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A Fourth Wish

-- LA Moss


Black lace shadows trembled and swayed in a dreamy, wind-blown dance across the ceiling. Russ lay back and watched, letting the shadows' hypnotic movement lull him for a while -- anything to take his mind off tonight.

He avoided looking at Gail, not wanting to see that pitiful expression; her well-meaning, though pathetic attempt at pretending to understand. It happens to all men, honey. Sure it did. But not to healthy, sober, generally horny, twenty-seven year old men -- three times in one month.

He tried to tell himself it was only stress. He wasn't losing it. He could make it up to her in the morning; make it up to himself. Old Not-So-Faithful never let him down in the morning.

"You haven't been getting enough sleep," Gail said, wrestling her share of the comforter from beneath him. "You're letting this thing with Joyce get to you."

Good idea. Blame Joyce.

"I can see her right now, stirring her cauldron and laughing her ass off," Russ said as he rubbed at the throbbing in his temples. It had been another one of those days.

"I don't know why you can't get along with her," Gail said.

Russ gave her a look of astonishment. "She's a bitch!"

Gail laughed. "That's original. Sure it isn't PMS?"

"I'm serious. I've sent her some great shots this week. She hated everything but the ones of the wreck on the tollway Tuesday. Especially the bloody one. She loved that one. If there'd been any fatalities she would have run the story front page so the photo could've been in color. I'm surprised she didn't have it framed for her office!"

"Russ."

He rolled his eyes at Gail's disapproving tone. "I know. I know. This is the last place I should be talking about work." He lifted the comforter and looked down at himself. "Obviously," he sighed. "But you brought it up. The uh, subject, I mean."

His wit received little more than a fleeting smirk. Gail was hardly amused. But why should she be? He'd left her frustrated. He could have done something about that. He should have. He was just too tired for that tonight.

"She just needed to vent and you were convenient," Gail said. She pulled the comforter up and meticulously smoothed it, then stared up at the ceiling perhaps a touch too pitifully.

Russ ignored her sulking. She had the right, he imagined. So much for suggesting that Joyce just needed to get laid. "Maybe she'll conveniently die in her sleep tonight and I'll still have a job tomorrow."

Gail shrugged. "So you stood up to her."

"You know what happened to the last guy who stood up to Joyce Carroll? I think she has his balls hanging from the rear view mirror in her car. She'll probably have mine made into earrings." He glanced at Gail and smiled. "If you don't beat her to it."

Gail moved closer, laughing softly, and slid her arm around him. "You could get on at the Daily. They might be in the market for a gelded photojournalist with a big mouth." She kissed him lightly on the cheek. All was seemingly forgiven. "Let's go to sleep. I left the menus for the Carson's reception at home and Taylor needs them first thing tomorrow." She threw a hand over her face. "God, that means I have to leave here by six-thirty. And please," she added after Russ offered a disapproving grunt, "Don't start in about Taylor. It's already after eleven."

"Okay, okay." He hadn't planned to start a Taylor argument tonight. He was dangling over the edge of unconsciousness, ready to drop off any moment. Thank God for exhaustion, he thought. To hell with Taylor, and come to think of it, to hell, especially, with Joyce.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

He became gradually aware of the heaviness settling into his chest, slow and swelling, like wet sand being dumped on him, burying him, little by little, shovel-full by shovel-full, until it felt as if he were lying beneath a mountain.

He became conscious of the effort it took just to breathe, like pulling in air from a slowly collapsing straw. Asthmatic fear began to gnaw into his awareness then suddenly exploded into full panic.

Russ began to fight the weight, pushing against it from the depths of sleep in a fevered attempt to get out from beneath the crushing mass before he suffocated, but the harder he pushed, the heavier it seemed; the more he had to struggle to draw even the shortest breath.

His heart sent a pounding alarm throbbing painfully down the sides of his neck. It echoed inside his head; echoed off the transparent walls of the dream that surrounded him; trapped him.

Open your eyes!

He could escape through the opening; escape this prison of sleep and then he could breathe...

But his eyes wouldn't open.

He fought against the flimsy barrier of flesh that barred his escape, but sleep blocked his effort, locking him inside this suffocating nightmare.

Wake up!

He heard himself scream the words, or attempt to, but invisible fingers closed around his throat, choking off his screams, cutting off the last of his air, inviting a fresh torrent of panic. He struggled; writhing, kicking, beating against the unyielding mass on top of him, clawing at the fingers wrapped around his throat.

He expected relief when he forced his eyes open at last, but the terror of suffocating couldn't compare to what he felt now. Against the darkness of the room he could see the outline of an even darker shape bearing down on him. It straddled his chest; a hideous, horrifying thing; a cheating demon who hadn't followed the rules to vanish at the dream's end. It stared down at him with devilish amusement through empty black sockets where eyes should have been, laughing and snarling; its black, gaping mouth so close Russ could feel the cold, humid breath on his face. He felt its fingers tighten around his throat and the thing clamped its empty sockets closed, threw back its head and released a howl of murderous joy.

A rush of adrenaline gave Russ the strength to thrust the thing off of him. He leaped from the bed, screaming, stumbled blindly through the dark and crashed shoulder-first into a wall, too terrified to curse the pain.

His hands hissed along the wall in a frantic search for the light switch. The thing was still there, behind him. He could feel its sickening presence reaching out from the shadows and curling around him. A prickling horror gripped him. He wanted to throw up. He wanted to scream. He wanted to wake up!

But you are awake!

His hand grazed the corner of the switch plate. It moved, scraping across the spackle on the wall; not the light switch after all, but a framed photograph that crashed to the floor at his feet.

Russ.

The thing called to him softly. The floor creaked beneath its feet. Russ gave up the search for the light switch. He had to run. His legs didn't want to move.

Russ.

He bolted down the hallway. His legs tangled and tripped him. He found himself suddenly on his knees. The thing was close. Russ scrambled to his feet again, screaming as a cold hand brushed his arm. He ran toward the end of the hall pursued by the soft call of the shadow thing. The voice followed him into the living room.

"Russ!"

Gail's voice.

The overhead light froze him in place. He stood gasping, naked and shivering, saturated in a terror-sweat. His eyes searched the room frantically for any sign of the nightmare, but the shadow thing was gone.

"God, Russ." Gail reached for him, hesitating to touch him. "Are you all right? Are you awake?"

He managed a tentative nod and hugged himself tightly, trying to catch his breath.

"You scared me to death!" Gail said and took his arm. Her hands were cold. "Look. You stepped in the glass. You're bleeding all over the floor."

He glanced down the hallway and shuddered at the dark red trail of footprints that marked his panicked flight.

Gail tugged at him gently. He staggered with her back to the bedroom, dazed. He sat on the edge of the bed and closed his eyes tightly, trying to escape the throbbing in his head. His heart still pounded. He couldn't stop shaking.

When he opened his eyes again, Gail was gone. He could hear her in the bathroom, fumbling through drawers and cabinets, talking to herself, or to him. He wasn't sure, didn't care. He pulled the comforter around himself and stared at the pieces of broken picture frame and bloody shards of glass on the floor near the doorway. The thing had seemed so real. Just like before. But that was so long ago. He'd almost forgotten.

Gail returned with an armful of first aid and knelt at his feet. She lifted his right foot to have a look at the wound. "What were you dreaming? It must have been horrible."

He shook his head, clutched at the comforter and rubbed the sides of his neck where he could almost feel the cold, lingering touch of those choking hands.

"Aren't you going to tell me about it?" Gail asked as she dabbed at the bottom of his foot with a piece of qauze soaked with peroxide.

His foot jerked involuntarily. "Dammit!"

Gail frowned. "Hold still."

"It stings!"

She pulled his foot back to her. "You know you'll feel better if you talk about it."

"How do I know that?"

She sent an irritated glance up at him and continued cleaning the cuts on his feet in silence. She hadn't dropped the subject. He knew her better than that.

When she'd finished bandaging his wounds, she left the room without another word, appearing momentarily with a dustpan and plastic pail and went to work cleaning the blood and glass from the floor.

"It really scared you," she said without looking up.

The scraping sound of the glass being scooped into the dustpan felt like cold needles driving themselves into his temples. "It was just a dream."

"Look at this." She showed him a dustpan-full of bloody, broken glass. "It wasn't just a dream."

"Jesus," Russ grumbled and flopped back on the pillow. But maybe she was right. Maybe he would feel better.

He gave in, describing the dream in as much detail as he cared to remember. Gail was left temporarily--and amazingly--speechless.

She had crawled into bed beside him during the course of his description, and now she sat hugging her knees to her chest, looking down at him thoughtfully while she chewed at the inside of her mouth. "We studied this in one of my psych classes," she said. "Night terrors." She shook her head. "This is so bizarre. The way you described your dream...it could have come right out of the textbook."

He raised a hand to stop her. Not surprisingly, she ignored him.

"It happens in the deepest stage of sleep," she continued, "Your pulse slows abnormally, your breathing almost stops, then your mind panics and tells your body that it's suffocating. People who suffer from this all seem to have similar nightmares. Something is sitting on them, crushing them or strangling them or trying to take their breath, you know, like a cat sitting on a baby's chest while it's sleeping."

"I know. I know," Russ said. "Very rare. Brought on by sleep deprivation. Blah, blah, blah. I know all about it."

The corners of her mouth drew pitifully downward. "You don't have to be so cranky."

"I'm sorry. I know you're only trying to help."

"Maybe you should see the doctor about it. It might be sleep apnea or something. You know you do snore. Has it happened before?"

Russ glanced at the clock and moaned. Two thirty-five...thirty-six. "Only once. When I was a kid." He'd tried to forget. He never imagined it would happen again. "It was just a stupid dream. Not worth analyzing. I really need to get some sleep...please." As if that was possible now.

Gail seemed poised to argue, but finally nodded and reached for the lamp.

Russ grabbed her arm gently. "Leave it on."


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"Are you all right?" Gail looked up at Russ, squinting, one hand shading her light blue eyes from the afternoon sun. She looked beautiful today. The sunlight glistening over her pale blonde hair made it stand out even brighter against the contrasting dark green of her dress.

No one wore the traditional black these days it seemed, except for the older folks -- and the immediate family.

Russ opened the Mazda's passenger door and waited not-too-patiently for Gail to climb in. "I just want to get out of here." He said.

He hated this. How many times had he taken the oath never to attend another funeral service? Even his own parents'? This time, by God, he meant it.

As he drove, he occupied his thoughts trying to determine the proper etiquette for dodging funerals. The old standard contagious disease excuse had seen better days. He'd helped make it obsolete himself. He'd have to be more imaginative.

He could kill himself. It would certainly work. Maybe a bit drastic, but it would get him out of a lot of funeral services.

All but one.

Temporary insanity? There was an idea. Yes. People would believe that. 'I'm sorry. I would have attended the funeral, but I was wearing a straight-jacket at the time, and they wouldn't let me out of that little room with sofa cushions on the walls...' Yeah, put that one on the list.

A few other less-than-imaginative ideas came to mind, but he soon ran short of them, and suddenly there was nothing left to distract him from what he had been trying so hard not to think about. At least Gail hadn't brought it up. She'd been mercifully silent during their drive back into town, staring out her window at the gray blur of bare trees and probably making herself nauseated in the process.

"God, what a horrible way to..."

Russ sighed. The merciful silence had ended. "Gail, please."

"I'm sorry. I know how upset you are."

He pulled the car to the curb in front of Gail's apartment building and let it idle there. He sat quietly, thinking of Joyce and the scene in her office.

"Do you know what I said to her? The last thing I said to her?" He felt Gail's hand on his arm. God, he'd even wished out loud that Joyce would die in her sleep!

"I'm sure you're not the only person she argued with that day."

Gail was right, no doubt. But their argument had been special. No one else had told her explicitly where she should shove those pictures. No one else had given her a little unsolicited sexual advice like he'd done as he stormed out of her office that afternoon. Go screw yourself, Joyce. Maybe he hadn't put it quite so politely.

To his relief, she wasn't at work the following morning. He wouldn't have to face her after everything he'd said and he'd spent the day limping around the newsroom on his sore feet, cursing her to himself, blissfully ignorant of the fact that she'd gone to bed after a few too many gin and tonics, and choked to death in her sleep on her own vomit.

He shuddered. Gail was right. What a horrible way to die.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The funeral was all he'd thought about for these past few weeks -- and this. He felt it was time. Or at least he'd thought so before tonight. But now, sitting on the sofa, staring at the emerald green velvet box on the coffee table; at the brilliant sparkle that issued from it, he wasn't so sure. He laughed to himself. Two months' salary. Isn't that what they say is proper to spend on the engagement ring? Who the hell said that? Some jeweler, of course.

He heard Gail's keys jingle outside the door. He snatched the box from the table and snapped the lid down, shoved it into his pocket, and gulped down the bourbon he'd just poured. His fourth. He didn't usually drink just because he was pissed-off. This was a special occasion.

He watched Gail come through the door, watched her face change when she saw him. Her body seemed to wilt.

"Oh my God." She clamped a hand over her mouth. "Dinner! I forgot all about it." She slipped out of her coat and dropped it over the back of the sofa. "I'm so sorry. We were so busy today. We can still go if you like."

"I don't imagine you're hungry now." He tipped the glass and watched a little golden pool collect in the low spot. "I thought you might be running late. I called your office." He paused, not long enough for her to reply, only long enough to let the suspense build before the attack. "Taylor took you someplace nice, I hope."

Her blonde eyebrows drew into a suspicious frown. "We were working." She nodded to the glass in his hand. "How many of those have you had?"

"One too few." He pushed himself up from the sofa and headed for the bar, trying unsuccessfully not to stagger. "I've never understood how you could work with him after..." He couldn't quite finish the sentence out loud. After you screwed him every night for almost a year.

He emptied the bottle into his glass. He'd probably be puking his insides up shortly -- just like old Joyce. Name your poison, Joyce. Gin and tonic, was it? He felt sick already.

"Russ!"

"What?"

"I said, I don't have a choice right now. You know that."

He swirled the poison in the glass. "Right. I forgot," he said and swallowed down almost half the whiskey in one gulp. "Maybe I understand more than I thought...more than you think."

Gail drew in a sharp breath. She stared at him for a moment, shocked, shaking her head. "You don't mean that."

"You've been working late a lot these past few weeks."

Her cheeks blossomed with anger. "I think that stuff has warped your sense of reason!"

"I'm not that drunk...yet."

"You must be if you think Taylor and I are still sleeping together. I assume that's what you're accusing me of?"

Russ was silent for a moment, staring down at the little puddle of bourbon he'd clumsily spilled. "You see each other every day. Things happen."

Her eyes narrowed. "I can't believe...you think something is..."

He looked up at her with dark curiosity. "Is it?" Immediately, he regretted those words, as he'd regretted others, but they were said. And Gail would never understand that it wasn't him who had said them, but that big-mouthed bastard, Jack Daniels.

Gail glared at him, her pretty face drawn into an expression of painful disbelief. "How could you...after everything...?"

He staggered out from behind the bar, reaching for her arm. She backed out of range, still shaking her head. "Gail...no...no. Come on. I'm sorry. This week has been...I really don't..." Shit. Shit. Shit!

She snatched her coat from the sofa and backed toward the door, tears shimmering in her eyes. She held up a hand. "Just stop. Don't insult me with some pathetic excuse. And don't waste your time apologizing. I thought you knew me better. I wish I were still sleeping with Taylor! At least he wasn't so insecure that he'd accuse me of going to bed with someone else!" Her eyes widened suddenly then narrowed again. "I know what this is. It isn't even about me, is it? You're feeling guilty because you couldn't get it up!" She glanced up at the ceiling as if it would agree with her. "Thank God I don't have a penis!" she said and threw her head back defiantly. "And by the way," she added as she snatched her coat from the sofa and started for the door, "Taylor was incredible in bed!"

"I'm sure you have a remedy for that!" Russ snapped.

Gail spun around and froze, glaring at him from the vacuum of a burning silence for a long moment. "That's right. I have to make sure he's ruined so no one else can have him! Be sure to write that down and add it to the sacred archives so the other men can use it as an excuse when they can't get an erection!" She whirled around and bolted out of the apartment, slamming the door behind her so hard one of the framed posters hanging near the doorway jumped off its nail and crashed forebodingly -- and all too familiarly -- to the floor.

Russ threw a line of curses after her, and hurled his glass across the room. It struck the fireplace mantel, shattering into hundreds of tinkling pieces. Golden poison trickled down the bricks. He sent the emerald green box in the same direction, just as hard. To hell with her! Taylor could have her for all he cared!


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

He stumbled back to bed, shivering, still gasping for breath. The shadow thing was gone, frightened away by the light, but the terror lingered.

Damn these nightmares!

He hadn't slept since the funeral. The lack of sleep must have brought this one on, he thought, maybe the stress, the terrible fight with Gail tonight. Whatever the cause, it had to stop. Maybe he should see a doctor. Maybe it was the insomnia.

These last two dreams certainly could have been caused by lack of sleep, but the first time.... He didn't want the memory to come, but it forced its way into the present despite his attempt to suppress it, bringing with it all the pain, the frightening images, the rush of sad guilt.

It happened the last summer he'd spent with his grandparents on their small, east Texas farm. He was twelve and that year he would have the farm and his grandparents to himself for the first time. His sister's hormones had convinced her she wouldn't survive an entire summer without Jason Parish. And it would have been perfect, but after only two weeks, he'd ruined everything.

He could still see himself in the tractor's seat, bouncing, giggling as he drove around the barn, then the joy suddenly turning to panic when he'd realized he couldn't stop the thing. He'd taken down a clothesline and smashed through a brand new fence before the tractor finally came to a stop just as his grandfather's truck pulled into the drive.

After fifteen years, the angry crack in his grandfather's voice was still fresh in his mind. "Go cut me a switch off your granny's peach tree!" his grandfather had said. And Russ had taken his time, returning with a puny little limb which only made matters worse. His grandfather didn't use that switch. He found his own. The spanking left quite an impression -- on Russ's ego, and his backside.

The remainder of that day was spent chasing down two yearling colts that had escaped through the fence he'd smashed. It took he and his grandfather hours to catch the horses. They led them home in the dark. His grandfather didn't speak a word the entire way back to the house.

Russ fell asleep that night thinking about the switching he'd been given, feeling the sting even then. You're so mean. I just wish you would die! And he'd had that terrible dream. But even that couldn't compare with the horror of the morning after. He'd been awakened by voices, crying. He still shuddered at the image; looking out his window at the ambulance parked outside, watching the white mound on the gurney jiggle grotesquely as it meandered down the walkway toward the ambulance.

Through his mischief, he'd killed his own grandfather. It was his fault the old man had had to run after the horses. His heart hadn't been able to take the stress.

He thought about Joyce then and a second wave of guilt washed sickeningly through him. He'd wished her dead. He'd wished it right out loud, then the horrible nightmare...

He felt his face grow hot. He bolted upright in the bed.

He'd been so angry at Joyce that day. Maybe she'll conveniently die in her sleep...and his grandfather...

He snatched up the phone and dialed Gail's number, trying to swallow the hard knot that began to form in his throat, that crept higher each time the phone rang. He'd fallen asleep angry that night so long ago, wishing that terrible wish. And tonight...tonight he'd been furious! He couldn't remember what he'd been thinking before the whiskey finally put him to sleep. The knot tightened. After four rings he thought he would choke.

Come on, Gail. Answer!

Relief sighed through him when he heard the line click. Thank God. She was there. This was ridiculous. He must be losing his mind.

He didn't give her time to say hello. "Gail. I'm sorry. Don't hang up. I know it's late. Listen to me. I really screwed up. I don't know what I was thinking. I was being childish and paranoid. You were right. It was just an excuse. Tonight was supposed to be...I had something special planned, and...I think that was part of it too. I overreacted. I do trust you. I love you. You know that."

The voice that whispered to him from the receiver silenced him.

"That's three, Russ. One-two-three."

He felt suddenly cold. "Gail?"

"Three wishes. But you've been a good boy. Maybe one more." The voice was sickeningly familiar; black, hissing, taunting; the words laced with hollow laughter.

Russ felt a scream rising in his throat, being wrenched out of him along with the last of his sanity. "No! Gail!"

"Goodnight, Russ. Sleep tight."

"No!...NO!"

"And pleasant dreams."


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"Mr. McKean, please hold still. You're going to be all right."

He couldn't move. Hands held him down. Men in green scrubs were grabbing at his arms and legs. A woman was helping them. She looked like Gail. Gail in a white coat. "I want you to relax now," she said. "No more fighting, okay?"

"GAIL!" he screamed. His throat hurt. It hurt when he screamed. It hurt just to breathe. The green men struggled with him, pinned him back against a hard, unfamiliar bed. "I killed her! It's my fault! All of them! I killed all of them! Why didn't you just leave me alone? Why didn't you just leave me..."

He shouldn't be here. Something had gone wrong. The knot had slipped. Someone had found him too soon. Or the water pipe in the basement...it could have broken under the strain of his weight...

"You haven't killed anyone, Mr. McKean," the woman said. She was drawing a pale pink liquid into a syringe, looking at him over the top of her glasses.

"They're dead, aren't they? I killed them!" Hadn't they read his note? His confession? "It was me! I did it! God, it was me!"

The woman's round face drifted toward him. "You're going to sleep for a while. You'll feel better when you wake up and we'll talk then."

Sleep. Just the sound of the word was suddenly calming.

"Yes," he whispered. "I want to sleep. I want to go to sleep."

He let himself relax as he felt the needle's sting. The dark, comforting embrace of welcomed shadows folded over him. He looked up at the woman. "I'm not crazy," he said hoarsely. "I really did it."

She only smiled and shook her head. It didn't matter that she didn't believe him.

"One more wish," he said. "One more...wish." His voice sounded strange to him, as if it belonged to someone else. "Goodnight. Sleep...tight." He closed his eyes, feeling the woman's hand on his arm. It was warm, nice.

"Goodnight, Mr. McKean," she said. "Pleasant dreams."


1996