Somebody’s Nightmare

The world is full of daylight places that remain the same irrespective of what time or state you visit them in. However, there are also places that thrive in the shadows and on the edges of reason, and that you can only ever find in the darkest corners of night. The Bazaar is one of those places.

“Nightmare Outlet”, the sign read. Its rusty relief letters provided less information than they raised questions, and he wasn’t really sure what had even lead him to this lonely storage building in the middle of the night. He only knew that he was here now, and that he had come to the right place. This was the night when his life-long nocturnal torments would finally end.

The guard at the entrance eyed the newcomer suspiciously before letting him through, and once he was inside he understood the precaution. The vast space between the tall walls was cluttered with tables, stands and small tents. It looked like one of those places where people came together to sell old stuff they’d dug forth from the darkest corner of their garages, and this impression was not entirely wrong. Only this garage sale had a more sinister alignment.

This was a dark market, but not your everyday such. No, this was the darkest market, because the currency of the Bazaar was fears and night terrors.

It was hard to see very far into the hall, both because of the dense crowd but also because it was very dark. Still, many of the traders had decorated their stands with small lanterns in a wide variety of colours, lighting the darkness afire with dim sparks of eerie red, spectral blue and ghostly purple. The murmuring backdrop of the mysterious scene suggested that the newcomer was far from the only visitor tonight, but the gloom prevented him from seeing more than three or four yards in front of him.

The stand closest to the entrance was occupied by a small, grey man who eyed him up and down before shooting him a sinister smile.

“Are yah sellin’ or buyin’?”, he croaked.

“I’m… just looking around”, he replied nervously.

The little relic of a man nodded and raised his wrinkled hand to wave the newcomer along, but then seemed to change his mind.

“Say, lad, are ye havin’ nightmares ye can’t get rid of?” His mouth stretched into a grin that did not make him look any more friendly at all.

“Well… Yeah, I guess”, he answered after a moment of hesitation. “I guess I have”.

The man nodded knowingly. “A pain they are, those little buggers. Indeed…”

He chewed his worn pipe and seemed to consult with himself for a moment. Then he continued, in the manner of the experienced haggler: “Would ye be interested in ridding yourself of those, for a small price?” His smile widened and seemed suddenly to cover more space than his face should possibly be able to allow for.

The newcomer didn’t like the look of this smile, and excused himself as politely but hastily as he could. As he fled deeper into the building the little man shrank back into his shadows, shaking his head sullenly.

Having left the salesman by the entrance behind, unsettled by him in ways he could not explain, the newcomer strolled along one of the paths between the stands and witnessed wonders he had never imagined in his waking state. Salesmen whispered or yelled from the darkness beyond the light of their colorful lanterns, trying to draw attention to their unusual wares. The things up for sale were contained in jars, bottles or other transparent containers, and varied in color as much as the various lanterns that illuminated them.

He stopped at a stand where many people seemed to have gathered. He could not see what had drawn everyone’s attention; to him these particular flasks and cans looked no more or less mysterious than all the others had done that he had seen so far. Nevertheless, the path that led past this particular stand was clogged almost completely – to the obvious irritation of the salesmen on either side, who vainly tried to catch the attention of the curious congregation.

A radio played a steady but quiet rhythm of drums and sleepy flutes. As the newcomer stretched to see what was so special about this stand, he saw its serious looking owner holding forth a large, corked bottle containing dark, rippling smoke.

“…and this is a night spook springing directly from the mind of the man who brought us the tales about the sleeping Old God himself”, the salesman exclaimed gravely as he held the bottle up for all to see. “You will not get this one cheaply, but it is well worth every single one of the cars you’d have to sell. And better yet, it is one of the inexhaustible ones. You can dream it every night for years, and still it will not dry out. Of course you’d have to be incredibly lucky not to walk gibberingly mad away from such a repeated use of it, but” – the last word was a loud cry that made the first row of people jump – “you should not let that deter you from the deal of your lifetime, ladies and gentlemen! Do I have an offer on this fabulous nightmare? The bidding starts at…”

The newcomer was no longer listening, but had begun pushing through the crowd to reach the less cluttered space beyond this seemingly very popular stand. Once he had broken free he jogged a couple of steps to avoid getting sucked or pushed back into the assembly again.

“Not interested in archaic, eldritch horrors, are we?”, a voice laughed right next to him.

He jumped and turned. To his right, not two steps away, there loomed a narrow but tall stand, occupied by a hunched, robed figure whose face could only be glimpsed beneath the hem of a deep hood. The stranger had a low, rasping voice that managed to be ominous and humorous at the same time. On the table in front of him stood several empty decanters and a few curved bottles filled with a pale pink liquid that bubbled like soda.

The newcomer eyed the figure and decided that he was harmless. “No, sir. I’m tired of such things. Quite to the opposite, I’m actually looking for a way to rid myself of a few.” He put his hands in his pockets and regarded the man tryingly, anxiously waiting for the answer.

The figure chuckled and raised his head so that two piercing, white eyes met the ones of his customer. “First timer, eh?” He showed off some too-sharp teeth in a wide smile and rubbed his hands together. “Very well then. Let’s cut to the chase then, shall we?”

He then produced several bottles from beneath his table, all of them filled with dark liquids moving around like smoke inside their containers. His customer regarded the collection nervously, secretly preparing to run away at the very first sign of this being some kind of sinister trick.

The salesman noted this. “Be not afraid, lad. The corks are in and the contents are sleeping safely right now.” His customer flinched slightly as a bottle of swirling dark liquid was pressed into his hands. “Now look at it closely!”

And the newcomer did. The darkness inside was swimming around sluggishly, forming and reforming in cloudy shapes that sometimes seemed to resemble terrible things just outside the reach of his imagination. Suddenly a small, red eye blinked sleepily open and regarded him menacingly from the other side of the glass, only to then slowly close again and disappear into the smoke. He hastily returned the bottle to the salesman, deep horror stirring at the back of his mind. “Very… very nice”, he stammered unconvincingly.

The salesman regarded him with an amused expression. “Do you know what it is?”, he asked as he put the bottle back on the table. The customer shook his head and the salesman nodded knowingly. “I didn’t think so. These, lad”, he said and made a gesture comprising both the dark bottles and the pink ones, “are dreams. The darker they are, the more horrible.” He grabbed one of the light bottles and held it up so that the glow from his yellow lantern shone through it, revealing the soft shapes moving around inside. No evil eyes in this one.

“The light ones are good, nice dreams. The kind that your average sane person would want to have at night. The best ones are white, or even silver. I once heard of a one that was golden, but that kind is very rare.”

As he spoke he grabbed one of the empty bottles and shook it, revealing it not to be empty at all but filled with what seemed to be plain water. “This is not water, you know”, he continued in a low voice, as if having just read his customer’s mind.

“No?”, the other managed to squeeze out. “What is it then?” But he suspected he already knew the answer.

“It is a no-dream, that’s what it is. Ever had one of those nights when you don’t seem to have had any dream at all? Well, this is one of those nights, all bottled up and ready. Of course, the no-dreams are one use only, since there is nothing to save about them. They just are. Some dreams are more durable, and others still are inexhaustible – even though that is a very rare quality in a dream. People and minds change, you know.”

The newcomer nodded, even though he was far from sure he had understood half of what had been said. “So… Are you saying I could get one of those good-dreamy-thingies, and not have to have nightmares anymore?” He stopped, suddenly realising how childish he had just sounded. “I mean, not that nightmares bother me, you know. I am not afraid of the dark or anything… It’s just that–”

He was interrupted by a burst of amused laughter that stopped as abruptly as it had sprung up. The salesman eyed him smilingly. “Son, there are nightmares, and then there are nightmares. Anyone with their sanity in the right place would go jumping and screaming from one night with yonder cosmic vistas of uttermost horror.” He laughed and nodded towards the crowded stand a few paces away, where the other salesman was still yelling his lungs out about his dark and inexhaustible dream. “I don’t judge anyone, I just trade.”

The other did not answer, but only looked longingly at the lighter bottles on the table. The salesman saw this, and continued without waiting for an answer.

“I see that you are in need of a change of environment, as far as dreaming goes. Very well. I do not buy and I do not sell, money and earthly favours interest me little. So you’ll have to trade with me, son. What do you have to offer? The darker the dream, the higher the value of it. The black ones are the best, of course”, he added with a sarcastic laugh.

The newcomer answered with nothing but a confused look.

“Ah, you really are a first-timer”, the salesman mused. “See, this is how it is done: you describe your dreams to me, and I try to evaluate them as far as trade value goes. Then I make an offer based on that evaluation, and you chose whether to accept or to continue bargaining. It’s as simple as that. How the… transaction is done, well, that part is simple, which you’ll see for yourself when or if it comes to that.”

He eyed the customer curiously and made a beckoning gesture. “Well, what’re you waiting for? Describe your dreams to me!”

The newcomer hesitated. Then he said, with nothing but pure defeated honesty in his voice: “I don’t think I can… When I wake up the dreams are always clear in my memory, but then they fade. The only thing I know is that they scare me out of my wits and that I wake up screaming more often than not.” He looked again at the light bottles on the table, but his hope of ever owning any of them was fading by the second. “I’m sorry, but this kind of trade is probably not for me”, he said and prepared to leave.

But the salesman just chuckled. “Boy, you don’t have to leave empty-handed. Some people just can’t remember dreams, that’s natural. We have certain other methods for tackling that. Come here!”

He produced a thin tube from somewhere beneath the table, and held it out toward his customer. The latter, in turn, eyed it wonderingly. It was attached to a hand-held mirror with small levers and regulators fitted all along its metallic handle and frame.

“This is a hypno-gauge – an instrument that measures dreams. It works best when the subject is asleep, of course, but will do the trick in situations such as these as well.”

The customer accepted the end of the tube and looked at it in confusion. “So how does it work? What do I do?”

“You just breathe into your end of it, and my end will show me what I need to know. And don’t worry, I change mouth pieces between every use so it’s perfectly hygienic.”

The newcomer hesitated only for a moment before following the salesman’s instructions. Then, as soon as he started blowing air into the tube, the entire instrument started hissing and buzzing mechanically.

“Just keep it up, son, I’m getting a picture here”, the salesman muttered. Then his eyes grew wide. “What the… No, no don’t stop!” He waved his free hand frantically as he stared at the mirror’s surface.

His customer was starting to become really freaked out, however, and let go of the tube. “What is it? What did you see?”

The salesman kept staring at the now dark glass pane for a couple of seconds before putting the instrument down on the table. When he looked up again there was something new in his eyes. Fear? Reverence?

“Boy”, he said slowly, “it’s been a long time since I saw something that dark in the mind of someone alive and breathing. Bottled up, sure, but never directly from the mind that dreamt it up. If I were a lesser man, I would probably scam you for those dreams, but I’m not. I’ll tell it as it is, son. You’re sitting on a treasure trove with those nightmares of yours.”

“A… treasure trove?” He eyed the little man sceptically. “I’m sorry, but I’m finding it really difficult to believe that anyone would be prepared to pay anything for the terrors I endure every night. I for myself would give anything to get rid of them.”

But the salesman only shook his head. “No, you don’t understand. You see, ordinary nightmares are cheap, anyone can have those. But real darkness such as this, well, that’s a poison reserved for truly open, sharp and poetic minds. Many of them go mad, of course, but on the road to that fate they more often than not produce wonderful art, thoughts and poetry. Incredibly dark such, of course, but wonderful nonetheless. That’s why some people would pay dearly to acquire such nightmares; to make themselves better artists.”

“So you’re saying…?”

“I’m saying that many of the people in this building, customers and traders alike, would definitely be prepared to sacrifice their left and right hands both to secure the dream you have just shown me. Hell, I would sacrifice my hands for it, and my left ear. Selling it forward would make me rich beyond compare.”

“So… Why don’t you just take it? I don’t want it, so I guess you’d be doing us both a favour by relieving me of it.”

The salesman looked tempted, but still only shook his head again. “No, that would not be fair. Not to anyone. You see, taking on someone else’s nightmare, especially one as potently dark as yours, is a dangerous thing to do. The mind that originally dreamt it up has often developed an immunity of sorts to its more maddening effects, but another mind has never had a chance to do that. So selling it on to someone else would do them more harm than good. And I’m not that kind of vendor that puts my customers in danger for my own gain”, he said and continued:

“Besides, I also suspect that it would not help you overly much even if I took this one dream from you. A mind capable of summoning up something like this once would most likely not have the least bit of a problem doing it again. The dark dreams would probably only grow right back. On the other hand, I’d like to think that you’d be able to make great use of your dreams yourself, if you so wished.”

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean is this: That stand you passed earlier, where the dreams of that famous author were up for sale? Well, this nightmare you have here is definitely in league with his. And though that man went crazy in the end, he created fabulous worlds and stories that inspire awe and jealousy in readers and writers even today. If you just let them, your dreams could well lead you to create art just as great as his – art that would in turn inspire awe and jealousy in readers and writers during your own lifetime, and long after you yourself are dead and gone. You could become immortal, in a way. You have a gift in these dreams, and I would hate to see you throw it away due to something as childish as a fear of the dark. I will not be accessory to that, in any case.”

“So you will not help me?”

The salesman sighed. “I will not take the nightmare from you, but I can offer you a good night’s sleep free from it. One night.”

He grabbed one of the lighter bottles and held it forth. “This is a good dream, a happy and positive one. Just as so many of its kind, however, it is also nondescript and weak – and as such, it will deplete after one use. Take it, dream it, and get some rest from your darkness. But then I would advise you to dare that same darkness and let it guide you. Write. Paint. Make music. Do whatever it tells you to do, but for gods’ sake don’t remain silent – you have a rare gift, son, but it will kill you from inside if you don’t find a vent for it.”

The customer accepted the light bottle and turned it in his grip. “But I’m not a writer, a painter or a musician”, he said. “I’m just a guy with bad dreams. I don’t know how to do any of those things.”

“Then learn”, the salesman said. “It’s either that, or you’ll go mad well before your time. Your choice. But now, I’m afraid, the morrow approaches. If you want to have any calm rest tonight, I suggest you drink that light dream right away.”

“Drink it, just like that?”

“Yes, open the bottle and drink. Don’t spill any of it, or you will have very confused and incoherent dreams.”

“But, shouldn’t I pay you?”

“As I said, I don’t buy or sell. I’m a trader, and what I want from you in this trade is remembrance. If you actually decide to create something, weave a piece of me into it. A mention or a quote. Creatures such as I cannot die unless forgotten, and being remembered in great art could well grant us immortality. Do this small thing for me, and we’re even.”

The darkness of the room, the sweet incense on the air and the salesman’s low, melodic voice created a surreal atmosphere that made it hard to think straight. The newcomer was confused. I came here to get rid of my nightmares, and now this man is telling me to use them. Is it possible that he is right – could I really create great art? He found himself nodding slowly to the other man’s words, and before he knew it he had made a decision.

“I will”, he said, and uncorked the bottle with the light liquid inside. He made sure not to spill the smallest drop as he downed its contents in a single, long draught.

The salesman nodded approvingly and rubbed his hands together. “Good”, he said. “And if you’re ever in lack of inspiration, don’t hesitate to come back here. I’ll gladly provide you with whatever kind of dreams you could possibly find yourself in need of.”

He might have said something more, but in that case his customer didn’t hear him. Because the edges of the scene had begun to blur, its colours to fade and its noises to warp into a single drone without any sense or rhyme. And then the bazaar and all its traders and customers were suddenly gone, replaced instead by good, happy and very, very nondescript dreams.

***

He didn’t wake up screaming the next morning. In fact, he awoke feeling more rested and awake than he had done for longer than he could remember. The memories from his happy, light dream faded as soon as he opened his eyes, but the feeling from it lingered with him the entire morning.

Still he knew deep down that what he was feeling was only a loan; this was somebody else’s happy dream, and however calm and restful, dreams such as this were not for him. He did not know how he knew this, or why he associated the knowledge with some half-forgotten memory of a bazaar he was sure he’d never actually visited. Maybe this was a memory from another dream.

This one peaceful night, however, had given him a respite from his prevailing sleep deprived despair, and suddenly he knew exactly what he had to do.

He made himself a cup of tea and booted up his computer. He was not a writer, a painter or a musician, just a guy with bad dreams that were slowly driving him insane. He hadn’t created a meaningful thing in his life, but somehow he now felt that this was a good day to start. It was almost as if someone had told him so in a dream, but that was of course impossible.

“The world is full of daylight places that remain the same irrespective of what time or state you visit them in”, he wrote.

It just felt like a good beginning.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-03-17

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Blessing

This Writober didn’t go exactly as I had planned. One text a day is obviously not going to happen this year, but hopefully one text every week. Here is the first one, inspired by H.P Lovecraft and a writing prompt which might be a bit of a spoiler. I recommend you read the text first. Also, feel free to comment!


I can hear the waves rolling against the outer walls, the sea crashing towards shore with the ferocity of a maddened deity. The floorboards creak underneath my feet as I move over to the window. There is light outside, bright whiteness leaving a burning rectangular shape across my broken retina for minutes after I step back into the darkness. It is the waning light of day filtering its way through the heavy clouds, but I can tell it as such only due to my knowledge of deeper darkness – I have never seen the sun.

There is fire in the furnace but it is for warmth purely – that, and the limited comfort provided my senses by the homely crackling of the burning logs and the amber glow it gives to all other nebulous shapes in the room. Comfort is otherwise of limited supply in this godforsaken place at the edge of existence, and even the fire is burning low now for lack of fuel.

I find my way over to the door; rough, weathered pieces of wood keeping the elements out and my sparse sanity inside. The tower has many doors but in the way of keys I have only one. Its chain rattles in my grip as I let it find its way into the lock and provoke from the rusted mechanism a tortured groan by forcing it to turn. The storm immediately pries its salty fingers into the small opening and tears the handle from my grasp, slamming the door against the outer wall with a sound that is instantly devoured by the thunder from the sky.

I move down the three stone steps onto firm ground and start to count as I make my way towards the shed. The hurried rhythm of the waves helps me keep my pace as I step over well known obstacles and duck beneath familiar branches and structures. Their shapes reveal themselves as faint silhouettes against the otherwise white nothingness that reign all around me. I reach the small building and hurry inside, relieved to be on safe ground once more. Though I have lived on this island for as long as my memory stretches I have yet to map all its winding paths and parts. Venturing outside is always a gamble with fate and on a storm ridden day like this the well known might very well have taken on unanticipated changes. It is on days like this – and on nights like the one approaching even more so – that I most strongly regret the fact that I cannot see.

I collect the logs while the elements conduct Stygian symphonies outside the flimsy walls. The roof rattles, threatening to tear from its anchors at any moment and fly crashing into the awaiting void. It is going to hold, however. This storm is neither the first nor the worst to ravage this island and its timeless buildings. They have been standing since long before I arrived and are going to last for decades, if not centuries, after I am gone. My arms full and my mind set I gather my resolve and my courage and step once again out into the ravenous and blinding nothing.

The rhythm of the waves has intensified but I still try to keep its pace as I count my way back across the familiar unseen. The thunder is right overhead now and every third heartbeat is accompanied by a flash of searing lightning temporarily wiping out even the contours of my well known obstacles. I have covered half the distance when I lose my count once and then twice. Then I lose my footing and fall onto the wet ground.

I scratch my hands on the uneven rocks and the logs are scattered everywhere. I can feel that I am bleeding, warm stickiness trickling down my palms and my wrists and into the already soaked sleeves of my sweater. Another flash of lightning is immediately joined by the roar of thunder. The sound of the waves is different from my sprawled position, closer, hungrier. Panic rising in my mind I struggle to get back up but I trip on a fallen log and fall again. I search around with my injured hands but I cannot feel the path anymore and I have lost count of my steps together with all sense of direction. Worse still, the sky is darkening by the minute and soon I shall not be able to see even the silhouettes around me.

When once again I manage to get to my feet I am completely lost. The only familiar shapes are the few wooden logs scattered around me. I cannot be far from the path but for the life of me I cannot find it. Well knowing that I am alone I am still unable to stop myself; I scream for help and hear my hopeless call being at once swallowed by the furious wind and rain tearing the warmth from my face and fingers. There is no one here to help me, I am alone and if I don’t find my way inside before long the darkness will rob me of any chance to find shelter from the storm.

It is then that I realize what is going to save me. I have not mapped all the island’s winding paths and parts but I have walked around it several times over the years and I know how to get back to the tower from the water’s edge. The sea can not be far and all I have to do is to follow the rocky slope as is descends towards the roaring waves. I regather as many of the logs as I can find and start walking, careful where I put my feet. Being close to the water during a storm such as this one is dangerous but it is a measure I must take in order to get home.

The slope is steep but I manage to keep my footing and soon I can feel the polished pebbles rattle underneath the soles of my shoes. I start walking along the shoreline, carefully feeling my surroundings in order to orient myself and determine where I must begin to climb to reach the tower. I let my hand fumble across the rock surface on my right as I walk forward. The din of the storm is deafening down here and the froth of the crashing waves splash against my face as I walk.

Everything is different from the last time I was down here. The wind and the sea must have moved driftwood and other objects to a degree where I can no longer tell if I have walked too far or have a long way yet to go. I have never felt so alone as I do now when the last of daylight seeps from my world and denies me even the blurry outlines of things around me. Despairing I realize that I could walk along the shore for hours and still be caught in the storm and cold and rain. For the first time the realization strikes me that I might actually die tonight. Then my hand touches something even colder than the wind and I stop in my thoughts and my steps.

It is a small metal box. I have no idea how old it is but the rust on its surface tells me that it must have been sitting here on the rocky shelf for many years. My cold fingers fumble as I open the lid and feel what is inside. The box is empty save for one thing and my heart skips a beat. Two thick glass lenses connected by bowed metal wires; I am holding a pair of spectacles in my shaking hands. Breathless, not knowing what to expect, I put them on and immediately the darkness around me changes.

I can see the shore, the waves, the clouds on the darkening sky. The cliffs on my right are weathered and polished by thousands and thousands of years of elemental abuse and the pebbles underneath my feat all have different colors in the gloom. I stare, forgetting to breath for several seconds. The world is dark but for the first time in my remembered life I can see it. And high above the cliffs in front of me, looming amongst the thundering clouds, I can make out the topmost pinnacle of a tall tower. In a frenzy of newly acquired ability and determination I start climbing the cliffs, all the while marveling at the cracks and crevices that I am now able to experience with more than my cold, fumbling fingers. I am not going to die, I am going to live. And when I reach the summit of the cliff, I will see for the first time what my lifetime world actually looks like. My heart is racing in my chest, exhaustion and excitement fighting for dominance. But before any of them emerges victorious I reach the top and my heart stops entirely.

Before me stretches a world I know so well but yet not at all. I have felt it, smelled it, heard it. I have ducked under its dead branches and climbed over its fallen architecture. I have walked along its broken paths and I have harvested its resources. But never have I guessed, never have I understood. The looming tower, my borrowed home, stretches towards the sky like a giant’s misshapen finger. The buildings around it mirror its unfathomable design with their geometric profanity. A million paradoxical windows stare down at me from heights so distant as to make the thought of them vertiginous.

I find myself unable to close my eyes. With blinding clarity the ungodly city where I have lived my life reveals itself to me and I realize with rising nausea that this place has not been built by the hands of man. And then I see the light shining from the windows at the top of my tower, and I also realize for the first time that I am not as alone as I have believed. Lightning moves across the sky and someone, something, briefly blocks out the light in one of the tall windows. The horrendous shape of it etches itself onto my broken retina and can never be unseen.

The hungry sea and its sharp stone teeth rise up to meet me as I let go of the cliff and throw myself backwards. And even when I close my eyes in those final moments I still see that silhouette burning on the inside of my eyelids, reminding me that in the face of such madness blindness is a blessing. Then a sharp pain before all is merciful darkness once more.