He took photos of them. He took photos of them as, childlike, they drifted into incomprehensibility the moment their eyes shut and mind slackened. He took photos of them during the seconds when they became something else, beautifully blank nonentities. There was a kind of sincerity to be found in these people during the night, as a true bareness of the soul became defined in their vulnerability. It was an honest disclosure of oneself entirely lacking in the daylight hours, where every movement, gesture, expression they made was contrived and calculated. It was the reason why those unguarded moments were so very precious to him, defined him somewhat, as he collected their defencelessness as eight megapixel memories.
His favourite subjects were the ones who had nightmares. He revelled in the tremble of their fingertips, revered the groans of discontent as their composure crumpled beneath the bedcovers. And how their legs would spasm and kick out, as if they were trying to hurt him, to drive him away – as if he was the very night terror that plagued them, the heaviness that made their hearts stutter with dread. And the sweat – the sweat that didn’t quite form into droplets, but clung to and dampened their hot skin as it flushed puce in the darkness. He wanted to bathe in that sweat, to become the essence of fear of which they reeked.
But he had rules. Of course, he had blundered in the past, made mistakes when he should have known better. For instance, there was the episode with the perspiring, middle-aged contractor. Inspired by the romantic ideal of taking a token from that night, he had taken his handkerchief and cupped the flimsy linen against the man’s brow, waiting until the humidity soaked through and moistened his own epidermis. Yet the man had grown agitated from the contact and Simon was forced to recoil, losing the handkerchief. The handkerchief which bore his embroidered initials, in neat blood-red stitching, in the upper left-hand corner. Days afterward he remained in his own flat, awaiting the official knock on his door, balancing a sharpened kitchen knife on his knee. The experience had been exhilarating, and yet as he waited to hear those footsteps halt at his door, he was compelled to acknowledge his transgression; he had soiled something precious the instant he touched that man, tainted the subject with his calloused hands. That time, however, he was lucky. So he learned to hone his craft, became self-disciplined in his artistic endeavours, only capturing ocular imprints of his silent visits. He persuaded himself to find them more aesthetically gratifying on revision, that the pictures were enough to satisfy, to indulge his curiosity. It was a poor substitute for what he had experienced, and yet men were merely beasts without a kind of moral structure to their actions.
He nevertheless rarely caught those instances of nightmare delirium. Most sleepers he encountered were sweet-dreamers, whose placid expressions and soft sighs often made him grimace with frustration; or dead weights, whom he considered to be particularly gormless creatures, when noting the way their dribble twisted across their pillowcases. They were the extremes of the spectrum. The dead weights left themselves exposed to physical manipulation, whilst the sweet-dreamers were far too susceptible to subconscious influence for his liking. There remained a sensation that closely mirrored bereavement on those occasions, as it was disappointingly effortless to attain what he desired from them. Over those last few months he became aware that the thrill was waning, and he grew impatient with these subjects, increasingly hostile and closer to once again crossing that boundary. He was an alcoholic whose lips were brushing the rim of a wine bottle, a drug addict whose thumb hovered above a syringe plunger. He was, in short, suspended over the drop, willing himself to tilt that fraction of a degree forward to fall.
One particular night, however – that night, he chanced across a very special sleeper indeed; a small girl, approximately eight years old, sleepwalking around her bedroom. The discovery was a happy accident, as he had only entered the house with minimal expectations, unimpressed by their beige walls and posed family portraits. As ever, he was systematic in how he approached the case: firstly ensuring that the parents (dead weights) were not inclined to awaken in the immediate future, secondly that no pets were likely to draw attention to his intrusion, thirdly that her bedroom door was securely bolted, and then finally finding a perch from which to study the sleepwalker. He chose her bed, settling close to the headrest, and paused to suck in the scent of the room – to at least have that pleasure, if he could not approach her – and noted with delight that it hinted at salted caramel and restless sleep.
She pirouetted around the darkened space of the room in a lazy loop, like how a breeze would push around a stray feather, her arms stretched out as if caught in the instant of an unreciprocated embrace. Her eyes were wide, colourless, as they swept across him with every turn she made of the room. He was reminded of the time when he had remained rooted to a train track, playing chicken with a hunk of metal that was heading for him at eighty miles per hour – of how in that instant, when the train’s headlights had illuminated him, he became weightless, a skeletal frame driven merely by the desire to perceive and be perceived. Blood thumped in his ears and saliva coated his teeth like sweet acid, euphoric as he was at the rare find that once again recalled that sensation. The muscles in his hands seized with cold excitement as he struggled to disentangle the camera that hung from his neck like a weighty medallion. He couldn’t press the button rapidly enough to record every angle of her form, every twist of a limb, every expression that crossed her dreamless face. Some pictures appeared just as pale streaks as she moved out of frame, whilst others were caught between indecipherability and clarity – where the only features distinguishable were her hollow eyes. He wanted to remember, to remember, to remember forever.
He lost track of himself that night, submersing himself in recording every feature of his noctambulist, his little Lady Macbeth. Knowing he would never be able to recreate the way her silhouette merged with the shadows of the room, or the way her hair curled upward as she whipped her body anticlockwise, or the way the grey glow of the moon skimmed across her nose and illuminated her freckles, he remained longer capturing her than he should have. He became sloppy. When she started to murmur he should have fled, recognising the signs of a waking sleepwalker. When her arms drooped and wilted he was forced to muffle his mutter of disappointment by biting his tongue. Restraining the sound in this way created a wet echo that lodged in his throat, and it was as if he were choking on his carelessness. The temptation – the desire to cross the defined limits he had long ago established – was ballooning in his stomach until it seemed to crack his ribcage and splinter into his lungs. He was no novice to this practice of his; he should have realised, have known his folly. He had become the alcoholic paralytic from overconsumption, the drug addict propelling himself from a roof and believing he would fly. He should have stopped.
Instead he pressed the zoom on the camera, levelled the shot along her jaw line, and in quick succession stole image after image of her lips as they began to open wider, stretch further, pull so taut they cracked and bled. He continued to take the pictures even as he noted that the girl had stopped moving, even as he realised that her eyes now pierced his through the lens.
Even as she began to scream. He wanted to never forget.