It doesn’t matter anymore whether I’m awake or asleep.
It’s always with me now. Just out of sight, waiting. In the dream, in the shadow of the shelves, waiting for the last light to go out over my head. When I’m awake, it’s behind me. I’ve been worried I’ll see it if I turn around too fast or catch the wrong angle in a mirror.
It’s going to get me. I know that. But it’s going to end here. I understand how it works, and if I can finish this alone, it ends here. I’m not going to pass it on.
Not like the guy who told me. It was a month ago. He shambled into the bar as I was getting ready to finish my beer and head home for the evening. His eyes were glazed and bloodshot, and salt-and-pepper stubble rimmed his chin. He stared straight ahead as he sat down next to me at the bar and ordered a coffee, black.
I tried to keep my glances discreet, but honestly, I don’t think he would have noticed if I’d gotten up in his face and stared at him. Really, he didn’t seem to notice much of anything until his coffee arrived.
I was about to write him off as someone else’s problem, get up and go home when he turned to me and said, “Lemme tell you about my dreams.”
He laughed, and it was a brittle, anguished thing, like the sound of old glass cracking.
“It’s funny,” he said. “That’s how she started, too. Damndest thing y’know? Not something you hear every day, someone calling up 9-1-1 and asking to talk about their dreams.”
I tried to look away from him, but I couldn’t. There was something compelling in his voice, a desperation that forced me to watch, to listen.
His eyes flickered over my shoulder, lost focus, and he giggled again before focusing back on me.
“It’s hunting me,” he said. “It’s almost here.”
Despite being seated, the man was in continuous motion. His leg bounced, he drummed on the bartop with his fingers, the corner of his mouth danced with a nervous tic.
“It’s the same dream, now. Every night. I close my eyes–-boom! I’m there! At first, it was just weird, y’know. I figured that it was just that this lady put the idea in my head. It was chasing her, she said, through the woods. Every night.”
The man noticed that his coffee had arrived, and picked up the cup. His hand quivered, and he spilled a few drops before he got it to his lips for a noisy slurp.
“She told me about her dreams, and then she hung up. She didn’t sound right, you know?” he twirled a finger next to his temple. “Funny in the head. So I dispatched someone to go check on her.”
Another slurp of coffee.
“I heard about it the next day. They’d found her-–some professor or something-–dead in her hotel room. Heart attack, they said.”
He paused, and wrinkled his forehead.
“Weird thing was, her fingers were all torn up, and there was blood on the wall, like she’d been trying to dig her way out. Heart attack, they said, maybe an OD.”
At that, part of me wanted to ask the man if he was on drugs, but I couldn’t bring myself to interrupt him.
“But it stuck with me, y’know? Like I said, it wasn’t your normal 9-1-1 call. Anyway, when I started having dreams a few nights later, I just figured it’d gotten to me. The call, that is. It wasn’t like she said. Not the woods. Not for me. For me it was this big, abandoned apartment building, like something you’d see in Detroit, y’know? Like I’d gone in there chasing some perp back in my days on the beat.”
His eyes unfocused and he looked off over my shoulder again. For the first time since I saw him, he went still.
“It was dark, y’know? Like it was getting on toward evening. Just enough light coming in to make the shadows too dark for comfort. Not sure what floor I was on, or which way was out. Disoriented.”
His eyelids drooped, then he shook his head and forced them back open before he took another slug of coffee.
“The first night, it was a little weird, a little spooky, but,” he waved a hand dismissively. “Ah, whatever, right? But every night, the dream came back, picked up right where it left off. That was the crazy part. It got to be like I fell asleep here and woke up there.”
He giggled again, and my skin crawled.
“Or maybe it’s the other way ’round? I’m awake there and this is the dream? Here’s nicer. Here, there ain’t nothing chasing me.”
He took a prescription bottle from his inside pocket, and popped a couple of pills, chased them down with more coffee.
“Like eating candy now,” he said, with another giggle. “Been up for four straight days, and they don’t do a damn thing anymore.”
“Took me a few nights to realize what was going on. Didn’t know at first that I wasn’t just lost but that something was hunting me.”
He smiled, and shook his head.
“You hear it, y’know, in the distance. Opening and closing doors, coming down stairs, or maybe up–you know how screwy things get in dreams. But it’s always getting closer. That’s what gets you,” he said, jabbing the air with a stubby finger. “It’s always getting closer.”
“You try to run from it, you think you get away from it, get a little space…”
The man’s voice trailed off, then he wrapped his arms around himself as his whole body started shaking.
“Not enough, though, not enough,” he sobbed. “I haven’t slept in four days? Five days? What day is it? I don’t know. Oh god, I hurt! Everything hurts!”
He started rocking back and forth on his stool. The bartender and I exchanged looks. She made a telephone motion with one hand and I nodded.
“My eyes feel like I’ve been rubbing them with sandpaper,” the man whined. “They’re so dry, but I don’t want to blink. I blink, and I’m there. Just for a second–a footstep, a breath–then I’m back here. But it keeps getting closer. Closer. Closer. Closer.”
He shuddered, then groaned.
“Oh, God, I think I’m going to be sick.”
I glanced over at the bartender. She was on the phone, talking quietly but animatedly. I waved to get her attention, pointed at the guy, then toward the bathroom, and she nodded.
“Come on, buddy, let’s get you to the john,” I said.
I helped him off the stool, and helped him shuffle, still hunched over, to the bathroom.
I could feel him vibrating as I helped him along. A vein in his neck was fluttering, and his breath came in short, jagged gasps.
Halfway there, his eyes closed and he swayed for a moment before he shook himself, then stood erect, and a rough smile spread across his face. His gaze, though, remained distant.
“It’s OK, buddy. I’m, I’m good from here.”
I looked at him, then nodded slowly, and he walked the rest of the way by himself.
He went into the one-person restroom and slumped against the wall by the toilet, then waved me off.
“I’ll be all right,” he said. “Just gimme a moment.”
Against my better judgment, I nodded and stepped out. As I closed the door, the bartender flashed me a thumbs-up, which I took to mean help was on the way, so I parked myself by the bathroom door to wait.
Just as I saw flashing lights pull into the parking lot, a strangled scream erupted from inside the restroom, then a pair of gunshots.
I fell to the floor, shouting, and a moment later a cop burst through the front door, weapon drawn. I scrambled away from the men’s room door and around the corner, pointing behind me.
“He’s in there!”
I heard another scream, and then a heavy thud.
The cop approached the door slowly, pistol first, shouting for the guy to come out, but there was no answer. Really, there was no sound at all. He shouted again, and I peeked around the corner, back at the men’s room door.
A thin trickle of blood was creeping out from underneath.
I spent the next few hours getting interviewed by cops, telling them the same things over and over again. I had no idea who the guy was, or that he’d been carrying a pistol. I made an educated guess that he was on uppers, and that he was mentally disturbed. Then they’d ask if I’d seen anyone else in the bathroom with the guy. I swore up and down it’d been empty. The guy was alive and alone when I left.
For the rest of the night, I had this feeling of dread hanging over my head; the cops seemed confused and frustrated. He’d been one of their own, and they wanted someone to blame for what had happened. I was afraid they were going to charge me with something. But eventually, they let me go. Exhausted, I went home and fell into bed.
Nothing happened for a few days, though my mind kept turning back to the cop. I kept an eye on the news sites, but other than a quick blurb on Channel 7 the next morning, I never saw anything.
It was almost a week before I realized the dreams had started. I’m not normally the sort to remember my dreams, and it wasn’t until several nights had gone by before it occurred to me that every night, I was dreaming about being lost in the stacks underneath my old university’s graduate library.
Aside from being lost, there was nothing especially unusual about that. I’d spent a lot of time under the library, wandering the low-ceilinged floors, looking through shelf after shelf of European history books. The most worrisome things about visiting the basement stacks were the constant danger that the ancient, coffin-sized elevator would break down, or that you’d trip over the piles of unshelved books cluttering the aisles.
What eventually caught my attention was the way I was remembering it, every night. The way I’d start reaching for a book, then wake up, only to have it in my hand the next night.
The more I dreamt, the more things stuck with me. It was late–somehow, I knew that, despite the lack of windows and clocks–and my phone was dead. It was very quiet. All I could hear were the buzzing of the fluorescent lights, and the burbling of the radiator pipes. The building sounded almost like it was alive, and I was in its guts.
I felt very alone.
The way the dream continued night after night bothered me. After a few days, I started looking for a way out of the library, to find some kind of closure. But try as I might, I couldn’t find the way out. I couldn’t find the elevator, though I did find the spiral staircases connecting the floors. But no matter how high I climbed, I never reached the ground floor.
Or even the lowest subbasement if I went down. Just floor after floor packed with row after row of bookshelves, all crammed too close together.
For two or three nights, I took sleeping pills, trying to get myself so far under that I wouldn’t dream, or at least, wouldn’t remember it if I did, but that didn’t work.
Still, it was only a minor annoyance, and if anything, at least for the nights I was on sleeping pills, I was sleeping better than normal. My wife, Callie, commented that I wasn’t thrashing the way I often did at night.
Then came the night I heard a pile of books fall over.
It wasn’t close to me; perhaps two or three floors further down. The shelves themselves are multi-story affairs, and around the uprights are little holes in the floor and ceiling that let sound travel much further up and down than one might otherwise expect. I toyed with the idea that maybe a rat had knocked some books over, but I’d never heard of rats in the library before.
Then I thought back to the cop, and I shuddered. “It took me a while,” he’d said, “to realize that I wasn’t just lost, but something was hunting me.”
I checked the Internet, to see if I’d missed any news stories about the cop, but there was nothing. And when I called the detective who’d interviewed me at the bar–Detective Pierce–he said he couldn’t tell me anything other than that the investigation was ongoing.
I was distracted all day at the office. My mind kept going back to the dream and the cop.
That night I fell asleep on the couch, watching reruns of old sitcoms. My hope was that giving my brain something else to chew on at bedtime would keep me out of the dream, but it didn’t work.
It didn’t feel so much like my eyes closed on the TV, as it did that they opened and I was in the library.
I forced myself to keep my breathing low, and listened.
At first, all I could hear was the library’s gurgling pulse.
Then I heard a thump below me, the sound of a hardback hitting the floor. It was all I could do not to jump.
Like the night before, it was a few floors below me. I forced myself to stay still, and after a moment, I could, just at the edge of my hearing, make out the low, regular sound of soft footsteps moving across the floor.
I don’t know for how long I made my way through the library, as carefully and quietly as I could. Half an hour, or several, I couldn’t tell. I went up a few floors, waited and listened, then went up a few more. The footsteps didn’t seem to be getting closer, but no matter how far up I went, after a few minutes of listening, I’d hear them again.
After the third night of this slow game of cat-and-mouse, my wife started asking me if I was sleeping OK. I was starting to fall behind at work: not responding to e-mails and getting distracted in meetings.
I called Detective Pierce again, and got the same answer. I fought the urge to tell him what was happening; it just sounded too crazy, even to me. As I thought back to the night in the bar, though, it occurred to me that the cop had mentioned someone else. A lady professor who’d called 9-1-1 to tell him about her strange dreams.
I started trawling the Internet, looking through news clippings, searching for any mention of a female professor who’d recently died under mysterious circumstances.
My first hit was on a seven-week old police blotter piece noting the death of a woman in a local hotel. It didn’t mention the name, but did say she was in town attending a humanities conference.
A little more searching led me to an obituary for Professor Sandra Rockland, a folklore and history professor at Miskatonic University. The date in the obituary matched the police blotter, and noted that she’d died while visiting Ann Arbor.
I started digging deeper into Professor Rockland. Her research was…eclectic, to say the least. Topology and Symbology of Kadath in the Greater Dream-Cycle. Magic, Suggestibility and Belief: Vectors of Curses and Cures. Concepts of Cognition-Based Life-Forms.
It was dense stuff. Deconstructions of archaic myth-cycles of strange worlds accessible only through dreams; discourses on the transmission of hidden knowledge through coded language; musings on how non-corporeal entities might interact with our world. Everything was published in journals that seemed to have decidedly niche audiences, even among academics.
It was all couched in terms of superstition and the beliefs of long-dead civilizations, but there were peculiarities about it that made me wonder whether Rockland had thought it was something more. The paper on the topology of Kadath, for example, carefully avoided any reference to “people” in favor of awkward phrases like “those who believe,” or “ancient believers”. Another paper referred to the “quantum sensitivities some observers are theorized to have had.”
I worked my way up a few more flights of stairs, stopping now and then to listen for sounds of pursuit.
I took a deep breath, leaned back against the wall and tried to let my heart slow down. It–whatever it was–would still be after me, I figured, but I’d gotten at least a little bit of–
The sound came from above my head, the sound of something large hitting the floor. And after a moment, more footsteps from a few floors up.
I wondered if it had gotten around me somehow, or if there were two of them. Whatever they were.
I stepped back onto the staircase, cocked my head. Nothing down below. For now.
I bit my lip and descended.
A few more days in and Callie got worried.
On the one hand, I slept like a rock. When I slept. By this time I was staying up as late as I could, falling asleep watching television in the living room after having a cup of coffee or two with dinner. The lack of sleep and the stress of the dreams were getting to me.
At work, I kept the lights off in my office, and wore sunglasses all day, both to hide my bloodshot eyes and shield them from the lights that hurt them. The sound of my phones ringing picked at my nerves, so I set my cellphone to vibrate and turned the volume on my desk phone as low as it would go. I let most calls go to voicemail, so I could calm myself down before answering them. The interruptions to my increasingly fragile and infrequent periods of concentration frustrated me to no end.
Three weeks after I noticed the dreams starting, Callie stopped letting me pretend this was just some passing problem.
“Why don’t you want to go to sleep?” she asked. “You’re sleeping fine, it’s that you’re not sleeping enough. You’re not letting yourself…” she stopped and shook her head. “No, you’re actively stopping yourself from sleeping. What’s going on?”
I sat there for a moment, trying to force my sleep-deprived brain to put together an answer.
“It’s dreams, nightmares, I think,” I said.
She frowned and I knew she didn’t buy it.
“I can’t say more than that.” The words dribbled out of my mouth. “They’re confused. Bits and pieces. I’d tell you what if I could, but…”
Callie frowned again, but more softly this time, and shook her head.
“You’re going to the doctor tomorrow,” she said. “Maybe they can give you something to really knock you out.”
I started down the stairs again, and had only gotten down a couple of flights, but now the footsteps seemed to be following me. No matter how far I went down, they were always on the floor I’d just passed, slowly working their way closer to the staircase I was on.
Then, when I glanced back over my shoulder, there was a flicker and, a few levels above me, the lights turned out.
I stopped in my tracks as another floor went dark, then another. There were only two lit floors left above me now.
Not that it mattered. The footsteps were getting closer and I had to keep heading down.
Perversely enough, being completely exhausted and mentally drained made it easier to lie to the doctor. The sleep deprivation made an easy excuse for any inconsistencies, confusion, or lack of detail in what I told him. In the end, he prescribed valium for a couple of nights and recommended I get some melatonin to try and reset my sleep schedule.
He figured that if I could just get a few nights of solid sleep my stress levels would drop and life would be easier. If that didn’t work, he suggested I visit a sleep clinic, or a psychiatrist. Maybe both.
Callie called into my office and told them I was calling in sick for a couple of days, so I didn’t have to go in to work. She did, though, after taking me to the doctor. She kissed me on the head as she left me at the door.
“A cup of tea–herbal,” she said, finger wagging, “and straight to bed.”
“Yes, dear,” I said, forcing a smile onto my face.
I didn’t go to bed.
I took another look at Professor Rockland’s papers. Slowly, the thought percolated through my misfiring brain that she had a co-author on several of them. Professor Isaiah Wellbourne, also of Miskatonic University.
I pulled up the university directory and found his phone number.
A woman answered.
“Miskatonic University Philosophy Department, this is Janice. How may I help you?”
I ran a hand through my hair and took a deep breath, trying to still the tremor I knew would be in my voice.
“I’m sorry, I was trying to reach Professor Wellbourne. I thought this was his direct number. Could you put me through to him please?”
There was only silence from the other end of the line.
“I’m, I’m sorry,” she said, “but Professor Wellbourne is no longer with us. He passed away a few months ago.”
I dropped the phone and blacked out.
I’d only gotten down one more flight of stairs when, several floors below me, the lights went out.
Then another floor went dark, then another. Looking up, only the floor above me, the one with the footsteps, was still lit.
Then it went dark.
While I’d been looking up, more floors below me had gone dark, and the lights on my floor flickered out as I scrambled down to the next landing and stepped off onto what was now the only lit floor.
As quietly as I could, I crept away from the staircase and towards the far side of the floor.
Above me, the footsteps were moving a little faster. Every now and again, I heard another pile of books tumble down.
I woke up on the floor with the phone screeching at me to hang it up.
Everything hurt. My skull felt like it was clenched in a vise. My eyes felt like they were packed with gravel and my whole body was sore and clumsy, as if I’d spent days walking around in chin-deep muck.
I went to the computer and surfed to the Miskatonic newspaper’s website. It only took a minute to find Professor Wellbourne’s obituary. He’d died in his sleep three months ago. About a month before Professor Rockland. She’d died about a month before the cop. Who died about a month ago now.
I was so foggy I had to do the math three times before I realized that my time was almost up.
When I finally put it together, a strange sense of calm washed over me. It was almost over. But now, I knew what I had to do.
The cop talked to me before he died, told me what was going on. Professor Rockland had talked to him. Professor Wellbourne must have talked to her. Had there been anyone before him? How many people had this nightmare creature killed?
I had no way of knowing.
But I hadn’t told anyone yet.
I would die, but maybe I could take this thing with me, not pass it on.
The hotel was out near the airport. Nowhere near the house. Nowhere near Callie. I stopped at a sex shop before I checked in, got myself a pair of handcuffs.
Quite frankly, it was a miracle I didn’t die on the drive over. I didn’t remember half the drive. Every time I hit a red light I had to fight to keep my eyes open.
I didn’t remember checking in to the hotel. I blacked out in my car, and came to standing in front of room 514 with a key card in my hand.
I tried to get over to the far side of the floor. I hoped it’d come down the staircase I’d used, maybe let me run it around the stacks, but it heard me.
Its heavy, wet footsteps shook the ceiling above my head as it shadowed my movements. A revolting odor, at once rotten and metallic, assaulted me and I dropped to my knees, retching. Almost against my will, I looked back and up through the holes in the ceiling. A rheumy, yellow eye stared back at me.
I screamed and collapsed into a ball.
A moment later, I heard it walking away, toward one of the staircases.
I forced myself to my feet and went in the opposite direction.
I handcuffed myself to the bed.
The only things within reach were a glass of water and my sleeping pills.
I flushed my cell phone battery and I cut the cord on the phone in the room. I wouldn’t be calling anyone.
My plan was to down all my pills at once; hope they’d kill me before it did. Maybe not.
Either way, I wasn’t telling anyone about it.
I’d figured it out, and now this was going to end with me.
I downed the pills, chased them with a couple of slugs of water.
I ran to the opposite corner of the floor from my pursuer. All around me, fluorescent bulbs popped and sizzled into darkness as I passed.
By the time I tucked myself into the corner, with my back to the wall, the floor was a patchwork of light and dark.
Slowly, deliberately, it came for me. Just once, I saw a flicker of motion at the edge of a pool of light. Something dark and sinuous. A tail, or maybe a tentacle.
The stink returned, stronger than before.
I threw up.
The footsteps stopped.
The lights were all out, except the one above my head.
Breathing, wet and ragged, emanated from the shadows.
But it didn’t come.
It just lurked there, and waited.
I stood up, confused.
Still, it didn’t come.
Someone pounded at the door.
“Kevin, are you in there?”
There were other voices out there too; I heard a key card sliding into the lock, someone fumbling with the knob. I’d forgotten to set the chain. The door opened.
My whole body was tingling. Numb. The pills. Callie rushed to the bedside, followed by paramedics.
I tried to move my lips, scream at them to go away, but the words that whispered out weren’t my own.
“Let me tell you about my dreams.”
Justin Munro is a IT security analyst and writer who works in Frederick, MD. He lives with his wife, daughter and four cats in a mountain-shadowed house where the angles are all wrong. His work has previously appeared in the Lovecraft eZine.
If you enjoyed this story, let Justin know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.
Story illustration by Thom Davidsohn.