This story was originally published in Lakeside Circus in 2016. As the Lakeside Circus website seems to be down long-term, I’m going to go ahead and repost is here on my blog so it’s still available to be read.
Note that this is the original as-submitted version of the story. I think there were a few edits made to it before it was published, but I seem to have lost that file.
Josh wiggled his fingers in the moonlight, pale and graceful, and imagined them as fingerlings in the river, sliding through the currents. Under his bed, something buzzed like an angry bee.
Silvery fish flowed in through the open window, large as dobermans, blue moonlight glittering from flat eyes and scaled, underslung jaws.
Josh pulled his quilt up over his nose, afraid to breathe, heart thumping in his chest. Fish had no ears, right? They had teeth; he saw them, glittering triangles. Their fins waved slowly like the air had become water, too thick for lungs to hold.
The buzz sounded again from under his bed, like a cell phone vibrating over carpet but much lower, an angry growl.
It had to be the box.
The night before he had woken from a dream of running, running down a mountainside like Indiana Jones, a carved wooden box tucked under one arm, stolen from a temple where sylphs danced and men with long beards and longer knives scattered sand in great handfuls.
The box stayed in his arms when he woke, a creaky puzzle of mahogany that read like a story under his fingertips. He smashed it open with a hammer when he couldn’t decipher its knots and whorls, overeager to find within it the content of his dreams. The inside was lined with midnight blue velvet, cradling the silver shard of a mirror that twisted rather than reflected his face, showing his nose eating his cheeks one second and shrunk to a pinpoint the next.
Josh had shoved the mirror back into the gaping hole of the box’s lid, then rolled the mess up in a tattered green army surplus blanket normally reserved for picnics and hidden it under his bed like a shameful secret. He’d hidden other secrets there before, the results of pranks: stolen pencil cases and Lana Douglas’s pigtail, cut off with a pen knife.
From under the bed, the box snarled, insistent and angry.
Startled, the fish whipped in the air, flicking their fins and streaming back out into the night.
snap and crash and slam, doors up an down the block opened. “What the hell are those?” a man shouted. More people screamed in a wordless cacophony, high and discordant and then crunch. One less scream.
He knew that crunch. He’d hit Jeffery’s little sister’s bunny with his go cart, and accident, and it had made that sound. It had made him sick. He never wanted to hear that sound again, but it still echoed in his ears.
The cool night air gnawed his bare legs as he twisted free of his quilt. Josh’s shaking fingers found the rough blanket and he pulled the box from under his bed. Shards of wood scattered across the floor, too complex a puzzle to be solved with the roll of duct tape his father kept next to the hammer.
Josh reached for the warped mirror, and saw the way it twisted his fingers into lithe silver fish in the moonlight. That had to be the answer, then; the mirror turned what it saw into a monster. He grabbed the Louisville slugger next to his bed and drove it into the glass again and again, crack and crash and smash, until the mirror was little more than powder.
The silvery dust smeared across the floor made him a distorted, fuzzy shadow. The back of his throat tasted metallic with fear, like he’d licked up some of that shattered mirror. Dreams can’t be destroyed; they can only be contained. The words of his third grade teacher echoed up from his memory. When she’d said that, it had been a hopeful message. No one can hurt your dreams, they can only try to cage them up. You want to be a baseball player, a race car driver, a brain surgeon? No one can stop you. Smash the locks, open the cages, ignore the doubts, let your dreams be free.
But nightmares, Josh felt with the clarity of a bone needle dragging down his spine, like the teeth of the silver fish, were dreams as well. Nightmares were just a different direction for reality to twist, down into the dark.
At his window something growled, the low rumble of distant thunder, of some ancient beast freed from the shards of a broken prison. Josh’s hands tightened on his slugger as he turned. It was his dream, his nightmare, and he should be able to beat it, right? Dreams – nightmares – couldn’t be bigger, stronger, than the people who dreamed them, right?
Only he’s learned in school about I have a dream, and about I am become Death.
Hot, dank breath rolled through the room as Josh howled into the face of a reflection shattered past all recognition.