Alex's case was not isolated, but it was the first.
New cases of spontaneous death began sprouting throughout the United States, and not limited to just dogs. In fact, this new phenomenon was pounding on human's door the hardest, and within days, it had spread around the globe. The symptoms were not consistent, constant, or predictable. Some patients died of sudden heart failure, others died of unsolicited strokes, others fell to a simple but deadly influenza virus. One case in California included a perfectly healthy seventy-five year old woman. She seemingly caught pneumonia overnight. Her name was Judice and she choked on her own coughed-up mucus as she slept. Her body was found three weeks later.
There was no pattern to examine. Its victims seemed to be random, nevermind age, race, class, or species. EMTs and paramedics saved few. Hospitals were shockingly unoccupied. Most died in their homes as they slept, and others were too secluded from help. Meanwhile, birds fell from the sky, squirrels barreled from their tree branches, dead before they hit the ground.
Hundreds of thousands of deaths afflicted the world in just one day, most concentrated in the US. Yet no one seemed to notice. Just over a thousand dead in New York City, five hundred killed in Philadelphia, two hundred dead in Chicago. This was no communicable disease. This was something else. This was something greater.
The next day, death rates were back to normal.
Theodore kicked down the stand of his bike. She didn't seem to be here yet, and as far as he could tell, he was the only person in the park. It was a decaying and neglected place, fallen to the hands of graffiti artists and time. The cement path was rough and cracked, and a simple and wooden four-sided gazebo seemed rotted, painted and repainted more times than could be recalled. The only enthusiastic (or otherwise non-lifeless) part of the area were the thick oak trees dotted around that stretched into the sky. The leaves were in full bloom, and occasionally the squirrels would toss down their leftover snacks, littering the grass and pavement with broken shells of acorns.
Theodore sat and thought for a long time under the rotted gazebo, as he'd done before. They met here often, not for its beauty, but because it was as secluded as the bedrooms of their homes. The only time they were even slightly accompanied was by a passerby on their daily exercise trail, more focused on the pop music buzzing in their earbuds rather than the two teenagers chatting in the park. It was their own personal slice of town.
He was just beginning to wonder if she was coming at all when he saw her pedaling down the path towards him on her red ten-speed bike. She parked hers next to his, and they sat under the rotten gazebo together. She was dressed in khaki capri pants and a t-shirt; nothing fancy. They talked for a long time there, about Alex, about summer, about family. She made him feel better, despite the death of a friend.
He thought of the dream. It had been a long day already but it hardly left his mind. It was odd, and he felt an embarrassment for this abstract nightmare, but she was his new best friend, he supposed. The sun had begun to fall from its arc in the sky when he decided to tell her about it.
"Sounds like a cult," Caitlyn said, taking the entire thing about as seriously as Theodore. "Aren't dreams supposed to come from your thoughts? I don't know how your mind conjured that up."
"Aliens," he responded simply. She just smiled and shook her head. "It was implanted in my head by aliens."
They sat together for a moment in silence, smiling, listening to the rustling of the invisible birds and rodents around them. The sun was bright, still steaming the air. He remembered just that morning, digging that hole in the ground. He didn't care about the heat then, driven by grief. And, looking around him, at the trees, the grass, at Caitlyn, he still didn't care much about the heat, but for the opposite reason. He was glad to be here.
"Do you think it means anything?" she asked suddenly. Her smile had faded. "The dream, I mean."
"If it does, I'm not getting any meaning out of it."
She blushed then, something on the tip of her tongue. She said it hesitantly. "How about 'I am real?' That seemed to be a recurring theme throughout."
He just nodded. It seemed silly to think so deeply about a dream, yet he could feel that this was no normal dream.
"I don't know," he said. "There doesn't seem to be anything to look into. Whatever caused this dream was too vague to tell me anything, if you're thinking this came from anywhere but my own mind."
"No," she said. "Of course it came from your own mind. I guess… I'm just spitballing."
"Right. Besides, it was a one-time ordeal. I'm sure there's nothing to make of it."
But that night, Theodore dreamed again.
He was on the street, surrounded by skyscrapers and abandoned cars. The first thing he noticed was that he could move.
It was dark, but the street lights reflected off of the black windows of the buildings and illuminated the block. The empty cars clogged the streets like they were in a dead traffic jam.
He began to walk down the sidewalk, his reflection nonexistent in the buildings beside him. He didn't notice. He peered through each car windows expecting to see a person, or at least the remnant of a person, but found nothing until he tripped over an object at his feet.
His face hit the pavement hard but he felt nothing. His legs were jelly and his body was ice; the only thing holding him this time was the fear of what he'd just discovered. And then, all at once, he was on his feet, leaning over the body of a dead man.
He was dressed in a black suit, face up, staring falsely into the dark sky. His face was thin, as white as ivory, wrapped with veins like decorative blue grape vines. His mouth was opened loosely, flies occasionally flying inside and retreating back out as quickly as a bullet. It was then that the city began to smell of death, a stench Theodore had never smelled before but so strong it could be identified anyways. He screamed although he didn't mean to, and he felt trapped once again. He turned and ran, his mind and thoughts slowly fading until the only thought left was implanted by something else. He floated away, the city no longer there, his body suspended above the city and the earth, seeming more like another dimension.
You have seen what he comes for, Theodore. Do not let him thrive. He comes for destruction.