A short story
It all happened a while back, when things weren’t going too well. Chris was ill and I was having all sorts of problems at work. Thankfully, all that is behind us now.
I vividly remember the first time it happened. I was in bed, trying to go to sleep after a particularly stressful day. I was just dozing off when I heard a loud bang. It was as if a giant metal tank had slipped its chains and fallen from a crane. I nearly jumped out of my skin. I sat up and looked around in the darkness. All I could hear was Chris’ gentle breathing. At least whatever it was hadn’t woken him up, I thought. He wasn’t having a good week. He’d just started a new course of medication. The side-effects were not good. He needed his sleep.
I climbed quietly out of bed and went to the window. Surely something must be going on out there, I thought. I pulled back one of the curtains and looked out. Of course, had there been any all-night engineering operations nearby I’d surely have known about it. As it was, I’d neither heard nor seen anything to suggest anything of the sort. I was tired. I told myself to think straight. It must have been a car accident. The street, though, looked empty under the yellow street lights: no broken glass, no twisted metal. I quietly opened the window. Cool air fell on my face. The town was more or less silent. A motorbike went by, a few streets away. I listened as the Doppler shift faded. If something calamitous had happened, there would be sounds of people shouting, sirens, that kind of thing. There was nothing. I closed the window and went back to bed.
I felt sure I’d heard a sound. Had I dreamt it? I didn’t think so. The moment before it happened I’d just decided to check that I’d set the alarm clock. I was working an early shift the next day. If I hadn’t dreamt it I must have imagined it. The trouble is, it sounded so real. You can’t imagine a sound that sounds real.
It started to happen every night. I stopped jumping out of bed to see what was going on. Whatever it was was obviously in my head. Should I be worried, I wondered? Loud bangs happening outside were bad enough. Heaven knows what damage loud bangs were doing inside my head.
Chris told me to go and see the doctor. I did as he suggested and the doctor reassured me: the bangs were not real. My brain was intact. He took my pulse and my blood pressure and declared them to be within acceptable limits. He said I had what he called Exploding Head Syndrome. He said it wasn’t serious. The sounds were a symptom of stress. I should try to relax more. He could prescribe medication but felt it would be more effective at this stage if I were to learn to meditate, to practise mindfulness. There were other options, he said, but that was all he could suggest for now, as my time was up. He gave me a leaflet about stress and a survey form. He told me the health centre would appreciate me filling in the form, as it would help them evaluate the quality of the service they provided.
Over the following weeks the bangs got worse. I started to call them explosions because the louder (or was it the closer?) they got, the more they sounded like explosions. I could hear more detail. Where at first there had been simply a loud, if resonant, report there was now more of a rich ‘boom!’ which took longer to fade away.
One night, after the predictable blast in my head, the loudest yet, I decided to get up and go to the bathroom. As I opened the door onto the landing I was aware of a flickering red light that filled the widening crack. I could feel intense heat on my face. Beyond the door was an open space, far bigger than the landing I knew to be there. Everything around me was on fire. The ground was strewn with rubble.
I might have dismissed the whole thing as a bad dream and willed myself to shut the door the way you sometimes can in a dream but I could see people beyond the flames. They were lying among the rubble, trying to pick themselves up and crying out in a language I couldn’t understand but which sounded, to me, like Arabic. They obviously needed help and I had to reach them. There was nothing else for it: I lunged forwards. If I moved quickly, I reasoned, I’d probably be okay. As I passed through the flames everything changed again. The flames vanished. I found myself standing outside the bathroom in the quiet darkness of the landing.
I went in and turned on the light, which bounced, harsh, off the tiles on the wall. I was breathing heavily. Remembering the advice on the leaflet, I made an effort to breathe more slowly. I felt safe in the bathroom and anyway the vision or whatever it was had faded. Perhaps, I reasoned, I’d been sleepwalking and dreaming at the same time. Strange things happen on the edge of sleep. I looked at my face in the mirror. I remember thinking I looked a little older than I used to look. I relieved myself. I opened the bathroom door and, gingerly, made my way back across the landing. There was no sign of what I’d encountered earlier.
I lay awake for several minutes, unable to go to sleep. I knew I had to go and take a look once more. I had to make sure, for both our sakes, that it was possible to step out of the room without having to face the fire. I got up again and opened the door. Quiet darkness. I turned on the landing light and left the door ajar.
Copyright (c) Sackerson, 2016