By popular demand, another short story by Michael Collins. Dark, horror themes.
You awake in the dark, your heart a hammer against the shell of your chest, a scream ready to be born on your quivering lips.
You peek at the alarm clock: 2:57am, just on the verge of the witching hour. That feels about right, you think to yourself with a shudder.
You try to recall the detail of the nightmare that ripped you, shrieking, from sleep, sheets drenched.
All you can remember is that it was cold.
Freezing, bitterly cold.
It’s a long time before you return to sleep’s embrace.
When the alarm bleats its 6am warning, you stir again, waking with a blinding headache. You stumble downstairs in a painful haze, eyes half-closed, hands weaving uneasily through your hair.
You make coffee unconsciously, eyes closed to slits, hands moving by rote. That terrible cold feeling from the dream follows you all the way.
The hot drink, and a couple of aspirin, help a little. By the time you’re in and out of the shower, you feel more like a human again. But the stinging heat of the water can’t quite remove the lingering chill from your bones. The tights you pull on over your legs can’t dispel the cold.
Your working day – normally a source of satisfaction – passes in a blur as your mind turns the remnant of the dream over and over, round and round. Calls with clients and meetings with colleagues leave no trace on your consciousness.
The chill stays with you, wrapped around you like an invisible cloak of freezing fog.
You journey home in a half-trance, the songs on the radio unheard, the traffic jams a bland illusion. That evening passes the same way, like you’re mildly high. You feel caught, waiting for the moment you must sleep, hoping that it never arrives.
When you come heart-poundingly awake once more in the witching hour, all you can feel is that same deathly chill.
It’s cold, so cold.
The dream comes again the next three nights.
At the weekend’s beginning, you travel to your boyfriend’s with a strange sense of foreboding. Will the dream come with you? Or will it sense somehow the presence of a warm body beside you, and leave you be?
That night, after love, with Greg slumbering beside you, you stare at the ceiling waiting for sleep to abduct you, to take you to the dream.
And this time, as if your man’s small, cramped, third-floor flat is the portal to understanding, the dream gives you a little more, a new sensory input.
You hear a disembodied voice in the darkness.
So strangled and occluded by rage is this voice that you cannot tell whether it belongs to a man, or a woman, or a lunatic Lovecraftian hellbeast. But you can make out what it says in the bleak depths of your nightmare.
‘It’s all your fault.’
You clutch Greg’s forearm in a vice grip as you wake. Unconsciously, unknowingly, he reaches for you, kisses the tip of your earlobe, that sensitive spot that always makes you tingle.
It doesn’t dispel the freezing terror that grips you.
The next morning, as you’re waiting for the kettle to boil, you decide against telling him of your nightmare. He smiles and hugs you. His calm unflustered presence helps. In his arms you feel warm. But his embrace offers no insight, no diagnosis of what’s assailing you.
Four more times the next week you hear that rage-filled voice in your sleep. You feel stalked by a growing sense of dread, a sinister funnel cloud of doom that clings to your mind like deadly moss.
The following weekend you’re alone – Greg is away on business. Your cold bed looks like a prison. To suffer through the nightmare alone tonight is unbearable, and you do the one thing you can think of to try and take yourself away from it. You reach, desperately, for the un-opened vodka bottle in the fridge.
If you drink enough, you reason, you won’t dream at all.
You make it a third of the way through the bottle before you slide into slumber, hugging yourself in your favourite chair with Coltrane on the stereo.
The vodka doesn’t take away the dream, however. In fact, it does the opposite. It’s the key that opens the door of your mind and allows you to see and feel more of the dream than you had before.
You see, for the first time, the shape of the thing. And it scares you more than ever.
You’re walking along a narrow path lined with trees, branches quivering in a freezing, searching wind.
You recognise this place instantly – Eavesmead Park, or Eve’s Farm, the large, wooded area behind the station, pub and Main Street. Centuries ago, the Lord of Eavesmead Manor would let his deer roam this idyllic 250-acre patch of grassland and high oaks. In high summer, during the day, with hot sun glistening through the trees and blue sky overhead, it has a serene quiet beauty. But now, with this insistent breeze whistling around and the shadows lengthening, it takes on a horror-movie aspect.
As you walk along the path bisecting the tennis courts and the little pavilion used for Boy Scout meetings, the wind changes direction to come full into your face, screaming its rage directly at you. Your hair billows out behind you in a fine brown curtain.
The path leads around the back of the tennis courts to a large grass plain, where on summer mornings the gates open and the grandmothers come to give Fido his little run, their arthritic limbs glinting little shots of pain up the shins and elbows as they avoid the morning joggers getting their fitness kicks, tearing along the crushed gravel path that rings the field, whizzing past the old men sitting on the benches with their flasks of coffee and turning their eyes to the morning sun, marvelling at how quickly the world has changed and taking their ease, taking the weight off, retreating just as morning turns to afternoon and the boys come to stick their jumpers down to use as goalposts and play first to ten, or headers and volleys, or World Cup three-and-in, while the lukewarm English summer sun hides sheepishly behind slate grey clouds, peeking out here and then as afternoon turns towards evening, casting a mellow golden glow over the field as teenagers make their way to the pavilion stairs with their stolen cigarettes and their stolen cider, aiming to waste away their evening talking about music (or sex), or school (or sex), or movies (or sex) until after dark, when the moon washes its cold, sharp light over the park, glinting eerily off the tree leaves and fragmenting onto the clear, sharp lawns, casting a sense of quiet and calm that even the coarse profanity of drunk teenagers can’t quite dispel, closing another day in Eavesmead and keeping a watch on the youths as they haplessly try to evade the groundskeeper and escape over the fence leading to the car park, and dawn comes once more as the moon slips under the horizon, passing the sun on its way and perhaps exchanging a few passing words as night gives way once more to day, and the gates open again, letting in joggers on their fitness kicks and grandmothers walking Fido.
In your mind’s eye you see it all, the unending cycle continuing to spin on its eternal axis.
But in this no-time of now, the lawns are empty as you falter and stagger under the wind’s fury; not even a bird moves in Eve’s Farm as you stumble and shuffle through the park to the dark, thick copse surrounding the pond at the far end of the park. Beyond this lies the back wall – higher and more secure than any iron fence – and behind that, Lawrenson Drive leading to the old Eastcote Road. There is only one place for you to go, as the wind shrieks and your terror grows.
You enter the copse and are plunged into utter, terrifying darkness as the trees take you in their arms.
You try to scream and cannot; the dream won’t let you. You clutch at yourself, stumble heavily against a tree’s thick trunk. Around you, impossibly, the wind seems to gain strength again, frantically shaking the trees, adding their scream to its and engulfing you in a cacophony of horror.
All you can do is fold yourself to the ground and wait for the maelstrom to pass.
After forever, you find yourself at the clearing containing the pond, with no recollection of having travelled there.
The wind has completely ceased.
The pond’s surface has a mirror’s perfect stillness, reflecting the brightness of the moon, and, as you creep closer, now on your knees, the pinched, strained features of your face.
You know this place, too.
This little clearing is beautiful, sheltered from the roughness of the elements by the trees, with a couple of benches dotted around the pond, plaques embedded into the wood in memorial to this old soul and that.
Even in the midst of your fear and confusion, this place’s calm beauty works its magic.
You feel quiet tranquillity creeping up on you.
How long has this spot been here?
You remember coming here as a child with your mother, just sitting here and watching herons alight on the surface, looking for fish, glance around with their heads atop long, elegant necks, the water almost to the tops of their spindly legs, and then burst off into flight once more.
Your mother would sit on a bench, read a book or the newspaper, and you would just sit there, watch the wildlife with the sun warming your face.
A ripple across the pool’s still surface breaks your contemplation. You watch baby waves make their first and last journey across the water to end themselves gently against the pond’s stone wall, and it’s then that you sense it.
Another presence. You’re no longer alone in the clearing.
You feel its malign approach and feel the freezing cold that it emanates – a chill that wraps its thin fingers around your bones.
Along with it comes a stunning moment of recognition that hits with revelatory power. Whomever, or whatever this presence is, you know it.
Against every impulse you find yourself rising from your crouch by the water’s edge, standing and beginning to turn to meet the intruder –
Which is when you wake, your arms hugging your legs drawn up to your body, screaming yourself awake in your favourite chair.
Your normal Saturday, when not with Greg, is filled with activity – early morning spinning at the gym, then shopping and lunch with your mother, or with the girls if they’re about.
None of that today. You spend the day in a curious lassitude. You rarely leave the chair you occupied last night. You turn the dream over and over in your mind, your mood fluctuating between a dull fear at the dream’s terror, and a quiet, but growing sense of realisation that it holds a profound meaning that you should – must – decipher.
And as nightfall comes you begin to sense something that both disturbs and excites – you’re excited for the moment that drowsiness overtakes you. You’re anticipating falling into sleep and back into the dream again. Despite the fear, you almost welcome its arrival.
When it returns, the dream comes with its now familiar rhythms – the night, the cold, the roaring gale. The tranquil pond. The presence at your back, so sinister and so familiar, the recognition playing maddeningly about your mind like a fly against a closed window. And those words:
‘It’s all your fault.’
When you and Greg meet up for drinks after work, he tells you that you look tired, stressed. Are you all right, love, he asks, his forehead wrinkling earnestly in concern. Is it that arsehole of a boss again?
You smile, reach across the table to clasp his hand in yours. No, darling, it’s fine. I’m just busy, that’s all.
Your dream goes unmentioned, even when you once more stir in the witching hour. He’s unmindful as you burrow into his arms, wishing away the freezing feeling of fear that has gripped you. Yet his strong arms encircle you even as he gently snores.
The next two weeks pass through mist. The figure in the dream is all you can think about. You find yourself drifting off in meetings, the cold shiver of the wind down your back overtaking the bland voices of your colleagues. During Sunday lunch with Mum, Dad and Greg you’re a ghost, barely speaking, not eating. Your mind is consumed by the figure in the dream, and those ominous, portentous words. That night the nightmare seems at its most intense – the wind screaming in your ears, the spectre looming at your back filling you with dread.
The next morning you come stumbling downstairs late, a weary shell. Greg is sat at the kitchen table, a cup of coffee at his elbow, the morning papers unread before him. He looks at you, calmly, steadily.
It’s time, he says, for you to tell me what’s going on. It’s time to tell me everything.
The first thought that flows across your mind, incredibly, is this: How dare you? Who the hell do you think you are? How dare you question me like this? This is not your funny, cool partner of two years but some selfish manipulative interloper.
It lasts a mere moment and is instantly replaced by a mixture of shame and relief – that he’s noticed, that he cares – but, although unbidden and unwanted, that instantaneous moment of fury lingers, an ugly little goblin of doubt and anger let out of its box.
You sit down and tell him the dream, all of it, every sensory effect. You leave nothing out. You focus specifically on the ominous presence that comes to you right at the very end, how it feels so familiar and yet so distressing.
His response is eminently practical. I know Eavesmead, he says. Let’s go there today. It’s a bank holiday, we’ve not planned anything. Let’s go there and see if it stirs something up.
It’s a wonderful idea, you agree, although that voice murmurs to you again.
It isn’t far. Greg drives. You watch raindrops race each other down the passenger side window, driven along by a freshening breeze. Typical bank holiday weather, you think.
The park’s open, but the bad weather has put off many: the car park is sparsely populated. It’s nothing like the nightmare place of your dream, but you cannot stop the shiver that trickles down your spine as you pass through the gates.
Greg takes your hand as the two of you walk down the wide avenue that leads to the playing fields. He grins at you – God, your hand’s freezing, he says. Typical bank holiday weather, eh? You try to answer his smile with one of your own, but your lips are moveless dead worms. Being here is terrible. Even hand in hand with your love, being here is nearly overwhelming.
A group of kids, whooping and hollering, batter a football around the pitch, mindless to the poor weather. Apart from them the playing fields are mostly deserted. A couple of joggers pass, their breaths heavy, feet pounding. You see the copse of trees ahead, the pond hidden behind it, and you freeze in terror. I can’t go there, you tell Greg. I’m sorry, but I just can’t.
Greg nods his assent – of course, darling – and you both turn and trudge back to the car in silence.
With every step a cold irrational coal of anger grows inside your gut, fighting the fear. Why did he bring you here? Who the hell does he think he is? You’ve suffered miseries the last few weeks, agonies. How can he begin to understand what you’re going through?
You fall a step or two behind him, your eyes daggers at his broad back. That freezing stone of fury is burning inside you, a mirror to the anger you felt from the figure in the dream.
The car park lies ahead, through the rusty iron gates. The gravel of the pathway crunches under your feet. A hefty gust of wind rustles your hair. You can feel yourself working up to an explosion, an outpouring of anger. You don’t know how Greg will respond and it comes to you that you don’t care. The expression of that fury is all that matters.
You’re at the gates. Your right arm extends out in front of you, you’re reaching for Greg’s shoulder to pull him around, the biting words already forming in your mouth, when you see her.
It’s a young woman, walking past the park along the pavement. She’s young, and slim. Like you. Her wavy brown hair, tossed by the wind, billows out behind her.
She strides, head upright and shoulders back, down the road, firm and certain and confident.
Like you – or, like you used to.
And the sight of this girl, who could be your twinner, pierces the fog of anger, doubt and fear that has been clouding you for so long.
And you know, instantly, without the slightest of doubt, the identity of the menacing pestering presence of your dream.
You close your eyes and summon up in your mind the peaceful little pond, the words at your back – ‘It’s all your fault’ – and for the first time you recognise the voice. And you make yourself turn from the pond’s little shore, stand and turn to face your accuser.
It’s you. Of course, it’s you, it’s always been you.
You stare at yourself, the same warm brown eyes, the same chin that appealingly dimples when you smile (the first thing he noticed about you, Greg always says), the same patch of freckles high on your left cheek. And you see reflected in that face the doubt and the fear that you’ve been feeling.
What, you ask yourself, is all my fault?
No words come from dream-Gemma, but a succession of images assail you: you and Greg in the car park, arguing. Screaming and shouting at each other in the driving rain. Saying things that could never be taken back. In the car on the way home, silent and cold, knowing it’s over, the rain hammering on the windscreen. And then, the squeal of tyres, and the car starts to skid, and Greg’s fighting the wheel, and you see through the windscreen a blurry brown shape, and then the curb, and Greg’s screaming and so are you-
Then, nothing. All is black.
It hits with the force of a hurricane. You slump to your knees, your heart a hammer against your chest, a scream on your lips. But amidst the shock of it you can sense a huge swelling relief lifting off you, the relief that death has stepped so close and walked on by. Then Greg is there, his strong arms around you, lifting you up.
What is it, love, he asks.
You fluster through a few meaningless words of fright – you know you can’t tell him the revelation – and you ask him if you can stay a little longer.
Sure, he says. Let’s go to the café, have a cup of coffee, wait out the rain. He takes your arm in his.
The two of you while away the lunchtime in the cosy little café, talking idly and watching the sky slowly clear. When it’s time to come, you persuade him to walk home rather than drive – the sun’s out now, and the walk will do you both good. He assents readily.
With every step you begin to feel better, and the dream begins to fall away like golden leaves whisked away by a brisk autumn breeze. The storm has passed outside and in; your mind is cleansed, swept clear of worry and doubt. Upon arrival back home the two of you barely make it up the stairs; it’s as good as it ever was, a passionate renewal.
After, as Greg strolls back to the park to retrieve the car, you lounge comfortably on the sofa, idly scrolling through the local news. A red flash catches your eye – breaking news:
FATAL CAR CRASH KILLS THREE – BAD WEATHER BLAMED
A fatal car accident on the Eastcote Road has claimed the lives of three people this afternoon. A car containing a man and woman left the road surface in heavy rain and strong winds, climbing the pavement and striking a pedestrian, a young girl walking home from Eavesmead Park, before crashing into the side wall of a warehouse. Paramedics attended the scene but were unable to revive the car’s occupants, nor the pedestrian. Investigations are ongoing to determine the cause of the accident, but a local police source has claimed the inclement weather played a large role in the accident, along a notorious ‘blackspot’ along the busy main road.
You try to touch the screen to scroll the page, but your fingers don’t work – they’re senseless little stubs at the ends of your hands. Your entire body feels numb as dream-Gemma’s words come screaming back. There’s only the one conscious thought that comes to you through the blur of your sudden unbidden tears and the tumbling words that hit you over and over again:
It’ll be a long, long time before you can sleep tonight. And if you do, who knows what dreams may come?