A Short Story
I’m pinned to the sofa by the weight of his body. Course, fat fingers grip my arms as I try to struggle. His sour breath, rancid with cigarettes and alcohol, hits my face.
Mum sits hunched in the armchair, picking strands off the fabric.
“Stop sniffing, woman!” he shouts at her. “This is your fault. You’d be out on the streets if it weren’t for me. No-one else would take you and your slut of a daughter on!”
The wall is peppered with dents, some the size of Mum’s head, others the size of his fist. She’s always too frightened to help me.
The girl on the TV is screaming as the flickering black and white images reflect off my mother’s face. The dolls on the table gaze into space. They’re beautiful with their blonde hair, but they can’t help me either.
He does things to me with his mouth.
Mum stares at the TV.
Please, don’t come near me again. He grabs at my breasts. Not again. You’re hurting me!
It was all fine when Dad was still alive. Why did you have to leave us? Mum used to care about me. We were happy.
I wake and my heart is pounding. Thank God none of that was real. As I gulp down my sobs, I see that my pillow is covered in strands of my dark hair again. I can’t let my parents hear me cry – they’ll be so worried.
I don’t always remember much about my dreams, but I seem to be remembering a few more details each time. As terrifying as they are, I thankfully always wake up just before I’m about to get really hurt.
This time, the nightmare was so vivid, so real, that there’s no way I’ll get back to sleep. I get out of bed and take a shower instead. It’s frustrating, I’m exhausted, and I’ve got so much revision to do.
The hot jet of water eases my tense body. Thoughts of the bad dream start to fade in the steam of the shower room.
I rub the mirror and look at the gaunt girl staring back at me. My pale skin contrasts with my dark eyebrows. My eyes are bloodshot. I can’t let this get to me. I must focus on my exams.
I lay out my school uniform and search through my make-up bag for a lipstick. Bold red always goes well with my navy blazer. I tie my hair into a high ponytail and pull a clump of black hair from my brush.
I read in a magazine that the things that happen in our dreams can help us figure stuff out in the real world. Apparently, we need to dream. I’m not so sure. My parents have worked out I’m having nightmares, but I can’t bring myself to tell them anything about them. Mum says I’ve been watching too many horror films and I’m probably just stressed about the end of term exams. Dad says I should see a counsellor.
Ingrid’s running towards me from the foot of the school steps, her long straight mousey hair swaying as she moves. She always looks so pretty, even in school uniform, with her cat-like eyes, a satchel emblazoned with a smiley face and her striped tights that shouldn’t really get past the rules.
“Alice, what’s wrong? More dreams?”
“Yeah. Stupid dreams,” I say with a shrug. I wish I could hide my feelings better.
“You can always talk to me, you know.”
She changes the subject, “Hey, I’ve got some good news though – David asked me out!”
“You are kidding, right? David? Seriously? How did it go?”
“It was great! We went to the arcade and had ice-cream. God, he was awkward. He kept on slurping his milkshake like this,’ she says, mimicking the sounds. “I couldn’t stop giggling. I wasn’t really laughing at him, but he got a bit angry. It’s a shame ‘cos I think he’s cute.”
I laugh out loud at the thought of such a dorky guy trying to date Ingrid. I guess she’s the type of girl who can do all the talking for both of them.
Ingrid’s smile fades. “David said that Rob never showed up to school again yesterday and he’s not replying to his texts. That’s two weeks in a row. David went ’round his house but no one answered. He could see the TV flickering through the window, so that probably means someone was there, right? He thinks something’s up.”
“What do you think’s going on?” I say. I remember a few weeks ago I saw Rob crying alone just outside the school grounds.
“I really don’t know. His family are weird. I heard his father’s really strict. I just hope he’ll talk to someone about it one day.”
The bedside clock says 02:00. My eyes weigh heavily in their sockets. The orange glow from my lamp blurs the maths on the page and I can’t seem to progress beyond this one section. There’s no point in trying to revise without a night’s sleep. As much as I fear the monster that invades my dreams, I can’t stay awake for much longer.
I can’t breathe. It’s like his hand has grabbed at my heart and he’s forcing it down into my tummy. I’m suffocating. I push uselessly against his weight. I choke at the smell of sweat and stale cigarettes as he violates me.
The world is spinning. I can make out the outlines of my parents. They’ve switched on the light and are calling my name. I’m back in my bedroom lying on the bed in a pool of sweat.
“Alice! Alice, wake up! It’s just another nightmare… you were screaming,” Mum says as she gently strokes my head.
“I’m organising a counsellor as soon as they open today,” Dad says as he pushes open the window to let in some air. I don’t reply. Counsellors are for people with more serious problems than me.
“Alice, please. It’s getting worse, and it’s making me worried.”
Through my sobs, I manage to nod. Dad’s right. I can’t go on like this.
I meet Ingrid again at the school gates. She’s with her friend, Stephanie. Steph looks tired and it doesn’t look like she’s brushed her hair. She’s probably stressed about the exams, too. I notice something odd at her neckline and try not to make my stares too obvious. I can just make out over the top of her scarf what looks like a bruise.
“Hi Steph,” I say to her, trying but failing to sound relaxed, “how’s the revision going?”
“Put it this way, Alice, not everyone’s blessed with parents like yours. It’s so easy for you. You don’t know how lucky you are.” She storms off.
I look open-mouthed at Ingrid. “What just happened there? Is she okay?”
“Don’t take it to heart. She’s been acting weird lately. She’s having it tough at home. I think her dad’s been hurting her mum. Seems like a lot of us have problems at the moment.”
“Yeah, it really seems like it… By the way, has anyone heard from Rob?”
“There’s still no sign of him. I heard Mr Omani telling another teacher his mum’s written to say he’s stressed, so he won’t be coming to school for a while.”
“I don’t believe it. He told me once he preferred school to home.”
“Yeah, you told me that before. And his phone’s still turned off. David’s so worried about him that he told his parents. He wants to call the police, but his parents say he can’t do that without evidence.”
I walk home after seeing the counsellor, Mr Reason. I’ve always thought counsellors were for other people. I’ve never struggled with anxiety or depression like other kids. My parents say people just got on with it in their day.
Mr Reason wasn’t at all what I’d expected. He sat back in his worn leather swivel chair that looked as old as the chipped wooden desk in the centre of the room. There were wall-to-wall shelves full of aging, dust-covered box files. Something about the way he kept stroking the stubbly beard that barely covered the pock marks on his face freaked me out. My chair was soft but uncomfortably low. He kept asking about whether I’d taken any illegal drugs. It took ages to convince him I hadn’t.
Maybe Steph’s right. My mum and dad have always been there for me. Mr Reason asked about home and I tried to move the conversation away from talking about my parents. I told him that I find it difficult to remember the details of my nightmares when I wake up. He didn’t seem interested and instead asked about my friends and asked if I had a special boy or girl in my life. I told him that with the exams looming, I’m really not interested in getting into relationships right now. One thing he said really unnerved me, though. I was twisting my ponytail in between my fingers and he asked if I was worried I was losing my hair. Is it showing that badly?
“Pass your plate, Alice.” Mum is serving one of her delicious casseroles. Dad smiles warmly in appreciation.
She looks at me, “So, how did it go today?”
I chew on a tender carrot and savour every bite before I answer. I hadn’t realised how hungry I was. ” You were right about seeing him,” I reply, “I think it’s helped. I don’t know why, but I’m a bit more relaxed now. He’s kind of odd, but I’m pretty sure he knows what he’s doing.”
“Maybe you should take a break from revising tonight, Alice. How about we watch a film together?” Dad says. “It may be good to rest your mind – just for tonight, anyway.”
“I woke up from another nightmare this morning, more vivid this time,” I say to Mr Reason. He stares at me. I’m certain he can see the blotches under my eyes. I should have put on more concealer.
He nods patiently. Again, he doesn’t ask about the details. He leans back in his chair and says, “You were telling me about your friends. You said that a boy hasn’t been turning up to school and that you’re worried about him.”
“Yes,” I say. “Our group at school are thinking of going to the police.”
He doesn’t reply. Unsettled by the silence, I continue, “I’m also worried about a friend of mine who seems to be having a hard time with her parents.”
Mr Reason strokes his chin in thought. “Children these days seem to have so many problems. How are they expected to function at school if they’re under such stress back home? I despair at what’s been happening to society recently. So many children treated badly by their parents. Sometimes I want to tell them, ‘For Heaven’s sake, just run and alert the authorities!'”
Another awkward pause. “My exams are in just under two weeks.”
“How’s your revision going?”
“Well it seems okay, but—” I break off.
“I’m finding that my maths teacher doesn’t seem able to help much.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I guess this sounds bad, but she seems to know just as much about it as I do. Whenever I show her my work, she always just says it’s fine.”
“So, doesn’t that mean you’re doing well? I’d have thought most kids would be delighted if they were told that.”
“I suppose so, but it seems wrong. I’m sure there’s a lot more I should be doing, but she just says it’s as good as she would do.”
I’m in that room again. The TV’s louder than ever. His dark eyes are fixed on me. I’m trying to struggle free but he’s holding me down. I start screaming, and at once I’m back in my warm bed. My breathing is heavy and I’m feeling dizzy. I must have drifted off for a moment. I can’t take it anymore. I don’t want to sleep. I’ll just have to stay up all night. I don’t care about the exams anymore.
I pace around the room. My silhouette, cast onto the wall by the night light, moves like a spectre in a shadow puppet show. My body aches with tiredness. I can still somehow feel him gripping me. I look in the mirror and an image of that hollow-cheeked girl with bloodshot eyes stares back at me again. I’m too exhausted to stand, so I hunch face down on the bed with my knees tucked under me and bite at my arm till it starts to bleed. As my eyelids start to close, I will them to stay open. I can’t keep this up much longer.
“I’m remembering more about my dreams,” I say to Mr Reason on my third counselling session.
He stares at the bite mark on my arm. I don’t like it that he seems to read me so easily. I should have worn a long-sleeved blouse.
“Okay,” he replies,” maybe it’s time to tell me about your dreams in detail. Maybe you’re ready.”
“What do you mean, ready?”
He scratches his nose with the top of his pen. “In my experience, I find that the details of nightmares should be discussed after the subject has been properly prepared.”
For the first time in my counselling sessions, I’m seriously agitated.
“Tell me about your birthday.”
“Which birthday?” I say with a quizzical look.
“Okay, your last birthday.”
“Why? I’ve come to you to sort out my nightmares, not to talk about my birthdays.”
“Please just go along with me, Alice. I’ll explain why I’m asking in a moment.”
What did I do on my birthday? I begin to feel self-conscious. Why can’t I remember? “I’m not really sure. It was eight months ago. I… I can’t….”
Mr Reason smiles. “Okay, tell me about any birthday.”
“Okay, that’s easy. I was four – or was I five? My dad threw a party for me and my friends. We played crazy games. There was a lot of water. We all got soaked.”
“So, you tell me about a birthday from when you were a tiny child. Do you think that’s at all significant?”
I shake my head. Why am I so uncomfortable that I can’t even think? Surely this isn’t what counsellors are supposed to do?
“Have you heard any more about your missing friend? Did you call the police?”
“Why do you think no one has called the police? Surely, it’s not like him not to have contacted any of you, let alone his closest friend?”
“I really don’t know. Look, you’ve been quite helpful to me but I’m not really sure I want to continue these sessions.” I stand up and march to the door, my heart pounding. The door won’t open. “Why is the door locked?” I say, my breathing now rapid.
“Oh, I’m sorry, it gets stuck sometimes. Alice, please sit down. I’ll open it for you in a moment. I want to reassure you I’m getting to the heart of the matter, and I think I’ve worked out what’s wrong.”
I stay put at the door, too scared to return to my seat.
“Tell me about your dreams.”
Tears begin to flow down my cheeks. Surprised at myself for even answering him, I say, “When I dream, I’m someone else.”
He nods in a kindly manner to encourage me to continue.
“In my dreams I’m younger than I am now. I dream I have a stepfather who forces himself on me. He shouts and threatens me and does something to make my throat feel like it’s closing up. My mother‘s too scared to say anything.”
“Are they like your real parents in any way?”
“No. My real father loves me, no matter what, and my mother loves looking after us.”
“Alice,” the counsellor says as he scratches at his nose again, “have you ever wondered why your maths teacher hasn’t been able to help you?”
I try the door again, but in vain. My legs are weak. “I guess either I’m on top of my work or—”
“Or that she’s not a very good teacher,” he cuts in. “Maybe she really doesn’t know any more than you do.”
There’s a faint smell in the room. I can’t quite place it. I can’t help staring at Mr Reason’s nose.
“Your classmates,” he continues, “do you think they’re behaving rationally over their missing friend?”
The scent becomes stronger. I recognise it. The sour smell of alcohol.
“How are you doing this?” I ask him. “Please let me go.” I shake the door as hard as I can.
“Sometimes, it can be hard to tell truth from fiction, Alice. As a counsellor, I hear it all – the excuses, the despair, the lies… they all want to manipulate. It’s why they come to me.”
I’m panicking. It must be panic, as it looks like his face is changing. He appears shorter and stockier too. His physique is too familiar.
“You see, Alice, maybe your teacher can’t help you because she really does only know what you know. Your friends can’t make decisions about that missing guy because, like you, they don’t know what to do about it either. They are as helpless as you are.”
I begin to scream as he stands up and walks towards me.
“Your parents sound lovely. They sound so much better than your friends’ families. That’s fortunate, isn’t it?”
The smell of alcohol on his breath intensifies. I have that sinking sensation in my tummy that I get in my dreams. He places a hand around my neck. It’s not Mr Reason at all but the man in my nightmares. Or should I say my stepfather – my real stepfather. I’m waking from my real dream where my parents are lovely and my problems are other people’s, except that neither Ingrid, Stephanie, David nor Rob exist.
My real mother looks on impotently. The dolls lie scattered on the floor. Nothing has changed except that my sanctuary has been taken from me.
Somewhere in my head I hear Mr Reason’s voice resonating, “Just run.”