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The blackness slithered into the room, choking out the light as a palpable substance, destroying it, killing it. The silence screamed unimaginable torments into the ears of the room's single occupant. She was huddled in the farthest corner of her bed, watching with horror-filled eyes as the darkness crept slowly forward, coming for her, and bringing the terrifying creature of the night with it.
Nothing she could do would protect her now, and she knew it. She'd been brave, she had fought hard, but she was just a little girl after all, and she had lost.
The night was complete, the hour was late; dying time had arrived.
With a final terrified whimper, Jessica's eyes closed in sleep.
Within moments, the demon that haunted her dreams -- a beautiful young woman with a smile of purest evil -- was chasing her through the black and endless forest from which there was no escape.
A single, silent tear trekked down her cheek and dissolved on her pillow.
The bright morning sunlight filtered through lacy curtains and spilled onto Jessica's cheeks. The room that had been so terrifyingly dark during the night was transformed into a lovely, doll-laden paradise with the coming of dawn. The pink canopy bed in the center of the room was adorned with dolls and stuffed animals, perfectly matching the wallpaper of dancing children and white, puffy clouds.
Soft music drifted through the room from somewhere else in the large house. The aroma of bacon, eggs, waffles, and homemade biscuits wafted through the air, stirring the sleeping child from her hellish dreams.
Jessica sat up in bed; thiswas one swift motion, nothing like the gently washing up from dreaming to waking of most children. She sat up so fast her head hurt and her vision, already blurry from sleep, dimmed to near-complete blackness. Her breathing was coming in painful, ragged gasps and her whole body trembled as if from exertion. She stifled a scream by plunging her fist into her mouth; she didn't scream anymore, not since the last time. She didn't dare.
The last scream had landed her a week's stay in the psychology ward at the expensive private hospital on Downs Street, with needles being jabbed into her every few hours, and all kinds of "therapy sessions" of electrical shocks and ridiculous questions. No, she didn't scream anymore. She did, however, bite her fist every morning until it almost bled. The small, white-knuckled fist was always bruised from this morning ritual, but it didn't matter; her parents were too busy to notice things like a bruised fist.
When she was sure the scream was once again buried in her chest, Jessica pulled back the covers and began the agonizing chore of pulling splinters out of her bare feet.
Tears clouded her eyes, spilling down her cheeks and onto her muddy, torn nightgown.
"How did you sleep, Jessie?" Before the question was even finished, Samantha Grear, Jessica's mother, was already leaving the room, putting diamond earrings into her ears. The question was a formality; it was asked every morning, but Jessica never had a chance to answer. She slipped into her accustomed chair at the breakfast table and helped herself to eggs and bacon. Her father patted her on the head as he passed by, on his way out the door.
Within three minutes, Jessica was alone in the house with the maid, a polite old lady that hardly ever spoke. She poured Jessica a glass of milk and brought it to her with a kindly old-woman smile, and promptly disappeared into the kitchen once again. She ate her breakfast in silence, drained her glass of milk, and headed for the front door, on her way to school.
Miss Charlotte, the maid, was waiting by the front door with Jessica's lunch box and backpack. She helped Jessica with the backpack, then handed her the lunch box. Jessica reached for the door, but stopped within an inch of the handle. Miss Charlotte was speaking to her.
Slowly, as if in a dream, Jessica turned her head to face the elderly maid.
"Time means nothing there, does it dear? You can run all night, but you never reach that old cabin in time."
Jessica's eyes widened with alarm and disbelief. How could the old maid know about her dreams? She'd never told anyone this part of the dream, not her parents, not the few friends that she had, not even the doctors on Downs Street.
Sighing, the old woman continued. "Yes, dear, I know all about your dreams. I watch you, you see. I watch you from inside that old, rundown cabin, but I can never get the door unlocked, and you never make it to the door. Almost, but you never make it." The old maid's bottom lip quivered as she continued. "That red-lipped, green-eyed witch always gets you just before you reach the door, doesn't she?"
Tears swelled in Jessica's eyes, relief and disbelief battling for room within her mind. Could it be true? Could this old woman be sharing these same nightmares?
"Poor, poor Jessica," crooned the old woman. "My precious little Jessie. It's so hard to run sometimes, isn't it, Hon? Poor little dear." Suddenly Charlotte pulled Jessica to her and hugged her mightily. Relief won over disbelief and Jessica's eyes poured tears all over the old woman's apron as she returned the fierce hug. Sobs wracked her small body; the relief of not having to hold a secret so unbelievable that you would spend the rest of your life in the hospital on Downs Street if anyone found out came out in a rush of tears and soul searing wails.
After a few minutes, Miss Charlotte pulled Jessica away and held her at arms length. "Now you listen to me, Jessie. You don't tell anyone about this dream, okay? It's our secret, and together we'll get through it. Okay? I need you to be strong now. Be brave. We'll beat this evil witch by and by. We'll beat her together, okay?"
Jessica could only nod her head, wiping the tears from her eyes. She smiled weakly at the maid whom she hardly ever spoke with and, for the first time in her life, she knew love.
School was a drag, as it always was to Jessica. She was a very intelligent child, and the work that was required of her at school wasn't enough to keep her busy or interested for more than a few hours a day.
At two-fifty, the final bell sounded, and Jessica filed out of the classroom along with the rest of the students. It was a Friday afternoon, and that meant no school for two days. Most of the children were excited about two days away from classes, teachers, and math, but not Jessica; to her, the weekends were lonely and terrifying. Her parents usually went away on the weekends, leaving Jessica in the care of the housekeeper. They were important people, they sometimes told her, and important people needed a few days away once in a while.
She didn't mind her parents not being home, really; what bothered her was that when they were away the nightmares that always left her feet bloody and her nightgown torn were far worse than they normally were. She didn't know why this was, but when her parents were out of the house, the nightmares took on a whole other menace. Rats scurried over her feet as she ran through the woods, screeching and clawing at her legs and toes. Snakes dropped out of the grotesquely twisted, gnarled trees and tried to wrap themselves around her neck.
Once, a pack of wolves with yellow teeth dripping foamy saliva surrounded her, closing her off a mere ten feet from the cabin. With hackles raised, they growled deep in their throats every time she so much as moved a finger. All she could do was stand there and cry, and wait. When the beautiful young witch arrived, unhurt and perfectly clean although she had ran through the woods for hours just as Jessica had, the wolves bowed their heads low, and then in unison they howled at the full moon with a sound so horrible that Jessica was sure only the dead could ever hear it and stay sane.
Just as the witch reached out her long, black-nailed fingers for her hair, Jessica woke up in her bed, the sunlight beaming through the curtains, bathing her in warmth and protection. She was sure, absolutely positive, that she heard a faint, fading echo of wolves howling as her breath came in ragged chunks.
That had been one of her worst nightmares, and it had happened three weeks ago. Since then, the nightmares had been easing off a little, not as terrifying as usual. Instead of making Jessie feel better, this scared her even worse. Something was coming, something bad. She didn't know how she knew this, but she did. She was afraid, more afraid than she'd ever been in her life.
As Jessica started walking the four blocks to her home, thunder crashed overhead, and a howling wind pushed her along.
"Your father and I are going away for a few days," said Jessica's mother. "You'll be okay with Miss Charlotte."
Jessica was used to this, and just walked straight through the house to the kitchen where Miss Charlotte had set out a plate of cookies and a tall glass of milk for her. She didn't bother to answer her mother, knowing from experience that none was needed, or even wanted. She sat at the table, tossed her backpack into the chair next to hers, and began eating the cookies. Chocolate chip, her favorite; with her first true adult thought, Jessica realized that her mother probably had no idea what her favorite cookies were. She probably didn't know what Jessie's favorite color was, what kind of music she liked, or even what her favorite doll was named.
Deep inside her chest, Jessica felt something heavy. Although she was too young to realize what it was, she wouldn't have been surprised to hear that feeling called longing. She wanted her mother to know these things about her, but each time she had tried to get close to her mother, she was brushed aside, told to let the adults have some time alone, or just ignored completely. After a while, she stopped trying altogether, and that seemed to be what made her parents happy.
As Jessica ate her cookies, she tried not to listen to the voices drifting from the living room, but couldn't help it. The whispers were just a bit too loud, and there was nothing to occupy her attention, so she listened.
"...don't know what's wrong with her," came Samantha's soft voice. "Maybe she'll grow out of it sooner or later."
A sigh came from Miss Charlotte, and Jessica smiled. "Perhaps, Mrs. Grear, perhaps."
"Anyway, we're going to be late if we don't leave now. The Maceys are expecting us at the resort by nine tonight, and it looks like it's going to storm on us the whole way. Did you get Jessica's nightgowns back from the cleaners today?"
"Yes, of course," came Miss Charlotte's sweet, motherly voice. "Everything's fine. We'll be okay. Just have a good time, and don't worry. If the nightmares are too bad, I'll just be in the next room. She knows that."
Sounding defeated, but hurried nonetheless, Jessica's mother said "Ripped, bloody nightgowns every morning. No explanation. Thousands of dollars, down the drain." She sighed, and then continued in a hurried voice. "Well, we're off. James is pulling the car out of the garage, so I better go."
"Have a good time. We'll be okay," said Miss Charlotte, but the door was already closing behind Samantha.
"Not even a kiss for the little angel," Jessica heard Miss Charlotte say in a very less-than-friendly voice.
"Not even a kiss," repeated Jessica as the first drops of heavy rain smacked against the windows. Thunder crashed, lightning flashed, wind howled. "Not even a kiss."
Copyright © 2003 by David Bowlin