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I met my girlfriend’s nightmare on the night of our three-month anniversary. It might have just been that point in our relationship — the point when she had grown to really trust me — but it was probably the champagne.
We fell asleep together on her couch and I woke up to the sound of screaming. For a moment, I didn’t know where I was. The scream was so intense, so full of fear and horror, that it shot through me like an electric needle in my spine. I leapt over the back of Kaylee’s couch and I was standing ready for a fight when I realized that it was Kaylee screaming.
She was on the couch with her hands to her sides and her fists clenched. Her skin was ghostly white in the light from the TV and her mouth was open far enough that it hurt to look at. Her eyes were open too, but they were just staring upward, blank and black.
She was still screaming.
I jumped back over the couch to shake her awake and I landed on the empty champagne bottle. My feet went out from under me and I hit the hardwood floor with a meat-slab thud.
The bottle clattered and spun away across the floor.
The screaming stopped.
After a moment, Kaylee’s head poked over the edge of the couch and looked me in the eye. “Danny? What are you doing?” she asked.
“You screamed,” I explained.
She didn’t say anything, but she bit her lip and her head disappeared back over the edge of the couch.
I crawled to my knees and looked over the cushions at her. She was sitting scrunched in the corner of the couch and she was crying.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
She blinked at me and I watched her swallow the tears. “I have a nightmare,” she said, wiping her face.
Something told me it would not be a good idea to say, “So what,” so I kept my mouth shut. Instead, I sat down next to her.
When I took her hand, words started to pour out of her mouth: “In my dreams there’s this little man. He’s horrible — like little gnarled troll with shiny black skin and long, white hair. He crawls up the bed and sits on my chest.” She placed her hand on her sternum as she spoke. “I can’t move, I can’t even whimper. It crawls up to my mouth and — Danny, I swear it sucks out my soul.” She looked at me, her eyes glistening in the dim blue light of the room. “You’re not supposed to die in your dreams but I die every night. And when I die, when that thing kills me, that’s when I can finally scream.”
As I listened to her, the last three months started to make sense. Particularly why she’d never let me stay over. I’d been more than happy to give her space but this…
“Kaylee…” I whispered, “…You should have told me!”
“What?” she asked, wiping her eyes.
I turned and grabbed her shoulders so we were eye to eye. “Anything you need me to do, I can do. I can keep you safe. If you need me to sit up all night and make sure the monsters don’t come I’m your guy. Hell, I’ll sleep at the foot of your bed and be your guard dog.” I gave her a shake. “I’m your guy.”
She stared at me in silence, her dark eyes searching my face.
“Kaylee, I love you, I won’t let you be scared for one second more than I have to. I promise.”
And that’s what we did. I slept beside her that night, my arms curled around her protectively. I felt the rise and fall of her chest and I felt it slow until I knew she was asleep and it was safe for me to fall asleep too.
As I lay there falling asleep, thinking angry thoughts about what I would do if I could get my hands on that creature, I could have sworn I heard the scritch of tiny feet on the floorboards beneath the bed.
Kaylee and I had known each other for two years before we fell in love at first sight. I moved to Oregon in 2012 and got a job at a little factory. I’m not going to name names, but we make fruit baskets. She was a receptionist and the first person I saw on my first day. Every day, for six hundred days, I walked past her desk and we said hello and generally ignored one another.
A day of angry, pounding rain changed that. The road to the office had become a river. I saw a little, metallic-blue Honda abandoned on the shoulder and Kylee, drenched and wretched, hiking along the road with her head down and her dark hair a dripping sheet over her face. I had to pull over — I couldn’t leave her like that.
After work, it was natural to ask after her car and to offer her a ride when I learned it was in the shop for a week. The next night, it seemed just as natural to ask her to dinner first.
I’d started our relationship by protecting her, and I think that was why it was so easy to make the promise to protect her from her nightmare — but I didn’t know that it would be an impossible promise to keep. Every night, I lay beside Kaylee listening to her breath and waiting, then, just as the world started to disappear behind the swirls of purple and red behind my eyes, she would scream. Twice, I stayed up all night lying beside her and both times she slept through the night. But if I fell asleep for even a second I woke up to Kayle screaming.
Last week, I talked her into going to see a doctor. She didn’t like the idea at first. Her parents took her to doctor after doctor when she was a kid and nothing worked, so she reasoned that nothing would work now. It wasn’t easy, but I convinced her that maybe medical science had made some advances since she was in pigtails and PJs.
And I was right. We talked to this blonde psychologist with a permanently scowled face and horn-rimmed glasses. She gave Kaylee some pills that she said might help. Well, they helped…in a way. I guess — this is what the angry psychologist told us — everybody is paralyzed while they sleep. It’s something our body does to protect us from flailing about in our dreams. For some people, people like Kaylee, the paralysis lasts after we wake up. She would wake up and not be able to move and then her still-dreaming mind would conjure a little creature that was the cause of her paralysis.
The pills kind of turned the paralysis off, as I understand it, but they came with a warning. “Pills may cause you to move in your sleep.”
The first night she took the pills, she didn’t dream about the monster.
I woke up to a pair of swirling green eyes, peering at Kaylee out of the dark at the foot of her bed. He inched toward her and I saw a black shell that glistened in the dim light from the window. A mane of white hair stood up on top of a face that nearly human except for a hooked, witch’s nose. He reached out with a tiny hand and a clawed finger and touched Kaylee’s foot. She groaned and rolled over in her sleep and he jerked back in surprise.
Then those green eyes turned toward me. He crept forward slowly, inching his way over the foot of the bed. His claws snagged on the blankets as he moved toward me. I felt him touch my feet with a hand as cold as snake’s blood and I wanted nothing more than to jerk away, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t blink. I couldn’t twitch. I couldn’t shift or kick as he crawled up my leg. I wanted to scream as his claws caught the skin on my chest and I wanted to cry when he leaned over my face and grinned with a hundred little needle teeth.
Kaylee saved me. She rolled over in her sleep and slapped me in the face. I woke up midway through falling off the bed. All the blankets came with me and I fell in a tangled pile.
I stayed still for a moment, remembering the dream, until Kaylee’s head appeared over the edge of the bed.
“What happened?” she asked.
“You thwacked me,” I told her, feeling the side of my face. It hadn’t just been a light tap. It felt like she’d punched me. She apologized about a hundred times as I got back into bed. I told her it was okay but I was distracted.
I could have sworn I saw something under the bed. A pair of green lights that faded into the shadows almost as soon as I saw them.
The next morning, Kaylee and I had a fight on the way to work.
“– You don’t think I’ve tried to get help before?” she demanded.
I swerved around a little white sedan and pulled into the fast lane. The ancient, blue Chevy I drive doesn’t have much on maneuverability, but it’s imposing and people usually get out of my way.
“I don’t know — you won’t talk about it!” I said back — a little louder than was strictly necessary. “But I do know that you don’t quit therapy after one session.”
“Fine!” Kaylee yelled, much louder than me. “You want to know? You want to know how my screaming in the middle of the night would wake up my parents? How I slept with a nightlight until college? You want to know how my parents took me to the doctor and the doctor accused my dad of abusing me? That the doctor blamed it all on stress and the only way a little kid could be stressed out was if my dad was…I’ve had night terrors for a long time, Danny. I dream about a little creature that sits on my chest and sucks out my life. I feel myself die every damn night!”
She didn’t say anything else and I didn’t know what to say.
Kaylee looked at me and, very quietly, said, “Go ahead and do it Danny, we both know you’re going to.”
“Do what?” I asked. It was hard to keep the frustration out of my voice.
“Break up with me.”
I didn’t say anything. Instead, I pulled the truck over against the curb in front of the office. I put my hand on her leg before she could climb out and waited until she was looking at me before I spoke, “I’m here Kaylee. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. What the hell else do you want from me? I just…” I paused and looked my girlfriend in the eyes. “I feel like you shouldn’t be able to be that afraid when I’m there. I should be protecting you. I’m supposed to make you feel safe.”
Kaylee hung for a moment with her hand on the door handle. Then her face turned hard and she opened the door. “I’m sorry my being insane hurts your feelings, Danny,” she said as she jumped out.
There wasn’t much of a point in staying at Kaylee’s that night so I slipped by after work to grab a few things and went home. Kaylee was going to get a ride with one of the other receptionists. I found three messages on my phone when I got home. The first two were pretty standard apologies, but in the last one she was almost in tears. I started to call her back, but I didn’t have any idea what I would say to her so I turned off my phone and to bed early.
I woke up in pitch dark. I wasn’t sure why so I froze and listened to the room.
Something touched my toe just as I was about to fall back asleep. Something lifted itself over the edge of the bed and sat on my foot. Something that had claws like a rat — a two foot tall rat — touched my leg. I crushed every impulse to look at it, to jump out of bed or to scream like a little girl.
Keep still. Figure out what it is. Then kill it, my own voice said in my head.
One thought lay heavy in my mind. I remembered the sound of scratching and the eyes under the bed. What if Kaylee’s nightmare wasn’t a nightmare? What if it was a monster.
That would be good. Monsters can bleed.
The creature crawled up to my chest with agonizing slowness and I kept repeating to myself, You’re mine. You’re mine.
When the monster reached my neck, I moved.
I shot out of bed with the corners of my blanket in my hands. As I stood, I folded the blanket into a sack and something squirmed and thrashed around inside. I bunched the ends of the blanket in my hands, wound up like I was going for a home run and slammed the creature against the wall.
“You like that, don’t ya!” I screamed and I slammed it into the wall again. “Picking on people when they’re sleeping!” Again. “Messing with my girlfriend!” Wham. “You picked the wrong guy this time, didn’t you?” Thud. “Didn’t you?” Thud. “Not quite as heavy a sleeper as Kaylee, am I?” Thud.
I stopped. The blanket hung limply from my hand, the lump inside was still, but it made little squeaks of protest. I was breathing hard and there were dents in the wall. Blue stained the blanket in a few places.
“One more to grow on,” I said. I kicked the lump and it squealed in pain.
I tossed it on the bed and flipped the blanket back. In a flash of black, the nightmare tried to skitter over the side of the bed. I didn’t let it get away. I hauled it back by its tiny leg and pinned it down with one hand. We stared into each other’s eyes. The nightmare’s eyes were bright green and malignant beyond anything that I had ever seen. Its face was covered in black shell, but now blue liquid leaked out of cracks in its carapace and colored its white hair. The creature looked at me and I let my face slowly break into a grin. I opened my hand and dropped two chalky, yellow pills beside the creature’s cracked face. Kaylee’s pills. The creature’s green eyes followed them, uncomprehending. I punched it in the face as hard as I could. Its shell made a disgusting cracking noise like someone walking across a floor of cockroaches. Then the nightmare screamed. It screamed so loud that I flinched a little and I almost let it loose. But, it didn’t try to get away. It writhed on the blankets and it shrank and shriveled up like a piece of jerky. When it was just a twisted black thing the size of my thumb, it exploded into black dust and ash and, before I could react, the dust was gone too.
I stared at the space where the nightmare had been. I looked around the room at the dents in his wall and the blue goo on the blanket.
I went to the kitchen and got enough paper towels to clean the blue smears off the wall. I changed the blankets and tossed the stained ones in the dumpster outside.
The bed was nice and cozy and there was a smile on my face as I wrapped myself in new blankets.
…And I woke up.
My apartment was quiet and dark. I got up and found the light but when I turned it on…everything was normal. The blankets I had thrown out were still on my bed. The dents in the walls were gone.
My elation slowly drained away and was replaced with a cold pit of frustration.
It wasn’t a monster. It was a nightmare. You can’t kill a dream.
These days, I wake up from my dream where I fight the little monster about twice a week. Some nights I win. Some nights it gets away. Some nights Kaylee wakes up screaming and we fall back asleep together. You can’t kill a dream, but you can share one.