He was drowning.

He was rising through fathoms of a green, swirling, evil sea, the water heavy and thick, dragging on him and slowing his ascent, compressing his chest, salt-sting filling his nose and burning his eyes, and the closer he got to the surface, the nearer he came to the pale light above, the slower he moved, until, within touching distance of sweet, clean air, with his arms aching from stretching upwards and with his legs cycling uselessly below, he stopped altogether, and he knew then that it was over, that this was the end and that all he had ever been was done.

Mark Watson jumped awake with a roaring intake of breath. He was panting, shaking, trembling. He was terrified.

He was lying naked on his bed, the sheets twisted all around him. They were damp, soaked by the sweat that was still leaking out of him. He was breathing hard, and he could hear his breaths hushing in and out through teeth that were clenched shut in a tight bite. There was a foul taste in his mouth. He didn’t dare move. He saw a tiny spider on the ceiling and he fixed his eyes on it, unblinking, because he knew with inexplicable certainty that if he looked away from it he would never find it again and he would be lost, completely lost, without any hope of ever finding his way back to the world.

Outside, cloud gave way to sun. A bar of light shone through a gap in the curtains and slid across the ceiling. It stretched into the room until it reached the spider that had anchored him. The golden touch disturbed the creature. It began to move, the spell was broken, and he closed his eyes. He heard a blackbird outside, its wheedled tweets answered by one more distant. It was morning. It was early on a summer morning. He was in his house, in the quiet village in the Yorkshire countryside. He was home. He was safe.

He blinked and double-blinked and steadied his breathing, in through his nose, out through his mouth, calming himself. He gulped, and tasted something awful again. His body slowly lost its tautness, and he became aware of how painful it had been to maintain a level of tension so high that his back had been arched off the bed. He let his body relax and slowly settle into the mattress beneath him. He had clumps of bed sheet gripped hard in each hand, gripped so tight that he found it difficult to unfurl his fingers. He spread them now, flexing them, and then stretching and unwinding the rest of his body. He closed his eyes again and then placed his forefingers over the lids, sucked in a great chestful of air, and slowly let it out again as he tried to push the memory of the nightmare away to the back of his mind.

Mark began to think again, which made him realise that he hadn’t been thinking up to now. He’d just been responding to the nightmare, in its grip, controlled by it. He’d never felt anything like that before, such a total abdication of self-will. He wondered for a moment which part of the nightmare had scared him most, the drowning or the lack of control, and then he realised that it was neither. What had scared him most was the end. Not death, not just dying, but the prospect of becoming nothing, of being nothing, forever and ever, amen. Oblivion, the foundation of so many faiths. That really scared him. That and the fact that he’d had the exact same nightmare the night before. And the night before that. The same thing, over and over, for days now.

He swore a question to himself.

His voice was weak and it trembled as he spoke. It sounded like someone else, someone he didn’t even know. He sounded tired, even to himself. He felt tired. Now that the strain of the nightmare was diminishing, he realised how washed out he was, as though he hadn’t slept at all last night, as though he hadn’t slept in days. The nightmare always seemed to happen just before he woke, so he knew that he must have managed to get at least a little sleep. It just didn’t feel like it. And last night seemed to be the worst one so far, the hardest to get through. Just then, at the end, it had felt as if he was in danger of not escaping from it, of not waking at all.


Get the full story in Mortality Tales.

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