(CW: gore, torment, abuse)
“I’m at my wits’ end,” said Marie. She blew an embarrassing amount of something from her nose and added the soggy tissue to the rapidly-filling wastebasket. In the adjacent room, little Zoe sat cross-legged, moving colored blocks along their circuitous wire path and making raspberry engine noises. Both mother and daughter had dark circles under their bloodshot eyes.
Doctor William West finished some notes on his tablet. “Take a deep breath, Marie,” he said. “I think I can help her.”
Marie sobbed grateful tears and saturated a couple more tissues. “Oh, thank you, Doctor West. Thank you,” she croaked. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
“Please, call me Bill.” He stood and crossed to a locked cabinet, flipping through a key chain. “Listen, I’m not supposed to, but I’m going to give you some medicine for Zoe to have with dinner. It’s a mild sedative. Nothing to worry about.”
Marie sniffled. Her eyes looked wistful as she accepted the unmarked medicine bottle.
“There’s one in there for you, too,” said Bill with a wink. “Looks like you could use a little shut-eye yourself.” He perched on a corner of his desk and folded his hands. “But wait on yours until after I get there. Should be around eight.”
Marie thanked Bill again, collected Zoe, and bid him farewell with a hopeful smile on her cheeks. Bill waved to them from the window, then lowered the blinds and sighed.
On his way out of the office, he averted his eyes from his reflection in the glass door.
That night, as planned, Bill wandered the muted chaos of Zoe’s subconscious. Stage three NREM was as dark as a nighttime forest, but soon, REM would rise like the sun and bring her dreams into focused color. For now he clawed his way through monochrome tendrils of delta waves as disorganized as a Pollock painting.
He’d accepted Marie’s kind offer of a glass of chardonnay. He appreciated that a little alcohol tended to smooth the path between his mind and the subject’s. Plus he had to admit he enjoyed Marie’s company. Her newfound undercurrent of hope had made her light up, and she was quite lovely. Maybe under different circumstances there could have been something ….
He shook off those thoughts. He needed to focus on Zoe. The poor six-year-old’s nightmares had been increasing in frequency for almost a year. It had gotten so bad that neither she nor her mother had slept through the night in three solid months.
A child’s nightmares are unfiltered and raw. Their minds are defenseless playgrounds for monsters that defy adult imagination. Sure, grown-ups have nightmares, too, but the perpetual waking nightmare of real life tends to tamp down one’s nocturnal terrors. Coping with the slings and arrows of heartache and grief forges an armor for the subconscious over time. Some also contend with the realization that they have been the monster in someone else’s story.
Monsters simply can’t compete in that arena. They gravitate to the innocent.
Bill’s first patient, ten years ago, had been a farmer’s son in rural Oklahoma. Charley Pratt’s nightly torment had begun to bleed into his waking life, manifesting as cold sadism towards the farm’s livestock. The day Charley’s father reached out to Bill in despair, he’d found the boy at daybreak in the chicken coop, pajamas soaked with the birds’ blood, and his own urine.
Bill got on the next flight to Tulsa.
Charley described his recurring nightmare in unusual detail for a nine-year-old. He would see a twelve-foot-tall chicken hunched over the bloodied corpse of what was left of his mother, Jill. He’d watch the beast prise plump organs, one after another, from Jill’s gaping abdomen, and suck them from its golden talons with relish. While Charley would cower nearby in the fetal position, it would cluck, “Try some, Charley. It tastes like chicken.” Then it would crow a screeching laugh, and the boy would awaken in cold sweat, only to realize the scream had been his own. The same nightmare, every night, for months.
But that night — exactly as planned — when Bill penetrated the borders of Charley’s mind, there was no enlarged fowl to be seen. He found Charley sitting on a hay bale in the family barn, anticipating his nightly agony, jumping at the far-off echoes of happier dreams from which he’d been banished. Bill put his arm around Charley’s shoulder, and they waited.
“I don’t think it’s coming,” said Charley at last. His words were tinged with both relief and disbelief. Then walls of the barn began to melt, as the boy began to drift out of REM sleep.
“That’s right, Charley,” said Bill. “And here’s why.” He retrieved an item from his front pocket and handed it to Charley. “I want you to have this.”
“What is it?” Charley asked, turning the item over in his hands, feeling its heft. It was a circular gemstone, mounted in a decorative, golden amulet. The opalescent stone gave off a faint, blue light, as chromatic minerals swirled within.
“Put that in your pocket, and leave it there,” said Bill. “It’s a talisman of protection. As long as you have that with you, your nightmares can never get to you.”
Charley’s eyes brightened in the cool glow of the amulet, while the rest of the color bled from the world.
“Now listen, Charley,” said Bill. “You must never tell anyone about it. The talisman only works as long as it’s secret.” Charley nodded his head, and the dream dissolved back into delta wave chaos. Bill began to worm his way out of Charley’s mind.
When Charley woke the next morning — after having slept through the night — he smiled for the first time in months. He was the first of a dozen children to whom Bill had given his gift.
For Zoe, the monster in her nightmares was her father. Corporal Otis Marchette was a man she’d known only from photos. Deployed to Afghanistan when Marie was pregnant with her, he’d fallen to a roadside IED. Bill assumed it was a metaphor for growing up under the veil of Marie’s broken heart that her father would show up in Zoe’s dreams in full dress, reach into Marie’s chest to extract her still-beating heart, and gnaw on it like a juicy, red peach.
As Zoe transitioned to REM sleep, the blotchy landscape began to cohere into recognizable surfaces. The kitchen of their home materialized from the disarray. Marie lay across the table of her dinette in a daze, feet and arms dangling. Zoe crouched in the hallway, clutching a plushy rabbit with white knuckles.
But something was wrong. Looming over Marie, stood Corporal Marchette in his pressed uniform, chest adorned with medals, licking the lips over his sharp fangs. He wasn’t supposed to be there.
Bill reached in his pocket for the talisman — only to find it empty.
“Looks like you lost something, Billy,” said the Corporal, as his fingernails elongated and sharpened into shiny, white claws. He pressed their tips against Marie’s breast. A trickle of drool dripped from his teeth as he pushed through Marie’s ribcage with a soft cracking sound. Marie groaned, Zoe’s echoing scream pierced, and Corporal Marchette chuckled, as his hand dug in and rooted around to the squelching of torn flesh.
“What have you done?” asked Bill.
Corporal Marchette snared Bill in his gaze. “What have I done? Oh, that’s rich. You should ask yourself the same question.” He pulled out Marie’s heart. Its dwindling pulse spit blood onto his starched white collar.
Then, to Bill’s horror, the Corporal began to metamorphose. White feathers sprouted from his body, and his clawed hand became a golden talon. Marie on the table had become Charley Pratt’s mother on the barn floor. Charley and Zoe clung to each other at his feet, crying into each other’s shoulder. Before him now stood the gargantuan chicken he’d banished a decade ago. It raised the beating heart to its mouth and slurped it down. “Yummy,” it said with a cluck. “Tastes like chicken.”
Bill’s veins iced over. “What is going on here? Where is my talisman?”
Before the monster chicken replied, it morphed again. This time to a dragon with forest green scales that glinted in the torches of a castle dungeon. Sally Edmund joined the wailing children before him. It was her nightmare dragon, exhaling a cone of fire over her brother, whose skin gnarled in the flames and sloughed away like paper ash.
Turn by turn, the beast transformed into each of the twelve nightmares Bill had banished over the years, while the collection of huddled children grew. Each time, the beast inflicted some manner of agony on the terrified audience’s loved ones.
“How are you doing this?” Bill asked, almost in tears.
“Isn’t it obvious?” The gravelly voice came from a twenty-foot-tall, charcoal-skinned troll. Its elephantine foot idly ground the crushed skull of Levi Gershon’s father, as the five-year-old sat and rocked, thumb in his mouth, cheeks wet with tears.
Bill looked into each of the children’s faces. One by one, they gazed back at him with sneering disapproval. When he looked back towards the troll, it was gone.
In its place, he saw himself, standing in his own bedroom. He turned away in haste.
“Look at me, Billy,” said his doppelganger.
Bill slowly raised his eyes and met his own.
“This isn’t Zoe’s nightmare,” his other self said. “It’s your’s.”
Bill watched the version of himself walk towards the children, who whimpered and cowered and clutched each other in fear. His counterpart reached towards Levi Gershon, wiped the tears from the boy’s cheeks, and then licked the tears from his finger with a cruel smile.
“What’s your biggest fear, Billy?” His other then stroked Sally Edmund’s arm with affection. “Oh, wait. Don’t tell me. I know this.” He snapped his fingers, then ran them through Sally’s hair while she winced and grimaced in disgust. “You fear the truth, don’t you?”
“Stop this!” Bill said. “I’m leaving.” He tried to turn, but the children together dove for him and held his legs.
“It looks like your ‘patients’ might have other ideas.”
Then in turn, each child stood, retrieved their talisman of protection, and threw it against the hardwood bedroom floor. The iridescent blue gemstones shattered into dust that swirled like smoke. Through the luminescent clouds, visions of what he’d done to each of them flooded into his eyes.
“Oh, you banished their malevolent demons, all right,” said his other, “but you gave each of them a new one, didn’t you?”
Bill’s heart was racing. “Enough!” He shut his eyes tight. “Enough, OK? I just want to wake up now.”
“Well that wouldn’t be quite fair, now would it? After all, you didn’t let them wake up.” His other walked over to Charley and roughly squeezed his chubby cheeks. “You didn’t let Charley here wake up, while you had your way with him, did you?”
“This is ridiculous,” Bill said. “It was just in their dreams. I never laid a finger on anyone!”
The other version of him glowered and pointed to the children. “Tell that to them. At least they could talk to their parents about their old monsters, but they couldn’t bear to lose the magic of the secret talisman. You never told them about the new secrets they’d have to keep, though. You never told them that rather than wake up screaming, they’d wake up in utter shame. Even if they dared risk losing the talisman’s protection, you knew they’d never speak of your private visits. Dreams of things they didn’t even have the words to describe.”
Bill was enraged with indignation. “I refuse to listen to this nonsense. Look, I saved them from their nightmares. I deserved a reward. If I played a little bit, so what? I wasn’t hurting anyone. Now, I insist you let me leave.”
The other Bill snickered. “Unrepentant to the last.” He walked to a locked cabinet, flicking through his key chain. “All right then,” he said, “I’m going to give you some medicine that should put things right for you.”
Bill accepted the small pill with a trembling hand. “What is this?”
“You wanted out of this nightmare, didn’t you? Well this is your way out. Swallow it.”
“Swallow it! Swallow it! Swallow it!” chanted the children in unison.
Bill popped the pill down his throat and put his hands over his ears, with his eyes clamped shut. The chanting of the children faded softer and softer, until he was left in silence.
Bill woke with a start in an unfamiliar room. Zoe was snoring softly in the bed adjacent to his chair. Planets and stars glowed in a slow orbit on the walls and ceiling from a rotating globe on her nightstand. Outside, crickets chirped their midnight chorus, as an owl hooted a plaintive solo.
He worked a kink out of his neck and wandered into the living room. An infomercial played half-muted on the TV about some indispensable kitchen gadget. Marie was slumped on the sofa, drooling onto her shoulder. An empty bottle of wine sat on the coffee table next to the medicine bottle he’d given her. Bill collected his coat and briefcase, and let himself out the front door. What a nightmare he’d had. But it was over now. He took a deep breath and exhaled a cloud of mist into the pre-dawn chill.
Back home, he kicked off his shoes and crawled into bed. He could still catch a few Z’s before his morning schedule kicked in.
He lay there, tossing, unable to settle his mind. Seconds became minutes. Minutes became hours. His eyes were dry and itchy when his alarm clock blared at six o’clock. He sighed. No matter, he thought. He’d just go to bed early tonight to catch up on his sleep.
Only that didn’t happen. That night he went to bed and closed his eyes, but by midnight he’d accepted that sleep was not in the cards, so he got up to binge-watch something on Netflix. As the end credits rolled on the latest episode, he heard his alarm clock down the hall. He’d been awake for more than a day.
As the hours ticked by, profound drowsiness and continual yawning tortured him. He found himself re-reading the same passage in textbooks, spilling coffee, dropping things, stumbling. As the daylight finally fled the sky he locked up and headed home with a sense of dread. Would he be able to sleep tonight at last?
It was three days later when he threw his blaring alarm clock against his wall. Still no sleep. He struggled to perform even the most basic tasks. He cut his face in three places while shaving. He set off the smoke alarm when he left his eggs to burn. He stumbled out his front door without realizing his shoes didn’t match. And halfway to the office, he had to pull off the road after his second bout of involuntary microsleep. As he sat idling at the side of the highway, he blinked as a figure approached his vehicle from behind and knocked on the passenger side door.
“Open up, Billy,” said the young man. He looked vaguely familiar.
Bill pressed the button to unlock the door, and the man got in. He was festooned from top to bottom with all sorts of body modifications. Tattoos covered nearly every inch of skin. Piercings wrapped around both ears, with chains connecting to nose rings. He had posts through his eyebrows and lips.
“Lovely weather we’re having, eh?” said the young man.
Bill swallowed, but was unable to wet his throat. “Do I know you?”
“You did.” He locked eyes with Bill.
A spark of recognition. “Charley?”
Charley grinned. “In the painted flesh.”
“Are you — is this — am I hallucinating?”
“Sucks, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t understand. How did — were you following me?”
Charley frowned. “Listen Billy,” he said, “I just wanted to drop in before you lose it completely. Which shouldn’t be long now.”
“You did this to me?”
Charley chuckled. “Do you hear yourself right now? You can’t seem to get it through your skull that I — we — never did anything to you. Everything that’s happening right now, you did to yourself.”
“Yeah, you wanted out of the nightmare. So you got yourself out. Permanently.”
“Look Charley, I ….”
“Spare me, OK? I just want you to know that, after everything that happened, I’m going to be OK. All us kids are. It’s not easy, you know, but we’re resilient.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
“Unbelievable. I didn’t tell you that for your own gratification, you monster. I came to rub it in your face. I wanted you to know, while your mind goes down the toilet, or before you jump off a bridge, that we’re all going to be OK — in spite of you. As you take your last breath, I wanted you to know that everyone you hurt has risen above you. And we owe it all to Marie and Zoe.”
Bill’s eyelids felt like anchors. He shook his head to keep focused.
“Marie is the psychologist who pieced it all together. All us kids have been in group therapy with her for years now, bringing each of your new victims into the fold. Zoe is a freakin’ hero. This was her idea, you know. Using herself as bait. Bravest girl I ever met.”
Bill’s head began spinning. “But how …. ?”
“Marie put the pill in your wine, dumbass. Zoe wasn’t drugged at all. That’s how we all got into your nightmare, instead of the other way around.” He popped open the door and stepped out onto the shoulder. “Anyway, have a shitty life, Doctor West. What’s left of it.”
A sheriff’s patrol found Bill’s cold body there the next morning. An empty bottle of Xanax in his hand.