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Where Nightmares Live

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Ellie Creed wasn’t surprised to learn that she was dying.

Maybe she should have been. She was only twenty-two, and had no history of medical problems if you didn’t count the PTSD diagnosis she’d been given as a child. She just had a cough that was stubbornly hanging on two weeks after she'd recovered from a simple cold. She’d thought it might be bronchitis.

But when the doctor showed her the tumors everywhere in her chest, inside her lungs and outside them too, the only shock Ellie felt was one of recognition. Of course she was going to die. She was only surprised that it had taken so long. She'd always felt like death had made a mistake that it would rectify at any moment. Oops, totally forgot about Ellie Creed. Better go collect her now, before I forget again. Her life had always been shaded with a sense of wrongness, of unreality. But this moment, examining the black and white shapes that spelled out time’s up and listening to the young doctor stammering over basic medical words like metastases and inoperable and palliative, felt deeply, profoundly right.

Ellie thanked the doctor, signed the papers, agreed to the follow-ups and referrals, and walked out.

It was a beautiful summer day. Flowering dogwoods. Kids on skateboards. Blue skies. Fluffy white clouds, like those fuzzy white masses—

Nausea suddenly twisted Ellie’s stomach. Icy sweat sprang up all over her skin, making her blouse cling to her back. Her ears were ringing. She lunged back toward the clinic. She couldn’t throw up in public with everyone watching. Two lurching steps, and she was doubled over and heaving right there in the middle of the sidewalk.

She was going to die.

She was going to die, and she’d be buried and rot just like Gage had, just like Daddy and Mommy had. She’d be dead meat underground, swelling and turning black, her fingernails falling off, turning into sludge and finally a skeleton. Her grandparents might even go crazy from grief, like Mommy and Daddy had when Gage died. Her friends would be heartbroken. Her professors too. They never said so but she knew she was their favorite, they were always telling her she had so much promise, America needed young entrepreneurs like her, one of them had even said she just might turn out to be the next Bill Gates. Now she’d be nothing but one more piece of unneeded proof that the world was cruel and unfair.

Another shock hit her, making her retch again. Ravi! He’d talked about marrying some day, in the future when they were older, but she’d always changed the subject. Somehow she’d known she didn’t have a future. But that made no difference to him now. He still loved her, and he’d still have to watch her get sicker and sicker and finally choke and die.

“Miss? Do you need help?”

Someone was talking to her. Someone was touching her. Not just one someone— a crowd had gathered. Ellie fled.

Her long legs flew over the sidewalk. Her breath only caught a little bit more than usual. She could run easily, she felt strong, but soon she’d be weak and sick and in pain. Then gone. She’d never run again. She’d never enjoy anything ever again. She’d never feel the heat of Ravi’s lips as he kissed that spot on the small of her back that he liked so much. She’d never eat another goddamn Big Mac, and she only craved those about once a year. She'd thought she'd calmly accepted the inevitable, but she'd only been numb with shock. Now terror made her guts clench until she thought she'd throw up again. Death was terrible, death was nothing, death was nothing forever

Not always. The smooth voice was at once strange and familiar.

Ellie stumbled, flinging out her hand and touching warm metal. Her car. Automatically, she got in, though she didn’t know where she intended to go.

You know. There was that voice again, slick as the skin sliding off a rotten peach.

And then she did know. She was going to the place where death wasn’t forever. She’d tried to forget it, even tried to disbelieve it, but she’d seen it in her dreams and she knew its truth. She’d seen Daddy bring back Church, bring back Gage, bring back Mommy. And then—

Ellie’s memory slipped away, as it always did, like a bare foot coming down on something slimy in the dark. Something had gone wrong, obviously. They were all dead now, and Daddy too. Somehow they’d died again. But first they’d come back.

Daddy had always said that once Ellie grew up, she’d be smart and strong and could do anything he or Mommy could. She could do this. She knew the way by heart, up the hill and through the Pet Sematary, over the deadfall and through the swamp and up to the high and stony ground where nothing grew but (undeath, cried another voice, hers or Mommy’s or maybe even Gage’s, she couldn’t remember what any of them had sounded like now) a cure for death, Ellie concluded.

Gage had been hit by a semi, but he’d come back anyway. So had Church. Mommy had— Ellie frowned, knowing that the story she’d been told wasn’t the same as what she’d seen in her dreams, but then her memory hit slime and slipped again. Well, she didn't need to know the details. Mommy had died, and Mommy had come back. Ellie could return from death too.

She drove along the highway, watching the huge semis carefully. They went so fast. They always went too fast. Ellie passed the exit for her apartment, but didn’t turn back. When she saw the sign for the airport, she felt a surge of relief. Of course she needed to go to Ludlow. Once she was there, she'd know what to do.

She bought her ticket, noticing with no surprise at all how conveniently the flights lined up, each one timed perfectly for her to get to the Pet Sematary as soon as possible. When she landed, a taxi pulled right up. She thought the driver might be confused by her giving him a description rather than an exact address, but he wasn’t.

Everything came clear on the drive, just as she’d known it would. She stepped out of the taxi at the base of the hill that no longer had any houses at all nearby, just that wide highway and the semis hurtling past. There had been an accident recently. It looked like a car had been hit and crushed. Tiny cubes of safety glass were scattered all around, along with sharp fragments of metal. Ellie picked up a metal shard. It was stained reddish brown along one side. She couldn’t tell if it was rust or blood. But the edge was sharp. It would do. Now all she needed was someone to bury her.

She called Ravi. He picked up immediately. “Are you at your apartment? I thought we were going to meet at the library.”

He doesn’t know, she realized. He doesn’t know anything— that I’m dying, even that I’m not in Springton.

Ravi was still living in his everyday life where he went to classes and attended conventions dressed up as a Jedi and argued with his parents and loved Ellie, and he would stay there right up until she opened her mouth and smashed his entire world into fragments of glass and bloody metal.

But she didn’t have to do that. He just needed to do one little task, and then everything would be all right. They’d go back to Springton together and they’d both finish college, and maybe she’d get her MBA or maybe she’d start her business without it, and Ravi would follow her because he could freelance anywhere, and when they both felt ready they’d get married and have kids because she wouldn’t be dead any more, she’d have fixed that just like Daddy did.

“I’m in Ludlow,” she said. “It’s the town where my family—” Died? Came back? “—used to live. You have to come here. Right now.”

“What? What are you doing there?”

“Do you love me?” she asked.

“Of course I love you, but—”

“Then you have to come find me. I can’t do this myself.” Ellie spoke louder, giving him directions from the airport, to the hills, to the Pet Sematary. “You’ll find me at the base of the deadfall. And when you get there, you’ll know what to do.”

First Ravi kept interrupting her, and then he fell silent and just listened. Finally he said, in a voice that sounded very gentle but she knew meant he was scared, “Ellie, where are you right now? Is someone with you?”

“I’ve figured it out,” Ellie said. She could hear her own voice, too high, too sharp, too fast. She knew she sounded crazy but it didn’t matter, she’d figured it out and Ravi would understand once he got to Ludlow. He would come to Ludlow, and he would bring her back. He loved her. That was what you did for people you loved.

“I’ve figured it out,” she repeated. He needed to hear even if he couldn’t believe just yet. “It was their bodies. There was too much damage to their bodies. Gage was smashed to pieces. Church was too, he had to have been, it was just inside where you couldn’t see. Mommy was— Well, something happened to her body too. But if there was just one little cut on the wrist, that would be different. That’s something you could bandage and it wouldn’t hurt you at all. Blood loss will kill you, but it’s not really damage.

“What are you talking about?” Ravi was shouting now. She’d never heard him shout except to cheer. He yelled for joy at the World Cup and movie previews, he didn’t yell in anger. He especially didn't yell at her. “What’s all this stuff about bodies and bleeding to death? And who’s Church?”

You don’t need to explain all that, whispered the slick voice. He’ll know. When he comes to Ludlow, he’ll dream everything he needs to know.

“My body can’t be damaged,” Ellie said. If I wait till I’m eaten up with cancer… “If I wait too long, it won’t go right. But now I’m fine—” (Fuzzy white everywhere, she was already gobbled up by tumors like mold growing over a forgotten glass of milk.) “Now I’m good enough. It’ll work for me. You’ll see. Come to Ludlow. You’ll know what to do. I love you.”

She hung up. Now she had to work fast. Ravi was scared, he’d fly out right away. But that was good. He’d find her before she had a chance to rot.

Ellie silenced her phone and hurried up the hill, the metal shard clutched tight in her hand, going as fast as the sticky catch in her breath would let her. But that would be gone soon. It had been years, so many years, and she’d never even been to the deadfall. But her feet were sure. She knew the way. She’d walked it in dreams, in her father’s shoes.

Up the hill. And into the Pet Sematary.

Her steps slowed as she passed the graves. She was living her dreams now.

SMUCKY THE CAT
HE WAS OBEDIANT

Her foot came down on something slimy in the dark. And didn’t slip.

(The stench rolling off Church, his horrible boneless touch.)

BIFFER
BIFFER, BIFFER, A HELLUVA SNIFFER
UNTIL HE DIED HE MADE US RICHER

(Gage with his face swollen and something that wasn’t him at all glowing in his eyes.)

TRIXIE, KILT ON THE HIGHWAY

(Some thing manipulated Mommy's dirt-choked mouth like a marionette to grate out, "Darling."

And then Ellie stood before the deadfall, with her feet firm on the grass and a shard of metal in her hand. She remembered now. Or maybe she’d always remembered, and made her own feet slide. She felt horror, but no surprise. Even when she’d slithered away from the details, she’d known something had gone wrong. That was why she needed to be so careful.

But that thing that had been in Gage, that thing that had been in Mommy— how could anything good come from the place that had given birth to those horrors?

It will be different for you, promised that slick voice. It was so familiar. Pitch it higher, run it through the lungs and voice box of a little boy, and it would sound a whole hell of a lot like that scream of “I brought you something, Mommy!”

Ellie didn’t want to die, she didn’t want to rot away and be gone forever, but how could she believe the promise of a voice like that?

Death is terrible, whispered that voice like rot personified. Death is worse than anything you can imagine. Death is the end of imagination. Death is the end of everything.

Ellie couldn’t argue. She couldn’t fight. The voice was death and worse than death, it had killed everyone she’d loved and then raised them as mockeries of themselves. Who was she to think she could escape that fate?

“No,” she choked out. No, no, I don’t want to be here, I don’t want this, no…

Images forced their way into her mind, as if her pathetic protest against the inevitable had been meant to deny its words. That long smear of blood and flesh along the highway. A dying girl withered to a skeleton, twisted and choking in agony. Church, stinking and cruel, destroying even the memories of the lithe tomcat she’d loved.

Anger burned through Ellie, giving her back her voice. It rose in a shout, her living cry echoing in that dead place. “Yes! Death is terrible! Death is nothing! Suffering doesn’t make you a better person and dying doesn’t make you a saint. Grief can make you lose your mind, pain can twist you and warp you until there’s nothing left of you, how can you think I don’t know that, Oz the Gweat and Tewwible!?”

That childish name tore through her throat like it had claws, leaving it raw. The cough that was going to kill her caught her and doubled her over, nearly suffocating her.

Ellie heard no reply, but she felt a slimy sense of satisfaction. He— it— didn’t need to say anything. Her own dying body was the argument.

She caught her breath, her lungs heaving far more than they should after doing nothing but yelling a few sentences. That would get worse. That would get so much worse. Even watching Zelda’s death in dreams gave her no true understanding of what it was to die like she would, slowly and in pain. That was something she would only understand when it happened to her.

You could change that, said Oz the Gweat and Tewwible. You’re special, Ellie Creed. Everyone sees it. They just didn't understand why. It's not because you're smart or strong or know what people want to buy. It's because you're the only person in the world who doesn't have to die.

It had been years since she'd been in the debate club, but she caught the logical error and responded to it before she could remember that no mere human could argue down that evil power. “But I do. Even your way, I have to die before I can come back.”

There was no verbal reply, only the sense of a vast, uncaring shrug, a wordless Is it truly death if it isn’t forever?

The shard was in her hand. An easy death, a ticket out, and then she’d be back. She wouldn’t be like Gage, crushed and already starting to rot in his coffin. Her baby brother, who’d died before he’d even had a chance to live at all.

But Gage had lived. He’d run and played and puked in the back seat. If he’d never lived, no one would have grieved for him. His life had been short, but it had been a life.

“Everyone says nothing is worse than the death of a child.” This time Ellie wasn’t shouting. Her voice was quiet, but she knew she was heard. “But there is something worse. And that’s coming back as a fucking demon!”

Ellie coughed again, then forced out the words she’d only ever heard in dreams. “Sometimes dead is better.”

She flung the sharp fragment of metal into the deadfall. The shard was tiny, but the vast woodpile shuddered and creaked as if it had been hit by a cannon ball. The entire thing listed, threatening to fall on her like an avalanche.

Ellie turned and ran, her heart pounding, her lungs laboring far too much. But she ran whether she could breathe or not, ran with all the strength she still had left, until she was doubled over coughing at the base of the hill, beside the highway.

A semi screamed by, blowing gritty dust into her face.

“Thanks for the reminder,” Ellie muttered. “Sore loser.”

She didn’t register her words until they left her lips. What she’d won was her own death. She’d fought harder than she had in her entire life to gain the right to pain and more pain, and then nothing, forever. That shouldn’t feel like a victory.

But it did.

Ellie took out her phone. Fifteen missed calls from Ravi. She dreaded breaking the news to him, but she had no choice so she might as well get it over with. She dialed his number, hoping the words would come to her once he picked up, but only got his voicemail. Silence stretched on and on before she finally hung up.

Then she spotted more missed calls, nine of them. They were all from a number she didn’t recognize. With a guilty relief that she didn’t have to have that conversation with Ravi just yet, Ellie dialed the unfamiliar number.

“Eileen Creed?” The voice was female, desperate and very vaguely familiar.

“Yes?” Ellie said. “Who is this?”

“Dr. Harwitt. I saw you this morning. I have to tell you— your scans were mislabeled. They belonged to a different patient. You don’t have cancer. You have bronchitis, that’s all. I’m so sorry!”

The woman sounded on the verge of tears. She was, Ellie recalled, barely older than Ellie herself. When she’d walked into the office, Ellie had thought she was probably just out of medical school.

Then the sense of her words sank in. The doctor’s voice rippled by like birdsong as Ellie stood stunned. The sun was hot on her head. It was still afternoon. Everything had happened in a single day— in less than a day. Death, and something worse than death, and then life, shocking as a sudden plunge into icy water.

“How could that even happen?” Ellie asked, more curious than angry. “It’s like something in a movie.”

Dr. Harwitt sounded like she was talking to herself more than to Ellie as she blurted out, “I told her not to worry! I told her to take antibiotics and her bronchitis would clear right up. Now I have to call her and tell her we made a mistake, someone else is fine and she’s dying—”

“Tell who?” Ellie demanded.

“Eileen Creel,” whispered the doctor. “Just one letter different. And you came in on the same day. What are the odds…?”

For me? Ellie thought. For me, the one who got away? Who put the idea in my head to go to that clinic, that day, when I’d been coughing for weeks?

Who gave me that bronchitis?

“High,” said Ellie. “One hundred percent.”

“Oh, God,” muttered Dr. Harwitt. “I shouldn’t have said her name. Forget that you heard it, okay? Just go to the pharmacy, I already called in your prescription. Take it and you’ll be fine.”

The doctor hung up.

Eileen Creel, Ellie thought. That can’t be a common name. I could find her. I could tell her death doesn’t have to be the end. Or I could tell someone who loves her…

In the back of her mind where nightmares lived, where nightmares would always live, she heard the quietest, softest snap, like the breaking of a single dry twig at the very bottom of a deadfall. Maybe the idea had been Ellie’s alone, not something that some thing put into her head. But she knew who liked it.

Ellie tried Ravi again. She still couldn’t reach him. He had to be on the plane already, heading to Ludlow.

She called a taxi instead. She’d meet Ravi at the airport, and they’d turn around and go straight back. She could tell him about the mix-up and that she’d had a brief but understandable nervous breakdown. She could say she’d had the impulse to visit the town where her family had died, thinking that soon she’d join them. He’d buy that story. Anyone would. It was far more plausible than the real one.

Or she could tell him the truth. All of the truth. Probably he’d think she was crazy. Worse, he might believe her, and then that— that thing she still couldn’t help thinking of as Oz the Gweat and Tewwible— would touch him too. And if they stayed together, if they had a marriage like Jud and Norma had, one day it really would be cancer. Or a heart attack. Or a semi. And then whoever was left would hear that call. Would Ravi have the strength to turn back? Would Ellie, if it was someone she loved instead of herself?

The taxi pulled up. Ellie climbed inside.

“Airport,” she said.

“Going on a trip?” the driver asked idly.

“No,” Ellie said. “I’m going home.”