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Adventure Bedtime Suspense

A pale 17-year-old boy rests his elbows on the glass table-top in front of him and leans forward to stare down a basket of fried wonton strips. The container is made of shiny metal, with nothing separating the polished steel surface from the hot, greasy, chunks of crisped wheat.

Thom furrows his brow as he counts the individual dough pimples still sizzling on the outer layer of each one. The juxtaposition makes him queasy. Steam rises from the pile and beads of oil begin to accumulate below. He knows condensation will soon challenge each strip’s structural integrity, and the certainty of that outcome throws Thom into the early stages of panic. His shoulders and neck tense up. His jaw clenches. He squeezes his eyes shut and tries to make the basket go away.

The room is cold, so cold that its intensity burns Thom’s nostrils as he inhales deeply. His exhale pours from his mouth like plumes of smoke into the thin, dry air.

The chill penetrates his feet, until it reaches down inside the bones. He knows that’s when hypothermia starts. He’ll feel relief from the ache and the sting once his lower extremities go numb, but once he starts losing feeling, that’s when it gets harder and harder to thaw out.

He turns his head to the right and opens his eyes, doing his best to keep the table absent from his field of view. A woman by the register at the front of the restaurant holds a phone receiver to her ear and nods slowly while her other hand massages her forehead. Wisps of dark hair spill through her kneading fingers as she grimaces, then sighs.

“No, you cannot order the Tom Kha Gai soup to go,” she explains over the phone. “You just can’t, OK? I don’t know why. You just can’t. I’m sorry.”

Emotionally charged but muffled chatter whines through the phone speaker as the young woman gently lays the phone back down in its cradle.

Thom transfers his attention to a large painting on the inner wall above the entrance of the restaurant. It’s a jungle scene, with primates peeking out of thick foliage through leaves and vines and branches and bushes. A baboon in the center of the painting stares directly at Thom. It has green eyes. Thom does not recall baboons having green eyes.

Thom begins to turn his attention back to the table but pauses halfway, instead staring at a cracked tile in the middle of the floor. He doesn’t want to look at the table, but he has to know. He can’t help but look at the wonton strips.

As he completes his turn back toward the table he squints nervously, blurring and obscuring the table’s contents so all he sees is a hazy constellation of gray, brown, and white. Now he opens his eyes enough that he can see a full puddle of grease nearly covering the bottom of the basket. It is opaque, thick, congealing.

Thom has a headache. Thom feels he might throw up.

But more importantly, Thom needs napkins.

Thom kicks himself for not acting sooner. Thom always did this. Escaping. Hiding. Not facing reality. Not “taking care of his business.” And now more victims. More bodies. More skeletons for Thom to tuck away in his proverbial closet.

Now he can’t take his eyes off the basket, no matter how painful the scene. Then the basket darkens. Darkness overtakes the entire table. Thom fears the darkness will swallow him too as it moves closer, and he resigns himself to his imminent destruction.

“Are you ready to order?” It was the woman from the register. She was standing in front of the nearest fluorescent light, casting a shadow over the table.

“Ah! Ah!” Thom screams. His breaths become quick and heavy as he looks directly into her face.

“Wha-what?! Huh?!” she replies, looking even more terrified than Thom. However, her terror quickly turns from a reactionary emotional impulse to a quite legitimate concern regarding what the fuck might be wrong with this guy.

She nervously tries to smile, but her struggle in that regard only further gives away her crippling level of discomfort.

“Should I come back?” she asks.

“Uh…. Um. No. No. I mean, yes. Well, no. But yes. Well, something else. I have a question,” Thom says.

The woman is probably in her early 20s, and she appears to be of East Asian descent. She’s wearing a white blouse, and Thom sizes up her ensemble. She has her long sleeves rolled up to just above her elbows, and the blouse is fully buttoned save for the one at the very top, right at the collar. She’s wearing a thin, gold necklace. He notices that the stitching on the-

“Shit,” Thom thinks to himself, inaudibly. “How much time has passed since I told her I had a question? Did she respond at all? It doesn’t matter. You can’t end on ‘I have a question.’ God damn it Thom, say something. Fucking say something Thom. Thom! Thom! Say something! She’s waiting! THOM! SAY SOMETHING THOM! SAY SOMETHING!”

The woman’s mouth stays slightly open as she stands awkwardly in front of him, as though she’s not sure if she should say something. He just keeps staring at her neck.

He looks down, takes a deep breath, and clasps his hands together. Then he raises those clasped hands and begins to hit his forehead hard, the protruding knuckle of his right thumb battering a nerve just above the bridge of his nose.

The waitress takes a few steps back. While the battering continues, Thom begins to growl. He rocks in his chair. He looks up toward the entrance and sees the baboon is still watching him. And it still has those green fucking eyes.

“EEEEErrrrrrrrooooooEEEEEEErrrrrrrrrrrrrrooooooooooooooo.” Thom’s growl mixes with a squeal and the sound begins to approach something resembling functional language.

“Rrrawreeeeer!”

Not close enough. Thom regroups and attempts to compose himself, with the goal of verbalizing at least one intelligible phrase. He forces his hands into his lap, sits up enough to create clear airflow through relevant passages, and then Thom manages to squeeze entire sentences out, albeit very quickly and with much shakiness:

“I’m sorry, but where are the napkins? Can you please get me some napkins? I can’t find any napkins. I know. I know. It should be OK. They’re just wonton strips. Right? But, but look. See? Do you see? And there are no napkins. Can you please help me? Please?”

“Uh… Sure…. Yes. OK. Yeah,” she replies, backing away slowly before walking briskly toward the back.

Only now does Thom notice he has several tables of fellow patrons, arranged and seated just beyond some half-closed curtains, all looking at him. He does not understand how he didn’t see them before.

Thom looks up at a ceiling fan, then down at the fingers of his right hand. With his middle finger he rubs a hangnail on the outer-right edge of his pointer finger. Then he picks at it with his pinkie. He rubs his lower lip against the hangnail and glances over just enough to see the baboon still staring at him.

The waitress pokes her head out from the doorway to the kitchen and gestures in Thom’s direction, while an older man next to her looks toward him and nods his head.

Uh oh. Oops. Thom needs to get the fuck out of here. He decides to cut his losses and sacrifice the wontons. His body shakes and trembles. He can’t stand being there for one second longer.

“I’m sorry! I can… Never mind. It’s OK. But. I mean. Um. I have a thing. To do. I mean, sorry. No. I mean… Never mind. OK! Bye! Thank you!”

Having nailed all relevant etiquette guidelines, Thom stands up, relying heavily on the back of the chair for support. His right foot is asleep. He rocks back and forth to put weight on it and hopefully recirculate some blood in there. But he doesn’t have time for that. It feels like thousands of eyes watching him now, and when he peers into the periphery there’s something dark and menacing about those faces beyond the curtain. All he can see near the entrance now are those two eyes. It looks like that baboon might jump out of the painting at any moment. But everything is getting dark now. The glow of the neon OPEN sign dims. Bulbs flicker.

Thom lumbers toward the door as quickly as possible, his right foot sending vibrations through his leg and up his spine. He hits the left side of the double-door hard with his shoulder, but it gives slowly, and only when Thom puts all his body weight into the push does it open all the way.

He stumbles out onto the sidewalk and turns left toward a small set of steps leading behind the building. As he starts to jog the tingles, crackles, aches, and other sensations happening in his legs seem to evaporate, and he notices it’s warm outside. All Thom can hear is the beating of his heart and the boom-boom-boom of his shoes hitting the pavement.

He makes it behind the building and finds a tree near a chain-link fence where he inspects the ground nearby for ants. He sits down, crosses his legs, and curls his torso inward.

Thom lifts his hands just enough to press them against his closed eyelids. Inside he sees tiny swirling shapes laid over what resembles TV screen static.

Occasionally Thom sees demons when he presses on his eyes, but he can make those go away when he tries harder. You see, Thom has all this negative self-talk inside him, and when he’s inside here things have a way of manifesting visually. So yeah. It makes perfectly reasonable sense why Thom would have so many “demons.” 

“Stay positive. Stay positive,” Thom tells himself. “You’re OK. It’s not your fault. It’s OK. Everything’s fine. Don’t. Don’t even worry. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine.”

The words lose their meaning. They’re just noises now. Closer to radio interference than spoken English. The background brightens slightly and shimmers with a mustard yellow hue. Then a pulsating green begins to seep into the foreground, and Thom readies himself.

The demons are usually green for some reason, and sometimes they never evolve beyond this amorphous glow phase. If they do form a face it’s usually emotionless and undefined, as if it were actually a mask for something else. The most frustrating thing about them is that when they arrive they take up so much space.

Though he isn’t in the restaurant anymore he still feels eyes on him. And then, with no ado whatsoever, here it is. The baboon. It still inhabits a jungle, but Thom zooms in until there’s nothing left but the eyes. They begin to glow, their light crowding out everything else.

Then Thom breaks through. It’s all darkness again, but now Thom feels he has a certain degree of control, as though he now holds a loose grip on some lucid dream.

He sees no more eyes. No more green. No more yellow. Just gray. There are trees now. Flowers. He sees a silhouette cross against the backdrop and before it can turn into anything malevolent he crafts it into a little girl skipping. She starts to sing, almost like a taunt, and she skips among the flowers as she sings.

“The children play in the land with no sun! The children play in the land with no sun!”

She laughs, and Thom does not like her laughter.

The scene reminds Thom of a carving hanging on the wall in his parents’ bathroom when he was a kid. He never saw the circle in it as a sun, because all the wood was burned. The carving created these off-white lines, exposing the fresh wood below.

Thom is in control again. He forms clouds over the scene and then he swirls them about, as though using them to erase a chalkboard. He makes the clouds turn red. They dance. Then Thom pans down until the clouds are gone and all he can see is a tree.

The tree appears to have a man sitting under it. The man under the tree leans forward with his fingers pressed against his eyes. The man looks sort of like Thom. Thom bends the lines just so, and he makes the man look almost exactly like himself. The level of detail excites Thom, but it disappoints him that he can’t seem to control the color anymore. Especially because that color is green.

Thom decides he should relieve the pressure from his eyes because he’s been pushing on them for so long. The only problem is that Thom can’t really feel his eyes anymore. The man under the tree is still there, and the man’s image grows in such a way that Thom almost feels like he’s swooping towards the man. No, he is swooping, and his momentum is so great that Thom doesn’t think he can turn back.

Thom still can’t feel his eyes. He can’t even see that image of himself anymore. It’s almost as if Thom had switched perspectives. Because now he can see grass underneath him. There’s a tree behind him again. But he still can’t feel his eyes.

And everything is still green. He sees hundreds of ants swarming around the tree. No, there must be thousands. They begin to crawl onto his pants. He tries to scream, but there’s no sound. There’s never sound in here. It’s only the colors.

“Why is everything green?” Thom asks himself. “It had been gray before. Outside. Before I pressed on my eyes. Right? But now it’s all green. And now I can’t take any of it back.”

Thom no longer knows exactly where he is.

The ants grow in number until they cover Thom’s pants and then they form a hill obscuring the lower half of his body. They crawl up his torso and arms like moss covering a tree. Then they stop, right as they reach the bottom of his nose. Only the top half of Thom’s head remains. He looks down and sees the girl skipping. She grins up at him, drooling. As she wipes the slobber from her chin with her forearm, she seems to be looking beyond him into the distance.

Then the ants fall away. Then the grass, the ground, the tree. With no more anchors or supports, Thom begins to float. There’s nothing left to hold him all together. All the little pieces around him meld with all his little pieces, and he fears we will all blow away soon too. Thom imagines himself as one of those wonton strips, breaking down into a million crumbs. And as he thinks it, he tastes them. Burnt and sandy.

Thom is gone. He thinks he’s gone. But then how can he feel the grit? How can he sense a dryness in his throat? He can still feel the crumbs wriggling inside him, tickling his lips and mouth, and then he feels them burrow down inside his chest and stomach.

Thom can’t breathe. There are too many ants. Too many crumbs. He crumbles and swirls. He’s only colors now.

Thom needs to concentrate. He needs to put us back together again. He broke us down into such small pieces. It’s too hard to put it all back now. We’re too cold. It’s too cold to thaw us out.

But Thom can’t feel the cold anymore. In fact, Thom feels hot. Really hot. And he can’t undress. Because he doesn’t have clothes. He doesn’t even have a body. He doesn’t have eyes.

But Thom still sees the greens. Only the greens. And as all the aberrations blend together, only one uniform shade remains.

October 29, 2022 03:46

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