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“What is sleep but the image of death?”
Mayet sat in the big chair and looked out the window. The curtains were drawn, so there was nothing to see, but she looked anyway. She could hear them talking in the next room. They'd left the door open, so they must have wanted her to hear. "She doesn't sleep," Mayet's mother was saying. "Not more than a few hours at a time, and even then only if I'm in the room with her.
"Last week I left for a minute to make tea and when she woke up and found me gone she started screaming. I've never heard anyone scream like that."
The doctor cleared her throat. "How long has this been going on?"
"Has your family physician seen her?"
"Yes. He even prescribed something, but she won't take it. That's why he told us to call you. Can you help?"
"We won't know until I talk to her. I'll go introduce myself."
"Should I come with you?"
"It's better if you don't. But you can listen."
"If you're sure..."
"This is what I do, Ms. Bautista. Let me work."
Mayet heard footsteps on the carpet. She sensed, without turning around, the doctor's presence just behind her, and her mother hovering in the doorway. She said nothing. The doctor sat on the floor next to her chair. "Hello Mayet," she said.
Mayet raised a hand in a half-salutatory gesture.
"It's nice to meet you. I've been talking to your mother and some of your friends; a lot of people are worried about you. They think I can help. If we talk a little we can see if they're right."
Mayet fidgeted with her fingers; they were feeling sluggish and tingly. It was something that happened whenever she was going on the third day with no sleep. She licked her lips before speaking: "Are you a psychiatrist?"
"No. There's not really a job title for what I do. You could call me a kind of counselor. I work with teens who are refusing conventional treatment for their problems."
"You're here to make me take the pills."
"I'm here to find out what's bothering you, and hopefully find a way to fix it. I'm not here to make you do anything you don't want to. So can we talk a little?"
"Why don't you tell me why you're afraid to sleep?"
"I'm not afraid to sleep. I'd love to sleep. It's all I can think about."
"I'm afraid to wake up."
"Because of the man who watches me."
Mayet shook her head. The light coming through the curtains was hurting her eyes, though there wasn't much of it. "He's not a man, really. He doesn't even look like a man. He looks like some kind of...dead animal. And he comes into my room and watches me sleep, unless someone else is here."
"I see. And what makes you think this?"
Mayet turned to look at the doctor for the first time, to give her a disgusted look. "Because I wake up and find him here. And because I'm not the only one. My friends...he got them all."
The doctor frowned. "Tell me about it?" she said.
Mayet shrugged and turned away again. "I've already told everyone. I guess I can tell you too; it won't make any difference." She sighed. "It started with Brianne."
"Your mother mentioned her. She was your best friend."
"Not really. Not for a while. But we still talked. She was the first person to tell me about it. It was a kind of ghost story, you know? She read it on the Internet. About a...thing, that comes into people's homes."
"And does what?"
"Nothing, really. Just watches you. People will wake up and see it there."
"The stories don't say. Sometimes it hurts someone, but other times it just watches. But they say that's actually the worst part. That when you wake up and find it there, and you know that it's been watching you, you're never the same."
"Sounds scary. But people have always told stories like that."
"That's what I said. Brianne was freaked about it though; it's almost all she would talk about for weeks until we told her to shut up about it already. That story really scared her, you know?"
"Who is 'we'?"
"Me and Jan."
"Jan. Your mother mentioned him, too."
"I'll bet she did. Anyway, Brianne was all worked up about this story for a while, and then she dropped it. Or we thought she did. Then she missed a few days of school, and when we saw her again she looked like shit. We thought she was sick, but she said no, that she just hadn't been sleeping. Because she said she saw it."
"It? You mean the creature from the stories?"
"Yeah. She said she woke up and found it sitting on her bed, just like people said. She said she screamed and it crawled away, and her parents woke up and the police came, and nothing was there.
"But then the next night, when she woke up..."
"It was there again."
"Did you believe Brianne?"
"No. It's a stupid story, and the fact that she'd been talking about it for so long before it supposedly happened? We thought she just wanted attention."
"Hmm. Your mother says she thinks Brianne was into drugs. Is that why you two weren't such good friends anymore?"
Mayet bit her lip.
"I see. Did you tell anyone about this?"
"We didn't have to. Brianne told everyone. She said she needed someone to help her, but she didn't know who, or how. The entire school thought she'd lost her mind. She was missing class, fighting with her parents, staying up four, five days at a time. Not because she was scared to sleep, but because she was scared to wake up."
"How did you feel about this?"
"Fucking embarrassed. How else was there to feel?"
"And how long did this go on?"
"A month? Maybe a little longer, I don't really remember. By the end Brianne wasn't talking to much of anyone. She'd given up."
"Do you remember the last time you spoke with her?"
"Her parents asked me to talk to her. To help them make her come around. I didn't want to, but they were so upset I couldn't say no, so I went to her room. She was sitting by the window, staring at nothing. She was all skinny and pale, like a ragdoll. I sat next to her and I told her to get help. I begged her."
"What did she say?"
"She told me..." Mayet stopped, flinched, then started again. "She said it was too late. She kept saying something like...'It's because of his eyes. When I wake up and look into those eyes, I know things.' And I asked her, 'What things?' And she said, 'Terrible things.' And then she just lost it. She was crying all over me. I hugged her and we cried for a long time."
"You two must have been very close before all this."
Mayet said nothing. The doctor paused for a respectful moment before going on.
"So what happened after that?"
"Things got a little better. Her parents thought I'd actually helped her. I was relieved."
Mayet looked away. "She snuck into one of the locker rooms after school. They found her...hanging from a showerhead."
The doctor squeezed Mayet's hand, once.
"We thought that was the end of it, you know? But then Jan started."
"Jan was your boyfriend?"
Mayet shook her head.
"Your mother says he was. She said he was another thing that came between you and Brianne. That you'd fought over him."
"My mom says a lot of things."
"All right. What happened with Jan?"
"He was pretty out of it after Brianne died. Everyone was, but he took it the worst. I spent a lot of time at his place; his parents are never around, and I didn't want him to be alone."
"Was he drinking?"
"Mom just never shuts up, does she?" Mayet sneered. "Yeah, he was drinking. So what? Who wouldn't? That wasn't the part that worried me."
"...He started seeing it too, didn't he?"
Mayet nodded. Then she began to cry. She smothered her face in the back of the chair, so that her voice was barely audible. "He came to me after the first morning. He was a wreck. He told me, 'It's all true. We should have believed her.' He felt guilty, you know? Like we made it happen by not believing her."
"Is that why he thought the creature came to him? As a kind of punishment?"
Mayet looked at her hands for a while. "He didn't say so. But it makes sense."
"Did you tell anyone that Jan was troubled?"
"A teacher. I wouldn't, normally, but I was scared he'd do the same thing as Brianne."
"No. I don't think so. He just disappeared."
"He ran away. After a week he couldn't take it anymore, and he sent me an email telling me he was going. He said he didn't think he could get away from whatever it was, but he had to try. And he said..." Mayet stopped talking. In the corner, the old clock ticked a minute off. Mayet's mother quietly sobbed in the doorway. Eventually, without prompting, she went on. "He told me he was scared for me. Scared...that it would come for me next."
The doctor's expression gave nothing away. She drummed her fingers against the carpet, in time with the clock. "And did it?"
Mayet shifted in her chair. "For a while, I would get emails from Jan. Never very long, just telling me he was all right, that he was keeping moving. Then one day they stopped. I haven't gotten one in over a month now."
"What do you think that means?"
"I don't know. But I do think that it was following him. And that whatever was happening to him, it's not anymore. Because the same time he stopped writing..." her voice cracked, "was the first time I saw it."
She turned and looked the doctor fully in the face for the first time. Her eyes were red; from crying, and from never sleeping.
"It was three o'clock in the morning, and I don't know what woke me up, but he was sitting right there, right next to where you are now."
"Here? Not on the bed?"
"Not that time. Not yet. He was naked, and rocking back and forth. He looked like he was hurt or something. He's all pale, like one of those blind fish that live in caves. And there's something wrong about the way his arms and legs and neck move."
"Did you see his face?"
"Not the first night. The first night he just crawled away. And I sat there in bed, hugging my sheets, and I cried and cried. I cried because I'd never believed it, and now I'd seen it, and I couldn't stand what that meant."
"Did you tell anybody?"
"No. I knew what they'd think. Because it was exactly what I'd thought, you know? At first I just hoped that it would go away."
"But it didn't."
"No. I woke up the second night and he was standing right next to my bed. His back was still turned, but he was standing over me. And the night after that I finally saw him face to face. And Brianne was right: The eyes are the worst thing. Once you've seen those eyes...oh God, the things I saw..."
Mayet's mother sobbed louder, and then she walked away, crying. Neither Mayet nor the doctor watched her go.
"After that I knew there was no getting away. Brianne tried to get help and Jan tried to run, and neither worked. So the only thing I could think to do was just not sleep."
"Because he only comes when you sleep."
"Yeah. So if I never sleep, I'll never see him again."
"But you can't stay awake forever."
"I know. It's not a very good plan, but the way I figure, it's just like dying: You know it'll happen someday, but you just try to go as long as you can. Someday I'll fall asleep again and there'll be nobody around and then I'll wake up and he'll be there. Even if I went to the hospital or something, I think he'd still find me, and he'd find a moment when nobody else was there. You have to be alone sometime, right? I can't stop it. But I can put it off for as long as I can. I can do that much, right?"
The doctor didn't say anything.
"So that's why I won't take the pills. And I won't go to sleep on my own. That would be giving up. And I'm not going to give up."
"Because you owe it to Jan and Brianne not to give up."
Mayet shrugged. The doctor was quiet for some time. Then she stood, brushed off her slacks, and took something out of her purse: a bottle of pills, and a small bottle of water.
"Mayet, you've been through a lot. More than anyone your age should have to deal with. You need more help than I can give you. Even your mother can't help you through this all on her own. But we both want to help you. Do you believe that?"
At first it didn't seem like Mayet was going to reply, but then she nodded.
"The first step, I think, is up to you. These pills are over-the-counter. Your mother has a prescription from your doctor for something stronger, if you need it. You don't have to take them, but I want you to think about something: The sooner you fall asleep, and the sooner you wake up again, the sooner you'll see that there's nothing to be afraid of. That this man in the night doesn't exist."
"Then why do I see him?"
"There are a lot of reasons why we see things that aren't there. Especially when we expect to. Fear can do that; so can grief, and guilt. But I think, deep down, you know that he's not real, and now that we've had this talk a part of you has acknowledged that. I think that the next time you wake up, you'll see that for yourself. And that'll be the first step toward taking your life back."
The doctor stepped away. She left the pills on the arm of the chair.
"It's up to you. I think that, with your mother and your doctor's help, you'll make it through this no matter what. But I also think the sooner you start, the easier it'll be for you. Think about the morning after, Mayet. Think about how good it'll be. I want you to do that for me. And for you."
Then she left. Mayet was alone. There was no more light coming through the curtain. Her room was growing dark. She turned on her side, looking at the little orange bottle and the water. The back of her throat hurt.
And she listened very, very carefully, for what she knew was there: the skittering sound of pale, hairless flesh sliding along the ground, and the gentle, almost imperceptible thump of misshapen limbs scrambling over each other. Was he here, even now? Had he been in the room, hidden, all this time, even while she was awake? Sometimes she thought he was. He could even be right behind her chair, standing over her, watching her, ready to glide away or melt through the wall the moment anyone else came in but always, always there.
Mayet felt cold. She curled up into a ball, trembling, clutching at her hair. The doctor was wrong. Deep down inside, she knew that the Rake was real. And that the next time she saw him, it would be worse than dying.
She laid out on her bed, watching the shadows crawl over the ceiling. She squeezed the pills in one hand, the water bottle in the other. She shook two into her mouth, grimacing as she swallowed; she'd always hated taking pills. Then she took two more. And two more. She kept taking them until there were no more, washing them down with the tasteless water from the plastic bottle. She wanted out, but she didn't want to do it like Brianne; she just wanted to go to sleep. To go to sleep and never wake up seemed the only way of winning; the only way to cheat him, somehow.
She was already feeling drowsy. She thought of her mother and a pang of guilt went through her, but it was too late now. The shadows on the ceiling swallowed the room, and her vision blurred at the edges. For a moment she thought she saw something, a malformed silhouette stooped over her, with a cold, wet hand reaching for her face...
But then there was nothing, and she slept.
The doctor sat at the kitchen table, a cooling mug of tea in her hand. Mayet's mother sat across from her, drinking hers. Her eyes had dried. "Thank you," she said.
"I'm glad to help," the doctor said. "I think she'll take them. We can't say for sure, of course, but I think she will. The important thing is that it's her decision."
"I suppose," said Mayet's mother. She turned her head at the sound of something moving in the hall, but nothing was there. She shivered without knowing why. "I really don't feel right about it, though. I hate trying to just knock her out with pills. I never liked those things."
"Well, there's no need to feel guilty about these ones," the doctor said, downing her tea in one gulp.
"Why is that?" Mayet’s mother said. There was that sound again, like something fumbling with a door, but there was still nothing there.
The doctor grinned. "Ms. Bautista, there's nothing in those pills. They're just a placebo.
"Mayet will wake up in the morning, right as rain."