The afterimage of the sinister masked figure looming above him flickered briefly behind his eyes and was forgotten, leaving only the lingering copper taste of fear in the back of his throat.
He fell back onto the sleeping bag with a sigh. Soaked with sweat, his clothes clung tightly to his skin. Feeling restricted by the sticky cloth, Ian stripped off his shirt, then pulled a pack of cigarettes from his discarded jacket. He lit one of the cigarettes and lay on his back smoking, and stared up at the ceiling.
It was strange.
After everything that had happened to him, Ian’s greatest fear was of a dream.
A figment of his own imagination.
At times, he believed he was lost in a world of his own making, trapped forever within the deepest recesses of his mind. He half- expected to wake at any moment and find himself safely confined by the bleach-white grip of a straightjacket, his body lying senselessly upon a cold ceramic-tiled institution floor.
But he couldn’t wake up.
What had happened to him was real, and the dream was woven into the fabric of the reality he faced. There was nowhere left for him to hide for the dream seethed and writhed behind the thin barrier separating Ian from his subconscious. A constant, menacing reminder of the horror he had witnessed.
Reluctantly, Ian unclipped the safety pin from under the lapel of his jacket and pushed the point firmly into the back of his hand. He winced as the sharp prick of pain told him he was awake and then smiled. The test wouldn’t work much longer. The dream had begun to apply an increasing level of pain to its hallucinations and Ian had to stick the pin deeper into his flesh each time he used it.
He thought that if he could find someone to talk to, the Dream might go away. But there was no one within miles of the cave and he had to stay underground for at least another six or seven weeks. It would take at least that long before the radiation dropped to levels safe enough for a him to stay outside for more than a few hours at a time.
Ian lit another cigarette and picked up the notebook which lay at his feet and opened it to the first page. He thought that writing about the Dream would make him feel better; that by putting his fears into writing, he could remove the burden from his mind and transfer it to the empty pages of the book. His hands shook as he picked up the pen and pressed the point to the paper.
He wrote it as a title and dutifully underlined it as if he were preparing a school essay. Afraid for a moment, he hesitated. Then, slowly, the pen moved reluctantly across the page, leaving a trail of dark ink footsteps which disappeared into the haze of his future and stretched back into the bleakness of his past. But the pen gained momentum and Ian's mind emptied itself fitfully onto the clean white pages, and for a precious few moments, the world around him slipped away.
The air was cool, on the verge of becoming cold, and Ian shivered. His skin tightened into goosebumps. He was suddenly and inexplicably afraid again. He saw a moving shape through the corner of his eye and looked up quickly from the notebook.
Nervously, Ian peered through the gloom of the cave. He became acutely aware of his own labored breathing, then returned nervously to the sanctuary of the book, hoping he could regain his flow of thought.
I should have known I would feel this way once I was alone. My nerves are shot and I jump at the slightest noise from outside.
But there’s nothing there.
The things I fear the most are in here. In my head. No matter where I go, my fears travel with me. I sometimes wonder if I’m trapped within a dream more powerful than the Dream itself...
Released from the diaphanous existence of imagination by the fury of the war, the Dream had become so strong and vivid that it had assumed material form and stepped boldly into the realm of physical reality. Like some prehistoric and invincible carnivore, the Dream fed on Ian’s fear and grew stronger. The Dream wove a powerful hypnotic spell over him, and, still unchained, stalked him at that very moment, waiting until his ability to resist its pull became exhausted and once more, he drifted into sleep.
Every truth Ian had lived by had been snatched away from him by the War. The swiftness and irrevocability of the changes it had brought about left him with nothing he could use to rebuild his sense of being. His mind disengaged frequently from the world around him, stamping the events of the last few days as unacceptable, and filing them away with long forgotten fantasies and unremembered dreams. Deep in the swirling darkness of Ian’s subconscious, the terrible images of the war simmered and mutated, absorbing and feeding on what little energy Ian had left. His mind became a vast pressure cooker, simmering just below the boiling point. Sealed as long as he could remain awake, the lid on the boiling cauldron lifted the instant he fell asleep, and the horribly repressed energy exploded violently within his brain, flooding his mind, and trapping him within the Dream.
Ian hoped to capture the Dream within the pages of the notebook and bind it permanently to the paper with ink. The book was all he had left to fight with. The words Ian wrote seemed to flow from within the book itself, as if they were confessions from an ally and a friend. He sat hunched over the notebook, knowing that as long as he could keep writing, his courage could not fail and the Dream would remain at bay.
Loneliness sat on his shoulders, a vulture waiting to devour him. He missed the city, the lights, the sound of the traffic and the diesel smell of the streets, and most of all, he missed the people.
Especially the people.
He yearned to go back, but he knew he couldn’t. Even if the war was only some ghastly hallucination, there was no way to go back. His desire for companionship was so strong that if he did return, he was afraid he would see the city the way that he wanted it to be: alive and vital, buzzing with humanity that existed only in his mind. He would wander about the radioactive ruins happily talking to imaginary people who had died the moment that the bomb dropped, until he collapsed, racked by the death throes brought on by a fatal dose of radiation.
Ian was forced to live out the dream, and the Dream within a dream, hoping against hope he would awaken one morning under a clear blue sky. But as much as he wished for it, the thought of waking up and finding the world the way it had been terrified him, for he knew he would have to live in constant fear that at any moment, and instantaneously, the devastation of the world could once again become a reality.
A vague uneasiness settled over Ian and he stood up quickly. The memory of the stranger in the dream had welled up suddenly, and made him restless. He was suddenly aware of an itching sensation just below the surface of his skin. He rubbed his arms animatedly and shivered.
He walked to the mouth of the cave and stared out through the plastic barrier. Ian had built the barrier to keep the dust out of the cave. Although the plastic was transparent, it had become frosted with time and covered with a thin layer of gray dust.
A slight breeze rattled the barrier and Ian noticed a small tear in the fogged plastic. The hole danced in front of him, a splash of color on a faded background. He stared at it, fascinated by its movements, realizing with a trace of sadness he had to tape it over. The thin protective membrane marked the edge of his world and confined him within the cave. He was a prisoner, and through the small hole he could see freedom. But life beyond the barrier was impossible and freedom only a fleeting illusion that would quickly become fatal.
Ian tore a small strip from a roll of masking tape. The sharp zip of the tape coming away from the roll and the scuffling rattle of the plastic echoed loudly inside the muffled silence of the cave as he covered the hole with the tape. The simple task of sealing the hole inexplicably drained him of energy and he leaned back against the rock wall of the cave and sighed wearily.
Far below him, the wind rippled the smooth surface of the lake. His eyes were drawn across the water to the far shore where his truck sat disconsolately on the beach. No longer sleek and shiny, its sides were battered and dented, scarred during his desperate drive to the lake. Beneath the layer of dust the truck seemed to be dying, and Ian felt guilty for abandoning it.
Suddenly, the wobbling beat of helicopter blades suddenly shattered the sepulchral silence of the hills. Ian snapped from his melancholy. Without bothering to dress, he pushed through the plastic screen, and ran out onto the hillside.
Beyond the northern ridge of the valley, several gunships spread out across the sky. Excitedly, Ian watched them sweep swiftly over the distant treetops. He repressed the compulsion to wave, realizing the helicopters were too far away to see him. He needed a flag, something he could wave to gain their attention.
Ian ran back into the cave. His eyes searched the dark interior for a suitable object to use as a signal. Sam’s oilskin! The coat was bright yellow. They couldn’t miss a moving patch of bright yellow against the dull background of the wilderness. As he grasped the oilskin, Ian realized he was naked. He suddenly felt vulnerable, and his elation turned to doubt. He imagined the men in the airships pointing at him and laughing. He dropped the oilskin and picked up his jeans. As he struggled into them, one of the helicopters flew directly in front of the cave. Ian saw it almost as soon as he heard it. The beating of the rotors echoed thunderously inside the cave and whipped up the dust on the hillside as the gunship rushed by. Ian caught a glimpse of soldiers manning machine guns inside the open doors of the helicopter. Wearing white radiation suits, their faces hidden behind goggles and gas masks, the men in the machine left Ian with the impression that they weren’t human. The helicopter was suddenly a menacing presence, a huge steel bird of prey, with talons of steel and fire, and Ian the quarry. His heart froze as one of his empty cigarette packages flashed by, whipped into the air by the pressure of the helicopter blades. Afraid the soldiers had seen the package, Ian ducked down instinctively, but the aircraft banked steeply and slid down into the valley. They had seen Ian’s truck.
Other than the green and black camouflage pattern on its hull, the helicopter had no markings of any kind. As the helicopter hovered over the truck, Ian crept to the cave entrance. He was incapacitated by a confused mixture of anticipation and apprehension. The sight of other human beings elated him, yet the white clad soldiers leaning from the helicopter to examine the truck seemed alien and threatening.
The helicopter swung slowly in a full circle around the axis of its overhead rotors, then rose in a lazy spiral into the air. It was leaving! Ian panicked, realizing the machine was his only avenue of escape from his loneliness and the ravages of the Dream. He flung the plastic screen to one side, and raced outside in time to see the gunship bank toward the northwest.
Frustrated, Ian swore at the men in the helicopter.
“Goddammed sons of bitches!” he shouted at them, shaking his fist in the air. “Why the hell couldn’t you wait for another five minutes?”
He kicked hard at a rock. His toes seared in pain.
“Son of a bitch!” he screamed at the rock, and kicked it again.
He damned the rock and he damned the soldiers. He damned the Army. He damned the world and everything in it.
Wearily, Ian trudged back to the cave. He spent the afternoon repairing the damage both the wind and his haste had done to the plastic barrier. As he worked, version after version of his contact with the soldiers, each with a different ending ran through his mind.
Ian was afraid of them. Since his world had been blown away, he felt no kinship for the armed forces at all, no matter which country they represented. It seemed that whatever side they were on, any soldier was a potential threat to Ian’s existence. Watching the helicopters from the safety of the cave Ian had felt like a frightened rabbit being chased to ground. He realized that for the white-clad soldiers in the helicopter, the world hadn’t changed. The world after the war was an extension of the world that had existed before the bombs had dropped, and their lives were still governed by the peculiar logic of pre-nuclear politics and warfare.
He knew they wouldn’t be sympathetic to his complaints of nightmares and loneliness. They would have taken him to their base and handed him over to an army psychiatrist. He would be pronounced unfit to serve any useful function. Would they turn him loose to find his own way back to the cave? Inter him in a refugee camp? Put him in front of an execution squad so that he wouldn’t drain their remaining resources? Would they balance the liability of his existence against any possible asset he might be to the skeletal state they still served?
Yet, under those white radiation suits they were still human beings. Perhaps they had orders to search for survivors, to give whatever assistance was required. They might have given me one of those radiation suits, Ian mused.
They could have just as easily been under orders to shoot on sight. Not to take any chances. Shoot first and ask questions later. An organization prepared to blow away the planet to justify its existence was capable of anything. After all, these were the same men who had caused the rain of death to fall from the skies.
The soldiers were the last of their kind. One day, they would run out of food. What use would their helicopters be without refineries for fuel? What would they do when they had no more ammunition? Where would the steel come from? Who would man the mines and the factories?
Ian pushed the thoughts of the missed chance to end his isolation from his mind. He decided to go down to the lake. He was almost out of water anyway. What difference would it make if he went today or the next?
Just before sundown, with the doctor’s little penlight in his hand and his packsack over his shoulder, Ian set off down the hill. It was dark by the time he reached the lake, and it took him twenty or thirty minutes to walk along the shore to the truck. Ian knew the route almost by heart, and only turned the penlight on briefly to re-orient himself when he lost his bearings in the darkness.
The truck was waiting for him. The pebbles on the beach crunched under his feet as he walked up to it.
“Hiya, old girl,” he greeted it affectionately, “how ya doin’?”
The truck didn’t answer.
He slid his fingers gently through the bars of the grill and touched the lever. The hood popped open, and he lifted it out of his way and reached into the engine compartment. He pulled off the air cleaner, and after wiping off the dust, carefully placed it over the carburetor. He closed the hood gently, and patted the fender as he walked around to the driver’s side, and climbed in. He sat behind the wheel of his truck, motionless, staring out at the moonlit beach. His lips silently mouthed the name, “Linda”.
Then, as if waking from a trance, he shook his head and touched his fingers to his temples, then stepped from the truck. He wandered to the edge of the water and shucked off his clothes. He crouched down and washed both himself and his dirty clothes in the lake. The water was warm, and he lay on his back in the shallows.
Staring up at the dimly luminous clouds, Ian floated peacefully on the water, cleansed spiritually as well as physically. He was no longer worried about missing his chance to call the soldiers. He had all the time in the world to find them again. Every decision, which had brought him to that time and place, floated through his consciousness. Each twist and turn of his life had a purpose, and he was meant to be where he was.
Ian had a destiny.
He had been chosen. By what or whom, he wasn’t sure, but he knew there was a reason for his living when so many had died. It was more than coincidence.
It was fate.
The thought of some supreme being slaughtering millions of human beings in order for Ian to fulfill his destiny was ridiculous, but the feeling clung to Ian persistently, and he lay in the water a long time, until the night cold broke through his reverie.
Invigorated, Ian stood up and ran to the shore. He pulled his towel from his knapsack and dried himself off. He scooped some petroleum jelly with his fingers from a jar in his pack and rubbed it into his sunburned arms. The burn was taking a long time to heal.
He washed out the towel and threw it on his wet clothes. He pulled his dry clothes from the pack and dressed slowly, making a ritual of putting his clothes on. He rolled the top of his socks to the toe, sliding the roll over the end of his foot, then unrolling it up his leg, smoothing out the wrinkles as he went. Ian stood up as he shrugged on his shirt.
Standing like a warrior preparing for battle, his feet apart, Ian stared across the lake as he did up the buttons. Not quite as elegantly, he stepped into his jeans. He cinched his belt tightly around his waist. A second pair of socks went over his jeans. Ian draped the silk scarf over the top of his head, and slid the helmet over it. After he buckled the strap around his chin, he wrapped the scarf around his throat, then across his mouth and nose, finally tucking the ends inside his collar. He buttoned the collar and turned it up. He picked up his gloves and slid them onto his hands over his shirt cuffs. He shrugged into Sam’s oilskin. He left it unbuttoned, as he found it difficult to bend at the waist after he had buckled it. There was a purpose to the ritual of dressing. His outside gear protected him from the dust. Every article of clothing had to fit tightly to the next to ensure the dust did not penetrate his armor.
He sat down on the beach to stuff his wet clothes into his knapsack and pulled on his rubber boots. Finally, oilskin cinched around him and his pack strapped to his back, he walked over to the truck and patted the hood.
“I’ll be back,” he promised, and started back to the cave.
As Ian followed the game trail he used as a pathway around the lake, an ache developed in his back and legs. He ignored the pain as best he could, but the ache worsened until he eventually had to stop halfway up the mountain to rest. He sat on a large, flat rock waiting for his legs to recover. He was tired, and had trouble keeping his eyes open. He almost drifted off, lulled to sleep by the hypnotic hiss of the dust.
His eyes snapped open. He had no desire to wake up in the morning covered in a film of dust. Reluctantly and stiffly, he stood up and continued his trek up the mountain. The ache worsened, and Ian felt the flush of a fever as he concentrated on placing one foot in front of the other. The rest of the world slipped from existence and his awareness extended only as far as the next footstep. As long as he kept staring at the ground in front of him and didn’t look up to see how far he had to go, he knew he could reach the cave.
Just don’t fall asleep...
Finally, Ian pushed his way past the plastic barrier. Without the strength to undress or wash the dust from his mouth and nose, he collapsed on his sleeping bag and fell asleep.
Someone shook Ian’s shoulder, Ian’s eyes snapped open, and his mind recoiled at the sight of a gas-masked soldier kneeling over him.
“Wake up!” the soldier shouted at him, “Get up!” His mask muffled his voice.
Ian stared at the soldier blankly, trying to shake off the dullness of exhaustion. He peered into the goggles to see the soldier’s face, but all Ian saw was his own image reflected in the glass. The space behind the glass was black, and the darkness stretched into infinity.
Suddenly, Ian was awake! They had come back for him!
Ian was filled with the overwhelming desire to hug the soldier, and sat up happily and looked around him.
The cave was ablaze with light, but Ian couldn’t determine its source. All the soldiers he had seen in the helicopter were there! They seemed agitated, and their attention was focused on the mouth of the cave.
Ian stood up, removing his motorcycle helmet.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“The chopper cut out on us,” explained a soldier, “We had to set her down just the other side of the ridge.”
“They started coming as soon as we landed,” continued another, pushing forward. “We fired at them, but they kept coming! They got the Lieutenant. He never had a chance, there was just too many of them!”
The hairs on Ian’s neck rose and the slow wave of shock took hold of him as his veins and arteries shrank...
“Who? Who are you talking about? You’re-”
“The dead people!” the soldier said frantically, “Every fuckin’ corpse on the planet is coming alive!”
The soldier grabbed Ian by the arms. “You’ve got to help us! We’re out of ammunition!”
Ian didn’t have time to answer. A soldier screamed as a disfigured hand clawed through the plastic screen and caught him by the neck. The screen crackled and collapsed as a horribly burned and mutilated figure broke violently through the barrier. Wrestling desperately with his attacker, the soldier disappeared, still screaming, under a pile of broken branches and ripped plastic. Massed behind the first intruder was an animated sea of rotting, disintegrating bodies, a ghastly flood of grossly mangled ghouls that poured into the cave, heedless of their own mortality. The hideous corpses quickly overwhelmed the soldiers and pressed toward Ian.
They’re coming for me!thought Ian.
A soldier beside Ian, struck down by a vicious blow to the head, fell senselessly to the ground in front of him. His mask and uniform melted away and fused into his skin. The fallen body, now mutated beyond recognition, rose and seized the nearest still-living comrade and the two fell to the ground locked in a frantic and deadly embrace.
Suddenly, in the grisly sea of faces that surrounded him, Ian recognized one of the disfigured corpses.
“Dad!” Ian yelled through the sound of the fighting. Ian’s father didn’t hear him. Ian pushed past a soldier next to him and fought viciously through the morass of slimy hands that pulled at him. He came within an arm’s length of his father, but couldn’t reach him. Ian freed himself to stretch a hand toward his father, but was dragged away as a mangled arm wrapped around his neck. Desperately, Ian struck out at his tormentors, flailing his arms and legs like a demented human combine, shattering the countless bodies pressed against him. Heads exploded into pieces as he struck out, and the air filled with the dust of decayed flesh, clogging his nose and mouth with the unmistakable odor of burnt flesh, stinging his eyes, but he fought on, heedless of the stench and horror of the shattered bodies around him. He had to reach his father!
“Dad!” Ian screamed, “Dad!”
Finally, Ian reached his father’s side and grabbed him by the arm, but it came away from its socket, and pulled away from his father’s shoulder. The flesh disintegrated under Ian's hand.
“No!” Ian whispered in horror. He dropped the arm in disgust. “No, Dad...No!”
The dismembered arm fell apart as it hit the floor. “No!”
Ian looked up into his father’s face, which stared lifelessly back at him with no sign of recognition. There was no life in his father’s eyes.
His father was dead.
“It’s me!” Ian yelled in desperation, “Don’t you recognize me?”
The corpse that had been his father turned to face him. “We are all dead,” it intoned.
“No!” Ian shouted back, “No, Dad, I’m alive! I survived!” Like a sluggish wave, the living dead turned and focused upon Ian.
“We are all dead,” they repeated.
“No, it’s not true!” he screamed at them, “It’s not true! I’m alive! I survived!”
Ian looked frantically for the soldiers for reassurance, but they had vanished. The crowd of corpses shuffled forward menacingly, and Ian backed away, repelled by the vision of his father so horribly mutated.
The universe slipped sideways as he realized he was dreaming again. He blundered back to the cave wall, stumbled and fell. Far off in the distance, Ian heard the beat of helicopter blades, and as the sound came nearer, he screamed for help.
But the sound of his plea never reached his lips.
They can’t hear me, he thought. Unless I wake up, they won’t hear me! They’ll fly past! Wake up! Wake up! Please, I have to wake up! They won’t hear me if I don’t wake up!
And the whispering of dried skin rubbing on dry skin filled the cave as rotting fingers reached for him. Miraculously, at the first touch of the decayed hands, Ian awoke.
But the far-off beating of helicopter blades was gone. It was just a dream, he told himself disappointedly, Just a dream. Ian was amazed at the speed at which he had catapulted back to reality. Soaked in sweat, he lay where he had fallen in the Dream.
Ian struggled to his feet, and reached into his pocket for a cigarette. Hands shaking, he took one from the pack and lit it, drawing on it deeply, letting the smoke fill his lungs.
Or was he?
He turned over his lapel for the safety pin.
It wasn’t there!
He knew he had fastened it under his lapel! He searched his pockets, pulling them inside out in desperation. It had to be there! His wet clothes!
Perhaps he had left it in his clothes when he had changed down at the lake. With the old, familiar dread pushing at him, Ian reached into the packsack. Empty.
He looked at the large boulder where he usually hung his clothes out to dry.
Frantically, Ian looked around him for something to use as a substitute for the pin. In desperation, Ian grabbed an empty tin can and slashed his arm with the jagged edge of the lid. Blood spurted from the open wound, but he couldn’t feel anything! He cut deeper... Still nothing! He hacked desperately at his arm, hoping to feel the welcome stab of pain that never came...
He was still dreaming.
He heard the murmur of voices from beyond the mouth of the cave, and let the tin drop to the floor...