You can’t quantify fear, but we all feel it. It’s part of our reactionary brain, our amygdala, to protect us from harm – to pump chemicals into our system and trigger responses to fight or flee that creaky door or “friend” that jumps from a corner with a clown mask. Nyctophobia is fear of the dark. I’m not really sure what’s to be afraid of. Unless the dark has it out for you.
Hug the Dark
by Tim Boo-zyk
Not the dark.
Shadows beset the dark.
His eyes closed; forehead contracted in furious exhaustion.
He’d been up for three days. At some point, he had to shut his eyes.
There – shoulders in silhouette.
Open! Open! His mind cried. Someone’s there!
Dreams scratched his vision.
“C’mon,” he muttered.
Eyes pulled, forehead pushed. Lids snapped.
“No one there,” he said aloud.
Sweat layered a sticky sheet on his face. Three in the morning and he’d have to wash it to barely feel comfortable.
Man why don’t those demons take a break, he thought.
Sink ran water; he splashed cold exuberance upon his face. That was him in the mirror; whether the outside reflected the in, he couldn’t tell, but the eyes looked familiar. The dark corner in the upper half, reflecting bedroom walls beyond the open door, shifted.
No, he thought. No, it’s not real.
“It’s just because you haven’t slept for seventy-two hours you stupid ass,” he said to himself. He examined deliberately the reflection. All he saw was the interface of the two walls and the ceiling, meeting at a point, each shaded to be sure, but reflecting, like they had been thirty seconds before.
He could see most of the bed and walls and furnishings of the bedroom behind him. His wife lay sleeping on the bed. As a matter of fact, everything looked perfectly normal.
From his PJ pants, he pulled his phone. He listened to music at night. It either kept him awake or dropped him off so quickly that he could endure the hallucinations long enough to get a few hours of shut-eye.
But whether they were keeping him awake or if staying awake kept them around, he couldn’t tell.
He dialed his brother.
“Hey man, if you get this, can you give me a call? Something’s creeping up on me, like something weird. I mean, I haven’t slept for days; maybe it’s just that. But could you just give me a ring? Seriously, it’s like, wherever I look, there’s like a face or something that wasn’t there before. It’s everywhere now, like something’s coming for me. Please man, as soon as you get this, call me back. I feel like I’m afraid of the dark.”
He closed the call, giggling. He never giggled. Then he stepped into the room. The towel dropped into his hand after wiping his forehead. The bedroom door was open.
I thought it was closed.
Face in the hall. He gasped.
Pressure built in his eyes. He felt very still. Blackness encroached from the perimeter of his vision. He started to pass out.
A sharp inhale bisected his held breath. Oxygen reached his lungs. His vision cleared. Everything looked normal. The sudden rush of air offered a sliver of clarity.
“I knew it,” he said, regretting his hasty voicemail. “Oh well.”
His wife breathed steadily. The kids’ doors in the corridor remained closed. Tomorrow was Saturday. He wouldn’t have to wake up early to feed them for school. Maybe he could catch a nap. Daytime was easier to bear.
He regained in his composure and walked into the hall, ice cream sandwich on his mind.
His nose tingled.
“Damn cats,” he said. The itch bored into his sinuses. “Hope I don’t wake them…” and he sneezed.
Pain snapped his back; muscle spasm. He doubled over, eyes closed. Darkness had him.
“Yeah! Yeah! How do you like that!”
Cameras clicked. Fraternity brothers laughed. She was obviously drunk. Who cared? She wouldn’t remember in the morning. And he’d be an internet sensation for a while. College rules!
He blinked and saw the door of his daughter.
His neck stippled with a cold breeze. He heard someone blowing over his shoulder, and with a coy smile, realized his wife must’ve crept up on him after all. He turned to give her a welcome snuggle.
The bedroom door was closed.
It’s not real. It’s not real. He clenched his eyes.
“Burn!” a hoarse scream blew the stench of rotting worms into his face.
Fear compelled him to look. With agonizing determination, he willed himself to engage whatever beast tormented him.
He stood in the corner of Jake’s office, still in his bathrobe. Lights dim, the rest of the floor empty; everyone had already gone home for the day. He saw himself, in his suit, hunched behind Jake’s computer, smacking his dehydrated lips. His doppelganger paused to pull out a flask, half full with a recent refill from the fifth he kept stashed in his desk drawer. His past-self drained it, ahhh exhaled from the prolonged swig, and then with a malicious grin, turned back to the screen.
“They’re not going to give that little punk my promotion.”
Jake was too young, too trusting. It was easy enough to look over his shoulder while he typed his password.
It only took a few numbers in a spreadsheet of hundreds to throw off the manufacturing plan. The machines had actually broken down because of it. Jake was not only sacked, but pending litigation.
From the shadows he muttered, “At least nobody died,” in obvious self-loathing. A warmth built in his eyes that he had not felt in a long time, a moistness; a tear welled, caught his eyelash, and with a blink, flew slow motion to the floor. The drunk suit swiveled suddenly.
He remembered doing that, and staring at an empty corner.
As he looked up, he expected to see his bedroom door, probably open, just to freak him out. Instead he was completely down the hall, facing his son’s.
“My God,” he said. “It’s going to come back to haunt…” he glanced at his daughter’s bedroom too, “…them,” he finished.
Why did his chest hurt? Was this remorse? Was this real guilt? He thought guilt was the morning after a business-trip romp to the local strip club, usually with some after-hours fun, but that could be cured with a strong double from the hotel wet bar and a quick call home to reassure himself he got away with it. This felt too deep, like it had always been a part of him; he felt like he was sweating tar.
The mechanical sound of a doorknob caught his attention.
This is it, he thought.
His wife stood in her gown, bed-head hair scattered, eyes groggy.
“Honey,” she said. “You all right?”
An icicle pierced his chest. The realization of his life erupted. He clenched at his bleeding heart, but when he looked down, his hand only covered an inky blackness.
His wife ran toward him as he fell. Her face peeled off with every stride.
I’m sorry…I’m so sorry. But his mouth refused to cooperate; the darkness had enveloped his soul. I love you so much.
“I hate you,” he heard himself say as he crumbled to the floor.
“Honey!? Honey! Dillon! Dillon! Call 9-1-1!”
By now his wife’s eyes had turned black. Her skin was gone. Blood pooled in dark purple puddles of flesh.
He couldn’t move.
Her lips didn’t match her words: “You finally get what you deserve.”
This time the darkness had form. It closed over his vision like a coffin lid, with glowing eyes and vicious snarls.
The demon that possessed his only friend opened its mouth to bear rows of rotting fangs. In the final moment of awareness, his wife descended and tore at his face. He lay helpless, rigid from the spasms of the heart attack as she devoured him.
“No! NO!” she cried. “Please! Please be okay!”
He was gone. Taken.
The darkness embraced him. Took its quarry, and left behind the empty shell of a wasted life.
As tears streamed down her face, as her young son frantically gave the operator their address, the odd timing of his ringing cell phone gave her pause. She took it from his pocket and saw it was his brother.
“Hello?” she said blankly, inwardly astonished at the timing.
“Karen? What’s up? I got this weird voicemail. Is everything all right?”
She looked down at her dead husband’s face, locked in agony, clenched from the sudden attack in a chilling semblance of utter terror.
“No,” she said, laying down the phone, remembering his last words. “No it’s not.”