Maybe he’s cheating.
The emptiness which has grown between them each night, inch by inch, is a dark gray storm cloud on a beach day, pregnant with the possibility not of rain but of something far worse than a ruined vacation, a sign that a storm is on the horizon; that trouble is indeed here. Each night waking with her legs and feet cold due to the deprivation of his constantly warm body against hers, something to which she had grown accustomed in their marriage, is a thunderclap booming in the hollow places of her mind, a crashing boom saying that her husband of fifteen years no longer loves her, no longer finds comfort in her arms, can no longer be satisfied with her love for him.
She lays on her bed on this January evening, having woken up an hour ago with her usual 2 AM full bladder (it’s like the thing is on a schedule, she thinks every time she wakes and sees the clock), body and heart feeling tense and heavy, bogged down by her anxiety. Though she has been trying for the past hour, she is unable to get back to sleep.
As she struggles against the intrusion of this horrid explanation of her husband’s distance, the voice of her therapist echoes in her brain, assuring her that, “such thoughts are manifestations of your anxiety,” telling her that, “such imaginings, especially based on such scant “evidence” (Anna could picture her clear as day doing the air quotes with her fingers), while they ought not be merely pushed away (and here, doing a pushing gesture; therapy with Dr. Matthews was no mere auditory event), they also ought not be given right to run amuck in your mind to such an extent that they are keeping you up and hurting your relationship with your husband.”
But of course, it wasn’t just the distance in the bed, though that alone would’ve been enough to freak her out. It was also the far-off, almost haunted look in his eyes when he was “zoning” as he put it; it was the way his answers seemed shorter and more terse; it was the way he wasn’t nearly as playful with her as he always had been up to this point.
“Oh, but those could be symptoms of so many different things!” Mind-Matthews countered, “Stress at work, trouble entering REM sleep, a strained family relationship,” she went on, the possibilities pouring out of her mouth smooth as a lake on a windless day, hands working and moving with each option as though kneading them like invisible dough into something far more palatable than infidelity.
But, she thinks, answering her therapist, the space between us is the worst. From the first night of our marriage until these past five days, he has always slept snuggled right up against me, as close as he possibly could be. It was like he couldn’t sleep unless he was touching me in some way. And now…
She turns to him now, looks at him, watches his back –
(why his back, he always used to sleep on his back, not on his side with his back facing me, why all of a sudden – )
expand and contract with his deep breaths, each intake announcing itself with a light snore, something she has always found endearing rather than annoying. She takes her own deep breath and reaches out and shakes him lightly.
“David. Hey, David.”
He draws a sharp breath and turns toward her, his sudden waking producing a snore of the sort that, done more regularly throughout the night, probably sent many a man to the couch.
“Huh – “
He turns around towards her and she can tell his sleep has not been deep or restful. He has bags under his eyes the size of suitcases and his face is a sickly yellow-pale.
“What’s up, baby?”
“Well… I – I’m sorry to wake you, love.” She smiles at him, laughs nervously. “You know what, it’s not even that big a deal, we can talk about it in the – “
He turns and flips on the lamp on his side of the bed and then props himself up on his elbow as he turns to face her again. He smiles back and puts his right hand on the left side of her face, brushes gently at her cheek with his thumb, a gesture that never fails to calm her.
“We can talk about it now. Better to face whatever it is while it’s still fresh on your mind. Did you have another nightmare?”
“No, I haven’t had one tonight. Not yet anyway.”
She had indeed been plagued with nightmares for the past week or so: another possible cause, Mind-Matthews pointed out, to the current flare-up of her anxiety; lack of sleep was a famous perpetrator of all kinds of breakdowns of the mind and emotions. These nightmares were incredibly reminiscent of the nightmares that she used to have as a child: indeed, she had forgotten that she had even had such horrid nightmares until, with a sick familiarity like a past trauma being triggered by some sense, these ones arrived. Then and now, she could never remember exactly what happened upon waking, but she always woke with the sense that she had narrowly avoided something; something evil and sentient, something meticulous and insidious, something not content with merely attacking, but something that enjoyed the hunt as much as, if not more than, the kill. And she always felt upon waking that the slimy residue of whatever beast haunted her dreams was still in the room, that it wanted her to know that she had only just missed it, but that she ought not worry – that it would be back.
She takes a deep breath.
“Babe…” She pauses for a moment before letting it out. “Are you – are we good? Like, we’re happy, right? And our marriage is good? And – ”
The more she stumbles on, the bigger his smile grows.
“Honey,” he cuts her off, gently; “you are amazing and we are amazing. I love you more every day that I get to know you and be with you. There is certainly nothing wrong with you and there is nothing wrong with us.”
The smile falters a bit.
“Where is all this coming from? Did something happen?”
“Well, no, not exactly. I mean, like, it’s just – it sounds so silly.”
He brushes her cheek again with his thumb and she takes a deep breath and goes on.
“Well, it’s just that for the past week or so it seems like each night you’re moving farther and farther away from me throughout the night. And, you know, we both sleep like rocks normally; I remember your brother telling me that when you guys were younger and shared a room he used to check to see if you were still breathing sometimes because of how still you were.”
She laughs a little.
“And, I don’t know, it just seems like you’ve been more – “ she pauses, thinking for a moment, hands moving in unconscious imitation of Dr. Matthews, “ – more stressed. Or distracted. Or something, I don’t know.”
He nods slowly, thoughtfully, taking it in.
“Honestly, honey…” he pauses, thinking, and Anna’s blood pressure spikes. She loves nearly everything about this man, even after six years of marriage, but this is the one thing that drives her up a wall, especially with her anxiety being what it is. When she is upset about something and he is trying to talk her through it, he will think about it, start to say something, and then pause to think some more, as though he were being asked to give a speech on the spot that will change the course of history rather than merely trying to comfort his anxious wife. She knows he is just a thoughtful man and is trying to be careful with his words, but it drives her nuts all the same.
“Yes?” She says, goading him on, a hint of annoyance creeping into her voice. Most times she lets him do his thing in his time, but her patience in the midst of anxiety at a normal hour, let alone at three AM, is about as plentiful as breathable air in a middle school gymnasium.
“Well, honestly, I haven’t been sleeping well the past week. I’ve been super exhausted. And I’ve actually been having some pretty awful dreams as well.”
His smile is totally gone now, replaced by a look she hasn’t seen before: fear bordering on terror.
“It’s pretty weird – I usually don’t remember my dreams, if I even have them at all. But these ones are super vivid. And they’re pretty much all the same too. We’re laying in bed together and you’re asleep and I’m awake and at first, it’s like the atmosphere of the room changes somehow; everything seems darker and there’s this weird smell in the room like rotting meat or something. Then out of nowhere my heart starts racing and I get this feeling of absolute terror and fear; it almost feels like I’ve developed some kind of supernatural sixth sense and I can tell something is coming for me.”
His breathing picks up and she can see beads of sweat forming on his upper lip and his brow.
“And then I hear a slithering, slimy noise from under the bed like the world’s biggest snake escaped from the zoo and came to our house and I want to scream and jump out of bed and tell you that we have to get out of there, but I’m paralyzed, I’m frozen, I can’t move or speak – “
His words are running together, each phrase running out of his mouth on rapid gusts of breath.
“And then the slithering starts to happen on the bed frame and I can feel the mattress moving as though something is trying to climb on it and then – “
He is shaking now and Anna sits up all the way, the sheets pooling around her waist, and she grabs him and pulls him into an embrace. She can each hot breath against her breasts, can feel the sweat coming off him and dripping between them.
“It’s okay sweetie, it’s just a dream. I know it’s scary, but it’s only a nightmare. Trust me, if anyone knows nightmares, its me.”
She rubs his shoulder and he lets out a little nervous laugh.
She pulls back for a moment and put the back of her hand against his forehead.
“You know what, you do feel a little warm. Maybe you’re coming down with something. A fever can cause some pretty strange nightmares, you know. I remember once my sister had a temp of 103 and she had a waking nightmare that there were spiders crawling all over the ceiling, poor kid.”
His breathing is slowing down now and he reaches up to wipe the sweat off his brow. As he does, she sees light scratches all up and down the inside of his arms and on his ribs, some fresh, some beginning to heal already. Her heart skips a beat. She thinks about asking him, even opens her mouth and feels the words starting to form, but just before they are out, she stops them. He is just beginning to calm down and she doesn’t want to upset him again.
“Do you think you could go back to sleep?”
He thinks for a moment.
“Yeah, I think so.”
He looks up at her, his eyes pleading.
“Do you think you could hold me for a little while I fall asleep.”
She smiles at him and pulls him back into herself.
She holds him and after a while feels his breathing finally slow and before she knows it, she is asleep too.
She doesn’t know whether it is the thump or the scream that wakes her, but before she can even begin to register what she is hearing, she rolls to the now empty side of her bed that her husband usually occupies and looks over the side. He is there on the floor, on his back, chest heaving with huge, hitching, hyperventilating sobs. His breathing is way too fast and he is shaking and he is going to pass out if he doesn’t calm down soon.
Well then, why don’t you get the hell out of bed and try to stop that from happening, idiot? Her own internal voice screams at her and she rolls the rest of the way out of bed and kneels down beside him, rubbing his arms and chest, whispering “shh” and “it’s okay” and other little comfortisms that bypass her rational mind entirely and flow out naturally as she tries to calm him.
After a minute or two, he calms to the point that she no longer fears him hyperventilating himself into unconsciousness and she reaches up and grabs one of his many open water bottles from his nightstand. She unscrews the cap and, after helping him to sit up against the nightstand, raises the bottle to his lips, telling him, “Drink.”
He takes two long gulps and then pulls back. He moans.
“Are you hurt? Did you hit your head?”
He moans again and she forces him to look her in the eyes.
“Babe. Did you hit your head?”
“No,” he moans, “I fell on my butt.”
“Do you think you can get up?”
He straightens against the nightstand and pushes himself off the floor. Anna helps to steady him and helps him climb back into bed.
“It almost got me this time, Anna. I could feel it and smell it.”
His eyes are half-lidded and he speaks in mumbles and she is sure that he must be half-asleep, despite the fall; that his mind was still clinging to whatever nightmare had pushed him over the edge of their bed, like milk holding the scent of whatever it’s next to in the fridge.
“You’re okay baby, you’re okay. Just go back to sleep. We’ll figure this out in the morning.”
He mumbles something else and turns over. She rubs his back for a little while, until his breathing deepens once again, and then she turns over and attempts to call sleep back to her own mind.
But every time she closes her eyes, she sees him writhing on the floor; she hears him weeping, hears his voice telling her that he could “feel it and could smell it,” and now she could swear that she, too could feel something, could smell something in the room with them.
When, after about half an hour of restless tossing and turning, she finally accepts that sleep, like a cat, cannot be controlled but can only be lured if it wants to be lured, she sighs and grabs her phone from under her pillow.
She does her usual fruitless scrolling through the usual social media platforms, seeing all the colors and words and lies, but not really taking any of it in. Halfway through her Facebook News scroll, an idea comes to her. She opens Amazon. She searches Bed guard.
As she scrolls through the results, her first thought is a flood of memories. Her mom and dad were very strict on Anna sleeping in her own bed once she turned two – not only because they were ready for their privacy once again, but also because, as a young child, she tossed and turned like a student the night before a test. In fact, on more than one occasion, they had come into her room in the morning to find her sprawled on the floor next to her mattress, having rolled off at some point in the middle of the night.
But when her dad died only two years after, she spent nearly every night in her mother’s bed, leading her mother to buy a bed guard of the very same sort of those which she was seeing. The padded railing with a cloth mesh netting across brought back memories long since forgotten: looking at it as she pretended to sleep as her mother wept softly into the pillow, waking up with her face in the netting and seeing the red tattoo it left on her cheek as she brushed her teeth.
Her second thought: damn, these are expensive. The first page had 15 different options, with prices ranging from $25 to $99, this one claiming that, “Twin, Queen, King: no matter the size, we’ve got you covered!” the other assuring her that, “even a baby elephant couldn’t fall off the bed with this guard in place!” She snorts at this, checks the price, snorts again. $99. For that, she could just buy a nice air mattress to put next to the bed. At least it would continue to have use once this – whatever this was – passed.
She finds a middle-of-the-road one for $50, sees it has same day shipping and will arrive before 10 PM, and adds it to her cart. She checks out and then turns to her husband. He is still sleeping, his breathing still deep and regular, and then checks the time. 5:19 AM. If she can fall asleep before 6 or so, she can get at least two more hours of sleep, which might be enough to stave off extreme grumpiness, so she turns over and soon thereafter falls asleep.
“Babe, I really don’t think this is necessary. I mean, last night was the first time I’ve fallen off a bed, maybe ever.”
He speaks to her from across the room as he strips off the robe he wears after showers and before bed and folds it carefully, putting it over the back of his desk chair.
She thought that perhaps he would protest, at least a little, and this feeling was confirmed the moment she saw his face as he walked into the room and saw the bed guard already installed on his side of the bed. Though he is a man far sweeter and less macho than most men she has met, he is still a man and thus still had his pride. But she was ready for this.
“And hopefully it will be the last. But until we’re sure that these nightmares have worked themselves out of your system, perhaps it would be better for your body and for both of our sleep just to have this as a safety net – no pun intended.”
She walks over to him, hugs him from behind, rubbing his chest.
“If anything, do it for me. It’ll make me feel a whole lot better to know I won’t wake up to find you in a pool of blood on the floor because you hit your head on the corner of the night table after rolling out of bed.”
He laughs and spins in her arms so that they are face to face.
“I guess it’s better than those little corner guards you put on everything when you babysit for my sister’s kid.”
She makes her eyes go comically wide and her voice jumps up into Mickey Mouse range as they always do when they are joke-lying.
“No yeah, definitely didn’t buy any of those.”
They both laugh and kiss each other, lightly at first. Then the kiss deepens and he lifts her and she wraps her legs around him and he carries her to the bed.
She can hear him cursing under his breath as she climbs out of sleep the next morning. She blinks and turns around. Her eyes are still blurry with sleep, but she can see that his side of the bed is empty; he is next to the bed kneeling down and looking at the bed guard. She blinks again and her eyes clear and she draws in a sharp breath, then utters her own curse.
“What the hell happened?” she asks once she has caught her breath.
“I have no idea.” He doesn’t look up at her as he answers, he just continues to study the bed guard. A fist-sized hole has been ripped in the center of it and there are tiny brownish-red droplets hanging off the ragged ends of the mesh around the hole. She can see the graying speckles of three-day growth on his face through the center of the hole and she realizes that she has never seen more than the beginnings of a five o’clock shadow on him. “I must have punched it or ripped through it somehow. I think I had another nightmare last night. I don’t remember it, but I feel exhausted, like I didn’t sleep at all last night. And – “
He stops himself; she prods him.
“And I’m scared, Anna.” He finally looks her in the eye. “I have no idea what’s going on here, but I know something is going on.” He stands and begins to pace next to the bed. “Maybe if I sleep on the couch tonight. Or if I get a hotel room or something, I don’t know.”
She gets out of bed and walks around to him.
It’s as though he doesn’t hear her. He continues to pace and goes on.
“I mean, maybe just changing the scenery. I don’t know, maybe I can take some NyQuil or something and – “
“David.” She speaks with force, not quite yelling, but close. He finally stops and faces her. “I know you’re scared, honey.” She walks to him and hugs him. He cringes a little at first – it breaks her heart into a million pieces, but she goes on anyway. “And I don’t know what’s going on either. Maybe you saw something last week that brought up some childhood trauma –“
“No, I’ve been thinking about it and – “
“Or,” she cuts him off, “maybe it was something you ate,” she lifts a finger before he can interrupt again, “or maybe something else totally that we don’t understand. We both struggle with anxiety and depression and we both know full well that these kind of things are sometimes cyclical and seasonal. Maybe this is just a new season and a new thing to deal with.”
She lifts her hand up to his face and rubs her thumb against his cheek, imitating the way he comforts her.
“Whatever it may be, I am here with you and for you and we will figure this out and everything will be okay.” She looks deep into his eyes, gauging whether he is really listening. “Everything will be okay,” she repeats, holding his face in both hands.
He takes a deep breath and smiles. It doesn’t reach his eyes.
“You’re right, of course. Everything will be okay. Listen, I’m gonna shower and head off to work, okay? Johnson will kill me if I’m late again.”
She looks at him for a moment, debating whether to argue the point with him. She sees in his eyes that further arguments or pleadings will do nothing and forces a smile.
“Okay babe. Wash your butt good, you stink.”
He crinkles his nose at her and gives her a gentle push away, but she can tell his heart is not in it. He walks off to the bathroom and she looks down at the torn bed guard, wondering how in the world he could’ve done this, especially without waking her.
“Just let me do it, okay?” He raises his voice at her for only the second time in their marriage.
He was quiet when he got home that day, quiet during dinner, quiet while washing the dishes after, quiet in the shower. She tried to start conversations several times, but after the third failed attempt while they washed dishes together, she joined him in his silence. The silence ended when, after watching their show together, David gathered his blanket and pillow into his arms and climbed out of bed.
“Babe? Where are you going?”
“I’m sleeping on the couch tonight.”
He put up a hand before she could even begin to respond.
“Babe, it’s not up for debate. Look at this.”
He gestures with his full hands at the bed guard.
“What if I do that to you in the middle of the night instead of to that thing? How’s that gonna feel?”
“David, you’re not gonna do that to me. You’ve never been remotely violent to me, sleeping or awake and – “
“But we really don’t know what could happen, do we? As you yourself pointed out, this is unprecedented. We will figure this out together and if, after a couple nights on the couch, I’m not punching or ripping holes in anything, I’ll come back to the bed. But for now – “
“Babe, come on! This is – “
“Just let me do it, okay?”
They are both silent for a moment, both breathing heavy in the heat of the argument. He crumbles first. He comes around to her side of the bed and kneels down in front of her.
“Listen, babe. I would never forgive myself if I accidentally hurt you because of some stupid nightmares, okay? It’s just a couple nights and I’m just down the hall. It’s for the best, Anna. You see that, right?”
She still doesn’t agree, would still rather be able to keep an eye on him, but once again that male sense of pride and stubbornness is more than she has the energy to deal with. So, she takes a deep breath and responds, “Yes, David, I see. Just a couple nights though.”
“Yes,” he says, smiling, “just a couple nights.”
He kisses her on her forehead, then each cheek, then on the lips and lingers there for a moment.
“I love you, Anna.”
“I love you too.”
He kisses her once more and then stands again and walks around the bed and, after giving her one more look, down the hall to the living room, closing the door gently behind him as he goes.
The creaking of the bedroom door wakes her.
No response. For a moment, there is no sound at all. Then the door opens all the way and he shuffles in.
“Hey baby. Can’t sleep down there? That couch is absolutely awful on the back.”
Still no response. He comes to his side of the bed, dragging his feet as he goes. He stands before it for a moment, then grabs the bed guard and tries to rip it off.
“Wow, wow, wow, what are you doing?” Anna says, shifting over and grabbing his forearms. She feels the muscle rippling under her hands and he is still not saying anything.
“Babe.” Her voice has a little more alarm in it now, but he still acts as if he doesn’t hear her.
She gets out of bed and pulls his arms to his side, leads him to the bottom of the bed so that he can climb in around the bed guard. He doesn’t put up a fight, and for that Anna is grateful.
“Come on. Should’ve listened to me in the first place.”
She finally gets him into bed and tucks him in.
Still nothing. He has never sleepwalked like this before; but he has also never had nightmares like this before.
Time to pick up the therapy conversation again, Anna thinks as she drifts off.
This time, she is sure that it is neither the thump nor the scream that wakes her; it is the rustling of the bedsheets. First, the slimy progress over the bedsheets of what sounds like a den of snakes slithering onto her husband’s side of the bed and then the louder rustling of him being dragged off of it with them in their descent. Her eyes flick open and the first thing she sees is her husband being dragged through the bed guard, which has been mangled even further, the padded railing ripped in two, one arm reaching straight up into the sky and the other at a slight downward angle. His eyes flutter open and look directly into hers just as he is about to fall and he opens his mouth to scream and as he does a slimy red tentacle tipped in long white claws slides up his chest and into his mouth. Instead of a scream, he emits a strangled choking sound and then he is gone and she hears the thump and him being dragged under the bed.
She breaks her paralysis and goes to the edge of his side, looks over. He is already gone, but she sees the trailing end of one tentacle. It scratches at the floor as it retreats under the bed. Just before it disappears, it stops for a moment and she stares in horror as it turns over, nail side down, and hundreds of tiny eyes look at her and wink all together.
She screams as the thing disappears and she screams as the darkness encroaches and she screams as she passes out.
She wakes sometime later, her heart already racing, her breath already hot and fast in her throat. She looks at the clock on the nightstand and sees that it is 2:17 am.
Just a nightmare, she tells herself, just another nightmare.
She tells herself this over and over as she rubs the new scratches on her arms and as she settles back into her side of the bed, where she awoke.
Even though, she thinks, even though I know I fell asleep on his side of the bed but it’s okay, I didn’t really because it was only a nightmare, only a nightmare, only a nightmare.
She tells herself this over and over and over even as she starts to fall asleep, even as she hears –
But it’s not real, its only a nightmare, only a nightmare, only a nightmare, only –
– a slimy rustling movement under her side of the bed.
Josiah Furcinitti lives on the South Shore of Massachusetts with his wife. While he has
always enjoyed reading and been interested in writing, he began studying and delving into the
craft in the past year. He is currently working on his first novel as well as other short fiction.