I open my eyes to the black screen of my computer. Shit! Did I doze off? My small apartment is filled by the golden, reassuring light of my bedside lamp, which I never turn off. The microwave's display tells me it's three in the morning, but it always lies. My alarm clock agrees, but it also lies.
My small loft has two entry points: on my right, the entrance door, locked, chain-locked, obstructed by a chest. On my left, the window, covered with thick, black curtains that even the midday sun cannot penetrate. Who knows what I would see if I pulled them open? The shockwave of an atomic mushroom, rolling toward me? Medusa's petrifying stare? Or perhaps a hooded man with a gun pointed at me… BLAM! Or perhaps this isn't a nightmare—perhaps I would only see the buildings on the other side of the street under the yellow light of the street lamps, and if the night is cloudless, a moon crescent and a few faint stars. But there is no sense risking it.
I am cursed with awakenings. Why, I must have had thousands this year alone, a dozen for every sleep. My days start before the previous ones stop, they stack, they live inside each other like matryoshka dolls. I wake in twisted worlds where all monsters imagined by man conspire with those that lurk in their subconscious to track me down and devour me.
The only silver lining is that they are not yet there when I wake. They do not yet know where to find me.
Is it the rumbling of their steps I hear outside, or the rolling gait of a passing car? No matter. I need to stay silent, leave the curtains closed, keep the door shut, and they will leave me alone. I walk carefully to my bed and lay down. I recall I have a job interview in five hours. There is plenty of time. I've set my alarm clock to a song I've never heard. The horrors lull me into a false sense of security by mimicking everything that I know, down to the slightest detail of the smallest object in my room, but they could never compose a song that I did not already know. Still, I'm worried they will learn.
The interview… my mother did everything she could to find something I could do. “You can work from home,” she told me, “but you will still have to go out from time to time…” She doesn't understand. How could she? How could anyone? They only despair when things are not as they seem, whereas I am most afraid when they are. They see me rot in this small loft and they tell me, “Why don't you just go out?” A few months ago my sister visited me; I must have fallen asleep while she was there, for when I woke up and I followed her outside, we got lost in an infinite labyrinth of hallways and the Minotaur devoured us.
Sleep does not come. Knock! Knock! Knock!
They are at the front door… Knock! Knock! Knock!
I have to stay put… let them knock, wait until they give up and I can faintly hear them try the next door. But a familiar voice calls from the other side.
“Johnny? It's mom. Open up!”
What? Mom? I am jolted upright. I must be late for my appointment. I get up and run towards the door, I undo the chain lock, but as I put my hand on the door knob, I pause. Did the alarm clock not show three in the morning? I look. It shows eight o'clock, but the left part of the eight is blinking: when these two diodes are off, it looks like a three. I must have looked when they were off, then.
But now I wonder why there is no chest barring the door. Okay… wait… I removed the chest so that my mother could open the door herself if needed… but then I should have also left the chain lock undone too. Oh, goodness, I don't remember!
But they are not knocking anymore, they are banging, and now I know, I know that they know that I am here. Someone… something is forcing the door. And at the other end I hear someone… something scratch the window. The curtains inflate as if the wind was flowing into them, but the window is not open, I still hear scratching on the glass. Fresh blood drips from the ceiling. A whining sound seeps through the floor, getting louder and louder until it becomes howling.
I close my eyes and hide my face behind my hands, but other hands grab my wrists and pull them apart, and then they pull on my eyelids until my eyes are naked, and all I can see before they devour me are their triumphant smiles.
I fall down from my bed. My knee hits the floor first, sending a painful shock to my brain. I realize I am shouting.
“My God Johnny, are you okay?”
“You weren't answering so I used my key… is it another one of these terrible nightmares? My poor baby… come on, rise up! I'll make some coffee.”
I sit on my bed. I must look terrible, but I have no mirrors in my home. I broke them all. Twenty eight years of bad luck.
“And take a shower! Interview's in a half hour and you smell like wet dog.”
The interview… yes, the interview… had I not set my alarm clock to seven o'clock? I look at the display to see how much time I have left, but all my blood turns to ice when I see it. 88:88. What is that supposed to be? Not another nightmare… not here! Not now! Panic shrouds my mind. Nothing seems amiss with mom, but she's inside. Inside, nothing is ever amiss.
I walk into the bathroom. I turn on the shower and let water drip on my back. In spite of myself I let my mind err on the yellowed tiles on the walls, the lines between them connected in some arcane pattern. Everything seems unreal.
“For the love of God John, close the door!”
I don't listen to her. I walk out of the shower while it's still running, without bothering to dry myself off. The curtains waver as if wind was blowing into them. Did I open the window? No… I would never do that. Did mom do it?
I put on the clothes mom put on my bed. A jacket and a tie that I had never seen before. I don't know what to think.
I have an idea. I run to the shelf on which I have aligned a few books, and I grab one at random. My hands are shaking and water drips on the pages, crinkling them. It's a trick I've learned recently: everyone suffers from dyslexia when they are dreaming. If I can read a few pages, I have nothing to worry about. Quick… there… there we go: “Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again.”
Before I can read any further mom takes my by the arm and I drop the book on the ground.
“John! What the hell are you doing?”
She rubs my hair with a towel then wipes my face. She stares at me, mouth slightly agape as if she was looking for words. Then she gets the cup of coffee she'd put on the bedside table and puts it in my hands.
“It'll dry on the way. Go! We're going to be late!”
I feel pathetic all of a sudden. I would rather like to curl into a ball on my bed, but mom pushes me forward. I come face to face with the plywood door of my fourth floor apartment, so thin a demon could crack it with a punch. All I can think is of what's truly behind that door. I cup my ear against it and I listen.
For ten reassuring seconds, I hear nothing. But then… a murmur… a rumbling… yes… there is something. I hear the murmur creeping closer, it is crawling, seeping through the slit under the door. Vwoom… Vwoooom… I lower my eyes. I think I can see the smoky bodies of evil spirits rising up.
I can't take any chance, I have to go back to the book. But as I turn around to run toward my bed, mom lunges for the door. “John, we must get going!”
I have no choice. I pull her away before she can grab the handle. My cup slips out of my hand and bursts into a hundred shards, spreading a scalding hot puddle on the floor. Mom looks at me with a mix of pity and terror.
“Are you crazy?”
She pulls back and tries for the door again. I can't let her do that, the monsters are swarming. I can hear their whisperings even more clearly now, a few feet from the accursed frame.
So I pull her away again, harder, but in her resistance she stomps her heel on a shard and loses footing. She falls on the ground. A thick rivulet of blood pours out of the base of her head… I trace it back to the sharp corner of the table where I usually put my keys, painted with a red streak.
“Mom?” I kneel down to brush her cheek, to wake her up. She isn't moving. She doesn't see me. The murmurs are purring behind the door, familiar.
I sit on the ground shakily and I pray with all my heart that it's a demon.