This story is by Blade Marcantel and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The beeping was incessant. With a groan, a hand grasped in the dark to find the source. A cell phone tucked halfway under a pillow. A few finger swipes ended the noise. His eyes were still heavy, and a voice in the back of his head said to sleep just five more minutes. Sadly, there weren’t five minutes to waste.
With sluggish urgency, he stumbled out of bed and into the bathroom.
“Well hello to you, too,” he said to his messy-haired reflection in the mirror as he splashed a bit of water onto his face in an attempt to wash away the grogginess.
Today was just another day for Neil Schiff. A day just like any before it. He had just turned thirty-one a week ago, but it appeared thirty-one was just going to be a repeat of thirty, which wasn’t much different than twenty-nine. Wake-up, shower, eat breakfast, brush teeth, go to work, go home, browse the internet, go to sleep, and repeat. This was his life. Not everything that was promised when he was a kid, but it was what it was.
The hot shower was the only thing that could rip him away from the dreams. Neil had them every night now. Always in the same place. Always with the same man. A faceless man. Well, not exactly faceless, but he wore a robe with a drawn hood that created the perfect angle of shadows to hide all of his features.
It was always the same dream. The faceless man would put out his hand, and Neil could hear whispers from all directions. He would see a temple in the distance, and the whispers told him to go there. In the temple he would find his true purpose and escape the mundane existence foisted on him.
Oh well, Neil thought, boring it may be but better than some may have it. With that, he turned off the shower and finished getting ready for work.
The drive was the same. Traffic for an hour. Bumper to bumper. Horns back and forth. A stray curse word that he heard from time to time since he had to roll his window down to cool off. His old beater of a car didn’t have working A/C. It didn’t have a radio either, so the occasional road rage could be a little bit of entertainment at least.
Neil arrived at work five minutes early, grabbed coffee, and clocked in. For the next eight hours, he mindlessly wrote code, checked code, rewrote code, had a meeting about code, and had a meeting about planning for a meeting about code. At least it wasn’t Thursday. Thursdays he had a one-on-one with his manager, Jake. Jake was a dickhead, and would tell Neil that his code was good, not great but good enough. Neil didn’t like Jake but just nodded and listened.
But it wasn’t Thursday. That was yesterday. Today, Neil just wrote code, checked code, had some meetings with his team, and rewrote code for eight hours. Then, it was time for the drive home.
The drive home was worse than the morning. It was about an hour and half drive on a good day. He’d normally pull in a drive-thru to grab a burger or some other fast but not very healthy dinner, which he ate while sitting in traffic.
When Neil finally got home, he’d shower and throw his PJs on. He wouldn’t normally go out again unless there was an emergency. His studio apartment was mostly quiet other than the occasional heavy footsteps of the neighbors above him. Then, he’d either browse the internet for the rest of the night, watch some Netflix, or both until it was time to sleep.
His bed was comfortable, and he sunk in for the night.
Finally, Neil thought as he slowly drifted away, let the boring day fade away into dreams.
The world was different now. He was standing in a green field. The sky rippled between blue and purple. A pale, white moon moved back and forth through the sky. A temple rose from the horizon. He’d seen the temple before but never completed the journey to it.
Tonight was the night. As Neil moved toward it, it felt as if each step became heavier. It was as if he was walking through molasses but was determined and pushed ahead.
The temple was closer than it had ever been, but time felt like it slowed with each step taking monumental effort. Neil could see the temple was made of white stone. It appeared to be freshly laid. The moon had stopped above it now, and the sky glew an eerie green.
“And here you are at last,” boomed a voice.
Neil stopped when realized he was at the foot of the temple. The stones were gray and appeared to be ancient.
The wooden door of the temple opened, and the faceless man walked out. He wore his usual white robe with the hood drawn up.
“Who are you,” asked Neil. It was the first time he had heard the man speak and the first time he had ever addressed him. “I keep seeing you. Is any of this real?”
The faceless man continued to walk toward Neil. “Real? Real is a relative term, Neil.”
“How do you know my name?”
They were now standing, for the first time, face to face. “We know everyone. We’ve seen everyone. We know their dreams. We know their desires. We know their destiny.”
“We? Who are you and who are they?”
“I don’t have a name anymore. None of us do. We gave it up long ago before your world even existed. Now we walk these realms.
These realms you and yours visit when you sleep. Come.” The faceless man motioned for Neil to follow him up the temple stairs.
As they walked, the sky melted in on itself several times going from green to purple to blue. A vortex of colors spiraling in and out. The temple changed from stone to wood to steel and back to stone.
They stopped for a moment, and the moon cracked apart, spilling liquid light across the world. The faceless man motioned onward through the temple door.
When they entered, there was nothing. It was just a white landscape as far as the eye could see. Neil looked back through the door, the only exit, to see the endless green fields vanishing as the doorway closed.
Now Neil and the faceless man stood in the completely blank realm with no exists.
“I don’t understand. Where are we? What is this place? Who are you?”
“I am…was…a Dreamwalker, a custodian of the World of Dreams.” The faceless man spread his arms wide. “This is that world, and the place you were just in was an extension of that world. Beings from across time and space come here when they sleep. My brethren watch over these realms and I watch over these realms and those who visit.”
“Was? What do you want with me?”
“Well, Neil, I need your help.”
“Help with what?”
The white of the room began to tear. Darkness filled the tears and misshapen hands reached out. The area above the two was filled with a shattered moon, and dead grass filled the ground below their feet.
“To escape, Neil. To go to your world and claim it for my master. Oh, Neil,” the faceless man said as he slid a hand up Neil’s cheek,”we’ve worked hard to find the right people. The ones that are bored and restless and lure you to our realm outside the World of Dreams. Welcome to the realm of Nightmares.”
Neil started to back away as the other man’s white robes withered and grayed. Bats and creatures of otherworldly designs began to pour from the tears in the sky. Terrors filled Neil’s vision.
“The Nightmares will devour all, and you will be our vessel,” whispered the withered man.
A loud crash filled Neil’s ears as a doorway exploded open and another faceless man entered, wielding lightning in his hand like a whip.
“Stand back, traitor,” shouted the newly arrived robed figure while cracked his whip at the withered man.
“So close,” snarled the withered man.
“Flee from here, dreamer, I will hold him back.”
A doorway opened behind the man. Neil moved toward it, but the withered man grabbed his arm.
“We will devour all.” The faceless man whipped his lighting in their direction, distracting the withered man long enough for Neil to pull away, tearing the man’s robe. Without further hesitation, he hurried through the doorway.
Neil opened his eyes, and he was laying in his bedroom. The alarm beeped incessantly. He groaned and dug around the bed for the cell phone to turn off.
“What a dream,” he said. “They’re always more interesting than real life.” Then, he realized he was gripping something in his other hand. Neil lifted it up to see a swath of withered, gray fabric.