“What are you afraid will happen,” she asked, “If you stay in the dark, alone?”
“I don’t know,” Elaine answered. She found her eyes compulsively clinging to the clock on the wall of the office. The day was slipping away.
“What do you think about in darkness?”
“I think about the light,” she replied. “I don’t allow myself to think, really. I just try and find light as quickly as possible.”
“Have you ever just sat still in the dark and let yourself think about why you are afraid?”
“I can’t, I just panic.”
“Maybe you should try it.”
Heidi, Elaine’s therapist and med provider, had suggested immersion before. She seemed unsatisfied when her patient merely looked away, an ephemeral cringe passing over her lips and nose.
Elaine’s world was ensconced in electricity. Sometimes she thought she could hear it, the jittery hum of power flooding her home. She thought of herself as an electric being. When she touched metal she felt a zap when others seemed unaffected. Her hair was often floating with static and crackling when she brushed it.
The notice had been posted on her front door. Her payments on her electric bill were always behind. She used up all of her extensions and now she was scheduled to be cut off. The minimum payment required to stop the disconnection was far more than she had in her account. This had happened before, several months ago, and she was able to get help from HEAP to pay her bill. They would not help her again this year. Soon she would have no source of light aside from candles and flashlights. She didn’t know the exact hour of day, but impenetrable darkness was approaching.
“I want you to try and stay in darkness for as long as you can. Use your thoughts to calm yourself and walk your way through the fear.”
Elaine had once attempted to befriend darkness. At seven years old, it came from a place of self-awareness. She couldn’t say what it was about the dark that frightened her so much, so she invented instead a species of people who dwelled within it. The shadow people were fleshy, long-limbed stick figures made of darkness as though it was solid matter. They were friendly but shy and were burned by light. Elaine would call out to a room to warn the shadows to slip under the bed and into closets before flipping on a switch.
She granted them with personalities and a pleasant, simple culture and lifestyle. They had children who played on the floor of her room and she tried to join them but the darkness pressed down upon her and she would have to give them time to scurry away as she inevitably darted for the light. It was all an attempt to hack and override her fears, but it didn’t really ever work. What she saw lurking in the darkness and what she pretended to see were entirely different things. Eventually the shadow people outlived their usefulness. She had to rid herself of them when they slowly became as fearful and anxious of the other things in their world as she was.
“I am a vulnerable adult,” she spoke to a receptionist at United Way, “And my electricity is about to be turned off.”
She pinned the phone between ear and shoulder and pushed her hands through fly-away hair.
“Yes, I have mental illness. I only work part-time.”
She picked up the bill from the table.
“$235. I must pay $117 or they will shut it off.”
The same suggestions; avenues she had already explored. They promised to call her back tomorrow.
“Please, I,” her throat began to swell shut and a stiff ache spread through her jaw and down her neck. “I can’t be in the dark.”
Her parents had tried to make her sleep with nothing but a small nightlight as a child. The faint attempt by the tiny bulb jutting out from the wall was almost worse than pitch blackness. It illuminated objects around the room and cast giant shadows of them on the wall and ceiling. The post of her bed looked like the broad shoulders and long pin-head of a strange looming man.
Her night terrors brought her mother in to calm her. Elaine had no memory of them except waking up to find that her pillow was soaked with blood from her nose and her mother’s upper body was pressed down upon her, keeping her hands from flailing and scratching out at anything in reach.
The electricity was shut off in early evening. The refrigerator clicked and its animalistic hum gurgled and died away. She took the few perishable items from the fridge and put them outside on the fire escape to be chilled in the winter air. She opened the curtains wide to let the fading daylight into her small studio apartment. Blocks of light fell onto the mattress on the floor that was her bed. She sat inside of the grid and kept her flashlight beside her. Heidi had given her samples of a sleeping pill that she planned to take as soon as night approached. She hoped to spend those hours unconscious.
Waking up in the night was a force of habit. When she was a little girl and her room grew suffocating and her muscles pained from stiffness, she would get up and wander the house. Flipping switches as she walked and spreading light like water through a ship with a damaged hull. One night, she padded into her parents’ bedroom and watched them sleeping. She came closer to her father and found him with his face buried in his pillow. In the gloom, it looked to her as if his face had been hollowed out from a concave skull and the back of his hair.
That thing was born instantly. Somewhere in the quiet hours lived a man who stood in corners and doorways. He wore a bespoke suit and tie and his hair was neatly combed and slicked back but his face was scooped out, leaving an empty shell that stared back like a single giant eye. The shadow people knew he was there. He was a denizen of their sphere, and yet they were deeply afraid of him. Even in the stories she invented herself, she couldn’t control the character of darkness.
Elaine took her pill and waited as long as she dared before flicking on her flashlight. It wasn’t enough to illuminate the room, let alone flood through the doorway into her kitchen. Streetlights in the parking lot below threw hazy beams through the window. She pulled her blanket over her head and cocooned herself with the weak glow of the flashlight.
In her sleep she could see the lot stretched out two stories beneath her apartment. A figure stood under a streetlight, looking at her window. He was dressed in a gray turtle-neck and slacks, with very short-cropped hair. His presence seemed to bring with it a single chord of humming music. When his head tilted upward his massive eyes picked up the light very strangely.
Elaine stirred and her eyes batted in fits of groggy consciousness. Her eyelashes brushed against the fabric of her blanket. Again she sank.
The figure stepped into the kitchen doorway, his profile glowing as he gazed out the window at where he stood before. He turned slowly with inhuman stiffness of posture to face where Elaine lay on the mattress. His skin was truly ashen gray. The hue of his lips melded with the tone. His eyes were large and round, and they were beveled like jewel-cut glass. He didn’t blink.
The border-sleep dream pulled her up again. She peeked over her blanket and ran her eyes over the doorway. Meager streetlight picked up the outline of her stove. Her craning neck ached and she dropped her head on the pillow.
Now he had moved forward, past the entrance to the kitchen to where he stood at the foot of her bed. He dropped down suddenly to the floor and crawled beside the mattress on knees and elbows with strange, darting deftness. Elaine felt her head move in her sleep so that she looked into his carved, glimmering eyes.
I’m only the messenger, he whispered.
“Only the messenger, only the messenger,” her own hoarse voice repeated, waking her.
Elaine sat up suddenly, pulse throbbing painfully in the flesh of her esophagus. She grabbed the flashlight and shone it around the room. Her body threatened her with jerking spasms when she climbed up from her mattress and pulled on her pants. The insides of her ears burned as she quickly grabbed her coat and ran for the apartment door.
Outside the cold wet air of the Finger Lakes tingled against her face. She pulled up her hood and walked amid the streetlights until her back ached and dawn hovered between the buildings. Then she returned to her home and slept in the comfort of natural light.
She awoke again to her land-line ringing. It was United Way, telling her that they had no official resources for her. Maybe try churches?
“I don’t have a church,” she said. She had called churches in the area before. It was a dead-end.
“I have a difficult time… being alone in the dark.”
They suggested checking in somewhere. Last time she did that, they wouldn’t release her again for nine days. The memory made her feel nauseated; the persistent boredom, the inability to sleep without being awakened every hour by room checks, the embarrassment of insisting to her roommate that if she had to leave in the night to use the bathroom, please turn on the light. In any case, lack of work-days meant less pay which meant she couldn’t pay that electric bill when she got out.
When night fell she took her pill again and clutched the flashlight to her body until she drifted off.
The man with the beveled eyes crouched in the doorway on his toes. His gray fingers curled against the tile of the kitchen floor. He cocked his head and stared upward as if listening.
“Only the messenger,” Elaine whispered as her eyes fluttered open.
She gasped and shuddered when she realized the flashlight was growing dim. The batteries were dying. A sharp inhale, and then she steadied herself for a few moments before scrambling out of bed and pulling the clock off of the wall. With fumbling hands, she removed the batteries and shoved them into her flashlight before shooting its newly brightened gaze around the room. As she relaxed with relief, she felt her fatigue overtake her limbs and neck and eyelids. She returned to her bed and cuddled up with the flashlight.
Fragments of sleep fought a battle against hyper-vigilance. Something settled in the dark and she felt as if her body landed on the mattress. A stuttering hiss emanated from the powerless refrigerator. Her muscles twitched under her skin like a layer of flesh with a life of its own. The blanket felt heavy on her shoulders and her breath hot between her face and the pillow. She looked out at the clock on the wall and its unmoving hands. How long until daylight, she couldn’t say. Against her better judgment, she scanned the room for her nightmare. The messenger, for what? Shadows seemed to cluster and swirl in masses at the corners of the room. The sky outside was still black, the clock, useless.
Her mother had once told her “hell is a room with one clock and no hands.” Eternity symbolized. She thought that it really must be something like that. Simply knowing that you are there, and remembering every legend and story ever told, waiting forever to see which one will be true. Stories told amidst carved images of hanging bodies upon ornate crucifixes. From burning horrible smells to cold darkness filled with creeping slithering noises, teeth gnashing somewhere in the distance, or possibly closer. Lonely, muffled weeping.
Elaine pressed the flashlight against her chest and squeezed her eyes shut. The room seemed to come alive with ticks and murmurs outside of her glowing cocoon. The batteries were strong for now, but soon they would die. Soon she would have to put it aside, bug-like bulb turning brown and fizzling out, leaving her to greet old friends.