Editor’s note: Daphne Strasert is a writer of horror, science fiction and fantasy who works out of Huston, Texas. In 2017, she placed third overall in the Horror Addicts’ Next Great Horror Writer Contest. She offered the following tale of horror for our November Nightmares feature and we thought it so suspenseful that we decided to give it to you in three weekly episodes for your reading pleasure! Enjoy!
My wife doesn’t remember the night terrors.
After all, Miela’s not even awake, not really. Her eyes are open, but unseeing. They aren’t focused on me, but on something that closes in on her from all sides. She shrieks until she chokes on her own bile, terrified tears streaming down her face. She throws punches and kicks at an invisible assailant until she tangles in the sheets, unable to do more than thrash against the bonds.
As a doctor, I’ve treated parasomnia before, but only in toddlers. Miela is decades older than any of my other patients. Medically, I know that the terrors are nothing to worry about. They’re just changes in her brain chemistry as she switches from one deep stage of sleep to another. It triggers the release of adrenaline and a fright response. They’re scary for me, but they don’t hurt her. But when she wakes with a shriek at three in the morning, that’s impossible to believe. Her few minutes of panic are agony for me as I try and fail to console her. The helplessness is the worst of all, holding her hands to keep her from clawing at her neck as if something is wrapped around it. And as abruptly as they start, she falls asleep again. When she wakes in the morning, she doesn’t remember them.
But I do.
Miela warned me, I suppose, before we got married. I was so busy finishing residency, we never had time to move in together. I could hardly ever stay the night. She told me about her troubles keeping a roommate, rounds of medications she’d tried to ease them. Maybe I thought she was exaggerating. Maybe I thought the sleepless nights at the ER had prepared me, that I could sleep through them somehow. I’m a doctor, for Christ’s sake – I’ve had more sleepless nights than I can count. I thought I’d seen sleep deprivation. I thought it couldn’t faze me. Holy hell, was I wrong.
I haven’t slept for weeks, not since our wedding night. I catch a few minutes or so, but each shift of her body jolts me awake. The creak of the house as it settles seems to be the precursor to a scream. Every sigh, every murmur heralds the coming fright. My body refuses to rest, too closely tuned to every movement of hers. Waiting. Waiting for the terrors to start.
And they always do. I can see them coming now. She doesn’t frighten all at once. It begins as a low moan, twitches of protest. She pulls away from something. Then she wakes. Or she seems to. She jolts upright, hands tearing at her clothes and hair. She rakes her nails against her skin hard enough to draw blood. And she screams. Long, unearthly sounds, nothing like what they record for horror movies. It’s worse than that, like something in the clutches of death itself.
Weeks of this. Weeks. She’s tried everything: pills, therapy, hypnosis, acupuncture. Nothing has worked.
I hold her against my body, stilling her as she shakes in my arms. Her screams rebound off the bedroom walls and rejoin to create a maniacal chorus. She struggles against me and pushes me away far enough to punch me in the nose. I let go, clutching my hands to my face. She scrambles across the bed on all fours like a wild creature and I retreat to the far corner of the room, watching her through the pain that throbs in my face. After a few minutes, she stops screaming and falls into an exhausted sleep, a peace I can’t reach.
I take deep breaths, my adrenaline coursing in response to her. The pain in my nose dulls. It’s not broken, but it will be bruised. As I go back to bed, something moves against the headboard. I think it’s my shadow, at first, but it shouldn’t cast that way. Light shifts along the paint, like the reflections of a car’s headlights against the wall, except there is no window there. I squint a little harder, but the effect is gone. All that’s left are the shadows, waiting where they should be.