It’s always the same. I’m running through a forest. The trees, full with blooms, threaten to choke me. My breath comes in gasps. My chest aches from the pressure. My unclad feet sting. The cool wind rushes over my skin, stinging the bleeding wounds on my body. I can feel my pursuer gaining on me. I force my body to run faster and faster, until I’m flying through the night, the leaves and stars and night sky a blur. And still he continues gaining.
I want to sprout wings, to fly away from this awful place. He caught mother, he’ll surely catch me, being smaller and slower. My entire body groans as I push ahead even faster.
It’s just a dream. It’s just a dream, I chant in my mind. Why can’t I wake up? Why can’t I stop running? I know it’s not real. Yet my adrenaline’s going, forcing me onward.
I no longer feel my tattered feet. They’ve gone numb from pain. I can’t even feel the warm blood I know must be flowing over them, wounded as they are. I feel the coldness of the night, see my breath fog before my face.
Oh no, the light. Spreading through the trees. The horrible, orange light that always enters my dreams. My mind is frozen in panic, not wanting to go forward, not wanting to go any closer to it. But my legs drive on, hitting the hard ground with a steady rhythm.
As I break through the trees, I’m at the seemingly endless valley. It’s engulfed with flame. The ground is now covered in ashes and burning coals. I run across them, not even feeling them. The cuts on my arms don’t hurt anymore either.
Oh please. Let me wake up. Let me wake up before He catches me. I race across the ground, coals sinking into my feet, the smell of burning flesh searing my nostril. My hair sizzles. My eyes water from the smoke. I want to look behind, see if maybe He has fallen behind, maybe the fire has prevented him. But I’m too afraid. What if He is closer?
Instead I force myself through this valley, this valley that I know well. I used to come here as a child. I don’t know why I’m here. Why I’m always here. My memories of this place are good. Rolling hills of fresh, green grass. Family picnics. My mothers smile.
Perhaps that’s why I’m here. He has to destroy any trace of happiness I have left in my life. Any memory with her, with my darling mother, is now tarnished, no matter how sweet it was. This field, that was formerly so full of life, is now dead. Everything around me is dead. The trees that used to house many squirrels and birds are in flames, the smoke choking out the night sky. Everything’s red from the flame.
Now there’s a change in the landscape. I feel my legs start to tire, my heart pumping so hard it’s about to burst. But what I see ahead of me is so thrilling, so unexplainably wonderful, I find myself being able to continue on.
I barely notice how the sky has cleared suddenly, that it is now daytime. That the ground has turned green with fresh grass, dew still spotting the leaves on the trees that are in full bloom. But what my focus is, what my attention is aimed on, is the beautiful woman standing amidst this tranquil scene.
She is in a white dress, sleeves blowing lightly in the breeze. Blonde hair pulled back behind her delicate ears. Her eyes, blue as the sky behind her, and her smile. It makes me ache. I barely notice the tears pouring down my cheeks. I run towards her, moving faster now that I am motivated by love rather than fear. My enemy is forgotten. He, the burning field, all of it is forgotten.
And as I run to my mother, as I embrace her, I know this is only a dream. And I don’t care. Because as long as she is here with me now, alive in my heart, I have nothing to fear. My eyes are squeezed shut as I continue to hug her, afraid to open them, afraid they will open to the ceiling of my room in my very big, very empty house in Chicago.
I inhale her scent. She had always smelled so good. Lavender, her favorite scent. When I was little and she would tuck me in at night, I used to fall asleep to that smell. To her beautiful voice humming a lullaby.
But that’s not what I smell now. I smell Death. Rotting corpses, decaying flesh, broken hearts, endless tears. Suddenly the arms around me are squeezing too tightly, threatening to choke me. I pull away using all my strength, and the arms release me. I look up, and instead of my mothers calming, smiling eyes, I see Death.
He has finally caught up with me. He is clothed entirely in black, the hood of his cloak drawn up, shielding his face from view. But I don’t have to see it clearly to know what it looks like.
Death, I think, looks different to all people. Depending on your beliefs it can be viewed as a release, or as a punishment. To those sick, it is a good, rewarding thing. But most people are terrified of it.
But I feel something more than fear now, looking up into the face of the thing that took my mother and other countless lives. I feel hate, much more powerfully than I feel fear. I hate this man, if human he is, more than I hate myself. More than I hate myself for knowing the last thing I said to my mother was ‘I hate you‘. More than I hate myself for not crying at her funeral. I feel more hate for Death than I have ever experienced.
And this is the part where I wake up. I open my eyes to the boring, white ceiling in my room. I hear the traffic from the nearby freeway. My room is lit up by the red numbers on my electric clock. 3:42 am. My sheets are soaked from my sweat. I feel just as exhausted as if I had just run those many miles. My heart races as I spin back to reality.
I lay there for a few minutes, waiting for my heart to calm, and for the heartbreak to settle back in. The pain so acute it numbs you.
I know I will not sleep again tonight. I get out of the bed, go over to my dresser. I pull the photo album out of my top drawer, where I have pasted various parts of my life. As I turn the pages, I see pictures of vacations, first swimming lessons, new houses, old friends. Then I come to the last page I’ve completed of it so far.
The newspaper articles. The pictures. Sympathy cards. I scan the pages with my eyes, although I know them by heart. The newspaper headline ‘Seven Die in Hotel Fire.’ My mothers name among those deceased. The date. Nearly a year now.
I think of my enemy, the one who so desperately pursues me in my dreams. Death is the ultimate enemy. There is no escaping it. And it will catch everyone. Eventually, He will catch me.