By Rita Feinstein
It had first captured Sawyer’s attention when she was thumbing through some old art books at a yard sale. She was eleven or twelve then—still imbued with a child’s morbid imagination, and just discovering her body and its desires. Not quite a child, not quite a young woman. It was only when she discovered The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli’s iconic masterpiece, that she realized this awkward, liminal state was a world of its own. A sensual world, and a dangerous one—one where ape-like goblins squatted on sleeping women’s chests while grinning horses materialized from the gloom.
Sawyer’s mother did not want to buy the art book. Sawyer insisted. Ten years later, The Nightmare still watched over her while she slept. A dream-catcher might’ve been more appropriate, but Sawyer felt safer with the painting brooding nearby. She couldn’t explain why. Perhaps because nightmares were easier to face on canvas than inside her mind. Or maybe because having art on the walls made her believe she could actually afford to pay rent this month.
At first, Sawyer hadn’t considered the possibility of failure. She’d graduated summa cum laude from a respected university, fifteen pounds lighter than she’d been freshman year, and with a much cuter haircut. She was organized, responsible, and self-motivated (according to her resume), but employers barely granted her a disdainful sniff before moving on to her less intelligent, less attractive peers.
It killed her to see Madison—who’d spent entire seminars shopping on ModCloth—stumble into a career while Sawyer herself, in moments of desperation, contemplated selling her eggs. She should have known an Art History degree would be worthless.
It wasn’t long before she’d exhausted all potential jobs in her field. Galleries didn’t want her. Museums didn’t want her. And, after being driven to tears by so many fine-art monster-bitches, Sawyer was pretty sure she didn’t want them either.
She wouldn’t have stooped to gas station attendant or cleaning lady, no, but she’d long since come to terms with the fact that money was more important than a career. She’d applied to everything in retail and food service—literally everything—and had resigned herself to a diet of pop-tarts and ramen when her last-ditch effort to land employment actually paid off.
It just so happened that five minutes before Sawyer wandered into Donut Worry, Be Happy with her very last resume, the owner had posted a call for applications on craigslist.
“When can you start?” he asked Sawyer.
Sawyer hesitated. She’d been rejected so many times that this seemed like a cruel joke. But as she glanced around the shop, she saw that they truly did need help. The fluorescent strip lighting flickered and buzzed. The fast-food-style booths were littered with crumbs. Incongruous Buddha posters hung at crooked angles on the greasy wallpaper, and the whole place reeked of sage and burnt sugar. It was like an unhappy marriage between Greenpeace and McDonald’s.
It might also be her only chance.
“Right now,” Sawyer said, giving him a brisk handshake he seemed unprepared for.
Sawyer didn’t care that she’d have to wear the same high-necked, heavy-cotton t-shirt every day. She didn’t care that she had to wake up at 5am. She didn’t care that she’d be the only person on the clock from open to close. She had a job. A real job that paid real money plus tips, and she was going to kill it.
Aside from the owner, the first person she met at Donut Worry was Brianna, her trainer. A sallow girl with a phlegmy cough, Brianna was pleasant enough. That first day, she was patient with Sawyer’s many questions and missteps, and engaged her in conversation during the gaps between customers.
These gaps were lengthy and many; few people seemed willing to drop six dollars on a quinoa-flour donut glazed with blackberry-balsamic caramel. Sawyer could have all she could eat for free.
“Do you ever get sick of them?” she asked, licking lemon-cayenne icing from her fingertips.
Brianna idly nibbled a rosemary-and-sea-salt donut hole. “Not really,” she said.
Quite suddenly, she was taken by a coughing paroxysm, and, complaining of chest pain, retired to the break room until the fit subsided. How could someone so sickly be allowed to work in food service? Did she have some terminal illness? Was Sawyer her replacement? The thought made her feel strangely guilty, as if it were her own fault that she was healthy and Brianna was not.
But then the bells above the door chimed, signaling a hungry customer, and all Sawyer’s thoughts went into assisting them.
The day passed largely without incident, though Sawyer become quite flushed when she found herself unable to void a bungled transaction until Brianna came to her rescue. She also discovered she was remarkably awful at steaming milk. Whenever she tried, the milk screamed in its pitcher like a banshee being boiled to death. Some of it slopped onto her wrist, leaving a shiny, puckered burn mark that hurt like hell. But really, if that was the worst thing to happen her first day of work, Sawyer wasn’t complaining.
She returned home sweaty, gloved to the elbows in frosting, and immensely pleased with herself. She collapsed on her futon with an indulgent sigh. Who would have thought boxing donuts could be so satisfying? Donut Worry had her on her feet, meeting new people and learning new skills. To think she’d ever considered arts administration—ha! How drab that must be, boxed up like a donut in a musty office, writing pretentious brochures for pretentious exhibits. No, surely that ivory tower was not for Sawyer. She’d found her place here, in the real world.
But then, upon checking her social media accounts and seeing that the museum Madison worked for was hosting an Eighteenth Century Romanticism exhibit, Sawyer felt her stomach sour.
“Must’ve been that donut,” she said to herself.
She made herself a soothing cup of ginger tea, but the queasiness lingered. Against her better judgment, she scrolled through the exhibit’s highlights. There, as she knew it would be, was The Nightmare.
The tea turned to dog piss in her mouth. Unceremoniously, she spat it back into the cup. Then, on second thought, she shattered the whole damn thing against the floor.
Madison didn’t deserve to be in the same room with that painting. She didn’t have a relationship with that painting. She didn’t understand it; no one did.
Thinking about people who didn’t appreciate The Nightmare made Sawyer think about the boy she’d brought home a couple months ago, after a discouraging day of job-hunting. She’d never done anything so reckless before, and probably never would again. But that night at the Thunderbird Bar and Grill, swirling a lime slice into her gin-and-tonic, she felt tragically beautiful. She knew she could have any man she wanted, so she might as well want one.
Most of the Thunderbird’s patrons had receding hairlines and guts like fleshy kegs. Sawyer wasn’t that desperate. She figured she had a chance with the current open mic musician, a rakish guitarist with a mop of brown hair. And a plaid shirt. Sawyer was a sucker for plaid.
When he finished playing, she complimented his songwriting, though secretly she thought his lyrics about eating souls were melodramatic and cliché. He, in turn, complimented her bold fashion choices (floral hair clips and oversized glasses—she was going for Hipster Frieda Kahlo). They talked, they drank, and sometime after midnight he drove her home. When they started making out in his car, Sawyer knew it was going to happen. Dark wings beat in her chest, sending shivers through her whole body.
They made it to her bedroom without incident, but he hadn’t even unhooked her bra before he saw The Nightmare.
“What the fuck is that?” he demanded.
“The Nightmare.” She knew she should say more, but how could she explain what the painting meant to her? As she contemplated it, losing herself in its moody hues, she also lost track of time. When she returned to reality, the guitarist was looking impatiently at her.
“I said, can you take it down?”
The request was absurd. Whether it was a crucifix or an Iron Man poster, Sawyer would never put her own comfort over someone’s décor.
When she refused, the guitarist grew agitated and tried to take it down himself. Sawyer shoved him hard in the chest and screamed at him to back off, and the guitarist responded by calling her a crazy cunt. Then he left. Sawyer felt somewhat shaken, but mostly disappointed. An impulsive hookup seemed like the perfect way to forget the responsibilities of adulthood, but she was no good at being irresponsible either.
Now, sulking over her many losses, Sawyer took refuge in Fuseli’s dark dreamscape. She locked herself in her room and stared at the tattered print until the colors bled together.
When asked what she liked about it, she usually responded, “It reminds me that demons are only in our minds” or “It was progressive for its time.” But those weren’t the real reasons. The real reason was that it made her feel like she had that night in the Thunderbird—glamorous, and doomed, and free.
Brianna did not come to work the next day. Sawyer did her best to open without her, but she didn’t accomplish much beyond filling the cream pitcher and turning on the lights. She couldn’t find an employee manual anywhere. By seven o’clock, she was flustered and almost crying.
She didn’t want her boss to think he’d made a mistake. She dialed his cell, but he didn’t pick up. Realizing she was on her own, she closed her eyes and tried to remember what Brianna had taught her. Slowly, it all came back to her.
When the cash drawer was counted, the coffee brewed, and the donuts arranged by price, Sawyer stepped back to admire her handiwork. Damn, she was good.
As she eased into the rhythm of stamping boxes with the Donut Worry logo, her resentment towards Brianna turned into concern. Was she ever coming back? Had she died of consumption? Was that still a thing?
Sawyer imagined Brianna, waiflike and waxy, sighing her final breath in a four-poster deathbed. There was a young gentleman by her side, his dark hair bound with a red ribbon. “I shall never love another,” he whispered. “Then you shall die a fool,” she whispered back, lifting a translucent hand to caress his cheek. She never made it. Her hand fell lifeless on the quilt, and her lover, wracked with grief, howled her name.
Then the doorbell chimed, breaking Sawyer’s trance. By extolling the virtues of the organic donuts, she convinced her customer to buy a full dozen. Plus a t-shirt.
“You’re too good for this place!” the customer chirped.
I know, Sawyer thought.
She smiled weakly and gave the customer her change.
As the morning yawned into a stormy afternoon, Sawyer bleached the spotless countertops and refilled the already brimming tea canisters. Hours went by without a single customer. Perhaps Brianna hadn’t died, after all; perhaps they’d had to let her go. But then why hire Sawyer in the first place?
Sawyer finally reached her boss, who gave her detailed instructions for closing out the register. She was confident she could have followed them perfectly, had the power not gone out right before close.
It was barely three o’clock, but the storm had burst the sun like a blood vessel, bruising the sky with dark clouds. The windowpanes wavered and moaned under the pressure of heavy rain, and the donut shop seemed suddenly full of shadows.
Sawyer wasn’t afraid of shadows, though. She was afraid she’d mess up the deposit.
For one thing, there was no electricity, so she couldn’t print a z report. For another, she couldn’t even open the damn register. Not to mention the fact that her phone had died and she couldn’t call her boss, who probably wouldn’t answer anyway.
She decided to camp out in the donut shop until the power came back on. It was a long wait. So long that the shadows started leaping in Sawyer’s peripheral vision, then flattening themselves like prowling panthers when she fixed them in her stare.
She sat in a corner of the concrete floor, eating a goji berry donut for sustenance. Her stomach hurt again.
When the back door slammed open, Sawyer went momentarily blind with fright. She couldn’t see into the kitchen, but she could hear a flurry of grating and clattering sounds, as if the intruder were searching for a weapon. Oh God, what if they wanted money? Would they believe Sawyer if she said she couldn’t open the register?
Frantically, she scanned her surroundings for something she could use in self-defense, should it come to that. She’d never bludgeoned someone to death with a French press before, but there was a first time for everything.
She was just getting to her feet when the flashlight beam sliced across her eyes. Forgetting the coffee press, she screamed and covered her face, knocking her glasses to the floor. When she realized she wasn’t being stabbed to death, she tentatively opened her eyes.
The face before her was so familiar that at first it didn’t occur to her to be afraid. She accepted its presence with easygoing dream logic, blankly observing how the flashlight cast ghost-story shadows across its thick features, exaggerating its insolent, downturned mouth. It was the same face that watched her sleep every night. It was nothing she didn’t understand. But then it moved. It wasn’t supposed to move.
Chills soaked Sawyer’s spine. She was suddenly certain that she wouldn’t leave the donut shop alive, and the realization numbed her. It was her fault—she was certain of that too. Her fault for worshipping that painting and conjuring this goblin. What else could it be? She’d know that sinister grimace anywhere.
“Hey,” said the goblin.
Sawyer’s vision flickered.
“Hey,” he said again. “You’re that girl.”
The goblin was not a goblin. Not in the Henry Fuseli sense, anyway. He was Sawyer’s failed hookup, the guitarist who was apparently also the night cook at Donut Worry, Be Happy. And if he didn’t think Sawyer was weird before, he certainly did now.
“Sawyer,” Sawyer said, as much for his benefit as to reaffirm her own identity. “And—sorry, I forget your name.” She didn’t think he’d ever told her.
“Henry,” he said.
Suddenly the power came back on, and Henry lost all resemblance to Fuseli’s goblin. Except for a shadow around the mouth, maybe. That smoky velvet mouth. That beery rockstar mouth. That hot kiss that made her feel like a time-lapse of a blooming flower.
“So…uh…how are you?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Kind of hungry.”
Sawyer didn’t really know how to respond to this. “How ‘bout an almond-butter-and-jelly donut?” she said with a spunky swing of her elbow.
Henry just stared at her. “I should get to work,” he said.
When he had disappeared into the kitchen, Sawyer buried her head in her hands. God. She was such a dork. She probably deserved to be eaten by a goblin.
After dropping the deposit, she peered into the kitchen, where Henry was listening to angsty rock music and cutting a sheet of buttermilk dough. His plaid sleeves were rolled above his elbows, revealing lean, tattooed forearms with flour-frosted hair. She remembered how strong those arms were, how he’d pinned her against her bedroom wall and kissed the living daylights out of her.
She promised herself she wouldn’t think of him like that, but now, watching those beautiful hands make artisanal donuts, she found she only wanted him more.
In the days following the power outage, she made excuses to stay at work until Henry arrived. She’d act surprised to see him, claiming she’d lost track of time while stapling invoices or cleaning the mini fridge. Then she’d casually move into the kitchen to keep him company while he fried donuts.
He was never rude, but he wasn’t exactly friendly either. He probably hadn’t forgotten how unreasonable she’d been about that painting. In one of their conversations, Sawyer learned that Henry had gotten the job from Brianna, his ex-girlfriend.
“How is Brianna?” she asked. Maybe Henry knew why she’d vanished.
The shadows on his face deepened. “She’s dead.”
Sawyer’s stomach clenched. She envisioned Brianna’s death scene again, only this time, her lover knelt on her chest instead of by her side, crushing the breath from her lungs, sucking her life force from her breasts. His disfigured limbs were carpeted with ape hair. He wore Henry’s face.
Sawyer shook off the vision. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “How did it happen, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Henry was quiet for a moment, as if deciding how much to say. “She stopped breathing in her sleep.”
Sawyer nodded sadly, remembering Brianna’s wet cough and shortness of breath. She couldn’t quite dispel The Nightmare from her mind, though, nor could she help staring suspiciously at the hair on Henry’s forearms as he shook grease from the fryer basket.
She had an evil thought just then, a thought that made her question her own humanity. She was glad that Brianna was out of the way.
Overheated and slightly nauseous, she offered Henry a stream of empty condolences, then rushed away from him, away from her own desire. When she looked at him, she felt like she was seeing The Nightmare for the first time, like the gauze separating dreams from reality had finally deteriorated, and she could finally see through.
Later she lay on her bed, with no recollection of having driven home. With the lights on, The Nightmare was a painting, nothing more. It was easy to convince herself she was being ridiculous, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that she and Henry and started something that night at the Thunderbird, and she wanted to finish it.
After work the next day, Sawyer changed into a white maxi-dress like the one the woman in The Nightmare wore. She sat by the back door, pretending to read a classic novel, until Henry arrived for his shift.
She sensed him before she saw him. The nape of her neck tingled, her hair stood on end, and thunder rumbled in her brain. A storm was coming. Henry balked when he saw her. Sawyer opened her mouth, prepared to deliver her carefully scripted apology-slash-proposition, but Henry spoke first.
“Are you stalking me?”
Well, this wasn’t going as planned.
“I...I was just wondering...if you wanted to grab a drink at the Thunderbird with me.”
Suddenly, Sawyer’s dress felt like a cheap costume, or like something a rural virgin would wear on her first carriage ride with her betrothed. She grabbed a handful of the fabric and used it to clean her glasses. In her impaired vision, Henry’s sneering features smudged like paint.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said.
Sawyer nodded feverishly. “No, no, of course not.”
She’d been a fool. And so insensitive. His girlfriend had just died, for God’s sake. But how close had they been? Sawyer had never asked him if he’d started dating Brianna before or after that night at the Thunderbird, and to do so now would be wildly inappropriate.
When Sawyer got home, she poured herself a full glass of wine, slopping a little on the dress, and dedicated her evening to commenting on all of Madison’s Facebook posts with angry-face emojis.
Sometime around 11, there was a knock on the door. Sawyer set her third glass of wine on the coffee table and went to answer it. All of her movements felt warm and blurred. Walking was like swimming. She turned the doorknob and felt something unlock inside her.
Henry had changed his mind.
It was as if the intervening weeks had never happened. Henry smelled like cigarettes and Thunderbird beer, and the fingertip that skimmed her lower lip was rough with a guitar string callous. His hands fisted in her hair, unclipping her Frida Kahlo flowers. She’d forgotten she was wearing them.
He was so strong. He pinned her against the wall and crushed his mouth against hers, and Sawyer let him. It felt like falling asleep, or like being swept away by a dark ocean. Like something solid had given way beneath her.
It thrilled her to surrender to something so completely.
Suddenly they were in her bed. She’d lost her glasses somewhere in their heated hello, but she liked how her room looked in soft reds and blacks. She didn’t have to do anything anymore. She didn’t even have to focus. This time Henry didn’t complain about the painting. He faced away from it, though. Lying on her back, Sawyer could see it clearly over his shoulder, even without her glasses.
She closed her eyes when Henry ripped open her shirt. Actually ripped open. She thought that only happened in smutty novels.
His hands were unnaturally hot on her bare skin. Hot and rough, covered with bristles. The sensation was unpleasant, but it only lasted a moment.
Something about having her eyes closed made time move strangely. She didn’t remember inching backwards, but she found herself draped over the edge of the bed while he straddled her hips, holding her in place. It was hard to breathe with her spine so dramatically arched, but she didn’t dare move. In an ecstasy of agony, Sawyer opened her eyes.
The man straddling her was not Henry. It was not even a man. It was crudely shaped, a gargoyle covered with coarse hair. Its eyed bulged beneath heavy brows, filled with something more violent than hunger.
Sawyer couldn’t move. Its stare penetrated her, holding her upside down. Her tears ran down her forehead, disappearing into her hair.
She finally managed to wrench her gaze away, only to see that the painting had been altered. It was no longer a painting but a mirror, and the woman sleeping beneath the creature was Sawyer.
Helpless, she watched him bend toward her breasts, mouth gaping. His swampy breath raised goosebumps on her skin.
All her strength left her when she felt his pull.