Last month’s tale was inspired by the pulp magazines, but this one was inspired by one of their successors: comic books, specifically the horror comics of the 1970s that I grew up reading. Those familiar with them will probably see the influence, but I hope even those who don’t will enjoy the tale. Happy Halloween, dear reader.
“Daniel, unless you agree to see me more regularly, I honestly don’t know how I’m going to help you. You not only refuse to come in every week, but to make regularly-scheduled appointments at all; I’m sure you realize that as long as you insist on only coming in when someone else has cancelled, our visits are going to be irregular and infrequent.” The man she was addressing responded by getting up and walking to the window for the seventh time since the beginning of the session. “And would you please sit down?”
He complied, then looked around for his bottle of water and began to get up to fetch it; Dr. Nolan pre-empted the move by reaching for it herself, then leaning forward to give it to him. He drained the last of the water, sucking on the bottle for several seconds after it was dry as if to draw more water from the plastic, then replaced the cap and looked around for a wastebasket; the psychologist took the bottle from him so he wouldn’t have the excuse to get up again. “I’m sorry, Doctor, but it has to be that way because of the nightmares.”
“You mentioned them last time, but didn’t elaborate; do they have anything to do with your inability to stick with a therapist for more than half a dozen visits?”
He nodded nervously, then leaned forward so his elbows rested on his knees and hung his head forward. “And with my inability to hold down a job, and with my refusal to set regular appointments,” he said to the floor. “And it’s why I don’t live near my family and have no friends.”
“But surely your family hasn’t abandoned you; our visits are billed to your father’s insurance.”
He continued to avoid eye contact, but responded, “No, it’s not like that; my family loves me and I have plenty of friends who really want me to come home again. I know you probably don’t believe this, but until these awful dreams started I never had any mental problems in my life.”
“I believe that you believe it, Daniel, but recurring nightmares so disturbing they drive a person away from his family and friends don’t spring out of nowhere. They come from some pre-existing issue that you’ve been unable or unwilling to acknowledge.”
“I’ll be damned if I know what that might be,” he said, straightening up suddenly in the chair. “I can’t remember any kind of childhood trauma, always did well in school, got along fine with everybody, graduated not all that far from the top of my class. The first person I had the dream about was my mother.”
“I was living in an apartment, but you know how in dreams you’re sometimes still living with your parents. Well, anyway, I don’t even remember what I was doing in the dream, but my mother was in another room talking to me about something; it was just a regular conversation, nothing I can even recall. But when she came into the room, she had no face!”
“What do you mean, no face?”
“I mean exactly that, no fucking face! I mean the front of her head was totally smooth, no eyes or nose or mouth. And she just stood there with her head turned toward me as though she was looking at me, only she had no eyes. And I woke up screaming.”
She resisted the urge to ask him to sit down again; if pacing helped him unburden himself, so be it. “So you kept having this nightmare about your mother?”
“Not just about her. My dad, my little brother, my girlfriend, all of my friends, my boss…everybody I knew. Every damned night I had them. Every one was different; I would be doing some mundane thing, then without warning the other person in the dream would come into the room or turn around or whatever and have no face. And then I wake up.”
“It never goes any further?”
“No, that’s it, I always wake up as soon as I see that horrible faceless head.”
“So why did you leave your home?”
“A few months after the nightmares started, my little brother went off to college. Then when he came home for a visit, I had the nightmare about him that very night. Thinking about it later, though, I realized that I hadn’t dreamed of him even once while he was gone. I quit my job and went to work somewhere else…and my old boss immediately stopped appearing in the nightmares. It wasn’t long after that I moved away.”
“Did it help?”
“It worked perfectly. I only have the nightmare about people I know well, and even then if I see them often. As long as I spend my days with strangers, my nights are peaceful. But if I get to know anyone too well, the nightmare comes back starring that person, except without a face.”
“So every time you get to know a therapist well…”
“…he or she starts appearing in the nightmare, and I have to stop going. Same thing with jobs; as soon as faceless versions of my boss or coworkers start haunting me, I quit. My neighbors probably think I’m a terrorist or something because I totally avoid talking to them, for fear of being forced to move. I’m hoping that if I see you sporadically, it will at least take longer for me to start having the dream about you.”
“Well, at least I know what we’re up against now. Please try to make another appointment as soon as you feel comfortable, and we’ll see if we can’t figure out the real reason you’re so afraid to get close to anyone.”
“Do you think that’s what it is, Doctor Nolan?”
“I think it’s very likely. Until then, try to keep your mind occupied, and try to at least call your family and friends if you can do that without setting off the nightmares.”
After leaving her office, Daniel felt extremely agitated; talking about the problem had only served to churn up the terror in his mind, and despite the doctor’s advice he didn’t feel it wise to call home too often. A long walk in the park did nothing to clear his mind, nor did dinner and a movie, and he didn’t like to go home between dinner and midnight because a couple of his neighbors often sat out on the steps talking on fine nights like this one. So he decided to seek some company from one of the girls who frequented the stroll about ten blocks from his place; the only one in sight when he arrived was a slender, 30-ish woman named Lisa he’d been with a few times before. It occurred to him that even seeing the same hooker too many times was probably not safe, but if he started dreaming about any of them he’d just have to start going to massage parlors instead.
Lisa recognized him, and the deal was quickly made; he followed her to her room, and the two of them got undressed at the same time. He was still quite nervous from the afternoon’s session, though, so he tried to focus on what she was doing so he’d get excited and forget about all that, at least for a little while. He watched as she kicked off her shoes, shimmied out of her dress, removed her underwear, and took off her face.
Only this time he didn’t wake up.