by Zaher Alajlani

It was almost dawn in Athens when Vera Antonescu drew the window blind shut to block the dim light. A long night of working the pole left her ears ringing. She placed her hands on them and pressed. She tried to cry, to scream, but only unnerving silence came out. And how could one weep if she had no sympathy for herself? An adult entertainer, a stripper, a harlot, a ten-Euro whore, the names did not really matter to her anymore. She saw herself as empty and worthless, a byproduct of harsh circumstances and misguided attempts at a better life. Her archenemy was now that terrible sense of loss enwrapping her entire being.

Vera then stared at her reflection in the mirror opposite her bed. She undoubtedly looked beautiful as she had always been, yet all she could see was a decaying, bloated corpse. To her bitter eyes, everything now was exuding death. The glitter on her fair skin seemed like a swarm of insects eating away her body. Her Dutch-braided blond hair she saw as dry and miserable like a hangman’s knot.

She threw herself on the bed and laid still, her bereaved hazel eyes fixed on the white ceiling. All Vera wanted was to escape that existential anguish. Her whole life seemed not only terrifying but also unreal—like a fragment of a ghoulish nightmare. Vera finally gave up; she decided to end it all. On the nightstand next to her, there were a half-empty bottle of whiskey, a pillbox full of sedatives, and a black purse she had been carrying the night before. Screw this; I can’t take it anymore, she thought before grabbing the bottle by its neck and swallowing a bunch of pills.

At first, she felt nothing, but sleep eventually rushed in, parading its domineering presence. Her eyelids got so heavy that she could barely keep her eyes half-open. Her entire body felt light and her limbs almost nonexistent.

“Mr. Sleep is here,” a voice whispered in her ear. She was not sure if it was a hallucination, but she knew that she was now possibly facing eternal sleep. That did not really scare her, however. For someone with a shattered soul like hers, any form of escape was welcome. She eventually surrendered and drifted off to sleep, dreaming of a cold and miserable village in Moldova.

She was in a damp house with almost no furniture. Orthodox Christian icons of the Virgin Mary adorned the decaying walls, but didn’t mask all the cracks. The eyes of the Mother of God bore a distinct shade of unshakable sadness. Vera walked around the house, checking each and every room. To her disappointment, they were all empty. When she was about to leave, a voice called her, “Vera.” She looked around and saw a sick, old woman lying on a wooden bed.

“Vera, is that you? You finally came for me,” the woman choked on her words.

“Bunica (grandma)!” Vera cried and approached her. “Yes, I came for you. I’m sorry I couldn’t come on time. Forgive me,” she added before bursting into tears and kneeling by the bed.

“Hold my hand,” said the dying woman as she reached for Vera’s hand. “You look beautiful.” She coughed. “No matter how old you are, you’re still the little girl I taught to write. Remember?”

Vera kissed the woman’s hand. “How can I forget? I’ll never forget those days. I had only torn clothes to wear. I was always hungry. But I was happy.”

“You will be happy again,” said the woman. “The Lord willing, you will be.”

“No, I won’t,” Vera sobbed. “I’m only happy here in my old home, away from the misery I’ve created in my new one. I’ll stay here from now on. We’ll go to the fields and pick cherries together like we used to. We’ll go to church every Sunday and light candles. I’ll be your little princess again. I want to feel safe and protected again.”

“I just wanted to see you before I die. I don’t want you to stay here. You must go back. You must fight. It’s not your time yet.”

“But bunica (grandma)!”

“Go,” mumbled the woman before closing her eyes and giving up the ghost.

“Grandma, bunica, no, stay!” Vera’s scream divulged the profoundest of agony. 

Vera heard bells ringing and decided to go outside to see what was happening. She stepped outside. Black insects! All she could see were flying black insects. They were everywhere. She looked up to the sky and saw a light. It was bright, so bright that she had to cover her eyes. Siren! The wail of a siren pierced her ears, forcing her down on her knees, her hands pressed tightly on her ears.

She struggled, but couldn’t move. An unshakable sense of regret came over her. Her dry mouth, chapped lips, absent voice, and useless body made her feel that she was in the early throes of decay. And on top of that, the vision she’d just had of her dead grandmother frightened her to the core.

Vera tried to lift her arm and reach for the purse to get her cell phone and call for help, but her body rebelled against her, again. God, please help me, she prayed, but no reply or reassurance came, only reticent emptiness was there for her.

“Mr. Sleep is here,” the voice murmured again. She felt a hand closing her eyelids and forcing her back under.

She was in a tidy room, lying on a hospital bed surrounded by a nurse, a doctor, and a man dressed in black. Their facial features were blurry, but their presence was clear to Vera. It was menacing, like that of vultures.

“Just relax, Vera,” said the doctor. “It won’t hurt. You might feel a suction sensation. That’s it.”

“That’s better, trust me, Vera.” The voice of the man in black was hoarse and devoid of any emotion. “Don’t worry about the money. I’ll be taking care of it. It’s the mistake of both of us, though. I’ll take care of everything. I just don’t want my wife to know. You know, for someone in my position, a bastard child with a foreign stripper is career suicide.”

“Tell me if you feel any pain.” The nurse smiled as she held Vera’s hand.

The doctor placed a tube between her legs and turned on the machine. Her pain was unbearable, but she couldn’t speak or even gesture any objection. The suction noise became louder and then suddenly ceased.

“We’re done. It’s a success. Congrats,” announced the doctor.

A siren went off, gradually becoming louder and louder. The room began shaking. The doctor, the nurse, and the man in black all disappeared. The walls started crumbling. The room fell apart. The whole scene decomposed. Destruction was everywhere.

Vera opened her eyes and tried to scream to alert the neighbors. Her lips slightly moved, but not a single sound came out, not even a faint noise. She lay paralyzed and frightened. She was so disoriented that only when her warm tears rolled down her face and onto the pillow did she realize that she was crying.

To mitigate her fear, Vera began reciting in her mind her favorite childhood prayer: “O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere and fillest all things; Treasury of Blessings, and Giver of Life – come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.”

She repeated the prayer, becoming weaker and sleepier every time. The voice then muttered in her ear, “Mr. Sleep is here.” This time, she found companionship in it; it was as though she’d gotten familiar with her whole ordeal. Vera finally gave in and drifted into sleep.

The guests at the wedding reception were busy eating, drinking, and dancing. The bride was preoccupied with her bridesmaids as they posed for the photographer in the corner of the room next to a pile of neatly wrapped gifts. The groom was talking to Vera in the other corner of the ballroom.

“What do you want from me?” Vera asked.

“I told you I still love you. I always will,” cried the groom.

“You’re a married man now. You can’t say things like that to me. I’m no longer yours!”

“But iubirea mea (my love)—”

“No buts. This is the last time you’ll see me. I’m leaving for Athens tomorrow.”

“Don’t. Please don’t! We’ll figure out a way. You know why I married her. I don’t love her. It’s tata’s (father’s) will. This marriage’s good for his business.”

“So, you’ve chosen the family business over me?”

“You don’t understand.”

“What is it that I don’t understand?”

“That I love you, and I had to do this for the family. Stay; we’ll find a way.”

“No! I told you I’m leaving for Athens tomorrow.”

“Are you insane? How are you going to survive there?”

“I was promised a job.”

“Who promised you a job?”


“The pig! Do you know what he does? He’s a pim—”

“I don’t care. I need to leave. I just can’t stay here anymore.”

“There’s another choice. Stay; you’ll work for me. I’ll open a new business with my father-in-law. You’ll be my secretary, and this way, you’ll be with me all the time. Isn’t that what you want? Being with me?”

“You really don’t know me, you selfish pig.” Her eyes began to pool with tears. “I never wanted to be with you. I wanted us to be together.”

“I know.” He then drew nearer and embraced her.

She pulled away, disgust flashing in her eyes. “Don’t touch me! Are you insane?”

“Maybe, I’m not sure, but I’m sure that I still love you.”

“Go to hell.” She turned her wet eyes away.

The siren went off again. Its sound this time came on so high that it was immediately unbearable. Vera covered her ears. The pitch got even higher. She felt that her head was about to explode. As she fell to the ground, she realized that the room was suddenly empty. The ground started shaking. The walls began to crack. The whole room collapsed.

Vera was at peace with that miserable death circling above her like a vulture. Lord, if I’m to die, please let it be at least peaceful. Let my last vision be pleasant, she prayed.

She looked at the window. The sun was shining through the small cracks of the blind. Her cell phone rang, its sound muffled inside the purse. Her arms were still paralyzed. When the ringing stopped, the voice came again. This time, however, it was different. Though not louder, it was more intense and had a stronger presence. Each sound the voice uttered was majestic and elegant. Each word Vera heard was like a beautiful poem. “Mr. Sleep is here,” the voice tempted her. I know; you’re welcome, she replied in her mind.

Before falling asleep, she imagined the voice as a man, a loving, caring man who was full of wisdom and truth. She imagined that he had soft, tender hands that he caressed her with. She envisioned him gently stroking her hair while whispering lovingly in her ear, “Mr. Sleep is here. Don’t be afraid. This time it’s going to be alright. It’s going to be full of peace and beauty.”

She closed her eyes, willingly entering the realm of dreams. This time, she was not afraid. She knew deep inside that maybe these dreams, visions, or whatever one might call them, were not scarier than the reality she’d created.

The night was still young. Vera was walking around a big, beautiful city full of lights. The passersby greeted her warmly as if they knew her. She walked and walked, enjoying the sight of each building, each tree, each streetlight, each passerby, and each street dog she encountered.

She finally arrived at a picturesque square. There was an old statue in its middle flanked by street cafés. She walked towards one located on the right side. Once she sat down at a table, a young waitress welcomed her. Vera asked for a cup of hot chocolate. When her order arrived, she used the teaspoon to draw a heart on the foamy surface. She looked at the heart and got butterflies in her stomach. Before she had the time to have a sip, she knew that the dream was about to end. This time there was no emergency, no siren, no bleeding, no pain, no decomposition, and no destruction. She quickly scanned her surroundings in a final farewell to this beautiful city. Then she looked up to the sky, smiled, and closed her eyes.

She could now feel her right side. She was overcome with joy when she could move her hand a little bit. She heard someone knocking on her door. Vera still couldn’t shout for help, but this time she didn’t despair. I’m sure I’ll have my voice again.

“Vera, are you there?” asked a woman from behind the door.

She immediately recognized the voice. It was Nadezhda, a dancer who worked with her at the club.

Vera took a deep breath in. Oh, Lord, please, she begged. “Help! Help me!” Finally, she was able to yell.

“Vera, are you okay? Open the door. It’s me, Nadia.”

“I can’t move. Get help. Get someone to open the door.”

“Okay, okay, hang on. I’ll tell the neighbors.” The woman’s voice trembled in panic.

“Nadia, don’t panic. Just hurry up,” Vera said.

She could hear the high heels clacking away down the hall.

After a couple of minutes, she heard a siren. This time, she knew it was not a dream; it was all too real. Help was finally on the way.

She then looked up to the sky. “Oh, Lord, Lord, Lord.” A smile danced on her chapped lips. Vera knew beyond doubt that she was saved.

(First featured in Vera and Other Stories published by the Experimental Museum of Literature in Piraeus, Greece)

Zaher Alajlani is a Syrian short-story author, researcher, and translator living between Romania and Greece. His stories and articles have appeared in various publications, including The Infinite Sky, Revista Echinox, Active Muse, Bandit Fiction, The Creative Launcher, Visible Magazine, The Journal of Romanian Literary Studies, Metacritic Journal for Comparative Studies and Theory, The Experimental Museum of Literature, Masharif, and Tadween. In addition to reading fiction submissions for Bandit Fiction (UK), he is a proofreader for the peer-reviewed Metacritic Journal for Comparative Studies and Theory (Romania). Zaher is a Ph.D. candidate in literature at Babes-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca and speaks English, Arabic, Romanian, and Greek.

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