The night Emily turns nineteen she is frozen but she can see the clock reach midnight from the corner of her eye. Felicia comes back with a boy. They play loud music, and the boy looks over at where Emily is lying and asks what’s wrong with her.
“She just does that,” Felicia says.
“What, sleeps with her eyes open?”
“Yeah,” Felicia says. She is lighting a cigarette and blowing smoke out of the window. “Pretty freaky.”
The boy stands over Emily and waves his hand. He smells like spilled beer. “Hell-ooo,” he says. Emily cannot reply. She cannot move her eyes. “Gimme that,” says the boy.
“What for,” says Felicia.
“Just give it.” Emily can feel the cigarette pressing onto her skin, only lightly at first but then harder. Emily cannot even cry. It pulls away. “Christ,” says the boy. “She’s really out.”
“What would happen if I touch her?”
“Don’t do it,” Felicia says, laughing.
The boy puts his hand on Emily’s stomach. He pushes up her nightshirt and exposes her chest.
“Stop it,” Felicia says. She isn’t laughing anymore.
The boy takes his hand away. “I’ll just touch you, then,” he says.
“You’d better go.”
“Just a little bit first,” he says. Emily hears but cannot see the struggle. All she sees is the face on the poster leering at her, and her chest feels cold. When she unfreezes in the morning, Felicia is still in bed, and she might be sleeping except that the covers are shaking. Emily does not speak to her. By the time Emily comes back from class late that night, Felicia’s half of the room is empty, the drawers all pulled out and bare.
When she is twenty-three, the nights are shorter, and she asks for a stronger pill. By now she works in an office, and when she first switches pills she oversleeps her alarm four days in a row. She apologizes to her boss on the fourth day and tries to explain, but the pinched old woman just says, “If it happens again, you’re fired.”
It happens again. Emily moves back in with her father.
When she is twenty-four, she works overnight as a manager at a call center. The pills help her sleep through the day. Sometimes she wakes up and her lungs are sore and she knows the hags must have visited her, but she has not seen them in years now, and it has been so long since experiencing the forced stillness, the living death, that sometimes she forgets the terror of it. She barely sees her father now, though sometimes she comes home just as he is brewing coffee and gathering the paper from the porch, and sometimes he readies for bed just as she is rising. She leaves notes on the counter because he is becoming forgetful. Buy coffee creamer. Pay the electric bill. Pick up my prescription. This last one, she leaves every two weeks and wakes to find the paper replaced with a new bottle of pills until one day when her father overlooks the slip of paper and she wakes after the pharmacy has closed to find the note still untouched on the counter. She goes to work and works all night and comes home in the morning tired but unable to sleep. She lies in her childhood bed and stares at the shadows like black oil on the ceiling not thinking of anything. She can hear her father clanging at the stove in the other room, and later she hears him leave the house. She is tired, tired, and she falls asleep.
In the kitchen the note still sits on the counter, and a gust of wind blows it across the burner that Emily’s father has forgotten to switch off. It catches fire quickly and, flaming, it dances in the flurry of wind, dragging across the refrigerator front and lighting all of the business cards and sketches and photos held by magnets there. A picture of the three of them — Emily, her father, her mother — on Emily’s third birthday curls, reddens, goes black. The cabinets and carpets and walls take longer to catch, encouraged by the wind. Down the road, Emily’s father returns from a trip to the store and stops walking when sees black smoke pour from the windows.
Emily lies awake in her room, and the hags stand around her. She cannot see them clearly, but she recognizes them: the glint from grandfather’s marble eyes; the autumn-leaf odor of grandmother’s breath; the pale flutter of mother’s hospital gown; Rebecca’s mary janes planted on Emily’s chest. There are new hags, too — the boy from her graduating class whose car had gone careening off of the overpass in the ice storm last year. Felicia, fatter than when Emily saw her last, but still beautiful, still trembling. They hold her still, and she cannot cough away the smoke, and she cannot move as the fire clambers up her bedsheets, and she cannot smile as her mother’s cold hands cover her mouth and nose.
Rachel Cochran is currently pursuing her master’s degree at the University of Missouri. Her short fiction has previously appeared in Deep South Magazine, the University of Georgia’s Mandala Literary Journal, Eastern Illinois University’s The Vehicle Magazine, the University of New Haven’s New Sound Literary Journal, The Ohio River Review, and others.