This is either the biggest mistake of her life or the best decision she’d ever made.
From her bed, Patti stared out the eighth-floor apartment window, her gaze frozen over like an ice storm had stolen all warmth from her body. Her eyes shifted to her best friend, Sandra, who entered balancing a tray of soup, toast, and a glass of water.
“I know you don’t want to eat, but the doctors say you have to,” said Sandra resting the tray on the bed beside Patti. “And you need to walk. It’s been two days since your surgery.”
With a blatant eye roll, Patti observed the bowl of chicken soup. She knew Sandra meant well, but she wanted to be alone. There was no way to tell her best friend to leave without hurting her feelings. She was one of those rare friends with the soul of a savior and a desire to be helpful.
“Thanks. You’re the best,” Pattie said, feeding her friends need for acknowledgment.
Sandra sat on the end of the bed. “We can just walk down the hall. Even if you only make it to the elevators and back, it’s a start.”
Patti bit into a piece of toast and chewed like it was cardboard. Not a single person from work had contacted her since she left. Not one. After twenty-four years of dedicating eight to twelve hours a day to one company, you would think HR would have at least sent flowers. But then, she didn’t leave on the highest note. She’d burned bridges. What did she expect?
“Have you heard from that guy? What’s his name...Daryl?” Sandra asked with a huge grin.
Patti knew her friend was terrified to create an online dating profile, and thrived on hearing about Patti’s escapades. However, after connecting with four men, Patti hadn’t ventured past the initial coffee shop introduction. Something about each guy had felt wrong, perhaps even somewhat familiar. Since the separation from her husband, just shy of a year ago, she wasn’t sure what she wanted from a relationship. John had been all she’d known. She just knew she didn’t want to be on her own the rest of her life.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Curled up in the corner of the sofa, Patti checked her email messages. She and Daryl had moved past the dating site chats to email and talking on the phone. She longed to hear his voice, even though they hadn’t met in person. Tonight was the night she would finally meet the man in the profile pictures flipping burgers, who had captured her heart.
Everything hinged on that first face-to-face encounter, and she knew it. She was tired of telling men about herself, then receiving a look that told her she wasn’t what they were looking for. Patti glanced at her watch for the third time. She always arrived early. Making an entrance was not her thing. Scrutinizing her date's entrance, was.
She slipped on her snapper sneakers, which Sandra called salmon, and headed to her car. She’d moved beyond trying to impress with stilettos and close-fitting tops. If this guy didn’t like her choice of casual attire, he could eat dirt.
In the car, Pattie opened the window. Nervousness had triggered an onslaught of hot flashes, and she was thankful for the crisp evening air of early fall. However, worried thoughts looped in her mind. What would they talk about? She had spoken with Daryl so many times over the past weeks, that all the first date conversations were out in the open. He knew she had recently undergone a hysterectomy and quit her job. She had told him all about her fifteen-year-old son.
Although she was no longer employed, she and Daryl had one crucial thing in common they could talk endlessly about. Both worked in the printing industry and understood the secret language of vectors and pixels. She just hoped it was enough.
At Starbucks, she chose a seat on a corner bench by the window, which left a chair to her right for Daryl. She loathed talking across a table at one another. Same side booth sitters, Sandra called it, which made Patti laugh. If things went sour, she had no problem fabricating a lie with her son’s needs as the scapegoat. With her chai tea latte in hand, she awaited her suitor. Come on Mr. Burger Flipper, she cheered in her mind.
She sipped her latte and checked her watch, then looked up into Daryl’s hazel eyes. She almost choked on her beverage and cleared her throat. In his hand was a multi-colored rose and a Crunchie chocolate bar, her favorite.
Instead of shaking her hand, Daryl slid onto the chair. “Thank heavens you look exactly like your profile picture,” he said and held out the gifts.
Patti’s lips spread wide, and she graciously accepted his offerings. It seemed bachelor number five was a romantic, a trait she only dreamed of. She tugged the sleeve of her sweater nervously. “As do you.” She blushed. Was that all she could think of to say? How was it she was suddenly tongue-tied?
“And I know we’ve spoken on the phone, but it’s nice to finally see the face behind the voice.” Daryl leaned on the table, a hand dangerously close to hers.
Patti’s cheeks grew a deeper shade of red. She was shocked at how awkward she suddenly felt. Was it chemistry? It had been so long since she flirted with a man she wasn’t sure.
Daryl’s fingers grazed the top of her hand. “How about we blow this place and go share a bottle of wine?”
“I’d love that.” Patti stood then realized how over-eager she may appear. What was she doing? She didn’t know this guy and wasn’t about to get in a car with a strange man. Fear, it seemed, had stepped to the forefront. Now, what was she going to do?
Daryl opened the door, and Patti stepped outside. “There’s a restaurant two doors down. Does that work for you?”
Patti breathed a silent sigh of relief. There was. Why didn’t she think of that? “That would be great.”
They walked in silence a few steps, then Daryl stopped. Patti’s heart skipped a beat. Somethings wrong. He’s changed his mind.
He took one of her hands in his and stepped close. Patti held her breath. “Thanks for meeting me tonight. I’ve been a wreck all day thinking about meeting you in person. My boss even sent me home early. Said I was too distracted.”
“You told your boss you had a date?” Patti said dumbfounded. She would never have such a conversation with a superior. Her private life was just that, private.
“Yeah. He’s a great guy.”
“Wish I could say the same about my old boss.”
With Patti’s hand still in Daryl’s, they continued on their way to the restaurant.
“The weirdest thing happened today,” Daryl said.
“Yeah? What was that?”
“My daughter saw your profile picture.”
“Stephanie, right?” Pattie crossed her fingers that she had remembered Daryl’s twelve-year-old daughter’s name. She was terrible with names.
“Did she tell you to run for the hills?” Patti giggled.
Daryl squeezed her hand. “Actually, the exact opposite. She told me I was dressed like an old man and then chose this outfit.”
Patti stopped and faced Daryl, her lips pressed into a tight line and pretended to examine his choice of clothes. “I approve. Stephanie has good taste.”
“Whew.” Daryl playfully wiped his brow. “Thought I was done for.”
“You’d have to be wearing Crocks to send me running,” Patti giggled.
“Crocks! Oh heavens, no. Stephanie would have my head if I owned a pair.”
This time, Patti took Daryl’s hand as they made their way to their next destination. The fear that had threatened her earlier had all but dissipated. She liked the feel of his hand in hers, his casual choice of clothes, and his arm that brushed against hers while they walked. Perhaps, she thought, this could be my fresh start.
A shrill scream tears through the night. Not a cry of joy and merriment from the evening’s festivities, but one of horror that shatters all thought and detonates an urge to run.
Jack and I scurry to our feet, from the blanket spread on the lush grass meadow where seconds before we enjoyed a local band. It’s hard to tell from which direction the scream came, but the culprit reveals itself. From the far side of the grove, a black mist rolls our way. From within it comes a sound too fresh in my mind to forget—the howl of Bog Dogs.
This can’t be. It was only a dream… right?
A human stampede charges our way, and I cling to Jack’s hand. Then there’s only a wall of people. Heads twist in all directions with chaotic glares—all social conditioning gave over to fear. It’s every man for himself.
The light from the full moon fades like the gods are playing a terrible joke and erasing it from existence. We rush forward with the crowd. Cell phones flash to life and provide the only light source. The crowd is suffocating, choked at the only opening across the river out of the grove.
Jack hauls me throng of people. We run upriver to a low spot along the riverbank, and he plunges into the dark water dragging me with him.
“No, no, no.” I heave on his hand with both of mine. “We’ll never make it.” This is happening so fast I didn’t make the connection until now. I’ve seen the outcome of Jack and I crossing the river on our own--in a nightmare. I point to the opposite bank now shrouded in mist. The jaws of a smoke wolf breach the oozing black vapor that wafts down the riverside toward us. Staying with the crowd is our only option.
We hurry back the way we came and squeeze into the thinning horde. Those who saw us leave, take their chances and attempt to cross the river. A scream slashes through the dark, then another, then more than I can count.
I recall the details of the nightmare I dreamed five nights in a row. Each night it was different, but each path we took led to Jack’s and my death. First, the mist consumed the road once we crossed the river. Then it devoured us from behind when we stalled on the bridge. Even when we tried to run for home or inside any building void of light, it found us. We almost made it once, after floating down the river, but got caught in the rapids. That didn’t stop the dogs from finding us.
But there was a light. I see it in my mind. Just before the rapids, at the top of a steep hill, there was a light coming from the travel agency. Light must hold them off. The river downstream is our only chance.
“Come on,” I grab Jack’s hand, this time, dragging him down the riverbank which is much steeper on the left side of the bridge.
“Gail. We just tried this,” he pleads in a loud whisper.
“That was the wrong way. We have to get to the travel agency.”
I slip into the water as quiet as possible, my shoes sinking into the syrupy muck. The water grows deeper, and the current pulls us along. In the silent blackness, we drift hand-in-hand while screams from friends, neighbors, and the innocent warn of a possible fate.
I motion to Jack and point to the light coming from the travel agency at the top of the slope. Far from the rapids, we cross the river. Jack latches onto a sizable tree root, and we pull ourselves out of the water. Leaves and mud meet my face while I struggle to climb the steep dirt embankment. My fingers tangle in my necklace. I unwind them from the chain and stare at the mud covered dreamcatcher pendant. I tuck it in my blouse and continue climbing before the mist finds us. Perhaps it will bring us good luck.
We lay at the top of the hill and scope out the area. No one is in sight, not even the disturbing fog…yet, so we make our way along the side of the building.
Jack peers around the corner. “The door’s open.” He looks left down the street, then right. “Let’s go.”
We slither around the corner and stay low, then creep through the open door. Jack finds a chair and jams it under the door handle. In a crouch, we head into the dark office, then into a cubicle in a corner opposite a wall of windows.
“Someone’s gonna see that chair and know we’re in here,” I whisper.
“There’s nothing we can do,” he says.
We sit in quiet for some time, listening to distant screams and cries for help. What can we do, but wait? Jack crawls into a cubicle along the window and peers over the four-foot wall. Fear knots in my stomach. What if someone sees him? We’re lucky the lights are off.
My thoughts turn to the dreamcatcher necklace, and I slip it from the confines of my blouse. It was an interesting find at the flea market, different than any dreamcatcher I’ve ever seen. The merchant suggested it would make a lovely necklace, being it was so small, and I purchased a chain. I’ve worn it every day since.
I stare at it, the black string covered in mud. What did I like about it? It appears almost creepy now, and I slip the chain over my head. The nightmares started the first night I bought it. Could there be a connection? I wrap my fingers around it and scoff at the idea.
Jack returns. “I don’t see anyone.”
“What about the mist?”
“Nothing. But we’re not gonna chance going out there.”
I open my hand and stare at the dreamcatcher.
“What’s that?” Jack plucks it from my palm. His eyes grow wide, and his lips press flat. “Where did you get this?”
I don’t like his tone. “The flea market.”
“Didn’t you say you’ve been having nightmares?”
I swallow the lump forming in my throat.
“Gail? Did the nightmares start after you bought this thing?
I don’t want to say it out loud. This can’t be happening because of me. It just can’t be my fault. I nod, and Jack tosses it on the worn path in the cheap gray office carpet in front of us.
Tears run down my cheeks. “I didn’t know…I thought it was nice. It’s a dreamcatcher. Aren’t they a good thing?” I blubber and weep onto arms folded around my knees. “It’s just a dream,” I mumble into my sleeve. “How can it be real?”
“Shh,” he whispers and tucks his legs close to his body, away from the stream of light from the front of the agency.
Someone runs screaming by the front of the building.
Jack peeks around the corner, then stretches his neck to see over the cubical walls along the window. He ducks down and pushes against me in the corner, his face close to mine. “It’s coming,” he whispers.
An urgency to run sweeps over me, and my legs and arms twitch. I want to charge out of here and find someplace safe, but where?
“Shh,” Jack says again.
“It was…just a dream,” I stammer, and Jack covers my mouth with his hand.
“You bought someone’s nightmare.” He hugs me. “And now it’s yours.”
A Fresh Start won 3rd place in the January 5-18 Flash Fiction Contest, and Best Narrarator. It Was Just A Dream...Right? won 1st place in the following Flash Fiction Contest.