“You keeping an eye on the dog?” Julie asked as she opened the front door.
“He’s not going anywhere,” Ryan answered. “He’s too busy staring at the ghosts in the kitchen. Have fun at work. Love you,” he said, as he leaned forward to kiss his wife goodbye.
“You too,” Julie said. “Bye, Buster,” she called over her shoulder as she left.
Ryan locked the door behind her and turned off the hall light. When he walked back through the living room, he saw Buster was still staring into the dark kitchen. “Everything okay in there, Buddy?” he asked before he entered the kitchen to get a second mug of coffee. He grabbed the coffee and his laptop and walked to the sunroom. Buster trotted at Ryan’s heels through the apartment.
While Buster busied himself with watching the morning rush hour traffic seven stories below, Ryan opened his laptop and pulled up the outline of a short story he had written yesterday. He read it over and bit the inside of his lower lip, unsatisfied with the outline.
He began writing the opening paragraph, but before he was halfway through, he deleted it and rewrote another beginning. An hour later, Ryan was still staring at his opening paragraph and chewing on the inside of his lip. Ryan’s coffee had gone cold, and Buster had fallen asleep on the sun-warmed tile of the sunroom floor. Shower time, thought Ryan.
The water was hot, and the radio was loud. Just the thing to clear my head, thought Ryan. As he hummed along with the radio, Ryan closed his eyes and ducked under the water to shampoo his hair when the bathroom became darker, as if something had cast a shadow over his eyelids.
Ryan grunted in surprise. He stared through the fogged-over frosted glass of the shower door. He watched steam vent through the open bathroom door, and he waited to see if anyone was there, but after a few moments, he resumed his shower.
As he washed the last of the soap from his body, he turned to face the showerhead and stuck his head under the stream of water. As he pulled his head back, another shadow seemed to pass through the bathroom. Before the shadow disappeared, Ryan heard a whisper, but it was too soft and too quick to comprehend.
His eyes opened shot open. “Who’s there?” Ryan asked, a little louder than his ego would have liked. The bathroom was empty. The fog grew thicker, and Ryan noticed the bathroom door had closed.
He shut off the water, grabbed a towel, and wrapped it around himself. He yanked the bathroom door open and darted into the bedroom. He looked left and right. No one was there, other than Buster, who was staring up at Ryan.
Ryan stalked from room to room, peeking around corners, flipping lights on, and leaving a trail of water droplets. He was alone, and Buster returned to the sunroom. Ryan returned to the bedroom and got dressed, trying to chuckle his fear away.
Ryan found Buster sleeping again. He knelt to pet the Cocker Spaniel behind his long ears. “Some guard dog you are.” Buster rolled onto his back, begging for a belly rub. Ryan rubbed Buster’s curly hair, smiling as Buster yawned and groaned in pleasure. As Buster grew quiet, Ryan thought he heard the whispering again, though faint like before. Ryan sat behind his laptop. He repeatedly peeked over his laptop, glancing back into the apartment.
The speed of Ryan’s typing increased. Ryan wrote the first paragraph, then the first page. Ryan smiled, and he kept writing, entering a zone where the story flowed from his mind, down to his fingers. It wasn’t long before he finished the first draft. Ryan printed a copy and began editing. Buster came and went, and the sun fell below the horizon. Ryan kept working.
Julie came home from work while Ryan was still working. She dropped her bags and greeted Buster who was bouncing and scooting, eager to go outside. “Okay, okay, let me say ‘hi’ to your Dad.”
She walked up behind Ryan, wrapping her arms around him and kissing the back of his neck.
Startled, Ryan jumped, his head jerking back, almost hitting Julie in the face.
“Are you alright?” she asked, trying to stifle laughter. “How did you not know I was home?”
Embarrassed, Ryan tried to shrug it off, but ended up conceding a smile. “I was finishing a new story. Want to give it a read for me?”
“Sure, but let me take Buster out. Then I’ll read it,” Julie said. She walked back to the foyer and wrestled Buster into his harness. “We also have tea, you know,” she said as she opened the front door. “You’re too jumpy.”
When she returned, Ryan handed Julie a copy of the story and sat on a nearby chair.
“Don’t,” she said.
“Don’t stare. Let me read in peace.”
Ryan stood up and walked a few paces away. He chewed his lip again as he watched her flip to the second page.
“Seriously. Do you want me to read this thing? Stop pacing.”
Ryan looked up and around the room, unaware he had been pacing. He walked to the second bedroom, Buster at his heels. Ryan found one of Buster’s tennis balls under a chair and pulled it out, showing it to Buster. “Wanna play, Buddy?”
Buster ran up to Ryan and sat down, staring at the ball. Ryan tossed it and they played fetch. They made it a couple rounds before Buster stopped halfway back to Ryan, letting the ball fall from his mouth.
“C’mon, Buster, bring me the ball,” Ryan said, slapping his thighs. “C’mon Buster.”
Buster remained frozen in the middle of the room.
“Lazy dog. Tired already? Or do you see another gho–,” Ryan said, stopping when he remembered the morning shower. As he did, Buster turned to the window, dropped low to the ground, and growled. Ryan followed Buster’s eyes and turned to look towards the bedroom window.
In one corner, Ryan saw his reflection. And in the other corner, Ryan saw a face, staring back at Buster. The figure was bald, and its skin was pale, but glowing like a paper lantern. The figure turned its large eyes to Ryan. The figure’s thin-lipped mouth smiled, before it ducked below the windowsill. Ryan turned and ran from the bedroom, running into Julie.
“This is great,” she said.
“Your story. This might be the best thing you’ve written,” Julie said, leaning in to kiss Ryan, but he did not return the kiss. “What’s with you? You’ve been in a weird mood ever since I got home. You don’t look good either. Are you sick? You feel clammy.”
“No, I’m not sick. I don’t know,” Ryan said. “It’s been a weird day. I’ve been writing nonstop, and I think I fried my brain a little. But you like it?”
“Yeah,” she said. Julie grabbed his hand and led Ryan to their bedroom. “Come on. Let’s celebrate your new story. I bet I can make you feel better.”
When they finished celebrating, Julie asked, “Feel better?”
“Yes,” Ryan said while he yawned.
Julie chuckled softly as she wrapped him arm around her. “Good night. Sleep well.”
“You too,” he said. And although all was dark and quiet, sleep did not come. Ryan kept recalling the figure he saw earlier. Despite his fears, Julie’s breathing soon lulled him to sleep.
He dreamt he was walking Buster late at night. Following their normal path, they walked down the block. As they approached the local hillside park, a breeze rose up, sending dried leaves scuttling over the sidewalk. Buster ignored them, instead stopping to sniff his favorite rocks and trees. When the breeze faded, the leaves stopped, but the scraping sound remained, but it began to fluctuate, rising and falling in volume, the harsh edges of the sound intensifying then fading. Ryan looked around, and noticed that at each of the various tables in the park a single figure sat with its back to Ryan. They were whispering.
Dressed all in black, Ryan could only see the smooth, waxy heads and the tips of pale ears above the collar of the figures’ coats. Walking down the park’s path, the whispering became louder as Ryan and Buster approached each table. The figure began to turn, but Ryan hurried on, afraid to see those large, dark eyes and small, red mouth. The whispers faded as they moved on, but table after table, the whispers rose and fell, like hissing waves, as Ryan tried to hurry Buster along.
At the far end of the park, another figure sat on a bench, staring at his fists. The figure opened his fists, unrolling his long, thin fingers. Ryan froze and stared as the fingers kept unfurling. They were longer than Ryan’s fingers, and with more joints. The figure raised his head, and the whispering grew more intense. The sound seemed to enfold Ryan; he couldn’t move. All he could do was stare into large, dark eyes. He realized the figure’s mouth was closed, his lips compressed into a thin, red line. But the whispering kept getting more insistent—it reverberated in Ryan’s ears, as if it was desperate to get into Ryan’s head. When it stopped, Ryan felt a pressure fade away, as if he had pulled himself out of a pool.
The creature laughed: a high-pitched, screeching cackle. When the figure saw the fear on Ryan’s face, the figure laughed harder. He raised his arms, spreading those long fingers wide, preparing to pounce on Ryan. Buster barked at the figure, deep, throaty barks that were rare from a small dog. Only then did Ryan tear his eyes away from the figure to look at his dog. Together they ran. They took a shortcut through the parking garage to get back to their apartment. The figure remained as Ryan and Buster departed.
After some fumbling Ryan managed to unlock the garage entrance. They ran for the elevators, cutting in between parked cars. Ryan heard the squeal of tires navigating the tight turns of the compact garage. He and Buster turned a final corner and ran down the final lane, the elevator bay in front of them. The squeals became louder. Ryan looked over his shoulder and saw a large, black SUV bearing down on them, a figure behind the wheel.
Ryan scooped up Buster and ducked between two parked cars as the SUV passed, the figure staring at Ryan as he drove by, the squealing of the tires combined with the figure’s cackle.
Ryan hit the elevator call button. He heard the SUV stop. Ryan watched the display as the elevator descended, floor-by-floor. He listened to the footsteps of the figure approach.
The elevator arrived. Ryan and Buster jumped into the elevator, and Ryan punched the button for his floor, once then several more times in rapid succession. Ryan watched as the figure peeked around the closing doors. It waved at Ryan, those long, pale fingers rising and falling.
When the elevator doors shut, Ryan’s eyes opened. He awoke, entwined in blankets now wet with his sweat. He got up and staggered to the bathroom, trying to shake off the nightmare. By the glow of his clock radio, Ryan splashed some cool water on his face and neck. He dried off with a hand towel. As he replaced the towel on the rack, he saw another glow in the mirror. Behind the frosted glass, the figure was standing in his shower, waving again.
Ryan turned, an indecipherable moan bursting from his lips. One of those sounds that although it is not a word, it conveys the underlying fear, the gush of adrenaline overwhelming the brain. But the shower was empty. Ryan was alone.
He caught his breath and walked back to the bedroom.
“You okay in there?” Julie asked, her eyes still closed.
“Yeah, I had a nightmare. Still jumpy I guess. Go back to sleep.”
Ryan lay on the bed, pushing the damp sheets towards the middle of the bed. He stared up at the ceiling, his hands on his chest. He could feel his heart rate returning to a more normal pace, but the rest of him was unable to relax. Sleep did not come easily. And what sleep did come was fitful, full of quick snatches of dreams. Ryan heard the whispering each time he dozed off. When he woke, the sound would linger. Ryan whispered softly to himself, trying to decipher it.
Julie’s alarm buzzed. She woke and began showering. Still dazed, Ryan woke up and rolled onto his back, the sweat having dried into a cold film. He grabbed the pile of yesterday’s clothes and put them on by the light of the dawn peeking through the curtains.
Squinting in the sunlight, Ryan took Buster for a walk. There were no leaves, no whispering, and no figures. Buster darted from bush to bush, stopping and sniffing. Ryan walked down the stairs, looking at the empty tables and benches.
Buster darted across the path as Ryan walked downhill, tripping him. Ryan stumbled for a few steps. “Dammit, Buster. Pay attention.” Ryan gave a yank on the leash, pulling Buster away from a tree.
Near the bottom of the path, Buster wandered into the dirt to take care of business. Ryan unrolled a bag, and he stared at the empty bench, recalling the nightmare from the night before.
Buster finished and circled the bench, wrapping his leash around the legs.
“C’mon, Buddy. Help me out here.” It took a few minutes for Ryan to untangle the leash and clean up Buster’s mess. Twice Ryan banged his shins on the metal bench in the process. “Come on, Buster. Let’s keep moving,” Ryan said yanking the leash again. Ryan shuffled home, Buster a few feet behind, hiding in Ryan’s shadow.
Ryan fed the dog and made a pot of strong coffee. He sat at the breakfast table and ate breakfast.
“Good morning. Feeling better?” Julie asked, joining him at the table.
“No. So tired.”
“I know we had fun last night, but I didn’t mean to wear you out that much.”
“Not you, nightmares. I feel like I only slept for a few minutes.”
“That explains the tossing and turning, the talking and moaning. I didn’t know how good I had it when you were just snoring,” she said, laughing. “Aw, sorry, babe. Coffee will help.”
Ryan grunted and nodded.
“I’ll be online if you want to chat. See you later.”
Three cups of coffee later, Ryan was in the sunroom, trying to begin another short story. Not getting anywhere, he opened an old outline to a novel. He read, making a change here, adding material elsewhere. Over time, the plot shifted away from Ryan’s original idea. But his characters developed unique personalities and voices. The plot became more dynamic: the conflict, struggles, and triumph more pronounced.
He started writing the novel. The apartment grew quiet except a soft whisper as Ryan typed, his fingers flitting across the keyboard. Paragraph after paragraph, the story grew.
Ryan emerged from this state only when the sunroom grew dark. The sun was setting, and Buster was at his side, whining, begging to be let out. Ryan looked at his screen. The word count read 12,364. Ryan had never written so much before. He exhaled hard and laughed, a little taken aback by his productivity.
He stood up. “Let’s go for a walk, Buddy.”
Buster dawdled behind Ryan.
“Are you hiding, Buddy? I’m sorry about earlier. C’mon, let’s have some fun” Ryan said. He slowed, letting Buster sniff and mark every bush and tree on the block. They took their time walking through the park. Ryan switched the leash from hand to hand as Buster explored. Ryan smiled, sharing in Buster’s excitement. They dawdled and wandered, stretching their legs with a long walk.
“Are you ready for dinner, old man?” Ryan asked as he led Buster through the front door.
“You’re feeling better,” Julie said, exiting the sunroom. “I didn’t see you online. I assumed you fell asleep on the sofa or something.”
“No, I wrote.”
“I saw. Looking good. Did you do all that today?
“Yeah, I don’t know. It just clicked.”
After dinner and more drinks than planned, Julie and Ryan went to bed. Ryan kissed Julie good night, and before she had finished rolling over, he passed out, face down on the bed.
Ryan walked into his childhood home. He was alone in the dark house. He took a couple of steps into the living room when he was grabbed from behind. He looked down to see two, pale arms wrapped around his chest. Ten too-long fingers pinched Ryan’s sides as they gripped him. The figure squeezed Ryan and lifted him off his feet and begun to spin him around. The figure whispered. Ryan could feel the cold, thin lips pressed against his ear.
After half a dozen or so rapid spins, the figure released Ryan and sent him stumbling. Before he could right himself, something slammed into Ryan from behind. It knocked the wind out of him and sent him sprawling. Ryan realized there were many figures. He saw them peeking around furniture, their pale skin creating small, glowing halos. He could hear them too, the whispering turned to harsh cackles whenever Ryan was struck. He was pursued from room to room, spun, and hit. The whispering overlapped. It transformed into a buzz of static loud enough to smother Ryan’s grunts and cries.
Ryan’s moans and tossing woke Julie up. “Ryan,” she called. “Stop it. Wake up,” she said, grabbing Ryan’s shoulder and giving him a shake. “Ryan,” she tried again, louder. “Ryan. Wake. Up,” she said as she shook him. Ryan continued to groan.
Ryan did not wake up until the alarm blared. When Julie didn’t turn it off, he realized she wasn’t in bed. He silenced the alarm and walked into the living room. Julie was asleep on the sofa.
“Your alarm went off, Jules. Time to get up.”
She sat up, rubbing her eyes. “Make some coffee, will you? I barely slept last night.”
“I didn’t sleep all that well either,” Ryan said as he walked into the kitchen.
“Are you kidding? I couldn’t wake you up, and I couldn’t shut you up.”
“I’m sorry. I had more of those nightmares.”
“Well maybe you should sleep on the sofa tonight, Mister.”
Ryan nodded and yawned. He got dressed and took Buster for a walk. When he was not yawning, Ryan grunted and tugged on Buster’s leash, urging him on.
Ryan and Julie ate breakfast without talking. Ryan saw Julie off to work and sat down to work on the novel. He wrote for a few hours, long enough for his back or neck to become sore. He stood up, stretched, and decided to change places. He grabbed his laptop and walked to living room while he read the last paragraph he had written.
He stopped in the middle of the living room. Ryan looked up and spun around. “Thought I heard something, Buster,” Ryan said when he saw his dog cock his head in confusion.
Ryan sat in the chair in the corner and continued to write. When he got sore, he moved again. He always sat with his back to a wall, unable to forget the recent nightmares. He kept this up until Julie came home. He took a break for dinner. He tried to watch TV, but gave up after an hour and resumed writing.
A handful of pages later, he looked across the sofa and saw Julie had fallen asleep. He squeezed her thigh. “Hey, Jules,” he whispered. “Maybe you should go to bed.”
Her eyes did not open, but she started to smile, drifting off before she finished.
Ryan helped Julie to the bedroom. “Get some sleep. I’m going to stay up for a bit longer. I’ll sleep out here.” He leaned over to kiss her. When he stood, Ryan leaned back and to the sides, stretching his sore back. Then he rolled his head back and forth, hoping his neck would relax. Buster fell asleep soon after, but Ryan kept writing.
He wrote almost all night, whispering as he typed. When he felt sleepy, Ryan would do pushups or jumping jacks. Ryan had never known productivity like this. He realized his internal editor had been silent. That little devil sitting on his shoulder, mocking and critiquing Ryan’s writing had disappeared. He was free to write.
Ryan smiled when he checked the updated word count. He closed his laptop and curled up on the sofa. He had about an hour before Julie’s alarm went off, but he stared at the ceiling, trying to avoid sleeping.
Ryan didn’t know where he was. Figures surrounded him, advancing in a tightening ring. The figures were angry. They weren’t whispering. They were yelling, the screams overlapping.
Ryan spun. He picked out one of the figures, and ran directly at it, trying to force an escape. Before Ryan made contact, the figures jumped as one. Cold hands gripped Ryan, up his legs and down his arms. The figures squeezed and clawed at Ryan, pulling him to the ground. Ryan screamed when he felt his joints starting to give. The figures tore at Ryan. The cacophony of the figures’ frenzied screams reached a pitch that brought a new pain to Ryan.
Julie turned on a lamp behind Ryan’s head. “I’m so glad you spent the night on the sofa,” she said.
“I wasn’t moaning all night.”
“No, I wrote all night.”
“Those must be some nightmares. Should I pick up a nightlight on my way home tonight?” Julie asked.
“No, it’s the novel. I didn’t want to stop writing.”
“Okay. Just get some sleep tonight. You don’t look good.”
“Does that mean I get to sleep in the bed tonight?”
Julie laughed, “Not if you’re moaning and groaning, no.”
Ryan lurched through his morning routine. When he poured coffee, he spilled it. When he sat down, he almost missed the chair. But when he returned to the writing, the pages kept coming despite how tired he was.
Ryan snapped awake when his laptop chimed, announcing an e-mail from an editor who had accepted his short story. Dazed, Ryan had to read it twice, but he smiled as he sent a reply to thank the editor and finalize a few details.
Ryan continued to write all afternoon, but his writing was interrupted by involuntary naps. He fought back by taking cold showers and putting ice packs on the back of his neck.
The figures missed Ryan. They responded with more intense nightmares, whenever he dozed off while writing. They seized control of his brain in unconscious revenge. Ryan’s nightmares were filled with images of the figures mere inches away from him, whispering, screaming, and cackling.
Julie woke him up for the second time that day. She found him slumped over at the sunroom table. “You were twitching,” she said.
“I was? I don’t even remember falling asleep,” Ryan said. He looked at his word count. It was another five-figure day, but he could not recall any of the details of the day’s writing. “I sold that short story.”
“Yeah, it’s been so long, I almost forgot what good news from an editor sounds like.”
“The check doesn’t hurt either. C’mon, let’s have some dinner. I’ll make you some coffee, and you’ll feel better.”
Ryan smiled. Already he felt better. But a full stomach knocked him out. He sat on the sofa and fell asleep.
Julie draped a blanket over him, smiling at how peaceful he looked.
Ryan was simply too tired to twitch or moan. Otherwise, Julie would have known the nightmares had returned. And they had become more violent. The figures held him and whispered in his ear while others beat him or bit him or clawed at him.
He woke up in the middle of the night, his sweaty body stuck to the leather of the sofa. He rolled over, trying to get comfortable. He grabbed the blanket and wrapped it around his shoulders. He paced around the apartment trying to wake up. He opened a window in the sunroom, letting the cold air shock his system. Finally, he grabbed his laptop and wrote some more.
He completed a few pages before Buster started whining at Ryan’s feet, begging to be let out. Ryan realized Julie’s alarm must have gone off. Whether he was too focused on his writing to hear it or whether he was asleep, Ryan didn’t know.
He took Buster for a walk, or, more accurately, Buster led Ryan along the route of the walk. Ryan shuffled along, missing the occasional step. Buster didn’t complain. He was free to run around and eat scraps of trash on the ground. Ryan was too tired to tell Buster to stop. Ryan shuffled through the next few days too. He stubbed his toes and banged his shoulder rounding corners. Even coffee wasn’t enough.
“Do you know what you just did?” Julie asked.
“You went for coffee creamer. Did you get it?”
Ryan looked around, but didn’t see the creamer. He re-opened the refrigerator and grabbed the creamer from the door.
“Look at the top shelf, Ryan.”
Ryan realized he had placed the full pot of coffee in the fridge. “I’m sorry.”
“You need to get some sleep. You look terrible. And when was the last time you shaved? You’ve gone from scruffy artist to deranged hobo. And those bags under your eyes.”
“I don’t want to sleep. The nightmares are too terrible. But I write better after having them. I can’t explain it.”
“You’re a writer, but you can’t explain it?”
“In the nightmares, there are these figures. They do things—violent, brutal things. And while they do these things, they make these horrendous noises—cackles, screeches, and whispers. And when I try not to sleep, the nightmares get worse. But when I wake up, I can write thousands of words, and they’re wonderful. The short story was just the beginning.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“So what, these figures are your muse?”
Ryan shrugged. “I hope not, but I’m almost done with the book though. I just need to write a little more.”
“I don’t know if you have a little more left in you. I think you need to get some help.”
“You think I’m going crazy?”
“No. I think you need a sleeping pill or something. I made you an appointment, and I programmed a reminder in your phone. Please go. I hate seeing you like this.”
“I’m fine. I’m writing like never before. This is going to be a great novel.”
Julie took the coffee pot out of Ryan’s hands and tapped her nail on the glass carafe. “You’re not fine.”
“Okay, I’ll go.”
He wrote all morning until his cell phone alarm rang. He grabbed his car keys and headed down to the garage. He got in the car, but before he could start the ignition, he fell asleep. The figures waited for him. They wasted no time terrorizing him.
Ryan awoke. It took him a moment to remember where he was, what he was supposed to do. It took a few more minutes to realize he should have left for his appointment fifteen minutes ago. Despite his condition, he made it to the clinic without getting into an accident.
“Sorry I’m late. I’m Ryan. I had a 3:30 appointment.”
“And you are here because of….” the receptionist said. “Insomnia,” she said, looking up from her screen at Ryan, “yes. Have a seat, please.”
He told the doctor he couldn’t sleep a whole night through and he fell asleep throughout the day. Ryan didn’t mention the figures or the nightmares. He left with a prescription of sleeping pills.
The sight of the pills seemed to cheer Julie up. “You’ll see. You’ll sleep better tonight. And tomorrow you’ll be able to write just as well.”
Ryan nodded. A night without nightmares sounded wonderful, but he was afraid his writing would suffer. “We’ll see. I’m in a groove right now. I don’t want to jinx it.”
After taking a first pill, he fell asleep. More importantly, he stayed asleep, still, and quiet all night. But the nightmares were different. The pills trapped Ryan in this crazed fantasyland.
When the alarm sounded, Julie kissed Ryan awake. “See, no moaning, no tossing. The pills worked.”
Ryan shook his head. “No. They made it worse. I couldn’t escape. The nightmares were more bizarre, more violent.” The figures had advanced on Ryan. The heads of some split and burst like overripe fruit, their bodies melting as they whispered and screeched and cackled. In the glowing goo that had been the figures, Ryan had seen his reflection: he was bald and pale. The figures had attacked Ryan. He had fought back, but they tore him apart and turned on the pieces. He remembered every moment of it.
He ignored the pills and reverted to his old patterns. Ryan went back to his novel, determined to finish. The dreams became less bizarre, but as Ryan approached the conclusion of his novel, the nightmares got worse. The figures forced him to watch other figures attacking Julie and members of his family.
But his kept writing and soon finished the novel. Ryan began to edit his novel. He printed a draft and read it out loud as he edited. He paced back and forth, fighting off sleep. Ryan’s internal editor that had remained curiously silent during the writing process returned, not to criticize, but to help. Ryan quickly made changes and cuts. Unlike his previous efforts, Ryan was impressed with the quality of his rough draft.
He shut himself away in the apartment’s second bedroom. He made several passes on the novel. Ryan repeatedly fell asleep on his feet. In these brief moments of sleep, Ryan would come face to face with the figures. Sleep. Screech. Wake. Edit. Sleep. Scream. Wake. Edit. Sleep. Whisper. Wake. Edit. After hours of editing, Ryan’s voice was reduced to a whisper, and he was seeing the figures in his reflection in the window.
Julie found him collapsed on the floor of the second bedroom. Buster was pacing next to him, whining. She knelt beside him, placing a hand on his shoulder, shaking him. “Ryan? Ryan.”
“It’s done,” he whispered. “I’ll send out query letters to agents tomorrow.”
“No, I’m taking you to a hospital. You’re sick.”
Ryan grabbed Julie’s hands. “No, I’m fine. Really. The nightmares are going away.”
“Are you sure?”
“For the first time in days I didn’t have nightmares when I closed my eyes.”
“Even Buster sleeps in his bed. You don’t need to sleep on the floor, you know.”
Ryan shrugged. “C’mon, let’s eat. I’m starving.”
Ryan really, truly slept that night—like a reborn newborn. The next day he showered, shaved, and sent queries to a number of agents. He took Buster for a run in the afternoon, and when they got home, they both slept in their beds. He ordered Julie’s favorite takeout, and they cuddled on the sofa, watching TV and laughing like they used to, before the novel.
Ryan still had nightmares, but the gaps between nightmares grew. Sometimes a week went by without a single nightmare. Over time, the violence of the nightmares faded. The figures no longer cackled or shrieked. Their whispers grew softer, less intense. Eventually, the figures started walking away from Ryan.
One night, Ryan saw only a single figure whispering far away in the distance. It faded away as the pale, glowing figure walked away into the darkness. When the figure was far enough, he disappeared, as if something had snuffed out a small candle.
The next morning, Ryan’s agent called with good news that sent Ryan dancing in circles with Buster. Julie came home to an elaborate dinner already laid out on the dining room table. Ryan was standing behind the candle-lit table holding a bottle of champagne.
“What’s all this?”
“My book sold today,” Ryan said, opening the champagne with a pop.
Julie dropped her bags and circled the table to kiss and congratulate Ryan.
He handed her a glass. “Even better. There was a bit of a bidding war. It went for $100,000.”
Ryan smiled. “There’s talk of a small tour for this one, and also a second book.”
Julie laughed and hugged Ryan, who spilled a bit of the champagne.
Ryan took a break from writing. Instead of writing every day, all day, he read and went to the movies. He and Julie used a portion of the advance to pay some bills, and they went on vacation. But the nightmares never returned. Not even when his publisher sent over the various edits of his novel.
After seeing all the new releases and significantly reducing his “to-read” pile, Ryan tried outlining his next novel, but he got bogged down with false starts, re-writes, and indecisions. Ryan never had another five-figure daily word count. He wrote a few short stories, but only one sold.
Months later, Julie came home evening, and she walked in on Ryan in the middle of a phone conversation.
“No, I’m sorry. I don’t have anything yet. I’m trying, I really am, but none of my ideas are panning out,” Ryan said. He waved to Julie when she came in, and he walked into the sunroom. “I know the deadline is coming up. I’ll have something. I know it. I just don’t have anything right now. Yes, I know the tour’s coming up, and I won’t have a lot of time to write. I do better when I’m not sleeping.”
Despite the lack of a forthcoming second novel, Ryan’s publisher sent him on a small tour to publicize the book. In between signings, Ryan tried staying awake to bring on the exhaustion he experienced while writing his novel. Cold showers, ice packs on the back of his neck, late-night infomercials, and far too much coffee. He grew exhausted, but his writing didn’t improve. He still slept without interruption: no nightmares, and no figures. And no second novel.
At his last stop, Ryan read his favorite passage, worried he might never get to do this again. He answered a handful of questions with humor and humility, and he spent time with the few dozen people who attended the reading. He helped the bookstore employees clean up after, and he signed extra copies.
Ryan looked around, tired and sad, trying to appreciate the remaining moments of his tour. He shook hands and gathered his bags to catch his flight home. That’s when he saw it. In an alcove off to the side, he saw a glowing face duck down behind a bookshelf. He walked toward the shelf, but one of the bookstore employees called to him.
“Did you forget something?”
“No. Just thought I saw something.” There was nothing behind the bookshelf, so he left the bookstore for the airport.
Ryan nodded off at the gate while waiting for his flight. He woke up whenever a gate agent made an announcement. In the static of the P.A. system, Ryan thought he heard the figures whispering again.
He also fell asleep on the plane ride home. Ryan dreamt he walked through his darkened apartment, but he saw no figures and heard no whispering, but Ryan felt the same sense of dread returning.
He took a cab home from the airport and fell asleep in the back seat. Ryan was once again walking through his dark apartment. He entered the second bedroom. It was lit by the glow of a figure that sat on a couch staring at Ryan and whispering. The whispering grew more intense as Ryan approached. He sat down on the couch next to the figure, and he stared into the figure’s large, dark eyes.
Ryan woke up, paid the cabbie, and walked to his apartment. In the lobby of his high-rise, Ryan called his agent’s office. He left a voicemail: “It’s Ryan. I’ll send you the proposal for the second novel tomorrow evening. Outline, a couple sample chapters. Let me know what you think. I’m afraid it will be even better than my first book.”