Dean dreamed of a darkness more oppressive and disorienting than that of a moonless night in unfamiliar woods.
Before him stretched an expanse of infinite black, a place of shadows harboring secrets he was content not knowing. But his situation was not entirely without hope. An invisible barrier, albeit a fragile one, separated him from whatever lurked in the dream world’s uncharted landscape. For a time, his apprehension was cleansed away by the womb-like tranquility offered by this protective aura. But one cannot remain in the womb forever, and the distinct absence of noise and light surrounding him did not endure. Dean’s primordial fear of the unrestricted dark and what it may conceal soon evolved from a nagging worry into an overwhelming despair as his ears buzzed with unwelcome sounds.
From the silence rose a discordant choir of anguished voices. Dean was startled by these cries of death and pain, an onslaught of noise that seemed to be spilling out of the darkness itself. Although he was unsure how he could know this, Dean quickly became positive of one fact: these howls belonged to his family, friends, and neighbors. They sounded like animals wounded during a botched hunt, moaning as they gasped and fought for every last breath of life.
Dean’s hands slammed against his ears as the tormented screams continued their relentless crescendo. Just as he thought his eardrums might rupture from the unbearable dissonance, the cries were suddenly vanquished. It was as if a needle had been lifted from a record playing in Dean’s head. In the same instant a glowing red line ripped violently across the horizon. The line, at first as thin as a discarded thread, began to grow in size, splitting the once empty void into two distinct halves.
While undoubtedly a strange occurrence, this sight alone did not engender the distressing sickness that grew in Dean’s stomach. What began to take shape within the red border was the final tipping point; the thing that transformed what Dean might have once described as a dream into a full-blown nightmare.
Against the glow of the scarlet horizon Dean could make out a solitary figure; a misshapen silhouette of a man inside the bright backdrop. This figure did not simply appear within the red divide, but instead seemed to emerge from the top half of the black murk that had now been sliced in two. The man was crawling, not because it was incapable of walking or never learned how to. It crawled on all fours like an animal because it chose to. It wanted to.
The being had only crawled a few feet when the void it came from sprang to life. The black space shifted and changed, sprouting tendrils that wrapped around the crawling man, clinging to him like a greedy octopus hauling back its escaping prey. Was some force trying to pull this thing back into the apparent nothingness from which it came? Dean hoped so.
The entity arched its back and twisted fiercely. It was writhing as it attempted to inch forward, struggling to break free from the obsidian tentacles that halted its progress. Gradually, the coils that wrapped around it began to morph into more recognizable shapes like arms and hands. This being was not alone, Dean thought, and the others wanted it back.
With a final, forceful jolt of its entire body, the thing broke free from the thralls of the dark space. Now it moved defiantly, easily making rapid progress towards Dean’s side of the fiery barrier. A colossal dread consumed him with every step it took, and then it spoke.
“I’m ready to move in,” an inhuman voice declared. The words pierced Dean’s ears like an angry bolt of lightning.
“So many worlds on fire, but yours is still so sweet and pleasant. For a little while,” it teased. The figure was closer now, and Dean could see its eyes. Eyes that were almost human but missing something. He wasn’t sure what exactly. A soul?
“Like candy, your home is waiting to be unwrapped and digested,” it continued.
As it neared the edge of the red light, almost touching Dean’s half of the divide, he noticed the line itself was still expanding in every direction. He turned to watch the route it charted through the desolate realm as it pushed forward like a locomotive. Dean realized the wormlike light was actually curving back toward its point of origin, and without fanfare the two ends met, forming a broad circle with Dean trapped in its center.
He was no longer scared or confused. Not because there was nothing to be afraid of, or because he suddenly understood what was happening, but because his heart had no room to feel anything other than loss as he realized everything he owned, everything he knew, and everything he loved no longer belonged to him. It was this thing’s for the taking. It was coming. It was already here.
The crawling man was closer now, and it had two more words for Dean.
It lurched forward, leaping to within inches of Dean’s spot within the circle. He prepared for the end of everything as the being extended a long, slender hand to claw at his face. With a thundering crack the monster shot backward, howling as it soared through the emptiness. The translucent shield surrounding Dean had deflected the thing’s protruding reach. On his shoulder appeared a marble white hand, and he turned to find a person hovering behind him. Their facial features were indistinct, and unlike the invasive adversary this being was composed of an almost celestial sort of light.
“You’re with me now,” the being declared, and with that Dean was plucked from the nightmare.
He jolted awake, transporting himself back to his cramped cottage in the quaint seaside community of Farrow Point, New Jersey. Dean’s hand clutched his chest in a failed attempt to slow his pounding heartbeat, and his other tightly gripped the outer knob of his home’s front door. He was standing on his porch, fully dressed.
I was sleepwalking, Dean thought in disbelief, questioning himself rather than truly comprehending the situation. He hadn’t done that since childhood; more than a few decades ago at this point. Dean hoped his front porch was as far as he’d gotten; that he was moments away from leaving his property and not returning. He was lucky he hadn’t walked off into the damn ocean.
Dean stepped inside and haphazardly reached for a glass of water he had left on a coffee table earlier that night. Still disoriented, he allowed it to slip from his grasp before it ever reached his lips. The glass landed on the room’s spongy green carpet and remained unbroken, and he smiled slightly when his cat Sebastian arrived to taste the spilled water.
Dean shared his home with nobody besides the long-haired feline. His wife Ophelia had succumbed to cancer almost a decade ago, and as he begrudgingly marched towards his seventh decade of life he had long resigned himself to the possibility that he may never share a bed with anyone again. But despite this reality, Dean was not a particularly lonely or unhappy man. He liked where he lived, and the people who lived there liked him. Born and raised in Farrow Point, Dean only traveled outside the town’s borders on rare occasions, a trait he shared with many of his fellow residents.
The isolated hamlet was a picturesque community, just large enough to provide its inhabitants with all of the comforts of modern life, but not a major attraction that brought in tourists and vacationers from all corners of the nation. Sure, they got visitors, but only in small droves during the summer months. And while the place had a few major roads, most of the shops and neighborhoods were easily within walking distance from each other. In a world that Dean thought was rapidly becoming more connected, yet somehow more divided, he was thankful for this place and his place in it.
Dean was a familiar and friendly sight around town, and almost everyone recognized him from his job at the Farrow Point Lighthouse. He wasn’t responsible for operating the beacon itself. No, he did nothing as important or heroic as warding off traveling vessels from the rocky beaches that peppered the edges of the coastal community. The lighthouse’s primary function, that of a guiding signal for ships in the night, had been automated years ago like most others. Instead, Dean’s job was to sell tickets and give tours of the lighthouse and surrounding grounds to the couple dozen visitors it received on most days. There was part-time help available to assist when he was sick, or during the summer months when Farrow Point did attract some guests, but for the most part it was his show to run and he liked it that way.
His mind drifted to the lighthouse now as he stood nervously in his own home. Its presence calmed him, and even the mere thought of it was a helpful remedy in the confusing aftermath of his bizarre evening. He was not a superstitious man. No, Dean Orwell was not one to believe in premonitions or to derive any semblance of meaning from dreams or nightmares. But something about this one didn’t seem like a nightmare at all. It felt like something bigger, like a real event that was playing out beyond the veil of the waking world. He laughed at himself for entertaining the notion. But irrational thoughts, and even ones that were a bit childish, seemed to come easier in quiet homes after midnight.
Already he was beginning to forget bits and pieces of it, but the key details remained seared in his brain. The dark and empty space. The dying screams of good, honest people. The red line that seemed to divide the world. The haunting figure, its voice, and its calculated approach lingered most of all. How had it all ended? Like quicksand the more he struggled to remember the faster it faded away. Just as well, he thought.
The familiar structure of the lighthouse continued to fill more space in his mind. The tower rose from a patch of bright green grass as if it had sprouted from the earth itself. It was partially surrounded by sharp boulders on a slight hill overlooking one of Farrow Point’s more pristine beaches. Nearby was a small structure that housed the office and ticket booth where he worked, a few spaces for parking, and the entrance to a vast park and nature reserve. The tower itself was a modest height with precisely 216 steps from top to bottom that coiled around in a tight spiral.
An echo of a dream.
Ignore it. Focus on the lighthouse.
He almost didn’t recognize his own words of encouragement, but he continued tracing the tower’s shape in his mind. For the most part the lighthouse was a stone structure with few windows, and on top was a gallery surrounding the lantern room which had been painted a royal blue. Although not a towering behemoth, it could be seen from most of the main roads and avenues throughout town. The landmark was a defining feature of Farrow Point, and knowing he played a role in its upkeep was important to Dean. He cared about the town and its history, and he wanted to preserve it in his own little way.
Sebastian trotted off, leaving Dean alone with his thoughts. His heart rate had slowed and he breathed easier, but the prospect of getting anymore sleep seemed unlikely. Maybe it was because he lived alone and had few hobbies, or perhaps it was just his genetic destiny, but in recent years Dean had come to realize that he suffered from anxiety. He had no clinical diagnosis nor did he seek one out; the symptoms were mild and manageable enough that it had yet to become an overbearing presence in his life. But the condition tended to become exacerbated at night, and waking up an hour before dawn on his front porch certainly didn’t help.
Rather than spend the next two hours floundering in bed, Dean began his day ahead of schedule. He fed Sebastian, spent a few minutes combing the last of his greying hair, and put together a quick meal for himself. Cooking was not a passion of Dean’s but he could handle breakfast just fine. He grabbed a few eggs and milk from the fridge before setting the stove to a medium-high heat. His stomach hollered impatiently as he vigorously whipped the ingredients together. Before placing the pan on the stove he paused momentarily. The heating element was glowing red. A crimson spiral. Maybe the nightmare was a premonition after all. Some labyrinthine warning from the gods that he would burn his house to ash while cobbling together a paltry breakfast. More nonsense. He proceeded to cook his eggs. They were a little burnt, but his house remained standing.
He finished the meal without incident, proud that he had caught a glob of falling ketchup with a napkin rather than his shirt collar. After adding the empty plate to the teetering stack of dishes in the sink, Dean slipped on his shoes and left through the backdoor. He sat at the edge of his patio and took a moment to tie a particularly troublesome shoelace. Had he really already tied these once tonight in his sleep? Impossible. He was having enough trouble doing so fully conscious.
Gazing out at the yard before him, Dean could barely make out the garden and walkway under the pale illumination of the moonlight. The stone path led to a fragile wooden fence complete with a small door he never bothered locking. Just beyond the fence, his grassy yard transitioned into a meager hill of dirt and sand that gently sloped down to the seashore. The lighthouse was only a few beaches away, and a walk alongside the water just before sunrise would surely eliminate the last vestiges of uneasiness that still clung to him.
Dean stood up, ready to depart. And then he heard something. Not the squawks of an irritated seagull trying to catch its morning breakfast. Not the sound of tepid waves crashing lightly against the shore. Not even the sound of his neighbor’s car alarm which seemed to go off at least once a day. No, the sound filling Dean’s eardrums was foreign to him; at the very least unfamiliar in his current setting.
The air filled with a staticky hum as if he had tuned into the fading signal of some lost radio station. Where was the sound coming from? “The sky,” Dean said aloud. He looked up and for a moment he thought he could see something amongst the clouds.
The hour was early enough that the sun was still absent from the sky, but the lighthouse and its radiant beam swept across the horizon every few seconds. During one of these brief rotations as Dean frantically searched for some source of the distorted sound, he thought he saw something floating in the clouds. A person. The next rotation of light revealed nothing unusual. There had been nobody in the sky. Of course not. The corners of his sleep-deprived eyes still hosted a layer of crust, and his vision was less than ideal even on crisp summer afternoons after a full night’s rest.
The noise cut out suddenly and Dean realized he had dug his nails into the patio’s splintering wooden boards. His anxiety was bubbling to the surface again, but the uncanny experience did not dissuade him from leaving home. He had already chalked up the vision of a floating figure to tiredness and poor eyesight, and the static could have been the product of some test conducted by the air force base located a few miles from town. Maybe it came from some new type of plane or communication device. This explanation would be suitable enough for now, though Dean wouldn’t have been as comfortable with it had he known Sebastian was shivering nearby in a tight crawlspace beneath the porch. Sebastian only hid when Dean had visitors.
He stashed away whatever he had witnessed in the towering filing cabinets of thoughts and worries that filled his mind. The drawers of these cabinets, brimming with irrational fears, ancient memories, and lists of things to do (most of which he’d never get around to doing), would open and close at random throughout the day, demanding his immediate attention while he tried to work, or fish, or do just about anything else. He hoped the memories of this particular night would be stored away for as long as possible.
With his shoes sufficiently tied and only a minor splinter in his right hand, Dean stood up and made his way over the small hill on the fringe of his property. The beach behind his home was strewn with pebbles and seaweed, making it an unpopular destination for sunbathers or kids building sand castles. The only sign of human disturbance was a trail of footsteps near the water’s edge. He followed these footsteps, his own from the previous day.
A mile away the lighthouse stood proudly, a beacon for Dean as much as it was for the few fishing boats headed toward Farrow Point that morning. His eyes remained locked on it throughout the duration of his ten minute walk. Beginning his days like this made it impossible not to think about Ophelia. Good, he thought. He never wanted to forget her.
Soon he left the beach and rounded the small path leading up into the lighthouse parking lot. At the tower’s base sat a cramped two room building that Dean would sometimes describe as his office, but in practice he seldom sat at his desk or the built-in ticket booth. He preferred to be out on the surrounding lawn or even by the front gates to greet guests as they arrived. This rosy picture of his work environment was not reflected by what he saw this morning. Something was wrong, and he knew it before he even approached the ticket booth. The window was all but gone; only a few shards of glass remained jutting out of the frame. The rest of it was scattered into hundreds of pieces across the pavement and inside on the office’s tiled floor.
Why? More than anything, Dean asked himself this simple question. He assumed this was the work of a burglar hoping to make a quick buck, but that explanation really made little sense. The lighthouse received few visitors in the waning days of fall, and tours only cost five dollars; kids were free. There was rarely more than two hundred dollars in the cash register, and that was on a particularly busy day. Maybe the thief didn’t know or care, but it just didn’t seem worth the trouble to Dean. But he was a good person, one who would never think to commit an act like this even if he stood to gain millions.
Dean cautiously approached the office door, realizing for the first time that the culprit could still be inside. Farrow Point was a safe place; he couldn’t recall the last time someone had been assaulted within the town’s borders. But he wasn’t stupid. He knew a situation like this could quickly escalate if the intruder was cornered. They might even be carrying a weapon.
He reached for his keys, but stopped when he noticed the office door was slightly ajar. The vandal must have left through it rather than risk another journey through the window frame, now decorated with its shards of daggered glass. Made sense. What didn’t was what Dean found next. His perfectly reasonable theory that the lighthouse had been visited by a petty thief was about to be challenged.
After flipping on the lights and confirming the building was empty, Dean opened the register and began counting money. Every cent was there, but something else was missing. A second set of keys. The keys Dean kept in his desk. Keys that not only unlocked the office but the lighthouse itself.
The lighthouse. Was someone in the lighthouse?
Dean shed a tear. At first he wasn’t sure why. He cried not out of fear for his safety, or because someone had shattered the window, or even stolen his keys. He was worried. Worried about what they were doing in the lighthouse. The lighthouse meant more to him than he sometimes realized, and the possibility that some immature teenager or rowdy drunk was in there desecrating the place, well, it was all almost too much to take. They wouldn’t just be defacing a town landmark. Whether they knew it or not the act would be a personal attack against him and the memory of Ophelia.
Part of him wanted to call the police. Part of him wanted to run home. He knew he should probably do both, but instead he did neither. He had to learn more before inviting anyone else into the situation.
Dean attempted to compose himself, using his sleeve to absorb any last tears. He left the office, and now facing the lighthouse entrance he could see the door was indeed open. What would he do if someone was still inside? He had no idea. Perhaps foolishly he decided that would be something to figure out if and when it happened. Dean’s affection for the lighthouse and his role as its caretaker served as a source of strength he now drew from. The fear of what might happen once he stepped inside was not at the forefront of his mind.
Approaching the entrance, Dean realized the inside of the tower was still shrouded in darkness. Though the lights lining the structure’s staircase had not been turned on, he had enough foresight to grab the cheap flashlight from his desk drawer. He shined it through the open doorway, but the beam was so faint that it barely made an impact against the morning’s natural light which was beginning to fill the sky.
Dean blindly took two steps inside before his sneakers connected with something wet. A splash of sound echoed up the nearly hollow interior, and he stopped before ever reaching the staircase. He didn’t need to point the flashlight down to decipher what type of substance now coated the bottom of his shoes. The taste of saltwater lingering in his throat was eviscerated by the unmistakable scent of blood. It filled his nasal passages strongly enough to trigger a cough.
Dean stepped backwards and tripped over himself in a panic. He landed on the ground, his fragile spine cushioned only moderately by a patch of grass just outside the entrance. From this new vantage point on the dew soaked grass he pointed the flashlight upwards, affording him a view of about two dozen steps worth of the structure’s metal staircase. The stairs curved tightly inside, twisting upward like the skeletal structure of a coiled serpent. Yes, Dean could see the steps. The steps covered in thick, warm blood. Blood that did not originate from a source on the ground floor but had simply pooled there. It came from above. It was dripping down the stairs as if someone had emptied a can of red paint at the top of the lighthouse.
The dream—the nightmare was creeping back inside of him, forcing its way out of his mind’s filing cabinets. It was spreading like a disease throughout his entire body, paralyzing him in the process.
Someone was hurt and bleeding. They were dying. Were they dead? What in god’s name had happened inside the lighthouse? No, not just the lighthouse. It was his lighthouse. He had no legal claim to ownership—that belonged to the state—but it was Dean who was there, day after day, caring for the place. And now look at it.
The blood continued to drip from step to step, forming a maddening trail that disappeared from sight as the spiral ascended higher into the tower. Whatever plans Dean had to handle the situation evaporated. Almost without realizing it he was back on his feet and running towards the office, moving faster than he had in some years. Bursting through the open door he snatched the cordless phone off the wall and dialed 9-1-1 without even looking at the numbers.
“Please send the chief,” he gasped, cutting off the operator before she got out two words.
“Sir, hold on,” she said as politely as possible.
“Send everyone,” Dean persisted. “I’m at the lighthouse. My lighthouse.” The fear in his voice was transforming into anger. He didn’t like it. He hadn’t felt really, truly angry for many years.
“Sir, can you tell us what’s happening?”
“My whole damn world just went up in flames is what’s happening,” he exclaimed.
Worlds on fire.
Another echo of the dream.
“You’re saying the lighthouse is on fire?” A hint of doubt crept into her voice.
“No, I’m sorry.” He took a second to compose himself. “Not a fire. Someone’s been hurt, killed maybe.”
“We have someone on the way if you can try to stay on the line sir.”
“The blood,” he pleaded, now sobbing into the phone, “they covered my lighthouse in blood!”