Once upon a time, a father bought his little daughter a storybook. She had been unable to resist the pretty colours on the cover and the shine of the smooth pages, and would run her chubby hands over the words, willing them to speak to her. Thus began a new bedtime tradition- she’d refuse to sleep if he didn’t read at least one story to her, “with the voices and everything,” as she would insist sleepily. It didn’t matter that the tales grew boring in a short while and almost tiring to repeat – he cherished the time he got to spend with his child, and she had become used to falling asleep to his deep, expressive voice.
Time flew, as time is wont to do, and the book disappeared, abandoned for other pleasures. The tradition remained alive only in the father’s mind; he missed reading to her, putting on silly voices and pulling faces to earn a giggle or two, sometimes a laugh that would warm him straight to his soul. He missed tucking her in and checking underneath her bed for monsters, but most of all, he missed talking to her. She’d left a long time ago, long enough that he’d given up looking and resorted to praying for her safety. Harsh words had been exchanged before she had run away; he remembered her pinched, tired face, with eyes hard as diamonds and marvelled at how different this girl was from his simple, trusting child.
Every night he slept fitfully, her childish face in every dream he had, always in the worst scenarios. He would wake up with a start and stare into the darkness, hoping that the dreams were just that and not an omen of something evil. He spoke aloud sometimes, not caring that he sounded like a madman, audibly finishing their arguments, forgiving and apologizing simultaneously, saying whatever he could to keep his sanity. “I just want her to be with me, always,” he would say to the shifting shadows on the walls, his late-night delusions making him think they were sympathetic to his babble. Once or twice, he had opened his eyes to a heavy, invisible weight on his chest, making it hard to breathe and harder to wake up. The third time it happened, a figure from the walls appeared along with the weight, dark as ink and light as smoke. It looked at him with eyes that spelt murder, an ominous gaze that itched to pull him under, to sink his consciousness to the murky depths of its home. He somehow wasn’t very afraid as it approached him, his only regret not having cherished his very last bedtime story with his daughter. To his surprise, it stopped and looked at him pensively, as if discontented to see him still attached to something that it deemed worthless. As the face of his child kept flashing through his mind’s eye, he sensed a resolute acknowledgement from the figure. In a flash, it flew to him and entered his body, blinding him with pain and filling his mind with an inexplicable sadness far greater than his own. It was all he could do to draw another breath, but everything was turning black rapidly, and soon enough, he lost control and then his consciousness.
White, dazzling enough to hurt his eyes. He felt sore all over, a deep pain in his bones catching him unawares as he tried to turn his neck. Various tubes ran up and down the length of his bed, seemingly ending up inside him, though he didn’t feel them. The constant beeping, he realized, was from what looked like a life support machine and other paraphernalia he didn’t want to know the names of. And there, at the foot of his bed, a familiar book in the hands of a woman with eyes as hard as diamonds as she silently mouthed the words. She hadn’t noticed him awake yet, her focus entirely on the pages, appearing as if she was chanting their words rather than reading to herself. Despite her hiccupped breaths and her creased forehead, the sight of her dissolved a hard ball of aching in his chest that he wasn’t aware even existed. She had grown, and even with her hair cropped close and the curve of her nose just like her mother’s, it was apparent that she was his mirror, a clear indication of their relationship. He tried to call out to her, say her name after years of their separation, but to his horror, he found that he couldn’t open his mouth, nor could he move any other muscle in his body, except his eyes.
In all her concentration on the storybook, she didn’t notice the figure stepping out of the shadows and approaching her from behind. He struggled with all his might, screaming on the inside and willing her to look at his face – even the tiniest movement of his little finger would be enough to alert her to his condition. But all he could do was watch helplessly as the shadowy figure floated terrifyingly close to her, then stop as if to taunt him into submission.
Please, he begged silently. Don’t harm her, he pleaded, unsure if the figure could even hear his thoughts. That old ball of pain in his chest was back, silent and freezing, numbing down everything else. She’s got her whole life left to live, she hasn’t done anything wrong, he entreated, as the dark figure seemed to look at him questioningly. He guessed it wanted something in exchange, something to placate it and spare his daughter. He instantly knew what he had to do. Stealing a final glance at his child, who was now quietly sobbing into her old book, he found the figure’s eyes and stared into its dark depths. Take me instead.
A quiet acknowledgment emanated from its shadowy trail as it made its way over to him, holding his gaze the entire time. What he had perceived as menacing his whole life, he was surprised to see, had turned out to be kind. A heavy, familiar weight, like a warm embrace, entered his being as the figure set itself upon him; he could already feel it pulling him into the darkest depths of human consciousness, a point of no return. Slowly, he was allowed to close his eyes, and with a final sigh of apology, he let himself float into the deepest of sleeps.
Ultimately, he had gotten what he wanted – to be near his child for the rest of her life, and to watch over her as she grew. He had no way of knowing, but till she died, his daughter would visit him every day, listening to the steady beep-beep of the machine and thumbing through the battered storybook. She had long since given up on his waking up, and yet she refused to pull the plug; in her old age, she would try to explain to her bemused grandchildren of the day when she had heard him sigh before he had slipped into a coma. They would dismiss her ramblings of cold shadows and dark figures as those of an addled brain and a lonely, terrifying life.
Till the end, only the walls would listen to her.