Dream Detective: Flash Fiction about Dreams and Nightmares

It took a lot of restraint, preventing myself from calling this article "Drew Detective"
It took a lot of restraint to prevent myself from calling this article “Drew Detective”

Earlier this week, I made eight images inspired by the opening title sequence for True Detective. Not knowing what I’d do with them, I settled on writing a short story for each one. Due to the abstract nature of these collages, I decided to make this collection of flash fiction about dreams, pairing the ones I can remember with the right picture. This collection is dark, funny, and more than a little personal.

I invite you to play dream detective, to find the nuance in my nightmares, to surmise my subconscious. If you’ve ever had a dream like one of these, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

I'd Become the Lake

I’d Become the Lake

Flying high above the ground, I couldn’t feel my wings. They flapped in my ears, with the rhythm of a propeller, fast as any hummingbird, faster than my nerves could sense them. I couldn’t tell if it was the speed I was ascending or the wind, but soon it became impossible to ball my hands into fists.

Rising, I’d soar too high to feel anything. I’d become the sky.

With the stars hiding behind a sheet of clouds, it was too dark to see my feathers. The air was hot, thick with steam, and flecks of ash. It sizzled the skin.

Moonlight pierced the overcast. I was about to breach it, but the clouds refused to part. They held firm behind a wall of glass. No, this wasn’t glass. It hurt to touch. I tried to catch my breath, but I couldn’t. Realizing why, a chill ran through me. The heat wasn’t heat at all. My skin was giving me mixed signals, confusing extreme temperatures.

The beating wings in my ears was the quickening of my pulse. The tugging on my back was the shivers running down my spine. I wasn’t flying, I was floating.

With my face pressed against the ice, I saw that I’d mistaken day for night, winter for summer, snow for clouds, ash for bubbles, and water for air.

Freezing, I’d sink too low to feel anything. I’d become the lake.

The Metropolitan

The Metropolitan

The meeting had stadium seating. The projection screen was several stories tall, dwarfing any IMAX. The speakers were monoliths. The podium required a ladder for the facilitator to get up it. Once he’d made the climb, his likeness loomed over us.

Our overlord spoke with his face so deep in the camera only his eyes, nose, and mouth fit inside the frame. Big Brother assumed the new hires knew what we were doing. Our orientation focused on the culture of the corporation.

When the facilitator paused to sip his water, bizarre word combinations like: HARMONINCE, PARADIGMENT, and SYNERGRATED flashed on screen. When he spoke, the employees nodded in impossible unison, a row of puppets on the same string. I asked the person next to me what part of the job he was most looking forward to.

I couldn’t tell what he said, but I’m pretty sure it was in Greek.

Leaving the auditorium, the worker bees knew exactly where to go, scattering into a honeycomb of cubicles, stretching as far as the eye could see. Knowing nothing about my role, I took the first vacant seat I could find. My department was the one I happened to be closest to. My boss was whoever acknowledged me first.

All I knew was my job title: The Metropolitan, which could have meant anything.

The Ritual

The Ritual

I was late. The others were already in place.

Their masquerade masks were lopsided, porcelain smiles cocked to the side. Scarves jutted out from beneath them. Ski goggles obscured their gold trim patterns. Their fine satin ribbons were strung through knit caps, ear muffs, and big fuzzy flaps. Feathers peaked out of the members’ hooded sweatshirts. Icicles hung from their curved snouts.

Their long black robes did little to conceal their down jackets, snow pants, and in one case a set of tall puffy boots riding up pair of leggings.

For a cult, we were one motley looking crew.

The eleven of us had inherited a responsibility, passed down through generations. The lake demanded a sacrifice. It’s appetite was annual. It didn’t care about driving conditions, snow emergencies, or polar vortexes. We were doing the best we could under the circumstances.

Wiping the fog from their eyes, the others were too distracted to catch my late arrival.

The only one who saw me coming was strapped to the slab as an offering. Gritting his teeth on his ball gag, he tugged his shackles. It was as if out of all my brethren I was the most terrifying. Following his panicked gaze, the others turned to face me. Standing in silence, the wind flowed through their garments.

The high priestess stepped into the circle. The jagged dagger looked out of place in her mitten. Raising her mask, she revealed a baffled expression.

I looked down to find I had shown up naked. How embarrassing.

Stairway to Something

Stairway to Something

I’d been climbing the staircase so long, I could feel my kneecaps popping. When the sensation produced audible clicks, I knew I’d have to take a break. Sitting, I rubbed the knots out of my legs.

From this height, I still couldn’t see the head of the stairway. Looking back, I couldn’t see the foot of it either. This meant I was making progress. Attempting to stand, I damn near lost my balance, and almost went tumbling all the way down. My thighs throbbed. My calves quaked.

Falling forward, I caught a step and eased my way down. The stairs dug into my gut while I lay there considering my options. There was no getting around it. I’d have to set up camp before I could reach the summit. Rolling onto my back was a bad idea. My spine did not align with the sharp edges.

I’d have to sleep on a single step. There wasn’t enough space to sleep on my back. The corners did my ass no favors. Sleeping on my side, I ran the risk of rolling over and over and over and over, until what was left of me was back at the bottom. I’d have to sleep on my stomach, with one shoe digging into the next step down, and my face pressed into my bicep.

It wasn’t comfortable, but it was functional. The next morning, I wasn’t sure if I’d actually fallen asleep. I tried to stand, but my limbs disobeyed the command. My legs had locked. There was no pain. They simply weren’t working.

Not content to lie and wait for the sunset, I felt compelled to make progress. I gripped the next step up. From forearm to forearm, I claimed ground. If I couldn’t climb I’d crawl instead. My legs dangled behind me, as useful as a mermaid’s tail.

Then my arms gave out.

I made it up one more step with only my chin, but a second step just wasn’t happening. Heaven was up there somewhere, but for now I had to convince myself that it was full of sour grapes.

The Lookout Tower

The Lookout Tower

There was one road linking the prairie to the rest of civilization. A dead end, at a remote tower with a clear view of the dip in the horizon. That was my station. My job was to walk the grounds wielding a long pole, with a wick at the top and a point at the bottom. One side to light the lamps. One side to keep the street clean. My other job was to sit in an old creaking chair, watching the breeze ripple through the grass, with nothing but locusts to keep me company.

This changed the day the prairie had its first visitor. He’d come with nothing but a set of bongos and a lawn chair. He wore nothing, but body paint and a smile.

I’m not sure if it was how hard he hit those drums or the arrhythmical tempo that he played them, but the sound drove me batty. I paced the tower gritting my teeth. There was no protocol in this situation, nothing to reprimand him for what he was doing. Wadding toilet paper in my ears, I went about my routine.

Preparing to start my evening rounds, I changed my ear plugs to find that he was still going, hitting harder and harder, a perpetual motion machine. Lighting the lamps, I saw he’d been joined by friends. They’d laid beach towels in a circle. In the dark, their body paint made them glow.

The first visitor hit his bongos with both hands, a child having a fit on a countertop. His guests tapped on coffee cans, Tupperware containers, and empty pizza boxes.

It took forever to drag my mattress all the way up to the eagle’s nest, but I knew it was the only way I was going to get any sleep that night. Duct-taping pillows to my ears, I closed my eyes and dreamed of locusts.

That’s when the drum circle yielded the prairie to subwoofers. The pitter patter of bongos turned to thunder. There was no blocking the sound. I could feel it in my bones. Looking out the window, I saw the prairie had turned into a parking lot. The orchestra sat on their hoods playing their instruments.

With lead pipes, they bashed trash cans like steel drums. On the off beats, they played air horns. Pressing keychain clickers, they played their car alarms.

Leaving their hazards on, they parked in the driveway, arguing with big animated hand movements.

Shaking laptops, they made fists at their keyboards, throwing their hands up in frustration.

With no where to turn, taxi cabs clogged both lanes.

Full grown women baby talked, squeaking like flocks of rubber ducklings. They yelled, “Where are you?” at their cellphones. Flipping off the other end of the conversation as if anyone could hear what they were doing.

Men howled at the moon. Resting their heads against the bricks, they pissed on the tower. The stench of urine wafted up to the eagle’s nest, where it made itself at home.

Binding my belongings, I tied them to the end of the pole. I’d need it, not to jab my way through the mob, nor to light my path, but to start a small grass fire, one I hoped would spread fast.

Let Lucid

Let Lucid

We were riding the bus to school, when I noticed something was off. My watch was too tight for my arm. My knees dug into the next seat. My eye level was much higher than my peers.

I turned to my best friend. “Uh… Cory, I’m pretty sure I’m dreaming.”

Cory lowered his Gameboy to look around. “What makes you say that?”

I waved my hands in front of my eyes. “Well, Cory you’re eight years old, and I appear to be a full grown man.” I felt my face, “and I’m pretty sure I have a beard.”

Leaning into the aisle, Cory framed me in his fingers. “You know, now that you mention it you do have a lot more crow’s feet than usual. More nose hairs too. Oh gross, some of them are grey.”

Static came over the speakers. “You two pipe down back there.”

I waved the driver away. “Don’t worry about it. I think we just figured out that none of this is real.”

Standing up on our seat, Cory cupped his hands over his mouth. “He’s lucid everybody. We can do whatever we want.” He jumped on the springs.

The seats filled with cheers. Paper planes went flying. Spitballs stuck to the ceiling.

The bus screeched to a stop. Glancing out the window, I realized we were on a bridge as long as six Golden Gates strung together. Figures my subconscious would recycle imagery when it thought I wasn’t looking.

I tapped my lips. “Dreaming about crossing a bridge is supposed to signify some big important decision.”

Gripping the back of our seat, Cory spun around, “What does riding on a school bus mean?”

I shrugged, “I don’t know, something about going along with the crowd. We’re just lucky that my teeth aren’t falling out–”

“And that you still have your pants on,” Cory gave my lap a fearful glance, as if the denim might evaporate at any moment. “You know, because a lot of adults dream about showing up to school naked–”

The speakers screeched with feedback. The riders cupped their ears.

The driver spoke, “Everybody sit down and shut up. We’ll have no more talk of dreams.”

Picking a paper plane off the floor, I aimed its nose at the driver. “Dude it’s cool, we know you’re my subconscious. So why don’t you loosen up and fly this bus to space.”

Launching the plane, I watched it embed itself in the driver’s hair.

“Oh, that is it.” The driver jerked the wheel, putting his foot on the gas.

The bus took a sharp left. Children fell out of their seats. Careening over the medium, passengers in the back shot up like popcorn kernels. The bus crashed through the railings. Throwing our hands up, the vinyl fell out from under us.

Crashing into the bay, the windshield shattered. A tidal wave of water and glass filled the bus.

Cory found himself wading through seaweed. “What does it mean when you drown in a dream?”

I spat the water out of my mouth. “Something about feeling overwhelmed. Who cares. Adult problems are stupid.”

Cory nodded, flicking the bangs out of his eyes.

The current pushed lunch boxes and florescent backpacks towards us.

“Hey hey hey,” Cory jabbed me, “Do I grow up to be a big rock star?”

The water pooled around my chin. I nodded. “Uh… yeah, we all do.”

Cory smirked at this revelation. “Cool.” Then he went under.

Punxsutawney Penitentiary

Punxsutawney Penitentiary

There was a knock on my cell.

The guard had perfect posture, a uniform on a mannequin with wrap around sunglasses. He said, “It’s time.”

Rising from my bunk, I paused to regard the scratches on the wall. There were so many. With both feet on the floor, I let out a full bodied sigh.

Everything went white as I stepped out into the yard. It had been so long since I’d seen natural light. My audience’s silhouettes came into focus before their faces. They were at the edge of their seats, shivering, waiting for this show to get underway.

Stepping out of the line, the warden splashed through the yard. I’m surprised he didn’t fall with his chin held so high. He spat a wad of chew at my feet. When he squint, his skin was more leather than flesh. “So.”

“So.” I nodded.

He pointed to the concrete, slick with slush. “Take your time.”

I took six paces and came to a sudden stop. That was my mark. “I see it!” I shouted.

“He sees it!” The warden echoed over the bullhorn.

The onlookers hung their heads in disappointment, running their hands down their brows.

The megaphone crackled. “You know what that means maggots, six more weeks of winter.”

Lagging Behind

Lagging Behind

Deer sightings weren’t uncommon in my parents’ backyard. A hoof print here. A pile of droppings there. Watching through the curtains, we’d spot one using the old maple tree for a scratching post. Still, I was surprised to step off the patio to find an entire herd of them.

I peaked out from the fence. A doe spotted me. Red light. Ducking behind the posts, I waited for her to look away. Green light. I took a step out onto the lawn. All of their ears perked up. Red light. I sat down. Their attention returned to their meal. Green light.

The deer ate around the grass, feeding on the team jerseys, catcher’s mitts and football helmets scattered around the yard.

Inching closer, I reached for my phone. I tried to take a photo, but the digital zoom couldn’t do these creature’s justice. I wanted more than pixelated silhouettes, lost in the motion blur of start-stop traffic. I’d have to get closer.

When they moved on to greener pastures, I lagged behind the herd.

I followed the deer to a playground where they fed on science fair ribbons, patrol badges, and spelling bee trophies.

I followed them to a high school parking lot where they fed on yearbooks, driver’s licenses, and prom dresses.

I followed them to a college where they fed on scholarships, academic articles, and master’s degrees.

The deer staggered across the campus eating red cups, horse shoes, and thong underwear. Leaping across rooftops, they ate the Greek alphabet.

I followed them to an urban bohemia, where they fed on gallery showings, stripping the canvases from their easels, the sculptures from their stands, and the artists statements from the walls.

These deer weren’t afraid to try new things. They weren’t afraid to bite off more than they could chew.

Their hoof prints led downtown. Their bite marks ran across corner office desks, fine dining tablecloths, and condominium balcony railings. From district to district, they ate platinum records, actors’ head shots, and publishing contracts.

I followed the herd into the suburbs where they fed on diamond rings, baby bonnets, and mortgages. They acquired a taste for minivans, riding lawn mowers, and motorboats. Dragging mud across carpets, they left their pellets beneath Christmas trees.

Their path of destruction cut through the retirement home. They made abstract art of gold watches, greeting cards, and travel souvenirs. They developed a taste for snow globes, puzzle pieces, and ceramic figurines. They drove their antlers through television sets, left gaps in family photographs. When there was nothing left to eat, they fed on memory.

The deer didn’t stop until they reached the cemetery. This is where I found them feeding on the flowers.

Dream Detective Title

19 thoughts on “Dream Detective: Flash Fiction about Dreams and Nightmares”

  1. Holy Hell, Drew! You weren’t kidding when you these were more than a little personal. The last one especially, Lagging Behind, is one that must have been the hardest to share. I imagine, though, that many of us can identify with that particular story, those of us who spent any amount of time following behind, watching for signs that would place us in a specific category with those like us. No small comfort to say, “Ah to Hell with it,” and just be. Allow our self-entitled anger to rage, celebrate our own achievements with earned self-pride, and allow ourselves to be whoever (and do whatever) we want. Allow ourselves to just be happy. Though Lagging Behind doesn’t end quite that way, one can always hope the reality is better than the dream, eh?

    1. I have to thank you for reading all the way to the end. I threw down a good chunk of words this week.

      Lagging Behind is probably my favorite of the bunch just because of how relevant it feels to my current situation. I’m happy to see you the symbolism made for easy interpretation.

      1. Ha, you know me and my short attention span. 😉 Each of these was its own great flash fiction, which I love to read in any context. And your style, which I’ve grown more familiar with over time, is always a pleasure to read.

        You did a great job with really putting it out there in a way that makes the symbolism clear without being obnoxiously boisterous. Does that make sense?

        In any event, my admiration of your talent and respect for you as an individual have grown even more.

      2. Wow! High praise. Color me flattered. The feeling is mutual. I feel like I’m coming up with a generation of clever writers, all leaving their mark on social media. Happy to see how everyone has grown over the last few years.

  2. I am a huge fan of True Detective, as well as dream-related fiction (or super-surreal fiction). The latter is something I dove into a lot with my recent short stories, which I’m planning to work into my longer works in a way that’s a bit complicated to explain. But I love what you did here. And did I mention how great True Detective is? What a show.

    1. Thank you so much for reading.

      I just finished watching the season finally of True Detective. Great writing. They roped me in with the Robert W. Chambers King in Yellow references. Last weekend I started tinkering with silhouette designs based on their triply opening titles sequence.

      Halfway through the week I thought it might be cool to give each of the images some context, hence the flash fiction. I hope you liked the collection.

      1. Let Lucid is based on a reoccurring dream motif where I call out my subconscious in the middle of a dream and everything goes crazy.

      2. that sounds pretty fun. I’ve only had one instance I can remember in which I turned to someone in a dream and said, “Am I dreaming?” but it was pretty mindblowing

  3. I loved how you conveyed your dreams. These were absolutely beautiful to read, such vivid imagery and full of metaphors. I think my favorite is The Ritual. The opening image was fun to imagine. It reminded me of a few dreams I’ve had. One in which I was on a cobblestone street with surrounded by townspeople in Victorian era dress wearing masquerade masks while the evil beings wore raven heads. But, that dream was in a fairy world, not a cult, and I was going to a party, not making a sacrifice, lol, but it had that same fantastical, eerie quality to it.

    Do you have knee probs? In regards to Stairway to Something, right away I picture the dozens of dreams I’ve had where I can’t walk, my knees collapse, animals run up and gnaw them off. I ruined my knees playing basketball in college, so that is a fear of mine…knee replacements! Eeeek!

    Awesome! Enjoyed this 🙂

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read through them. I love dream journals and dream theories (which is what makes your blog so cool).

      My unpublished novel is actually called Jimmy the Nightmare Hunter (I’ve got some mock ups for that one in my illustration gallery).

      Oddly enough, masquerade masks show up in many of my dreams. Greek comedy and tragedy masks show up in several of my stories too, as do many Victorian era fashions. Theres something other worldly about seeing coat tails and hoop skirts in modern day settings.

      I sometimes have knee problems. All of my twenties were spent in jobs that involved standing all day, security and retail. I have a number of dreams where I’m either immobilized or drudging through sludge in slow motion. It’s a common theme.

      I didn’t have a chance to mention in this collection, but my most common reoccurring dream takes place in a sprawling super structure that houses every building I’ve ever been inside. In a world with no sun.

      Have you ever taken the time to infer meaning from your dream journals?

      1. I agree about the otherworldliness of Victorian era fashions 🙂

        Wow, a ginormous compound with every building you’ve ever been in! It’s odd, isn’t it, how in our dreams we understand the order of things even when we haven’t made the observations to support our deductions? Or, in reality, that which makes no sense makes perfect sense in our dreams, lol, which is why I think I’m a big fan of Alice in Wonderland 🙂

        For example, a super structure such as the one you mentioned would be so vast, I bet, that even if you didn’t visit every building in your dream, you were just aware of their presence. I think that is interesting. In some of my dreams, I just understand why things are the way they are or why something happens the way it does.

        Sorry your super structure has no sun 🙁 Wonder what that means. And I actually haven’t tried to interpret my dreams much. I think there is a part of me that doesn’t want to know what my subconscious is trying to tell me, because sometimes I fear what is hidden there.

      2. Last night I dreamed I conjured up a demon to try to avoid public speaking. Despite the fact that the dream took place in a massive warehouse store, it made a strange amount of sense. Again, there’s that repetition of large overwhelming spaces. Dormitories fused with malls, fused with locker rooms and hospital halls. Still no streets and no sun.

        I’m not sure what to infer from it either, but I’m sure there’s a thematic element worth plagiarizing in the there somewhere. 😉

      3. Cool dream! I’d so conjure up a demon to do my bidding. (Okay, no I wouldn’t, because that is evil, lol 🙂 Big spaces, no sun. I find that fascinating it is such a reoccurring theme in your dreams. You should look into what that means 🙂 If you find out, blog about it! Tis interesting.

        I’m introverted, so I’d interpret that dream–if I were the one having it–as me being fearful of people seeing me in public, fear of failure and the vulnerability of exposing myself to a larger venue and the overwhelming pressure to do well. I do fear what people will think as I continue to share my dreams, because I haven’t yet shared my intense nightmares from when I had PTSD. I fear people will think there is something wrong with me.

        And public speaking scares me a little…so, actually, yes, I’d get a demon to do it for me too!

        I suppose dream books could help? But I think you are the only one who can interpret the dream as it applies to you.


      4. I wrote a piece about the conjoined buildings dreams back in the day, called In the Halls of Sleep http://drewchialauthor.com/2012/10/12/in-the-halls-of-sleep/

        At the time I wrote it, I thought it had everything to do with my high stress work environment (where yes, I had to do a lot of public speaking). After leaving that job, the dream still persists.

        I too am a self declared introvert, it’s not a bad thing it’s just how I’m wired. But you are right, I have feared being exposed.

        I found the format of your dream journals fascinating. The videos added a cool personal to touch too. Your voice really does your words justice.

        I say share as much as you feel comfortable with. It’s alright if you don’t want to put a permanent record of your PTSD nightmares online, just yet. Do it on your own terms. Know that if and when you do those experiences, there will be an audience somewhere that finds comfort in them. If they’ve gone through something similar, it might make them feel less isolated.

        After my traumatic brain injury, my dreams were scrambled, trying to make sense of a mugging I still can’t recall. I’ve met others online who’ve shared similar experiences. Some who drink to ease themselves to sleep, some who need to sleep with the TV on. I recognize how heavy it can be.

        I’ve really liked everything you’ve shared so far

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