During my junior year of college, I was on a bit of a bender. My high school girlfriend finally called it quits for the third time and the lure of the one night stand caught in the sweaty mist of beer and perfume was too much for my angry brain to withstand. I was a decent looking guy back then, built tall and broad with pale eyes that more than one girl compared to sea foam. I also carried a forlorn look about me that was not entirely calculated, and so it took minimal effort for my reptilian brain to wire the right coordinates towards the triangular patch so coveted by many. In other words, I was a bit of a douchebag.
Time blurs the journey from cocky frat boy to settled husband and I can’t outline all the steps for you, but there was perhaps one night that stood out amongst the others. It was a Friday or Thursday, I can’t recall but I was attending some smoke-filled stage on Halloween night where the lights dimmed the caked out flesh and smoothed them into blank faces and bodies. I had met a girl, a nice slip of a thing with purple-dyed hair and thick mascara to match. But underneath all the clownery I could see she was beautiful and that intrigued me. Sometimes you get hot, sometimes you get cute or fine, but you rarely get beautiful.
The night had ended and I generously agreed to walk to her back to her home. That was odd, I remember, that she lived with her parents who happened to be near campus. But no matter, arm in arm we swayed through the peaking lights, her one arm settled so lightly on mine. “Bethany,” she had whispered in my ear and my swoony brain tried to keep this name midair.
At some point we redirected ourselves and conveniently were placed outside of my single. I glanced over at Bethany and realized with some annoyance that she was in no state for shenanigans; no, though her eyes were bright with drink and adrenaline, her head was drooping down.
Fine, be it as it may. I was a bit of a douchebag but I was not a rapist. I tried to get her to tell me where she lived but she was starting to doze. And so we found ourselves in my bedroom, at 2 am. Good intentions I swear… the buzz was wearing off on me too and I was settling on a futon while the girl was safely in my box spring twin. Classy guy that I was.
I had only dozed for perhaps a minute when I jolted awake. I glanced up to see Bethany sitting upright, combing her hair back with her fingers and muttering something to herself. I jumped up and sat on the bed, still safely away while taking a temperature of the mood.
“Hey… you okay?”
“Can’t sleep,” she said, which seemed incongruent with her state five minutes ago. “Can you stay up with me?”
There was something in her voice, timid like a child knocking on her parents’ door, which indicated the night would not take me the way I was hoping. Fair enough, I had snipped that cord of hope well before we even set foot inside the apartment. But what was this now, about staying up with her?
“What do you want to do?” I asked.
Her silence was prolonged and awkward. Through the dim light, I could just see her features, delicate with hair hanging down her face. Beautiful, remember? But also young and scared, and she reminded me a bit of my sister. There was a game we used to play, called the 100 lights, and perhaps inspired by this I offered this option.
“We could tell each other ghost stories.”
Bethany glanced at me. “What do you mean?”
I shrugged, a bit embarrassed already. “Just something my sister and I used to do when we were kids. We called it the 100 stories based on an old story. You were supposed to light 100 candles and take turns telling stories – after each story, you extinguished a candle, so that by the end, you were in pitch darkness. Then a real ghost was supposed to come.”
My paramour not-to-be glanced around. “Well, where would we get 100 candles?”
I laughed. “Well, obviously we didn’t light any candles. But we improvised. We could start with the bathroom light, for example, then the desk lamp, and the overhead light, and so on. Kind of a fun way to end the night, no? And in the spirit of Halloween…”
“Okay, but on one condition…” Bethany looked away. “You have to draw the curtains tight.”
It was a bit odd but it made sense, I suppose. I flicked on all the lights in my bedroom and drew the curtains tight over the window, guaranteeing pitch blackness when all was done. As I jolted the curtain shut, I glanced at two lampposts shining dimly in the misty night air. Below shadows flickered and I shivered, thinking about what might be out there.
Somewhat invigorated by this new game, I launched into the first story, a classic about a boy who finds a tail and learns of the creature that it belonged to. After finishing it, I stood up and flicked off the light to the living room outside. The room was still bright and Bethany, who was looking as sober as ever, smiled at me.
Her story was refreshingly creepy, about a demonic cat that slowly killed off family members, one by one. I couldn’t ever recall hearing it before. Upon finishing, she stood and walked over to my desk lamp, shutting it off. As she walked by I caught a whiff of her perfume and I marveled at how the theme of the night shifted so much.
My turn. A story about vampires in a small town. I kind of cheated as it was based on one of my favorite stories by one of my favorite authors. Then Bethany went and told a weird story about a ghost that swallowed people’s souls and turned them into lunatics. The details of this story escape me but I remember it was more weird than scary.
I finished my next story and was just about to turn off the last light, which hung over the bedroom, when Bethany pointed to my DVD player, still glimmering its time in the dimming room. “That first.”
Somewhat chagrined at being told about my own game, I complied. Bethany launched into yet another story about a giant who rose from the earth and killed a small boy. Much detail went into vivid descriptions of rending flesh and splattered guts and if it were bright enough, she would have seen my mouth hung open.
“Okay…” I started when she finished, and moved towards the final light, but her head shook again like a sudden blur. She pointed to my cell phone. “Oh.”
The blinking light. She wanted it off. A sense of dread crept down my spine but I shook it off – wasn’t this just some random party girl I picked up? We were playing some weird children’s game, true, but I came up with it, not her. Somewhat impressed by her dedication, I switched my cell off.
My turn. I told a quick, almost banal story about nothing much at all, just to get it over with. Then, as an almost act of defiance mixed with humor, I went to my kitchen and unplugged the fridge. There, I thought with satisfaction. Two can play at this game.
There was just one light left and it was Bethany’s turn. The overhead light in the bedroom cast a faint glow over her features. In a low monotone, she launched into it:
“Once there was a young girl who was never allowed to leave the home. Her parents were very strict and enforced a curfew every night. Thinking that her parents just had old fashioned values, which may have stemmed from her older brother’s untimely suicide years ago, this girl began to rebel in high school. She would stay out longer and longer and test her parents’ limits, finally electing to spend one night locked in her science lab at school. When she woke up the next day, she opened the door to find her father waiting for her. To her surprise and somewhat horror, he had tears in her eyes.
“‘Dad, what is it?’ the girl asked.
“‘Honey, it’s time you knew.’ The father explained to the daughter that the reason they never let her spend the night away from home was because of what happened to the girl while she slept. You see, there was a curse in this girl’s family, passed from generation to generation. The women in the family, when they fell asleep they… well, they changed.
“‘Changed?’ the girl asked her father. ‘What do you mean changed?’
“‘We never really know what it is like when we sleep, do we? Even in the presence of others, when we sleep we are unaware of ourselves. Maybe we all briefly change, matter changing into something else. How do we know? We are asleep.
“‘But,’ the father continued, ‘some of us change for longer than that. We change into things, things that beget unspeakable horrors.’
“The girl laughed. ‘Are you implying that when I fall asleep, I turn into some kind of monster, like a Medusa?’
“‘I only wish,’ her father said. ‘We know what Medusa looks like. This is something more, something that has no words.’ At that point, he began to weep loudly and for a second, the girl’s incredulity was briefly shaken.
“She, of course, began to experiment. She set up a video camera at night. But every night, like clockwork, she would turn off the camera right before she fell asleep. She never remembered this, mind you, she just watched herself the next day get up and move over and hit the off button. It was as if whatever lived in her had a desire to survive and so ensured it would never be caught.
“It was then the girl began to believe her father. One night, before bed she knocked on his door. As she walked in, like a light bulb she realized that her parents might sleep separately for reasons other than what she assumed.
“‘Dad, have you ever seen Mom change?’
“Her father looked at her with wide eyes. ‘No,’ he whispered, ‘but your brother did.’
“The girl never again stayed away from her parents’ home. She always ensured she was in bed like clockwork, at a reasonable hour, away from the eyes of others. And so all were safe.”
As the story ended, Bethany looked at me. Wordlessly, she got up and flicked the last switch off. The room plummeted into a deep darkness.
Nice story, I wanted to say, but I found myself unable to speak. Bethany was silent and I heard her yawn and lie down. Within a minute I heard the rhythmic breathing of her slumber.
I sat immobile in the dark. Somehow, the darkness seemed to deepen around the direction of my bed. I heard muffled breathing that grew deeper and coarser and felt something stir where Bethany was lying. It rustled and moved slowly in my direction.
I wanted to move, I wanted to scream then but nothing would come out. The rustling grew louder and I felt the sheets of the bed slide off. And then, just as abruptly, the rustling slowed and stopped. The coarse breathing also abruptly ended. There was dead silence.
My hand twitched towards the light switch but I otherwise sat still. It would be hours until morning.
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