This story was inspired by a dream. Well, more than just a dream; the story mostly is a dream, almost verbatim. My ex-wife (we were married at the time) hated the story.
The ashen dust danced as he stepped, a fine spray spotting the powdery road around each footprint. Withered corn, enduring the drought with rustling resignation, dimly spread away from the road. Roiling clouds thickened overhead, making a deepening twilight that belied the intensity of the summer afternoon. Thunder rumbled from no discernible direction but from everywhere. On the horizon, harsh but faint sunlight filtered down in a curtain of crepuscular rays. Intervening clouds sent down diffuse and dismal gray sheets that vaguely coalesced into columns, almost tornadoes.
The buildings, dominated by the massive stone tower, loomed nearer as Norton wearily trod the pounded road. The darkening hulk of the tower's walls was relieved only by lights in the few windows, revealing human presence. As Norton approached, sounds of meaningless laughter, hysterical gaiety, could be heard.
Norton rounded the curve of the nearest structure, glimpsing a door between girdling pillars. A woman swept halfway through the door and caught herself, looking at Norton.
"They're here," she said in obtuse fear, signalling a subtle change in the background sounds of babble. She startled, then ran within. Norton entered.
People ran up and down the stairways in confusion. In a space beyond the staircase, Norton caught a glimpse of Marie.
"You're all right?" he gasped, kneeling and reaching to embrace his three small children.
"Right now," she replied. "What will happen?"
"I don't know," Norton said, "We must not separate."
Floods of people now engulfed them, running in every direction. People and--things that were not people. And Norton and Marie clung together, alone in their immobility. The children were gone.
"The children! We must find them!" Marie wept.
"Down here!" Norton called. He pulled her by the hand into an opening in the throng. They descended on reeking, moist stone steps on a circular stairway into a distantly-lighted gloom. A green taloned hand reached out and clutched Marie's leg. She screamed. More alien hands clutched at Norton and Marie.
Warted demonic creatures boiled out of the air, thickly as clotted cream. The children's faces appeared below in glimpses, then submerged into the malodorous green mass of brutal intent.
Desperately, the two tore free and ran down the steps into a place of chilled wet fear, where vacant stares occupied people's faces distorted with pain. Marie looked around, panic clutching at her throat. Norton's heart raced as he pulled her into a dank corridor in which tentacular cobwebs hung.
They shuffled through the slime, desperately chasing the vanishing path of their hope. They emerged into a large chamber.
In the chamber, only an empty stillness hung in the air, wailing of despair.
Norton awoke with a jerk. His head reeling, he forced his eyes to focus on the nearby clock. He had slept much too late on this Saturday morning.
He shuffled out of the bedroom. "I knew I shouldn't have watched TV until two a.m.," he groaned. "And eaten all that damn junk food."
Marie looked at him with a mixture of pity and an it-serves-you-right-look. "I've been thinking that we've been watching too much TV," she told him. "We ought to get rid of the damn thing."
"Got any coffee made?" he asked.
"Yeah, you can have the last cup." She took pity on him and poured it. He heard the sounds of the television as the children watched yet another Saturday morning cartoon. Cartoon? They were so unlike those he remembered. They were no longer for humor (come to think of it, the old ones had contained mostly violent humor), but now they seemed only for "action"--meaning someone always trying to do violence to someone else or at least to practice coercion. And it was not clear where the program left off and the ads began. Because, he realized, there was no longer any differentiation. The line between the media images and reality was blurring as well.
"You're right, Marie, we've got to make some changes," he said to his wife. "It's time to turn off the TV and the junkfood. Feed our bodies and our eyes and all our senses with some good stuff for a change."
"I was talking about that last night, remember?" she said.
In agreement, they walked into the living room. Junk food trash littered the room; the kids had had Ding-Dongs for breakfast again. Marie leaned against the doorframe, arms folded. The children were oblivious to their parents' presence; they were sitting on the floor, leaning forward as if the force of the television was trying to suck them into the screen.
Norton looked at the television and shuddered. For a moment, it looked green, warty and demonic instead of the flat black plastic it had always been. Another advertisement for a breakfast-cereal-that-was-really-candy was blaring. He reached over and shut the TV off.
"It's time, kids," he began.
They sat for a moment as if paralyzed, then startled slightly, as if they had just realized that the TV was no longer on.
"Dad!" they wailed. "We were watching that!"
Norton surveyed their obvious distress. "It's time we started living life and being a part of this world. Not just a part of this world, but a part of reclaiming the world for the human race and for Earth itself. We've all been sodden lumps, addicts. From now on, we're doing things differently."
The children blankly gazed at him in disbelief. "But, but, Daddy. . ." Their lips trembled.
"Let's go camping this weekend," he said, "Right now, today. Down to Cliffside State Park, where you used to ask to go. We'll buy us a tent and sleeping bags on the way. My work can wait until Monday. Starting now, life takes precedence over television--and junkfood."
The children gazed at him for a moment. Then started to complain. But they had no choice. They went camping.
And it wasn't so bad, not even at first. It took weeks of hard choices and difficult commitments, but Norton and Marie stuck to their pledge.
The camping trips and hikes in the woods and the books they read and good meals they ate all started to feel and taste good.
And again one night, Norton dreamt the landscape again, and the tower, and the demons.
He and Marie went in and fought the demons, beat them to a pulp, and took their children back. The demons, retreating to a distance, wailed and gnashed their teeth.
And Norton flipped his hand and the demons were gone.
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This story was posted on April 18, 2001.