Bell Franklin awoke with breathtaking suddenness, the inrush of consciousness pushing the air from his lungs. He drew in a deep breath as he blinked the haze away slowly, yawning in the cool gray air of the dim morning. He rubbed the sleep and gunk from his eyes, stifling a jump as a shadow flickered in the corner of his vision.
Gritting his teeth, he deliberately didn’t turn his head; he already knew nothing would be there. Bell hoped nothing would be there. He sat utterly still, shivering slightly. Relenting against his better judgment, he turned his head sharply, eyeing the plain white walls of his dim bedroom carefully. Searching the unmoving shadows resting in the corners of his room, wistfully hoping they held to their state.
They did; Bell yawned again. No, it was nothing. He would have some peace today. A faint groan, so silent he was tempted to attribute it to his imagination, echoed from somewhere in the house. Bell sighed wearily, swinging his legs over the side of the cooling bed, wincing as the cold floor bit at his feet. “Almost time to fire up the heater,” Bell muttered to himself, absently challenging the stifling silence filling the house like an invisible fog. He fetched his clothes from the brightly lit closet, deciding to skip the shower this morning.
Bell was buttoning his shirt when a noise besides his voice lanced through the silence. He tensed at the gentle creaking coming from just outside his door; the crack at the bottom showed a thin shadow on the other side, which disappeared as soon as he focused his gaze upon it.
Bell puzzled at the wooden portal as he slid into his pants, trying to understand what bothered him about it. He reached for the handle before the realization slid into his mind like a deadbolt of dread; he hadn’t shut his door last night. As he lived alone, there was no need to. “Early bird gets the worm, eh?” Bell said loudly, before throwing the door open without hesitation.
The empty hall on the other side greeted him coldly, though the wooden floors bore his weight without complaint as he shuffled down the steps and pushed his way into the kitchen. Bell glanced at the watch wrapped almost painfully tight around his wrist. Four hundred and seventy five days. Of more interest to Bell presently, it was eleven in the morning. Better skip the sausage biscuits; cold cereal was all he had time for. It was a fitting representation of the morning, really.
Bell walked to the fridge and removed a jug of milk, startling as a quiet rattling tore through the kitchen with the impact of thunder. Bell inhaled a shuddering breath, turning to the source of the noise. His pantry door. Bell placed the cold jug of milk on the table, shaking the condensation from his hand, weighing his options; truth be told, he was tempted to just leave for work.
No, that wouldn’t work. Bell got cranky when he was hungry, and he felt strangely compelled to open the door; he stepped without hesitation to the pantry door and threw it open to abject, fluid darkness. Cold, foul wind howled from the doorway as blackened skeletal hands clamped in an icy embrace on his arms. Bell jerked away frantically, pulling an ancient, grinning skeleton from the pantry; its eyes glowed with unholy light as its lower jaw unhinged to emit a dry shriek that ripped through Bell’s heart.
Bell grinned, matching the toothy monster. “VIRTUS!” He shouted, shaking free of the undead hands. The skeleton clattered to the floor, dissolving into dust. Bell kicked his foot into it, scattering the mess into the wind. “You’re not even trying, Tsel,” Bell chided with a chuckle, “Skeletons in the closet? Really?” Bell reached into the black void, feeling carefully for the wooden shelves he knew to be there. Upon feeling a familiar shape, he withdrew it, blanching at what he found in his hands.
“Why do I even own a box of Cheerios? I suppose that’s a minor victory for you.” Bell shut the door, silencing the whirling wind, and regretfully poured a bowl full of the hated cereal.
The drive to work seemed to take forever: the sky grew ever darker, and ominous shapes crept through the woods on either side of the road. At one point, Bell felt a presence in the car behind him; he refused to look this time, instead cranking the heat up ever high, letting the uncomfortable roar fill his senses.
Suddenly, the sky brightened and he was pulling into his parking spot in front of the large office building in which he was employed. Bell dashed through the doors, ignoring the empty lobby and rapidly pushed the elevator button. He cast a wary eye on his watch as he stepped into the metal box; the tiny screen read twelve-fifteen. Bell sighed heavily as he bounced on the balls of his feet, willing the elevator to move faster. He was technically fifteen minutes late, a rarity for him. Hopefully, Mr. Arnold would understand.
The elevator took an eternity to reach Bell’s floor, shuddering to a stop several times en route, and when it did finally reach his destination, the heavy doors slid open into cacophony; his cubicle-mates chatter and motion as they went about their business translated into a chaos of movement and sound. It was comforting, in its own strange way. Bell was two steps away from the safety of his tiny office when a clear voice rang out over the noise.
“Franklin. In my office, NOW!” Silence dropped over the entire floor as every eye turned to Bell, watching him with numb scrutiny. The gazes settled over him with laser focus; Bell felt panic swell in his heart at the situation, threatening to break free from the confines of his chest even as dread leadened his feet.
With reddened face and the occasional mumbled sentence in a bleak hope to break the awful silence, Bell made his way down the center of the cube farm, a road that lengthened and darkened as he trod. The faraway doors grew taller and wider as he approached; the ornate panels of Mr. Arnold's office hung tightly in their frame, somehow passing judgment as Bell pushed through them.
Mr. Arnold sat imposingly behind his large desk, twiddling his thumbs as he gazed absently out the large glass windows lining his office. A large pink piece of paper sat on the desk top, horrifying even in its ordinariness. “Siddown, Franklin.” Bell swallowed hard, then sat in the hard chair, suddenly feeling very small.
Mr. Arnold spun his corpulent frame to face him, gazing indolently into Bell’s eyes. “Franklin, you’ve been with us...what, thirty years?”
Bell nodded carefully, “Yes sir.”
“Went to college for this job, eh?”
Bell nodded again. “Masters degree in business.” Mr. Arnold nodded slowly, paying more attention to his hands. “Yes, yes. Of course. Well, I have some unfortunate news: You’re fired.” He flicked the pink piece of paper at Bell; the page settled into his lap like cold lead.
“Sir, I don’t understand.” Bells face pushed into confusion; “I’ve always worked hard, I’ve never given anything less than my best to this company.”
“Yet you were late today; is that your best, son?” Mr. Arnold smiled indulgently, “If so, then I’m glad I called around and warned other companies about you. Yes, you’re not only being terminated from our company, you’re probably not ever going to get a job in this industry again. Unless you move to Pakistan, that is.”
He flicked a hand at Bell, “That’s a legitimate option I suppose. Of course, whatever you do, don’t do it here. Get your stuff and go, Franklin. Have a nice life.”
Bell opened his mouth to speak, and found he could only make wheezing noises. The thoughts of a thousand bills, late payments, and a wasted life pounced onto his his heart like lions, and followed him like specters as he walked shamefully down the long corridor, unable to meet his former coworkers eyes. Whispered conversations about his failure slid from the darkness like snakes, wrapping themselves around his heart and tightening their lethal embrace. What was he supposed to do now? Where would he live? How would he feed himself?
Confido. Con-feedo? Feedo what? Lack of feedo is the problem, or will be shortly. Confido. The word rushed into his very soul like a warm breath. The darkness slid from Bell’s shoulders like water, and he filled his lungs before shouting it: “CONFIDO!” The room lightened, and his coworkers looked shocked. “CONFIDO!” he shouted again, laughing, pushing the laughter from him like a weapon. “Jokes on you, Tsel. I didn’t want to work today anyway!”
Bell looked around at the office, “In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever worked here.” Bell chuckled all the way to his car. He didn’t bother stopping by his desk; his watch read four hundred and seventy six days. His time in this prison was almost up. Besides, if he didn’t work here, what could possibly be at his desk?
Bell opened the door to car, started the engine, and turned on the heater to fight off the ever-present chill. So, what do to with his time? Bell weighed his options. Home was one; of course, it had its own drawbacks. A ray of sunlight bounced off the glassy building; the sun was coming out, burning away the fog. Even as the air chilled his soul, it was becoming uncomfortably warm; Bell killed the heat in favor of the air conditioning.
Water sounded nice, but there was no way he was going near the ocean. He had learned that lesson on day fifty-seven. Picnic by the lake, then? Well, why not? A few cheeseburgers, some soda. Sounds good. His mind made up, Bell pulled into the road without looking.
A sickening thump and an impact stopped him short. A person crashed into his windshield, spider-webbing cracks on the glass before rolling out of view. “Dear God, no!” Bell killed the engine with shaky hands and tore himself free from the car, pushing the door open and scrambling to the front of his car.
A man about his age lay on the pavement; his chest was still. Bell crashed to his knees, ignoring the pain from broken glass digging into them. He placed his hands on the mans chest, trying to heal him. It wasn’t working! Why weren’t his powers working? He started CPR, but to no avail; he lifted his head, desperately shouting for help to no purpose; the streets were suddenly, silently, empty and still as a tomb. He crawled backwards away from the dead man, panic and horror pumping into his living heart as he stared dumbstruck at the blood on his hands. This was one of his worst--
Bell stopped; cutting the thought off with a chagrined sigh. He opened his hands, letting them hang loosely at his sides, resting on the pavement. He inhaled slowly; “Veritas,” he whispered to the gentle wind. He swallowed the bile rising in his throat and opened his eyes to find the man gone, his car restored, and the streets bustling with a thousand people.
“It’s a cruel blade you wield, Tsel. But I’ll not let it cut me. Not now.” Bell muttered darkly as a tear slid down his cheek. He slid back into his car and aimed grimly for the park. He knew the way well, so often had he traveled it. The road signs, covered in a peculiar variety of gibberish, no longer deterred him. He managed to smile at the young woman behind the drive through window, and made it to the park in relative peace. It was sunny and warm, and a few dozen happy individuals milled about, playing various games or eating lunch like he was about to.
Bell dropped a few dollars into the donation box at the entrance, found an empty table, and sat to eat his lunch. As the sky clouded overhead, Bell scrutinized the park: other tables were in various states of ruination. The people were gone, and the various outbuildings were in tatters. What had happened to the park?
Trees he hadn’t noticed before hung low over ragged wooden surface of his table, brushing slimy limbs at the top of his head. The hair rose on the back of his neck as an imperceptible something slipped dread into his very soul like a knife, filling his chest with a tensile web of horror as the shadows began a twisted dance. The clouds turned to pitch blackness above him, the only light a dim brownish gray from an unknown source.
Wet, broken growling emanated from the forest around him, echoing from all directions. Bell glanced at his watch; Four hundred and seventy-six point-five days. Twelve hours. Bell looked into the forest to see red, dripping eyes staring back at him. His gaze focused on the the Others; jagged pupils tightened into sharpened irises, locked into Bell’s eyes. Hushed whispers came from all around him.
A groan ripped from the earth beneath his feet; the water of the lake, once a shade of blue likened only to faraway glaciers was a hideous black ooze, lapping at the shore gelatinously. It gurgled and frothed as something beneath the surface stirred, approaching the shore with the motion of jerking steps.
Bell’s sight faded into blackness as warm breath tingled as his neck. “ecce praecipio? Tibi confortare et esto robustus.” He shook the feeling away as he swallowed a large bite of burger, “Hungry, Tsel?” He hefted a burger over his shoulder to whatever horrifying beast was surely behind him.
An angry growl emanated from the darkness; a sharply clawed hand knocked the burger from his own. “Always.”
“Mind turning the lights back on? I’d like to see your face.” Bell bit his burger again; his vision cleared instantly, revealing a living horror sitting across from him. Limpid black eyes oozed as they stared into his own. The pale green skin of its body was coated in blackened slime. Sharp metal teeth poked from slavering lips as it stared hungrily at Bell.
Bell rolled his eyes, “I said your face. I’m not in the mood for whatever hellish abominations you’re trying to frighten me with.” The creature watched him dully for several moments; with a sigh, it melted into a rather tired looking man with pale gray skin and ashen hair.
“There we go.” Bell took a draw of his soda, watching the man across from him carefully.
Tsel spoke first; no longer a growl, but a heavy sighing voice. “Haven’t you harmed me enough?”
Bell laughed aloud, nearly choking on his sandwich. The world around them rippled in expanding waves. Tsel gripped the picnic table with gnarled claws, digging them into the table as if trying to hang onto it. Bell gasped, “Oh my. That’s funny coming from the self-proclaimed Lord of Nightmares.”
“I don’t see what’s funny about it.” Tsel said with an injured tone.
Bell snorted, “You make a habit of creating nightmares to feed on fear. And you’re complaining about being harmed?”
“I am,” the creature said plaintively. “You have cruelly starved me from the very first moment--”
“Apologies,” Bell said wryly, “that I’m not afraid enough to feed you. I suppose there’s some thanks in there, too.”
“--and I am frankly tired of it.” Tsel finished primly, ignoring him. “Your power to keep me here can’t last forever, you know. When you awake, I shall find another mind to haunt.” His black eyes burned wickedly, “And oh...I shall feast.”
Bell held out another cheeseburger. Tsel slapped it out of his hand angrily, sullenly staring into the darkness. Bell could see the words burning in his mouth. Tsel gave in, grumbling. “How do you know me? And has anyone told you what a remarkably sound sleeper you are?”
“I’ve heard it a few times, yes,” Bell nodded sagely. He didn’t answer the first question.
Tsel leaped to his feet, slamming a clawed fist into the table hard enough to make Bell jump; he fell back onto his rump, landing in the cold grass. “WHAT DO YOU GAIN BY PLAYING THIS STUPID GAME?” Tsel’s roar made Bell’s ears hurt.
Bell used his pinky to clean an ear, frowning at the blood. He then glanced at his watch. “Four hundred and Seventy-seven days.”
“What?” Tsel snarled, baring his fangs.
“Four hundred and seventy-seven days.” Bell quaffed the final bites of his cheeseburger, then stood to his feet, brushing his pants clean and sitting once again at the table.
“What?” Tsel growled demoniacally, making the table shudder.
Bell used a napkin to wipe his face, then slugged Tsel in his, knocking the surprised Shade to the ground. “You asked me what I gained by ‘playing this game’. I gained four hundred and seventy-seven days.”
“What?” Tsel shakily pushed to his feet.
“For all your creativity, you’re remarkably dim,” Bell pointed at the seat across from him. “Since you’ve kept me entertained for the past year and change, let me tell you a story.”
Tsel paled even further. “Four hundred and--” He trailed off.
Bell nodded, “Seventy-seven days. Thanks to the power of dreams, a year has gone by and you’ve not noticed. But I’m getting ahead of myself.”
Bell steepled his hands, and cleared his throat before reciting. “A creature exists called a shade. They’re not living creatures, nor demons; just annoying little shadows. They dig their evil fingers into the minds of unsuspecting victims and generate nightmares, that they might feed their hunger of fear.”
Tsel slipped weakly into the seat across from Bell as two tiny figures appeared on the table between them. The one was a black cloud; the other was a tiny version of Bell, sleeping on a couch.
“Most the time, they’re so weak they burn away in the daytime.” The little cloud squeaked, then melted away. The little Bell smiled in his sleep.
“Other times, the world is not so blessed. One shade in particular, through a stroke of what he would call luck, gained more and more power, until he was nigh unstoppable. He ruined lives, drove people to madness, and in general became a nuisance to the people of earth.” A dark figure in an encompassing robe stepped from the shadows and thrust a clawed hand into the sleeping Bell’s mind.
“Of course, he had to be stopped. But it isn’t easy to stop a shade. They’ve no substance, no form. So the Healers stepped in, and a plan was carefully crafted.” A variety of people appeared and took their places around the sleeping Bell. They squeaked out arguments before, one by one, solemnly nodding.
“One of the Healers would act as bait, luring the greedy shade into his sleeping mind. He would then be carried far away from earth, and left to sleep for so long the shade would starve. If the man could manage to face a years worth of nightmares relatively sans fear, the monster would be weak, helpless, and fade away, upon his waking. Never to harm anyone again. So they had to choose carefully, as there was no telling what attacks the Shade would use. The risk was high; potentially, the man could lose his mind. Thankfully however,” Bell smiled, “there was a man involved in the plan who always knew when he was dreaming, a talent that had never been useful before unless you wanted to eat endless amounts of ice cream in your sleep.” He held out a hand, and a bowl of ice cream appeared. Bell grabbed the spoon and took a bite, relishing the flavor.
“No.” Terror filled Tsel’s eyes as he backed away, stumbling to the darkened floor. “No, it can’t be.”
Bell nodded cheerfully. “It certainly can. If I might state the obvious and bring my tale to its happy ending, this hasn’t been one long night, but rather one year and a hundred and twelve days.” Bell knelt beside the monster, thumping it soundly in the head with his spoon. “Only reason you haven’t faded away like an old fart is because I’m still asleep.”
“It doesn’t matter!” Tsel shouted, “I won’t—I won’t let you wake up!”
Bell chuckled, “Your threat is more hollow than your soul, Tsel.”
“I can keep you here!” The nightmare tried to take on a fierce-some shape, but fell limply to the ground.
Bell shook his head, “I’ve got friends who even now are pulling me out of my medically induced coma. I can’t help but wake up. In fact...” The world around them began to shimmer and roil. The watch on Bell’s wrist began to beep loudly. “Seems like that’s my wakeup call. Goodbye, Tsel. You’ve haunted earth long enough. And though I do not regret my part in your undoing, I can honestly say that I will take joy in never seeing you again.”
“At least I can take my own joy in knowing that you’ve lost a year of your pitiful lifespan,” Tsel wheezed.
“About that,” Bell winked, “Turns out I’m immortal. So basically, you have no victory at all. Such is the way of nightmares.”
The pitiful creature, now small and powerless in the light of the coming dawn, shrieked a long, echoing cry…
Bell awoke with a yawn, the tang of warm air filling his lungs. The overhead lights, dim enough, hurt like a thousand suns as they burned into eyes which had not been open for four hundred and seventy-seven days. He opened his mouth, grunting at the pain in his wasted jaw muscles, and at the foul flavor in his mouth. Clearly, no one had brushed his teeth in awhile.
Hit throat burned, presumably from the removal of the feeding tube. He struggled to lift an arm, lifting what felt like a hundred pounds simply to gaze at the shockingly thin limb. Well, that would get better. Hopefully, he would regenerate soon. If not...barbells. Lot’s of barbells.
“Hey there buddy. Mission accomplished?” The smiling face of Jacob, one of his fellow Healers, gazed inquisitively from above.
“Yep. Though living a nightmare for a year wasn’t as easy as the briefing suggested,” is what Bell meant to say. Instead, a series of wheezy gasps emanated from his throat. He frowned at the unexpected result; Jacob nodded anyway, “I hear you. And I want to hear all about it.” He patted him gently on the shoulder, “Let me call the doc, and we’ll get you up and walking. You should feel better then.”
A single tear slipped involuntarily from Bell’s eye as he tried to sling an arm out and grab his friend; he had had enough of being alone. Jacob caught the hand instead, clutching it into a fist. “I’m not going anywhere, Bell.” He tapped the computer on his wrist, “Ethan? Sleeping beauty’s awake. Get the doc down here, will you?”
A voice echoed from Jacob’s wrist, “If his name is Bell, he’s not sleeping beauty. Wouldn’t he actually be--”
“Ethan, he just woke up; he probably doesn’t need lame jokes.”
Bell struggled to sit up, and with Jacob’s assistance managed the feat. His entire body ached. “Afraid,” he wheezed, “afraid.” He was tired of silence, and needed to talk to someone. Bell was unashamed of the admission. Now that he was awake, he didn’t have to fight anymore; he let the tears flow as he released the weight he had carried, even metaphysically, for so long. He let the memories wash away, praying the magic of dreams would fade the false experiences of the past year into the dim lands of forgetfulness. The nightmare was, literally, over.
Jacob pushed himself up onto the bed next to Bell, “Strange you should say that, Bell,” Jacob wrapped an arm around him, “Because you’re one of the bravest people I know.”