The Nightmare Collector by David Berardelli

EXTRACT FOR
The Nightmare Collector

(David Berardelli)


THE NIGHTMARE COLLECTOR

PART ONE

 

THE PACT

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

The darkness of the night covered the city in heavy bleakness.

Dressed in his lightweight tan windbreaker, frayed jeans and tennis shoes, Aaron Grill passed the shattered streetlamp and used the soft orange glow from the lamp at the end of the next block as his guide.

Darkness no longer bothered him. It had become his constant companion. He’d spent the last twelve months of his existence alone in his two-room apartment, the blinds closed in both windows, the curtains pulled. He kept the TV on constantly, but with the sound muted. He kept it on to remind himself that life went on elsewhere. However, the mute button did its job to keep things quiet and mellow.

Although the haze from the lamp farther down the street guided him, he knew exactly where he was going. Frank’s Liquors sat halfway down the next block. He’d run out of bourbon and needed a bottle or two to get him through the weekend. Bourbon had become his best friend. Along with the comforting darkness, bourbon was the only thing he cared about nowadays. It warmed him and kept the demons at arm’s length. And when he’d consumed enough, he simply fell into the deep stupor that had been his only refuge for the last year. It permitted the darkness to settle over him but also prevented him from dreaming. This was good. He didn’t want to dream. When he dreamed, the nightmares came back.

He kept up his pace, his eyes fixed on the haze of the distant streetlamp. He could already distinguish the familiar faint square orange glow in the middle of the sidewalk made by the reflection of the light coming from inside the liquor store.

His heart sputtered when he saw it. The light meant the store was open. He already knew it was open; he’d committed their hours to memory long ago. But the square orange light made him rejoice anyway.

If the light coming from the local liquor store makes your heart do the happy dance, your life must really and truly suck...

He didn’t want to think of that right now. Getting philosophical at this point in his life made him nauseous.

Just as he stepped down from the curb, he heard hysterical yelling. The alley directly to his left was too dark to make anything out, but he could tell by the sharp slaps and thumps echoing off the brick walls of the surrounding buildings that a fight was going on.

He’d wanted to keep on walking, but something inside him interfered, preventing him from moving away. Before he’d realized it, he’d stopped cold.

You really don’t want to stand here like this…

Frank’s, remember? The bourbon?

His inner self tried reasoning with him. He knew damned well that what he was doing was foolish and potentially dangerous, yet he remained standing there, staring into the solid darkness while the sharp slaps, thumps, and grunts of pain jumped off the walls, escaping out into the street.

He couldn’t help wondering what was happening—if this was a fight club thing. Or was it some private matter?

A fight over a woman? A money matter gone sour?

Were drugs involved?

This didn’t sound like some bare-knuckle, fight-club-type situation. He couldn’t hear evidence of a crowd—not even a small one. He heard no voices and no cheers. It was probably a private matter. In today’s world, such behavior could most likely be the result of a drug burn or money lost from a bad investment.  

Time had stopped. All the while, his inner self continued its frustrated efforts to coax him away. As he listened, he struggled to determine what he should do. Rushing in to help was out of the question. Getting involved would not be very bright. This was a frightening world. Society had progressed by leaps and bounds technologically while people grew colder and more distant toward one another. In this modern civilized world, the killer instinct remained alive and well.

Should he call 911?

Again, he saw no reason to stick his neck out. He had no idea what was going on or who these people were. He didn’t know if they were armed or if they were felons. He hadn’t heard a gunshot, but that didn’t mean much. A gun could be lying on the ground close by. This might be drug-related after all. It would be stupid for him or anyone else to put themselves between two stoners fighting over drugs.

His inner voice finally won its argument. He began moving away.

Just as he took the first step, all sounds of the scuffle stopped. Silence followed. He took another step. In the very next moment, a flurry of heavy footsteps rushed toward him. His heart skipped a beat. He realized right then that he’d stayed there a couple of seconds too long. Nevertheless, he continued moving away.

The footsteps quickly grew louder and closer.

Instinct told him to run, but he knew that would only make the situation worse. Keeping calm might work better. If he acted clueless and nonchalant, he might not be considered a threat.

Before he was able to take another step, the footsteps grew deafening. An instant later, they stopped dangerously close. Something grabbed him by the collar of his jacket and pulled, and he was nearly knocked off his feet. Before he had the chance to regain his footing, he was spun around.

He found himself gazing stupidly at a man‘s jacket collar. His heart was thumping, and he was shaking, but he somehow found the courage to raise his eyes. The man facing him was about his own age, with thick black hair, cold eyes and a ruggedly handsome face. His cheeks were clean-shaven. Judging by the tie, lapels and cut of the jacket, his clothes were expensive. In other circumstances, such an individual would be considered bright, motivated and successful. But the man’s glistening eyes and furious manner revealed a feral spirit emanating from within.

An unpleasant mix of cologne and sweat clung uncomfortably close.

Was it the smell of fear? The killer instinct?

It no longer mattered. The only thing that really mattered was getting away safely.

“What’d you see back there, asshole?” The man’s voice was a raspy whisper. Aaron found himself engulfed in the miasma of stale whiskey. He wanted to gag.

The man held on to the collar of Aaron’s windbreaker and began shaking him. Aaron gasped as the pins in his knees and hip from his car accident two years earlier ground into his flesh. He gritted his teeth as the jagged waves of fire sliced through him.

“I asked you a fucking question!” The man let go and stood tensely, his clenched fists at his sides.

Once the dizziness subsided and the searing pain in his knees and hip had eased to a low simmer, Aaron found that he was able to focus again. He’d wanted to kick the man in the testicles and finish him off with an elbow to the jaw, but the simmering pain in his old wounds had settled down to an uncomfortable hum and he saw no reason to antagonize them again. Besides, he didn’t want to get into a major battle—especially one in which he could not possibly win. This man was at least six-four, obviously very strong, and pumped up with adrenaline from his recent victory. Aaron guessed that the man had probably killed the other man in the alley.

Before he could give this any further thought, he heard himself say, “It was too dark…to see much…”

“You didn’t see anything!”

Aaron knew better than reply.

“Did you hear me? You didn’t see anything!”

Another whiskey-soaked haze rubbed his face. Fighting the nausea, Aaron thought once again about kicking the man in the balls and running away.

“Did you hear me?” the man asked.

Aaron wanted to point to the alley to show the man how dark it was but knew that would do no good. This man was much too geared up to listen to logic. Reason simply wouldn’t work here.

“Yes…”

The man reached out again. This time, Aaron backed up. He didn’t care how big, strong or angry the man was; one assault was more than enough for anyone.

The man took another step and jabbed an index finger into Aaron’s chest, forcing him against the building. “Nothing. Get it? You saw nothing!”

Gasping, Aaron pulled away and gently massaged his tingling torso.

Say it, asshole…”

Say it and he’ll go away and leave you alone…

Once again, his inner voice tried reasoning with him, but he realized it was unnecessary. He’d had enough and decided to walk away.

Before he could turn around, the man grabbed him by the collar again. Aaron tried pulling to the side, but two enormous, bruised fists had grabbed his shirt collar and held him fast. Aaron wrapped his hands around the man’s large wrists and tried pulling them away, but the other man had yanked him upward. Aaron no longer felt the sidewalk beneath his feet. He was being shaken again.

Then he was slammed into the building again, this time much harder. A sheet of bright pain danced up his spine. He lashed out, his right shoe connecting with something soft. Gasping, his attacker let go of Aaron’s collar. The arms holding him up vanished and Aaron felt the bottoms of his feet slap the sidewalk. A moment later, a huge fist came back out of the darkness and slammed into his midsection. The breath was knocked out of him, and he felt his back smack into the building again. Another sheet of blinding hot pain cracked through him. He caught a glimpse of the black sky and a cluster of twinkling stars. The pain in his gut had become a massive ball of numbness that reached his legs and spread down to his feet. He felt himself falling to the sidewalk. His forehead whacked the concrete.

The blackness enveloping him turned the growing numbness into comforting warmth.

 


 

CHAPTER TWO

 

When Aaron awoke, he discovered that he was lying on a hard rocklike floor in the darkness.

His head hurt, and his legs and back felt as if he’d been run over by a truck. He tried to get up but quickly realized that it hurt much less if he just lay still. He took a deep breath and began coughing. A heavy foulness had drifted into the area and was so strong that it made his eyes water. He wiped them. When his vision cleared, he scanned his surroundings. It was much too dark to see anything, but the darkness, dampness and foulness in the air strongly suggested some sort of cave, or tunnel. The only evidence of light was a faint dimness coming from an oval opening about twenty feet to his right. He wondered if it led to the outside world. It was difficult to tell.

What the hell happened? Where was this place?

More importantly, how did he get here?

The last thing he remembered was the scuffle in the street. Someone grabbed him, picked him up and shook him, and when he’d lashed out and broke loose, his assailant slammed him to the pavement.

Was he dead? If so, what strange, dark place was this?

Was it Heaven? He certainly hoped not. From what he’d learned in Catechism class as a child, as well as from books and the Internet, Heaven’s appearance seemed consistent—pearly gates, bright skies, harp music, a large choir, and angels.

This place was dark and musty. There were no pearly gates, no choir and no angels. And that horrible foulness certainly didn’t help.

My God…I’m dead, and have gone to Hell…

“Not exactly,” a low-pitched female voice said somewhere behind him.

Aaron sat up sharply.

A tall, slender figure approached, carrying a candle. It stopped a few feet from Aaron and placed the candle on a protruding rock. The orange haze enabled him to see that he was indeed in some sort of cavern. The rock floor was uneven and sloped, leading to another tunnel, where the figure had obviously come from.

The figure moved closer. The candlelight revealed a woman in a long white robe, with long, flowing black hair and a beautiful face. 

“Who are you?” Aaron’s first impression was that she was indeed an angel, but her dark, penetrating gaze suggested otherwise.

“A friend.”

“Do I know you?”

“Not yet…”

“Then how can you be my friend?”

The woman smiled. “You shall see.” Her large, deep-blue eyes sparkled in the candlelight. “Very shortly, Aaron, we’re going to be the very best of friends.”

“H-How do you know my name?”

“I know much about you.”

“Am I dead?”

“Not actually.”

Aaron stiffened. It wasn’t the sort of reply he’d wanted to hear. “Care to explain that?”

“Well, you were dead for a short while.”

“A short while?”

“In mortal terms, a few seconds. Here, on the other side, time is measured differently.” She took a step closer and tilted her head, and her hair slid down her shoulder. She studied his face and scowled. “That sure is a nasty clunk. That guy really pounded you, didn’t he?”

The side of his head thumped the moment she’d mentioned it. He reached up and gently massaged it. He could feel a gash over a noticeable swelling about an inch above his right eyebrow. “Yeah, he wasn’t what you’d call a gentle sort of guy.” He felt his anger coming back. “You said I was dead for a couple of seconds?”

“In mortal time? Four, maybe five. It was hard to tell exactly, but it wasn’t long enough for your spirit to completely leave your body.”

“So I’m alive, then?”

“In a manner of speaking...”

He sure didn’t like this babe’s answers. They were vague and raised more questions. “What other manner is there?”

“You haven’t actually gone back. Not completely.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Would it help if I showed you what’s going on right now?”

“Going on where?”

“The place where you fell into unconsciousness.”

“You mean where I was knocked unconscious?”

“That’s the place.”

“You’re actually gonna take me back?”

“It’ll be necessary—if you really want to see what’s going on…”

“I think I need to.”

“Then we’ll go back. Close your eyes.”

“Why?”

“Trust me.”

“Why should I?”

“If you want to see what’s happened, you’ll have to.”

“This isn’t a trick, is it? You’re not gonna do something nasty to me when I close my eyes, are you?”

“If I wanted to do something nasty, I would’ve already done it.”

“How do I know you’re telling me the truth?”

“Would you really like to see a sample of what I can actually do?”

The flicker of darkness drifting past her eyes made him uneasy, but he knew he had to find out what was going on. “Please…”

She held out her hand, palm up. “Now watch closely.”

“I’m watching…”

Long, slithering tongues of flame suddenly appeared from her palm, climbing upward, toward the rock ceiling.

Ignoring his aching back and knees, Aaron backed away.

The woman closed her hand. The flames vanished.

His heart fluttered. “H-How the hell…did you do that?”

“What you really need to understand is that if I can do something like that, what else can I do? More importantly, what could I have already done to you?”

Aaron didn’t reply. His feeling of helplessness had grown by leaps and bounds. He didn’t want to anger her, so he nodded.

“All right... Now will you let me show you what is going on?”

He nodded once again.

“Now—as I said before—close your eyes.”

Aaron closed his eyes.

Something cold touched the top of his head. Darkness filled his mind and he sensed that he was actually flying.

Just a few moments later, she said, “You can now open your eyes.”

The darkness cleared, and he discovered that he was standing in the street, staring at a figure lying quite still on the sidewalk. Several people were standing over him but were also not moving. An ambulance sat nearby, its lights on, but not blinking. Two EMT attendants hunkered over the motionless figure and were just as still as the rest of the crowd.

The scene looked like a 3-D photograph.

It took him several seconds to find his voice. “What the hell?”

“Time has stopped for you.” The woman stood beside him, watching him.

“How can that happen?”

“It happens quite often between worlds.”

He stiffened. “Between worlds?”

“There are several, as a matter of fact. Right now, you’re stuck between two of them. It’s not exactly a pleasant place to be. I highly recommend that you make a decision very shortly.”

“And what do you have to do with all this?”

“I live in this one.”

“What I mean is, what do you have to do with me? How did you find me in the first place?”

“I had a strong sense that you’d need me, so I stuck around until it was time to come to your aid.”

“My aid?”

“You need help. I’m sure you know this already.”

He wondered what she meant by that. “You’re…gonna help me?”

“If you let me...”

“How can you help me?”

“By relieving you of your burden. It is your burden that has brought you here. You can’t go back unless you get rid of it.”

Her reply confused him and raised more questions. “What burden?”

The woman smiled. “Come now, Aaron. You mean to say you don’t want to tell me about it?”

“What do you know about my burden?”

“I know that if you didn’t have it, you wouldn’t be right here, stuck between life and death. You wouldn’t be living where you are now and wouldn’t need all that booze to keep you from dreaming. Most of all, you wouldn’t have all those nightmares that have been slowly killing you for the last year or so.”

Aaron froze. He found that he couldn’t speak. This was too weird, too fantastic. This whole thing—his “dying,” the cavern, this woman, the flame shooting up from her palm, the street scene... Everything seemed as if it had come out of some weird fantasy tale.  

It took him precious moments to find his voice. “What do you know…about my nightmares?”

“As I just said, they’re killing you. They’re doing it slowly, and if they persist, you’ll soon be dead.”

“How do you know about this?”

“That’s what nightmares do—especially the kind you’ve been having.”

He was growing even more uneasy. This had gone far beyond the weird and was now venturing into the terrifying. “H-how do you know about this? About me?”

“I have to know. Nightmares are my business.”

“Your business?”

The woman’s eyes shimmered like rare gems. “You see, I collect them.”

He wondered if he’d heard her correctly. “You collect nightmares?”

“I’ve been doing it for centuries.”

He struggled to understand what was going on. His mind went back to what happened before he’d woken up in the dark, cavern-like tunnel. The scuffle in the alley. The struggle with the big, enraged psycho. Then he realized what had really happened.

I was slammed to the pavement and knocked out. This is a dream—a weird, ridiculous dream

“Not a dream at all.” The woman’s expression was solemn. “This is real.”

Aaron trembled. “W-Who’d you say you were?”

“I didn’t.”

“Are you gonna tell me?”

“I have several names. I prefer to be called Jessica.”

Jessica. It was a name he’d heard many times before. In fact, he’d known at least two other women by that name in his life. However, this woman was nothing like the others. He strongly suspected that she was not of this world.

Once again, she’d obviously picked up on his thoughts. “I come from many places, and I’ve met and dealt with many people all over this world.”

“I’ve never heard anything about someone like you.”

“I know.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“If you knew about me, you wouldn’t wonder how I can help you.”

“How can you help me?”

“As I just said—I collect nightmares.”

“I know what you said. I just don’t believe it.”

“I realize this sounds bizarre, but why would I say such a thing if I did not actually do it?”

“Why would you want to collect someone’s nightmares?”

“People collect all sorts of things. In my travels, I’ve observed people collecting just about everything. Knives. Guns. Scrimshaw. Doilies. Classic cars. Rare books. Thimbles. Baseball cards. Shoes. Typewriters. Old coins. Exotic pets. I’ve even come across serial killers who collect body parts, such as fingers, or ears—“

“But nightmares?”

“Nightmares are extremely valuable and come in handy when you least expect it. You never know when you’ll actually need one to bargain with.”

“You’re…insane.” This made no sense whatsoever.

She chuckled. “Many have said that very same thing…but if you’ll consider your situation for a moment, you’ll agree that I’m not the one who needs help.”

“I’m all right. I just need to get back.”

“Are you certain this is what you really want?”

He was getting tired of watching his form lying deathly still on the sidewalk and found the immobile crowd standing around him really creepy. “This place is freaking me out. How do I get out of here?”

She shrugged. “Just close your eyes and think of the last place you were.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s it.”

“You could’ve told me that before, you know…”

“I needed to try and make a deal with you first. It’s what I do.”

This woman was beautiful, but she was also scary, and that bit about the nightmare-collecting convinced him she was nuts. “Listen. I just want to get out of here. So, if you don’t mind…” Aaron closed his eyes.

“Before you leave, just remember one thing.”

Aaron opened his eyes. “What’s that?”

“When you go back, nothing will have changed. You’ll be back to your same miserable existence—sitting in the dark with your TV on and the sound off and drinking bourbon so you won’t have to contend with those same nasty nightmares when you fall asleep.”

Aaron stiffened. His panic mode jumped several notches. “How the hell do you know all that?”

“I do my research.”

Aaron shivered as something cold climbed up his spine.

“You have nothing to fear,” she said. “I am not a stalker. If you do not wish to deal with me, you’ll never see or hear from me again.”

Aaron closed his eyes again.

“Just remember what I said. I can relieve you of your nightmares forever.”

Aaron opened one eye. “Guaranteed?”

“I guarantee that you will never have another one for the rest of your life.”

“Are you saying my life will be different?”

“Very different…”

“Will I be the same person?”

“Your new situation will change in many ways, but yes, you will be the same.”

“How can this be?”

“It is very simple. Your nightmares are caused by guilt. Once your guilt is gone, so are your nightmares.”

“So what I’m really doing is selling you my guilt?”

“Guilt, nightmares… In your case, they are the same.”

“Then all I have to do to make my life tolerable again is to agree to all this?”

“That’s all it’ll take.”

“Then what happens?”

“Your life will immediately change.”

“How?”

“That is for you to find out—but only if we close the deal.”

Aaron remained staring at her. No more guilt, no more nightmares. It sounded too good to be true. Once again, he considered the fact that this was just a dream. The blow to his head could have been causing these hallucinations.

It suddenly occurred to him that he shouldn’t be dreaming at all. He really should be dead.

But what if he wasn’t? What if he was in a coma?

“You’re not in a coma,” she said.

Aaron gasped; she’d done it again. “H-How’d you…how’d you read my mind?”

A slight shrug. “One of my many talents.”

“Like the flaming palm trick?”

“I have more tricks up my sleeve than you could ever imagine. But that isn’t important right now. All I want to know is that we have a deal.”

No nightmares. No guilt. Yes, it really did sound too good to be true. And it probably was.

“Clock’s ticking,” she said.

“All right, we have a deal. How much are you gonna give me? A thousand bucks? A hundred thousand?”

She smiled. “I don’t deal in money…”

“Then what are we talking about?”

“Something much better than mere money…”

He watched her closely, but her expression told him nothing. “What could possibly be better than money?”

She shook her head. “Why do all mortals think money is the most important thing in life? No, this is something else…something much better than money…something money simply cannot buy.”

This was beginning to sound even more unbelievable. “Can’t you tell me a little about it?”

“Not yet.”

“Why not? If we have a deal—“

“I don’t wish to spoil the surprise.”

He didn’t like the sound of that. He was about to reconsider when she said, “I also guarantee you’ll love this new arrangement.”

“Really and truly?”

“Yes. So then…do we have a deal?”

Aaron sighed. “I guess we do…” He held out his hand.

“No touchy-feely. I’ve got my own procedure to handle this transaction properly.”

“A procedure?”

“I’ll be in touch.”

“When will I expect to see you again?”

“Very shortly. Close your eyes, now.”

“But—“ Aaron was unable to finish his statement. His eyelids had grown heavier, and the darkness enveloped him again.