Over, and over, and over again.
That was the sound that woke me from where I'd been asleep on the couch. Not an alarm for work. I'd stopped showing up there weeks ago. Not family. I didn't have one of those anymore. And not friends. I'd never had many of those, and this past month had taken care of the few I'd had left.
As always, consciousness hit like a hammer striking a stubborn nail that didn't want to sink in. The knuckles continued their uneven cadence as I lay there and gritted my teeth through the pain of being awake. Awake meant I was still alive. Alive meant I had to live another day, even though the chore of getting off the couch seemed akin to climbing Mount Everest.
But climb I must. There was no out. This was it. I'd have to keep going, waking up day after day, whether I wanted to or not, because of a promise I made fifteen years ago before I'd had the maturity of knowing how bad this life could get. But it was a promise I'd keep to a man no longer among the living.
"Ollie?" Dr. Martin called from the other side of the door.
If I'd wanted to talk to someone, I wouldn't have thrown my phone off the bridge weeks ago.
I reached out a blind hand to feel for a water bottle that wasn't empty. After tipping over a couple of empties, my hand landed on a winner.
If I'd been a normal person, I would've glanced over and located one easily. But I wasn't ready to open my eyes and deal with them yet. And they'd be there. They always were. They'd been my constant companions, the only ones I couldn't seem to lose.
Swallowing a swig of warm water, I realized the knocking had stopped as the silence spread out like a lifetime of doom before me. Maybe if I fell back asleep now, I wouldn't wake up again? If the mind didn't want to continue, it seemed logical that the body would eventually agree to go along with the plan.
My dream of an eternal peace was disrupted by the jingle of keys and at least two sets of feet walking down the apartment building's hallway.
The knocking started back up but stopped after a couple raps. Dr. Martin was speaking again, but not to me this time. Then there was the voice of my super, saying something or other about how he wasn't supposed to let him in. Of course, that didn't stop the jingle of keys and the sound of my deadbolt shifting.
"Olivia? Are you in there?" Dr. Martin's voice echoed through my apartment, bouncing against the bare walls and wood floors, filling the apartment with his voice.
I didn't move or make a sound, but that was pretty easy. Wasn't sure my voice was working anymore, and the permanent indent I'd created in the couch hugged my tired body like a well-worn catcher's mitt ready to be retired.
There were only a couple of steps down my hallway before they'd find me. The bedroom was a few steps away but still too much effort. He'd only search for me there next anyway.
I rolled from my side to my back, a precaution against seeing them if I opened my eyes. The one predictable thing about my constant companions was they didn't float.
The steps got closer, and then there was nothing but silence for another moment. I imagined the two middle-aged men taking in the picture I made.
"Is she alive?" Dan whispered, as if his voice would wake the dead.
Dan, my super, the one who'd been hitting on me since the day I moved in, was now afraid to get within a few feet of me. Seemed there were a couple of brain cells rattling around in that head after all.
"Her chest is moving," Dr. Martin said in a tone that made it clear that, although I might've changed my assessment of my super, he wasn't very impressed. "I can handle it from here."
Dan, or at least I assumed it was Dan, let out a long whistle, before I heard him retreating back down the hallway and shutting my door.
Dr. Martin's steps were coming closer.
The sound of a cardboard pizza box skidding across the wood floor preceded a rustle of papers and a thump as they fell. The sound of the chair creaking under his weight told me his diet wasn't working out too well since the last time he'd mentioned it.
There was another stretch of silence before a drawn-out sigh filled the air, which sounded nearly as tired as I felt. His conscience might've dictated this visit, but his stamina wasn't quite on board with it all.
"How are you doing, Olivia?"
It was such a simple question, one people asked all the time, and yet I'd never really known how to answer it, even before it had gotten this bad. Still, if he was going to put out the effort, I felt compelled to muster up a response.
"I'm fine." Lying there in clothes stained with my dinner from three nights ago and still not opening my eyes, "great" seemed like it might've been a stretch.
Another long slow, exhale. "It's normal to feel like this after what you've been through."
"I know, doc." I didn't need a degree in psychology to know there was nothing normal about this, but it was easier to go along and get along. I didn't have any fight left to spare.
"It's going to take time after... Well, after any tragedy it takes a while."
Accident--that was the word that had been on the tip of his tongue before he swallowed it back. That was what the police, the fire department, and even the arson expert had called the explosion. An accident.
Couldn't blame doc for not saying it. I'd be afraid to say that word to me, too. Last time someone had said it, they'd had to shoot me up with enough tranquilizers to take down an elephant as I screamed that there were monsters everywhere coming to kill us.
No one, not even doc, wanted to hear about the monsters anymore, and I knew continuing to talk about them would eventually land me in only one place. A dark padded room might not be too bad, but they would follow me in there too. At least free, there was the illusion I might escape them one day.
"Olivia, you haven't opened your eyes since I've gotten here."
He knew the reason for that too. I'd been seeing doc since I was a kid, before I'd begun to edit my life story to fit what people expected. It was easier for all involved if I lied--after all, my recent lapse screaming about the monsters had gotten me nowhere but an overnight in the psych ward. "Sorry about that. Nasty migraine."
Give him an excuse to believe I was okay. That was what he wanted. It was what we both wanted so we could wrap up this little meeting.
"Olivia, please look at me. I'm worried about you."
Damn doc and that stubborn vein of duty running through him. He was going to make me work for my peace.
I forced myself upward, knowing I was going to have to put on a better show than this if I wanted to earn my quiet. Dropping my arm, I saw doc sitting there staring at me, and also what I'd dreaded. One of the monsters had sprung up beside him. They were always varying shades of grey to the inkiest black. This one looked the way I'd imagine a troll would, standing near the doc's shoulder, its eyes a silver-grey--eerily like my own when I thought about it, which I preferred not to. It was still better than the ones that had red eyes.
The monster leaned closer to him, and the doc shivered. He glanced behind him at the old single-pane windows. It wasn't a draft from the windows. I could've told him it was the companion beside him, but he wouldn't have believed me anyway.
When he looked back at me, the sun shining through the window showed off the fresh lines around his eyes and the dark shadows beneath. He looked like he'd been sleeping about as much as I had, and I knew I had to wrap this up for both our sakes.
He leaned forward. "I stopped by your work when you didn't answer the phone. They said you quit." His eyes wandered around the room. "When was the last time you left your apartment?"
"Doc, I'm going to be fine. I'm sorting through this and need a little more time before I'm willing to open up. But I'm not going to snap my cap and do something crazy. I'm not suicidal or homicidal or any other word that revolves around killing."
He squinted, and I saw the pity in his eyes. It was the one emotion I hated most.
I ran both hands through my hair, pushing back the dark curtain it had formed around my face as I stared at my feet, my big toe hanging out of the sock on the right foot. I was going to have to get a little tougher if I wanted to get him out of here. This wasn't something he could fix, so I was doing him a favor driving him out. These creatures were dangerous. I knew that now. Was positive of it.
I only paused a second before I turned back to him. "I know I don't seem okay right now, but to be honest, neither do you."
The doc shifted and the monster laughed. I threw it a dirty look as the doc's eyes shifted downward.
I looked back down at my big toe, wondering if I should've given him a few more minutes to leave on his own before I went there. I still remembered the session when I'd told doc that the monsters had said his wife was cheating on him.
I'd been seeing him for a while, hearing how it was all in my head for longer than I could remember, and the tedious nature of it all made me feel like my brains were turning to mush.
It wasn't like I'd ever wanted therapy. I knew they were real. Everyone else needed the therapy. But, to make my parents happy, I'd gone once a week to see the doc, and he'd asked me over and over again what the monsters did, what they looked like, did they speak? Well, ask a question enough times and you better be prepared for when you get the answer.
Doc shifted in his seat and leaned back, farther away from me. I shifted slightly down on the couch, helping him out by widening the gap more. "I'm sorry."
"For what?" he said. "Nothing to apologize for."
I nodded, not arguing the point but sensing my opening. He was ready to leave. I'd sufficiently primed the pump. "I'm okay. I'm just sad. I'm sad to the depths of my bones, and sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I wish I hadn't. But I still get up, I eat, and I get by. I'll be fine."
Fine. Not good. I didn't think I'd ever be good, but I'd live.
I watched his face as he took in my words. I'd thrown in enough hurt for him to realize the rest had been truth as well. I didn't know if I was going to be good anytime in this life, but I'd keep living it, for whatever it was worth.
I knew we were in the home stretch when he rattled off the normal questions--was I sleeping, was I feeling threatened, blah, blah, blah...
It was a test I knew all the answers to. It was amazing how well you could get by with just "sure" and "fine."
After a promise to call the office and set up an appointment, he stood like a vanquished foe accepting his defeat. He could leave me here alone, feeling like he'd done something. I could be left alone. Somehow in this scenario, I was the victor. All I'd won was my solitude, but that was enough.
I saw him out and walked back to the couch, avoiding the dark figures that seemed to be looming in the most unexpected corners, and slumped back into my dent, my eyes downcast. That was when I noticed it, an envelope with "important" handwritten on it.
I hadn't seen the doc leave anything behind, but he must have. I grabbed the envelope, withdrew the sheet of folded paper, and opened it to see a single sentence.
Don't speak to the monsters.
No signature, no name. This wasn't from the doc. I glanced around the room, avoiding looking at an especially large monster near the kitchen.
How long had this been sitting here? Had I grabbed it in my mail? I couldn't remember the last time I'd gotten my mail. How long had this been sitting here?
One month ago, I'd spoken to the monsters for the first time in a decade, and someone out there knew.