Not even seconds after my eyes fly open, I realize I can't move. Why can't I move? I try to roll over, get up from the bed, anything! But no, I can't seem to even budge my arm. Dread and panic wells up in my chest when my fingertips fail to give even the smallest twitch at my frantic commands. Is this a nightmare? My eyes skim my surroundings, taking in my small room. It's just as I left it— the desk messy with papers, the smell of stale coffee from the cup I hadn't washed permeating the air. The old air conditioning unit must have shut off while I'd been sleeping, stealing away its dull hum and leaving me in a warm and humid room. The familiar surroundings don't bring me any relief, because it means that I'm awake. Awake and paralyzed and—
There are people surrounding my bed, staring down at me. No, they're not quite people, more like photo negatives— white shadows against the darkness of my room. They wisp around the bed frame, fluttering and flickering, inching towards me. Some are at my ears, filling my head with the low buzz of their whispers. Their incomprehensible language mixes in the air, voices overlapping until all I can hear are their murmurs over the racing of my heart. My eyes dart around, but I can't shut them. Again, I try to move, to lash out at the shadows and get them away from me, but my body is frozen.
No, I try to scream, but all I hear is a low, unintelligible groan that rises from my throat and escapes out my half-open mouth. A pressure that was always there— I hadn't realized how little breath I was drawing with each wheezing, drawn-out gasp— grows heavier on my chest. I continue trying to shout, to say anything. Wake up, I want to tell myself, as if I were only in a dream. Stop, I wish to shout at the shadows whispering and closing in on me. No no no no, to anyone or anything that might hear me and rescue me from my own useless body. But still, all I can manage are soft, pathetic groans out of my dumb mouth.
The weight on my chest intensifies, feeling less like someone is pressing down and more like someone is sitting on it. The voices of the shadows are no longer whispers— their low buzzing has grown into a chaotic symphony. They're shouting, begging, even laughing— laughing at my immobile, vulnerable body. One voice, high and sharp and taunting, stands out above the rest, as if coming from right above me, and beckons to me.
"Come," it croons.
A force— a hand— closes around my ankle, and I feel it pull on me in a smooth, continuous motion. I want to weep, but the tears don't come, even though my paralyzed eyelids have left my eyes so dry that they burn. My hands continue to fail me as I try to grasp the sheets, so I cry out, another pitiful moan leaving my lips. It's the closest semblance of control I have over my body. The only word I can even hope for is No, and it becomes a prayer caught in my throat.
"Nguh, nguh!" I cry as my shapeless groans become half formed words. Hope rouses in me, and I turn my focus to my fingers in a desperate attempt to move them. They refuse, continuing to lay there like dead weight. There is a heavy pain in my arm, as if I'm trying to lift a car and not a part of my own body. Is this pain real? What is it? Muscle pain? Nerve pain? Or was the pain just another delusion brought on by my fear?
Finally, I feel it. My middle finger twitches. A nameless emotion floods through me, something akin to relief, but not joy. Not when my fear of the shadows and paralysis still owns my entire being.
The pressure on my chest sits as heavy as before, matched by a bruising grip around my ankle that is pulling me down. They're trying to take me away, I know, and I can even feel the sheets sliding against my back as it drags me across them, but I remain in the same spot on my bed as I did when I woke up. Is this my fate? Am I going to spend eternity being a victim to the anxiety and fear of being dragged towards hell, but never reaching it?
The shadows are evolving. What were once light smudges against the darkness of my room now have heads, shoulders, mouths on which I could see sharp, inhuman smiles, and hands— so many hands. Hands on my chest and on my legs and in my mouth, as if trying to steal the half-formed words from me before they could even crawl up my throat.
I can move my hand, but I am being moved by them. Their hands are all over me, not warm or cold but heavy, and the hands on my ankle and on my chest are the heaviest of all, pulling and pushing until I wonder how I was still even on my bed and I can't breathe. The breath I try to take is long and painful, trying so hard to draw in air. My mouth forms around a word, lips and tongue numb. I drag my arm to my stomach. The movement is sluggish, trying to steal some of the weight from my chest and it hurts—
"No!" The word rips into the air at the same time my arm cuts a curved path in front of me. In the next moment, my lungs drag in hot breath as I tense, my muscles at last following instructions. I sit up, relishing in how my head can now turn, and examine the room. Tears spill down my cheeks.
The shadows are gone. I'm alone in my small, dark room, with the sour scent of old coffee stuck to my sheets, and only the sound of my breathing is audible in the quiet night. My heart pounds against my sternum, and I taste salt on my lips.
The next morning, I look up "sleep paralysis". Common experiences include hallucinating figures and voices, as well as the feeling of being dragged from your bed and having difficulty breathing. My brain had been conscious, but had yet to activate my motor skills.
Still, I cannot help but feel that, during that time, I had seen things that I had never been able to see before, but are always there. Maybe during moments like that, the space between dimensions is thin. Perhaps a brain that was awake to perceive, trapped in a sleeping body, was able to see past the veil that stood between us and whatever was on the other side.