James tumbled down the jagged pieces of concrete debris and crouched on the ground for a few seconds. He blinked several times as tears marginally cleared the dust from his stinging eyes. The shrill ringing in his ears didn’t distract from the feel of blood oozing from them, paving a crimson path across his dust-plastered face. His hoarse, painful coughing did little to get rid of the dust from his throat as he staggered to the wall of the partially standing building, pressing his back firmly against it. He tightened his grip on the M4A1 assault rifle. No more than a few yards away lay his comrades, their bloody, dust-riddled body parts so tangled, he couldn’t tell Eric’s limbs from Frank’s. Their bloodshot, lifeless eyes demanded answers; why them and not him too?
Finally able to tear himself away, James swept the battleground in search of the RPG shooter. Comrades and foes alike lay motionless in the muddy streets while several immolating armored vehicles pumped thick, black, suffocating smoke into the air. A few combatants, discontent with cowering behind nearby bullet-riddled buildings, trickled into the open, their chants growing bolder as their numbers swelled.
Amid adversarial battle cries, exploding grenades, and the constant wheezing of bullets, a faint voice filtered through the din to James. Searching frantically for its source, he found Ricky pinned down behind one of the burning vehicles, the relentless peppering of heavy fire stripping off piece after piece of the Humvee. James, trusting the cover fire from the snipers atop the building, sprinted toward Ricky, but seconds later, a bone-chilling blast reduced the building to rubble. The snipers were gone.
Rooted behind the scorching vehicle and cradling Ricky in his arms, the realization that James held the last surviving member of his infantry overwhelmed him with a myriad of emotions—mostly guilt and anger. To his left, an apparition of himself, uniform in tatters, covered in ash and blood, desperately pleaded for restraint. To his right, his late father, translucent in appearance, watched silently, yet his stern and disapproving expression spoke volumes that James, regretfully, was no stranger to. The senior Wexlar, dressed in a charcoal suit and brown shoes, his neatly combed head of hair barely tinged with grey, looked exactly as he had the last time James laid eyes on him—in his casket on the day of his interment.
James looked at Ricky’s limp body, locking onto his friend’s cold, dead, judgmental glare. Rage, bubbling from the pit of James’ stomach, coursed furiously through his veins, as chills of unbridled fury shivered down his spine. After gently setting Ricky’s body on the ground, James armed himself with Ricky’s semiautomatic.
The smoky battlefield and the sting of tear gas diminished visibility significantly. However, the surrounding carnage had robbed James of logic or reason. With his weapon in one hand and Ricky’s in the other, he returned fire indiscriminately at the scattered clusters of locals, dropping most to the ground in seconds as others scampered for the shelter of the neighboring buildings.
He charged madly through the streets, aiming for anything that moved, even as the sounds of return fire continued to lessen, until all that echoed were his savage screams and the short, rapid bursts from his semiautomatics. After what seemed an eternity, he finally let go of the triggers. Bullet-riddled corpses littered the dusty streets as the thick, suffocating smoke did not spare him the gory visuals of the men, women, and children, many of whom were civilians, felled during his vengeful lunacy.
The ominous rumbling of the converging dark clouds heralded the crashing droplets of rain from the weeping skies. Soon, his clothes, the ground, and everything around him had been painted red by the fervent rain of blood. James glanced at his late father and then at his abstract self—both of whom turned their backs to him and walked away until they faded out of sight.
But his condemnation didn’t end with their disappearance as one by one, each corpse opened its eyes and stared at him. Creaking sounds, like teeth grinding against each other, filled the air as they raised their blood-soaked hands in his direction, their fingers accusatorily pointed at James.
Out of nowhere, adjacent to the fallen building where he’d once taken refuge, a doorway appeared. Through it, rays of light illuminated the morbid landscape. James hastened toward the doorway, hopeful for rescue from his seemingly endless nightmare. The sweeping gusts of wind appeared concentrated between him and the doorway, generating a thick dust cloud that eventually dissipated, leaving behind a litter of dried-up human skulls and other skeletal parts.
Ricky, Frank, and Eric, along with the rest of his fallen comrades, stood on either side of the path, mock-applauding his determination as he trod through the skulls and bones, unable to avoid trampling on some along the way. James was just inches from the doorway, reaching desperately for the glowing bronze handle on the door, when, to his horror, he heard the distinct sound of a grenade rolling toward his feet. He dove away in time to avoid the brunt of the explosion, the force of which hurled him toward the nearby building.
Springing to his feet, he dashed behind the wall of the building, shielding himself from the hail of bullets aimed his way by the handful of hostiles gathering in the street. Frank and Eric, both crouched behind the same wall, returned fire at their assailants through the open archway that separated them from James. With his ears ringing loudly, James was barely able to make out the dull sounds of cover fire from the snipers on the roof as he picked up his M4A1 assault rifle.
Again, the vision of James’ late father and his abstract self returned. Ignoring both images, James implored Eric and Frank to vacate their position, knowing what the impending RPG would do. However, neither could hear his pleas in the commotion. He began to run toward them when he heard the desperate cries of a child. A boy, no more than twelve years old, lay on the ground a few dozen yards away. James had mere seconds to make a decision, but the RPG flying toward the building robbed him of his choices. Suddenly, seconds from impact, the RPG slowed to a standstill, along with everything else in the war-torn streets except for James.
A familiar feeling of calm washed over him as a woman, dissociated from the battle, materialized in the middle of the stilled chaos. She was youthful in appearance, with full, black hair just grazing her shoulders. Her large, emerald eyes, laced with subtle hints of amber, enhanced her mesmeric gaze. Her disposition was gentle and disarming as she opened the palm of her outstretched hand toward him.
James’ steps were heavy, his movements fatigued, but when his hand clasped hers, a winsome sensation reverberated through him. Her smile was warm and reassuring as they turned toward the battle, which abruptly resumed, this time with him being just as abstract as her during this iteration of the unfolding sequences.
A cloud of fire and smoke engulfed most of the building as the RPG reached its target. James watched himself roll off the concrete debris and stagger painfully to the wall of the barely standing building.
It was apparent that the mystery woman comprehended the dream sequences, no matter how disjointed they appeared. Her countenance spoke volumes; she was inviting, understanding, and empathetic. Her presence was no accident; she was there to help suppress James’ mental and emotional rollercoaster.
Slowly, the nightmare melted away, replaced by fields and meadows of green as far as James could see. The ground beneath gently rose until they were atop a small hill with a stream running down its side. It stretched into the horizon as the sunlight reflected off the water’s surface. A handful of birds chirped in rhythmic melody as they flew across the clear blue sky. Herds of reindeer and bison grazed in the surrounding fields—the fawns and calves among them pronking in carefree abandon. Though exceedingly cliché, this new sequence’s sharp contrast to the preceding anarchy was much appreciated.
James and the woman no longer held hands, yet their connection grew even stronger. They sat in silence, watching the plains before them as the sun slowly disappeared on the far horizon. A few minutes before the sun fully set, the mysterious woman made her solo descent down the hill, eventually fading out of the dream entirely. Intuitively, James knew that going after her would be futile. Upon her disappearance, he awoke from his sleep. Such had been the signature of the past few nights he’d been plagued by the nightmares of his past.
James opened his eyes and immediately shut them again. The sting of the rays of light slipping through the blinds signaled an unusually tardy start to his day. He was drenched in sweat—a thing he’d grown accustomed to when he dreamed, for with dreams inevitably came nightmares. He’d become adept at avoiding those altogether, thanks to the bottle of pills by his nightstand and the ever-dependable alcohol. Being just thirty-three years old, his body could still take the abuse, he’d reasoned.
However, as evidenced by the previous night, even the combination of booze and pills didn’t always send him into a slumber deep enough to keep the dreams and nightmares at bay. But this night was different, in the same way the last few nightmare-plagued nights differed from the previous ones since his discharge from the military. He wondered if the woman in his dreams was his brain’s latest attempt at coping with his nightmares, or if she was symbolistic of a larger, subconscious need.
He rubbed his eyes as he sat on the edge of his bed. His head sunk dejectedly after glancing at the alarm clock on his nightstand. For the third time in the past couple of weeks, he had woken up too late for there to be any point in showing up to work. Three times as a no-call, no-show was unlike him and not the reputation he wanted to have at Eagle Private Investigations & Securities. There had to be a balance that didn’t require sacrificing his profession at the altar of returning to normalcy. And if it was balance he needed, then the church was as good a place as any to start.
James entered the confessional and feigned reverence as he sat on the bench and sighed contritely for the benefit of the priest on the other side of the latticed partition.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”
“How long has it been since your last confession?” asked Father Nicholas.
“Longer than I’d have liked,” James replied, “but I’m hoping for absolution today, not judgment.”
“Fat chance!” Father Nicholas scoffed.
“That’s no way to talk to your flock!”
“Well, I’m talking to my idiot brother right now,” Father Nicholas retorted, pulling back the screen to reveal an exaggerated glower. As much trouble as James gave him, it was a wonder Nicholas wasn’t losing any hair yet. His full head of jet-black hair somehow always stayed fastidiously parted on the left side. It was too consistent not to be a vain indulgence.
Interwoven within Father Nicholas’ stern remark was a fondness and endearment that their relationship, though non-biological, had been based on since its inception during their elementary school days. Nicholas, the picked-on orphan, and James, his privileged, untouchable protector, later grew into Nicholas the sage and James the rash, navigating their adolescent challenges together. To Nicholas’ delight, his lighthearted, good-natured, and mutually dependent brotherhood with James was one of the few things unscathed by the latter’s time in the military.
“That’s a bit harsh,” James said. “And in case you were wondering, between work and Erin, the lectures have not been in short supply. I figured I could wait a few days for yours.”
“I’ll try to make it worth the wait.”
“That’s okay. I’m in too good of a mood for my day to be ruined. That’s actually why I came. I’ve strung together several good nights’ sleep and you’d never guess how.”
“Some new type of drug?” Nicholas asked dryly.
“Nope,” James replied smugly before detailing the transition his recent nightmares had taken, the strange woman responsible for the blissful endings, and the unfortunate side effect of waking up much too late for work.
“And you really have no idea who she is?” Nicholas asked.
“Not a clue. If only this had started a week earlier, maybe I wouldn’t have—”
“Sent a mayoral candidate who also happens to be the son of a police commissioner to the hospital in front of his wife?!”
“Soon-to-be ex-wife. And that was self-defense or, at the very least, client-defense.”
“Damn it, James! What the hell were you thinking?”
“Father?” James balked mockingly.
Everyone had an opinion regarding the infamous Payton McNelly incident. When James had agreed to take on Mrs. McNelly as a client and investigate her husband’s suspected infidelity, he expected a bit of a circus in the aftermath of his findings, but that wasn’t unusual for a high-profile client. What he hadn’t anticipated was Payton McNelly stalking his wife during their separation. And with his wife’s justifiable mistrust of the police in this situation, James had served as her private security on more than a few occasions. The handsome pay was compensation enough, but then there was the added benefit of knocking McNelly on his backside when he aggressively confronted his estranged wife at a gala. The public humiliation aside, McNelly’s hopes of winning the mayoral election also took a knockout punch that night.
“Am I really supposed to apologize for intervening when a man attempts to put his hands on his wife?”
“That wasn’t just any man. Besides, you went overboard. I can’t imagine the pressure Erin must be under as the ADA,” Nicholas said.
“Yeah, that part’s tricky. But I haven’t been charged with anything. That means there’s no case, right?” This time, his tone was less self-assured, more hopeful; the last thing he wanted was Erin in the crossfire of his mess.
“Maybe. Or maybe McNelly is deciding on non-legal means of settling the score. Those vengeful types don’t just let things like that go.”
“Honestly, I don’t really care about that,” James said.
“It’s like you have a death wish or something!”
“Well, if you stop focusing on the McNelly thing and help me figure out these dreams, you’ll see that isn’t the case.”
Grudgingly, Nicholas accommodated the segue, this time paying closer attention during James’ re-narration.
“It’s not just the rescue from the nightmares, but the peacefulness she creates afterward. As beautiful and serene as everything becomes on the outside, I feel profoundly calmer within. Like she knows me inside and out. She understands everything I’ve done and still accepts me. Also, there’s this wave of empathy that emanates from her, causing this subtle, gentle craving for more of her,” James concluded.
Nicholas pondered his words. “Maybe it’s your subconscious telling you to step back into the real world before you have a psychosomatic breakdown. You can only stay tortured and alone for so long. Meet people, go on dates, find someone, for goodness’ sake.
“I’d start with a haircut.” Nicholas gestured toward James’ longer-than-usual, dark-brown curly hair. “And that beard isn’t coming in right. Lose it.”
“I didn’t come here for grooming tips. Besides, in my line of work, dialing up the looks can be very counterproductive,” James said.
“What? You’ve had your fill of ‘consoling’ your heartbroken clients?” Nicholas asked slyly.
“One time!” James bristled. “I have rules now. And that’s beside the point.” He took a deep breath before continuing. “I agree with your initial thoughts, because if I’m sleeping well, then maybe all that guilt and PTSD is behind me. And if it is, I can definitively commit to cleaning up my act and then… who knows, that white picket fence with Mrs. Right might be in the cards after all.”
“Uh-huh,” Nicholas said, openly skeptical of James’ easy agreement. “And Mrs. Right being…”
“There’s only been one,” said James.
“Here we go.” Nicholas rolled his eyes.
“I know what you’re thinking, but I’m really experiencing a breakthrough here. And if so, why can’t I go for it with Erin?”
“Well, if that’s the case, why is there another person playing the role of woman of your dreams?”
James stayed silent. That piece of the puzzle still eluded him despite days of contemplation. Even their features were distinctly different, aside from Erin being a couple of inches taller, her brown eyes, blond hair, and high cheekbones bore no resemblance to his dream woman.
“I’m just saying, getting better should be the goal for you, not getting Erin back. And I think your subconscious agrees with me,” Nicholas insisted.
“It’s a goal for me because of her,” James said. “Honestly, I thought you’d be happy for me being in this kind of space.”
“I am happy. I’m just trying to make sure you stay this way. Say you do go after her, and your feelings aren’t returned. What then? Relapse?” Nicholas asked gently.
He wasn’t just playing devil’s advocate. He knew Erin and James better than anyone; their friendship as a trio was almost as old as his brotherhood with James. And on paper, Erin’s serious and risk-adverse nature provided a complementary balance to James’ more adventurous tendencies. But their paths diverged when James, reeling from his father’s untimely death and in search of purpose and direction, had enlisted in the military. Unfortunately, his psyche wasn’t the only casualty of this decision; his romance with Erin did not survive his unorthodox PTSD coping mechanisms.
Fortunately, their romantic mishaps didn’t affect their working relationship. She relied heavily on him for some of her off-the-record investigating, a vital component for prosecuting most of her cases. At this stage in their lives, a failed attempt at rekindling their romance could prove costly for both of them. And Nicholas wasn’t sure their friendship could survive that a second time.
More importantly, the gnawing feeling he had didn’t stem from any concerns about James and Erin’s romantic future or lack thereof.
“I think this thing with McNelly is the bigger issue here,” Nicholas said. “And I’m worried you’re not taking it as seriously as you ought to. You know him better than I do, and from the asking around I’ve done, he’s not the type to let anyone get one over on him. More importantly, he isn’t above resorting to less-than-ethical measures. Aren’t you worried about retribution?”
The blank look on James’ face frustrated Nicholas. He might as well be speaking to an empty bench. James was a million miles away, replaying his dreams and trying to decipher how they related to Erin.
“Honestly, I don’t even know why I bother,” Nicholas muttered to himself.
“You don’t need to worry about me, Nicky.”
“Let’s pray so.”
“I’ll leave that to you, Father,” James said, standing to leave the confessional.
“Wait. Your penance is—” Nicholas called after him.
“Save it, Father!" James said, sauntering toward the grandiose oak doors of the cathedral. “If you feel like a drink later on, you know where I’ll be,” he said loudly for the benefit of the sparsely distributed parishioners seated in the pews. He relished the incredulous looks his nonchalance and seemingly distasteful invitation to their Father inspired.