Once more, I am uneasy. Night has come: it’s time to sleep. This doesn’t seem like a death knell, but my nights are different than those of anyone else I know. My dreams aren’t calming, gorgeous or restful. No visions of Elysium await. My nights are filled with a deep darkness. And always, there is scratching.
I don’t know what it means, but the better part of my adult life has been spent dreading the night and the content of my dreams. Without fail, as I fall asleep, that cursed blackness comes again. My sole companion during the long hours of the night is an erratic scratching noise.
It’s nothing like metal scraping metal. It’s not the shaping of wood or the dragging of anything I can imagine. It’s… softer, with a slight, hollow ringing. Now and again, the sound changes to become barely audible. Then, it will suddenly increase in intensity until it holds my senses in its rapacious claws.
Actually, no, it’s not my only companionship. Once in a while, the scraping is punctuated by a soft whimper or a feral cry of anger or terror. I can’t really tell which it is, but, in my twisted dreams, I imagine that the cries are mine and that the terror-filled roars of anger are only the expression of the pent-up frustration of bearing the years and the nights consumed by void. But, when one’s own voice is counted among his companions, then, perhaps, he is truly alone, trapped with nothing but darkness. Darkness and a hollow scraping.
I try to fill these lucid hours with thoughts of family and friends, of work and play, of what the future may bring. Never has the darkness driven me to madness, but, occasionally, I wake up so greatly disturbed that I can’t face my family, let alone my writing. On those days, I sit at home and curse this dreadful malediction.
Despite this, my life has proceeded at a fairly normal pace. I attended college and wrote a few books. I found a wife to love me, but we haven’t had any kids, yet. It seems like that will come with time, as everything has. Sometimes, though, life takes you in directions that may seem foreboding, forces open doors that you would have preferred to leave closed and brings you to places that leave with nothing but the frantic clamor of your own heartbeat in your ears. I once thought I would prefer any sound to that dreadful, empty scraping. Now, I know better. Now, I have seen where a light in the darkness can lead.
Funnily enough, it would have all remained a peculiar, soul-grinding mystery, a grotesque unknown in my otherwise unremarkable existence. But then, as often occurs, a phone rang. Upon answering, a calm, familiar voice broke upon my ears.
It was my old family psychiatrist. We exchanged pleasantries, then he asked, “How much do you remember about the work I did with you and your parents?”
“Not a lot. I remember that we had a few sessions when I was younger for behavioral problems. Then, after they died, I used to go to your office on Tuesdays.”
“That’s right. Do you remember what we used to discuss?”
“Not really,” I laughed, “All I really remember is the toy dinosaurs in the lobby.”
His jovial laughter leaked smoothly into my ears, but, for some reason, a sharp chill overtook my spine, and my voice trembled slightly, “Why do you ask?”
“Well,” he sighed, “I wanted to check in and do some follow-up work to make sure everything is going well.”
I stopped for a second and considered, for an instant, spilling my guts about the darkness. But who knows what that could mean? It could be anything or nothing.
“Perhaps, I’m just a very boring person,” I replied, “But everything’s okay on my end.”
I could hear the smile in his voice, “Okay, that’s great to hear.”
“Still, if it’s all the same,” I hesitated, “We could meet for a session and catch up, Doc. I barely remember what we talked about, but I know I’m going to be curious now.”
He laughed again, an I.V. dripping calm, “Aright,” he chuckled, “Well, we mostly talked about your fear of the darkness and your feelings about your parents’ passing, but I’d be happy to catch up and answer any questions you have.”
Something about the way he said that put my teeth on edge. So, we talked for a while, and he agreed to e-mail me the public portion of my patient file, after he managed to dig it up. With sunshine in our voices, we agreed to meet a week from Friday. I aggressively checked my e-mail for the rest of the day.
That night, I slipped into bed with my wife and returned to the darkness into which she could not follow. The malaise of this night was somewhat alleviated by the fact that I might soon understand the inky void. “The darkness,” he had said. Not “the dark.” What child fears the manifestation of shadow? I stared into it in an almost adversarial manner. Now, I could face it, and, perhaps, armed with a greater knowledge of what it meant, I could vanquish this unrelenting foe. Almost as if in response to my agitation, the scraping that haunted me roared a silent cacophony through the halls of my endless dreams. I felt, for an instant, like a statue, cast in onyx, trapped and hungry for release. And, that scraping felt like the approach of my jailer. As it grew louder, I imagined tricking him to earn my release. Its unceasing echo was my best and only clue. For the first time in years, I awoke refreshed.
However, the world I woke into was not my own. Nothing had changed, but life began to fall from my tenuous grasp. It slipped away slowly, and after I read the email, fewer things were clear than before. Apparently, in my childhood, I’d had an extreme psychological break. At some point, I had experienced some seemingly terrifying trauma and had become uncontrollably feral as soon as the lights went down. The problem seemed so unbelievably contrary to my own long, tedious nights alone in the dark that I couldn’t reconcile the portrait of that horrifying psychosis with my self. I had to know what had happened between then and now.
As the day of our meeting approached, my agitation became more obvious. Friends asked me what was wrong and my wife complained of a new thrashing behavior I had taken on in my sleep. I wore the weight of it on my face as dark circles and strained stares. Yet, no mere day-time agitation could compare to the newly rallied strength of my nightly terror in the abyss. Nothing changed, but the scratching grew louder, more insistent. I no longer thought of the scratching as a chance to gain freedom. Now, there was only dread. A sinister living acid that crept into my head and latched onto my brain, filling it with the worst thoughts I could imagine and burning away my resolve, my memories of the outside world.
Perhaps, that scraping was a knife. I could see the serrated edges of a blade tearing bits of flesh from bone and rending skin from muscle. Drops of blood formed vividly before my mind’s eye and plunged towards the stonework, forming puddles, then rivers, of scarlet waste. I knew that, very soon, my own life would mingle with those that had come before me.
Then, it became the rusted hinge of a bladed pendulum swinging back and forth, back and forth, over the body of a lost soul. With each pass, the blade was lowered a miniscule amount, slicing that much deeper into the body of the damned.
Whatever it was, I could only imagine it. All I could see was the shroud of night that wrapped around me. Surely, a curse had been placed upon me. Spending half of your life in utter nothingness seems hardly a life at all.
Every day, the morning sun greeted me, but it was no longer the welcome relief from a night’s horror that it once was. The graphic images that my scratching inspired followed me to the waking world. Yes, my scratching, because I’m sure no one else suffers from that infernal droning. The passage of time only made things worse. Acquaintances remarked that I was becoming short-tempered and long-time friends seemed to be avoiding me. My wife hadn’t touched me since the argument we’d had on Saturday. I felt blameless but wallowed in endless frustration. At last, the dread curse had worn through my sanity and the effects were there for all the world to see. It needed to end. Finally, Friday arrived.
I left the house and drove to a restaurant near the edge of the city. As I walked into the dining area, a man at one of the back tables waved at me. He had a kind face that put me at ease and a voice to match. We talked for a while over coffee and waffles. While I was initially reticent, eventually, I told him about the dreams that plagued me. He did not seem the least bit surprised by these revelations, merely intrigued. When I asked him to tell me anything he might know about them, he resisted. He said that there were certain similarities between what I described now and what we’d discussed in my childhood, but he appeared reluctant to reveal any more.
I couldn’t stand it. I needed to know. I begged him, compelled him through compassion, to release me from my ignorance. It was with some trepidation that he acquiesced and asked for the bill.
“Follow me,” he called, getting into his car outside the restaurant, “We’re not far from where we’re going.”
I was all nerves as we drove out of the city, but I could not drive out the morbid thoughts that invaded my mind. Now, in my head, it was the kindly, old psychiatrist that was being subjected to the terrible tortures that the scraping had inspired. I saw him die over and over again with no way to banish the bloody visions from my mind. I held no grudge against him, he was trying to help me, so I could not understand the feelings of gratification the images aroused. I felt sick to my stomach over my own sadistic thoughts and the curse I had endured. I hated the man I had become that much more. One way or another, I prayed for it to end.
We eventually reached the driveway of a small house on an acreage. Everything looked strangely familiar to me. A sudden pain stabbed at my forehead and visions of the house flashed through my mind. Broken windows and sunny afternoons playing catch flooded into view. I had been here before. A sudden realization struck me. This must have been where I had lived before being taken to the orphanage. The state had taken custody of me, but this had been my home. I stabbed the lock on my seatbelt and jumped out of the car. I was surrounded by the fields I had wandered through as a child, basking in the brilliant sun shining down through the clear, uncrowded skyline. During those brief moments, before being reminded of the errand that had called me back here, I felt at home.
Unfortunately, those feelings were short lived. Upon closer inspection, it became clear that the house was in poor repair. A feeling of unease grew in the back of my mind. Every stair leading up to the front door groaned under the weight of our steps. The paint around the frame was reminiscent of the skin of a poorly flayed creature. Every inch of it appeared to be peeling off. The inside of the house was caked in grime and dust, except for a few visible trails leading off in several directions. After a brief tour of the tiny upstairs area, the feelings of familiarity grew. So, too, did the feelings of dis-ease.
“Well, that’s the basic tour. What do you think?” the man asked me as we approached the last room at the end of the hall. He turned to me and smiled, spreading wrinkles from his eyes and mouth.
“I… It’s all so familiar… I used to live here, didn’t I?”
He continued to smile with the cunning of a magician before his coup de grace, fishing in his pocket for the key to the door we were standing in front of. The door and its frame seemed to have been heavily renovated. It was reinforced with a deadbolt and a beam of wood across its width. He slid the key into the lock and a solid clicking sound resounded through the frame.
As the door opened, a small room came into view. The window had thick bars spread over a metal screen. The wallpaper was torn from every surface of the room and a child’s bed sat rooted to the floor in its own corner. There was little else in the room, save a writing desk and chair, both clearly victims of neglect. As I walked into the room, the boards beneath me creaked and the oh-so familiar sound struck the wind from my frame. My mind burst open and flooded me with memories.
I remembered the nights after the door closed into darkness. Every night, I would sit alone, shivering in the pitch black, listening to the scraping that kept me from sleep. My parents, whom I could barely begin to picture, would tell me that I was imagining it. Often, they would say that I was dreaming, or, possibly, causing the scraping myself with my constant fidgeting. The bars, they had said, were to keep unwanted visitors out of my room. It wasn’t safe to keep someone so little on the ground floor without extra protection.
At my young age, I had simply, vaguely accepted their explanations. Now that I was grown, I doubted them outright. Why would you reinforce the inner door as well as the outer windows? Why was a deadbolt necessary for a child’s room? Why put your child in the room on the ground floor at all, if it was such a risk? Why was all the wallpaper torn from the walls in such an unnatural fashion? Was all this security really necessary to keep a wild child at bay? What caused the scraping that had clearly kept me from sleep? It was no figment of my imagination, I was sure of that now. For years, I had heard the internalized impression of that sound echoing through my dreams.
“I don’t get it. I have more questions now than I did before.”
“There’s one last thing for you to see. I’m afraid you were part of a highly unethical, experimental protocol at a very young age. I wanted to see how much you could recall on your own before I told you too much,” his warm smile soured with a sorrowful contamination, “You see, there are some things that people are better off not remembering.”
“I have to. I can’t take much more of this torment. Not knowing is driving me crazy.”
“Is it? That seems unlikely,” he mumbled under his breath as he bent over the bed.
With a frown, he pulled the mattress up from its wooden frame to reveal a hollow core. A terrible smell crept up from the cavity and assaulted my nostrils. Along the sides were layers of insulation and padding and, in the middle, sat a long, black box.
“This box was designed so that it could only be opened from the outside. It was porous enough to allow the free-flow of air and big enough to hold… well…”
He pulled the bolt out and lifted the lid. The box creaked open and the vile odor redoubled in strength. Light pierced the container’s shadowy veil. The inside was stained a brownish-red, bits of plastic-looking flakes had collected around its edge. I gasped and covered my mouth to ward off the smell and the foul taste that accompanied it. Glimpsing the malformed nails of the hand over my mouth sent an intuitive shock through my system.
The final tumbler clicked into place and memories raked my conscious mind. Pandora’s gifts came as visions and phrases. First, the small room, much like it was now, when I was young.
Voices pleading for sanity broke the mental silence, “Please! There’s nothing we can do. He’s crazy! As soon as it gets dark, we can’t control him! We’ve tried everything. We barred the window and kept him near the ground, so he won’t hurt himself jumping out, but he just cuts himself groping through the glass!!”
“…broke his bone pulling on the straps!? What can…”
A kindly face looking down, an even voice, “…complete memory loss after nightfall, extremely aggressive behavior patterns…”
That same even tone, “He won’t be able to move around enough to do serious damage to himself. He may experience some discomfort, but the worst he’ll lose is a few fingernails…”
Darkness… utter darkness… the constant scraping…
…More scraping… panic… fear… darkness…
A sharp, piercing light, hope and a growing fear. Darkness… Hope… fear… darkness… anger…
A sharp crimson… the kindly face once more…
“…dealt with him previously… Should have no memory of what happened. He seems calm in the dark, now, though. Unfortunate that it couldn’t have come sooner… We must ensure he can not remember…”
“He can’t be tried as an adult… Cover his memories further… block them out. The box may have acted as a form of desensitization, flooding his fear or he may have repressed the events entirely… alone.”
“Condition him… Someday, we’ll test…”
In the background, far away, almost a distant song… “Do you remember anything? If I can spare you any details, I’d like to. You see… what?!”
It’s hard to tell where he went from there; he just sort of disappeared. I can’t tell you everything that happened, because I don’t quite know myself. I’ve been writing this story over and over again for years, and it just makes sense to me. There’s always the man and his scraping, the box and its darkness and a load of good intentions. But, also, a sense of inevitable failure, that the cards were stacked long in advance of him seeing his cage or words seeing paper.
And always, at the end, the man who contacted him is found dead in that room, having bled out from multiple bite wounds and many, many lacerations. Pieces of his flesh are found scattered across the room and the walls are awash in blood. Even with all I know, even with my fingers poised over the keyboard, all I can do is reconstruct what I think may have happened in his head, based on the events of the story. Will he remember any of this again? Where is he now? So many questions remain. It’s still so dark.