The house sat empty at the top of the hill. Its security lights were a beacon in the night, like a lighthouse alone in the mist, warning ships away from the kiss of sharp shores. The closest neighbor was further away than a man could throw a rock, a fact that didn’t appear to be a coincidence.
Inside its smooth walls, gray hardwood spread out across an expansive, single floor. The leather furniture decorating the space looked like someone’s idea of a futuristic catcher’s mitt and felt half as cozy, chosen, as was the case for much of the house, for color more than comfort. Doubly so for the tank of tropical fish that shimmered against the far accent wall. Its forty-odd gallons of water sparkled in the dark, cared for by a professional who came out to the house on alternating Tuesdays.
Overhead spotlights clicked to life. They were triggered by the abrupt opening of the heavy front door. A burst of cool air was followed into the house by Douglas, the owner. He shut the door just as quickly as it had swung open, his gray, unblinking eyes flecked with bits of blue.
Three hard clacks and the door was locked. Four beeps and the alarm system was activated.
In the kitchen, Douglas stood at the refrigerator and poured himself a glass of water, drinking it down in one gulp, then did the same with a scotch. He was thirsty and had been for some time. His nerves were on fire and needed extinguishing. After another scotch, this one over ice, he drew the blinds and ran the shower until the mirror couldn’t be seen. Then he undressed and stepped in.
Under the hot water, Douglas kneaded his sore neck like a baker working a tough batch of dough. Three days now it had been stiff, three days of limited movement, of waking in the mornings with a cry. The rub helped, but he knew within twenty minutes of getting out of the shower his neck would be back to the way it had been before. A masseuse was in order, he thought to himself, one of those cute girls he always passed by at the gym. The thought alone was enough to relax him.
The little hairs on the back of his neck suddenly stood up. He felt the unmistakable presence of a man standing just behind him. He rubbed the water from his eyes to catch the intruder in the act, ready to pounce on him in a commotion of fists. But he was alone in the steamy shower, and though the feeling faded the longer he kept his eyes open, Douglas swore he could feel subtle changes in the direction of the air – shifts so slight they didn’t move the shower curtain.
Almost like breathing, yet soundless, and cold.
Ready for bed, Douglas turned off all the lights in the house. As he went from room to room he checked the windows to make sure they were locked properly, noting with some comfort the wires of the house’s alarm system. He had settled into a decent state after two large scotches and a hot shower, and he looked forward to a good night’s sleep for a change. He crept into the bedroom, slipped between the cool covers and let his eyes close of their own accord.
The house was quiet. Secure. A few odd moments in the shower notwithstanding, Douglas felt the closest to content he could expect. Already the silken kiss of sleep was swallowing him down, like sinking into the warm sap of a thousand, billowing trees.
“Tastes like salt.”
A whisper in his ear. He jolted awake at the man’s voice, with it the sensation of breath on his face. A moment later came the loud bang of something hitting his bedroom window from the outside, first the impact, then the shimmy of glass dancing in its frame. It sounded like a fist had pounded at the window. He threw the covers off and jumped out of bed, looked around the room for whoever had whispered to him. Once he was sure he was alone, he yanked the curtains open.
No one. Just his front yard, a hill which sloped down to the empty street, all of it blanketed in yellow-white moonlight. Douglas leaned in close to look under the window. Possibly the trespasser had ducked down and was hiding against the house, tucked in behind the azaleas.
A blackbird twitched in the grass. Its wings flapped in erratic rhythms and its legs were two, hardened sticks. Douglas looked for and found a sign that the bird had hit his window – an impression of the animal’s shape had been left behind, a fine silhouette rendered in dust, the body at the center and the two feathery wings spread outward. The bird continued to twitch in the grass until the movements slowed, its solid, black eyes finally drained of sight, left to stare unfocused into the sky.
Douglas watched the bird die. Then he returned to bed.
* * * * * *
The Autumn sun slept behind a coat of clouds. Meanwhile, some people had to work.
Douglas stood at the water cooler down the hall from his office, repeatedly refilling and draining a cone-shaped paper cup. He was still thirsty despite a good night’s sleep. Each time he drank, he watched the bubbles rise up from somewhere unseen and wobble to the top of the water jug. The sight was hypnotic. At some point, he lost the need to blink.
“What happened to you Friday?”
Douglas looked up from the dancing bubbles. Peter from marketing had walked into the break room unnoticed, and was eyeing Douglas with light contempt.
“You were supposed to meet us at McSweeny’s,” Peter explained. “For drinks. On Friday.”
“Oh. Sorry about that,” Douglas managed. As much as he’d tried to think of an excuse for not going, he couldn’t come up with anything sufficient.
“It’s Ed you should worry about, you know he likes the whole team-socializing, kiss-the-boss’s-ass thing. If you keep no-showing he’ll rethink the promotion.”
Douglas nodded distantly. He raised his paper cup. “Does this water taste funny to you?”
“I don’t drink water. I drink coffee like God intended.” With that, Peter left the break room and resumed his blonde life. Douglas filled his cup and finished it one more time, doing his best to pin down the familiar taste.
Back in his office, he tried to lose himself in work. He became absorbed by emails and faxes and reports, but he found himself unable to commit fully to the moment, fighting the feeling that someone was looking over his shoulder. Checking his progress before he made any. More than once he typed out a word, only to delete it, then retype it exactly as it originally appeared. The second-guessing put him on edge. Eventually, he gave up the idea of completing the task altogether. He sat back in his chair, rubbed his ears, smoothed his tie, and surveyed the battlefield.
Suits glided past his doorway. Somewhere down the hall, a fluorescent bulb sounded out its electric death rattle.
On his desk, facing the empty chair opposite him, was a nameplate some grateful client had bought him a few years back. He rarely looked at it anymore, as was the case for any non-functional object that sat on his desk for more than a month. He leaned forward and spun the nameplate to read the inscription.
The thin strip of horizontal metal was engraved with his name, Douglas, first name only, and underneath it, in smaller font, it gave the origin of the name. “From the Scottish surname Dubhghlas,” it read, “meaning ‘dark river.’“
Douglas grimaced. He put the nameplate back where he’d found it, this time face down.
Two hours later, after further failed attempts to accomplish something, he left for the day. As he crossed the parking lot, one of his co-workers had her back against her red import with a cigarette burning between her lips. “Hey, Doug, you got a new car?”
“It’s Douglas. And it’s a loaner,” he replied, not bothering to explain himself any further. She watched him pull out of the parking lot and toward the setting sun. She took another long drag of peppermint smoke and wondered what Ed ever saw in him.
Douglas drove. Occasionally he chewed his thumbnail or checked the radio for a good song, but every sound that came out of the speakers grated on him, until he decided he decided he no longer liked music. Meanwhile, the dealership mechanic’s voice echoed in his crowded head. “That must have been some deer,” the man had said, rubbing his greasy palms together as he inspected the damage. A flash of scared eyes crossed Douglas’s memory. Deep points of tear-pooled black. He had said nothing to the man, simply left him to his work.
As the night kicked in like a bad pill, he drove past the river which interweaved through the large stretch of land outside the city. It had always served as a checkpoint in his commute, one of the telltale signs of leaving the throngs behind, those streets packed with the rude and the uncaring. Now. Now it signaled something else entirely. The light of a thousand stars above was snuffed out in its cold waters. He put his foot down on the accelerator and tried to pass the river without making eye contact.
A few minutes later he entered the tunnel which cut beneath the river. It was a hole in the Earth thirteen-hundred feet long and eighty feet below the water’s surface. The passage was made of steel arches sprayed with concrete and covered by brick, and though it did much for the city and its people, it was a generally unappreciated addition to its history. The tunnel’s public perception had been marred early on when a portion of it flooded during construction, killing three men and injuring another. The accident caused a political outcry when it came to light that the company building it had cut corners in order to win the cheapest bid. Although that incident had occurred many years earlier, long before Douglas was born, he shared a distaste for that part of his commute. He had never in his life enjoyed being underground, believed it to be unnatural, and he defended the stance to anyone who would hear it.
There were signs up today warning of construction – a common sight – and, sure enough, as he rounded the bend at the halfway point, he spied flashing lights reflected against the wall followed by beastly, yellow-and-white vehicles, and finally men in reflective vests. One of the larger men held up a sign to the drivers which read “slow,” letting the cars slip past one at a time as he glanced mechanically over his shoulder at one of the construction vehicles backing into place. Just as Douglas was about to make his own pass, the man flipped the sign around to say, “stop.”
“Come on,” Douglas sighed. The heavy man made his way to the side of the car and signaled for Douglas to lower the window.
“Only take a minute,” the man declared.
“You can’t let me past?”
He bunched up his thick face and blew out air. “That’s what the last guy said. And the guy before that. And the guy before that.”
“What if I gave you twenty bucks?”
A shrug. “Sorry, bud, tunnel’s got to be fixed. Eventually someone suffers.” He turned and reclaimed his spot, watching the vehicle back up as he half-heartedly held up his sign. In the rearview Douglas noticed there wasn’t a single car behind him – he and he alone would have to wait for life to resume. He settled into his seat and watched his tax dollars work against him, though he refused to put the car into park. Somehow it meant giving up.
A minute later, he gave up. He put the car into park and checked his phone. No service.
Thirty seconds after that, the lights went out.
A loud buzz echoed through the tunnel, a buildup of static turned inside-out and amplified, then the two strips of white lights on either wall near the ceiling snuffed out. The construction crew’s generators followed suit, plunging the tunnel and everyone in it into a black as thick as paint. Men shouted in the shadows, and Douglas felt his stomach drop down into his pelvis. His fear of a living grave come true.
The complete darkness only lasted a few seconds. Yellow emergency lights, small and round, were mounted on the tunnel’s ceiling every fifty feet, and they came to life, lending the tunnel their sallow glow. Workers toiled in the faint light trying to restore power to the tunnel.
He felt it again. A presence just behind him.
Douglas shut his eyes. He squeezed them so tightly he saw fireworks behind his eyelids and felt a low, deep rumble in his eardrums. He knew there was nothing there, just as there had been nothing in the shower, or in the bedroom, or even standing over him at work. Nothing was invisible in this world, everything was real and explainable. This was real life. There were no monsters, only idiots and their fears.
Cold fingers traced a line up his neck. He shivered and moved forward in his seat, pretending to be chilly from a draft that wasn’t there. He cursed himself for entertaining dark thoughts for even a second. But then, a whisper drifted from the back seat.
“Tastes like salt.”
He ignored it. Blocked it out. No one had power over him unless he gave it to them.
His leg began to shake, and he squeezed it hard until he knew it would bruise.
With sudden intensity the tunnel lights came back on, the power returning with a solid POOM joined by the happy shouts of the construction crew. Relieved, Douglas opened his eyes and let them adjust to the light. He couldn’t wait to get out of this damned tunnel and resume his tired ride home. He glanced in the rearview to see if anyone else had shared in his bad luck; any other commuters in the temporary grave.
There was a face in the mirror. A pair of hollow eyes looking back at him. Dark, dripping wet hair over water-slick skin. The man opened his colorless lips and dirty water poured out. Panicked, Douglas spun in his seat, his heart exploding against his chest. But there was nothing behind him, just an empty back seat and an ice scraper on the floor.
Nothing in the rearview, either. No death stare, no colorless flesh. Even the air felt empty. He tried to breathe slow and steady to calm his heart. He became aware of someone outside the car waving their arms at him. It was the large construction guy holding the sign, and from his face, he’d been trying to get Douglas’s attention for some time. In a daze, Douglas rolled down his window once more.
“You can go now,” the man called out. “Power’s back.”
Douglas nodded and took the car out of park, rolling slowly past the men and their trucks. He drove the rest of the way home in silence, trying and failing to forget the face in the mirror. His mouth was as dry as burnt paper, and he planned to drink until either his thirst or his legs gave out.
* * * * * *
Douglas knew he was dreaming.
He walked through a dark field at night. The grass was ankle-high, black as oil, and it stretched to the horizon in windless sway. The dirt beneath his bare feet was black, too, like potting soil but not as damp. There was no moon in the sky nor direction in his heart, he simply walked, lifeless dirt between his toes, as birds cawed unseen in the grass. If he strained to see them, he would catch moments of black feathers twitching between the blades, their eyes like voids filled up only with hurt.
Douglas stopped. A man lay on the ground ahead, his face buried in the dirt. His clothes were soaked and a puddle of what he hoped was water had formed around him.
“Are you okay,” Douglas asked without moving his lips, but the man didn’t answer. Douglas moved closer and repeated the question. The man still didn’t move, but this time he answered. His voice was the dry crunch of gravel underfoot.
A loud knock woke Douglas. He spasmed in his chair and gave out a shout.
“Whoa!” Peter stood in the doorway. Douglas looked around his office and situated himself. He had dozed off behind his desk again. He shook his head and apologized.
“Noises have been setting me off lately.”
Peter gave him a condescending look. “You need to relax. Just a friendly tip – no one likes a guy who gets stressed easily. Especially Ed.” He peeked down the hallway to see if anyone else had witnessed the incident. Especially Ed.
Douglas rubbed his heavy eyes. “I think I need to get away for a bit. Hit the reset button.”
Peter stepped into the office and lowered his voice. “Are you crazy? You can’t go on vacation right now. Not with everything going on.”
Peter paused to scratch his nose. Then he smiled.
“What? What is it?”
Peter nodded. “I know just the thing.”
* * * * * *
As Douglas took a seat in the small waiting room, the pretty girl came out from behind the welcome desk and handed him a clipboard. It held a release form, printed on two sides of one page, and a pen clipped to the top with the place’s name on it: Deep Escape.
“Standard stuff,” the girl said, “not liable for anything, blah, blah, blah.” She smiled and returned to her desk, where she kept her phone hidden behind the computer monitor. Douglas filled out the form on auto-pilot – if you’ve read one you’ve read them all. Meanwhile, Peter’s words rang in his head.
“Did I ever tell you about my brother? The poor guy came back from Iraq with shell shock. I’m not sure what they do exactly but it’s some kind of isolation. No sound, no light. He said he tripped out a bit at first, but by the end he felt like he’d slept for a year.”
Douglas didn’t really care what they did, so long as it worked. He was tired of being anxious, anxious about being tired. His mind just needed a little break before it broke. There was no such thing as unseen presences or disembodied voices, just the very real effects of stress on the brain, and he knew he had to treat it in very real ways. He skipped over all the disclaimers and got to the part where he signed on the line. Before long he was standing in a private room the size of a bedroom while an attendant explained the white beast in front of him.
“When you enter isolation,” the young man explained, “you’re in the darkest place in the world.”
The thing was the width of a large bed and twice as high. It was enclosed on all sides, with a slanted front wall where the door was located. The door had a handle on its left side to open it as well as two larger ones on the body to hold while climbing in. The attendant explained everything about the treatment – how to get the most from the experience, which specific parts of the brain it stimulated – but Douglas was only marginally aware of him until he asked if Douglas was ready. Douglas nodded, and with that, the attendant showed him where to hang his clothes and left him alone in the tiled room. Naked, his clothes folded on the small bench, he opened the white beast and stepped inside.
The water was set to skin temperature, making the transition an easy one. It was like slipping into a second skin, a friendly hand that welcomed him and took him in safely. A voice deep inside told him not to get in, not to do this, but already the smooth water had won him over. Completely inside, he crouched down low and pulled the small door shut behind him.
Dark, true dark, was as unfamiliar to him as it was for most. Accustomed to ambient light as his eyes were, from sun to moon, starlight to streetlight, they struggled to make sense of the complete absence of stimulation. Douglas found the first minute of this new darkness to be dizzying, and he only lay down in the shallow water when he felt comfortable enough to move. He was surprised to find he floated easier than normal, and he seemed to remember the attendant saying something special about the water which gave it that characteristic.
As the shadows settled around him, the water no longer sloshing against the side of the tank, his ears, too, fought to understand a loss of constant input, followed by his skin. He lost all sense of time passing. Soon his eyes were creating a show for themselves. Flashes of light formed and swirled above him, and he watched them like a child does a fireworks display. A beautiful burst of color exploded before his eyes. At its center, set like a jewel, a tiny dot of black grew until its true shape became clear: an eye, wide open. The black pupil at the center expanded until it overtook the outer colors completely.
Surrounded by pure dark once again, he was jarred by the deafening sound of impact that filled up his eardrums, like a bird smashing into a bedroom window, like the world come crashing down, and he was pulled into the black, all-encompassing pupil and out the other side where his hands struggled to regain control of a steering wheel.
* * * * * *
There was a long crack in the windshield, like lightning eating up the glass. At one jagged junction, a bit of something black stuck up from the broken pane. Douglas watched it with detached horror. His body burned with adrenaline and his eyes stung of tears. In a moment, everything had changed.
Sticking out from the glass, waving in the wind – it was hair.
He checked the rearview. After swerving noisily a few times, the car had ended up on the side of road where the river snaked close to the shoulder. There were no other cars on the road, normal for this time of night. He put the car into park, turned the key and slowly got out. His legs felt uneven, his body unfit for walking, and he came around the front of the car expecting the worst.
A man lay on the ground ahead, his face buried in the dirt. “Are you okay,” Douglas called out. No answer. He asked again. This time the man moved his fingers. Douglas rushed to him and turned him on his side so he could breathe. He propped the man’s head up in his lap.
“Hhhhh,” the man breathed.
“Relax. It’s okay.”
Holding the man’s head, he asked, “How?”
“Call.” His voice cut out painfully. Each word took tremendous effort. “Police.”
Douglas closed his eyes. After taking a quick shower at home, he had poured himself a drink to relax before he went back out to McSweeny’s. If he called the police now…
“I…I already called them,” Douglas said. “We have to sit and wait for them. They told me to wait.” The man in his arms began to cough. Douglas asked what he needed.
Douglas looked over his shoulder and saw how close they were to the edge of the river. The water churned past small, smoothed rocks. He tried to lay the man’s head back down on the grass, but he couldn’t find a way to do it that didn’t cause the man to scream out in agony. Instead, he carefully dragged him backward, grunting and sweating to the river, until his legs were submerged in it. With one hand he cradled the man’s bleeding head from dipping into the river and with the other he scooped up cold water and fed it to him.
“It tastes like salt,” the man complained. It didn’t make sense at all. Douglas tried it himself but tasted only water.
“It’s a river,” he said, “it’s freshwater.”
“It tastes like salt,” the man repeated. He took another sip, looked up at Douglas as he struggled to take a breath.
“When are they coming?”
Douglas paused. “Soon. Just try to relax.”
The man’s gut rose and fell like waves. “You didn’t do it,” he said.
Douglas scooped up more water in his palm. “Do what?”
His hand stopped. The man’s wide eyes stared up at him accusingly. Douglas didn’t appreciate the look. “Of course I called.”
“There’s no point. They’re already coming.” Douglas was starting to get annoyed. The two men locked eyes. They understood each other too well, together in that moment, their lifelines tangled like bad wires, the river gurgling and splashing into them, pushing past their bodies eternally, a moment stretched into lifetimes. Time was nothing. Life had stopped. The man took a great, deep breath, and with the night air loaded in his lungs, he opened his mouth to scream for help.
Douglas pushed the man’s head under the surface. The scream became bubbles in an ungiving torrent of frigid river water. He wouldn’t let this man ruin his life, this stranger who had no business walking along the side of the road at night. The unwelcome weight that hit his bumper and bounced off his windshield. The man who thrashed and swallowed the river with his eyes wide open, his eyes–
* * * * * *
Douglas opened his eyes. He was in the dark again, back in the tank, Deep Escape, floating in space, but he wasn’t alone. Something was in here with him. Crouched over him, a presence, a sound, a body without a body which had been following him around.
Cold fingers shot out and wrapped around his neck. Pushed him down underwater. Douglas looked up, from dark water to dark sky. Even in perfect pitch, he could make out the face of the man above him. It was no surprise. His lungs and eyes burned. He took in great, big mouthfuls of water and noticed, as his vision faded and shook, that it had a strange taste, like the water cooler at work, and he thought back to the attendant who had introduced him to the device he was now drowning in.
“In order to help you stay afloat, the water is treated with Epsom,” he had said.
It tasted like salt.
Tight fingers squeezed his throat shut. They turned his vision black, blacker than the water, the dark river that swallowed him down.
“You’re in the darkest place in the world.”
Not yet. But soon. All that was left was to give up.
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