Aisling hated feeling like the last one in the building; from the few cars in the parking lot, there must have been some faculty or students left getting last-minute work done. The haunted mansion — that was her college campus — was located on top of a small southern Vermont mountain, surrounded by woodlands and an elaborate courtyard that came directly out of her nightmares. As she started toward her dorm, her mind called forth images from those nightmares, creatures moving through shadows and eyes watching her through the darkness.
Her feet moved quickly, her mental pep talk giving her false courage. She froze in terror as she passed the dark dining hall. That was when she heard the wet slap of dead flesh on the pavement behind her. Her breath turned to mud in her lungs. “Don’t turn around,” she whispered, her body ignoring the command. In the corner of her vision, a mess of black hair and crooked bones disappeared into the shadows.
Aisling ran. She pulled out her key ring before she reached her building, her hand shaking as she struggled to find the right key. A breath of relief rushed out as she found it and she slipped into the hallway. She lived on the third floor, and she prayed to a god she didn’t believe in to keep her safe as she started up the stairs.
On the landing between the second and third floor, she heard it again. She flinched at the wet cracking of the creature’s joints, the bones shifting as it pulled itself up the stairs. She closed her eyes as fresh panic took over her, determined not to face it again. With a deep breath, she willed her legs to carry her up the remaining flight of stairs to the door of her suite. A few seconds later she finally felt safe as she switched keys and turned the final lock to her own dorm room.
Aisling shut the door behind her, too exhausted to react to the couple making out on the bed. She dropped her bag, the resulting thunk causing them to tear themselves away from each other. Aisling sat down at her desk, clicked on her desk lamp, and opened her laptop. She didn’t wonder how they’d gotten in; Aisling assumed Jamison made a copy of her key one of the times she’d lent it to him. The door opened, an unidentified boy about her age slipping out. She finally turned to face her best friend. “Sorry,” he said with a smile, his light voice making her feel more at ease.
“You’ve got to stop bringing boys to my room.” Her voice was still shaky, but she had calmed down a bit and her tone was light. Judging from his eyes, however, it hadn’t calmed enough to keep it from him.
“So, are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
Aisling shook her head, not wanting to admit what had happened, even to her closest friend. She spun around in her chair once before meeting Jamison’s eyes. “I…Jami, I just…I don’t know. I think maybe I saw something by the dining hall,” she said, lowering her eyes. She didn’t mention the stairwell.
“You think you saw what exactly? You look terrified, Ash, like someone tried to hurt you.” His tone was that of a worried sibling, and his use of her childhood nickname echoed his concern..
“Well,” Aisling said softly, her head tilting to the side and being caught by her hand, “I never see them. I can hear them and,” she shuddered as she continued, “sometimes I think I see like, dead things, out of the corner of my eye. Like…remember those nightmares I used to have when we were kids?” As she spoke, a chill ran down her spine. She wished she could talk about anything else. His phone rang, giving her a momentary respite from her real-life horror story as he gave her an apologetic look and answered it. She let her head drop back and rolled it to loosen her tense muscles.
A gasp sent her falling backward into her desk, the chair going out from under her. Her eyes frantically searched the room, looking for it. She saw Jamison hang up the phone as he hurried over to her. “You alright, Ash?” Helping the girl to her shaky legs, he led her to her bed and sat her down.
“I – I must have dozed off when you were on the phone. It – I…” Aisling’s heart started to slow, the images that only moments before were vivid dissipated. “It’s gone; I can’t remember a thing,” she admitted, the whispers of the night terror fading to aether. She swallowed, looking at Jamison and giving him a weak smile as he stood. She worked to pry her hands from her mattress. “You should get going. You’ve got a date from what I heard.”
“I’ll reschedule if you need me to.”
“No. You already do too much for me,” she said with a sigh and a smile she hoped was convincing. ” I already take up too much of your time.”
He returned the smile. At least something was going her way. “I’ll be back in the morning to check on you,” he said, walking toward the door. “I promise.”
Once he’d left, she changed into her pajamas and turned her computer on, desperate to keep herself busy. The last thing she needed was another nightmare. She unlocked her phone and turned off her dream alarms. Normally, she set alarms every ninety minutes to help her dream control. It had helped her learn to lucid dream when she’d been younger, but after the day she’d had, she was determined not to fall asleep. She turned and glanced under her bed, where she’d stuffed her dream journal, hoping she had enough homework to last her until her classes in the morning.
The mansion was empty and dark. Glancing around, she searched for anything out of place to signal a dream. If she knew she was dreaming, she could control it. She could feel the building around her, breathing like a living thing, not a construct of wood and brick. Behind her, the door to the mansion’s theater stood gaping open. She refused to go to it, instead walking the other way, toward the library. She knew what would be inside the theater, and it wouldn’t be the chalkboard on the stage and the seats that had been converted to desks.
Aisling stepped into the library, pulling in image of the library’s entrance to mind, hoping it was enough to keep her in control. She tried to remind herself this wasn’t real, just a dream designed to terrify her using settings she saw every day.
It was working. Dream: 1. Aisling: 0.
Aisling expected to see the usual clerk’s desk and rooms of books beyond the library’s threshold. Instead, she found herself in the theater she’d walked away from. The symmetrical rows of chairs on either side seemed small, dwarfed by the aisle that descended to the stage. She could feel a tightness in her chest, the fear making it hard to breathe. She turned, but the door she’d come through was gone. She had no other choice but to walk forward toward whatever fate awaited her.
Stepping finally onto the of the stage, she closed her eyes. The wet crunch of joints moving inside long dead skin, heavy hands smacking the ground as it struggled to find purchase on the smooth wood floor. Shivering, she willed them to disappear, for a wall to erect around her, anything that would separate her from the creatures. When she no longer heard movement, she opened her eyes, hoping that her mind had saved her from her nightmare.
The creature was there, no more than a few feet in front of her, holding itself up on its hands. Its elbows were bent at unnatural angles, further proof that its body had been used well past its natural expiration. Black, empty eye sockets stared up at her through clumps of stringy black hair that hung in front of a skull covered in grayed, rotting flesh. “Wh-what do you want with me?”
“Your help, little one.” Its voice was dry, raspy and distant. It seemed to come from the room more than from the creature’s mouth.
She didn’t run only because she had nowhere to run to. “Why?” she whispered. It was the only word she could find.
The creature took a dry breath and let it out before speaking, seeming to strain with the efforts. “You are the one who can walk in both worlds.”
“Both worlds?” Aisling’s confusion temporarily overwrote her fear. Could it mean… “Do you mean…the lucid dreaming? Like the dream world?”
The creature’s head tilted to the side, the crunch making Aisling’s stomach turn. “Both worlds are in danger, and you are the one who must protect them.”
Why was it speaking to her? All these years, and they’d never spoken. She felt her grasp on the dream slipping, felt herself being pulled back into consciousness. She could hear bells, and frowned. “What are you?” She asked, trying to hold on to the dream.
Opening her eyes to the chiming of bells on her cell phone, Aisling reached over and turned the alarm off. She frowned. She’d turned the alarm off. She leaned over the side of the bed, fishing around until she felt her journal. She opened to a blank page, and began scribbling everything she could remember.
She closed the journal a few minutes later, whatever was left of the dream having floated away, and was about to lay back down when she remembered to check. She glanced at her blanket, making sure it was the same design it had been moments ago. Her computer lay open on her desk. She checked every detail of her room, making sure there were no out of place or misshapen objects. If there were she would know it was a dream.
Someone had left the bathroom light on, the drone of the dying motor of the automatic fan rumbling through her door. With a groan, Aisling got up; she had to turn it off if she had any hope of falling back to sleep. She walked the few steps to her desk and hit the button to turn on her desk lamp. She heard the click, but there was no light. She tried again. Still nothing. She felt a rush of adrenaline quickening her heart rate.
“I fell asleep working on my English paper,” she said to the dark room.
Dreaming. She was dreaming.
She looked at the light under the door. Shadows flickered underneath, the creatures’ crunching joints replacing the fan’s din. She concentrated on staying calm and in control, imagining a wall where her door was, to block herself in and keep her safely away from the creatures. The sounds of dead hands smacking against the door made her jump.
The door remained intact. Swallowing a scream, she tried again, imagining her door was part of the wall, just as something had made the theater door disappear minutes ago. Still, nothing happening.
Aisling stepped backward when she saw one of the shadows stop just in front of her door and slide its fingers underneath. “It can’t get to me. The door is locked.” She watched as the decaying fingers turned to smoke, and mist began to filter through the crack under the door.
Memories came to her as the mist started to take form. “You want me to help you? With what?” she asked, taking another small step backward.
“We must protect the gateway.” Aisling opened her mouth to ask what that meant when the creature’s head moved faster than she’d ever seen it, looking toward the door, the grinding bones making Aisling queasy. Her eyes darted to the door as well, trying to see what the creature was so afraid of. “They are upon you.”
Flinching awake, Aisling glanced around the dark room. The first thing she made sure of was that she was in the right spot, in front of her computer, slumped in the uncomfortable chair. She sat up and ran through her full list of dream checks. To make absolutely sure she was awake, she forced herself to stand up and walk to the desk lamp, a shaky hand reaching out to press the ‘on’ button. Pale light illuminated the room.
Finally, she was awake.
The first thing Aisling was aware of was the warmth pressed against her back. Even though the other bed was empty, he insisted on sleeping in hers. Jamison had let himself into her room, keeping his promise to check on her in the morning. Groaning, she pushed the covers aside and sat up.
Once she was dressed, she started assembling her things for class. She heard Jamison roll over again, and turned in time to see his eyes open. “Morning,” he mumbled, a hand running through his blond hair. He sat up, the covers falling aside. He let out a yawn and stretched. “You were pretty restless when I came in. Did you sleep okay?” Something about his tone was too demanding. He seemed upset, his stare probing her for answers.
She opened her mouth to tell him, but she couldn’t get past a feeling in her gut telling her not to. Instead, she said, “No, I don’t think so. You know I don’t remember my dreams very often.” In all the years she’d known him, through all the secrets she’d told him, she’d never mentioned her dream journal to him. “How was your date?” She tried to change the subject and lighten the mood.
Jamison stood up and finished pulling up his jeans. His eyes were dark when he looked at her, and he shrugged off the question. He seemed more intimidating, and she wondered if she wasn’t feeling paranoid due to the lack of sleep. Or maybe he just hadn’t had a good time last night. Jamison had no shortage of male company, but he was particular enough that not many ever made it past a first date.
“Are you sure, Ash?” he asked, taking a step closer.
“Yeah, Jamison. If something had happened and I remembered, you’d be the first to know.” Her tone was defensive and she busied herself with getting her work together.
He looked hurt, but he pressed on. “Ash, you’ve always been a terrible liar. Did I do something? Is it because I brought that guy here last night after you told me not to? Are you mad at me for that?”
Aisling grabbed her bag and slung it over her shoulder. “Look, I’ve got to go, but we can talk later, okay?”
Without waiting for a response, she headed out the door, grabbing the keys from her bureau as the door closed. Walking down the stairs and out into the crisp fall air was a relief from the agitation she had felt. It wasn’t him at all, it was her mind playing tricks on her.
She walked up the grass instead of sticking to the long winding pavement. It was steeper, but made for a much prettier walk then staring at the gray pavement. The exercise was refreshing, and she felt better by the time the mansion came into view. When she got inside the mansion, she headed to the top floor and into her first class. She looked ahead, but she wasn’t following anything the professor was saying. She knew she hadn’t slept well, but that was hardly a new problem for her. It shouldn’t have been affecting her as much as it was.
Her dreams were coming back to her in small pieces, and she realized she still had questions. Questions that needed answers. Answers that I can only get if I see them again…in my sleep. She tried to pay attention, knowing she couldn’t just lay her head down and fall asleep where she was. Not with the way her classmates were acting, anyway. Everyone seemed on edge, jumpy and fidgety. Just like Jamison had.
Aisling was alone in a dimly lit hallway, looking at a door that would lead her to the courtyard. Through the windows, the orange glow of an unnatural sun bathed the world in a permanent dusk.
She let herself be drawn outside, to the large stone courtyard and the ornate fountain that traveled up a steep hill ten yards from where she stood. It leaked the same black fluid that fell from the creature’s lips when it spoke. It was propped up on the edge of the fountain in a mockery of a sitting position. The light from the setting sun illuminated the creature’s corpse-like features brought back Aisling’s sense of fear. Its voice sent a shiver down Aisling’s spine. “They are coming for you.”
“Who are ‘they’?” This creature might be the only thing that might be able to provide her the answers she needed. So far, though, all it was doing was adding more confusion.
It spoke again, but the syllables were foreign to her. “They will take over your minds, your flesh, make it their own.” The events of the morning played back through her mind, his aggression more palpable than it had been. “They need a willing walker to pass between the worlds.”
But why are they dangerous? How can I stop them? What are they? Where do I fall in all of this? How does any of this information help me? Aisling thought, her mind racing with questions. She didn’t know which was more important, or what to ask first.
“What are they?”
“They come in through thoughts. They take over thoughts in the dream world, bringing themselves to the waking world.”
Jamison was under Their control. The conclusion hit her mind like a fist, a stinging certainty that she didn’t want to accept. They — whatever they were — may not be able to get to her because she had mastered lucid dreaming. She ran a hand through her hair, looked up to see the sun had fallen, her mind still racing with questions.
She blinked, lifting her head from the arm of the couch in the library. She grabbed her bag and hurried off, her mind reeling from the information she’d been given in her sleep. She replayed the dream over in her mind as she made her way through the maze of the mansion, hoping it would last long enough for her to get to her next class and write it all in her dream journal.
“Aisling, I’m really worried about you. Over the last three days you’ve changed. You’re… you’re seeing things, hearing things, your dreams are getting worse. And now you’re accusing me of being some kind of fucking pod-person?” Jamison ran a hand through his hair, pausing mid-step to look at her. He’d shown up at her dorm room, worried that she hadn’t called in a few days.
“I’ve told you before, Jamison. They get into your head without you knowing. You’re acting irrational, you’ve been distant, and angry, and I’ve never seen you act like that.”
“Ash, I’m not the one who been in my room for three days.” He sighed, “I found your dream journal. This shit has taken over your whole life. You’re getting obsessed, and I can’t figure out why worrying about you makes me inherently evil.”
Jamison’s eyes were shining with tears when Aisling looked into them, trying to find anything of the friend she once knew. “I think that you should talk to a therapist, or the school counselor about your…visions.”
Aisling’s mouth fell open in shock and her face twisted in anger. “You went through my stuff?” She was furious, until the last part of his sentence fully sunk in. “You think I should what? Jamison, you’ve spent years being the only one telling me I’m not crazy! My best friend would never tell me that!” Her voice had increased in pitch dramatically as she continued speaking. “I should have known something like this would happen. It’s trying to protect itself by having me put away.” She glared at him, and he took a step back, his hands up defensively.
“I never said you were crazy, Ash.” He shook his head and exhaled. “Alright, you want me to leave, so you can do …whatever you think you need to do. I’ll leave.” He turned and opened the door. “Bye, Aisling,” he said with a strained voice as the door shut behind him.
Jamison wasn’t proud of the fact that he had gone into her room. She had written pages and pages on her computer, stories about these nameless creatures who had once plagued the world, controlling bodies long after the hosts were dead. Stories, he realized, that she viewed as facts, about those things she’d once been terrified of.
He searched his phone’s contacts for Aisling’s parents, dialing her mother when he found it. He explained what was going on with Aisling, trying to make it sound less dire than he thought it was. Her mother sighed, long and exasperated. It was a little out of character for her, she was usually even tempered. Something must have been weighing heavily on her mind before Jamison called. “I thought something like this might happen. She’s been struggling for a while; we tried to keep everything pretty quiet. She must have stopped taking her medication once she got to school.”
“Medication?” He’d never known Aisling to take any medication.
“She didn’t want anyone to know about her…condition. Even you…” The woman stopped, a silence on the phone making it seem like she was gathering her thoughts. “Aisling was diagnosed with schizophrenia. We couldn’t get her to go to a therapist more than a few weeks. She’s always been sort of…caught up in the own world, talking about those damned dreams.”
Jamison wondered if there was some validity to looking further into her dream journal after all. “Would you…I’m not trying to overstep, but would you mind if I tried to find a specialist here for her?”
“Jamison, if you can find someone that can help her, I’m fully in support it.” Her mother sounded tired, as though the whole situation was more than she could take.
Jamison thanked her and ended the call, a list of therapists already in front of him, all who specialized in both schizophrenia and sleep disorders. It took a few days, but he finally found someone who would speak with him. Still, the conversation wasn’t too helpful, and he found himself back where he’d started.
Jamison kept the information he received for the “care center” the doctor recommended, knowing that he would only use it as a last resort. The last thing he wanted to do was lock her in a psych ward to be force-fed pills. Jamison decided he had to call her.
Aisling closed her blinds and crossed the room, sitting down in front of her computer as though the internet would somehow provide the answers she hadn’t been able to find. No matter how many times she’d met with those things in her dreams, they seemed to always skirt her questions by giving her a new version of the same information. The world around her was changing and she seemed to the only one who’d noticed.
A familiar melody flooded through the room, startling her. She considered ignoring it, but with no more leads, maybe the thing that had taken over Jamison would slip up and provide some new information. “Hello?”
“Ash, I need to talk to you.” His voice sounded ragged and tired. She wondered immediately what trouble he’d gotten himself into.
“What about? It seems we ran out of things to say to each other.”
“Please, Ash? It’s really important,” he heaved a sigh. His voice was desperate, pleading. “Please? We’ll meet somewhere. I won’t come by your room, I know you don’t trust me anymore.”
She relented, ignoring the instinct that was telling her to stay away. “Alright, Jamison. But if I suspect you’re playing at something, I’m out of there.”
“That’s fine. I just need to talk to someone who listens, you know?” He let out a dry chuckle. It was the first time she’d heard his voice since she’d confronted him. For a few seconds, he even sounded like the friend she’d lost.
“Alright, Jamison. I’m on my way,” she said. He told her the location, and she hung up.
She should have known better.
They’d met at her favorite cafe. At first, Jamison talked about the problems he was going through. The guy troubles, the bullshit that he hadn’t given more than a second of thought to since he’d left her. Eventually, though, he’d had to bring it back around to her medical conditions. She denied being sick, denied hearing voices, denied ever having been diagnosed with an illness. He realized that he didn’t have another choice…he had to take her somewhere.
Getting her into the car had been a herculean task, one that he wasn’t sure he would be able to achieve. Finally, after pleading for what felt like hours, he finally managed to convince her to go for just one more drive with him.
As he drove to Falling Water Mental Health Resort, Jamison wondered why her parents allowed Aisling to go away to college if they thought she was mentally unstable. She was in full panic-mode in the seat next to him, screaming and shouting like he was about to murder her. “Just breathe. I’m not going to hurt you, Ash. I’m not going to let anyone hurt you.”
She gaped at him like he had betrayed her. You’re trying to put me away so the They can get to me, too! They know meds mess with my sleep! How could you do this to me?”
“Ash, that’s not…Ash?” Coming to a complete stop in front of the hospital, he watched as she faded away, and her eyes became distant. What the hell had just happened? Cursing, Jamison got out of the car. He’d never heard of anything like this happening so suddenly.
Neither had the doctors, as it turned out. According to them, she was fine, nothing was wrong with her physical or mental faculties. Jamison blamed himself; he’d stressed her too much by taking her here when she was already so paranoid. The doctors had told him she may have dissociated due to the perceived threat, that it was only temporary. Until she was able to come back from whatever had happened to her, he came by the mental health resort and visited her as often as he was able to.
When he’d gone by the school to pack her dorm, he came across her dream journal again, which she had seemed to be using as a waking journal at the time of her breakdown. He opened it, skimmed a few pages before closing it and putting it into a box with the last of her things.
It was back at his apartment, laying on his decrepit couch that he read the journal, from beginning to end. It started as broken words, pieces of things she could remember. As the dates became more recent, it became a day by day, hour by hour account of what was happening in her mind.
He was going to find the answer he needed if he had to read it a thousand times.
Jamison paced around the room, wondering what else he could do. He had gotten used to talking to a wall, and almost used to it by now. “Oh, hey. Don’t get mad, and I’m sorry, but I read your journal. Actually I’ve read it a lot since…since I brought you here.” He stopped pacing and sat down in the chair next to the bed she’d been put in. “At first I couldn’t really keep up with anything, but then you started getting more specific, but your notes are still pretty trash in some places. Anyway, I’ll tell you what I think.”
He chewed on his lip. He looked around, hoping the hospital staff wasn’t lurking within earshot. He’d likely get admitted right along with her. “I’ve been noticing things aren’t exactly adding up in the real world. People are acting abnormal. Like how you’ve been locked up here for weeks and your parents haven’t been to see you once. That’s not like them. It’s not just your parents, either. People have been edgy lately, acting weird, forgetting important things. It’s a lot of things that individually, wouldn’t be a big deal, but all at the same time?”
He leaned in a little closer, dropping his voice so only she would be able to hear. He didn’t know why; maybe he was developing whatever paranoia she’d suffered from, if it was even possible. “Whatever it is, it’s pretty fucked. There’s also reports online of people — mostly people who can do the lucid dreaming like you — seeing things. Crazy, creepy corpses hunting after them. Almost just like you described them in your journal.”
He sat quiet for a moment, trying to see if there was a reaction. He thought for half a moment that she moved, and he went still, his heard racing, hoping she would open her eyes and come back to him.
He sighed, brushing tears away from his eyes. Maybe she was stuck there, caught in a struggle for power over human minds, just like her journal said. Maybe she’d had a complete mental break and she was a hopeless case like the doctors had started telling him. He couldn’t give up hope, though. He was all she had left.
From what she’d written, They seemed to need a willing host to allow them through the gateway between the worlds. He’d never had the talent she’d had for lucid dreaming. The things she wrote about used human hosts long after their bodies had succumb to old age, sickness, or injury.
“I’m not giving up on you, Aisling,” he said, bending to kiss her forehead before he walked out of the room. He had been hoping that folding to her fantasy might have gotten a response from her. The hospital staff rushed him out of her room, their looks telling him what an inconvenience he was becoming. Over the past week, they’d become increasingly insistent that she was beyond helping. Another piece added to the dozens of pieces scattered around in his brain. He wasn’t sure if he had enough time to put them all together to see the big picture, or if he was only pushing his best friend farther into the world she was already so stuck in.
He wondered if it might be time for him to take a crash course in lucid dreaming.
They finally had the part of her that allowed them entrance to her world. She never should have given in to them. It had only been for a moment, she had panicked in Jamison’s car, but the single moment was all they’d needed. Once the invitation in had been given, she couldn’t take it back. Aisling’s unfocused eyes watched as Jamison left the room. She’d been so close to him, nearly able to speak to him. She prayed he’d come back again.
She can hear them now, more of them than she ever thought possible, long dead limbs pulling forward however they could, the bodies having been used long beyond their intended years. She closed her eyes, not wanting to see as they reached out and touched her with their cold skin, chipping away at her mind, breaking down her last defenses. She knew she was being kept alive for one singular purpose.
She was the one who could walk in both worlds.