Night Terrors

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic


was he or wasn't he?

Submitted: September 07, 2018

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Submitted: September 07, 2018

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Night Terrors

 

He woke up screaming.  At least, he thought he had.  Or maybe it had been only in his dream, the remnants of which were streaming away like water from a swimmer’s body when he breaks the surface and walks toward shore.  He glanced at his wife, still sleeping quietly at his side.  Must’ve been only in the dream, then.  But his throat was as tight as if he’d actually screamed, and his whole body was covered in a light sweat.  He shivered.

 

There had been a noise.  He was certain of that.  Wasn’t he?  What else could have rescued him from the grip of the dream, a dream of eyes and watching, yes, a most unpleasant dream he was glad enough to be out of, but maybe it had only been a noise in the dream itself?  He tried to remember the dream up to the point where he had found himself sitting up in bed, no longer sleeping but not fully awake, but he couldn’t find the end of it.  Still, he was pretty sure there hadn’t been any noises in it anywhere, just the eyes, eyes in a dark place, watching, hidden someplace dark, and then the eyes, too, retreated and the dream fell apart like a burned newspaper when you try to read it and he was sitting up in his bed next to his sleeping wife, facing the open closet door.  She’d left it open again.  He frowned.

 

But had there been a noise?  It bothered him more than it should have, not to know.  Although he couldn’t clearly remember, he seemed to think it had hadn’t been a very loud noise, perhaps like a door closing somewhere in the house.  Not the bedroom door.  He could see it was still partially open, the way he liked it.  Certainly nothing big like a thunderclap; that would have awakened even Cherie.  No, if there had been a noise at all, it hadn’t been very loud.  Call it about as loud as a door closing, then, somewhere in the house, just the everyday sound of a door closing, unnoticed in the daytime, but loud enough in the still of the night.  He glanced again at his wife’s sleeping back to reassure himself.  There was nobody else in the house to close doors.  It had been just about that loud, though.  Provided there had been a noise at all.

 

What else was that loud?  The tree limb that never got trimmed because it only got noticed during a bad storm when it banged against the house.  But there was no storm.  And it was never a one-time noise with the limb; it was always repeated just often enough so you didn’t quite have enough time to get back to sleep before it happened again.  He looked out the window.  Didn’t seem to be any wind at all, so it couldn’t be the limb.  But the noise had been about that loud.

 

So maybe it had been a door, just not the bedroom door.  The storm door.  That was probably what it was.  The paper kid usually remembered to tuck the paper between the storm door and the inside door but could never remember to latch the storm door afterward.  In any kind of wind, the door swung out into the stair railing, then the weak spring brought it back so the wind could catch it and hurl it into the railing again.  It always made him mad: one day the door would break.

 

But there wasn’t any wind.  He had seen that, out the window.

 

He glanced at the dim glow of the clock on the nightstand.  2:30.  Probably the newspaper hadn’t even been printed yet this morning.  Couldn’t be the paper kid.  Maybe I forgot to latch it, he thought, though he was pretty sure he hadn’t.  And the storm door was another rhythmic nuisance, like the tree branch, which persisted through the foggy waking-up period until you were wide enough awake to identify it.

 

But there had been only the one noise.  Maybe there had just been one gust of wind.  He shook his head.  Unlikely.

 

That left, among the usual disturbers of his night, the cat.  And the empty thread spools that were its favorite toys.  Normally the objects of a quiet but intense game, the spools sometimes got away from the cat’s deft dribbling and smacked into a baseboard with a loud thwack.  And there was usually only one thwack.  Embarrassed or something by the spool’s escape, the cat pursued it with redoubled concentration so that only little pattering rushes across the carpet indicated that the game was still in progress.

 

It would have been about that loud if it happened in the living room.  He cocked an ear toward the bedroom door, listening carefully, barely breathing.  Nothing.  No sound of claws in the carpeting.  And, he admitted to himself, the spool sound wasn’t really all that much like the sound that had awakened him.  Assuming there had been a noise.  That he hadn’t dreamed it.

 

The only sound was Cherie’s long slow breathing.  He watched the rise and fall of her back under the blanket, heard the soft sigh of air through her parted lips in the deeper darkness where her hair fell over her arm on the edge of the bed.  He envied her her unconsciousness.  Not only could she sleep through anything short of a direct hit by lightning but, once awakened, she was completely imperturbable.  It’s always me who has to go see, he thought.  What if it’s a burglar, I say.  What if it is, she says, and rolls over.  How can you just lie there? I say, nearly frantic.  How often have you heard noises and gone to see?  she says.  And how many times have I been right and how many times have you been right?  It’s never anything.  And then she’d rise on one elbow and pat his cheek.  If it’s anything exciting, you come tell me, okay?  Then she’d turn on her side and drown herself in her pillow.

 

He lifted his half of the covers away and swung his legs quietly over the side of the bed.  His wife gave a little lost cry in her sleep and half rolled toward him.  Deep in her own dream.  Her groping hand brushed his bare back.  She settled back in deeper slumber, her arm thrown possessively across the mattress he had just left.  He studied the arm.  Better she doesn’t get up, he thought.  She’d just laugh.  I’ll check it out.  Otherwise, I’ll lie here until morning waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Or door to slam.  Or whatever.

 

He padded quietly to the closet.  One of the accordion folding doors was standing open, the other side shut.  He shivered.  A wave of icy air nipped at his feet.  The closet, covering an entire wall of the bedroom, was unheated.  In winter, you had to brace yourself for the shock as the pent-up cold air poured out each time you opened the closet.  It’s like there’s an actual hole to the outside in there, he thought.  I’ll have to look into it, fuel prices being what they are.  I don’t know why the hell she can’t remember to shut it when she comes to bed, he thought.  How many times had they discussed it?  

 

It’s just because it makes the room cold? she’d ask.  That’s the only reason?  Of course it is, I’d say.  What other reason could there be?  I’m sure I don’t know, she’d say, and then smile that little smile she has.  Let me see, she’d say.  The closet door has to be shut, but the bedroom door has to be open.  And the hall light on?  So I don’t have to turn on the bedroom light when I get up to go to the bathroom, I’d explain patiently.  Oh, that wouldn’t bother me, she’d say.  You know I sleep like the dead.  Still that annoying little smile.  And he’d get angry in spite of himself; after all, he was just trying to be considerate, and she’d fluff up her pillow and roll onto her side and that would end the conversation.

 

Wondering once again why it was he didn’t wear pajamas, he reached for his robe, lying on the floor of the closet as usual.  It was like pulling something out of a snowbank.  He cringed in anticipation of it touching his skin.  Icy air whispered down his neck and back as he bent over.  He grabbed it and retreated backwards out of the closet.  He paused, frowning.  It must have really cooled off overnight.  It hadn’t been that cold when he went to bed.  It’s only October.  Are we in for a bad winter?  He pushed the folding door closed carefully, trying not to make any noise.  Tying the robe around himself, he tiptoed to the bedroom door and out into the hall.

 

The hall was empty.  Not that he had expected to see anything.  The hall was narrow and high, with a single light fixture at the far end, around a corner.  Near the bedroom end of the hall, where another fixture ought to be, a single point of red light indicated the smoke alarm was sleepless as well.  

 

He walked down the hall, turned the corner, and started through the kitchen to check on the storm door.  He stopped when he saw the basement door jutting out slightly to block his path.  It was ajar, just about enough to admit a person if the person were okay with slipping through sideways.  That was what a person would do who was trying not to make noise, wasn’t it; he would push the door open only as far as absolutely necessary.  But that was silly; there was no person.  

 

Yet the door shouldn’t have been open at all.  He had closed it- well, he had pushed it to on his way to bed, anyway- to keep the cat downstairs.  Obviously the cat had nosed it open again.  Probably the noise had been the cat playing, then.  Even though the noise wouldn’t have been quite the noise he thought he had heard.  If there was a noise.  If he hadn’t dreamed it.  Or imagined it.  Can you imagine things in a dream?  he wondered briefly, then shook his head impatiently to clear the remaining cobwebs.

 

The cat was an economical creature, like all cats.  It never pushed a door open any farther than it needed to to get through.  Why would it suddenly have pushed it twice as far open?  Trying to scratch its head on the door, probably.  Yes, that must have been what happened.  He pushed the door shut.  No, suppose it’s still upstairs.  It’ll crap all over everything if it can’t get to its box.

 

“Damn!” he said.  “Here, kitty, kitty.  Come, kitty,” in as coaxing a voice as he could manage.  No cat.  He yanked the door open again, savagely.  The well-oiled hinge was noiseless.  A cool wash of air lifted the hem of his robe.  I’ll have to leave it open for the stupid thing, he thought.  But if it was upstairs, then surely it had been the cat playing with its spool that made the noise.

 

On his way to check for the spool that he now thought must be somewhere in the living room, he stopped at the back door.  He stood on tiptoe, pressed his forehead against the cold glass.  He could barely see the storm door latch through the frost that that was forming in the bottom corners of the door glass, but it was indeed latched.  No need to open the door and let in more winter.  He pressed his fingertips against the cold, flat kiss of winter window glass.  The driveway outside was all white snow with black asphalt footprints where the wind, sprinting around the corner of the house, had planted its heavy foot.  Little snow devils now danced in the tracks.  He breathed on the glass, then traced a frowning face in the mist.

 

His finger stopped at the corner of the drawing’s down-turned mouth.  He had looked out the bedroom window.  No wind, no snow there.  The leaves on the tree had barely begun to turn.  It was October, not January.  It can’t be autumn on one side of your house and winter on the other, buddy, he thought.  Had he still been dreaming when he looked out the bedroom window?  It was October, wasn’t it?  He was pretty sure, no, he was absolutely sure it had been October when he went to bed and it had actually been fairly warm for that time of year.  Hadn’t it?  He tried again to remember the dream.  There hadn’t been any definite time of year associated with the dream that he could remember.  Just the eyes and the watching.  But he knew he wasn’t remembering all of it.

 

He looked out the door again.  The little face he’d drawn was quickly fading away but it sure looked like the driveway was snow-covered.  He rubbed his face.  I’m not dreaming now, he thought.  You don’t question whether you’re dreaming while you’re dreaming. This is real.  I dreamed it was still October because I hate winter.  

 

He suppressed an urge to return to the bedroom and look at his phone to see what month it was.

 

At that moment, the wind caught the chimes hanging outside the back door and banged them against the house.  There was a confused pealing of many small bells.  He ducked involuntarily.  And he was suddenly back in his dream and something was watching him, watching from a dark place.

 

He spun round to face the empty kitchen.  The open basement door yawned at him.  And he knew, then, that the noise that had awakened him, the not-too-loud but loud-enough noise had been the sound of a door closing.  The basement door.  Something was down there.  The hair on the back of his neck rose.

 

He dismissed the thought almost as soon as it occurred.  That was silly, impossible.  The outside door was still shut and locked.  No one had gotten in.  The only creature in the house besides himself and Cherie was the cat.  Which he still hadn’t located.  The cat wasn’t especially clever: it could push a door open if it wasn’t latched.  But for the life of it, despite hours of patient coaching from Cherie, it was unable to understand that if you were on the wrong side of a door that wasn’t sufficiently far open to get through, you had to hook a paw around the edge of the door and pull on it.  Not push on it.  It would rear up, put its paws on the door, and shut the door.  And then meow for someone to come and open it.

 

And that was why it had to have been the cat that…

 

He stopped.  But the door had been open when he came into the kitchen.  He remembered shutting it, because… because he remembered he had shut it before he went to bed, and was irritated to find it open again, and then…

 

He closed his eyes, genuinely confused.  A small, cold finger of doubt touched the back of his neck.  Had the door been open or shut when came in?  Had he only dreamed he shut it?  Or opened it?  It was definitely open now, he saw, and he was not dreaming.  That much was certain.  He resisted the urge to pinch himself; he already felt foolish enough.  You get up in the middle of the night to investigate a noise, still hungover with a dream, and you’re going to be a little groggy until the fog lifts, he thought.  He was okay now.  To prove it to himself, he was going to go down in the basement, see for himself that nothing was amiss.  Then he was going to find the damn cat and shut it in the utility room with its food dish and litter box, and go back to bed.

 

He hung irresolute at the basement door.  He could go down there at any hour of the day or night without a qualm.  Of course he could.  Because he’d done it, uncounted times.

 

Unless he had slept and dreamed and then awakened in the night.  Because he’d done that too, to use the toilet, or because he was hungry.  Then it was different.  Then it wasn’t just an ordinary basement. During his sleep, the innocuous suburban tract house basement was quietly exchanged, every night, for the basement of his parents’ house, the basement of his childhood.  Then the vivid memories came flooding back and he was nine years old again and back in that basement where things, who could tell what sort of things, were always behind him no matter how fast he turned.  

 

But that was kid stuff, wasn’t it.  He wasn’t ever really bothered by it, not really, because he’d still sit down at the kitchen table to have his midnight bowl of cereal.  He wouldn’t sit with his back to the basement door, though.  Oh, no.  He always sat so that he faced it.

 

He glanced down the stairs.  The light at the bottom wavered before his eyes.  For no particular reason, he pictured the stern light of an ocean liner just slipping beneath the waves and plunging slowly, dreamily, deeper into crystal night waters.  Below it, dark shapes moved in the depths.  The bones of ships groaned in a slow swell.

 

He wiped a sheen of sweat from his upper lip.  “Christ,” he muttered.  “It’s just the furnace.”  Metal expanding and shuddering in the furnace fire.  Nothing to worry about.  But his nine-year-old self had known it for the furnace grumbling and rolling over in its autumn slumber like the live thing it was.  

 

He gripped the stair railing more firmly.  One foot in front of the other one, that’s the ticket, check out the basement and let’s go back to bed.  His teeth chattered briefly; as he started down, the cold crept up his legs, lapping like water.  The light retreated in front of him.  How many steps?  He thought he’d counted thirteen once, and had wondered what possessed a builder to put in that number of steps.  But it seemed like more now.  He reached the bottom and ducked his head under the low archway.  He put his right hand out, feeling in the semidarkness for the light switch.  Somehow he couldn’t seem to find it.  But it was right there, next to the louvered door that opened into the laundry room.

 

He paused, considering.

 

No.  That wasn’t right.  The door was on his left, and it wasn’t louvered, it was solid and it was the door to the utility room.  Hesitantly, he reached out with his left hand, found the switch on his first try, flipped it.  The room regarded him slyly.  He shook his head to clear it, and the room righted itself in his mind.  In my parent’s basement the door was on the right and louvered, he remembered, but this is my basement.  I’m standing in the rec room.  And if you don’t get a grip on yourself, this is going to start to be frightening.  And, of course, as soon as he thought it, the first tendrils of fear crept like an icy fog into the back of his mind.

 

It was a long, narrow room, taking up the right half of the basement.  It was well-lit; he had seen to that when he remodeled after they moved in.  But tonight it seemed longer, stretching away into dimness at the far end.  He knew better, but it certainly looked like the floor sloped away from his feet.  Cautiously, he put a foot out.  Felt level enough.

 

He hadn’t been drinking before he went to bed.  Pretty sure of that, at least, although he was beginning to have some serious doubts about the events of the night.  Maybe he was coming down with something.  Things swayed slowly at the edges of his vision.  He turned his head quickly to catch them.  Cheerful yellow-painted wall, cheap panel wainscoting.  No movement there.  “Stop it,” he said out loud.

 

A shell detached itself from the litter somewhere behind him, silently tumbling and clinking toward the end of the room.  Something soft flopped out of its path.  He gritted his teeth, closed his eyes and pressed his fingertips to his temples.  He opened his eyes again.  Carpet, ugly orange shag that he hadn’t had the budget to replace yet.  But it still sloped and, at the end on the left, was the door to the furnace room where shadows danced narrowly on the wall and gas hissed, warming the January night.  “No,” he told himself firmly.  “My study.  That is the door to my study.  The furnace is in here.”  He touched the knob of the utility room door.  God, it was cold down here.  Slow but powerful countercurrents surged around him, tugging one way and then the other.

 

He turned the knob and stepped into the utility room.  The hallucination or dream or whatever it was of a cold northern sea vanished.  Overactive imagination, he muttered.  Still hung over from that dream.  Had he been dreaming of the ocean maybe?  But still the only clear memory was of the eyes.

 

In the dimness in front of him, the sleeping furnace awoke with a whoosh and a clatter.  He bit back a cry.  His heart thudded wildly in his ears.  He leaned against the door frame for a minute, waiting for it to slow down, then laughed shakily.  Gonna give yourself a heart attack.  At least you couldn’t die in a dream, he thought.  Didn’t people say that?  If he was still dreaming, that is.

 

He flicked on a switch and light sifted down from a single naked bulb.  But it wasn’t like other nights.  The corners of the room were darker, the boundaries uncertain.  Look it over and leave, he thought.  He peeked around the furnace, to where the workbench was, and then went to the door of the basement bathroom.  Nothing fancy, just a shower and toilet.  He hesitated, then went in and stripped the shower curtain back.  He glared into the enclosure.  Right.  Nothing in the bathroom.  Same for the laundry area.  He gripped a two-by-four framing the door.  The real basement was here; bare block walls, ugly black iron plumbing pipes with tortured angles, disappearing into the floor.  Dark, inaccessible spaces behind the drywall around the bathroom.  The cat could get back there, he thought.  “Here, kitty,” he said, without much hope.  Nothing.

 

He returned to the door.  Louvres flickered twice against the dark surface of the door, a breath of arctic air through them.  The knob changed in his hand; chrome to brushed goldtone to chrome again.  

 

He closed his eyes.  “I did not see that,” he said.  “Dear God, please don’t let me be losing my mind.  Or am I still dreaming?”  He slapped himself in the face, hard.  It stung.  That was better.

 

But you could dream you slapped yourself, couldn’t you?  Just then, it seemed a very important question.  He tried to think about that, but his head felt heavy and slow.

 

He dared to look down.  The knob had stopped changing.  “Chrome,” he said.  “Hardware store.  Cheap.  They’re all over the house.”  He turned it.

 

The sea had gone, evaporated.  Geologic ages had passed swiftly over his rec room carpet; it was now a dry ocean bed.  The shells that he had imagined tumbling down the sloping floor were gone, too, a million years gone, their shapes stolen by mineral salts and imprisoned on the floor.  Blowing sand revealed and then covered them again.  Watch it, they can still cut your feet. The hair on the back of his neck waved in a thin desert wind.

 

“Stop it, stop it, stop it!” he cried.  “This is my basement.  I am awake!”  He started toward the study, careful not to lose his balance on the tricky slope. 

 

He ran the last few steps to the study door and spun round, panting.  The stairs were something seen through the wrong end of a telescope.  They no longer touched the floor.  As he watched, they were being pulled up out of the basement.  “Yes, they do.  They do too touch the floor,” he whimpered.

 

He clung to the knob, afraid to go in and afraid not to.  Under the door came the wind that chilled him so.  Behind the door was the soft tick of the clock above his desk.  And the soft hiss of gas into the old-fashioned furnace in his father’s house.  There were, somehow, he knew, two rooms waiting for him, one solid and safe, one flickering whitely anywhere he wasn’t looking directly, dissolving the bookcases and desk and diplomas on the wall like acid etching a plate and replacing all those familiar things with other familiar but impossible things from his past.  He would see hanging on the wall garden hoses coiled tight as pupae waiting for the spring.  Outgrown snow boots waiting patiently for children that had long since grown up and gone away.  “Mine, they were mine.  I remember them,” he murmured.  The room would smell of bayberry candles wrapped in yellowing newsprint.  And old coffee that had brewed its way permanently into an urn.  Holidays waited there, each in its own box; Easter’s dusty egg tree that was an old, found tree branch, with eggs wrapped carefully and separately placed in padding.  A crude wooden nativity scene made by childish hands, his hands, tucked lovingly by his mother into a plaid blanket he felt it didn’t deserve.  Holidays waiting to unfurl themselves like leaves for a single day, and like leaves wither and fall, to be put away for another year. 

 

Then with a hiss and gurgle of startled water a water heater came on and shadows landed splay-legged on the floor like cats and leapt from spot to spot as air currents fed and beckoned the flames.

 

Somehow, he didn’t know how, he was inside the study, and here was the heart of the dream or hallucination or whatever was happening to him and his fingers found the switch and there was white light as pitiless as a morgue’s and the dull buzz of the ballast in the fixture sat on his head like a heavy bird.  The study was empty.  There was no hiss of gas.  It was a place of square corners and level floors where the quiet was measured by the ticking of the clock that said: here is a piece of the quiet, and here another, here between my limping leap from moment to moment and there is not another sound.  

 

Except it was still cold, intensely cold and he shivered violently.  Windows high up on the wall were closed, but winter is kept at bay by light, not glass, and pours in apace when the light is gone.  Winter hid in the corners of the room and made feints at his ankles, waiting for him to leave.  He drew the curtain against the night and the temperature immediately went up ten degrees.

 

He let his breath out in a whispery sigh.  He couldn’t see his breath.  Of course he couldn’t.

 

“I dreamed it all.  There was no noise.  I dreamed that.  I am not losing my mind.  There was some kind of dream within a dream, that’s all.  I see what this is now: it’s one of those lucid dreams you read about, where you realize you’re dreaming and can steer the dream in any direction you want.  You can wake up any time you want to.  I’m still asleep, but I can wake up if I want to.  I want to now.”

 

He closed his eyes, swaying slightly.  Then he opened them again.  He was surprised, but only a little bit, to find himself still in his study.  “I’ve been sleepwalking.  Haven’t done that since I was a kid.  Lucky I didn’t break my neck on the stairs.”

 

The room, solidly prosaic, awaited his next move.  It was just a study.  His study, in his basement.  He checked the closet, too, mostly out of bravado.  There was a grey blur from the back of the closet and something streaked between his legs.  He screamed.

 

The cat, night in its eyes, doesn’t know him and crouches side by side with winter in the corner, snarling.  Cold and silence have displaced him in the cat’s memory.  Come back in the morning, the sane morning, I don’t know you now, it seemed to say.  A spool slowly spun to a stop at his feet.

 

“Goddamn cat,” he said, repressing an urge to kick it across the room.  Instead he kicked the spool, which struck the baseboard next to the cat with a hollow thwack.  The cat leaped for the open door and disappeared.

 

So the noise had been the cat playing, after all.  It must have been a mighty hit that had awakened him, from away down here.  Or half-awakened him, so he began sleepwalking.  He rubbed his hand over his face, tiredly.  Or something.

 

Relieved and angry at the same time, he closed the door to the study and walked toward the stairs.  The rec room was level once again.  The stairs were firmly grounded, leading sanely to the kitchen.  He counted them on the way up, and got the right answer.

 

The kitchen was still, the refrigerator humming quietly to itself, maintaining a winter of its own within.  At some point, according to its own idea of the proper temperature, it would shut off.  Simple.  Happens a hundred times a night.  Nothing to worry about. 

 

He decided not to look out the back door.

 

I’ll tell Cherie about it, if she’s awake, he thought.  She’ll laugh at me and I’ll laugh and everything will be alright and we’ll both go back to sleep.

 

He tiptoed to the bedroom, the deep pile of the hall carpet absorbing his weight.  He dropped his robe, shivered elaborately, and sat down on the edge of the bed.  His wife stirred again in her slumber as he drew back the covers and slipped between them.  He sighed, and rolled onto his stomach.  Then he sat up.  Something wasn’t right.  He looked around the room.  He frowned.  The closet, so cold, and the folding doors were wide open.  Yet only one of the doors had been open when he woke up, he was sure of it.  And he was almost sure he had closed it before he left the room.  Gooseflesh rose on his arms.

 

He put his arm over the warm softness of his wife, disturbed.  Had she opened the doors?  “Cherie?” he said softly.

 

But the curves and softness were not there.  Cold, not warmth, flowed from her and spilled across the bed.  The bed dipped under a greater weight than hers, and it was too long, Christ, much too long a shape to be his wife.

The figure under the covers rolled abruptly to face him, the rolling curve of the blanket a wave from which he shrank.  The eyes, the eyes from his dream, opened in the lightless void that was the shape, eyes the wavering green of foxfire and rotting vegetation.  He shut his eyes tightly.  “Wake up, wake up, wake up.”  He slapped his face.  “You can wake up any time you want to.  Wake up!”

 

****

In the study, the cat cocked its head at the sound of the soft but heavy tread of someone or something walking across the living room toward the kitchen.  It laid back its ears and hissed softly.


© Copyright 2018 Norman Donald Bloom. All rights reserved.

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