The recurring dream chilled me to the soul. I'd wake up in a cold sweat, panting, trying to explain the absurd horror to my wife.
Fire was everywhere. Walls of flame. Amid the raging inferno the floor was covered in melting plastic debris.
Plastic unicorns, small green army men, small robots calling out "Danger!" and "I'm going in!" with gradually distorted metal voices. I could barely see the floor through all the deformed, lifeless plastic faces staring up at me.
As I searched for the exit in that dream, I saw an approaching figure through the flame. It was someone taller than me... much taller... I figured the person for a fire fighter, and with a feeling of relief I would make my way toward it.
Only when the massive form broke through the fire did I realize the horror of what I was seeing. A giant rag doll with button eyes and yarn hair stood over me, its silent thread smile offering no true sense of joy behind its scorched face.
Quickly, the flopping, drooping oversized toy would draw me close in a vice-like grip. The agonizingly slow journey deep into the flames would set me kicking and screaming, but the huge toy would only grip tighter.
Then, I would wake up... moments before the flames on my body brought the final release of death.
On most mornings, I shook the terrifying vision off and simply went about my day. Kiss the wife goodbye, drop my son off at daycare, and then I could sink my teeth into a full day of work at the office.
The last morning was different, and that's because the dream itself was different.
Everything leading up to the climax was identical, but as I was dragged unwillingly into the burning abyss, the doll whispered something in my ear. It had never spoken before.
"Don't fight, Mark. I'm bigger than you."
Just the utterance of that sing-song, child-like voice made the disquieting dream all the more terrifying. When I awoke that time, I could barely move. My wife tended to me what she says was fifteen minutes before I came out of that staring, stone-faced paralysis.
All the while, my muscles and flesh felt like they were burning.
"Stay home today," she urged, "I'll go to work, but you stay here and relax. Please?"
At first I was opposed to the idea. I was behind on my assignments as it was. The heat of my forehead against the palms of my hands made me reconsider.
"Alright... you win. I'll stay here with the kid."
Our son had heard everything from the doorway, having come toddling over upon hearing my wife's concerned voice. He ran toward the bed and launched himself between us with all the acrobatic skill of a professional wrestler.
"Yeeeahhh! DADDY!" he joyfully screamed in my face.
The phone rang just after lunch, as he and I shared peanut butter sandwiches and juice boxes. On the other end of the line was a stern, humorless voice.
"This is Officer Harwick, does your son attend Happy Hollows Daycare?"
"I'm really sorry to say this, but there's been a fire..."
I dropped the phone and locked eyes with my son. The sudden and extreme change in my disposition immediately set him to crying. I ran to him, knelt down, and threw my arms around him, assuring him that everything was alright. I told him I loved him again and again.
As it turned out, the young couple that ran Happy Hollows fell asleep in the basement with some sort drug paraphernalia lit. The entire building eventually went up in flames, and none of the children made it out.
The authorities think they left their daughter in charge. She was about seven years old, and it looked to them like she grabbed the other kids and dragged them to a closet for "safety".
I knew something was wrong when the doll spoke to me.
"Don’t fight, Mark. I'm bigger than you." she said.
"I love you so much, you know that?" I held my son close and wept, "I love you, Mark."