by Elizabeth Burnside
Juliette stirred with a troubled moan. She was caught in the grasp of a nightmare. It began to fade as soon as she woke up. The raspy shadow of a whisper was all that remained.
“I will have you.”
She rose through a thick fog of confusion and pain, sticky and thick as molasses. Her eyes opened and she blinked against the brightness, not of sun shining through her bedroom window, but of fluorescent lights reflecting off of bare white walls. With difficulty, she tried to figure out where she was and concentrated on her surroundings: the sound of machines buzzing and beeping; the smell of something astringent; rough sheets and blanket covering her; there were metal rails on either side of the bed she was laying on. Her teeth felt gross. She lifted her hands to her head and felt bandages. Her head was pounding. Someone walked into the room and Juliette turned to see who it was and winced in pain.
Her parents, Frank and Anna, rushed to her side and embraced her with relieved fierceness.
“Mom? Dad? What’s going on?”
“Baby. Oh thank God you’re awake. Frank, she’s awake!”
“I’ll go get the doctor,” Frank said as he reluctantly released his daughter and walked out.
Anna continued to hold and rock her daughter, tears falling on Juliette’s blue hospital gown. Juliette hugged her back but her confusion overrode most of the comfort she normally might have taken from it. Juliette asked for some water, forcing her mother to let go and freeing Juliette from the stifling stress of her mother’s worry. Anna continued to fidget and fuss over her and was fluffing and repositioning her pillow when Frank walked in with the doctor and some nurses.
Anna and Frank were whisked out of the room and the nurses and doctors swarmed her like bees around their dying queen. Frank and Anna sat on benches out in the cold hospital hallway. Frank put an arm around his wife who began to cry again. In protective response, he wrapped his other arm around her and held her tight in a knuckle whitening grip.
“Oh my God, Frank, what are we going to tell her? I mean how? How, Frank?”
Frank simply said, “Together,” and he rested his chin lightly on the top of her head.
When the doctor came out to talk to Frank and Anna, they stood up. A blue stethoscope hung about his neck. He was older with gray and silver hair and wore gray wired glasses. He was not prone to frivolous smiles. The doctor spoke with cautious hope.
“Her memory, aside from the night in question, is intact. As we suspected, she’s not paralyzed in any way, nor will she need to relearn her life. Her memory will most likely come back, maybe in flashes or maybe all at once.” The doctor stopped distractedly as his name was barked over the intercom and then hurriedly continued, “I suggest that you tell her what happened before then. Hearing it from you will prepare her for the memories and make them somewhat less traumatic. I want to keep her here for at least a couple more days. Once she’s released, I suggest that you take her to our psyche ward for a recommendation. Physically, she’s going to be fine. Mentally, she may have a long road ahead of her. With the loss and the TBI, she is at a higher risk for PTSD, depression, and survivor’s guilt.”
They thanked the doctor as he rushed off and the nurses said they could see their daughter. They walked in, heads and shoulders down, heavy with the weight of relief, worry, pain, and grief. They held hands for comfort and strength as they told their daughter what had happened. In moments, Juliette’s life was in an upheaval. The mental pain matched her physical pain and her body shook with the gravity of her grief. Frank and Anna wrapped her up in their sympathy and love as best they could but felt helpless in the fight to protect their daughter from life. Juliette’s silent sobs shook her frail body and were periodically punctuated by gulping attempts to breathe. She finally cried herself to sleep. Only then did Frank allow himself to cry as Anna stared out the window and pretended not to notice.
It had been Juliette’s birthday that night. She and her friends had gone out for celebratory drinks at Dorian’s, their favorite bar. By the time they’d left the bar, everyone, including the designated driver, was drunk. There had been an accident. Billy and Sarah had been up front while Jake, Danny, and Juliette had been in the back. Billy had been driving. He died instantly. Sarah, Juliette’s best friend, died on the way to the hospital. Jake and Danny had been checked in to the hospital and released the same day. Jake and Danny had called every day to check on her. Her parents took turns answering the phone, but wouldn’t let them come visit her until she was awake. In part, they were being overprotective of Juliette, but they were also protecting the boys. They didn’t need to see her this way after what they too had been through.
Frank went and got a cup of coffee from a vending machine then fell asleep in the chair by Juliette’s bed before he had taken a single sip. Anna took the opportunity to go outside. She was too distracted to notice the scent of Jasmine blooming right outside the sliding hospital doors. It was dark and the sultry night sky was lit up by spotlights and a moon somewhere stage left. She thought she saw a star or two. She walked through the garage to her silver Toyota, opened the moon roof, and called Jake to let him know that Juliette was awake but couldn’t have visitors yet. She lit a cigarette and asked him if he’d let Danny know. He said he would and asked her if there was anything else he could do for them. She spoke with him a bit longer then hung up and lit another cigarette without even realizing that she’d finished the first one. Her puffs were long and deep like young lovers’ first kisses, but tainted by death.
Juliette stepped with trepidation from the cold fluorescents into the bright summer sunshine which warmed her skin and peppered her pale arms with goose bumps. But it could not loosen death’s icy grip on her heart. Now the hospital could not distract her from living without Sarah and Billy. Now she would have to finally deal with her loss, her grief, and getting on with her life. Her parents wanted her to come home with them but she refused. There had been too many days of probing – both physical and mental – and voices: hushed voices of patients and visitors; intercom voices; clipped nurses’ voices; her parents’ fake cheerful voices; and the voices in her nightmares. There’d been too many people for too many days. She craved the silence and privacy of her apartment.
She missed her cat, Henry. He was a Maine Coon that she called her cantankerous old man. She missed real clothes and makeup. She wanted to sit in her overstuffed gray recliner with her pillow and Walking Dead throw that her father had bought her for Christmas last year. She longed for the comfort of her memory foam mattress and book shelf headboard. She wanted to slip on her Victoria’s Secret leopard nighty and slip beneath her luxurious red comforter and fall asleep with her head comfortably resting on her memory foam pillow. As scared as she was of facing her reality, she was beyond ready to get back to the normality of her life.
At her apartment, her parents insisted on coming in to help her get settled. Finally, she had to fake yawn and insist on a nap. Once they were gone, she got into her nighty, made some coffee, sat on the couch, turned on the TV, and lit a cigarette. Henry jumped on the couch and curled up next to her with an accusing stare and she pet him into a state of mindless and blissful purring. She knew that she was going to have to think about death eventually, but for now, she shoved it onto the highest and deepest shelf she could find in her still sometimes aching head.
Juliette awoke to find someone standing over her. She screamed and jumped up from the couch, but realized that no one was there. Her heart rate began to drop back to normal until she heard a voice.
“You will be mine.”
The phone rang and her heart almost stopped. Jake and Danny wanted to come over and she said yes quickly. The voice was just a remnant of a nightmare. She walked into the kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom, and turned on the lights. She stared at the TV and saw nothing. At one point, she thought she smelled dirt or something earthy. Her finger twitched every now and then. When the doorbell rang, she emitted a high-pitched squeal.
She let the boys in with relief and poured them some drinks. The talk was minimal because no one was there to talk about that night, the accident, nor the fallen. They watched a movie instead, for which Juliette was grateful. She didn’t want to talk to them about what had happened. Like her parents, they were too close to the situation. Besides she was going to a psychologist tomorrow and she figured she’d save all the drama for her.
Juliette was about to have breakfast. She took the last sip of her coffee then walked over to the fridge for some eggs. While cracking the eggs, she began to gag over a sudden putrid taste in her mouth. She felt something wriggling on her tongue and ran to the sink to spit it out of her mouth. Her face became a distortion of disgust as she observed the maggot wriggling about on the stainless steel. She didn’t have time to run to the bathroom as last night’s dinner came up. She cancelled her appointment with the psychologist, crawled under her blanket, and cried herself to sleep.
When Juliette woke up, her room was dark. And she was not alone. She was kissing someone. They were both naked. She couldn’t remember going anywhere nor inviting anyone into her home or bed. And she didn’t know who this naked person was. This had to be a delusion. This person… No, not a person, or at least not human. It was shaped like a human, but the skin was translucent and Juliette could see muscle, tendons, blood flowing; everything over the bones but under the skin. Nothing oozed; everything seemed to be held together, so she assumed there was skin. It was like one of those pictures in medical books. It felt like skin. It felt good. Only… it … had a woman’s form. She was making out with a woman with see-through skin and she honestly didn’t know which of those two features was stranger.
She was confused and her body tensed up. The woman-shaped creature began to kiss her neck. Her lips travelled slowly down from just below her ear. This translucent-skinned thing grazed her breasts against Juliette’s belly, kissing her between her own involuntarily heaving ones. As the womanly entity continued to wander around her body with her lips, she began to relax and sink into this scintillating sensation of heat and mystery. Juliette was about to give in completely to her desires, when she became aware of a muted but high-pitched and screeching music that sounded like the score of a horror movie. As she became aware of this music she also became aware of a man. He was only a shadow, barely a presence, but he was watching them intently. She began to resist the haze of abandonment. It was an evil presence. The other woman paid no attention to him and tried to push Juliette back down onto the bed. Juliette began to fight.
“WAKE UP!” She heard herself scream.
Juliette clawed her way out of her nightmare and into wakefulness. She was in her polka-dot pajamas and, except for her cat Henry, she was alone. She caught sight of something in her peripheral vision and Henry began to hiss and yowl. She screamed and turned to look, but there was nothing there.
“Bad, bad dream. Very bad dream,” she muttered to herself as the now-calm Henry stared at her.
She considered going back to sleep but the presence of something evil still lingered. She got up, and muttering some more, got out of the room fast. She made herself hot apple cinnamon tea, lit a cigarette, and watched TV for two hours before falling back to sleep on the couch with Henry at her feet. The image of a man in shabby black clothes faded and the TV station she’d been watching went to infomercials.
The next morning, Juliette woke up and immediately clutched her stomach. It felt like a swarm of black butterflies had hatched in her gut and thought her insides were its food. The funeral for Billy and Sarah was today. She still had no memory of that night so the last time she remembered seeing Sarah was when she had gone to her apartment to borrow a dress. She’d been in a hurry. There was nothing significant about the memory except that it was her last. She hadn’t been especially close to Billy, but she had liked him well enough. Mostly she just knew that he’d made Sarah happy. And now he’d killed her.
She ate a banana, drank some coffee, fed Henry, put clothes and makeup on, put her hair up, then sat and waited for her parents to pick her up. She hated waiting and her eye was twitching. She ran out when she heard them honk. They were all quiet on the way, each absorbed in their own memories of Sarah. She’d been as much a part of Frank and Anna’s lives as Juliette’s. When Frank had been unemployed, Sarah had brought them vegetables from her garden. When Anna had battled breast cancer, she’d cooked dinner for them at least twice a week. In general, she could always lift their spirits no matter what was going on. She’d been a good part of all of their lives and they missed her.
It would have been a nice funeral if a funeral could be nice. There were calla lilies and tears. There was somber music and a slideshow of happy memories. The mourners took their seats and bowed their heads as the priest began to pray. For Juliette, it was a blurry murmur of platitudes. She bowed her head nonetheless. The priest had a soothing voice and she let the sound of it, rather than the words, wash over her. She was caught up in the memory of Sarah’s laughter when she noticed that the priest’s voice had faded to a creepy strained whisper. She opened her eyes and looked around, her brow furrowing in consternation.
She was in two places at once, it seemed, as though one location had been superimposed over another. She was still in her pew at the church, but she was somewhere else too. She was in a huge cave with openings to other smaller caves. There was fire everywhere: in torches, fire pits, and fireplaces. The rotten-egg smell of sulfur made her nose wrinkle. If she believed in Hell, this is what it might look like. There was the sound of metal striking something hard and what sounded like an old generator coming from somewhere down one of the smaller tunnels.
She blinked her eyes and a man appeared a little over five feet from her. She could see him but could not make out any details of his features. He was fading in and out like an image on an old TV with a crappy antenna. He was wearing a raggedy, black suit that didn’t hang on him right and an old-fashioned black hat with a black ribbon around it. He looked surprised to be there, but then got excitable when he caught sight of her. His lips began to move quickly as he took a step towards her and he gestured as if in a great play, but all Juliette could hear was static. She shook her head at him to indicate that she couldn’t understand him. He frowned, then shrugged and smiled. Something wriggled between his lips then crawled out of his mouth. She shrank away from him in repulsion. Then suddenly, the hell place was gone, the priest’s voice was back to normal, and the static guy was gone. She looked around and sighed in relief. She was bowing her head again when something white caught her eye. It was a maggot wriggling about at her feet.
“Why are you here?” Schreiber looked at Juliette, pen poised above a leather-bound notebook.
Juliette was sitting in an office that had more the feel of a living room. The walls were a warm buttery yellow. Strategically placed candles filled the room with a light rainy scent. Various nature pictures hung on the walls. There were ethereal cream sheers with cream lace curtains hanging over the one window and the cream rug was plush and dreamy. Dr. Schreiber had encouraged her to take off her shoes when she’d first come in and she had done so obligingly. There was a big plump sectional and two big comfy recliners. Juliette chose one of the recliners where she sat with her legs stretched out on the footrest, feet crossed.
“The psyche ward at the hospital recommended you,” she said with a shrug, “so here I am.”
“Not everyone takes the recommendation. It’s not required. So, why are you here?”
Juliette was silent for several moments. A bird chirped just outside the window. In the distance, she could hear cars and a lawn mower. Doctor Schreiber watched Juliette’s face. She was looking out the window and she had pulled her legs up and under her. She was biting her lower lip gently. She had her arms wrapped around her as though she was cold and her shoulders were pushed slightly forward. Despite the comfy chair, she was obviously not relaxed. She sighed and looked down at her hands. Then she looked up at the doctor.
“I have no problem speaking to a complete stranger about my feelings about what has happened. You’re more objective, not so emotional about it like my friends and family. They’re so close to the flames. I feel sad, which I’m supposed to feel. I feel anger towards Billy for not staying sober like he was supposed to, and I know that is natural and normal as well. Have I forgiven him? Not a chance,” She paused for a deep breath and continued, “but I’m working through it, because I know that people screw up. I know that Sarah would have forgiven him and would have wanted me to do the same. I know that overall he really was a good guy. If he had survived the accident, it would have taken him longer to forgive himself than anyone else.”
When she didn’t continue, Dr. Schreiber asker her, “Have you gotten any of your memory back from that night?”
Juliette shook her head no. Her feet were back on the footrest, her hands were resting on her lap, and she was absentmindedly turning the silver ring on her finger around and around so that the delicate silver flower was up and then down and up again. She remained silent, thinking about the weird things that had been happening to her and wondering how long it would take the nice men in white coats to show up once she told the doctor what she’d been experiencing.
“Do you want the memories to come back?” Dr. Schreiber was scribbling in her notebook.
“I don’t really think it matters. It won’t change anything. And even if I do get my memories back from that night, I may never remember the accident itself. It was my birthday, and chances are, I was wasted by the time we left. Who’s to say that I would have remembered it anyway?” Juliette ran her hand through her already tangled hair and continued, “You asked me why I’m here. I think I have problems unrelated to the accident. I think that mentally, I’m dealing. Maybe the reason I’m here is so that you can tell me that what I’ve been going through has to do with my brain injury. I prefer that to losing my mind.”
Juliet spoke and Dr. Schreiber scribbled away. She stopped now and then, looking at Juliette with intense green eyes and slightly pursed lips with fading pink lipstick. Then she’d take her pen and write as though her hand were a separate thing. Juliette told her of her dreams, the maggot incident, the voices, and her experience at the funeral.
“Ever since I woke up in the hospital, I constantly feel as though I’m being watched. The phone rings and no one is there. I see a shadow and no one is there. I spend half my waking hours looking behind me to see no one and my sleeping hours waking myself up with moans, yelling, and half-screams.” Her voice had begun to get shaky. “The man I saw at the funeral… he’s in more and more of my dreams. And when I wake up, the sheets are always twisted. Sometimes my forehead is moist. This morning, I woke up with an imprint on my back where he had touched me. He’s always trying to talk to me, but I can never understand him. Except an occasional whisper… after I’ve already woken up.” She began to cry, but continued, “I know in my mind it can’t be real, but that man feels real to me. I don’t know what he wants. What does he want?”
Juliette was curled up as far into the corner of the chair as she could get. She put her head down into her hands and cried. Dr. Schreiber pushed the Kleenex towards her and stayed as still as possible, not speaking and not writing. This was not something she’d dealt with before. She would have to listen to the recording, do research, confer with her colleagues. The empathetic part of her was sympathetic to Juliette’s plight. The doctor in her, the part obsessed with how the brain works or doesn’t, was intrigued. The hour was up and the next appointment made.
“Juliette,” the doctor said as she walked her patient to the door, “it’s important that you come back. I want you to start keeping a journal of your dreams and notate the date and the time. And anything else strange that might happen to you. I will have something more concrete for you next week, Juliette. I will not throw medication at your problem until and unless I know without a doubt that you need it. The more sessions we get into, the more I can study you and the closer we can get to a solution.”
That night, Juliette watched Hell’s Kitchen trying to ignore the feeling of eyes on the back of her neck. She still felt scared and lost, but hopeful now. She had gone to the book store on her way home and bought a dark blue journal with clouds on it that actually said “Dream Journal” on the cover above the clouds and was blank inside. Next to it, she’d placed a new red and silver polka dotted pen. She went to bed after the show ended and wrote down the date at the top of the first page of her new journal with her new pen and went to sleep.
Juliette woke herself up with loud moaning.
“Soon, sweet Juliette. Not soon enough, but soon.”
She immediately began to write. When she was done, she stepped into the shower, making the water as hot as she could stand it. This dream had made her feel dirty and she soaped her body up twice and rinsed long. Her body was red when she was done and the bathroom hot and steamy. She wrapped a towel around her hair and another around her body and stepped out of the shower. She was crying. She stepped in front of the mirror then twirled around with a scream as she caught sight of the man in black behind her. She was alone. She turned back to the mirror and gasped. In the steam in the mirror were written the words, “Sweet Juliette.”
Juliette was sluggish for the rest of the day. She was distracted and spoke in fragments of sentences. Frank and Anna took her to Cracker Barrel for brunch, but she was quiet and ate little. Her parents dropped her off and looked at one another with concern, wondering if she was on drugs. Danny and Jake took her to her favorite restaurant for dinner but she didn’t eat much there either. She had another picture on picture experience and the man in black was sitting right across from her, smiling through Jake’s suddenly ashen face. Then he was gone, though his smile was still fixed on Jake’s face.
Jake whispered, “The time is near. We are finally going to be together. Sweet Juliette.”
She immediately insisted that they take her home and Jake didn’t argue. When she got home, she wrote in her journal. Her writing was shaky, and the sentences incomplete. As the sun began to set, Juliette felt so sluggish that she went to bed before the sun set. It felt as though she were walking through water instead of air. It felt as though even her brain was waterlogged. She fell asleep in the clothes she’d worn that day without brushing her teeth or washing her face.
She woke up briefly when Henry whacked at her face and ran off with a hiss and a yowl. She found that she couldn’t move at all, not even to grab a tissue off her nightstand to wipe the blood off her cheek or the tears from her eyes. She woke again when her phone rang and then again when she heard pounding on her door. She couldn’t get up. She didn’t want to get up. She had no desire to move, to get up, nor to see anyone. No one except the man in black.
Jake and Danny were standing restlessly behind the superintendent as he unlocked the door to Juliette’s apartment. They pushed passed the old man and walked quickly through the apartment calling out her name. They found her in her bed, under the comforter, dead. A smile was frozen on her already cold face. Henry was cleaning himself at the foot of the bed.
“At long last, sweet Juliette, we can be together. Forever.”
Jake turned on the TV and flipped through the channels while Danny fed Henry in the kitchen. He couldn’t see anything through his tears. Danny set food down for Henry, trying hard to keep it together. They had the unpleasant task of telling Frank and Anna that their only child was dead. The morgue would pick up the body later that afternoon. Jake turned the TV off and the two of them left. The apartment was quiet and still except for Henry eating his cat food in the kitchen. Suddenly the TV came on but there was only static and the vague shape of a woman. In Juliette’s bed, a mass of maggots was wriggling beneath her luxurious red comforter.