The Witching Hour: The Sleepwalker, Chapter 1: Festival of Dreams

by Doc Quantum

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I am not insane.

If there’s one thing I must make clear, it is that I am a man of sound mind, despite what everyone’s saying about me. Oh, don’t look at me like that — I know they’re talking about me behind my back, snickering every time I walk past them. Sure, they try to hide it, but you’d have to be completely ignorant not to notice.

Well, I guess I had better begin, then. Let me take another sip of water first. There. Now, if you’re sure that you are ready to take me seriously, I’ll begin. My name, as you well know from the paper right in front of you, is Clifford Nathaniel Anderson.

It was late in the month of October, a few days before All-Hallow’s Eve, when I finally relented and took a long-overdue vacation. I hadn’t taken any vacations for over five years by then, and my employers were urging me to take the holiday pay I’d been saving up and get away from the city for a while. It wasn’t my idea, you understand, to take my holidays in the South Seas. My supervisor told my sister — my supervisor is my brother-in-law, I should mention — that I didn’t have any vacation plans, and she decided to take it upon herself to plan my vacation for me. It seems she and Ralph had spent a couple of weeks six or seven years ago in a sleepy little island-nation called Badhnisia. From what she told me, it was a very relaxing, low-key, and restful place — the perfect spot to get some much-needed rest and relaxation for an overworked accountant such as myself.

Yes, I was an accountant. A damned good one, too, if you’ll pardon the expression. McChessney, Brockton, and Overton was the name of the firm at which I made my living. I’d be back there now, if… well, I’ll get to that soon enough.

Laura, my sister, bought an airplane ticket for me, and I was soon on my way to the Southeast Asian island of Badhnisia. She’d wanted to put me on a cruise ship for singles, but I would have none of it. The sooner I was in the South Seas and on vacation, the sooner I would be able to go back home and get back to work. Laura had also made all the arrangements for my accommodations in the capital city of Badhnisia, and I was registered to stay at the local Hilton.

I arrived at the Badhnisia International Airport precisely at 9:36 P.M. and disembarked from the plane. The flight was uneventful, but I was hardly aware of any of it, as I busied myself working on a few remaining accounts in my ledger, which I planned to fax to the office as soon as I was at my hotel. I caught a glimpse of the sunset, but the golden hue in the sky was already fading to a deep blue as I waited for a taxicab to bring me to my hotel.

As I waited, a persistent little brown-skinned boy — a native Badhnisian, I suppose — kept trying to sell me these tacky little items his mother made, and I could only get him to leave once I’d bought one of them. It was a charm that was supposed to bring luck or ward off evil spirits or something. It fell easily enough into my pocket, but I immediately regretted caving in to the sale and resolved myself to be much more hard-nosed about it the next time I encountered one of those little ragamuffins. The taxi came then, and I went straight to the Hilton.

After finishing up the accounts I’d been working on, I photocopied them and faxed the pages back to the office using an old and well-used facsimile machine kept in a back room at the hotel, then decided to look around the city and see what all the fuss was about.

There was some sort of local celebration going on, as there were people with masks and costumes dancing all around in the streets to live music played by the Badhnisian equivalent of a Mariachi band. At first I assumed it was merely to celebrate the upcoming Halloween, but I found out later that night that it was called the Festival of Dreams, and it was apparently a very ancient celebration with numerous odd customs that only coincidentally coincided with the Halloween celebrations of Europe and North America. The sights, sounds, and smells were almost overwhelming as I strolled about, attempting to not be knocked over by drunken revelers. I interested myself in studying the local color as best I could, but some of the things I saw seemed to defy explanation at the time. I thought later on that I must have been slipped a hallucinogen with a drink at some point during the evening, but I could not be sure that what I saw was not real.

I cannot recall all that I saw that night, but a few images jump out in my memory as I think about it. A thin, wiry man with a pumpkin for a head whose speech was peppered with curses. A little boy in some kind of pyjamas accompanied by a cartoonish primitive tribesman and a green-skinned large man with a cigar in his mouth. A man in a green business suit with a purple cape, orange gloves and hat, and a yellow and blue gas-mask. A group of toad-like creatures who looked as if they belonged on the Moon. A man who had a horribly scarred face under his hat and wore a red-and-black-striped sweater as well as a glove with knives for fingers. And a tall man in black with very pale skin and a head of long spiky hair. It was all so obscenely weird.

It’s strange, now that I think back upon that night. I have no recollection of returning to my hotel room, but return there I did, as I woke up the next morning with the sun streaming through my open window. As I thoroughly brushed my teeth and showered, I struggled to recall what I’d seen last night and how I’d returned to the hotel, but nothing came to me. My memory was a complete blank.

The Hilton provided a delicious breakfast that morning, but as I dined on fruit and pancakes, I continued to try to remember what had happened to me the previous evening. Still, nothing came to mind. The local newspaper was no help to me. The Festival of Dreams was mentioned, of course, as well as the disappearance of a little girl and the rebuilding efforts on the island nation after a recent tropical storm. I found the charm I’d bought the evening before in my pocket then and remembered where it had come from. Something about it aroused my ire momentarily.

As I finished my meal and began to walk around the downtown area of the city, I soon saw the signs of the storm’s devastation firsthand. There were quite a few new buildings recently built there, but many of the older ones still looked to be in disrepair. I supposed they would be restored in time, but it gave the city a kind of incomplete look about it.

Finally, I turned toward the beach and found a nice little spot in the shade where I could rest while watching the crowds playing along the shore. I think I drifted off to sleep sometime around noon. I had a strange dream, though — one that I couldn’t account for. It seemed that I opened my eyes while I was resting to see the figure of a slender teenage girl stand over me for a moment, one with eyes that glowed hotly, but I startled myself awake and found no one around. Strange. Very strange.

The rest of the day passed without incident. During the evening I visited the airport bar and attempted to converse with an attractive young lady there but was rebuffed. I suppose I must have had too much to drink once more, as I found myself wandering along the beach away from the city some hours later, though I don’t remember how I got there. As it was a pleasant enough night to stroll, I continued on my way along the beach until I discovered a nice little community by a stream. I decided to head into the tiny village and noted that the largest building was an old temple of the kind one usually saw in Southeast Asia. At any rate, I halted in my tracks as I saw two men speaking in hushed tones by the side of the temple. I would have paid it no mind, except for the fact that one of them, astonishingly, looked as if his body was made of blue electricity.

I gasped and stumbled backward at the sight, only to trip and fall to the ground. The other man — not the man of electricity, but the one who looked normal — heard me, I suppose, and helped me up. He was an ordinary-looking young man with a New York City accent, short blond hair, and old-fashioned tastes, judging by his green suit and bow-tie. He asked me if I was all right, but I was too startled to answer right away, as I’d just happened to notice that the other man no longer looked as if he was made of blue electricity after all, but now seemed to be an ordinary man of Native American extraction. I merely blurted out that I had become lost and needed a ride back to the city Hilton. The blond man obliged and rode back into the city along a paved road through the forest, which — at that time of night — was very dark, indeed. He seemed to have something on his mind, as he spoke little, but he was kind enough, if somewhat addle-brained. At my hotel, he told me to take it easy and said his name was Johnny.

That night I found it exceedingly difficult to fall asleep. The recent memories I’d racked up during my brief stay on the island were already feverishly tormenting me. It was normal enough, I suppose, to imagine strange scenes while under the influence of alcohol, but the dreams seemed to be something of a different sort. I felt as if I were somehow haunted, but I could not discern the reason.

Sleep eluded me until the sun’s rays had already begun to shine across the horizon, but I did succeed in getting at least four hours of sleep that morning and managed just barely to eat my breakfast before the hotel staff had cleared away the serving tables for the noon-hour. A headache from my lack of sleep was bothering me immensely, but I did not want to return to my lonely hotel room. I needed to be around people, to get myself lost in a crowd. The beach was my first option, but it had been closed off for some reason. From all the ambulances and police cars, it looked as if someone had drowned that morning.

Thus I began to wander around the market area, resisting countless sales pitches from countless vendors hawking their products. The same little native boy who had sold me the charm kept tugging at my pant legs, offering to exchange one of his little items for the charm that he’d sold me earlier — muttering something in Pidgin English about his giving me the wrong one — and it was all I could do to shake the little bugger off. Now, I didn’t like to have been taken advantage of the first time when he’d sold me the damned thing, pardon my language, but I was sure as hell — sorry again — not going to get taken advantage of twice by the same unkempt little rascal. I told him in forced tones to stop pestering me.

Now, I’m not a paranoid man — far from it — but I could have sworn that someone began to follow me that afternoon. Each time I turned my head, however, I saw no one except the various tourists and city workers about their daily business. Even as I turned out of the downtown area and wandered along next to a schoolyard and a new brownstone building project that seemed out of place on the quaint island, it felt as if someone was matching my every step. Still, as I looked behind me and all around me, I found that no one was there.

I ate my dinner at a small seafood restaurant that had been built from the shell of an old Dutch clipper on the outskirts of town and enjoyed the early evening sea breeze as the day turned to dusk. My headache had finally begun to fade with the sun, and I found myself able to relax once more. As I walked back into town, I passed a group of natives carrying all their wares as they walked back to their homes from the market downtown. A couple of them stopped to attempt to sell me something, but I angrily refused to buy anything, the trinket in my pocket suddenly arousing my indignation. The little boy who had sold it to me passed me as well, followed, I suppose, by his young mother, who glanced in my direction. I glowered and walked on, ignoring them as they both now tried to get me to exchange the little charm for one of their other baubles. Filthy natives, the lot of them.

This is where my story may begin to sound strange to you. Instead of walking back to the Hilton, I must have lingered on the edge of town for some reason. I think someone must have waylaid me as well, because much later I found myself wandering through the dark forest in the middle of the night — the witching hour, one might call it — with a gash on my forehead and no memory of the past few hours at all. The blood had run over my left eye, which saw only red for a few moments until I wiped my forehead with part of my shirt. My hands were bloodied as well, and I don’t know how I ever made my way back to the hotel without any help. I do know that I washed myself off at the beach before going to my hotel room, but I must have looked the worse for wear. And I felt as dreadful as I now looked.

Merciful sleep held me in its embrace that night, though the same eluding dreams tormented me once more. Still, I was able to wake up at a godly hour that morning — the morning of October 31st — and apply another bandage to my forehead, as well as to properly wash myself off.

Breakfast was the same as always, though the morning paper piqued my curiosity with a headline that emblazoned across it: “THIRD MURDER SHOCKS ISLAND.” My eyes ran quickly over the small lines of type on the cheap pulp paper as a wave of déjà vu swept over me.

And then I made a stark realization — the brigand who had murdered these young women might have been the same supposed vandal who must have attacked me that night! It was a completely sensible deduction, one worthy of Holmes, I supposed to myself.

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