Night Terrors first appeared on Write as Rain.
My wife doesn’t remember the night terrors.
After all, Miela’s not even awake, not really. Her eyes are open, but unseeing. They aren’t focused on me, but on something that closes in on her from all sides. She shrieks until she chokes on her own bile, terrified tears streaming down her face. She throws punches and kicks at an invisible assailant until she tangles in the sheets, unable to do more than thrash against the bonds.
As a doctor, I’ve treated parasomnia before, but only in toddlers. Miela is decades older than any of my other patients. Medically, I know that the terrors are nothing to worry about. They’re just changes in her brain chemistry as she switches from one deep stage of sleep to another. It triggers the release of adrenaline and a fright response. They’re scary for me, but they don’t hurt her. But when she wakes with a shriek at three in the morning, that’s impossible to believe. Her few minutes of panic are agony for me as I try and fail to console her. The helplessness is the worst of all, holding her hands to keep her from clawing at her neck as if something is wrapped around it. And as abruptly as they start, she falls asleep again. When she wakes in the morning, she doesn’t remember them.
But I do.
Miela warned me, I suppose, before we got married. I was so busy finishing residency, we never had time to move in together. I could hardly ever stay the night. She told me about her troubles keeping a roommate, rounds of medications she’d tried to ease them. Maybe I thought she was exaggerating. Maybe I thought the sleepless nights at the ER had prepared me, that I could sleep through them somehow. I’m a doctor, for Christ’s sake – I’ve had more sleepless nights than I can count. I thought I’d seen sleep deprivation. I thought it couldn’t faze me. Holy hell, was I wrong.
I haven’t slept for weeks, not since our wedding night. I catch a few minutes or so, but each shift of her body jolts me awake. The creak of the house as it settles seems to be the precursor to a scream. Every sigh, every murmur heralds the coming fright. My body refuses to rest, too closely tuned to every movement of hers. Waiting. Waiting for the terrors to start.
And they always do. I can see them coming now. She doesn’t frighten all at once. It begins as a low moan, twitches of protest. She pulls away from something. Then she wakes. Or she seems to. She jolts upright, hands tearing at her clothes and hair. She rakes her nails against her skin hard enough to draw blood. And she screams. Long, unearthly sounds, nothing like what they record for horror movies. It’s worse than that, like something in the clutches of death itself.
Weeks of this. Weeks. She’s tried everything: pills, therapy, hypnosis, acupuncture. Nothing has worked.
I hold her against my body, stilling her as she shakes in my arms. Her screams rebound off the bedroom walls and rejoin to create a maniacal chorus. She struggles against me and pushes me away far enough to punch me in the nose. I let go, clutching my hands to my face. She scrambles across the bed on all fours like a wild creature and I retreat to the far corner of the room, watching her through the pain that throbs in my face. After a few minutes, she stops screaming and falls into an exhausted sleep, a peace I can’t reach.
I take deep breaths, my adrenaline coursing in response to her. The pain in my nose dulls. It’s not broken, but it will be bruised. As I go back to bed, something moves against the headboard. I think it’s my shadow, at first, but it shouldn’t cast that way. Light shifts along the paint, like the reflections of a car’s headlights against the wall, except there is no window there. I squint a little harder, but the effect is gone. All that’s left are the shadows, waiting where they should be.
I think there might be a problem with the lights in the house. I never see them flicker, but the light isn’t constant the way that it should be. It’s worse at night, though I can’t figure out why. All the lights are off, there’s nothing that should be coming in. No street lamps through the curtains, nothing through the living room pane doors. Why do I keep seeing shadows shifting across the room?
No, not shadows. The shadows just react to it. Something else is there, something that pushes the shadows aside like a gauzy, black veil. Miela shifts beside me, not a terror, just a normal repositioning in her sleep. I sit up in bed – I don’t try to sleep anymore – and stare at the wall of the bedroom, watching the darkness ripple like lake water when something massive passes beneath. How am I supposed to sleep when the lights keep moving where there is no source? The longer I watch, the more I see. My eyes adjust to the darkness and forms take shape. Not forms, not really. They only seem to be in the corner of my eye. When I focus on them, they sink back under the shadows.
But there are sounds. Sounds that don’t belong in a house. Rasping, like sandpaper on the stairs. Or a rattle, like dice on a table. I slide from under the covers, pursuing the sound. If there are mice in this house, I swear to God…
As I get closer to where the sound emanated, it seems to shift position, coming from somewhere else, coming from everywhere in the room at once. I twist to follow it, but can’t get a bearing.
Miela jerks in the bed, jack-knifing in the covers. The shrieking starts, muffled by the pillows. I watch, bile rising in my throat. I won’t go to her this time. I don’t care if she does bruise her hand on the headboard.
In medical school, I studied hallucinations and delusions. I read studies and attended lectures on the effect that sleep deprivation could have on the mind. By all accounts, that must be what’s happening to me. It can’t be real, the form that slinks around the room at night, always just outside my line of sight. But it’s there. I can feel it, hear it, smell it. Like baby powder… or dried paste. Too sweet to be healthy. A toxic sort of sweet.
Perhaps it’s better that I can’t see it. Who knows what horror my mind would conjure if I did? Maybe I don’t want to see the thing that rattles in the room, that vanishes when I fix my attention on it.
It can’t be real. I can’t see anything in the inky darkness of the bedroom, so I shouldn’t be able to see the subtle shift of the shadows against the wall, like the branches of a tree dancing through their reflection in the window. But there are no trees in our yard and no light comes from outside the window. And yet the shadows move.
They are real. They are moving. Miela says she can’t see them. But I can. I always can. The scratching and rasping of something moving along the wall. The way reality seems to bend around a monstrous something that comes out from the wall.
I had one of the doctors in the ER prescribe me sleeping pills. I’ve taken three. I should be out like a light. I should sleep through the next week. But I can’t close my eyes. Whenever I think that I will be able to, Miela moves. Or the shadows move. What is it that moves them?
I don’t go to work anymore. I didn’t even call in. They might have fired me. That’s probably why my phone was ringing so much yesterday. It doesn’t matter; I threw it in the garbage disposal.
I can’t sleep. Not even if she isn’t in the house. I still hear it. Scuttling. Scurrying. Like rats on the ceiling. I turn to look at it and it’s gone. I don’t close my eyes. Not if I can help it.
Miela wants me to go to the hospital, see someone in the psych ward. She’s worried about me. As if I’m the one that wakes screaming hoarse in the middle of the night. As if I’m the one with bruises in the shape of handprints all over my arms. She thinks I’m the crazy one.
“Next Tuesday,” I assure her. “I’ll go next Tuesday if you’re still worried.”
“You said that, but it is Tuesday.”
It’s because I don’t sleep, she tells me. Because I’m not even trying. She begs me, she pleads. Go to a friend’s house, go to a hotel. She can go if I want. What would be the use? The shadows are following me.
It is following me.
When I thought it was a delusion, I was sure that the sleeping pills would work. But they didn’t. I couldn’t relax. Now I realize. My body knows what my analytical mind refuses to accept. There is something in the room. And if I go to sleep, I am at its mercy.
I pretend to fall asleep at night. Miela watches me, not sure what to do. When she finally drifts off, I sit up again and wait. It’s coming. It comes every night. For her. For me. I can’t be sure in the pitch darkness of the room, but the shadows move. They change places.
And then… it touches me. I can’t see it, but I can feel it. It’s not warm, but not cold either. It’s lukewarm, the same temperature as the room. All I feel is the pressure of its body as it passes over me and crawls to her. My heart pounds, first in panic for my own safety, but then in alarm for hers. It moves over me as if I am unaware, as if I were the nightstand or the lamp.
She shudders and jerks away as it crosses from my body to hers. The air seems to thicken around her and she wakes in earnest, fighting against it. My shock chases out repulsion and for a staggering moment, I am clear of the haze of my insomnia. I grab at her wrists, feel the creature’s body slide through my hands as I try to pull it off. It’s like sinking my hands in mashed potatoes. Everywhere I think I gain purchase, it remolds around me. I am doing no good in this fight. She screams and struggles until it coils around her neck. She fights for air, dragging a hissing breath through her closing throat. I still try to pry the creature, the barely visible, insubstantial assailant, from her body. I do no good. It is unhindered as if I didn’t even try.
And then it leaves, pulling from her body and retreating again into the shadows, into wherever it first appeared. She gulps down air by my side and slips back into sleep.
The creature grows more clear each night that I see it. The shadows no longer hide its form from me.
It advances to the bed, its body white like sun-bleached bones. Each movement is a shaky jerk forward. It seems to be made of interconnected spores, like a cross between moss and cottage cheese. It has no face, at least none that I can discern. It sticks to the wall as if helped by millions of tiny suckers, like an octopus that’s escaped onto land. It does not try to hide or slink from my gaze. I am nothing for it to fear. It crawls across me, passing over my body in its path to her. I don’t breathe as it passes, and it doesn’t acknowledge my presence.
The affect its touch has on Miela is immediate. At the first brush of its tentacles, she grimaces. The skin around where the creature touches grows pale. Her mouth twists and her eyes squeeze more tightly shut. She moves her arms, as if brushing away an insect, but the action is ineffectual. The creature clings to the hand she would have wiped it away with.
She writhes in its grasp, flailing against its innumerable limbs. They bind tighter around her, creeping like vines, like mold growing over her like the steady march of decay.
As the creature reaches her chest, she jerks awake, screaming, and claws at her skin. Each scrape of her nails is ineffectual against its hold. It grips more tightly around her and she descends into panic, her eyes bulging out of her face. The creature slithers in through her open mouth and she gags as it forces its way down her throat. Tears stream down her face as she fails to scream. Her eyes fall to me and, for the first time, I know that she can see me. Really see me. We are sharing this nightmare together. Her gaze pleads for rescue. The creature brightens as she grows pale. The life is sucked from her. She gags against the body filling her throat, but is losing the strength to protest.
As I watch, a glimmer of hope brightens in my chest. Perhaps it will kill her. I don’t try to stop it this time. I’m so weak, anyway. All my fight would be ineffectual. Maybe, this will be the end of it. No more screaming, no more midnight waking. Just peaceful, uninterrupted sleep, uninterrupted by the faceless creature that comes at night. Perhaps this will be the last time.
She falls limp, now supported only by the creature tangled around her. It pulses – once, twice – then grows dim. It relaxes its grip on her, sliding from around her. She takes a great shuddering breath as it retreats. Her head lolls to the side and she falls limp against the mattress. It slithers away, each erratic movement of its body mocking me with the knowledge that it will be back. It will always be back.
It won’t kill her. It will just keep coming back. It will come back night after night as it has always done. And she will keep screaming. A vision of my life stretches before me, an unending series of nights, all blurring into each other without the punctuation of sleep. Just unending terror that will be mine alone to bear.
As the white tendrils of the creature slide away from her, I replace them with my own fingers. Each lovingly strokes over her skin, tracing the scratches where she had tried to free herself. Gently, I place my hands over the bruises on her throat. I feel her throat under my palms, so fragile, the unprotected circuitry of the body. The life force flowing through a single, undefended point. I squeeze. Her throat convulses under my palms. How little effort it takes… just a small application of pressure. She chokes, unable to get air, but all the fight has left her. Her eyes open and she stares at me, the whites wide and terrified.
There will be no more fear, no more struggle. She won’t scream anymore. As the last spasm leaves her body, I collapse, my eyelids drooping as my body falls forward onto the pillow, a smile crossing my face as I slide into sleep.