12 Sep Take a Deep Breath
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"Take a Deep Breath"Written by
Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
Frank woke up sweating again, five minutes before his alarm went off. He couldn’t remember much about the dream, just some green grass and maybe a half wall of reinforced concrete. There were no noticeable aspects of the dream that led reasonably to his feeling of terror, but every time he had that dream he felt an extreme urge to jump up and start running for his life. He couldn’t remember any antagonist or story to the dream, just fear.
At any rate, he had work to prepare for. The bedside alarm startled him with its harsh sleep-dismantling beeps. He turned it off and jumped up to get in the shower.
He usually skipped breakfast, but his shower today was fast: he was already quite awake from his nightmare. Going to the stove, he decided to scramble some eggs with curry powder and fire sauce packets he’d absconded with from Taco Bell. He briefly contemplated adding mushrooms to the eggs but decided not to. The thought of mushrooms did trigger something in his head though. He remembered seeing small, clustered mushrooms in his dream, dispersed through the grass. Maybe they were the source of emotion in his dream? He dismissed the thought, absently waving his hand to shoo it away. Poison mushrooms aren’t that scary. He watched the albumen turning white around the yolk, and began scrambling the eggs to fold the spices and sauce in.
After eating, Frank’s day really began.
He saw the first one while locking his door. There was a shadow from the porch light that he didn’t notice until it moved. Frank whipped his head around to where the man would be standing to cast the shadow, but saw nothing. The shadow on the ground was gone, too. He quickly looked around for the man who had escaped his notice. The street was clear and well-lit by streetlamps. The crisp November morning kept all but the most dedicated joggers indoors. In short, no one was out or could have gotten away without notice. Thus, after only two seconds of searching, Frank dismissed the oddity as a trick of the light and walked to his car.
His car started easily, but the radio was much too loud. When Frank went to turn it off, he was momentarily stunned. The radio wasn’t on. The voices continued talking; Frank heard the proper radio static and his binaural sense told him the voices came from the speakers. They were speaking clear, unaccented English about… something. Some basic part of Frank’s brain knew this was highly improbable and refused to decode the speech and let Frank play along with this absurdity. The voices started to fade, hushing and sounding vaguely startled like they’d discovered an eavesdropper. This whole time, all Frank could manage was to stare; slack jawed, uncomprehending about what had just happened to him. Eventually he decided he must simply be incredibly tired and hallucinating because of that. His brain subconsciously urged him to get on with his day and stop wasting gas, so he started driving along the road, slipping out of the confusion as he went.
By the time he reached work, he’d mostly forgotten the incidents of the morning. He wrote them off unthinkingly.
Frank stepped into his office building and walked over to his cubicle. Something seemed a little weird about the room to Frank, but he couldn’t decide what it was. He started working anyway, distracted and haphazard because of how spooked he had been that morning.
An hour after he got there, he suddenly jumped out of his chair, startled by the hand on his shoulder. His keyboard clattered noiselessly to the ground as he slowly rotated to see the hand’s owner. Quicker than he could rotate, the feeling of terror from the dream stole into him again. He finished turning to see Drew standing behind him, noiselessly moving his lips like a fish does underwater. While Frank stared in terror, sounds slowly crept in to the office, slinking back to where they belonged. He hadn’t been able to tell what the problem was, but it suddenly made sense once he realized what it was. Phones were ringing, people were walking, printers were going, coffee was being slurped, and Drew was talking.
“Hey man. I’ve been standing here trying to get your attention. Are you feeling okay? You look pale.”
“Yeah. No, not really, it’s been a bad morning,” Frank said, stumbling through the words.
“Maybe tonight will cheer you up. You’re coming over, right? That’s why I stopped by; actually, I want to solidify a head count.”
Frank assured him to his planned presence, and turned back to his work. Drew silently retreated, figuring it must have been a rough day for his friend.
Frank couldn’t shake the feeling left by realizing how silent everything had been the last hour. As soon as the noises came back, the first of the morning started to feel hollow and barely there.
Frank stared at the wall in a daze until his subconscious urged him to get back to productivity before he fell behind. As both hands on the clock stretched upward, Frank began to feel calmer. The panics of the morning had been evaporating as the day progressed, and he was able to start looking forward to his plans for the evening: he was going to Drew’s house to drink and play poker with several other co-workers. With the weekend a stone’s throw away, and Drew’s house so close to his own, he mentally prepared to get shitfaced and still make it home okay. He just had to remember to grab his jacket before going over. With the sky this clear, he thought, it will be very cold tonight.
Evening came, and already his brain was doing a wonderful job of clouding his memories and filing the morning’s events into a deeper and less accessible cabinet to make it seem more bearable. He wasn’t aware of it, but surely would have appreciated it if he had been. As soon as work was over, he wasted no time getting home and preparing for the poker at Drew’s house.
Frank woke up trembling in his bed. It had been several days since he’d been to Drew’s place for the poker game. Aside from the typical drinking and poker, they’d taken a break to play a few rounds of Halo: Reach. When the night ended, Frank had made his way home happily bundled against the cold and stumbling against the spinning floor. The next morning he even woke hangover-free.
This particular morning, on the other hand, he woke terrified for his life. They had been there, closer than before. He knew They were close because he’d never felt Their presence before except in his fleeting terror after waking up. He didn’t know what or who They were. All he’d caught in the dream was the slight feeling that some aspect of his vision was obscured by something, knowing that the background noises were muffled but not entirely blocked by some obstacle. At first that obstacle was directly behind him, but he couldn’t quite tell where when he turned around. The smell was odd too—like the scent of burning rot, but faint like the feeling of a word on the tip of your tongue. When he woke up he felt paralyzed by such total nameless and uncompromising terror that if he’d tried to scream he couldn’t have fit the noise through his locked throat.
“This is the first time I’ve had that dream twice in one month,” he told the soft darkness around his bed. He thought about the dream for a second and then decided to turn off the alarm. He was becoming accustomed to this routine. While he flipped the switch, he saw that his phone was lit up because it was on a call. He heard faint voices coming from the phone, but understood nothing of it. Putting the phone to his head, he discovered that it was the same pair of voices chatting in English as before. They clearly originated from some phone somewhere; they had that lossy quality all phone calls give to sound. He could only decipher very few of the phrases and understood why he didn’t make sense of it earlier. The voices were saying nothing—they were talking in English but the words weren’t organized in sentences or thoughts at all. As he listened, he heard a rather eclectic variety of words and phrases. Things like “root cellar” and “starting pistol” were mixed with “flying,” “blue,” and “magnesium.” He listened raptly, but the same as last time, the voices seemed to realize that he was there. They gained a hushed and secretive tone, but they soon realized he was still listening. One voice stopped cold as the other trailed off quietly, guiltily. As soon as the voices stopped, Frank looked to see what number he’d called so he could maybe track down the voices. When he peeled the phone from his face, he noticed the screen was dark. He turned on the screen and looked at his call log. There were no calls that morning or last night. There was, however, a voicemail. He dialed it.
“You have one unheard message,” the kind robot lady told him.
“First unheard message,” she went on.
But nothing played. Frank went to delete the message and as soon as he hit the button, he heard a screech, the kind that metal makes when you rub it on metal. Did a fax machine leave him a message? Still puzzled, he put his phone down to shower.
When he got out of the shower and opened the bathroom door, he saw a faint shadow under the door to the hallway. This meant two things: the light was on in the hallway, and more importantly They were in his house. Someone standing in the hall would have cast a darker shadow, but They seemed immune to the normal rules.
Frank’s survival instinct blocked out rational thought as he bounded across the bedroom, running to his closet to grab his home defense handgun. He’d never anticipated using it before; he only ever took it to the range for fun and practice. But now that the is .45 USP was in his hand and prepared to perforate Them, the practice finally seemed practical. He looked under the door and saw neither the light nor the shadow any more. This didn’t fool Frank, he knew They realized They’d been found and had escaped or hidden. Frank slowly and inexpertly swept his house like he saw on TV all the time. When he made it through the whole house, he walked cautiously back to his bedroom. This whole time, he saw nothing out of the ordinary. His stress response and heightened senses allowed him a tremendous amount of attention to every detail in his house. Everything was as he left it.
Having experienced such an intense and sustained dose of adrenaline, Frank started to shake as it wore off. He sat down on his bed, unsettled and not satisfied by his search of the house. He knew he needed to get ready for the day, but couldn’t convince himself to get up and go through the motions. He stared at the Modest Mouse poster on his wall, not seeing it but instead reflecting and debriefing himself. When he eventually got up to prepare himself, he was five minutes late for his routine. He still wouldn’t be late, but he was eating into his half hour anti-tardy cushion.
By now, Frank’s subconscious was divided: part of it still wanted to erase the evidence of the interlopers to protect his sanity, but another part refused to let the evidence go. His long term survival was being compromised by a short term instinct to know this new predator and protect himself from it. It wasn’t clear yet whether it was good or bad news that his short term instincts were winning the fight.
Frank drove all the way to work in a daze, undecided about the level of significance to assign to the recent happenings. The winning part of his brain urged caution, attention, and vigilance. He began to strongly desire some sort of defense against Them, but felt helpless to protect himself.
Frank entered the office and was thankful to notice the proper amount of background noise. He looked around and noticed the correct number of shadows everywhere. Comfort crept into him as the day began to unfold more naturally. Frank worked quietly and efficiently until his usual morning coffee break. When he got up and walked to the kitchen, he saw Drew and McGee talking about something. When Drew engaged him with an inquisitive tone and McGee responded with laughter, Frank heard only the two voices from his radio and phone. He screamed and then fainted.
Frank woke up worried he was late to work. His alarm hadn’t gone off but it was light outside, so he must have overslept. He looked around the room and nearly screamed when the shadow started approaching his bed. Momentarily he realized it was just a nurse who had noticed his return to consciousness.
“Hi, how are you?” she inquired. Before waiting for an answer she continued, “Can you tell me your name, date of birth, and what year it is?”
The last question brought his attention to his head, where there were several stitches and bandages near his left temple.
“I’m Frank, I was born on November 16th of 1982, and depending on the length of my nap it should still be 2012.”
She found this reassuring apparently, because she nodded and smiled, asking if he remembered what happened to him. Frank struggled with the memory, only comprehending it very fuzzily. She interpreted his puzzled look as a no, and began to explain. “You slipped and fell at work. Your head struck the corner of a counter and you lost consciousness. Your co-workers helped stop the bleeding until the ambulance got there. Apparently, you owe the tall one a new shirt.”
For a moment he accepted the explanation as a reasonable story compared to the one being stifled by his brain. Then, for better or for worse, the stifled story broke free and he remembered Drew and McGee’s voices being replaced by Them for a moment. Dread settled in like an overly heavy blanket on his hospital bed. Frank was not sure if it was a momentary thing, like the voices in his car, or if Drew and McGee had been replaced by Them.
The nurse bowed slightly and left the room; apparently she had better things to do. Frank’s head spun when he thought about Drew and McGee. On some level, he realized he was being silly and they must be okay. On another level he wanted never to go back to his office again. Frank chose to believe it was a one-time event like the radio was. After all, the medium the voices took had yet to repeat itself.
Safe in his decision, Frank discharged himself with instructions to check in with his primary physician regarding his stitches. There seemed to be no lasting effects affecting his coordination or balance. When he checked his phone, he found a text from Drew. It read:
“hey i drove your car over n rode back w/mcgee. hope youre ok. also your cars in lot blue near the middle.”
Frank rummaged through his pockets for the keys, very thankful for Drew’s thoughtfulness. After locating the lot and his car, he drove to the exit and eventually on to his workplace. He arrived back at work with just a few hours before the end of the day.
When he came in and sat at his desk it occurred to him that he might need to see his boss regarding what just happened. He knocked on Brian’s open doorway as he was stepping into the office. “Hey, Brian, I’m guessing you heard what happened?”
“Yeah, you slipped and fell in the kitchenette. How are you? You can take the whole day; you don’t need to be here right now.”
“Oh I’m fine; I don’t mind doing a bit more work today.”
“Well, if you do change your mind, feel free to head home.”
“I’ll remember that, thanks.”
Frank shuffled over to his desk. Drew, who had been watching for him to come back, walked over to meet him there. Drew was wearing a new shirt.
“Good to see you’re alive,” Drew joked. “Also that you got my message.”
“Yeah, thanks for helping so much with that.” Frank had never before been so glad to hear someone’s voice. He was tense until “The tall one”—as the nurse said—spoke in his own voice. “I hear I owe you a new shirt?”
“Hah, don’t even worry about that. The bleeding had to stop somehow.” This incurred an awkward lull.
“Well, I’m glad you’re okay even if you scream like a little girl. I gotta get back to work,” Drew finished.
“Thanks, yeah, have fun,” Frank said.
As Drew walked away, Frank had a sudden thought. “Did I slip and fall? That’s what I’ve heard from the hospital and Brian.”
“Actually you screamed and just kinda pitched forward, but that’s awkward to explain. It seemed like your legs stopped working and your body kept moving forward, right into the counter.”
“Ok, cause I didn’t remember tripping but that’s the story I got. Thanks.”
“No problem. See you.”
Frank let him walk away this time. There was no comfort in Drew’s confirmation of the events. Frank was right, but it was like being right about a new lump in your testicles.
Frank did minimal work the rest of the day. He was so distressed that he could not focus on his tasks at all. When the end of the day arrived, he let out a silent cheer and prepared to head home. He decided he’d take an early, long weekend and stopped by Brian’s office to let him know. Brian, concerned about Frank’s new fall-related legal rights, was more than happy to let him go early for the week.
The next morning, Frank felt refreshed. His head felt fine, he’d had few, but decent, dreams about flying around and talking fish. He woke up feeling like a real person. As he lay in bed, he felt as though he could spend all day in bed. So he did.
He slept until late evening, and arose only to fix a snack, start a movie, and get back in bed to watch the movie. He settled quite comfortably and fell asleep halfway into the movie.
Having slept the whole first day of his long weekend, Frank felt maybe it would be appropriate to do something fun the next day. He was thinking of visiting the city ad seeing the sights, maybe people watching the tourists. It was always fun, he thought, to see the people wearing sandals and socks with goofy hats, shorts, and the telltale camera around the neck. So Frank decided to get out and have a fun day. When night fell, he got dinner and headed to a bar to see if he could turn a good night into a great night.
It was a great night.
The next morning, he cooked her breakfast, and she left after writing her phone number on a sticky note for him. Frank hadn’t had this good of a weekend in a while, and it wasn’t even over yet. He was so pleased by the easy, quiet nights that he began to hope his nightmare was gone for good. Hope is a powerful thing, able to keep us going far after we should. Frank’s hope made him happy and happy was an emotion he could get behind.
Frank finished cleaning the breakfast dishes and contemplated when he should call her back. He decided to wait until just before the weekend to call her back, and to make plans for Saturday. When God wants a laugh, he needs only to look at our plans.
When he finished the dishes, he spent the rest of the day playing video games and generally lounging around.
He awoke the next day paralyzed, his joints all locked rigid. He was staring at the ceiling; his eyes open as he woke up. He’d had the dream again.
He still couldn’t quite see or hear Them. They were very obviously there though. And he began to feel some inkling of Their goal. They wanted him for… The more he grasped at it, the more it slipped away. Frank decided that was ok though, he didn’t really want to know what They intended, he just wanted them to fuck right off. He thought about the visual aspects of the dream. He saw the same grass and mushrooms. The same scent was there. In the dream he’d turned around to see Them, instantly regretting it. He was not in control. The smell got stronger. In the place where his senses said something should be, the mushrooms were smoldering. Wisps of acrid smoke drifted off them as they curled and charred. The presence started to move forward, or rather to move toward Frank as it didn’t seem to be facing any particular direction. He felt like an animal stuck in a trap, wanting to do something but unable to figure out what to do. He woke up before They got to him, filling him with a relief that he couldn’t understand.
He slowly regained control of his limbs as the dream faded. He sat up on the edge of the bed, cradling his head in his hands. He just about felt like crying, and only didn’t because he was too confused by the state of his head to understand why he was and should be upset. He’d had just about enough of this. It was his weekend god dammit. He got dressed despite the darkness because he figured there was no way for him to get back to sleep. When he pulled his shirt over his head, he heard the stairs start to creak one by one. He stared at his door and the stairs stopped creaking. He looked around for anything amiss and saw nothing. As soon as his back was turned to the door, the stairs creaked again. He should have felt fear. Something was in his house. He couldn’t even tell what. He should be afraid of it. All he could handle, however, was anger. It made him angry that They could so callously ruin his weekend. He faced the stairs as he sidestepped to the closet to grab his gun. The stairs remained silent as he approached first his bedroom door, then the hallway. He cleared the final wall and saw nothing on the stairs. Nothing was there, or could have been there. Frank would have heard Them walking back down the stairs. Unless They made it to the top. He was standing at the top of the silent steps, with his back facing whichever room They must have ended up in. As he turned around, a shadow moved the rest of the way into his room from the doorway. The door slammed shut. Frank forgot what anger was as his heart hammered his ribcage. He wandered, powerless, to the door, afraid of what he’d see behind it. He opened the door, pointing the gun at it, scared shitless.
The door swung open to show him a bizarre scene. His bed was shredded to ribbons. Feathers from his down blanket and chunks of his pillow were spread around on his tattered sheets and the flayed mattress as well. He was so focused on his bed that he almost missed the shadow across the entrance to his closet. He shifted his wide-eyed gaze to his closet as They disappeared into the total darkness of his clothing racks. Frank blindly fingered the light switch to dispel the natural darkness and isolate Them. When the light came on, only the natural shadows cast by his light remained. He slowly walked over to the closet light and flipped it when he could reach it. With even more light, he was surprised to see that They were still gone from his closet.
Frank stared at his trousers on their fragrant cedar hangers. For ten minutes, the gears in his head stopped turning. Eventually he blinked and slowly came back to the world. He collapsed in a heap onto his bed, and his brain cut the morning shift to a skeleton crew as he suddenly napped against his will. To Frank, it seemed that he awoke as soon as he fell asleep, but his watch claimed it had been a whole twenty minutes. He sat up instantly, pointing the gun at the empty closet for a second before remembering that it had been empty before he slept. He readjusted his pillow under his head. A little itch in the back of his mind detected a schism between his memory and reality. He pulled the warm blanket over his head while deciding that it was a problem for another time. Unfortunately, as he held the blanket, it became clear what the issue was. After all the events leading up to that moment, it’s not hard to understand what he did next. He accepted it. This was the least problematic way for his morning to have ended. At least this way his bedding and mattress didn’t need replacement. He got out of his bed, oddly calm about the newest happenstance in his increasingly strange life. He folded the blanket and turned off both lights in the room before heading to the kitchen for breakfast.
After he savored his breakfast, he cleaned the dishes and planned his day in his head. He told himself it was a nice day for a walk in the park. He got his coat on and grabbed his gloves and scarf before heading out the door into the cold November morning. The crisp, dry air was momentarily pleasing to his face and nose. He walked quickly to stave off the cold day’s air, thinking about the girl he’d had over two nights ago. He began to wish she had been over again last night, but stopped when he realized that would have meant her seeing this morning’s goings-on. Nobody puts up with baggage of that magnitude that early in a relationship.
Baggage. That’s what Frank had. With Them following him, he could never truly settle. He’d never thought of that before, but it suddenly wouldn’t stop bothering him. The thought lingered, making him very upset over the remainder of his walk to the park. By the time he reached the park, he was as upset as he’d ever been about the recent events. He sat down on a park bench with his back to the rising sun. On such a cold, early morning, nobody else was there to think of the lonely young man as he sat on the bench.
Frank propped his head in his hands and stared at the frost-rimed grass under his bench. He felt as though he was in shock. Why was all of this so suddenly happening? He’d never been the kind of person to hold stock in the supernatural. Somehow he had to reconcile what he was seeing with what he knew could actually be true. He thought back to the bedding this morning and how insane it was that it had been instantly and silently shredded. It was even more insane that twenty minutes later it was in perfectly normal shape. How was he able to cope with that? Why did he not just lose his mind and be done with it? As he was ruminating on this, he started to smell something odd. He stood up off the concrete half wall instantly. He looked off to the left and saw mushrooms growing thick in the grass. He kept turning and saw the mushrooms all the way from where he was to an odd darkened circle where they were gently smoking and glowing orange from the heat. The smell burned his nose as it got stronger. The shadow cast over the portion of the grass was not cast by anything Frank saw. They were here, now. They were here, and They wanted Frank. Frank saw a shimmer, a way the smoke vaguely implied the presence of Them as it drifted up past where They stood. This was the most Frank had ever seen of them. Naturally, this was quite a shock for him. He turned and ran as fast and as long as he could, only faster and longer. When he got to the limit dictated by his unnaturally fear-spurred endurance, he collapsed on the ground. He couldn’t care where he was or if he’d escaped Them.
He woke up when the policeman, hand on his Taser grip, shook his shoulder roughly.
“Get out of here. Vagrants can’t sleep freely here, go somewhere else.” It must have been a long day for Officer Grant, Frank would have thought, if he knew the officer’s name.
He rolled over, sore in every part of his body. He stood up slowly, looking at the officer inquisitively. “Where am I?” he asked.
“Not home, you have to move on,” came the gruff reply.
Frank explained he’d been frightened by something and had run away before crumpling on the ground. He lied and said it was a mugger; he would have seemed crazy if he told the truth. Eventually he got the officer to give him a ride back home.
By the time he got home, he was so mentally, emotionally, and physically drained that it was time for an unfortunately early bedtime for him.
He woke up screaming. As soon as he was conscious he stopped and looked around, terrified. Reality came back to him and he told himself it was just a dream. But it wasn’t. He’d been there, seen the grass and mushrooms. He’d seen Them. As the room solidified around him from his sleepy vision, he saw Them. They were on the ceiling, walls and floor. They were on the nightstand, bed dresser, and desk. He felt warmth near where they were cast on the bed. A second after he stopped screaming, he’d finished surveying the room and started screaming again. He jumped up, holding the gun from under his pillow. He fired all thirteen rounds into every one of Them that he could see. There weren’t enough cartridges for the number he’d seen in the room, but when he finished firing there were none left.
A fog lifted in his head instantly, and he realized why they were gone: they never existed. The nightmare was just a dream. He’d stared at a silent radio, held a silent phone to his face, and run from an empty park bench surrounded by a clean, fungus free lawn. He understood there was nothing and had never been anything to fear; his hallucinations couldn’t harm him. He silently rejoiced at his freedom from the terror he had experienced recently.
Next door, however, was a person newly shackled by terror. He heard his neighbor screaming for almost five minutes before he decided to call the police. The moment he placed the call, shots started crashing through his walls. He dropped the phone as the third of the bullets pierced his spine, exiting through his stomach. Another destroyed his left hand as he was crumpling to the ground. Shock took over immediately, and he felt little pain as he lay moaning on the ground. The emergency operator answered halfway through the barrage and dispatched several officers right away. When she heard him groaning, she dispatched an ambulance too.
Frank was able to get his sentence in years of treatment in a psych ward instead of a penitentiary, but he felt destroyed all the same. Five minutes of freedom between the last of the gunshots and the arrest was all he got. He could only focus on how unfair it was. He was still paying for it. Not as much, however, as his neighbor, bound for life to a wheelchair. Nothing of the situation resembled justice.
Credit To – rhrgrt