On, off. On, off.
I’d been standing in the cramped hall of my apartment for a full five minutes, just watching the bulb flicker.
Well, I’d been seeing that light glitch out for weeks now. It’s just that today I decided to plant my feet and stare until my vision went screwy.
It was always that same pattern. On and off, on and off, then it would rapid-fire blink, then it would be on again for a few moments before starting the whole damn routine over again. I think that’s what bugged me the most. The consistency.
It’s not like I hadn’t tried to fix it. New bulbs, YouTube tutorials (that I subsequently clicked out of halfway through another ad for earbuds or a podcast or whatever, I got the gist), sticking the pointy end of tools into the mechanism itself. You do what you gotta do when you got a landlord that takes three to four business weeks to respond to any emails.
But nothing. No change, not even in that weird, little pattern that was like some kids Nintendo died and he decided to reach for the closest bit of technology, compulsively playing out the last cheat code he memorized for his newest game.
Around minute 8 I decided I’d had enough. I pulled over the less wobbly dining chair that by now must have felt more at home in the middle of this hallway then at the mismatched table. Not bothering to flip the switch I climbed up, taking a moment to find that position that rocked the least and twisted that warm bulb right out of its socket.
I stood in the darkness for a few moments, just breathing, letting the bulb cool in my palm. It was pitch black, my eyes still adjusting after staring at the sickly yellow light for so long. The darkness felt good. Really good. I hadn’t realized how coiled up I’d been all these weeks.
You know how humans are supposed to have this sixth sense for feeling when someone or something is watching them? The hairs on the back of your neck rise, like a bug is buzzing away by your ears, trying to crawl in and get a taste of eardrum. Your head snapping side to side to try and catch a pair of eyes in the shadows. That itch, right at the base of your skull. Sometimes it’s hard to notice when its happening, maybe it becomes background noise after long enough, like noisy neighbours or traffic from the street below.
But I certainly noticed when it was gone, that itch. Something released in my chest, and I felt an odd relief wash over me. I laughed humourlessly, the sound more like a barking breath. I squeezed my hand around the bulb, cold now, and stared into the empty socket in the dark.
One week out from the successful glitchy-bulb removal surgery, I stood halfway over the threshold into my apartment, hand on the open door, pondering the dark clashing against the harsh brightness of the common hall. I heard the ding of the elevator stopping at my floor, and my next-door neighbour, Dave, stepped out.
“Hey,” he said.
“Night shift?” I asked.
“You know it.”
Dave and I both worked night shifts frequently at our respective jobs, though he seemed to actually do them nightly. I rarely saw him during the day.
He paused at the door of his apartment before pointing at mine and asking, “Your bulb out?”
I hadn’t realized my gaze had locked on to the still empty light fixture. “Uh, yeah. Kinda.” I turned to him. “Hey, you ever have, like, weird problems with the lights in your apartment?”
He scoffed. “Yeah, of course. This building’s a dump. It’s a wonder it hasn’t come crashing down on us while we sleep.” He pulled out his keys. “I was nearly electrocuted by my coffee machine the other night.”
I laughed dryly. “Yeah, but… I mean have you ever had anything weird happen with the lights specifically. Like they started… flickering in weird patterns?” I felt ridiculous as soon as the last syllable slipped away, knowing I had just labelled myself as the looney neighbour that has conversations with lightbulbs.
Dave paused again with his keys still unturned in the lock, head titled, a frown on his face. “You okay, man?”
I laughed again, the sound barely a rasp and certainly not joyful. “Yeah, sure. One too many night shifts, you know?”
He nodded, clearly unmoved. “Sure.”
“Sure,” I repeated. “Good night.”
I was in my apartment with the door closed before he had removed his keys. Yeah, won’t be making eye contact with him for the next few days, I thought. I looked over my meager collection of belongings, just vague shapes and shadowy outlines in the dark. All second-hand, thrifted, pulled free off of street corners. The newest things I’d bought for myself in the last six months were the lightbulbs. They were currently sitting in their half-open box on my kitchen counter, looking all shiny and new.
The first few nights I had come home from work, I instinctively reached out for the switch and was surprised when my hall was still dim, confusion and annoyance fading away to sheepish embarrassment and, soon enough, relief. Yeah, it was a little creepy at first coming home from the night shift to further darkness, but the stillness was preferable to that irritating light. That itch.
I tossed the keys on the counter, right next to that fresh box of bulbs. I flicked on the light that hung over the sink, casting a weak, yellow glow over a five-foot radius into the kitchen, spotlighting my tower of unwashed dishes. I opened the fridge and took stock; expired milk, old takeout, an amalgamation of rotten vegetables turning to green-gray sludge at the bottom of the drawer. Should probably take care of that, I thought as I reached for my phone to order pizza. But something made me pause on the lock screen, thumb hovering over the home button.
Hair raised, goosebumps, buzzing. That itch. I looked over my shoulder, eyes landing on the ugly light fixture over the sink. That cool, tingling feeling at the back of my neck got worse, like I was squirming under the gaze of some… thing. That sixth sense was tuning in.
On, off. On-
I was on the switch in an instant, the only light now coming from the cool fridge bulb. I swung that door shut, hard enough to hear something fall inside. Again, darkness. Again, relief. Slowly, slowly the buzzing went away, my breaths calming. I felt my hands trembling, crushed them into fists.
I went to bed. Decided to skip dinner. I should really clean out the fridge, I thought as I fought with the covers, willing unconsciousness to take over, willing my brain to think of anything other than lightbulbs and light switches.
It was so innocuous, just some faulty wiring. Probably a bad fix, a lazy job after the last tenant blew a fuse or something, the landlord deciding to put on his handyman hat that evening, unwilling to pay a professional. Something that left all the electronics in the apartment a little wonky.
I could maybe accept all that, maybe, if it weren’t for the pattern. The consistency. The way my body reacted so viscerally, the buzz, the itch. It was all too much.
But, then again, I was probably just tired from work, probably creeped myself out for no reason.
I drifted off and dreamt of darkness.
The lighting in the bathroom was terrible, made my skin all sallow and dull. It clashed horribly with the bright, violent red of my bloodshot eyes.
I’d had one more week without incident, without freaking out a neighbour or overreacting to bad wiring. One week of peace. No itch, no buzz. Everything was fine.
Until it wasn’t.
I didn’t catch it at first, too busy scrolling through my phone, hardly processing the waves of text and images and video that came and went. But then that itch, that creeping sensation returned. From my reclined position on the couch, I turned to face the living room lamp, catching the end of its cycle.
The buzzing was back, too, like a new fly had come to take over the duty of the one who died squashed under a palm or rolled up magazine or thick-soled shoe.
On, off. On, off.
I watched it, the steady flickering, over and over and over again, mesmerized. It had rhythm, it had cadence, like some terrible song a prodigy had perfected, her masterpiece. Always the same, without fail, falter, or pause. The itch was getting worse, getting unbearable. I hadn’t realized I’d been staring at the light for so long until the tears hit my lips, my body’s desperate attempt to keep my eyeballs from drying out and crumbling to dust. The saltiness snapped me out of my reverie which gave way to a dizzying wave of nausea.
I granted it the courtesy of watching one last full round of its performance before tearing the plug from the wall and shoving the entire lamp into the back of the closet.
The itch subsided and the buzzing quieted.
But they didn’t disappear.
Now, in the bathroom mirror, I looked back at my face. My eyes still bloodshot from staring, unblinking, for an uncounted number of minutes. I took slow, deep breaths, unable to move, letting that sudden nausea abate.
You’re being stupid, I thought. It’s just some buggy lights. You gotta lay off the slashers, man, I said to mirror me, not quite believing myself. My eyes were starting to return to normal, my heart rate was coming down.
On, off. On, off.
Slowly, achingly, I dragged my eyes up to the light fixture above the mirror, white knuckling the edge of the sink. My breathing was coming in fast and shallow as I saw that same pattern play out on two working bulbs.
On, off. On, off.
My palm crashed against the switch, my eyes never leaving the fixture. I watched the filament cool from white hot to a glowing orange to nothing, leaving me in total darkness again. I retched, diving for the toilet. I don’t know if I made it.
I didn’t turn the lights back on.
I kept the lights off most of the time in my apartment now. I stopped shaving – it’s really easy to nick yourself in the dark.
It wasn’t so bad, actually. I would slip into bed after work, pretending that stumbling through shadows and crashing against furniture was perfectly normal (I’m saving on the electric bill!), and not a security measure (because that’s what it felt like now, like I was playing hide and seek with the boogeyman, my blanket pulled up over my eyes to keep the monster at bay). During the day, the windows lit up my tiny apartment well enough, and, if I really needed to, I could use my phone flashlight to avoid cracking my shins against sharp corners.
It's fine, really. At least it was contained to my apartment. I could live like this until I found a new place. No way in hell was I staying here a minute longer than I needed to- ‘cause it’s a dump, I was gonna leave anyway, and everything’s totally fine, I promise. No worries, not a problem, I am a-ok.
The buzzing, the itch, were almost completely gone, too.
Almost. They hadn’t gone away completely after that night in the bathroom, another reason leaving was a good idea.
I flinched hard at a sudden buzzing inside my pocket, realizing after it was my phone. When my hands stopped shaking long enough for me to pull it out, I read the text that started with the words Ready for game night??
Right, game night. I’d agreed to it weeks ago. Yeah, I could do game night. Be good to get out of this apartment, see my friends. How long has it been since we hung out, anyway?
Totally. For sure. I sent back a short text, confirming I’d be there soon. I grabbed my jacket and left the apartment, the door slamming hard on my way out.
The cold walk home confirmed what I’d already known for weeks deep down, what I’d probably known all along.
Game night was going well, until it wasn’t. Until that itch started scratching at the back of my skull, until I was locked into a private staring contest between myself and a kitschy lamp. The lamp blinked first.
On, off. On, off.
And, you guessed it, no one noticed anything. No one bat an eye at this clear mockery being thrown my way. I let it perform its routine three times total before I bailed with a goodbye that sounded more like a groan.
I knew it for sure now: only I could see the lights turning on and off, catch this pattern. Only I could feel the itch, hear the buzz, sense the gaze of some unseeable monster. I was trapped in my own personal sensory nightmare.
Only I noticed it happen to the streetlamps, headlights, restaurant signs. I caught it, every single time a light began to dance to its own tune, deciding on a whim to illuminate or abandon its post.
On, off. On, off.
Only I would look up or twitch or stuff down a scream.
Only me, all for me.
On, off. On, off.
I couldn’t understand it. I was a decent man, not a perfect man, sure, but who is? What did I do to deserve this? What great sin had I committed to be uniquely selected for this trial of torture? Like I was special, like I was important. Or maybe just the opposite. Because I’m so utterly average, forgettable. The nausea was returning.
Dozens of lights flashed in sync, a perfected dance of macabre ballerinas, spinning and twirling until you get dizzy from watching. They trailed me as I walked to my building, up the stairs, entered my apartment.
On, off. On, off.
I sat alone in a semi circle of shattered lightbulbs in the quiet darkness of my apartment.
I’d taken every single one out at soon as I got home, even the new ones that had still been sitting on my kitchen counter. I’d unplugged everything, too. Those LEDs in every electronic device had started dancing, playing out my torture in miniature.
With every bulb I twisted loose and smashed against the floor, with every plug pulled, and every light that died the buzzing grew quieter and quieter, the sensation of something boring into the back of my neck lifted little by little. Good. This was very good.
The fridge was starting to leak something foul smelling.
I’d heard Dave come home an hour ago, so it must’ve been late. I’d been staring at the bulbs, the glass shards reflecting what little light was coming through the windows.
But then, even though weren’t connected to any form electricity, though they weren’t even whole anymore, they started to glow. Slowly, they glowed so bright they lit up my entire apartment. But I soon realized this light wasn’t coming from the bulbs.
I turned to face my windows with a sickening swirl of dread and rage in my gut. My eyes ached as I approached the glass, but I couldn’t look away. Every single light in every single apartment that I could see from mine was starting to dance that terrible dance.
On, off. On, off.
It was like they were doing it in slow motion, like some great, lumbering beast was dancing now, its shear mass making it move slower in comparison to the world around it.
I knew if I looked into any of those apartments, I’d see the same thing; a couple laughing over drinks on a first date, a too-dedicated employee tapping away at a computer, anyone and everyone, not a single one of them would react to the cosmic horror that was playing out around them.
Because it wasn’t for them.
It was for me. Little ol’ me.
On, off. On, off.
I don’t remember when I started screaming.
Dave didn’t remember me screaming at all. I ran into him in the hall the next day on my way back from a supply run (I had run out of duct tape and garbage bags).
He’d greeted me, showing no indication he’d heard me breaking glass and howling, certainly unneighbourly things. No sign of annoyance which he would be more than due.
“You alright? You catch a cold or something?” he’d asked.
I suppose he was referencing the rawness of my voice, given how I’d shredded it the night before.
“Yeah. Or something,” I rasped. I’d started laughing as I turned away from Dave, kept laughing as I entered my home and triple sealed the garbage bags covering my windows, kept on as I double layered the tape lining my apartment door. No light was getting in here, no siree. This is some quality duct tape, satisfaction guaranteed.
Dave’d only reaffirmed my certainty that I’d been singled out, isolated in this special Hell. Custom-made, bespoke, personalized for yours truly.
You know that sixth sense that humans are supposed to have that tells us when we’re being watched? That warns us to be wary of the shadows that creep in the corner of our eyes? I think those scientists got it backwards; in the dark, in true, all-consuming darkness, we may not be able to see, but whatever’s out to get us can’t either.
Instead of the shadow out of the corner of my eye, I know to fear the light.