Have you ever noticed how stillness is far more terrifying than sound and movement? At night, as you lay in your bed, staring at the ceiling, everything is calm, until something catches your ear - was that a step on the stairs? The creak of a door being opened? Suddenly, thoughts of axe murderers and other madmen flash through your thoughts. Such it was for one young woman - a girl really - only far, far worse.
Tranquil, yet terrible; still, yet threatening. No leaf stirred; no breeze wove through the trees. Even a puff of dust hung suspended in the air. No sound broke the silence; birds sat muted, unmoving, their songs cut off. People littered the streets like so many statues, suspended in time. Groceries, untouched for who knows how long, never withered or grew stale. Cars sat on the freeways, moving but for their stillness. A bicyclist raced to class, leaning into a turn, yet rooted in place. No light flickered; the very stars were cold and dead, frozen in the atmosphere.
She had forgotten how long ago it was; so long, yet no time at all. It could have been hours; it could have been years. One day, she had fallen asleep in an active, high-powered world; she woke that evening to a new earth, so similar, yet so horribly changed. At first, she convinced herself it was a terrible nightmare, but even then she knew it for what it was. A brutal prank perhaps - but no. Time as she knew it had stopped, and along with it everything, and everyone, else.
No one was meant to endure the terrors she faced. At first, she stayed within the college she called home, eating from the forever-fresh meals, but as that ran low, she traveled around the city. The staring faces seemed grey in the dim light; few were not twisted into a scowl, or covered with the blankness of veiled thought.
The faces were not the worst, though. As she explored the changeless world, new horrors unveiled themselves.
Only a block from the college, a car was frozen in time, a look of horror in the driver's face. A young man lay bleeding across the hood, stilled not by time, but by death.
Three blocks away, a young woman clutched her arm, blood spurting from a grotesque gash. Her attacker's cold, emotionless eyes reflected the terror in her own.
A mile in the other direction, the face of a middle aged man was another frozen proof that death was no escape - the rope around his neck only heightened the horror in his face as he realized it.
Time and again, the girl would flee, screaming, from some horrendous discovery. A rapist, cornering his next victim; a drunken man, beating his terrified wife; a sadistic murderer, looking through his files of pictures. Even so, she returned, if for no other reason than to assure herself they could not move.
She prayed for someone, anyone, to come and rescue her from herself. She knew the faces of the middle aged man, the teen on the car, the young woman, the wife, the murderer, all by heart. Each was implanted firmly on her mind. It was torment, to know that so many cruel, heartless beings lurked within minutes of where she slept each night. Sometimes, she would try to leave the campus, to go back to her home, hundreds of miles away, or just get away from the terrible place; each time, she discovered a new fear, something - or someone - to dread.
The longer she stayed in this timeless world, the more she wished that she would age, if for nothing else than to give her an escape from this hell; she wished she could have the courage to kill herself. She knew it was hopeless, though. She would still be trapped, but in the clutches of inescapable dying - not death, but eternally snared in the instant of perception before death.
She tried to help; if ever the world awakened, they would find it a better place. A home for the elderly would find it's shelves full of food, as would a nearby homeless shelter. A school would be saved from a bloody takeover, the weapons mysteriously gone, a note for every teacher pointing out the guilty ones. Even so, with hundreds of people nearby, even in a crowded party, she was alone. So alone...
Something had moved. Her eyes darted around the bright room - she only slept where it was light, now - searching for what had awakened her. A sound, in this dead silence - it could have been a gun, or a pin drop. It had been so long... She was suddenly completely awake. If something had moved, then someone was here. She hurriedly dressed, rushing to the window. Everything was still as death; nothing breathed. The figures on the path below were still frozen in place. She began to turn away, thinking her confused mind was imagining things, when she noticed another movement, a flicker of dark against light near the corner of the building. She flung open the window, probing, hoping that her eyes were not inventing phantoms - but there was nothing. Everything still, everyone in the same place as they had always been. She slipped back into bed, asleep before her head hit the pillow.
Again, something startled her awake. This time, she knew what she had heard. As she slipped from the bed, she heard it again - a scrape across the door. She stopped in the middle of the room, suddenly remembering the murderers and rapists. That sound could mean that there was another lost soul, a kindred spirit trapped in this unforgiving instant - but it could also be a killer, wakened for yet one more horrible crime.
The door swung slowly open as the girl waited, not even daring to breathe. Her eyes darted around the room, looking for a way of escape, or a weapon, just in case.
A voice spoke from the other side.
"Is there anyone here?" It was low, soothing; her fears receded as she responded.
"Y-yes, I'm here." The door swung wider, and a young man stepped slowly into the room. As their eyes met, she nearly fell from relief. This was no killer; he looked as scared as she felt. They stepped towards each other - but a sound caused them to turn.
A big man stood in the door, knife in hand. The young man flung out his arms to protect her, but a swift blow sent him to the ground. She screamed, scrambling back onto the bed, but the big man was faster. She struck at him, sluggishly, as if she were suspended in water. As his leering face moved nearer, she tried to scream, but no sound came. She could barely move, now; her body felt as if it were turning to cold stone. The man raised his knife, and she braced herself for the pain that she knew would last for infinity...
...And sat up in bed, dripping with sweat. It was a dream, so real, yet still only a dream. She ran to the bathroom, feeling the bile rising in her stomach. It was so real, so vivid; even so, as she wiped her face on a towel, the images faded... all but the face of the big man, knife in hand.
Her life continued; the gray, timeless world around her still unchanged. Her schedule began to crumble, her will power failing. At first, she had tried to keep a semblance of a normal life; wake, eat, work, eat again, work again, eat once more, then sleep. Now, she ate or slept whenever she felt like it.
Her sleep became increasingly full of dreams; when all you can do is dream, your mind takes over. Sometimes, in her dreams, her old life returned; sometimes, new terrors reigned. Either way, there was no way to escape them, or embrace them. Sleep came as it would, each night, each new dream bringing terror or hope. She began to wonder what was real - was this place a dream, or only a dream? Sometimes she would wake, sure she had fallen asleep in the room next door, or that the lights had never been on, or that somehow, the window had moved. Every time, she recalled that she had moved, or that the lights had always been on, or that the window could not move, but every time, she doubted her sanity more and more.
One day, as she was walking down the stairs, something made her stop. At first glance, everything was the same - but she had been staring at these walls, these faces, for an eternity. She knew every speck of dust by heart - something was wrong. Perhaps she had bumped into something, and never noticed it. Maybe she was dreaming - no, no matter how real dreams sometimes seemed, this was reality.
Then she saw what had caught her attention. A picture on the wall portrayed a family, seated around a dinner table. Only now, the father's throat had a fine line drawn across it.
Increasingly, she saw things out of place; as she saw them, it was almost like a dull memory. Had she moved things? In her sleep, had she walked around, rearranging the rooms?
The worst was when she awoke with a knife on her pillow. What had she done with it? Was she loosing her mind? Was it not enough that she could not sleep, or eat? Was she cursed with insanity, and illusions, as well?
More and more, she saw shadows, phantoms of light and darkness, just out of sight. Rooms were rearranged, even people in different places. Finally, as she was coming back from the dining hall, her eyes fell upon the picture again.
It was soaked in red.
Screaming, she ran to her room, locking the door - screaming anew as she saw the chaos. Books were spilled on the floor, papers scattered, water poured onto a desk. Pillows were shredded, bed sheets torn; not a single object was left untouched.
As she watched in abject terror, a dark form rose from the corner of the room. It pulled its cloak back from its face, revealing a death mask of hatred. The thin, bony hand reached out - she tried to pull away, but her muscles wouldn't respond. It spoke, but her screams drowned its voice. As its fingers clasped around her arm, shaking her, she could feel herself falling backwards, onto her bed, the fingers pressing into her arm, the voice more persistent. She couldn't breathe; the room spun in circles, then faded. Her last vision was of the dead hand reaching for a knife...
...As she bolted upright, drenched in sweat. Her room mate sat back shaking her head.
"That must have been some dream! You wouldn't wake up! You must have been screaming for a couple minutes, girl!"
She passed her hand over her face, knowing that it couldn't have been a dream - could it? Her throat was sore, and she savored the stinging reality.
"Yeah... it was. Maybe I'll tell you about it, later."
As she lay back, she could see a picture from the doorway - not of a family at dinner, but something else, some modern work. Underneath, though, she could see a streak - no, a trickle...