The following is a short story that was originally designed as the prelude for a character in a Beast: The Primordial game that didn’t get off the ground… I liked it enough – and felt that it could stand on its own well enough – that I’m posting it here. Questions, comments and flames are welcome, drop ’em in the box below. Enjoy!
I remember things. Things I’d much rather forget. I tried, for a long time, but the nightmares wouldn’t let me. They tried everything. Tried to fix me. Tried to make me better, with talking and diet and pills with names I couldn’t pronounce, let alone spell.
It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. I remembered always.
I remembered the nightmares. I remember floating, thrashing, trying to swim before I remembered that I didn’t know how. I remember opening my mouth to scream, and how it felt to have my lungs flooded with the salty, dark liquid. And something else. Something noxious and thick, battering against my throat, my lungs, my stomach, tearing me apart from the inside.
I remember that, even though I was only three when I started waking up my whole family, screaming that I was drowning.
Whatever slipped in when the water did was hungry. It wanted something. Something I didn’t understand, couldn’t articulate. The words didn’t exist to my three-year-old mind, and some of them still don’t exist twenty years later. Hell, I’m not sure the thing knew what it wanted, either, except that whatever it was, it was inside me.
I remember feeling something dragging me down, tentacles and claws and god knows what grabbing for my ankles, trying to pull me down. I knew that even though the invader was in the water – was in me, from what I’d swallowed – the real bulk of it was down there, somewhere. Those were it’s grasping hands, trying to drag me to meet it.
Somehow, I always managed to wake up. I’d be screaming and thrashing and covered with bruises that no one could explain, but I was awake. Free. Safe.
Other kids were scared of the closet. The hall if the light wasn’t on. Under the bed.
Not me. But it was a bitch to get me in the tub.
When I was older, my parents decided they’d had enough. They took me and my brother to the community pool, decided they were going to force us to swim. My brother took to it. I didn’t. Three weeks of that, I was still barely able to dip my legs in and let them dangle. My parents didn’t care. They were there to show off how wonderful and involved they were, not to actually get me to learn anything. I was used to it by then.
My brother. God, what a shit. He was the golden boy. Could do no wrong. It’s cliche as hell, when I actually say it, but it’s how it goes; mommy and daddy loved him best. He was going to be just like them one day, not some nightmare-suffering, can’t-even-swim, bookish, quiet little creep. He wanted to use a wrench on things, wanted to blow up cars, thought books and television and thinking things through were a waste of time. He was loud and friendly and made everyone look at him.
Of course, they weren’t looking at the pool that day. He pushed me. Maybe it was an accident. Maybe he didn’t mean to do it so hard. Maybe a lot of things. I try not to think about it, even when I see it again in my dreams. He pushed me, when I was standing at the edge of the pool. I hit my head on the step and slid into the water, going down. It was just like the dreams, in a lot of ways. Thrashing, couldn’t tell which way was up, the feeling that something was dragging me down to some fate I didn’t – couldn’t – understand. My mouth and gut and lungs full of something that was part water, part piss, and part something else.
Nobody saw. They saw him when he came skipping back to mom and dad, though. They listened while he told them all about how great a diver he was and how he could hold his breath for a whole thirty seconds.
Beat this, dick. I’ve been under for seven minutes, now. It gives me a certain savage pleasure to know I beat him at something, even though the parents are dead and he’s on the other side of the country. Even if I had to die to do it.
I died, you know. I remember that. It was probably the best moment of my life. The nightmares were gone. The feeling of being an outsider was gone. There wasn’t anything. Just quiet. Black, damp, quiet.
They say I was gone for at least four minutes. I don’t know. All I know is they only found me because one of the lifeguards saw me bob to the surface, drug me out, forced me to start breathing again.
I remember hearing something in the back of my head crying out when I came to, and spewed that first mouthload of piss-tasting pool water onto the tile beside my head. Something that seemed to be saying “No!” Something that felt cheated, like it had almost claimed something of immense importance and had been denied at the last minute.
I didn’t look at the vomit. I was afraid of what I might see in it. And I was right to be afraid.
Everyone is right to be afraid. But I remember that. I remember being dead almost as well as the nightmares.
They got me back. But after that the tub was right out. I could barely take a shower. I stopped drinking water.
I had trouble making friends. I had a couple; everyone – even the worst freak in school – does. But most of the time, if I had to talk to people, tried to actually bond with someone, it was like the pool all over again. My lungs would close up, I couldn’t breathe, and I felt like something was trying to crack me open and climb inside. It was just too much.
When I got older, got past that awkward colt legs, too tall, pinched face stage, I had a couple boyfriends. Nothing serious, though. I wouldn’t let them be. If I actually liked a guy, I’d run. Push him away. I only let them close if they were assholes, if they barely knew I was alive.
It’s how I stayed sane. Stick with people who I understood. The ones who were only there to use me, who viewed me as an accessory rather than a person. That’s what people did to me, and it’s what I could deal with.
I look at it now and wonder how much time was wasted. Time where I could have been happy, could have been almost normal, before “normal” got permanently cancelled. Maybe that’s what makes me do what I do, now. I hated them. But more than that, I hated myself. Maybe because I knew, even then, what I was. I was something else, didn’t deserve love, respect, trust.
Things changed when I met Jack. He was weird; sometimes he’d be sweet, other times an asshole. Sometimes he’d call just to say hi, and other days I’d be watching his Facebook feed and see it scroll by with pictures of him out and about with other girls while the last text I’d sent went unanswered.
He was a master. I see that now. He was just nice enough to make me feel like I mattered, and just dick enough that it didn’t make me feel like I was trapped in the pool again.
Then it happened. One night I was half asleep, more than half drunk, still sticky with sweat and the juices we’d made together, when he rolled onto his elbow and stared at me with eyes that didn’t seem human. In the flickering light and with my brain pickled in cheap vodka, they looked red, like bloody whirlpools. When he talked, it didn’t sound like him; it sounded like something calling from the back of a deep cave, and sounded like it was speaking more than one language at once. I understood him just fine, though.
“Don’t you know what you really are?”
I didn’t want to talk about it. I knew what I was, alright. A freak. I rolled away from him, pulling myself into a ball. He put a hand on my shoulder and rolled me over, using more force than he probably had to; that was okay, though. That I understood. I didn’t understand how his hand could both be the rough, well-known – and sometimes loved – hand and yet feel like some scaled, taloned claw, but maybe that was just the vodka talking.
I know better, now, of course. But I was a different person, then.
“You don’t wonder why you dream of drowning? Why you’re scared to let anyone close? Why people seem to run from you?”
I rolled my shoulders in a shrug and tried to turn away again. His hand/claw held me still, though, and the whirlpools in his eyes were still swirling, keeping my attention.
“Part of you is missing, Ro’. It’s lost. Been looking for you.”
My eyes were getting heavy. I remember thinking that he was hypnotizing me, just like one of those hucksters at the carnivals. But I also remember thinking it didn’t matter.
“You need to let it find you. Then it goes away. All of it. The nightmares. The fear. The isolation. You can be something more, something better.”
It was a pleasant thought. No more pills. No more drowning and panic attacks every time someone said hi. Maybe the chance to go soak in the tub when my back hurt and the cramps were too much.
“But you have to choose it, Ro’. You have to let it happen.”
My eyes closed, and I could see the pool behind them, could sense the thing that lived in the water. I began to shudder.
“You have to want to be you. The whole you. Don’t be afraid; just remember that being born is like dying, and dying is like being born. Let it happen.”
I could feel the terror. Could sense it, flowing around me, waiting for me to open my mouth, waiting for me to let it in, let it flow through me. I could feel the tendrils around my ankles.
“Be the thing other people are afraid of, and never be afraid again,” he said.
After that, it was darkness.
How can I explain it? The dream was the same at first; the thrashing, the invasion, the dragging sensation. I wanted to pull free, wanted to wake myself, shrieking and run for the bathroom to vomit and pop another pill even though they didn’t do anything except keep my parents off my back. But I heard Jack, clear as day, like he was right next to me.
“Let it happen. Birth is like dying.”
I let it happen. I took a deep breath, deliberately pulling more of the tainted water into myself. Instead of trying to pull away from the tendrils, I swam towards them. They paused, as though uncertain of prey that was willing. Then they gripped tighter and pulled me down.
I felt them, working inside me. Burrowing into the center of me. I could sense the thing’s frustration, knew it was searching for something even as it tossed my internal organs like a pile of dirty laundry. Then I felt it’s mood brighten, a sense of exhilaration.
Then pain. Pain like nothing I’d ever felt, as the tendrils pulled something free and tore it from my body. I saw it, just for an instant. Something small, almost insignificant. Silvery and somehow sad as it faded away into the distance.
Then, even greater pain, as the thing invaded me again. This time it was far worse than before. I could feel it working in me, crawling through every orifice, seeping into every nerve ending, setting all of it on fire. At the same time, it was still pulling me down, into a black cavern that all light had fled from.
I felt the thing inside worming into my skull, pouring through my nostrils and eyes and boring into the back of my brain. It was whispering to me, asking questions I didn’t understand and couldn’t answer, but something finally came clear enough to make sense.
I tried to speak, tried to answer, but couldn’t. My jaws were locked open as I choked on the shadow-tinged water. But I still heard my voice, coming from somewhere far away, maybe wherever that silvery light had gone.
It pulled me under, and I died.
That was two years ago. When I woke up, Jack was gone. He left me voicemails. Sometimes would tell me a place to meet, but he never showed. Still, I found others in those places. Sometimes they needed me. Sometimes I needed them. Sometimes both, and sometimes neither of us even knew it.
I had to move. That didn’t seem to matter. Jack’s phone calls still had the right places to be. But I grew less concerned about him. The voice inside was the one I listened to. The real me. The nightmare I’d become, that sometimes slept beneath the community pool, and sometimes surged forward, rattling the bars of a cage that I didn’t understand, starving and clamoring for more, always more. My family couldn’t deal with me anymore. Said I was too different.
I guess I was. I wasn’t so meek and mild, anymore. Not always going along just to get along. I didn’t wake up screaming in the middle of the night, anymore – hardly slept at all, in fact – and I could use the bathroom like a sane person. But they knew I was different.
My friends, too. The thing inside tried to make it work for a while – they were useful to it, made it less hungry, especially when they were feeling trapped like I had been. But they knew something was wrong. When Julie had that asthma attack and died, after she caught her boyfriend cheating – with me, of course – I knew I couldn’t stay any longer. I still have her aspirator. Something in me wanted it. Needed it. Alongside the paintings, the engagement rings, the father’s day cards.
So I left. I went as far away from water, and damp weather, and everyone I’d ever known. I ended up in Arizona. I have a small place there. I rent a bigger storage unit. Sometimes I go there and just lie down amongst the relics I’ve taken. I roll in them, rub myself against them like some kind of fucked-up Scrooge McDuck. It helps. Makes me feel better.
But here, I found out something. Jack was wrong.
He said I didn’t have to be afraid anymore. That I could be the nightmare, instead of having them. That was true for a time. But here… Sometimes, in my sleep, I hear something. If I follow the urges of the thing inside, the real me, and hang out near the old mine, or the water lines they put in to strip mine for copper and gypsum, I feel like something’s calling to me. Something angry.
It’s even worse if I go inside myself, to the place where the other me lives. I like it there, even though it’s full of the things I used to dream about. I can sit at the edge of the community pool, dipping my feet in the water and watching that part of me slink through the liquid, a darker shadow amongst dozens, and I feel refreshed. Strong. But just outside I still hear that call, and there’s a quiver inside, a fear that isn’t entirely mine. Sometimes the water flashes a brilliant blue, and I know my other self is terrified, too.
Something is coming, and it’s changing me. I don’t know what to do.
So I go to my storage locker. I play with the broken hobby horse that I took when Sheila took her baby boy and fled from Anthony, finally understanding that there were worse things to fear than his fists. I suck on Julie’s aspirator, getting a little high off the last traces of epinephrine, and wonder if she’d have realized her boyfriend was a lying sack of shit if she hadn’t caught him sucking on my neck. I flip through the photo album I lifted off the coffee table the last time I visited Elaine, when she finally understood that her son and daughter-in-law were tightening the noose around her neck, so they could shove her in a home and claim her money. Those make me feel better for a while. They make the thing inside calm down, sometimes even sleep.
When that’s not enough, I go looking. Personal ads. The domestic violence shelters. Facebook stalking. There’s always someone letting life pass them by while they drown themselves in a relationship or situation that’s nothing but a dead end, and at least half of them know it. Sometimes they just need a little shove – or a big one – to get off their ass and do something about it. I give them that shove. One way or another.
But I can still hear it. And I am afraid.