. Or that he knew what Star Wars was.

I slid under the chain and squeezed through the gap between the rusty sliding doors. Out front and behind the steering wheel of the Scout, was my half-brother James. He took care of my affairs when I was out, (which was more often than not) and has gotten me through some tough spots, when I got in over my head (also, more often than not). He was the definition of reliability. Being half Aether, granted him the ability to sway the minds of most mortals. I’ve seen the horror of this power. I’m not saying the men in question didn’t deserve justice, but I still get chills thinking about what he made them do with that jigsaw. Thankfully he kept that particular mojo under wraps, and even more thankfully, this gift was extremely rare among half-Aethers. Things get out of hand when less morally solid types have his power. Hitler comes to mind.

The moment I cleared the door, James was there, frantic and fidgeting. He was never either of these things. It made me halt in my tracks.

"Finally," he breathed. "We have to go now," he reached behind me and opened the rusty passenger door.

"What’s the rush?" I was ready to take a shower, unwind in my recliner and escape a little reality with my Playstation. I’m not exactly ready to deal with another crisis.

"Something happened," he pitched his voice low, and I knew immediately it was something from my neck of the void. Being the only remaining Jumper in this time-stream, I stayed fairly busy dealing with incidents - both good and bad. He slammed the door shut just as I cleared the frame and dashed around to the driver’s seat. He’d left the engine running, and I hadn’t even buckled in before he peeled out and took off.

"James, what’s going on?"

"Something came across a tear in the boundary last night," he said. "Something bad. Jane called me because you were out of town, and we went out. "

My stomach felt like it was trying to compress into a one-inch square; things from the Never-never were hardly ever pleasant, and anything that rattled James was probably done worse than most.

"Anyone hurt?" James glanced sidelong at me, and I knew he understood my question. Was Jane okay?

"No injuries," he said. "What do you know about the Dreameater?"

"Nothing good," I answered. "What aren’t you telling me? You’re not saying something; you haven’t looked me in the eye since I got back."

"I’m driving. I’ve gotta keep my eyes on the road. Safety first. Don’t want to get a ticket. You know how hard it is to get a driver’s license when you’re from another dimension?"

"James." There was a note of warning in my voice, and he shifted nervously. He may be a half-Aether, with superior strength, resilience and power over mortal minds, but I was the Jumper. The one Jumper for an entire dimension. I had my ways too.

"Listen. You need to be clear-headed for this one. I’m not sure how what good you’ll be-"

"James!" I snapped. His eyes paled sadly. My stomach suddenly dropped. It felt like I was falling.

"Jane stepped in the way."

I cursed so harshly, it made James flinch. I felt the Scout accelerate. Something had attacked my town – my friend – while I was gone; while I could do nothing to stop it. Jane was one of my closest friends for the last ten years. I met her at the local library, while tracking down a particularly dangerous book that slipped in from the Alter. I’ve often wanted us to be more than just friends, but my life involves a certain degree of risk, and I’ve always tried to insulate those I care for against it. For all the good it’s done.

James slid the Scout to a halt, jumping the curb outside Jane’s home, and I was out before the car stopped completely.

As I charged the front door, complex mathematical symbols on her house glowed, channeling pure energy from a young star in a distant and chaotic part of the galaxy, fueling the lethal defenses inside.

The equations were designed to protect Jane, should she need it. They gave her house a limited intelligence and it could sense when she was in danger and react. Right now it was working overtime.

I opened the door and barreled through, ignoring the drain on my abilities and endurance as the AI resisted my entry. I wouldn’t be able to do much inside the barrier until she spoke the passphrase, but that was the least of my concerns at the moment.

The living room was empty. Ignoring my limp, I took long strides toward her bedroom. I opened the door and was met by a dense barrier of force that checked my forward momentum. The house was guarding Jane, and my heart hammered as I realized the implications. If the house’s defense had kicked in, that meant Jane was so bad that she couldn’t protect herself, then I was in trouble.

I slowed my pace, and concentrated on integrating my mathematical pattern with the house, through a backdoor through the defense program. The deadly force barrier subsided, allowing me through.

I stepped over to her. Jane lay on a giant queen-size bed she’d inherited from her Aunt Margaret, along with the rest of the house. I’d often joked that she could swap it out with a twin to give her more space for activities, and that it would probably be more her size. She answered with a quick elbow to my ribs and a smile.

I crept closer.

Jane lay under the covers and may have well been sleeping except that her green eyes were wide open. My breath caught in my chest. When I heard her take a soft breath, I exhaled shakily. She was alive. I sank onto the bed and reached for her hand. It was cold.

"Jane?" I whispered. There was no answer. I didn’t really expect one, but I had to try.

James stood in the doorway. His voice was low despite the unlikelihood of waking Jane.

"She hasn’t responded since the attack. I brought her here so she would be safe and comfortable."

I nodded, letting him know I’d heard, but my eyes never left her. The steady rise and fall of her chest was the only indication she was still alive. Her eyes were open and stared unfocused.

James moved up silently and passed a small bottle of saline eye-drops to me.

"Tell me about the thing that did this to her?"

I unscrewed the top, and carefully placed two drops of the solution in each of her eyes. The excess ran down her gentle face like tears.

"Gone," James sighed. "She tried to create a sympathetic link back to the tear and banish it, but it surrounded her… like a dark cloud. Two, maybe three-seconds later, it just vanished."

“What the hell was she thinking?”

“I don’t know,” James said.

It was my fault. I taught her about all of this. She was going to be a programmer out of college. When she learned how math could be used to affect the world around her, she was all-in. I let my interest in her overpower any notion of safety and I showed her things beyond what she would ever be ready to attempt. It was our common ground; the ice shattering, conversation starting subject that brought us together. I’ve heard of weirder hook-up stories.

"You get a look at it?" I asked and James made a sort of ’pfft’ noise that I took for a no. I stood and squeezed her cold hand and hesitated a second. It was hard to see Jane like this; Her happy, animated personality laying still and emotionless like a wax mannequin blank. I leaning over and kissed her forehead. Cold sweat beaded on her forehead and was salty on my lips.

"I’ll deal with what did this, Janie. I promise." I stood and looked back down at my friend.. It was difficult to leave her like this, but I had no choice. The house would make sure no one disturbed her, human or otherwise. Unfortunately, the Dreameater now enjoyed the same protections that Jane did. James had the right idea bringing her here, but it did complicate things. I couldn’t help her here. I could end up hurting her, or dead, or both.

"Come on, James."

"Where are we going?" he asked, matching my limping stride easily. We climbed back into the Scout and he started the engine.

"My place, to find some answers."

---

I usually got a sense of relief when I walked through my front door but, today, circumstances had conspired against me.

Bleep, my parrot, spewed a stream of obscenities at me that would teach even the saltiest profaner a thing or two. Normally I’d stop and let him verbally assault me, while I traded insults (as was tradition) but I didn’t have time. He trailed off with some horrific phrases about my mother, as I climbed the spiral stair to my attic office.

I couldn’t remember if James had ever been in my office, but it didn’t seem to bother him when I gave him a silent request to stay in the living room. I could hear Bleep’s tinny voice as he cycled through his dirty vocabulary.

In my office, every available wall space supported shelves, containing various artifacts, ingredients and books. Jumping is basically scientific mysticism, involving very complicated math. I selected my collection of paraphernalia with care, ensuring each piece was sympathetically connected to the wheres and whens I frequented, and each piece solved variables in the equations, taking the complexity down a peg or two.

One side of the cluttered room stood out from the rest. It held the only (arguably) modern piece of technology… My Apple IIc. The green text and audible keyboard click was soothing to me. And, oddly enough, it’s the only computer that will connect to the material and Alter planes (with more than just a little supernatural coaxing). I used a simple spell to light the candles scattered around the room, and sat in my marginally comfortable rolling chair. I stared at the blinking cursor. If there was one person in this realm that could help me, it had to be Stephan Randolph Mully. In the Alter, he is known as the Scholar… and with good reason. His knowledge of every when and where was absolute. Sometimes he didn’t know he knew an answer until he was asked, but you could take it to the bank that he would be able to give you something. Sometimes, it was a less than helpful something, but still better than nothing.

I launched my IRC client, and began typing.

’Mully, you there? I have a small issue…’

’I expected as much. Welcome back.’ Mully’s text appeared on the screen, all at once. I filled him in. A googly-eyed surprise emote appeared on the screen.

’The Dreameater isn’t a small issue. He’s one of the Pantheon…, They are essentially gods in the Alter.’

Oh. A god. I wish I could be atheist. At least whatever he was doing wasn’t a part of any ongoing plot against the material. In the Alter they could do whatever they wanted. They were kept in check by the other Pantheon. Sometimes they would breach into the material, but it generally didn’t amount to much. They are formidable, but the laws of the material severely crippled their power, as it does with any Alter. The entire dimension reacts against the intruder, similar to how an oyster reacts to sand. Why it was here made no sense. By now, it had to be far too weak to return.

’How do we kill it?’

’Well, you can’t actually kill it, per se. You can banish it though. There is an easy way and a hard way…, but you’re not gonna like the easy way.’

’Killing Jane is not an option,’ I slammed my hands on the desk. I swatted back and forth at the ensuing dust cloud.

’I said you weren’t gonna like it.’

’And the hard way?’

’Well,’ Mully somehow gave the impression of scratching the back of his head, ’that’s something you’re not going to like, either.’

’Mully!’ I was really tired of not knowing what was going on. ’Why does everyone think they needed to tiptoe around me?’

’Because you are irrational when the people you care for are in danger.’

’Alright, no need to be bring that up…,’ I sighed, and rubbed my face.

’Someone,’ Mully’s text continued, ’is going to have to go in there and drive it out. By someone I mean you.’

’Alright, so I need to – wait, go in where?

’Into her head. Where else would you expect to find something consuming memories?’

There were many times since I’d met Mully where he’d been flippant and vague with me, it was just his way. His vast knowledge desensitized him to just about everything, but it was grating on my nerves more than usual today. ‘Technically, through a portal to the dreamworld, but Jane is the doorway to it.’

’Okay, tell me everything you know about this thing.’

’The Dreameater is a being of significant power. It is ancient, and probably one of the original Pantheon. It exists by feeding on the energy of dreams. There are theories that material and Alter dreamers become astral copies of themselves and actually enter a shared dreaming dimension that is just as real as either. Kinda gives the old wives’ tale that if you die in your dream, your body dies in the waking world, new weight.’

’So it feeds on everyone’s dreams? All the time? And no one notices?’

He paused for a beat, then continued. ’This thing feeds from any human or other animal capable of dreaming, all the time. It always has. No one notices because the Dreameater takes only a little of what it needs from each creature. Most living things in this realm aren’t self-aware enough to even notice when anything goes missing.’

’Wait.’ I rubbed my eyes in exhaustion, ’It actually consumes the dream itself?’

’If the theory about the dream dimension holds true, then each dreamer creates a world where they play out their dream scenarios. This ’world’ exists only briefly... Most dreams are only a few seconds long, after all.’

’What? That doesn’t seem possible.’ I said. I started the evening not knowing much about the Dreameater, and suddenly, I felt like I knew too much. If I knew Mully, there was more to come.

’Really? You travel to another dimension on a daily basis. Is it that much of a stretch?’

’Fair enough,’ I typed.

’Answer me this,’ there was a long pause. ’You sleep occasionally, I assume, yes? How clear is the memory of your dreams?’

’Well, I...’

’Can you remember them clearly?’

’Yes, I can remember some.’

’Alright. It’s a complete sequence of events, or does it jump from one scene to another with no apparent connection?’

I paused for a moment, then sighed. ’Yeah. I see what you’re getting at.’

’When you dream, a world of your creation pops into existence in the dream realm. The stuff of that dimension becomes the sights and sounds that make your dream a reality for you. When that happens, energy is expended and released. Though the rules that govern things in other, but similar, dimensions are sometimes wildly different and bizarre, conservation of energy is the one, universally true constant. Think of it like a campfire. The fire has no recollection of the heat that it lost; it’s just gone. The Dreameater just warms itself by the fire, so to speak.’

I shuddered at the thought of what must be going on in Jane’s mind right now. I shook it off. I had to focus. Mully was right; I get irrational when my friends are in danger.

’There’s something else... It’s not just dreams. Dreams are tied to memories in a very intimate way. Everything we dream stems from some memory or combination of memories.’

"Wait, so you’re saying that the reason our memory fades with time is because the Dreameater can consume those as well?"

’Not directly, but yes...’ Mully’s ellipsis had me worried. ’It’s actually not a bad thing. Normally, it’s beneficial. The human mind doesn’t function on a level where it can keep every little memory. Most people would be insane by twelve.’

I pinched the bridge of my nose and took a steadying breath.

’You said, normally.’

’Yes. If the Dreameater has taken residence inside Jane’s mind, it wouldn’t have access to other people’s dreams. It would still need feed in order to survive, until it found a way from the dream realm back to the Alter.’

‘What happens to Jane?’

It could have been my imagination, but I got the impression that Mully was sad.

’Could be nothing. Maybe she would lose some old memories, if they were connected to the consumed dreams.’ The type appeared, and I became more anxious with each word.

I let out a curse and kicked at the desk. It hurt, but I let the pain fuel the anger.

’So my options are to violate her mind, or do nothing and let her die.’

’She wouldn’t die. Her body will continue to live; it’s not affecting her physical self. In its quest to return to the Alter, it’ll consume everything that makes her Jane.’

’So, I have no choice but to go inside Jane’s head, to get at this thing?’

’Yes and no. You can’t Jump directly into her mind, but you can Jump into the dream instance she’s created. It’s probably holed up somewhere in there feeding on her memories and dreams, as it looks for a way to cross back into the Alter.’

’We need to figure out why it attacked Jane.’

’Likely, it didn’t go after her for any particular reason. More likely, because of the way the material world affects it, it was simply too weak to return to the Alter through traditional means.’

’According to James, she saw it, and called him because I wasn’t available. Then she linked, like I showed her, to it and banish it back to the Alter. She wasn’t ready. She knew that!’

‘Her heart was in the right place even though her head was in the wrong one.’

‘I suppose.’

’So are they your personal Jumper apprentices now?’

’No. James is stronger than most of the stuff that can cross into this realm. If there’s anyone I want watching Jane’s back while I’m away, he’s it.’

My words must have surprised Mully as much as it did me, but that didn’t make them any less true. James was my brother, and the most trustworthy individual I have ever met. He knew the Alter world as well as I did, and he’d saved my hide a few times. I’d never tell him that to his face, though maybe I should.

"Aw!" James’ voice carried into the attic. I looked down the ladder leading to the hall. The rectangle through which the stairs passed framed his grinning face, like some goofy family photo.

"It’s impolite to eavesdrop..."

"Never stops you," he shot back, still grinning. "Can I come up?"

"Sure," I said. "You may as well." James just grinned, nodded, and jogged up the twisting stair. I just shook my head with a smile before turning back to the conversation with Mully.

’Tell James hello for me.’ Mully typed.

’Wait,’ I typed, ’how did you know?’

’It’s what I do.’ Mully typed.

I leaned against my desk on my elbows and rubbed my face with both hands. I sucked in shuddering breaths, I needed to clear my thoughts. Charging into Jane’s dreaming mind would take finesse; skills conspicuously absent from my resume. But if I did nothing, Jane would be lost. I took one last deep breath and made my decision.

’Well, look at the bright side. If the Dreameater catches you, you won’t have to worry about Jane anymore.’ Mully typed.

’That was not surprisingly unhelpful,’ I responded. It occurred to me that I had not the foggiest of ideas about how to Jump into a dimension that was in a state of constant change. Even if I did, how would I target Jane’s dream among potentially millions of dreamers that could be present in the dream realm?

’What do I need to do? How can I jump into a dream?’ I typed and spoke out loud. I felt helpless. I was letting Jane down.

’Jumping is mostly about believing that you can do it,’ Mully explained. ’Jumping is entirely possible without all the preparation. But the human mind, human-ish in your case, cannot cope with stepping into infinity. The preparation provides a tangible interface to leap into other dimensions. You could accomplish the same thing with a pair of ruby slippers, by clicking the heels together three times.’

’I see.’ I didn’t see, but that was no reason to get Mully off on an instructional tangent, beyond my immediate needs at least. I think I’d keep my simple mind focused, and prepare for the Jumps.

’My advice to you is this; get Jane over here. That house of hers could cause quite a bit of interference.’

’I had intended it to protect her.’

’I know, but that’s not what she needs right now. Arbitrary protection could prevent you from helping her at all.’

’You’ll need to focus on her entirely and intimately, when you begin. Your material link to her is the only way you’ll find her dream.’

I hurried down the ladder, followed closely by James. I stopped at the bottom an looked at him. His eyes were sharp, not a hint of grogginess in them. Half-Aether’s didn’t actually require sleep. It was a comfort. Like eating ice cream when you’re not hungry.

"I need you to go get Jane," I told him. "I can’t do anything inside that house without her authorization."

"What are you going to do?" James asked.

"Something dumb and dangerous, probably." I shook my head. "Give me an hour. I need to focus. This is going to be difficult enough without having to prepare the Jump more than once."

James nodded in understanding and walked out the door. I made sure it was locked behind him and went to my room.

To say my bedroom is small was a bit of an understatement, but it served its purpose well enough. There was a full-sized bed against one wall, a small five-drawer dresser next to it, and a rug that covered most of the floor space. The tiny closet opposite the bed held all of my jeans and tee-shirts and a three piece suit that I hadn’t worn since my father passed away. To the right was the bathroom, and the shower calling my name. I could always focus a little better after a warm shower, and I’d need all the focus I could muster to prepare the calculations for the Jump.

I tidied up the space, and pulled the rug out into the living room. Once I had enough space, I maneuvered my bed and dresser until the bed was situated in the center of the room. I changed the sheets and tossed the old ones behind the couch in the living room. I knelt on the small space between my bed and the bathroom.

It took nearly half an hour to clear doubt and fear from my mind. The only thing that mattered was that Jane needed me and I was the only one who could help her. That was enough for my mind to kick itself into gear. Once I was prepared, I drew a chalk circle all the way around the bed. I carefully drew the complex mathematical formula within the circle’s boundaries. I didn’t solve it, because I needed the last variable. I needed Jane. I made sure the circle was visible enough so James didn’t smudge it when he brought her in. When that was done, I pulled clean clothes out of the closet and lay them on the bathroom counter.

Preparing a Jump was a tedious and arduous task and required complete focus of the mind and will for the singular purpose of the Jump, and absolute concentration on the destination. The slightest disturbance or disruption would mean a fresh start from the beginning, and I wasn’t sure Jane had that much time. But I couldn’t rush anything, and every movement I made was purposeful and determined.

I undressed slowly, envisioning the outcome of the jump clearly in my mind. I spent nearly half an hour under the warm spray. I felt alive, invigorated, and clear-headed when I stepped out of the shower. I dressed in the clean clothes I’d laid out – soft cotton pajama bottoms Jane had gotten me for my birthday and my oldest t-shirt; black with a faded image of Darth Vader and some Storm Troopers being photo-bombed by Chewbacca wearing a big foam finger with ‘Rebels #1’ printed on it. As I slipped it over my head I felt completely relaxed.

Jane was lying on the bed when I came out. James had left the blanket folded beside her, and I nodded a silent, unseen thank you to my brother. He understood the importance of even the smallest details in a Jump, and it looked like he’d done all he could not to taint the area.

I carefully unfolded the wool cover and draped it over my friend’s sleeping form. Her eyes were still open, blue, empty and cold. I drew in a deep breath along with every ounce of my will. I concentrated on Jane as I drew in the solution to the formulas. The circle began to glow.

I laid down on my left side next to her, slipping my left arm underneath her, gripping her right hand in my left; her fingers were cold on my skin. The ancient people of this dimension believed that energy entered the body through the left and exited through the right. It will never cease to amaze me at how accurate the beliefs of ancient people turned out to be. Of course, knowing humanity’s origin, I shouldn’t be that surprised.

I connected us like a pair of batteries in series. The jump would use our combined energy. I let my right hand fall to her forehead, struggling against the awkward position that crushed my left arm beneath her body. My right arm rested across her upper chest, and I took care not to constrict her airway. My head fell against the mound of pillows I’d arranged, so I could still look down at her without straining my neck. I spread my right hand over her face, my thumb just to the side of her chin, my forefinger on her cheek just below her eye, and my middle finger pressed against her temple. I took several deep breaths before I closed my eyes and pushed my will forward into her mind.

"I’m coming to get you Janey…"

I poured all of my belief and will into the simple phrase. I repeated it, concentrating on what I wanted to do.

I looked into Jane’s hollow and dry eyes.

I resisted the urge to reach out and catch myself, as the sensation of falling overcame me. I was barely aware as I relaxed into the soft sheets of the bed. I broke out in a light sweat. I could feel the dry coolness from my small window-mounted AC. A chill prickled across my skin as the perspiration evaporates into the mechanically dried air.

My senses were suddenly overwhelmed with stimuli.

Horns blared, voices shouted, laughed, and cried. Lights flashed, faces passed me smiling and crying and everything in between. A million different aromas passed my nostrils. My mouth watering at some and I gagged at others. I was seeing all of Jane’s experiences… all at once.

This was not typical of a Jump. I was never aware of other people until I arrived. I’d never been part of anything like this before. Images of some not-so-nice outcomes started creeping in. I ignored them with some difficulty. I always prepared and chose my Jump points with care. Jumping into someone else’s dream was something of a new experience. There was no way to pinpoint where I would end up.

As suddenly as it began, the cacophony died and the universe stopped.

I was standing in a kitchen. I recognized it right away, though the décor was very different from the last time I’d been there. To my knowledge, Jane had never owned an avocado-green refrigerator in her life.

There was a woman sitting at the table. Jane’s mom. She was twenty years younger than when I first met her. Time was kind to her, leaving her features, for the most part, unchanged.

"Mrs. Laverne?" I took a step forward, unnoticed. Two screaming children barreled through me, like I was a ghost. It was a strange sensation, though I wasn’t sure if I actually felt anything or if I felt something because I thought I should. If they were real in relation to this reality, and Jane could interact, why was I an incorporeal observer? Had I done something wrong during the Jump?

"Jane hit me," the first child screamed.

The boy was about five with short brown hair all cropped into a bowl cut, except for a long, thin wisp streaming behind him as he ran on a tangle of legs. It was Jane’s younger brother, Jimmy.

He skidded to a stop behind his mom, using her to dodge Jane’s ire. He thrust his leg out and pulled up his shorts, revealing a red welt the size of a young girl’s fist on his thigh.

Jane was just a few inches taller than her brother, with a face that held wisdom greater than her years. She had brown hair pulled into a tight ponytail away from her glowering face.

"Mom! Jimmy pulled my ponytail!"

"Jane," Carol said.

Jane sighed in exasperation.

"It hurt!" Jane took a swing at Jimmy’s extended leg. He snatched it back, once again hiding behind their mom.

"He was probably just playing around," Carol replied. "I’m sure he’ll apologize. "

"I always get yelled at for stuff!" Jane crossed her arms over her chest in indignation.

I stifled a laugh. It was clear that this was an ongoing battle between Jane and her brother. I remembered a confrontation between her and Jimmy at their family reunion. It wasn’t just poor judgment on Jimmy’s part, they were in a feud that spanned their lives.

I wondered about what it would have been like to grow up with a brother. James and I got along pretty well. All things considered. But if we’d been raised together, would we have been at each other’s throats like Jane and Jim? Would I have been favored over him, simply because I had been born second? I didn’t pretend to understand human families. I probably never would. Just having friends who understand what I am and what I do tended to complicate things, but a family? I’d never get anything done.

Did Jimmy just look at me?

---

Fear knotted my stomach and I perceived chills running across my skin. The room spun around and faded from existence. I reached out to steady myself against the wall as it disappeared. My head swam like in the early stages of a good drunk. I curled my fingers into a fist and steadied my breath as a wave of motion sickness tackled my senses. I fell against a wall that swirled into existence.

When I could trust my legs again, I moved away from the wall and looked around.

I was standing in a room. Dust settled all around me, and I could feel the heat and see the yellow orange flicker of fire burning behind a thick veil of smoke and debris.

At first I thought I was alone, but then I heard a tiny voice. I was suddenly aware of the damage around me, where apparently part of the building had collapsed. I searched for the source of the voice that repeated, “Help. Please help,” over and over. Chills raced over my skin as I realized that even if I found the person, there was nothing I could do.

I crossed the room to a pile of debris where the ceiling had fallen. The voice grew louder.

“Help me, Jane… please.”

I could see them now beneath the rubble. Jimmy lay face down, a large beam across his back. Little clouds of dust puffed up around his face as he labored to breathe. The nature of the dream made it hard to determine his age, but I guessed he was 7 or 8.

To his left lay Jane, on her back with a ceiling fan still attached to a large piece of ceiling pressing her to the floor.

“I’m scared Janie,” Jimmy said. “Please don’t let me die.”

His voice was desperate and pleading, a young mind convinced that everyone older had complete control of the world.

“Hold on please, Jimmy,” Jane said.

It was sad to watch 12 year old Jane taking the huge responsibility of keeping her younger brother as calm as possible until death came and took away the terrible creeping panic of desperately wanting to fight and flail and struggle, only to be held still by the burning and broken place they used to call home and I was helpless to do anything but watch.

I wanted to look away, but found myself staring into the eyes of my friend. Hope faded from me as the flames drew closer. Somewhere in my mind I knew Jane lived, but the sadness connected to this memory was overwhelming. I was experiencing Jane’s fear when this first happened and the sadness that haunted her from then on.

Then the rubble began to rise.

Though the ceiling had fallen in, there was still some structure to it. I turned and saw the biggest human I have ever seen crouched beneath the strongest part of the living room ceiling. Jane and Jimmy’s dad slid his shoulders along the rough plaster getting himself as close to them as possible and then pushed with his legs, driving the rubble up, freeing the kids.

“Move!” He screamed, voice booming over the crackling fire and collapsing house.

Jimmy scrambled free, following his dad’s instructions on instinct.

At the edge of the rubble, in the clear part of the room, two firefighters grabbed Jimmy as he emerged.

“Jane,” her dad said, laboring to find his voice as his body shook under the weight. “You have to go sweetie.”

“Daddy,” Jane sobbed.

“It’s okay sweetie. Go. Please.”

I realized in that moment that he wasn’t going to make it. He wedged himself in such a way as to maximize effort from his powerful frame, but that also meant he wasn’t coming back out.

Jane hugged his leg and shook her head.

Her dad’s knees buckled. The weight on his shoulders shifted.

“I love you Janie,” he said.

He reached down and grabbed her by the waistband with one hand and flung her far enough for a waiting fireman to grab her and drag her screaming and crying to safety.

Flames swept in and surrounded Jane’s dad. As the fire burned his flesh, he turned and looked directly at me with a smile made wicked through melting, smoking skin.

The building collapsed.

Everything went black and I was falling again...

---

The world rushed in. I was in the passenger seat of a an older model car, speeding down Johnston Street in my hometown. A black cassette tape hung half-way from the tape deck and music played on the radio. Though I could hear it and it stirred a familiar emotion in me, I couldn’t place the song. I struggled for a bit of lyric or chords that I could place with a name and artist, but it eluded my memory. I turned to the driver.

“What song is that,” I asked.

The driver responded in a low, muffled tone. I squinted against the glare of sunlight coming through the window and over their shoulder as I tried to make out their face. No matter how hard I tried, or what angle I shifted to, I couldn’t see the driver’s face. My nerves crawled. Everything, the car, the driver, the song, was so familiar but, aside from the town, completely unknown.

I started talking again. My voice sounded as if it were slowed, and thick with unfamiliar pitches. I looked at my clothes. I was in a short dress and heels, but there was no color. I rubbed my eyes and steadied my breath against the panic rising in my chest.

Who am I?

I struggled with that thought and I was scared.

Then there was a sudden weightlessness. Discarded fast food wrappers and dirt from the floorboard hung in the air as I spun and twisted through it. Through the windshield I saw a crumpled mass of metal skitter from the road and into a tree, bodies slumped in the seats as we, the driver and I, flipped by in slow motion.

We skidded to a stop and another jolt sent the car spinning again. The car finally came to a halt, upright in the street. There was heat in my stomach and I couldn’t move my legs. I looked down. The car engine was in my lap, my crushed body beneath it. I felt my conscious fade and darkness rushed in from my peripheral.

I opened my eyes to light. It was a calm and peaceful spring morning. A warm sun rose and golden light played across a gathered crowd and seemed not to touch anything else. They were seating themselves in folding chairs set up on artifical grass.beneath a canvas canopy. I knew everyone there. All familiar faces.

I looked down and the sight made me gasp. I was floating perhaps ten or more feet above the ground. Directly below me sat a coffin. In that coffin lay Jane, thick bruising on her face and arms barely disguised by the thick layer of makeup the undertaker applied.

With a start my mind clicked. I wasn’t in that wreck. It was Jane. I knew then that I was seeing everyone she had ever met arrive at her funeral. I couldn’t see or hear anything in the car before the wreck, because I was never there. And neither was Jane. It was a dream. An old, terrifying dream. With parts missing.

My skin crawled. Someone was watching me. I turned. Jane stared at me with, wide angry eyes.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?”

She lashed out and struck me in the face. It felt real, believably real, and I fell. My body landed hard in Jane’s coffin. I couldn’t move. I saw Jane hovering above me. Then the lid closed and everything was dark once more.

“You can’t save her,” a deep voice shook me to the core.

I screamed.

---

Darkness and moonlight through the window told me it was nighttime. I was again in Jane’s childhood home, in the kitchen. Her mom sat on a wooden stool at a lime-green kitchen island.

A doorbell chimed.

Carol got up and crossed to the living room. She was older now with longer, grayer hair and a fuller frame. An old grandfather clock chimed eleven, as Jane’s mom opened the front door to two uniformed officers.

Their voices came across muffled even though I was now standing a few feet away.

"Donny was found...sorry for your loss... "

I gasped. I was witnessing Carol learn that her son had been killed by a criminal in a drive-by.

A tiny gasp from the hallway echoed my own. I turned and saw the faint outline of a girl in the dark. Jane, still young, preteen, was eavesdropping. I was experiencing her sob-distorted memories from that night.

Carol put her hand over her mouth and stood back, allowing the officers in. A stocky, dark-skinned officer stepped in. His arms and chest spoke of more than a few hours in the gym. David Estes. At one time, he had been her dad’s partner. Conner Lewis had been a lead detective. Her mother lost more than a few nights sleep over that. Standing here and watching the news unfold about her son, I understood why.

"Carol," Estes’ deep voice was uncharacteristically quiet and melancholy. He nodded to Jane in the hallway. She stiffened before shuffling into the living room. She was short, maybe four and half feet tall, but held herself proud. She fought back the sobs and took her mom’s hand. She patted it several comforting times. Her mom’s mouth tightened and tears stood in her eyes. Carol swallowed her own sorrow and held Jane’s hand tight.

Estes stepped over, knelt and hugged Jane. There was something not right about him. I thought I saw glow writhing beneath the skin of his face.

Carol pulled Jane close and into a tight hug.

"I’m sorry, sweetie. I’m so sorry. "

Tears flowed down both of their faces, and I struggled to contain my own emotions. The officers stood stoically in the background, watching. Estes was staring at me. Chills ran down my spine.

---



Notes:

Dreameater description: Its movements made no sound as it stalked around the clearing. The body of the thing was black and smooth, hiding any muscularity or recognizable feature, only rippling blackness where a face should be, and dancing in the darkness, were the faint images of memories lost.