Estimated reading time — 17 minutes
“Can you send me the outline over email? That would be way easier,” said Jack, already searching for a taxi as he pushed his way out of the City University of New York’s doors.
“Sure bud, I’ll do that as soon as I get home,” said Abraham, walking beside Jack.
“Cool, I’ll catch you later,” said Jack. Abraham nodded and they parted ways.
Jack waved down a taxi after a few minutes and climbed into the back seat. The musky smell of the taxi made Jack question why he would take his car into the shop in the first place. He hated taxis. Nonetheless, he told the driver his address, then turned on his music and relaxed back in the seat.
“How’s school, son?’
“Sorry?” said Jack, taking out an earphone.
“How’s school going for you?” the taxi driver asked gruffly. He scratched his moustache with the hand he wasn’t using to steer with.
“Uh, good I guess. School is school you know?” Jack said.
The man chuckled, “What classes are you taking?”
Jack desperately wanted to forget about school for at least a few minutes and just listen to his music, but he replied politely anyways. “I’m just taking a few classes for accounting.”
“Accounting eh?” said the man. Jack didn’t say anything. “Are you from here by chance?”
Jack sighed, “No, I’m from Milwaukee.”
“I knew you didn’t look like the usual ‘Yorker. So, you came here to earn a degree in accounting?”
Jack ruffled his brown hair with his fingers. “Yes sir.”
“Huh, that’s something different. Let me tell you a story about one of my accountant friends, he …”
Jack had already tuned out, both of his earphones back in place and the beats of the song playing vibrating in his head. He stared out the window and watched the grey clouds in the sky roll over the city. A few drops of rain were already falling, splattering along the pavement and running down the taxi’s window that Jack stared out of. In the nearly stand-still traffic, Jack watched all the people of New York City bustling along the sidewalks in a mad rush to get home.
Before he’d officially decided to come to the city that never sleeps, Jack had considered riding a bike to and from his classes when he got there. After all, it was environmentally friendly and might even get him from point A to point B faster than anything else would. Now, as he sat in the stuffiness of the taxi with the driver droning on, Jack watched the business men and women on their bicycles groan in frustration as they attempted to weave around the clumps of people walking. In that moment he was grateful for not buying a bike. Anyway, he would get his car back in a few days and then he could be a part of the traffic problem again.
Moving to a new city, especially one as large and crammed with people as New York City, was a daunting task. Jack had always wanted to live there at some point in his life, but it had surprised him when his parents had allowed him to go so soon. It wasn’t like he was totally alone, since an old family friend had let him stay in his apartment for free. No rent meant Jack had the ability to save up for his car, even if it was a little beat up. The family friend had decided to stay in Phoenix at his vacation home until Jack had finished his stay in the apartment, but promised he would continue to pay the bills, which Jack would be forever grateful for.
Jack blinked and shook his head, the fog of daydreaming fading away. He pulled out his earphones as the taxi driver pulled over to the street outside of the apartment building he lived in.
“There you go, have a nice night now,” said the driver as Jack paid him and climbed out of the taxi.
“You too,” Jack mumbled, distracted by keeping his textbooks dry from the rain. He scrambled into the building, hair dripping and shirt slightly hugging his torso. After finally getting into the apartment, Jack slung his overstuffed backpack off of his shoulder and tossed it onto the floor along with the other books that he held in his arms.
“Jesus, I need some dry clothes,” Jack sighed, glancing down at the damp clothing that clung to his shivering body.
A dry pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt later and Jack was all ready to get started on his homework. He sat down at the kitchen table with a beer and opened his laptop. Jack opened the document Abraham had sent him with a sigh. The last thing he wanted to do was work from school and with everything he had to finish, Jack knew he’d be ordering Chinese food again for the third time this week.
A little while later, Jack heard the doorbell ring and went to get the door.
“Hey man,” said Jack as he opened the door.
“Hello sir,” said the delivery man. He handed the Chinese food to Jack who set the food on the floor beside him. “That will be $25.”
“There you go,” said Jack, handing him the cash.
“Thank you, good evening,” said the delivery man. He stepped away from the door and towards the elevator at the end of the hallway.
“You too,” Jack called down the hallway. Just before he closed the door though, something caught his eye. He swore, for only a second, that the man had changed from a man into … something else. Something black and what had looked like it was hovering above the ground. Jack shook his head and blinked a few times, he just needed some food and then he’d be ok.
Nonetheless, after Jack had closed the door, making a point to lock it, he peered out through the peephole. The man was already gone, having taken the elevator Jack supposed. Except he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being stared right back at, like something was looking directly through the peephole back at him.
Jack stumbled back and shivered as a tingle of nerves ran down his spine. Whatever, it was late and he was alone, that stuff happens. Right?
Four hours later, Jack was just about falling asleep as he stared blankly at his laptop. He sat back in his chair, his back cracking with a series of satisfying pops as it released some of the tension built up there over the past few hours.
Beside Jack’s laptop, a half-filled coffee mug that had been refilled twice already, sat staring at him. The coffee seemed to be mocking him, as if all the caffeine in the world wouldn’t help Jack stay awake to finish his assignments.
Jack’s phone buzzed, snapping him back to reality and he glanced down at the screen that illuminated the tiny kitchen he sat in. He picked up the phone and cleared his throat before answering.
“Hey Angie, what’s up?” said Jack.
“Were you sleeping, Jack? I’m sorry if I woke you,” said the voice on the other end. Angie was Jack’s best friend since elementary school and he had learned long ago that Angela Perkins knew everything, so he decided to tell half the truth instead.
“Not sleeping, exactly …” said Jack. He heard Angie giggle through the phone. “I’m doing homework so yeah actually, I am basically asleep.”
“That sucks, Jack-o,” said Angie. When they were 10, Jack had gotten scared while trick-or-treating and tripped over a pumpkin, face planting into the ground which gave him a bloody nose. Angie had called him that ever since, even though he hated it.
“I was just calling since it’s-“
“The anniversary,” said Jack firmly.
“Yeah,” Angie paused. “You know I care about you, that’s why I always check in.”
“I know, but really it’s ok,” said Jack. He scrubbed his hand down his face and cleared his throat so his voice didn’t shake. “It happened a long time ago.”
“Like that matters,” Angie scoffed. “I know you Jack. You’ll always think it was your fault.”
“Maybe that means it was,” Jack stated half-heartedly.
“You know I don’t think that.”
“Yeah,” said Jack. He sighed and switched the phone from one hand to the other. “Anyways, I don’t want to be rude, you know I love talking to you, but I really got to get this work done.”
“Of course, I’ll let you go. Miss you Jack-o,” said Angie.
“You too, Angie, you too.” Jack hung up and interlocked his fingers behind his head. He was never going to finish his work if he was on the verge of falling asleep. What was he going to do? Walk around, that’s it, that’ll get the blood flowing to his brain again.
Jack stood up from his chair and stretched so that all different parts of his body loosened up, then made his way over to the large window that overlooked the streets of the city.
New York City was the destination for dreamers who wanted to stick it to the man and make something great of themselves. It was not the ultimate place to go if you wanted to become an accountant, yet that was the profession Jack had set his sights on when he’d moved there all the way from Milwaukee.
Jack watched the people on the streets from his high up perch as they wove in between each other, like ants. It was almost in the AM, yet people and cars were still crammed together in massive crowds of frustration and impatience.
From up there in the apartment, an individual’s fragility was so apparent that it was a little disorientating to Jack. The late night thoughts of humankind’s vulnerability would inevitably lead to a small existential crisis or two and Jack really didn’t need that just then. He was way too exhausted for that kind of thinking.
Jack stumbled back from the window and into his bedroom. His head had started to throb, the pain focused right in his temples as the blood surged through his head.
“I’m never drinking coffee again,” Jack muttered.
Another particularly sharp throb pierced his head as he shook it in annoyance. “Damn it- bad idea, bad idea.”
Jack shuffled into the bathroom for a couple of painkillers before going back into his bedroom and laying down on his bed. It was so peaceful there, like a warm embrace wrapping around his body as the mist of sleep washed over him. Just a few minutes, just a few …
The sun was bright and warm. It burned the back of Jack’s arms and legs as he ran around the playground with Angie. Her pigtails danced in the wind, exactly like how she used to wear them when they were little. He could hear his mother calling him in the distance so he spun around and ran in her direction.
Next, Jack was standing in the grass that stretched a little ways out from the front of his house. Rachael, the neighbour’s kid who he went to elementary school with, was playing catch with him. He was only seven and many years had passed since that day, but Jack remembered it vividly from all the times he dreamed of it.
“Hey,” Jack said and passed the ball to Rachael. “Want to see who can throw the farthest?”
“Ok!” Rachael exclaimed, catching the ball and hugging it close to her chest.
“You throw first,” Jack said. He walked to the closed door of the garage while Rachael made her way to the end of the driveway.
“Ready?” Rachael smiled and winded up her arm.
Jack suddenly remembered that he wasn’t supposed play catch near the road. Oh well. Rachael threw the ball with more force than Jack had expected and he ran for the ball that had bounced off of the garage door behind him.
“Wait ball!” Jack cried and he stumbled down the driveway after it. Jack lunged forward, falling onto his stomach and scraping his knees, but the ball slipped out of his tiny fingers. It rolled quickly past Rachael, out onto the road and she immediately ran after it.
It all happened so fast. Jack choked out a warning for Rachael as he saw the truck tear around the corner but she was already in the street. Jack tried to stand to wave at her but her back was turned and she already had the ball in hand. Jack squeezed his eyes shut when he heard the blaring horn of the truck and a dull thump only seconds afterwards.
There was screaming coming from everywhere and Jack covered his eyes with his hands, feeling warm tears fall down his cheeks. It was his fault, all his fault, no matter what his parents had told him afterwards. He couldn’t save her. He didn’t save Rachael.
Then everything changed.
Like whiplash, Jack was surrounded by a whirl of darkness until it suddenly settled. Jack stuck his hands in front of his face but the inky black of his surroundings blinded him. A lump grew steadily in Jack’s throat and his stomach felt like it was contracting in on itself.
The warm gust of a person’s breath brushed past Jack’s ear and he spun around, reaching into the darkness. Nothing. Another few moments passed and Jack felt a hot flash on his arm like he’d been scratched. Still unable to see anything, Jack just held his burning arm and prayed for whatever was screwing with him to get lost.
When Jack turned back around he saw, finally, a small light. A candle sat on a windowsill only a few feet from him. Jack tripped and nearly fell on his way over but finally he reached the candle and breathed a sigh of relief. He held the flame up and took in his surroundings. The orange glow brought comfort back into the room Jack was standing in and his heartbeat slowed down as he relaxed.
The room looked like his own bedroom, in the apartment, but it was completely barren, all the furniture and posters Jack had taped to the walls were gone. The room felt almost dead, like it had been so long since it had felt a human’s presence and it was slowly decaying.
Jack blinked and when he opened his eyes he was back in his bedroom, sprawled on his bed.
“No sleeping beauty am I?” Jack laughed to himself as he wiped the small amount of drool from the side of his mouth. He sat up and realized mid-stretch that he was not in his bedroom at all. Well, it was his bedroom, but there was no sign that anyone was living there except for the bed Jack was sitting on. His posters were stripped from the walls; the shelving that was once pushed up against the far corner of his room was gone. Jack shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut. He just wasn’t awake yet, that’s all. When he opened them again he swore loudly in frustration. The room remained the same, empty, drained of life. Exactly like his dream.
Jack drew his attention to the alarm clock that was sitting on the floor where the shelves for his clothes used to be. It was the only thing besides the bed that he recognized as his own. As he watched the digital clock, he became perplexed by it. As the minutes ticked by aimlessly, Jack felt almost as if he was entering a trance. He simply couldn’t look away from it.
The clock changed then, from 11:59pm to 0:00. Jack broke from the trance and quickly walked over to it, then kneeled down and picked it up. It wasn’t plugged in, so even if the lightening and rain had taken down a telephone pole, the clock couldn’t have reset itself. Besides, clocks can’t be set to zero, as far as Jack knew anyway.
“What the hell?” Jack muttered to himself, abandoning his investigation with the clock. He walked out of his bedroom and into the kitchen where he hoped to find his phone and call Angie, or at least realize that this wasn’t real and that eventually he would wake up. His cellphone was not on the table where he’d left it, because there wasn’t a table at all. It was like Jack had been robbed, the entirety of the apartment was empty.
Jack realized that he hadn’t turned any lights on yet as he jogged from empty room to empty room, searching for anything of his belongings. He tried a light switch but the apartment remained eclipsed in a soft darkness.
“So the power is out,” said Jack. He scratched the back of his head in thought. “I have to still be dreaming. No one has a key to this apartment besides me and anyways, no one would steal everything. That just doesn’t make sense, I have to-”
Something caught Jack’s eye from the large window. Behind the left curtain there was a shadow. Even with no light to cast it, the shadow loomed behind the curtain and Jack thought for a moment that it didn’t even look to be hiding. It was harsher than the darkness of the apartment, as it stood- or hovered, Jack wasn’t sure- in a rigid and cold state of being.
Jack leaned against the wall and slid down. He just wanted this all to be over, he was tired and he ached with frustration. He hated nightmares and this one just wouldn’t let go of him. Why did Angie have to bring up the anniversary of the accident? He’d almost forgotten about it until she mentioned it. Then Jack opened his eyes and screamed.
He stood and bolted for his bedroom. It had been so close to face, whatever it was. It had been so close to him, almost touching him. Just… watching him.
In an attempt to jump over his bed in the hope of getting somewhere safe, Jack tripped and hit the floor, hard.
Jack woke up with a start, his heart pounding in his chest and his scream echoing in his mind. He was awake. When he sat up in his bed, a wave of despair and exhaustion hit him. No, he wasn’t. His room was still completely empty and his alarm clock sat patiently in the corner of the room just like before. The time switched to 0:00 and Jack drew his knees up to his chest and prayed for the horrible nightmare to be over. He didn’t dare close his eyes, fearing for the shadow behind the curtain to come looking for him in his room.
After a few moments, Jack decided to go back into the kitchen like last time. He was anxious and terrified, but he figured if he just went along with the dream, then maybe it would end. The black shadow stood behind the curtain, just the same as before. This time though, it seemed different, like it was changing. It began to shrink, the shadow creeping down the wall until it stopped at the height of a small child. It was holding something too, Jack noticed. It held a round object under its arm, similar to a ball.
Jack stared at the childlike figure, panic rising in his chest with each breath. The shadow then dropped the ball under its arm and lunged at him. Jack only saw the darkness of the figure crawl over his body before his mind went blank as he fainted.
He awoke in his bed. His room was empty, the time switched to 0:00, he saw the figure, then blacked out.
Empty, 0:00, figure, black out.
Empty, 0:00, figure, black out.
Every time his room was barren and dead. Every time the clock set to 0:00. Every time the figure attacked him. Every time Jack screamed and blacked out.
How many times the cycle had repeated, Jack didn’t know. It might have been a few minutes, it might have been days. He tried to change it, tried to do something different every time but it always ended the same. Except it didn’t end.
Around the hundredth cycle, Jack began to wonder if he was in hell. Maybe hell is just the process of reliving something terrible over and over again. Jack had experienced his nightmare so many times that now he knew what would happen. The details started knitting themselves together, but he couldn’t do anything to change them. No one would be there to save him; no one would come to stop the cycle. He was alone and he would always be alone, in his own never-ending hell.
He thought he counted 423 last time, but everything had blended together and he didn’t know what to do anymore. He sat in his bed every time, not bothering to confront the figure anymore, because it always would come for him anyways. Jack was hopeless, he’d given up. There was nothing he could do.
597, 598, 599 …
664, 665, 666.
He had to die, that was the only way Jack would escape his fate. He had to believe that he wasn’t already dead, that he could kill himself and it would break the cycle. After all, he had nothing to lose anymore. Jack prayed for a rope of some kind to appear when the next cycle started and by some heavenly miracle, his wish came true. It was an old and fraying rope and he worried it might not hold his body, but it was something.
He went into the bathroom and tied a noose around the shower curtain rod. It would be high enough that his feet wouldn’t touch the floor and besides, he wouldn’t try to struggle. He was trying to end it all.
Jack blacked out right away, probably from how exhausted his mind and body had become. He’d felt the pain of rope burn around his neck, felt the throbbing in his head as his body tried to keep the oxygen flowing through his blood, but it hadn’t been enough to keep him alive.
Jack died in a cloudy fog of peace, hanging in his bathroom with his arms limp at his sides. Just before his body finally let go, he thanked whatever mercy the universe had spared him to allow him to end his nightmares. Then all he felt was bliss.
Everything was spinning and when Jack opened his eyes, black dots ran past his vision. He blinked a few times, confusion sweeping over his mind. Jack was lying down, so he sat up slowly to take in his surroundings. A wave of relief washed over him and Jack felt warm tears fall down his cheeks. He was free.
Immediately, Jack stumbled to the no longer empty kitchen and found his phone.
“Angie!” Jack yelled into the phone as soon as he heard the click of someone pick up on the other line.
“Jack?” Angie mumbled. He’d woken her from sleep, but he didn’t care.
“Oh my god, I’m so happy to hear your voice, Angie,” said Jack, crying again.
“Are you ok? What’s wrong?” said Angie, more urgently and awake this time.
“I had a nightmare, well- it was like a bunch of nightmares over and over because they were all the same-”
“Slow down Jack-o,” Angie said.
“Right, sorry,” said Jack. “I just had a bad nap, that’s all. Probably from the anniversary with Rachael-” Jack dry heaved at the name. “Sorry I woke you up I just needed to confirm that I wasn’t dreaming anymore.”
“I’m always here for you with that stuff. You’re ok now though?” Angie asked. She still sounded concerned, but not as agitated as before.
“Yeah I’m good,” said Jack. “I’ll call you tomorrow ok?”
“Ok, night Jack,” said Angie. “Hope you can fix your alarm clock soon.”
“Thanks, night Angie.” A voice in the back of Jack’s mind whispered about something she’d said, but he brushed it off.
He hung up and walked to the window, looking down on the streets as he’d done before. The people didn’t look vulnerable and fragile as they had looked before. They looked strong and determined, which Jack concluded was probably from him breaking the cycle and proving his own perseverance to himself.
Jack was terrified to go to sleep that night so he held out for as long as possible until his body shut down his mind for him. He didn’t dream at all and he was thankful for that. Maybe he’d finally paid his dues.
The next morning came with ease. The sunshine passed through the window in Jack’s room, covering the floor in an elegant golden blanket. When it reached high enough in the morning sky to pass over Jack’s sleeping face, he awoke slowly. The best way to wake up is with a big stretch that loosens all of your muscles and joints from the paralysis of sleep and that was exactly what Jack had the privilege of experiencing.
There is no greater feeling than waking up after a restless night of nightmares to the beauty of a Saturday morning.
Jack first made his way into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes to get rid of the last traces of sleep. He felt sick when he looked at his coffee pot, so he grabbed some orange juice from the fridge instead. He made eggs and toast with all the fixings, just how he liked it.
As he wolfed down his breakfast, Jack had the sudden urge like he needed to make the most of his day. It was the kind of feeling one gets after watching and inspirational movie or hearing a speech about changing your life for the better. Jack mentally started making a plan for the rest of his day so that he could live like it was his last day on earth.
He called his friend Abraham from school first to see if he wanted a break from studying like Jack did.
“Hey dude, what’s going on?” Abraham answered.
“Nothing actually, I woke up like an hour ago,” said Jack, laughing a little at himself.
“No way, I’ve been up for hours studying,” Abraham said with a jealous sigh.
“Perfect, do you want a break?” Jack asked.
Abraham laughed and Jack pictured him looking through all of the work he probably still had to do. “Sure, why the hell not?”
“Great! I’ll meet you at the café near the university in hour?”
“See you there bud!” Abraham exclaimed. Jack laughed again and ran his fingers through his hair. He knew he could get ready in ten minutes and he could catch a taxi that would get him to the café in thirty, so like the mostly responsible young man he was, Jack decided he’d try and finish the paper he’d been working on last night.
Jack had thought he would’ve been rid of writing essays and papers when he finished English in high school, but as it turns out, both were great ways of summarizing units. He hated it, but it was just something that needed to be done. So Jack wandered over to his laptop and plopped down in his seat, a little giddy with excitement about actually getting out the apartment later.
Jack had one last paragraph to do, with plenty of time to spare before getting ready to meet Abraham, when he heard a knock on the door to the apartment. No one ever knocked, the doorbell was right there.
He stood from his seat and made his way over the door, brows knitting together in the middle of his forehead. Jack opened the door slowly, only a crack, before peering out at the person standing there. It was the Chinese delivery man from last night, holding a full order of Chinese food in his arms.
“Hello,” Jack said, his voice rising at the end of the word in confusion.
“Hello sir,” said the delivery man. He shoved the food inside the door and Jack had to grab it to keep it from falling. “That will be $25.”
“I’m sorry this isn’t mine … I don’t think,” said Jack as he tried to hand the delivery man the food back. “I ordered some last night but you must have me mistaken for someone else.”
“Thank you, good evening,” said the delivery man. He seemed almost mechanical, like a puppet, like someone was whispering what to say in his ear.
The man turned and walked down the hallway towards the elevator, leaving Jack feeling uneasy and a little speechless.
“What the hell?” Jack muttered, closing and locking the door to the apartment behind him. He set the Chinese food down on the kitchen table and stared at it, his hands on his hips. He shivered at how strange his encounter was, how eerily similar it had been to previous night.
Jack went to the bathroom, hoping to bring himself back to reality a little more. Jack ran some cold water from the faucet and rinsed his face, wiping any remaining exhaustion from it. It felt good to physically wash away all the pain he had endured and start to move on.
“I need a shower,” he mumbled to himself as he dried his face on a hand towel. The towel brushed past his neck and a tender pain bloomed where it had touched him. Confused, Jack went back to the mirror above the sink and stared at himself. A red circle wrapped itself around his neck, blotchy with purple and blue bruises that hurt to touch when he pressed his fingers against them.
As Jack stared at his reflection, a panic rose in his chest as he realized what the circle forming around his neck reminded him of. The injury looked like it had been made by the toughness of rope.
Jack shot straight up in his bed just as the clock across his room switched to zero.