Jenny Wilson was not very tall; she was not very pretty; she was not very popular. She was not very anything. She was a thin girl, almost frail, with chestnut hair and chestnut eyes. She needed glasses to read and she loved reading. She spent a little bit of extra time talking to herself in the mirror, worrying about how her thick eyebrows moved about when she made expressions and about her unfortunate lack of an upper lip.
She was a very ordinary 12-year-old girl, really. She loved music, and she loved dancing, and she was quite in love with mermaids. She had a crush on a boy in her science class who was not the same boy she had a crush on the week before when they started co-ed dance in P.E. Her diary happened to mention one or two other boys and a lot of things she wasn’t particularly happy about, like homework, or how unreasonable her father could be. In fact, the only not-so-ordinary thing about Jenny Wilson was her dream.
Every night, the dream was the same. Every night, Jenny walked down the same street coming home from school. Every night, she passed the park down the street from her house. And then, every night it happened…
The Strange Man was always sitting on the same park bench under the trees. His clothes were tattered and his unshaven face was resting on his chest. His feet stretched out in front of him as he slouched. He looked like an ordinary vagrant sleeping on a park bench. Her fear welled up inside of her. She didn’t want to walk past him. Why didn’t you cross the street this time, Jenny? she asked herself angrily. She knew he was going to be there. He was always there.
Jenny walked as quietly as she could, but she knew it wouldn’t matter. He was going to wake up. He always woke up. Quiet as a mouse… don’t make a sound, Jenny… Even in her thoughts, she whispered it.
The man bolted upright with the same crazed scream every time. His eyes were bright, glowing fluorescent green.
He pointed a scraggly shaking finger at her. A cloud of tiny black birds, like a swarm of giant moths startled by his voice, flew up from the tree. First dozens, then hundreds, then thousands, then millions of them circled up out of its branches in what seemed like a never ending stream. They blotted out the sun and then the entire sky and the whole world grew darker and darker until his fluorescent eyes became the only light, casting an eerie green glow over everything she could see.
“You’ll pay for it, you!”
The Strange Man’s angry voice struck terror in her. Jenny screamed and ran, but running was going to do no good. She had nowhere to run. Her world was gone. Home was no longer just up the street. Instead, she found nothing but a maze of dark alleys every time. She would always run down them, tripping on garbage under her feet as she ran.
“Run thief! Run! No one steals from the Umann! Buahahaha…”
The Strange Man’s laughter echoed down the alleyway behind her. She turned this way and that, but no matter which direction she turned, another alley appeared with huge buildings on both sides that reached all the way up to disappear among the clouds of swarming birds.
Jenny always stopped. She had to stop. It seemed like she was running in circles. All the alleys looked the same. She knew better than to stop, but what could she do? And there it was again. The breathing… the heavy breathing of a giant animal carried against the alley walls behind her. It surrounded her until it seemed to be coming from every direction. She didn’t need to look. She knew exactly what it was. It was the Mastiff of Bandor, a hound so huge its legs were longer than she was tall, with a powerful head and jaws that could snap her in two with ease. She could feel its breath on her neck. She screamed and she ran.
No matter which way she ran, each time it was always the same. The alleys suddenly came to a dead end. She stopped and turned. She couldn’t see it in the blackness, but she knew it was there. It had been right on her heels the whole time and she could still hear its horrible breathing. She backed up and then… instead of being pinned up against the brick wall, she fell through it.
It seemed like she fell for miles. The dark clouds of birds disappeared. Then there were tentacles appearing from nowhere in the sky, reaching for her, grabbing at her, spinning her this way and that as she fell, until she finally landed in a heap on the beach.
The hound was upon her. It had followed her through her fall. She could see it now in the light, ten feet tall, all black except for its searing red eyes. Sharply pointed ears were perked for its attack. Monstrous jowls with fangs longer than her fingers drooled long disgusting strings of saliva. She scrambled to her feet but she couldn’t run in the sand, and with one giant paw, the monster of Umann flattened her to the ground, its tremendous weight crushing her back.
She felt its teeth sink into her leg, chewing, grinding, burning. It wasn’t going to kill her, it was torturing her! She reached down into her pocket to make sure it was still there. Of course it was still there. It was always still there. She closed her fist around it. It was just a stupid rock! Why was this beast torturing her over a stupid rock?
Then every night its giant teeth pushed their way through the bone, snapping her leg in two and she screamed in pain and sat up in her bed awake.
Jenny sat rocking her pillow. She couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t face the hound again. Her father had long ago lost patience with her nightmare. More than two months now it had plagued her almost every night. If she woke up screaming again one more time, there was no telling what he might do.
Tears started to fall down her cheeks. She hadn’t really stolen anything. Why was this happening to her? Why couldn’t she just sleep? She wondered if other girls ever had nightmares like hers and how they managed to get through the night.
What Jenny didn’t know, was that she had in fact taken something, something of great importance to someone. She hadn’t meant to. As far as she knew, she’d done nothing. She didn’t even remember the silly little dream that had started it all. She didn’t remember finding the rock or picking it up and thinking how pretty it was. But she had picked it up. Rocks don’t just end up in your pocket. And now the Strange Man with the glowing green eyes and the horrible dog who chewed through her leg would pursue her to the end of time if she didn’t return it.
Her eyes began to close and she could feel herself getting sleepier. You mustn’t sleep, Jenny, you mustn’t. She hugged the pillow tighter, rocking harder and harder. The fear of her dream was almost worse than the dream itself and her tears became real sobs as she rocked. You mustn’t sleep. Suddenly there was a great gust of wind and a racket from her window. It should have been closed. She started to get up to close it and stared in disbelief. Was she dreaming already?
© 2011 Anne Schilde