The Nightmare Project
By Stacey Turner
Liz took off her glasses and put them in the case. She set it on the nightstand on top of her book. She checked to be sure that her notebook and pen were beside the bed, just in case tonight was the night. Satisfied that she was prepared and had done all she could, she switched off the lamp and snuggled down into the pillows. She let out a deep breath and tried to relax. Focusing on relaxing seemed to make relaxing that much harder. Instead, she let her mind wander. Tonight was the last night of the project and she was feeling the pressure. It had to be tonight. Something had to happen tonight. But of course, it couldn’t happen if she didn’t go to sleep. She sighed and flopped onto her back in frustration.
It should have been simple. When Professor Glass had told them about the semester projects for their psychology class it had seemed like a brilliant idea. How hard could it be to induce a nightmare, really? People had them all the time. She’d read an article that said the urban legend about eating candy before bedtime was actually true. And so she’d dreamed up “The Nightmare Project”. She’d try different substances, nothing illegal of course, for several nights and record her nightmares. The problem was that no matter what she tried: candy, soda, chocolate, ice cream, chicken, nothing had worked. Not one nightmare. A few random and confusing dreams, but no fear filled fantasies to speak of. She’d gone to bed each night hoping to wake up absolutely terrified. She wanted to be paralyzed with disorientation and fear; heart pounding, cold sweat producing, mind numbing, icy terror. She’d planned to write down all the details, as soon as she was able, in the notebook she’d set beside the bed. But each morning she’d only awoken disappointed by the fact that she’d slept through the night.
The project was due tomorrow. Her experiment was a total failure. She supposed that she could argue that it proved that nightmares came from mental stressors as opposed to physical prompts, but she’d really wanted to prove that nightmares weren’t necessarily psychological in aspect. That something very real and physical could produce them. It looked like that wasn’t going to happen unless tonight’s sleep delivered the desired reaction. Oh well, Liz thought as she drifted off, at least I’m not a psych major.
She bolted upright in bed, chest pounding, disoriented and screaming. It took Liz a full minute to realize that she was in her own bed, in her own room, safe. She stopped screaming, flipped on the light and grabbed her notebook. SUCCESS! She wrote in big capital letters on the top of the page. Her pen flew fast and furious as she scribbled down the details of the dream that was rapidly drifting away from her conscious mind, like fog from the sun. She chewed on the end of her pen as she struggled to recall the figure that had been chasing her down the long underground tunnel she’d been running through. She couldn’t recall many details, but the emotion stayed with her. That eerie feeling of being watched, stalked through long deserted passageways, lingered. She put the notebook and pen down and wrapped her arms around herself. She shivered and glanced around the room. Everything was ordinary and familiar. She settled down into the covers once more, but decided to leave the light on, just for a little while.
The next morning she hurried in to psych class and took her seat. Each student would have a chance to go up and discuss their project and the data collected with Professor Glass before writing up their final conclusions. Liz was excited that she finally had some results after six nights of nothing. She couldn’t wait for her turn. She watched as other students went up to his desk and laid out their papers, talking earnestly and gesturing with their hands. Most left his desk with pleased grins, but a few were scowling and unhappy. Liz knew she’d fit into the former category.
“Hello Liz,” Professor Glass said as she came up to his desk. “Remind me what your project was?”
“I wanted to induce nightmares, to prove that they could be scientifically produced, not just a figment of your subconscious mind.”
“Ah,” the professor smiled. “The Nightmare Project.”
“Yes,” Liz answered. “And I was beginning to think it was going to be a failure, but then last night I finally had some success. I ate cheese before bed and I had a nightmare.”
Professor Glass shook his head and chuckled. “Cheese?”
“Um. Yeah, it was a suggestion from one of my mother’s friends. Apparently it’s an old wives’ tale her mother used to tell her.”
“I see. But the problem is that you only got the desired result once.”
“But I only needed it once.” Liz said.
“No, you need to be able to reproduce your results at least a second time. Otherwise it may just be coincidence that you had the nightmare. Or it could have been the very real stress of having to report on your progress today. There are very good studies that show stress can bring on nightmares.”
“But…” Liz began.
“No buts. I’ll extend your deadline one more day. Repeat your experiment tonight and see what happens.”
Liz could tell by the look on his face that her conference was over. She gathered up her notebooks and research materials and returned to her seat. She supposed she’d joined the scowling group after all.
Liz took the last bite of cheese and set the plate on the table. One more time, she checked to be sure everything was in place, in case of a nightmare. She desperately hoped that one would be forthcoming. She snapped off the light and snuggled in to the pillows. She let out a big sigh and relaxed. And this time, she drifted off easily.
Liz awoke deep in the night, paralyzed. Her heart was pounding in her chest like bongos in a tribal band. Icy shivers marched up and down her spine. This was no leftover terror from a dream, this was the instant fear you felt, knowing that something had awakened you, but not knowing what. She gripped the covers tightly and let her eyes roam frantically around the room. She was afraid to breathe. The intuitive feeling that someone else was in the room was overwhelming. Her body tensed, her brain already sending flight or fight adrenaline into every nerve ending. Liz screamed as the light snapped on.
“Shhh! Do you want to wake the whole dorm?” a voice whispered harshly in her ear as a hand clamped firmly over her mouth.
Liz started to nod her head, thinking Yes. Yes, that is exactly what I want to do. She stopped and looked at the man leaning over her. At least, she thought he was a man. He looked like a man, except for the two huge feathered wings protruding from his back. Oh boy, she had to be dreaming. Seriously, she told herself sternly, there is not a man with wings in your dorm room right now. This is a dream and you need to wake up. And you need to never eat cheese before bed again, she added as an afterthought.
“Now, if I take my hand off your mouth, will you be quiet?” the man thing asked.
Liz nodded her head. Why not? She thought. No sense in not participating a little before I wake up.
The man took his hand from her mouth and stood up as Liz straightened herself into a sitting position. From this angle she was able to get a better view of him. He was huge. Easily topping 6’3” and built like a linebacker. He was also gorgeous. His blonde hair fell in softly curling waves around his face and he had the most brilliant blue eyes she’d ever seen. They were filled with mischievous light.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I’m your worst nightmare” he answered. Then he leaned over and pinched her, hard, on the arm.
Liz jumped and let out a squeak.
“What the hell?!” she yelled.
“I just wanted you to realize that you are awake. It seemed the fastest course.”
She stared at him open-mouthed as his words sunk in. She was awake? Crap. And wait, could he read her mind?
“Yes. And yes.”
Liz blushed to the roots of her hair.
“Don’t sweat it kiddo, this form is meant to be pleasing. It’s the whole angel thing.” He sat on the bed across from her.
“Did you just say angel?” Liz whispered.
“I did. My name’s Bertolimus Arturo De’Mal. Angel number 607. Nightmare Guardian, at your service.”
“Berto limus what?”
The angel looked peevish. “Bert will do.”
Liz opened her mouth and then shut it again. Opened it. Shut it. Finally, she spoke.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t you be wearing white?” She’d noted his grey uniform pants and shirt during her earlier perusal. He looked more like a janitor than an angel, not counting his amazing good looks.
“For real?” Bert shook his head. “I cannot believe you just said that. And here I was presuming you were intelligent. How practical do you think a white robe would be really? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I know this uniform is a tad boring, but it is serviceable. Besides, I can change in an instant.”
The next thing Liz knew, the Grim Reaper, complete with scythe of course, stood in front of her. The wings were gone, covered by a heavy black cloak. If the figure hadn’t had Bert’s handsome face, she would have screamed again.
“Holy hell,” she breathed.
“Now that’s an oxymoron.” Bert laughed. He changed back to the uniform.
Liz was quiet for a minute, simply staring at him.
“Okay, sweetie, I know this is hard for your poor little human brain to take in, but try to keep up. I am an angel. My name is Bert and I am the Nightmare Guardian. You with me so far?”
Liz realized that his condescending tone really detracted from his appeal.
“Angel. Bert. Nightmare Guardian. Patronizing jerk. Got it.” Liz answered. “To what do I owe the dubious pleasure of your visit?”
Bert chuckled. “Well, well, the kitten has claws. And I thought this might be boring. Here’s the deal sister, you have to quit trying to give yourself nightmares. That’s my job and it serves a purpose. I’m not just playing around here.”
“Neither am I,” Liz insisted. “It’s for a grade.”
“No.” Bert sighed. “Nightmares serve a purpose for humans. I decide who gets a nightmare and who doesn’t and when they get them. Not you. Not food. Not happening.” He was beginning to appear slightly exasperated.
“Really?” Liz questioned. “What purpose?”
“They serve as warnings, so you humans don’t run off and do something stupid. They serve as reminders of past horrors, so that you aren’t doomed to repeat the same mistakes. And some, well, I just get bored.” He grinned.
“So you’re saying that you decide who gets a nightmare and what nightmare and why, every single night? Who made you the boss?”
“Duh. The Boss did.” Bert pointed a finger at the ceiling. “And I’m doing just fine thanks; I don’t need any distraction from you. I don’t need you convincing people that they can just go having nightmares willy-nilly anytime they want. Like most things in your mediocre existences, nightmares have meaning.”
“So how come I had one last night?”
“Because I let you.” Bert answered.
“It wasn’t the cheese?” Liz asked.
“No. It wasn’t the cheese.” He rolled his eyes. “I just felt sorry for you. I was also warning you not to wander off alone after dark. Did you get that?” He looked hopeful.
“Um. Sure.” Liz answered. “So I’m not getting one tonight?”
“I didn’t say that.” Bert grinned. The mischief she’d glimpsed in his eyes earlier took a darker turn. “I want you to remember not to meddle.”
In an instant, Bert had changed again. This time his skin seemed to crackle and peel, sloughing off in big disgusting patches that dropped to the floor. Underneath the blistering skin was a roughened red hide. Two horns sprouted from the top of his head and his blue eyes dilated until there was only black. His shiny white teeth turned into ugly yellow fangs and a glistening strand of saliva formed in the corner of his mouth. The stench of sulfur filled the room and he began to laugh. The sound sent shudders through Liz as she sat, terrified. She pressed herself as far back into the headboard as she could and pulled the covers up to her chin. He took one menacing step towards her and she began to scream.
She woke up screaming, drenched in icy sweat, trembling in fear. She lay perfectly immobile as her eyes searched the room frantically. Even when she realized that she was alone, she couldn’t bring herself to move. She lay there until the light of dawn began to creep stealthily across the sky. Only then did she relax, but still she didn’t close her eyes.
At seven o’clock, her roommate returned to their room. She’d opted to spend the night with a friend, in case Liz did wake up screaming. She tiptoed in, but when she realized Liz was awake, she wrinkled her nose and asked,
“What’s that smell?”
Liz realized that the scent of sulfur lingered. She got up, hastily dressed and headed to class. She took her normal seat and pulled out her materials. Professor Glass looked up and caught her eye. He motioned her down to his desk.
“So? Did your result repeat itself? Does cheese cause nightmares?” he asked.
Liz was quiet for a moment. “No.” she answered at last. “Cheese does not cause nightmares.”
About the Author:
Stacey Turner lives way out in the country in West Central Illinois with her husband, seven cats and one very old dog. She is the mother of three biological children (whom she assumes are going to one day leave the nest) and several assorted others that have “adopted” her along the way. She will soon be a grandmother.
She is the Editor for Angelic Knight Press, a freelance editor and proofreader, writes a blog about her absolutely ridiculous family and writes fiction. You can find her on the web at:
http://www.whatpassesforsaneonacrazyday.blogspot.com, http://www.staceyturner-authorspot.blogspot.com, http://seespotread-spot.blogspot.com/, http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#!/profile.php?id=644270716, http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#!/pages/Stacey-Turner/143875372350931, and http://twitter.com/#!/Spot_Speaks
She also enjoys fishing, haunted houses, Mexican food & margaritas, and the ocean. She hates being interrupted in the middle of writing. She especially hates being asked if she’s working. She is very passionate about Autism research and the rights of people with disabilities.
She does not like scarecrows, creepy dolls, birds (of any sort), snakes, clowns or garden gnomes. She does like comments, new friends, scary movies and good books.