It was the last night before everything would change.
I had resorted to my old ways, holding off sleep for as long as I could. But it had been five days. I was sitting in bed. Blinking. Mind and body tingling. Drifting further away. Losing myself. Losing my will. Sleep swallowed me, even as I told it, “No.”
I dreamt of a cat.
Nuzzled to my chest, she purred contentedly. Her fur was soft. Warm. She stood and circled to get more comfortable, and I smiled and shied away as her fur tickled my chin. She finally laid down, making a bed of my body. I began petting her. By then, she no longer purred. She hummed.
The cat began padding at my shirt with her claws. At first, I didn’t mind. I even enjoyed it. A cat. Having her with me was such a wonderful change. But she continued to scratch until it hurt. I pressed her to the side, letting her know it was too much, but instead of touching fur, it was human hair.
I looked down. The woman in the window was knelt beside my bed, her head resting on my chest. She was faced away from me, her wild hair tickling my chin and her finger scratching at my bare belly.
I was about to scream, but the woman said, “Don’t.” Her voice raspy and low.
It’s a dream, I told myself. It’s a dream! It’s a dream!
But I couldn’t wake up. Because it wasn’t.
The woman turned toward me slowly. She had never been so close, not in real life. I could feel her breaths on my skin, my face. In her eyes was a bizarre appearance of affection, affection for me. It made me sick.
I uttered in dumb horror, “uhuhuhuhuh.”
“Shhhhh,” she said. She put a finger to my lips. “Shhhhh.”
I fell silent.
Content with my obedience, she returned her attention to my belly. I laid there, tears streaming down my face. The ridge of her jaw moved against my bare flesh as she commanded in a single word, “Sing.”
My mind went blank, as though I had never heard a song before in my life.
She said again, “Sing.”
The only song that came to mind was the song meant for me at the acapella competition. The dryness in my throat ruined my voice so that the words and melody scraped out. I was trembling. But I sang. The woman hummed with me, continuing at my belly for hours.
I spent my thoughts on unspoken prayers, begging and begging throughout the night. A great part of me died during those hours, the last part of me that hoped at all, and I became numb, but for the feeling of her.
The sun began to rise, even though I had been convinced it never would. When it did, the woman stood. She was so tall. Her head was almost to the ceiling as she looked down at me. I looked away, but she turned my face back to her with a finger on my cheek. “Tomorrow,” she said.
Then the woman walked to the window, opened it, and left. I stayed in bed. My pillow was soaked with the tears I had spilled throughout the night. Scratch marks disfigured the skin of my belly, deep enough to leave ridges that bled in small trickles. A constant throbbing pain. It was the only part of me that had any feeling.
I did not get up that day. I ignored my mother’s calls for me to get ready for my first day back at school now that Christmas break was over. I didn’t feel like pretending. I was catatonic. When she came home that night, I ignored her then too. When she told me she would have to make a call to the crisis center and have me assessed, I turned my head away in answer. Only when my mother went to her room for the night did I finally get up. I wanted a shower. I wanted to feel clean.
The heat burned against my belly. The soap stung. But I wanted it to hurt more. I dried off only after the water became cold. My arms felt so weak, the towel was almost too much to lift.
I swiped away a streak of steam from the mirror. I stared at myself. My eyes were dark and sunken. My cheekbones were bony, hollowed shadows beneath them. My hair had thinned. Fear had robbed me of any beauty I’d ever once owned, replacing it with a riddled recreation of meager similarities that barely resembled the girl I had once been.
I thought of ways to postpone the dread countdown. But maybe it didn’t matter what I did. Maybe nothing mattered. I returned to bed and permitted myself to be swept away by sleep, like an animal dying out in the cold.
Tomorrow had come.