Estimated reading time — 33 minutes
Long Way Down: Part 1
Recommended Listening: Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy
I don’t quite know why I chose to drink my coffee black. I suppose the sweetness of sugar or its substitutes didn’t suit me, nor did I find that creamy beige colour that coffee turned once mixed with milk or cream appealing. Bitterness was my dark passenger, one I kept trying to shrug off like a heavy coat.
My throat tasted like melancholy, the caffeine doing absolutely nothing to wake me up. I felt nowhere near as alert as I needed to be. I wondered if I could wash away the feelings of fatigue and lethargy with another cup of the dark brown liquid that had left a thin film of regret on the inside of my favourite mug.
I stared down at the empty ceramic mug that lay on the small table in front of me, my vision blurring as I let my eyes focus on something off in the corner of the room. There wasn’t anything there, just shadow and wood walls, but I’d grown weary of watching the embers of the fire in my hearth die out.
The ancient, leather armchair I sat in groaned every few seconds, even though I myself remained as still as they dry, winter air outside. The pale blue fabric of my shirt was dyed bronze and gold in the light of the weak fire, making me feel warmer than I actually felt.
My cabin, my home, may have been tiny, but it was all I needed to keep myself content. Solitude was acting as my solace, but today, I’d decided to give my solitude a break.
I stood up from my chair, pulling my cell phone out of my pocket as I rose. I approached the fireplace while dialing a number with my thumb, my opposite hand working on dousing the faint, amber glow that still burned on within the fireplace’s stone confines.
The phone presented me with a dial tone that rang only twice before the agitated voice of a woman replaced the harsh sound.
“Lieutenant Moser, Homicide Department,” said the woman.
“Good morning, Lieutenant,” I said, clenching my jaw shut to contain the yawn I felt bubbling up from within my throat. “It’s Detective Vikas. You’re aware that I’m not going to be in for the next few days?” I asked with a cough as a small puff of ash rose into my face from below.
“Indeed, Detective,” she responded. Her tone was clipped with supressed annoyance, so I quickly decided to end the call before she chose to vent her anger out on me.
“All right then,” I said, walking towards the door, “that’ll be all. Have a good day, Lieutenant.”
I hung up, and pocketed my phone as I pulled my coat off of the hook by the door. I pulled the thick, fur lined jacket around my shoulders, shoving my feet into my boots at the same time. Within minutes, I’d grabbed my car keys, and was out the door.
The front yard of my home was layered with grey snow and dry leaves, the driveway speckled with a galaxy of salt stones. It was brisk outside, not so much as frigid. My lungs burned with the sudden chill of going from the stifling interior of my cabin to the near frozen wilderness that surrounded it. I watched, stunned, as my breath formed a cloud in front of my face, one that dissipated only seconds later. The moment soon passed, and I trudged my way towards my simple, black car.
I disliked driving to the city, much less so in the winter months. The sides of my car got coated with a thick mass of blackened slush, and my boots never went more than a day without being painted white with the stains of melting road salt. I never noticed how much those small things bothered me. I suppose I was bound to notice. It’s not like I had all that much to keep me occupied anyway.
It took me just under half an hour to reach the hospital district of my city. It shouldn’t have taken me so long, but the roads were packed and icy, forcing me to take a few side routes into the city.
I parked across the street from the hospital to avoid paying those ridiculous parking lot fees.
I sat in my car for a few minutes, my left leg bouncing in mild anxiety. I shouldn’t have been having second thoughts, not at that point. I’d had this appointment booked for over a month. I’d known the day would come. I’d awaited it. I’d longed for it, and now, it was here.
I volunteered for this experience because they’d told me it would help me move on. I didn’t want to forget, that would be wrong, but moving on was something I needed. I could achieve true peace. I could be free of all of the things that refused to release my fractured mind from its grasp. Traditional therapy never worked, and I was just tired of feeling this way. I wanted to be whole again, and this study was giving me the opportunity to become so.
I exited my car, slamming the door behind me with a dull thud. I hunched my shoulders as a sudden gust of glacial wind rushed past me, whipping my grey and chestnut hair across my forehead as the air dragged across my cheeks. I exhaled in the gale, scowling faintly as I headed towards the hospital.
It was refreshingly warm within the hospital’s lobby. Everything was white and blue, the floors stained with the partial muddy boot prints of each and every patron. It was loud, as to be expected, with the sharp trilling of landlines ringing, and the hacking, wheezing coughs of the physically ill. I heard children wailing, and smelled a sickly-sweet blend of cleaning fluids and body odor.
I fought the urge to scowl in distaste, and instead turned to my right, following an overhead sign that directed me towards the psychiatric wing.
Tan carpets and felt sofas is what greeted me in the waiting room of the psych ward. The walls were covered with an olive and beige striped wall paper, the colours faded and dusty. It smelled of stale air freshener and perfume, and was unnervingly quiet, though that could’ve very well been because I was the sole occupant in the waiting room.
The second I sat down in one of the green, padded chairs, a woman’s voice abruptly called out to me, causing my heart to seize momentarily in surprise.
I rose from my seat, turning towards a petite female nurse in long, white skirt, and a startlingly red cardigan. Her expression was soft, caring even, her hair long and the same colour as milk chocolate, tied into a ponytail at the base of her head. Though she appeared kind, there was something about her eyes that struck me the wrong way. They seemed too blank, too empty, for it to be considered completely natural. I realized all too quickly that dwelling on every oddity would only succeed in causing me stress.
I disregarded my thoughts immediately as I stepped towards the nurse, allowing her to lead me beyond a pair of sea green doors, and down a long hallway lined with offices that appeared to be vacant.
She knocked thrice upon the wooden door with a single, curtained window that lay at the far end of the hall, never once turning to look at me. I stared straight ahead, making eye contact with my reflection, consciously trying to work the semi-fearful expression I wore out of my features.
I began to feel minute vibrations emanating from within my chest. It took me a few moments to gather that I was feeling the by-product of my heart calming itself down. I pursed my lips in self-doubt, the crease between my brows becoming more defined at my distaste. I didn’t understand why I was so afraid. I was trying to get better, to move on. I shouldn’t have felt anything but hope.
A muted, “Come in,” resonated flatly from beyond the door just as the nurse turned the knob. She opened the door, stepping aside as she motioned for me to enter.
I nodded to the nurse, and passed through the doorway.
It was dim within the room. The light was musty, an orange glow that came from fixtures along the walls, streaking into the darkness of the room.
There was a huge window on the wall opposite to where I stood. The great panes of glass were shrouded by a sheath of deep green curtains, held back at the centre by golden tassels. The walls wore the same outdated wallpaper, the floors donning oriental rugs instead of a standard carpet.
In front of the window lay a massive, wooden desk. There were papers, file folders, and ornaments scattered like broken glass along the top of the desk. In front of the desk was a long, velvety couch in the same, deep green colour as the curtains, the fabric appearing to be remarkably new in comparison to the rest of the objects within the room. To the left of the couch was an armchair angled to face the sofa, its brown leather as aged as my own. To the right of the couch was a series of machines, all of them leaking a haphazard tangle of rainbow wires, all of them faintly beeping or subtly blinking.
Behind the desk was a chair, and in that chair was a man. He looked older than I was, wearing a plain, grey suit with a nondescript, blue tie. He sat upright, his round face placid. He wore a pair of round-framed glasses, the lenses so thick they made his eyes comically large. His nose was bulbous, his chin wearing a mottled, grey and black beard. His hair was black with patches of ash and snow scattered here and there, and his face was lined the markers of spending time with other peoples’ problems.
“Please, take a seat, Mr. Vikas,” he said, gesturing with one of his thick fingered hands towards the sofa.
I nodded distantly, and shakily approached the sofa. I sat down as the man came around the desk, taking a seat in the armchair.
“Mr. Vikas, I am Dr. Philip Jacobi. I am in very grateful for your participation today,” he said, extending his hand.
I took his hand, shaking it as firmly as I could manage. “Think nothing of it,” I said, my voice sounding oddly far away.
“I suppose I should explain what it is exactly that this procedure will entail, no?” he asked, his tone as carefree as if he’d been inquiring about the weather.
I simply nodded, my mouth unable to form the necessary words of affirmation.
“I’m sure you’re at least aware that this is an experiment of the mind, one to help you come to terms with some rather…unpleasant memories? Hmm?” he posed.
I nodded once more.
“Very well, then,” he said, leaning back into his chair. “Let me begin by telling you just a small bit about your own brain.”
I felt the corner of my lip curl for just a brief second in the slightest expression of annoyance. I swallowed, trying to remain patient and focused on Dr. Jacobi.
“Your brain is an incredible, incredible specimen, as are all brains,” he began, his eyes glazed over as if reminiscing over a loved one. “The human brain is divided into several different parts: the hemispheres, left and right, the fore, hind, and midbrain, the lobes, et cetera, et cetera. The only parts that we shall be focusing on today will be that of the hippocampus, and the amygdala –” he said, until I felt my own lips moving.
“The hippo-what?” I heard myself say, my throat forcing down another thick glob of saliva.
The doctor blinked at me, as if he couldn’t possibly believe that I was questioning him, much less interrupting him. “The hippocampus,” he repeated, “and the amygdala are both parts of your limbic system. This is where your conscious mind, and your unconscious mind reside. Your emotions, memories, fears, desires, and instincts all come from this area,” he finished, his eyes locking onto mine.
“Recently, my colleagues and I have developed a most spectacular drug,” he said, his voice making me think of a proud father at a soccer game. “This drug is targeted towards amnesia victims, but not quite in the reason you’re thinking. No, this drug isn’t meant to bring back lost memories, but it is to help the brain compartmentalize and accept the ones that it already has. This can be such an onerous and painful thing to do, but this drug has the power to soothe the minds of even the most damaged patients,” he finished.
I opened my mouth to ask a question, but Dr. Jacobi spoke before I could.
“Now, this drug isn’t the traditional pill or syrup or serum that you would receive from the emergency room,” he added. “The drug is in a gaseous state that, once inhaled, stimulates the olfactory senses, more commonly known as your sense of smell. Scent is the most effective way of promoting memory recollection since all scent related information passes through the hippocampus on its way to the temporal lobe, therefore, scent should more than be able to aid in the storage of memories as well,” he stated.
At that point, any and all words I might’ve wanted to say had long abandoned me. I was alone, even in my thoughts, and all I could do was breathe a faint, “Oh.”
“Today, you will be given a controlled dose of the drug via a nasal pipe, much like what you would wear if you were being given oxygen, while being connected to a few devices,” he said, gesturing towards the noisy machines to my left. “One will monitor your brain activity, the others your heart rate and oxygen levels. There is no need for you to feel worried,” he said, his voice sounding genuinely assuring. “After all, the only fears you have are the ones you’ve created for yourself.”
I felt my lips unstick from one another as I felt a question forming on my tongue. “When do we start?” I asked softly.
Dr. Jacobi smiled. “Right now,” he answered.
“Try and relax now, Mr. Vikas,” said Dr. Jacobi as he stuck a final electrode on my right temple.
I was covered in them, electrodes. They littered my face and chest like a pox, making the machines beep and whir rhythmically beside me. I was laying on my back, my eyes staring at the plain, unblemished ceiling above me, trying to focus on my breathing.
“Your vitals seem normal, so, if we may begin?” asked Dr. Jacobi as he slowly began to untangle a long, transparent tube.
“Sure,” I responded, my voice hollow and distant.
“Excellent, excellent,” muttered the doctor.
He approached me seconds later with what appeared to be a standard oxygen tube, the kind that rests just inside your nostrils. I let him place it on my face, working to keep breathing normally.
“I haven’t begun to give you the drug just yet,” he said calmly as he lowered himself back into the armchair. “First, I need to get you under hypnosis, understand?”
“Yes,” I replied, not wanting to nod for fear of dislodging one of the electrodes.
“Very well, then,” said the doctor. “I want you to close your eyes for me, Mr. Vikas,” he instructed.
I shut my eyes, my ears scouring the air for the doctor’s next words.
“In a few moments, we are going to count backwards from ten together. I want you to tap your right leg with your right hand to indicate that you understand me,” he said, his voice now holding a sense of gravity that hadn’t been there previously.
I patted my right thigh with the specified hand, feeling the weathered material of the jeans I wore beneath my clammy palm.
“On my mark, we will begin counting. By the time you have counted down to five, you will be inhaling the drug. You will not detect any change in the air you breathe. You will not feel as if you are being given anything. Please tap your right leg once more so I that I know you understand,” he said, his voice sounding significantly softer, quieter, than it had been, as if he was standing on the opposite end of the room.
I tapped my thigh once again.
“Once you have counted from ten to one, you will lose consciousness. You will awaken within your own mind, as if in a dream, and we will have no further contact until you next gain consciousness. I strongly advise you to proceed with caution from this point on. You will be alone with your subconscious, with the memories of what has driven you to come here today. You will confront whatever it is that may be haunting you, and it will not be easy. Now, I want you to begin counting down from ten… now.”
I pulled my lips apart, trying to calm the wild fluttering of my heart within my chest.
“Ten, nine, eight…”
My breathing was growing steadily shallower, as if I were succumbing to a panic attack.
“Seven, six, five…”
I wiped my damp palms against the tops of my legs, squeezing my eyelids tighter.
“Four… three… two…”
I took a deep breath.
It was deafeningly silent, save for the haunting creaking of old wood. I smelled rot and earth, scents I’d normally associate with a coffin.
I was on my back, lying with my right leg crossed over my left, my hands folded neatly on my stomach. Wearily, unsure of what else to do, I opened my eyes, and felt my breath hitch in my throat.
I was in a grand, old home, a mansion or a manor. It was old, ancient, and decrepit, filled with signs of time passing.
I carefully worked my way into a sitting position, looking about the room I was in. I was very surprised to see that the drug had indeed transported me somewhere else, but why to a manor? What purpose did it serve? What did it represent?
I rose off of the floor slowly, blinking in mild shock, observing my new environment. I took a deep breath, only to cough loudly as the dust polluted air suddenly filled my chest.
I was in the foyer of the mansion, the floors made of a dark wood that had been stripped of its varnish. A layer of grime coated everything, making every surface appear luminescent in the light that streamed from everywhere and nowhere at once.
There were the remains of a massive chandelier lying in the centre of the foyer, scattering a mist of light fractals and glass in all directions. To my left and to my right was a pair of identical staircases, both leading to a single, open door on the upper level.
The walls were bare, except for the few empty picture frames that were hung every few feet or so. The frames were identical, each the same large size and design, each devoid of a photograph or painting.
I turned around, expecting to see a door, only to stumble back a few steps in shock.
There was an immense painting on the wall behind me, one that was impossibly big. It rose from the mid-wall nearly to the ceiling, the frame covered in bits and pieces of pallid cobwebs. It depicted a Renaissance Plague Doctor holding a single, crimson rose, standing amidst a sea of wheat stalks, staring off into the distance.
My heart was thrashing violently, as if it were a caged beast fighting to escape by body. Something about the painting was stupendously off-putting. I had no clue as to what this entity could possibly be here to help me confront. I had never had an interest in history, and I was only aware of the Plague Doctors because of a few short novels I’d read. I doubted the image was there to alert me that I’d simply enjoyed those books.
I began to feel a faint trickle of nausea creeping up from my gut as I continued to gaze upon the painting, causing me to quickly turn away.
I gasped sharply, feeling quite confused, and much disoriented.
I was now standing on the upper level, facing the open door that I’d seen from the foyer. I hadn’t climbed the stairs, much less even considered entering the unlit room, but as I stood before it, I felt a sense of morbid curiosity urging me to proceed.
I quickly glanced behind me, only to be greeted with the same image of the foyer, the chandelier’s corpse, and the colossal painting. I was relieved that something had remained static.
I faced the doorway once again, balling my hands into fists at my sides. I looked to my left, seeing only an empty picture frame. I looked to my right, and saw the same empty frame. I had nowhere else to go except forward.
I felt my breaths escaping my parted lips, the air dry and thin. I swallowed, and passed through the doorway.
Long Way Down: Part 2
Recommended Listening: Seven Devils by Florence + The Machine
The door slammed shut behind me of its own accord, filling the still air with the dead thud of heavy wood falling into place.
Instantly, I was bathed in blackness. There wasn’t as much as a single pinprick of light before me. It appeared as if I were made of shadow, my body non-existent in this realm of pure darkness.
Aside from the absence of light, I became quite confused when I noticed the scent of lavender wafting through the air. I felt something tapping at my memory, something trying to remind me what the significance of lavender was, but I couldn’t remember what it was for the life of me.
I wondered if there was a chance of finding a lamp or a flashlight somewhere within the room, so I choose to take a single step forward in hopes of locating a light source.
My shoe clapped against the barren, wooden floor, as a single gas lamp illuminated on the opposite end of the room, followed by a pair on the walls to my left and right, and another, and another after that, until the room fully came to light.
I suddenly regretted entering the room.
I was surrounded by mirrors of all shapes and sizes. They were all pristine, all appearing brand new. They ranged in height from as tall as I was, to as small as the ones found in women’s cosmetic’s products.
The most eerie thing of all was that my reflection did not appear in a single mirror.
I turned around, only to come face to face with a floor to ceiling mirror, also devoid of my reflection.
I stepped back, a faint, startled cry escaping my lips as I turned back to the room, hoping to locate an exit somewhere within it.
I was horrendously confused. I didn’t have the slightest clue as to what my mind was trying to help me understand by showing me these, quite frankly, creepy, images. I wanted to confront my past, but what purpose did these mirrors serve? Was I to reflect on my past, on myself? But, if that was the case, where was my reflection? How could I possibly reflect on myself without seeing myself at all?
Did it signify change? But, change in what regard? Change in my home life, in my mindset, in my personality? It was all so frustratingly obtuse.
I walked forward until I reached what must’ve been the centre of the room. I saw an expanse of mirrors in all directions, none of them housing a reflection. It was unnervingly blank, and uncannily muted within the room, as if I were underwater.
I began to turn in place, trying to see a change in one of the mirrors, to see my reflection, perhaps.
I stopped, facing in some unclear direction. I shut my eyes, rubbing my face with my fingers, trying to just think about what exactly was going on.
I released my face, looking into the mirror immediately in front of me, and I screamed.
I finally saw my reflection, showing me in my pale blue shirt and black jeans, along with the expression of absolute horror I wore on my face due to what I saw. No, it wasn’t my own face that had gotten me so shook up.
Just beyond my right shoulder was the face of the only woman I’d loved more than my own mother: Vera.
I felt the air scraping past my lips as I inhaled, causing me to involuntarily step backwards, closer to my wife.
I remembered why lavender was so important. Vera grew lavender in our garden, and had sprigs of the plant placed all over the house. Whenever I embraced her, she smelled as if she were made of the plant itself.
I turned around, expecting to see her, standing in front of me, but instead I saw myself once more, and my wife just behind me, reflected in another mirror.
I stood still, listening to the weak rushing of the blood in my ears, the otherwise soundless room bearing heavily against the quiet noises my body made.
Her name fled from my mouth like the dying breath of an elder. I stood there, staring at her, trying to see if the blank expression she donned would change.
Her soft, brown eyes remained glassy, almost as if she couldn’t see me. She blinked, once, twice, as a single tear raced down the side of her cheek.
I wanted to turn around, and wipe the moisture away, to try and be the husband I never was. I knew that if I turned once again, she’d simply be behind me again, so I chose to stay staring at her reflection in the mirror.
What good would a change of heart accomplish now? Years have gone by since the divorce. I doubted that making amends to a mental imagination of my wife would solve anything.
The second that thought crossed my mind, I watched, fear pulling my eyes wide, as my wife’s face transformed.
Her eyes filled with a thick, murky, dark liquid, as if she her eyes were being injected with a cloud of ink. The fluid pooled like tears at her lower lash line until it spilled over her cheeks, streaking her smooth skin with charred rivulets. Her jaw seemed to unhinge as a terrible, piercing cry ripped from her throat, making our reflections ripple in the mirror in front of us.
I felt my breath rush out from within me as I lunged forward into the mirror, shattering it, wanting to destroy the image of whatever I’d just seen. The moment her eyes began to grow black, I knew that the woman who I’d encountered was the farthest thing from my wife. It was a manifestation of my worst fears, embodied in one of the few people I’d managed to damage just a little bit more than myself. She was my guilt, my regret, my self-loathing, and my disgust. I needed to get away. I needed to overcome it.
I bit hard on the inside of my cheek to prevent myself from crying out in pain as I felt the shards of broken glass embed themselves into the flesh of my face, arms, and chest. I felt my blood soaking into the material of my shirt, staining it impossibly red. I tried to flee, screaming as loud as my vocal chords would let me, as the creature behind me raked her nails across my back, shredding the back of my shirt into tattered ribbons.
I lost my footing on a mirror fragment, and I felt myself falling forwards, almost in slow motion, as I collided with about seven other nearby mirrors.
The sound of breaking glass was nearly as deafening as the sound of our combined wailing. The burning sensations I felt radiated all over my body, even to places where the glass had failed to puncture.
I began to crawl forwards, using my forearms to drag the rest of my body away, towards the plain, wooden door I could see just a few feet in front of me.
I tried to ignore the thin streams of blood that I smeared along the floor as I moved, but the sharp red colour invaded my vision every time I tried to avert my gaze. The smell was too rancid to cast aside. The air reeked of sweat, metal, and bile, a combination which did my stomach no favors. I did my best to disregard the absolutely torturous feeling of something, something needle-like and acidic, pulling at the meat of my left calf. It felt like I was tugging a grand piano behind me by my leg, and the pressure did not let up.
A harsh scream erupted from my throat as the creature pulled violently against my leg, dragging me backwards, farther away from the door. I watched, my sight going blurry with unshed tears, as my fingers feebly tried to hook onto something, anything, along the floor, just to escape this nightmare. I couldn’t do anything more but watch as my fingers painted the floor beneath me in smears of my own blood.
The pain in my leg was becoming nearly unbearable, and I realized that my top priority should be to get that damn creature off of me.
I forced myself to roll onto my back, howling like a wounded child as I felt angular pieces of glass cut and dig into my back, each one breaking the skin instantly.
I felt the cup of coffee that I’d drank earlier in the morning churning within my stomach as I laid eyes on the sight in front of me.
The beast was at my leg, biting onto it. Its jaw was opened wider than any I knew possible, its teeth small, yellowed pinpricks drenched in the bloody streams that poured from the cuts on my calf. Though it couldn’t have possibly spoken, I heard it say, as clearly as rain on a sunny day, “You let me down.”
I didn’t respond. I couldn’t have, but I thought to myself that no, I didn’t let anyone down, at least not that monstrosity on my leg.
I’d done wrong, I knew that. I had never been good at being there for others, but I knew, more so than anything else, how to be there for myself. When things went bad between me and Vera, I retreated, far, far away into myself, so that hopefully I’d be able to prevent myself from doing any more damage than I’d already done.
I never got to tell her how sorry I was.
My breath got caught in my throat then. I didn’t think after that. I just moved.
My free leg recoiled, and stretched out in a flash, slamming into the side of the creature’s head.
It roared in rage as its body rag-dolled away from me, its clawed hands clattering along the floor.
I blinked, and found myself on my feet. I didn’t care how, I didn’t care why. I wanted out, but there was something I needed to do first.
I stood there, watching the creature try and organize its tangled mass of spindly limbs, trying to slow the hammering of my heart.
I shut my eyes, and said aloud, “Vera, love, I’m so sorry. What happened to Christopher was hard on the both of us, not just me, and I shouldn’t have acted the way I did. I shouldn’t have hid myself from you, from us. I should’ve known that even when everything we knew fell apart, we still had each other, just like you made me promise back in college. It sounds stupid, cliché, whatever. It doesn’t matter. Vera, I loved you, and I still do, okay? I hope… I hope that one day I’ll be able to tell you this, and that you’ll forgive me. Please, I want nothing more than to make things right. Please, Vera, believe me!”
I didn’t realize that my voice was becoming louder and louder as I spoke, coming to a shout as I voiced the last sentence.
Tears slipped passed my closed eyelids, and I wiped them away before they had a chance to mix with the bloodstains on my face. I pulled back my hands, and opened my eyes.
I was staring a closed door, identical to the one I’d seen within the room of mirrors. I felt relief flood from my chest to my fingertips as I understood that I’d finally put that part of me at ease. I knew what I was supposed to do the next time I saw Vera. I knew how to make things right, not just in my mind, but hers as well.
Long Way Down: Part 3
Recommended Listening: What the Water Gave Me by Florence + The Machine
I turned around to see a long hallway behind me. The walls were blank, just plain white, save for the evenly spaced gas lamps that were hung every few feet or so. There was a door on the opposite end of the hall, which I took to mean that I was supposed to cross it.
I let out a deep breath, calming my body from the excessive amounts of fear that it had just experienced. I decided to sit, and take a moment to breathe before moving on.
I propped myself up against one wall, lowering myself gingerly to the floor. I then began to gently pluck any remaining glass fragments out of my skin, my face twisting into a painful grimace each time I pulled a shard free.
I went to examine my leg, where that monster had bit me, only the find the skin unblemished, and painless, as if nothing had happened.
Once I’d gotten all of the glass out of me, I leaned heavily against the wall to get back on my feet. I rubbed the back of my neck, exhaling slowly, and started forward down the hall.
I suppose I should’ve turned back the moment the gas lamps started to flicker, but I didn’t. I kept going, ignoring the almost undetectable gusts of wind that rushed past my body. I pretended that I didn’t smell the overpowering scent of stale seawater as I made it to the middle of the hall. That’s when I stopped.
The door I’d been heading towards was suddenly obscured by the presence of a shadow. It was humanoid in shape, and cast no shadow of its own, despite the numerous light sources that surrounded it.
I furrowed my brow, confused as to how I’d neglected to notice it from down the hall prior to this point. It wasn’t exactly hard to miss.
I took a step back, and saw the shadow blink out of existence.
It didn’t make sense, but despite my desire to cross the hall, I assumed it would be a wiser choice for me to just turn around.
Staring at the now clearly visible door, I began to back up, until I couldn’t. I turned around and was confronted by the sight of a wall. I didn’t know where it came from, but it was now very clear that I needed to go towards the door.
I pursed my lips, and turned back to the door.
As soon as I crossed the midpoint, the shadow reappeared again, but I kept walking. I neared it, watching as its fuzzy, black outline grew clearer and clearer, until I could make out the pale, cream coloured bird mask it wore on its face, the deep, black holes that marked its eyes, and the single, red rose it clutched in its hand.
I stopped, realizing that I was beginning to feel very, very nauseated. I was about five feet away from the Plague Doctor, watching it watch me, my vision growing increasingly blurry around the edges. The world seemed to tilt as I stared at it, unsure of what to do. It was so quiet, as if I’d jammed my fingers in my ears. My fingertips felt numb, my body shaking more and more violently as time ticked on. I couldn’t move, even though I desperately wanted to.
I could only watch, dread seeping into my gut, as it began to approach me.
The two lights to its left and right blacked out, dousing the entity in darkness. It came closer still, causing two more lights to wink out as it passed them. The mask it wore appeared to glow in the lamplight, making it appear ethereal as it continued its approach.
I felt my heart clench in my chest, my breath stop in my lungs. My legs tensed, and lunged back as I broke into a near sprint to get away from the creature.
The wall behind me was gone, but I didn’t care. I heard and felt the air scraping against the inside of my dry mouth, my palms suddenly sweat-soaked. I heard the far-away claps of the Plague Doctor’s feet as it treaded towards me, my own thundering footfalls not loud enough to drown out the sound completely.
I ran, and ran, trying not to think about the fact that the end of the hallway seemed to be just as far away as it was when I began running. The scent of seawater burned my nostrils, but I couldn’t afford to dwell on it.
I looked back over my shoulder, only to find that the Plague Doctor had disappeared. My eyes grew large in disbelief, but I didn’t stop running.
I looked forwards again, and screamed.
The Plague Doctor stood only half a foot in front of me, the rose missing from its hand. Instead, splashes of a violent red dripped down from above onto its robe, the colour almost too bright to look at.
I angled my body away from the Plague Doctor, getting ready to run the other way, when I heard the sound of rushing water.
It was a resounding roar, as if all of the feral beasts upon the Earth had chosen that precise second to cry out.
I saw it, a wave of pure red water speeding towards me, spraying blood-red foam along the walls as it passed. It was going to swallow up the Plague Doctor, but I didn’t give the idea much thought. By that time, I’d already turned and started sprinting down the hall.
I was panting heavily, though I wasn’t very tired. The thought of drowning in a bloody river was frightening enough to send my body into overdrive. Every point of sensation on my skin was alive, buzzing with my most primal desire: to survive.
I blinked rapidly, trying to keep the flecks of crimson water from getting into my eyes. It was between a few of these blinks that I noticed the Plague Doctor, once again barring me from accessing the door. I felt an enraged, frustrated sound burst from my mouth as I charged forward, not giving a damn about the Plague Doctor. I wanted out, and nothing was going to stop me from achieving that.
I wasn’t exactly surprised to find that the Plague Doctor was nothing more than a spectre, one I easily passed through in my desperate attempt to escape. I ended up barrelling into the thick wooden door, only to find the knob missing, and the door locked.
I beat and pounded upon the door, shouting out in fury to be free, as if the combined effort of my voice and my fists would manage to break down the door. The water was lapping at my waist, my blue shirt now completely reddened. It was so cold, the water. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t do anything except try to get the door open.
No matter how hard I punched, or how strongly I bashed my shoulder against the door, it wouldn’t so much as quiver under my battery. I was going to drown in a sea of blood, and there was nothing I could do about it.
As I realized my fate, I thought, is this what Christopher felt?
Seven years old, and left unsupervised during a trip to the beach, I remember losing Christopher every second that I continue to live. Part of that inability to forget led to the destruction of my marriage, along with a severe addiction to coffee and Valium. I figured numbness was a way out, the only way to function without feeling like I’d murdered a child.
PTSD, I think the shrink had called it. It was bullshit, but they just had to label me, to make me easier to treat.
I wish I could believe that I really wasn’t at fault, but I was.
I was the one who insisted on getting Chris in the water. I was the one who told him to wait for me while I got my camera. I didn’t pay attention to the screaming beach goers as they tried to alert someone that a child was being swept away by the tide. I didn’t even run to his side as the lifeguard towed his small body out of the sea, his pale, blond hair looking as white as the flowers we chose for his funeral. I couldn’t. I couldn’t accept that I was responsible for the death of my son, not that day, and not now, many years later. It’s an agony I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy.
If only Christopher knew just how much I cared for him, how much I regretted my actions from that day. If I could turn back the clock, I would’ve done it already. If I could speak to the dead, I would’ve begged for his forgiveness, but, Christopher was gone, only living in the memories and photographs I carried of him. It wasn’t enough to soothe me. It wasn’t enough to help me move on.
A large wave of red water splashed over my head, finally pulling me under. I looked up, watching the light stream in through a hazy, scarlet filter. I hadn’t gotten a chance to take a deep enough breath to swim to the surface. I doubt I’d even try to if I had.
Maybe I was getting what I deserved. I didn’t deserve the live out the lonely life I’d created for myself.
As I floated there in the water, my breath escaping me in pink and magenta bubbles, my eyelids began to droop. My chest was scalding me with the desire to just inhale, and breathe, but my instincts wouldn’t let me. I just remained still, allowing the water to slowly pull me down, deeper and deeper still.
My vision blackened at the edges, and I blinked, trying to see. See what, I wasn’t sure, but I held this urge to keep my eyes open.
Blinking rapidly, I felt my heart falter like a bird with a broken wing within my chest.
In the distance, I saw a shape. It was small, humanoid, and approaching me. My lungs were screaming for air, my limbs too fatigued to move. I stared ahead, watching my dead son swim up to me.
His blond hair was floating wildly about his small, round face, his brown eyes glowing in the water. He was smiling, as if he were happy about swimming in this sickeningly red sea.
I couldn’t speak, but my mind called out to him. I said his name over and over in my head, and I watched as his eyes lit up in recognition.
He surged forwards, his tiny hands extended towards me. He reached out in what seemed like slow motion, and placed his hands on my shoulders.
If I could cry underwater, I would have been. I had no air left within me to produce any sobs, and the tears that fled from my eyes got whisked away by the bloody water that surrounded me.
Christopher wrapped his thin arms around my neck in a faint embrace. My nerves were dull, and I couldn’t make out much more than the brilliant glow of his hair, but I felt it. I felt him grab onto me, and hold me. I wanted to lift my arms, but my body wouldn’t respond. I wanted so, so badly to say sorry, to say something, but my lips were frozen, and my voice was long gone.
In my head, I screamed apologies, I wailed, rambling over and over to Christopher. I told him I was sorry, that I shouldn’t have left him alone, and that it was my fault that he was gone.
Out of nowhere, Chris lifted his head. I felt the strands of his hair brush the side of my face, the feeling not unlike encountering seaweed in the ocean, as he spoke.
“It’s okay, dad. I’m okay. You don’t need to do this anymore. Just let go, daddy,” he whispered, his voice muted by the water.
I couldn’t see him anymore, and I couldn’t feel my body. I was just a thought, strewn about somewhere in an endless expanse of red.
“Just let go, dad,” he repeated, the feeling of his arms fading away. “I forgive you, okay? Just let go.”
“Remember,” he said, his voice echoing through the chambers of my mind, “I love you.”
I felt my lips part as water rushed inside, filling me with fluid as I lost consciousness.
Long Way Down: Part 4
Recommended Listening: Lurking in the Dark by Masafumi Takada
It was because I’d tried to breathe that I woke up.
The water in my lungs burned coming up, making me cough and hack and sputter until my body was clear of the liquid. I heard it splatter against the floor as I spat it up, the spray flying onto my fingertips.
My clothes were dry, and my socks and shoes were missing, but my hair still dripped droplets of the cold water onto my forehead, cheeks, and nose.
I suppose I felt more at peace, more free of what had been haunting me about Christopher’s death. I felt shell shocked, like I couldn’t believe that I didn’t need to dwell on what could have been any longer. I know that the Christopher I’d seen wasn’t really him, but I needed to see what I did, to hear what I did. There was a heaviness that was missing from within me, and I didn’t want it back.
It wasn’t until I’d calmed my breathing, and soothed my faltering heart that I tried to look at the world around me.
It was very hard to determine just where I was. I couldn’t see very well, considering that the lights in the room, a few fluorescent panels above my head, flickered on and off every few seconds. I couldn’t see for more than two seconds at a time, the flashing lights creating almost a strobing effect. From what I could see, I was in a room made entirely of stone blocks. The room appeared to have no doors, and no windows. Just walls of stone, frigid even through the clothes I wore. It smelled of mildew and earth, like the soil in my backyard when the snow melts each winter. There was a breeze coming from somewhere, but each time I turned to find its point of origin, I felt it against my back, as if its source was simply behind me at all times.
I carefully stood up, looking around the room for a way out. I wondered if this was a transition room, one that I simply needed to pass through in order to find my way out of this giant riddle of a mansion my mind had set up for me.
I tried turning about, looking for a change in the environment, but my movement accompanied by the irregular, pulsating lights were making me feel disoriented. I couldn’t tell what side I was facing, where I was looking, or when I was blinking.
I felt a small bit of anger working its way through my chest just as a drop of water fell from my hair, and into my eye, causing it to sting harshly. I rubbed at my eye with the palm of my hand, trying to work the pain out of it, while trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing.
As I pulled my hand away from my face, I looked up, and felt my stomach drop straight to my feet.
The lights blinked a few times, illuminating the stark black figure of the Plague Doctor, standing just a few feet in front of me. He still casted no shadows, and was still holding that single, damn rose.
I didn’t move, and neither did he. We just stood there, staring at each other.
As the lights continued to flash on and off, I noticed something peculiar.
The Plague Doctor seemed to be standing slightly closer to me, each time the lights stayed on for long enough for me to see.
I felt my heart thudding like the hooves of an army of horses in my chest, my attempt at calming down proving to be useless.
The lights flicked off, completely this time. The room was as silent as death, my own labored breathing making no noise. It was as dark as spilled ink, with not so much as a glimmer of any light visible.
The lights suddenly blinked back on, and to my horror, the Plague Doctor had crossed half the distance between us.
I gasped in shock, my feet carrying me backwards as the lights blacked out once again.
I didn’t care that I couldn’t see. I needed to get away. I knew that I’d run right through him before, but I was getting very different impulses about the entity now. I just knew that I wouldn’t be able to bypass him the same way I had before.
I turned around and began to run as fast I was able to, which wasn’t very fast at all. My body still ached and creaked from nearly drowning, and my lungs weren’t letting me breathe as I needed to.
The lights came back on, and I stopped as quickly as I could to prevent myself from running into the Plague Doctor that had appeared in front of me.
I screamed, caught off guard by the Plague Doctor once again.
I turned and ran once again, my bare feet slapping against the floor.
The word echoed around the stone walls, and I felt my legs stop pumping until I stood still in the centre of the room.
I couldn’t move, even though my fight or flight response was making it very clear that I needed to flee.
I heard footsteps from behind me, getting steadily louder and louder, as they came closer.
“You can’t run from death,” I heard a hoarse voice say from my right beside my ear. I was startled by how similar his voice sounded to my own.
The need I felt to run was more powerful than the fear I felt in that instance. I doubted I was in any real danger, but there was no mistaking the animalistic instincts I was experiencing.
I felt moisture seep over my toes, and I looked down, wondering if I’d managed to soil myself in my fear. Instead, I saw that I was standing in a large pool of a deep, brown liquid. I wouldn’t have realized what it was if it weren’t for the unmistakable scent of coffee that wafted upwards from the floor.
I felt confusion replace my unease, trying to understand what the spilled coffee meant, what the Plague Doctor meant, what this entire room what trying to get me to understand.
“You can’t run from death,” the Plague Doctor repeated.
“Alright, shut up!” I shouted as I turned around to face him, my legs finally responding to my commands.
And then, it all made sense.
I had tried to run from Christopher’s death by staying up late, pouring cup after cup of coffee. I didn’t want to sleep, I couldn’t, because I’d see Christopher in pain, crying, calling for me to help him.
I understood what the Plague Doctor was trying to tell me.
He extended his hand, offering me his red rose, the petals unnaturally vibrant in the dim, gray room.
I took the rose from the Plague Doctor, starting as I pricked my finger on one of the rose’s thorns. I watched a single droplet of my blood fall to the stone floor beneath my feet, the coffee puddle suddenly all dried up.
I looked to the Plague Doctor, only to find him gone, and to see that I was back in the foyer of the mansion.
The rose in my hand was now wilted, its petals shriveled and dead. There were no more picture frames along the walls, just plain, white wallpaper. The door on the second floor was no longer there, but a single floor to ceiling mirror hung in its place. I turned around and saw that the painting of the Plague Doctor was gone as well, leaving only a darkened patch where the painting use to hang.
I dropped the rose stem from my hand, and slowly sank to the floor. I sat, my bare feet sticking to the dusty, wooden floor, wondering what I was supposed to do next.
I can say that I felt much lighter, as if I’d shrugged off a layer of waterlogged clothing. I could sleep when I got home, and my dreams wouldn’t be clouded by the screams of a broken child. I could call Vera, and settle the mess between us.
I was free.
As I sat there, I started to feel drowsy, like I’d suddenly been drugged. My eyelids fluttered shut as my breathing evened out, my body gently falling back against the wooden floor.
The world blacked out as I started to smell moth balls and air freshener.
Long Way Down: Part 5
Recommended Listening: Long Way Down by Gary Numan
I awoke to the steady beeping of a heart monitor. My eyes blinked a few times, the tendrils of lingering slumber retreating away from me.
I looked around, and saw Dr. Jacobi going over a long sheet of graph paper with erratic, spiky lines printed on it, coming from one of the machines I was connected to. His face grew briefly displeased with what he saw, and he promptly turned to look at me.
“Ah, you’re awake!” he exclaimed, dropping the paper to the floor.
He rushed over to me, and began plucking the electrodes off of my body. Once there wasn’t a single wire left attached to me, he shut off the machines, and took his seat in the armchair across from me.
“Tell me first what you saw before I tell you what I observed,” he said, his eyes glowing with an eager thirst.
Still feeling fairly tuckered out, I groggily relayed what I’d seen, what I’d interacted with, and what I’d managed to understand from it all. By the time I finished speaking, Dr. Jacobi looked about ready to leap up, and give me a hug.
“Remarkable,” he said, awestruck, “absolutely remarkable. Well, Mr. Vikas-”
“Walter is fine,” I said, rubbing the back of my neck.
Dr. Jacobi smiled. “Walter, let me explain what I saw here on these papers.”
He stood up, and hurriedly returned with his arms full of paper. He rifled through the pile until he reached what appeared to be the beginning.
“See here,” he said, pointing to a line with very small peaks and valleys, “this shows you falling straight into REM sleep,” he said. “That is the deepest level of sleep, where your dreams occur. It’s very unusual for someone to bypass the other levels of lighter sleep, and go straight into the deepest.”
He pointed out a bunch more different wavelengths, and told me about how the brainwaves I displayed during my sleep were nearly identical to the ones I’d experienced while being awake. He said it was usually normal for those waves to look similar, but he had trouble discerning if I was asleep or awake for a majority of the experience.
“You didn’t move a muscle while you were under,” he said, “in case you were worried about that.”
“How long was I asleep for?” I asked, stifling a yawn with my hand.
“Two hours,” he replied, “which was half of the time I’d estimated initially.”
I nodded as I got to my feet, feeling more rested than I’d been in years. I reached out my hand, and Dr. Jacobi shook it firmly.
“It’s been a pleasure, Walter,” he said, smiling.
“Thank you, Doctor,” I said, “Have a good day.”
“Likewise,” he responded as he released my hand.
I left the hospital ten minutes later, and got back home in another twenty-five. I threw open the door to my home, locked it behind me, and leaned against the door.
I felt like I’d taken a long shower, and had washed all of my baggage away. I felt slightly hollow, like something wasn’t quite right just yet, but I didn’t think much of it.
I kicked off my boots, and hung my jacket on my coat hook, taking a seat at my kitchen table. The moment I sat down, I felt my phone buzz to life in my pocket.
I pulled out the device, and inhaled sharply when I read the caller I.D: “Vera.”
The empty feeling within me disappeared the instead I saw her name. This was my chance to make things right for good.
I looked at the vase of roses that sat in the centre of my table. An image of the Plague Doctor flashed behind my eyelids.
I knew what to do. I always did, I just didn’t realize that until now.
Pulling a single, red rose out of the vase, I answered the call.
Credit To – Sabrina S.