Into the Dark

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I should have known there’d be a price. There always is. But I was a struggling independent writer. I’d plunked most of my life’s savings into a creative business that was pulling in less than a hundred dollars per month and I was desperate. When you’re drowning and someone throws you a life preserver, you take it. You don’t ask how and you don’t ask why. I wish to God that I had, but hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

“Hurts, doesn’t it?”

It was almost three in the morning when I heard his voice for the first time. I was sitting at my laptop, poring over credit card statements and wondering how much longer I could stay afloat before crushing debt put an end to my artistic ambitions (“Follow your dreams,” people used to say when I was younger. But dreams, as it turned out, didn’t pay the rent.)

I should have been alone, and when I heard those words I stumbled, tripped over my desk chair, and tumbled to the floor. I looked up, heart stampeding, and there in the shadows stood a man, filling the open bedroom doorway.

“Few things are more heartbreaking than an artist who’s tried and failed to make a living from his work.”

Who are you?

That was the question I wanted to ask, only I couldn’t speak. The man stepped forward just as I scrambled to my feet, and somewhere in the back of my mind, I wondered how long I had left to live before he pulled out a gun or a knife.

“I’m a friend,” he said as if he’d heard my unspoken question, and in retrospect, I believe he did. His voice was deep and resonant and seemed to fill all the empty pockets of the world. It was enigmatic, hypnotic, and before long I felt my terror drain from me like a leaky faucet.

“I know what you’re going through. All that money wasted on failed marketing. All that time invested in words that sit in some obscure corner of the internet, never to be read again. All you want is to support yourself while doing what you love, to be understood and appreciated in the process, and every day, life finds another way to teach you how foolish you were for even trying.”

“Yes,” I said, head bobbing up and down like a jack-in-the-box.

I was no longer afraid, yet there remained a lingering sense of wrongness, like a veneer of smog over an otherwise beautiful day. I knew I should be scared, but at that moment I couldn’t articulate why. The uninvited stranger’s presence in my home seemed, just then, to be the most natural thing in the world, and I found myself agreeing with everything he said.

“Yes,” I said again. “That’s exactly right.”

“No one cares how hard you work or how much debt you accrue. It’s a travesty the arts today are so undervalued. Ah, well. That’s why I’ve come. Together, we can create something that will change the world forever. With my help, you’ll reach unparalleled levels of fame. Your money problems will disappear. Most importantly, people will read your work and listen to what you have to say. You can have everything you’ve ever dreamed of and more. All you have to do is accept my help and agree to work with me.”

Even in that hypnotic state, my mind managed to sound the alarm. Don’t do it, that part of myself urged. Don’t give him what he wants.

And he did want something, of that much, at least, I was certain. But his words had drilled down into a primal region of my heart that knew only a raw and excruciating hunger for success.

The man’s eyes had found my own, and despite the advanced darkness of the night they seemed to glow. I can help you, his gaze seemed to say, and God help me, I took the bait.

“God, yes. Help me, please.”

The man smiled. His head dropped in a half bow, and just before he lifted his eyes, I thought I felt the fabric of reality itself shift beneath my feet.

Then, all at once, he was gone. I blinked, bleary-eyed, and looked around, as if he hadn’t just vanished before my eyes. I could still feel whatever was in my head preventing me from being afraid, but that was no longer important, no longer a worthy subject of study, because now my mind was bursting with ideas. Too many ideas. Dark, twisted, sinister ideas. They throbbed in my temples like a migraine, and the only way to ease the pain was to sit before my laptop, fingers splayed across the keyboard, and loose them into the world.

My recollection of everything that’s happened since is vague and riddled with gaps. I know only that in the months that followed, I took the internet by storm. The dark and haunting themes that invaded my mind each night seemed at last to strike a societal chord, and the sort of viral response I’d spent thousands of dollars each month trying to manufacture came about organically.

Every now and then, I would hear the stranger’s voice. “I am with you,” he would say. “Come, follow me into the dark.” And, God help me, that’s exactly what I did.

Never before had the stories in my head been so vile or corrupt, and with each blog post, with each podcast, with each self-published book, I was certain I’d gone too far, that my readers would abandon me, that the stranger’s promise to help would come to naught in the end.

Now, almost a year later, I’m a celebrity. I’m bigger than Neil Gaiman, than Stephen King. I sit down at my laptop each night to regurgitate the strange and otherworldly terrors in my heart, and like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, I use them to lead people into the dark.

I realize now that I’m his vessel, that through the work of my hands he intends to carry out his dark designs. I know that what I’m doing is wrong, that if I had any shred of decency left I would pull the plug on my writing for good and salvage whatever wreckage of my soul survives. But I can’t stop. I’ve accomplished too much, invested too much, and as they say in poker, I’m all-in.

So I soldier on, and as I lead the world forward into the dark, I try not to think of what the stranger might do to us when we get there.

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Running From the Dark


This post was originally published through Patreon on November 27, 2018.

Jared glanced over his shoulder, bit his lower lip, and fed his card into the ATM. The machine whirred, and a moment later, dispensed ten thousand Philippine pesos worth of canary yellow banknotes. He pocketed the cash, relief warring with the dread he’d tried and failed to shake all afternoon, and crossed Magsaysay Avenue toward his apartment.

Charcoal clouds bulged overhead, promising rain even as the tropical heat and humidity bore down on him. Not a combination Jared enjoyed. But then, his choice to settle in the Philippines had not been based on comfort.

It had been almost two years since he’d escaped their notice. Two years since he’d searched for a country with a low cost of living. Two years since he’d packed his suitcase with only the barest of essentials and flown halfway across the world to assume a new life and a new face.

Literally, a new face: a glamour that warped his features beyond recognition. It was a skill his father had taught him when he was seven—a skill he was told never to use unless it was absolutely necessary because the transformation, once complete, was irreversible.

Jared touched down on the steps to his apartment just as thick, fat drops began to beat down on the street like clubs. It was amazing how quickly the rain picked up during the rainy season. One moment, nothing. The next, torrential sheets of water cascading from the sky.

He waved to the guard, a young man in his early twenties, then climbed three flights of narrow concrete stairs, where he entered a dingy studio unit and closed the door behind him. The bulb overhead cast a dim orange light over the torn leather love seat that doubled as a fold-out bed, illuminating the moldy lump of tiles in the far corner that served as his kitchenette and the large blue plastic jug of water he hadn’t yet opened and was keeping on the floor beside the bathroom.

He sighed.

He’d had so much in the States to be thankful for—a nice house, a decent car, and a sizeable income—only he hadn’t appreciated any of it at the time, not until he’d been forced to leave everything behind and start all over again in a foreign country, one in which he wasn’t even authorized to reside, much less work.

There were nicer places to stay in the Philippines: BGC, Makati, and the more affluent parts of Cebu. In those regions, one could easily find a home that rivaled the coziest accommodations in California. But that only worked if you had money, and that was something Jared lacked in abundance.

His biggest mistake in fleeing to the Philippines was to assume that because it was a developing nation, he would somehow be able to make a life for himself despite not having the necessary paperwork. Indeed, even if he’d kept his passport—even if the face in the picture still matched the face he donned today—he would nevertheless be deported if caught given that he’d entered the country on a tourist visa and never left. The Bureau of Immigration took overstays seriously, and they were zealous in their work.

A colossally stupid decision, one he’d come to regret just three months into his new life. But it had been so easy to imagine when he was running that he could ditch his papers and start over the way so many people did in the movies. Unfortunately, the modern world and its digital ways were no place for a castaway like himself.

Anyway, he had a few months of savings left in his US-based checking account as long as he could stretch it. After that…

Jared sighed again. He pulled out the love seat’s fold-up mattress, set his head down on one of the worn-out cushions, and dozed.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed before he opened his eyes, only that when he regained awareness of his surroundings, something was wrong. The light was still on, but there was a dark corner of the room where it seemed to shy away like rain down a too-slick surface. He tried to focus on that corner, but whenever he glanced in that direction his eyes slipped over it like the light.

No, they couldn’t have found him. Not so soon. He’d been careful. For most of the day, something had felt off, but he’d hoped— Shit. He bolted from the mattress and sprinted toward the door.

Something flashed before his eyes just as the dark spot in the room moved. The air around him thickened and he found himself slowing, like one of those nightmares where someone chases you and it’s impossible to move your legs. And a nightmare was exactly what this creature was. Jared would have preferred to fall out of a ten-story window than to be captured by its kind.

“You should have never gotten involved with us,” the creature said in a voice like crumbling snake’s skin.

The room turned dark, and when that darkness took on substance and began to crawl down his nose and ears, Jared opened his mouth and screamed.

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The unnatural quiet was my first clue that something was wrong.

I’d been standing outside in the middle of a hot and humid afternoon, gazing at the sky while cars raced up and down Knott Ave. like bullet trains. I’d had a rough day at work, and my silent contemplation of the clouds was a way for me to escape the endless demands of a high-stress job.

One cloud formation in particular had just captured my attention—an obelisk that seemed to rise from a city of smoke and ash—when an audible silence descended over the world. I looked down, and that’s when I saw that the street was empty, that the sidewalk was abandoned.

For a moment I felt disconnected, as if whatever cord that tethered me to the fabric of reality had been severed. I blinked, looked around, looked around again.

“That’s not right,” I said, not entirely sure who I was talking to.

It occurred to me that the entire day might have been a dream. A cliche, I know, but there are rare moments when the conscious and the subconscious meet in a celestial conjunction of the mind, usually seconds before waking, and during such extraordinary events, one’s first thought is always inevitably, “This must be a dream.”

That’s how I felt in that instant, like I might wake at any moment to ponder the tail end of an already forgotten dream before drifting off once more. But this new and silent world refused to yield and instead remained fixed before my eyes.

“This isn’t right.”

I shambled forward like a sleepwalker, too dazed and incredulous to feel anxious or afraid. I walked. On and on, I walked. And as the seconds merged into minutes and the minutes into hours, I only grew more steadfast in my belief that this all must be a dream, for with each step, the world changed.

The road narrowed, the asphalt giving way to gravel and dirt, and the buildings thinned as if I were emerging from a forest of concrete and iron instead of trees. The only constants were the brightness of the sky and the heat of the sun against my skin, seemingly untouched by the hours.

At one point, I pulled my cell phone from my pocket to check the time. That’s when the first real tendrils of fear began to squirm through my midsection. The device had powered itself off, though it’d been fully charged that morning and should have lasted the rest of the day, and when I pressed the power button to turn it back on, it was unresponsive.

I pressed the button once, twice, three times. I opened the back to confirm the battery was properly seated, then checked the position of the SIM card in its slot.

That’s when I heard the voices.

At first they were quiet, just thin, vaporous whispers riding the coattails of a breeze. But in the otherworldly silence that birthed them, my ears picked them out at once. I had no idea what they were saying, but I didn’t have to. Those malicious tones touched a primal region of my brain that had no use for language, and all at once, the nascent fear inside of me burst into bright orange flames.

I ran, following the increasingly narrow road as the world around me blurred. All the while, those voices called out, growing fiercer, louder, closer.

Soon, the world dissolved and the ground fell away beneath my feet, leaving only the silent endless dark of empty space. But I never stopped running. Those terrifying voices were coming,  and if I stopped to rest even for a moment, I was certain they’d catch up and fall upon me as one.

One voice, in particular, stood out from all the rest. This one was calm, collected, even sympathetic, and the more I listened, the more I understood its meaning.

You aren’t supposed to be here. Why have you come?

“I don’t know.”

Go back before my brethren consume you whole.

“I don’t know how.”

Follow my voice. I’ll lead you to safety.

And because there was nothing else I could do, I did.

The others jeered, uttering incomprehensible commands as they closed in for the kill. But that singular voice continued to speak over them like a high school coach intent on winning the homecoming game.

This way, it said, and I turned to follow it’s call through one invisible path after another.

Gradually, the world came back into focus. The sun and the sky were the first to emerge, followed by a dirt road that eventually became a street.

Hurry. I can’t hold them back much longer.

My lungs screamed for air, but I didn’t dare slow down. I could feel those malevolent beings gaining on me. I was almost home, I could feel it. I only had to go a little further.

Just before I crossed over, the air turned cold like a bitter Alaskan wind. I felt those hateful beings scratch at my back with appendages that might have been claws while the one who’d helped me shouted, GO!

Then a terrible pressure mounted in my ears. A high pitched whine nearly knocked me to my knees, and all the while I could feel those awful voices drilling into my head, trying to pull me back.

Finally I pushed through. There was an audible pop, and then the silence that had settled over the world burst like a pricked bubble. The street once more teemed with cars and the sidewalk with pedestrians. The sounds of a world in motion seemed deafening in the wake of so much quiet, and I whirled, disoriented, still expecting those evil creatures to break through and pull me be back.

That was eleven years ago, and I still can’t stand the sound of silence. I never leave the house without a pair of headphones in my ears, even though they’ve gotten me in trouble, both at work and at home. Nobody understands, and I don’t blame them. How could they? They haven’t heard the horrors that await them in that silent world.

Metallica and Iron Maiden are my go-to artists, and their strident cries follow me wherever I go, even into the nebulous depths of sleep. Only I know it’s not enough, that all I’m doing is delaying the inevitable. Sooner or later, we all descend into the silent dark, and when that day comes, all I can do is pray to God those voices won’t be waiting to finish what they started.

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