After a grueling day at work, I looked forward to a restful night’s sleep, but it wasn’t to be. No sooner had I drifted off into slumberland, a noise caught my attention but quickly died away.

What was it?

For several moments, only the blood pounding through my ears interrupted the stillness. But soon, indistinguishable sounds disturbed the silence. I cupped my ears and slowly turned my head to determine their direction. Deep in the passage, vague clatters echoed off the walls. Then, before I could focus on them, they faded as well.

Was it a footstep, a movement, a breath, or all three?

I couldn’t decide.

Dim light and deep shadows obscured my surroundings. The dank, musty air clutched at my throat and irritated my nostrils. Bewildered and unsure, I stood in the darkness, trying to make sense of this place. I didn’t know where I was nor how I arrived here. I stumbled sideways until I encountered a barrier. Its surface felt rough and irregular, like the wall of a tunnel or cavern. Feeling for anything recognizable, I shuffled along and tripped on the uneven floor yet managed to keep my balance. I couldn’t make any progress, so I stopped.

An uneasy quiet settled over the tunnel, disturbed only by the hammering of my heart. Concentrating, I listened for anything that would tell me what made the sounds. Then a whisper of movement caught my attention. A rustling in the distance frightened me. And then came the deep, throaty breathing of a large animal. It unleashed waves of anxiety crashing against me.

My imagination ran wild: What kind of beast is in here with me?

I didn’t know what to do nor which way to go. My courage dissolved when footsteps and breathing became more distinct. I realized whatever it was, it was coming closer with each passing moment.

My brain yelled, “Run, run,” but my legs wouldn’t, couldn’t move.

I tried shouting, hoping my legs would respond, but the words stuck in my throat. Instead, my lips flapped in the air escaping from my lungs. Finally, I managed a loud, guttural, “Rumph, rumph.”

My strange utterance startled me, and I sat up. Then, terrified, I curled up in bed and pulled my blanket over me. Eventually, fitful sleep overcame me once again.

At work, I kept thinking about my dream. The project I worked on for months was due, and I was behind schedule and did not need the added angst of nightmares. My job was stressful enough.

After working late and catching a quick meal, I tried to relax before going to bed. Every muscle in my body ached—was I coming down with something—and my mind was fried, unable to put two cohesive thoughts together. Yet when I put my head on my pillow, apprehension and fear kept me awake past midnight: I didn’t want to be in that tunnel with a dreadful beast. I tossed and turned until I finally fell asleep.

As soon as I began to dream, the foreplay of the chase was over. The beast lumbered down the tunnel toward me. Its breathing was deep, raspy, and gruff, and much closer than before. The sound of its feet scraping the ground unnerved me.

What kind of beast is chasing me?

I racked my brain for answers, but they eluded me.

I tried sprinting, but I ran in slow motion. No matter how hard I tried, the beast was catching up to me. The cadence of its pursuit matched the rhythm of my feet pounding the ground; the sound of its breathing was closer and closer. Before long, I was dead tired and out of breath. My legs were on fire. I sensed the beast would soon reach me and overpower me. Regardless of my efforts, I felt incapable of escaping. A feeling of hopelessness overwhelmed me.

It’s going to get me. No matter how fast I run, I can’t get away!

I awoke. The bedroom was quiet and peaceful except for the thumping in my chest.

The nightmare took its toll. All-day long, tired and emotionally drained, I relived the dream: the tunnel and the beast chasing me, again and again. I could not concentrate on my project. I made dumb mistakes and had to redo parts of it. My anxiety levels skyrocketed.

I’ll never finish on time!

Nevertheless, I suppressed my doubts and pressed on as best I could. Fortunately, I had a couple of nights of undisturbed sleep and made significant progress on the project. But then, I made a mistake, and several hours of overtime later, I had fixed my error. But by the time I arrived home, I was exhausted. After a quick bite and a drink, I was ready for a good night’s sleep.

No sooner had I drifted off, the nightmare returned.

A faint glow illuminated the tunnel. I tried running, but it seemed like I was slogging through thick molasses. I looked over my shoulder, and the vague outline of the beast was gaining with each passing moment. I tried making my legs move faster, but they ignored me. Then, a hundred yards ahead, sunlight streamed through a fissure in the tunnel’s ceiling. In the middle of the sunbeam, a ladder hung from ceiling to floor.

I have to reach it. I just have to! I’ll be safe there.

Still, the beast closed the gap between us. On my heels, the sound of its breathing was just behind me, louder than ever. My legs ached. My lungs burned. I was on the verge of collapse when the beast touched my shoulder. Then, like a lightning bolt, a shock ripped down my spine. I woke up panic-stricken, heart hammering, and breathless.

The nightmare haunted me all day. It was difficult to think of anything else, much less concentrate on my project. Convinced the beast would catch me next time I dreamed, I didn’t want to sleep, but I needed sleep, or I would never finish on time. I reasoned that I had to face the beast. I kept telling myself, “It’s only a dream.” But I doubted my courage. I suppressed my doubts and focused on work.

The nightmare returned a week later.

Ahead, sunlight streaming through the opening in the ceiling illuminated the ladder and surrounding tunnel. Without hesitation, I leaped and bounded toward the ladder like a lunar astronaut, lightly touching the ground with each step. I soared as if gravity had suddenly lost its grip. But the beast followed close behind, gaining, its feet pawing the floor. Its breathing deepened: louder, throatier, and gruffer. The sound of its breathing became more maddening with each breath, unleashing a flood of fear. I didn’t look back; I couldn’t look back: the dread of what I might see prevented me. I didn’t care how close the beast was as long as I reached the ladder before it overtook me.

One last leap and I should be there!

But the beast pounced and seized my shoulder. I managed to twist free, and with one swift kick, jetted the remaining few yards. I grabbed the ladder, swung around, and planted my feet firmly on the floor. I stood by the ladder and waited for the beast, heart-pounding, panting. This seemed the best place to make my stand.

The shadowy form of the beast was visible in the reflected light. It hesitated, remaining in the darkness, shuffling from one side of the tunnel to the other. All the while, the sound of its hoarse breathing was draining my courage.

“It’s only a dream,” I pleaded with myself, but the scene persisted, surreal yet so vivid: the beast, its breathing, and my gnawing fear. I tried encouraging myself and bolstering my weakening resolve: Confront your fear. But ‘twas easier thought than done.

Out of the shadows, the beast charged and grabbed my arm. I reached and seized its other arm. Scuffling across the floor, we tugged and pulled, bouncing off the ladder, gliding above the ground. Locked in a fierce skirmish, neither gained the advantage. For a while, we were evenly matched, but my strength waned, giving the beast the upper hand. Tumbling in and out of the light, a chance sunbeam illuminated its face, and I looked into its eyes.

Then our battle abruptly ended. Gravity re-exerted its grip, and we plummeted to the floor.

In the bright sunlight, I stood and faced the beast. Like a mirror’s reflection, I was looking at myself. The face, the eyes, and the form of the creature were all mine. My psyche contorted, unable to comprehend the implications.

I awoke and sat up in bed, bewildered. Why was I the beast of my dreams? But, once confronted, it never returned.