Her hands hurt from gripping something so tightly. She couldn’t let it go. Something–tape was wrapped around them. Not only around her hands, but her whole head. The tape was wrapped tightly around her head and hands. She couldn’t release the thing she was holding, couldn’t let go.
Couldn’t take it out of her mouth.
She tasted metal, a long, grooved shaft of steel choking her. And she tasted more than that. Gasoline. She tasted gasoline. Not a drop or a drizzle. The thing tied to her head, tied to her mouth, was pumping gasoline into her mouth. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t take it out. She couldn’t do anything but sit there, letting the gas keep pouring down her throat. He was there. He made sure. The smell of the fumes blinded her. The taste made her retch. But she couldn’t stop. He wouldn’t let her. She had to keep drinking. Had to keep choking. Had to keep going until…
With a strangled scream, eleven-year-old Denise Cartland hurled herself sideways off the desk in her sixth-grade classroom, where she had briefly drifted off. As she landed on the floor between her seat and her neighbor’s, the girl was already heaving. She threw up on the cheap linoleum. The gasoline, she could taste it. She could taste it. It was in her mouth, down her throat. She had to get it out. She had to get it all out. Her fingers clawed at the floor, tears blinding her as she heaved. Her lunch, eaten only an hour earlier, came rushing out and drenched the floor. Around her, she could hear students crying out and jerking away. A few chairs fell over in their rush to escape the sight of their classmate throwing up.
“Back up, back up everyone!” Mr. Tuttle, their teacher, quickly instructed as he approached. Stepping around the mess, the middle-aged man took a knee next to the young girl, a hand on her back. “It’s okay, Denise. It’s alright, get it out. It’s okay.” He coaxed her while rubbing her back, his other hand moving to draw some of the girl’s dark hair away from her face. At the same time, he turned toward a student near the door. “Brad, go get the janitor, he should be mopping near the library right now. Wait, grab the hall pass there. Now go, tell him what happened. Yolanda, Frank, open those windows over there.” Even as he gave those instructions, Tuttle was still gently rubbing the girl’s back, trying to coax and comfort her.
Denise barely heard any of that. Her tear-blinded gaze was on the floor, but she wasn’t actually seeing that either. Instead, all she saw was the cold asphalt of a gas station parking lot. All she felt was the tape tied so tightly around her hands, forcing her to grip that fuel pump handle. All she tasted was the gasoline, pouring relentlessly down her throat. She was choking, dying. She had to get it out. Her small body heaved once more, but there was nothing else in her stomach. Try as she might, she couldn’t get the taste out. She couldn’t get the gasoline out.
It took another minute or so before the girl managed to calm down enough to recognize that she had been having a nightmare. It wasn’t real. None of it was real. Finally lifting her head to look around with wide eyes, she saw the rest of her classmates staring. Most looked sympathetic or worried, though a few were snickering behind their hands, as whispers passed through the crowd. Whispers that sent a flood of embarrassment through the girl to replace the terror.
“Denise?” Mr. Tuttle gently asked after giving a quick look to the rest of the students to quiet down and get themselves under control. “Are you okay?”
“I… I…” Opening and shutting her mouth, the eleven-year-old looked around, before lowering her gaze to the floor. A horrible shudder ran through her, as she hugged her arms tightly around herself.
“I don’t know.”
The man couldn’t move. Oh, he wanted to. He desperately wanted to. But his feet remained firmly rooted to the floor. He could do nothing about the flames gradually filling the room. He couldn’t even turn his head away from the rising smoke, his coughing growing louder by the second. He couldn’t do anything to save himself while the room burned around him. He wasn’t tied down, or hindered in any physical way. He stood there with the open door leading to open, cool, clear air mere feet away. It would have taken almost nothing for the man to sprint to safety. Six steps. Six steps and he’d be free. But he couldn’t take those six steps.
Because she wouldn’t let him.
Denise stood in that open air, just a short distance from the doorway. She saw the flames rising around the man. She saw his terrified gaze as he stared pleadingly at her. He wasn’t begging anymore, because she had told him to stop. His whining had been entirely too annoying after the first few seconds. It distracted from the sound of the flames, and she wanted to hear when they reached his body. She wanted to hear what it sounded like when a person started to burn, without all the annoying, distracting screaming getting in the way. So she had told him to shut his mouth and not open it no matter what. Finally, she would be able to hear the fire properly. Finally, she would hear exactly what happened when the flames began to burn his flesh away. He’d probably fall down by then, as the smoke got to him. But there wasn’t much to be done about that. Maybe next time she’d find a way to string the person up so they’d stay standing the whole time. But either way, she’d still hear it. She’d hear and smell the flames burning his body.
And maybe, just maybe, as she watched this man burn to death, Denise would finally feel something.
“Denise! Denny, sweety, Denny, it’s okay. Please, baby, wake up.”
The voice, accompanied by hands gently shaking her, snapped Denise awake. She jerked in her bed, crying out while her wide, terrified eyes darted around. She wasn’t standing in front of a burning building. She wasn’t watching a man about to die. She wasn’t anticipating it, looking forward to it, savoring it. She was in her bedroom, in her bed, with her mother sitting on the edge shaking her awake. Her voice was worried. “Denny, baby, it’s alright. You were having a nightmare… again. You’re safe, sweetie. I promise, baby, it’s okay. It was just a dream. Just a bad dream.”
A choked sob escaped Denise, as she sprang toward her mother and grabbed on tight. Burying her face against the comfort of her mom, the little girl clung to her and shook violently. “Mom, Mommy, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t wanna–I–I didn’t–” She was trying to say that she didn’t want to kill that man, but couldn’t get the words out. And a part of her knew there was no way to explain it anyway.
Her mother, clueless about what was really upsetting the girl, hugged her tight while shaking her head. Her voice was soft and soothing. “It’s okay, baby. It’s alright. It wasn’t real. You’re okay. Nothing’s going to hurt you, I promise. You’re safe now, my sweet little girl.”
For a couple minutes, they sat there like that, Denise clinging to her mom as the feelings and desires she had felt in the dream gradually faded. They’d been so real, so intense. It was like she was really there, really standing near that man who was about to die. But more than that, it was like she’d wanted to be there. She wanted to see him die, wanted to finally feel some guilt, some good emotion. Because there was nothing. She couldn’t feel it. She couldn’t feel the guilt or sadness she was supposed to feel. Something was wrong with her, and no matter how much she tried to fix it, nothing worked. She just couldn’t feel the right things. She–she was a…
“Monster,” the girl murmured under her breath, the words barely audible.
They were, however, loud enough for her mother to hear, and the woman simply hugged her even tighter. “No baby, there’s no monster. It’s alright. Come on, it’s okay. Let’s go get a drink, you’ll feel better.”
With that, she coaxed Denise to stand up and began to walk out of the room with her, their hands tightly clasped as she promised the girl a glass of milk to calm her down. They passed Denise’s father on his way back from the bathroom, the man pausing just long enough to ask if the girl was okay before heading back to bed. After all, he had to get up early for work in the morning.
Trying to push those horrific memories and thoughts out of her mind, Denise walked with her mother to the kitchen, then sat at the table, sipping milk and nibbling at a single cookie. Her mom sat next to her, looking worried and clearly trying to hide it. Her voice was gentle. “How do you feel, Denny?”
Denise didn’t answer at first. Thoughts of those dreams filled her head, and she had to set the milk down before it spilled from her shaking hand. The nightmares didn’t come every time she slept, but they were often enough that her mother was talking about taking her to see a doctor, a therapist who could help. Her mother was already afraid of the nightmares Denise was having, and the girl hadn’t even told her any details. She couldn’t. She just… couldn’t tell her mother about those dreams. Not the monster ones. Not the ones where she was the monster.
So, pushing that terror and confusion away, the girl met her mother’s gaze. She managed, through some effort, to smile. “I’m okay,” she claimed, her voice a little hollow. “Can I go back to bed now? I’m pretty tired.”
Her mother nodded, getting up and moving to turn out the kitchen light. As she did so, Denise spoke up again. “Mom?”
“Yes, sweetie?” Turning toward her, the woman was startled to see her daughter standing directly behind her, having moved silently from the table while her back was turned.
But not nearly as surprised as she was when the girl’s hand rose with the knife to plunge into her chest.
And just like that, Denise snapped awake. She jerked upright so fast, crying out as she did so, that she nearly fell backward off the chair where she and her mother had been sitting around the kitchen table. Her mother’s head was on the table, the woman snoring quietly. The two of them had both fallen asleep while sitting there, and somehow Denise jerking upright hadn’t woken her mother. The half-finished glass of milk was nearby, next to a mostly-finished cookie. They had been asleep for about twenty minutes, according to the cat clock on the wall.
Breathing hard, the young girl looked away from her mother, gaze focusing off toward her own distorted reflection in the gleaming metal toaster nearby. Her voice cracked as she whispered very quietly, “What’s wrong with me?”
As if in response, the reflection in the toaster twisted even more. It could’ve been a trick of the light, or… or something else. But she saw her hair lighten. She saw her eyes change, her face shift. She saw… she saw…
Things continued that way for another week. Denise–or Denny as she was increasingly insisting she wanted to go by permanently, had more nightmares, though she managed to stop screaming out quite as much. She hid as many of them as she could, afraid that her family and others would see her as even more of a freak than they probably already did. If they only knew the half of it. They thought she was only seeing monsters coming after her. But it was so much more, so much worse. She dreamed about dying, yes. She had that same dream of choking on gasoline. That dream that was so real it was practically a memory. But she had more dreams than that, horrific dreams where she was the monster. Half were just as realistic as the gasoline dream, so vivid they were as real to her, even after she woke up, as a real memory would have been. And the other half were… were fantasies. That was the only way she had to describe them. They were fantasies about killing people she knew. Her friends, her teachers, her family. People she passed on the street. Anyone and everyone. She would have long, intricate hallucinations about killing them. And after every single one, she would see… him.
Who was he? She had no idea. And yet, she did. He was her. She was him. But she wasn’t, not really. He wasn’t real. But he was. He was the boy who spoke. But the boy who spoke never spoke. Not to her. Not in the glimpses she caught of him. Because he was her. But he wasn’t.
This was all wrong. It was all confusing and wrong. She saw the boy here and there, always in distorted reflections or in the corner of her eye. She never saw him directly. He was at the edge of her mind, behind her and yet never there when she turned. She had no idea who he was, and yet she knew him. What? That didn’t make any sense. None of it made sense. She knew him but she didn’t? That was wrong. It was all wrong. All of it was… was… wrong. She couldn’t remember his name, but she knew it. She knew his name. His name, it… it was…
Dangerous. His name was dangerous. Every time she thought she had his name right on the tip of her tongue, Denny would collapse in a ball of fear. An unrelenting, terrible tidal wave of terror completely overwhelmed her whenever she got close to remembering, close to… thinking of it.
Her family didn’t know about most of that, of course. But they knew enough that her mother insisted she see a therapist. So, that was where Denny was now, sitting in the woman’s office, mumbling a bit about one of the nightmares she’d had. One of the safe nightmares. No way was she going to tell this stranger about the other nightmares, the ones where she was a killer. Or her… her fantasies. She wasn’t going to tell anyone about those.
The therapist, a tall, dark-skinned woman with short hair who had introduced herself as Megan, smiled gently from where she was sitting in an armchair. There was an actual couch in the room, but she’d told Denny that she didn’t have to lay on it, or even sit on it if she didn’t want to. She’d joked that she would lie to the grand order of therapists if they asked about Denny sitting on the magic couch.
So, Denny did not sit on the couch. She sat on the floor, as far from the couch as possible. She didn’t want to be near it. She wanted to be– well, she wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else, really. She wanted to be anywhere aside from the place that would prove she really was… broken. Instead, she sat there on the floor next to a small table where some kids had left crayon drawings. But she didn’t touch the crayons either. She just sat there and talked about some of the nightmares she’d had. The safe ones. Herself choking on gasoline, and a few others that… that were more vague. Dreams about running away from someone, dreams about being thrown out a window and falling all the way to the cement, and dreams about being buried alive. That last one, that one was… that one was the worst. Because in that one, she was afraid. She was always afraid after, of course. When she woke up. But in most of the dreams, aside from the gasoline one, she was never afraid during them. It was only in the dream where she was lying in the grave, pleading and begging for her… for her… for a man to stop, when she actually felt fear during the dream. But the man never stopped. He just kept putting more dirt on top of her. Burying her in… a grave with other dead things. He ignored her pleading, ignored her crying out for her mother, and kept burying her in the dirt until everything except her face was covered. Then he took a vial of… of blood, poured it into her mouth, made her swallow it, and then… then he kept burying her. Shovelful after shovelful of dirt kept coming, all while she cried, and pleaded, and… and…
“Denny?” Megan quietly spoke up from her chair. She wasn’t holding a notebook or doing anything that looked like taking notes. “Are you okay? It looked like you… had something on your mind.”
Realizing that she’d lost herself in the memory of that horrible dream, Denny gave a quick headshake. “Sorry. I was just… thinking.” Blinking up that way as a thought occurred to her, she hesitated before asking, “Are you going to tell my mom if I don’t tell you more things?”
With a small smile, Megan shook her head. “No, Denny. I’m not going to tell your mom about anything we say during these sessions. You can say as much or as little as you want to. If you don’t want to talk about your dreams, maybe you’d like to draw a picture?” With that offer, the woman indicated the stack of papers, pencils, and crayons. “Would that help?”
Looking over at the paper for a brief moment, Denny shook her head. “No,” she answered quietly, clenching her hands a little. She was too afraid of what sort of thoughts would run through her head if she picked up the pencil. The last time she’d picked up scissors at school, the images that had filled her mind when she’d looked at one of the boys… it almost made her throw up again.
So, she left the pencils alone, turning away from them while fidgeting with her hands. “Can you give me medicine?” the girl finally asked after another extended moment of silence while she worked up a bit of courage. “You know, the kind that makes me not dream anymore. I’m tired, but I don’t want to go to sleep. That’s when I dream.”
Picking herself up from the chair and moving over to sit on the floor near the young girl, Megan quietly asked, “Those dreams are pretty bad, huh?” When Denny nodded, the therapist seemed to consider briefly before continuing. “I’m sorry you’re having these dreams, Denny. You don’t deserve that. I want you to know that you’re not a monster. These things you’re feeling, they’re not your fault. They’re not your thoughts, or your memories. Well, most of them. They’re not about you. None of this is. You’re just… an innocent bystander.”
Shifting a little, Denny stared at the woman. Her suspicions had suddenly been raised. “What– what do you know about it?”
Megan, in turn, smiled very faintly. It looked like a sad, old smile. “A lot more than I should, probably. But that’s not the point. And you won’t remember any of this later anyway. Denny, I’m very sorry about this. I know most others would doubt that, but I truly am sorry that you were affected this way. You deserve to be happy. You deserve to live your life and–” She sighed heavily. “But I can’t let this go. I need to know about your dreams. I need you to tell me everything you’ve experienced, all of it. I have to get every detail, just in case. There might be something important somewhere in there. Something I’ve needed to know for a long time.”
Denny began to push herself up from the floor. “I don’t wanna talk to you anymore, Megan,” the eleven-year-old informed her. “I don’t–”
The older woman interrupted. “I’m sorry, I’m not really a Megan. It is a pretty name though. My name is Denuvus. Tell me about your dreams.”
For a brief moment, Denny was silent, staring at the woman. Then her mouth opened, and the words came.
“I told you, I don’t want to talk to you anymore. And why’d you say your name was Megan if it’s Denuvus? What kind of name is Denuvus? I–I have to talk to my mom.” She pivoted to walk toward the door.
Megan–or Denuvus, had risen to her feet. “My name is Denuvus. I want you to come back and sit down.”
“Yeah? Well my name’s Denise,” Denny sarcastically retorted, grabbing the door to pull it open. “And what I want is for you to leave me alone and go jump in a lake.” In another second, she was out and stalking through the hall.
She didn’t look back as the door closed behind her, which was almost a shame as it meant that she didn’t see the surprised look on her supposed therapist’s face as the woman vanished from the couch.
A few seconds later and several miles away, the woman appeared above the surface of a small, local lake. She dropped into the water with a splash before rising to stand atop the water as though it was a physical floor. As she did so, her physical form shifted and transformed back to that of the small Caucasian woman with black hair, the appearance she used most often when talking to Trice. “Hmmm,” Denuvus murmured.
“Well, this was unexpected.”