“Doin’ it myself,” Chris said, lighting a cigarette and inhaling.
These are going to kill you.
“Yeah?” he said, trying to pay attention to his task over the sound of distant voices. “So can drinking sodas.”
Chris looked at his watch. 1:58 am. He was late taking his medications.
“Tomorrow,” Chris waved away the smoke, “gotta start with the busted furnace and shoddy insulation.”
The cabin was “middle-aged” and did not lack for home improvement projects. With smart restoration and remodeling choices, Chris anticipated a big profit from flipping it. After all, modern vintage cabins were all the rave. He had stayed up painting the master bedroom. When two in the morning struck, the screaming began. It started as a low, distant mewling that made him think a cat was dying outside his window. Then it spiraled up into a shrill, tinny sound.
“GGGGAAAAHHH OUUUUUU IIIIIIRRRR!”
The cabin groaned as if buffered by a windstorm. The hallway on the other side of his door roared with a crackling sound. Chris dropped his cigarette and looked for his folding knife. The noise overwhelmed him before he could grab it. He covered his ears, but the screeching wormed itself through his ears and settled inside his head. His nails dug into his scalp, cutting ten bloody ridges into his skin. His groin shriveled up into his pelvis, nudging into his bladder. The high-pitched scream continued to rise until it reached its crescendo — then vanished.
Chris reached for his dropped cigarette. His ears rang in the silence, and the preamble of a migraine thrummed at the base of his skull. He brought the filter to his mouth and bit it in half before he realized it. He drew a deep breath. Smoking helped normalize him. The cabin quieted. Even the usual gurgled voices had deserted him. He finished the cigarette and burned another.
The last time the hospital put him on chemical and physical restraints. Since then, Chris maintained his treatments, and with fantastic diligence, he learned to live with the subtle voices. Tonight was different. A possible precursor to psychosis?
Chris could check into the hospital, but the idea repulsed him. He hated the stench of the disinfectant that never quite covered the smell of sickness and bodily fluids. After days of forced stay, the ten by ten emergency rooms became an isolating prison.
If he couldn’t stop the psychosis, might as well let it occur in the comfort of his home. It could be an outlier. “If it happens again, I’ll go to the hospital,” Chris said to the empty room. “Promise.”
Chris decided it was time to turn in and let sleep rejuvenate him. He took his medications and smoked half a cigarette before saving the rest. At three in the morning, the ear-splitting howl woke him. Smoke clogged his lungs, leaving an acrid taste in his mouth. He coughed. At the foot of his bed, he saw through the haze a transparent specter. His previous hallucinations were all auditory, never visual. He tried not to panic.
The specter wobbled and wavered, in and out of sight, as if trying to catch a precise frequency. Chris’s eyes watered. He jumped out of bed. The figure appeared distorted, but he could see black necrotic flesh reaching up from its neck, covering most of its lower face. The specter’s mouth twisted into a contorted oval.
“GGGGAAAAHHH OUUUUUU IIIIIIRRRR!”
Chris tried to run, but flames covered the door. Real flames. Chris backed away from the inferno, reaching for the closest window. His hands worked at the latch, fingers stumbling over each other like drunken feet. Stuck. He grabbed a discarded paintbrush and tried to break the window, but the glass was too thick. Chris screamed as the blaze reached him.
Chris opened his eyes. He stood at the foot of his bed. Sleepwalking! He couldn’t remember the last time that happened to him. His shoulders sagged with relief. The dream had been so vivid. Even now his limbs still felt the heat of the fire.
The bedside clock read 1:58 a.m.
Chris’s coterie of voices rose around him, clearer than ever before. Shapes formed around him. Strangers. A woman, two men, and a teenage boy paced the room. Chris stepped back and reached for his folding knife in his back pocket. Empty. His cigarettes were missing, too. He recognized the voices. He had lived with these voices. And they competed for the attention of a man he previously hadn’t noticed. The man crouched by the door painting the frame. He held a cigarette in his hand and a cloud of tobacco drifted over his head. The man turned toward Chris.
He was staring at himself.
“Doin’ it myself,” his other self said, lighting a cigarette and inhaling.
“These are going to kill you,” said Chris, remembering.
Chris looked at the clock again. He was going to die in an hour. Something else caught his attention. Next to the clock sat a crumpled cigarette on the edge of the nightstand. He realized the next one would be left half-lit when he turned in.
The feeling of that distant fire intensified. It ate at his limbs now, blackening his skin like metastasizing cancer. The pain dominated his thoughts. In a fraction of a second, he understood the reality of the nightmare. He was going to watch himself die again. But now that he knew his fate, maybe he didn’t have to.
Except, when Chris tried to scream his warning, he could only speak three words. And they came out twisted and never-ending: “GET OUT! FIRE!”
Jacob Pérez was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, but spent most of his young adult life in Boston, Massachusetts. Graduating from college in 2008, he dedicated his continued education to caring for people. If he couldn’t have superpowers, maybe nursing was the best next alternative. He loves crossing genre boundaries and exploring the complexity of human nature. He now lives in Loomis, California with his wife, two beautiful kids, and an indifferent cat named Zelda. Currently, he’s working on his debut novel and expanding his writing portfolio. You can find him on Facebook @jacob.perez.98096, on Instagram @jacobperezauthor, and by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.