He could see the ground rushing toward him. Just a few seconds more before he reached it...
Under normal circumstances, the impact would have crushed his bones and killed him instantly. But these were not normal circumstances.
Adam Caine braced himself for what was to come.
Though the fall wouldn’t kill him, there would be pain. Not physical pain, but pain nonetheless.
It’d always be better than the hurt he’d felt when he’d lost his wife. That had been real pain. Deep, poignant, incurable. Sometimes he could still feel it when he thought about her. So he tried not to think about her. But that was a different sort of pain... though barely more bearable.
At least this wasn’t his first time, so he knew what to expect.
No one had warned him about this when he had signed up for the job. He’d been trained, of course, but the team was understaffed and with little time to spare for new recruits.
Some of the higher-ups were of a mind that there was no better way to learn than to be thrown into the fire. He suspected they’d come up with that argument after the fact, to justify the lack of support.
He watched apprehensively as the rocky terrain grew larger. There were a lot of ragged edges there, he noticed with distaste.
Not that it’d matter.
The ground hit him like a ten-ton truck at a hundred miles per hour. It felt like his body was shattered, compressed, and torn apart all at the same time. His sight became blurry, and there was a sharp buzzing sound in his ears.
All of that only lasted two seconds, though it felt like an eternity.
He’d been through this a hundred times, and yet he’d never gotten used to it.
When the pain receded, he stood and glanced around.
From up close, the rocks looked purple and the earth under his feet had a grayish-blue tint that made him feel queasy.
A dirt path wound its way through black bushes toward a stream of vivid red water.
He noticed a small white tear in the sky. It floated near his head, at eye level. He reached out with a finger, and it went right through. An unpleasant jolt of electricity coursed through him, and he jerked back.
“Well,” he muttered, “at least this guy has some imagination.”
He’d treated many patients over the last ten years, but most of the time the settings he landed in were bland and repetitive. Work cubicles, suburban houses, mazes...
Once in a while, there would be something like this... but it was fairly rare, all things considered.
Glancing back at the tear, he idly wondered if he had brought his own wounds with him.
More likely, it was just part of the scenery.
Variations from the usual fare were always welcome, but a place like this was anything but predictable and came with unique challenges.
Adam would have to be wary.
The buzzing in his ears had stopped, but the odd colors around him were distracting. He was having trouble finding his way.
According to the psychologist, the patient’s nightmare always involved a decrepit cabin built inside a cavern. The stream was supposed to run in front of its entrance, so it had to be nearby.
He grimaced as he recalled all the books he’d read about dreamcatching. They all had made it sound so exciting and unique. None of them mentioned the pain or the risks...
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Coren Nash had always been frank about the realities of the profession he had helped shape. But Adam had never believed any of it. It’d all seemed so fantastical, not to mention Nash was widely mocked by everyone else in the business... at least, in public. After being hired, he’d found out that the truth was quite different. The powers-that-be just did not want it to come out.
A sharp ringing sound made him jump.
Spinning around, he saw a phone booth just sitting there, where there had been nothing at all just a second before.
The phone inside was ringing.
He stared at it for a moment, then went in and picked up the receiver.
There was static on the other end.
“Who is this?”
The static became louder, then disappeared.
After a few seconds, he heard faint music—as if it came from a great distance.
Just as he was going to hang up, a shrill cry pierced through the phone.
“Don’t go!” it said.
“Who’s there?” he asked.
Sobs echoed in his ear before the line went dead.
He hung up and frowned.
It must have been the patient’s wife. She’d cry when he’d leave to visit his father, and she’d always refuse to go with him.
Adam walked away.
Reaching the stream, he followed it toward a small hill. There were only plains on the other side, so this seemed like a more logical choice.
He chuckled. As if logic meant anything in a place like this! But it was difficult to ignore your most basic instincts—even after five years in the business.
As he stepped into a pool of black mud, he felt sucked downward, into a spiral of sounds and colors.
His body twirled for several seconds before he was spurted out and landed on grass... blue grass.
He looked up and blinked.
The cabin was there, in front of him... but it was upside down. It hung from the ceiling, its roof a few feet from the ground. It filled the entrance to the cavern, making it impossible for anyone who’d want to do so to reach the other side.
Adam looked up higher and saw the stream’s red water glistening above him, as if everything was as it should be. And perhaps it was.
Another tear floated somewhere between him and the stream. This one was larger and out of reach. There were blurry images within the white.
He looked back at the wooden structure.
“Alright. I’m here. Now... how do I get in?”
According to the patient’s records, the cabin was a reproduction of a real place, where his father had taken him when he was a child. Those two had not had a healthy relationship.
He stood and walked toward it.
There were techniques, tricks that a dreamcatcher could use to manipulate the substance of dreams.
As he walked, Adam gestured in front of him, forcing reality to bend to his will.
Everything around him rotated. Slowly.
By the time he reached the door, the ceiling had become the ground, and the blue grass had turned to sky.
He grabbed the handle and turned it.
The door opened with a screech that resonated in the cavern beyond.
Adam stepped in.
It smelled of mold and rot. The wooden walls were chipped, stained, burned. It was dark, but he could see small shapes scurrying on the floor and ceiling.
He could have willed for light, but his mind had focused on a larger form at the center of the room.
The figure was six feet tall, with a square jaw, and fiery green eyes that bore into his own. It held its arms outstretched...
It was dark, but his eyes had quickly adjusted so that he could see those arms for what they truly were.
The man’s arms were writhing and hissing snakes.
He stood there, silent, staring at Adam.
The dreamcatcher paused.
So this is the flaying monster, he thought.
The patient had mentioned the creature, of course. This was what he needed removed. But it terrified him so much he had been unable to describe it.
Adam had expected a whip—not freaking snakes—and a face that didn’t look so human... maybe a goat’s face, with horns and fangs... not this.
“Hello,” he tried.
The monster opened its mouth. A deep, hoarse, guttural voice boomed out.
“He who enters here, may only feel fear.”
That, too, was far from what he’d expected.
“Uhm, okay. But now you need to go, buddy.”
The creature swung an arm at him, and the serpent tried to wrap its slick, cold body around his neck... but it went right through him.
“Sorry,” he said with a grin, “but that won’t work with me. I’m not really here, you see.”
“Where you go, death shall follow.”
Adam paid the creature no heed. He had a job to do, and he’d spent too much time here already.
Closing his eyes, he willed the cabin to be empty.
“You cannot heal that which is unbroken,” hissed the monster, “but you will feel wraths unspoken.”
The words were troubling, but he maintained his focus.
That almost made him laugh—though had it come out, it would have been a dry, cynical one. His wife had often chided him for not being able to concentrate on things. When she’d passed, he’d sworn to change. It was only through his work that he had kept his promise.
When he opened his eyes, he was surprised to see that the creature was gone. It felt like it’d been too easy...
In its place was an even larger white tear, with moving objects on the other side—too blurry to make out what they were.
Still, the monster was gone, and this made Adam smile.
“That wasn’t so bad.”
He decided not to bring light into this place, as he did not wish to see what sort of bugs covered the walls.
Besides, it was time for him to go home. There was no sense staying here longer than needed.
He turned and walked out the door.
Adam rose from the bed and pulled off the cables that were plugged into his skull.
There had been a time when he’d needed to go to the office to work. Now, portable devices allowed dreamcatchers to do what they needed to do from the comfort of their homes.
Technology was such a wonderful thing.
He rubbed his eyes, yawned, stretched, then headed toward the kitchen.
A creaking sound from behind made him frown.
He paused and turned to look toward the machine.
There was a large white tear floating in the middle of his bedroom. The image within was different, now clear enough for him to recognize the cabin he’d just left.
In front of the tear stood the flaying monster.
It took a step forward. One of its writhing and hissing arms wrapped tightly around his neck, while the other reached for his face and peeled the skin off his cheek.
Text (c) 2021 by Alex S. Garcia.