On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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I’ve always had trouble sleeping.
Sometimes it was just a minor annoyance; a delay in dozing off, or waking up an hour before my alarm. Not ideal, but readily handled. It only really started to get problematic a year or so ago.
At first, I would lie awake for a little longer each night before I nodded off. It went on for almost long enough to make me consider seeing my doctor, but then it abruptly seemed to resolve itself — or so I thought.
Then I noticed that I was waking up a little earlier each morning. Nothing dramatic; just a few minutes each night. I even saw it as a way to get a bit of a jump start on my day. But it kept happening as the weeks rolled by, and before I knew it I was wakening an hour, then two, then three hours before I wanted to. I had no more of the old trouble getting off to sleep, so I tried bringing my bedtime forward, which helped a little, but there’s a limit. I managed to squeeze in up to an hour of the time I’d lost, for a while, but beyond that I just wasn’t ready to go to sleep.
Oh I was tired, alright, but my body clock still said no if I tried to go to bed before about nine in the evening. A few more weeks in, and I was routinely falling asleep around nine-thirty and waking up by two in the morning. It was still a workable amount of rest, though I took to having an afternoon nap as a top-up, but I started to feel very different. Your emotions start to go a bit crazy, particularly when you realise that not only are you not asleep when you should be, but that everyone else is.
I took to sitting in my armchair in the bedroom near the window, leaving the lights off, but opening the curtains. There was plenty of illumination from the new white LED street lamps they installed the year before, and the world beyond the glass looked like exactly what it was: the stage set for a play that wouldn’t commence for several more hours.
I became very familiar with the local cats, and foxes, and the waking routines of those living nearby whose windows I could see from where I sat. That was for the last part of the night, though. Before, it was just me and the occasional animal. Before.
I was down to about four hours of sleep per night when I first noticed the strangers.
To begin with, they were just flickering shadows, gone in a moment, around the edges of things. Easily mistaken for a trick of light, or the product of fatigue. But they became clearer each night, just by a fraction, until I realised that it was because they were becoming slower. I then realised my mistake soon afterwards: it was me who was becoming slower, which was allowing me to see them.
I looked at my watch one night, tearing my eyes away from the strange shadow far down the street beyond my window, and I saw the transition as the seconds hand slowed by at least a factor of three. Then I understood, at least a little.
They come in the night, but for only an instant of time. Less than a second to us. But something happens if you haven’t slept properly in a long while, and bit by bit you start to align with their pace. When they come, they can be here for what feels like a full hour, but the clocks and watches and even the leaves of the trees in the wind don’t move forward by more than a second during the entire time. I’m stuck in my chair, held within a moment, but I’ve slowed down enough to see them. Sometimes, I can see them for the full hidden hour — tucked silently between two ticks of my watch, unsuspected by the sleeping world — as they go about their business.
They flit from house to house, and from place to place. They have our general outline, but always hidden in shadow, and they’re far too tall. They stand with their heads level to our upper-floor windows, all the better for peering in. They move quickly within their strange slowness, and they never make a sound because no sound could travel anywhere within such a fraction of time.
I live in fear of them now.
Sometimes I close my curtains in the evening and don’t open them again until dawn, not even switching on a light when I awake in the small hours, afraid that they might finally choose my window to look into. There would be nothing I could do, but they would see that I was awake and had discovered their hidden hour between ticks of the clock, and I don’t think I’d still be there in the morning. I think they might take me away into their compressed, secret chasm of the night forever.
There was a night when I thought it was going to happen. They had spent their hour flitting around, peering through windows and gathering and separating and moving too quickly and too quietly and too largely, and then they were going off down the street where they would soon pass beyond the range of what I could see from where I sat. They were almost gone… and then one of them looked back towards my window.
It peered, from so far away, but I was sure it was looking straight at me. I froze, not just in time but in terror now too, and I didn’t even dare to close my eyes.
They went away, just as they always did. The next night, I left my curtains open just the same, so not to draw suspicion, but I hid in the darkness of the bathroom from when I woke until my watch told me it was well after dawn.
I wish I’d never discovered them. I wish I didn’t have the image of them, strange and terrible, peering directly into upper windows with the shadowed shapes of their elongated hands clutching the guttering along the roofline as if it were a mere railing.
I wish I didn’t know that they came here each night, arriving and gone again in a moment, hiding in time.
I wish I could sleep. But I fear that I would see them there, too.
I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear from you; I'm @mattgemmell on Twitter.
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