Story by Greg Long
Eighteen fucking steps.
That’s the distance between my bed and the toilet. I know this for a fact. Every night, around 2 a.m. and then again around 5 a.m., I make my porcelain pilgrimages. Bladder heavy, I tiptoe there, dribble some piss, tiptoe back, engage my Darth Vader mask (that’s what I call my sleep apnoea breathing apparatus) and drift back into unsatisfactory dreams. And it’s done in the dark. Not pitch black, but dark enough for me to regularly stub my toes or trip over unseen objects left carelessly on the hall floor.
Tonight was no different. At least that is what I thought at first.
I wake and check the clock. It’s one fifteen – forty-five minutes earlier than usual. The bedroom is exceptionally lightless. I tap off the breathing machine and then expertly remove the mask with one hand (in the beginning it required both hands). I sit up, adjust my pyjamas, stand (carefully, so as not to shake the bed and disturb my wife), pull open the bedroom door (it’s right next to my side of the bed), blink a few times, then start my walk. Soft light from the street lamps beyond the hall windows illuminates the walls, but I cannot see the floor. This said, I can feel the shag carpet and hear the creak of the cedar floor boards beneath it.
I count my steps. I always do. Don’t know why. Just do. A habit.
I’m at twenty-four steps and haven’t even turned into the bathroom yet. I can’t remember counting nineteen to twenty-three, but I guess I must have.
I’m feeling confused. The darkness seems murkier than normal. Strange. The bedroom door is behind me – not too far away. The bathroom door is about the same distance ahead. My kid’s door is beyond that. Perhaps I am getting foolish in my old age (since when has fifty-five been old?).
I decide to stop counting, just this one time. I start walking again – letting my mind wander for a moment. The moment passes and realise that I have not moved a step. Not one fucking step!
Obviously, I really am going cuckoo.
Taking a deep breath, I stride forward. I feel myself move, grin at my own stupidity and aim to turn into the bathroom. But the bathroom door is not getting any closer.
Obvious question: is this a dream?
So I pinch myself. Doesn’t really hurt much.
How about if I poke myself in the eye?
Okay – not dreaming.
At about this point I notice the smell. Aroma? Sickly sweet like rotting Frangipanis. For one brief moment I am taken back fifty years to the days I gathered fallen flowers from Frangipani trees as gifts for mum. The hint of a smile catches my lips – then I am back here again, trapped in this dark hallway.
Illustration by Franck Dumouilla. Find his work here.
I don’t panic. In my line of business, panicking is a death sentence. Usually a very unpleasant one at that.
Something tugs at my toes. I look down, but there is only impenetrable gloom. So I try to lift my feet, one at a time. I fail. I can feel my thigh muscles straining but everything lower resists.
Should I call my wife?
No. I don’t want her caught by the same thing that has me. Same goes for Suzy.
But if I don’t call them, then whatever-the-hell-it-is might catch them sleeping.
“Natalie,” I shriek. I had not meant to shriek. I had wanted to sound calm, so as not to panic her. I failed.
New thought: fuck not panicking!
I can see through the doorway to our bedroom. Nothing is moving. So still. So black. Meanwhile I feel that I am being sucked down. I clutch at the nearby window frame.
Suzy is standing in her doorway just ten or eleven steps ahead: a skinny twenty-two year old in a ratty T-shirt that she uses as a night-gown.
I am surprised to see all of her in the greyness – by which I mean that I can make out her lower legs and feet. I look down at my own legs. Nothing but a hungry blackness. I strive to keep myself from being consumed, holding onto the window frame for dear life.
“What’s wrong, Dad?”
I gasp. Tendrils of blackness start stretching forward as if seeking the life that is my daughter.
“Switch on the light,” I command.
The tendrils twitch and shudder and quest. Suzy stares at me like I’m a fool, then sniffs.
“And what’s that stench?”
One is just a hand’s breadth from her foot. Fuck!
“Turn the fucking light on! Now!”
Suzy recoils at my rage and vulgarity: I don’t normally swear outside of my own skull. It’s shocking to both of us. Nevertheless it works. I hear the click and golden light pours from Suzy’s bedroom doorway.
Then I’m falling. I feel nails ripped from my fingers from where I had been clutching the window frames.
My memories stop there.
. . . . .
Here I am in hospital. I awoke the morning following the… event. I know that am sedated, barely able to think straight. Just as well. I don’t understand what happened. I take inventory as best I can.
My legs are melted away leaving weeping, cauterised stumps at the knees.
Natalie – my only love – is missing. Where is she? Where? I don’t want to accept that the thing that consumed my legs consumed her as well.
Where is Suzy?
I told her not to go back to that house. Not to sleep there. Something is there. Something, something…
That was days ago.
Where is Suzy?
My room lights; they are flickering. I press the button to summon nurses. I want the globe changed. I don’t want to find myself in darkness again.
I press the button again and again.
Where are the nurses? Why are they taking so long?
Outside my room, the hospital corridors are dim.