A lot of people are afraid of the dark. According to the internet, nyctophobia is among the most common phobias cited by adults and children. I’m not afraid of the dark, in general. But since I was very young, the fear of dark rooms has plagued my every waking moment. As a child, I slept with all of the lights on, terrified of the shadows that accumulated in the corners, out of reach of the meager glow of my nightlight. There was even a stretch of a year or so when I could not sleep, even with the lights on. Lying awake in bed and reading all night long, I would only allow myself to doze off, exhausted, when the world outside my windows was rendered in those special greys and purples that seem to only exist just before the rising of the sun. My parents did not seem to notice, too wrapped up in the chaos of their own lives and the near constant attention my baby brother required.
I was not really bothered by their lack of attention, before my brother was born I would spend long periods of time by myself, as no other kids lived on my street. For some reason, even at that young age, I knew my parents could not protect me from whatever it was that lay at the root of my fear. On the rare occasion that one of them would remark on how tired I looked, I would make up some lie about a nightmare and being unable to get back to sleep. This satisfied their cursory curiosity and no one else seemed to notice, so I just accepted my terror as part of life and went on with the day to day life of a second grader. I made a few friends at school, went to their houses to play on weekends, but I never, ever was able to make it through a sleepover
without having to frantically call my parents demanding that they come pick me up. I would try desperately to make it through the night, but somewhere around 1am, after all the other kids had fallen asleep, I would sit, huddled and shaking in my ninja turtles sleeping bag in a dark basement or living room before finally giving up and making the inevitable call that would yield a frustrated and half asleep parent at the front door twenty minutes later.
Tired of these repeated intrusions on their precious sleep, my parents forbid me from attending any further sleepovers. When this began to take a toll on my meager friendships, I begged my parents to lift their ban, promising I would not call them even if my friend’s house was on fire. They relented, and I began implementing a new strategy to make it through those long, dark nights in the my friends’ unfamiliar houses. I would smuggle a book in my sleeping bag, and once the other kids had fallen asleep, I would sneak off into another room where I could read with the lights on until the sun came up. Only then would I crawl back into my sleeping bag and doze for an hour or two like a normal kid.
As I got older, I learned to manage my fear better, coming up with tricks and rituals to dispel what I knew had to be an irrational and childish fear. When my parents split up, my room at my mom’s new house was in the basement, which was fine with me, as I could “forget” to shut off the bathroom light, allowing a soft glow into the space. I would sleep facing the wall so as not to wake up and catch a glimpse of the darkness gathering in the corners, the places where the shadows always seemed deepest.
Oddly, I didn’t mind being outside at night. In fact, I enjoyed it. As a teenager, I would sneak out of the house and walk around the neighborhood, basking in the quiet world of darkened houses, occasionally encountering a wandering cat or foraging raccoon. It was hard to explain this irrational love of the nighttime world outside, when the dark interior of a house could send me into a panic. Best I could determine was that outside there were far fewer corners for the darkness to coagulate in. When my parents were together, we had gone camping nearly every weekend in the summer. It was then that I slept best, either in the tent or outside, under the stars. I would often take hikes at night, despite my parents’ reservations. We never went anywhere particularly remote or with a reputation for aggressive wildlife, so their worries were almost entirely baseless. I enjoyed the sounds of the woods at night, the shuffling passage of raccoons through the underbrush, the careful steps of deer. For me, natural darkness held mystery, not terror.
Time went on. I grew older and was able to push the fear deeper down beneath the weight of day to day responsibilities and the incessant preoccupation of a teenage boy: sex. The panic I would experience at being alone in a dark room, feeling the weight of the shadows gathering in the corners had lessened, but it never truly went away. I remember one night during my freshman year of college, waking up, soaked with sweat, the ghostly fingers of some nightmare grasping at my barely conscious mind. I had to apologize profusely to the girl from my Intro to Anthropology class, explaining it away as best I could. Annoyed and confused, she gathered her things and stumbled out into the hallway, leaving me alone with the weight of the shadows growing heavy in the corners of the room. My roommate was gone for the weekend, so there was no one to disturb by turning all of the lights on. I sat, huddled in my blankets until the first tentative rays of dawn crept over the horizon. The vision that had torn me from sleep lingered on, however. When I closed my eyes, I could see the darkness accumulating in a high corner like dust blown by the wind, growing with a strange, swarming life, until it began to boil like a great crush of black ants. I told myself over and over that I’d been suffering from sleep paralysis. This was easier to swallow with the midmorning sun streaming through the windows of the dining hall, eating breakfast with some friends.
Those nights would come and go, maybe once every two or three weeks, then not at all for months at a time. I would trouble sleeping in the days afterward, terrified to wake again and find the darkness writhing in the corner. I played it off as a stress reaction and was always thankful when the dreams would finally relent. I graduated, got a job and an apartment. I dated here and there, but never anything serious. The panic and the dreams would return and any hopes of maintaining a normal relationship would dissolve within a week or so of the onset of insomnia. I could never find the right words to explain what I was going through, and eventually gave up on trying to explain it altogether. I saw a therapist. He informed me that my phobia was born out of ancestral memories, that man’s primal fear of the dark stems from the days when we were still easy prey for the nocturnal predators that stalked our early ancestors through prehistory. He claimed that an inherent fear of the dark was an evolutionary advantage at that time, and my particular case was merely the product of having ancestors who lived in a particularly dangerous environment. None of what he discussed seemed to describe my situation, and the pills he prescribed didn’t do much for me either. I stopped taking them after a month or so, and when he offered an alternate prescription, I turned that down as well. I didn’t go back after that.
The dreams ceased for an entire year after I turned thirty. Just as I had begun to think that I was finally free, they returned and this time they were far more vivid than before. I would wake, finding myself unable to move, eyes transfixed on a single point, located about six inches from the ceiling in one corner of the room. The darkness would be there, pulsating like a mass of black ants, just as it had that night in my dorm room years before. It would writhe and swell, as if something were trapped inside and was trying to free itself. I would lay there, paralyzed as I watched what looked like fingertips press and scrape against the surface of the darkness from inside. The membranous shadow would stretch and distend a little more each night and I would spend every waking moment in fear of the time I awoke to find the shadowy womb splitting open. I stopped sleeping. I left all of my lights on to drive the shadows from my meager apartment. My performance at work suffered so much that my boss pulled me into his office and all but forced me to take some time off.
I was able to get some sleep during the day, thankfully, and these small snatches of rest were mercifully free of dreams. At night, I would stay up with all of the lights in my apartment blazing, wandering from room to room to make sure that there were no corners in which the darkness could gather. I began to feel better and eventually found a job working overnights at the post office, loading and unloading trucks and sorting mail. I found a new apartment in a small complex out in an outlying suburb that backed up to a stand of trees that could be called a forest only in the loosest sense of the word. A year passed in this way, my nights off plagued with paranoia about the shadows and that pregnant mass from my dreams. Then came the night of the ice storm.
I had off from work that cold, February night. As always, every light in the apartment was on and I was making my rounds every fifteen minutes or so to ensure each and every bulb was burning brightly. The wind had picked up outside, and I could hear it whistling around the corner of the building, rattling the bony branches of the trees. I settled myself for the interim on the dilapidated couch, a grizzled survivor of my college days. Whatever late night program I was half watching was suddenly interrupted by an obnoxious blaring and an angry red ticker began to scroll across the bottom of my screen, proclaiming an extreme weather advisory in glaring white capital letters. Struck by the sudden urge to empty my bladder, I headed for the bathroom. I missed the words “POWER OUTAGES LIKELY FOR THE FOLLOWING COUNTIES” scrolling slowly across the bottom of the screen. I could hear the wind through the bathroom vent leading out to the roof, and it whistled maniacally through the aluminum down to where I stood. I had just flushed when the bathroom was plunged into blackness.
I didn’t recognize my own voice at first, the screams ringing in my ears seemed to be coming from far away. I fumbled for the doorknob, fingers scrabbling frantically against the cheap particleboard of the door. After what felt like minutes, I was able to wrap my hand around the knob and yank the door open, running out into the living room. No light could be glimpsed through the window. My eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness around me. I could feel them being dragged towards a point on the wall, and as hard as I tried to fight the urge to look, my gaze was pulled to a point about six inches from the ceiling, in the left hand corner of my living room. There, the black mass writhed violently, darker than all of the shadows that surrounded it. As its surface bulged and stretched, I could see the horrible finger tips scratch against the inside. I watched, frozen in terror, as they broke through. Thick ichor dribbled from the rent in the shadowy membrane, oozing down the wall. Knobby knuckled, primate fingers grasped the edges of the tear and began to pull, widening it. Two glowing, golden rings appeared within the darkness of the cleft, and soon resolved themselves into massive eyes set into a leathery face, similar to that of a lemur. As the face emerged from within the darkness, a smaller vertical eye opened on the creature’s forehead. The third eye rolled and twitched madly darting around the room. The face was surrounded by stiff black hairs, more like those found on the body of a fly or a tarantula than the hair of a mammal. It fixed its glowing, golden eyes on me, and smiled. The thing had two mouths, one stacked right below the other, and its lips pulled back to reveal rows of jagged ivory teeth. It did not emerge any further from the corner, peering down at me with those horrible, luminescent eyes. When it spoke, the two mouths produced the same words, but just slightly out of sync with one another, creating an unsettling echo effect. Somehow the creature was speaking with the voices of my dead grandparents, the voices a ghastly chorus of two people I loved dearly.
“IT HAS BEEN A LONG TIME, DAVID.”
I swallowed, my mind screaming in total rejection of the inputs my senses were trying to feed it.
“NOTHING TO SAY? THAT IS STRANGE. WE HAD SUCH A NICE CONVERSATION THE LAST TIME WE MET.”
Somehow, my brain began to accept that what I was seeing was real. Either that or I had suffered a complete break with reality and my mind had fully succumbed to the delusion.
“You...you’re not real. I’ve lost my mind. You’re merely a hallucination caused by insomnia.” I stammered.
“OH DAVID, I CAN ASSURE YOU THAT I AM QUITE REAL. IS THAT ANY WAY TO GREET AN OLD FRIEND?” The luminous, gold-rimmed eyes stayed fixed on me. They were hypnotic, the irises kaleidoscopic.
“I...I don’t know you. We’ve never met.”
The thing chuckled. It was a horrible sound, that mixture of two laughs I had grown to know so well over the course of my childhood, especially issuing from the two grotesque mouths.
“DAVID, HOW CAN YOU NOT REMEMBER? YOU WERE VERY YOUNG, I’LL GRANT YOU THAT. BUT NOT SO YOUNG THAT YOU COULD FORGET ME. THINK. IT WAS MANY, MANY YEARS AGO, NOW. YOU WERE IN YOUR AUNT’S DINING ROOM IN THAT OLD HOUSE IN THE CITY. MOMMY AND DADDY WERE IN THE OTHER ROOM. I SPOKE TO YOU, FROM THE DARKNESS IN THE CORNER, THE SAME AS NOW. MY VOICE WAS DIFFERENT THEN. PERHAPS THAT IS THE PROBLEM…”
It spread its awful fingers in a very human “I don’t know” gesture. When it spoke again, the voices were different. They stirred deep memories from my childhood, bringing back images of sitting in the family room of my parents’ house, wrapped in a blanket and watching television for hours. My grandparents had been replaced by the quiet, soothing tones of Mr. Rogers and the more erratic voice of Peewee Herman, two of the most important figures from my childhood. The mixture of the two voices, speaking in delayed tandem continued and the warm, comforting image of the family room shifted. I was in a shadowy room. I could hear my parents talking to my aunt somewhere behind me, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. Something up in a dark corner of the room had caught my eye and I took a few steps closer to investigate it. The voice, or voices, called down to me from the shadows.
I remembered not being afraid of the odd mixture of voices coming from the dark. I could vaguely picture a shape moving there, but it was the eyes that burned brightest in my memory. Those gold rimmed eyes with the kaleidoscope irises. How had I forgotten? I remembered my parents rushing into the room and quickly ushering me out into the car. I couldn’t have been more than five. Not long after that day was when my fear of the dark had truly begun. The thing sensed my recognition, somehow. It smiled.
“SEE DAVID? I TOLD YOU. HOW COULD YOU EVER FORGET ME?”
The third eye stopped its ceaseless roving. It settled its vacant, alien gaze on a spot in the center of my forehead, directly below where my widow’s peak would have been, if I had one. I felt a buzzing begin in my head.
“Why?” I managed to ask.
“WHY?” The thing chuckled again, resuming the mixture of my grandparent’s voices. “WHY DAVID, BECAUSE I AM YOUR GUARDIAN ANGEL, SENT TO WATCH OVER YOU.”
The buzzing in my head intensified, making coherent thought, let alone speech, nearly impossible.
“My guard...ian...angel? Bull...shit…You’ve...tormen...ted...me...my...entire…life...I...haven’t...been...able...to have…a normal...relation…ship...because...of...you…” The buzzing fought against each word. It took all of my concentration to force them out, head throbbing with each passing syllable.
“OH, NOW THAT’S NOT TRUE, DAVID. YOU’VE BEEN TRYING TO HIDE FROM ME THIS WHOLE TIME. I’VE JUST WANTED TO HELP YOU...AND YOU WON’T LET ME…”
An edge crept into the thing’s awful tandem voice. The buzzing in my head was so strong it had begun to make my teeth chatter. It flowed through my bones, a jarring vibration that I could feel in every fiber of my being. The creature continued to speak, but I could no longer hear it. Flickers of white, like those on the edge of a poorly fed filmstrip invaded the edges of my vision. The buzzing consumed everything. The whiteness overtook my field of vision, and then it was gone. The buzzing had ceased entirely. I was standing in the silent darkness of my living room. My grandmother stood in front of me, the smile that I had taken for granted as a child but had grown to miss with an aching intensity as I grew older lighting her wrinkled features. She slowly extended her arms towards me. I took a hesitant step forward and then wrapped my arms around her, inhaling the mixture of cardamom, orange and my grandfather’s cigarette smoke that was uniquely her. I stepped back to look at her from arm’s length, bewildered by this sudden appearance. A thought needled at me. Could the thing have been telling the truth?
“Grandma!” For some reason, I could not hear my own voice, but I felt my mouth shape the word. Her face twitched, up by the left temple.
“Grandma?” I mouthed again.
The skin slowly began to sag, then to slide down her face. I could do nothing but watch in revulsion as the face of my grandmother sloughed away to reveal the gold-ringed eyes and the horrible stacked mouths. I tried to pull my hands from what had moments ago been my grandmother, but they were stuck. The pins and needles feeling of blood deprived extremities crawled up my fingers and into my hands. Tiny black specks skittered erratically over the backs of my hands, covering my knuckles and fingers with scurrying legs and chitinous bodies. This living flood rose up my arms and soon covered my shoulders. I could hear the clicking of the things’ tiny segmented legs. I looked up into nightmarish, kaleidoscope eyes of the creature.
“IT’S OKAY, DAVID. YOU ARE SAFE NOW.” The revolting mouths whispered lovingly.
I was paralyzed. I could feel the tiny pinpricks of the legs on my neck, then on my chin. They were on my face, probing at my tightly closed mouth. I gave in to panic and screamed. The things flowed into my mouth almost immediately. A leathery finger pressed against my upper lip.
“SHHH...DON’T WORRY, DAVID. I WOULD NEVER LET ANYTHING BAD HAPPEN TO YOU.”
The horrible golden eyes were the last things I saw as the dark, skittering tide swarmed over my face and into my lungs. I could feel myself somehow being pulled through an unyielding mass, whatever it was pressing from all sides, forcing the air from my lungs. Blackness stole over me, the thing still whispering in the awful chorus of my grandparent’s voices, assuring me everything would be okay.
* * *
Two days later, there was a knock on David’s door. Officer Schultz had been dispatched to check on all of the residents of the complex, in the wake of the devastation caused by the ice storm. When no one responded to his knocks, the superintendent was called to unlocked the door. Officer Schultz found the apartment empty, with no sign of a break-in or struggle, despite reports from the nosy elderly neighbor about hearing screams from the apartment on the night of the storm. Harder to explain away was the presence of David’s car, frozen in the lot with the rest of the residents’ vehicles, but David could have easily been out of town or staying with friends or relatives who had braved the storm to pick him up. The officer added David’s name to a list of people not accounted for and continued his rounds of the complex. Letting out a long, slow breath, Schultz climbed back into the patrol car. There were many, many more doors to knock on before he could get home to his fireplace and put this day behind him.