People like happy. They respond to happy. Sad is a different story. One that’s far shorter, with fewer characters and less descriptors. Sad is the thin leaflet you hide between the brighter covers. No one really wants to know it’s there. Not even you. Sad is uncomfortable.
And so, I was “happy”.
I had my work acquaintances; the kind you make small talk with while wishing you could be anywhere else. I had a few people I played video games with once or twice a week. I had a cat. Beyond that, my social circle was nonexistent. My only real friend was Harper, and in the back of my mind, I sometimes wondered if even she only stuck around because she was my sister.
I never asked. I was too worried about what her answer might’ve been.
I also didn’t want to ruin the illusion.
Smile. Laugh. Chit chat about the fluffy stuff. Keep it light and, maybe, you’ll start to feel a little less dark. That’s what I told myself, anyway. If anyone realized that it was a front a good portion of the time, almost nobody said anything. Like I said, sad is uncomfortable.
Harper and I talked a few times a week. Sometimes on video calls, but mostly just over voice chat. She’d tell me about her job, some fancy sounding science gig that I never quite understood. I’d tell her about mine, editing local opinion pieces about how people who lived near an airport, which had existed before their neighborhood had been built, hated the airport. We’d swap video game stories, updates about friends, her art, my attempts at writing. She was one of the few people who could make me laugh, really, genuinely laugh.
But sometimes, after I was finished, she’d go quiet for a moment and then ask the question I hated most.
“So…you’re ok, right, Skye?”
My go to was to scoff and reply, “Of course. Why do you ask?”
She never had a good reason, just that I “sounded off”. I’d brush her off with an excuse about being tired and end the call. I wasn’t about to burden the one person who actually made me feel less alone. I used to, turning to her and spilling my guts whenever I started to feel down. Now, between her career and being a newlywed, she had enough going on in her life without me adding to it.
And I had my cat, Bjorn, and bottles of wine. What more could a girl ask for?
I was at a low point when it started. Dark thoughts, dark apartment, dishes and laundry piling up. The only thing I really cared about was making sure Bjorn was still looked after. Giving him fresh food and water was what got me out of bed, his playful mewls and need for attention kept me out of it. We’d sit together on the couch, watching reruns of whatever was on while I nursed glass after glass of moscato.
I’d just drained my latest cup and was already hearing the siren’s call for more. Bjorn rumbled happily when I moved him from my lap and got up to head to my kitchen. I tugged open fridge door and started to reach for the wine.
Something within the pale liquid moved.
I froze, my fingers around the neck of the bottle, and squinted. I was, admittedly, already a bit tipsy, and thought for a moment that it had just been a trick of light, until the wine sloshed again and a dark shape zipped upwards from behind the label. Slowly, I lifted the bottle from its spot on the shelf, suddenly queasy with the thought that I’d been drinking glorified cockroach bath water.
A cockroach would have been preferable to what was actually swimming around in my wine. Whatever it was, exactly.
The creature, no bigger than my palm, had long, spindly tentacles that were caught somewhere between octopus and jellyfish. As it propelled itself around, little chunks of its flesh, which was mottled with decay, were left floating in its wake. I gagged and extended my arm to hold the wine and its inhabitant away from my face. The sharp movement upset the thing and it launched itself at the side of the bottle toward me.
It spread its tentacles against the glass and pressed its underside to it, revealing an all too human mouth that snapped and gnashed its browned teeth.
I shrieked and instinctively tossed the bottle away from me. It hit the floor and shattered. Shards of glass and wine spread across the linoleum and I skittered backward, frantically searching for the monster. But it was nowhere to be seen.
After locking Bjorn in my room, where he couldn’t get near the mess, I returned to the kitchen with a broom held in both fists, raised and ready to smash whatever had come out of the bottle. Just like before, though, all I found was wine and broken glass.
I cleaned the spot where it had fallen until my apartment stank of bleach and then looked through every cupboard and drawer I had. I crawled on hands and knees with a flashlight to peer under tables and chairs. I never found the little octomonster.
I took solace in another bottle of wine (after thoroughly checking it out before I opened it) until I didn’t have to think about it anymore.
When I woke up with a nasty hangover the next day, it seemed pretty clear that I’d overdone the drinking and my “experience” had been a result of my overindulgence. Embarrassing, to say the least, and a waste of perfectly good wine.
It was also a reminder of how bleak things were starting to seem. I’d become that woman, who keeps her cat in the room so she can say she isn’t drinking alone. Instead of being the wake-up call I might’ve needed, it just made me feel worse. I was failing. I didn’t even know at what, exactly, just that I was.
I skipped the call with Harper that night. When she followed up with a text to see if I was ok, I told her I wasn’t feeling well and I’d gone to bed early. It wasn’t a lie. I was already buried beneath my covers, all the lights in my bedroom switched off. As soon as I hit send, I placed the phone facedown on the nightstand and rolled over to stare at the wall.
I drifted in and out of sleep, I guess, but while I was awake, I wondered how long I could stay there before anyone noticed. A day? A week? Would anyone but my sister even care? I didn’t feel like I would, so why should they? A tight, heavy feeling crept into my chest: an oppressive ache that made me want to cry and scream, but at the same time, made it too hard to do so. I flipped onto my back and inhaled a shaky breath to try and chase it away.
The shuddering sigh echoed from under my bed.
I sat upright, covers clutched to my chest. The sigh had turned to breathing, deep and ragged, and something dragged across the floorboards. It sounded like Bjorn’s claws, but heavier. Much heavier. The breathing was getting louder and my king sized bed frame jumped slightly. The dragging sound was moving, I realized through the white fog of fear in my head. It was slowly going from directly beneath me off to one side.
And the closer it got to the edge, the quicker and more eager it was becoming.
Out in the hall, Bjorn meowed pitifully.
His cry sent me reeling out of bed. I jumped as far as I could, hit the wall, and tumbled out into the hall, where Bjorn was waiting. I slammed the door shut behind me and scooped up my cat before running to the living room, where I quickly realized I’d left my phone on the nightstand. With no landline, I had no way to call for help without leaving the apartment and knocking on neighbors’ doors.
The more I thought about it, though, the crazier it sounded. How could I explain that there was a monster under my bed without coming off as delusional? There was no way. And I couldn’t put any of this on Harper. Not again. I fell on to my couch and held Bjorn, who nuzzled me while cried into his fur.
What was happening to me?
Of course, when I finally returned to my room with a kitchen knife, it was empty.
Isolation is a funny thing. It feels freeing and cold all at once. I stopped going to work. Didn’t even call in. Couldn’t bring myself to. I also didn’t answer Harper beyond a couple texts telling her I needed some time to myself and not to worry. She still tried to call and every few hours, my phone would ding with new messages or pictures she thought would make me laugh. I put my phone on silent and left it in a drawer.
I spent the next three days in my apartment, hardly moving or eating. I didn’t speak to anyone except Bjorn. I kept thinking it was time to answer my sister, but I just couldn’t muster the energy to do so. My phone seemed too far away and the words I would need were farther still. Being alone was easier.
The only reason I could bring myself to leave was Bjorn. He was almost out of litter and, even in my current state, there was no justification good enough to let him suffer even the littlest bit. I tied my hair into a greasy bun, pulled on the cleanest clothes I could find, and trudged outside.
It was already getting dark as I cut across the park and made my way to the nearest big box store. I grabbed the litter and a frozen pizza, paid, and started for home again. In the time it took me to get my things, the sun had gone down completely. I kept to the park path this time, where it was the most well lit. It was a little less direct and longer than simply going through the grass, but felt safer.
There was a bridge over a pond in the middle of the park, and during the day, it was quite a pretty spot. At night, it took on a gloomier quality. The draping branches of the weeping willows around it reminded me of the octomonster from my wine bottle as their silhouettes moved with the breeze. I swallowed hard, trying to calm the nervous flutter in my stomach, but the closer I got to the bridge, the more uneasy I became. I felt like I was being watched.
As I reached the footbridge, a shadow separated from one of the tree trunks.
In the dim light, its outline was long and thing, standing almost twice as tall as I was. It carried itself slowly on four spider-like limbs that cracked painfully with each movement. The body itself seemed too bloated to be supported by those legs. It was coming toward me, and each step seemed to be agony for it because it kept emitting low, guttural groans.
I screamed and started to back up, my bags slipping from my hands as I fumbled for my keys.
The thing in the dark kept coming.
I yanked my key ring from my pocket and flipped on the small flashlight I kept clipped there. It’s frail beam landed on the thing, sweeping over its bone-white flesh and tangled curtain of hair until it landed on its face.
Or rather, my face.
A mask of my features, pulled into a fake, too-wide smile, was half hanging over its own by a flimsy strap. All I could see of its real face was a roving, bloodshot eye. When the light hit it, it hissed and squealed.
That was enough for me. I unrooted my feet and tore back through the park, all the way to the big box store, screaming the whole time.
People typically have two reactions when you’re an adult who says they see monsters: scorn or concern for your mental well being. I got plenty of both when I tried to recount the last couple weeks of my life to others, until I just stopped repeating it. No one, not the police or the doctors I saw, believed me.
Not until I spoke to Harper.
I felt awful when I pulled my phone out from its hiding place and dialed her number. She didn’t need this, even if I did. It was wrong of me. No one else should have to deal with my sadness. I almost hung up. As I was about to, my sister’s voice came on the line, and the relief I heard in it was enough to have me sobbing.
After I could speak again, I told her everything. That I wasn’t well, that I’d been seeing things. I babbled about the octomonster, the boogeyman under my bed, the tall spider thing with a mask of my face. I poured it all out through gasps and tears and Harper listened with quiet intensity.
And then, all she said was, “Hold on.”
I waited, my stomach knotted with icy certainty that this was going to be it: the thing that finally pushed her over the edge and made her realize how much better she was without me.
Instead, she came back a few minutes later and told me to check my emails.
There were two waiting for me when I checked. The first had three attachments. I clicked on the first one. It opened to a charcoal sketch of a wine bottle. Floating inside of it, was a small, octopus jellyfish creature.
Confused, I continued to the second. Another drawing. I recognized my own bedroom right away. A pair of claws, long and razor sharp, were just visibly poking out from underneath the bed.
I didn’t need to open the third to know what it would be, but I did anyway. The spider thing, wearing my face as a lopsided mask, stared out at me from its visible, oversized eye.
“What are these?” I managed to ask.
“They’re your demons,” Harper said softly.
My sister knew me better than anyone. Even over the phone, she could read me. When I was in a bad place, when I’d been drinking and trying to hide it, when I’d shut myself off from the world. She knew, and she felt useless. She wanted so badly to help, but didn’t know how and I wasn’t opening up to her anymore. In her frustration and upset, she’d turned to her art for release.
The little demon that lived in the wine and fed my bad thoughts until they drowned out everything else.
The nighttime demon that waited until I was alone and filled my head with doubt and worry.
The ever-present demon that lurked behind all my fake smiles and clung to me with long, spindly legs so that I was forced to carry its heavy, suffocating body.
The demons she’d seen in me even as I tried to hide them.
The second email was a one way plane ticket for a flight out to her city the next day. Her guest room would be waiting for me and Bjorn.
It wouldn’t fix things, she told me, but it was a start, and she’d be right there with me to take it one step at a time.
We couldn’t explain how those demons had gone from her page to my home and, right then, I didn’t want to try. I just wanted to hug her for seeing me for who I was and not who I thought I was supposed to be.
We’d talk about it many times in the months that followed, but we never came close to understanding what really happened. Eventually, we stopped trying. The “how” just didn’t seem that important anymore.
Simply knowing that it had, and the good that came after because of it, was enough for both of