The business card left in my mailbox was unassuming. A simple white font affixed to a black background. But its claim was bold:
There is now an in-dream hotline you can call to escape nightmares!
Simply find a red rotary phone in your dreamscape, dislocate it from the receiver, and choose a number to be connected. A good night’s sleep is just around the corner. Enjoy your rest!
It had all the makings of a half-hearted prank from my friend, Josh. After all, he was the only person I had told about my recent night terrors. But stooping that low, just for a cheap laugh? He knew my nightmares were deeply personal, all involving my deceased father. Would he really go that far?
Though Josh was a funny guy, he could be sentimental when the time called for it. I wondered if this was less a prank and more an offering of relief during a tough time. His way of telling me there would eventually be a way out; a light at the end of the tunnel. I took comfort in this, opting not to reach out in case he decided to go back on it and laugh in my face. However caring the man could be, he detested heart-to-heart moments.
Thanks, Josh. I guess I needed this.
With a slight smile, I placed the card in my pocket and went about my day, grateful for the gesture. Unfortunately, it would not be enough to keep my demons at bay.
Later that night, while resting, I was blindsided by memories of my father. Completely out of my control, a horrific scene came into focus, replaying the events of his death. I had no choice but to endure the torment and watch the events unfold in my mind, just as they had so many times before.
I was a child, and we were swimming at our favorite spot on the outskirts of town. We often played a game to see who could hold their breath underwater the longest. On my father’s last dip beneath the waves, he never came up for air. His body was never found. Being young and naïve, I was convinced a creature dragged him to the depths of the ocean. As an adult, I now know this monster was a riptide, pulling him out to uncharted waters. Undercurrents in that area were fierce, eventually leading local authorities to close off the beach all together. The search party never stood a chance of finding him.
I violently thrashed about as the horrible images recurred, but soon found solace in the form of sleep. Like the many nights that came before it, this solace would be short-lived.
My dream began as it usually did. I watched from the shadows as my dad tucked in my younger self and read aloud a bedtime story. This moment was always so peaceful. A calm before the storm. I briefly basked in the ambient nostalgia before remembering the events that would inevitably come next.
That’s when the panic set in.
After the story concluded, my father transformed into something horrific. Below his waist was now a grouping of slimy tentacles, wetting the floor as he slid across it. Above his collar were the grotesque features of a monstrous head; an amphibious amalgamation of loose appendages, sharp teeth, and gills protruding from his neck. His mouth opened at an unnatural angle, wide enough for it to devour my younger self whole. He then turned his attention to me. This was my queue to run.
Racing through the house to escape the creature’s clutches, I felt something fall from my shirt pocket. It was the in-dream hotline business card. I picked it up and looked it over. Despite the fragile nature of visual stimuli in dreams, the card was identical to its real counterpart. No matter how many times I read the text, none of the characters were fuzzy, jumbled, or rearranged.
A thunderous growl crept up from behind.
I sprinted to the living room. That’s where I saw it. Right where my family’s landline usually sat. A red, rotary phone. In this moment, a compulsion washed over me. Despite the service being a complete fabrication, I was compelled to give it a try, if for no other reason than to see what would happen when I did. Perhaps my sleeping mind would fill in the blanks and wake me from the nightmare.
I picked up the phone from the receiver and held it to my ear. There was a harrowing silence. Going over the card again, I realized it was time to pick a number.
It seemed there were only five viable choices. Numbers six through zero had been scuffed away, along with the pound and star keys. When placing my finger in these holes, the wheel wouldn’t budge. I instead decided to choose number one. The wheel turned, and my ear was met with a male voice.
“Thank you for calling the in-dream hotline for escaping nightmares. How can we be of service?”
It worked. My brain was playing along.
“Umm… I need to escape this nightmare, please. Quickly.”
“Certainly! I’ll be happy to assist you with this. Please hold while I look up your situation.”
The sound of grinding teeth echoed in the distance as the creature slid from room to room, searching for me.
“Oh boy! Childhood trauma mixed with a phobia of sea monsters. That does not sound like fun. Luckily, this is an issue we are equipped to deal with! You have three options; Transport, Reconfigure, and Vanquish. Which would you like?”
The monster had now honed in on my position, slithering towards me as my eyes widened in terror.
“Uhh… Vanquish! Get rid of this thing!”
“Okay. One moment.”
I watched in horror as the creature closed the gap between us in a matter of seconds.
“It looks like your account is new. You don’t have the options to Reconfigure or Vanquish yet. All we can do is Transport. Shall I initiate this option for you?”
The eldritch version of my father swung its tentacles over me, narrowly missing my head as I cowered in fear.
“Fine, Transport! Do it now!”
“One Transport, coming right up!”
All at once, the sound of grinding teeth stopped. The moisture on the floor evaporated. The creature was frozen in place; a statue of pure dread. It then vanished before my very eyes.
“Transport successful. Thank you for calling the in-dream hotline. Enjoy your rest.”
It worked. I couldn’t believe it. It’s difficult to explain, but I felt… alleviated. A wave of relief so strong, it allowed me to breathe again. Catharsis filled the air as I walked through the dream version of my childhood home, free of the guilt I had harbored for so many years. My nightmare was finally over.
I slept through the night and awoke fully refreshed, knowing that somehow I had come to terms with my father’s death, albeit through strange means. Sunlight poured into the room as a bird outside sang a beautiful melody, the smell of home-cooked food wafting through my apartment.
But I lived alone.
Upon venturing out to the kitchen to identify the source of the aroma, I was taken aback by what I saw. It was my dad, cooking a seafood feast fit for a family of twelve.
“Hey there, sport. How was your nap?”
My mouth hit the floor.
“Dad… but… how…”
“What’s wrong, sport? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Dumbstruck and frightened, I ran to my bedroom and locked the door. That was not my father. It couldn’t be. He was swept out to sea. No one could have survived out there. It just wasn’t possible.
My phone buzzed, interrupting my panic. It was a private number. I hesitantly answered.
“Hello! This is the in-dream hotline for escaping nightmares. We don’t normally make calls outside of the dream void, but we noticed your recent Transport order has gone awry. We are here to help!”
“What… Josh? Is that you? What’s going on? Is this some sort of sick joke?”
“Transports can be unpredictable. We apologize for the inconvenience. If you upgrade to one of our premium packages, we can aid in the removal of your nightmare. We accept all major credit cards.”
Did my ears deceive me? Was the in-dream hotline… real?
“The silver package is our cheapest upgrade, allowing you to Reconfigure your nightmare, but there is no guarantee the result will be any better. We suggest purchasing our gold package, an option which lets you Vanquish the nightmare once and for all.”
A stream of sea water entered my room as a tentacle snuck beneath the door.
“Lunch is ready, sport. I hope you’re hungry! I know I am.”
I handed over my credit card information without so much as a second thought.
“I’ll take the gold package, please!”
“Brilliant! Please hold.”
The sound of tapping at a keyboard filled my ear as my father began banging at the door.
“Your transaction is in transit. It will take five to seven business days to process, at which time your nightmare will be Vanquished.”
FIVE TO SEVEN DAYS?! WERE THEY SERIOUS?
“I have to wait how long? What am I supposed to do in the meantime?”
“Thank you for calling the in-dream hotline for escaping nightmares. We sincerely hope you live long enough to continue doing business with us. Good luck.”
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