It was a beautiful fall day–cool temperature with a slight breeze that played with your hair. Lots and lots of sun. A perfect day. A day Amber King normally would be singing some sappy song while doing her errands. Not today.
Any other day she would be standing in line at Starbucks for her favorite drink.
Not today. Today, she was waiting on her venti extra hot caramel latte because she needed the caffeine the double shot drink provided.
On a normal day, she would grab her drink and find a table outside to enjoy the gorgeous fall day while savoring her coffee. Not today.
Today, Amber could barely keep her eyes open and needed her daily fix to stay awake. Last night’s dream was worse than usual. The monster almost succeeded in catching her this time. She was nodding off for the umpteenth time when a hand grasped her shoulder, scaring the crap out of her. Shocked awake, Amber jumped up from her chair, swinging at whatever dared grab her.
“Whoa, whoa!” The young man leaped backwards with his arms raised in the “I mean no harm” stance.
Amber stayed her punch mere seconds before her fist connected with the unexpected visitor’s chin. Then she noticed everyone in the seating area had stopped talking, and in the silence of the store, noticed they were all staring at her in various degrees of shock and disbelief. Instantly, Amber felt her cheeks heat up and lowered her head down away from the speculative gazes of the shocked and curious customers. Abruptly, she sat back down with her head still lowered.
“I’m sorry, Ross,” she softly muttered under her breath. “You shouldn’t be sneaking up on people, though.”
“Say what? I wasn’t sneaking up on anyone, Amber. You were nodding off and about ready to hit the table with your head. I was trying to wake you before you did.”
Her cheeks felt like they were on fire now. She didn’t think anyone could make her feel like a child until now.
“I’m so sorry, Ross. I haven’t been sleeping well, and I’m letting the lack of a decent rest get to me. I hope you can forgive me. At least, let me buy you a coffee?”
Amber saw his expression perk up with that offer. She didn’t have a lot of friends, and Ross Kepler had been her friend since the 4th grade–over twenty years now.
She had been so excited when she learned the two of them were earning their master’s at Arizona State University (ASU). Of course, what with the class schedule and the amount of homework required, they didn’t see each other as often as they wanted to.
“Well, I suppose you could twist my arm in accepting a venti peppermint mocha; 3 pumps peppermint, 3 pumps Mocha with coconut milk.”
“The why bother?” Amber’s nickname for Ross’s coffee, plus it annoyed him.
“It’s not a ‘why bother’, for crying out loud Amber. It has the flavor of your coffee without all the extra calories.”
She noticed that Ross was getting a little excitable, which made her laugh. “I’m pulling your leg, man. Honest.”
“Hardy har har. You’re just a barrel of laughs today.” He sat down next to Amber with his drink. “Alright, spill.”
“Tell me why you’re so jumpy and why you’re falling asleep at your table.” His stormy gray eyes revealed the depth of his concern.
Startled at his perception, she answered. “It’s really silly, Ross. I’ve been having these nightmares every night, and I wake up screaming at the same time every night. I’m afraid of closing my eyes again.”
“How long have you been having these dreams, and what kind of dreams are they?”
“At least six months now, and it always starts the same way. Every night I get into bed and close my eyes to sleep, I’m instantly transported to this desolate landscape. It’s an empty arid desert environment. Not trees or any signs of vegetation or life, just red hued rock Mesas dotting the land.”
Amber continued. “The scent of Brimstone searing my lungs and a fiery heat that blisters my skin. I scream and scream, from the pain of the heat, but there’s no sound in my dream world, even though my throat is raw from the screaming.”
“You dream this every night?” Amber could hear the shock in his voice.
“Yeah every night.”
“So, what else happens in the dream?”
“Why do you want to know?” She demanded.
“Well for one thing, I read somewhere that talking about your nightmares helps lessen the fear. Second, you’ve got me hooked now and I want to hear how it ends,” Ross admitted, flushing.
“Fine.” She laughed. “I will tell you the rest of the dream.” Amber stopped laughing, remembering her nightmare, and continued in a more somber tone.
“There was no moon or stars to provide any light in the darkness of the world I was in. A stygian blanket that prevented me from seeing the strange environment. A place with a heaviness in the air that made it hard for me to breathe. I whirled around in circles looking for a way out of the black hole I was in. Fear scuttling through my body as I fought the overwhelming panic that threatened to engulf me. Suddenly, clawed hands appear out of the blackness, grabbing my forearm so hard that it tore my skin. Nails tearing at me, piercing my body.”
“Wait, wait!” Ross stops the narration. “You say nails tear at your body. Have you woken up with any scratches or marks on you?”
Wordlessly, Amber rolls up the sleeve on her left arm revealing four scratches. Deep gauges with healing scabs covering them.
“Holy shit, Amber. Are you scratching yourself while in your dreams?”
She placed her fingers inside the scratches to show Ross that the finger marks were bigger than hers.
“That’s impossible. Getting scratched in a dream and having those marks appear on your body isn’t possible. Is it? Tell me the rest of your dream.”
Amber, irritated now, replied, “I don’t care if it is impossible or not. This is what’s happening to me. I screamed while slapping at whatever was trying to restrain me. I managed to get free and run away from whatever that thing was. The only problem is the place I’m in is just a barren landscape. No life anywhere, except for the corporeal hand that keeps grabbing at me. My dream takes place in a wasteland.”
“Wow. I’m so sorry Amber. Have you seen anyone about this?” His voice was remorseful.
“Yeah. I just got back from seeing the psychiatrist my mom recommended.”
“And?” Ross prodded.
Amber let out a hefty sigh. “She thinks I’m suffering from depression and prescribed Lexapro. As a bonus, the drug has been known to suppress dreams. Not get rid of them entirely, but she thinks suppressing the dreams will help me finally sleep. That alone is worth trying.”
“What does he say about the scratches?”
“She, and she says that because I believed I got scratched, they manifested into reality. That it’s all psychosomatic.”
“And what do you believe?”
“I’m not sure at this point, but I am dreaming and dreams aren’t real, so what other explanation can there be with the marks showing up on my arm after the dream?”
“I guess. Well, I hope it works. I will call you in the morning to check up on you.”
Rising from the table, Ross picked up his trash and tossed it in the trash bin.
Amber rose too. “That would be great Ross. I’m going to finish my classes, then go home and take a pill. Here’s to me hopefully, finally getting some sleep.”
Talking with Ross about the dream did help. Who would have thought? The latte helped Amber get through the rest of her classes, and after arriving home, she set the alarm on her phone and muted all calls. After washing down one of the Lexapro’s with a glass of water, Amber stumbled into her bedroom and fell face first onto the bed fully clothed.
This time the nightmare took her back to the very place she had escaped from earlier this morning. Amber was breathing hard, her chest heaving for sweet air as she ran. She had to stop. Just for a moment to regain her breath. She chose one of the smaller crimson-colored Mesas to lean against and wildly looked around. The slope looked like it had been carved out of sandstone.
Everywhere she looked there was no escape. No way out of this hell. And with the perpetual darkness, Amber couldn’t see more than a few feet around her. Suddenly, she hears this laugh resonating through the air. All around her, not coming from one specific direction. It seemingly came out of nowhere. Guttural, mirthless, and definitely ominous.
Whimpering, she stumbles into an awkward run again, screaming silently in her head.
“This isn’t real. This isn’t real. This isn’t real,” she screams as she tries to gain momentum and runs straight into the monster’s arms.
Lowering his head to her ear, he whispers, “You can’t escape me, my pretty. You belong to me.”
The sound of her own screaming woke her up at 4 a.m. like every other morning, with her bolting upright in her bed, drenched in sweat and shaking. Her heart beating wildly, she tried to calm herself down by repeating, “It’s just a dream. Oh god, it’s just a dream.”
Finally, calmed down to a degree, she laid back down, trying to relax and maybe rest a little more.
On the wall above the head post of her bed, crimson eyes appeared…