The popcorn ceiling looked like an alien landscape. With the full moon spraying its light into Gabby’s room, she stared up from her bed, her eyes exhibiting no interest in sleeping. The clock was nearing two in the morning, and Gabby did her best to convince herself it was time to dream. She didn’t peruse her favorite websites on her computer or try to get the top score on her latest phone app. She knew those would only awaken her mind further.
Instead, she tried reading a book Hamilton suggested about chronic intestinal disorders. The varying ways one’s body could attack itself and turn the intestinal tract against its host fascinated him. After three chapters, Gabby lost interest in all the ways a body failed to make poop correctly.
After that, all her attempts at encouraging unconsciousness failed. She was left staring at the ceiling, examining each bump on the textured surface, wondering if this was how snow-covered mountains looked to God.
Her mind also flashed with images of the bloody sheet covering Regina’s body. She imagined those might have covered a bed once. She ran her hand across the thin one covering her body, looking at its white purity, and speculated how much bleach would be necessary to remove bloodstains. Not the ones she got when she cut her legs shaving. But the saturated bloodstains that soaked into every fiber from gaping wounds oozing from unnatural openings. Could those sheets ever get washed clean? Would the washing machine ever be able to remove the discoloration of its history? Or would there always be a darkened imperfection that remained, like the mental one seared into Gabby’s brain from this morning?
Under that sheet was something so awful no one, not even the police who had witnessed murderous crimes of unrelenting brutality, wanted to peek under the cover. And those that dared looked away in horror. Regina’s mangled body caused them to cringe as if they were visiting a crime scene for the first time.
Gabby kicked the sheet off her body as if it were crawling with ants, repelled by its dual purpose of covering warm and cold bodies alike. She sat up against the headboard and closed her eyes, laying her head against the wall, trying to replace the silence in the room with her mother’s tune. God granted her mom a soft and melodious singing voice that had the ability to wash away Gabby’s fears and wrap her in a peaceful calm.
When Gabby was a young child, she would often awake from night terrors. Her screams would travel through the house and the thumps of running feet would approach from her parent’s bedroom. Her mother would run to Gabby and hold her in her arms. No matter how many times she was asked, Gabby could never remember the source of her nightmares. She would find herself sitting up in bed, covered in sweat, screaming at the top of her lungs. Her own panicked voice would jar her awake moments before her mother rushed to her side.
Her mom would rock her back and forth, pressing her head against her chest. She would begin with a hum, barely audible, that would grow into a song. The tune was one her family had passed down about traveling to a mythical river. It was ironic her mother would eventually die in one. The song was nonsensical, but on those nights where fear seemed to have replaced the oxygen in the room, her mother’s soft voice surrounded her like a protective shield, buffering Gabby from fright and insecurity. Her mother’s fingers would swipe the tears from her cheeks and reassure her everything would be all right.
Sitting up against her headboard, Gabby strained to find her mother’s voice in her memory. She tried to pull her warmth from the darkness and safeguard her from the images of the violent and unnecessary death of Stacy’s mother. Gabby had her fill of untimely deaths. She had no appetite for another. Yet, as she thought back to those night terrors, something gnawed inside of her, buried among her fading memories. Deep down, Gabby feared those dreams were not random synapses firing in her brain, but portents of her future. One where such screams of terror were not dark fantasies, but certain realities that had yet to reveal themselves.
Gabby spun her body, dipping her legs over the edge and placing her bare feet onto the cool hardwood floors. Stepping out of the bed, she walked over to her window, looking out at the palm fronds swaying in the night breeze. The world felt ominous. Threatening. The sea of darkness illuminated by the cold blue moonlight pressed against the glass like a porthole on a sinking ship.
Maybe she had it backwards. Maybe everyone did. Maybe the sun didn’t show us the world, but hid it. Maybe the world’s real identity was in the night’s shifting shadows filled with evil intentions. If heaven was overflowing with divine love and the world was fallen and corrupt, then perhaps earth’s true nature was different than everyone expected. Maybe the planet wasn’t full of good people interjected with a few bad apples. Maybe it was really a worm-infested bushel of rotten cores topped with a few shiny ones unaware of the layers of decay below.
Father Peters warned her this would happen again. He cautioned her to keep her thoughts away from desperation and hopelessness. She wasn’t doing a good job. She took a deep breath and stared at the moon, its glow hiding all but the brightest stars, trying to focus on its light diminishing the darkness, not the darkness surrounding the light.
Pushing away from the window, she walked to her nightstand. She cracked open her worn Bible, fighting her mind’s attraction to sinister thoughts, and flipped through the book’s thin pages, hoping one of them would cry out to her. The pages fluttered by, and her heart started to race. The negative voices in her head rose like a chorus until she slammed her hand on the Bible.
The room was once again silent.
She lifted her hand off the page to reveal a passage from the Old Testament. “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future of hope.”
Gabby stared at the words and laughed out loud.
“I don’t know how to tell you this, big guy,” Gabby said, “but the distance between that passage and my life are light-years apart. You’ll have to do better than tossing a few random words at me. I’ve risked hoping before, God. Didn’t work out too well. I’ve had too many motherless nights. Too many times, I’ve looked in the mirror and wanted to be different. If I could, I’d go back in time, erase it all, and start again. I know that’s not being faithful. But it is being truthful.”
Gabby used to be a lot more fun. Lighthearted. A prankster. At least, that was what her dad told her. He said she’d get a gleam in her eye and her mouth would form a crooked smile when she was hit with a moment of devious inspiration. Gabby shook her head at the thought. She had no memory of that girl. If they met, it would be like meeting a stranger from another world. That version of Gabby was lost forever, buried in her mother’s casket.
“For I have plans for you…” Gabby read aloud. “Yeah, God, that’s what I’m afraid of.”
Behind her, the table vibrated and a small light shined onto the popcorn ceiling. She glanced over her shoulder at her cell phone pulsing with each ring. The number was unlisted. Her impulse told her to answer.
“Hello?” Gabby said.
No one answered, but she could hear the sound of cars passing by in the background.
A bell chimed, like the ones above the door at the hardware store. But these were pitched higher. They were familiar.
Someone was breathing into the phone. Not deep and creepy, but light and quick. Then a voice mumbled like a moan.
“Stacy? Is that you?”
If it were Stacy, Gabby knew she couldn’t hear her. She knew Stacy didn’t have a cell phone. Where was she calling from?
The phone beeped four times, each with a different tone. If this was Stacy, she was pressing an old touch-tone phone, like the one Gabby had in the kitchen. The four tones repeated. Gabby hurried to her wall phone next to the oven and held it to her ear, pressing one number at a time, trying to identify the four numbers being repeated.
“Four… three… five… seven…”
That was it. The four numbers, repeated in that order. Four. Three. Five. Seven. Gabby’s mind scoured for connections. It wasn’t the beginning of an address she had visited or a phone number. It wasn’t part of a social security number or a birthday of anyone she knew. Four. Three. Five. Seven. What was it?
She stared at the wall phone, looking at the numbers.
“Four, three, five, seven.”
Her eyes widened as she looked at the three letters below each number. Within seconds, she uncovered the message.
“H… E… L… P…”