Steven had only taken a few steps into the run-down house, when he saw a shadowy blur out of the corner of his eye. Abruptly turning around, his heart racing, he saw several people standing in a semi-circle.
They stood at the end of the dark hall, whispering to each other in inaudible voices. He could only tell they were whispering because their mouths were opening and shutting subtly as they leaned in close together.
Behind him, an old living room, complete with couches, a broken television and low-stooping tables, held another person. This one, wearing dark clothes, sat on one of the couches with a broken spring jutting out from under his leg.
Steven backed up towards the door, preparing to bolt. Sweat joined in with the rain that was falling through the holey roof, to further soak his clothing.
There was leaning against a wall, a hockey stick, broken in half, boasting of a hockey team known as the Edmonton Oilers.
He grabbed the end of it, clenching his fingers around the wooden shaft.
He would use it if necessary-though, he wasn't sure what an old man could do to harm him. Since he was in these dreams, where nothing was certain, he would take no chances.
"I knew her you know, I loved her." The old man suddenly began to speak, his low, hoarse voice trembling. "I never did talk with her much, couldn't ever bring myself to doing so." He scratched a mole on his face, which had a few hairs spiraling out of it.
Steven opened his mouth, surprised to hear his own voice coming out. "Who?"
"Her." He tilted his head in the direction of the dark hallway, where the group of people gathered. "My daughter." Standing up, the spring flying back into place, he approached Steven. His stance was unthreatening, his gaze kind and soft.
Steven tossed the hockey stick to the side.
"Yes, my daughter. I'm her father though, not the one she deserved, nor the one she wanted. Now all I am is a distant memory." He pointed at the crowd of people, gathering in the hall. "She's in there, but, perhaps you will not like what you see."
Steven only stared down the hall, then at the old man. "I don't know what you mean. How are you here? Are you dreaming now, too?"
"I'm only a memory of Julia's-these are her dreams, you know. Her father disappeared a long time ago, and I'm all that remains. I can see by your face that you do not understand; and there is little I can do to remedy that." He stepped up closer to Steven, his hand reaching for his shoulder. "But what I can tell you, is that these dreams-she shares with you. They're her gift, passed down from me to her. A generational gift, I suppose you could call it. Hereditary in nature."
Steven only blinked, unable to take in all that the man had told him.
Could this truly be Julia's father, her memory of him, anyways?
"Are you real?"
"Are any of us?" He retorted with a dark, grim smile. "I did exist once, but the life I had held onto has expired as of late. I'm only another memory, stuck in a dream world that I've passed onto my daughter."
"So it's hereditary? She shares these with me… I don't understand."
"It is, yes. But a further explanation I cannot give. What you really seek is down that hall. Go, before it is too late."
After a short hesitation Steven stepped past the man, striding down the hall.
The crowd of people simply moved out of the way, letting Steven pass by them and go down the hall. Nervously he glanced back at them, seeing that they too were old and sad, though none tried to give this place a further explanation.
When he'd passed by the crowd, he saw the door at the end of the hall. It was open a crack, bright light shining through it onto the dark, hallway floor.
"Julia." He called out, yet his voice was oddly silent once more.
Before going inside the room, he turned around. The couch in the living room was now empty, with only a spring jutting out of the broken fabric. Even the crowd had disappeared, leaving him utterly alone in the ruined, shambling house.
Well, almost alone.
Opening the door, he entered a well illuminated room with poster covered walls, carpeted floor and all in perfect condition. To one corner, a bed, outfitted with blankets and a duvet, held Julia.
Stark naked, her pale body glistening with sweat, she lay completely still. Only her rising and falling chest gave any hint of life.
Biting his lower lip, a tad embarrassed to see her in such a way, he approached the bed. "Julia?" This time, he could hear his voice loud and clear. "Are you alright?" He fought the urge to stare at her exposed, beautiful body and instead covered it with a sheet folded at the foot of her bed.
"Julia?" He gently put his hand on her forehead.
Her eyes snapped open.
And so did his. Except, when he opened his eyes, he was back in his bed, staring up at a dark ceiling, with a fan circling overhead. His body was covered in sheets and dry clothes, not the rain-soaked ones he'd just been donning.
"Julia, what's happened to you?" He muttered aloud, his heart clamoring in his chest.
He reached for his phone, which sat on a dresser beside his bed. Turning it on, he saw the screen was blank, meaning no new messages. Angrily, he placed it back on the dresser, lay still in his bed and willed himself to go back inside that dream.
He needed to see Julia.
Except, try as he might, sleep evaded him the entire night.
Markus Anderson put down his pen, letting it fall on the rough, chipped desk, before rolling onto the ground. He made no move to retrieve it.
A droplet of sweat rolled off his forehead, past his eye and onto his jean-clad legs.
On the desk, a piece of paper filled with his scrawl looked up at him. It was a letter that would never be sent. Still, he took the letter, folded it, and placed it in his jean pocket.
Standing up from the desk, he pushed his chair back and glanced to his right at a mirror fastened to the wall. In the reflection, he saw an older, angrier version of himself-one he scarcely recognized.
"Four years changes a lot," he muttered, approaching the mirror. "Four years wasted, spent in that miserable hell." He ground his teeth together, staring at his mirror-image with a twisted grin. "And that time hasn't done you well," he stroked his stubble covered face, which was also white and pasty, like the skin of a corpse.
Was this what an ex-convict felt like? Going back into a world that had mercilessly forgotten about him, moving ever onwards. Surely his friends had moved on, forgetting all about him. Not even his bullies would remember him, would they?
No, of course not.
For he'd been locked away in this small, tiny room-dead, but not really. His mind had been captive though, spent in the warm ocean waters, staring up at a light he could never attain. Well, until yesterday, when that light expanded, waking him up.
"And it's all thanks to you." He stared at the mirror, his fists clenching. "You did this to me!" He shouted, his face flushed with hot, burning rage. "You did this! You did this to me! You little, stupid, bitch!" He brought his fist up, smashing it into his mirror.
Shaking with rage, the glass from the mirror shattered and fell to the ground.
Lines of blood began to form on his knuckles.
Downstairs, he could hear chairs shuffling and two sets of feet running up the stairs to his room.
A drop of blood fell to the ground below, landing on a shard of glass.
Outside, the wind howled against his window.
"Markus! Are you alright?" A man's voice, which Markus recognized as Dr. Lisen, came through the locked door.
The handle shook and wobbled. "Please let us in, Markus."
"Markus, it's me, please let us in." This time, it was his mother who spoke. Her voice, laced with concern and love, began to ease the rage that was building up inside him.
"You can come in. The doctor stays outside." Markus responded, folding his arms across his chest.
There was a long pause, while he could faintly hear their whispering voices. Finally, after his mother cleared her voice, she said that the doctor would be going back down to the kitchen.
He heard the man's heavy footfalls on the stairs, going down.
Unlocking the door, he went over to his bed, sitting on the musty, old blankets.
"Markus," his mother came in, her blue eyes wide when she saw the blood running down his hand. Stepping over the broken glass, she took a seat beside him, tenderly reaching for his hand.
He let her hold his arm, as she inspected several long, deep cuts on his fingers and knuckles. Blood ran down his arm, onto his plaid shirt and jeans. Some of it fell on her loose-fitting, straight leg, white pants.
"What am I going to do?" He yanked his arm out of her grasp, smearing blood on both of them. Ignoring the leaking cuts, he blocked out the pain-something he'd become a master of when he was in that strange coma. "It's been four years," he hesitated, trying to keep control of his tears.
It turned out, they were harder to master then his pain.
"I don't know, Markus. I've been talking with Dr. Lisen… both of us think that for now, it would be best to keep you a secret. Something happened to you, Markus-something that can't be explained medically or scientifically. You were dead, in every sense of the word." Her lower lip began to tremble, while the wrinkles on her aged face, deepened.
"I wasn't dead, trust me, I was very much alive." He recalled easily how it felt to swim in that ocean of nothingness; feeling only the warm waters against his skin. Swimming towards the light, hoping, against hope, to be freed.
"But you were. It wasn't a coma, Dr. Lisen confirmed you as clinically dead, then, four years later you're awake!" An odd smile erupted on her face, while she scooted closer to her son. "And you have no idea what it means to have you awake. I missed you so much."
"Then why didn't you bury me, when you found me dead?" He'd heard the story before, but wanted to hear it once more.
"You were warm… your heart, lungs, brain… everything had shut down. Still, you were warm, and remained so until you awoke. Dr. Lisen confirmed it; he wanted to let the world know-but I stopped him."
"You hid me."
Sighing, his mother looked to her left. Staring out at the window, she bit her lower lip. "I made up many excuses as to why you wouldn't come out of our house. Eventually, it became too much, I had to move us out here, cut off ties with friends… then family."
Markus had heard this before, the entire story. He remembered how happy and exuberant his mother had been when he first awoke several days ago. She'd kissed and hugged him, wrapping him in her arms, with the love only a mother can give.
When she'd called Dr. Lisen and calmed, she told him the entire story.
"But everything will be alright," she gingerly reached out, stroking his face softly. "Now please tend to your hand; I can't imagine how this all must feel, but trust me, things will get better." She bent forward, kissing him on his sweat-glistening forehead.
"I think I know how it happened." Markus stated, staring at his blood-covered hand. "And I'm going to get my answers-she will pay for what she did to me." Standing up, leaving his mother staring up at him with a perplexed expression, he went to the washroom.
Inside, he washed off his hands, oblivious to the pain.
He had an idea.
And after four years of imprisonment, he would get his vengeance.