Emily Barna woke up with a start from her long nap. Wide-eyed, she sat upright on her seat, and glared out of the windshield into the endless road’s sucking space ahead of her, as if she was trying to discern a disquieting shape through a mist, and to nail it down to something identifiable.

The words started to flow from of her mouth. The vibrant tone of her voice carried oddly in the passenger cell, and made a sharp contrast with her giddy air.

“I’m in a village,” she said. “I’m surrounded by wooden houses. A warm and heavy rain is pouring down from a sky I can’t see. In the night, the houses repeat themselves infinitely wherever I look, like reflections in a mirror maze. There’s sludge everywhere. A man stands by me under the rain. But his black suit is dry, untouched by the deluge, as if he wasn’t really here. He points to a house across the mud of the alley.”

The interior of the van, all still and sleepy seconds ago, was now filled with an astonished and expecting tension.

“Inside the house,” she went on, “another man is sitting on a bed in a dark room. He’s old and feeble. The gauntness of his head shows through his white, fluffy hair and beard. He’s shivering in his nightgown, despite several layers of blankets. They’re all worn-out and moth-eaten. It’s not the cold that makes him shake, though. Books are spread around him on the bed. He’s reading something. A piece of paper. His wrinkled face grows aghast at his spidery scrawl covering it. He can’t believe what he confessed.

“Other people are present in the room, I can feel it. At first, I couldn’t make out their shapes in the shadows, but I see them now. The first man—the one in the suit—stands by the headboard with a crooked smile. Another one, younger and disheveled, steps forward from the dimness. He bends over the old man and speaks to him in a curious language, moving his hands in frantic gestures. He doesn’t seem aware of our presence, and the old man doesn’t hear him. I perceive someone else, lurking in the corners of the room. Indistinct whispers come from blurry outlines. I can make out the shape of a woman, motionless and collected. She observes the scene as if she was expecting something to happen. She’s dressed like a nun. Her habit and veil mingle with the darkness. I can only distinguish her face, clear-cut and suspended in space. Young and smooth. It bears no expression.

“The young man takes the oil lamp from the bedside table and tries to catch the old man’s attention. He’s almost shouting at him, now. He looks desperate. I walk around the bed so I can see his eyes. Feverish fire from the lamp’s reflected light. His features twist in a helpless plea. There’s a distant resemblance between them. The old man starts slightly, and stares through the other as if he wasn’t here. He seems to remember something. In a jerk, he reaches out to the quill on his lap desk. He scribbles something on the back of his piece of paper. The man in the suit looks annoyed. The young one seems relieved of a great weight. As he calms down, he wanes like a vapor, and vanishes into thin air.

“Heavy steps approaching. A grey-haired giant bursts into the room with an angry look on his face. He doesn’t notice our presence, as if only the old man was there. He rushes to him, freezes at his bedside. Delicately, he touches his forehead, then reaches for his neck. The old man is dead. The giant takes the sheet of paper. He doesn’t understand what he’s reading.

“The woman in black gives a nod, almost imperceptible, satisfied with the turn of events. Then she vanishes in the same manner as the young man.

“‘This will stick to the bloodline,’ the man in a suit says in a whisper, addressing no one in particular. And…”

At this point, Emily stopped and blinked at the dashboard, discovering her surroundings. The engine’s quiet purring hit her eardrums with an acuity it didn’t have an instant earlier.


The van was heading eastward of British Columbia to some scenic filming location. After hours of air travel from Los Angeles to Vancouver, they had been driving for some more hours through majestic hills and mountains. Ominous clouds were gathering in the early evening sky. The outside purity got lost in the filters of the air conditioning. The clammy atmosphere of long trips was sticking heavily on everyone’s skin.

For a few seconds, no one in the van uttered a word. Emily rubbed her face with both hands. Deep and loud, the yawn she gave dispelled the strange mood infused by her monologue.

“Holy fuck, what was that?” someone asked, half-amused, half-worried.

The driver had been wriggling on his seat for a solid minute, glancing every now and then at the slender form by his side. He didn’t need another kid puking in his van. Not right on the dashboard. He’d had more than his fair share of that in a decade of service.

“You okay, old soul?” Nora asked from the second row, reaching for her niece’s forehead for signs of fever. The girl shivered and didn’t answer. She didn’t even wince at her aunt’s calling her “old soul”—“No one ever says that, it’s cringe,” was her usual reply. It didn’t come, this time.

“We’ve been driving for quite a while. Let’s find you something nice to eat at the next area.”

Emily didn’t even hear the end of what Nora said: she’d already curled up on her seat and had fallen asleep again.


Emily wasn’t used to paying much attention to the content of her dreams. The reason for that was simple: she was seldom able to recollect them once awake. Acting required her to travel extensively across the country and abroad. It implied tight schedules and countless days and nights spent on the roads, or up in the skyways, jetting about hither and thither. She found herself sleeping in a variety of places, accommodations and transportation. Early on, she’d had to learn to make do with variable comfort conditions. She was quick to adapt to any new circumstances and surroundings, as if nothing could take her by surprise. She wasn’t jaded or indifferent—she hadn’t even reached the age to pretend she was. But she gave the impression she was accustomed to life, and used to the peculiar rhythms of the industry. It was like nothing of it was new to her, or out of the ordinary. Truth be told, she’d been exposed to it from a very early age, and had plenty of time to adjust.

Her first role had been for a very little production. She was barely seven at the time, and both her mother and her aunt Nora had accompanied her for the couple of weeks of shooting, during the summer. The whole crew and cast were so reduced that they simply slept in the pretentious McMansion rented to serve as a filming location. For most of them it wasn’t exactly homelike, being away from their families and crowded at two or three in the same room, some sleeping on camping cots. But Emily had loved it. It was like being on a vacation, but way more exciting. The project was a rather low-budget pilot for a science-fiction show that was never to be followed with an entire season. Without being a complete disaster, and despite some good reviews, it didn’t find much success. But her own performance had gotten the attention of people who knew the people who count in the trade. She kept auditioning. From commercials to small parts, she obtained a recurring role in a two-season series and, finally, one of the main characters in a historical drama that, hopefully, would extend over five or six seasons. This implied a lot of traveling, though, from studios to outdoor locations, and then on promotional tours. Which meant long hours, sometimes stretching over days, of wondering out loud and chanting the well-known tune, the inescapable mantra, the nightmarish chorus so dreaded by children’s co-travelers: “Are we there yet?”

Sleep was both a refuge from the ugliness of the most spartan motel rooms, and a blessing that came alongside the most lavish hotel suites. Oblivion was, in itself, a stress-reliever. All the more so as the mind plasticity of her young age made her able to do without the drugs and medications some of her older peers and colleagues from the filming crews desperately needed to cope with deadlines and the many practicalities of filmmaking.

A pill to warm up in the morning, another one to cool down in the evening.

They reacted in a number of ways to chemical or alcoholic-induced sleep. Some of them were happy with the blank numbness of mild anesthesia, after a long and busy day dedicated to the hasty fulfillment of the bidding of a hard-to-please—and seemingly infinite—chain of command. Others experienced the regular distorted reflection of the day, peppered with lines known by heart, and mixed with the alluring embodiment of repressed desires and fears.

When it came to staving off the boredom of road or air trips, dreams were not an uncommon topic of conversation—when everyone had run out of more exciting ones…which actually didn’t occur that often. But the uncouthness of some nightly visions had proved to be an entertaining subject, something to brag about even, as a token of lurid imagination and creativity. The oldest among the filming crew and Emily’s fellow actors sometimes tried their hand at Freudian interpretations, a trend that tended to come and go like the tide. A pastime she and the other young folks found rather woolly.

They only indulged the grownups in their “weirdo’s talk,” as they deemed it, when music listening eventually eroded everyone’s patience, and social media revealed more stressing out than funny. At some point, they just couldn’t help realizing they’d been swallowing up mental garbage for hours. Once or twice, Emily had been horrified to discover that, almost in spite of herself, she’d fed the bottomless microblogging cesspit with messages she was simply unable to recognize as her own, afterward. As if the very purpose of these platforms was to bring the worst out of otherwise normal and even nice people, and then, by exhibiting it to the world, to give reasons to other normal and nice people to hate their fellow man, and to shout it out in an endless and vicious spiral of deepening mediocrity. In other words, fostering the radiant and happy progress and betterment of the species.

The Freudian conversations were as enlightening and witty as gross Oedipal speculations can be, although sometimes they gained in aesthetic quality—if not in profoundness—when a brainy type expressed her preference to Jungian mythical complexities. It was often Nora, Emily’s trusted aunt, who brought a welcome nuance to the debate. She’d taken upon herself to look after her niece’s interests as her dedicated chaperon. As such, she was never far from her ward, keeping Emily within her eyeshot. At university, Nora had audited lectures on the subject. Since then, she fancied herself as an amateur depth psychologist. She was always eager to draw parallels between dreams and the folklore of different cultures.

Emily wouldn’t take an active part in this idle chatter. She’d listen absentmindedly, and would only notice the most outrageously hilarious remarks, if there were any.

In other words, she seldom had a reason to remember those conversations.


At first, she didn’t think much of this episode. Once completely awake and restored by the fair glucose and fat intake any average rest area’s meal has to offer, its memory had partly faded, replaced by the prospect of the next weeks’ bustling of rehearsals and filming. She was aware she’d been the occasion of some amazement and gossip, but just like her, everyone had other pressing matters on their minds.

The moment of acting, in and of itself, was liberating for Emily. Not that she was really annoyed by the constraints the somewhat erratic habits this occupation had forced upon her life. She had always wanted to do this, as long as she remembered. At age two, she would stand in front of the TV and repeat lines, and even entire dialogues from the Old Hollywood classics on screen, or songs from musicals her Mom was so fond of. Sure, being on set was preferable, so she could commute back home. Filming on location meant she had to spend longer periods of time away from her family. It wasn’t always easy, and she wished she could see her parents and brothers more often then, not just on video calls and for the little time allowed by their occasional visits. But her Dad was “making arrangements,” and this situation would probably improve in the near future. Besides, Emily had a special bond with Nora. They made a great team together.

In a way, Emily had provided her aunt with a sense of purpose she badly needed. As a college student, Nora didn’t quite know what to do with her life when her niece started to show interest in acting. Since Emily’s parents were kept too busy by their own jobs to support their daughter full time, Nora had stepped in. She’d trained and gotten her license as a chaperon, and she’d started to accompany her to auditions and sets. As time passed, and Emily’s relentless auditioning began to yield more results, Nora got more and more involved in her career management. The girl ended up spending more time with her aunt than with her parents. She could confide in her; Nora had never let her down. But an aunt isn’t quite a mom, and all the things that went through her head, and with which she didn’t really know what to do, she’d somehow found a way to channel them into her acting.

Emily found something akin to completeness in impersonating characters, as if they were waiting for her to finally get alive. In a sense, she fancied herself as a necessary vessel to them. She felt wholly who she thought she was meant to be when she gave her voice, her face, her body and moves to the deprived beings characters are when they emerge out of a screenwriter’s mind. They needed her to exist in the concrete, material world, instead of roaming the limbo of mere possibilities. In return, they allowed her to say and do things she wouldn’t dare to dream of doing and saying.

Also, she had another part to play as an actress: promoting the show, touring and meeting viewers (fans, even!), smiling and nodding and supporting trendy causes to inspire liking, not only for her, but also for the program and the channel. That was really a constraint. Press junkets, of all things implied, were particularly tiresome. After a couple of hours repeating the same talking points over and over to cohorts of journalists who followed each other in a more or less orderly fashion, she often ended up speaking mechanically, without paying attention to what she was saying. Obviously not the best way to avoid spoilers—and rebukes from a freaked-out publicist.

Her aunt called this “her longer role,” that encompassed the temporary ones she played on screen: her public image, the thick curtain behind which no one but an inner circle was supposed to peek, and a facade she wasn’t totally in charge of. Even Nora, who was jealously careful to keep everything under control, saw this part slipping out of her grip far too often to her liking. But she knew they had to play by the rules. There were certain people to please and, accordingly, certain topics to avoid, and some opinions better to leave unvoiced. How was Nora supposed to have her protégée follow the guidelines and, at the same time, to make sure she could develop into an adult capable of critical thinking, instead of buying into every piece of poorly disguised propaganda, ready-made ideas and slogans she was expected to say, or publicly support?

The industry had a way to turn pressure into excitement. Especially for kid actors. But it was there nonetheless. Despite their wholehearted support, Emily understood that what her parents saw in her interest in acting, and in the extraordinary opportunities she’d been offered, was a short way to secure her future. For that, she was grateful, but disappointing them wasn’t an option. Not that they were pushy in any manner—it was quite the contrary. “If you want to stop and go to public school like the other kids, or if you want to do something else, we have your back, we’ll always be there for you. Above all, be a kid!” was their own mantra. Precisely because of their openness and acceptance, she had the notion she was deeply indebted to them. They had made sacrifices so she could realize that tremendous acting potential of hers. The protective environment she was developing in had not prevented her from measuring, although remotely, the harshness of life. Her luck came with responsibilities and strictures she hadn’t been prepared to cope with. But she was smart enough, and she had the moral fiber to raise to this untold challenge adults didn’t think any kid of her age could consciously handle.

She wasn’t yet totally aware she was making sacrifices of her own, too.


“The most disturbing thing was the way you were telling it, as if you were still dreaming. All in the present tense, with so many details! And your voice was so—I don’t know—so weird, so toneless. It didn’t sound like your normal voice. Well, sure, I mean, it’s kind of what you do. But, still. It didn’t sound like you at all. I was worried you were having a seizure or something! Turns out you didn’t even have a fever. When I was your age, I was often delirious when I got sick. I babbled nonsense and all. It’s very common, you know. It passes as you get older, thankfully.”

It was typical: Nora wouldn’t give up. She had written down the hallucinated account of Emily’s dream as faithfully as she could remember, and she’d been carrying the note along, missing no occasion to try to solve a conundrum that resisted her analytical abilities.

“I never produced such fancy plots, though, even when I got to, like, 104 degrees.”

She squinted suspiciously at her niece.

“Were you even asleep? You could’ve made all this up, as far as I can tell. Practicing a new impersonation, maybe? Trying it out on the rest of us? Testing our reactions?”

“Don’t worry, you’re not that old. You haven’t really stopped babbling nonsense, that’s a good sign.”

Emily hadn’t even bothered to raise her head from her math exercise.

“Let’s hope sarcasm will pass, too,” Nora snorted.

When on filming, Emily’s days were interspersed with lessons given by a whole team of set teachers. There was a dedicated school trailer where she studied with the other kids of the production. She had no option to skip out on lessons, and homework was mandatory.

An unexpected downpour (a real one, this time) had postponed an outdoor shooting. It was already late in the day, and everyone got frustrated. Emily thought the rain conveyed the perfect atmosphere for their recreation of Puritan New England, all bleak and greyish. But a nasty gale had started to blow in all directions, and people had rushed to protect their overpriced materials. It was no time to socialize with the other kids, and everyone eventually holed up in trailers.

Emily had flicked through The Scarlet Letter once more, but she’d already read it twice to get in the stern mood of the era. Although Tales from the Trail—the show they were filming—was not an adaptation of the story, the novel was among the producers’ reading suggestions. The idea was to give the young actress some inspiration about how to suggest powerful emotions that were consciously restrained. She’d insisted on getting familiar with this ambiance of repressed feelings, of passions boiling under the crust of somber countenance, and Nora had picked Hawthorne’s book at once. “My favorite reading assignment in 11th grade! You’ll love it. Also, you’ll be so much ahead of your English curriculum!” Emily had been quick to identify with Pearl, the child of sin with an eerie, elvish air about her, the daughter of the outcast seamstress and the conscience-stricken pastor. The little girl had inspired the role she was to play, a midwife’s daughter who went by the name of Gift. It was certainly one of the less exotic among those quaint Puritan names. At least she had escaped something like “Fly-fornication” or “Humiliation.”

But after a few minutes, as she’d just re-read a couple of paragraphs, she’d put the book aside in an instinctive recoil. She loved it but now, with the roar of the heavy rain threshing the trailer’s roof, and the damp cold which was infiltrating everywhere, she felt like taking some distance from 17th-century New England. A boring math problem was the perfect means to come back to reality.

“The ‘indistinct whispering shapes’ in the background—they could be a manifestation of your animus.”

Her aunt had resumed her thinking out loud. She had a liking for technical jargon.

“It’s basically the archetype of your unconscious mind. In a female’s dreams, it frequently appears as a group of unidentified people who act as judges or guides. They may criticize you, or give advice. Does this ring a bell?”

“Not really. Why don’t you give it a rest? All your psycho-logy is bogus.” Emily distinctly over-stressed the prefix. “Your ‘unidentified people’ just sound like bots or trolls on social media, to me.”

“Oh. Nicely put. Should we consider the Internet as an artificial counterpart to our collective unconscious mind?”

Emily sighed.

“Collective or not, yours is certainly not unconscious.”

“It doesn’t work like—” Nora stopped mid-sentence, realizing she’d been caught at her own game.

The white interior lights from the trailer’s ceiling made a sharp contrast with the blackness outside, which looked as if it was directly stuck to the windows. A tiny fly kept busy buzzing frantically, without purpose, over Emily’s head, like an erratic satellite revolving around a solar LED bulb, the deceiving beacon of its short, aimless, and gratuitous life.

“Or maybe your animus was the giant. It can manifest itself as an expression of pure physical power, as a kind of muscle man.”

“A muscle man? You really must be younger than you look,” Emily mocked. “Get a life. What about that dolly grip you can’t stop glancing at? What’s his name again?”

Nora gaped in half-feigned shock, her eyebrows high behind her bangs.

“You little brat! Shut up. Why don’t we talk about that silly boy who stared at you all day long like he’s never seen a girl?”

Emily shrugged indifferently.

“That’s his problem, not mine. I’m not the one who mentions ‘muscle men.’”

“Granted. You’re the one who dreams of them.”

“Wait, did I really say anything about muscles, back in the car?”

“You said he was a giant. I might have…extrapolated.”

“I bet you did! What would your psycho analysts call that? Sounds like a telltale slip of the tongue to me!”

“Anyway,” Nora resumed. “All the characters in our dreams are ourselves. They are manifestations of desires and fears, of the way we think others perceive us, of how we envision our place in society. All this is mixed with our memories, too—”

Emily burst out laughing.

“Are you insinuating that, deep down, I’m a muscle man?”

“Well, we all have strengths we don’t know about until we have to use them under pressure, and—”

The end of her sentence was covered under Emily’s chiming giggles mingled with the thunder that rumbled in the distance. She simply couldn’t stop laughing at the idea.

Nora sighed.

“You kids are all the same, we can’t have a serious conversation with you.”

Emily was making visible efforts to speak over her refrained chuckles.

“How then can you tell if you’re not a character in someone else’s dream?” she asked.

By the time Nora comprehended what her question implied, a new silence had fallen on the trailer. The rain had finally stopped.


This is an excerpt from Romain P.A. Delpeuch’s new novella, Hypnagogia. You can purchase the book from Terror House Press here.