Richard settled down into his blankets. This was his first night in Nantucket, and his first night in this new house.
Well, he called it new because this was his first night in it. Otherwise, the house was older than anything around it, save maybe the stones in the deep forest. It had seen tragedy, this house, and it had a great many ghosts. When everyone was asleep and the house was silent, Richard could hear a person with grating nails making their rounds through the hallways. He was scared out of his mind when they walked past his door, but that paled in comparison to when he got up to use the restroom and saw the wet footprints along the carpet.
Richard looked up, and saw a figure standing motionless at the end of the hallway. He squeezed his eyes shut and blindly felt his way to the restroom, locking the door once he was in there to make sure that that thing couldn’t get him.
Once he was finished, Richard went back to his room, making sure to keep his eyes closed until he had locked the door. When he turned around, he nearly jumped out of his skin, because Monty was sitting on his bed.
“Monty?” Richard asked. He really did look familiar. Where had Richard seen him before?
“What is it?”
“I’m doing badly, Richard.”
“…What do you mean?”
“I’m in a really dark place tonight.”
“Oh.” Monty was coming to him for help, then. Very well, he could help this young man. Richard sat down on the bed next to him. “Do you need to talk about it?”
“I think so.”
“Alright, what do you need to talk about?”
“Well, Richard, you see, I, um,” Monty swallowed and popped his fingers nervously. His voice started to crack. “It’s just hard.”
“Being here again. In this house.”
“Because my mother died here, a- and, my father, too. Several years apart.”
Richard sighed. “Grief can be hard.”
“But it’s not just grief, Richard, it’s also other things. You know when you’re just so depressed all of the time that you can’t even remember what it was like to be happy?”
“You’re there right now?”
Monty wiped his face. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. There’s no reason to freak out like this. No reason to be so depressed. God, I need to get a grip. I’m sorry, Richard, I shouldn’t be bothering you.” He moved to get up, but Richard touched his arm to stop him.
“You can’t control how your mind is telling you to feel. Sometimes, you just… you get depressed like this. I understand. Do you want to tell me anything else? I’m listening.”
Monty looked like he was considering actually taking his offer, but instead he stood up and shook his head. “No, I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m sorry, Richard. Goodnight.” When he went to leave the room, his face was highlighted in profile by moonlight coming in through the window, and suddenly it clicked. Richard remembered where he had seen him before.
“Did you by any chance go to Yale between 1855 and 1857?”
“Actually, I did.”
“I think I saw you there. A few times. Under an assumed name.”
Monty smiled tentatively. “Yes, I have quite a few of those.” He reached for the doorknob again.
“Goodnight,” Richard said.
“Goodnight.” As he opened the door, he slipped something out of his pocket and put it on the dresser. Richard was confused, but he didn’t ask about it or tell Monty to take the thing back.
After Monty left, Richard was unable to sleep for a while. He didn’t understand it, but he’d felt the same instant connection with Monty that he’d felt with Leonard, and Barrorah, and his old partner Cesare. It was a different kind of connection than the one he felt with Deirdre, who was more like a sister, and Alice, who was just a best friend. Even with Camilla, Daiyu, Enoch Carter, and the rest of his writer friends, the people he felt most comfortable around, it was the same distinctly other kind.
In the middle of overthinking and wondering if this was going to be like how it had been with Cesare, Richard fell asleep and dove right into a nightmare.
He was in a wide, open field at the base of a hill. Richard knew where he was, because he’d actually had this exact dream repeatedly when going to a new place, as many times as times he’d slept in a new place. Every time it was the same: he would dream this, and trek through the mountains to the shrine, where he would say a prayer that seemed to pop into his head at that moment. After that, he usually slept soundly and dreamlessly for several nights. Richard did not expect this time to be any different, nor did he expect to hear voices in his head before he reached the shrine.
Turn around, said the first voice. Richard shook his head, dismissing it as just part of the dream, and kept walking.
You go on a fool’s errand, the voice insisted.
Richard wasn’t sure why this dream was different from every other, but he tried not to let the creation of his unconscious mind get to him. The shrine was only a few minute’s walk away, under the trees there. He wanted to bask in the presence of his God again, and he wanted to do it alone.
Do not approach the shrine, a second voice said.
Richard stopped. One voice was strange enough, but two was bothersome. He shook his head violently, as if to knock them out of his ears.
You must not go there, said the first voice. Think of your home, of your peaceful life. If you value this at all, you will not go to the shrine today.
“Please just let me get this over with,” Richard said. “It’s just a dream.”
You will stop, or a storm will come to wash you away, the second voice said. A storm will come, and take away your friends, your home, even the land itself. The storms will come, and your God will not save you.
“Please, shut up,” said Richard. “I’m not going to listen to you. You’re just a weird blasphemous dream. Besides, whatever you’re going to do, God can stop it.”
Oh, no he can’t. He put us away. Should he save you from one of equal power to himself? I think not, young ghoul.
Richard did not immediately reply. Instead he continued to walk, fixating his eyes and mind on that shrine that had always worked before. The voices fell silent, and Richard could see the small shrine right over the ridge. He smiled, and felt as if he had triumphed over the strange dream voices. They could not keep him from doing anything.
It was then that he felt a strange tugging sensation at the bottom of his waistcoat. Richard looked down, but there was no one there. He dismissed the feeling as a breeze, put his cane down in front of him, and tried to take another step.
His foot was stuck in place. After several minutes of struggling, he managed to wrench it free, and plant it down in front of him. Now the other foot was stuck, and there were invisible hands pulling at the back of Richard’s waistcoat, pulling him down.
He fell, and landed on his back.
Do not go to the shrine, the voices chorused.
Richard stood. “This is a dream!”
Do not go.
Richard’s cane was wrenched from his hand, and thrown down the hill. He went to fetch it, and as he ran was pushed forward by some force, so that he fell again. He slid several feet, and landed in a pool of mud at a stream’s bank. Richard sat up, and stared at his reflection in the water. His dark hair was knotted with dirt, and his entire outfit – a simple waistcoat over suspenders – was covered in mud.
“Why are you doing this?” Richard asked. “Why do you care what I do in my dreams? None of this is even happening in reality.”
The voices choresed in laughter. The first one had something else to say after that. It is a better fate than going to the shrine,
Richard would have been angry with the voice, if he hadn’t known this was a dream. Instead, he retrieved his cane from the bottom of the stream, and turned to dash up the hill. The voices would not keep him from getting to the shrine. They would not.
Turn back, turn back, do not go to the shrine, the voices chanted. Turn back, turn back or the storms will come, they will come.
The trees themselves were hindering him. Richard tripped on a root as he ran, and when he tried to stand he found that the branches were much lower than they should have been. He could see the shrine, it was only a few feet away from where he’d fallen. Richard reached out and gripped the sides of the shrine, which consisted of a stone image of a tall, cloaked man leading a sheep. The image was protected by a small half-circle, which made sure that no rain would hit the statue. Both the statue and its protection sat on a block of carved stone, which had strange writing on it. Richard didn’t know what kind of shrine it was, only that when he prayed to it he got a few nights of undisturbed sleep.
Richard began his prayers, at first whispering them under his breath, but slowly his voice increased to a shout. He prayed for sleep, thanked God for his life, for everything he had, and he prayed against the strange voices and their malicious influence over nature.
A clap of thunder sounded in the sky, and Richard saw lightning at the edges of his vision. The voices in his head were chanting in a wild frenzy, speaking a language Richard did not recognize. He was certain, however, of their intent. They were calling the storm down upon him, calling the storm to stop his prayers.
Richard finished his prayer, and tried to stand up. There were tendrils of smoke pulling him down, dragging him away from the shrine. The voices were screaming with anticipation of the coming storm, the coming sacrifice for whatever force they served. Richard screamed, and tried to claw his way back to the shrine. Smoke obscured his vision, and the tendrils pulling him were too strong to resist. He was going to die here, in this dream.
“Lord, please!” Richard said. “Please, I beg of you, spare me.”
The land fell around away around him. Richard couldn’t keep hold. He fell until he was gripping the edge of a clif with both hands, being pulled down by slimy black tentacles, and the only person above him was Dr Faust.
“Doctor Faust!” Richard shouted. “Doctor Faust, please!”
Instead, he watched as Faust turned around and injected himself with a thick black liquid, before laughing and tearing the sky in two. A pair of long, pale arms with fingers of all the same length reached through that tear, and started to pull itself through.
Faust ran up and stomped on Richard’s fingers, causing him to fall. He fell and he fell, down, down, down, until he hit Earth, and was at the bottom of a well. There were stars above him, and he watched them move until the same pale arms that had come out of the sky dove down into the well and made everything go black.
Richard awoke in a cold sweat. He rubbed the back of his neck, making sure that his head was still attached. It was just a dream. Just a dream.
Laughter sounded from the dresser. There was a doll sitting there, sewn of mismatched fabrics and no doubt stuffed with rags. Its tin button eyes shone in the feeble moonlight, and the stitched mouth was dissonantly cheerful. That must have been what Monty put on the dresser.
“Hello?” Richard asked.
The doll laughed again. “All just a dream, is it?” It was the first voice from his dream.
“I think so.”
“Maybe a premonition?”
“I’m not the prophet here.”
“Would I be talking if it was just a dream?”
“I think I’m hallucinating you.”
“All of me?”
“I don’t know if you as a doll exist, but I sure as Hell know you aren’t talking right now.”
“Am I? Am I not? If you’re real, why shouldn’t I be?”
This had gone on long enough. Richard was going to stand up and put it on one of the shelves in his closet. He hesitated, and looked at its happy burlap face, and the tin button eyes that some child had probably loved, once. This was only a doll. Why would he throw it away?
“I think you can imagine who put me here,” the doll said.
“My dreams,” said Richard.
“If I’m only a dream, what will you see when you wake up?”
That was it. Richard went to get out of bed, but was horrified to find that he couldn’t move. He tried and tried to move his legs, his arms, anything, but his body wouldn’t respond to even the simplest command.
The doll laughed and laughed. “You think you have such control, don’t you. Everyone does, until they realize they don’t. Is this your realization, Richard?”
He’d always known that thanks to his skin condition, he probably wouldn’t make it much past thirty, or forty at the most. He’d never had any control over that. But he’d always thought that up until that point, his life was his own. Richard suddenly realized how ridiculous this entire thing was. A doll, telling him that he had no control, and he was believing it?
“I don’t have control either,” the doll continued. “I’m a puppet for children to play with. They move my limp limbs around and play that I’m a living thing with feelings and control over myself, even though they know I’m not. I think that’s the only difference between me and the children that play with me, Richard. I know that I’m an unconscious being who exists only as a plaything of more powerful beings. They don’t.”
The doll was soaking wet, drenched in seawater. “Humans have never realized. They don’t know what’s right on the other side of their mirrors. But they’re about to, Richard, mark my words, they’re about to.”
Suddenly, Richard was able to push himself up in bed. He shot upwards, rocking all the way forward from the inertia. The doll had fallen silent, but the first thing Richard did was stand up, pick up his cane, and go over to throw it in his closet. When he picked it up, it was wet to the touch.
Anybody read Haita the Shepherd by Ambrose Bierce? It’s a very short but very good story, and Richard’s nightmare was heavily inspired by it.