I am running down a deteriorated windowless hallway; lights blowing out as I pass. The wallpaper is yellowed and peeling. The tiled floor is so coated in grime that no one could guess what it had originally looked like. Something is chasing me, and my surroundings are rotting even faster the closer it gets. The crushing weight of it is pushing me forward, away from the abyssal darkness licking at my heels. The door at the end of the hallway is getting closer; I am actually going to make it. I risk a glance over my shoulder, and see a silhouette in the dying flash of a bulb. A human shape, but misty and distorted, too long in the limbs, too short in the body. I push through the decayed door with all my weight and feel its frigid hand on my shoulder. I fall into the empty space beyond the door.
I wake screaming. The door to my room opens softly. “Max? Are you okay, Max?” Asks my big brother in his soft, strong, level voice. Anton stands in my doorway, his jaw set to mask his concern. He is tall, handsome enough that he always had dates. He has our dad’s sandy blond hair and rich forest green eyes. He is not muscular, or fat, or thin, just sort of in the middle, and it works for him.
“I’m fine. Just…just the nightmares again.” I shudder and pull the plushy blanket tighter around myself. I have had horrible, vivid bad dreams for years. Anton says that it did not start until after our mom died. I was only six when it happened; I barely remember her. I do remember sleepless nights though. “Can you get the lights?”
“Sure. We’re not going back to sleep now; want waffles?” He flips a switch by the door and a couple strings of light bulbs burst to incandescent life.
“I’m not a little kid anymore, Ant, you don’t have to baby me! It was just a bad dream.” I pull my blanket over my face and fall back onto my pillow. He means well, but sometimes I think he still sees me as a scared kid who just lost his mom. Dad was really busy so he had to take care of me a lot; now that I am nearly moved out on my own he still cannot shake it.
“Fine.” He chuckles. “I’ll just make enough for me then.”
I sit back up and uncover my head. “Sorry, I just-”
“I know.” Anton smiles warmly. “I’ll be in the kitchen, and I’ll make you a plate too.” He leaves and pulls the door closed behind him.
I cry into my bedding and shake violently now that I am alone. Crying is best done in solitude, that way no one can try to make you feel better and wind up just making it worse. My small room is bright from the strings of naked bulbs we installed to chase the shadows away. My light grey walls have very few personal touches including a collage of all the houses and apartment buildings we have lived in over the years, a movie poster for Titanic (my late mother’s), and a Dark Side of the Moon record (my dad’s). My bed is a twin mattress on a plain, white wooden frame; a matching dresser takes up most of the wall beside my window. The view looks into our neighbor’s garden. Mrs. Everly grows all kinds of flowers out there. I slowly regain my composure, climb out of bed. and stretch. As I pull a bright red shirt on I feel a stinging numbness from my shoulder, like when Ant used to five-star me. Probably just slept on it wrong. I assess myself in the full length mirror: average. I am roughly 5’7” with drab brown hair, bland hazel eyes, and no distinguishing features. Even my grades are average with solid B’s in Literature, D’s in Math, and C’s in everything else. My wardrobe is all nice tees and polos, clean jeans and slacks. I am a prep, I guess, but when your dad is in international business that just kind of happens. We have moved several times over the years following dad’s consulting work so neither one of us has made a great deal of friends. Three years ago Anton graduated from the same high school that I am still attending, and got himself a job as a journalist for the local newspaper. He convinced our father that he could look after me, manage the house, and hold down his job. So far, he has succeeded pretty well.
When I walk down the narrow hallway from the bedrooms and bathroom into the very open kitchen and den, Anton is humming to himself in the outdated kitchen with a couple plates of steaming waffles set upon the table. The table is a round piece of modern glass furnishing which is completely out of place in the seventies era horror show that passes for the main area of our house. The stove and fridge are a sickly pale yellow, the floor is avocado linoleum. The living room walls match the stove, but the shag carpet is burnt orange. Anton got a black leather chair and couch so we would have something to sit on in front of dad’s flat screen TV. “Ready for the first day of your last year of high school?” He even put on his navy blue apron.
“I’m glad you write better than you speak.” I quip. “Otherwise we’d be homeless and hungry.” We are always teasing each other like this.
“That’s why I ask you to proofread everything before I submit it. My editor thinks I’m a genius.”
“Maybe I can get her job after I graduate.”
“Eat your waffles, boss.” Anton sourly retorts. My phone rings on the nearby counter which is the only division between the two rooms. “Who on Earth is calling you before five in the morning?”
“One guess.” I laugh.
“Mercy? So it was a really bad dream?”
“Yeah,” I say, suddenly closing off a bit as I pick up my phone, “she always knows. Morning, Mercy. How are you?”
“Just a little nervous about our last year. Wanted to see how you were doing.” Her frail voice sounds distant through the speaker.
“Oh, you’re doing great and just happened to be up before dawn because of first day jitters? You are such a bad liar, Mercy, it’s a good thing you are such a goody-two-shoes. Yes, I had another dream. Yes, I’m fine, and we’ll talk about it later when Anton isn’t hovering right over my shoulder. Bye.”
“That seemed pleasant.” Anton snidely comments. “Are you gonna get that girl a ring before or after graduation?”
“Never, because she isn’t my girlfriend. We’ve been over this!” I retort forcefully while flushing. She is my best, and only friend. A guy and a girl can be just friends.
“Well,” He struggles around a mouthful of waffle, “if you ever hung out with, spoke to, hell even mentioned another girl, it might give me a different impression.” He is digging for something. Living with a journalist has some pretty major downsides.
“I’m just not interested in dating.” A half truth, but it is a truth.
“You are a freak, Max, and I love you for it.”