After two months of sleep paralysis, you find the courage to make an appointment. Probably stress-induced, says a bored-looking psychologist. Have you been exercising? Eating healthy? Maybe try meditating. He gives you some pamphlets, recommends that you stop drinking caffeine in the afternoons. You kick the fallen leaves on the way out of his office and drop the pamphlets on the floorboard of your car, among the other tattered debris of your life.
The paralysis comes two, sometimes three times a week, leaving you so completely immobile that you can’t open your mouth to scream—you’ve tried, neighbors be damned. Lying there, you’re acutely aware of sheets against skin, the scrape of branches against the building, the hum of the heater. Your body, in its half-conscious limbo, is both the trap and the bait.
You’ve never been able to get a look at the thing that lurks at the periphery of your vision during these episodes. It’s always in your closet, a presence that you perceive rather than see amongst the shadows and clothes. There’s a concentrated malice emanating from it, a threatening cold heaviness that seeps through the comforter, weighing you down.
Once, you tried shutting the closet door, only to find it open again when you woke in the night.
Maybe you didn’t really shut it after all.
You Google “sleep paralysis.” You learn that it’s commonly known as Old Hag Syndrome, usually characterized by the sensation of a witch or demon sitting atop one’s chest. It’s been documented in nearly every culture, each with its own name for the monster: Pisadeira in Brazil, phi am in Thailand, Pesanta in Catalonia, dukak in Ethiopia, jinn in Egypt.
That night, the thing comes out of the closet. Your face is pressed into the pillow, but you feel the eddy of menace, like a cold draft. You shake, trying desperately to scream or flail, while it leers at you from just beyond the bed. You imagine claws raking, bones being crushed, but somehow these thoughts pale in comparison to what it might do to the parts of you that can’t be touched.
Your co-workers at the coffee shop have started to give you strange looks. One day, you scald your hand badly as you froth milk. You stammer apologies, say you didn’t sleep very well last night. Your manager yanks the towel out of your hand and tells you to leave, get your burns checked out, get some rest. You push through the door, cradling your hand and fighting tears of frustration and desperation.
The doctor who sees you is kind. He examines your hand and looks long and hard at your face. Is there something else going on? he asks. You inhale to respond—no, thanks—and then find that you are crying and telling him that you’re afraid to sleep, that even leaving the lights on doesn’t help, that the thing has begun to press down on you somehow until you feel you’re being suffocated. When you leave the clinic, you carry two prescriptions: one for burn cream, another for sleeping pills.
You wake from a drenched sleep the next morning, your mental fog miraculously lifted. Fall sunshine sweetens your mood. You falter when you approach the closet door—was it closed last night? You can’t remember. You shake your head, chiding yourself for being paranoid.
Two days later, in the shower, you notice a long thin scratch on the back of your calf, as though a claw had been dragged across it. You do not take the sleeping pills again.
The psychic looks at you with concern, eyebrows knitted together over her crystal ball. Perhaps we should try the cards, she says uncertainly, beginning to shuffle. You ask her what she sees, but she demurs, shuffling harder, earrings tinkling. She offers you the deck but you leave your card facedown, resolute in your pursuit of an answer: What?
She hesitates, won’t meet your eyes. At last: Nothing, she says softly. I saw nothing.
On the way home, you imagine shadows in the corners of your vision.
According to Google, the recommended method for arresting a sleep paralysis episode is to focus on the tiniest movement possible. Rather than leaping out of bed, try wiggling the tip of a pinky.
As you get up one morning, you see a dent in the blankets on the side where you don’t sleep.
The dimly lit cathedral is empty but for a couple of bowed figures praying silently.
Father, you say, and stop, unsure how to begin.
He watches you closely. You look at Christ, slumped on the cross, abandoned by God and man alike, so tired.
He says, gently, There is no evil so great that Jesus cannot help you, forgive you. Something swells in your throat. He continues, Would you join us for worship this Sunday?
The fall breeze is bracing and chilly. You don’t even bother taking your clothes off before falling into bed, exhaustion closing over your head in dark waves.
You awake, clear-headed, to the familiar feeling of being watched. Something is pressing on the bed. The ghost of a snarl hangs in the air. Panic claws your insides, turning your veins to ice. Every synapse in your body is screaming, but your muscles remain mute and dumb. The terror is unbelievable, unbearable, making your heart hum and stutter.
The weight at the foot of the bed shifts, as if something were leaning toward you.
Your resistance, worn thread-thin by weeks and months of fear, snaps. Whatever it is, it can’t be worse than this.
You turn your attention to the waiting thing: All right then. Come on.
Beside you, the bed creaks. A cold breeze brushes your cheek, though you don’t remember opening the window. Outside, you can hear the steady sound of rain against the side of the building, ushering in the changing season.
Alison Miller has been chasing her dreams west and north for the better part of her adult life. She is a writer of fiction and nonfiction, and holds an MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her writing has appeared in Litro Magazine, Evocations Review, Hippocampus, and the Free Library of the Internet Void. She lives in the mountains of California with her partner and is currently working on her first novel.