Two men sat in comfortable chairs, looking at an orange fire, burning bright in an old stone fireplace. The room around them was worn, but well cared for. Aside from the fire, it was dark, and aside from their slow breaths and the crackle of the fire, it was silent.
Eventually, something inside the younger of the two compelled him to speak.
“I had a dream,” he spoke softly.
“Most of us do, from time to time,” the first replied.
“This one was strange, and the memory of it is like an affliction that can’t be shed.”
“Well then, spread the disease to me, and then maybe then you can be cured of it.”
“Very well. I was in a basement, in the dark. The only source of light was that of a fire before me, much like this one now, except not in a fireplace. It was, instead, inside a wide, strange stove, of the blackest cast iron. I could see the fire inside, beyond the slitted grate of the hinged door on the belly of it, and it was roaring red and hot in a way that wasn’t right. It was too hot, and too red, and I could see the blackened wooden handle on the front of it, and I knew that I had to grasp that handle, and turn it, and open that stove. I knew I had to, but I fought against it, impotently, with every ounce of my will.
“And so I stepped forward, across a wooden slat floor worn slick with years of use, but I was sure no other human had stepped foot there before me. As I walked, the air whispered at me, and the floor rippled beneath my feet. Some strange, terrible knowledge was there, within those flames, within that stove, and every step brought me closer to its hellish heat.
“And then, I was there, standing before the thing. My mind was filled with echoes of unspoken words and whispered half-thoughts, and my hand was reaching out for the handle, and was not to be stopped.
“As my hand made contact with the blackened wood of the handle, the whispers turned to shrieks, and flooded my mind and eyes and ears with terror and pain, experiences which were not mine, and yet were made mine.
“My hand grasped that black handle, and turned it, the flood in my brain growing with each moment. I pulled on the handle, and the door came free with a crack and a groan, and I saw the flames, and it became clear. I knew.” His voice trailed off, and there was silence once more. Before, however, it had been pleasant. Now it was stifling, as was the heat from the fireplace.
“You knew what?” the other man asked, finally, with a voice that didn’t quite mask his trepidation. The younger man looked at him for a while, and took off his glasses before speaking, folding and setting them on a small round table beside his chair.
“I knew humanity had been crafted, and that it was for a purpose. I knew, though, that it was not a benign deity awash in love for us that had done so. I knew there was no god nor devil, and no heaven full of joys awaiting us. There was, however, a hell. That was the knowledge in the flame, in the stove. Not the hell man had conceived of, of flame that burns the flesh, but instead the mind. There was a place of anguish beyond reckoning, for each of us, man, woman, and child. There was a hell, and we were made to burn in it, without exception, without hope of escape or reprieve.
“I knew why, as well. They fed from it, grew fat on our fear, on our pain. They bathed in it, and bred in it. We were cattle, being fattened for the slaughter.”
The silence came again. The older man looked at his drink, but did not imbibe from it.
“Do you really believe that?” he asked, finally, glancing at the younger man.
He looked back at the man and gave a thin smile.
“Of course not,” he said. “It was just a dream.”