Absence of Light
Sarah awoke to darkness just like every other day. It wasn't a total absence of vision but, rather, a dense perimeter that seemed to follow her, what she still perceived as the normal world just visible beyond its periphery. She often followed the light, trying to reach the outside world she caught glimpses of, grasping for the vague suggestions of movement and life that sometimes grabbed her attention, but it was like trying to catch a lightning bug that always stayed just out of reach.
She felt the ground, the occasional residual memory of dry, fragrant grass and the sun on her face juxtaposing the cold moisture in the air and the damp and squishy texture underfoot, an almost undulating physical sensation not unlike standing on the back of a giant earthworm stretching in all directions. Yet she, herself, was neither wet nor cold but, rather, just there, the world tactile yet seemingly without impact on her own body.
The air, similarly, was simply stale and void of the musty scent her impressions of her surroundings would imply. It was also strangely quiet, even her own footfalls sounding muted and lifeless, natural reverberation seemingly sucked from the space around her. It was always like this; or, at least, it had always been like this until the voices started. At first, they were like vague breaths carried on the wind. Then, as time pushed on...how much time she couldn't tell...they became more organic and formed, like whispers through a blown speaker, unintelligible yet relaying some semblance of sentience, fleeting yet tangible.
Today, however, the voices were absent, not even the tiniest rustling undercurrent reaching her ears as she wondered if she was sleeping or awake, the way she always did upon waking to this bubble of darkness. She sometimes thought of stories she'd seen in the past about areas of Alaska that experienced weeks of perpetual night during the year, wondering if they fell prey to the same tricks her own surroundings played on her now waning mind, if they saw flashes of things across the ground that weren't there, if they experienced auditory hallucinations. She also wondered how long she'd been here. She had vague recollections of her previous life, memories of eating and drinking and the panic when she awoke in this place with no food or water, fearing starvation until she realized she no longer found it necessary to eat or drink. Rather, between that and the lack of physical effect the environment had on her, she felt as if her body was in some sort of stasis. Dreamless sleep and waking hours wandering the void formed the bulk of her experiences now, for however long she'd been here.
Sarah suddenly crumpled to the ground, her rumination cut short as her hands flew to her ears in an attempt to block out the sudden influx of noise vibrating her bones and reducing her thoughts to ashes, a thousand voices flying in at once like the thrum of a gong and, less then a minute later, dispersing as if being sucked backwards away from her. The experience left her lying on the ground gasping and feeling numb, as if she'd just been tied beneath the surface of a bridge that was home to a set of particularly active train tracks. She realized her ears were ringing, and, as the ringing began to subside and once again give way to silence, it was shattered by a guttural noise that fell somewhere between a hiss and a growl, immediately snapping her back to attention.
Her head shot up, trying to pinpoint the source of the noise that, unlike the voices, seemed to have a decided directional quality.
Still on all fours, she spun around the smooth, slick ground, her vision mostly obscured save for the occasional glimpse of whatever world still lay outside, its light not able to penetrate the barrier of whatever darkness encircled her. Then, she saw it, not something she could specifically define, but, rather, a shape that briefly blotted out part of her view, something that seemed close, something that also gave the air of life, something frighteningly organic.
The noise came again.
She darted to her feet just as the shape obscured her peripheral view again, growing in size. She realized with a start that whatever she was seeing wasn't actually increasing in size but, instead, moving closer, its shape still hard to define. She started to back away and slipped on her heel, coming down on the soft, dank ground, expecting it to spring back gently against her. Instead, she felt it come up around her waist, pulling her in. She threw out her arms and legs to try and hold herself up as she felt the ground curl and creep up her back as if she were being sucked into a deflating bounce house. Her hands and feet found purchase, and she managed to thrust her hips upward, throwing herself to the side and coming down on her chest, arms and legs sprawled.
Sarah took a second to catch her breath, her heart and mind racing, trying to take in her surroundings. She started to push up on her arms and back onto her knees slowly, testing the solidity of the ground. She pushed with her right hand and slowly moved one knee, then stopped dead and screamed at the deafening, unnatural roar in her ear, the creature so close that she could feel muggy breath and spittle against her right cheek. The time for prudence long past, she went straight into a run, hearing odd, muffled footfalls behind her. Suddenly, she knew her only chance was to make it to the light, to leave this darkness. Not only that, but she felt, with every ounce of her existence, that she needed to be there, that her purpose was outside, that she couldn't survive in this void one minute longer. As alien as it was, the darkness was somewhere she had made a home, somewhere she felt comfortable, but she now realized it was never her home, at least not the home she wanted, and it was collapsing around her. She had to punch through or be taken down with it.
She darted forward, realizing that her feet were sinking into the ground more and more with each step, slowing her, the force required to push through lulling her almost into complacency as resistance felt more and more hopeless. She was sure the creature, whatever it was, wherever it was, had to be gaining on her. She just couldn't tell how long she had with the strange auditory tricks this place played. Then, as she started to slow, started to allow herself to sink further, she looked up and realized that she was closer to the barrier than she could remember ever being before. What always seemed vague and perpetually distant was now starting to take on definition. It called to her, and she answered with renewed vigor, pulling free and wading through the muck, forgetting whatever was behind her and focusing on what was in front of her.
As she made her way onward, the ground becoming harder and the sunken areas shallower, she found purchase and pulled herself up. She went back into a half run, her energy sapped from the struggle but her determination taking up the slack. The boundary between her world and the outside world was tangible now, the light stopping in a slightly curved line right where one world met the other. Outside, she saw what looked like a park, green trees and grass reflecting bright sunlight, a swing set under one of the trees appearing so vivid that she could almost make out slight bits of rust beneath its cracked, peeling blue paint. A boy and a girl, both blond and maybe 4 or 5, rocked back and forth on swings, and Sarah suddenly realized she heard, muffled but present, the faint creak of old chains and a tiny thud whenever one of the children would reach the top of their swing and the chain would buckle slightly.
Even faster now, she ran towards the edge, watching it grow instead of recede, feeling a pang of something as a man stepped out from behind one of the trees, smiling. Closer and closer she got, almost to the edge, and when she was there, at the boundary, an inexplicable sense of apprehension overtook her, stopping her dead in her tracks. She studied the scene for just a moment, the swinging girl's hair falling in front of her face as her momentum slowed and then flipping back as the man gave her a gentle push. Without even realizing it, she grinned and tentatively reached out to touch the the place where one world met the other, her fingers edging ever nearer, coming within millimeters. Suddenly, she was yanked backwards by the other arm, a loud growl and the sharp pain of teeth rending flesh causing her to scream.
She sat bold upright. Everything was white. She grabbed for her arm, staring down, seeing blurred red splotches across pale skin and white bandages. The world was spinning, her ears ringing. The ringing dissolved into a mechanical beep as the carnival ride sensation slowed to a manageable crawl, allowing her to take in her surroundings. A door flew open.
"She's pulled out her IV and torn her sutures. Get the doctor."
Sarah heard the quick shuffle of feet on tile outside the door and stared as a woman in a white uniform came in and out of focus.
"You're awake. You had us worried there for a bit. The doctor will be right in. How are you feeling? Do you know what happened?"
Sarah mumbled, her throat painfully dry, her mind unable to focus. She was suddenly acutely aware of an awful, bitter taste in her mouth and started to gag. The nurse gave her a sip of water as a man with oval wire-rimmed glasses and a buttoned white coat came in behind her.
"Wh-wha..wh-where?" Sarah managed in a whispered croak.
She looked down at her bandaged wrists as the doctor started unwrapping the one freckled with fresh red stains. She caught the edge of a crooked, stitched wound going towards the direction of her palm and suddenly flashed back to blood trickling down her arm, darkening red water obscuring her legs in the bathtub, a cracked glass on its side and empty pill bottles on the edge of a white porcelain hotel suite sink.
"You're lucky to be alive, Ms. Pierson. We managed to absorb most of the toxicity from the medications you took, but we're still monitoring you for possible minor damage or adverse effects. You also lost a fair amount of blood and did a number on your wrists, but we managed to stop the bleeding and replace what you lost. If one of your coworkers hadn't gone to your hotel room when you didn't show up to a meeting, we probably wouldn't be here talking right now."
It all came flowing back into her brain at once. Not the events, the pills she took, the razor flecked with drops of blood, or the physical pain but, rather, the reasons behind it, the night of introspection and remembrance that led to it. She thought back on her career, on her money, power, and respect. She also thought about how she pursued that goal with such vigor that everything and everyone else fell to the periphery, all the hopes and dreams she'd once had pushed aside for that career, for money and influence. She thought about the people she hurt and abandoned, the distance at which she kept everyone, and, ultimately, the resulting sense of emptiness and loneliness that penetrated to her core. Maybe it was complacency, maybe fear...maybe she was just fooling herself, telling herself this was what she wanted, what she found fulfilling, how she was going to leave her mark on the world...but she now realized it was never the life she wanted, wasn't the mark she wanted to leave.
She was awake, sitting in a sterile hospital room, surrounded by nobody she knew, nobody that cared about her, just nurses and doctors that saw her as another client, a suicide attempt with enough recognition and money to be given preferential treatment. She was back in the real world, but she was still inside the void, one of her own making, the near absolute darkness still encircling her, pulling her down. At its center, though, was something new, a spark of hope pointing the way to the place where darkness meets light, where the remembered dreams of a life unfulfilled still linger and are still possible. With renewed purpose, she began running for the light once again.