26 Dec Not Afraid of the Dark
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"Not Afraid of the Dark"Written by Daniel Martins (a.k.a. Abtrogdor)
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Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
I always have a torch in my pocket these days. I found a small LED one at an electronics store for a couple of bucks, and I keep it on me at all times. It’s actually really bright, despite the size. I bought five, the other four are placed in strategic locations around my house, so I can get to any of them quickly if need be. I won’t be caught in the dark again, you see. It’s bad enough that I see her every time I close my eyes, I don’t think I could handle seeing her again with my eyes open. But, I digress. Perhaps this would be better told from the start.
I used to work in an office building in town, for the public counter service of a Government Department that shall remain unnamed. The work was fine; it basically involved taking and checking applications, talking to the public about different services that our department provided, that sort of thing. Nothing out of the ordinary with the work, or my colleagues, who I got on very well with. The building, however…
To look at it from the outside, you wouldn’t think that it was any different from any of the surrounding office buildings. 12 stories tall, very square, flat sides etc. Nothing ostentatious, it was just a simple office building, like hundreds of others in my city. The building was slightly older than the surrounding ones, built in the 1980s (I think). There was the occasional draft, and the lights would flicker now and again, but no major problems. There were four elevators, one of which always seemed to be out of order. They’d fix one, and then another would inexplicably break. There was something with the electrics that would cause the doors to slam shut without warning sometimes, and they would occasionally drop slightly when you got in them. Nothing serious enough for the building owners to actually do anything about, but enough to be more than an annoyance.
The lifts used to give me the jibblies, even before all of this.
I used to take the stairs a lot. There were two stairwells, one on either side of the building. Both of them were fairly narrow, so if you were coming up and you met someone coming down, then you’d either need to wait in the stairwell bit by the doors into the different levels, or turn sideways and let them squeeze past. They tended to get a bit clogged if there was an evacuation for a fire alarm or something, but I was only on the 3rd floor, so it didn’t take too long for me to get from there to the ground, or vice versa. The stairwells were windowless, plain cement with pale yellow lights illuminating them, but fairly dimly. I think the building’s owners used crappy energy-saving bulbs to try and save some money.
There was a bathroom in each of the different stairwells, on every level. Men’s room in one stairwell, ladies’ in the other. The building managers installed combination locks on all of those doors after there was a peeping tom incident in the ladies’ one day, so only people who worked in the building could get in. There were different businesses and departments on each of the floors, and the locks all had different combinations, so you could only use the bathroom on your floor, you couldn’t go up or down a level to use another.
Because we were part of a Government Department, there was an emphasis on security. We all had swipe card access to get from the reception areas into the back office bit of my floor, and you also needed to remember your card if you were going to the bathroom. The doors to the stairwells had the same magnetic safety locks as the doors to the back area, and although you could get out by pushing a button to release the lock, you had to swipe your card to get into the floor from the stairwell. If you were in the bathroom there was a similar button to press to get back into the stairwell.
It’s hard to pinpoint when the trouble started. It’s not like somebody clicked their fingers and everything turned on like a light switch. I’m assuming you’ve heard the story about how a frog put in boiling water will jump straight out, but if you put the frog in cold water and bring it slowly to the boil it’ll stay in, happily boiling to death without realizing. Had the situation gone from normal to messed up in a hurry, then I probably would have got the hell out of there, and quickly. But like they say, hindsight has 20/20 vision.
There was an imbalance of girls to guys who worked at my office, so I quite often had the men’s room to myself. Nothing like being able to go in peace, you know? The earliest occasion of anything weird happening I can remember, I was going off to the bathroom, which involved walking through the reception area. I pressed the button to let me into the stairwell, and was in the stairwell, keying in the code to let me into the men’s, and the stairwell door shut behind me. There was nothing out of the ordinary in this; the door was on one of those hinges which makes it close automatically. What was weird was that the second that door shut, I got a shiver up my spine. Everything was suddenly quiet, almost oppressively silent. The noise of the radio and the people in the waiting room had been completely cut off when the door shut, when normally you could hear things even when in the bathroom.
I didn’t think too much of it at the time, but I didn’t take my time as I normally might have. I got in, did what I needed to and got out of there, quickly. The feeling of unease faded as I came back into the brighter lights of the waiting room. From there, everything was normal for days, possibly weeks. I’m a little fuzzy on the actual time-frame, as a lot of the stuff that happened took place over a long-ish period of time. A few smallish things happened here and there; the odd cold spot, the odd shiver, (like when you feel you’re being watched), but I just put it down to stress, and kept going with my job and my life.
Like I said earlier, I got on very well with my colleagues and my boss. Most of us were of a similar age (mid-20s) and every now and again we’d go out for a few post-work drinks on a Friday, let loose a little and de-stress from the week. One Friday, we’d closed up the public counter, and all the customers were gone, and we were packing up and getting ready to head out. I excused myself to use the men’s room before we went out, but when I opened the stairwell door I noticed that it seemed dimmer than normal in the stairwell – the light at the top of the flight of stairs to the floor above had blown.
As I turned to the right to key in the code to the bathroom door, I saw something out of the corner of my eye, in the gloom at the top of the stairs. Something – and I can’t be any more descriptive than that – something flashed across my vision, a dark shape going from right to left from the door by the bathroom at the top of the stairs, around the corner to the next flight, out of my line of sight. It was fast, impossibly fast, like watching a movie and fast-forwarding to 4 times the normal speed. I couldn’t see any details, it was just a black shape, but it seemed darker than the lack of light surrounding it somehow. The movement was the worst though. Despite the speed, it didn’t seem to blur or sway at all. It was a scuttle more than anything.
I swung around, away from the bathroom door, and stood frozen at the bottom of the flight of stairs, staring transfixed up into the gloom at the top. I don’t know how long I stood there for, but I was frozen in place, too scared to move. The next thing I can remember, a hand clapped down on my shoulder. “Daniel! What are you doing, man!?”
It was my boss, come to find out what was taking so long.
“There, there was… there was something” I stammered, trying to get the words out. My boss looked quizzically at me, one eyebrow raised.
“What was it?” he asked. I turned to look up the stairs again. Everything seemed less dim than it had been a moment ago.
“Nothing,” I replied, shaking my head. “Must have been a trick of the light. Been meaning to get my eyes tested.”
“Then let’s get the hell out of here, and off for some drinks!” my boss exclaimed.
Later, at the bar, surrounded by my colleagues laughing and joking about the week’s events, everything seemed fine with the world. It was warm and bright in the bar, and my sense of dread had completely gone. Had I known what was to come, however, then I probably would have been feeling very different indeed…
Things seemed fairly normal for a while after that. I came back to work after the weekend, got on with my job, tried to put what I’d seen (or thought I’d seen, anyway) out of my mind. My job had some perks, one of which is that the Department would pay for an eye test and new glasses if you needed them, so I got that done. The optometrist said that my eyes hadn’t deteriorated at all in the five years since my previous eye test, but it was probably time for a new pair of glasses anyway. About a month after the last incident, I was heading to the gym after work, so I headed to the bathroom to get changed so I could run there. We’d turned out most of the lights, but it wasn’t dark yet outside so the place was still well-enough lit to see in, although not nearly as bright as with the lights on. Because the public reception area was shut for the day due to the time, I used the public bathroom attached to the waiting area to put on my gym clothes. I put my earbuds in, and cranked up the volume on my MP3 player, getting myself in the mood for the run, when I heard screaming.
It’s hard to describe exactly how it sounded – It was definitely female, but it sounded raw, like it came from a throat full of razor blades, if that makes any sense. It sounded impossibly loud and close, but at the same time, like it was coming from miles away. I yanked out my earbuds, unlocked the door and sprinted out into the waiting room, fully expecting to see someone being murdered.
It was deserted. Completely empty, not a soul in sight. I looked around slowly, listening hard, trying to see or hear what had been screaming. I turned back towards the public bathroom from which I’d come, and I could see the mirror and myself in it – and I could see something dark looming over my shoulder.
I spun on the spot, bracing myself as I did so – but there was nothing there. I looked back to the mirror, but whatever had been there a second ago was gone. I scrambled for my swipe access cards, used them to open the door to the back part of the office, and ran in there, where my boss was sitting at his desk, packing up for the day. “Did you hear that!?” I half-shouted.
He looked confused. “Hear what?”
“I heard someone screaming,” I replied.
He got up quickly, and we walked into the waiting room, both listening hard. After a minute, he turned to me. “I didn’t hear anything, Dan,” he said. “Are you okay? You’ve seemed a little… off lately.”
To his credit, my boss looked genuinely concerned. He was easily the best manager we’d ever had, and really looked after all of his staff. “If you need some time off, just let me know. You have plenty of leave saved up…” He left the offer hanging.
“I… I don’t know,” I replied. “I’ll let you know.” I turned and headed for the lifts. The sense of unease and dread I had felt was back, and much harder to shake this time. What the hell was I seeing, or hearing? And what the hell could I do about it?
Like I said earlier, had this stuff happened all at the same time, I probably would have bailed on my job and tried to find somewhere else. For God-knows-what reason though, I decided to stick it out, see if things would get better. Benefits of hindsight, right?
Things started getting worse from there. I’d get chills walking through parts of the office, or while sitting at my desk. I put in requests to the property service to have the air-conditioning looked at, and everything came back as normal. The lights above my desk would flicker occasionally, no matter how many different bulbs I had maintenance swap out. I’d see shapes moving in dark corners on the edge of my vision, and they’d be gone when I turned to face them. My health started to deteriorate, I was jumpy and tired a lot, losing weight, and my workmates were noticing the change. I wasn’t sleeping well; my dreams were plagued by shapes moving in the darkness, just out of my line of sight. I had to leave the lights on at home when I tried to sleep. I was too scared of what would happen if I awoke in the dark.
As I mentally and physically grew weaker thanks to stress and worry about what was happening, whatever was chasing me seemed to get stronger, more real somehow. I started noticing details in the darkness – long, lank black hair, for example- nothing clear or corporeal enough for me to be able to give a real idea of an appearance, but enough to make me shudder, thinking about possibilities. More than once, I felt the brush of impossibly cold fingers across my shoulder, turning to find nobody there.
I almost quit several times, thinking back now I don’t know why the hell I didn’t just up and leave. I think I might have stayed out of a sense of misguided pride. I wanted to show I was tougher than whatever was tormenting me, or at least to find out why it was only targeting me. Nobody else had any issues at all, and they couldn’t understand my misgivings about being alone when I was at work now. I did try to look into the building’s history, but everything came up a blank. No skeletons in the closet, no suicides, absolutely nothing out of the ordinary at all. It made no sense, dammit!
Everything was about to come to a head, however, as we neared the Christmas season. One of the traditions of the workplace was a team photo every year. We would all get dressed up in our best to have the photo professionally taken, and then the photo would be blown up and hung out back. This year, though… they didn’t hang the photo. The day came and went as normal, we lined up together and had the photo taken, the photographer left, and we went about our day as normal. A week went by, and I came into work one morning, to find the team surrounding my boss’ desk, looking at something on it. As I entered, the team looked up from what was on the desk as one, and all looked towards me at the same time. Something was wrong, I could tell. Some of their faces showed puzzlement, some showed confusion, and more than a few showed some fear. Without a word, they filed away from the desk and went off to their own stations, with my Boss beckoning to me to come over.
On his desk was an A3 sized photo – the team photo. He gestured for me to take a look, and I did, naturally seeking myself out from the bunch. I had been sitting in a chair at the front row, so it was fairly easy to find myself. But, when I did… everything went cold.
“What the hell is with this, Dan?” my boss asked, his voice quavering slightly. Whereas everyone else in the photo was completely normal and smiling brightly, my face was almost indescribable. When the photo had been taken I was smiling like everyone else, but here, here it looked like you were looking at my face through a fishbowl. I was distorted, stretched out. I looked in pain, my mouth stretched much wider than it would naturally go, eyes slightly crazed. And that wasn’t even the worst part.
There was something standing behind me. Again, to the eye it was nothing more distinct than a dark shape; no details could be made out but the way it loomed over me, it was… menacing… malevolent, even. The hair on the back of my neck rose as I looked at the photo.
“I don’t have a clue, Norm. Something up with the camera lens maybe?”
I had considered telling him the truth, that there was something that seemed to be after me, but that’s a good way to end up as ‘the crazy guy’ in the office. As things were, I wasn’t even completely sure that I wasn’t already the crazy guy. The photo went in the bin.
The next day, I found myself posted to a different part of the office – the banking room. For security purposes, the banking room was completely internal & windowless, with swipe-card access in from the back area of the office. Once inside, the doors would lock magnetically, and you had to push a button on the wall in order to release the locks to get out. My boss thought some time away from the counter would do me some good, and he’d arranged for an appointment with work-provided counseling services for me. An hour or so into the day, I felt a chill settle into the room. I looked at the thermostat on the wall, and was surprised to see it unchanged. Then, the lights began to flicker. They flicked on and off, on and off again. I spun on my chair, looking for a cause, but finding none. I spun back towards the desk – and came face to face with a nightmare.
The dark shape was on the desk. I recoiled in horror, pushing my chair back to the opposite wall, trying to put some distance between myself and it, but the room was small, and I hit the shelves lining the wall behind me, tumbling to the floor as I did so. For the first time ever, I could clearly see detail in the darkness, which would seem to solidify for a split second after the lights flickered off, and then fade in the light when they came back on again. The figure was a girl. At least, it was the semblance of a girl, she could have been anywhere between 16 and 50. She was crouched in a squatting position on the desk, knees near her head, hands on the flat desktop, long hair hanging down over her features. She seemed to be looking past me, but then the head turned – slowly, ever so slowly – and her gaze met mine. Oh, god, those eyes! They were entirely black, but in different shades, so you could make out the different parts – where the white would normally be, the iris, the pupils. Those eyes were full of madness, of hatred; and of hunger – the perverse, unsettling hunger of a thing that desired something sitting just outside its grasp.
A single tear rolled down my quivering cheek as I looked up towards this horror. With every flicker of the light, she seemed to grow more solid, more real; as if feeding off the darkness and my fear in turn. Her grin crept slowly, hungrily across her face, impossibly wide, and the eyes grew more crazed and vicious and larger in turn. She opened her mouth, baring long, sharp teeth, and looked as if she was trying to say something, but all that came from her throat was a hungry, dangerous growl – like nails on a chalkboard. I tried to call out in turn, but nothing came from my throat – nothing except a pathetic, frightened whimper.
Without taking my gaze from that nightmarish face, I struggled to get my feet under me. I didn’t dare look away, for fear she would be upon me. I’d seen how fast this thing could move in the darkness. Staying as close to the wall as I could, I backed slowly, ever so slowly away, towards the door. Her gaze followed me, as she cocked her head slightly to the side, as if trying to figure out what I was doing. As I reached the door, I fumbled behind me for the button that would release the magnetic lock, and hopefully release me from the confines of the suddenly oppressively small room. I reached for it – and my hand hit the light switch.
The room plunged into darkness. I froze, all of a sudden feeling hot, wet, stinking breath on the back of my neck. It smelled like death and decay and corruption, and somehow of an aching, burning hunger. “Mine… now…” a voice rasped in my ear. I found the ability to scream, as pain shot through my body.
I don’t remember much of what happened next, for which I’m truly grateful. I think my brain has tried to block some of it out. My colleagues heard my screams and came running. They found me in the corner of the room, flailing my bleeding arms and gibbering madly. An ambulance was called, and I was sedated and taken to the hospital. I had deep scratches all over my arms and torso, and bite marks on my wrists. The doctors decided that I’d had some sort of psychotic break and done it myself, because after all – who else could have done it? There was nobody in the room with me when I was found. I tried to point out that the bites didn’t look like my teeth, and that there was no blood or skin under my nails, but they didn’t listen.
The wounds eventually healed and became scars. My boss – good guy that he is – arranged for me to work for a separate part of the department, one in the brand new, well-lit building. I remained in touch with some of my former workmates, although some of them now regarded me -perhaps not too wrongly of them – as a freak.
Since that day, I’ve never let myself be in the dark without at least some form of illumination. Most of the time I’ll stay in brightly-lit rooms, or outside in the sunshine. She can’t get to me in the light, and although she’s strong, she’s not yet strong enough to come out of the darkness. I think she wants to get me, and if she managed to catch me and finish me off, then maybe she’ll be strong enough to walk in the light.
So you see it’s not the dark that I’m afraid of. Not at all. It’s what lurks in the dark, watching, waiting; that’s what terrifies me. I think that she’s from somewhere beyond, somewhere behind the darkness, and was trying to get from there to here.
And I think that somehow, I let her in.
Credit: Daniel Martins (a.k.a. Abtrogdor)
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