An updated, leaner and crisper version of this story is available in the anthology “A Quick Bite of Flesh” from Hazardous Press, on Kindle or Paperback.
I’m about to do a very stupid thing.
I know it’s stupid. I know it. But I don’t think I have a choice anymore. And I have to do it now, while I have the nerve and the will. While my hands are still steady.
I’m sick, I’ve always been sick. Some days are better than others. When I was young, my parents prayed that it might just be a precursor of the onset of epilepsy, but the seizures never came. I just…can’t trust myself.
I see things. On some days, I can hear them and smell them too. I should say that I used to see them. After being on every possible combination of pills three doctors could come up with, I thought we’d finally found the right chemical key for my misfiring brain. It’s been six years of stability and relative normalcy, trading a halfway house for a tiny studio apartment, a collection of mostly tolerable side effects, and a steady job. I realize this probably sounds dull for most people, but I cherished every moment of that achingly simple monotony.
It went bad all at once.
Friday morning, I awake from the first dream I’ve had in years. A vivid phantasmagoria of colors and sounds, and begrudgingly leave my perfect and sterile clean apartment for the short walk to work.
I notice it as soon as the elevator opens, the unearthly stillness and silence in the heavy air. The front door of the complex is hanging open, unlocked and swinging gently, the faintest trace of smoke drifting inward in the damp breeze. Outside, the wide streets are empty and bare. My mouth is suddenly dry and I rock back on my heels, cresting a crippling wave of panic and déjà vu.
This particular hallucination, the quiet and the smoke and the emptiness, was always my most frequent; I haven’t had it in six years but the familiarity of it stings. I shut my eyes tightly, and jab my hand at the panels of chipped buttons. Moments later I am on the top floor, walking half blind the path to my door with practiced familiarity. Once inside I sit on my bed, gripping tight the handle of my cane, eyes closed, breathing slow and steady. Focused. Calm. Clear. I open my eyes.
I can’t be outside like this, I know this. I was hit by a car when I was homeless, wandering dazed into the street, while my fevered mind saw only emptiness. I’ll need a replacement hip before I’m forty. I can hear the slivers of bone grind a little with every labored step. I call my boss, and leave a terse message, apologizing for being too ill to work today.
I hold my breath as I open the one tiny window in my studio. It’s so close to the building next to me, I can almost touch its brick wall; I can’t see the street from this height and angle, but as I strain to lean out the window, sounds of yelling and a few whining engines drift up to me. The pall of unearthly quiet is broken, and I feel a great sense of relief, knowing that my episode is over.
I am counting the pills in orderly columns on the table, proving a fifth time to myself that I have taken my daily regimen, when I start to hear the screaming. It builds from far below; riding the struts and supports of the tower until it seems to emanate from the bones of the building.
An hour later the sounds seem like they are right outside; horrid, terrified, inchoate clumps of half formed words and pleas, punctuated by wet, ragged shrieks and heavy muffled thudding. The breathing and relaxation exercises aren’t helping, and I’m gripping the edge of my bed, soaked in sweat. The idea appears fully formed in my mind: I need to barricade the door. I struggle to suppress it. It would be like giving up; all progress I’ve made would be for naught if I entertain the notion that the episode is real.
But the screaming…this is a new one for me.
There’s the shuffle of movement outside, and the knob of the door twists violently and shudders against the deadbolt. I try to cry out, but my throat is parched and only a dry croak comes out. The door starts flex slightly as heavy blows land on the outside, and a mad, gibbering chorus of voices spits out a strange nonsense of broken syllables.
It only takes me a moment to decide now. I burst to my feet and throw all my weight into the bookshelf, crashing into it with bright white bolt of pain. It topples slowly, leaning at first like a tree and then smashing to the ground. On top of the bookshelf goes my desk and chairs, my hip screaming with each step. I collapse again on the floor, grasping for breath, and listen to the pounding subside and the horrid voices retreat.
That was two days ago.
They come back every day and scratch at the door, whispering in that vile gibberish. Sometimes I allow myself to think I can recognize the voices. The phone is dead, and the power is out. When I lean out the window and yell for help, the only answer I get is the occasional shriek or ululating babble.
When I was younger, when I was at my worst, my episodes would last for hours at most. I am at a loss. I have very little food left and the water pressure has already dropped.
Lying in bed in the late summer heat, in a moment of near total silence, the inevitability of it occurs to me. If I stay, I’ll starve. What happens to me on the other side of the barricade only depends on how sick I really am.
I want to believe with a sudden desire I am just ill, simply and profoundly ill. The sureness of it wells up in me, and I feel suddenly awake and lucid. I need a doctor, surely, but soon the hallucination will lift and my mind will heal. I just need to break through this.
I need to go outside.
I remove the bookshelf slowly, rotating it away from the door gently to rest with the other furniture. This is right, I assure myself. This is healthy. I turn the deadbolt, put my hand on the handle, and try to suppress the rising terror in my guts. I give it a little pressure.
Outside, I hear a dry shuffling and a low rising murmur of unfathomable voices, and my surety drains from me, leaving only cold and naked horror in its place.
My hand is on the door.
I’m about to do a very stupid thing.