There is a boy behind the nurses' desk with a lollipop and a pad of paper. He is drawing. He does not draw well. He will never be an artist, but at eight it doesn't matter. There are crayons and there are images.
Confused sound riding the swell of snowy air through the sliding doors of the ER. A vein of violence in the quiet. The boy jumps up from his seat and climbs on the desk to see.
In moments a nurse has moved to cover his eyes
Later, she exchanges soft words with his father, when the doctor comes off duty. The boy had drawn something from short term memory. He had made use of red crayon.
The father is tired. The father is gentle.
"Did you see something scary tonight?"
The boy shakes his head. Like all little boys, he wants his father to know he's brave. "Uh uh. I wasn't scared. But... what happened to him?" The boy's eyes sink immediately, sure he has transgressed some awful bound of propriety.
The father suddenly realizes that he would give everything to freeze his boy before this moment. The impulse ebbs. He recalls an old promise: No lies.
"The man you saw was... hurt very badly. There was a fight. He died a little while after he arrived."
Emboldened, the boy presses his curiosity further. "Did you take care of him?"
"No, I didn't. I'm not... I'm a different kind of a doctor from the ones who take care of patients like the man you saw. I did work in the ER, a long time ago, during my residency, but..."
The father becomes distracted by a line of thought leading from whether his son even knows what the word 'residency' means to what he's going to tell his wife when she finds out what happened tonight. The son sees the distance in his father's eyes and grossly misinterprets. This is a variation on a theme.
"I'm sorry I did that drawing. I'm sorry. Are you angry? I'm really sorry."
"No, Eric, I'm not angry. You don't have to worry. You don't have to apologize. These things happen too. But... not all children are brave like you. If you draw... something like that, at school, you know, the other kids, they might get scared. They're not brave like you. So promise me you won't draw what you saw at school, OK? Can you promise?"
The boy agrees immediately, relieved he hasn't broken some new arcane rule you're not allowed to know until it's been violated. He folds the drawing and gathers his things. As father and son walk through the snow to the car, he keeps the folded paper pressed carefully to his side, as though he had stolen something.
There is a dreamcatcher hanging over the boy's bed. This had been his mother's choice, to replace the cross that had hung over hers when she was young. She had hoped his dreams would be less filled with god talk and burning children.
The good dreams were supposed to adhere to the threads of the catcher like beads of dew to a spider's web, glistening in the light of dawn, filling the boy's day with refracted light. The bad dreams were supposed to fall through the hole in the center, tumbling into the empty darkness of the night. But some nightmares are thin and some are thick. Some just won't fit through the little hole of a mother's hope.
The boy is sweating. Things are out of order. He is in the hospital, but it is empty of nurses, abandoned, silent with malice. And then something is chasing him. A brutal, broken face. He ducks around corners and stumbles past overturned stretchers, but he can hear the creaky squeal of wheels behind him and it is getting closer.
He ducks into an examining room and slams the door closed. He braces it with his body, to his immediate regret. The doors of the cabinets are unhinged and crooked. There is shattered glass on the floor beneath the examining table lights. A tray is arrayed with grotesquely oversized syringes and knives, tools to anasthaetize a giant. And there is a body on the table beneath a blood-soaked blanket.
The boy screams, his bravery broken and his adult front dropped for childlike terror. He jerks the doorknob to the right to let himself back out. His hand slips over the smooth metal. He tugs at the door. It doesn't even rattle. He is locked in, and as he turns around, he sees the body is sitting up and staring at him with hatred.
The blanket slips to the floor as the corpse pushes itself off the table. Its clothing is shredded and hangs thick with gore. Its legs don't bend in the correct direction. But its expression isn't that of a dead thing. The hatred is lively, intelligent, human hatred.
"Give it back," says the corpse.
The boy backs into a corner, sinks to his haunches and curls his knees to his chest. The corpse takes painful steps, all wrong, legs working in a way they shouldn't, blood dripping off its fingers.
"Give it back. You took it, so give it back." There is something wheezy about the corpse's voice. Air is escaping through some hole before it is meant to.
"Give what back? What? What?" the boy yells.
"You were there. You saw me die. You took a part of me and made it yours and you didn't have the right."
The drawing is in the boy's hand. It hadn't been there before. He thrusts it toward the body with his eyes closed, dreading to be touched.
"Here. I don't want it. Take it back."
The corpse tears the paper from the boy's hand and throws it aside, limbs swinging all wrong, gravity pulling joints in ways that aren't allowed, like pendulums, like threads of snot from a runny nose.
"That's not what I want, you stupid son of a bitch! Give me back the life you took. You took the last goddamn piece and I want it back."
The shadows cast by the fluorescent light are growing longer and the boy can hear a mechanical grinding somewhere outside the room, rhythmic, building in a crescendo.
"How do I give it back? Tell me how I give it back. I want to give it back, I'm sorry, I swear I didn't mean to, I'll fix it! Just tell me how!"
The corpse has to yell over the sound of machinery now. It makes the wheezing worse.
"How the fuck should I know?! You have the last bit of me, you're the last person to remember, you put it somewhere and now I'm stuck like this!"
The corpse grabs the boy's face, smearing his cheeks with blood. The boy whimpers as the corpse's face draws close to his, twisted with desperation and wrath. It is hard to see much else. The room has grown very dark.
"GIVE IT BACK YOU STUPID FUCKING BRAT. PUT ME BACK THE WAY I WAS."
The boy screams and tries to squirm away, but the corpse is deadweight and he is trapped between the walls. The sound of metal against metal is ear-splitting now.
"I'M COMING BACK. I'M COMING BACK, YOU HEAR? I'M COMING EVERY NIGHT TILL YOU RETURN WHAT WAS MINE. I'M COMING BACK TOMORROW YOU GODDAMN PIECE OF SHIT GIVE IT BACK GIVE IT BACK GIVE IT--"
The boy's body spasms and he slams his elbow against the wall of his bedroom. Curling against the shock of the pain, he rolls off his bed and onto the floor, twisted ridged in his blanket, soaking with urine.
With his eyes wide open, he heaves sobbing breaths and waits for the room to resolve itself from the darkness. Still reeling from the last waves of unreal dream logic, he thinks he can see it. There is a scrap of torn paper, crinkled, caught in the threads of the dreamcatcher. A memory drawn in red crayon.
He wrenches himself free of his blanket, moaning with frustration, tied up in that which was supposed to keep him warm and safe. Finally he is on his feet and straining for the dreamcatcher.
He is too late.
There is nothing there. Just some cheap wood, a few plastic beads, fake feathers hanging from fake leather strings, and an unwilling transaction between the living and the dead.