Behind Closed Eyes
pale lavender curtains floated gently on the evening breeze as he entered the
child’s room. Lavender, such a delicate
color, the boy thought. He had seen it
countless times before, taking its place in an endless stream of frail pastels.
Completely at ease, the boy drifted closer, focusing his gaze on the sleeping child. He had not yet tired of watching this one – not at all like the others. The steady rhythmic breathing of her slumber never faltered during his visits. He watched her tiny chest rise and fall, the air slowly being pumped in and out of her lungs by a frail and fluttering heartbeat. In. Out. In. Out. Only the slightest creasing around her eyes gave any sign of distress; try as he might to draw her into waking. She remained an exquisite puzzle, the pieces so misshapen and complex that solving it seemed impossible. The boy found himself drawn to her, waiting and watching until his hunger overwhelmed his interest, and he fled her impenetrable mind in search of easier prey. And so yet again he left her side. There was little time to waste with dawn so near, and he had yet to truly feed.
With the rising sun, the boy returned home, his hunger now sated. Terror was the most delicious feast, especially with a dessert as sweet as a child waking to the sound of their own screams. It always seemed to end that way – with screaming; a legacy for his family perhaps. After all, darkness had always been their domain, whether it lay behind closed eyes or in the shadows of midnight. And everyone is afraid of the dark.
Nathaniel had seen the room many times over the past ten years. It had haunted his dreams – if they could be called dreams. Within his mind, beams of sunlight protected the room in a cheery glow, as if the absence of shadows would ward off his very thoughts. A tall vase of yellow roses on the window sill gave a vibrant splash of color against the cold white walls, rivaling the young woman’s golden hair. She slumbered on, as she always had, among the buzzing and humming of daily life going on without her. Of course, he did not often see the light of day. Nathaniel studied the empty night sky anxiously. Tonight would be perfect. As he turned the street corner, his destination came into view. He took off in a blind rush, slowing only when he stood on the other side of the black, iron gate surrounding the property.
Her double window sat on the second floor on the left side of the dwelling, with only a few decorative pine trees for companions. Within mere seconds he was peering through the open window that had become his most familiar haunt.
Nathaniel entered the room without a sound, brushing the faded lavender curtains aside. The woman’s teasing scent lingered like a recent spray of perfume, bringing his impatience to the surface. Collecting himself, Nathaniel approached the foot of the bed and, clearing his mind, dived into her thoughts.
Her mind was filled with a dense fog, a perplexing barrier that had always held him at bay. Slowly the fog began to thin, and he found himself stepping backward, gasping and staring into her icy, blue eyes frozen and breathless.
“You look different than I had imagined,” her voice was gentle, softer than he had thought it would be.
“Different?” he replied cautiously, cursing inwardly for being so easily caught.
“Yes, different,” she answered calmly. “Don’t you think that form is a bit misleading?”
“How so?” Nathaniel frowned. The woman pursed her lips.
“You are not a child, yet that is the form you have chosen since our first meeting,” her voice held a touch of impatience as she studied the boy before her. “No, you are not a child, Nathaniel, and neither am I. Not anymore.”
“No, I suppose not,” he admitted, his pre-adolescent voice cracking. He gave a shrug and the air around his small body seemed to grow darker, clouded somehow as if reality itself was bending around him. For a split second the space where the boy had stood was empty; then time blinked and Nathaniel returned, appearing as a man just a few years older than the woman herself.
“You may call me Claire.”
“Yes, this is much better,” she gestured at him. “You look familiar in this form.”
“My dear, Nathaniel, you are more inquisitive than I had expected, but I suppose that comes from your mother. All the questions; hungering for more than what is freely given. Fear always was a greedy bitch.”
Nathaniel hissed, turning back to the open window.“Will you return tomorrow night?” she whispered.
“Perhaps,” he growled and fled into the night.
Claire watched Nathaniel pace across the room. Back and Forth. Back and forth. Occasionally, he would pause to look out the window at the night sky.
Over the past six months it had become a matter of habit for the pair to waste away the night in heated discussion with intermittent moments of comfortable silence. Neither made reference to that first confrontation, but tonight Nathaniel’s agitation was becoming increasingly obvious.
“You’re thinking too hard,” Claire bluntly interrupted his brooding. His startled eyes met hers, and he made a weak attempt to smile.
“I suppose I have been poor company for you tonight,” he apologized.
“No worse than usual,” she teased. “Now what could be troubling you so?”
“Nothing I wish to speak of,” was his cold reply.
“My, we are touchy tonight.”
“And if I am?” his eyes blazed with the challenge.
“You may be anything you wish, but I do not believe that you came here tonight simply to pretend I do not exist.”
Nathaniel leaned back to sit on the window sill, releasing the breath he had been holding.
“Do you remember the first time we met?”
“Of course, it is hardly forgettable. What of it?” She tried to smile.
“I asked you to explain yourself once, but you refused. Why couldn’t you answer me that night?”
“You wouldn’t have believed me,” was her calm reply.
“I believe you have learned how well I like being interrogated, but if you truly wish to test my patience, ask again,” Claire replied acidly, but Nathaniel continued.
“You knew me that first night,
Claire. You knew things you shouldn’t – couldn’t have known. How was it that you read me like a book, body
and soul, while I spent fruitless years trying to get just a glimpse of who you
were?” It was clear to Claire that this
was a sore spot for Nathaniel – a seed of doubt that had grown tremendously in
their short time together. Yet her stomach sank at the thought of sharing the truth.
“I did not give you an answer then, and I do not believe I will give you one now.”
“Why must you be so difficult?”
“Because, Nathaniel, you are not ready to hear the answer.”
“Do you truly believe that anything could tear me from your side?”
“This might,” she nodded gravely, her face sobering, and then as an afterthought, “You have left before.”
“I came back,” his voice was quiet, broken.
“You’re simply saying that in the hopes that I will give you what you want. You’re like a child, begging sweets from a stranger. You do not understand the danger in what you seek.”
“Help me to understand,” he pleaded.
Claire could feel tendrils of anger in the room, tiny threads woven between her and Nathaniel, spiking with an electric current, and she knew only one of two things could possibly occur. Either would result in pain for both parties, but one may lessen the hurt.
“Very well. Nathaniel, contrary to what you may believe, that was not the first time we had met.”
“Well, of course not. It was merely – ”
“No, Nathaniel. You demanded an answer, and now it is you who must listen.”
He gave a curt nod of acquiescence.
“I have always known you, since you were a tiny spark, living in your mother’s womb. In fact I knew your mother long before she had met your father – at least in her current form. She was not prepared to face her past, and so I helped to shield her from Panic. Not as often as she may have liked, and never for very long. At the time I was very young, and your father was much stronger than I am even now.
“I know you do not understand, and I wouldn’t expect it of you. We are rare beings, you and I, sprung from the frailest hearts of mortals, but simply because we are creatures of fantasy does not make our lives a fairy tale. It does not mean we live any easier. There are few happy endings to spare in this world, though even we may strive to earn one. I know what you are. I have watched you hunt in the dead of night. You are a hungry thing, and only terror slakes your thirst. I know all this, and yet I am drawn to you just as surely as a fly to honey. I have become entangled in you. You see, my dear Nathaniel, you are and always have been, the man of my nightmares.”
Nathaniel’s expression shifted from betrayal to one of confusion. His thoughts spiked in countless directions, racing to comprehend the information laid before him. One word rung in his ears. Nightmare. Nightmare. Nightmare.“You cannot – I cannot – ” He spat out the words as if they left a vile taste on his tongue. Then he turned and launched himself into the night.
“So be it,” was Claire’s anguished reply, and she closed her eyes.
Shrill screams of terror echoed in Nathaniel’s ears long after he had left their owners behind. He was cold and hollow, moving from one victim to the next. He chased them feverishly, a riding weight on their shoulder, daring them to turn and see the monster lurking within the shadows of their subconscious. During the past week, he had expanded his hunting grounds, avoiding his most familiar haunts. Foreign territory was best. It required all of his focus to remain in the present, on this place, on this victim. The screaming was welcome; it held reality at bay.
Tonight there were no curtains as he stole through the child’s bedroom window. The young girl slept on peacefully unaware of Nathaniel’s presence. He crept closer, watching her eyelashes flutter as he deftly wove shadows around her innocent reverie. The trap was set. Nathaniel basked in the power of this one’s terror, her mouth gaped in a silent shriek, and her eyes – icy, blue eyes set amid a froth of golden curls. No. This child’s hair hung dull and lifeless about her shoulders, her dark eyes held wide in a blank stare. He did not exist. He was nothing to her. She was not Claire.
He left her behind as she recovered enough to yell for her mother and father. He raced. Past the iron gates. Across the cement drive. Two stories up. The window was closed as if to bar his entry, but he lifted it gently and slipped inside. He flew to her side and reached for her hand, but it slipped out of his grasp. She did not stir. Nathaniel’s brow creased as he attempted to lure her into waking, but her mind was once again impenetrable. She had been worried he would leave her, and now she had left him. He collapsed to the floor and wept.
The world moved on, but Nathaniel remained at her side as time continued to pass from night to day and on to night again. The monitor next to Claire’s bed continued its steady beeping, displaying an endless series of jagged spikes; a cruel mechanical echo of the life found within the rising and falling of her chest. Periodically others joined them in the cramped space. Nurses, Nathanial thought as he watched them hover over their patient, adjusting her bedding and scribbling notes onto their clipboards. They took no notice of him. They never had. They always left, and he found himself alone with a ghost, a shell of the woman he remembered.
“Good evening,” a female voice spoke cheerfully.
Nathaniel turned, startled to face the speaker. It was a nurse, a tiny wisp of a woman with a fiery tuft of red hair atop her head. She bustled around him, voice lilting in continuous conversation. It took him a moment to realize that she was speaking to Claire. He remained unnoticed.
“I am doing very well, thank you. Tom has been working late this week, you know accountants during tax season, and between him coming and going at all hours and little Colin running around like a wild thing, I’m surprised I heard my alarm clock this morning.” Nathaniel marveled at this strange woman and her one way conversation. Finally she seemed satisfied that Claire was settled for the night, and saying so, left the room, taking the vase of now wilted roses with her.
“I am so sorry, Claire,” Nathaniel whispered. “I was wrong. I must go now, but I will return,” he vowed, leaning in to kiss her cheek.
The room was empty when he returned. The sharp smell of chemical cleaners assaulted Nathaniel’s nostrils as he struggled to grasp what his senses were telling him. Sanitized. The heavenly scent that was Claire had been smothered. The bed linens were freshly pressed, crisp and unused.
Nathaniel’s mind reeled as he opened the door to Claire’s room. No. Not Claire’s room. Not anymore. He made his way down the hallway to a small counter where a single nurse sat. He swore, knowing very well she couldn’t see him. Couldn’t help him. A piercing shriek escaped his lips. The nurse behind the counter jumped, looking in his direction.
“Oh, it’s you. What are you doing here so early?” she questioned.
“Sorry, Marie,” a second woman replied as she approached from the other end of the hallway. “I thought I’d do a quick round before settling in here. Looks like room 252 is empty. Good news?”
“Not at all,” Marie drooped visibly. “Pulled the plug this morning, poor thing. Family made the call – ”
Nathaniel didn’t hear another word. His pulse raced and he struggled to breathe. Then he remembered he didn’t have to, and a deep numbness fell over him. They weren’t talking about Claire. They couldn’t be. It wasn’t true.
Nathaniel did not remember how he had made his way home, yet here he was in his own room, in his own bed. Alone. His eyes were glazed, staring unseeing at the ceiling, but his lips moved almost soundlessly, repeating the same words.
“I lied. You always read me so well, couldn’t you see I was lying? You let me walk away, but I came back. I told you I would,” he wept. His body shook with the silent sobs until exhausted he fell asleep.
Claire stood, staring down at his sleeping form with her cold eyes, arms crossed against her chest.
“You poor, poor fool,” she shook her head. “Did you not listen to a word I said? We are living myths, my dear Nightmare. Life and Death have no hold on me.”
“I was wrong,” he murmured in his sleep.
“I was wrong too,” she whispered, slowly crawling to lay beside him.
“I should have told you – ”
“Tell me now,” Claire gently combed her fingers through his dark hair.
“You are, and always have been my dream,” he opened his eyes to meet her own.
“I know,” she said, smiling.