's 2016 Horror Write-off:

A place in heaven

Submitted by Nelke

Nevaeh was fired on Thursday; it was the third job she had lost in a year. She had seen the writing in the wall: dirty looks from coworkers, concerned and stern talks from the manager about how she was making more and more mistakes, but she had done nothing to prevent the inevitable. In the last weeks, they had called her only a bunch of times, to cover shifts nobody wanted to, until finally she was told she did not have to come back.

At least this time she had savings, possibly even a new job lined up for the following month. At least, this time she had the foresight to notice when she started spiraling again, and went looking for the classifieds in the newspapers and in Craigslist.

They had called her for an interview on Friday. It was from a big company, one for which some of her former friends had worked before, answering the phone. The idea scared Nevaeh. Unlike the restaurant, a family business, in the company they looked every month at your customer retention rate and your performance metrics, and they fired the underperforming employees. She did not like it, but beggars cannot be choosers.

She did not cry when she came home, as she had done the other two times. To her surprise, as she came through the door and collapsed on the couch, all she felt was relief. She lit a cigarette, her morning cough and yellow fingernails in the back of her mind.

She made dinner, ramen and toast and some cheese she had for the days she wanted to treat herself, and ate it while browsing Tinder, swiping idly left on every profile and stopping to take small, thoughtful bites. After that, she put away her dish, and went to bed to read in her phone while smoking a cigarette. She had notes to check and memorize, and she had downloaded a book the previous week, one that she had been putting off for days. How To Support Someone With Depression. Some of the stuff it told was really obvious, but other left her thinking. It was always like that with self-help books. Despite the fatigue, she made herself pay attention to the text. She could not afford to skim on the pages. That night she would dream.

With the years, she had gotten a feeling for it: a pressure within her skull, that let her know that the membrane between the worlds was thinning. She knew it would be one of the last times she dreamed of the Soldier (she refused to use his name, a common, trite word, afraid that it would foster empathy for him). The meetings were becoming shorter, and the morning after she would have a hollow pit in her stomach, a dread she had no name for, but it always marked that the other person was about to fade away. She fell asleep fast, and the transition to the other's consciousness was smooth as always.

A night sky. The world was getting darker, or maybe his vision was getting worse. He was lying awake (this one seemed to never sleep), grabbing his rifle, eyes open. He noticed her immediately.



"How are you feeling?" Nevaeh asked, and braced herself for the answer.

The soldier sat up. His back appeared to be propped on a rock, and he looked down, to his gloved hands, to the rocky slope he was sitting on, and the phosphorescent sea a mile away. His wrists appeared gray by the moonlight.

"I'm hungry." He said. "I ran out of portions seventy hours ago."

That was bad news. During the weeks she had met him in dreams, he never drank, and he only ate some squares that tasted like broth concentrate and that he rationed zealously. For fear of being found out, she had not dared to ask why he refused to eat anything else. They had walked next to abandoned fields of orange trees, but he would not even look at them.

"Do you have any other options?"

"Not really. I'm too weak to go looking for another storehouse that's not been overrun by the Children. I can starve, or maybe they will find me before I do, and I will shoot down as many as I can before they take me down."

He said that aloud, his voice firm, as he would announce that a place was not safe when exploring an empty city. She knew better than to try to advise and save him; it never worked. The people she visited in her dreams never had much time left.

There was a curious dryness in the Soldier's responses. He never gave away any emotion, like the other hosts, and she could not feel the shape of his thoughts either. He sounded sometimes younger than her, almost a boy; other times, much older.  He would sometimes tell her terse reports about a war he had fought in and won, about a short-lived victory before something else came. He dropped hints of a fast militarization of his society, built upon the ruins of another, but in vain. His people were being killed off.

When she started visiting him in dreams, he ambled alone, and he talked a little bit about his platoon getting wiped out by the beings he called the Children. He never described them, but she had seen some of them through his eyes from afar; they reminded her of black trees, or sea anemones, or maybe huge leeches growing on land, taller than a person, black skin glistening and a circular maw surrounded by tentacles. Once they ran into one, and she could make out short, stumpy arms with hands at the end of them, and she saw two tiny and useless legs growing by the base. She could not make any detail; he threw his backpack and ran away in panic, despite the fact that the thing did not seem to be mobile. He lost valuable rations that day.

"How are you feeling about it?" she asked, and wanted to slap herself for such a vacuous question. As if he had just been dumped, or fired, just like her. She did not know what to tell that dying man at the end of the world.

"I have seen this coming for a while. We have been losing for years. We are going to be wiped out the Earth. No point to whine. If only I wasn't so hungry." He made a pause "You help." He said, matter-of-factly.

"It will be over soon." She immediately regretted saying that, because she did not know if it was true. She hoped so. He looked around, and Nevaeh saw through his eyes.

There was a salvage beauty in the world of the Soldier. The moon, the same moon as hers, floated in a sky much clearer than the one of the world she lived in. The air brought fragrances of pine trees, and summer flowers, and herbs she had not a name for. She could make up dark ruins at the bay, that looked like the bay of her city.

"Are you really waiting for me on the other side?" he asked finally.

"Always." She replied.

"You know, when I felt you in my head for the first time, I thought I was dreaming again. I have never dreamed after I changed. I am still not sure whether you are real."

"I am not a dream, not exactly. I am real, just in a different... layer." She tried to remember the narrative she had been feeding the Soldier.

He made a dismissing gesture. "I know, I know, you told me already. But I mean, are you for real. How do I know that you are not lying? You could be an alien, or a monster, or even a Child who learned to talk to my mind. How do I know that you are not that?" There was a hint of urgency on the Soldier's mind. An emotion?

Far away from him, or very close, Nevaeh thought very fast.

"If you are looking for proof from me, I cannot give it. I cannot interact with this world, except with you. You are my nexus to your side, and I am your nexus to this other. We'll only join after you pass." She chose her words carefully.

"How do I know you are not one of them, looking for revenge from the other side? That you are just giving me false hope to crush me afterwards? How do I know I will not stay here, rotting here, until I become dust?" He was talking aloud for the first time, and his voice was as dry as his thoughts.

"I know nothing of your world, except you." And this time she was not lying "I do not look for revenge for any of your actions." He was shaking.

"You have nothing to fear from me." She continued. "I wait for you since always. We will be together."

"But this is not what I deserve." He said, clutching his hands. "You tell me all these nice words, and what I deserve is to rot and never die. I deserve to hunger!" He removed his left glove, and looked at it, and Nevaeh saw.

At the end of his arm there was something that looked like a bunch of twigs, more claw than hand. The soldier flexed the curled fingers, and Nevaeh could make sense of the white phalanxes, and desiccated tendons, and of the pieces of skin hanging. And she finally understood why his Host had always avoided his own reflection. She said nothing. She was not even that shocked.

"When we came back... we thought we thought it was our mission to take them out... that it was our purpose..." He made a pause. She used to wonder why he had felt so hollow, so empty, and now she understood. He continued.

"We took out the living and we believed it was the right thing to do. That we were the new race, and they were nothing but cattle. I killed my parents, who were alive, and ate them. I killed many others before the Children came." He did not feel upset anymore. "We thought we were making a new world, and we were right, just... not for us."

Nevaeh tried to find something to say, to remember a comforting aphorism from any of the books she had read, but she came back empty. What could she tell him? What did she want to tell him?

 "Will I be forgiven?"

"All is forgiven. All is a part of the Manifold."

"The Children too?"

"The Children too."

She felt something giving in inside of the Soldier's chest, and the immense pressure he was holding was released. He broke down in sobs. He cried like a child, like men who never cry when they finally break, and there was old pain in there, but also relief.

She woke up bathed in sweat, panting, and reached for the bedside lamp. She waited for a little while until her heartbeat came back to normal, and went to the bathroom and drank some water. She took her phone to check the mindless websites she could. She knew she would not sleep again in a while.

Just before dawn, she allowed herself to cry herself into sleep.

She left the bed at noon, and took on the small routines that made her feel better: cleaning the house, doing the laundry; calculated gestures to cleanse off the night.

The Soldier had not been so bad in comparison to others; hospital beds were much worse, for example. She had been in that situation three times so far, two women and a man, the three of them in a world that could be her own or not, trapped in crumbling bodies, remembering old friends and ruminating on regrets.

She had helped, what else could she do? She had told tales of a warm afterlife, where they would be reunited with spouses or lovers or family. She nudged them into remembering their first memories, and listened to them talking to themselves in endless nights accompanied by the sound of life-support instruments. None of them had been very coherent at the end, but they had been scared, and she hoped to have brought comfort to them.

For the Soldier she had cobbled together a patchwork cosmogony through what she had been able to take from him in the first visit. He did not seem religious, so she would not be an angel. She seemed to scoff at references to Heaven, or the Afterlife, so she made up the Manifold.

She did not know what that word meant. She was aware that it was a mechanical term, but, when she looked it up in search for ideas, she saw illustrations of surfaces folding on themselves, a multiple whole. She did not understand the mathematical terms next to them, but she thought them beautiful, and used the name. She would probably use that explanation again.

Nevaeh was a product of an alcoholic mother and many, many foster care homes, until she found a home at fifteen. They rescued her, and, in some measure, she had rescued herself. She used to be vaguely grateful to a higher power for her stroke of luck.  It all ended when she was eighteen and her younger brother crashed the car he was driving with her and their parents.

When she woke up, everything was gone. Her hair. Her right leg. Her brother. The parents she had slowly learned to accept as her own. She remembered feeling nothing, not even guilt about feeling nothing. The first week, her orphan instincts took over; she was on her own, like she always used to be. Like she was destined to be. The pain was bad, but not much worse as when her stepfather used to put out cigarettes under her arms. The disorientation was her default state in life. The loss was nothing, just a concave space where her family used to be.

The real world came back when they started withdrawing the medications. A man in a suit came and explained her that insurance would take over the medical costs. He introduced himself as an executor, and in the drug haze she briefly thought he was there to execute her. He read the will of her parents. They had left everything to their descendants, including her. The realization hit her like a gut punch, finally piercing the numbness she surrounded herself with; they had really loved her as one of their own children, even if deep down she had never felt the same.

Soft-spoken women and men helped her get back on her fit. They discussed prostheses and therapy, she acquiesced to everything. She learned to walk again on short, uneasy steps. They weaned her off the medications until her mind was clear, to her regret. They recommended grief counseling, but she rejected it. She did not feel like speaking.

When she finally left the hospital, she could not stand the empty white house with a back garden in which she had lived three years of her life. She sold it, at a ridiculous price. She lost money with the legal procedures of the selling, but she did not care. She found a smaller place to live, a tiny and cold apartment she felt she had belonged to all along. She donated the money. Her parents had wanted her to study, to become someone. She wanted to be no one at all.

After a while, thanks to an old contact, she found a job waiting tables. At that point, her life had recovered a resemblance of normalcy: a young woman, as broke as the average person of her generation, just getting by. She started getting acquaintances, if not friends. And that's when the dreams started.

The first Host she visited every night for two weeks. She was an old woman. At first, both Nevaeh and Phyllis thought each other was a dream.

Phyllis had been bedbound for months, and she was dying alone in a hospital bed in a state far away, but she was remarkably cheerful about her situation most of the time. She was visited sometimes by daughters and grandchildren, blurry, towering figures over the bed who murmured words of comfort Phyllis could not respond to.

She accepted Nevaeh's presence as something natural, to be expected. Are you an angel? She asked tentatively after a few nights. I never dream of the same thing so often. Nevaeh had nothing to say.

Phyllis filled their time together with words; she told her about her life, and about her frustration about not being able to talk any longer. She complained about the cold: cold hands, cold feet, an empty coldness calling to her every night, every time a little closer. One night, she was no longer in Nevaeh's dreams.

Nevaeh woke up and cried for the first time after her family's death, and thought it had been her own mind's way of healing, a trick of the subconscious into feeling anything again. She felt better, for a while, almost whole. But them she started dreaming again, about something else.

It had been a young girl. She was lost, wandering in a derelict place, that felt grey and empty. The nameless girl told Nevaeh a comic book had trapped her there, and rambled about things that made little sense. Like Phyllis, she heard Nevaeh in her head, and she seemed happy to have someone to talk to. One day, the dreams about her stopped too.

Just like with Phyllis, Nevaeh chalked the phenomenon of her dreams to a hyperactive imagination, fueled by boredom and solitude. When she dreamed of the third host, a man sentenced to death in a faraway prison, she started looking for professional help.

Her therapist was a gray-haired lady who at first had looked at her scars and her gait, and nodded without a word. She let Nevaeh talk for many hours, making only the small, empathetic gestures that expressed interest. After their seventh session, she looked and her notes, and started talking herself. She used the word grief. She talked about emotion processing. She told Nevaeh that after a great loss, people build in their imaginations worlds populated by people they can save or offer consolation.

Nevaeh, who had accompanied Amir while he was been beaten up by his guards. She nodded during the therapist speech, including the parts in which she suggested medications. That night, she went to sleep after taking three different pills.

Amir was there still. They sang old songs to each other, and laughed together. Two weeks later, he was shot in a field. She saw nothing but darkness after the bullet went into his brain.

With time, she learned to discern the patterns of the dreams that haunted her. She would dream of a Host (in her head she called them like that) from three to twenty times, until they died. Almost every time, the causes were evident. Some of the people would live in a world identical to hers, although, every time Nevaeh tried to research them, they never appear to exist in the real world. Some others would live in stranger places, such as the girl in the grey plain, or a woman dying in an outpost in a red planet. Some of them would react to her as if she were an alien presence in her head. Some others considered her an angel, like Phyllis, or an agent of the hereafter. Many welcomed her. But she always felt their fear, their pain, as her own.

Dreams took over her life. She dropped the half-baked friendships she had made at work. Nevaeh found herself repeating the words the Host had said to her, banal or stupid or wise. She rehearsed the interactions with them, prepared the conversations she would have. She would listen to them, and offer words of consolation, that to herself felt trite and fake. That's how she started to read books on grief counseling and terminal illness and theology. She cobbled together several cosmogonies that she adopted as her own with every different host. If the Host was religious, she pretended to be a psychopomp to the religion of their choice. If they were not, she would take the role of a distant ancestor or a guide to their next re-incarnation. For the most cynical, she concocted weirder stories, like she had done with the Soldier.

She lost her job. It had been a catastrophe, but she survived on her meagre savings until the dreams gave her a respite long enough to find another one, selling donuts in a breakfast place. She did OK for a while, until she lost again the balance between dreams and life and she had to quit. That's when she found her third job, that she lost when the dreams about the Soldier became too absorbent.

After the Soldier she had a long period of peace. She would dream, but her dreams would be the usual remnants of memories and desires, that after so long felt like a foreign country. She dated, tentatively and without success, but it felt fun. She talked to her new colleagues who hated the job as much as she did, and she event went a couple evenings out with them, never partaking in the conversations, but feeling the unaccustomed warmth of human contact. When she started dreaming again, she felt she had lost something.

It was a woman about her own age. Smaller. Much thinner. The first time she visited her, she was biting her raspberry-red fingernails, and then trying to hide the damage with more nail polish. She wore a dress with a floral print and sandals. She rumbled about a house not unlike Nevaeh's family home, but where the latter was merely tidy, this one felt clinical. The woman fixed tiny wrinkles on the upholstery, checked on a roast cooking perfectly in the oven, and constantly looked through the window to the lane in something that felt like barely contained panic.

When dreaming of someone new, Nevaeh would spent the first minutes, or hours, silent in the Host's heads. Sometimes they felt her first, but it was the least of them. This time, she let three nights pass before talking to her.

So she said nothing as the woman threw up and washed her teeth, and composed her make-up (a cute face with carefully braided dark hair, raspberry-red lipstick, foundation and eye-shadow too thick, but perfectly applied). Then she went back to walking around the house, looking for things to tidy up. She would not sit down. Despite the vomit, she seemed healthy. From her posture and the way she moved, Nevaeh thought at first that there was something wrong with her bones, until she realized that whenever the woman moved or stood she always tried to make herself to appear as small as possible.

"Hello" said Nevaeh softly as the woman leaned on a wall. She jumped. "Do not be afraid."

Like everything about her, her name was something dainty, non-threatening. She had the name of a flower. She prayed often, and in the name of a saint she used to mention Nevaeh found an identity.

The woman was married. Her husband worked a lot to afford such a big house, but sadly it meant that he was never home. She came from another continent, a poorer place, and he had taken her away from her suffocating family. He was a great man. She was very grateful, that's why she would always try to look her best and keep the house in the best state possible. She was not very smart, he told her, so she had to make it up in some other ways.

In the following weeks, something like a friendship developed between the two people. The woman had no friends in her new home, and her usual prayers had been slowly becoming ramblings. Nevaeh told her fabricated facts about saints and angels and Heaven, and the woman drank her words. She probed her for information, trying to find out the reason she was dreaming about her, a chronic illness, a hidden tumor, but in vain. Only when Rose went to the bathroom with Nevaeh present and the latter saw the bruises around her thighs, did Nevaeh understand what was going to happen to her.

"Tell me more about Hendrick." Nevaeh said, and Rose would praise him as the first day, with a fragile and tense voice. She would say how good he was, how much smarter than him he was, how gallant and protective. In her thin, fragile voice she would narrate all the good things he had done for her, that inevitably would become a recollection of all the bad things Rose had ever done. She had a long list of sins, for such a young woman: she had not been a virgin the first time they met. She had been reluctant to travel with him to his home at first. She was fat and unkempt, despite all her efforts. And, above all, she was stupid. Dumb. Irrational. She was so lucky to have found a man like him, who would provide for her.

"Why did he do it?" She asked point-blank one of the nights, when the make-up was not thick enough to conceal her swollen cheek. Rose fretted, and her tongue touched a loose tooth. And Nevaeh started talking.

Even when confronted with someone she considered a supernatural being Rose tried to defend her man at every step. You are not right, she told Nevaeh, and then stopped, ashamed at the enormity of her own sacrilege. She fell to her knees, and Nevaeh told her to stand up. It's my fault, I make so many mistakes, sometimes he despairs, she argued. When I finally learn how to speak properly and how to keep the house, things will be so much better.

"It does not work like that." Said Nevaeh, letting out the anger she had been stewing for the last days. She felt the other's mind recoiling, but she did not care. She had never been angrier with a Host, and the girl was going to die anyway, and it made everything even worse.

"Look. I cannot help you from here, OK? You have to run away." The girl was going to die, she knew. She was going to die. But maybe not in his hands.

Nevaeh would argue with her until she would run out of arguments, or the other clammed up. Rose would pray, louder and louder, until Nevaeh gave up. Some days, she accused Nevaeh of not being really a saint, but some demonic presence, but she apologized immediately. She would blame herself for not listening to Nevaeh. I'm a sinner. I'm stupid and a sinner. I'm so worthless I cannot even get away.

One night, the usual marks were not in her wrists, or her thighs, or her ribs, but around Rose's neck. That night, Rose talked about her husband on her own volition. She used the same words she always used, but the tone was different. Clinical. He lost patience with me again. I am so stupid. And then she added: I do not want to continue like this.

Together, Nevaeh and her made up a plan. Rose had not money of her own, and her family lived far away. The house had no phone, and Hendrick would always lock her in the house, for her own safety, he used to say. So, just after he left for work, she would escape through a window and run. Walk to a library. Look for shelters in the area and go for one. It was a fragile plan, but it could work.

Just before Nevaeh woke up, Rose seemed to agree with her. Her hands were shaking, but when she thanked her aloud, her voice was firm.

Nevaeh managed to go through her day, despite the pit in her stomach, with coffee and cigarettes. She tried to explain to herself, to bargain to a higher power, to spare Rose. Only one. Only this time. But, when she fell asleep, Rose was not there.

She woke up. She did not cry, although she could have. She tried not to wonder about Rose's fate, whether she lied dead in a ditch after a freak accident, or run over by a car, or worst of all, that she had not managed to run away at all. She wondered who would be next, what would be the shape of the world she would unwittingly jump into in her dreams, about the new consoling lies she would have to spin. Her chest hurt.

The green numbers of the bedside clock said it was four AM. Nevaeh curled on her bed, wrapped in sheets that should have been washed a long time ago. She was cold. Reality, as always, seemed fake, a cardboard cutout, a map without a referent. Her bed, her flat, her detested job, they all seemed like little more than hallucinations, reveries.

"Hello." Said a voice. Nevaeh sat up, startled, and looked around. The voice did not come from the darkness of the room, but within the darkness in her head. "Do not be afraid."

With pain, with sadness, with immense relief, she replied "Hello".