I Dream of Fire
By: Matthew Penwell
My room felt as if it were five
hundred degrees. I sucked in a hot, acrid breath, and flung the covers from off
my body. A light breeze cooled the sweat slicking me from head to toe.
Dream-flames leaped across my vision. I’d had the dream again, the one about
the fire, the crumbling roof, and Elizabeth screaming.
Elizabeth and I get along for the
part. She’s a year and a half older than me, so by default, she thinks she
knows every answer in the universe. She doesn’t look a thing like me. Most
people don’t believe us when we tell them we’re sisters. She took after my dad.
I took after my mom.
I reached out blindly for the bottle
of water on the nightstand. I sat up and gulped down the remainder of the
bottle in a few swallows. But my throat was still dry and scratchy. I’ve never
swallowed sand before, but I guess if you did, your throat would feel this way.
I sat on the edge of the bed. It was mid-October, it shouldn’t be this hot in
the house, I thought. I crossed my room and opened the window.
The cool wind washed over me like
wave. My blonde hair swept out behind me like a banner. Goosebumps crawled over
my arms and legs. There were no lights on in town. The streets were dark and
empty, save for shadows that danced when the wind blew. I stayed at the window
for a while. I couldn’t get the dream out of my mind. Fourth time I’d had it
this month. My parents don’t know about it. I’m scared to tell them. I mean, I
keep having a dream of my sister dying in a fire. The same dream. Over
After a while I turned away from the
window and crept down the hall, to the kitchen. Guided by an Elsa night light,
I got a cup from the cabinet and filled it with water. I drank it down and
refilled the glass. I consumed half the glass and filled it again. My throat
felt better. Not much better, though.
My room had cooled by at least twenty
degrees. I left the window open an inch and got into bed. I pulled the covers
to my neck and kicked out my feet. I fell asleep fitfully. My body tried to
resist the dream that may or may not come.
“Wake up,” Elizabeth said.
over. She leaned in the doorway, one hand on the door handle, one on the frame.
I got out of bed and slipped off my
pajamas. I stood at the closet, looking over the black band t-shirts. One or
the other. One or the other. I grabbed a random shirt and slipped it on.
The Doors. Not too shabby.
Elizabeth was already at the table
when I entered the kitchen. She looked away from her bowl of cereal.
“You don’t look so well,
said. She strood across the kitchen in a flash and laid her hand across my
forehead. “Do you feel sick?”
“No. Not really.”
“You don’t feel hot. That’s
sign. Maybe you’ll look better after you eat. Get some protein in ya’.”
“I just didn’t sleep well
My mother looked at me uneasily. She
licked her lips. There was something she wanted to say but couldn’t quite make
the words come out. She swallowed hard. “We can go see a doctor about that. See
if he thinks sleep medication would be something we could look into.”
“I’m sleeping, Mom.”
“I know, honey, but some nights
you tossing and turning. I can hear you walking back and forth across your
room. Opening windows. Getting drinks at all hours of the night. You’re not
sleeping well, Jan.”
“I’m okay, Mom. Really.”
I sat down at
the table and started to spoon oatmeal into my mouth. Mom didn’t like it when I
talked with food in my mouth. I swallowed and in went a second spoon. I looked
across the table. Elizabeth was gone. I’d not seen her leave the room. Or heard
her, for that matter.
The dream hid in the darkness behind
my eyes. Every night as I crawled into bed, I knew the risk. The dream would
come back. I had a feeling inside my gut I couldn’t shake.
October melted into November in a
brew. The leaves lost their green lush, turned a dead brown, and littered the
streets. I hadn’t had the dream in almost three weeks. I was beginning to feel
like maybe the feeling in my gut had been wrong; maybe it
wouldn’t come back. But one can only hope for so much.
In the dream I’m always chasing
Elizabeth, although I never see her, I know it’s her. I can feel her.
I’m chasing her into a barn. But before I can reach her there is a loud
explosion and flames begin licking feverishly at the sun. Elizabeth is
screaming for help. She’s screaming for God to help her. For Mom to help her.
For Jan to help. But I never help her. The flames are too hot. I can’t get
close enough. And then before I know it the roof is coming down with a crash.
Embers light up the day like devilish fireflies. And then I would wake up.
I sat on the edge of my bed, wiping
off the sheen of sweat from my forehead. A cold breeze shuffled about the
curtains. My lungs burned as if I’d breathed in hot ashes. Tears welled in my
eyes. This couldn’t keep going on. Sooner or later it would kill me. I went to
the kitchen and drank down three glasses of orange juice. It did little for my
“You feelin’ all right?”
asked as she laid a hand on my shoulder.
I jumped. Must have come down the
hall when you had the spigot on. That’s why you didn’t hear her. I didn’t
have any other explanation for why I hadn’t heard her footsteps.
“Geez. I didn’t mean to
I shook my head. “You didn’t.
hand was just cold.”
“Don’t mention it. What
are you doing
“I could ask you the same question.”
I held up my cup. “I was thirsty.”
Concern came into Elizabeth’s
“You look sick.”
I couldn’t tell her about the
What would she think of me? I could tell her, though. I looked Elizabeth
in the eyes. If I told her she would watch out for the barn. The fire could
never happen. I was seeing the future! The sudden realization made my head feel
swimmy. I clutched the counter.
“You all right?” She asked
made a grab for my arm. I didn’t want her cold fingers on me. I jerked away.
“I’m fine. Elizabeth.
Do you know of
any barns around here?”
“Barns. You’re going to
totally bat-shit crazy, but there’s something I’ve got to tell you.”
“What’s wrong with you,
“I think you’re going
“I don’t know.”
I ran my hands across
my cheeks. “I keep having a dream of a fire, and you...die in the fire. I think
it’s the future. I think I’m dreaming of the future. You need to stay away from
barns. Please. Promise me. You’ll stay away from barns.”
“Calm down. Calm down.”
said. “I’ll stay away from barns, all right, weirdo?” She ruffled my hair.
“Let’s go back to bed. It’s late. You need some sleep. You don’t look well.”
“I don’t feel that well,
don’t know what’s happening to me. I’ve had this dream a bunch of times. I’m
“I’ll worry about myself.
I’ll be sure
to stay away from any barns in town. I can’t even think of a barn in town.”
“Get dressed,” Mom stood
doorway. “You’ve got a doctor’s appointment.”
“For what? I’m not sick.”
Mom exhaled. “For weeks now
with you staying up at all hours of the night, pacing back and forth, screaming
in your sleep.” Tears welled in Mother’s eyes. “But one thing I won’t deal
with; where I have to draw the line is you having full conversations with
I sat up in bed, confused. “What
you talking about, Mom?”
“Your grades are slipping.”
totally ignored my question. “Teachers are telling me you just stare off in a
daze, that it’s like you’re not even there. I know, honey. I know right now is
tough.” She turned away from me and sobbed. “Please get dressed. It’s a
I got dressed slowly, thinking over
Mom’s words. She’s the crazy one. I don’t talk to myself. She’s the one
hearing things. She’s the one who needs to see a doctor!
Elizabeth was already in the car when I went out. I turned
around in the seat. “Mom said I talk to myself. Do I?” I asked her.
“No more than anyone else.” She said, with a smile.
No one spoke during the car ride.
sat in the front seat, watching the world sweep by in a haze. I listened to the
wheels on the road. Usually Mom had the radio on. I guess she wasn’t feeling it
today. She had a sour look on her face. I didn’t dare touch the knobs. I wished
Elizabeth would. The car was too quiet.
The building was three stories, brick.
Mom nosed the car into a spot and killed the ignition. She looked at me. I
didn’t like the look in her eyes.
“Mom, please tell me what’s
getting freaked out.”
“You’ve not been the same
accident. I’m worried about you, for the love of God. You hardly eat anymore.
Or sleep. You’re beginning to look like a corpse. It’s breaking my heart.
This...you need to see someone.”
Mother looked at me. Tears streamed
down her face. “If you blame yourself, I’m sorry. It’s really my fault.” She
blabbered. A runner of snot formed a puddle on her top lip. “I shouldn’t have
let you play around the barn.”
The world stopped. I heard nothing.
Felt nothing. The tears on my mother’s face gleamed in the thin rays of light
shining through the gray sky. How does she know about the barn?
“I’m sorry, Jan.”
“Mom,” I said, tears forming
in my own
eyes. “Don’t be sorry.” I reached for her, wrapped my arms about her, and
buried my soaking face into her neck. Her flesh smelled sour. She hadn’t bathed
in a while. “It’s all right. I warned her. I warned Elizabeth about the barn.
She promised me she wouldn’t go around it.”
“Jan, she didn’t promise
“Yes, she did.” I turned
about in the
seat. “Tell her, Liz. I made you swear not to go around any barn.”
Elizabeth was gone. “She must have gone inside.” I turned back around in my
seat. “You can ask her when we go in.”
A bray of tears
came. “Is gone. You know that. Grandma’s barn.”
“No!” I screamed. “No!
I warned her.
Last night. She hasn’t gone anywhere. She’s inside. She said she’d stay away
from barns. She swore it, Momma. I swear she swore it.”
“Okay, okay.” Mother said.
the best she could. “It was probably a bad dream I had. Good thing you made her
promise. You saved her life. But if Elizabeth went inside, we should go in and
get her. I need to make sure she stays away from barns.”
“She swore she would,”
I said. Mother
opened her door and got out. I repeated the process. She took my hand and led
me towards the entrance. Elizabeth was standing behind the glass. There she
is, you see her? I wanted to say, but didn’t.
Of course, Mother saw her.
Matthew draws influences
from Faulkner, Stine, and classic Ace paperbacks. He has one previous