The Fisherman’s Nightmare

I was the one who found David.

I can’t say I was surprised. After that message… But seeing it, really seeing it, that was another thing altogether.

And then the police came…they asked all the questions you’d think.

But no matter how I tried to explain they couldn’t really understand. Not like I did. I could have told them about the fisherman’s nightmare, but what would it have meant to them? They would have thought David was a lunatic. And maybe he was. I hope he was.

It all started…I’d have to say it was about a year ago. That was when David’s wife Celia was murdered in what the police thought was a purse snatching gone bad. And at first he reacted pretty much like you’d expect.

There were tears and memories spilled out and, you know, just the normal stuff that someone does when they lose someone they love. But later…later David started to act strange.

He’d never been much of a socialite, pretty much he kept to himself. But he called about a month after Celia’s death, and…well when I got that call, when I heard his voice on the other end…something just seemed off about the whole thing. Maybe something in his tone. When you grow up with someone you learn to pick up on things like that.

Anyway, I asked him if he wanted to come over for dinner. And when he said yes I have to say I was genuinely surprised. And just slightly nervous. I called out for pizza and for a long time we just sat there eating one slice after another in silence. Only when the last crumb was gone did he break his silence.

“I haven’t been able to write much since Celia died,” he said. “It…it’s funny, I can sit down at the keyboard, and I’ll have the idea of a story in my head, but…”

“But what?”

“I’ve been having this dream,” he said. “In the dream I’m a fisherman, and I’m pulling in nets and nets full of fish and they’re all, you know, flopping on the deck and gasping for air and…it feels good you know? I feel like I’m really accomplishing something. But then…then there’s this shadow, like a cloud over the sun or something, but I don’t look up. For some reason I look down, over the side of the boat into the water, and…then I wake up.”

“That’s it? You wake up?”

“Yeah.”

“That…doesn’t sound that bad.”

“I guess.”

And that was it. We talked about other stuff after that, but I can’t remember much of it. And he genuinely seemed to loosen up a little after telling his dream. But there was still this look…this haunted look somewhere in his eyes, and that was when I really started to worry.

I called him up again a few days after that, maybe it was a week, I can’t say for sure, and checked on him.

“You doing any better?” I asked. “Doing any writing?” Not because I really cared about the writing you understand, but I thought if he could get past whatever his mental block was, maybe he could move on to the next step of the recovery.

“I’ve been keeping a journal,” he said.

“Oh yeah? I didn’t know you were into that kind of thing.”

“I wasn’t. I mean, it never seemed…” he trailed off.

“What are you writing in it?”

“Everything.”

“What do you mean, everything?”

“Everything,” he repeated. “What I have for breakfast, what emails I check, what random memory of Celia comes through my mind.” He paused for a moment, and then said, “I’m recording this conversation.”

“What? Why?”

“I need to have an accurate record. For my journal.”

“David, this…this is weird.”

A long pause. Then, “I know.”

I waited for a long time, thinking he would say something else, waiting for him to say something. But there was nothing, nothing but the sound of our breathing.

Finally I managed to say, “Are you okay?”

And he didn’t answer. Not for a long time. And when he did, he said, “I’m not sure.” Another long pause. “I’ve been having that dream. I think I know what it means.”

“What does it mean?”

“I can’t tell you. Not now, not yet. You wouldn’t understand.”​

I didn’t talk to David again for another few weeks, maybe a month this time. But all that time I kept thinking about that journal. In some ways it made sense. David was, after all, a writer. He made his living with words, freelance at first, and then gradually more and more with fiction. I had known him to sit at his computer for hours at a time pounding at the keys, trying to get some story in his head out on the screen. But this felt different. It felt wrong.

There are a lot of blanks in that period, spaces of time when I didn’t connect with David at all. You might think less of me because of that. I’m not sure I can blame you. All I know is that I was busy, so busy with keeping the restaurant afloat  that it became difficult to give time for anything else. Even a brother who was hurtling over the edge of sanity.

Could I have saved him? If I had given more of that time that seemed so precious to me then, might he still be alive? I don’t know. As God is my witness I just don’t know.

What I do know is that he called me sometime in mid-May and…he sounded  better. Happier, at any rate.

We laughed and talked, and in the back of my mind I wondered: was he still keeping that journal? Was he recording our conversation even now?

But I didn’t say it because…because maybe I thought the words might give true form to my latent fears. If I didn’t ask, and he didn’t tell, I could easily imagine things were getting better for him.

But it wasn’t to be that easy. Because near the end of the conversation, when the conversation turned to our late father I said, almost without thinking, “Remember those fishing trips we used to go on with dad? We should do that again sometime.”

David didn’t say anything at first, and in that pause, brief though it was, all those hidden worries were confirmed. When he did speak his voice was strained, almost unrecognizable from the happier tones I had heard from him mere moments before. “I don’t think that would be a good idea,” he said. “Fish…you have to be careful around fish.”

And then he hung up. Just like that. I looked at the phone, slack jawed, as if it had turned into a fistful of snakes.

And then I did what I should have done weeks before. I got in my car and drove over there. It was a good 45 minute drive over to his house, and all the way I had the feeling, the unswerving sense that something horrible might happen if I didn’t get there in time. More than once I took out my cell phone and thought about calling him back, but I didn’t, because…because I was afraid he wouldn’t answer.

Or maybe because I was afraid he would.​

I knocked on the door with my heart pounding. And when David opened it and I saw the dark circles under his eyes and the beard that bristled around his chin I knew I had been right to worry.

He looked at me with a strange look in his eyes as if he didn’t recognize me at first. Then he pulled the door open and motioned for me to come inside.

I stepped through, expecting to find utter chaos, but instead I found that it had been surprisingly well kept.

But the notebooks told a different story. There was a stack of them, neat and straight like a column on the kitchen table. There must have been fifty there, maybe more.

“It that…you know?” I asked, pointing.

David nodded.

“You…you don’t usually write with pen and paper,” I said, really because I couldn’t think of anything to say.

David nodded again. “I need…need to feel it,” he said. “The scratch of pencil against page. That way…I can be sure. You know?”

This time it was me that nodded, but I’m not sure why. Because I didn’t know, hadn’t the foggiest idea what David was talking about.

His face was pale, and he looked…thinner, somehow, but not really. Thinner from the inside. If that makes any sense.

“I know you’re going through a lot with Celia’s death-“

David brushed away the comment as if it didn’t interest him. “This isn’t about her,” he said. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I miss her. There’s not a night that goes by that I don’t think that having her here would maybe help somehow, you know? But this isn’t part of the grieving process. This…this is something else.”

“What is it?”

And again he didn’t answer me right away. Looking back it is those pauses that seem to hold the most meaning for me. They say more than any words ever could. I try to remember those pauses, try to insert myself into his mind, trying to infer something of his thought process, knowing what I know now. And of course it’s all guess work. But I think he wanted to tell me all along, wanted to unload this burden he was carrying all at once. But he couldn’t do it. Because…because we weren’t the same as we had been. As children we understood the world almost as one. But now we had grown slowly apart, David with his writing and then Celia and me with my business ventures. So he didn’t say it all at once. Instead he said, “You know that dream? The one I told you about a few months back?”

And I said, “Sure I do,” though in truth it was a little fuzzy in my mind right then.

“I didn’t tell it right,” he said, leaning in as if he was imparting some secret. “I left off the ending. Because the ending…you know, that’s the most important part.”

“Okay,” I said. “So what’s the ending?”

“I’m on the boat,” he said. “I’m standing there like I told you and there’s that shadow. And I look up at the sun, but there’s nothing there. The sky’s as clear as anything. And then…I look down.”

There was another of those pauses, and this time I think it was fear that stopped him. Fear of bringing that dream out into the open, into the light where all of it’s ugliness might be seen.

Then he said, “I look down and there’s something wrong with the water. And I realize…it’s not a shadow at all, but a special kind of darkness coming up under the boat in the water. Then something happens in that dark water, and the boat starts to turn and swirl, and I’m caught, being dragged down into this enormousmaelstrom like a toy in a bathtub, and then the water washes over me and…”

“You wake up?”

“No. No I don’t wake up. Not yet. I’m…suspended in the dark water, floating, but somehow I’m not worried about air or anything like that. But the boat is sinking away from me into the depths, and the fish…”

“What about the fish?”

“At first they’re floating with me,” he said. “All around me, they’re floating limp and white in the dark water. And then…I turn and one of them…one of them twitches, and it slowly rolls over and I see it’s eye and…it’s watching me. It’s alive! And then they’re all…alive, all of them swimming in the dark water, slow and lazy at first, but then faster and faster, a frenzy of fins, and I see they’re all swimming around me.” He shudders then, as if he has been touched by a cold and clammy hand. “They’re all watching me,” he said, and somehow I can see it in their eyes. They’re angry. And…teeth.”

He let that one word hang in the air for a long time. “They come at me all at once and they’re tearing at me with their teeth, tiny pieces of flesh and blood floating in the water in front of my face and I try to swim away, but… They devour me.” He finished in a low flat voice that belied none of the horror I could see in his eyes.

“And then you wake up?” I asked.

He didn’t say anything.

“You…you need someone, David. Someone who can help you.”​

“I’m not crazy,” he said. And he sounded sure. So very sure.

“It’s just…all of this,” I said, pointing once again at the notebooks. “It doesn’t seem healthy.”

“I know how it looks,” he said. “But…I think I have a handle on this. Some way to fix it all.”

“Stop yourself from being devoured by imaginary fish?” I asked.

He looked at me with horror. “You don’t know…no. No you don’t know. But all the same, you’re right. I’m a fisherman trying not to be devoured by imaginary fish. And do you know how? Its very simple really. I have to become a fish myself.”

“Dave. This isn’t normal. Please, go and see someone. For my sake. No one has to know. You don’t need to feel ashamed. Just…please. This isn’t right.”

But he just shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s just, you know, a few loose screws up there. But I can’t shake the feeling-“

He stopped abruptly and looked back over his shoulder at the wall behind him.

“What?” I asked.

“You should go,” he said. “I’m falling behind. I have to keep writing.”

And with that he grabbed the notebook off the top of the pile, opened to a page somewhere in the middle and started scribbling madly.

I looked over his shoulder and saw that the page before had already been covered, but the writing was so dense, the letters so hurriedly formed that I couldn’t make them out. I stood there for a minute or more feeling awkward, but it seemed as if David had completely forgotten me. The world in his notebook…that was all that mattered to him.

So I left. Let myself out the front and drove home thinking that my brother had gone off the deep end. That he was playing in some very dark water indeed. And I wanted to help him. But I couldn’t.

But looking back…I think he did want help. He tried to tell me what the problem was. But I just couldn’t see it. Not until after. And it was too late then.

After that, I kept tabs on David on a fairly regular basis. I made myself call him up at least twice a week to see if he was okay. He would always answer the phone, almost always on the first ring. And as we talked I could see him sitting there at that table with a notebook open in front of him, and pencil in his fingers twitching with impatience as he forced himself to speak in calm measured tones. And maybe it wasn’t like that at all. Maybe he had good days, days where he let himself get out into the yard, and maybe pulled a few of the weeds out of the flower garden that Celia had tended so carefully. Maybe. But I doubt it.

But then, sometime in September there really was a breakthrough. I could hear it in the tone of his voice. He sounded almost…excited.

“You sound better today,” I said.

“I’m on the verge of something,” he told me. “I think…it’s been a long time, but I think I might actually be making some headway.”

“That’s good,” I said cautiously. “What kind of headway?”

“He’s getting weaker,” he said.

“Who’s getting weaker?”

“You remember. The fish? From my dream?”

“Oh.”

“It’s been a long haul, but…I think maybe I can beat him after all.”

“Anything I can do to help?”

There was a long pause. Then David said, “No, I think is something I’m going to have to finish off on my own.”

“Okay,” I said. “As long as things are getting better.”

“They are. They really are.”

But then things got worse.

One night in the middle of October David called me. It was something like midnight and I was just getting ready for bed when the phone rang. And when I picked it up it was David and he was crying.

“They’re back, they’re back, they’re back,” he said repeating the words like some kind of mantra.

“Who? Who’s back David?”

“The FISH!” he said and the word came out in a squeak, like a little girl’s scream.

“David, it’s not…there aren’t any fish. Are you hurt?”

“Police left a few hours ago,” he said as if he hadn’t heard me.

“The POLICE? What? What happened David?”

“Someone broke in my house. Just broke the door down in the middle of the day.”

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“They roughed me up. The one guy had a crowbar. Took my stereo and my laptop. But they left the notebooks. Called me a freak.”

“Are. You. Okay.”

“They left the notebooks. I can still write. It took me a while to get rid of the police though. Time lost. And he’s not weaker. I thought he was but…no one breaks into a house in the middle of the day. Not in real life. It’s him. Don’t you see?”

But I didn’t see.

“I’m coming over,” I said.

“No, no, no. No time, no time. Have to write.”

“I’m coming over,” I repeated, and snapped the phone shut.

And when I got there every light in the house was on. The rest of the street was dark, but that one house, David’s house, I could see it from blocks  away. Like a suburban lighthouse.

I went inside and David was at the table scribbling away at in one of those notebooks. And there were more of them now, stacked up along the kitchen wall like some kind of barricade of words. He didn’t even look up.

There was a recorder sitting next to him on the table, the digital kind that can hold hours and hours of audio. It was running playing back conversation between David and the policeman. The policeman was saying something about calling medical assistance and David saying, no, no, no, that he was fine, fine, fine.

I stood there waiting for him to at least acknowledge my presence, but he never wavered his attention from that notebook.

From where I was standing I could see the dark circles under his eyes, darker now, and there were bruises along his cheek and a thick knot swelling up on his head.

On the recording David was asking the policeman what kind of criminal breaks in during the middle of the day, and the policeman said that it was rare, but not unheard of, and David said in that high pitched squeaking voice, that it was HIM, over and over until the policeman, clearly at the end of his rope shouted for David to calm down.

“David?” I said, hoping he would look up. At least acknowledge me. “David?” But the only sound that came in response was the scratching of that pencil on the paper.

So eventually I went and slept on the couch. When I woke up, sometime a little before sunrise David was still writing.

There was something maddening in the sound of pencil on paper, something almost insectile, a crawling, scrabbling, biting sound that burrowed into my mind and wouldn’t let go.

I got up off the couch and rubbed the sourness out of my limbs.

“David,” I called out. “Are you okay in there?”

The scratching stopped. “I didn’t hear you come in,” David said.

“What? Are you serious? It’s been all night, David. This isn’t funny.”

“You need to go,” David said. “I’ve been thinking about it and maybe it isn’t just me. Maybe he’s strong enough to target….others. I mean after all, why not right?”

“The fish again? David can you let it go? It’s just a dream.”

He looked up at me and the look in his eyes was the saddest I have ever seen. “You don’t understand,” he said. “It isn’t fish. Not really. It never was a fish.”

“What then?”

“Sometimes they say dreams come true,” said David. “But there’s a flip-side to that too.”

“What?”

“Sometimes the truth becomes a dream.”

And maybe because I was tired or because I just couldn’t handle it anymore or maybe…and this reason wouldn’t make sense really to anyone but David, maybe because I wasn’t really in control anymore, I turned and walked out.

I thought about David quite often in the next few months, but I didn’t call. I didn’t call because well, to tell the truth I had felt something that morning that I didn’t fully understand. And maybe it was just the strength of David’s delusion bleeding over into my subconscious, but it felt…so real. It was a sudden powerlessness, that’s really the only thing I can say to explain it. But it was almost tangible, as if an alien force had taken hold of my being and turned my will like a rudder.

And it scared me. And I thought…if that’s what David’s facing, if that’s what he’s facing off against, maybe I don’t want to get any closer to it than I have to. But it didn’t matter. In the end, none of it mattered.

December rolled around, and with it all the hustle and bustle of Christmas, but I wasn’t feeling particularly joyful. David was all the family I had left in the world, and though he was still alive, he had gone to a place I dared not follow.

Business at the restaurant had picked up with the season, and I was running non-stop trying to keep everything running smooth. But in the back of my mind, David was there, hunched over those manuscripts, the pile of notebooks growing mountainous behind him.

It occurs to me now that he must have left that table, that he must have gone out once and a while if only to forage for food. Of course by the time I found him he was emaciated almost beyond recognition, but he must have eating something, right?

But it doesn’t feel right to think of him outside of that house. He was a prisoner in every real sense of the word, the chains in his mind holding him in one place as surely as any physical manacles ever could.

And on Christmas Eve, I got the text. It came through sometime around three o’clock, but by the time I saw it, it was nearly one in the morning, and I was exhausted from the long day’s work.

It read simply this: “Gone Fishing.”

And I should have rushed over then and there. I don’t know if it would have made a difference, but…anyway, the only thing I can tell is what happened. And what happened is this. I read the message, turned off the light and went to bed. And did I dream that night? Did I see a fisherman in his boat being sucked down into dark water where all the fish were hungry for flesh?

And it was only later that I thought of David again, going on lunchtime when I picked up my phone and happened to glance again at the message he had sent. And only then did I understand. Only then did I grab my winter coat against the chill air and rush over to his house.

The streets are eerily empty on Christmas Day. You can almost imagine yourself the survivor of some horrific apocalypse, driving alone through the wasteland of a world once glorious. And today it meant that I could floor it, taking the car up to ridiculous speeds. I should have been pulled over at some point during that ride. With so few cars on the road, there must have been some cop along the road I traveled waiting for a speed demon with nothing better to do on Christmas Day than tear up and down the quiet streets. But there was no one. I sped on through without a hitch, the red lights seeming to turn green just for me, all the intersections open.

And when I got to David’s house, when I pulled up in the driveway, as breathless as if I had run the whole way instead of driving, I already knew what I would find.

David was sitting there at the table slumped over one of the notebooks with a pen in his hand. It might have been the pose of a man who had fallen asleep in the midst of the exertion of writing if not for the knife buried in his back all the way to the handle. It was a knife I recognized, one from David’s kitchen.

I stepped closer a little at a time, careful to avoid the pool of coagulated blood on the floor. And there, on the table, I saw something else.

It was the recorder, the one David had used to record all of  his conversations for his endless notebooks. It had a thin piece of scotch tape affixed to the front with two words written on it. “Play Me.”

I would be lying if I said that the image of Alice and her bottles and cakes didn’t cross my mind.

And while I could have reached for the phone in my pocket and called the police I didn’t. Instead, I reached out and hit, “play.”

At first there was nothing but white noise. Then David’s voice came on, halting and unnatural.

“It all started when Celia died. No, that’s not true actually. I really started…before. When I wrote this story. Just a little thing. I was excited about it, but Celiathought…well anyway it was a little more than I’d usually do. Sort of violent in a psychological way. And the main character…well he didn’t get off so well. Because it was his wife I killed off. She was murdered. With her throat slit wide open from ear to ear.

And Celia…when they found her like that…you can imagine what went through my mind. But that kind of thing…it’s only for crazy people right? So I went on like normal, as well as I could for a while. But all the time, I can’t explain it, but I had the feeling I was being watched. I’ve heard people talk about it before, but now it plagued me constantly. There was nowhere to hide, nowhere I could rest. It…no he, was watching me every second of the day.

That was the thought that entered my mind, and once it was there, it wouldn’t leave. I knew it was him, knew he had come to get revenge. I don’t pretend to understand it all, but…that dream I told you about? I kept having it. Over and over, night after night. And I understood what it meant. It was me. I was the fisherman. Only the tables had been turned see? The things I had made in my story, my character had somehow found a way to turn the tables. Don’t ask me how,but…somehow he was controlling my life now. And I know this, because…because when they found Celia she was wearing that red coat, the one you got her for Christmas a few years back. Only, and I don’t suppose telling you now will matter much, she hated that coat. Couldn’t stand the sight of it. But she went out wearing it on the night she got killed? You can’t tell me that isn’t wrong.

Only, maybe if it was just that I could have written it off. Only there were other things. I found myself doing things, little things, but things that weren’t me. He was controlling me. Don’t you see?

It’s my own fault really. I alway swore I’d never write about writers. Because it always seemed so shallow to me, so transparent, when I’d read books with writers as the main characters. As if the real writer had become so detatched from the normal world he could no longer understand what it was like to do anything but write. But this story, this one story, it sang to me. Can you understand that? It was so beautiful. And then…it turned ugly.

So I did the only thing I could think to do. I fought back. I started writing my own life, writing down what I would do before I did it, or sometimes just after if it was something I couldn’t predict.

That really seemed to help for a while. I had to write it on paper, because that made it real, you see? If it wasn’t real he could just make me erase it, delete the file. But on paper it was real and I had control. Only there were moments when I would slip, when I would lose control. I’d go back and compare what happened with what I wrote had happened, and they were different.

I know you can’t believe me. But I need you, need someone to understand. You and I, we used to be so close. What happened? But no, I remember what happened. Celia happened. I don’t regret on minute with her, but…it does make me sad that I started to lose touch with you.

And now…now I’ve lost you both. I’m sorry. I have to accept the fact that I’m done. Done writing forever.

He’s here now. Here to exact his final revenge. And…I have to say…it feels good. It feels good to finally let go. I’ve been fighting so long. So long…”

And the recording stopped.

I don’t know how long I stood there before I called the police. And when they came…I don’t remember much.

They took me in for questioning. I remember that. I remember crying in that little room with the officer staring at me from across the table.

They thought I had killed him. And I suppose, in a way, I had.

David. Poor, poor David. He never knew the truth. If he had, maybe he’d be alive today. Because the truth, the simple and unforgiving truth, is that I killed Celia. David didn’t understand. She wasn’t good for him wasn’t right. But I saw. I saw how she flirted with other men, I saw how she wedged herself between us after all those years when all we had has was each other. She had to go. For his sake. And yes, for mine too.

But I didn’t know. I didn’t know as I drew that knife across her throat what it would do David, how it would drive him insane. After all, what difference could it make what clothes she wore that day? Maybe that red coat was the only thing that was clean at the time. Maybe she didn’t hate it as much as she said. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that David is dead, and I’m sitting here in a cell waiting to die.

And I’ll have to wait a very long time. I can take the solitude, the long and empty days of silence. But the worst of it is that feeling. I can’t shake it, no matter how hard I try to tell myself it’s just in my head, it persists.

And of course it’s ludicrous. I’m alone in here. Fully and utterly alone. I’ve made sure of that.

But in the stillness of my mind I can feel…there is someone watching me.

The writer typed, “The End” and clicked “Print”, sending the document to the wireless printer in the next room.

“Is that the new story?” the his wife asked as the sound of printer leaked out into the hallway.

“Uh-huh,” said the writer. “Want to take a gander?”

He sat there and waited for her to finish reading with that strange feeling of apprehension that he always got when he watched her read something he had written. And after a space of time when she finally tapped the papers back into place and put them on the table, he asked, “So? What did you think?”

“It was…interesting,” she said.

“You always say that. I need details.”

“Well, to be honest, the whole thing reminded me of…well of us.”

“How so?”

“The narrator in the story…she’s a lot like your sister isn’t she?”

“She? It’s supposed to be a guy.”

“Really? I could swear it said somewhere it was a woman.”

The writer grabbed up the manuscript and scanned down the pages. “They were supposed to be brothers,” he said.

“Then you need to say so.”

“Okay, but yeah, those are just superficial details. I mean sure, my sister is starting up a new business just like the character in the story, but…that’s just drawing from real life, you know? All writers do it. It helps give the story a ring of authenticity.”

The author’s wife shrugged, but he noticed that her fingertips went up to her neck as if she were tracing out a knife wound slashed through her windpipe.

“There was something else,” she said absently. “Something that didn’t make sense at all.”

“What was it?”

“The man in the story, David. Who killed him?”

“I did,” said the writer.

And the writers wife laughed out loud, a little nervously, the writer thought.

But the writer didn’t laugh. Instead he smiled, a small knowing smile to himself, savoring the sweetness of revenge.

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One response to “The Fisherman’s Nightmare

  1. Pingback: The Fisherman’s Nightmare | Albert Berg's Unsanity Files

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