The tormented swirls of the storm have raged on for what seems like an eternity, heaping an abundance of thick, heavy rain down in torrents of manic resentment but it does little to temper the searing heat that has left the purple-chequered landscape awash with the burning remnants of dead Cedar trees. A blizzard of ash and ember fall upon him as he watches, obscuring his vision. He can feel his bones ache from straining against the bonds that once again hold him in place. He cannot move. He cannot flee. He can do nothing but watch.
In the distance he can see the one remaining tree that has yet to fall to the fire. The deep, burnt determination that rises within him has one single desire; reach the dark, twisting, black-boughs of that sky-scraping Yew tree and raze it to the ground.
The heat of his desire is almost a match for the soul-scorching fire that burns the very air around him. But, he knows that he cannot move. He knows that he cannot flee. Deep within his being he knows that, even if he could somehow break the bonds that hold him fast, he does not possess the strength to achieve his long sought after wish. With salt-laden tears streaming from his red-rimmed eyes, he watches everything around him burn unrelenting; he knows what comes next. He has been here before; He has witnessed the horror of what is to come over and over and over again.
The Yew tree stands as a sentinel of perverse serenity amongst the chaos of the burning landscape. But he knows that it is just a deceptive veneer, one implicitly designed to torment him and him alone. He longs to reach out to it. He longs to end its existence.
Above him half-dead Jackdaws screech in unison as they circle the fear-inspiring vista; their shrill calls a warning of what is to come. But he needs no warning.
He braces his legs once more against the ground and pushes his back into the boulder that he is bound to with as much strength as he can muster. The sharp, jagged edges of the rock cut and slice into his gaunt back, drawing blood, soaking his torn shirt. But he does not relent. He knows that he needs to hold on.
The parched, worn earth begins to shake with violent intent, sending the Jackdaws fleeing. Across the odd-coloured valley the ground twists and turns; churning as root and twig and branch crack and stretch. Pushing higher and higher, the trunk of the tree slowly twists in on itself; each minuscule movement matching the agonising pain that tears through his ragged body.
He begs and prays and curses for it to end, but he knows that it is just a vent for his ever-present fear and frustration. He cannot stop it now. The illusive surface of the Yew tree has been torn asunder leaving its true nature exposed for him to see. He watches in despair as the blood drips from the cracks that have appeared in the tree’s rotting trunk.
Then nothing, only silence and stillness.
Above him the sky turns blood-red as tranquillity invades the stark madness of his tired mind. His scream is long and primal as he begs for the forgiveness he knows will never be granted. The immortal tree has devoured yet another soul.
The stream of glinting daylight that flows unrelentingly through the cracks in the shuttered wooden-blinds casts a looming delight playfully upon the dancing, dust-filled air and bathes the musty antique shop in a dull, half-light which serves to create an atmosphere of peaceful reclusiveness. But John did not care. He did not care to open his eyes, nor his mind, to witness the everyday spectacle.
At that moment he did not wish to admit that there was anything else in the world other than the dull, aching pain that pounded relentlessly behind his tired eyes; a blazing agony that has left his confused mind swimming in a sea of uncertain dizziness, his focus clipped and shallow. His laboured breathing the only sound that he can summon the energy to comprehend.
“Are you okay down there?” asked the soft familiar voice, startling him. “Would you like some coffee?”
John had been sitting in the dark behind the shop counter, his left temple pressed up against the cool glass casing, for close to two hours in an attempt to ward off the remnants of his migraine. But it wasn’t working. Risking sensory-overload he allowed his dry, crusty eyelids to scratch open only to find Kim looming over him, her slender form silhouetted by the unbearable brightness that wafted in through the front door that she had left open in her wake.
I’m going to be sick, he thought.
“Rough night?” Kim asked, her voice soothing but strained.
John gave the barest of nods in reply. But even that caused his dizziness to find new momentum. If only you knew, he thought. Still, the enticing allure of hot, roasted coffee elicited an automatic hand of acceptance as he reached for the proffered cup.
“Thanks,” he croaked, his voice cracked and dry.
“How long have you been up?” she asked, releasing her grasp of the cardboard cup once she was sure he had a firm hold of it.
“A while,” he replied. “You?”
“Same. I’m just heading down to the station now though. Thought I’d check in on you since I didn’t hear from you last night. Did you get any sleep at all?”
John took a long sip of his coffee, savouring the hot liquid as it quenched his parched throat, while he searched for a reply. He did not want to lie to Kim but he was in no mood to get into yet another drawn-out discussion about his sleeping patterns.
“Some,” he eventually replied.
Kim was no stranger to John’s legendary moods. And she instinctively knew that he was holding back. Unsure as to why, she decided to bite her lip and prevent herself from calling him a liar outright.
“Did you have that nightmare again?”
“I really don’t want to talk about it Kim, really I don’t,” John snapped, before silently cursing his tone.
Kim shook her head in disgust.
“Where’s Sock? Have you fed him this morning?”
John blearily scanned the surfaces of the antiques that lay strewn about his shop in the hope of sighting Sock. But the cat wasn’t there. He could not remember the last time he had laid eyes on him. Or when he had actually fed him last.
“Haven’t seen him yet,” he replied, hoping he sounded sincere enough to ward off her brewing anger. “I’m sure he’ll show up when he’s hungry.”
Kim let it go.
“Will you be here this evening when I finish my shift?” she enquired, changing the subject to more neutral territory.
John shrugged. Their relationship had been strained of late, and he lacked the personal skills required to effectively communicate with her. But, that wasn’t to say he was prepared to give up on their fledgling romance just yet.
“I’ll be here,” he eventually said. “Sock too.”
Kim smiled. This is progress, she thought, checking her watch.
“I’m going to be late, I’ll talk to you both later,” she said, turning to leave.
John grumbled something unintelligible before slinking back down into his familiar position behind the counter, hoping he could still his mind once more.
John’s nightmares had once again become a source of frustration in their lives. His in particular. While Kim encouraged him to open up and talk about the sporadic episodes of visual terrors he experienced, he himself preferred to ignore them. It was a strategy that clearly wasn’t working. Fuck it, he thought as he attempted to haul himself out of his hiding place, I better find Sock.
The twelve hours John had spent tossing and turning in his unkempt bed had left his body sore and his mind raw. It was like this every single time. It was always the same nightmare. And he knew what it meant.
Unbeknown to his new lover John had spent more than a lifetime fighting off the effects that one dream had on his wakened reality. He would gladly forego any chance of every finding a solid block of restful sleep and endure the agonising migraines if he could only escape the nightmare world that grasped at him at every opportunity. He would also gladly forego the knowledge that his nightmares could reach out into the world and elicit a blood letting on a scale that made his stomach churn.
“Sock, where are you?” he called out, but instantly regretted it. The sound of his own voice grated like razor blades swirling inside his head. “Sock, come on you stupid cat. Where are you?”
The cat’s distinctive, loud purr vibrated throughout the shop as he bounded into sight, pausing momentarily to enjoy the dust filled streams of light that John preferred to ignore. A second later and he was at John’s feet, his tail playfully wrapping around his owner’s legs.
“How am I going to tell her?” he asked his feline companion as he bent to pick him up. “There’s no way in hell I won’t sound insane.”
Sock looked up from the comfortable cradle John had made with his arms and purred softly in response.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. I’ll tell her tonight. I promise. But if she leaves us and never comes back it’s on you, right?”
Sock purred once more before jumping quickly to the counter top. He stretched out his claws, rasping them along the plate glass. John copied the movement of his paws with his own hands, finding that it helped to release some of the tension from his aching hands. Tonight will either make us or break us, he thought, firmly believing that breaking was the more likely option.
He knew from experience how the expected conversation would go. Kim would demand the brutal, soul-crushing truth; a truth that had been centuries in the making. Yet, John found that he was filled with a soft, light, glimmer of hope that this time, for once in his unnaturally long life, that the truth would not burn the deepening bonds that had developed between them over the last few months.
Tonight so, he thought once more, before closing his eyes again, forcing the forming tear of pain to dissipate.