24 May Claustrophobia
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"Claustrophobia"Written by Moonlit_Cove
Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
Things have simply not been the same for Dalton Whitworth since the carriage accident. Colors are not as vivid – music not nearly as pleasurable. Every meal he consumes is bland and leaves an unsavory aftertaste. Days filled with sunlight are no longer warm, enjoyable experiences. On the contrary – he finds the light to be oppressive, causing his eyes, head and neck to be in a constant state of discomfort and torment.
Dalton had previously enjoyed these simple pleasures in his life – even as recently as last month – until the accident that took away his beloved Rachel. Now he feels as if he spends all his effort avoiding everything. He dreads having to eat yet another tasteless dinner. He stays indoors as much as possible, only daring to venture out long enough to acquire the necessities for survival. He goes out of his way to avoid human contact. Even though his circle of acquaintances showed great care and sympathy for him upon the loss of his wife, he would much prefer to be left alone now.
If, by chance, he did encounter a familiar face in public he knew the conversation would invariably turn toward his tragic experience, forcing him to relive the nightmare. He would again see in his mind the spooked horse on its hind legs – the carriage, jolting harshly – Rachel letting out the briefest of screams as she is thrown from her seated position atop the open-air coach – the cobblestone pavement – the blood pooling under her lifeless form – his helpless inability to alter the outcome. Dalton cannot bear these images any longer, and he is frightened of closing his eyes for fear of being accosted once again by these horrific visions.
He passes the days in his apartment reading by dim gaslight anything he can get his hands on – novels, textbooks, newspapers and other periodicals, packaging for common household products – anything that will help him to escape. When he is not reading, he extinguishes the gaslight and sits in his armchair near the only window in his tiny quarters. He pulls back the heavy, dense curtain just enough for one eye to ingest the world outside. He is careful not to allow an overabundance of sunlight into the dark room. People outside go about their happy lives, content and oblivious to the dark matters that one who has suffered a loss must endure.
On one particular morning when Dalton awoke, he was immediately confronted with an odd sensation. Something wasn’t quite right. He was in the habit of standing at the foot of his bed every morning and facing the mirror as he dressed. He did so this day as well, but with the exception that the image being reflected did not appear as it had on other days. He wasn’t able to pinpoint its inaccuracy until he attempted to button his jacket – the same jacket he wore most days. This day, the button second from the top was no longer visible in his reflection. This had never been the case before, and Dalton was uncertain of how such a discrepancy might have occurred.
Have I grown shorter overnight? Has the mirror been raised on the wall? Nonsense! These options were impossible!
All throughout the day as Dalton made his way around the apartment his rhythm seemed to be off. After years of living in the same rooms, amongst the same unmoved furnishings, one develops a sense of rhythm to their comings and goings – eight steps to the armchair – five more to the front door – a slight inward turn of the left foot while entering the bedroom, lest one’s toe be stubbed on the protruding dresser again. These are all subconscious, of course. There is no actual counting or calculation involved, but the human mind takes note of these nuances internally and builds its own map of the landscape. Movements are subliminally adjusted to achieve the utmost efficiency, to the point where it is possible to flawlessly navigate the surroundings even in complete darkness.
Dalton was not in complete darkness, and yet he continued to stumble throughout the day. The sides of his shoes bumped corners of walls. He approached the bookshelf from his armchair in seven steps instead of eight. His top hat grazed the overhead gas lamp in the main hallway. At dinner he slid his chair out from under the table, to the point that it was touching the wall, and yet he was still barely able to squeeze himself between the table and chair in order to sit for his meal. Later that night after he finished his reading in the dim light, he reached up to extinguish the lamp and clumsily jammed his finger against the brass fixture. It hadn’t been so close last night, he thought while rubbing the pain away.
Sleep did not come easily that night. Dalton tossed and turned in a feverish heat of sounds and images in his mind – the horse neighing loudly as it bolted away – Rachel helplessly tumbling from the side of the accelerating carriage – Dalton lying next to her on the ground, calling her name, trying to rouse her, fighting his tears.
The following morning Dalton noted his red eyes and the dark circles underneath them as he dressed in the mirror. However, this was not the only startling revelation. As he buttoned his coat, he also noticed that the top button was no longer visible in the viewing pane. A rush of adrenaline flowed through his body, leaving him with a brief pain in his chest and a sweat beginning to emerge on his brow. He took a step backward, but it was not enough to bring the button into view. One more step backward and he stumbled against the foot rail of his bed. This can’t be! Am I going mad? he pondered. He became lightheaded and was overwhelmed with the urge to sit. He made his way down the hall to the armchair and fell into its velvety comfort. After a time of rest and catching his bearings, Dalton proceeded to the bookshelf (he could have sworn it only took six steps this time!) to peruse for an item to read. Once he selected his book, he settled into the chair once more to immerse himself in a world far from his own.
Dalton awoke abruptly. He had no idea how long he had slumbered in his reading chair. The remaining light in the apartment was dim, and one quick glance behind the thick curtain revealed a deep indigo dusk sky. To his astonishment, Dalton realized that he’d passed the bulk of the daylight hours unconscious. He had even forgotten that he had been reading until he found the book face-down on the floor next to the armchair. He arose from the chair and stumbled a bit, still unstable from his lengthy nap. Upon making his way to the bedroom, he nearly ran full-steam into the wall at the end of the hallway. He had reached the end a full three paces sooner than before.
Suddenly, he felt fully awake. His annoyance at this scenario having grown to its peak, he decided to investigate further – to prove once and for all that he wasn’t going completely stark raving mad. He retrieved a broomstick and laid it on the hallway floor with its end touching the wall. He marked the other end with his finger pressed tightly against the floor and then slid the stick forward until it aligned with his marking finger. Repeating this process all down the corridor, he determined that it took six full lengths of the broomstick with a remaining space of about ten inches (that last portion he estimated in his mind) to reach the front door. He noted this dimension on the inside cover of the book he’d picked up off the floor, and vowed to measure again soon.
Before going to bed that evening, Dalton paused to have a look at his reflection in the mirror once more. He stood with the back of his calves touching the footboard of the bed. He almost broke down into tears when he saw the sickly man in the reflection – a shadow of the man he was before losing Rachel. Aside from his startling visage he also took note of the truncated image. Now, his face was only visible down to the chin – no neckline, no buttons on his coat. He reached his arms out before him and was able to touch the wall with his fingertips – something never before possible as the wall had always been a good seven feet away from the foot of the bed. Defeated, he hung his head, removed his outer clothing and crawled into bed, hoping to sleep indefinitely – not minding if he never awoke again.
But awaken he did. He had slept soundly all night long, only stirring momentarily when thoughts of the accident attempted to encroach on his dreams. It was morning light now, and the first thing that Dalton noticed was something pressing against his bare foot. Still in a fog, he bent his already-stiff neck downward to catch a glimpse of what it was that had come into contact with him. A swell of panic and fear overtook him when he determined that it was the wall with the mirror on it – pressed all the way up against the foot rail of his bed. Dalton jolted his neck the opposite way to see the space behind the headboard. It was still snugly against the opposing wall. His heart raced with dread at this unexplainable event. His mind did not know how to process this information. He exited the bed on the left side and squeezed past the pressing walls and through the doorway into the hall. After retrieving the measuring broomstick, he employed it to measure the hallway a second time. His hands shook, but he was careful to line up the stick accurately at each interval. Upon reaching the front door, he nearly fainted to find that he’d only counted four and a half lengths of the stick.
“What is happening to me?” he cried out, to no one as he collapsed onto the floor. He sobbed openly. Not only because of the strange predicament, but also for his current condition, and for Rachel, who had brought such peace and contentment to his life just a month prior. Oh, how things could change so quickly. After regaining his composure, Dalton was overwhelmed with the desire to flee – to get out of that oppressive apartment, even if only temporarily. As much as the idea frightened him, he decided to pass the daylight hours outdoors. Where exactly he would go, he did not yet know. He picked himself up off the floor, found his hat and overcoat, and made his way to the front door, noting how it took fewer steps to approach it.
Dalton walked along the cobblestone path through town. He stared at the ground as he walked, hoping that no one would try to speak to him or even make eye contact. No one did. Turning the corner near a leather tanning shop, he had to divert his path as the store owner came bursting from the front door of the shop and threw a bucket of wastewater into the street, nearly wetting Dalton’s shoes. How completely rude and insensitive, Dalton thought, though he did not speak to the man. He continued on toward an area free of businesses, buildings, and the commotion of life – a park-like area with benches, a pond, and trees displaying their colorful autumn foliage. Dalton sat on the nearest park bench upon entering the clearing. It was relatively calm and peaceful since it was mid-morning on a weekday. The only other patrons were a mother feeding ducks in the pond with her toddler son, an elderly gentleman sitting on a bench opposite Dalton reading a newspaper, and the occasional passerby, on their way to more important things.
Dalton sat and observed until he felt his eyelids getting heavy. The breeze and the silence lulled him. The cloud cover was a thick grey blanket preventing any harsh sunlight, much to Dalton’s delight. Even so, it was unseasonably warm which only furthered his sleepiness. As he was on the verge of crossing the threshold into dream territory, he saw a woman in a pink dress pass by in front of him. He was startled and followed her with his eyes as she approached the pond. Jolting to full alertness, Dalton’s heart began to pound as his mind guided him toward this inevitable thought: My God, she looks just like Rachel! He could feel his pulse throbbing in his neck. He stood, and slowly approached the woman from behind. When he was standing just adjacent to her, he mustered the courage to speak.
“Rachel?” he asked in almost a whisper, his voice weak and quivering.
The woman turned and looked him directly in the eye.
It’s her! By God, it’s her! he thought.
“Dalton!” Her voice was filled with relief and longing, as if the wife of a military man being reunited with her husband after long months apart.
They immediately embraced. Rachel’s head pressed tightly into Dalton’s shoulder. They both wept. Dalton repressed the confusion in his mind of how this could be possible. It didn’t matter to him. His precious wife had returned to him and he wanted to revel in that fact, plausibility be damned!
The longer the embrace lingered, the more Dalton noticed the heaviness of Rachel leaning on him – the slackness of her body. Soon it felt to Dalton as if he were supporting her entire weight. She had gone completely limp in his arms. Still holding the embrace, they collapsed to the ground together, Dalton attempting to ease his wife’s descent. It wasn’t until they reached the ground that her head fell away from his shoulder revealing the truth. Dalton recoiled in horror upon seeing the decaying face of his once-lovely bride. Her eye sockets were sunken and deep, her jaw slacked open to an impossibly wide angle. Her complexion was grey and flecked with dry, cracked areas. Her hair, previously beautiful and one of Dalton’s favorite features about her, was now thin and stringy, matted to the shape of her head.
Rachel’s lifeless body fell away onto the stone walkway as Dalton pulled his arms away in disgust. He felt the pain of losing her all over again – fresh as the day it first happened.
Dalton jolted awake to find himself still sitting on the park bench. He nervously looked around to see if anyone had noticed his startled awakening. He hoped he had not screamed out in his sleep. He was relieved to find that there was no one around. The woman with her young boy – gone. The old man reading the paper – gone. The sky was now a much darker shade of grey. The clouds had thickened to the point that it appeared it may rain at any moment. How long had he been sitting there? What felt like minutes could possibly have been hours. As Dalton stood to make his way back to his apartment, the first raindrops began to fall.
He was thoroughly soaked as he stood in front of his apartment door and fumbled with the key. In his haste, he dropped it into a puddle then bent over to retrieve it. Once he finally managed the lock, he pushed the door open, but was dumbfounded when it hit a hard object after having only opened up a third of the way. He backed the door up a few inches and pushed again with the same result. Dalton turned sideways and stuck his head and right shoulder into the dark foyer in an attempt to observe the obstruction. Pressed up firmly against the door was his favorite velvety armchair.
“This is madness!” he said aloud, still standing in the soaking deluge. He took several steps back out into the street. The building appeared no different on the outside. He returned to the doorway and pushed hard enough to slide the chair a small amount – just enough to squeeze through and into his apartment. What he found was completely astonishing. The size of the space inside had diminished to the point that the furniture was gathered in the center of the room – walls pressing in on all sides. He’d had to remove his hat and crouch down, lest his head hit the ceiling. There was no need for Dalton to measure in order to confirm his suspicions. The room was so small now that he could not even walk through it without stepping over furnishings that had once been placed feet apart from one another. The hallway was practically nonexistent and he reached his bedroom in only three steps, turning sideways to squeeze between its walls. He had to step up onto his bed as he crossed the threshold into the room. The walls touched the bed on all sides, and the mirror had fallen onto the foot of his bed, face-down.
Dalton sat on his bed and turned the mirror over. He did not recognized the man staring back at him. Pale. Gaunt. Sickly. Haunted. Not knowing what else to do, he lay on his bed and waited. Waited for what? He didn’t know exactly. For the walls to consume him, he supposed. For the ceiling to drop down and crush the last breath from his lungs. He was ready. He was resigned.
There was rumbling when the walls and ceiling shifted again. This was the first time Dalton had witnessed the movement himself. It was alarming at first, but he knew it was inevitable. He accepted the dust that flaked onto his face as the ceiling dropped inches more. He welcomed it, even. The head and foot boards of his bed cracked and splintered as they buckled under the pressure from the wall on either side. The gaslight fixture mounted on the ceiling touched the mattress next to him. He held the mirror flat against his chest. There was no longer room enough to stand it upright.
More rumbling. The mattress bent and formed a tomb around Dalton. He closed his eyes and waited. He waited until he lost consciousness and all was black.
– – – – –
Dalton’s eyes slowly opened. He was enveloped in complete darkness. He felt groggy and his head was pounding. It took several minutes for him to come out of the fog, but once he did, it was as if he hadn’t felt this clear-minded in quite some time. He was alive. Not only that, but he wanted to live. He felt the energy of revitalized life flowing through him. Memories came rushing back. In his mind’s eye he saw a lovely day with Rachel. He saw them mounting the carriage together after their evening meal at Dupont’s Bistro. He saw the spooked horse rear up. He remembered the severe jolting of the carriage. He saw his wife plummeting to the ground. He saw himself also falling harshly onto the pavement stones, his head slamming against them violently. Everything after that was blackness.
Dalton was barely able to move. When he finally regained a small amount of control over his limbs, he felt around for his surroundings. He was lying on his back – on something plush and soft. His hands found the edges of his confines quickly. There were soft, satin-like walls up against his shoulders and inches from his face. The ceiling directly in front of him felt as if it had an arch shape to it. Awakening further, he determined that he could not move his body beyond this position, as he was lying in a depression that fit snugly against him. The air was thick and musty – barely breathable. It hurt his lungs to inhale it too deeply. Sweat formed on his brow as he realized the full extent of his environment.
Panic set in.
“No!” he yelled, using up some of the remaining stale air inside. “I’m not dead!”
He banged his fists against the lid as best he could within the limited space, but it only created a muffled thud on the soft interior. Dalton screamed and began sobbing. When he tried to take more air into his lungs it felt like someone had placed a pillow over his face. He labored to inhale again.
Approximately six feet above him was a marker which bore two names: Rachel A. Whitworth on the left side; and Dalton G. Whitworth on the right side. Below each was inscribed a date of birth and a date of death – the dates of death being identical. In between the names was chiseled into the stone, “Together in life – Together in death”.
– – – – –
Two days after the burial, two lone mourners – coworkers of Dalton’s – visited the grave site to place flowers. They stood in their top hats and overcoats, staring solemnly at the headstone.
“It’s a shame he didn’t recover from his coma,” one grieving man said to the other.
“Indeed,” the second man responded.
“I do wonder though…” said the first coworker, “Do you suppose someone in that state knows? I mean, are they capable of thinking? Or dreaming?”
After some thought, the second man dismissed the idea. “Nah. I doubt it.”
But Dalton Whitworth, if he were here today, would beg to differ. “Yes,” he would say, “We are capable of thinking and dreaming. And it is as vivid as life itself.”
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