Dull bedroom light creeps between my eyelids and coaxes me from the blurred edges of sleep. I do my best to defend myself; I keep my body limp and my head free of meandering thoughts but it doesn’t take long before I’m thumping the pillow back into shape and trying to clear an earworm from my head.
The room is gloomy and silent, and so I know before checking that it’s still late, but I dangle my arm over the frame of the bed and grope around on the floor for my phone anyway. I slump back into the pillow with a groan when the display reads 02.39.
I’m uptight and grouchy. I barely slept a wink last night and, when I did manage to nod off, Audrey’s incessant tossing and turning kept me awake for hours. This is only the second night in our new home and so I’m sure the unfamiliar surroundings are probably playing a part in my disturbed sleep but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. We do have the comfort of our own bed but it’s out of place against the backdrop of randomly-placed furniture and half unpacked cardboard boxes. The stack of dark shapes that span the room have morphed into a crude miniature skyline, where the television LED blinks out at me like a lighthouse perched on a cardboard clifftop, next to a dressing table mirror masquerading as a tower block.
Audrey interrupts the silence by exhaling a long drawn-out raspy breath that sounds as if it’s being dragged up from her lungs. I glance over, waiting for the follow up snore but it never happens. She’s lying on her back with her arms draped in an ‘x’ shape across her body, her hands resting on opposite shoulders. I watch her eyes dart back and forth beneath her lids as her mouth hangs open slightly, revealing the tip of her tongue. She’s sleeping soundly.
“Kkkkaaaahhhh.” She exhales sharply. Did I miss her inhaling? I listen out this time, absently joining in by holding my own breath.
I look down the bed and notice that she’s actually lying perfectly straight with her knees and ankles together. It’s a strange sleeping position but odder than that I notice her hands aren’t simply resting on her shoulders, they look like they’re gripping them. The tips of her fingers are lost within the soft flesh of her shoulders. I frown and raise myself onto my elbow to get a better look. The dark room is playing tricks on my tired eyes.
“Bbbrrreeeeehhhh,” she exhales again.
She definitely didn’t inhale between breaths. I’m sure of it. I spurt out my own breath and, lightheaded, snatch in another which raises dimples across my skin as the hairs on my forearms spring up. The breath I’ve drawn down is ice cold and stings my lungs as it hits them.
There’s someone else in the room with us.
My heart tries to punch itself free of my chest as I scan the room. I can’t hear anyone. The door is closed and the curtains are undisturbed. I pause before looking at the area of the room over my shoulder but when I eventually summon the courage, I find nothing.
“Shit,” I mutter to myself. I can feel the blood pumped through my body, throbbing at my temples.
“Audrey?” My voice breaks halfway so I try again, doing my best to hide the nervousness from us both. “Audrey. Wake up.” It’s not loud enough to scare but hopefully has the urgency to rouse her.
Her eyes are open, she’s awake.
“Hey, Hon’. Sorry to wake you.”
She doesn’t react. She stares forward, unblinking. Her eyes are fixed on the far wall above the TV. I follow her gaze and that’s when I see it. I can’t help myself, I make the kind of whimpering noise I haven’t made since I was a child.
Reflected in the mirror on the back of the dresser is an old woman. Her outline is hazy and dark but it’s unmistakable a woman. She’s squatting over Audrey on the bed next to me.
Turning back to the bed, the woman isn’t there. Audrey is laying perfectly still next to me, staring up at the wall. The duvet is pulled taught across her chest and either side of her body there is a divot in the bedclothes.
“Kkkkaaaahhhhnnnnttttt.” Audrey breathes out again. It’s not a breath. It’s a word. ‘Can’t.’
“Can’t? Can’t what? Audrey. Audrey!”
Audrey continues to stare at the back wall. No, not at the wall, she’s staring up into the face of the woman sitting over her.
I kick off the duvet and it folds in half down the centre of the bed, pinned down on Audrey’s side. As it falls it glides over the invisible contours of the woman. I catch my own movement in the mirror and then see the woman scooping at the space above Audrey’s face. Her long scrawny fingers are reaching out like leafless branches. They unfurl then close tightly above Audrey’s mouth before withdrawing back into the darkness of her form. A second later they reach out again. I can feel the heaviness of the woman across my own chest.
“Bbbrrreeeeehhhh.” Audrey exhales again. Bree? Breathe? ‘Can’t. Breathe’.
The woman is stealing Audrey’s breath. Clawing at it, cupping it in those gnarly fingers and gulping it down into her own mouth.
“Audrey! Audrey, wake up.”
I throw my leg over Audrey’s body and squat across her, reaching forward to shake her shoulders. As I touch her skin pain tears down the back of my neck and across my shoulders and I find myself looking up at the ceiling. My head has been yanked back and my arms are flailing around in front of me. I can feel razor fingers clawing through the hair on my scalp, holding my head firm. I reach back frantically to free myself but my hands clash together in the empty space. My sudden movements causes hair to pop free of my head and, panicking, I lunge forward sharply. I feel a clump of skin rip from my scalp as I manage to break the hold.
“Audrey. Audrey. Wake Up. Audrey.”
As I shake her shoulder with one hand and I reach back to the top of my head with the other. The area is burning hot and I can feel a flap of skin hanging loose. My fingertips come away wet.
Audrey takes in three a large breaths, pauses, then takes in another before her eyes flicker and refocus. The tension in her hands relaxes and she loosens the grip of her shoulders.
She continues to gasp for air, refilling her lungs.
“God, that was terrifying,” she says finally, “I couldn’t breathe.”
The pain across my head has subsided and when I touch my fingertips together the blood has gone.
“Shhh. It’s okay, just relax. It was just a dream.” I say.
“It felt like someone was biting into my arms with their fingers.” She grabs my arms at the shoulders and squeezes to demonstrate. “Dear God, it was scary.”
“You don’t need to be scared.” She lets out an exhausted sigh and narrows her eyes at me. “I’m not scared.” I reassure her.
I smile and lean forward to kiss her but a shooting pain in my shoulders stops me. Audrey is pushing her fingers deep into the flesh, past tendons and through muscle tissue to the bones within.
“You should be,” says Audrey in a voice that’s not her own as her face melts to black.
I’m lying on my back and the pressure on my lungs is incredible. My rib cage is being crushed by the weight of the old woman squatting over me, her long scrawny fingers protruding out from the blackness. I try to move but I’m held fast. She leans closer, clutching at the space above my face as her weight forces the air from my lungs. Where her face should be there is a dense, featureless void that ripples like oil when she moves. It’s dark enough to reflect and I see myself staring back out; my eyes held open, my mouth is a distorted snarl as I gasp for air. Beyond that, lurking deep within the blackness, are the woman’s features. I try to call out but when she takes my breath she takes my voice with it. I can’t speak. I can’t move. I can’t breathe. I can feel the life being slowly dragged out of me.
“Kkkkaaaaahhhhhhh.” I hear myself wheeze.
I wriggle and squirm on the bed, desperately trying to find a way to break free. I tighten every muscle in my body, my fingers biting into the tops of my shoulders, and dig deep to gather every ounce of strength and then I push against my captor and scream…
“Leon! Leon. Wake Up! What’s wrong?”
My lungs are on fire and I gulp down several breaths hungrily. Audrey is standing over the bed, shaking my shoulders. She looks absolutely petrified. My body is soaked in sweat, I can feel the wet sheets clinging to my back.
“You! You scared the crap out of me.”
“Huhh…” is all I manage to reply between gasps. I’m too weak and disoriented to speak.
“I was about to smack you in the mouth.” She slaps my chest playfully and the sting helps to bring me round. “I couldn’t wake you,” she adds.
“Christ.” I say. My whole body aches.
“What was that all about?” she asks, sitting down on the edge of the bed.
“I.. I don’t know. Just a nightmare, I guess.”
“You’re not kidding, a nightmare. I thought you were dying or something. All that bloody gasping and moaning.” Audrey turns and collects the mugs resting on the window sill, “I was only downstairs for a minute. When I got back up here you’re being all weird. Shaking and mumbling. I thought you were having some kind of fit.”
“There was an old woman.” I explain. “You were there. She was crouching over us stealing our breath and…” I trail off when I realise how ridiculous it sounds.
“Stealing breath? Riiight! That doesn’t sound weird at all.” Audrey rolls her eyes and frowns at me before adding, “Maybe it’s the air in here. It felt a bit stuffy last night. I remember waking up once or twice coughing. Oh, and talking of nightmares,” she says offers me a mug, “I keep opening the wrong kitchen drawers searching for teaspoons. It’s doing my bloody head in.”
I manage a smile and shove my arms forward to stretch the sleep out of my body, adding exaggerated grunts and groans for good measure. I ache but the feeling of unease is fading along with the details of the dream. I pull myself up to a sitting position and reach for my coffee.
The words go unfinished. My stomach sinks and my lungs tighten when I see the two divots pressed into the bed on either side of my body.
A version of this story previously appeared in Glove Lit Zine #2