Earworm: Part 67 — Epilogue

Continued from: Earworm: Part 66 — Figment

Earworm“These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.”

—William Shakespeare, The Tempest


Wilner Bright

Excerpt from the Mystic Crier:

Mystic Island Teen Found in Mysterious Coma

A Mystic Island teenager was found in a coma by his mother early Wednesday morning. William Knight, 16, was discovered around dawn with his eyes open and unresponsive, said Mystic Island emergency care providers. The cause of the coma is still unknown. Doctors at Mystic Mercy Hospital say there is no apparent cause for the boy’s condition. William’s mother, Greta Knight, reported that there is a history of sleeping disorders in William’s family, but doctors cannot determine a connection between any disorder and the coma at this time.

William Knight recently began attending Mystic Island High School, where it is said he was a good student and well liked…

The newspaper clipping rested neatly in a shoebox, along with old letters, pictures, and other clippings. The shoebox placed beside an old, dysfunctional music box in the back of Greta Knight’s closet.

Widow Might

Hope now visited a shrink weekly, but as he sat waiting for her to “open up,” she sat in silence, inventorying his office. She was almost finished with her time at the sleep lab, but the doctors there didn’t find anything unusual with her sleep patterns. No matter, the nightmares seemed to have stopped anyway. The last one being the night she roused her parents with deathly screeches—her final battle with William—and her parents, after finding her looking like the lone survivor of a holocaust, rushed her to the hospital.

When they arrived at the Emergency Room, they found Joel Fitch’s mother already in the waiting area. The doctors thought Joel had some kind of seizure during the night. He somehow bit through his lip and bruised his ribs while sleeping. What Hope and Joel’s parents didn’t realize, as they talked together in low tones, was that another Mystic Island High School student’s mother sat in the waiting room’s far corner.

Greta Knight, wringing her hands, watched the early morning news shows on one of the television screens scattered about the room. She murmured something to herself in a running commentary, speculating on what had happened to William, suspecting that his body was now just an empty, staring shell, and that his soul now wandered, restlessly searching for a host dream.

Winter Frights

Since that final dream with William, Hope focused all her energy on preparing for college—no longer concerned with the petty tide pool that is the high school social structure. She also focused on her relationships with her family, realizing how important they were. She broke up with Joel, but they were still close friends. They never spoke of what happened that night, both of them working to rebuild the walls of their minds, both of them trying to reform the division of reality and fantasy. At times, Hope still found herself jumping at shadows and tricks of the eye, and she saw Joel doing the same, but all in all—physical and emotional scars aside—they came out unharmed. She knew she’d be fine. After all, she owned the moon and the stars. But still, sometimes she wondered what became of William Knight, and whose dreams he’d visit.

William Knight

William wound into Stanley’s twisted thoughts, capturing his adopted father’s mind. In the dream, Stanley stood in his cell, looking down at his hospital bed with his back to William.

“Hello, William,” Stanley said, not bothering to turn and look at him.

William inventoried the cell, searching for what fright to bring to life, feeling satisfied with Stanley’s pathetic attempts to avoid him. “Well, Stan,” William said, “seems we’ll be spending a lot more time together.”

“Oh, I know,” Stanley said.

The smile left William’s lips. He felt a frightened, struggling presence in this dream world. But that frightened, struggling presence wasn’t Stanley.

Stanley stepped back from the bed and turned to face William. Stanley’s face drawn in a content grin. William looked down to see a man—with badly bleached, orangey hair and a black goatee—strapped to the thin, worn mattress of the bed. The man’s white, orderly uniform crawled with an assortment of creeping critters—from centipedes to scorpions—they scurried across the man’s face, in and out of his ears and across his staring, darting eyes. Those staring eyes fell onto William, and in a crying whisper, the man begged, “Please, help me.”

Stanley’s grin widened. “Guess what I’ve learned to do?”

The End

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Earworm: Part 66 — Figment

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 65 — The Gargoyles

They were streaks of gray lightning. Two holding her arms on either side of her. Another behind her, holding her head with splayed, clawed hands, forcing her to watch as the final creature stalked toward her. The final gargoyle’s face closing in as if for a passionate kiss. Hope closed her eyes, awaiting the jaws to sever her flesh and grind her bones.

Oh, God, please help me.

But then there came an explosive crash.

Hope opened her eyes, finding that the gargoyle before her was now a shattered pile of stone pieces. A man stood over the broken gargoyle. Hope shook her head, trying to make sense of what was before her. But as her mind grasped for an explanation, the gargoyles at her sides released her and pounced at her rescuer.

The man caught one gargoyle like a ballet dancer receiving a leaping ballerina, and he tossed it over his head, shattering it into granite chunks at his feet. The other gargoyle vaulted onto the man’s back, wrapping its arms around his throat, its wings waving frantically as the man tried bucking it off. The man lowered his shoulder and the creature toppled over his head. The creature slamming onto the floor, splitting into sections—its legs running in circles, arms clawing at the floor, its wings flapping in fluttering confusion, its yelping, decapitated head rolling across the flagstone.

When the man turned to face Hope, she saw the strong, handsome features of her father. Not the eyeless corpse of William’s nightmares, but the vibrant, loving man from her memories. “Wake up, Hope,” her father called to her. “It’s a dream. Wake up.”

The final gargoyle released Hope, and she fell to the floor. “Daddy?” Hope said in a soft, detached voice. She then looked at William. William looking as if being confronted with someone he thought he’d long since murdered, and Hope realized, probably at the same moment William did, that her father was not an image William had called into the dream.

“No, you can’t be here,” William said.

“Hope,” her father said, “you’re stronger than he is, wake up.”

“Shut up,” William said like a child in the throes of a tantrum. “You’re nothing but a… fucking figment. Get out of my castle.”

“Hope’s castle,” Hope’s father said. And the castle’s stone walls returned to the gold of their former etched patterns. The flagstone floor bleaching to a smooth marble field. And beside William, the final stone gargoyle shrank into a gold cherub.

“No,” William said, his eyes shut tight, his hands balled into fists. “The castle is mine.”

A hand rose from the marble floor—like a King Kong sized hand of Michelangelo’s David—capturing Hope’s father in its grasp.

“Daddy,” Hope cried.

“Hope. Wake up,” her father said, struggling in the hand’s grip.

“It’s all mine,” William shouted as the toddler-sized cherub grew to a seven foot giant. Its body thickened with rippling, gold muscles. Feathered wings reaching from its back in a ten-foot span.

William closed his eyes, as if fighting off dizziness, and Hope noticed a ripple distort the castle’s walls. William opened his eyes again. His eyes filled with a cocktail of hurt, confusion, panic. “Hope, why are you doing this?”

“Let me go, William.”

“Why did you pretend to like me?”

“William, you can’t make me stay.”

“But I’m the only person that can give you what you want. I’m the only one that can give you your father. Do you really want to lose him again?”

“He’s been dead for six years, William. He never really came back.”

“Then who’s that?” William shouted, pointing at her father.

“That’s a cruel joke from a sick mind. Like you said, he’s a figment.”

The winged creature approached Hope’s father. William saying, “You know, I can have your father killed for you over and over again, every night for the rest of your life.” The creature lunged at Hope’s father.

“No,” Hope screamed, stepping forward. She felt the moon jewel bounce against her breast. The same moon William asked Hope to believe in and bestowed upon her, the same object that carried into each new dream. She yanked it from her neck, snapping the thread of stars. “William,” she cried, holding the moon over her head, “You take your moon and stars and you can shove them.” She riffled the moon at William.

With a flash of light and report of shattering glass, the moon disappeared at William’s feet, leaving a tiny hole about the size of a golf ball in the marble floor. The marble around the hole began to twist, drawn like water down a drain. The gold walls creaking and groaning, stretching, reaching in a slow, orbiting swirl, their gold edges running onto the floor. The hand imprisoning Hope’s father became smoke. The winged creature burst into gold dust and disappeared like sun-drenched mist.

“No,” William cried, scampering toward Hope, but Hope’s father pulled him back. Their feet constricting into the tiny hole. William screeching as his ankles and shins collapsed into the chasm.

Hope’s father called, “Hope, wake up,” as he and William continued sinking into the hole. William writhing and screaming, his eyes filling with terror, his neck twisting and collapsing into the hole. Hope’s father disappeared into the floor. William made a final, futile attempt at escape, letting out a scream of anguish. The scream cut short as the floor swallowed him forever.

The floor was now mostly etched gold and the mural ran onto the walls in stretching warped streaks. Hope slid toward the hole as it finished off the last of the marble and pulled the rest of the castle hungrily toward it. She shut her eyes. William was exorcised from her mind—the animal in her head expelled—yet the hole still drew her toward it. She strained her body, her heart feeling as if being yanked through her chest. She anticipated the horror of being crushed and sucked into everlasting darkness, and she screamed with one final tug at her soul, leaping, screeching, from her bed.

The bedroom’s door crashed open, light from the hall spilling in through the doorway and revealing Hope like a lone figure in a stage’s spotlight, hair in frenzied tangles, eyes ringed blue, mouth hanging with quivering lips.

“Hope,” her mother screamed—in a tone far exceeding that’s it—and she rushed to her daughter’s side, taking Hope’s face in her hands. “For God’s sake,” she screamed, “What is wrong with you?”

Hope didn’t answer as her exhausted, ringed eyes searched her mother’s face.

Continued in: Earworm: Part 67 — Epilogue

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Earworm: Part 65 — The Gargoyles

Continued from: Earworm: Part 64 — Into the Heart of Horror

As Hope ran through the castle’s main hall, she noticed two things. One: William’s grip on her mind was tightening like an out-going anchor line around the ankle of an unsuspecting sailor. And two: something was happening to the interior of the castle. The gold running out of the hall like liquid, the marble becoming flagstone blocks, the walls becoming the dark texture of granite. The ceiling’s moving mural became grotesque scenes of suffering and misery, and encircling it, the gold cherubim were now four, stone gargoyles. Their demonic heads turned to watch Hope run past them, their sneering mouths revealing caverns of stone teeth.

Hope ran for the castle’s front doors, trying to escape what was once her childhood solace. She reached for the doors’ wrought iron rings to heave them open. The wooden doors warped and twisted, carved dragon faces lunging from each door’s surface. The dragon faces reaching for Hope like attack dogs straining against leashes. Hope scurried back and stumbled to the floor. Climbing to her feet, she looked back at William. William standing in the center of the castle’s main hall, watching her like a child watching the futile efforts of a bug in a jar. That look enraged Hope, and she stormed toward him, wanting to smash that expression right off his face. Her bare feet pounded on the flagstone floor, the lunar jewel swung on its chain of stars.

“William,” she shouted, “that’s it. If you don’t let me go right now, I’m going to…” She stopped.

William was looking up, as if admiring a cloud formation, and it was the casualness of his look that froze her.

Hope heard the grinding, cracking sound of stone against stone. She followed William’s gaze to the ceiling. The gargoyles were stretching like cats waking from a nap. Then, with quick, heaving twitches, they freed their bodies from their perches. The four gargoyles dropping to the floor, landing, crouched, their wings spreading open to their full span. As the creatures rose from their crouches, Hope saw their talons and their chiseled, wiry muscles, their devil tails darting like barbed whips, their mouths gorged with teeth. Their movements had a deliberate quickness—stalking, yet explosive—and when they rose onto their back haunches—about five-feet tall at full height—they stood tensed, coiled, ready to pounce.

William stepped in front of the gargoyles. Panic was in his voice. “Hope, please, stop this,” he said, holding his hands at his sides and closing his eyes. “Just listen to me.”

“I hate you.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“The hell I don’t.”

“Hope, stop, our love can…”

“I don’t love you,” Hope screamed.

“How can you say that? Don’t you remember our times here in the castle? You don’t just walk away from someone you shared this much with.”

“William,” Hope said, her voice trembling, “none of it was real.”

“What’re you talking about? Look around you. This…”

Hope had had it. It really was “it.” She felt as if her nerves were now live wires jumping and darting out of control, and she leapt forward, screaming, “Let me go,” landing a punch across the tip of William’s chin. But before she could throw a second punch, or the several that would have followed if she had had the chance, the gargoyles appeared before her with blinding speed. The gargoyles hissing, their teeth exposed in crazed turmoil.

Hope stepped back, her eyes darting onto each gargoyle. William was crouched to the floor, his hands covering his face, his shoulders heaving. With what little cognition one can hold onto in such a moment of terror and panic, Hope chose to take her chances with the front doors, and she sprinted for the castle’s entrance.

A gargoyle streaked past her, running on all fours in the graceful, powerful gait of a cheetah. It then cut in a frightfully beautiful motion to face her, and Hope froze in her tracks. The thing backed her away from the doors with its empty, black eyes, its mouth full of razors and knives, its wings rising from its back. It hissed, and its companions behind Hope answered its call in a hellish chorus. “It’s not real,” Hope murmured, but her focus was on the gargoyle’s dagger teeth and how they would sink into her flesh, piercing and tearing. Maybe the dream wasn’t real, but could her sleeping mind endure being eaten alive?

She ran for one of the sweeping stairways, hoping to find somewhere to hide. Almost tripping on the first riser, she recovered her balance and bounded up the steps. But something stopped her as she reached the first landing. An echoing, wailing screech splitting the castle’s hall. Hope looked down to see a gargoyle standing at the foot of the stairs. It flexed its wings and leapt into the air, flying toward the ceiling. Then it folded its wings and, unleashing another screech, swooped down toward Hope.

Hope turned to run up the stairs, but this time she did trip, splaying on the granite steps. The gargoyle snatched her up, as a raptor snatches a mouse, Hope hanging from the thing’s clutches, limp and defeated as the gargoyle descended to the floor. The other gargoyles gathered like baby birds for a feeding. “It’s not real,” Hope said as her feet found the floor and the gargoyle released her.

William stepped between Hope and the gargoyles. “Hope, please, I can’t really control them,” he said, nodding over his shoulder at the creatures gathering around them. “Please, just listen to…”

Hope spat in his face.

William’s head darted back, his hand going to the wad of spit that crawled down his cheek like a slug. He wiped it away. “Hope.” His voice trembled. “Look, I just want to go back to the way we were.”

“We weren’t anything.”

“Hope.” William tried to meet her eyes like a parent explaining punishment to a child. “Let’s just start over. You’ll see, it’ll be great. I can give you anything. We’ll just start over, okay? So… hi, I’m William Knight.” He offered his hand to be shaken.

Hope swatted at his face. And the gargoyles were upon her.

Continued in: Earworm: Part 66 — Figment

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Earworm: Part 64 — Into the Heart of Horror

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 63 — Frenzy

William couldn’t believe she’d done it. And now he felt his thoughts and emotions running away from him. Something taking over in him. Anger hijacking control of his mind, and where it was taking him, he didn’t quite know. He only knew that he had been in control of this situation a moment ago. Literally having Joel underfoot. Joel being little more than a doormat at that point, the corpse and python having taken any fight Joel might have had left in him. And as far as William was concerned, Hope’s screams for Joel to wake up might as well have been the useless cheers she was so good at. Ra-ra, Joel, he’s our man, if he can’t wake up, no one can. It had been a beautiful irony attacking the real Joel Fitch with the same corpse that attacked Joel in Hope’s prior dreams. And the python was an extra nice touch. Joel’s latent childhood fears even providing the thing’s face and yellow eyes. But it was the rats William liked most. William pulled that fear from the deepest depths of Joel’s subconscious, digging and prying into Joel’s mind like the great and terrible Oz searching his bag of tricks. He opened the fabric of the dream—a difficult task, holding two minds at once—and there they were, a wave of squirming rats flowing onto Joel like a tsunami.

William had felt a bit dizzy—struggling to hold the illusion together—and he feared for a moment that he might lose Joel, or that the big oaf would at least be able to buck William off of him. But William shook off the dizziness and focused on the battalion of teeth and fur as the rodents gnashed and gnawed, the football star flailing comically. William thinking, Still think you and your buddies are gonna mess with me? How about your buddy Guard? He want to challenge me in here? But then something tapped him on his left shoulder.

He turned but saw nothing there. Then, turning to his right, he saw Hope, her mouth determined, eyes hateful, arm cocked with a fist like a wrecking ball. And that’s when she did it. She let that fist go, snapping back William’s head. And in the tug-of-war over Joel’s mind, William’s grip loosened and Joel gave one final jerk for freedom.

Joel disappeared beneath the carpet of rats. The rats scurrying about, confused and disoriented, searching for their victim until their dull, gray color faded to a polished, shiny white as they melted into the marble floor.

William touched his chin where Hope’s fist had connected. Hope screaming, “You freak.” The novelty of hearing such hatred spew from her made the words even that much more hurtful. She lunged forward and pushed William onto the floor.

A jolt of pain ran through his spine, his teeth rattling with an “Umf.” And as he watched Hope run off through the castle, William felt two things. One: with Joel gone, his grip on Hope was tightening. And two: he was losing control of the castle’s landscape, it was changing into something else, and Hope was running deeper into the heart of it.

Continued in: Earworm: Part 65 — The Gargoyles

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Earworm: Part 63 — Frenzy

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 62 — Face Off

Joel fought for breath, but it came in sharp, biting hitches. Rising to his hands and knees, gasping, he choked on a painful cough. He once cracked a rib playing football and the stabbing in his side was reminiscent of that injury. Can you really break a rib while dreaming? he thought. But with numb uncertainty, Joel questioned if this really was a dream. And with numb uncertainty, an even more pressing question arose in his mind. What just threw him across the room?

Staggering to his feet, Joel turned to see a decaying corpse standing before him. Rotting flesh dangling from its bones, a gaping wound slashed through its throat.

Joel clenched his fist, his arm winding back, and when the thing was upon him, Joel threw his hardest punch. He expected the punch to be like those in his usual dreams—feeling as if punching through a giant rubber band—but his punch was a hammer and on target. His fist burying into the open gash of the thing’s neck, Joel feeling warm, damp rot, as if a diseased mouth had sucked in his hand. Joel struggled against the enveloping tissue with a sickening slurping sound, trying to free his hand, but the thing was changing. Its body lengthening and smoothing into the spotted, brown scales of a serpent. It wrapped its tail around Joel and dropped him to the floor with a thud. Joel looked up to see the snake’s head hovering above him, and with a nauseating drop of his stomach, he recognized the incarnation of a childhood nightmare. Above him was the face he imagined for the monster in the pipe—the one he and Guard had set out to exterminate years ago. Its yellow eyes were that of a cat, its pupils focusing into two thin slits, its tongue darting from its mouth, and its constricting coils forced Joel to once again battle for breath.

Hope was screaming, “Joel, wake up. Wake up, Joel.”

Joel glanced up at her with pleading eyes—pleading not for rescue or help, but for an explanation. He tried swallowing air, looking like a fish on a dock, and he tried to free himself, but with each pull he made, the coils constricted. He felt the same sensation in his head, as if his mind pulled on a taught rope, but the more his mind yanked, the more tension reeled him in. But what was doing the reeling?

“Joel. Wake up. You’re dreaming,” Hope screamed.

Joel looked into the slit pupils of the creature he once tried to incinerate with a makeshift flame thrower, and he said, “You’re not real.”

The snake hissed, revealing long, needle fangs. But instead of sinking the fangs into Joel’s flesh, the thing released him and melted into the floor, fading into the marble. Joel gasped, trying to get to his hands and knees, but William jumped, landing with two feet onto Joel’s back. Joel made a futile, airless yelp and collapsed to the floor.

“I’m real, Joel,” William said. “We’re playing by my rules now, tough guy. No volleyballs to save you here.” It didn’t sound like William, his words the frantic truculence of someone losing control. “C’mon, what’s next?” William called down at him.

Joel’s heartbeat knocked on the floor. Smooth marble against his cheek. He felt the weight of William’s feet pinning him down. He heard Hope’s shouts. He also heard, with his ear pressed against the floor, tiny vibrations traveling along the marble surface. Joel groaned, raising his head.

Hope stood a few yards away, looking down at Joel with desperate determination. “It’s not real. Joel, wake up,” she said.

But the feet standing on his back and the pain running through his body felt real enough, and he noticed something flowing down one of the stairways that flanked the castle’s hall. Coming from the far recesses of the castle was a wave of writhing, gray forms flowing like solidified swamp gas across the marble floor. And with those gray forms came a strange, squealing, squeaking, and a padding rhythm like tiny, charging horses.

Hope turned to see what was rushing toward them.

What is that? Joel thought.

Hope faced him again with a new look of urgency in her eyes. She began shouting in panicked screeches, “Joel, wake up. Wake up, now.” And as she hollered, Joel noticed something about the gray wave as it swept along the floor, over Hope’s bare feet, and charged toward him. In that writhing mass, Joel recognized his worst fear. Tiny, glowing eyes.

Rats swept upon him, vicious, growling squeaks engulfing him, tiny claws scratching, needle teeth snipping and tugging. Joel thrashed like a man trying to swim in a desert mirage, pinned in a sea of pain and horror as the tempest of rodents bit at his hands and arms and legs and feet and face. Joel crying, “Nooooo.”

And then it stopped.

The rats’ feeding frenzy no longer engulfed him. The rodents’ squealing, Hope’s screaming, all gone. Joel sat up in his bed, his breath heavy. He searched his room’s shadows, awaiting something to crawl from the darkness. But there was only the silent night. He still felt the ghost of biting, physical pain following him out of sleep and he licked his stinging lip. It tasted of copper wetness. He ran his fingers across his chin. they slid away in a greasy smear. He snapped on his light and found his bed’s sheets soaked in a crimson wash of blood. Joel Fitch then began to scream like he screamed in a drainpipe so many years ago.

Continued in: Earworm: Part 64 — Into the Heart of Horror

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Earworm: Part 62 — Face Off

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 61 — The Trap

William Knight

No, please, no.

William Knight

A flash of images and a rush of dreams. He was in.

Hope stood in the castle. The dome ceiling and mural above her. Around her, a reaching cosmos of golden echoes.

“William?” she called, the reverberation of her shaky voice making her realize just how frightened she was. She looked down at the necklace hanging from her neck, the moon jewel nestled between the ridges of her breasts. She took the orb in her hand and examined the craters and plains of the lunar landscape until her eyes could no longer hold its light. Goosebumps erupted across her skin. She felt a presence, another being, another soul, not just in the castle, but somehow winding into her subconscious. But this time, it was a different sensation than in her other dreams. Hope turned to look behind her.

Joel stood, dressed in nylon warm-up pants and a Mystic Wolves T-shirt. He was regarding the mural above him. Running his fingers through his hair, walking tentative, random steps. His bare feet planting on the marble floor—like a drunk’s trying to coordinate a sobriety test. The swooshing of his nylon pants filling the room with whispers. Hope watched him for a few seconds that seemed like hours. Making sure he had no knives or hatchets or meat hooks, or any other stereotypical slasher movie tools.

Hope called in a hushed voice, “Joel?”

Joel twitched and looked at her.

Hope realized that the other presence in her head wasn’t just the stalking animal she had felt in her other dreams. That stalking animal was still there—there was no doubt about that—but it was dormant, waiting. What she now felt was the stalking animal’s additional prey, like a cat showing a mouse to its owner. This time, Joel wasn’t just an image William had conjured into existence. Instead, that was the real Joel Fitch, somehow dragged along the dream-plane into Hope’s mind. Or was she dragged into his? Or, most frightening of all, were they both dragged into someone else’s mind? Joel watched her for few seconds—that seemed like hours—in the same manner she had watched him. Then his eyes scanned the gold walls again, his attention lingering on the mural.

He said, “I… uh… I think I’m dreaming.”

“Joel, I think we’re both having the same dream,” Hope said.

A flash of caution—the remembrance of past horrors—betrayed Joel’s eyes. He stepped back. “How do I know it’s really you?” he said, his hands balling into fists.

“Joel, you’re just going to have to trust me.”

“Yeah, but how do I know it’s really you?” He took another step back.

“Joel, it’s me. I won’t hurt you. Somehow William has us in the same dream.”

Joel’s head lulled to one side, “But….” His eyes scanning the hall again. “How do I know you’re not a nightmare that’s gonna…”

“For Christ’s sake, Joel,” William said.

Hope and Joel reeled around as William walked toward them.

William saying, “Yes, Joel, it’s really Hope. Hope, it’s really Joel. Do we get it now? Jesus, Hope, this is really who you want?” William motioned toward Joel. “This… walking bubblegum card?”

Joel regarded William as if William was some inanimate object that had one day started to speak. Hope, however, knew what was happening. And why William was there.

“William,” she said, forcing her voice to have the calm reason of a hostage negotiator. Which, in a terrifying way, she had just become. “However you’re doing this, getting into our heads like this, you’ve got to stop.”

William inspected the intricately etched gold of the walls and the precarious perfection of the domed ceiling. “Hope, don’t you like this place?” he said, holding his arms out toward the surroundings.

“Yes, William, I do like it. But it’s not real.”

“Real? Hope, real is merely perception. Look,” he said, gesturing toward Joel, “now that we’re joined by the real Joel Fitch, why don’t you ask him to do something spectacular? Go ahead and ask him to do anything… other than say something stupid that is. Go ahead, ask him to show you your castle’s secrets. Ask him to bring back your father. Go ahead, Hope, ask Joel to show you what he has to offer you. It’s really him standing there, and it’s really me standing here. You want to know what’s real? I’m real. You’ve already shared more with me than you possibly could with him. More than you could with anyone else. And this is just the beginning, I haven’t even begun to show you what I’m capable of giving you.”

“William, you can’t use a person’s desires to manipulate them,” Hope said.

“Manipulate? I brought you to where you wanted to go.”

“No, William, you… kidnapped me.”

“How can you say that? You willingly came with me. You said you wanted to see what I had to show you. I don’t understand how you can just walk away from it all.”

“William, all of it was a dream.”

“No, Hope. I was giving you what you most wanted.”

“By attacking me?”

“I didn’t attack you. I’d never attack you. I was trying to show you who I am. And who he is.” William pointed at Joel.

Joel’s eyebrows raised, his head bobbing back as if saying, who, me?

William saying to Hope, “He doesn’t care about you. He’s after one thing, and you know that. And if he doesn’t get it from you, he’ll get it somewhere else. Like your friend, Tara. Remember?”

“That was a dream you caused.”

“Was it? Why don’t you ask Joel? You see, here’s where your concept of reality breaks down. Go ahead, ask him.”

Hope glanced at Joel.

Joel raised his eyebrows in his who me? gesture again.

“William,” Hope said. “My personal life has nothing to do with you.”

“But it does. Don’t you understand? We’re connected. You welcomed me into your world when I welcomed you into mine.”

“No, William,” Hope said, “You attacked me. You attacked both of us.” She gestured toward Joel. “You held us hostage for the ransom of your own wants.”

Joel wandered around the floor, viewing the surroundings with the evident struggle for comprehension. “So… wait,” Joel said, still sizing up the visions around him. “You mean it’s true?” He looked at William. “You can really like, mess with our heads?”

“Welcome to the conversation, Joel,” William said.

“William,” Hope said in her calm, negotiator voice, “you have to let us go.”

“Hope, let me bring you your greatest desires, let me return your father to you.”     “My father’s dead, William.”

“He doesn’t have to be.”

“So, wait…” Joel said, “you’re, like, really messing with my head somehow?”

William looked at Hope. “How thick can he be?”

“But, wait,” Joel said. “Why?”

“To show Hope the truth.”

“The truth about what?” Joel said.

“About you,” William said. “You slam a volleyball in my face because you thought I couldn’t retaliate. Now you’ll see how wrong you were. I’m merely changing the playing field. Making it so I can play, too. I’m changing the rules from survival of the fittest, to survival of the strongest. And believe me, Joel, in here I am strongest.”

Joel shook his head and returned to inspecting the hall, wandering in random circles again. But Hope noticed definite bearing in his wandering. A shark circling prey.

Hope said, “William, you can’t make someone love you.”

“But I don’t understand why you won’t love me. I don’t understand why you won’t accept what I have to offer you. I mean, look at all this.” He held out his arms, gesturing to the gold walls and polished marble, “this is all…”

Joel sprang forward, wrapping his arm around William’s throat. Joel growling, “Now you listen here, freak, I don’t know how you’re getting into our dreams, and right now, I don’t care, but if we don’t wake up soon, I’m gonna dream about kicking the ever living shit out of you.”

“Joel, look out,” Hope screamed as the decaying corpse of her father materialized out of the marble floor. It was the same creature from Hope’s nightmare in the graveyard, and it tore Joel from William, tossing him through the air in a long, arching motion. Joel landing, sprawling and sliding, his skin squeaking across the marble floor.

Continued in: Earworm: Part 63 — Frenzy

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Earworm: Part 61 — The Trap

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 60 — Need for Remedy 

Emily’s heart plunged to her stomach. Her husband sat on the couch in his usual way. Feet up, legs crossed on the coffee table, hands folded on his belly, eyes staring at the television set. But the fact that the television wasn’t on was not the only thing askew with this picture. Emily regarded her husband’s staring, purple-ringed eyes. They glowed as if lit by some internal luminance, like an insect’s. She thought this might be caused by the mid-afternoon light streaming in from the front window, or maybe his eyes were so wide that she never noticed that much of their whites before. But it was more than that. His eyes burned with an intensity she never saw before… in anyone. She began to back up, a step at a time, hoping Glenn was too deep in his… thoughts—it didn’t seem like thoughts, more like some festering mood never given a classification, a kind of hopeless rage—to notice she was there, but his voice stopped her.

“What are you doing to me?” he said, his eyes never leaving the blank television screen, his body without the slightest movement. Emily was unsure if he was talking to her or talking to the television. “What’re you two like witches or something?” It didn’t sound like Glenn’s voice. It had the potential danger of a bear trap about to spring, and Emily decided she would have to cut through the dining room to reach the stairs. A slight detour to leave that bear trap alone.

She needed to get her money. And more importantly, she needed to get William.

Glenn then said, “I’ve seen you and that girl sneaking off into the woods around the bridge, dancing around fires, you little pagan whores with your demon pimps.” Glenn still didn’t move a muscle. His words seeping from him like the sulfur stench from a fissure. “You guys just dancing and laughing and chanting your spells and… I can feel you in my head.” Glenn’s gaze flashed onto her. It was like viewing a statue opening its eyes, and Emily gasped, her blood reaching absolute zero. Still, through some animalistic instinct, she stayed focused on her task, to get her son out of the house. Maybe she was somehow prepared for this moment by months of watching her husband’s slow, mental decline. Or maybe it was because she knew that Glenn was terrified of her. And why wouldn’t he be? But the true reason she remained focused was her single-minded instinct as a mother.

“Glenn, I need to leave for a time,” Emily said. Her voice eerily calm. “And I’m going to take William with me.”

Should she have said that?

Glenn didn’t respond. He just returned his attention to the blank television screen and sat still. Emily backed out of the living room, never taking her eyes from her husband, and then she darted through the dining room with the frantic speed of a mouse in a maze. She made it to the stairs, and as she placed her foot on the first riser, she caught a glimpse of Glenn—still sitting as if part of the couch—before fleeing up the steps. Should she grab William first, or should she risk getting the cash from her music box? Her cousin, Greta, had given the music box to her when they were young. The thing didn’t work anymore, but Emily never had the heart to let it go. When Emily decided to start squirreling away the cash, she removed the music box’s gears to create a false bottom. Emily needed that money. She wasn’t going to run far on credit, especially when the credit cards were all in Glenn’s name. She doubted he would sponsor her flight.

Was that what this was, a flight? Funny, because it felt more like desertion. But she loved Starling. She needed to run from this life. She needed to run from that look in Glenn’s eyes.

The look I created, she thought, barely realizing she’d floated into her bedroom on numb feet—knowing how Jesus must have felt walking on water.

She whisked into her closet and dug the music box from beneath an intentional tangle of old clothing. She flipped the music box open, popped out the plastic ballerina—the figure’s paint chipped from years of pointless spinning—and knocked out the false bottom. She took the faded tens and twenties and tossed aside the box, stepping from the closet, starting for the door with money in fist. She stopped. Glenn stood in the bedroom’s doorway, head buried in the crook of his elbow, forearm leaning against the jam as if counting to begin a game of hide-and-seek. With his face hidden, he said, “What’s that? Whore money?” Emily regarded the man in the doorway. A man looking as if weeping into his arm, sounding as if lost in a dream. But she knew better. He was lost in reality. She reviewed her options, which came in frantic scenarios. Fight her way past him? Talk her way out? Or should she ask him to start counting and give her a head start?

Ready or not, here I come.

But what about her son? She wasn’t leaving without William.

“Glenn,” Emily said in her over-calm voice, “I’m going to go now… and I’m taking William with me.”

“Mm-hm,” he mused in a sopping voice. Was he crying? Emily took a tentative step, forgetting about the money clenched in her hand—“whore money,” as Glenn called it, but actually the cashed-in change she saved since childhood in a water-cooler jug—her sole intention to get her son, and get away from this man’s warped mind. And who warped that mind? Who walked him down that path? Emily and Starling thinking it a joke to noodle around in her husband’s mind. It was a childish game no one thought would come to harm. Emily thinking the man-hunting deer dream—Starling’s idea—was especially funny. Emily justifying this… torture? Bullying? As liberation from Glenn’s possessiveness. But Emily knew it was really revenge for the wasted years she spent pretending—be fair, believing—she loved him. Now, Emily was faced with taking responsibility for the mind she’d warped. She regarded the man she’d seen almost every day for the past seemingly countless years, but who now stood before her as a man she barely recognized. She took another step forward. Then stopped. Gauging his reaction, the pendulum swing of her will providing her with intense courage one moment, only to steal it away the next. She tried to hold onto that final upswing and ride it forward through the hellish tollbooth in the doorway. The image of William lying in his crib rose in her mind, and she sucked in her breath, creeping forward like someone trying not to wake a snoring guard dog. It occurred to her that she might be able to step right past him. He didn’t seem aware that she was even there. Or that he was even there for that matter. And with a fleeting flash of nausea, she realized he probably thought he was dreaming at that moment. He was leaning against that doorjamb, probably trying to wake himself up. She continued forward, turning her body to squeeze past him, watching his shoulders rise and fall in slow, deep waves, stopping, gathering the courage to make the final squeeze past him.

Without peeking from behind his arm, Glenn struck Emily’s hand, and the money spilled from her grasp. She watched the bills flutter away like gulls scattering for scraps.

“I feel you in my head,” he said. “You crawl around in there, somehow poisoning me. I can feel it in my body, running through my veins.” He spoke in a voice both desperate and direct. “You’re not going to steal my boy, you and that other witch. You in her head too? Is that how you do it? Or is she in your head? Or…” his eyes rose to the ceiling as if never noticing it before, “are you both able to do it? Couple of minions for the devil are ya? Because I can feel his hand in this. You see, I can feel the evil blanketing this world, and it spews from you. You and that girl next door. I’ve been watching you, just like you’ve been watching me in my dreams.” His eyes returned to her. “I can see right through you.”

“I’m leaving, Glenn,” Emily said. She spoke in a steady, almost reassuring way.

He looked around the room as if expecting answers to be written on the walls. Tears filled his eyes and a heart-wrenching sob broke from deep inside him. He now seemed less like the bear trap and more like the animal caught in it. “Why?” he said. His voice was so full of breath, it came out as a whistling whisper.

“I need to go. I’ve been living your life, not mine.”

“I thought it was our life,” he whined, and for a moment, Emily spotted the face of the man she married shine through the mask of the broken man he’d become.

“I don’t love you,” she said, touching his arm. “I thought I did, but there was supposed to be more. You still have the familiar comforts of your life. I don’t. I need to find my place, that’s all.” She squeezed his arm. He didn’t respond. He stared at the far wall, his shoulders continuing to rise and fall in their slow, steady waves.

Emily gathered up the money from the floor and with a final look at her husband, she walked out the bedroom door.

But she never actually made it out that door. She wasn’t sure when it happened—there was no quick movement or motion—Glenn’s hand simply appeared on her arm. She stared at it for a moment, like a person trying to banish a hallucination, and then she looked into his face. Some horrific Kabuki mask had replaced his features. The distant, stone glare of a man treading water between reality and the askew plane only visited when sleeping.

“So how’d the two of you do it—robbing me?” He nodded to the bills on the floor. “Robbing me of my money, of my pride, my honor, the two of you stealing into my mind?” His voice rose into a deep growl. His pupils floating in an ocean of white, his eyes still seemingly glowing. “And now you think you’re taking my son?”

Emily tried to wrench from his grip, the calmness of her voice breaking into frenzied screeches, “Let go of me. I told you, I’m leaving.” The sound of her panicked voice bringing wails from William’s bedroom, her child’s cries reinvigorating her desperation to reach him. They needed to escape. Starling had bought Dano’s van, and she was waiting at the bridge to begin their run west to Vegas or California. But Emily’s hopes were quickly airbrushed away, fading into streaked, blurring smears. She not feeling the vice-grip of Glenn’s hands. Feeling no pain as he slammed her body against walls and furniture. And the inarticulate ranting of the man beating her was white noise. She heard only the shrieks of her child, and she fought, relying on her will as a mother to reach him. But she was up against a stronger will. The will of insane hatred. She clawed and gnashed, but the blind strength of her husband—a man whose mind she had a hand in collapsing—overpowered her. She tried to fight her way off the floor, not even noticing the flashes of light each time Glenn’s fists rained down on her.

When Glenn finished his beating of her, he stood up. Emily struggled to find her feet. She looked up at her husband, and in a detached, onlooker sort of way, she watched him rock and topple the armoire—the one her grandmother had left her. The armoire falling in a slow, timbering arc. And in a calm, reassuring manner, she thought, That didn’t just happen. Even as the armoire crushed her ribs and back, her mind still insisted she was going to get her child, she was going to drive west with Starling. And then Emily lay alone for an unknown span of time. Her broken body hemorrhaging. Her mind floating in a blurry, hazy daze. But true panic only frothed, like the spray of a crashing tide, when she saw the looming form of her husband fill her vision, the flash of a steel blade, and Emily could no longer distinguish between her son’s wails and her own.

Continued in: Earworm: Part 62 — Face Off 

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Earworm: Part 60 — Need for Remedy

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 59 — The Rope

It was one in the morning and Hope’s eyelids drooped. “And that’s the thing about the Iron Bike, it fits conveniently and unnoticed in the corner of any room…” a woman on Hope’s television was saying in an overemphasized voice. Hope was falling asleep, there was no way around it. She closed her eyes, thinking how nice it would be to wake into a black and white world—Oh, Aunty Em, I had the strangest dream, and you were there, and you were there… Maybe everything that happened lately was merely a figment of her imagination. After all, look how realistic her dreams have been, blending one into the other to the point of she not knowing what is what or which is which. And what about Joel waking from one dream into another? Maybe Hope never woke from her last dream at all. Maybe she never woke from the initial dream of meeting William in her math class. Maybe the past few weeks were one, giant mega-dream. Maybe Joel never asked her out. Maybe there is no William Knight. Maybe her father never died and the past six years were just one long nightmare. Maybe she’d wake to her father calling, Wake up, My Hope. But as much as she wanted to hold onto that notion, the past nightmares clawed at her mind, feelings of foreboding evil left behind in her memories like sticky fingerprints. And now she feared returning to her defenseless, dreaming mind, because reality was one of two things: either she was crazy, or William Knight was attacking her dreams.

Hope’s eyes remained closed for periods long enough to distort her thoughts into dream-like flashes. She jerked. “And look, I’ve lost twenty-five pounds in three weeks. And the Iron Bike has given me the stamina to compete in day-to-day life. And you, too, can wun-wunna-wun-wan-wun…” the voice blended into a buzz. Hope’s leg kicked. She snapped awake. On the television, a woman tanned and oiled pedaled the Iron Bike to better fitness. Hope stared at the flickering images, her eyes closing one last time.

“Now, thanks to the Iron Bike, I can climb stairs without being winded…”—Flash—“Oh, Lucy, I’m home…”—Flash—“In other news…”—Flash—“For just $19.95…”—Flash—Flash—Flash—William tossed the clicker aside. He sat in the dark, the glow of the television screen transforming him into a gray, ghostly distortion that, along with the hateful sneer on his face, made him look like a Lon Chaney character in a silent movie. He looked up and watched, through prisms of tears, the shadows flicker and dance on the ceiling.

Why did Hope do this to him? Why did she create this heap of sadness shrouded in a pale, silver glow of misery? She seemed happy with the things he gave her. It was joy—no, it was elation—when he returned her father to her. She marveled at the castle. She giggled like a child while flying. I even gave her the moon. “What more does she want?” he said, slumped on the couch, looking like, and feeling like, something scraped off the bottom of a shoe, something squashed and discarded. What did Joel have that William couldn’t give her? And what’s more, look what William could give her that Joel could not.

William watched the shadows flickering across the ceiling, but what he saw was Hope and Joel together. Joel all over her with that predatory look of the hunter in his eyes. His weak mind at the whim of hormones raging faster than electrons. Every word and action driving him toward one simple goal: Conquest. And Hope thought everything Joel offered, all he said, was real. What a crock of shit. William knew better, he could see right through Joel. And to love Hope was not the verb Joel strived for. William envisioned Joel leering at Hope. Oh my, what big eyes you have, she would say as she looked into his glare as if hypnotized. All the better to look at other girls with, he’d say. What big ears you have, Hope would say, her lips parting from her teeth in an innocent grin. All the better to hear the “yes” in your “no,” Joel would say with a growl as soft as a kitten’s purr and with the warning of a snake’s hiss. And if any other wolves should enter his territory, he’d stare them back, bare his teeth, say things like, What’re you looking at, and smash them in the face with volleyballs. After all, Joel was clearly alpha. What a big mouth you have, Hope would say. All the better to tell you my lies with, he’d smile, baring those gleaming white teeth of his. Oh my, what big teeth you have, she’d giggle with surprise. All the better to feast on your flesh with, and all the other girls’ flesh I will feast on when I’m through with you.

William wanted to yell. He wanted to run from the pain. He wanted to hit and thrash out with the feelings that writhed and squirmed and grew within him. He wanted to explode. He wanted his aching heart to launch from his chest and fly across the room with gooey shrapnel of projectile flesh, hitting the wall and falling to the floor, free of his spinning mind. He never felt pain like this before. It felt like a red-hot spike skewering his gut. “Why does it hurt so much?” He wished he could go back in time. He wished he could go back and spot where his plan unraveled. He wished he could remedy his follies. He needed to see her. He needed to talk to her. He needed to work this all out with her. He couldn’t wait any longer. He needed to fix this. Hope needed to choose him.

Continued in: Earworm: Part 61 — The Trap

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Earworm: Part 59 — The Rope

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 58 — The Meeting

Joel watched the streetlights wander past the car’s window. Guard surfed through radio stations, swatches of bass beats and guitar riffs blinking by with stuttering speed. Joel tried not to glance at his friend behind the steering wheel, remembering a dream where Guard was a twisted mess of metal and flesh. But he stole a glance anyway, finding Guard alive and well, gripping the steering wheel as he always did—one hand draped over it, the other scanning through radio stations. Hope sat in Guard’s backseat, silent, the streetlights swimming in her eyes. Guard glanced in the rearview mirror to watch her, then he looked over at Joel. “Nothing good on the radio,” Guard chuckled in a heavy, murmuring voice. “You wanna have a go at being deejay, Joel?”

“Nah,” Joel said, still watching the lights flash by the window.

“How about you, Hope?” Guard said. He looked into the rearview mirror. “You hear anything you want to listen to?”

“No,” Hope said. Her voice floated from the backseat, sounding like a medium channeling a dead relative.

It’s all real, Joel. That’s what she had said to him. Standing in the parking lot of the library, she looking up at Joel with eyes that were dreamy, unattached, lost. And when Joel saw that odd—yes, that’s the best word for it, odd—look in Hope’s eyes, his spine froze. They weren’t the eyes of the girl he was dating. It was like looking into the eyes of a corpse… or a lunatic.

The car pulled to the curb in front of Hope’s house. “Here we are,” Guard said.

“Thank you, Guard,” that ghostly, beyond the grave voice said from the backseat. The car’s back door slammed shut and Hope started up her walkway.

“Woe, wait, Hope, hey.” Joel leapt from the passenger seat and jogged after her.

She turned on him like a pet that had gone bad. “What?”

“What do you mean, what? Are you okay?”

“Joel, you don’t care,” she said, turning to continue up her walk.

Joel darted in front of her. “What are you talking about? Of course I care.”

“Joel, you don’t even believe me.” She spoke in a soft, yet bitter voice, her eyes still distant, but somehow, those distant eyes focused on Joel with a very direct glare. The malevolent look of… a lunatic.

“It’s not that I don’t… Look, it’s not you that I don’t believe…”

“No, Joel, it is me,” Hope said, pushing past him.

“Hey, wait,” Joel said, grabbing her arm and turning her to face him in a rather melodramatic, film-noir way. Her glare focused on him, freezing his spine again. His eyes faltered to the ground. “What do you want me to say?”

“That you believe what I told you.”

“All right.”

“Say it.”

“It’s just that… I need more… I need some sort of… explanation.”

“Maybe he drugged us. Maybe it’s some kind of hallucinogen. Whatever it is, I know it’s him causing the dreams,” she said.

Joel cringed. Her eyes searing him.

“He just told me so,” she said.

“He actually said, Gee, Hope, by the way, I’m causing you to have bad dreams?”

“No, but he implied it.”

“Implied it?”

“I told you what he said.”

“Yeah, that he thought you were making fun of him.”

“See, you’re only telling part of the story.”

“That’s what you told me he said.”

“No,” she shouted. “He told me details I’ve never told anyone, not even you.”

Joel looked around Hope’s yard. He wanted to believe her, he really did. He wanted to believe anything, other than the possibility that his girlfriend was mentally unraveling. “It’s just a little… hard to swallow,” he said.

“That’s because you’re refusing to chew the facts.”

“No, it’s because I prefer a diet of reality,” Joel said. He winced, feeling as if he’d just slapped her across the face.

Hope stormed up the walkway.

“Hope…” Joel called, but he didn’t follow her. After all, he just basically accused her of being insane. He supposed they’d have to choose to disagree: Hope thinking her pot was fine, Joel thinking it cracked. More like shattered into itty-bitty pieces. Joel watched her enter the house and shut the door. He was tempted to go and humor her, tell her that he did believe her. After all, maybe it was just a passing delusion. But delusions don’t generally pass. Joel moped back to Guard’s car.

Guard still darted through the stations on the car’s radio. He looked over at Joel. “What was that all about?” he said. Joel shrugged, shaking his head. Guard pulled the car away from Hope’s yard. They passed a very large man walking a very small Boston Terrier. “Kinda funny looking,” Guard said, “you know, huge guy, such a… little…” His voice trailed off. He went back to flicking through the stations. After a few minutes of silence, he ventured to ask, “So… what happened? Did that William kid say something bad to Hope?”

“I guess.”

“Only time I’ve seen Hope that upset was when… what was that little shit’s name? Harry something?”

“Harry Hamilton,” Joel said.

“Yeah, that Harry kid said something bad about her father.”

“Yeah,” Joel said, staring out the window.

“So, what, did William say something bad about her father?”

“Nah, man, William just moved here, he wouldn’t know anything about her father,” Joel said. But something clicked in him, a paradoxical stream of thought. Hope seems to think William knows her father.

Guard tapped on the steering wheel, keeping time with the butchered songs he flashed through. Now and then, he flicked glances in Joel’s direction. Joel broke the silence, saying, “Hey, do you remember when we were little, and we thought there was a monster in the marsh behind our neighborhood?”

“Yeah… yeah,” Guard said with building excitement. Joel was unsure if his friend was reveling in the sense of nostalgia, or to the end of the stifling silence. “In that huge drainpipe.”

“And remember how we planned an expedition to kill it?”

“Yeah. We were gonna sell the body to the Smithsonian.”

“We figured we’d make millions,” Joel said.

“Hell yeah,” Guard said. “We were gonna take the money and build a killer tree fort with a television and an elevator…”

“Don’t forget the Ferrari go-carts.”

“And we were gonna tell our parents to kiss-off, now that we were putting the food on the table, and then they’d have to follow our rules.”

“No, Guard, I think that was just part of your plan,” Joel said, looking over at his friend.

Guard laughed. The sound rang musically through the tension in the air.

“We were gonna go into business killing monsters,” Joel said.

“Yeah, something like…” Guard reflected a moment, “Monster Patrol… or…”

“Creature Exterminators.”

“Creature Exterminators,” Guard repeated, laughing and hitting the top of the steering wheel with his palm.

“Remember when I climbed into the pipe with the flame thrower?”

“Yeah… yeah. A lighter and my sister’s hairspray,” Guard said. “We tied a rope around your waist, and I was supposed to pull you out if anything went wrong.”

“I remember crawling into the darkness, my eyes adjusting to the dark just in time to see that thing staring me eye to eye. I mean, I obviously didn’t see eyes, but I swore I could feel it staring at me. I thought I heard it groan, and I panicked.”

Guard bobbed his head, laughing, “Yeah, man, you screamed like a little chick.”

Joel smiled, stealing a glance at his friend, “I don’t know about like a little chick.”

“No,” Guard informed him, “It was quite girly-like.”

Joel shook his head, looking down and chuckling, “I was eight, all right?” He looked out the windshield again. “I’ll never forget how hard my heart pounded, and how my breath hitched like I was gasping, and how my screams… my very manly screams,” Joel grinned at Guard, “In fact, I think they could be called manly hollers.”

“No. They were screams. Little. Girly. Screams.”

“Anyway,” Joel continued, looking out the windshield at the passing night, “I remember those screams echoing through the pipe, and you tugged on the rope with all your strength… in fact, I don’t think my intestines have ever been the same.”

“I was scared, man. I thought you were hurt. I mean, those girly screams sounded pretty real. I thought a stray dog or something was eating you.”

“And then,” Joel said, “I flicked the lighter and sprayed the can and… Foosh.

“Yeah, foosh is right,” Guard laughed.

“And in an orange fireball, I see this huge, twisted tree branch.”

“Yeah, you lit that thing up pretty good.”

Aqua-net, there is no substitute.”

Guard snorted approval.

There was a brief silence before Joel said, “Ever wonder what would have happened if it was real?”

“What? The monster?”


Guard laughed. “That stupid hairspray would’ve just singed the thing’s eyebrows. And then the tree fort would’ve all been mine.”

“No. I’m serious.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, what if it had been a real monster?”

“What, you mean like an actual animal? Like a dog or something?”

“No. I mean a real monster, like something no one would ever believe existed.”

“Like the Loch Ness Monster or something?”

“Something like that.”

“What would I have done?”


“I’d have laughed my ass off over you being stupid enough to crawl in there with it,” Guard said.

Joel sighed and shook his head.

Guard said, “I don’t think I get what you’re getting at.”

“What I’m getting at is that we were certain it was a monster. What makes us certain that monsters don’t exist now? Why don’t we believe in that stuff anymore?”

“Because we don’t.”

“Yeah, but what made us believe then?”

“We’re just older now.”

“What if I told you now: Guard, there’s a monster in that drain pipe, let’s get it?”

“I’d say give me some o’ that shit you been smokin.”

“I’m serious.”

“I am too,” Guard said. “I don’t get what you’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about how stuff back when we were little seemed so possible, and now… what is it now that makes that stuff so impossible?”

“We’re just older, man. We know it would be a branch. I don’t believe in Santa Claus anymore either.”

“Well, I’m glad you believed enough back then to hold the rope,” Joel said.

“Hey, man, I knew it was a branch. I knew there was no such thing as monsters. When you started screaming, I thought it was a dog, or rats, or a dead body or something—that’s why I started pulling so hard. I just thought it was fun doing all that stuff, and talking about the money, that’s why I played along—the key word is played—I thought we were playing.”

Joel shrugged. He supposed that he knew it was a branch, and that they were playing. But in the heat of the moment, for a second—imagining its yellow, reptilian eyes staring—he actually believed it was some horrific creature. And now he tried to recall that moment. He tried to summon the same deep-down, childish part of him to convince himself that William Knight was causing Hope’s—and even Joel’s own—bad dreams. But that deep-down, childish part didn’t answer. “If you knew it was a branch,” Joel said, “why’d you bother to hold the rope?”

Guard shrugged, “Someone had to.”

Continued in: Earworm: Part 60 — Need for Remedy 

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Earworm: Part 58 — The Meeting

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 57 — The Visitor

Hope sat at a table in the library. Her books were open in an attempt to look hard at work. But this façade was lost on the babbling Suzanne Myers, who sat across the table from Hope. Nothing short of Hope taking off her shoe, removing her sock, and jamming it between Suzanne’s teeth would shut the girl up. Hope offered Suzanne a blank nod, and then she looked over at Joel, who sat two tables away with Guard. Hope made a pleading expression toward Joel that Suzanne didn’t notice. Joel’s laughter echoed through the library. The librarian, a hawkish figure, craned her neck and looked toward Joel with a frown. Guard turned in his seat to face Hope. He pantomimed hysterical laughter and pointed at Suzanne’s back. Guard had often threatened to stuff Suzanne into a locker or a dumpster or a trunk—depending on which containment was closest at hand—if Suzanne didn’t just shut the fuck up. Hope stole a final, pleading look at Joel, and then went back to her pretend work.

Joel and Guard had walked into the library ten minutes after Hope had. She feared they would sit with her, but Suzanne, already sitting across from her by that time, took care of any chance Joel and Guard would join her. Hope didn’t want Joel at the table while she talked to William. It would be awkward because… well, for obvious reasons. Joel thinking her nuts being one of them.

Joel had called her earlier that evening and asked if she wanted to go to the library. Hope told Joel she was already going to the library to meet William.

“What?” Joel stated in the tone of a fed-up parent. “You’re not really going to ask him about your dreams. Please tell me you’re not. Are you?”

“He’s helping me with a paper.”

“A paper about what?”


“I’ll help you with it.”

“No. I need William’s help on this paper.”

“What are you gonna do, write a paper about those dreams or something?” Joel said. When Hope didn’t answer, he groaned, “So you really are going to talk to him about those dreams?” More silence. “Don’t you think this is getting a little weird?”

The thought had crossed her mind. “Look, like I said, he’s helping me with a paper, that’s all.”

Now in the library, Suzanne prattled on. Hope scribbled down equations, but didn’t solve them.

“So Hope how could you do it after all these years and then just walk away tell me how Hope?” Suzanne said in one jumbled breath.

“What?” Hope said, looking up.

“Why would you quit cheerleading?”

“It’s just not my thing,” Hope said.

She glanced over Suzanne’s shoulder and saw William standing by the circulation desk, a backpack slung over one shoulder. It was as if he’d just appeared there, reminding Hope of her dreams.

Hope glanced at Joel, who had followed her gaze to William. Joel’s lips disappeared into a grimace and he shook his head.

William was scanning the library. His eyes fell on Hope. He took a step toward her table, but then stopped. He regarded Suzanne with suspicion, looking like a dog waiting to be released from a stay command. Hope smiled and waved to him. William lifted his hand in a half-hearted response. Hope gestured for him to come over. William pausing, again regarding Suzanne, and then walking to the table.

“Hey, William,” Hope said with forced, over-emphasized friendliness. Her heart picked up cadence.

William smiled.

Suzanne’s yapping fell dead. With a twisted, revolted mien, Suzanne looked at William and then at Hope. She let out an audible grunt.

Hope then informed Suzanne in a haughty tone, “William and I are working on a project together.” But to both William and Suzanne’s surprise, the haughtiness was directed at Suzanne.

Suzanne and William blinked, a bit dumbfounded.

“So if you don’t mind,” Hope said to Suzanne, “we need to get to work.”

“Okay—” Suzanne said, standing from the table. She shot William another revolted look. “Goodbye, Hope,” she said, sure to accent the Hope.

“Bye, Suzanne,” Hope said as Suzanne stormed off to another table. Hope then turned her attention to William, who still looked a bit dumbfounded. “I’m glad you came,” she said in a low tone, “I thought she’d never shut up.”

“You mean you didn’t want to talk to her?”

“No,” Hope said, cracking a smile. “She was rambling on about everything—which is pretty much nothing.”

William, still standing beside the table, shifted from one foot to another.

“You know, you can sit down if you want,” Hope said, gesturing to the seat across the table. Her heart nudged her sternum—Tap-tap-tap.

William dropped his backpack and nestled into the seat.

“So…” Hope said to him. But no words followed. Even though she had mentally rehearsed what she’d say to him several times throughout the day, now that the time had arrived, her brain decided to take the night off.

“I don’t think that girl likes me,” William said, watching Suzanne.

“Who? Suzanne? Ah, she doesn’t like anybody.”

“She seems to like you.”

“She was on my cheerleading squad,” Hope said. “She’s a big phony.”

A look of content shock washed across William’s face, as if not believing anyone would trash another member of the “in” crowd—like witnessing cannibalism with a strange, vengeful delight.

An uncomfortable silence followed. Hope’s heart now punched at her chest like a boxer on a heavy bag—Thump-thump-thump—“So… um…” Hope said, feeling the heat in her flushing cheeks, “this term paper I’m thinking of doing…”

“The one about your dreams,” William said.

“Yeah. You see… it’s, um… I’ve been having these dreams…” she started to say, but then she made the mistake of looking into William’s eyes. His pupils opened into a universe of space and darkness and night. “Why did you call me your Hope?” she said in a voice independent of herself.

“What?” William shifted in his seat.

“Earlier today, you said, ‘I’ll see you later, My Hope.’”

William shrugged. “Oh… uh… did I?”

Hope nodded, forcing a smile.

“Oh,” William said. “I didn’t realize I did. I was probably trying to say something else. You know how sometimes you think of more than one thing at a time while you’re talking, and two things come out?”

This was a logical enough answer.

Rational Hope begged her to accept it.

Irrational Hope responded with a snort.

She glanced at Joel. Joel raised his eyebrows and looked at his work. He shook his head and muttered something to Guard. Guard turned in his seat, looking over his shoulder and watching Hope for a moment, then he turned back to say something to Joel.

Hope could guess what they were saying.

Joel: Lookit Hope talking to that loser.

Guard: What’s she talking to that freak for?

Joel: I have no idea. Joel would never tell Guard the actual reason. How could he?

“So, um, anyway,” Hope said, “about these dreams. You’re in them. It’s pretty weird stuff.” She chuckled. “You have control over this whole other world. It’s like you’re causing the things that happen…” She broke into a smile, “Does that make any sense?”

William responded with a noncommittal nod.

“Yeah? Good,” Hope said, her voice a little shaky, her heart still boxing—Thump-thump-thump—“So I was wondering, for my paper, what you think of dreams?”


“Yeah, you know, what do you think dreams mean?” She chuckled abruptly, as if sharing a private joke with him, “I mean, you’re not actually causing my dreams, right?”


William’s eyes narrowed. His head twitched like a pitcher shaking off a sign. “No,” he said with a forced chuckle of his own.

“So I thought it would be an interesting take on my paper if I got the opinion about a dream from the person the dream was about. Does that make sense?”

“Uh… yeah. That’s certainly interesting.”

“You think?”


“Good.” She glanced at Joel again. He regarded her like someone daring a magician to fool him. “So, then,” Hope said to William, “what do you think of dreams? Like, what do you think they represent?”

“What, like all dreams?”

“Uh-huh.” Hope opened a notebook like a reporter with a scoop.

“Well, dreams have always interested me,” William said.

“Oh, really? Me, too,” Hope nodded with false enthusiasm.

“I think dreams represent…” He paused a moment, as if searching his mind for a prewritten script. “I think dreams are your brain’s way of sorting things out, like a way to sort through life. I think dreams can guide you in the right direction, or warn you of the wrong decisions.” A slight smile spread across his lips. “Our mind knows what it wants, but there are so many emotions it needs to sort through to make decisions, so it reveals what it wants while we sleep, when our prejudices can’t interfere. Know what I mean?”

“Yeah. I guess that makes sense,” Hope said.

William perked in his seat, looking like an inventor whose invention showed signs of working.

Hope said, “So my dreams help me decipher questions I have in life?”

“Yeah, that’s right.” William was becoming more animated as he spoke. “I think dreams are full of symbols and we need to figure out how to decipher them.”

“So then,” Hope said, “let’s say I dreamt about a castle from this poster I’ve had since I was a little girl, that would mean—what?”

William tilted his head. “Well, let’s see, it could represent… maybe the loss of your childhood or something… maybe you’re scared of growing up.”

Hope nodded, content with that answer, too. After all, that same thought crossed her mind. Maybe she was nervous about heading into the end of her school career, and then picking colleges, having to move off the island she’s lived on all her life. “What about flying?” Hope said, “In one dream we were flying.”

“Flying is a common symbol in dreams,” William stated like a professor beginning a lecture. “In your case, it might mean you want to fly to something new in your life. Maybe a new friendship. A new romance maybe…” He stopped, recoiling. “Or something like that,” William said. His cheeks turning pink. “There are books and stuff that interpret the meanings of different symbols, but you should really try and decipher them on your own.”

“You seem to know a lot about dreams.”

“Yeah, well, I’m a pretty good dreamer. I try and learn a lot about them.” William’s voice took on the excited rambling of a person discussing his greatest joy, or obsession. “I mean, I dream all the time, you know? I’ve always dreamt a lot. When I was real young, before my mother died, I dreamt about her. I mean, I was too young to really remember these dreams, but still, somehow I do remember.”

Hope suddenly realized her connection to this boy. He’d lost both his parents—according to Jennifer Waltson, anyway—maybe that was her and William’s bond. Maybe she sensed his pain of loss.

“It was, I guess, more a feeling than memories,” William continued, “but still, sometimes I try to dream about her now, even though I only know what she looks like from an old wedding photograph. So I always try to figure out what these dreams about my mother might represent, you know what I mean? So it would be up to you to figure out what your father represents in your dreams, because it would be different than what my mother does in mine. I mean, he might just represent the one thing in the world that you want more than…” He stopped.

There was a moment of stifling silence. Hope heard only the sound of her heartbeat. “How did you know my father was in my dreams?” Her voice seemed to speak by itself, as if a ventriloquist was using her body as a puppet.

“Uh… what?”

“My father. How did you know I’ve been dreaming about my father?”

William’s face drained to an almost translucent dullness. “Uh… because you said it.” The excitement in his voice had drained with the color of his face.

“No,” Hope said, eyes narrowing, “I didn’t mention my father.”

“No,” William said. “No. Yeah. Yeah, you did, remember? You said something about how I called you My Hope like your father used to?”

“I asked why you called me My Hope. I didn’t say anything about my father.”

“No. Wait. Yeah, you did.” William looked at the ceiling like someone trying to remember a phone number.

Hope glanced at Joel. This time, instead of Joel returning to his work with a smirk, a look of concern crept across his face as he read the panic in Hope’s eyes. Hope’s heart was a jackhammer burrowing through her chest


“William?” she said on numb lips, “do you know something about my dreams?”

“What? No. What are you talking about?”

Hope’s voice was strangely calm. “Both a friend and I have been having these weird dreams that you’ve been in. Bad dreams, like you’re trying to hurt us. Are you… somehow causing them?”

Hope’s stomach was freefalling. Talk about leaping into lunacy. She was a skydiver stepping out of a plane with no chute.

“Bad dreams? What are you talking about?” William said. His winding excitement reversed direction. “I mean, that’s crazy. How can a person even think that? Does Joel think this, too? Because he’s probably in your dreams because you’re afraid of him. This is so…”

“I didn’t say anything about Joel either.” Her voice vibrated as if she spoke while pounding on her chest.

“What? What are you talking about? You’re talking in circles. You just said that you and… you said it, a few seconds ago. You’re trying to trick me.”

“I never said Joel.”

Rat-a-tat-tat went her heart.

William’s voice rose, “You’re tricking me, making fun of me somehow.”

Hope glanced at Joel. William following her eyes, turning to see Joel and Guard sitting at their table. William then said to Hope, “Why do you keep choosing Joel instead of me?”

“What, William?”

William closed his eyes. He struggled to calm himself, holding his hands to his sides like a concentrating high-wire walker. “Look,” he said, “what do you want from me?” He opened his eyes and looked at her. “I thought you wanted help with a project, and then… then you make fun of me somehow.”

“William,” Hope said in her too calm voice, “I just want to know what’s happening. I mean, I had wonderful dreams of us becoming friends, and then they became nightmares…”

“No. The nightmares weren’t me,” William said, his voice winding up again.

Hope had the uneasy feeling of watching him gain and lose control of his emotions. It was like watching someone trying to hold onto a slippery, slithering eel.

He said, “If you remember correctly, those nightmares were all about Joel.”

In the mental rehearsals of this conversation, Hope tried to envision how William might react when faced with the notion of popping up in her dreams. In a few of those rehearsals, William admitted to causing the dreams. But Rational Hope was always there to assure her that William would leave the library with no idea what she was talking about, and that she, Hope Ferretti, prom queen, Mystic High School teen idol, would leave the library ready to sign up for Camp Cuckoo. But now, Rational Hope and Irrational Hope aside, Hope was faced with the reality of William Knight sitting across the table from her and telling her that he was responsible for the dreams. That was what just happened, wasn’t it? And although she imagined that the conversation could play out in this manner, there was no possible way to prepare for it. She felt like a tethered zeppelin looking down upon the table, her and William’s voices sounding as if reaching her through gallons of water, and all movement caught from the corners of her eyes—different library patrons scurrying about the shelves—was in slow motion and far off. Her father was going to sit down beside her, and maybe Joel could come over and shoot him in the face with a bazooka or dice him up with a chainsaw, or better yet, perhaps a fire-breathing dragon could smash through the library’s plate glass windows and grill everyone with flaming breath. Because this was just another dream. It had to be. So where was Joel wielding his butcher knife? Where was her father? Where was the tiny moon? Because this conversation wasn’t real and she awaited some horrifying fright, only to wake in her bedroom screaming, and her mother would rush in, saying, That’s it, you’re going to the mental hospital. “Damnit, William, will you stop it,” Hope hollered.

The room fell silent. Everyone turned to stare at Hope and William. A few students giggled before going back to their business with a murmuring current.

William’s eyes were saturated with hurt and despair. “All I wanted was for you to like me,” he said.

“But I don’t even know you.”

“Of course you do. I gave you everything.”


“You’re a taker, Hope. I gave. You took. I emptied myself into you, and you poured all you had into Joel Fitch. All that was mine.”

If Hope had an anchor on reality, she might not have been swept into the tempest of her spinning emotions. But there no longer was any reality.

William said, “I built that world for you. And you shoved it back in my face.” His voice again rose in pitch and tone, and some of the library patrons glanced over with uneasy curiosity. “Then you invite me here, and I think that maybe you really do like me, but instead you trick me. You and your stupid boyfriend tricked me. Know what? You can take your stars and moon and you can shove them.” William stood and snatched up his backpack. He turned to walk away, but he stopped, coming face to face with Joel. Joel having wandered over from his table. William and Joel exchanged silent threats, staring at one another like gunfighters. William then brushed by Joel and stormed out of the library.

Everyone watched him go with slacked jaws. Hope and Joel looked at one another—Joel desperate for an explanation, Hope unable to give one. Everyone was now staring at the two of them, students and adults alike, even the toddlers running around their parents’ legs stopped to gape.

Joel took Hope’s hand and turned to Guard, who was now standing beside them, “We’ll be right back,” Joel told him.

“What’s the matter? She all right?” Guard said.

“Yeah, she’s fine,” Joel said. He led Hope away, stranding Guard to face the rest of the library like a police officer dispersing a crowd—All right, folks, nothing to see here, just a crazy girl, everything’s fine, you can all go about your business.

Joel and Hope walked out to the parking lot. He took her by her arms, steadying her to face him. “What the hell was that all about?”

Continued in: Earworm: Part 59 — The Rope

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