The circling, intersecting rings of white string held the young boy's attention as he stood waiting for his mother. Feathers and beads dangled from the orbed framework, similar to the boy's arms, which hung loosely at his side, adorned with the bandages and stitches that dotted their short length.
From behind the nearby counter, a man with a whitened beard watched.
The boy looked up.
"What are these?"
"Those? Those are dreamcatchers."
"Yeah?" The boy glanced around. "What's a dreamcatcher?"
"You hang it over your bed while you sleep and it's supposed to capture your bad dreams. Take them away."
Thinking that the old man knew his troubles, the boy quickly looked away.
"Looks like a spider web," said the boy as he gingerly hid his bandaged arms behind his back.
"I suppose so."
"Did you see anything you want?"
The boy turned from the dreamcatcher to his mother; the question still hung in the air.
"No," the boy said, his words not matching the pain that flashed across his face.
The mother gave her son a smile, but she too winced at a memory that she prayed she could someday put to sleep.
In the parking lot of the mall, the rain drizzled down from the gray sky as the two of them walked to the car. The mother placed her bags in the back seat and the boy climbed into the front.
"Mom, do I still have to go to the doctor's?"
The mother seated herself and turned the engine over.
"Don't you think it helps?"
"I'm not crazy, am I, Mom?"
The boy reclined his seat as if he was already sitting on the psychologist's couch.
"No, of course not, dear. If you don't like it, I'll cancel. I only thought it would help."
The mother tried to change the subject.
"Are you planning on spending the night at the neighbor boy's tonight?" she asked cheerfully.
"The bad dreams?"
Powerless, the mother watched her son.
With dark circles under his eyes, the boy nodded.
The mother searched for something that fit.
"I love you and God loves you."
The boy felt the patchwork of pain that ran along his arms and doubted that.
At home the boy stacked the colorful blocks till they formed a wall, a playtime activity that he knew he was getting too old for. This time, in the center of the four walls, he had placed his new remote-control car. One at a time he carefully posted an action figure at each corner. The tiny plastic men looked down at an army of enemy toys that waited to attack the fortress.
"Soldier, we've got enemies moving in. Get the secret weapon!"
Mindful of his arms, the boy crawled over and retrieved the car's remote.
"Here they come, sir!"
The boy hopped up onto his bed and held the control aloft.
The car crashed through the walls, sending blocks and soldiers scattering. The whir of the tiny electric motor hummed into the air and mixed with the laughter of the boy.
A knock on the door interrupted.
The door slivered open and a neighborhood friend peeked his head in.
The friend stepped into the room and eagerly eyed the remote control car.
"Stopping the invading army."
"Wow, cool, where'd ya get this?"
The friend picked up the car and as he looked it over the wheels spun to life. Startled, he almost dropped it.
The friend looked accusingly at the boy who guiltily held his finger over the throttle.
The two boys laughed.
"This is so cool! Bring it when you come over tonight."
The friend set the car down.
"I didn't say I could spend the night."
"I thought you were."
"My mom says I have to stay home tonight."
"Oh, what? Lame. Maybe tomorrow night?"
"Bring the car and these soldiers. I gotta run some errands with my mom. Really lame. See ya tomorrow."
The friend turned and darted out the door, leaving the boy sitting on the bed by himself.
The thick, damp darkness enveloped the boy as he stood on a street lined with giant colorful blocks of wood instead of houses. In the distance streetlights struggled to pierce the deep sludge of the night. Beneath his feet he could feel the blacktop. He reached down and was comforted momentarily by the cool touch of the asphalt.
I've got to get home, the boy thought.
He reached out with his hands and tentatively took a step forward. His arms bore no wounds and his eyes could see no farther than arms length.
He felt something pull at his fingers.
He quickly drew his arm back and discovered a little pinprick of blood on his fingertip. Horrified, he held his arms close and stood frozen in the street.
I've got to get home, he thought.
He slowly reached out into the darkness again.
Then it started, as it did every night - out of the darkness a set of teeth lunged and chomped at his outstretched arm. Attached to those teeth, as if formed out of the very darkness of the night, the head of a dog appeared.
It happened so quickly that the boy couldn't run. With all of his strength he tried, but he couldn't even pull his arms free.
Then, back into the darkness the dog leapt. The boy drew his arms back, now covered with the familiar wounds.
From somewhere nearby, the dog snarled.
The beast started to growl, growing more intensely in preparation for another attack.
The boy awoke. It was night outside. Somewhere in the house, his mother vacuumed. He looked around his room, now illuminated by a bright night light. He reached under his pillow and pulled out a flashlight. He shined the light in every corner. Satisfied that he was alone, he jumped out of bed and ran out of the room.
"I didn't mean to wake you," said the mother, looking at her son. She sat down on the couch and pulled him into her arms.
They sat in silence. The mother wondered what she could possibly do to help her only child.
"The dog one again?" the mother finally offered.
"Oh, baby, my sweet baby..."
The boy grew angry.
"Why did God make mean dogs?!"
Unsure of what to say, she replied, "God didn't make that dog mean."
"But you said God made all living things." The boy's eyes betrayed his hurt.
"I did say that. Maybe that dog didn't know what it was doing..."
The boy jumped out of his mother's arms.
"Yes, he did! That dog was always mean. God made that dog ugly and mean!"
He turned and ran out of the room.
The mother started to cry.
With the flashlight in hand, the boy hid under the covers and looked at his bandaged arms. He alone felt the searing pain. His chest puffed up and down with each angry breath.
"I hate dogs, God! And I hate you for making them!"
The words tasted bitter but true. The room, except for his breathing, was silent. The boy made another demand.
"I want you to get rid of every dog on earth."
There was no response. Tears started to drip down the boy's cheeks.
"Well, if you won't get rid of the dogs, then take away my nightmares..."
Through his tears, the little boy stared at the covers over his head. He slowly removed them and listened.
The rain lightly pattered down on the roof.
A light breeze stirred the branches outside.
For some reason the stillness of the night no longer seemed empty.
The boy yawned, but before crawling under the covers with his flashlight he searched every corner of the room to check if he was alone. Once he completed his task, he lay back in bed. And as he did, the beam of his flashlight caught something in the corner of the ceiling.
A knock at the door. It opened a crack.
"Will you be all right?"
"Good night. I love you."
His mother shut the door and the boy stood up on his bed. In the darkness, pierced by the beam of light, he looked intently at the ceiling.
Satisfied that his eyes weren't playing tricks, he laid back down, switched off the flashlight and placed his head on the pillow.
In the corner above his bed, illuminated by the soft glow of the night light, a spider slowly spun her web, unaware of the boy who, for the first time since the attack, peacefully drifted off to sleep below.