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And Then I Woke Up

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And Then I Woke Up

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Author: Malcolm Devlin
Publisher: Publishing, 2022

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Book Type: Novella
Genre: Horror
Sub-Genre Tags: Psychological
Post-Apocalyptic Horror
Avg Member Rating:
(9 reads / 6 ratings)


In a world reeling from an unusual plague, monsters lurk in the streets while terrified survivors arm themselves and roam the countryside in packs. Or perhaps something very different is happening. When a disease affects how reality is perceived, it's hard to be certain of anything...

Spence is one of the "cured" living at the Ironside rehabilitation facility. Haunted by guilt, he refuses to face the changed world until a new inmate challenges him to help her find her old crew. But if he can't tell the truth from the lies, how will he know if he has earned the redemption he dreams of? How will he know he hasn't just made things worse?



Nobody wanted the room next to Leila's and it wasn't because when curfew came, she turned out to be a screamer. It was because she was silent.

When you've been at Ironside as long as most of us have, you'll know it's the silent ones who are the worst. That's because they're different. And while the mantra of Awad and the Ironside doctors is how we need to celebrate what we have in common, it's those differences--even the smallest and most trivial--that scare us the most.

The truth is, everybody gets night terrors here. Awad denies it, but I swear it's part of the cure. It's part of the process of getting better. Put your hand up if you sleep soundly every night. See? Me neither. And no wonder. Night means darkness, darkness means introspection, introspection dredges up all kinds of monsters and my god, do those bastards keep us busy until dawn.

When I was here before, I always imagined you could set a clock by some of the patients. Now I'm back, it's clear that little has changed.

Vasquez--where are you? There you are. Vasquez here is still in room 23 and still wakes up promptly at four each morning. You do! In the daytime, I'd say he was the best adjusted of all of us, but during the night? Well, he doesn't scream exactly. He huffs and haws like he's been winded by something heavy hitting his chest. I'm not passing judgement, man. I'm only saying.

Who else do we have? Schonnel whimpers, Guardia squeaks, Sizemore can't keep still. The walls in this place are only a few millimetres of chipboard, cordoning off what had once been the school gymnasium into our grid of narrow little cells. Half-a-dozen rooms in the east corridor are full of cries and shouts and screams. Awad said living here is like living next to a waterfall. To begin with, the noise seems impossible to ignore, but the longer you stay, the less you notice it, the more it registers as part of your sense of the place. Once you're used to it, having it taken away becomes the bigger distraction.

Leila didn't make a peep after dark.

"I have a daughter," Sizemore told me. "When she was a baby, I'd spend my nights watching her sleep. Sometimes babies are quiet. Sometimes, they're really quiet. Sometimes you really have to look at them to prove to yourself they're still breathing. And on those nights, I couldn't breathe until she breathed first.

"When I'm in the room next to that woman? My god, I'm holding my breath until I'm blue in the face. I'm not going to go through that again."

So that's how I got the room next to Leila's and I swear it sounded as though she drew a breath when the lights went off and didn't release it until sun-up. There was a strange and disquieting quality to her silence, but it didn't bother me the way it did Sizemore and everyone else. It was seductive. Like the patch of darkness you can see through an open window that you keep staring at because you have an idea something might appear there.

I'd been at Ironside for nearly two years by then. Leila had been there for about six months. She was a small and wiry figure, lean and agile, the same jagged knot of nervous energy marking most of the recently cured. When she came into a room, limping on her bad leg, everyone would notice. Her being would flare like a flashbulb. We'd turn to see her hovering in the doorway, judging her exits should she need to make an escape.

She'd been in isolation for several months before she was given the run of the place with the rest of us. A month or so longer than most. For special cases like hers, the gentle escalation from one-to-one supervision to everyone-in-it-together was given more time, more care.

We knew her road here had been tough. The Ironside staff still had her on a watch list; the red light of the security camera mounted in the corner of her room never blinked. She was fitted with slip-on shoes, happy pills, no belts, no braces. They treated her like she could shatter at any moment.

Her silence extended to group sessions. She was watchful, and we could see she was listening as we talked through our horror stories. It was clear her understanding of reality had dawned, but it was still incomplete. The inevitable, clanging acceptance was still due.

All of this was normal, Doctor Awad reminded us with his usual patience. New arrivals needed time to acclimatise to how the world had shaped itself around them.

"It's like she's woken up," he said. "Her dream-life has ended abruptly. We have to show her this is a good thing, the best outcome. We have to show her this is the world worth living in no matter what might have happened. No matter what she might be responsible for."

Group sessions are all about that kind of support. We each have stories, and we each sit up straight in our chairs when someone else takes their turn to tell theirs. We've all done terrible, terrible things. We were monsters once, and although we are not anymore, we know we remain unforgiven to everyone who isn't in the group.

Whatever Leila was going through, hers was merely one of a multitude of similar stories and we needed to prove to her we'd all been through the same grind. Even though she hadn't shared her story with us yet, we had a very good idea what kind of story it was.

The thing about new people in the group was that it was another opportunity for the rest of us to tell our own stories again. We're hungry for fresh listeners, because the more you tell your own story, the more it makes sense to you, and as Awad delights in pointing out, the more the cure works.

"You keep telling yourself what happened until you believe it."

He isn't wrong. Really, he isn't.

So, we took turns confessing before the newcomer. Weeping before her; accepting everyone's embraces so she could see how--in this place--none of us were judged for the atrocities we had committed when we weren't ourselves.

Isn't it beautiful how stories can work like that? The subtle way they help the teller, the subversive way they reach the listener, how they creep inside you like waking dreams.

"After the narrative," Awad says, "it's important to learn to trust stories again."

Leila would sit quietly on her chair like you lot are doing right now, but her hands would be clasping and unclasping on her lap as she listened, patient as a rock and enduring us all.

"Leila?" Awad's tone was a gentle, exploratory question in itself. Leila would shake her head, a quick, curtailed, and silent answer.

"Not today, then," Awad would say. "That's all, everyone."

Leila ate meals alone. She would carry her tray to the end of the table near the broad window overlooking what had once been the school's playground. The fences along the road had been built up high, so there wasn't much view to speak of, but she would gaze outwards, where the nearby gum trees and jacarandas would rise above the fence line in vivid plumes.

The rest of us wondered what she was looking for.

"She's looking for an escape route," Sizemore said. "It's
like she's still infected. She's a caged animal looking for a way out."

"She's looking at the sky," Guardia said. "When you're infected, you never see how it really looks. How beautiful the clouds can be."

"She's looking at the basketball court," Linden said. "Wondering where they've moved all the kids. She's sad for them."

After a month of living with the ghost of her, I waited until Leila took her seat at dinner time, then I went to join her. Sitting across the table, a couple of chairs down. I saw her tense up, her knuckles whitening around her plastic cutlery.

"Listen," I said, my voice low, "I can fuck off if you want me to. You only have to say the word. Or give me the finger, or the stink eye or whatever makes you comfortable. I'm not going to say or do anything more than keep you company. Only if you'll have it, mind."

She didn't say a word, she didn't even look at me, and so I stayed.

It was a cheap move, strong-arming my way into her personal space until she became used to me. Linden had done the same when I first arrived, and while it felt like a long road, we got on in the end. The truth is, I saw Leila on her own and I wanted to throw her a rope.

It took a while, but the signs were there that Leila was warming to me. She'd cast me a shy smile when I joined her at mealtimes, a nod when we crossed paths in the corridor or on the way to the washroom. We were neighbours by then. I hoped she'd seen me switching rooms with Sizemore as an act of kindness rather than anything opportune.

The first time I heard her speak was nearly a month after I first started sitting at her table in the canteen. I was in the common room, the old school assembly hall, sitting in the strip of grey light that spilled through the tall, frosted-glass windows. I was a little down. I'd been thinking of Macey, and that always sent me into a spiral. So, there I was, leafing through the deck of photographs I keep in my pocket when Leila approached me.

"Family?" she said. Her voice was soft, but her accent
had sharpened the edges of it.

I shook my head, putting them away. I was torn. I wanted to have something to talk to her about, but I wasn't quite ready to talk about them. Not away from the safety of the group.


"Your... people, then?" The term didn't quite fit right and we both knew it.

I nodded anyway.

"You got any yourself?" I said, realising how forward it sounded only once I had said it out loud. To her credit she didn't take offence and only shook her head a fraction.

"The doctors aren't going that route," she said.

I didn't push it any further.

She glanced to the window and sighed deeply.

"I hate the rain," she said.

It was a cloudy day. The closeness of the temperature suggested a storm was due. For now, the threat of rain was only present in the heaviness of the air. I said some nonsense about how the grass seemed to appreciate it, how it looked more verdant than it often did at that time of year.

Leila shot me a look that surprised me. I had only known her quiet and closed off. But the meekness appeared to have been painted-on. Now her eyebrows were arched and her expression was sardonic, broadly amused.

"I know they preach about seeing all sides here," she said. "But shaming me for hating the rain is a bit much, don't you think?"

I blushed and backtracked. "I've been here a while," I said.

Her smile was small, but it was a smile, nonetheless.

"How long's a while?"

I told her and she whistled.

"Are you hoping they'll give you a job if you stay?" she said. "Janitor, maybe?"

I laughed, and the reaction seemed to shake her. The mask slipped back up and her eyes shifted downward. Her cheeks flushed, as though she was embarrassed she had given herself away.

When she spoke again, her tone was more delicate, a little forced.

"Nowhere else to go, huh?" she said.

I shook my head, the truth of her words passing like the shadow of a storm cloud.

Macey once told me the problem with the truth was that it was so poorly written. Given the choice, the pleasantly told lie is always more seductive. That's why religion is so potent, she said. Why history and science are still considered up for debate. Myth is more appealing than verified truth because the grey areas between the facts can still be used against us.

"Spence?" Leila said. I think it was the first time she used my name, and she wasn't the first who had used it like a prompt to jog me back to the present.

"Sorry," I said. "Nowhere to go. What about you?"

She didn't even blink in surprise.

"We'll see," she said.

Less than a month later she told me she was leaving, and it was clear this was a decision she'd made some time ago. She'd simply been waiting for an opportunity she could use to convince herself it was time.


On the day Leila told me she wanted to escape, the common room television was showing a daytime magazine show. The sound was off as usual, and the day supervisor patrolling the room was armed with the remote control so they could switch over to the cartoons whenever a news bulletin came on.

These days, what's broadcast is carefully controlled. The news is tempered, shorn of opinion; dramas are kept calm and easygoing, the stakes have been lowered, and whatever they do show is calibrated to be much less intense. It's not censorship, we're assured, it's simply a form of moderation, for our own good. Nothing divisive, nothing to make people angry, nothing to make people scared. At Ironside, we get even less. A shadow of a shadow of the media we once knew. We get fashion tips and decorating tutorials; we get kids' TV shows; we get the shopping channel with its endless Tupperware and paste jewellery.

Funny, isn't it? You tell yourself that when the world ends, all of that nonsense will dry up. It'll be like a purge of the banal, and all the trivia of the world will be the first down the plughole. But no, the same old shit floats to the top without needing us to be there to witness it. Yesterday, the highlight of my day was seeing a group of junior chefs competing to see who could make the best cheeseburger; this morning there was a silent music video from a singer-songwriter with a furrowed brow.

It's all very safe and reassuring. Nobody's going to go crazy and shoot up a roomful of people because of a knitting demonstration.

At least, I don't think they will.

Logic might tell you it would be safer not to have a television at all in a room full of people who fell for the bullshit of the narrative the first time. My own suspicion is the television is not there for our own entertainment; it's another tool Ironside uses to test the cure.

Think about it. When the narrative has taken hold, it brings with it a constricting of focus; a tendency to only see what is perceived to be true at the expense of everything else. If any one of us were to look at the television and see it to be blank, or see only static or distortion, or a mass of images their brain refuses to process? Well, the security here is trained to spot that kind of "not seeing." It's a particular skill to notice someone who isn't noticing properly, and you can imagine what happens then. The burlier supers--Danvers, maybe, or Thorn--they'll come waltzing in, two-abreast through those rattling double doors, and they'll spirit the poor fucker away to the observation rooms in the south wing.

Although we're constantly being reassured relapses are rare, it would be nonsense to say they don't happen. The infection is never really gone. It isn't communicable, but at best it's dormant. It's worked around, understood.

You might have heard of Rennet. Big guy, ginger whiskers. He used to work on a poultry farm, and his hands used to clench and unclench when he thought no one was looking. This wasn't like the way Leila's hands moved during groups--hers moved as though she was trying to get blood flowing, trying to find something to hold onto. Rennet looked like he was still throttling the livestock, day-in, day-out.

He'd been having a bad few weeks in group--the warning signs are always there if you give them time afterward. Contempt for someone else's horror story was a red flag, so was muttering under your breath as though there's no one else who can hear what you're saying. We all knew the supers had him back on their watch list. Then, one day, in the common room, he went completely silent and still for a few hours. When he finally looked up, the gleam was back in his eye.

He started screaming. His eyes were so wide I could see the mesh of red from across the room. There was something animal about that scream, the furious squawk of a cage full of birds in a blind panic. By the time the supers caught up with him, he'd already punched Vasquez square in the face, sent him sprawling across the floor. He was throwing chairs at the windows to try and break his way out. God, though! You should have seen it! He was bouncing the things off the glass, he nearly knocked himself out in the process. It would have been funny, if only...

Well. The racket he made when they were steering him out of the room? I've never heard anyone sound so terrified.

The common room is a big place--high ceilings, lots of room for air. But it's usually humid in here, and with all of us milling about, the atmosphere has a certain thickness to it. Rennet, the poor bastard, had shat himself by the time the supers had a hold of him, and I swear to you, it took nearly a half-hour before the stench of it permeated every corner. Any sympathy we'd had was qualified by the smell he left us with.

He did come back, though. Rennet. Months later, this was. He was steered back into the common room, looking sheepish and drawn. His face was hollow and glistening; that shock of red hair shaved down to a military buzz cut. He looked as though the fear in him had halved his size during his absence. Vasquez acted all jovial with him, talking to him as though nothing had happened. His eye had healed up pretty well, but when Rennet looked at him, it was as though he only saw scar tissue and he was inconsolable.

You've almost certainly heard what happened to him next. Don't ask me how he did it, but he managed to electrocute himself. This was two or three weeks later. He smashed his way into a fuse box in the east corridor and wired himself up to it or something. I don't know all the details. I do remember he knocked the power out in the east wing and left most of us in darkness for few hours while the supers dealt with what was left of him.

On the day Leila decided to make her escape, the supervisor was Tully. She was doing her rounds as normal, and as she passed us, she gestured to the television with the tip of her pen.

"What's that on the screen?" she said. "What do you see now?"

When she was gone, Leila nudged me in the ribs.

"She forgot to switch out the news," she said. "Look."

I looked up and got a glimpse of a typical studio set-up. A well-presented newsreader with a prim expression and a ticker feed running along the foot of the screen. Across the room, Tully recognised her mistake and the cartoons took over.

"Anything good?" I said. It didn't seem enough to get excited about. A ghost of television past. When I turned to Leila, I saw her head was cocked and her frown had deepened. "What was it?" I said. "What did they say?"

She jumped as though I had startled her and glanced at me again.

"Something to do with the infected," she said. "It says there's a gang of them out to the south. Knocking about near the wind turbines. I think it might have been a warning, you know?"

I didn't, not precisely, but I could guess. Perhaps the news really did broadcast warnings of gangs of infected in a similar way they forecast the weather and the pollen count.

I made some joke about it. Weatherman voice: Infected sighted here, here, and here. Dress accordingly and plan different route. Leila ignored me and I went quiet, feeling foolish.

"Are you alright?" I said, too late, perhaps to make a difference if she wasn't.

When she nodded, her smile was brave.

"Oh yes," she said. "It's nothing. Really. Nothing at all."

If my time in the facility has taught me anything, it's when people insist nothing is wrong, it's a lie to buy them time to process their situation. Something was clearly troubling her, and I didn't want to press the issue. Leila had only recently started talking. She still hadn't spoken up in group, and it really wasn't my place to push her further, when opening wasn't something she took to easily.

I'd once asked her how she got her limp, and she had stared at me as though from beneath a thundercloud.

"I got bit," she said, and that served me right. I backed off.

This time, I said nothing. Leila didn't talk much, and when she did speak, she mostly spoke only to me. It was a delicate connection, but for all its ups and downs, it felt worth preserving.

If you like, you could say I let her get away with it. There would be time for her story and the timetable was hers to define, not mine.

Copyright © 2022 by Malcolm Devlin


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