This morning I dreamed of red. Red things happened. There was a red and angry flood. It consumed the entire world. It engulfed my home, my family, my friends. And then it swallowed everything that made me human.
After I woke up, seven letters have been floating around in my mind.
Seven. Seven letters that keep drifting closer together, seven letters I keep pulling apart. The number has never been lucky for me—it reminds me too much of Sunday school; seven woes to the scribes, seven years of captivity, seven wraths of Heaven, seven things the Lord hates. The number of the beast is six-six-six, and six can never be seven, just like “all who have sinned fall short of the glory of God”. Seven.
It’s been seven days since I last saw him. Or maybe it’s been six.
I’m sorry. All of that religious stuff is something I got from my upbringing. I still remember all of it, even though I’ve tried to forget; I actually find those ideas and implications rather unnerving. But it’s just something that, once it’s in, can’t easily be ignored. Like the dream. Only I’m worried that the dream wasn’t just a dream, that it came from somewhere else entirely. Well, not so much somewhere, but someone; a someone I thought I could keep all to myself.
I made a mistake. I know I’m stupid for it. But I want to say all this here because, at this moment, reaching out seems more important than anything else. I feel unreal, I feel filthy, I feel violated. I’ve never been in this situation—I don’t know of anyone on Earth who has—and the implications of it left me on the bathroom floor, holding my knees against my chest, with those seven letters pressed against my consciousness.
I suppose I just want to do something that can affirm my humanity. Something to distract me from ... Yes. I think that’s what counts now.
And, after all, the dream in itself doesn’t matter; what matters is what the dream reveals about the dreamer.
My name is Claret Sommers. I’m eighteen. I’d be the last person suspected of getting caught up in the mess I’m in.
I was born into an old-fashioned Catholic family, raised by the Book, nurtured by The Love. I was a good girl. I was even part of the Chastity group at church, with plans to be the youth leader. I used to be content—blissfully, ignorantly so.
See, my family has always been impoverished, poor as is possible in this day and country, taking food and clothing donations from the church whenever it was available. The only thing that really held us together was religion; a unified understanding and carrying out of rules. No bad influences. No taking risks. Men go to work and pay bills. Women do housework and have kids. My mother never had a job, and my father paid for everything. But my parents had high hopes for me, ‘high hopes’ in the sense that they wanted me to do well as long as I stayed inside that protective shell of order.
But it’s from within that cover that I saw a light, a light that guided me. A light that led to him. A light that led to ...
The first time I caught a moth—that’s what sparked this. We always had one or two around, either from our stored grains or from our hand-me-down clothing, but that year dozens of them infested. It got pretty ridiculous. They’d show up in every room with light; the living room, the washroom, even the dining room where we’d eat. The one I captured, though, turned out to be special.
It was in my room, resting on the light-bulb. As it stretched its wings, it casted its expanded shadow over me while I was trying to read; I think it was Dancing With Demons: The Music’s Real Master.
Usually, I’d be too afraid to touch them, and I’d always ask my dad to take them outside—gently; I didn’t want them to be hurt. But I’d grown so irritated by their frequent appearances that I just went to remove it myself.
I managed to carefully cup it into my hands, and then brought it over to an open window. It wasn’t as creepy-crawly as I imagined it would be, in fact, its fluttering against my palms felt pleasant. When I tossed it out, however, I was instantly filled with regret. I watched it twirl downwards, helpless, disoriented, flapping its tiny wings futilely as it fell all the way down and then disappeared into the dark. With a sharp pang of guilt, a realization occurred to me: I had crushed its wings.
From then on, the memory of that moth has stayed with me for two reasons. The first is that I felt so bad I cried over it a number of times; the second is that it gave me perspective.
Everything was set out for me; school, church, prayer, school, church, prayer—repeat, repeat, repeat, on and on, find a man, get married, have kids, fulfill some kind of ‘grand design’. There wasn’t any room to breathe. And whether my parents had meant it to or not, that rigid, utterly sheltered lifestyle they insisted I live only became more and more of an enclosure. The tighter it got, the more I noticed light between the cracks.
I wanted out. I wanted out of structure, I wanted out of roles, I wanted out of inevitability. I was tired of God and Jesus, tired of Kings and Masters, tired of boring Christian men and boring Christian women. I wanted anything that was the exact opposite of all that; anything that didn’t simply reaffirm my beliefs—my parents’ beliefs. And the only things that could get me close to something like that, without labeling me entirely blasphemous, were books.
And I knew just where to get those kinds of books.
Every year, before October, my church organizes an event in late September called a Harvest Festival. It’s supposed to be fore celebrating autumn. But, as a sort of protest of Halloween (which we don’t celebrate), my youth leaders literally buy truckloads of ‘satanic’ novels from local bookstores—just so we can all burn them in a big bonfire. I’m not joking. They give prizes for throwing the most in.
So this year, now that I’m technically an adult, I decided to do some more ‘adult’ things and take control of my own destiny. So I used the Harvest Festival as an opportunity to get my hands on my first ever forbidden book: ’Salem’s Lot. I kept it tucked under my sweater the entire time, even as we all sat around the fire while my peers obliviously feasting on marshmallows and hotdogs cooked over the ashes of dying literature. I remember sitting there, staring into the fire, poker-faced, so worried they’d find out that I was afraid to move or talk. I didn’t even realize until later that the heat from the fire tanned my arms.
But, fortunately, no one ever suspected little ol’ me, good little Claret, daughter in a family that practically lived off the good graces of the church.
It was a six-day read. I was just blown away. Blown. I would have read it again, but I had to get rid of it after. If my parents ever found out about a Stephen King novel in my possession, I am dead-serious when I say they would disown me.
I craved more.
Before I buried it, I took a look at what was printed on the price sticker:
92 Ontario St, Stratford, ON
The next day, I went straight to Fanfare. Ironically, it was right next to the Gospel Lighthouse.
As soon as I walked in there, I was enthralled. Hundreds of beautiful books rested under orange shelf lights with their fantastical covers gleaming loud and bright—flaunting their covers proudly, rebelliously. Fruits of the mind I had never tasted, all out on display, just waiting to be plucked.
I went deeper into the isles, and deeper, and then there it was, in the back, like stepping into a restricted area: the horror section. Lots of horror books. Piles of them. Right there. No sweater-smuggling required.
But I was confused. Considering that I’d still have to keep all this a secret, I felt limited to choosing one. And due to my inexperience, I didn’t know what else was good in horror.
I went and asked the lady who was working the cashier what she recommended. She pointed to back-corner in the store, at a subsection labeled ‘Staff Picks’.
It was a fairly large section, with shelves dedicated to each genre. Horror was on the far right.
I saw ‘Margaret’: She had selected a bunch of John Saul books that had statues or broken dolls on the covers. I flipped through a few pages. Interesting. But not what I was looking for.
I saw ‘Tabitha’: She had some decent-looking stuff; sort of mystery-horror, and I even noticed Red Dragon. But I didn’t touch it. Even I knew its reputation of that book. Maybe it would be a bit too much for a novice.
I saw ‘Luke’: Clive Barker and H.P. Lovecraft. Never heard of them.
I saw ‘Sarah’: A bunch of Edgar Allan Poe. I did know of him, but never read. I didn’t care for something quite that old, either.
I saw ‘Mark’: Chelsea Quinn Yarbro collections. Once again, no idea who. No idea what.
I saw ‘Rachel’: Lots of Stephen King. Well, I liked him last time ...
Then I saw ‘Leon’.
Leon had one book. One book with a gold cover and a gothic-style title printed in pure-black. I’d seen it before, in used bookstores, in libraries, and I remembered a movie even came out for it, starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise—my parents used to turn the television set off whenever it came on. Best of all—it was written by a woman. Not that it terribly mattered, but still; here was a book I was genuinely curious about. It seemed to whisper to me. No—it was screaming at me.
Without hesitation, I grabbed it. I took it to the counter, paid for it, and then held it against my chest as I speed-walked home.
It was exactly what I needed. Brilliance. It was vivid and passionate and inspired, and it opened me up to completely new concepts of love—of relationships. I was impressed it did that with no sex scenes at all. I’d read Christian bookswith more sex ... but—not as much gore.
And apparently I had this ‘Leon’ to thank for it.
(Seven red letters, seven horrible, terrifying letters)
And so it became a little ritual. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’d sneak off to Fanfare and go straight to the staff-picks horror section. Leon never failed me. Let The Right One In, Lost Souls, Fevre Dream, Those Who Hunt the Night, The Historian, The Moth Diaries—all of them wicked, lovely things. I’d even check back at Fanfare, before finishing a novel, just to make sure I didn’t miss a new one. I guess I was so excited reading those books that I hadn’t noticed another one only went on his shelf when I finished the previous one.
There were many things I didn’t notice.
One little thing, that’s all it takes. There was something about him I couldn’t get off my mind. I found myself wondering: what if? A pet enigma. Someone I never met, yet I formed a little spot for him in my heart; a perfectly neat chamber awaiting his seeming never-arrival.
But the night I finished The Moth Diaries, the sixth book, I found myself on the phone with him.
“Hello, Claret,” a man’s voice said. It was smooth and emanated out of the earpiece like smoke. I could hear his smile.
“H-Hello,” I said.
“How do you like the books?”
“Oh, yes. I—” My throat tightened. My shoulders tensed. I sat up and switched the phone to my better ear.
“I chose it especially for you,” he said.
I was silent for a moment. I could feel my pulse in my hands. Eventually, my voice came back, and I said it, I said the name: “Leon.”
“But—how? How do you know my number?”
“Hey, hello? Leon?”
Then he simply said, “As long as you like it.”
It was almost a full minute before I realized he’d hung up. I was just in a daze. And confused. And scared. And, well, a little bit of something else too.
We talked on the phone many times after that. It became more and more natural. I’d never had a boyfriend before, and I was more than a little excited. I could tell he was nothing like any other guy; he was cool and mysterious and powerful, in the very truest sense of those words. And he was new. Talking to him, just the thought of knowing he existed, somehow alleviated the otherwise constant chill I had developed.
Our conversations were usually about the books. He’d ask me what I thought, and I would just pour my heart out. He’d hum and haw, and sometimes laugh, and then offer me insight into things I hadn’t quite picked up on. He was extremely knowledgeable, especially when it came to folklore. And he always sounded so interested. Let me just admit that he made me feel safe, safer than I ever felt. He was somehow just ... this source of incredible warmth.
But the truth is it was something less than love, just some hidden want or need; guilty pleasure. And guilt combined with pleasure is the first ingredient for chaos.
It wasn’t long before I’d wake up in the morning, barely able to sit up. Standing made me dizzy. And I was almost always freezing cold. All I wanted to do was lie down, curl up, and sleep. Sleep every day. I stopped going to classes. I stopped going to church. I stopped talking to people. I didn’t notice my skin growing paler. I didn’t notice the loss of weight. I barely even noticed that thing, outside my window, constantly flitting about and thumping against it. Maybe it’s some kind of bird. But I don’t know any birds that come to windows at night.
Maybe it’s my moth, trying to get back in.
Of course, everyone knew something was wrong. My parents even managed to scrape enough money to buy me this laptop I’ve been wanting as a get-well gift. I’d never seen them so concerned for me. They didn’t even mention anything about the stack of six books I had on my night table. Maybe they were just too worried to care. What I think, though, is that they actually fear them.
We had a doctor here, just last weekend. At the time, I was in and out of sleep, but I do remember he said something about needing to eat—like, really needing to eat. Eating and drinking sounded very important. But I was eating. He also said that I need to stop self-harming or they’d send me to a ward. That was odd too; I had never hurt myself before. He kept lifting my head looking closely behind, touching, prodding, asking me what I ‘used’, over and over. I just kept telling him I had no idea what he was talking about.
I want to move, to do something—anything. But my body simply won’t. In this state, accomplishing something small—like a diary—feels like a great achievement. It probably is.
I haven’t been able to reach my phone for a week now. It’s on my dresser. I know he wants to see how I’m doing. I know he’s worried, I know he is. He told me in my red dream.
This morning I tried to go for it. I believe I fainted. That’s when I had my dream.
I woke up to see all my books scattered around me—I must have knocked them over.
But I felt great. I could stand. I could walk. I could see sharper, feel deeper—I could hear my mother tearing open a bag of Quaker from downstairs, I could even smell the spices and oats as she poured them into a bowl.
I was so overcome by elation that I went straight for my phone, to tell Leon of my miraculous recovery.
That’s was when I caught sight of myself in my standing mirror.
My cheeks were concaved. My skin was bone-white. I have black around my eyes that was never there before. And my teeth ... oh God, my teeth.
Whether that set off my nerves or something else entirely, I became aware of an itch on the back of my neck.
I pulled my hair away. What I saw sent icy fingertips running up along my back:
The reflection revealed two tiny holes in my skin, about an inch or so apart, rimmed purple.
I screamed. Then I cried. And then those seven letters came. The seven red letters, drenched in blood, tattooed into my mind like it’s the only option I have left.
I have to be honest here. I have to say it like it is.
This is me. My name is Claret Sommers. I’m eighteen. I’ll live forever.
I wish for death. But even that is denied me now. The cuts just close over as soon as I make them. I have to accept this. I’ve never had much of a choice, did I? It’s the fate people like me to be squeezed into whatever container holds us, chasing secrets and dreams and drawn by bright rays of illusory hope—only to be burned by the cruel heat of our desires.
I didn’t finish describing the rest of the dream:
I came up out of the red water, not myself, and I was lying in an open grave. My mind flared crimson with a red dawn over a blackened forest. The horizon burned with sanguine, the leaves were ignited by rays of orange light. And his hips were pressed strong against mine.
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