Outside a lukewarm rain fell from a flat, slate-grey sky onto an equally featureless, colorless city. Inside it was mostly quiet.
The bare walls of the two-room apartment had once been white, when the apartment had been as new and full of hope as the greedy dreams of its landlord. Somewhere along the way it had been repainted an unpleasant shade of watery green. Now it was only dull and resigned, like the hopeless and cynical dreams of its tenant.
The front room housed an empty refrigerator, a rusty table and a lopsided chair in which that tenant still sat, staring sightlessly at the faded greenish wall, his face frozen in a strained, frightened expression. The color had always made him feel as if he were underwater; almost as if he were drowning. Add it to the long list of things he had wanted to escape.
Behind him on the floor was a jambox with dual cassette decks; one of the few luxuries he had allowed himself. He hardly ever had any money left over after paying rent and buying a few scant groceries to keep from starving. His job delivering pizzas didn't pay much; most of his meals consisted of leftover pizza that would have been consigned to the dumpster if he hadn't grabbed them first. What little money he did have, he spent on cheap cassette tapes. He'd tape hours and hours of radio programs and dub the songs he liked the most onto another cassette, but only the songs that really touched him in just the right way, songs that somehow made him feel free for two minutes and fifty-nine seconds, or songs that seemed to empathize with his own
omnipresent bleakness of mood. Against one wall were several three-foot high stacks of cassettes, each carefully labeled as to artist and song title. There was a soft click as the tape in the jambox auto-reversed and began playing again. It was Townes Van Zandt singing "Dead Flowers," an old Rolling Stones song.
Send me dead flowers every morning . . .
There was another, louder click and the steady hum of an air conditioning unit made the apartment thrum softly as slightly cooler and less stale air drifted through both rooms. The soft breeze fluttered timidly against the brittle pages of an old book lying open on the table. The small table stood in the corner of the room, alongside a window shuttered with dusty grey blinds, and inside the confines of a sprawling circular design that in some ways resembled a five-pointed star, and in some other ways resembled nothing that anyone would find familiar. Anyone, that is, but the resident of the apartment, and perhaps, others who had seen what he had seen, and knew what he had known.
He had been studying the old book for a long time. Weeks, months, maybe years, in the end he hadn't been able to remember just how long it had been. Not that it mattered. By the time he had hastily scribbled the design on the floor, time had essentially become meaningless to him; he only felt that there wouldn't be enough of it, in the end.
A fresh burst of rain slammed down with redoubled force, accompanied by a close lightning strike that bleached the dusky day bright white for a split second, then darkened again with a thunderclap that crashed and rolled away slowly, grumbling and dissatisfied in the distance. He showed no sign of awareness of the noise or the flash.
He had felt it might come to this; had known it would probably come to this, in the end. But it almost, almost hadn't mattered, because he had learned to dream. Not the pale, two-dimensional, barely remembered dreams of common men; not the dreams that came with little reason or meaning and left one only with vague feelings of confusion, humor, or terror. Not the happy, faithful dreams of youth or the wistful wishful dreams of age. Not those. He had learned to dream the dreams of things far removed from the dim reflections of the subconscious mind, of places that never were, and never could be except in the phantasmagorical dimensions of dream. The dreams of stranger things, and places, and people, and other things that weren't people. The old book had held the key.
The old book. It had told him of the places he would dream of, and how he should dream of them. How to dream of things that the human imagination could barely wrap itself around, how to shape those things into sights and sounds and symbols he could understand and use. It had warned him of the things that would come into his dreams, the things that weren't people, the things that there were no dream-symbols for, nothing for him to shape into something he could understand, the things wholly alien to human intelligence and the space in which humans lived. The dreams of those things, the old book had said, sometimes impinged on the dreams of humans, and where those dreams overlapped, a whole new world resulted; a world full of strange wonders and bizarre terrors. So they would come into his dreams, the old book had warned, but there were ways to elude them, if one were strong enough, and careful enough.
He had first dreamed of huge, bare stone stairs, each step almost as tall as a man, that he had laboriously clambered down, farther and farther each time, until finally he had descended to a dark forest that stretched away and away into an eternal twilight where it never rained, never saw moon or sun or sky. The strange twilight forest was lit only by a strange phosphorescence that glowed from the grey fungi covering the forest floor.
Farther. Through the shadowy forest where curious, small, furry things tittered and rustled in the underbrush until he had emerged upon a vast, open, sunburned plain, dotted only with bare scrubby bushes, the air filled with the warm scent of baked earth. Here, the bleached, dry bones of another man, another dreamer who had lost his way. There, other bones, not of a man, but of something he hoped he would never encounter in a living form.
He had dreamed again and again. Following the signs given in the old book, forming the symbols within his mind, creating the dreams from out of himself, down the stairs, through the forest, and across the plain. Finally, there on the edge of the plain, he came to a vast, cold mountain where a frigid wind whistled continuously during daylight and howled through the night, slacking only to whisper unwanted secrets in the twilight of every dawn. In daylight the mountaintop was hidden by frosty swirls of gelid clouds, and at night it was lit by strange fires that seemed somehow heatless and forbidding in the distance. There were answers on that mountaintop. He knew because the old book had spoken of the ancient gods who still played in their hidden eyries where no human had ever gone. No human, except an old priest of the dreamworld who had once been so filled with pride and audacity that he had tried. He had climbed the mountain one night when the moon was unexpectedly eclipsed, and he had never been seen again. There were secrets in the old book, however, secrets the old priest hadn't known, secrets that would grant him power to question the ancient gods who slumbered restlessly on the mountaintop. Up the mountain he had dreamed, into the whispering wind and through rocky steeps that seemed bent on hurling him down, down onto the gaunt, craggy plain where those bones were, those bones that must have belonged to some other dreamer who came before him, came and was lost, lost and never found, never found because there was no one to find him. One night he thought he felt the brush of great, leathery wings in the blackness of that rocky mountainside, but whether the thing meant to threaten him or to protect him, he couldn't tell.
In the lurid yellow light of the following morning he had reached the windblasted peak where a dark, bent tower curled like a single skeletal claw into the sky. It was there in the tower that he had finally met the thing the old book had both promised and warned him of. There he had learned the truth about the ancient gods who lived on the mountain, how they were only pale shadows of the unknowable things that dwelled in the vast inconceivable expanse of space and sometimes reached through the foggy dimensions of dream to bring horror and madness to those in the waking world. He had learned of the thing that lived in the tower and spoke with a veiled face, and then that thing had removed its veil. It was those infinite abyssal eyes that pierced him when the veil fell that had sent him howling down the mountain, howling like the wind that whipped him at every stride, screaming the secrets aloud that the cold wind had whispered to him so insistently at every twilight dawn.
He had awakened in the other room on his narrow, sagging bed. Feverishly, he had scrambled into this room with the table and the chair and scrawled the signs on the walls that might keep the thing from coming through, keep that thing that had looked into him as he had dreamed himself up that mountainside from reaching across the grey walls of dreams into his awakening mind. He knew it would follow him, because the old book had warned him, and he knew he had been neither careful enough to avoid it nor strong enough to withstand it. Swiftly, swiftly he had scribbled the signs around the walls, across the ceiling, until the simple cubical room had seemingly changed proportions where he had scrawled the symbols with clustered intensity around each corner. Strange symbols he had drawn in red and black ink while speaking strong, convoluted words that he had read in the old book, until the hard angles of the walls had been warped into other dimensions, brushing the boundaries of the known and unknown that separate the worlds of dreams and waking. But he hadn't been fast enough.
And I won't forget to put roses on your grave . . .
The music continued to play. Townes Van Zandt's plaintive voice was especially suited to this song. The pages of the old book still fluttered weakly in the artificial breeze of the air conditioner. He still sat in the chair. The chair drawn up hard against the edge of the table, as he had desperately tried to remain inside the final circle, that final circle that the old book had said might be necessary for a dreamer who wasn't strong enough. The final circle where he had committed a final act of desperation, spoken a final word, to escape the thing that had followed him from the dream.
He sat, almost in an attitude of relaxation, his hands lying loosely on his lap, his fingers curled in some arcane mantra as if he were cradling something precious and sacred. In the end, he had finally understood what the old book had been saying all along. No escape. No escape from this world where dreams are broken and hopes are denied, not out of malice, but out of sheer apathy. No escape in dreams, not even across the shrouded dimensions where he had learned to go, because there were other things there, beings who thrived on the desperation and hopelessness of lost human souls. No escape . . . nothing but surrender to the horror and madness that emanates indefatigably from the center of an uncaring, insane universe.
So he had spoken a final word, a word he had read in the old book, a word that could save him or damn him only if he realized what it meant, realized what it would call, realized that only by embracing the horror would he find an escape, of a sort. The word was heard. It was heard by one of the other gods, one of the hoary grey gods of dreamers who doze fitfully somewhere in the mists that shroud the worlds of dreams and who sometimes gaze with curious, detached bemusement at the feeble efforts of those who have learned to dream. The word was heard, and one awoke, and as he mindlessly surrendered to the horror of that thing that had followed him into the waking world, the old grey god of dreamers reached across the misty shrouds of the dreamworld and plucked him away . . .
He awakened in a cave, in a vibrant darkness full of movement and a strange soundless music. He saw the movement, heard the music with an other awareness; an awareness wholly alien to, somehow more and less than the senses of sound and sight. How he could see in the darkness, how he could hear in the silence, he didn't know, but he found himself unable to care, unaware even of the strangeness of the sensation. The soundless music came from the laughter of others like him, others who had taken a final waking leap into their dreams to escape their own personal horrors, others who had vainly dared to climb the mountain to demand answers of the ancient gods and were never seen again. The darkness was filled with visions of dark shapes and wide fluttering wings, though he had no eyes to see. The music filled him with wonder and a curious wistful joy, though he had no ears to hear. And he lifted his voice and his laughter joined in the song, though he had no mouth to speak. He and the others who were all like him moved out of the cave, into the dusk of another ending day.
The night-gaunts launched themselves from the cliffs of Ngranek.
Created: October 5, 1998; Updated: August 9, 2004