I was climbing up the sappy branches of an old pine tree. I knew that I was dreaming, because I recognized it as one of the three pines that had stood in the back of our old house, and when I looked down through the branches of green pine, I only saw the smaller, white one that we now lived in. The sap stuck to my hands, and it seemed to take a significant amount of effort to pull them free from each branch. When I did, long, thick strands of gooey sap came away, still stuck to my hands, and the sap accumulated, making it harder to free myself from the next branch up. I kept climbing higher, up into the dream.
The air was still and thick when I broke through to the top. My head was above the point of the great pine, and it felt like I was standing in a thick soup or pudding; the air was viscous and heavy, like the sap gloves I wore.
Looking down, I could see that I was still on Sunny Lane, but that was all that was there. I could see every house on the lane, and the big brown church at the end on the corner, on the other side was the fence. Beyond that, there was nothing, and the ground and sky were both gray and churning, melding into one shapeless void, like the biggest bowl of bland oatmeal had been turned over and spilled out to surround the lane.
Everything had that grayish hue to it. Everything except Ms. Cleary’s garden, which shone with all the colors of every bud and petal, the light they produced glowing and pulsing. I could see Ms. Cleary in her kitchen, sitting at the table and kneading a ball of wax, and wanted to call out to her, but when I opened my mouth to shout her name, nothing came out. I felt my vocal cords thrumming in my throat, and my mouth formed the necessary shapes, but the air sucked up all the sounds, did not let them through.
And through the thick, insulating air that my voice could not travel through came a scream, a high-pitched, screeching wail that cut right through the air and pierced my lungs, like breathing in cold winter air. A dark, black blur shot past me, large and formless. Another scream, this one deeper, a man’s tone and timbre. They were cries of pain and horror, and they were coming from the garden below.
The dark blur hovered above the garden, like the blackest of storm clouds. It did not rain, or move, but instead cast tendrils of darkness down, like black smoke, that cast a shadow on the yard, and wilted every flower it touched.
The dying flowers rustled and parted, and three distinctly human shapes wobbled and swayed in place. A man, woman and child, all standing close together against wooden posts. No. they were tied to the posts, that resembled sloppy, makeshift crucifixes of thin logs and tree branches, damp and dead, and decaying. Thick bonds of rope held them in place around their arms, neck, and legs, and they were all crying out in agony. As the plants around them withered and shrunk, their faces were revealed, and my breath caught in my chest.
They were my parents, both my father and mother. I saw them as if the lens of my eye zoomed forward, brought them up close, so I could almost touch them. My father’s face was cut up and bruised, and pieces of glass were stuck in it that trickled blood down to the dead flowers. One of his arms stuck out at a wrong angle, and his legs were bent in, so he looked all hunched over and cramped. My mother looked more or less the same, but wore a snow white dress that was bunched up and tied at her ankles along with her feet. Her body was limp, as if she had no more energy left, but her neck strained and her head was raised, gazing at the black cloud above her and wailing.
The third was smaller, and I recognized her as Clara. She did not cry out or thrash against the bonds that held her, but merely whimpered, and sniffled and glanced around, back to the house where her grandmother sat, fully unaware of what was going on in her back garden.
I tried calling out to them, but my voice would not carry. My heart raced and I forgot then that I was only dreaming, that none of this was real. It felt all too real to me, and I was scared. Scared for my family, for Clara, and mostly, shamefully, for myself. I did not want that black cloud to notice me, or lash me to a wooden post in the back of the dead garden.
My father was wrenching himself against the rope, straining and pulling at it, trying to dislodge himself. With one final tug of his whole body, my father’s post came free from the cold ground, and he teetered a moment, before falling hard.
The black cloud began to lower, and opened up wide jaws, the tendrils forming the muzzle of a wolf. Black teeth gleamed in the darkness, glistening with shadelight and hunger. As it lowered the screams became louder, my father’s movements more frantic. He was trying to get away,to save himself, but there was nowhere to run or hide. His head was facing toward me as he lay on the ground, and our eyes locked.
I felt the slap of a cold, clammy hand against my face, and woke up with a start. My whole body jumped and I sat up straight.
My heart was pounding and I was sweating. The night air was hot and stuffy. I flung the sheets off my bed and got up to open a window, remnants of the dream still fresh in my waking mind. The now-familiar cold weight of the charm hanging on my neck was gone, and I groped at where it hung, thinking it missing. But it had only warmed to my body’s temperature, and was still there. I could already feel it beginning to chill again, now that I was awake.
I stood by the open window, and let the warm breeze roll in. It cooled my skin where it hit the beads of sweat on my bare arms and face. I stripped off my shirt, letting the air hit me there as well.
The red light from my alarm clock read 4:13. I didn’t think I could go back to sleep, didn’t want to take the chance that I would end up back in the gray oatmeal world, where black clouds hung in the air, and tortured my family and friends.
I opened my bedroom door, went out into the hall to the bathroom, and used it, aiming for the porcelain edges above the toilet water, so as not to disturb my mother.
My hand hurt and throbbed. I unwrapped the gauze around it and set it by the sink, then washed both of my hands with cold water, splashed some on my face. Then I took a closer look at my hand.
The flesh between my thumb and forefinger was swollen, and tinged with dark blues and greens. It looked infected. My mother had thrown away the leaf wrapper, and I wished that she hadn’t, that she could have just trusted that Ms. Cleary knew what she was doing.
I thought of my father’s eyes, locking on to mine at the end, when he knew he would be swallowed by the black wolf-cloud, and shivered. It had been the first real nightmare I had experienced, and it left a sour taste in my mouth. Dreams were supposed to be fun, full of light play and adventure and happiness; not horrible gray things that made you sweat and scared to go and lay in your bed again, or close your eyes.
I went back into my room, and turned on the lamp by my bed. I needed something to distract myself. I did not want to think about the things that had happened in my head but were not real. I grabbed my Gameboy and turned it on, setting the volume as low as I could while still hearing it. I felt myself relaxing at the familiar orchestral theme of Zelda, played through synthesizer pads.
This was a world that I could lose myself in and forget the troubles of dreams and the waking world. I only had to concern myself with finding the master sword, and collecting the pieces of the triforce, to save the princess Zelda and defeat the evil Ganondorf. Things were simpler in games. Everything was laid out for you, and, if you ever made a mistake or died, you could just start over, and get it right the second time. I wished that I could just respawn at the beginning of yesterday, and do everything over. I would never have followed the raven then, and my uncle would not be coming over tomorrow, and I could stay with Ms. Cleary and Clara, and make candles and crisps. In that alternate reality, I believed, I never would have dreamed up such an awful thing that made me feel like throwing up and crying, and want to crawl in bed with my mother so that she would hold me, and tell me that everything would be okay.
So I played my game. I played for hours, until I had reached the first of the temples where a piece of the triforce lay. That was the last I remembered, and I must have fallen asleep shortly after that, with my Gameboy in my hands, and the light still on.