Estimated reading time — 11 minutes
“Little solace comes to those who grieve
When thoughts keep drifting as walls keep shifting
And this great blue world of ours
Seems a house of leaves,
-House of Leaves. (Pg. 563)
Greg was asleep. He had been for some time, as was normal. Depression has a way of sapping ones energy. Well, not really “sap,” so much as “make the real world so un-fucking-bearable that sleeping for sixteen hours a day is preferable to being aware of your own life” kind of thing. Not to say that he slept well, not even close. The problem with sleep is the possibility for dreaming, and dreams have a way of reminding one of reality. You see, Greg was in a rough spot in his life; he was virtually broke. His job didn’t pay all that well, which was to be expected considering that fine arts majors have a tendency to ruin their lives by becoming fine arts majors. To him, the best option available was to get a job as a gas station clerk, which gave him enough down time to allow him to utilize his sketch book while still technically being paid to do it. He kept telling himself that he was working toward something better, but to what exactly, that was still unknown. He had been telling himself this for his entire life.
Greg shifted beneath the blankets, his face knotted into something unpleasant, but relaxed back soon after.
It had been just over a year since Greg had spoken to Natalie. At this same moment, Greg was the last thing on Natalie’s mind. She had ended it with Greg the previous year before leaving for the west coast to do… something or other. Something that involved not being around Greg, something that involved getting away from the pathetic little town, something that involved living an actual life. At the same moment that Greg lay asleep, alone in an apartment he could barely afford, alone in a bed beneath a few blankets, Natalie was with her new boyfriend, having the time of her life on some moonlit beach, watching the Pacific Ocean tides caress the shore. Despite a sincere desire for her to be happy, Greg would not have been content to know this. Affection has a way of bringing out jealousy in people, human nature and all.
Greg let a small noise exit his lungs, the sound of a whimper.
Greg’s bedroom consisted of a futon, a small glass table littered with empty beer cans and overflowing ashtrays, a bookshelf, and a closet. On the walls of his room, Greg had thumb tacked the majority of his pencil or charcoal drawings, the ones he liked anyway. The same went for the few of his oil paintings, the ones that he cared to mount. These were the sort of paintings that border on classic realism, usually with the aid of photographs of whatever he found interesting, but also with the particular style of blending several images together haphazardly next to each other resulting in a sloppy transition area that gives one the thought of active decay.
The subjects themselves were always bleak in nature. Greg was often disappointed that he never had to look very far for inspiration. On the glass being half full point of view, at least Greg didn’t have to spend too much money on primary colors. “You’d be surprised what you can do with only shades of grey.” He liked to tell people.
Greg’s closet was used to store his yet to be used canvas, seasonal cloths, and one mannequin head. The head in question is the type of model most often used by students studying the field of cosmetology. For one reason or another, the details are not important, but for one reason or another Greg had managed to acquire a female mannequin head, along with several interchangeable wigs. He kept these things in his closet, because Greg was not in fact a creep, but because Greg had an artistic spirit. And an artistic spirit has a tendency to see potential where others see random piles of crap.
The clock next to the bed displayed the symbols to indicate that the time was five twenty one in the morning. One minute passed, and Greg screamed.
He had the dream again. It must have been the fifth or sixth night in a row that Greg had awoken before dawn covered in sweat, panting heavily, heart pounding in his chest while his eyes stared off into the dark of his room, searching for both everything and nothing. One of the windows in his room had been left open, a cool breeze swept across the left side of Greg’s face. It was a quiet morning, the kind of pre-twilight hour that held a certain solitary tranquility. Greg knew this, and once he had calmed himself down, reminding himself that what he just experienced had been imaginary, he decided to go out for a walk. He thought it would help clear his head, and in most circumstances he’d be absolutely correct. It was a perfect “night” after all.
Greg put on a pair of mostly clean pants, and tied the laces of his boots. Without turning on any lights, moving his legs across his bedroom by muscle memory alone, Greg made his way towards the door that would lead into the rest of his apartment, which really only consisted of his studio space, a kitchen nook, and a bathroom. It was not a very large area, so even in absolute darkness Greg could navigate around what little he could claim ownership. Greg opened his bedroom door.
Something seemed off. Maybe not “off,” exactly. Not necessarily “wrong,” either, but definitely not “right”. The dimension of familiarity had somehow been made forfeit, the short hallway that had been traveled a thousand times over no longer seemed to be the same as what Greg felt it to be.
“Am I awake?” Greg asked out loud, to himself of course, and it was a valid question regardless. The nightmare he had just escaped usually began under oddly similar circumstances. Then the breathing started.
Greg, yet to shake his drowsy mind into being fully alert, didn’t panic, not immediately. For one reason or another, the sound of a woman’s rapid breathing emerging from an invisible source, emerging from a place no more than a few feet from where Greg stood, appeared to Greg as more of a curiosity than a threat. Not until the sound grew closer did Greg slam the door shut and turn the lights on. If he doubted it before, he now knew that he was fully awake. Startled would be an appropriate description.
The rest of the day went by as normal. Work, the bank, returned library books, a trip to the grocery store to pick up a bag of rice and lentils, all the normal everyday errands that people who call themselves adults need to do in order to function. The “daily race,” some call it, “the absurd drama,” others say. Whatever words are best appropriate, it has a notable ability to force even the most rattled individual to forget about the unexplained bumps in the night that follow the realm of strange and distant shores. Greg was not an exception to real world necessity either, so by the time he returned home he had completely forgotten what he had witnessed before the sun rose. And yet, he somehow drew his thoughts toward the head in his closet. Why you may ask? Well, the only rational explanation would be to state the Greg was in fact a human, and humans are sometimes random. Especially if those humans are self-described artists.
Greg spent the rest of his evening carefully painting over the flesh-tone plastic mannequin head, a base of pure titanium white acrylic, outlined in the shape of a mask by a thick line of ivory black that traveled from just below the chin and all the way up to the hair line. Once the base had dried, Greg continued his work by brushing a mix of cadmium red and umber across the mannequins lips, followed by the tedious but precise detail of shaping the eyes, including French ultramarine eye shadow, going so far as to add the fake highlights of reflected light onto the pupils. Expanding on this, Greg was compelled to give his work in progress a femme fatale look by adding a black line expanding from (following the curvature of the face) ear to ear,
connecting at the sides of the mouth, with a few embellished swirls deviating from the main line. Also over the rosy red lips, several vertical lines of proportional diminishment gave the face a skull like appearance. Once Greg had completed the painting aspect, he added the final pieces: a red bandanna tied around the lower neck, a black wig cut into a feathered styling, and a green chief petty officers hat adorned with pins collected from various sources, mostly from punk rock band merchandise. When he was done, he named his creation Cynthia, and placed on the center of his bedroom table.
That night, Greg had the dream, the same dream that he’d been having. It always started out the same way; Greg would open his bedroom door to a hallway of absolute darkness. The sensation that Greg felt was that he was no longer in the same apartment that he had fallen asleep in, no longer comforted by a sense of familiarity, security, or certainty.
The word I’m searching for here is “uncanny”.
From there, the breathing would start. Always female, always rapid, always heavy. The variable was that sometimes Greg would turn to run, only to find that his bedroom had disappeared entirely, becoming just one long hallway without end. Other times, he’d close the door before the sounds got too close, but in that scenario something would begin to scratch at the wood from the other side. In both cases, Greg would undoubtedly awaken just before the door opened, or just as he heard the breathing next to his ear. Not once had Greg managed to see what was causing the breathing, nor would he have wanted to, if given the chance.
As usual, Greg awoke to the sound of his own screaming, his sheets soaked in sweat, the sky still dark.
Let’s skip ahead a few weeks, shall we? I never knew Greg personally, and I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in the more mundane aspects of his personality or livelihood, nor do I think anyone seriously wants to know what Greg eats for breakfast or what time of day he showers, so in order to spare you the banal details I will instead act as a good narrator should and move along.
When we return to the life of Greg, he has become overly disheveled, bordering on psychosis. It had been over three days since his last meal, it had been nearly a week since he stopped showing up to work. He stopped sleeping entirely. He didn’t even bother putting on real cloths, not at this point. In a bathrobe, sitting on a tall barstool in the center of his studio, Greg frantically dipped a large bristled paint brush into a can of midnight black, and once fully saturated in the dark pigment, whipped the brush as hard as he possibly could at the massive canvas barely held by his easel. Once he felt content with the brushwork, he switched to a pallet knife scraped against a mix of burnt sienna and primary red diluted with turpentine, hacking and slashing the crimson in the same manner an axe crazy psychopath would murder his teenage victim. One could relate Greg’s new style to that of Jackson Pollock, in the sense that Greg painted in only pure form guided by intuition alone. It actually makes sense that Greg would have adopted this style, considering that a combination of sleep deprivation, solitary frustration, and will shattering depression would have drained his ability to articulate his work through coherent images. When Greg felt satisfied that he was complete, he took several steps back to admire his efforts.
The likeness was that of a Rorschach inkblot test, in the way that the splattering pattern of black, white, red and blue could be interpreted a thousand different ways by a thousand different people, although the accompanied feelings would be anything but pleasant. Some folks have said that they see bloody handprints pushing against the two dimensional barrier, others have said they see a face that watches them back. Others still, say they can’t see anything at all, they can’t see it, but they can feel it.
Personally, I see it for what it really is; an abstract horror.
Greg turned his attention from the painting to his friend, perched on a countertop. “So, what do you think? Is it missing anything?” He asked her.
“No, it’s perfect and beautiful.” She said back. Greg smiled, the kind of smile someone makes when they’re worried about disappointing everyone they know but manage to feel adequate in the end. “You need to hold onto this one,” She continued, her voice sultry and dark, with the biting edge of a knife accenting something just below the surface. “It’s far too important to disregard.” Her lips remained still, just as they always had.
“Thank you Cynthia, thank you so much.” Greg felt relaxed for the first time in days. Cynthia had kept her end of the bargain by refusing to allow Greg to fall asleep, and in return he did exactly what she told him to do, without question. She caught his attention the first time by shifting her eyes out of the corner of Greg’s. At first, he thought he was just seeing things, a trick of the light, but when she began to speak, well, that wasn’t something Greg could readily ignore. Call it what you want: wish fulfillment, isolation, schizophrenia, maybe just loneliness, but whatever word used to describe Greg’s psyche, no one can deny that to Greg, Cynthia was anything less than real.
And he loved her. He loved her the way anyone loves those who tell them exactly what they want to hear, things like, “Everything will be okay,” or “Things will get better”. Little lies like, “You deserve better than this,” or, “I love you too.”
That first night Greg would have believed anything she told him. That first night where she kept him awake, kept him away from the thing that stalked the hallway, she said things that made sense.
“Don’t be afraid Greg. You have nothing to fear from me.” She told him, sitting motionless on Greg’s table. “I know what’s been going on around here, I know what’s been running up and down around here in the dead of night, and I can help you stop it.”
“How?” Greg asked her, no longer concerned with his own sanity. “How can I stop it?”
Cynthia laughed a condescending laugh. “Have you ever wondered if maybe, just maybe, that the monsters hiding under your bed are really just there to protect you?” Greg was confused by her question, and Cynthia knew it. “Just do exactly what I tell you, and I’ll make sure it never finds its way out.”
This is where I think we left off, with Greg finishing his cathartic piece of artistry. Cynthia told Greg that the only way to end the night terrors would be to remove his own demons from his mind by placing them, or “locking” them into something else. This is where the painting came into play. The first few failed to capture the true essence of Greg’s anxiety manifest, each time Cynthia adding more and more pressure for Greg to get it right, instructing him on the true meaning of expression. On the third attempt, he finally got it right.
“Bring me back to the bedroom.” She told him when he was done washing the paint from his hands and face. “It’s time for you to rest.” Greg agreed. He was tired, and he always agreed. He moved Cynthia back into his bedroom, under the assumption that she would watch over him while he slept, protecting him.
As if she would seriously consider the life of this loser to be meaningful.
After placing Cynthia back onto the center table, Greg turned out the lights, slipped beneath a blanket, and willingly closed his eyes. A heartbeat later, they opened.
The room he was in, it was identical to the one he knew, but also thoroughly alien, foreign, tampered. It was bright, but without a light source, as though the shadows of his room had inverted themselves, neither monochrome nor multicolor, warped into something wholly surreal. Greg felt ill.
“Am I awake or am I dreaming?” he asked, looking to Cynthia for guidance, who under the circumstance seemed rather happy. She was smiling.
“Neither.” She responded, her eyes following Greg’s.
“What do I need to do now?” He finally asked, after he no longer felt the ability to make up his own mind. Cynthia’s smile grew wide, far wider than seemed possible, far more mischievous than seemed necessary.
“Now, we have control. All you need to do is to open that door, and step into the hall.”
Greg didn’t want to it. He never wanted to do it, but he did as he was told, his hand shaking as it moved for the knob. He opened that door the way he had always opened it, full of terror and apprehension, knowing that just beyond there lied an endless void, and the sound of breathing. When he stepped into the hall he began to hear it again, not too close, but not too far away either.
“Cynthia?” He asked, only once.
The breathing was moving towards Greg, steadily the way a pendulum separates motion. He heard Cynthia’s voice from just behind by the second swing.
“Have you ever wondered,” she asked, “if the monsters hiding under your bed, are really just there to protect you?” The next thing Greg heard was a door slamming into place, followed a breath in his ear, and nothing more.
Now, you may wish to inquire how I, the narrator, became aware of the events that led up to the demise of that young man, and I don’t blame you for asking. After all, I’ve already mentioned that I failed to know Greg while he was still on this earth, and so reason would state that I was never in any position to observe the events that had transpired. Reason would be absolutely correct. However, a good narrator knows to never give away a mystery, or to let the truth get in the way of a particularly good one at that. So in favor of spoiling the story with petty details and explanations, I’ll leave you with this and this alone:
Ickbarr has a new friend.
Credit: Stephan D. Harris