Where the Nightmares Go
Written by Adam David
The sun shone dimly through gray skies, barely illuminating a vague dirt road upon which a young teen walked. The young man was tired, fighting off fatigue as he forced one foot in front of the other, desperate to find an inn. His perseverance was soon rewarded by the sight of a familiarly dilapidated building. Trudging at a steady pace, he slowly entered the building.The boy staggered through the wobbling front doors, taking care to make sure they were firmly closed behind him. After taking a quick look around as he came through the entrance, he spotted a big, burly figure standing behind a desk. The innkeeper offered a longing gaze at the potential guest, as if he were staring at something he wanted to eat rather than a paying client. Realizing that he had a customer, the keeper forced an eerie smile, revealing a set of very sharp fangs. “Staying the night?”“Do I have a choice?” the young man confirmed, eyeing the vampire suspiciously “What’s your price?”The innkeeper pulled a large, filthy goblet from one of the desk drawers. “Fill it up and you can use a room.”The kid heaved a bitter sigh. He’d been on the road for a very long time, but there wasn’t anywhere else to take shelter as far as he could see, his face soured at the thought of staying outside after dark. Finally, he reluctantly drew a small blade that had been concealed by his clothing.The innkeeper eagerly placed the cup under the kid’s hand. Blood trickled down as the boy made a slow, deliberate cut across his palm, groaning as he completed the task. The vampire gazed longingly at the goblet as it slowly filled.“That looks so tasty,” the innkeeper breathed, making the boy even more nervous. The goblet finally began to fill after some time. Relief washed over the kid at the words, “That’s enough.”Wrapping his hand tightly in a dirty cloth, the boy stared blankly as the junky gulped his fix, fangs glistening in the dim candlelight. “I need more,” he growled, staring at his guest as he placed a room key on the desk.Without saying a word, the boy snatched the key and made a break for the room number which was sloppily written on it. A glowing set of eyes followed as the boy ran down the hall.The light slowly started to fade as he shoved the key into the lock. After unlocking the door, the boy turned his head to find the innkeeper still staring at him, the wild look in his eyes draining the last of the kid’s nerves. “Sleep well.” The vampire turned around and returned to his desk.Entering the room, he could hear the doors at the entrance burst open. They were coming. He slammed and locked the door, then threw his back to the door as he hyperventilated. Screams, shouts, moans, cries, and horrid laughter all joined into an unnerving chorus outside the threshold of his room.The boy dove into the bed, not bothered by the stench left by numerous stains he did not care to identify. Chanting to himself, he continued through the night as his awareness slowly faded, “It’s all just a dream, I am in my room, safe and sound. It’s all just a dream, I am in my room, safe and sound.”* * * * * *The boy bolted upright, staring at his clock. It was two in the morning. Cursing himself for dozing off again, he rose from the rolling chair at his computer and cracked open a Red Bull.He stared at his hand. He could still feel a dull throb where he had cut himself in his dream, but there was no wound. As he took a sip of his energy drink his attention was caught by a shadowy figure out of the corner of his eye. He dropped the can and the sticky drink flew everywhere. “Shit!”As he returned his gaze to the figure, he realized it was gone…or might not have been there to begin with. “Mom’s gonna kill me.” He got to work mopping up the mess with a towel. At least a dozen cans littered his floor. Heaving a sigh, he picked up the cans and tossed them in a garbage bag.He had greasy dark hair, filthy skin, and his face was covered in stubble. He focused his bloodshot eyes on his floor which desperately needed attention. “Little too early to vacuum,” he told himself as he finished picking up clothes that had been there for weeks. Fatigue washed over him as he threw himself on his bed, “No…” he moaned as he started to doze again.“Jack! Jack! You’re going to be late! JACK!”The boy bolted upright as he heard his mother’s voice. Jack clutched his throbbing hand. He slowly stumbled around his room, trying to get ready for school as quickly as his pain would allow.As he made his way to the kitchen, his mother handed him a sack lunch, “I can’t take you to school if you miss the bus today, so run for it!”Rolling his eyes, Jack quickened his pace as he saw the bus pulling up from the kitchen window.“Hurry!”Jack bolted out the door, waving frantically as the bus started to pull away. As the bus came to a stop again, the scowling reflection of the driver told Jack he was very lucky that the bus had stopped for him.“Thanks,” Jack muttered as he climbed in, getting a grunt in response. He found his friend, Matt, at the back of the bus in their usual spot.“Cutting it close again today, huh?” Matt smirked.“Shut up,” Jack scowled. “Barely slept last night.”Matt laughed. “You have that weird dream again?”“They keep getting worse,” Jack breathed, blinking fiercely in an attempt to keep his eyes moist.“You know they do provide counseling services at school,” Matt laughed. “You could also shower and take care of yourself, that might actually help, kind of like what you do when it’s not October and people aren’t under the impression that you’re going trick-or-treating as a crazed lunatic.”“Shut up. I quit that years ago.”Matt laughed, then put on a pair of headphones. The two were silent for the rest of the ride to school.* * * * * *Jack sat alone in his room, listening to metal on full volume as day turned to night. Cans of empty energy drinks bounced off one another as he added to the growing collection. He paused his computer game as a loud knock grabbed his attention.The knob jiggled, then opened after the lock clicked. Mark, the good kid, the one everyone liked, poked his head in. “Hey, wanna turn that down? I have AP exams tomorrow.”Jack rolled his eyes. Mark took pride in his AP classes. “Fine,” he sighed, muting his music.“Dude, you look terrible,” his brother remarked.“Well, thanks, doc. I hadn’t noticed,” Jack replied.“Have you been to see the school nurse?”“No…it’s just that time of year I guess.” Jack looked away from Mark.Mark surveyed the room, taking in all the piles and messes the room contained, considering Jack had cleaned the floor that morning, he was almost as surprised as Mark that it was messy again. “You can always talk to someone if something’s wrong. Want some help cleaning up in here?”Jack shook his head. “Nope, I’m just some loser seeking attention, or so we’ve decided.”Mark scowled, “You have my attention. My undivided attention. What’s going on?”“Haven’t been sleeping well-” Jack began, almost immediately cut off.“Caffeine won’t help with that, go on.” Mark’s stare bore into Jack, as if he had all the answers and all Jack had to do was ask.Jack sighed, “I keep hitting my head on the headboard when I sleep too long.”Mark walked into the room and closed the door behind him, his neatly combed hair reflected the dim light as he got closer to Jack, making eye contact through fake spectacles. “You’re not on anything, are you?”Jack shot him a dirty look. “No.”Mark stood across from Jack, staring into his eyes. “Come on, talk to me.”Jack sighed. “I’m having the nightmares again.”“You’re so full of shit. Who’s selling to you?”“It’s the truth.” Jack’s face turned red.“Tell you what. You turn off that game, clean your room, and get to bed, and I might keep this between just us. If I hear that music one more time, I’ll let Mom know what’s really going on.” A look of triumph spread across Mark’s face as he left the room, justified in blackmailing his little brother.Jack punched the wall. There was no way that Mark could know what was going on. He half wished his brother was in the same predicament just so he knew how it felt. The truth was that he was stuck in these nightmares this time of year. Every night in October for the past few years had been a crazy ride which ended with him getting chased, cut, or even stabbed. The looming threat of falling asleep was almost as dreadful as the dreams themselves.Heaving a heavy sigh, Jack powered down his computer, straightened up his room, and lay restlessly on his bed, dreading the world that was to come.* * * * * *Lightning crackled in the sky overhead; rain soaked Jack as he cursed his luck. The skies were dark. He had to find shelter, and find it fast. They came out in the dark. He’d only encountered them once and did not care to let it happen again.Screams and shrieks accompanied the occasional thunder. Trying to be swift while making as little noise as possible, Jack darted around, squinting for a possible inn or another kind of sanctuary. The toll that vampires asked of him was much cheaper than the alternative. The memory of a blade embedded in his back years prior kept him frantically alert to any movement he could possibly detect.Every little noise sent Jack into a silent frenzy that was difficult to control. The memories of this place that haunted him rendered composure insanely difficult yet all the more crucial. He did not want to die tonight. Though he had been injured in these dreams, he had never died, nor did he want to experience it.Shouts echoed ahead. Deciding to investigate, he crept slowly forward until he could make out, “Help, Help!”Jack gasped. Standing twenty feet away was a man who had the misfortune of stepping in ooze. Jack threw his arms down and gasped hopelessly as the man caught sight of him.“Hey, come help me out. I’m stuck…” The man’s eyes pleaded. “Where are we, anyway?”Shaking his head, Jack cast a wide-eyed, apologetic look at the stranger, almost sobbing, he replied, “Sorry, man, you’re fucked.”“What’s that supp-” The man’s eyes widened as the ooze spread over to his other foot.Bewilderment took Jack as he backed away, careful to watch his footing.“Hey, come help me!” the man stared at Jack, “what’s going on?”Hesitation and sympathy battled for control. Jack didn’t have time to explain to this unwitting victim that his fate was sealed and there was nothing that could be done. All he could do was watch in horror as the slime started to spread upward, slowly engulfing the man’s legs.“What the hell is going on?” the man shouted. “I can’t feel my legs!”“Y-you’re b-being eaten,” Jack stammered. “It can’t see or hear, but if it touches anything or-organic the oo-ooze consumes it.”The man’s eyes widened in terror, then he relaxed as if he realized he was the laugh of a prank that was going a little too far. “Alright, kid, you got me. Just get this stuff off me and we can leave it at that.”The ooze had climbed to the man’s torso. Although Jack knew that the noise they were making would attract creatures that he had yet to encounter, he could not look away. He’d only seen the ooze grab a creature before, but he hadn’t seen what had transpired next. Morbid curiosity got the best of him as he watched the slime climb from torso to shoulders.“HELP ME!” the victim shouted one last time. The ooze spread across to his arms as it began to engulf his head. Those helpless eyes pierced whatever was left of Jack’s composure as they both screamed, the man for the last time.For a moment the man appeared as if he was just a piece of art, crafted from blue putty. Then, without warning, the ooze constricted, then completely collapsed back into a glowing puddle on the ground. Ooze splashed and sloshed about as it settled on the ground, covering slightly more space than it had before.Jack gasped as a hand grabbed his shoulder from behind, and would have screamed if not for a withered old hand that covered his mouth. The hand belonged to an elderly man, whose long hair was in the process of turning from gray to white.“Shhh!” the man hissed. “There was nothing you could have done, but watching others perish means peril for any who remain too long.”“What happened to him?” Jack asked. Disbelief shook him to the core over what he had just seen, despite the fact that he knew what happened.The man looked down. “You saw… that trap condensed his astral body into pure energy… he’s dead. He’ll never wake from this adventure.”“Adventure?” Jack couldn’t believe he’d ever heard that word to describe this situation. ‘Nightmare’ was the word he chose for it.The old man put his arm around Jack’s shoulder as they walked. “Most people can only get to this realm through astral projection, most cases are intentional, but some are not. I take it you are here by accident?”Jack turned his gaze to the ground. “I have this nightmare every October.”A solemn look spread across the man’s face. “I’d like to tell you that it gets better, but it doesn’t.”Jack shuddered. “Well… I’m not dead yet.”The old man chuckled. “There’s a portal just ahead.”Jack returned a quizzical look. “Portal?”His companion nodded. “It’s a place of pure energy, enough for you to leave this realm.”The two slowed down as they approached a body of water which radiated light. “Go,” the man said.“Aren’t you coming too?” Jack inquired.“I have further business in this realm,” Jack’s sage friend replied. “I will follow in due time.”“Wait, what’s your name?”“Call me whatever name you like.” Light was all Jack could see as he stepped into the water.Sage, Jack decided. The man’s name was Sage.* * * * * *Jack suddenly jolted awake. It was four in the morning. Though last night’s misadventure felt more real than the previous nights, he wanted nothing more to dismiss it as yet another nightmare. Curiosity got the best of him as he powered on his computer to look up specifics on astral projections.“What a load of shit,” he laughed to himself, remembering what the old man had told him. There was just no way that drifting off into a deep sleep could give him an out of body experience.Reaching for another energy drink, Jack cracked open a new can. It was Friday. Halloween would be in a couple of days, and then these nightmares would cease for a whole year. If he pulled an all-nighter on Halloween night, then tomorrow would be the last he would have of these nightmares for a while. As he argued with his version of Mark about how he needed to play computer games, rather than study for classes, he again saw a shadow out of the corner of his eye. When he turned his head to investigate further, he saw nothing.As the computer lulled Jack into a complacent trance, he heard a knock on the door, then it opened.“Jack, what have I told you about staying up all night, playing on the computer? Have you been up all night?”“I got some sleep,” Jack muttered. “I just don’t sleep well during October.”“Jack, you need to quit using that excuse. When you wake up from nightmares, they’re over and you move on with your life.” his mom scolded.“Yeah, well when it’s the same one night after night, it’s hard to move on.”“Honey, do you need to start seeing someone again? You can’t keep doing this to yourself. You’ll be out on your own before long and getting enough sleep is something you’ll have to figure out on your own.”Knowing that he wasn’t going to win this argument, Jack finally relented. “Fine, I’ll go back to sleep.”“If you need to talk we can discuss what’s going on tomorrow. I need to get sleep myself before work tomorrow.”“Looking forward to it,” Jack replied sarcastically, assuming she too was under the impression he was on drugs.“Try to get some sleep,” Jack’s mother said, turning off the light as she left the room.Jack threw himself on top of his bed and stared at the ceiling until morning.* * * * * *Jack sat next to his friend, Matt, on the bus again. He wanted badly to discuss last night’s nightmare with someone, but the only one who didn’t shrug him off as a complete attention-craving lunatic also didn’t really take him seriously. He’d never met another person in his nightmares who hadn’t died within five minutes of introduction, so it only felt natural to him that he’d want to discuss this new stranger.“You have that look,” Matt said with a smirk. “Finally die in these fantasies of yours?”“Not yet,” Jack replied. He felt the discussion was already going in the wrong direction. “Saw someone die, though. It was an interesting scene.”“I need details!” Matt chimed excitedly.“He stepped in a pile of ooze which slowly engulfed his whole body, then ate him,” Jack began. “He begged me to help him the whole time.” Jack didn’t like the vibe Matt was giving this conversation, but he needed to talk about it.“Neat,” Matt laughed. “You finally go psycho and start killing everything? Might actually help…”Jack laughed. The pair felt a bump on the back of their seat.“You guys are sick,” the girl sitting behind them hissed.Laughing, Matt put on his headphones as Jack silently lowered his head in defeat. In hindsight, Jack figured Matt probably would have told him that dreaming about being saved by an old man sounded pathetic.* * * * * *The computer screen was off as Jack stared blankly at it. All things considered, it wasn’t a bad day. Tonight would hopefully be the last night that he would have to endure his misadventures, plus his mother had been very tired after work, so he felt a little more relaxed than usual. Since tomorrow would be Saturday, he did not have to worry about sleeping for too long, although on occasion he had missed the bus due to his inability to wake up until certain conditions were met within his dreams. He had to fall asleep. He’d just recently learned about a special portal, but prior to that, the only way for him to reach the waking world was by sleeping at inns which were normally owned by some creature who wanted blood or some other tribute. He lost himself in his thoughts as his consciousness began to drift.* * * * * *Jack found himself in a barren field. He noticed the glow of a river not too far off. Maybe this time he would not be stuck long enough for anything traumatic to occur, however, what stood between him and the river was a thick forest filled with swaying trees. His heart sank as he saw shadows move through the green. His eyes couldn’t focus on any one distinct shape. Gritting his teeth, Jack conceded that he could risk traversing the wood while he had light or try to find another way in the darkness.Careful to avoid contact with anything, he darted toward the trees. So far nothing had noticed him, which he knew was a good sign. All the creatures in this wood looked almost like shadows. The shadows still hadn’t noticed him. He slowly crept through the forest, darting behind one tree at a time and looking behind him after each sprint. The further in he got, the darker his surroundings and the harder it was to see. Jack slowed his pace.The portal was now out of sight. All Jack could see were the dimly lit trees. After a while of dashing from tree to tree, he realized he was lost. Jack stopped, taking a moment to catch his breath. Shadow versions of birds, squirrels, and deer littered his peripheral vision.Jack closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. He didn’t know what perils befell unwary travelers in this wood, but his months of experience in this realm did not compel him to find out firsthand. When he opened his eyes he decided to make a break for it. He ran past every tree, hoping he was headed toward his destination.After running for a long time, Jack tripped. Thinking he hit a root, he turned to inspect what had been in his way. Expecting to see a root sticking above ground, he panicked upon seeing the shadowy outline of a very large snake. Its head started to glide toward him.Jack jumped to his feet and ran for it, the snake not far behind him. He could barely see the obstacles in his path as he ran from the creature, which, in his own world, he’d only ever seen caged and controlled. Jack gasped, collapsing after he ran full force into a tree.He couldn’t get up. Stars were all that Jack could see, stars and a giant snake mere yards away from him. His eyes closed as he braced for whatever was next.Moments passed. Nothing happened. No sensation of teeth sinking into his flesh, nothing at all what he expected would happen. Jack opened his eyes. The snake had retreated. He could still visibly make out the snake’s outline, but it dared not approach. Coming his way was now a different presence. Whatever entity approached him wielded a torch. Jack realized that the snake was scared of the light. As the torch grew nearer and nearer, the snake seemed to fade. Before the light could completely extinguish the snake, it made its swift retreat in search of different prey. Jack could finally recognize the torch carrier.“Looks like you can use some help,” a familiar and welcome voice greeted him.Relief washed over Jack as he recognized the old man who had helped him the night before. “I saw the portal up ahead, but I got lost…” he confessed.Sage laughed and said, “Well, that’s because you’re going the wrong way. Follow me.”Jack was led through the woods, the light of the torch shielded them from all the denizens of that forest. The old man broke the silence. “What is your realm like?”Jack was taken aback. Weren’t they both from the same time and the same place? He grew wary of his companion, but then considered that this was twice that he had saved him. “Better than this.”Sage laughed. “Almost everything is better than this. Mine wasn’t much better, but at least you didn’t have to watch your step all the time.”Jack agreed, “Yeah, life is a lot more leisurely where I’m from. The worst we usually have to fear are other people.”“Sounds like you’ve got it good.”“What about you? What’s your home like?”The old man sighed. “I can’t go home anymore. When I enter the portal I don’t go anywhere, so I guess I died.”“You’re a ghost?” Jack’s eyes widened.“No more than you,” the man replied. “Just an astral form without a body to return to, kind of similar to these shadows in this woods… they don’t belong to anything.”“Why are you helping me?” Jack asked warily.“I guess I kind of relate to your plight. I was about your age when I started appearing in this realm. I remember what it was like to be confused while trying to flee for my life.”Jack nodded. “Well, I only come here one month out of the year. I guess that’s a bit better. After Halloween, this will be over for eleven months.”“What’s Halloween?” the man asked with genuine curiosity.“Everyone wears a costume and parties. Kids go to strangers doors for candy, adults go to parties with alcohol and the celebration practically imitates this place.” Jack’s fists clenched. He hated Halloween for this reason, but as soon as the month shifted from October to November, he was safe from the clutches of this place.“So everyone lets their guard down and imitate creatures of the night? Interesting. Stupid, but interesting,” Sage mumbled.“No one believes me about this place though,” Jack continued. “They think I’m just acting out for attention. At least I’m done after tonight.”Sage laughed. “They don’t want to lose their sense of security. Sounds like a wonderful place.”Jack could see the water’s glow as they approached an end to the trees.“Well, this is where we part ways. Cherish what you have now. It’s not worth losing.”Jack walked out of the trees to the water’s edge. As he turned to take one last look at his guide, he saw a figure approach it.“Run!” Jack called out. Sage neither looked in his direction nor looked startled at the shadow’s approach. As the two turned their attention towards Jack, he fearfully stepped backward into the portal to his waking world.* * * * * *Jack gasped as he awoke. Shadowy figures encircled his bed, staring at him while he stared back. He closed his eyes and opened them again. The figures were still there. They remained unnaturally still, as if they were statues instead of the things Jack saw in his sleep. “Help!” he called out.Lights turned on as Jack’s mom entered the room. The shadows did not disappear, but they lost substance in the light, as though their existence in this world depended on being shrouded in the darkness. Jack thought he could almost hear a voice coming from one of the shadows.It had been several minutes since the lights had turned on. “Well?” Jack’s mom asked, who had apparently been standing at the door the whole time.“Sorry, just thought I saw something,” Jack replied. He took a deep breath.“Good god, Jack! You need to get some sleep!” his mom exclaimed. “Sleep deprivation impacts your decision-making. You really have to start thinking about how this affects you…”Jack’s attention returned to the figures that were with them in the room. She couldn’t see them. Was he delusional after all? He could almost hear the other voice talking, but it was very hard for him to make out.His mother snapped her fingers, inches from his face, “Are you listening? We’re talking now.”Jack wiped his eyes then looked back at the shadows. They had not moved since he first saw them. He turned his head to his mom again, “Can we talk about this later?”Her head dropped. Realizing she wasn’t getting through to him, she snapped, “Get some freaking sleep. You can’t keep doing this.” She turned out the lights on her way out.“No… no, no, no!” Jack cried, “Leave the lights on!”“Get some sleep!” his mom repeated, ignoring his request.Jack’s eyes widened as he pulled his knees to his chest. Had the figures been that close before the lights turned out? They looked more and more solid as he looked at them. The voice was now louder, but Jack still couldn’t understand it. As he felt something brush against his arm, Jack threw himself under the covers, shaking and trembling until dawn.* * * * * *It was Halloween night. He had been invited to go trick-or-treating, but insistently refused, since he was ‘not a kid’. His brother had teased him about going, which made him more agitated, but the subject was dropped after that. His brother would be going to a party while he was stuck at home with his mom, where they’d be watching Hocus Pocus and handing out candy to Trick or Treaters. His only relief was that he had not seen any trace of the shadows since morning.“Why are we doing this again?” Jack moaned as Mark shut the door behind him.“It’s called bonding,” his mother retorted, passing him a bowl of popcorn as the movie started, “and if you’re wondering why I would spend Saturday night with a kid who clearly hates me, it’s because I really do care.” her voice was slightly monotonous.“I don’t-”“Shhh. Just watch the movie.”Head in hands, Jack silently watched and occasionally answered the door to give out candy. His mom told him to be friendly and more outgoing as she supervised. As the sun set, fewer visitors came by the door. After the movie ended, Jack’s mom dismissed him, saying she could handle the rest of the Trick or Treaters. Expecting him to return to his room, she was surprised when, instead, he said he wanted to go for a walk.“Where are you going?” she asked.“Just out. I need some air.” Jack looked away. “Later.”The door shut behind Jack as he continued down the sidewalk. It was getting dark. He avoided the few families who were still out for Halloween festivities along his way. To his relief he was not seeing anything out of the ordinary, so he made his way down to the local playground where he found Matt with some other friends.Matt nodded as he approached, “Come join us, man. Blow off some steam.” He puffed some smoke then offered the joint to Jack.Jack thought for a minute. Maybe he’d be safe if he joined in after midnight, but that was still a few hours away. “Not yet… I need to stay sober for a few hours.”“Afraid the bogeyman will come and get you?” The whole group except Jack erupted into laughter.“Haha, hilarious.” Jack looked at Matt. “I just wanna hang out, okay?”“Don’t be like that,” Matt insisted. “Join the party.”As Jack reached for a beer, he froze. The shadows from that morning had returned, all standing perfectly still.One of the girls who noticed Jack staring in a random direction asked if he was okay. Jack closed his eyes and violently shook his head. “They’re still here.”Laughing, Matt exclaimed, “Guess he was already stoned.”Jack watched in horror as tendrils began to erupt from one of the shadows. They slowly surrounded a guy puffing by himself on a swing. Jack’s eyes bulged as he watched the unwitting stoner become engulfed by the shadow. Upon finishing its work, the shadow disappeared and so did the high schooler. Mortified, Jack pointed to where he had been sitting.The others slowly looked in the direction of Jack’s finger.“Whoa, when did Joe leave?” another guy exclaimed.As more of the shadows began to follow suit, Jack made a break for it. “Shit. Shit. Shit! They followed me! They followed me!” Screams from Matt’s group started soon after Jack left.As he approached the safety of a street light, more of those shadows appeared. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that they levitated in different directions in pursuit of unwary prey. Jack concluded that, for whatever reason, only he could see them.Upon getting home, Jack lost no time in turning on all the lights. It worked earlier that morning, so it had to work tonight. The shadows swarmed outside, a few had even spawned in Jack’s kitchen. He couldn’t take it anymore. He squatted against the wall, holding his knees to his chest.“They’re not real. It’s all in my head. They’re not real. It’s all in my head.” The lights slowly started to flicker, then went out. Jack stopped breathing as something brushed against his hair.
Credit: Adam David Edited by Craig Groshek