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I used to feel cold when I woke up in the middle of the night. But not here, not in Los Angeles, tucked between the 101 and the pressing hills under stalking palms. Something broke my sleep tonight and there is no urge to pull my covers over, not for warmth or the feeling of a body bunched beside me.
If it was an earthquake, it was my first. I had anticipated banging furniture, epileptic walls, and a terrifying affirmation of experience, and now all that anxious longing seems desperate. If it was an earthquake, it was just something that happened, something that had nothing to do with me—another sign testifying to that creeping religion.
But it mustn’t have been an earthquake, because the sound that woke me happens again. Something structural, a standing beam or lying board, winces. There is something moving in or near my apartment.
I crane my head off its pillow in a way that will give me a headache, and watch from low, on stacked mattresses. My clothes drape and sweat on the chair next to a table of books. The jagged stacks of thick hard-covers still wrapped in plastic jackets and limp yellow-paged paperbacks make a dusty metropolis on shimmering wood. A poster, too dark to see, hangs opposite my bed. I don’t remember its face; it was here before me. My room door is open to the corridor with the bathroom sink, but the door from the corridor leading out to the living and kitchen space is shut.
I used to assume harmless causes when I heard something in the middle of the night. But here, where people act out movies, and cults grow and sway like the trees? There is a desperate belief in magic. You wait for it to touch your life, but even here—where the magic is supposed to exist—nothing happens, and the waiting compels you to do something dramatic, anything to make meaning, a story. Anything to beat back that creeping religion.
The pasty neighbor knows I am illegally subletting my apartment even though I lie to her that I am just the subleasor’s friend. She tried to evict me in the first week, but I lied to the manager who agreed my neighbor is unhinged. When we passed in the hallway today, the neighbor thanked me for how little I stomped this week, but she was concerned about the next tenant. After all, she said, I’m only visiting for a month, right? Her eyes didn’t move in coherence with her concerned face. Her eyes threatened. She watches me when I take the elevator. Her living room window is close enough that I can watch her blink, but instead I look down at the dingy dog-piss darkened carpet until the ding sounds and the door opens gingerly. Only then do I look up and, through my peripheral, know for certain she is watching.
The beam or board that winced could be connected to the hall outside the apartment. Sometimes when doors click open or shut, even softly, the depression shivers through the hallway. She could be out there or in my apartment beyond the bathroom corridor. If it is her, she is in loose shorts, like the pair she wears when she walks her shitty dogs, and a loose t-shirt that she tugs over her face and screams into when no one is around. If it is her, she has a knife and isn’t sneaking; she is careening, at an angle, wilting forward, but without sound because she is almost weightless, just skin around eyes. And if she makes it to me, and begins stabbing, she will scream, no shirt to muffle the sound this time, and the contortions of her face will not match her eyes. I will bleed out into my un-tucked sheets through my two mattresses. She will feel relief from her compulsion, and for both of us, maybe, the preaching will stop.
My neck stiffens and a dull ache settles in the plank along my brow. I watch for movement, but the ache drops my head back to its pillow. I listen for another sound and try to stay awake. It seemed so likely that, here, something would happen.
Ahsan Butt was born in Toronto, is of Pakistani descent, and currently lives in Los Angeles (via Seattle). His short fiction has appeared in The Monarch Review and is forthcoming in The James Franco Review.