Saturday, January 14, 2017

Fever Dream

A mysterious infection lands Tom Jurgen in the hospital, where strange dreams follow: On a gray beach, he confronts a murderous monster and a city in need of a hero. When Rachel shares the same dream, they find themselves in a terrifying new reality—where Tom faces a difficult choice . . .

Fever Dream, Pt. One

I’m standing on a beach of coarse gray sand. Two red moons in a smoky twilight sky sink down slowly toward the surface of a dark sea.
            Thick leather boots on my feet and a hood of chain mail over my head, and I’m holding a heavy metal sword in both hands. What the hell?
I swing around. A black castle juts up out of a hill in the distance.
After two unsteady steps, I sink my sword into its holder. It jostles my knees as I trudge toward the castle, not sure where I’m going or why.
            Suddenly the sea churns in a wide whirlpool, ten yards from the shore. Red tentacles rise up and thrash at the sky, and then a huge body erupts on four massive, bony legs and trudges toward the shore. Three wide white eyes emerge from the top of a head shaped like a blunt hatchet, and rows of jagged teeth sprout from its wide jaws.
            I run. My boots sink in the sand, but I run faster than I ever have before. The monster’s footsteps thud behind me, like a bull moose on a slow rampage.
Then I’m at the gate of the castle. A bell cord hangs down, and I yank hard. Come on, come on, open up!
            A narrow door slides open. A young boy, maybe 14, with hair so thin I can’t tell its color motions me forward. “In here! Hurry, man!”
            I run. The kid jumps back, then throws a thick metal lock as I collapse on the ground.
            “You’re okay.” He kneels down. “Aren’t you? I’m Harry. We’re safe. Sort of.”
            I follow him down a short passageway and then into the dark orange sunlight of a dying day. In a narrow square food carts serve small servings of meat, potatoes, fish, vegetables, and bottles of water to throngs of thin, hungry, desperate people.
            Harry leads me to a squat round building where a tall elderly woman in a short black robe stands at the top of a high stairway. Is it a temple? The woman gazes down at me as I climb the steps. Then she opens her arms and smiles.
            “Hello, Tom Jurgen.” She rubs my shoulder.
            “Uh, hi.” I look around. “Where am I?”
            “In the city. I am Diamond Queen.” Her eyes match her name, glittering like ice. “Are you ready?”
            For what? “Uhh . . .”
            But Diamond swings around, and her voice booms. “Citizens!” she shouts. “Here is Tom Jurgen! The hero who will save us! Welcome him!”
            Hero? No, no, not me. I’m just a reporter turned private detective, and I don’t know why I’m here. Or where here is.
The people of the city, haggard and weak, turn to look up at me. Maybe some of them really believe I’m a hero. Most just give me a skeptical glance and then go back to the business of trying to find enough food and water to keep their families alive.
Diamond pushes my shoulder. “Say something to them!”
            I stumble down one step and wave an arm. “Uh, hi there! Let’s see—I’m Tom Jurgen, I’m from Chicago, and . . .”
            But then the gate shudders, like cannonballs are pounding at the wall. The citizens run, screaming, toward the temple.
            Hatches pop open in the base of the structure, and the citizens flood forward. Guards with tall staffs push people back, but they’re careful to let women and children through first.  
            Harry’s in the middle. He waves a hand at me. Then he ducks down and pushes his way through. He’s safe. But then he’s gone, and too many people are still trying to make their way to safety.
            “It’s time.” Diamond plants a hand on my arm. “Look.”
I stagger back as one big white eye rises up in the air outside the wall. A long red arm reaches down onto the platform surrounding the wall from inside.
            A guard screams as the creature yanks him up into the air. Archers shoot arrows and then run. The monster roars.
            I look around. Diamond stares at me. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know!” I’m petrified with fear. “Who are you? What’s going on? What am I supposed to—”
Then I wake up.

So I was lying in a hospital bed. The kind with sterile white sheets and lumpy pillows and a mattress that shifted under my butt. Dim moonlight streamed in through the blinds. I lifted my head with a hoarse gasp. “H-hello?”
            “Hello, dummy.” Rachel leaned over me. My girlfriend who lived upstairs. Red hair, hazelnut eyes, kind of psychic. “How are you?”
            “What . . . what happened?” I scratched at my elbow. Then I stopped when I felt an IV in my arm. I rolled over and saw three of them, actually. Fluids, maybe, and what else?
I reached down under the sheets. No catheter. Thank god.
            “What do you think? You didn’t answer your phone all day, even after I did my best phone sex voice. So I came downstairs and found you in your boxers in bed in the middle of the afternoon. No beer around or internet porn on your laptop. That’s when I called 911.”
            Then she slugged my shoulder. “Don’t scare me like that!”
            “S-sorry.” I held her hand, my shoulder aching. “God, I’m thirsty.”
            Rachel pushed a straw into my face. I gulped water from a big cup, then sank back. “Thanks.”
            She grabbed the phone next to my bed and punched in a few numbers. “Hello? Yeah, I’m in room 1014, and the patient here is awake. Can you . . . What? Okay.” She hung up. “You want more water? I can order food, there’s a whole menu here, it’s almost like carry out.” Then she tossed the menu on the floor. “Although you know, it’s hospital food. Maybe I should order a pizza or Thai food? Do you think they deliver to a hospital? I can ask. I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t have a beer, but I can try to—”
            “I’m fine.” I hit the control to raise the bed. “Just tired. And, you know . . .” I pulled her down.
            A nurse cleared her throat. Rachel jumped up, wiping a hand across her lips. “We weren’t kissing! Actually, we were kissing, and what business is it of yours anyway? I’m his girlfriend!”
            “Wonderful.” The nurse, a hefty blond woman, smiled at Rachel. “I’m Andrea. Let me see . . .” She took my pulse, checked my temperature, and stabbed my middle finger for some blood sugar. “How are you feeling?”
            “Tired. Hungry.” I raised the bed higher. “What happened?”
            “Some kind of infection. We’re not sure yet, but they can come from anything. Bad fish, toilets, kissing . . .” She patted my arm. “Actually, kissing can help cure them too.”
            “I hope so.” I rubbed my eyes. “What day is it?”
            “Tuesday. Well, Wednesday, really.” Rachel sank into a chair. “I’ve been watching all the late night talk shows, and but there’s a Star Trek marathon starting at 2:00, and I’m watching every single one.”
            “You can go home if you want.” I lowered the bed. “I’m going to fall asleep anyway, and I’ll be fine with Nurse Andrea on the case.”
            “Maybe after the one with the Romulans.” She clicked the remote.
            “Well, I’ll leave you two lovebirds alone.” Andrea finished checking my vitals. “You’re going to need a different mixture of antibiotics in the morning, but for right now you just need to get some rest.”
            “Thanks.” I closed my eyes.
            Rachel sat next to me, holding my hand as Captain Kirk argued with Spock. I wanted to tell her something important, but I was slipping away. Trying to remember what had happened.
            Rachel’s eyes closed.

Fever Dream, Pt. Two

Rachel stood on a beach of gray sand, three red moons sinking down toward the sea. She wore loose sweatpants and a T-shirt, and she was barefoot. The sand was cool, but the strap on the big automatic rifle slung over her shoulder dug into her skin.
            Suddenly the sea churned in a wide whirlpool, ten yards out from the shore. Red tentacles rose up, thrashing around, and then a huge body rose up on four legs and trudged toward the shore. Three wide white eyes jutted from the top of its hatchet-shaped head, and rows of jagged teeth sprouted from its wide jaws.
            Rachel turned and ran across the sand. She heard the monster’s footsteps behind her, but she kept up a steady pace, not too slow but not fast enough to wear her out. At gate of the castle, she rang a bell hanging from a high tower and turned around, the rifle heavy in her arms. Waiting.
            A door popped open next to the gate. A kid with thin rusty hair, maybe 10, leaned out. “Who are you? You’re not the right one!”
            Rachel whirled around. The creature from the sea walked on tall bony legs, clawed tentacles whirling around its bulbous head. She triggered a burst of bullets at it. Yee-hah! The rifle shook in her hands until it was suddenly empty. She dropped it, her hand aching.
            The monster’s high scream pierced the air. It staggered and fell on the sand, and then it rose up like a spider, digging its arms into the dirt to pull itself forward.
            “Come on!” The boy waved an arm. “Get in here!”
Rachel slid through the doorway. The kid jumped back, then slammed the door and shot three big metal bolts as she collapsed on the ground.
            “You’re okay.” He knelt down. “I’m Harry. We’re safe. Sort of. But he’ll come soon. Won’t he?”
            “What are you talking about?” Rachel looked at the empty rifle. She didn’t know how to reload. Or if she even had more bullets anywhere in his pockets. “What are we . . .”
            “This way!” The boy led her down a short passageway and then into the dark red sunlight of a dying day. In a narrow square food carts served small servings of meat, potatoes, fish, and vegetables to throngs of thin, hungry, desperate people.
            A tall woman in a long black robe stood at the top of a high stairway, in front of an open doorway opening into a squat, round building. A temple?
            The woman gazed down. Her expectant smile turned into a frown. “You’re not Tom Jurgen.”
            What? “No, but I’m his girlfriend. Who the hell are you?”
            The people of the city, haggard and weak, turned to look at Rachel. Maybe some of them believed she was the hero who would save them from the monster outside, Others just gave her a skeptical glance and then went back to the business of trying to find enough food and water to keep their families alive.
            Rachel jabbed the kid next to her in the stomach. “What’s going on?”
            Then the gate shuddered, like cannonballs pounding at the wall. Rachel swung around and saw one big white eye rise up in the air. A long red tentacle reached down onto the platform surrounding the wall from inside.
            A guard screamed as the creature yanked him up into the air. Archers shot arrows into its arms and chest, but the monster roared as it flung the guard down to the ground. The archers scattered, and other guards hurled spears at its chest. The monster roared again and clambered over the wall, knocking guards over with its long, wild arms.
             “Save us!” The boy next to Rachel crouched on the ground, his arms over his head. “Send us the hero. Please . . .”

“Wow.” Rachel sat up in her chair, running her hands through her hair. “That was weird.”
            “As weird as this?” I was watching the “Spock’s Brain” episode on the TV.
            “No, but . . .” She rubbed her eyes. “I was on this gray beach, and there was a monster. It chased me into some castle, but everything there was waiting for you. Like you were some kind of hero or something.”
            Something clicked in my head. A woman in a black robe—Diamond—telling everyone my name. “Wait . . . Oh hell.” I groaned. “I think I had the same dream.”
            “Oh god.” Rachel sat upright. “Does that mean I’ve got what you’ve got? Am I sick like you? Am I going to die? I was going finally going to buy a fish!”
            I called Andrea. She took Rachel’s temperature, her blood sugar, and a vial of blood, but she didn’t seem concerned. “No fever, your sugar’s fine. I’m not sure how to process this since you’re not a patient, but . . .” She slipped the vial into a front pocket and winked. “I’ll figure something out.”
            “Thanks.” I looked at the clock. 6:35 in the morning. I could order breakfast at 7:00. “So tell me about your dream.”
            Rachel ran her hands across her hair. “Well, it was on a beach with gray sand, and there was some monster coming out the sea. I shot at it with my rifle, but—
“You had a rifle?” I was filled with resentment. “All I had was a sword! Why did you get a gun?”
“It was one of those assault rifles.” She shuddered. “It was kind of cool, except I ran out of bullets in about three seconds. That never happens in the movies. They shoot and they shoot and they shoot, and they never run out. I saw Die Hard. One of them, anyway.”
“Yeah.” From what little I knew, any automatic rifle would exhaust its clip in a matter of seconds. And that meant . . . “We were in the same dream. But maybe it wasn’t really a dream.”
“You can’t even get sick like a normal person?” Rachel slugged my shoulder. “Ow! That gun hurt my wrist and it’s all your fault.”
“It usually is.” Her wrist might ache, but she still had her punch. “So what happened to you?”
We compared dreams. Most of the major details were similar—the sand, the sky, the monster—but some were different. The number of moons in the sky, the sword, the age of the boy at the door, and especially the machine gun.
“He was pretty scared.” Rachel stared out the window. “They all were, even though they were trying to hide it. And that thing . . .” She shivered. “Like Cthluhu without the charm.”
I nodded. “They need help.”
Rachel stood up. “But you have to get better from this weird infection.”
I looked at the IVs in my arm. Which one was pumping the antiobiotic? If I shut it off—
“Don’t even think about it.” She cocked her arm again.
“You really are psychic.” I probably wouldn’t do it anyway. I’m too much of a coward about pain and sickness. And dying.
Rachel sighed. “I guess it’s time for some research.” She sniffed her sweater. “And a shower.”
“Go on home.” I was a little surprised she’d actually spent the night. She hardly ever stayed over at my place—or wanted me to spend all night at hers.
Maybe she liked me.
Rachel kissed me goodbye and I watched the rest of Star Trek. Once Spock’s brain was back in his body, I picked up the phone to order breakfast.

Dr. Raje was Indian or maybe Pakistani, with deep brown eyes and a quiet but firm voice. She checked my vitals and look at my chart on her iPad.
            “A private detective?” She cocked an eyebrow. “Lots of divorce and workers comp cases, I image.”
            “And some weird stuff.” Vampires, zombies, and monsters in my dreams. “What do I have?”
            “A bacterial infection. We can’t identify it, and it’s not responding to the antibiotic we put you on yesterday, so I’m switching to—” a long scientific name that sounded vaguely threatening. “How are you feeling otherwise?”
            “Sleepy mostly. Thirsty.” I gulped some water. “Strange dreams.”
            “That can happen. Any pain?”
            Just where Rachel hit me. “I’m a little achy when I get up to go to the bathroom.”
            “We’ll get you something for that. The best thing you can do is rest and drink lots of water.” She tapped the screen with her stylus and closed her laptop. “The nurse will be right in to change your IV.”
            But Dr. Raje didn’t leave. Instead she looked at the door. “Will your girlfriend come back to visit today?”
            “I hope so.” Had I gotten Nurse Andrea into trouble?
            “Have the nurse page me when she comes in.” And she left.
            Oh no. I grabbed my cell phone.
Rachel answered on the second buzz. “You still alive? I’m researching shared dreams, but so far—”
            “You need to come in.” God, if the infection didn’t kill me. Rachel probably would.     
            “What the—am I sick? Did you get me sick?”
            “The doctor wouldn’t say. She just wants to see you. I’m—I’m sorry.”
            The silence between our phones lasted for what felt like ten thousand years. Then Rachel cleared her throat. “Shut up. It’s not your fault. Besides, maybe she was just wants to ask me why I hang around with a doofus like you.”
            Ouch. “I wonder that myself sometimes.”
            “Give me an hour. I still haven’t taken a shower. Do you want your laptop? I’m bringing mine.”
            “See you soon.”

So an hour and ten minutes later Rachel was in my room, facing off against Dr. Raje. “Hi. I’m Rachel. What’s going on?”
The doctor glanced at my bed. “Do you mind speaking with Mr. Jurgen here? We can find a private area if you’d be more comfortable.”
            “What are you talking about?” Rachel’s eyes narrowed. “Wait, am I pregnant?”
            “No, no.” She shook her head. “But I’m afraid you have the same infection your boyfriend does. Not as advanced, fortunately. But I’d like to admit you for treatment. We can bring a bed in here so you can stay with Tom, or we can arrange another room—”
            “Here.” Rachel glared at me. “We have a lot to talk about.”
            Dr. Raje looked at me. “Is that acceptable?”
            “Of course.” How much worse could it get? Rachel was already mad at me. “But just—how did I give it to her?”
            “Don’t think like that.” She picked up the phone on the table next to me. “It’s possible she gave it to you. Or it’s something in your building. You should probably have your apartment inspected, The hospital can give you the number of an inspection service. —Yes, this is Dr. Raje, I need another bed in room 1014. Thank you.” She hung up. “They’ll be in here in a few minutes. You should just focus on resting, drinking lots of liquids, and getting better.” She looked at Rachel. “Both of you. I’ll check in later.”
            I didn’t know what to say. Had I caused this? Maybe it was something in our building, mold or mosquitoes. I’d have to call our landlord. But she was a little old woman, and she was already suspicious of me. And Rachel.
            Rachel sank into a chair. “This is a nightmare.”
            “Speaking of bad dreams . . .”
            She pulled her laptop and mine from her bag. “Yeah. Dream telepathy is a thing. Freud experimented with it, and a few others, but scientifically it’s not confirmed. But some people say they’ve done it, usually during stress. I’d say this counts.”
            But the people in the black castle . . . “Maybe it’s their stress. Could they be, I don’t know, reaching out for help?”
            “From who? Why would they pick someone like . . . um . . .” She gazed down at the floor. “Let me rephrase. Give me a minute . . .”
            A new nurse marched into the room, pulling an IV rack with her. Her name was Rosa, and she was followed by two orderlies pushing a hospital bed. Rosa dropped a gown on the mattress, and then wrapped a plastic bracelet around Rachel’s arm. “We’ll leave while you change. You can put your clothes and valuables in this plastic bag. Then I’ve got to place the IV. Do you want something to drink?”
            Rachel stared at the bed like it was her coffin. “Just some water.”
            I put my bed up as the nurse walked away. “We can order food. I won’t even order a cheeseburger. There’s lots of vegetarian stuff.”
“Good, because I didn’t eat breakfast. Or dinner last night, for that matter, after I found you.” She picked up the gown and smiled. “Shall I change right in here? Give the orderlies something to fantasize about?”
I smiled. “Just make sure you close the blinds.”
“Oops.” Rachel giggled and waved through the window. Then she pushed down her jeans. “This isn’t going to be glamorous, but—hey! Don’t fall asleep on me here!”
“S—sorry.” Suddenly I couldn’t keep my eyes open. “I just have to . . .”

Fever Dream, Pt. Three

So I was standing once again on a beach of gray sand, with two—my eyes were blurry, maybe three?—red moons dropping down toward the horizon. The water churned in a wide, furious whirlpool, and a thick red tentacle shot from the waves.
            “Uh, what is this?”
            I twisted around. Rachel wore a chain mail bikini, the kind you see in comic books—Red Sonya!—and media conventions. I tried not to stare at her legs.
            She planted a fist on her hip. “Okay, I’m guessing this is your dream, not mine.”
            “Sorry.” I closed my eyes. Part of me hoped I could burn the sight of her body into my memory before I woke up. Mostly I hoped she wouldn’t just slug me.
            When I opened my eyes, she was wearing combat fatigues—jacket and boots, and dark aviator sunglasses. Still sexy. “Better?”
            She patted her pockets. “Lots of extra ammo. But I still don’t know how to reload. Can you work that into your next dream without having Princess Leia fantasies?”
            I swung around, the heavy sword shaking in my hand. “Let’s just . . .”
            “Get down!” Rachel fired her rifle as the monster rose from the sea. Four thick hairy legs, three white eyes, and too many red tentacles to count. It marched forward through the water, roaring like a bull elephant.
            The monster thrashed and lurched forward, and we backed away. More blood poured from its hatchet-shaped face, staining the sand, but it only roared again and surged toward us.
            Rachel threw her rifle down, the clip empty. “Run, you idiot!”
            I managed to hold onto my sword as we raced toward the castle. Rachel yanked the bell cord. The door slid open. Harry looked up at us. “Hi.”
            “Harry!” I pushed Rachel through the door. “Take care of her.”
            “What are you talking about?” Rachel stood up, panting. Somehow she was in the metal bikini again, and Harry was staring at her. “Oh, this is just great.”
            “Come on.” Harry led us through the same narrow passageway into the square, and this time we got a lot more attention from the citizens at the food carts. Probably because of Rachel.
            “Sorry.” We ran toward the temple, or whatever it was.
            Diamond came out in her black robe. She didn’t welcome me this time. Instead she looked up at the castle wall, where the monster’s arms were clutching the platform inside. Archers fired arrows and soldiers plunged swords and daggers into its thick skin, but this time it heaved its huge body up and over, its white eyes pulsing with furry.
            The platform collapsed. Defenders fell and died as the monster landed on the ground inside the square. Screams deafened the air as townspeople fled, seeking safety inside the temple.
            Harry cowered next to me. “You can save us. Please.”
            I didn’t know how. The monster lurched forward. Harry screamed and ran. Rachel tried to grab him, but he was lost in panic. Like everyone else.
            We watched, helpless, as a slender tentacle wrapped around his legs and lifted him high. Rachel’s scream was louder than anyone’s.
            I stepped forward and threw my sword as hard as I could. I missed.
            Harry looked back at my, his arms and legs flailing, and then he went into the monster’s jaws. I turned away.
            Diamond stood behind me. “You were supposed to be our hero!”
            “I don’t know how!” I stared at her. “Tell me what to do!”
            But she only stepped away. “You know.”
            “This is stupid!” Rachel punched my arm, but she looked ready to strangle Diamond. “Why are you bringing us here? I don’t know how to shoot a gun, Tom doesn’t know how to swing a sword—what do you want?”
            The monster howled behind us. Diamond just shook her head. And then she closed the door of the temple, leaving the rest of the city to face the monster.

“Damn it!” Rachel pounded her fist on the bed. “What did we do wrong?”
The room spun over my head. I grabbed a cord and hit the call button. “Hey, uh, we need some help here . . .”
“Oh god.” Rachel rolled her head. “Oh god, I’m going to . . . Uh-oh.” She leaned over the bed railing and threw up on the floor.
            A nurse burst into the room. “What’s going on?”
            “Check on my girlfriend.” Rachel was twitching as if she was having a seizure. I clutched my water, my arms shaking. “And me too, when you have the time.” Oh hell, what had I done to her?
            Eventually Rachel settled back and breathed normally. A doctor and two nurses crowded around her bed.
            The first nurse pressed some kind of digital thermometer into my arm. “The fever is spiking. “Hey! Get this guy more fluids!”
            The doctor turned from Rachel’s bed. “Mr. Jurgen? I’m Doctor Brown.” He had a mild Jamaican accent. Your wife is fine, but—”
            “Not my wife.” My head was swimming. “I mean, I’m Jurgen. That’s Rachel, she’s my girlfriend—”
            “In your dreams, you jerk!” Rachel raised a hand, but she was too far away to hit me. “I mean—okay, yeah. Girlfriend. Dreams. Make sure he’s okay, all right? I need to . . .” Her head dropped back onto her pillow.
            “Help her.” My throat felt raw. “We’ve got to help all of them.”
            “Okay, okay.” Dr. Brown felt my forehead and checked my pulse at the same time. “You’re both going to be fine.”
            “But not the rest of them.” I struggled to breathe. “We’ve got to help them. Rachel? Are you there?”
            “Ohh . . .” Rachel groaned. “Do we have to do it again? That little boy—Harry? I don’t want it to happen again.”
            “It won’t.” I closed my eyes. “Stay awake. I’ve got this.”
            “You idiot. I . . . don’t do anything stupid.”
            “More fluids.” The doctor’s voice was harsh. “And get them both on . . .”
            I closed my eyes. Okay, I was ready now. Maybe.

I’m standing on a beach of gray sand. Again. At least now I’m in jeans and my windbreaker. No sword. No weapon. I’m just watching three red moons descend into the sea.
            “Hey, Tom.” It’s Rachel, right behind me. “Where are we going?”
            I twist my head. Rachel’s in tight yoga pants and a loose tank top. So whose dream is it now? I don’t know. I don’t want to take my eyes off of her. But I know the monster is rising from the water.
            I take a step back. “We have to kill that thing. Somehow.”
            “No. I mean . . .” Her breath whispers at my neck. “About us?”
            Oh god. Definitely my dream. Or my nightmare. “Can we talk about this later?”
            “We may not have time.” She points. The creature is stumbling out toward the shore.
            “Okay, okay.” I swung around and grab her arm. “I love you. You know that, right? Let’s go.”
            “Good enough.” Rachel runs. I follow. The beast from the sea pursues us as we race once again toward the castle.
            Rachel reaches the gate first and pulls the bell. It rings high in the air.
            The door slides open. It’s Harry again. I push Rachel through first. “Take care of her.” My voice is raspy. And my heart is pounding.
            Harry squirms, but then he grabs Rachel’s arm and plunges down the passageway. “Hurry!”
            We’re out in the courtyard. The same food carts serve the same desperate people, all looking for a hero to save them.
            Diamond gazes down at me. She opens her arms and smiles.
            “Citizens!” she shouts. “Here is Tom Jurgen! The hero who will save us! Welcome him!”
            Hero? I search for Rachel. She’s standing next to Harry, looking up at me. Shaking her head as all around her citizens run from the sound of booming feet outside the castle walls.
            Some of the fleeing townspeople gaze at me. Their faces are desperate. Some are crying. Men and women are grasping children in their arms, running as fast as they can toward the temple hatches.
            Harry pulls Rachel. She slaps his hand away. She plants her combat boots on the pavement and shoves him away. He shouts at her. Rachel crosses her arms and stays.
No. No . . .
            The creature clambers over the wall. Archers shoot and scatter. Citizens flee for the temple doors. I don’t see Harry anywhere. But Rachel is right down there . . .
            Then the monster leaps down into the square, its tentacles flying around. One knocks over a soldier trying to stab it with a sword. Another arm slams an old woman into the ground. A huge foot tromps on a young man pushing a screaming kid out of its path. Screams split the air.
            The monster rises up, roaring in fury.
            I don’t have any weapons. But somehow all these people expect me to save them. I turned around, glaring at Diamond in her short black robes “What do I do? How do I kill it?”
            She stands by the door, ready to lock herself up inside. “You don’t kill it, Tom Jurgen. That’s why you’re a hero.”
            Oh god. No. Does she mean . . .
            “Wait a minute!” I grab her robe. “Rachel’s down there! You can’t—”
            “We looked for someone to save us. Someone from another world. The creature chose you. That’s why you’re here.”
            Why they kept drawing me back and back. “Okay! What about Rachel? Do we wake up? Like in Inception? Is that what happens?”
            “You save us.” She glides away. “That’s all I know. But that’s why we need a hero.”
            Oh no. No, no, no, no, no . . .
            The monster pounds forward, its tentacles swinging left and right. An old man falls beneath one heavy foot. A little girl runs zigzag, narrowly avoiding one of its heavy, thrashing arms. People flow toward the temple hatches, desperate to escape.
            I can’t do this. I’m a coward. I run at the sight of trouble. No one’s ever called me brave. Or a hero.
            But screams pierce the air. Damn it. I have to do something.
            My life streams past me. It’s not all bad. Okay, professional disgrace, divorce, scraping money to pay the bills . . . but I’ve helped some people. And then there’s Rachel. Standing out there, looking at me. Maybe I could have done more, but . . .
            But for whatever reason, these people need me. Harry, and all those kids . . .
            So I stagger down the steps to meet the monster. “Hey you!”
            The creature actually seems to hear me. It pauses in its rampage, its hatchet head looming around.
            “Yeah, me!” I lean back. “Tom Jurgen! You want a piece of me? Come and get me, you asshole!”
            Tentacles rise up. Legs bend down. That big ugly face drops, and the jaws open wide.
            Okay. Okay. I can do this. Maybe. I take one last deep breath. “Do it, you bastard! Come on, are you scared? Why don’t you—”
            Oops. Sharp fangs tear at my body. I’m high up in the air, my body flailing around. I look back down at the square—
            And there’s Rachel gazing up at me from the middle of the square, one arm raised high. Giving me the finger.
            I laugh. I’m spinning, dizzy, nauseous, but somehow it’s okay. I bite my lip and close my eyes. I hope it won’t hurt too much . . .

I opened my eyes, breathing hard. At least I was breathing. “Is this heaven?”
            Rachel glared down at me. “I’m here. What do you think, jerk?”
            Dr. Raje patted my shoulder. “Your fever is down. How do you feel?”
            “J-just happy to be here.” I reached for my water. “What about—”
            “Your heart stopped!” Rachel loomed over me. “I’m legally prohibited from hitting you just now, but once we get home, oh boy . . .”
            My heart? I turned my head and saw two nurses packing up a crash cart. I knew it was a crash cart because I’d seen them on TV. My chest felt raw. But my heart was beating.
            Dr. Raje glared at Rachel. “Please don’t upset him.”
            Rachel backed away. Which almost never happens. “I was just scared.” She sat down on her bed. “Just make sure he’s okay.”
            Nurse Andrea was checking my blood pressure. “You’re back to normal. But you need to rest. No excitement.” She shot a glance at Rachel. “Either of you.”
            Rachel nodded. “Fine.” This was almost scarier than the monster.
            Dr. Raje pushed a jug of water at me. “You should rest. You’re getting better, and your girlfriend is almost completely free of the infection, but I want both of you here for another night at least. We’re starting another antibiotic, which should knock it out for good. In the meantime, lots of fluids. And rest. You too.” She smiled at Rachel. “Especially now.”
            Rachel hopped into her bed. “I was just nervous. I watch a lot of medical shows, you know?”
            “Watch something else tonight.” She tossed the remote. “I think there’s a Star Trek Next Generation marathon going on.”
            “Ooh, Captain Picard!” She started flipping through the channels.
            “You hate The Next Generation.” I closed my eyes.
            “I had to make her leave, didn’t I?” I could feel Rachel’s breath on my face as she leaned over me. “Are you okay?”
            “Harry’s fine.” I leaned over for my water, and Rachel pushed the straw to my lips. After a long gulp I leaned back, spilling water over the sheets. “How much did you see?”
            “People running. Screaming. And that thing climbing over the wall.” She rubbed her eyes. “And then some idiot yelling, ‘Do you want a piece of me?’”
            I smiled. “Someone gave me the finger.”
            “For Christ’s sake.” She leaned down to kiss my forehead. “What the hell were you thinking?”
            “I didn’t have time to think much.” Which was probably good. “They needed a hero.”
            “Jerk.” But she kissed me again. On the lips this time. “I need you too.”

* * *

I stand on a beach of coarse gray sand. Two red moons in a smoky twilight sky sink down slowly toward the surface of a dark sea.
Oh no—not again? But the water is calm now. And I don’t have a sword in my hands, or armor over my shoulders.
            The walls of the black castle rise high. Flags fly from its tall towers. I stare for a long time. Meat cooks from faraway stoves, and happy songs drift through the air.
            They never did identify the bacteria that caused the infection. Apparently that’s kind of common. The best Rachel and I could figure was that Diamond pushed it into our world and sent it straight to me, hoping I’d save her city. How she knew about me—and why she thought I’d be willing to sacrifice myself—was a mystery.
            I sink down on my knees and sift the sand through my fingers. Okay. Maybe it was all worth it. At least I know how to die.
            “Get up.” Rachel leans down to grab my hand. She’s in a red bikini top and tight black shorts “This outfit is a favor, so don’t get used to it. We’re going home.”
            I stand up. “Thanks.”
            Another kiss. “Don’t be a hero next time, okay?”
            “Whatever you say.” I close my eyes and wait to wake up.

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