One night I woke up talking to myself, whispering the title of this story. That was the embryo, and now you’re reading the full creature. This is for those who know insomnia and what it is to never have a dreamless night.
Dedicated to Marcos. Sleep well, my friend.
All My Nightmares Are Named Heather
by Mário Coelho
She’s always this close when I wake up, less than a palm’s distance bridging our noses. Big eyes, darker than this penumbra. Pupils lightly flickering, like the TV static behind us. In these roadside motel rooms, everything rustles and murmurs. The carpet is pregnant with aborted cigarette butts and dead smells—sweat and barely washed bedding.
“You were dreaming,” she says.
“I was.” My voice, hoarse. Blind fingers reach out for the bedside table, grab the glass. A bit of water left overnight. Tastes like dust.
I was. Running along a creek. Bare feet cut. Biting my cheeks. Breath heaving. Dry tongue lapping out her name. Heather.
“Who’s Heather?” she asks.
“I told you.” These post-nightmare conversations of ours, dirty laundry beating against the washing machine. Cycling. Hushed, like the drowned out buzzing of the late-night driving outside. “She’s no one. Nothing. A bad dream I don’t know.”
“We only dream of things we know.”
Sarah’s right. I hate that she is, because my brain’s still whirring and my words lag, lost. Heather’s someone ingrained in my headache. A mishmash of all the women I’ve seen, a hodgepodge of flesh pressed together into anonymity. I never see her face, not really. I see her mouth open and her gasp escape, I see the cuts in her face and legs. Her wide-eyed flight–is she running from me?
“Are you jealous of my nightmares?” I ask.
“You’re theirs, every night.”
“I’m yours too.”
Sarah’s sad, slight smile. A contour of faded, smudged lipstick. She forgot to take off her makeup again. We always go to sleep in a hurry and leave with haste. We live in a haze; art conventions to book presentations, second category artists chasing morsels of monetary appreciation. Sleeping in run-down motels, eating run-down food in run-down diners. Driving on run-down roads, where pets turn into road-kill. Fido’s jaw slackening over his brains. Mr. Whiskers a gushy, warm ball of blood and fur. They still move, but it’s just maggots or rats.
That’s the last time Sarah painted. We stopped the car and I got out for a piss and a smoke, and she used the hood as a stool and painted the rotting fur ball. Carcass to canvas.
“Someone is grieving him now,” I said, puffing out smoke. Or cold.
She blinked. “Or someone abandoned him.”
That’s the gap between us. To me, failure is asymptomatic. To her it’s asymptotic. My words are unchanged, but hers are uncharged. She lost that starving gleeful drive, the boundless optimism soaking her brush in blues and whites. Now she paints in black and red. Or not at all.
I haven’t written a line in three years. And she paints rotting animals.
“I’ve got to pee,” she says. “Get hard for me.”
But I know she isn’t going to piss. I wait until she tiptoes into the bathroom to grab my dick, and then she closes the door and I hear her muffled retching. Maybe she’s turned bulimic, but we’ve always kept our mental illnesses private. I get hard as her vomit splashes the sink. It’s not attractive, but it’s Pavlovian.
She comes out wiping her mouth. I take off the covers. She slips inside them, I slip inside her, and she kisses me. It tastes acrid, and of copper and perfume. We fuck silently. The next door guest is fucking too. Saw him in the hallway before, sweaty arm over a younger girl. I don’t know if she’s moaning or crying. I breathe in tune with the man’s grunts.
Sarah bites my ear as I finish. Licks my five o’clock shadow. “Still thinking about Heather?” she whispers.
But I am. Sarah falls asleep, still wrapped in my sweat. This fucking of ours, I don’t know if makes us deplorable or stagnant.
I fall asleep too. And Heather’s still there, running ahead. I run behind, trailing the red footprints she leaves on the wet ground.
“Heather, wait!” In my dreams I half-scream, half-whisper. “Wait!”
She looks over her shoulder. “Sam!”
I can’t recognize her face. I see its features, and they’re familiar but somehow blank. Like someone is hiding her from me.
“Sam!” Despair drips from her voice. She almost trips, and her head fades from view, but then she’s up with a start, sprinting farther as I creep closer. I can almost see what she’s really like. A slender nose. Dark, bruised, crying eyes. Her lips mouthing: “Sam, she’s behind you! Run!”
I look behind. The headboard, faded wood glazed by shutter-cut streetlamp light. Sarah’s chest moves slowly up and down, prickled with perspiration. Her head lays on her hand.
She’s staring at me.
“We have to do something about this,” she whispers.
I reach for the glass. Empty. I lick the sweat off my lips. “What do we do?”
“We keep moving.”
Our Plymouth rumbles down the road. Around us, dew-kissed woods glisten under a gray morning. Sarah wears her sunglasses, hiding the dark circles under her eyes from the reflection in the rear-view mirror. We pass little towns with listless people, stop for gas and Sarah buys a Snickers bar. Munches it carefully, like she’s going to puke any time again.
“You okay?” I ask.
She’s covering her mouth. “Yes,” she says, nodding. “Just a toothache.”
“Yeah. Vomiting every night can’t be good for them.” Like vomit itself, I regret my words as soon as they come out.
Sarah’s mirrored lenses stare at me. I can’t see my shame in them; I’m impassive as always. “What did you say?”
“It’s one of those personal taboos of ours, isn’t it?” Don’t know what’s making me press the subject. Then Heather flashes before me–a ghost in the windscreen. “One of those unspoken things.” My voice, is it shaking?
Sarah is looking at my hands. My fingers are white from gripping the wheel hard. I relax them. She says nothing.
“Are you pregnant?” I blurt. “Haven’t seen you take the pill.”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” she says.
“I think I do.”
“No, you really don’t.” She lays her head against the window and licks her lips. Her teeth are spotted with blood, or lipstick.
She’s still quiet when we get to our destination, a small gallery struggling to appear filled with bored small town dwellers. The mayor is shaking everyone’s hands when I park the car. Next to me, a pair of teenagers take turns sucking on their cigarettes and each other’s mouths.
The mayor escorts us inside. “Sam Russell and Sarah Rose, writer and painter!” he says. “This is true love, folks.”
I spew out my barely-rehearsed presentation, my sales pitch. Sarah hangs her pictures and sits by them, hands on her lap, sunglasses still on. Old people buy a couple of books and a portrait, more interested in seeing new faces than anything else. The mayor promises to fix potholes.
“Is there a lot of swearing in this book?” an old lady asks, brandishing a copy of ‘Nightmare Parasite’, by Sam Russell. I’m about to say yes, or no, when I realize I can’t remember which is right. I’m left there, tongue frozen against the roof of my mouth.
She takes my silence for an answer, and adds: “She’s beautiful.”
“Your wife.” The old woman strokes her scarf, sighing wistfully. “We’re all somebody’s beautiful wife, at some point.”
“Or maybe forever,” I say. I strain a smile. My heart thrums.
The old woman laughs, shaking her head like she’s remembering something I’m not. “Oh, never trust a writer’s flattery.” She squeezes my arm. “I bet she’s thinking of you, when she paints.” I glance at one of Sarah’s paintings. A smashed dog’s skull, red-speckled black tar. “And I know you were thinking of her when you wrote this book.”
“I don’t think this is a love story.” I spin the pen between my fingers and look at the book cover. A hanged woman swaying from a tree, drawn in a murky, earthy style. Sarah did it. “Who should I sign it for?”
“Joe. Joe Maragos. He’s always loved mystery novels, my husband. Had a couple at his bedside in the end,” the lady says. Her lip quivers, then her voice. “He passed away in June.”
I avert my eyes down to the book. She’s not just mourning Joe, she’s also prematurely mourning herself. When our spouses go, along with them our last fibers of stubborn, irrational immortality. I remember writing about this, somehow. I remember knowing it. Or faking it.
I open the book while she sobs, jot down a quick Joe Maragos, may he live in our stories, unwritten. Make a pretty lie, and people will find comfort in it. My more honest sentences are the barest. Like how I dedicated the book to Sarah. A simple “For Heather”.
I drop the book, it smacks down on the edge of the table and pirouettes to the floor spine-first. Joe’s wife gabbles something, but I can’t hear her over the rumbling silence in my head.
I grab another copy of ‘Nightmare Parasite’ and speed walk towards the door, leaving a mumbling, knee-creaking Joe’s wife behind. I excuse myself through the sparse crowd and nod at Sarah, who remains sitting still.
It’s cold outside, hoarfrost-covered pine trees line the other side of the road. The scent carries over, dappled with car-exhaust. The teenage lovebirds are still smashing tongues, covered with specks of slow-falling snow.
“Hey, guys, can I bum a smoke?” I ask them.
Their lips smack apart. “Huh, sure,” the kid says, fumbling around his pockets to hand me a cigarette. “Lighter?”
If anything, I’m heavier. Already miss apathy. “Sure.”
“Want one more for the road?” the kid asks, lighting my cig.
“Nah, I’m trying to quit. Thanks.”
I get in the Plymouth, take off my boots and jacket and turn on the heating. I read ‘Nightmare Parasite’ as the windows fog up. The writing is composed of crisp, clear cynicism. I can see the hows and the whys, but I can’t remember writing it. The words start to blur, and my brain congeals to a slow.
Inside the glove compartment, my dopamine friend: Ritalin– Adderall’s hipster brother. I swallow a pill and chase it with a drag. Sharp focus and disinterested restlessness hit me an unsettled amount of minutes later.
A horror novel – neither novel nor horrific – about a couple being chased by the man’s dead ex-girlfriend.
She was always in his nightmares, running. That was her sustenance, nightmares. She ate them one by one, with no teeth of her own. Until he was always dreaming of her.
Sunlight stays frozen in gray as the hours go by. The teens fondle each other against a beat-up Ford, ignorant or ignoring the glares of the odd old person coming in or out of the gallery. Hunger blunted, heart racing, I speed read half the book. Before the Ritalin crash stabs me between the eyes and slurs my brain, I replay in my head a passage from the last chapter I read:
‘We keep moving,’ she said.
The man simply nodded, too weak for more than laying down in bed in the fetal position. She stroked his cheek. Silver-lining was that the creature would eat most of his nightmares; wouldn’t let him relive seeing his mother dead, mouth bloody and agape in a last, toothless grin.
I open the window to get some air, and catch a lungful of Sarah. A blend of ink, my smoke and her vanilla-scented deodorant. “People were looking for you,” she says.
“Yeah, sorry, I wasn’t feeling too good.”
“Something you ate?”
“Maybe.” I lick my teeth. “The books?”
“The mayor bought them all. He’ll transfer the money, it should be available tomorrow. I think he feels sorry for you.”
I wait until Sarah circles the car and gets inside. “Why’s that?” I ask.
Sarah shrugs. “You just have that look.”
That’s something we have in common. The vacuity of words, how we sync them in a blank page or canvas. There are many meanings behind that look, but she means none of them, and I get the one I want. We’re lazy readers, feeding each other’s plots.
“Hey, have you actually read this?” I ask, brandishing the book.
She glances at it. For the first time in my short memory she wavers. “I . . . can’t remember.”
“I thought so. We struggle to remember things lately, don’t we?”
“I think we’ve just been really tired.” She puts the pack of Ritalin back in the glove compartment and closes it. “You shouldn’t take these, they screw up your sleep.”
Continuous vacuities, flowing into semantic spam. “Sarah, I think something serious is going on. This book, my book . . . You have to read it. I think it’s about us.”
Joe’s wife, a foggy figure through the windshield, waves at me as she walks by, cradling my book against the cold. Sarah doesn’t even look at her when I wave back. “They say all writers write about themselves,” she says.
“This is different. I don’t think this is just about me, I think this is for me.” I let my mouth hang, voice dragging, and stammer: “Like a diary of sorts. To make me remember.”
“Hm. And is it working?”
I look away. “No.”
“Because it’s fiction, love. That’s all it is.”
“There’s more, Sarah. There’s Heather. I dedicated the book to her.” I show it to her, and her neatly-trimmed eyebrows wrinkle together. “Sarah, who is Heather? Why can’t I remember?”
“Who is Heather, Sam?” Sarah’s voice is pitched in acid. Her accusations, these aren’t the kind of vacant words I’m used to. She’s smearing the tabula rasa before handing it to me. “Why is she in your nightmares?”
“I don’t know!” Did I yell? Sarah’s taken aback, a crossroad of anger and surprise. “I don’t know . . . I think she’s an ex-girlfriend, and I think she’s dead. But . . . somehow she feeds off my nightmares.”
“Heather is a dead girlfriend you don’t remember, and she’s eating your dreams.” Sarah struggles to contain her sarcasm. “Yeah, they should be calorie-dense.”
“I . . . Yes, it’s not the most lucid thing I’ve said.”
“It really isn’t.” She sighs, then winces and sucks on her lips.
“It’s nothing.” Another longer sigh. “Look, Sam, when we first started dating, you told me you were a method writer. That I remember, because it was the snobbiest thing I’d ever heard. Whatever it is you did to write that book, I don’t care, but it is not you, and it is not real.”
I’m going to say I don’t remember, and then there it is: Heather, again a ghost briefly in the windshield.
I don’t know what to say. “I don’t know what do”, I say.
Sarah’s face slacks and softens into that sad half-smile of hers. “But I do, Sam.” No emptiness there, and I hunger for her lullaby. “We keep moving.”
Into another motel room swiveling in lamp-made twilight. Heather is here with me, coalescing amid the twigs and tree trunks as she runs. I run after, trailing her familiar litany, hollow echoes thumping against the dirt and leaves.
She stumbles and falls in the dark. I stop.
“Why can’t you leave me alone?” I ask, or implore. “Why can’t I dream of anyone else?”
She mumbles, covering her mouth. Pebbles stick to the back of her hand like canker sores. She laughs, and cries, and when she moves her hand, I see her mouth is dark-red, toothless.
“Eating my nightmares,” I say. “With no teeth of your own.”
But I’m talking to a wide-eyed Sarah.
“Dreaming of her again,” she says.
I fumble around for the bedside lamp. Sarah’s pupils constrict under the light.
“Where’s the book?” I ask. “I have to finish it.”
Sarah lowers her chin in almost predatory worry.
“I think you left it in the gallery.”
“No, no.” I slide into a t-shirt and jeans, shaking my head against post-sleep nausea. “Must have left it in the car. I’ll be back.”
“You won’t find it.” Whatever else she’s about to say is swallowed back with the vomit. Her bulimia, my night terrors, the bickering children we’ve never had. She’s nodding or holding it in and I’m up in a run, boots untied. I reach the end of the hallway just in time to hear her slam the bathroom door.
Outside, a finger-cutting breeze drags the stench of cooking sulfur from a nearby paper-mill. That’s how we sleep on the cheap. Each week stinks differently. The smell is ingrained in the car seats, wafting off as I fumble about for the book. I check the glove compartment, under the seats, beneath the wheel, in the trunk, nothing.
Nothing but Heather, blood pooling out from where her teeth should be, a microsecond in the rearview mirror. I stumble backwards out of the car, my ass hitting the concrete hard. I wait until I’m not wheezing anymore, until the air reeks again.
“Leave me alone!” I shout.
No one to hear me, or no one wants to. Behind me, a window turns dark. Tonight I’m somebody’s fear. The crazed hobo, making you check if you’ve locked the door.
Sarah’s right, we have to keep moving.
I run back to my room. I don’t even get hard when I hear Sarah’s familiar retch, our own version of a ring for sex bell. This dread has me swaying up and down like a marionette. Feels like Ritalin shakes. Her door is barely ajar, and I shouldn’t, but I need her.
I open the door. Sarah is bent over the sink, yellow-red bile streaming out of her, dotted in white.
Teeth litter the sink.
Sarah looks up. Vomit and blood streaking down the corner of her lips. Sunken eyes, gaunt cheeks, like her face is caving in.
I take a step back.
Sarah sighs. “You can’t leave,” she says in a clotted voice. “I love you. You feed me.”
“It’s you. Not Heather, it’s you,” I say. I blink hard, to see if this is just a different nightmare.
“Nothing has to be different. I made you forget her, I can make you forget this too.”
“The book, it’s real. Heather was with me, you took her place. You took her . . .”
I trail off as Sarah nods and grabs a tooth from the sink, plunging it into her gums. “They’re all that’s left of her,” she says, stabbing another tooth against her mouth. “Don’t run from me, Sam. You did it once already, and it didn’t do you any good. Don’t make it hard for me.” She licks her swollen lips. “I’ll always be with you.”
I run out of the bathroom, down the hallway, out into the reeking cold and into my car.
I drive off, hitting a dumpster on the way out and speeding through the trash explosion. I can’t keep the wheel straight, and the car barely stays within the lines. Road marks turn into suggestions, lampposts into comfort. I drive fast, anywhere that’s far and away from her.
Half an hour in, my fingers are steady enough to turn on the radio. To hear someone else would be nice. Sarah’s voice is the only one that’s clear in my mind. Everything else is a sonic splotch. No memories, no words, no one else but her, leeching off of me, eating away all that I am, all that I was. I don’t have any other nightmares, because she is all of them.
The radio doesn’t work. There’s nothing but static. How many days, weeks, months and miles have we driven in silence? We never heard the news, traffic forecasts, not even music. My parents, they’re an anonymous one-size-fits-all blur. Where did I live before? Is my name even Sam?
Heather, a surfacing contour in my memory. Her cascading laugh, whittling down on the phone. Her thumb, caressing the back of my hand, three strokes each time. All these things Sarah ate up are coming afloat, and I have to blink away tears to keep my eyes on the road.
Pain is caffeine, for a while, then my eyelids turn heavy anyway. The gas meter arrow points halfway down. I can’t fall asleep, Sarah will be with me if I do. Staring, devouring me until her teeth fall out and she puts them back, again and again.
I get the Ritalin from the glove compartment. Chew it up. It’s grimy and bitter and it will wake me up faster this way. Hours drag by. My already faint hunger turns to nothing. I keep driving these nowhere roads surrounded by pines. Should I find somewhere with people? Pay some working girl and sleep next to her?
No, Sarah killed Heather. No one is safe with me. I have to keep moving. Until she starves from my lack of sleep, or a vein bursts open in my brain.
Forced insomnia, keep me alive.
My body moves by itself, and it’s like I’m watching it from the outside. Hazy recollections of gas stations, paying with crumbled up bills and munching on the sugary snacks that keep piling up in my car. Faces turn featureless, voices flattened down. I try to imagine music in the radio static, but I can’t remember a single song. Day recycled into night, my car seems to sink so low into the road it’s like I’m driving through solid gray.
Is it the fifth day? Is it the sixth? I’m out of Ritalin now, moving on to an EC stack: adding ephedrine from bromantane to gas station coffee. The man behind the counter must have thought I’m a walking allergy. I had to stop a couple of times to barf the donuts and candy bars lumping my insides. Now I don’t stop anymore, and the window is splattered with the barely solid chunks of my digestion.
Night again. Snowflakes rotate around themselves. I feel an uneasy kind of peace, more like resignation. I barely notice the wheel spinning out of my hands and the car swerving madly.
“Oh, my love . . .” It’s Heather speaking, crying. “She is always here too, don’t you see? Coming after us. She won’t stop. I am sorry, Sam.”
“Heather,” I croak. “I miss you.”
“I missed you too,” Sarah says, staring at me through the window.
I don’t hear my scream, only the thump of my foot against the door, throwing me into the passenger seat and smashing my head against the glass.
Sarah licks her lips in a shut-eyed shudder. “I missed you, and I was so hungry . . .”
“Sarah, please, let me go . . .” I say, slurring in insomnia.
Her sad smile I used to love so numbly, showing just a hint of Heather’s teeth. She shakes her head, both denying and wistful. “You were quick to forget me, once. Why can’t you forget her?”
I put the car in reverse. As it grumbles back to life, Sarah shakes her head again. “You’ll fall asleep again eventually, and I will be there.” Her voice trails off as she gets smaller and farther away, the headlights outlining her against the tree behind her. “Don’t go, Sam.”
“I won’t,” I whisper, and stomp on the pedal.
The hood smashes against her legs, crumples her down and folds against the tree. The whiplash snaps me back and forth, cracking something in my torso. I take a second to realize I’m still awake, lungs struggling to expand against bruised or broken ribs.
I pull myself out of the car. Sarah’s a few feet up ahead, curled up in a ball and moaning. No, vomiting, dragging her fingers on the pavement. I limp towards her until my knee buckles and I fall face-first. The asphalt feels like sandpaper as I drag my cheek across it, pulling forward on my elbows and knees, coughing saliva.
Sarah’s bent legs twist into place, like a dead spider coiling itself to life. She sighs, like the bones jutting from her arm are a mere inconvenience. No worse than forgetting to buy milk or the phone dying mid call. She retches again, scattering more teeth in a puddle of vomit.
“Just go to sleep, Sam,” she says.
I’m close to her now. Blood dribbles out of her temples, mingled with tar. She smells dead, but sweet. Perfumed road-kill.
“I’m sorry,” I say, and I hear myself meaning it. “I have to let you go.”
I kiss her. She laughs lightly between my lips.
Then I palm her pooled-up vomit and began popping Heather’s teeth into my mouth, like Ritalin pills. It tastes like sour milk. My ribs sting as I tense up to hold my own guts in.
“No, no!” Sarah screams, unfreezing herself and reaching for the teeth. I cover the vomit puddle and shove it in chunks into my mouth, pushing teeth and bile down my throat. Sarah claws at my scalp, rips it open, pulls my hair and smashes my face against the ground, splashing vomit around.
I keep swallowing Heather’s teeth, until all I’m putting between my broken lips is tar and dirt. Sarah tries to put her fingers in my throat, and I bite until it tastes like iron.
Her weight is off me. I half-raise myself and stumble towards the car. I manage to get in and close the door, and I’m about to turn the key but I can’t find it anywhere. Lips burning, heart drumming, I wait for Sarah to open the door.
But she doesn’t. She’s curled up against the chipped tree trunk, crying with her head between her knees, clawing at her own hair. Sometimes, as she moans, she touches the inside of her mouth, the gums in which Heather’s teeth should be.
She looks up, pleading.
“I’m sorry,” I barely say.
The keys were next to the gas pedal. I turn the car on and drive away slowly, a cracked headlight blinking Heather goodbye. I wait until I can’t hear her crying, until I don’t hear it even in my head. I let the car slow down and veer off-road to a gentle stop.
I close my eyes, falling asleep.
And then I dream of something new.
About the Author
Mário is a writer and translator, born in Portugal in 1990, year of the German reunification. You’re welcome, Germans. He likes post-rock and melancholic sci-fi.
His English-language fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons and Solarcide, but it won’t stop there. You can find his multilingual ramblings on Twitter at @MSeabraCoelho.
About the Narrator
Maui Threv was born in the swamps of south Georgia where he was orphaned as a child by a pack of wild dawgs. He was adopted by a family of gators who named him Maui Threv which in their language means mechanical frog music. He was taught the ways of swamp music and the moog synthesizer by a razorback and a panther. His own music has been featured over in episodes of Pseudopod. He provided music for the second episode ever released across the PseudoPod feed: Waiting up for Father. He also is responsible for the outro music for the Lavie Tidhar story Set Down This. He has expanded his sonic territory across all 100,000 watts of WREK in Atlanta where you can listen to the Mobius every Wednesday night. It is available to stream via the internet as well, and Threv never stops in the middle of a hoedown.