I was back in high school, aged at most 18. During that period my family lived on the outskirts of the city near the Outlets and there I was, unusually, walking home at night along a side street flanked by a swamp and an overgrown plot of land marked for development for at least five years. In front of me was a mile from any human settlement and behind me, a half-mile-and-a-turn from the main road. For being not that far from the main road where cacophonous traffic jams reigned eternal, the side street was surprisingly quiet, its silence bolstered by the sound of crickets. I say “unusually”, because my house was so far out from anything remotely populated that I’d just be driven home from wherever I was instead, so how I even ended up walking home is beyond me. But as in most dreams, the coherence of the situation is ultimately not the point.
A taxi driver pulled up next to me and rolled down the window. I kept walking. He didn’t let up.
“Your father called me and asked me to take you home.” He replied.
It should have struck me as peculiar, but I didn’t think about it too hard. In some ways this was just like dad. He was always doing things for me whether or not I had wanted it, and knowing that I was walking home, alone and a mile from home? That just might be what he would do. This habit of dad’s was in equal parts endearing and irritating and in that moment, I wasn’t going to complain. It was dinner time. It was cold. It was wet. I didn’t care that the whole shebang made no sense in a hundred different ways. I had been an excessively lucky and well-loved child. Nothing truly sinister had ever happened to me. I was eager to get into the car, but something stopped me.
“I’ll call him and ask.” I told the driver, fishing for my phone.
“Here.” Getting out of his car, he offered his phone with the number already dialed and ringing. I took it and he leaned against the car next to me. I turned away from him for privacy. My dad called him, so of course he would have dad’s number, I reassured myself. But wait. Glancing at his phone, I saw that it was the wrong number. I knew both of my dad’s cell numbers backwards. This was neither of them.
“That’s not his number,” I told him, giving back his phone and hitting ‘dial’ on mine. “I’ll use my phone.”
“Sorry. That was stupid.” He fumbled for a bit and offered it. “Here you go.”
I don’t know how I didn’t run for my life right then, but I didn’t. My phone started ringing alongside his. With a bit more hesitation I took his phone back. I looked down. It was a different number from before, all right. Just not my dad’s. Worse, my dad was not picking up. My suspicions were confirmed. Of course my dad didn’t call this cab. How would he know where I was in the first place for the driver to be able to find me? I didn’t have the faintest memory of communicating with him beforehand. The jig was up. I had seen through it. If so, why had the driver played along? He could have kidnapped me whenever he wanted, as it now seemed clear he wanted to do; so why this game? How twisted was this man? The jig was up, and the only variable left was whether he knew that I knew it. If I could play dumb there was one-in-a-million chance I could gain an advantage. While I weighed my options, both phones continued to ring. He was humming. The crickets were chirping. The sky darkened even further and the moon disappeared.
Can I run for it? I looked down the side street to my house which stretched into pitch black. One mile in one direction, at least half a mile in another. At this hour, there wouldn’t be any pedestrians who could help me on the main road. And frankly, having seen my share of the bystander effect in action, I wasn’t sure anyone would help me. I ran an eight-and-a-half minute mile- not bad by any means, but not good enough to outrun a car. I didn’t stand a chance. As I was psychologically coming apart, he stopped humming. I couldn’t hear crickets anymore. The silence, aside from the ringing that now sounded demonic, chilled me to the bone.
If I had distrusted him from the beginning and ran for it, what would’ve been different about my current predicament? Nothing. It was the two of us alone in the dark and there was nothing I could have done to make a difference. Our proximity to civilization, the very proximity that made me think I was safe, was surprisingly meaningless. I was in the wilderness. I was the game and he was the predator toying with his prey. Sick images flooded into my mind. What was he going to do? Kill me? Rape me? Sell me into slavery? Panic bubbled in my throat.
I cobbled together a plan even though I couldn’t shake the feeling he knew that I knew. I would pretend to call my dad again, but this time call the cops and threaten him with it. What were the cops going to do? I was here and they were wherever they were. I was just far enough from human settlement that if I screamed no one would hear me. I was screwed. In a split second I had crossed the faint line from perfectly fine to screwed beyond belief. My past life was over even as I stood there, severed from the present moment by an unseen chasm as wide as any canyon. I was just prey without any past and not much of a future. Chances are I will never see my parents again, never go back to my much-despised high school or attend the college I had fought so hard to enter. I was physically outgunned and tactically outplayed in every conceivable way. This plan had a fat chance of working, but I had to take it. I had to read his face. I had to know what he was up to. With a creeping dread, I turned to look at him as if in slow motion.
I never got to see his face. Like so many nightmares, this one ended prematurely. Unlike most, it ended in a particularly strange place: nothing had happened yet. But from experience, I knew that my nightmares tend to end right before the most terrifying event; what are the chances that this one is an exception? What did his face look like that my dream had to end right there? Here am I, an hour after waking up, still wondering.