This is the first short story I ever finished, after many, many rewrites it was eventually published in the Evolve Journal in October of 2010. Evolve is no longer around, so I thought I’d go ahead and share this story as it means a lot to me.
by Jason Warden
I have missed something; I can see pieces of it, a face, a ball, a pair of hands. The memory escapes again.
For nights on end, I’ve huddled under the small billboard in the vacant gravel lot. The unsteady light from the bulbs on the sign cast a small circle of light that act as my cage. The darkness surrounds, and separates me from everything else that is, or might be. The other light, the one at the end of the alley, that one connects this lot to the outside world. Unending warmth and comfort await there, it’s so close, yet completely unreachable.
Somehow the bulb’s light is cold, colder than I can bear, but I don’t dare leave it. I’ve seen things move out there, black things, the light shimmers off their scaly skin as they circle and torment me. I know at any time they could have me. Their cries are terrible. They’re the sound of metal being ripped, hardened nails on chalkboards, and splinters under finger nails. The sound is matched only by the agonized screams of their prey. Prey like me. The sounds tear through my head until all I can do is join the chorus, and listen for the laughter that answers.
How long until the darkness consumes my meager light. Perhaps it is only imagination, but with each flicker of the light, it seems the night closes in, and my will is suffocated a little more.
Here, misery is my only companion. The gravel is hard under foot; it presses and punctures my bare feet. With every minute, I find it harder to stand. I made a circle of stones around the perimeter of the light to mark the progress of the dark. The light still hasn’t moved and I think that maybe it’s claustrophobic encroachment is just in my head, but if it is, then is the girl also a trick of my mind? The memory of her comes into my thoughts like a dream from long ago, and so I explore it for the first time, if only so I can escape for just a moment.
She’s young, maybe a teenager, but more likely younger. I see her sitting on a bed with her hands covering her face. Her back is rising and falling rapidly. I want to go to her, to comfort her, but I can’t, my words are lost to her. The very fact that she cannot see or hear me should make it worse. I know this, and yet the relief of simply being in her presence is enough, and perhaps more than I could ask for. I enjoy the time I have, for it is fleeting, and before long she is gone and the room is fading.
The bulbs have visibly dimmed, the circle is smaller, and the cold ….it’s paralyzing. I don’t think I’ll make it much longer out here. If I thought there was any chance I could make it, I’d rush into the dark, and try to get to that other light, the one from the alley. The things out there would like that, I hear them calling, begging me to do it, they’re persistent, and strangely persuasive.
Days have passed since I’ve slept, if I’ve ever slept at all, my feet ache, they feel wet and I’m sure it’s blood. I’m afraid to look, and so, while I feel the continued wetness, the source must remain a mystery. The circle of stones is still there, but just barely. It won’t be long now.
It wasn’t sleep, but perhaps it was better, this one lasted much longer than the first. I stared into her face for the… first time, or maybe the thousandth. I can’t really say. I wonder if we were together. I almost remember. Was it the same crying girl? If so she had matured into adulthood. I wish I could have stayed in that sleep until the end. No other heaven could be as warm and comforting as her presence. Coming back, or awakening to whatever this is, is unbearable. She will become my focus, my fire in this cold waste. I can only hope the vision of her holds some key that will release me from my bonds.
The stones were gone when she left me. I knelt, careful not to overbalance and tumble into the blackness. The circle was small to begin with, so I knew they had to be just out of sight. I reached out carefully, feeling toward the edge of light. Sweating, I heard their ragged breaths, and scuffling wings all around me. My fingertip ventured into the dark searching for the stones. Before my second knuckle had gone into the black the things slashed my finger and grabbed at my hand. One beast reached too far and just for an instant, I saw the scaly black skin and armored claw begin to smoke in the protective light. The claw struck bone and tore the meaty flesh away in a ragged clump. The pain didn’t subside, it grew. I imagined what it would feel like to stick my finger against a car cigarette lighter that never cooled; one with a coil that grew brighter and brighter until other parts of me began to burn. The pain threatened to take over the world. It continued for what could have been hours or days. Then it was gone, as quickly as it had come, and I heard another scream somewhere in the distance. A scream that contained a sick combination of pain and pleasure, and I wondered if the cost of ending this could possibly be worth the torment I heard in the laughter.
I almost gave up, just jumped into the dark and let them have at me. The things out there kept calling. I tried to block them out, but their voices crumbled my will until I found myself standing, counting the seconds until I had the courage, or lack thereof to jump. Then, she saved me.
She came. The jabbering, persistent voices faded, and images of her began flashing through my head.
She stood at the bar, while I sat in a corner booth and admired her sleek legs. I could have sat and enjoyed that view forever, but as I feared, further images broke up the scene. I watched her order drinks. Then she says something, a laugh from the man, an occasional, playful wink from her. Was that wink meant for me? I see others looking at her, and I turn to follow her gaze as they move from me to another. Her smile widens, and as she looks back at me, her smile fades. She picks up the drinks, and turns, walking toward me. Her eyes move away again and I see her wink once more.
—And all at once, I remember everything. The conflicting voices inside my head, the rational one telling me to let it go, don’t make a scene, and another asking if I was going to let Amber get away with it. The realization that I know her name nearly floors me with grief. I remember all the problems we had, all the promises made, and broken. I swore to try harder control my temper, to trust her, if she would only give me another chance. I look from her to the face I wore in that distant past; I see no reason, no understanding, only blind jealous rage. I cannot help but see what happens next, and I understand what happened, and why I’m here.
The memories come in a flood, I remember the bar, the lot, it’s the very one I’ve been standing in all this time. To my right I know there is a brick wall somewhere in the darkness. A brick wall with a door, a door I pulled her out of one night, never to reenter.
Before my mind can grasp the awful reality, I see her. She’s here, really here, my brain tells me it’s impossible but my eyes tell a different story. If I thought I had known fear before, I was mistaken. What I feel now swallows all emotion I can remember. Its weight is crushing, and I wish for death, but somehow understand it has already come, and from here there is nothing as easy as death.
She comes proudly, head held aloft as if unaware and unconcerned about the fear and misery that make up this place. She is untouchable, by the things in the dark and sadly by me as well. Her beauty is matched only by her youth and I somehow understand it is not Amber. It’s the girl I saw crying on her bed, Samantha, now grown, her commanding presence telling its own tale: this scared girl, now a woman, would never allow another to control her. She radiated a strength her mother never had.
I had forgotten what it was like to feel. She shouldn’t, couldn’t be here. I cowered from the invulnerable light she walked within. Hunkering as best I could I made myself small, hoping perhaps the light cast down on me would be invisible in the bright haze she walked inside. I could not bear to face her. She paid me no mind, as if neither the light nor I were there. She continued toward me and as her radiance joined with my circle of light I saw the things in the dark flee, some of them smoking, their alien lungs crying out in fury and pain. She neither heard nor saw the things fleeing in her wake. I saw in her left hand, she held a baseball, the stitching ragged and the covering no longer white, but grey as if well handled. She knelt, and laid it at my feet like an offering. I drew closer bathing in her essence, and was given a knowledge I can only hope to forget.
I’m sitting high in the stands of a stadium. This girl, my daughter, is beside me. The crack of a bat is deafening, my eyes are forced away from the girl, and I see a ball, still far away, but the trajectory is right and in seconds, I’m holding in my hand the one and only foul ball I’d ever catch. I turn and hand it to her. She hugs me, but it’s like the breath of the lot, cold, dead and empty. The people around us disappear, the stadium falls away like a house of cards, and it is just the two of us in the lot once more.
I’m trying to think what to say when around us, ghostly images appear in the darkness. One of them is me.
I watch as I damned myself again, as I’ve done every night since I saw my wife wink at the man across the bar.
My face was splattered with blood. Knowing it was not my own, I looked around to find lights blazing from the alley and the body of a woman lying broken in the gravel. In my hand, a lock of hair and scalp dangled. My knuckles, split and bloody, accused me, and white quarter moon shaped cuts showed all the places they had met teeth. Her jagged gruesome smile returned my gaze but no life glimmered behind her eyes. I realized I was smiling back at her, and was shamed.
Oh dear God, what have I done.
I heard a door slam shut, looked up, already knowing what is there, for I had already seen it a thousand times before. The man, the uniform, and the black cylinder he held. I heard the blast, and felt it anew as my double was pushed to the ground to lie beside my wife. I looked down into the lifeless faces at my feet, and welcome what comes next.
I looked up praying the girl would be gone this time, but, as always, she was still there, her hands covering her face once more, but unaware of the scene replaying around her.
Shaking loose from the pain of memory I go to her. Hoping to get through, needing to explain, wanting to comfort, and knowing it’s no use. She trembles in the grief that time has not healed. My blood-streaked hands are stained black from the events of the night that put me here. I know she will soon turn away. I will scream and plead for her not to go, fall on the ground in front of her and beg for forgiveness I don’t deserve.
I look back to my wife for help dealing with this child who won’t listen, and see that she is gone, only darkness where she had been, and it’s creeping closer.
I turn back to see her just before she disappears into the void.
She has turned back to face me, to face the place that was the end of her everything. I cry out in relief, but even as she turns, I wish that all I had to see was her strong and beautiful, but this is why I’m here, and I must see.
Needle marks track up and down her arms, and I wonder again at what had happened to the strong beautiful woman who was there only moments ago. Her face is gaunt; the scars nestled under her eyes don’t hide the empty sockets, nor the blackness behind, the blackness that is pure hate.
“Damn you Dad.” she says in a small voice, a voice I didn’t know until it was there and gone. It’s the voice of a little girl, my girl, Samantha, the one who I had abandoned in my stupid rage.
Like endless nights before, her words tear at my heart. When she turns away, I’m silent, I never deserved her. I had seen what she could have been, and perhaps, if any truth exists here, what she is. As much as I try to hold onto that possibility, it’s slippery, and the memory of the strong, beautiful girl crumbles under this latest vision.
The blazing light that surrounds her first dims, then, dies entirely. The darkness is complete.
For a moment I think it possible that the dark is empty. Then they fall on me, the black, hard, winged things. Pieces of my flesh are pulled away, the nerves somehow still attached and sending signals from a thousand different places to my brain. I feel teeth tearing meat, rough sandpaper tongues cleaning my living bones, and claws, always the claws, burning, puncturing, squeezing. The pain is endless, and the beasts take their time, savoring my madness. The only relief is that I know the memories will follow her into the dark, but they will return as they have done for eternity.
God has damned me. I’m sorry…, but it’s too late for that. I bought and paid for this place in hell.
The memories are almost gone now, and….