Timothy hadn’t taken the Paxil long enough, nor at a high enough dose, to feel any sort of withdrawal syndrome from having stopped it. In fact, he didn’t consciously recognize any difference at all at first from not having taken it the following morning. The first inkling he had of a change was when, in the middle of the school day, he first saw the girl who had been bemoaning the split-up of the boy band she loved. She glanced at him as she came into the room for that hour’s classes, and Timothy felt a curious little pang. He felt as though he had done her wrong but couldn’t think what he might have done. She didn’t look at him for longer than a second, and he was soon distracted by the beginning of class. Even so, as they left almost an hour later, she with a small group of friends, Timothy continued to feel troubled.
That afternoon, as he walked toward the door to the apartment, his eyes were drawn to the side of the building, where he could see the hose wrapped around the spigot on the building’s side. He felt a curious, almost guilty feeling when he saw it, but couldn’t figure out why. He went inside before the neighbor arrived that day, but when he heard her go into her home, as he almost always could, he again felt a strange embarrassed, guilty feeling. He didn’t dwell on it, though.
His mother said nothing noteworthy to him that evening, but he thought she eyed him a bit more pointedly than usual. She stuck to her usual evening small talk, and the two ate a peaceful dinner and watched a sitcom together before Timothy went to his room to go to bed.
That night, Timothy had a bit of trouble falling asleep. This was not unusual; he was somewhat high-strung, and he often found that relaxing in the evenings was a minor challenge. He realized at that moment that he hadn’t had any trouble sleeping on those few days when he’d taken his half-Paxil. That fact made him slightly regretful. He wondered, idly, whether it was sleeplessness that caused his horrible temper, or at least contributed to it.
It wasn’t much of a wonder, but it distracted him enough to help him drop off to sleep.
An unclear amount of time later, he found himself swirling into a strange sense of half-wakefulness. His head felt fuzzy, his thoughts were dim, and it took him a few seconds to realize two things: first, that he needed to get up to use the bathroom; and second, that he couldn’t move.
His eyes flickered open. The room around him seemed surprisingly bright given the depth of the night, yet it was also strangely fuzzy, as though he were looking at it through glass that had been smeared with Vaseline.
Then he saw why he couldn’t move, and every other consideration left him.
Half-sitting, half sprawling atop Timothy’s sleeping form was a hideous, unspeakable figure. It was dark, dusky black, as if it had formed out the nighttime shadows themselves, and its rough shape was somewhere between that of a hulking dog—perhaps a giant-sized rottweiler or a pit bull—and a human. But this similarity was only rough. Its outline was covered with folds and wrinkles, undulating and pulsing as though serpents or worms moved about below the surface of its midnight skin. It was so large that its haunches were across the lower part of Timothy’s legs, its lower body pressed against his thighs and his abdomen, and its partly raised chest supported above Timothy’s, its arms pressing down on Timothy’s shoulders.
Horrified and terrified, Timothy tried to scream in shock and fright, but he couldn’t so much as make a sound. Even his breath felt paralyzed.
His attempt to make a noise, though, seemed to call the thing’s attention. Its head had apparently been looking up and around the room, as though perusing Timothy’s various belongings. Now it shifted down to look at him, realizing that he was awake.
The shape of the head was roughly humanoid, but it was much larger. It was bald and elongated, with the same undulating wrinkles on its surface as on the rest of the body. If it had a nose, it must have been as flat as a gorilla’s. Its eyes were small relative to the size of its head, but they shone a piercing red, like the lasers in a supermarket scanner. As the gaze turned to meet his, Timothy felt briefly blinded, the crimson light flashing into the back of his own eyes. He saw that, when the creature moved its head, it seemed not to be moving solely through the normal dimensions of space. It looked as though one portion of it disappeared into nowhere as another portion appeared abruptly in the real world, and this, rather than ordinary motion, was how it moved, as though what Timothy was seeing was merely a projection into normal space of some entity with a higher number of dimensions.
Its face, though, stayed consistent, even as the wormy, impossibly flowing rest of it turned the head to face him.
Timothy tried harder to scream. He failed.
As if in answer to his own mouth’s opening to fight for breath against the weight on his chest, Timothy saw a mouth that must have been there all along open in the monster’s lower head. It was huge, gaping, a gigantic, wide slit of a mouth that reached all the way around to what would have been the location of the thing’s ears if it had seemed to have any. It cracked open in a gaping smile that could have encompassed Timothy’s whole head.
As the jaws parted, Timothy saw countless narrow, needle-sharp teeth. A long, glistening, snakelike tongue came out and licked all along the creature’s upper lip.
In addition to the terror that set his heart racing and made him wish he could howl and shriek with terror, Timothy now felt a deep revulsion, a disgust as visceral as if he had stumbled upon a rotten corpse lying in his bed beside him. Glistening black liquid oozed along the lips where the thing’s putrid pink tongue slathered it.
He wouldn’t notice until much later that—despite this nauseated, disgusted reaction—he didn’t notice any smell from the thing.
As it looked down at him, its wide mouth still split into a rictus of a grin, it’s laser-pointer eyes glaring at him, Timothy saw its tongue snake away from its face, moving as though it was, perhaps, another iteration of whatever it was that lived beneath the thing’s skin and made its undulating wrinkles. It wove and bobbed through the air between its head and Timothy’s, and then the head began to bend forward. Its tongue drew closer to Timothy, he could feel a feverish heat radiating from it, baking his cheeks and lips.
Timothy thought about how snakes and lizards tended to smell as well as taste with their tongues, that these were among their primary ways for testing their environment. He thought that the thing must be about to taste him, to make sure he was palatable, before literally biting his head off.
He didn’t spare a single instant of thought to wonder how it could be possible for this thing, this impossible creature, to exist at all, let alone to be laying across him, holding him in place, in the middle of the night in his own home. He merely recognized that he had to get free. He could not let this horrible thing devour him. He would not let this thing devour him. He had to move.
He struggled to move his arms, his legs, his body. He wanted to knee at it, to scratch, to punch, to do something, but his body would not comply with his commands. It wasn’t just that he was held down. Even in the portions of his arms where the thing did not lay, he couldn’t move. He couldn’t clench his fists; he couldn’t wiggle his toes. His body was not obeying his mind’s commands.
Had he been drugged? Had he been poisoned? Had this thing somehow shot him with some kind of venom, and that was why he couldn’t move, didn’t even feel that he could breathe?
The tongue waved and wiggled through the air, taking its time as though it were enjoying the scenery on the way to its destination. It was clear, though, that it was coming closer to Timothy’s face, that it was going to caress him…to taste him.
Even his head wouldn’t move; he couldn’t turn from side to side to try to avoid the tongue. Maybe he could close his eyes—he’d certainly been able to open them—but he had no desire to do that. He knew, somewhere in his bones, that closing his eyes would not make this thing go away, would not conjure it out of existence. It would simply make him blind to whatever it was about to do, more vulnerable rather than less.
His helplessness, his inability to act on his fear, frustrated him even more than it made the fear grow. It was maddening not to be able to act, not to be able to try to flee. This thing had him completely at its mercy, and it was playing with him. Its tongue taunted him, drawing closer only slowly, teasing him before it came into contact.
Timothy had no way to read the creature’s expression; its face was too inhuman, too fixed into a permanent, insane slash of a grin, to draw any conclusions. But he thought that it was laughing at him.
This didn’t exactly bring up the same rage that he’d always felt in waking hours when faced with such laughter, but it did make him angry. He hated bullies, he hated tormentors, he hated the cruel ones who not only took advantage of those weaker than they, but who delighted in it. He’d always felt that way, for as long as he could remember. This hatred was stronger than his fear of any bully. It was stronger than his desire to avoid pain. It was stronger than his desire to live.
If he was going to die—if this inexplicable thing that lay across his body was going to eat him—then he was not going to do so without at least making a mark.
If it was going to bite him, then it was going to be bitten as well.
Somehow, Timothy’s rage empowered his own jaws and the front of his neck, or perhaps they were able to move for the same reason his eyes were able to open and to focus. It was not easy. The muscles of his neck and temples and cheeks did not want to be forced into wakefulness. But Timothy had no patience for their laziness. He was in charge of them, not the other way around. A much clearer anger than his usual rage drove him, and with an insane effort of his own, as the tongue came nearer, he too imitated a snake, bringing his head forward with his jaws open. He caught the tongue between his teeth, paying not the tiniest bit of attention to what its texture was or if it tasted bad or was caustic or poisonous or anything else. Instead, he bit down on it as hard as he could, sinking his incisors and canines deeply into its thick, slimy flesh.
Did it scream? Timothy thought it gave off a sound of some kind, but like the movements of its body, this noise seemed to happen in some other dimension, not completely intersecting with the world of Timothy’s bedroom. Whatever the sound was, perhaps just a sound of the mind, it was both surprised and in pain, and the grim satisfaction of this truth drove Timothy to bite down harder.
The thing yanked backward, drawing its head and body upward. Its tongue yanked out of Timothy’s mouth.
And all of a sudden, it wasn’t there, and Timothy was twitching and writhing in his bed, gasping for breath, throwing his blankets off and scrambling to stand up. His body, out of nowhere, was doing what he wanted it to do, but it was clumsy, stiff and slow, as though he were just now waking up from sleep.
When he got his footing, he stared around the room. It was dark, deep nighttime, and there were no lights in Timothy’s room, but a distant glow from the bathroom fixture leaked under the crack of the door.
Had that been there before?
He looked back and forth around his bedroom, trying to see where the monster might have gone. Was it in the corner? Had it darted impossibly under the bed? Had it ducked into the closet? It seemed too big for any of those possibilities.
Timothy’s heart raced and he breathed as though he’d been sprinting. He wouldn’t really notice it until a few minutes later, but his tee-shirt was partly plastered to his sweaty skin. It was a miracle that he didn’t scream out loud. It was almost as great a miracle that he hadn’t wet the bed.
He couldn’t see well, not as well as he had a moment ago. Despite the newly noticed dim glow under the door, the room seemed darker than it had. Timothy scrambled for his bedside/desktop lamp, fumbling at it, almost knocking it over, as he turned the switch on the back of the lamp head.
The sudden light, though sometimes weak and pallid during the daytime, seemed blindingly bright, and Timothy had to squint at first when it came on. His eyes quickly adapted, though, and he tore them around the room, seeking any trace—a trail of glistening slime, a few drops of blood from its injured tongue—of the creature that had lain atop him. There was no visible trace that he could find. Even his blankets, which he first kicked at and then grabbed and threw back on the bed to examine, showed no trace of any unnatural presence, no excretions, no stains, no markings.
It was almost as though the thing had not really been there.
Timothy’s fear, though, was as real as any fear could be. Indeed, now that he could move, the sense of fear was greater than it was before, dominant over that outrage that had allowed him to break through his immobility and bite the thing. He could feel his body trembling, could almost hear his heart beating, tripping along so fast that he could barely have kept count of it had he tried. He jerked around in place several times, trying to catch sight of anything that might be lurking behind him even in his small bedroom, but nothing was present that hadn’t always been there during the day.
He glanced at his window, then fixed his gaze upon it. The curtains were drawn, and it was night outside, so there was no sign of anything through it. When the drapes were open, though, it looked out on the street. There were no streetlamps in front of the duplex in which Timothy and his mother lived, so there was no sign of any light through the covered pane, but Timothy knew that, if he were to open those drapes, he should see the meager front yard and then the street and the surrounding neighborhood of similar dreary dwellings.
But if he were to yank aside those layers of fabric now, what would he see? Would it be a normal nightscape, just the same place it was during the day thrown into darker shadow? Or would he see something else? Would he pull the drapes aside only to find the beast’s horrible face pressed against the pane, its slathering tongue licking at the surface, just waiting for Timothy to see it before it crashed through the glass to take revenge?
And behind the monster, would the city beyond still be there? Or would Timothy find that his house had been transplanted into some new, alien realm, of which the thing that had lain atop him was only the least terrifying of inhabitants? Would there be towering shapes with tripod legs and faceless heads, with long, swirling tentacles as thick as oak trees and as sinuous and threatening as moray eels? Would there be eyeless, flying creatures crossing a bleak, starless sky, and distant mountains so high and jagged that one couldn’t even make out their peaks through cloudless air? Would the stunted grass of the lawn be replaced by carnivorous weeds, with oozing acid and sharp fangs lining leaves that were shaped like jaws?
Timothy considered, for a mere instant, going to the window and throwing aside the drapes, proving to himself that the world beyond was just as it always had been, which he told himself must be the case. But he thought that, even if it were so—as surely it must be—he would still scream if he yanked the curtains open. Even if the world was normal, he would still shriek if he dared to look. And he couldn’t stand that thought. He couldn’t bear the possibility. He felt that, if he were to face his fear that way, it would kill him. He would give a howl of shock—shock at finding an alien landscape, or just as great a shock at finding everything normal—and drop to the floor, suffocating, paralyzed again, dying even before his mother—who would no doubt be awakened by his scream—could make her way into the room.
The thought of his mother distracted him. She was just through the bedroom door, down the little hallway, her bedroom along the back of the apartment. Only two doors separated them. The apartment’s small size, a fact that was occasionally a source of dissatisfaction for Timothy, now seemed the purest of blessings. He could yank his bedroom door aside, rush through it, the hallway weakly lit by the bathroom light that was always left on at night, and go into his mother’s room, awakening her. He would tell her he’d had a bad dream, ask if he could sleep in her bed with her. True, he was a teenager now, and an unusually self-sufficient one; it had been nearly a decade—maybe more than a decade—since he’d prevailed upon his mother to soothe nighttime fears. That didn’t matter, though. He was not ashamed to be afraid. Not after what he’d just seen.
But then…if outside his window might be filled with a hellish new reality, might not even the rest of the apartment? Might he not open his door to find the hallway already populated by things like the one that had lain atop him? What if the whole space of the hallway floor was covered with the impossible, writhing shapes of creatures like that one and worse, their red laser eyes all swinging about to regard him in surprise as he opened the door, then bearing down on him in a mindless, chaotic mass that would devour him from the outside inward?
What if he found them already feasting on the remaining pieces of his mother’s body? He could imagine seeing her head, torn off her body, her mouth and eyes agape, somehow still staring at him accusingly, blaming him for the horror…somehow still barely alive though decapitated, even as a horror made from the stuff of nighttime chewed at the stump of her neck.
And an even worse notion occurred to Timothy. Maybe he would find his mother quite whole and well, standing amongst the red-eyed beasts, gently patting the head of the one that Timothy had bitten, soothing it, reassuring it. He had the terrible thought that she would be saying—not to him but to the creature—that she had raised Timothy solely so that once he was old enough, plump enough, meaty enough, he could be fed to monster. And then, of course, she would come to Timothy, holding a slaughtering knife in her hand, and she would slash his throat, dropping his bleeding body to the floor, where the creatures would start to eat him long before he was dead.
No. That wasn’t possible. None of that was possible. Timothy shook his head, berating himself. None of that was happening, none of that was going to be so. If he opened the door—or if he opened the curtains—he would find the hallway, the apartment, the world outside to be just as it always had been. His mother would be sleeping in her room, his best advocate and protector in all the world, not his butcher.
He would surely find that if he looked.
But he was not so sure—not so convinced—that he was willing to look. After what he had awakened to find on his chest, he could not be sure enough of anything other than what was right before his eyes. He could see his room, he could see his bed, his desk, his dresser. These were normal as far as he could tell in the light of his desk lamp. Anything else was unknown. Anything else was up for grabs. Anything else was not safe.
He was alone. He was stuck in his room by himself, terrified, unable to process what had happened, unable to explain how the thing had been laying on top of him when he’d awakened, unable to understand where it had gone. There was no one who could help him. He was on his own.
What could he do? Nothing. Nothing but what he finally did, after an unmeasured interval passed, which was to crawl backward into his bed again, shuffling until he was seated against the small headboard and the wall behind it. He grabbed the corner of his blanket, the part that was still on the bed, between his two outstretched ankles, pulling it toward him first with his legs, then with his hands when it was close enough. Imagining that, just maybe, the part that hung onto the floor would come back with some monstrosity attached to it, a smaller relative of the thing that he’d bitten, like an alien fish on the end of a hook and line, he had to force himself to yank it up quickly, relieved almost to the point of a yelp when nothing but blanket came in response to his pull.
Timothy wrapped the blanket around himself, covering himself up to his neck, accepting the restriction of movement on his arms even as he tucked the material behind and underneath him. Better to be protected than to be free to move. Better to be warm. He considered even covering his head, but then he would be trapped under the blanket, unable to pull it aside for fear that his room itself would have been taken away while he wasn’t looking.
No, better to keep looking, to armor the rest of him but to keep his head free, his eyes wide. He wished he didn’t even have to blink.
He hated himself for being so afraid, ashamed that he was unable to face his fear. But he was unable to do otherwise. And it certainly didn’t occur to him that his fear might be unjustified, irrational. Why would it? He had seen the monster. He had felt it lying atop him.
He couldn’t have said how long he sat there, propped against the back of his bed, against the solid, cinder-block wall behind it, staring into the familiar refuge of his room, unknowing what might lay beyond and unwilling, unable to force himself, to investigate. If he dozed off at any point, he did so while still awake, and that sleep never became deep. He didn’t know what time it might have been when he had awakened to find the otherworldly abomination all but smothering him. It could have been an hour after he’d gone to bed. It could have been an hour before his alarm clock was due to go off. The time between was the eternal and instantaneous time of dreams, and he could never have given even a guess about its length. If asked, he could not have guaranteed that it had not been far longer than eight hours in length. He could not have sworn—not if he was honest—that it hadn’t been many days, or even years.
When the light of the returning day finally began to brighten the space behind his window curtains, it only came to Timothy’s attention gradually. By the time he noticed it, dawn was well underway. Enough time had passed that his acute fear had faded, but the sense of unreality was stubborn, and Timothy didn’t leave his bed, didn’t even dislodge his blankets from where they wrapped him up like a strait jacket, until his alarm clock forced the processes of habit into action.