In the modern world, a man plagued by nightmares discovers a darker reality.
| A soft breeze whispered in through the open window. It stirred the dust on the sill with a sigh and faded with a rustle in some loose paper. The moon glittered outside, white against the black, cloudy sky and cast a cold light across the carpet marked with silhouettes from bare trees in the yard.
Mark could hear his own breathing as it mixed with the murmur of the wind. He lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, waiting for sleep to take him. The clock on his side table read 3:00 AM. He sighed with frustration.
Something creaked away on his left. Damn old house. Never shuts up. He tilted his head to look and saw only the dark outline of the closet door. The moonlight shone across the old bronze handle and made a hooked silhouette on the floor.
The handle twitched, just for a moment.
No. Don’t be ridiculous.
He stared at it for a long time, wishing he could fall asleep and forget it. He felt his eyes begin to close.
The closet door shifted.
Something growled hungrily behind it.
Mark’s pulse was hammering. No. You’re imagining it. You’re a grown man. Get a grip.
Through the crack of an opening, a shadow slithered. It peeled away from the darkness, gliding across the wall and floor, moving noiselessly towards the bed. Mark suddenly couldn’t move. He wanted to scream, wanted to run, but the bed-covers felt too heavy and he couldn’t open his mouth. The shadow flowed like water up the moonlit wall, and then –
Mark awoke gasping. He was drenched with panicked sweat, sitting bolt-upright and staring like a madman straight ahead. His eyes shot to the closet. It was closed. The clock beside his bed read 3:03 AM.
He sat forwards and let his head rest on his knees. The dream was always the same. It was the same one he’d had for sixteen years, the same one he’d had when he was six years old, that childish fear that something was lurking in his closet.
He knew he wasn’t going to be getting any more sleep so he got out of bed and flicked on the light. The room was normal. He stared at the closet; the images of the nightmare were still vivid in his mind. But the door was closed, and there was no shadow on the floor.
Of course there isn’t. It’s just a dream.
Mark rubbed his face exhaustedly and shut off the light as he left the room. Coffee would be a wonderful thing right now.
The house was deathly quiet as he went downstairs except for the usual creaking floorboards. He made coffee and sat at the kitchen table sipping it for a long time. Damn nightmares. You’d think I would have outgrown them by now.
He glanced at the time. 3:17 AM. More coffee. He got up and was halfway to the cupboard when there was a knock at his front door.
Mark frowned. Who on earth would knock at three o’clock in the morning? Go away.
He ignored it and pulled the coffee grounds out of the cupboard. The knock came again, louder this time. “What do you want?” he grumbled. He set the jar down, went down the hall to the door, and peered through the peephole.
There was a woman outside, his age, dressed in a leather jacket with a high collar that came up to just below her ears. Her hair was braided and tucked inside the coat and she looked distinctly unimpressed about being kept waiting.
Mark realized he was still wearing only pajama pants and called through the door, “Just a minute,” then went upstairs and changed. When he returned, the woman was still there, staring impassively at the door.
Mark opened the door with the door chain still in place. “Do you know what time it is?” he demanded.
“What do you want?”
“I just have a few questions for you.”
Mark looked at her quizzically. “Are you police?”
“Then come back at a more reasonable time.”
“You’ve been having nightmares again.”
That stopped Mark short. “I – yes… Who – oh. Are you a therapist? Did Sean put you up to this?”
Mark shook his head. “Friend. Never mind. How do you know?”
“I’ll explain inside. Can I come in?”
Mark sighed. “Yeah, okay. Sure.” He shut the door and removed the chain, then opened it all the way.
The woman glanced quickly around the house as she entered. Her eyes seemed to take in every detail before she returned her gaze to him. “My name is Rachel Van Nort.”
“Mark. What’s this about?”
Rachel motioned for him to enter the adjacent room. “Why don’t we sit?”
Mark shrugged and sat down on the couch. Rachel sat in the chair across from him.
“How did you know about the nightmares?”
Rachel seemed vaguely disinterested in him as her eyes roved around the room. “Is that why you thought I was a therapist?”
“Yeah. Grown men aren’t supposed to have nightmares like kids.”
“No, they aren’t.”
Mark snorted. “You’re not very reassuring.”
“So I’ve been told.”
“Why are you here?”
Rachel glanced at him. “Tell me about the nightmares.”
“Because I need to know.” She paused for a moment and then added, “I might be able to help.”
“So you are a therapist. Who told you to come?”
“Nobody, and I’m not a therapist. But tell me anyway.”
Mark decided he’d find out what was going on eventually, so he went with it. “Alright. Just regular, childish nightmares. That something’s in my closet, and that it comes out when I’m asleep. Just a shadow. Sometimes I wake up when it first touches the floor, other times it gets to the bed, sometimes it goes up the wall and hangs over me.”
“How do you feel when that happens?”
Mark snorted again. “Really? You guys really ask that?”
She stared at him.
“Fine. I feel terrified. And it doesn’t feel like I’m afraid of the shadow – though I am – but it’s more like an irrational feeling that just sort of happens.”
Rachel’s face had changed to concern. “It’s the same closet you see every time, isn’t it? No matter where you sleep?”
Mark nodded. He’d tried sleeping on the couch, in other rooms, all over, but nothing had changed so he’d given up.
“Show me the closet.”
Mark frowned. “Uh, alright.” He got up. “It’s upstairs in my room.”
Rachel followed him up the creaky steps and into the room. Mark flicked on the light, then pointed at the closet door. “There.”
Rachel crossed the room and reached for the handle, then hesitated. “What’s wrong?” said Mark.
The woman frowned. “Nothing.” She pushed the handle down and the door swung open. Mark recoiled without thinking.
Rachel glanced at him. “You alright?”
Rachel reached up for the pull-chain on the closet light, but when she pulled it nothing happened. “Haven’t replaced the bulb?”
“No. I tried a few times but it always burns out within an hour. Wiring problem, I think.”
“Do you have a flashlight?”
Mark rummaged in his desk drawer and tossed one to her. She caught it deftly and switched it on. “Big closet.”
“Yeah. Goes back maybe ten feet.”
Rachel moved the beam of light all around the interior of the closet while Mark stayed as far away as possible. “It’s dusty in here,” she said. “You haven’t gone in for a long time.”
“Haven’t needed to.”
“Really? There’s a lot in here. I don’t think that’s true.”
Mark shot her an annoyed look. “Oh, then why wouldn’t I have gone inside?”
Rachel stepped abruptly back and slammed the closet door. She turned to face him. “You know why. You saw something, didn’t you? Something you couldn’t believe and you’ve tried to pretend you never saw.”
“What are you talking about?” The hair on the back of Mark’s neck was rising slowly.
Mark could only stare at her. “How do you know that?”
Rachel was eyeing the door as if it might suddenly explode. “I’m about to tell you something that you won’t believe, but you have to try because you’re in danger.”
Mark stared at her. “Go for it.”
“The nightmares you’ve been having, they’re not really nightmares. There is something here, something that’s been living in the dark in your closet all this time. When you dream about it, you’re feeling it come out. When it’s hungry.”
“Hungry?” said Mark quietly.
“This thing, it feeds on fear. It poisons your mind with nightmares, lets you catch glimpses of it, until you go mad with terror. Your fear is a bond to it, letting it grow stronger.”
Mark nodded. “So there’s a monster living in my closet? Fun.”
“You don’t believe me. Didn’t it strike you as odd that you’ve had the same nightmare about the same closet? The same sense of overwhelming fear? You didn’t find it strange that the closet bulbs always die?”
“So this thing can burn out lightbulbs. Good to know.”
“Are you even listening to me?”
Mark gestured to the hallway. “Thanks for your time. You’re a pretty poor therapist, by the way. You can pass that on to whoever told you about my issues.”
Rachel didn’t move. “I’ve been looking for this creature for months. I’m not lying to you.”
“No, of course not,” said Mark. “Which means one of us is imagining this. Considering the frequent nightmares I deal with, I’d assume that it’s probably me and that none of this is actually happening. I’ll wake up soon and remember this as just another weird night.”
Rachel folded her arms. “Fine. This is a dream. So play along with it.”
Mark shrugged exasperatedly. “Fine. What do you want me to do?”
“Face your fears.”
Mark rolled his eyes. “Some sort of therapeutic drill?”
Rachel stared at him. “If that helps to think about it like that, yes.”
“Alright. So what do I do?”
She tossed him back his flashlight. “Turn off all the lights in the house, then start in the basement and turn them on again, floor by floor. It’ll be forced up here. Then I’ll kill it.”
Mark stared at the flashlight. This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever done. But you know what? Fine. Can’t hurt.
Rachel closed her eyes. “Go.”
Mark reached for the light and hesitated for a second with his fingers resting on it. Here we go. He flicked it and the room went dark. At the bottom of the stairs he could see the kitchen light still on.
The first step creaked loudly and he winced. So did the second one and each one after that, and each creak sounded progressively louder. He reached the bottom and turned on the flashlight. The beam cast its yellow circle on the walls as he directed it all around him.
The kitchen door was still open and he stepped into the light. He rolled his eyes and rested his hand on the switch, glancing back towards the staircase and listening for any sound from Rachel. There was nothing.
Mark hit the lights and the kitchen was plunged into darkness. He paused for a second. What am I doing? This is ridiculous.
Across the room, the moonlight fell upon the table in gentle streams of white. The tiled floor was painted with the outlines of the surrounding chairs. Mark let his flashlight drift towards the table, yellow light washing away white, and let his head rest lightly against the wall. I can’t believe I’m doing this. He shook his head and turned away.
As the flashlight beam slid away from the table, something moved.
Mark felt the flashlight slip from nerveless hands and heard it clatter to the floor. The beam rolled across the wall, sending shadows slithering up the walls, and Mark stared with wide eyes at the blackness beneath the table where…
But there was nothing there.
The shadows moved. I know they did.
No answer. Mark felt cold sweat trickling down his spine. He stooped and picked up the flashlight.
No. That’s insane. I’m just overtired and letting the situation get to me. He felt himself calming. Basement. Switch the lights on. That’s all. It sounded simple like that.
Mark stepped out of the kitchen and walked cautiously down the hall. Each footstep rang loudly on the tile floor. He swept the flashlight across back and forth, sending shadows skittering up the walls like spiders. The beam stopped to rest on the basement door. The curved handle glinted faintly in the light. Mark reached for it and let his hand linger on it for a moment.
He briefly considered calling out to Rachel again, but she hadn’t answered before and she probably wouldn’t now.
The handle clicked softly as he pressed down on it. He eased the door open, inch by inch, and shone the flashlight down through the growing opening.
The basement stairs yawned up at him like a hungry mouth. Mark stepped gingerly onto the first stair as the flashlight cut through the darkness and sent shadows scuttling like spiders up the walls.
The creak of the second step cut through the gloom like a scream. Mark froze, flinching against the noise until it had faded. He let his weight down carefully onto the next step, and the next, eyes fixed on the flashlight circle trembling nervously at the bottom of the stairs. His other hand steadied him against the railing.
Ten steps to go.
Some of them were silent, others wailed the moment Mark pressed his foot down on them. It was like the house was alive.
Mark stopped and let the flashlight flick left and right momentarily. The stairs opened at the bottom perpendicular to a short basement hallway, across which Mark could see the light switch on the wall. Almost there. He lifted his foot, about to step down onto the next stair, and winced as the wood beneath him creaked loudly.
A stair behind him creaked in answer.
Mark whirled, flashlight slicing through the darkness to blaze up the staircase; shadows boiled up the walls like steam as the light chased them away. He turned so fast he slipped, and as he lunged for the banister to catch himself the flashlight fell from his hand. It bounced down the steps into the basement, where it sat on the carpeted floor with its beam shining yellow on the wall.
There was nobody else on the stairs. Mark hung onto the railing, panic waning into frustration at his reaction. He looked down towards the basement and stared at the flashlight sitting there no more than ten feet away.
He steeled himself and stood upright. Just gonna walk down the stairs, grab the flashlight, and hit the lights.
Then the light wavered for a moment.
No. Not now.
The beam on the wall flickered slightly.
And then it was gone. There was absolute blackness.
Mark swallowed hard. Battery’s dead. That’s all it is.
Alright. Just walk down the stairs. It’s fine. It’s fine.
He went down one step. Five.
In the dark below him, something growled.
It sounded like a cat.
One of the neighbour’s cats must have gotten in. Just a cat. Has to be.
Hell with this. He jumped in the dark, straight down the last five steps and onto the carpeted floor. He hit the wall with a thud.
That was when he realized that the growling wasn’t coming from the floor around him, where any cat should have been sitting. It was coming from the ceiling.
And it was not a cat’s growl at all.
Mark looked up and saw only shadow.
Then the shadow moved.
It dropped towards him like a net, and Mark’s hands shot up instinctively and hit the switch.
The lights came on with a blaze of brightness. And the shadow stayed. It writhed and the growl became a yowling hiss and then it boiled like smoke up the stairs and vanished into the dark hallway.
Mark was stunned. Was… Was… What was that? But he knew. He’d seen it so clearly.
This isn’t real. This isn’t real. It can’t be real. It can’t be.
In the black doorway, a pair of pale green eyes glowed, set in a shadow even darker than the lightless hall.
He wanted to scream out to Rachel, to tell her to stop playing whatever games she was playing, but suddenly he knew that this was no game. This was his nightmare, exact and real, and he knew that he was still awake.
And he could feel the eyes. They wormed their way into him, slithering like a dead thing deep into his mind. He shrank against the wall as ice crawled through his blood.
The eyes, lamplike against the shadow, turned slightly and looked up the hall. Mark could hear a thin, rasping noise, like a dying animal sniffing for something. Mark was petrified. The sniffing cut off abruptly and the thing’s eyes flared a pale, poisonous green for a moment. The shadow melted away and the eyes faded into darkness.
Oh god oh god oh god oh god it’s coming back it’s coming back
Then Rachel screamed.
The sound slashed through the silent house, a shriek like nothing Mark had ever heard, filled with pure, raw terror. It cut Mark to the bone, driving deep into him, and pressed him cowering against the wall.
It’s killing her. It’s gonna come for me next. I’m dead. I’m dead I’m dead I’m dead –
This was real. It couldn’t be, and yet it was. Rachel had been telling the truth. And I’m going to die. He looked up into the dark hall, amidst the screaming, knowing the thing would come back, and suddenly knew that he didn’t want to wait for that to happen. Before he could change his mind he sprinted up the stairs into the dark. He skidded on the tiled hallway and grabbed the handle to his front door.
This was a dream. Rachel wasn’t real. None of this was.
But that scream was so penetrating, so real…
No, I can’t leave her.
Mark let go of the door, grabbed the banister of the upstairs staircase and threw himself up the steps.
Rachel’s scream ended as he dashed into the room. She was seated pressed against the wall, shaking uncontrollably and staring with eyes so wide the whites shone in the moonlight. Her hands scrabbled at the carpet as if she was trying to push herself further back into the wall, away from the shadow that hung in the air in front of her.
It was visible in the gleam of the moonlight, a black, writhing mass of shadow, almost like a cloak of tattered fabric. Green eyes like poisoned cinders stared sunken from a shrouded face and arms of black shadow reached forwards towards the shaking woman.
As Mark entered, the thing turned its gaze upon him.
Fear like nothing he’d ever felt burned into him with a cold that froze him to the bone. It was burrowing into every pore, slithering through every thought. He knew he was screaming but couldn’t hear it; he collapsed and was crawling backwards as the shadow loomed towards him. Its eyes filled his vision until all he could see was deathly green and all he could feel was that same unbridled dread he’d felt when he was a child, when he’d first seen the thing lurking in his closet.
You can face your fears. Rachel’s voice came to him through the onslaught of terror.
He couldn’t. He clawed his way backwards, away from the monster.
You can face your fears.
Mark stared back into the thing’s eyes, and resisted.
It was like being slammed into over and over again by an iron fist. The fear was palpable, physical, beating against his mind like a battering ram trying to smash through his determination. Mark dragged himself onto his hands and knees, fighting with every thought he could muster, and he planted his feet and began to stand.
I. Will. Not. Be. Afraid.
He staggered forwards, unable to see anything beyond the mass of roiling shadow that was hissing and shrieking at him like a feral cat. He felt rather than saw Rachel stir, and he stumbled drunkenly towards the creature. Rachel was on her feet; her hands were moving –
The room blazed with a light so brilliant that Mark staggered back. The whiteness burned away the darkness around the writhing shadow; the creature was yowling with unearthly agony as its form smoked.
And then it was gone.
There was silence. The light faded.
Mark was stunned, still blinking away the dazzling brightness. “Is it… is it dead?”
Rachel nodded. “Yes.”
“Did you do that?”
She nodded again.
Mark sat down heavily on the floor. His thoughts felt leaden, exhausted. Rachel looked at him. “How did you do that?”
“Fight it like that.”
Mark stared at the place where the creature had been burned away. “I… I don’t know. I almost couldn’t. I… just blocked it out. I could feel it attacking me but it was like I was shielding it somehow.”
Rachel was silent for a moment. “There’s not a lot of people that can do that.”
Mark said nothing.
“You…” Rachel began. “I think you’re like me. Like the other people like me.”
“Which is what?”
“Magic. Whatever you want to call it. There are other kinds of power besides being able to conjure light like I did. Some people can control the world around them, using fire, light, whatever. Like me. Some can read or even control minds. And then there are people like you, who can, well, resist.”
“I’ve never done it before.”
“You’ve never had to. That’s how these things come about.”
Mark stared straight ahead in a daze. “So. What happens now?”
Rachel offered her hand and pulled him to his feet. She gave him a slightly roguish smile. “Well, you can go back to your ordinary life. Or you can come with me. We need people like you. I can show you a world beyond anything you could imagine.”
Mark glanced back to where the creature had been mere minutes before. “More things like that?”
Mark didn’t relish that thought. “I’m still dreaming, aren’t I?”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t even know anymore.” He was silent for a moment, looking at her. “Rachel, why did that thing come here? Why me?”
Rachel shrugged. “We’re human. We’re food for them. Nothing more.”
“That’s not a comfort.”
“We stand against the darkness, Mark,” said Rachel. “There are things out there the world doesn’t even know exist, terrible things, things that try at every turn to destroy and devour everything good on this earth.” She smiled slightly. “Yeah, you risk everything doing what we do. But you know, I think about it and it’s worth it.”
Mark looked at her. She offered her hand again. “So. What’s it to be? Do you want to see what the world is really like?”
Risk my life every day? “All right,” he said at last. “I’m in.”