I moved out of my mom’s house and into my new apartment today. My mother asked me why I’d chosen to go back to having roommates at 34 years old. She could barely contain the judgment in her voice. She obviously thinks I’m a loser for sharing a living room and kitchenette with two other women. I told her again about all the benefits of my new living arrangement. This will allow me to save money and finally pay off that student loan debt that’s still hanging around my neck like an albatross. It means I won’t have to worry about upkeep in the yard like I did after Derek and I divorced. And Samara and Jane are really cool so it’s like having a slumber party with your friends every night. But still, all my mom sees is that her daughter is frozen in some perpetual adolescence. She thinks I won’t ever find another husband this way. “Time is ticking,” as she always says.
The thing is, I could never tell my mom the truth. About last summer, and how it changed everything. About the trees. And the dark. And the moment I knew that I would never again live alone.
Last July was like any other July. At least, it was like any other July that broke the record for the heat index. The sun beat down on our town without mercy. When it rained, it was as if water was being thrown into a hot pan, popping and sizzling, steam rising from the ground. The heavy fog would ooze up from the asphalt and fill your lungs until you felt as if you couldn’t breathe. The frequent rains offered no relief, but only served to make the sludgy stew of humidity even more unbearable. The sweltering air wasn’t the only pressure we felt during that time. That summer was filled with wave after wave of bad news. I remember listening to the daily update each morning on my commute, my jaw clenching tighter with each story. There was an E. coli outbreak that killed a number of children across the country, The Great Barrier Reef saw some of the worst bleaching in history due to climate change, and a serial killer, the so- called Southeastern Butcher, was knocking off women with a meat cleaver across five states. And the worst part of it all was that I was still trying to navigate life alone after my marriage to Derek had ended. To sum it up, that summer was a shit show.
Although it was difficult, I had gotten into a decent routine at home. It was just me and my dachshund, Polanski. Polly for short. I would come home from work, we’d have dinner, watch whatever cheesy movie was on the Hallmark channel, and go to sleep. Until the night it all began.
It was during one of the only blessedly cool nights during that oppressive summer. The stifling heat had cooled to a mild stickiness, so Polly and I were sitting on the deck. I was nursing a cold bottle of sauvignon blanc while Polly chased fireflies through the violet haze of twilight. I was staring at the flickering green lights drift through the muggy air, when Polly started barking at something in the woods.
“Polly! Shush!” I whispered to her. She continued barking, pressing her snout through the slats in the fence. I rose slowly and went to see what had grabbed her attention, but she was only barking into the heavy brush behind the house. “Polly! Quiet!” She continued her sonic assault on the night until I ran to her, snatching her up into my arms. She licked my face and seemed to forget about whatever creature caught her attention while scampering or slithering across the forest floor. I stood there playing with Polly, nuzzling her soft fur, until the hairs on my neck stood on end. I lifted my head and turned slowly around, scanning the woods for signs of life. There was nothing there except for the neon glow of the fireflies, swirling peacefully in the lengthening shadows. The evening was silent except for a soft breeze rustling the leaves and a dull thud coming from a faraway neighbor’s sub-woofer. I stood still for several minutes, waiting and listening. I felt as if I was being watched, but there was nothing there. I craned my neck and stared into the gaps between leaves and shrubbery, but still saw nothing. When I finally went inside, I made sure to lock all the doors and activate the alarm.
I realized how silly I had been the next morning. After all, I lived in a safe neighborhood where nothing bad ever happened. At least, that’s what I told myself. The next few days were normal aside from being hot as hell. I took the opportunity to visit the community pool any chance I got hoping for any relief from the blazing rays. At night I tossed and turned, kicking the twisted covers off with a fury. During the days, I lazed in front of a fan with a bottle of wine, too sweaty and exhausted to move more than a few feet at a time.
I was sitting on my deck in front of the fan, listening to the news about the Southeastern Butcher’s latest victim when I felt that eerie prickling across my skin again. It was the middle of the afternoon, and the sun set high in the sky. It had passed over to the west leaving the backyard semi-shaded, but no less boiling. Polly chewed her bone next to the stairs and a neighbor mowed their lawn 3 yards down. It was 98 degrees outside, but the blood turned to ice in my veins. I could feel it pulsing through my body, ending in my ears where my heartbeat grew louder, blocking out the sound of the lawnmower and birdsong. My breath caught in my lungs. I stood up and scanned the woods. It wasn’t easy to see through the lush greenery filling the landscape but I searched and searched. A black snake shot out of the bushes, causing me to jump back in alarm. Only after releasing my breath did I realize that I had been holding it. Polly leapt up to chase the snake, but then lost interest when she saw that it was already beyond the gate. I began laughing out loud, relieved and feeling foolish that I had convinced myself of a Peeping Tom hiding in the bushes.
It was only once I stopped laughing that I noticed it. It sat high up on a large oak, nearly hidden in the lush greenery. A strange marking that mesmerized me. At first it appeared to be carved into the trunk of the tree, but as I gazed at it, I realized that it was naturally present in the smooth, gray bark. I immediately shrank back into myself as I gazed into what looked like an eye. It was fully formed with iris, pupil and even lashes. Most unnerving of all was that it was trained on me. Then I noticed several more of these strange markings on this tree and the surrounding trees. One, two, three, four.... all in all, there were twelve massive eyes staring at me from those woods. “Anna, stop being stupid. You’ve read too many stories.” I told myself. But I still couldn’t stop the feeling that they were observing me.
I tried to go back to my bottle of wine. I tried focusing on my reading for book club. I tried to think about other things, but I continued to feel the six pairs of blank eyes judging me in the glittering afternoon sun. I glanced back towards the tree tops to see them still staring, unblinking and dispassionate.
From then on, I always felt them watching me. I would see the dead stares through my sliding glass door when I made my morning coffee. They would peer at me when I took Polly out to do her business. Towering sentinels, cold and unfeeling, taking in my every move. No matter how hard I tried to convince myself otherwise, I came to believe that those trees contained an ancient darkness that was waiting for the right moment to devour me. I decided to order blinds for the wall of windows that looked out into the yard and stopped letting Polly out after dark. But it didn’t help. After that, the darkness just moved inside.
The first night it happened, Polly and I had spent the evening watching Kate Hudson try to scare off Matthew McConaughey while we ate popcorn in bed. I must have fallen asleep before the movie’s end because I remember waking to a slurping, hungry, sound. My body tensed as an image of the trees flashed in my mind. I slowly rolled over to see Polly licking the salt from my popcorn bowl. I sighed heavily and chuckled at myself. I remember getting out of bed to move the bowl and use the bathroom. As I stumbled my way back to bed, I noticed that the corner by my bedroom door was cloaked in deep shadows even as the rest of the room was lit by the blue glow of the T.V. It gave me a strange feeling to see that blackness collecting and pooling in one spot. I pictured the twelve eyes staring out of the trees and thought how easy it would be for someone, or something, to crouch, unseen, in that darkness. I scurried back to bed where I could feel the safe, blue glow of late-night T.V.
Everything seemed normal in the bright daylight and I forgot about that creeping fear from the prior evening. I went about my usual business and didn’t think anything more about the sinking feeling that had filled the pit of my gut as I passed that shadowy corner. When I awoke again in the middle of the night, however, there it was again. That obsidian blackness that seemed to open up forever. It was as if the darkness itself was staring back at me as I lay in my bed, frozen with fear. I turned on the TV and decided to wait until morning to use the toilet. As I tried to fall asleep, I kept making quick, furtive glances to that black nothingness that felt alive somehow.
I told my friend Claire about it over brunch. She commented on my disheveled appearance, and I explained to her that I hadn’t been sleeping well. I initially tried to pass it off as stress or the heat, but she knew better. I finally told her about my suspicion that I was being stalked by some sort of presence that had wormed its way into my home and head. “Anna,” she told me “it’s ok. Lots of people are afraid of the dark. But you’re fine, really. There isn’t some monster hiding under your bed or creeping around the corners of your bedroom at night.” I felt so stupid. Was I going crazy? She reminded me that there were real monsters --pedophiles, killers, and Congressmen -- and that I needed to get a grip. I told myself she was right as we downed mimosas and French toast. But underneath the sugary sweetness, there was a bitter taste in my mouth. The thought of sleeping alone again made me sick to my stomach.
The darkness and I became more acquainted with each other that summer. I went to sleep as usual every night, and woke up at 2:00am only to stare into the face of what terrified me the most. It sat there coiled in the corner, both a complete void and pulsing with life. Sometimes it floated towards the ceiling, and other times it crept along the floor. But no matter how it appeared, I could feel the evil oozing out of the corner towards me. Although I still told myself there was nothing there each night, I became more and more convinced that this wasn’t just a normal fear of the dark. It, whatever it was, was real.
I began to look up at the trees during the day, to stare unflinching into those cold eyes as they gazed at me, unmoved. I would whisper under my breath “I’m not afraid of you.” But the truth is, I was terrified. That summer I kept the blinds drawn all of the time, shutting out the sun and those stares. I started avoiding my friends so that they wouldn’t see how distracted I’d become or notice the dark circles that ringed my eyes. Food no longer had any flavor and I finally stopped eating altogether. Although I did gnaw my fingernails down until the tips of my fingers began to bleed. I avoided showering as long as possible, and when I finally was forced to undress and step into the steam, I rushed to get out as quickly as possible. I slept with the T.V. on every night. I became twitchy and vulnerable to the point that I hardly recognized my own face in the mirror.
I awoke one night as usual to a pitch-black room. Why wasn’t the T.V. on as I’d left it? I reached for the remote control to turn it back on, but the power was out. My mind trudged along in slow motion, still focused on my interrupted sleep. I heard thunder outside, and I realized that the storm must have knocked down a power line. A second storm started gathering in my chest. My heart felt as if it had stopped and my breath caught in my throat. I gently reached down and pulled the covers up over my bare legs, feeling altogether too naked in that moment. I turned my head and glanced over my shoulder to the corner. The darkness seemed larger tonight. It spread its wiry and undulating tentacles across the floor towards my bed, growing bolder without the glow of the television to keep it at bay. I took several deep breaths trying to calm my nerves.
I lay back down and pulled the covers up to my chin. I was on my side staring into the void. It remained silent and still as always. I had just started to relax and fall asleep when a bolt of lightning filled the room. For a split second, the light beat back the blackness and I knew that I was staring into the eyes of the Devil. It was not the usual formless evil that stared back at me, but a solid and corporeal form. I glimpsed the heavy feet and hollow eyes that lurked in that space. I was surprised to find that its true face was not black at all, but rather a pearlescent silver moon of wax white. I bolted upright and let out a gasp. As quickly as the light had filled the room, the Devil pulled the darkness back into the corner to hide his true form, and I stared wide- eyed while fumbling for my cellphone on the nightstand.
I sensed Polly stiffen and she released a low growl as I dialed Derek’s number. The phone rang. “Pick up, pick up, please pick up,” I thought to myself. He didn’t pick up. I dialed again, but still there was no answer. I dialed Claire’s number next. “Hello, Claire!” I shouted at her when she finally answered.
“Anna? What time is it?” she said, obviously groggy.
“I don’t know, but Claire, I’m scared.” I whispered into the receiver, still looking over my shoulder. “The darkness. It’s...I think it’s alive. I think it wants to take me.”
I heard a heavy sigh on the other end. “Anna. Grow up. It’s the middle of the night and you’re safe in your bed. There is no boogeyman coming to get you. Go back to sleep.”
“But I saw him, Claire. I swear. I think it’s the Devil.”
“You probably had a bad dream and are scaring yourself over nothing. I didn’t realize this was still going on. Seriously, Anna, close your eyes and go back to sleep. There is no evil darkness, no Devil, nothing. I promise. Let’s have lunch tomorrow, OK? I’m worried about you.”
“But, Claire...” I heard a click and the line went silent.
I peered into the darkness as far as I could, straining my eyes in the process. I could still see the faintest outline of his form and feel his eyes looking into mine. “I know you’re not real and I’m not afraid of you.” I said into the empty room while doing my best to keep my voice steady. “Did you hear me? I’m not afraid of you.” With a deep breath, I rolled onto my opposite side, turning my back on his gaze. I pulled the covers over my head, squeezed my eyes tight and prayed for the daylight. I still felt him watching from the shadows. I could almost hear him breathing, and still, I lay there until my eyes no longer fluttered open and I slept.
I awoke early the next morning to the sound of birds and squirrels chattering outside my window. The sunlight shone through the slats of my blinds in golden slivers. I quickly peered over my shoulder and was relieved to see that the room was empty. Just as it should be. Polly stared at me, waiting for me to take her outside.
I rolled out of bed and stumbled to the restroom, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. My face was puffy in the mirror, so I splashed a bit of cold water on it and followed Polly into the hallway. I had just reached the top of the stairs, which overlook the living room, when I noticed that the back door was open. At first, I thought that it might have been blown open by the storm overnight, but......a storm wouldn’t blow open a sliding glass door. I felt a wave of nausea and it felt as if the temperature dropped.
Polly ran down the stairs and out the back door as if nothing was wrong. Before following her, I looked around for a weapon. Just in case. A hammer was laying in the corner, left over from a long-finished project. I grabbed it and began creeping down the stairs. I kept my back to the wall and held the hammer high in my right hand. I suddenly felt very naked in my short nightdress and bare feet. I stumbled on a creaky board, releasing a loud squeak that echoed through the house. I froze, listening for any hint that something else was with me in the house. I only heard silence inside and the tittering of birds blowing in through the open door. As I reached the first level, I looked around and found that the house was empty. There was no one inside.
Still shaking, I walked onto the back deck to check on Polly. I leaned over the railing of the deck to find her happily digging in the rosebushes that lined the fence line. I lifted my face to the golden sunshine and took several deep breaths, trying to make sense of what was happening to me. I was about to turn and go back inside when I saw Polly pull out a large object that someone must have dropped in the bushes.
It was a meat cleaver.