The nightmare started to leak into my days. At first, it was quiet and slow like the daddy long leg spider spindling its web in the corner of the ceiling. Then, with a few seconds between each one, the water droplets dripped from the faucet to the sink. It rang the same flat, dead note. It echoed in the apartment. And the wallpaper had turned more yellow with every drop. No, not yellow. Sickly and jaundiced. Like a dying canary with its feathers falling off.
There was a tear, too. A loose sliver flapped back and forth as the wind blew in from an opened window. It reminded of me the way that fatty, loose, and wrinkled skin jiggled within an old woman’s armpit. The flap of the wallpaper hid something. It looked like a head. No eyes. No mouth. No nose. Just the veiled impression of a head. But before I could get a good look, I was torn from the mystery by the screech of my alarm clock.
I went into the kitchen to find that yesterday’s delivery of bread had gone foul. The nightmare ate it from the inside out and left nothing but black crumbs for me to scrounge from the floor. When I opened the fridge door, an odor assaulted my nostrils. All the beverages had gone sour. The eggs cracked. The greens had browned and withered. With a sigh of defeat, I closed the fridge door., I’d have to buy new groceries.
But that would mean leaving this apartment. Going outside.
Outside. Out into the world, with all of its chaos. That was where the nightmare wanted me to go. But I wasn’t ready. No, not yet. I couldn’t just go out my front door. It wasn’t that easy. Going outside involved preparation, and even thinking about the process of readying myself made my head throb. My chest began to ache. It was as though all the air had been squeezed out of my lungs. I sat in the kitchen, motionless. Only listening to the noise of eight spindling legs as they worked ad nauseum towards some unforeseen goal.
The spider had stretched its web across the ceiling. The light danced atop with its long, pale fingers plucking the strings. In an odd way I had to marvel at its beauty as it glimmered. It sang with the stifled buzzes of insects; mummified like victims awaiting their demise in saran wrap. I could sense their suffocation as the air was being squeezed from their lungs. Not unlike my own Their frantic movements halted to an abrupt end as the spider reeled them closer. A silent panic draped the walls, and its deathly yellow tinge plastered all its surroundings with a hue darker than congealed mustard.
Like the fading bathroom light, which glowed a murky gold that shimmered weakly now and then, my reflection in the mirror was now a featureless black shape. Cold drops traced over my closed eyelids, the bridge of my nose, my lips, my chin, and cheeks. A molar was loose in my mouth. The roots lazily held onto it as I flicked it with the tip of my tongue. But the rest were firm and pearly white. There was no pain. Only the dread of unlocking the front door. It crushed my stomach with its weight.
How did it all start? How did it get to this? There was once a time in my life when I did not feel this. This unending sickness. This awful sense of foreboding. There was a time when the nightmares confined themselves to my sleep. Other times I never dreamt at all. Back in those innocent days I even had a job. A dull, dead end office job. With my own cubicle. White. Square. I was one of a hundred dull, white-collared office drones in cubicles. Faceless. Uniformed. Synchronized. That was what I remembered from the old days.
I sat there looking at papers stacked in rows that piled up so high they seemed to ramble into infinity. My neck would ache from looking up. Their sheer height and magnitude bore the intimidating mark of the frieze of Roman columns. I couldn’t help but think of arched ceilings, with the carved faces of animals and mythical gods tangled in vines. It reminded you of how small you really were. Like an ant. An ant that could easily be squished under the toe of one those carved gods. But, in my cubicle I was not staring at beautiful art. Instead, I gazed at endless, nauseating streams of blinding, bright whiteness. The fluorescent lights above me squeezed my irises to the size of a grain. The paperwork towered over me. It quivered when I touched it, threatening to crumble into a million pieces. When the electric fan above blew my way one piece lingered on the edge. It inched its way over and came down like a single feather, landing right in front of me.
The page was blank, and I had placed my coffee mug on top of it. Then, suddenly, I couldn’t lift the pen. I couldn’t write. All I could do was shift in the chair. My left leg shook violently. Those fluorescent lights grew brighter and brighter. Their heat licked the back of my neck. I was overwhelmed in this vast sea of cubicles. Lost among its faceless crowd where everyone ate the same sandwich and salad. Where we all dreamed the same dreams. And where each and every one of us had monosyllabic names and identical haircuts.
I dropped the pen and left the desk. Within the blink of an eye, I found myself outside; dangling my legs over the ledge of the 49th floor of the building. The wind taunted me with a vicious fury. The city and its people down below were smaller than ants. I leaned against the building. Most people would tremble at such great heights. But I just watched the birds fly by and disappear into the clouds as they rolled along the blue sky; like white caps crashing against jagged rocks on a beach.
I was ready to leap. Ready to swim into the great unknown and, finally, wake up. But I did not. Instead, I returned to my desk, once again. My coffee mug had a little crack at the bottom, allowing it to bleed on to the blank page. It left a curious a mark. It was as though it resembled the shape of a head. A faceless thing whose invisible eyes followed me. Oh yes, I crumpled up that sheet of paper and disposed of it. But its presence remained. As I sat at the desk, rolling the pen between my fingers, its shadow loomed over me, breathing at the back of my neck; prickling its skin and hair like nettles.
The paperwork kept piling higher and higher, causing those Roman columns to shake. And they began to sway back and forth unsteadily. Under its pressure the desk’s joints creaked and quaked. My shoulders ached and felt worn under the faceless thing’s stare. Now the light above me was so bright that the ink from my pen seemed to vanish from the white paper. When the pen dropped from my trembling hand to the floor the colonnade collapsed. Its destruction was drowned out by a cacophony of shuffling papers, ringing phones, and the mocking chatter of the clock ticking on the wall. I ran straight down the hallway, bolted through the emergency door, and flew down 49 flights of stairs.
For eight months I simply could not return to that cubicle. I imagined that it was now empty. Perhaps only a few remnants of my work held on stubbornly, like the ruins of Rome with its weather-beaten walls and columns. I hadn’t moved back and hadn’t stepped forward. I just sat here, affixed to this apartment with an unexplainable fear that squeezed my lungs and endlessly throbbed in my heart. If I stayed here nothing could touch me. It was safe in this little studio, for a short time. But now I could not avert my gaze as the nightmare began to crawl out from the walls, flickering the lights and stealing my food inside out.
But still, I could not go outside. Not today. The sky looked too yellow. Too sick. Perhaps tomorrow would be better. The outside air wasn’t fit to breath today. Something was afoul; poisonous. I could taste it in my mouth. It was like chewing on cotton balls that had been dipped in stale mustard. Nothing could wash it off. No milk, no vodka. Absolutely nothing could get rid of that taste. It lingered on the tongue, and teasingly flicked at one of my teeth as it dangled off its nerve strings.
I rubbed my tongue with a toothbrush, and kept rubbing until its white coat had turned red. I winced as I bathed it in hot water. But the taste lingered. It hung upon the tip of my tongue.
Like a horrible itch.
A glorious red ring with a yellow gem.
I tried to squeeze it between my thumb and forefinger. Tears welled up. The stinging pain spread from the tip of the tongue to my entire anatomy. Still, it remained, shining brightly at me like the ugly sun smirking behind clouds of smog. The wind continued to blow away at the flap in the wallpaper as it leaked in through the window. I could sense the thing behind it, affixing me in its gaze. And as I stared back, I froze in place. My mouth lay agape as the impossible unfolded around me. It grew a lipless smile and laughed. The sound was flat and dissonant, like the continuous drops of water leaking out of that damned loose faucet, slithering down the sink’s throat. That same rusted throat that I had gagged and spat into, emptying blood and yellow air from out of my stomach. I felt as though all the blood had been drained from my face. With trepidation, I looked up at the dirty mirror above the sink. Staring back at me was nothing but a husk; a ghost of my former self.
But looking closer, I saw a change. A change that trudged along at a lethargic, agonizing pace. It started with the whites of my eyes. They were yellow. Yellow. And the pupils were as solid black and as vapid as the sinkhole. My teeth, too, were ajar. As if I hadn’t brushed in weeks, to the point where a film of plaque had encrusted the surface and lodged between the teeth.
The tooth at the back could no longer sit still. I tapped it once again with the tip of my tongue, feeling its jagged edge scratch at the yellow sore. And then it dropped and bounced around in my mouth. In sheer revulsion I spat it out. The blood dotted a trail to the sinkhole, where it sat dangerously close. I traced over the other teeth, feeling them start to move in their place. Soon, one after another they cracked and fell, and the little red spots trailed and danced along the sink with them. All that remained were a few teeth stubbornly clinging to the front.
You look so ugly. I remembered those words. A colleague had said them to me once during lunch.
“And you look like smeared shit,” I shot back. We sat in the corner of the cafeteria hunched over our sandwiches and coffee. That lipless, smiling joker told me to calm down. They claimed that they did not mean it. Oh, how the others laughed. I couldn’t look any of them in the face.
Weren’t we supposed to be friends? Friends who winked and smiled as they buried knives into your guts and watched your insides spill out on to the floor. Friends who feigned sympathy as they picked up your organs and tried to put them back; telling you that they were just kidding. All wounds heal. But this scar lay hidden under the clothes. I was the joke friends liked to tell.
When lunch ended everyone returned to the cubicles. Everyone but me. I had snuck away for a quick stop the restroom. It was then that I started to feel the tooth move. I flicked it with my tongue. Flick. Flick.
As all of this came to me, I couldn’t even stand to look my reflection in the eye. At least, not without wanting to destroy it until every remaining and the shard of glass lay shattered into the sink. The thing behind the wallpaper smiled wider, flashing a row of straight white teeth held together in browning gums. Its deep chuckle resonated throughout the apartment. Its sound grated my skin and pinched my nerves. With every last ounce of my dwindling strength, I clenched my fists.
Don’t laugh at me.
I pushed away the dangling piece of wallpaper and came face to face with it. Straight white teeth. Wide white eyes. Look how it mocked me. Sneered at me. What did it want from me? Why had it intruded into my world?
“Go back! Look at everything you’ve taken from me. Please, just let me have this day!”
It said nothing to me. It only widened its smile; stretching across the wall and ripping a new branch of lines through the wallpaper. The wood snapped and cracked. The nails and joints creaked inside. The wall heaved in and out like someone dying from laughter; suffocating as it tried to capture gulps of air.
I took the fluttering piece and traveled along the wall, crushing it in my clenched fist. It felt so strange in my hand. It was warm and soft, like dry human skin. Now the thing’s smile looked strained, as though it were trying to endure some hidden anguish. In all its pride, it could not let me hear its soft squeaks of pain. But the more I ripped away, the more I dug my fingers into its soft tissue, the more it clenched its teeth. And as I squeezed tighter and tighter, it began to bleed under my fingernails. Now its eyes welled up with tears.
Nowhere inside me had an ounce of pity for it. I felt nothing. There was nothing left within me but seething contempt. I tore away at every inch of its skin. From one end to the other I took it apart until there was nothing left. Nothing but its fragile bones. Its skin littered the floor and spotted the carpet with its blood. Cockroaches crawled in and out of its sockets, and termites nibbled at the wood in its final, dying breaths. Then, just as I began to turn away, I noticed what lay at the center. Stuck between its ribs was a dead canary. The bird’s color had paled to gray. Its lifeless body had been eaten from the inside out, and its poor, remaining insides had shriveled to crumbs.
I cooled myself with a handful of freezing water from the faucet. When I opened my eyes i no longer looked back at a featureless black shape. My teeth were intact. The bubble on my tongue had popped and oozed its yellow pus. Its taste was sour like mustard churning in expired milk.
The faucet still leaked.
I forgot to properly wash my hands. My fingernails were caked with blood and grime. I figured that I could do it later. Perhaps sometime before I go grocery shopping. You see, I could do everything. Later. But right now, all I wanted was sleep.
Published in Issue 4, Four Million Stories, 2012.