He’s not listening. He never listens. The voices speak, but he ignores them. At least, he tries to. He goes about his days as if the voices in his head weren’t urging him to do things—terrible things. It started when he was six. Back then it was just a single whisper. Now, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of distinct voices. Some still whisper, but most shout their words above the crowd to be heard. They yell at him and pick him apart. They tell him he isn’t good enough. That he’ll never amount to anything. For the most part he ignores them, but sometimes their words cut deep. They are relentless.
He hasn’t slept for more than fifteen minutes at a time for almost six days now. The voices won’t allow it. Soon, he will collapse from exhaustion and sleep for nearly thirty solid hours, and then the cycle will begin again. It has been that way for as long as he can remember.
He walks the streets of his city. He knows the streets in that part of town aren’t safe at night. They never have been, but he doesn’t care. He walks them anyway as the voices continue with their inane chatter. He doesn’t know what they’re saying. He’s not listening.
He momentarily passes beneath the glow of a street lamp and stops to look at his reflection in the glass of a storefront window. There are bars over the window that remind him of a prison cell. All the shops in this part of town have them, even though most of the buildings haven’t been occupied his entire life. He looks haggard and the heavy bags under his eyes do little to reassure him that he is still sane. He scratches the stubble on his chin and moves on, back into the shadows of the night.
He stops and sits on a graffiti covered bench, under another light, and waits for the bus that isn’t scheduled to arrive until morning–a full six hours off yet. He sighs and drops his head into his hands. The weight of it surprises him. The wave of exhaustion threatens to begin his long sleep right there on the bench, and he almost doesn’t care.
He closes his eyes. He doesn’t know for how long, but it’s still dark when he opens them again, so not long enough. Somebody clears their throat. He looks left, expecting to see a mugger, or maybe a crooked cop, but there is only a woman sitting on the bench beside him. She looks familiar, but he can’t place the face. He assumes she is a prostitute.
“I don’t have any money,” he says. His mouth is dry and the words scratch his throat as they come out.
She laughs. “I ain’t a hooker, darling,” she says. “But I’m flattered.”
“You shouldn’t be.” He looks away. She’s wearing too much makeup. It hurts his eyes.
She says something else but the words are a jumble in his head.
The voices beg him to do things to her. Horrible things. Things that would make her regret leaving her home that night, if she was still around to regret anything. The voices demand he acts on the urges., but he’s not listening–to them or her.
He stares across the street. The crumbling building there used to be a Chinese restaurant. He misses it. They had the best lo mein he’s ever tasted.
He looks back toward the woman, surprised to find her still sitting there. “If you’re looking for a friend, I’m a bad choice,” he says.
“Don’t I know it,” she says. He doesn’t know what that means.
He stands up and crosses the deserted street. He stands in front of the former restaurant and looks up at the broken sign above the door. He shakes his head. He could really go for some lo mein. The woman with too much makeup joins him. She looks up at the sign and laughs at the vulgar graffiti.
He turns away from her. “Leave me alone,” he says and starts walking again.
She follows him, but he isn’t sure why. She doesn’t say a word. When he stops, she stops beside him. When he walks, she follows a few steps behind. She laughs sometimes, but he doesn’t know why. Nothing about the night in this part of the city is funny. It never has been. They go on this way for ten minutes.
He stops in front of his house. It is broken, worn out, and on its last leg. It is just as accurate a reflection of himself as the one he’d stared at in the glass of the storefront, maybe even more so.
“This is where we part ways,” he says and climbs the porch steps. She laughs again, but doesn’t follow this time.
He slips his key into the lock, leans his head on the door, and closes his eyes. He wonders if he should offer her a place to stay for the night. The streets aren’t safe.
When he opens his eyes again he is back on the bench. For a moment he is confused as the haze of the dream wears off.
The run down Chinese restaurant stares at him from across the street. Its blacked out windows and off kilter door look remarkably like a face, one that he doesn’t trust. He looks to his left. The woman isn’t there, but the image of her face is burned in his mind. He knows her from somewhere. He’s seen that face before. He wonders why she wears so much makeup.
He stands up and crosses the deserted street. He stands in front of the former restaurant and looks up at the broken sign above the door. He shakes his head. He could really go for some lo mein.
For the first time in a long time, the voices go silent. He doesn’t know whether to celebrate or be afraid, so he does neither. He closes his eyes and tries to clear his head.
A moment later, when he opens his eyes, he finds himself inside the building, but he doesn’t know how he got there. He doesn’t remember entering. He wonders if he is still asleep on the bench across the street, but he has a feeling he isn’t. The voices are back, but they are more hushed than usual, nothing more than whispers. He doesn’t know what they are saying, but not because he’s not listening. He wants to know the secret they’re keeping from him. He wants them to speak louder. He wants to hear their words.
He moves further into the restaurant and steps around a table that has been toppled over. The whole restaurant is trashed, but somehow this one table feels out of place. Nothing about the table says it shouldn’t be there. It blends in perfectly, but something about it rubs him the wrong way.
A naked foot is sticking out from behind the counter. He assumes it belongs to one of the many homeless in the area. He doesn’t know why, but he is drawn to that foot. He moves around the counter. A corpse with too much makeup and glazed over eyes stares at him. There are bruises on her neck.
He remembers her. Her name was Claire. He brought her here. He gave in to the constant urging of the voices. He remembers the feeling of his hands around her throat, and he wants to vomit. The voices in his head roar with approval.
Yes, he remembers her, and all of the others who made the mistake of getting close near the end of his broken sleep cycle. All of the names and the faces come flooding back, and he cries for them. He sobs harsh, heavy tears for the awful things he’s done to them. He remembers them all, and one by one he asks for forgiveness they can no longer grant.
Soon, he will sleep. He promises himself he won’t forget them, but sleep will steal his memories again. It always does. And he’ll go on pretending he doesn’t listen to the voices, pretending he doesn’t give in to the awful things they ask him to do, pretending he isn’t a monster.
This story was written for The Short Story and Flash Fiction Society’s Short Story Contest #5, using prompt #5.