The nightmares finally shocked her back into the waking world at 11:26am, about two hours after the sedative-hypnotics she took to help her sleep wore off and the dreams first began to creep into her subconscious mind. What followed from that point up until the moment she shot up in bed gasping for breath, her body trembling and covered in sweat, were a series of visions and scenarios which started off disturbing and rose in intensity until they were completely unbearable, making her toss and turn in bed, moaning quietly and occasionally muttering a vague, hopeless word of objection. The particular vision that finally woke her started off misleadingly safe: she was in a large, empty room, surrounded by her closest friends and family. At first everything seemed normal enough; in that strange way dreams have she didn’t so much as question her surroundings, nor did she recall any of the things she had experienced in the dream before. All she knew was a sense of security and belonging, and an immense sense of relief. In the real world, her sleeping body relaxed, unquestioning of the reprieve. Unfortunately for her it didn’t last long, and things suddenly took a drastic turn for the worse. Everyone but her suddenly collapsed, their skin paling as the strength and life visibly drained from their bodies. Sam stood in the centre of the circle, surrounded by the crumpled bodies of everyone she had ever cared about.
“Bleed.” The hoarse whisper, like wind rattling the dry leaves of a dying tree, echoed through the room. Sam turned in a circle, searching for its source, but found nothing. She saw now that the room had no walls; the centre where she stood was bathed in a strange greenish tint, but the further you were from the centre the darker it got, to the point where you couldn’t see what lay ahead in the darkness. As she searched for the source of the voice something flickered in her peripheral vision, and after straining her eyes for a moment she realised with sickening terror that there were things in the shadows; the fleeting images of some unidentifiable, nightmarish creatures, darting in and out of the border where the light faded away to dark, there one moment and gone the next. A soft moan of terror involuntarily escaped Sam’s mouth, and in the waking world the same thing happened.
The creatures’ movements began to hasten, their surges towards the light getting bolder and more frequent until Sam no longer had to look for them to see them. Soon the entire ring of surrounding darkness was writhing with flashes of movement and passing body parts. A harsh sound began to fill the air, one she might have likened to the caws of crows or ravens had she been awake and had full control of her thoughts. As it was though she could not identify it, and the fear of the unknown seized her heart in its terrible clawed hand and began to squeeze.
Just when things seemed like they could get no more terrifying, an appendage the likes of which she had never seen suddenly reached out from the darkness and grabbed one of her fallen friend’s legs, and in the time it took her to blink he was gone, dragged off into the night. His shrieks began to fill the air, piercing and torturous.
“No!” Sam screamed, reaching forward as if to go towards him but caught in her place, terror-stricken and helpless to stop it. Even before his screams stopped Sam heard something behind her, and whipped back just as another one of her friends was pulled away. “Stop it!” she screamed again, but the only response she received were the screams of her friends.
“Bleed!” the voice cried again, this time more urgently. “Bleed! Bleed! Bleed!” The words became a chant, and it seemed as though more voices joined the first, until it blended and intertwined with the creatures’ strange cries and those of her friends. The sounds rose and rose in intensity, and soon it was so loud that Sam was forced to press both hands over her ears to block out the macabre soundtrack. As she watched two more of her friends were grabbed, then a third, and fourth. “Bleed!” the voice said again and again, and now it was in her head, drowning out her thoughts and making it impossible for her to think, and soon she was on her knees, her eyes squeezed shut and her hands pressed so tightly over her ears that the skin went pale. A knife appeared on the ground in front of her, and the voice kept screaming and her friends kept disappearing and the darkness closed in around her and she grabbed the knife and dragged its blade across her wrists first the left and then the right and the blood flowed from her wounds like a great sea pouring out and pushing back the darkness and saving her friends but then she didn’t stop bleeding couldn’t stop bleeding and she felt the life draining from her body and then-
And then it was over and she was sitting up in her bed in Rebel headquarters, her body covered in sweat, head pounding, chest heaving with each deep breath. She forced herself to calm down, repeating the mantra her father had taught her many years before, back when her nightmares had first started.
“It’s not real, it can’t hurt me. It’s not real, it can’t hurt me,” she said under her breath, over and over until her heartbeat had slowed. When it did she fell quiet, the sudden silence a stark contrast to the terrifying panic of just a few minutes before. In the wake of her terror she found her mind drifting back to the past for comfort as it so often did, recalling the last time she’d truly felt safe.
She’d been plagued with nightmares for as long as she could remember, and even as a little girl she’d suffered through the terrifying glimpses into worlds of darkness and despair, as if the one she’d been born into wasn’t enough. Yet as bad as they’d been her father had always been there for her, crouched at her bedside with that same look of loving concern etched into his face each time she woke screaming.
“You know, Sammy,” he had said to her, seated at the foot of her bed with one hand gently stroking her hair back, “what you see, or what you think you see in those dreams, are exactly that. They’re just dreams. They can’t hurt you. Sure it’s scary, even for a brave girl like you,” he pinched her nose gently, earning a hesitant smile from the six year old, “but they can’t hurt you. I promise.”
“How do you know?” she blurted, pulling the covers down under her chin as she spoke and then drawing them back over her mouth as soon as she had finished. Her father smiled.
“Because I used to have them too.”
“Really?” This time when the covers came down they stayed.
“Yep. When I was a little boy, just the same age as you are now, I used to have bad dreams too.”
“Were they like mine?”
“Ah- not quite, no. But they were still very scary, and I used to be afraid of going to sleep because I didn’t want to dream.”
“What did you do?” she asked softly.
“I’ll tell you what I did. Whenever I woke up from a bad dream I simply said, ‘It’s not real, it can’t hurt me.’ Just like that, over and over until I felt calmer. Then I would get up, and go about my day, and the next night if I had another nightmare, I would so the same thing all over again.”
“That’s it?” She frowned. “You couldn’t stop it?”
“No, Sammy. Unfortunately there are some things in this world that you can’t stop, things that you can’t change. But what you can do is not let them scare you. If you can’t change something, then why bother worrying about it? Just accept that it’s out of your control, and move on. Whenever I had a bad dream I would just tell myself that it wasn’t real, that it couldn’t hurt me. And you know what? Eventually, they didn’t bother me as much anymore. And one day I woke up and realised that it had been weeks since my last nightmare. To this day I still have the occasional one, but they still don’t bother me as much, and they don’t happen nearly as often as they used to.”
“But I want them to stop now! I want them to stop now, daddy!” Her eyes teared up in frustration, tiny fists bearing down on the comforter.
“I know, sweetie. I know. But trust me; just try it my way, okay? Whenever you wake up from a nightmare, just say ‘it’s not real, it can’t hurt me’. Just like that. Can you say it?”
“It’s not real, it can’t hurt me,” she mumbled begrudgingly.
“Good job. Just like that, over and over until you feel better. And one day you’ll wake up and realise you haven’t had a nightmare in forever.”
But that day had never come, and almost eighteen years later Sam still suffered from bad dreams on a nightly basis. Her only reprieve were the drugs she took every night, but even those had begun to fail her, her body becoming acclimatised to their effects. Her doctor had strongly cautioned her of the danger of upping the doses, but she had tried it anyways, desperate. At first it had helped somewhat, but when the effects began to taper off again she upped it a second time, and woke up in the hospital. The doctors told her someone had been passing by her room when they’d heard a thud, and after knocking several times opened the door and found her on the ground having a seizure. She’d been lucky, they told her. If he hadn’t been passing by at that moment she could very well have died. So very lucky.
She didn’t feel lucky.
Her father had tried to take her medication away entirely after that fiasco, but the doctors managed, after almost an hour of heated debate, to persuade him to leave it be, so long as she promised to stick to the appointed doses. And so she’d promised as much, but promises didn’t count for much those days. Yeah Dad? Well, you promised the nightmares would go away, and look where we are now, she thought bitterly, glancing over at the empty prescription bottle on her nightstand. Look where we are now.
Samantha had taken to working at night and sleeping during the day, a habit which while not uncommon among Rebels (or anyone else in the city, for that matter) was still viewed as somewhat odd, especially when it was a matter of personal preference and not a requirement of shiftwork. She would have been hard-pressed to put into words exactly why she so preferred night over day, but knew well enough why she tried to avoid sleep entirely. As for the rest, she suspected it may have come about as a result of efforts to acclimatise herself to the darkness she was so often plagued by in her nightmares. Whether or not it worked in the dreamscape was still up for debate, but there was no denying she’d grown accustomed to and even fond of the night.
Grabbing her Digifile off the nightstand intent on checking the time, she was filled with instant regret as the screen came on and her vision was flooded with blinding white light. The onset of a migraine already flashing through her forehead, she brought the device closer and squinted at the clock in the upper right corner. Shit. 11:34am; not even close to eight hours of sleep. Still, she knew it would be hopeless to try and fall back under now, even without factoring in the risk of taking more medication. The nightmare had shaken her, more than she cared to admit. As if staying asleep wasn’t hard enough already, now she couldn’t even fall asleep. Pressing one hand to her forehead and feeling the pain throb beneath her fingers, she sighed as she mentally prepared herself for what came next. It was going to be a long day.