He always enjoyed the walk to campus. On sunny mornings he could practically glide to class, his mind flush with the anticipation of what might be. Each dawn brought with it the possibility of something different, something unexpected and wonderful. In the early hours of a new day anything seemed possible, and from the moment he left his house the hazy promise of what lay ahead was intoxicating. In his heart he was a romantic; no more so than on his journey to school.
But, then, inevitably, this intoxication would slowly but surely drain away as the days’ moments aggregated into the same dull geometry they usually formed. One obscure lecture led to another. Acquaintances passed by, greeting him with their same tired idiosyncrasies. At the library, no amount of stale coffee motivated him to take his readings seriously. The once pregnant hours would melt away, unenthusiastically, until all that was left was to shuffle into the soul crushing monotony of a job that would rob him of the remaining daylight.
By the end of the day, the hope he had invested in the potential of what could have been was gone, soured and fermented until it sat in his heart as a longing ache for what never was. Punching out meant facing this feeling all alone on his return home.
Despite relative highs or lows, the uneventful passing of another day always weighed him down on these treks. It wasn’t sadness, but something like it. Each step towards his home confirmed that the pleasant surprises of life had skipped him over that day, totally and finally chased away by the rising moon.
On this evening he carried this feeling with more intensity than usual as he emerged from the soulless building where he was employed. The sun had fully retreated to who-knows-where by the time he pivoted towards the road home. With his first steps he tried to think back on the occurrences of the past few hours, but found he could recall nothing. His worst days weren’t marked by negativity necessarily, but rather by emptiness.
One foot followed the other, but locomotion was difficult. The soles of his sneakers were heavy, sticky, keeping him from moving smoothly down the sidewalk. His backpack, which was practically empty, weighed a million tons and pulled him down towards the pavement as he trudged on. He’d discovered on other days he felt this way that the only thing he could do to fight against such malaise was to keep moving, keep battling the raging thoughts and anxieties that made every shadow menacing and every passing face grotesque.
So he pushed on through the night and the bitterness, hoping that his feet could deliver him against current of his own consciousness. With each passing step he tried to distract himself from the dark conclusions the night inspired within him.
When he noticed the figure standing in his path he was already off of the sprawling campus and well into the small town where he lived. One more left, two rights, and he would be able to unlock his door with the small brass key he kept in his front right pocket. He made the trek so often that stopping now to take stock, he discovered he could not recall any distinct memories from the walk he had so automatically completed. At that moment however, he became fully aware of his surroundings- it was about three in the morning and completely dark, save for a solitary, flickering streetlight between him and the figure. The small houses lining the street had turned off their lights long ago when their reasonable tenets had gone to bed. In the sudden loneliness of the hour he realized that it was freezing cold out.
He stopped walking and pulled his arms into his shirt as he studied the figure. In the vacillating glow of the lamp he could make out only a few details. The figure was imposingly tall, standing on gangly legs emerging from its elongated torso. It was draped in some sort of strange black cloth that clung sadly around its freakish shape. Its arms lay at its side, bent awkwardly at the elbow and culminating in thin tapered fingers that gnarled into savage angles. Where a face might have been there was only darkness which the streetlamp could not illuminate. The figure was not moving at all, simply facing the young man like an old western villain waiting to pull his revolver.
For a while neither he nor the figure made any attempts to break the deadlock. He wasn’t necessarily scared of this figure; after all the town was filled with drunks and drug addicts and all manner of menacing folks who might be feared at 3am. No, it wasn’t fear, but something wasn’t right. The way it stood so steadfast, an unintelligible mass planted firmly in place, made him uneasy and anxious. There was something oddly familiar about its presence. What did it want from him?
His yell was shrill. He could see his breath. The figure did not acknowledge him.
This time louder, with more confidence and aggression. The figure remained still, silent. He could feel his heart beat beginning to increase. His palms were clammy and he balled them into fists. What was this thing? Where did it come from, and why was it here, now?
“Who are you?! Answer me!”
The figure persisted in its stoic blankness- a terrible sage in the darkest hour of night. He became sick to his stomach, made nauseous by the thought that this figure might not ever move. He dropped to his knees and clutched himself on the sidewalk.
The figure did nothing.
Unease had been replaced with desperation. Waves of aching chills pulsed through his limbs. He wretched and contorted. Hot tears stung eyes that struggled to keep the figure visible.
The figure remained motionless.
Pain shot through every inch of his body, accompanied by the hopeless feeling that nothing would make it stop. Not while this figure stood in his way. As blood rushed to his head he struggled to form words.
“LEAVE ME ALONE!”
Nothing. Still as stone, the figure held its positon coolly. He sprawled on the asphalt in agony while overwhelming sobs choked his air supply. Nothing could be worse than this, but what was he to do? The figure was there, and it did not seem to be going anywhere soon. He was practically screaming now as he fought against the dread imposed by the figure. Where was everyone? Why could no one hear him?
“HELP ME! HELP ME! HELP ME! PLEASE!”
The houses flanking the scene stayed dark. The figure stayed locked in muteness. He was losing his mind now, thoughts racing at a million miles a minute trying to unlock the secret to extinguishing the demon before him. What was this thing, this horrible apparition? What right did it have, he wondered, to set itself in the young man’s path? He focused through the disorienting pain and stared directly into the face of this ghost. Slowly, a grotesque gap began to form, twisting into a grin lined with the foul and crooked semblances of teeth rotten to their roots. It was the grimace of pure evil.
In that single instance time stood still. Reality and time were suspended. In this strange state, something began to bubble up inside of his gut. It grew from deep within, and pushed outward like air inflating a balloon. All of the terror and hopelessness he felt was replaced with an anger of such intensity that he imagined his entire body to be aflame. Another moment brought him to his feet, blazing wildly under the streetlight which seemed to flutter faster and faster. Rage at this figure consumed him, unadulterated and pure.
And he did not stop it. He did not fight this feeling. He embraced it, opening his soul to the power of retaliatory might.
This ends today.
From deep in his chest a sound began to emerge. Not a yell, not a moan. Through his clattering teeth the audible vibration of anger and pain and hopelessness grew louder and louder, until his jaw flung open and his throat strained to support the manifestation of his emotions.
He took a step towards the figure, then another, all the while his temperature rising and his groan increasing in intensity.
Now he was moving quickly, step, step, step and he realized he was running, straight at this horrible creature, and it still wasn’t moving, but he didn’t care anymore because he wanted to reach it and grab it and rip off its terrible clothes, and expose its wretched flesh and rip that apart too because he was so tired, tired of facing this nameless, soulless demon with no recourse but fear, and now he was sprinting, and he could feel his heart racing but it felt good, and he felt alive, and he reached out his arms crazily and could see that the distance between him and the creature was closing in for the first time in his life, and he got closer and closer and still the figure remain motionless so he sped up even more with absolute power coursing through his entire body like a wild animal until he was just feet away from the figure and he could see him clearly for the first time.
He stopped dead.
They were face to face. He looked up at the thing and examined it closely under the flickering light. It still wore that awful smile, under a disfigured, crooked nose and sunken eyes bearing no semblance of a soul. Its tattered robes fluttered slightly in the breeze.
“Who are you?” he asked.
No reply came. The light went in and out.
“What do you want from me?” he whispered.
The light shut off completely. Complete blackness filled the street.
For a long while he stood still in the dark, unsure what to do. When the light returned, he was all alone again.
It was very late now, and cold. The sun was coming up soon. All of the houses around him were still unlit. If he wanted a shot at decent sleep he should have been in bed long ago. He shuffled the weight of his backpack and resumed walking through the space where the figure had stood, towards his home.
Maybe tomorrow would be different.