Fear is a prison. You can be free.
I hate the library. The air is still and almost stifling because there’s hardly ever anyone in it and even less movement. Overhead the fluorescent lights are muted, an attempt to create a comfortable calm and peacefulness, I suppose, but at night it’s just a little creepy. Normally, I wouldn’t be here for anything, much less on a Sunday night, but the dorm is a bit rowdy and after the weekend, I really need to get some work done.
My laptop open on the table, ears plugged with silencing buds, I miss the warning announcement and don’t realize until the lights blink on and off that the library is closing. I close my laptop and slide it into the backpack hanging on the back of my chair. As I get up, I notice even the couple of people that were here earlier have disappeared. It gives me an odd feeling and I make quickly for the door.
Outside, it’s very dark. I notice that overhead, no moon is visible just a muddled layer of deep gray clouds moving in a wavelike motion above. There’s a chill in the air; a reminder that crisp fall days will soon give way to the onset of winter. It seems to race up my spine and I pull my jacket tighter around me as my eyes dart in every direction. Not many people around but that’s not unusual; now the weekend’s over and people are getting ready for the week. All the same, it’s an odd feeling.
With the chill and my dorm halfway across campus, I consider grabbing a coffee from the Starbucks at the Student Union just across the quad, but it seems strangely unoccupied, and I decide I just really want to get to my room and crash.
I never like walking alone at night. It’s been a thing for me since I was a little girl. Since I’ve been here at school, it’s grown more prevalent. The campus isn’t that well-lit at night and there are all those stories you hear about girls walking alone. With a small shudder, I pull out my ear buds and let the cord dangle around my neck as I take out my phone and look around me again, cautiously. It doesn’t seem like a good idea to have my ears plugged and it does to have my phone ready if I need it.
Shifting my backpack to a more comfortable position, I brace myself against the chilly air that seems to slice right through me, jacket or not and start the trek toward the dorm. From somewhere in one of the dorms closer to the library as I pass, I hear a popular song playing and it gives me a little comfort as do the lights from inside the rooms. I know I’m being silly, after all, I haven’t heard of any incidents on campus, but I can’t seem to help it.
Continuously scanning the surrounding area, I notice there’s a guy, at least it looks like a guy. Hard to tell with the oversized jacket, its hood up and the sauntering stride. Doesn’t look dangerous; not close enough to be a threat but I tell myself to be on guard.
There’s a text. It’s my friend, Nina.
Hey, where r u?
Library. On my way back. Why? What’s up?
The library? For real?
Yeah, the dorm was noisy, and I have a quiz coming and a paper due.
Oh. You’ve GOT to check out the photos I posted from the game and the after party. You’re gonna love it!
I will when I get back.
Come by if you get a chance. We need to talk.
No, not by text. I want to see your face when I tell you.
I can’t get there tonight. I have an early class and I’m really tired. What is it?
No way. I’ll see you. Breakfast at the union?
Ugh. If I can get up. LOL
Okay. See you then.
I realize I’ve been distracted as I scan the area again. Is it my imagination or has the figure that was behind me suddenly gotten closer? My stomach knots.
Subtly, I quicken my pace. There’s still some distance to my dorm and I don’t want to appear frightened, though my adrenaline has begun to race, and my mouth has gone dry. Trying to appear nonchalant, I casually glance backward. Now I’m sure the figure is getting closer.
Don’t be stupid. I tell myself. Whoever it is might just be trying to get inside quickly like I am. Who would be stupid enough to do something right out here in the open? There are several dorms on this quad; all I’d need to do is scream, right?
Suddenly, it seems as though it’s gotten darker. I wonder if one of the pathway lights has gone out but don’t want to stop and look. It’s strange. The person behind me isn’t big enough to cast a shadow. And who am I kidding? It’s too dark out here for there to be a shadow anyway.
It’s all I can do to keep from breaking into a run as the air around me seems to still and grow even darker and colder than before. I’m walking now, as quickly as I can without showing that I’m afraid. Just a little further; I can see the glass door that is the entrance to my dorm.
If I can just get inside, I encourage myself, it will be okay. I’m not confident or brave enough to turn and confront the figure following me; despite the knowledge that there doesn’t appear to be anything in their hands like a weapon and they aren’t much bigger than me, if any. If I can get inside the dorm, they wouldn’t dare follow. And if they did for some reason, someone would hear if I scream.
Coming to the walkway that leads to the front entrance of the dorm, I turn onto it, feeling like safety is within my grasp. Just a few more feet and I’m home free. I glance behind me and see the figure pass by on the walk toward one of the other dorms on the far end of this quad.
I stop then, half turn to watch the figure keep on going and breathe a deep sigh of relief. How stupid was that? I chide myself as my heart rate starts returning to normal. Just another person trying to get to their room on a Sunday night before classes start again tomorrow. I hate it that I have this fear to deal with all the time, but I don’t know how to get over it.
My mind now at ease, I shake my head at my own foolishness. Closing the last of the distance to the door I reach out to grasp the door handle and get inside. I can just feel the smooth, cool metal under my hand as I shift my backpack and slip my phone inside.
Things around me get so dark, it’s as if all the campus lights have suddenly gone out and the clouds in the sky have either disappeared or are now completely black. Panic assaults me as I lose my grip on the door and blindly try to get hold of it again. I can’t see anything, but I feel a presence behind me.
“Who’s there?” I cry out. “What’s going on?”
No answer. It’s as though the presence surrounds me now, but I can’t feel anything.
“What do you want?” I hate the tremor in my voice.
Still no answer.
A wave of cold air envelops me, and I begin to tremble. I fumble with my backpack but don’t succeed in getting my phone. Feebly, I swing it in front of me but don’t connect with anything. Why is there no light? Why won’t they answer me? They haven’t touched me at all so what is this?
Before I can come up with anything else to try, the lights in my mind go out.
I’m supposed to meet Nina for breakfast. I remember. It’s the first thought as I rouse from the recesses of unconsciousness. My eyes flutter and I’m relieved that there is no light filtering into my room, so I know it’s still too early to be up. Gratefully, I roll over and drift off.
When I come to again, I’m surprised to see there is still no light evident in my room. That’s not like me. I don’t have difficulty sleeping and I’m not really a late sleeper; particularly if I know I have something I’m supposed to do.
Rolling away from the wall, I blink several times to focus. My eyes search the room for my phone. I keep it on the desk next to my bed. It’s also my alarm. It’s nowhere to be seen.
Great, I think. I must have forgotten to plug it in, and it lost its charge.
Well, it still isn’t getting light outside so it must still be too early for breakfast. Even though I’m not tired, I decide to go back to sleep. It’s not difficult for me. I fall asleep very easily.
The next time I wake, I’m convinced it must be nearly time to get up. Maybe it’s overcast outside and that’s why there’s no light seeping in around the drawn curtains. Rolling onto my back, I blink my eyes several times and wait for them to adjust.
Since I’m not a freshman, I have the privilege of having a single room. Not exactly large, but big enough for me. My bed is against the wall under the only window on the left as you enter. My desk stands next to it against the back wall and leaving just enough space in the far corner for a small, two cube shelf that holds some sundry stuff. On the wall across from the bed is a small refrigerator and another stand with a television on it. At the foot of my bed is the small, college-issue chest of drawers and the barely-big-enough-to-call-it-one closet.
Before I decide to fumble on my desk for the phone, since it would be tragic if I knocked it off and shattered the screen, I lay on my back, waiting for shapes to appear so I can navigate the room without bumping or stubbing anything. It doesn’t come.
Confused, I rub my eyes and blink several times. This can’t be right, I think and decide to risk it in hopes that maybe my phone has just gone to sleep, and I can get some light or maybe feel my way to the desk lamp.
It’s at that point I feel something at the edge of my bed. Hard, cold and smooth, it’s like a wall or a guard rail or something and I realize I can’t move. My hands, feet and legs aren’t bound but it feels like I’m in a box of some kind and I realize that it isn’t my bed at all. What I thought was my mattress is nothing more than a thick cushion, hardly the depth of a down comforter and not nearly as plush.
For a moment, I feel the fear-based panic attack that always comes when I’m an unfamiliar place, alone in the dark. Then I comfort myself. This can’t be real. I must only think I’m awake. What a nightmare.
I take what’s serving as a flimsy pillow, wrap it tightly around my ears and squeeze my eyes tight. Fighting the thoughts that try to invade my mind, I convince myself: the quicker I go back to sleep, the sooner I’ll wake up from whatever this is.
Somehow, I manage to drift off again.
Again, my eyes open to find no light and nothing else visible in my room. Stretching my feet out, I feel the hard cool surface just beyond the length of them fully extended. On either side, my hands feel the same surface. I don’t dare explore the space overhead; not exactly what I would call claustrophobic but definitely not a fan of closed in spaces.
There is one bright spot in the thought: at least I know there’s no one lurking off the edge of my bed or beneath it. As stupid as it sounds, once when I was a little girl, I saw a horror movie. A girl and her boyfriend where flirting around on the grounds of an estate at night and ended up in the crypt of the old, aristocratic family who lived there. He thought it was funny to hide from her.
When he didn’t come out and she began to hear strange noises, she got scared and began to call for him. Still, he didn’t show himself, so she backed away from the coffin she was standing behind until her back was against the wall. Instead of him appearing, two black gloved hands slipped up over the side of the coffin. She freaked out and screamed as the picture faded to black.
The next morning, her aristocrat boyfriend was served her severed head on a covered tray at breakfast.
Well, ever since then, I’ve had this unreasonable fear that somehow in the dark, those two gloved hands would appear slipping over the side of my bed and grab me. I know, it’s ridiculous, but there it was. At least if I’m enclosed, there will be no hands. I exhale.
This makes no sense. I know I’m dreaming but can’t understand why I keep thinking I’m awake. It’s preposterous that I’m so aware of the strange surroundings that it seems real and I’m fighting my unreasonable fear. There isn’t anything threatening, except maybe the dark, which I choose not to dwell on. I keep reminding myself that nothing in a dream, even a nightmare, can really hurt me.
Nothing about this has any connection to reality. It’s not my dorm room, or at least I don’t think it is. The space around me is so dark, and with the enclosure I felt, there’s no way to know exactly what this is or what it might mean. My life is that of your typical college student, at least as near as I can tell. I don’t have anything weighing on my mind or troubling me. My grades are good, I have friends and the workload isn’t overwhelming — challenging, yes, but just enough to keep me focused.
So where is this stupid nightmare, if you could even qualify it as that, coming from? Is there something I’m missing? Some issue I’m not dealing with or even aware of? Try as I might, I just can’t make any sense of it.
The last thing I remember is coming home from the library. That was just the night before, right? There was that weird thing I felt: like someone was following me but I never saw anyone. Then the bizarre shift like everything went dark. Was this all some elaborate nightmare? Did something happen at the party after the game? You hear all the time about people putting things in someone else’s drink. I can’t believe that would happen to me. No one I know of openly hates me. I’ve never been bullied really; and definitely not here. There haven’t been any obnoxious guys I don’t like hitting on me or anything. I haven’t been asked out by anyone I turned down so that kind of retaliation seems unlikely. I think I remember getting back to my room after the party was over and didn’t I have breakfast Sunday morning with some girls from my floor?
What is going on? Frightened, I expect to jerk upright in my bed with that awful feeling you have when you come out of a nightmare that seems so real the adrenaline is still flowing, and the fear surrounds you. Instead, I already feel the tremble in my chest that goes all the way down my arms so that my hands are shaking. There’s a knot in my stomach and tension in the backs of my legs that makes my toes tingle.
Get a grip, I chide myself. Pull yourself together. It’s not real. It can’t be real. Any minute now, you’ll see. My teeth clench and I squeeze my eyes closed. Taking deep breaths to slow my heartrate and breathing, I force my mind to quiet and work at keeping my thoughts clear.
It’s a dream. Just a dream. So, why am I not waking up?
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve hated the dark. I’m not sure exactly what it is, except the possibility of danger in the unknown. You never know what might be lurking there, even in places that should be safe, like your closet or the dark, open doorway to a room in the basement you have to pass by. Perhaps someone with evil intent has gotten in and is hiding there, ready to grab you. To do what? It’s ludicrous; especially in the small, quiet town I grew up in where nothing like that ever happens. I’m not saying it’s justified, only that I’ve had it a long time.
I remember exactly when it came. We were in the room I shared with one of my sisters, and another of my sisters was in the room with us. Somehow, I don’t remember the exact circumstances leading up to it, except that we were all ready for bed, and we got around to telling ghost stories.
Now, mind you, I was young enough that I didn’t know any ghost stories. For that matter, I didn’t know any stories at all, except maybe a couple of fables and fairy tales my mother had bought for us, or I’d seen on television.
Where my sister got them, I have no idea, but she was enough older than me that it was probably at some sleepover with one of her friends or something. She delighted in sharing this story with us; then again, she seemed to delight in tormenting us, period.
At first, I wasn’t scared or even affected by it. I don’t even remember the details of the story; only that it surrounded some evil character or something about bloody bones. I didn’t think anything of it, but it was very close to bedtime and suddenly, as I got into bed, I imagined these bloody bones outside my window; some creepy figure staring at me and trying to get in. It was probably a mistake to go to bed with that idea in my head . I probably should have gone for a drink, or a snack or something, and replaced the imagery but I didn’t think to do it. I figured it was a temporary thing and would pass but I was wrong, because it stayed with me, and I couldn’t sleep.
I’ve been dealing with this fear of the dark ever since.
This time, when my eyes open and nothing’s changed, I know. Somehow, I just know. This isn’t a dream. Once again, the adrenaline begins to flow, but unlike maybe most people, it doesn’t cause me to think about what to do. Instead, I’m paralyzed; curled up on my side, almost fetal, frozen.
What is happening? Where am I? How did I get here? What’s going to happen to me?
Slow and uncertain, I turn over slowly onto my back. Blinking several times, I wait for my eyes to adjust. Surely if I can make out where I am, I’ll realize this is something other than the waking nightmare it seems like. But even after blinking and waiting, leaving my eyes open and waiting longer, my eyes don’t clear and still, nothing is visible.
Tentatively, I reach out with my hands and feet. It feels like whatever I thought was a wall before is no longer there. Did I imagine it? Was it a nightmare before and now I’m awake? Am I really just in my dorm room and have freaked out for nothing? If so, why can’t I see anything? There should be light filtering in around the curtains on my window or under the door from the hallway which is always lit.
Carefully, I sit up. There’s nothing overhead either . Drawing my feet up under me, I wrap my arms around my knees. I’m not sure what to do. There’s no telling where I am or what might be out there and with the old fear playing at the edges of my mind, I’m afraid to explore past the confines of what I’m perched on.
You can’t just sit here, I tell myself. That’s stupid. Mustering faint courage, I rasp. “What’s going on? Where am I?”
There’s no answer; not even a stirring sound.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
Still no sound or movement and nothing like the sense of someone present, trying not to give themselves away.
Squeezing my legs tighter, I rest my face against the top of my knees. There’s no question of me screaming, I’m too afraid, but I begin to tremble all over and it’s all I can do to keep from crying.
After some time, I lift my head. It doesn’t matter if my eyes are open or closed; the dark surrounds me and I can’t make sense of it. Even in the worst dark place, afraid, there always develops the ability to see something. It’s never just black.
I can’t help wondering. Who has brought me here? Why haven’t they come back? Are they watching from somewhere I can’t see? That doesn’t seem plausible; it’s so black. If I can’t see, how can anyone else? What do they want? No one has spoken. No demands have been made of me.
You hear all the time about victims of trafficking, but I can’t believe this is that. It doesn’t fit with any scenario of that I’ve ever heard.
It doesn’t seem likely that I’ve been kidnapped for any other reason. My parents are far from wealthy and not in any position to pay a significant sum to get me back.
That gives rise to a new fear. What if I’ve been mistaken for someone else? Is that even possible?
I think I could deal with almost anything else if it just wasn’t so dark. I can’t stand the dark. It carries the thought of so much unknown, so many bad things that could be just out of sight.
They say, be careful what you wish for, you might get it.
I’m not sure if I dozed off again, or what, but when I lift my head, the dark has vanished. Blinding light has appeared in its place.
At first, I think it was one of those spotlights you see in the movies when people have been taken somewhere hostile for interrogation, but this wasn’t that. Lifting a hand to shield my eyes, I find it futile. There isn’t any shade to be had.
My eyes dart right and left and find not a glimpse of a shadow anywhere. I can’t see anything beyond my own hand, which appears rough and mottled. Running the fingers of my other hand over it, it feels dry and scaly. Some of it flakes away but I can’t see where it fell, and the rest of my skin crawls at the thought.
Dressed in something like hospital scrubs, white cotton drawstring pants with oversized white shirt, I wonder if I’ve had a meltdown of some kind, or been abducted by aliens, Bizarre, since I don’t believe that aliens exist. What am I doing here and what do they want? I think I will really go mad if I don’t find out. In my best bravado, I demand. “Who’s out there? What do you want? Why am I here?”
There is no answer and no indication that anyone is out there or can even hear me.
I close my eyes and hug my knees, head down but the condition of my skin makes every part of me itchy. I can’t stand it, so I stretch my legs out, brace my hands against the hard, cool surface that I now seem to be on and close my eyes. The light seems to penetrate my lids and fill my mind so that I can barely get a thought to form.
As I sit there, feeling as if I will melt down completely, there comes a vague sensation. It feels like the light, even with no heat in it , is seeping into my whole body. There comes the brief picture of the inner workings of my body, heart pumping, blood flowing and cells moving but then the mechanics disappear, and it is as if it is showing everything intangible; every thought, every intention and every bad decision I’ve ever made. Feeling exposed and vulnerable, I squirm on the hard surface, unable to hide, to make it go away or even to get comfortable.
I feel dirty, like someone consumed with disease against the pristine, blemish-free surface. Curling into myself, I fight the itch by rubbing against my skin with my palms, then my nails until my whole body feels raw and stings.
The torment invades my senses on every level, leaving me squirming, writhing and missing the dark. That thought frightens me as much as anything.
Mind and body ravaged, I imagine I appear like one of those feral people you see in movies, curled in a corner ready to lash out at anyone or anything that comes near me. Trouble being that there doesn’t seem to be anyone, anywhere in my proximity.
Scowling, teeth bared and ragged nails at the ready, I stare as much as I’m able to in the unbearable brightness, eyes darting madly in every direction.
Then suddenly, I catch a glimpse of something for just a fraction of a second; a prism-like flash of color . My head tilts sideways as I blink several times and try to focus.
Slowly, my eyes manage to pick up the outline. Refracting a rainbow of color one minute and then sparkling with something like diamonds the next, I peer at it until it takes shape, and I can see it clearly. Cylindrical in shape, it stretches from below where I can see and disappears above my field of vision.
Captivated by the beauty of the color and shine against the blank blare of white light, I sit fascinated and focused. In a flash, identical images appear one after the other at equidistant intervals until they surround me. I am engrossed with the imagery until the realization of what has happened dawns.
Bright, beautiful and fascinating as it is, and as unable as I seem to be to stop staring, there can be no mistaking: it’s a cage.
I can hardly take it in. Has it been there the whole time and I was just not seeing it? How is it that it has just appeared? What is happening to me? Have I lost my mind? Why has no one demanded anything or even spoken?
For the very briefest of moments, my thoughts clear. I wonder if it might be possible to dislodge the bars. Maybe, since I’d managed to clear my perception enough to see them, if I can get past them, I can figure out where I am and get away.
Cautiously, I uncurl my hands and push myself up from my crouching position in the corner. Only a short distance out of reach, I inch toward the perimeter on my knees. When I get close enough, I tentatively reach forward with my hand and hesitate, though I’m not sure why.
Gathering every ounce of bravery I still possess; I stretch forward to touch it. Immediately, an electric shock jolts through me, singeing my hand and throwing me backward. I’m not sure if I cried out as I bring my hand to my mouth to ease the pain.
Blankly I stare, like an animal, trapped. My mind tilts. I close my eyes tightly and clutch my head between my elbows. Involuntarily my head shakes side to side; I am lost.
When I lift my head, the light has dimmed. Every part of me aches, so I uncurl from my place in the corner. My skin still appears raw and scaly but at least I can keep my eyes open.
I can’t tell if the prismatic bars still surround me but a vista beyond them catches my attention. Unsure if it is a mirage or somehow real, I simply stare.
As a little girl, I grew up on a dead-end street in a small town. There were kids of varying ages that played together, either in someone’s yard or just as often in a field beyond the last house on the street. It wasn’t a climate that naturally cultivated flowers, except the seemingly never-ending sea of dandelions which we didn’t realize we were contributing to when we blew the puffy seeds from the top.
But out beyond the slab I am still perched on, a similar field has appeared. This one, however, is filled with bright colored flowers like those you see in pictures of tropical places or professional gardens. Absolutely beautiful in scope and hue, and with what I’ve experienced in the untold hours past, I desperately want to run in that field.
The strange nature of the vision doesn’t register as the desire to escape the slab and grasp the beauty of that lush garden becomes overwhelming. With trepidation, I inch my way across the slab. There seems to be a deep cavern that separates the edge of my slab from the start of the garden. Without breaching the perimeter, I peer over the edge. It looks bottomless, but I feel sure, even in my weakened condition, that I can make the leap from one place to the other.
I lift myself up to a squatting position. Alternating a half stance to a squat, as the ceiling won’t allow me to fully stand upright, I bounce a few times to help limber my muscles and prepare to jump.
Once I feel ready, I get as close as I dare to the edge, take a deep breath and launch.
Immediately, the shock wave reverberates through my body as my shoulder collides with one of the prismatic bars, invisible to the eye though it is. It knocks me to my bottom, while pain sets my shoulder aflame.
Suddenly, as I stare at the carpet of flowers beyond, it becomes symbolic of everything I could ever want and will now never be able to reach. Slowly, the beautiful vision begins to fade until everything around me becomes black again. Tears flow freely down my cheeks as hope begins to fade that I will ever see the outside of this cage.
Almost from the time the fear of the dark had taken root in my life, there came an irrational paranoia of being alone in our house at night. Even knowing there were no villains like you see in horror movies lurking around our small town, I couldn’t bear it. Every noise might be some dangerous intruder, the woods out back hiding some evil monstrous person ready to do me harm.
Any time I was forced to be by myself in the house at night, I soothed my rampant thoughts by turning every light in the house on, playing my favorite music loud and rocking in my father’s chair. Sounds ridiculous, I know, but it helped me stay calm. It also kept me awake when the hour grew late, and no one had come home. There was no way I could sleep alone with shadows all around and every stray noise threatening.
As I sit here now in the dark, the silence threatens to overwhelm me. Being alone while it was light had never been a problem, but it feels as if the blackness that surrounds me is moving inside me.
I close my eyes, clutch my head and rock back and forth as if in my dad’s chair. It isn’t helping much as the eerie quiet, coupled with not knowing where I am or why and what has done this to me begins to torment me.
Moaning softly, I plead. “Please, please tell me what to do. What do you want?” On the heels of a sob, I add. “Please… turn on a light. Talk to me.”
Without thinking, I begin to murmur mournfully. “I don’t want to be alone… I don’t want to be lonely… I can’t… I can’t…”
But no light comes on and no one speaks. I begin to fear I am losing my mind.
The idea that I’m losing it grows stronger as I feel a nudge, as though someone is pushing at me with their foot against mine. It’s still pitch black so I can’t see anything.
“Hey,” Comes a voice immediately recognizable as my sister’s.
I’m reminded of all the nights we talked in the room we shared, after we’d both gone to bed. It’s comforting, even though I know it can’t be real. I reply. “Hey. You’re not really here.”
“What?” She chuckles. Then a faint glow appears as she swipes a hand in front of her face, and it becomes visible. “Stop acting like a baby.”
As I reach out to touch her, the glow fades to black and I shrink back, convinced I must be hallucinating.
“You’re so selfish.” She chides. “Is it any wonder nobody likes you really?”
I don’t have a chance to protest.
“You’re always tagging after me. I get so tired of it, except that my friends get a kick out of what a little blub you are. Especially when they see pictures.”
There’s a sting of humiliation when I recall how she’s shown pictures of me in my underwear to her boyfriends. It doesn’t matter that I’m only about five; it’s still embarrassing but she got such a kick out of it; I was a chubby kid.
“If you don’t quit being so selfish, you’ll never have any friends.”
The thought occurs that I already have friends.
She continues. “At least not any real friends. Ones that won’t move on when somebody better comes along.”
It hurts. I can’t count how many times that’s happened to me; people who were supposed to be my friends but either betrayed or abandoned me. I know it’s why I’ve put my college friends above everything, and it’s cost me at times.
The thought of never having a real friend, people who truly care about me, has plagued me since grade school. It’s often made me fail to speak up or act in accordance with my own preferences and beliefs.
“You’re so pathetic.” She declares. “Who knows where you’d be if I wasn’t around to take care of you?”
She’s right of course. I’ve always looked up to her and wondered why I wasn’t like her. If only I could be more like her, I’ve thought, I’d be popular too. But I’m not; I’m a social failure.
I reach out to find her in the dark, the way I used to do when we were small, and I’d ask her to sleep with me in my bed but there’s nothing there.
Her taunting laughter echoes in the dark.
No matter how I try, I can’t block it out.
Once again, I am alone in the dark unable even to see my hand in front of my face. I curl in on myself but couldn’t remain in that position.
There isn’t a part of me that doesn’t ache. My skin still itchy and raw, I try not to touch anything to it, but it crawls. Every time I attempt to stop the itch, it screams with pain, but I am too weak to echo the sound. I feel as if I haven’t had a shower for weeks. My hair seems ratty, stringy and straw like.
I have no strength left. No sound will come from my lips; tears won’t form.
My mind numbs so that I wonder if this is how people in asylums feel. No thought, no ideas, just blank. There is nowhere I can go, nothing I can do. I will remain here until whoever or whatever has done this decides to let me go.
Will that time ever come? There has been no demands, no explanation, nothing.
All I want is to escape, no matter how that avenue comes. Whether I check out mentally, physically or someone releases me no longer matters but I know I can never do something to end it myself. My own cowardice makes me ashamed. I guess I don’t want it that bad after all.
I will be here forever in this prison. Miserable to the end of whatever time I have.
As the pressure in my head becomes too much, I writhe on the slab, driven further into madness by the aching and raw pain. If there is a hell, I decide, this must be it.
That idea brings my mind to attention and with it a deeper dread. What if I have died outside the dorm and gone to hell? What if I am really not ever going to be free of this? The very idea brings a new torment that goes deeper than I thought possible.
No, it couldn’t be, could it? I’m a good person, I reason. I believe in God. Isn’t that all that matters?
Panic sets in with the doubt that I can’t be sure. How would I ever endure this?
My head begins to shake involuntarily as all hope flees. I can’t be sure if my words are audible or only echoing in my head. “Oh, my god. Help me, somebody please, please, help me.”
From somewhere, I can’t be sure if it comes from an external source or is reverberating inside my head, someone speaks.
“You don’t really think anyone’s going to help you, do you? What makes you think you’re deserving of anything more than this?”
“I don’t… um… I mean…”
“You’re a failure. What have you ever done that makes you think anyone even cares?”
I can’t answer that. My mind won’t come up with anything to justify an answer to my plea for help. What have I done that is truly worthwhile or benefited anyone else? While I know there are people that care about me, who would really care if I just disappeared? My parents probably, but anybody else? I can’t be sure.
“This is what you deserve. You’re a selfish, self-centered nothing who’s made no lasting contribution and with no real future. No one’s even looking for you because they haven’t even noticed that you’re gone.”
Unable to deny that in any meaningful way, I want to cry but tears won’t come. Inside, I feel empty, abandoned and miserable in every possible way. My voice comes out in a rasp. “What do you want from me?”
“What could you possibly offer me?” A derisive cackle. “Hahahaha, you’re mine and you always will be. You pathetic, worthless, waste of space.”
Only one thought will form in my brain. How will I ever be able to stand this? What if it really goes on forever?
The cackling grows louder until it seems to be everywhere around me at once, pounding through my head until I press my hands to my temples unable to relieve the pressure. I must have spoken out loud. “Oh god, oh god, oh god…”
“God?” Comes the voice again.
At least it stops the cackling.
“There’s no god to help you. He doesn’t exist. Hell doesn’t exist. I don’t even exist. Isn’t that what you’ve been taught? What you believe?”
At that moment, I don’t know what I believe, only that I would do almost anything to get out of this torture.
“In me is life and that life is the light of men.” Said a voice so soft and still I can’t be sure it is real, so different it is than the loud, denigrating one from before.
The atmosphere is calm and quiet, almost intimate in nature. I keep my reply in the same soft tone, almost a whisper. “Who are you?”
“I am the way, the truth and the life.”
My forehead wrinkles in perplexity. It hurts but I ignore it; my curiosity piqued. “What does that mean?”
“It means if you follow my way, you will find truth, when you find truth, it will lead you to life.”
“I don’t understand. Your way? What is that?” And as silly as it seems, I add. “How do I know I can trust you?”
“Because the thoughts I think toward you are not to harm you. There are for life and peace and a glorious, expected end.”
“How do you know me? What expected end?”
As if he hadn’t heard, he replies. “There is a way that seems right to a man, the end of which are the ways of death.”
For a moment, I ponder. Is that what has happened to me? Had I chosen a path somehow that has led me to this place worse than death? Or have I already died, and this is my punishment? So many false hopes of freedom have come and gone, I am confused. Nothing makes sense anymore. In desperation, I ask. “What are you saying? Why are you here?”
“I am come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.”
“What is that? ‘Life more abundantly’?” It feels like something out of a movie; like a genie offering untold wealth. There must be some quest or demand, right? “What is it you want from me? I’m in no condition for some fantastic quest.”
His laugh is soft and soothing. “The quest was mine. The reward is yours. But you must choose.”
“Choose? Choose what?”
“Life and blessing or death and cursing.”
“Isn’t that a no brainer? Who in their right mind would choose death and cursing?”
“Broad is the way that leads to destruction. Narrow is the path that leads away to life.”
“Are you telling me that there are a lot of people on their way to destruction? What does that mean? Nuclear war? Terrorist attacks? Plague? What?”
“Yes.” It seems a sad sound.
“Which one? And how do we avoid it?”
“Sadly, some will choose it. They do not wish to walk the narrow path.”
“Why doesn’t someone tell them?”
“There are signs and those who proclaim the truth but many refuse to listen. Deceived by pride, they believe they know better.”
“So why are you here? What do you want from me?”
“Choose you this day whom you will serve. The way that leads to life or the ways that end in death.”
I feel like I already had a taste of death and cursing and want no more of it. “How do I choose the way of life? Will it free me from this prison?”
“If you were promised a glorious end if you choose life but not an immediate escape from this place, would you still make that choice? What if choosing the way that led to death meant freedom from this place now? What then?”
My misery is such that I can’t be sure of the answer. I need to think. Which is worse? “How much time to I have to choose?”
But no answer comes. He is gone.
With no idea how much time has passed, I can’t even be sure that I haven’t slept or something. While I can’t know whether there is sleep in hell, I comfort myself with the idea that if I have been offered a way out of this place, perhaps I’m not in hell after all; at least not the eternal hell where people go when they die, or so the story goes.
Lying there, I begin to wonder if the conversation I had that produced a glimmer of hope was real. What did it all mean? A way that leads to life, a narrow path. Choose blessing or cursing, life or death.
And who was it that claimed that following their way was that path? That they knew some hidden truth. How could so many people be headed for destruction and not seek the way out, if it really was all around them?
Is it possible in my tormented soul that I imagined that someone offered me a way out? That it really is my choice? Can it be that simple? And why have I never heard anything like this before?
‘The quest was mine. The reward is yours. Choose you this day whom you will serve.’ He’d said.
What was that about? And if I could leave here now but end in death or stay here and have life when it was over, would it affect my choice?
From somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I hear words.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son; that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
I can’t remember where I’ve heard those words, but they are somehow familiar to me. Suddenly, a light goes off in my head and I know. That’s what he was talking about. It is faith and I can choose it; choose to serve God with an eternal reward or choose to serve myself and end in death.
“Ok.” I murmur. “Even if staying in this torment is what I have to do, I choose you. I choose life.”
“Perfected love casts out fear.” The still, small voice is back.
Thought nothing around me has changed, inside I have peace that makes no sense, but I am grateful for it. “What does that mean?”
“God is love. In Him is light and that light is the life of men.”
“So if you are in Him by having chosen life, you need not fear the dark.”
I sit up. All around me is darkness, but I no longer feel fear of what is out there. What can darkness do? It is nothing in itself and has no power over me. I giggle and cover my mouth in surprise. “I’m not afraid. Darkness cannot touch me, I’m in the light.”
“If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation. Old things have passed away and behold, all things have become new.”
“What is ‘in Christ’?”
“You have chosen the narrow path; this is the path of the disciple of Christ.”
“You need no longer fear the light. When you chose life, all sin was washed away.”
I think back to how dirty I’d felt in that brilliant light and realize that inside, I feel clean. Every moment, I feel stronger, and I notice my skin no longer crawls. I touch it and it is smooth. I take a breath, eager for more. “What else?”
“I will never leave you. I will always be with you, even to the end of the age.”
My mind is clearing, so what he is saying begins to make sense. I need no longer be afraid of being alone. I will never be alone again, not really.
Before he can speak again, another thought comes. I understand that even though I am in this place, I am no longer caged. I am free because I am no longer afraid. Suddenly, I am filled with joy as I know I made the right choice and why he hadn’t told me that before. Knowing that freedom and the reward it brings, I can be free even here, but the choice had to come first. The gratitude I feel is overwhelming and I can’t find words, so I simply offer. “Thank you.”
“There is one more thing.” He says.
“What is it?” At this point, I am willing to do whatever he says.
“You must forgive.”
“Forgive? Forgive who?” I’m puzzled. As far as I know I have no grudge against anyone.
He didn’t answer.
Then, I understood. His words have freed me from every fear I’ve faced since I’ve been in this place, except one: the fear of man. It had come from the accusations leveled at me from my own sisters who had always accused me of being selfish and assured me I would never have any friends if I stayed that way. I nod. “Okay, I forgive her” Then I quickly add, “And anyone else whose ever hurt me.”
“Now take heed.” His voice becomes solemn.
“Stand fast in the liberty by which Christ has made you free and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.”
“How do I do that?”
“You must hold fast to the words that I have spoken and guard your heart and mind against all that would draw you away.”
“Okay.” Instinctively, I know that will be challenging but after what I’ve been through, I want to stay free badly enough I willingly accept it.
“Fear not. I am always with you. If you call on me, I will answer.”
I can breathe. Tangled in something that pulls at my arms, I fight it, aware that I still feel a weariness in my arms and legs but not like it was.
From somewhere comes an annoying beeping noise.
Then I realize: my phone! Jubilation fills me and I know I’d become tangled in the blankets of my bed. It wasn’t the first time. Jerking them off, I immediately recognize my dorm room, grab my phone and silence the alarm.
Taking a deep breath, I exhale slowly as I look around the room. Has it all just been a bad dream? Was I here the entire time?’
No, I acknowledge. Inside, I am different, and I know it. There is peace and freedom that wasn’t there before. What now? I wonder.
That same voice I’d heard now spoke up from inside. “Forgetting those things which are behind and pressing on to the mark of the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
“Ok, Lord.” I say aloud as I get out of bed. Time to get on with that glorious future — fearless.