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. In Ellendale, Iowa, this kind of weather, the kind that just barely flirted with triple digits on thermometers, was a sort of rarity.
Luckily, Theodore and Caitlyn were shaded under the leaves of the dense forest. Sunlight shined through the holes, thin beams shining the dirty forest earth. Theo looked up, and the light between the leaves was like dozens of focused stars shining down.
"Okay, your turn," Caitlyn said.
"Truth," Theo said.
She groaned. "I'm terrible at those."
"Okay, then dare."
"No, that's cheating. Just give me a minute. Have you ever…"
Despite walking exclusively in the shade, Theo could feel the heat. The air was humid, and his short sleeved shirt was already sticking to his skin. He was beginning to collect some thin sweat on his forehead, but quickly wiped it off. He was wearing jeans, but only because he didn't like his legs, and now he was regretting it. It felt like his legs were trapped in an oven.
To their left was a downward hill, steep enough so that they could not walk on it, but not so steep for them to fall straight down. Theo and Caitlyn had been on the downslide of this hill before, but that soon stopped when Rose told them that this was the place where sewage was dumped at the bottom, making for damp soil.
"Have you ever… broken the law?" Caitlyn said, her voice dead serious.
Theo smiled. "Seriously?"
"I told you so. Just answer the question."
"No, I haven't."
"It's not your turn yet," Caitlyn said, and she added with a small half-smile: "I choose dare."
"Okay, I dare you to answer my question."
Caitlyn looked at him with squinted, cynical eyes. She was shorter than him by a considerable margin; the top of her head was only barely higher than Theodore's shoulder. She gave him a firm punch in the upper arm.
"Yeah," Caitlyn said sarcastically, "One time I was driving five or six miles over the speed limit."
"It's a no, then."
Theodore noticed that the trees and the dirt and the bushes smelled good, despite the supposed sewage; it was a naturally sweet scent of sap and bark and leaves. It followed them everywhere within the forest. It made Theo think of his dog, Alex. That dog would've loved to run around here with them, jumping at birds and insects and squirrels.
They came to a collection of bushes that blocked their steady progression deeper into the trees.
"Thorns," Theodore said, taking a closer look. "It's probably time to head back anyway."
"Dare you to cut through them," Caitlyn said.
"Because it's your turn to do something. I'm choosing dare for you. Plus, you're wearing jeans. It's not even a hard one."
Theodore hated thorns, and he hated pain even more. Before his grandfather had passed away, he'd taken Theo hunting a number of times, so he'd had his fair share of experience with these bushes. He knew they would poke right through his jeans. It wouldn't be a terrible pain, or even a pain that would make him wince too badly, but to walk straight into one was something that Theodore would call brainless.
Then again, it was a dare.
"Fine," Theodore said. "If I rip my pants, you're paying for replacements."
The thorns themselves weren't too long. They were the kind that were more inclined to stick to clothing rather than slash it, so he wasn't too worried about his jeans. He quickly brushed his pant leg against it as a test, but nothing caught.
"That doesn't count, if that's what you're thinking," Caitlyn said. "You gotta go in all the way, or you're chicken."
He took a slow step in with his right foot, and already felt the sharp points pricking his skin. His pant leg was sticking to thorns, exposing the skin an inch above his ankle. More stabbed him there. It was more painful than he remembered, but he tried hard not to show it. He thought he might have drawn blood.
"This is so stupid," he said. He didn't want to go further, and he looked at Caitlyn with a raised eyebrow. Is this good enough?
"Fine, I'll take it. You're not chicken."
"You're gonna have to help me get out of here," Theodore said. "These things do not like to unstick."
As Theodore began to pick the thorns from his right pant leg, Caitlyn grabbed his arm like a tug-of-war rope.
"No, don't-" Theodore started, but she already pulled. Half of the bush came with Theo's leg, stuck to it like velcro, ripped from its original roots. He felt a sharp pain, mostly in his ankle, as he fell to the ground with the girl attached to his forearm.
"Idiot," Theodore said, smiling.
With their heads in the dirt, they smiled in each other's faces.
Theodore sat up and looked at the branches wrapped around his leg. He tried to pick it away, one thorn at a time. Some had punctured skin. The wounds did not leak blood, but they were red.
This was when the memory of the dream came flooding back to Theodore's mind. Feeling trapped, he couldn't move, and then suddenly being ripped out, and although he ran from the terror and pain, it never left him…
"Oh my god," Caitlyn said, sitting up, looking at what was left of the bush. "I didn't think it would hurt you that bad."
"It's fine," Theodore responded quickly. "It's not as bad as it looks."
He felt his phone begin to buzz in his pocket, and then his ringtone. When he pulled it out and flipped it open, the caller ID said Rose. It was his older sister.
"Hold on," Theodore said to Caitlyn as he stood up. He answered the phone.
"Theo…" his sister's voice came through. Something was off.
"It's Alex," she said, her voice quivering slightly. "I don't know what happened, he just… I don't know."
"Is he okay?" Something had begun to rise in his throat.
"No, Theo. He's not. The vets took him, but… They couldn't, Theo. He's gone."