They Fester Like Wounds in the Dark
Knees pulled tight to my chest. My pruney fingers pinch my nose. Playful screams. A lifeguard blows his whistle.
I’m not supposed to be near the deep end.
I put on my swim goggles and close my eyes. I imagine I’m all alone on the deck of a large, white boat in the middle of the ocean. Dark waves beat the side of the boat. Overhead, thunder rumbles: down my spine, down my legs, and into my toes. I clench them so hard that I begin to feel the familiar pull of muscle in my sole.
I hit the water hard. It fills my ears. Engulfs me like a cold, unwanted embrace. I let myself sink all the way to the bottom like a pebble. My chest tightens the further I go, and I fight the urge to release my breath. Down here, the only sound is my pulse throbbing in my temples.
When my butt hits the bottom of the pool, the sand of my imaginary ocean floor, I let myself feel the danger. The goosebumps are welcome, as I imagine the monsters lurking in the darkness.
Bubbles rush past my face. I’m certain it’s from the whip of a sea serpent’s tail. I jolt away from it, but keep my eyes shut tight. A few seconds later, and there’s a painful heat in my lungs, but I don’t want to surface yet.
I absorb the feeling as if the threat is charging me in some way. When I’m ready, I open my eyes and lose all of my breath in a single, muffled scream. My mind makes out the shadow of a giant mass swimming towards me.
The closer the shape gets, the harder it is to fight the urge to swim back to safety.
It’s coming faster now. I have only moments left before my lungs give out, or I’m devoured.
The steady sway from side-to-side tells me it’s a shark.
I pound my legs against the seafloor and push myself up. Up. UP!
I see brightness near the surface. A light. I imagine it’s the small bulb that dangles in front of the mouth of the fish from Finding Nemo. Images of gnarly teeth, and clawed-out, cloudy eyes have me thrashing away. With eyes clenched shut and limbs flailing, I’m not sure which way is up anymore. I’m not sure which way I want to go anymore.
Every inch holds something worse.
At this moment, I regret jumping.
Soon, my body goes still and my head is fuzzy. The burning disappears. In these seconds, I wonder which beast will get me first. I know there’s no way I can make it now. Dying doesn’t seem so painful.
There’s pressure on my upper arm. It’s squeezing me and I wonder if this is how God plucks you from the earth. The smooth glide through the water feels like my soul is being pulled from my body and when I open my eyes, I expect to see my former self sinking back towards the bottom. Instead, I see my feet and feel the warm pressure of someone pressed against my side.
I’m pulled from the icy waves until I’m back in the lukewarm chlorine. The tightness in my chest is replaced by the sturdy arm of the lifeguard, as he makes his way to the side of the wall. I’m hoisted into a sitting position on the concrete. My eyes stay focused on the water as if I can see through the crystal-clear layer, and back into the abyss. In my final few moments of delirium, I squeeze the lifeguard’s arm in a silent attempt to tell him to get out of the water.
It’ll get you, I think.
My goggles are pulled from my head and a towel is wrapped around me while adults try to coddle me. My mom’s crying.
I couldn’t have been under the water for very long. My blue lips tell everyone it was long enough.
I knew how to swim. I knew I was in a pool. I wanted to be scared.
After the pool that day, I was too afraid to bathe. I closed my eyes to wash the shampoo out of my hair and imagined being submerged in the black water again. My mom would sit on the floor beside the tub and talk to me the whole time. Her rational mind thought her seven-year-old baby was afraid of drowning. My irrational seven-year-old mind knew I was afraid of what hid in the darkness.
I’m thirteen when I realize that I like to be scared.
I take pride in being the brave friend. The friend who is at the front of the line at haunted houses, pulling everyone else behind me. The friend who patronizes the ghost when everyone hears a strange noise. The friend who masters Regan MacNeil’s demonic voice for shits and giggles. The friend who tries to scare everyone else.
Therefore, I become the friend obsessed with never being scared. I have higher standards.
It’s typical party behavior to pair off with your crush in the dark once the scary movie turns on. All the girls think these movies are the perfect way to cuddle up next to the boy you like. Only, I’m not interested in pretending to be scared. No, my way of “wooing” the boys is to act like I’m braver than they are. Every jumpscare that flashes, every throat that gets slit: I don’t let it phase me. While everyone around me cringes, I smirk. They’re so weak.
In the dark, one boy whispers to me.
“You know that’s a real thing, right?” he gestures to the screen where a boy is leaving his body behind in a dreamlike state and wandering the earth. It’s a terrifying version of the earth. Darker. Quieter.
“It’s a dream, Tyler.” I roll my eyes.
“No, it isn’t. I’ve done it. Well. Almost. I came close,” he tells me.
“What, like you saw hell?” I’m intrigued, but still in complete disbelief.
“No, not that! That’s just movie stuff. But you can leave your body and walk around. Control your dreams. Things like that. Look it up. It’s hard.”
“Huh,” I say and turn back to the screen knowing damn well that I’ll do exactly that.
I read about lucid dreaming and astral projection. There are sites surrounding the psychology behind the phenomenon that give tips on how to do it. It explains that it’s nothing more than a peaceful, mental exercise. They say you need to be in a quiet room where you won’t be disturbed. You can’t make a sound, and you can’t move a muscle. Your body will tempt you with a tickle, or a twitch to see if you’re still awake, but you’re supposed to fight it. Focus on your breathing. When you reach this level of relaxation, your body will fall asleep, but your mind won’t. From there, you should be able to control your dreams.
There are also religious sites that believe this type of exercise is a way to open yourself up to evil spirits. I read people’s experiences and the things they’ve seen. These are the sites I like. These lead me to different pages about lucid dreaming and then sleep paralysis. I read about the black figures that stand at the end of people’s beds, and the voices they hear in their heads.
I lay awake every night, with blankets pulled up to my chin. I sweat underneath them, but they’re safe. My eyes stay glued to the TV that illuminates my room as the hours tick by until I drive myself mad. If I focus on the light hard enough, the surrounding darkness seems to get even darker. If I move my head quick enough, I can see a figure move in the dark. When this happens, panic fills my gut, and I switch on my bedside lamp in what feels like one swift motion. The fear is present enough to make me want to vomit, but I can’t stop myself from doing it. Eventually, I can’t handle the games anymore, and I start sleeping with my lamp on. Every night.
I do it accidentally.
I don’t listen to peaceful music or count backward from 100. I don’t even sleep on my back. It just happens.
It’s two in the afternoon and my room is bright. No darkness at all, but I’m exhausted from lying awake all night waiting for the morning. I lay down in my bed to take a nap as the low hum of my mom vacuuming in the other room carries me away.
I don’t realize I’ve fallen asleep. I’m standing in a void. A supermassive blackhole. In this space, I’m all knowing. Suddenly, a figure appears and stands with its back to me. Even though it’s hair is long and silky, I know it is male. He looks as though he is only a floating head, but I know he is wearing a suit darker than ink. The only contrast against the surrounding blackness is the vibrant white hue of his hair. My eyes strain as I look at the brightness. They’ve become accustomed to the darkness.
I don’t realize I’m walking towards him until I’m inches from his back. I could touch him if I wanted to.
“You should go on down now,” he says suddenly. My ears tingle at the sound of his voice. It’s low, so low that I’m confused as to how I heard it.
I look down and notice a gaping hole. It’s as black as everything else and I’m only able to differentiate the opening from the surrounding darkness because my instincts tell me it’s there. I don’t say anything and I don’t hesitate. I step forward and prepare to start falling downwards. Instead, something blasts the side of my temple and it feels as though my eardrum pops. I can feel the sharp pain trickling down the side of my face and into my body. It’s so forceful that I jolt immediately, bringing me halfway out of the dream. Forcing my eyes open, I see my room, still full of light, but I am unable to keep them open. As I recognize reality, I beg.
Please open your eyes. Open them now.
I’m present enough to realize that my body is tingling.
More than tingling.
Vibrating so intensely, I feel like I’m sitting on a dryer while it tumbles something bulky.
I try to move, to pull myself out of the darkness, but my body is stock-still.
It’s just sleep paralysis. Calm down. It’ll be over soon.
I repeat this and slowly wiggle my fingers, then my toes, until I’m able to ground myself back in the daylight that is flooding my room.
Lying there flat on my back, I breathe slowly. The violent vibrations disappear along with all of the fear I had felt. My heartbeat is erratic, but I feel none of the terror I had moments before. Almost like none of it had even happened. The pain in my temple that felt so real was nothing but a numb memory.
When I’m calm, I look up bad experiences with lucid dreaming online. I read that the tingling is a good thing. It means you’re in the process of shifting, and you should be calm during this stage.
I was close, I marvel.
You freaked yourself out. That’s all. You weren’t expecting it.
I tell myself this for the next few days. I push the bad experience to the back of my mind, and plan my next attempt.
I’ll be responsible this time. I’ll meditate before. I’ll lay in starfish position. It’ll be okay.
I don’t read about anyone experiencing pain, so I leave that in the darkness.
I still sleep with a night-light at nineteen.
I tell myself it’s just a comfort thing since I have no problem with the dark when I have someone lying beside me.
The trouble comes when I’m alone.
They come in the form of Boogeymen. Demons. Skinwalkers. Memories.
Memories so loud that they resemble slamming doors and muffled screams from down the hall. The voices turn into a lullaby; one that is all too familiar. But fear is absent within those screams. They are not what needs to be feared. When the voices become hushed and are replaced with grunts, the stampede of feet, bodies plundering against walls, furniture being flipped on its side—broken and forgotten until morning—that’s when the paralysis sets in.
Cold sweats that cement me to my sheets. Whispers telling me not to move because it won’t change the outcome.
And then the silence. No yelling, no sobbing, no heaving. Bodies so still they could be dead.
Silence meets fear at the end of my bed, and I have nowhere to run except inward.
A place where fear is buried so deep in darkness, it’s made a home in the past. A fear that makes me realize I would rather see nothing at all than turn on the light.
In the dark, They grow second heads and gnash slimy teeth. They reproduce until they’ve created an offspring too repulsive for eyes to comprehend. They grow stronger, but still I leave them to fester.
My irrational mind tells me I’m addicted to what hides in the dark.
About the Author
Regan Crosser grew up in a small town in Ohio and attends Kent State-Salem. Here, she is majoring in English with a minor in Creative Writing and a concentration in Literature Studies. She enjoys writing nonfiction and recently developed an avidness for fiction. She especially enjoys writing within the horror genre. Her short fiction piece, “Squished Red Berries”, is forthcoming in the Spring 2021 issue of Black Squirrel Scholars.