"The Oneiroi: Darkness and Fear" by Elizabeth Fenley
I wake up every morning with a new word written on my right forearm in thick black Sharpie, so fresh that I can smell it. But it’s not my handwriting. Plus I’m right-handed, and there are no markers in the house—I have to scramble to find a pen to write down confirmation numbers.
Someone is writing on my arm while I sleep.
Pretty sure that would freak anyone out. I am out-of-my-mind freaked out.
I wake up every morning with a marker in my hand. But nothing in my house is written on, and I know I didn’t have it in the office supplies drawer. When I was little, I accidentally used a permanent marker instead of the Crayola washable markers, and I got it on my dress and the kitchen table. I didn’t mean to, but my mother still hit me with the wooden spoon and locked me in my room for what seemed like days.
I don’t use this kind of marker now.
Shaking my head as I press myself reluctantly up from bed, I throw the marker away in the nearest trash can.
T. & M.
We smile when we watch, relish their shock, enjoy one throwing the marker, and the other one scrubbing her arm with hand sanitizer and nail polish remover until her skin is painfully red and abraded.
This is going even better than expected.
When I wake up the next morning, there’s another damn marker in my hand. What the hell is going on?
I immediately look in the trash can, nearly empty. I can see the marker from yesterday. What the fuck?
I take the trash can to the big green garbage can in the garage and dump everything in. Tomorrow is trash day, so that will be one more step to get rid of these stupid things.
I stomp back into the house, more upset about it than I should be.
There’s another word. A new word. In the same place. I couldn’t get yesterday’s word off my arm now matter how much I scrubbed. I had planned to wear a big band aid or maybe an ace bandage to work, make up some excuse about burning myself or something. The skin under today’s word isn’t red or raw, and no traces of the previous word remain.
This is not just someone writing on me while I sleep.
This is something else.
I write the two words on the dry erase board on the refrigerator. They must form some kind of message. But from who? Why? Why me?
My eyes feel like sandpaper after hours of searching online for psychological and sleep issues that might help explain what’s happening. Nothing matches. Everything is about getting items you already have in the house. That doesn’t help me.
I refuse to believe that Sharpies are being left in my hand by a sicko Santa, or a fairy with a mean streak, or a poltergeist who thinks it’s funny. It’s not funny.
I have given up trying to scrub the words off.
I write them on the board, wear long sleeves and know that each day there will be something new.
I tried sleeping in other places—my boyfriend’s apartment, my best friend’s couch, a hotel room in a different city, even back in North Carolina to the house I grew up in where my parents have kept the room as I left it—pale sunshine walls, a canopy bed with green and yellow ruffly linens, a white basket chair suspended from the ceiling in the corners, my desk at the foot of my bed, my long table and bench looking out the second story window onto the lush backyard.
I still got the Sharpie every morning.
There’s not someone breaking into my apartment and drugging me just to gaslight me with a memory.
What explanations are left?
I make a list but crush it and feed it to the garbage disposal out of frustration while I stand, crying, over the kitchen sink.
I stare at the growing list every morning while I let the coffee’s caffeine slowly seep into my tired veins: her, dreams, find, are, your. It makes no sense. It’s not finished.
T. & M.
We smile. They have surrendered to the inevitable. We look forward to the completion of the message.
I just throw the marker away now.
The list is growing: her, dreams, find, are, your, dreams, her
I write down possibilities of scrambled sentences.
This morning, there is no marker.
This morning, there isn’t a word, not a sign there ever were any.
Maybe I imagined it. Maybe it was a dream. Maybe I was sleepwalking when I wrote the words.
I stand in front of the fridge trying to decide if I should erase them.
T. & M.
The message is complete. We wait.
I throw away the remaining markers in a dumpster behind a self-service car wash.
I pretend this never happened, put it behind me. Close the door.
Again this morning, there are no new words.
I erase the words and walk away.
T. & M.
We are not worried.
I walk back to the fridge.
I rewrite the words.
T. & M.
We grin at each other.
Today I tell my therapist. Mostly. I tell her that I was having a recurring dream that the marker appeared in my hand. She has me diving into my childhood, to the incident with the marker.
It wasn’t helpful.
I sift through my supplies drawer—that used to be neat and organized—for Post It notes. I find the big yellow ones. I find a pen, but it’s out of ink. I throw it across the room. I use the dry erase marker.
Each word on a card, I rearrange them. And rearrange them. I was never good at puzzles.
T. & M.
Great. I’ve finally found the message, but it makes no sense.
Find her. Her dreams are your dreams.
What the fuck am I supposed to do with that?
My therapist suggests a change of scenery or routine—a vacation, a visit, a dinner out with friends, rearranging the furniture, new bed linens and curtains, repainting my bedroom, new artwork on the walls.
Fuck that. I don’t do anything half-assed.
I’m moving. I’ll lose a month’s rent on my lease, but I don’t care.
I met my new neighbor on the shared landing between our apartments.
I knew. She knew.
T. & M.
We watch delightedly.
“You,” they say in unison.
“What the hell is going on?”
“Fuck if I know.”
I invite her in and show her the message.
We stand in silence in my kitchen, staring at the yellow Post It notes.
“Well?” I ask her.
“It’s time to talk about dreams. And we’re gonna need a drink—or six.”
Tenebra, Oneirio of Darkness, and Metus, Oneirio of Fear, are pleased.
They move on to the next.
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I doubt I've ever enjoyed a diabolical fantasy so much. I think I had an unsettled sleep last night from this. Thanks, I think. Intriguing.
I love the cleverness in how this unfolded. Feels like the start of something larger, and I would definitely keep reading.
Thanks. I wrote it this morning, and I no idea what their dreams are actually about. I'm good at starting things, writing flash/nano/micro fiction, but finishing longer pieces is a challenge-- always a new idea popping up.