Fear of the Dark
I never sleep for a full eight hours. I can't even remember when I had four hours. My friends and family are no help they just told me to "man up." I can't tell people what my real problem is, so I just tell them that I'm afraid of the dark. I mean, that is true -- or at least mostly true. I'm not afraid of the dark exactly, but rather I'm afraid of what is in the dark. Or, what comes out in the dark. It's about 2am, so I've got a good four hours before the sun comes up. I won't be able to get to sleep tonight. I think I'll die if I try to sleep. I blew out my candle and the second I did they showed up, and I nearly had a heart attack. My heart beat like a grind-core drum blast, like a piston pumping at full speed on a race car. It wasn't in my chest either it had risen all the way up to my throat. I could feel those icy tingles running up my spine and all around my scalp. It wasn't always like this. They used to scare me, but not like this. They've gotten violent. I know they want something from me, and they won't stop until I'm dead or I give it to them. I don't think they'll leave me alone even if I die. That worries me more than anything. I'm terrified at the thought that I can't escape them. They've been with me so long that I worry that they'd follow me to hell if I killed myself.
When I was kid I saw these things flash in my peripheral vision. I'd pass a dark room and one of these things would be standing there. A specter sitting on the toilet with its face half obscured by dark hair. Or a mangled white face in the mirror, or a shadow outline -- a dark reflection of myself. Sights like that would startle me. I mean, I was a kid. What kid wouldn't be scared of something like that? We lived on the edge of a forest on the outskirts of a small town in Western Washington. I think that's where they first latched on to me. It was all cloudy days and pine trees. Frogs croaking out by the pond. Coyotes would prowl around scavenging for carrion on occasion. Owls posting on branches like sentries. Typical forest environment.
I'd do this trick where I would turn on all the lights that led to my bedroom and then go back turn them off one by one. That way I'd be in the the light the whole time until I turned off the final light. They are nothing if they aren't patient. One would always wait for that final light. I'd shut the door as fast as I could, but I'd still catch a glimpse and that would plant the seed of fear. Once that kernel of terror hits pay dirt, dreams would turn to nightmares.
I did what I could to pass it off as nothing. I'd say it was just a physical manifestation of fear. I was just making myself hallucinate. A part of my subconscious was afraid and played tricks on my conscious mind. That made sense to me, but I didn't know how this stuff worked. I read some books on ghosts and demons and stuff, but the people that write that stuff seemed half retarded to me. A bunch of fucking quacks. So I figured it was all in my head. I just needed to man up.
A few years back I had this routine where I pushed myself to the threshold. I lived near this canyon that was moonlit on most nights and full of all kinds of animals that survived in the chaparral: snakes, coyotes, wild hares, and who knows what else. I would go out late at night with a flashlight and walk into the the canyon. I'd just walk and listen. I could hear the rocks and crusted dirt shifting under my boots with each step and bushes rustling in the wind. When I felt brave enough I'd cut the light. At first it was pitch black, and my heart would pound so hard I could feel my pulse behind my eyes and in my ears. Blue light would replace the blackness and my blood pressure would drop to a tolerable level. It would spike with each wild sound, but they weren't out there with me. Those things that follow me around and wait for the dark weren't there. What's a snake got on those things? I felt powerful in those moments when I was in control.
They were gone after that. I slept well during my college years. It was like my body was trying to make up for lost time. Every now and then I would have a nightmare, but it was nothing like before. I'd wake up and play a video game or watch a movie and I'd be fine. Women were a big help too. It was hard to be afraid when I had a woman under the covers with me. In my childish mind that was two fail safes: covers and another person. When I was a kid, all I had to do to ward away evil was pull the covers up over my head and never peak out.
The new economy was hard on fresh graduates, so for the first few years after college I was staying with my parents. I found some shit work for a while, but it wasn't enough to earn a living wage. Working customer service just doesn't pay the bills in California; unless you want to live with six people. I'm not that kind of guy. I've never been keen on other people's baggage, nor would anyone be keen on mine. So, anyways I found a job that paid better and bid farewell to the folks' place. I was in my own apartment and life was finally on track. I was where I was supposed to be. I got a decent job in April and the whole spring and summer passed by. All was well. The fall gave way to winter.
A cold snap hit my part of the East Bay Area. Temperatures got down to freezing at night, so I broke out the blankets. I laid down on my bed and blew out my candle. I had just nodded off when I snapped back to consciousness.
Something was in the room with me.
A grabbed the aluminum bat that I keep by my bed and I listened.
No sound. Just my breathing.
The veins in my face bulged as my blood pressure rose. A familiar feeling. The skin on my scalp grew taut and tingled.
I grabbed the lighter off my nightstand and ran my thumb over the wheel. A spark lit the small room for a split second. I tried again and a weak flame sent soft light though the room. I caught a glimpse of something in the doorway of my closet. I dropped the lighter in a panic. I gasped and retreated under the covers like a damned child. It was nothing, I told myself. Grow up. Be a man. Just go back to sleep. I tried to sleep, but it still felt like something was in the room with me. I couldn't shake that feeling, but I got up enough courage to get out from under the covers and turn on the light.
Nothing was in the room.
I was alone and I was acting like a damned fool child.
I felt relieved, but each time I closed my eyes I saw horrible things. Twisted, contorted faces and ghastly bodies. Rotted children staring at me with rheumy eyes and teeth like razor-sharp spikes. Anorexic harpies with half the skin on their face burned into the texture of an overcooked hot dog. Why couldn't I just have normal nightmares? You know, like falling off a bridge or getting arrested for murder. Maybe my folks got killed or my girlfriend got pregnant. You know, normal fucking nightmares. I always saw this horrible shit that I couldn't shake. I never went to war or watched horror movies or those awful snuff films that you can find in the dark sections of the internet. I never watched any of that shit. It didn't matter. I always saw horrible stuff whenever I closed my eyes. To combat the terror, I stayed up watching shitty comedies on a streaming website. Anything to stay awake.
The next day was like walking up a steep hill lugging a 180-pound pack through cold molasses. I was obliterated. Dead. Useless. My supervisor noticed too. He pulled me aside and asked me what was going on. I told him that I hadn't been sleeping well because I had insomnia. I was lying, but it was one of those lies where you tell the truth too. Lies are best hidden in a buffer of truth. He told me the company insurance covered ten free visits to a psychiatrist. Not fucking psychologists either: these folks were the real deal. They could give you drugs. I knew one thing about drugs: they gave me a dreamless sleep.
The first visit I had with this psychiatrist she was all, "How does that make you feel?" and on and on. I played along because I figured if I was affable I'd get the drugs. I told her that not being able to sleep made me feel like I had no control over my life and so on. She asked me if I felt depressed. I said no. She didn't come right out and ask me, but she asked me all these questions that were clearly part of a checklist to see if I had depression, schizophrenia or whatever.
Do I feel tired? Yes.
Do I feel like nothing I do matters and that no one cares about me? No.
Is it hard to get things done? Yes, but only because I'm tired from not sleeping.
Do you like fire? Yes. Does it arouse you? No.
Do you get angry? Yes.
Have you ever thought about killing someone? Not seriously, no.
Are you the smartest person you know? No.
Et cetera. So, she gives me a generic version of Ambien and I went home on cloud nine. I was home by seven and I popped that sucker in and skipped dinner. I watched a movie on my computer until I got tunnel vision. I saw blurred light for a few more seconds and then I was out.
A fact I learned about Ambien that day was that it only lasts for five hours. Instead of twelve hours of blissful, regenerative sleep I woke up at midnight in my cold dark room. My computer had gone to sleep and I was awake. I felt a chill run through me, but it was cold so I figured that's all it was. I wrapped the blanket around me and I lit my candle. It was one of those thick, scented candles that smell like a season or grapes or gingerbread. I pushed the power button on my laptop. The internal fan whirred and the screen came on. The word processing program was open, but it had been minimized. I didn't recall writing or reading anything before I went to sleep. I watched some foreign drama that hastened the effects of the drug. That tingling sensation gripped the back of my neck. I put the pointer of the mouse over the icon and saw that seven different documents were open. I clicked on the first icon and a window popped up.
A single black line in a sea of white read: You'll die in this room.
I grabbed my baseball bat and jumped up out of bed. There's no way I accidentally typed a full sentence with a damned apostrophe in the right spot while I was hopped up on sedatives. I flicked on the light and I was alone. The windows were closed. The door was locked. Alone. Just me and the computer. I don't know why I did it, but I decided to check another document. Curiosity killed that dumb cat. A column of text ran down the center of the page.
A life for a life.
A life for a life.
A life for a life.
On and on for 76,000 words. I checked the word count. That's a lot of copy and paste. Who or what could have done that? I was at a loss for ideas, but I had a tech savvy friend. I figured it might have been a joke. Maybe someone hacked me, so I ran a virus check. No root-kits, no viruses, just some tracking cookies. I closed all the documents. The files were all saved to the desktop in a circle. I clicked on the first one and pushed delete. A message popped up.
"The action can't be completed..." the file was still in use. I pushed CTRL+ALT+DEL and opened the task manager. The word processor wasn't even open. I tried again. Same problem. I tried all the files. Same problem again. I tried to move the icons into the recycle bin manually and the same error message came again and again. I looked around the room and I saw nothing. I pulled up my email and I pushed Compose Message. I typed my friend's email address and explained the problem. I clicked on the attach button, the paper clip icon, and I didn't see the files. I typed the file's names into the Search bar. "File cannot be found." When I typed in the seventh files name another message flashed on the screen.
"File cannot be found. You'll die in this room. A life for a life. A life for a life. A life for a life."
The words filled the desktop. I started hyperventilating. The screen of the laptop slammed down on my hands. I tried to get my hands free, but no matter how hard I struggled I couldn't move my hands an inch.
The light was on, but it didn't matter. They were here. They had found me again. This time they weren't shades or my imagination. Three beings stood at the foot of my bed. A burnt woman, a rotting child, and one that looked like a nightmare version of me. The others were as I described before, but this doppelganger was new. Or maybe he was that dark reflection all those years ago, I don't know. He looked like me, but he was twisted. He was... wrong. One of his eyes was lower than the other. A lot lower. His left eye was half again the size of his right. I couldn't stop staring at him. His neck was sunken in and his knees too, but his elbows pointed towards me. All his joints were backwards. For all my life, the light had banished the nightmares and visions. Now I was sitting in my safety net with them. I swallowed hard and opened my mouth.
"What do you want?"
They just stared at me. I would have looked away, but I thought it might have been more terrifying if I couldn't see them. In that moment, I thought it would be better to see my death coming. They said nothing and locked onto me with their death glares. A disgusting series of pops and cracks cut through the dead quiet, as the horrid reflection of me raised its arm. The joints snapped and shifted as it moved and pointed its gnarled finger at me. Its jaw distended and its maw opened. I heard pounding from outside the walls of my room. The whole structure shook. The pounding got louder and harder, like jack hammers were working their way through the sheet rock and wood. Its mismatched eyes opened up wide and the other two opened their mouths in unison and pointed at me. The screen of my laptop flipped back open, freeing my hands. The screen was all white with one thin, black sentence.
A life for a life.
I looked back at the foot of my bed and they were gone.
Needless to say, I did not get back to sleep that night.
I called in sick the next day. I had no idea what to do. I had bruises on my knuckles, so I knew what happened was real. I couldn't pass it off as fear anymore. Those things, whatever they were, were in that room with me and they wanted me dead. I had no idea why. They just couldn't let me be. Those fucking things had haunted me for years and they still wouldn't let me go. I went back to the psychiatrist that day. I called her office and told her it was an emergency. They found an opening and got me in that day. Good on them for that. I decided to just tell her the whole deal, but I left the last night out of it. She wanted to do some "Fear Conquering Exercises". She explained that the exercises were supposed to gradually remove the coping supports that I had created throughout my life. The coping mechanism that I used to deal with my fear of the dark. I explained to her that I had done that before. She was convinced that it would still work. I just needed a refresher, she said. She asked if we could close the blinds and turn off the lights in her office. I said sure. Off went the lights. She asked if I saw or felt anything in the room.
The fan above us was spinning slightly off balance and its cheap chain clinked against glass light.
The Venetian blinds swayed and tapped against the windows.
Nothing out of the ordinary.
I looked around the room.
It was dark, but I could make out her silhouette and her desk and the monitor of the computer.
They weren't there with us, or at least I couldn't see them.
We sat there in the dark and talked for a while. She kept asking those psychoanalysis questions. What was my mom like? Did I play sports as kid? Is my life fulfilling? On and on. Finally, she turned on the lights and said our time was up. We had been in the dark for thirty minutes she said. I was very brave and blah blah blah. I asked her if I should keep taking the sleeping pill. She said she'd switch my medication because sometimes people would do strange things in their sleep when under the influence of the drug. Strange like creating seven different files that couldn't be moved, erased, or found? Strange like telling myself I would die? Strange like finding a way to slam my screen down on both of my own hands? Strange like hallucinating three ghosts or monsters or whatever the fuck? For once, I hoped it was just the drugs, but I knew better. I went home with a new prescription and zero answers. Sure, I could sit in a dark room with a nice, educated lady for a half an hour, but what was going to happen when I was alone. I decided I didn't want to know the answer to that question.
I hadn't been dating anyone in a while, and I had moved away from my friends. I didn't have anyone to go to. When I got home I turned on my computer. I didn't trust my laptop anymore, so I wedged a flathead screwdriver into the hinge. It was as if I was daring the ghosts, or whatever they were, to try and slam the screen on my hands again. I checked the Craigslist Casual Encounters in my area. Sure it was shady and I probably wouldn't find anyone of substance, but I didn't want to take my chances with whatever was waiting for me once the night came. Even if I found some psycho lady, she wasn't going to be as frightening as those three incarnations of evil.
I scrolled through the headlines. Most had been flagged as spam, but a few were still up. A lot claimed to be looking for that elusive BBC or trying to fulfill some fantasy that I couldn't help them out with. One lady was looking for straight-up, NSA, vanilla fucking. I sent out a message with a picture of my face. I waited for a while. I had never been so desperate for a stranger to help me. When a notification popped up on my screen I jumped off my bed. I clicked on the message half expecting another, "You'll die in this room." She asked for my cell number. I sent it to her and a few minutes later a text popped up. We sent some messages back and forth and soon enough I had passed the "Are you a psycho rapist?" test. We agreed to meet up at a coffee shop. We weren't scheduled to meet for two hours, but I went straight there.
Most of the seats were taken, but right after my order came up a man got up and walked out. I swooped down and grabbed his table. I felt lucky in that moment, but the feeling wore off quick. I had brought my laptop with me. I pulled it out of my bag and opened it. It came on fast and the desktop was empty except for the circle of Word documents. I wasn't going crazy. I was haunted. It was certain. I had been hoping that I was just going nuts. That would have been better. Crazy people can take medicine and go to hospitals and whatnot for their problems. Sure, that doesn't always solve them, but what can a haunted person do? Where was my support group? Where was the pill that made these things go away? I heard a man talking on the phone about some technical detail about a Linux distribution he was running on his custom built laptop. This guy was a serious techie, or at least a really good bullshitter. When he got off the phone I leaned over.
"Hey man, you seem like a guy that knows a lot about computers."
"I am. What's the problem?"
"I've got these files on my desktop that I can't get rid of. You see? Right here."
I picked up my laptop and showed it to him. I pointed to the circle of files.
"Those seven files there. I try to delete them, but it says the action can't be completed. Then I try to move them to different folder or attach them to an email. I can't do anything with the files except open and close them."
I looked back at my screen. The seven files were right there in the same circle.
"Those files. Right there on the desktop. Can't you see them?"
"No, your desktop is blank. I don't see anything there. Is this some kind of joke man?"
There was no help for me. But maybe I was crazy. I turned my knuckles towards him.
"Can you see the bruises on my knuckles?"
"Yeah, of course," he said. "What the fuck is going on here?"
Shit. I was half crazy, or completely haunted. The latter seemed the likely answer.
"I'm just messing with you man. Sorry. Bad joke."
He smirked, but it wasn't one of those "Hey, good one, man" sort of smirks. It was one of those, "Please don't stab me in the neck, you fucking maniac," kind of smirks. He left a few minutes later. I think he was planning on staying in that coffee shop for a while, but plans change when a marked man crosses your path. I thought I should get some work done, but I was too afraid to do anything on my laptop. I closed it, disconnected the battery, and I put in back in my bag. Part of me worried that it was sitting inside my bag, still running. I figured a haunted laptop could always run. Just open it up and there were the seven files. Always ready to be opened. Power got disconnected? No problem just click on the icon. Can't sleep? There's a nice long mantra ready for you whenever you'd like. Want to get your fingers smashed? Read the files. Try to delete them. I dare ya. Where was this lady? Non-committal sex wasn't the answer, but it was better than dwelling on the madness.
Twenty minutes after we were scheduled to meet she came in the door. She was heavy set, but she carried it in the all the places that I liked. I had worried that I wouldn't be able to do what she wanted to do, but the second I saw her my little friend started shifting around inside my pants. I could be dead by the end of the evening, but my dick still wanted to party. That was a universal constant.
"So, what do you do for a living?" she asked.
"I do copy editing," and when I said that a woman sitting alone next to me turned and glared at me. I looked over my shoulder, and she busied herself with her purse. She must have been a writer. Who else hates editors that much? That or she didn't like my voice. I brushed it off and looked back over at my date. She was cute: mocha skin, dark curly locks parted to each side, and dark brown bedroom eyes.
"Is it boring? Sorry if that offends you."
"Nah, no offense taken. It pays the bills. I don't mind it, but, yeah, I can see why you'd think it was boring. What about you? What do you do?"
"I'm a student."
"Ah, I see."
"Do you do anything for fun?"
"I write beer reviews and other stuff on my blog."
"Oh, that's a little more interesting. What kind of beer do you like?"
"I'm deep into porters and stouts. I like the dark stuff."
I cracked half a smile. Real charmer, this one. She licked her upper lip and a wide smile crept across her face. Her eyes flared in a way that sent a thrum of passion through my body.
"You want to get out of here?" she asked.
"Really, that quick?"
"You have a problem with that?" she asked and she crossed her arms. The tops of her breasts almost spilled out of her low cut tank top.
"Nope, no problem with that."
I stood up, and thankfully I wasn't fully aroused. As we walked outside, I noticed several sets of eyes on me. Raised eyebrows, tightly drawn lips, and worried expressions dotted the landscape. I just figured they were a bunch of judgmental fucks that didn't want to see two people get their swirl on. Even in the 21st century it was still awkward to have an interracial date. I had too much on my mind to pay it too much thought. No sense in getting all worked up about that. There was sweet work to do.
The sun was long gone and the only illumination about came from street lights and headlights. She had this swaying walk that drew my eyes downward. The gateways to my soul stopped right around those two mounds of flesh where her legs ended. She spun around and caught me peeking. She laid a hand on my chest.
"You can't come to my place," she said. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.
"Uh -- that's OK. We can just go to my place."
Sure, what could go wrong? Maybe I can stare into the eyes of that demon child so I don't cum too quick.
"Do you have a car?" she asked.
"Don't need one. My place is right up the street."
"Great. Lead the way, stud."
I held out my elbow. She wrapped her arm around mine and we walked up the hill to my apartment.
I got inside and she asked if I had any beer. I nodded and got us each a glass.
"Fancy are we?" she said.
"Got to keep up appearances."
I opened the refrigerator, which was empty except for a six pack of smoked porter. I grabbed two and closed the door. I popped the lids and poured the black goodness into the glass and offered one up for her.
"Prost," she said and raised her glass. I laughed and couldn't manage to hold back my amazement.
"Prost," I said back and he clicked glasses.
We each took a drink.
"Good stuff," she said and she asked where the bathroom was. I pointed down the hall. She set down her glass and dragged the tips of her fingers across my thigh when she walked out of the kitchen. Blood ran downstairs and got things moving around in my boxers. I raised my glass to take a drink. The glass vibrated and I could hear a high-pitched hum. I looked down into the glass. The dark liquid was undulating. A bone-white finger emerged from the black beer. At once the hum was unbearably loud. I dropped the glass and put my hands over my ears. The glass shattered and beer spilled all over the floor. No finger in the mess. I opened the cupboard under the sink and got out a hand broom and dustpan. I swept up the glass and was just finishing mopping up the beer with a wad of paper towels when she came back in the kitchen. I didn't look up from the mess.
Just found a finger in beer. No big deal.
"Nothing. I'm just clumsy."
"Party foul. That's a waste of a beer."
"Yeah. I guess I wasn't that thirsty."
I stood up and she was standing there naked. All smooth curves and thick parts. A rational man would have refused on account of all the fucked up things that were happening. Few men, if any, can act rationally when a naked woman is standing in their kitchen.
"Perhaps I can offer you a different kind of treat."
Ghost fingers be damned. I stepped forward and kissed her. We stood there in the kitchen for a while. Kissing, squirming around, and grabbing at each other's best parts. She grabbed my hand and led me towards my bedroom. She laid out on the bed right when she got into my room. I closed and locked the door and flipped on the light.
"Really?" she said.
"Yeah, sorry. I'm a lights on sort of guy."
"OK," she said and she made Come here motion with her index finger. I took off my clothes and slid into bed with her. She got on top and put me inside. Just like that. No condom. I was going to protest, but I figured I'd be dead soon anyways. It was intense. She was contracting those special muscles and it felt unbelievable. I tilted my head back, closed my eyes, and let her work her magic.
After a while I noticed a smell. It wasn't a normal sex smell. It was like spoiled cheese or meat. I opened my eyes and I was alone with my hand on my cock. I sat up and scanned the room. No one was there. What felt like an earthquake rocked the bed. The walls shook with a loud thudding sound. They were here, but I couldn't see them. I jumped out of bed and opened my top drawer. I pulled out my pocket knife. I reached for the door handle and I felt the tiny hairs on my back and arms stand up. I whipped around and there they were. I slashed at the man, the cruel reflection, and the blade cut through the air. Nothing more. He looked at me with a blank expression. I backpedaled and I stepped on my pants. My foot hit a lump on my pants, where my cell phone was, and I slipped onto the hardwood floor. They stayed put and waited. They were all missing their eyelids. Just wide white eyes perpetually staring at me. I reaching into my pants and pulled my phone out. I dialed the psychiatrist. It rang five times.
"Hello?" she answered.
"Yes, this is she. What's going on?"
"I think I'm having a psychotic episode or something. I've been seeing these things. I don't know what they are. Maybe ghosts or demons or something. I don't think they are real. Maybe they are just hallucinations or something. I need your help. I don't know what to do."
"I need you to calm down."
"I can't calm down. They are just staring at me and they won't go away."
"Did they tell you that you'll die in that room?"
The line cut and the high-pitched hum came back. The childlike one smiled big. She had a mouth full of white icicles.
"OK, fine. You win. You all win."
I said and I took the knife and put it to my forearm. They all smiled big when I did that. They slid closer to me. I dropped the knife.
"No, wait. Fuck that. I'm not doing that. Stop."
They stopped moving forward and closed their mouths.
"What do you want?"
They said nothing.
The burnt woman pointed towards my laptop. I walked over to it and when I got near it turned on. The desktop had a message on it. It was a set of instructions.
I opened my blog and I did what they asked.
They left and those files disappeared, and I haven't seen them since.
I'm guessing that you might see them soon. You have no idea how sorry I am about that.