Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Price of Forever

It was one of those odd instances in life where the greatest effect is done by the bystanders. We clustered together, most of the second grade class around Ava and Bruce. Ava had one hand on her hip, her chin thrust forward, and her blond ringlets jangling about her ears. Her blue eyes were narrowed and her pink lips poised into a superior smile. In her hand pressing into Bruce’s chest was a morsel of salt water taffy.

Neither I nor any of my classmate knew the name. Myra had smuggled the item into school that day, only knowing that her cousins in the city ate them a lot during her aunt’s funeral and her parents said she wasn’t allowed to eat one. While such admonitions were common, what was not common was the open bowl sitting within reach. Myra had stolen the candy during the service for her aunt and skipped with her parents back to safety in the Oak Glen. Now, she had presented the illicit article to us.

Ava had taken it immediately, more brazen than any of the rest of us. Her parents were rich and she was beautiful, which meant she had every reason to act boldly as she often escaped consequences. We children of parents of lesser mean, those whose mothers and fathers eked out every last penny to move from the city and protect us from the evil therein, were much more shy, as if we knew how precariously our position was in this world, that our parents would not live forever, but they wished that we might.

Bruce was one of us, but uglier and slower than most. He wore glasses and mumbled when he spoke. His twin brother, who was brighter and cuter, only highlighted his oddness. And now, here he was, cornered at the edge of the playground as we bystanders formed a barricade of bodies to keep him in and Ava stuck the candy under his nose. 

“Eat it!” Ava demanded.

“My mom said you’re not supposed to eat it,” Myra begged, but no one paid much attention to her. Bruce looked more closely at his shoes, biting his lip. 

“Eat it, Bruce,” Ava said. 

“I’m going to tell Miss Merriam,” Quentin shrieked, running away. He was always a tattletale and a compulsive liar. It would probably take several minutes for Miss Merriam to believe his story, so we ignored him too. All the same, we bystanders seemed to realize that our congregation would attract attention.

“Eat it, Bruce,” Ava said. She shook back his curls. “I’m telling you to eat it.”

Bruce grabbed the candy out of her hands. We gasped, entranced by the closeness of mortality. We had not yet been long on the Earth, but we knew the cost of food. We knew that to eat extraneous food was to sacrifice everything.

Bruce looked up at our sudden and guttural reaction. He seemed to find my eyes, and ask “Is this what I have to do? Is this what you want?” I think he only saw hunger in my open expression. The forbidden fruit was so close and someone might partake. 

Whispers rose and fell from us bystanders, unable to elucidate a clear desire. All we wanted to see was what came next, too afraid to step forward. I felt I could not stop nor hurry this process. I was only an observer. 

“Bruce, don’t do it! Dad says not to!” Bruce’s brother, Timothy, said, breaking past the line of us. 

Bruce shoved Timothy away. Bruce may have been ugly and slow, but he was big. Timothy tripped back into me, his mouth agape, as if that brief physical motion was the most surprising thing he could have ever imagined happening. 

“Eat it,” Ava ordered. 

Miss Merriam was squawking in the background. Our time was short. We bystanders leaned forward, unable and unwilling to hide our expectation. 

Bruce ate the salt water taffy. 

Miss Merriam diffused the crowd swiftly as we all set to running in opposite directions to avoid punishment. 

“Bruce was silly and ate a candy,”Ava declared, as if she had not been ordering him to. Miss Merriam, panicked, picking the child up and beginning to run to the school nurse. Timothy collapsed on the asphalt and began crying. 

Seeing the attention was away from us and focused on Bruce, who had no external effects for his sudden mortality, we stopped and watched. The question was all on our minds, “Why did he eat it?” A moment of peer acceptance versus eternity? But, it was never a choice. When we gather and egg another to his death, what else could he do? We were hive creatures sharing a communal mind. The desires of the many could overcome the desire of an individual, and our mere enjoyment at playing in the power of life and death had overridden Bruce’s desire for life. 

And Timothy cried and cried.

The principal sent a note to all of our parents, and, in turn, all of our parents sat us down for the talk. Mine decided that I should the history of immortality, a story of two scientists working fruitlessly for their parents, then their own lives. When their breakthrough came, it heralded a new era, but not for them. A complex mixture of drugs was not enough. It had to be combined with a specific diet and environment, a proper mix of oxygen and a tasteless broth of green-gray sludge. The couple’s own newborn daughter was their test experiment, and she was still alive, 273 years later. 

My father was raised on the diet. However, my mother was not. She was doomed to die, so he ate their wedding cake without remorse or hesitation. They would leave me. However, I had no such impending mortality, but I could never eat the candy. I couldn’t go outside to play without my respirator and special clothes. If I followed all the rules, then I would never have to die. If I loved them, I would follow the rules for them, because they had worked very hard to provide this opportunity for me. 

I loved them. I wondered if Bruce loved his parents.

Ava told us that Bruce would go away now since he was going to die. He didn’t. Instead, a week later, Bruce and Timothy came back to school. The principal told us we were to treat Bruce in the same way we treated him before, but I don’t think she knew how we treated him before. No adult would ever admonish us to continue that behavior.

We barely talked to Bruce. Ava took pains to loudly tell the other students that they should be extra nice to Bruce since he was going to die when he was in hearing distance, but otherwise, he drifted to the margins. Timothy would talk with his brother sometimes, but not often. For the most part, it was as if Timothy never had a brother. 

“My parents decided to stay in Oak Glen for me after the candy incident. They wanted to keep things normal as possible after everything. I mean, him and me both knew what was going to happen, but they wanted to pretend like it didn’t,” Timothy told me at the high school prom. His cute upturned nose as a child did not fit a growing man’s face. It made it look pinched, and his voice had barely dropped since then. He was thin as a reed, but still I had asked him to be my date. He was intelligent and he held the key to the story that interested me throughout my schooling experience.

“Where does he go now?” I asked.

“Oh, Bruce?”

I nodded.

“Well, eating gray-green mush and wearing masks loses their appeal when it isn’t helping you survive, doesn’t it? He moved out after he convinced my grandpa to let him go live with him in the city,” Timothy said.

“Sophomore year?” I asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” he said.

“Your grandpa, is he going to die soon?” I asked.

“He’s in good shape so far, but he probably only has a decade or two,” Timothy said with a shrug.

“My maternal grandparents are dead, but my dad’s parents are alive, and their parents too,” I said. “But my mom and dad are going to die sometime. My dad ate the wedding cake.”

“Mine are going to die too,” Timothy said. “All my family is.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Me too,” he said. “It makes me wonder if it be better just to die, you know?”

I looked horrified, which caused Timothy to smile in a way that made his face look not so pinched. “Look at us, we’re dancing at prom and we’re discussing mortality. Shouldn’t we be partying or kissing?” His face flushed pink as he wondered how I would take the comment.

“How about the latter?” I said, reddening to match his shade.

“Okay,” he said. We kissed.

“Bruce Wallace died today,” I told Walt as I checked my email during break.

“Who? Is he an old boyfriend?” he asked, leaning back from his computer terminal.

“No, I knew him from elementary school,” I said. 

“I thought you went to one of those fancy, enclosed, immortality schools,” he said. His parents had put him through public school with masks and thermoses of gray sludge. He always held it against me that my upbringing had been without kids threatening to take off my mask and make me live a normal lifespan.

“I did, but one of the children ate a candy one day at recess,” I said.

He whistled, “Tough break. Imagine going through all of that just to have your five year old eat a piece of candy.”

“He had a brother who saw the whole thing too. He tried to stop him. I saw it,” I said. “I actually ended up dating the brother. That’s who invited me.”

“That sucks. Are you going?” Walt asked. “I mean, have you seen this guy since elementary school?”

“I think I will,” I said, opting for brevity over trying to explain my part in this death seventy years in the making.

“Do you need someone to go with you then?” Walt offered.

“Thanks, but you don’t have to. Funerals are the worst, a monument to our fragility and impermanence. This one especially, when he was born with such high hopes of living forever. Nana Nguyen usually comes with me. She was one of the first generations, you know. She knows how this works,” I said. I remembered when she held my hand at my father’s funeral. My mother had already past at that point, but Nana Nguyen comforted me, swallowing her own grief at the loss of her grandson.

“Alright. Do you mind checking out this coding bug. I’ve been staring at it for the last hour, and I swear I’ve made no progress on it whatsoever,” Walt said.

The city was cold and murky. My office building and home were environmentally isolated. I worse my respirator so little, I was afraid it would not fit, but it did. It seemed strange that my only clothes for braving the harsh elements of outside life were mourning clothes, but I realized the only times I ventured out from my protected shell was to attend a funeral.

Nana Nguyen met me at her home. Her genetics seemed to scramble in its passage to me, as there was little resemblance between us. I was much more phenotypically similar to my mother’s side of the family, which I was hardly able to meet as they all died so young. My Nana Nguyen and I looked more like best friends than relatives as we came into the funeral as a pair.

There were few people wearing masks, but only one I recognized.

“Hello Ava,” I said. “I haven’t seen you in a lifetime. I hear you are getting married?”

“Yes, Irma and I are tying the knot in, oh, is it only three years now? My, how time flies. Thinking about it always makes me so twitterpated. It’s like falling in love all over again. I heard about your loss. So terrible to lose one’s parents so young. I am sure it is difficult. Who is this?” Ava asked, switching from ecstatic to lugubrious to curious in smooth succession. “Someone special?” Ava winked with a mischievous sparkle in her eye. She had not lost her bravado.

“Oh, this is my great-grandma Hee Young Nguyen,” I said. “Nana, this is Ava Kennedy.”

“I’ve read your articles, Miss Kennedy. Quite fantastic. There are so many preconceptions about those who make our choice, that I feel those less educated than us make grave mistakes which are perpetuated in their children,” Nana said.

“I know the pain of loss, so it is my only hope that I might convince parents to make the responsible choice for their children,” Ava said seriously. “If just one parent chooses to raise their children within the confines of the Herriman Lifestyle and eliminate their risk of age-related disease and many other terminal illnesses, it would make it all worth the effort.”

The service started. I looked for Timothy, but could not find him. I wondered if it would have been too difficult for him to lay his brother to rest. I would understand. It had taken every part of me to lay my father to rest, and I had Nana Nguyen to lean upon. To bury one’s brother would be nigh impossible.

Several people spoke. An elderly, grieving widow recounted their life together. With mortality ever approaching, they had married so young, to try to carve out some happiness before it was snuffed out. A balding man spoke of his memories of his father and siblings. When people die so quickly, raising children could be done in quantity. The man had had two brothers and two sisters. A young woman, in the prime of her youth, whose only mark of accepting mortality was her missing respirator, spoke of the grandfather she knew who encouraged her into geriatrics at the local hospital.

A man approached the podium with white hair and a gnarled cane within an equally gnarled fist. I gasped after he spoke two words: “My brother.”

Beneath the wrinkles, beneath the age spots, beneath the baldness and sunken eyes, it was the boy I danced with at prom. It was Timothy.

Timothy, concerning himself with neither my astonishment or that of Ava’s, continued to speak. “My brother and I were inseparable as twins as ever were. We often claimed to be identical twins, although a half-blind monkey could see that we weren’t. Other times, we claimed that we used to be conjoined. We always had a good laugh at the quantity of people who would believe that lie.

“As many of you may know, my parents spent their life fortune trying to build a better life for my brother and I. On boths sides, there were early deaths of aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Our parents wished to save us from that. After they took us from my mother’s womb, we were given a processed blend of amino acids, essential fats, globs of carbohydrates, and a special mixture of supplements so that we may forgo aging. As most of you know, it was imperative that we only receive this nutrient mixture and breathe a special mix of gases in order to achieve our parents dream of eternal life.

“When my brother was eight years old, he ate a salt water taffy. It was watermelon-flavored. He had never tasted watermelon. He had never tasted simple sugar. They pulled my brother away from me. They tried to take it away. They made him throw up. They put him in the hospital. They attached him to more wires and tubes than a child can dream of, but my brother exited the hospital with the same diagnosis he had upon entering. There was nothing he could do. He was going to die.

“It was difficult for me. I represented what my brother could never have. All the other students at our school, who had been raised on the same nutrient broth, would never have to face their mortality. They treated Bruce as a pariah for his lifespan, as fully as they accepted me for sharing their fate. With Bruce so angry, a truculent rebellious youth, it was easy to slip away from him. Bruce and I became separate people. 

“It wasn’t until my last year of high school that I really thought on it. I was lucky enough to be invited to prom, and there, my date and I discussed mortality. It made me think. I never thought so hard in my life. It made me realize how much I was missing my brother. How much I was missing life. 

“I drove down to see my brother and my grandfather that night. Bruce was a funny guy. The first thing he asks when I show up after not seeing him in a couple of years in a rented tux, a borrowed respirator, and a rented limo already speeding off behind me was, ‘Do you want to join gramps and me for dinner?’”

“Bruce told me about his new school, all the new friends he made who didn’t care he was going to die in sixty years, all the foods he had tried, each one having a different flavor, the different sites he had seen outside the bubble we had lived in so long, and his new girlfriend who would later be his blushing bride. Gramps prepared a big pot of spaghetti. All of my food had come powdered in vacuum-sealed containers at this point, so I was mesmerized at the complex process of cooking. Then, I did something I thought I’d never do. I took off my mask and ate with them. The spaghetti was undercooked, the sauce was from an old jar that might have been expired, but it was the best thing I tasted in my life.

“I returned to school the next day, changing nothing. I ate the same muck. I was careful to use my respirator when leaving environmentally optimized structures and protect my skin from the pollutants and excessive UV light. I continued this charade until the day my parents died, then I began living for me. 

“Bruce taught me that life is made in imperfect moments. In grasping what you had now instead of yearning for a better tomorrow that might never occur. Without death, there was nothing anchoring me, nothing making me treasure my life, since the seconds meant nothing. There would always be another to replace it. Without Bruce, I would have never stepped outside my life to look at the world. I would have never traveled. I would have never enjoyed good food or have met my wife. Because of Bruce, my life was fundamentally changed in so many amazing ways. 

“Bruce was braver and more sage at all of eight years than I could have ever hoped to be. Bruce died, and I soon may follow in his footsteps, as I was always wont to do. But, because of Bruce, I have lived more fully than I would have in an eternity. Good bye, Bruce. You have been the best brother a man could hope for,” Timothy said.

“Thank you for coming. It has been a long time,” Timothy said, grasping my soft, unlined hand, enclosed in a special glove, with his bared aged one. 

“It has,” I agreed.

“Interesting speech, although it did rely on several logical fallacies whose propagation could prevent the longevity of an entire generation,” Ava said, while retaining her smile. She gave her curls a little jiggle, as if expecting Timothy to appreciate her beauty and thus accept her comment. 

“I thought it was excellent. I never really got to know Bruce, but I think I know now,” I said. Timothy’s warm eyes glistened. His nose still looked pinched, but it fit his lined face better than it ever had in high school.

“Thank you,” Timothy said. 

“You continue to perpetuate the myth that it is impossible to travel and stay within the confines of the Herriman lifestyle. New improvements in respirators and protective clothing has made traveling easier than ever. And, the nutrient supplements are now being introduced in three separate flavors,” Ava said. 

“Nana Nguyen needs to meet her bridge club at four, but I would really like to thank you for inviting me,” I told Timothy. 

“The pleasure was mine,” Timothy said. He grasped my hand again. As it left, an object dropped into my palm. Instinctively, I clutched it and slipped it into my pocket without a word.

I sat at my kitchen counter, staring at the object on the granite counter. I often found it ironic that I possess a kitchen at all, but it was one of the old houses that were reconfigured to meet the needs of the new booming market catering to those trying to reach immortality. 

I hit the edge of the wrapper, and watch the salt water taffy twirl. It was pink with a green border. It had little dark spots in the pink. I recognized the image from old picture books of my mom and dad. It was a watermelon. 

I had never tasted a watermelon. I would never, unless the newest sludge decided to adopt such a flavor. Even then, I suppose it wouldn’t be the same. 

My maternal grandmother was full of old adages. One such was, “everything in moderation.” It was deliciously ironic, which made my grandmother all the more likely to repeat it. 

Moderation was impossible here. Any mistake cost everything. There only existed a dichotomy. Inside or outside. Light or dark. Life or death. 

I had lived eighty years. I had never gotten married. I had never had a child, although even assuming I was married and wanting a child, many couples had to wait for decades in order for approval for conception. I could still have both those things. I could have anything, but instead, I had so little. So many things in life had been good, but I left them in hopes of finding something better. I could not blame it on such an exterior factor as a diet. The fault rested with me, but was this apparent immortality preventing me from living? 

I could be hit by a car and killed like any other. And what would I have for it? No widow or widower would speak at my funeral, no child, much less grandchild, no brother. Many people died before eighty, but I hadn’t lived, because I was waiting for a better time to do so. 

I unwrapped the candy. It was harder than puddy. My brain had difficulty accepting the item as food. The food had I had eaten previously the last eighty years did not resemble it in the slightest. If anyone Ava or Walt or Nana Nguyen could see me now, they would think I was crazy. My parents would say I didn’t love them. I could be charged with reckless self-endangerment. 

I raised the candy to my mouth, letting it hover by my lips, untouched by time.  I could smell its intoxicating aroma, more intense than any food I had ever eaten, than I ever would eat. The surface of the taffy was as smooth as my skin, and its colors were seen pristinely in unaged eyes that had seen so very little. 

Frozen in such a position, I wondered, what is the price of forever?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Little Hill

There once was a very little hill who slept on a great plain. At the top of the mere swelling of dirt (it was as if the Earth had taken one large breath and forgot to breathe it out once more) you could see the forests expand for farther than a crow could fly in a day. It was a nice quiet hill, and a sort of tranquility and peace existed around it that all life seemed to feel. The deer, rabbits, and the wolves alike would rest their heads against its downy grass and dream of sweet nothings, flowers bloomed as thick and fresh as the fluffy clouds above. Trees sang, serenading to the sky their supreme bliss with all that was there.
A day came where a little two-legged creature called boy discovered the place. He felt the peace, the happiness, the tranquility, and immediately told every boy, every girl, and every man and woman he could find. One such man held an occupation called a preacher. He worked in understanding the Earth and peace.
“Let us build a church here,” the preacher said, “because peace is here.” The other men, women, boys, and girls agreed. A small white church was built upon the hill. It was the color of clouds, cottontails, and daisies. Every week, the men, women, boys, and girls would scurry from their homes, from their work, from their sorrows, and come partake of the peace of the hill.
One day, a tragedy happened. The wife of the preacher had a child too soon. The mother and babe went from life together, leaving the preacher all alone.
The preacher was much distressed. So much he loved and hoped was gone so quickly. Tears came, clinging on his cheeks like dew, as if their continued presence could keep a memory of his wife with him but a moment longer.
He buried his wife and his child by the church, in the hill. And he never left, staying in the church, trying to find the peace once more when he could not feel it. Tranquility was with the church, with this hill, so he knew he must stay. 
Then, winter came like grief, sharp and cold. Quietly, without much fuss or hassle, more and more of the men and women, boys and girls, left life like candles in the wind. More and more days were spent shuffling up in thigh high snow to hammer at stone-hard ground on the hill. More and more tears were split on the frozen ground. More and more hearts were broken into dust that blew away in a gust of frost.
Spring came slowly. The deer, the rabbits, and the wolves stared curiously at the strange new rocks decorating the hill in a very particular manner. More curious yet was that they no longer felt the peace and tranquility. The animals turned away from the hill and left.
The girls and boys, women and men felt the change to. They no longer felt the peace of the hill. They were so very few, they found they could not bring themselves to the church so often as once a week, then once a month, then ever.
The preacher stayed in his church on the hill, but there was no longer anyone to preach to. Without anyone to preach to, his mind was forced to turn in upon itself. He wept for days and nights with nothing to comfort him. The peace had long since fled.
At his darkest hour, a girl came, dressed in gray. Her face was hollowed with hunger and dusted with dirt. He did not remember seeing the girl before, but her appearance was so sudden, he was unable to hide his tears. He simply looked away quickly, sitting within a pew.
“Please, sir, why are you sad?” she asked, sitting beside him.
“Because I have lost those dear to me,” the preacher said quietly, unsure of why he was settling a child with the burdens of his heart. Her face was open. “Because my friends have left me alone and cold.”
“How did you lose your dear ones?” the girl asked.
“My wife and her child passed away in childbirth,” the preacher said.
“Then, they aren’t lost after all,” the girl said. “You know exactly where they are.”
“I am no longer sure I do,” the preacher said.
“I do,” the girl said. She leaned over and placed both her hands on opposite sides of the preacher’s face. “They’re here, but they’re not happy.”
“Why not?” the preacher asked through his tears.
“You are holding onto them too tight. You have to let them go for them to be here,” she said. Without another word, the girl jumped from the pew and skipped down the aisle.
The preacher walked home that night. It was a cold structure that was far from the church. A rabbit had made its burrow underneath the woodpile and a family of mice had harvested his pantry. In his bedroom, a dark stain remained on the floor.
The preacher scrubbed the floors, aired the blankets, and put a fire in the fireplace. The next day, he went to each and every woman and man, boy and girl in the area. He said that tomorrow there would be a special sermon at the church. However, he did not see the girl.
“There is peace in the Earth and the sky. When we try to take our loved ones away from their rest, we take them away from the peace. This is not our peace to take,” then the preacher took one of the graying panels of wood from the side of the church and pulled. Piece by piece, the men and women, girls and boy disassembled the church.
Then, they left the hill, leaving their loved ones behind to rest.
Slowly, the deer, the rabbits, and the wolves came back to the hill. Birds made nests among the sacred stone structures and foxes nursed their young in the shadows. Peonies and violets sprouted among clover above a happy, little girl in gray. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012


The walls were gilt with mirrors in an antiquated, dated look with faded, plush carpet to match. The stairwell, far from the expansive or industrial items I had seen before on my apartment hunt, was tight and as Baroque as the landing.
“This building was built in the 1904,” the landlady, a serene and comely woman who must be in her eighties. “Not too long before the Great War. My great grandfather built it with his brother when this city was but new and barely beginning.”
For an elderly woman, she had great stamina, I realized as we crested the fourth floor. Perhaps something can be said that the ceilings were not the twelve-foot-tall, appropriate-for-behemoths caverns I had observed at the hospital where I had just found work. Still, even I, a little over a quarter of her age, was slightly winded while she smiled calmly.
“Is it considered a historical site?” I asked.
“A highly pertinent question. It is, in fact. Are you a student of history?” she asked.
“Um, not really. At least, not formally. I mean, I like reading historical books sometimes, but I’m a pathology lab tech,” I said. I glanced away from her open face and caught my reflection in one of the many mirrors coating the walls. A reflection dappled with the persistent black spots I had seen on antique mirrors but did not know the origin of looked back at me, betraying all the uncertainty I was trying to hide as a first-time apartment shopper.
“Well then, I won’t bore you with the details, but this building was one the first of its type in the area. The doors and windows are vintage, beside the one in the far corner where an accident happened in the fifties. Allow me to show you,” she said, unlocking the front door with an archaic key, the kind with fat notches on a narrow cylinder. I searched my memory for when I might have seen such a key before in the context of actual use, but could find no recollection. I was immediately distracted from the thought, however, when she opened the door.
“Oh, it’s beautiful,” I said, before wondering if it were wise to express such admiration. My parents had offered to accompany me, but it seemed that in starting out one’s life, most activities should be at least attempted on one’s own first. Now, I thought distantly to their guidance.
The landlady seemed pleased with my comment, “It is indeed. That is the actual oak bookcases from when my great grandfather built this building. The molding, the paint, and the carpet is new, but the wood floors have just been sanded down and refinished. The kitchen is smaller than one might expect at a modern apartment, but it still has all the necessities, and there is an airconditioning unit in the window over there. Feel free to explore the home.”
I did as she suggested. The floorplan was less open and much more circuitous and serpentine. It was truly exploring. I tried to make note of things my mother had suggested when I decided to begin my apartment hunt: electrical outlets were few but evident, no evidence of mold or mildew, faucets worked fine as did the toilets, only the new window seemed able to open but was half-filled with the air-conditioning unit previously mentioned, however the apartment seemed cool enough. Even against the oppressive summer heat outside, I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stiffening in a chill. There were plenty of windows, which gave a pleasant view of the hillside on which the building was situated.
Completing my search, I thanked the landlady. I inquired about the utilities and the area, to which she responded confidently and succinctly. Once I emptied my brain of all the minutiae I could remember my parents telling me was of the utmost importance, I thanked the landlady for her time and continued the rest of apartment viewings I had set up.

“Hey, Dad,” I said, my cell phone cocked under my chin as I leafed through the pile of documents on my hotel room desk.
“Hey, sport,” he said, his jocularity easing through the phone and inundating the dark hotel room with his easy smile, even when I could not see it.
“I think I know which apartment I’m going to get. It’s really close to the hospital, so I can finally give your car back to you,” I said.
“I have another car? I thought that one was lost to the ages,” he exclaimed. “Although it’s probably on it’s last wheel by now. Does it still run?”
“It’s doing fine, Dad. I’m not that irresponsible. But the apartment, it’s on a bus route, only four blocks from a grocery store, AND it’s less than $800 a month with utilities. It’s on the fourth floor of this really old building-”
“Does it have an elevator?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe? We took the stairs. It’s a historical site, so I don’t know if they’re allowed to put one in,” I said, thinking.
“Four flights is an awful long way with arms full of groceries,” he said.
“Gotta get an arm workout in,” I retorted.
“That’s my little warrior,” he said.
“Oh Dad,” I shook my head, smiling at the old nickname.
“I’m glad it’s worked out. I’ll ignore my worried father tendency and trust my adult child’s judgement that’s it the best place on the market. Do you need any help closing the deal?” he asked.
“I think I got it. The landlady’s about ninety years old and really nice, so I doubt she’ll try to cheat me. I’ll call you and let you know tomorrow how it works out. I figure I should sleep on it though,” I said.
“You’ve got your good father’s keen judgement,” he said proudly. “You should probably call your mother and let her know as well.”
“I will, Dad. Talk to you tomorrow?” I said.
“Of course. I’ll be done after seven, since there’s a long board meeting, but then I am all yours,” he said.
“Love ya, Dad,” I said.
“Love you more than your poor scientific mind can comprehend, my little warrior,” he said.
“Am I ever going to be your big warrior?” I asked.
“Only when you grow taller than me,” he said simply.
“Dammit. Good bye then,” I said.
“Bye, kiddo,” he said.

The boxes were quite heavy. I never realized how much raw stuff I had until I tried to move it. It was by no means the complete parts for a house. Several key components like silverware, a coffeepot, and my keyboard from college, which I could not justify shipping, were missing. All the same, the college textbooks more than made up for it as I wondered when I was ever really going to use psychology again.
To make matters worse, I caught someone’s gaze behind me as I did my best not to grunt too loudly as I laboriously climbed each stair. I could almost imagine him or her laughing at my strain and muscles gone to seed without the college gym to train them. I had no idea why it would be important to impress the presence behind me, but I felt embarrassed all the same. Thankfully, whoever it was seemed to live on the third floor, so I could summit the building in peace. I was sweating and somewhat irritable when I finally reached the fourth floor landing.
“You must be the new tenant!” I heard an elderly voice exclaim.
I set down the box with relief and tried to casually wipe the sweat from my brow. “Yes, I’m Ridley Summers.” The woman had a pile of gray curls primly atop her head and was smiling warmly.
“It’s so nice to finally have some young faces around here,” the woman. “I’m Hortense Evergreen. Are you a student at the university? Do you have a special someone there?”
“No, I actually just got a job at the hospital as a lab tech,” I said, wondering how she had gone from introduction to probing about my love life so quickly. “I’m a little older than I look.”
“All the same, youth is much appreciated in a drafty, ol’ place like this. I’m sure Madison will love you. I must be off to my reading club, but if you require anything at all, don’t hesitate to come by. Mr. Evergreen and I are at 4C, just down the hall,” Mrs. Evergreen said.
“Thanks so much, Mrs. Evergreen,” I said, inclining my head in some semblance of an anachronistic bow without knowing why.
“Please, dear, call me Hortense,” she said with a smile. “But I really must be going. I am sure I will see you soon and you can have a cup of tea with Mr. Evergreen and me.”
“Alright, uh, Hortense,” I said, much bemused at the sudden familiarity I hadn’t even received when I was living in the college dorms. “Have fun at your reading club.”
“Oh, thank you so much, dear,” she returned with a smile.
I wondered at how I had been invited to tea, which seemed an event much more at place in a period British drama than in modern times. I picked up my blasted box of textbooks again and stumbled to my door.

I left my wrapper for my trail mix bar on the garbage bag on my kitchen floor. It was right next to the half-unpacked box of et cetera kitchen supplies that was the exact pitiful quantity you might expect from a recent college graduate. It had a mug though, which I had moments before drained of chamomile tea and stashed in the sink with a plate I had scraped pizza off earlier.
I was tired enough just trying to get the beginnings of my life up four flights of stairs that the idea of unpacking anything or even washing my dishes was laughable. The idea for conversing for another hour with my mother today was equally unthinkable, so I sent succinct texts to both parents instead. I could call them later. That was what tomorrow was for, along with completing the first day of my career.
My mother had said this experience would be enough to push me into medical school, the path she had not-so-quietly been rooting for since I was born. Maybe it would. Maybe it would convince me that business was far more lucrative and interesting, and I would soon find myself tailing my father. Or, maybe I would figure out that I knew myself better than either parent and I would be perfectly happy, and my parents would not be disappointed with my life choices.

I put my hands to my temples, trying to massage my headache.
I needed sleep. Despite the summer heat and the singular air-conditioning unit hung out the back window, the apartment was cold. I needed socks to keep my toes from going numb and I pulled my blanket up to my nose and fell asleep on the floor where I made a note that mattress shopping (with shipping up four flights of stairs) should be one of my priorities.

I was awake, and I was terrified. Each and everyone of my muscles refused to listened to my frightened brain’s command. I was paralyzed. I couldn’t move. Why couldn’t I move? I had the strange sensation that something bad was going to happen to me if I didn’t move. Something was going to hurt me, and I needed to run away. But, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t do anything.

The sun tickled me awake. I took one look at my watch and let out a stream of expletives. I did not notice the dampness of my pillow, but jumped from my bed tearing off my pajamas while rummaging through every cardboard box I could find. I ran out the door exactly two minutes later, thundering down the stairs three or four at a time without any care to whose slumber I might be disturbing.
I could not be late to work of my first day. This was hardly an auspicious start to my adult life.

“Hey, I’m Jing,” a white-coated, stethoscope-slung figure said as I attacked an apple for lunch at the commons. I checked the ID badge of the friendly person to be sure, but the white coat was kinda a giveaway. MD. Big shot, but still young. “Do you mind if I sit here?”
“No, of course not. Go on ahead. I’m Ridley,” I offered, before realizing the information was emblazoned on my own ID badge.
“You new here?” Jing asked.
“Just moved in yesterday,” I responded brightly.
“And a lab tech?” Jing said, checking out my ID badge.
“Yep,” I said.
“You look young,” Jing said.
“I get that a lot. Even when I was a senior in college, I had people triple checking my ID whenever I would go out,” I said with a shrug. “You look pretty young though too, for an M.D.,  so I’m sure you get that a lot as well.”
Jing shrugged. “A bit. You said you just moved. Did you get into the new condos near the Avenues?” Jing asked.
“No, those places were really pricey. I’m in this old apartment building on Main. I was able to find a 1 bedroom for the price of studios other places, and it’s really close,” I said.
“First time by yourself?” Jing asked.
“Is it that obvious?” I asked.
Jing laughed. “Maybe it’s just because you look so young. I remember when I first got my own place in med school, I triple locked my front door, double checked every window, and slept with a butcher knife on my bedstand because I was so paranoid. Not to scare you or anything.”
I smiled politely. “I don’t scare that easily.”

I kicked off my shoes and attempted to control my breathing as I locked the door behind me. If I was getting winded just walking up stairs, I needed to start running again. I would try to get up early tomorrow, if I didn’t prove to myself once again my amazing ability to sleep through anything and everything.
I clutched the wall, fumbling for a lightswitch that wasn’t there and managed to bang my shin against my stupid, stupid box of textbooks. With a chorus of groans, I found the lightswitch and surveyed my impressive pile of boxes for a person that claimed not to have much stuff. I really needed to unpack.
Despite my exhaustion, I managed to nestle all my books in the bookshelf, shove my clothes unceremoniously in my closet, sprinkle all office related supply on the kitchen table current serving as my desk, and empty my pitiful supply of kitchen related items into various cupboards.
I needed to go to the store too sometime I realized as I licked my fingers clean from a couple of cold Pop Tarts. And I needed to buy a mattress soon as well I realized as I hit the hard ground once more.
I then remembered the nightmare I had the night before. Except, it wasn’t really a nightmare since I think I was awake, but I couldn’t be. It had felt so real. Could it be real? I knew sleep paralyzed the body, a mechanism that only really went awry in sleepwalkers. What if I had been doing the opposite of sleepwalking? It didn’t explain the strange sense of terror, of course, but could easily been the natural response to figuring out one couldn’t move.
I would Google it in the morning, but for now, I was tired. I think I fell asleep before my eyes were closed.

Something drifted across my neck like a cold breath, slithering over goose bumps and along my jugular and carotid. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t yell or fight. I needed to get out. I needed to move, but I couldn’t. I was helpless yet completely conscious to the cold fingers of air tracing my cheek. I could hear the soft groans of old voices within old wood. I could sense something was wrong. I needed to wake up, get up, or something. My heart was beating violently against my chest, but to no effect. I needed to get out. I could do nothing.

My pillow was soaked in sweat, but I was relaxed when I woke. A bleary-eyed look at my watch confirmed I had done much better with waking this go around, and I pumped a fist for victory in the pre-dawn light of the bedroom. Still, it was so strange what had happened two nights in a row now. I would definitely Google it.
I settled with a cup of tea as I added a coffeepot to the absolutely necessary items I would soon have to purchase. I flipped open my laptop, my fingers ready at the keyboard. I quickly switched them to my chin where I drummed them against my mandible as I considered what phrase to describe my strange experience. The internet had taught me that I was alone in nothing in my experiences, so someone else upon the web must have catalogued this as well.
Sleep paralysis, I decided upon. Google instantly obliged me with Wikipedia.
It was exactly as I expected. It wasn’t a serious condition or anything. I needed to stop sleeping on my back and get off caffeine to make it go away.
Well, that was easy. I glanced at my watch again. It was still early enough that I could take myself up on the promise to start running again. I sifted through the clothes I poured into my closet until I acquired the requisite articles, and then I started for the front door and tripped on a textbook lying in the middle of the hallway, open.
“Stupid anatomy,” I muttered, rubbing the knee that had impacted the antique wood floor that had been no more giving than a slab of cement. I grabbed the book, shoved it back onto the shelf, and began a short run around the neighborhood.

“Hi, Ridley,” Jing said.
“Hey, Jing,” I coughed, wiping my mouth on a napkin.
“You coming down with something?” Jing asked, sitting down with a knit forehead.
“No, I’m vaccinated out the hoo-hah. Sometimes my throat gets scratchy after I run,” I said with a shrug.
“You run?” Jing asked.
“Don’t seem so surprised,” I said, faking affrontation. Jing laughed.
“No, not that. It’s just I run too,” Jing said.
“Awesome. Do you know any good routes around here?” I asked.
“Well, how far do you like to run?” Jing asked.
“How far do you like to run?” I asked.
“Well, I have this favorite route. It’s about seven miles up on the hill behind the university. It’s beautiful in the early morning,” Jing said. “Oh, I have a picture of it on my phone.”
Jing wrangled the phone out and presented it across the table to me.
“Oh, it is beautiful, but I don’t think I’m up for a seven mile hill run quite yet,” I said. “Three miles is more my speed right now.”
“It’s more your distance, you mean,” Jing said slyly.
I laughed.
“I have a good three miler too. Maybe if you’re free one of these Saturdays I’m not on work, which supposedly exist, I can show it to you,” Jing said.
“That’d be nice. I seriously need to do some mattress shopping first, but if you ever get free, let me know,” I said.
“You don’t have a mattress?” Jing asked.
“Hence my serious need,” I said.
“God, go get a mattress for hell’s sake,” Jing said. “I’d be dying without a mattress. I guess I know why you look tired then.”
“And my oh-so-strenuous three mile run,” I protested. “Pretend to be impressed so I don’t have to writhe in my unworthiness. Let me guess, you probably run marathons, right?”
“I’ve only run one yet-” Jing started with a shy grin, trying not to look too pleased. I laughed.

“Oh, hello dear. How is everything? Are you all moved in?” Mrs. Evergreen caught me on the fourth floor landing.
“Just about, thanks for asking. Did your book club go well?” I asked.
“Oh, you are so sweet, you’re sugar-frosted!” Hortense quipped. I smiled. “Have you met Madison yet?”
“I don’t think I have. I haven’t really met anyone yet,” I said.
“Madison loves to wander, so I’m sure you’ll run into each other soon. You’ll love Madison once you finally get a chance to meet. Madison’s as sweet as cherry pie and just loves the young folks,” Mrs. Evergreen said. “I really must be getting back to Mr. Evergreen, but you must come around for that cup of tea sometime, dear.”
“Oh, I will,” I said brightly. Mrs. Evergreen gave a cheery wave, and I turned the corner back to my apartment. Curiously, I checked around the floorboards. Was Madison an apartment cat that wandered throughout the building? It seemed unlikely that a “sweet” tenant would have a wandering behavior. One with such behavior that enjoyed the company of young people would probably not be taken lightly. Maybe Madison was a dog, or even a bird. A favorite insect? It did not seem past belief that Hortense would take an insect under her wing and nurture it.
I turned back thinking I could ask Hortense about this mysterious Madison, but she had already disappeared back into her apartment. Next time, for sure.

“Is the apartment up to your expectations?” the landlady asked.
“Yes, of course. Everything’s great,” I said, tucking my cell phone under my ear as I browsed the internet for a mattress, box spring, and bed frame. I was wearing a sweatshirt and sipping tea despite having turned the air conditioning unit on low, wondering at the remarkable efficiency of the archaic-looking device. However, powerful air conditioning hardly seemed something to complain about.
“Splendid. I’m so happy to hear it. Do not hesitate to call me if you run into any issues whatsoever,” the landlady said.
“Oh, I was going to ask, who is Madison? Mrs. Evergreen mentioned a Madison wandering around a couple of times. Is there a sort of apartment cat or something?” I asked.
There was silence for a moment on the other end. “Madison is very timid. If you haven’t met Madison yet, you probably never will. Do not worry about that for a moment. Mrs. Evergreen is usually the only one that sees Madison. Is there anything else, Ridley?” the landlady said soothingly, although rapidly.
“Um, no, not really,” I said, suddenly distracted by finding a good deal on a mattress with free shipping and installment. The box spring was thrown in half off. There was even a cheap bed frame they would assemble.
“Do not hesitate to call if anything seems amiss,” the landlady said.
“Okay, I won’t,” I said, clicking for reviews on the mattress.
“Goodbye,” she said.
“Bye,” I said. The phone clicked off, and I pressed the purchase button. I would finally get a mattress!

I couldn’t move. Why couldn’t I move? An unmoveable weight seemed to be pressing down on my every limb as my breath quickened in pace with my heart. I could feel the epinephrine leaking out of my adrenal glands. Cold air traced my collarbone up to my cheek and ear. I needed to move. I needed to get away, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t do anything.

I woke up. It really was an odd experience, I decided. I slept supine, which the article I read explicitly warned against, but it was about the only comfortable position on the floor. Once I had my mattress, I could finally stop having the weird sleep paralysis thing.
Unless it was due to stress, which the article also cited as possibility.  But really, I was reading a Wikipedia article, which had about the same claim to veracity as any random source on the internet. I should look at PubMed or at least something outside of Wikipedia. I grabbed my laptop, ready for a search.
It turns out the internet has a lot of kooks claiming demons to be responsible for sleep paralysis,( or witches, or hags, or ghosts) but PubMed not so much. I rubbed my temples and drained two cups of tea in quick succession trying to bring feeling back into my toes.
I wasn’t scared. It was just strange. Any fear I had during the night seemed to melt easily away by morning.
I would just get a new mattress and be done with it soon. I got ready for work. I tripped over my anatomy book again. I placed it in a more secure position on the shelf, horizontal and tucked within the edge of the bookshelf. I did not want to pay for getting the floor resanded when it turned out thirty pounds of anatomy can leave a sizable dent. Instinctively, I pushed my hall rug to the side slightly to cover the mark and left.

“Hi, Ridley,” Jing said.
“Hey, Jing!” I said.
“Are you getting off work now too?” Jing asked.
“Yep. Was just-”
“I was thinking-”
We both paused in our sentences, realizing the other speaking. Jing reddened. I motioned to Jing, “You go.”
“I was just going to say that I have an extra hour if you want to see the running route I was talking about,” Jing said.
“Oh, that’d be great, but I didn’t bring any of my running gear,” I said, raising my arms helplessly.
“We could just walk it, if you want. Shouldn’t take us much longer than an hour,” Jing said. “That is, if you’re free.”
“Sounds awesome,” I said.
The minor, acute distress that I had almost not realized was painted across Jing’s face broke. “That’s great,” Jing beamed. “It’s just this way.”
We walked around the nearby park and underneath the tree-covered lanes of quaint little houses near the hospital before we rounded the corner with my apartment.
I tried to casually wipe the sweat off my forehead while praying that my deodorant was holding strong against the summer heat. I could use with some of the winter-strength air conditioning my apartment had to offer.
“Hey, Jing, do you want to grab something to drink up in my apartment before we walk back to the hospital?” I asked.
“Are you inviting me up for a drink or inviting me up for a drink?” Jing returned with an expression that was all but impossible to interpret.
“Water, I mean, just a drink of water. I mean, it’s kinda hot out here, and I don’t even have any of the good stuff, since I just moved in, but I do have water since it comes from the tap and, and-” I rambled.
Jing laughed. “That’d be great, Ridley.”
The laugh put me at ease as I realized how nervous being around Jing was making me. I managed to grin goofily. “Awesome. Follow me. I’m on the fourth floor and I don’t know if there is an elevator-” I started as we walked into the atrium.
“You mean like the one over here?” Jing asked, pointed to a set of gilded doors I never noticed.
“Yes, dammit. Excuse my poor observational skills,” I said, blushing.
We rode the elevator up to my apartment.
“Wow, it’s like a freezer up here,” Jing said as we stepped inside.
“I know. It just has this tiny, little air-conditioning unit in the window, but it’s freaky efficient,” I said. “Please, ignore the boxes. I promise I’ll throw them out someday.”
Jing laughed. “Don’t worry. I moved here a year and a half ago, and I still have a couple of boxes floating around my place.”
I grabbed two glasses from the cupboard and filled them up with water from the sink. “Uh, here. The kitchen table has been morphed into a desk and I haven’t really gotten around to getting chairs or a couch or anything,” I said, fretting. “I think I might have a camp chair over in this closet.” I dove headfirst into the pile of unsorted boxes and objects I had shoved into the closet a few days before. I could hear Jing walk casually out of the kitchen, down the hall.
“I’m fine standing; it’s supposed to be better for you. The veins in your leg operate most efficiently with muscle involvement. Oh, this is a beautiful copy of Netter!” I heard Jing exclaim.
There was a crash and a gasp.
I immediately disentangled myself from the closet and skidded into the hall, “Jing?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” Jing said, crouched by the floor in a puddle of shimmering wet glass, some of which had embedded into Jing’s slacks. My anatomy book also lay in the ring of destruction.
“Oh, God, are you okay?” I asked.
“I’m fine. It’s just, the, the glass just slipped,” Jing said. “I’m really sorry about the floor and the rug.”
“Oh, it’s fine. I’ll just grab a rag and mop this up,” I said. I looked up and realized Jing’s face was very pale. “Are you sure you’re alright?’
“Oh, yes, I’m fine. I think I should be getting back to my car at the hospital though,” Jing said.
“Here, just wait a second for me to wipe this up, and I’ll walk back with you,” I offered.
“No, it’s fine,” Jing said.
“Well, I guess I could always clean it up when I get back,” I said, considering the mess.
“No, no. I’m fine, really. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?” Jing said.
“Uh, okay,” I said.
Jing left. I cleaned up the mess wondering what the hell just happened and where did that leave me with Jing. I had a habit of over-thinking things, so I did my best to convince myself I was doing just that with Jing.  
We were just friends, and Jing wanted to get back before it got too dark. That was it. We were just friends.

I could not move or see or think. Fear. The cold that traced my face was no longer languid, but sharp. I needed to run away. I needed to move. I needed to escape. God, I needed to escape.

I did not see Jing that day, but I did think about Jing a lot. Jing was always in my thoughts.

“Oh, thank God!” I exclaimed as I opened the door to find the two people currently lugging my new mattress up the stairs.
“You’d be surprised at how often we get that response,” the first man said. “Do you want us to move it into the bedroom?”
“Please do,” I said. “It’s down this way.”
“I wish I could keep my place this cold, but it’d cost me an arm and a leg,” the man said.
“I don’t know how much it’s costing me; I haven’t even been here a week, but the air conditioning unit’s on low. I guess it’s just great nineteenth century engineering,” I said. “Sorry, let me shove all these blankets out of the way. I’ve been sleeping on the floor.”
“No wonder you were glad to see us,” the man said. They set the mattress down. “We’ll go grab the box spring.”
“Awesome possum,” I said, wondering where the eccentric turn of phrase came from as soon as it left my lips. Probably some remnant of college yet to be scrubbed off by a mature career. They left.
I went over to the window unit. It was almost unbearably cold now. Maybe I should just turn it off and let the apartment warm up a little. I did so, rubbing my arms where gooseflesh had already pimpled the surface. I should get the mattress movers a drink. While it was freezing in my apartment, a sauna existed outside. It was only polite.
I went into the kitchen and filled a couple glasses with lemonade I had made from the powdered drink mix I had found at the bottom of one of my boxes. I was trying to figure out the ice tray in my freezer  when I heard a crash coming from the hallway.
I stopped what I was doing and ran to the source of the noise. The two men were tangled up in each other on the ground, squished between the box spring and the wall.
“Are you okay?” I said hastily, moving the box spring off of them. I dragged it several paces down the wall and went to help the first one up. However, he was already on his feet.
“We have a tight schedule. ‘have to be going,’ the man said.
“Um, okay. Sure. I bought a bed frame too though, right?” I said, sitting back on my heels, feeling uncomfortable exerting my authority as a customer, but not willing to stand down.
“Yes, of course. Sam will-” the man started.
“No, I won’t,” the other man, Sam, cut in forcefully.
“We’ll just leave it on the front steps,” the first man said.
“Okay,” I said. It said free delivery, but in the face of two men who clearly seemed at extreme unease, I really didn’t know how to bring it up.
Without another word, the men left. I saw what they tripped on. Somehow my damn anatomy book had fallen off the shelf again. What the hell was wrong with it? Or the shelf?
With equal parts frustration and confusion, I picked up the book again, surprised it was still in good condition considering how many falls it had taken lately, and tucked it under my arm.
“Apparently the shelf’s too dangerous for you, my friend,” I said to the book, tapping it. I brought it into the kitchen where I examined the two cups of lemonade I had poured. I drained both and wiped my mouth on the back of my hand. I guess I better go get my bed frame.

I was dead tired when I fell asleep. I had discovered my bed frame was exactly the wrong shape to fit in the elevator, so I dragged it up four flights of stairs, which was really too small for it as well. I felt for sure I was scratching the paint, despite my best efforts. However, no one saw me, so I hoped the flecks would go unnoticed.
Then, I had to assemble the damn thing when I accidentally set the instructions down on the wet counter, so the ink instantly blurred. Then, I realized I had no tools, so I had to ride the bus to pick up a screwdriver. After all that, I figured out halfway through I did it wrong and needed to disassemble everything again and flip a part.
Then, of course, I had to stack my ridiculously heavy queen sized mattress and box spring on top of the bed frame by myself. God, I should have just grown a backbone and demanded the mattress mover guys assemble my bed. I was sore all over and tired, so very tired.

I couldn’t move. There was something there. It was angry at me. It wanted to hurt me. I needed to run away, for heaven’s sake, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t hide. It was clawing at my face. God. Please, God, I was afraid.

I stumbled to the kitchen. My toes were frozen. My head hurt. My hands were shaking. I turned the tap on and filled a mug, which I shoved into the microwave. I pressed buttons without knowing which ones I was pressing. I found a jacket and wrapped myself in it. I pulled my mug out of the microwave and shoved several tea bags inside it. I gulped it down as it scorched my throat. I was so cold, but I didn’t think I could ever get warm. Not in this place. There was something here.
What the hell was I thinking about? God, sleep deprivation was not good for my brain, drawing nightmares into a sharp poke of real panic like a spinner draws thread from wool. I needed to calm down. I looked down at my empty mug. I had no idea what tea I had just drank. I checked the counter where four crinkled wrappers of Earl Grey informed me of my choice. So, I was going to be hopped up on caffeine. I probably wouldn’t be able to sleep. Great.
I sighed and rubbed my temples. I didn’t know why I was so agitated. I just needed to calm down. I grabbed the wrappers on the counter and threw them away and sopped up some of the tea I had spilt because of my trembling hand with a rag. My anatomy book thankfully stayed dry, which was a miracle.
I stared at the finely illustrated open pages exposing the major nerves of the face sitting like a spiderweb atop the parotid gland. The facial nerve had five branches, and a handy mnemonic made it difficult for me to forget their order. The Zebra Bit My Cookie. Temporal, zygomatic, buccal, mandibular, cervical. That had been an interesting day in anatomy lab. Really, there was something terribly disconcerting about cutting into the face of a person who could be someone’s mother or father, grandmother or grandfather. I think dissection of the face was definitely the toughest day.
I closed the book. It would be difficult to sleep now, so I went to the hallway and picked up an old, well-thumbed copy of Hamlet. Nothing like some good ol’ Shakespeare, which had the dual benefit of being mildly education while still essentially soporific.
I read the first couple acts, but felt no inclination to sleep again. I set the book down, and went for a run.

“What happened to your face?” Jing asked, coming in for lunch.
“What?” I asked, feeling up for evidence of food or some other embarrassing accompaniment. Instead, I winced as I felt a few scratches starting around my maxilla and branching out in several directions. “Oh, I didn’t even notice. Must have got swiped by a tree when running or something.”
“Still running strong?” Jing asked.
“Yep. I like that route you showed me,” I said, but then paused. I reddened reflexively at the memory of how awkwardly that day had ended.
“No problem,” Jing said.
There was a long pause. I examined my carrots while trying desperately to think of something interesting to say.
“So, this is going to sound weird-” Jing said slowly.
“What? I’m all ears,” I said, perhaps a little too eagerly.
“Well. I did a little research on your building,” Jing said.
“Oh, really? Why? What did you find?” I asked, grateful for any conversation.
“Well, a few people have died there,” Jing said.
“Makes sense, I guess. A building that old is bound to have people die in it,” I shrugged.
“You don’t think-? Sorry. This is silly,” Jing said, shaking short, dark bangs away with the conversation.
I tried to grab it back. The conversation that is, not the hair. “No, what? Now you’ve made me curious,” I said.
“Well, your apartment is creepy,” Jing said.
“Wait, what?” I said, half-laughing.
“I mean, something is seriously wrong with that place. Why are you laughing?” Jing asked.
“It’s just an apartment. What do you think, some ghosts are haunting it?” I asked, still chortling without restraint.
“I’m not hungry anymore. See you around, Ridley,” Jing said acerbically, picking up the remains of the sandwich.
“Wait, Jing!” I said, cursing my stupidity. Dammit. Why did I laugh. I mean, it was ridiculous what Jing was saying, but I shouldn’t have laughed. Dammit.

Firmly encased in my warmest pajamas, I pulled a carton of ice cream out of my freezer and dug in with a spoon. My head hurt, and I needed a sugar rush. My anatomy book was still lying open on my kitchen counter.
“You know, this is your fault,” I said, pointing my spoon at it. “If you hadn’t made Jing trip, then we wouldn’t have had that conversation, and then we’d probably be at the ‘let’s go get coffee after work’ stage.” I glowered at it.
“Damn you, Netter,” I said, shaking my fist at the sky.
Laughter echoed in the hallway.
I turned around quickly. Then, I looked out the window. God, these walls were paper thin. The laugh was probably too young to be coming from the Evergreens, but maybe some of my other neighbors were younger. Wait, no, Hortense had made it seem like there weren’t very many young people in the apartment building. Maybe someone had the TV on or had grandkids over or something.
I turned back to my ice cream. Why was I eating ice cream when it was so freaking cold in this apartment? I needed to open a window and let some of that sweltering heat inside, except none of the windows opened. Well, besides the one with the damn, high-powered air conditioning unit.
Maybe, it had a short or something so that it couldn’t tell that I had set it to off. I put the ice cream away and pulled the plug on the air conditioning unit. Hopefully the apartment would begin heating up soon.
I shoved my anatomy book in my closet on top of a pile of jeans. “Stay,” I ordered. But really, it seemed highly unlikely I would be having any visitors to my bedroom anytime soon, considering my recent strike out with Jing, which I managed to destroy before it even developed.  Hell, the book could fall all night to its heart’s content. I then realized that, in this case, the book did have a heart (at least several figures of one), and that made me snort in a sort of pitying self-humor.
Sleep. That’s what I needed. Sleep on my new, comfortable bed.

I couldn’t move, but I could feel. There was something on top of me, weighing down my chest. I could barely breathe. I couldn’t see it, but I could feel it. It’s hands were lightly on my face like cool wisps of smoke tickling what they touched. They descended down my neck to my chest.
I was terrified. I had no idea what the thing was, but I was helpless to its touch. I needed to move away. I wanted to yell, but no sound could echo from my throat. Instead, I heard soft laughter.

I was freezing cold, but I was sweating. My chest ached as I heaved and huffed, trying to catch my breath. It was like I had gone running during my sleep. The fear remained. It felt like panic, because I didn’t think the nightmare was gone yet. It was still here. I could feel it. It’s laughter still echoed, and its fingertips burned my flesh like dry ice, clinging like oil.
In a fit of terror, I fumbled out of bed to turn on the lightswitch. Nothing. Just one sorry excuse for a semi-adult in pajamas, clutching a blanket. I tried to control my heartbeat.
It wasn’t real. I knew it wasn’t real. It was a documented neural phenomenon, a hiccup in the brain. My body didn’t wake when my brain did, so my brain concocted terrors, including a mysterious figure touching me and laughing? My psyche was messed up.
I was so incredibly cold in this apartment. Maybe that was it. My breath was practically frosting in the air in front of me. I needed something hot. Tea. Tea should work. I went back to my bed to return the blanket when my anatomy book fell open by my feet. I threw the blanket on my bed and bent to retrieve it.
It was on one of the pages pelvic anatomy. That was also a disconcerting day of anatomy lab, to dissect something so private and special for a person, suddenly laying it bare on a cold metal table with a flash of steel scalpels, tweezers, hemostats, scissors, and saws.
There was laughter behind me. I jumped around as my panic reached a climax. Nothing. There was nothing.
I had read once that aural hallucinations are the most common. Maybe the stress of the new job, living alone for the first time, and the Jing fiasco was getting to me. For hell’s sake, I was talking to my anatomy book while eating a carton of ice cream.
I shoved the anatomy book under my bed. Despite coming to a reasonable conclusion, I still found myself turning on every light in the house. I waited until morning uneasily.

“What happened?” Jing asked.
“What?” I said, looking up bleary-eyed from my coffee.
“Your neck, it’s all bruised,” Jing said.
I felt upward and winced. “I have no idea how that happened,” I said honestly.
“Are you alright?” Jing asked.
“I just can’t sleep very well. It’s the weirdest thing,” I said, suppressing a yawn. “I think it’s just the stress of, um, everything.” I reddened. Although Jing was acting amicable, I had no idea where we stood.
“A nightcap always helps me sleep,” Jing said. “Red wine has resveratrol, which has been shown to extend lifespan in mice.”
I shrugged. “I just barely got a mattress. I haven’t got any wine yet.”
“I do,”Jing said, quietly, hesitantly. Enough so that I spent a good five seconds trying to decipher the expression that I doubt of team of psychiatrists could crack.
“Let’s go out. My treat. I think we both need to unwind a little,” Jing said, which was definitely a more forward step. I was tired before, but wide awake now.
“Um, okay, sure,” I said, very confused, but also happy at the turn of events.

Jing gave a critical look at the building. “You know, you can sleep at my place tonight,” Jing said. Seeing my bewildered expression, Jing was quick to add, “I have a couch. Since, you were having trouble sleeping.” Jing reddened and looked away.
“No, it’s fine. I mean, it really is a nice place, even if a little creepy. I have the nicest neighbor named Hortense Evergreen who treats me like her favorite grandchild. She’d probably be worried sick if she didn’t hear me come home,” I said. “Anyway, thanks for the night out.”
“No problem.”
Jing was about to drive away, but I quickly returned to the car. “Jing?”
Jing rolled down the window, looking expectant.
“Um, there’s this new movie coming out soon based on this book I really like, and I wasn’t sure if you would have an evening free anytime soon,” I started.
“Oh, I think I know which one you’re talking about. I loved that book,” Jing said.
“Well?” I said. “How about it? Do you want to go see it with me sometime.”
“I’m free next Friday night,” Jing smiled.
“Sounds like a date!” I said. Jing not only didn’t correct my terminology but grinned happily. I finally understood where we were at. I felt like dancing, but instead just smiled back goofily and waved Jing away.

I was practically flying up the stairs, singing a song Jing had played in the car under my breath.
“Back so late?” Hortense asked. “You’re such a hard worker.”
From anyone else, the comment would have smacked of sarcasm, but the quietly smiling older woman seemed incapable of such a biting comment, like she genuinely believed I had been working late instead of getting a drink with Jing. I glanced down at my watch, shrugged sheepishly, and gave a half-grin that I hoped would spare me further conversation.
“Madison tells me you’re quite the catch,” Hortense said.
“Really? I don’t think I’ve seen Madison,” I said, my smile faltering a little with the return of the mystery of Madison. Besides, something seemed a little strange in the manner of Hortense, despite her warm grandmotherly overtones. I just wanted to sleep. “It’s been great chatting with you, but I have work tomorrow.”
“Oh, I understand, dear,” Hortense said. “You have a pleasant night.”
“You too,” I said, trying to fake cheerfulness, but my silly grin was melting off my face. I turned away quickly and went inside my apartment.

A gust of cold wind met me like a physical wall. I grasped wildly for the lightswitch, my slight intoxication granting me no favors. I found it.
The light revealed an empty hallway. The wind disappeared, although bone-chilling cold remained. Gooseflesh prickled my neck and arms. I tried to warm my arms by rubbing them vigorously a few times. I needed a coat and to throw that damn air conditioning unit in the trash where it belong.
A door slammed on my right. I jumped out of my skin, turning around rapidly to find my bedroom door open. Were my ears playing tricks on me again? Damn aural hallucinations. I stomped into the kitchen, turning on every light switch I passed. I think the tea would be the only way I could survive this antarctic wasteland, I decided bitterly as I shoved my mug in the microwave. God, I couldn’t even imagine what winter was going to be like. Probably blistering hot, or something weird like that.
I gripped the mug tightly with my frozen fingers. I needed a coat and sweat pants and two more layers of socks. I flipped on the lightswitches in my path as I made my way to my bedroom.
I tripped, just managing to not fall flat on my face but covering myself in scalding tea. I pulled off my shirt quickly, trying to keep the scorching liquid away from my skin.
I heard it again. Soft laughter.
I stood up straight, half naked and fearing to look behind me for what I might find. The chills racing down my spine could not just be blamed on the cold.
I gathered my courage and spun around. There was no there. Of course there was no one there. I needed to get to sleep. Alcohol and sleep deprivation did obviously not work well.
I found my pajamas and kicked my wet clothes to the corner of my closet. I examined the burn briefly in my bedroom mirror, pulling up the sweatshirt I was wearing. It arched down my chest, passing over dull purple bruises I hadn’t noticed before. They looked like handprints.
I saw a shadow behind me.
My heart stopped as I turned. It was nothing. There was no one there.
I heard a subtle pop in the hallway. I grabbed the heaviest thing I could find nearby, my anatomy textbook on top of my bed. I gradually poked my head out of the bedroom.
One of the lights had gone out. I stepped out into the hallway to look up at up, awash in relief of such a prosaic problem. I just needed to buy new lightbulbs. No big deal. I would just go to the store like a grown up and buy lightbulbs tomorrow, not cower in my doorway like a child.
The next one began to flicker. Then, it went out with the selfsame pop. The next began to flicker as well.
I dropped the book, too stunned to move or react. The third bulb went out, and the fourth began to flicker.
“No. It’s a short. It’s just a short. It’s like old Christmas lights,” I said out loud, hoping the sound of my own voice would reassure me.
Soft laughter. I whipped around, but was met with nothing.
Was I hallucinating so vividly now, both aurally and visually? Was I having a stroke? I needed to call someone. I didn’t care if it turned out to be nothing. In fact, that’s exactly what I hoped it was. Where was my phone?
Closet. It was in my pants pocket in the closet. I tripped on my anatomy book as I tried to run to my bedroom. I hit the ground painfully, but regained my feet. The book lay open, and it’s pages fluttered rapidly in a non-existent breeze, as if someone was turning them. Or something.
The lights began to flicker out more rapidly, down toward the kitchen and to my bedroom.
I reached forward to steady myself on the doorframe of my bedroom. The door slammed on my fingers. I cursed, trying to shove the door open to remove my smashed digits, but a force much, much stronger than I fought back.
Then, it was gone. I fell back, clutching my throbbing fingers. The last light in the house went out. It was pitch black. I heard laughter.
The front door. Damn it, I would just run out the front door and find someone, anyone. I could run to the hospital if need be. I needed help. I stood up and went to move forward. I tripped. I stood up again, and something grabbed my arm. I ran like hell face first into my front door.
More laughter, right behind me, up against my neck. I clawed at the front door like a dog, trying to find the handle. I found it. It was locked. It was freaking locked, and it wouldn’t budge.
The soft laughter tinkled in my ear with a breath of cold air, as something had leaned in close and place its lips to my earlobe.
I slammed on the door with my fist. “Help! Help! Can anyone hear me! Please, you have to help me! Call the police! Call anyone!” The door was impossibly solid. Maybe no one could hear me through it. Maybe the Evergreens were deep sleepers. No, someone had to hear me. Someone just had to.
Something heavy was beginning to slide over me, weighing down on my chest like a load of bricks with fingers of frost. It pushed me down to the floor. It reached out, cradling  my face in daggers.
My phone rang.
I had to get to it. Goddamn it, I had to get it. I struggled, but managed to roll aside, pushing the heavy thing off my chest. I army crawled forward. Something grabbed my foot and dragged me backward. I grabbed hold of the bookshelf in the hall and threw a book back in the darkness in the vague direction of the mysterious force. I managed to gain traction on the floor. I launched myself forward into my bedroom.
The door slammed shut behind me as my phone stopped ringing. The lights flickered on for a split second. Jing lay disemboweled on my bed. Written in the blood, “Why won’t you love me.” I yelled, and the lights went out again. I stumbled forward to the bed, grasping to where Jing had been moments before, but there was nothing, only blankets.
There was soft laughter on my neck.
I swung around, arms flailing but hitting nothing. “Get the hell away from me!” I yelled into the blackness. “Just, go away,” I pleaded. Laughter answered, as soft as a kiss echoing in my skull.
My phone rang again. I had to get it. I leaped forward in the direction of the noise. I tripped and ran into the wall instead with a crunch. I didn’t worry about the blood running down my chin. Instead, my fingers reached forward to find the ledge of my closet and reach inside, digging through fabric.
I felt a bare thigh. My whole body convulse backward at that contact. Laughter. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real. The phone stopped ringing, but I threw myself back in the pile of clothes anyway.
I found my phone by touch. A pair of arms wrapped around my like a vice, constricting against my touch. A pair of lips like ice found my ear once more. They nibbled.
I turned around rapidly, trying to throw off the attacker. Nothing. There was nothing. Then, there was pain like a knife across my leg. I collapsed. Achilles tendon, some part of my brain answered, too drilled in anatomy to forget a term in panic.
I tried to get up on my good leg. There was laughter. Goddamn that laughter.
The phone rang. Something sharp was shoved in just below my clavicle. My arm went numb and the phone fell from my hand. Brachial plexus, my brain offered.
I grabbed the phone with my other hand, trying to fumble with the buttons with a shaking and unfamiliar grip. It stopped ringing. I tried to lean against the door so I could steady myself enough to dial 911. The door fell open.
Laughter, like windchimes. Fingers, like icicles.  Kiss, like death, across my lips. No, I couldn’t die. I wouldn’t.
I scrambled up, leaning heavily against the wall. My hand was sweating too much to fumble with the buttons. I could press the answer button. I needed someone to call again. Please, please call.
Then, a thin slit opened across my throat, not across my carotid or jugular or something immediately lethal. Instead, at my larynx. Vocal cords. I tried to yell. Air hissed out.  
I couldn’t call for help. No one would come for me. I couldn’t get out the front door. I didn’t want to die.
The window. Dammit, it was the only option left. I sputtered down the hall. I was bleeding. I could feel my strength sapping way with the warm liquid. I couldn’t die. I didn’t want to die. But, even more than that. I didn’t want this, this thing, to kill me.
A pair of icy fingers traipsed my shoulder. I spun around, and tripped. Laughter. Go to hell, you freak.
Another icy dagger deep in my thigh exploded in fire, only to weaken. Sciatic nerve. I had one arm. I dragged myself forward on it. I wasn’t going to die. I wasn’t going to die. I had to get to the window. My fingers felt the far wall. My phone rang. A blow swung upward toward my temporal bone, or was it targeting the Wernicke’s area behind it, trying to target my use of language? Fat lot of good that would do if I couldn’t speak anyway.
I was disoriented. I couldn’t find my phone. I grasped around for it, and pressed randomly at the screen. I used my good arm to pull myself up onto the window ledge. With the force of my body pressing against it, the air conditioning unit fell.
“Ridley, Ridley is that you?” Jing’s voice crackled to life on my phone.
“Jing!” I wanted to say. “Help me!” I wanted to beg. Instead, coughs of air echoed from my throat. My arm was shaking as I tried to pull myself further up on the windowsill to stabilize myself.
“Are you there, Ridley?” Jing asked. There was an exasperated noise and the phone clicked off.  I looked into the darkness, as a sudden comprehension slowly dawned.
Madison, I thought. This was Madison. And Madison just loves the young folks.
There is was, that soft laughter. A icy kiss met my lips as a sharp pain like a dagger slowly began to pierce into my chest to reach my heart. Madison had had all the fun needed and was going to finish with its game.
Screw you, Madison, I thought. I shoved myself out the window.

The phone rang in the grass. It pressed up against a cold finger in the warm breeze.
“Ridley?” the phone asked. “God, Ridley are you there? Get the hell out of your apartment. I’m at the hospital, and Mr. Evergreen is here, from your building is here. I know this is against HIPAA, but he had an MI, and his wife, Hortense? She’s dead. She and her child died in the fifties in your freaking apartment. For God’s sake, please pick up the phone!”
An irritated, desperate grumble emanated the phone, and then quiet. All that could be heard in the silent night was the wind filtering through the trees, which almost sounded like laughter.