21 Mar Night Terror Tango
“Night Terror Tango”Written by Christa Carmen Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 16 minutes
He makes the walk from living room to bedroom as if approaching the scene of an accident, as loath to see what waits in the bed as he’d be to discover a mangled body in a smoking vehicle. The bulges in the sheets are abstract in the darkness, like wrenched and wrung-out steel. The radiators pop like a seizing engine creaking out a warning.
Cursing himself for leaving the couch in the first place, Bo folds the sheets down on his side. He slips beneath them as quietly as possible, hardly daring to breathe. His back wastes no time in reminding him it’s the pillowtop mattress he comes for; still, the benefits of the more comfortable setup don’t always outweigh the risks. As he closes his eyes, he repeats the same words he does every night at this time: let tonight be without chaos. Let her dreams be without teeth. Before he can nuzzle deeper beneath the blankets, Hadley stirs and moans.
Bo freezes, his arms breaking into goosebumps despite the thermal sleep shirt he wears. His eyes are open now, boring holes in the ceiling. His heart beats like a panicked rabbit in his chest.
If he had stayed on the couch, maybe Hadley’s dreams wouldn’t have spilled over into the real world. And he could have finished texting his ex-wife to boot. There’d been no news on the whereabouts of their daughters, but Lea wants him to meet her at the police station tomorrow afternoon.
The screaming starts a moment later. It is frantic, piercing, otherworldly. Bo winces in preparation for what comes next and when he opens his eyes again, the room seems oddly brighter; Hadley’s face, contorted with terror, is easier to see. He sits up, tracking the movements of her hands, watching her writhing and batting become more agitated. When her breathing shifts from heavy exhalations to full-on panting, he prepares himself to make his move.
“Hadley,” he says, his voice loud but calm. His hands shoot forward, dodging hers. He finds her shoulders, grips her tightly, and pulls her up higher onto her pillow.
Hadley screams anew, far shriller this time, and chops at his wrists as if fending off a shark. When he increases the pressure of his grip, she changes tactics, raking her nails across his flesh. Bo has no time to process the pain lighting up the backs of his hands, for Hadley is bucking and rocking to escape whatever monster she imagines is holding her in place. She twists her head from right to left, and Bo is certain that, should she reach his forearms with her gnashing teeth, she won’t hesitate to bite.
Her screams have lowered in pitch, but they vibrate in his skull, the desperate growls of an animal fighting to live. Bo sucks in a breath and throws himself on top of her. Despite the thrashing of her muscular, dancer’s body, he manages to pin down her arms with his knees.
“Hadley!” he tries again. All the calmness is gone. “Hadley! Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” The words become a chant, as much for him as for her, helping him to continue this terrible restraint of his wife. He shifts his weight for just a moment to wipe sweat from his brow with his shoulder, and in that brief reprieve, Hadley pulls one arm free. She hauls back as far as the pillow will let her, howling in triumph when her fist connects with his mouth.
Bo rears back, stars exploding behind his eyes, the taste of blood like energized steel. Hadley jackhammers up from her prone position, sending him flying off the bed. He is numb, his breathing ragged, a deer torn in half by a speeding vehicle, but he forces himself onto hands and knees. He has to get to her before she can leave the bedroom. Has to get to her before she finds a knife.
The first occasion of Hadley’s night terrors took place after his daughters, Masie and Winnie, went missing. Believing the stress of their disappearance had been too much for Hadley to handle, he’d done his best to see that initial episode through. He’d thought he’d seen a documentary warning of the extreme disorientation and panic that could occur should the sleeper be woken too abruptly. He remembered it had been a documentary about sleepwalking, not night terrors, the moment Hadley’s hand had closed around the largest handle in the block of knives.
Unwilling to let her get as far as the kitchen this time, Bo rolls onto his heels and heaves himself to a stand. Hadley spins, wild and wide-eyed, at the foot of the bed, and he knows that rather than the cozy room with owl-grey walls, those eyes are seeing caverns of flame, enchanted woodlands, or some other geographic atrocity supplied by deep, non-REM sleep. She takes two lunging steps forward, arms wide, groping for barriers. Finding none, she charges through the open bedroom door.
Bo rushes after her, and despite his stinging hands and throbbing mouth, he overtakes her in the living room. Grabbing for the closest part of her body, his hand closes around her ponytail, and Hadley jerks as if she’s been shot. Swallowing horror, he scoops her up quickly, cradling her in his arms. As he lowers her to the floor, he wishes more than ever that these last two months hadn’t been made all the harder by Hadley’s strange affliction. On ground far firmer than their pillowtop mattress, he pins her arms so she can’t pull free.
Bo takes Hadley’s face in his hands and cranes forward as if to kiss her, careful not to shift the pressure off her shoulders or press against her chest. “Hadley, it’s Bo. Hadley, it’s Bo; wake up. It’s okay. Everything’s okay.” She continues to struggle, but with his repeated assurances, her twitching slows, then finally ceases. Her body is spent from its exertions during hours meant for rejuvenation. Her breathing steadies; her tongue emerges to wet dry and bloodless lips.
Minutes tick past. Bo strokes and soothes, gradually lowering the volume of his voice. Soon, Hadley appears to be nothing more than asleep. No longer haunted by unseen phantoms. Bo knows, however, that her consciousness still occupies the dreamscape she’d been navigating. Should he let her stay there, carry her back to bed as he’s foolishly done in the past, the night terror will simply reclaim her. Bo knows he must end the cycle, or they’ll both regret it. He must pull her back from the abyss. He slides his knees off her arms, praying the inevitable bruises will be minimal, and brings his mouth very close to her ear.
“It’s time to come home now, Hadley.” His tone is authoritative so as to let the hypnagogic demons and hallucinatory specters know he’s not giving up on his wife.
Hadley’s eyelids flutter, then open. Her green eyes meet his. He can tell the exact moment when she goes from lingering confusion to really seeing him. “Bo?” she says, her mouth sluggish with exhaustion, and paradoxically, with sleep. Her fingers explore the surface she lies upon, then stop once she recognizes the plush whorls of the living room carpet. A tear snakes down the side of her face and disappears into her hair.
When she speaks, the words are childish, like the ramblings of his four-year-old daughter, but her voice is haggard, and the dark circles beneath her eyes cause her to appear far older than her twenty-seven years. “It was the same thing again, the same dream, the same terrifying landscape. An endless, barren field with myriad depressions and looming shapes in the distance. The wind blows constantly, stirring up grit and ash and what I just know is pulverized bone. It gets in my mouth, my nose, my hair, my eyes. It’s hard to see, to think, to hear. This time, I got closer than I ever have before, and I could see that the shapes were these hulking, slippery things. Like the backs of sleeping, half-buried serpents. Like hellish half-mountains full of secrets. The thing that’s chasing me is gaining all the time, desperate to keep me from reaching those structures. It doesn’t want me to see what’s inside. I know if it catches me, I’m not only dead, but doomed to…” Here, Hadley stops and makes a noise like a wounded canid. She sits up and clutches Bo’s arm.
“I’m not sure what’s worse,” she says, looking at him with hopeless desperation. Bo forces himself not to shrink from her gaze. “To dream I’m forever being chased as I make my way toward those structures…or to outrun my assailant and reach what looms in the distance. To find out what it’s hiding out there.”
* * * * * *
It takes over an hour for Bo to get Hadley back to sleep, the only upside being that she never has a second episode in a single night. In the morning, he wakes without hitting snooze and has killed two-thirds of a pot of coffee by six-thirty. The oil field equipment he oversees at No Bottom Petroleum Company won’t monitor itself.
He looks over the texts from Lea again. They have an appointment with Detective Terranova at three-thirty. The media coverage has died down over the past two months, and with any luck, their arrival at the station will be free from vulturine reporters. Bo understands that, hypothetically, his daughters’ safe return could be assisted by ongoing coverage; someone might remember one of their little faces and call in with a random tip. But he’s become so tired of the endless yammering, the hypothesizing, the accusatory glances. He swears the reporters’ badgering has exacerbated Hadley’s dreams. Worries their theories are worming into the public’s psyche.
Hadley trudges into the kitchen about an hour later, wearing a tank top emblazoned with the logo of the dance studio she runs. Bo can just make out the edge of a bruise darkening the underside of her arm. She sinks into a chair across from him and slumps over the table. “Any word on Maise or Win?” she asks, and Bo feels guilty all over again. How can he fault her these damnable night terrors when she’s as worried about his daughters as he is?
“Nothing so far,” he replies, “but we’re meeting with the detective this afternoon. Lea said you’re welcome to come.” It had been easy for his ex-wife to befriend his new one, since Lea had been the one to cheat. Hadley had mentioned once that—aside from the uneven custody split—the dissolution of his first marriage affected him oddly little. Bo had told her not to look a gift horse in the mouth and enjoy the cordiality the three of them shared. So what if his daughters spent more time with their mother than with him, and Lea came out unscathed? He’d married a young, beautiful woman who was a talented dancer and whose empathy knew no bounds; Hadley accepted him for who he was. She was the only thing he needed.
“Thank you, but I won’t be able to come,” Hadley replies. She plucks a bite of blueberry pancake off Bo’s syrupy plate. “I have an appointment of my own this afternoon.”
Bo frowns. He knows where this is going: a drab little office building on 101 Prospect Street, to be exact. “I thought you’d seen the last of Doctor Antari,” he says, trying—and failing—to keep his disdain at bay.
Dr. Antari is Hadley’s longstanding psychologist, but the man encourages Hadley’s unorthodox beliefs far too enthusiastically for Bo’s more realistic tastes. “It’s not ‘witchcraft’ witchcraft,” Hadley insisted whenever Bo pointed out that nowhere were candle spells listed as a cure for parasomnias. “They’re just rituals I like to perform,” was the excuse that always came next. “Like that book, The Secret—which was very mainstream and not even mildly occulty—I’m simply envisioning the outcome I want to occur.”
“I texted him this morning to see if he had any availability,” Hadley says through her mouthful of pancake, pulling Bo back to the present and reminding him of yet another reason he doesn’t trust this doctor: what mental health professional considers texting a valid communication method? Bo would like to throw the guy’s phone in an oil tank and call it a day.
Bo sighs. “Maybe it’s time to try a different psychologist, or better yet, a psychiatrist. Pharmacological treatment is supported by empirical evidence, unlike most, if not all, of Dr. Antari’s suggestions.”
Hadley leans back in her chair to reach for the coffee. She pours the rest of the pot into Bo’s empty cup. “Patience, baby,” she says, sipping thoughtfully. “Dr. Antari has plans for a new intervention. Between that and the time I cleared in my teaching schedule for a little DMT, I have a good feeling about today.”
Dance Movement Therapy, black magic rituals, Dr. Antari’s latest “alternative” approach. It’s a wonder Hadley’s night terrors haven’t gotten worse instead of better; still, maybe he should go to the police station with Lea alone.
“Okay, then, Hads, I hope you’re right.” He takes his coffee cup back and ruffles her hair. “I’ve got to be getting to work. Do you want me to give you a ride to the studio?”
She spins out of her chair on one foot while hooking the other foot behind her. At the same moment, she grabs his hands. Hadley loves forcing him into this twisty, coil-ey dance move, something she calls an enrosque. “Thanks,” she says, as he resists her attempt to spin him further, “that would be really great.”
In the car a half-hour later, Hadley rambles about a couple she’s helping prepare a salsa number for their anniversary. “So,” Bo says when she pauses to check her phone, “what’s this new intervention Dr. Antari has on the agenda?”
“Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing,” Hadley responds. “I researched it while you were in the shower. It’s a form of psychotherapy meant to help the patient confront unprocessed memories. Dr. Antari thinks there might be something in my subconscious manifesting as horrific dreams.”
Bo grips the steering wheel harder. This is even more ludicrous than he feared. “Like, you witnessed something so terrible that one part of your brain is hiding it from another? That seems far-fetched, don’t you think?”
“No,” Hadley says without hesitation. The studio is in sight, but she turns to face him. “I think it makes a lot of sense. And besides, I’ll try anything at this point.” She kicks off a ballet flat and lifts up her foot. “Look at this. See the blisters around my toes? Those weren’t there before last night. I think some of what’s happening during my dreams is transferring over into the real world. My face felt wind-burned this morning too.”
“You can’t be serious,” Bo scoffs. “You’re a dancer. You wrack up blisters for a living. And your face is probably red from our scuffle last night. It took everything I had to get you to wake up.”
Hadley replaces her shoe and unbuckles her seatbelt. Bo pulls the car to a stop. “Exactly, Bo, I’m a dancer. My shoes all fit like a glove, and I’ve had the same callouses for years. Walking over that terrible field last night is what did it…I’m absolutely certain.” She kisses him, gets out of the car, then leans down to say, “I know it’s a lot to process, but don’t worry. Dr. Antari and I have everything under control. I’ll catch an Uber to the appointment then meet you at home for dinner. Have a good day at work.”
He watches her glide toward a glass door screen printed with a sashaying woman. In his ill-tempered mood, exacerbated by innumerable cups of coffee, he can’t help but think the silhouette looks like a shadowy Hadley fleeing sinister dreams.
* * * * * *
Bo returns home that evening with nerves as taut as a strap over an oil drum. He finds Hadley curled up in an armchair with her journal, scribbling line after line with dark purple ink.
“What did Detective Terranova say?” she asks without looking up. “Is there any news?”
“No,” he says. “At least, nothing important.” He turns his attention to the butcher block, where the ingredients for a salad sit untouched. When Hadley still doesn’t cease her writing, he sighs. “I guess I’ll start on dinner,” he says.
Hadley wanders in a few minutes later and places her journal on the counter. She stretches, grabs a cutting board but doesn’t start cutting, eats olives out of a jar instead. Bo knows that by asking about her therapy, he risks her circling back to his appointment, risks her discovering the department has shifted its focus to individuals “in close proximity to the missing.” Still, her breezy attitude irks him, the way she finally picks up a tomato and slices with unhurried movements. He wants to know how she and that good-for-nothing doctor plan for him to get some sleep.
“So, did Dr. Antari give you any practical advice, any tools you can put to use right away?” he asks when he can stand it no longer. “Was the eye movement thing a success?”
Hadley doesn’t stop slicing. “He… did,” she admits, as if she were a schoolgirl with a secret. “But this afternoon was just practice. Tonight’s the real test. I’m going to combine EMDR with a little banishing spell I thought up.”
Bo longs to ask more questions—he has dozens—but decides to change the subject. They spend the meal mumbling about stupid, inconsequential things. After dinner, she does the dishes while he changes into comfortable clothes. He eyes her scrolling through news articles about Winnie and Maisie while they pretend to watch a movie. At a quarter to ten, he abandons the living room for the bathroom. Hadley is placing a small mirror and a pair of scissors under her pillow when he comes in from brushing his teeth. There’s a candle burning on the nightstand surrounded by lemon peels and sunflower petals. The scent of lemon essential oil is heavy on the air.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
She turns, unfazed. “Getting ready. Are you coming to bed right now?”
“I was going to, yes. Is that okay?”
She shrugs and says “sure” at the same time, then crawls beneath the covers. She lays corpse-like, arms crossed over her torso, eyes closed, back ramrod straight. He gets into bed beside her, and though he tries to steer his mind toward other topics, his thoughts keep coming back to what Detective Terranova said.
“We got a call from a concerned citizen. She didn’t want to leave her name. She encouraged us to check out the petroleum company where you worked. Now, why would someone call in with a tip like that? Do you have any idea, Mr. Hayes?”
It takes a moment for the tapping to break into Bo’s awareness. It’s coming from Hadley’s side of the bed.
Tap, Tap, Tap. Tap.
Hadley drums first her right hand, then the left one, three fingers against the opposite forearm. Bo turns to find that, despite her head remaining straight on the pillow, she is looking right at him. Surprised, he opens his mouth, but before he can speak, her eyes flick away in conjunction with another tap.
Bo shuts his mouth.
Hadley’s eyes return to him.
They look away. The candle on the nightstand flickers, though there is no draft.
Propping himself up on one elbow, Bo watches the rapid movements of her eyes, her lips pursing and parting with silent words. By degrees, her eyelids droop, though their side-to-side movements continue. Her lips slow, then fall still, but he senses the thoughts behind the words are still firing. Is Hadley dreaming? Would he be able to tell if she’d fallen asleep? Will anything she’s doing right now actually help?
He sinks back against his pillow, feeling like a voyeur of something sacred, no matter how silly he thinks the tapping-creepy-eyes-candle amalgamation is. What was the tapping accomplishing anyway? People tap their feet all the time, and it didn’t cure psychological issues. He taps one hand against his leg as if to prove his point. Curious, he lowers the other arm and taps that one too.
He taps left hand to left thigh, right hand to right thigh, then moves his eyes in time to the rhythm. Now what is he supposed to do? Think about what’s bothering him? No difficulty there. The adrenaline upsurge, animal-in-a-trap desperation, and bloodcurdling screams come back in an instant. The hurt and confusion on small, upturned faces are like photographs in the gallery of his mind. He has these awful thoughts to contend with, these terrible memories to vanquish, and yet Hadley’s the one freaking out every night. Where is the therapist to hear out his feelings? Where is his outlet for pain?
Beside him, Hadley’s breathing intensifies. A small moan escapes her. She is being drawn toward the structures she so fears, the nightly chase. He continues shifting his gaze and tapping, matching his rhythm to Hadley’s. He breathes in the smell of lemons, feels the air in the room change. On a left-hand tap, Hadley grabs him with her right. The movement is so sudden, Bo gasps. She grips his hand hard, hard, harder, and when he taps with his right—the rhythm, in its simplicity, is hard to break—his eyes fly open. The bed beneath him, the room itself, disappears.
* * * * * *
The field is like Hadley described it, a desert, a wasteland, but he recognizes it as a version of No Bottom Petroleum Company’s oil fields—Hadley’s version—right away. The sleeping, half-buried serpents up ahead are crude oil storage tanks, massive and colorless in a cavernous, achromatic world. He squints against the pummeling wind. Grit coats his eyes and nose and mouth. He goes to cover his face and finds Hadley still holding his hand. She does not look at him, but stares straight ahead. Her face is solemn but unafraid in the gloom.
Though neither of their hands are still employed with their tapping, Bo swears he still hears it, the subtle tempo beneath the crust of this dreamscape. He says, “Hadley, what is this?” but his voice produces no sound, has been deafened by the illogicality of dream logic.
Hadley steps forward, and he has no choice but to follow. He tries to unfurl his fingers from hers, but her grip is like dried oil, like energized steel. Each stride brings them closer to the tanks, closer to what Hadley feared was inside them. Each step is tracked by a hundred spirits to make those nightmare children of the black-winged daimon Phobetor seem as benign as clouds. Bo’s terror increases, a vicious, choking crescendo. He screams for Hadley to stop. His feet move regardless, chained, too, to the nonsensicality of the dream world. The tanks are closer, then closer still.
Little hands pull on Bo’s arms and back, one, two, three, four of them. They grip at his clothes, at his skin. Their grabbing takes on a pattern, takes on meaning; it’s the hands of his daughters he hears now, tap-tap-tapping a menacing beat. Before he can think, beg, plead, or pray, Hadley has pulled him to the base of the tanks. He tastes ash, acid rain, the bloodslick of his misdeeds. He tastes…
“…everything but regret.” Hadley speaks these last three words. Bo is paralyzed with horror. The sight of the tanks fills up his eyes, fills up his brain, so completely, he fears his head may explode with their combined mass. His daughters’ fingers tap against his body, tap against the inside of his skull, tap like the metronome Hadley uses for choreographing dance moves. He turns toward his second wife, the woman he thought would be different, who would stand by his side with her patience and perfect dancer’s posture. The movement of his head is like that of a mechanical kitchen timer, each degree with a corresponding tick. He is an unoiled tin man, a broken toy soldier. He is that which chased his wife in her dreams.
At the sight of Hadley now, it’s as if Bo’s swallowed an emollient. His insides soften, turn to sludge. Hadley’s face is a bloated grotesquery, distorted by two months’ worth of oil. Her cheeks sag with the weight of it. Her green eyes drip dark streaks like tears. The dream daemons press in on him, the little hands increase their pressure. Hadley speaks, her voice like a groaning hinge.
“They’re inside the tanks, aren’t they? They’ve been there since you reported them missing. I’ve known from the moment I pulled you into an enrosque and saw the oil stains on your hands. I didn’t realize right away, but it’s the night terrors that convinced me. The dreams that showed me what you are.”
Bo tries to deny this. He tries to run. All he can do is stare. The wind picks up further, and as he watches the bolts on the tank doors rattle, he feels his eyes begin to melt down his face.
He turns back to Hadley, who is holding up the mirror she placed beneath her pillow before going to sleep. “Everything that’s happening to their little bodies, that is the ending you can expect.”
Oil wells up his throat at the same moment the skin on his arms slips down. Despite this sloughing off, Hadley’s hand is still in his. Her face has returned to normal, no longer a reflection of Bo’s fate. She drops the mirror and lifts the scissors. With one graceful motion, she cuts his decomposing, oil-slicked hand from hers. Their connection is severed like the culmination of sleep.
* * * * * *
The sudden quiet is shocking, as is the sliver of light sneaking through the curtains. Hadley sits up with a start, recalling the moment when, after the chaos of the twister, Dorothy’s house comes to a halt in quiet, colorful Oz.
She looks around at the cozy room with owl-grey walls, then down at Bo, writhing and wailing beside her. His face is distorted, like the waxy cylinder of a long-burning pillar candle. Something dark seeps out from one eye.
Hadley disentangles herself from the bedsheets. She scatters the lemon peels and petals. She puts on her shoes and coat. Bo lets out a scream that echoes uselessly off the walls. Hadley walks away from the bed.
She exits the bedroom and enters the kitchen. Walks to where Bo’s paystubs, receipts, and other papers are. She finds a map of his work site, an email detailing the fields on which Bo oversaw pumping operations. Locates Detective Terranova’s business card. Documents in hand, she glides out of the house. She does not look behind her. She does not think about the place where Bo’s consciousness remains.
Back in the bedroom, Bo thrashes. One arm escapes the covers and falls onto the pillowtop mattress, fingers reaching, arm outstretched, palm up. He looks like a man beckoning, begging for a dance partner.
There is no one to take his hand.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available