The hot wind of the desert carried the stench of rotted meat, reminding Kara of the breath of some great carnivore. Overhead, the sun glared down, heavy and oppressive and totally without mercy.
Too hot, she thought. The sun alone can’t be this hot. Not our sun, anyway. Sweat trickled down the backs of her thighs and between her breasts. The heat was so thick that she found just the act of breathing to be a chore.
Kara was blonde, as only those of Nordic descent can be, with ice-blue eyes and a figure that had been described as goddess-like. She suffered in the sun, turning quickly red and burning terribly if not fully protected with sunscreen or shade. She had never had anything like this happen to her in all her twenty-seven years. It was surreal.
And there stood the reality of the recurrent nightmare, that wherever she was, it was not the familiar sun of Earth.
Silence prevailed, save for the wind, but she did not need sound to tell her of the menace that was soon to approach. She had been though this many times before, but somehow she could never quite remember just what it was that was coming. She felt the fear building within her breast, even though up to this point there was nothing overt to be concerned about.
Then she felt the slight tremor in the ground and she knew. And she began to run, gasping, tripping, falling, scraping a knee, getting up again, pursued by nameless dread even as she struggled to remember what it was that she feared. When she screamed, strong arms enfolded her and someone spoke, close to her ear.
“Kara! Kara! Honey, it’s okay. You’re fine, you’re in bed. Shhh … it’s just a nightmare.”
In Jim’s loving arms she trembled and moaned. “God, thirty-four nights now. Thirty-four nights in a row. I can’t sleep, I can’t eat … oh, God, I can’t even make love to you any more. Jim, I need help.”
Jim looked noncommittal as he said, “It was only a nightmare. It can’t hurt you. You’ve sweat clean through your nightgown, babe.”
She slipped out of his embrace and headed for the bath, where she peeled the damp, clingy gown off and stood before the mirror. She didn’t like what she saw. In the last month, she’d dropped at least twenty pounds and there were dark, puffy circles under her eyes where the flesh looked almost bruised. In contrast, her cool blue eyes burned like those of a junkie a few minutes late for his fix.
She hugged herself in the chill of the air conditioning and thought back to the heat of the nightmare. What was it? What thing, animal, or disaster came next? Jim woke her tonight, but she had been farther into it several times. Far enough to know, but not to remember. And where was she supposed to be? Somehow, it all felt familiar, not just because she went there every night, but from before, at some past point in her life. Or, perhaps another life … Then she shivered and turned on the shower. As she stepped into the hot spray, she winced and looked down at her knee. It was scraped raw in one spot just below the kneecap.
In twenty minutes, she was back in bed with Jim. He had joined her in the shower and then persuaded her to join him naked in the huge old four-poster and, even though she only felt exhaustion, he soon had her aroused and they made love, tenderly and not at all strenuously. It seemed only moments later, she was falling asleep. Jim’s attentions were definitely therapeutic, she thought, as she dozed off …
and felt the heat of the glaring sun on her skin. This time she was naked. She had never been nude before in this place and the sun was even more oppressive than she remembered. The stench was stronger, too. Everything seemed to be turned up a notch from the times before, the wind stronger, the sand more abrasive and almost immediately the ground tremors started.
Then she was again running and this time the ground was heaving, being raised up behind her and whatever it was, it was gaining on her as she sprinted through the silent heat. She ran swiftly, desperately, aware of her unfettered breasts bouncing painfully and the heat and the unevenness of the baked, cracked ground. As she galloped along, feeling the earth rumbling through the soles of her feet, even then she told herself, it’s just a dream, it can’t hurt you, Jim said so. Don’t you want to know? A part of her mind urged her to slow down, or even stop and find out what it was that she feared, but she ran on, too frightened to manage it.
Soon, as she had before, she felt the presence of the unknown rising up. She felt the ground cracking open as it birthed some horror she dared not look at and at last, she felt the touch of one claw on her shoulder and smelled its rotten breath inches from her neck. She felt her bladder let go and the hot urine on her legs and suddenly she was awake again and the bed was wet with her urine and Jim was sitting up, saying, “What the hell?”
“Oh, God, no!” she said, as she bailed out of bed and bolted for the bathroom.
Behind the locked door she sat on the throne and trembled and cried miserably while her husband of six years changed their bedding. At last he tapped on the door and she let him in. He held her for a while, then they shared another shower. It was four in the morning and when they returned to bed, they didn’t make love this time.
Kara lay awake until the alarm at seven, thinking about that single claw. Jim hadn’t noticed the mark, already starting to fade, but it had been there. A single welt atop the shoulder where the claw had struck, but not broken the skin. Whatever she was dreaming about, Kara had now become convinced that it was real, at least in some skewed, tilted reality, some somewhere, some somewhen.
Her job at the daycare center had become as routine to her as taking care of kids could ever be. She swam through as she always did now, in a daze from fear and lack of sleep. She had been to the doctor. What a joke. He gave her sleeping pills. Told her they would deepen her sleep and she wouldn’t dream. What a crock. They had deepened her sleep, alright, and deepened her dream-state along with it, making it more difficult for her to wake up. That had been at the beginning, when the desert was just empty beneath the burning sun and there was nothing to threaten her.
It had almost been charming then, spending all night in the desert. And even then, a part of the dream came home with her. She had started getting very tan and Jim had asked her about it. She had lied, saying she had joined a tanning salon on a trial basis. He had told her it made her look prettier, but to be careful of skin damage.
Within a few days, however, the danger began to present itself and as time went by it had become more menacing. She thought of her dreams as a record on a turntable, being played over and over, but always starting back a ways from where she left off, then going through the parts she recognized and adding a few bars of the music on the end each time. This music, she reflected, was ominous, indeed.
Kara curled up on her right side and hugged the revolver close to her belly. To actually believe that it could save her was ludicrous, of course, but somehow in its steely, impersonal coldness it made her feel better. More in control. She had “borrowed” it from Jim’s gun room, reasoning that he would never miss it from his vast collection. Sometimes it seemed that he’d set out to collect one of every gun on the planet, though, of course, that would be impossible.
Now, with him out of town on one of his mysterious trips, she faced her nightmare alone. And ‘nightmare’ was the correct term. Not ‘nightmares’. Nothing plural about it, for it was always the same—the desert, the sun, the heat and…the beast.
It seemed she had no sooner dropped off than it began. And the thing had gotten smarter. This time it was waiting for her. She tried to run as she had so many times before, but it was smarter and it trapped her against a sheer rock wall and as it came up out of the ground, she saw it fully for the first time and realized the true extent of her fear and loathing. A psychologist friend had told her the dream was a reflection of the fears in her life and if she would just face them, it was a way the mind had of dealing with those fears.
Well, she reflected grimly as she faced the monster, if this was true, she must have some really nasty fears, ‘cause this thing was truly fearsome. She gazed in frozen wonder as the black creature, the epitome of children’s bad dreams, rose to its full height. She took in the six spider-like eyes across the black dome of its skull and the leering, fang-infested mouth that spewed breath like a sewer. Its front four legs reached toward her, claws open and greedy to rend her flesh. Then she remembered the gun.
Funny thing about the gun. She glanced down at her hands and realized she couldn’t see it, but she could still feel it, as solid as the monster before her. She had just a split second to decide how she would die and she made the best decision she could, under the circumstances. She quickly placed the gun under her chin and squeezed.
When “Jim” arrived home from his trip, he called out into the silent house, then walked through to the master bedroom. He viewed Kara’s remains and the mess on the bed coldly. No problem here. The coroner would be able to establish time of death and he had been miles away, at his meeting. He picked up the phone and dialed 911.
The creature that cloaked as “Jim” slid the dream machine out from its hiding place under the bed. In the six years he had been married to Kara, he had grown tired of her and he had recently decided it was time to find a new mate. Of course, Earth mates weren’t as satisfying as those from his own world. For one thing, they could only bond on one level. All the tedious sex with no other outlet for his libido merely sharpened his need for his mate from the home planet.
As he tuned the dream machine from the setting that matched Kara’s brain waves to the settings of his own, he thought about the quaint human saying, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’. Well, he could only stand so much. His assignment required him to be here for several human lifetimes, tracking their progress and making sure they posed no threat to the rest of the galaxy, but he didn’t have to suffer. He would take a break and visit home this very evening. The dream machine made that as easy as going to sleep.
Just as he was reaching for the keypad to input the destination sequence for the home planet, the doorbell rang. Damn! He quickly cloaked himself, so the feeble-minded humans could not see his real form, and hurried to the door.
A few minutes later he was back. Typical human cultural display. “Reaching out.” “Bonding.” “Sharing his grief.” The neighborhood women had sent a covered dish. Something he couldn’t possibly eat, of course.
Back in the bedroom, he uncloaked and set the dream machine’s timer for eight hours. Then he curled up on the bed, right next to the dried mess of his wife’s blood and brains, his opossum-like nose inches from a bit of scalp tissue. He folded his hand-like paws and closed his slightly goggled eyes as the dream machine kicked on. Soon, the soft, furry body relaxed and his breathing became rhythmic.
The hot wind of the desert carried the stench of rotted meat and “Jim” stared about stupidly in the merciless glare of the sun. It was as alien to him as it had been to Kara, his own world being a planet of perpetual twilight. As the ground tremors began, signaling the arrival of Kara’s nightmare monster, he realized that the interruption of the doorbell had caused him to forget to change the destination on the dream machine and that he was therefore trapped here for eight hours.
When the black creature broke from the ground and examined its prey, cowering in nearly the same spot Kara had died in, it found this animal remarkably different in appearance from its last kill, even though it soon realized appearances could be deceiving—they seemed to taste just about the same.
Kenneth James Crist is one of the editors of Black Petals and has been a published writer since 1998, having had nearly a hundred short stories and poems in venues ranging from Skin and Bones and The Edge-Tales of Suspense to Kudzu Monthly. He is particularly fond of supernatural biker stories. He reads everything he can get his hands on, not just in horror or sci-fi, but in mystery, hardboiled, biographies, westerns and adventure tales. He retired from the Wichita, Kansas police department in 1992 and from the security department at Wesley medical center in Wichita in 2016. Now 72, he is an avid motorcyclist and handgun shooter. He is active in the American Legion Riders and the Patriot Guard, helping to honor and look after our military. He is also the owner of Fossil Publications, a desktop publishing venture that seems incapable of making any money at all.