“Try this on.” Mama hands me a pair of capris. She’s been forcing me into the changing room for the last half hour and this is the third store we’ve visited. She’s determined to have me fitted with a climate appropriate summer wardrobe by the end of the day. So this is going to be a long day.
I plaster on a smile and head off to the dressing room for the umpteenth time. I love this bonding time with just us girls but I couldn’t care less about shopping. My mind keeps racking up the prices. How can we afford all this?
I zip up my pants and I examine myself in the mirror. What do you know, it’s too loose. I unzip them and hang them back on the rack. I head out towards Mama.
I hear the shuffle of feet behind me. Something feels off. I keep a steady pace as I slowly cock my head to the side. Out of the corner of my eye I see a Goth chick standing casually behind me. Her eyes are blood-shot red; she’s glaring at me. Shit, not again. I rush out of the dressing room and I head towards the capris racks. My heart sinks. Mama and Marisol aren’t there.
“Mama!” I call out. No answer. “Marisol!” Still no reply. I take a long bend in the general direction of the women’s section. I go in and out of clothes racks but I still haven’t shaken my stalker. In fact, when I turn around I notice more people have joined her. Punks, Goths and rockers alike. Eight of them, all sharing her strange eyes. I’m starting to freak out. They seem almost too magically emerge on either side of me, trapping me. I survey the area but there is still no sign of her. Where are you, Mama? Where would you go?
I’m struck by a memory.
“Mama, can we go look at the toys?” Sunshine asked.
“In a minute, Sunny,” Mama replied.
The toy section, that’s not far from here. I duck through a clothes rack and I practically run to the toy section.
“There you are, Mama,” I say relieved. Mama is standing in the little girl section; Marisol is kneeling beside her, examining a baby doll.
“Stay close,” Mama says, urging me to her side. She’s staring ahead of me. I turn around to see the band of freaks scattering, but still watching. We head out of the aisle, tagging along with a man and his daughter.
“That’s enough shopping for today, let’s go grab a bite to eat,” Mama says nervously as we exit the store. We drift our way through the flock of shoppers to a little restaurant. As we get seated, I recognize two of my followers from earlier seated across the way at a bench. Their eyes glued to our table. The others are nearby, sprinkled about the stores.
“Mama,” I whisper, low enough so that I don’t disrupt Marisol’s conversation with her pals. “Why are we always being followed? Do I have a “V” on my forehead or something? I thought that moving halfway across the U.S. would change things.”
“I don’t know,” replies Mama with a worried look.
“Jesus, Mama. They got really close to me this time. If I hadn’t found you … they had me surrounded like a pack of wolves; like I’m some kind of slab of meat or something.”
“Don’t worry; I don’t think they want to hurt us. If they did they would have done it by now.”
“Who do you think they are?”
“I can’t tell you, but all I know is that you just have to be careful.” From the look on her face, I can tell Mama desperately wants to change the subject. Her face lights up. She gets the same look every time she asks the question. Here we go again in three, two, one.… “Have you heard from Sage?”
“No Mama, I did not.” Mama’s disappointed.
“Don’t worry, if you don’t hear from him again then it’s just not meant to be.” I don’t know whether she’s talking about us dating or getting married. I overheard her tell Papa the other day what great looking grandkids we would make. Anyways, I don’t care.
“It’s not like we’re a done deal, we’re just friends.”
“I’d have thought you would have seen him at the park.”
“There are other playgrounds around the area, like the one at the elementary.”
“If that’s the case then why don’t you go take Marisol —”
“Mama, don’t you think if he wanted to see me then he would have called or shown up at the park?”
“You’re right. What was I thinking? I was — you know it just occurred to me that maybe you should try to be a little friendlier.”
“You can be a little —”
“Sometimes you come off a little too aloof. And guys might take that as uninterested.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Now I just want to go home. Ghosts, nightmares, Sage, weirdo’s following me. I need to chill out.
The thin rug feels rough to my bare feet. I slip off my clothes and I throw them in a pile next to the tub. I pull the curtain open and I step into the crystal clear water. The water is hot. It almost scalds me as I immerse myself, turning my skin pink. I close the curtain. I tilt my head back letting it bob in the bath water. The water ripples as I sway my arms back in forth.
I lay still as I listen to the tinkling of the displaced water. I’m reminded of the painting of the drowning Ophelia, by John Everett Millais. I feel like I can relate to her, she was crazy too. I take a deep breath and I submerge my head into the water. I pretend like I’m Ophelia.
I’m transfixed into a different time. I can feel myself sinking in the pond deeper and deeper into the great abyss. I lay motionless without breathing. The water clears my mind and for the first time today I’m capable of relaxing. I am able to sift through my thoughts and emotions and come to a conclusion: I am not mad. I have a hormonal imbalance and nothing ever happened to me. Everything was all in my head. My hallucinations are an unorthodox way for my brain to try to deal with the trauma of moving cross country. I just need to come up with a plan to alleviate my stress and all this paranormal lunacy will disappear. Like Papa always jokes, “The first step is admitting you have a problem.” What I need is a distraction. Sage.
I have also decided that even though he’s an idiot — but what guy isn’t — he meant no harm. So that said — in a matter of speaking — I’ve decided to forgive him.
After what seems like an eternity, I open my eyes. I’m shot back to the present. The water is murky, only a stray ray of moonlight shines through. Who turned off the lights? With my hands I pull myself into an upright position. I inhale deeply, refilling my lungs. The air temperature has dropped a considerable amount. The scalding bath has become frigid. How long did I stay under? I exhale and I can see my breath. The room feels heavy. My heart is beating rapidly. I feel like I’m being watched.
Creak. The floorboards seem as if they are under an enormous amount of pressure and are about to give way. Not again! The steps are coming closer. Each step the phantom makes causes my bathwater to stir; ripples form on the silky surface.
I’m going to die. I’m going to die. I’m going to die. I’m going to die naked in a tub. Naked!!
My eyes lie fixed on the curtain. I don’t want to die, not like this. The footsteps cease in front of the tub. Now the only thing barring me from the intruder is a plastic sheet. The sound of its raspy breathing fills my eardrums.
What was that? My eyes follow the movement. On the wall, I see a silhouette of a small bony hand wrapping its little fingers around the edge of the curtain. My eyes are practically popping out of my head.
Clink. Clink. Clink. The brass curtain rings toll as they slowly slide over next to each other. My towel hanging from the rail slips to the ground. Seconds feel like hours. The breathing starts to waver in pitch, eventually transforming into a soft snicker. It’s mocking me. Clink.
The last ring clangs against the end of the rail. I’m fully exposed. Now what? Its snicker draws back into a low rumble, almost a purr but not of a kitten but something bestial and inhuman. I exhale sharply not realizing I had been holding my breath. I gasp for air, only to choke/gag on the foul smell now surrounding me. I sit shivering, waiting.
“Help!” My scream is garbled. Suddenly, I’m being seized and pinned down by my shoulders. I feel a weight on my chest like I’m being sat on. The primal instinct to live, hidden within all humans, makes its way out of me as I struggle to break free from its hold. I try to grab onto the sides of the tub, but my hands slide right off. Altering my defense to offense, my hands tear at the empty air, searching for eyes to scratch out. I’m drowning. My eyes are wide open as they search for my attacker. I can’t see it. My thoughts are frantic. Why is this happening to me? Is this what it’s like to drown? It is not peaceful at all like they say, it hurts. I try hard to hold my breath. Every gasp I draw in brings a searing pain down my throat and nostrils. My lungs are burning! My nose and throat hurt the more I struggle to live. I don’t want to die! I want to live! I’m being pulled into the abyss.
Abruptly, the struggle stops. The weight is removed from my chest. My head is cleared just enough that I know not to miss my only chance for survival. I pop up gasping. Air! Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Splash! I’m plunged back into the water. It’s happening all over again. The ghost is toying with me. It could have just killed me the first time. It wants me to suffer; my torment turns to torture. My heart feels like it’s going to burst. I feel hands wrap themselves around my neck. I’m being strangled. Fingernails dig into my skin like the edges of blades. My animal instincts kick into overdrive. If I don’t get the ghost off of me then I know I’m not going to survive this attack. My hands flail in the air as I struggle to throw it off, my legs flounder as I thrash in the tub. I try to claw it, but that doesn’t seem to work. My hands grab at my throat as I try to rip the invisible hands off. How long is this going to go on? Get off me! I scream in my head.
My muscles have become so weak from lack of oxygen that my appendages have gone limp. The fight has left me. I fight for consciousness, but I am quickly losing. Sleep feels so good. It’s so easy to just slip away. Peaceful …
“Marimar!” a voice calls out.
“Marimar!” the voice calls out again.
I know that voice. “Mama?”
“I’m coming, Mama!” I call after her. Her voice is slightly muffled.
Out of the void a light appears straight ahead of me. The closer I get, the louder Mama’s voice becomes. I enter into the light.
I open my eyes and I am still in the water. A pair of hands is pulling me up. The second my head reaches the surface I spew out water. I choke on it. A hand thumps my back releasing more liquid from my lungs. It burns. The light hurts my eyes. The water blurs my vision. I gasp for air. I’m being hugged. I hear sobbing. My eyes clear up and I can see Mama.
“Mama!” I hear Papa’s frantic voice from the direction of my bedroom. That’s when I’m reminded that I’m exposed. I pull away from Mama far enough so that I can examine myself. I look down and I find that there is a towel wrapped around my body.
“Mama, what’s wrong?” Papa’s carrying Marisol in his arms. He puts her down so his arms are free to wrap around Mama’s shoulders.
“I found her … her floating motionless on the bottom of the tub. She was drowning and half-conscious when I pulled her out.” Her speech slurs together as she speaks between sobs — her face buried in my shoulder. She’s hardly coherent. I doubt Papa understood a word she said.
“Wait, what happened?” Papa asks me, seeing that Mama is in no shape to respond. I wrestle out of her grasp — she won’t release me — so I can answer a little more intelligently. Mama is currently crushing my face against her chest. Finally, I succeed in breaking away. I almost get my towel torn off in the process. My recap comes out in a rush.
“Awe you all wight?” Marisol inquires after I finish with my story. She has one hand wrapped around Mama while the other strokes my arm.
“Yes, Sunshine, I’m all right.” I’d hug her right now, but I don’t want to flash myself.
“Wait,” Mama seems to have found her voice again, “when I found you, the lights were on and the curtain was closed.” Mama wipes her tears away.
“That can’t be! I don’t know how it did it, but you’ve got to believe me!” I look down at my arms to check for bruising. I have none. I check my hairline and neck for fingernail marks and I come up empty.
“Maybe you just hit your head on something.”
“What can I hit my head on hard enough at this level to knock me out?”
“I don’t know, Mamí, but you do have a habit of being a klutz. Maybe you simply fell asleep. You’ve been so jittery since the other night. And I don’t think you’ve slept well since we moved here. We need to take her to go see a doctor, Papa, some kind of specialist.”
“So, you don’t believe me? You think that I just imagined this?”
“Mamí, it just doesn’t add up. The lights were on and the curtain was closed when I came in. If something did do what you say than why wasn’t there any evidence?”
“I don’t know, maybe it left footprints on the floor or something. Check the curtain for handprints.” Papa doesn’t find any. Am I losing it? I mean it sounds crazy to me as well. How can I blame them for not believing me if I’m not one-hundred percent sure myself?
I patiently sit in the waiting room at the doctors’ office, bored out of my mind. I lazily flip through a magazine, but nothing catches my interest. I let out a heavy sigh and place it back down on the table in front of me with all of the other magazines that are spread across it. We arrived here twenty minutes early because Mama wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t miss my appointment if we got lost on the way. I look over to the clock on the wall that reads eleven-nineteen.
Eleven more minutes to go. The time seems to go by at an excruciating slow pace. I take my eyes off of the clock and once more look around the room.
There are only two other people in the room, a mother and son. By the looks of him, he has to be at least thirteen. The kid looks up from playing with his phone and catches my gaze. A wide goofy smile spreads across his face. I quickly look away; In his dreams.
A nurse opens a door to the back room.
“Dylan, the Doctor will see you now,” the nurse calls out. He and his mother get up and follow her through the door.
I look over to the left of me. Papa is reading a book that he brought from home to pass the time. Mama is sitting next to him staring at me with concern, and Marisol is playing with Legos. She looks up and smiles at me before going back to playing with the toys. I lean back in my seat. I am so bored!
The time finally comes when the nurse appears, calls my name, and motions me through the door. Mama follows along wanting to hear what the doctor has to say. The nurse checks my height, weight, and blood pressure. When I am all done the nurse ushers us into a room where we wait for the doctor. I get up on the bed and I seat myself on the edge. Mama goes and sits on a chair in the corner of the room. We sit quietly as we wait for him to arrive.
The doctor emerges a couple minutes later. He is African American, looks around his early forties, and has to be at least six-two.
“Hi, I am Doctor Johnson. You must be Mar-y, Mar-y…?”
“Mar-r-r-ee-mar-r-r. You can call me Mar.”
“So, Mar. How are you feeling?” he asks while flipping through my file.
“I bet. The chart says … Why hello, ma’am. I didn’t see you there.”
“I’m Alena, her mother, nice to meet you.”
“The pleasure is all mine.” They shake hands. He turns back to me. “So, I’ve heard you’ve been having trouble sleeping.”
“Her Papa and I believe it is stress related from moving here from Oregon.”
“That will do it. How long has this been going on?”
“A couple of weeks,” I respond.
“I can prescribe you some sleeping aids.”
Doc. Johnson heads over to a cabinet and pulls out a slip of paper and writes a prescription. “Anything else?” he asks.
“No, that’s pretty much it,” I answer. When his attention is focused on my chart I catch sight of Mama giving me a critical look. I pretend not to notice.
“Actually, that’s part of the reason why we are here, but it’s mostly because she’s been having hallucinations.” Doc. turns his attention away from my chart and back to me.
“Yes, yesterday I found her half drowned in the bathtub and she was claiming that something or somebody had tried to drown her.”
“Did you take anything to help you sleep?” the Doctor asks me.
“How much sleep have you been getting?”
“Only a few hours per night.” If I’m lucky.
“Then I believe the cause of your hallucinations would be the sleep deprivation,” he answers. “You must have relaxed enough that you fell asleep and slipped under the water. The mind works remarkably fast and you can have a very long dream in an instant. You may have heard of people dreaming of falling and rolling off their beds. It is said that the entire dream takes place in the period between having rolled off the bed and hitting the floor.” Mama lets out a sigh of relief. He turns back to the chart.
“The sedatives I have prescribed should help.” He hands Mama the slip. “You can pick this up at your local drugstore.” He turns to me. “You need to make sure you take one of these every night, after you bathe,” he advises.
“Okay.” No duh.
Mama and I thank him and we head out the door.
“Let’s go,” Mama says to Papa as we enter the waiting room. Papa gathers his things. “Come on, Sunny.” Marisol stops playing, picks up the legos, and grabs her hand.
“What did the doctor say?” Papa asks once we are in the minivan.
“He says the hallucinations are caused by lack of sleep,” Mama answers. Papa’s mind is set at ease as he sets off to the nearest drugstore.
I swallow down my pill with a glass of water. I sit on the couch watching TV while I wait for the pill to take effect. I begin to get drowsy so I make my way to bed. My eyelids begin to droop as I climb up the steps, and my feet begin to drag. When I reach the top I fight to keep awake. I dazedly reach my room. Too tired to sink under the covers, I flop onto the bed instead. The second my head hits the pillow I’m asleep.
Entering into a dream, I find myself walking down the street of my old neighborhood in Corvallis. The same route I’d take heading home from school. It begins to rain. I pull the hood of my rain jacket over my head. I am so caught up in trying to get out of the rain that I absent mindedly run into somebody.
“Sorry, I didn’t see —” I’m cut off in mid-sentence, too scared to finish my apology. I look up into the angry red eyes of a Goth chick. She’s the same girl that I had seen at the store with Mama the other day.
I don’t live here anymore. I’m dreaming, I tell myself. As the realization settles in more and more goths, gutter punks, and death rockers begin to show up behind the girl. Wake up! I tell myself. Wake up! But I don’t.
I turn on my heels and run down the street. I turn a corner only to run into another group of them. They are herding me. In a matter of seconds the mob of people behind me catch up and they all surround me.
Papa’s told me on numerous occasions that you always want to get some distance between you and your attackers. He says that the one position you never want to be in is to be surrounded. The chance of coming out of this unscathed is almost nil.
Now would be the time to wake up! I yell at myself. I guess I am going to have to finish this nightmare out. I raise my hands in front of me palms facing the closest girl; to both say keep back and I don’t want any trouble.
“Where do you think you’re going, bitch?” my original stocker taunts. “Wouldn’t want you to miss your own party.”
I scream for help.
“Daddy’s not going to be able to help you now.”
“Look, she’s scared,” someone says.
“Oh, you poor baby. Are you going to cry?” someone replies.
A chorus of laughter ensues.
“You’ve been so much trouble to track down, I thought we’d never catch you, yet here you are. I think it’s time to start the party. What do you say, guys?”
I remember Papa always taught me that if there is no way out strike first, strike hard, and keep striking and moving forward until you can break free and run; don’t hesitate. Just as begin my assault someone hits me from behind; damn, I hesitated. I slump down onto the cold, wet sidewalk. I can feel the sharp pain in my head as it cracks open. They stand and laugh over me. I try to crawl away only to be kicked onto my back. They begin kicking and hitting me. I can feel each blow. The warm sticky blood saturates my clothes only to be washed away by the heavy raindrops. One last blow to my head and I am jolted awake.
Whoa! I’ve never had a nightmare that dragged on so long. Usually I can wake myself up. That is the last time I am ever going to take those freaking sleeping pills!
After that night I toss a pill down the drain each night before I go to bed so Papa and Mama won’t know that I stopped taking them. When the bags under my eyes return I’ll just tell them that the pills aren’t working.
The next few days start to blur together. I’m too afraid to be alone; even though nothing has happened since my near death experience. Whenever I need to take a shower I have Trevor guard the bathtub. I figure it’s safe with just him since nothing seems to happen when anybody else is around. I toss and turn most nights and when I finally fall asleep my dreams are plagued with nightmares. The one that really unnerves me is the one where I’m being burnt alive like a witch during the Salem Witch trials. I try to change it, to no avail. I’m forced to watch. The nightmare is so vivid that I feel it, smell it; the burning of my flesh. My screams echo throughout the day, haunting me.