I lost track of days after that, waking, sleeping and eating without schedule. My time at the Cliff House became a nightmare of endless repetition.
Then the House started to tremble.
It might seem like a difficult thing to forget, but I had actually become used to the fact that the House was perched on a cliff. It had been as steady as a rock since I first set foot inside. But when the shaking began, my precarious position came back to me, and for a sickening moment I felt certain we were about to go over the edge.
The expected lurch and tilt never came, but the trembling became more pronounced and I could hear a distant rumble like thunder. An earthquake? Did earthquakes happen in dreams? Why not?
Then I noticed that all of the dreamers had stopped eating, and were looking up and towards the front of the House. I made my way to the front hall.
Racing up the hillside in the distance was a massive horde of...things...driving a straggling line of dreamers before them straight toward the House. As the horde drew closer, I got an impression of claws and fangs, twisted and looming human shapes interspersed with monstrous beasts, and...was that a giant McDonald’s shake on wheels...?
The dreamers were pumping their legs as fast as they could up the slope, but while they managed to keep a short distance from the horde, they couldn’t seem to pull away. Every so often a dreamer would drop behind, and vanish in a frenzied blur of motion amongst the pursuing horrors. As they approached the House, I tried to wave them inside, but they kept going – straight over the edge of the cliff, screaming as they fell.
I knew (or at least hoped) that the dreamers would wake up at the end of the fall, but the image of the mass suicide left me stunned. So stunned that it took a few seconds before I realized that the horde had stopped and was now looking at me.
They moved as one, streaming forward and blending together into one long line of hideous shapes aimed directly at me. I tried to slam the door, but it felt like I was pushing it through water, taking forever to close. No sooner had the latch clicked shut than I heard clawing and scraping, loud bangs as something tried to force its way through. I turned and ran into the House; the hallways felt like they were becoming longer as I pelted down their length, the stairs for which I was headed receding into the distance. The splintering noise behind me came too soon.
I gained maybe a yard or two when the horde passed the dining room, and I heard the panicked cries of dreamers as a column of beasts split off from the main group. The stairs were suddenly just ahead of me...with a lurch, I reached out and grabbed the banister, and hauled myself up the steps three at a time. It was like trying to race up a down escalator, except the creatures had no difficulty swarming up behind me.
Somehow I stayed ahead of them. Panting, I reached the second floor. Had to find somewhere to hide. I had no idea what would happen if the horde caught me, but I doubted I’d wake up. In my second or two of lead time, I picked a door at random, closed it behind me, and threw the latch.
Disaster. I was in a small bedroom, no closets, just a window looking out of the back of the House. The room smelled of incense, and there was a stone Buddha sitting on the dresser.
The door shook and I heard claws on the wood. Couldn’t hide under the bed, I thought, probably a monster underneath. I glanced at Buddha; he looked heavy, but there were hundreds of those things outside, and I didn’t need the hit to my karma. I threw open the window. There was a narrow sill outside; to one side, a drainpipe running down from the gutters above. Maybe I could swing to another window...
The wooden door began to crack and splinter, and I was out of time. I clambered out of the window, and swung myself down, holding on to the sill with my fingertips. The sickening abyss dropped away beneath me, and I couldn’t for anything in the world bring myself to reach out a hand to the drainpipe on my left. Instead, I just hung there. Maybe they’d think I jumped, like the dreamers outside.
The crash came a moment later, and I heard the scrabbling and snarling and slavering of the creatures in the room. Amid the bestial noises I caught snatches of human speech...
“going back to the camp...”
“get you for what you did...”
“get the value meal for only fifty cents more...”
“take your beating like a man...”
My arms started to burn. I was used to lifting paintbrushes, not weights. For a long minute the sounds continued...and then, with a last scrabble of paws or claws, the room above grew quiet.
Had they gone? I waited a moment or two longer to give them time to clear out, and then forced my aching limbs to haul me back through the window. I pulled my head back over the edge -- and a nightmare with the head of a decaying eagle, waiting just inside, snapped its wicked beak inches from my face.
With a cry, I pushed myself back. My hold slipped. I fell away.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 6.4]