Kurt Melzer Sleigh Bed, (1936) from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
“… and a wool coat with an ermine fur collar, circa 1940s, which was probably her mother’s, since she wasn’t born until 1939. A brass coat rack, a bunch of vintage Ladies’ Home Journals, some old Perry Como records, and a lamp with a Tiffany glass shade. Daisy-ah, are you listening to me?”
I’d had a particularly trying day at work. I worked in a pet store at the mall, not because I particularly loved animals (I didn’t), but because jobs were not easy to come by when you were a twenty-year-old community college dropout. My intense social awkwardness- which bordered on pathological- made interacting with strangers an ordeal. Some days, however, dealing with animals was only slightly less stressful. Today, for instance, I’d splattered my uniform shirt with vile-smelling greenish water while attempting to clean a fifty gallon aquarium containing baby turtles. Later, a group of rowdy teenagers had loitered around the shop for over an hour, agitating both me and the animals as they attempted to film footage for a YouTube video, and finally, near the end of my shift, a scarlet macaw had bitten my finger deeply enough to draw blood. Now I was shuffling around my kitchen in my comfy clothes, attempting to make myself a soothing dinner of scrambled eggs on toast. My mother, on speakerphone, was triumphantly cataloging the items she’d scored at her latest estate sale.
“Oh, and I got you a liwu. A present. You’re going to love it. It’s a sleigh bed.”
“A daybed?” I asked distractedly, scraping my slightly scorched eggs onto a plate. Particles of teflon coating were flaking off the pan, and had become embedded in the eggs. I hoped it wasn’t toxic.
“Sleigh bed, Baobei. An antique mahogany sleigh bed. I’ll ask Mr Timmons next door if he and his son can deliver it to your apartment tomorrow. They have a truck. What time do you usually get home?”
“I don’t know what a sleigh bed is. I already have a bed, Mom.”
I turned off the stove and sank down on the bed in question, with my plate in one hand and my phone in the other. It was my old childhood bed, taken from my room at my mother’s when I moved out last year. More accurately, it was the twin-sized box spring and stained, lumpy mattress from my old childhood bed. I hadn’t been able to figure out how to reassemble the bed frame, so I’d thrown it away.
“That pojiu old thing? You’re a grown woman now, Baobei. You need a grownup bed. You’ll love this. It has a carved headboard, and a queen-size mattress, and…”
“How do you think that’s going to fit in here?” I muttered around a mouthful of toast. “It’s going to take up the entire apartment. I don’t need a big bed. My little bed is fine. I’m a small person.”
“Stop this ingratitude immediately! Zisi de haizi!” My mother’s tone turned sharp. “I got you this bed because I want you to have a decent bed. I could sell it, along with the rest of this stuff. I could probably get two thousand dollars for it. I want you to have it. I insist you take it. Or perhaps you’re so grown up that you don’t need my help with your rent and bills anymore?”
There it was: my mother’s trump card. I sighed, flopping backward on my old familiar bed in defeat.
“I read you’re not supposed to use second hand mattresses.” I said. “Bed bugs.”
She knew she’d won.
“O feihua. This is a wonderful mattress, a Serta. Nearly new. No need to worry about bed bugs. This lady was very wealthy. Even though she was quite old, she kept her things in lovely condition. I believe she had servants, or at least one. Anyway, I have to finish cataloging these items so I can get them listed. Be home tomorrow night, Xiao xiao. Zaijian!”
The following day was about as good as my days ever got: there were no further mishaps with the animals at work, and I had my longest conversation to date with Ethan, a coworker I’d had a crush on for months. By “longest conversation”, I mean that I managed about three sentences, none of them involving whose turn it was to change the wood shavings in the chinchilla cage. Instead, we spoke about where we’d gone to high school, about the classes he was taking at the community college, and about whether I might return to my studies someday (I lied and said probably). He then invited me to join him for a mocha latte in the food court after our shift. It was with both regret and relief that I was forced to decline, with the excuse that I was “having some furniture delivered” that evening.
Shortly after eight, my new bed arrived, hauled up the stairs in pieces by my mother’s neighbor Mr Timmons, a portly man with a pink, bristly face, and his son, a sullen young man with a shaved head and a lot of tattoos, who I suspected might be a white supremacist. The mattress was so large they could barely wrestle it through the door. Soon my apartment was strewn with planks and slats of dark wood which I assumed was mahogany. Mr Timmons then sent his son, the possible nazi, down to the truck to retrieve the toolbox, and the two of them spent an interminable hour or so assembling the giant, oppressive bed that I didn’t want in the first place.
Their presence in my home made me so acutely uncomfortable that I was tempted to hide in the bathroom while they worked. The only thing that prevented me from doing so was my fear that Mr Timmons’ son would steal or at least riffle through my belongings while his father was occupied with assembling the bed. Finally, they concluded their work and departed, dragging my childhood mattress and boxspring away with them.
Even after they were gone, I found it difficult to regain my bearings. There had been no males in this apartment in the year since I moved in, and it seemed they’d changed the energy of the place, leaving me wired and jittery. More than that, the new bed altered the atmosphere of my home. As predicted, it practically filled the entire room (and therefore, the entire apartment; it was an efficiency apartment). It was an impressive piece of furniture, to be sure: the massive swooping shape of the thing was indeed sleigh-like; the wood was sleekly carved and deeply polished, yet it seemed to glow with its own dark and vaguely sinister aura. The mattress was firm and white, new-looking. My mother had neglected to send any bedclothes, however, and none of the sheets I had would fit it. In the end, I simply laid a blanket over it, pulled another blanket over myself, and eventually, unhappily, went to sleep.
I don’t know if I’d been asleep for minutes or hours when my eyes popped open. I felt suddenly, fully alert. I was aware that I was in my new bed; I could see its swooping curved shape in my peripheral vision. For some reason, however, I couldn’t sit up. I felt paralyzed, disconnected from my body. Looking down, I took stock of my corporeal self, visible only as a slight prominence beneath the blanket, my chest rising and falling with my breath. I was sure I’d covered myself with my blue Pokemon blanket, but now my blanket was white, some satiny material speckled with tiny rosebuds. I’d never seen this blanket before. With great effort, I moved my legs beneath it. I bent my knees, and saw the blanket rise up… but only over my left leg. On the right, the blanket lay as flat and still as if there were nothing beneath it. There was nothing beneath it. My right leg wasn’t there! I began to panic, my breath coming in screechy little gasps. I tried to reach down and investigate what was going on with my leg, but my arms wouldn’t comply. There was something, a clear plastic tube, inserted under the skin of my hand and held there with white tape. A silver IV pole stood next to the bed, and the tube in my hand snaked up to a bag of clear liquid that hung from it. On the other side of the bed, numerous amber prescription pill bottles were arranged on a silver tray.
As I struggled to break free of this near-paralysis, a figure loomed up on the left side of my bed. It was a woman- middle-aged, ruddy-faced, heavyset- wearing a white nurse’s uniform. I saw the glint of a hypodermic syringe in her hand. She depressed the plunger slightly, causing a drop of amber fluid to leak from the tip. With her other hand, she reached under the blanket and pinched me, hard, on the upper arm. She stared at my face, saw the pain register, then pinched me again, this time on the tendon where my neck met my shoulder. I tried to cry out, but was unable to make a sound. Her face was an impassive mask, but her eyes glittered, wholly malevolent. I struggled to move, to breathe. Now she reached out and flicked me, hard, on the cheek with her fingernail. It was surprisingly painful, causing my eyes to tear up. She stroked my hair almost tenderly, then wound a strand of it around her finger and gave a sharp tug. Again, I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound came out. She jammed the needle into my arm, lowered her face to mine until she was close enough that I could smell her sour breath, and whispered, “Don’t we have fun?”
I screamed myself awake, thrashing my arms and legs wildly. Clutching my Pokemon blanket- another childhood relic- I lay shuddering in the sleigh bed, bathed in cold fear-sweat. A quick assessment revealed that both my legs were still attached to my body, that there were no IV poles or pill bottles around my bed, and that I was alone in my apartment. My body was intact and I was in full control of it, and there was no sadistic nurse tormenting me. It had all been a figment of my imagination. My heart still hammered out a staccato rhythm, and my mouth was flooded with the coppery taste of adrenaline. Feeling shell-shocked and urgently needing to pee, I crawled out of the sleigh bed and made my way to the bathroom, turning on lights as I went. Nothing was amiss in my apartment. Everything was in its place. No one lurked in the shadows. But the dream had been so vivid, so real. I could still see the glint of the hypodermic needle, the pores on the nurse’s cheeks as she loomed over me, the printed labels on the prescription bottles. The labels on the prescription bottles.
One of the classes I took before dropping out of community college was Introduction to Psychology. It was the only class I really excelled in, the only one I enjoyed. One interesting fact we learned in that class was that people can’t read in dreams. When we sleep, the region of our brain known as Broca’s Area, which is responsible for expressing and interpreting language, becomes inactive, making reading impossible.
The name on those pill bottles was Violet Morrow.
I sat by the fountain in the mall and called my mother during my lunch break at work.
“Daisy-ah! How do you like your new bed?”
“Um. Mom, I have a question.”
“What is it, Baobei? Something is wrong?”
“I was just wondering about the estate sale. The person you bought the bed from?”
“Famous house, downtown on 14th Street. Historical landmark. Big mansion, designed by a famous architect, I forgot his name. You know the one, we’ve driven past it. Big gray Victorian with purple trim? It’s called Morrow House.”
I felt like the temperature suddenly plummeted twenty degrees.
“You said Morrow?”
“Yes, Thomas Morrow. Bank president, very wealthy. He died thirty years ago, but his wife just died earlier this year. Their son lives abroad, and he’s planning on selling the house, so that’s why there was an estate sale.”
“The wife… her name was Violet?” I ask.
“So you have heard of them, wo de baobei. Very well-known family, very high society. Controversial, though. Especially her. She was an actress, before she married. There were some scandals. Affairs with powerful men. An abortion. She was rumored to be involved in the occult. She had psychiatric problems, got committed to a mental hospital at one point. Later in life, she held seances, invited psychic mediums into her home. They say she was trying to communicate with the spirits of her dead children. All of her babies were born dead, all but the one son.”
“Jesus, Mom. How do you even know all this stuff? This is common knowledge?”
“Ya, no. I never heard of them before I went to the estate sale,” she laughed. “People there were talking about it.”
After I hung up, I hurried back to the pet shop. It was a slow afternoon, and I spent the remainder of my shift cleaning out aquariums with Ethan. After work, he invited me again to get coffee, and this time, I accepted.
I don’t even remember the bus ride home. I was too busy replaying every second of our conversation in my brain. One coffee had become many coffees, and we ended up staying at the Starbucks in the food court until the mall closed at nine and they kicked us out. It was the first time I’d ever spent hours in conversation with a member of the opposite sex. Amazingly, I didn’t feel shy or awkward at all… probably because I admitted fairly early in our conversation that I suffered from social anxiety.
“You’ve got to be kidding! So do I. When I was a kid, it was so bad they actually thought I had Asperger’s. I spent all my time hiding in my room, building dinosaur models. But later they decided it was just garden-variety anxiety.” replied Ethan. “Do you take anything for it?”
“I used to take Prozac. I stopped since I lost my insurance. It didn’t help much anyway. You?”
“Zoloft. 50 milligrams.”
“Ah. Same thing.”
“Yeah, pretty much. Damn, I’ve been trying to get up the courage to talk to you for months. I always thought you were just ignoring me.”
“No. I wasn’t. It’s just… hard for me to talk to people.” I admitted.
He smiled, and the warmth, kindness, and understanding in his long-lashed brown eyes made me feel giddy. And just like that, it wasn’t hard to talk anymore.
We talked about animals, about coworkers, about school and our future plans. About our families. He still lived at home with his single mom and two younger sisters, working at the pet store while he went to college so he could help his family out financially. I told him that I had my own apartment, but my mom still helped me out. I’d moved out of her house because we didn’t get along and it became too difficult for both of us to live under the same roof. Besides, she still managed to control my life from afar. I told him my father, like his, was nowhere in the picture. I hadn’t seen him since I was two. When the mall closed, we made plans to have coffee again the following day, and I left for my bus stop, feeling like I was walking on air.
This feeling carried me all the way to the steps of my apartment building, where it suddenly deflated like a leaky balloon. I realized that I did not want to go inside. Of course, I had no choice, and there was my big oppressive bed, looming bulkily in the shadows, taking up all the space in the apartment and sucking all the happiness out of me. I had to skirt around it to get to the kitchen. I found that I didn’t want to touch it, didn’t even want to look at it. But eventually, of course, it got late, and I had to climb into it and go to sleep.
My eyes popped open just in time to see a man I didn’t know roaring toward me from the shadows, his neck veins popping out and his features so red and contorted with rage that he looked like a demon.
“Bitch, I’ll fucking kill you!” he growled, leaping onto the bed before I had time to react and slapping me across the face so hard I heard a ringing in my ears. His fury made him beast-like, and the bitter animal smell of him filled my nostrils. I only had time to register that he appeared to be from a different time- formal white shirt and suspenders, hair slicked straight back from his face- before he slapped me again, causing my eyes to water. I snapped out of my inertia and began to struggle away from him, but he was twice my size, rage-fueled, sturdy and compact as a bull. There was no escape. He pinned my body to the bed with his weight, and his hands closed around my throat. He leaned over so that his red face with its throbbing forehead vein filled my vision. His eyes burned with murderous hatred. My own hands rose to my throat instinctively, trying to pry him off so I could breathe. My vision began to blur and darken as he squeezed. “Kill you, you bitch.”
I woke up and leapt from the bed in one swift movement, landing in a heap on the floor, tangled in my Pokemon blanket. My eyes searched the room frantically for my attacker, only to find that I was alone in my empty apartment. The dream had been so vivid that I could still feel his animal energy zinging around the room like electricity. I could still smell him: flowery hair pomade mingled with the gunpowder stench of his rage.
I crept to the bathroom. My shocked white face in the mirror startled me. There were red marks on my neck, scratches I’d put there myself, trying to pry his hands from my throat in my dream. Avoiding the sleigh bed, I went to the kitchen, turned on the light, and sat there awake until the sun rose.
The next day at work I was exhausted, but seeing Ethan allowed me to push the dream from my mind, at least temporarily. We continued to get to know one another, talking easily throughout the day as we cleaned hamster cages and treated the water in the tropical fish tanks. After work, we headed to the food court Starbucks again, and stayed until closing time. I had never felt safer or more comfortable with anyone than I did with him. Even our silences felt easy, and I knew I could talk to him about anything. But I did not talk to him about the dreams, or the sleigh bed. I did not want to think about them.
It was not until I reached my apartment building that the dread I’d pushed aside all day settled like a stone in my stomach. Apprehension turned my legs to water as I climbed the stairs. The sleigh bed loomed monstrously, seemingly grown to twice its original size, its dark luster filling the apartment. I would not sleep in it tonight, I promised myself. I’d never sleep in it again. Exhausted from the previous night, I soon curled up on the floor in a corner and went to sleep.
I saw bare white feet running through the wet grass, mud flecked ankles. They were both mine and not mine. I felt the blades of grass, cold and slick between my toes.
I saw a black bird hit a windowpane with a muffled thump, and then fall away, leaving an imprint of white powder and a tiny smear of blood on the glass.
I saw slender hands- mine, not mine- cutting a peach into sections with a slim, crescent-shaped blade. The blade slipped and bit easily into the pad of flesh at the base of my thumb, and dark blood welled out. I bent at the waist and wrapped my injured hand in the crumpled fabric of my white apron, but a spot of red leaked through.
I saw a yellowed ceiling, with a water stain that looked like an octopus spreading its tentacles. For some reason, it filled me with nameless dread.
I saw a small boy with wheat-colored hair spinning on a tire swing, beneath a tree with leaves the color of flame.
I lay in the sleigh bed and looked down at the newborn in my arms. Her face was pink and crumpled like a flower. My finger traced the delicate veins at her temples, her tiny ears. My hand cupped her head, stroking the soft blonde down of her hair. Then it closed firmly over her nose and mouth, and it stayed there while her tiny arms and legs churned. It stayed there until they went still.
I awoke in the sleigh bed, having somehow crawled into it during the night. I climbed out of it and hurried to the bathroom, still feeling the warmth of the squirming infant beneath my hand, her flailing limbs, the stillness that followed.
I heard my mother’s voice: “They say she was trying to communicate with the spirits of her dead children. All of her babies were born dead, all but the one son.”
Not born dead, I thought sickly. I tried to make it to the toilet, but vomited instead on the bathroom floor.
“I need help.” I told Ethan, as we sat with our coffees after work that evening.
“Okay,” he said simply.
It felt so good, not having to explain.
He drove first to his mother’s house, where I waited in the car while he collected the tools he felt we’d need, and a few other items I asked him to bring. My trepidation returned as we entered my apartment, but the bed was just a bed, Ethan’s presence seemingly having sapped it of its sinister power.
Still: “You’re right. It’s horrible. I hate it,” he said.
I wanted to kiss him right then and there, for seeing this.
Working together with the screwdrivers he’d brought, it didn’t take us long to disassemble the sleigh bed. We carried the mahogany boards and slats across the dark parking lot to the dumpster. The hardest part was wrestling the giant mattress out the door. We gave it a push and let it tumble down the stairs. Then, grunting with effort, we shoved and slid it across the parking lot and heaved it into the dumpster as well.
“You have the other stuff?” I asked. He went to his car and returned with a can of lighter fluid, which he handed to me without a word. I squirted a generous amount into the dumpster, saturating the mattress with it.
“Stand back,” I said, as I tossed in a match.
We held hands in the darkness and watched the flames lick the night sky, noxious tendrils of smoke rising into the air like a ghost. We stood there watching until we heard the whoop of a siren in the distance, and then we ran.
Although we talked on the phone daily, we rarely saw one another in person, and so it was several weeks before I was forced to admit to my mother what I had done.
“Daisy-ah, how are you liking your new bed? Sleeping well?”
“Actually, Mom, I got rid of it. I’m sorry, but… it wasn’t a good bed for me. It made me have bad dreams.”
There was a long silence on the other end of the line, and I cringed, waiting for the torrent of abuse I was sure she was about to unleash in two languages. But her voice, when she finally spoke, was quiet.
“That’s okay, Baobei. That’s good that you got rid of it. Maybe it wasn’t a good bed after all. I think that woman, maybe she was a nu gui.”
“A what?” My understanding of Mandarin was rudimentary at best.
“You know, a ghost. Like an evil spirit lady. I think she must’ve had a very bad life.”
“Why do you think that?” I asked.
“Well, I kept that coat. The one with the fur collar. But every time I looked in the mirror…”
My mother trailed off, at an uncharacteristic loss for words.
“What did you see, Mom?” I whispered.
“I saw ugliness. Pain. It doesn’t matter. I got rid of the coat, and you got rid of the sleigh bed, and now that ugly white nu gui can’t bother us any more. But Baobei… how long have you been sleeping on the floor? Poor Bao, we must get you a new bed!”
I smiled to myself, and did not tell her that I rarely slept at my apartment at all anymore, since I spent most nights with Ethan and his family, in a cluttered duplex that bustled with warmth and light and cheerful female energy. And when I slept on the floor in my apartment, I did not sleep alone, and I always had good dreams.
Heather Webb is a mom, teacher, and literary enthusiast. She enjoys reading and writing dark fiction, and has published in Eldritch Tales and several other magazines. She lives in Texas with her son.
If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.
I just saw your story in the magazine Heather. I am astonished by your wonderful writing and you had me at the end of my seat the whole time. This is awesome and what a gift that was. Wonderful story!
You should have won that contest!
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