(December 12, 2010)
Fiona rose and sat on the edge of her bed, her bright green eyes barely able to see into the darkness before her. She reached for the lamp on the table next to her, and steeled herself for the light to blind her as she flipped the switch. When no light came, she gazed out the bedroom window to catch some light from the moon, but all she saw outside was darkness. Cautiously, she made her way toward the door, listening for a sound to guide her up the stairs.

     And again, there was nothing, which she noted as especially strange, as her father was a notoriously early riser.

     This she noted as especially strange. Her father was an early riser, often waking at only three in the morning to watch the news in the den. She looked back at her nightstand to check the clock, but it too had no power. As she eased the door open, she was struck by the uncomfortable stillness and quiet beyond the stairs.

     Almost quiet, she thought. Somewhere in the house, she could hear an old music box playing London Bridge is Fallen Down. The melody sounded remarkably off key, as if the maker had tacked a word or two to the end of each verse, causing the melody to become stilted and slightly unfamiliar. Something about the tune seemed to nag at her–maybe it was the way it made her ears ring, or the way each note made her head feel like it was about to split. She didn’t like it, but with a few minutes of concentration it began to fade into the background.

     Or maybe the smell had distracted her.

     The house smelled acrid–like smoke and burning grass–and the odor was strong enough to mask the scent of everything else. It brought to her mind the image of a wildfire, a vision only punctuated by a reeking, egg-like undertones of the stench. She called out to her father, but this only resulted in her gagging on the fumes; her father did not respond.

     Fiona made it to the top of the stairs to find herself at the hall, turning left to enter the living room and again to reach the kitchen. There she noticed a thin layer of dust and dirt scattered across the floor and counter tops. With this, the smell of smoke began to lift, and it was replaced by an earthy, mildewy odor that seemed unnervingly pleasant to her. She took note of the water rot that was beginning to affect the cabinets, and returned to the living room.

     It was then that she noticed a missing section of floor in the far corner of the room. Fiona approached it with caution, feeling the floor creak with each step, and she peered inside. She could see part of her room, now filled with muddy water, and smelled the salt and sand drifting from below. She took pause at this, remembering that the room had not been flooded when she was down there, and wondered how it had happened without her noticing.

     In the distance she heard an echoing boom. The sound was faint enough that, normally, it would have been masked by the sounds of daily life. However, it sounded deep enough to have been made by a powerful source, one likely some distance away. She peered out the nearest window to see if she could spot where it had come from, but the smoke outside was still too thick to see past the pane. The word fear crept into her mind, only to fade before she could give it much though.

     Fiona began to ascend to the second floor, hoping to find her father still asleep in his bed. As she reached the final step, she could see another hole by the window at the end of the hall. Smoke billowed through from outside, giving the hall a thick layer of haze that clung heavily to the ceiling. Fiona covered her face with the collar of her shirt, but found that it was still hard to breathe. As she progressed, she was forced to crouch low to the floor, and finally to stop before she reached the middle of the hall.

     Just a few feet before her, part of the floor had collapsed. Below her was her father’s office, stained with a dried, brown substance not far from the door. Fresh mud and mildew had begun to creep across the carpet and walls, but she barely noticed. Instead, it was a glint of white that caught her eye.

     In the corner of the room, something stared back at her–a twisted, almost humanoid abomination pressing its faceless head against the hole. She backed up, heading down the stairs as the creature noisily followed from below. She tried desperately to block the image from her mind, but the hideous scraping of its dragging fingers kept it firmly in her head, until finally she turned and ran the last few steps and toward the door.

     It can’t be real, she thought. It can’t be.

     Another image intruded in her mind, one of a battered street littered with smoldering craters and wrecked cars. The word fate echoed in her head, but this word too was gone before she could make sense of it. Instead, she wiped away the tension and opened the door.

     The driveway and yard were caked with wet sand, and the street beyond had collapsed into the bay. The odor of smoke had returned, and was now even more overbearing. But through the choking dark she could detect a more unpleasant smell–the putrid odor of rotting sea life, and the unmistakable stench of rotting flesh. Unwilling to turn back, she headed toward the end of the driveway, but she only managed a few steps when she saw it.

     At the edge of the yard was a small but gorgeous tree, with silver bark and white leaves that seemed to shine in the night. Although she’d never seen it before, it for some reason felt very familiar. It seemed to beckon her to approach, but as she did, that welcoming, calming feeling that it exuded began to fade with each step. Soon the tree was beginning to die, with its leaves turning to dust that drifted in the breeze, until all remained was a withered and gnarled trunk. At this her spirits began to fall, and she felt as if the tree’s death had been her own. She took the last steps to it, and reached out to give it her blessing before she began the long trek into town.

     Even though she was already a good distance from the house, she could hear a running faucet somewhere nearby. The image entered her mind of an old, rusted washing station with cracked knobs and a shredded, bloody hand twirling them endlessly and in vain. As shocking as the image was, it faded as almost as soon as it had appeared, replaced by the street before her, now riddled with smoldering cars and burning trash.

     She heard a faint whisper somewhere nearby. Fiona turned to see a man with auburn hair slumped against a streetlight, wearing a tattered brown duster and blood stained jeans. On his shoulder was a ragged hole crusted with dried blood, but the flesh beneath it seemed to have long since healed; she approached the man to give him aid only to realize in horror that she knew him.

     Roderigo Somers looked up at her and grinned, a forced, deficient 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 gushed from the wound, staining his coat and pooling on the ground below. As he went to cut himself a second time, Fiona reached to stop him, only for her hand to be swatted away. It was then that 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 the process, even as the scar faded, but as soon as the wound was healed he slashed again.

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

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

     “There are… black-birds. Crows and starlings resting in a nest of asphalt. When the sun rises early, you can hear them sing. The song they sing is a song of despair, a nightmare, a requiem, and an oracle of coming times. But yes, the crows will sing, they will sing at night, 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–finally realizing there was nowhere to go–headed back toward her house.

     Suddenly Fiona felt very small. Something very huge was behind her. Terrified, she picked up her pace. Each step gained more speed, and within moments she was running faster than she had in her entire life. “No,” she whimpered, not even bothering to looked back, “Don’t let it be that thing. Don’t let it be her.” She briefly wondered who she was thinking of.

     Despite their silence and lack of impact, she could feel the enormous feet hitting the ground behind her, the urgency as her pursuer gained on her. Soon she could smell its fetid breath bearing down on her, each calm pant hitting her with the force of a windstorm. She could see her house, she she couldn’t seem to close the distance; with each yard, the house seemed to retreat five more, until finally it seemed further away than it had been when she started.

     At last she could run no more. Her legs gave beneath her and she fell to the ground. Her body locked into place as a single claw–massive enough to cover her entire back–pressed her into the mud. Fiona begged her pursuer, “Please. Please leave me alone. Please….”

     Another rush of foul wind engulfed her body as a massive shadow fell over her. The claw lifted, and Fiona felt something slide beneath her. Soon a row of fangs–each as wide as a tree’s trunk–were visible around her, and as the monster’s jaws began to close, 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 another 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 the other 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 Yirgacheffe 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 more old school than she cared for. “Sorry,” she said. “Not a big fan of his.” 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.”

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