There is a cleanness to the pillow, a dryness. His fingers, long and thin, grasp at the cool cloth. Sounds of soft breathing. Eric’s. It has always been there. Rupert’s hands flex and tremble. There is nothing for it now. Now is the time.
Kill him and you’ll be free.
Rupert holds the pillow close to his chest. The weight is real now. He places it on the table, stands three feet away from it, and watches it for movement. Mr. Pillowhead. That was the name, right? Mr. Pillowhead had a pillow attached to his neck. It spread around his head like a Victorian ruff. He could sleep wherever and whenever he pleased. His eyes were like scoured dimes. He spoke sleepily, constantly yawning. But Mr. Pillowhead does not appear these days. Nor most of the other cast of characters Eric used to keep waiting in the wings. It was just Rupert now.
Rupert sits in the chair by the window and watches Eric sleep. A blanket is bunched into a fat mess at the foot of the bed. Wrapped in a cocoon of sheets, Eric looks like a monkey in a sling carrier. His mouth is agape and drool drips down the side of his mouth onto the pillow stuffed roughly between his arms. Eric does not snore. He has been known to snort from time to time, but on this day, in this room, his breath is deep, gentle, and balanced. One might say he is in the deepest portion of sleep, that dreamless state akin to death. But then Eric turns his head a bit to the left and swallows.
Rupert watches the Adam’s apple pulse.
The room is rather stuffy. An open window would be better. Maybe a breeze across the face, a sweetness to it on the lips. But the window is painted shut. Rupert stands up and walks over to the full-sized bed. He leans and places his hand lightly over Eric’s mouth. He feels the breath, moist and clammy. Eric’s jugular bounces on his neck and Rupert takes two steps back. He puts his hand over his own mouth and manages to keep his composure.
He goes back to the sealed window by the table and chair. Outside, he sees a tractor-trailer with its side adorned with a design of blue and red stripes with a purple tiger in the middle. He puts his hand up and blocks the tiger from his vision. Then he reveals it. He does this several times. Boredom is a step in the right direction. He goes to the chair and sits.
That purple tiger…
Rupert finds himself in the bottom of a muddy pit about the size of a stadium. At the rim, purple tigers big as mansions hollow out the earth. They claw away without any real investment. Drones, cogs, slaves. As he walks down into the pit, he looks up and sees the moon. It is large and serrated and contains all colors. It does not take long before he realizes that he is on a different planet looking up at a different moon. Such things happen. Chalk it up to Eric overdosing on shitty science fiction shows late at night on TV.
Like a boy in a game of Hide and Seek, Rupert covers his eyes and counts to ten. When he removes his hands and opens his eyes, he finds himself back in the stuffy room with Eric asleep in the bed. There. He’s managed to return to the real.
Is something going to happen now? Because, yes, he can hear a pin drop in here. The chair creaks as he adjusts his weight. Too noisy. Could wake up Eric. Rupert is not a heavyset man. He is the same exact weight as Eric. Is the chair old? It does not seem old. Relatively new, really. He sees a few scuff marks on the floor beneath it. Perhaps not many people have sat in it. Most people probably come into the room and go right to bed. How many of them actually sit in this chair? It cannot be a high number. 42. 108. 237.
He realizes he is still sitting in the chair. He has not been whisked away to some weird scene. This is good. This is normal. This is real. In the hallway, someone is whistling “Going Mobile,” by The Who. The whistle fades away.
Rupert looks up at the wall and sees a print of wild horses running through the plains. They begin to move. Again, he shuts his eyes and counts to ten. When he opens them, the horses are stationary again. He stands up and walks over to the painting, puts his ear against it. Soft mechanical noises come through the wall. Perhaps a vending machine buzzing and dispensing, or else the elevator purring along. Sounds do not take him away as easily as images. He can endure sounds, even focus on them without too much strain. It is almost like being real. He sits back down in the creaking chair. There are sounds underneath the mechanical noises. Whispers, yet not whispers at all. Clunks and thuds. Voices talking in other rooms. Faint, unintelligible. Something scurries along the baseboard. A rat, perhaps. No, we don’t need to encounter a rat. His thoughts stop there. Something grabs his attention. No, not a rat. A presence. A third person in the room. He sees this third person, a woman, walking the perimeter of the room, running her fingers along the wall in half-circles.
He stands and walks behind her, running his fingers along the wall just like her. He notices that she has her brunette hair in a French braid this time. She stops at the bathroom door. “Hello,” she says. He wants to say hello back but knows she will disappear if he speaks. His hello lingers on his tongue. If he could just say it and see.
“Hello,” he whispers.
The woman turns towards him and disappears before he sees her face.
He stands there in front of the bathroom door. Just him and Eric again. Repeatedly flipping the bathroom light on and off calms his mind. He falls into a steady rhythm. Stirred by the sound, Eric turns onto his side and exhales deeply. Rupert stops flipping the switch and sits back down in his chair as quietly as possible. Anticipation stirs in his guts. A feeling of dread, as though any minute a knock will come at the door. A smallish knock or perhaps a loud one. He does not know who will do it, but he knows it will happen. The hairs on the back of his neck go up. His skin turns to gooseflesh.
The knock does not come. The void where the knock should be grows fat and wide. Rupert does not fear this void. There is a sense that the void is concerned about Rupert. Shouldn’t you be off somewhere? it asks. “I’ve lost interest,” Rupert whispers. He stands and goes to the table by the window. On the table, besides the pillow he wanted to use to kill Eric, is Eric’s smartphone, a brown leather wallet, and a stack of dollar bills. Two hundred forty dollars. Rupert counts the money again. The paper feels good on his fingertips. Realer than real. He puts the bills in a neat stack, then pulls at a five and leaves it dangling. It seems right having the bill jut out like that. An asymmetry poking through the static energy in the room.
He sits down in the creaky chair again and examines his fingernails. Clean, perfectly manicured. The palms of his hands are smooth, no lines, no history, no evidence of a life lived in them. No work accomplished. Nothing to show for his 29 years. Was it really so much? A human sleeps for a third of their life. In which case, Rupert has only lived a little less than ten years.
He stands, leaning his weight on one foot and then the other, as if he were a tree bending with the wind. He thinks of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz leaning one way and then the other, Dorothy and Scarecrow running to one side and then the other to catch him. It is a pleasant thought and he smiles because of it. But then he catches himself before the room turns into some pastoral setting with a fat yellow brick road cutting through it. He stays in the room by looking around and making note of the things in it. There’s a lamp, a table with a pillow on it, a television set. Things will keep you here. Things in their thingness.
He recalls a week in the summer when Eric had the flu. Rupert appeared and disappeared throughout the day as Eric slipped roughly in and out of sleep. Rupert managed to fix his eyes on a book on semiotics on the coffee table. The book had been given to Eric by a woman who was interested in a relationship, which Eric was not. At least not with her. He tried to give her signs, but she did not follow his drift. By focusing on the book, Rupert was able to manage sticking around in the real. As a result, Eric slept deeply throughout the afternoon and into the evening.
Rupert sits at the table again and faces Eric. There is something he wants to say to Eric. He wants to speak from his heart but he cannot find a good place to begin. Perhaps, he thinks, this nothingness and silence is good and correct. Good because it is the natural order of things. One man sleeps and another man sits and waits. But what is he waiting for? A knock on the door would be nice. A knock for him, not Eric. Something like that.
A flash of lightning blinks at the window. He walks over and looks outside at the darkening clouds. The tractor trailer is gone. It might have moved only a few yards out of his view. All he can say for certain is that the truck has moved, but he cannot say exactly where the truck has moved to. He rubs his hands together. Maybe it’s for the best. The truck had brought the purple tigers and he had had his fill of them.
Another flash of lightning. Rupert has the urge to pee. He uses the toilet, urinating in tight circles. Eric shifts slightly in bed, the trickling sound nearly stirring him from his slumber. Rupert remembers that if he focuses too much on the act of urinating, then Eric will eventually wake up with the urge to urinate as well. This, of course, is not what he wants. He finishes, flushes the toilet, and then puts his hand over his mouth when he realizes the sound will wake up Eric.
But Eric does not wake up. Instead, he turns roughly onto his other side. Rupert gently turns on the faucet and washes his hands with soap and hot water. After he dries his hands, he goes back to the chair and sits, crossing his legs. He begins to count his breaths. When he gets to twenty-nine he can no longer help it. He addresses Eric.
“I understand that traveling can be difficult,” he mutters. “Tiresome, too. I understand that. But that’s no reason to simply cave in and get a motel room. I mean, how can you justify using your credit card for this? Where are you going to get the money to pay for this? The company certainly won’t cover the expense.” Eric rubs his nose with the back of his hand, then snorts. Rupert continues. “You shouldn’t be spending money so frivolously. You should’ve found a comfortable place alongside the road to shut your eyes for a few minutes. That was the right thing to do.” Eric snorts again. Rupert tries a different tack. “It can be monotonous, I know. After a while, all the houses blend into each other. All the old folks start to smell the same. You wonder how you ended up selling vacuums. You wonder if it isn’t some sort of grand prison.”
Rupert silences himself. He sees the remote control on the bedside table and figures he might as well be amused. He picks it up and hits the power button and volume down button simultaneously. The screen shows a tennis match. Rupert watches as the ball goes back and forth. The match builds with a sort of temerity. When a player misses a shot, there is a sense that the missed shot further develops the player’s skills. They are learning from their mistakes. The crowd watching the tennis match is silent. Their silence, like the silence of the room, is tangible. It stands there in the room watching him. He can feel it staring. Its raw heat. Rupert presses the mute button. A shiver goes down his spine as Eric’s voice suddenly fills the room.
“Away up high we go, away away, and moon is there high and up away…” He goes on and on, speaking in a voice filled with sparks. Rupert leans forward in rapt attention. As he listens he realizes that Eric is dreaming that he is riding a Ferris wheel. It seems that Eric is at the top of the wheel and the wheel has stopped. He seems to be alone in his cab, yet he is addressing someone else in the dream. Perhaps someone in the cab behind him. After a few moments, Rupert realizes that Eric is addressing him. Yes, Eric is talking to Rupert from across the dark table of sleep.
Eric turns over roughly and continues talking. He snorts now and then. He raises his hand in the air above him and then drops it. He does this several times as he speaks. Rupert, still sitting on the edge of the chair, finally stands up and goes to the window. He calms down by counting the drops of rain on the window. There are twenty-seven. Each one capturing the pale light from the sky. He turns and listens as Eric goes on talking.
Just then, there is a loud knock at the door. Eric opens his eyes. Rupert begins to pixilate. He looks at his blocky hand and moans as it starts to disintegrate chunk by chunk. The remote control clatters on the floor, which further rouses Eric from his slumber. He rubs his eyes and then the squinting through the haze of sleep. Rupert looks down at his feet and sees that they are gone. Something still holds him up. His knees are now gone. His elbows disappear. His torso floats in the air. His head is gone but he can still see. Impossible. The light is dying now.
Where there was someone, there is now no one.
Eric wakes, gets out of bed, walks to the closet, and takes his pants off the hanger. He puts them on, careful not to wrinkle them. He walks to the door, opens it. The hallway is dark and empty. The cool air of the hall freshens his face. As he shuts the door, he notices a tennis match on the TV. When did he turn it on? He looks around for the remote control, finds it on the floor by the table, and turns the TV off. There is a pillow on the table. He cannot remember putting it there, but does not think too much of it. He picks it up and throws it back on the bed. His eye catches the five dollar bill sticking out of the stack. He pushes it back in and pats the sides of the stack to make it neat. Then he gets back into bed and slowly falls asleep.
When he drifts away, Rupert returns.