"s 2015 Horror Write-off:

" The Gelatin Courts "

Submitted by Irene Vallone

On a hot August night, when I was eight years old, I woke up in the middle of the night to find a big black toad sitting on my chest.

I only became aware of its presence when I saw it, and suddenly I felt as if I was going to collapse underneath it.  Its flabby mass pressed down on my ribcage, threatening to crush my lungs.  It stared down on me with its gigantic eyes, golden irises and square pupils, unthinking and empty of emotion.

“Why are you doing this?” I gasped.

“Roll, scroll, prance a horse, we always dance in the gelatin courts,” it said.

I exhaled and passed out beneath it.  When I woke up the next morning, it was gone, but I remembered the dream clearly.  It seemed more like a memory, like something real.  I could still feel the phantom weight of the toad pressing down on me.

I told my parents about the dream.  I asked my father what it meant, and he said “You’re just very creative.”  Then I asked my mother, and she said “Dreams don’t tend to mean anything.”

I knew it had to mean something.  A phrase like that doesn’t just come to you for nothing.  

I did eventually give up trying to figure out what it meant, but the phrase stuck with me for years afterward.  I developed something of a fascination with frogs and toads as a result of the dream.  I drew them on every scrap of paper I could get my hands on.  My schoolbooks and notes were covered with drawings of little frogs, hopping, croaking, sometimes standing on two legs and fighting one another with swords.  As a preteen, I took great joy in scribbling in the blood gushing forth from the sword victims.

When I began getting tired of accurate frogs, I started drawing weird ones – monstrous frogs, frogs with eight legs and toads with two heads, frogs with big shark-teeth biting my least favorite teachers in half.  I also started practicing my cursive by writing the phrase that started it all, over and over again, on all of my binders and folders.  Roll, scroll, prance a horse, we always dance in the gelatin courts.  I would quickly cover it up and deny I was writing anything whenever anybody asked me about it.

Yet despite my fascination with the phrase, I didn’t hear it in another dream for years – not until I was twelve years old.

I dreamed that I was sitting on the floor in the living room, watching something on TV.  I don’t remember what show it was.  It might not even have been anything real.  

As I watched it, I began to notice something strange in the background of the show – a small pair of orange circles.

I kept watching and the circles kept getting bigger, eventually moving to the foreground and taking up the entirety of the screen.  At this point, I realized that they were two enormous orange eyes.  Their pupils were broad, diamond-shaped and black, and stared mindlessly forward even as they expanded into three dimensions and popped seamlessly out of the TV screen.

I didn’t even think of moving.  I just watched in horror as a massive slimy green frog head expanded out of the screen.  Its mouth gaped open dumbly, letting its gooey white-pink tongue loll out onto the floor in a puddle of sticky saliva.  The head was followed by a long pair of green-, orange-, and black-striped arms that reached all the way up to the ceiling before bending at the elbow and stretching back down the floor, where a pair of sprawling orange hands grasped at the carpet, fingers wiggling.

We stared at one another for a moment.

I didn’t move.  I just looked into the frog’s eyes.  There was nothing inside.

Then the TV frog moved towards me, dragging itself along with its hands.  Its arms moved with a bizarre gummy motion, flailing up and down and smacking against the floor with an exaggerated slapping sound over and over again, wiggling like a boneless cartoon character.  It emerged no further from the TV screen, but dragged the TV along with it, pulling the power cord further and further, stopping only when the power cord was taut.  It was less than a foot in front of me.  I scrambled to avoid the drool that puddled on the floor. 

Then, in a low and buzzing yet somehow jovial voice, it said:

“Roll, scroll, prance a horse, we always dance in the gelatin courts!”

Then it licked my face, and I jolted awake, feeling as though I was falling down.

I looked at the clock.  It was 3 AM.  I was in bed.

I was too scared to go back to sleep, but I didn’t want to get out of bed.  What I really wanted to do was get in bed with my parents, but I was too embarrassed to ask, and I was pretty sure I was a little bit old for that.  

They asked me why I was so tired the next morning, and I told them about my nightmare.  I also reminded them of the similar dream I’d had years ago, but they didn’t remember that.  They told me, again, that it didn’t mean anything.

I gave the dream some thought, and was still unable to figure out the significance of the phrase, or of the weird frogs that seemed to be intermittently haunting me.  However, I did eventually figure out that the TV frog spoke in the voice of the Kool-Aid Man.  What that meant, I never knew.

The frog dreams became a little more common after that.  I started having one every year.

When I was thirteen, I dreamed that I woke up in the morning and stepped out of bed to discover that my room had been flooded with a few inches of chunky vomit-like red fluid.  Upon venturing out to check what was causing this, I discovered that the entire upper floor of the house was flooded with the stuff, and that it was overflowing from the toilet.  As I hesitantly leaned over the toilet, a bulbous, lumpy, veiny-eyed creature, like a frog crossed with a human fetus, burst up from the toilet bowl, showering me with foul liquid, and screamed “Roll, scroll, prance a horse, we always dance in the gelatin courts!” in a voice like a shrieking baby, waking me ten minutes before my alarm was set to go off.

When I was fourteen, I dreamed that I was being chased around the dining room by a nasty little toad about the size of a toddler, with big skinned-over lumps instead of eyes and a mouth full of shark-teeth.  I remember having incredible balance and agility in this dream that let me jump between the dining room chairs and table, but the toad was just as fast, and could stick to furniture and walls and the ceiling with its disgusting sucker-tipped fingers.  Every time they stuck or unstuck, they made a horrible popping noise that I felt in my skin, like when you pop a pimple, and it kept shouting the phrase over and over in an unsuitably deep and booming voice, louder and louder each time: “Roll, scroll, prance a horse, we always dance in the gelatin courts!”

When I was fifteen, I dreamed that I was running down the hall to the front door in the middle of the night.  I was fleeing from a creature that looked like a pale pink frog walking on its hind legs, its body covered in bouncing rolls of slime-dripping fat, its eye sockets completely hollow and fleshy, its gaping toothless mouth framed by saliva-encrusted gummy lips and packed with tiny egg-like eyeballs.  The door never seemed to get any closer, even as I ran faster and faster, but the frog was constantly gaining on me, lumbering down the hall towards me and swaying exaggeratedly back and forth.  As it walked, eyeballs fell out of its mouth and splatted on the floor like broken eggs, and it repeated the phrase over and over again in an incredibly annoying high-pitched and squeaky voice: “Roll, scroll, prance a horse, we always dance in the gelatin courts!”  Then it finally caught me, holding me down and vomiting sticky little eyes all over my body until I woke up.  I spat into the sink over and over again, convinced there were eyeballs in my mouth.

They started getting more and more common.  I started having them monthly, weekly, daily.  I was menaced by a menagerie of frogs, never the same one twice, each one more horrible than the last – squads of walking tadpoles in helmets like knights, toads covered in clusters of slimy arms, sore-covered frogs with cracked teeth bursting through angry engorged gums.  I couldn’t get away from them.  I always woke up unsettled, sometimes even terrified, thinking about the slimy creatures that had menaced me in my sleep.  

Fortunately, I was never hurt.  They were only dreams, of course.  My sleep wasn’t negatively affected either, so eventually I just learned to live with it.  Gradually, I started forgetting my dreams.  For a long time, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you if I dreamed about the frogs or not.

Then, when I was twenty, I had the most horrific frog dream of them all.

I was living away from home.  I had been accepted to a college out of state, and I lived in a dorm.  Everything was going fairly well for me at the time.  I went to sleep one night happy, all my homework done and plans set for the morning.  Then I awoke in the middle of the night, seemingly apropos of nothing, to see a ring of glowing eyes staring at me from the middle of my dorm room.

The creature staring at me was about four feet tall, a fat-bodied thin-legged frog standing on its hind legs, dressed in a blue suit and a black tie.  In place of a head, it had a ring of twelve baseball-sized eyes that looked at me with inquisitive hourglass-shaped pupils.  In the center of the ring was nothing but smooth white flesh.

I looked into the ring-frog’s eyes and a flood of memories came rushing back.  The frog dreams were back again.

Cautiously, I looked away from the ring-frog.  It was 5:30 AM.  My roommate was sleeping undisturbed on the other side of the room.

“Roll, scroll, prance a horse, we always dance in the gelatin courts,” the ring-frog said, in a muffled voice as though it were underwater.  It beckoned me to stand up, gesturing with two fingers.  They were both adorned with dozens of gold rings.

I waited for myself to step out of bed.  It didn’t happen.  I gradually realized that this time it wasn’t a dream.

The ring-frog beckoned me again.

I climbed out of bed.  My bare feet came to rest on the carpet.  The ring-frog scampered to the door, twisted the knob delicately, and slipped into the hall.  There it waited, peeking into the room at me, until I grabbed my key and followed it.

It walked off down the hall, its feet slapping against the carpet with every jaunty bouncing half-hop step.  Apart from that, and the ever-present buzzing of the fluorescent hallway lights, the hallway was silent.  No cars drove by outside.  No one even talked in their rooms, awake after hours.

Behind me, I heard a faint noise, something squishing like a washcloth being rung out.  I glanced over my shoulder and saw a massive amorphous shadow slink away down the hall around the corner.  I turned back around and tried to put it out of my thoughts.

My footsteps broke up the relative silence as I followed it into the stairwell and down, slapping against the rubbery stairwell tile.  I considered asking the ring-frog where we were going, but I wasn’t sure if it would answer, or if it could even understand me.  At the same time, I didn’t want to break the silence.  It seemed somehow sacred to me.  We needed to be silent together.

After several minutes, it occurred to me that we had been descending for far too long.  It felt like we had walked down ten flights of stairs.  But that was impossible.  The building only had six stories, including the basement, and I lived on the second floor.  Where were we going?

“Um,” I said, against my better judgment, and then cleared my throat.  The ring-frog seemed to take no notice.

“Where are we going?” I asked it.

“Roll, scroll, prance a horse, we always dance in the gelatin courts,” it said again.  It didn’t look back at me.  It kept walking.

After flights and flights of stairs, we emerged into a tiny dirt room with a single door.  The ring-frog scuttled over to it, opened it, and darted into the room on the other side.

I stood outside the door for a moment.  I could see the ring-frog through the cracked-open door, standing just on the other side watching me.

I turned away.  I could still feel it staring into the back of my head.

Finally, I decided to follow it.  I reasoned I might as well see where this dream was taking me.

I opened the door and stepped through into a laundromat.

I looked around at my confusing new surroundings.  It was a full-fledged laundromat.  The walls were lined with washers and dryers.  A change machine, an ATM, and a vending machine full of drinks stood in separate corners.  There was a door across from me with a glass pane in it, through which I saw a darkened outdoor street, slick with rain.  Where was I?

The ring-frog seemed unconcerned with my confusion.  It scrambled up to a washing machine, running hands-then-feet on all fours like a monkey, and leapt on top of the machine.  With a single hand, it opened the top-loading door, which creaked ominously as it slowly lifted.

I walked into the laundromat after the ring-frog.  Shadows in the corners and crannies of the laundromat seemed to recede as I approached it.  I heard strange noises, piggy squeals and what sounded almost like burping, muffled as though spoken from a few rooms away.

The ring-frog looked over its shoulder at me with a few of its eyes.  “Roll, scroll, prance a horse,” it said, and made an encouraging motion to me with its free hand.

“We always dance in the gelatin courts,” I said.

It nodded, then dropped into the machine’s tub.

I walked up to the machine and looked down into the tub.  Inside there was a massive void of black space.  I reached into the machine.  My fingers did not scrape against the bottom or sides of the tub.

I saw a red cube approaching me from the distance in the void.  Surrounded by nothing, it seemed incredibly significant.

I suddenly felt very small.  I felt as if I was floating, like I was a mote of dust in the air.

The cube got closer.  As it approached, I saw dark shapes moving across its surfaces.  I didn’t squint, or lean in closer.  I just waited for them to approach.  I had no control over my body anymore.  All I could do was watch and wait.

The shapes moved across the cube, writhing, mutating.  They were frogs.  They were fat spidery-limbed frogs covered in mouths.  They wore spiked helmets and cushiony golden crowns.

I was standing on the cube’s surface, and the frogs were cavorting around me, their webbed hands sinking into the cube’s soft surface and leaving lasting prints.  Their mouths, filled to bursting with pike-like teeth, moved disparately, chanting the same phrase again and again in disharmony:

“Roll, scroll, prance a horse, we always dance in the gelatin courts!”

They galumphed in a circle around me on the surface of the gelatinous cube, limbs flailing and wriggling, growing and shrinking as they extended and retracted into their bodies.  Their bodies were a moldy gray-blue, covered with the tattered remains of red and gold royal costume.  Their webbed wiggling fingers pointed downward, prodding down into the gelatin, cratering its surface.  Looking at it made my flesh crawl.

“Roll, scroll, prance a horse, we always dance in the gelatin courts!”

I was looked at them from beneath from inside the cube, my vision reddened by the gelatin surrounding me.  I was trapped, completely enclosed, and yet I still felt myself moving completely unhampered.  My limbs moved of their own accord in rhythmic swipes.  Above me, beneath me, on all sides, I heard the frogs as they chanted.

“Roll, scroll, prance a horse, we always dance in the gelatin courts!”

I was surrounded on all sides by other people – all ages, all colors – suspended in the gelatin around me, limbs flailing, faces contorted into grimaces and growls of fear.  Beyond them, I saw the frogs – thousands of impossible shapes dancing on the surface of the gelatinous cube, climbing across one another’s backs, gnawing their own flesh, burrowing into the red gelatin and swimming towards me, eyes spinning wildly, mouths mechanically reciting the same chant in complete disharmony, over and over again.

“Roll, scroll, prance a horse, we always dance in the gelatin courts!”

After that, I woke up.  A building janitor shook me awake from my sleeping position on the floor of the dorm basement.  It was 6:30 in the morning.

I thanked him and went back upstairs.

I’ve had the same dream every night since then.  I haven’t sleepwalked anymore, and I haven’t remembered having the dream, but I know that I’ve had it.  I know that they’re watching me.  I don’t know what they want, or what they’ve been doing watching me all this time.

It’s not as bad as all that.  They’ve never hurt me, after all, or done anything real to me.  I’ve learned to live with it.  I feel strange admitting it, but I’ve even started to enjoy knowing they’re around.  It’s nice to have something constant.  Sometimes I even catch myself humming their little chant to myself, at work, or in bed, or in front of the TV.

Roll, scroll, prance a horse, we always dance in the gelatin courts.