Stripes by Jonah Barrett

1 Missed Call, 1:25am

Sylvia Zou, 1:26am: Are you asleep? This isn’t anything scary but could you call me?

Sylvia Zou, 2:34am: Okay possibly scary. Not about us but I’m freaking out right now. I feel really bad, and I think your phone is down and…fuck. I’d really love your help right now Megan. I know you hate it when people are touchy feely but you help me a lot sometimes

2 Missed Calls, 2:39am

Sylvia Zou, 2:55am: I’m a little better now. I still wanna talk though. Please. Not for any real reason, I think it would just calm me down, or something. I’m really sorry for this slew of texts. Uncool of me

Calling, 3:21am: Sylvia Zou

It was half past three in the morning when the phone rang. Megan awoke with a startle. Her phone washed away the room with a harsh blue light, and she saw her girlfriend’s face on the telephone’s bright screen. She sighed. Waited a moment before answering. Maybe she could let it go…no. Heavy breathing came from the other side of the line, as well as a fair amount of crying.

“Hello?” said Megan. She heard Sil’s tears die down a tad, and her girlfriend began to speak up.

“Megan, could – could you come over?” said Sil, words barely audible.

“What? Why?”

“I just…I need you right now. Please,” she said. She began crying again. Megan sat in the dark as she waited for Sil to calm down.

“I think I had another dream. I dunno. I’m just kinda freaked out and I want you to be here,” she said.

Megan sighed. “Sil, it’s okay. It was just a dream, you’re fine.”
“But I don’t think I am!”

Megan rubbed her eyes. Her mind could not function at this hour. “Just…Go back to sleep, alright?” she said, trying to relate to Sil in a calm voice, like how her own mother did when she was small. She worried she did not have she same effect.

“I can’t! I don’t even know what’s going on,” said Sil.

“This is just – just another panic attack. You’re fine. Please just go to bed. I’ll see you tomorrow if you need to,” said Megan.

Sil sniffed. “Tomorrow morning?”

Megan paused. “Sure.”

“Breakfast?”

“Yeah, breakfast. Text me.”

“You promise?”

“Y – yeah.”

“Okay.”

Megan closed her eyes, rolling back her head while she yawned.

“Good, now go back to sleep, babe.”

“You promise I’m okay?”

“Sure. See you tomorrow.”

She hung up and slid back onto her pillow.

She should have let it go.

Sylvia Zōu, 7:02am: Denny’s at 9?

Megan Gibbs, 8:23am: Sure. See you there.

Sylvia Zōu, 9:05am: Here

Sylvia Zōu, 9:14am: Where are you??

Megan Gibbs, 9:20am: Sorry, running late. Give me 5

Sylvia Zōu, 9:20am: K

Megan discovered Sil in one of the booths scribbling away like usual. Sil perked up as Megan came forward, and she gave Megan a smile of relief, pushing her book aside. Its pages were black with pen scratches and marks. The every-morning noise of clanging and cooking echoed throughout the establishment. Megan did not know why Sil loved coming to the diner so much; the entire place smelled of burnt coffee and deep-fried corn syrup.

An outdated waitress arrived at their table with glasses of water and a notepad. Sil asked for a waffle breakfast with a side of eggs. Megan ordered a diet coke. The waitress jotted this down and thanked them, taking their menus and disappearing into the kitchen behind swinging doors. Megan was left with her girlfriend, she looked down at the notebook. Dirty sketches plagued the pages of Sil’s journal, images of a woman – a nightmare incarnate. The woman was depicted as tall, with a long flowing dress that covered her legs and stretched on past. A pattern of tar-colored stripes covered her arms and face, and two sinister ram horns jutted out from the woman’s head. Blood dripped from her mouth in one particular drawing; to Megan it looked like she was snarling.

“Is that from your dreams?” she asked Sil.

Sil looked over and slammed the book shut, hiding it in the bag by her feet. “I… Uh…” she started. She rubbed her drawing wrist, looking around nervously as if being overheard. “They’re more along the lines of – nightmares.”

“What about?”

The waitress came back with Megan’s diet coke. She set it in front of Megan on a coaster that advertised pie. Sil stayed quiet as Megan sucked at her straw. Sil swallowed. “Awful things… Or thing, I should say,” Sil said.

“What thing, exactly? That woman?”
Sil looked down and shook her head. “I don’t wanna talk about it.”

“It would probably help if you do.”

“Well, I don’t.”

She rubbed her wrists some more. A pattern of fine little red lines ran up the side of her right arm. Sil noticed Megan’s gaze and shoved her arms under the table. Megan blinked. The two women held eye contact for a moment before the waitress returned with Sil’s breakfast. Sil thanked her and watched the waitress walk off before digging into her meal. She ate with an urgency as if she had not eaten for days on end. She looked around the room in between bites, a haunted look in her eyes.

Megan nursed her coke, saying nothing.

Sil swallowed and spoke up. “I’ve never had dreams this real though. Like, really vivid and stuff. I can feel the things done to me and I can hear her voice as if she were in the room with…” She stopped. She returned her attention to her plate, half-finished by now, trying not to cry.

Megan sighed. She tried to smile at her girlfriend. “Don’t be dumb, they’re only dreams,” she said. “You’re okay.”

Sil looked back up at her, small tears making the edges of her eyes glisten. “How can you be so sure?” she asked.

Megan said nothing.

Thursday

Sylvia Zōu, 4:45am: I had another dream. It seemed really real. I don’t think I can go back to sleep. Are you there? Can we talk?

Friday

1 Missed Call, 2:10am

Sylvia Zōu, 2:12am: Dreamed again. I really hurt everywhere.

Megan Gibbs, 2:14am: Your probably fine. Go back to sleep. I will come over tomorrow

Sylvia Zōu, 2:14am: Okay..

Saturday

3 Missed Calls, 2:56am

Sylvia Zōu, 3:01am: Fuck fuck please help me I think I’m having another attack or something I don’t know

Sylvia Zōu, 3:02am: You’re probably asleep now aren’t you?

Sylvia Zōu, 3:04am: I’m sorry

Sunday

Sylvia Zōu, 1:22am: Sorry I don’t wanna keep dragging you into my dumb freakouts but I dunno maybe I shouldn’t be so freaked out about whether I annoy you with this kinda stuff. Trying to be calm.

Sylvia Zōu, 1:29am: I think I’ll be alright, if you care.

Megan’s phone went off in the middle of the night, again. She let out a groan; she was sick of this codependent fantasy crap. She had put up with crazy girlfriends before but not any like this. This constant need for attention, it never stopped. For shit’s sake it was four in the morning. Didn’t Sil ever fucking sleep?

“Yeah?” Megan snapped, answering her phone. “What is it, Sil?” But the person on the other end was not Sil.

The call had been brief and unclear; they just told her to come down as soon as possible, that something was wrong with Sylvia. She arrived twenty-five minutes later at the dormitory. Sil’s screams could be heard from the bottom floor, and Megan rushed up the stairs and into the dorm’s hallway. A small crowd had formed within the common room, and Megan forced her way into the center, saying that she was Sil’s girlfriend and asking if they could all move out of the way. She paused as she came upon Sil on a couch, covered in blankets that were not her own. Sil shook violently with her legs crossed. She was hunched over and holding herself with cut-up arms. Blood oozed from each wound, smearing into the blankets. Scratches covered her face as well. Her wild hair was caked with a mixture of blood and sweat. Sil looked up from her shivering state as Megan came upon her. Sil began to cry.

“I thought I was getting better! I really thought I was getting better but then she came back!” Her cries devolved into a fit of screams. “She cuts me…and bites me! She hurts me. Sometimes I can’t see what she’s doing!” Megan hovered for a moment before trying to embrace her. The crowd watched, not knowing what to do, and some retreated back to the safety of their rooms. A few stayed. The RA offered more blankets and bandages, and Megan thanked him. He thought it important to mention that dispatch were on their way, and they would probably want to search Sil’s room and ask her some questions. Like who this “she” supposedly was. Megan nodded and the RA ran off to find the supplies he promised. Megan held her crying girlfriend, embarrassed for the both of them, trying to rock her back and forth as she continued to scream before passing out in Megan’s arms.

Sunday Afternoon

Sil awoke the next day, finding herself in a familiar bed. Clangs, rattles and sizzles came from the kitchen on the other side of Megan’s apartment. Sil looked up at the ceiling and sighed. She turned over and buried her face into the pillows beneath her head. The pillows even smelled like Megan; she didn’t know if she liked that or not.

No, of course she did. Of course she liked that.

A few minutes later, Megan stepped into the bedroom with a bowl of soup, wafts of steam rising from its center and accompanied on the side by a toasted bagel sandwich with pork slices and melted cheese. Sil sat up as Megan placed the soup into her lap.

Megan frowned as she looked down at the dish. She clicked her tongue and left the room, reentering with a spoon. “Here.”

Sil looked down to see a fork in her soup. She took the fork out and placed it on the nightstand beside her, accepting the spoon.

“Thank you.”

“Yeah,” Megan said. She sat down next to her poor girlfriend as Sil bit into the bagel, the soup far too hot to dig into just yet. Sil chewed and looked over at Megan. “And thanks for this too,” she said with food in her mouth.

Megan reached out and stroked Sil’s hair. She bathed Sil and re-bandaged her wounds as soon as they got home that night, and Sil’s hair had smoothed out into its usual soft texture; it felt like silk between Megan’s fingers. She drew back when she remembered how tangled and blood-soaked the silk hair had been the night before. That wasn’t Sil’s fault though. Not really.

“Feeling better?”

Sil continued to chew, nodded, and swallowed down her current bite. She blinked, staring off into the distance. “Can I stay here for the night?”

Megan looked down for a moment before trying to smile at Sil. Of course she would stay the night, she had to, and the night after that and the night after that. Without any of Sil’s family living in the state Megan agreed, albeit with some reluctance, to keep Sil under twenty-four hour supervision. All knives and razors and other sharp objects had been hidden away in a locked drawer. There would be no more self-harm, as far as Megan and the college authorities were concerned. This is what a good girlfriend would do.

Megan gave a shrug. “Sure,” she said.

Sil nodded at this, and began to sip at her soup.

Sunday Night

Sil screamed again that night. She tossed and turned frantically, thrashing about right next to Megan. The lights still off, Megan could not see anything, momentarily confused having just been asleep. Sil yelled out her name, and “Help! Help! Help!” as the sounds of ripping, both of fabric and flesh, filled the room. Megan snapped to her senses and reached out toward her girlfriend. Her hands met chilled gusts of air in the dark, followed by warm gushes of blood. Sil screamed louder, and Megan drew back and flipped on the bedside lamp. She turned and faced whatever terrorized Sil, and saw the light hit something that had lived in the dark for quite some time.

A woman held Sylvia Zōu down by the wrists with a pair of strong, striped arms. This pattern, the color of night, scoured over the woman’s sickly white skin. Horns sprouted from the woman’s scrambled hair, which tore at the pillows under Sil’s head each time the woman leaned over to bite her. Black smoke whirled around the two as they struggled. Sil freed her hands and punched at the beast, and the creature scratched into Sil’s skin with its claws. Rip went the bandages. Rip went the soft flesh of Sil’s body. The claws tore through the old wounds, reopening scabs that had only just begun to heal. Sil squirmed and attempted to throw her attacker off with a number of hip thrusts and kicks, to no avail. The monster laughed and continued to pin down Sil. A gash tore into Sylvia’s neck. “Help me!” she cried.

But Megan only screamed. She jumped back from the chaos in her room, unsure of what to do. She only screamed louder. Tears in her eyes, Sil looked over to see Megan leaving the bed, and she cried out her name as Megan ran for the door in search of a place that did not feature such terrifying creatures. She watched as Megan abandoned her, left her to face the evil that had followed her into this home. But she was not the only one who saw this. The monster looked up and laughed, gleeful in the frightening of others. One hand around Sil’s throat, it reached out the other towards the retreating Megan and motioned with its fingers. An invisible force flung Megan to the other side of the room. She hit the wall and dropped to the floor. No more screams came out of Megan Gibbs.

Claws pressed into Sil’s neck as she looked over towards her unconscious girlfriend. Sil sneered at the beast; she punched the monster in the eye. The creature roared back at her like a frustrated animal.

“Why are you here?!” Sil cried out. The horned beast laughed, cocked its head to the side and grinned, sharp rows of teeth peeking out from behind its lips.

creature sketches P1
Artwork by Wyatt Gaer

“I am here because you called. The anxieties of one’s subconscious call out to me like owls in the night, and I am not one to neglect,” it said. The creature leaned towards Sil, holding a hand up with long curled fingers. It paused, dropping the act a bit before speaking again.

“Of course, it was only by chance that I ran into you. College dormitories are so ridden with the stress and anxieties of young people, but then I heard you: the worst of them all,” it continued. “The paranoia one develops when they depend on another for so much. It’s pathetic. It’s delicious. I love it.”

The monster bent over Sil, its own face right up to hers. The long spindly fingers reached up and held her chin. The creature looked her over, and its smile grew. Sil could see the black patterns up close now. The chaotic stripes seamlessly integrated with the rest of the monster’s skin. Sil looked into the monster’s eyes; they were not much different from her own.

“What a feast you’ve been, Sylvia Zōu. I’m sorry to say that this is the end. It’s been a good run, but it’s all ruined. We can no longer say it was ‘just a nightmare,’ right? She knows now, you needy little brat. She’ll believe you. What an awful thing to be heard,” the creature grinned.

Sil’s hands reached out behind her as she maintained eye contact. Her fingers brushed over Megan’s phone, the lamp, her empty plate, a worn book, the fork––

The fork.

“Tell you what,” the beast said. “You close your eyes, and I’ll count to three. Except, I’ll really do it on two or something, like dentists do. You think I haven’t been to a dentist’s office before? Those places reek of fear! Alright, are you ready? One––”

Another rip.

creature sketches P2
Artwork by Wyatt Gaer

The horned creature’s eyes widened; it had stopped, frozen. The room became silent, until a faint gasp escaped from the beast’s mouth, along with a mouthful of blood. The monster looked into Sil’s eyes once more. She looked back. Black smoke rose from below the beast, and enveloped around, swarming around until the entire body had been covered. The creature screamed. A loud burst of air erupted from the cloud, and it imploded, leaving nothing behind but the drops of blood the creature had spat up, along with a single fork that fell to the bedroom covers.

Wednesday

3 Missed Calls, 11:19am

Megan Gibbs, 11:21am: Where are you?? I woke up on the floor and you were gone

Sylvia Zōu, 11:27am: Hey, I went back to my dorm. I’m feeling a lot better. Thanks.

Megan Gibbs, 11:28am: You need to come back. Please. I told your RA I’d take care of you. And I think I had one of those dreams you were talking about.

Sylvia Zōu, 11:46am: You can come over if you want. Actually, you really should. I think we need to talk about something.

**Jonah Barrett is a young filmmaker, writer, photographer, and cupcake lover who lives in the heart of the Tenino forest with a number of woodland creatures.