Molly Harland lives alone on a quiet country road in Mellowbrook Michigan, trying to write her novels, but the simple life she once knew it about to be torn apart.
What starts with strange and disturbing dreams turns out to be only the beginning of a living nightmare. The Dreamfeeder, a vastly powerful otherworldly entity, is steadily growing in the depths of her cellar, and she doesn't know what to do about it. The visitor has an insatiable, unimaginable hunger, and the choice between c
On what should have been a lazy Saturday morning, I awoke again from another nightmare so intense, choking and full of dread, that my moans could have alarmed neighbors if they had been close enough to hear. I struggled to tear off the suffocating cocoon of sleep, to no avail. In my dream, I stood in front of the closed cellar doors outside my house. Filled with panic and unable to move, I saw something thick and gelatinous quickly seeping its way in between the doors, through the crack, determined to reach me. It was a pale red in color, like raw meat, flecked with gray patches and other unidentifiable matter, a moving, living ooze that seemed to me like diseased blood.
I realized it had pooled around my feet, sucking at my boots, crawling with surprising swiftness up the legs of my jeans. Its touch was slick, warm, and squishy like jelly, but as I tried to lift my feet and run, it proved to be eerily strong.
I could feel it slithering under the legs of my jeans now, and onto my bare ankles, steadily rising. There was a terrible burning agony as though this thing contained something corrosive that was eating away at my flesh. I flailed, pulling with all my might, overcome with a primal fear of being devoured alive by something so strange and powerful that it could neither be understood nor fought.
The doors flew open, revealing an unearthly red light shining from the open cellar. It seemed to beckon, to pulse and throb. Terror mingled with searing pain, but at the same time part of me wanted to descend the stairs and confront the source of the almost lulling light, an enigma that perhaps only I could solve.
I lurched up in bed, threw off the covers, and looked at my feet and legs with relief to see that they were still there. After a long moment of deep breathing, reacquainting myself with the real world, I got out of bed, shuffled into the bathroom and vigorously washed my face with hot water and Ivory soap, trying to clear my head. Perhaps I was also trying to scrub away imaginary gunk, as though some of that dream ooze had seeped into real life and had somehow gotten on me.
Someone else might have sought professional help, but not me. I am too certain of my sanity to accept that I might have gone over the deep end of the mind pool.
Get a grip, Molly, I told my reflection in the mirror, which stared back warily with wide blue eyes and a too-pale complexion as though I were a girl who had been spooked out of her skin so much that it had finally faded to a perpetual colorless white.
At least you have a reflection, a thought remarked blandly.
For too long I refused to think about what was in the cellar. It had been several months since there was any reason to go down there, and two years since I moved into the newly remodeled house in Mellowbrook, Michigan. Since the dreams began, I was stricken with the nagging feeling that something could be in my cellar. What it was, I didn’t know, but merely thinking of such a possibility filled me with dread. There wasn't any proof to inspire such feelings, but on some deep, unseen level, I sensed a presence, an oppressive aura, something that listened for me as intently as I listened for it.
I had never seriously believed in ghosts. Despite the logical way of thinking that my parents had instilled in me at an early age, the idea seemed preposterous and, bizarrely….too mundane. Real or imagined, whatever dwelled in the cellar never affected things the way a spirit might. It was silent, subtle.
Never before had I been disturbed so deeply by what went on in my own head. Being somewhat of a writer, though I’d not yet brought my work out of obscurity, the simple act of creating stories was always soothing enough. Imagination is supposed to be a solace, not a curse. I preferred peace and solitude, a haven from the chaos that life often is, but life on that quiet country road would have been just too lonely, and too eerie, without Solo.
A year ago, I adopted Solo from a friend whose dog had given birth to seven other puppies. All of them except Solo had been inexplicably stillborn and even the veterinarian who examined them did not understand why. It’s also how he got his name; the only survivor, having come into this world solo but physically unscathed, and since then, neither he nor I have been alone.
Solo was waiting in the kitchen when I strode in to brew a pot of coffee and make buttered English muffins. The small window over the stove let in cascades of golden sunlight, and the lazily shifting patterns of windblown trees and their falling leaves. Solo’s sable face studied me with concern. Maybe he smelled my disquiet, or perhaps he had heard the sounds of fear uttered in the grip of the nightmare. As I sat at the table, he padded up to me and stared with a cheery hopefulness that said, Come on, pet me! You know you want to. There is no resisting the power of my cuteness.
“You’re a ham,” I told him, already feeling somewhat better. The combination of a light breakfast, a good dog, and the possibility of a productive day worked wonders at peeling away the last remaining wisps of nightmare that persistently clung to my thoughts. After pouring some kibble into Solo’s bowl I sat at the computer and tried to write a few paragraphs of my current novel, which was going to be a thriller and maybe also a mystery. Mysteries had been my favorite genre for years, especially those that involved strong, hard-boiled characters, like cops and detectives, who saved innocent people from crime and decay.
Instead of starting to type, I stared at the screen. The ideas for phrasing scenes and character dialogue didn’t come as smoothly as they had before and were repeatedly interrupted by strange thoughts.
What if something is really down there and does have a way of getting out, like in the dream? And what if it’s hungry?
I distracted myself with a little joke.
Well, maybe some wine will mellow it out. There’s enough down there to give it a major hangover. Cellar-things are people too.
I desperately wanted to prove to myself how irrational all this was.
There’s nothing to be afraid of!
But, if scaring myself was the price to pay for having a good imagination, it was not silly or pathetic. That day, however, I was mad at myself and looking back on it, maybe afraid that my intuition was warning something terrible was about to happen. Surprising myself, I stood up from the office chair, turned from the computer, and went to my bedroom to change into corduroy pants and a brown sweater. Then, I put on my boots and went outside into the chilly autumn day, Solo following at my heels. The leaves had begun to decorate the yard with their fresh lively color, a pattern of warm familiarity. Solo ran through them happily, paused to pee, then bounded back to me. The path leading to the cellar was reminiscent of cobblestone and it closely matched the bricks that made up the outside of the house.
The wind was clean and gentle, smelling of pines and old oaks. On days like this, when the only sounds were whispering trees and occasional cars passing by with a distant rush on the country road, it seemed so unlikely that anything could disrupt my quiet life.
The day was so nice, so clear, and I wandered around my yard, thinking ahead to spring and the beautiful bulbs I needed to plant. I was so distracted that I didn’t even realize I had wound up in front of the cellar doors. The metal doors were mottled and rusty in some places, but I didn’t bother to get new ones. If something still served its function and was not falling apart, there was no need to throw it away, at least in my opinion. I halted in front of them, remembering my dreams, and a cold, slithering shiver went through me. They had an ominous quality that had not been there before, and going down there was both the first and last thing I wanted to do. Behind me, Solo growled softly, and then uttered a piercing whine as though he had been hurt.
I turned around to see him staring intensely at the cellar doors. His hackles were raised and he was trembling. What’s wrong?” I asked him, but he seemed not to hear. His dark eyes were focused so intently on the rusty red metal doors, as though he expected something threatening to come thundering out of it, with violence on its mind. Or maybe that’s what I expected to happen. Insanity is all the rage these days. Solo yelped, barked madly, and bolted away, disappearing to the front of the house. Following him, I stole one last glance at the cellar doors.
It’s only a matter of time before it gets free; a stray thought solemnly informed me. With some difficulty, I shut out that mental statement and focused on finding Solo, as he was not a dog to be frightened easily. Seeing him react that way to a seemingly mundane thing frightened me, because it could only mean that these cellar-themed thoughts and the certainty that something was growing down there did not originate solely from my own mind. Animals are notorious for sensing things humans can’t, and there have been many cases they knew an earthquake was coming long before humans felt the first rumblings.
Curious words came to me. Mold…fungus…I wondered if they had any relevance to these strange dreams and my dog’s behavior. I had read of some kinds of mold that could cause unnatural physical as well as psychological effects to animals and humans, sometimes hallucinations, paranoia, sudden fear. This was comforting, for it seemed there could be a logical explanation for the recent weirdness. Mold could be eradicated easily, while insanity could not.
When I found Solo, he was wandering around the front yard, sniffing at the grass as though nothing had happened. The mailbox was only a few feet away so I decided to check it. There were the usual bills, a newspaper filled with coupons, and a note from one of the new employees at my pest control company, who had probably received his welcome notice upon climbing aboard. I inherited the company from my father, who had just passed on of a brain hemorrhage only a few months ago. I was closer to him than my sister, who always had her own problems to deal with and claimed to possess no time for others, or my mother, who seemed to prefer her over me.
The thought occurred that these dreams were a reflection of my grief at losing dad, as were the other strange thoughts. It would have been easy to believe if it hadn’t been for the focus on the cellar.
There was a distant rumble that woke me up from deep thought, and distracted me from the sadness that rose upon thinking of dad. A car was cruising down the road, an olive green SUV, and I realized it was my friend Kat Baxley’s, who pulled up in the driveway, causing Solo to bark with excitement. Kat was petite, blond, two years younger than me and occasionally she played the role of a big sister. We had been friends since I was eleven and needed an ally; for like many kids, I was often harassed. Wearing faded blue jeans, tennis shoes, and a white sweatshirt, she seemed much younger than she was, especially as she played and cooed to Solo and then uttered a chirpy “Hi!” when she saw me approach.
“So, what dastardly villain are we going to bring to justice this time,” I joked, thinking of the times when Kate had dated the wrong guy and consulted me on what to do, and vice versa. Relationship problems, however, had ended for her as gracefully as she deserved. She was married to a sweet man named Todd, and had three boys, two of them twins.
With a musical chuckle, she said, “There was this clerk at the grocery store who didn’t give me my change. I forgot, and then I went back. He changed shifts. Let’s get revenge.”
“How much change?” I asked her.
“3 dollars and 40 cents. I was going to try to track him down and get it back, but it isn’t worth it.”
“Are you sure about that? There are plenty of things you could buy with $3.40 in times like these...”
“Oh well.” Kat shrugged. “Maybe he needed it.”
Kat, originally called Katherine but now preferring the shorter nickname, believes that anything and everything that happens is part of what she calls the Universal Blueprint. No matter what it is, it was meant to occur to either teach us something or to get us to change something about ourselves. She says it is for our evolution. Kat is a deeply spiritual person, vastly more so than me, and her everything-happens-for-a-reason attitude is at worst mildly endearing and at best inspiring.
“Anyway, you want some coffee?” I asked, motioning toward the house.
“Sure, I just came over for a good chat and some java, not to lead you on a perilous quest for missing change.”
I laughed, and we all went inside. As I brewed another pot of coffee and talked to my old friend, I momentarily forgot about the uneasiness that had risen in me.
“So,” Kat mused, settling down across from me at the kitchen table and blowing at her coffee to cool it off. “You heard about the new cell phone towers they put up down the road?”
“No. When did they put them up?”
“About a week ago. Haven’t you been out lately, Molly? You can’t miss them driving by. They’re huge.”
“I haven’t been out in a few days. I’ve been trying to get some things done around the house.”
Yeah, get some things done. Sure. And a new species of narwhal has developed the ability to fly. I need to get out more.
“Well, at least it’ll be easier to communicate with Todd while he’s at work, or you, if you ever get a cell phone.” Kat added thoughtfully.
“I probably won’t get one. Don’t need one. My home phone works fine.”
Kat scrunched her elfin features into a worried grimace. “Molly, I don’t mean to be offensive, really, but you don’t look so good. No color is in your face. You look like you’ve seen dead people or something.”
Surprised by her perceptiveness, and how she could read me so well, I looked up from my coffee. I realized that I had been staring at the swirl of whipped cream on top as it mixed with the beverage, as though seeking answers in those twirling patterns.
“I don’t know, Kat. I’ve just been feeling sort of odd lately. Weird dreams…” For just a moment mentioning the cellar and describing the dreams seemed like a good idea. Then it didn’t.
She doesn’t judge me for being eccentric, I thought. But this might test her ability to believe. And if she doesn’t smile, nod, and question my sanity, she might even want to investigate the cellar for herself.
I could not allow that to happen, not to my best friend.
What the hell do you think will happen? A demonic possession? Attacks by a horde of giant mutant spiders made enormous by the radioactive chemicals in household cleaners? Maybe some god-awful pop star juking and jiving and drinking all my wine?
I stifled something that might have been a mad laugh.
“Dreams are just the mind’s way of blowing off steam, Molly,” Kat informed. “It processes everything, even things you don’t even remember seeing. What are you dreaming about?”
“Just things that make no sense. People I don’t know, places I don’t recognize.” I lied.
“Maybe you’re going stir crazy,” Kat suggested, cautiously sipping at her coffee. “Cabin fever can happen to the best of us. Why don’t you get out of the house and go to the mall with me or something? It’d be fun, and we’ll do some window shopping.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “We’ll go in a little while if you want. But I don’t think it’s because I’m stir crazy. It’s nothing like that.”
“Then why do you think it is?”
Because there’s a nasty fungus of some sort festering in my cellar, causing me to lose my marbles and not want to leave my house. It doesn’t want me to leave my house.
Suddenly nauseous, and disturbed by the last part of that thought which seemed to come out of nowhere, I stood up, grabbed my purse off the kitchen counter, and said, “Let’s just go ahead and go now.”
As I got in the passenger seat of her SUV, and as she backed out of the driveway, I looked toward one of the front windows of the house. Solo was watching us leave, and even from that distance it was clear that he looked very scared. His mouth stretched wide as he barked almost constantly. He looked beseeching, too, and as Kat turned the wheel and finished backing out; my little brick home with its gorgeous sentinel trees and leaf confetti seemed less like the charming and secure haven it had always been and more like a huddled bunker. Instead of protecting from outside forces, something sinister seemed to be building within. I almost told Kat to stop, so I could go get Solo and bring him with us, but then I remembered that Todd, sensible Todd, didn’t want to clean fur off the upholstery. It was a minor thing, and Kat probably would have stopped to get the dog anyway because things like that didn’t matter to Todd, who was more concerned about selling whatever product he sold these days and taking care of his family.
Solo will be fine. You’ve left him home alone plenty of times before. It’s nothing.
But the paranoia wouldn’t settle for that.
What if whatever’s down there in the cellar can get in through the vents, reaching Solo while he sleeps? What if it’s hungry?
No! That’s not going to happen!
Trying not to be agitated, I looked at Kat, then at the road, distractedly wondering if I had enough in my wallet to buy a new book from one of the mall’s several bookstores. Other works were often helpful in keeping the creative juices flowing. Maybe then the inspiration would come back, maybe then I could stop worrying about finding a job in this town and finally do what I love to do and be paid for it.
But you can’t concentrate on writing if you’re worried about celebrities and arachnids and evil fungus escaping to devour you and your dog. Use your talents for something besides bullsh*t, Molly.
Putting myself down, focusing on my own faults and quirks was a nifty distraction, but not a good way to build healthy self-esteem. Yet, it was better than thinking about the dreadful dreams and the feeling that something far worse than negative self-talk was flourishing nearby. The road to town offered many things to gaze at, and even if they are familiar sights to those who drive past them every day, it doesn’t diminish their country charm. We passed by vast fields of corn, lush pastures full of cows, and the huge wiry metal cell phone towers that loomed like those Martian tripods in War Of The Worlds, only instead of using heat rays, they sent off signals and controlled doses of radiation that would eventually give nearby residents malignant tumors, or so the latest doom-and-gloom local news broadcast suggested. When Kat pointed them out, I didn’t say anything of the sort, however, because my friend was truly an eternal optimist, and cancerous cell phone towers could only bring upon a rant about the sensationalistic news and their need for shocking headlines and ratings.
As the SUV roared out of the sticks and into the town, we talked about how cute and witty Kat’s boys were, how the prices at Sir Save-a-lot’s Groceries were steadily going up, how messed up and drug-addled many celebrities were, and pretty much everything except what was really on my mind. Kat and I always talked, always shared, and having a true friend to do that with is a wonderful thing, a lifeline to hope. What had unsettled me for the past few days never came up, because I never allowed it to.
Mellowbrook Mall was filled with many kinds of people that day, but all of them seemed not to see Kat and I as we leisurely prowled the shops, sampled some desserts offered in the food court, and generally teased ourselves by looking at admittedly nice but expensive things we didn’t really want to buy. It was, on the most part, nice to get out and do something. I was looking for distractions of any kind, and found them almost everywhere. For a short while Solo and the dangers of mold didn’t cross my mind.
At the center of the mall was an enormous atrium, which let in sunlight through a frosted glass dome. People were the most plentiful here, going in different directions, up escalators, down halls. Some were in a hurry, others were frustratingly slow, but the mixture was somewhat chaotic. Several boys of about nine or ten ran out of the arcade as we passed it, screaming and chasing one another. They streaked past us, and one of them bumped into me rudely, clipping my shoulder so hard I almost lost my balance and fell.
“Hey!” I shouted. “Watch it, please.” They gave no indication that they heard me, but Kat stared back at them as though she wanted to pursue them for this blithe disregard of manners.
“You okay?” she asked.
I nodded, rubbing my sore shoulder.
It was then that reality, in a brief but jarring flash, slipped away and vanished. My mind showed me something with the suddenness of a cobra striking, a disturbing mental image that was more like something seen right in front of my eyes.
Solo backed into a corner of the bedroom, whimpering, trembling, barking, as a huge gob of obscenely glistening reddish ooze made its way across the floor. Questing for him, reaching, a huge puddle of slime on the floor that the big dog couldn’t leap over without landing in. it edged closer, closer, seeming to become thicker, more solid, more agile. Quivering, so strange and hungry…hungry….
Faster than I could even gasp, it was over and there was the mall again, the flickering multicolored lights of the arcade games where more kids played, Kat staring at me with concern and confusion carved on her face.
“Molly? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I could only say, but maybe it didn’t make a difference because she saw that freaked-out look on my face.
That wasn’t real, not a psychic vision. It couldn’t have been. Too much coffee. Must have had too much coffee, a whole pot, caffeine overload, making me see imaginary things straight out of a bad low-budget horror movie. Yes, that has to be it.
“Molly, if there’s something wrong, tell me. What’s going on?” Kat’s face showed much concern.
“I just…I’m…not feeling so good,” I said, and every sound, the beeping-pinging-rattling arcade games, the distracted multitudes talking all at once, even my own voice, seemed muffled. The lights seemed dimmer than they should have been. But above all else, I wanted to go home. Lethargy had crept up with such swiftness that I yearned for sleep.
“Want to leave?” Kat raised her eyebrows and studied me closely, as though looking for particles of negative energy that she could swipe out of the air, thus restoring my good state of mind. Not only did she believe in the Universal Blueprint, but she believed in all sorts of other things, some of which I secretly scoffed at unless they were good elements for fiction.
Cold and flu season was coming around. That was a good excuse. And it was so mundane. We left the mall and she drove me home. For the first time ever, neither of us had something to say, and that was scary too. Perhaps she subconsciously interpreted from my reaction to the vision in the mall that it wasn’t the common cold that explained my frightened disposition. We pulled into my driveway, and as I got out of the SUV, Kat said, “Molly, wait.”
After stealing one glance at the windows, I turned toward her. “What?”
“You get well, okay? Get some rest. Slurp up some chicken noodle soup if you have any, and watch something funny on TV. That always helps me when I’m sick.”
“Thanks, Kat.” I replied, walking towards the house, eager to get inside to see how Solo was doing. You’re a true friend. I’ll call you later or something.”
We both waved goodbye, and she drove off, honking the car’s horn so loud it would have disturbed neighbors if any had been around to hear.
Turning the key to open the front door, I braced myself for whatever lay ahead, which seemed like a ludicrously irrational thing to do, but the vision in the mall was so visceral and alive, that steeling for the worst seemed smart. Solo didn’t come racing through the kitchen to me, as he always did when I got home. He didn’t bark, and the reassuring sound of his claws ticking on the kitchen floor was replaced with an uncanny silence.
I went to my bedroom, hoping to find him sleeping in his sheepskin dog bed, or in mine, which he preferred. The dog wasn’t there either, and for some reason my heart began to beat faster than it should have with a hard heavy thump that could be felt even in my temples. A bead or two of cold sweat trickled down my neck.
“Come here, Solo!” I said in the shrieky baby-talk voice that always made him gleeful. “Want some din-din? Do you? Quit hiding, you silly boy.”
I went to the living room, checked behind the armchair, the sofa, everywhere else where he could hide. No pooch. Finally, I looked in the second bedroom, which served as my own personal office. After a quick but thorough search, I found Solo, lying down on his side, eyes closed, next to the computer desk.
Oh god, please let him just be sleeping.
“Hey, boy,” I whispered, bending down on my knees to get a closer look at him, and sighed with relief at the telltale rise and fall of his furry flanks. He was breathing steadily, slowly. I shook him gently, and stroked his head, but he didn’t respond. His eyelids fluttered but stayed shut. It seemed that Solo was merely sleeping, but why wouldn’t he wake up?
Suddenly his bushy tail began to slide back and forth on the carpet, and his paws began to move, as though he were chasing something in his dreams, or running away from something. He was probably deep in REM sleep and I waited for several minutes as this went on. It was almost as if he were trying to wake up, but for some reason he could not.
What could cause something to go to sleep and not wake up? Low blood sugar? Poisonous spores? If this happened to him, will it happen to me?
A cordless phone was plugged in right next to the computer monitor, and just as I was about to pluck it off the receiver and call the veterinarian, Solo sat up and barked twice. His eyes were almost cloudy and staring wide. He looked around the room, then at me, but he seemed not to see anything. Sluggishly he stood up, wobbled unsteadily for a second, and then ran out of the room.
“Solo?” I hesitated with a hand over the phone, unsure that even though the dog woke up, that he was really not sick. Paying the veterinarian money just for him to tell me Solo was fine was not on my list of stupid and pointless things to do on a lonely Saturday. I went into the kitchen thinking that he wanted outside, and sure enough, there he was, scratching at the back door and whining urgently. In other times, I would not have thought anything of Solo going outside, but these weren’t ordinary times.
I followed him.