We both brought half the seed of a problem into the relationship. When the two halves met, the seed had no choice but to grow. It took root in each of our minds separately then merged into a single growth between us, pushing us apart, our timber creaking, to make room for the giant it planned to become. We blamed the dog for a long time.
The dog got lazier. I’d infected him with my depressive-anxiety. The dog and I manifested our symptoms the same way. We stayed in our beds. We were silent; I don’t know whether he would have spoken to anyone if he could have. I recognized the vacancy behind his eyes from the mirror I looked into every morning. I recognized it before I even saw it, in his eyes or in mine. In that place the mind is emptier than a vacuum. It doesn’t have the force to suck thoughts in to crush them infinitesimally. It had neither content nor force. I barely remember living there, because memories need to be tied to words, like balloons to weights, to be retained. There were no words in my head. Any memory that may’ve found something with which to fill itself just drifted off, empty.
As the summer melted into a sunny fall the nightmares started coming for me during the day. I began to fall asleep suddenly, unwillingly, pulled by dreams I didn’t want. Nightmares slid long fingers into my conscious mind and pulled me down into their myriad darkness, like long seaweed catching an anchor. I woke, angry, angry like the man shaking me.
“Don’t fucking interrupt me.”
I said “yes.”
I said “I’m sorry.”‘
I said “I didn’t mean to.”
I tried to sit upright. I held a novel open on my thighs. So many novels, those long afternoons. But the long pale cold fingers reached around my mind, dug their nails into the gray matter between my ears, worked my brain like dough, and took me again. They call it sleep paralysis. He didn’t like to hear me talk about these things, he thought I was asking him to solve a problem and proving his impotence by making him admit to not knowing how. I just needed to talk, to know another person knew what I was fighting.
I slipped into nightmares before I was even asleep. I laid in bed staring at the hand I couldn’t move and yelled his name, I screamed for help but heard no voice come out. Nightmares. He couldn’t hear me. A sleeping girl cannot cry for help any more than she can raise her hand. He saw those moments as symptomatic of an illness he didn’t want in his lover. He didn’t like me to talk about them, he thought I was sick and he couldn’t fix me.
I told him about my dreams, about the faces in the windows, about the presence I felt standing over me, about the Danger walking through our rooms. The distance between us just pushed further.
The nightmares got worse.
I came home late one night to an apartment devoid of light. A velvety, deep blackness pushed out at me when I opened the door. I steeled myself to walk inside, mentally berating my lover for leaving the apartment dark despite my regular requests that he leave a light on for me. I stepped into the room and the door swung shut behind me. The darkness pressed against me on every side, lapped at my vision. I reached behind me to flip the light but couldn’t feel the wall. I spun back a few steps, searching for the light switch or the door knob, anything to break the darkness. My foot crunched through something on the floor with a sound like a twig snapping, but I still couldn’t find the door. I spun again, becoming disoriented in the blackness. I called out but my voice sank into the dark. I tried to retrace my steps blindly. My body slammed against something tall, solid, rough. Is that tree bark? In my apartment? The ground gave a little beneath my feet, less like linoleum than dirt. I pushed away from the rough column I’d collided with and spun again, my eyes straining to make out shapes against the rich black surrounding me. The fear blossomed inside me, rising through me, I fought to slow my breath. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. There – what was that? It looked like, for a moment, a pair of pale grey eyes opened a few feet ahead of me, then closed. I formed words, “Who’s there?” but no sound came out. The grey eyes opened again, a foot in front of my own, and a cold hand wrapped around my wrist –
Overcast mornings left fog clinging to the windows. I lived in fear of the nightmares. I spoke less and less. My silence was my only weapon against the fear. He got angrier. I think he felt helpless.
“You have to tell me what’s wrong. Why are you so miserable? It’s every day now. I can’t live around this.”
“I don’t know. I’m sure it’ll get better. I’m just tired I guess.”
I may have dreamed those conversations. Maybe I dreamed the fights too. Some of it must have happened. Something made him leave. His shouts bounced around in my head for a long time after he moved out.
“You’re empty. You’re silent. You’re looking at things that aren’t here. I can’t live with you while you vanish.”
I left the apartment less and less. The nightmare fog oozed out of my dreams into my waking life. The barrier between the two dissolved in the mist.
I started sleeping through my days. I became nocturnal. The setting of my nightmares, the men attacking, the fear and Danger, was always night; I had to stay awake then to make sure they didn’t become real. One night I returned from the grocery around two am, my eyes still reeling from the abrupt shift away from supermarket fluorescents to the inky black streets. My dog followed me inside, a faithful and trustworthy shadow. I flipped the kitchen light on and swung open the refrigerator door and my skin shifted its’ position on my bones. Had I just turned that light on a moment ago? I must have; it only then kicked into a steady emission of watts. That bulb always took a moment to flicker into full illumination. So it must have been off when I got in. My lungs grabbed desperately for more air. I always left that light on when I went out. I wouldn’t be able to walk through a dark kitchen to get out the door. The refrigerator kept humming behind me. I stood motionless for what felt like a long time before my lungs could accept air deeply and slowly. I’m sure I forgot, I thought. I must have turned the light off before I left and then forgotten about it.
The fear made me count the knives in the kitchen drawer while I made tea.
I fell asleep around eight that morning, and the things I saw while I slept blurred the memory of that strange fear I felt in the kitchen. The dog was whining when I woke. I pushed the night before out of my head to take him around the block. We came to the park where I’d spent so many mornings with the man who left, the dog running back and forth between us. It looked like a strange new place against the setting sun. I pulled the dog past the park entrance when he tried to turn in, and we went back home. I didn’t see anyone I knew on the short excursion out. My silence had been much easier to maintain since he left. I wished the fear had left and he had stayed. Clouds gathered overhead, pulling dark tendrils from across the horizon. When I got inside I fed the dog, and went to the sink to fill his dish with water. The kitchen light was on, the way I’d left it. I put some water on to boil for tea and reached into the cupboard without looking. My hand grabbed air where my mug usually was. I turned to look and threw open the cupboard doors, but my mug wasn’t there. I told myself to calm down, forcing deep breaths to push back the adrenaline rising behind my tongue. I made myself move slowly, telling myself I had probably left it in the sink. When I turned to check the sink my eyes fell on the kitchen table. There. It sat there, way over there, sparkling clean – so I hadn’t left it there accidentally – and squarely centered.
I crossed the kitchen with cautious steps and stared at the mug for a several seconds, before I snatched it up, almost recklessly, as if committing myself to some dangerous proposition. The dog looked up at me from his food bowl. I smeared on a smile for him and spoke out loud,
“Don’t worry. Everything’s fine.”
As always, the dog fell victim to my anxiety.
I slept less and less and my world clouded over. I started wearing glasses to help my tired eyes focus.
These events became increasingly regular, things in my apartment moving around when I left. I got used to coming home and finding my things obviously rearranged. The fear grow every time it happened. I started taking the dog with me every time I left. I was so afraid one day I’d find his body rearranged when I got home. After a couple months I called the man who left. I couldn’t keep this bizarre circumstance to myself any longer.
“I need you to come over. I come home and things in my house are different. I think somebody’s breaking in when I’m gone, trying to scare me.”
“Because you need help being scared.”
“I’m serious. Someone has been in my apartment.”
“Well did they steal anything?”
“Well, no, it… it started with the kitchen light. I left it on when I left and when I got back it was off. And other things. My dishes are in different places, or the bed is made when I left it messy, or – ”
“Ok ok. I’ll come by. But I wouldn’t be complaining if somebody was making my bed while I was away.”
“It’s not like I have a servant. Somebody has been in my apartment. I’m scared. What if he comes back while I’m -”
“Hey. I told you I’ll come by. I’ll be there later tonight.”
“Fine. Thank you.”
So he came over. I went with the dog to meet him at the park and we walked together back to the house. I was ready to find the usual changes when we walked in. I looked for my laptop to be open to a page I’d never been to, or a book I wasn’t reading to be open on my bed, or the dog’s food bowl to be full instead of empty, or the lamp to be on the wrong side of the bed, but the apartment was exactly how I left it. I ran from room to room looking evidence, and returned to find my ex’s eyebrows raised in a condescending smirk.
“Nothing. Maybe it’s over….”
“Maybe your boogeyman heard I was coming and left town.”
He stayed for a thoroughly uneventful week and the fog seemed to clear. Before he left he sat me down at the kitchen table for a serious talk. He told me he thinks I’m not well, that I should talk to someone, a doctor. I walked him to the door when he left. I closed the door with a deep sigh and walked back to the kitchen, but froze when I got close to the table we had just left. The empty mugs we’d left on the table were filled with steaming tea again. I’d been away from this table for maybe ten minutes while I said goodbye at the door, but here was fresh, hot tea on the table. I didn’t go back into the kitchen that night. I got my hyperventilation under control after a few minutes of staring at the table then walked to my bedroom with the dog and locked the door. I didn’t think of sleep that night, but I dared not call the man who had just left again, or anyone else. I knew now that this was happening, now when I left a room. This meant someone else was in my apartment with me.
Deep breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.
He was there when I turned from the stove. I felt Him behind me before I saw Him. I put the teapot down on the burner and turned to face Him with a slow sigh. He looked exactly like the man in my nightmares, and I wasn’t surprised to see Him there.
“It’s been me,” he said flatly. “I’ve been in your apartment for months now, but you didn’t see me.”
“I know,” I pushed the words out around the lump on the back of my throat.
“Of course you did. Come sit with me.”
The length of the kitchen oscillated as I made my way toward the table. I heard my dog whining and the teapot whistling but felt powerless to turn back to either. The wood chair scraped loudly against the linoleum floor. I sat heavily.
“Why aren’t I afraid of you?”
“You knew I would come. Did you think dreams aren’t real?”
His words made more sense than they should have; they clicked into place in my head like cogs into a machine.
“I guess I did. Why did I think that…” I looked down from his empty grey eyes and stared into the grain of my wood table. The complexity of its design had never seemed as neat, as appropriate as it did then.
The teapot had been boiling steadily for some time now, though I stopped hearing it’s whistle when I sat down. Steam poured onto the kitchen floor and filled the room slowly. It lapped over my legs and circled my waist, and was surrounding the edges of the table. It kept rising.
I woke in a heavily damp forest with the Nightmare Man’s words booming from the trees.
“Trees don’t dream. Trees have bark and the bark keeps them safe.”
I raised my left arm in front of my eyes and saw the same woodgrain of my table stretching out under my skin.
“Trees don’t dream. Trees just grow and grow.”
I looked down from my height and saw the dog curled up where my bark met the grass below.