Jeff pulled off his shoes and flopped face down on his bed at 1:30 in the morning. The kids were finally in bed and Stuart was finally at his table again, with laptop and bottle.
Jeff found it amazing how much the children wore him out. It wasn't that they were doing anything in particular, either, but he had gotten used to taking care of one person, not three. He liked the kids and he was glad that they seemed to respond well enough to him, but he'd be glad when they were gone. It wasn't the cooking for four instead of two, or the driving, or visiting the video store once a day, either. He couldn't put his finger on what it was, but their presence was wearing him out.
He thought briefly about what he had planned for Danny's Dime. He was excited to take Stuart's suggestion and explore the ideas behind Mac's suicide in his book, but he hadn't had the time. He hadn't had time to do much of anything, and he was beginning to get frustrated. He was constructing a scene in his mind, Danny talking to one of his cronies, a new character, about safe cracking, when he drifted off altogether.
He was pinned in place. Not in the manner of dreams, but with actual ropes that were tied to stakes in the ground. He was cruciform, his arms held out straight from the shoulders, pulled taught with loops over his wrists. His ankles were tied together and were tied to another stake. He could move his head, but the tension on his body kept him from being able to move anything else. The more he strained, the less he seemed to be able to move, and the straining of the muscles in his abdomen began to pull at his groin until he started to feel aroused.
He stopped to catch his breath and actually look at where he was. He knew that it was the location of the Stuart house, even though there was nothing there. There was nothing at all. The landscape was blasted, no trees, and almost no grass, simply rocks and sand, down to the edge of the sea, where there was no water, but simply a stretching, shifting mass of red sand. And in it, stark and dark against the burnt red of the sand, he could see the posts.
They stretched to the horizon. They were placed every mile or so, and the closest ones were the posts Riley had described to him, Jeff was sure. He could see the post from the yard and the one from the blackberries and he saw that they formed a massive triangle or V shape, pointing at him.
And that was when he realized what the uncomfortable sensation in his back was. It was the stiff, unyielding square of the top of another post. It was level with the ground, but now that he was aware of it, its strong, hard presence made him nervous.
He looked from side to side and then craned his head to look above him. The landscape was the same, low, featureless, miserable.
He grunted in surprise and pain as the post began to rise beneath him. The ropes bit into his wrists and ankles and burned. He tried to arch his back away from the post, but the tension was on his limbs was too great. He could picture, in a future flash, the end result, his body broken and shaped like a boomerang, bent over the post, his limbs still tied into place, the skin around the ropes bloody and savaged, a ghastly expression on his dead, or soon to be dead, face.
He woke curled in a ball, his knees on his chin, his clothing drenched and reeking of the sweat of fear, his chest and shoulders heaving with panicked breaths. He wanted to move, to sit up, to do something, but he simply lay in place and shook, shoving out sharp exhalations as hard shivers, almost convulsions, periodically struck his frame.
Eventually he swallowed, shifted over to the edge of the bed, and sat up. He ran his hands through his hair and they came away wet, not just damp. Moisture shone on his palms in the light that came from the bathroom.
He peeled off his sopping socks and threw them in the corner. Then he got to his feet, unsteadily, and stepped out of his pants. He was so wobbly he had to put his hand on the wall for support. He tugged his shirt, which smelled awful, off over his head and threw it in the corner after his jeans and his socks. The boxers were skeevy, too, so he pitched them as well.
He walked tentatively to the bathroom, taking short steps. He took a leak and rinsed himself off in the shower, standing under lukewarm water and thinking about the dream. He could remember this one, some details were particularly sharp, the red color of the sand, the dank smell of the air around him, the perfect square shape of the pressure in his back. It had been terrifying, but he was not sure what was more frightening, his death, the inevitability of it, the posts, or the wasted, bleak world he had found himself in.
He dried himself briefly, anxious to brush his teeth to rid himself of the vile taste he had discovered in his mouth. He was brought up short when he caught himself in the mirror.
He looked like an exhumed body. His eyes were sunken and deep, dark pits hovering beneath them. His skin tone was awful and still shiny from the shower's water. His hair was stringy and flat and as lifeless as the rest of him.
“Shit,” he said to himself, and then he brushed his teeth. He tried to avoid looking at himself again, but he caught another glimpse just before he left the bathroom. He shivered again, this time from a chill. He was naked and still damp, he realized.
He slid into some clean boxers and crawled beneath the covers, glad that his nightmare had taken place on top of the sheets and not under them, so his bed was still intact and didn't reek the way his clothes had.
It took him much less time than he had imagined to fall asleep. He had anticipated staring at the ceiling for quite some time, and he saw from the clock that it was after 5 in the morning. He had a dreadful premonition of not being able to sleep at all and dragging like a sloth through the Fourth of July.
He fell asleep as he had done the first time, thinking of his new book and ideas for explorations of Danny and his criminal associates. The safe cracking ideas were interesting and would require some Google research but the character of Slim, the suicidal safe cracker had sprung to life, multi-faceted and fully-developed, with the ease that was characteristic of the development of this book. It was amazing and exciting and then it was all gone and he was outside in the blasted environment once again, the red sand in the distance, the gray, rocky soil beneath his feet.
This time he was standing in a circle, a henge, of stone posts, and they were closing in on him. As they drew nearer, they grew taller, too tall for him to jump over, and as he tried to climb one, another pressed in against it, crushing his fingers and he cried out...