I don’t know why I do this to myself. Six years since…six years. And every October I still come back.
It’s a tiny bed and breakfast in a similarly tiny village. I’m friends with Carter, the owner, a stocky fellow ten years older than me. He was the first person I talked with after…
He really was the first who needed to know. Had to cancel the reservation.
When I show up, Carter welcomes me with a grin and a firm handshake. He takes one of my bags and leads me to the usual room. “I’ve kept it empty for you,” he says. Just like last year, and the year before that. Most likely he’ll say it again next year, too.
After making sure I’m aware of just how delicious breakfast will be tomorrow morning, Carter leaves and I’m alone. I put my bags in the closet and place a hand on the bed. It’s a small double, barely big enough for two people. Six years ago, it would’ve been cramped. Now it stretches before me, cold and empty.
There’ll be plenty of time to think about that later. For now I should just worry about getting some food in my stomach. I’ve already got a reservation at the usual place. It’s a ten minute walk from the bed and breakfast, down a lane flanked by fiery maples. Twinkling lights from the storefronts peek through the branches, and a brisk wind drives me forward. Every now and then a car drives by, and my heart stops.
When I reach the restaurant, I’m seated by a window. Outside, a stream cuts between two cliffs, carrying leaves and foam toward a roaring but invisible waterfall. I try not to see headlights in the reflections.
I don’t order my favorite. Instead I imagine the person who would’ve loved the view of the water and the trees, and order what she would. I only eat half. The rest goes in a Styrofoam box, which I toss into the stream on my way back to the bed and breakfast.
Carter spares me a distracted “Welcome back.” He’s studying the guestbook that I never bother to sign, frowning. A few other guests have arrived; we pass each other on the narrow stairs. They might’ve said hello, they might not. I’m too lost in thought to notice. When I reach my door, I pause. Why do I do this to myself?
I open the door and try to see the room as if for the first time—as she would’ve seen it. The feeling’s still there, but it’s weaker. Six years will do that, I guess. I remember the first time, it had been so strong I ran to the bathroom and was sick.
I change into pajamas, brush my teeth. Before crawling into bed, I set the alarm clock radio for seven and pick a relatively static-free station. Seven is a bit early for a weekend, but I don’t want to sleep too long, don’t want to stay in this village any longer than I have to. Seven is long enough to say I did my duty.
A knock on the door startles me. Carter’s voice follows, so quiet it lacks any distinctiveness, indistinguishable from my own whisper or the whisper of the waitress at the restaurant or the whisper of…
“Sorry to disturb you,” he says. “You’ll think this silly, but did you sign the guestbook today?”
I get up and open the door. All the lights in the hall are off. The other guests have gone to bed, which explains why Carter is whispering. “No,” I answer. “Never have.”
“I see,” Carter says. He frowns. “Goodnight, then.”
I shut the door and lock it after he leaves. However, I’ve only lain in bed for a minute or so when he knocks again. This time I don’t get up. Instead I call out, “What now?” I cringe at the impatience in my voice. Carter is a good man. He wouldn’t bother me without a good reason, but I’m tired. The darkness is like a weight, tugging my eyelids and pressing on my chest.
The reply is so quiet I can’t understand the words. I ask Carter to repeat himself, but he must’ve left, because there’s no further sound. I wait a few more minutes, then succumb to sleep.
I don’t know if it’s the date or the place, but every year on the night of October third, as I sleep in this room, I dream. I’m rushing through blackness, and she’s at my side. There’s something else too, a looming, box-shaped shadow in front of us. As the dream solidifies, I make out red lights, slowly getting closer. Whatever this thing is, it’s rushing through the darkness with us, but slower. Too slow.
There’s nothing ahead, just that ponderous machine, so I slide out from behind it and instantly I feel the wind on my face as my body is pressed back by sudden speed. The boxy shadow is falling away to our right, but not fast enough. To compensate, I make us go faster. I’m impatient. We took a wrong turn—I took a wrong turn—several hours back. She’d wanted to go a different way, but I was the driver, I made the decision. Now we’re at risk of losing our honeymoon reservation. I make us go faster.
The darkness in front of us splits, and a pair of blinding orbs appears from nowhere. There’s an awful sound: squealing, bellowing, screaming. I feel like knives are stabbing my ears, I can’t tell which way is up.
We aren’t rushing through the darkness anymore. Everything’s perfectly quiet. I think I’m upside down, and there’s something dripping in front of me.
That’s the rest of the dream, just me staring at the source of the dripping, staring and not believing it’s all that’s left of her.
When the alarm goes off that morning, the music is clear. I don’t open my eyes; I’m too afraid the dream’s leaked into reality, and I’ll see something crushed and bleeding. Instead I keep my eyes shut and let the music draw me into wakefulness.
The tune is unfamiliar, although I think I recognize the singer’s voice. It’s a woman, but no name comes to mind.
I remember last night and realize I should apologize to Carter. He’s a thoughtful host. He knows what I’ve been through and gives me a discounted rate every year. I should’ve been more patient with him. Should’ve been more patient six years ago, too.
When I look back on it, I can still feel the terror, the numbing shock at seeing those headlights appear over the hill. I remember thinking, as those headlights bore down on us, I’ve killed her.
I finally open my eyes and roll over to silence the alarm, but my hand freezes over the button.
The clock reads half-past three.
Pins and needles swarm up my body, close in on my ears, crawl inside where they find their way to my stomach in a cold tangle. Now that my basic assumptions about the situation are shattered, I realize the voice isn’t even coming from the radio. Instead, somewhere behind me. Somewhere in the bed!
I can’t make myself roll over. I can only listen as the words, which I haven’t paid attention to until now, devolve into melodic hums and sighs. I can’t extract meaning from them. There’s a hint of language, but it’s so vague it’s indistinguishable from the whisper of leaves, drawn out and hushed. Is it even a voice at all?
The more I focus, the harder it is to comprehend. I wait for it to end, but it goes on and on, each hopeful pause merely a breath between phrases. My ears want to fold in on themselves.
The clock’s display ticks to 3:31.
I’ll have to look. My skin shrivels at the thought, but I’ll have to. I work up some willpower, begin to turn—
The sighing turns to a gasp, and the bed shakes. In the corner of my eye I imagine a rush of shadow sucked downward. Abrupt silence. I complete my turn and stare at the spot where the anomaly occurred.
Nothing there. Of course not. It’s under the bed now, waiting—waiting for what? For me to go back to sleep? For me to put my feet on the floor so it can grab them?
There’s only one safe thing to do: stay in the center of the bed and keep my eyes open.