Winston was dreaming.
He dreamt he was with his mistress in the sitting room while his wife was in the kitchen. He couldn’t let his wife find them. He had to get his mistress out, but she kept trying to play the piano, and he knew that his wife would hear it any second and catch them. His anxiety grew. What had he been thinking? If she found out, his life would be ruined –
He awoke. It was dark outside. He was curled in one corner of the bed, his back to his wife. She was still asleep, her breathing shallow. His brain thrashed for a second, not yet free from the dream, still searching for a way out of the predicament.
But there was no mistress, there was no danger, there was nothing to hide. Calm fell over him. He reached out and laid his arm over his wife, but she pushed it away. “Hot..” she murmured. He turned over again and let relief pull him back into sleep.
He dreamt of the mistress again. He’d dreamt of her a lot, recently. The events were unimportant but he could remember her. Her. Never her face, for it was a dream face, an amalgam of the barista, of his first girlfriend, his wife’s little sister and a girl at the gym and four or seven other half-remembered ingredients, somehow all present in the same face, a face dark and pale and brunette and blonde all superimposed yet cohering into a beauty that made his chest tight and his teeth ache. The only detail that didn’t slip from his mind on waking was her smile.
She was always looking up at him in the dream, eyes half closed, that smile on her face, adoring, cheeky, fierce, submissive. She looked up at him and he felt delicious pain in his chest, the need to own and to protect. He could close his eyes even when awake and see that smile: colourless, shapeless, Platonic. He slept well and woke late.
He lay in bed half awake, stretching his legs into the cold side of the bed. His wife was gone. It was Saturday so she would be jogging with their neighbour: a thin woman, with a pinched face and long, firm legs.
He scratched himself, stretched, lay there awhile on the shores of sleep. Finally, he pushed his eyes open, let in the blurry morning light and–someone was sitting on the end of the bed.
He sat up very fast, sending pain down his back. It was Her, the girl from his dream. He recognised the smile at once. She was quite naked. She cocked her head at him.
“What are you doing here?” he stammered. She sat on the corner of the bed, one leg dangling off the edge. She wiggled her foot. She was perfect, but the smooth, air-brushed perfection of a magazine advert. Perhaps something had necessarily been lost in her transition from dreamworld to here. Like a photo of the sea, she seemed to be lacking a dimension.
“How did you get here? Why are you here?” he said. She smiled back. “My wife will be back soon and…well, you can’t be here.”
He wanted nothing more than to reach out a hand and check that she was real and not just a fragment of dream, but no – that wouldn’t be appropriate. He felt horribly awake. He felt his gaze trickle down her body and quickly looked away, his ears burning. “Get dressed…at least.” He took his wife’s dressing gown and offered it to the girl. She took it, standing up and slipping it over her body. Outside, he heard his neighbour’s voice. His wife must be back, just outside the window.
For one mad second he considered telling her. I dreamed of this girl, and here she is, naked. She looks a bit like Nancy across the road, doesn’t she? His stomach rolled with imagined shame.
“Come with me,” he hissed to the girl, and opened the bedroom door. She didn’t move, she was still standing in the untied dressing gown next to the bed. “Don’t you understand me?” he said, and he reached out his hand to take hers.
She was real! Solid! He thrilled at the intimacy of the touch even through his panic. He heard the porch door open. He rushed down the stairs, pulling the girl behind him. Her feet skipped lightly over the steps as he tugged her down the hall just as the key clicked in the front door. He thrust the girl into the unlit garage then slammed the door behind her as his wife entered.
His wife looked at him surprised.
“Why are you up so soon?”
He looked down at his body. He was wearing only underwear and socks. “I…I heard a banging downstairs. I thought you might have left the door open again, so I came down to check,” he said. Did he sound out of breath? His heart was still beating loudly in his ears.
“I’m certain I locked it.”
“Well that would be a first, wouldn’t it. Damn banging woke me up. I need my sleep on the weekends.”
“I know. I’m sorry. Why don’t you go up and sleep a bit longer now?”
“Don’t be stupid. I’m awake now. I’ll change and have breakfast.”
She waited, and Winston realised she expected him to go up stairs first. “You go first,” he said, curtly.
“What a gentleman!” She laughed and leaned in to kiss him. He let her, awkward, the kiss falling on the corner of his mouth.
He only returned to the garage once his wife had showered, dressed and left the house. The girl was still there. She sat cross-legged on the floor, dressing gown pooled around her legs. She stood when he entered, and the cloth slipped over her body, flashing intersecting curves of soft skin, each glimpse somehow more revealing than full nudity could ever be. She turned to look at him and he flushed. She smiled.
“Tie your dressing gown,” he said, his voice cracking. She didn’t move, so he took one step closer, then leant over and tied the dressing gown closed around her body. As he leaned in, he felt her warm breath brush past his neck. He stepped back a few paces feeling dizzy. Her presence filled the room with a gravity that threatened to suck him in.
“Do you have a name?” he said, the words catching in his throat.
“Look…you can’t stay here,” he said.
“My wife can’t find you, do you understand?” Where did she come from, he thought. Why doesn’t she speak? Is she just a hallucination–but I touched her! She is real! A dream made solid.
“What are we going to do with you?” he said, aloud.
“You’re not real, are you? You’re not a person.”
He looked through the garage window to make sure that no neighbours were watching. “Come on, let’s go for a drive,” he said, and he led her to his car.
He drove out of town onto the country road that wound up to the forested hills above. It was overcast, the clouds low and oppressive. He left the road next to an abandoned farm house and went down a dirt track. He’d camped here once before and remembered the way. The track ended in an overgrown clearing. He got out of the car and helped her out. “Go away,” he said to her. She cocked her head at him again, her face unworried. “Fine, then stay out here. Not my problem.” He sat back in the car and clenched the steering wheel with both hands. She stood there, her robe waving in the wind, flapping at her legs. A shiver descended his whole body. He started the car and left.
That night he dreamt of the same girl again. Her face was more vivid than ever before. They were in a forest clearing. He was lying on her naked, and she writhed with pleasure beneath him. His wife was there in her running clothes, with the neighbour. He struggled to get up but his hands kept slipping and he only fell deeper into her. The neighbour said something to his wife and she sniggered, hiding the laugh behind her hand. He tried to cover his body with his hands, but they just slipped off, again and again.
The next morning his alarm woke him at five. His wife shifted next to him and he silenced the alarm before it woke her, his eyes swimming as he rolled off the bed, his back unwilling to bend.
There was a figure sitting at the bottom of the bed.
He stood still, holding his breath. His wife murmured something in her sleep. The dark shape shifted. He found his phone on the bedside table and turned on the flashlight. It illuminated two feet tapping happily against the mattress. He shone the light upwards to illuminate her face. She raised one perfect hand to shade her eyes and looked back at him, squinting.
He grabbed her hand and pulled her firmly out of the room and down to the garage. He turned on the light, half hoping the white halogen bulb would melt her away. It didn’t. It made her look more solid than ever. She stood there, naked. The dressing gown was gone.
“What are you playing at, trying to ruin my marriage? Why did you come back? How did you even get here?” he said in an angry whisper. The girl sat down on a box.
“Don’t pretend you don’t understand me. How did you get back here looking like that, anyway? Did anyone see you? The neighbours?” he felt his voice rising and pulled it back to a whisper. He searched her eyes “What do you want from me? Fucking answer me!” She smiled at him again, and this time he was sure she was mocking him. Mocking his fear and his helplessness. Playing with him. He’d always hated that. He felt a familiar fury rising through his body, threatening to push out all rational thought, replacing it with the single minded desire to inflict pain. With words, fists or teeth.
“You bitch!” he hissed. He tried to push the anger back down. He looked away from her and took two shuddering breaths while counting to five in his head, then grabbed her by the wrist, yanking her to the car. “Let’s go again. Let’s see how long you can keep this up.”
He drove further this time, far into the mountains, teeth clenched, down roads he didn’t know, turning always away from the town until he was thoroughly lost and most of the anger had drained back out of him.
It was day by the time he stopped, but no sun had yet made it through the storm clouds to burn off the morning mist. He led her into the trees.
It was cold, the mist condensed on their bodies. Her chest was studded with drops of dew. It rose and fell, goosebumps outlining her nipples. A drop of water fell from a pine tree above and ran down the centre of her chest, hesitated a moment in the slight hollow above her ribs then raced down her belly to the root of her thighs. He reached out a hand, dreamily, and wiped it away.
He looked up at her. She was smiling again. Looking right into his eyes. Mocking him again. That damn smile. It saw right through him, saw his thoughts, asked Go on then, I dare you. The urge to hurt, protect, grab, kiss, push her to the ground – all pulled at him at once.
The mist drank all the sound and colour from the world. He felt dizzy, like they were the only two things in the universe, like he was at the top of a steep slope looking down at her, only the friction between his shoes and the soft dirt preventing him from falling into her. He felt sick. He dropped his arm and backed towards the car. He hadn’t done anything wrong yet.
“Don’t come back.” He said. He took a blanket from the car and threw it towards her, then he left.
That night he stayed downstairs when his wife went to bed. He watched film after film to stave off sleep, his eyes flicking between the television, the door, the windows, the fireplace. Waiting for the girl to appear again. He didn’t know when he nodded off, he awoke with the television still on.
She was sitting on the couch beside him, hands crossed on her lap. He wasn’t surprised this time. He didn’t even try to talk. He led her once again to the garage and put her in the car with shaking hands. He took a spade and a sledge hammer and put them on the back seat.
He drove, his exhausted brain taking the same route as yesterday, his mind already on what he would have to do. It was still dark outside, the headlights bounced over the trees and roots as they bumped along to the spot where he’d left her. He turned the last corner and the lights swept over the bushes and illuminated… Her.
She was still where he had left her the day before. Sitting on the blanket he had thrown her.
He turned to the passenger seat. She was there, also, watching her twin.
He clenched his teeth, a cold sweat bursting painfully from under his arms. The one outside raised a hand in a wave, and smiled. A wild thought hit him and he spun in the chair to check behind the car–could there be three of them? Was the girl from that first night still out in these woods, looking for him?
They’re playing with me, he thought. They’re ganging up on me. The one in front of the car stood. She shone in the headlights, highlighted against the dark woods beyond. Terror sat in his throat like blocked food. The one in the passenger seat looked at him, her face innocent and perfect and fearless. His breathing was heavy and ragged. He clutched at the steering wheel, rocking back and forth, then a movement caught his eye. The girl outside was walking towards the car.
“Leave me alone!” he cried. Before he could think, his foot was on the accelerator, the car kicked and slid in the dirt, accelerating toward the girl in the headlights. The girl next to him didn’t flinch at the collision, or when the windscreen cracked as the thing rolled over them, or when the red liquid ran down it, filtering through the cracks and onto the dashboard and running in rivulets down to drip on her bare legs. Her expression didn’t change at his wails or screams, or when he dug the hole to hide what he had done.
Once he was finished he opened the passenger door and looked down at her. She looked up, that faint smile, those upraised eyes so familiar from a hundred dreams. They looked at each other for a long moment, his hands clutching the hammer in his hand very tight, then he shut the door again.
They drove back in silence, arriving at the house just as dawn was breaking. He put the car in the garage, cleaned the red off with a towel, then led the girl down to the basement.
“Wait here,” he told her.
He didn’t sleep that night, or the next. He stopped going to work. He hid in the shed when his wife woke up so she thought he was at the office. He took caffeine pills and watched television and wandered the neighbourhood, not wanting to be in the house but not wanting to be too far from it. He slept on the third night, and the fourth. Each time he woke up covered in sweat and led the new girl down to the basement and left her there in the dark. When sitting on the sofa he fancied he could hear their hearts beating down below the floorboards, all in sync.
Three weeks later his wife came down from bed in her dressing gown and sat on the sofa next to him.
“Aren’t you going to come up?” she said.
“I’m not tired.”
“You didn’t come up last night. I waited for you.”
“I didn’t want to disturb you. I’ve not been sleeping well lately.”
“Talk to me.” She reached for his hand, but he pulled back. “What’s going on, Winston? I saw Jill in the supermarket and she said you haven’t been to work. And Winston, what happened to the car?”
“I hit a deer for god’s sake. Do you know how much pressure I’m under? You have no idea what I go through to protect you, to…” he stopped, trying to ignore the tears in her eyes.
“To protect me from what, Winston? What do I need to be protected from?”
“Nothing. Forget it. You wouldn’t understand anyway.”
“I guess I wouldn’t.” she said, tears running unchecked down her cheeks. “I don’t think I understand you at all, Winston.” she said, and she fled upstairs.
Winston paced the sitting room, the back of his throat growing tight as he reflected on how terribly unfair the whole situation was. As though she were the victim, he thought, when I’ve done nothing wrong. Nothing she can complain of. And yet he had lost the argument, she had won by appearing more pathetic than him. Only because he was doing his duty and protecting her from the truth.
Maybe he should just tell her. Was the solution so easy? If I show her what has been happening, then she’ll have to help me. She won’t be able to tell anyone without looking foolish herself. She won’t be able to leave me. Not without the neighbours asking questions. Yes, I’m the victim here, the real victim. I just need to show her.
He bounded upstairs, thrilling at the idea, and banged on the bedroom door.
His wife opened it. She was dressed and wearing a coat. He reached out and grabbed her hand, leading her down the stairs. She followed slowly with a dead expression on her face, placing her feet carefully on each stair. He led her to the cellar door. “Just look,” he said, and he pulled it open.
She stood well back and shook her head, her eyes never leaving his, never straying to the open door. “No Winston, forget it. I don’t care what you’re hiding, I don’t care what mad notion you’ve got into your mind this time.”
“No…just look in the basement. It explains everything.”
“Forget it Winston. I’ve packed my things. I’m going to stay with a friend for a while.”
“Don’t be stupid.”
She turned her back to the door. “Don’t find me, Winston.”
“Just look!” he pleaded. He tried to grab at her coat, but she pushed him away.
“Don’t you touch me, Winston. I’m not afraid of you.”
He watched her leave, his stomach heaving. “I never fucking touched her!” he shouted at her back as she climbed the stairs “I didn’t even touch her…” Down in the basement, tens of eyes glinted back at him in the darkness. The girls filled the room, standing shoulder to shoulder. They looked up at him and smiled, eyes half-closed, expectant.
Winston slumped on the sofa. The girls surrounded him on all sides, filling the room wall to wall. They filled every room in the house. Their breathing thundered in his ears. The TV played somewhere in the room out of sight. He raised a hand to try and push one of the girls out of the way so he could see the screen, but he was too weak to move her.
He wasn’t sure if it was day or night, he had covered all the windows. He couldn’t risk someone seeing inside. He didn’t dare leave the house. His head nodded and his eyes closed and sleep took him for a moment before he jerked back awake. Their bodies pressed against him. He tried to get to his feet, his legs shaking beneath him.
He jerked awake. They loomed over him, their bodies pressed up tight against each other, squishing into a single mass.
He jerked awake. They pressed against his face and his shoulders, his leg was trapped, he tried to pull it free. He couldn’t breathe. He needed to get out.
He jerked awake. He couldn’t see the door. He crawled in what he thought was the right direction, swimming through that sea of soft flesh, his chest heaving as it tried to suck in enough of the stale air to survive.
He jerked awake.
He jerked awake.
He jerked awake.