Art by David Revoy/ Blender Foundation

Somnambula

By Aaron F. Runyon

Now I am sure that you will find the following account of my experiences over the next month to be somewhat unbelievable. You’ll want to assume that the things I describe are exaggerated or bold face lies. I can only assure you that what I am relating are absolutely true events, and that they all occurred just as I am describing.

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Somnambulism, or sleepwalking as it is commonly known, is a condition suffered by thousands of Americans every night. As with all things which have been given complicated clinical names it is found in varying degrees of severity; ranging from the occasional midnight walk through the living room to an embarrassing display of nude activities in one’s college hallway. This brings us to my current situation — finding a new place to live that was close to campus.

What I found was a rundown two-story house owned by an old man who rented out the rooms as apartments. It was a quiet enough neighborhood of typical families and a profusion of empty lots where the older houses had been leveled only to sit vacant for years. It seemed as if progress was just waiting for my ancient landlord to kick the bucket so a Hyundai bulldozer could turn his house into a large expanse of dirt and overgrown weeds. At one time there had been a mill that employed dozens of people nearby, but it had gone belly up in the eighties and the neighborhood had been subject to a rapid disintegration in its population.

It was my third night staying in my new residence. I had lain tossing and turning for the better part of the night, staring at the cracked ceiling with a sense of frustration when my dog, Count Zero, a pug-beagle mix (puggle), began whining to go for a walk. I got out of bed and slipped on my pants and shoes. It was a warm summer, so I didn’t bother with a shirt as Zero led me down the steep creaking stairs, which seemed to have been designed for a race more diminutive than humans. We slipped out of the screeching front door, and I listened as Zero’s little paws scratched across the wood and out into the yard.

One thing about living in the suburbs — there was a certain quiet serenity to the neighborhood at night. Here people actually went to sleep at some point in the evening; even though the occasional car equipped with a thumping bass cannon might cruise through. I walked down the concrete steps and into the grass and surveyed the road lit by cascades of pale light radiating down from the tall street lamps. I was thinking how calm everything seemed when I saw Count Zero wandering across the road and into a neighbor’s yard across the street. I called to him in a hoarse whisper, but Zero was already sniffing his way through a flower garden along the side of the house. Looking around for witnesses, I saw none, and so jogged after him.

“Come here!” I said as I reached for his little wagging whiptail. It was as I was bending over that I noticed a light was on in the house and the window was open. This was exactly what I didn’t need; to be caught shirtless outside someone’s window in a new neighborhood.

Despite myself I found my eyes locked on the interior of the home. I saw a dimly lit living room where a crib was sitting plain and white against the wall. It was then that I realized I heard a baby crying. I leaned down and snatched Zero, who licked my face as I watched a pretty woman with dark hair and clothes straight out of an old black and white movie from the forties or fifties enter and lean over the crib. What she lifted from behind the bars was not strictly speaking a baby. It was a pale and bloated blob of a thing with lines of purplish veins crisscrossing its flesh. It was wearing a diaper, and it did fit the same uniform shape of an infant, but its limbs were too long and flexed with a musculature that was far from normal. The woman began to undo her blouse and present a firm young breast to the abnormally large throbbing head of the thing. I was frozen and a tight cramp of nervous pain built up in my stomach as the thing clung to her with a strong, desperate grip. She smiled with maternal abandon as the creature began to gnaw and bite at her chest like some hungry animal. Blood was now running in long streams over her white blouse and brown dress as my eyes met hers and our gazes locked. I wanted to scream, but terror paralyzed my lungs as I fought to breath in the throes of panic. She was laughing.

It was early morning, and I found myself standing in the middle of the street with the cloth I had used to tie myself to the bed stand (a precaution suggested by my old sleep therapist) dangling from my wrist. The sun was coming up, and a boy delivering papers on a bike rode past me with only a sideways glance of curiosity. I had managed to actually put my pants and shoes on, which was always a plus. I blinked and rubbed my face as I tried to orientate myself to my waking surroundings. I began to take psychological inventory of what was real and what was dream. First reality check: I do not haven a puggle named Count Zero. Second reality check: The house in front of me only vaguely resembles the one I was outside a few moments ago. Third reality check: There is no window, no crib, and no crazy woman being eaten by a bizarre humanoid infant.

Glancing around with private embarrassment and questionable sanity, I hurried back to my apartment.

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It was then that I renewed my relationship with my former childhood sleep therapist who promptly prescribed me a new medication that had worked wonders in test studies. Unfortunately, the main side-effect was that even when I was awake I was still half-asleep. He cautioned me against supplementing the meds with any other drugs, legal or otherwise, and I assured him that after my experiences at the dormitory I was not in the least bit inclined to experiment, which was almost true. Otherwise, I was reminded to try tying my left arm to something immovable. I secretly laughed with self-pity as I remembered the cloth dangling from my wrist the previous morning.  However, I said I would take it under advisement; knowing fully well that I have managed to unlock doors and log on to Amazon in my sleep with little or no difficulty.

“Somnambulism occurs when the part of the brain that shuts down your body’s motor control during sleep malfunctions,” my therapist said for what might have been the hundredth time, but I let him continue in case he had some new insight to share; although I highly doubted he did. “It occurs more in children because their brains are still learning the rules of sleeping and waking, but occasionally this area of the brain doesn’t ever seem to work correctly. You move in your sleep because your brain cannot differentiate between actions taking place in the unconscious and actual physical reactions to the waking world.”

“I know, but the dream was so much different this time. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

“Well, from a psychoanalytical point of view it makes a lot of sense.”

“How’s that?”

“This dream seemed to be a symbolic representation of your own understanding concerning the effects of childbirth on the maternal figure.”

“Huh?”

“In essence child rearing is destructive to the mother. Even as she carries the infant it causes great strain and lifelong physical effects on the mother’s physiology. The symbolism of a baby that is feeding off of its mother and in the process mutilating her is very clear.”

“I’m glad you think so. What about her smiling and laughing as she was being gored?”

“A metaphorical statement of the fulfillment a woman can achieve maternally by giving of herself to the child.”

“Okay, I guess that makes sense; more mommy issues for my list then.”

“Honestly, I don’t see it as an issue as much as an observation, but I will recommend that we increase your dosage.”

“Oh God, Doc, I can barely stay awake for my classes.”

“I told you that it will take time for you to build a tolerance to the drug. In a few months you should see noticeable improvement.”

“Great, I’ll look forward to that.”

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So I was sitting at the old roll top desk in my room staring at the computer monitor. It was almost nine o’clock in the evening, and I was supposed to be writing a report on the statistical effects of the discovery of the Higgs Particle. What I was really doing was fighting a losing battle with a voice in my head, which just kept saying sleep. It was then that there came a light knocking on my apartment door. Dragging myself up from the chair I shuffled across the room and opened it to find my girlfriend Melinda standing there smiling with a six-pack of cheap beer hanging from her fingers. “Can I come in?” Her voice had that tone to it; she was on the make for a late night booty call.

“I was wondering if you were going to find this place,” I said as I let her in and caught a soft kiss from her wet mouth as she passed by.

“Wow, nice digs,” she laughed sarcastically as she sat on the side of the bed and held up the six-pack.

“I’m not supposed to drink with this new medication I’m on. Besides I’m tired enough already, and I’ve got this paper due tomorrow.”

“Oh poor Pooh Bear need a little excitement to keep his eyes open?” She said as she undid the top three buttons of her blouse. She flipped her long dark hair over her shoulder and leaned back on her hands so I could see the little black bra she wore.

“Well, Pooh Bear does like his honey,” I said as I climbed on top of her and buried my face in the soft of her neck and began kissing along her shoulder. I could feel her hands pulling at my hair, clasping the back of my neck, and pulling at my shirt. I could also feel her hands gripping my sides and pulling me in between her thighs with hot desperate longing. Then I realized as she rolled me over and straddled me that I had felt about four too many hands.

As she sat up and ripped the blouse open I could now see that — besides the fact that she had two small wonderful breasts dying to get out of the little lacy bra — she also had six arms which were reaching and touching every nook of my body. “What’s wrong?” she asked as two of her hands undid the bra while another two deftly unzipped my jeans.

“Nothing,” I answered, “it’s just that the dog’s watching.” She looked over and there was Count Zero sitting by the bed with his little tail flapping like a windshield wiper set on high speed.

“Not a problem,” she replied as she leaned over and plucked him up off the floor by the back of his neck. I watched as her mouth stretched open and her jaw dislocated like a python’s as she lowered little frightened Zero into the gaping fang-filled abyss.

I shot up from the desk screaming and fell over backwards in the chair with a crash onto the floor. It was morning, and the sun’s orange glow had begun to light the far wall. I looked around panting in a cold sweat as I once more took inventory. First check: I do not have a girlfriend named Melinda. Second check: I still do not have a dog named Count Zero. Third check: If I did have a girlfriend she would not have six arms and an appetite for puppy dogs.

I got up and put my chair back in place. Besides being wrecked by the all too vivid dream, I also had not written my report, or so I had thought. When I looked at my printer I saw a neat stack of pages beside it with a cover page that read: Possible Implications of Higgs Boson Discovery. Did I actually manage to finish the report before I passed out? I glanced through the pages and decided maybe it was a possibility. I didn’t have time to read it through, but something was better than nothing, and it looked okay. I collected my things, and after a quick shower headed for the campus.

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My therapist chewed on the tip of his pen thoughtfully. “Okay, that one’s a tougher nut to crack.”

“Doc, I got an A on that report. My professor said it was brilliant, and wants to see if we can get it published in a science journal.”

“Well, that’s great, then,” he said holding out his hands as if that was all there was to say.

“Yes, it’s spectacular; except I don’t remember writing the report and don’t have the faintest clue what I wrote.”

“Have you ever heard of the Hindu goddess Durga?”

“No.”

“An invincible multi-armed goddess?”

“Does she eat imaginary dogs?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“You’ve probably seen her image at some point and forgotten, but it would indicate being subjugated to a strong female.”

“Not this again. What about the dog eating?”

“It would seem to suggest the feeling of being helpless while you watch a powerful female figure destroy something which you hold dear.”

“And meanwhile I write the best paper of my college career.”

“Can I ask you a question?”

“That’s what you’re being paid for.”

“Did she bare any resemblance to the woman you saw through the window in the other dream?”

“Damn it … she did.”

“Sounds like she’s your animus.”

“Female inner self, right?”

“Very good.”

“Then what the hell is she doing?”

“That remains to be determined, but these horrific aspects she exhibits would seem to indicate she is being merged with your shadow self.”

“A collection of my own repressed identity traits.”

“You really have been paying attention all these years.”

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There was a phase during my childhood when the sleepwalking reached a peak. My parents were having financial problems, and between their quarreling and the stress of growing up the restlessness of my unconscious had reached an all-time high. I became afraid to go to sleep. My fear of losing self-control was a constant burden in my waking mind. Now as an adult I had come full circle, and was now finding myself with that same terrible dread.

I decided that the only way I was going to maintain any semblance of normality was to resume a practice that helped dramatically while I was involved in high-school track: jogging.

It was late summer dusk and the air had begun to cool as the sun sank in the distance over the abandoned mill. I tightened my shoelaces as I sat on the old wooden porch, and then stretched in the grass. I knew I was out of shape, but the thought of a good old endorphin buzz was tantalizing. I stretched my hamstrings and jogged in place for a few minutes before setting off, not really knowing where my path would lead.

The first few blocks were agonizing as my body resisted the sudden activity, but as my heart steadied and my lungs relaxed, I could feel the flood of oxygen soothing my troubled mind. As the neighborhood street darkened I listened to the rustle of the trees and mixed chorus of birds as they flew in dark clouds to their roosts. I passed kids playing in their yards and old couples working their gardens. I smiled and waved with the sort of calm happiness you can only achieve on a summer night like this. Eventually, darkness fell, but I pushed myself on until finally I was forced to relinquish my momentum into a steady walk. Unwilling to turn back, I explored the square until I realized that I was so thirsty that I might be risking dehydration.

I spotted a small gas station and walked from the shadows of the sidewalk into the strange glow of the gas price sign. There were no cars and I didn’t even see anyone inside manning the register. As I entered I was met with the aroma of gas station pizza turning in the glass case by the counter. I stared at it longingly, but remembering my budget I walked to the cooler and withdrew two bottles of Gatorade. I stood at the counter with my debit card in hand, studying the slowly turning pizza and glancing behind the counter for a clerk.

It was then that the doors flew open and a man with wild desperate eyes and a mouth of rotting teeth entered holding a sawed off shotgun. “Get back!” he shouted as I raised my hands and backed away from the counter. He stood there for a moment looking around, and seemed as perplexed as I was. “Where the hell is the cashier?” he shouted, brandishing the gun.

“I don’t know, man,” I answered as cool-sounding as I could muster.

He went around through the door and began messing with the register, and that is when I saw her. She stepped out from behind the candy bar shelves with slow even steps. It was her, but now her skin was pale and decayed as if she had been lying dead for weeks. Her matted hair hung in clumps over her drawn and sunken face as she gazed at me with bleak, sallow eyes. “It’s not loaded,” she said with a hoarse whisper.

The robber had managed to open the register and was now coming at me with the gun. “Give me all your money!” he said with nervous, erratic rage. What money? I thought.

I looked at him, and then at her. It was just a dream. I was asleep and dreaming. I smiled at him as I reached up and pulled the gun from his unsuspecting hands. He looked startled, but that didn’t stop him from taking a swing at me. I ducked down and jabbed the gun into his stomach before slamming him across the back of the head with the butt. He fell to the floor groaning as a young woman emerged from the restroom. I looked to my side but the zombie girl was gone, and I was still there; seemingly wide awake. The girl saw what was occurring and ran for the phone to call the police.

The robber was still coughing and holding his head when I saw the police car roll into the parking lot. I was quick to place the gun on the counter and step back, but before I did I cocked it open and checked to see if it was loaded. The corpse girl Melinda had been right. The robber was crawling onto his hands and knees when the clerk pointed to him, and the police pushed him back down and handcuffed him. Another squad car appeared and two more cops were on the scene. As the girl gave her account of what happened to one officer the other one questioned me.

“That was a very stupid thing you did.” He stared at me with an odd mixture of admonishment and respect as the robber was shoved into the back of one of the cars outside.

“I know,” I replied. “I don’t even know why I did that. It was like instinct or something.” I lied.

“Can we give you a ride somewhere?” he said as he folded his notebook and placed it in his shirt pocket.

“It’d be great if I could get a ride home.” He nodded and I followed him out as the girl from behind the counter stared at me strangely. I gave the two officers directions to the house, and they gave each other uneasy, questioning looks.

“You sure that’s right,” the younger one asked.

“Pretty sure,” I answered from the back. He shrugged and put the car in gear.

I cannot describe to you the feelings I had as we drew closer to the neighborhood, and I realized that nothing looked as I remembered it. The houses were all gone; the green lawns were barren lots; and everywhere there were empty brick warehouses covered in dried vines and underbrush. The only thing that was even the least bit recognizable was the old house sitting on the corner of the block, but even it appeared as if it had been abandoned for years. When the car stopped, I got out and stared at the dilapidated two-story building, which sat huddled in a dead industrial park. “You’ve been living here?” the cop said as he shared another look with his partner.

I did not respond, but instead ran to the house and pushed in the creaking, withered front door. I entered and ran up the stairs to the room I knew had been mine. I found the door open slightly. Inside I found a dusty, dark room with a dirty mattress lying in the corner. I went to it and fell on my knees when I saw the dead body of the girl I had come to know as Melinda. She lay decomposing, looking exactly as I had seen her when she had appeared in the store. I looked over at the far wall and there was a small white crib just like the one I remembered from the dream I had my first night in the house. When the policeman entered he winced at the smell that filled the air. He looked over at the crib, and a look of shock and horror passed over his face. He quickly took the radio attached to his shoulder and began calling in a report as the other officer cautiously approached me. “You better come with us,” he said as he placed my hands behind my back.

Throughout that night I kept hearing bits and pieces of various conversations like homeless squatters living in an abandoned house, and possible death by exposure. “Why didn’t they go to a shelter?” one cop asked at the station as I was photographed.

“I think they may have been mentally ill,” another answered. “This boy’s been missing for over three years; he ran away from an abusive home when he was a teenager. We still haven’t identified the girl. From the looks of her she might have been Indian; like from India Indian. She must have died in childbirth. We don’t know about the baby yet, but it was probably stillborn. It’s just so sad. We found the remains of a stray dog in the bathroom. We think they may have eaten it.”

Alone in my cell I stared at the wall with my legs drawn up to my chest as I wept. This couldn’t be real. I knew it had to be a dream, and then there she was. She sat quietly in the shadows with her long hair down over her face. “Is this real?” I asked. She nodded that it was.

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“And then you woke up.” My therapist had been silent for so long I had almost forgotten he was there.

“I woke up in the police car when they dropped me off at the house. They told me I was an idiot, but they were smiling when they said it. The story was in the paper a couple days later, and I am now officially a hero.”

“You don’t look too pleased about it.”

“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the dream. You know I finally sat down and read the report I wrote on the Higgs particle. A lot of it was hard for me to understand even though I wrote it. There was something in there about how particles can appear to exist in two places at the same time. It really made me think. You ever heard of String Theory?”

“Of course, it’s not my field of expertise, but I’m familiar with the principle.”

“Do you believe in alternate realities?”

“Do you think that these dreams are linked to some other alternate universe?”

“All I know is that I feel like the girl from the dream is trying to tell me something. She’s helped me now twice.”

“I think that you are treading in some very deep water, and you need to be very careful. I’m wondering if maybe you don’t need some other form of psychiatric care.”

I stared at the doctor for a moment as I questioned whether he was right. “Don’t worry, Doc. I’ll give you a call if I feel like I’m losing it.”

“You do that.”

I walked from his office and into the bright noonday sunlight. The square was bustling with people running to their offices from lunch, and pedestrians wandering the sidewalks in droves. It was all so perfect, and so real. I couldn’t enjoy this warmth and life like before. There seemed to be a darkness and doubt to everything that surrounded me. It was then I saw her moving through the crowd.

She was walking along with a puggle on a leash at her side. The sunlight shone on her black hair as the breeze blew at the purple skirt around her legs. There was no mistaking that it was her, but she seemed warm, vibrant, and alive. I followed her as she crossed the street and went into the park, where she walked along the path beneath the shade of the trees before sitting down at a bench and removing the puggle’s leash. I was standing near a set of swings watching as the dog happily hiked its leg on every object that crossed its path. It was then that the dog seemed to smell something on the breeze, and I froze as its buggy little eyes met mine. It ran toward me as the girl removed a book from her bag and began to read. The little brown dog stood defiantly at my feet with its tail wagging excitedly. It began a long series of repetitive barks, which soon drew the girl’s attention.

Zero,” she called out, slapping her leg. “Come here, you moron!” The dog looked over its shoulder but still did not move, and the girl shook her head with frustration as she approached. I watched her long, soft hair flip in the breeze as she knelt and gathered the seemingly fascinated dog. “I’m sorry,” she said, scratching Zero beneath his stubby chin. Her voice was exactly as I remembered it — low and melodic with a light Indian accent. “I just got him from a shelter, and he’s not very well trained.”

I told her that it was fine, and she smiled and nodded. She told me her name was Melinda. I introduced myself and she laughed as she said “You’re the guy, the one who stopped the robbery a few days ago at the gas station.”

“Yeah, that’s me,” I answered, embarrassed.

“Didn’t you write a paper on the Higgs Boson? I read it in the school journal. I’m a physics major, and your paper was brilliant.”

I stared at her with wonder as we talked. I tried to imagine a world where I was some mentally ill runaway wandering the streets only to find some other poor soul like myself in a homeless shelter. In the darkness of my mind I could see a life where these two lost souls fell in love, and tried to live a life together huddled in some vacant run down house in an abandoned factory district. They found a stray dog that they named after a William Gibson novel, and one cold winter night, snowed in and starving, they were forced to kill and eat it. She was pregnant by that time and needed nourishment desperately. The two were frightened to go to a hospital when her time came, so afraid that the doctors would take their child away from them. The birth killed both mother and child, and he, the other me, went insane with remorse. He wandered for days unable to sleep until he went into a gas station, and tried to rob it with an unloaded shotgun. All he really wanted was the pizza that was turning in the glass case on the counter. When the police showed up he flew into a panic and the police had opened fire. As he was lying on the tile of the gas station floor dying, he heard one of the officers say, “The gun’s not loaded.”

After I met Melinda I never returned to the vague and eerie world of Somnambula again. However, in my heart I knew that there were a thousand different worlds, a million different lives, and I had by chance or design of fate barely brushed against only one.

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Aaron Runyon is a thirty-five year old writer, husband, and father of three living in the Midwest. His work has appeared in Dark Eclipse #22 and an anthology entitled Horror-tica by Cruentus Libri Press.

1 reply
  1. Connor Cook
    Connor Cook says:

    I love this piece—probably my favorite story on this entire website. I spent most of the day staring into the sky and ignoring human interaction because of “Somnambula.” You caused me to become an extreme introvert for a day (which probably isn’t a good thing, now that I think about it, but at least your piece had a strong effect on my psyche).

    Write more! But maybe consider a less depressing topic.

    Reply

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