Something was shining brightly on the bedroom floor, casting the moonlight directly into Brian’s eye. He rolled away from it, irritated, but the movement helped nothing — the glare was still piercing. That was all right, he hadn’t been sleeping well anyway; hadn’t been for some time.
Kelsey had teased him about it. She would angle her glasses down, looking over the rims, and in a drawling affectation, say “Class-ic case. Textbook in-som-nia.” She drew out the statement, holding the syllables as if they were whole words. He would chuckle and she would giggle, and then she would fall asleep and he would stare upwards at the ceiling, alternating between his frustration at being awake and his joy at having her asleep next to him.
Of course, in those days, he had been able to get in a couple hours every once in a while. The pills his doctor prescribed helped sometimes, and on rare occasions his body cooperated naturally, replenishing him with energy like a camel taking in water for a trip across the desert. Brian remembered looking good in those days: Kelsey insisted he was a catch, anyway, and he was all too willing to grin, shake his head in an ‘aw shucks’ sort of a way, and accept the compliment.
He wondered whether she would be able to classify him that way in his current condition. Lately, Brian felt, his body was displaying a bad case of life imitating art: he had become the textbook def-in-it-ion of an insomniac. A halo of frazzled mousy-brown hair hovering above bloodshot, baggy eyes, a frame that seemed to retreat into itself, twitching, beetle-like. A creature that seemed unrecognizable to Brian when he saw it glaring at him from the bathroom mirror.
He blinked twice, owlishly. Without his glasses, the room was a silver-washed blur. Even with the moonlight pouring in, he was practically blind. “Built for caves and tunnels, darling,” Kelsey had said, as she tried not to laugh at his clumsy attempts to navigate their first apartment together at night. He remembered her half-crooked smile in perfect definition, could see it much more clearly than the room he’d been sleeping in for five years. Brian supposed there was some delicious irony in that.
With a grunt of bedsprings, a firm shape rested itself in the empty space on the bed to Brian’s right, pulling him back from his memories. He arched his back through the sheets against it. Molly was a good dog, a comfort and a companion. The adoption agency had written ‘German Shepherd mix’ on the paperwork, but from her size alone, anyone could see the mastiff in her blood. She was practically bigger than Brian — maybe really was, after all the weight he’d lost in the last few months. He felt her sigh, envied her natural ability to doze off without pills or hypnosis. Brian assumed she must have been digging in the yard that evening, because she brought with her the deep, earthy smell of freshly turned soil. He wondered absently if he would have to wash the bedsheets in the morning.
“Good girl,” he mumbled, rolling back on his side, searching for that perfect position that would trip the switch and send him off to sleep. There was that glare again: the moon was awfully bright, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Brian sighed audibly. Once, the sleepless nights seemed to him a quirk, a curio, an oddness of his physiology that he was almost proud of. After Kelsey, it felt more like the symptom of an illness he hadn’t known he carried.
“You’re not doing me any favors,” he growled in the general direction of the sky. Brian rolled on his back. It was no more comfortable than the last hundred times he had done it. He wobbled back and forth for a moment, a child’s tantrum slowed to a fraction of its speed and just as doomed to failure. He was awake.
With an exasperated grunt, Brian swung himself out of the bed. As if the insomnia wasn’t enough, nature had also equipped him with a bladder he supposed was maybe big enough to hold a couple tablespoons of Bud Lite at a time. At night, it was always playing catch-up with him; he’d wake, and by the time he was ready to fall back asleep there the need was, swelling against the inside of his stomach like a hot stone.
The habit had become so ingrained that he didn’t even consider putting on his glasses before venturing out of the bedroom. He could, by now, travel to the bathroom and back without them, but more importantly, he was safer from the Horrors if he was blind.
He shuffled to the open door, already feeling their attention drawn to him: dozens of pairs of eyes, shifting slowly to focus on his frail, slim body. Their glassy hides sucked in the bright moonlight greedily, reflecting it back in sharp blades of illumination. Despite his failing eyes, Brian could see the beams, like knife edges. On darker nights, the Horrors might have been sleeping, or content to lurk in the pools of shadow, allowing him passage unnoticed through their territory. Tonight, they were awake, and restless. He was certain that had he put on his glasses, they would have descended on him, like lions descending on the weak antelopes at the edge of the herd.
Pace, pace, pace — he timed each step carefully, deliberately. With disguised calm, Brian crossed into the bathroom, shut the door with a sharp click. He exhaled in relief, savored the sound of the whispery little ventilation fan susurrating into the room to accompany the slight buzzing of the halogen light. He lifted the toilet lid, feeling his stomach relax as he urinated. He flushed, flipped the lid shut again (even in an otherwise unoccupied house — “You’re not an animal, darling, try to act like a civilized person!”) and turned to face the door.
The return journey down the hallway was somehow less fraught. Brian felt emboldened; he moved with greater speed than usual. Where the walk to the bathroom had felt like an agonizing eternity, setting foot back in the bedroom seemed to occur almost immediately. He reclaimed his space in the bed — Molly had stayed on her side, so his half had gone a little cold, the imprint betraying him as it turned clammy. It was yet another obstacle on the path to sleep, which Brian was beginning to realize might become a genuine issue. Sooner or later, he’d start getting real problems from the lack of sleep. The problems Kelsey had called, simply enough, the Big Ones.
He didn’t want to have a Big One. Of course, neither had she.
Molly drew a long, shuddering breath next to Brian, the vibration passing through the mattress into his ribs. The moonlight was still maddening. He had failed to notice whatever was casting it back at him during his trip to the bathroom. Brian wondered what time it was: a peculiarity of this new form of sleeplessness was a certain disorientation when it came to time. He used to have a decent sense of it, but as he adjusted to a life without Kelsey, the progression blurred, and the space between dusk and dawn was rendered opaque. The clock by his bedside was a greenish slab of light, digits no more recognizable without his glasses than individual atoms to a normal eye. Brian grimaced and flapped his hand around the stand for his glasses. He could walk halfway to the corner gas station without them, but could he find the damn things where he left them the night before? Not a chance.
His pawing knocked various items aside and allowed moonlight to slap the lenses of the glasses, providing an easy target for him. Brian grabbed, misjudging the delicacy of his reach and planting his fingers firmly against the left lens. He cursed under his breath. There was a cloth somewhere on the stand, but the sheet would do just as well to wipe them off. He polished mindlessly, fingers drawing circles across the glass. Finishing his work, he slipped them onto his face.
The cold of the stems against his temples stung minutely for a second, jerking his senses ever so slightly. The world swam into focus, moonlight lubricating every surface and sheen in the room. He could see the green digits of the clock reading 3:42. The delicate carved bedpost by his head, with a stain on one section from where Kelsey had lost her balance while using nail polish remover. The moon was still bouncing off of something in the corner of the room. Something broad, like a mirror, or serving tray, or a
Brian blinked, confused. He hadn’t brought a drink to bed — nothing to spill. He leaned up, craning his neck to get a better look.
His gaze met Molly’s, staring sightlessly from the far side of the room. The dog was dead. There was no question of that. Her mouth broken open, a stub of tongue left from having been cut
out of her skull. The gorms of her mouth shredded so deep the white of bone was visible. Her neck not just cut, not even gouged, but simply removed — a sucking crater so deep it disappeared into shadow. Her rear legs, almost beyond his vision, splayed as though someone had tried to pry them away like chicken legs.
He took in each nightmarish wound impassively, caught like Polaroid photographs in the icy calm as adrenaline rose like a storm tide. His mind attempted to reconcile the suddenness of this nightmare with the stillness of the room.
The thing in the bed next to him was discordantly quiet. No longer breathing deeply in sleep.
Brian had known true fear before: at age six, he had fallen from a tree branch into a fast, strong river current. A twentysomething in college, convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was watching a woman choke to death on her own drunken vomit. Then Kelsey: a sudden, unpredictable terror cutting through his calm, warm love like lava splitting through a grassy hillside. But tonight’s was a new form, an evolution from unbearable to unthinkable. He was completely alone, and he was staring into the blinded eyes of a gutted dog, and there was something in his bed.
A charge in the air now, electric. Brian frozen in a deceptively casual position, leaning up and craning his neck to see the other side of the room. The thing next to him only the smallest of neck rotations away, and yet he was resolutely set in place. It did not move, although the prickling hairs on the back of Brian’s neck assured him that he had its full attention. Voices in his head began to yammer, offering up strategies like frenzied coaches on the sidelines of a football game. A firm, curt version of his own voice advised him:
We’ve got to run. You know that, right? Vault off the bed, down the stairs, grab the keys on your way out the door, get in the car, and drive. Just go. Go. Go. Go.
Brian remained immobile. The voice changed tone, sounding less like himself and more like the therapist he had stopped going to almost five months ago.
This is it. You’ve lost your mind. You’re having a Big One. Lay back down. This is in your head. The sun will come up and Molly will be right there, ready for breakfast. You’ll go and talk to the folks at that Summerstream place down the road, they’ll move you in — neat and clean. Just lay back down.
Then, louder and somehow more distinct than any before it:
Babe, it’s me — never mind the logic or the reason or the science, it’s ME, can’t you feel me? Isn’t this where I always laid? All you have to do is look over, look at me, there I’ll be. I’ll be laying here, Brian, right hand propping my head up, grinning at you like it’s two years ago and all my hair will be back, Brian, just as dark and soft as you remember. Our eyes will meet and you’ll see me, Brian, all my life and warmth pouring back into you. All you have to do is look.
On the last whispering insistence, the shaking began. It started in Brian’s elbows, the support anchors flexing under immense pressure, and spread up his arms into his chest. He spasmed in pure fear, jackknifing backwards, his hands clutching the air in tiny, desperate motions.
Don’t you want to see me?
A subtle ripple of motion in the bed. The shifting of someone
changing position, coiling itself. A snake preparing for the lunge. He could feel the focus being leveled upon him. With herculean effort, he attempted to stop his shaking. He found that behind his terror there was rage, an inarticulate scream gestating over the loss of Molly, not just a dog but the last real link to the life he had with her — she was their dog, not his. He could kill the murderer in cold blood. He could
rip their throat out with his teeth
break their legs
bite their tongue out of their head
and feel nothing at all. But he was still afraid, so very afraid.
Be brave for me, Brian.
Run, Brian! For God’s sake, run!
He couldn’t tell whose voice it was that commanded him to run, whether it was his own or Kelsey’s or some other persona speaking through him. It compelled him all the same, surging energy into his muscles and almost propelling him off the bed. Then he remembered the Horrors.
They were a known quantity — he feared them with absolute clarity. He knew it was a mad impulse, suicidal even, but he would rather face the unknown horror in his bed than the Horrors he knew were in the hall.
Then fight it, then. If you can’t flight, do fight.
JUST LOOK AT ME!
Kelsey’s voice: shrill, the higher notes she hit only when stressed and angry enough to yell. He had only heard it from her once or twice in their marriage. It was a painful sound to hear.
Why is it so important to her — it — that I look?
The thought reverberated like an echo for a half-second, and the shape next to him seemed to diminish ever so slightly, uncertain. Brian smelled blood now, mixing with the earthy scent he had thought was from Molly digging. The rage surged up to his throat again.
With a massive creak of bedsprings, the thing slunk under the covers. Inches from him — separated by no more than a few atoms. When he and Kelsey had slept next to one another, he felt energy passing between them regardless of whether their skin made contact. He felt something akin to that now, a funhouse mirror mocking what few joyous memories he still clung to. The rage grew stronger, masking the fear.
It’s okay to be angry, Brian. You’ll feel better when you look at me.
Now it was making sounds: wet, sucking sounds, like a crying infant. It wanted his attention — needed it, maybe. This realization brought only more fire to his boiling temper: a certainty that he wouldn’t, couldn’t leave the bedroom until this thing was red mush in his fists. If he could defeat it, maybe the Horrors would allow him passage. They might see him as one of them: a killer, bloody and defiant. He would face it, then: his fists and rage versus — what? An unknown? What monster could hope to withstand the accumulated grief and hatred of a man so drowned in loss? He would fight every demon in Hell, and he would win. His hands closed into fists.
Brian, babe, please, all you need to do is look at me. Just look at me! Bring me back, baby, let me live, bring me back, bring me back, just LOOK AT ME!
…Was that out loud?
The fire extinguished. His hands opened and with a sigh that sounded of both relief and anguish, Brian’s entire body unclenched. He could no longer tell whether her voice was in his head or in the air. He was losing his mind.
He took comfort in that realization. Brian was a pragmatist; he had, in his own ways, planned for this day. Tomorrow, when his fevered brain released him from this waking nightmare, he would drive down to Summerstream Care Facility, where Dr. Learey worked. Dr. Learey would smile at him with a combination of approval and sadness, pat him on the shoulder, say “You’re doing the right thing, Brian,” and give him some papers to sign. In a week, some men would come to the house and take the few things Brian told them to put in his new room at Summerstream. That was all fine. The house belonged to the Horrors anyway; it had since Kelsey left, and he had just been squatting there, creeping out for food and sunlight when the occupants weren’t looking. Best he left it to them. Best that
It touched his leg. Meat, cold and soft, grazed his thigh. In a moment of hopeless certainty, Brian knew that he was sane, as sane as he had ever been, and the fantasy of losing his mind slipped out of his grasp. He was still in his bed, a few feet from a murdered dog, and there was still a thing in the bed with him, and now it was touching him.
LOOK AT ME!
He fled then, the happy illusion of insanity shattered and the stark reality breaking his stoicism. A sob tore through his throat, hysteria setting in as he vaulted from the bed and out the door. He could feel the cold eyes of the Horrors appraise him, moonlit faces dripping with hunger and twisted joy. He would have made it if their attention hadn’t distracted him momentarily; the blood from Molly’s body had crept further outward, and he miscalculated his steps. He slipped, falling painfully on his knee. He thought he heard a crack, assumed the worst. No time to stand and run — he scooted backwards, crablike, towards the bathroom.
Oh baby, Brian, I can be whatever you want me to be. I can be her again. I can be the dog, if you want. I just need you to look at me, Brian! Just look at me! It’s the easiest thing in the world.
Look at me, so I can be real, Brian! Look at me!
He heard the bed creak. Low, shuffling sounds from within the darkness of the bedroom. Brian managed to prop himself against the door frame. The fear paralyzed him again, and he sat with his back against the wood, staring wide-eyed at the yawning chasm that was his bedroom. The Horrors were silent: he was avoiding looking at them, but keenly aware of their stillness. Perhaps they were also afraid of the thing in the bedroom. Brian had never considered that the Horrors might be capable of fear in the same way he was.
Still her voice, but distorted, keening, unnatural.
“No!” Brian shouted, tears forcing their way out of raw, red eyes, his heart pattering so fast that he might have worried it would explode, had he been able to think of anything other than Kelsey’s voice.
It slid into the light.
Molly slid into the light.
Molly’s body slid into the light. Her gutted corpse, slick with blood, had been a tragedy to look at when it was still, but now with some force animating her, she was an aberration. He thought at first that something was pushing her, but then saw the broken thighs jerking, like cricket legs, propelling her body forward. Brian couldn’t help himself. He looked into her eyes.
In his memory, they were deep brown, round and cartoonishly expressive. He had stared into them often enough from the dinner table as she begged for scraps. The thing masquerading as his dog had tried to ape those memories, perhaps, because now her eyes were puffed out like something from a Looney Tunes cartoon. The pupils were slightly out of sync with each other, creating a lolling, grotesque effect. Her head was limp to the floor, her gaze re-adjusting with every push of her hind limbs.
She stopped just before the first razor-sharp moonbeam reflecting off a Horror. The two regarded each other.
You looked at me.
It wasn’t Kelsey’s voice at all anymore; that pretense had been dropped. In its place was a voice alien to Brian: low, husky, rank with a predatory glee. Brian averted his eyes reflexively. “Go away. Just go away. Please.”
Look again, Brian. I’m here for you. I’ll be a good dog, Brian. Let’s get back in bed.
He couldn’t help it. He looked again.
It hadn’t moved from its position just past the moonlight. The hideous, malformed eyes regarded him. Brian received the impression that the thing was laughing — no, giggling. It struck him with blinding clarity: the thing wanted him to fear. To hurt.
Look deeper, Brian. That’s right. Don’t look away.
The head twitched and raised up. With bloody, shredded gorms, the dog corpse slurred, “Made you look.”
Brian laughed, high and hysterically. The thing that was Molly made a pig-like grunting noise that he assumed was also laughter. It really would have been much easier if he had simply lost his mind, Brian reflected.
The horrible broken cricket-legs raised an inch, bracing for the lunge. Brian was drained, the energy pouring out of him at an alarming rate. He felt like he could pass out at any minute, and yet that was somehow the more comforting option — if the thing took him while he was conscious…
The Horrors were silent, impassive, brooding.
“So,” Brian murmured dimly, distantly. “What are you?”
The eyes lolled madly. The voice was both inside Brian’s head and, profanely, coming from the mouth of the dog. “Who cares? You’ve fed me now, Brian, so I’m here to stay. I’m home. You looked at me and now I’m with you forever. I’ll be a real good dog — or wife! You can have it any way you choose, Brian, and I’m such a pal that I don’t need much in return — I’ll feed on your hurt, Brian. All those sleepless nights — five course meals! We’ll share them. We’re bound together now.”
There was a pause. Molly’s corpse looked with gleeful anticipation at Brian. Then, with a sudden release like a rubber band snapping:
Brian’s voice was clear, sharp, indignant. The dog corpse diminished ever so slightly; it seemed uncertain. Brian pushed himself into a higher position, staring back intently at the creature.
It tried to start again.
“I will feed on your fear, Brian. You’ve bonded yourself —”
“I heard you the first time,” Brian snapped, leaning into the statement. “You’re just a parasite, is that it? You’re here because I’m in pain, you’re going to feed on it. That’s the twist?”
The dog corpse seemed to retreat into the darkness. “Fear me,” it insisted. “I’ll make you fear me!”
“No, you won’t!” Brian roared, anger surging back like fuel into an engine. His hands clenched. “You think a goddamn gremlin in the night, a fucking ghoul, that’s going to scare me?”
“FEAR ME!” It insisted again, pleading now.
His rage was inarticulate; an elephantine bellow erupting from the depths of his chest. He swung himself forward, rose on uncertain knees. “I’ve seen death! I’ve held its hand and looked it in the eye — and kept that up for months! You creep in here like a leech, trying to suck the hurt out of me — go ahead. Feast on it. But if you think for a single goddamn minute that I’ll be scared of you, that I’d allow anything to hurt me like losing my wife did, you’ll starve to death on my scorn. You’re nothing.”
It screeched at him, a wounded wild animal, frenzied and desperate. The cricket-legs launched the tortured corpse forward in a wild surge. The thrust carried it into the first moonbeam. The Horrors had been waiting for it.
Where moonlight hit the dog corpse, it seemed to enter like a steel knife, rending flesh and piercing deep. The creature mewled in agony. Brian could only watch, captivated, as the moonlight seemed to shift, driving more and more beams of light into Molly’s body. Its wailing reached a crescendo, then, in a final sob, it ended. The creature was dead.
Brian took a shaky step forward, eyes on one of the Horrors nearest to him. This one held the image of he and Kelsey at a lake somewhere, both of their faces broad and happy. The Horror’s eyes observed him dispassionately. His gaze passed to the next one; it held a central position and showed the two in their wedding attire. What had seemed a feral predator’s grimace now shone with a wild joy. Moonlight was still angling from it onto Molly’s body.
Brian realized that he was now standing in the center of the moonbeams — the middle of the hallway. The attention of every Horror — perhaps, he reflected, no longer the right word — was on him. For the first time in as long as he could remember, he felt no fear from them.
His leg wasn’t as damaged as he had thought; it was painful, and he had a pronounced limp, but he could move. The moonlight was dimming; it was almost morning. Brian looked down at Molly’s body. She had, he supposed, played her own role in keeping him safe. As gently as he could, he rearranged her legs and face to afford her some dignity until he could dig her a grave. He stood again for a moment, watching the moonlight fade away. In a few minutes, it would be bright enough to see the whole house.
He limped into the bedroom. There was still a shape under the sheets, but it was still and mute, and he felt no energy coming from it. Brian walked to the bed and sat. He pulled the edge of the sheets back.
She looked peaceful now, relaxed, with full, luxuriant hair, and Brian didn’t know or care whether it was real or the wig that the mortician had offered, with sad and understanding eyes, to sew gently onto her scalp so that she would have some dignity in death. Her eyes were closed, and the corner of her mouth hinted at one of those crooked smiles Brian had fallen in love with. She smelled less of dirt and more like fresh loam, sweet and promising. Like Molly, she had been granted some final peace. She was not a corpse. She was Kelsey, dead in their bed beside him.
Brian laid down. The bed was still slightly warm. He rolled onto his side, head resting on his elbow so that he could study her face once more. A tremendous calm overcame him, and Brian smiled. He would not be afraid to pass the Horrors in the morning.
Brian fell asleep and did not wake again for a long time.