So This Is My Nightmare?
''Are you alright, Mr Williams?'' Mathilde asks me.
Am I alright? I believe my body is, but I don't think my mind is. She asks me the same question every five minutes while we walk across the green grassy plains of her imagination. She's still in front, and I'm behind her, but I'm not sure of what is going to happen now.
Is this the nightmare?
Walking endlessly on a field?
Or listening to this girl periodically question me to death?
''It will start soon,'' Mathilde says after she giggles. Seriously, I definitely believe these girls are reading my mind. But then again I have no proof of this. Can Wolverine tell when Professor X is reading his mind?
''What will start soon? I think we've been walking for ages,'' I say to her. I look around the place, not seeing anything out of the ordinary happening.
''No, Mr Williams, we have only been walking for one minute, but it does feel like forever, doesn't it?'' Mathilde says. As she carries on walking, gigantic words in red flash up in the blue sky in the horizon. It reads 'Game will start in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1'.
''A countdown?'' I say out loud to myself before the message changes to 'Game Start'.
''Now it begins. Have fun, Mr Williams,'' Mathilde says as she stops, turns around and waves to me. I come closer to her, wondering why she is waving good bye when out of nowhere a giant, brown griffin comes and takes her up into the air with such speed I had not seen it coming at all. I look in astonishment, unable to move as I watch the griffin flap its large wings forcefully up and down as it clutches on to a smiling Mathilde with its claws.
''CATCH ME IF YOU CAN!'' Mathilde shouts as she climbs higher and higher into the air.
Catch her? I haven't got time for that! I need to do the challenge.
This IS the challenge. I am so stupid.
As I realise this, I see Mathilde and her new pet bird has gained at least a good 20 meters ahead of me. I think of ways of getting to her. I try imaging a stairway, that protrudes from the ground and stays on the same level as they are. I climb the stairs and begin to run, but it seems hopeless. They're getting further away from me as I move closer. OK, so this isn't working.
What shall I do?
''You're going to have to try harder than that, Mr Williams!'' Mathilde mocks me as she watches my futile attempts to catch her. I wonder how the other participants are doing. I dis-imagine the stairs (if that's a word) and come back down to earth, contemplating my next move.
''What now, Nash, what now?'' I say aloud as I begin to feel panic. They have now gained a good 80 metres or so, and very soon I may not have sight of them at all.
What to do...
What to do...?
They say 'what goes around comes around' right?
I put two of my fingers in my mouth and whistle loudly, and I look up to see the product of my imagination descend out of the sky: a black griffin. I smile as I figure out that if I can't beat them, I should join them. I mount on top of the great creature I have conjured up as it lowers itself on the ground, and I waste no time in getting on it and flying off in pursuit of Mathilde and the brown griffin.
I edge closer and closer as I imagine my griffin is extremely fast, and in no time I have already caught up to the fake captive Mathilde and her fake captor griffin. I feel as if I am riding a Great Eagle from the Lord of the Rings.
''So this is my nightmare?'' I shout to her as I get to within a meter of her, knowing that she will be able to hear me.
''Define your nightmare,'' Mathilde says with an evil smile. Her saying that in her French accent is totally creeping me out. Just as I am within touching distance, the blue sky becomes disrupted once more and it turns a stormy, charcoal black. Rain begins to fall rapidly.
This isn't water; it's bullets.
''CACCHHH! ACCCHHHHHH!'' my griffin screeches in pain as he gets hit by the bullets.
''Oh no!'' I say, looking at the bullets opening up holes in him. The holes aren't producing blood though; they are making the griffin...disappear!
Oh no, he's vanishing quite quickly! It's as if someone is punching holes in him with an invisible hole puncher. My griffin is nothing but paper to me now. I look across and see Mathilde's griffin is completely fine. Seems her imaginative power is better than mine.
''Reminds you of home, no?'' Mathilde says as she looks down. I follow her gaze and see that the once beautiful green landscape has turned into...
More specifically a village in the Kandahar province.
The same village I was in.
The same village Jayden was in.
I can see him!
I've got a bird's eye view (literally) of him behind a wall. He's hiding from some insurgents across of him, holed up in a house...the same house we were spying on from our mission. I see me down there too, and I observe as we both talk to each other.
I can't believe this!
My dream is being replayed in front of me. I can only watch as I see the events of what happened that day unfold as if it was a movie, as Jayden and I move about. I begin to get a sick feeling in my stomach as I anticipate what happens next. I wait for it to happen.
The moment that I always dread in my dreams.
The moment Jayden is taken away from me.
The moment he dies.
''Jayden!'' I scream as I watch helplessly from my dying griffin as the shrapnel bomb goes off in silence and Jayden dies. The sound of the raining bullets get louder as I focus on the view of Jayden's shrapnel-ridden body, and what I do next to the insurgents. I watch as the image comes closer to me.
Why am I getting closer to it...
My bird has all but been punctured to death. His remains vanish into thin air as I begin to free fall. I thought I could get her with my own griffin. So much for that idea. I look at Mathilde's smiling and mocking face as she laughs at me. She is cackling more than laughing. She flies away with her bird, and I brace myself for the impact of the ground as I come nearer to it. I look to where my dream was being shown, and I catch sight of myself, standing in blood soaked clothes, bodies lying around me.
Is that what I looked like?
''The challenge ends in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1,'' I hear a female voice announce right before I close my eyes and hit the ground.
But it isn't what I was expecting. The ground isn't...hard, and I am not...hurt.
I open my eyes and see I am in a bed in a house. It looks like...my bed. Mine and Hannah's.
Am I...back at home?
Has the game ended?
''Congratulations, Mr Williams. You got awarded 200 points; the second lowest score of all the participants,'' I hear a French female child's voice speak.
Nope, I haven't left the game.
Not at all. The psychopathic version of Madeline is here. I sit up on my bed as I come face to face with her. Mathilde is sitting on a chair across of me, with her hands on the arm rests.
''So I lost, huh?'' I acknowledge.
''You became lost. That is a very dangerous thing in this game,'' she says to me.
''I know; seems you figured out my nightmare,'' I admit. She shakes her head.
''No, that wasn't your nightmare. I thought it was too, though'' she reveals. It's not my nightmare? Than what is?
''I don't know what your nightmare is, but I want to find out,'' she says. There she goes with her 'you-don't-know-if-I'm-mind-reading-or-just-being-intuitive' response again.
''So do I leave the game now since I lost?'' I say, rubbing my head.
''No. I was deemed too 'evil' to have shown your dream, so I have to give you a free pass,'' Mathilde says with some distain.
I get a free pass?
''I'm through to the next level?'' I ask in disbelief. I'm getting to go to the next level...for free? I wonder who deemed her 'evil'...
''Yes, but you have to find a way to get there,'' Mathilde says as she gets up from the chair.
''Of course I do,'' I say more to myself then to her.
''By the way, Mr Williams, why did you choose a nightmare?'' she asks me as she stops herself before going through the door. I look at her, not sure if she would be able to understand the meaning of what I tell her.
''Because a nightmare...is what I face every time I close my eyes, and every time I open them. It is my dream and my reality. A dream is to escape a nightmare, but what's real will always be there, whether we close our eyes to run away from it or not,'' I tell her, without trying to sound like an existentialist or something. Mathilde began to smile at hearing this, and turns to leave, when she thinks of something else.
''Mr Williams, I know the reason why you could not win,'' she says with her back towards me.
Why I couldn't win?
Maybe it was the fact that she resorted to psychological warfare to cheat?
''Know yourself, and you will win all battles,'' Mathilde says before she opens the door and leaves. Know yourself and you will win all battles. Another quote from our friend Sun Tzu. I do know myself.