Liv was tired. Goddam bone-tired.
Another day on the lines and her eyes were aching like sagging balloons, ready to burst from the strain required to just stay employed at that dump. She laced her fingers together and pushed her arms above her head as she came to the end of her daily slog to the bus stop. The movement rewarded her with a series of satisfying pops along her cramped joints.
The bench at the bus stop was hard and damp, mildew curled around the edges. But, her aching legs demanded rest.
She pictured a plump, squashy recliner as she lowered herself onto the cold planks. It was a comforting thought, an escape— one of many for Liv.
Like everything else in her world, the bus didn’t run on her schedule. She settled in to wait, and closed her eyes, searching for respite in the quiet corners of her mind.
The air shimmered as she trailed her fingers through motes of starlight. It fell from the sky, softly banking across the tree branches and swept like dust into glittering piles across the grove.
It was a place Liv visited often, a peaceful place of solitude where dreams were born and the stress of the day burned away in the glimmering light.
A trilling laugh came from behind her and she turned. Her mouth popped open on a soft o. She hadn’t been thinking of anyone. This was no figment. Had she fallen asleep?
An odd woman with cool, pale skin was watching her raptly with eyes like wet cobalt— no pupils, just a deep, dark blue.
She was standing in an oily pool formed by drops that fell languidly from the tendrils of her hair, her thin fingertips, hips, and breasts. The starlight died in her wake as she approached.
Her voice rang, as if echoing through a great space. Liv thought of the resounding tones of melancholy hymns in church, a memory of the time her grandmother had dragged her there. Those great bells whose clanging billowed against cold stone and stained glass.
The woman smiled. Full lips parted to reveal a row of dark teeth.
“Who are you?”
The woman’s grin split wide. Her gums seeped a warm red.
“Oh, nothing but a dream, delicious girl.”
She was close now. The sweet jasmine air turned foul— copper and rot.
“Such a beautiful mind you have, Olivia” said the woman, reaching up to sweep the stardust from a branch. Ash fell to the ground.
“Do you know who I am?” she said.
Images rose in Liv’s mind, unbidden.
Razor-thin cracks exploding across the surface of the moon. Gentle hands guiding her off the cliff. Screeching shadows chasing her in the dark. Madness. Nightmare.
Liv gasped. She pinched her arms. Slapped her face. She had to wake up. Now.
“Tch- now, don’t spoil yourself. I want you tender, sweet”
A slick, thin hand grabbed her arm like frozen steel, biting and unyielding. A dripping talon caressed her forearm like a scalpel— a butcher’s cut.
Liv swayed and the nightmare hissed, spraying black between clenched teeth. She closed her eyes against the onslaught and fell.
Liv hit the pavement hard, bracing herself with her arms.
“Oh! Oh my, I’m sorry, so sorry!”
Small, wrinkled hands fluttered about her as she opened her eyes. She was splayed against the sidewalk beside the bus stop, breathing hard and ragged. Her lungs burned, but the exhaust and filth of the city had never smelled so fresh.
“The bus is here, you see. I only meant to wiggle you a little, just to wake you”
Large eyes magnified through thick glass swayed in front of her, thin lips pinched in concern. Liv had the distinct impression of a mole, blind and snuffling.
She thanked the man and accepted a frail hand up.
“Oh, dear. You’ve hurt yourself.” the man fussed about her arm with knotted fingers.
A thin line ran from wrist to elbow, weeping bright red.
Liv finally cracked open her apartment door, nearly four hours after the end of her shift. She had stopped at the clinic, the nurse had bandaged her up and sent her on her way with a handful of ‘helpful literature’ and a concerned frown, obviously not believing her story of falling off the bench. No pavement cut with such surgical precision.
The single room apartment was dark; with fumbling, frantic fingers, she turned on every light in the place, sweeping brightness into every dingy corner. She lamented the fact that she didn’t have a great, big dog to guard her door. Not that she could afford to feed one. She could barely afford to feed herself.
With the darkness banished to the streets outside her windows, Liv went about the task of staying awake. The kettle whistled— she flinched.
Finally, with a cup of coffee strong enough to chew in hand, she settled onto the lumpy futon to wait out the night.
The minutes stretched by and Liv felt as if she was being stretched as well, like nylons pulled to a translucent film— she was going to break.
Minutes stacked on minutes until she was ticking off hours instead.
Liv let a thin hope into her mind, cradled it gently. Perhaps, it was just a dream.
She closed her eyes and loosed a deep breath. Tension leaked away, her face unpinched, hands unclenched.
“Olivia” the voice was small, an echo.
Liv’s eyes snapped open. The room was empty.
Just my imagination, she thought, she prayed.
The first thing she noticed was the darkness. The shadows she had swept out of the room were there again, in the corners. She looked behind her, every corner and edge the same. When she looked back, they had grown and she could see the line of demarcation, the shadow front, moving towards her.
She needed to move, to run, but she found she couldn’t. She struggled and bucked as her body filled with the molasses of nightmares and kept her firmly in place. She didn’t move an inch.
No, she was moving. Moving so slowly she barely perceived it. It wasn’t enough.
She closed her eyes.
“There’s no one to wake you now, sweet girl. Succulent girl.”
The voice was close now. She felt it against her cheek.
Copper and rot flooded her nose.
“Don’t fight. I want you, slowly.”
Liv sucked in a foul breath as something cool and thin slid across her throat. The world seemed unsteady, fading. Sounds, and senses dimmed. Pressure built against her skull as if someone was tamping her very consciousness, removing all the space where her thoughts found their breath.
She was almost gone. No thought. No name. No dreams.
The mug shattered. Spilling black coffee across the carpet, soaking and creeping.
Liv choked, her body wracked and gasping for air like she had been pulled from the ocean moments before drowning. Her chest burned.
The cat sniffed at the mess and walked away with an irritated twitch of his tail, unimpressed. He jumped into her lap and she scooped him up gratefully.
“Oh, you beautiful creature. You don’t know how close that was.” she laughed in relief and held him close, stroking him soothingly from head to tail. He pushed into her hand, his purring cracking the tension she had been holding. She melted back against the futon— and froze.
“Whose cat are you?”
The cat nudged her hand and turned to face her, cobalt eyes flashing in the low light.