My exercise in writing horror- Know what I learned? I don’t do scary so well right now.
Blood. There on my new, crisp sheets again. This was my third set of new sheets in as many weeks. White sheets, silver, I’d even given up acting as if something weird wasn’t going on and bought sassy red sheets to mask the mark. I thought they had looked sexy when I pulled them out of the clear packaging and draped them over the mattress. Now, I just felt like a fool, a frightened fool. The spot was there, right where my wrist had been resting while I slept.
Blood. Mine? Or someone, something else’s? I didn’t know. I never knew.
Last night had been just like any other night. I had come home from work late after preparing for my second proposal meeting with the bigwigs at the company mine was trying to buy out. That’s what I did. During the day I negotiated buying mom and pop companies and incorporating them into our larger network. Sometimes we let the original owners stay on as consultants. Rarely, actually, if I’m being honest and, even when we did, it never usually lasted for very long. Mostly, those once proud owners would see the box store makeover of their businesses and decide that retirement in some warm locale really did seem the better option. Did I ever feel guilty looking at these hardworking people and taking everything they’d assembled? Not even a little. Would you feel guilty handing someone hundreds of thousands or, in some cases, millions of dollars to go do whatever tickles their fancy?
Then, at night in my own home, I became a weirdo, a shadow watcher, a freak who wondered what was waiting on the basement stairs. My lights were automatic, in order to turn on ten minutes before I got home. That way I never had to walk into a dark house. I’d had my bedroom door replaced when I moved into the condo. It went from a normal oak door to a metal, exterior door that I could lock from the inside. Had I ever been attacked in my own home, ever survived some traumatizing violence? No, I hadn’t.
What I did experience, from the time I moved out on my own, was this. This stupid, inexplicable mark which was there every morning when I woke. A few drops of browning red where my wrist had lain. There wasn’t even enough liquid to stain the mattress. There was just this drying mess that said that something happened at night, while I slept, that I was completely unaware of.
I do not cut my wrists. Let’s get that out of the way. I don’t. I never have. I hate paper cuts and curse like a sailor when I get them accidentally. The incident, which I have started to internally refer to the nighttime bleeding as, leaves no visible indications on my person. I don’t really even know if the blood is from my wrist. It just always happens to appear right where my left wrist was resting. Every night. For almost eight years now.
I’ve tried everything; replacing the door, having a dog, sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag, wearing gloves to bed. Replacing the door did nothing. The sleeping bag got a scarlet stain on the inside, where my wrist had been. I had thrown it away the next day. The gloves I found the following morning, neatly arranged on my bedside table, left hand fingers overlapping right. On the left cuff? Blood. The dog was the worst one. I’d liked that white, puffy creature. She’d been a happy thing at the shelter, all energy, with a growl that was meaner than a bear’s when the dog in the adjoining cage provoked her. I’d felt a kindred connection. I have a pretty mean bark too, when I try. A week into our new relationship she seemed strange, changed. She had stopped being so happy, stopped greeting me at the door. The closer it got to darkness, the more she whined. I found her dead one morning, about two weeks after adopting her, her joints stiff. I had taken her, wrapped in a blanket, to the vet to ask what had happened, knowing that she was beyond saving. They told me it was strange. Her heart had just stopped, although it appeared to be otherwise healthy. They had asked me- was she afraid of something? Not that I know of, I had said. Nothing that I know of.
I shook my head, disgusted, as I ripped the sheets from my bed and wadded them into a pile on my closet floor. I tore a blue blazer and beige pencil skirt from their hangers, draping them haphazardly over my arm. I took the clothes to the bathroom where I shed my pajamas, splashed perfume on my neck, and took a long look in the mirror, both taking in my reflection and making sure no mark-makers were standing behind me. My reflection looked haggard and pale. I looked like I felt, like I was barely getting any sleep and drinking too much coffee in order to function. There were no mark-makers in the mirror. There never were. What would a mark-maker look like? Something that did not make noise, leave footprints, and somehow knew when I was sleeping. Therefore, I had only one idea.
I put on two coats, my winter one and the one made of makeup to try to hide the dark circles around my eyes. I have money. I can afford some pretty expensive stuff. Thank goodness the worth its weight in gold makeup works. Explaining you can’t negotiate your pledged buyout to people who could afford to hire the entire mafia because you’re scared a hair-raising something is haunting you in your sleep is not something that I wanted to do.
My practical designer heels went on next and I was out the door, the biting cold on my face a reminder that I’d left the surreal behind me and was once again operating in reality. In the real world people aren’t afraid of unseen mark-makers, aren’t afraid of going home to be alone. I like the real world. It feels…steadying. I do well out here.
Then I turned around, remembering my reflection in the mirror. I could not go on like this. I was going to run out of juice one of these days. Coffee and makeup would reach its limit and no longer work in hiding my sleeplessness. I would become less productive, less efficient. I needed to act.
I went home and pressed record on my laptop, triggering the front facing camera. I set the little device down on my desk, facing my bed. I was going to sit and watch a full 24 hour recording. I was going to see if anyone peeped in the windows, entered, or touched me in my sleep. Once and for all, I was going to find out.
Who did I think was behind this? I thought the only logical thing. It had to be me. I was the only living thing in that place. I went to bed with the doors locked and windows closed. I woke up to them the same way. It had to be me. Was I sleep walking? Sleep poking myself with a sharp object and then cleaning the wound? It sounded farfetched, but it was the only half coherent explanation.
At work I met with my superiors to talk about how the buyout was going, what I could offer next, what I felt like the owners were holding out for.
“It’s the land,” I said, repeating something I had told them before.
“What about the land? The 800 square foot store sits on over two acres, which we could build up. They haven’t built anything else on it in twenty-five years. What’s the holdup? We’ve already promised to put it in contract that we will neither tear down the store nor discontinue buying from their local vendors for at least two years,” my boss asked. I couldn’t help it. I stared at his walrus like mustache every time he talked. I had to remind my sleep deprived brain to focus on the words and not the moving beast that was his facial hair.
“They fished in the pond there, took their kids there. It’s the memories,” I started to say.
“Memories? All owners have memories! They can take them with them when they go! The memories don’t live on the damned land,” he fumed.
Then the idea struck me.
“I think I know what will help. Can I have $500 to spend on incentives?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“Have a thousand if you think you can get them to give it up. You’ve already racked up outrageous lunch bills. What’s $500 more?”
“I bet the three times I’ve met with them at their local diner have cost us less than one of your business lunches,” I said.
“But my business lunches are important,” he ended our conversation.
I went to make a call to two friends.
Later that day, four cups of coffee in, I found myself sitting at a table across a checkered tablecloth from Mel and Rhonda Glowsk. They were older, mid-sixties, ready to retire. They had lived a good life, were high school sweethearts, the parents of a boy and a girl both married and living out of state. They held hands as we talked.
“Before you get started,” Mel began, his deep voice slow and steady.
“Let’s not get into the ballgame yet,” I said, reaching for the warm coffee in front of me.
“Aren’t you always supposed to be about the ballgame?” his wife quipped, though in her sweet tones the phrase wasn’t as biting as it should have been.
“I have some gifts for you,” I said.
“We’re not taking anything from your company yet,” Mel started in.
“It’s not from the company. It’s from me…paid for with the company’s money. Would you turn down a gift from me, Mel?” I asked, batting my eyes exaggeratedly.
A corner of Rhonda’s mouth turned up as she said, “Let’s see it then.”
So I pulled it out, my smoking gun. I’d set them at the table behind us before Mel and Rhonda arrived, not wanting them to see the wrapped packages. I pushed the one large and one small package toward them, lifting my coffee to make room for the presents.
Rhonda, comfortable with me, slapped at my hand,
“You drink too much of that stuff,” she scolded.
“How else is a cutthroat like me supposed to function?” I asked, playfully using the term Mel had thrown out when I first approached them to start negotiations.
“Seriously, you won’t be able to sleep if you keep guzzling like that,” Rhonda said, her eyes filled with motherly concern. If only she knew.
Mel tore into the larger package, his roughened fingers pulling away delicately gilded tissue. He gasped and so did Rhonda. She moved her hand to her mouth.
It was a painting, an original, which I had paid a friend to do. Her style was beautiful and, more importantly, fast. She could paint you something that looked like improved real life in just a few hours with minimal strokes of her brush. It was amazing.
The painting in front of my leads was of their son and daughter, two fishing poles in hand, each bathed in the comforting illusoriness of a haloing soft summer sun. They smiled. Little Freddy wore a white hat. Little Casey had a lollipop in her mouth. To the children’s left and on the back porch of the store their parents stood, Mel’s arm around Rhonda, watching the kiddos head down toward the pond.
Thank goodness Mel and Rhonda’s daughter was on social media. Only because of the throwback pictures she had posted did I know what Freddy and she were supposed to look like at seven and eleven years old. I had saved the separate pictures to my computer, then zipped them off in an email to my artist, along with an appraisal picture of the land. She had put them together into this.
“Go ahead, Rhonda, open the other one,” I said, indicating the smaller package.
She tore into the package, her eyes already misty, and in a little blue box she found a USB drive.
“What…?” she asked.
I interrupted her by holding up my hand. Out of my briefcase I pulled a tablet, borrowed from work. I plugged in her USB, hit play. The screen was filled with a video playback of the land. There was the pond, the worn bench where she and Mel used to take their lunches when the store was quiet. There was the wilting sunflower she had always wanted to pick and take home but could never get herself to cut.
“There’s two hours of footage here. It’s just the pond and the grass and the trees. If you listen closely you’ll hear a bit of traffic from the store,” I told them.
It was in the bag. I knew it. Now they could take their memories, the best part of their holdings, with them, just like my boss had said. They signed the deal. They walked away, their debts paid, with about $300,000 in their pockets to start their new life. As they left the diner Rhonda took my face in her hands and said, “It’s such a shame we won’t be seeing you again.” Off she went, onto her next adventure.
Yet, in the back of my mind, all I could think about was that I had gotten this idea thanks to my little incident. I hated that, hated that it was running my life even here in the world outside my bedroom doors. I hated feeling helpless and scared. It was time to fix that.
So I went boldly home, filled with confidence that I was going to face the problem head on. That feeling of being empowered lasted until I got to my front door. What if, whatever was on that video tomorrow morning was something I didn’t want to see? What if it was worse than my mere imaginings? I unlocked the door and went in to my brightly lit living room.
I debated with myself through preparing dinner, barely eating it, and pretending I was watching shows on my DVR instead of worrying. At midnight I gave up and went into the bedroom, locking the door behind myself. I was going to do this. I would be okay. Positive self-talk is great. Positive self-talk does nothing to allay fear.
For hours I tossed and turned, got up to make sure the camera was still filming, got up to make sure it was positioned just right. I turned on the fan for white noise but then was afraid that it would drown out any sounds in the video. I turned the fan off.
I finally fell into a restless sleep around four o’ clock. I woke up to my alarm at six, a mark of blood drying, for the first time, on my mattress. I’d been too nervous the night before to wrestle with sheets. I pulled on clothes, slammed shut the laptop, and dashed off to work to watch the video in a place I felt safe.
I hurried by coworkers, knowing I was being rude and that the shirt and slacks I had on didn’t match. I just didn’t care. Not today.
I scanned quickly through the daytime feed, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. I slowed it down when I finally saw myself fall asleep. My body stilled, the blankets stopped moving, and the video went black. There was nothing, as if it had shut itself off. I let out a breath. I was both relieved and frustrated, relieved that I would not have to know what caused this and frustrated that I could not know. I hit the fast forward button again, trying to quickly get to the end of the video to delete it.
There was a flash of red. I rewound, saw it flash again, and then slowed it down. At one quarter speed I was able to make out what it was. I gagged, so afraid that my body reacted. There quickly, like a glitch in the video, were the words Did you think it would be this easy written in red. It was not my handwriting. It was not on paper. It was on the video itself, suddenly there, suddenly gone.