It was ten minutes to midnight, and Anneliese Vianelli was still conscious enough to count the dots in her bedroom ceiling. She growled with frustration and reached back to grip the bars of her bedpost, rocking it back and forth with a creaking sound. Her lips pressed together and she blew away a short, dyed-blonde lock of hair, the only blonde piece to be found within her short brown bangs. Why couldn't she fall asleep? She didn't understand. She had done everything that she could think of- chamomile tea, lavender baths, no caffeine, meditation-everything. And nothing had worked. Why?
Well, she knew why. She couldn't deny it. Anneliese (or Anna, as most people called her) was completely and utterly convinced that she was nocturnal. She couldn't explain why her brain chose to be more active at night than day, but the moment she snuggled under her red duvet and the piles of blankets she used to keep warm during cold nights, her mind started racing. And not with things that normal people thought about- these few hours of insomnia were spent thinking up stories. Well, not really thinking up stories. Anna liked to play with the idea that everyone and everything in her fantasies were actually real, and she just was receiving them using this strange gift of hers.
Most of the time, Anna loved getting lost in these reveries. She would be content with letting her mind roam for hours, but tonight was the night when she truly needed sleep. She had a swimming meet tomorrow, and everyone was counting on her. She was counting on herself, counting on her mind to not succumb to sleep-deprivation and counting on her imagination to not spark and fly like it usually did. But in the pit of her stomach, she knew she couldn't count on any of those things, because she was Anneliese Vianelli. She would mess up somewhere. She always did.
She knew just how things would go down: She'd arrive, half-asleep and hurriedly fumbling with her prescription goggles, while her blonde-haired and large-breasted coach would notice and hiss at her, with a raspy voice that never recovered from a long ago tonsillectomy. Then Anna would stare at the ground and get lost in her thoughts until her event started and she rushed up to the block in front of her lane, while the other competitors watched her with confusion and slight contempt. Then the referee would blow the whistle, and she would dive into the water.
Then she would open her eyes and discover that her goggles weren't working properly, and her retinas would sting with chlorine and salt. Still, she would push on and on, and then she would glance to the side to see her opponents falling behind. And then she would feel a surge of power, the surge that always came to her when she was in water, and she would go faster. She would think, this is it. I can do this. I can win this.
And then she would cross over the deep end, and she would fight her sudden burst of fear. She would press on, not daring to look down. She would reach the wall and take a deep breath before diving under to flip around. And then she would have no choice but to look down and see it.
At first, it just would look like dark water, illuminated only by the white cement at the bottom of the pool and red stripes. But then her imagination would run wild, and the stripes would turn into tentacles, and the darkness would gain a form, and what was once the bottom of the deep end would become a colossal squid, looking at her with black, beady eyes.
Her breath would leave her and she would make a mistake. The wrong arm, the wrong side. A mouthful of what was supposed to be air, but was instead water. She would choke, but her body would keep moving. She would slow down, and her heart would pound in her ears. Fragile, icy blue would meet an dark, imagined black, and suddenly she would swim with more than she had ever swam before. She would faintly make out her coach hissing with approval and a few of her teammates cheering her on from the sidelines, but most of all her hearing would be filled with her water-filled chants of, please, please don't let it get me.
Would she start then? Would she feel a pull, a tug on her foot? No, Anna thought decidedly into her pillow. It would just look at me, but it would never touch me. I will reach the finish line first. I will win.
The voice in her head that said these words sounded just like her own, but more confident. It sounded so sure.
So why was there this aching feeling in her gut that those words would never ring true?
Anxiety and fear welled up in her stomach, until she felt as if she might be sick all over her pristine white pillow. She sighed, and with the inhale that followed her new story flooded her brain. She felt her pulse slow, and the nausea subsided a bit. She pushed herself up from her bed and reached for her thick-rimmed glasses. She was nervous and anxious, and she couldn't sleep. There was only one thing to do at this point.
She darted out of bed, careful to avoid that dangerous zone of within a foot of the underneath, and dashed over to turn on the light of her room. She squinted as her eyes burned with the new light. She made her way over to her desk and switched on the lamp, before going back over to her light switch and flicking it into the "off" position. Now Anna's room was dimly lit with the eerie orange glow of her desk lamp.
She sat down at her desk and winced at how the chair creaked. She glanced around before reaching for her pen and clicking it softly. She opened a thin, blue book, and splayed open the empty pages with her fingers. She stared at them for a few seconds, lost in the light beige that was the untouched paper. Lines after lines of nothing...all for her to fill with something.
She leaned over and touch her pen to the paper. Her hand began to move of its own accord.
She stayed like that until midnight, her mind roaring through the words that suddenly had meaning.
Wet concrete beneath her feet. The slapping of her bare feet on the unusually placed pavement. She walked slowly and ungracefully; weren't sidewalks supposed to be outside buildings instead of on the inside?
All she could see were blurred blobs of disoriented color, all creating sounds that made much more sense than they did. She sleepily realized that she didn't have her goggles on, and with a heavy hand she slid them over her eyebrows to rest within her sockets. Now all the lines were clearer, but all the colors had disappeared, and everything was blue.
Her tired brain forced her eyes to look up into mean green eyes, a pair that could only belong to a certain blonde-haired menace. A raspy, destroyed voice gasped angrily, assaulting Anna's poor ears with a slight screeching sound.
"Listen! Your event begins in about five minutes. Stay focused! I can't afford to keep making exceptions for your failing the team just because you have a few personal issues!"
The almost mocking way she said those last few words made Anna's blood boil. A few personal issues? How dare she call Anna's mom a personal issue.
If Anna was more awake, she would have been able to think up a scathing comeback. Maybe not to say to her coach out loud, but to spit it at her in her mind. However, Anna was as good as dreaming, and her brain was not working to the capacity to form even the most tamest insult. She blankly watched the blonde ponytail spin around and walk off, her muscles too weak to follow.
Suddenly, she heard yell that sounded a lot like her name, and she turned slowly to look up at the bleachers. There she saw a frizzy mess of black hair and dark skin waving at her, flashing a beyond white smile.
Lue was here.
That one thought was enough to make the corners of Anna's mouth turn up on their own, and to cause her hand to reach into the air and wave back.
Another flash of smiling white and then only the top of the unruly nest of curls could be seen.
Anna stared a bit before turning back to the pool. She felt a burst of confidence, but also of dread. Lue was here. Her best friend, who had never seen her swim before. Who had never seen her mess up.
She really tried to, but everything blurred again. Her brain sleepily understood that her name had been called, and she padded over to the block. She readied her arms and legs, and stared into the sweet blue water that seemed so harmless. She could hear her coach's hissing and Lue's cheering and mothers talking and her competitor faintly telling her, "They're about to blow the whistle."
None of it is real.
Then a shrill noise pierced the air, and she was somehow in the water, her arms piercing the surface of the water. Her timing was perfect, her arms slicing through the water with impeccable precision and speed. She knew how to make her body work with the water, a magic that she certainly couldn't explain but that she knew wasn't imagined.
She swam hard and fast. Quick glances proved to her that she was ahead of the others. She felt her blood grow warm. Would she really do this?
She felt the wall. A deep breath, and she flipped.
And her heart stopped.
It was there, looking even larger than before. Its eyes staring back into her own, watching her calmly. Didn't it usually take a few seconds to appear?...
She defiantly looked away and went back up to the surface, swimming as fast as her body would go. She couldn't think about that. She couldn't let her imagination get the best of her.
She passed an opponent in the lane on her right. Suddenly she was in first. Surprise fell onto her. When did she get ahead?
"Go Anna! GOGOGOGOOOOO!""
Anna grinned. Lue's cheering rose above all the rest. She could hear her teammates screaming, encouraging her, and even her coach was silent, just watching her with sharp mean eyes.
I can do this. Come on, Anna.
Suddenly, her shin came in contact with something slimy. Slimy and large.
You thought this would be easy?...
Anna's heart skipped a beat. That voice in her head was neither Confident Anna or Normal Anna or Swimming Anna. That voice in her head was Definitely Not Anna.
Suddenly, her face became warm as it was no longer exposed to air, and she was forced underwater. A long, slimy tentacle wrapped around her leg and pulled her deeper and deeper.
Her eyes stung as she opened them. She could see that her prescription goggles were cracked. Sterile, chlorinated water was seeping into her sockets, blurring her vision once again. Black, beady orbs once again stared into her own. Only this time, instead of being deep underneath her, they were directly in front of her face.
This isn't real. This wasn't supposed to be real.
But it is, Anna. This one time, for you, it is.
She instinctually opened her mouth to scream, forgetting that she was underwater. Bitter liquid flooded her mouth, choking her.
A large beak opened.
Please. Anyone, anyone help me.
Suddenly, strong hands wrapped around her waist. Long, black hair floated into her peripheral vision, and a deep, masculine voice whispered in her ear.
"I told you that she couldn't swim if she couldn't sleep."
Anna opened her eyes and tasted bile in her mouth. She quickly sat up and retched, vomiting up water. She then looked up, and looking safely through the screen of her short, shaggy hair, she took in the scene around her.
She was lying on a blanket placed near the pool. A paramedic nurse was at her side, trying to take her pulse. In front of her, the entire room was in chaos. Her swim team was giving her strange glances and whispering to each other, and Lue was behind her mom, looking at her quietly. In the center of the room, a very heated argument was going on between her coach and a woman with dark brown hair, whom Anna knew very well.
"You keep pushing her and pushing her, making her go faster and work harder and come more days and nights and you think that doesn't have any effect on her?!"
"Please, Ms. Vianelli, calm down. Anna goes faster than any other girl on our team. It was only natural that she compete at this meet-"
"It was only natural?! Mrs. Mulier-Demens, my daughter Anna has had chronic insomnia for the past three weeks. The most she's slept is four hours in one night, and that's if she's lucky. Please tell me how, when you've been pushing her so hard, you didn't expect her to become unconscious once she hit the wall?!"
"Ms. Vianelli, with all due respect I had no idea that Anna was having these problems. She never told me anything, and I didn't notice a difference in how she was practicing."
"Oh, you didn't notice? You just didn't think it was strange that she was nodding off during coaching sessions? You just thought those dark circles under her eyes were just normal-"
Anna interrupted at this point, not wanting to be ignored any longer. "Mom?..."
Anna's mom immediately rushed over to her and started fussing. "Honey, I'm right here. I came as soon as I got the phone call. Are you okay? Are you hurt?"
Anna stared at her. "What happened?..."
"You passed out in the pool, sweetheart…why did you walk to the meet today if you knew you were sleep-deprived? You could have drowned!"
Anna reached down and ran a hand disbelievingly over her leg. All she felt was water and a few scratches from being hauled across the cement. No slime, no tentacle marks.
Had it all been a dream?
Suddenly, Lue rushed over to her. "Anna, you're awake! I was so worried about you! I thought you-I-I thought you had died for a second!"
Anna looked up into concerned brown eyes, and once again found her face grinning. "I'm okay, Lue. I'm just a little nauseous."
Lue exhaled a large gust of air, as if she had been holding her breath for a long time. "Thank goodness!" She hugged Anna. "Don't ever scare me like that again, okay?"
Anna smiled and wrapped her arms around Lue's tiny body. "I won't, Lue-Lue."
It was at that moment, looking over her best friend's trembling shoulder, that she saw him.
He was leaning against the wall, his hands in the pockets of his black jeans. He was hiding behind the large crowd of paramedics, moms and swimmers. Looking back, Anna was shocked at herself for noticing him. She would have never seen him, had it not been for his eyes-they were an unnatural shade of grey, never leaving hers for a second, unblinking. He had long, black spiky hair, with bangs that interrupted his gaze and almost completely covered his right eye. His skin was pale, almost dead looking, and his ears were so pointy that Anna would have sworn he had some sort of surgery on them.
Anna stared at him, unable to look away. He reciprocated the action, calmly looking at her with unwavering determination. Suddenly, he turned on his heel, and walked out, not bothering to look back.
It was then that Anna noticed the drops of water on the floor behind him, and came to a chilling realization.
His hair had been wet.