Midnight by Jo Withers

1 – You wake in hospital, senses saturated by the fluorescent strip light overhead. Nearby you hear a doctor talking to your dad. Your father nods as he mentions psychosis and paranoia. The doctor says you’re suffering from Cinderella Syndrome. He has been trialling a new treatment. If your father leaves you in his care, he guarantees results in two weeks. Otherwise, he can increase your medication.

Start new treatment – 5, Up the medication – 8

2 – You watch from the bed as the nurse sets the tray down on the desk. Her name badge says Julie, your mother’s name was Sarah. Her hair wisps around her ears just as your mother’s did and she smells of apricots and rain. Her fine fingers flicker over the cutlery. You want to intertwine them with your own. She sees you staring and smiles slightly, the edges of her mouth creasing into dimples just as your mother’s did. ‘Help me’ you whisper. She takes your hand. She leads you to the centre of the room, points to the beam overhead. There is a hook in the middle of the beam. ‘You have everything you need’ she says simply. She drops your hand and walks over to the grandfather clock, winds it to one minute to twelve.

Check the hook – 7, Check the clock – 3

3 – The mouse is inside the clock, running between the cogs. Time is draining away. Everything is closing in. Your breath is coming fast, in gasps, catching in your throat. The edges of your vision are prickling black like you’re going to pass out. The clock strikes twelve.

Midnight – 10

4 – You smear food outside the mouse hole and wait. Hours later, it comes skidding out, runs through the food without stopping. It is a mechanical mouse. You pick it up. It is an exact replica of the pet mouse you had at the time your mother died. The one that you forgot to feed and found one day, motionless on the floor of its cage, white bones jutting out like feathers. It made you think of your mother lying lifeless in the soil. You remember placing your dead mouse under your pillow because it made you feel closer to her. You remember lying awake at night while other mothers told their children bedtime stories, imagining her skin devoured by death, the way her cheeks would blue without fresh blood, the way her white eyes would stare.

You drop the mouse. It runs towards the clock.

Check the clock – 3, Lie on the bed – 7

5 – Everything in the treatment centre is beige, like life’s brightness has been turned down. Your room has a bed, a desk and chair and an old grandfather clock. The clock is broken, you’ve been here six days and the minute hand has only moved one minute a day. It is now eight minutes to twelve. You haven’t seen another patient since you arrived and the communal bathroom is always empty. A nurse brings food twice a day but neither of you speak. She wears a different name badge every time but always looks like your mother. Sometimes a grey mouse darts from a hole in the corner of the room.

Speak to nurse – 2, Catch the mouse – 4

6 – When your stepmother is in the shower you run. You meet your ex beside the fountain in the park. Couples move around you in the twilight holding hands, hips swaying together and apart as they walk like dancers at a ball. Your ex pushes a packet of powder into your palm. It sparkles black beneath the park lamps. You rub it into your gums. You instantly feel lighter, colour bleeds from the trees above shading everything emerald green. Your ex smiles and shows you a syringe. You nod your agreement.

Midnight – 10

7 – Looking up you see a large hook hanging from the room’s central beam. You hadn’t noticed it before. You bring the chair from your desk and position it below the hook. You stand on the chair. You have had this feeling before, like everything in life has always been moving towards this point. There is a reason for the hook and the chair. You could use the bedsheets. You start to strip the sheets from the bed and the clock strikes twelve.

Midnight – 10

8 – Your father has to work nights, he leaves you with your stepmother. She brings soup, asks if you’ll watch T.V. with her. You ignore her. When your father remarried you were forced to attend the wedding. It felt like a funeral. As they said their vows you imagined them twisting into the earth together, their corpses spiralling with worms. You can’t stay here. You call your ex. He’s frosty at first but agrees to meet. He has something you’ll like, a new powder he’s acquired called Midnight, he promises the purest high you’ve ever felt.

Stay home – 9, Meet your ex – 6

9 – You sit watching T.V. beside your stepmother. She slurps tea, throws popcorn into her mouth. You want it to stick in her throat, plugging her larynx like a cork, want to watch her face turn purple. As you stare at her, it sounds like she’s saying something. Her lips aren’t moving but there’s the same repetitive sound, ‘Mad like her mother, mad like her mother, mad like her mother…’ You tip the hot tea over her.

Lock yourself in your bedroom – 7, Meet your ex – 6.

10 – Your head is a kaleidoscope of lights. There is no pain, everything is soft and cold. Your clothes have changed. You are wearing a long white gown, standing in the middle of a frozen lake. Your bare feet are cased in ice like you’re wearing glass slippers. You can’t move, but you don’t want to. You know this place. Somewhere nearby your mother is singing.

About the Author

  1. Avatar Jo Withers (1 story )

    Jo Withers writes short fiction and poetry from her home in South Australia. Recent work appears in Fractured Lit, No Contact, Ellipsis Zine and Versification.

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