I've never liked crowds
Until a little while ago, you’d never have spotted me in a crowd. Sure I might have been there, but you wouldn’t have seen me. And even if you had, I would never have stayed for long. I’m not the kind of person who draws attention to themselves. But then again, there was no reason why you’d really have looked.
I’m not a big guy, but I’m not small either. Five foot seven is a respectable height; and I try to take care of myself, but I’d never have been a gym freak. I’d never have described myself as bright, but I got through high school with just enough effort to get the college of my choice. I try not to talk, as I prefer to listen. I find it’s more comfortable that way.
And I’ve never liked crowds. Something about them always bothered me, even as a child. Crowds meant loud noises and strangers. Crowds meant having to share my toys and having to “watch my temper”. And worst of all, they meant that inside, it felt like being stuck on tidal wave, or in the belly of some creature; a thick, swarming, amorphous mass with one, giant hive mind that could turn on anyone and anything at the slightest provocation. I’d seen people I loved and respect turned into slavering, roaring animals by the mob and I was determined to never let it take me too. So I stayed away. Partly because of disdain, but mostly because I was afraid.
I’d lived my whole life like that, watching from outside that bubble and to be honest, I was pretty happy on the periphery. I’d never regretted my decision. Until a few months ago.
Around late October last year, I finally got home for my first break since the school year had begun. My college was several hours from where I lived, so I stayed on campus full-time except for holidays longer than a week. It was my first time living away from my parents and with the small number of lectures I had every week, I spent a lot of time thinking of home in those first couple of months. So, naturally, once I got home I didn’t really want to move too far from my bedroom. I had plenty of time to meet my friends the following week if they were free. I just wanted a few days to settle back in again after my stretch away. It suited my parents alright. They both worked as accountants for the same company, so they had to tally the numbers on the last day of every month to make sure the figures matched company records, meaning they’d have to stay late to double check everything. It just so happened that the 31st landed on a Friday that year, so I would have my time alone and they wouldn’t be under pressure to finish early and get home. We all thought it was the perfect arrangement.
We live a bit out the way you see. Not in the middle of nowhere, but still several miles from our next neighbour or the nearest village, and even that place wasn’t big enough to deserve a dot on a map. My parents were always worried we’d be targets for burglars because we were isolated. It hadn’t happened before, but it had to other people we knew and that scared them. But with me at home, the house wouldn’t be empty. I’d act as a deterrent and, if worst came to worst; I’d at least be there to call the police. That Friday went pretty much as I had planned it. I got all caught up on everything I’d missed on T.V. since I left. I got reacquainted with my PC and all the games I’d bought but never got to run on it. And after weeks of shitty college food, I finally got the home cooked meal I’d been waiting for. It wasn’t until around six when it got dark that things began to go off script.
I was huddled up in my room on my PC, only sort of paying attention to the movie that was playing in front of me. In honour of Halloween, I was watching the remake of The Amityville Horror, and as someone who enjoys a good scare, I can tell you it wasn’t very good. It never really had any bite; not until during a scene when a blackout in the cursed house was happening, when my screen suddenly went dark and all the lights in my house burnt out. Oh, that scared me alright. I pulled out my phone, the only thing I had on me for light. I made a quick call to my friend out in the village to see if the power was out there too. Around holiday times, blackouts weren’t too rare. He said that they still had light, so it must have just been my street. I tried the circuit breakers in the kitchen as well. Nothing had tripped. I was dark and it was going to stay that way. I was tempted to leave and risk the walk in the dark for the few miles to the village, but the only exit from the garden was through the electric gates. Those things were wrought iron and when the power had gone before, it had taken both my dad and I to move even one. I was pretty much stuck.
Unsure of myself, I called my dad. He said it would still be a few hours before he could get home, so just to take some candles from the junk cabinet in the kitchen and put them up around the house. I did as he asked, making sure that you could see right down the house through the long corridor that cut the place in half. They fended off the worst of the dark, but they were small and had the unfortunate effect of making all the shadows at the edges of the room even heavier. It didn’t help that every time I walked past, the gust I made caused the shadows to lunge forward for just a second before retreating back to the corners. With the combination of the coincidental blackout, flickering shadows and the thought of how many horror movies end like this, running through my head, it would be an understatement to say I was uneasy. And worse still, I had nothing to take my mind off it. The candles didn’t give off nearly enough light to read by and everything but my phone needed power to work. With my phone down to less than ten percent battery, I was much more inclined to save what little energy it had left for an emergency rather than waste it. In the end, my best choice was to go to bed and hopefully get woken up by the power returning.
I climbed in, still clothed, and just dozed for a while. It was still too early to be tired, but I didn’t wanna sit there in the dark for another three hours until my parents got home or however long it took for the power to return. From my bed, I could still see straight down the hall to where the candles were still glowing from all the other rooms. I could keep an eye on them and make sure none of them burned over or caught anything alight. At that point there was nothing left to do but just wait. That’s when the light in the kitchen went out. I was startled alright, but I just shrugged it off. A draught could have put out that candle easily. It wasn’t anything to worry about. But then the light in the living room was snuffed too, no less than a minute later. Literally one room up from the kitchen, all the lights suddenly vanished. There was no way it was a draught now. The living room was big. It took at least four candles to get the place lit up at least half way decently. There wasn’t a chance in a hell that all of them were blown out simultaneously by one gust. Something was killing the light.
I started to think real hard, hoping in a weird way that it was an especially talented burglar. At least they’d take my stuff and leave. But as the next set of candles went out without noise or movement, I was really started to doubt that possibility. My rational mind was repeating constantly that the candles had probably burned down to nothing, but years of childish terror and over active imagine was screaming every horror in existence through my head. It felt like something was grabbing my chest from the inside, cold fingers squeezing my lungs and heart as my breath came in only quick, wispy snatches. The next set of lights was gone now and there weren't many candles left between myself and the dark. I wanted to make a move, but I was petrified into place. Somehow, I felt like moving would speed up that process of the killing of the light, yet by not moving, all I was doing was delaying the inevitable. Both bathrooms lights were gone now and there was only one candles worth of illumination between me and total blackness. For a brief second, I entertained the notion of maybe smashing a window, jumping through and trying to climb the gates outside, even if I risked impaling myself on the wrought iron spikes. But none of this happened. Within a few short seconds, the final candle was extinguished was I left in complete and total smothering darkness.
For whatever, I’d said before, I would have traded any crowd, any packed, noisy building or any wild, uncontrollable mob for the isolated helplessness and near perfect silence I experienced in that moment. I say near perfect silence, because after only a small pause, a gentle padding began along the corridor. The soft, encroaching steps of something taking its leisurely time coming towards me. It was a softened phut, followed by a gentle succession of taps so fast, they almost sounded like one noise. The only think I could say it sounded like was the noise a cat makes when it walks on wood, claws out. But slowed down so that each step was two successive sounds each. I couldn’t tell you how long I sat like a statue as that noise crept closer, but by the time it reached my doorway, every muscle I had from the waist up was burning under the strain of total lack of motion. In some feeble attempt at giving myself a chance, I managed to get my hand around the pocket knife I kept on my locker and eased out the blade. Deep down, I knew that I was probably better off using that knife on myself before “whatever was making that noise” got close. I’m ashamed to say, but the plan to cut my throat before it got near had come to mind several times.
But it seemed somebody out there was looking out for me.
Just as I heard the first step enter my room, the headlights of my dad’s car came through the gates and my window. I’ll never be sure what I saw for that one second, but I’ll never forget it either. And then it was gone. The power came back in one fell swing just as my dad put his key in the door. Naturally, he gave me a funny look when he found his nearly adult son in a cold sweat in bed, clutching a pocket knife with white knuckles, but after seeing the movie that had now resumed on my PC, he just make a joke about me being a sissy before going to the kitchen for his dinner. I let him believe his theory and when mom came in and he told her, we laughed about it and I almost started believing him too. But when I collected those candles that night, they’d barely even been singed and were covered in shallow cuts that hadn’t been there before. No, what I’d seen was real. I was sure of that. Or at least, that’s what I choose to believe.
I went back to college early after that, leaving before the break was finished with the weak excuse that I had a lot of assignments due next semester. I bunked with the foreign exchange students until school officially reopened. I haven’t been home since that night and I have no intentions of doing so anytime soon. I’m planning to move out as soon as I possibly can and not visit home again if I can manage it, and only during the day if I absolutely must. I never sleep alone anymore. I traded my single room in college for a two-man with some Korean guy. It’s alright I guess.
And I still don’t like crowds. Nothing about them has changed. I still hate every element of unpredictability, danger and the lack of control you have. They still disgust me. And they still frighten me. But I’m always in them now. My friends think it’s some kind of miracle; to do a complete 180 degrees turnaround from introvert to extrovert in only a few months. We still joke about it, my going from the downer to the life of the party at every opportunity. Yet I hate every second of it. Doing all this stuff, it terrifies me. Being in the centre, bent to please everyone around me, with so many eyes watching, it makes me so scared that I feel physically ill.
But I swallow my fear. No matter how much I hate it, how much it makes me sick or how much it terrifies me, I take all of it.
Because all of that, is nothing compared to the terror I felt that night.