Joseph had a routine before he fell asleep. It had been drummed into him since he was younger. His mother had read a book on the importance of structured bedtimes, she’d passed her beliefs onto Joseph.
Joseph would finish his work, then he would have a drink. The drink had changed over the years from warm milk to coffee to just water. Joseph would then grab something to read. A book or papers for work. The books had evolved from picture books to those that his co-workers so heavily praised. The words soothed him over. The repetition of 26 letters over and over again on the page lulled him to sleep.
Joseph would do this every night.
Every night he would dream something he’d forget by the time he woke up the next morning. Dreams weren’t important to him.
Joseph strolled into the break room one morning. Two colleagues were discussing something as he strolled past to the coffee machine. He was craving a warm drink.
“Do you ever get that Joseph?” Amanda asked him directly pulling him into their conversation.
“Get what?” Joseph asked simply.
“Do you ever have a dream that clings to you when you wake up?” Amanda asked.
“Most people remember the bad dreams they have it’s normal.” Tim said interrupting Joseph.
“I don’t remember my dreams.” Joseph said simply, picking up his mug of coffee.
“Never?” Amanda asked frowning at him.
“No, not within my memory.” Joseph said.
“What about nightmares?” Amanda asked quickly.
“Leave him alone, if he doesn’t remember his dreams, he doesn’t remember them.” Tim said. Amanda frowned at him.
“Nightmares and dreams are different.” She said simply.
“Are they?” Joseph asked. Amanda looked at him.
“Yes, nightmares hang around a lot longer.” Amanda said coldly.
“Just because you had a nightmare-”
“What was your nightmare about?” Joseph asked Amanda cutting off Tim. Amanda swallowed. Tim muttered something.
“I had a nightmare that there was someone watching me. Not doing anything just watching. But they were watching all of us.” She said, the trace of old fear quiet in her voice.
“All of us?” Amanda nodded.
“I don’t know but someone was watching us. Me, you, Becky in accounting, Daniel down in legal, all of us.” Joseph nodded.
That night Joseph followed his routine. In the morning, he could remember his dream.
There had been a shadow at the foot of his bed. It looked like the absence of a man, a shadow. It was nothing. It stirred fear in Joseph’s gut, great hatred and irrational levels of fear. It had done nothing. It just watched him. The light in the room shifted at one point just slightly like if a cloud disappears behind the sun for a second. Joseph could have swore that’s how it was communicating. He didn’t know who it was talking to, him or something else he couldn’t see.
He came into work with a clouded mind. He walked into the staff room. Amanda was sitting at the small table staring into her mug of coffee with blank eyes. She didn’t respond to movement around her.
“Amanda?” Joseph asked. She jumped and her head span round to look at him.
“Hello Joseph.” She said meekly. There was something wrong with her but Joseph felt too rude to ask.
“I had a dream last night.” He said into the silence.
“I thought you didn’t dream.” She said.
“I don’t but I dreamt that someone was watching me.” He said, and fear consumed Amanda’s face. She looked as pale as a ghost.
“Are you okay Amanda?” He asked putting a hand on her shoulder to steady her. He was afraid she might faint.
“Yeah I’m fine.” She said with a fake smile after a moment.
“I just had a bad dream last night and didn’t sleep much.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” He offered.
“Something grabbed me so tight but it was just a dream.” She said harshly. As though she was telling herself, that it was just a dream. Amanda left the room quickly, leaving Joseph curious and worried.
That night Joseph repeated his routine. He dreamt again.
The figure watched him again and as Joseph called out to banish the shadow, it reached and grabbed onto his arm. Bruising, and scratching Joseph’s skin as he pulled away. He jumped from his dreams to reality in a moment. Staring at the spot the shadow had just been. His heart in his mouth. He waited until the cobwebs cleared before lying back down and falling into a dreamless sleep.
Joseph woke with the sun. He climbed onto his feet rubbing his sleepy eyes. Something caught his eye. Round bruises that looked like fingers, and long scratches ran down his arm. The same place the shadow had grabbed him in his sleep. He looked at the thin scratches, the purple ripe bruises, and he felt dread to a level he had never experienced before.
He tried to shake it off. His mind kept drifting throughout the day. Drifting back to the bruises and the hand that had grabbed him.
That night Joseph did his routine on autopilot barely focusing. He dreamt again.
A large stone was on his back as he was forced to his knees. The ropes that tied the stone to him rubbed his skin and the weight was too heavy. He stood like Atlas, hunched and kneeling. He could feel them watching him. He could feel it watching him. His muscles began to shake with exhaustion and fear.
He woke up with his back and neck aching and bruised as though the rock he’d carried in his dream had shared the burden with his body. He looked at his skin. He had been rubbed raw, as though a rope had rubbed it raw in bands across his skin.
That night Joseph sat with his computer and endless coffee. He didn’t follow his routine. He didn’t sleep. He didn’t sleep. He watched the hours roll by. The sun rose and he felt bitter relief. He called in sick to work. Sarah, who answered the phone, said Amanda hadn’t come in either but hadn’t called in. That fact caused something deep within him to stir against knives and brimstone.
He spent all day starring at his screen trying to find something to relate to dreams coming to life. He couldn’t find anything. Nothing that related to torturous and physical nightmares. He was growing desperate and annoyed. His rope burns and bruises ached. His eyes were tired and his head was drooping under it’s own wait. He couldn’t sleep though.
Deep down inside, he knew that if he fell asleep the next dream would be worse. It might be deadly. Four nights seemed to ring through his mind like a fact. A curse he’d gained somewhere.
He couldn’t sleep, it would be like a rabbit lying down before a wolf with bloody fangs.
That night he tried to stay awake desperately sipping coffee and caffeine. Joseph fell asleep, despite all of his efforts. Sleep came and stole him away. He was lying in bed. He tried to move. He was frozen. He was trapped. Bound. He kept struggling when the pain started it was hot and angry. He could smell smoke. Fear cooled his soul down.
As the flames began to consume him, it caused extreme agony that was white, hot and caused the taste of his burning flesh to rest on his tongue. His warm blood soothed the wounds for a period of time he could not remember. The fire kept burning. He kept struggling but was held completely still. The light from the flames disappeared as his eyes burnt and the information input was lost. His skin melted and bubbled around his ears so the sounds of his own screams disappeared. His mouth and nose were burnt and melted so he had no sense but pain. More pain than he ever thought possible. Yet still the flames danced.
In the morning, he didn’t wake up.
The fire alarm beeped due to the smoke.