He was sat on the terrace outside one of the nondescript bars when John saw him, perched upon a wrought iron chair like an eager, inebriated vulture, eyeing the miniscule rowing boats bobbing about in the harbour below, as they did every evening. The last tradesmen were heading homewards along the coastal road; the steady hoof beats of their docile, weary horses reverberating across the bay.
He was wearing an expression of sheer, vacant indifference, a look which did not change when John, his only remaining friend from so long ago, eased himself down onto the opposite seat. John exhaled a thin, wispy cloud of cigarette smoke, before staring at his former schoolmate dead in the eyes. He registered only the slightest flicker of recognition from Malcolm, and even that lasted only a second before evaporating into the aether like superheated mercury.
“Malcolm?” he began. “Why, we can’t have seen each other for almost a year! It was at Viv’s party last summer, don’t you remember?”
Viv, or Vivienne to be precise, was Malcolm’s wife. Glancing around, John could see that she was not present in the bar. The only other customers were a young French couple, their slim, athletic bodies glowing beneath the dying sunlight. John frowned. This was not the first time that Malcolm had gone running off with little or no explanation to Viv, or indeed to anyone else. It was a poorly-kept secret that the couple enjoyed what could optimistically be called a strained marriage, but even when Malcolm had been in the midst of marital disharmony, John had never seen him like this.
To call the man who sat opposite him dishevelled would have been a catastrophic understatement. Hunched over a half empty glass of scotch which he cradled in tremulous hands, Malcolm appeared to John as something less than human, as if he had been transmogrified into some form of wretched troll. Clothes, covered in the stains and scuffs of overuse, hung over a limp frame which would have shamed a scarecrow.
Yet it was not simply Malcolm’s clothes which shocked his old friend. It was his face. Throughout their youth, Malcolm had been renowned for his piercing azure gaze. Now, what remained of those twinkling pupils lay submerged, sunken deep into waxy, greying flesh. The eyes which had once evoked the open possibilities of the ocean had now burrowed so deeply into Malcolm’s skull that they instead summoned up an image of bottomless twin lagoons. John dreaded to think what monsters lurked in those depths.
The teeth were yellowed, although John was unsure if this was the result of the nicotine his friend was constantly inhaling or the ghastly physical impact of some other, psychological trauma of which he had no awareness.
“I suppose I should tell you what it is that I’m doing here.” stammered Malcolm in a parched tone of voice. “But I can’t say for certain that I haven’t forgotten, or that you’d believe me even assuming that I do know.”
John took the now empty glass away from Malcolm and gestured to one of the nearby staff to fetch further drinks. The waiter glanced uneasily at John’s intoxicated partner for a moment before slinking off to prepare their order.
“Is something up with you and Viv?” asked John, doing his best to sound supportive towards his fellow man’s plight. “You know how it is with her – I’m sure she’ll calm down, given time.”
Malcolm laughed at that, a raucous, belching laugh which echoed out across the harbour, startling an inattentive seabird. The bird took off in flight, heading away from the harbour, towards quieter climes.
“Do you really think that I’d be out here – out here of all places – drinking myself to death if this was just about Viv? I can hardly remember what she looks like.”
“She’s worried about you.” insisted John. “I saw her a few weeks ago and she was frantic with hysteria. She was in a far worse state than she would have been if she knew it was just another woman.”
John paused for a moment. Ahead of them, the sun was gradually completing her nightly descent below the horizon.
“It’s not another woman, is it, Malcolm?”
The waiter set the tray of drinks down on the vacant table beside them, before passing each of the men a fresh scotch. Malcolm eagerly slurped at it his, as if making a conscious effort to avoid the question. Or, thought John, perhaps summoning up the courage to answer it.
Instead, Malcolm responded with a question of his own.
“What do you dream about, John?”
John smiled, humouring him. “Oh, you know. Endless riches. Beautiful women. All the things I’m sure the average man dreams of. Why do you ask?”
“Because I don’t dream of those things, John, not anymore. I dream only of him.”
The icy, terrifying emphasis which Malcolm placed upon that last word filled John with an overwhelming sense of dread. The once sundrenched balcony no longer felt warm and exotic. Now that he, whoever he was, had been introduced into the equation, it felt to the two men as if they were both stranded in the depths of a freezing tundra.
“Who is he?” enquired John, taking care to enunciate just as his friend had.
“Morpheus.” replied Malcolm slowly, as he finished the rest of his drink. John noticed that the glaze over Malcolm’s eyes had subsided, revealing bloodshot capillaries which trickled inwards towards his pupils.
“Would you call me a forgetful person?” asked Malcolm suddenly.
He rephrased the question. “Would you say I’m somebody with a particularly poor memory?”
John considered this for a moment. Certainly when they had been at school together, Malcolm had been intelligent. He had scored well on examinations, and had retained a knowledge of most of the things they had been taught with little or no effort.
“No.” John replied. “I wouldn’t say that at all. If anything, I’d say that you were above average.”
“Exactly.” agreed his conversant. “And Morpheus knows that.”
John was baffled. “But you haven’t explained who this… Morpheus fellow is yet. Somebody you met at the club?”
“I call him Morpheus because he only comes to me when I sleep.” explained Malcolm. “Like the Greek god of dreams. But my Morpheus is no god, I know that much. He is something far, far, worse.”
Malcolm stood up and went to over to the stone balustrade which encircled them. He glanced up at the steadily emerging stars, before turning to see that John had come to join him. They stood in silence for a few moments, taking in the sight of the bay, filled to the brim with dark, saline water beneath the inky night sky.
“Do you remember the day before me and Viv got married?” asked Malcolm, softly, and John nodded. “Then describe it to me.” he continued.
Somewhat taken aback by this strange request, but nonetheless willing to support his friend in his obvious hour of need, John racked his brains for as much detail about that day as he could recall.
“You were scared witless,” he began. “I remember that much. Even back then, I was sure that there’d be trouble before long. You’ve never been one to commit to, well, anything.”
“So I’m fickle.” said Malcolm. “I know that. I want details. What were we wearing?”
This was something that John did remember. “You were dressed in that suit – the black one which you used to wear when you were on business. I think you… yes, that’s right. You were wearing your father’s pocket watch, just as he had at his wedding. And I… I was wearing those ghastly cufflinks which my girl at the time had given me as a present. Awful things. I got rid of them as soon as she’d left. Back then, of course, I had to wear them in order to keep her happy. I wonder where she is now…”
Malcolm interrupted his reminiscence with a simple, impossible, statement.
“I don’t remember a second of it.”
John smiled in disbelief. “Oh, I don’t believe that. You had a bit to drink, I know that, but it wasn’t all that bad.”
“You don’t understand.” insisted Malcolm. “I don’t remember it, or the day after that, or the day after that. Morpheus has seen to that.”
Frustration began to grow in the pit of John’s stomach at his friend’s vagueness. “I wish you would just explain to me who this Morpheus is!”
Malcolm grimaced bitterly. “Oh, where to begin. Believe me John; I’m not so sure that I know him myself.”
“Where did you meet him?” asked John, reasoning that a systematic interrogation might provide him with the answers he sought as to the stranger’s identity.
“I met Morpheus in a dream.” said Malcolm. “I told you that he only comes to me in my dreams.”
John considered this. “So Morpheus is a… a manifestation of some psychological trauma? Your fights with Viv, perhaps?”
Malcolm even smiled at that suggestion. “If only it were that simple. No, Morpheus is real, and he’s gnawing at me. He’s feeding on my memories.”
The manager of the little bar had ushered them out and quietly closed the door. Now the two men were weaving their way along the crumbling cliff-top path, the scent of the sea breeze thick in their nostrils. After some time, once they had reached the highest point of the track, Malcolm stopped and went to sit on a nearby outcrop of rock. John followed mutely.
A few moments later, he spoke.
“What does he look like?”
Malcolm stiffened. “When I first saw him, he looked like someone you might find in any town or city in the world. He wears a pinstriped suit, expertly tailored, with a red handkerchief in his breast pocket. Occasionally he will wipe his lips with it, as he savours the taste of my recollections. He is completely bald, but not like a man who has lost his hair due to age. He is bald like a newborn, as if his hair has yet to grow. Yet I know that he isn’t young. From his appearance I would call him middle aged, but something about the aura he projects makes me worry that he is something far older, perhaps from before the beginning of time itself. The glasses which he wears are perfectly round, like miniature moons. Though the lenses are clear, I can never quite bring myself to stare him straight in the eye. Despite myself, I’m terrified of what I might find.”
“But that is not Morpheus as he truly is.” he continued. “I’ve seen him as he really appears, and that sight has driven me here. I’m running from the monster inside of me.”
Cocking his head to one side, John pondered this for a moment. “What do you mean by the monster? Morpheus, whoever he is, sounds like a normal man to me.”
The wind had begun to pick up, and Malcolm responded by sliding from the rock and taking shelter behind it. For the first time since they had seen each other in the bar earlier, John noticed how desperately tired Malcolm looked. Before he could consider this any further, Malcolm began to speak.
“Morpheus had been appearing in my dreams for several months – this was just under a year ago. Every night I would go to sleep, dreaming of some day long since faded into memory, except that Morpheus would be there, watching. By the time I woke up the next morning, the respective memory would vanish totally from my consciousness, and Morpheus would be sated for one more night.”
He continued, almost frantically, to relate the next part of his story.
“One night, three or four months ago, he must have let his guard down, when he tiptoed into my dreams, for I saw him as he truly is. He, or should I say it, is hideous. Have you ever seen an octopus? Morpheus is like that, but infinitely more terrifying. He is a betentacled mass of amoeboid pustules, dripping with a caustic substance no manmade science can yet hope to define. Do you remember that I spoke of his human form with that strange, bald cranium? His true form is oddly similar. It too is built around a bulbous, hairless extrusion – a warped parody of a helium balloon. But this was not a cranium, despite my immediate assumptions. As I stared, quaking, at the sight of this gruesome vision, the bulb split open. This was no head, but a huge, singular eyeball! I do not believe that even the bravest of heroes from all of history could confront such a monstrosity. And as the eyeball lolled around in its socket like a dreadful, gelatinous beach-ball, I knew for certain that Morpheus was not of this world at all. I swear that there is no power on Earth that can create a creature so repugnant in appearance, or so steeped in vileness. It is simply not possible.”
“And the stench! Oh, John, the sulphurous reek of that vast protozoan will haunt my darkest dreams for a thousand lifetimes. Perhaps it is the stink of rotting memories, that aroma of sickly sweet nature dissolving in a wash of chemical saliva. It haunts me daily, that abominable scent, yet I am none the wiser as to it’s true nature…”
Having completed his tortured monologue, Malcolm sunk to the ground, sobbing. Clearly, recalling the true Morpheus had proven too much for his fragile body and soul. Between the wretched wails, Malcolm laughed bitterly – a strangled, high pitched laugh like the call of a chimpanzee.
“He makes me forget everything!” he bellowed, at nobody in particular. It almost seemed to John as if his friend no longer acknowledged his presence on the blustery cliff top.
“He makes me forget everything, and yet I cannot forget him! Oh, John, it is unbearable! Knowing that such a creature lives within you! Gains its sustenance from you!”
Suddenly, as if he were finally exhausted by this effort of willpower in defying his inner beast, Malcolm fell silent for a few moments. John took the opportunity to interject.
“But surely,” he began. “There must be something we can do to help you. A psychologist perhaps? Some kind of doctor, at any rate. This… psychosis… I’m sure they’ve got drugs… treatments…”
“It’s no psychosis.” returned Malcolm, sullenly. “Morpheus is as real as you or I, and a thousand times as hideous. He is in me, and has been for as long as I can remember – this changes, of course, as he eats away at me. Perhaps he has been there since I was conceived, but has been simply digesting my early memories of him. Perhaps he is eternal. Perhaps…”
Malcolm’s face hardened as he considered his next statement. John could see the lines of concentration etched across his friend’s face, could almost hear Malcolm’s synapses crackling as he formulated his next doom-laden outburst.
“Perhaps there’s a Morpheus inside you too, John. Maybe even the very same as in me. He could be omnipotent for all we know.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that…” John began to protest, but Malcolm cut him off.
“How can you know? How can anybody know anything? If our memory changes then reality must change with it! Morpheus could be in you now, and you’d be none the wiser as to his presence.”
“Malcolm,” began John. “Stop it. You’re getting carried away. This is unhelpful.”
But Malcolm would not stop, as his mind lit up in one final, devastating conclusion.
“Perhaps we’ve done this all before, and Morpheus has just made us forget! Perhaps we’ve been doing this since the beginning of time, coming here, getting drunk, and talking about him. Perhaps it flatters Morpheus, or amuses him, to have us act out this scene over and over like a stuck record, or this is some kind of purgatory where we spend eternity atoning for our countless sins. Perhaps…”
John could hear no more of this nonsense. He set off back down the path by which they had ascended the cliff at a brisk pace, leaving the ranting Malcolm up on the cliff, screaming out at the sea.
“Perhaps!” shrieked Malcolm after him. “Perhaps!”
He was sat on the terrace outside one of the nondescript bars when John saw him, perched upon a wrought iron chair like an eager, inebriated vulture, eyeing the miniscule rowing boats bobbing about in the harbour below, as they did every evening…
James Maddox is a writer, poet and musician specialising in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres. His short storySerpent’s Child appeared in the Erimem: Into the Unknown anthology produced by Thebes Publishing, whilst his short storyZero Hour is to be published in The Singularity magazine later this year. In September 2016, he will begin studying English at Manchester Metropolitan University.
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