I woke up and wanted to die. My back was one big area of pain. I remembered that joke one of my work-mates once made: When you’re 50, and you wake up with your back hurting and your head hurting and stiff joints, you know you’re still alive. So I got up with a felt age of 56 by my estimation. I shuffled to the bathroom with my eyes still closed for a wake-up wash and other morning necessities. A base level of alertness achieved, I proceeded to coffee-making to complete my daily mini-evolution. As I sat staring into the hot magic potion, the pain lessened, and the ability to form coherent thoughts asserted itself with one firm realization: The mattress has had it. It’s time to invest in a new one because I am definitely not old enough to establish my status of being alive by the presence of back pain. As a result of that decision, much of my day was spent researching the options available to purchase a new mattress, get it delivered, and the old one picked up for recycling, preferably all in one go. By dinner time, I was ready and placed an order. It was with a sense of smug loathing that I went to bed that evening, knowing the nights of uncomfortableness were numbered.
Four dreamless nights later, the arrival of my replacement mattress was announced. I got up extra early to strip the bed of all its content, laying bare the offending old mattress. The doorbell rang moments after I was ready, and my shiny new mattress was wheeled in by a friendly delivery guy. He picked up the old mattress effortlessly. I waved him and it goodbye at the door. It’s been real, time to move on. I was disproportionally excited, freeing my new acquisition from its plastic wrappings. It unrolled itself, seemingly breathing a sigh of relief as it stretched out in its new home. I smiled and then wrinkled my nose at the new mattress smell. No matter, an open window day would take care of that before I went to sleep that evening. The ninth floor wasn’t particularly prone to window-based break-ins.
So that evening, I got home and made my bed, a breeze of fresh air around me. It was too cold to keep the window open overnight. I closed it just before going to bed. My nose detected a fainter but still noticeable smell in the room. It was bearable, but I still hoped it’d go soon. The smell was a small disappointment. Fourteen hours of fresh air ought to be enough for the wrapped-in-plastic odour to dissipate. Then again, I was too tired to dwell on the thought. My new mattress virtually hugged me when I laid down. It was surprisingly firm but very comfortable. I felt wrapped in homeliness and security as I fell asleep. I slept without waking through the night, but it was no easy sleep. Nightmare after nightmare flashed scenes of horror through my sleeping head. As soon as I escaped one unpleasant scenario, a new one started up. Yet I could not wake up, as if those nightmares kept me trapped inside the dark side of the night. My alarm eventually rescued me. There was no sign of pain in my back, a fact I appreciated and celebrated with an unusual level of alertness that first morning. Somewhat unfortunate because the next thing I noticed was the smell again. Still there. Another open window day.
Physically my felt age has dropped considerably. Mentally, however, I must have turned 80. That’s the only valid explanation for the level of obsession dedicated to thoughts about an everyday item like a mattress. I was significantly more excited than I ought to have been about the effect of a comfortable mattress, and that completely erased the nightmares. Anybody who asked would be told I had a marvellous night’s sleep. No mention of disturbing scenarios in my head. I all but skipped home, looking forward to bedtime. Outside, a storm started brewing as I got ready for bed. Definitely had to close that window now, or it would blow off its hinges. The fresh air held out a moment longer than the smell re-conquered the room. At this point, that’s becoming annoying. It couldn’t possibly take more than two full days of airing. It’s been several years since I purchased a mattress, but I do not recall the smell issue being a long-lasting one. Maybe I forgot, much like the nightmares from the previous night.
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Hugged by my mattress, the smell lingering, I fell asleep and returned to a land of nightmares. Nightmares I couldn’t wake up from. Nightmares I couldn’t quite remember after waking up. Still, like the smell, they linger inside the room, inside me, with a sense of uneasiness. The day outside seemed to match me with its greyness, its rain, its wind. Not a day to open the window, unfortunately. I felt just a little disheartened by it all. My wonderful, comfy new mattress and the painless sleeps overshadowed by a bad smell and unpleasant dreams I couldn’t seem to banish.
I slowly went about my day as if still dreaming. I wondered why something couldn’t just be good without a damper for a change. When I got home that night, I almost felt like crying. The weather still prevented any longer-term window opening, and the smell gained in intensity. I vaguely even considered sleeping on the sofa, but that would be ridiculous. There was a perfectly good, brand-new mattress on my bed after all, and the smell was just annoying, not unbearable. So, once again, I fell asleep with a smell in my nose that I wished hard would go away. Falling asleep wasn’t the issue, though. I was exhausted enough to fall asleep swiftly. And then I was wrapped in a sense of dread that I couldn’t escape. I tried hard to wake up. I tried hard to remember. But there was no content to the nightmare. It just felt like a continuous scream. Silent and frightening. I could not grasp the nightmare to get over it. It held me but refused to reveal itself.
So with each night of uninterrupted sleep, I grew wearier, more sluggish, yet more restless. And more annoyed with the silly, bad smell that refused to leave as much as the nightmares did. Wasn’t it possible to design a packaging system that wouldn’t cause a bad smell when you unwrap the item you actually want to use? Fair enough, a new t-shirt you just wash and the smell is gone, but a new mattress? Nothing I or anybody else could do but wait. Impatience grew to the point of regretting the old mattress was gone and became my default state. The storm passed, and it got warm enough to keep the window open through the night. That helped with the smell. It didn’t help with the nightmares. I was sure they would pass eventually. Maybe they were even an unconscious reaction to the smell. I was sure the smell would go as well. I was sure it would be gone by the time the temperature dropped to demand closed windows again. I was sure reality would chase the lingering dread away.
Yet not sure enough to refrain from sniffing the mattress. The smell hadn’t gotten worse, but it also never got any better. The first big stench left, but it never got replaced by fresh, odourless air. Every time the window was closed, the smell was there. Coming out of the mattress, into the room, into my nose, into my every thought. After plain air had failed, I moved on to air fresheners. Every time I lowered my head to the bed, the scented air left my nostrils, and I breathed in the smell coming out of the mattress. Exasperated, I fell asleep disappointed yet again. Mentally exhausted, I woke up again after yet another faceless fear haunted my dreams. After air fresheners, I sprayed the mattress with some supposed upholstery cleaner. I put fresh bedding on. I went to bed, smelling the smell. I wondered if my nose got damaged. I hired a cleaner under the guise of a deep, seasonal clean. She commented on the smell and asked if the bed was new. Not the bed, just the mattress, I said, defeated. My mind lost track of time, of how long it’d been.
I lay in bed. Awake. Annoyed about the smell that didn’t go away. Afraid of the nightmares that do not stop. Out of ideas. Out of solutions. Stuck in helplessness. I drifted away to sleep and felt the dread grabbing hold of me. I refused to let it. I would not sleep if sleep is not safe. I focussed on the smell that annoyed me that only went away when I slept. So tired. Half asleep even. Yet, still conscious. Still smelling the bad smell, not frightened by nightmares. I almost felt physical hands reaching out as the nightmare tried to lure me into sleep. Claws reached out to my subconscious and told me to forget the smell. To rest. A sensation like falling. Soft and gentle at first. Then I felt engulfed by fear again. I wanted to scream. I didn’t. It’s more of a sharp intake of breath, but this time it was not soundless. It was real. It pulled me back into the world. Awake and surrounded by the annoying smell. I opened my eyes to see nothing but darkness. My heart was pounding. I breathed in. Slowly. Deliberately. Willing myself to calm. To stay awake.
I stretched out my arms and legs. I stroked the mattress all around me. A token of the real world. I turned and buried my face into the soft mattress. Instantly my nose was assaulted by the smell. How can it still come out of the mattress? It’s been forever. My hands stroked the surface. I moved. I smelled different parts of the mattress. The bad smell is the mattress. All of it. Like a dog, I pawed and sniffed all that is beneath me. The smell entered my head. It got worse and worse. I could not stop myself. I tried each corner of the bed. It all smelled.
I sat on my knees, disgusted by the smell, still stroking the surface. Then I felt it. A bump. Right in the middle of the middle. My soft, new mattress had a hard bump in it. I tried and tried again. It’s most definitely there. I kept clawing at the hard spot as if to smooth it out. It remained. I did not stop clawing until finally, the fabric ripped. My eyes were adjusted enough to the darkness to make out something bright and hard in front of me. Something that did not belong into the inner makings of a mattress. A sense of panic rose from my stomach to my mind that may have been lost. I kept clawing at the edges of the ripped fabric. It never occurred to me to get any tools. It never occurred to me to switch on the light. The thing in front of me grew out of the mattress as I ripped the fabric away. I moved inch by inch further down to the foot of the bed. The bright mass did not stop. There was more and more of it while there was less and less of mattress that once encased it. My eyes saw enough. My mind refused to process the information. Bit by bit, I slid down the bed, ripping apart the mattress, exposing something within. Finally, I ran out of bed. I had to step down from it to tear the last bit of mattress away.
I stepped back, my hand touched the wall behind me. In front of me was the distorted figure of a man. Trapped in silent screams of agony. Rotting away in my mattress. My breath comes in sharp, desperate gulps. Rooted on the spot at the foot of my bed, I was unable to move. Then I screamed, and there was nothing but darkness.
Nancy Schumann is a German writer based in London who writes poetry, short stories and novels on various topics in both English and German. Her works have been published in both languages. Nancy’s particular interest, in fiction and academically, is female vampires. Nancy’s masters’ thesis on female vampires through the ages formed the basis to Take A Bite, which traces female vampire characters in folklore and literature. For further information, see www.bookswithbite.in