The first thing she felt was liquid trickling through her fingers, bitingly-cold, and with a consistency like a light syrup. Wake up, Consciousness called as it flowed from the tips of her finger down her arm and up her chest, signals traveling to her brain, telling her to rise. But she was already awake, in fact, her eyes were already open. All she saw was a charming midday sky, nary a cloud in sight, soft baby blues. But the feeling in her hand stirred her, and Corey felt her frozen muscles finally unclench and let her relax, sharp points jabbing into her back and the underside of her legs. She sat up, looking around, but her limbs moved like they were coated in molasses, sluggishly and imprecisely. She struggled to look around, but her neck fought her every degree it rotated, and her eyes outright refused to focus any farther than a few meters. Through the blurriness, vibrant natural colors danced and swayed, undulating just outside the reach of her vision, as if an unfelt breeze was passing through.
She languorously dragged her hands to her sides, pulling them away from the cold, spattering droplets that felt like weights dropped on her body all over her chest, before placing her palms against the ground and pushing herself upright. Dozens of small jagged edges poked into her palms, but through the haze, Corey pulled a hand in front of her face, squinting with all her might to turn it into something legible. Her fingers were wet, shiny with water, and a few small pebbles fell out of her skin as she examined her palm. Knowing this, she came to two conclusions; she was on a riverbed, and she was dreaming. Both were quite obvious, she wondered, but, why am I dreaming this? I don’t recognize this place, especially since my eyes don’t sympathize with my plight. But the serenity of the environment seeped through her, as if she wasn’t there; she felt alien to this place, yet it felt like somewhere she had been before. Had she?
With great effort, Corey meandered to her feet, unsteady and with her vision swimming. The movement beyond her gaze was trees and foliage, but as she clumped towards the greenery with leaden feet, every step taking more effort than the last, she noticed the extreme coloration of the plants; bright lime-greens, dark purples, soft blues. Completely unnatural, yet understandable. It was emotional colour theory, she realized, her own mind giving her pretty, calming colours to look at as she trudged forward, shoving through the plants, brushing against the trees. But no matter how beautiful the environment, the feeling of not-belonging only grew greater with every shrub she stomped over, every tree she dragged her shoulders across, like the pressure encompassing her was pressing harder and harder with every wheeze she made. The only thing worse would be if she was naked.
Oh god, am I naked?
She sluggishly touched all over herself. No, she wasn’t naked, she was wearing the same outfit she had as she fell asleep, boot-cut jeans and a black tank top, but her necklace was gone. The missing necklace gave her a pang of anxiety, but as she knew this was a dream, that anxiety vanished almost instantly. As she finished checking herself, however, her ears picked up… something. It sounded like mumbling, half-whispers between uncountable voices, and it came from directly ahead of her. Corey pushed on, sifting through branches as her body started to outright refuse to move; her left arm seized and wouldn’t relax, then her lower right leg froze completely, having to be dragged along like a pegleg. There was a clearing ahead of her, and she just barely made it as her entire lower body lost the will to move, and she collapsed onto her arms and knees as she fell out of the brush.
In front of her was a clearing, the ground covered in light teal grass, a ring of impenetrable vegetation sealing her in, all of it surging with wind only they could feel. It was a perfectly circular clearing, but it was indeed clear; ahead of her was nothing, behind her, more nothing. But she heard the cluster of voices emanating from the middle of this glade, so she pressed on, wrapping her fingers around the grass and heaving herself onwards. It was a herculean effort, with most of her body locked in place, but after an eon of inching closer and closer to the middle of the clearing, she collapsed, the voices sounding as if they were overhead. They spoke no words, at least, none she could decipher, but they were all distinct and unique. A deep man’s voice, every word a cough or growl, a young girl’s voice, shrill and upbeat, a woman’s voice, dignified and hissing, a boy’s voice, confused and sad, and there were many more voices than that.
Corey lifted her head just a few millimeters higher, her neck muscles quivering with violence, and she closed her eyes. The voices flooded her ears, and she tried her hardest to decipher what they were saying, listening in to anything that sounded like a conversation or simply a sentence, but there was nothing. What did she hope to gain here, anyways? Unless she reserved it to memory with some deeper thinking, she’d forget this entire dream moments after waking up. There was no meaning here, no reasoning, it’s just chemicals in the brain bubbling and brewing falsehoods for her eyes. It’s all just noth-
She heard words. Concrete, positive words, undeniable in their wordy-ness. Focusing, Corey blocked out all other sensations and listened. But that was not necessary, for the voice spewing forth audible words spoke up, silencing all the others in an instant.
Ever further down the well.
Without remorse, without rhyme, without reason.
Who do you think you are?
Each syllable was like a hammer to her skull, ringing through her ears with great pain. The voice was louder, louder than anything else she’d ever heard, and even through her hearing damage from years of gunfire, she felt that ringing return to terrorize her again, muffling the voice. But when a second voice spoke up, softer and gentler, through the ringing, she felt an odd sense of relief, the pain lifting from her head.
The little girl in you, your innocence, your patience, is not dead yet.
You can still make things right.
You can climb back up, sinking your fingers into the defects of the bricks, scratching your nails raw until they eventually peel off.
Maybe you’ll never get out of this pit you’ve dug yourself.
But you can still try.
You can always try.
But if you don’t, you will sit there, alone, sliding ever deeper into ferocity.
You will no longer be the grasshopper.
You will become the locust.
Carried on the wind by the harpies, or maybe, just one, clutching you in her claw as she carries you towards destiny.
You know what you are!
But you know what you can be.
You are the eater of flesh, cannibal queen!
You are the one who loves, the one who lives.
The one who kills, the one who dies!
Wild at heart.
Cold in soul.
You are the midnight animal.
She was hot, sweating in fact.
Corey awoke in the same place she had fallen, face-down on her overcoat. Her hands, still lacking any sort of damage, were shaking to the point where her fingers were just blurs in her hazy vision. She began to count her heartbeats, forcing her breathing to slow to a crawl as her heart gradually ceased its incessant thrashing, and her vision cleared. She looked out the sliding door to the balcony, through her gaunt reflection; it was almost pitch black, meaning she’d been out at least a few hours. Even then, she didn’t feel like she had rested at all, in fact, her body was more sore than it was before she fainted. Using the couch, Corey pulled herself onto her knees, before her eyes caught a glimpse of the cardboard box she’d brought in earlier. It was still there, up-ended on its side, thrown across the room. She reached out and pulled it back towards her, and, using one arm to peel herself off the floor and swing her body onto the couch, she began to rip at the packing tape with her nails.
After successfully extracting the strip of tape that sealed the top of the box, Corey unceremoniously tore it open, raising an eyebrow at the contents. There was a smaller box, surrounded by an insufficient amount of packing peanuts, considering that the box was still able to move freely inside the larger box. This smaller box looked like a shoebox, and Corey gently lifted it out of the package, which she made sure to put on the coffee table in such a way that none of the packing peanuts spilled out, before setting the shoebox on her lap. She poked its lid a few times, before hooking a finger under each side and pulling it open.
The first things her eyes saw were stacks upon stacks upon stacks of American dollar bills, laid sideways and secured with rubber bands. Corey fought the urge to pull one of the stacks out and proceed to rub it all over her face, instead plucking out the small white envelope that was placed in the perfect center of the box, flanked by the cash. Her name was emblazoned on the front of it in cursive handwriting, and Corey’s heart froze when she recognized the script. It wasn’t Linh’s, but it was similar; likely her mother. Corey overturned the envelope and used her finger to tear out the folded-over lip on its rear, and she dumped the contents into her other hand: there was a few small coins, ones she’d remembered giving to Linh as souvenirs from Corey’s homeland, with little holes drilled through their centers with fancy lettering surrounding them. There was also a folded up piece of paper, which she unfolded as she tossed the coins around in her hand.
The letter was brief, but it reduced Corey to a gibbering mess on her couch, bawling and snorting as she tried to collect herself repeatedly and failed every time. As she had suspected, it was from Linh’s parents, more specifically her mother. She didn’t know of Corey and Linh’s “connection”, but she knew how much Corey meant to Linh, or at least she knew enough. Linh’s parents owned a small factory down the coast, outside of New York, and they made a tidy living, enough that they had decided to put out large life-insurance policies on their family members. There was no greed in mind, in fact, the intention was if one of Linh’s parents suffered a freak accident in the factory, Linh would have some cash from them as a final gift. But they never thought the opposite would happen, and neither did Corey.
Still, they got the money, but they had no need for it. The intent was for the insurance to help someone, and if the insurance was going to help anyone, Linh’s parents thought that specific anyone deserved to be Corey. As such, roughly $50,000 American dollars were sealed in that shoebox, which was placed in that package, which was left at Corey’s doorstep by a family friend she had never met.
$50,000. Blood money. Corey had an urge to just rip up all of the bills and stuff them down the toilet, but considering that same toilet jammed if she used slightly too much toilet paper, she’d probably break the thing if she tried that. Those feelings quickly faded however, and Corey felt some sick glee that she was now $50,000 richer. For anybody else, this would be a blessing, especially as she was an unemployed college graduate with a mediocre and extremely-specific degree. But it still felt like a sick joke. Hey, your girlfriend is bloody dead, here’s some money, go drink it all away!
God, why the fuck am I such a pessimist? A blessing is still a blessing, even if it’s inappropriately timed! It… helps dull the pain. Corey forced herself off the couch and into her bathroom, contorting her back to stick her face under the sink faucet and blasting herself with lukewarm water. She didn’t even know why she was doing this, except that it overwhelmed her senses and ‘washed out’ her thoughts. After wiping her face off with the world’s scratchiest towel, Corey threw it into her tub, before lingering in front of the mirror.
She looked so tired. Like, in general. The bags under her eyes were seemingly permanent, like natural eyeliner for her remarkably beady eyes, and her scraggly face had only slightly filled out since she started eating semi-regularly again. Her vaguely European features, the wide jaw, square chin, long nasal bridge, and strong cheekbones, all contrasted with her hazel skin, button nose, wide nostrils, and messy curly hair. On a good day, she looked like she was twenty. On most days, she looked thirty-five. Neither of those ages were even close to reality. She had the ability to look nice, possibly even ‘pretty’, if she just took the time to clean herself up, maybe dab a little makeup here and there, but at this point she didn’t care enough to do more than the bare minimum.
She lumbered back into the living room of her apartment. The ceiling light bled into the wallpaper, blurring out the floral patterns and turning it all a soft tan, and as she stood underneath that domed light, she could feel the heat drifting down onto the furthest strands of her hair. She hungrily eyed her couch, before turning her gaze to the most painful location of all in the whole damn world: the door to her bedroom, which had been sealed for months now. That’s partially why her wardrobe was so limited, her clothes were in there, next to her clothes. Curious, Corey let her hand rest on the doorknob, turning it slightly and opening the door just a hair. The persistent scent in the air of the room escaped like a pressurized gas, and Corey almost vomited. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell, it was the smell of fresh cotton, clean black hair, and of what once was. It smelt like Linh. It smelt like the good days.
She slammed the door shut. The couch it is, then.
Corey bolted upright as a series of light knocks sounded out from her front door. With groggy movements, and after almost stumbling over the coffee table, she leaned her body against the door and pulled herself out of her slouch using the doorknob, raising her head to meet the peephole. A small woman stood outside, wearing a tan hijab, and her eyes were the size of moons, just like two nights ago. Corey turned and looked out her balcony sliding door; the morning sun’s rays had just begun weaving between the skyscrapers outside her window. What was Lyla doing here at this hour?
Corey hurried to unlatch the deadbolt and throw the door open, and Lyla immediately stared at the much taller woman, a simple frown on her face.
“U-Uh, hello?” Corey sighed, rubbing crust from her eyes with one hand as she used the other to prop herself against the frame. “What’re you doing here?”
“Can we talk?”
“Sure? Err, inside or-”
Lyla merely walked underneath Corey’s supporting arm.
“I guess inside, then.” As she shut the door, Corey noticed Lyla begin to pace around her apartment, those wide eyes of her never lessening in size. She was freaked out about something, and Corey prayed it didn’t have anything to do with her.
Well, she was wrong, it did have to do with her. As soon as Corey turned the deadbolt into place, Lyla spoke up in her meek voice. “I’m sorry, Corey.”
“About?” Groaned the taller woman, who rubbed her forehead as she stumbled about, trying to lazily toss things out of the way and make things at least slightly more presentable; this mostly amounted to her throwing some clothing aside to make it easier to maneuver through the cramped apartment. One of the corners of the rug she’d lazily splayed over the floor had folded up, so Corey nudged it over with her foot. It proceeded to pull itself back into the folded position, like an octopus curling in its tentacle. She pushed it down again. It sprang back up. Corey sat her foot on it and forced it to stay down as long as she was standing there, which would likely be for a while, as Lyla was still pacing and hadn’t said anything more. “Lyla?”
Lyla’s answer was instant. “About earlier. I shooed you away because I didn’t know what to say.”
“Didn’t know what to say? About what?”
Lyla gave her a look that was halfway between wincing and sneering. “You… checked up on me, and I basically told you to go away. That wasn’t right for me to do.” She bit her lower lip as she chose her next words carefully. “To be honest, thinking back, I should’ve let you come in. But now… I guess I’m the one inside your home, huh?” Lyla glanced around the small apartment, eyes scanning over the general disarray (even after Corey’s puny attempt at making it nicer just a minute ago), before glancing over at her kitchen. “It’s funny,” Lyla cough-giggled, “you keep your living room all dirty, but your kitchen is spotless.”
That was an odd thing to point out, but it was true. “Yeah, well, I eat there. I don’t eat in here.”
“So what do you do in here?”
Corey thought for a moment. “Sleep, I think? Sometimes I put the telly on, and just flip through the channels, hoping something catches my eye.”
Lyla looked towards the door to the bedroom. “Why don’t you sleep in there?”
Corey stared at the door to her bedroom. It was wood, with a dark stain applied, and with an inner rectangle that chased the corners of the door from end to end, a deep chamfer that created a center island of the door. It was like an open billboard, ready to be carved into by a knife, or smashed through with a fist, or repainted in a less brown color, or ignored as it’s merely a door and the last thing you tend to notice in a home of any kind are the doors. Do you remember the doors of the last home you entered that wasn’t your own? But Corey did, although she didn’t even enter the home.
Lyla’s front door was pitch-white. It had three little square panes of glass at the very top, and was flanked on either side by thin, vertical slits, also glass. The center of it had a brass knocker screwed into place, which Corey ignored when she knocked on the door. The door to Corey and Linh’s bedroom was old and plain, with no frills or true detail work. Lyla’s door was fancy, but in a moderate sense, and as Corey waited for Lyla to open the door, she recalled a minuscule detail of the door that most people would’ve missed; there were several divots scattered across the surface of the door, scuff marks, indents, gashes and other types of marks. They had all been painted over, yes, but they were still there. A dog happily scratching at the door, a vengeful ex scraping their key against the surface, a drunkard teetering shoulder-first into it, who knows what caused all those little marks and scars, the history of that place prior to Lyla’s residence.
Lyla glanced away from the door, and Corey felt she was internally chastising herself for not realizing sooner. She could practically hear her mumbling under her breath about ‘place attachment’, something Corey had in fact first told her about.
Corey motioned for her to follow, before clambering over her couch and leaning into it; Lyla more appropriately walked around it and sat down. “Why are you here? It’s… what time is it?” Corey didn’t have a watch or a clock on the wall.
“Three forty-two in the morning.” Lyla articulated. “Give or take a few seconds.”
Corey whistled. “Wow, uh, how’d you do that?”
Lyla raised her right arm and showed off the watch on her wrist.
“Oh.” Corey grit her teeth and nervously ran her hand through her rugged haircut; yeah, she definitely needed a shower.
With Lyla. That intrusive thought spoke up, only to be instantly quashed by the might of Corey’s morals. “Anyways…”
Lyla sighed. “Anyways.”
There it was.
The awkward silence, the averted gazes, the stiff postures. Corey didn’t know what to do, and Lyla was either searching for something to say or frozen by the anxiety of the situation.
Corey felt a nagging tickle, a minuscule ‘yanking’, deep in the back of her thoughts. It was that dream, which up until this point had quickly faded from her mind, as dreams tend to do; they’re just visitors, sometimes they stick around, but sometimes they’re just passing through. But this dream had kicked off its shoes, sat in her favorite chair, and asked if she could fetch it a pint. When she noticed this tickle, the dream broke through, streaming out of a microscopic crack in her psyche, dripping into her fears and doubts. It was just a dream, and yet, she came out of it changed more than initially thought.
And as Lyla finally spoke up, and Corey automatically replied, the veteran’s focus had been split between reality and introspection. Little of the dream remained in her thoughts and memories, but what remained stuck its barbs into her worries, and it sat there, festering. Dreams are just… dreams.
And yet they could be so much more. Corey remembered being taught about the life of the Roman scholar Macrobius. Macrobius became famous due to writing some fictional account of some general Corey forgot the name having a dream where his dead grandfather appeared to him and told him he would win the upcoming battle, which he did. Macrobius used this story to describe five types of dreams, but one type stood proud amongst the others to her: Somnium, where the dream shrouds its true intent or deeper meaning in subtext, hints, and emotions.
Somnium is what she had encountered, at least that was her semi-professional opinion. The final words of that dream soon became all that remained, the rest fading away as her attention turned further and further towards Lyla, Corey’s innate attraction to her flooding her frontal lobe with a mixture of confusing emotions. But those last words remained.
Corey leaned over and hugged Lyla, and Lyla returned the favor, wrapping her arms around Corey’s ab-studded midsection.
‘You are the midnight animal.’
The midnight animal.
The deeper beast hidden inside all of us, driving us to savage our foes, destroy our competition, and cement our futures in blood if needed. Most people are strong enough to not give into this destructive force, and many go without even noticing it. But for some people, the strain and pressure becomes too much, and they don’t just snap. They fold inwards, imploding into a ball of reactions and sentiments, devoid of reason and based on pure instinct alone. It was the creator of the shadows that dance and flail in the pits of our cultures, the necessary evils that fuel the good in the world, and we all pray one of those shadows will never be our own.
The smell of Lyla’s perfume, a faint lavender, put a few happy thoughts in Corey’s head, and she squeezed her even tighter, but underneath those saccharine feelings, a conclusion had been made.
But Corey accepted it, even as she felt her heart rate slow and love grow, she knew that she would never stop in her pursuit of closure until one of two things; either she dies, or whoever killed her girlfriend dies. Simple as that. Quite a quaint way of going about things, yes?
And she was okay with that.
For she still didn’t understand what that entailed, and she had no idea as to what would happen next.