Q:Will there be a 3rd part to The Nightmare Gift?:) I really enjoyed it x
Yes! In fact, based on the pacing so far the story as a whole is probably going to run a little long. Bear with me! :-) I’m stoked to hear you like it.
By the time she was home, the headache had become insufferable. She fell onto her bed and buried her head into her pillow, where all light sources were obfuscated and the pressure of her own weight against the pillow was a temporary relief. A single light source, a small beam of diffused from between her two curtains, trickled down and hit the back of her head in a quaint, oblong patch. The room was otherwise gray, quiet.
Sydney knew she had not always had headaches, that there was a period of time in her life when she could go a day without having to hide away into the dark, the pain unhindered by medication…but the memory was vague, difficult to pinpoint. Everything had been a blur for the past couple of months. Her parents had pulled her out of her junior year of high school when she became unable to attend. There had been doctor’s visits, tests and scans and medication, but there was no solution. Sometimes she wished they had found a brain tumor hiding inside her ever-suffering skull, because then—at least—she would understand why she was in such pain.
Her room was filled with the tokens of hobbies long forgotten—two film cameras and a hand-me-down digital SLR camera sat in a sad, dusty pile on her the top shelf of her bookshelf next to the short series of photo books she had filled since she was eleven years old, when her father gave her her first camera. That much. She remembered that. She remembered standing outside on an overcast day and patiently waiting for the perfect moment when their old basset hound would sit still just long enough to allow her to get just the right photo. She remembered mailing off the film with her father and checking the mailbox every day for the prints.
She didn’t know when she had stopped, though. It had been a while. Probably when the headaches started.
The image of Marcus reappeared appeared in her mind’s eye, his features exaggerated and morphed. He was all broken arm and expressive eyes. He wasn’t familiar…but there were times when she would stumble downstairs to have dinner with her family and they weren’t familiar either. Her brother would appear a complete stranger, some odd adult with glasses and a laughing face, and her mother was like a distant relative she hadn’t seen in five years—familiar-ish but lacking any clues to suggest her name or actual relationship to her. She would sit at the kitchen table for five, ten minutes before it occurred to her who these people were—her family.
The terror would creep over her in a cold wash, and she would spend the rest of the night pretending to be normal and hoping that none of them noticed her internal struggle. Words like “depression” were used often to excuse her “behavior,” and they would gently suggest she take a walk the next morning—they would even go with her—or maybe her and her mother could have a girl day and get their hair done.
Sydney would always find a way out, telling them that she seemed much worse than she felt, and then she would wander back upstairs and go back to sleep or try her best to struggle through her independent studies.
How long had it been that way?
Did she remember anyone she knew in high school?
That thought gave her pause. She lifted her body up onto her elbows and stared at the blue wall. She could summon the blank stand in of high school memories, but she wasn’t sure if they were her’s or things she had seen on television or read about it books. She knew, for certain, that she had been in school. She had taken classes. She had spoken to people, had friends. But nothing specific came to mind.
She sat up completely and crossed her legs in front of her. She traced all the contours of her face with her fingers, being especially delicate in the portions that were still wracked with pain, and took a deep breath. She couldn’t let herself panic, even though the terror was already starting to bubble up inside of her. She needed to be as rational as possible, to make up for the sense that insanity was surely taking over her mind and body. She needed to think through each aspect of this problem as deliberately as she could manage.
“I am not,” she whispered to herself in a jagged, uneven voice, “insane.”
Carefully, she got out of bed and walked across the room. Her head was ringing, and she felt like she was going to vomit, but she knew there would be photographs in those books, and there had to be something inside of them that would remind her of her own humanity—even assure her of her sanity. The wooden floor felt cool on the pad’s of her feet, and when her fingers reached the newest looking of the volume’s she felt a wave of calm. She would accept whatever the book showed her.
She took it back to her bed, sat down, and opened it to the first page. Beneath the protective sheet of plastic sat a single, solitary photo—cropped to a perfect four-by-four inch square. It was a self portrait taken in an old antique mirror. Her hair was down, her eyes were distant, but her smile was confident. There Sydney was, looking back at herself, reassuring her, “Yes, I am you.”
She turned the page, the photo’s adhesive and plastic covering crinkling in the stifling silence of her dim bedroom. On each page were three horizontal photographs—the spread of six seemed to be themed around a stray cat out in the woods somewhere. She closed her eyes and tried to remember the day she took those photos. There was a recollection of a forest, parts different than those shown in the pictures, and a cat…people, even—though she couldn’t recall who. They weren’t her family—she remembered at least that much.
Or maybe she was just imagining that she could remember.
She opened her eyes and turned to the next page. These photos were not themed, and they seemed to be taken in various locations—inside an antique shop, a run down mom and pop grocery store, a movie theater with all of the lights on. There were people in most of the photographs, but because of the low light settings and need for a longer exposure most of the people were blurred. She wondered if she used a tripod.
At least she knew she should in that sort of situation.
“I’m really much better than I think,” she mumbled to herself, just to hear the words and consider how true they might be.
When she turned the page again, her heart fell. In the midst of blurred, low-light settings—inside a coffee shop past sunset, a bedroom with minimal furnishings, a storage unit with several old rugs rolled up and stacked vertically—she found a single photograph very different from the rest. It was outside—and, though overcast, relatively bright. In the middle of the frame, maybe ten feet away from the camera, stood a single individual staring right back at her.
His eyes were in shadow, and he was smiling, but the resemblance was still there. Marcus Edison stood looking knowingly at the person behind the viewfinder.
She pulled the plastic protective sleeve over the page carefully, then set it beside her on the bed. With a tender touch, she peeled the photo up from the page. It took some of the paper with it, but the photo itself remained intact. She turned it over. In careless handwriting it read, “Forest #2. 2013.”
Sydney reached over to the bedside lamp and turned it on. She leaned forward as close as she could until the image began to go out of focus, and in each grain of the film she caught glimpses of detail that might answer her questions. He definitely knew who she was, from the way he smiled at her. And she felt good knowing that she could recognize those features in a person’s face—even if she didn’t remember that face. Even if she couldn’t remember someone whom she had apparently known well known enough to have a photograph of him in her personal collection.
In the steady silence of her isolated bedroom, Sydney flipped through each page in the photo book. It was in no way a feature of this person, this Marcus, but he appeared more frequently than anyone else. She saw her father, lovingly looking over at his proud photographic protege, her brother looking stooped, bored, over some last minute homework, her mother moving large bundles of yard work—but she saw no one more than she saw him.
In the last page of her book, she found another apparent stranger. He stood next to Marcus, looking at him. Marcus looked up but just off to the side of the camera, his eyes focused on something in the distance. Their posture was casual; it was a candid photograph. She couldn’t make out the face of the other person, but she saw enough of him to know that she did not know him. She pulled that photo out too, less careful and reverent than she had been at the beginning of the photo book. “Forest #16. 2013.”
She put the book down with a sigh and gazed over beside her. Ten odd photos sat scattered, all with an assortment of differently themed photos of the same person. She had hoped that one of them would jog her memory—suddenly, in a flash, she would remember what it was like to be in that bookstore or on that random corner coffee shop…but there was nothing. Obstinate and unmoving, blankness prevailed in her mind.
She sat in a position halfway between huddled and lumped in the far corner of the waiting room. The chairs there faced away from the lone television, gently blaring the twenty-four-hour news cycle with closed captions on, and so she had her own sort of cubby of isolation. She didn’t even have to occasionally make eye contact with distressed mothers or the agitated and dedicatedly impatient elderly.
There were things to do—she had brought her cell phone, her headphones, and a worn old paperback novel from the library—but she hadn’t pulled them out of her backpack since she had gotten there. She just kept sitting and staring at random features on the walls before her—the stock photography in generic frames, the beige paint on the wall, the plastic moulding just above the carpeting, and the large square sign that said “P” for pharmacy. Sometimes she would get curious, adventurous even, and crane her neck around to look down the long corridor of the compound. She could see past the lab department into the urgent care department and even a few suggestions of reception just before the large sliding doors.
But, without exception, her her heavily lidded, dark circle-besotted eyes would gaze lazily at the walls, blank and flat. Her life was accompanied by a doctor’s office soundtrack. Children would chatter, infants and toddlers would cry intermittently, and a lone, almost predatory woman would talk especially loudly into her phone about work—all the while with the rhythmic buzz of television, the calling of names of patients and the sounds of phones ringing.
She would alternate between having her legs drawn up onto the chair, made extra large for the particularly rotund patients, or having them splayed lifelessly before her, both feet arching inward. Sometimes she would take a moment to ponder the shapes that they would make. And then a nearby child would start to scream, and she would be shaken momentarily from her apathetic lull.
She looked terrible, too. Her dark hazel eyes were bloodshot, and it had been one day past the acceptable period between showers. Her hair, brown and curly (so of course frizzy at this point), was haphazardly pulled into a claw clip. She wore a worn out school sweatshirt, oversized with ruined elastic in the wrists from having bunched it up at her elbows so many times, and a pair of black jeans that had been washed too many times. They were a sad, uncertain gray. Her shoes were relatively new, the black canvas and white rubber not yet covered in indiscriminate grime, but somehow one was laced one loop lower than the other, and so its laces were overly long and beginning to fray. She hadn’t noticed that herself until today, sitting in the doctor’s office, bored.
She pulled her feet up onto the ruddy upholstery of the waiting room chair and picked at the lace sadly. It definitely wasn’t OK to just unlace and re-lace her entire shoe inside a doctor’s office. It was one of those “unwritten rules” scenarios that her mother would surely scold her for if she were there to witness it.
She immediately looked up and scanned the area before her, looking for whatever nurse had called her in, simultaneously grabbing her backpack beside her. She stopped when she saw that less than five feet away a strange man, somewhere in the vicinity of her age, was standing before her, looking extremely confused. His left arm was in a green cast, starting at his elbow and extending over most of his hand. His index finger and thumb were free, and she became momentarily alarmed by the sight of the two free fingers flexing and extending. Her mouth opened a little in obvious distress.
He looked at her like he had known her all his life, his eyes huge and dark and emotional, and he took another step toward her and struggled to find the words to ask a question that was just at the tip of his tongue.
She backed away as far as appropriate for someone restrained to a chair. “H-how do you know my name?” she asked before he could begin speaking. “You don’t look like you work here.”
For whatever reason, that was even worse than her flinching away from him. He frowned and took away the step he gave. “No, I don’t…work here…” He shook his head. “You don’t recognize me?”
Sydney hadn’t realized he was someone she was supposed to recognize. She squinted and tilted her head. His features were familiar, but in a generic way. He had a typical teenage face, with the suggestions of future hardness of features, and typical brown eyes. There was a bit of intensity to them, but it easily could have been that he was practically glaring at her at this point. His hair was short, and his skin had the impression of having recently been very tan—someone who once spent plenty of time outside but had recently become the indoors type. It was all very vaguely reminiscent of someone or something, but it rang no immediate bells.
She shook her head.
He shook his as well, though for different reasons. “So, like, you’re not even curious why someone you apparently don’t know knows your name?”
“Well, I never said I wasn’t confused. But I don’t know you.”
He folded his arms across his chest, at least as best as he could, and grimaced. “I thought you moved away, Sydney. I tried calling, but the number was disconnected. I tried going to your house to see for sure, and it was empty. I thought, like, the only reason you would just disappear like you did was because you were moving to a different part of the country, not fucking downtown.”
Sydney began to feel the twinge of a new headache. She lifted her hand to the puffy skin around her right eye and frowned. She could feel her heart starting to beat faster. She had moved, just a few months ago, from one side of the town to the other, and her parents had switched phone companies around the same time—her number was different. But…
“Look, I get it.” She looked back up at him, and his body language had changed significantly. The obvious anger had faded, and his shoulders had slumped. His broken arm hung limply at his side, while he emoted with his right. “I get if you didn’t want to talk to me anymore for some reason. That stuff happens. But you didn’t have to disappear like that. …And then just reappear like nothing…”
“I’m really sorry,” she said, nearly whispering. “But I don’t know you.”
“Edison? Marcus Edison?”
“I don’t even—how do you forget someone in a few months, Sydney? This is stupid. Just say you’re sorry or something, don’t act like you don’t know me. This is insane! Like if you don’t want to talk to me, just say so—don’t act like I’m a stranger harassing you!”
“Fine! I don’t want to talk to you, Marcus. Please leave me alone,” she whisper-screamed back at him. She grabbed her backpack and stood up abruptly, then pointed up to the screen above the pharmacy that now listed her name—Elwood, S.—in glowing red letters. “Look, it’s my turn to get my prescription, since you apparently know my name so well. I’m going to get it, and then I’m going to leave. Is that all right with you?”
She realized she wasn’t whispering anymore, and that people were starting to stare, but she didn’t care. She pushed her way past him and over to the pharmacy, glancing back to see him following her with his eyes, looking a little lost. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she saw him mouthing his own name to himself—“Marcus.”
If you use the coupon code, you’ll also be getting a few random surprises in there as well!
My life has been weirder than normal lately.
I’m thinking about being more aggressively “that paranormal girl” as a response.
A premonition, in the least superstitious way possible.
I’m used to bad things happening to me, either because of my own poor decisions, the poor decisions of others, or just poor luck. I handle it with calm reserve. I don’t panic. I just work through the negative emotions as silently as possible while my hands work mechanically through a solution. Crisis management is an effortless experience to me.
However, when it’s not me on the receiving end—when it’s someone I love and care about—I lose all that cool detachment, that methodical problem solving. I become lost, and my hands become weak. The sense of helplessness that I am so good at avoiding creeps in like a chill.
I don’t know what it means that my own art rarely speaks for a set of emotions or experiences unique to me. But tonight my thoughts are overcast, and I suppose retroactively I made this for myself.
Trip to the shore
The day was overcast, so it was already going wrong. It had been so long since she had been to the beach, and it really wasn’t supposed to include cloudy skies and a persistent chill. When she spotted it, brown and sad in the churning water, her heart sunk—not because she was certain this confirmed the death of some unknown stranger but because it meant her day was only going to get worse.
March 31, 2014—Samantha Garrett—for sale