Authors: Russell James
Two realities. One hope.
What if you lived in two worlds, and could die in either? Pete Holm can. He is a dreamwalker, able to travel to the realm of dreams, including the devastated world of Twin Moon City, where an evil voodoo spirit holds living souls in terror with his army of the walking dead.
In the waking world, drug lord Jean St. Croix knows only the power of the dreamwalker can stop him, so St. Croix vows Pete must die.
Pete is the only hope to rescue the lost souls in Twin Moon Cityâ¦unless St. Croix kills him first. Can anyone survive when two realities collide?
Who still fills all my dreams.
Thanks to my sisters-in-writing, Janet Guy and Kelly Horn, for once again beta reading with brutal honesty. Thanks to my editor, Don D'Auria, and all the creative souls at Samhain Publishing who let me share my dreams and nightmares with the world. Special thanks to Audrey Ferber, who read the earliest version of this novel and encouraged me to set out on the path that ended up here.
Flaming arrows sang by Pete's ears, one so close the heat singed his hair. A quick glance over his shoulder revealed a horde of tribesmen closing fast from the edge of the jungle clearing. They wore animal skin loincloths with bizarre fur patterns. Necklaces of human bones pounded against their tanned chests as they charged. In unison, they screamed like shearing metal and displayed mouths full of tiger shark teeth. The lead savage, face painted white as death, brandished a trident with a man's gaping skull on each tine.
Pete's instant arrival here wasn't the least disorienting. In a flash, his memory gaps filled in. A magic emerald figurine sat heavy in the pouch at his waist. When he and his team took it across the rope bridge over the gorge, the spells the leader had cast over the local villages would be broken.
Three of them were running to the bridge, one man yards ahead and almost there. He was familiar yet somehow nameless, the same late-teen age as Pete, clad in similar khaki shorts and a grimy T-shirt. Sunlight flashed off a tortoise shell shield slung across his shoulder. He reached the anchors of the rickety suspension bridge and spun around. He unshouldered the shield. Wind from the gorge behind him blew his brown hair back across his face. He crouched to defend the rope bridge entrance.
Pete instinctively glanced back to check for her. She was right on Pete's heels, her footfalls in sync with his. Her long, blonde hair trailed behind her, a hint of panic in her green eyes. Even mottled with the jungle's dirt, her graceful features were beautiful. That's why she was Dream Girl.
“I'm here,” she panted. “Don't wait.”
The tribesmen's scream came louder this time as they closed the gap. Another volley of burning arrows cut the air. Several stuck into the suspension bridge planks. Pete hit the bridge at full speed, hands gliding along the gnarled rope railing. The blonde was right behind him.
They were halfway across when Pete heard the scream. He could only get a glimpse past his shoulder, but that was enough. A shield pierced with flaming arrows. A lifeless body on the ground. Men with machetes chopping at the ropes.
“Don't look back,” he yelled. “Run!”
The hand railing ropes jumped in sync with the hack of each tribesman's machete. The bridge bounced as they bounded down the last few feet. Pete leapt across the remaining planks and landed on the far side of the gorge. The sickening crack of rotted wood rolled across from the gorge's other side.
Pete whirled around. The log towers at the far end tore from the ground and tumbled into the gorge. Parted twin support ropes flew toward him like snapped rubber bands. The bridge dropped. Dream Girl's determined look turned into shock as the planks fell away beneath her.
Pete's hand darted out and grabbed her arm. He wrapped his other arm around one log tower's base. Her hand gripped his wrist. It was soft, but strong. She looked up with a smile of relief.
“A bit too close, don't you think?” she said.
Then it all dissolved, that episode over.
Pete Holm spent his nights this way, bouncing from dream to dream. They were usually great adventures, Hollywood blockbusters inside his head as he sailed pirate ships or fought off space aliens. While most people had fuzzy dreams with muddled narratives, Pete dreamed with exceptional clarity. Technicolor hues, exquisite detail, nuanced scents. He'd describe it as more real than reality, if there was someone he'd ever describe it to. And while most people's dreams faded with the advance of consciousness, Pete's remained sharp as high-definition TV.
But the real nightly treats were continuing storylines. His dreams often picked up the next evening where they left off. And while Pete might start
in media res
as his English professor described certain stories, he knew exactly where he was and what he was doing, as if he'd just paused the movie from the night before. Characters rarely made the transition from one storyline to the next, except for Dream Girl, the forever unnamed beautiful blonde with the emerald eyes.
He was always aware that he was dreaming, but knowing that never made it any less real, any more than a pilot in a flight simulator ever felt as if he wasn't flying. He regretted that he lacked control of the dream's outcome, a prerogative his subconscious refused to yield.
In tonight's double feature, he now stood alone in what he had dubbed “The Mansion”, a brick antebellum masterpiece, complete with an immense two-story front porch. The house had been with him his entire life, a slowly evolving symbol of Southern graciousness. A warm sense of recognition filled him upon each arrival.
Pete stood at the base of a staircase that rivaled Tara's, stretching to the unfinished second floor. Ornate trim work surrounded each door in the room and the dark wood floor was waxed to a mirror finish. Paintings of places Pete had visited and loved hung on the walls, scenes of Niagara Falls and the backyard of his grandmother's house. The open front doors ushered in a breeze touched with the invigorating scent of fresh-cut alfalfa.
Some things in the mansion changed with each visit; some always remained the same. The second floor never altered, forever a maze of rough framed walls and plywood flooring. Old-fashioned copper stubs of incomplete plumbing poked through the floors and errant pigtailed wires sprouted from the wall studs. Pete had plans for the expanse on the second floor: a room with a pool table, a master bedroom with a veranda, a bathroom with an archaic claw foot tub. One night he would arrive, and the new rooms would be finished.
On the ground floor, hallways snaked away in impossible lengths, promising yet more undiscovered spaces. Through each door, some rooms were familiar, some not. Often, first floor rooms were empty, though they had been furnished in other visits. Pete peered inside a few doors, rediscovering the mansion, finding details his subconscious had added.
Pete entered his favorite room, an elegant sunroom, with three walls and a ceiling of solid glass panels in a wrought iron frame. Potted tropical plants covered the floor, parting to make a path to an open observation area. Daylight blazed down on the white marble floor. On the other side of the glass, a lush green lawn rolled away from the mansion. Pete decided to spend the dream right here, warmed by the sun and bathed in the scents of rich earth and flowering plants.
Suddenly something ice cold blew through him, an Arctic blast that penetrated his clothes, his skin, his soul. He shivered. His stomach clenched in an involuntary knot of fear.
A low rumbling noise rolled across the vast stretch of lawn, like the roar of a distant jet. At the far edge of the grass, a dark, amorphous mass emerged from the trees. The pulsating mix of black smoke and gray substance nosed out into the open. It slithered across the grass like a huge worm and began a slow zigzag up the hill to the mansion.
Pete stepped to the window and gripped the cold iron windowpane. His short, shallow breaths fogged the glass.
The apparition closed on the house. Its bellowing's pitch grew piercing and shrill, sonic steel needles that probed Pete's. He covered his ears.
The creature sharpened into a massive gray snake, a freight train of shifting scales with jagged spikes along its back. The head reared up. A gaunt shadowy face, as misshapen as a Picasso abstract, stared through the window at Pete with empty black eye sockets. Its mouth stretched into a howling oval. The head wore a peaked officer's cap with an indistinct central white logo. Around its neck hung a tarnished medallion on a thick chain. It bore the likeness of two crossed snakes, one dark and one light.
It slithered back and forth across the yard ever quicker, but its gaze never wavered. It remained locked on the mansion, the head swiveling counter to the body movement, always facing the sunroom, always facing Pete.
Pete staggered back from the glass. This was all wrong. He was in
. Mansion dreams were never nightmares. What was this thing he summoned that came on the way a killer entered a schoolyard?
The creature turned again and charged the sunroom. The hideous head closed on the mansion. Its ear-shattering shriek pierced Pete's skull. The hairs on his arms stood on end and vibrated in time with the creature's wailing. The white object on the peak of the cap came into focus, a clenched skeletal fist.
Its pit of a mouth opened wider, as if to ingest the house. Windowpanes in the house shuddered from the screaming noise. Pete fell to his knees. His heart slammed inside his chest.
Pete's subconscious reached up, grabbed a hold of the real world, and pulled.
He woke up in his dark dorm room in a cold, soaking sweat. He clenched the edge of the bed and prayed it was really over. His roommate snored. Pete relaxed and slumped back into his pillow. The clock read 4:50 a.m.
This is no way to start the first day of midterm exams,
“You can't be up at this hour.”
Somehow, Pete must have awakened his roommate. There was no other way Larry would be up by 4:50 a.m. Often, Larry wasn't even in bed by then. Larry thought classes that started before 10:00 were something from the Soviet gulag.
“Uh, yeah, I'm up,” Pete answered. He sat on the edge of his bed, but his heart still galloped in his chest. As usual, his dream had seemed very real. Great on the pleasant ones. A downside on the nightmares. He took a deep breath to relax. “Another early start to the day.”
Larry rotated in his bed just enough to clear his mouth from the pillow. One bleary eye reported the resounding success of last night's keg party.
“You are nothing but early mornings lately,” he rasped. “What's with that?”
Pete hadn't shared his dreaming gift with his roommate. Pete wasn't going to reveal to Larry, who he'd known two months, something he still hid from his parents.
“Just a little academic anxiety,” Pete said.
Larry rolled another quarter turn.
“No doubt, dude.” Larry's eyes closed to welcome a return to sleep. “I'd seriously stress if I had your gradesâ¦”
Pete didn't need a reminder that high school's B's were coming up college D's.
“I'm going for a run,” Pete announced.
“Great idea,” Larry muttered. “I'll go with you.” His bed sheets lay still. Larry started to snore.
Pete put on his shorts and running shoes. He pulled a faded sweatshirt over his curly, black hair. The sweatshirt enveloped his slight frame. He'd always been a bit shorter than average, and his newfound penchant for running had just made him leaner. He thought about hunting down a pair of sweat pants but decided to feel the cold.
Exercise usually cleared his head. If he went now, he'd have the campus to himself. No big change there. Mentally, the past few weeks he'd been feeling more and more as if he was alone on campus.
He'd never expected to make it to college. Elementary school had been one interminable frustration. Even with total concentration, reading was almost impossible. He withdrew socially as his classmates acquired with ease what constantly eluded him. He endured countless eye exams and disciplinary tactics, until he had finally been diagnosed with Visual Processing Disorder. What he saw out in the world often got scrambled on the way to his brain.
His parents signed him up for rigorous tutoring and therapy. He performed a miracle and finished high school in the top third. So, against all odds, he became one more student number joining the thousands of others in line to become an enlightened Ithaca College business graduate.
But college wasn't high school. The items he had the most trouble processing, maps, charts, graphs, were everywhere. Economics was impossible. Calculus might as well have been in the original Greek. As the months passed, he had more and more trouble focusing. All the coping mechanisms that helped beforeâdigital audio notes, color coding, extensive outlining, all began to fail him. The world was slowly reverting to that dark, lonely place he'd inhabited as a child. He was most comfortable in the place the rest of the work-study students despised, his part time job washing dishes in the cafeteria.
Leaving the dorm, he entered the cool fall darkness. It was the end of October and he could already see his breath steam. The last of the summer's dying leaves held a tenacious grip on near-barren limbs. This year the fall colors had not happened. The foliage had gone from green to brown as if someone hit a switch. Just one more thing that was a little off this semester.
He jogged across campus. He had to stick to the loop, especially in the dark. Visual Processing Disorder and land navigation never mixed well. On the loop, eventually, he'd end up back at his dorm.
The effects of the mansion-dream-turned nightmare subsided, replaced by the worries of the real world. The Accounting mid-term today was reputed to be a bitch-and-a-half. The idea of columns of numbers made his stomach churn. Hundreds of numbers, all over the page, scattered like unpenned sheep. He was in way over his head.
He jogged past the student union. A sign posted on a metal stake by the sidewalk caught his eye. It read:
The odd sign was only a few hundred feet away and, even in the streetlamp lighting, he could read it clearly. The block red letters were in the lower right corner of an otherwise blank sign.
He wondered what it could mean. Then the rest of the lettering darkened into place. The sign said:
“Hell, no!” He jerked to a stop. This couldn't happen. Not today. Not with something as familiar as a street sign.
The last two weeks his VPD had offered this new manifestation. Instead of complete confusion, certain words leapt out from the page. Sometimes they bounded off the computer screen, cutting ahead of their systematic left-to-right presentation. Other times, such as now, certain letters would parse themselves out of larger words, as if some syllables passed the finish line first, and the remainder pulled up the rear. The words were frustratingly unrelated, though yesterday had a theme. Any words associated with the sea screamed off the page at him.
. The last syllable of
. He'd finally thrown his textbook across the room in frustration.
He turned from the sign that had revived his disorder. He sprinted back toward his dorm. That impulse to escape surfaced again. The recurring compulsion to leave campus ran white-water fast, trying to push him to somewhere, anywhere, else.
The big brown information sign ahead grabbed his attention. It read:
Then slowly turned to:
â Arts and Sciences Building
â Campus Store
â Exit to Ithaca
Pete screamed in frustration. He broke into a dead run for the half mile back to the dorm. He burst into the empty hallway. Collapsing back against the wall, he buried his face in his hands, eyes closed. He didn't want to read, he didn't want to feel, he didn't want to think. Every moment on campus had all the comfort of standing on hot coals. Adrenaline pumped sweat off the back of his neck and down his arms.
“Screw it,” he whispered. “Whatever this is, it wins.”
Pete slipped into his room. Larry rumbled like a rutting hog on the other side. Pete grabbed some clothes and a towel and went down to the showers. He returned clean and flicked on the light by his bed. He packed some basics into a backpack.
Larry snorted as if avoiding asphyxiation. His eyelids admitted a painful sliver of light.
“Oh, give me a minute, dude,” he mumbled, lifting his head inches from the pillow. “Let me get my Nikes. We're going running.”
“Go back to sleep, dude,” Pete said. Larry's head dropped back on the pillow like Pete pulled his plug.
Pete slung his backpack over his shoulder. With weekly laundry, he could live with what he packed indefinitely. Whatever it was he was supposed to do, this would have to be enough to carry him through it.
He briefly considered calling his parents to tell them he was leaving. But he didn't know what he was doing, why he was doing it, or where he was going. He knew his parents. They'd send police combing the state for him with a straitjacket. He'd call them when he had some answers for their inevitable questions. By then, maybe he would also have some answers for himself.
He picked up his phone from his desk. One-way communication would be better than a call. Texting. The world loved it and his VPD made it nothing but a chore for him. He typed in a message to his parents:
I'm fine. I'm taking a break from school. I'll call you soon. Do not worry.
He hit send. They wouldn't see the message for hours. By then he'd beâ¦wherever. He went to put the phone in his pocket, but instead returned it to his desk. Whatever this journey was he was about to take, he was going to need to be off the grid. He could feel it.
He left his dorm and started down the steep hill into town. Normally, a wander into the unknown would be nerve wracking. But as soon as he left campus, his anxiety started to dissipate. The muscles on either side of his neck uncoiled like overwound clock springs. The urge to leave had been building in him for weeks. He had been struggling against it, swimming slightly harder each day as the current increased. Only when he surrendered did he appreciate how much he'd been fighting it.
A rosy dawn broke over the hill behind him and cast sweeping shadows onto the town below. Ithaca was half in light and half in darkness, and so was he. Other than knowing he had to start moving, he had no idea how or to where. He had no car and only a few hundred dollars in his bank account. He trekked past the old, red brick buildings that dominated the small college town. He wondered if he was just supposed to keep walking. He crossed the railroad tracks at the foot of the hill and saw his answer to the left.
The peeling blue and gray logo of the Greyhound Bus Lines covered the side of a small white building. The lit
sign burned in the window. The current he rode channeled him inside.
The small, empty waiting room was a testimonial to an industry in decline. Worn linoleum tiles buckled up off the floor. Years of sunlight had faded the wall posters to ghosts of their former selves. A solitary, rough, wooden pew sat in the center of the room, ready to make any passenger appreciate the relative comfort of bus seating. The far wall had a single ticket window. Behind it, an older gentleman squinted through half-glasses and organized the day's clerical necessities.
Pete walked over to a route map on the wall. Great. A map. Worse than useless.
Well, VPD, where am I supposed go?”
A web of colored lines connected nameless colored dots on the map. Only two dots seemed to have titles. The first, in big bold black letters, was
. Below it and to the right, in arresting red letters, one dot read
Yesterday's ocean themed words. Today's
. Other words and phrases that seemed unrelated from previous weeks (
) fell into place. Atlantic City
The anxious feeling that had plagued him for weeks vanished.
Pete stepped over to the ticket window. The man peered over his glasses at him. Pete slid his debit card through the window slot.
“One ticket to Atlantic City. One way.”