Not far away, in another small bedroom, someone else cried out at the same time.
Well, screamed actually.
At first Donny Marks thought he was the one having the nightmare. His eyes snapped open in the darkness; his ears registered a horrific wail that stunned his brain, throttled his heart. Then, realizing the sound came from somewhere outside of his mind, he thought: Arlene.
She was sitting upright in bed beside him, clawing at her hair, though her scream had now dissolved into a pitiful moan.
"Arlene," Donny said, taking her shoulders, striving to comfort her even as he fought back his own fright at having been awakened in such an abrupt and awful way, "it was a nightmare."
"You didn't see," Arlene gasped, her lips flecked with spittle. "Planets—whole planets dying—blood in the sky—death all around—everything gone—wiped away—by them." Suddenly, eyes wild, she turned, gripped his wrists. "By them!"
Though unnerved himself, Donny tried again to steady her. "Arlene, calm down," he said gently. "It wasn't real. You were dreaming."
Arlene looked at him for a moment, and as she took in his face—and, so doing, recalled this bed and this room and this life that they had shared for some months now—the wildness passed from her eyes. In its wake those same eyes filled with quiet tears.
"Donny," she began. "It was so terrible…"
Because he was incapable of doing otherwise, Donny embraced her, hoping she could draw at least some strength from his touch. What good would he be to her if she couldn't?
"I know," he whispered in her ear, "but it was a nightmare, baby. That's all."
Donny felt Arlene's muscles loosening, her breath slowing, as he held her. "You okay now?" he asked after a minute or two.
"I'm okay," Arlene replied, disentangling from his arms.
"Are you sure?"
She nodded. "Yeah, I'm sure."
Donny brushed her bare shoulder with his fingertips. A worried frown came over his face. "Your skin is so cold."
He could have added that not only did her flesh feel cold, it felt rubbery—almost like the hide of a reptile. But of course he would say no such thing.
"Really, I'm all right," Arlene said, briskly rubbing her arms. "Maybe that's what it was. I got cold while we were sleeping and it caused me to have a nightmare."
Donny found that an unlikely explanation. Their bedroom was quite warm at the moment. "I don't know. Maybe you should—"
"Donny, I'm fine." Arlene took his chin in her palm, apparently her usual vibrant self again. "I think I just need to get up and move around some." She got out of bed, and, without switching on the light, tiptoed carefully across the room. She stopped at the doorway, looked back at him. "I'm so sorry I woke you up."
"And thanks for talking to me like that, just now. It was sweet," Arlene added. "I'm going to go get something from the kitchen—something to drink. I promise I'll be quiet, though."
"Don't worry about it," Donny said, sliding under the covers again. "Honestly, don't."
Crystal Hobbs was not amused.
She sat, arms crossed, with her back against the pillows. Shane was sitting beside her, though he'd put as much space between them as he could without falling off the bed. His arms too were crossed. The lamp on the nightstand was blazing.
"I should have taken a picture," Crystal said dryly.
Shane made no response.
"I should have taken a picture and put it online, so everyone could see it," she continued. "And then I should have emailed it to everybody we know, including your Mom and Dad—and your boss. I know they'd all be impressed."
"It happens to people all the time," Shane retorted. "One day it might even happen to you."
On that, Crystal thought, Shane had a point. Yes, as far-fetched as it might have been, there was a possibility that someday the beautiful and superhumanly feminine Crystal Hobbs would fall asleep while sitting on the toilet. How would she feel, were something so ridiculous to happen, if Shane gave her a hard time about it afterward? Terrible, no doubt; and maybe Crystal was wrong to be angry at him at all. But she couldn't help it. That was a powerful scare he had given her just now, even if inadvertent. She had banged on the door, screamed through it, and despite all her racket she'd heard nothing whatsoever from Shane. So a frantic and distraught Crystal had rushed to the closet, found a wire hanger, straightened its hook, and then used it to pop open the bathroom door, whereupon she found King Shane the First seated on his porcelain throne, slumped forward so far that his head was nearly between his knees. He might have had a stroke, Crystal remembered thinking when she saw him, or a heart attack, or some other potentially fatal health event: rare in such a young person, but not unheard of—especially if he suffered from a longstanding disorder that had never been diagnosed. She had dashed over, pushed him up by his shoulders, and held his face in her hands, called out his name, slapped his cheeks.
That, finally, was when Shane awoke.
"What are you doing in here?" he had mumbled irritably, his eyes still half-closed.
Upon which Crystal had stood upright, muttered an obscenity, and walked back out, dropping the hanger outside the door.
Now, five minutes later, here they sat on the bed.
"Didn't you hear me outside?" Crystal said after a long moment.
"I told you I didn't."
"You really scared me bad, Shane."
"Look, I'm sorry, okay? I couldn't help it." Shane sighed to himself, "What a night."
"Yeah, I agree," Crystal snapped back. "What a night, huh?"
But then Crystal, in spite of herself, began to chuckle. "You've really been a handful tonight, Shane. You know that?"
"It's not my fault."
"Whose fault is it, then?"
"Yeah, you're right. Let's blame it all on Murl." Crystal reached over and turned off the lamp. "Because if Murl hadn't started his restaurant, then Donny would never have been able to make us go there—"
Together they pulled the blanket over their bodies.
"—and then you wouldn't have been able to eat half of everything on the buffet," Crystal went on, "which means you wouldn't have made yourself sick—"
"—and then you wouldn't have passed out on the toilet like some drunken moron—"
Shane sought out her hand in the darkness, took it to his lips, and kissed her palm. "You got it, Crystal. Now be quiet. You're disturbing me with all your talking."
A crash woke Donny this time: the sound of glass shattering on a tile floor. He sat up in bed so fast it made him dizzy. "Arlene?"
His heart throbbed in his chest.
"Arlene," he called out, sliding off the bed, "are you okay out there?"
I knew it, Donny thought. I knew it was worse than she was letting on. Something's the matter with her. Something bad, I can tell. Why did I just accept it when she told me she was all right, even though I was sure she wasn't?
As Donny came into the hallway, a soft, high-pitched whine met his ears.
At first it reminded him of the electronic tones used in a hearing test, but as it went on he detected a strange hollowness in the sound, as if it were reaching him through a tunnel—or through vocal cords.
Donny took a step forward.
The whining ceased.
"Come on now." Donny felt along the wall for the switch to the light overhead. "Let me know if you're all right."
At the other end of the hallway—which opened onto the living room of the couple's small rental house—something in the darkness twitched.
The whining resumed: much louder this time, almost loud enough to hurt his ears.
"Arlene," Donny called above the sound—which was now becoming a screech…
"Is that you?"
Donny's hand, at last, found the switch. He flipped it. Pale yellow light washed down the hallway, allowing him to glimpse the source of the noise. And with that glimpse he received the answer to his question.
It wasn't Arlene.