A darkness so complete.
He felt cold. Looking all around, there was nothing to see. He could not even see his hands or his body below him. He felt as if he were a solitary eye floating in ink.
A darkness that breathed.
Knuckles aching on the wheel, Robert glanced again nervously into his rear-view mirror. His imagination had been playing tricks on him – the police officer was exactly what he appeared to be. Not a horrifying demon aching to consume him. Merely a man. Robert began to pull over, the black truck crunching onto the gravel shoulder of the road. The cop’s car eased in behind him, and rolled to a stop with a loud creak. Dust settled around them both as Robert looked again at the policeman and his dark sunglasses. He was still just a man.
For now. I have to make this as quick as possible.
With an involuntary sigh, Robert stared at the road stretching itself out in front of him. The trees swayed lazily in the breeze, the clouds slowly tumbled over each other across the bluest sky he had ever seen. This was a day to stretch out somewhere silently in the shade of a great oak – maybe in a park somewhere – and dream. Sitting in the quiet of the truck’s cab with the windows down, a cool draft of clean air caressing his beard and hair made it almost impossible to keep awake. He snapped himself alert and rubbed his tired eyes. Falling asleep was exactly what the darkness wanted. For a reason unknown. Something they desired was dependent on his being unconscious. They needed him to fall into strange and impossible universes. They wanted him to descend further into the endless depths of thirsting darkness echoing with the laughter of forgotten gods. But his eyes were so heavy now. Too heavy. The lazy air was laced with the faint scent of wild flowers.
The cop knocked on the roof of the cab and shocked Robert back into this reality. Quickly jerking awake, Robert began to apologize:
“Officer, sorry for spee–“
“License and registration.” He cut Robert off with a blank expression that was somehow laced with suspicion. No doubt earned through countless stops just like this one. Countless apologies that fell on deaf, stoic ears trained by years of experience.
“Sure! Just, uh, bought this truck, actually. So the registration is not updated yet but let me give you the card of the fellow that sold it to me. It’ll check out.” A nervous grin spread on Robert’s face. His normal salesman smile probably wouldn’t have helped him anyway. Not with this statue of a man. He looked at Robert’s license, then at his face. Without a word he turned and walked back to his squad car that looked freshly cleaned and waxed as it glistened in the shimmering sunlight.
Hands on the wheel at 10 and 2, Robert’s hands tapped with the rhythm of war drums from a far-away land that he had never even thought of once in his life. He stared straight ahead as best he could, watching the clouds roll over the world in front of him. The cop was probably far enough away that he was safe. Both Robert and the cop were safe. With a sigh and a stretch he eased his head back to look into the rear-view mirror at a towering juggernaut with black armor walking toward him.
His hands fumbled clumsily for the keys and they flew up into his beard and got tangled in the wiry hair that he was still not used to. Swears turned to pleas for mercy as he finally just ripped the keys out, taking a chunk of hair and skin from his horrified face. Blood trickled down from his chin as he shakily put the keys in the ignition, the car growling instantly with desperate fury. As he peeled away, throwing up gravel and dust, he stared at this new creature. Towering and slow, the armor was shining shadows, absorbing light and yet glistening like folded steel. It came to a stop and stood with its freakishly long arms crossed, the sharpened smile so familiar to Robert now adorned the black space that was its face. Tires gripped the pavement and pulled Robert away, and he looked again at the monster. It pointed now in front of his truck, and he followed its gaze to a billboard that read:
He slammed his fist on the wheel in rage. Tears welled up in his eyes as he fought off accepting the truth of his situation. The roads were familiar now. He was almost home, where his wife waited patiently to find out what happened to her husband. She must be either terribly scared or terribly angry, and Robert felt terrible to be the cause of either. The truck roared down the road, going around one curve on what felt like two wheels. The air whipped into the cab through the open windows, flicking drops of blood from his chin onto the windshield and all over the place. A red, macabre version of Jackson Pollock’s work. The wind smelled impossibly fresh, the rain’s scent still strong from the night before, mingling in along with the growing sound of sirens behind him. The cop car began to pull itself closer to him, and Robert glanced to try and catch a glimpse of the demon, but it was the policeman again behind the wheel. He was probably oblivious that Robert was fleeing because he had turned into an armored hell spawn moments before, with arms that dragged the pavement and threw sparks with each step.
The policeman pulled the cruiser up close to the truck’s bumper, and nudged it. At the speeds they were going it caused Robert to nearly crash, a horrifying lurch to the right and then straight again let him have a moment of relief. Robert had almost over-corrected, nervous and exhausted as he was. Even in this situation, with tons of steel and fire rushing down the road – trees whipping by – the roar of the engine was more like a hum trying to coax him into sleep. The cop was gaining again, and moved to try and hit the side of Robert’s truck inside of the next curve on the right. A near-miss that could have been the end, Robert looked to see a familiar block up ahead, he was so close to home now!
An amazing tree stood towering on the corner of his street, a tree that his son had played under all those years before with the neighbor boys who were also grown now, working and living somewhere else in this universe. As he began to slow and turn the corner, he could almost see the shadows of the life that he was racing back to: a football spiraling slowly through the summer air into the hands of a laughing child as the smell of slightly burnt hamburgers danced into their noses.
The cop almost caught his bumper again during the turn, but the maneuver was unnecessary. Robert had taken the corner too quickly and over corrected, causing him to fishtail down his street. The truck finally caught traction, but the angle of it threw his truck onto his next-door neighbor’s yard and into their apple tree with an immense thundering. The windshield shattered and rained glass onto Robert’s head as it slammed into the steering wheel, and it was only through sheer will that he remained conscious. Pain burned red hot throughout his body, pulsing. The sun even seemed to pulse in tandem, high in the sky.
Steam poured from the crumpled hood of the truck, and the crash lured neighbors to their windows to investigate the normally quiet suburb. Sirens began to drone louder as he unbuckled his seat belt, and collapsed from the car in an exhausted heap. His head hung low and he stared at the grass, vibrantly green and pulsing with detail in rhythm with his pain. Blood trickled down his face and dripped slowly onto the ground, and he forced his head up to look at his house. His wife’s car was in the driveway, and his heart nearly exploded with joy. Tears welled up as he staggered to his feet, clutching ribs that felt broken.
Only… a few steps…
He shuffled and kept staring at his house, at the windows and the door. He knew in only a moment or two his wife would look out and see him like he had never been before. A fear blossomed inside of him. A fear that he would be a stranger to her like this, unrecognizable with the blood and the beard. The suit that was once so fresh was sticking to him with sweat, and covered in stains.
A few… more steps…
A ringing in his ears began, and it drowned out the sounds growing around him: The shouts of policemen drawing their guns and telling him to get on the ground, the screams of housewives running back inside their homes. But the wind blowing through the trees remained clear. The calming rustle of leaves against each other, and the whispers of molecules winding their way through the branches. The only other sound that was just as clear to Robert was the familiar moan of his front door that always creaked no matter how he oiled it. A former source of frustration coaxed the tears of joy to flow harder. The front door was opening, and his beautiful wife came out. Her long, black hair flowed over one shoulder, and she stared at him in disbelief. She recognized him! But the recognition was tainted with something else. Something familiar to him now after the last few days.
She turned and went back into the house, covering her mouth with one hand. The door stayed ajar. Robert was exhausted, and he collapsed onto the grass and pain exploded in his chest from shattered ribs. He used his entire strength to look up at his home, the one that he had fallen in love and raised his family in. He looked, and he saw himself standing in the doorway. Clean cut, wearing a fresh new suit tailored to fit. A black suit with a black shirt and tie. The Robert in the doorway smiled at him, with a horrible malevolence. The smile of a sadist. The Robert in the grass collapsed, and had no strength to lift his head more, so that his view of his doppelganger was sideways and distorted. Robert could feel his hands clench into fists and his teeth grind together as the other Robert smiled and turned his head to match the angle of the true Robert. The fake mouthed three words as the tunnel vision grew and unconsciousness gripped the real Robert:
“We are everywhere.”
The lock turned on the wooden door as the rain began to fade. A dull roar reduced to a whisper. Stepping away, he tried to control his heart’s violent thumping against his ribs, aching with each breath. The door pushed open with horrifying slowness, opened just wide enough for the man’s words to come into the room.
“Maintenance? Maintenance. Sorry for coming so early but… uhhh… the water is out. Still… uh… trying to find the problem” He trailed off awkwardly. “Are you awake, mister?” The door opened a bit wider so that the top of his head could poke in and look at Robert, who had just finished rumpling the bed to make it seem slept in. Like a bed should be when one has paid for a hotel stay.
“Yes, I’m awake now” Robert dourly spat at the handyman. Exhaustion had whittled away at his typically affable demeanor, exposing the irritable asshole that lives within us all. “Hurry with whatever you need to do.” The man paused in the doorway after sliding in, looking around the room sleepily. Robert watched this with vexation and repeated: “Hurry.”
“Fine, fine, jeez. Sorry. I’m still half in bed. I’ll get out of your hair as soon as I can, buddy.”
Robert was filled with a subtle fear. However, the bile of irritability was thick in the sea of his emotions and he could not help but think:
I’m not your God-damned “buddy”, guy.
Taking his tool kit along with a new found irritability that Robert gave him, the handyman moved past Robert’s grim face and crossed arms without a glance. Getting into the bathroom, he had a passing thought about how bad moods spread quicker than the common cold. Facing away, Robert looked through a crack in the curtains at sunlight finding its way into a new day. Warmth. A distinct pleasure spread into Robert’s bones. But it did not last. Relief was fleeting, as that familiar tingle of ice wormed into his body. He knew he could not stay here with the man so close by. It was only a matter of time until the shadows grew a horrible cloud in the space around the stranger, an impossible geometry of spiraling ink that spread its tendrils around whomever it needed to use to get to Robert. The word’s of his old friend, who had been consumed by a skillful demon right before his eyes without him even noticing, crept into his thoughts again.
“We are everywhere.”
Robert James felt his stomach writhe hungrily within his gut, searching for food that wasn’t there. He decided to leave without a word to the man who’s face he had already forgotten. Besides, the room seemed like it was growing colder already. Darker, even. Jingling on the end table, the room key barely came to a rest when the door slammed satisfyingly shut behind Robert and he walked out into the breezeway. The ground was slick with a rain that now was being pushed away by the warm eastern zephyr of the rising sun.
He stood for a moment looking at the parking lot, as steam began to twist off of the gray asphalt, curling between a few cars that braved the storm from the night before. One in particular caught his eye, a dark blue sedan with a white top. and white-walled tires. A real looker of a vehicle. Robert gave a long and admiring gaze at that car, as the sun almost made it glow with an aura. One imperfection caught his eye though. A cluster of thin parallel lines ran along the length of the car; a light color against the dark blue. Like scratches in the paint. From claws of onyx.
His stomach groaned again and he turned to the diner, which was surprisingly open at this early hour. Eggs and coffee and bacon wafted into the warming air, and Robert walked in again to see the same bubbly brunette with the shining smile.
“Good mornin’ mister! What can we get for you?”
“Cupocoffee” Robert mumbled, with a weak smile as he looked around him at the counter. Mostly clean, a few big stains that surely had been scrubbed hundreds of times to no avail. The main faded hue was a sad-looking tan. It was a shame, Robert mused, when a business either doesn’t care or can’t afford to keep up appearances. Glancing at the mostly empty restaurant, his eyes found a sight when they came upon an aged man with a shock of white hair on his head and a long white beard; An over-sized, worn and torn brown jacket covered his broad body. Blue eyes staring right at him. Robert sat up with a start as he stared back at the frozen eyes staring ice through him. Into him. A blink and the man had vanished.
Robert whipped his head around at the waitress, who was grabbing creamer from underneath the counter. She obviously didn’t see what happened, and he asked:
“MISS! Who was the man sitting in the corner over there, just a moment ago?!” She stood up quickly in surprise and looked at Robert’s wild eyes and tired face.
“Man? Which man?” She pondered, putting a finger to her chin and looking around the place. “Him?” Robert turned to look at a different man, a much younger one who was clean shaven and was actually Jim from the repair shop, face down gobbling up a plate of eggs and hash browns with a ridiculous amount of ketchup. It was as if he actually added hash browns to a plate of ketchup, instead of the converse. Strange. Robert turned and shook his head, sipping carefully the cupocoffee that the nice young lady gave him. She apologized for her memory and shrugged, going about her duties. He gulped the hot liquid down painfully, a fire brewing in an empty stomach, and he realized he should eat something too.
“Miss, sorry, but could I also have a bagel with cream cheese?” He said sheepishly. Jim had paid and waved as he stood to leave. The waitress went to prepare the modest breakfast and Jim walked over.
“Hey, R.J.! Should have gotten the eggs scrambled with onions and peppers! Real good here. Anyway, that starter of yours should be coming any time now, them boys out west get up earlier than me!” He gave Robert a pat on the back, and they smiled at each other.
“Great! Thanks again for helping me out, Jim. I’ll be around here somewhere, maybe I’ll find a nice spot in the shade to slee — er — sit in… for a while.” Robert’s eyes were still heavier than anything he had ever lifted before. Despite the coffee. It takes a while to kick in, really. A bagel magically appeared before Robert, along with a smiling waitress telling him to enjoy it. It quickly began to vanish as Jim disappeared out the door and into the waiting day. It was going to be a big one for Robert, and one filled with mystery. The darkness waited for him out there, in the hot sunlight.
It hid between molecules within the air, hoping to snare him around the throat and whisk him into itself. Pushing the empty plate away and putting money on the counter, Robert thought of the darkness as a horrible, amorphous mass of squirming serpentine shadows, red eyes appearing and disappearing all over the quivering horror. It grew, and pulsed. The air swirled colder inside the diner, the curls of the young woman’s hair suddenly appeared darker under the fluorescent light that flickered above. She was wiping the counter, and Robert stood to leave with his eyes locked on her as she suddenly froze during her cleaning rhythm. He whirled around to leave, thinking that he saw her eyes flick up at him as he turned. The door was heavy as he pushed his way out, and he turned to his right walking along the side of the restaurant. As he walked past the last booth that was by the window, he turned to look in at a single coffee cup resting on a barren table. The place where that strange man sat, eyes blazing cold fire into Robert’s mind. Some strange sense of… urgency? Staring from the corner of his eye was a new gaze. He looked over his shoulder as he walked away, the waitress stoically stared after him as Robert fled from her sight.
He trotted a fair ways behind the diner, the dirt giving way to taller grass and the trees stretching to the sky. The shade was still a bit wet from the night before, but not as hot as the sunlight.
This will be a good place to wait.
The waitress never emerged from the restaurant. The imagination plays terrible tricks on a tired mind. But the coffee cup… That stood out to Robert. The bubbly young lady said that she did not remember, but how do you forget someone as distinct-looking as he was? And how did he vanish? He thought hard about what he saw, and he rushed back into the restaurant. There was a napkin there, by the mug. Something was written on it. His feet flew over the ground and into the diner again, breathing hard he moved to the booth where the waitress was finishing cleaning up. The napkin was on the tray behind her, resting on a table while she worked. He took it and read it to himself. The short chortle of disbelief came from his mouth, and he crumpled it up and threw it back down.
“Dream to escape.”
Tell me something I don’t know. Waste of — wait.
The man had vanished into thin air like demons had. And had an obvious interest in him. Who was this man? He left something behind – a message – to reach out to Robert James… What could this mean? Why did he stare so coldly, with such ice? Robert shivered as the shade of the trees fell over him once again. He stood with his back to one, and crossing his arms he looked at Jim’s place. This would be a good place to wait. Clouds slowly wafted overhead as the sun continued its march higher into the blue sky, a grand illusion.
It wasn’t long before a truck rumbled into the parking lot of Jim’s. Robert stared as the dust cloud that once trailed behind the hauler now filled the air around it coming to a rest. One man hopped out of the large truck while the other stayed inside with it idling. Jim came out to meet them, a handshake and a smile produced a signature on a clipboard and a wave goodbye. A sequence of actions as old as commerce. Starting slowly, the giant truck lurched forward and gained speed away from this glimpse of a town. Jim was unaware that Robert stared from afar as he rolled his tool box out by Robert’s new truck. The starter is easy enough to replace, since he was done faster than Robert expected. 30 more minutes in the shade alone was almost therapeutic to him; the air idling between trees and leaves was clean tasting and invigorated his spirits. The long walk across the grass made him think of childhood gambits as a knight, cardboard shield poised to defend. His eyes were achingly tired and Robert had to consciously focus on holding them open sometimes, but he now felt a kindling of small fire within his soul. He was this much closer to his wife, and he knew that he had no idea how to protect her, but maybe he could keep her safe somehow. Move her around from town to town, give her a bit of excitement. He stifled a chuckle and began to walk inside of Jim’s cluttered office, greasy footprints lining the concrete floor.
“Hey! Thanks again, Jim.” Robert shook Jim’s hand as he rose to greet him.
“No problem at all, R.J.! Be safe out there!”
“You too!” The door shut behind Robert and he nearly sprinted to the black truck. It was pretty clean on the inside, despite some usual wear and tear. The engine started and he rolled out back onto the road, pulling the motor for all that it was worth. A new exhilaration found its way into his body, forcing a smile of clenched teeth to appear. The highway stretched itself before him again, and he flew down it toward his home, to his great love. He had to get back and he knew he would finally be where he belonged. To the woman who – for whatever strange reason – accepted him. Loved him. Believed in him and supported him for no reason other than love. He could never repay her for all the support she gave. He had once found her platitudes about finding a new job obnoxious and annoying, but he knew she was doing all she could to support him through his overwhelming depression. Love. They say it makes the world go around, and that may be true. But love undoubtedly was the reason for Robert’s life.
Someone once said that we live life in the pursuit of beauty, and all else is just a form of waiting. Robert knew all those years ago, when he fell in love with her, that he did not have to wait ever again. Not as long as she was there by his side. The fire burned strong in his soul again, like it did when he was a younger man under the stars on a beach at night. The truck barreled down the road, passing cars fast and pulling the world underneath it. A billboard stretched out on the right up ahead, and Robert stared with disbelief. Alone, framed by a piercing clean white, were black letters that read:
Fury forced the truck faster down the road, and soon he passed another billboard, reading:
His chest was burning with tingles of love that quickly caved to the overwhelming fear. A fear that comes from facing a universe filled with a vile darkness permeating the physical world with its evil will. A darkness that defies logic and reason, a darkness with intelligence. A darkness that has hunted Robert. Stalked him. Anger brewed again. The anger of being toyed with by something beyond your control. Imagine being an ant that is being fried by the magnifying glass of a horned demon-child with the shadowy cheshire smile of madness. A siren came up from behind him along with the red and blue flashes of a police officer. He was being pulled over, and looking in the rear-view mirror he saw red eyes and fangs that stretched over darkness. A blue hat rested on its head. A blink and a glance brought a normal human into frame, motioning to him to pull over. Robert’s hands gripped the wheel and he squeezed them as hard as he could, knuckles growing whiter with each passing moment.
The horns were all Robert could see for a moment. His eyes focused on the demon perched on the back of the Harley roaring toward him, shadows swirling violently behind it. There were two sets, one beginning from the being’s brow and extending back, with only a slight curve inward toward their tips. Perfectly symmetrical. The second pair came from just behind its cheeks, and curled over like the horns of a ram. Like some horrible helmet. They were blood red and shined with polished brilliance, reflecting the light from the sun glaring down on them. Robert tried to swallow, but he couldn’t.
He and the shadowy demon flew at each other, alone together on this stretch of highway. Heart pounding in his flesh, he stared at the face of the darkness. The smile stared at him harder than the red eyes that sat above, unblinking. The teeth were perfectly straight, sharpened to points. So symmetrical. Robert was paralyzed, he could feel his eyes bulging out of his head at the horror. Smiling ear to ear, the mouth wrapped around its black head. It tossed back, laughing wildly at everything. Shadows whipping around like tentacles flapping in the wind. So close now! Robert could not move, and he felt that he was watching himself from somewhere deep within his body. Like those terrifying dreams we have from time to time, a strange cursed passed down through history. A sensation of paralysis and gripping fear that may permeate into our waking state. A brush with hell.
Numb to the world, he could not feel his hands clutching the wheel. He squeezed so hard that pain echoed in his metacarpals; bones that broke when he was a kid and never quite set back right in his hands. He stared at the being bearing down on him with intent to kill, and he thought of Linda. His wife’s face blinked into his mind, a breath in his ear, the smallest whisper. A reassurance. The words that were whispered are words we all wish to hear, the most comforting phrase a person can know. These are, all at once, words of forgiveness and trust, loyalty and joy. Words that are as old as humanity. Words necessary for life to continue:
“I love you.”
At the moment before the impact, time slowed down. All in one second he stared, noticing the being reaching out for him, one arm stretching out with onyx claws. Within this moment, the claw melted into a black-gloved hand. It was rising to shield the face of a human in black, slamming into his car. The creature had abandoned this husk within a fraction of a second. The man was tossed into the windshield, tumbled over the roof, and thudded on the road behind Robert losing control of his car. Slamming into a tree, he managed to slow it down enough that he wasn’t knocked out, while protecting his head with his arms. He always wore his seat belt, and it cut into his chest with burning force. The horn exploded past the ringing in his ears, droning out into the sky. The car was totaled, at least beyond what Robert could repair. Bleeding and groaning he spilled out of the car onto the grass.
He managed to get up, his left leg shouting out in pain to his brain. Both the motorcycle and his car were wafting black clouds of smoke lazily into the sky. Finally, the car horn was fading down into silence. Robert limped over to the man in black, laying face down in the middle of the road. Blood pooled underneath him, thick and almost reflecting the serene sky above. His head was cracked open, and Robert remembered something similar from when he was a child.
The memory rose to the surface, where back in his home town where he was teased by a bully, and Robert challenged him to a bike race down a steep hill. Robert was eager to put that giant of a kid into his place. The bully naturally accepted and rode to the appointed place. Robert prepared by going home for his favorite shirt, and he made his way there. But not before his mom made sure he ate a big lunch. She thought he was just going to play as usual, and he needed the energy.
The sky now was the way it was then, blue with only a whisper of clouds high in the sky. They were like white feathers up there in the light blue hue. Robert won that race, but his opponent had lost in the worst possible way. Halfway down, he lost control of his bicycle and toppled head first onto the asphalt. The blood was thick, and almost reflected those celestial feathers hanging in the blue. The smell was the same too. Copper laced with something else. That big lunch his mother made for him – salami on rye – made a surprise appearance that day. As if on cue.
This day though, his stomach was cast iron. He did not feel queasy at all looking down at the dead man. Relieved, he began to limp away down the long highway flanked by trees. He was hungry and tired and his body ached with every step. Birds called out their songs to the sky, intermingling with a wind that traced its way through the trees. The breeze was cool, and he raised his face to the sky for a moment before continuing his walk. He felt like some great weight had been removed from his shoulders.
His leg had mostly stopped bothering him, and sticking to the shade he began to walk briskly down the road. Nervously he hummed to himself as the trees helplessly listened.
After what seemed like forever, he happened upon a small town. It was the type you always pass on the way to somewhere else, and if you blink twice you’ll miss it. A gas station, a diner, and a small motel were the only establishments that he could see. All of them seemed very old, like folks haven’t passed through in a long time, and it was only by the grace of God that they managed to stay open. The gas station was the first he came upon, a place named “Jim’s”. A small mechanic’s garage was attached, where a man was underneath a black sedan that looked completely shot, and a small truck was parked next to the wall outside. Robert swallowed, and hoped this fellow took credit cards.
“Hey there!” Robert said amiably, walking up to the mechanic now rolling out from under the car. Tools were littering the ground, grease seeming to cover everything.
“Hey there, mister. How can I help you?”
“You must be the Jim. I’m Robert, Robert Lowman. Call me R.J.,” The salesman in him was coming out again, and he smiled at Jim’s face covered in the grime of hard work.
“Say, does that truck happen to be for sale over there? My car just got wrecked a ways up the road, and I have to get somewhere.” Hiding his unease, Robert was in a hurry to escape for a while. He needed to get away from the eyes of strangers. He felt extremely paranoid even talking to this man for a moment.
How does the darkness find me?
“Actually, I have been trying to get rid of that thing for a while. Some guy came here, asked for it to get repaired, and then just disappeared. Strangest thing. So yeah, you can have it budd — er — R.J.!” Jim was visibly pleased with how has day was turning out. He was thinking of maybe getting his son that bike he wanted. Robert moved in with a fair offer, uncaring of running his credit up. Thoughts of holding her in his arms again made financial worries seem distant.
“Sure thing, sir!! Thanks for not low-balling me. Let me get your information then I’ll get the keys.” Jim wiped grease from his hands onto the grease on his overalls, and the exchange went quickly. Robert was eager to get on the road again. He was completely exhausted and felt that he would fall asleep if he kept his eyes shut longer than a blink. Hopping in the truck, he put the keys into the ignition and the engine just made a strange clacking sound.
“Starter’s out? That’s strange… I just replaced that the other week. No matter, should have another one in the back somewhere. I’ll get it swapped right away.” It turned out that he did not, and after looking for several minutes apologized and said that he ordered one from a store up the road. They were going to drive it out in the morning, so Robert was stuck in this glimpse of a town. Robert normally would have felt frustrated or angry, but he knew he did not have the time for that. Walking toward the diner, he could swear that he could feel the man began to be framed by swirling shadows. He whipped his head back around and looked at a normal Jim walking back inside his shop. Trees stood tall around the town, and stared at Robert, who shivered as he began to navigate around rusted out cars with tall grass growing out of them. An ancient refrigerator was yellow in the partial shade, patterns of leaves dancing across its door.
Better get some food to go. Can’t spend too much time near people, obviously.
The diner was almost as dirty as the garage, and he would never have eaten here if he was not starving. When he grabbed the door handle, he also grabbed a fat round roach that crunched in his hand. Normally it would have startled and made him disgusted. Today, he just wiped it off on his pants and walked inside the restaurant. He could feel the eyes of patrons looking him up and down, and he buried his anxiety with the perpetual smile of a salesman. He ordered a burger, fries, and a Coke from a bubbly young waitress with bouncing brown curls. Sitting at the counter, he tried to read a newspaper someone had left behind but could not focus with the eyes tracing over his body. Suddenly he stood up, deciding to wait outside for his order. The uncut grass was safer company than that of strangers.
Finally the girl came out to him, white teeth shining with youthful optimism.
“Have a great day, sir!!” He took his bag and walked to the motel without a thank you or hesitation, taking long strides. A nervous pace like walking through a parking lot late at night. Crunching through some grass for a few seconds, he stepped onto the pavement of the motel’s modest parking lot. It looked like it was well taken care of, unlike the rest of the town. Freshly swept and windows washed, and a clean bell tingled in the air as he walked into the small office. An old man tended the counter, and cheerfully greeted him.
“Hello! My name’s Don French, and this has been my family’s motel for a long time. You look like you could use a good night’s sleep!” He gave a strong chuckle despite looking very frail, his white hair thin on his head. Wrinkles carved strong lines all over his face.
“Hey Don! This place is a sight for sore eyes indeed. Got a room?”
“I got a whole bunch! Let me get your card and information here,” He said with a smile. Soft music buzzed from a radio that seemed to match Don’s age. Robert scribbled his information with intense speed, his hand aching from the tenseness of gripping the pen. The exchange was quick, both men practiced in the process of buying and selling. A few smiles and a key let Robert into a motel room, with a very comfortable looking bed that Robert knew he could not sleep in. He promised himself to not even touch it, no matter how inviting it was. Even the smell wafting up from it – fresh linens – could not coax him into its soft promise of comfort. He understood that even a wink of rest would fling him into a river of oblivion, filled with its currents and eddies and sharp rocks.
Robert stared out the window, looking outside on a world that appeared bent on catching up to him somehow. A strange chase that was chilling to think about, the darkness hiding in the universe itself searching everywhere all at once for a single man. Could the plaster in the walls sense him? The lamp, or even the light itself that radiated from it? The shadows that stood tall on the wall behind him?
“We are everywhere.”
Robert tried to think which word of the phrase was the most horrifying. “We” implies numbers, possibly great ones. A whole team of shadow beasts with some devious objective. “Are” cements the fact that they exist. And reinforces the “we” from before, and with confidence. And “everywhere”? Well… One finds it easy to think of those implications. Robert’s legs twitched with an anxious tic.
The wind blew briskly outside as the sun drifted lower in the sky. Shadows cast from the trees grew longer, and darkness crept over the land. Robert’s stomach rumbled, and he appreciated it. The hunger should help keep him awake. He played a tune with his hands on his knees, an ancient rhythm that has been played time and time again by those familiar with struggle, or with a battlefield. The beating of drums that came from his hands was the song of nervousness, of anxiety and a lingering fear. It had played in the hearts of those who have stared death in the face, and lived. Lived to know that one day they would have to raise their sword again against that Black — the Nothingness. Raise their sword and watch it disintegrated by the scythe of Death as it cuts down to push them into the darkness of Shakespeare’s “Undiscovered Country”, from whose borders no traveller returns.
But Robert’s tune was somewhat different. He had the knowledge that there are fates worse than death. The madness that he had felt in those spaces of time, those places darker than black. The whispering tongues that wagged in the darkness. A place that ripped and pushed into his mind and abused his senses with overwhelming inputs of emotion and physical horrors. Madness. Robert shivered, and tapped his hands harder, faster.
He had to stay awake. He had to make sure his wife was safe.
It was going to be a long night, he mused.
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It was as if he continued to fall. Even after the explosion of pain from when his head smacked into the roof of the car. Falling, falling through a darkness that watched him. He could feel something vile looking into his mind, its evil tenacity prying past his eyes and into his brain relentlessly crushing his will, peeking into his body and violating him. A sensation of spiders covered in oily hair that were crawling inside of his skin and skull. Gnawing, scratching, nibbling, tickling. Laughter erupted from the greasy arachnids, their mandibles quivering with devilish glee and dripping with saliva. He fell into the black screaming, crying and clawing at his eyes scratchi —
A solitary heartbeat, thumping in the darkness.
Glasses clinked. A toast. Familiar music fuzzily found its way to his ears, that haunting tune:
“Stopped into a church
I passed along the way
Well, I got down on my knees (got down on my kneeees)
And I pretend to praaay…”
Robert’s eyelids were heavy, and he blinked away the sleep. He sat up and looked at a darkened bar, men leaning against a wooden wall talking. A dart thumped into a board amidst mixed cheers and groans, and R.J. wiped at his eyes. He felt like he was drugged, or still drunk from the night before. A nausea twinged in his gut as he smelled himself. He looked down at the ragged suit he was wearing, tattered and stained. He really smelled like something that had died and sat in the sun for too long. Robert mused about the witty comments Linda would have made if she could see him now. The faint smile disappeared from his face as his past experiences came rushing back to him. The bloody mess in the forest, the vacuum of space, the post-apocalyptic hell all filled his mind’s eye.
Where is this? Seems… Normal enough.
There was an empty glass on the table in front of him, sitting on top of a newspaper that read the date. Robert’s heart skipped a beat and he stood up with a start, looking for the bartender. He noticed that his cheeks itched as he strode across the dark wooden floor. A thick beard has found its home where his clean-shaven face used to be. Odd.
“Say, barkeep…” Robert said with a wave of his hand as he sat at the counter. The man turned and hesitated before walking over. Picking up a glass to clean, he looked at R.J. and nodded.
“What city is this?” Robert asked, barely able to hide his hope.
Laughter swelled in the tavern as the bartender told him, and Robert’s eyes lit up with joy. He was home! Well, almost home.
“Pour me a cold one, friend.” Putting a bill on the counter he smiled at the fellow, and the fellow could not help but smile back at Robert’s happy face. R.J. had one of those types of smiles: rare, but when they came you HAD to smile back. Perfect for a travelling salesman. He had closed a few big deals with this talent before. The man poured R.J. a nice cold beer with a modest head, and he took a sip. It was impossibly refreshing to Robert, and he felt he could cry he was so happy. Finally he was safe. Suddenly, the bartender’s smile became stretched almost… like a caricature. His eyes narrowed and changed somehow.
Did it just get darker in here? Or…
“You… do not belong.” The barkeep said with an ominous monotone. The voice was distorted and had undertones of static. Invisible ice crept over Robert’s shoulders and shot down his legs as the man leaned toward him threateningly. Now Robert could see that darkness was emanating from the space around the being. The shadows were pulsing, bubbling out from nowhere, and R.J. felt like he was making eye contact with it. As an elongated tongue curled from the being’s mouth Robert leaned back from the demon barkeeper in awkward horror, and he looked to his left at the man sitting two chairs away. The jovial fellow did not seem to notice this petrifying thing pouring drinks! Robert felt as if he was freezing solid, and leaping from his bar stool he made his way to the entrance, clumsily weaving past people as they enjoyed their night. Passing back frenzied glances at a thing of madness.
“YOU CANNOT ESCAPE.” A roar blew from the darkened space swirling behind the bar, framing the shadowy humanoid. Robert noticed how unnaturally tall it was, and that everyone around him seemed to not notice anything. Talking and laughing, blissfully unaware that something had consumed the…barkeeper? With the blink of an eye the devil vanished from existence, the darkness resting for now. Glasses clinked again and conversations blended into a chorus of humanity. Maybe he was seeing things.
A bell chimed as he left the bar, twinkling in the doorway with warmth.
So much for not escaping.
Considering where he woke up the last few times, Robert felt at ease despite what he saw. He looked at this old city, one he had grown to hate, and saw a paradise. It’s amazing what peering into hell can do to your world-view. It was a nice day out, and Robert walked briskly through the crowd with ease. Folks were avoiding him due to his odor and appearance, and a light laugh came from his chest. There was a homeless man in the window pane next to him, smiling back and wearing the same tattered rags. He couldn’t let his beautiful wife see him like this! She would make him sleep on the couch and bathe in tomato soup for a WEEK! Her smile, with those ridiculously perfect teeth, filled his head with feelings of longing. The beard could wait, but he needed new clothes. Luckily his wallet was still hanging in the clump of threads that used to be his back pocket. A storekeepers eyes changed from suspicious to thrilled quickly with some clean green bills.
As he walked out, buttoning his black suit coat, he could feel the owner watching him. Casting a glance over his left shoulder as he strode away, he caught shadows of darkness surrounding a figure wearing the smile of a Cheshire. Robert’s blood ran cold in his veins despite the sun shining onto the city streets, and he picked up his pace. He felt his paranoia was getting the better of him. Thinking back as he walked, he thought that this really must have all been some strange drug induced amnesia. Robert felt certain that all that had happened had been just dreams, and he felt braver because of this. Finally he was on his way home, to his wife who must have had every cop in the state looking for him. He turned down a block and he could see the park that he went to each morning and —
My car!! Yes!!
He produced car keys from his coat pocket and trotted to his sedan. Amazed that it could still be here after what seemed like forever, he stood and looked around at this day. It really was a lovely one. Birds sat lazily on a wire, watching people going about their lives.
“Hey, R.J.,! Is that you?” A voice shouted out over the hustle and bustle of the city. Robert turned quickly to look at an old friend. The doctor he met once during a sales call, and R.J. tried to get him to buy several vacuums. Several!! At the time, Dr. Charley was incredulous to the point of hilarity. He instantly had a soft spot for this bold salesman, rattling on about how useful it would be to have several vacuums — one for the house, the practice, and back-ups just in case the others broke! Ridiculous! Yet there was logic in his rhetoric. And the only reason Robert did this was so that he could negotiate down to just the two. Start high, they always tell you, set a high benchmark to set the tone of a negotiation. Robert smiled at him as he walked over through the crowd.
“Barely recognized you with that beard, R.J. Lowman! What are you doing with one? Found a job that let you keep it?”
“No… Just…” Robert paused and looked up to the sky. A crow was flying against the wind, struggling and getting nowhere. But it was beautiful, he supposed. Sighing, he looked back to his friend:
“I’ve taken some time off, I guess. From the search. I’ve been meaning to ask you about those sleeping pills you gave me, are you sure that they were OK?”
“What do you mean?” Dr. Charley tilted his head and crossed his arms. He looked as if he was still in the office, wearing his lab coat and stethoscope.
“I had some very strange… dreams, and I don’t remember the last…” Robert sheepishly looked to the ground, “… I don’t KNOW how long.” A moment of silence passed.
“That’s just too bad.” Dr. Charley replied flatly. Robert looked at him in surprise.
“What do you mean, ‘that’s too bad’?! You’re a doctor! Sort it out!” The doctor burst into loud laughter at him, gregariously throwing his head back. After a moment he calmed down and caught his breath, wiping the tears from his eyes.
“Robert, do you still think that I am Dr. Charley?” He looked at the smiling doctor, who watched him with the gleeful curiosity of a child. A bitter cold spread itself through R.J., tracing its path down his back to his feet. He felt weak.
“We are everywhere, Robert. You cannot escape us!” At this, Robert backed up, reaching behind him for the door handle — eyes locked onto his friend.
“What are you talking about? You’re Doc Charles!” The doctor stared back at him in disbelief. He chuckled and shook his head, looking down at the ground as if remembering some punchline to some joke. Robert was horrified. He knew now that what he looked at was not his friend. There was no doubt. He felt the tingling of fear again, surprised he was not desensitized to the feeling. In one swift motion he swung himself into the car and shut the door, turning the engine on. Dr. Cha — something leaned casually onto his car and stared into the window, looking right into Robert’s eyes with a knowing smile. Like a friend would.
“Try as you might, but the cycle must continue, Robert.”
Robert slammed on the accelerator and peeled into traffic. Glancing into the rearview mirror he could see the fake doctor, standing there waving at him with one hand while the other was tucked into his lab coat. Robert whirled his car around the corner, tires squealing over the black asphalt. Pedestrians threw themselves out of his way as he raced out of the city. He had to get home. He had to get to his wife before they did.
” We are everywhere.”
The city finally began to grow smaller in his rear-view mirror, and R.J. breathed a sigh of relief. The radio quietly comforted him as did the dull roar of his engine. He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel over-zealously to the rhythm of the song, the same evocative tune from the bar:
“You know the preacher like the cold (preacher like the coooold)
He knows I’m gonna stay (knows I’m gonna staa-aaay)
On such a winter’s daaay”
He drove for a while, and stopped for gas. As he pumped he noticed a man sitting by his motorcycle in all black, watching him. Dark sunglasses hid his gaze, but Robert could feel eyes on him. R.J. cut the pump early, and got back into his car to leave. The man kicked on his bike and sat on it as it rumbled, glancing at his watch. Robert carefully turned back onto the main road, and got up to speed as fast as he could. He felt uneasy after what happened in the city, despite attempts to calm himself down. The rear-view mirror held no dark motorcyclist. He breathed a sigh of relief, but still his heart pounded in his chest. Thumping against his ribs.
The reflection off of the motorcycle’s chrome flashed in his mirrors. The man in black was coming up on him. Robert accelerated, pushing the gas down and shifting into gear. There was no way that he could out run the bike, he knew, but maybe somehow he could cause him to wreck. The man was barreling up the road, coming closer and closer. Robert felt his heart in his throat beating mercilessly. They were on a straightaway now, and the man in black flew up behind him, and passed him without effort. Then he kept going. Apparently, the only thing that man was looking for was the open road. R.J. felt like a nervous fool.
But then the motorcycle stopped off in the distance, and turned around. It looked like the exhaust was pumping out black smoke but he was surrounded by that darkness. The same thing that consumed the others. The motorcycle roared toward Robert, some kind of demon flying toward him with the throttle pulled back. Robert pushed further on the accelerator as he wiped the sweat from his palms.
He had never played a game of chicken before.
But nothing was going to get between him and his wife.
Alone and writhing in the obsidian emptiness of space, Robert James strained to breathe. The vacuum of darkness pulled at his lungs with furious persistence. His lungs burned for oxygen and his mind screamed:
PLEASE GOD LET ME WAKE U–
Eyes opened to what looked like some dark corridor with holes dotting the walls and ceiling, light poking through them all into the dusty gallery. Robert could hear whispers echoing from every direction, the languages twisting between each other like tangles of smoke. Forgotten tongues blended with the arcane, and they all reached into his mind with each opaque syllable. Inhuman laughter let loose, laughing at him. His hands clutched at his ears to stifle the sounds, but they crept from within his skull. Heart heavily thumping a primal rhythm to accompany the intoxicating multitude of forbidden sounds driving him unceasingly to madness and he felt a scream begin to erupt from his mouth –
He was staring at an old ceiling, a brown-green-black blotched work of shitty abstract art. Heat filled the dry air as an ancient ceiling fan lazily rotated above him with infuriating slowness, creaking.
This is not my house… This isn’t even the place where I fell asleep…
He sat up to look at an obviously abandoned and ancient hotel room, completely dilapidated and… plain nasty. There were some big black bugs on the rotting dresser, and a dirty grey rat sitting propped up in the corner… Relaxing?
Oh… The dream. Right. Time to wake up.
Robert pinched himself as hard as he could and twisted a large fold of flesh on his forearm with all of his might, digging his nails in with extra force he summoned with desperation.
A desperation that comes from fighting a descent into psychosis.
Blood spotted on his arm. It continued to ache as he waited to wake, and he noticed the amount of dust and sand covering the floor. The mattress he was on, more a pile of springs and cloth, creaked with his standing up. The corner-rat scampered off into some hole, leaving Robert alone with his confusion. Shoes gritting the sand he walked to the window, covered by blinds that seemed dozens of years his elder.
“Might as well see where I am…” R.J. whispered into the musty air. Droves of dust flecks that were dancing slowly in the strips of light became erratic with this sudden gust. The pane of the window was covered in grime and he wiped it away with the sleeve of his suit, a dry cough escaping his mouth.
Robert James looked out upon a desert scene, sand dunes reaching to the horizon, the area near the old hotel could only be recognized as a former parking lot by the tops of cars peeking out of the drifts. The place was apparently named “Hotel Kansas”, as the sign sticking out of a golden heap read.
Looks more like the Sahara than Kansas. What happened here?
Robert ripped the hotel room door open after it stuck for a moment and it flew open abruptly. Sand spilled into his shoes from the mound that had blown up against the remnants of the building.
“Great.” He stepped outside, crunched up a hill, and looked around with eyes reaching for the blurred horizon: there were no other ruins in sight. He strained his eyes to the distance where motion glimmered through waves of heat rising off of the sand. The sun was beating down on a mass exodus of people.
Where are these people going? Why are they here?
Robert’s curiosity suspended his disbelief, and questions flooded his mind. He slid-walked down the dune he was on, and hiked carefully up the next one. His feet slipping down with each step, laboring to climb what seemed to be a disintegrating hill. Reaching the top, he crouched to hide his profile from the crowd and looked on. Hundreds of dusty people with down-turned faces slunk in huddled masses, all lurching toward some unknown refuge off to the empty horizon to his right.
As R.J. looked closer, he could see that there were military personnel urging the people forward, his ears catching the echos of men speaking to the crowd in a mix of English, Spanish… Chinese? Further ahead of the crowd, Robert saw a small detachment of desert fatigues talking together on a crest of a dune, pointing farther to R.J.’s right. He followed their gaze, and saw a massive wall of sand hanging on the horizon. It was so colossal it seemed to be still, but they all knew it was moving. Quickly too.
The men slid back toward the main group in a tumbling rush, and met with the other soldiers. They all seemed skittish, pitching glances around. One pointed in Roberts direction, and he felt the icy hand of a chill brush down his back. They dispersed and herded the crowd slowly toward where R.J. was. The sandstorm was closer now, the people were moving along faster with the soldiers trotting beside them. A baby’s cry carried over the sand and through the shimmering heat, wailing forcefully.
Robert stood and looked up again to see the storm, now noticing flashes of lightning within, and in the blink of an eye it seemed to change the direction it was heading, turning now toward him. The icy hand cemented its grip around R.J.’s heart.
Why can’t I wake up Jesus God please let me wake up I want to go home to my wife an–
A hollow, mechanical drone violently filled the air, echoing into the expanse like a foghorn. It was distinctly artificial, and loud enough so that R.J. was forced to cover his ears, but the vibration was so low and loud that he could still hear it no matter how hard he pushed his hands against his head. Sand slipped in tiny avalanches on the dunes all around him. The bones in his body shook, and he couldn’t tell if it was from the sound or the fear. The horrible tone lasted for a full minute.
The people all stopped silently in a valley between dunes, for just a moment, and looked around. The soldiers frantically urged them to continue, each holding a gun in one hand while windmilling their other arm fervently. As they saw the sand storm crash over the hills around them, spilling over them, they broke into a frightened sprint.
The baby continued to cry, but was cut off by another drone. Robert felt that the sound sounded ancient, somehow. Primeval. The sandstorm ceased along with the hellish tone, and there was a second of false silence as his ears rang. The chilling screams of the forsaken filled the air, drowning out the cries of the child. Robert beheld something which defied logic, and his eyes locked with horror on something that should never be able to exist.
A silver serpentine behemoth looked down at the crowd, and towered above the landscape. Sand fell from it as the harsh sun reflected off of chrome and it made a series of sounds: Horrifying whirrs from unseen gears, disgusting clicks from a gaping maw where dozens of cold steel mandibles slammed together in hungry anticipation. Hundreds of bright red eyes covered what could only be its head, flashing and darting in all directions. Robert fell to his knees in terror, as he watched the extermination of his species.
The mechanical colossus curled, lowering itself to the sea of humans trying to escape. Arms appeared, like titanic scythes, and began to slice into the crowd with the quick, efficient strokes of a skilled surgeon. The dunes surrounding were painted with splatters of red, turning the sand dark like mud. Sparks erupted all over the monster’s body as the soldiers began to fight back in vain. Robert cowered as bodies were tossed like insects into the air, the air whooshing around him with each methodical pass. Blood flecked across his face as a lone officer shouldered a rocket launcher and looked up to fire, hands shaking. The fear forced his aim to land only a glancing blow off what must be the being’s torso. It turned to focus its ancient gaze on the mortal, and another drone echoed out, freezing the rest of the humans where they stood.
An all-too-brief moment passed, and with strange intelligence, the thing leaned down further. The baby had survived somehow and was crying again into the macabre silence. A tumultuous sound creaked from the silver horror and its body opened to allow mechanical tendrils to spread from within. They reached, spreading around the baby to cradle it carefully and bring it back inside. Its desperate mothers’ arms were outstretched instinctively as the steel mountain confirmed the child was tucked safely within the darkness of its frame. With stoic professionalism, the carnage began with a new sincerity. Robert turned down the dune he was on to run somewhere, anywhere but here.
Silence. A gunshot, a loud thump of a muffled blow against the sand which peppered the back of Robert’s neck. Overwhelming silence. His feet scrunched the ground. There was nowhere to escape, nowhere to go. He was not sure if he could die anymore, but if he could he did not want to go like this.
My wife has no idea what is happening to me. How long have I been out? Am I even alive anymore? I want to go home…
The ground rumbled and he looked back, against his better judgement. Through tears of fear he caught a glimpse of shining silver as it slithered back into the dunes, whispers of sand moving and becoming louder, taunting him. It was coming for him now. It knew.
He looked down at the roofs of cars just under the sand in this desert of a parking lot. Roberts mind sparked with some understanding now, he had to go to sleep, and fast. He had to get back home, back to his wife and his life – however bleak he thought his existence to be, it was worlds better than where he was now. Worlds. His mind filled with thoughts, images, feelings of his wife. Her long, black hair. Those big, dark eyes. The beach at night when he proposed. He forced his mind to fill with only thoughts of her.
Dream to escape. Escape to dream.
Robert James jumped as high as he could for the first time in over ten years. As he guided his body, a fraction of a second he wondered if he had died and this was his hell. His hands clasped behind him as he flew head first toward the roof of a rusted car. His wife’s face filled his mind’s eye.
To die, to sleep.
Perchance to dream.
The bed seemed to have its own gravity this morning, pinning Robert’s body to the dampness of the sheets. He had that dream again, the one he always had but could never remember the details of. Continue reading