“Are you getting enough sleep?”
Amber roused herself. She was in the college career counselor’s office. The man’s name was Gene. This had something to do with picking out a major? There was a coffee pot in the corner of the office. Black as tar and out of reach. She needed Jonesy.
“Listen, Amber. You’re only in your first semester and your grades are looking… Well, compared to your entrance exam scores—“ the counselor was saying. Gene was a clean guy. Starched shirt. A dress-right-dress work space. She couldn’t help but notice his cheeks still waxy and wet from a shave, except one spot he’d missed under his chin.
“I slept some,” she stifled a yawn. She didn’t add that it was only by accident and only during her last lecture. A morning class. Big auditorium. Only the stage was lit.
“Last time we talked you mentioned you were still dealing with what happened at the end of high school.”
The accident. But to call it an accident wasn’t fair. She’d been instructed and trained and warned. She’d known all about the dangers of distracted driving since she was sixteen. But she made that decision. A decision injected into her through a long black tube that had slipped into her room at night. A bad decision from a bad creature.
Since then, her piece of shit Toyota Corolla stayed parked along the curb in front of her mom’s house. The windshield was still cracked and the passenger’s headlight was busted out. She’d sell it if only someone would buy it. In the meantime, she left it parked there, unlocked with the keys in the cup holder, waiting for someone to steal it.
“Have you considered seeing a counselor?”
Amber’s fingers worried away at the zipper pull on her sweatshirt. She wanted it to be Jonesy. “Aren’t you a counselor?”
“I mean a mental health professional,” the counselor said. “Some of the things we’ve discussed are well beyond my skill set. I’m here to help you prepare yourself for your—“
“They’re not hallucinations,” Amber cut him off.
“I didn’t say—“
“The stilt walkers. I’m not dreaming them up. I wish I was, but you can see as well as I can just how bad things are. People are sick, poisoned, their thoughts are toxic, filled to the brink with hate. One of them got to me and look what happened. One of them will get to you too.”
“This is exactly what I’m talking about,” Gene sighed, more to himself than to her.
“How am I supposed to sleep while I know they’re out there? How am I supposed to ignore what I see, when I know what they can do, when I’ve seen the results of their work first hand?” Amber heard her words slur, so this time she made sure to speak clearly. “I have this ability, and I have a responsibility to use it. It’s all I can do after what I let them make me do. I owe it.”
“Amber, I am really not qualified to address these sorts of feelings,” the counselor said, resigned.
“You could fight them too, if you had the balls,” she said. “But you’d rather sleep and let the evil of the world infect us all.”
The counselor rocked forward in his chair and leaned against the desk. The old wood creaked under his weight. Amber locked eyes with him. He looked appalled by her, but also concerned. What did she look like? She knew her skin was dry and pale. Her eyelids hung loose, red like a basset hound’s. Her mouth was agape. White crude crusted to the corners of her mouth. Zombie queen meets heroin addict.
“How long has it been?” he asked.
“Saw one last night.”
“No. How long since you last slept? Really slept, like the whole night through?”
Not long enough. She still wasn’t spotting them until almost morning, when the rising sun was ready to chase them off. If she could store up more of her wakefulness during the day she could draw them out sooner. Her thoughts wandered to the water bucket they used on the lab rats. She needed something like that. Something that wouldn’t let her nod off.
“Huh?” Right. The counselor, staring her in the face.
“This will kill you,” Gene said.
“People have already died. But nobody else has to. Not anymore.”
Amber had done her research, had read and re-read all the studies. The lab rats in the buckets suffered damage to the cortical memory networks. Loss in spatial learning and synaptic plasticity. Depression and hallucinations. Elevated blood pressure. Weight gain. Eventually death. But no humans. No human on record ever died from sleep deprivation. She wasn’t going to die. And Jonesy, since he really was just clothe and stuffing, wasn’t going to die. And if she did her job right, nobody else would die either.
“You need to go to the Student Services office and ask them about seeing a mental health provider. There are resources available to you. Some at low or no—“
“I should get back to class,” Amber stood up and picked a Styrofoam cup off the stack next to the coffee machine.
The coffee was black. Burnt. Gritty with grounds. She poured the sludge into the cup. No cream. No sugar.
“You don’t need—“
The first sip burnt her tongue and mouth.
“Amber, you need sleep.”
The sludge went down her throat.
“Jesus Christ,” he mumbled and looked away.
“Thanks, doc,” Amber said. “Our little talks, they always help.”
“I am not in any way, shape, or form a doctor,” he was saying when she left the office.
Another class. Another monotone voice. Another dimly lit auditorium.
She fought to stay awake. The veil between consciousness and dreams wore silk-thin. In her dreams, Amber saw them against the backdrop of storm clouds rolling in at night. A dozen stilt walkers stalked through the houses, cul de sacs, over a middle school.
Lightning flashed and she was inside the school, in a classroom filled with desks and kids. Outside it rained on the playground. Inside, the kids were playing a game. Heads up Seven up. The kids sitting at their desks had their heads down buried in their arms and they stuck out a fist with a raised thumb. Other kids snuck through the rows and gently pressed down random thumbs. The boys picked their friends. The girls picked the boys they liked. Amber peeked up from her elbow. A stilt walker hung over them from the impossibly high classroom ceiling and watched the game approvingly.
The stilt walker glared down upon them, its beady eyes reflecting flashes of lightning coming through the window. Come on, children. Time to guess. Who snuck by your house late at night while you were sleeping and pressed your thumb down? You only get one guess. Who was it? Tina? Stacey? Maybe Tommy? It couldn’t have been the twenty foot demon creature with the long black tendril creeping through your window. Guess!
Her head tipped over sideways and Amber snapped awake.
Back at the community college. Back in the dim auditorium. The teacher still prattling on about US History. Or was it Art Appreciation? No, this was Intro to Psych. Wasn’t it? She checked her notes.
Not too many words there. Mostly doodles on the ragged spiral bound notebook. A drawing in the center of the page. A cross section of the bucket with the pedestal in the middle just big enough for a rat to sit on its hind legs. And below the pedestal? In the sleep studies they used water to keep the rat awake, but in her drawing it was different. In her drawing, surrounding the little rodent on its little pedestal were rows and rows of sharp pointy spikes.
“That’s it Mister Jonesy,” she whispered. Jonesy was deep inside her backpack under her seat. That didn’t matter though. She knew he heard her. “I think that’s the trick.”
“Amber,” Gene the career counselor said, leaning against the front of his desk again. “I’d like to introduce you to someone. This is Laura, and she’s a mental health counselor from Lutheran Social Services. They offer free consultations for people in your financial situation.”
Laura from Lutheran Social Services sat in a chair parked at the side of the desk. The thin woman’s eyes were concerned, sympathetic, imploring, impossibly white as if she bleached them each night before bed.
“I’m not Lutheran,” Amber said. This was an ambush. The career counselor had tricked her. Caught her off guard after class and dragged her back into his office. And for what? To have this woman ask her if she’d found Jesus?
Laura smiled politely. “I’m a part of the social outreach program. Doesn’t matter what church you belong to or what you believe. I’m here to help.”
“Help how? If it’s really that big of a deal, I can pick out a major.”
Laura drew in and let out a long breath. “Amber, I’m not the type to beat around the bush. I’m not going to ask you about your mother or any of those sorts of questions. When I see trauma in a client’s past, I believe it’s best to address it directly.”
“Okay,” Amber’s lips fumbled out the words. Her face was numb when she talked and hung slack whenever she didn’t. She knew how she looked. It was painted in Laura’s wet sympathetic eyes.
“This past May you were involved in an accident,” Laura from Lutheran Social Services said. “There was a fatality. A man on a bicycle rode across an intersection when you had a green light.”
“It was my fault,” Amber said. “If you’re going to try to tell me it wasn’t, I’ve heard it all before. But you weren’t there.”
“The police report says you had a green light. The bicyclist had a ‘Don’t Walk’ signal he ignored,” Laura calmly explained.
“I was looking at my phone,” Amber said. The words were becoming harder to get out. Her throat was dry like sandpaper. It was the sleep deprivation. Nothing more. “I— “ Throat too dry. Too tight. She tried again. “I never did that before. I knew I wasn’t supposed to. But… some thing put the idea in my head. That I could get by with it.”
“So you blame yourself for the accident,” Laura said.
“But you just said—“
“It wasn’t my idea to do that. I was always a careful driver. I never did that before. Something told me to do that.”
Laura lifted her penciled-on eyebrows. Gene gestured and mimed to the woman as if to say, “Here it is. Here’s the thing I told you about.”
“Still, you feel like you need to make amends,” Laura said. “You want absolution.”
“I told you I’m not fucking religious.”
“But you seek forgiveness, don’t you? You wish you could take the memories away, or do something to rectify the injustice.”
“I can fix it.”
“Fix a fatality? Death is permanent.”
These people. They prod her like a mob armed with spears. All day, from all sides. If she really wanted to know, fine, Amber would tell her.
“They come out every night, whether or not I can see them and whether or not you believe it. They stride through the night, picking this house, not picking this one, stopping at this one tonight and then skipping four blocks over the next night. Random. Lethal. You’ll never see them. Never hear them. When you’re sleeping alone in your bed thinking you’re having a nightmare, they will come. And don’t worry, doc. If they haven’t visited you yet, if there’s parts of your soul they haven’t charred black, don’t worry. They’ll come. They’ll move through your neighborhood like silent insect sentinels, and one of them will stop outside your window, and it will slip its leathery dick into your bedroom and into your skull, and it will impregnate you with the most vial, filthy, nasty things you’ve ever thought. And when you wake up it will be gone, and you’ll disregard it cause you’ll be sure it was just a bad dream. But the thoughts it left will still be inside of you, like eggs laid in your ear canal. Until one day they hatch, and you act them out. And maybe it will be something small and lazy. Something other people will tell you not to blame yourself for, but it will end in shame and regret and misery and death. I fucking promise you.”
“You’re staying up at night?” Laura asked, her face stoic and marble-like. “To watch for these creatures?”
Amber laughed. She didn’t know why. “You want me out there, doc. You need me out there. For you. For your family. Do you have kids, doc?”
“Untreated sleep deprivation can be lethal. Did you know that, Amber?” Laura asked.
“Not to humans. Just to lab rats. They’ve done studies.”
“It’s true,” Laura said. “no human has ever died in a laboratory sleep study. But there’s certain things scientists can do to rats that ethics won’t allow them to do to humans.”
“Cowards.” They’d rather get their beauty sleep and stay weak than face the stilt walkers.
Laura’s bleach-white eyes pleaded. “Amber, if you keep this up, it will kill you.”
“You’re all cowards.”
Joe Prosit writes sci-fi, horror, and psycho fiction. He has been previously published in Chantwood Magazine, The No Sleep Podcast, and Aphotic Realm Magazine. He lives with his wife and kids in the Brainerd Lakes Area of northern Minnesota. If you’re an adept stalker, you can find him on one of the many lakes and rivers or lost deep inside the Great North Woods. Or you can just find him on the internet at JoeProsit.com or follow him on Twitter, @joeprosit.
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