What Lurks in Dreams
On a hospital bed at the California Dream Institute, Cal woke up flushed and clammy. And furious. He’d failed again to control his dream.
“That was a bad nightmare.” Dr. Kline nodded to the erratic line graph that spiked like an earthquake reading. She pulled the electrodes from his forehead. “Did you catch that bad guy you’re always after?”
“Not yet. Next time.”
Her ruby lips parted into that delicious smile. His tortured dreams were almost worth the reward of her fingertips on his skin.
“Your pulse is still high.” She ripped electrodes from his chest.
“Ow.” Cal studied her, his face stoic. Always stoic. The rapid heart rate readings? That would be Dr. Kline’s proximity. A secret that would never be revealed. He needed to keep her safe from Bob.
Bob. Cal had chosen the most innocuous name he could for his nemesis, to take some semblance of power away from the demon who haunted his dreams nightly.
Cal could have named Bob what he really was—Brain-Eater.
Noticing his own fear, he repeated to himself, Bob. Bob. Bob. The mantra always grounded him.
Like a ribbon in a gentle breeze, Dr. Kline floated into a leather seat and crossed her legs. God, she was perfect.
“Cal, how many more times are we going to do this?” Her smile looked suddenly… placed there, for politeness’ sake.
He felt a rush of disappointment but knew it was for the best that she wasn’t interested—in him, or the experiment. “Until you stop taking my money, or I catch Bob.”
“Bob. The guy in the dream.”
Cal frowned playfully to hide a cringe. “Yes, the… guy in the dream.”
She frowned and slipped on black-rimmed glasses, and somehow got even prettier. “Cal—I’m not sure this is the right approach. You believe your nightmares will stop if you actually catch—and kill—Bob?”
“Ah, yes. You think I need a shrink.”
She leaned uncomfortably close to Cal’s face. “I think you need a friend. Tell me about Bob. Please. Maybe… maybe I can help. I have a good imagination, I’m open-minded, and I don’t have a judgmental bone in my body. Come on. It’s been two months. I think I’ve earned your trust by now.”
Cal considered it. He longed to tell her everything. But—then Bob would come for her, too. Bob was attracted to fear. Bob said that fear made the brain taste good. Something about the flood of adrenaline.
Dr. Kline smacked her lips at Cal’s evasive silence, glanced at the clock—five p.m.—and stood up. “That’s it. This is way against protocol, but…” she closed the door and snapped shut the blinds, “… this is an emergency.” She walked to her desk and pulled out a bottle of whiskey. Grabbing beakers, she poured two stiff drinks. She shoved a glass in his hand and commanded, “Drink. Now.”
Chuckling under his breath, Cal muttered, “Drinking.”
“To Bob, may he rot in hell.”
Cal shot her a shocked glance, but she was kicking off her shoes and nestling back into her chair. He composed himself and said blankly, “To Bob.”
She downed the whiskey in a cheek-rounding gulp. He followed suit, and she poured them another one. Stiffer than the last.
The clock ticked on the wall. Tic-tic-tic… mesmerizing and oblique and fuzzy.
He saw her lips moving, chatting about minutia, her voice blending with the clock. He was getting quite drunk. Otherwise, he never would have done it. He never would have said it. But he simply couldn’t help himself. “Bob is real.”
“Aha! I knew the whiskey would work!” She stabbed a finger at him. “Wait. So—you know Bob, in real life?”
Cal shook his head. Here goes nothing. “No. Bob’s a demon. He visits people in their dreams, and he kills them if they get scared.”
She frowned, obviously attempting to sober up. “Kills them—for real?”
Cal nodded. “Seventeen dead so far, in the ten years I’ve been aware of him.”
She folded her arms and sat back in her chair, looking skeptical as hell. “What are their names? These victims.”
This was Cal’s ace in the hole. He pulled out a folded hand-written list from his pants pocket. “Here. Google these names, if you want. They’re all dead. And I saw each and every one of them in a dream the night before they died. Bob killed them in my dream. The next day—they’re dead, in real life.”
Dr. Kline snatched the note and her phone and did a quick Internet search. She got two people into it and narrowed her eyes. “Okay. So, you have dead people on a list. You could have gotten those names from…”
“The newspaper. Yeah, yeah. Check the dates.”
She studied the coffee-stained, hand-written note that he’d obviously been carrying for ages. “So… at first glance, it looks as though you wrote their names the day before they died.”
Cal nodded. “That is correct. I’d wake up from a nightmare and write the name of the person in my dream—the one being terrorized by Bob.”
She shook her head, her hair falling in her face. She swatted it back. “You could have just written the wrong date after the fact.”
Cal was drunk, yes. But—he was aware that he had a chance to shut his mouth—to shrug and laugh and pretend it was all a joke. Instead, he murmured as quietly as he could, “Check the back.”
Screw it. He raised his voice. “Check the back of the note. What I just wrote down a moment ago, while you were pouring drinks.”
She flipped the note and read the most recent item on the list. “John Embers. October 30th.” She looked up curiously. “That’s today.”
Cal nodded, already feeling guilty for involving her.
She squinted, thinking. “So—according to what you’ve told me, this… John Embers was just killed in your nightmare—the dream you experienced here in my office, not an hour ago.”
Cal nodded. “Yes, that is correct.”
“Bob—scared him to death?”
Again. A moment where Cal could shut his damned mouth and leave the pretty lady out of it.
Dr. Kline refilled their glasses. “To John Embers, may he beat the odds.” She downed her drink, and Cal followed suit.
He just couldn’t keep quiet. “Bob didn’t scare John to death. He scared him into immobility. When they’re scared, he can make them immobile. And then he…” for god’s sake Cal, shut up. This was the point of no return. It was the whiskey. Or maybe Cal was tired of sharing the burden alone. He blurted out, “He makes them frozen with fear, and then he eats their brains.”
Dr. Kline did something completely unexpected. She laughed. Not just laughed, but the gut-wrenching, arms wrapped around the belly, tear and snot and drool kind of hysterical laugh that borderlines on mania. She toppled to the floor, squealing. “Oh—oh—my god, I’m dying here!” She sat up abruptly, serious for a split second. “Oh—get it? Dying? Oh, no, it must be BOB!” Peals of giddy sniggering continued.
Cal was at a loss. In a way, it snapped him back and cleared his head. She didn’t believe him. Good. Time to do the right thing. Cal smirked. “You liked that, huh? I got you!” he forced a dark chuckle. “I’d better catch a cab home tonight. We’re still on for tomorrow, same place, same time?”
She wiped her nose on the sleeve of her doctor’s smock and managed to control herself. She even feigned sobriety. She remembered she was a doctor with a patient, and it was pretty damned funny to see her stand up, put her hand out for a professional handshake, and trip over her shoes. Too drunk to blush, she shoved her toes into her high heels—on the wrong feet—and opened the door. “Same place, same time. Good night, Cal.”
The next day, Cal entered the office, and there stood Dr. Kline, white as a sheet.
He pressed his lips to hide a smile. Hung over, are we, doc? Turns out, that wasn’t the problem.
“What the fuck, Cal?” She held her phone to his face. The screen showed a story about the mysterious death, of one John Embers.
Cal squeezed his eyes shut. “Told you.”
“Did you do it, Cal?” Her voice was ice.
His eyes flew open again. “What? No! Of course, not. I told you. It was…”
“Bob? Your imaginary friend from your dreams? You’re seriously going to blame… Bob?” Dr. Kline looked equal parts furious and… scared.
Oh shit. No, no. Don’t be scared! “I went straight home last night. I swear.” His face brightened. “The taxi driver! He can tell you—he dropped me off at home!”
“You could have taken your car afterward…”
“My car was here!”
“You could have taken another taxi. Enough, Cal, tell me what happened. The truth, this time.”
Cal was at a loss for words. He slumped into the leather chair. “It wasn’t me.”
“We’ll see about that,” she snapped. “He’s probably your neighbor. You probably walked there. I’m checking where he lives…”
Cal watched her eyes widen in confusion as she tapped the phone screen, and he knew he had won the day. “He’s not from here, is he? They’re from all over the world. Bob’s victims. One was from India. The closest one so far was in Kentucky. Where did John die?”
“Australia,” she whispered and sank onto the hospital bed. “He died in Melbourne, in his office. Just keeled over and died.”
She stared intently at him. “His brains were not eaten. There wasn’t one word about brains.”
Call shook his head. “No. That’s just how he kills them in the nightmare. I think it marks them for death, and the next day they just drop dead of ‘mysterious causes.’”
“I’m a doctor. There’s no such thing as ‘mysterious causes.’ You have a stroke, an embolism, a heart attack…”
“Or they can’t find a single anomaly, as in Bob’s victims. That’s how you know.”
“Know what, exactly?”
“That Bob killed them.”
She opened her mouth to argue but had nothing to say.
She jumped up. “Get on the table.” She grabbed him surprisingly roughly and made him lie down. She slapped electrodes on his temples and chest. “God damn you, Cal, you are making me feel insane. I am a doctor. An educated, rational doctor. So, here’s what we’re going to do. You are going to have another nightmare. You’ll write down the name, and then we both spend the night, here. And we don’t leave. Not to eat, not to pee.”
“What if I have to…”
“Shut up, Cal, and go to sleep. You will not make me look like a quack. There is a logical explanation. I am proving your theory wrong.”
“Very well.” Cal was back to his stoic self. And falling asleep on command was never an issue. Bob only ate brains during Cal’s sleep. Bob had told him before, that when Cal didn’t sleep, Bob went hungry. So, Cal was the most sleep-deprived person on the planet. Still, a human goes mad with too little sleep. So, Cal had decided to purposefully sleep, with the aid and supervision of a sleep doctor—the ravishing Dr. Kline, to be precise. And Cal was absolutely determined to find a way to kill Bob.
Dr. Kline dimmed the lights. Cal heard the quiet whirring of the monitors and gave his heavy eyes permission to close.
Dr. Kline said something funny as he faded off to sleep: “You know, they say that every character in your dreams is yourself.”
Yes, thought Cal, I’d heard that before, too. Of course, it didn’t apply to Bob, who was an actual demon.
But—what if it were true? What if Cal was Bob? No. That’s not right. What if Bob was Cal? Somehow? And, if Cal could manifest Bob, could he therefore control Bob? Cal was astounded by this revelation—this theory—and was anxious to put it to the test.
Cal opened his eyes to a haze of white.
There he was. Bob. Looking very much the demon he was. Red skin, horns, and a tail. Cal had long ago figured that Bob’s image had been created in Cal’s mind with the help of the Hollywood stereotype. It didn’t make Bob any less real.
“I smell fear.” Bob hissed, his black lips curled into a seductive smile. “She’s very pretty.”
Cal’s heart jerked in his chest. No! Not Dr. Kline! He hadn’t said it aloud. Nevertheless, Bob answered, “Yes. Dr. Kline.”
Cal glowered. “She’s not scared in the least. She is a scientist. She doesn’t believe in you. Sorry, but today, you starve.”
Bob’s eyes drilled into Cal’s. “Oh, my, yes, she is scared. Terrified.” His forked tongue stroked slowly across his lips. “I can’t wait to taste her.” He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply as if smelling a steak on a barbecue.
“You won’t touch her. I can promise you that.”
Bob grinned lustfully. “You’re scared, Cal. You like this one. That’s even more enticing. It’s your fault she’s going to die. How does that make you feel?”
Cal’s hair stood on the back of his neck, his throat dry.
Bob’s eyes rolled half closed, aroused by the smell of Cal’s fear. He took a deep, staggered breath. “More. I want more. I’m so…” his head turned sharply to Cal, “… hungry.”
Cal bolted, his terror building. He ran, blind, through the white mist, and careened straight into Bob, whose nails dug into Cal’s shoulders, holding him still. In a sing-song rasp, Bob said, “She’s scared; so scared! She sees the monitor. It’s spiking all over the place. She thinks I’m killing you. She thinks I’m…” Bob leaned into Cal’s ear, “…eating your brain.”
Cal remembered the strange thought—about Bob and him being the same character. And so, Cal calmed himself. He took a deep, cleansing breath and filled his heart with the truth—that he was in love with Dr. Kline. Cal let the pure love fill his essence. Not the lust—that needed to be put aside. Cal focused instead on the sweet, deep, ache he felt every time she bit her pencil, or twirled that one curl of hair that rested on her shoulder or offered her soft handshake for their daily greeting. The scent of the room when she was in it. The times she’d jiggle her left foot.
The mist was fading noticeably. Cal hung on to the love and wore it like a shield.
Cal studied Bob’s black eyes. They looked… curious, at first. And then they widened with the realization that something was different. A change was taking place in this dream realm. Cal was gaining control.
Bob’s face contorted in rage, and he lunged at Cal.
“You are nothing but air, Bob. Nothing but air.”
Bob’s body fell right through Cal, as if Bob had no substance. Bob was evaporating.
Cal smiled. He thought of his heart monitor. He could feel his heart rate, slow and steady. And he knew Dr. Kline would be happy about that.
“No one is scared, Bob. You have nothing to feed on. You—are me. And I am you. There is only one of us.”
Bob gurgled, deep in his throat. “Yessss. Only one of us! It will be me, you fool.” He cackled with a blood lust. “I want her brain. You want her brain.”
“I want you dead, you sonofabitch.”
“Death…” Bob hissed, “is relative.” His chin jutted up and he shrieked and writhed, bathed in pleasure and pain.
Hurricane-force winds snatched and tore at Cal, but he pictured Dr. Kline’s smile, concentrating with all his might. “Go…”
Bob clawed at the air savagely.
Bob laughed manically, roaring “Brains brains brains brains!”
“hell!” Cal scissor-kicked Bob in the gut and sent him flying.
He watched as Bob split apart, atom by atom, with a piercing wail. A mush of red and black meat and rotten bones and pus swirled and funneled up to the sky with a revolting stench… and vanished.
With that, Cal opened his eyes, awake.
“Oh, thank god, I was so worried!” Dr. Kline stroked his forehead and gently pulled the electrodes off. She held his hands and sat him up. “Did you get the name of a victim?”
Cal smiled, relieved. “There was no victim. I won. He’s gone forever.” Cal couldn’t believe the close call. The next victim would have been Dr. Kline. He looked into her beautiful eyes, tempted to tell her how he felt. That it was his love for her that grounded him, that left no room for the other guy. He thought, for a sick minute, that if he were in fact, Bob, and they had joined together, then Bob would be released into the world in corporeal form. And then, there would be no stopping Bob at all.
Cal shook his head. No. It was the love that had saved him. Saved Dr. Kline, too. He dared to reach up and subtly touch that curl on her shoulder. “You were right, Dr. Kline. I was all the characters in my dream.”
Her brow furrowed. “What? I never said that.”
Cal grinned, incredulous. “Yes, you did. Just as I faded off to sleep.”
She laughed lightly. “I certainly did not. Maybe it was Bob.”
Cal was suddenly overwhelmed by her scent. He needed her. Now. Without permission, without question. He grabbed her forcefully, inhaling.
She giggled. “Cal… wow. Took you long enough.”
He groaned, deep in his throat. And pressed his teeth to her neck, her hair, her scalp, and bit, his teeth nipping her flesh.
“Ouch! Hey—you’re scaring me. Cal! Cal?” Struggling at first, her mobility slowed until she was still as a statue, her eyes widened in horror.
He opened his mouth impossibly wider, inhaling her adrenaline, and feasted.
Hey readers, you can also find this story published on Reedsy!
AND, you enjoy the macabre, Here’s another story of mine, about reaping what you sow… What Goes Up