Sleep It Off
rating: +55+x

It was always disconcerting to dream someone real, no less someone he knew in the waking world. It felt perverse, like voyeurism writ large, a life laid bare and helpless, open and shivering. This was made all the worse because, unlike the props and sets of normal dreaming, lifelike or otherwise, this one seemed to be just as confused and alarmed as he was. She turned, stammering and looking around with confusion that would have been comical, if it were not so unexpected. The room was shadowy dream-set, that indistinct facade that drifted behind scenes until called upon to define itself. Easily accepted by the sleeping mind…but apparently not so by some dreams.

“W-what the fuck? What the fuck?”

He sighed. Perhaps not eloquent, but succinct.

“I know you, ma'am, don't I?”

She spun, eyes wide and staring. Memory finally bubbled forth from those bright blue eyes framed in a fog of pale red hair. Somewhere in the ranks at class, top-left quarter, near the isle. Quiet, unremarkable…not even his type. Why the dream-

“Mr. Parks? What…is…is that you? What the fuck is going on? What's happening?

He shook his head, absently trying to pick up her name…something monosyllabic, Trish or Dia or something like that. He sat, the chair condensing just enough to matter to the scene at hand. She must have made more an impression then he'd thought.

“Young lady, I hate to break this to you, but this is a dream. You, yourself, are a dream, the candyfloss of the mind, and no more substantial, it-”

“What are you talking about? A dream? Are you fucking crazy?”

Frowning, he leaned forward, peering at her as she fumed. Overly distinct…but then he could hardly remember the real girl. Likely a doll set, head pasted to body, lifted from a thousand commutes and daily passing. He liked to consider himself an articulate dreamer, and it was somehow off-putting to see so much detail put into such an offhand moment. Like gold filigree and inscription on a bolt holding down a toilet. All the same, he smiled…variety was the spice of life, in the end, even if it was not to taste.

“The argument could be made that dreaming is a kind of madness, but no, I'm quite sane, at least in the waking world. These sort of 'meta' dreams are somewhat of a rarity for me, more a participant in things.”

She stared, eyes wide, panting. Pretty, but nothing to dream about. The vagaries of the mind, he supposed.

“Oh god…you…what did you do? What did you fucking DO?! I was…I was driving home, and I felt sleepy…did you fucking drug me? Is that what this is?”

He chuckled through a rising nervousness. This felt odd. Wrong, even. He'd long since passed the age of night terrors, but wasn't immune to the odd, toxic turn of will. The mind digesting threat and fear in a safe environment, a vaccine against subsequent terror. He'd no desire for strong medicine tonight, though.

“My dear, I'm…sorry for whatever mental cramp formed you with such detail, but I've done nothing to you, and have no plans or designs for such. I think I'll dream of oceans, now.”

“You're crazy, you're crazy, you're fucking crazy you son-”

Her insult was smothered by waters, a mass of ocean condensing like fog from the air, trickles of light passing through the waves. He turned away from her insulting form, dismissed as he looked for flitting fish, floating and breathing the waters as air. Perhaps a reef tonight, or even some grassy shallows…no caves or deep dives tonight. He felt oddly unsettled, struggling to form the glittering shapes and rising swells of fish and reef. Was he really so very sensitive that one familiar face could unsettle him so? Puff and nonsense. He focused, gently, drawing the fluttering smears of idea, like animate paintbrush swatches, into clearer form.

The clawing, scrabbling hands at his face and throat were abruptly all too real.

He gasped, then croaked. The water was no detriment to breath, how? Why? His mind skittered and tumbled, trying to process how suddenly it was strangling. He turned, and there she was. Eyes wide and rolling, hair a gauzy fog around her, hands outstretched and grasping, ripping at his face and throat as a trail of shrinking bubbles drooled from her mouth and nose. Her face was blue, veins bulging and tight, her body stretched behind her.

Pain. Deep pain, fear, AIR.

He swung his fist, the force drowned by the sludgy dream-weakness so common to sleeping panic, the force unable to even turn her wide, panicked, accusing face away. He gripped her hands, dragging those killing fingers from him, her scrambling limbs growing slower by the second. The bubbles stopped, her twisting ended, face frozen in a wide-mouthed scream of terror. She started to drift away, and down, tumbling slowly into the deeper blackness. It felt so real, all of it, the nails in his throat, those mad, gripping hands. The terror ate away at the edges, a seam lifting, rush of light and-

Dr. Parks woke, the end of a moan dying on his lips, limbs tangled in sheets. He blinked, breathing heavily, the darkness of the room broken only by a window's patch of starlight and his clock. Still many hours before dawn. He took comfort in this even as he shook away the gauzy haze of nightmare. Insane. Just insane. God, it'd felt so REAL! He touched his neck, feeling foolish for it, finding it unmarked and whole. He breathed deep, closing his eyes and lazily freeing himself from the sheets. Maybe his sister was right, maybe he did need to get out more. Dumb. Just a bad dream. More of gravy then of grave, and all that. He sighed, easing back into the pillow.

He drifted on the edge of sleep and dream, hesitant and fretting, like the superstitious trembling at the entryway to a dead man's home.

The dim daylight. Class, words, pounding on heads like stubborn nails. He liked it, yes, but it was long grinds broken by brittle moments of light. Absent thoughts, rote information, as well known as his own home. Thoughts of fishing, of open ocean soured by ill-tasting memory. Such an odd dream. No reason to dwell, especially today. Weekend was coming, time enough to even daydream then. Maybe he would actually call the travel agency. At least, see the local aquarium.

An empty desk drew his eye like a missing tooth draws a tongue.

Dr. Parks stared, blinking twice with an otherwise frozen face, those near the empty seat suddenly busy with notes or bags. Nothing. Nothing. It was nothing at all. Odd foresight at best, a noticed cough or odd posture, dismissed by the waking mind to make fodder for dreams. Sickness noticed by the unconscious, ignored by a busy will. He recovered swiftly, stifling the desire to ask, offhand, if anyone had seen the missing girl. Her face, drowning, blue and gasping, seemed to hang before him every time he looked to the empty seat. Rush along, no review, happy class. Music and paperwork, the solace for the busy mind.

Her name was Eleanore, the police said. People called her Ell. Had he been less paralyzed with fear and confusion, he might had congratulated himself for at least getting close.

They'd come that evening, just as he was finishing. Normally not a concern, kids wander, but hers was odd. Overdue at home, left her boyfriends house without issue. Car was wrecked, dumped off the road and into a tree, but no body. No blood, no anything. Purse and such still in the car, just strange, like she'd just vanished out of her car. He sat, face a mask of concerned confusion, as inside he curled up and rocked, buffeted by the memory of her accusing, panicked screams. There was no way, it was some sick, mad coincidence. Impossible. Even if it was, how? Why?

No, he'd seen nothing, heard nothing, sadly just another, unremarkable student. No, he didn't know if she had friends or family, he'd been unaware of any relationship. The most interaction they'd had was class discussion and occasional questions after class. Sorry there was no more help to offer. Of course, he'd tell them the second he heard anything. Hopefully some misadventure with alcohol, turn up chagrined and broke in a day or two. Pleasantries, gentle threats.

He walked home, feeling as if a massive, scarlet “M” burned and glowed on his back.

She was still there. God in heaven, she was still there. Why was she still there?

She lay, sodden and blue, on the dream-floor, so clear and sharply, drippingly real, like a Dore illustration in the middle of a snowfield. Nothing else, just her, sloppy and cold, a few small pools of water around her, hair splayed and plastered to her like exotic seaweed. He could smell the wet and the salt, and under it the odd, curling bite of fish…and perhaps rot, even. Drips were still coming from her nose, puddling against her blue cheek.

Misplaced guilt, stress, panic, no, nonono, away, away with it.

No water, now, forest, green fields, peaceful flowers and drowsy sun, light and warm memory. A young man, afield, freed to explore for the day, chasing grasshoppers and June bugs through tall grass, a waving corn field just to the side. Woods ahead, a spit of timber between fields, full of forts and old cans, the odd deer or fox besides. He was far back, a boy of no more then ten, eyes sparkling with nostalgia when he tripped, spilling forward on to the cold, wet mass. He pushed up on his hands, feeling the dampness against his palms and body, a clinging web against his fingers. He looked, and saw the masses of red hair tangled in his fingers.

She was still there.

The dream vanished like a soap bubble in hell. Still there, still dead, still wet and fishy. There were some bits of grass and dirt on her now. He recoiled, hand and body still wet. He willed her away. Alive and away, far from him, anywhere else. She refused. Unmoved, unchanged, whatever the force. No matter the will. He pushed her away, invisible force tossing the lifeless body aside, landing with a jarring, damp thud, limbs and head lolling in repulsive boundlessness. The jolt dissipated field and sun, soon left with a hazy nowhere place…and the body a short distance away, like a nail driven into guilt. He could still feel the wet on his hands, smell the sodden mass of it, like the rot inside a clogged drain, as real as his waking life.

He started to flail, trying anything. Boxes and vaults, all effective until his focus slipped, and then there again, damnably present, dripping and blue. A great pyre, born of a sun's heart seemed the solution…but ended with a reeking, charred hulk, eyes bust and smoking, making him gag and retch even in the dream. Blades then, but the sound, the sight of rent flesh and splintered bone ended the attempt nearly as soon as it began. For the first time since his youth, he yearned to suddenly wake, or for some kind, overseeing soul to wake and console him. In his panic, he didn't even notice the young, befuddled man behind him until he'd approached and grabbed his shoulder.

In his panic, he could be forgiven his rather harsh response.

He spun, visions of old, long-forgotten monsters of closet and hall swarming up in his mind, and he lashed out in sheer reflex, built over long battles with nightmares. A blinding, consuming light, to blast away the evil. The white blast consumed the young man before he could even scream, a thin squeak leaking forth as it charred and split his flesh, burned away hair and cloth. Mr. Parks recalled the light as soon as he realized what he'd done, but it was already too late. Split purple and black skin and nude bone reached for him, collapsing on exposed knees. A twisted hole ringed by stubs of teeth implored silently, stripped finger bones reaching forth on a withered arm. Then he fell, crumpling into a smothering heap, his back all but untouched. He smelled of burnt pork and urine.

Mr. Parks didn't recognize him, nor had the means to, or inclination, spending the remainder of his dream in panicked flight from the two bodies, or in wracking sobs. It wasn't until he stopped for coffee the next day, and saw someone new behind the counter that he realized. He didn't even know his name.

Guilt and fear are powerful motivators. Sleep can be fought, and for some time, but like death comes for all before long. With it came others, known or not. Confused, sad, angry…and trapped. Pulled like crayfish into a trap, the came, and stayed. Alive or dead, they stayed, among the growing stench and horror. The pain, and injury could leave, it seemed, Parks waking with savage wounds from enraged dream-captives. A rolling, endless nightmare that ate more and more into his life. He had to defend himself, didn't he? Even simply waking was no release, sleep revealing the previous captive suffocated, eyes and tongue bulged from blue faces. Withdrawing, more and more, losing small things, then large, but never sleep and it's bottomless reserve of new, pleading, furious horrors.

Dozens lay dead or ensnared when Mr. Parks suddenly vanished from the college, without a word to anyone. His home was found ransacked, foul play suspected, but it was eventually forgotten. People sometimes just vanished, a simple fact of life.

Ranger Washington blinked, patting his face. Something was wrong. He'd been patrolling one of the more isolated paths, eyes open for sign of bear or cougar, rare though they were. He'd just turned to sweep through a small clearing on a overlook of the woods, benches and low stones looking out over a sea of treetops. There had been a man there, a vagrant he'd tangled with a few days before. It wasn't an uncommon sight, sadly, but this one had been odd. Obviously crazy, but unlike the more disruptive ones who came screaming or muttering to molest hikers, this one seemed to have a phobia of people. He'd run, scream, and generally do all in his power to put distance between him and other people. Some hikers had complained, and Washington had finally caught up to him a few days ago. He'd rambled, moaning about keeping away, that he'd just end up dead. He'd hauled him back to the ranger's station and handed him over to the police as a vagrant. He'd been reaching for his radio to come and re-capture their wayward homeless when he'd suddenly…what? A sudden blackness…had the vagrant attacked him? Patting himself, he could feel no injury…and he'd been asleep on the bench when he'd approached.

The sudden, overpowering smell of decay shattered his thoughts.

The smell made him gag, worse then any rotten animal or garbage pit, and as he turned, fighting down his gorge, he saw more. A hazy, foggy place, with a earth floor…and bodies. God, how many bodies! They littered the ground, in various states of decay, in whole or in pieces. It was like something from a war zone, the sheer amount and varied forms of injury. Washington put his hand over his mouth and nose, trying to screen the reek. As he looked, the mass of death rose to a small hill, with high stones in the center. On it sat the vagrant, rocking and emitting brief, shuddering sobs. Washington, staggered, let his mouth work soundlessly, pulling his gun by pure reflex. He shouted as it suddenly shimmered…and fell apart noiselessly into slow falling flower petals.

Mr. Parks raised his head, bleary eyes laying on the figure on the edge of the field of death, watching his confusion and fear starting the slow curdle into pure horror. He moaned, hands outstretched in helpless pleading.

“I begged you not to be known by me! I begged you! I told you I'd dream you to death!”

The slumbered grave mound seemed to swallow his cry, unnoticed and unmourned, as the ranger started to scream.

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