The gravel crunched beneath the car’s tyres as Steve Wilder pulled into the Motel carpark. When he’d checked-in after breakfast the motel had been virtually deserted, now almost every room and park was occupied. He sighed with relief as he switched off the ignition and headlights. It had been another long day. He could hardly wait to lay on the bed and watch TV. Before he could do that though he had to get inside, which seemed not insignificant to his weary body.
He wound the window up and climbed out of the car. He took a step toward his room, stopped and with a shake of his head returned to the car. From the boot he removed his toolbox and power drill, carrying them into the room. They were worth more than he could afford to lose.
He had a long, hot shower which washed the sweat and fatigue from his tired muscles. He was drying himself off when his mobile began playing the annoying ‘Let it Go’. His nine year old daughter, Lucy, had chosen it as her ringtone. The thought of talking to her energised him. He sat on the bed and smiled as he answered.
“Hey butterfly, how are you?”
“Hi Dad, I’m good,” came her cheerful voice before it took on a serious tone, “I have to go to bed soon; Mum said I can’t talk long.”
“Well, I’m glad you called. How was your day? Drama-Thursday isn’t it?” Steve said, remembering his daughter’s favourite school day.
“Yeah it was. Today we learned all about how a narrator can add to a story, and we each got a turn practising a narrator-voice. I did my narration as a mean old granny. Do you want to hear it?”
“Sure, I’d love to,” Steve chuckled.
“What do you want?” Lucy said in her warbling elderly voice. “I’m older than you, don’t you try telling me it’s bed time,” Lucy said. No doubt looking at her mum as she said it.
“Woah! That’s scary. Can you put Lucy back on the phone now, angry granny?” Steve said, “I’d rather talk to her.”
Lucy dissolved into laughter.
“That was very good,” Steve said.
“Thanks, Dad. Are we still going to spend time together on Saturday?”
“You bet, butterfly, I’m really looking forward to it.”
“Me too.” Lucy’s voice became muffled and Steve became the third-party in the conversation. “Mum says I have to go to bed now. She wants to talk to you,” Lucy whined.
“Okay. It is past your bed time, Luce. You sleep well and I’ll see you on Saturday morning,” Steve promised.
“On Saturday, Dad–”
“Whatever it is, butterfly, we can talk about it then. You need to go to bed now. Hand the phone to mum.” Steve insisted. Even though Lucy only stayed overnight with him on weekends Steve was well aware how kids employed every stall-tactic at bed time. Steve got off the bed and held the mobile between his shoulder and chin as he unpacked the suitcase.
“Hi Steve, how are you?” Rachel, his ex-wife asked.
“I’m good, Rachel, and you?”
“Yeah, not bad. Lucy’s always a bit hyper after drama class; her bedtime can’t come quick enough. At least she loves it. And then I’ve been busy with the school fete that’s coming up…” Steve was only half-listening. He’d listen once she’d got past all of the pro-forma conversation. There were two kinds of people in the world: some who processed information by thinking and others by talking. Where he was a thinker, Rachel was definitely a talker. Steve frowned and emptied his shaving bag onto the bed, sweeping it to separate the contents.
“Oh no…” he said, unintentionally interrupting Rachel.
“Ah,” He regretted opening his mouth. “I just realised I left my sleeping medication at home.”
“You still having those weird dreams?”
“Nah, not every night.” Most nights without the medication, but no need to admit it.
“Did you ever go back to that guy?” Rachel asked. While she said it conversationally, Steve heard it as a challenge. By ‘that guy’, Rachel meant the shrink.
“He had no idea, he just wouldn’t admit it.” After the first session, the shrink’s bill was scarier than the dreams, so he’d never been back.
“Well maybe it would take more than one session to understand it?”
“No. He theorised my dreams were playing out aspects of my personality, fantasies or fears. That doesn’t make any sense. Why do I dream about people I’ve never met? Older women, young children? I can assure you there’s no part of my personality that’s a woman. The dreams are complete warped nonsense, not some deep personal insight.”
“It isn’t normal–“
“Look, I don’t really like talking about it, Rachel.” That was true. He lied when people asked if he dreamed; a lie was easier than the truth. He knew Rachel was standing there with the pressure building. They were still on good terms even though their relationship hadn’t survived the early years. Mostly. Sometimes Rachel pushed as though she still had the influence of a wife. They’d had something special, and in Lucy made someone priceless. No matter how hard life got Lucy was a bright ray of sunshine in his life. Rachel was now just his ex. “I don’t want to be rude but I’ve got to get up early. Was there something you wanted in particular?”
“I was just going to ask what time you’ll be picking up Lucy on Saturday. I’m going out with the girls.”
Steve calculated the travel time back to the city in his head. “I’ll be there by ten at the latest, okay?”
“Okay, see you then. I hope you sleep well.”
“Thanks. Have a great remainder of the week,” Steve said and hung up.
He set the alarm for 6:30am and snuggled under the quilt. He switched on Jeopardy for 20 minutes before turning to something more doze-worthy. It was a tough call: do you stay up late so you crash hard or go to bed early because sleep might be sporadic? He hadn’t worked out the best solution yet, hence the sleeping medication. Pop a couple of tablets and wake up with the alarm. Well, that wasn’t going to be the case tonight. He closed his eyes and listened to the TV; shortly after he was vaguely aware he was no longer hearing it…
It started as it always did, he envisioned himself floating in a large body of water. This was the first stage of his dream state, and he came here every time he slept. His subconsciousness knew this place well. Visibility was three metres; beyond that, darkness. He knew he was alone, the only soul in the huge lake without edges. The warm water lapped gently against him in a lulling motion. He rolled onto his stomach, his head beneath the water. He didn’t have to breathe. He felt perfectly safe. He duck-dived down so that the water would envelop him like a thick blanket. Swimming without any sense of fatigue he descended with effortless breaststroke. The bottom of the lake was a gentle sandy slope with a rock-chimney at the centre. To say there was a light in the chimney would be overstating it; there was a greyness, where all else was black.
He reached the hole and hesitated as his hands grasped the rocky sides. To go down was to enter the second stage of his dreams. This was where the dreams got weird. While sometimes they were good dreams at other times they became nightmares. He hung back for only a few seconds. His subconscious was in control and it was more of a risk-taker than his waking mind.
The water in the tunnels was normally calm. Tonight Steve felt a current begin to pull at him. He went with the current, enjoying the speed without having to swim. It became less fun as the speed kept increasing and he began to bump against the walls. His efforts to slow down were as successful as a leaf slowing in a flooded river. He grabbed at several chimneys but was swept past them. His heart began to race and he was suddenly aware of fatigue starting to creep up on him. That was new. He’d never experienced the slightest tiredness before, and now he felt as though he was partway through an endurance race. What if he suddenly needed to breathe as well?
With an almost deafening whoosh Steve was sucked up a chimney into what felt like a washing machine of turbulence. The feeling of tiredness was compounding quickly and he swam for the surface, eager to enter the next phase of the dream state. He broke to the surface and everything changed.
He wasn’t underwater any more, or even wet. It was dark and Steve felt the rising panic of claustrophobia. He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths to lower the panic level. He could hear whimpers and rapid breathing nearby.
“Who’s there?” the scared voice of a child whispered. Steve couldn’t always interact with others in his dreams but sometimes he could. He found the interactive ones more interesting.
“It’s OK. I’m friendly,” Steve said, hoping that whoever he was speaking to was also friendly. “My name’s Steve, what’s yours?”
“How old are you, Christopher?”
“I’m reaching out just to see where we are,” Steve warned him. There was solid wood to his left and right, and at his back.
“Are we in a wardrobe?” Steve asked as he reached upwards. He felt the heavy cloth of a jacket, and his touch made the clothes hanger squeak against the railing.
“Yes, but we have to stay silent,” Chris pleaded in a tone that made it imperative.
“What danger is out there?”
“The monster,” Chris whispered, his voice shaking with emotion and fear. Steve’s dark sense of humour made him smile. He thought of telling Chris that the monsters were normally in the wardrobe, not outside of it. He kept that piece of parenting advice to himself. Steve sat there for a few minutes listening for any noises. There was nothing. Certainly no nefarious sounds of a monster. And Steve wasn’t staying in the confined wardrobe.
“Well, I’m getting cramped in here,” Steve said. “I’m going to get out and have a little look.”
“No, don’t!” Two little hands grasped at Steve’s arm from the darkness. Steve thought about shrink’s words. Was this his personality trying to force him to address the claustrophobia? Or was it a manifestation of his childhood? Both were possible. Surely everyone had fears of things that went bump in the night at some stage. But that was as a child, Steve was a man now. He gently pulled Chris’ hands off.
“I’ll go and see if the coast is clear. If there’s a monster, I’ll scare it away,” Steve promised.
“Don’t, he’ll get you.”
Steve pushed open the door a crack and waited for his eyes to adjust. Steve could hear the low-drone of a TV and saw the changing colours on the wall opposite. Chris shied away from the light, trying to make himself even smaller in a corner of the wardrobe. Steve looked at Chris. His little fists were balled up and he was biting his lower lip in worry. His brown eyes were begging Steve not to go out, not to make noise. A young boy shouldn’t have to be so scared.
With a breath of relief Steve rose up out of the wardrobe. The room was a virtual duplicate of his motel room, except the bathroom was on the opposite wall. The shrink had explained why his dreams – as weird as they could be – always had elements of reality, “anchoring” it was called. While the dreaming mind was allowed a lot of creative latitude and coloured in missing details, there always had to be an anchoring to the truth or the subconscious would reject the dream. So the shrink knew some stuff, but even he had admitted that dream psychology was not a verifiable science.
Steve pushed the thoughts from his head and looked around. Two suitcases stood by the door alongside a pair of muddy boots. The coffee table had been dragged closer to the bed and was covered by an empty pizza box and beer bottles. Hanging off the bed post was a tartan shirt. The man to whom it belonged was lying on the double bed in jeans and a singlet, snoring softly. On the other side of the bed there was a vacant fold-out bed, with a child-sized pillow. Steve tip-toed to the bathroom and confirmed it was empty before returning to the wardrobe.
“It’s just me,” Steve whispered as he opened it so they could see each other. “There’s no monster here, Christopher. If it was here, it’s gone now. The coast is clear. You can go back to bed.”
Chris shook his head, unconvinced. “It might be gone, but it can just appear suddenly. It’s safer if I stay here.”
“Is that your Dad on the bed?” Steve asked.
Chris’ face tightened and he nodded. “Did he seem OK?”
“Yes, he’s asleep. The monster didn’t get him either. The monster would be scared of grown-ups. I bet if you slept near your Dad, the monster won’t bother you.”
Chris didn’t reply.
“You can’t be very comfortable in there. Wouldn’t you rather be able to lie down,” Steve reasoned.
“I don’t want to come out,” Chris said, “please don’t make me come out.”
Steve frowned. “The bed would be better–“
It happened suddenly. Steve heard a creak behind him and Chris’ eyes had suddenly gone wide, a look of terror crossing his face. Steve thought Chris had been about to cry out but he’d never know. Steve woke up in shock, the dream over.
Steve looked at clock with bleary eyes: 2am. He thought about the small notebook on the bedside table where he recorded his dreams. He’d do it in the morning, if he remembered. The alarm would go off in three short hours. He needed more sleep. He closed his eyes and pictured himself floating…
At 5am the rude alarm went off. Whoever invented the alarm was a cruel and sadistic person, Steve thought. He’d never been a morning person. The only good thing about waking up in the morning is you’re alive. Dawn was already shining through the window and making promises of good weather. He’d only had the one dream and he still remembered the key points, even if the detail was diluted. He shaved quickly, showered and then wrote in his dream journal whilst eating the complimentary breakfast cereal. He passed on the cheap coffee; he’d buy some on the road.
Steve planned to be in town another night but would leave late this afternoon, work permitting. He was on good terms with the operators of the motel and they were flexible. If he left today he could surprise Lucy by taking her out for breakfast on Saturday.
The morning freshness welcomed him as he opened the door. He carried his belongings out to the car and put them in the boot before gently shutting it. Most of the guests – all the smart people – were still snug in bed. He didn’t want to disturb them unnecessarily. Steve crossed the carpark on foot to go to the front office and pay his bill.
Another guest was getting ready to leave, his car idling out the front of his open room door. He was loading suitcases into the back seat. The guy had on a tartan shirt. Oh yes, Steve thought, I forgot to add that to my journal entry. Steve said ‘good morning’ as he passed, and got a grunt and a slight nod in reply. The man slammed the car door and then called out in a raised voice,
“Christopher, get in the car now if you don’t want to be left behind!”
Steve stopped, stunned. A shiver went down his spine as he turned.
A boy emerged from the room. As he shut the door, Steve saw a black eye and a swollen lip. It was the Christopher from his dream.
“Christopher,” Steve called to the boy. Christopher glanced at Steve. Recognition, then confusion, filled his swollen expression.
“How–” Christopher began.
“Who the hell are you?” the boy’s dad demanded from the driver side of the car. Steve turned his head, righteous anger rising up inside of him. He ran to the car, pulled the man out and used his superior size and strength to pin the man against the car.
“I’m the guy who’s going to stop you from beating your son,” Steve said. He didn’t understand how, but he knew this was the monster.