Tim Waggoner has published over fifty novels and seven collections of short stories. He writes dark fantasy, horror, and media tie-ins, and he’s the author of the acclaimed horror-writing guide Writing in the Dark. A three-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award, he's also been a multiple finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Scribe Award, and a one-time finalist for the Splatterpunk Award. In addition to writing, he’s a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio. 

Website: www.timwaggoner.com
Blog: http://writinginthedarktw.blogspot.com/
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/#!/tim.waggoner.9
Twitter: @timwaggoner

YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZEz6_ALPrV3tdC0V3peKNw


By Tim Waggoner


My eyes snap open to darkness. My heart pounds in my ears, a fast throb-throb-throb, loud and painful. My lungs ache for air, but I hold my breath, as if I’m afraid to make even the slightest of sounds. I’m in bed, the lights off. I’ve been sleeping – and something’s woken me.

A bad dream? If so, I don’t remember it. A noise? Maybe. I have no memory of hearing anything, at least no conscious one, but it feels right. I sit up, drawing back the covers as I do, and listen. My pulse is still racing, and my lungs cry out for air to fill them, but I force myself to breathe shallowly so I can hear. I’m wide awake, hyper alert, senses sharp and focused. My bedroom is silent. No ticking clock, no dripping water from the faucet in the master bathroom, just my heartbeat and my almost imperceptible breathing. The air feels brittle and cold, like thin sheets of ice layered one atop the other. I imagine that if I sweep my hand outward, I’d shatter them with a sound like breaking glass.

Time passes. Seconds, maybe minutes. I’m not sure. I could check the digital clock on my nightstand to see how late – or early –it is, but I don’t want to take my gaze from the dark smear that is my bedroom door. Just in case there’s someone on the other side.

But after several more moments pass quietly, I begin to wonder if maybe I woke myself up. I read somewhere that some people snore so loudly they disturb their own sleep without realizing it. To them, it seems as if they just startle awake for no reason. My ex used to complain that I snored. And this isn’t the first time I’ve woken in the middle of the night for no apparent reason. I should lie down, pull on the covers, and try to go back to sleep. But I won’t. My heart rate has almost returned to normal, and I’m breathing easily now, but I know myself. There’s no way in hell that I’ll be able to fall asleep again, not without checking to make sure everything’s okay. Feeling foolish, but knowing I don’t have a choice if I want to get any more sleep tonight, I get out of bed and walk toward the door.

My pulse picks up speed again, but it’s not as fast as before. I’m nervous, but I’ve got it under control. Despite the situation, I smile at the thought. My therapist – whom I’ve been seeing since the divorce, almost three years now – says control, or rather lack thereof, is one of my biggest issues. I’ll have to remember to tell her about this the next time I –

I pause, hand on the doorknob.

I have told her about this. I remember now. This – waking up, thinking I heard something, listening, and then finally getting out of bed to investigate –is something I’ve dreamed before. Many times. It’s a recurring nightmare that I’ve had on and off for most of my adult life. And now it’s coming true. Unless I’m dreaming now and only think I’m awake. Every other time I’ve had this dream, I believed I was living it. Why would it be any different this time? Except it is different. I’ve never questioned if the dream was real or not before. Maybe my doubt is an indication that this time what’s happening is real. Or maybe my doubt is simply a new wrinkle in the scenario.

I discussed the dream with my therapist during our last session.

It starts the same way every time, I told her. I wake up startled, as if I heard something. I listen for a while, scared, afraid that maybe someone’s broken into my apartment, but I don’t hear anything. Finally, I work up the courage to get up and go to the bedroom door . . .

Which is where I’m at now, standing frozen, like an actor in a streaming movie that’s been paused.

I open the door and walk into the hallway. It’s dark. I mean, really dark. Inside-of-a-cave dark. I go to check the front door. Sometimes it’s open a crack – I can see light from the outer hallway shining through – and I run to close it before anyone can get in. Sometimes it’s still shut and locked, but just as I reach it, intending to peer through the peephole and see if anyone’s standing outside, someone starts pounding on the door really hard, as if they’re trying to batter it down. Whoever it is shouts, demands I open up, but I ignore them. I press my back against door, trying to brace it, and I feel the impact of each blow vibrate through my body, hard enough to rattle my teeth.

I stopped talking, and my therapist regarded me for a few moments.

That’s all? she asked.

I nodded. The dreams always end before anyone gets through the door. But even though nothing bad really happens to me, I always wake up terrified, covered in sweat, and gasping for breath.

They’re stress dreams, my therapist said. You have them during times when you feel overwhelmed, powerless, out of control. They don’t mean anything in and of themselves. They’re just a symptom, like a fever. The important thing is to figure out what’s causing them. Once you know what’s stressing you out so much, then you’ll be able to deal with it.

You make it sound so easy, I said.

Easy to understand, maybe. She smiled. Not always so easy to fix.

I’m still gripping the door knob, and damned if the metal doesn’t feel solid – feel real – beneath my hand.

I don’t know what to do. If this is just a more self-aware version of one of my stress dreams, then I should open the door, step out into the hallway – the dark hallway – and get it over with. There might be other alterations in the dream waiting for mrout there, and if so, I doubt they’re going to be pleasant. But no matter how frightening the latest version of my dream might be, in the end, it is only a dream, and the best thing to do is get it over with as soon as possible.

But if I’m actually living out my nightmare scenario in real life, then it’s possible that someone has broken into my apartment. The place has a security system – nothing elaborate, just a simple noise deterrent – but I never turn it on. It activated once during a thunderstorm, and I had such a terrible time deactivating it that I’ve left it off ever since. The apartment complex isn’t located in Cracktown, but it’s not exactly a gated community, either. This place was the best I could afford after the divorce, but I’ve never felt entirely comfortable here. Hell, three months after I moved in, my car was broken into and a bunch of change was stolen from one of the cupholders. I haven’t had any trouble since, but that doesn’t mean I’m not in trouble now. I should call 911, and I would, but like an idiot I left my phone charging on the kitchen counter.

So, if this is real and someone has broken in, I should lock my bedroom door, open the window, push out the screen, and crawl through. I’m on the ground floor, after all. I could run down the sidewalk and be long gone before the prowler – do people still use that word? – knows I’ve escaped. But . . . if it turns out I did wake myself up snoring, I’ll feel like a damned fool when I finally return to my apartment, probably accompanied by a police officer or two. Still, better to be a live fool than a dead one, right?

But I don’t remove my hand from the knob.

Climbing out the window might be the most sensible move, dream or not, but doing so would mean surrendering control of the situation. And, as my therapist is only too happy to remind me, I have a thing about control. Real life or dream, I don’t like the idea of someone else forcing me to do something – even if that something might ultimately be in my best interest.

I turn the knob and push the door open.

The hallway is dark, of course, but is it normal dark or thick, impenetrable dream dark? It’s hard to tell. Maybe it’s somewhere in between. I walk down the short hallway, past the closed door that leads to a second bedroom, which I use as a home office, then past the second bathroom. Its door is closed, too. I move slowly, holding my breath and listening. I hear nothing. One of the things I hate about scary movies is when the characters – knowing they’re probably in danger – walk around a dark house without turning on any lights. Sure, it makes for a creepy atmosphere, but it’s so unrealistic that I can’t take such movies seriously. Dreams are a different matter, though. In my recurring dream – which I may or may not be living now – I never think to turn on any lights. It’s a given that my apartment is filled with darkness so dense that no feeble illumination cast by light bulbs could ever penetrate it. Besides, in my dreams I might believe that I have agency, that I’m free to make decisions and act upon them, but in truth I move in a well-choreographed dance, more puppet than person. So if this is a dream, I won’t turn on the lights because I never do. If it’s real, I can – if I so choose – reach out and feel for the light switch on the wall, and flip it. But if someone is inside the apartment, turning on a light will alert them to the fact that I’m awake. So far I’ve been quiet enough that there’s a chance this hypothetical “they” haven’t heard me leave my bedroom. If I turn on the light, I’ll lose that advantage and make myself a clear target. The intruder (or intruders) will also lose the concealment darkness provides, but it’s not as if I’d be a threat to them. I’m not a physically aggressive person, and I’m certainly not trained to fight. The best I could do is throw a few wild punches and hope they connect. Maybe if I had a weapon to bolster my confidence, like a sharp knife from the butcher’s block in the kitchen. But I don’t.

So the lights stay off – for now. I tell myself that I’ve chosen this, that I’m not just following a well-worn path that I’ve trod who knows how many times before. But I’m not sure I believe it.

The hallway’s short, and it opens into the living room. The dining table sits in front of the patio door, the vertical blinds closed. I can’t see any of this in the dark, but I have no trouble picturing it. The darkness out here is so complete, it gives me pause. I never leave the outside patio light on at night, but even so, there’s usually some illumination, however faint, filtering in between the blinds. Plenty of other residents keep their outside lights on, and of course there’s often moonlight. Maybe there’s no moon tonight, thought, and maybe the other residents have turned off their patio lights for a change. Maybe it’s overcast. I briefly consider the possibility of a power failure, but I can hear the refrigerator humming in the kitchen, so that’s out.

To my immediate right – a direction in which I have purposely avoided looking up to this point – is another short hall that leads to what I think of as The Door, with capital letters.

Decision time.

My pulse rate increases again, and I feel a single cold drop of sweat slide between my shoulder blades and continue along my spine. Do I continue to make my way through the apartment checking for intruders? Maybe examine the patio door to make sure it’s closed and locked properly? Or do I follow my dream’s script and walk toward the door? Or I could do something else, something I wouldn’t normally do in this situation, regardless if it’s real life or a dream.

“Hello? Is anyone there?”

I hate how timid my voice sounds, but I feel a spark of exhilaration at breaking the pattern. It feels good to be in control, even if only in a small way.

Fuck the police, I think, and the thought nearly makes me laugh. But I can’t afford to make noise. I need to listen for a reply to my question.

Seconds tick by in silence, not counting the refrigerator hum.

So no one’s here. At least, no one that feels like answering. I move deeper into the living room, still avoiding looking at The Door. I discover the patio door is locked, and the glass intact. When I push the blinds aside I see the lights that I couldn’t before. There aren’t as many glowing as usual, but they are there. I continue making my way through the apartment. In the kitchen, I switch on the light and see that the room is clear. I’m tempted to grab that knife I wished for a few moments ago, or maybe just my phone, which is charging on the counter right where I left it. But I feel silly now, and I leave them both, turn off the light, and head through the living room and back down the hall – still not looking at The Door, which is now on my left – and check the second bedroom, turning the light on there as well. Aside from my computer desk, office chair, a couple filing cabinets, and some art on the walls, it’s empty. Just as it should be. I turn the light off and shut the door. I check the second bathroom next and find it empty as well.

I’ve made my rounds, performed my security check, and all is well. I decide I likely did wake myself up by snoring especially loud. I should go back to bed and try to get some sleep. I have to work in the morning, and I’m not fully prepared for the afternoon meeting – which now that I think about it, could be another reason I woke up. More stress, just like my therapist warned me about.

I left my bedroom door open when I got up, and all I have to do now is walk through the doorway, climb into bed, close my eyes, and wait for sleep and me to find each other. But I continue standing in the hall. There’s one place in the apartment I haven’t checked, haven’t so much as glanced at. Not because I’m worried anymore that I’m living a dream. This is clearly reality. And not because I’m afraid. I don’t feel so much as a tinge of anxiety, and I don’t just believe I’m safe: I know I am. So why not check the door? I don’t need that one final unresolved detail nagging at me while I’m trying to drift off.

I turn and head back down the hall, leaving the lights off. Why not? It’s not as if there’s anything to be afraid of, even if the dark seems ocean-bottom black again. Maybe my eyes got used to the light when I was checking the apartment and need time to readjust. That’s probably it. When I reach the front hall – it’s on my right now – I hesitate for only a few seconds before turning to face the door. It’s open a crack, and I can see fluorescent light from the outer hallway knifing into the hall’s dark, blue-white and cold as ice.

Panic slams into me so hard it feels as if every process in my body ceases for a second, but when my system reboots, it kicks into high gear and – not giving a damn in the slightest if this is real or not – I race for the door, intending to slam it shut, throw the deadbolt, hook the chain, and press my back against it, as if I can hold it shut through sheer force of will, if nothing else. But just as I’m about to slap my palm against the door’s surface and shove it closed, I stop myself. I’m doing it again, mindlessly following the path laid out in my dreams. I’m not in command of my actions. I’m not in control. The only time I broke free from the pattern is when I spoke aloud to ask if anyone was in the apartment. I did something different, something new. And that’s what I should do now.

Despite my best efforts, I can’t keep my hand from trembling as I take hold of the knob and slowly push the door open.

There’s no one standing outside. No sinister stranger, no nightmarish beast. All that confronts me is an empty hall and my neighbor’s door across the way, both washed in the garish glare of fluorescence. I let out a long shaky breath, and some of my tension goes with it.

How’s that for self therapy? I think, feeling almost giddy now.

Opening the door was a big step. Huge. But I can take this further if I want. Think how impressed my therapist will be then. Hell, after tonight, maybe I’ll stop seeing her. It’s clear that I have what it takes to confront my fears and handle my problems on my own. I’ve opened The Door. Now all I have to do is keep going.

I step across the threshold, closing the door most of the way behind me. Why, I don’t know. Habit, I suppose. It feels strange to leave my front door wide open in the middle of the night. Feeling almost as if I’m an intruder myself, although I’ve walked through the outer hallway hundreds of times, I move slowly, not wishing to make any noise and wake the other residents. I walk past the mailboxes set into the wall, past the stairs leading to the second floor, and I stop at the outer door, the one that opens to the outside. There are glass panes set into the surface, allowing me to glimpse what’s out there – what’s truly out there – and when I see it, I pray to God that I am dreaming. But even that thought is little comfort, because if this is a dream then what lies beyond this final door, lies inside me. I now understand that there are reasons doors exist. Reasons why they close and lock, reasons why some of them – real or not – should never, ever be opened. Because, in the end, it’s the only real control that any of us have.

Sounds bursts forth from deep inside me, a strangled cry that’s part scream, part sob. I turn away from the horror outside and race toward my apartment. But before I can reach it, the door slams shut, and I hear the snick of the deadbolt being thrown, the jangle as the chain is fumbled into place. I pound on the door with my fists, kick it with my bare feet, demanding to be let in, no longer caring who I wake up. But I know my efforts won’t do any good. They never have before.

I cease my exertions as darkness settles on the hallway like a black velvet curtain. I can no longer see. It’s as if I’m blind, or perhaps lost somewhere inside the labyrinth of my own mind. But my other senses work just fine, and I have no trouble hearing the soft creak of the outer door opening, no trouble feeling the disturbance in the air around me as something – maybe more than one something – moves toward me.

It’s a shame I won’t get to tell this story to my therapist. I’d be really interested in what she’d have to say about it. The first cold hand touches my flesh then, and the first foul words are whispered into my ear.

They’re far from the last.

writing in the dark your turn halloween kills

writing in the dark your turn