When Facebook and the mass internet started to really take off one of the most interesting things was realizing how widespread and shared personal quirks and behaviors really were. A lot of these came from childhood. Remember that Facebook fan page for “turning the pillow over to the cool side?” Things like that. It was like that bit in On the Road where Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty realize that they both used to imagine a long blade cutting down the telephone poles on drives in the backseat of a car and that they both used to walk around their houses when they were brushing their teeth, but on a much broader scale. We were all learning that we had a lot more in common that we thought. That optimism and sense of connection didn’t last, as we were funneled by algorithms into silos to help advertisers make money, but for a moment there, it felt real.
It was back then that I joined this Facebook group about dreams. I’d always had unusually vivid and upsetting dreams, the kind that woke me up screaming in a cold sweat. Plenty of kids have intense nightmares about monsters eating them or losing their parents but they usually grow out up them as they get older. I never did. As a teen I used to stay up all night in the summer, preferring to sleep during the day when I didn’t have to risk waking up from some horror show about nuclear war to the empty vastness of a dark room. Even into my twenties I would stay up until the point of physical exhaustion, convinced somehow that doing so would allow me to escape the awful scenarios conjured up by my mind.
Most of these dreams were pretty self-explanatory: they were about being in danger or under duress, or about having everything I knew be torn apart. But some of my recurring nightmares were a little more hard to understand. Like, I used to dream constantly about having to use a public bathroom but not being able to find one that wasn’t filthy. I had no idea what that was about, but it was always upsetting. It wasn’t the worst one, though. That was the pet dream.
The pet dream basically went like this: I would be at home and everything would seem normal, only then I’d realize I’d forgotten something. I’d try to remember what it was, and then it hit me — I had all of these animals living in the house that I’d been neglecting. Sometimes they were stuck in the basement, sometimes they were in the backyard, and sometimes they were running around in the walls. Regardless, I was always gripped by a guilt deeper than any I’d felt in my waking life. How could I have been so selfish? These animals — cats, dogs, sometimes even raccoons or foxes — were starving to death, living in their own shit and piss. They were never dead, always dying. And it was my fault. They’d suffered as a direct result of my inattention and self-absorption, these pathetic, mewling things, and that feeling stayed with me even after I woke up.
I’d never heard of anyone else having the pet dream until I found this Facebook page for dream interpretation. People were sharing all the common ones — being back in high school, being late for a flight, that kind of thing — and one night on a lark I decided to post about the pet dream. I didn’t really expect anyone to respond, but almost immediately several people did. The dream was more common than I’d realized, and people from all around the country had experienced it. They had different explanations for it — some suggested that the pets symbolized the neglect of some important aspect of oneself or one’s relationships, others that it was caused by guilt over some long-ago childhood transgression. None of this really convinced me, but it was comforting somehow to see that others shared my experience.
Around this time I started smoking weed. It was still illegal back then so I had to go over to this dealer’s place to buy it. He lived down by the train tracks in this little apartment where he grew the stuff with this enormous orange cat that was always around. Sometimes it would escape into the hallway and I’d have to run out to get it because he was too stoned to get out of his chair. Compared to the stuff you can get today, the weed was garbage, but it did the job well enough.
I wasn’t really into getting high but whenever I smoked it, I wouldn’t remember my dreams. Marijuana was a godsend — I felt like I was actually getting a good night’s rest for the first time in my life. But it didn’t last. Maybe I just built up a tolerance, but my dreams started to come back. Well, one dream, really — the pet dream.
I went back to the Facebook page and found a few comments that had been made in the weeks since I’d first posted to it. One in particular struck me — this guy named Maximilian Paradise suggested that the pet dream was an indicator of strong psychic potential, and that anyone interested in cultivating that potential should check out his website. He was an obvious nut, but I clicked through anyway.
The site looked like it hadn’t been updated in at least a decade. It was all serif fonts on a dark, starry background, making it almost impossible to read. Hell, it even had those little “under construction” animations everyone used to put on their Angelfire and Geocities pages back in the 90s. It was just this guy’s rambling theories on the power of the human mind, about how we only use a small percentage of our brain, that kind of thing. Paradise’s main argument was that being conscious involved filtering out a lot of information, otherwise we’d be overwhelmed with data by trying to focus on everything at once. He claimed that certain individuals throughout history have been able to widen the scope of their perception to see things others cannot — into the future, distant places, and other planes of reality.
It all seemed like bullshit, to be honest. I didn’t really go in for any of that woo stuff, but something about Paradise’s take on it was kind of charming. Maybe it was just the outdated aesthetic of the page but I felt on some level that he knew what he was talking about. Anyway, he seemed pretty harmless. There was a grainy photo of Paradise on the site that looked like it had been taken in a dim room with a cheap digital camera, but he didn’t look like a psycho or anything. He was wearing a polo shirt and horn-rimmed glasses and seemed like a pretty normal, if kind of skinny, white guy in his 40s with a trimmed mustache and clean-cut hair. So I decided to send him a message on Facebook about the pet dream and see what he had to say about it.
In the meantime the dreams kept pushing through the weed haze I’d tried to smother them with. Again and again I found myself in some old apartment, opening a door to a room I’d forgotten existed and discovering those feeble, helpless little animals crying for my attention. The guilt began to acquire a physical weight that seemed to hang off me throughout the day. I didn’t particularly feel like I was neglecting any part of myself and I couldn’t recall anything I’d have reason to feel guilty for in my childhood. So why was I stuck with this recurring scenario?
Paradise responded to my inquiry with a long, rambling response. He wrote in the way that older people seem to on computers where they use a lot of ellipses and never seem to finish a sentence. He repeated his comments from the Facebook thread where he said that the dream was an indicator of empathic psychic abilities — I think he probably even copied and pasted it from his site — but then he added something he hadn’t said publicly. He told me that this openness to otherworldly phenomena could be dangerous if it wasn’t properly honed and left me his number, urging me to call him as soon as possible.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get any more involved with him than I already was, but the dreams were getting worse regardless of how much I smoked before bed. I was starting to slip back into old childhood habits, staying up as late as possible watching garbage TV in the hopes that I’d eventually pass out and be dead to the world for a few hours but it didn’t work. So one evening after work, I gave Paradise a call.
It was surprising how calm he sounded over the phone. I was sort of expecting him to be a paranoid nutjob but he spoke in this very even, quiet tone. It was almost relaxing listening to him drone on about the astral plane and psychic projection. Then I realized that it was distinctly possible that he was just a lonely, middle-aged man who didn’t have anyone to talk to. That made me pity him a little so I let him go on about his discoveries in the realm of the human mind for a while before we got to my dream problem.
When I finally mentioned it, he clammed up. It was weird — he’d been so talkative up until that point. Had I said something wrong? He explained that the dreams I’d been having were important and wanted to know if we could meet in person. He said it would be easier to explain face-to-face rather than over the phone. Maybe he was just looking for a friend and figured that was the only way to draw me out, but he seemed pretty harmless so I agreed.
As it turned out, he lived in the suburbs not too far out of the city, so I drove up and met him at a little burger joint just off the highway. I smoked a cigarette outside in the last dregs of autumn sunlight while I was waiting for him to show up and noticed this woman sitting in her car in the parking lot. When we made eye contact she quickly looked away and went back to reading something. Paradise pulled up shortly after that in a beat-up sedan that was at least twenty years old. He got out on ungainly legs and strode over to me, wearing a short-sleeved shirt and tie, corduruy pants, and those same glasses from his author photo. He had kind of a musty scent to him, like a used bookstore, and he looked more like the manager of a shoe shop than an expert on the paranormal, but I shook his hand and we went inside.
It was still a little unusual to meet people from the internet in those days, and there was a mutual reservation between us. But it quickly dissolved as we sat down and talked over a couple of greasy burgers. He wasn’t tweaky or spacey like you’d expect a guy into the supernatural to be. Instead, he had the vibe of a favorite uncle, one who just so happened to be interested in UFOs and parallel dimensions rather than, say, model trains or guitars. He could talk about this stuff in a way that made you — if not actually buy into it — then at least think huh, that’s pretty cool.
He told me about how Bigfoot was actually a psychic protector of humanity who lived deep within the earth; about the secret experiments the US government had performed on remote viewing; about the evidence for parallel dimensions and how they could explain near-death experiences, things like that. Then he leaned in, his glasses glinting under the fluorescent lights, and said that the dreams I was having represented a connection to one of these alternate dimensions. I told him I’d tried to use weed to kill them but that they’d started to push through again, that they were the only dreams I remembered lately. He was astonished, saying that this was proof that I had an extraordinary gift, an openness to psychic phenomena that could be used for the betterment of not just myself, but all of mankind. All I had to do was stop turning away in fear.
I didn’t really understand how dreaming about dead pets could be linked to any kind of psychic powers. It wasn’t like I was having dreams of future events or anything like that. But Paradise was insistent. He told me to wait a second while he went out to his car to get a book that would help me open myself to the wisdom of the interdimensional entities. I watched him fish around in his trunk out the window then noticed that woman was still sitting there in her car, watching him over the top of a paperback.
Paradise came back with a grin on his face and handed me the book. It looked kind of chintzy, like it came from a vanity publisher, and sure enough, it had his name on the cover. It was clumsily titled “Messages From Other Worlds? How to Open Your Mind to the Wisdom of the Star-Children” and the cover depicted a galaxy with a clipart depiction of a bald man with the middle and index fingers of each hand pressed to his temples, looking like the guy from the X-Men. I offered to pay him for the book but he said no, it’s a gift, and besides he had a few dozen sitting in his trunk anyway. I promised I’d give him a call after I read it and I drove home.
On the way back I had this strange feeling. I kept thinking of that woman in the parking lot and when I parked and crossed the street to my place I noticed her again, walking to intercept me. She was wearing a jacket and skirt, professional office attire, and her hair was pulled back into a tight bun. I eyed her suspiciously as she flagged me down on the sidewalk. I didn’t like being followed, I told her, and asked if she was a cop or something. She said no, nothing like that. She claimed that she was with the government and that they’d been keeping an eye on the man I knew as Max Paradise, which apparently wasn’t his real name. He was dangerous, she said, and I should be careful. She gave me a card with a number on it and asked me to call her if I was in trouble. I took it, but told her to piss off and that since it was a free country I’d associate with whoever I wanted to. She got a grave look then and told me that yes, it was, and they’d like to keep it that way. I walked into my place and checked out the window to make sure she’d gone.
What the fuck had I gotten myself into? Why was the government interested in some harmless crackpot like Paradise? I started reading the book he’d given me — as best I could tell, it was about the existence of entities in other dimensions that had unfathomable knowledge and powers. Normally, he said, these worlds were cut off from everyday life, but some people were able to pierce the veil and glean insight from these creatures. Paradise claimed that a number of famous artists, mystics, and writers throughout history had gotten their inspiration from their contact with alternate dimensions, and that people with sufficient mental openness could communicate with them through meditation and dreams if only they were willing to let them in. I got to bed thinking about that after smoking half a joint, and tried to prepare myself for another instance of the inevitable pet dream.
Of course, it came again. Somehow, I didn’t freak out so much when I went down into a dusty basement and found a half-dozen cats scurrying around looking malnourished and sad. I tried to show them kindness, found a bag of food behind a washing machine and poured some out into a bowl. And then more came, clamoring out from holes in the walls and under appliances and through the windows. More and more little cats poured into the room, crying and swarming me, until I awoke yelping with sore muscles, like I’d been holding my body perfectly rigid all night. I didn’t feel like I’d learned anything, I just felt exhausted.
I checked the clock and it was only 5 AM but I couldn’t sleep so I put on a pot of coffee and blew through a few cups of burnt garbage cut with milk and sugar while skimming the rest of the book. It was full of anecdotes about historical figures communing with interdimensional beings and some exercises that were supposed to help you get in touch with them. There were lots of techniques: meditation, lucid dreaming, even psychedelics. Paradise cited guys like Terence McKenna who’d experienced vivid sensations of meeting beings described as aliens or “machine elves” while under the influence of drugs like DMT, arguing that the similarities across various kinds of mystical experience pointed to a real alternate dimension populated by curious and friendly creatures. Angels, demons, aliens — whatever you call them, they were all different names for the same thing.
In the afternoon I gave Paradise a call like I’d promised I would. This time I noticed his evasiveness was a little more pronounced. He wouldn’t talk specifics about the dreams, and at one point he outright told me he couldn’t discuss certain things over the phone. I chalked it up as him just wanting another excuse to get together. The poor guy was probably so isolated, I could hardly blame him. Plus I’d kind of actually come to like him, and I’d become somewhat reclusive myself with the insomnia and all the weed I’d been smoking. We made plans to meet up again on Friday.
That night I tried to put some of the techniques Paradise laid out into practice. Lucid dreaming was supposed to be useful for helping you actually communicate with the entities from the other side. I still thought this was all a load of horseshit, but I figured that if nothing else, lucid dreaming would help me realize that the nightmare wasn’t real. Maybe once I’d done that, I could put the whole thing behind me. So I got into bed and set an alarm for five hours later. I tossed and turned for a little bit, but I managed to nod off after not too long. When the alarm woke me up, it was still silent and dark out. I flicked on my bedside lamp, picked at a crossword for about twenty minutes, then went back to sleep.
The next thing I knew, I was in my childhood house. And I knew I was dreaming, because I was an adult and hadn’t lived there for years. I cracked open the door to the basement, descending the dusty steps and expecting to be confronted with the usual disgusting scene, big-eyed, wet little creatures tottering around in their own waste. It was different this time, though. The basement was completely tidy, with even the unfinished cement floor brushed clean. There were no pained, guilting howls. I laughed as the realization hit me that the dream that had been tormenting me for so long was a product of my own mind, something I was ultimately in control of. I’d been choosing to punish myself, for some reason I couldn’t quite articulate, but I could just as easily choose not to.
I willed the basement away and leapt into the air, soaring through a clear night sky and feeling freer than I had in years. Gliding down to a moonlit field, I came to a gentle landing and a woman with the body of a swimsuit model and the face of an old ex stepped out from behind a tree, her body glistening in the dew. We fucked right there on the ground. It was incredible — I found myself wondering why I hadn’t tried the whole lucid dreaming thing sooner. Just then, the girl turned to me and smiled.
“Thank you,” she said, beaming with appreciation. I laughed, but she kept on smiling. I’d gotten tired of the scenario and wanted to move onto something else, but then I felt her hand on my wrist.
“Don’t go,” she said, almost pleading. “Please don’t go. Stay here.”
I shrugged. I knew I was dreaming, and willed the scene to change again. I’d felt free and loved, now I wanted to feel powerful. I imagined a vast landscape of enormous rocks and mountains that I would heft into the air like a superhero, obliterating them with my laser vision and incredible strength. I was there. But then I felt something pull on my arm. It was the girl, again. I started to become a little apprehensive. How was that possible? It was my dream, and I didn’t need her around anymore. I willed her to disappear, but that feeling, that too-real pull on my arm stayed just the same.
“Don’t go,” she repeated. “Please, let me in.”
I tried to shake her off, but her grip was surprisingly fierce. “Let me in,” she insisted. “Let us in.”
By now, I was starting to panic. The fact that I was aware I was dreaming did little to alleviate it, because if I was dreaming and knew it, then why was the world not responding in the way I wanted it to? That panic boiled over into full-on terror as the woman’s throat swelled up, something forcing its way up and out of her body. I struggled to pull away but she was just too strong. She opened her mouth so wide that her jaw split, and from between her teeth a ragged little kitten came crawling out, then another and another. I screamed and thrashed to no avail as the creatures spilled forth, advancing towards me and scrabbling up my body with their little claws.
Their wide eyes were crusted and weeping, their fur matted and covered in sores. They meowed and squealed, and all the while they continued their ascent, scores of the things clamoring up my legs and stomach, gouging painful furrows into my flesh as they climbed. I wailed, shook, and tried to fly away but I was being pulled down under the weight of the despairing, abandoned kittens. They reached my neck and I realized my mistake in screaming out too late as one leapt upwards, into my gaping mouth. I gagged on wet fur as more and more of them sought to follow it. Then I woke up.
I struggled to breathe, still feeling an unnatural lump in my throat. I hacked and coughed and something sharp tore at my esophagus. There was something moving inside of me, thrashing and trying to climb in deeper, shredding my body as it went. I fell onto all fours, choking and sputtering, gagging as bloody bile leaked into my mouth. None of it made sense. Dimly, I thought maybe I might still be dreaming. I crawled into the kitchen, my vision fading to black, and pulled a drawer out, sending the utensils inside clattering to the floor. I reached for my chef’s knife, eyes bulging, and feebly lifted it to my throat, pressing the tip into the skin. But I couldn’t do it. I dropped the knife, collapsing onto the tile. The last thing I noticed before I lost consciousness was a loud crash and the sound of footsteps.
When I woke up, I half-expected to see Max Paradise’s kind-looking face watching over me. Instead, it was the woman who’d been tailing him. I was in a bright hospital room that smelled faintly of disinfectant. My mouth was dry and my eyes creaked open. A dull soreness pervaded my throat. I might have panicked, but they must have had me on some pretty good drugs. The woman told me that I was safe. I wanted to ask what had happened, but she just told me to rest and hooked something up to the IV that was sunk into my wrist. I slipped out of consciousness again, and when I came to the room was dark except for the hallway light seeping in under the door. I didn’t recall any dreams.
The doctors were actually really nice. I learned when I was able to speak that I was in a small facility run by a government outfit I’d never heard of. It wasn’t like in the movies where they have you strapped down to a table so they can run experiments. There was no interrogation in a dark room, no threats to me or my family, no smoking men looking on quietly from the corner. I expected them to call me crazy, to tell me I was delusional and have me committed, but they listened patiently as I explained everything — even the part at the end didn’t seem to shock them. That in turn sort of shocked me, and I realized they seemed to know far more about what had happened to me than they were letting on. They gave me some pills that they said contained the same thing that was in my IV that killed my dreams — minus the painkillers, of course. And they said that it was important that I continued to take them even if I was feeling better.
Before I left, the woman who’d tailed me days before came back to my room and apologized for having spied on me, but that if she hadn’t — if they hadn’t been watching my place — that I’d probably be dead or worse by now. When I asked what she meant by worse, she sighed and asked if I really wanted to know the truth. The pills they’d given me were, as far as they were aware, 100% effective, and if I wanted I could leave right then and forget about all of this. Like an idiot, I asked her to tell me what was really going on.
Paradise, she said, got a lot of things right — there really are entities out there, unseen forces that want to get in touch with us. But he was wrong about what they are. They’re not friendly, benevolent beings from a world like our own. They’re us.
The neglected pets of our dreams are, in fact, our screaming, tormented dead. Crushed up against the other side of the mirror, with less and less space all the time as more and more are added daily to their numbers, these pitiable, furious shades beg and plead to be allowed to live once more. There are, she told me, no angels, no demons, no extradimensional beings. There is just the detritus of humanity, piling up and pressing on the edges of our awareness in our dreams. We have no cosmic judgment to consider, no oblivion to rest in. All that awaits us after death is an eternal imprisonment in a plane of nothingness, packed together like sardines alongside tens of billions of others bereft of memory or identity and wailing to be let back into the waking world.
I wanted to argue, to say that it was impossible, that if any of this were really true then people would be talking about it. I asked her what she would do if I started to tell people and she just shrugged. Nobody would believe you, she told me, in a resigned kind of way that made me think maybe she’d tried to do exactly the same thing.
I went home and tried to resume my normal life, never bothering to tell anyone else about my experiences. The pills did their job, and I awoke each morning feeling rested and refreshed with no memory of my dreams. I never heard from Paradise again — when I tried to call him, the line had been disconnected, and his Facebook account and website had seemingly been scoured off the internet. I wonder what happened to him, sometimes, but I’ve decided not to ask too many questions about it. Maybe that makes me a coward, but I’ve been occupied by another question anyway.
If the afterlife is finite, just like the earth, and people keep getting shoved into it, then what’s going to happen when there’s no space anymore? I imagine it bursting open like a dented can gravid with botulism, spilling its poisoned contents into the streets and choking the air with clouds of killing mist. I don’t want to be around when that happens, but I’m also in no hurry to join the damned on the other side. For now, I take solace where I can find it. For one thing, I’ve never slept so well.