Chapter 2: Audabe
He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.
-Aeschylus, The Murder of Agamemnon
Stuff that would be weird in the bright light of day just wasn't so much once you passed a certain hour.
-Sarah Dessen, Along for the Ride
The couch has always felt somehow safer than his bed to sleep in; Matthias supposes that he'd passed out here after barricading all of the doors. He sits up and rubs his face, exhausted. Sunlight's shining from the den's window onto Matthias' face. With a jolt of panic, he shoots up and runs towards the window.
His slim fingers brush against the sill and draw away, a film of dust covering his fingertips. After brushing the dust on his pajama bottoms, Matthias reaches for the window's lock and jerks it. It's locked firmly. Satisfied, Matthew withdraws from the window and examines the den.
His television's been pushed in front of the front door, his end tables flanking it. The bookcase is shoved in front of the back entrance to the den. The only furniture unmoved is the couch, still sitting in the middle of the room.
Matthias stretches in front of the window and looks over into the kitchen- it's attached to the den by a thin strip of linoleum, fading into the brown carpet of the living room. Matthias' feet sink into the plush carpet, fibers sliding against his toes, as he walks into the kitchen, and for a moment his life feels routine- he can pretend that he's just woken up and headed to the kitchen for a morning coffee. The moment of normalcy passes, though, when Matthias' feet touch the cold kitchen tile.
He rests his palm on a smooth, granite-topped counter as he peers around the kitchen. No intruders, he notes gratefully. Matthias falls to his knees on the hard linoleum and starts opening cabinets. Each white door flies open, revealing nothing but kitchenware. He scuffles his knees along the floor, though, until he's opened and shut every door.
He finally rises from the floor, grabbing the countertop for leverage. When he stands he looks over towards the fridge; above it rests a mounted clock. 4:55, he notes, and he remembers belatedly that he's called off work.
Unsure of what to do, Matthias spends the next ten minutes fixing either a late lunch or an early dinner. It's simple fare- bachelor chow- he's just heated up some microwaveable Mexican food. On his way out of the kitchen he grabs a can of soda. He pauses for a minute and looks over at the knife block; balancing his food carefully, he retrieves a sharp knife and lays it on top of his plate.
Matthias looks out at the den with a little regret. The coffee table's been moved, so there's nowhere to eat, besides the kitchen table, and Matthias hasn't actually eaten a meal in the kitchen since he was a young boy. With a lightness that he doesn't really feel, Matthias sits his food on the floor next to the couch and trots over to the television. He manages to hook it up somehow- though it takes much longer than it should have, probably about half an hour for Matthias, and so by the time Matthias sits on the couch with the remote, his food is cold. He picks the knife up off of his plate and wedges it deep between two couch cushions.
He flicks on a reality TV show about a group of people trying to survive in extreme cold. As Matthias picks at his rice-and-beans, he wonders what he's going to do about work. He knows he can't call in sick forever.
The clock on the television reads 5:45. Night will fall soon.
The phone's ringing.
Matthias sighs, standing up to go retrieve the phone. The reality TV show had went off a half hour ago, and Matthias had switched the TV to a documentary on whaling. His dinner plate sat in the sink.
His fingers wrap around the phone, and he raises it to his ear. "Hello?" Matthias asks. "Who is this?"
"It's Jack. Just calling to check in on you. Collar said that you were sick. And I didn't see you at work today, so…"
Jack works in the office with Matthias. He's in the little cubicle next to him. Sometimes Jack invites him out to eat or out with his friends. Matthias almost always declines.
Sometimes Matthias can hear music from the other cubicle, low-volume but still audible. The other workers don't mind- Jack's likeable. Matthias hears the music in his head as he stares at the phone. Jack usually plays older rock; the Steve Miller Band is one of his favorite artists, and Matthias likes them too, though he's never said so. Sometimes he wants to say, Hey, that's probably my favorite Neil Young song, or, Wow, Jefferson Airplane, right? but something holds him back. Closeness is bad.
These thoughts drift in Matthias' head as he answers. "I'm fine. Just sick on my stomach, got a pretty bad-" He cuts off his own speech with a fake cough and continues- "cough, yeah, but I'm okay. Thank you."
The other end is silent for a moment before Jack speaks again. "Alright, Matthias," he says, pronouncing it the right way- ma-thigh-us, unlike most people Matthias knows, and somehow Matthias feels guilty for lying about being sick. "Just being a friend," Jack adds.
"Right," Matthias says, suddenly feeling tired and dumb. "Well."
"See you at work tomorrow?" Jack asks. Matthias closes his eyes before he looks over at the den window- the kitchen window's blinds are still shut tightly. The light from outside is fading quickly, the sky a yellow-brown color.
"I don't know," Matthias says quietly. "Thanks, Jack."
The line is silent yet again before Jack speaks again. "No problem at all, Matthias. No problem at all." The sky is turning darker, darker, and Matthias feels like he's drowning. "Listen, if you need anything at all…"
It's going to be night, and the thing will come again. But maybe if Matthias doesn't sleep…maybe if he stays awake…
"Just give me a call, dude. I can't guarantee I'll be of any use, but I'll try. Well…I hope you feel better."
The phone clicks off.
6:50. The sun has dipped below the horizon, and the sky is dark. The moon sits high.
Matthias is staring at his television, where Dr. Phil is telling the audience that teenagers do drugs. This isn't a particularly shocking or new development, Matthias thinks to himself, stretching out on the couch. Something creaks and he freezes.
"Hello? You there?"
Matthias' hand flies out and starts digging in the couch cushion. When his fingers find purchase on a plastic handle, he stands up and pulls out the knife. The voice comes from the kitchen; he doesn't dare look in that direction. "Go away," he says, voice shaking. "Go away!"
Steps come towards him. "Kid," the voice says, "you just need to calm down-"
Matthias swivels around and rushes towards the thing. The knife swings out but just barely clips the thing on its shoulder. A tan hand reaches out and grips Matthias' hand tightly. The knife falls out of his grasp.
Matthias closes his eyes.
"Look at me," the thing says impatiently. Matthew's eyes are shut tight.
"I look just like you, kid. I look just like a human. Look. Open them peepers. I got a head of some sandy hair, which I will not admit is going gray. I have- well, yeah, I have yellow eyes. But I can't help that." Matthias is trying to pull away, now, but the thing holds firm. "No horns. No bumps on my skin, which is quite a nice shade of caramel, if I do say so myself."
Matthias stands still and the thing relaxes. "Good. Now if you would just open your-"
Eyes fly open and brown irises are exposed. "LEAVE ME ALONE!" A foot kicks out at the thing and it falls to the floor. Matthias jerks down towards the knife, but in an instant, the beast is upon him, grinding his face into the floor and keeping him pinned down.
"I am not going to leave you alone! This is my job!" The beast keeps Matthias' face pressed firmly into the hardwood; Matthias notices, with detached interest separate from jittery panic, a dust mote on the floor next to his cheek. "I'm tryin' to help you!"
"You broke into my house!" Matthias gasps against the floor. "You attacked me!"
"Attacked you?! More like the other way around!" The thing sounds disgusted but rises, and Matthias sputters. The thing was heavy. The thing scoots across the floor and sits, cross-legged, staring at Matthias.
Matthias eventually recovers and manages to raise himself into a shaky cross-legged sit, eyes fixed firmly on the beast. "I hate you," he wheezes. "I hate you."
"No, you don't," the beast says, bored, resting its chin on its hand. "You only got two people in the world you hate, and I'm not one'a them."
Matthias covers his eyes with his palms and sits. His breathing is becoming more erratic. "I hate you," he repeats, again. "Leave me alone. Leave me alone."
"I'll come every night," the thing says, face calm. It's nose isn't exactly large- more like proud, rising from his face like a jagged peak. His face looks normal- the thing looks almost like a celebrity, or a police man, or someone normal. "And if you don't cooperate it'll be worse." The thing stretches its legs out across the floor. "The waking world's where you're in control, Matthias. But I can come during dreams too."
Matthias doesn't dare look at the thing again. The beast speaks plainly. "Dreams are my realm, Matthias. If I get you in a dream I can make you see whatever I think you need to see." The beast crosses its legs again in a mockery of politeness. "If I have to forcibly help you, then I will. Don't make it harder on yourself."
"Why?" Matthias asks, palms still pressed firmly to his eyes. "Why are you doing this?"
"It's my job," the things says flatly. "I go around to humans like you and help 'em. I usually like my job. Usually."
Matthias can hear the beast scooting across the wooden floor towards him. "Listen," the beast says, too close to Matthias. "You're gonna have to get used to me coming around. Now, I'm betting you didn't go to work today. Did you?" Matthias doesn't respond. "No. So here's what you need to do- go to work tomorrow. Tell 'em you were sick today. And I'll come tomorrow night."
"Not during my dreams," Matthias gasps, dragging his hands across his face. "Please."
The beast's voice seems softer when he speaks. "Okay." Matthias can hear creaking- the beast is rising from the floor.
"My name's Hiram," the beast says as it rises. "Pronounced Hi-rum. See you tomorrow."
Matthias can hear a door shutting, which makes no sense- all of the doors are blocked. And when he removes his hands from his face, he is greeted to the sight of an empty house, no beast-demon-Hiram in sight.
An old woman lifts her head towards her den's entryway door. "Jachym?" she asks again.
The old woman in the blue recliner is at least late-70s, probably older; her face is wrinkled, sagging. Her eyes are transparent gray. A gnarled hand reaches from beneath the ragged comforter that she rests beneath. Only the flickering of a TV a short distance in front of her lights up the dimness of the room.
A door slams and a figure walks into the darkened den. The woman smiles with a full set of unstained teeth, their perfection jarring against her otherwise weathered appearance- dentures, the first thing she received from her grandson upon arrival in Americ.
"Hey, Babu." Her grandson stands in the entranceway to the den with a grin on his face that nearly matches his grandmother's. He leans in towards his Babouchka and plants a gentle kiss on her cheek. When he pulls away, his dark blue eyes meet her near-clear orbs. "How are you, Babu?" he asks affectionately. "How was your day?"
The woman pats her grandson on the shoulder weakly- she has to lean up a bit to do so, as he's a little above six feet. "I watched a show today," she says. "It was good."
The man grins, a lop-sided sort of smile, and holds her hands in his. "Really," he says, voice interested. "What was it about?"
The old woman shifts beneath her comforter, and the man pulls it down a bit, below her shoulders, and waits for her to get cozy. "It was a show with dresses and sewing. It was good," she says, again. She looks up. "How was your day, Jachym?"
"Good," the man says after a pause. "Very good, Babu."
Babu nods and presses her hand down on the man's black hair. "You work so hard, Jachym. You're a good boy. A good boy."
The man waits a few moments before withdrawing and giving an exasperatedly fond look to his grandmother. He's young still, but he has light purple wedges beneath his eyes from too-long shifts at the office. "Thank you. I think I'll go make dinner now."
Babu leans back slowly in her chair. "You're too good to me, Jachym," she says as her grandson leaves the room. She focuses her gray eyes on the flickering television. A man tells a joke and the audience laughs, and though she doesn't quite understand it, she laughs as well.
"Jack. Jack Solomon. Haha, yeah, strange last name, right? Well, yes, I'm actually calling about the new fax machine at my office. Oh?"
Jack's leaning against the oven, whose black display reads 6:34 pm. The oven light's on, showing some sort of casserole. "Well, I'm just the messenger. It was defective- the machine. Oh? Manufacturing error. If you could send out a worker-"
Oven beeps, glove goes on, casserole goes out, oven's turned off, phone rests between his chin and shoulder. "Account 508? Ordered from your shop about a week ago. The machine came today." A pause. "And broke today."
Oven door shuts. "What? No, I'm not the manager. Oh- Here. I'll give you his number." Jack grabs a knife from a wooden drawer and rattles off a few numbers. The knife slides neatly into the casserole dish. Chicken pie. It plops onto a paper plate on the counter. "Yes. Nope! Thanks, haha, you too."
Phone to the counter, off button, hand palm-up holds the plate, grabs a fork.
Jack walks into the den. "Here, Babu. Mmm!" He places the plate on a table next to the recliner and pulls the whole thing in front of the recliner. "Chicken pie. What're you watching? Jeopardy. Cool!" Jack slides into a chair next to Babu and sits, facing the TV.
"Thank you," comes the quavering reply. The den is dimmer.
Jack smiles and stands up. "I have another call to make, Babu. I'll join you after, okay?"
When Jack reaches for the phone a second time, it's related to work in a somewhat different way. He calls up a coworker who missed work that day. Jack likes to keep an eye out for his coworkers. He likes to make sure everyone is okay.
When he gets off the phone again he grabs a plate to eat and walks into the living room. Babu is asleep.
He delicately takes the plate from the table and shifts it all away from the chair. Then, Jack goes to his room, but not before placing a loving kiss on his grandmother's cheek.
Time for bed. Jack smiles tiredly and stretches out on his way down the hallway. Sweet dreams.