Veiled – Karina Halle

I wake up with a gasp that freezes in my lungs. My body is strained, nearly paralyzed, a stark contrast to my heart which races erratically inside my chest, as if looking for a way out. It was the noise that woke me. That same noise, night after night. One knock. Two knocks. Three knocks. Like someone’s at my door, even though they never are. I wait, trying to suck the air deep into my lungs, realizing I couldn’t move even if I tried. There’s nothing else to do but wait and hope my heart calms down and I don’t die from a fucking heart attack. It’s in your head, I tell myself. You know this. You looked it up. But after growing up with a sister like Perry Palomino, it’s hard to know what’s in your head and what’s real. I much prefer it when my mind plays tricks on me.

Even so, I lie there in the dark, listening to every sound in my room. Outside a cricket chirps once, twice. A light breeze rustles the trees and I feel the air as it comes through the open window and washes over my body, my limbs that are outside the sheets. It’s been stinking hot in Portland this summer and this breeze is nearly cold. It would be refreshing if I wasn’t so rattled. Strength slowly returns to my body. I’m able to suck in a breath and let it out carefully, even though it’s far too loud for my liking. I’m still trying to listen, still trying to figure out if the knocks are part of my dream or part of something real. I’ve had this condition for about as long as I can remember, though it was only recently that I looked it up and discovered it was quite common. It also has a disturbing as hell name: Exploding Head Syndrome.

Yup. Ada Palomino’s head might explode on occasion. Hope you’re wearing a poncho. Apparently though, it’s not that big of a deal and it doesn’t mean your head is just going to spontaneously combust, like that dude in Scanners. Now, I’ve never seen Scanners because it looks like a terrible 80’s movie, but anytime someone’s head explodes, that’s the movie they refer to. Instead it just means it’s an auditory hallucination, one powerful enough to wake you up. Some people hear cymbals crashing, others hear a bang or gunshot. I hear three loud knocks. I used to think it was someone at my door, so I would get up and answer it, thinking it was Perry. No one was ever there.

Sometimes I’d have to go downstairs and check the front door, usually with a steak knife or blunt object in hand, but it was always the same deal. No one there. Then this spring, when I slept over at my ex-boyfriend’s cabin in Astoria, I woke up convinced someone was trying to get in the place. My ex, Dillon, was already awake, having gone to the washroom and told me he hadn’t heard a thing. Finally, I had to look up on the internet what the hell was going on. I discovered it had a name (albeit a pretty shitty one) and that many people suffered from it, usually women and usually when they were overly tired. I’ve had it a few times since, but sometimes it’s just so real that it’s hard to imagine your brain could come up with something like that. Not to mention that often my body goes rigid, paralyzed, for a few moments after. Then there was that one time I was pretty sure I felt someone sitting on the end of the bed, only I was on my side and couldn’t look. The weight lifted, as if someone stood up, and when I was finally able to move, no one was there.

I’m going to assume that’s part of the hallucinations as well. I sigh, relieved that my heart is no longer racing, even though I’m still faced with that overall sense of unease and what the fuck. My throat and mouth feel desert dry, so I slowly get out of bed, grabbing the empty glass on my bedside table, and head to the washroom. The air from outside now feels warm, like it has been all summer. In the bathroom I flick on the lights and wince, but make a point not to look at myself in the mirror. On nights like this, when I wake up in the middle of the night, either because of my apparent condition or for no reason at all, other than this feeling of dread, I feel the mirror holds the truth. I’m terrified that if I look at my reflection, it might not be me. And if it is me, I might be different. But who can blame me for thinking the impossible? Because, after all I’ve been through, I know nothing is impossible. And even though on the surface I have a pretty average life for an eighteenyear-old, beneath the surface I’m anything but average.

Luckily, very few people scratch beneath the surface. If they did, they’d either run screaming or have me committed. Sometimes I think the latter might be preferable. After I fill a glass with water from the tap, I flick off the lights, my reflection still unseen, and creep past the nightlight in the hall back to my room. My father sleeps at the end of the hall, but ever since mom died he’s been a light sleeper. In fact, I see him popping his sleeping pills every night. When he doesn’t, I can hear him downstairs in his study during all hours. I inherited my sister’s room since she moved to Seattle. It’s a lot bigger, brighter, and better than my old one, which is now a (much-needed) extension of my closet. The only problem is, it’s hard to forget all the shit that went down in this room.

For all of my fifteenth year, Perry’s bedroom was a miniature house of horrors with some very big, very real, scares. I down some of the water and crawl into bed, the breeze still wafting in. The streetlights provide comfort and a faint orange glow that not only keeps the room from being pitch dark, but reminds me that I live in the suburbs. There are neighbors on either side of the house and neighbors across the street. Our yards are big enough that everyone isn’t up in everyone else’s business (though tell that to Mrs. Hedley down the street), but close enough that I don’t feel all alone. With my mom dying and Perry moving out, it’s been really fucking hard not to feel alone. The last two years have been a special kind of hell. I let my head sink back into the cool of the pillow and close my eyes, finding that current of peace and contentment that will hopefully pull me under, when I hear a faint scratching sound. Oh god, I think, just wanting to drift away, just wanting the world to go black so I can wake up with the sun and have the world light again.

But it goes on. Not louder, just more . deliberate. I slowly sit up and hold my breath, listening. The scratches sound like nails against a door. The closet door, to be more specific. I swallow hard and my heart begins to thud. It’s not my imagination. I’m not asleep. The sound continues, the strokes longer, the sound succinct, almost echoing throughout the bedroom.

It could be a mouse. A really large mouse. Okay, it could be a rat. A really large rat. God, I hope it’s a rat. If it’s a rat it can just stay in there until I get my dad to deal with it in the morning. Anything other than some type of animal is completely unacceptable. I ease out of bed carefully, not making a sound, and stare at the closet, feeling frozen in place. There’s no way in hell I’m opening that door, but there’s no way in hell I’m going to spend the night in here either. I wonder if I should wake up my dad, but the man needs his sleep more than ever and knowing my luck, the scratching would stop when he gets here and there’d be nothing in the closet after all.

I’ll sleep in the other room. I can’t help but pause by the closet on the way to the bedroom door. The sound changes. A flurry of wings now, flapping against the closet door, the scratching louder. My breath is caught in my throat. It sounds more like I have a chicken in the closet than a mutant rat, but even though I know there’s something funny about that scenario, this doesn’t seem funny at all. Because a giant rat is plausible and a chicken is not. And the wings don’t exactly sound like feathers either. The flapping is thick, like someone throwing slabs of raw meat against a wall. I am zero seconds away from either vomiting from fear or literally losing my shit, but if I keep standing where I am I feel like I’ll be stuck in the room forever.

And then I hear it. A rough yet somehow familiar voice comes from the closet. “Let me out,” it croaks and the sound is a fist in my lungs. The closet door rattles as someone on the other side knocks. Three times. I wake up. *** “New purse?” Amy asks me as I get in the passenger seat of Smartie, her Ford Focus she bought second-hand a few months ago after saving for every pretty penny. I look down at the micro YSL bubble-gum pink purse that’s slung over my shoulder, which I chose to save up for instead of a car. “Kind of,” I tell her. I bought the purse on an online sale a couple of months ago, I just hadn’t found the opportunity to wear it until now.

I buy new things all the time—I mean, I’m a fashion blogger, it’s kind of my job—but more often than not I get stuck in the habit of using the same bag over and over again. Today though, today I needed some cheesy bubble-gum brightness in my life. I’d been having the worst sleep for the last few nights, ever since that dream upon a dream and the knocking and the chicken thing in the closet. Thankfully I hadn’t experienced that again, even though I was giving my closet a wide berth now. The irony, that I’d be afraid of it when I’m about to start art school for fashion design next month and would probably be spending more time in my closet than ever before, wasn’t lost on me. But I had been dreaming about a guy I met once, and in some ways those dreams were worse. I’d wake up in this happy, warm state, like my heart was glowing and I was just floating through life. The opposite of waking up from a nightmare. Because even though I couldn’t remember the specifics of the dreams, I knew I was with this guy and I was safe and I loved him. I couldn’t even tell if he loved me back, it was just this feeling of being on top of the world, something I’d never really experienced.

And that’s what made it worse. When you wake up from a nightmare, the reality comforts you. When you wake up from the best dream ever, reality is a burden, a slap-in-the-face reminder that you could feel this, you could have this, but you don’t and you won’t. What’s really weird is that I can’t really recall the guy. Like in most dreams, he starts off as one person and then morphs. I lose focus. But I just have this image, this feeling, that he was this guy I met at Perry and her husband Dex’s wedding two years ago (still weird to think of Dex as her husband— my brother-in-law—and not some douchecanoe that hangs around). His name was Jay and I really wish I hadn’t swigged so much champagne at the wedding because, just like the dream, the real-life details of him are kind of blurry. I know he was tall, maybe in his mid-to-late-twenties, which to my then sixteen-year-old-self seemed all sorts of ancient. He had reddish brown hair and manly scruff on his strong jaw.

I’m not really sure why I think I know the feel of his rough stubble—I think if we kissed I would have at least remembered that. Regardless, there was something about him that was vaguely magnetic and, considering my aversion to gingers, that said something. And what it said was that the last time I felt real butterflies around a guy was ages ago, I was drunk, and I never saw him again. How sad is that? “Are you okay?” Amy asks as we head across the Fremont Bridge, the Willamette River sparkling below us. I slide my eyes over to her and give her a tepid smile. “I’m heading to Sephora. Of course I’m okay.” Amy Lombardo is pretty much my closest friend. She’s been there for me through everything from losing my virginity with Dillon (okay, she wasn’t actually there for that, but she helped me deal with the aftermath), to breakups, to cramming for final exams. She, along with her boyfriend Tom and our friend Jessie, make up our little posse that has managed to last throughout the crazy high school years and now into this scary big world of the beyond.

Jessie has already gone off to school in California, so our pack has dwindled to me being the third wheel most of the time. Amy takes her eyes off the road and slides her sunglasses down on her nose, inspecting me with her chocolate brown eyes. “You sure?” Her voice is soft and I know she’s worried about me. The first year after my mother died, I was practically inconsolable. I’m surprised I even finished high school to be honest. Life was just a blur and when it wasn’t a blur, when I was feeling things too deeply, too much, I made it a blur. I never thought I’d follow in my sister’s footsteps, but I turned to drugs and alcohol in order to get through the days. But the nights were always worst. The drugs never helped me with the nights. The dreams would come for me, no matter how doped up or drunk I was.

Somehow I got out of it. The days seemed brighter, steadier. When I hurt, which was all the time, which still is all the time, I was able to absorb it, deal with it. I was able to think, to actually see myself, my life, and distance myself from the substances. I leaned on Perry, my father, even Dex. Amy, Tom, and Jessie were there too. My ex bailed when I was too much of a mess, but he was just extra baggage anyway. The heartbreak over losing him was nothing compared to losing my mom. I know Amy worries about me still. I know I’m not the same person I was before it happened.

It doesn’t help that Amy doesn’t know the truth about how my mother died. The truth about me. The truth about my family. I need to keep it that way. I’ve seen what our ghostly afflictions can do to someone. I know that my grandmother, Pippa, saw dead people and could enter a realm called the Thin Veil, and that in time she was committed and eventually died alone because no one believed her. I know that Perry has been haunted since she was fifteen, that she was put on a cocktail of medications that did no good, that the world wanted to lock her up because it didn’t understand her. I know that my mother saw the truth —far too late. And the truth killed her. Even my brother-in-law comes from a lineage of fucked-upness.

Dex was also plagued by ghosts from a young age, did a stint in a mental institution, and relied on medication to keep it all away. When he went off the meds—and had his infamous ghost-hunting show with Perry—things only got worse until he discovered his own brother was taken over by a demon and literally tried to take us all to Hell while we were in New York. Worst vacation ever. Then there’s me. I’ve seen so much, been through so much, that even if I did admit to my best friend that my sister’s now defunct ghost-hunting show was totally true, that I’ve seen the world behind the curtain, I’ve seen exorcisms and monsters and the devil himself, I wouldn’t know where to begin nor how to make it all sound remotely believable. So I let Amy think that I’m tired and on edge because I’m still grieving and not because my dreams keep getting worse and worse and I feel like each day is leading me down a dark path I might not be able to come back from. “I’m fine,” I tell Amy, loudly, struck by the sudden need to convince myself of this as well. I quickly reach over and shut off the annoying poppy shit on the radio and flip to my favorite alternative station. When Nine Inch Nails comes on, Amy makes a sound of disgust. “So now you think One Direction sucks?” She rolls her eyes, clearly not amused as we take the exit to downtown.

“You really are turning into your sister, you know?” In more ways than one, I think to myself. But even though Amy chides my sudden change in music tastes and I’m becoming a bona fide 90’s grunge and metal lover even though I was born at the end of that decade, I’m not ashamed of it. I look up to Perry, more than she’ll probably ever know. Besides, seeing ghosts and demons just lends itself to listening to White Zombie and Slayer and Fantomas on repeat. One Direction and Selena Gomez are for the girls who don’t see dead people every fucking day. Not that I was seeing dead people every day. I mean, maybe I do, but half the time you don’t really realize it unless they’re covered in blood, or maybe standing in a white dress in the middle of a road, like every cliché you can think of. Most of the time, the dead just kind of . blend in. They’re innocuous and usually harmless.

Sure they can scare the pants off you but that’s usually the extent of their damage. I gaze out the window as we roll through the Pearl District, watching the throngs of people on the sidewalks, everyone in shorts and tank-tops and billowy dresses, trying to beat the heat. Then, for just a second, I see a flash of a familiar face as he gets off a bus. I straighten up and blink, trying to see better but he’s gone. It couldn’t have been the guy from the wedding, the guy from my dreams, could it? God, I really am getting delusional. When we finally find parking and I’m swallowed by my mecca that is Sephora, I’m feeling better. There’s nothing like sipping on syrupy Coca-Cola from the mall’s food court while perusing the white, backlit-beauty of a million makeup products. It’s like being in heaven, really, if angels wore all black and enough foundation to paint a house. Amy and I literally spend an hour here, trying on everything and filling our baskets until our lips are rubbed raw from the makeup remover and our hands and wrists are rainbows of different swatches. Then it happens.

I see him again. Standing just beyond the doors to the store. Staring right at me. And for once, for once, I can see him clearly. He’s tall, well over six feet. Broad shouldered and barrel-chested under a black leather jacket and black shirt, black jeans and black boots. He’s pale in a way that brings to mind a classical sculpture, or maybe it’s his face, which is exactly as my mind has tried to piece together. His jaw is chiseled, his chin square and sharp enough to cut glass, covered by light scruff and complete with a chin dimple. His forehead is wide, expressive even, as he stares at me with piercing blue eyes under arched brows. His hair is chin length, slicked off his head, dark cinnamon.

A ginger, just as I had remembered, though he’s probably the sexiest, most enthralling male specimen I’ve ever seen. “Can I help you with anything?” a Sephora saleswoman with stripes for cheekbones steps in front of me, blocking my view. I shoot her a dirty look, because I never need help in Sephora, and dart around her. But he’s gone. I hand the bewildered assistant my bucket and walk quickly through the store until I’m outside the doors, my head whipping around. People are going to and fro but the tall guy from my dreams, from my fucking dreams, is nowhere to be found. Maybe he was never here at all. Suddenly I’m hit with a queasy, stomach-churning feeling, my skin immediately clammy. “Ada!” Amy calls from behind me but her words barely reach. I can only just stand here, shoppers walking past me, bumping into me, wondering if I’m slowly going insane.

Am I actually seeing this guy? Is it one of those cases where you dream about someone and then see them the next day? Is he really the guy from the wedding or was there even a Jay at all? Did I imagine everything? I’m having trouble standing upright and tilt back just as I feel Amy’s hand on my shoulder, holding me up. “Hey, are you all right?” I nod, licking my parched lips as I slowly turn around to face her. Everything seems so swimmy, woozy, like I’m underwater. “Got dizzy,” I manage to say. “It’s the Coke crash.” She frowns at me. “Why are you out here?” I blink a few times, trying to get my thoughts together. “Nothing. Thought I saw someone but it was nothing.” I take in a deep breath and give her a broad smile.

“Okay, I think I’ve got some makeup waiting for me.” We head back into the store.


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