The Long Shadows of the Morning
A thriller by Nina Nenova . Excerpt

 

 

No, this could not be just a dream! Nick could distinctly feel the body lying next to him—petite, with small breasts and lean thighs. He could feel the hands sliding over his body in a lingering caress, cool, thin fingers with slightly rough tips. Cool, even cold, yet electrifying! Timid kisses barely brushed his lips… Oh, how he wanted to take this mysterious woman who had miraculously appeared in his bed in his arms! How he wanted to bury his face into her long silky hair, and confess to her that nobody had ever shown him so much tenderness and true, passionate intimacy. But he was unable to utter a sound, nor make the slightest movement. He wasn’t dreaming, but some strange paralysis cramped his muscles.

He concentrated all his will in an effort to lift his eyelids. They resisted as if they had been glued shut or simply would not obey him. When he thought he had finally managed to pry them open, he was overcome by an even greater fear—that he was blind!

At last, his sight back, he stared up, sure that her face would be directly over his because he could feel her breath, but…he saw almost no face there! Almost. In the instant, before she disappeared completely, he caught a faint glimmer in the moonlight: no distinct features, no shape, no fringing wisps of hair; only lips revealing, in a hollow cry of disappointment, large slightly irregular teeth, one—the upper left incisor—chipped in the middle.

Nick didn’t move for a long time. The heat in his loins made them throb like a raw wound, while his arms and lower legs were ice-cold yet clammy with sweat. Despite his intolerable thirst and a pressing need to calm himself under a cool shower, he only managed to turn on the bedside lamp. Its light replaced the gleam of the full moon and disclosed the rumpled cover, his clothes thrown casually on the chair opposite the ancient double-door wardrobe, his manuscript on the small table along with an empty vase, a clock that read 3:18, and his bottle of Seconal, its expiration date long passed, which at least accounted for the foul taste in his mouth.

In his entire life, Nick had taken sleeping pills only three times. The first was just after his mother’s funeral, when he took several tablets at once and slept like the dead, as if he was with her, seeing her off on her final journey. The second time was after a spiteful editor returned his manuscript: “Your Future Taleswould hardly appeal to children, Mr. Edgeway. Nothing exciting ever happens in them.” The third time was last night, and he had even locked his bedroom door—out of fear! All evening he had been racked by the nagging sense that someone was in the house with him, following him, standing behind him, peeping over his shoulder….

Now he was awake at half past three in the morning, and instead of fearing some abstract presence, he was painfully longing for a woman, however hallucinatory, which was much worse! It meant he was falling in love with a figment of his own imagination!

Sighing, he rose, shuffled to the bathroom and gulped water straight from the tap before taking a shower. Wrapped in his bathrobe, he returned to the bedroom, sat in the armchair by the small table and checked the pages—covered with scribbled notes and corrections, strewn with question marks and additions—of his latest “future tale”:

A boy will be born sometime in the future with a special gift. If he chooses, he will be able to make people sing for joy instead of mourn the loss of someone dear to them. He will bring cheerful smiles to the faces of the sick, the poor and the needy. Men and women, children and old people, will tearfully tell him their troubles, anxieties, and sorrows, their decrepitude and woe. A single glance from his radiant blue eyes will transform their pain and suffering into pure, sincere, inextinguishable joy. He will never refuse help to anyone, knowing that, after meeting him, even the worst will become good. People are usually good when they are happy, after all.

The boy must share his gift for another very important reason: he will live only as long as he continues to give joy to others. Otherwise he would quickly age and die.  Do you understand? That is his fate…

 

And so on. He knew this damned story by heart, recalled every change he had made, all the deleted passages, every punctuation mark. But although he had been working on it for months now, he didn’t know how it would end.

Throwing the pages on the table, he stood up and shambled into the hallway, painfully aware of his appearance: a big man who had recently put on a lot of weight, forty-two years old, a pudgy face that sometimes looked naïve—or perhaps just foolish? His blond hair was thinning on top, and his blue eyes, once so clear, were now faded. A childish man who wrote dull stories for children—shy, awkward, boring—that’s why nobody liked him…. Nobody, he repeated to himself, blindly starting down the stairs.

Why didn’t he turn on the lights? Was he hoping the woman would appear to him again in the darkness? Wasn’t that a sign of insanity?

Reaching the landing, he stood by the window filled with moonlight, looking around expectantly. But no, of course there was no woman here. He closed his eyes, and strained his senses. Even the sense of her presence had disappeared, leaving him feeling almost abandoned. If he only understood what was the matter with him!

Continuing down the stairs and through the living room, he sank into a lounge chair on the porch. Biff gave his chain a feeble clank from inside the kennel, reminding Nick that he had forgotten to feed the dog last night. But so what? He can stand that—he’s a dog. He didn’t even like the ugly, mixed-breed pug that his sister Elsa had unceremoniously dumped at his feet: “I’m giving him to you so that you finally have somebody to take care of.” She claimed to have bought it, but no doubt she had just picked it up off the street. His sister often lied, after all. Most women did.

“A boy…will be born sometime, …after many years will be born, and…will live more than a hundred years….”

Think of an ending, Nick, of an ending! The beginning was good enough in the first version; why go back to it all the time? He tightened his bathrobe against the cool breeze. The huge, fat moon sometimes peeped through the clouds filling the sky, hanging over his head like a silver pendulum, then vanished again, leaving the yard in timeless darkness, stripped of all forms, movements or shadows. Even then Nick’s mind’s eye saw the fruit trees in the orchard that his father had planted years ago, the old rose bushes that had once belonged to his mother, the weeds that had overrun the neat rows of strawberries and vegetables, the splendid peonies and fragile pale daffodils. He knew the high fence still encased this whole yard burdened with his past as it always had, the spiked tips of the bars pointing toward where the moon had been, toward the frighteningly distant stars.

“Otherwise he will soon age and die, do you understand? That will be his fate…”

“Damn it!” he cursed, jumping to his feet and pacing back and forth. “Fate” or “lot”? ”Destiny”? Which would be best? Or was it all the same? And why must he travail—yes, travail—to write simple children’s stories? Was that some penance he had imposed on himself—a way to overcome his guilt about never really caring much for children?

He staggered for a few steps before he realized why: SHE was on the porch with him, walking towards him. Yes! Elusive, ethereal, unreal, the WOMAN was still coming, approaching him. She stopped in front of him, and he slowly reached out for her. So what if he couldn’t touch her? He peered towards her, strained his eyes until they filled with tears. So what if he couldn’t see her? It was enough to know for certain that she was there.

Certain?!

“Come, come with me! Let’s go back upstairs,” he whispered brokenly. “We’re both confused and exhausted. We should rest…”

He hurried across the porch and into the living room then stood there numbly for almost a minute, waiting for her. When he was convinced that she had entered the room, he closed the door behind her and turned the key twice in the lock.

“Come; please come with me!”

Lumbering up the cold dark staircase as quickly as he could, he knew that she was following him, could sense her somehow with his soul. He felt his way into the bedroom, waited for her to pass, then shut the door, again double-locking it. Suddenly shy, he slipped into bed without taking off his robe…because she was here. Here! But he knew that, when he fell asleep…

Alas, the only unexpected event that night was that he did finally fall asleep. In the morning, though, he was awakened by the click of the key turning in the lock. He heard the sound, heard it distinctly! He swung his feet onto the floor, the blood pounding in his temples, his brain drowning in the ebbs and flows of incoherent thoughts, knowing only that he had to check the door.

It was unlocked.

He locked it again, propped his back against it, barely breathing. After a long time, he came to his senses and dragged himself across the room, feeling as if he had been beaten up. With the premonition that he was going to see something eerie, unimaginable, nightmarish, he peeped through the dirt-streaked window.

Sun! A summer sun glaring almost directly overhead, the rapacious weeds mercilessly revealing the fruit trees that hadn’t been pruned in years, the driveway and kennel off to the left with the tawny, lop-eared Biff in front—only his ordinary, familiar-to-sickness view.

“Enough of this daydreaming,” he ordered himself. “It’s almost noon.”

Unlocking the bedroom door with feigned resolve, he marched to the bathroom. He shaved slowly, every now and then frowning at his jaded reflection in the mirror. Finished, he returned to the bedroom and meticulously chose his clothes for the day, though he had no plans to go out. He made the bed carefully, dusted the room, straightened up the wardrobe….  I don’t dare go downstairs, he admitted. My late night ‘crush’ has passed, and now I’m afraid. Of her—a woman who doesn’t exist!

He finally forced himself down to the kitchen, which was filled with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. One of the coffee cups had just been washed, drops of water still on it. The front burner on the stove was still warm.

Gritting his teeth and armed with his sharpest kitchen knife, Nick inspected every room on the first and second floors, latched all windows, even finally examined the attic. No one else was in the house…

Or was there no one anymore?