Man with Pillow
Tom couldn't sleep. These days, it seemed he could never sleep. And he often found himself lying awake, wondering why. But, tonight, he didn't have to wonder. Tonight, Tom knew exactly why he couldn't fall asleep. He'd heard a sound in the hallway beyond the bedroom. And before he allowed himself to drift off into slumber, he wanted to make sure he didn't hear the sound again. So Tom lay in bed, very still, and listened. Finally, after listening for a long while and hearing nothing, Tom whispered: "James, are you awake?" James was Tom's boyfriend. He was asleep on the other side of the bed with a pillow over his face. James always slept like that because of something that had happened in his childhood. He would never tell Tom exactly what that something was, but he said it was bad. Bad in a way that made him not want to talk about it. And the event (if it was an event) clearly still bothered James because, at almost thirty, he continued to sleep with a pillow over his face. "James," Tom said again, this time nudging James with his foot.
"What?" James said finally, voice muffled by the pillow.
"I heard a sound," Tom said.
"Okay," James replied.
"No, really," Tom said.
James removed the pillow from his face and turned toward Tom. His eyes remained closed. "What kind of sound?" James asked.
"A footstep, I think," Tom said.
James opened his eyes and peered at Tom in the darkness. "You heard one footstep?" he said.
"Yes," Tom said.
"I don't think that's how footsteps work," James said.
Tom had known James was going to make a joke. He always joked when he wasn't interested in talking. "I want to check the hall to make sure it was nothing," Tom said.
"It was nothing," James replied.
"Don't go back to sleep until I'm done looking though, okay?" Tom said.
"Okay," James said, closing his eyes.
Tom slipped out of bed and went to the closed bedroom door. He turned the knob slowly. The hallway beyond the bedroom was dark, but Tom saw the man almost immediately. The man was tall, dressed in dark blue jeans and a dark t-shirt. He stood a little more than halfway down the hall. Tom could tell the man was gazing at him, even though he couldn't see the man's face. The reason Tom couldn't see the man's face was because the man was holding a white bedroom pillow over it. The way the man held the pillow looked very much like how James pressed a pillow to his own face every night. The only thing that was different was that this man was standing, stiffly posed. Even though the man pressed a pillow over his face, Tom could feel the man staring at him. Tom knew this wasn't possible, and yet, it was happening. Tom wanted to scream, to call for James. But he felt sure that a scream would cause the man with the pillow to take some sort of action. The man might drop the pillow and run at Tom. He might wrap his fingers around Tom's throat. Or he might have a knife or something worse than a knife. So, instead of yelling, Tom slowly closed the bedroom door. There was no lock on the door. And none of the furniture in the room was heavy enough to block the door other than the bed. "James," Tom whispered now that door was closed.
James was asleep, once again holding a pillow to his face.
Tom pressed his back against the door. "James," he whispered again.
Suddenly, James sat up. He tossed the pillow across the room at Tom. It struck the wall and landed near Tom's feet.
James looked scared. "I had a dream," he said. "Someone was in the hall."
"There is someone in the hall," Tom whispered.
James looked confused. He looked as if wasn't quite awake. "What?"
"I just saw him," Tom said. "There's a man in the hall. We have to call the police."
James grabbed his cellphone from the nightstand, but instead of dialing, he merely rested the phone in his lap. The expression on his face changed, becoming more relaxed. "You're messing with me, aren't you?" he said. "You know about what happened to me when I was a kid."
Tom shook his head. "You never told me."
James put the phone back on the nightstand. "I think we should do what we did in my dream," he said.
"What did we do?" Tom asked, still picturing the man standing in the shadows of the hall, pressing the pillow to his face.
"We both went back to sleep," James said. "We're both asleep now."
"No—" Tom said. "James."
But James was already resting his head back on the mattress. He took the pillow from Tom's side of the bed and pressed it to his face. "We're asleep," he said. "Trust me."
Tom wasn't sure what to do. He knelt down and picked up the pillow James had thrown at him. Then, with his back still firm against the door, Tom pressed the pillow to his own face.
Tom stood there like that for a moment.
Inside the pillow, Tom saw a bedroom. It was exactly like Tom and James' own bedroom only the door to the hall was open again.
The hallway inside the pillow was empty.
The man with the pillow over his face had gone away.
Tom felt relieved at first. But then he realize that he would eventually have to take the pillow away from his face. He would have to open the real door to the real hallway.
The man would still be there.
And maybe the man would have removed the pillow from his own face.
Maybe the man beneath the pillow would look like James. Or maybe he would look like Tom. Or maybe he wouldn't look like anyone at all. Maybe he'd look like a bedroom in the middle of the night where two men lay asleep, not touching. One of the men had a pillow over his face. One of the men always had a pillow over his face.
Adam McOmber is the author of The White Forest: A Novel (Touchstone) and two collections of queer speculative fiction This New & Poisonous Air and My House Gathers Desires (BOA). His new novel, Jesus and John, is forthcoming from Lethe Press in June 2020. He teaches in the MFA Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.