Dreary apartment, Manhattan, NY.
Do you ever get this uneasy feeling that you’re constantly being watched? At home, at work, when you’re eating, sleeping, watching TV, making love … it’s always there, the faint voice in the back of your mind, whispering in your ears that something is not right. It goes by many names, the sixth sense, the survival instinct, that mysterious ability that we inherited from our ancestors, their only line of defense back in forgotten ages, when the world wasn’t entirely our own and the shadows didn’t always lurk in the dark.
I wasn’t unfamiliar to this feeling, maybe because of my line of work. I’m a journalist who specializes in juicy homicide stories, and as you can imagine, it wasn’t a job for the faint of heart. Some of the crimes I witnessed were the stuff of a nightmare, horrible scenes that would really mess you up. They deprived me of sleep for so many nights. Drinking usually helped with that. My girlfriend would disagree, but … she’s not around anymore.
Usually when I get this feeling I try to ignore it and distract myself with some mundane chores, but today it was more stubborn than ever, despite how many times I tried to shake it off, it just wouldn’t go away.
It started shortly after I woke up. I was late for work, so I didn’t pay it much attention. I hurried to the bathroom, yawning on the way. It wasn’t probably the best idea to stay up last night till 5 AM. I brushed my teeth and tossed some water onto my face to wake it up. I went back to my room and picked up my dark blue suit, which I had tossed on the bed last night. I changed and left the apartment.
I headed towards the elevator, just to remember halfway that it was still out of service. I rushed down the stairs and headed towards my car. I opened the door and threw my briefcase inside, then circled around to get to the driver’s seat, that was when this eerie feeling hit again, the annoying alarm that just wouldn’t quit. I stopped for a second and looked around me just to shut it up. There was nothing out of the ordinary. An elderly couple walking down the street, a teenager on a bicycle passing by, a little girl in a black dress standing next to the building I just left, probably waiting for her parents. I sighed and yawned again, then I delved inside my car and drove towards the office.
The office was as noisy as always—chattering, shouting, phone calls, you name it. It wasn’t a big newspaper, but it sure as hell acted like one.
I walked silently to my office, hoping I wouldn’t bump into Barry on the way. Barry was our editor-in-chief, a fat haughty bastard with a smug smile. That pretty much summed up his whole character.
Luckily, it didn’t happen. I reached my small office and saw my mail already delivered. I slumped into my chair and flipped through the letters. There were the usual “payment due” letters that I completely ignored, but then I glimpsed that strange letter. It didn’t have a name or an address. The envelope wasn’t even closed. Hmm, that’s weird! Where did this come from?
I opened the letter with wary hands. There was only one sentence written inside, in a beautiful, sophisticated, yet threatening font: “DON’T FALL ASLEEP.”
… Um, what the hell?!
I looked around me carefully, then I raised the letter high up and said, “Is this a prank?” Most of my co-workers just ignored me, two stopped talking and looked at me in confusion, then they resumed talking again like nothing happened. I sighed in irritation and threw the letter away, then I saw her: A little girl with fuzzy dark red hair and a black dress, standing in the middle of the office cubicles, like she had lost her way in a large maze. She was quite a distance away, but somehow I felt like she was staring directly at me!
She looked very familiar, like I had seen her before very recently. Then suddenly I remembered. I did see her before, in front of the building my apartment was in. Who is this girl?! Did she follow me here?!
I stood up and walked towards her. “Hey, sweetie, are you lost?”
She didn’t answer.
I repeated the question again. This time I heard a reply from behind, “Alex, who are you talking to?”
I turned around and saw the fat man walking towards me. “Oh, sorry, Barry, I was just—” I looked back at the girl to explain the situation, but there was no one there!
“You ok?” Barry asked, staring at me in suspicion.
“Um, … yes, yes, just a bit lightheaded.”
“Did you finish the story on the penthouse murder?”
“I, uh, I will get it done today.”
He glared at me for a second, then said, “Today, Alex. This is your last chance.”
I nodded and didn’t reply. He glared at me again, then turned around and walked away. I looked back to where the girl was standing. Where did she go? Was that a hallucination? Maybe I should stop drinking for a while.
I went back to my office and tried to forget about this incident. I have a lot of work to do today anyway, if I still want to keep my job.
I stayed up till midnight at the office, just to finish that damn murder story. When I was done, I was so hungry for sleep that I couldn’t see before me. I wobbled around until I reached my car. I delved inside, rested my head on the wheel, and closed my eyes. Just five minutes, then I’ll drive home. My head getting heavier and heavier, my mind slipping into the dream land, … maybe I should just lay here for a bit.
Suddenly, that bothersome alarm went off again, that voice in the back of my mind screamed at me to open my eyes. I slowly opened my eyes and looked out of the window. There was no one there. I yawned and started the engine, unintentionally glancing at the rearview mirror, that was when I saw her again! She was sitting on the back seat, her blue eyes gazing directly at me.
I screamed in shock, then opened the car door and threw myself out, falling on the street next to it. I crawled away from the car, panting in horror, then turned around and looked back at it. Again, there was no one there! The girl just vanished into thin air!
“What the fuck is going on?!” I exclaimed.
The few people walking down the street stopped for a moment and gazed at me in curiosity. A passing car slowed down and the driver peeked at me like I was a madman.
I took a deep breath, then got up and delved back inside the car, my body still shaking in fear. Was that also a hallucination? No way, that just seemed too real.
Well, there is no point in pondering this now. I just need to go home, get some sleep, and think about all this in the morning.
Home sweet home. A tiny apartment in a populous neighborhood, but still, it has that warm feeling of comfort and safety that you won’t find anywhere else.
I delved inside, threw my briefcase on the couch, and headed towards the fridge. My nerves had calmed a bit on the way, but I still had no explanation for what happened. I opened the fridge and fumbled around, looking for something that hasn’t expired yet. A few seconds later, I decided to give up on eating and just go to bed. Today was already stressful enough, there was no need to extend it any longer.
I went inside my bedroom, ready to throw myself onto the bed and sink into deep sleep, but in the nano second before that happened, I spotted something. In the dim street light leaking through the window blinds I glimpsed the tail of a black dress sticking out from under the bed, a black dress that I knew very well. That was the moment I realized it, this is not a dream or a hallucination. She’s real, she’s here, and she’s waiting for me!
For a few seconds, It seemed like time itself had stopped. A million thoughts were triggered in my mind at once, so much so that it caused an internal system crash. My body was paralysed in place, my heart pounded inside its cage, my eyes fixated on the black dress tail that became almost indistinguishable from the darkness around it.
Suddenly, I heard a faint movement coming from under the bed, then the dress tail was pulled back underneath. That was my cue to get the fuck out of here!
I rushed out of the bedroom and towards the door. I heard more movement coming from behind, but I didn’t look back. I opened the door and jumped down the stairs. The next moment, I was out of the building and inside my car. I quickly started the engine and drove away with no destination in mind.
I drove my car aimlessly for about an hour, rethinking the whole situation in my mind. Who is this demonic girl? Why is she after me? “DON’T FALL ASLEEP.” I remembered that anonymous warning now, it must be related somehow to all of this. Falling asleep, that’s what she wants. She was hiding under my bed waiting for that very thing. Well, I still didn’t know how to get rid of this girl, but at least now I know how to slow her down.
I continued driving through the city, glancing at the shop signs passing by, looking for that tantalizing restaurant or coffee shop sign, like a drug addict searching for a dealer.
The dark streets stretched before my car, the neon signs started to blend together, all the stress and exertion of the day was finally weighing down on my eyes and my head. My mind oscillated in and out of existence, I blinked for one second, only to find out that half a minute had passed. “DON’T FALL ASLEEP,” I reminded myself.
I stopped by the side of the road to catch a breath, like I was participating in an Olympic marathon. I glanced for a second at the side mirror and saw her standing in the middle of the road, gazing at my car. Was she following me around all this time? She just won’t quit, will she?
I took a deep breath, then left my car, walked a few steps towards her, and shouted, “What do you want from me?”
“I won’t go to sleep, so you can just give it up,” I shouted again, though for some reason, my body was disagreeing with me. This overwhelming desire to sleep was breaking my mind. What’s happening to me? I had no problem staying up multiple nights before. Why does it seem like an impossible feat today?
I heard a faint giggle coming from her. Is she laughing at me?!
I closed my eyes and muttered faintly, “Just go disappear or whatever.”
I opened my eyes again, hoping she would do that like always, but she didn’t. She was still there, staring at me with tenacious eyes and a sinister smile on her face. Then suddenly, she started walking towards me.
“Oh, shit!” I whispered and ran back towards my car. I jumped inside and closed the door. Luckily, I had the engine running. I drove away, switching my eyes between the road ahead and the reflection of the girl in the rearview mirror. She was still walking steadily after the car, then suddenly she stopped and disappeared right before my eyes.
I wiped my cold sweat with shaking hands. How do you stop something like that? Something that has no logic or reason? Something that always finds you wherever you are? “Just don’t fall asleep,” I kept repeating to myself, but it was easier said than done. I had the determination in my mind, but my body was failing me in every step. Even after all those horrors, my compelling need for sleep only grew stronger.
I finally glimpsed the sign of a small restaurant passing by. I hit the brakes with all my strength, which stopped the car abruptly and pushed me forward to hit the wheel with my forehead, but I couldn’t care less. I rushed out of the car and hurried inside the restaurant.
“So, what can I get you?” the waitress asked.
“Coffee, lots of coffee, keep it coming,” I replied, my eyes blinking rapidly and my hands shaking in agitation.
“Oook,” she said warily and moved away, glancing back at me every now and then, like I was an unhinged man about to jump down her throat.
I really didn’t blame her. I feel like I’m losing my mind too. I looked out of the glass window at the dark street outside and waited for the black elixir to arrive. Just when will this night end!
I drank my fifth cup of coffee and asked for a refill. I didn’t know how much caffeine my body could handle before it became toxic, but that was the least of my worries. I just need to survive tonight, whatever it takes.
Even after all that caffeine in my bloodstream, my sleepiness didn’t completely go away. It was like a gaping hole under a slippery slope. Whenever I closed my eyes, I slipped deeper and deeper into it.
What definitely didn’t help was the soothing sixties song on TV and the waitress humming along with it from the kitchen. I tried to just ignore the song and the humming. I grabbed an old magazine from the counter and started flipping through its pages, then I heard a second humming. I looked behind me and there she was, sitting on a table at the corner, playfully swinging her legs and humming to the song. She was looking at me and smiling, like she was enjoying this cat and mouse chase.
“Oh, for fuck sake,” I muttered, still gazing at her without moving.
The waitress came back with the sixth cup of coffee. I gulped it all in one go, then I pointed at the girl and asked the waitress, “Could you tell the girl over there to stop humming? It’s very annoying.”
The waitress looked at where I was pointing, then looked back at me with a bewildered face. “What girl?!”
I nodded lightly and said, “Understandable, have a good night, ma’am.”
I then got up and headed towards the door. I glanced at the girl one last time before leaving and saw her smiling and waving at me like, “See you soon.”
Just get through the night. Just get through the night. That singular thought was the only thing occupying my mind at that moment. For some unexplained reason, I felt like if I just survived this night, things might change tomorrow.
I left the restaurant and ran towards my car. I saw the girl again standing next to it like she was waiting for me. Oh, great, she’s not even trying to hide it anymore, nor my sleepiness now that I think about it. My eyes kept closing up without any input from me, my mind uncontrollably phased in and out. Oh, this is bad, this is very bad. It was like all that caffeine I just drank had evaporated from my mind. Just get yourself together, you can get through this.
I ignored the girl and delved inside the car. I started the engine, but it wouldn’t start. Oh, hell, no! I started it again. “Come on, come on, come on.” I heard the girl giggling from outside. “Shut up!” I screamed at her, but she didn’t stop. I started the engine over and over, but it was dead. “Fuck!” I screamed, then I left the car and ran across the street.
I ran through some alleyways until I got to the main street. I kept running down the main street, signaling to any taxi or any car at all to stop. My short breathing turned into panicking panting, a cold sweat was all over my face, my heart pounded louder and louder like it was about to explode. I can see the girl everywhere now. In front of me, behind me, to my left, to my right, inside passing cars, under the street lamps, always looking at me and smiling. She was just toying with me at this point. She knew I was running out of time and so did I.
Suddenly I saw a bright flash before my eyes and a car ran into me, sending me flying backwards, hitting the asphalt with a crack.
Blood trickled down from my head and my leg. Everything looked hazy and the world started disappearing before my eyes. “Don’t fall asleep,” I whispered faintly. I groaned in pain and tried to get up. I heard a car door closing and someone rushing towards me, then I heard a man’s voice saying, “Sir, are you ok? I’m so sorry I didn’t see you.”
I slowly struggled to get up and murmured, “I’m alright. I just need a ride to … anywhere out of here.”
“No, no, please don’t move, sir. I already called an ambulance.”
“I told you, I’m fine,” I yelled in frustration. “I don’t need an —” I heard the sirens coming from afar. No! They’ll put me to sleep. I need to get out of here.
I turned around and started limping away, but the man reached after me quickly. “Sir, you can’t move like this. You’ll just hurt yourself.”
“Damn it! Just leave me alone,” I screamed and moved away.
I tried getting away, but there was only so much I could do with a broken leg. I was injured, tired, and frankly, very sleepy. I fell to the ground. This time I didn’t have the energy to get up again. I heard the sirens getting closer. I heard the ambulance stopping. I heard people talking. I heard … I couldn’t recognize what I was hearing anymore, everything blended together into incoherent noises. Only one sound was loud, clear, and distinct from them all: The sound of a little girl giggling. I couldn’t open my eyes anymore. I wasn’t now standing on a slippery slope, I was rolling downhill, and the gaping hole was closer than ever before.
I felt the paramedics lifting me up and putting me inside their vehicle. “No, don’t do it!” I screamed, or maybe whispered, I don’t know. I felt something injected into my bloodstream. I screamed again, “No, you idiots! You’re going to get me killed!” Did I say it though, or just think I did?
I opened my eyes one last time, only to see the little girl standing right in front of me, her face painted with the most evil smile I had ever seen.
Then I blacked out.
I saw the sun, the birds, the cloudy sky. Wait, did I make it?!
My mind was clear. I didn’t feel sleepy anymore. I didn’t feel pain either. I touched my forehead and moved my legs. There was no blood, no broken bones. What happened?!
I got up slowly and looked around me. I was standing on a long road in the middle of nowhere. Where am I?!
Where’s the girl?!
I started moving forward, not sure where it would lead me. I finally glimpsed a country house coming into view. It was a massive house, like it belonged to a large family. Though it looked somewhat normal, it didn’t feel very inviting. There was a menacing aura surrounding the whole place that I just couldn’t explain. I reached the house and examined it. It seemed abandoned, though it was hard to tell from the outside. I stepped forward to knock on the door, but suddenly, I heard a loud creak, as the door started opening by itself.
I gasped in horror and backed away slowly. Alright, so probably not a good idea to delve inside.
I turned around and ran away. I got back to the long road and started walking in the opposite direction. I kept walking and walking, until another house came into view, a country house, very similar to the first one. I got closer to the house, then I realized. It’s not similar to the first one, it is the first one. Even the door was slightly open like I had left it. What the hell is going on? Did I make a wrong turn? No, I didn’t make any turns at all. I just walked a straight line! No, there has to be another way. I turned around again and walked away.
It took me another four or five times until I realized it. There’s no way out of here, just one road, and one destination.
I was standing before the house again, the door still slightly open, calling to me to get inside.
I knew then what I had to do.
Dreary clinic, Manhattan, NY.
“Mm, hmm, … yes, mom, … no, I just don’t like him, … Uh huh, … no, I can’t make it today, sorry, … I know, I know, … alright, love you too.”
I finished the phone call and tossed the phone on my desk. I then closed my eyes and heaved a weary sigh.
“Just hang in there, Julia. You’re a strong woman, you don’t need anyone,” I whispered to myself. And that concluded my five second pep talk, after an hour-long phone call about yet another “potential” partner.
Sometimes, it’s hard for people to understand you, when you’re already past thirty five and you’re still single. People who don’t know you think you’re either so ugly that no one wants to be with you, or so toxic that you can’t sustain a healthy relationship. People who do know you believe you’re just too naive, or too picky, or too much of a workaholic. They both always try to put the blame on you, or come up with some cosmic solution for this mystery, but they never consider that maybe it’s nobody’s fault, that maybe you just didn’t find the right person yet.
For me, it was just a simple belief: People who are meant to be together will eventually find each other. There will be just so many similarities between them that their paths are destined to cross. I may be wrong, but I prefer never finding the right person to living in misery with the wrong one. I believe this blind pursuit for a relationship is what leads people to end up living miserable lives with abusive partners, like what happened to my mom, and my sister.
Well, that’s just me.
I looked at the clock on the wall. It’s already past 4 PM, and not a single patient had shown up yet. Maybe I should close for today.
I yawned and grabbed my handbag to put my phone in it, when I noticed the small pile of letters next to it. Oh, that’s right. I forgot to check my mail today. I quickly flipped through them. There were some promotional letters that I just threw into the bin without reading, then I saw that weird letter.
It had a blank envelope with nothing written on it. It wasn’t even closed. How did this get here?!
I opened the letter and saw one sentence written in a delicate font, “DON’T FALL ASLEEP.”
Huh?! Is someone messing with me?!
I screwed up the letter and threw it into the bin. I picked up another letter to check it, when I glimpsed someone standing in the waiting room. He was a middle-aged man in a dark blue suit.
I got up quickly and walked towards the waiting room, smiling and saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you there. You can come —” I reached the waiting room, but there was no one there!
What the …? Where did he go?
I left the clinic and checked downstairs, but there was no one there either.
I shook my head off in bewilderment. Am I seeing things?! Maybe I am just tired.
I went back inside the clinic and yawned. Oh, I’m so sleepy. I need to take a nap.
Credit : Alan Baker
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