All at once he stopped running and sat up with a jolt, confused and unaware of where he was.
His head throbbed with pain and his chest felt tight. When he realized he wasn't breathing he took in a panicked breath of air, filling his lungs quickly then shakily exhaling.
The room was dark, but as he looked around he knew once again where he was. His heart was still racing, pounding in his chest, but he was back to safety in his bedroom.
At first, the dream was a mystery, but it wasn't long before bits and pieces began to come back.
He remembered being trapped. He couldn't move or see, but he could hear. It was like a chant, over and over, and he was terrified.
I am real, he heard a million invisible cultists cry. I am real, Theodore. I am real. I am real. I am real. I am real.
The chorus was monotone, as if every chanting member held the same, deep voice. It came from all directions, some only a few inches away from his face, and, had it been real, he would have been able to feel their hot breath. The cries came from behind, the left, the right, from inside his own head. It reminded him of a Mayan sacrifice, but now he was the one whose heart would be taken to please some deity. For just a dream, he had felt strangely conscious throughout.
The voices got louder, and at some point he regained his ability to move. He opened his eyes but he only saw more darkness. He tried to run as his stiff body tried to recover from being smothered, but the voices seemed to be closing in, suffocating him. He put his hands over his ears and screamed although he didn't mean to. I am real! I am real! It chanted endlessly. An ever-dreading thought ran through his mind, primal but faint among the words that seemed to wrap around his body and squeeze: Get me out of here. Make it stop. It was a plea to the world, but the world didn't seem to hear. He clawed at his ears, panicked, drawing blood that ran through his fingers and down his forearms, more blood than should ever come from a person's head, and then he woke up, sweaty, confused, and still horribly terrified.
The first thought that came to his mind as his mind came back to reality was one that seemed to have been planted inside his head. It did not come naturally. It is coming, his mind told him. The thought came and went so quickly that it might as well have been the tail end of the dream. But Theodore was awake, and this was no fantasy.
As far as he could tell, the dream hadn't caused him to leave any marks on himself. He cut himself, he was sure he had felt the blood running and his fingernails cutting hysterically into the side of his head, but he didn't awake bleeding. He had screamed in his mind, inside the dream, but throughout, his body was silent. He had felt pain then and it didn't wake him up.
It was strange, the strangest dream he'd ever had, he thought… but Theodore couldn't think too much about it. Sure, it was rare to be having this kind of nightmare at this age, but that's all it was. A nightmare. There was simply nothing to make of it, not unless you're Sigmund Freud. And Theodore wasn't keen on seeing a therapist about something that could be so trivial as imagination. As far as he was concerned, there was nothing to be worried about. After all, what could come of just a dream?
Theo tried to fall asleep again, but only found himself staring obliviously into the ceiling like a dead man in a morgue.
Theodore saw the future, and the future saw him.
The sun's heat came down like a physical thing that afternoon, as it does in mid-July, weighing down anyone that stood under it. The sky was blue and the clouds were thin and perfectly white and wispy; the kind of day for iced lemonade and spontaneous family get-togethers under the shade of a backyard tree.
Theodore drove the head of the shovel into the hot soil, tossing it to the side. His shirt was pasted to his skin. He wiped at his forehead where a substantial coating of sweat had formed, only for more to replace it within seconds.
His sister gave him the heart-stopping news just that morning. He felt tears coming on, but held them back. Instead, he grabbed a shovel from the garage and set to work. He'd be damned if he let his best friend be buried anywhere but with his family.
The dog had passed away over night. It was sudden, unforeseeable. They searched for physical injuries but there were none. A trip to the vet told them nothing more. Theodore wanted to bury Alex at home, not wait for doctors. He didn't want more tests to be done. He just wanted to get it over with. They wrapped the dog in a spare blanket and he got to work.
Alex was a big dog, light brown and always smiling. He'd been that way since they got him. He had a faint scar next to his nose from his previous owners. Theodore, though, had always loved him.
He shoveled one more pile of dirt to the side and then the tears finally came in convulsive sobs. He had been digging for what felt like hours, and it seemed as if he had barely gotten started. The hole was only six inches deep. He dropped the shovel in defeat and fell to his bottom against a post fence. He stared at the pile of blankets that wrapped Alex's body through thick tears. His breaths came in quick gasps. He lost his best friend that morning, and it happened seemingly out of random. Alex had licked his face and jumped at him and placed his front paws on his owner's thighs in excitement just the previous night. Theodore wanted control but was defeated.
He heard her before he saw her. He hadn't noticed her come outside, and she stood staring, at least some sorrow in her expression.
"I brought ice water," she said softly, yet still startling him. It was his sister, Rose. She was older than him, almost by eight years. She held the glass of water in one hand, condensation already heavy and flowing on the outside.
He took a deep breath and the sobbing stopped. He tried to wipe his cheeks with the back of his sweaty wrist but only spread more moisture across his face.
"Thank you," he said from the ground, his voice a little weak. She bent down and handed him the glass and he drank it all in a few seconds. He let two ice cubes sit idly in his mouth. It felt good, and suddenly he wanted to sleep the rest of the day away.
Rose offered him to come back inside and he did. His legs felt weak. He had been digging the hole out of emotion, and was now regretting it. He could feel his face was red and shining with sweat and tears, but the cool fans inside felt good on his skin.
He took a shower and thought he would cry again but didn't. There certainly seemed to be something missing as he went back into the living room, where his sister was waiting.
"What are we going to do about his body?" Theodore asked, the question coming out more morbidly than he hoped. It made him feel older, like a responsible adult. Just get down to work and get things done. That was what adults did. No emotion required.
She seemed visibly taken aback by the question at first, but answered anyway. "We can still bury him in the backyard, if you like. I just don't want you hurting yourself."
Theodore just nodded.
"Caitlyn called earlier and asked how you were," Rose continued. "You weren't answering your phone. I think she wants to see you."
He thanked her and left. He was feeling slightly better. After their father was taken out of the picture, and then their mother years later, Rose had always been ready to take care of him. She had been his legal guardian for over a year now, and it had been a better year than any he had with his mother.
He pulled his phone out of his pocket and flipped it open. Six missed calls. All from Caitlyn. He pushed the green Call button, put the phone up to his ear, and walked out the front door.