I knew the pain was coming the second my eyes closed that night.
Vivid images barreled across my consciousness, strangling my throat and squeezing the shallow breaths I could muster out of my lungs.
You will hear me now.
Silence is the loudest sound of all, Jonah.
Jonah. Was that my name? Dang, I couldn't remember. My life felt like a distant memory, slowly drowning in a sea of forgotten thoughts and dreams.
The scenes catapulting through my mind were like a thousand orchestras, all playing different tunes. I couldn't hear the racket of my rickety old ceiling fan. It was like my head had left my body as my consciousness swam through the chaos, reaching out to touch the closest image.
I warned you not to ignore me.
The scene rippled, and suddenly the man in the picture snapped his head to the left.
Right at me.
I felt my blood run cold.
This is a dream. This is a dream. You're going to wake up eventually. I screamed inside my head.
The man pulled his thick scarlet trench coat around his neck and barked a cold, maniacal laugh.
Keep telling yourself that He growled.
Suddenly, every single scene blurred and glitched to reveal the exact same man.
Silence is the loudest sound of all, Jonah. Remember that He snarled.
The man in the first scene’s mouth didn’t move a muscle, but every other image screamed in unison one sentence, over and over and over.
You will hear me now.
A stab of terror slashed my chest as the images flocked around me, burying me until I suffocated, feasting on my fear like a wake of vultures.
You will hear me now.
“Aah!” I sat up with a start, nearly chucking myself off my bed.
I groggily whipped my head towards my alarm clock, which read 3:30 a.m.
“Screw it!” I cursed, banging my fist hard against my sheets.
I’d crossed the line. Again.
Gritting my teeth, I threw a glance down at my moon-white hands.
They were still shaking.
“Okay, that’s it,” I snapped with defiance.
I fumbled around for my phone and went to text Alicia.
It happened again I punched the words into my phone’s keyboard through sweaty fingers and hit the send button.
You need to get a life, Jo. It’s THREE IN THE MORNING Alicia responded almost instantly.
Riiiight, okay. At least I’m not staying up for two hours past my curfew playing video games I shot back.
I didn’t get another reply for another minute.
Okay, okay! I’m sorry. You’re my best friend, and...I need your help. Please I reluctantly texted her.
After another minute, Alicia responded:
What was this nightmare about?
The hair on my arms stood on its end the second I read her text.
A man in a scarlet trench coat.
Did you see who it was?
He was wearing a mask. Couldn’t tell.
Alicia’s end went dead silent.
I’m scared, Ali. You know what’s gonna happen now.
I nearly jumped out of my skin when my phone started ringing at full volume.
“Geez, next time warn me you’re gonna do that!” I hissed through the phone.
“I saw the guy from your dream,” Alicia’s voice was shaking so much I could barely understand her.
“The man in the trench coat. He had on a huge gas mask that covered his face, right?”
Alicia’s words echoed in my mind as I forced myself to swallow.
“That’s...that’s him. Where the heck did you see this guy?”
“When I was walking home from work last night. You’re...you’re not making this up, Jo. He’s out there,”
The phone nearly slipped from my fingers.
“No way. That’s...that’s impossible. I’ve never seen this guy in my life,”
“Remember the dream you had about the twelve-year-old girl who went missing?” Alicia’s voice was getting more and more hysterical.
“No. You’re not actually telling me...” I could barely even choke out the words anymore.
“Look out your window, at the oak tree towards Owens Park. Tell me what you see.”
I tore my hands through my hair and scrambled to my apartment window, eyes straining to find the tree in the murky darkness outside.
“Hang up on me and turn the flashlight on, birdbrain!”
“Right, right!” I shrieked and hit the red “end call button.”
Flicking on my phone’s flashlight, I flashed it towards the hulking oak tree. At first I couldn’t make out anything, but then I angled my wrist towards the oak’s trunk and…
I knew exactly what Alicia wanted me to look at.
“No way. This...this can’t be…”
This time I actually dropped my phone, but I barely heard the glass shatter over the ringing in my ears.
For stapled into the tree’s bark was a lone piece of paper with a picture of the same zombie-eyed girl from my dream, the word MISSING stamped in bold red letters all over it.
My phone was making all kinds of noise, probably waking up the whole neighborhood, but I didn’t even pay attention to it.
All those long, miserable hours of keeping myself distracted so I wouldn’t fall asleep hadn’t been in vain.
I really could predict the future.
Knowing I was probably driving Alicia mad, I absently picked up the phone and answered what had to be her twenty-billionth call, ignoring the bloody gashes it cut into my hands.
“How fast can you get over here?” I tried to speak quietly, but panic creeped into my voice and made it hitch.
“I’m already at your door,”
My chest flooded with relief as I scurried down the stairs and threw open the front door to my apartment.
“Alicia,” I rasped.
I found my best friend shivering in the snow outside my doorstep, eyes scarlet with terror.
“Okay, Mystery Boy. You’re going to tell what the heck’s going on or I’m gonna grab that frying pan and beat the secrets out of your head!” She snapped, bobbing her head towards the pot sitting on my oven.
“I’ll give you everything I got. Come in, hurry!” I shouted and pushed open the door.
Alicia shoved her way through, teeth chattering.
“I could be sitting at home, enjoying my hot chocolate, but noooo! You have to go and destroy the laws of science and—whoa,”
Alicia’s mouth snapped shut, jaw twitching.
“What?” I followed her gaze to my living room and admittedly felt a little sick to my stomach.
My sofa looked like it’d been thrown to the side, my T.V. cracked and on the verge of falling off its pedestal. Pillows were strewn all over the carpet, its once soft, ginger color stained with juice spots.
And that wasn’t even the end of it.
There were empty potato chip bags scattered all over the sofa, and it looked like my glass of water had tipped over and spoiled the blanket on top of it.
If I was being completely honest, it looked like a raccoon had ransacked the place, then brought all his friends to have a wild party in my living room.
“Yeah, it’s been a rough week,” I kicked away a broken plate shard with my slipper.
“What happened to the clean freak that used to live here?”
“You try to function without sleep for three days! I think I actually passed out last night!” I snapped back defensively.
Alicia, for the first time I’d seen her since, well...ever, looked stunned.
“You haven't slept in three days?” She whispered.
All I could really do was nod.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Alicia choked out.
Her voice sounded raw. Angry.
“I...was afraid. I didn’t want to admit this was a problem, or get you roped into something like this, so...I pushed you away. I’m sorry,”
Alicia went silent for a minute.
“That’s not okay,” She sputtered before clearing her throat, “I don’t know what’s going on. But if you really do have the ability to see something happen before it happens...we need to put our emotions aside for a second and address this. There’s a madman out there, Jonah. We gotta pull ourselves together right now,”
I slowly turned toward her, a tiny shred of hope blossoming in my heart.
“Thank you,” I croaked.
Her cheeks turned a faint shade of pink, but she instantly brushed my words off.
“Don’t thank me yet. We gotta stop this creeper before things get...real.”
We both shuddered, but not from the freezing air inside the apartment.
“Dude, are you a polar bear or a human being? Your house is freezing,”
“Really? You just gave a whole speech on how we need to stay focused, and you want to talk about my house’s temperature?”
Alicia huffed dramatically.
“You get all your visions from your dreams, right? Then I say we tap into your weirdo-ability right now and get to the bottom of this.”
I inwardly kicked myself when I felt my lower lip tremble.
“I...I don’t wanna give into my mind again,” I muttered, gaze glued to the ground.
Shoot, I know I sounded like a baby, but I really didn’t have it in me to care.
I felt Alicia’s clammy hand awkwardly clamp down on my shoulder.
“What if we try controlling these visions while you're still conscious instead of waiting for you to go to sleep?”
I collapsed onto my sofa and curled up into a ball.
“I’ve never tried that before,”
“No time like the present,” Alicia wrapped her carmine scarf tighter around her neck and sat on the cushion next to me.
I begrudgingly lifted my head up, trying to shove down the faith that kept trying to bubble up in me.
“I give this one go, then I’m never doing it again. You hear?”
I went to throw myself back onto my feet.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Easy, tiger. We’re gonna do this sitting down,” Alicia ordered while pushing me back down.
“Good. Now tune out me and your ridiculously drafty apartment. Focus on your thoughts. Try to remember everything that happened tonight.”
Reluctantly, I squeezed my eyes shut, bringing the memories from my nightmare back to the surface of my mind.
Just like that, the man in the trench coat emerged from the shadows of my brain, stringy hair billowing around his gas mask.
“The man...he’s coming back!” I roared.
I could still hear this guy screaming the five words that chilled me to the bone.
You will hear me now.
“Stay with me, Jo. You’re making progress,” Alicia demanded, voice impressively steady.
I strained my head to feed off the rage reverberating in my core, to resist surrendering to my fear.
“Are you seeing anything else?”
Alicia’s voice sounded...warped to me, like she’d been dunked underwater.
Or I was drowning.
I’ve been expecting you, Jonah.
I scrunched my features up in a wince.
What do you want? I thought through gritted teeth.
Somehow, the world around me got a little bit darker.
Depends on what you’re willing to sacrifice.
“You good?” Alicia said.
“F-fine,” I forced myself to say out loud.
I’m done being afraid of you.
The man in the trench coat glitched, like I had unplugged a computer wire then reconnected it.
“He’s going away,” I sighed with relief.
“Whatever you’re doing, don’t stop,” Alicia urged me.
Ever so slowly, I felt my fingers unclench.
I know you’re out there. I know you’re a threat I tried to shove my way through the darkness, but the shadows around me began to feel like sludge.
Are you sure about that?
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the fold of the man’s trench coat flash by.
What’re you talking about? I was getting more and more impatient.
Why don’t I show you instead?
I felt my stomach lurch as I tumbled further and further down the void of darkness, no ending in sight.
“EEEK!” I let out a bloodcurdling scream until my bottom finally hit what looked like solid ground.
“Jonah!” Alicia hollered.
“I’m okay, I’m okay! Just hang on!”
I fought to keep my eyes shut tight as the darkness around me spiraled and frothed to form a scene of a girl with coily black hair.
I checked to make sure I wasn’t saying anything out loud.
Thankfully, the only Alicia talking was the one in my head.
Jonah! It’s him! She was yelling and pointing at something behind me.
But when I turned around, all I could see was piles of debris and ash.
My apartment I thought in disbelief.
If it wasn’t wrecked before, it sure was now.
My couch looked charred, and the tile under it was scorched. Floorboards were lying haphazardly in every nook and cranny, and tongues of flame were lapping at some of the furniture.
I felt my fists begin to shake with rage.
You did this! I screamed to the man inside my head.
I didn’t do anything. I could’ve stopped this. But you pushed me away.
I watched in horror as dream Alicia collapsed onto the ground, face a sickening gray, hacking like there was no tomorrow.
“Alicia,” I moaned out loud.
“I’m here. You’re okay,” Real Alicia responded.
Liar! You caused this! I pushed back into the depths of my mind, bellowing at the trench coat man until I got a migraine.
The only one at fault here is you. You shove everyone away from your problems in hopes to protect them, but at what cost are you willing to pay?
Your mind games won’t work on me anymore. I’m going to hunt you down if it’s the last thing I do! I riposted.
The sound of someone tsking echoed around my cranium.
Are you saving anyone, though? Or are you just keeping yourself from facing the truth?
I ripped away from my mind, lungs feeling like they’d been torn out of my chest.
“Easy, man. You’re back in your apartment,” Alicia reached out to pat my shoulder.
I gasped and vigorously shook my head.
“The man in the trench coat is coming. I need you to get away from me.”
“I’m not going to leave you here!” Alicia stated firmly.
“Listen to me!” I snapped, “if you don’t go now, you’re dead meat!”
“So are you!” Alicia retaliated.
I tore at my bottom lip.
“Better me than you,” I mumbled.
Alicia brushed her hair behind her ear and kneeled down beside me.
“Jonah. Let me help you this time,” She whispered.
Part of me was so, so tempted to give in.
But then I envisioned the terror in dream Alicia’s eyes as smoke clung to her skin like a wet swimsuit.
I was cut off by the sound of crinkling electricity.
“What the…” Alicia murmured.
My eyes dropped to the spilled cup on the couch, water trickling down the wall.
Right onto an electricity outlet.
I pushed my best friend as hard as I could away from the wall right as a giant flame sparked up from it.
“Jonah! ” I heard Alicia cry.
“Run!” I yelled back with all the strength I could muster.
Smoke filled my throat and weighed down my muscles as I sunk to the carpet, watching the flames eat away at my walls.
Eat away at me.
I felt my eyelids get heavier as I my head rested on the ground, suspended in a slumber so deep even my jacked-up nightmares couldn’t reach it.
“Wake up, boy,”
I couldn’t place the voice dancing around me, but I grasped for it anyway with everything I had.
“Gah!” I sputtered, raking a hand through my disheveled hair.
To my dismay, the man in the red trench coat emerged from the shadows of the dimly-lit room.
“Relax, Kid. You’re in the infirmary,”
The man slowly took off his gas mask.
“You,” I hissed.
“What’re you doing here?”
“What’re you talking about? Seriously, between you and the other girl it’s like nobody’s ever seen a firefighter before,”
“A...what?” I stammered.
The man lifted his trench coat to show off a golden badge with a fire symbol on it.
“Then what’s with the gas mask?” I sputtered.
“The smoke was so bad in your apartment I didn’t have a choice,” The firefighter answered sternly.
“You know, if your friend hadn’t run away like that, I would’ve been able to do a lot more for her,”
I aggressively rubbed my temples, too speechless to say anything else.
“You know what they say, silence is the loudest sound of all,”
I snapped my head up to look at the man.
“What...what did you say?”
“You heard me. You said everything I needed to know with that body language. You’ve been through a lot,”
I buried my head in my hands.
“You have no idea,”
“I’m not your enemy, you know. I wish you’d told your friend that,”
“Is she gonna be okay?”
“Yeah, but she took a serious blow to the noggin. She’ll be in here for a few more weeks,”
I knew I should’ve put on a brave face and pretended everything was okay.
But I couldn’t.
I curled my knees close to my chest and squeezed my wrists together.
This was all my fault.
The firefighter scooted a little closer to my bed cot.
“Next time, I hope you’ll stop long enough to think about who you’re running from.”
I locked eyes with the man I’d despised for no reason.
Only one of the people I didn’t even know I needed until I pushed them away.
You will hear me now.