The lights blink at an even pace. Once. Twice. Revealing the otherwise dark ceiling above you. Their blinking is what you focus on first, your eyes drawn to the glimpse of light and shadow that breaks across white tile. The bed beneath you is sturdy, the sheets soaked with sweat. You’ve been awake for hours.
“Have the nightmares stopped?”
The lights blink again, this time a quick flicker, shadows creeping closer before retreating to the edges of the room, forced to stay there by the fluorescent bulbs set into the antique chandelier. You sit in a wooden chair, staring across the plain, metal table at a figure.
“Jace.” The woman addresses again, eyes narrowing slightly. Her graying hair, streaked with less blonde as each week passes, is pulled into a knot at the base of her neck, almost as tight as the lid she keeps on her thoughts.
The same routine, over and over, for hours, days, weeks on end. Waking early, walking the tile-lined hallways from bedroom to restroom, restroom to examination room, the endless questioning, examination room back to bedroom, eat, sleep, wake again… Over and over, since being admitted here…
“Yes.” The word sounds false to your own ears. Her eyes narrow further behind her glasses.
Gaze watching the shadows just behind her, their opaque tendrils waiting patiently at the edge of the room. A scritching noise fills the air, like some creature running its claws along the tile floor and you flinch. Breathe in, then out. The mantra repeats in your head until your heart stops hammering in your chest. The shadows aren’t digging their claws into the floor; it is simply the woman taking notes upon a page, her pen scribbling furiously.
“What did you see this time?” The question stirs brief glimpses of a dream: the same hallway walked each day, cast in a void of endless shadow, unable to see more than a few feet ahead. The snarling, throaty echoes of something inhuman in the dark. Lungs heaving, legs aching, always straining forward. A hand grasped tightly in yours.
“Nothing.” You answer, gaze focusing away from the shadows, as a cold sweat trails down your back.
More furious scribbling. The click of the air conditioning, followed by a gust of chilled wind, causing shivers. The lights flicker again; this time, the gaps between dawn and shadow are longer. One beat, a second, a third, before the light stabilizes.
The woman sighs. “Jace, I can’t help you if you won’t talk to me.”
“Help!” A second voice, this one younger, familiar and haunted, echoes. Forcing panicked breaths to remain steady, biting the inside of your cheek. The dull pain helped block out her cries.
“Where is she?” Focus on asking the important questions, force another steady breath from weary lungs. Hands clenching the wooden seat beneath. Indentations roughly the size of fingertips run along the bottom edge, familiar grooves that can be latched onto.
“Who?” The woman continues her scribbling at a slower pace, her gaze flickering upwards.
“Grace.” The name echoes casually around the room, stirring the fog inside the memory violently. A girl, cloaked in darkness, her appearance hidden, lingers on the forefront of a nightmare.
“Jace, there is no one here by that name.”
The figure sitting across the table narrows her eyes again. The lights flicker rapidly. One-two, one-two. Then, they go out.
Darkness seeps into every pore, every corner of the familiar room. No, no, no, no.. Grip tightening on the chair beneath, a vice, something to hang onto. Focus. Breath. In. Out. In. Out. A pinprick of pain, at first a small nuisance, spreads in an ache through clenched limbs. Heart hammering, the sound simultaneously swallowed by the dark and all too loud against ribs that threaten to snap. The air smells stale and dry, the slight breeze from the air conditioner gone, snuffed out. The sounds of pen on paper have dissipated, a dull echo swallowed by the empty space.
“Have the nightmares stopped?”
A girl stands across the room, long pale hair falling in waves around her. Her question is tinged in concern, though a bit playful, unlike the cold calculations of the woman. A wisp of a smile peeks out from behind her curtain of hair.
“‘Nightmares?’” The question echoes. The chair beneath, absent. The room with the table replaced by the endless hallway.
Solidity, a foundation, slipping away.
“The one you have day after day. With the woman who asks the same questions.” Grace asks, her hand outstretched.
Visage, translucent, pale as fog. Veins, blue creeping through the surface, a river’s tendrils weaving a mesmerizing tapestry. Flowing with life.
“No.” The answer, this time, is an exhalation of the truth, a weight dissipating.
Breathe in. Lungs inflating, full to bursting on musty air.
Like always, reaching out and taking her hand. She squeezes back, her grip stabilizing the haziness and wavering of the tile beneath and the walls beside.
Soft. Tender. The rivers beneath are frozen ice. Cold.
Was this the nightmare? Was this reality?
The sounds of scritching, not unlike a pen on paper, echo from the front of the hallway. Grace tugs in the opposite direction, another smile on her face. This one, unlike the shy, concerned tilt of her lips from earlier, is cloaked in shadow, her teeth a little longer and pointier than before. Her eyes pale, like a sliver of moonlight. Reflecting all held within her gaze. Following, mind clouded and legs already straining to run, a thought surfaces:
Would the nightmares actually stop? Would reality…?
There was no time, as a snarl from the dark cut through any logical reasoning. Led by Grace – a stranger, a friend, a comfort, a danger… as another night of survival began.
Kristen Helgerman is a recent graduate from Slippery Rock University. Majoring in Cultural Area Studies and Professional Writing, she has enjoyed writing creative fiction works since 2011. Her favorite genre is fantasy and myths, while her writing explores themes of emotional connection amidst struggle.