In her dreams Nell ran.
Every night; as her body lay tightly curled beneath the comforting folds of her duvet, Nell’s mind would run within a desolate landscape as dark and silent as a mid-winter graveyard.
Although disorientated by her bleak surroundings, Nell somehow knew that the direction she followed was always the same, and that even if her dream-self closed her eyes her feet would still fall upon the ground in a manner echoing dreams past. It was a particular pathway that she followed; one that led her towards an unseen and unknown goal, a destination that she yearned to reach but one she was terrified of attaining.
She knew, deep in her heart, that the reason she was so afraid was because arriving would somehow be her undoing, the terminal destination of a short and troubled life. She didn’t know how it was that she knew this, but merely accepted it as her fate. She was like a migrating bird yearning for journeys end, but with no real understanding of why it wanted to get there. So she continually ran through the monochrome dream world, a world that was bitterly cold and featureless, each step of her boots crunching through the thin layer of ice crystals that coated the ground. No sign of life could be seen or heard; not a single blade of grass poked its green shoots through the icy ground; no birdsong cut through the deafening silence.
Am I dead, wondered Nell. Was this all there was at the end, an eternal race through a world devoid of life, constantly seeking an unknown ending to the pain and anguish she felt inside her chest? Of course, Nell reasoned as a frown creased her brow, if she was dead how could she recall being here before, could remember wondering previously if she was really dead? And she certainly couldn’t remember having felt ill or being in an accident before she went to bed, but then, she couldn’t remember going to bed or going to sleep either. Perhaps she was, after all, dead. No she argued; this was just another dream conjured up by her overactive, sleep-induced imagination. As she ran she assured herself, unconvincingly, that she would soon awaken and everything would be okay, but what if, on this occasion, she never surfaced from the dream. That it continued until she finally reached her destination. What awaited her if she was truly dead, was it some form of judgement to be handed down by an ethereal entity, a god like figure reading through an infinite list of names until their clawed finger reached hers. What would they then conclude about her life? She had been good, she was sure, well mostly, more a victim than a perpetrator, but had she really lived, made the most of her time?
As she continued to run Nell imagined being led before three huge and forbidding doorways, coloured black, red and gold, signs above announcing Purgatory, Hell and Heaven in letters of stone. Which would open for her? Which did she deserve? She really hoped it would be heaven, but had a notion that it would be purgatory. That would totally figure.
Whilst Nell continued to ponder her fate she never slowed her running pace. After a while, which may have amounted to ten minutes or ten hours, Nell noticed, as she had a thousand times before that the world was not completely featureless. On occasion the silvery wash of light, emitted by a baleful moon, would enable her eyes to distinguish intangible forms in the grey landscape. Sometimes she thought she recognised them as she drew close; familiar shapes that belonged to a living world. Many seemed to be buildings but their form always appeared distorted, as if the structures were made of wax and had been subject to intense heat, the walls sagging downwards and outwards in globules of malformed steel and concrete. Other shapes appeared to be the skeletons of cars, their melted forms merging into buckled tarmac roadways like liquefying black ice cream. And everywhere there were mounds, rising up from the landscape like ancient tumuli. Some were tiny, no more than the height of a phone box, whilst others seemed vast, their curved outlines blackening out the star-filled horizon. And rolling across the landscape was an all pervading stench, a mix of decay, rot and strangely, fruit tree blossom.
Nell constantly averted her eyes, never wanting to look too closely at the morbid scenery surrounding her. She was afraid of what the tortured forms truly represented, what secrets they contained inside. And each time she passed one of the mounds she felt a fathomless sense of loss, of guilt and despair. She could never reason why such feelings filled her heart, only that they made her want to scream out loud her misery, to scream until she escaped the nightmare.
A nightmare which ended as it had always ended. Nell reached a sandy rise in the landscape and ran along its crest. From there she looked sideways and down onto an endless, narrow beach of black sand, glistening like a million dark diamonds; a vast wealth of sparkling stones stretching into the distance. Beyond the beach was a sea, not a blue sea reminiscent of sun filled holidays, but a black sea, thick sluggish waves slapping onto the beach as if coated in oil, covering the sand so that the diamond like sparkle was diminished along a smudged line, as if smeared by a giant finger.
Even as she began to slow her pace to a jog she knew what would happen, anticipated the formless but somehow intimately familiar voice that would break through the silence like a knife slicing through flesh. One word only was said each and every time.
A single word spoken with such authority and such foreboding that Nell was terrified. It came from everywhere but nowhere, the urgent shout rolling across the coastline like a peal of thunder. But it was a thunder tinged with nectar, for the voice, although commanding, seemed to drip with honey, seducing Nell to keep moving.
As the word reverberated along the dune system Nell turned her head, seeking the female author of the voice, but there was no one to be seen, there never was, but the smell of tree blossom became overpowering. It was always at this point that Nell recognised the scent, although she didn’t know how or why; it was apple blossom, the rich floral perfume flowing into her and wrapping itself around her brain. It was strange, she thought, that such a fresh and spring-like aroma was present in a decaying world.
As Nell continued to turn, to look over her shoulder, she suddenly lurched sideways as if pushed by invisible hands, her feet sliding down the side of the dune. As she stumbled over the edge the black sands shifted slowly but inexorably downwards, pulling her towards the edge of the sea as if she was on an elevator. As she half fell down the dune her arms swung like windmills whilst her legs waded deeper and deeper into the dry sand.
Despite thinking that she should throw herself down, that she should somehow stop, the nightmare wouldn’t let her. Gravity pulled her down the dune, faster and faster until she could no longer keep up with the speed, her short legs buckling beneath her, plunging her forwards, hands outstretched, towards the dark waters. And it was as she fell towards the viscous sea that she saw the dark grey shapes sliding beneath the waves, shadow spirits glaring malignantly at her with dark cold eyes, rows of sharp knife-like teeth smiling menacingly as if to greet her to their cold, dark world. These are the demons, Nell thought as she hurtled forward, demons of the underworld come to feed on my soul.
Her forward momentum was so rapid that it caused her to plunge shrieking headlong beneath the waves. The bitter cold of the waters immediately penetrated to her very core, her skin becoming numb in seconds. In panic she felt herself sink into the murky depths, no strength left in her limbs to try and swim back to the surface. And as she slowly descended, arms trailing uselessly, she looked down and saw the grey shapes spiralling upwards to greet her, like sharks powering towards a helpless seal pup.
Terror caused her to thrash furiously; she reached for the moonlit surface that shimmered like a mirror above but the weight of water restrained her limbs so that however much she tried, she couldn’t break free.
As the demons rapidly closed on her, sensing the helplessness of her situation, she reached desperately upwards one last time, her mouth opening in a scream, releasing the air in her lungs in a silver stream of shimmering beads. As they cascaded upwards they carried with them a long wailing cry of such sorrow it was as if all the pain of the world was being voiced. Which, in a way it was.