Jenny leans her forehead against the door, while fumbling for her key in her trench coat pocket. She has had a long day at the firm, and expects to stay up a few more hours tonight parsing through the case file.
She finds the key, and she stabs the keyhole a few times with the wrong end. Her slow and awkward movement seems to indicate that she has been out drinking with her girlfriends, but she has not had time to drop by her favorite watering holes in weeks. The case occupies every moment she is awake, and she cannot remember the last time she had a full night’s sleep.
In many ways, the quiet nights have been worse than the relentless days. She is under a lot of stress with the filing deadline fast approaching; but when consumed with her endless paperwork, or when yelling over the telephone, she is distracted to a large degree from the throbbing aches in her chest. Hours pass like minutes, and in the swift winds of the stampede she can forget that this career is killing her a heck of a lot faster than nature would otherwise.
There is no relief when the darkness is still and silent. Even when Jenny turns on the television in her bedroom, the late night banter is little more than a soft noise in the back of her mind. It is a flimsy audio backdrop that just fades away altogether before she has switched off the lamplight. In that black hour she is completely alone with her thoughts. As expected, most of those thoughts center on some aspect of the case. Invariably, before sliding into sleep, she will get out of bed, switch on the light, and write out a note in her chicken scratch about something she needs to do as soon as she gets back into the office. Getting up and out of bed so many times to write out a note exhausts her even more. It practically guarantees her another bout of restless sleep that leaves her more drained in the morning than at night.
That is not the worst of it, though. While most of her late night mind fucks do center on the case, every night at least one of her thoughts will detour down a much darker path. She wants to resist, but she is like a quadriplegic trying to break out of chains. The will is there, but the flesh is not at all responsive. Indeed, when this fear returns, every fiber of her flesh seems quite committed to that road. Her skin tingles cold. Her brow breaks into fevered sweat. Her breaths are fast and curt. Though her body is lying on a mattress in a tall, upscale, apartment building, her flesh is walking further into the haunted forest. It is preparing for an attack just round the bend, and there is nothing she can do to turn away.
Jenny knows that this is the prelude to a nightmare that will strike her down hard sometime later. Her rational mind discounts this dread as a kind of primordial superstition; a holdover from a collective mind that goes back millions of years. She mostly forgets about it during the daytime hours. Or if she thinks about it at all, then she casts it aside as an irrelevancy, like when viewing a sickening, medieval torture device behind museum glass. The torture may have been gruesome way back when, but the cries of the tortured mean nothing to the modern world. That same rational mind is not so persuasive at night. The jury is different then. It is susceptible to dark whispers and black magic much more so than sound arguments. Jenny sits with that savage jury when the lights are out, and as her eyes close for the last time that night she too believes that the monster round the bend is real.
And he is waiting there for her…
Jenny does not remember this nightmare monster when she is awake, though in fact she sees hints of this same creature all the time. The way a creepy man stares at her on the subway. The phony grin she sees when the senior partner tells her that she is doing such a fabulous job on the case. The shriveled face of her client that is a direct result of the poisons the defendant released into his neighborhood over many years. The transsexual opposition lawyer who has the same long, red hair and black trench coat as Jenny. In themselves, these details are innocuous, and yet they reveal, even if only for a split second, some aspect of the monster that occupies the darkest hours. The day may not survive into the night, but the night surely survives into the day, even when Jenny is way too distracted to be conscious of her own cold shivers.
Even when Jenny is asleep, this nightmare monster is felt much more than it is seen or heard. It creeps just beneath her skin. It stalks just outside of her dreams. It is the predator waiting for its moment to jump out from a shadow or to appear in the corner of her mirror. As hideous as it is what most disturbs her is that it appears suddenly when she is not paying attention. The monster is the cruel punishment she must endure nightly for not being on her toes enough. It really does not matter how hard she works all day. It is never enough to keep that old ghoul from attacking her.
Perhaps, Jenny thinks about this nightmare monster. Or, perhaps, she senses a solitary eye watching her through a peephole. Either way, she feels the cold shiver she typically ignores during the day. She stops stabbing the keyhole with the wrong end of the key, and looks over her own shoulder.
There is nothing out of the ordinary. Of course, if someone were watching her at the moment through a peephole, she would not be able to observe that. She calms down a little, turns her key around, and opens the door to her apartment.
Like every night, Jenny is greeted by a cold, dark foyer. She is surrounded by so many people throughout the day, and so the first time each night she steps back into her place is always a bit strange. It helps to switch on the light in the foyer, and she does so the first thing, but it only helps a little. Her apartment is sterile, perhaps too clean and tidy. It feels more like a hotel room that the maid turned just minutes before she checked in. It is not a home, and she cannot remember the last time that she really felt home anywhere. Perhaps, home is not a place anymore, but the state of mind when Jenny feels most comfortable. For all the stress aching in her chest, if there is a home it is probably when she is hard at work on her case file. Home is the time that slips away; the moments that distract her from her fear, and that keep her one step ahead of the dread that otherwise would pounce on her.
Jenny hauls her heavy briefcase into the foyer. The more years she has in the saddle as an associate the heavier the briefcases. She imagines soon she will need to pull it around on a luggage cart, or maybe even hire workmen to load it on and off a U-Haul truck. The junior partners also carry around these leather monstrosities, but they can pass them on to paralegals and clerks. Interestingly, the senior partners do not carry anything around but golf clubs, and the most senior of the seniors retain a coterie of caddies for that inconvenience. Jenny wonders if the seniors forget what it was like to haul around briefcases all days. They likely do, and likely do not care that they have forgotten. She usually envies them, but almost never when she steps back into her apartment. Whenever greeted by the cold, dark, hotel room she calls ‘home,’ she does not envy any life of still and silent leisure.
Jenny closes the door behind her. She bolts it. No intruder is likely to make it up to the thirtieth floor of this secured sky rise, but she bolts it anyway. Securing the lock is a kind of ritualistic reminder that there is a loud and chaotic world outside of this place. She is calmed not so much by the idea of keeping out a rapist or a killer as by the thought that soon she will be stepping back into that city world. It is her final good moment before settling in for another long night.
She looks down at her briefcase. Actually, she will not be settling into tonight any time soon. She has several more hours of work ahead.
Jenny takes off her black trench coat and boots. She leaves them by the door. Those are her two concessions to the fact that she is back home. Otherwise, she will remain dressed for the office until her eyes literally cannot stay open.
She hauls the briefcase into her bedroom, turns on the lamplight, and throws it onto her bed. Within minutes she has files spread across her comforter in an order that only makes sense to her. She props herself up on pillows, and digs into the files with the same tenacity someone else would a James Michener novel.
This lasts for several hours. The world is still and silent, but she is occupied. She almost forgets that she is sitting on her bed rather than burning the proverbial midnight oil back at her desk.
Then, the telephone on her nightstand rings. Jenny glares at the damn thing, like it is an unwanted ‘hello’ from an old boyfriend. She almost does not answer but then sees Shannon’s name on the screen. Her friend has been going through a lot of shit in her marriage for the past few weeks, and she has been reaching out to all of her bachelorette girlfriends in an apparent effort to be reminded what single life is like. It must not be as exciting as she remembers, or chooses to remember, because she seldom hangs up on these late night calls all that satisfied. The grass is greener, until it isn’t.
So tonight is Jenny’s turn to remind Shannon that single life is like one of the better episodes of “Sex and the City.” Jenny really does not have time for this tonight, but of course she never does any other night. She sets aside her file, and picks up the telephone on the last ring.
Shannon is really needy that night. Though at first hesitant to talk more than five minutes, Jenny soon indulges her friend’s voracious appetite for girl chat. Jenny needs this as much as Shannon does. She is happy to let go of her case for a while.
Someone else besides Shannon is just as happy…
Jenny steps away from her bed, while still talking on the phone. She looks out her bedroom window at the glittering downtown skyline. She recalls some of the old nightclubs where she used to dance the night away. Shannon had been a part of that gang way back when. They traded dance moves and men, and the urban world they knew then was a vast playground with seemingly endless possibilities. Yes, some of the paths taken back then turned out to be dark trails into haunted forests. There is a disturbing undergrowth to city life sometimes. Still, even the darkest moments of their lives were always interesting and, in a way, life affirming. The many monsters they encountered in their youth in retrospect truly could have killed them, but they could never have slowed them down. Only maturity managed to do that.
For the moment, Jenny has forgotten all about her work. Even the ache deep in her chest is gone. She sways gently side to side while talking on the phone. It is as if she is slow dancing in the glitter somewhere. As the girl chat continues, she almost sees Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome moving his hips in sync with hers. He has his soft hands on her hips. Shannon will get him back later, but at the moment he is all hers.
The bedroom closet door slides open several inches. Abnormally long, lizard like fingers creep out from in between the hanging dresses. The outfits in there have not been worn since those nightclub days. They are artifacts with shoulder pads and bygone leather flared skirts. The leggings look like something Jane Fonda wore in an exercise video. For the monster inside the closet, though, they are obstructions that need to be slid out of the way so that he can step out from the shadows.
The hangers rattle, as they are moved to the side. Fortunately for the creepy monster Jenny is oblivious. Even the squeaky closet door does not seem to faze her.
The monster steps out from inside the closet. If Jenny had been paying more attention, she could have seen his reflection in the soft lamplight in a corner of her window. Jenny is hardly even there, though. She is on the dance floor years ago and is starting to tilt her head to one side to receive a kiss. She senses that he is a really good kisser. Good dancers often are.
What is perhaps most pronounced is the monster’s abnormally wide smile. It is an insincere man’s grin, but even more so. His skin is a pastiche of ruddy, diseased blisters. It is as if he has been baked over many years, or poisoned over that time by a contaminant. Whatever the disease may be it is still ravaging what little remains of his threadbare flesh. His scaly face appears to be shrinking into his own skull. It is as if his bone holes and sockets are slurping up his skin through a straw. The result is a wide smile further elongated and pulled back into his cheekbones. Only those sickly, yellow eyes remain unmoved. They are transfixed on Jenny’s swaying hips. They are the eyes of a creepy stalker that Jenny has seen too many times in a crowded hall or subway. Though sinister and intense, those eyes are offset somewhat by the comical flair in the monster’s attire. He wears a long, red, woman’s wig, and draped over his bony thin torso is a black trench coat identical to Jenny’s.
Shannon says something that makes Jenny laugh. She loses sight of the good kisser on the dance floor, but that is okay. There are plenty of other amusements in this mental play land. Perhaps, Jenny will wander back to the booth where Shannon and the others are drinking their French 75s. Or perhaps she will just dance by herself a while longer. The night is free, and there is no sign of that case file she must review.
The monster approaches Jenny from behind. He extends his abnormally long, lizard like fingers, and touches her hips.
Jenny continues to sway side to side a moment longer. Is that the good kisser coming up from behind her?
Jenny sees the shrinking ghoul face reflected in the window. She feels his cold hands pressing hard into her hips. She screams wildly, and drops the phone onto the floor. Shannon can be heard in the receiver frantically calling out for Jenny, until the monster’s right foot at some point kicks the receiver under the dresser.
Jenny tries to squirm away from the monster’s clutch. The monster responds by digging even deeper into her hips. Bones crackle, and blood squirts out like water from a punctured balloon from the compressed flesh.
Jenny cannot turn around, but she tries to swing her fists and elbows back at the ghoul. She strikes through the monster’s thin flesh and into his bone, but all that she manages to do is to bruise herself. The monster remains undeterred. If anything, his wide smile elongates even further, until the tips of his lips are touching his stern, unblinking eyes.
Jenny’s legs give out, and she loses consciousness. The monster swings her around, and throws her onto the bed. She lands on top of the files that she had put together so nicely on the comforter. Her grisly wounds fan blood over all the files.
Shannon hung up, and called for the police to rush over to Jenny’s place. She tries to call Jenny back, but Jenny’s phone is disconnected. All she can do is to hope that the police get there in time.
Jenny may or may not be alive still, when the first responders arrive. What is certain is that the monster will be gone. He will slip back into a nightmare, and wait for the opportunity to pounce on another unsuspecting urbanite. When there is still hard work to be done, there is no excuse for someone to dilly-dally away their time.