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“You refused to take it!” the man snarled, “I’m giving you one last chance! Make a choice!”
His teeth were bared, his face a mask of anger. He had messy, dark hair that scraped his eyelids. Metal, perhaps jewelry, lined his neck. In his twenties, he seemed prematurely gaunt and skeletal. Though he appeared weak, he managed to maintain his grip on the girl.
Around sixteen years old, the young woman stared at the man with liquid, dark eyes, framed by long lashes, which gleamed in the darkness of the street. Already large in her delicate face, shock widened her eyes further.
“How - ?” she stuttered.
“How is of no importance. Listen to the dreams,” the man’s face softened, becoming pleading. “Help me. Please help. Take it from me. I don’t have much more time.”
“I can’t, I’m sorry,” the girl replied.
“I don’t want to live forever…” the man whispered, desperation tingeing his voice. Tightening his hold on the girl’s arm with one hand, he slashed out with the other. He looked to be wearing silver gloves. The girl clutched her arm and cried out, the sound creating a dying echo off the alleyway’s walls.
“I’m so sorry,” the assailant apologized. He relaxed and released the girl. “Know that I will rest in peace, forever indebted to you.” With those words, he turned and bolted down the street.
Left alone in the still night, the girl knelt to the pavement, cradling her arm. Moonlight shone on the curtain of her dark hair. Suddenly turning, her piercing eyes stared in Matthew’s direction.
Matthew gasped, jolted awake. His heart raced, just as rushed as his thoughts. Looking around his room, he comforted himself with the familiarity of the surrounding objects; the ticking clock on the wall, the track medals in the corner, the patterned rug. Slowing his breathing, he reassured himself, It was only a dream, a vivid nightmare.
Like all other dreams, it had made no logical sense, but was now a confusing phantom of an event. Matt rubbed the sleep from his eyes, ignoring the haunting image of the injured girl. He stood and ran a hand through his sandy blonde hair.
Matthew stumbled into the kitchen and listened for any noises. The house was dead quiet. His dad was gone at work, as usual. The matter wasn’t that he didn’t want to spend time with Matt, but since Matt’s mother died of cancer three years ago, he was always working long hours to scrounge up enough income. Without a college degree, Matthew’s father was stuck working multiple jobs with hectic hours. Matt would prefer having less money but more time with his dad home, but apparently Mr. McLowis thought otherwise.
Matt ate breakfast, then drove to work. At seventeen years of age, he had graduated high school with honors, but was unable to pay to go to college even with a partial scholarship.
Over the week, he forgot about the dream, and became swept back into his daily routine. However, four nights later, the dream returned.
This time, the dream was less violent, but still disturbing. Matthew saw a room painted deep lapis lazuli. The girl entered and dropped a satchel on the hardwood floor, then collapsed into a chair at a desk. After staring pensively into the distance for several moments, she reached into a desk drawer and produced a sheet of thick, cream colored paper and a drawing pencil.
The girl proceeded to sketch, gliding the pencil across paper in a precise, experienced manner. Matthew watched, fascinated. Slowly but surely a form emerged. The girl shaded in the final touches to reveal a dark but beautiful drawing.
An overcast day was portrayed. A mangled birdcage lay on its side in the midst of tall grass. An escaping black bird flew across the sky, and drifting feathers trailed behind it as if teardrops wept by the heavens. The girl had signed her name, Stephanie Abbett. Her hair had fallen loose in wisps from her ponytail, but she seemed relieved when she finished.
Matt shifted nearer to examine the drawing closer, and in doing so passed in front of a mirror hanging above a cedar dresser. Seeing the flicker of movement in her peripheral vision, the girl tensed and froze. Matt exhaled loudly as he stopped moving.
Stephanie slowly turned in her chair. She shrieked shrilly, and was drawing in a breath to scream when Matthew exclaimed, “It’s fine! It’s just a dream!”
The girl gasped like a fish out of water. After a few seconds, she started to chuckle wryly.
“That’s the lamest thing a stalker has ever said to me,” she said. Becoming serious, she commanded, “Now get out of my room!”
She was putting on a tough front. By biting her lip, she betrayed her nervousness, however.
“Here,” Matt said as he walked out of the room and stood outside the doorway, “Is this better?”
“Leave this house! Go home!” Stephanie ordered.
“But I need to wake up!” Matthew insisted, “I have no way to leave, Stephanie!”
The sound of her name seemed to shock the girl. “How do you know who I am?”
“I don’t. Your name is on your paper,” Matt answered, “You’re a great drawer, by the way.”
“Thank you,” Stephanie answered hesitantly, still cautious.
“I saw you in another dream, four days ago,” Matt rambled on. Stephanie stiffened at the words. He continued, “You must remind me of someone. That’s what dreams are, right? Your brain reliving and processing memories?”
She nodded, unsure and skeptical. “You do realize that if this is a joke, it isn’t funny, right?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t know if I have a sense of humor in dreams.”
She scrutinized him. “Do you really believe yourself? Do you come from a care facility?” She assumed a tone that one would use to talk to very young children, “Are you lost? What’s your name?”
Matt introduced himself, and maintained that he was asleep.
“Well, then,” Stephanie said after thinking for a moment, “I must be asleep too – but I don’t remember falling asleep. So maybe I am a creation of your brain. So, dream boy, how about you tell me about yourself?”
After recovering from his surprise of the girl’s quick acceptance of his dream reality, Matthew told her a brief account of his life, his job, and his dream of going to college to become a doctor. He felt no shyness or need to impress a figment of his imagination. He reasoned that Stephanie was part of his mind already anyway.
Stephanie, in turn, spoke of how her parents had inherited a fortune, but only spent it on themselves and material objects. They were almost always home, but ignored her. She wanted – and could afford – to go to college for an art major, but her parents thought the notion was silly because they already had enough money to provide for her. An intense disappointment and longing filled her voice, as well as a coal of anger and frustration.
Just as Stephanie finished speaking and leaned back in her chair, a raucous beeping filled the air. Matthew cringed. Stephanie looked annoyed and offended by his facial expression, but he shook his head and shushed her.
“Do you hear that?” he asked.
“I think my alarm clock is beeping,” he said wonderingly.
“Are you going to –“
Stephanie was interrupted as the entire room faded and his vision went black.
Matthew opened his eyes to his dimly lit room. Gray light filtered in through his window, illuminating his clock reading seven in the morning – time for work. Rain drummed a melancholy beat on the roof.
Though he was physically refreshed, Matt felt overwhelmed. He had had strange dreams before, but none so memorable.
At work, he was caught staring into space. When coworkers teasingly asked him if he was thinking about the girl of his dreams, he admitted he was.
That night, Matthew staved off sleep as long as possible. When he at last succumbed, only unconsciousness met him.
The following night, however, he returned into Stephanie’s life. This time she was in a library, kneeling in the classics section. The wooden bookshelves were warped and cracked. Lights hung at skewed angles from the ceiling, emitting a sickly yellow light. The air was stale and musty.
She started when she glanced up, then shook her head disapprovingly.
“Why, welcome back. You have a lot of nerve following me here,” she stated, raising her eyebrows
“I didn’t follow you here! I swear!” Matthew looked around, “I don’t even know where we are.”
“We’re in the ancient Ferrick Library, Mr. McLowis. By the way, you disappeared last night. So at least some of what you said is true,” she turned back to the bookshelf, “Right in front of my eyes!” she murmured. She was still on edge, keeping her distance.
“I wonder what my connection is with this place. I don’t think I’ve ever been here. So, what were you looking for?” Matt said.
“Shakespeare. I want a good laugh.”
“You read Shakespeare for laughs? I thought books by people like Mark Twain were supposed to be funny.”
“They are. I guess odd books strike me as funny,” Stephanie shrugged.
They wandered over to a table, Stephanie’s huge collection of Shakespeare’s work in tow.
“If you truly don’t have a choice but to dream of this place, why hang around me? Go walk off or something.” Stephanie said.
Matt shrugged. “It’s not like I have anywhere to go or anyone else to see.”
“Sorry,” Matt said sheepishly. “Hey, for the sake of an interesting dream, do you want to read some of Shakespeare’s funniest work?” He indicated the thick volume.
“Well, the one I find the worst and thus the most entertaining is Romeo and Juliet.”
Stephanie proceeded to read the play. At first Matthew listened to the storyline, then started to absorb her voice. It was slightly husky but sweet, pronouncing words with a melodic cadence. As a result, he was surprised when she burst into laughter. Through her chortles, she choked out, “The entire play is so silly! How Romeo sees Juliet once and immediately claims to be in love! And the fact that Juliet commits suicide basically because Romeo is handsome is …” she took a deep breath, “Just so funny.”
However weird her taste in humor was, her laughter was so contagious that Matt couldn’t help but join in.
Matt borrowed a yellowed copy of Huckleberry Finn from the dusty shelves and read a couple chapters aloud. Stephanie laughed even more at that novel. She didn’t notice any obvious jokes, but instead explained subtle or obscure details that no one else would have understood. Matt found himself smiling and laughing more than he had in a year. He was disappointed when the image blurred out of view and he awoke.
Matthew met with the girl of his dreams every few days for a month. As he had no control over the dreams, and they were stuck together anyway, they decided to enjoy the time the best they could. Eventually Stephanie became accustomed to seeing him wink in and out of existence, and he became familiar with her quirky personality. She had a dry, sarcastic humor, and an ability to take the bitter, negative facets of life and making Matt laugh about them. Yet, she could also see the world in a positive light. She never seemed truly at ease and was bothered relentlessly by sadness, but also had a free, easy laugh. Matthew gained her trust; no longer a malignant stalker, he was a companion. She was one of the few people who could make him smile.
However, there was one thing out of the ordinary about Stephanie. Even as the weather warmed, she wore long pants and long sleeved sweaters. When Matt inquired about it, she explained that she was often cold. Matthew abandoned the matter, considering it unimportant.
One night, while Matt and Stephanie were discussing philosophy in the late evening, when Matt had gone to bed but she was still awake, Stephanie spilled a steaming cup of tea on her arm. Hissing in pain, she pulled the shirtsleeve away from her skin. Matthew ran to get a towel, then returned to dab at the liquid. She jerked away, but not before he had partially rolled up the cloth.
She looked ashamed and worried, looking into her lap.
“Steph? What’s that?” Matthew trailed off. Extending down Stephanie’s forearm, complex, interwoven tendrils of metal as silvery as starlight were ingrained into the flesh. They met the skin seamlessly, gleaming in the lamplight. Matt felt a chill run down his spine, and the hairs on the back of his neck raised.
“What is it?” he repeated.
Stephanie swallowed. “Do you remember the first time you dreamed of me? The first time I saw you, you said you dreamed of me four days earlier.”
Matt nodded. The attack, the frightening nightmare.
Stephanie closed her eyes. “That night, I was walking home from an art studio. It was later than I realized. That man leapt out of nowhere,” she paused, “I recognized him. He was in my dreams sporadically for months. I thought I had a mental issue or something,” she smiled grimly, “Apparently not. He had asked me to help him, saying he had been cursed, except for his face, he was encased in… this,” she tapped the metal on her arm. “In the dreams, he seemed unstable, like he was going insane with fear. I never realized he was a real person. His presence in my dreams was partially why I finally thought you could be telling the truth – instead of me dreaming of him, you were dreaming of me.
“Anyway,” Stephanie continued, “That night, he scratched me on the arm. I just went home and bandaged it. I didn’t dare tell anyone that my imagination had hurt me,” she pursed her lips, “If I did, I’d probably be in quarantine right now anyway.”
Matt agreed. He had always assumed the first nightmare was an entirely different dream sequence, that the event hadn’t actually been connected to the girl sitting in front of him at the present.
“He had been asking me to take it,” Stephanie continued, “Probably this…affliction… can be taken or given away, or forced on someone.” She bit her lip. “He said he didn’t want to live forever. I think as the metal grows, the aging process stops. My fingernails and hair have stopped growing, and I barely need any sleep. It must be inside of me too,” she shuddered, tears glistening in her eyes. “I’m not getting any older, and I’m not dying. But I’m definitely not really alive either - it’s as if I’m already dead. I think when the silver covers you, it’s too late; you’ll live forever. Or, at least exist.” She plucked at her shirt, looking at where the gruesome metal monstrosity extended to her shoulder.
They both fell silent. Then, Matt said abruptly, “I’ll take it.”
“Huh? No!” Stephanie objected.
“Give it to me! It’s just a dream! I’ll wake up and I’ll be fine.”
“No, Matt, I won’t. Don’t say that.”
“I’m serious. I’ll take it,” Matt insisted.
Stephanie rolled her eyes, suddenly snapping out of her depressed mood. “You need to wake up.”
Matthew started awake, sitting up in bed.
The entire day at work he was in a daze. That evening, he couldn’t fall asleep for hours. However, his eyes finally closed.
Stephanie was waiting for him, wearing a tank top that bared her arms, no trace of silver visible.
“What have you done?!” she cried.
The scene flashed in front of Matthew’s eyes, disorienting him, shifting back into his bedroom. “Just a dream,” he muttered. Reaching to turn on his light, time seemed to slow; he was drowning in helplessness. His pulse quickened, and when he opened his mouth to scream, no sound escaped. Metallic silver glinted in the night.