It was 11:00 and the darkness in Ash’s bedroom was suffocating.
The young man twitched under his sheets. Sheets whose thick cotton used to be a soft barrier from the harsh winter nights, but were now a boiling prison whose structure encased him like a hot, sweat-soaked coffin.
Ash whimpered, or tried to, his tongue was thick and heavy and it rested inside of a papery throat that felt too atrophied to produce even the faintest of squeaks.
All around him the air was alive with sounds.
The faint creak of the old floorboards, the wind whistling through the copse of withered trees outside of his house, the faint drip of water in the tap, the cracking of the ice on his roof, the gusts of wind that blew tiny, hardened particles of ice onto his window, making a sound like fingernails tapping at the frozen glass.
Off in the distance, faint and muffled by the winter gale, he heard -or thought he heard- a tree fall.
The sound sent a jolt of terror coursing through his body. He imagined a tall, faceless, shadowy thing striding through the snowy forest, pushing aside trees and snapping them like the thin twigs they produced.
He imagined that, at any moment, a long, pale arm would shoot through the window that lay above his headboard, an arm that ended in an inhuman claw that groped for him with long fingers like the legs of a spider.
Again Ash tried to whimper, to express his fears in some small way to distract him from the sounds, but his lungs felt as if the soft meat of their make had been replaced with lead.
Another torrent of tiny tapping sounds assaulted his windows. Some part of him knew that it was only ice and snow. But his mind betrayed him and the image of a massive beetle, bloated and dark against the white snow, skittering across his window, trying to find a way in, came to his mind.
Ash felt the floodgates of his imagination, well-fed by movies and books, begin to buckle as thoughts and images that he knew would keep him up throughout the night began to press against what little willpower remained in his exhausted mind.
“Please….please don’t…not tonight...please,” he begged silently, through his mental haze of fear.
Then there came the sound of nails on the floorboards, accompanied by a heavy, pig-like snuffling.
That wall broke and his imagination began to weave tapestries of horror inside his mind.
He saw a massive, rotting creature with twisted limbs like ancient tree roots lumbering up the stairs, heading for his room, its talons clicking on the floor as fetid breath gurgled out through rotting teeth from the depths of soil-clogged lungs.
He saw a massive spider with more legs than could be counted scurrying along the floor with its yellow eyes staring through the door, through his sheets, past his skin and muscle to gaze hungrily at his rapidly-beating heart.
The spider gave way to a thin woman with sagging, leathery skin and legs like a wolf padding closer and closer with a predator’s stealth. From the woman came a small, skinless thing that could have been in infant, save for its many eyes.
The door opened.
Ash’s lungs let out a single, solitary moan that exited through his lips as a reedy whimper.
A heavy body sprang onto the bed, its weight crushing his legs before it began to move upwards. A second later he felt its hot breath on his cold skin.
Ash looked into the darkness…and saw two large, brown eyes staring inquisitively back at him.
It was his Golden Retriever, Max.
Ash felt the terror rush out from his chest on the current of a relieved sigh. He reached out with arms that were finally, wonderfully mobile and embraced the dog, feeling its warm fur and heavy breaths through its sturdy barrel.
Max burrowed his soft head into his master’s chest and whined softly. Ash stroked the dog’s head and let his relieved tears flow, vowing to go to his psychiatrist as soon as he could the following day in order to procure whatever medication he could.
His relief deafened him to the note of fear in his dog’s soft whimpers and blinded him to the fact that Max’s arthritic old joints made his ascending the stairs to the second floor a rarity.
The sound of Max’s hammering heart masked the sound of the soft footsteps on the stairs and the curtain of tawny fur concealed the shadow, one shade darker than the others, that stood just outside his doorway.
But Ash heard the flick of the switchblade. Heard it clearly as it banished all other minor sounds, leaving him in a world of dreadful silence.
Then came the sound of soft, excited breaths.
The shadow moved into the room, the switchblade gleaming in the moonlight and Ash wished that the monsters of his imagination had been real all along.