Connecting the Dots
"I still get nightmares. In fact, I get them so often I
should be used to them by now. I'm not. No one
ever really gets used to nightmares."
MARK Z. DANIELEWSKI, House of Leaves
It had taken Matt less than 15 minutes to hack into the Explore Decor computer from his desk at the Dispatch, and give me the address of their warehouse. I made a mental note to myself not to ever let him get mad at me, for any reason.
The warehouse was a cement block building in an isolated industrial park. Fortunately, they still make windows out of glass. I dropped into the warehouse itself and shown my flashlight around in dismay. It was huge. Hundred of paintings stood in racks on all four walls. How much time did I have to find the Jany- bulkgu painting before the physical presence of the painting started to work its magic on my head?
I started at the beginning, in an area with paintings about the size I remembered, shining my flashlight down between the canvases to check each one. I had been looking for around a quarter hour and had still not found it, when I first heard it.
I whirled around with my flashlight. A strange plastic-y whirling noise. I searched for the source, but it seemed to be coming from about ten feet overhead. I realized there was a large black bowl of some sort hanging over the room. The noise continued like a marble in a plastic tube, whirling. Curiosity got the best of me and I pulled a ladder over to the edge to look in. I groaned.
It was a huge roulette wheel, with a white marble spinning around the outside while the slots spun in the opposite direction. The slots were mostly black, but there were many red ones too. I looked for the support wires for the bowl, but of course I found none. Blast it all! My dreaming had begun. The marble jumped and began bouncing. Why hadn't I had a grace period like the others? Unless the week I had spent with the lousy thing next to me in my camera had pre-disposed me to the effect faster... Or my sleep-deprived state – that may do it too. I got a frisson of dread down my spine as I realized what kind of roulette this was. Russian Roulette. How many red slots had there been? What were my chances?
The marble finally found home. I stretched to make out the color, ominous dots in my peripheral vision. It slowed down to show the marble riding in a red slot. Damn! I climbed down the ladder. The warehouse faded and the deck of the SS Hanover faded in around me, complete with a full moon overhead. It was The Hunted Nightmare. No! My hand flew protectively to my abdomen.
This one always got... messy.
As sleepy as I was, I now had a good dose of adrenaline to keep me sharp.
Humans are most often on the safe side of the whole predator/prey thing. The terror of being the one stalked goes very deep, originating not in the not primate brain in the front of the human skull, not the mammal brain located near the back, but the reptile brain which is located somewhere in the human spinal cord.
My opponent in this nightmare had animal hearing, animal olfactory sense, animal strength and claws, but also human cunning. I didn't stand a chance. It was cat and mouse, wolf and rabbit. It was just a matter of time. Where could I run on a boat?
Panic rose up from my gut, probably helped along by my crushing sleep-debt. I spun around, not knowing which direction to flee. I could feel him in every shadow, imagine hearing him in each creak of the old ship. I felt his silent eyes watching my every move. Claustrophobia threatened, in spite of the open deck and sea breezes. I tried to move silently over to a bulkhead, but felt clumsy and loud no matter how carefully I moved. I slid into a shadow and held my breath. My heart beat loud enough to wake the dead.
I hear the familiar deep growl on the breeze, though I couldn't place the direction it came from. Sweat ran down center of my back. I searched for a weapon, any weapon, around me, but even as I did I had the sinking feeling that this was the way it happened every time. It was like walking in the midst of a thick cloud of Deja Vu; each action I choose to do was immediately recognized as the script. Claustrophobia set in with a vengeance.
Suppressing panic, I eased out into the walkway, were I could see more open space around me, fewer places to be surprised from. I clung to the shadows. But even I have a breaking point. My body rebelled at the hide-and-be-silent strategy and I took off running, not knowing where to nor why.
I raced past the bulkhead and out of the corner of my eye I spotted Pops in the shadows. I whirled back to him. "Will it help if you wake me?" I asked frantically.
"You are awake," he answered sadly, not looking at me.
I guess I knew that already; my mind was clear and rational (panic notwithstanding), not like normally in dreams where I'm not all there, where most of my brain is alert enough only for drooling.
"Do you know the thing that's on board this ship? –––do you know..." I cringed, "... what's about to happen?"
He closed his eyes and nodded, resigned.
"Can't you help?!" I cried.
"I can guide only. This self-destruction spirit-path is your writing."
"Well, guide away, Pops! What advice do you have for a man caught like a fly in the spiderweb of this portal horror you've made?" I demanded.
He looked me deep in the eyes. "This is a many-times spirit-path. If you know things go badly when you turn to the right, turn to the left."
"I... I can change the outcome of the nightmare?"
"You are the author of this. Not victim. This you should already know."
I looked down the walkway. I didn't have to suffer the same fate tonight just because I always had? With my rational mind in charge this time, that part would be easy: I knew the last scene at the bow. I would not go to the bow. Just choose not to go near the bow. That decision having been made, the dream shifted slightly. The Deja Vu vanished. I grinned. That, of course, didn't guarantee the dream would have the opposite outcome, only that the outcome was now open-ended.
Pops looked around at the shift. "Not master-level, but a beginning." he commented. He took on the mantle of teacher smoothly; "Meditation and long practice will give you the skills to flow with your spirit-paths, control them, learn from them, and achieve wisdom."
A mournful howl sounded. I jumped –– I'd never heard that before. It was thin and eerie and made my skin crawl. He sounded big. "I need the skills now." I pointed out urgently.
He shook his head. "You should have started the training as a young man. As you are now, you are years away from wisdom." He fixed me with intense eyes. "You must close the Jany- bulkgu."
"I should destroy the painting," I ventured, nodding. "Will cutting it work? Burning it?"
"Seven Sisters! Why always your first thought is violence? Your clan is hot-headed and rash. The Jany- bulkgu would be very difficult to destroy; my magic is strong. You will not succeed."
"You're not offering me a lot of options here, old man!" I retorted in anger.
"Change the painting you cannot destroy. Move the lines to divert the energy flow." He showed me an image of the painting in the thin air in front of him, and indicated where the new dots should run. "If the lines were out of sync, the portal would be useless for passage between the sand- and spirit-worlds."
"I can paint dots. All right. But that would be a lot easier if I could SEE it."
He conceded the point with a dip of the head. The bulkhead in front of me changed texture (if not color) revealing vertical stripes. I frowned, then realized the stripes were about the height of the paintings I had been rifling through.
I grabbed at a stripe and felt my hands grasp something 3-D, even though it didn't register on my eyes. I pulled with all my might and fell backward with a painting I had pulled right out of the bulkhead. Yes! It was the wrong painting, but I had a chance now. Salt air blew past me as I pulled out painting after painting using tactile not visual cues to locate the next once all the visible ones were pulled out.
Pops had vanished.
The next painting was a dot painting; I nearly yelped. I must be close now! I pulled out three more – all dot paintings, but not the one made by the magical old codger.
The wolf was coming, I could feel him. The hunt had begun in earnest. I stayed focused on the search for the painting. Running now was out of the question. My only hope was to close the portal.
I made to pull out the next. This one felt smooth, not rough, under my hand. As I pulled it out, I felt a wave hit me of.. of what? It felt in my gut like standing next to a volley on the kettle drums, but it registered only in my flesh, not in the ears. Like an air pressure wave, but silent. The painting was in my hand. It was the right one. Not canvas at all, it was painted on some form of tanned animal skin. And it didn't even look like real paint when I examined it closely...
I heard a deep throated growl from far too close. I whirled. He had found me.
He stood frozen in the shadows a few paces off, looking at me with narrow, alert eyes. To see it with my eyes rather than through the fog of sleep was terrifying. He was huge, towering over me on all fours, seven foot at the shoulder, I felt very small and inconsequential next to him. Canine teeth the size of my index finger were bared and fairly shown in the moonlight. The predator's muscles twitched with the thrill of the hunt––the power in that body was staggering. A deep throated growl vibrated the night air. He had me, and he knew it.
I held up the thin painting in defense. The wolf seemed confused, almost like he could not see me through it. I bought myself a few precious moments to think. What did I have available?
Bullets? Gun? No.
Paint to alter the painting? No.
Brushes? Or sucker-sticks? No.
Hmm. This still wasn't looking good.
Good or not, it got worse. The beast finally decided to move around the painting and caught a glimpse of me from the side. I raised my arms in a reflex action when he lunged. He snapped with lightning speed and snagged my arm. Sharp teeth cut my forearm almost to the bone, and he pulled me off my feet. I screamed and pushed the painting (for lack of a better weapon) into his ugly muzzle. Kettle drum-feel hit both of us. He yelped in pain and amazement, released me like a hot potato, then backed away to think.
He circled me slowly, looking for an entry.
I got my feet under me and pressed my back hard against the bulkhead, pulling in the salt air in shallow pants. Cornered. My right hand was useless downstream from the wound. The wound hurt more than it would have in a dream (this being a full-body experience) and I ground my teeth as I held my arm together. But I still had my gut in place, and my cool head. I would fight this. I glanced down at at my one good suit, now splotched with red. Dotted with blood... Dotted!
I threw the painting face-up on the deck between the beast and me and held my bleeding arm over it. Blood dripped enthusiastically from the wound, and I swung my arm to make the arc Pops had shown me would divert the flow. I felt, not heard, hissing as the drops landed, and the kettle drum sensation threatened to knock me over. After this came silent pressure waves that felt more like cymbal crashes– sharp, high frequency waves. The ship, the wolf, the huge roulette wheel above me, and the pressure waves themselves all faltered, faded, and blinked out of existence.
I found myself standing alone in a warehouse strewn with canvases, clutching my bleeding forearm in the dark.
I stumbled into my room many hours later.
The ER had given me 38 stitches and a lot of skeptical looks when they asked how I got hurt. I made for the bed like gravity itself was pulling, amused at not being so afraid of having nightmares now. Now my dreams could get back to 'normal'. I smiled ruefully. Everything was relative.
I fell into bed without even removing my blood-stained suit, and sank like lead shot.
The welcome relief from my burning eyes was replaced with anxiety. High anxiety. My heart beat frantically with anticipation. I stood in Collins' front room, clasping and unclasping the stake behind my back as I heard the heavy metal key enter the old lock. Cool head, Carl. One shot.
Wait. One. Second.
A vague memory buzzed around the edge of my frazzled nerves. It seemed to have been important. Even more important than the fact that the door was starting to creak open. A part of my brain yelled for focus for the challenge at hand –– another part yelled for that flitting memory.
Strain to remember! No! He'll be coming in in seconds! Stay focused... Remember!––I almost had it...
Author. Author... not victim. That was it! That was the key. I wasn't exactly clear why that was important right now, but part of me was sure it was important. I grabbed hold of the phrase and made it my own. The scene shifted slightly.
I felt the change in weight behind my back as the stake in my hand became a cross bow; a cross bow with a strong wooden bolt. My heart continued to beat frantically, my opponent continued to creak open the door, but I smiled a slow, predatory smile. I could see there were going to be some changes around here...