I spent ages trying to think of a good nightmare story. I just had to have one story called ‘nightmare.’ I was sure that whatever story I came up with that I could give that title to, it would have no choice but to be awesome. Almost everything that happens in this story has happened to me in my dreams at some point. I have incredibly vivid dreams, and I die in them on a regular basis, as you will no doubt gather. Whether I succeded in using these experiences effectively for a good story – well that’s up to you, reader. Enjoy!
By Ben Pienaar
“According to Turner (Herbal, 1568) the nyght mare was a strangling sensation, and in his method of physic (1624), Barrough concurred: Of the mare. – Ephialtes in Greeke, in Latine incubus and incubo. It is a disease, where as one thinketh himself in the night to be oppressed with a great weight, and beleeveth that something cometh upon him, and the patient thinketh himself strangled in this disease. It is called in English the mare.” (Dictionary of Word Origins, Linda & Roger Flavell)
“…If you know you are dreaming, you can take charge of the dream action, become the director of your own interior dream movie. Nightmare sufferers can learn to confront their dream monster, turning a raging lion into a mild mannered tabby cat, or reclaim a dream as they’re waking up in time to impose a different ending.” (Good Housekeeping, May 1994)
Between drifting off to sleep and waking up, the average human being experiences between three and seven dreams. Upon waking, over ninety percent of these dreams vanish from their mind.
One week after his thirty ninth birthday, Kristian Lamark stood in a dimly lit train station. He was on the tracks, and the train was coming: he could feel the vibrations in his feet as it came closer. The glow of headlights hit the wall ahead of him as it neared the final turn. There were people on the platform, and though they screamed and shouted and swore, none dared to come down and pull him away. They wouldn’t have succeeded, anyway.
Kristian stared bleakly at his oncoming death, his mind full of horror. It had been since he woke up that morning, and it wasn’t going away, not ever. It was as though, while he dreamt, some evil pixie had crept into his mind and switched the wires so that he could only see the evil and tragedy of the world. The worst part was, he knew it was all true: he just hadn’t seen it before – hadn’t thought to look at things this way. Now that he’d seen it, there was no going back. Death was the only peace he’d ever know.
On the sixth night after his thirty ninth birthday, Kristian Lamark collapsed onto his bed, exhausted, and fell immediately asleep. He dreamed briefly of climbing a tree and then falling a sickening height, followed by another in which he was having a party with a group of people he didn’t like. An hour of unconsciousness passed in the blink of an eye and then he was running down an empty road from monsters, his legs dragging like logs under him. His fourth dream lasted less than ten minutes in reality and hours in his mind, and consisted of him sitting in a barrel while a friend lowered him down a well, shouting nonsense and laughing. This was the last of what he remembered, and the rest of his experiences that night, as with every night, couldn’t have been retrieved from the depths of his mind by any means.
He woke – for that was what it felt like: waking – in a field. Rather, he realised, it was a clearing, surrounded by a forest of thick trunked trees. The land all around him was a lake of long grass, with flat rocks similar to the one he was standing on scattered all around like stepping stones. Here and there a rose stood out of the ground, though the petals were coloured dark purple.
I’m dreaming, he thought. Maybe I should fly? Or wake up? But for some reason neither prospect excited him much, and he decided the best thing to do would be to take a little walk and explore the dream as if it were a real place. That was how he began, but before he’d gone five steps he saw that he wasn’t alone.
In dreams, senses and feelings are not distinct or separate, and everything is experienced at once. In the case of the woman he saw now, standing dressed in black in stark contrast to the sunny blue sky, the feelings he experienced were terror, dread and despair. As far as senses went he smelled something simultaneously irresistible and repelling, like poisoned fine wine.
He tried to wake up and found that it was impossible. For one fleeting moment he had a sense of his body, twisting under the blankets, but then it was gone. No matter how many times he closed his eyes, pinched himself, or willed himself to become conscious, he remained asleep.
When he opened his eyes again, she was right in front of him, seeming to float in the air. She must have been seven or eight feet tall, and the black cloaks she wore billowed around her although there was no wind. They seemed half made of smoke. Her fingernails were sharp and yellow, like her teeth, and her eyes were bloodshot and rimmed with red and black skin. The rest of her face was pale, so gaunt her cheeks were concave.
‘You shouldn’t try that so hard,’ she said. ‘It won’t work and you’ll tire yourself out.’ Her voice was low, and had the husky quality women sometimes get when they smoke too many cigarettes.
‘Who are you?’ he said, squinting into the light until he remembered that really, there was no light, and stopped.
‘Well…’ She smiled with lips that looked naturally blood red. ‘I suppose I’m two people, really. I was a woman called Emily Rhine, in my day. I was murdered when I was twenty five because I failed my test, so… They made me a succubus, and here I am.’ She extended her arms on either side, grandly.
‘Failed my test. Yes, that’s why you’re here, I forgot to tell you. You have to pass your test. No, wait…’ She paused, eyes cast upwards, ‘three tests. To earn your right to live.’
‘Wait, hold on. My right to live? Who’s they?’
She sighed. ‘They are Death. I’m not sure if it’s just one thing, or person or whatever or lots of them. It’s sort of a collection, you know? All death. Anyway, they’re my sort of boss, so I run errands like this, along with all the other succubi and incubi.’
‘Okay.’ It’s only a dream it’s only a dream, never fear it’s only a dream a voice ran in his mind.
‘Oh yes, and also I’m supposed to tell you about the tests. You get one every time you sleep, but on birthdays, like today, you get three. I don’t know why, it’s just a weird sort of celebration. Anyway, the tests decide whether you’re going to live or die tomorrow, but the birthday ones decide if you’ll die in the coming year, and if so then when and how.’
He stared up at her. ‘I get these tests every time I sleep? Why don’t I remember any of them? What about nights when I don’t dream at all?’
She dismissed him with a head shake. ‘No, you dream every night, you just don’t remember. You always forget these dreams, which is why we have to remind you every time you have one. Death decides all of them, so they judge you and make them harder or easier depending. Although, they usually start off really easy when you’re young and then get harder and harder. Because otherwise, you know, there’d be too many old people, or something. Sometimes people slip up, or they misjudge you and make a test too hard. That’s why young people like me die, and get sent to be succubi. I think that’s it,’ she finished, grinning like a snarling dog.
He looked around the clearing, taking it all in. He marvelled at the clarity of his vision. Usually dreams were blurry and full of motion and change. But this was serene and constant, and he found that if he desired he could even focus on things like blades of grass or rocks and see them perfectly.
It’s just a dream. ‘So what are my tests?’
‘What?’ She’d been following his gaze and seemed to have forgotten what was going on. ‘Oh, yes. Your tests. This is the first dream, so we do the first one here. And then the next two are in your other dreams, but don’t worry – you’ll still remember what’s going on, I think. Um, so…’ She furrowed her brow and rested her talon-like nails on her scalp. ‘Yes! Willpower, the mind one. Death wants to test your will to live, first.’
Kristian smiled with relief; this wasn’t going to be a problem.
‘The first thing you have to do is cross the ocean.’
‘Alright,’ he said, scanning the wall of trees that encircled them, ‘where is it?’ but when he turned back to her he saw nothing but a thick cloud of black smoke floating upwards to the blue sky.
He chose a direction, figuring intuition would be reliable in a dream, and began to pick his way through the closely set trees. Before long, he was completely lost. He tried to use the sun to navigate, but although the sky was full of light he couldn’t see the sun itself. Three times he tried to fly, but each time he reached a ceiling of branches so thick and numerous he couldn’t manoeuvre past them, and on top of that if he looked down once or doubted his ability to fly even a little, he came crashing back to the ground.
It wasn’t long before he began to despair. How long had he been here, crossing streams, cutting through undergrowth, listening for the sound of waves? He panicked. Had they misjudged him? Did they make the test too hard? Was he missing something obvious?
Tree by tree he traversed acres of woodland, and noted that there wasn’t so much as an ant to be found in all of it. The further he went, the heavier the cover became, and so the darker the forest was. If anything, he felt as if he was going farther from the ocean with each step. He kept getting déjà vu, as though he’d been through a part of the forest before.
This test, she’d said, was a mental one, so the way out couldn’t be mindless searching. He had to think about it. He couldn’t fly out, and he couldn’t run with super speed since he seemed to crash into a tree within two steps. He’d even tried burrowing down under the earth but had encountered rock. No, the real problem was with his mind. Hell, he didn’t even know which way the ocean was, so how could he expect to find it? He had to ask the right question, that was all.
‘How would I find it in real life?’ he said aloud. And suddenly it was obvious. He closed his eyes and found he could hear the sound of running water. When he opened them, the sound vanished. He closed them again, and began to make his way towards the sound. Somehow he didn’t feel a single tree as he went down his path, and at last he heard a splash and felt his left foot sink into icy water.
He considered following the stream by foot, but then he reminded himself it was a dream and he could take some liberties, and instead he lay on his back and let the stream push him gently towards the ocean. He tried to stand only when a wave crashed over his head and he tasted salt.
By then, of course, it was too late. The river had pushed him well into the ocean before the fresh water had diluted enough for him to taste salt, and now there was a strong current pulling at his legs. Flying didn’t work – try as he might, the pull was too strong. All too soon, his every effort was spent on keeping his head above water. And when all the strength he could muster still wasn’t enough, he went under.
He didn’t fight at first, and simply allowed himself to be sucked down while he watched the sunlit surface rise further and further above him. He swore to himself over and over that it was just a dream, that nothing could really happen to him, but then why, why couldn’t he breathe? Was his face mashed in his pillow or under the covers? Was someone trying to smother him?
He fought, kicking upwards with all his might and trying to climb through the water as if it were a solid thing. Somehow, with every stroke the ocean fought back and pulled him harder. The more he pushed, the further down he went. If he opened his mouth and took a breath, would it taste of water or linen?
Black circles began to pop up in his vision. The water was cold here, and dark: the sun was too far above to reach him. Even if he broke free of this suction now, he thought, he’d never make it up there in time. His muscles weakened with every missed inhalation. He made one final push, one all out effort that made his body ache and his eyes blind, and then gave up. The dark washed in.
When his senses returned to him the first thing he recognised was smoke and dread. Emily the Succubus was near. He saw her soon enough, standing on a drift of snow nearby and looking down on him. Where was he?
‘You’re on a mountain in this one,’ she said. ‘I don’t know why. I think the snow might be part of the challenge.’
He rolled onto all fours and gagged, trying to vomit the four litres of salt water he was sure he swallowed. Nothing came out.
‘Jesus, it’s cold.’
‘Yes. It tends to be up on mountains. There’s a blizzard on now, too.’
‘Is that the test? Cold?’
‘Some of it is, probably. This one is the physical part, you know.’
It occurred to him that he was naked, and for the life of him he couldn’t recall if he’d been that way when he woke up or if it had just happened then. Snowflakes stung his skin like wasps and the wind howled in his ears. Don’t worry. You didn’t drown, remember? And you’re warm in your bed at home now, not cold at all.
‘How can it be physical? I don’t even have a real body here, right? A dream is a dream; it’s all in my head.’
She cocked her head to one side and thought about it. Behind her, the full moon hung in a starless sky. ‘A real body? But isn’t your real body only in your mind also?’
‘How do you feel anything, then?’
‘I… What do you mean?’
‘When you feel pain or cold or whatever, your body tells your mind, and your mind makes you feel pain. As long as the last step happens, the rest is irrelevant. That’s what I think. Only the last step is important. Weren’t you drowning a minute ago? Was that real?’
‘Well, no, I was dreaming, right?’
‘But were you suffocating?’
He paused. ‘Yes, I was.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I… felt it.’
‘Well there you go. That means it must have happened for real, or you wouldn’t have felt it.’
For a minute he was lost for words, and then the cold set in with a vengeance and he hunched over, teeth chattering.
‘Oh, that reminds me,’ she said, staring absentmindedly at the moon. ‘You should probably get moving soon, for your test.’
‘Why, what is it this time? I have to climb a mountain? Bury myself in snow?’
‘No, this one is… Wolves I think.’
His mouth fell open, and as if on queue a howl split the night and sent wild shivers up his spine. It wasn’t far away. He turned around and saw that behind them, the mountain was a mostly shallow slope down towards a shaded forest, and that was where the sound had come from. Another howl answered the first, and then another, and they made an eerie but strangely beautiful song. A deadly song.
‘Where do I go?’ he asked.
She half smiled and jerked her head in the opposite direction to where the howls came from. Incidentally, that looked to be the top of a sheer cliff. When he ran up the slope and stared over the side, he saw that it dropped hundreds of meters before panning out and joining the land. A crystal blue river ran over it like a ribbon.
‘I’m going to die again, aren’t I?’ he said half to himself.
‘That’s up to you, sweetheart,’ came the dry answer. He almost didn’t hear her over the sound of the wolves. They sounded like they were almost at the top of the mountain already, only just out of sight and closing fast.
‘How are they so fast?’ he almost shouted at her.
‘Dream,’ she reminded him. And that was all there was time for because a second later the pack leapt the last snow drift and there was nothing left to do but jump. He turned and threw himself over the edge – and then the air turned to honey.
Now rather than falling, he was swimming through air thick enough to drink. Time had warped somehow, so that although he seemed to travel slowly and the wolves flew over snow as if they had wings, they weren’t catching up with him as fast as they should have. In relation to them, he was moving fast enough to stay just ahead of their snapping teeth, but as far as he could tell he wasn’t moving at all.
He stroked as hard as he could, his heart bursting with the effort and his mind blank with panic. His feet tingled behind him as he sensed jaws snapping closed inches from his bare toes. Almost worse than the fear was the cold. When he was only standing still it had been uncomfortable, but now that he was out in the open it assaulted him from all sides, slicing into his skin and wrapping around his bones. He could no longer dismiss it as just a dream anymore: this feeling was real enough for him.
When he looked behind him they were still close. Drool fell in tendrils from their panting mouths and froze immediately into solid icicles.
With each stroke his arms and extremities numbed. Exhaustion – and how could he feel tired if he was asleep, anyway? – set in and he swore he could feel the fluid on the surface of his eyes freezing over. He was weakening fast. The wolves were almost level with him: one of them had hold of his right foot and had torn most of it to shreds, but he hadn’t felt it because of the numbness. Most of his lower leg was blue.
The utter dread of impending death set in. The clear and horrifying knowledge of: I am going to die now, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. There was nothing around him but darkness, though somewhere far below him on the arctic plains he saw the flickering orange light of a fire.
Everything but his head and chest was numb. As the wolves surrounded him and began to pull parts of him in separate directions and into separate stomachs, he had time for one last thought: I was supposed to let myself drop.
After a brief slice of death, which was a welcome respite, he woke. The numbness hadn’t left him, and he rolled over in bed, panicking. Then he realised he’d been lying with his right arm across his body, completely cutting off the circulation. Also, at some point in the dream he’d kicked his blanket off and his whole body was covered in goose bumps. A cool morning wind blew in from the open window.
He sat up, rubbing his eyes and waiting for the blood to pour back into his limp arm. It was taking too long, so he got dressed and stumbled to the bathroom, blinking in fresh sunlight as he went and trying to forget his nightmare.
He looked in the mirror and saw a thirty nine year old who looked sixty. Since when was that much of his hair grey? And what were those crow’s feet doing there? He shaved with a shaky left hand, cutting himself twice, which was twice more than usual, and then picked up his toothbrush. Then he opened his mouth and it fell out of his hand and into the basin.
His teeth were crooked, broken and black. His gums were pale and his saliva was red with blood. Horrified, he reached up to touch one of his teeth and his finger went into it, simply mushing it like soft clay. The one next to it dislodged and fell into the sink. Before he could snatch it, it clattered around and disappeared down the drain. He looked up into the mirror again and now he began to notice other things. His eyes were blood shot and cloudy. His skin was loose.
He pushed away from the horrible vision and staggered into the hallway, his numb right arm swinging uselessly at his side. His whole body ached with every step, but that arm was painless, and when he forced himself to look at it properly he saw why.
The whole thing was black. Parts were bulging or pockmarked like a barren wasteland that had been ravaged by nuclear bomb blasts. Either gangrene or cancer or something else, he didn’t know or care. It was spreading.
He tore off his shirt and saw the sickly skin of his upper arm turning grey and then darkening. Miniature mountains of flesh rose and fell and craters appeared, and then the flesh that surrounded these areas became infected. It was like watching a horrific time lapse episode of a nature documentary – a rotting corpse, perhaps.
He ran down the hall, but the black had started on his feet also and he fell halfway to the front door. He crawled on, leaving his left foot and three of his right toes behind him. The dream! They’d judged him and he was going to die. Maybe he’d come back as an incubus himself, but he didn’t think he wanted that.
No, he thought: screw that. Screw them – if he was going to die, he’d do it on his own terms and if they tried to bring him back, he’d do it again.
He changed course at the door and went into the kitchen instead, barely noticing the pieces dropping off him as he went. He yanked open the cutlery drawer so hard it flew into the fridge and splintered, scattering knives, forks and spoons all over the tile. Unfortunately, his only working hand went with it.
His legs were mostly gone but there was enough left for him to pull himself up onto the sink with his elbows. The black had reached his torso. Screaming with rage at the injustice of it, that he should die because of some arbitrary test, he thrust his head through the glass window and then began to violently shake it back and forth.
The shards broke and cracked, but their jagged edge did the work he couldn’t do with his own hands. There was a moment, bizarrely, where his head was hanging from the thread of his neck and he could see the blood fountaining out onto the neatly cut lawn outside. It was a beautiful sunny day; not a cloud in the sky. It was all over now, he thought, and he was damned if they’d get an ounce of satisfaction from it. He closed his eyes and went defiantly away.
He did not die, of course, and when that baffling truth struck him he opened his eyes and saw once again the clear blue sky. But, he realised, this was no longer the sky of the suburbs: it was the sky of his dreams, the one that hung above the field of dark purple roses. He was lying on his back, so he sat up and rubbed his eyes. His head was still solidly on.
Emily was standing on one of the flat rocks nearby, her hand shielding her eyes from the sun as she scanned the trees for something. He sat up and went to stand beside her.
‘What are you looking for?’ he said. She turned, clearly surprised, though he also detected a deep note of sadness in her eyes.
‘You,’ she said.
‘Oh, okay. Well, here I am.’
‘Yes.’ She looked down and didn’t say anything.
‘So? Is there another test? You said three, right? I passed, didn’t I? I did alright, I mean I had a few stumbles but at the end there I made it. I didn’t let the cancer take me after all.’
She gave him a smile so tragic he read the truth in it and his stomach dropped out of him.
‘Wait, come on. I fought every step of the way, I got through the forest, I cheated death! What more do you want from me?’
But she only shook her head. ‘I’m sorry, Kristian.’
He stared at her, lost for words. It’s only a nightmare, he thought, just a really bad, terrible nightmare. That’s all. She cocked her head to the side and he was horrified to see a black tear roll down her cheek.
‘How?’ he said.
‘Well,’ she began thickly. ‘The first test was whether you’d die the coming year or not. You were so close, really you were – just inches away from passing. But Death just told me it wasn’t enough, or it might have been if only it wasn’t for the others…’
He tried to keep his breathing slow, but the smell of her was suffocating.
‘The second one was about when and, well, you were supposed to drop. If you made it to the fire it might’ve been a whole twelve months.’
‘But I got?’
‘Um. I’m so sorry. Tomorrow.’
‘What? As in, when I wake up?’
‘Not immediately, no, but definitely some time before you go to sleep.’
‘The last one was how.’
He looked up sharply, remembering the horror of rotting at hyper speed, and knew that if it started happening like that again he’d surely kill himself.
‘Not the cancer. It’s got to be suicide. Oh Kristian. If only you’d gone through the front door instead, there was a man with the cure just walking by.’
‘A man with a cure for cancer?’ Kristian said through gritted teeth. ‘Just walking by?’
‘Dream, remember?’ she reminded him. She was looking at him with a mixture of pity and love, and he found he detested her immensely. Now that she’d told him all of it, he decided it was bullshit anyway. Suicide? He couldn’t think of anything that could happen to him in the space of a day – at least anything realistic – that would make him do that.
‘I won’t die, not tomorrow, not till I’m a hundred, and there’s no goddamn test that can make me. I’m not coming back as – as one of you things.’ He almost expected her to fly into a fury, or even tears, but to his surprise she only gave him another sad smile and said, ‘I hope not Kristian. I really do.’
He opened his mouth to reply and realised the world was drifting away from him. He sensed his mind changing, moving from the clear world of the dream to uncertain reality. His memories were beginning to disappear already, and he knew there was no way to stop it from happening. It was hopeless, and if this was all for real – if they really meant what they said…
He had to preserve a thought. If he could do that, maybe it would be okay. No need to remember everything, he told himself, just preserve one single thought that might save him, just in case.
So, as he ascended from the land of sleep and into the brief darkness that precedes waking, he thought, and he thought hard: Life is worth living. That was all, and he repeated it to himself as many times as he could, trying to believe it even though the reason for it evaded him with each passing second. Life is worth living.
*** *** ***
Life just wasn’t worth living. Not with everything he knew now. Where the knowledge came from didn’t matter to him, and he didn’t know anyway; what he did know was that since he’d woken up it was there, and it made every breath an effort. There was no way he could last another day like this, let alone the rest of his life.
The train rounded the corner and he stared into the headlights dreamily, deaf to the screams of those on the platform, which were mostly drowned by the metallic roar. That was when he turned and saw a man with ragged clothes reaching towards him with one hand. The other held a bottle in a brown paper bag.
From nowhere, his thought returned to him. It was like a boomerang he’d thrown upon waking and then forgotten about until now, when it came spinning through the ether toward him. Life is worth living.
In these last slow motion moments, he turned the thought over in his mind and realised in an instant that it was true – of course it was true. How could he have thought any different? How could his mind have been so dark? The world was not hell, not the evil, tragic place he’d been so sure it was a second ago.
The screech of steel brakes filled the air and deafened him completely. He was already turning then, lunging for the platform, where the man still had his arm out, though it was a hair’s breadth from being severed by the train. He’d make it, he was sure. He might lose his legs, might never walk again, but he’d make it and live his life.
Then he met eyes with the homeless man and saw the truth. Even as he reached for the extended hand, the man was pulling it back so it wouldn’t be hit by the train. Kristian opened his mouth to scream at him, to shout his last message, but before he made it to the end of the first word he was cut short.