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Author's note: content warning for attempted sexual assault.



“Attention loyal citizen and/or marginalized subject.

“There is presently an exponential rise in reports of sleep paralysis and other parasomnias within the region corresponding to your in-group’s central territory. As such, municipal health departments have logically been granted unimputable authority for so long as they deem necessary. Your innate in-group bias/municipal bylaws thereby compel you to comply with public health measures intended to mitigate the severity of this crisis.

“Do not panic, as this is likely to increase the occurrence of sleep paralysis episodes and is therefore in violation of municipal bylaws.

“Avoid sleep-disrupting activities as much as possible, except in instances when doing so would negatively impact your local or national GDP figures.

“Refrain from discussing this crisis with others, as both the stress of this event and the power of suggestion are believed to increase the frequency and severity of sleep paralysis. Remember, we are all in this alone. Together.

“Our initial mitigation strategy of a total sleep ban was the subject of much criticism and controversy. While these critiques were initially dismissed as anti-scientific and extremist rhetoric, subsequent peer review has determined that they do hold some merit. Concordantly, a sleep mask mandate is now in effect.

“Enclosed within this care package is one (?) Eigengrau Hypnagogic/Hypnopomic Sleep Mask. It is comfortable enough to wear all night and provides one (!) hundred percent blackout and noise cancellation. Please note that this sleep mask only prevents visual and auditory hallucinations during sleep paralysis episodes. Emotional hallucinations may still occur. If at any time you should wake up experiencing a sense of dread, terror, or panic, do not attempt to remove your sleep mask, as your inability to do so will only exacerbate your distress.

“Refusal to wear this mask to bed, or attempting to remove it during a sleeping paralysis episode, is a violation of municipal bylaws. Non-compliance is its own punishment. For more information, simply dial the Dreaming Eye Icon (Eye-con?) on your phone’s keypad. It has always been there. You simply failed to notice it when it was of no use to you.

“Let’s all keep our arbitrarily defined in-group safe. Stay woke by sleeping sound.”


“What the hell?” I muttered to myself as I carefully read over the quixotic letter again.

I’d found it when I checked my mailbox, but there was no address on it. If the postal worker had dropped it off, it must have been a mass-market thing. I was tempted to peek into my neighbour’s mailboxes to see if they had received anything similar, but thought better of it. That was probably the kind of thing you could get evicted for.

The letterhead had a logo of a dreamcatcher with an eye in the center, but there was otherwise no identifying information on it. The font was cursive, which struck me as a very odd choice until I took a closer look and realized that I was looking at live ink. Someone had gone to the trouble of hand-writing this. It couldn’t have been a mass market.

It briefly crossed my mind that this could have been a bioterrorist attack or something like that, but I highly doubted that I would be anyone’s prime target. If I was going to be exposed to anthrax, it would have happened as soon as I opened the letter, so I didn’t see what the point would be in going through the whole charade of a fake public health crisis.

Whatever this was, I quickly decided that it had to be either a prank or a guerilla marketing campaign. Carefully peering into the envelope, I cautiously stuck my fingers in and fished out the complimentary sleep mask contained within.

The first thing I noticed about it was how incredibly black it was. It was almost vanta-black, which I guess was to help it block out the light. The only part of it that wasn’t black was a white logo on the front; the same cyclopic dreamcatcher logo that had been on the letter. It was made from a breathable, satiny material that was cool to the touch, and it was stuffed with a thin layer of foam. The head strap was broad enough to completely cover the ears, and there was additional padding around the eyes that tapered at the temples.

I carefully inspected the mask for several minutes, sniffing and gently prodding it for any sign of anything suspicious or malicious, but found nothing. It honestly seemed like a pretty high-quality sleep mask, one that I would have been happy to receive as a free promotional item had it not been for the odd letter that came with it.

I didn’t see how it could possibly be a prank or an attack, so a stealth marketing campaign was the only thing that made sense. Convinced that neither my safety or dignity were in any real jeopardy, I slipped the mask on the see if it worked as advertised.

The first thing I noticed wasn’t the darkness, but the silence. Everything went dead silent, and I had to pull the mask on and off my ears multiple times just to confirm the effect was real. I tried speaking with it on, and I was only able to hear my own voice through bone conduction. I put a pair of headphones on overtop of it and I still couldn’t hear anything, and when I put a pair of earbuds on underneath it was like the sound of footsteps after a fresh snowfall. Somehow, that thin little layer of foam was absorbing all the ambient noise. I pinched it to see if I could locate any noise-cancelling earbuds embedded inside, but as far as I could tell, it was just foam. It was incredible. The mask’s full blackout was nearly mundane in comparison.

Or at least, it was at first. I left it on for a few minutes just to see how well it blocked the light after my eyes had adjusted, and that’s when things started to get a little strange.

The letter had used the word Eigengrau when describing the mask. Eigengrau is the name for the colour you see when you close your eyes. It’s German, and it’s often translated to Intrinsic Grey or Significant Grey, but I believe the most literal translation is ‘One’s Own Grey’. I don’t know if it was just because that’s how the mask branded itself, but for some reason when I wore it, I became very much aware that what I was seeing wasn’t just darkness or blackness, but Eigengrau; the colour I see when I think I can’t see anything. It was like I was staring into an infinite, fathomless void of My Own Grey.

Within this void, my phosphenes stood out much more prominently as well. Phosphenes are what you see when your retinal cells fire in the absence of any light. Not everyone notices them, but mine are nebulous shapes that form in the faint electric snow of my Eigengrau. When I wore the mask, they were much less nebulous than normal. They were almost three-dimensional, and in the dance of their usual chaotic movement and shapeshifting, I got the uneasy sense that there was in fact some method to their madness.

The effect was disquieting enough that I took the mask off and put it aside as I went about my day. When night came, I briefly considered trying the mask back on to see how comfortable it was to sleep in, but the memory of gazing into the vast Eigengrau abyss of living phosphenes was enough to put me off the idea.

That turned out to be a mistake, because that night I experienced sleep paralysis for the first time in my life.

I woke up and realized that I couldn’t move anything besides my eyes, and panic immediately overtook me. I didn’t initially think that it was sleep paralysis; just regular old paralysis. The letter from that morning didn’t even enter my mind at first. I thought instead that I had either been accidentally or maybe even intentionally poisoned. I tried calling for help, but of course, I couldn’t speak either.

My eyes began darting around the room, desperately looking for any threat that might be lurking in the shadows. On the far right of the room, I spotted the silhouette of a hooded and hunched-back figure looming in the doorway, its pure white eyes locked onto me. I wondered how long it had been there, how long it had been watching me sleep. Did it even realize I was awake yet, or that I could see it? If it did, why wasn’t it reacting?

I don’t think I can properly convey in words the sense of absolute hopeless dread that came over me when I saw a bright white smile spread across its shadowed black face. My every survival instinct demanded that I get up and run or defend myself, but my racing heart and surging adrenaline were all in vain as my body was still completely immobilized. My tormentor, on the other hand, made no sudden movements not because he couldn’t, but because he didn’t need to. Unlike me, he had no dire impetus for action and he was smugly rubbing my face in it.

For the rest of the night, or what felt like it at least, we just stared at each other. I never took my eyes off of him for more than a fraction of a second to make sure there weren’t other creatures lurking in the corners of my vision. He just stood there, staring and smiling, standing so unnaturally still I did at times question whether or not he was really there.

When he did finally move, it was to hold up the sleep mask in his long, tattered fingers. With a wink and a nod, he tossed it over onto my bed before vanishing the instant the dawn’s light began to creep through my curtains.

When I was eventually able to move again, I immediately reached for my phone to call 911. That’s when I noticed the One-Eyed Dreamcatcher logo on my keypad, exactly as the letter had said I would. Since I was desperate to know what the hell was going on, I decided to press that instead.

“Hello, and thank you for calling the Eigengrau Parasomnia Hotline. All of our operators are either unemployed, employed elsewhere, or no longer eligible for employment due to death or other preventable health issues. Please stay on the line as we adjust our economic models to account for this labour shortage.”

“What?” I asked in exasperation as I stared angrily at my phone. The voice on the prerecorded message sounded oddly distorted, like he was actually speaking backwards and the playback had been reversed.

“If you are calling to report noncompliance with the sleep mask mandate, please make a self-righteous, outraged and/or despondent post on social media regarding the issue. If you are calling to report a defect in your Eigengrau Sleep Mask, please note that emergency funding was only sufficient to provide one free mask per individual, but replacements are available for purchase at your personal expense. If you’re calling because you have recently suffered a sleep paralysis episode, please stay on the line and one of our helpful associates will inevitably be with you.”

The pre-recorded message ended with a sharp click as the audio switched to the Muzak version of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star on an infinite loop. I was listening to it for at least ten minutes before I was put through to someone.

“Hello, and thank you for calling the Eigengrau Parasomnia Hotline. My name is Zephyria; how may I be of assistance today?” a mellifluous female voice greeted me.

“Is this a real person?” I asked irritably, since that was the whole reason I had stayed on the line for as long as I had.

“No!” the young woman replied in a cheery, perhaps somewhat taunting tone. “But I’m not a robot, if that’s what you mean. Are you calling for information regarding the sleep paralysis outbreak?”

“There is no sleep paralysis outbreak!” I screamed. “I’ve already looked online and there’s nothing going on!”

“Sir, I believe it was Abraham Lincoln who said that you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet,” Zephyria replied. “Communications regarding the outbreak are currently being suppressed by your municipal health department as the contagion is believed to be memetic in nature. Please remain calm and comply with the instructions you received with your sleep mask.”

“I know you’re messing with me!” I shouted into the phone. “I asked around yesterday and no one I spoke to got one of your damn sleep masks! I’ve never had sleep paralysis until last night! How the hell did you do it? Did you put something in the envelope!”

“Sir, I want to help you, but you’re becoming irrational,” Zephryria said calmly. “You claim we’re lying, but admit that you’ve recently suffered an unprecedented episode of sleep paralysis. Did you wear the mask we sent you?”

“No, I didn’t wear the sleep mask last night,” I responded.

“That’s why the mandate is in effect; for your protection,” Zephryria insisted. “There’s an outbreak of sleep paralysis and other parasomnias in your area at the moment, and you’ve been affected by it. We aren’t causing it; we’re responding to it.”

“How is that possible?” I demanded. “How can there be an outbreak of sleep paralysis?”

“Mass psychogenic illnesses are a very real phenomenon, sir,” Zephryria replied. “Medieval Europe famously had several outbreaks of dancing plagues, for example. Unfortunately, the immaterial nature of the vector makes it rather difficult to trace. What we do know is that you’ve been exposed. As I mentioned, this is believed to be a memetic contagion, which is why no one else is willing to talk to you about it. To avoid spreading it to others, please only speak about it with designated Eigengrau personnel like myself. Wear your sleep mask, and you shouldn’t have any more episodes of sleep paralysis.”

“If you guys are legit, then what the hell was with that weird ass letter you sent out, or the recorded greeting I heard when I called for that matter?” I asked.

“Yes sir, I realized those may have been less than optimally worded. Due to the suddenness of the crisis, our public outreach campaign was rather rushed,” Zephyria explained. “Any irregularities in any of our messages you heard or read are a result of our campaign director’s lack of fluency in the English language and our inability to properly vet them before they were sent out. We’re doing our best to avoid a repeat of such issues in the future.”

“I…” I began before trailing off.

I wanted to call her out again, but in my stressed-out and sleep-deprived state, everything she was saying seemed oddly plausible.

“Sir, I realize you’re tired and scared, which is perfectly understandable,” Zephryia consoled me. “Just comply with the guidelines you’ve been given, and we’ll get through this together.”

“But… how does a soundproofed sleep mask help with hallucinations?” I asked hesitantly. “If anything, wouldn’t sensory deprivation make them worse?”

“Sleep paralysis hallucinations are a result of your panicking brain looking for threats in the sensory information that it has,” she claimed. “The mask makes it so that your brain has nothing to work with. You can’t jump at shadows that you can’t see.”

“I… alright. That makes sense. I’ll try the mask on tonight and see if it helps,” I relented. “Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome, sir,” she said. “You have a good night’s sleep tonight.”

***

I wore the sleep mask to bed that night, hopeful that it would work as promised and keep me from having another episode of sleep paralysis. I still saw the same enhanced Eigengrau and phosphenes when I wore it, but there was a simple solution to that; I just closed my eyes. Why ‘My Own Grey’ was stronger inside the mask than my own eyelids, I honestly had no idea. As long as the mask worked, I didn’t care. I couldn’t hear anything, and I couldn’t see anything. It was a bit like being in a sensory deprivation pod. If you let your mind race and start spinning patterns out of the nothingness, hallucinations and panic attacks are likely to follow. But if you embrace the silence, embrace the darkness, and let your mind settle to the ambient sensory vacancy, you can achieve a state of Zen-like calm that you can carry with you well after the experience is over.

That’s what I tried to do, knowing that fixating on my sleep paralysis would only increase the chances of it happening again. I just lay there in the quiet darkness, counting my own breaths and ignoring every other thought and sensation until I drifted off to sleep.

I awoke to the overpowering sensation that I was not alone, that I was being watched again. I started looking around to find the figure from the previous night, but of course, I could see nothing with the sleep mask on.

No, that’s not true. I didn’t see nothing. I saw the Eigengrau void, more vivid and expansive than ever. The phosphenes swirled in a maelstrom of pareidolia, my terrified mind twisting them into forms more menacing than anything I’d seen in the light of day or night.

I wanted to take the mask off. I didn’t want to gaze into the nightmare abyss before me. I wanted to see what the hell was in the room with me. At first, I didn’t even try to take the mask off, since I assumed I was paralyzed again. It took me a minute to realize that I wasn’t actually paralyzed, but had simply seized up in fear. I could move, if I willed myself enough.

Still, I fought the urge. As long as I wore the mask, I knew the visions weren’t real. If I took it off, then I’d have no way to tell the nightmare from reality, and the episode would spiral out of control. Even as the sensation of other people in the room grew stronger, I told myself it wasn’t real. None of this was real. The thing I saw the night before wasn’t real

And that’s when an alarming thought popped into my mind, one I’m embarrassed to say didn’t occur to me sooner; if the figure from the night before hadn’t been real, then how had he thrown the sleep mask onto my bed?

In a mad panic, I tore the sleep mask off of my face.

Perched at the foot of my bed was some form of Succubus. She had the form of a nude, voluptuous woman composed of an ethereal, dark purple mist that glowed a deep pink at her extremities. Her fingers were clawed, her digitigrade feet looked like high heels, and her long, pointed ears stuck through the luscious mane of her hair. She had a tail, wings, and horns like a traditional demon, along with a pair of radiant reptilian eyes that were staring down right at me. She smiled widely, revealing a set of glistening, predatory teeth and a flickering forked tongue.

“Aww. Still can’t sleep?” she asked in a mocking sympathetic tone. Though it was now heavy with a demonic timbre, I still recognized the voice as Zephyria’s. “I was hoping you’d find me a little less unsettling than my brother. Not that he can help it, of course. We were shaped by the thoughts of those who first dreamed us. As an Incubus, he’s either threatening or creepy. But I get to be tempting.”

She rose to her full height, her horns scraping the ceiling since she was still standing on the bed, provocatively posing herself so that I could get a full view of her.

“You’re not real!” I screamed, trying to convince myself more than her.

“Yeah, I told you that already. I’m a tulpa, a thoughtform; an egregore if you want to be a pretentious shit about it,” she replied. “I’m sustained by the thoughts of mortals, which is why I’m going to make sure you never stop thinking about me.”

I started to bolt out of my bed, but she pounced on me like a cat and pinned me against the mattress.

“You can’t run away from your nightmares, honey,” she told me, her face inches away from my own as she glared at me with an equal mix of lust and hunger. “You can only wake up from them. And if they follow you into the waking world, then you’re kind of up a creek, now aren’t you?”

“Incorrect. The Fair – apologies, fine – folk of the Dire Insomnium offer both effective and affordable dreamcatching services for exactly this sort of situation,” a distorted, yet familiar, monotone voice said from behind me.

I turned my head back, expecting to see the figure from the night before, but instead I saw a tall man in a shabby suit with a large bulbous head and a face that was impossible to focus on. He had to have been another thoughtform, but he was clearly no Incubus or kin to Zephyria.

“Has this ever happened to you?” he asked dramatically, theatrically gesturing towards me with one hand. It sounded rhetorical, but when he didn’t follow up with anything else I assumed he was actually asking.

“Yes, yes! It’s happening now!” I shouted back.

“Trying to enjoy a good night’s rest, only to be assaulted by a sexually threatening and/or alluring sleep paralysis demon?” he asked again, his speech stilted like he was a bad actor reading from a script. “The Fair – fine – folks at the Dire Insomnium can help. Using dreamcatching techniques wrongfully appropriated from First Nation’s tribes, the Dire Insomnium can weave an incorporeal Dreamcatcher powered by your own subconscious thoughts which will provide fool-proof asterisk asterisk asterisk asterisk protection against such unwanted incursions into your mindscape. In exchange, we require a mere tithe of your unused dream energy be siphoned off to power the Insomnium’s machinations and/or acts of philanthropic goodwill.”

“I recognize your voice! You’re the recording from the hotline! You two are working together!” I shouted.

“Busted,” Zephyria sang. “Don’t worry about him, love. He’s just a travelling salesman looking to make a buck. You don’t want to kick me out of here, do you? We could have so much fun together.”

I tried pushing her off me, but she was more than impossibly strong. She was immovable.

“You can really get rid of her, and the other one?” I demanded of the strange man by my bed.

“Indeed. The Dire Insomium knows better than most the value of a good night’s sleep, and is eager to bring the sleep paralysis outbreak to an end,” he said. “If you agree to my terms, I can deploy the Dreamcatcher immediately.”

“Solomon, you are being a real cockblock right now, so why don’t you bugger off and –”

“Yes! Yes! I agree, just get rid of her!” I screamed.

“Seriously? You consent to having your mind pumped dry for a chastity belt rather than spend a night with a Succubus? Unbelievable,” she sighed in frustration as she pushed herself off of me.

I tried to get out of bed again, but this time it was Solomon who caught me. He held my head still with one hand while using the other to strap the mask back on.

“The municipal sleep mask mandate must be observed before I can legally proceed,” he said definitively. “Please count backwards from the number of sheep that ever have or will exist.”

And before I could object, I fell asleep.

I haven’t had an episode of sleep paralysis since, or any more encounters with any tulpas. I still wear the sleep mask though, and I still see the sea of Eigengrau when I do. My phosphenes reveal the outlines of strange scenes I can’t quite make sense of, so I keep my eyes shut as much as I can.

I don’t know exactly what Solomon did, but I know he put something inside my mind that’s tapping into my subconscious. I can feel it grinding away in there and I’m not sure what effects it might be having on me. The worst part of all this is that I know I was hustled. I know that Solomon and Zephyria were working together. She only got into my head in the first place so that I would let Solomon do anything to get her out. I don’t think he actually gave me any kind of dreamcatcher; I’m just paying protection now. If Solomon ever wants me to upgrade my subscription, all he has to do is tell Zephyria to pay me another visit.

That’s why I still wear the mask, if you were wondering. I think there was some truth in what Zephryia told me, and that she and her brother can’t manifest strongly enough to do me harm if I can’t see or hear them.

So, if you ever receive one of these sleep masks in the mail, my advice is for you to wear it every night, and don’t take it off no matter what you think might be lurking by your bedside.

And it is a municipal health department mandate, after all.



Written by The Vesper's Bell
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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