It’s all in your mind, Pete.
Pete put one foot through the half open door of his bedroom and slipped out into a hallway in total darkness. He looked down and wiggled his fingers and all he saw were murky phantom blurs. He waited a moment for his eyes to adjust as best they could, resisting the urge to fumble for the light switch on the wall somewhere to his left. It was a kind of test he put himself through sometimes. To prove what, he wasn’t sure. That he was a rational man, unafraid of the dark? That he didn’t need light to walk in a straight line from his bedroom to the bathroom? He knew this hallway well enough by now, been up and down it many times in the last two months since moving in. Never in darkness quite as black as tonight’s though. He hesitated.
What had happened three nights ago came back to him, clearer than it had come since the experience itself. It had faded quickly when thought through in the brightness of day. Now, as the memory returned, coalescing, materialising in his mind in vivid full-fleshedness, seedlings of full-blown horror sprouted in the pit of Pete’s stomach. His heart thumped wildly once and a singular bead of sweat broke from his hairline and rolled down his temple, leaving a cold trail. His wife – drugged up on valium now, God love her – had been convinced of the cat scratching at their door late that night after he’d fallen asleep. Naturally, she’d woken him up instead of just going and letting the thing in. And he admitted that at the time the scratching had sounded…off. Too slow to be the cat. Too gentle. He remembered the sound ever-so-clearly right now, standing unmoving outside his bedroom door, needing a pee.
It was like a single long fingernail caressing the surface of the wooden door, wasn’t it Pete?
Pete didn’t argue. All he could hear was that scratch that had come from the bottom corner of the door, and that’s exactly what it had sounded like. Eventually he’d grabbed the handle and quickly opened the door. Light had spilled out of the bedroom into the hallway.
He’d gone out to the hallway and stepped left and looked down the stairs into a well of darkness, and then up at the strangely small round window at the top of the steps, slightly too high up to see anything out of but a small portion of the sky. Through it Pete had seen the chalky fingernail of a mid-winter moon. He had stood there for a good while, he now finally admitted that bare fact to himself. At one point, he’d convinced himself that he’d only stood gazing at the moon for a matter of seconds. But the truth was he couldn’t remember how long he’d stood there, he only knew that when he’d snapped out of it he’d been over by the banister, hand atop the rail fiddling away at the sphere of freshly sanded wood there like he had a nervous tick. He’d moved as the moon had, so it would stay in the centre of the window’s frame.
He’d retreated to bed and finally managed to fall asleep, only to wake up in the morning and notice something bizarre as he had started bleary-eyed down the stairs in pursuit of his first morning coffee. There were scratch marks all over the handrail cap, scraped into the caking of sawdust – he’d blown at it without much inspection and watched the dust float away in a hazy brown cloud. After, he’d scrubbed clean the sawdust that had been packed under the nail of his left forefinger. Then he’d had his coffee.
He returned from the memory, and found his feet had carried him down the hallway, confirming that the floor, at least, was still there, despite it seeming a black void upon which he floated. The scuff of his foot against the rough, threadbare carpet reassured him of its presence. He made a mental note to get a quote on a new carpet. The house was old and needed work, but then again, they had paid considerably less for it.
His destination, the bathroom, was an enshadowed doorway at the far end of the hallway. He squinted at it. He had those minuscule patterns swimming in his vision. Grey tadpoles squirming in an obsidian pond, making the door seem a dark mirage. He shuffled three more steps. Gaining a reckless confidence, he took a more ambitious stride forward with his left foot and stubbed his toes off something solid.
The temperature of his blood changed abruptly. Sweat didn’t pour off him – it clung to him, a film of cold thick slime oozing out of his pores. His heart, likewise, no longer pumped warm blood. Each pulse flushed a paralyzing chill through him. He stared down at the muddy outline of his feet and finally, after an indeterminate amount of time having passed staring, contemplating, rationalizing, he stumbled backwards. His hand flapped at the wall, missing the switch entirely. His palm was greasy and slid over the wall as he groped; up, down, left, right – his fingers caught on something and he yelped.
It was the switch.
He slammed his palm down on it and the light was on and his head snapped back to the spot on the hallway floor. There was nothing there. Just carpet. He glanced up to the end of the hallway where the bathroom door was. The door was there. To his left the stairs. At the top of the stairs the circular window. A thin tusk of a moon appeared between great banks of parting cloud, glaring down at him. He tore his gaze away from its ivory glow only to find a pale languid face, skin anaemic and doughy, in the black gap of his open bedroom door. The closed eyelids were dark grey with sagging crinkles arcing over their surface. They began to flutter open with great effort, but couldn’t manage it and drooped closed again.
“Pete,” the face of his wife said with heavy, dry lips, her words slurred from the valium. ”Why you up?”
He took an extra moment to get over the initial shock that had gripped his guts and twisted when he’d seen her face floating in the black opening of the doorway.
“Bathroom,” he said, in a rigid whisper.
Her eyes opened slowly and steadily then, her pupils huge inky ovals gleaming from the shadows of the room in which she stood. He almost expected a black ichor to start seeping from them, like sap from a tree. Her doped-up curiosity eventually seemed sated and her disembodied head withdrew, evaporating into the darkness behind her.
“Turn off the light please,” she said, the weak croak of her voice barely drifting out to him. “And leave the door open, so she can come in if she wants.”
Who? he tried to say, but it was like his throat was lined with thorns that snagged the word and kept it there. Just sleep-talk, Pete, and the valium. She doesn’t know what she’s saying. He shut the door gently behind him, and glanced at the light switch.
You heard the woman, Pete, lights off!
He left the switch untouched.
He breathed until his heart calmed somewhat. He realised his bladder was fit to burst at this stage, and made for the bathroom door, remembering with a trickle of dread that the bathroom light was broken, it’d been flickering since they’d got here and he’d been meaning to fix it but of course, he hadn’t gotten round to it.
Just open the door and turn the sink light on, Pete. It’s pretty much the same, right? That’s what you said the other day. That’s how you justified putting off replacing the ceiling one. I remember.
“Shut. Up.” Pete said in a furious whisper through teeth gritted.
He was outside the bathroom door. He grasped the cold metal handle, and as he pushed it down and it clicked, he heard a wheezy, feminine chitter. He froze with the handle fully down but the door still closed.
Don’t look. In the door quickly.
He opened the door and spun into the bathroom, only catching a flash of the corridor behind him. A flash of his wife standing outside their bedroom, pasty bloodless face hung low and curtained by lank black hair. He squeezed his eyes closed while leaning against the bathroom door. That’d been a trick of the eyes, the mind. He knew there was nothing there. Therefore, no need to open the door and check.
It’s all in your mind, Pete.
He opened his eyes to pitch darkness. Quickly, the sink light. He grasped for the string under the lamp, his fingernails tapping against the mirror, and ended up yanking it far too hard and the string broke but thank God, thank all the bloody Gods, the horizontal bar of light awoke with a blink, staining the bathroom in a dull yellow lambency. He did his business as quickly as he could, heart thudding, perspiration rolling forth from his pores with each beat like soldiers on the march.
Pete that voice that was not quite his own said, and now even it whispered. The tail end of his pee tinkled into silence with a brief echo in the toilet bowl. This has been fun. But now it truly is time to go back to bed. And not get up until it is light. The skin behind his ears tightened and the tiny soft hairs on the nape of his neck rose straight and rigid and brushed against the collar of his nightshirt. He listened to the voice that he didn’t quite recognise, yet was definitely his.
Keep your head down and do not look up for any reason, Pete. Do not look at the mirror. There is something here.
Pete turned with his head hung loosely from his neck, his chin hovering above his chest. He stepped towards the sink into a realm of surreal pastel light. The sink was glazed a poisonous greenish-yellow under the lamp. Nausea roiled in him. He felt like he was in a bunker in the aftermath of Chernobyl, breathing in pungent noxious air. He focused on his hands, which seemed fake, carved of wax, as water from the tap encased his skin in its translucent flow. His head twitched in a sharp upward motion.
Pete, the voice sounded terrified, it is conditioned in you to look in the mirror as you wash your hands, the same way it is conditioned in you to reach for the light switch in a dark hallway, to blow on your coffee before you sip, to pat your pockets before you leave the house. Pete, do not check the mirror for your face the way you check your pockets for your keys. You must exert control over this automatic response Pete, I cannot do it for you.
The voice sounded as if it was rambling just to keep his attention on it, and off the mirror. He would really love to check if his face was still there, that would be reassuring, wouldn’t it? After all, this was all in his mind, wasn’t it?
To look up and see his own face would be the rational thing to do.
It would be like when he’d turned the light on in the hallway to check the floor where he’d stubbed his toe. The relief after at his naivety and childish fear. Like when he’d opened the bedroom door three nights ago to check for the cat (although he knew it hadn’t been the cat) and the hallway had been empty. Silly, really. He could have that relief now, if he just looked in the bloody mirror and saw his face. He would grin and his jaundiced reflection would grin back and the burgeoning terror in him, not yet fully acknowledged, would dissipate and he’d shake his head, turn the sink light off, traverse the hallway, turn the hall light off, close his bedroom door, and go to sleep. There was one problem with that. He’d broken the string on the sink light. It would have to stay on, he decided.
Pete put his hand on the bar of soap and his traitorous eyes glanced at the mirror. His eyes widened and a terror screamed through him from his feet to the top of his head and left him numb, empty, his body some hollow casing that he now resided in, very small and very definitely not in control. He didn’t even try look away. He couldn’t. He saw his body from above, hunched over the sink unmoving, head up, his left hand on the bar of soap, nose close to the mirror, all enclosed in the semicircle of pallid light emanating off the sink lamp.
Then he was back, and a sudden ridiculous image came to him of a little homunculus at the control board somewhere within his brain quaking and trembling but returned, and booting up the cogs of the machine. Nothing happened he thought. Of course nothing happened. All of this had been completely in his head from the start. He turned off the tap and took a shaky breath. He realised the bar of soap was still in his hand and he placed it in the middle of the sink underneath the mirror. He angled his head, looking at it, and felt a frown forming on his forehead. He brought his left hand up to inspect his fingers, knowing already what he would find. But he had to confirm it beyond doubt. Sure enough, there was soap wedged under the nail of his left forefinger. A soft vanilla scent wafted from it and his finger blurred and the bar of soap behind and below it panned into focus, and in his peripheral vision, his reflection, standing with his hand upheld. Scratched into the surface of the bar of soap was a many pointed star within a perfect circle. Complex geometric lines and triangles filled the symbol. His brain was becoming aware of the total bodily fear that had consumed him. Before, he’d been having a very out of body experience. Now that he was returning he felt the weight of the dread that filled him as a physical burden. Every vertebrae in his spine trembled from tailbone to skull. The terror was a boiling heat seething under his skin. So much of it, nowhere for it to go. For a moment he thought blood, black and viscous, would burst from his eyes, out his ears and nose, out of his very pores. Surely this terrible, toxic, vibrating energy could not be contained by the sack of skin he called a body. Surely it would escape this container whatever way it could and leave behind a useless husk, a frail, broken integument, which would slump to the floor and lay there hardening and shrivelling like an old used-up snakeskin until his drowsy, drugged-up wife tripped over it on her way to the toilet in the morning.
He felt a hand fall gently on his shoulder and suddenly Pete was jerked forward. He braced for impact but felt none and when he opened his eyes he was unharmed. He looked down at his hands. They were steady.
He looked out of the mirror.
Out of the mirror.
His reflection stood before him, moving as he did. He saw the bewildered look in its eyes. His eyes. Then he smiled. But he wasn’t smiling, was he? He grabbed at his face to check if he was, and no, his lips were not smiling, why would his lips be smiling at a time like this?
The creature that stood in his bathroom in his stead was smiling. Its smile kept stretching until it was hideously large. Then words slithered out of its unholy mouth, a sharp black tongue poking out while it spoke.
“Thank you,” it said. The light above the sink, above Pete, flickered, and not-Pete flickered with it, its shark’s smile only stretching further. The sink light sputtered out and Pete was plunged into darkness, the afterimage of not-his-face emblazoned on his retinas and even there in that smoky fading image did it grin at him and did his own eyes transform into something eerily reptilian and slant cruelly in a way he had not known they could. Light flooded in when the bathroom door opened and the creature exited, leaving the door open. It lurched almost mechanically down the hallway, but by the time it reached his bedroom door its movements were smooth, sleepy even. At the cracked door, it turned to him one last time, grinning at him with such grotesque vigour now that the corners of its mouth pushed its eyes into vulpine slits. He felt violated by the sight of it, his own face, contorted, mutated, transmogrified into this abomination.
“Lights off, Pete,” it said through that sickening grin. It ran its fingernail along the wall until it reached the switch, and flipped it.
Pete shrank down, down against an invisible barrier in front of him. His eyes became dry from lack of blinking yet he felt no motivation to close them. He just stared, entranced by the consistency of the utter blackness he was in. His lips, he realised, were fixed in a curved Cheshire smile. His cheeks hurt. He heard his own laughter beginning, a painful whispering chuckle from deep in his belly. It grew until his stomach knotted and his laughter was a broken record of hysterical squalling. There was no echo.
It’s all in your mind, Pete.