I can hear them. Their voices worm into my ears, claw at my mind, burrow deep into my brain making a home there. I don’t know what they are saying, but I can feel them. I can feel their fear, anger, their desperation. It is overwhelming.
It’s at night that people go away. In the darkness, they disappear. And their voices get louder. When my body eventually loses consciousness, I dream. Vivid colours, the smell of decaying flesh, and the screaming. So much screaming. It doesn’t really feel like a dream. When I can wake up from this second life, my body is drained. I come to with a dry mouth, sore throat, and tired muscles. My eyes are in a constant state of swelling. My joints creak and crack. I walk through life on muscle memory unable to process anything around me. I don’t remember the bus ride to work today, working, or even getting home. But I’m out of sick days so I continue going. Either my sleep deprived self is a very capable employee or those important emails that need to go out every morning by 8 aren’t actually read. Jack wants me to quit. He says he can support us both on his salary. That I should focus on getting better. Maybe he’s right, but the voices don’t seem to follow me there.
The voices aren’t so loud right now. The sun is still up. The screaming won’t start until later. There are a few of them. I can’t tell exactly how many. They are all talking at once. It’s like having a loud family living in both ears. Each voice fighting for dominance creating a chaotic indecipherable static. They are angry right now. The sun fuels their hatred. I sip at my lukewarm espresso and push myself deeper into the recliner. I don’t know how much caffeine I’ve consumed since today became today, but my heart is racing, my face and chest are dewy with sweat, and I am still tired. I am staring at the dark screen of my television. I meant to turn it on. At least, I think I did. My thighs feel bruised. I think I’ve been sitting here a while. What time is it? If I know the time I can calculate how many hours, minutes, seconds, before the screaming will start. But my phone is out of reach and there are no clocks in this room. We should put a clock in here. Maybe Jack can pick one up. I could call him, but my arms are heavy, my voice is weak, and I am too numb to move. I’ll ask him when he gets home.
A little orange and white bottle sits on the table beside me. Half empty of its pale-yellow chalky circles. I can’t remember if I took them today. I must have. I should have. Jack will know. The front door vibrates behind me. Three consecutive bangs shake the wood. Jack’s nervous tick. He’s home. And he’s had a bad day.
Metal scratches against metal as he fiddles with his keys. The door handle grinds down behind me. The hinges whine as the door smacks against the wall.
“Damn door,” he mumbles. I don’t see it but I hear his bags hit the floor. He sighs and grumbles stomping his way toward my chair. “Hi, sweetie,” Jack says. I try to say hi back but my stomach flips. I hold my breath and wait. Jack sighs and squats down beside my chair. “Not feeling well?” I shake my head and the room spins. “Okay, small breaths in through your mouth and out through your nose.” He starts breathing in an exaggerated way. Then smiles, “come on, baby don’t leave me here breathing alone.” My heart swells. He makes me feel like I am 18 again. Like we are just beginning. Jack rests his forehead against mine and we breathe together. I’m not his wife anymore. I’m his patient. I don’t know why he puts up with me.
“I’m sorry,” I say. Tears are heavy in my eyes. It hurts, but the wetness feels nice inside my thirsty sockets.
“Nothing to be sorry about.” His lips are soft and warm against my forehead, “How were the voices, today?” I groan and he runs both of his hands through his hair. He’s hurting. My sickness hurts him. If I had any mercy, I would leave him. He doesn’t deserve this. “How bad?” I shrug.
“Last night was worse.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie.” Jack kisses my forehead and starts toward the kitchen. “Have you eaten?” I shake my head and the spinning starts up again. “I’ll make you some soup.” He works so hard every day and then has to come home and deal with me. It’s not fair. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and use the little energy I have to push myself out of the chair.
I find him riffling through the pantries with his shoulders hunched over. He looks tired. I wrap my arms around him and run my hands up and down his chest. He leans into me and sighs. This feels right. I miss the days when I was the one to comfort him. When I was the one who would make him dinner, breakfast, I even packed him lunches. We were so happy.
And then the screaming started.
“Let me do something for you, please?” He hums softly but when I try to pull away he holds on. “Let me make you something.” He turns around and smiles. I give him a small peck on the lips and pull away. This feels normal. Maybe for one night we can be normal again.
“Where are you going?” he says.
“Basement. We still keep the canned tomatoes down there, right?” I yank at the door but it doesn’t budge. I don’t remember there being a lock. “It’s locked?” I turn around and he’s frowning.
“You know why,” Jack says. The memory is harsh. I can smell the burning, rotten meat. I can hear their screams. And I feel each step digging into my flesh smacking against my ribs, then hip, then head. The dream felt so real, but I’ve always had a vivid imagination. In one of my nightly fits the screaming must have driven me down a set of stairs. He probably started locking it after that.
“Oh,” I say. His smile is small and one sided.
“We keep them down here now.” Jack pulls open the bottom cupboard where we used to keep the cereal. The counter space is bare. My spice rack, our pictures, even that ugly fruit bowl his mother gave us are all gone. So much in my home has changed without me. “It’s okay. Go lay down and I will bring you your soup.” The bed is already untucked on my side waiting for me. I burrow inside of it. My eyes drift closed.
“Here you go.” Jack’s voice wakes me from the void. It is dark outside the window. My skin flashes cold, my chest tightens, the screaming will soon begin. Jack sets the tray down over me. Steam is coming off a large bowl of chicken noodle. “Please eat some.” I swirl the noodles around with a spoon willing my stomach to comply. He plops a thin orange bottle down onto the tray. “I talked to your doctor. He said you could start taking these. One a night. They’ll help you sleep.” He lands a kiss on my forehead, another on my nose, and finally one makes it onto my lips. A chill washes over me as he walks away.
“I’m going to work late tonight. Don’t try to wait up for me. You take care of you, and I will take care of those voices.” He smiles and closes the door behind him. I shut my eyes and listen to his footsteps slowly getting further and further away. I hear the clinking of keys and the sound of the basement door opening. The screaming begins. I shove my thumbs in my ears, but nothing I do can block them out. The doctors had promised that this was the medication – this was the one that would take. I grab the new bottle and shake one into my palm. It hurts going down so I take a gulp of chicken broth to ease the ache. Please, please give me a dreamless night. My face is numb, its skin grows heavy as the drug takes hold. A woman’s scream breaks through the rest.
“No, no, please, no!” My body falls away. Do I still have a body? I can’t feel my arms, my fingers, the concept of legs seems distant. I can’t move. But I still hear her. Her screams are louder than the rest. She’s not real. They’re not real. I am alone. It’s just me. I can’t feel myself breathing anymore. Just me and I am fading. It’s at night that people disappear.