Here’s my attempt at a scary short story about what happens when you infiltrate peoples’ nightmares – and the consequences that come from doing so.
“Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy.” – Sigmund Freud
Dylan yawned, leaned back in his chair. It was another late night at the Nightmare Center, but at least he was collecting overtime. The entire year had been full of late nights, for obvious reasons. The election had peoples’ unconscious selves falling apart at the seams.
“Still here?” Amari asked, bags under her eyes.
“Unfortunately,” Dylan said. “I’m working a double.”
“It never ends.”
Dylan opened the Nightmare Management System just to check on something. Their company wasn’t actually called “The Nightmare Center,” and the software wasn’t really “the Nightmare Management System.” Those were just nicknames Dylan and Amari had come up with, using humor to make the best of things, like siblings growing up in an alcoholic home.
Tonight was busy, and it was only 1 a.m. Very rarely did he double-click on a specific individual to infiltrate their dreams. It wasn’t necessary. His only job was to ensure product placements.
The dreams themselves, and whatever their content, wasn’t of much concern to the Corporation. All the executives had read enough Jung and Freud to know the archetypes and recurring themes. These didn’t change much, despite how the world was changing. The goal was to insert little advertisements, ever so subtly, into the dreams and nightmares.
That was Dylan’s job. And he was damn good at it.
“What are you working on tonight?” Amari sat in the cubicle next to him, drinking that black mud they called coffee in the office.
“Simple stuff. It’s the holiday season, so we’re trying to get more Amazon Prime signups. It’s a month-long campaign.”
Dylan clacked at his keyboard. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, and he’d been wearing the same clothes for days, too.
“A little. About a 24% conversion rate so far. They want it higher – like 35%. Screw them, though. I’m the one doing the work.”
“What’s the campaign theme?”
“Basic FOMO stuff. For the 20-35 demographic, we’re inserting a few images of some new TV series, like characters from the shows. For the old folks, it’s all about scaring them into buying cleaning supplies. It’s boring.”
Amari powered on her computer. She had that devilish grin that Dylan recognized – the one she usually had when she wanted to start trouble.
“Let’s spice it up then,” she said.
“Not tonight. I’m exhausted. And it doesn’t matter how good I am at this; I’ve pushed the envelope already.”
“Womp, womp. You used to be so fun, Dylan.” Amari punched him on the shoulder. “Now look at you. You don’t have a family, no girlfriend. What are you doing this job for, anyway? You could quit tomorrow. You have enough money saved up, right? Let’s go out with a bang.”
Dylan pondered this. He looked around the empty office, bereft of windows. The fluorescent lights gave him frequent headaches – he had one now. He took a sip of the bitter coffee, then spit some back in the cup.
“What do you have in mind?”
Amari smiled. “Let’s screw around with the study participants. Most of these nightmares are so boring. Let’s be like … horror film directors.”
“Oh, god. We’d be fired immediately.”
Dylan thought about the long nights, the money he had saved in the bank. Then he thought about getting out of this crap job and working for a legit company, maybe a real Marketing department. Not some ethically ambiguous crap like messing with people’s dreams.
“Alright, I’ll give it a shot. But here’s the thing: you’re going to be my reference when I look for a new job.”
“Fine by me.”
Dylan cracked his knuckles. “Then let’s begin.”
When people signed up at the Corporation for sleep studies, they thought it was for a research project on dreams. Dylan knew the studies’ real purpose by about the third day of the job when a manager laid it out to him.
What they were doing was highly unethical, perhaps even illegal, and they didn’t expect to exist as a company for very long. The whole point was to rake in as much money as possible as quickly as possible.
The founder of the Corporation was never revealed to Dylan or anyone who worked there. It was clear, though, that he or she had deep ties in the business world, given the clients they had. Amazon was one colossal company that regularly did business with them. There were many others.
Dylan had a marketing background, and he was hired to do what they called ad campaigns. Amazingly, people at the Corporation were able to view 3D images of the study participants’ dreams. Neuroscience had come a long way. Most dreams were repetitive, though strange and beautiful in their stunning visuals and bizarre content. Dylan noticed many of the dreams could be categorized as nightmares. This was not surprising, given that many of the people who volunteered were desperate for money and probably not living in the best circumstances.
After a while, Dylan got bored watching the nightmares. The Corporation had high turnover because of how shady the work was, so Dylan became a prized employee. They paid him well, he kept his mouth shut, and he worked long hours if they asked him to. But after several months, he was burned out.
“Okay, so you’re the film director,” Dylan said. “You’re setting up the scenes. What’s our first scene?”
Amari looked at the screen. They were in the Nightmare Management System, viewing the content from a 45-year-old male. The man’s dream had been going along for about thirty minutes, consisting mostly of him walking down a dark alleyway in the rain.
“Let’s see.” Amari scratched her head. “What if we inserted a man with a chainsaw? Like Texas Chainsaw Massacre?”
“We can do that.”
Dylan typed away furiously. He clicked on the screen, uploading an image, syncing it with the dream. He dragged, clicked, and then – voila – it was done.
“There we go …”
“You’re a wizard!”
On the screen, the crackling sound of a chainsaw rang out, and the man in the alleyway froze. The management system showed the man’s heart rate increasing, and, on the screen, the chainsaw man approached him.
“This is so messed up,” Dylan said.
“And so hilarious at the same time!”
The man tripped as he tried to run in the dream. The chainsaw-wielding man chased him and the man screamed out. In the study room, the man began shaking in bed. On the screen, the chainsaw man caught up to him, ran the chainsaw through his chest. They could hear the man gurgling blood.
In the study room, the vitals started to flatten off. An alarm went off somewhere in the building, and they heard doors opening.
“Close it out!” Amari shouted.
Dylan closed the window, tried to remove any electronic trace that he’d tampered with the dream. Amari, who had seemed so edgy just a minute ago, was now running her sweaty hands on her pants. They were the only Marketing people working, so they had no place to hide.
“Let’s go,” Amari said.
“What? Right now?”
“Yeah! They’re gonna fire us anyway.”
Dylan ran down the stairwell with Amari and out into the parking lot. They slowed down once they got outside, acting cool like nothing happened. Inside, they could see shadowed figures rushing around in the windows, trying to rectify the situation they had caused.
“We’re in deep shit,” Dylan whispered.
“We’re fine. The Corporation can’t reveal what they’re doing, so …”
Dylan was breathing hard. But he smiled, and Amari gave him the mischievous smile she was known for, the streetlight reflecting off her brilliant white teeth. Sure, Dylan had done crazy and stupid things before, but this was perhaps the most brazen. And it felt good.
“Now what?” he asked.
Amari took his hand as they walked to the parking lot. “I don’t know. I have a couple of bottles of wine at my apartment. Care to join me?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
What was most disturbing about the weeks following Dylan and Amari’s stunt at the Corporation was that nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. Neither of them got a call or were notified about any consequences for their actions. It was as if it didn’t even occur.
Dylan had savings to live off for a while, and that’s what he did. He began searching for work and, in the meantime, enjoyed nights not holed up in the windowless office of the Corporation. Amari visited him frequently at first, and then gradually not so much. She’d always been a rather fickle person, and he didn’t expect their one-time dalliance to amount to much, anyway.
After a few months, Dylan’s dreams became increasingly strange – and that’s when he began to worry. He was spending a lot of time alone, and he was waking up in the middle of the night, sometimes without remembering his dreams, but with the faint notion that he’d been startled out of his sleep. A feeling of menace hung over him when he awoke, and he slogged about his apartment.
It was around February when his concerns grew worse. He could swear he heard the distant sound of a chainsaw in his dreams. It seemed outlandish, but it had to be it – the rattle, the rip-roar, the sheer volume. And there was a recurring dream: him walking down an endless urban alleyway in the soft, misting rain, that damned chainsaw sounding off in the distance. It was the same dream the study participant was having, and it was the same chainsaw he inserted in the dream.
Dylan began to lose the sense of what was real and what wasn’t – the lines had blurred. He feared sleep, for if he dozed off, he’d be back in that alleyway, the menacing, shadowy figure of the chainsaw man about thirty feet ahead, wielding his weapon with his muscular arms.
He called Amari.
“Hey,” he said one weekday afternoon, laying on his couch.
“Hey there. How you been?”
“Okay. I was thinking … do you want to stop by?”
There was a pause.
“I wish I could, but …” Another pause. “I’m awfully busy lately. I started a new job – yay! But the hours are killer.”
“Oh. What’s the new gig?”
“Nothing special. Just a retail thing.”
Dylan stood up, paced his small apartment. Amari’s tone of voice made him unsettled. Like she was hiding something.
“Well, that’s great. How about we –”
“Ah, shit. I have to go. Listen, I’ll call you back.”
With that, the line went dead. Strange, Dylan thought. Amari was usually so open – she rarely hid anything in all the time he’d known her. Now it seemed she was trying to get him off the phone, to get away from him.
He pondered what she may be hiding. It wasn’t long until he laid back on the couch, flipped on the TV. The fear crept back as he yawned. As he watched the Food Network, he felt himself drifting off. He tried to fight it, but his eyes closed, and he was carried away into dreamland – the place that scared him the most, where the chainsaw man threatened him.
“He looks okay to me,” the voice said.
“The brain scans show heightened activity. Did we record the dream sequence from just now?”
Bright white lights, men in lab coats typing on keyboards. The cold feel of the air conditioner, the hum of it working. Dylan felt and saw all this as he awoke, and he panicked. Where was he?
He tried to rise, then realized he was tied down at the wrists and ankles. He let out a scream. “What the – what! Where am I?”
“Calm down. Relax.”
The man’s face was familiar, elegant. He wore gold-rimmed spectacles, tiny on his thin face, and a red tie and powder-blue dress shirt under the white lab coat. His hair was sandy-blonde, a handsome older scientist.
“What’s going on?”
“I’m Doctor Neubauer. I’m sure you recognize me?”
“Neubauer? Yeah, you’re … from the Corporation.”
It began to sink in for Dylan, but it seemed too ridiculous. Why was he back in this office? Why was he tied down? Why were sensors applied to his temples?
“This may seem a little strange, Dylan. But we’ve been treating you as one of our patients for some time now. Well, ever since you terminated your employment here. Your dreams are quite interesting.”
“But how? I’ve no recollection of being here in the past three months. It’s impossible.”
Dr. Neubauer put down the pen and pad of paper, smiled. “Not quite impossible. You see, you’ve had a hard time remembering much of anything lately, correct? Haven’t things seemed a bit … unreal?”
“Yes, they have.”
“That’s exactly it.” The doctor sat beside Dylan, ran his hands through his wavy hair. “You’ve been coming here periodically for the past three months. Perhaps you were sleepwalking. We’re not quite sure. But you signed up to be a patient. We have the legal documents, your signature.”
Dylan felt the fear again. Perhaps it did make sense, he thought. Still, he had no idea what this meant and what would happen now.
“So, I can leave then, right? I’m not being held against my will?”
“That’s the tricky part.”
The door opened, and he saw Amari. She walked in quietly and stood beside him, her face appearing concerned.
“Amari? So … you knew?”
The doctor cut in, “Yes. She’s the one who contacted us.”
“Because of your dreams. Or, I should say, nightmares. You called her multiple times, raving like a madman, scared. That’s when she called us, asked us to help.”
Amari held his hand, and he felt the softness of her. Usually so mischievous, now she looked worried, taking on this new matronly role.
“It’s for the best,” she told him.
“That … you stay here for a while. And we observe.”
It was then that anger rose up, the feelings of betrayal. He kicked, pulled at the straps tying him down. The table moved, and both Amari and Dr. Neubauer flinched and stepped back. He noticed someone else in the room, someone he didn’t recognize – a young man with dull eyes, perhaps an intern or employee.
“Let me go! This is too much … Untie me!”
Amari left the room, and he thought he heard her cry. The doctor and assistant rushed over to the medicine cabinet.
“Relax, Dylan. You’re not going anywhere.”
“The hell I am! You’ve tricked me! I know what happens in this place … I worked here! You’re manipulating me … you’re …”
They applied the tranquilizer, and Dylan quickly felt the effects. He had no time to prepare for dreamland, what he feared most. Instead, he rapidly descended into his personal hell.
It felt so real.
The misting rain on his skin, the chill of the late autumn air. The darkness of the long, endless alleyway. And the horrid sound – the grinding of the chainsaw in the distance.
Dylan walked gingerly on the wet concrete, clumps of dead leaves under his feet. Orange streetlights, ever so faint, mad tall shadows on the brick walls of the buildings that enclosed him. At the end of the alleyway, there was that familiar figure, the muscular arms wielding the chainsaw high above. He wanted to stop walking toward the dark figure, but he could not. Something urged him to go on, to find out who this nightmare creature was.
The chainsaw screamed through the silent, black night. The sky was cold and moonless, covered by clouds. Dylan kept telling himself to wake up, but it would not happen. He told himself this wasn’t real, but he didn’t quite believe it. The line had blurred entirely. The circle was complete.
The Nightmare Center employee had become a patient. The controller had become controlled. He was no longer laughing about placing Facebook ads in the recesses of people’s minds. Instead, he was shaking uncontrollably as he walked closer to the menacing figure in the distance.
He tried to scream, but he could not do that, either. All he could do was wait until he awoke in that cramped room with Dr. Neubauer staring down at him. He closed his eyes. He listened to the awful sound of the grinding chainsaw.
And he waited.
(Cover photo by by Nate Watson on Unsplash)