"The walls between nightmare and reality are blurred in the tense thriller by Joseph Sweet"
Crystal ran as hard as she could on rubbery legs. Her whole body, in fact, felt old and used up. Every muscle felt about to give out on her, but she knew that she couldn't let it. That thing was right behind her.
"Crystal." A thin, papery hiss of a voice like knives dragged across cement, called out to her from up ahead.
She stopped, uncertain of what she could do. She could no longer hear it running behind her. If you could call what it did running, that was. It was more like scampering. It moved on four legs, but it had eight. All of them had insect-like claws at the end. They could stand like humans, attaining a humanoid pose if they chose to, but they were nothing like us at all; completely alien. Their initial insect-like appearance, also, - slimy with hard, sectioned exoskeletons - was nothing compared to the tentacle bearing mess they became later, when they were in the mood to breed. A convulsive shiver ran through her at the thought of them. She didn't think she could possibly have imagined these creatures on her own, and that lent credibility to the idea that she couldn't possibly be dreaming.
When they'd overrun the camp, her biggest fear had been being eviscerated and eaten, and not necessarily in that order. What had actually transpired had been beyond even her wildest, most terrifying nightmares. Many times over now, she'd found herself wishing for what she'd initially feared.
She thought back to that event. After dark they had come tumbling up and outward from every available shadow. Not from amongst the trees as you might have expected. One second everything had been fine, minutes from sundown, and then without warning, the thin, insubstantial shafts of darkness cast by failing sun light began to vomit up the vilest creatures imaginable. They had been everywhere in seconds; the spiders, the giant eight-legged things that were chasing her now, and the other ones - the flying ones. There had been nowhere to go, and as she had cowered next to the tent, one particularly weak shaft of shadow had produced much-too-large centipede-like creatures as though it were some great dark pit and not a harmless, weak, nearly non-existent piece of shade.
"Crystal." This time it came from her left; seemingly just a few feet away, through the trees. The fog was dense this early in the morning and not much could be made out. Even on the most normal of mornings, the most untroubled mind could make scary shapes from the coalescing of shadow, mist and tentative shafts of early morning light which managed to cut through the tops of the mammoth trees surrounding her.
"Crystal." right behind her this time.
She spun around frantically.
It was freezing cold. Her body was numb, and her breath – coming out of her burning chest in jagged, spit-fire plumes of steam in the seemingly-arctic morning air - hung around her in a cloud for seconds before dissipating as she swung her head frantically in every direction, in an attempt to ascertain which route was safest. She was wearing only a badly tattered night gown. She just needed to get home. Everything would be okay if she could just reach civilization. Someone would know what to do. There was always some expert in the movies who knew just what to do.
There was a sudden rustle in the bushes to her right and two of the creatures burst out at her from different directions before a scream even left her throat. She was running once again before she even knew that she was doing so.
Her cries for help soon melded into inarticulate sounds as hope faded back into the hopelessness of days prior. She knew that no one would hear her. No one ever did. Why was she even trying?
There was almost no strength left. And then what would happen? Then she would collapse, helpless, to the forest floor and be consumed by them again. They would drag her back to the shadow place. She wasn't entirely certain that this forest was too distantly separated from there. Not that anything was anymore.
Something bit at her foot and she froze in panic as she fell to the ground, nearly curling up in a protective position as she fell. She was in an almost full state of panic before realizing that she had just tripped on a stray root. She slammed into the rotting foliage on the forest floor hard and rolled onto her back, throwing her arms out defensively as they closed in on her.
They took her arms and her legs. And then she was being dragged back.
She screamed, but there was hardly any reason to bother at this point. Her voice was nearly gone.
A sudden vision came to her then of when she was only eight years old. Had they still only been nightmares back then? Sure, they hadn't been so bad back then – not that she'd have agreed without the foreknowledge of what would come later – but they'd been bad enough for a kid her age to need a therapist.
She saw herself playing with a toy castle, a Barbie doll in hand. It had begun to grow dark outside, and the bedroom light was not actually on. Everything is mystery at that age. Anything is possible. And thus, any terror of the mind – or otherwise – may overtake us. Until we are taught that certain things don't exist, they do. They can. And who's to say, with any real certainty, only in our heads? She began suddenly to look around the room, as though she had sensed something. She had not yet been taught by society to be ashamed of that fear we all share, at some point, of the dark. Maybe we sense that there is something lurking there in the shadows, waiting for its chance to come forth. We just never bring ourselves to believe it. Not fully, anyway, on a conscious level.
In her room, at the age of nine - terrified - she'd let her eyes wander, knowing somehow that she was being watched. Then, just across the room, peering out from behind her vanity, she'd seen the two glowing eyes; red, pulsing slightly with some other-worldly energy, glaring at her with malicious intent. Her mouth opened, her whole body shaking, she wanted to scream, but she couldn't do it. She was too terrified. And then the slimy three fingered hand with long sharp claws came forth from the shadows as well, reaching for her, and she scrambled backwards into the large toy castle that her mommy and daddy had bought for her, knocking it over and screaming as loud as she could. She still hadn't been able to bring herself to stand and run, caught in the grips of a paralyzing fear, certain that the thing would get her if she turned her back on it for only a moment.
Her father had come running and turned the light on as he entered. There, of course, had been nothing. He'd hugged her though and told her it was alright. There was nothing there. Now, though, she wondered. They could travel in shadow, she knew now. But only if you believed they could; Way up on top believed.
Currently Crystal could hear the pitiful screams of other women as they dragged her closer to the place she'd only just recently attempted escape from. But the closer they got, the less she could see. They were in the shadow realm now. Soon her eyes would adjust and she would be able to see a little bit, but only a little. And then the torture would begin anew.
She wanted to fight, but she had nothing left. No will to live. She'd used all that she had in trying to escape. And how had she even gotten away? She couldn't even remember that now. Maybe they had let her go just to catch her and drag her back. Just to beat her down. The movement stopped and the tentacles began to wrap around her once again. Tears moved down her face, but she only half acknowledged them. One of the bug-creatures crawled over her again – big oval head in her face, huge slimy, razor teeth right in front of her. She started crying again. Her stomach threatened to turn. It smelled like death. The thought of it touching her was bad enough, let alone… She couldn't even let her mind go there. She tried to drift; to let herself fade away to darkness, but she couldn't. It wouldn't let her. It loved to see her suffer. She vowed to herself right then that she wouldn't open her eyes again. No matter how bad the pain got. Even if it tore open her face. She couldn't bear to see those big glassy eyes and those giant slimy razor teeth, and those little twitching whatever they were everywhere beneath its head while it did whatever it was doing inside her.
It was all starting over, and it would happen again and again and again. There was no denying it. How long had this been going on? There was no waking up. There was no escape. No going home. This was hell for certain. But what had she done to deserve this?
A deep ache, which had started in her groin and worked its way up into her stomach, suddenly flared into a sharp, searing pain that overwhelmed her so completely and with such speed that she found herself screaming out before she even knew it was her intention to do so. It was a long, sorrowful, scream that she thought would continue on for eternity. The pain in her lower body was so intense that she was certain it would kill her. But that wouldn't happen. She couldn't die here. Every time she thought she was dead, they brought her back. They'd ripped her to pieces before. She'd come back from that. She'd been here for months.
The scream continued until it felt as though it wasn't even her doing it anymore and then the dark and the cold was gone and there was light everywhere. It stung her eyes and then burrowed deep into her brain, threatening to become a migraine - as if that was the worst thing that could happen right now.
But there was color for the first time in what seemed like a millennia, and she fought to keep her eyes open. There were arms around her. A calm voice, but she knew that it was a lie. It had to be. She fought the hands that attempted to keep her lying down and struggled to a sitting position as her surroundings swam into focus. She wanted to believe what her subconscious was trying to tell her, but she knew it all must be a trick.
It wasn't. She was in her bedroom.
The pink walls; her husband had hated them. The dresser with the copper princess knobs that almost looked like gold; he had hated those too, but some part of her had never grown up. And so what if she still wanted to be a princess. What woman didn't want to be? Oh my God, she thought. I'm home. But was it possible? That it had all been a dream? She wanted so desperately to believe it, but felt pathetic for that desire after all that she had experienced.
And was that her husband?
"Babe… You're bleeding…"
Harold's words, even with the shrill, frightened tone of voice, did not register. The only thing that made it through was that he was there.
And if that was the case, why was there still so much pain? The room was almost completely in focus now, but still a bit foggy. There was so much light; so little shadow. They couldn't get in here, surely.
She turned to see that her husband Harold - who looked as though he'd been sleeping only moments before as well - was staring at her in fear. She'd obviously awakened him with her screaming. But he was no longer trying to hold her in the bed. He was pointing down below her waist and the skin of his face seemed to be growing more and more pale by the second. "Babe," he said, "You're hurt. Let me help you." He looked as though he was about to faint and her heart went out to him. She must have been fighting him off when she'd awakened screaming.
As she followed his gaze, her terror returned, however. The blanket and sheets were soaked with blood. The whole thing had been real, but surely that was absurd. The nightmare seemed to have gone on for months, but now that she was awake, she remembered laying down the night before with perfect clarity. It simply wasn't possible. It all had to have been a dream. I'm just having some sort of miscarriage, she thought, in a mixture of terror, sickness, misery, and mild relief. Yah, that's it. I just didn't know I was pregnant. I was having really bad cramps in my sleep and my mind was making it into some pretty fucking twisted shit, but that's all. She didn't believe it, not really, but maybe if she kept telling it to herself over and over, it would settle in.
Another massive jolt of pain sent her onto her back, gripping the side of the bed with one hand and the sheets with the other. She cried out again.
This shocked Harold into motion and he was up and moving to the stand on the other side of the bed an instant later. "Hang on, babe...Just hang on." He dialed 911 without much forethought. He looked terrified, and she felt so bad for him. Poor guy, she thought. All that blood. In truth, she was lucky that he hadn't passed out already. She couldn't get him through anything more exciting than an episode of CSI. He worked in an office. He loved her, she knew that with all of her heart, and she loved him back, but there wasn't much to that man; he was afraid of everything. Maybe that was what had attracted her to him. All of his phobias had made her fear of the dark not seem so bad. Who was he to question it?
She actually heard the voice of the operator through the phone from a few feet away. "Nine-one-one What is your emergency?"
"Umm, muh...my wife," Harold blurted, with a terrified child-like stammer that she once had thought to be so cute. He rarely did it in front of her anymore, but there was rarely a time when he didn't do it when under stress while out in public. "Shu, She... She's bu buh bleeding,"
Crystal let the rest bleed into the background as white noise. Something else was happening.
There was movement in her stomach.
With sudden horrid lucidity, she saw the creature above her, felt it inside her and saw those slimy, razor teeth bared before her; all the while, those great black glassy eyes were watching, knowing, almost smiling.
She threw back the blanket.
Her stomach, still somewhat small, began to bulge. There were small purple patches beginning to form.
She heard Harold drop the phone. "Oh guh...gawd!" he whispered. She couldn't look up at him, couldn't look away from all of that blood, from the purple, blistering patches of skin, but she wanted to hug him. She wanted to tell him that everything would be alright. She also wanted to punch him. He should be holding her. He should be telling her that everything was alright, not standing there like an idiot with the phone on the floor, but he couldn't help himself. Another few seconds, and he would probably be frozen in place, immobilized with fear, and neither of them would be able to do anything. Not his fault. she told herself. She loved him, but it wasn't his fault.
From somewhere far away, she could hear the voice of the emergency operator, "Sir... sir? Are you still there?"
"Cuh Crystal?" Harold asked, uncertain, still not having moved a single step from his spot next to the phone. He was obviously terrified, and sounded as though he was shaking, but she couldn't look at him. She would get angry with him. All the pain surging through her, he wouldn't understand. She was surprised that he had even been able to bring himself to speak. She knew that he wouldn't be able to move. Little did she know that he would never move from that spot again. Crystal was in so much pain now that she herself couldn't move anyway. It was tearing through her in waves and she knew that it would kill her. Why couldn't she have chosen a strong man; a man that would have taken action? She had an answer to that question already, though, and she knew it. This was what she had wanted so that she wouldn't have to deal with her own feelings of inadequacy and shame over her own seemingly unfounded fears. She knew a stronger man couldn't have done better anyway. What was there to be done against this? What was this, even?
In an instant she clearly remembered how the nightmare had started the night before.
She had come to bed late. She had fallen asleep on the couch and Harold hadn't wanted to disturb her. She'd been watching her soaps, as Harold liked to call them. They were far from soaps, as far as she was concerned, but he was entitled to his opinion. (Anything with a tiny bit of drama was a soap opera to him.)
She had come in and lain down, keeping the lights on, for the most part. She had always been a bit afraid of the dark. Yet, always, the creatures had remained in her nightmares. But last night, when she had slid beneath the covers, they had been there. They had wrapped around her legs beneath the sheets. It was dark under there. And they had pulled her in. And then she hadn't been in her bedroom anymore.
Her stomach bulged outward one last time and she could feel them teaming inside her – tumbling over one another, masses of them , eating their way out – wanting to get into the real world. This was what they had wanted. Perhaps what they had always wanted. And they had found it in her. Perhaps everyone who has ever had a nightmare has felt it in one way or another; the evil, trying to use you as a gateway to get into the world of light. But it never could. Perhaps little bits get through now and then, but this? This was going to be the end. The end, my friend, she thought, and wanted to laugh even with the pain. She began to scream as tiny tears rapidly formed in her stomach; tiny black rips, for there was no blood in that area. It had all dried up somehow. Her legs, in fact, had stopped working, she realized now. They had dried up. How she was even still alive was a mystery none would ever get the chance to solve. For a few seconds none of it made sense. Why this? Why did they need to do this? And then she remembered something which she thought answered everything.
She saw back when she was nine or ten. And something big was crawling out from under her bed. She screamed and screamed and screamed, and she could hear her father coming from the other end of the house. The thing from under her bed hissed and yapped at her and she could see the venom dripping off the fangs coming out of the misshapen mouth on its part reptilian, part bug, humanoid body. Daddy was almost there. But then, half way across the room, the monster had just turned to dust. And then her father was in the room, but what could she say? She said she had just seen a spider. The shrink they had taken her to see had told her to count to ten and that they would disappear. That they weren't real; and it had, hadn't it? It had vanished.
Finally the flesh surrounding the holes dried, crumbled, and broke away and what looked like spiders swarmed out of her by the hundreds. She fought the pain and the building scream, and the undeniable urge to vomit long enough to count in her head.
One… They were scurrying up and over her breasts. Two; down and over her legs, which were almost dust now. Three; they were crawling all over the bed. Four; they were starting to reach the floor now. Five; she could hear Harold just starting to scream. It was almost a woman's scream, but she had no pity for him left at that point. Six; bigger ones were coming out at that point, cock roach looking things, with bigger, longer legs, and sectioned, thin bodies with almost alien looking eyes. She knew what they would grow into. 7; she did start screaming then, losing count. She wasn't going to make it to ten anyway. Something bigger was pushing from deep within; something almost as big as her, trying to push through the portal that was Crystal Summers. She knew that there was no reason to bother. They weren't going to turn to dust at ten anyway. They weren't going to disappear. They couldn't have existed in the real world for long before this event. They couldn't have passed out of shadow for more than ten seconds before today. But this was different. This was some sort of evil darkness, born into the light from a human body.
"Daddy?" she hears herself cry out in desperation; and why not? Wasn't he the one who had saved her so many times in the past? But he wasn't here now. He'd been dead ten years now. Daddy wasn't coming this time. And what good could he do here regardless? Was there anyone anywhere that could help?
She screamed; one last horrid, shrill scream as the cracks reached her breasts. She had long since lost touch with her arms. The cracks worked their way into her chest cavity a second later and then she was no longer able to make any sound. Moments later she was dust, but somewhere above it all – right up until the end - she could hear Harold screaming. Perhaps that was the worst part of it all; even knowing that this might be the end of the world. Hearing her poor Harold scream like a child, knowing that his worst fears had come true right before his helpless eyes. Surely there had been madness in those screams. But nothing mattered. Crystal was dust and Harold would soon be dead and no one would ever know what happened here. This would just be the house that legions of dark things had poured forth from to wreak havoc upon the world. And the barrier had indeed been broken. No one was safe. The shadows were not safe. Not that they ever had been. Not completely, anyway. But some part of us all knows that at one point or another when the light fails us and shadows creep in.