He needed to think. And a place to do it.
Regrettably, there didn’t seem to be anything available. He slogged through the tree trunks and looked for a road, or any other sign of habitation.
I need to get home. What the hell am I doing? I have absolutely no idea.
He pulled the blanket tighter and looked up into the cloudy sky. The sun appeared to be directly overhead. No wonder I’m so hungry. We ate well before dawn today and its now lunch time.
The realization that he was well and truly alone hit him. What have I done? I can’t get back to Silren. He took a deep breath, and held it, to stave off the incipient hyperventilating that threatened. Is it too much to ask that I could just wake up in an insane asylum bed, and have all of this be some kind of dream?
Unfortunately, he knew he was perfectly sane.
Really? And I believe this why? After everything that has happened to me, why do I believe that I am still sane? What am I becoming anyway?
Not ready to face the answer to that, Ashton shied away from the rest of the thought. He turned to more well worn paths.
Why do I want to get home so badly? I didn’t hate my life, but I could have been happier. And it’s not just worry over my Mom. Safety? Security? Could it be something as simple as, it’s comfortable?
I may not have been happy working at the lab, but I was one step away from my dream job. Even if they were slow about letting me transfer, I would have made it eventually. And now, because of Silren carting me off, I may have lost my chance. I’ve missed five days of work. Unexcused. I’ll be lucky if I still have a job. How do I explain this?
A shiver shook his body. Does any of this really matter? I need to get home. Who cares why? And I need out of this snow. Why am I walking here?
He sighed at his stupidity and concentrated on shifting between veils again. The fog rose, and he stepped into it.
This time when he exited, the sudden shift in light came as the first shock.
Dusk had fallen. Every other crossing he had made so far, the time continuance had remained constant. But this occasion, half the day had passed.
The second shock came at the end of an advancing pitch fork. Ashton swung his head around. He stood in the middle of a cabbage field. Weather-beaten farmers stared at him in varying degrees of astonishment. They were fast overcoming their state though. A mumble had begun that Ashton couldn’t understand. Their words sounded archaic to his ears. And matched their clothing. He spun and saw that they moved toward him, their looks far from friendly.
“Uh oh…” He pulled his thoughts together to focus on a new shift, but then pain exploded in his head, and everything went black.
Stench assaulted his nose. Barnyards, in desperate need of cleaning, had smelled nicer. His head ached and he groaned, which made him cough from the restriction around his chest. What the…
He pried his eyes open. The flickering light of multiple torches wavered into view. They illuminated a dirt square filled with milling peasants. He glanced down at himself. Rough rope lashed him to a wooden post and people continued to pile chunks of wood up and over his feet.
“Oh my god. I’m in the middle of a B horror movie.” He struggled against the rope. Several people noticed he was awake and made gestures to hurry.
He knocked the sore spot on his head against the wooden stake and groaned again. Concentrate. You have to concentrate Ash. He closed his eyes and took a breath. It was a challenge to drown out the noise of imminent death.
Power moved sluggishly through his body. The sound of sticks cracking reached his ears. A whiff of smoke. He built the details of home in his mind. The sights, the smells, the sounds. A tidal wave washed through him and the Nightmares’ mark ignited. Screams reached his ears, but were suddenly cut off.
A jarring thump reverberated up his spine. His eyes flew open, and he toppled over sideways to land with a thud on concrete.
The wet crack of a bottle shattering greeted him. “Holy Mary, Mother of God…” the words slurred out of the dimness.
Crap, I can’t believe this! I’m still tied to the damn stake.
Ashton managed to twist his head to the side and saw the homeless man plastered against the brick wall. The man looked at him then at his broken drink then back at him.
“Musta been a bad batch.”
Ash wiggled his arms, hoping to get free, but the villagers knew how to tie something up. “Excuse me, sir? Can I get your help with these ropes?
“You made me drop m’bottle.”
“I’m sorry. I can get you another if you get me untied.”
The man shifted from foot to foot before he stepped forward and clumsily pawed at the knots that secured him to the wooden stake. His alcohol laden breath wafted across Ash as he loosened the rope around his chest.
Ash squirmed out of the coil and sat against the brick wall. His head dropped into his shaking hands. That was close. Way too close. Feet shuffled near him and he looked into the face of homelessness. He reached into the back pocket of his pants and took out his wallet, pulled out a twenty, and handed it to the man.
The stranger took the bill like he couldn’t believe it was real, but then he shoved it in a pocket and left the dim alley for the brighter lit street.
Stiff and sore Ashton, climbed to his feet and assessed his new location. The alley looked vaguely familiar. He peered around the corner and couldn’t believe his eyes. Home! I’m just a couple of blocks from home.
Light spilled out of the bars that littered the street. People congregated on the corners, chatting, or slowly walked along the sidewalks. And the heat of summer sank into his bones. I’ll never again complain about the temperature. He left the alley.
He stopped the first couple he passed. “Excuse me? What day is it?”
“Day?” The man looked at him funny but answered, “Thursday.”
“Thank you.” He smiled and started to limp home. Thursday, this all started on Thursday evening. Its only been a week. I can’t wait to sleep in my own bed. Tomorrow I’ll deal with whether or not I still have a job.
The steps to his apartment building came into view. He hadn’t dared to let the relief he felt have free reign until now. He climbed the steps and fished his key ring out of his pocket. Cooler air wafted out of the open door, and he stepped in. He glanced at the wall of mail boxes while he waited for the elevator but decided that it could wait till tomorrow too.
A yawn took him by surprise. He limped down the hall and had never been so happy to see a door before in his life. He pushed it open and stepped into his apartment.
And stopped dead.
Everything was wrong. All of his furniture, his pictures, his possessions were gone. Replaced. He stared in shock at the unknown belongings.
His hands rose to his forehead, where’s my stuff?
A woman stepped out of the bedroom. She froze.
“Where’s my stuff?” He asked out loud, his voice breaking.
She started screaming.
He took a step towards her and yelled over her shrieking, “Where are my things?”
The woman’s eyes widened and that was the only warning he got. Once again, pain exploded in the back of his head, and he was plunged into darkness.