Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
Too many sages and soothsayers to reference, those thoughtful idiots, have lambasted the youth with the wizardry of profundity. They had answers to the esoteric. Of Life. Of Death. Of the end. Who are they? What do they really know of the darkness? What do they fancy as truth or reality or consciousness? They have only an inkling. Just a molecule of spittle resting in a lake of pointed conjecture. It surmised to shit, is what I’m saying. What they know surmises to shit because I’ve seen behind the curtain and I know what awaits.
And on this very street, I reflect on all that came to subdue me in the night. All that came to crush my ambition in the darkness. So I scurry away from the dark at every chance, which is not easy when you have no home. Most people just want to relegate the less fortunate to the shadows anyway. There they can feign ignorance and avoid any responsibility for what is happening. My every thought is to dive into the light and be at peace with some semblance of myself. But even the light casts shadows.
You see, I am fractured. I wanted to believe that life catered to me, that life launched its sails because of my breath and I was the tide that washed all good things to the shores of my world. Yet, I’m nothing but the detritus that remains after the rush of waters recedes. The water is like the people that avert their gazes and cross the street to avoid me. The stiff, potent smell of unwashed skin and the occasional hint of cheap rum was summarily unwelcome in most any social setting. Many days the eyes and attitudes of people were much too much, and I would wander out alone, ironically in avoidance of them. I just wanted to wallow in my brokenness.
As I walked on, my coat swung about me, and I shivered. It was much too threadbare and thin to offer much warmth, but a beggar shouldn’t be a chooser. It was the only thing that I could find. In my pack was an aluminum lined blanket that would offer some comfort against this weather, and I almost drew it out. I decided to keep moving instead.
The chill of that October night never faltered. The wind bore down like the swooping of a hundred hawks, and I was embittered. I fought hard not to be angry at my plight, but who was to blame? It was not my fault that I huddled in the shadows. It was not mine, but my father’s. For the fool decided it was best to torch our finances in the dregs of a gambling den. 10 years now I’ve been destitute on these streets. 10 years from age 16 I’ve walked this road.
And there is only poor to feed the poor. Scraps and vegetable particulates swimming in hot swill that hardly touch the bottom of my belly before they’re used to fuel my wretched form. Scraps for the scraper, the garbage bin diving lunatic known for wearing my face only wished to slip by unnoticed. To go about his business.
So that night, I found shelter in an alleyway betwixt some old liquor store and a Vietnamese diner. It was dimly lit towards the entrance and black as pitch near the back. The lighting would have been better if not for the broken pole lamp there. The alley reeked of rotten milk and expired, moldy bread. Old cheese and various liquids congealed in spots that I avoided, but I somehow felt the moisture creep into my pores. A duo of dumpsters lined the walls on either side of the alley, and I wasted no time looking for a piece of plastic or cardboard to sit on and keep myself dry and less filthy.
As luck would have it, one of the dumpsters was strictly for cardboard. The light was faint there, about twenty feet from the front, but it was enough. Providence had shone upon me, for it would be easy to construct a shelter from what was there. Though they had already been broken down and flattened, a box is a box. I placed two large ones flat on the ground, which adequately accommodated my full height. I grabbed two more big ones that were so deep inside that I had to lean over the lip of the dumpster to reach them. To my dismay, though only a cardboard dumpster, it still smelled horrible.
I unfolded them into their original shapes, having to overlap the flaps on one to close the end since I lacked tape. I then put the closed-end one against the back of the dumpster and on top of the previous two flattened boxes, with the opening facing out. I took the other one and fit it around the end of the first, situating them so they were flush against the wall, lengthwise. Once finished, it was just one long box. I would be able to crawl in and sleep relatively undisturbed, wrapped in my blanket. The thought of it honestly made me happy, as I had very little to look forward to but a bit of rest and the solace of dreams.
The wind jostled the makeshift shelter, catching the tail end and sending it upward. I wasn’t worried about that because my weight would keep it down. However, it did make for a harder sleep. Being in the street, you become paranoid in a way that is self-preserving. Ignorant people, especially teens, liked to throw your shit away or taunt you from groups. I heard they played this “knockout game” in some cities, where they’d just go up and sucker punch people as hard as they could. Your head needed to be on a swivel.
Before I crawled into my cardboard bed, I had a weird premonition. I heard it first, a whispered ‘hush’ wafting on the breeze. It was like an icy wind caressed the nape of my neck, causing me to break out in goosebumps. I shivered and my eyes widened in recognition of something faint or hardly remembered. My neck snapped around amazingly quick, only to be presented with the darkness at the end of the alley. I squinted reflexively, but I knew it was futile. There was nothing that could be seen in that blackness. I stood there, still, listening for something. Someone. But only the wind brought an answer, brushing harshly against my coat.
I knew the night would signal nothing but delusions and panic at this rate. Countless times I’d been in situations direr. More dangerous. My awareness was high due to being on the street, and it had not failed me yet. The danger was real, but fear had to be a lie.
“Be aware of the danger but don’t accept the fear,” I mumbled to myself. Something was off, though. And I couldn’t quite shake the feeling, despite my words of comfort and reassurance.
I shook my head and crawled into the shelter. A bit of shuffling and turning was needed until I was comfortable enough. I was worried by the slight crinkling of the blanket because it made it hard to hear anything but. Logically, I wrapped myself as tight as I could without restricting my movements lest some urgency present itself. Lastly, I craned my neck so that I could see out past my feet at the end of the shelter.
Down there was only darkness and a faint glow from the light at the entrance to the alley. I could also hear the occasional car pass, which was a lot less annoying than it would have seemed. Still, the darkness near the end of the alley was an eerily stark, vivid splotch of black ink that had volume; heavy with some unknown mass.
I pulled the blanket tighter as if to ward off the subsequent chill, which proved useless. I was not one to figure in such fantastical thoughts, but I sure felt something out there. It is the same type of feeling one has when alone, sensing when another person has entered their space, without having to see them. It is like leaves rustling in the mind.
I closed my eyes, forcing my eyelids down until I could feel the muscles strain within my cheeks. Then I looked out once more into that haunting dark, hoping and praying that my imagination would die for the evening. To my horror, something slid against the night, like a hand brushing behind a curtain. Suddenly there was no light at all, and I choked down a gasp of surprise. The danger, but not the fear…
Again, I shut my eyes, but it was no different than if I had left them open. There was simply a void there. I swallowed hard, and the feeling of my own saliva sliding down my esophagus sickened me. I thought it silly to even entertain this madness, but someone could be out there. My eyes weren’t useful at that moment, but what I sensed… what I felt… I couldn’t deny it.
When I was a child, I recall hearing one of my classmates talking about being locked in his bedroom closet by his older brother. It was night and he and his brother were the only ones at home. He told us that something spoke to him in the dark. He said he nearly beat the door off its hinges trying to get out. For him it seemed like he had been stuck there for hours, but when his brother came to open the door, he noticed it had only been ten minutes. His mother grounded his brother behind the incident, but not because he locked him in the closet. It was because my friend beat his fists bloody trying to break out. I saw the scars myself, and his hands looked like someone took a tenderizer to them. Consequently, I remained cautious of tight, dark spaces for many years. I thought I was over it, but that night made a liar of me.
There was a sound of a car passing and I jerked my head in the direction of the street. My heart was racing, but I was thankful that it broke the hypnotic pull of the blackness. I looked back to the end of the alley and decided to ignore it. The night would be gone soon, as I gauged it to be around 2 am. I closed my eyes and pulled my blanket close once again.
A minute had not passed before I heard something at the end of the alley. It happened so abruptly, that I immediately sat up, my head hitting the top of the box. The wind or a whisper, I could not tell which at the time but it was close. The sound was close. I stared into the void at the back of the alley and saw something rise against the night, glowing intermittently. It was a pulsing, yellow halo that outlined the form, creeping upward until I could not see the top of it.
Eventually, it stopped rising but the glow remained, the luminal pitch rising and rippling like mist in the morning. Fear overcame curiosity at that moment, and I had no thought to recite my danger and fear mantra. I was overcome with fright, and so edged myself backward, against the dumpster. I could hear my breaths, shaky and shallow within the box. I didn’t know if I should run or just wait it out. I didn’t even want to move.
Suddenly, the end box caved in, as if a weight had been dropped on it, barely missing my feet. Instinctively I jerked my legs back, and then sat up with them against my chest. Where it was bent inward, I could see more of the thing in the alley, and it was widening steadily, growing like black clouds in a thunderstorm.
Huddled against the back of the box, I felt frozen in place. The whispers soon become a howl of many voices, so many and so loud that I could feel them in my head. It was a horrible version of television static, and I placed my hands over my ears to block them out. I felt a tug on the box like it was being lifted. It was quickly torn from under me. I wailed like a banshee as I was dumped out onto the concrete like an unwanted Christmas present.
I clambered to my feet, finding myself in the midst of this thing, its eerie whining poking around in my mind. I tried to look at it, but the glow made it hard due to its hypnotic quality. The darkness swirled and shifted, the glow mixing around it like milk in coffee. I staggered backward, no longer able to maintain my equilibrium. The ruined box slipped from beneath my feet and I was dumped onto the ground once more.
The sky was no sky at that moment. In that moment, I was no man. I was but a form lost, lacking focus and full of fear. A situation like this, as I reflect on it, can be hard to describe correctly, because it’s unlike anything ever imagined. You are caught in the grip of a cold, steel vice, and it is crushing the sanity from you. It seeps out, like blood, and you find it hard to grasp at reality. You find it hard to hold on to what you thought was real. You are being bludgeoned by something primal. Ageless. Merciless.
“Self,” it said. The voice was a deflating dirigible enflamed, crackling, leaking and hissing. “You will meet… self.” It sounded like it was going in and out of consciousness. Like it was gasping for air in a vacuum-sealed room, choking slowly; horribly. I could almost imagine some raw, dirty face with a noticeably slack and unshaven jaw mouthing these words. But the void is faceless, nameless, and probably the avatar of my mind, projecting the dissolution of hope. The void bubbled like water and its glowing accents washed over it in an elegant cascade of iridescence.
It spoke again.
“You are ghost… true self. Self-less. Self-lost.” The rolling void reversed and upended, turning over into itself. It was like watching storm-clouds implode in a duotone kaleidoscope. It was magnificent and majestic, and if not for its ominous overtones, I would be enraptured. Instead, I turned to run, only to find myself facing the thing once again.
Everywhere I turned, it was there, in all directions, surrounding me. With tears in my eyes, I could only collapse to my knees and watch the thing in the alley, hypnotized.
“Where are you, self?”, it asked with a voice like a dying bonfire. “You are ghost. Phantom. Lost man.”
I looked up, awestruck. “What do you mean? I don’t understand.” My voice cracked, and I felt no one could have heard such a weak plea. It heard me, nonetheless, and rolled like clouds roll, inverting and exploding in on itself, rapidly. The speed seemed tremendous and grew blurry until I felt the rush of wind around me. Then, when I was nearly overcome by the onslaught, it stopped, like someone hit pause on a game. And it slammed into me, engulfing me in coal-black mist. Even as I collapsed, pummeled into immobility, I heard the thing crying in that old, broken warble:
Many visions came, but I dare not mention them. I couldn’t possibly. The terror that it sparked was incomprehensible. All nightmares. Somehow I knew them like they were forgotten pieces of my own puzzle. I do not know. I did not know what they meant, then. I did know that when I awoke, I was in the middle of that stinking alley, staring into a blue sky, with the light of the sun warming my grimy face.
I looked into the end of that alley and all I saw was a mirror. It was a huge, rectangular mirror, framed in charred wood and the size of a door. In that mirror, I saw only myself, blurred, and sadly haunting. For a long time, I sat there staring into it, and then I finally understood.
I remembered. All my life is all my fault. My Self is less because I am so much less than I could be. The thing in the alley was that which I can’t face. The death of ambition. A cowardly soul. It was just my reflection. A lost man blaming the world for his fears. Projection.
I wept. Not for pity. But for futility. Because I had been told what would become of me, and there is no escape. Only darkness.
Walking away from that alley, that day, I wanted to smash that mirror. To burn it. Reduce it to microscopic particles. Yet, I knew that I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. Deep down I knew it only existed when needed, and I was sure it would call to someone else, in some other way. It would be there to project their ugliness in pure cinematic, hi-def magnificence.
I want to leave you with something that will save you, so you don’t have to run from yourself. So that it won’t come looking for you in the night. Don’t listen to people talk about fear as if they have conquered the world. They lie.
Fear is real. It is dangerous. And when you are alone in the dark with nothing to comfort you but your thoughts, you might see that the fear is you.
CREDIT: Marcelle D. Ward
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