Something drips in Ali’s mouth and she reflex-swallows before she realises she is awake.
Opening her eyes is an effort. The lashes are gummed together; it takes a minute of frantic blinking before they crack apart and let daylight in.
Above her, an animal like a bat crossed with an elephant beetle hangs from a cobwebbed ceiling fan by its hooked hindclaws. Its grey eyes stare emptily. Its stunted wings stir involuntarily at its side. Its mouth, full of chipped yellow fangs, is wide open. Its throat spasms with a faint retching noise. A bubble of viscous grey fluid forms and oozes viscously past the teeth. The droplet stretches down, aimed directly at Ali’s mouth.
“Auughh.” Ali moans in revulsion and rolls to her side. She feels it splash on her scalp and the back of her neck. She gags. A slimy sensation coats the inside of her throat and her stomach heaves. She continues the roll, scrambles to stand with arms and legs reluctant to obey.
The creature wobbles like a bumped pendulum. It cocks its neck and peers at Ali with a sightless glare. Its slime-mouth opens and closes, heedless of the damage its wild, uneven teeth does to its lips and cheeks. A stub of tongue licks away drips of slime and blood.
It speaks with a voice like a hissing campfire: “How the hell are you awake?”
Her foot lashes out, a primal terror response while rational thought is frozen to the spot. The creature’s frame crumples around her heel, folding and cracking like pretzel sticks. Its grip on the ceiling slips and it crashes to the wet cement in a broken heap.
Ali wills herself to vomit again. Her stomach obliges. Grey mucus splashes the creature. Dead or dying, it makes no complaint.
When nothing more will come, she wipes her sleeve across her mouth. She remembers this jacket; lime green, embroidered with swirls of cherry and gold thread. It’s stained, damp and patches of mould have colonised its wrists and forearms.
The last time Ali wore the jacket was – when? She can’t place the moment. It feels important.
Her eyes adjust, responding to new stimulus. Movement. All around her, figures are stirring.
The room is scattered with human bodies. Their bright clothes are dull with fungus and dried sweat. Each lies on their back, with another creature suspended above their open mouth. The creatures hang from tendrils; the ceiling is engulfed in a writhing purple mass like estuarine roots crossed with animal bones.
The hanging creatures shiver, agitated.
“Where am I?” she asks. But she knows the answer. Her fogged thoughts are beginning to clear.
Harry and Leo’s anniversary party. Loud reggae. A cocktail bar. Dancing and karaoke. Dozens of her closest friends. Her husband. She came here with Luke.
She kneels beside the nearest body, careful not to touch its drooling overseer.
“Leo? Leo, wake up.” Leo Benoz has been her friend since high school. She knows every line on his face, but this sack of drawn skin and over-stretched jaws is nearly unrecognisable. “Come on, Bozo, get up now.”
She shakes him, pinches his nose, pokes a rib. She slaps his face – soft, then hard, and then withdraws her stinging hand. Leo doesn’t make a sound.
Ali sobs. She rolls back on her haunches and looks away from her friend.
She looks Leo’s captor in the eye and sees recognition in that shrunken raisin-orb. It’s watching her.
Ali flinches. Then, suddenly furiously, she snatches at the creature. It squawks. Wide-eyed and flapping, it pulls away from her and stumbles to the floor.
It gathers itself, standing with an odd, wounded dignity, and sighs. “Oh, I don’t know how the hell you’re awake. You’re a problem.”
She balls her fists. “If you try anything,” she warns, “I’ll do the same to you as I did to him.”
The creature eyes the crumpled bundle on the floor. “Was he your Phyter? The guy was a prize arse. I’d prefer to live, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Then start talking. What have you done to us?”
With an incongruous shrug, the beetle-bat gestures to various corners of the room, where the other party guests lie with wide mouths beneath its slow-regurgitating kin. “Nothing you didn’t agree to.”
Ali’s stomach wants to cramp again. “I didn’t agree to this.”
“Sure you did. You all did, once you realised the alternative was worse.” He nudges Leo’s comatose body with its serrated-claw foot appendage. “Me and Leonardo here have become very close over the time we’ve shared a foxhole. Not that he remembers it.”
“His name is Leo.”
“In his heart of hearts, he thinks of himself as a Leonardo. Maybe you’re not as close to him as you think?” The creature gives another do-what-you-want-with-that-info shrug.
Ali snarled in response. “What’s this crap about foxholes? Is this some kind of reverse Stockholm Syndrome?”
“This isn’t a prison, Alison Trent. We aren’t your kidnappers or your warders.”
“What are you then?”
“We’re your life support.” The creature spreads its wings in an expansive gesture. “That’s the deal. We keep you alive, while you train and get strong enough.”
“Strong enough for what?”
“To fight nightmares,” says a new voice. Ali whirls. Standing in the cobwebbed suburban household doorway is an old man wearing torn jeans and a dirty lab coat. His lower face is obscured by a beetle-bat wrapping his neck like a scarf.
“I’m Professor Caspian Gale. Alison, you’re the first sleeper to wake in nineteen months.”
“You make that sound bad.”
Gale nods. “The timing is terrible. We needed another six months to prepare.”
A sound like a lion getting dental work echoes in the distance.
“What was that?”
“We call it the Stalker. You’ve met it before. In your dreams.”
Ali frowns. “I remember dreaming.”
The beetle-bat on his shoulder shivers. Gale pats it reassuringly.
“You dreamed you survived. You dreamed you fought. Hold onto that.”
“Because now it knows you’re awake.”
This story is an immediate sequel to Any Dream Will Do, which in turn was a sequel to Works Like a Dream . This sequence of dreamers-fighting-monsters stories is pushing up hard against my rule of making these Friday flash stories stand alone, I know.
Then again, it’s a self-imposed rule, so I can break it if sufficiently motivated. In this case, my wife demanded more stories about dream-revolutionary Francesca Kincaid, so you can reasonably expect to see her pop up again in the near future.
I’m still on holiday, somewhere in Europe, so this story has been pre-programmed.