What would you do if you woke up to find an endless tunnel in the middle of your home and that your cat was missing?
Dreams drop us in the middle scenes with no set up and no direction. We enter the situation, “And… action!”
The difference between a good dream and a nightmare is our ability to improvise with the material we’re given.
This nightmare was set at the height of winter out on the roof of a snow-covered skyscraper. The skyline was as flat as a matte painting. The low hanging moon provided the spotlight and the low roaring wind supplied the soundtrack.
From where I stood it seemed like I’d come in at the end. The supporting cast fanned out from the roof access hatch. These were people I’d known very various stages of my life: work colleges, college classmates, good friends, and lovers I’d left on bad terms. Each of them drudged through the snowdrift with their gloves up, like I was a threat. All eyes fixed on me.
I was perched on the ledge wearing nothing but my quivering arms and I must’ve been out in the cold for a while because my goose bumps were as raised and thick as brail.
My supporting cast inched closer. The urgency on their faces was undercut by the cold. They clutched the elbows of their long down coats, scarves fluttered into their faces, and their breath spiraled through chattering teeth.
The cast was restless, teetering on their marks, waiting for me to get back on script.
An ex girlfriend in a long goose feather coat stepped forward, rubbed her mittens together, and pointed over the ledge with her chin. “Yes, and?..”
“Yes, and…” is the foundation of improv comedy. It enables comedy troops to cobble together a story from suggestions from the audience. The “Yes” means you’ve accepted the contribution of your cast mate. The “And” means you’re ready to build on it. There is no “No” in improve comedy. You just have to go with the flow.
This ex of mine hadn’t given me a lot to work with, but nothing would be more embarrassing than brain farting through her setup. So I “Yes, anded” over the side of the building.
The set melted into a blur of streetlights and fire escapes. The full moon whirled into a straight line. I stopped rolling just as the street came into focus. I could just make out the steam vents and the cinders rising from the burning barrels. Ashes to ashes we all fall down.
I woke up to an earsplitting hissing and metallic gong. I followed a trail of business cards to the desk at the foot of my bed. The white noise machine was swinging by its cord, a fist-sized mallet tapping a rhythm on the aluminum. The devices usual calming brown noise had shifted to a piercing white. The box roared like a blizzard through a canyon. I dialed it down as I pieced together what had happened. My cat, Dexter, had had some fun pawing at the flashing blue buttons, gotten spooked, and fled the scene in classic Dexter fashion. He’s a bad boy. He knew what he was doing.
I sat at the edge of the bed deconstructing my dream death waiting for the sobering sense of relief to come. When it didn’t I wandered around the apartment flicking on the lights, calling for Dexter as I went.
“Dexter. The big mean droning sound is gone. You can come out now.”
It was in the living room where a chill set my arm hairs on end. I turned to the windows expecting shattered glass and swinging blinds, perhaps a brick from a secret admirer on the floor, but no. All the glass was intact, closed up, and locked down.
The chill crept around me and tapped me on shoulder. I felt the kitchen wall, flicked the light switch, and staggered over the trashcan with all the grace of a cartoon waiter.
Between the litter box and the refrigerator a two-lane tunnel stretched as far as I could see. My 400 square foot apartment now ran on for miles. The carpet and ceiling stretched so far off into the distance that they came together into a vanishing point.
With the acceptation of the kitchen table and chairs the dining room’s features repeated forever. The tunnel must’ve cut through the complex, the back lot, and the neighboring buildings. It was like a beige superhighway stretching off toward the ocean. Long red pasta stains marked the lanes. Clumps of cat litter and outlets marked the shoulders, and the accumulated ceiling fans, with their low emitting bulbs, looked like lamp poles in the distance.
“Cool. So I’m crazy now.”
I laced up my sneakers and ran out to the back lot. The dumpsters were brimming with discarded mattresses and beer cans, and the lot itself was in dire need of plowing, but there was no skyway expansion extending off the complex. On my way back I ran into a neighbor corralling her terriers into the hall for a late night potty break. I ogled her puppies and we exchanged a smile. We Minnesotans are notorious for holding in our opinions, but if she’d seen a tunnel cutting through her apartment she would’ve said something. Instead she just tugged her terriers by their leashes to give me room to squeeze past.
When I got back into my apartment the tunnel was still there defying all architectural logic.
“Okay, point one for crazy.”
I hurled a cat toy into the tunnel: a little ball with a bell in it. It jingled for a moment and came to an abrupt stop. Then something occurred to me. Where was Dexter?
“Dexter? Here boy.”
Dexter wasn’t a dog. Odds were he thought his name was what all humans said when they’d lost something. I found a can of tuna. Tapped the lid. Took my time peeling it back and spilling the wet food onto a plate. I set it on the table, but Dexter failed to show. I’d used up all of his Pavilion programing. Now we had a problem.
Ever the boy scout I filled a backpack with a handful of granola bars, cat food, a flashlight, a first aid kit, and a water bottle.
I took my time stepping over the threshold half expecting to hit an invisible wall. When my toe touched down I realized the tunnel was real and Dexter was really gone. The thought had me powerwalking, jogging, and ultimately sprinting into this strange impossible void. The support beams groaned beneath me. Each footfall echoed on the ceiling. I had no clue who or what resided below this corridor, but they didn’t seem to mind the ruckus I was making. So I kept going until I ran out of steam. I jogged until I felt it in my sides, and powered walked until I had to take a breather.
I sat, rifled around my pack, took a swig of water, and tapped my smartwatch. I was one thousand steps in, which was roughly half a mile.
I shouted. “Dexter!” My voice boomed down the tunnel. I was taken aback by just how loud it got.
It occurred to me that I had no idea what would happen if I got turned around in here. So I dug out a sharpie and drew an arrow on the wall pointing back the way I came. The marker screeched. The tone echoed all around me. The tunnel had a strange way amplifying sound.
I decided to press on a little further. The arrow repeated like a background from a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
I stopped, drew an X on a can of tuna, and set it in the center of the tunnel. I took five steps forward and found another can with an X and another. I picked it up, examined my mark, and slipped it back in my pack. The duplicate cans disappeared after that.
The physics of the tunnel didn’t make sense. The arrow had repeated, the tuna can had repeated, but the cat toy I’d flung in from my living room was nowhere to be found.
I checked my watch. I was now a mile in. I scanned the vanishing point. The tunnel dipped over the horizon. I had a sneaking suspicion it stretched across the continent.
I couldn’t see Dexter venturing this far into a new space on his own. One time I took him down to the laundry room to give him a change of scenery. He crawled between the machines and parked his little limbs beneath his belly, a little loaf of kitten too scared to go exploring. He had his safe spaces. I had a hunch he’d hidden behind the bookshelf upon spotting the tunnel.
I turned back and that’s when I saw my exact double spinning on his heel. The didn’t notice that the top of his pack was hanging open. I reached under my shoulder and found my own zipper dangling. My double zipped his pack shut and turn to look at me. I faced forward and saw nothing but the vanishing point. I turned back just as my double turned forward.
“Hey handsome!” Our voices boomed in unison. There was no echo. No delay just a broken mirror reflecting light the wrong way.
The hairs on the back of my collar stood straight up. I turned sideways and craned my neck. My double mirrored my movements, revealing a triple, quadruple, and quintuple of me standing just beyond him. Each of these copies shuddered in unison. It was like facing a camera to a monitor and stepping in between the two. Except this feedback loop was framed by dining room.
I don’t know why my first instinct was to reach into my pack, draw out a can of cat food and chuck it at my double’s head, but that’s what I did and it clipped him right where it clipped me.
I took out my flashlight and shined it back the way I came. A chain of beams gleamed all the way to the vanishing point.
I ran after my double, thinking I could tackle him and break the cycle, but he matched me step for step. After several minutes I watched him clutch his side, feel his carotid pulse, and stagger. Winter had frozen our running regiment and we were both out of shape.
I watched my double slap himself and felt it upon my cheek. We wanted to wake up, but time and space were broken.
This had to be a dream. The only problem with that theory was how consistent the architecture was. The subconscious has a short attention span. It can only keep so much of its surroundings in place before shuffling them again. This place remained fixed. The tunnel never shifted dimensions. The carpet stain remained consistent. The arrow never changed shape.
It occurred to me to check my watch. I’d run a thousand steps since last I’d checked, which meant I was a half a mile from home.
I wondered what would happen to my copies once we got back. Would they cram together in the living room, divvying up a box of Diet Coke among them? Would they blink out of existence? When I made it back into the kitchen table would I turn around to find the dining room wall had returned? What would I do if it hadn’t, call the landlord and have them send a maintenance technician in with a long piece of string?
“You don’t want to go in too deep or else the Minotaur will get you.”
I walked another half mile and you know what I found? The tunnel kept going and the chorus line of me were waving our arms around, struggling to understand what was going on. I’ll be honest we were losing our collective shit.
I took out my phone, opened the photo application, and zoomed in on the tunnel’s vanishing point. It kept right on going. We didn’t take that news so well. My double flung his phone like he was skipping a stone. A phone spun between my legs, slid between his ankles, and settled at my toes.
That’s when we started punching the wall. We hammered at it until cracks spread, dust rained down, and blood trickled through our knuckles, until our wounds filled with plaster, until it seemed like the whole goddamn wall was vibrating, until each of us had made his own little hole.
I chipped at the gap until I could get a good grip, pressed my heel against, and pried off a good chunk of drywall. Not enough for me to fit myself through, but enough for me to get a good look at what was on the other side.
All I saw was the same damn dining room, but from a new angle. There was another copy of me. This one was chin deep in a hole like the one I was looking through. This was no way out, just another way further in. If I tore up the carpet, pried up the floorboards, and jumped through gap I’d probably fall just forever. The world was gone. There was only an endless honeycomb of dining rooms going on forever into the astral plane.
My pulse throbbed throughout my fist. I scrapped the plaster off my knuckles, dressed the wound, and lay in the mess I’d made with the cat litter and the salsa stains.
My eyes opened to a ceiling fan whose blades were in dire need of dusting.
Wrenching myself up I got a palm full of drywall. My earlobe ached. I must’ve positioned my backpack like a pillow and the pain I was feeling was from resting on the zipper. I sat up to find the dining room still went on forever, as did the mile of me’s.
“Oh, come on!” We said collectively.
This nightmare wasn’t fading. It was doubling down.
I ate my breakfast on the go, discarded the granola wrapper on the floor, and counted five paces between where I dropped it and where it reappeared. I passed it for several miles before I got sick at the sight of crumpled foil, scooped it up and put it back in my pack. It wasn’t long before I’d eaten every the bars I’d packed and my stomach kept right on rumbling.
I wish I could tell you I’d rationed the four cans of cat food over several days, but I didn’t. The moment that first little bit of tuna passed through my lips I had to have rest. I slurped up the fourth so fast that I didn’t think much of slinging it over my shoulder when I was finished.
I walked three more miles before my watch flashed a low battery warning and shut down. My phone died shortly after leaving me alone with my thoughts, which also went dark.
A thought had been pecking at me for miles, but now it was weighing me down. What if the dream where I was out on that snow covered roof wasn’t a dream at all? What if I had staged a twisted reunion with long lost friends just so I could fall to my death in front of them? What if I was dead and this was hell?
Would Rod Serling come out of the woodwork to confirm my suspicions?
“Submitted for your approval a lost soul who will never reach his goal. A man who mistook real life for a dream only to awaken in the endless void of The Twilight Zone.”
At first that theory didn’t explain why I was able to exit my building or why I could interact with my neighbor and her terriers, but then I considered the possibility that hell had toyed with me, lulling me in with a false sense of security before clamping shut around me.
Still I couldn’t remember what had inspired me to take a swan dive from a skyscraper. Perhaps this infinite hallway was here to give me time to remember.
I’m not going to lie I’ve been low before. I’ve sat in the shower for hours, watching my fingers prune up in real time. I’ve lain on the carpet as sun lines showing through the blinds stretched across the ceiling. I’ve slumped onto the kitchen floor as Dexter knocked Tupperware off the countertops.
I’ve imagined my family struggling to plan a cost effective funeral. I’ve wondered which friends would bother to give a eulogy and if anyone would tell the priest I was agnostic.
I indulged this fantasy more often than I care to admit, but I never had a quit plan. I never looked up what pills to take, never tried to access a firearm, never bothered to trace my veins for a quick anatomy lesson.
With depression the void is always calling, suicidal suggestions always running in the background, but I’d gone through a long bout of tuning them out.
And how could I take my own life when I still had Dexter to take care of? That would be kind of a dick move on my part.
That was the detail that poked the hell theory full of holes. If I was already dead then why was I so hungry? What happened to the cat toy I threw into the tunnel earlier? For that matter what happened to the can of tuna I’d flung over my shoulder? Why wasn’t I seeing that every five steps? And why did my phone loop back around when I skipped it like I stone? Did it have something to do with the direction it was thrown?
I turned away from my doubles. The arrow on my right was on my left for the first time in a while. I took my phone out, cocked my arm back, and flung it as far as I could. It clipped the fan blade, scrapped the ceiling, and disappeared into the unknown.
You know what they say about guys with big feet? They wear big shoes. I wore a size 13, which was roughly twelve inches long. I walked heel to toe along the wall drawing a notch for every foot. The dining room was a mere ten feet long. I drew a line across the carpet to mark where it looped around. I looked back to see my doubles had done the same thing. I peaked through the hole in the wall to see the grid extended in all directions.
I gripped my pack by the hook, spun it like I was winding a discus, and hurled it as far as I could. It flew over the first line and dematerialized over the second and was gone in a blur of movement. That was all the proof I needed.
“Well, here goes something.”
I got into a starting position, dug my toes into the carpet, and counted down. “3… 2… 1!” I charged with all the energy I could muster, hitting my stride ten quadrants in, but I leapt too soon and touched down just shy of the line. I didn’t bother to catch my breath. I sprung right back up, charged at the grid, leapt, and dove. I rolled across the carpet several feet from the line.
I kept missing the mark, leaping too soon, overthinking each jump, until I just lost it.
“I’ve always hated this dining room.”
I closed my eyes, ran at the dark, and roared, leaping into the air with perfect long jump form.
I hit the wall, fell back, and opened my eyes just in time to see the framed photos come raining down. When I landed I was sprawled out on the kitchen table. Delinquent bills slid off in all directions.
Dexter meowed in protest to all the chaos he’d just witnessed from his perch atop the fridge.
“Have you been there this whole time?”
Dexter shrugged and returned to a cat bath already in progress.
“Dude, you could’ve said something.”
I starred at the ceiling fan, struggling to process the glitch in reality I’d been trapped in for God knows how long.
That’s when those terriers started barking up a storm. There was bickering on the other side of the wall. My neighbors were not happy about the explosive crash that had just woken them up. Shadows gathered beneath my door, the bell rang, and the police eventually came knocking.
I was holding a bag of frozen hash browns to my forehead when I let them in.
“What seems to be the matter officers?”
One officer stood with me in the entryway as her partner scanned every cubic foot of the apartment with his flashlights. It would’ve been easier to just switch on all the lights, but he preferred to keep things dramatic so I let him. I stood in the hall scratching Dexter beneath his chin.
I couldn’t help but notice the backpack, phone, cat toy, and empty tuna can in a heap beneath the kitchen table. There was no sign of any hole, seeing as how that side of tunnel was now an opening leading into the kitchen.
When the officers asked why I dove at the wall like I was the Kool Aid man I just played dumb, said I was sleepwalking, that it happens when I’m burning the candle at both ends.
“I’m adjusting to a new schedule and it has me powerwalking at inopportune times.”
The bump on my noggin corroborated my version of events. Apologies were made to the neighbors and the officers let me off with a chuckle.
I’m just glad no one thought to ask why there was an arrow on the wall and a big black line drawn across the carpet.
There were only two months left on my lease after that. During that time I kept Dexter confined to the bedroom. He hated it and clawed at the door in protest, but it was for his own good.
I slept with the TV on and dreamt about Rick and Morty. I slid the kitchen table into the living room, ate most of my meals on the couch, and I never set foot in that dining room again.
Meet Noelle, a Hollywood transplant that’s been subsisting on instant ramen and false hope. She’s on the verge of moving back into her mother’s trailer when her agent convinces her to take a meeting at the Oralia Hotel. Enchanted by the art deco atmosphere Noelle signs a contract without reading the fine print.
Now she has one month to pen a novel sequestered in a fantasy suite where a hack writer claims he had an unholy encounter. With whom you ask? Well, he has many names: Louis Cypher, Bill Z. Bub, Kel Diablo. The Devil.
Noelle is skeptical, until she’s awoken by a shadow figure with a taste for souls.
Desperate to make it Noelle stays on, shifting the focus of her story to these encounters. Her investigations take her through the forth wall and back again until she’s blurred the line between reality and what’s written. Is there a Satanic conspiracy, is it a desperate author’s insanity, or something else entirely?