The pixelated characters on Lena’s television flickered as she maneuvered the joystick of her game controller, deep in concentration. Beside her sat her best friend, Tina, who seemed visibly frustrated, even from what Lena could make out from the corner of her eye. Smirking, Lena pulled the trigger on her controller, knocking out Tina’s game character and ending the round. Tina huffed, tossing her controller to the ground.
“This is why I like crafting more,” she muttered.
Lena laughed. “So, you were saying it was, like, some kind of doll?”
Tina nodded, making eye contact with her friend. “One of those dolls that comedians use. Vent– Ventri–”
“Ventriloquist,” Lena corrected. “A ventriloquist’s dummy.”
“Right,” replied Tina. “It looked a lot like me. And it kept talking to me, but it also seemed like it was waiting for something.”
“Like the man who broke into your house?” Lena asked.
Tina shrugged. “I don’t know. But it was really scary.”
“Oh, grow up,” Lena scoffed. “Both your parents and mine hired a bunch of extra security after what happened. You’ll be safe from a stupid toy.”
“I guess.” Tina hung her head.
The bedroom door opened, and Lena’s father walked in with his boyfriend, Paco.
“Time to wrap things up,” Lena’s father said. “Tina, your mom wants you home so you can get ready for school tomorrow.”
“Dad!” Lena shot him a glare. “We’re playing a game.”
Paco cleared his throat. “You girls know that security has been tighter ever since, you know . . .”
Tina shifted uncomfortably. “It’s okay. I gotta go, Lena.”
Lena rolled her eyes. “Fine. See you later.”
As Tina left the bedroom, Lena’s father knelt down, kissing Lena on the forehead. “You get some sleep, too. Turn the game off, clean up, and get ready for school tomorrow. Okay?”
Sighing, Lena set her controller on the floor. “Yeah, dad. Love you.”
“Love you, too,” he said, glancing at Paco. “We both do.”
As Lena began to straighten up her room, the two men left her alone, closing her bedroom door. The moment she heard their footsteps fade down the stairs, she snatched up her controller again, resuming her game.
Hours passed, and Lena felt her eyes grow tired, but she pushed through, her fingers deftly flicking over the controller’s buttons. To her right, the night sky beyond her bedroom window began to lighten, and she glanced at her alarm clock.
“Might as well stay up now,” she said to herself, returning her attention to the television.
Pausing her game, Lena looked around, but saw no movement in her bedroom. Shrugging, she resumed playing.
Lena frowned, setting her controller down and listening more closely.
A faint sound, like a fingernail tapping against glass.
Lena whipped her head toward her bedroom window. Only darkness outside, slowly illuminated by the dawn.
She stood to her feet, slowly approaching the window, and peered through the glass.
No dolls. No men in balaclavas. Nothing.
Behind her, the bedroom door creaked open, and her father peeked inside. “Lena? I thought I heard–”
His eyes drifted to the television, then to the game controller, then to Lena, still in her clothes from last night.
“Lena,” he sighed, “Did you go to bed, or did you stay up all night?”
Yawning slightly, Lena rubbed her eyes. “I might have stayed up.”
“Come on, now,” her father replied, exasperation in his voice. “I need you at your best, Lena.”
“But I wasn’t tired,” Lena insisted. “I’m still getting good grades, right?”
“Yes, but . . .” her father pinched the bridge of his nose, taking a deep breath. As he released it, his eyes lit up. “But what about the Sleep Police?”
“The what?” Lena asked.
“The Sleep Police. It’s a special division of the police department that keeps track of people who haven’t been sleeping.”
Lena scoffed. “You’re making that up.”
“No, no,” her father said, mock sincerity in his face. “If you don’t get enough sleep, the Sleep Police will come get you and take you away to Sleep Jail. No games, no friends, just you in a dark room.”
Shivering, Lena sat on her bed. “That’s not funny.”
“I know!” he responded, eyes wide. “I don’t want you to get arrested! Why don’t you just get some proper sleep tonight instead?”
“Whatever, dad,” Lena grumbled. “Your jokes are terrible.”
Paco appeared in the doorway, knocking on the wood. “Jim, the VP is on the phone. He wants to talk to you.”
Lena’s father rolled his eyes. “I’m coming.”
Reaching over, he patted Lena on the shoulder. “I’ll be working late tonight, and Paco has some things to do, as well. Security will take you to school and back, okay?”
Frowning, Lena hugged her father. “Do they have to?”
Paco tapped the man on the shoulder, and he pulled away from his daughter. “Yes. Yes, they do.”
The clock ticked incessantly by as Lena’s math teacher droned on about fractions . . . or something. She was so tired, it was difficult to focus. Picking up her pencil, she lightly tapped on her textbook, trying to maintain a rhythm that she could focus on to stay awake.
Movement caught the corner of her eye, and she glanced out the classroom window to see an old black Sedan with broken side mirrors pull into the parking lot, facing her. In the driver’s, passenger’s, and rear seats sat three men in suits and ties. Their faces, though partially obscured by dark sunglasses, seemed slick and shiny, as if made of flesh-colored plastic. The driver turned off the car’s ignition, and together, the three men seemed to stare directly at Lena.
“Lena?” her teacher interrupted her. “Can you tell me what one-half plus one-third equals?”
“Oh. Uh . . .” she squinted at the board, working out the problem. “Three-fifths?”
“Not quite,” her teacher tisked. “You added the numerator and denominator individually. What you need to do is find a common denominator.”
Lena blushed. “Ah. I’m sorry.”
“No worries,” her teacher responded. “Just keep your eyes ahead, okay?”
Out of the corner of her eye, Lena noticed that the black sedan was now empty. “Actually, may I go use the restroom real quick?”
“Fine,” her teacher sighed. “But be quick.”
Lena rushed out of the classroom, making a beeline for the bathroom.
Who were those men? More of dad’s security?
Lena shook her head.
No. We’ve never had security who looked like that before.
She entered the second stall and sat on the toilet, retrieving her cell phone. She pulled up her messenger app and paused.
Was this worth texting dad over?
After a moment, she pursed her lips, pocketing her phone.
Suddenly, the bathroom door creaked open, and she heard footsteps click across the linoleum. Slow, measured, heavy footsteps, more like an adult’s than a child’s. They echoed off the bathroom walls as they grew closer, and a shadow darkened the cracks in the stall door. Lena held her breath, waiting for the newcomer to pass by, but they continued to stand there.
Bending down slowly, Lena looked beneath the stall, noting the person’s shoes as large, black dress shoes, definitely an adult’s. Probably a man’s.
The sound was heavy, like a thick fingertip rapping against the other side of the stall door.
“H– hello?” Lena stammered.
Silence. Then . . .
“Hello?” Lena repeated, louder this time.
The shadow moved, and Lena saw the telltale glisten of an iris peering through the crack in the stall. She quickly became aware of a heavy, stifled breathing.
“Help!” she yelled. “Somebody help!”
The figure pulled away from the stall, quickly exiting the bathroom. Lena fastened her clothes and burst from the stall, trembling. A few seconds later, another student rushed into the bathroom.
“Hey, Lena. You okay?”
Lena pushed past the student and out of the bathroom, looking both ways down the hallway.
The other student followed her into the hall. “Did something happen?”
“I’m . . .” Lena shook her head. “No. I’m fine. Thanks.”
“How was school?” asked John, Lena’s security guard, as they drove away from the building a few hours later.
Lena lowered her head, slumping into the backseat of the car. “Fine.”
“Just fine?” he pressed.
She sighed. “Someone came into the bathroom and was watching me through the stall today. A man, I think.”
“Wait, what?” John exclaimed, turning away from the steering wheel. “Was it a teacher?”
Lena shook her head. “I don’t think so. There were some men watching me from the parking lot. They kind of looked like your security people. But . . . different, too.”
Her eyes were so, so heavy. She was regretting staying up so late last night.
“Maybe it was the Sleep Police,” she muttered drowsily.
“The what?” John asked.
“Nothing,” she responded. “Just something stupid my dad said this morning.”
“Well, we’re going to talk to him tonight about what happened at school, okay?” John said.
Lena nodded. “Okay.”
“In the meantime . . .” he smiled back at her. “Why don’t we pick up some seafood from the grocery store for dinner?”
Lena grinned excitedly. “Can we get popcorn shrimp?”
“Of course we can,” John laughed.
Lena saw a car pull out behind them in the rearview mirror. A black sedan, with broken side mirrors.
“John!” she exclaimed. “They’re following us!”
“Who?” John asked, glancing in the rearview mirror.
Lena turned around to point out the window, but the car was gone. “Oh. I thought I saw the people from my school.”
“Well, maybe you did,” John consoled her. “But they aren’t there now. Either way, I promise I will keep you safe. Okay?”
After about twenty minutes, they pulled into the grocery store parking lot. Lena hopped out of the car, looking around the flat, asphalt-covered area, but she saw no sign of the black sedan. Grabbing John’s hand, she walked into the grocery store.
Aisles of food stretched before her, so extensive that they were almost overwhelming. John headed for the seafood section, his long strides forcing Lena to speed up in order to match his pace. They passed the freezer section, and Lena caught a glimpse of frozen French fries.
“John?” she tugged on the security guard’s sleeve. “Can we have fries, too?”
“Sure!” he smiled. “But not those.”
He looked around the mostly empty store. “Go pick out some fresh potatoes, and we’ll bake our own fries. How does that sound?”
“Sounds great!” Lena answered, releasing his hand. He chuckled as she walked away, toward the produce section.
As she passed the candy aisle, she caught a glimpse of the cinnamon disc hard candies, one of her favorite treats that her grandmother always gave her when she visited. Pausing, Lena looked around, but saw no one else. Tip-toeing into the aisle, she reached for a small bag of the candy, ready to sneak it into her jacket pocket.
Lena paused, her hand still outstretched.
A chill ran up her spine as she looked past the bags of candy, where a shadow moved beyond the perforations of the shelving itself. Someone was in the next aisle over, tapping their finger on the shelf.
Squinting, Lena peered through the perforations, trying to see any distinguishing characteristics of the person tapping on the aisle. Suddenly, the shadow moved, and once again she saw the glimmer of an eye looking back at her.
“John!” she screamed, backing away from the shelves. “John!”
The shadow swiftly moved away from perforations, and she held her breath, certain they were going to come around into her aisle any second. Instead, John appeared at the end of the aisle, hand on the butt of his holstered pistol.
“Lena?” he said. “What’s wrong?”
“They’re here!” she whispered. “They’re in the store!”
“Where?” John asked.
Lena pointed at the candy-filled shelving. “The other aisle!”
He rushed around the aisle, into the next one, and a few seconds of silence passed before he spoke again. “There’s no one here anymore, Lena.”
She walked around the aisle to join the security guard, grabbing his hand. “Let’s just go home.”
“What about the–” he stopped at the sight of her tearing eyes. “No problem. You got it, boss.”
They returned home, and the evening passed without incident. John and Paco helped Lena cook dinner, settling on grilled chicken and vegetables. As the evening progressed, she began to feel better, especially after John called in additional security guards to stay in the house while they waited for Lena’s father to return home. She even got to play a video game with John for a little while.
Lena’s ears twitched at the sound, and she set her controller on the floor, a ball of anxiety forming in the pit of her stomach.
“Did you hear that, John?”
John nodded, rising to his feet. “It came from downstairs.”
Together, they walked out to the staircase, descending the steps and joining the collection of security guards who had gathered around the front door.
“What’s going on, Thompson?” John asked.
One of the security guards gestured at the door, answering. “We heard some–”
Three sharp, quick knocks boomed against the front door, startling a scream out of Lena. The security guards drew their weapons, assuming strategic positions around the front door. John joined them, calling out.
“Who’s there? State your name and intentions.”
Lena tugged at John’s sleeve, tears streaming down her cheeks. “It’s the Sleep Police. They found me.”
Then, with a shrill screech, the door ripped from its hinges, exposing them to the night.
Lena saw nothing but darkness beyond the doorway. The street lamps, her porch light, and even the stars themselves seemed to be extinguished. The pitch black was quiet, too; so silent, she could hear her heart thudding in her chest.
“Fredricks,” John commanded, “take a look.”
Pistol extended, Fredricks inched forward, poking his head out of the house. He looked to the left, then to the right, keeping the muzzle of his gun between himself and the night.
“Nothing’s out there,” Fredricks said, turning around. His eyes widened as he registered something behind the group. “Davis, your six!”
Lena swiveled around in time to see a man emerge from the shadows behind Davis. He wore a suit and tie, black gloves, and sunglasses, though the rest of his face seemed to be covered in some kind of flesh-colored plastic.
The Sleep Police, Lena thought.
Before they could react, the intruder lifted his arm, revealing an orange boxcutter. He flicked his thumb, ejecting the razor blade from the tip of the tool, and reached around Davis, slicing his throat. Blood spurted from the horizontal wound, but the Sleep Policeman held Davis tight, keeping the dying man between the other guards and himself.
“Drop him, now!” Fredricks demanded, his gun trembling.
The other guards moved to circle around the Sleep Policeman and his prey, but the masked figure dragged Davis swiftly backwards, disappearing into the dark corner of the adjacent first-floor hallway. In the distance, Lena could hear Davis’s final gasps as he choked on his own blood.
Paco emerged from the kitchen, looking around. “What happened?”
Heavy, rapid footsteps approached from Lena’s left, and she saw a second Sleep Policeman barrel through the front doorway, wielding a claw hammer. Fredricks, who still lingered by the opening, heard him coming, and swiveled to face the man. The Sleep Policeman swung his hammer, connecting with the back of Fredricks’s hand, which emitted a sickening snap. Fredrick screamed and dropped his gun, and the Sleep Policeman kicked it backwards, out into the night.
The two nearest guards, Thompson and Garcia, opened fire on the second Sleep Policeman, but he deftly rolled beneath their bullets, striking Thompson in the left knee with the hammer. The joint cracked, dropping the guard to the floor, and the Sleep Policeman brought the claw hammer down on his forehead, splitting his skull.
Before Garcia could adjust his aim, the Sleep Policeman hurled his weapon at the man’s head, colliding it with his nose and bloodying it. Garcia swore, covering his face, and the Sleep Policeman swooped forward, retrieving his fallen hammer and slinging Garcia over his shoulder. Garcia screamed as the masked man carried him into the dining room, out of sight. Lena heard three gunshots, and then Garcia fell silent.
John grabbed Lena’s shoulder, and the girl buried her face in his leg, sobbing.
“Paco!” John barked, drawing the man over to them. “You, Lena and I are headed to the safe room in the basement. Lena, you and Paco need to stay close to me.”
He paused for a second, then gestured at one of the other guards. “Sitter, you’re coming, too.”
Sitter nodded, joining the trio.
Lena looked over at Fredricks, who still clutched his broken hand. “Are you okay, sir?”
The guard offered her a pained smile. “I’ll be fine.”
She saw his eyes drift over to Thompson’s lifeless body, blood leaking across the floor from his fractured skull.
“Fredricks,” John continued. “You, Miller, Torres, and Robinson are the remainder of our defense. Stay together and sweep the house until you find these intruders. Once Lena and Paco are secure, Sitter and I will join you. However, do not separate. These men are obviously well-trained. Strength in numbers. Got it?”
Fredricks and the other three guards nodded, collecting themselves before moving into the dining room, where the hammer-wielding Sleep Policeman had disappeared.
“Why don’t we just leave the house?” Paco asked. “We can go to a hotel or something.”
John glanced at the broken front door. “They made leaving the house too easy. I think it’s a trap. Besides, even if we get out, they’ll likely follow us wherever we go next. At least we know the layout of this house.”
Without waiting for Paco’s response, John grabbed Lena’s wrist, moving further into the house. Sitter and Paco scrambled to keep up.
Somewhere outside the house, Lena heard a grinding noise, and the lights flickered and died. She yelped, hanging onto John, but the guard paid her little attention, retrieving a flashlight and holding it in front of him alongside his pistol. Behind Lena, Sitter did the same.
“Paco, do you have your phone on you?” John asked.
“Uhhh . . . oh,” Paco stammered. “Yeah. I’ll call the police.”
“Thank you,” John responded curtly.
While Paco’s phone dialed out, they passed into the guest bedroom, using it as a shortcut toward the basement. Lena heard the call connect, and a tinny voice filled the earpiece.
“Hello?” Paco whispered. “Hello, we are under attack. There are men in our house. At least two people are already dead. Please–”
Distant gunfire interrupted him, and Lena turned toward the sound. She counted nine shots before the commotion ceased. Silence rang in her ears, but no voices of celebration or dismay rushed to fill that void. On Paco’s phone, the tinny voice spoke again.
“Yes, yes,” Paco responded to the operator. “Our address is . . .”
Movement near the floor caught Lena’s eye, and she glanced down to see a plastic face staring up at her from beneath the bed. Her eyes widened, and her blood ran cold. She opened her mouth to scream.
“John! There’s a–”
The Sleep Policeman’s arm lashed out of the darkness, shoving a screwdriver cleanly through Paco’s Achilles tendon. Blood spurted from the wound as Paco shrieked in pain, and the Sleep Policeman retracted the tool, retreating further beneath the bed.
“Sitter, help Paco,” John said.
Sitter gestured toward the bed. “What about–”
“The others will deal with it,” John interrupted. “Our priority is their safety.”
Nodding, Sitter leaned Paco against his shoulder, and together they followed John and Lena out of the guest bedroom. They slowly crept through the house, swinging their flashlight beams in steady arcs, listening for threatening noises. No sound emerged from elsewhere in the house.
“Where are Mr. Fredricks and the others?” Lena whispered, her voice trembling.
John shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe still looking for the intruders.”
They turned the corner, reaching the basement door.
Sitter propped Paco against the wall, scanning the area around them while John creaked the door open, peering down the steps with his flashlight.
“Looks clear,” John murmured.
He beckoned for them to follow, swinging the basement door the rest of the way open and descending the staircase. Lena entered the room next, followed by Sitter and Paco, the former still supporting the weight of the latter. As she made her way down the stairs, Lena’s eyes began to adjust to the darkness, but strange shapes surrounded her in the shadows, and paranoia washed over her in waves.
“There it is,” John whispered, pointing at a door embedded in the far wall. “The safe room.”
A steady dripping, like a leaky faucet, reached Lena’s ears. She looked around the darkness, searching for the source of the noise, but nothing obvious presented itself.
Then, she saw a glimmer in the black, a reflection in the fringes of Sitter’s flashlight beam.
The glimmer of an iris.
“John!” Lena hissed, pointing to her right.
He turned his flashlight in the direction she was pointing, illuminating a pile of mangled bodies, their blood dripping to the concrete floor. Lena covered her mouth in horror, backing away, as she recognized them.
Fredricks. Miller. Torres. Robinson.
The basement door behind them slammed shut, and they spun around to see the box-cutter-wielding Sleep Policeman slowly descending the staircase. A heavy thud, and Lena caught the Sleep Policeman with the claw hammer emerge from the shadows near the safe house door.
They were trapped.
“What do we do?” Paco asked, panic in his voice.
John answered by squeezing the trigger of his pistol three times in succession, each bullet striking the hammer-wielding Sleep Policeman in the chest, staggering the intruder. No blood emerged from the wounds, however, and the masked man quickly recovered, rushing at John. Before he could reach him, John fired a fourth time, this time striking the Sleep Policeman in the center of his forehead.
The would-be attacker’s head snapped back, knocking him into the safe room door. His sunglasses flew off his face, exposing beady black eyes, and his flesh-colored mask cracked, revealing something pale-white underneath. He collapsed to the floor, visibly dazed, but seemingly still very much alive.
Lena registered a wet gurgle behind her, and she turned around to see Sitter falling backwards down the stairs, blood gushing from a horizontal slash in his neck. Paco stumbled away from the boxcutter-wielding Sleep Policeman, but the attacker lashed out, slashing the blade across the man’s face. Paco screamed, turning toward John and Lena to reveal a deep cut across both eyes.
John aimed above Paco’s head, dispensing the rest of his magazine into the Sleep Policeman’s upper body. One bullet struck the man’s neck, and he clutched at the spot, falling back against the basement door and knocking it open.
“Lena,” John said, his sharp tone commanding her attention, “Go upstairs to your bedroom. I’ll be right behind you. I just have to help Paco.”
He reloaded his pistol, picking up the still-screaming Paco and throwing him over his shoulder. Lena saw the hammer-wielding Sleep Policeman recovering near the safe room entrance, so she ran up the basement stairs, crossing the threshold back into the rest of the house. As she did, the boxcutter-wielding Sleep Policeman grabbed her ankle, dragging her to the floor. She shrieked, but then John was next to her, firing point-blank twice into the man’s face. His grip on Lena went limp, and together, the three survivors rushed into the house.
John’s flashlight bounced back and forth across the darkness haphazardly now, and Lena could tell he was struggling to maintain his pace while carrying Paco. They ascended the second-floor staircase without incident, quickly climbing them. When they reached the landing, though, footsteps sounded to their right, and Lena saw the screwdriver-wielding Sleep Policeman rushing at them. John hip-fired a round into the attacker’s kneecap, dropping him to the floor.
“Lena, go,” he said, opening her bedroom door. “I’ve got to take care of this.”
He gently laid Paco on her bedroom floor, hurriedly shoving Lena inside after him. “Lock the door. I’ll be right there.”
Lena slammed the door shut and locked it, tears streaming down her face. Outside, she heard a series of gunshots, then heavy thuds, and the door rattled as something struck it.
“What’s going on?” Paco asked, blood still leaking from his eyes. “I can’t see.”
Then, blood pooled beneath the crack at the bottom of the door, soaking into Lena’s carpet.
“J– John?” Lena whimpered.
A faint tapping, like a fingertip against glass.
Shaking, Lena slowly turned to face her bedroom window. Outside, silhouetted in the darkness, stared a fourth Sleep Policeman.
He leaned back, punching through the glass. Reaching down, he unlocked the window, sliding it open. Slowly, menacingly, he climbed inside, producing a serrated handsaw from within his suit jacket.
Paco, hearing the noise, sprinted at the man, shoving him back. “Get away from her!”
The Sleep Policeman struck him in the throat, silencing him, and grabbed him by the hair, slamming him to the ground. He placed the edge of the saw to Paco’s neck, swiftly cutting back and forth, all the while staring at Lena. A sickening, grisly noise filled the room as blood spilled from Paco’s throat.
“No!” Lena cried, turning away.
She unlocked her door, swinging it open to reveal the other three Sleep Policemen waiting outside. They pushed into the room and grabbed her, holding her back as the fourth Sleep Policeman continued sawing. She closed her eyes, sobbing.
“I promise, I promise, I’ll go to sleep tonight,” she begged. “Is that what you want? Will you leave us alone if I go to sleep?”
She heard a wet, ripping sound, and opened her eyes to see the fourth Sleep Policeman rising to his feet, Paco’s severed head in hand. She screamed, covering her eyes, and felt the other Sleep Policemen picking her up. They carried her back, towards her bathroom, and she pulled her hands away. The Sleep Policeman with the bloody handsaw followed the other three into the bathroom, checking a watch on his wrist.
Reaching into his suit jacket, the fourth Sleep Policeman revealed an old, beat-up flip phone. He opened it, dialing a number, while the others held Lena up in front of her bathroom mirror. She saw herself, wide-eyed and alone, as pale as whatever hid behind the Sleep Policemen’s plastic masks.
The fourth Sleep Policeman aimed the flip phone at the mirror, putting the call on speaker. A rapid busy signal intonated throughout the bathroom, echoing off the walls. The mirror began to vibrate ever-so-slightly, and the hammer-wielding Sleep Policeman brought his blood-covered weapon down on the glass, shattering it. Rather than exposing the bathroom wall, the mirror fell away to reveal another bathroom, one almost identical to Lena’s. This one, however, looked older, grimier, illuminated in flickering green fluorescents. Together, the Sleep Policeman shoved the screaming girl through the new hole, her cries muffled as she passed into the second bathroom.