This story appears in the anthology “Darkest of Dreams” in paperback (kindle and audiobook coming soon.) https://www.amazon.com/Darkest-Dreams-Christopher-Warren/dp/1545354944/
He’d crouch down on the floor near the street-view window. He’d run the situation through his mind, over and over. He’d press the barrel to the roof of his mouth, count to three, and then it’d be over. He wouldn’t have to rot in the empty shell growing around him.
But there was more before that.
Aaron was asleep, only to be roused by the click of a deadbolt, and the creak of the front door opening. She was home, and there would be a hefty price for that. It trickled through his mind then, that something was… Incorrect. Off. There was the clack of delicate shoes, the bed clothes ruffling down the hall, and nothing more. He was snatched from sleep, irrationally petrified. Sweat dripped down from his brow, the tell-tale burning of a rash starting to form, but he didn’t dare wipe it off.
“You there?” he muttered under his breath.
It was mostly quiet in the apartment; beetles clicked behind the walls. Eventually, it was a dreadful pull of anticipation that lifted him from the bed. As quiet as his movement would allow, he lifted an ear to the crack of his bedroom door. Nothing. Nothing at all, and that was the worst part–at least for now. Aaron twisted the knob, slipping past the jamb and into the darkness. All visibility came from a drip of light through the front door, which suffered a cracked weather seal. He forced himself further and further down the corridor, turning right somewhat, and staring into the entrance of his mother’s bedroom. Dark as pitch.
“Hello?” he mumbled again.
The air was still. Sallow. Not a breath to be heard. A moment later, there was a relieving shift in the bed.
“I’m sick,” said a voice that sounded more like wind through dead trees. The words shot pinpricks and icicles all over him, leaving behind a clammy discomfort that nearly left him silent.
“I’m sick,” her frustration was drowned in pain and fatigue.
There wasn’t any way it was possible to mention it. Not now. Not today. But then again, would the time ever be right? The idea wriggled around Aaron’s throat. It wouldn’t go further, but there were other words. “Can I get you anything?”
More silence. Worse than the last. What he stumbled over next was a verbal effort to run away. “If th-there’s s-something I can do, I’ll be in the r-room.” He unlocked his knees, nearly stumbling as he backed out, rising further and further out of the darkness like an out-of-breath diver. But just before he could shut himself in, there was an utterance that came stabbing past the threshold.
“You can do something for once, Aaron. Something,” and that was all.
The door clicked shut.
He was laying in the bed again, sensing his eyes glazing over–growing misty. But he couldn’t put a pin on what he felt. Something was off, and not just with his mother. Reality had an artifact, one that seemed to weather larger and larger with each passing minute. He was trapped staggering around in his mind again, heading neck-deep in quicksand, but not yet. No, his feet were just touching the ground. If this is supposed to be bad… He shuddered to think of the final moments. Anxiety floated down: a fiery missile that would light all the room’s carpet.
Do something for once? De-motivation couldn’t have had a clearer portrait. Those needle-like words poked in, wiggled around, and allowed every bit of energy to drain out. The air filled with molasses, and each movement he considered was slowed by its viscosity. Aaron kept the ugly orange desk lamp off, which meant the only light was the overcast day leaking in through the curtains. Not a breath to be heard aside his own, and not a sound but the scuttle of cockroaches nibbling at the drywall. Do something for once…
What had he done? Now alone, eyes shifting here-and-there around the ceiling, nothing stirred in his mind. But he had done a lot. In between syrupy hours of agonizing over lines of code for his agonizing boss, he’d scribbled three-dozen poems onto crumpled napkins. Then it was the wrong words at the wrong time. Sure, he didn’t have that boss to take verbal whippings from anymore, but what was left beyond that? Now the shattered hours ticked and jutted by when they could, often without the peace of sleep. With small effort, he could have kept his eyes open weeks at a time.
There wasn’t enough for a loaf of rye these days, so he’d left the door shut and bolted. On a blue moon, there was opportunity to leave, but the last glimpse he’d caught was… more than he wanted to think about. Time was a foggy shard of glass that made the world illegible in places. Somewhere outside was the scent of coffee, the ruckus of public transport, and clean air to fill his lungs for a lifetime. It was all past that front door though. Within earshot of the other room.
Pointless, pointless, pointless, he thought, what good’ll it do me? It was one sentence, and the whole structure seemed to collapse at its threat–though in truth–it started creaking under the weight ages ago. Splinters jutted out, and now his confinement was only being held together by a palm-full of rusty nails.
His mother groaned down the hall. Pain lingered somewhere deep down, but no inflection. Emotion. This, is what brought back the nail-biting. This, was what the psychologist called “regression.” No point in risk though, he thought, this was on the radio. This is exactly what they were talking about. No talking.
When he could manage a steady breath, he let his ears focus, aurally drifting–blind fingers sensing texture through the white noise. Still no breathing like there had been before. Legs struggling to comply, Aaron got up to check his lock. The air shuddered the quietest click, then only the wind that rose up outside. Almost in response, his mother shifted in the dark: a merciful veil. But he wouldn’t lay back down. Couldn’t, because he was sure that her ears had eyes. Eyes that could see his curiosity. Aaron pressed his back up against the door.
“…Aaron,” he almost didn’t recognize the voice at all, “Aaron, come here.”
No, he thought. No. There were no convincing words that would let him unlock that door. He’d run a sewing needle through his lips before that.
“Aaron, I need food.”
No. Go away. Never.
The tears were back again–a little stronger than before. It damn near killed him to have to do this, but what option was left? The last memory of what lay beyond this apartment was so long ago. Maybe he wouldn’t ever see beyond again. This dagger of a promise, embedded itself in his guts–the sensation of churning, little crab claws burrowing aimlessly. This was happening.
It was the only thing on the news, he remembered. They were looking into a strain of infection, one that was rare for now, but meant subdued hysteria for the following months, trailing into weeks, then days. Worst of all, Aaron thought, we saw it coming. And even though no one wanted to admit it, the end was a breeding ground for ignorance. You’d think it was just like any other problem if you let the words fall to the background. If you believed though, they called you crazy and then listed one-surface examples of why everything was going to be alright. But they knew there was more to be said. The professionals, the ones who were paid to keep the world calm, went on with assurance. It would be a pointless scare, just like all the others; we would meet a day of self-mockery, when humanity didn’t end after all.
Still though, Aaron debated over his own rationality. Like other fears, this had stretched itself to bigger proportions that left reason up in the air. Maybe things would be just like how they were before. Maybe he could leave his room again.
Aaron switched on the radio, gradually turning it up, and adjusting himself to focus on the sound that sputtered out. Nobody was talking. No voices, no music, just a hum. A deep, deep hum from the lungs of a dead signal. He turned the dialer, but nothing changed. Surely, a hardware problem, he thought. The radio clicked off, and he was drowning in molasses again. He didn’t know how rapidly the clock revolved as he lay there waiting, listening with a hyper-attentiveness that burned his muscles. All of fate seemed to hang on that very moment. A decision to be made on a single breath.
There was further shifting in the room down the hall and past the locked door. He could hear it cleanly, and with focus, he could let his mind’s eye place him in that very spot. But that was the last place he wanted to be–feeling the warmth of that dark room, the humidity, the stench of bedsores and pus–a claustrophobic air that threatened to suck him in. No, he couldn’t do that. So it was settled. Until he could manage to clear his mind, Aaron planned to stay in his spot, only listening. He would not turn an ear to interference, or his mother’s call. Instead, he would keep his attention dialed to the radio static hissing away in his right ear.
That was enough of a reminder. What had they been talking about? There just wasn’t a good way to organize thoughts under pressure. He had to stop, file things, and plan a route for his consciousness to travel–otherwise he’d venture off into the thorny straits again.
Would it really be worse than this? That’s what they were saying. It was all going to end. End if we didn’t catch it in time. But the way the professionals spoke–the deep, brooding voices of the news reporters–they weren’t happy about it. Their tones revealed a melting ignorance. While they didn’t care to believe it, they knew this wasn’t going to be some merry-ol’-dance in the park. This was a dangerous thought. A thought that begged for attention, yet also suggested its better home was in a dusty filing cabinet. But you couldn’t hide something like that, right? Too serious? That’s what their voices really said. Their biggest offerings went on about the long nights awake: thinking, and considering what was ahead. Considering the end. They damn well knew what was going on, and they knew death was watching through every mirror, crack, and shadow.
The static in the radio melted away for awhile. Aaron fell so deep in thought, he didn’t see sleep nibbling away at his conscious. It was easy to lay half-awake, but sleep was a much more surprising comfort. It was for the better, right? He could sleep, then make the big decisions later. Why risk moving? Why risk making blind choices that could go wrong? Sleep on it. That’s what his father told him every night he was troubled by decisions. It was before he entered the workforce, and in those final times they would ever see each other again. Aaron didn’t know where he was anymore, only that as a result of bad things, he was here. But maybe being trapped was better than lost. That would be the worst thing: not knowing where you are (thought it’s easy to say everyone is a little lost sometimes.) It’s human nature to question our direction and goals.
He sat up in bed at the rapping–a sound so sudden that a spasm shot down his back.
Thud. Thud… Thud.
It was a big, heavy sound, and hollow in reverberance. At first guess, it could have been the neighbors. But it couldn’t have been. No. The longer he listened, the more direction it seemed to gain. It was outside his door, past the lock and down the hall, going deeper and deeper into the absorbing ink. It trailed through his mother’s doorway, and from there, it was only a guess. These were followed by an intermittent groan, and a puff of air that trailed off to a croak.
He saw it again in his mind’s eye: his mother coming home, then something wrong. Wrong in everything about her. She limped into her room, and fell over with her eyes far too wide open for someone who is tired. She grinned madly amidst vocalizations of pain and discomfort, and stared back at him knowing he could not see. Now, she was throwing all her weight against the wall.
There was another noise too–a laugh so wild and unhinged–interspersed between the rhythmic knocking on the bedroom wall. There would be no way to sleep with that going on.
“Aaron… I’m… sick,” her voice beckoned to him, still cackling.
She was sick. Sick with something the general public didn’t know about. Something they consciously had to push out of their minds to keep working. It’s just a scare. Scares and nothing that will change anything. It’s just got the public riled up.
Aaron knew that expression. She wasn’t lying: that was the laughter of someone who’s sick. Although “sick,” wasn’t as descriptive as he liked. It was of a disease conjured from insanity. It was like the times he would visit his grandparents, both failing in health, and how their choked giggling revealed a… barrier. It was an expression that knew no reality. Now both of them were dead, with only the memories left to haunt him, pushing forward into his reality. They mocked him, and the slamming only grew louder and faster, and the sniggering evolved: chaotically spiraling into a scream that tempted blood from Aaron’s eardrums. In that moment, he understood the vast extent that remained of his fear.
It wasn’t just that there was something wrong with his mother. She wasn’t there anymore–just a dying shell of what the earth would become if they were right. He couldn’t remember whether or not he locked the door, which he stared at. Would it hold up under her thrashing? He would have to wait. Wait and resist the urge to split from the plan. But what would he do if she got the door down? He didn’t care to think about it: the same way those people on the radio and television didn’t want to think about the implications. They were all up late not wanting to believe, and looking at their schedule books, wondering what the numbers meant. If any of it mattered. But people cling to life with their fingers digging in like there’s nothing else. They wonder what will happen–what they’ll do if they lock up–watching the limited stomach of the fridge dwindle down to nothing.
All of these thing came rampantly burning and tumbling through his mind as the screaming climaxed. Then, it fell still. For a moment, he could almost pick out a creeping from the quiet–a low, wet, gurgling noise, accompanied by something that sounded like a creaky hinge. This lasted all of a handful of minutes. The clock on his bedroom nightstand rattled off the hour, and then he could only hear its ticking.
To suppress the thoughts running through his mind, Aaron turned to other things. He looked out the patio window to see the sky, now blood red, with billows of an unidentifiable black smoke leaving inky pools behind. And though he wasn’t sure he wanted to know what was happening out there, the compulsion wriggled back to get him. Making sure the bed didn’t creak much under his weight, he crawled onto the floor. The ground felt like is was wobbling under him–a feeling he imagined sailors struggled with after long expeditions. Land legs. That was it. He’d lost his land legs.
From what he could see, the whole town lay shrouded in darkness. Only some of the tallest building stuck out of the black–rotted fingers at the mercy of the red sky. There were no people. All of the windows staring out from house to house were black sockets, and upon realizing this, another detail became clear. Mrs. Thackett, the old woman across the street Aaron had once tended for a year or so back, had her front door ajar. The same proved true for her neighbors. Not all, but many of the doors that looked back at him were as hollow and as empty as fresh graves.
His world a cemetery, he found himself backing away to his bed once more. The stabbing silence pulled at his innards. There was nothing out there. Not a person to help. Not a soul for company aside his own. Outside, there might have been a bird call. Maybe it was a hot breeze that rattled those open doorways he wished had never met his eyes. Dark, empty buildings meandered around filthy, cracked asphalt stained by the crimson sun. He wished there was anything: dogs barking singularly, thin traffic, maybe walking pedestrians, but it was clear. There was nothing out there. Nothing at all.
That’s when he came up with the plan.
It would have to happen soon. There was a gun he’d hidden in the topmost shelf of his closet, which served as defense (though it never came to use before.) Because of this, it was unclear how much ammunition remained. It was also a question of whether or not defense would do much good. The future would be worse–far, far worse than any shaking moment of his past. So, he considered the end. He’d crouch down on the floor near the street-view window. He’d run the situation through his mind, over and over. He’d press the barrel to the roof of his mouth, count to three, and then it’d be over. But it couldn’t be that simple.
It was an indefinite time, so it seemed, that he spent in his mind. Memories. That was all there could be, right? He remembered, somewhere, years before in a psychology course; reality, is a concept that lies in memories. Our anatomy senses the world around us, and these senses are perceived in our mind. So, it seems the only things we truly have, are thoughts. Recollections. Everything Aaron knew about himself and the world around him, was all perceived. Maybe it was all in his mind, or maybe life was only a perverse dream? That’s what it felt like: a dream as vivid as life itself, turned nightmare.
Without hardly looking, in a room that only saw the smallest glint of red from outside, he moved. He passed through the closet door, and then he held the box in his hand. Everything reversed, and he was back on the bed, gripping the latch as if he was dangling from a cliff’s edge. It was such a simple thing: the plan. And maybe it was that simplicity which made it frightening. He moved. It all played like a broken videotape accelerating forward–what little childhood he’d had, and all the enjoyment which was taken for granted… the family pets, the moving trips, making friends before being pulled away to another place. From there, the seeds of the nightmare festered. The skeleton of his Labrador, which wasn’t there, remained visible in his minds eye: underneath an avocado tree in his grandparents back yard where his father had buried him. He’d hated school, and egotistical school children (not aged a day,) managed to survive in his head. And every one spoke to him in his final hours.
Grandfather was still living there too–telling him there would be nothing. Saying the same things he always had. His brittle voice sputtered between words, explaining all the reasons Aaron wasn’t worth the surrounding air. His father solemnly pleaded at first, but then accepted that there was nothing he could do. They were all still breathing in his mind. They were there to talk to him on sleepless nights, and to pull him apart with each and every day. Aaron himself, having learned this in his studies, understood that he was nothing but his mind.
So maybe it is a dream, he thought, now sitting in front of the window. And me, being overly-imaginative, invented such a terrible, unforgiving world. This was the end.
But as he lifted the gun to his face and opened his mouth, something changed. There were eyes looking back at him through the cracks in the blinds. They were all there… his memories. His father, his grandfather, a Labrador’s skeleton, his schoolteachers, their soulless pupils, and now the grinning, cackling apparition of his mother. All in arrangement, they stood waiting. Waiting as he pushed the barrel to the roof of his mouth, and watched a grin slide across his face. Aaron felt himself lean back as he gripped the handle tighter. Eyes–glowing fireflies In the dark–were remnants of a bloody sky sinking lower and lower, growing dimmer and dimmer with every moment.
He thought he laughed. Laughed at the final thought to enter his mind which spiraled further and further, deeper and deeper into his own confines. And he thought they were laughing as well. All of them. Each shadowy figure, sharing that same-toothy grin, stood corpselike in the fading light. He thought there were friends there too, or people he thought were friends. There were all the people he’d ever shown respect for and received kindness from. They were all laughing unhinged, twisted laughs. Then all he could see were their glowing, yellow eyes.
You live in my head, he thought, and they all paused.
And so do I.
With that, there was a gust of wind, a crack of lightening, the burst of a beginning storm.
A thunderous shot rang out.
And it was the end of yesterday.