Light illuminates the darkened sky above as clouds of smoke waft over me. Lying on my back, a burning tickle in my throat forces me to cough. It’s not enough to clear my airway. A series of hacking sends me to my knees as I double over in a fit. A thick layer of ash falls off my body into a soft pile on the grass under me.
My eyes, irritated by the dense smog, struggle to adjust. Pushing away the tears that have blurred my vision, all I can see is a raging inferno. The back of my sooted hand wipes away a few falling tears as my eyes frustratingly produce more.
What is going on? If I didn’t know any better, I’d think I was having a nightmare, reliving my war days. My mind races, trying to piece together how I got here. Surely I was asleep in my apartment only a few moments before. No, that’s not right. I was camping in the Rocky Mountains. But nothing here resembles anything close to that.
My hands press onto warm earth as I rise to my feet, feeling grass and soil instead of my silky red sleeping bag. I glance behind me in search of my things, but they aren’t there.
I drop to my knees and frantically rub my hands all over the grass for my backpack, sleeping bag, or anything—but come up empty-handed. Where are they? Hands on hips, I scratch the back of my head and recount what I remember last.
I had just broken up with Brittany, who I had been dating for seven months. She thought I was “emotionally unavailable” and called things off. Truth is, I’m not. I just wasn’t emotionally available to her. So I packed up my gear and went for a hike in the Rocky Mountains. Even though it was amicable, I was hurt and felt the urge to get some fresh air. After dinner, I holed up in an empty cave, crawled in my sleeping bag, and passed out.
Once asleep, I dreamt of falling. It was like the ground suddenly gave way and swallowed me whole, only to spit me out here.
Perspiration drips from my brow. The blistering heat is uncomfortable and causes my sweat-soaked shirt to cling to my torso. Another cough escapes and I stagger toward the road just ahead as I brush off more ash from my body. I must have been out here for a while to be covered so thoroughly.
As I wander debris-covered streets void of people, I peel my shirt away from my chest and tuck the bottom half of my face under the collar. It’s hardly helping with keeping the smoke from entering my lungs. To my left lies a series of menacing flames scattered everywhere. Every house I can see, every building, the whole town is ablaze. My mouth drops open and my heart races even faster. This is definitely not home. I’ve woken up in a completely different time or place. I rub my eyes, forcing myself to wake up from this nightmare. But I’m wide awake.
To my right, I see a large hole in a wall—like some sort of town perimeter. Next to it are four dead bodies. I stop and scan my environment for any danger. Burning buildings and dead bodies are two very different things.
A scream rings out in the distance. I cock my head and listen for any other sounds beyond the crackling and popping fire. As I move slowly toward the opening, which looks like my exit out of here, I hear it again. I’ve heard many screams from many men, but this one is different.
This scream is coming from a child.