In the little suburb where I grew up there was a neighborhood unofficially called Tangle Town. Made up of a maze of twisting, winding, tree-lined streets, Tangle Town was bordered on two sides by cliffs looking down on Rocky River to the East and the Great Lake Erie to the North. The houses were expensive, upper class residences, most made of stone or brick, gloomy in their grandeur, and I spent many evenings walking the streets, admiring the variety in the architecture and wondering about the people who lived within the sombre piles. I wandered from late in the evening until early dawn, keeping to the shadows and avoiding the police, and over time I began to feel quite at home in that unusual neighborhood at night.
Along the shore of Lake Erie, nestled in the heart of Tangle Town, was a small public park with a beach at the foot of a high cliff, accessible only through a steep and treacherous path. Closed at dusk, the park was always empty for my nocturnal visits, as though it were mine alone. I had spent countless hours sitting on a bench there, looking out at the lake, the restless waters showing black in the moonlight or even darker during the frequent thunderstorms which rumbled across the vast, equally dark sky. At those times the crashing, wind-driven waves would be illuminated by lightning strikes, and the scene would burn into my mind as the thunder boomed in my ears.
Thus it continued, and the neighborhood had so infected my psyche that I would dream of it; In those dreams I found myself creeping around the twisted streets, always at night, and the houses assumed monstrous proportions, looking eerily alive and malignant. The trees and shadows also grew terrible, moving with strange breezes coming off the lake. My beloved park was the only safe haven, and I always wound my way through the neighborhood to that park bench, or sometimes down to the lake itself, walking along the deserted beach in the darkness.
I was a child when I first dreamed of Tangle Town. The already familiar neighborhood, now altered with all the weird qualities found in dreams, beckoned my dream-self to enter its shadowed streets, and in I went. The large houses sat scowling at me as I passed, and the trees seemed ready to grab me up if I ventured too close. As scary as it was, I felt an exhilaration made greater by a sense of belonging, as if I alone were welcome to tread the twisting lanes. And alone I was; I did not encounter anyone in these early dreams of Tangle Town.
The dreams continued, and over time I became aware of another presence, someone else, skulking about the edges of my dream realm as I slumbered. It was just an impression at first, a hint of deliberate movement, a darker shadow within the other shadows. Eventually I saw the shadow emerge, and I finally realized I was being pursued down the haunted avenues! I could not see my pursuer, but I had an impression that he was coming for me, and because of that I must elude him.
I fled, using my intimate knowledge of the surroundings to escape and my unreasoning fear to fuel my flight. It seemed in vain, however, because, as is often the case in dreams, my body did not cooperate, and I could not move entirely unhindered. The wind had picked up, and I could hear thunder. Intermittent flashes of lightning lit up the sky and a light rain began to fall.
The unknown hunter followed me, dogging my every step, and I wondered how it was that I could not escape him. I ducked into secret shortcuts, or climbed through hidden pathways, but each time I found that I had not lost him. The clomping of his irregular footfalls echoed in my ears, and in the odd logic of dreams I somehow knew he was lame, which terrified me even more. Then it occurred to me that I should be able to lose him if I could but make it to the park and the steep, difficult path to the beach.
As I neared the park, the sound of the crashing waves met my ears and renewed my hope of escape. The rain became heavier, and the wind whipped it into my face. I dashed through the entrance, a small, lighted gate in a waist high fence, and made haste towards the beach path. Looking back I saw the stranger enter the cone of light around the gate and pause. Despite the illumination his features remained shadowed, and I could make out no details that might give me a clue to his identity. He seemed to be beckoning me, and I heard a faint call, as if the voice were coming to me across a vast gulf. Terrified, I turned and ran down the crooked path to the beach.
Once there I did not hesitate, I went as far down the beach as I could until I reached the fence which separated the public beach from the private property surrounding the park while heavy waves crashed against the shore and lightning split the clouded sky. Thunder shook the air and my senses were overwhelmed as I crouched down against the cliff and watched the spot where the path came onto the beach.
It seemed as though an eternity passed while I waited. The wind was howling and spray from the waves joined the rain in drenching me. The enormity of the black, angry lake only yards away, like a freshwater sea, increased my terror and any moment I expected to see the frightening stranger emerge from the path and come towards me. Cornered, I was prepared to wade out into the choppy water to escape, but the dreaded shape never appeared.
My fear had reached a fever pitch when suddenly a massive bolt of lightning struck nearby, the thunder blast happening immediately after, and I was simultaneously blinded and deafened. Before I could recover my senses I awoke, safe in my bed but covered in a cold sweat. The nightmare had taken a terrific toll on my mind, and for days I could think of nothing else. I stayed away from Tangle Town for several nights.
In time I returned to my nightly jaunts, and though I had the dream many more times, it did not dissuade me from traveling through Tangle Town. Eventually I grew older, and other things attracted my attention. My dreams began to fade until I no longer remembered them when I awoke. I became an adult, got married, tried to have children, lost them to miscarriages, got divorced, and then one day I was in a terrible car accident. My vehicle was wrecked, and I barely survived. My body was also wrecked, and it was only with years of rehabilitation that I was able to stand straight again.
I was now in my late thirties, a cripple, and eons away from Tangle Town and my nightly wanderings. I still occasionally recalled my youthful proclivities with wistful fondness, and I still travelled through my old neighborhood from time to time. The old park was still there, and the big houses, but I had changed and they no longer excited my imagination as they once did. Instead, a nostalgic sadness had settled into my ruined frame when I found myself back in my childhood environment.
One evening I bumped into a girl I had known when I was young. She had grown beautiful in the intervening years. I asked her to dinner, and she quickly became my muse. New life surged through my broken body! I began to dream again, or more accurately I began to recall my dreams. My past misfortunes faded, and once more the wanderlust of my youth brought me happiness.
Alas, my new beloved was killed by a drunk driver. Another car accident! At first I was stunned, then angry at a divine providence which would give me a second chance at happiness only to tear it so cruelly from my grasp. I was beside myself with grief; the angels of happiness had abandoned me to misery. That night I drugged myself into a stupor and finally lapsed into a troubled sleep. While I slept, I dreamed.
My dream was just hazy darkness, but gradually it coalesced into familiar landscapes, and I realized I was standing outside my childhood home. It had changed, and not for the better. Perhaps affected by my despair, the windows were boarded up, and the whole thing had an aspect of disrepair and neglect. In the strange way that dreams operate I knew I was responsible for the state of my dream realm, and I felt guilty that I had allowed it to reach such a disreputable condition.
Leaving behind the depressing house I turned towards Tangle Town, wondering at what I might find in the old haunts of my early dreams. I set off down the twisting, shadowy paths, and recalled the emotions they had once incited. But now, numbed by my grief, any feelings of fear or anxiety would have had no chance. The wind was blowing, animating the once spooky trees and creating whirlpools of leaves.
I followed my old routes, moving from shadow to shadow and letting the waves of recognition wash over me. In my dreams the intervening years meant nothing to the streets of Tangle Town; nothing had changed. I travelled down one dark lane after another, and when I awoke I recalled my dream as vividly as I had so long ago.
The next evening I had the same dream, and the evening after that. My anguish had awakened some need for escape into the old places of my childhood imagination, and for the few, brief moments I spent in my dreams I could, in some measure, wrap myself in solace. I haunted those streets, a grim spectre of unhappiness, and felt as though I finally belonged to the darkness.
The dreams continued, but there occurred a subtle change over the course of time. At first it was just an impression that something wasn't right. I noticed a figure just out of my limited range of sight, silhouetted in the darkness, and I struggled to get closer so as to make out who it might be. There was no fear; loss had taken it away, but I found that when I moved towards the figure it quickly vanished into the gloom. I awoke, but with a vague feeling that I knew the person, or should, and that person was important to my heart.
My heart quickened! Could this be my beloved muse, consoling me from beyond the grave? Or could it be the unknown menace from my dreams of youth? I knew I must endeavor to return to the land of my dreams, and to this end I conspired to drug myself nightly, the better to endure my heart wrenching sadness and also to ensure uninterrupted slumber. My waking life meant nothing to me and I passed those painful hours in reckless abandon, simply ticking off the minutes until I could return to sleep and the pursuit of my dream phantom.
Night after night I retired, drugged, to my bed and stalked the streets of Tangle Town. The idea that I might find the object of my affection, even if only her shade, drove me to seek out sleep at any cost. My already crippled body suffered further, and I found I could think of nothing else. My only reprieve from the desolation of my soul was the all-too-brief time spent in my dreamworld, and any physical suffering meant nothing to me.
Again and again I dreamt of the labyrinthine streets and stormy skies, and the mysterious person who escaped me every night, drawing me to give chase as I might. I cursed the accident that had left me broken and unable to run, for my dream self was just a bitter reflection of my waking form, and just as crippled. I was now convinced I knew the figure, and almost as sure it was my beloved, though why she should seek to avoid me I could not comprehend. Each time I thought I might solve the mystery my body failed, and the person escaped.
It was during this period I became as acquainted with the Tangle Town of my dreams as I had ever been. Not just the streets, but the hidden passages, the overgrown paths, and every possible hiding spot. I became so comfortable with the neighborhood that had terrified and enchanted me as a child, that I knew it would be impossible for the mysterious dream visitor to stay mysterious for long.
At last the night came when I believed I could finally discover who had been intruding upon my dreams. The previous evenings had seen a significant gain on my goal, and it would take an unusual circumstance indeed to prevent my achieving it. As before I drugged myself and faded into sleep, my last waking thought focused on my heart's desire.
Tangle Town was cold, and dark, with black clouds filling the sky. Lightning flickered in the distance, but I could sense it wouldn't be long before the storm arrived. As usual, the dream began outside my childhood home, but it was no longer boarded up. It looked as it had so many years ago, and the sense of nostalgia was almost overwhelming.
I quickly moved to enter the maze of streets, eager to find the object of my pursuit and end the torment that had been gnawing on my soul for so long. A thick fog had clouded the whole neighborhood, turning the large, gloomy houses into vague, menacing shapes. Above, the wind seemed to shriek, pulling the tops of the tall trees in every direction while below was an unearthly calm.
It was not long before I saw my quarry, and the chase began. Through secret paths behind ivy-covered walls, and hidden corridors between squatting houses, hobbling as quickly as I could manage, I slowly gained ground. The phantom figure led me on quite a chase, and it was clear whomever it was knew the secrets of Tangle Town as well as I.
Rain began to pour as we played out our game of cat and mouse, and the wind picked up as we got nearer to the park. The park! How did I know the pursuit would go there? An intense feeling of deja vu washed over me, followed by feelings of expectation and dread. The howling wind and driving rain reached a hurricane level, leaves whipping around and lightning flashing. The figure ran to the park, and was momentarily illuminated by the light above the gate. It hesitated, and turned back to towards me for one heart stopping second.
The figure was myself, as a child! I had been the crippled monster in my own childhood dreams! The realization sent me reeling, and my child self ran into the park. Instantly I thought of all the things I could say, all the lessons I could teach, and I ran into the park as well. I knew I would head to the steep path down to the beach, and I did not hesitate. Plunging into the darkness I found the path, and I was just about to attempt it, when suddenly a brilliant flash of lightning struck at my feet, and the deafening thunderbolt jarred me awake.
I never dreamt of Tangle Town again.
This is the first short story I finished since the destruction of all my material several months ago. It was difficult to restart the process from nothing, but using some of the members of the group as inspiration I have been able to write more and more in my limited free time. Participation in the Ashland University certificate program eats up a lot of my time, not just with the classes I take, which are first through third level no-brainers, but also because I have made it my mission to help any worthwhile students in the program who are in danger of failing out.