People have always talked around campfires. They've told stories of great loves, and great loves lost; of Fairies, and of the Small Folk; of monsters from the grave, and of the evil lurking deeper; most commonly of ghosts, and most recently of aliens. And sometimes, just before dawn, when the night is the coldest and the morning is the furthest away – when even the flames seem to hide from the darkness – the tales of dreams begin to unravel.
This is one such story, fit for a fireside telling, but told 'round tables with electricity to push back the shadows. So light a candle, turn off the switch and snuggle up to someone you love, and I'll tell you the tale of the last dream I ever had.
The dream that ends all dreams, if you will...
I have always been one to have nightmares. Ever since the days of childhood, my nights have been peppered with shadows. Never a happy dream for me, oh no. Sunny days always turned to dreary nights, friends and family turned to foes, and strangers turned to dangers. Never a friendly face, and never a helping hand.
As a teenager, I learned to wake myself up from my strange and horrible visions by saying, as loudly as I could: "This is only a dream and now I am going to wake up." And in the few times when that didn't work, I would pinch myself as hard as I could until my eyes would open, wide with terror and bleary with sleep, the green numbers of my bedside clock glaring out at me with the blank fact of the early morning hour.
The last dream I ever had began in the same manner as any other I've had before: from a great distance up and accelerating at an alarming rate down. Down towards a tiny spot of light that I just know is going to explode up around me and bury me in all sorts of nasty things. Then, just at the very last moment before impacting with the tiny spot, it disappeared and I plunged into the sinister blackness of what I've come to call Shadow Land: the darkest corner of the dream world.
I stumbled around for a few moments, fear beginning to nibble at the edges of my mind and the sense of deja vu overriding all my senses as I began to walk east. Trees that had always been there suddenly grew up all around me in a think tangle. My sense of direction evaporated in the dense forest and, even though I knew that by going east I could get out and into the sunshine, I no longer knew which way east was.
I ran for what seemed like hours, always going in a different direction and always ending up back in the same place, tripping and sprawling and scraping my hands and knees each time I returned. Every time I walked away, a brightly colored, shiny bird would flit across in front of me, and then pivot on a sharp angle that only it could find to make a B-line for the edge of the forest. Every time I chased the bird, running as fast as I could, the bird flew faster and faster until I couldn't see it anymore. Every time after the bird disappeared, I felt those eyes staring out at me from a hidden place and a cold wind rustled through the dying forest to chill me to the bone. Every time, I forget the way that the little bird had gone and would just bolt blindly through the trees, the hot breath of that thing just behind me.
I fall and scrape my hands and knees again, only to look around and see the faint light bouncing off the granite and marble stones like all the times before; just enough light to let me read the now familiar inscriptions on those stones once more: "This one didn't wake up before she landed!" and "Another for the keeper of the closet!" and "They called this one Crib Death too!"... and then the same on that I always tripped on:
"He had a dream he was underwater,
Then remembered that he wasn't a fish.
He tried to pretend he was an otter,
But for waking up, he forgot to wish!"
This was the place to which I always returned; with its deafening silence and the silent laughter of that thing sitting just outside the boundaries. This is the final resting place of the Dreaming Dead, all of them collected by whatever is now stalking me. Sleep's Graveyard.
This is where, on the verge of hysteria, I remembered that I was dreaming. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The words "this is only a dream and now I am going to wake up" had barely left my lips when that feeling of deja vu returned and I felt the stale air around me shatter as the Graveyard boundaries crumbled.
The thing howled in triumph, and its smirking bulk advanced out at me from the shadows, its wide-set eyes glowing green. Still on hands and knees, wearing nothing but the boxers and t-shirt I sleep in, I raised one scratched and bleeding hand high on the inside of my opposite arm and pinched as hard as I could. All the while holding desperately to the knowledge that this was only a dream.
Tears came to my eyes, but still the thing only grinned wider and stalked ever closer. I stopped pinching and just grabbed as much skin and flesh as I could in a tight fist, raising blisters just below my armpit.
Still, the grin got wider and those green eyes drew ever closer.
My knees and palms were stinging with sweat, but I didn't notice. I gripped tighter on my arm, digging fingernails into tissue, but still didn't wake. Gravestones snapped in half as the thing passed them, and the ones it stepped on shattered.
At that moment, I twisted my wrist, ripping the skin under my arm and sending white-hot spears of pain into my brain as I cried out, suddenly sitting straight up in bed. The sheets were soaked through with sweat and clinging to any exposed skin.
I hurriedly flicked on my bedside lamp, letting the light cleanse the room while I ran my stinging hands through my hair. Then I looked in my mirror, hanging at the end of my bed just above my dresser, and my relieved smile froze on my face... my dirty face.
I started trembling as I looked at my scratched and bleeding hands and knees, then shaking as I looked at the torn skin and bleeding welts on the inside of my upper arm that were dripping crimson onto my sheets.
Then a cold wind swept through, chilling me to the bone. My bedside light flickered like a candle and went out as silent laughter filled the room. My bedstand clock glared out the cruel, early morning hour of 3:02am.
Two, green, wide-set eyes grinned out at me from between the slats of my closet doors.
As I said earlier, this was the story of my last dream. A dream to end all dreams, if you will. A tale best told by firelight, just before dawn when the night is the coldest, when even the flames seem to hide from the darkness, and morning is the furthest away.