Since childhood, Tristan could discern when he was dreaming. Despite an absent mind and an undisciplined imagination, he’d always been able to acutely determine reality from its watercolor echoes, even while walking a particularly convincing dreamscape.
For Tristan, the two states were hard to confuse. The waking world was ruled by sense and sensation. An apple that felt, looked, and tasted like an apple, was an apple. But in a dream, only belief mattered. An apple was only an apple if you believed it to be one. If you believed it to be a house, it was for the dream’s purposes, a house. Even if it still tasted like a piece of fruit.
It was with this knowledge that Tristan opened his eyes in bed and knew, despite the oldest trick a mind could play on a gullible dreamer, that he was still dreaming. His room was his room, his bed his bed, but in the weighty silence, Tristan knew someone was about to break in.
The lock clicked in a different way when it was opened with a key. A solid thunk, metal on metal the way its maker intended. This click was a scrape and a wrench, a knife’s blade deep in the lock.
Caught in the dream’s tide, Tristan’s pulse quickened, beating hard against his throat. The door opened and cloaked figures poured around him with a buffeting sound like the beating of many wings. Faces shadowed by pulled cowls, their dark-swathed hands fastened to his shoulders, his arms, his back. They dragged him from his bed.
Tristan’s shout died in a sudden vastness. The figures were gone, melted and consumed by the changing scene. Tristan looked up and felt his breath stolen by a temple’s looming walls, its arched ceilings, and spiraling peaks. Around him, where pews or benches should be, rows of altars jutted from the floor. Atop them, people sprawled unmoving and unbreathing.
Some he knew, his twin sister’s waves of chestnut hair fell over the stone top of her final resting place. Her husband, a row down, had finally been struck silent in death. Tristan’s best friend was laid out on another, a curved sword held at her breast in warrior’s repose.
Most were strangers. He wandered through them, noting a cop’s badge around a man’s neck, a travelers pack laid at another’s side, a hunting hound curled as dead as its master atop her feet.
Though Tristan knew he was dreaming, it did nothing to warm the ice in his veins. The people on the altars had little in common with each other, except the very apparent cause of their death. Each had been sliced from throat to bottom rib, their open chests gaping upwards into the vast air of the temple.
He did not have to look to know, because knowing is enough in a dream to make it so, that each was missing their heart. Tristan stumbled away, feeling the edges of the scene blur as he panicked and faltered. He felt the wrench of the knife in his bedroom lock, used like a key, he felt the wrench of a knife deep in his chest, and someone, somewhere trying to open something.
Tristan awoke screaming in a strange bed at the Lion Rock Medical Hospital. Machines blinked at him, the sterile yet sickly smell of plastic filled his nose, and the scratch of starched sheets annoyed his skin. The sensations, unaffected by his residual terror, remained. Tristan fell back against his pillow but did not close his eyes.