Flash Fiction

The Sandman Returns

One bright spring afternoon, my mother convinced my stubborn father to see the doctor. The insomnia, which had blighted much of his adolescence, had returned with a vengeance, and the sleep-deprivation was starting to give him throbbing headaches. Occasionally, the pain was so severe that he would retire to his bedroom and lie there in the absolute darkness. Something had to be done.

Chaperoned by my mother, he returned from the appointment as the daylight was starting to fade.

“It’s not good news,” he said, slumping down in his armchair. “I’ll just sit down for a moment.’ But, once he was down, we couldn’t lift him back up and we had to summon Dicken from next-door to help lug him upstairs, like hoisting a six-foot-tall bag of cement. After that, his legs were too weak, so in bed he stayed.

Well-wishers came to the house in a relentless stream, bringing Tupperware filled with hearty, homecooked meals. But, despite their generous starchy offerings, my father’s strength declined, and his work-hardened hands lay atop the bedsheets, turning into macerated pieces of dough.

On a sweltering summer evening, when the air shimmered above the tarmac, the heat was especially suffocating in my father’s airless bedroom. No wonder he struggled to sleep. Despite the unfavourable heat, a knock came at the front door.

“I’m here to see your father,” the visitor on the doorstep said. “He knows me from the old days.” So, I let the strange-looking fellow in, and he tiptoed up the stairs, a crooked smile on his face. Night fell, the visitor departed, and my father, for once, slept like the dead, with a crown of sweat shining on his brow. The visit must have tired him out.

By autumn, the nights were drawing in, but insomnia kept my father awake, restless, yet confined to his bed. From his bedroom window, we watched the magnificent spectrum of colour blaze across the evening sky; vermillion and rose-coloured streaks of cloud lighting up the horizon, marking the end of another day.

“I’ve travelled a very long way to see your father,” came the stranger’s voice from the doorway. Dusk had already fallen so I could hardly turn away his old friend, who had journeyed through the darkness to see him. Perhaps it would cheer my father up, to see a familiar face at his bedside again, and help him get a good night’s sleep, like the stranger’s last visit. The following morning, I meant to ask my father about the mysterious visitor, but he was fatigued and out of sorts, his chin drooping down to his chest, so I left him in peace.

In the winter months, when the whole world slumbered under a heavy blanket of snow, my father’s breath came in ragged, short gasps, as if he had been running around outside. Eyelids flickering, his lips moved in silence. I could no longer tell if he was awake, or aware of his surroundings. It was torturous, to see him that way, so instead of sitting at his bedside, I propped his bedroom door open and sat in the armchair downstairs. Feeling groggier than usual, I meant to read my book for a while, in case my father needed me during the night. My exhausted mother had already retired to bed, and the house was quite quiet, so it wasn’t long before I was rubbing my eyes, gritty with sleep. Nestled there in the armchair, it was a struggle to keep them open, as if unseen fingers were pressing them shut.

“I’m here for your father,” said a voice nearby, like something from a nightmare. I sat up with a jolt. For a horrible moment, I had been dreaming that the stranger let himself into the house, and that he was slinking upstairs, towards the bedroom door. But I was quite sure that I had already drawn the door’s bolt shut for the night. It was the stress of my father’s illness playing tricks on me.

In the morning, my father lay in his bed, recumbent and lifeless. The doctor said that he would have felt no pain, and that he simply slipped away, as if he was falling asleep. Perhaps, in my drowsy state, I had forgotten to check the lock, after all.

Katie McCall writes uncanny, gothic fiction and her short stories have been published in Supernatural Tales, Ghostlight, and Short Beasts, with another due to be published by Academy of the Heart and Mind this summer. Her first full-length ghost story is out on submission and she has just completed her second novel, a folk horror tale set in post-war Britain. Follow her on Instagram @katiemccall_author for further spooky musings.