The creature was right in front of Thomas, right there, its mouth wide and its jaws slavering and its muzzle thick with blood. Its pointed ears were upright and quivering. Its fur was a dirty black, covered with debris and brambles from whatever bushes it had been hiding in, and when the creature roared, its breath washed over Thomas and caused his stomach to clench and his gorge to rise.
You can't smell things in dreams! You can't! This is…; is no dream! Thomas's fear-stricken voice sounded in his head, and he tried to scream, but he was unable to find the breath to do so. The most he was able to muster was a paralyzed "urkh" noise that was hardly helpful when it came to summoning aid.
Thomas, lying on his bed, tried to twist away from the creature, but his body refused to obey the commands of his distraught mind. His attention remained fixed upon the blood that was all over the beast's mouth because he knew whose blood it was, and the notion that his blood was about to join it was overwhelmingly terrifying to him.
I don't want the same thing to happen to me…; I don't want to end up like Stephen…;. please, no, please, no…;.
The creature grabbed one of his shoulders and began to shake him violently. This prompted Thomas to discover his voice, and it erupted from within him like uncorked champagne exploding from a bottle. Thomas screamed at the top of his newly liberated lungs. There were no words; it was pure, inarticulate horror spewing into the air.
Surprisingly, the creature actually seemed taken aback. It shook him even more, and then it spoke.
The fact that the monster was suddenly speaking in an understandable tongue was enough to shock Thomas to a halt. He stared uncomprehendingly at the beast with its fearsome yellow eyes, except instead of savagery, they were filled with confusion. "Thomas, wake up!"
With those words, it was as if a veil had been lifted from Thomas's mind. Slowly, the monster that had been looming over Thomas, threatening his life, dissolved like morning dew dissipated by the sun's rays. In its stead was the face of his father. He was jowly, with a gleaming, bald head that always seemed beaded with sweat regardless of whether it was hot as hell or cold as hell. His room likewise came into focus. It was a simple affair in terms of furniture, with only a single dresser and a bed with a lumpy mattress and a threadbare sheet.
The reason for this was that Thomas's father was a big believer in teaching his son how to properly apportion money. Rather than furnish the room himself, his father told Thomas that he had a certain amount of money available to him every year specifically designated to be used for room furnishing and that he was free to use it as he saw fit.
But Thomas set little store in such things as mattresses or dressers or even clothing. Instead, his entire focus was on books.
Lots of books.
Copious numbers of books. Books that were stacked everywhere, in no particular order, and yet somehow Thomas was always able to locate whatever particular volume he might be seeking at any given time.
"I'm awake, Father," Thomas said with a croak, sitting up in bed. His nightshirt was soaked with perspiration, and his long, thick brown hair was likewise hanging damp around his face. "I'm awake"
"What was hammering through your skull, boy?" said his father, stepping back. He glanced around suspiciously at the books as if they were the source of all his problems. "More foolishness gleaned from your endless collection of nonsensical tales?"
"They're not nonsense, and no," said Thomas.
"What was it, then?"
"I don't remember."
"You don't." His father did not sound particularly convinced, which was largely due to the fact that Thomas was an abysmal liar.
And Thomas knew perfectly well that his father was aware of his obfuscation. He tried to look his father in the eyes but wound up lowering his gaze, staring fixedly at the sheet as he insisted, "No. I don't."
His father considered pushing the matter but then shrugged it off, as if he had issues of far greater import on his mind. "You need to see her," he said.
"Her?" It was at that point that Thomas abruptly realized the earliness of the hour. The sun was not yet above the horizon. His father had always been an early riser, but this was excessive even for him. "Her who? Mother, you mean?"
"She began coughing, and she will not stop."
"Did you send for a doctor?" Even as he spoke, he tossed aside his blanket and settled his bare feet on the floor, which seemed unconscionably cold.
"Yes. And he suggested I send for you. He said that now would be a good time for you to see her."
Then did his father's meaning become clear to him as the last dregs of slumber fell from his mind. Forgotten, or at least shunted aside for the time being, was the snarling creature from his dreams. Instead, his focus was entirely on his father's concern for his mother. Not that his father was ever the most demonstrative of men, but even so, his worry was palpable.
Thomas followed his father out into the hallway and up the stairs to their bedroom. The doctor was standing just outside, holding his satchel loosely, a look of carefully contrived sorrow upon his face. "I have made her as comfortable as possible," he said, "but beyond that, there is nothing I can do."
"I'm sure you tried your best," said Thomas.
He stopped in the doorway, however, and even though he had known what he was going to see, it still wasn't easy for him.
His mother was lying in bed, looking wasted and wan. For a moment, he wasn't even sure if she was still alive, and then he saw her chest rise and fall ever so slightly, and a faint rasp sounded from her chest. "She's breathing easier," said his father, and Thomas found that distressing because she still sounded awful to him.
Then her mouth moved as if it was a tremendous effort of will, and her voice barely above a whisper, she said, "My son…;"
"I'm here," said Thomas, and he crossed the room and sat upon the edge of the bed. He took her hand, and it felt cold as death already. He knew that sensation all too well, for he had felt it once before, and it was something that he would never, ever forget. "I'm here, Mother."
"I'm so glad. I…; I need to tell you…;" She squeezed his hand with all the strength that her frailty enabled her to display.
"Tell me what?"
"I…;" A cough seized her, but she suppressed it. "I…; forgive you."
He heard a sharp intake of breath from his father. "You…; you do…;?"
She nodded, and even that seemed to require tremendous effort. "I blamed you…; for your brother's death. It is a terrible thing to admit…; but I did. And I should not have…; it…; it was not fair to you…;"
Thomas was a swirl of emotions. "That's all right. Mother, I know that you love me. I've always known that."
"Yes. And the truth is…;" Her body shook, trembling, and she forced herself to continue. "The truth is…; if only one of my sons had to survive…; I'm so relieved it was you."
"Mother, don't say things like that"
"I'll say what I wish…; what I need to say…; the truth is that…; that you have potential…;" The three-syllable word had taken great effort for her to say, and she had to regain her strength before she could continue. "Far more…; than your brother ever did…;"
He wanted to tell her that that was ridiculous. That Stephen had had as much potential, if not more, than Thomas ever did. That Stephen had been smart and business savvy and also brave, so brave, and the fact that his life had been cut short by the
Thomas stopped short. Even in his own head, the events of his past as he had remembered them had been subjected to such criticism and contempt that he censored his very thoughts.
"It's true," she said, as if he had spoken. "Your brother…; he had very little worth. All he cared about were his books and his legends and tales of heroic adventure. He was never going to be of any use to your father. Heavens know he was of no use to me. Not like you." And she squeezed his hand. "Not like you, Stephen."
Thomas felt as if his heart had just been crushed.
"The world would be so much poorer without you in it, Stephen. And you…; you made up that…; that insane story…; about a balverine killing your brother…; you didn't want to admit that you weren't able to save him…; so you said it was something unnatural…; that no mortal could have stopped…; I forgive you that. I forgive you everything, Stephen. At least you're still here…; instead of Thomas…;"
His jaw twitched, and he saw his father looking at him with both despair and warning. "Yes, good thing for that," said Thomas, trying to keep the misery out of his voice and not entirely succeeding.
She didn't notice his tone. "Good thing," she echoed, and then she closed her eyes and let her head slump back. She shuddered once more, and there was a rattle in her throat that Thomas recognized immediately, for he had heard it on that long-ago day in that last, final moment of his life.
Then she was gone. And with her, she took the last dregs of Thomas's childhood. And he had no idea what she had left behind.