By Zanib Zulfiqar
“Paper Boats” first appeared in Blue Ash Review
All I see is darkness teeming behind my eyelids—a black, ink-like fluid that surrounds me, reflecting a distorted image of my expressionless face from where it churns endlessly at my knees. Wading through it is futile; it goes nowhere, ends and begins everywhere. Consumes the space before me like the wide, gaping mouth of some terrible beast forgotten in children’s tales, fables, and folklore. Memories would slice through it like shark fins, names and dates scrawled in messy handwriting on triangular flags adorning palm-sized, folded-paper boats. Home. Strike Team. No choices. Training. Authority. No choices. Words that incinerated my insides, set my skin crawling with the invisible fire-ants of anger. I’d swat the boats away, splash up waves to send them a few feet from me, but the currents of black would catch up with them. Bump into me. Gently remind me that my ghosts were there to stay.
I awoke suddenly, sitting upright in bed and shivering from head to toe. The sheets clung to me as I pushed them away. My damp, wrinkled shirt stuck to my skin. Cold air hit me, intensifying the chills and sending electricity down my spine. A dog was barking in the distance. I rubbed my eyes. Pushed hair out of my face. Reached for the glass of water on the nightstand and downed it in one breath. Traced my thumbs along the cool surface while I tipped my head from side to side, slowly working out the tightness pulling at my spine. I was still sweating, but my feet and the backs of my hands were cold. The headache I fell asleep with still throbbed in the space behind my eyes.
I often dreamt about the darkness consuming me, how it would slowly crawl up my legs, swirl around my joints, and tickle between my toes as it climbed towards my neck, where it soaked into my hair, filled my nose, and poured down my throat. It came everywhere. In the beginning, the dream-me tried fighting it, flailed wildly in the inky blackness until my head dipped under and all that remained was a thin stream of bubbles marking where I once was. I would awaken to my own screams. Scare the hell out of my wife in the middle of the night. Then I grew used to it. Started looking forward to the empty, cool stillness, the constant, unwavering darkness. The safety. The peace. I would crawl into bed an hour or so earlier. Try to get a few more minutes of sleep in the morning to run my fingers through the ink, watch it fill the fine lines in my palms. Listen to it pitter-patter off my hands. Feel its coolness soaking into my scalp.
I was sitting on the edge of my bed now with the sheets draped over my cold legs. I had placed an apple on the nightstand before falling asleep. Planned to eat it to get some energy. It was gone now. Kim must’ve taken it back to the kitchen.
She’d also turned on the lamp on the far side of the room. She insisted on keeping it running at night to avoid stubbing her toe on her way to the bathroom. I think she’s afraid of the dark—she certainly was when we were children—but I’m not going to press. She’ll tell me when it’s important enough for me to know. I certainly didn’t tell her everything about the darkness in my dreams.
I had begun imagining it was my companion, and I could then command thin arms of darkness to reach out into the world and fetch me things and people, bring me wealth, admiration, security, love, and everything else I desired. I imagined the darkness whispered to me, told me secrets it’d gathered by sneaking into my enemies’ presence. Figured out a way to get me back home, get me away from the people who wanted to control me, run me like a puppet, tell me lies and half-truths because they thought I wouldn’t question what they said. By then, I’d be drowning, and the darkness would tell me one last thing before I broke the surface and gasped for cold, dry, dead air. It’d tell me that I would never escape. That I belonged to it now, that running was futile. By then, I’d thrash my way out of the inky water. The cocoon of black would shrink away from me. Return to swirling little paper boats in lazy circles at my knees. No choices. Mom. Dad. Home. No choices. Useless. No choices. Puppet. No choices.
I stood with a groan, stretching my arms upward to relieve my back of pent-up tension from yesterday. Neon green numerals of the clock read half past four in the morning. I really wanted that apple now. My mouth was dry despite the water, and my jaw was sore from grinding my teeth in my sleep. It sounded wonderful, a crisp, sweet apple, but it meant trudging downstairs back to the kitchen, so I slowly pulled on my night robe, stuffing my hands in the pockets. If the darkness of my dreams really existed, I would’ve told it to bring me the apple so I could laze around, have an excuse not to do anything productive, stay miles away from the cold cases on the corner of my desk, and wade around in my mental subspace until Kim was back to tell me off for being so absorbed in my own head. Before she told me to talk and get it out of my system.
Then a shiny, red apple rolled out of the darkness beyond my bedroom door. Thumped on the floor one, two times before stopping right at my feet.
Zanib Zulfiqar is a pre-medicine student at the University of Cincinnati, College of Allied Health Sciences, and has been writing since the age of nine. “Paper Boats,” first appeared in the literary journal for the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash branch as a second-place winner of their spring writing contest in 2017. Follow Zanib on Twitter @ZanibZulfiqar.