Foggily, and slowly, I began to become aware of myself again. The sickly, cold sweat dripping down my skin chilled my body. Somewhere, muffled, I heard a familiar buzzing I couldn't quite place. I opened my eyes, but nothing came into view except vague and malformed objects. As soon as I sat up, the rush of blood to my head cut out what little vision I had, making everything fade into the swirling shapes of my blinded sight. And the buzzing static from the other room was incessant. Loud, blaring white noise. Groggily, I climbed out of my bed and pushed open the door to find the TV was on, displaying snow. I shielded my eyes from the dizzying light of the TV and fumbled around for the remote. After searching for several minutes, trying to both cover my eyes and my ears, I found the remote nestled between the cushions of the couch. Not where I left it. Relieved, I thought the sensory assault was over, but I found the power button had been torn off. Exasperated, I muted the TV, ending at least the auditory torture, but the egregious blaze of light still remained.
I slumped into the room's armchair and clutched my head, which, as a result of the rude awakening, was now throbbing violently. After a moment, my eyes began to adjust to the light, and the pounding in my head slowly subsided. I tried to get my bearings. Where was I? Back in my apartment. How did I get there? I walked back after going to the Quik'N'Cheep. Except... that wasn't right was it? Didn't I go into the woods, near the park? Memories of the woods, the cabin, and the beast I had seen within began to slot back into place. A nightmare then? That was odd, I rarely had those anymore. In fact, often, waking life felt like the nightmare and sleep was my only refuge. I reached out and tried to grasp the fading memories of the dreams and the night before, but they quickly slipped between my fingers and fled into the concealing mist of the past.
What time was it? Glancing out the window I couldn't tell, the sky was that indeterminate shade of deep blue that could be late night or early morning. I realized that I had not been woken by my alarm as I normally was, and I highly doubted I would be able to go back to sleep. This realization was accompanied with a weight in my gut. My schedule was shot, at least for now. Without other people around to help me keep track of time, I found the days were very confusing. Winters and their short days disoriented me, and the long days of summer tricked me into staying out later than what I saw as prudent. That alarm was my anchor in time, and for a day or so at least, I had lost it. Suddenly the city was a lot more threatening, and the blazing eyes of the goat were still fresh in my memory, threatening to be found again in every dark corner. I decided I wouldn't leave the apartment until I managed to affix myself to my schedule again.
Almost immediately, however, this resolution was shattered. As soon as I grew hungry, I realized that all the food in the house was gone. Nothing was left in the refrigerator except for a single egg, and a tomato. In the pantry I found flour, spices, and an empty container of salt. I didn't remember the apartment being so barren, but I was used to things not being as I remembered them. I attempted to take my mind off the hunger that was slumbering within me by reading, but within the hour a gnawing beast had grown within me, and I decided I needed to at least run to the Quik'N'Cheep again. Not far. Not too dangerous. Just a dip into a the darkness. Just a toe.
You can't afford to be comfortable over being sated. So I pushed open the front door of my apartment. The hallway was dim, but still brighter than the apartment. Nonetheless I was bleary-eyed, and my vision blurred. I had trouble adjusting. I normally have trouble adjusting. No one was in the hall, or the lobby, or in the streets. Just empty rooms and roads, one after another, but the machines and lights still worked. A coffee cup had been placed out on a table out in the lobby. It was still steaming, and warm. I guess I just missed him, whoever he was. A car was parked outside, still running, but abandoned by its owner. Like a stray beast, a broken horse wearing its saddle, but a long way from its owner. Street lights flickering, straining under the impossibility of themselves. All of them powered by vast, distant, empty power plants. More cars, parked outside the Quik'N'Cheep, different from the ones from a few hours ago. They were nomadic, pack animals, just stopping by the watering hole.
The store was a beacon in the dark, brighter than anything else for miles around. Advertisements plastered the front windows, all of them for me. $2.99 16 oz sodas. $5.99 gyros. Gas cards. Collectible cups. Guess they didn't really know their audience. The automatic doorman graciously invited me in, as he always does. Anything special? No just the usual; I'm not feeling well today. Was it morning? I couldn't tell. Maybe I should get some cereal just to be safe. We didn't have milk either, so I suppose I'll pick up some. 2%? No, skim please. Thanks. Donuts too, like I said I wasn't feeling well. Need some comfort.
I left exact change on the counter and left the sanctuary. The sterile white world of the Quik'N'Cheep was abandoned for the dark and sprawling plains of Ashland. It wasn't far, I reassured myself. Just another quick jaunt back. The home stretch seemed shorter than the initial trip. The car out front had left, and the coffee in the lobby had now cooled. These facts barely registered though, all I wanted was to be back in my room. I didn't really believe the locked door of my apartment made it any safer than the rest of the city, but there is some form of comfort in the familiar, and aside from the library, my apartment was the only place in the forsaken, festering city that I could say I was familiar with.
The television was still on. I hadn't bothered to walk over and switch it off. I'm not really concerned about my electricity bill. Still muted too, but now the signal was back. The screen no longer displayed snow, now it showed snow. Like the weather. Eight inches somewhere north. Someone's roof had collapsed. I unmuted the news and poured myself a bowl of cereal. The weather ended, and the local news came on. Breaking news about an ongoing investigation. Apparently, there had been a fire somewhere. Suspected arson. I disinterestedly reached for the remote, but now it was gone entirely. I had just used it to unmute the TV. Guess I lost the privilege to change the channel. The news switched to an image of a burnt cabin deep in the woods, and now I was paying attention.
The sole occupant, Dan Burmen, had been killed in the fire. The cause had yet to be determined, but the conflagration had started sometime late the night before, burned down the cabin, then had mysteriously been quelled before the flames spread to the forest. Now the cabin was nothing but a pile of wood, ash, and blackened skulls. Animal skulls. Dan Burmen had been an hunter, they were trophies. Mounted heads.
I didn't leave the apartment for the rest of the day.
Spent the whole day walking room to room doing meaningless tasks. Cleaned my room. Did the laundry. I rationed out the little food I had gotten at the Quik'N'Cheep and made it last. Ate the whole half-dozen box of donuts. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and almost jumped. I looked like a ghost, pale, and slim, just wearing my white hoodie, as I often did. Hood pulled up, the too long-sleeves dangling halfway down my hands, and the hem midway down my thigh. My dark, brown hair spilled out from under the hood, twisting towards the ends, and my green eyes peaking out from my bangs. I looked at myself for a long time. It had been a while since I had seen myself, and I didn't know how that made me feel. I wasn't much concerned with appearances, after all I wore practically the same thing to bed that I did during the day, and I wore that everyday. It wasn't like I had anyone to impress. Nonetheless, I was worried how strange my own reflection looked to me. There was no reason for me to care what I looked like, or how I appeared to other people, but because of that, I had forgotten my own image. I looked at the transient, hooded figure staring back at me, and I felt as though the moment I looked away, I would just fade away. Become nothing but a ghost, or perhaps even less than that.
It had, in fact, been morning earlier, and as the sun rose, I felt at least a bit of comfort. No longer was I displaced in time, but now, at least, I had a solid understanding of when I was. This feeling, however, was later deflated when I realized, in my panicked awakening, I had completely forgotten I could've simply looked at a clock and told the time. I hadn't noticed it, but the dream I had the night before had truly shaken me. As the day went on, I grew calmer, and more comfortable, and the fears and anxieties of the early morning faded away. Around the twilight, as I was reading a book I had recently borrowed from the library, I felt sleep close in on me again, and just as the sun dipped below the skyline of Ashland, I found myself fading into dream again.
The noise of the classroom woke me. I had drifted off midway through the lecture, and was face-down in my textbook. The class had just finished, and the noise of my classmates talking excitedly as the gathered their things had roused me. Orange twilight filtered in through the windows and made the room stark with contrast. Long shadows danced across the floor and the desks, and silhouetted figures moved about gathering their things and preparing to leave. One of the figures closer to me, who I could see in more detail, was wearing a blazer: navy blue with no trim, the Riverside Middle uniform. I glanced at myself, and realized, of course, that I was wearing the girl's uniform: a pale blue sweater vest over a white button-down with a navy skirt. For whatever reason, I couldn't recall getting dressed that morning.
The teacher was still at the front of the room, slightly slouching and writing something on the chalkboard, but the students had all stopped pretending to acknowledge his existence. Class was almost out. The buzz of chatter was growing louder and louder, and, still trying to rouse myself from my nap, the noise wasn't helping. None of it even sounded like any language I knew, more and more it just seemed to sound like the evening cries of insects. It almost sounded like snickering. As soon as the bell rang, the students all flooded out into the hall, and after a brief moment, I decided to pack my things and head out as well. I gave the teacher one more passing glance as I left, he was still writing on the chalkboard.
The halls were empty, but I wasn't surprised. My classmates seemed like they had been in a hurry to leave. The world was two-tone. Duochromatic. Orange and black again, but somehow in even greater contrast than in the classroom. I glanced out the window, and discovered I was on the second story. Rather, I remembered I was, my class was, of course, on the second story. In the distance was the river for which the school was named, the same river that tied the knot of mountains surrounding Ashland and cut it off from the outside world. The setting sun glimmered on its surface, and the shimmering liquid looked, from my distant vantage point, like flowing gold. Just beyond the river was the horizon, and between there and the river was nothing but flat land. It looked like you could fall of the edge of the world.
I made my way for the front entrance of the school, but I very quickly realized I had forgotten the way. I couldn't seem to find the staircase. For a four minutes I wandered aimlessly, unsure of where to go. Eight minutes. Ten. Fifteen. When I finally did find some tucked-away emergency staircase, the door warned me not to open it, lest I set off the fire alarm. I decided that I had little faith in Ashland's maintenance of such things, generally, and pushed open the door. Sure enough, nothing happened, so I quickly descended the staircase as I was becoming more and more eager to leave the school.
However, making my way to the first floor was only halfway to the exit, and again I rapidly found myself lost. I seemed to keep turning into hallways that looked nearly identically, and after a while, I was sure I kept turning the corner more times that was possible. When I went right, I'd find myself at what appeared to be the same hallways as when I doubled-back and went left. My head began to pound, and I started to become viciously dizzy. So when I eventually passed by the Nurse's Office, I decided to stop in and rest for a moment.
I pushed open the door and peeked in, and as I suspected the room was empty. The nurse had probably left already; I had spent a long time being lost. The window was open, and a gentle breeze was causing the thin, white curtain to flutter gently. I closed the door behind me, and made my way towards one of the minimal beds against the left wall of the room, drawing the drapes around me before collapsing on it. I was suddenly very tired. Even though I was lying down, the world still seemed to be spinning around me. I started to wonder what could've caused the awful, throbbing pain in my skull, and tried to recount my day. I remembered waking in a cold sweat to the blaring static of the TV, and the awful walk through the early morning darkness to the Quik'N'Cheep. Then the news report that reflected the dream I had the night before...
Something about that word game me pause. "Dream." It took a moment for the all parts to click into place, but once they did, my own stupidity washed over me in a cascade. I was asleep. Of course I was. I didn't have classmates, or teachers. I didn't go to Riverside Middle. This realization also came with a fresh dose of paranoia and anxiety. I felt like this peaceful twilit room was surrounded on all sides by a nightmare that was ready to come crashing in around me. I resolved that I needed to find a way out of the school, or at least that I didn't want to sit around and wait for the horror to start. As I was about to climb out of the bed, the door to the office opened, and someone briskly strode into the room. There was the distinct sound of heels clicking on tile floor. The person, or perhaps thing, walked to the desk, shuffled around some things there, then approached the window and seemed to stop.
"Are you feeling ill?" the person asked. It was a woman's voice. In the moment, it seemed kind. I was unfamiliar with the tones of other humans. Later though, I realized there was something sterile and detached about the voice.
"I..." I spoke as a reaction, but immediately hated myself for so easily revealing my presence. Not that it mattered, she seemed to already know I was lurking behind the drapes. "I have a bit of a headache. I'm dizzy," hesitated a moment trying to think of what to say that would cause the woman to simply ignore me and leave, "I just needed to lie here for a moment."
"Well, take a moment to gather yourself, but school's out. You can't stay here long."
"I won't. Thank you."
She didn't respond, or seem to move. I silently crept towards the edge of the bed, and pushed open a slight crack in the drapes to peek through. The woman was staring out the window. I could see her legs, heels, and the lower part of a lab coat, but her upper body was obscured by the window's curtain, which was still dancing in the breeze. I could only see her silhouette through it. Her elbow rested on the window sill, and she held her head in her palm, leaning forward as she gazed out towards Ashland. She looked, to me, exactly like what I expected a nurse to look like. She was something from what I had read and watched. That, somehow, made me doubt her. She fit my expectations a little to perfectly.
"Do you have any idea what may have caused your headache?" she asked.
"I'm not sure..." I turned my eyes away from the nurse for a moment. What had caused my headache? "I didn't sleep well last night, I suppose."
"Couldn't get to sleep? Insomnia?"
"No, no, I could get to sleep well enough, it's just that... Well, I guess I had a strange dream. It kinda shook me up. I woke up off schedule. I generally like to stick to a routine, it... helps me feel normal. I guess."
"Yeah, you know. Like a sense of-" I stopped, then sighed. The nurse's entrance had distracted me, but the revelation I had a few moments prior came back. "I'm asleep."
"Pardon?" the nurse asked, now with a tone of what I thought was worry, but may have been amusement.
"Yeah, yeah that's right. I had a rough day. That bad dream. I fell asleep on the couch, reading."
"Do you want me to call your parents?"
"You can stop. The facade's falling apart. The students here..." I thought back to the classroom I had awoken in, something had seemed off in that moment and now I could place it, "they don't have faces right? I thought something had seemed odd about them. I can only really remember silhouettes... outlines. No faces though." A thought crossed my mind, and I voiced it. "Hey, do you have a face?" I looked at the nurse again, she was still standing behind the fluttering curtain, looking outward. "If you don't have a face, don't come out from behind there. I don't want to deal with that right now."
The nurse didn't respond for a while, which made me nervous. I wondered if the accusation had angered her. I knew I was in a dream, but did she? Did that part of my brain that was imagining her up, the part that thought it was her, did it know that it was merely an illusion? An actor conjured up in a mental play? But her response was merely: "I can probably have a face if you want me to."
"... What?" This caught me off guard.
"Well, you're right... this does appear to be a dream. Your dream. So you can probably imagine me up a face if you wanted to."
I didn't know how to react. "I don't feel like it. Faces are hard," I muttered out, almost apologetically, "I don't really know a whole lot about what other people look like anyway. Also, that's a horrible way to start a conversation."
"I'm not exactly sure how this conversation should go."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, I'm something you've dreamed up, right? A nurse, to a T, to fit this school. So all I am is a part of you. Just a little bit of your brain allocated to play pretend until you wake up. So us talking frankly like this... out of character... well it's odd right? It's like talking to yourself, except you don't know both sides of the conversation."
I thought it over. It was an interesting situation, I agreed. Though, to me, it seemed like a paradox. "I'm not sure I buy that," I responded.
"What do you mean?"
"I don't think it works like that. This right here... this would be a lucid dream, right? I have a bit of experience with those. Dreams are, after all, an escape for me. Often I've dreamt of this same school. I dream that I have classmates, and homework, and parents, and friends. In the dream though, those are all fake, and I know they're fake. My friends will tell me secrets, and my parents will tell me how much they love me, but I know what they'll say before they say it." I paused for a moment. "You though... I don't know what you'll say." A little tinge of venom slipped into my voice, a hint of suspicion, "So I'm inclined to think you're something else." My hairs stood on end the second I voiced my concern.
"Something else? Such as?"
"I would've preferred you denied it."
"I know that, of course. Just as I know that had I flatly denied it I would've been more suspicious."
"Why do you care whether or not you're suspicious?"
"Because I'm trying to argue with you. I'm trying to distract you from the fact you're in a dream. Often when one realizes they're asleep, the stability of the dream crumbles and they wake up."
"So you want me to stay asleep?"
"No, you want you to stay asleep. Your body is tired. It's not ready to work up yet."
"Stop." The word was sharper than I had expected it to be. It cut the air and left a ringing silence in its wake. "No. You're not telling the truth. You're something else. How the hell did you get in here?" The nurse shifted behind the curtain. I stood up, threw the drapes open, and without taking my eyes off of her, began to cautiously make my way towards the door.
"What is it that you think I am?" This gave me pause. The word of the beast escaped me for a moment, but quickly I reclaimed it.
The nurse snorted derisively. "An incubus?"
"Something like that, right? A dream demon."
"Incubi were demons that preyed upon the sleeping, not demons of sleep."
"No, no... That's not true," I struggled, something in the back of my mind, locked away, was begging to be let free. "There was a book, a book I read once. One of those books other people couldn't see, no one had ever checked it out. It fell under Ashland's veil, I think. Just like all the strange deaths and other things. It just went unnoticed by the normal people. Not me though, I'm not exactly a normal citizen of Ashland. It said something about Incubi. It said a lot of things about a lot of different things, but it had a long section on Incubi." The nurse was tapping her finger on the windowsill. "Incubi are, were, psychic creatures. I think that's what it called them. They didn't have a body, they were... memetic or something like that. Like a mind parasite. They didn't exist in the real world, but they did exist in dreams. They would latch themselves to a host and take over that host's dream world... then feed off their hosts suffering and trauma."
"Are you feeling ill?" The nurse asked again, but I could barely here her. I was lost in my own thought.
"There was a phrase... something like an Incubic mantra... I can't remember it. 'Mol wo...' I think it started. It was in Incubic."
"I'm calling your parent's you're not making any sense."
"'Mol wo il... Mol wa el.. ilmo..." I staggered through the sentence, my tongue tripping over the unfamiliar language and the forgotten phrase. "Mol wo ilmora wa.... Mol wo ilmora ka la... lamora kili. Mol wo ilmora ka lamora kili."
The world turned to black. I don't think the Incubus liked what I had said.
In either an instant or an eternity, I found myself standing in front of a restroom on the first floor. The girl's room, denoted by the misshapen icon that vaguely resembled a woman. I felt as though I was expected to go through the door, and so I decided in that moment I wasn't one who particularly enjoyed living up to expectations. Instead I sat and thought about the events that had just transpired, and the nurse I had spoken too. In the moment, the accusation seemed sound, but after a minute or so, doubts started to surface. I was tired, asleep. I wasn't entirely sure how well I could trust my own ability to reason. After all, the idea of an Incubus shouldn't be reasonable to anyone.
Nonetheless, now that the memory of the creature and the book that spoke of them crossed my mind, I couldn't help but to feel that it made a bit of sense. I remembered the nightmare I had the day before. The dreamlike state that seemed to last after I had awoken. Walking to the Quik'N'Cheep in the early morning. Something about my memory of those events felt fuzzy, or strange, but then, Ashland is always strange. Could there be more to it though? Could my memories have been tampered?
Ashland was a strange town, and my life there had been strange, make no mistake. I lived in a void, without parents, or friends, or neighbors, or acquaintances. Without even strangers. That strangeness though, somehow, made the idea of an Incubus even stranger. There was no doubt in my mind that Ashland was haunted. That demons and wraiths hid in every shadowed corner of the city. I had read enough obituaries to know what a hellish place Ashland actually was. But that nightmare city wasn't my Ashland. That was the real Ashland; the real Ashland was the one filled with evil, unwhole things, and people being preyed upon by those things. My Ashland, the one I know, the one I lived in, was empty. So if I was being haunted by an Incubus... how did it find me?
I heard a vague buzz echo down the hallway, and recalled the faceless students that I had been oblivious to before. Dreams work in strange ways; something you would normally find horrifying can be right next to you and you won't even know it. The absurdities of the dream world all seem natural in the moment, but the second that the glamor fades the nightmares surrounding you are revealed. I thought of the students, and the smooth flesh stretched over where their faces should be. I didn't want to see them again. The buzzing grew a bit louder, and a bit closer. With the same sense of resignation I had felt in the cabin the night before, I pushed open the door to the restroom.
The room was incredibly dim, illuminated only by a dying incandescent bulb and a thin, high window that let a slit of dirty red sunlight cut through the air and score the back wall. It took me a moment to even see the body on the floor. It was a young girl, face down, sprawled across the ground as though she had fallen from an immense height. She wasn't moving. I didn't even consider the possibility that she could be alive. Her black hair was splayed across the tile, obscuring even the girl's profile. After a few moments of examining the corpse from a distance, something odd struck me. I realized I couldn't determine the girl's cause of death.
Indeed it did look as though she had fallen, but that wouldn't make sense, given she was in a closed room with something like an eight foot ceiling. There was no blood either, nor any obvious wounds or bruises. It didn't matter, trying to find a cause of death was pointless. After all, this girl was nothing but a figment of my imagination. She had never lived. Her entire existence was what I had seen; she was stillborn when I walked into the room, and when I left she would fade away. Nothing had killed her, nothing could kill her. She wasn't real.
Nonetheless it irked me. Why was that body there? Was this not a nightmare? Should she not be bloodied and broken? Should her corpse not resemble only vaguely the broken frame of a human being? I remembered what I had said about Incubi. They feed off of suffering and trauma. If I was being haunted by such a parasite, shouldn't it be displaying some monstrous, foul desecration of the cadaver? Instead, she lay there still, as though she had tripped, and the next moment would stand again and laugh about her clumsiness. Without knowing why, or even acknowledging that I was, I approached her, and knelt down next to her corpse. I was compelled by morbid curiosity. Unthinkingly, I turned over her body. She was light, it took no effort to move her.
She had a face. She wore the same uniform as all the other faceless shades that were posing as students, but unlike them she had a face. It was young, perhaps around my age. Perhaps a little younger. Her lip was cut, and the dried blood stained her otherwise perfect, porcelain skin. I wondered if you had always looked this fair, or if the paleness of death had desaturated her. It took me a moment, but quickly I found the cause of death I had been looking for. Ligature marks around her neck. Not the clean ones left by ropes, but the splotchy, uneven ones left by hands. You could see exactly where each finger wrapped around her neck, and the thumbs left deep read marks just on top of the windpipe. The marks were slender, thin. They were not the marks of an adult's hands, but those of a child's. I straddled the girl's body, and unable to stop myself, I compared the shape of the marks to my own fingers.
I sat like that for a minute. Maybe a few minutes. Maybe an hour. Time passed. Too much time passed before I realized what I was doing. I was sitting astride the girl's corpse, my hands wrapped around her neck, gazing into her empty pale brown eyes. Terror welled up inside me, and I reeled backwards in disgust. I couldn't stand, and knew only I needed to get away from that body. I kicked with my legs, scuffed the floor with my heels, and clambered my way back to the door, never taking my eyes off of the corpse. I heard the buzzing again, much louder now. Much closer. Just outside the room. I was trapped, and so I planted my back against the door, and pushed against it with all my strength. The buzzing persisted for a while, but slowly, slowly faded away, and once there was nothing but silence again, I collapsed to the ground, tears welling in my eyes. Everything around me started to dissolve; a cold sweat came over me. My mind was foggy, and in my blinded vision all the shapes of the room began to swirl and mix and slowly fade away into nothingness.