In The Gloam

I'd reached an accord with the spiders. I'd invited them into my corner of the Dreamlands and built them a playground, per their specifications. Crevices, overhangs, shadowy corners, boxes upon boxes, a leaky pipe, piles of clothes, abandoned cupboards, attic full of furniture and old books, a nightmare house all to themselves. And if the occasional dreamer stumbled upon it, even better. So they acted as my protectors in the Gloam instead of mere watchers or worse, tormentors. They were completely unaware of the “side passage” I was seeking to the Fugue, the place just between dreams and wakefulness. I was determined to ask The Hat Man, something they advised me against. Repeatedly. Nothing was worth what it might cost, they told me. The Hat Man does not have friends among humans or see them as equals. Even Dreamers are beneath Him. We are nothing but toys. And He enjoys breaking His toys. The spiders were afraid of Him even as they swarmed at His call to suck on the juices of his cast-offs and conquests. I appreciated their concern. Truly, I was touched by it. But, I needed to find Him. Again. I had seen Him. Once. At 600 mg, when the walls vibrated until they were transparent and He was there, on the other side, watching. I wasn't deep enough to make contact. I couldn't even see His eyes. But. When I was growing up, the back yards in our neighborhood, on my side of the street, all shared a low spot in the far back, by the fence-line. When it rained, water rushed down that trough like a river. Sometimes, we'd catch earthworms that came up to avoid drowning. We'd collect them in a big bucket and play with them until the rain stopped. Then we'd dump them back out on the mud. When The Hat Man looked at me with eyes I could not see, for just a moment, I was a struggling worm, fleeing for my life, being plucked up and dropped in a foreign place surrounded by the screams of my peers. For just a moment. Then I was dumped back into my bedroom. The spiders covered me in their warmth, eight times a thousand clawed feet massaging me in comfort. Still, I shivered. That was the Thing I was going to convince to help me? I was like garbage to It, like dust. This place, the Gloam, was not the Dreamlands and all my learned skills were muted or easily wiped away.

But, I had to try. I am trying.

At 750 mg, tonight, right now, the walls drip black stinking ichor, like a busted septic tank oscillating in the static of a scrambled cable channel. “You think you're the smartest motherfucker in the world,” my step dad calls out to me. He hasn't been part of my life in decades, but he calls out all the same. “And you can't even find the Fugue – get out here you stupid faggot – bring me a beer before I come in there – don't make me come in there” I'm twelve years old again. I want to hide in the closet. I want to cry quiet tears. I want to climb a tree. Instead I pick up my hunting knife, the one I inherited, the one that's tasted blood, that's been honed and sharpened. I stand and the floor sucks me in, sinking me up to my knees. Mud. Sucking and plopping as I trudge forward. The spiders have fled, replaced by hostile snakes, flicking their tongues, rattling their tails. Darting their heads to force me to the wall. Not the door. Not the closet. To the wall with the mirror. I accidentally look at my reflection. I know I shouldn't. I try not to, but I can't blink, can't turn away. Twitching muscle, exposed nerves, dripping blood as my skin is flayed by the air like a million tiny razor blades, and the mud a seeping infection. I can't scream. I swing the knife at the mirror and am pulled through, tumbling in cold, stale air. Landing on black obsidian. You never stood up for yourself. It's my own voice. Inside my head. You could have saved him, you know. If you really believed. No. Not in my head, spinning around me, close, invisible. Stand up. Don't be a baby. Stand up! On my knees, I see Him. The Hat Man. He's right next to me. He's impossibly far away. A living shadow, like a charcoal smudge on reality with two empty white sockets for eyes and no other features save the tell-tale hatlike shape. I told the kittens how warm it was under the hood. I unlocked the gate for the bike thieves. I helped them dig up the grave and took the first bite. Sometime in the next month, I'm going to crash your car. Why did you want to be known to me? In a few years, less than a dozen, you will be diagnosed with Stage 2 cancer. I know who your soulmate is and I've already poisoned her against you. You wear glasses now but your eyesight will continue to get worse until you are legally blind, just like your aunt, far before your time. I am the reason mosquitoes seek you out. I gave you the choice and you did what I wanted. Time doesn't work like that for you. Here. Defend yourself. My own voice has been circling me, taunting me, saying so much overlapping, blending together, backwards and forwards. He is telling the truth. In my own voice. I tense and call upon Dream Logic long enough to float into the air, upright and a few inches off the ground. I reach out to push Him away. To bring Him closer. But He stays everywhere in between. I lift my hands to call lightning but my fingertips only drip with tar. “I just want my night terrors back,” I squeak. “I just want to see them again.” Now that I know you, I have always known you. My joy, my sustenance, is your misery. Not pain. Not loss. Not anger. But deep longing, unquenchable regret, languishing indecision. You should have died when you cut yourself so deeply in secret shame, but I saved you. I saved you so I could enjoy your suffering. I will always save you when there is more hope I can siphon and dreams I can shatter. Only when there is nothing left will I let you take your own life. And you will. You already have. I suddenly feel the knife in my right hand. It was there the whole time. I hold it up. The shining steel reflecting non-existent light, glinting to remind me of its reality. I swipe toward The Hat Man but He is nowhere. The blade leaves a rainbow trail of light in its wake. I try again. He is always ahead or behind. And again. He isn't even laughing or taunting. He just is and then isn't and then is again. I remember what I know of The Shadow Things that The Hat Man seems to rule. I look at my left palm, flexing my fingers, before stabbing myself with the knife. Pain, like ice, then fire. My blood swims out as writhing tentacles, reaching toward The Hat Man. Then an explosion in all directions, faster than I can see. Pulling my essence along. I feel the walls and ceiling all at once. Smaller than it seemed. Is The Hat Man even here? Was He ever? A presence like a bug. Like a projection or a speaker. A knob, a protrusion. My body of blood tentacles grips it, pulls it from the wall. And crushes it. I'm on my back, naked, covered in sweat, lying on top of my comforter back in my bedroom. My left hand throbs, oozing thick blood. My throat is so raw I can scarcely swallow. I feel as if nails are being driven into my temples. I'm crying. I hear the spiders scurry, but the now opaque walls no longer move. The floor appears solid. I see myself as expected in the mirror.

The lukewarm shower calms my nerves, my breathing. But I still hear my own voice asking me why I wanted to make myself known. Does He even have a voice of His own? As the cut on my hand clots exceptionally fast, as my headache clears, I know I am seen. I am known. From cradle to grave.

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