Coffee is a damned thing. I hate the wretched bitter stuff, it was never compatible with my mild palate – and yet as of late I’ve been up to almost four cups a day. Might as well stick a caffeine IV in my arm. In fact, I’d greatly prefer that. But right now my fondness of coffee is really the least of my worries. I have to stay awake.
I’d managed to do so for four days before I slipped up and rested my eyelids for just a moment. The tormenting visions trapped me for six hours. I managed to wake myself before they killed me, but what they did manage to do was unspeakable. I feel a chill rattle my bones at the thought, and do a quick round of the house. Nothing. Yet.
They started out as just bad dreams. After a particularly taxing day I’d turned in, only to startle awake in the middle of the night after I dreamed of it chasing me. It really wasn’t that bad a nightmare, almost comical, actually – it chased me across a hallway through various doors all Scooby-Doo style. I probably would’ve gotten a chuckle out of it and just gone back to sleep if the haunting image of my pursuer wasn’t burned into the back of my eyelids. I thought maybe it was my stress level, but for some reason I just couldn’t get over it. I had only caught glimpses of it over my shoulder as I ran; it was a strange sort of shadowy figure accompanied by a swarm of buzzing insects around it, not terribly quick but able to glitch forward several feet every so often. It didn’t look like any person or movie monster I knew, but there was something vaguely familiar about it, like a long forgotten memory someone was showing you a photograph of. Being twenty eight, I didn’t remember much of what my childhood unconsciousness had created, but something about this creature was distinctly personal. I didn’t sleep again that night.
I didn’t have anymore nightmares for about a month, and I had pretty much forgotten about the one instance. My life had sloped upwards at a steep angle; I was always busy with work at my graphic design job and logo commissions I did on the side, and barely had any spare time. I spent many a night late at the office working until the wee hours and then taking a quick nap in the break room before pressing my nose back to the grindstone. It was during one if these brief sessions of rest that it happened once again. I found myself again in that hallway, except this time it was different; there were no doors this time. Instead the hall just continued and branched off into identical passages, creating a disorienting maze. I could hear the unearthly low hum that the insects made just behind me as a ran, and I could see it out of my corner of my eye when I turned my head. I sprinted as fast as I could, and every so often I would gain some distance on it, only to have it manifest directly behind me again, keeping my fear raw like a cut it didn’t allow to scab. I can’t remember ever being so scared. The chase pulled on for what felt like days before I finally bolted awake, falling off the break room couch and gasping for air, to find I’d only been asleep for twenty minutes.
The chaos in the waking world eventually leveled out and settled down; however the same could not be said for my unconscious hours. This time, the dream didn’t leave me for very long. It returned the following week, and the week after that, leaving me with dark bruises under my eyes and exhausted mental faculties. One of my coworkers told me I looked like I’d come down with the plague. I slept less and less but the times that I did became steadily more and more occupied by the dream. Pretty soon I couldn’t even take a nap without having it. Whenever I woke up from one of the nightmares I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Every shadow looked menacing, and every little buzzing sound made me check over my shoulder. I even yelped and fell out of my office chair once because I fly flew by my ear while I was at my desk. The paranoia and lack of sleep made it impossible for me to do my job, and I was falling way behind my deadlines, which only added to my stress. After two weeks of constant torment from the Bug Man, as I had nicknamed the monster haunting me, my boss made me take sick leave and see a psychiatrist.
As a really had no other choice, I found myself impatiently bouncing my leg in an uncomfortable waiting room chair the following Tuesday. I held a card with a worn number 17 on it to indicate my place among those to see Dr. Marigold that afternoon, which I found odd seeing as though there was no one else in the waiting room or even in the parking lot. This certainly didn’t help settle my intensifying paranoia, but I guess that’s irony for you.
I sat in that lumpy chair for almost an hour before Dr. Marigold, a tall, slim figure with icy blue eyes set into a pale sharp face, emerged from the offices down the hall from the check in desk and ushered me to a new but equally off putting room. One entire wall was covered in those shapeless ink prints, Rorschach tests I think they’re called, opposite a small window that did nothing to lighten the space.
I sat opposite Dr. Marigold in a much comfier chair than the previous one, an armchair so plush that in made me just want to sink into it and rest my eyes; then I remembered why I was there in the first place, and I sat up straighter.
The doctor flashed me a warm smile. “Pretty cold out today, huh?” I simply nodded in response, not wishing to engage in small talk. “I’m Dr. Eden Marigold. I’ll be assessing you today,” she continued, taking out a pen and clicking it open as she glanced over the papers on her clipboard. “So Casey, tell me about what brings you in today.”
I described my situation to her. I saw no reason not to give all the detail I could, figuring I had nothing to lose, but something about her expression changed as I spoke; I couldn’t put my finger on it. As I finished telling about my life ever since the unwelcome entrance of the Bug Man, leaving out the fact that I had given him a name, Dr. Marigold’s eyebrows were set and she was scribbling quickly on her clipboard. She wrote for a while after I had finished speaking, but eventually replied with a reluctant-sounding “Interesting.”
“You don’t think I’m crazy, do you?” I asked, letting out a bit of nervous laughter, feebly trying to convince myself of it; but the longer I sat in that room the less likely it seemed.
“No,” said Marigold, but she hardly sounded sure of it. “No, of course not. Sometimes when we feel stressed or worried, um, our brains will manifest that within our subconscious, which can create these, uh, these sort of nightmares.” The doctor alternated between continuing to take notes and looking up, though her eyes never seemed to fall on me – they always seemed to veer a bit to the left, just over my shoulder. I tried my best to ignore it for the sake of getting this done and over with as soon as possible.
Suddenly she set her pen down flat and met my gaze with one that was a bit too intense for my liking. “Easy to remedy. I’ll just write you a prescription for some sleeping pills that should help you into a deeper sleep. Easy as pie.” She seemed quite nervous, rushing her speech. I wanted to ask for something more, some answers, more information as to what was going on inside my head; though it became clear to me that I wouldn’t get anymore from her, Dr. Marigold did seem to know something I didn’t, something that made her want me out of her office as soon as possible. She hastily filled out the prescription and sent me on my way with the parting words, “You’ll be sleeping deeper in no time,” which were far more ominous than comforting. I crumpled up the script in the parking lot and drove home in silence.
That was two weeks ago. In that span of time, I’ve encountered the Bug Man the three times that I’d let my guard down and fallen asleep. Ever since my visit with Dr. Marigold, the nightmares have been significantly worse. I think I’ve made him mad. When I’d slip unconscious, there’d no longer be a maze, no cat-and-mouse chase. There would only be endless, foggy gray void, and him. I’m paralyzed, rooted to the spot as he approaches me, the dark insects swarming me, attacking every crevice on my body. I want to scream but if I open my mouth the bugs will crawl inside my mouth and down my throat, a mistake I made the first time. Luckily I managed to wake up right after, but in the other instances I still couldn’t stop them from crawling all over my skin, trying to get in my ears, my eyes, my nose, their hum deafeningly loud – and all the while he stands, only inches from me, completely black and not appearing quite solid, staring though he has no eyes, staring, staring right into my soul.
Then comes the pain. The sharp, searing, unimaginable pain. I bite my lips to keep the closed, filling my mouth with blood. Through the bugs flying in from of my face I can see the site of the horrible pain is where one of his eight spindly spider-like appendages pierces right through my stomach, harder and sharper than any blade. I can see stars from how badly it hurts. Suddenly, another hit, through my shoulder this time. My shrieks of agony are just barely held behind my lips, the threat of the swarming insects at full throttle as they infiltrate wherever they can. I have to focus all my remaining strength on waking up in order to get out alive. I nearly didn’t make it the last time.
But it doesn’t end when I wake up. Scars have appeared in the spots where the Bug Man stabbed me in my dreams, like old childhood wounds that have healed and left just a mark, but I know what they mean. They’re threats. He’s showing me that I’m losing. If I don’t sleep, I can’t dream, but it also makes me weak, which allows him to affect me when I’m awake. If I won’t go to him, he’ll come to me.
I can hear the hum in the distance as I sit slumped on my kitchen floor, my head swimming. I jump and smack my leg when I feel a bug land on it, but when I take my hand away there’s nothing to show for it. I feel it again, but there’s nothing there. I feel one on my arm, and the back of my neck, in my hair – I hit wherever I feel one, hard enough to bruise, even though I never hit anything on my skin. The humming is getting louder. I can feel the bugs all over me now, crawling, biting, burrowing. I want to yell for help but I can’t let them in my mouth, and I want to keep my eyes open so as to not drift off – but it’s too late. He’s already here.
My eyelids fall shut as the bugs force themselves into my ears, and I can’t help but scream, allowing a flood of them entrance, choking me. I feel myself falling unconscious as I hear a buzzing, insectile voice from outside and inside my head say,
“We are the Exterminators, we will rid the world of the undeserving and the unnecessary and purify this plane of existence. You have failed the trials and are therefore undeserving of our mercy.”
And then I fell into a deep, deep sleep.