I can hear the screams of men, and gunfire. I can smell their fear. They know something is in the dark; something strange, menacing and very, very hungry.
Oh God-blam-the f**k is that-blamblam- It hurts-blamblamblam-please don’t-blamblamblamblam-Noooooooo- blamblamblamblamblamblam……
I wake trembling in a cold sweat, sheets tangled around my legs. I look across the bed to the nightstand, the green LED lights telling me it’s 4:30 A.M. It was the dream again, the same dream. I glance reproachfully at the remains of a fifth of whiskey and a half empty bottle of sleeping pills lying on its side by the clock. They’ve never kept the nightmare from me before, but I still have hope it’s just a question of finding the right quantity.
My hands still slightly shaking, I grab the bottle and take a healthy swallow then drop it empty to the puke-green colored carpeting that passes as decoration in my bedroom. It burns, but that’s just fine. Knowing I will never get back to sleep and with only another thirty minutes before I had set my alarm to wake me anyway, I throw on coffee and jump into the shower. It’s cold, but that’s just fine too. I stand there, arms bracing me against the wall, head bowed under the frigid stream of water, and try to forget.
I stay like that for several long minutes. Finally when my skin is practically blue I get out and towel off, shivering from the chill. My name is Michael Landry, and today I’m a high school history teacher at the Haverbrook Prep School on the main line outside of Philadelphia.
The shower is just what I needed. Already the vivid horrors of my dream have begun to slowly fade back into my subconscious. I know all too well that they’ll be back in full force when I manage to finally drift to sleep tonight, but even this slight reprieve is welcome. I look into the mirror and decide the dark bags under my eyes can be attributed as much to a genuine lack of sleep as my ill-advised bender. I quickly run a razor over the rough stubble of my beard and briefly attempt to tame my mop of brown hair still sticking up at odd angles. Not that long ago I’d have gotten reprimanded if it was half this length. I return to the bedroom and dress in the dark slacks and grey button-down shirt that has become my unofficial teaching uniform. I’ve worn one uniform or another for most of my life and consider it a shameful waste of time to spend too much effort worrying about what to wear.
Moving to the kitchen I decide to take advantage of my unexpected time this morning and scramble some ham and eggs to complement my coffee. I note that, besides the few remaining eggs and a half-eaten package of assorted lunch meat, my refrigerator is virtually bare, not counting a three-day expired carton of milk and two cases of beer. I grimace at the trash can sitting next to the refrigerator, currently overflowing with empty takeout containers. Slapping the egg-meat concoction between two slices of only slightly stale bread, I throw on my black pea coat to ward off the chill November air, grab my thermos, throw yesterday’s graded quizzes into my valet, and head to the door.
Gripping the coffee and valet under my arms and the sandwich in my mouth, I punch in the six-digit code to my state-of-the-art security system. I step outside and fumble with my keys to work the three separate deadbolts securing the giant steel slab that serves as a front door to my first floor apartment. All these extra precautions might seem a bit much, but Overbrook makes up for its insanely cheap rent with an even more astounding crime and murder rate. With that in mind, I probably would have considered upgrading my security even if events three years ago hadn’t shown me exactly how many scary things existed in this world. That experience is also what prompted me to start carrying the tiny Glock currently concealed in my ankle holster.
I’m on good terms with Gabe Parr, the aging head of security at the school, who generally shares my view on gun control: make sure you’re the one with control of the gun. Gabe had been enlisted twenty years in the Army, just missing the tail end of Vietnam and retiring as a master sergeant following the first Gulf War. Sounding like a cross between Sam Elliot and Ernie McDermont, he is all NCO: crusty, hard-bitten, and essentially every platoon sergeant I’ve ever known rolled into one. Even after finding out that Haverbrook had no weapon searches to speak of, I revealed to Gabe that I carried shortly after starting the job. I reasoned his position would make him the most likely person to find my gun during the course of a normal work day. To my surprise, he was completely supportive.
I would later learn some of the circumstances behind Gabe’s enlightened opinions. On one occasion we had gone out for drinks, he confided in me that his youngest son Billy had been killed two years earlier. His boy had been sixteen and carrying five dollars on the way home from evening basketball practice when he was approached by a strung out junkie looking to score some quick cash. The lone witness to the crime said the druggie took the money then, apparently angry that his efforts had been wasted, shot the boy out of spite. Unfortunately, the witness had been unable to clearly identify the junkie’s features in the gathering dark. The murderer was never caught. Suddenly, Gabe’s unique perspective became crystal clear.
The walk from the train station to Haverbrook is a short one, and I find myself walking past the large asphalt parking lot and up the wide cement lined path to the main entrance just a few minutes past six. The entire building is a study in architectural extravagance. Enormous granite archways, steepled turrets, and literal tons of red-brown brick make the whole gala resemble more an exclusive postgraduate university than a college prep school. The official seal is carved into the peak of the entryway arch, its motto, “Mens, Corpus, Animus” proudly emblazoned beneath.
I spot Gabe as I pass through the archway into the entry hall. He is manning the main door himself, as he does every morning. Once during my first year, I asked him why.
“Mike,” he told me, “I man the front cause when the s**t hits I want it to go through me first. Twen’y years in, through more action’n I can remember, a’int anything in this world can walk through that door that I a’int fought, f****d, ‘r blown up more’n twice. S’while some greenhorn’s busy pissin’ hisself, I’ve a’ready drawn ‘n put ten rounds in the muther f****r, center mass.”
I couldn’t argue with his logic.
“Morning, Gabe, how’s it going?”
“Ah not s’bad, Mike. Only sorta wanted to gnaw through m’arm at the elbow when I woke up ‘n saw wife number three this mornin’. Still a marked improvem’nt over the last one.” He spits into the used Styrofoam coffee cup he has perpetually in hand, a huge wad of tobacco wedged in his lower lip.
“Good to hear. We still on for hitting the bar tonight?”
“Depends. *spit* You still drink that Yuengling b******t?”
“You know it.”
“*spit* When you gonna give that s**t up ‘n move to a real, ‘merican beer? Like Bud.”
“Gabe, we’ve been over this a hundred times. Yuengling is American. It’s brewed in Pennsylvania. Hey, not that I care but didn’t the dean tell you not to dip on the job anymore?”
“Sure did. An’ I don’t. *spit* Jus’ don’t any less neither. Pick ya up at nine.”
After receiving my discharge from the army, I got in a pretty bad way. Chronic alcohol abuse will do that to you. I applied to Haverbrook in response to a notice that they were looking for a social studies teacher specializing in military history. I figured dropping my name into that particular hat couldn’t hurt. Imagine my surprise when the school not only asked me in for an interview a few days later but ended it by offering me the job. Fortunately only riding a slight buzz at the time, I had enough control to take it.
Apparently the school board saw ‘West Point Graduate’ and ‘Overseas Combat Experience’ as enough to move me ahead of the dozen or so certified academics I was in direct competition with. Two older board members with prior service experience made a case for hiring me to the other eight, stating that no one was better qualified to teach military history than someone who had actually seen combat. They argued competent professional educators would always be available and worst case scenario the board could fire me after a semester and hire one of them.
I won’t say that the Haverbrook job was exactly what I needed to get my life back on track. It’s just a job, albeit one with a good salary and better benefits. It serves two purposes: pay the rent and keep me in booze. That’s all. I won’t say the one simple act of getting a job made me get along with my landlord, my nightmares disappear or the world a better place for everyone to live in. It didn’t. My landlord, Mr. Peacomby, is still a prick which I attribute to gratuitous levels of inbreeding. My dreams only become worse, more horrifying with each retelling. My men are still dead.
Officially founded in the early 1900s, Haverbrook can actually claim history back to prerevolutionary times when a one room schoolhouse stood on the very spot. That first tiny structure only occupied one small corner of the total grounds allotted to the school which actually encompass almost twenty square miles of rolling, wooded terrain. The athletic compound is by far my favorite building at Haverbrook, specifically because one of the many perks associated with being a faculty member is unrestricted access to any and all of the equipment and facilities. Since I no longer have two hours of physical training scheduled into my day by the government, this fact alone has allowed me to stave off the approaching effects of middle age.
Today is the last day of school before Thanksgiving break, so I decide to go for a run after class lets out. It’s the perfect kind of weather for it, mid-fifties and no breeze; just warm enough not to start out cold, just cool enough not to easily overheat. The main gymnasium contains a locker room for faculty use complete with a small bank of washers and dryers. Such amenities are convenient since they mean I don’t need to be constantly transporting workout clothes back and forth on the train. Distance melts away as the ground speeds beneath my feet. Most days I try to put in five or six miles on the winding forest paths, and there are enough of them that I only need to repeat routes every couple weeks. Today is one of the more difficult trails I frequent, five and a quarter miles of almost constant elevation change. About halfway into the run, my legs are burning and I feel my breathing shorten as I near the top of a particularly brutal hill.
I pause at the summit for a moment to look back and take in the view. Vast acres of untamed wilderness stretch behind me. The crisp snap to the air makes everything seem somehow sharper, but in doing so only accentuates the grey deadness that has insidiously leeched into every aspect of the environment. Hazy, translucent clouds rise in front of a pale sun that seems a shadow of its normal self. It sets very early in the day now, and the shadows are already long. The deciduous trees that blaze like a campfire in the autumn rise up below me, now eerily foreboding in their stark nakedness. The faintest hint of wind stirs the branches, its passing causes the trees to sway and groan with almost malicious intent. I feel a shiver trickle down my spine that has nothing to do with the weather. These are woods from the darkest fairy tales; these are woods that are Alive. Only the distant third floor of the Haverbrook library, just peeking up over the tree tops, serves as proof that I haven’t been unwittingly transported through some magical doorway into a land populated by creatures terrible and unknown. Unbidden, my thoughts turn to memories of another time, another darkness, and the things I found there. Disturbed, I start running again, faster than before, the sun slipping closer to the horizon. As I descend from my vantage point back into the trees, the darkness grows rapidly deeper, the shadows thicker. This can’t be right. Even in winter the sun doesn’t set this quickly, does it?
Appearing out of nowhere, thick black storm clouds have replaced the wispy grayness I observed only moments ago. Deep peals of thunder ride wicked through the seething black seas above. The wind, once only a faint whisper, has become a tormented scream, the death cry of a wild beast. The trees no longer gently sway, but thrash and buck wildly as if trying to uproot themselves from the very earth that holds them. Massive sheets of icy rain begin to pelt down from the heavens, soaking me through to the bone. Instantaneously, a mild afternoon has been replaced by a savage tempest. I fly down the hill, the storm raging about me. Branches seem to reach out to s****h at my arms, roots and stones rise up to tangle my feet. Suddenly, an incredible blast of pain ignites my right shoulder sending stars shooting across my eyes. I cry out, tumbling to the ground. As I roll, a jagged stump appears in my vision, too fast to avoid. Pain. Blackness.