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Someone to Watch Over Me

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Alex is editing. She's been editing for hours when there's a rap on the studio window. She jumps a mile, swinging around in her chair, heart racing.

"Are you all right?" Richard is there in the doorway. He is as haggard as Alex, but the concern on his face is for her.

Alex swallows; her mouth is dry and her eyes are burning, as if she's been swimming underwater. She considers the question, her mind working slowly to make sense of it. "Why – why wouldn't I be okay?"

Richard steps inside and shuts the door. "You were staring at the wall."

"Well, I mean, I do that sometimes, to concentrate." Alex rubs her hand across her eyes. "That's not so weird, is it?"

Richard's face is solemn. "You've been sitting that way for nearly an hour. That's not like you; you're a kinetic thinker," he says.

"You were watching me for an hour?" Alex blushes, fascinated and embarrassed. Her thoughts are sluggish, which is why she says without thinking, "That's very Edward Cullen of you."

She watches Richard try to parse that sentence and fail. "That doesn't sound like a good thing."

She shakes her head. "Honestly, at this point? I could do worse than having someone watch me sleep."

Richard's face clears. "I looked in on you an hour ago. You were sitting just like that – facing the wall. I wasn't here the whole time." He frowns. "You want someone to watch you while you sleep?"

Alex leans her head in her hands and laughs. "I don't know. Maybe it would help? Look at us. We're both a mess." She sits up again, meeting his gaze. "You wanted to talk?"

He opens the door and holds it for her, expectant. "Come on, you can talk and eat."

Richard knows the weirdest places; he takes her to a tiny bistro tucked in a side street. The sign says 'Closed', but Richard goes to the back, where a tiny Italian grandmother welcomes him in with a kiss on both cheeks.

Alex helps him lift the chairs down from a table in the darkest corner of the restaurant. "How do you know about this place?"

"They came to me with reports of poltergeist activity," he says. "Mrs Fantoma's son thought it was his late father, disapproving of the renovations."

Mrs Fantoma hurries in with antipasto, squeezes Richard's shoulder and leaves again.

"God, I hope it wasn't rats." Alex nibbles at an olive; it's green and salty and very grounding. "Wait, they're called Fantoma? Really?"

Richard grins, a slightly manic expression. Alex realises they're both strung out and edgy. "They are. And no rats; it was a problem in the fuse box. Old wiring."

"He save us from the fire!" Mrs Fantoma says as she slides plates of pasta onto the table. "This man," she says, fondly, and reaches out to squeeze his cheek.

Alex watches, amazed, as Richard's cheeks are soundly pinched. Richard smiles serenely at Alex, tolerant as his face is mauled.

The pasta is delicious; fresh and pillowy, better than the take-out on which Alex has been subsisting, despite what her sleep therapist has told her about a balanced diet being part of sleep hygiene. It isn't long before she's telling Richard about the recordings she made. The tapping. Her own voice chanting.

"I know it's not the pipes rattling," she says, chasing the last gnocchi around her plate. "It's a new building; the pipes don't rattle. And even if they did, there's my voice on the recording, saying that name."

Richard is listening carefully, as he always does. Alex realises that when he gives her a rational explanation for all of this weirdness, it's not going to be as reassuring as it usually is. He doesn't appear quite rational himself at the moment: unkempt beard, hair all over the place, rumpled clothes. It's still a relief to tell him.

"Don't tell me it's apophenia," she says, at last. "I can play you hours of sound from inside my room; I've never heard anything rap on the walls."

Richard tears a roll in half and swabs his plate. "It's not apophenia," he says. "The tapping is very clear. What you're hearing is real." He chews for a while, and swallows. "It's your voice on the recording. Why not your hands making the tapping, too?"

Alex collapses in her chair, distressed. "So I'm possessed, great. Might as well check myself into Three Rivers Hospital. Maybe they'll give me a cell next to Simon. We can tap messages to each other about sacred geometry."

She expects Richard to laugh and tell her she's being ridiculous, but he doesn't say anything. The empty restaurant is quiet and dim; it's safe enough in the shadows to lean forward and ask him, sincerely. "Am I possessed?"

"No," says Richard, straightaway. "I think you're carrying massive sleep debt. Anything you experience right now comes through a filter of exhaustion. It's not a stretch to believe you're repeating behaviours you've been exposed to, without conscious awareness of what you're doing: Simon Reese's tapping, Maddie Franks' chanting. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if you reported seeing pink elephants dancing on the ceiling."

She checks the ceiling – she can't stop herself. Anything seems possible now. "I just wish I could sleep. It was bad enough before the recording, but now, even if I do sleep, I'm not safe. Not in my apartment. Not in my own bed."

Richard stands up. "Come on," he says, and heads for the kitchen.

Alex follows him through the double doors, where he says goodbye to Mrs Fantoma, reluctantly accepts a wrapped dish of even more pasta – "You're so thin! Both of you!" – and leaves the restaurant. Then they're a cab ride away from a hotel. Richard books them a suite and takes her upstairs.

It isn't until they're alone in the room that Alex realises how it looks: the two of them checking into a hotel in the middle of the afternoon. She'd laugh if she wasn't so exhausted. It's not like either of them have the time or energy to conduct an affair.

Richard draws the curtains, and turns down the bed. There's an awkward beat.

"Uh," Alex says, wondering where to start with this.

"This isn't a romantic rendezvous," says Richard. "You sleep, and I'll watch out for anything atypical. If you start chanting, I'll wake you up immediately."

It's ridiculous, but the suite is dim, the colours surrounding her calm and neutral. Alex's arms and legs are suddenly very heavy. She sits on the edge of the bed to kick off her shoes.

Richard rummages through the pamphlets and promotional material on the desk. "I should have brought a book."

Alex shrugs out of her jacket. She has her Kindle in her purse, so she downloads the Twilight books and passes it to him. "Here, you can learn about Edward Cullen for yourself."

By the time she's under the covers and her eyelids are dipping, Richard is rapidly turning pages, with the most amazing expression of horror and fascination. She lies there, listening to him breathe slow and steady, and then there's just nothing.

When she wakes, it's darker in the room, with only a pool of yellow light by the sofa. Richard is still reading, speeding through the Twilight series. He sees her watching and he holds up the Kindle.

"There's more to this than I originally assumed," he says. "I can see the appeal to the teenage mind."

"You and the film studios." Alex rolls on her side and props herself by her elbow. She's warm and loose, like after a yoga class. The rattling, edgy rawness that comes from lack of sleep has backed right down. "Did – did anything happen?"

"Yes," says Richard. "You snored. A little."

Alex blushes, then decides she can live with that. She stretches, arms over her head, legs as long as she can make them. She feels rested, for the first time in weeks.

"Hey," she says. "Sleep is actually pretty great; do you want some?"

Richard smiles and waves the Kindle. "I'm good. Sleep a little longer; I'm going to finish this."

Alex takes a deep breath and flops down on her back. Somehow, she knows she's going to sleep safely again. "Wait till you get to the fourth book," she says, as she's drifting away. "It's a real horror story."