Continued 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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