Read the story that won our 2020 Slight Short Story Contest!
By Ishan Davis of Charlotte, North Carolina
A crash from below brings him to consciousness.
His bedroom, now washed with light from the open window, feels like a safe haven from the confines of his dreams. He wouldn’t call them nightmares, as that was too strong of a word. Not quite scary, but unsettling. They were bursts of strange thoughts—deformed memories, eerie voyages to places he had never been—all pushed out from some dark corner of his sleeping imagination.
He was thankful for the loud strangers below, the life raft that pulled him to the surface of reality every morning. Their voices are unusually loud today, most likely the neighbors that had moved in a couple weeks ago. Exchange students, he guessed. He could never decipher what made its way up through the window, but he knows it must be English. Of course it is.
It seems like that is all you ever hear now.
He unwraps himself from the covers, feet meeting the floor as he sits on the edge of the bed. His glazed eyes find the nightstand. A scribbled note is left there, ripped from one of his lingering journals, he imagines.
Be back tonight, Munchkin.’
He scoffs. Of course she would settle on the worst nickname, he thinks. A part of him wonders if they were too old for this, nicknames and notes. But she isn’t asking for much. He could let her have this.
The floor isn’t as cool as it usually is. It’s warm for October. The stale air in the apartment nears unbearable. He looks at the window, frowning. The latch is shut. He is so sure that it was open when he awoke just moments ago. He walks over, stretching his limbs as he takes in the scene below. It was the same morning shuffle as always: Unbothered old women walk through tour groups on tight sidewalks. A fit of snapping cameras. The clanking of silverware at a café across the way. The exchange students that were just happy to be there.
He unlatches the window and in a couple of steps, he’s in the kitchen. A cup of coffee sits on the counter. Smoke wafts up to the ceiling, reeking of a fresh roast. It’s a pale brown color, café au lait, his favorite. The oven beeps, and the sudden smell of chicken meets his nose. The oven timer is at zero. Lunch is ready.
He blinks several times, but the coffee remains, and the beeping never ceases.
Nearly tripping over himself, he backpedals into the bedroom where his phone rests on the nightstand. The note is nowhere to be found. His attention snaps to the bed. It has been neatly made, sheets unwrinkled and pillows flat.
His chest constricts, holding in every panicked breath that threatens to escape. His hands shake violently as he dials the first number that comes to mind.
“Yes?” she answers.
“I feel like I’m losing it.” He rubs his face, desperate for touch as she was not there to do it herself.
“What do you mean?” she asks.
“Ever since we went to the Seine last week. Do you remember? For our anniversary picnic? I’ve been having these dreams. And time…time doesn’t make sense. I can’t explain it…I just—”
“Seine?” We never went to the Seine.” She snorts, amused.
A beat of silence.
“Munchkin, you can’t stand the Seine.”
“Well yes,” he breathes, “I do. I hate it. But we still went because you wanted to.”
“You really believe you would do that for me?”
“It was our anniversary—”
“So, you think you’ve found love in this city? Cliché, even for you.”
“I love you! You know that. What are you on about?”
“You could love no one but yourself. You know that.”
The voice is jarring—deep, slicing—and not hers. He searches his memory before realizing it is his own.
His heart plunges to his stomach when he pulls back the phone and finds his hand empty. The phone is still across the room, on the nightstand next to his bed. The room seems to tilt, bending into itself as the walls close in. The air is stale again, stifling. He slowly spares another look out the window and is greeted by the darkness of night.