By Joseph Sale
Billy sighed. He closed the novel he’d been reading and tossed it onto the table. Nothing had been the same since the fall. The memory gave him chills along his arms. He would never forget the day he’d returned to his flat to find a crowd gathered, and a police cordon around the splatter of red mess that had once been Jake.
He’d vomited instantly when he saw it.
He was sitting at the same window Jake had tumbled from, trying and failing to distract himself from the question.
A question he almost didn’t want to answer.
It was possible the whole thing had been an accident. Jake had loved to smoke there, perched on the sill like a modern gargoyle. He could have lost his balance and fallen.
He could have.
A niggling possibility scraped at Billy’s insides as if he’d swallowed a rat whole. He never thought Jake would do that. Sure, he was lazy, stumbled between jobs like a drunk between bars, played the Xbox as though it was the only thing that interested him in the world, and he smelled of marijuana constantly, but he seemed happy. Billy looked down at the pavement. The road had been cleared. It was two weeks since Jake had died. He had yet to find another flatmate; had yet to even try. The problem was that every time he looked down outside, he was sure he could still see the stain.
Grimacing, he stood up and went into the bathroom.
Halfway through brushing his teeth he caught a glimpse of himself into the cabinet mirror. He stopped to take in his reflection. It was alarming. Had he looked like this yesterday? His skin was the discolored white of off-milk. His eyes looked like they had receded in their sockets. Putting the brush down, he placed his hands on either side of the cabinet and stared deep, taking in every nuance: the small bumps of acne that couldn’t quite die and hair yellowed like parched grass but dark around the edges as if he was fading from something more solid — more real.
“Why does everything feel dead?”
He realized that he was gripping the cabinet hard, his fingers creaking as his nails dug into the flimsy card from which it was made. He wrenched at it suddenly, almost oblivious to what had prompted the anger. It had seeped in like an antithetical inspiration: darkly empowering. The cabinet broke away from the wall with ludicrous ease and a spray of crumbling plaster accompanied it, revealing a hollow wall. He tossed the cabinet aside.
“Well, I guess that’s why I can hear them doing it every night,” he sighed, looking at the empty space revealed by the hole. He clenched and unclenched his fist a couple of times to release his tension. He laughed weakly. It was all so ridiculous. This apartment, his job, his whole life, in fact, seemed like one giant joke spelled on the lips of God.
He went back to the sink to finish brushing his teeth when he saw a small glimmer inside the concave of the wall. At first he thought it was a pipe, but it seemed too bright — too beautiful. He reached in and felt something hard and coarse. He pulled it out.
It was a small phylactery, a little leather box with a gleaming silver seal. It was ornate, and old by the look of the designs on the seal. Yet, it wasn’t dusty. Someone had been regularly taking it out and looking at it.
“What the hell have you left, Jake?” Billy whispered, turning it over. He flipped open the silver seal with as much delicacy as his trembling fingers would allow. As he expected, the phylactery didn’t contain scripture, but a tiny, glass bottle filled with a black, toxic-looking liquid. Underneath the bottle was a small note on which was written:
“Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.”
Billy put the bottle and note on the living room table and didn’t look at it for the rest of the day. When he got back from his shift on the till, he looked at it. He had no idea what the substance was, or what the hell the quote meant, but he felt like all of this was an invitation — an invitation he didn’t yet understand. It was the last evidence of Jake he had, the last thing in the flat that hadn’t been taken away and boxed up. Rationally, he knew it was probably hallucinogenic, and harmful.
But he was curious.
Billy reached over the table and picked up the phial in two fingers. He would find out the hard way.
Unscrewing the lid, he touched the cold glass to his lips and leaned his head back. As soon as the black liquid met his flesh, he felt a tingling erupt across his mouth. He stopped and screwed the lid back on in a flurry, aware that suddenly everything was difficult to grasp, and blurred. He managed to put the phial back, but his hands were floppy and useless, so much so that he swept all his mugs off the table as he tried to sit back.
The world went dark.
But then it came back, although it wasn’t quite the same. Everything looked larger. His dingy little living room looked like it had enough space to fit fifty people, and everything was bending, as if an invisible force was pushing it outwards, as if the universe could no longer accommodate him. Colors were bleeding into one another. Where did the white of the wall end and the red carpet begin? Streams of crimson were running up the apartment walls as if all colors had become wet paint and gravity was now drawing upward.
His eyes widened further.
Jake was standing in the center of the room. He had been staring off into nothingness over Billy’s head, but at the mention of his name his eyes had snapped onto Billy’s. There was something disturbing about the way he was standing. He was perfectly upright, and unnaturally rigid like an automaton. But it was definitely him. He had his black hood up around his blacker hair, and ripped black jeans trailing along the floor.
Billy sat up, although he was dizzy.
“Jake! It’s me, Billy!” He took another glance at the half recognizable world. “What the hell is going on?”
Jake pointed at his own mouth. Billy took in a sharp breath. Where Jake’s lips should have been, there was a yellow sticker with a crude smiley face drawn on it, one with only a single curved line for the smile, and two impenetrable dots for eyes. It was pasted over the entirety of his mouth so his cheeks were sucked in slightly. Something about it made Billy shiver through his core. Jake shook his head sadly.
Do you mind if I talk like this instead, Billy?
Billy felt the coldness running up and down his spine intensify. The voice had sounded inside of his head, as if it had been his own conjured memory of Jake’s voice. There was something else too, something else he didn’t recognize.
“Sure,” he stammered. “But why can’t you talk, Jake?”
Jake’s eyes creased as if he was smiling, but the sticker didn’t move. The childish single-line drawing of the smile remained at its unnatural curve.
Do you believe in other dimensions, Billy?
The voice resonating in his head was like Jake, and yet unlike him. It had his tone and sound, but nothing of his way of speaking.
This is another dimension, Billy, a dimension where you are dreaming. Look.
Jake raised a finger and pointed at somewhere next to Billy. Billy turned and leapt up in shock. He was looking at himself, lying on the couch, eyes rolled into the top of his head, lids flickering slightly as if he was having a bad dream. He looked down at the self he now inhabited. He could see it was shimmering at the edges, as if seen through a blurred lens.
“If this is another dimension, how did you find it?”
The phylactery. Jake’s eyes never blinked, and they were boring into Billy as though he was trying to stop his heart with thought alone. I found it. It took me to special places. Places I could never get to in reality. And you can go there too, Billy. Come with me, and I’ll show you how to change things.
Change the world.
Billy started awake. The first thing that came to him was a sour taste in his mouth. His head was throbbing as if the veins had narrowed and the blood was being pushed through forcibly. He sat up and regretted it immediately. His vision blurred as the head rush created swimming noises in his ears. Eventually it dissipated. It was dark. He realized it must be night. How long had he been asleep?
Had he really been asleep at all?
The strange interview flashed across his mind in fragments and dissected images. It was already fading. Just like a dream. He scratched his head and looked around. The walls were white and the carpet red and neither bled into the other. It was just a dream. The phial was just alcohol, or a drug for sleeping. Jake had never been there.
Billy stood up. His face felt like it was grimy somehow, like dirt had sunken into its pours. He staggered to his feet and went into the bathroom. It took him a few moments to notice what was wrong. But when he did, he screamed.
The cabinet was reattached to the wall as if it had never been broken.
A yellow sticker with a child’s impression of a face on it was stuck on the mirror, smiling out at him. He reached up and dug his nails under it. He pulled it from the mirror. There was more. Under the sticker were words written in what looked like black marker pen.
“CHANGE THE WORLD”
Billy ran back into the living room. No one was there. He went to the front door. It was locked and bolted as he’d left it. He went into the kitchen; he checked Jake’s old bedroom, but found nothing in both. He went to the window and found it locked.
There was a split second where so many thoughts rushed through his head he felt that to concentrate on one of them would be like trying to jump onto a moving train and pick a carriage while he was at it, but then something seemed to click into place. He picked up the phial and went into his own room. He lay down on the bed, and lifted it to his lips.
“Change the world,” he echoed, before draining another sliver of the black ichor.
When he opened his eyes it was all warped once again, and Jake was standing next to his bed, still with his strange rigidity.
Are you ready?
Billy sat up.
He blinked. Jake was gone. He stood up.
“Where … ?”
Come through the wall.
He turned and looked at his bedroom wall. There was a desk drawer littered with countless science fiction novels, their paperback covers bent, frayed, and smudged. In the subnormal atmosphere, the pictures on their covers seemed to shift, the characters smiling widely at him. He grinned back. He was in on their secret now. He was part of his own fiction.
He reached out and touched the wall. Ripples extended away from it as if he was a stone plunged into a volume of water. He smiled wider. In one stride he pulled himself through the once-solid formation and felt the universe re-atomize around him. It was delicious. Painful, but delicious. Jake was on the other side, creases at the edge of his eyes suggesting that he was smiling too.
“I want more!” Billy said.
Jake looked down. There was a young, lithe girl on the bed. Billy recognized her vaguely: a neighbor he’d seen occasionally in the corridor, or coming back from a night out. A duvet was draped around her and her head was nestled into the pillow. Jake reached out and touched the covers. They fluttered away airily to reveal the rest of her. She was naked. Jake’s eyes creased further. Billy looked down and felt a pulse inside of him.
He reached out and was alarmed when he felt how real her skin was: soft, warm, and yet yielding. She stirred at his touch but did not wake. Billy looked up at Jake. The face was static, but the words resonated invisibly in his mind.
You can have anything you want in this world Billy. When she wakes, all it will be to her is a dream.
Something was shaking inside of Billy. He withdrew his hand. The delirium of power coursed in his chest like an electric bolt.
“Is this why you killed yourself, Jake? So you could stay here forever?”
Slowly, eyes never shifting from Billy, Jake nodded. The sticker’s smile bobbing up and down, somehow expressive though fixed — expressive of a gleeful triumph.
And you can have this world forever too, Billy. You can alter whatever you want and no one can stop you because you’re just a walker in a dream. You can change how many votes are on a register. You can go into a convenience store and take what you want. You can possess any woman you want and she’ll never stop you.
“But it won’t be real,” Billy said. For a moment a shadow seemed to pass over Jake’s face. The eyes glared. When the shadow vanished, it left Billy feeling even colder than before.
What is real, Billy? Is the numbing repetition of delinquent conversations at the check-out till real? Does that make you feel anything? Or is reality really in your books? Don’t you feel so much more in them?
“Or in your video games,” Billy said, quietly. “Is that why you were so locked into that damn console?” Billy grinned. Jake didn’t respond. The eyes continually stared, but there was something glassy about them, as if Jake was thinking fast.
You can have anything you want, Billy.
“You’ve said that. But what do you do? What do you do in this place?”
Jake jerked violently, so violently that Billy flinched. Something was wrong. Something was terribly wrong with everything and he had no idea how he hadn’t been able to see it before.
“You’re not Jake,” he said, walking back. “Who are you?”
Jake was shimmering, parts of him disjointing, as if he was a malfunctioning graphic on an artificial screen.
Billy turned to run but halted when he saw the wall behind him had morphed into a sea of terrible faces, lurching, writhing, seething beneath the plaster. Who were these people?
Jake is dead. The voice said, cutting off his thought. He threw himself out of the window. He couldn’t handle this world. He was afraid. But you’re better than him, Billy. You know you are. He was a failure. He killed himself because he couldn’t face the world. I offered him everything he could want but he refused it out of fear.
Billy turned. The figure was still in Jake’s shape, but now the darkness in the hood had somehow expanded, and looked like it was seeping out in small blindly sentient tendrils. The eyes were gloomier.
“If you’re not Jake, then who are you?”
It paused for a moment.
I am the darkest dream you yearned to dream again.
Billy shuddered. In this one thing he was sure it was not lying.
I have power. So much power, Billy. I want to give you this world. But first you have to do something. You have to unblock my mouth, and you have to give me the elixir.
“If you drink it in this world, what does it do?”
You have to hurry Billy. Your dose is running out. You won’t be asleep for much longer. You have to let me drink the elixir.
“Who says I want this world, anyway? You still haven’t answered my question.”
The thing in Jake’s shape raised a hand. He mimed clicking a button on a remote-controller and the TV in the room crackled into life. Mesmerized, Billy walked closer. The TV was playing his whole life through on fast-forward. He leapt from toddler to child to teenager in minutes. When it reached him sleeping on the bed it cut out. Billy found himself crying. Not a single scene had made him happy to see. Not one clip was a joyful memory.
“I’ll do it.”
The wall was no longer writhing with faces. He passed through it and into the other room. The shape of Jake was waiting for him as he stepped into the living room, standing like a black line against the table and staring down at the small little bottle.
Open my mouth.
Billy reached out and put one hand on the sticker. The flesh was clammy, almost frost-like, and hard as enamel.
He pulled and the sticker fell off. He swallowed. There was nothing but a circular hole of blackness lodged in the face. Inside the hole, two points of red glittered like dying stars. The rigid body jerked and its hand shot down at the phylactery. It poured all of the black liquid into its weird maw.
Billy felt sick. His heart was beating abnormally slowly, as if clogged with tar.
Jake lumbered forward through the door and into Billy’s bedroom.
“What are you doing? What’s supposed to happen now?”
The thing in Jake’s shape wasn’t listening. It leaned down, and placed the terrible hole over his sleeping body’s mouth.
Something passed between the two, and Jake’s shell fell down limply. Billy’s sleeping body writhed and the face twitched; something black lay beyond its lips.
The realization of what had just happened left Billy dumb for a moment, and then everything swam into horrifying clarity. He could see his body’s eyes flickering as if he was about to awaken. Beneath the pale flesh, two horrid red points were shining. Everything around him started to flicker and warp even further.
He ran forward and picked up his own body in his arms. It was moaning and gargling in its sleep. His physical self was about to wake up. But Billy knew he wouldn’t wake up with it. He was going to remain here forever, or worse. He staggered to the window, his sleeping corporeal self starting to flail as if its nightmare was deepening. The red inside it was glowing brighter and brighter. How could he have been so stupid? It had all been a trick. Whatever it was that had been in Jake’s shape would cross into the real world and leave him in this broken dimension.
Unless Billy did something about it.
He flung open the window. The lids of his corporeal form’s eyes were drifting apart, and the whites shone like gems. The whole world was now flashing through colors of the spectrum as if everything was constructed of multitudinous prisms.
And then he jumped.
As he plummeted, hugging his own form tightly, a scream of frustration soared out from his corporeal body’s lips. It rippled outwards into the cycling spectrums of color with a vibrancy that made them jar and falter. There was a vicious snap as his physical body hit the pavement underneath him, seemingly greater than any sound he had ever heard. He felt his body’s own limbs snapping and crunching, and then all the wind was knocked out of him. He rolled off onto the pavement. The scream had abruptly ended, and the two glowing red points vanished.
Dazed, Billy looked around him. The horizons of this world were closing in, swallowed up as the dimension crumbled. Veins of blackness were flickering through everything. Soon, Billy supposed, all would be swirling blackness.
As the darkness came, Billy had time for a few last thoughts. If the blackness that was coming was oblivion, then he had to leave something for them to find in the real world. He pulled up the shirt on his corpse, and extended his index finger.
He ran his finger along his skin. In its wake, tattoos etched themselves into the flesh. The thing inside Jake had been right in one thing then: He did have power in this world. A fat lot of good it would do him now.
He began writing, conscious of the deconstructing plane around him. He had no idea what to say. Eventually, it came to him, like a random memory.
We are only walkers in someone else’s dreams.
Strangely proud, Billy looked up to see that the colossal dark had almost reached him. He had no idea what would happen when he touched it. Unsure whether this was the end or the beginning, whether he had won or lost, he stood, the silent consumption of the universe hurtling like a tornado towards him. He stretched out his arms.
He was ready not to wake up.
Joseph Sale is a writer, performer, and fencer. He lives in Birmingham, Edgbaston, where he studies creative writing and literature. Passionate about the classics and about what they can reveal about modern life, Joseph was brought up immersed in dark fantastical worlds. His heroes are Spenser, Tolkien, and King. His short stories have previously appeared in Silver Blade. He has also self published a critically acclaimed poetry book. You can find more at his site.
Superb story – very compelling and the ending not predictable.