Claire Strong bolted upright in bed, skin slick with a sheen of sweat, heart racing. The back of her throat burned with the memory of a scream, a feeling she’d become grossly familiar with in the previous few months, and, just like all those other nights she’d been plagued with this nightmare, she reached blindly through the dark for the glass of water on her nightstand. She downed the entire thing, coughing when she sucked in an accidental breath. The teenager threw her legs off the side of the bed, doubling over to expel the liquid in her lungs. She squinted away the burning tears in her eyes when the light suddenly flickered on.
It was every night, now, that her dreams turned her waking world into a hell. With each passing day, she was becoming more and more exhausted, physically as well as mentally, and she’d been late to school so much that her first hour teacher just taught her after school instead. The administrators didn’t bother with detention, anymore, since her father always called to get her out of it, anyway. She’d been sent to the guidance office so many times, she had a weekly rotation.
They told her it was stress that brought the dreams on. That she dreamt of her best friends in period character because she was dealing with their impending separation in a ‘different’ way. Their graduation would be upon them in a few, short months. They’d have the summer, then, they’d be going to college. Claire would be attending County College. Her best friends would be leaving New Jersey for Columbia in the fall, and she’d be alone until Thanksgiving. She would’ve loved going with them, but her lone parental figure had assured her that it just wasn’t in the budget.
Though it was a concern that weighed on her when she woke, she knew it wasn’t what caused her nightly concern.
“Claire!” the unmistakable voice of her father called above the slam of her door against the wall. She jumped and her coughing fit continued with a new fervor, but she stayed seated on the bed, waiting for him to take a seat beside her. His hand rubbed soothingly up and down her back while he held her inhaler before her eyes. Frantically, she grasped for it, breathing slowly in and out. Her head spun, but, slowly, she regained her grasp on the real world.
“Baby, we can’t keep doing this,” Pierce Strong sighed, watching his daughter breathe unsteadily without her rescue inhaler.
He was a tall man, around forty years old with thin, grayish hair. His blue eyes were filled with concern and rimmed with dark bags, having spent many nights awake with her. He wore a full pajama set; he’d made the switch from underwear when she’d started having night terrors in anticipation of sleepless nights with her.
Claire burned with humiliation, wishing she could go a week without waking him in a panic. She knew as long as they were living together, though, that it would never happen. Worrying her friends and family was what she did best, ever since she was born.
She’d always been sickly, it ran in the family, and it terrified her father, especially since her mother’s death. Her mother had died in childbirth, bringing a four pound, two-ounce baby with asthma, congenital heart defects, and an inferiority complex into the world.
“I…I know,” she stuttered, the shakiness in her voice a product of her speech impediment rather than her struggle for breath.
“I think,” he took a long breath, “maybe, we should look into a psychiatrist.”
“No!” she cried, back suddenly turning erect. “No! I’m n…not crazy!”
He tried, unsuccessfully, to comfort her. “Shh, shh, I know. I know. You’re not crazy.”
She fervently shook her head breathing another puff from her inhaler. “I don’t n…need a doctor!”
He tucked her head under his chin, gently rocking her. “Shh, I know. Shh. It’s not that. You’re not crazy. But, sweetheart, it’s every night now. Maybe a doctor can shine some light on—”
“I don’t need a d…doctor!”
“Alright! Okay,” he murmured, kissing the top of her head. “No doctor, I get it. I love you.”
“Love you, too,” she grumbled, falling over onto her side, though she desperately didn’t want to go back to sleep. Her father stood, crossing the room quickly. He turned in the doorway, flipping the light switch.
“Try to get some sleep, sweetheart.”
She curled up, facing the opposite wall. “You, too.”
The door creaked shut, reminding Claire that she was alone. She didn’t let her eyes close, staring at the alarm clock beside her. She could still feel that knife hitting home in her chest, right in the heart. Three a.m. She’d have to be getting up for school in four hours. Growling in frustration, and giving up on any chance of peace for the rest of the night, she forced herself to her feet and made her way to the bathroom.
She didn’t make sound when she walked down the hall, but, even if she had, she knew her father wouldn’t care. He was a deep sleeper. The first thing she caught in the huge bathroom mirror when she walked in was her haggard appearance. Her face was sallow and her hair was a wild mess on her head. She noted dryly that she looked like the bride of Frankenstein. Shivering with distaste, she turned away from the mirror to turn on the shower.
Steam quickly filled the room, already soothing her tense body. She turned back to the mirror and froze.
A huge stain of red began to mar her white shirt just over her heart and, as she watched, it deepened. Pain split her chest like a knife and, horrified, she clawed at her shirt as it sopped up more precious blood. She screamed, but her body began to sink limply toward the floor, preparing itself for inevitable death.
Claire’s eyes snapped open to the shrill cry of her alarm clock her white shirt flawless and her body curled in the same way she’d fallen asleep. She squinted against the blinding light coming in through the window and realized that she was late for school. Again.