A streak of silver as the sun reflected off a passing car interrupted my daze with the clarity of a flash bomb, bringing everything back into sharp relief. The ever-sputtering fountain; the cobblestone walkway that always glistened with a wet sheen, even in the middle of summer; the rusted wrought-iron gate, black paint peeling from disrepair; and the overgrown foliage that made the tiny courtyard look like a post-apocalyptic ruin. All things I’d taken for granted when I’d stared out the large window of my apartment.
I stood in my living room, free of the park bench. How? And more importantly, did I really care? I was free! It had all been a dream. Just a horrible, ridiculous, terrifying dream.
I looked down at my hands, reveling in the ability to move all ten digits. I pushed and pulled at my face, relieved by its compliance. I mussed my hair into a disaster, enjoying the prickly feeling of its protest. I tugged at the pinstripe pajama pants hugging my legs and smiled when the fabric pulled away from my skin on cue. I wiggled my toes, watching their shadows dance in the beam of sunlight spilling over the windowsill, and felt the warmth of relief flood through me.
Laughing, I danced around the apartment, trailing fingers along every surface I had thought I’d never see again. The bookshelf full of titles I hadn’t read yet, but that I would make time for now; my half-finished painting, sitting patiently on its easel in the corner; the old coffee can that served as a paint-brush holder, the brushes crisp from recent heavy use; the stack of finished paintings sitting against the wall, waiting for their unfinished sister before taking residence in Cinetopia’s lobby; the kitchen table I never ate at; and the flat-screen TV that came alive when you spoke to it
I jumped on the plush couch, rolling over its back, and body-slammed backwards onto the unmade bed, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. I wriggled around in the sheets, feeling the comfortable firmness of the mattress and tried to ignore the nagging sensation that something wasn’t right.
I didn’t remember getting out of bed. I wasn’t prone to sleepwalking, so how did I get from the bed to the window with absolutely no memory of it? And what had happened to the rest of the day? The sun slanting across the hardwood suggested late morning, early afternoon. It wasn’t unheard of for me to sleep well past what was considered normal for an adult, but I couldn’t actually remember going to bed either.
Doubt quickly eliminated the joyous relief I’d felt, dousing it like a massive bucket of water on a weak flame, and I felt my brows knit with worry. I wasn’t even sure where reality had ended and the dream began. Had I dreamed the entire day, including the confrontation with Sheila? Or had I gone to bed after the panic attack, and only the park had been a dream? The anti-anxiety medication I took sometimes gave me disturbing dreams, one of the many reasons I disliked taking it, but it had never made me completely black-out, causing a self-induced amnesia. And if it had all been a dream, where was Sheila?
I sprawled on the bed, trying to unravel my last twenty-four hours. Slowly, I tilted my head back, looking upside down at the closet. More a niche in the wall than a true closet, it barely contained my clothes. It didn’t even have a door. Just a frame painted a cheery shade of maroon, housing a single shelf and a weak closet rod. I tended to be neatly organized, so my clothing hung in an aesthetically pleasing row, my shoes tidily lined the floor. I squinted, trying to find something of Sheila’s among the blend of brown, green, blue and black that dominated my wardrobe.
She had taken to staying over more often than I liked, sneaking a few possessions in at a time to mingle uncomfortably with mine. She must have thought I wouldn’t notice, and that maybe if she just subtly moved in, I would let her push me into taking our relationship to the next level. Clearly, she didn’t know me as well as she thought she did.
Finally, I managed to spot the evidence I was looking for — the shiny yellow top I remembered seeing her shove into her suitcase during the confrontation nestled among my dress-shirts.
I still felt like something was off, though. Where was she if we hadn’t broken up? And why couldn’t I remember last night? I sat up slowly, resting against my palms, guardedly assessing the room. There must be something I hadn’t noticed.
My gaze landed on the door to the small bathroom across from me, the only concession to a second room the studio apartment had. The feeling of unease blossomed into full-fledged worry as I realized what was missing — sound.
An eerie stillness hung over the entire apartment, a silent fog that lay in the air, vacant of the one noise I’d grown so accustomed to hearing:
The running toilet.
That damn toilet had been possessed since I’d moved in a little over two years ago, randomly coming to life with a burst of hissing pipes, and draining water, then gurgling as the tank refilled itself. I had tried for months to get the landlord to replace it, but he never had. I even thought about doing it myself, but that was more work than I wanted to deal with. So I had simply learned to ignore it. Mostly.
And now that it was finally quiet, I wished for it to sputter, hiss, anything that would signal normalcy.
I pushed myself off the bed and crossed to the bathroom. I stopped in the doorway, staring down at the toilet, pleading for it to do its thing. Any second now. But nothing happened.
I sighed, running my hands through my disheveled hair, and stepped into the room. I could feel a panic attack starting to uncoil. As I reached for the medicine cabinet, intending to head off the rush of anxiety with one of the few pills I had left, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror.
For a moment, I just stared at my reflection, confusion flickering back at me. My pajamas were gone, replaced with the jeans, dark grey t-shirt and army-green jacket I’d worn in my dream. My bare feet were gone too, swallowed by the familiar black canvas of my sneakers.
Horrified, I locked eyes with the haunted stare of my reflection.