Isolation: A Short Story

Posted on: October 19, 2009
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By FR Jameson

 

Was he sleeping? Was he alone?

 
 
A moment can stretch in the dark, one blink of the eye can last hours. His doubt of whether he was asleep or awake, his confusion as to whether he was the sole occupant of his bed spiralled around him. It grabbed on to every nerve ending, bound him, twisted him, convulsed him. He tried to open his eyes, tried to close them again – he wasn’t sure which was which. What was this blackness? The dark of the room? Night-time? The inside of his eyelids? It was desolate, empty, he was so alone. But wait – he wasn’t alone, he could feel something. Who was it? What was it? Where was it?
 
 
He reached out his arms and for a second it was like he was in a void. It was just as if he was floating, totally alone – but no, he was somewhere, and there was something else. He concentrated, squeezing his eyes tight shut or forcing them wide open – he didn’t know which. Lying there with his arms at his side he crept out his fingers, slowly, and then found it – his bed. A sigh of relief took him, but that turned into a gasp of panic. He’d been there the whole time – of course he had – yet when he felt the bed, when his arms touched the mattress, it was like he’d just fallen there. It was as if he’d plummeted from high and landed hard on his nice soft bed.
 
 
For a moment he imagined he was trapped there, his spinal cord having severed so all he could do was blink and yell. Could he blink? Could he yell? He wasn’t sure his eyes worked anymore and there seemed to be no sound emanating from his mouth. Once again he tried to open it, tried to close it – but it didn’t seem he had a mouth anymore. His eyes squeezed shut (or he forced them wide enough to burst. The darkness didn’t change, so he had no idea.) and he dug his fingers into the sheet below, pushing them tight so his nails touched his palms through the linen. It was like he was tearing into the sheet, then digging holes in his own flesh. But that was good as he could feel something.
 
 
His nails dug into his hand, the darkness everywhere around him, and then he rolled to his side. He stretched out his limbs and made sure he was alone, Master of his own bed. His left foot was pushed out, then his right foot, his left hand, his right hand – sending them to the extreme corners of the mattress, making sure he was the sole resident. There was nobody else, nothing else. It was just night-time spookiness, just the stress, just the side effects of his medication. There was nothing else – nothing – nothing – nothing.
 
 
He forced himself up, from stretched out to fully upright in a fraction of a second. His hand reached to the pint of water on the bedside table, and nearly knocked it over. There was a quick flash of an image – him smashing his fist through the glass, slicing his hand, cutting it off, falling backwards in blood-spurting agony. But it didn’t happen. He’d caught the glass properly, was pouring it down his throat, pouring it down his front. Jesus! He was so wet, every bit of him was shivering with damp.
 
 
Swiftly he leapt from the bed, like a man with cramp in every part of his body. He staggered in the dark (were his eyes open?) as if this wasn’t his bedroom, as if he didn’t know every inch of it. With a thud he struck his shin against the base of the bed. His voice found sound as he cursed. It hurt like torture, the pain – even the bruising – seemed to stretch further than his shin, aching every part of him. Stumbling, he fell forward, striking his hand against the light switch, denting his palm.
 
 
The light came on and his eyes were open, further moisture squeezing from his tear ducts. He had the strange idea he wasn’t alone, that he was being watched. But by whom? Blinking he spun around, but there was nothing and he knew there’d be nothing. The clock on the bedside table said 2.31, past the witching hour but still a long time to the new day. He took a few deep breaths and acclimatised himself to the night-time shadows. Stepping forward he looked at his sheets, they were dripping. His hand reached down and checked he hadn’t wet himself. It was all sweat, as if – while he’d slept (had he actually slept?) – his pores had burst and flooded the sheets. They were cold, wet, smeared with salt residue. His eyes peered down at his skin, grey and clammy, goosebumps rising like a chickenpox rash.
 
 
It was night and so he wanted to be as fast as possible. He opened the bedroom door and clicked on the hall light, taking a moment to examine any shadow. Then he went to the airing cupboard, there was no light there unfortunately and so he had a need to be extra swift. His hand reached in to grab clean bedding, it trembling as it entered the dark, like there was a real chance some of his fingers wouldn’t come back. Suddenly it was as if IT – this figment of his night-time imagination he was now calling IT – was going to swipe out with a talon or a claw and take his digits away from him.
 
 
He was a grown man panicked by the bogeyman, by monsters in the cupboard, by sprites and goblins and beasties ready to devour him in his own home. There was no such thing, he was rational, knew these fears were nonsense – but when it’s your hand that might not come back in one piece, you can’t blame it for shaking. He grabbed the sheets and slammed the airing cupboard door shut.
 
 
For crying out loud – he was at home, safe, nothing would happen to him. But was he safe? Really? After all – as they’d kept reminding him – there was no evidence that Amanda ever left the flat. Of course she must have as she wasn’t there, but no one had seen her go, and her coats and shoes were still there, as were her purse and keys. And how could a healthy, strong young woman like Amanda get kidnapped from a block of flats in daytime without anyone noticing?
 
 
He didn’t know, how was he supposed to know? When they asked their questions he didn’t answer because he didn’t have answers for their questions, but they kept asking them anyway. They kept asking him, and by the time they stopped – because they couldn’t find evidence for their answers to the questions – everybody else was asking questions too.
 
 
Quickly he went back to the bedroom, switching off the hall light and closing the door tight behind him. So if there was anyone else in his flat – anything else in his flat – he’d know when the handle turned. But what if IT had crept into the room when he wasn’t looking? He stopped still, breath held. A man in just his boxer shorts, carrying a pile of sheets, terrified as he examined shadows for – what? A person? A monster? A something? What the hell was he looking for? Why was he doing this?
 
 
“Pull yourself together. Pull yourself together.”
 
 
It was a manta he found himself repeating a lot these days. It was odd as he normally wasn’t a man who panicked, he wasn’t this irrational. Maybe it was the medication. The psychiatrist had given him pills to help him sleep, but they clearly weren’t working. Perhaps they were keeping him awake, or alternatively perhaps he was asleep and this was his dream. He had to do something, needed to do something, so in the morning he’d know if he was asleep or awake.
 
 
His eyes suddenly flashed with resolve and he dropped the sheets and grabbed a red magic marker. It had been Amanda’s. He leapt on the bed and wrote the words “I LIE HERE” in big letters across the wall. A smile crossed his face, the first smile he could remember for some time. And then he looked at the sheets and almost sobbed. What was he doing? What was the matter with him? In the morning, if the bedding was changed, that would prove he was awake. He’d had no need to vandalise his bedroom. Amanda had painted that room.
 
 

His hands pulled off the dirty sheets. The mattress cover was dripping, the pillow cases were wet and slimy, the duvet cover had been stained by his living corpse. The outline of his body was blurred and white, salt water had pumped from his skin and created an unholy Turin shroud.
 
 
He bent down to change the sheets, and then tried to stand up straight – but it was as if he was suddenly on broken feet, like his ankles had snapped beneath him. Steadying himself he took deep breaths, trying to hold back the vomit when the pain came. But there was no pain, his ankles and his feet were undamaged. His fingers ran across his brow, more sweat – where was it coming from? He wasn’t even dehydrated. Hastily he grabbed the sheets and wrestled them on – not competently, but good enough to last till morning. He’d sort them out then, sort everything out then, just as he was always going to do.
 
 
Amanda had thought the flat haunted. But really? A haunted flat? Their flat only had one bedroom, there wasn’t much to haunt. Initially it was a joke for them – of course they couldn’t have moved in to a haunted flat, it was ridiculous. But while he continued to laugh, the joke left her. She hated to be there when he wasn’t, would sometimes refuse. It got to the point where she was actually scared of the shadows, frightened of the darkness, loathed even the shape of the rooms. Over time she lost weight, got paler. Her friends and family talked to him about it and he tried to reassure them, but he wasn’t reassured himself. What was happening to her?
 
 
Some of her friends and family clearly saw it as his fault, as if all talk of ghosts was to hide what she was really frightened of – him. He loved her, wouldn’t have hurt her, wanted to look after her – but they’d brought the flat, how could they just throw it away? He tried to be confident, sure they’d get past it. They loved each other, it would all work out. And then one day she went, and he started thinking of ghosts.
 
 
With a deep breath he switched the light out, dropping the room into darkness, eliminating all those shadowed corners. Somehow total blackness was preferable to those little spots where something might lurk and hide. He dived to the bed, crawling under the duvet, curling up tight. It was ridiculous of course, but the clean sheets made him feel safer. They smelt like spring meadow and somehow that was a bizarre reassurance. He allowed himself a laugh in the darkness.
 
 
It was all nonsense. He was in no danger, he was the only person there and the front door was locked and all the windows shut. Even if he was in danger, pulling a duvet over himself was not going make him secure. It was ridiculous, laughable. Like everything else – ghosts, monsters, IT – all a product of a spooky imagination. It was only Amanda’s disappearance which wasn’t funny. But then there was going to be some man behind that, a person, and eventually the police would find him and all would be explained.
 
 
His eyes closed lighter this time, so they’d open again if need be. He brought his arms to his chest and tried to ease the tension in his shoulders. Lying still he was calmer – his heart didn’t race away, his brain didn’t speed with insane ideas. Tomorrow he’d buy bright new light bulbs, take away those shadowed corners. Maybe he’d paint the walls. Amanda had a great sense of style, a beautiful eye – but when they painted the flat neither of them appreciated how dark the rooms could get. He’d brighten it up with colours he knew she’d like. Maybe he’d even buy fresh flowers every day, so when she came back they’d welcome her.
 
 
She was going to come back. How would he get through the rest of his life without seeing her again? There’d be no way he’d survive. One day she’d walk through that door and explain it all. They’d laugh together, it was all going to be fine. And he was going to sleep with that thought, he’d dream of that every single night.
 
 
The panic gripped him suddenly. There was something in the bed with him.
 
 
IT was close by, under the duvet, moving towards him. What should he do? If he jumped IT would vanish, there’d be a moment between him moving and the light coming on and that would give IT – whatever IT was – a chance to hide.
 
 
He could kick out, try and smash the monster from the bed, warn it what would happen if it came near. But he didn’t know where IT was, didn’t know what to aim for. And what if he did get IT? What if he connected? How did he know his foot would come back? This thing might welcome a foot in its mouth as a snack. But then maybe this creature wouldn’t bite, or maybe it would but the bite would tell him what it was. Perhaps it was a rat, some vermin that had crawled into his flat and was now in bed with him. But it couldn’t be that, he’d have heard that – and the thing about this animal/creature/beast/monster/thing was that you couldn’t hear it. You could almost tell where it was by the fact you couldn’t hear it, the molecules of air got quieter around IT.
 
 
He lay still, his eyes lightly shut, his breath peaceful – but his heart speeding, his brain shooting forth. What the hell was IT? Imagination took over and he imagined IT huge beside him, bigger than the bed. IT was both hairy and smooth, armoured and fleshy. He pictured it with claws and teeth, talons and pincers. There was the sudden image of one of its heavy pincered claws snapping at him. Not just snapping at him, snapping him in half – bisecting him with its talon. He saw himself looking down at his legs, his groin, his hips – blood spewing unstoppable. There IT was raising a sucker – grey and red – clamping it over his face, suffocating him, drowning him above water.
 
 
IT was huge, all around him, touching every part of the bed he wasn’t touching. All he’d have to do was move a centimetre and he’d feel its scaly, smooth flesh. IT had mounted itself above him. If he opened his eyes he’d see IT, he’d see nothing but IT. Or maybe he wouldn’t see IT all. Maybe it would taunt him, maybe it would hide again, knowing he knew it was there but amusing itself with these games.
 
 
He jerked onto his back – did he do that himself or had IT moved him? He lay there, his body contorted, his hands in front of him. So far he didn’t think IT had touched him, even though it was all around him it hadn’t touched him yet. Maybe he was imagining IT. If he opened his eyes he’d see IT wasn’t there, that IT had never been there. He could get up, get dressed, go for a walk, forget this nightmare. It was a good idea, a happy idea, and he would have done that. But just as he willed himself to move something brushed against the length of his calf. It was cold and hard, and he screamed.
 
 
He screamed but there was no sound. IT had taken all sound from him. The screams were around his head but he couldn’t hear them. There was suddenly a hammering, but there was no scream. All he could hear was that bang-bang-bang pounding into him.
 
 
There was a thud as he fell heavy to the floor, suddenly off his bed, away from IT. He couldn’t remember moving, had been paralysed, listening to the banging, listening to the silence of his screams. Now he was on the floor, free – but he could still hear the banging. Someone was knocking his front door. Staggering up he reached for the light switch. When the room illuminated he knew what he’d see – nothing. Nothing but a bed that looked like it was inhabited by a madman, the sheets kicked asunder.
 
 
The banging continued, some grumbling and yelling as an accompaniment. He opened the bedroom door and reached for the hall light. Looking carefully around he even glanced over his shoulder, like he could check IT wasn’t following him. He moved forward, still shaking, his sweaty feet cold on the laminated floorboards. His eye looked through the peephole, bloodshot it encountered Mr and Mrs Morris – neighbours from downstairs. Turning the lock he opened the door in just his underwear.
 
 
They stared at him with both fury and fear. Mr Morris looked surprised by his near nakedness, by his wet grey skin. Mrs Morris was harder and much more suspicious, had been since the disappearance.
 
 
“We heard screaming.” she said.
 
 
“Uh?” He clutched the door frame.
 
 
“We heard screaming,” her husband repeated.
 
 
“Did you?” He hadn’t been able to hear a thing. Were they his screams? They must have been his screams. There was only him and IT in the flat, and IT wasn’t screaming. “Yeah, I’ve had nightmares.”
 
 
“Nightmares?” asked Mrs Morris.
 
 
“Nightmares.” How could he tell her what was happening? How could he tell her he hadn’t slept? It was clear she wasn’t going to believe a word he said.
 
 
“You didn’t wake yourself?” asked Mr Morris.
 
 
“No. You woke me.”
 
 
They stared at him and he swayed, he could barely stand. His eyes were wide and crimson and he must have looked like a man who’d never slept.
 
 
“Do you mind if Arthur comes in and checks?” asked Mrs Morris, her eyes narrowed.
 
 
“Checks?”
 
 
“Yeah,” said Mr Morris. “Make sure all is alright.”
 
 
He hesitated. What would IT do if it saw Mr Morris? Could he let another man be tormented? But then somehow he knew IT wasn’t interested in Mr Morris, IT was only interested in him.
 
 
Still he hesitated, and that hesitation increased the suspicion on Mrs Morris’s face.
 
 
“Sure,” he tried to smile. “Come in.”
 
 
He stepped back, leant against the wall, let Mr Morris pass. Mr Morris entered nervously, clearly frightened of what he might see. After all you rarely step into the home of a supposed wife killer – how does such a creature live? Mr Morris switched on the light in each room and peered in as if expecting every kind of grisly horror. The bedroom was the last room and Mr Morris pulled his nose out with a mix of sympathy and alarm.
 
 
“’I lie here’?” asked Mr Morris.
 
 
“Is everything okay Arthur?” demanded Mrs Morris.
 
 
He answered before her husband. “Yeah, everything is fine. I’m just having bad dreams at the moment. I’m sorry for disturbing you. I think I’ll take another pill and hopefully rest easier after that. I’ll try not to wake you again, I promise.”
 
 
Only Mr Morris said goodbye, Mrs Morris left with a disappointment that she hadn’t proved her worst suspicions.
 
 
His hand closed the front door and then closed the bedroom door and he sat on the end of his bed.
 
 
IT was behind him. IT was on the bed with him, looming over him. He didn’t look. Amanda had sensed it early, known there was something wrong with the flat – but why couldn’t she have sensed it even earlier? Why couldn’t she have realised at the first viewing? She could have stopped them from putting the offer in, from moving there at all. She could have saved herself, saved the two of them – why didn’t she?
 
 
His ears could hear IT now, long drawn-out breaths. The room was sulphurous, stinking with its breath. What had he been thinking earlier? He’d been thinking of going for a walk, getting away from IT – but what was the point? There was always going to be darkness, always going to be shadow. IT wanted him and there was no escape.
 
 
IT was close now – millimetres from his skin – ready to envelop him, crush him, pierce his flesh, break his bones. Whatever creature it was, it already had Amanda, had already taken her. He wondered what IT had done to her, wondered how much she’d suffered. There were tears on his cheeks at the imagination of her suffering. IT was looming above him. What was IT waiting for? He kept his eyes shut and saw a horrible red. The red of the inside of his eyelids, the red of his body torn and ripped and broken and mutilated and eaten and spat-out and digested and dissected and defiled. He saw his blood spilling away.
 
 
What was IT waiting for? Why didn’t IT take him? IT wasn’t going to give up now, even if Mr and Mrs Morris came back to the door IT wasn’t going to stop. Why not finish him off? Why not get him over with? His eyes were shut and he waited, and then he realised, that was the reason – IT wanted him to open his eyes. IT wanted him to look at IT.
 
 
He kept his eyes squeezed shut. IT was all around him, if he flinched he’d touch it. His eyelids stayed down, but why? IT wasn’t going to go away, wasn’t going to leave him. IT knew he would have to open his eyes eventually, knew he couldn’t hold out forever, was prepared to wait. What was the point? Why wait? She wasn’t as strong as him so IT had taken her first, but without her he wasn’t that strong either. He took a deep breath and forced his eyelids up.
 
 
****

In the morning the police broke down the front door, following complaints from the resident’s neighbors (not just Mr and Mrs Morris) with regards to screams emanating from the flat. Nothing was found. No body was found. The ambitious detective in charge thought that the scrawled words “I Lie Here” might be some kind of clue. But, as yet, he hasn’t seen IT.
 
 
The case remains open.

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