This is taken from a sleep paralysis nightmare I had years ago, and it’s best rated for older teens and up. It’s a complete short story I wrote while manic, and I allowed the dissociative manic state to consume me while I wrote it to keep it true to its original feeling.
An orange light tried to escape through the clouds as it was strangled. The gray shadow from it washed over all in its path, and the brown sky foretold of a dawn that would never fully reach fruition.
I stood with my red suitcase in hand and red wool coat keeping me warm from the sea’s breeze. I paused as I walked along the narrow path surrounded by water, and the endless horizon stared back at me as if to confirm my hopeless existence. There wasn’t much to the world anymore since it had been swallowed by the sea, and I knew it would claim me someday too.
The towering, white clapboard house before me had been expanded several times over the last few years, its height climbing to an impressive six stories that caused the building to lean just barely to the right. Its red roof had been weathered by the saltwater breeze and looked like dried blood. It was all falling apart, the house bleeding as it shed its white paint into the water.
My eyes drifted to the side as I stood at the front door. A set of five steps led down into an underground room, and I abandoned my suitcase at the door to explore. Brown slate guided me to a white wooden door that was labeled, ‘Sick Room.’ I pressed my ear to it, noticing no sounds of any kind. Was I truly alone? Had my journey been pointless?
My black Mary Janes clacked across the white and red-tiled floor, the light flickering as the breeze slipped through into the stale air. Silence. The large room had a low ceiling and a round desk at the center as if ready for nurses to clock in. There were no other rooms save for the small alcoves carved out of the walls, cushions and blankets tossed about in a few of them where people had once sat reading. I wandered over to one of the books; Ray Bradbury’s, There Will Come Soft Rains.
The atmosphere was thick with stale illness and wrapped around my throat, threatening to crush my lungs. The despair trapped in the walls greeted me at once in waves, and blurred translucent forms came and went with it. The figures were all in white gowns with frowns on their faces, their eyes sunken and red with tears. So many had died here.
Fear gripped me tightly and I ran from the room to escape the nightmare. It brought me back to the doorstep and I knocked before letting myself inside. I grew weary as the weathered walls greeted me with their splattering of mold from the damp air, and as I breathed in deeply the must entered my lungs. It would only be a matter of time before this rotting corpse of a house was taken away, too.
Climbing the stairs brought me to a second landing where a woman was standing outside her door. I stilled my beating heart and observed her form, fearing she was just another ghost. She smiled, her dark olive skin creasing back into two dimples as her teeth were revealed from behind her scabbed lips.
“Hello,” I breathed, still in shock. Was she sick like the others had been?
“Hi.” The room fell silent to the waves outside once more, and I ventured forth toward a room while keeping my eyes on her. Her gaze followed me with just as much suspicion, although she hadn’t stopped smiling. Perhaps she was lonely and happy to see me, but then what of the other rooms? Was she the only one left?
I paused before entering the room next to hers. “Is anyone else here?”
“Just you and I, and a few others who keep their distance.” Her smile finally fell. There was paint on the breast of her blue overalls and her black kinked hair was frizzed as if it hadn’t been groomed for some time. Despite it, she seemed well.
I attempted to return to something less somber. “Are you a painter?”
“Yes.” She smiled again. “I have an easel outside — on the balcony. I don’t see much but the ferns, but I paint them. I’ve become very good at it and I’ve gathered a small collection.” She chuckled, her laugh childlike despite her perceived age. She looked to be in her late twenties. “Maybe you’d like to watch me paint sometime?”
“Absolutely.” I smiled again before opening the door. Flicking on the dim light revealed a moldy tan carpet, a bed strewn about, and a few piles of clothes on the floor. A small door led to a personal bathroom, and a dresser was the only other item to the side.
I threw my bag onto the bed, knowing all too well what had happened here. It was an awful way to die, but at least they were at peace now. Maybe if I was lucky, too, I wouldn’t be alive to see the small island swallowed by the sea.
I brushed aside a dirty white lace curtain and peered out across the water. Ferns darted up to the windowsill and beyond, and it allowed a sliver of the end-times’ orange light to paint a streak on my face. The sun would never rise again. It hadn’t for more than a month. Perhaps three. I’d lost track of time since it had become meaningless.
I turned my head to take in the room once more. A translucent form was on the bed beside me as I gripped the curtains in my fists, my eyes growing wide as the being watched me. I couldn’t bear its gaze begging me for something I couldn’t give. “You’re lucky. Stop lamenting,” I snapped in my anxiety.
Its hand reached out and faded through my long blond hair before it flickered. It wailed something hoarsely before fizzling out.
My new friend led me down the stairs once I’d removed my coat. She seemed excited to speak to another living person despite there being other occupants. It was the norm to avoid each other as it had been where I came from.
My city had worn down and decayed quickly as the waters lapped up onto the shore, and after a time people started dying as well. A sickness was quick to claim the young and the elderly, and soon there were no doctors able to figure out the mysterious illness. The few that remained had no desire as the world slowly died around them, and they would often spend their last days at the top of a skyscraper, staring out into the sea’s abyss as they waited to see the sun rise one last time. It was a dying wish that was never granted but held before them as the golden glow of morning paused to remain forever.
Mother nature — or whatever force was looming over us — had finally gotten angry.
The force delivered the sickness on the sea’s air, its invisible hand sprinkling pestilence throughout the world. I’d contracted a weak strain and recovered, which very few managed to do, and was left immune. I sat in my living room for days barely eating, watching as my family died one after the other around me. It hadn’t spared the dog or the cats either, and by the end of its reign in my home, I was certain I’d been chosen as one of the few who would suffer for all that humanity had done. To die would have been a mercy.
My travels had brought me to where I now stood, spinning around in a room covered with beautiful paintings that were equally macabre. Their chunky, golden and intricate frames displayed them as an art exhibit would, and the smile that graced my face was genuine. It had been so long since I’d seen something so beautiful — something that captured the hopeless fear in my heart so vividly. The faces twisted in agony behind thick oil paints reminded me of my family in their last moments, and I felt they were there with me.
I turned back to my friend, who had also been admiring the paintings. They stretched up past the second story into the third and climbed up through the rest. It was the focal point of the house and others were joining us or had joined us, although at a distance. Their eyes followed our every move as if we would bring the plague upon them ourselves, although it was clear a few of them were already on their way out. Their dry skin and cracked lips were enough of a sign with the sunken sockets in their heads.
“What’s your name?” I finally returned to my friend. She was an odd one in that place. She hadn’t feared me from the beginning like the others.
“I don’t have one anymore.” She didn’t seem bothered by this in the slightest. “What’s yours?”
I mused for a moment before quirking my lips. “I don’t have one anymore either.”
“Neither did he — the man who built this place.” The girl pulled me over to an area where an oak desk sat with stains and papers and books scattered about it. I noticed a few anatomy books and notes about disease. “Look. This is him.”
I followed her hand to see a large painting of a sallow looking man, his face thin and gaunt and his short gray hair flattened to the side. He looked tired, and I wondered for a moment if he’d managed to capture himself within the painting to live forever. It was the goal of having a portrait done or painting your own, although it would do no good now.
A soft whispering met my ears as the thought crossed my mind, and the oils in the man’s hair swirled as if it were swaying in the wind. The painting’s eyes dragged slowly down to see me and stared, and I stared right back. There was a blankness to his expression and I knew why. He’d failed. He’d built this place to try to save everyone — it was evident in the sick room downstairs and the books on his desk. He hadn’t had time, which was also apparent in the house’s design. It’s odd, slanted, towering build was enough to speak of his desperation to escape the rising tide.
“He painted all of these, ” my friend continued. “They were once beautiful, but as he grew sick, it warped his view of how anything appeared.”
“Yes, I got a taste of that,” I remembered. Although I hadn’t come down with the illness to a fatal degree, I’d experienced the hallucinations. The morning my mother came into my bedroom to bring me breakfast on the third day of my sickness, I hadn’t recognized her.
Her face looked just like the paintings, her features smeared to the side and dripping from her face as if she were melting before me. I watched flesh drop onto the floor like candle wax as it left tears in her skin, and from the decaying muscle crawled small centipedes to slip back into her ears.
I screamed and shoved her with all of my remaining strength. The tray with water and Spam rations flipped back into her body, and she knocked her head on the open door in her fall to gain a concussion as blood trickled into the white carpet. My father came running and screamed into an echoing void far from me, and I sunk into my bed with clenched teeth as I stared at the ceiling. It would be a week later before I could look at another human being again.
I returned to my friend who had been calling out to me. I was face to face with the painting of the founder, my neck aching as I stood directly in front of it to touch its textures. I dropped my hands immediately and backed away. I’d gone on autopilot again. The illness had left me with a strangeness that still invaded my waking life, and often I would fall asleep only to end up awoken to stand before a mirror. At times I would lose my memory as well and wake up a stranger to myself.
“Did you see it?” My friend asked.
I turned to her, shaking off what had happened. “See what?”
“Him.” The girl moved to the painting and stared up at it. “He haunts this place, and I’ve heard others talk about seeing him before they died. It’s a bad omen.”
“No.” I forced a laugh. “I was merely intrigued by the beautiful work. He’s long gone, I’m sure.”
“No, not the founder.” The girl turned to look at me with a hard gaze that chilled me to the bone. “He’s the harbinger of the end. The founder saw him before he died, too.”
“Did he paint him?”
“He didn’t dare.” The girl hugged herself and looked as if she would cry, her eyes darting about the room. “Can we leave now? I’d rather show you my work.”
“Yes, of course.” I grew exasperated. She’d been the one to lead me to the gallery, but perhaps she’d survived the illness as well and saw something she shouldn’t have.
The balcony’s breeze was enough to coax me into sleep, but I fought it off as I sat beside my friend. She stared intently at the ferns before us as she painted them, the picture only slightly varied from the last. I hadn’t questioned the strange nature of her repetitiveness, but nothing had been said between us since we’d left the gallery. I didn’t miss the silence. “Would you like to paint my portrait?” I offered.
She turned to observe me and nodded. “Yes, you’ll look lovely within the ferns.”
I couldn’t hold back the laugh that graced me for the first time in a long while. “Then so it shall be.” I threw my arm over the back of the chair, my off the shoulder gray sweater drooping as I crossed my legs and became comfortable. She began to paint once more over the ferns she’d already detailed. “Did you know the founder? You talk as if you were familiar with him.”
She smiled sadly. “He was my father. Not by birth, but he took me in after my parents died. I was very young.” She paused to look at me. “How old do I look now?”
I pondered and wiggled my fingers. “Twenty-seven? Twenty-nine?”
She giggled. “Twenty-three.”
“Close enough, I suppose.”
“I was five.” She returned to painting, her ability to paint a person lacking in comparison to the plant life she so explicitly studied. “My mother and father found this place and brought me here before it was as large as you see it now. I think it only had two stories at the time, and the sea hadn’t quite taken over yet. Originally, it was a homeless shelter for those stricken by the war, and the founder had dedicated his small fortune to helping all of us.” She faltered. “The bedroom you are now in was my brother’s.”
A lump formed in my throat and I tensed. The form on the bed — the wailing. It had been her brother in his last moments, and he had pleaded with me. Was he asking me to look after her? “I saw him,” I blurted.
She turned to face me. “My brother?”
“I was sick once.” I picked at my nails, not wanting to see her expression. I would soon be sleeping in the same bed her brother died in, and I wondered what dreams it would bring me. If they would be the same feverish dreams the man had in his last moments to punish me for disturbing his sacred space. “I was one of the few to recover and become immune, but it left me with the ability to see things beyond reason.”
“I was sick, too.” My friend had ceased painting altogether and picked at her paint-covered overalls. “I’m not sure how I recovered, but the founder nursed me back to health.” She finally looked up at me, horror in her brown eyes. “I saw things too. Awful things. It’s why I avoid going into my brother’s room and I moved from my parents’.”
“That’s for the best. I think he wanted me to look after you.” I smiled in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere.
Sadness twisted her face and she looked like the child she once was. Tears streamed down her cheeks. “I’ve been so lonely. I’ve watched everyone die — everyone in the gallery is dying too. They fear people like you and me. They think our purpose is to carry the illness to others. As if we were Mother Nature’s walking message of her divine wrath.”
“And perhaps we are.” I reached out to take her hands and watched as she chewed on her lip, reopening the scabs that had closed. “But what can we do about it? What can we–”
A rustling in the ferns.
My heart leaped into my throat and I sat up to look through the wooden banister of the balcony. The rustling stopped. “Did you see that?”
“No, did something happen?” She turned to look in the direction I’d fixated on.
“An animal? I thought all the animals died.”
“They have. Unless there are a few who were immune like you and me?” Her hopes were clear in her voice as she jumped up and ran to the side to look out into the ferns. “A deer? A cat? A dog? A fox? How wonderful would that be?”
“No, step away.” Dread blind sighted me as I was awash in a cold sweat. By her legs were two clawed black hands gripping tight to the banister. All else was black as the void except for a sun-dried cow’s skull resting on its shoulders, the rest of its body cloaked in a large black robe. Two white ethereal lights shone dimly in the eye sockets and stared into my soul. It was reading me, judging me as it pondered my existence.
“What is it? What’s the matter?” The girl turned to see my alarmed state and approached me, and as she did everything was set into motion. The stirring of her tennis shoes on the grime-covered deck coaxed the being from the ferns and through the fencing where it stood stationary with its sight locked on me.
I grabbed her arm and pulled her in the direction of the door, and we ran through the house and downstairs until we reached the gallery once more. I paused to catch my breath, the few people scattered about in the leather armchairs turning to watch us with rapt attention. As I glanced up at them, they reminded me of predators waiting to strike their prey in self-defense.
I swallowed hard. “You didn’t see it?”
“No, was it a hallucination?”
“I don’t know.” Tears welled up and poured down my cheeks, and I pulled my friend close to rest my head on her shoulder. A memory struck me and I jerked my head back up in the direction of the founder’s painting. “What does he look like?”
“The harbinger,” I spoke through choked tears. My friend backed away from me to my horror, and she stared at me with uneasiness. I couldn’t bear to lose the last friend I would ever have, and I regretted saying anything, but the anxiety gripping my heart so tight it hurt was my master, and there was nothing I could possibly take back.
“He’s been described as a moving shadow.”
“A man with skin like midnight and a large dark robe?” I couldn’t still the shaking building in my hands. “A cow’s skull for a head? And those eyes… They aren’t eyes but a glimpse into the universe itself.”
“You’ve seen him.” She backed away further. “Another shift will take place, and you’ve brought it upon us.” Emotion crept into her voice and spilled over her face. “It is said he chooses his messengers, and to see him when you are not destined to be among the dead means he’s chosen you.”
“And God has grown sick and died as well.” The young woman’s frown curved to an impossible degree, and her sad eyes reflected those of her brother’s as he reached out to me in his bed. “But it’s not your fault. You did not ask to be the next messenger.”
“Can I stop it? Can he be overcome?”
“No, it’s inevitable.” The girl glanced back at the people in the chairs, their bodies tense and their eyes burning wide with hatred. They hadn’t noticed the man slouched over among them, lifeless at last. “You’d better return to your room. They already think you’ve damned them.”
I shot up in bed and looked around the dark room.
A faint white glow was coming from outside, and I rolled over in my white satin nightgown to throw open the curtains. Darkness. It was night. It hadn’t been night in so long, and I wondered, foolishly, if the sun had fallen from the sky. Or had it simply given up in its attempt to bring the day?
But the glow wasn’t from the moon that had long ago abandoned us.
My lungs burned as I struggled to breathe through the panic attack that was shaking me to my core. The glow in the sky was in the shape of a large eye, and it was unmoving as it stared down at me. I jerked the curtains shut, but the lace allowed the glow to filter in, and as I followed it, it fell upon the door as a guide. I blinked hard and turned to face it. It remained.
I crossed the room on quick feet to open the door and stared into the dark walkway twisting around the stairs. To my right was my friend’s room, and I made my way over to it to try the handle. It was locked tight and I didn’t blame her. I leaned back against it and sighed, staring down the stairway into the dark abyss. It rippled.
Steeling my resolve, I crept down the stairs and into the first floor parlor, searching for any sign of anything significant. I knew I was a fool to chase the message being laid out for me, but if there was any way I could manage to delay or stop the next shift, I had to do it. My life had become meaningless since the sea swallowed most of everything, and that foolish human determination to be something before it all ended tugged at my heartstrings. No one would be here to know, and nothing I did would ultimately matter, but there was still at least one person I cared about in existence. As long as that was true, it would matter to her.
The archway I slipped beneath revealed a very large kitchen with the same red and white tiles as the sick room. In the center was an island with various cooking utensils and a steel commercial stove sat before it. The far wall was lined in windows that once allowed the sunlight to grace the space, but now it was merely awash in the pale glow from the eye in the sky.
A quiet choking sound slipped from my throat as I caught sight of the dark form in the center of the glow. It lifted a hand to beckon to me, and I leaned into the archway to grip the frame tight. I shook my head, fear winning over my earlier feelings of bravery. It continued to curl its finger in a taunting motion to coax me forward.
“Did you choose me?” My voice shook as I attempted communication, but the being continued as if I’d said nothing. “Are you the harbinger?” It remained silent. I took a deep breath and stepped into the kitchen.
The faint glow in its eyes was the same color as the one outside, and it grew in intensity as I approached. Its aura reached out to me in welcome and eased my nerves, and I was soon at peace as I stood before it. I had no doubt then that it had chosen me to be the sign of the end — it was time to finish what was started.
I dropped to my knees as a powerful need overwhelmed me, and my hands crept up a pair of thighs over the black robe. It dropped to the floor along with the dull thud of the mask, and as I stared up at the harbinger, I saw nothing but black with two glowing lights where the shape of the head rested.
It drew me back up with a claw beneath my chin and pulled me flush against its form. It was cold and nothing solid, but I felt its figure nonetheless as an ancient being made up of everything that was the beginning of all. I allowed myself to sink into its greatness as it raised my leg, and soon my body was filled and gripping tight around the void that entered me.
I gasped at the intrusion and curled my toes, but there would be no pleasure to be had in this intimate ritual. My womb was quickly injected with something ice-cold, and it was enough to shock me back to my senses. The freeze crawled into my belly and swirled about, and I was released to stand on my own. I grasped at my stomach and stared at the figure who remained a mere shadow of a man. “What have you done to me?”
A void of stars formed as it expanded to become its mouth and its eyes flickered. A hissing wail emitted from it that drew out my screams, and I ran from the kitchen.
I felt it behind me and around me, and as I crashed through door after door, tripped up stairway after stairway, I became lost in the dark. The cold swirling in my belly grew and I became sick, but I pushed on for reasons unknown. I was no longer being driven by survival but a strong need to find the end, and I knew it was somewhere higher. I had to get higher despite my fear telling me to escape the harbinger.
At last, I climbed to the top floor and threw open the balcony doors, stepping out onto the deck to look out across the sea. The lapping of the calm water and the glow of the eye that seemed larger than ever lulled me into a trance, and I once again felt the cloaked figure near. It came up behind me and spread its arms wide, and the ferns below us parted to clear a path to the sea below that had finally sloshed to the foundation of the house.
With heavy-lidded eyes, I gripped the balcony and leaned over it, and the cold in my stomach expanded. The entity behind me held its arms out to keep the path clear, and I climbed up onto the railing. With the sea’s winds rushing through my hair, I plummeted to the waters below, the crash causing my stomach to pop open with a myriad of stars and a black void.
When the moon rises in the sky I envelop its brilliance with my glow. The blackness that is everything swallows the world and all are none the wiser to its monotony.
But everything is made up of the stars and the nothingness that has been and will be, and the seas will lap upon the shores until it is time for the harbinger to bring a cleansing to Mother Nature’s soul.
You are all my children. You are part of my everything that will be and what was, and if I am betrayed once more I will choose another to bear many more stars and moons and suns, and perhaps one day I will finally lay all to rest.
©2020 Shane Blackheart