It was cold, very cold. Which made sense, since the ground was a good foot deep in snow, and more was falling.
What didn't make sense was that it was the middle of summer.
But that seemed immaterial now; summer or not, this was real.
She trudged through the snow, picking her way around dead weeds and frozen cacti. Stepping carefully over a long-neglected barbed-wire fence, she continued across the frozen field. She wasn't sure why she was going, but she was being drawn to the ancient two-story home that stood against the tree line in the far corner of the clearing. Somehow, this weathered wooden building, abandoned and empty and seemingly moments from collapse, was calling to her. It had a very sinister appearance, and she was certain something terrible had happened here once, when it was still loved and lived in. Any other time, she wouldn't have gone anywhere near it, at least not alone, but now, it was undeniably important. But why?
She kept walking.
She stumbled suddenly, and turned to see what she'd tripped on. Then her heart leapt into her throat, and she forgot how to breathe.
It was a body. A woman with light brown, curly hair, not terribly unlike her mother's, had fallen in the snow, face down, her arms out around her head as if she'd tried to catch herself. Her head was turned to the side; half her face was buried in the ice. One frozen, lifeless blue eye stared out. The girl couldn't shake the feeling that it was looking at her. But that was impossible; she'd just gotten here, and this lady had been dead for hours, if not days.
Horrified, but somehow unable to resist, she reached down to the woman's shoulder, intent to turn her over and see the rest of her face.
She leapt back to her feet, stumbling backwards.
The body had moved. It had, she was certain of it.
But no, her common sense told her. That was impossible. The woman was dead. Dead bodies didn't move. She found herself reaching for the shoulder again. She glanced back at the woman's face; the eye had undeniably followed her movements.
She froze herself, unable to move save for the shaking that had possessed her. The shoulder pulled away from her hand; the woman's arms shifted, creaking and crackling as if the frozen flesh and blood were breaking. The hands braced against the ice-covered earth, and the woman pushed herself up, turning her head to look more fully at the one who'd woken her.
The girl couldn't scream. She couldn't move. She could only stare in mute, absolute terror.
There was no more face to see. Half the woman's head wasn't buried in the snow; half the woman's head simply no longer existed. As if someone had taken a blade and hacked her skull cleanly in half, a smooth frozen surface of blood and tissue and pinkish gray brain were clearly visible. It was like a sick, twisted science exhibit.
Only it was moving. The one eye glared at her, the half a mouth sneered. The frozen lips moved, the solidified flesh cracked, the bisected tongue moved. The woman was talking, but her voice box was frozen, and with half her mouth gone, she could no longer articulate words. The girl could read lips, but this she couldn't make sense of. Not that she wanted to.
All at once, her ability to move returned; screaming, she crab-walked on her hands and feet, scrambling backwards as fast as she could, hardly aware of it when she put her hand down on a small dead cacti, driving it's tiny sharp needles into her gloved hand. She managed to get to her feet and started to run, as fast as she could, tripping and stumbling every few feet. There were more bodies, between her and the house. Dozens. All staring at her with their frozen eyes, speaking to her silently with their frozen mouths.
They'd all died horrible deaths. Every one was mangled, each one worse than the last. Missing limbs, spilled innards, skin flayed away entirely, flesh charred long beyond recognition. A few reached for her as she passed; once she'd fallen completely to the ground, only to come face to face with one of the burned corpses. A withered black hand gripped her coat collar, and she shrieked, her throat raw, pulling away with the strength that's borne from pure survival instinct. The hand cracked and shattered, the fingers fell away, in different directions.
The intolerable silence was roaring in her ears, so many people talking and yet she could hear none of them, could hear nothing but her own screams, the crunch of her boots in the snow, the pounding of her heart in her chest.
God save me, what is all this?
She reached the house, leapt up the stairs without slowing, reached the door and tried the knob. It wouldn't open. Decades of no one coming here, and still, the lock held strong. An impending sense of danger closed in on her, she didn't dare look over her shoulder though she knew something, if not the corpses than something even more sinister, was pursuing her. Screaming and sobbing, she pounded on the double doors with all her strength.
I want in, I want in, please, please, I want in!
The danger was upon her. She wasn't going to survive. Whatever had claimed those countless other people would claim her, as well. She pounded harder, kicked the doors with every ounce of strength she had, and for no other reason than sheer desperation, reached for the knob again.
It turned in her hand. The door opened slowly, vanishing into the darkened house. The girl froze again; what was happening now? The door had seemingly opened itself. She could see no one inside; the darkness within seemed to simply swallow up the dim daylight. The pressure behind her to keep moving continued to build. Something was right behind her, something evil.
A female figure with short light brown hair, thin but whole, pale but very much alive, appeared in the doorway, staring back at her with wide brown eyes. It didn't speak but beckoned urgently for her to come inside.
The girl had two options. Stay outside with the unspeakable evil that was so close she could feel it literally pressing against her, or go inside, to face a complete unknown. The figure beckoned again. The girl had no senses on this being, she felt neither good nor evil from it. Who was this person? What was this person? Why was it here, in this place, amidst all this death and danger? The figure beckoned a third time, more urgently than ever, almost frantically calling her forward.
The girl made her choice.
She stumbled through the doorway, and the impossible darkness enveloped her. The door slammed shut behind her; she heard a bolt being forced into place. She could see nothing, not even the unknown person who'd seemingly saved her. No light came in from where she knew the windows around the door to be. But there was warmth, and that at least was a comfort. Somehow she knew, the evil outside couldn't reach her here. But there was no saying that there wasn't a different evil in here.
"Wh-Who are you?" she managed to croak, her voice hoarse and pained. "Wh-Where are you? What i-is this p-place?"
But she couldn't see, and no voice responded. She stood perfectly still, straining to hear over her pounding pulse. She jumped violently when a hand touched her arm, and recoiled, stopping abruptly as she backed into a wall. The hand touched her arm again; she made to slap it away, but froze as a second hand, warm and gentle, touched her cheek.
"Who a-are you?" she repeated desperately. She wanted answers, wanted to know what was happening, wanted to know why she was here, how those bodies were moving, what had been chasing her, why the house seemed to swallow up all light. But no voice responded. The hand at her elbow moved up to her collar, tugging gently on the scarf that was wrapped around her throat. The hand on her face caressed her cheek gently before moving down, and she didn't move to resist as the person, presumably the woman who'd let her in, pulled her scarf loose and pulled it away. The woman began to unbutton her coat, and yet the girl held still, allowing it.
Why are you letting her do this? Make her stop! Pull away! This isn't normal! Fight it!
But she didn't. She didn't move. Her coat fell away, followed by her hat. The glove on the hand she'd impaled on the cactus was carefully, painfully pried away, and then the other was pulled off as well. The unknown person then apparently knelt at her feet, for she felt her boots being untied. One hand slipped behind her knee, and she obediently lifted her foot to allow her boot to be pulled off. When she put her foot down, there was no trace beneath her sock of the snow she had to have tracked in with her. The drill was repeated with her other foot, and then the hands returned to her collar. Unbuttoning the flannel shirt she had over her turtleneck, the person removed this, too. Then, taking her right hand in its own and pulling her gently forward, the being guided her through the darkness.
She could hear a fire crackling nearby, though still she could see no light. But as they walked, her eyes began to detect just the faintest hint of an orange glow. Disturbingly, though the woman was certainly in front of her, drawing her forward, she could see nothing but the brightening flickers of firelight. When the girl could clearly see the fire, they were just feet from it, they stopped. She still could see nothing else; the flames cut off at unnatural lines, apparently where the surrounding brick of a fireplace held it at bay. She stared at it, transfixed; there were new colors appearing in the flames, purple and green flames flickered among the orange and red. It was beautiful.
But still, something in the back of the girl's mind warned her she was in danger. This unnatural beauty wasn't something to admire, but to fear, and to flee. She started to step backwards, but strong, thin arms wrapped around her from behind. Panicking, she looked down; there was nothing there but her own black turtleneck. But she could feel the arms, horribly strong, far stronger than herself. She struggled, but the being held fast, keeping her firmly before the fire. She tried to move her legs, to kick, to run, but as if she'd grown roots into the wooden floor, her feet wouldn't move. She tried to scream, but had forgotten how, tried to fight but suddenly couldn't move at all.
The fire was intensifying, growing rapidly, flickering its surreal colors, threatening to spill from the unseen fireplace and consume her, her captor, the house itself. It twisted and contorted, taking on shapes no fire she'd ever seen or heard of had ever taken before. It coiled in the fireplace like a snake, one end of the thick rope of fire stretched out of the fireplace, reaching toward her. It hovered like a headless serpent just inches from her face; she could feel its heat beginning to burn her skin.
Don't be afraid, a voice the girl had never heard before whispered. Only she didn't hear it in her ears. She heard it in her mind. You have been chosen. But the voice did anything but soothe her; it was a sinister, evil sound, if it could even be called a sound, and it promised not protection or safety of any kind, but anguish and torture and horrific death.
The fire serpent drew back slightly, as if preparing to strike. Facing fear like she'd never imagined, even in her deepest, darkest nightmares, the girl opened her mouth to scream.
The serpent attacked before she could utter a sound, plunging into her open mouth, choking her and burning her throat.
There was pain. Unbearable agony as the tail end of the serpent disappeared into her body, plunging her into darkness once again. But she didn't care about the darkness anymore; the pain was above all else. Unbearably hot, eating away at her helpless body, filling her belly and spreading beyond it, spilling into her veins and boiling away her blood as it rushed through her, leaving not a cell untouched. And she could not move, could not scream, could not express the agony in any way and that made it worse, so much worse than the pain alone.
She was on fire, her entire young body being consumed by it. Every nerve ending screamed for relief, for release she was certain would never come. She was going to die, eaten alive by this fiery, evil creature, while the voice in her head laughed. The laughter, wicked and gleeful and taking untold pleasure in her suffering, was all she could hear. Her pounding heart, which had been driving the flames through her body, collapsed, itself consumed. Her lungs burned away and she could no longer breathe, but she could not die, even though she wanted nothing more than death's release. Her body screamed for oxygen she could no longer draw, begged for blood that no longer existed, pleaded for an end to the torment, even if that end meant no longer existing. The laughter grew louder as her organs burst into flame inside of her, intensified as her skin blistered and split and curled away until it was nothing but ash.
She should be dead now, but she wasn't. The anguish was never-ending, the vile, taunting laughter never ceasing. Her ears were far past the point of being able to hear, but that mattered not, because the laughter was inside of her, reveling in its horrific work. Her mind, the only part of her as yet untouched by the fire, at last burst into flame, and finally, finally the laughter began to fade.
She heard her father's voice calling her, and the nightmare fell away.
Scott Harris held his screaming, fighting, unconscious daughter in his lap, struggling to wake her. She was soaked in sweat, a look of abject fear on her face despite her eyes being tightly closed, screaming in pain so loudly she was choking. Her arms and legs flailed at unseen enemies, and it took all his considerable strength to restrain her, to keep her from hurting herself.
His wife, looked on anxiously from the doorway, driven off by her daughter's violence. A normally lovely woman in her late thirties, with light brown hair in gentle curls, green eyes, tanned skin and an hourglass figure despite having given birth twice, Marie was quite the opposite at this moment. Now her face was crumpled, her eyes red and her face wet with tears, sobbing to see her daughter in such a state and yet helpless to do anything about it.
Scott hardly noticed her; his daughter was requiring his full attention. The thirteen-year-old was in the throes of a horrifying nightmare – something that, in and of itself, wouldn't be cause for much more than concern, much less alarm.
The alarm was in the fact that she wouldn't wake up. Scott knew, knew from his own experience, what that could mean. What it had to mean.
This was more than a dream. And that wasn't a good thing, not for his innocent little girl.
If he was right, if this was more than a typical nightmare, then it meant his daughter's childhood was over. She was like him. From now on, she would rarely have a peaceful night's sleep without the help of drugs, from this night on, she would see things, while sleeping and awake, that no child, no person should ever have to see. He'd always known it was possible, that she'd inherit whatever it was that had turned his life to a living hell. But he'd always prayed this day would never come, had always prayed that she and her brother, at least, would be normal.
'This is my gift, this is my curse,' an old movie hero had once quoted. Truer words had never been spoken, in Scott's view. And the longer his daughter fought, but didn't wake, the further convinced he became, and the sicker he felt.
"Sara! Wake up, precious, wake up! It's a dream, baby, it's just a dream, you've got to wake up!" Just a dream. Only it wasn't. "Please, Sara, please wake up! It's daddy! I'm right here! You're safe, just open your eyes!" Safe. But not really. Not anymore.
All at once, her eyes flew open and her struggling ceased. She lay rigid in her father's arms, looking up at him, panting in exhaustion and the fading pain of her dream. He loosened his iron grip on her arms and pulled her close; she grabbed his t-shirt with both her hands, dissolving instantly into sobs as he rocked her gently.
"Daddy..." she started. But she couldn't speak of the dream just yet. So instead, she just repeated the word like a comforting mantra. "Daddy,Daddy..."
"Shhh... It's okay... You're all right..." Comforting words. Yet not really true. But he wanted to wait until she'd calmed down before trying to explain it all to her. After all, to this day he didn't entirely understand it himself. "You're safe now... Daddy's got you..."
Marie had rushed forward the moment Sara had started crying, kneeling by the bed and stroking her hair, talking to her softly.
"Is Sara gonna be all right?" Both parents looked up to find their eight-year-old son in the doorway, having watched the whole scene past his mother's legs. He looked very scared, and Marie, content that her husband could care for her daughter, rose and hurried over to him, pulling him up in her arms.
"Yes, sweetheart, Sara's fine. She just had a nightmare, that's all."
"Real," Sara suddenly rasped, just loudly enough for her father to hear. He looked back down at her. "I-It wasn't just... I-It couldn't have been just a d-dream, Daddy... Th-the bodies, a-and the house and the fire..." She sobbed, redoubling her grip on him. "It hurt so much, Daddy..."
Marie was staring down at them in horror, clutching her youngest child protectively. Scott looked up at her, meeting her inquisitive gaze. Then he averted his eyes, turning back to his daughter.
"I know, baby, I know it did... I know it hurt..."
Marie burst into tears all over again, barely managing to put little Kyle down before falling to her knees on the carpet, sobbing so violently she could barely breathe, her heartbroken words spilling out in one long wretched string.
"No, no, no, not my baby, please, not my baby, you can't have her, it's not fair, she's only a baby, no, no, God, no, please!"
Kyle, not knowing what to think but frightened by the sight of his mother and sister both in tears, began to cry himself. Only Scott, having long ago cried his last, remained dry-eyed. But his heart and soul ached for his daughter, for what her life was to become, and for his wife, knowing what she'd go through as she was forced to let it happen.
He still needed a few more details from the dream, but he was certain it was the same one he'd had so many times. The dream that kept coming back, over and over, to torture him. It was the reason he always looked tired, and older than his thirty-eight years. No, he was certain this was the one. She'd been 'chosen'. Sara's childhood was indeed over.
She was like him.
And no father had ever regretted those words more.