It all started on one of those Sundays. One of those typical Sundays you can only spend in two ways: If you’re with someone, you just stay in bed, listening to the raindrops play snare drum on your skylight while her heart beats the bass. You just lie there, gently rocking your feet until the tall trees in the not so far distance swallow the last gulps of day, drooling tangerine light all over the sky.
If you aren’t somehow lucky enough to be doing this, you finally force yourself to get up, sometime between two and two thirty in the afternoon, to the nagging sound of your eleven-year-old neighbor practicing the intro of “Nothing Else Matters” on his brand new electric guitar. You take a 45-minute shower to get rid of your hammering headache. It doesn’t work. While eating the lunch your aunt Heidi has left in the microwave – combined with a friendly message criticizing your “obnoxious” behavior when you “finally made it home at 4 o’clock this morning” – you start cursing your drunken self. You contemplate swallowing two, or rather three, aspirins to cast the little mean man with the sledgehammer out of your head.
You are grateful that Frau Schmidt from across the street has invited your aunt for afternoon tea and homemade Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte and that there is no one trying to talk to you while you scan the refrigerator for the most nutritious beverage available. You finally chug three glasses of stale Spezi – a mixture of Coke and Fanta, officially called Mezzo Mix, which most Germans seem to absolutely deify – brush your teeth for a second time – only to realize that the nasty taste of half-digested Beck’s beer only gets nastier when it’s exposed to toothpaste – and turn on the TV. You throw yourself on the antique rocking chair in the living room and slowly start dosing off. But just when your brain finally agrees to shut down its puttering engine, the merciless Beethoven-whichever-symphony ringtone of your aunt’s house phone brutally grabs you by the neck and flings you back to reality.
You already know who’s calling. The only person who would even consider calling the house phone just because he knows it annoys the hell out of you, and maybe because he saw you dropping your cell into the nasty nightclub urinal last night. After he has manifested his stubbornness – dadadadadaaah dadadadadahhh dadadadadadadadadadadadah, eleven head-hammering times!– you finally get up and stumble toward the phone.
“Ahrents.” Why do Germans say their last name when answering the phone? Someone dialed your freaking number; they should know who it is they’re calling!
“Hey du Penner! Sober again?”
You immediately regret answering the phone. “What do you want?”
“Nusing, really…” Of course not! “Just checking if you got se piss out of your handy…” It’s called a cell, you idiot! Or a mobile! Or just a phone! A handy is… whatever!
You listen to the caller recount the story of you dropping your goddamned “handy” into the waste-collecting tank for pretty much every male adolescent in town as if you hadn’t been there to witness it. You start wondering, silently, why Germans can’t just use the proper English terms for things or find a handy German translation instead of inventing their own words. “Showmaster,” for example, instead of “TV Host”; or “Public Viewing” to name a live event (usually soccer) that is publically watched on big screens; or “Open Air” to describe an event that is happening outside. And then, very German: Combining those words, so an “Openairpublicviewing” would be a live event publicly watched on a big screen outside. Sose crazy Germans…
“It vas crazy! And so funny. Especially, ven you tried to get it back out vis your naked hands…”
You can feel the sledgehammer-man swinging back for his final blow, driven by the ridiculously happy voice with the German accent.
“Mann, did you fall back to sleep? I’m so hangovered, it’s almost pleasant again…”
You breathe deeply, suppress the urge to smash the phone against the wall, and remain silent.
“By se vay, why did you leave so suddenly? You really missed out on some stuff. Nathan and I ran srough se town and stole car antennas until se sun came up. Do you sink we could sell them on eBay? In like six-packs or somesing?”
You know that this is a serious question. You start wrapping the phone cord around your wrist. You should hang up, go straight back to bed, and stay there for the rest of the day.
“Sanks for the great conversation, Mann.”
You rub your eyes. Your mouth is as dry as the desert, and your teeth feel like you just dined on sand.
“Don’t you vanna know why I’m calling?” the voice asks mercilessly. Simultaneously, another voice starts yelling somewhere in your head: No! I don’t fucking care! But your real voice remains silent.
“My mom just went on vacation. And because I certainly know sat you aren’t doing anything more meaningful san me right now… why don’t you come over? We could get high and finally finish LOST? What do you sink?”
No! That’s what you fucking sink! Se only sing I vant right now is peace and quiet!
But these words would lead to nothing less than more head-hammering questions; therefore, you just say nothing.
“Let’s say 17 o’clock at my place.”
You close your eyes.
“Oh, and could you please bring some Zigzags? I… let’s just say mine got kinda wet last night. Yes?”
You sigh. Silently.
“Okay, Alter! See you later.”
The line cracks. You open your eyes, look at the clock, and suddenly realize that you have less than 25 minutes to catch the bus. Uttering a few more silent swears, you shuffle back to your room, and open the blinds. Stale daylight shines on the broken beer bottle on the brand new carpet, the half-eaten bread slice on your pillow, and the tipped-over sausage glass next to your bed. Collateral damage left on last night’s drunken battlefield that you choose to ignore for now, and start rifling through the closet for a fresh pair of pants and a shirt that doesn’t smell like burnt misery. On the way back to the door, you accidentally stomp on the ketchup bottle viciously hiding behind your chair.
As you wipe the red substance from the closet, you suddenly remember something that’s been swirling around your mind the whole night. Something you have wanted to share when the time seems right. You decide that five – oh, sorry – 17 o’clock this afternoon feels as right as it can get. Suddenly the little man with the big sledgehammer is gone, and all that’s left is a quiet, timid voice, telling you that maybe – just maybe – today is one of those Sundays you should have stayed in bed.
“Come closer,” the voice whispers. “Just a little bit closer, boy.”
Only it’s not a voice, not a real one, at least. It’s more like a tickle. The tickle of a million granddaddy long-legs crawling through the cave of his mind, startled by the beam of a flashlight. God, he hates spiders! They’re disgusting little creatures, with their spindly legs and their bizarrely shaped bodies, insidiously hiding in their sticky webs. And they bite!
“I don’t bite,” says the voice that isn’t a voice. “Houses don’t bite. It’s anatomically impossible.”
And that might be true. But there are quite a few things he had considered impossible, just a little while ago. Millions of little spiders living in his mind, for example. And talking houses.
He takes a deep breath. Deep breaths usually help, don’t they? They are something like a magic wand for everyday people. You feel like screaming at the asshole who just cut in line right in front of you? Take a deep breath! You just broke up with the girl you love more than anything, because drunk you thought he couldn’t handle the fact that there will soon be an ocean, a continent, and nine time zones between you? Take a deep breath! You got lost inside a gargantuan dark cave? With nothing but a flashlight that attracts millions of disgusting little spiders? And you feel like the only way out might be admitting that you’ve actually lost your mind? Just take a fucking deep breath!
“It’s all going to be okay, boy,” the voice that isn’t a voice whispers. “Just come a little bit closer.”
Even when I was a little boy, I already knew that Nerweng was a peculiar place. The kind of peculiarity that feels light at first, like your favorite pants slowly wearing out on the knees and crotch. Until, one day, they finally rip open, leaving you butt-naked right in the middle of the church square. In Nerweng’s case, however, this light but persistent thinning is mainly attributed to its location. At least that’s what I think, and I am sure most of my fellow Nerwengers would agree if you asked them. Unless, of course, they’re too busy holding together the shreds of their ripping pants.
My placid little hometown resides right in the middle of Germany’s biggest industrial center, the so-called Ruhrgebiet, or Ruhrpott, or just Pott, if you are actually from here. This region, named after the river Ruhr that wriggles through it like a coal seam through a rock, is basically known for three things: mines, steel mills, and pollution.
“Don’t hang your clothes out to dry,” people used to say, “or you’ll have to wash them again.” Those people, however, were usually visitors from other, more picturesque places in Germany. Bavarians, with their Alps and their castles, or Black Foresters with their cuckoo clocks and wannabe-witchy-villages. They came, they bleated bullshit in their hideous Hicksville accents, and then they left again.
But others stayed. Pitmen from Poland, steelworkers from Italy, and mechanics from Turkey first found work in the mills and mines, and then a new home right next to them, rapidly melting steel, and slowly melting culture. And the Pott itself somehow melted, as well. Dozens of individual towns and cities, home to over five million people, flowed together and alloyed into one of the biggest conurbations of Europe.
Except for Nerweng. Nerweng never melted nor alloyed, Nerweng never even felt the flame heating up the pot. It almost seemed as if my placid little hometown was coated with something so strong it could withstand the heat of a blast furnace, and the current of molten steel. And, as oddly as this may sound, I think that this coating was produced by the woods. Woods that would have turned all the Bavarians and Black Forester’s into jealous green goblins, if they had actually stayed long enough to even catch a glimpse of them.
When I left my parents’ house, and took a few steps down the road, I was surrounded by nothing but shrubs and trees, heard nothing but the wind rustle in the leaves, and smelled nothing but pure, clean air. But the woods isolated us from more than just the blast furnaces and smoldering chimneys. They also kept out the stink of the real world. When I was born in 1918, the First World War had just ripped a gigantic hole into the soul of the continent. When I turned four, communists and right-wingers still openly shot each other in the streets. When I turned twelve, the whole world was suffering from the biggest economic depression in history. And when I turned 15, my fellow Germans had just elected a somewhat charismatic Austrian with an incredibly hideous mustache to be their chancellor.
But don’t worry. The story I am about to tell you has nothing to do with all the Nazi and war stories you’re used to hearing about Germany. Partly, because it takes place in the year 1932, still almost a year before Hitler’s takeover; but more importantly, because it takes place in Nerweng, a placid little town so isolated – coated – from the rest of the world that the claws of history have hardly ever scratched us.
But don’t get me wrong. We didn’t need those claws to be hurt back then. In Nerweng, we had learned to start bleeding on our own.
So, let’s allow this image to thicken for a second, just as blood thickens when it finds the edge of a wound and starts trickling out onto your skin.
You got it?
Now… let’s try to remember why the hell I am actually telling you all of this…
The mind’s a funny thing, you know? When you’re young, it’s like a cave. It’s dark and scary, and most of all it’s very exciting. But when you get older, you start installing lights everywhere, put shelfs in, cupboards, maybe even a couch and a TV. And before you even know it, the cave you once loved, has turned into… a basement.
The last thing I remember is walking down the wobbly staircase, clutching onto the handrail that was probably just as unreliable as the whole ramshackle of a building. When you are as old as I am, the last thing you want to do is fall. When I finally reached the bottom, my heart was pounding, both from exhaustion and from fear. When was the last time I actually went down here? I didn’t remember. Surprise!
I tried the light switch on the left side of the staircase. It didn’t work. Wait. Yes, it did. A small yellow light went on, at the very end of a long corridor full of dust and spider webs, and part of me was pretty scared of what I might find in those old cardboard boxes stacked up all the way to its ceiling. But another part was eager, and almost excited. And when I opened the first box – the one that had “Summer of 1932, Part I” written on it in rickety letters – that other part took over. I could suddenly smell the grass and the trees, and I could hear voices and laughter, familiar, somehow, and contagious. There was nothing I wanted more than to climb head first into that cardboard box, and close its lid behind me. But I couldn’t do that, not yet, at least. Because that wasn’t where this story was supposed to start. This story started with a whole other box, one that was still half empty. The last box I would ever store down here, right before I would finally burn that whole damn place to the ground. So, let’s go ahead and open that box. The box that contains the beginning of this particular story. Which is pretty close to the end, at least for me.
“Zat’s it?” Karl exhales audibly, watching the smoke float out of his lungs and slowly dissolve in the cool afternoon air. Sometimes he wishes his German lisp would also disappear, just like that. “Zat’s what we’ve been searching for sis whole time? Running srough zeese woods for almost two goddamn hours? Scheiße, Mann!” He coughs and throws his joint on the wet soil, crushing it with his foot. “Zis sing,” he points into the woods, “is a shithole. A burnt shithole, in fact, and zat makes it even worse. And do you smell zat? It even smells like a fucking shitho…”
“Your mouth is a shithole, and I would be incredibly grateful if you could just shut it.” The sharpness of Nathan’s voice actually cuts Karl off, something that usually takes at least two more joints to accomplish.
“We found it, didn’t we?” Nathan asks, turning his head from the enormous structure in front of them back to his American friend Ben.
But Ben doesn’t answer. He keeps staring at the burned-down house looming behind the fallow field, framed by tall, leafless trees. It’s huge, and must have been even bigger before it had burst into flames, so long ago that the mold on its black skeleton has already started molding itself. The old book in his cold hands doesn’t mention a fire, but apart from that, the house exactly matches the descriptions sunken into its yellowed pages. It certainly is some kind of a forester’s lodge, but with its gigantic roof and all the little turrets and gables growing out of it, it actually reminds Ben of an old German castle. Broad columns carry the oversized canopy and wide steps lead up to the massive entrance. Gigantic antlers adorn the space above its two-winged door, almost too big for any species currently living on this planet. The old black trees surrounding the property – like petrified guardians, protecting the palace of their queen – look like they have all taken a step away from the house, either in awe or in fear. Who would blame them? Even in its burned and somewhat neglected condition, the house still looks menacing. And while it might seem like a miracle that its massive roof doesn’t collapse when the wind gushes over it, one could almost imagine that most of the rooms inside are still inhabitable.
Just like his friend Karl, Ben also recognizes a weird smell in the air. He smells it as clearly as he would have smelled Leyla’s perfume when they had shared his bed on one of those typical Sundays – that drunk him had foolishly turned into a thing of the past. But it isn’t perfume. It’s something different. Something strange. An unknown scent that inundates his senses, along with the weird tickle creeping all over his mind and nesting in his heart, like a squatter taking over an empty home. It’s a feeling of overwhelming fascination, making it impossible for him to stop staring at the mysterious lodge in the middle of the woods, and impossible to walk in any other direction than forward.
“Just a little bit closer, boy.”
I first met Benjamin Nahele Ahrents on my 101st birthday, a cloudy day in late May. The nurse had served me a way-too-hard-boiled egg – a celebratory extra to the soggy slice of rye bread and the lukewarm fennel tea I usually got for breakfast – and given me a nice, albeit fake, smile while helping me take a piss. Apart from that it had been a day like any other.
Raindrops pattered on the dirty pane of my two hundred square-foot kingdom. When I glanced out the door, I saw Mrs. Schrukowiak slowly pushing her walker through the sterile corridor. When she saw me, she shook her head and turned away, almost colliding with an oncoming nurse. He avoided the crash by swerving to the left where he hit a big potted plant and spilled a decent amount of soil across the hallway. He walked on. The hallway on Etage 3 was cleaned at 2:30 every day, without exception.
I closed my eyes again. “Willibald,” I said to myself, “I wish you all the best on your very special you-day. And don’t forget! As long as the music plays, you are not allowed to take off your dancing shoes.” And, to my own surprise, it was still playing, even though the upbeat waltz had somehow turned into a depressing slow dance with myself.
I opened my eyes again. The cold neon lights on the ceiling burned. The ailing central heating sputtered. I would have turned it off, but there was no thermostat on it. The room temperature was set by the property management and remained constant throughout the year. Constantly too hot, that is.
I sat in an old rocking chair, looking out of the window into an empty courtyard. I imagined how this courtyard would look if this wasn’t a nursing home but a Kindergarten; and the bright melody of children’s laughter would rove through the halls and fill everyone with joy and happiness. But instead, the corridors were flooded with the coffee cup clatter from dotards like me, and all we filled were dishwashers and, eventually, coffins. Happy boys and girls appeared in my mind, playing hopscotch or ruining their fancy school clothes on the jungle gym. I watched them tease, smile, and frolic as if they weren’t pure figments of my imagination. And while I was watching them, I must have fallen asleep because when I opened my eyes again, startled by a knock on the door, the hands of the old cuckoo clock on my wall already pointed at a quarter to noon.
“Ich nehme das Steak und die Kroketten,” I mumbled. “Und ein großes Pils vom Fass.”
Instead of the bored nurse who served me my daily low-fat lunch on the ever-inevitable eggshell-colored tray, a young boy opened the door.
“Herr Daringhoff?” he asked with a slight American accent as his gaze wandered around the room, finally settling on my faded cardigan that was hanging over the back of the wooden visitor’s chair. The term visitor’s chair wasn’t quite accurate, though, since there has hardly ever been anyone to claim it. Over time, it had slowly turned into an interim-storage-for-clothing chair, before the interim had finally been promoted to full-time.
“In person, life size,” I replied and stood up to greet my guest.
“Please… bleiben Sie sitzen… bitte,” the boy replied, obviously puzzled about my response. “I’m surprised you…”
“Old folks can be full of surprises,” I replied and tried to smile. Something I hadn’t really done in quite a while. “Especially when you underestimate us.”
“Please keep your seat,” the boy continued, and took two more steps toward me. “You really don’t have to put yourself out on my account.”
“I wouldn’t consider this putting myself out,” I replied, fighting my body’s strong urge to faint when I finally got up on my feet, and approached the unexpected visitor. He was a relatively tall young man with dark hair and even darker eyes. His facial features were finely chiseled, and his smile friendly and genuine. His light jeans somehow didn’t seem to fit right, but that was probably just some kind of new fashion thing that hadn’t made it into my old-fashioned world. He wore a black jacket and white shoes that he hadn’t tied very well. A confused looking young man stared at me from the front of his olive-green T-shirt. Considering the white letters next to his dark sunglasses, the man’s name was Bob Dylan.
All I can do is be me, whoever that is, was written just below his erratically shaved chin. I didn’t really understand what that was supposed to mean, so I turned my attention away from the two-dimensional visitor pressed on cotton back to the one of actual flesh and blood – at least, that is what I hoped he was. He held out his hand. I took it. Our handshake was short and tight.
“I hope I’m not interrupting,” the boy said. “Otherwise, I could come back another time.”
“I’m actually pretty busy studying the stunning architecture of this courtyard.” I pointed to the window where thick pearled raindrops trickled downward. “The completion of my research might take a few days. We should probably try to reschedule for the upcoming week. Why don’t you consult my secretary about further details?”
The boy seemed to hesitate a moment, then he nodded. “Whatever works best for you, I guess.”
“Young man, I was trying to make a joke,” I replied, still smiling. It wasn’t as hard as I remembered. “This courtyard… well, the only thing that really fascinates me about it, is its unparalleled ugliness. But there is no need for intense observation to realize that. I’ve managed to arrive at my conclusion in about 1.4 seconds. Take a seat, please.” I shoved the garments from the recently demoted full-time-storage-for-clothing chair onto the floor and pointed toward it.
“My name is Benjamin Ahrents, Mr. Daringhoff,” the boy said after he sat down on the creaking chair. “I’m an exchange student from Anaheim, California, and I will graduate from Goethe High School this summer. My dad’s family is German, and his sister, my favorite aunt, lives here,” he continued, as if he actually had to explain to me how a teenager from the far more exciting side of the world had ended up in Bumfuck, Germany. “I moved here because I needed a break from home, you know?”
Apparently, the look on my face suggested that I didn’t know, because after a short and somewhat awkward pause he continued. “The U.S. is an uncomfortable place right now. Actually, it always has been, at least if you look like me.”
Another confused look, another awkward pause.
“Red,” he said then. “Native American, if you are not a fu… forsaken racist. Or at least if you don’t want to sound like one.”
I wasn’t quite sure how a Native American was supposed to look. All I knew was that the boy did not look like I would have pictured him, according to the books I had read when I was young. Books written by Karl May, a ridiculously famous German novelist from the 19th century who – as I just recently discovered – had never even travelled to the Wild West he loved to fable about, but still burnt the image of the half-naked, half-plumaged “Indianer” deep into my imagination. Howgh, ich habe gesprochen.
“I… I don’t…,” I started, but Benjamin mercifully interrupted me.
“I know,” he said. “No one really does. No one who looks like you, at least. And that’s okay.”
Then he just moved on. Somehow, I was deeply grateful for that. “After I graduate from Goethe High School, I want to go to a German University,” he said, “because, you know, there’s no tuition here. And there’s public health care, too. You guys just do Socialism so much better than we do.”
“Socialism?” I repeated, clenching on to the next best thing I felt comfortable debating about. “Don’t talk to me about Socialism, boy! Socialism is what we had in Eastern Germany up until the Berlin Wall came down, and it’s bad. What we have is Soziale Marktwirtschaft. Social Capitalism. We regulate the free market just enough for everyone to get a fair chance. Or at least we try, although not quite hard enough.”
The boy looked at me, somewhat confused, and I realized that I sounded like a teacher, and the worst kind of teacher at that: a retired one. “But you didn’t come here for a lecture from an old fart like me, I suppose? So, what do you want, boy?”
“I need help,” Benjamin replied, something simultaneously bizarre happening with his facial expressions. It was as if he had a pretty clear thought in his head, but then, suddenly, he just pushed that thought away and replaced it with something completely different. And I had just witnessed these competing thoughts wrestling for release.
Oh boy, I really should go out more. I am starting to see things!
But in retrospect, I actually didn’t see enough. Which was how looking back at things usually worked, right? And usually that was okay. But in this specific instance it was everything but okay. Because if I had seen back then what I cannot un-see now, things might have been different. Benjamin hadn’t looked confused, when he first asked me for help. He had looked helpless. Helpless, and terrified. Like a tiny little spider, caught in the beam of a big bright light.
Is a lie still a lie if you believe it’s true?
Albtraumfänger (nightmare catcher) is a 100,000-word horror mystery. It takes the thrills of IT, the plot twists of Gone Girl, the mysteries of Dark, the magic of Inkheart, and the atmosphere of Stranger Things and unites them into a unique story that will leave readers both enchanted and terrified.
Three narrators, two in 1932 and one in the present, tell a story set in a dark, unfamiliar neck of the German woods of the Grimm fairy tales. One of them is desperate for help, while the other two are playing a twisted mind game with both the protagonists and the reader.
On his 101st birthday Willibald Daringhoff’s world is knocked off its rusty axis. The chronically bored and cynical German hasn’t even finished his low-calorie elderly home breakfast, when American exchange student Ben storms into his stuffy room. The teenager confronts him with a mysterious lodge in the woods. A lodge that somehow figures out its visitor’s dearest wishes, and makes them come true. A dangerous place that should not exist anymore, because Willibald destroyed it more than 80 years ago. But the more Ben starts to rely on the old man’s help, the more he gets tangled up in a sticky web of lies – spun by an unlikely evil, patiently waiting in the dark.