It was beautiful, this empty place. Jondo knew he would be sad when it was destroyed. He wondered if he would be able to remember it after it was gone. For a long stretch he watched in silence, and wherever his gaze lingered, the clouds followed, rolling in from behind him. It always came from behind, the darkness.
He stood in a vast plain. The long yellow grass bowed and bobbed away from him in rolling waves, lashed by a rushing wind. The sky above him was dark, a swirling mass of furious cloud the swollen purple of a three-day bruise. To his left, far in the distance, rose a mountain. When he looked, it loomed closer. Above the mountain the air was clear, and it shone in the sun. Snow trimmed its base, reflecting a rainbow; it lofted into the heights of the sky beyond his vision, fading into the black emptiness, studded with stars as it grew taller and taller, until it became one with the ceiling of the heavens. There was no end to it, and he shook his head and looked down at his feet instead.
His toes rooted into the dark earth, tendrils reaching down into the still beneath as the wind tossed the world above into chaos. He could not feel the wind himself; but no matter which way he turned the grass bent away, as though it tried to run from him. As though it feared him.
He heaved a trembling sigh, and his leaves rustled. He realized he was a tree. How strange. He could not recall ever being a tree before. He thought he had been a man.
A little red bird hopped across his face, trilling nervously at the oncoming storm, and huddled into the shelter of a bole on one of his broad limbs.
Then he heard it. The sound was never the same twice; sometimes it was not a sound at all. This time it began as a low moan, a deep bass note that shuddered through the ground, funneled its way through his roots and shook his trunk. A high screech joined in—ululating, discordant, keening on the wind and scratching painfully at his leaves.
The grass around his feet blackened. His sap flowed cold and sour, and his heartwood clenched in fear. On it came, and he twisted away from its freezing, clutching grasp, but could not run. His feet were planted deep, and running had never done any good, anyway.
The little bird dropped from the branch; he watched it sink through the air as slowly as if it were syrup. As it fell it changed, writhing, into a lizard, a worm—it hit the ground and burst in a puff of chalky dust, and was blown away.
The blackness spread, fanning out from his roots, consuming the plain. The grass shriveled in its wake, then crumbled into the same swirling dust as the bird-lizard-worm. The dust rose in a great cloud to choke the air and coat his leaves and blind him, and he gasped with the pain of its touch.
The wind stopped, and the only sound was the moaning howl of the Fear. Its chill was the only sensation; its malice the only taste and smell.
“No,” Jondo begged. “No, please.”
The Fear never listened to his pleas. It flowed over him, around and through, and twined its way inside. He flinched away, pulling with every strand of his being. Still it came on, and the darkness wrapped itself around his senses, and he was the darkness, and still it came on and on and on…
Jake ran, light as a bird, skimming over the foothills of a great mountain in the darkening twilight. He laughed with the exhilarating freedom of it, each stride carrying him a long way through the air, nearly flying. He ran with no fatigue—he could hardly feel his body at all. Up and up he ran, and with each hill he crested he found another, yet higher. He burned to reach the peak, but when he looked he could not see where the mountain ended and the sky began. Still he climbed, faster with each step, until he rose so quickly he was standing on the air itself, and it was as firm as the ground beneath his feet.
Something caught his eye on the plain far below, some flicker of movement. He squinted, and with the perfect, swimming clarity of the dream he watched a purple darkness spread across the grassland beneath the mountain. In the center was a single point of deepest black.
His climb all forgotten, he floated, frozen in horror, as the sound of it reached him. The terrible noise gripped deep inside him, and he shivered and trembled. Faster than could be believed, the black chaos expanded, pulverizing the land as it came. It reached the foot of the mountain in a blink, and began to climb. Jake turned, and tried to fly away from it; but the air had grown thick and cold around him, and it held him fast. He struggled against dread paralysis, and the cloud rolled implacably toward him until he could feel it grasp at his chest, rolling into his lungs, and he threw up his arm in front of his face and it froze him and burned him at the same time and he tumbled, falling from an unbelievable height with nothing below to catch him.
Jake Cordell bolted upright with a huge, gasping breath. The sheets were tangled around his arms and chest. He struggled with them in the dark for a moment, then threw them to the floor. He sat on the edge of his bed, breathing hard, running with a cold sweat. A nightmare. Just a dream, he told himself. It can’t hurt you.
He looked out the small window above the headboard. The clock on the bedside table read 3:18 AM, but Boston never really went to sleep, and he could see the lights of passing cars on the road below his apartment building.
He got up and shambled into the tiny bathroom, flicking on the light over the mirror. “You look terrible,” he told his reflection, and smiled weakly. It was true. His hair was plastered to his forehead, his skin was gray, and there was a startled, frightened expression in his eyes. He stripped off his damp shirt, turned on the faucet and splashed water on his face, slapping lightly at his cheeks to bring up some color. “Just a dream,” he told himself again as he went to turn on the hot water in the shower. “Nothing to worry about now.”
Margie the charge nurse made her hourly rounds of the closed ward at precisely a quarter after twelve. Most of the patients were asleep. She walked down the long hallway, passing room after room of quietly humming machines, hearing an occasional snore among the steady chirp of heart monitors. Two thirds of the way down she slowed, listening. A low moan was coming through one of the doors. Room 318 again. Frowning, she ducked inside.
The man in the bed thrashed against his restraints, eyes screwed shut, face twisted in a mask of pain. The hospital gown clung to his whip-thin frame, soaked with sweat, and long cords of muscle stood out in his arms and neck as he struggled. He groaned and cried in his sleep, tossing his head back and forth. “No. No, no,” he mumbled between inarticulate groans.
Margie sighed. “Just can’t keep yourself out of trouble, can you?” she said, and crossed to his bed to check the chart. Scanning it quickly, she nodded to herself and took a syringe from the cabinet on the wall. She inserted it into the port on the man’s IV tube and pushed the plunger down very slowly, watching his face as she did. After twenty seconds or so his thrashing slowed, then stopped, and his face relaxed. She checked the syringe. Six mils this time. It was taking more and more to quiet him down.
She checked her watch. Twelve-eighteen. She noted down the time and dosage on the chart, and stood for a moment at the foot of the bed. Her eyes flicked over the letterhead on the hospital stationery. “Reno Holistic Care,” it said, “Where Hope Lives.”
She snorted, hung the chart back on the bed, and went to the door. Before going out she turned back to him. “Right,” she said, “well, I hope somebody comes to claim you soon. Get you off our hands, maybe.”
She watched his face for a moment longer, and huffed out a deep breath. “Sleep tight, John Doe.”