THE PRECARIOUS MAN
by Ben Murray
The bed was listening, I swear. The bed was listening to me breathe and peace of mind could only be found in the brief space between inhale and exhale. I tried holding my breath but I couldn’t hold it for more than a few seconds. My labored attempts at keeping my lungs filled were probably more audible than my shallow, nervous breathing.
The bed was no fool. It knew I was there. It knew me too well. All these years of supporting my weight, all those nights of falling into, lying upon, drooling upon—it knew my every dreaming shudder and sigh, my every muffled fart and mumbled, somnambulant word. Every snore and sob and moan. It had absorbed countless bits of me over time, a repository of salty excrescences, salty tears and salty semen.
I turned over, a quick roll from my left to my right side. Now I was facing away from the west wall immediately bracketing my bed. In the dimness, I could just make out the bookshelf across the room, by the doorway, a floor to ceiling collection of spines, ramrod straight and ever patiently awaiting selection, re-selection. The white, brighter spines were just visible; vertical strips of faint light, the darker spines a black void.
I smiled. I actually managed a smile as I lay there in a partial fetal curl, my hands clamped together between my knees, the left side of my face resting against the pillow, my eyes open, attempting to recall which books I was seeing that I could now barely make out. My smile was one of relief. A simple twist of my body, a quick shift to the left, and any frightful thoughts of the listening bed subsided, an epidermis of fear I knew now that I could easily shed, in an instant.
My eyes focused on a particular bright spine, nearly glowing. Judging by its position on the third shelf from the bottom, I guessed it to be amongst the ‘P’s. I thought of author surnames beginning with P, authors I had in my collection: Pym, Porter, Patchett, and Poe. The spine whose pale gleam had caught my eye did not seem to fit my recollection of any of the P books I owned. The more I stared at it and the more I tried to think of what it might be, the less likely I thought it to be one of my P books at all. Even in the dimness I felt sure that that’s where the P’s would be. I knew my books. I had known the satisfaction of slipping them tight into their allotted spaces after reading them. That shelf, that section of it, was for the P’s.
I began to feel renewed anxiety, lying there facing the bookshelf and not being able to wrest my eyes from the mysterious white spine. Someone else had put the book there. It was the only conclusion I could draw. Either someone had deliberately snuck an unknown, alien book into my collection or they had put one of my own books into the wrong place. Either way, the notion of some stranger having been in my apartment, slipping into my bedroom while I was gone after having perhaps scoped out the terrain, waiting for me to leave to make their illicit move—either way it was immensely unsettling and I felt beads of sweat develop along my forehead and around my temples. I could feel the pillowcase progressively dampen where my left cheek and temple rested against it. My chest too began to slicken, as well as my armpits. My body flushing itself of toxins. If only it could flush me of my fears.
I lay there, dripping, staring fixedly at the portentously evil spine. I wanted to leap up, out of the bed, out of the spreading damp of the pillow and the sheets, leap up and flick on the light switch across the room, to the left of the bookshelf. My eyes darted to where I knew it must be, maybe five feet up from the floor, an ordinary cream-colored light switch that my thumb, my forefinger had touched innumerable times over the years, taking its gift of light for granted.
I wanted to leap for it but I lay there on the bed, as if immobilized. I knew now that the bed, the very mattress and frame that I lay upon, was in on it. This stealthy, listening bed was in collusion with whoever had violated my sanctity and messed with my things, my peace of mind. I feared that any movement towards the light switch, any attempt to eradicate the dark, would be thwarted somehow. Like a child utterly convinced his closet hid unspeakable horrors, I tried not to move, not a muscle, as if my very immobility would ward off any potential evil. Should I move, I may not make it across the room.
For all I knew, and this thought made me sweat even more, the intruder or intruders who’d snuck in, broken in to my apartment, might still be here somewhere. My sense of dread was ratcheted up several notches with this realization. Sweat was now freely trickling down my forehead and into my eyes but I could not, dare not move a hand up to clear away the stinging rivulets. I thought back to earlier in the day, when the world was bright and clear and shadow-free. I thought back to when I’d stepped out of the elevator on my floor and entered the empty hallway, my door waiting at the end of the hall. I even recalled the warm, almost glowing feeling I had as I approached the door, keys in hand, the right key already poised to enter the lock and click me inside. The relief of knowing I was back, alone again with my things, my books, everything there where I’d last left it, no one else around to move things around, to undo the hours spent ensuring everything was just as I wanted it to be, just so.
Another lifetime. Such peace and calm seemed like vestiges of another blessed, perhaps blessedly naive lifetime. Perhaps not even mine. A life co-opted from some storybook happily-ever-after.
My hands were beginning to lose feeling now, scrunched as they were between my knees, and my right shoulder was beginning to cramp. I’d held this position too long, and I could sense my body’s need to shift and rearrange itself. I had a fleeting notion of turning over onto my back. Maybe if I moved suddenly, unexpectedly, it might go unnoticed. And perhaps I could simultaneously turn over the sodden, warm pillow—I imagined how cool the other side of it must be, the feeling of the cool, dry fabric against the back of my neck, what a relief it would be, however transitory.
A crazy notion. If I was not indeed alone, they would see. No matter how quickly I moved, they would see. It would be akin to announcing into the dim void of my bedroom, “Here I am. Do with me what you will.” No, if I moved, it would have to be in the subtlest, most minute of increments, a muscle, a tendon at a time, so slowly that the mattress frame wouldn’t creak, this old mattress who’d memorized my every move, registered and stored my every fear and desire.
Thinking of the mattress made me think again of what may be lurking in my bedroom, under my bed even, and I felt my heart pound, knocking against my rib cage, a trapped and terrified creature struggling to break free. Sweat continued to trickle down my face, my temples, and I could feel it now, slick and dank along the back of my neck and between my shoulder blades. Fear of the intruder combined with my increasing bodily discomfort made me want to scream. I could easily imagine screaming into the dark, a primal, cleansing release, damn the consequences. I imagined the scream so vividly—a crescendo screech starting at my mid-range and sliding maniacally up into a kind of quivering, ear-splitting falsetto— that I wondered if in fact I had screamed. My ears even seemed to ring from the sound.
Had I in fact screamed? The thought was mortifying. Had I done so, any intruder would now know, with absolute certainty that I was here, in my bedroom, on the bed. The uncertainty was petrifying. I almost wished now for the end, for the quick, shattering blow to the skull, the sudden cold blade entering the neck, the monstrous mouth swallowing me whole.
I had to calm myself. Ground myself somehow. Otherwise I feared I should go mad. I scanned the bookshelf again, tainted now as it was with its violating addition. My eyes travelled to the uppermost shelf, where I kept my very favorite books. These books, these cherished novels and volumes of poetry had changed my life in small, in incalculable ways, and just knowing that they were there, always ready to return my grateful, lingering gaze, there to accept my caressing fingers along their spines and covers, was a continual source of comfort, a safe place to go when the world’s ills threatened my equilibrium, my sanity.
I focused on the uppermost shelf, blinking in the dark. Surely it was a trick of the light, or lack thereof: there was nothing up there. Not a single book seemed to remain, the shelf a denuded, gaping emptiness.
I felt gutted. A feeling of abject remorse overtook me, even more powerful, or at least commensurate, to the fear. A limb, an eye, fingers: any of these may have been stolen from me and the pain I felt now staring at the shelf void could not be any greater.
I wanted to cry, I dearly needed to cry into the already sodden pillowcase; great, heaving, cleansing, body-wracking sobs, no holds barred. Instead, I lay there, a precarious man dangling, frozen over the precipice, over the chasm beyond bedspread and mattress. The unknown invader in my midst listening to me breathe, breathing my air, possibly watching me right now, the theft of my books, of what felt like my soul: it was all too much to bear.
In my anguish a fiery vision seared my brain. I saw myself set fire to this bed, this listening bed, and to the room entire, the whole room engulfed in a midnight pyre, walls licked by seven-foot flames, the room one great wall of flame.
For everything here was surely tainted now. Why would they stop with the removal of a few books? The ones still here doubtless harbored the residue of their evil labors: a torn out page here, passages whited out, any kind of unspeakable filth placed and pressed between pages, in the margins. Just the thought of touching the books now turned my stomach. To think of my fingertips, my fingerprint possibly brushing against theirs, my finger oils mixing with theirs: the notion was a ghastly one. Burn it all. It all must be burned to the ground until nothing remained but stray cinders and feathery piles of black ash. Purification through flame.
I held fast to this incendiary, apocalyptic vision, because it was the only way, the only path I could see out of this hellish night's maze. Trapped and terrified as I still was, I felt almost empowered. I could take decisive action. I could wipe out all the traces of the listeners, of the invaders, of the once cherished things they'd irrevocably sullied.
And afterwards, should I succeed, should I survive, I could start afresh. Some of the books were rare, it was true, but none were irreplaceable, and in time I would forge bonds with the replacement copies. It would never be the same, but it would be something. New editions to coddle and protect and admire and grow old with.
Should I survive. I tried to see myself leap up and race out of the bedroom, to the hall closet where I kept a box of matches for emergencies. Should I make it that far, how could I possibly summon the wherewithal to extract a match from the box and to light it with fear-palsied, pins and needle fingers, with the dread of being chased after by whoever may be hiding in the bedroom or even in the hall? Hiding and waiting for perhaps just such a rash and panic-driven move on my part. And should I somehow miraculously manage to escape, to light the match, what was the likelihood that I could keep the match lit I as re-entered the bedroom? I would have to be running at an expeditious speed, that was obvious, and the created wind would surely snuff the purifying flame before I could hold it fast over paper or wood.
No, it was a desperate, foolish plan. A plan of a madman. My only hope was to remain lying here, on this cursed bed, until dawn, until blessed light hopefully returned and banished all the night's demons. Then I could unequivocally determine just what had been done to my books, taking a kind of inventory. Just the act of listing the missing books would be calming, a semblance of order made out of chaos. Perhaps there may even be clues strewn about the room, clues as to the identity or identities of the violators. A strand of hair on the floor carpet perhaps, a discarded tissue.
It occurred to me then, as I endeavored to contemplate the bright, benign morning to come, that I had absolutely no idea as to what time it now was. My torturous state had a sense of eternity about it. My sweaty, sticky body felt like it hadn't showered, hadn't been cleansed in weeks. I took a cautious, soundless sniff and I thought I could detect the rank, fetid odor of a wild, cornered animal. I was the cornered animal and I stank. Surely this smell of fear was enough of a giveaway to my captors. I was convinced now that they were toying with me. They knew that I've been lying here prone all along. They relished every moment of my terror, of my bodily discomfort. I was behaving just as they expected, just as they wanted me to behave.
Anger surged within me, anger like I'd never felt before. I saw myself ripping apart flesh, the intruder's flesh in an orgy of unleashed fury, the anger affording me a strength and resolve I'd never felt before. Yes, I saw myself sink my teeth, my nails into soft yielding flesh and ripping out chunks of it, laughing in glee as I threw the bloody bits of viscera and tissue and bone across the room to form a dripping pile of unrecognizable, mutilated flesh in the far corner.
My heart now pounded with this anger and yet the fear was still very much present, the two emotions a double wave within me. Just in case my theory was wrong, and in the still hoped for event that I was in fact still undetected, I continued to lie there, ever immobile, kept safe and motionless by the power of perhaps just one firing synapse, the subtlest, tiniest mental catch-spring keeping me from the sudden, mad uncoiling.
Anger, fear and now shame. All this time, this unknowable, limitless time that I'd been held captive in my own room, my bladder had been making itself known to me. What had begun as a slight, barely discernible pressure behind my loins had gradually, incrementally increased in intensity and now, terrified and angry as I was, I realized I should burst if I did not relieve the pressure, a pressure so intense I could focus on little else.
Some small part of me marveled at the psychological power of physical discomfort, how it was able to bypass, to even partially obfuscate such primal emotions as fear and anger. I entertained quasi-mystical visions of flowing, spewing waterfalls and water cannons, great gushes of liquid flooding space in dramatic arcs and spills, of ceaseless monsoon rains drenching land and sky. I saw a spigot, huge and blotting out the sky above release an unending flow of amber liquid until it finally slowed to a trickle, to a last few shaken drops.
I had never needed to urinate so badly as now. Take my health, take my sanity, take the rest of my books, please God just let me fell some relief.
I let go. I opened the floodgates. I began to urinate, the warm, stinging liquid gushing out of me. And yet even in this temporary euphoric state of complete release I was careful not to emit a sigh of relief, to give myself away.
It seemed the flow would never end, my bladder seemingly held gallons, kegs of urine. My pajama bottoms all along the front waist were now thoroughly drenched, and I could feel the ceaseless flow spilling over my thighs and onto the mattress beneath, a spreading lake of warm damp pooling atop the mattress surface and doubtless seeping into its innards. Soon I would be floating along a sea of my own making, my own urine sea holding me aloft, the sodden mattress a stinking, sagging raft of life or death.
A millennium of seconds, of continual relief and concurrent shame and disgust. And then, abruptly, the flow ceased. As the last few drops dribbled out of me I felt the longed for emptiness down there at last.
I knew now that in the event that my presence had been neither already seen nor heard, the pungent, sharp, reeking stench of urine, intensifying by the moment, would surely give me away.
The fear returned in force now, and lying in my self-made lake of pee, I again fought off the urge to surrender to emotion and cry, tears being another bodily excrescence to stain and mark the territory, to ironically mark this corrupted, listening bed, this corrupted, defiled room, as my own.
The tide of urine was quickly cooling now, cooling and drying along my thighs, my hips. An itch of the utmost intensity formed along my inner left thigh and I silently cursed this next test of my resolve, this next betrayal of my body.
How much longer could I endure these myriad tortures? Could the unknown horrors lurking in the shadows be any worse than this paralytic prison?
At least my eyes could still move. I looked over at the well-curtained window and, more specifically, towards its edges, where any outside light would slip through. Still nothing. Still an omnipresent, inky blackness, my own private void, shared with God knew what malignant force.
As my gaze returned to the wall opposite me and the bookshelf, a thought, a dreadful thought perhaps even more worrying than the others I'd been struggling to quell this unholy night surfaced in my mind: this living hell I was just barely enduring--much longer and I was convinced my heart should give out from sheer, sustained anxiety--maybe it was no metaphoric hell at all. Maybe I now inhabited the true Hell, a customized Hell just for me, whose traditional tropes of fire and brimstone and flayed flesh had been replaced by the unknowable evils occupying the familiar nooks and crannies of my once safe place, my apartment.
I shuddered. An involuntary shudder shook me from the back of my neck down to the soles of my feet, another announcement of my presence into the void. Hell. Was I dead then? And had my life been so ill-gained that I might deserve this ineffably cruel fate? I took a quick mental inventory of a lifetime of slights, deceptions, and dishonest moments. There were surely deeds, misdeeds I was not proud of--fudging here and there with the tax man, hitting a fellow student in grade school over a girl, the time I ran over a deer and sped on, not having the courage to check on the poor creature's state--these and a few others ranked high in my guilty conscience. But Hell? I had murdered, raped, mutilated, and seriously harmed no one. Was Hell so desperately in need of tenants that it would recruit one such as me?
It made no sense. But then nothing made sense this horrific night, save that I had endured as much terror as any man could possibly stand, and that it surely must end, please God. Please God let something happen to make this horrific limbo end.
Sudden, blinding light... Indistinct, blurred forms looming above me...
Blinking and tearing, I struggled to focus. A seeming eternity in the dark and now this sudden wincing brightness. And voices. There was murmuring, talking. I managed to pick out a few words: "operation," "anesthetic," "recovery;" words uttered in calming, mostly female cadences. And now a sense of movement, of my body being moved, of bright, glowing ceilings and walls passing by me, a feeling of floating along corridors of light.
Had my nightmare simply been an anesthetic-induced journey into my own private Hell? I could scarcely believe it, scarcely believe my good fortune. And yet my recently departed shadow world still retained a great force, one I expected would take some time to completely shake off.
In a perverse way that world seemed as real to me as this new one of sterile quiet, thousand watt lights and well-drilled nurses and orderlies smoothing things along. But with each new moment I allowed myself to hope and believe that the nightmare was truly over. I turned my face into the fresh, clean pillow I rested upon and shed several grateful tears. I let out a concurrent sigh, a sigh situated somewhere between relief and vestigial disbelief.
"We're just about there, sir. Another minute and we'll be back in your room," a reassuring voice intoned above and just behind me, the orderly wheeling me along, presumably. I was immeasurably grateful for his words, and that I could now fully understand them, not just isolated bits of speech. I wanted to thank him personally, but I found that I could barely move my lips, could not muster the strength to vocalize yet.
"Here we are," the orderly announced, maneuvering the gurney with a practiced spin and turn towards what looked to be a strangely familiar, most un-institutional doorway. I just had time to register the old brass doorknob, the telltale patterning in the wooden door before I was pushed headlong from the bracing brightness of the hallway into an all too familiar dark.
"Your room, sir. Just as you left it."
Ben Murray is an Edmonton-based writer and musician whose debut collection of poetry, What We're Left With, was published by Brindle & Glass in 2007. Ben’s recent fiction and poetry credits include All Rights Reserved, Nether, Other Voices, and Vallum, and he was a 2011 winner of the Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Prize (Portland, OR). Ben’s story, The Precarious Man, appears in the January 2013 issue of HelloHorror.
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