Take a Walk in the Night, My Love
by Damien Angelica Walters
He is a good man. Remember that. He is a good man.
There’s something in the bed, something that scratches your skin when you move your legs, and you whip the sheets aside, fearing an insect, or worse—a spider. Dirt, coarse and abrasive, clings to your feet and ankles, between your toes. You hiss in a breath, shake your husband’s pajama-clad arm.
Half-asleep, he mumbles, “What’s wrong?”
“There’s dirt in the bed.” Your voice is little more than a whisper.
He rolls over, wiping grit from the corner of his eye. “What time is it?”
“Just after six. Look,” you say, pointing to your feet.
He sits and untangles his legs from the sheets. No dirt there, only on your side, on your skin. Your arms break out in gooseflesh, even though it’s mid-spring and your bedroom is warm.
“Did I get out of bed last night?” Your voice is thick with unshed tears.
“Not that I’m aware, but you know me, I sleep like a stone,” he says. “Maybe you were sleepwalking.”
“I’ve never done that before, have I?”
He shrugs and shakes his salt and pepper hair from his eyes. “I don’t think so.”
The bright sunlight, welcome after several days of unceasing rain, makes the lines fanning the corners of his eyes and bracketing his mouth appear deeper than usual, makes the fifteen years between the two of you more than evident.
He takes your hand, but you slip free and swing your legs over the side of the bed. There’s a smattering of dirt on the floor as well. And in the hallway, and on the stairs. You make out the curve of a heel here, the smudge of a toe there. You pinch the bridge of your nose before descending, still clad in your nightgown. More dirt leads from the back door, which is shut and locked as it should be. Through the window, you see impressions on the stone patio as well.
Beyond the patio, the grass of the large, sweeping lawn shimmers with dew. Several acres separate the house, a brick two-story, four-bedroom built in a neoclassical style, from the towering pines at the edge of the property.
His footsteps are soft behind you.
“Look,” you say, pointing.
He takes your shoulders in hand. “Maybe… Maybe it’s ah…hormonal. You are turning fifty in a few months.”
You feel the smile softening his words and lean back against his chest. “So I’m getting old? Is that your official diagnosis, Doctor?”
He clears his throat, scuffs one foot on the floor.
“Healthy adults don’t just start sleepwalking,” you say. “They don’t. Not even with changing hormones.”
He kisses the top of your head. “Are you sure you don’t remember getting up?”
You bark a laugh. “For what? To go outside in the yard? It isn’t even trash day,” you say, regretting the words as soon as they’re past your lips. They sound absurd. As absurd as the thought of sleepwalking. And yet, a quick memory flashes in your head—you turning back the sheets and slipping from bed as quietly as possible, your fingers trembling and mouth dry.
He turns you round and kisses your lips, softly, sweetly. “If it bothers you that much, you can always call the doctor.”
“Not confident in your diagnosis?” you say, smiling a little.
He kisses you again. “Honestly, my love, I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.”
You’re brushing your teeth and then you’re in the back yard. You blink in the darkness, take a step back, the grass soft beneath your bare feet, and press fingers to temple. Lilac perfumes the night air, and the chirrup of crickets and the distant hoots of an owl give it voice.
The taste of mint lingers on your tongue. You’re in your nightgown, your hair still pulled back from your face with a fabric headband. You shake your head, as though you can shake this away. You were in the bathroom. The bathroom. And then you were here, with no memory of the journey in between. Your stomach clenches, painfully so. You can’t sleepwalk when you’re wide awake so how did you get here? And why?
Behind you, the door opens with a bang. He’s wide-eyed and worry-lined, crossing the lawn in long strides until he’s at your side. He reaches for you, then lets his hand drop. The lines on his face deepen. His mouth works, but nothing emerges, and a lump grows in your throat.
Finally, he says, “Julia?”
“I…” you manage. “I don’t know what happened. I was inside, I was brushing my teeth, and then, and then—”
Tears spill over your lashes, stealing your voice away. He takes you into his arms and you breathe him in, holding tight. I’m not well, you think. It’s the only explanation.
The tears continue to fall, and when they stop, your voice is a sandpaper rasp, “I think I should see the doctor now.”
He hugs you closer. “We’ll make that happen,” he says into your hair.
Several days of tests pass in a blur. Bloodwork, an EEG, a CAT scan, an MRI. Words run through your head all the while—epilepsy, meningitis, brain tumor. When the doctor says there’s nothing physically wrong with you, you laugh. You can’t help it. He prescribes rest and Valium to help calm your nerves, and while you’re sure you don’t need the latter, you take the prescription anyway.
On the drive home, you twist your hands in your lap and stare at the passing scenery. Old houses, older trees, luxury cars. Everything feels wrong, as though you’re an actress on an elaborate movie set, in a role you’ve not prepared for. Your spine grows cold and you shudder, digging half-moons in your palms with your fingernails.
“Julia, is everything okay?” he asks. “How are you feeling?”
“Disjointed,” you say, turning your gaze toward him, taking comfort in the planes of his face. “As though I’ve something on the tip of my tongue, something I should know, but don’t.”
While waiting at the stoplight, he meets your eyes. His are dark brown, the sort that appear almost black in certain light. You’re a lucky woman; he’s a kind and gentle man, not at all like most of the plastic surgeons portrayed on television, all filled with ego and arrogance and grand delusions of perfection.
You remember when you first met at a small coffee shop on the other side of town. How your heel slipped on a lid someone had dropped on the floor, and he grabbed your arm just in time to keep you from falling. You shared a table that day and three months later you said I do, though it didn’t feel like an impulsive decision. It felt like the right one. You loved him, loved the light in his eyes when he looked at you. No one had ever looked at you that way. You still feel the same, even after twenty-five years.
Right now, though, fear coils in your belly, a fear both strange and yet familiar. Not of him, but of something else.
He rubs your thigh. “Julia, my love, all shall be well.”
All shall be well.
The Valium makes you foggy headed and you brew a pot of coffee stronger than usual, hoping it will cut through the haze. Unfortunately, it’s barely drinkable, even with copious amounts of milk and sugar. Still, you take small sips, trying to swallow as quickly as you can before the bitterness sets in.
You wander the house, trailing fingertips across the dark wood furniture. Family heirlooms, most of it, and it fills you with calm. In the library, your favorite room in the house with its built-in shelves and comfortable furniture, you select a book at random and sink into the corner chair, your legs curled beneath you.
Yet the Valium dulls your focus and after a time, you set the book aside in favor of a photo album—the two of you on holiday, an island in the Caribbean, the name of which escapes you at the moment. Fruity drinks with paper umbrellas, bright turquoise water, white sand. Breakfasts in bed; making love beneath a swirling ceiling fan, your bodies coated in sweat; walks in the moonlight. The smell of the sea, of hibiscus blooming in red profusion.
Barbados. The word swims into your mind and you nod to yourself. Yes, you were in Barbados. You turn another page in the album, revealing several photos of only you, sitting in bed with a sheet draped across your hips. You squint at the picture and slip it from its plastic sleeve, holding it close. There’s a scar on the right side of your abdomen.
You push down the waist band of your pants, trace your fingers over the smooth, scarless skin. You check the photo again and the strange fear settles in your belly. Scars can’t disappear. You check your abdomen yet again. There are creams and ointments to make them less apparent but there’s nothing on your skin. Not a dimple, not a bump, nothing.
At dinner, you ask, “Did I have my appendix out?”
He swallows his food, takes a quick sip of wine. “No, why?”
“Here,” you say, sliding the photo from your pocket and pushing it across the table.
He picks it up with a frown.
“Doesn’t it look like I have a scar?”
He lets out a breathy laugh. “It looks like it, yes, but it’s a shadow. From the sheet, see?”
And it is a shadow. It’s so obvious your cheeks warm.
“We can arrange to have your appendix out though, if you really want to. That would be rather silly, though, wouldn’t it?” Although his face is serious, his eyes shine with mirth and then the corners of his mouth lift and a laugh bubbles up from your throat.
When the laughter begins to fade, he says, “Eat, my love.”
You cut a piece of steak. Chew. Swallow. “We should go back there.”
“Okay,” he says. “We will.”
He smiles, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Is dinner okay?” you ask.
“It’s wonderful,” he says. “As always. I’m a little tired, that’s all.”
Someone is calling your name, over and over again. You freeze in place, blinking in confusion. You’re in the driveway, almost to the gated entrance, dressed in your nightgown with your purse slung over one shoulder. Light rain dances across your skin, plastering your hair to your cheeks and neck, and the stones of the driveway dig painfully into your bare feet.
“Julia!” he calls again and you turn.
Even in the darkness, his face seems pale and drawn.
“Where were you going?”
“I’m not sure,” you say, and then you are. “My mother. I was going to see my mother.”
“In the middle of the night, dressed like that? You must have been dreaming.”
“Yes, I think I was.”
“Here,” he says, extending one arm for you to loop yours through. “Walk on the grass so you don’t cut your feet.”
Halfway to the house, you say, “Can I go see her, though? My mother? Obviously not tonight, but it’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”
His forehead creases. “You mean her grave?”
The fear returns to your belly. Your mother’s dead?
“We can take flowers to the cemetery this weekend if you like,” he says.
“Yes, I’d like that,” you say. “I’d like that very much.”
Back in bed, he kisses your cheek and tells you to sleep. As your eyelids begin to slip shut, a moment of panic burns bitter on your tongue. You can’t remember your mother’s funeral. You should remember something like that, shouldn’t you?
You shake a Valium onto your palm but pause with your hand halfway to your mouth. There’s too much to do today for you to be dull-witted so you drop the pill back into the bottle.
After you finish the dusting and the vacuuming, you put another load of laundry in the washer and stand in the doorway of the laundry room, your arms slack at your sides, unsure what to do next. An odd sensation washes over you and leaves you cold. The house feels wrong. Everything feels wrong. Mouth desert dry, you walk to the powder room and stare at your reflection. Have your cheekbones always been so sharp, your lips so full? You run the water until it’s cold enough to hurt and splash your face again and again.
You jump and spin around, your hands and face still dripping.
“I’m…I’m,” you say. “I’m scared. I don’t feel right. I—”
“Shhh,” he says. “Everything’s fine. You’re perfectly fine. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
And like that, your fear is gone, but even that feels wrong, because while you may no longer be afraid, you remember feeling that way.
“Julia, come,” he says. “It’s nearly lunchtime.”
You’re in the back yard again. Alone. You have a fork in one hand and your mouth tastes of balsamic vinaigrette.
“What happened?” you say.
“You got up while we were eating and came outside.”
“Didn’t you try to stop me?”
“I did, but you pulled away.” His eyes are sad. “And, I wanted to see what you’d do.”
You take a step back. He doesn’t even have the decency to look ashamed.
“No,” he says. “It isn’t like that at all. I thought it might help me help you. I would never do anything to hurt you, Julia. You know that, don’t you?”
You nod, but there’s something odd in his face, something…sly. He’s doing this to you. You don’t know how or why, but he is. The question is, what exactly is he trying to make you do?
When he leaves to run errands, you wait until his car pulls out of sight before you go into his study. It smells of well-worn leather and something musky, his aftershave lotion perhaps. Bookcases line the walls and you trace your fingers over the spines. Medical journals, all of them, detailing surgical techniques. You turn on his computer, but it’s password protected and all your guesses are wrong. In the bottom drawer of the desk, there’s a small Moleskine notebook, not much larger than the palm of your hand, its cover creased and worn. Heart racing, you open it, revealing small, cramped writing. On the first page is a list of names and notations you neither recognize nor understand:
Dr. James Braid – the father of – Scottish – 18/19th century
Emile Coué – 19th century – placebos – autosuggestion
Franz Mesmer – mid-18th century – animal magnetism – man in black cloak
Milton Erickson – chronic pain – 1957 founding of TASoCH – patient need not be aware, as long as cured
Caligari – 11th century Italian mystic – somnambulist (Cesare) – murders
You flip to another page, hoping for something that makes more sense.
The first stage of hypnotherapy is going well. The patient is calm and relaxed, performing simple tasks as requested, responding to questions with the appropriate yes or no answers.
You frown. Hypnotherapy? But he’s a plastic surgeon. Retired now, but still. He flattened stomachs, augmented breasts, erased wrinkles on aging faces. Was this something he studied previously? Something he did on the side? If so, he never mentioned it either way. He never said a word.
Neither the writing nor the paper look new, and the page edges are feathered, as though the book has been thumbed through many, many times.
The methods, while unorthodox, do work. The findings, of course, can’t be published because there are many who would deem them unethical.
You flip ahead.
Although the unpleasant memories cannot be eradicated, they have been suppressed. Asking about those memories evokes no recollection, only traces of confusion that further sessions are expected to nullify.
You turn to yet another page. Same handwriting, but blue ink instead of black. No dates or names anywhere. What did he do them and how does it relate to you? Did something happen to you? Something he doesn’t want you to remember?
At this point, there is no introduction of new information so as not to muddle the thought process needful for—
He clears his throat and you look up, dropping the book onto the desk. Your hand butterflies to your chest. He leans against the doorway, his face calm.
“What are you doing to me?” you say.
“Loving you, that’s all.”
You shake your head. “No, that isn’t all. The sleepwalking, the blacking out. You’re doing something to me. I know you are.” You point to the book. “Hypnotherapy, that’s hypnotism. Is that what you’ve been doing to me? Hypnotizing me? Why? Why would you do something like that to me?”
He nods toward the book. “I left it there for you to find, hoping this time I was wrong and you wouldn’t go looking. It was the only way I could be sure, even with the rest.”
“This time? What do you mean?” He steps close and you raise your hands, ball them into fists. “You stay away from me. You—”
He says, “Be still,” and your arms fall to your sides. You try to lift them, but they feel as though they weigh a hundred pounds and you can’t make them budge at all.
“I’m sorry, my love,” he says.
Your mouth won’t work although words are shrieking in your head to be released. Why can’t you move? Why is he doing this to you?
“Walk with me,” he says, his voice like good whiskey.
You don’t want to walk with him, don’t want to cross the room at his side, but your legs make the decision for you. He pulls a key from his pocket, slides a bookcase aside, revealing a door. But you’ve lived in this house for over twenty years. How has he hidden this from you?
He opens the door and flips a switch, bathing the revealed staircase in a warm glow. “Careful now,” he says. “Hold the railing while you walk down.”
Your traitorous hands and feet do his bidding.
“Despite what you might be thinking, I’m not trying to hurt you. I didn’t think we’d have to do this again so soon, but the mind fights so to break free.”
In the room sits a chair with padded restraints, a projector, a screen.
“Don’t worry. You should know by now that this part won’t hurt. I might have to do something about that scar, but you won’t remember a thing, I promise you that. Funny that you’ve never noticed it before.” He touches your face, his hand warm, and you want to pull away but you can’t. “You cling so tightly to your old life. I never thought that would happen. I don’t think…” He shakes his head. “Sit, please.”
You do and he buckles the restraints around your wrists and ankles, not so tight that they hurt but tight enough to hold you in place. He kneels in front of you and strokes the back of your hand. “Maybe this time you won’t try to remember anything else. Maybe this time we can finally be happy together. We made it nearly a year. That’s longer than before. That has to mean something. That has to mean I’m doing everything almost right.” He gazes into your eyes and you tell yourself to scream, to shout, but nothing happens.
“Speak,” he finally says.
“Please. I don’t understand any of this. Let me go. Don’t do this. Please don’t do this to me.”
“Julia was a wonderful woman. You should be proud I chose you to fill her shoes.” His eyes go soft and far away as he continues to stroke your hand. “My wife, my everything.”
But you’re Julia. You’re his wife. Aren’t you?
“Where is she?” you say, your voice trembling, both wanting and dreading the answer. “What happened to her?”
“She was sick,” he says, his mouth tight. “That’s all you need to know.”
“No, please. If I’m not really her, then who am I? Please tell me that much.”
“You were no one,” he says. “Now relax.”
Tension bleeds from your shoulders. You open your mouth, but he says, “Hush” and your voice disappears.
He turns on the projector and an image of you flashes on the screen. No, you scream silently. That isn’t me. He said she was sick, but what did that mean? Did she die? Die he hurt her? You need to know. You deserve to know.
“Your name is Julia Anne Allan,” he says, his voice honey-sweet and you feel as though you’re falling into a dark, endless hole. You don’t want to listen to him, but his voice is so soft, so steady, so sure.
“You were born on August fourteenth…”
You finish loading the dishwasher and head into the library, your favorite room in the house. On the very top shelf on the far wall, a book is pulled halfway out—Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, your favorite.
You take it and sink into the corner chair, curling your legs beneath you. A bit of paper sticks out from the end of the book and you tug it free. A letter, folded in three, the edges slightly tattered, the folds feathered almost to splitting. You rest the book on your thigh and unfold the paper.
April 5, 2010
If you’re reading this, then everything is going according to our wishes. I chose you, you see, not him, and you agreed. Please don’t be afraid. This letter is nothing to be afraid of. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
There’s much I could tell you of you, of how we met, but it isn’t important to know that now. Suffice to say, you were in trouble and needed a friend, I needed a way to ensure that my life’s work would continue, and I didn’t want him to be alone. Fortuitous that we were similar in age, coloring, and build. Fortuitous that he could make alterations to correct the dissimilarities.
I know you thought I was joking at first. I know you didn’t think it would work, but if you’re reading this, then I’m hopeful it did. After all, Rebecca is my favorite book. You told me you’d never read it before.
I know it might be difficult, but you need to be patient and understanding. After I got sick, I taught him everything I knew, but when you condense years of learning into months, there are bound to be small missteps along the way. He won’t give up, and I have faith all shall be well in the end.
Though you might wish for more details of your former life, the three of us agreed that, should you ask, not telling you would be for the best. It would only upset you. I decided to write this letter—and he doesn’t know about it so you must keep it that way—in case you were afraid, but remember, you have nothing to be afraid of.
Truth be told, at first he wasn’t as keen on the idea as I’d hoped, but once I convinced him it was his idea, once I convinced him he loved you as much as he loved me, the rest of the pieces fell into place.
He is a good man. Remember that. He is a good man. I wouldn’t have put you in this situation, nor would you have put yourself here, if he were not.
Remember, you are Julia. You are his wife, the love of his life, the woman he’d do anything for. Even this. You are Julia, and there’s nothing to be afraid of. Now refold the letter, put it back in the book, and forget you ever read it.
About the Author
Damien Angelica Walters’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in various anthologies and magazines, including The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2015, Year’s Best Weird Fiction: Volume One, Cassilda’s Song, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu: New Lovecraftian Fiction, Nightmare Magazine, Black Static, and Apex Magazine. She was a finalist for a Bram Stoker Award for “The Floating Girls: A Documentary,” originally published in Jamais Vu. Sing Me Your Scars, a collection of short fiction, was released in 2015 from Apex Publications. The titular story “Sing Me Your Scars” was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Short Fiction. Paper Tigers, a novel, was released in 2016 from Dark House Press.
About the Narrator
Justine Eyre is a classically trained actress who has narrated over three hundred audiobooks. With a prestigious Audie Award and four AudioFile Earphones Awards under her belt, Justine is multilingual and is known for her great facility with accents. She has appeared on stage in leading roles in King Lear and The Crucible, and has starring roles in four films on the indie circuit. Her recent television credits include Two and a Half Men and Mad Men.