Smoke in the darkness. It filled my nose, the acrid taste dry on my tongue.
I blinked, once. Twice.
Some distant part of my brain, feeling leagues removed from me, stirred and typed up a simple telegram to send back across dusty lines. Just a dream.
Sighing, I stretched and yawned, then gazed out through the darkness at the clock across the room. 03:02 stared callously back in red digital indignation. From another corner of my mind came a vague thought… the witching hour… but then I simply yawned again and rolled over onto my right side.
A little girl, no more than seven or eight years old, stood silently screaming in the darkness beside my bed. Her eyes were black, luminous orbs that whirled and glittered without light. Her black hair and gentle brown skin, the color of light sandalwood, was burned and charred and bloody up the right side of her body and head. Blood pooled, viscous and drying, at the corners of her nose and mouth. A single tear trace, crystal clear, ran down the left cheek growing dark with the sand, ash and blood it smeared its way through. And open hung her mouth, not frozen but animated in an agony of silent horror as though the scream of pain she gave out was keen enough to shatter sound itself and leave the world deaf instead of her mute.
In the space between two heartbeats and a scream she was there- and then gone.
Even as I kicked out, fighting against her appearance and my own blankets, my senses registered the emptiness of the space through which my fist and arm passed. Where stood a ghostly horror but an instant earlier now hung the darkness of a lonely room. It was just a dream.
Again the digital demon atop my dresser stared me down in mouthless judgment. 03:03
My heart, beating at triple its normal pace, convinced me there was no hope of returning to sleep. I stood up and shuffled from the bedroom, into the hallway to the kitchen. As an insomniac and vet I knew this pitiful routine only too well. Often I would go to the kitchen to make coffee and kick off a new day’s battle long, long before the sun broke the night and drove it from the sky.
But abruptly I stopped in the kitchen and froze. Just for a moment hung a shape barely seen in the darkness. I stared ahead into the shadows, and quietly tensed. Before I could summon a word to speak aloud, however, the iPhone in my left hand began to vibrate. Looking down in bewilderment, my brain alert and yet unable to function, I registered only the name on the angry screen. Ellie. Why was she calling?
Working as if with a mind of its own my finger swiped the screen to unlock her call. Her voice, pained and weeping, carried up to me in the dark as I raised the phone to my ear.
“Luke? Luke? Are you there?” She sounded frantic, terrified, and yet exhausted.
“I’m here, Ellie. What’s wrong?” Even as I struggled to move the words across my mouth, like pushing bricks through heavy mud, some part of my brain began to sound an alarm as though sensing an ambush a second before the first round cracked through the night air.
“Luke… Oh God, Luke, I’m so sorry. There was a car crash at the airport. I’m here at the hospital. It’s Ashley, Luke…” her voice broke beneath the weight of a sob that carried up from the depths of her soul the pain that told me my life had been broken… “she’s gone. I’m sorry…”
Even as my brain desperately processed the surreal information received from my sister in law, some other part of my mind – the part still sounding an alarm – was pulling my senses back into the kitchen’s depths, where still the shadows coalesced.
Shadows slowly moving, growing darker than the surrounding darkness.
As the iPhone slid from my hand to the floor, in the blackness before me stood again the girl, screaming mutely. But behind her, in depths beyond the walls of the world, came an ominous laughter in the dark, as the blood of sins in the Iraqi sands summoned a desert demon’s vengeful wrath. And as my mind began to understand this creature of a curse, the child’s screams became my own.
Screams in the dark.