Andrew Heiss saw her through his window on the ground floor, peeking onto the street that led alongside their apartment complex. It was a dark day spattered with rain that drizzled down the glass, slightly obscuring his view. That didn’t stop Andrew from being able to make out her figure in the rain. Penelope’s rain jacket marked her as a splash of bright yellow in the dismal scene. Her back was turned to him while she stared at the passing cars in front of her. Her blurred arms lifted to remove her hood, exposing her blonde hair to the downpour. It immediately matted down with water, turning two shades darker as it soaked. Andrew’s grip tightened on the windowsill as her hair began to gently float. One tendril at a time drifted into the air as if gravity no longer insisted. A sharp spike of pain was nagging at his hands as the edges of the windowsill cut into his flesh, yet Andrew paid it no mind. A halo of hair surrounded the back of Penelope’s head now, like a monstrous spider was flaring its legs around her head. He was just about to back away from the gutting spectacle when he noticed Penelope turning back toward their apartment window. Very slowly, methodically, not expending any energy. A stroke of fair skin became visible again amidst the yellow. Andrew waited for a nose or drops of light blue eyes to show from beneath the hood, but the pale skin didn’t end. Only smoothness unmarked by facial features. He felt blood dripping from his palms onto the wall.
She did not have a face. The hair fell limp to her sides.
Andrew jolted awake, inhaling sharply at the sight of his dark room. He sat up and slouched forward, peeling his sweaty legs apart and ripping off the blanket. The coolness of the night air was welcomed. He looked to his left and saw Penelope sleeping soundly next to him. The rise and fall of her small frame was so slight he sometimes frightened himself into thinking she was dead. That wasn’t the only sleeping scare he had experienced with her, either.
The kitchen light was excruciating, but the darkness didn’t feel comfortable tonight. Andrew wiped sleepy seeds from his eyes and made some chamomile tea to sip on. He needed to shrug off that nightmare. He didn’t dream often, but occasionally he would be struck by dark dreams so bizarre and twisted that he would be affected for days afterward. As if a film was left on him, a faint slime he couldn’t see. He turned on his phone and let the stimulating blue light sweep him away from the bad memories for a moment. He swiped through some photos that he and Penelope had taken the other night when they were on a date, and then landed on a video he had taped the night prior to that.
Andrew frowned. He didn’t recall taking that video. The thumbnail was just darkness, so curiosity compelled him to play it.
The moment it started he instantly remembered why he had taken it. He was in their bedroom, and Penelope was standing facing the door. She was sleepwalking again, and just like all of the other instances, she could not be woken up. In the video Andrew was shaking her shoulder, saying “c’mon baby, wake up, don’t do this again. I have to get up early in the morning. Please.”
As usual, it was to no avail. Penelope continued walking toward the closed door, gently knocking her head as she met her obstacle. She made no sound or movement with her other limbs. Just steadily walked. That was all the video contained. After the dream he just had, Andrew wished he hadn’t watched it.
He and Penelope had been dating for three months now, and just started living together the past month. At first Andrew felt like they were moving a bit fast, but rent was expensive by himself; besides, what’s the worst that could really happen? She wouldn’t be on the lease, and Andrew was pretty sure he was falling deeply in love with her.
He took a sip of his chamomile tea and opened the notes app on his phone. He never did spend money on a physical journal when it was more convenient to type your thoughts whenever you needed to. The last few entries had all been about Penelope’s sleeping habits.
February 26th, 1:13 AM
I keep trying to wake her up. I don’t know why I keep trying when I know the result is the same, so maybe I’m really just going insane. But I don’t know…I had another nightmare just now and I can’t stand her not being able to wake up. It freaks me out.
February 27th, 4:01 AM
The paramedics just left. She was sleepwalking and fell and hit her head, so I called 911. They asked me if she was on any medication or drugs, and I said no. They asked me all of the usual things, like family health history and whatnot, and then asked if they could take her to the hospital because she wouldn’t wake up. I said no. They insisted. I insisted as well and said no. They eventually left. In the end they had told me she didn’t sustain any injuries, so I didn’t see the point in having her stay somewhere else for the night when I knew she would wake up at the same time anyways. So I guess we will see.
A creaking sound interrupted Andrew’s reading, and his head snapped toward the source of the disturbance. It seemed to have come from the bathroom. He placed his cup in the sink and walked into the small space. Black ropes of fear tugged at his throat. He knew it was childish to be afraid of the dark, but as of late, the dark had harbored nothing but ugly and unknown things. As he reached for the light switch, his eyes flickered to the mirror. There was no reflection in the glass.
He stifled a scream that came out as a strangled yelp, and jerked backward. His finger caught the light switch as he did so, and beautiful light illuminated the bathroom. He saw a man with large, frightened eyes and accompanied with a horrific bed-head. After a minute his breathing calmed and his heart rate returned to normal. He waved a hand in front of the mirror and blinked. He roughed up his hair. He smiled and relaxed. Yes, his reflection seemed to be behaving normally. However the trick of the darkness in the mirror had rattled him to his core, and it was at that moment that Andrew knew he wouldn’t be sleeping tonight.
He crawled back into bed with Penelope. Like usual, even his small scream didn’t wake her up. He drew his knees to his chest, and waited for the sun to rise.
Penelope got up at 8 o’clock on the dot, just like she did every single morning. She sat straight up, yawned, and hugged Andrew before she got out of bed.
“You look beat. Did you sleep badly last night?”
“Yeah, I slept awful. I had a horrible dream about you turning into some kind of monster. Fun stuff.”
Penelope put on her robe and turned to him. “I’m so sorry, honey. I’ll make you some breakfast and coffee and maybe that will help a little bit.”
It did help, a little bit. Being awake for the rising sun was a horrible feeling when you were sleepless, and Andrew couldn’t fight off that sickening sensation of sleep deprivation no matter how much coffee and bacon Penelope gave him. As he finished off his coffee, he asked, “this is a weird question, but do you ever get freaked out by mirrors? Something about them makes me feel uneasy.”
Penelope poured her own coffee and sat down with him. “Yes, I do. Some cultures regard mirrors as portals to other realms, and I think I agree with them. Sometimes I don’t think the reflection is really me.”
“Yikes. That’s a horrifying thought. I wasn’t going to go that far. In fact, I was all wired up last night from my nightmare and for a second I thought I didn’t have a reflection at all! I turned on the light, though, and obviously I saw that everything was fine. Still, I couldn’t sleep after that.”
Penelope stared into her coffee. Her eyes had that slightly glazed look she would get when she was lost somewhere else completely. Andrew often wondered where she went. “I think there’s a lot of things we don’t know,” she said at last.
Andrew was going to have her expand on that statement before she picked up her phone and shot out of her chair. “It’s 8:45. You should get ready so you’re not late.”
He barely made it to work on time. He settled into his desk, and was content to have his mind wander to the monotonous work in front of him. It was a welcome escape from the chaos of the night.
5 pm rolled around very slowly, as if time were attempting to elude him. At long last he slumped into the driver’s seat of his car. Thank god he lived a five minute drive down the road. He would buy a bicycle if he wasn’t so lazy.
He was at a stoplight when he happened to look over to his right. An elderly lady was driving a garishly red Prius. He had never seen one that color. “I hope I have a better taste in design when I’m that old,” he muttered, and the light turned green. The lady in the red Prius turned right to merge onto the freeway southbound.
There was one last intersection just before he got home. Normally Andrew was so zoned out while driving that he didn’t notice small details in his surroundings. However today he felt a strange prompting to look outside his right window again. An elderly lady in a blistering red Prius was right next to him.
Andrew looked back toward the road, then whipped his head back in the former direction. He stared for a moment. His eyes had to be deceiving him; he knew this woman had taken the freeway south. There was no way to loop around toward his neck of the woods fast enough to catch up with him. Yet despite the impossible circumstances, here she was. She drove off past his apartment complex, a sharp honk alerting Andrew back to the road ahead of him. The light was green. The world felt thick around him as he shifted into gear. Almost like he was in a dream.
The apartment was quiet when he entered the cramped space. A one bedroom studio was all he and Penelope could afford, and that was with two incomes. He threw his keys onto the kitchen counter and crawled into bed. Penelope was working the closing shift at the restaurant tonight, so he didn’t have to worry about being disturbed. Exhaustion quickly overcame him as he sighed in contentment. He rolled over to his left in an attempt to get comfortable when he noticed the drawer in Penelope’s nightstand was very slightly ajar.
Andrew felt like they were close to each other most of the time, but it was times like these that made him feel like there was a side to her he didn’t really know. We all have our secrets, but he felt like she had a lot more than he did. She was quiet, reserved, and creative. When she spoke, her words were always well crafted and meaningful. While this was something Andrew loved about Penelope, it was also something that tickled at him. He was not a snooping kind of person and respected privacy, but traits like hers brought even the most trusting person to do a bit of detective work. Besides, she always kept that drawer locked. It was impossible to resist.
The drawer made a slight noise as it opened that made Andrew flinch. The rest gave way easily to reveal a single piece of paper and a pen. The paper rustled in his shaking hands as he delicately unfolded it. He curled his fingers into his palms in an attempt to relieve the clammy sensation, to no avail. There was a lot of text, and Andrew had no idea when it had been written.
How does a god fill in all the gaps?
I ask this because I have never struggled with it before. I have never dreamt of such a place that is its own realm with its own entities. In fact, I have also never been able to write so clearly, or come back from being awake only to find that the world here has moved on without me. I have determined that all realities must be dreams of sleeping gods, upon which all religion is founded. Is this realm mine to do such? I don’t know. I barely have any power here. I cannot change things at will nor transport myself with a mere thought. I have to muster incredible willpower to simply move through a wall; this is what has made me realize this place is real. I have found that when I do acts like this, bizarre disparities occur. Objects will duplicate or simple physics will momentarily glitch, so to speak. What’s worse, I have fallen in love with a denizen here. That’s you, Andrew. Please do not be alarmed. We will speak when I get home. I am excited to share the truth with you. The future is bright.
Your love, Penelope.
The paper was hurled against the wall in a crumpled ball. Andrew rolled over onto his back and covered his face with his hands. He grabbed a pillow and threw it as well, then tugged at his hair. “God, I have to call her.” He fumbled the phone out of his pocket. The minute it took to ring felt like an eternity, and the voicemail message was like sealing his own coffin. “Damn it!” He stood up out of bed and paced around the small living room. “She’s going insane. I should’ve been talking to her more about how she’s feeling. I knew she was bipolar or something.” His breathing quickened when he thought he saw her standing outside the window. He ran over to the glass, only to see strangers passing by on the sidewalk. He caught his breath, lost it, and caught it again. The air was getting stuck in his throat. He couldn’t breathe. What did people do when they were hyperventilating again? The cabinet under the kitchen sink was torn open to grab a plastic bag. In, out, in, out.
Once he could breathe again, he sat down on the sofa to think. It was two hours before she got off work. He didn’t know how he was going to be able to wait that long. Besides, the thought of her coming home to approach him about these ‘ideas’ made him feel sick to his stomach. It was already twisting in knots. Of course Andrew didn’t believe a word she was saying, but when he thought back to her sleepwalking a wave of paranoia swept through him. He didn’t have anyone to call and talk to about it. Except for perhaps the hospital.
He punched the number into the keypad on his phone, and hesitated. Andrew was not without mental crises throughout his life. If someone had submitted him to the mental hospital against his will, he might have never trusted them again. He needed to hear her out and give her a say. So he waited.
The bottle of vodka was half empty by the time the door opened. A jangle of keys and rustle of quiet footsteps were the only cues Penelope had come home. Besides Andrew sitting in the living room right in front of the door, of course. It was a studio after all.
“How was work?” Andrew asked, and then chuckled a little bit at his casual tone in such a dire situation.
“Oh, you know, busy as usual. Even for a Thursday night. I have to tell you, I had a few tables that made me just want to––ugh! God, I seriously don’t understand some people, you know?”
“No, I actually think I do understand most people.” The words came out a lot more sloshed than Andrew preferred, then he decided he didn’t care. “The thing is, Penelope, I don’t understand you.”
Penelope sat down next to him on the couch in a way that made her bounce off the cushions a bit. She ran her hands through her hair to get it out of her face. Another thing she did that signaled her mind was somewhere way different than the current conversation. “Mm, I assume you’re referencing the letter you must’ve found.” Her nose wrinkled in an exaggerated frown. “You know it’s not good to snoop in other people’s property, baby.” The frown broke into a wide grin. She poked his nose. “I’m just kidding hun. I wanted you to find it. What did you think?”
Andrew’s neck rolled his head over to look at her, leaning into the couch. “Oh, what did I think? I wonder what I think.” He stood up and parted his hands as if he were introducing a character in a freak show. “I think you are certifiably insane, darling! And you need serious help! Unless you were joking, of course. In which case it would not be very funny anyway.”
Penelope looked at him with a demure expression. “Are you so blind to the world around you that you haven’t been noticing anything strange lately?”
Andrew took a swig straight out of the bottle. “Funny you should mention that! Yes, actually. The thing we have discussed endless times; you don’t wake up when you sleep and it freaks me the hell out! We don’t even have to mention, oh, the nightmares and potential hallucinations and all that jazz. So yes, I guess you could say things have been strange around here.”
“Nightmares and hallucinations? Don’t you think you’re the one that might be insane?”
“Do NOT turn this around onto me. You are the one who wrote that schizophrenic delusion of a letter. I am not involved in the conversation about who’s crazier right now.”
Penelope chewed on her lip and twirled a strand of hair between her fingers. “Alright. That’s not what I wanted to talk about anyway.” She leaned forward. “Andrew, where do we go when we sleep?”
“Penelope, you know that’s a question that’s never been answered for sure. I know you have your theories, but we cannot entertain ideas like–”
“Answer the question, please!” Her foot was tapping against the ground.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care. Go ask a brain doctor. If you are so fascinated with the subject, do actual research. I would love to know the answer as well, but it’s pointless to chase these sorts of things. They drive you mad because they are endless.”
A slight smile tugged at her small lips. “What if I told you I know where we go?”
Andrew shifted his weight from foot to foot. “If your answer is what I think it is, I would call you insane.”
She went on regardless. “Andrew, most dreams are the playthings of a brain burning off steam. You know, discharging excess energy and emotion. That’s why so many dreams are emotionally fuelled and symbolic. When you lucid dream in these playgrounds, anything can happen because you are inside yourself. However, once in a blue moon you will come across what I call ‘realms’. Whole other multiverses that the dreaming soul accidentally stumbles upon. I believe that if you lucid dream in these worlds, you become a god of sorts. That’s how religion was founded, and how there’s so many of them!” Penelope stood up and walked over to Andrew. She placed her hands on his chest and looked up at him with baby-blue eyes. “I am not of this world, Andrew.”
He stepped back, leaving her standing a few feet in front of him. He set the bottle of vodka on the kitchen table and shook his head. “I am so sorry, but you need some serious help, hun. Is it ok if we make an appointment for you to get some professional help? It’s ok to reach out. Honestly I’m glad you’re telling me all this.”
Anger flashed through her face. “The only reason I can’t immediately prove it to you is because my power is weaker in a developed realm. The rules are already set here and I have to break them. I know how to show you.” She pushed past Andrew into the kitchen and withdrew a knife from the knife block. Her arm was raised when Andrew screamed and slammed into her.
“NO! You’re not ok, Penelope. Let me help you. LET ME HELP YOU.”
He wrestled the knife out of her hands. She was screaming now, hitting him and scrambling to get her hands on another weapon. He pushed her to the cold kitchen tiles, resting all of his body weight on her slender frame. Her hands beat on his back and her cries pierced his ears. Using his right hand he reached down into his back pocket and dialed 911.
“Yes, this is an emergency. Hi, I need you to get here as soon as possible, my girlfriend is having an episode and is trying to hurt herself. Please, I need you to hurry, she is extremely unstable and she needs to get to a hospital. Yes, here’s my address. Across from the 24 hour grocery store. Yes, thank you.” He threw his phone onto the ground and looked down at Penelope. She had stopped struggling and was staring blankly into the distance. Cautiously, Andrew pushed himself off her to pick her up and carry her to the couch. “It’s ok. Everything will be ok.”
The ambulance arrived shortly afterward accompanied with two police vehicles. The flashing lights signaled a blur for Andrew through the following events. Penelope didn’t protest as the paramedics wheeled her into the back of the ambulance. She only stared directly at Andrew with hatred in her eyes.
A sheriff approached Andrew. “We need to ask you a few questions. What led to her having a psychotic break? Was she showing any clear signs of distress?”
Andrew clenched his fists. The screams were definitely heard over the call, and that made him look extremely bad. “She’s been acting really strange the past few days. She sleepwalks and won’t wake up no matter how hard I try, to the point where I called the ambulance one time. This morning she was commenting about how things aren’t what they seem, or something like that. The main thing was that she wrote a letter about how none of this is real and we’re all in a dream. She brought it up to me tonight and when I told her that was crazy, she tried to hurt herself to prove it.”
The sheriff nodded and scribbled something down on his notepad. “Do you have that letter?”
“Yes, actually. Allow me to go grab it.” He ran inside his apartment to fetch the crumpled paper on the bedroom floor. He rounded the foot of the bed. It wasn’t there. His brow broke into a cold sweat. I know I threw it around here. He grabbed clothes and threw them around, shoved items off the dresser, tore the blankets off the bed. Nothing. It was simply gone.
His heart pounding out of his chest, he walked back to the sheriff. “I am so sorry, I seem to have misplaced it. She might’ve thrown it out without me knowing.” Which was a lie.
The sheriff’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t comment. “Screams were heard over the call, including shouts of ‘let me go’. Could you please explain that to me?”
“She was trying to hurt herself with a knife and I knocked it out of her hand. I was laying on top of her when I made the call so she wouldn’t try to do anything worse.”
More scratching on the notepad. “Miss Penelope has not indicated that she has been abused, but we will continue to question her about her home life. In the meantime, she’s being submitted to the hospital to stay overnight until we have more details. Do you know of any family of hers we can contact? She was not responsive to the question.”
Andrew shook his head. “No, as far as I know she hasn’t contacted her family for years. I’m her only emergency contact.”
“I’ll put you down as primary contact, then. That’s all for tonight. We will continue our investigation with her and if necessary, the hospital will contact you in the morning to discuss your plan of action. Good night Mr. Heiss.”
The sheriff walked back toward his car, glints of red and blue reflecting off everyone’s faces. Andrew stood there until they left, and then there was nothing but him and the darkness.
The ringing of his phone pierced through the heavy silence of the night. Andrew jolted awake, slick with sweat once more from another nightmare. No-faced Penelope was back, and this time she was in his mirror.
The phone went quiet, and then began ringing again. Andrew rolled over and squinted at the light emanating from the screen. It was a number he didn’t recognize, but no one called him at 5 in the morning. He answered. “Hello?”
“Mr. Heiss. This is Strawberry Fields hospital. We were performing our night checks on our patients and we found Penelope to be missing from her room. We do not understand how this has happened, other than the possibility that perhaps you have helped her escape. Is she with you now?”
“What? No, she’s not. How could she have escaped? Are you not a huge hospital?”
“We are. Everyone is on full alert and we are trying to figure out what happened. The only other explanation is that a staff member may have assisted her in getting out. Since she is regarded as being a danger to herself, we have police searching for her as we speak. We ask that you attempt to contact her and find out her whereabouts. If you do, please call emergency services as soon as possible. We will call you back when we have more details.”
“Wait!” Andrew shouted, but the hospital had already hung up. He sank back into the bed and pulled the covers over himself. The shadows were growing long and it was so dark in the apartment it appeared that they were dancing in the corners. He scampered out of bed and turned on the light. The shadows retreated, and he let out the breath he was holding. Until he heard a resounding thump in the bathroom.
No, no. He could not handle this. Creaks came from the bathroom, as if someone was walking. His heartbeat was going so wild he thought he was going to have a heart attack. He leapt back into his bed with the lights still on and pulled the covers over himself. Eventually, the noises ceased.
He knew he would have to go in there. If not just to prove that nothing was there, to prove he still had some semblance of mahood left within him. At this point he was acting pitiful. He kicked the blankets back off, and marched out of the bedroom. Penelope was crazy, nothing she said was true, and the apartment was locked. Andrew assured himself he was being completely irrational.
The bathroom was a black hole in the apartment. It seemed blacker than usual, like no light could escape it. Mustering all of his courage, Andrew stepped into the bathroom. He forced himself to look at the mirror. There he was, barely noticeable in the tiniest captures of light. Another sigh of relief. He flicked on the light switch.
He screamed, fell backward onto his bottom, and screamed harder. His hands tore at the wall behind him. Penelope was in the mirror, smiling down at him. It seemed like she was having trouble arranging her face. Her eyes kept moving in unsynchronized movements, and her smile looked like it was molded from playdough.
“I…told you…I’d show you! All dreams!” She giggled, and it was a wet laugh.
Andrew tore out of there. He was wearing only his boxers as he ripped through his door and ran as fast as his legs would allow through the crisp night air. The sun was coming up soon, and he only had to run until it did. He would find the solace of the light eventually.
Yet until then, darkness surrounded him. It swallowed him up and found him at every turn, and in the obsidian realms of unseen corners, Penelope followed him.
If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “Dream Errors” psychological horror by Jay Charles.
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