(December 12, 2010)

Fiona woke with a stir. She rose and sat on the edge of her bed, her bright green eyes only barely able to see beyond the darkness. She reached for the light switch and flipped it, but nothing happened. She turned her head, listening toward the door. She could hear nothing, which was strange–her father was usually up this time of day.

     She checked the clock to be sure, but like the lamp, it had no power. The fur on the back of her neck stood on end. Fiona began to feel sick, though she wasn’t sure why. As the bile rose in her gut, she moved toward the door, reaching for the knob and easing it open, Fiona called out to her father, but the house around her seemed still and quiet.

     Almost quiet, she thought. Somewhere in the house, she could hear a music box playing the bell-like melody of London Bridge. The acrid scent of smoke hung in the air, almost thick enough for her to see; it gave the house an uneasy atmosphere. She called for her father again, stepping into the kitchen. Once again, there was no response. She looked around and saw a thin layer of dust and debris on the floor and counters. Fiona shuddered, and headed toward the living room.

     In the corner of the room, a large section of the floor of floor had caved in, revealing a hole leading to her room below. Standing on the edge, she peered inside and spied a deep well of water. She paused; it hadn’t been flooded when she was down there.

     An echoing boom could be heard in the distance, the sound of something very large and heavy hitting the ground. Startled, she moved toward the nearest window and peered outside, but there the smoke was too thick to see very far. The word fear crept into her mind but just as quickly left it.

     Next to the kitchen, Fiona could see the stairs. She decided to climb and head to her father’s room. As the upper floor came into view, however, she could make out a large hole in the far wall with smoke pouring through it from the outside. She covered her mouth and nose with her shirt but kept climbing, only stopping when she reached the top of the stairs.

     The floor just beyond the top step had collapsed, revealing the room beneath it. Mud and mildew covered the carpet and walls, but it was a glistening bit of white that caught her eye. She saw it in the corner of the room, a featureless, disproportionate abomination with a vaguely humanoid body; it looked very wrong.

     Fiona began to back down the stairs. She could hear the creature moving, its boneless hands dragging against the carpet. “What the hell?” she asked aloud, desperately trying to shut out the image, and when she finally reached the bottom of the stairs, she turned and ran to the front door. Tears rolled down her cheeks. It can’t be real, she thought. It can’t be.

     Briefly, the image of a battered street entered her mind, filled with many deep potholes and wrecked cars. The word fate echoed inside her mind, but she couldn’t make any sense of it. She shook her head and climbed to her feet, wiping the tears away with her arm as she opened the door.

     The road just beyond the house had collapsed, giving way to the ocean below. While the smoke seemed more overbearing than ever, she could detect a far more vile smell through it. Filling the air was the unmistakable stench of rotting flesh. Unwilling to turn back, she headed toward what remained of the road. She only managed a few feet when she saw it.

     At the edge of the yard was a small but gorgeous tree, its silver bark and white leaves almost shining in the dark of night. She’d never seen it before, yet for some reason it felt very familiar. It made her feel comfortable enough to approach, but with each step that sense of calm began to die. The tree was slowly dying, its leaves disintegrating as she approached, until all that remained was a withered and gnarly trunk. She felt sad seeing it, almost as if the tree’s death were her own, and she reached out to give it her blessing before she moved on.

     Even though she was a good distance from the house, she could hear a sink running nearby. The image entered her mind of a rusty faucet, with a hand twisting the cracked knobs in vain. This image faded almost as soon as it appeared, replaced by a street filled with smoldering cars and burning trash.

     From somewhere nearby, a faint whimper could be heard. She turned to see a man with auburn hair slumped against a light post, wearing a tattered leather duster and dirty blue jeans. On the shoulder of his coat she could see a ragged hole crusted with dried blood, and as she approached him she realized in horror that she knew that man.

     Roderigo Somers grinned, an expression that almost seemed to crack his face. He removed a pocketknife from his jacket and in a single motion jabbed it into his wrist and ripped it to the side. Blood began to flow freely from the wound, staining his coat and pooling on the ground below. As he went to cut himself a second time, Fiona reached down to grab his arm, only to be swatted away. Then she saw that the edges of the wound were already swollen and pink, with the blood clotting and flaking away to reveal a fresh scar. Roderigo screamed in pain throughout this process, even as the scar faded, but as soon as the wound was healed he slashed again.

     He dropped the knife this time and stared up at her with empty eyes. “Forty songbirds,” he said, “are in the sky. Black as the sunrise, red as the night. They caw and cackle as they fly. Listen–can you hear the crows cawing in the distance?”

     “It’s night, Rod,” Fiona said. She knelt down to try and give him some comfort. “There are no crows.”

     “There are… blackbirds. Crows and starlings resting in a nest of asphalt. When the sun rises early, you can hear them sing. It’s a song of despair and an oracle of darkening times. But yes, the crows will sing, and they will do it before the sunrise.” And then he laughed. “Funny birds. Pat pat. Pat pat.”

     With that Roderigo fell to his side and curled into a ball. He began to whimper and rock. After a moment, Fiona rose to her feet and closed her eyes. What could she do? It had been too long since he had been like this, and without her mother around she simply didn’t know how to respond. Instead she uttered a silent prayer and–realizing there was nowhere to go–headed back toward her house.

     Suddenly Fiona felt very small. The fur on her arms began to stand up. Something very huge was behind her and closing in. Terrified, she picked up her pace. Each step gained more speed, and within moments she was running as fast as she could.
     “No,” she whimpered, not even bothering to looked back, “Don’t let it be that thing. Don’t let it be her.” She began to wonder who she was thinking of.

     She could hear the thunder of enormous feet hitting the ground behind her, feel the ground shaking beneath her, and she could smell the stench of the beast’s breath. She kept running, but it didn’t seem to get her any closer to her house. In fact, with each step it seemed to fall further away.

     At last she couldn’t run anymore. Her legs when numb and she fell to the ground, her body locking in place. Fiona’s face sank into a cold puddle of mood. She began to beg her pursuer, “Please. Please leave me alone. Please….”
     A rush of foul air engulfed her body as a massive shadow fell over her. Fiona lay there, helpless, as she felt a set of massive teeth slide under her. Then she was lifted and the creatures head tilted back, her body rolling onto a wet, prickly tongue. With the last her strength, she begged one last time for the creature to spare her.

* * *

“We are the light that awaits you in the end.”

     Those words were fresh in Fiona Carter’s mind as she woke. Her hands were clenching the fabric of her mattress, which was now shredded by her claws. She realized she was hyperventilating, that her eyes were bugging, and that her heart was pounding in her chest.

     “Did you have another one?” 

     Fiona looked up to see her father standing over the bed. The faint light of the TV cast a glistening beam on his thick, black coat. He was tall, robustly built and probably rather intimidating, but to her eyes she only saw kindness. “Yeah, I think I did.”

     He sat down next to her and put his hand on her shoulder. “You know, if you saw Dr. Heston, the nightmares might go away.”

     “I just don’t want to see a shrink is all.”

     Devon Carter smiled. “Okay,” he said. “Come on upstairs. I’ll make crepes.”

     As her father left, Fiona breathed a sigh of relief. She thought she would have been used to the nightmares by now. She’d had them most of her life, ever since she entered adolescence. While each dream was different in some way, they all shared the same themes–ravaged and burning cities, echoes of her deepest fears, personal tragedy and unknowable horrors. All of them had, at their end, that same cryptic phrase. Even out of context it seemed more ominous than it had any right to be.

     The nightmares had been persistent. Fiona hadn’t slept a full night in years. In the past four she found that brief naps were enough to fill the gap, but lately she had been dozing off at the office and spending long nights huddled in her office chair. It was for that reason that Fiona hadn’t moved out of her father’s house–she couldn’t stand being alone after dark.

     Fiona stretched her arms and fingers, opening her mouth in a gaping yawn. Through the window she could see Orion in the night sky. Tilting her clock toward her, she noticed it was only three forty-eight. At least, she thought, I slept more than last night.

     She stood, her black-striped gray and white coat catching the soft glow of her television. Though feline in many aspects, she was primarily human, a member of a third generation that was confined to clustered areas along the Southeast. Society called them hybrids, which was a fitting name, but while only a few thousand of them existed, they were legally considered no different than any other human being.

     By the time she got upstairs, the smell of blueberries and cream was already making her mouth water. Fiona took a seat at the kitchen counter, resting her temple on her knuckles. “Coffee?”

     “Coming right up,” Carter said. He grabbed a small cup and placed it under the nozzle of an espresso machine. When he pulled the lever, the rich scent of Sumatran Peaberry drifted into Fiona’s nostrils. She took a sip, letting the brightness and natural sweetness of the drink drift over her tongue. The memory of the nightmare slipped away, and her tired body began to fill with energy. Still, it didn’t hide it from her father, who asked, “Another one?”

     “Yeah,” she replied. As that moment faded, she looked up at her father, whose normally stern face betrayed his worry. “Same as always, but I’ll deal.”

     “You could always try Dr. Heston.”

     That name sparked her frustration. It wasn’t that she didn’t like psychiatrists–they just hadn’t helped her so far, and Heston was a little old school in any case. “Sorry,” she said. “He goes a little too deep for my taste.” She lifted the cup up again, hoping to calm her nerves. “Besides, you know what Grandpa says about hypnotherapy. It’s the sideshow to psychiatry’s little circus.” She paused for a moment, amused at her own comment. “You know, maybe I’ll try it later this week. Nothing else has worked, and it’s not like Heston’s a quack.”