Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
”What scares you?” Josh asked looking around the table. All other conversations stopped and the attention focused on him. He sat up a little straighter and grinned; he knew he had the floor. They sat outside the bar at one of the tables by the street, so they could smoke and enjoy the setting sun. The evening was nice and cool, and after a few hours of talking and drinking beer, they became an island unto themselves. The ambient noise faded away: the other patrons’ voice died down, the music from the inside muted slightly, and the cars drove by quieter.
“What …. scares…you?” He asked again dragging each work to its finality.
“Oh, not this again,” Audrey said. She took her napkin and wiped her mouth, “what is it with you and this shit?”
“What shit?” Josh asked, feigning indignation. ”This ‘what scares you’ bullshit. Why are you so interested in scaring people?”
“He’s a goddamn weirdo,” Audrey’s husband Dave answered; a smile partially hidden behind his beer. Josh lit a cigarette and turned to his girlfriend, “Am I a weirdo Nicole?”
“Without a doubt.” She said. The table erupted with laughter.
Dave and Audrey had known Josh for a long time, and after a few weeks of haranguing, Josh finally decided to introduce them to his new girlfriend Nicole. Josh was not known – amongst his friends- to keep women around for a prolonged period of time; but apparently, he was enamored with this girl. All of Josh’s girlfriends left around the three-month period, but Nicole had made it past that. Dave and Audrey wanted a look at the record holder.
Dave immediately understood why Josh was so captured with Nicole; she was smart and beautiful, but most importantly – as Josh explained to him in conversations and tones reserved for best friends- she liked to fuck. Josh spend nights at her apartment, and when he began to feel the claws of commitment closing in, he would go home. Still, Nicole always managed to get an invitation to spend the night at Josh’s. It wasn’t hard for Dave to figure out how.
Audrey, on the other hand, saw something else. Josh liked Nicole because she let Josh be Josh. He was boisterous, outgoing and could sometimes be abrasive, but Nicole didn’t mind. She was demure and quiet. She allowed Josh to always be the front and center and had no problem standing in the sideline of his one man show Josh liked that.
The water approached with a fresh round of beers as Josh continued: “Really though, what scares you guys? For example, what keeps you up at night, when it’s pitch black and you can’t sleep, what frightens you?”
Audrey thanked the waiter and handed Dave a beer as they exchanged a quick look of understanding. If you spend a lot of time with Josh, you began to recognize this episode. Josh was hooked in, and would not let this go until he was satisfied. This kind of determination could be off-putting; Josh was a good guy – he just had no off switch.
He waited for an answer and looked over at Nicole; she shifted in her seat, lit a cigarette, and looked out at the horizon, watching the sun’s final orange glow disappear behind the city’s skyline.
“Dave, what scares you buddy?” Josh asked.
We’ve been friends close to 20 years; you know what scares me.”
“I know – spiders.” Dave shuddered.
Josh shook his head, ”That’s not what I’m talking about- I mean deep down inside, in the places you don’t like to visit; that door inside of you that creeps open in the dead of night, when rationality is lost, and real fear makes an appearance, that’s what I want to hear.”
“Give me a cigarette,” Dave said. Josh obliged. Dave lit the cigarette and dragged deep. Josh could sense Dave’s trepidation; he knew what he wanted was there; he knew how to get through to Dave, and help dig it up.
“Give it to me bud; don’t hold back; give me… naked truth; show me … desperation, bald, uncompromising, unadulterated fear.” His voice rose and he became more animated.” From the bottom of the dark well in your mind – reach down – what comes up!?” Josh sounded like a director motivating his star actor.
Dave let out a puff of smoke, put a hand on Audrey’s knee, squinted at Josh and said, “Someone breaking into our apartment in the middle of the night tying me up raping Audrey and then killing her while I ‘m forced to watch.” It took Dave no time to answer; the idea was already buried there, and he said it all as if it were one word. Josh had unearthed it, he wiped away the top layer of Dave’s consciousness and revealed this fear that was just beneath the surface. All Dave had to do was pull it out and show it.
“Honey!!!” Audrey yelled.
”That’s what I’m talking about;” Josh exclaimed, jabbing a pointed finger at Dave.
Dave put out his cigarette and looked at Audrey. She grabbed his face and kissed him repeatedly, as if kisses would shield him from such atrocities.
Josh leaned over and whispered in Nicole’s ear while Audrey was soothing Dave. “Hey you ok?” He asked.
“Mmmhmm. Just tired.”
“OK.” He smiled, turned forward and looked at Dave. ”That was great Dave, and now don’t you feel better too?” He asked in a calm motherly tone.
“Why haven’t you ever told me that?” Audrey asked.
“Why would I?” Dave said while getting up to go to the bathroom. “I don’t know.” Audrey said as she watched him walk away. “What about you?” Josh said, setting is sights on Audrey.
She turned to him, “what about me?” “You’re on deck, what scares you?”
“I’m not telling you, you fucking weirdo.”
Josh laughed out loud and several of the other tables turned towards the commotion.
“No, it’s stupid.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s stupid,” He said matter-of-factly; Audrey gave him the finger, “But that’s the good stuff, ’cause not only does it scare you, but your also self-conscious about it too.” Audrey shook her head. “I’ll bet I can guess.” Josh proffered playfully.
“Clowns” He interrupted.
“OK.” Josh said. He rubbed his hands together and inched closer to the front of his chair. He began to speak rapidly, leaving no room for interjection.
“Snakes, planes, public speaking, fat people, midgets, old people, old fat midgets on a
“Aliens!!!” she cried, finally surrendering. “Aliens? Like what, Mexicans?”
“No, not illegal aliens, you fucking boob, I’m talking about…. space aliens.” Dave returned from the bathroom and took his place next to Audrey.
Suddenly, Josh burst into hysterical laughter as Audrey shook her head in resignation.
“See I told you it was stupid.” “What’s stupid?” Dave asked.
Through a choking laughter, Josh yelled “ALIENS!”
Nicole looked at Josh and smiled. Audrey thought it looked forced, like she was playing along more than actually having fun.
“Oh, the aliens thing,” Dave smirked, “She’s terrified of ’em.”
“Alien was a scary movie” Nicole said, “my sister had nightmares after she saw it.” Dave looked at Audrey and shook his head, “nah, she can’t even watch E.T.”
“E.T.!!!,” Josh screamed, “that wrinkled penis alien with the long finger?” He looks like an old condom.”
“What are you laughing at?” Audrey asked Dave, slapping him on the shoulder. “Elioooot,” Dave mocked, pointing a finger at Audrey.
Josh abruptly got up. “No, No, No, I can’t” he laughed raucously; his laughter was contagious and after a few seconds Dave and Audrey laughed with him. But a dark cloud had passed over Nicole’s expression and she smiled weakly, like lamplight through a heavy fog.
Eventually, Josh sat back down next to Nicole, his chuckles passing through him like strange hiccups; he took a sip of his beer and continued.
“Alright, where are we?” He said holding up his index finger,” Dave’s fantasy about being tied up and raped-”
“That’s not what I said, “Dave interrupted laughing.
“That’s how I heard it. Moving on,” Josh held up a second finger, “Audrey’s-”
“Wait,” Audrey said. A sly smile spread across her face. “What about you? What scares
Audrey expected some skillfully dodged response. She expected to have to drag the
answer out of Josh, corral him like stray cattle, until he gave some half-ass, joke answer. What she did not expect was a sudden and painful honesty.
“Death” He said.
Audrey looked at him suspiciously; things were never this easy with Josh. “Bullshit, that’s too easy, what really-”
“It’s not bullshit, “Josh said plainly, “It terrifies me.”
“Everyone’s scared of death, no one wants to die.” Dave argued. “What about suicide?” Nicole said.
Dave seemed to ponder this. “I suppose.”
“Look,” Josh said, “I don’t like the idea of death, of dying, of being dead. To be honest, I’m scared there’s nothing on the other side.” Nicole looked at Josh queerly, like he was some strange animal she had never seen before.
Josh began speaking slowly and deliberately; he was being candid and was in rare form.
Again, he held the floor.
“I read somewhere that Shakespeare described sleep as ‘death’s second self’; It fucked me up when I read that, for days, I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking that going to sleep was what dying must feel like. The thought terrified me. The idea that one minute I’m there – alive – and the next I cease to exist frightens me.
I believe that there’s a thin barrier that separates my life, what I am, my hopes, dreams and memories, from an eternity of nothingness. And I began to feel that I only knew I hadn’t died when I woke up. It felt like I died every night. I didn’t like it; I don’t like it. That’s what scares me.”
Josh rubbed a hand from the back of his head down the front of his face, as if he were trying to clear the idea and his expression away.
“You’ve never read Shakespeare.” Dave said incredulously, breaking the silence. They all laughed…except for Nicole.
Audrey couldn’t explain it later, and in the weeks to come, she would ask herself why, a
number of times. Maybe it was the general fun they all seemed to be having, but in that moment-when Nicole looked the most distressed -Audrey chose to ask her.
“What about you Nicole, what scares you?”
Nicole continued to star at Josh, and for a moment it appeared she would not answer.
She sat so still that Dave thought she resembled someone sitting for a painting. Audrey thought she looked like a doll. A sick doll, Nicole had lost all color and the life seemed drained from her, as if she were bleeding from a wound no one could see.
They looked at each other waiting for her to answer. Audrey was about to ask her if she was alright, when Nicole looked directly at her and answered.
“The man in the white suit” The answer escaped from her like a strange bird fleeing its
“The what?” Dave asked.
A bewilderment floated across the table. Audrey leaned in close.
“I didn’t understand you sweetie. Did you say, ‘the man in the white suite’?
“Yes,” Nicole said. “That’s what’s scaring me.” She let out a long sigh, head down,
staring at the table. Staring through the table. Her hands were clasped in her lap; she looked like a child who has divulged a secret she wasn’t supposed to, and sitting there, Audrey thought she looked defeated. Nicole looked like whatever battle had been raging inside of her had been lost and she finally surrendered.
“Sometimes,” she sighed, “at night…. When I’m alone…. a man in a white suit stands next to my bed and stares at me. Sometimes, he whispers, and other times…. he screams all night.”
Dave looked at Josh. What the fuck, his face said. / don’t know Josh mimed back.
Audrey looked at Nicole like she was an unfinished puzzle. There was something missing here, she thought. Something Josh had not told them about her, or maybe, something Nicole had not told Josh about herself. Audrey searched Josh’s face. Whatever was going on he seemed
just as confused as she was. She didn’t think Nicole was joking or teasing; crazy maybe, it was definitely possible that the girl was crazy; but Audrey didn’t think she was lying. Nicole believed what she was saying. And that scared Audrey; she needed to fill in the blanks.
“What does he whisper?”
Nicole looked up, her beautiful green eyes swimming in tears, her body shivering like tremors after a major earthquake and said, “Kill yourself, we’re waiting for you on the other side.”
Her statement hung in the air like a turbid fog. Dave shook his head like he was trying to dislodge the idea from his mind. “I don’t understand, what are you saying? Are you saying that a man in a white suit comes to you at night and tells you to kill yourself?”
“Yes” Nicole said, “Sometimes he screams, she swallowed.” He holds me down and screams in my face; mostly though, he just stares at me.” She said the last part like a battered wife defending her husband.
Dave blinked a few times and said, “Wait, wait… how could this be happening?” This doesn’t make any sense. Who are you talking about?” He could not seem to grasp what she was saying. His rational brain refused to put the words in coherent order; and confused, he looked from Audrey to Josh for help or clarification. Audrey’s hand had gone unconsciously to her mouth and Josh had pinned her with an uncomfortable stare.
Nicole glanced sideways, saw the incredulous look on Josh’s face, and suddenly felt very naked. She looked at Dave; he was still confused. But Audrey, Audrey’s face held a look of pity. Nicole hated this, because not only did it make her feel embarrassed, she also felt ashamed.
She had divulged this secret she had lived with for many years, and the effort it took to reveal this was akin to giving birth in public on display for the whole world to see. And now, they gawked at her: unbelieving, angry and piteous. She didn’t want this; didn’t’ wasn’t to suffer this humiliation any longer. She couldn’t understand why she had said anything in the first place. Maybe deep down inside she wanted to say something, had to say something. This thing was festering inside of her, it ached, like an infected tooth, and she finally decided to pull it out.
“Oh my God,” Nicole covered her mouth “I can’t believe I just told you that, I’m so embarrassed. You can’t possible believe me, you must think I’m crazy 1…. 1….oh God.” Nicole got up without saying another word and talked towards Josh’s car.
No one spoke as she walked away.
Josh drove Nicole home in silence. It felt like another passenger in the car; Josh, Nicole, and the uncomfortable silence.
Nicole was tired, physically, emotionally, and mentally. She was disgusted with herself. How many guys had spent the night at her place doing things to her she didn’t enjoy, just so she would not have to be alone. It made her feel cheap. She hated this…. thing, hated what she had to do to avoid it, hated how embarrassed she was, hated that despite all those things, she was still going to ask Josh to spend the night. What little pride and self-respect she had left was not enough to overcome her fear.
“Would you….” she hesitated, “would you like to spend the night? I understand if you don’t it’s just-”
“It’s just what Nicole?” He snapped at her, never taking his eyes off the road.” The man in the white suit, are you kidding me? Do you know how crazy you sounded? You embarrassed me in from of my friends.”
Nicole tried to respond but all that came out was a tremulous sigh.
“All those nights we spend together” he continued “why? ’cause you were afraid of some- what? Some bogeyman?”
They pulled up to her apartment complex.
“Get out.” He said, still staring forward while knuckles clutched the steering wheel.
Nicole was to shocked to move. He looked at her, smiled a venomous grin, reached over her, grabbed the door handle, opened it and yelled, “GET OUT.” She moved slowly, getting out of the car and standing on rubber legs. Josh drove off, the momentum slamming the car door as he drove away.
Nicole stood there in silence, her face a thundercloud of emotions threatening to explode and send big heavy tears down her face. No one’s ever going to believe me, she thought. This is never going to stop. She took a deep breath and let one tear run down her cheek – she had already made up her mind before the tear hit the floor – and walked to her apartment.
Two blocks away, Josh came to a screeching halt. His car stopped in the middle of the intersection and he had to back up out of the flow of traffic. The red stoplight painted the windshield, his face, and the dashboard in a sickening glow.
“Fuck” He yelled, slamming his fist down against the steering wheel. He had been too harsh with her, no, he had been cruel and he knew it. He had to go back and apologize. He turned his car around and drove back to her place.
Apartment 119, he had spent many nights here and now, he found the front door wide
Apparently, she must’ve been so upset she just ran inside without bothering to close the door behind her.
“Dammit.” He said softly to himself. He walked in and closed the door behind him. “Nicole, it’s me. Hey, listen, I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean those things.” He reached the bedroom door. “Hey are you in there? Can we talk please?”
Without waiting for an answer he opened the door; hand still on the doorknob, took one step inside and stopped cold.
Sitting cross-legged up against the headboard, Nicole held a six-inch butcher knife up to her throat, pointing upwards toward her brain. The knife point had already punctured her skin slightly and a trickle of blood ran down her neck. The moonlight reflected off the silver steel of the knife, making it shine brilliantly in the dark room.
Josh looked up from the knife; standing on Nicole’s left with a hand on her shoulder was a man…. a man in a white suit. His face was a greasy oil smudge on glass and his features were indistinguishable. Josh could only see that his jaw was moving.
The man in the white suit was whispering something.
“Kill yourself, we’re waiting for you on the other side.” Josh looked to Nicole; her hands were firmly planted on the handle of the butcher knife, and she was looking back at him, whispering in chorus with the man in the white suit.
“Kill yourself, we’re waiting for you on the other side.” She said, and Josh watched in frozen horror as she effortlessly slid the knife up through her throat and into her head, like a sword returning to its scabbard.
She slumped against the headboard still looking at Josh. Her body jerked once and then stilled. One of her hands still held the knife while the other, covered in blood, fell off and hit the bed. It laid there dripping blood on the floor. The man in the white suit took his hand off Nicole’s shoulder and walked around the bed towards Josh.
He bolted for the door. He hit it hard enough to shake the frame and helped in pain. He grasped at the lock with numb fingers, fumbling and failing to unlock the door. He grabbed the doorknob frantically shaking it, and banging on the door with his free hand.
He looked back. The man in the white suit was still coming towards him.
Josh was breathing heavily, and the adrenaline pumped wildly in his veins. This…. this was not happening. He knew it; as sure as he knew his own name or that the sun comes up in the morning in the east, he knew that a man in a white suit with a face like a smear could not exist. Josh backed in to the corner of the door and slid to the floor. Watching this thing, that did not exist, slowly walk at him, walking and whispering. Still whispering, he could hear it completely now, inside and outside of his mind. Josh began his own soft whispering, “It’s not real.”
His eyes looked past the man in the white suit to the bedroom. He saw Nicole, she began to move. The butcher knife still embedded in her throat, the handle sticking out from under lower mandible, she began to convulse and twitch. Her head turned slowly towards Josh and she got up off the bed. She caught up to the man in the white suit, leaving behind her blood drops like a trail of breadcrumbs.
Josh could hear them both now, whispering in tandem their evil chant. He continued to whisper to himself, trying to convince himself what he was seeing wasn’t real.
Nicole, pulled the knife out of her throat, grabbed it by the blade, opening her skin, and held the handle out to Josh. The man in the white suite put his hand on Josh’s shoulder as he sat there in the corner by the door.
Now, he had no choice but to believe. And he began to scream, and scream and scream and scream.
Credit: Jack Anthony