This is a psychological horror about a man who is having a dream in which he has done something very terrible, but he has no idea what. The entire story is made up of interconnecting dreams, which are scattered around.
May 18, 2022
“We usually have four to six dreams per
night, but the majority of us forget most
of them as soon as we wake up.”
– Amy Adkins, TED Talk: “Why Do We Dream?”
I don’t think I can do this again. I don’t want to fall asleep. The visions, or the nightmares, or memories, or whatever the hell they are, have gotten to me. But so has my lack of sleep. I’ve stayed awake these past several nights, evading sleep, but now it has gotten to the point where — whether I want to or not — I will end up falling asleep.
The dreams, they feel so… so real. Like the terrible thing I did in the dream is also something I did in real life, too. I often wake up with tears in my eyes and a feeling of fear and regret. But what did I do? Why do I feel regret, when I’m not even sure what I’m regretting?
I feel it coming on. I can’t hold out any longer. I feel my mind become foggy and distant, and my head relaxes, sinking deep into the back cushions of my couch. My eyelids fall and shut, despite my fighting against them. Sleep comes quickly, and the dreams follow close behind.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
They slam their fists under the surface, but to no avail.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
A young boy and a woman, though they don’t appear to be of any relation. They’re trapped below me, but I can do nothing about it. I, in my own way, am also trapped: I’m paralyzed with fear.
<What have I done?>
Through all of this, I feel the steady gaze of the Gray Man on me, watching, analyzing.
“Hey kid, you got a name?” I ask the boy. He doesn’t answer. “Alright then, you mind if I just call you ‘Kid’?” He shakes his head. In the hot weather, I can see the beads of sweat forming on his forehead, then running slowly down into his eyebrows.
We reach the pond.
“Okay Kid, here are the rules,” I begin. “You ready?” He nods.
“Okay, no grabbing, no splashing, and absolutely no drowning your opponent. Got it?” He laughs, nodding. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a strange-looking man standing on the other side of the pond. He appears to be looking in our direction.
<Who wears a trench coat in this kind of weather?>
Then the starting gun fires, and we’re swimming.
Walking through a ghost town. Not a ghost town like the ones you see in Western movies, but rather, an urban ghost town, with towering buildings of cement and glass, and wide roads. No sign of life at all. Everything here is gray. The fog, the buildings, the streets. Everything except the sky, which is a deep blackish-blue. I come across a car–also gray–parked on the side of the road, abandoned.
<What happened here?>
There are no seats in the car, no steering wheel. It looks like it has doors, but there are no handles to open them. It’s almost as if the car was placed there as decoration, meant to give the illusion of normalcy. The buildings too, I realize, are only decorations. They have windows, but through their dark tint, you can see it is blocked on the inside by a wall. There are no doors, no way of entering. They are, in effect, simply giant blocks of cement.
The fog, illuminated by the dim street lights which have been placed at intervals, is slightly thick, making it hard to see anything that is more than a couple blocks away. The air is still and tense, giving me the impression that I don’t belong there.
I reach a T intersection in the road. Standing in the middle of the intersection, I look to my left. The road goes for about 300 feet, then stops at a dead end. I look to my right, and I see the same thing.
I turn around, and here, I see something different. Ahead of me is a wide round-about. This road and three others meet it in a “+”. The round-about was made into a park, with four diagonal walkways meeting in the middle in an X. In the middle of the X is a street light, brighter than the others, and next to it is a man, whose appearance is equally fascinating and strange.
Everything about the man is gray, from his clothes, to his… I guess you could call it his “essence.” He feels gray, somehow. He wears a long trench coat that reaches down to his ankles, the pockets of which his hands rest idly, and a fedora, which shadows all of his face except the end of his nose and ears. Yet, even though I can’t see his eyes, I still can feel them on me.
When I reach him in the middle of the park, I can tell that he has been expecting me. Up close, he is very tall, a good couple of feet taller than me. For a long moment, I just stand in front of him as he stares down at me. Then, from his coat pocket, he draws out a cigar, which he puts between his lips. From my own pocket, I pull out a lighter. I use this to light his cigar. He takes a pull from it, then blows the smoke out directly into my face.
I begin to cough as I laugh. A mannequin sits in front of me, staring blankly with large brown eyes. Her lightly tanned skin appears to glow in the harsh white light. Her dark brown hair is held up in an elegant bun.
“You are a very funny girl, Alice,” I tell her, still chuckling. She really is very funny.
<Your turn to eat, dear girl.>
I get up, the legs of the metal chair screeching along the cement floor gently place the fork in her delicate hands, positioning her fingers carefully so as to secure the fork. Once this is done, I guide her arm down, spearing a bite-sized amount of the gray lump of food on her plate, then bring her arm back up to her mouth, dropping the food in here. Then, I set down the fork and placed one hand under her chin, gripping it, and my other hand behind her head, bracing it. I then pull down on her chin to open her mouth, then bring it back up to close it. As she chews, some of the food escapes her mouth, bouncing off of her red dress and onto the floor.
<There you go Alice, just like that. Open, close, open, close.>
Once she has finished her food, I sit back in my seat. “You ate all of the food?” I ask, impressed. “You must be full!”
Just then, a large man in a gray trench coat– our waiter– opens the heavy steel door and walks into the dark room to our small dining table.
“Give us the check, please,” I tell him politely. He leaves to fulfill the request, disappearing into the shadowed doorway. I wrap my arm around Alice, who rests her head on my chest, looking up into my face. I can feel her soft breathing on my neck.
The check is paid, signed, and returned. To the waiter, I say, “Have a good rest of your evening.” He doesn’t respond, so I repeat myself.
“Come on!” Alice says, laughing. I let her drag me by the hand out of the room, into the cold night.
I sit alone in a dark storage room, among a pile of old dusty cardboard boxes and massive water-damaged wooden dresses. But, yet, I am also not alone. From behind me, I feel her arms.
<Alice, my sweet Alice.>
Those gentle, familiar arms wrap around my chest, pulling my body to hers, holding me tight. But I take no comfort in the embrace. I shiver.
Her body is cold as ice.
<I’m sorry, dear Alice. I’m sorry.>
The smoke in my face dissipates, and I am able to see again. Looking at the tall man, I can see he found his little joke to be quite amusing.
<If he thinks it’s funny, why shouldn’t I?>
I laugh. I laugh hard. I laugh until I’m wheezing and bent over, almost kneeling, almost in tears. When I look up, the Gray Man is gone.
Hand on the knob, I hesitate.
<No time for that, they’re coming!>
I’m standing in a room filled with white. There are white walls, white floor tiles, white lights in lamps with white covers. The room itself appears to be decorated in a sort of Baroque fashion.
<Run, goddammit, RUN!>
The lights go out, and I hear footsteps as they approach the room. I finally heed my own advice, and throw open the door. I’m halfway down the hallway before I even hear the door bang against the wall. The footsteps are getting closer.
When I turn the corner, I see it’s a dead end.
I turn back around and I see a door, painted red. With no other choice, I open the door and hide inside. There is a deadbolt on the inside, which I immediately use. I just barely finished locking the door when from the outside, their bodies slam against the door. I can see the door bend under the pressure as they try to push the door in. It won’t hold for long
I look around the room, trying to look for something to defend myself with. Scattered around the room are various cardboard boxes and wooden drawers. So I check the boxes.
I check the drawers.
Behind me, the door blasts into the room, sliding along the floor and kicking up years worth of dust. When the dust cloud settles, I shield my eyes from the bright lights in the hallway. In the doorway stands a small child. He wears a dark blue t-shirt which appears to be about two sizes too small, and some brown cargo shorts. He is soaked, not in water, but in blood. The blood drips from his clothes, pooling around his small bare feet. Behind the boy stands the Gray Man.
The boy’s face is full of anger. He turns his head towards something in the hallway, and suddenly, there is a loud cracking sound. Over their heads. A large white porcelain bathtub floats into the room, slamming onto the floor in front of me. It is filled almost to the top with dirty brown water. The boy looks at me expectantly.
“Please, no,” I beg. “Please, I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” The boy’s face grows darker, more hateful.
“I didn’t know, I didn’t mean to!” Sobs escape my throat. This last part was more to myself than to them. I’m trying to convince myself that it is true. The boy looks at the Gray Man and then whispers to him as he looks up into the dark face under the fedora. After a moment, he looks back at me.
His face has softened. Instead of bitterness, it now holds the expression of sadness, not for himself, but for me. He walks up to me, blood tracing his path as he stops in front of me. He gently brings his hand up, and I flinch. But, then he places the small hand on my cheek, resting it here for a brief moment, then dropping it and turning back to the door to leave. As he and the Gray Man exit the room, I see the boy reach up and grab his companion’s hand.
“Hey kid, you any good at swimming?”
The kid looks up at me.
“Yeah?” he says hesitantly.
“You want to race?” I ask.
“Sure,” he replies.
Alice comes around from behind me. She is pale, and her eyes are ringed with dark circles. Her lips, once a bright red, are now a dark bluish-purple.
“Alice, please forgive me.” She places her hands in mine, holding them gently. Then she leans in, kissing my lips softly. Her lips are cold and have the texture of paper. After a while, she pulls away slightly, and leans her forehead against mine. I feel her tears, like ice water, running down her cheeks and onto my own. After a while, she gets up and leaves the room, and it feels like a piece of me left the room with her, and I know that the piece is her.
I hear the sound of something flutter onto the floor. It’s a small piece of paper, with her handwriting on it:
But I know that I never could, and that I never will.
Alice and I sit down in front of the pond. We don’t say anything to each other. We just sit there, looking out at the water, the reflection of the moonlight off of the water on our faces as we occasionally glancing at each other and give shy smiles. I see a man on the other side of the pond, who appears as a silhouette in the light of the streetlight behind him. I wave to him, but he doesn’t wave back.
A slow song begins to play, seemingly from the air itself. I stand, holding my hand out to Alice. She grabs it, knowing exactly what I want, and together we stand at the water’s edge.
With my eyes, I ask her: “Do you trust me?”
Her eyes tell me yes.
We take one step out onto the water, and it holds our weight. We take another step.
<No turning back.>
I take my free hand and place it on her waist. She puts hers on my shoulder, and slowly, we sway to the music. For a moment, everything else falls away, and it is only us.
Then Alice is gone, and I’m standing alone. I look around me, but she is nowhere to be seen. Then, I look down at my feet, and see the faces of Alice and a little boy screaming soundlessly, banging their fists under the surface as if it were a sheet of glass.
I splash the water on my face and turn off the faucet. I wipe my face off with a towel.
“Did you get a good night’s rest?” asks the emotionless voice of the AI integrated into the house. I don’t answer. Instead, I look into the mirror, staring into my eyes. In the strong light of the bathroom’s fluorescents, I can see the dark rings around my eyes.
“It’s your fault, you know,” my reflection says to me. A sledgehammer hits me full force into the heart. The voice coming from my reflection is my voice, yet, it has a cold edge to it that I have never heard before in my own voice.
<Not my fault, not my fault.>
“You know it’s true.” Another blow, deeper this time.
“Did you get a good night’s rest?”, the AI repeats. My reflection smiles slightly, knowingly. I definitely did not get a good night’s rest.
<I didn’t mean to, not my fault, not me.>
“A man once said that admitting your faults isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength,” says the AI. “You know it’s your fault. Admit it.”
“I didn’t mean to!” My hands clench around the rim of the sink, and I look away from my reflection. I feel the sting in my eyes as tears slowly make their way out, to drip into the sink with a loud plink! I try to convince myself that it is true, that it wasn’t my fault. Yet, there is a presence in the back of my mind coming forward, pushing me closer and closer to the truth, forcing me to admit what I already know.
It is my fault.
…I walk along the street, head down. There are others walking outside as well. They all wear black. The color of mourning. Funeral colors. The trees are stripped of all of their leaves, which lay in piles on the ground, gray and crumbling. They look almost like ashes.
Everyone I pass turns their head to look at me, with an expression on their face which clearly asks: “Why did you do it?”
I walk faster.
<All my fault.>
I reach a convenience store, and I rush inside, heading straight for the bathroom. The lights are out, and all of the shelves are completely empty. Even in the dark, I can feel the eyes of the customers and workers on me, demanding that I tell them why.
I feel sick.
<My fault, all my fault.>
I slam the bathroom door open, and stumble over to the toilet. Unable to hold it in any longer, I vomit into the bowl. When I’m done, I flush and go to the sink. I almost can’t see where I’m going, as the only light source are the dim red lights overhead. An oval mirror framed in gold hangs over the faucet, unscratched and unstained.
<Don’t look, don’t look.>
I turn on the faucet, cup my hands underneath and splash my mouth and cheeks.
<Don’t do it, don’t look>
But I do. I look.
The reflection staring back grins. “It’s your fault.” It’s meant to be a question.
“All of it?”
“Yes.” A sob escapes from my lips, uncontrollable. “Yes, all of it.”
The reflection laughs with satisfaction, and there is a strange humming sound. A knife-like shard snaps off of the mirror, into the sink. I glance at it, then back up at the mirror.
“You know what to do,” he says. I nod, swallowing the lump in my throat.
I grab the piece of the mirror and look at it for a moment. In its reflection, I see the people from inside the store staring intently at me. Among them, I see the Gray Man. He gives me a small nod.
Bracing myself, I bring the mirror piece up to my throat.
Kaleb Wright (he/him)
I have been fascinated by dreams for a very long time now. This work was originally meant to be simply a horror short story, just a fun read without the darker topics, but it wasn’t working. Even when I made the draft of this version, I had no intention of it being a psychological horror. I had written the final chapter very early on, with the intention of making a story of a series of unrelated dreams. The Gray Man is actually sort of based on an unnamed character from a Playstation 1 game made exclusively in Japan (it never made it to the US) called LSD Dream Emulator. The character was considered mysterious and even scary. This is why I chose this character for this story.