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Midnight Theater

1

The Whispering Shadows

10

 

In the chill of late October 2022, the city of Ashkell seemed wrapped in a shroud of perpetual twilight.

 

The autumn winds swept through the narrow streets. Amidst this gloomy backdrop, Ethan Kael had always found solace in the monotony of his life.

 

He is a mid-level analyst at a bustling financial firm. He prided himself on his steadfast routine, dedication to work, and his approach. Until the nightmares began.

Ethan was no stranger to the occasional vivid dream, but these were different.

 

They were dark, oppressive, and relentless.

 

Each night his mind plunged into a vortex of shadowy figures and fragmented whispers. They gripped him, suffocated him, and left him drenched in sweat and gasping for air by morning.

 

It started subtly.

 

At first, the dreams were just a murky disturbance. But as the days grew shorter, the dreams grew more frequent and more violent. It became a cycle of dread.

 

Ethan became too terrified to sleep. The less he slept, the more his reality frayed at the edges.

 

The strain began to show.

 

At work, his once impeccable attention to detail wavered. His colleagues noticed the dark circles under his eyes, his sluggish responses, but he brushed off their concern with a smile and some lousy excuse.

 

One particularly grueling night, Ethan finally slipped into a restless slumber. The dream that followed was unlike any he had experienced before.

 

He found himself in a labyrinth of shadows. Faint whispers echoed around him, their words indistinct yet filled with a sense of menace. The walls seemed to pulse with a life of their own, closing in on him. Just as he felt he could endure no more, he woke with a jolt.

 

Ethan lay in bed. The apartment was silent. He forced himself to sit up, rubbing his eyes. His mouth was dry, and he instinctively reached for the glass of water on his bedside table, only to find it empty.

 

He swung his legs over the side of the bed. His feet searched for the familiar comfort of his slippers. They were not there.

 

He frowned; Ethan scanned the floor. The slippers were gone. He distinctly remembered placing them beside the bed before collapsing into sleep.

 

Confusion turned to unease as he padded barefoot across the cold wooden floor to the living room.

 

There, neatly positioned in front of the sofa, were his slippers.

 

Ethan stared at them. He glanced around the room, half-expecting to find some intruder lurking in the shadows. But the apartment was empty, silent.

 

Ethan shook his head. Maybe he had moved the slippers himself in a sleep-deprived haze. Maybe it was just his imagination playing tricks on him. He forced himself to laugh.

 

But the unease lingered

 

After the unsettling episode with his slippers, he decided to shake off the creeping unease.

 

That evening he met up with his friends for dinner. The familiar camaraderie and laughter over spicy hotpot and cold beer helped in pushing the bizarre incident to the back of his mind.

 

Ethan didn't mention the slippers. It seemed too trivial, too strange to share without sounding paranoid.

 

Instead, he focused on the present. The night wore on, and by the time he returned to his apartment, the eerie feeling had diminished.

 

But the next morning brought a fresh wave of disquiet. As the first light of dawn filtered through his curtains, Ethan's eyes were drawn to the coffee table in his living room.

 

Two cups sat side by side, each half-filled with water. He frowned. He had no memory of using those cups, let alone leaving them out.

 

His first instinct was to check the apartment.

 

He inspected the doors and windows, but found no sign of forced entry. Living on the twelfth floor, the idea of someone climbing in seemed absurd. Yet, there they were—two cups, perfectly positioned as if left by an unseen guest.

 

Ethan hastily put the cups away. The more he thought about it, the more unsettling it became.

 

Ethan's workplace was only a short walk from his apartment, so he often returned home for lunch.

 

That afternoon, as he sat at his desk, the thought of setting up a camera to monitor his apartment crept into his mind.

 

When he got home at noon, he positioned his camera in the living room. He adjusted it to capture as much of the space as possible.

 

He set it to record, then forced himself to relax. Eventually, exhaustion took over.

 

 

Ethan woke with a start. He couldn't remember the specifics of the dream—only the feeling of being pursued through an endless labyrinth of shadows. His eyes fell on the camera. It was still recording.

 

He pulled out the memory card and plugged it into his computer. He scrolled through the footage. The first few minutes showed nothing but stillness. He fast-forwarded. No shadows, no unexplained movements. Just the quiet, empty room.

He felt relieved but still unsettled.

 

That afternoon, he left work early and visited a nearby clinic. The doctor listened patiently as Ethan described his recent experiences.

 

"You're under a lot of stress. These episodes could be your mind's way of coping. I'd recommend some time off work, relaxation, and maybe a mild sedative to help you sleep."

 

Ethan nodded. He accepted the prescription with a mix of relief and skepticism.

 

That night, he followed the doctor's advice. He took the pill and hoped for a dreamless sleep.

 

But as he lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, he remembered the camera. What if he missed something?

 

He got up and set the camera again.

 

This time, he left the lights on, knowing that the camera's limited night vision wouldn't capture much in the dark.

 

Ethan's sleep was deep and uninterrupted, until a sharp sound pulled him from the depths of slumber. He bolted upright. The room was bathed in harsh light, and the alarm clock read 3:27 AM.

 

He strained to listen, but there was only silence. Then he heard it again—a crisp, metallic click. The shutter sound of his camera.

 

The faint hum of the city beyond Ethan’s apartment was the only sound in the oppressive silence that followed the camera’s last click.

 

Hands trembling, he picked up the camera. The screen displayed the mode: photo, not video. How had it changed?

 

He had to see the photos.

 

Swiping through the images, he found a series of shots taken while he was asleep.

His own face, peaceful and unaware. And then, without warning, a selfie appeared—his own face staring back at him, eyes wide.

 

Panic tightened its grip on his chest. He had no memory of taking the selfie. He hadn't moved from the bed since he laid down.

 

Yet, here was irrefutable evidence that he had—or had he?

 

He took the memory card and headed to the living room. As he switched on the lights, his heart skipped a beat. There, neatly placed in front of the sofa, were his slippers—again.

 

He stared at them. The room felt alive. For a moment, he stood frozent. Then, summoning every ounce of courage, he crossed to the coffee table, avoiding the slippers as if they might come to life.

 

Ethan slid the memory card into his laptop and opened the recorded video. He watched himself sleep. The stillness of the footage, the quiet monotony, only heightened his tension.

 

Time seemed to stretch interminably as he fast-forwarded through the first hour of footage. Nothing out of the ordinary. Just him, restless in bed.

 

But then, the image changed. His heart leaped into his throat as he saw himself sit up in bed. He watched, transfixed, as his video self slipped on the missing slippers and walked out of the room.

 

The angle of the camera didn’t capture the living room. For three minutes, the screen showed only the empty bed and the shadows creeping across the floor.

 

When he reappeared, the slippers were gone. But he didn’t climb back into bed. Instead, he approached the camera, drawing closer until his face filled the frame, eyes staring unblinkingly into the lens.

 

Ethan’s breath came in short, ragged gasps. He paused the video. The figure on the screen—himself, yet not—stood motionless, watching. Ethan turned to look behind him. The room was empty.

 

He forced himself to play the rest of the video. The minutes ticked by, the recording capturing nothing but his stationary image, eyes fixed on the camera with an unnerving intensity. He could almost see the reflection of his own terror in those eyes, even though they were his.

 

Then, just as abruptly as it had started, the video ended.

 

Ethan sat back. What he had just witnessed defied explanation. It was as if a shadow of himself, a ghostly echo, had taken control. But how? And why?

 

The rational part of his mind struggled to assert control, to find a logical explanation.

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