~ ‘NYC MIDNIGHT’ SHORT STORY CHALLENGE ~
— Criteria —
Stifling darkness surrounds him. Its sheer volume is oppressive. Pitch blackness bears down on his chest until he feels he can scarcely breathe. A dull drone fills the void, the sound of unmolested silence. He is dripping in cold sweat, beads slicing down his skin like fine razors. A pounding heart reverberates through his ribcage.
The night is hungry and it is swallowing him whole.
* * *
Frank sat up in bed, panting, and fumbled for the switch on his bedside lamp. He glanced at his alarm clock, it was 2:02 am. Was that a dream? He couldn’t remember waking up. Although Frank had a book signing later that day, going back to sleep somehow didn’t feel ‘safe’. Immobilised by fear, he stared blankly out at the moon’s soft glow until it traded places with the morning sun.
The smell of bookshops always transported Frank back to his youth, unraveling a string of mixed emotions. His serious health problems as a child—he had paediatric cardiomyopathy, a disease affecting the heart muscle—meant much of his formative years were spent indoors. He didn’t even know how to ride a bike until he was sixteen. His escape to the outside world was through the books he devoured. He lived vicariously through his favourite heroes: Bastian Balthazar Bux, Anne Shirley, Westley from The Princess Bride, and Tarzan—characters who laughed in the face of danger but took their emotions seriously.
“Loving her was easy,” he read aloud, “which made leaving her that much harder.” Frank looked up from his novel at the congenial crowd. He smiled graciously. “Thank you all for coming.”
It was late afternoon by the time the queue for the book signing finally thinned out. The sun was setting as the last customer left the shop and the store clerk locked the door behind them.
“A wonderful turnout, Mr Foster!” The clerk announced.
Frank was especially proud of his latest book, his ninth, as his publisher had tried to steer him down the 50 Shades of Grey path but he had stood firm on the matter. Maybe he was naive but he couldn’t comprehend how any sort of violence could be linked to romance; pain was part-and-parcel, yes, but violence had no place.
Always possessing a strong desire to write Frank never thought he’d be able to follow his heart—in part because his heart muscle was not fully up to the task. Ten years earlier, his Cardiomyopathy saw him hospitalised with Doctors telling him the likelihood of surviving, without a new heart, was next to nothing. Miraculously, a donor was found in time. “A perfect match,” his doctor had said, “you are incredibly lucky.” Frank was grateful every day.
One last book was placed down on the table in front of Frank.
“Please make this out to my darling, perfect, amazing partner,” said a sweet voice.
Frank looked up and grinned. “Sorry, Zhang, I don’t write hyperbole.”
The woman laughed as she slid around the table and plonked herself down on Frank’s lap. She kissed him tenderly.
The two had met in the hospital, not long before his heart transplant. Frank was weak and unsure if he was going to live another month. Zhang’s cousin was in the bed next to Frank and he always seemed to fall asleep soon after Zhang arrived. Frank made a joke about it to Zhang one day, concluding that she must be boring him to sleep (in truth he had no idea what she was saying to her cousin—she only spoke to him in Mandarin). This sparked up a friendly dialogue between Frank and Zhang. He was captivated by her. She loved his way with words and, it turns out, was already a huge fan of his novels. Frank knew he had to survive so he could marry her. They never married but remained very much in love, and now had a baby on the way.
“You were great, as always.” She beamed.
“Thanks, my dearest. Hometime?”
Frank steered their car up the winding road towards their cottage in the mountains as Zhang shuffled through songs on the radio. Hailing from Beijing, she was a bonafide city girl but Frank convinced her to give the country life a try. They were both surprised at how quickly she fell in love with the great outdoors. Nighttime was her favourite: there was a hushed stillness that crept in under the night’s velvety skin. And she’d never seen so many stars! Zhang told Frank the stars forged a clear pathway to Yue Lao, the old man under the moon, who smiled down upon them. Ever the romantic, she believed that it was Yue Lao, the god of matchmaking—a story originating from the Tang Dynasty—who had determined their union. She said he had tied a red, silken string around each of their ankles at birth, connecting them across oceans. Frank loved this concept, like fate personified.
The radio hummed along with the engine, Vikki Carr ‘My Heart Reminds Me’ began to play. Zhang turned the volume up, tapping the dashboard in time with the music. The song swelled and the couple joined in; the car erupted with incorrect lyrics and off-key notes.
“…If I could hear no music
if there could be no roses
no summer nights to make me dream as I do,
I still would not forget you
one thing would still be true
my heart reminds me dear of you…”
Frank’s insides ached with happiness. He leaned over to kiss Zhang, taking his eyes off the road for just a moment as her lips lingered sweetly next to his. He turned back to face the road and gasped sharply, his knuckles turning white as he gripped the steering wheel tightly. Glowing in the headlights, a man staggered forward. His blood-red face pulsed as he clutched his neck tightly with both hands, eyes almost bulging from their sockets.
Frank slammed down the breaks. The sound of screeching rubber pierced the night air, a plea from the tyres to the evading bitumen below, desperately seeking traction. Frank’s eyelids clamped shut, in some feeble attempt to shield him from the impending collision. Zhang clutched at her stomach protectively.
The car finally came to a jarring halt, jumbling its passengers in their seats. Zhang wept softly. Everything was black.
Frank realised his eyes were still closed and levered them open.
“What the hell, Frank?” Zhang was confused. Why did he stop like that?
Frank scanned the wide road before him: nothing but dust motes dancing in the headlights. He got out of his car and, with his phone flashlight, scoured the car, the road, and the bushes for any sign of life—or death.
Nothing. Goosebumps rippled down his neck, tiny pinpricks.
The smell of burnt rubber was palpable as Frank got back in the car. He leant over and gently placed his forehead against Zhang’s. He was shaking.
“We’re okay, it’s all okay. It must’ve been some weird trick of the eye. Or maybe a deer? I don’t know. But we’re okay. You are okay, aren’t you?” He looked urgently over to Zhang and then to her bump.
“Yes, I think so. Are you?”
Frank nodded slowly and started the engine. They drove the rest of the way home in silence, a cloak of uneasiness draped heavily over Frank.
As he turned into their driveway, Frank thought back to his dream. A dream so visceral he had awoken raw with terror. Was this apparition, this man on the road somehow connected? There was something eerily familiar about him. He couldn’t help but feel like his subconscious was trying to unearth something buried in the deepest caverns of his mind. A memory. A murder. But how can you be haunted by something you cannot recollect?
Utterly exhausted, a blank, dreamless sleep washed over Frank. He woke up feeling renewed. Maybe it was just his nerves playing up. He always felt a bit on edge after the release of a new novel. Plus, he was going to be a dad for the first time; maybe his dream represented the suffocating responsibility that comes with parenthood? The heavy darkness still flitted in his mind, like a moth trapped in a box, but he managed to cordon it off as he put on a pot of coffee.
“Morning, Franky,” Zhang padded softly into the kitchen, tying her robe gently above her small bump. She searched his eyes, saw calmness in there, and breathed a sigh of relief.
“Mmmm. Weak, please.” Zhang replied, as Frank placed two mugs on the counter. “You were talking in your sleep last night. It was creepy!”
Frank felt sick. He looked into the black coffee as it swirled into his cup and felt like he was drowning in it. Coffee spilled onto the kitchen counter.
“Frank, the coffee!”
Frank snapped back to reality and started cleaning up his mess. He used the bench to support himself because he didn’t trust his legs.
“So, what did I say?” He tried to sound casual.
“You were reciting page numbers from your books.”
“I was? How’d you know it was my books?”
“Dunno. Guess I just assumed. Like you seemed really sure about them, or something.”
“You assumed?” Frank tried not to sound desperate as he attempted to extract what felt like vital information.
“I didn’t think to ask. You were sleeping, honey!” She giggled.
Frank managed a thin smile. It wasn’t Zhang’s fault he was going through this strange internal struggle. Which was probably nothing. He was being ridiculous.
Without warning, the kitchen radio sprung to life. A familiar song seeped through the small speakers, rinsed with static.
“…my heart reminds me dear of you…”
Zhang jumped. Frank stood frozen staring at the radio.
“Well, I’m definitely awake now!” Zhang joked as she walked casually over to the radio and switched it off, “We should get the sockets checked, Frank. Don’t want any live wires with a baby crawling around.”
Frank didn’t respond. He felt that if he uttered a single word, the vibrations would shatter his body into a thousand pieces. Zhang went over to her handbag and pulled out Frank’s latest novel, still sitting inside from the signing.
“Now, let’s see if any page numbers stand out,” she smiled playfully as she started flipping through Frank’s book, oblivious to his mood.
“Just tell me the page numbers and I’ll look it up!” Frank tore the book from her so roughly it slipped through his own hands and flung across the room.
Zhang was stunned. Frank had always been such a gentle and even-tempered man.
“I’m taking a walk, Frank. Maybe give you time to cool off?” Zhang slammed the front door behind her.
Frank slumped himself onto the kitchen floor, his breath felt hot and sticky. His mind returned to the man in his headlights. He shook his head and the image scattered. Then, something caught his eye: his novel. Slumped open where it was strewn, grinning at him, a marker of his waning sanity.
“Page numbers!” He whispered.
Frank crawled towards the book. Would there be answers hiding amidst the black and white?
He picked up his novel as a crashing sound came from his study. His nerves were spent. Frank walked towards the study, still holding his open book, and hovered at the doorway with trepidation. Inside, his other eight novels had somehow fallen out of his bookshelf and were splayed out on the floor, open on various pages. A wave of foreboding washed over him.
Frank’s need for answers grew stronger than his fear. He crossed the threshold, into the study, and grabbed a pen and notepad from his desk. He sat on the floor, letting the fallen books surround him, open at the pages on which they fell. He scoured the pages, in pursuit of a hidden message. A clue. Anything.
Time felt like a frost setting in, slow and sharp. An ache rang out down Frank’s spine. He grabbed a cushion from his reading chair and propped it under him. How long had he been sitting here? He looked up at the wall clock and realised it had not been ticking. Its batteries must have died. The usually reliable clock hands had gone on strike at exactly 2:02.
“I woke up from that dream at 2:02. This clock stopped at 2:02. What is that number trying to tell me?” He asked himself.
His thoughts clicked into overdrive. His stomach churned and his heart raced. An idea came to him.
“2:02 — maybe that signifies the second word in the second paragraph?”
He scribbled down words in his notebook. Arranged and rearranged them. A coherent sentence was formed. Nine words, one from each novel he had written, open at the page it had fallen. His life’s work dictating what felt like his fate in one, simple, terrifying sentence:
The old man under the moon is watching you.
Frank’s mind spun. Zhang would often regale him with stories of the mythical matchmaker, Yue Lao—the old man under the moon. Was she somehow involved in all of this? But how? And what was ‘this’?
He stumbled over to the door and turned the key in the lock. He’d never had the need to lock his study door before. The latch clicked over with a recalcitrant groan.
He lay on the floor and rested his weary head on the cushion, longing to sever the invisible cords connecting him to the relentless noise in his head. Surrendering to his fatigue, Frank slipped into a fitful sleep.
The dull drone returns. The cushion is wrenched out from beneath him and pressed firmly over his face. The darkness is weighing down on him again. He struggles to free himself. A faint, steady, beep becomes audible, slowly rising in decibels. Never has he felt so impotent. The beeping becomes louder and its pace quickens, chirping in time with the rhythm of his heart.
Light filters in as the pillow is suddenly removed from his face. Zhang is there. He is in a hospital bed. A series of tubes hang down to meet his arms, connecting his veins to the outside world. He clutches his throat in a vain attempt to pump the breath he so desperately craves, in and out. She looks down at him, backlit by the fluorescent ceiling light which buzzes incessantly, a dark resolve etched into her shadowed features. He is not in his own body.
Zhang leans forward and whispers into his ear, “Yue Lao matched only our hearts. Your soul is not the one I am destined to be with.” She is speaking in Mandarin but he understands her.
“Dishonourable wife! Pretending I’m your cousin to seduce the man in the bed next to me. Pah! You may have him fooled but the old man under the moon cannot be deceived,” he warns, voice barely audible.
“Someone worthy will have your heart, and I will finally feel love for it, just as Yue Lao wished. He will understand.” Zhang smiles.
She pushes the pillow back down over his face. The beeps on the machine intensify. He makes one final struggle, arms and legs flailing, then an inescapable stillness takes hold. The machine by the bed flatlines.
Zhang places the pillow meticulously back under his head and moves to the end of the bed. She unties a silken, red ribbon from below the dead man’s calf. She moves over to the bed next to him. A man lies there, in tranquil slumber. She peels the blankets up at the base of his bed and ties the red ribbon around his ankle tenderly.
“A perfect match,” she coos at the sleeping man. At Frank.
Frank snapped awake and gasped for air. He checked his arms for hospital tubes. Nothing. He was in his own body. He was in his own study, his open books still surrounding him. A gentle gloaming was working to pacify the brightness of the day, and a faint spattering of stars began to stretch across the clear, crisp sky. The moon was nowhere to be seen.
“It’s just another messed up dream,” he tried to convince himself.
He felt something flutter on the top of his foot. He looked down to see a slender, blood-red ribbon tied around his ankle, like macabre gift wrapping.
Maybe romance and violence were more closely linked that he simply assumed? How had he been so naive? Zhang was a murderer. But it was because of this that he was alive. And happy. And soon to be a father. But was any of this rightfully his? He wasn’t supposed to be here. Zhang had deceived him and by doing so, Frank had deceived fate.
Frank’s hands trembled as he untied the red bow, unshackling his ankle from its silken grip. A love not sanctioned, he thought. How could he face Zhang, his beloved? Where was Zhang? Why hadn’t she come to find him after their fight? His thoughts were interrupted by a wavering, hollow ringing sound. Footsteps were moving steadily down the hallway, towards the study and a yellow glow seeped underneath the door.
Frank didn’t know who he least hoped it would be on the other side of the door—his wife, or the old man under the moon.
The doorknob twisted slowly.