An eardrum shattering scream pulled my body straight off the bed. My eyes adjusted to the room, the moon offering the dimmest of light through my small window. I made out the rumpled sheets over my legs. The closed doors of the closet. The desk seated at the other side of the room. All the while, my lungs chased air after air. Confusion set in. Was that scream mine or someone else's?
As if to answer my question, another scream tore through the silence. The teeth-gritting, nails-digging-through-skin kind. Heavy with agony, torment, and a promise of vengeance. It covered every inch of my skin as sweat broke out and chills rolled up then down my spine.
Thoughts of my parents and my sweet four-year old brother punched me in the stomach. Their rooms were upstairs, mine at the basement. I chose it when we moved-in months ago. I first thought it cool to have a secret den in a literal sense. A hide-away. A cellar.
I leaped out of bed, wrestling the sheets off me. I rushed to the door and dove for the knob, but it was locked. Again and again, I twisted the cold metal this way and that. But still, it wouldn't give. I balled my fists and pounded the door, dread and desperation hoping to destroy the solid wood. When my attempts fell in vain, I grabbed for the chair by the desk. I sliced the air with it, with so much force even a baseball player would be proud. A deafening crash and scattered wood pieces later, the door was still intact.
I scanned the room for other exits. The small window would do, I could fit through there. The only problem was the height, so high up it almost touch the ceiling. I dragged my bed directly below the window and hoisted the desk on the mattress. I clambered, adding on to the pile, then stretched my arms up for the lever. The window was one of those awning types, where the hinge above allowed the frosted glass to swing inward. I stood on tiptoes, peering through outside. And cursed. Metal grills blocked the opening. My head wouldn't even fit through a gap.
I climbed back down and spotted another door that I hadn't noticed before. I scurried over and tried the knob. To my absolute relief, it opened. However, my small triumph winded down the drain when the space turned out to be a restroom. Its lone window a replica of that in my bedroom.
Helplessness enveloped me, pulling me backwards step by step until my back hit a wall. I slid down to the cold tiled floor and huddled my shoulders to my knees. Labored gasps replaced my normal breathing.
How could I fail the most important people to me? How could I afford to be safe down here while who knows what wretched and sickening things were happening to them?
The reverberating scream struck again, cutting my insides one painful slice at a time, further disturbing my already disturbed state of mind. I covered my ears with both palms and did the only thing I could. I cried. And cried some more. My sobs racked my entire body.
This couldn't be happening. How did it turn out like this?
The day went by perfectly: We had the usual fried eggs and bacon for breakfast. We drove to town and did grocery shopping together. I pushed the cart around while my brother sat on it. We ate lunch at a fast-food chain afterwards. We spent a regular and perfectly normal afternoon facing our phones and computers. I helped mom prepare for dinner and we all ate together at the dining table, laughing at my Dad's silly work stories and at my brother's messy but adorable eating exhibitions.
And then we hit the bed early. Because we had to wake up early… Because tomorrow would be a school day.
Just like that, the last puzzle piece fell in place for me, forming a picture not so absurd: This must be a dream. I must be in a dream.
Yes, that would explain everything. Why would my bedroom door be locked from the outside to begin with? Upon taking another look around, I realized this room didn't look like my room, not really. The absence of rock band posters and K-pop collectibles were evident on the plain yellow walls. The floor wasn't wood. The furniture looked different, too.
Not to mention I wasn't supposed to have my own restroom. Panic had me so much in a grip I hadn't paid attention to that particular oddity. I didn't have my own restroom!
And how about my phone? I always took it with me, even in sleep. But I didn't spot any phone, or any gadgets, lying around here.
All these didn't make any sense. And dreams were designed not to make sense, to be weird. This was a dream. A really bad dream. A nightmare.
A suppressed laugh escaped me, coming out more as a snort-sigh hybrid. With a growing feeling of assurance that everything in the house – our real house – was okay, I stayed in place and willed myself to wake up. This nightmare would be over soon. I'd be out of this mind-created world soon. I'd wake up, I knew. Soon.
I didn't know how long I sat on the floor, cradling my head on my knees, waiting. But the next moment, I was lying on bed again. Like, I just blinked for less than a second and when I opened my eyes, I was transformed back to the bed. Rays of sunlight streamed through the window, illuminating the same room I'd been in a second ago. The broken pieces of wood that littered the floor had mysteriously vanished. The desk, somehow, had returned to its original place. As I said, dreams didn't make sense.
What seemed to be minutes later, knocks sounded at the door. I sat as a woman dressed in beige blouse and beige pants walked through the threshold, holding a tray of food.
She offered a tight smile. Practiced. Professional. "Good morning, here's your breakfast."
Not answering, I watched her place the tray on the foot of the bed. She crossed the room to drag and push the table over to me. She picked up the tray and set it on the table, her hands a little shaky.
"I'll be back later for the tray." She said. "Enjoy your meal."
She smiled, less strained this time, and then she marched away to the door. She was about to reach the handle when I remembered something.
"Wait!" I called out, a little louder than I intended.
Her shoulders hiked up in surprise before she turned to me with a high-pitched, "Yes?"
"Sorry," I said sheepishly. "But do you know where my family is?"
I wasn't entirely sure why I bothered to ask. I knew they were in our house, sleeping, obviously. But maybe I just wanted to make sure they were fine and safe even in my own dreams.
The woman took her time staring at me, almost as if in a daze.
"You know, relatives?" I prompted, like I was talking to my four-year old brother. "I have parents. And a little brother. Do you know where they are?"
"Well," She said, eyes flickering to the door. "I- I heard they'd be here today."
"Oh good, I'd really love to –" The door opened then closed faster than a mouse trap in action. Jerry must have opened a training course. And that lady was valedictorian. "…see them. Nice talking to you, too."
Really, people in dreams could be so rude sometimes. On second thought, so were those in real life. Sad, but true.
I shrugged. "Guess everybody has issues."
The next scenarios fleeted by in a blur. I ate the food, tasteless of course. The rude lady came back to retrieve the tray as promised, not uttering a single word. I circled the room a few times, needing to move my legs around. I sprawled on the bed, examining stains on the ceiling.
I blinked. And then another knock hit the door. As always, it opened without me answering. When I saw who walked through, I jumped off the bed and launched myself to him.
Arms wrapped me in a comforting hug. "Abby."
"I'm so glad to see you."
"Me too." He murmured, sounding almost… sad.
I drew back to study his face when I noticed two men behind him, both dressed in beige top and bottoms, strangely similar to the rude woman's attire – though one of the men wore a long white coat over his. Movement from the corner of my eye caught my attention. I looked around dad, finding the little boy sticking to him like glue.
"Hi Justin!" I cooed. "Can you give me a hug? Your sister really missed you so much."
Big, shiny, innocent eyes glanced at my father, then at me, and then back to him.
"Go on." Dad urged, placing a hand on the boy's shoulder. "You need it as much as she does."
Justin took the few steps to me. I wasted no time, I crouched down and engulfed him in my arms. A bit too eagerly, I must say. Dad advanced abruptly, his shoes now a few inches away from me and Justin. I looked up to a set of surprised eyes, alert even. And I noticed so were the two men at the side.
So jumpy, everyone in here.
Dad motioned for the bed. "Why don't we take a seat?
So we did. I perched on the edge, dad sat beside me, and Justin on my lap. I rumpled my brother's hair, then smoothed it back again.
"You seem older than I remembered. What have you been eating?" I teased.
"Chocolate." He licked his lips with a smile.
I laughed and felt like all these, save for those two extra strangers, were actually… normal. I almost forgot this was a dream.
"Well then," I said. "Spare me some, okay? I could use a little more height myself."
He nodded, his head bouncing with energy. I reached out to give his cheeks a soft squeeze, because I just couldn't resist his cuteness. I held Justin's hands in my own, massaging the adorable pudgy fingers, while I turned to face dad.
"So, where's mom?" I asked.
I didn't miss how he met eyes with the two men before he answered. "She couldn't make it. Tell me, Abby. How are you doing? Are you comfortable in this room? Are they treating you well?"
A sudden change of topic, but I just went along. "Yeah, I guess. Aside from some people's lack of conversation ethics, and the bad taste in interior design, this place –" This dream, I meant to say. "…is okay. Oh, not to mention the awful screams earlier."
A fold appeared between his brows. "Screams?"
"Yeah, like the ones from bad horror movies. That terrible sound effect of a woman's screech, usually accompanied by a wolf's howl? Not cool that they have that here, in the middle of the night, no less."
Again, he glanced at the men and inhaled a deep controlled breath. "I'll be right back."
Dad strode over to the man in long white coat and mumbled something. Then he walked out the door, the man trailing behind him.
Had I mentioned dreams were weird?
A small tug at my hands brought my focus back on Justin. I couldn't help but smile.
"What is it?" I said.
His eyes roamed my face, his bottom lip jutting out. "When're you coming home?"
My smile turned secretive. "I am home. I'm sleeping in my room right now. This is all just a dream. My dream, actually. It just so happens that you and dad are in it."
He blinked, and stared at me the same way he stared at the earthworm I held in his face when he was two, eyeing it for the very first time, seeing it as foreign… unfamiliar.
"I want daddy." He muttered.
"Okay." I set him down, grasped his hand, and rose to my feet. "Come on, let's meet him outside."
The remaining man approached us. "Excuse me, Abby, but let me assist him out for you."
"No need, thank you." I would never entrust my brother to a stranger, dream or not.
He looked over at Justin, addressing him this time. "Do you want to go with your sister?"
I didn't expect it. Never did. But my little brother pulled away from me, his delicate fingers slipping from my grip. He settled beside the stranger, clutching the man's leg. Speechless was an understatement. I clamped my hands together, helping them ignore the sudden loss of warmth, physically crushing the disappointment and humiliation.
"Oh." I said. "Fine, then. Be careful."
The man took Justin's hand and led him out the room.
Rejection left a dent in my chest. But whatever, I just had to remind myself that my real brother was out there in the real world. My real brother would choose me over any stranger. Right here though, I needed to start taking charge. This was my dream after all, and I should be the one to make the rules. Which was why I approached the door with purposeful strides. I refused to be locked up in here any longer. I lifted a hand to once more open the door, willing for it to be unlocked. The knob twisted with ease and the door swung outward, creating a foot wide space to freedom.
I had to pause and revel in the victory of this moment. An intense joy spread throughout my veins at the simple act. Irrationally satisfying. The sense of accomplishment told me to take my time. And I did. But I wished I didn't. Because then I wouldn't have overheard my father's words as he conversed with the men.
" –been almost a year." My dad was saying, frustration taking over his voice. "Why isn't she getting better?"
"Sir, we're doing everything we can to develop treatments specifically for her. Behavioral observations take time, especially in cases with teenagers. Added emotional traumas only complicate things. I'm sorry, but please understand this case isn't as easy to remedy as you think."
Acid rose to my throat. What in the hell were they talking about?
"I just.." My dad sighed, defeated. "I don't know what to do anymore. Look, are you at least sure no one was making those noises last night?"
I held my breath and my insides together.
"Positive, Mr. Thompson. The staff on duty reported no such incident. If it makes you feel any better, Abby has actually shown progress in cognition and speech lately, as proven by your exchange inside the room. Compared to how she'd been ten months ago, I'd say it's quite an improvement. Relapses, such as this instance, rarely happen anymore. The therapies help, but I think your frequent visits play a big part in it, too. Rest assured we'd continue to notify you if ever something like this occurs again."
My heart was a ferocious animal attempting to break through my ribs. Its roars steady and loud in my ears.
"But then why does she keep asking about her mother?" Dad insisted. "Why doesn't she remember?"
Remember? Remember what?
My body froze. Image after image flashed before my eyes. Like a bullet train at full speed with dysfunctional breaks.
A coffin sunk lower to the underground, my mom's picture right beside it. My dad cried next to me, a newly-born Justin in his arms. People behind me whispered among themselves, "She'd always had difficulties giving birth."
Mom's death anniversary. Justin's birthday party. A cake before him and balloons in the background. The candles turned from one to four. At one corner, always at a corner, I glared at him when I knew I shouldn't, still blaming him for mom's disappearance. One night, when Justin slept in bed, I shoved a pillow on his face, pushing hard while he thrashed, shouting that it was all his fault. Dad pulled me off him. Justin coughed and heaved. Dad locked me out the room.
"STOP!" I gasped, suffocating in my own thoughts. My hands pulled at my hair, beat at my skull, anything to make it stop.
"Abby?" My dad called in a muffled voice, followed by more muffled footsteps, like a thick wall separated us.
I shut my eyes hard, but the onslaught of images kept coming.
A woman with a gentle smile and soothing voice faced us. I, together with my dad, sat on a sofa. I talked about how I made my mom disappointed and upset because of what I did to Justin. She questioned how I could say so. I said, "Mom talked to me last night."
"NO! Make it stop!" I wailed, my own voice turning hoarse.
Arms held me in place, my hands trapped behind me. Reassurances that everything would be okay floated around. I dared open my eyes to a squint, barely discerning a syringe on its course to my neck.
In my dad's study, I meant to look for him, but ended up snooping through the files on his desk. I read my name on a sheet of paper, along with the words schizophrenia, complications at birth, and immediate medical treatment.
Despite all the images that raced through my mind, one significant detail snatched my attention. It crumbled my resolve and drained all the fear in me. I focused on it when my limbs collapsed and my vision faded to black. Why? Why? I knew why, because I could think of one reason why I felt the prick of the needle as it sunk into my skin. And why it hurt.
An eardrum shattering scream pulled my body straight off the bed. My eyes adjusted to the room, the moon offering the dimmest of light through my small window. I made out the rumpled sheets over my legs. The closed doors of the closet. The desk seated at the other side of the room. All the while, my lungs chased air after air. Confusion set in. Had I been here before?
As if to answer my question, I noticed the door – the chipped and scratched part a little off to the center. As if a shovel had been smacked into it… or someone had thrown a chair at it.
Realization was a bucket of ice, tipped up-side down above my head. The cold seeped into my skin, leaving goosebumps in its wake.
Just to clear the haze, just to hear the terrifying reality out loud, just to see if the spoken would bring as much horror as the thought, I whispered, "I don't dream of nightmares. I'm living one."