Bewildering Stories

The Dread

William W.

It was July, 1999. I don't remember the exact date, but I do remember the events. I hadn't slept well that night. This is a problem for me; sometimes I suffer from insomnia. But my restlessness that night was tinged with something...almost a feeling of sickness. I had a strange, sour taste in my mouth. Around 1am, I took a sleeping pill and chased it with a little brandy. I guess I slept a bit after that.

Sometime before 6am, my phone rang. I stumbled up and answered it, but no one was on the other end. I normally got up around 6:30, so I decided not to bother going back to bed.

I needed coffee - badly - so I headed to the kitchen. As I got nearer, I realized that the dishwasher was running. I had started it after finishing my 1am brandy shot, but that was hours before. I ran in, switched on the lights, and found a big, disgusting spill all over the floor -- food particles had splattered out from the dishwasher's edges and the sink was gurgling up stuff. The smell was horrific. This was a relatively new machine; it had never had problems before and hasn't had problems since. I got the thing turned off and I lamely tried to clean up some of the mess. The sour taste in my mouth was as bad as ever.

Once I got the coffee going, I switched on the radio. I listen to USC's radio station, KUSC, a classical music station. They publish their daily play lists, and I enjoy printing these out so I know what I am hearing. The music I heard when I first turned the radio on was strange, bizarre -- nothing I can place. I checked the play list. It showed Haydn for the timeslot. This much is for sure: that music was NOT Haydn. I may have missed it, but I never heard the announcer say anything about a change to the play list, and I never heard him say what had been playing. He went on like there was nothing odd.

Well, you can imagine that I was feeling a bit...strange. More particularly, I had a sort of ominous feeling, a sense that something just was not right. Honestly, I had a deep sense that I can only describe as "dread." I nearly decided to call in sick. Probably I should have, but I didn't. I forced myself through my morning routine, got in the car, and left for work.

Less than a mile from my house, I saw a car, plowed up over the sidewalk, crunched into a telephone pole. Just sitting there, no one around.

I got into work. I work as a consultant, and that day I was working at the client's site. One of the drawbacks in a consultant's life is that you don't often get your own office. At this client, I was stationed in cubicle land. I sat down and started booting up my laptop. As I pressed the On button, my finger had a sharp pain. I had a deep little paper cut, right on the tip. I hadn't noticed it until just then.

The dread kept on. Sometimes the feeling got worse, sometimes it seemed to get better. I started working on some system specifications, but my mind wandered.

I brought up an Excel spreadsheet that I used to track project status. Some of the cells showed formulas instead of values -- they had not done this the day before. I checked to make sure the sheet was set to show values. It was. No matter what I did, I couldn't get the damn formulas to show their results.

I guess my struggles with the spreadsheet distracted me. When I shook my head and stopped thinking about it, I heard something -- someone. It was the girl in the cubicle several cubes down. Quietly, she was stifling sobs.

This sent electric shocks through me. I didn't know what to do. Today, of course, it's easy to say that I should have gone over to see that she was ok. But the feeling of dread so overcame me that I didn't. I didn't dare. I didn't want to know what I'd see if I went over to her; I didn't want to know why she was crying.

The sour taste in my mouth got worse. I wanted to get away from the muffled, stifled sounds, and I needed to get a drink. I got up and walked the long way out of cubicle land so as not to pass her cube. As I headed for the wate r cooler, I passed a conference room. A group of the client's employees were in it laughing hysterically, unstoppably. When I got my water, it didn't help. I needed to use the bathroom.

The toilet stall was splattered with still-fresh vomit.

That, of course, was enough. Company rule was never to leave your laptop at the client site. But I did. I headed straight to the project manager's office and told him that I didn't feel well. He barely looked up; he just nodded. I went home.

I was so, so tired! And it was still only around noon. I remember that I fell asleep almost as soon as I laid myself in bed. When I woke up, around 7pm, the dread...had passed. The sour taste was gone from my mouth.

It was over.

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Copyright 2002 by William W. and Bewildering Stories.