For many reasons, I am alone now.
The doctors called it many names, whatever my affliction was. I could never figure out the exact time or reason it began, but it started as a sort of general anxiety for life. As I aged, that anxiety grew, and grew, and soon I was too scared to do just about anything. Scared of leaving the house. Scared of getting food, but scared of cooking. Scared of putting on shoes. Scared of mirrors. Scared of birds chirping. Scared of water. Scared of sleeping. Scared of being awake.
I’m scared of being alone, too — very much so. But other people bring with them a whole host of other deep fears, whereas being alone is just the one.
I used to spend every waking moment dreaming of getting better. Sometimes I still do. But things were different back then.
I know now that part of me never wants to get better. Part of me wants to live in my fear, cultivate it, lie here in it, and wait for him.
Because I do have someone. I’m waiting for him right now, actually. He comes when I am ready.
This time, his name will be DeShawn.
I first met him on my third day in this apartment. It was my third sleepless night, shaking from the fatigue and the empty stomach and the fear, willing myself to sleep. I blinked the tears away, my eyes wandering the room for answers, when I saw a silhouette behind the curtain on the balcony. I froze.
I wanted to reach for a weapon as the shadow moved for the handle of the glass door. I wanted to scream as the door slid open, and the curtains billowed inward from the breeze. But instead, I merely watched as through the curtains stepped a young man, now standing in my apartment.
Moonlight flicked through the drifting fabric to reveal quick glimpses of his features. Pale, freckled skin. Thick bottle cap glasses. A blue button-down shirt. Black slacks. No shoes. A kind smile.
A familiar panic balled in the bottom of my throat. I didn’t even try to speak.
“That’s okay,” he cooed, his voice soothing and deep. “Let me help.”
He approached the edge of the bed, a dark shadow once more. “Don’t worry.”
The room went black. My eyelids grew hot from the palm that now covered my eyes. My arms were snatched and restrained over my stomach by a pair of hands. I opened my mouth to scream, and felt something large and cottony plunge deep into my esophagus. I choked and writhed, my entire body rattling as a wave of vomit shot up and pushed against the substance.
But the fuzzy something that blocked my throat was expanding now — coating my tongue, crawling over my lips, spreading like a prickling blanket over my head and neck. It curled under my clothes and down my limbs until the whole of me was consumed by it. The itchiness grew more intense then, as if my every pore had opened and sucked in a fiber of that parasitic cotton. I felt my body stiffen and solidify, my lungs no longer able to expand. My heart pounded faster and faster, thrumming painfully against my rib cage, threatening to explode out of my chest — and then it skipped a beat.
The substance retracted from my skin. It felt as if a million hairs were simultaneously ripped from their follicles, over every centimeter of me. I cried out and felt the noise pulled into the ball still lodged above my vocal chords. The substance then sucked rapidly back up my body and into my mouth, where it solidified and shrank. At last, a deep cough expelled the ball up and out of my throat, and a flood of precious air rushed into my waiting lungs. My eyes burst open.
For a moment, what I saw was a vision of… some other place. It was my bedroom, but it was not. It was like a film caught in a reel — a negative image shaking rapidly across my vision to reveal a dark, writhing abyss intermingled with my room. I saw flashes of an old nursery, a rolling pin, back alley ways, and a horrific mouth of gnarled, gnashing teeth — and in a blink, it was gone.
My eyes refocused on the man that stood over me as I continued to gasp for air. He looked down at something in his hand.
“I’m sorry you had to experience that… but you did so well.” He sighed, and placed a hand gently on my cheek. “You feel a bit better now, don’t you?” he said.
Tears streamed down my face and over his fingers. The weight in my chest was gone — the panic removed, the pain dispelled, my breath lighter than I could ever remember. I nodded.
His thumb brushed away a tear. “My name is Isaac,” he whispered, “and I am an evil man. I deserve to feel true terror. But you do not, dear Rita. And so it shall be taken.”
Isaac smiled, then removed his palm. He turned to walk towards the glass door.
“Wait,” I croaked, my voice painfully raw.
He turned to look at me, the light glinting off his glasses.
“Am I… Did you fix me?”
He looked down into his palm, then away from me, at the swaying curtains.
“It will be better… But then it will be worse again.” He cleared his throat. “Then, I will be back.”
He slid the door open. “Next time, you will help again. I will be Charlene.”
The door slid shut, and he was gone.
The event stayed with me for many days, but not how it would for most. Most people would ask more questions, or maybe feel more scared. But I can’t communicate the true depth of relief I felt in that following 5 days. I took 6 showers a day. I ate as often as I could. I watched movies again. I took walks. I sang with the birds. I cried warm, gentle tears and smiled as I watched the sun set on my balcony. I was so, so free.
And then slowly, it returned. As soon as I felt a whisper of it, my stomach sank. I panicked, and that made me more anxious, and so the panic grew larger, and the cycle sent me spiraling down, down into the fear, down into despair… until I was exactly the same as I used to be.
For days, I wandered around my apartment, shaking and sweating. I screamed at the top of my lungs, yelling until my voice gave out. I banged on the floors until I got too scared of the blood. I lied on the wooden floor of my bedroom, wide-eyed and whimpering, scared of death, yet hoping to die — until a large silhouette appeared behind the curtains.
The door slid open to reveal a tall woman, well over six feet. She had poofy feathered hair, rippling muscles, a square jaw, bright make up, and running shoes on. Small speckles of dark red dotted her left cheek. She smelled strongly of powder, sweat, and fresh-turned earth. She came over to me, bent on one knee, and smiled.
My vision went black, my body restrained, as the thick, coarse fuzz was jammed deep into my throat once more. My body spasmed and jerked helplessly as the familiar crawl of sharp cotton spread, rooted in me, and held until the final skip of my heart.
And then it released, painfully and all at once, just as before. My screams were sucked into the fibrous mass that was soon expelled out of my lips and into the woman’s waiting hand. My eyes flickered as the rolling visions showed me the dark place again, this time a sea of inky black night with strange images of shattered glass and blood red clouds threaded through.
“You are so brave…” the woman crooned. I focused to see my bedroom again, and her sad eyes looking down on me. She pet my hair. “This will do well, darling.”
She paused a moment, then took my shaking hand in hers. “My name is Charlene, and I am an evil woman. I deserve to feel true terror. But you do not, my dearest Rita.” She kissed me on the forehead. “And so it shall be taken.”
She got up to leave. “You will help again. I will be Matsumoto.” The glass slid open and she walked through, drops of my saliva dotting the wood floor as it dripped between her fingers.
For months, it carried on this way. The periods of relief were so vibrant, and so beautiful. They lasted longer each time — 10 days, 12 days, even two or three weeks. But such a taste of normalcy made those crashes even harder. I’d see my life slipping away, and cling so desperately to the shreds of sanity that remained. I felt it ripping me apart so much stronger each time, fed even further by the new fear that maybe last time was the last — that he would never return to me. Each time, I was certain that it would be the end of me.
But each time, on the very brink of breaking, he would return. Miles. Masika. Jabori. Ling. Hasaad. Eric. Hye Kang. Raul. Kayleigh.
He came to me, and I would be absolved. And I would taste paradise once more, and I would fall back into Hell, and he would save me, time and again.
About 13 months had passed when I experienced my longest fearless period yet. It had been 37 days since the last time I saw him, and I hadn’t felt a single pang of anxiety. Normally, that anticipation alone would have had me feeling anxious enough to begin the spiral, which was a twisted but necessary evolution.
But not this time. No matter what I did, I couldn’t feel afraid, even if I tried.
So I started getting bolder in my attempts to summon the anxiety. I’d step off the curb in front of oncoming traffic. I’d watch as the driver’s eyes would widen, their mouth howling in a silent scream as they swerved out of the way. But I felt no fear — only frustration. I tried wandering on the shady side of town at night. I tried streaking through the grocery store and running from the police. I even turned to prostitution, and got pretty banged up by a couple of guys whose money I shouldn’t have taken. But at no point during these acts was I afraid.
And so my frustration grew.
I was sitting on my bedroom floor, covered in fresh bruises, seething as I stared at my curtain.
“Where are you?!” I screamed. There was no response. “I’m here! I’m ready to meet you, Walter!” But there was no answer.
“You said you would be here! I have to meet you Walter!” I dug my fingernails into the grooves of the wood and slid them back and forth, rubbing bloody splinters into the healing paper cuts that were already there. “I want to get it over with! I need to reset the cycle! I promise I’m scared! I’m scared! I’m SCARED!”
As my fists hit the floor, in the darkest corner of my brain, a prick of the feeling returned. A rush of relief coursed through me like the sweetest drug, but I willed it away. I had to nurture that fragile ember of fright.
I thought back to every horrifying moment of my life until that very moment. I thought of the first times I started feeling the anxiety. I thought of the dozens of doctor’s visits and the false diagnoses. I thought of the look on my mother’s face as she lied and said everything would be okay. I thought of the look on her face when she watched me running out the front door, knowing it would be the last time. I thought of myself in the mirror, this shell of a being, alone in this empty house, clinging to this half-life like an addict waiting for a fix. I thought of his first visit, of Isaac, of that chilling fear that held me stuck. I thought of all of these things, over and over, wallowing in agony and waiting.
In my hysterics, a darkness fell over my eyes. None too soon, that stinging, delicious cotton forced deep into my waiting mouth. The fibers spread horribly slow, puncturing my aching skin. It took minutes of excruciating pain spent in that piercing limbo before the lack of oxygen caused my heart to beat faster, and faster, and faster — and then, at last, it skipped.
As the ball ripped from my throat, the dark place crashed violently into view. In the blinding abyss, thousands of horrific images swirled across my vision. Police sirens. Dismembered limbs. Black humanoids with 3 arms and too many legs, skittering in circles, wailing and weeping. And in the center, a pile of bodies, mangled and horrified, with faces I knew. Staring with empty eyes, directly at me.
And then I was in my bedroom. I blinked, and slowed my gasps as I’d done so often before. That full, righteous feeling of nothing sat light and beautiful in my heart. I turned over to see an old man kneeling next to me, wearing khaki pants, velcro shoes, and a very solemn frown.
“Thank you,” I whispered, laying a hand on his knee.
He turned away, wiping at one of his eyes, then looked towards the floor.
“This is…” he paused, clearing his throat. “ This is the last time we will see each other,” his shaky voice replied.
“What?” I took my hand from his knee.
He turned towards me, a hard look in his watery eyes I’d never seen before. “You are done. You are free.”
“That’s not possible,” I said. “It always comes back. You told me.”
“It may. But it will never be like it was,” his voice cracked. “You cannot help me anymore.”
“Yes I can!” I shouted.
His knee popped as he stood. “My name is Walter,” he whispered.
“NO!” I screamed.
He walked towards the glass door. I threw my arms forward around his leg.
“I am an evil man,” he said.
“YOU CAN’T LEAVE. You NEED ME, WALTER.”
I dug my fingers into his leg. He dragged my body along towards the balcony.
“I deserve to feel true terror.” He looked down at me as he stood at the glass door. Small tear drops peppered the wood floor as they flowed down the deep wrinkles of his face. “And so it shall be taken.”
“Wait!” I screamed. A shadow of fear danced in my heart at the thought of him leaving, but the feeling never came. “One last time. Let me see you. Who will you be?”
The man simply looked away, his eyes searching in the distance. “I… I will be DeShawn.”
He jerked his foot from my arms. The motion rolled me back towards the bedroom door. I yelped as my head smacked the hardwood floor, my vision blurring for a moment before I could shake myself out of it. I turned back, but the glass door was already shut. The curtains still ruffled from the breeze that lingered behind.
As the days progressed, I tried to move on. I worked to build the life for myself that I’d wanted before my fears ever began. I found a good job and friends, reconnected with family, exercised, ate well, volunteered, gave to charity, and spent every waking moment giving back in ways I always wished I could. For months I lived like this, committing all of myself to the new, free me.
But I never truly felt the joy of my hard work. I couldn’t say “I love you” to family and friends and mean it. I couldn’t sympathize with the homeless whose soup I ladled into bowls. Each smile was false, every happiness such a charade. I was gutted. I felt nothing. Only nothing, and nothing, and nothing.
So I decided that I wanted to feel — even if it was awful. Most of all, I wanted to see him. I wanted him to look at me again, like he used to. Just one more time.
I spent over a month planning it all. If I was going to see him again, I knew it had to be just right — big enough for him to notice me more than anyone else in the world. Once I remembered the vision, I knew I had no choice. There was only one path left to him.
I started at my friend’s apartment door — it was the easiest place to start. I’d hoped it would have gone worse, but it only confirmed my suspicions. I slit the first one’s throat as easily as I would cut an apple.
The next I let see me coming. I saw the desperate fear in her eyes as she screamed and begged for her life, and felt the slightest blip of jealousy. She was so easily afraid.
Once the friends were done, I moved to my coworkers, and my two siblings, and felt much of the same. With the list checked off, there was only one person left.
She was by far the strangest of them all. She didn’t yell, or fight, or get angry with me. I wanted to feel something as she wept, alone in her bed, looking up at me for the first time in so long. I asked her to help me, and I really think she tried. She told me I didn’t have to do it. She told me I could be fixed. She told me I could come home. She told me she loved me.
But of course, I felt nothing.
By the time dawn was rising, I had just returned to my apartment. I heard sirens in the distance as I dropped the knife in the corner and sat on the floor, staring at the curtains, waiting.
I willed for that silhouette to appear behind the curtain. I watched the curtains as the sun rose to midday, then fall, then rose again.
“I know you’re watching!” I screamed. “You know what I’ve done! Come, deliver it to me!”
I banged on the glass through the curtain and laughed. “YOU WILL COME TO ME AS DESHAWN, OR YOU WILL GIVE IT BACK TO ME! They’re MY feelings. MY fear!”
I stopped in my tracks. It was happening. The smallest piece of me was afraid I’d wasted my chance. I was afraid I wouldn’t see him again. And at last, the feeling broke through.
I laughed harder. Finally, finally, finally. I grabbed the curtains with both hands and shook from side to side. “I’M SCARED! LOOK AT ME! I’M SCARED!”
The euphoria began to mix with my growing fear. I dropped to the floor and groaned with agonizing pleasure, willing the fear to come.
But it turned. And the euphoria lessened. And the fear grew. And it didn’t stop. Along with the fear came a horrendous wave of regret. Suddenly, the weight of what I’d done crushed everything inside of me. But the fear only grew.
More than ever before, the most violent sense of dread crashed down all around me. The shadows in the room shifted and danced as the hideous sounds of laughter and despair filled the air. The world around me shook violently as grotesque images flashed across my vision. The world swirled and jerked, gravity pulling me every which way at once. I screamed, but no sound could pass the growing ball of cottony pain lodged inside my throat.
And like a blink, my world was gone — replaced by the vision that I’d dreamed of every night since he left me.
I’m still here now, staring out into the never-ending abyss. The screams never subside. Their eyes never close. I never stop choking. And yet, somehow, my fear continues to grow — fear of eternity, fear of this place, fear of everything and nothing.
But there is one thing I hold onto, through it all. It is a seed of joy buried deep within me, that knows it was him who gave me this gift of feeling again.
If he ever does come to me again, he will be DeShawn. And I will be Rita.
For I am an evil woman. I deserve to feel true terror.
And so it shall be.