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The Dream Guide


Submitted to Reedsy Contest #189: Write a story inspired by this quote from Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy: “In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” (https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/a089bk/)


The boy had ran through the woods of this pine forest so many times, it never occurred to him that he could get lost. He could not get lost here, any more than he could get lost walking from his bedroom to his kitchen. And yet, the fallen knotted pine that marked the middle of the trail never materialized.

“Shoot,” the boy said, crouching down to the forest floor to take a momentary break. His parents would be worried about him soon. He looked to the tops of the trees and moved his body this way and that to find the sun; if he could locate it he would know where west was and he could find his way out. He ran twenty yards and could not see the sun. He was lost.

A branch snapped loudly in the underbrush. The boy whipped around to face the sound. After a moment, “It’s just a fox. Stop being a chicken. It’s just a fox.” He marched onward. The trees became so dense the sky was blocked. Another snapped branch. The boy jumped, in spite of himself.

“Hello? Is someone there?” There was no answer. The boy trudged forward. Then, out of the deepest brush emerged another boy, maybe a teenager.

“Are you Danny?” He asked, panting. He was wearing a tightly packed hunting pack and the boy saw that he was carrying a compass.

“Who are you?”

“Gil. I’ve been looking for you.” He slipped the hiking pack off of his shoulders and sat on his haunches. He pulled water and a peanut butter sandwich out of it. “Want half?” Gil asked.

The boy hesitated. “How do you know who I am?”

“So you are Danny, then. You’re lost, right?” Gil said.

“Yes, I. Wait. How do you know?” Danny took a small step back.

“It’s my job to find people who are lost in the forest.”

“Well, how did you know I was in here? Did my mom and dad send you?” Danny asked.

“Sure, we’ll go with that. Want part of the sandwich or what?” Gil broke the sandwich in half and ate one of the halves in a single bite. He held the other half out to Danny in offering. Danny tentatively accepted and scarfed the sandwich down.

Gil wiped the crumbs from his hands and stood up. “Time to get you unlost, Danny, follow me,” he said, before heading deeper into the forest, away from the direction whence Danny came. Danny looked once behind himself and followed Gil into the wood.


When they’d walked for some time, Danny asked, “Where are we going?”

“Out of the wood. Stick close to me, we’re going off trail here.”

They started to climb over thick, knotted roots and into beds of all tree leaves. The branches were too dense to climb through. Danny had to lift his legs high enough to climb through the openings in the branches that Gil cut with a machete.

“I didn’t come this way, uh, Gil.”

“It’s okay,” he called back over his shoulder. “Shortcut.”

The branches entwined so thickly at one point that Danny and Gil could only pass by crawling beneath them on their bellies. Eventually, the branches cleared and they were in a small glade; it glowed a dull yellow, but was illuminated by neither the sun nor the moon. On the other side of the glade, a rope was strung among several trees, from which hung a wooden placard that said “Turn Back, Private Land.” Gil strode confidently under the rope.

“Gil, this is private property, we can’t cross.”

“It’s fine.”

“The owners might have guard dogs. Heck, they might shoot us. Let’s go another way,” Danny was trying to tamp down the squeal of panic trying to escape in his voice.

Gil turned to him, skin ethereal in the yellow light, “Just trust me, Danny.”

Danny inhaled sharply as he bent under the rope and entered the private property. They continued on a narrow path until they came, quite suddenly, upon a rather large stone house. Danny wasn’t sure how he could have missed it; but there it was. He counted a dozen windows and huge double front doors made of oak. Gil approached confidently and knocked a pattern on to the door. It opened. Gil lazily waved at Danny to follow.

Inside, the house was tiny, a single room cottage with a small fire burning in the fireplace. There was an armchair facing the fire, and in it sat a huddled figure, obscured by a hood.

Still staring at the fire, the figure asked in a rasping voice, “Danny, do you want to go home?”

“Sir?” Danny replied.

“Do you have an answer?”

Danny swallowed and answered, “Yes, but I think it’s time for me to go back now, the way I came. This is not the right way to my house, I can see that now. It was ever so kind of you to send someone for me, but I know the way now.”

The figure in the chair waved his arms and the shadows teeming along the floor took shape, dragging and pulling Danny, overpowering him; pushing him closer to the fire.

“Hey! Gil! Help!” The end of Danny’s screams were muffled by the shadows overcoming his face. Gil stood impassively watching as Danny was dragged, wrapped in shadows into the fire.


Danny emerged somewhere on the other side of the fire, the shadows melting, burning and disintegrating around him. Gil was leaning against a stone wall opposite him, waiting.

“What on earth is happening?” Danny demanded. He tried to suppress the beginnings of tears. “Why are you doing this to me? Just take me home.”

“It had to be this way, Danny. This is the way home."

Danny didn’t follow. “I’m not coming,” he said, sticking out his chin defiantly.

Gil said, “You’re going to want to follow. It’s about to get weird in here.”

Danny still did not move, but then a great din of shrieking cries clamored into the room. Danny turned, trying to find the source of the noise, but he couldn’t see anyone, or anything, that might be the source. Sometimes the voices said his name: Danny! Help us.”

Danny asked. “Where are those people, calling for me?”

Gil tapped his fingers to his head. “They’re in here.”

“I don’t understand. What do they want from me.”

“They want you to help them, Danny.”

“How can I help them?”

“They’re trapped. You need to dig them out.”

Danny’s hands were suddenly full of a pickaxe and a shovel. Confused but determined, he slammed the pickaxe into the stone floor again and again, until the stones were broken away. He went to his knees and pulled the stones until he reached rich, dark earth. He hit it with the shovel, digging out earth until he saw a dozen or so fingers poking out of the dirt. The yelling was louder now.

“I’m coming! Give me a minute. I’ll be there.”

He put his hands into the dirt, expecting to feel an arm or a head, but he felt nothing. He pushed his arms in to the elbow, but nothing. He knelt upright and the fingers were gone.

“Where did they go?” Danny cried. “They were right here!” The screams had gown fainter.

“You didn’t get to them in time,” Gil replied simply. “They’re gone. We need to move on.”

“No! I have to help them!” Danny reached for the shovel, determined to dig more quickly, but it was gone and so was the pickaxe. The stone floor had been repaired. Danny gasped in shock, but Gil walked on. This time, Danny followed. They left the stone room into an open wood and approached a wide, rushing river.

“We need to cross,” Gil said. “And soon, before the embankment floods.”

“Is there a bridge?” Danny asked, looking into the river. “If we try to swim in that we’ll drown.”

The river started to spill out over its embankment. Danny took an instinctive step backwards. Then, he ran down the length of the river, hoping to find something that could help him cross the river. Gil followed behind him at a trot. The river flooded several feet more.

Danny was panicking. “Please, I don’t know why you’ve brought me here. But just help me.”

“I am helping. I’m showing you where to go. Get across the river and you’ll get there.”

Danny dropped his pack and took off his shoes and shirt, so they could not weigh him down if he had to swim. He approached the flooded embankment and put his toe in. An idea hit him.

“I need another axe!” An axe appeared in his hand. He ran to an enormously tall oak tree and whacked and whacked and whacked at the base. Sometimes it would seem that he was more than halfway through the base and other times it was like he’d made no dent in it. The water was past his ankles then his knees, then he was swept away, desperately grabbing for the trunk of the tree, which finally fell as he was moved downriver, causing a massive wave that carried him even more quickly down the raging waters.


“Danny?”

Danny’s eyes blinked open to see his mother dabbing his forehead with a cool, wet cloth.

“Mom?” Danny sat up. “Oh mom, I had the most awful dream”

His mother’s eyes were filled with tears. “Danny, we were so scared. Billy, tell the doctor he’s awake!” Danny’s older brother ran out of the corner of the room and down the stairs. “You’ve had a terrible fever, Danny. We haven’t been able to wake you.”

Danny could hear a light figure taking the creaky wooden steps two at a time, and a young man with a white coat and a stethoscope rushed into the room.

“No!” Danny jumped in the bed, drawing his knees to his chest. “Mommy, help me. Get him out!”

Danny’s mother looked from him to the doctor with confusion. “Danny?”

The doctor approached closer. “Danny, it’s ok.”

“Mom, that’s Gil. He tried to trap me.” Danny pointed at Gil.

“That’s the doctor, sweety. Doctor Viro.”

“No, that’s… that’s the boy from the woods.”

Danny faltered as the doctor approached and he could see that what had been Gil’s features resolved into someone older, gentler. Danny exhaled and slowly lowered his knees away from his chest. The doctor sat on the side of the bed gently placed the stethoscope on Danny’s chest and then his abdomen.

“Good,” the doctor said. Then he reached in his bag and pulled out a thermometer. He popped it into Danny’s mouth. “Temperature dropped,” the doctor said under his breath. Then he stood up and said to Danny’s mother. “More rest. Fluids. He should be fine.”


Danny heard a faint squelch, squelch, squelch. The doctors boots, covered in mud, leaves and twigs, were leaking water on to the bedroom floor. Danny tried to show the shoes to his mother, but he was back in the river, speeding toward a waterfall. Danny flailed his arms, looking to grab anything to keep him from going over the edge. Just as he was about to go over the waterfall, Gil grabbed his hand and pulled him on to a rocky outcrop on the other side of the river.

“What do you want with me?” Danny asked. “Why were you in my house?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Gil said.

“You were the doctor, dragging your dirty boots on the floor.

Gil gave Danny a skeptical look. A thought dawned on Danny. “This is a dream. It’s not real! I can end this.”

Gil shot a dark look. “Are you sure you can end this? I think you need to find your way through the wood first.”

Danny stood up not the rock, and slipped his shoes off to dump the water out. Putting them back on, he headed toward a mountain in the distance.

“Where are you going?” Gil asked.

“I’m climbing that mountain and finding my way out.” Danny hiked for what felt like hours. Finally, he reached the bottom of the mountain and spared a glance back to Gil who was following closely behind in silence.

“Are you coming?” Danny asked.

“I can’t.” Gil replied. “I have to stay here.”

“What's making you?" Danny was genuinely confused.

“It’s the laws of this place.”

“What if you held my hand?” Danny held his hand out.

Gil cocked his head to the side. “There is one thing you could do.”

“What?”

“Give me a drop of your blood.”

Danny raised an eyebrow. “That’s it? One drop.”

“Just one.”

“What will one drop do?” Danny crossed his arms over his chest.

“It will break the enchantment keeping me here, and then I can join you out of the mountain and find my way of the the wood.”

“Who are you, really? What are you doing here?” Danny asked.

“I’m Gil and this is where I’m fated to be.”

Danny, taking great pity on Gil, sat on his haunches and rubbed his hand along the broken flint gathered in a clump along the bottom of the footpath. He took a piece to his palm and nicked his skin; it hurt worse than he thought it would.

“Here.” Danny held his hand out to Gil.

Gil approached and pulled a vial out of his shirt. He uncapped it and held it to the wound on Gil’s palm. He recorked it and put it back in his shirt.

“Thanks,” Gil said, looking at the ground.


Danny continued up the mountain, somehow never getting out of breath, but the peak never seeming to get closer. After hours or days, Danny didn’t know, he stopped.

“Gil, why isn’t the peak getting any closer?”

“It is,” Gil replied, looking at something over Danny’s shoulder.

Danny turned around and a pair of wrought iron gates blocked the rest of the trail leading to the peak of the mountain. Danny tried to pull them open, but they were locked. He hit the lock on the gates with a rock, but no luck.

“Here, let me try,” Gil suggested. He walked to the gate and fiddled with the lock, reaching in and out of his pockets while doing so.

A few minutes later, the gate popped open, and Gil stepped through. Danny followed. The peak was much closer; maybe thirty minutes’ walk away, but Danny’s legs grew heavier until he could no longer lift them. He felt like he was being dragged back down the mountain.

“I need to stop,” Danny said, pulling off of the trail.

He couldn’t deny it now, he was being pulled down the mountain.

“Gil, help me. I’m falling.”

Gil shot him a pitying look. “Sorry, but only one of us can go through. I already used this,” he pulled the vial out of his shirt, "to open the gate. It senses another person who didn’t provide blood. You’ll have to go back."

Danny looked confused. “Wait, so I can’t come up?”

“I’m sorry.” Gil was smiling.

“Can you give me your blood?”

Gil laughed. “I’ve been trying to get out of here for hundreds of years. I don’t have any to give.”

Danny was further down the mountain now, nearing the gate. Rage filled him and he remembered, in the side pocket of his cargo pants, he had put a makeshift slingshot before he set out in the wood. He pulled it out and scrambled his hands over the ground until he found a decently sized rock. Gil had turned around, walking back up the mountain. While falling ever further, Danny aimed the slingshot and hit Gil in the back of his head.

Gil stumbled, rubbing his hand on the back of his head. He fell back and tripped over a large root sticking out of the ground, he fell and fell until he was even closer to the gate than Danny. Danny summoned all of his remaining strength and kicked Gil in the chest and though the gate, grabbing him by the shirt and retrieving the vial as he did. Danny didn’t wait to see what happened to Gil, instead he ran back up the mountain and reached the peak. He turned around to view the landscape below him and he woke back up in the room, his mother lightly sleeping in the chair next to his bed.


Danny was hyperventilating, still expecting Gil to walk through the door. Instead, Dr. Viro came back in, smiling genially. “Up are we, Danny?”

Danny did not led his guard down. He spied the doctor’s shoes to make sure they weren’t waterlogged boots. He tensed up as the doctor again listened to his chest.

“Are you ok? Your heart rate is kind of fast.”

Danny pulled back. The doctor moved the stethoscope to Danny’s back.

“Lungs sound good. I’m going to listen to your chest one more time. Okay?”

Danny nodded. The doctor stuck his hand into an inside pocket of Danny’s dressing gown and retrieved the vial. He pushed Danny into he bed, continuing to push him until he disappeared.

Danny fell onto the ground of a blank, grey room with no noise and no depth.

“Gil! What did you do?”

Danny stood up and wandered, but the room seemed limitless. He started to cry. I just want to go back home. He heard something that sounded close by and yet far. He was afraid to listen more closely, lest it be another group of people begging for his help. But when he listened, he heard Gil’s voice, altered to sound like Danny, talking to his mother.

“I’m swell, ma,” Gil said.

Danny yelled as loudly as he could, hoping to get his mother’s attention, but no noise came out.

On the other side, Gil settled into the bed and accepted a kiss from Danny’s mother.

Danny continued his unheard scream.

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