It starts off dark, and all I hear is a low, subtle pulsing. Not as rhythmic and steady as a heartbeat, but more like, the whooshing and sloshing of a washing machine. Then I can make out the clicking. Click, click, click. Multiplied. Click, click, clickclickclickclickclickclick. I see myself. And I am myself at the same time. My shoulders are drooped. I can hardly keep my eyes open. My skin feels warm, too warm. I see myself noticing the sound and raising his—my—head. My eyes move to the left and my head turns slightly, but then stops. I need to see. But I don’t want to see.
Behind me, the darkness fades and I begin to see. The me that is watching me begins to see.
Glistening folds of sickeningly pink tissue, folds and layers, and the tissues are lined with teeth, yellowing canine teeth. It looks like the living walls of a tunnel that reaches far, far back. The walls contract and expand, contract and expand. The tunnel is dark, and I can’t see its end. The teeth make me think I’m standing in front of some bizarre monstrous mouth. But I watch the walls contract and expand. And I realize what it is. What I see is not a tunnel. It’s not a mouth. It is what lies beyond the mouth. I’m already inside this thing. This is the inside of its throat.
I’m not standing. I’m falling. In a blink, I’ll be shredded by row upon relentless row of grimy teeth. I’ll be devoured. I clap my hands to the sides of my head. My eyes are wide now. I’ve lost the safety and sanity of drowsiness. I throw my head back, and I screa—
—and I wake.
I woke up sweating and short of breath. And when I realized I was just dreaming, I relaxed abruptly. I took deep breaths and waited for my heart rate to slow.
As I got out of bed, I couldn’t quite shake the jitters I felt in my muscles. As I brushed, the sight of my gums and my teeth disgusted me. I looked away. The scent of my toothpaste and mouthwash nauseated me. My eyes stung a little. The way they did when I didn’t get enough sleep. And I wondered if I should call in sick. But the shower felt good and refreshing. By the time I toweled off, I felt much better and calmer. My neighbor uses the radio as his alarm. It came on just as I was dressing. Sometimes it annoyed me. I’m not a morning person. But that morning, the sound of human voices calmed me further.
I thought about the dream all day, still distracted by how vivid it seemed. But it was just one nightmare. A mundane day at work was just what I needed. That evening, in my sketch class, I even tried to start developing the all-mouth-no-face creature into a character. (Instead I opted for long-suffering grandpa.)
That night when I got home, I had no worries about going to sleep. I began to wonder if the nightmare was a sign that I had too much on my plate.
Only a year prior, I had nothing going on. If a nightmare was the price for finally having a life, I would gladly pay it.
If only it had stopped at nightmares.
I’ve had other nightmares, of course, and dreams so vivid I’d wake up with tears in my eyes or a rising panic in my chest. Once, I thought demons were shaking my bed, because they’d come to claim me, only to wake and be relieved that it was only a minor earthquake.
I’ve had dreams that made me think about my life and my choices and all of that. Dreams that haunted me. Dreams that I would always remember. Dreams I’d rather forget and never admit that I’d had.
I’ve had recurring dreams. Like the one where I’m living in a house that’s a combination of my childhood home and my current apartment, only different, because there are rooms and hallways and staircases that I’ve never known about before. Sometimes it was creepy. Sometimes adventurous. Sometimes just calm and peaceful. I still haven’t figured out what that’s about.
But this dream caught hold of me. This singular vision. This gaping abyss of a throat with rows upon rows of undulating mucous membranes lined with yellowing decaying razor-sharp teeth. This devourer.
After I had the dream a second time, I sat in my cubicle at work, unable to focus on the report I was drafting or the data I was supposed to compile by week’s end. I stared at the felt spider and the fake raven that I’d decorated my desk with for Halloween.
I thought about why I might be having that nightmare. Being swallowed. Eaten. Devoured.
I had just started doing shows. Maybe it was the way I felt about the audience?
I was doing what was expected of me in my day job. My family was proud. They were…relieved. I had tried a number of different jobs before getting my current one, which was so stable that I’d already hit my five-year anniversary. I knew what I really wanted to do. I’ve known since high school. I even tried to work it into a “real” job by attempting to be a motivational speaker for corporations. But I couldn’t ask other people to feel motivated when I didn’t feel it myself. And I couldn’t fake it.
What I really wanted to do, and I’m still sometimes hesitant to admit this, what I really want to do, is to be an improv comic.
So when the motivational speaking failed, my new plan was to save up money, pay debts, and do what I really wanted to do on the side. Until, one day, I could quit my day job. (Deep down, I accept that it probably won’t happen. But that might be okay. Ever since I started finally going for it with the improv, the day job hasn’t been too bad.)
Improv comedy. It’s terrifying, and exhilarating, and sometimes boring. I question my maturity sometimes. I give high fives to my inner child other times. And sometimes, when I make someone laugh, really laugh, when they end with a sigh and a little nod, I’m certain it’s the most important thing I’m doing with my life right now.
Sure, laughter isn’t actually going to cure any diseases. But what would be the point of having good health if you can’t have a good laugh?
Then again, what good was laughing if I got seriously ill from running myself into the ground?
I’d been working a lot. Staying over a few times because of this big impending deadline. The usual rumors and complaints were making their regular rounds, about the executives being vampires who never need to sleep or eat real food, and who forget that unlike them, their employees occasionally need to rest. Then there’s the one about how our company was working with (and/or run by) some ancient clandestine order of monks or knights who actually run the world, and all the data we were crunching was supposed to help them find some lost relic. Et cetera. (As fascinating as I found those rumors when I first started, they wore pretty thin by the fiftieth time I heard them.)
So, I’d been working a lot, listening to a lot of tiresome complaints and rumors, rehearsing, going to classes, doing assignments, doing shows. I had a lot on my plate. I did have days when I was so delirious, so wired and tired by bedtime that I couldn’t sleep. Other people stopped sleeping like babies when they stopped being babies. Other people needed special conditions: they needed their own bed, or couldn’t sleep on planes, or couldn’t sleep if there was light or sound, or if it was too hot or too cold. I was a pretty average guy otherwise. But when it came to sleeping, I was not other people. I was the pride of the sandman. The chief sleeper. The slumberer supreme.
Or I was, until about a few months or so ago. That’s when everything happened at once. The project at work. The shows.
After three nights in a row of having the nightmare, after waking from the nightmare twice in one night, I started being, for the first time in my life, afraid to go to sleep.
It just kept getting more and more vivid. When I woke up drenched in sweat one time, I thought for one panicked moment that I was drenched in spit and mucus. It was dark, and my sheets were tangled around me, and I struggled against them, afraid I was inside that throat. Afraid the throat was closing on me. I didn’t feel teeth scraping my skin. That was the first clue. Then I reached over and turned on the light, and I knew for sure that I was awake. It was three in the morning.
I got up and did what I’d heard insomniacs did. I watched television. I ate a little bit, but then got drowsy. So I found a year-old jar of instant coffee in my pantry, and made some coffee.
I fell asleep at some point, and next awoke when I heard my alarm for work. There’d been no more nightmares that night. But I wasn’t convinced it was over.
I told one of my friends.
He had a theory that the devouring throat was a metaphor, like I suspected, but not for the activities I was juggling, or my fear of the audience. He thought it represented people who were, in his words, “psychic vampires,” those who knowingly or unknowingly sucked the life out of people around them with their doubts and criticisms, discouraging and disheartening, feeding into fear and doubt. I couldn’t think of anyone around me who was like that, mostly because I’d been careful to only reveal my improv dreams to people I knew I could trust to be supportive, or at least, not be obstructive.
I was walking down the street, walking back home after having dinner with him, in fact, thinking about his words, when I first starting hearing the sound.
A low, subtle pulsing. Not as rhythmic and steady as a heartbeat, but more like, the whooshing and sloshing of a washing machine…
I stopped and spun around almost colliding with some guy who was jogging by. In the time it took for me to apologize and turn again, the sound stopped. I listened for it. But didn’t hear it again.
I went home.
And I endured another nightmare.
The next day at work, I was doing a lot of mindless, but necessary compiling. I usually put my earbuds on and listened to music or audiobooks. That day, I was trying something new, listening to myself, a recording I’d made over the past few days with the premises for some bits I wanted to present.
But I had to keep stopping and taking the earbuds out, because I kept thinking I heard a pulsing, slurping sound, the sound from my dreams, from the devourer. I tried to convince myself it was the bathroom. Sometimes you could hear the flushing in our office.
But not from where my cubicle was. The sound persisted even after I removed my earbuds. I asked a few people in the office if they heard anything weird, and commented that my hearing was wonky.
I searched the internet to look up what sounds were made by throats and stomachs. Did it sound like pulsing, roaring, mumbling, or what?
All that day, I kept hearing it. I left work early. I had a show that night, and I figured I could catch up with the compiling the next day, even if I was distracted again. I could listen to music, and pump the volume up. I didn’t usually do that, because then I couldn’t hear if anyone called over from another cubicle. But I would need to focus.
The show went great. It went great because I thought of some pretty great puns (earning one of those groan-laughs from the audience, and extra peppy applause at the end when my character and name were called). It also went great because for about an hour or so, I forgot all about my nightmare tooth monster.
There were no more weird sounds for the rest of my waking hours. I had the nightmare again, but when I woke from it, I was so used to it, and I was so tired, that I didn’t even bother turning on the lights. I just lay back down, crossed my arms, and blinked, until at some point, I dozed off.
The next morning, on my way to work, I listened to a recording of the show from the night before, to learn how I could have been better, and also, I admit, to hear if we really got as much applause as I thought we had. I wanted to know if we really were finding our footing and getting better, separately and together.
I couldn’t convince myself that the low rumbling, sloshing sound I started hearing was the sports car behind me, or the oversized truck in the lane beside me.
I would ignore it, I decided then, gripping the steering wheel and squaring my shoulders. I would ignore the sounds, just like I would ignore the nightmares. Then it started getting hot in the car. Hot and humid. The thermometer read sixty-eight degrees, but I’ve heard those aren’t so accurate. It was probably me. I was getting angry. I turned the air conditioner on.
Leaving my car, on my way to the front door, I felt the difference in atmosphere. The air around me was cool and dry. The air behind me was not. The devourer. Its hot breath was gusting at me from behind. Humid and sticky. I pictured folds of mucous membranes smacking together. Clicky, sticky, glottal sounds.
I stopped for a moment. My gut roiled. Was this the price for doing what I’d always dreamed? Not just a nightmare, but hallucinations?
I turned around. There was, of course, no one there. No one and no thing.
“Leave me alone,” I said.
I turned and kept walking, and it kept breathing and clicking and rumbling.
I spoke again, still walking, still facing forward. “I won’t stop.”
I was speaking to the thing, but also to myself. The nightmares had started at about the time I’d started doing live shows. But I hadn’t really organized my thoughts and observations. I had no reason to believe the thing in my nightmares, the thing that was following me, was trying to keep me from doing what I loved. Then again, it wasn’t such a pompous thought. I wasn’t the only one who had to overcome the obstacle of resistance in going after my dreams. Pretty much everyone who pursued their dreams encountered that particular obstacle.
I’ve never gone to therapy before. I thought about going, to try and figure out if I was really having hallucinations and where they were coming from. I also thought about making an appointment with an ear, nose, and throat specialist, to see if I had something in my ear.
I shouldn’t wait until after dark to look things up. I found horror stories about bugs crawling into people’s ears when they slept and getting stuck. As they struggled to make their way out, they would make sounds. But it would hurt too. I didn’t have any pain.
Maybe I had a rare illness. Maybe it was otherwise harmless. But what if it wasn’t? Or maybe it was psychological. Or maybe I was being self-centered. Maybe it was just a coincidence that only I perceived the devourer. Maybe it was real, but some kind of supernatural or alien thing. Maybe the rumors about our company being run by vampires or clandestine orders was true. And I had somehow stumbled onto one of their secrets. Maybe I crunched some data into a mystical sequence without even knowing it.
I wanted to do something. I just didn’t know what to do. And I was scared to find out what was really happening. I was scared that I might be crazy. But if I wasn’t…I was scared what that would mean too.
There’s a strange smell now. Not what I would have expected. Not rotting putrescence. It smells like…mint? Sweet mint. I smell it whenever I hear the thing and feel its hot breath on me. First nightmares, then sounds, then touch, now smell. It was becoming more real, or at least more real to me.
It had never manifested during a show. After and before, while I was at work or doing chores around town. But never during.
Until that day that I started smelling it. I managed to ignore it, though I wasn’t at my best. The others thought I was sick. There was no scolding. Only ribbing and roasting, and behind it all, genuine concern. If I were actually sick, I would have gone home. But I stuck through it. I was a little better during the rest of our set. Still not my best night.
I wasn’t scared on my way home that night. I’d taken the train because there was never any parking in that part of town. And as I walked to the station, my strides were brisk and angry. Angry because the thing had crossed a line.
The sensations around me kept changing. The scent of coffee as I passed a café. The sounds of a house band playing in a club. The glittering red sequins of a woman’s dress.
The sudden and pervasive scent of sweet mint.
I inhaled, frowned, and kept walking. The sputtering sound of mucous membranes expanding and contracting followed me. The sticky hot breath of a creature with an enormous throat followed me. I clenched my fists to keep from reaching back and trying to grab it, and accidentally grabbing a stranger.
I heard a sudden roar, and was so startled, I stopped. I felt something wet and warm brush against my bare forearm. I raised my arm to look at it. It was dripping with some clear thick liquid. I glanced around to see if someone—a person—had just pranked me. Or if there was someone walking by with a St. Bernard.
The stuff felt warm. That was strange. There was a slight breeze. My wet arm should have felt cooler.
I turned to a woman who was passing by.
“Excuse me, do you see this?” I pulled my hand away from my arm. Long glistening strings of clear gluey mucus connected my hand to my arm. The woman gave me a look, a look that said “ew,” and she kept walking.
I peered at my arm again. The substance was much thicker, but it didn’t look that different from the stuff that came out of my friend’s dog’s mouth after he’d slurped down a bowl of water. She had one of those mucous-y dogs with the droopy jowls.
I think the woman saw. But I had to be sure. I turned again and some kid pointed to me and asked his mother why she didn’t make other people wash their hands. His mother glanced at me, but didn’t really look at me, and just answered that telling me to wash my hands was my mother’s job.
It’s real, I thought. And following after that thought were two other thoughts and two feelings. Relief that I wasn’t crazy. And fear…because if I wasn’t crazy, something was stalking me.
I worried there might be some acid or toxin or something in the mucus. But I wanted to save some of it too. I don’t know, I thought maybe I could find someone to test it, or something. I went into a thrift store and bought some plastic cups. I scraped some of the mucus into a cup. It was starting to dry and flake off. I washed my arm and hands in the thrift store’s bathroom.
I went home.
I had a feeling something was coming to a head. A gut feeling. The closer I got to my apartment, the stronger the feeling got. I wrote a note, and I put the mucus-filled plastic cup in a zip-seal bag and labeled it with the date and time, and a description of what I thought it was.
I received some sweet and reassuring text messages from my improv buddies about feeling better and getting rest. I texted back my thanks, and in my heart that thanks extended to everything they had done for me.
Some people pay a higher price for following their dreams than others. An astronaut might die in space. A doctor might make the wrong decision and lose a patient. An athlete might get injured and be disabled for life. But an improv comic being eaten by a disembodied monstrous throat? Well, at least it was original.
I was woken by the scent of sweet mint. I’d fallen asleep in my living room with my desk lamp on. I felt a sudden gust of air from beneath me. I gasped as the gust lifted me off the couch a few inches. I dropped. It happened again. This time I was pushed up halfway to the ceiling. Pulses of hot breath pushed me up and caught me when I dropped. I bobbed in the air. I glanced around. It felt like I was awake. But I couldn’t be…
I pinched myself. I slapped my cheeks. I tried to move, but I couldn’t. I tried to swim, but I couldn’t push the air away with my arms or kick away from it with my legs, the way I could with water. I was stuck.
I heard the clicking. Click, click, click. Clickclickclickclickclick.
I’m awake, I thought. And I thought that because at this point in the recurring nightmare, I should have been panicked and short of breath. No matter how many times I had the nightmare, how much more quickly I recovered from it once waking, when I was actually in it, I always felt that panic, that need to scream, that desperate despair of being on the verge of madness.
But I didn’t feel that now. Now I just felt…goofy. From helplessly floating in the air.
“Let me go,” I said.
But it didn’t let me go. The pulses of breath quickened. I was pushed up further. The whooshing and sloshing was louder now almost unbearable. There was a distant roaring and a rushing. Like a river, but I knew it wasn’t a river. It was a lake. A lake of acid down below, far below, in the thing’s stomach.
It wasn’t going to let me go. And I made a decision.
“You won’t stop me,” I said. And I rolled my body over, surprised when I succeeded. I felt a little panic now, because I saw it. I saw it with my waking eyes. I looked to the left and the right, but my sight saw no end to the folds upon folds of pink pulsating membranes. No end to the rows upon rows of sharp yellowing teeth. No end to the dark tunnel of esophagus below me.
I remembered the faces of everyone I loved. And I began to recall every joke I’d ever heard and ever told.
And I fell into the abyss of the devourer’s throat, laughing all the way.
It was hard to breath. Because of the moisture. It wasn’t like being underwater. It was like being in a thick cloud maybe. High up. Where the oxygen was low. It was dark, but I could see flashes of teeth and the walls of the thing’s throat undulating, contracting, expanding. I didn’t realize how big it was in my dreams. I thought I’d be shredded by the teeth, but the teeth were almost the same size as I was. I banged against them, pushed away, banged again. I gasped, amazed that I was still alive, and still falling.
“I’m in a sticky situation!” I shouted.
I heard a series of roars, each one longer than the last. Roar. Roaar! Roooaaar! For some reason, it reminded me of the sounds of retching.
“That’s what you get for eating raw meat. I hope I give you diarrhea!” Nothing I shouted was funny. The threat of impending death hadn’t uncovered some hidden genius. It couldn’t have been able to hear me. But I kept it up anyway. It didn’t make any sense, but it made me feel better, less helpless.
The esophagus walls contracted until they were snug around me. I stopped descending. I couldn’t move. I felt liquid pooling at my feet, rising to my knees. I prepared myself to hold my breath.
“Your poops are gonna be a weird color.”
The esophagus expanded suddenly, the liquid surged up, like a wave, and I bobbed in it. Then it stopped. Then it surged again. And I realized that I was now moving in the opposite direction from before. I wasn’t falling in. I was being pushed out. I tried to wade, but the liquid surged up and submerged me. I held my breath until I bobbed up above it. I was covered in a sticky liquid that smelled like sweet mint. The liquid dampened the sounds, but I could still hear a distant roaring…retching. I learned the timing of the surges. I held my breath. I bobbed. Again, again.
I saw light. And after another surge…
I was expelled.
I knelt, coughing, on the floor of my living room. The carpet was drenched in mucus. I was covered in it, head to toe. I heard a final quiet roar. Then there was silence.
Then there was a pounding. I thought it was my head. I stood up and realized it was my front door.
I stumbled to the door and looked through the peephole. It was my neighbor from across the hall. I opened the door.
“You know what time it is?” he asked. His eyelids drooped. He yawned. “I’ll tell you. It’s the middle of the night.”
I was too confused to respond.
“Kid, maybe you don’t know we can hear it. I wouldn’t mind so much during the day. But please don’t do it at night.”
I blinked at him.
He sighed. “Is it a video game? It sounds more like some kind of industrial machine. Whatever it is, not at night, okay?”
If I wasn’t so stunned, I might have hugged him. I can’t remember what words I said. I guess they were the ones he wanted to hear. I probably added some respectful “sirs” in there. And I probably made promises that I didn’t know how to keep. About keeping the “machine” off.
He nodded and smiled a little as he turned to go. Then he turned back around and sniffed a few times. “Are you wearing perfume?” He raised his hands in a “live and let live” gesture and walked back to his apartment. I gave a thumbs up to his wife, who was sleepily watching us from across the way. She waved to me and they disappeared behind a gently shutting door.
I shut my own door, and sat down right in front of it, with my back against it.
I put my hand on my mouth and I began to laugh. I laughed. I laughed.
I laughed so hard that I had to take gasping breaths to keep from suffocating. If I’d been watching myself, I would have thought I was watching a madman. I laughed so hard, tears streamed down my cheeks, and then I really was kind of crying. That crying you do when you’re so…utterly relieved. Because you’re still alive. Something scary has happened. And you. Are still. Alive.
“Laughing,” I said aloud. “All along.” My voice was neither shaky nor quiet. “You were just laughing.”
And he spit me back up. Maybe he didn’t mean to swallow me in the first place.
I was so worried about the price I would pay for going after my dream. So worried that my dream had attracted the attention of something even more terrifying than a heckler. And truth be told, it had. But realizing a dream doesn’t just come with costs and burdens. It comes with triumphs.
And realizing my dream was how I defeated the devourer.
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “The Devourer Laughs” by Sanjay Patel.