23 Nov Down Here
“Down Here”Written by Michael Whitehouse Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 32 minutes
‘Down Here’. Those were the words my friend whispered to me that night, and though a year has passed, they still fester in my mind, shapeless and meandering like a blinding fog.
When I entered his house the lights at the front were off. Outside, the weather was still; the air thick and muggy as if waiting for a breath. It seemed as though the summer had been building towards that evening. Stifled, sweat-drenched, sleepless nights, one after the other – we just needed a little rain to clear the air. Forecasters warned us that we were in for a lot worse than that, but they had been wrong so often that many in our little suburb did not listen. I was one of them.
I had received a phone call from Aalia an hour earlier. It had been a while since we had spoken, a couple of years, in fact. When I answered the call there was a momentary silence before she spoke. Her words trembled with nervousness. I put this down to anxiety – she probably thought I would yell at her considering everything that had happened before – but now I know there was much more to it than that.
After a brief exchange of reluctant pleasantries, we finally got down to the root of the phone call.
‘David,’ her voice said quietly. ‘Eric needs you.’
Those were the last words I expected her to say. Two years previous I had cut both of them out of my life. Aalia and I had been in a relationship, albeit in its early stages. But I cared for her deeply. Eric was a close friend. I need not tell you of what went on between them, it was too painful then. It still is now.
‘Why would Eric need me?’ I asked, feeling the old resentment, the festering betrayal still burning a poisoned hole somewhere in the back of my mind.
A slight crackle of interference hummed over the line. ‘He’s sick. We broke up a few weeks ago and he won’t get help. I’ve tried to get through to him. His parents too. But he won’t listen to any of us.’
‘And you think he’ll listen to me? What makes you think I’d want to help him anyway?’
‘Please, David. Put everything aside for a minute. If you can’t do it for Eric, do it for his parents.’
Aalia was right. Eric’s parents had always been good to me when I was growing up. My own parents were pretty cold, but Eric’s had always welcomed me into their home with open arms as a surrogate son, of sorts.
At first I wasn’t sure what help I could be, but from what Aalia told me, David had been suffering from delusions and refused to seek medical help.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. Eric had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia several years prior. It had been a tough time for everyone who knew him. After spending nearly a year in a psychiatric ward, he was released back into the community. Everyone rallied around him, and in time, with medication, therapy, and support, his symptoms became manageable. As long as he stayed away from booze and drugs, it looked like he’d be able to live a normal life. Things had obviously changed since then.
Aalia sounded desperate, and when she finally told me that she had split up with Eric a few weeks earlier, that softened the blow to a degree. If Eric didn’t have her, then at least he could not hold that over me. I am ashamed to admit it, but where love is involved, pettiness seeps through the marrow. It gets into your bones.
As it turned out, Aalia had tried to phone Eric earlier that night and check in on him. Although they were no longer an item, she still wanted to make sure that he was okay while his family was out of town. She had promised Eric’s parents that she would check in on him a couple of times while they were away on an important business trip. When she knocked on his front door, Eric refused to let her in, his voice sounding manic and confused.
‘I’m afraid he’s going to kill himself,’ Aalia said, the pain in her voice evident. The fact that she still cared so much for him stuck in my throat, a jagged lump of ice I found hard to swallow. And yet, I was unable to resist the pain in her voice. She was asking me for help, and there was a satisfaction in that. Not something I am proud of, but there nonetheless. Bolstered by this, and giving into what little affection I still had for Eric – most of it from memories of us playing together as children – I did as Aalia asked and headed over to his parent’s house.
The big storm weather forecasters had predicted still had not hit. We were warned that when it did we were likely to see 100mph winds, which would bring with it damaged roofs, falling trees, and power cuts. Driving for ten minutes to Eric’s house, I looked at the sky which was a deep purple-red, with night about to fall. Above, the clouds moved swiftly like sea foam on a torrent, while down at ground level things were deathly quiet.
Pulling up outside of Eric’s family home, I got out of my car and was immediately struck by the smell of ozone in the air. I had always loved that smell and the charged feeling only present before a storm. But in the back of my mind, I knew I couldn’t hang around for too long. Hopefully, I could get back to my own place before the storm hit.
When I reached Eric’s front door, I expected to knock. But as I raised my hand, the door opened slowly. There, standing in the light of his hall, was my old friend. His black hair was longer than I remembered, reaching down to his jawline which was covered in stubble, and his eyes were red as if he had been up all night or crying, probably both. His unshaven face stared at me in disbelief for a moment, and before I could so much as muster a ‘hello’, Eric reached out and wrapped both arms around me. He held me close, and let out a short whimper as if overcome with emotion. The smell of tobacco and sweat from him was strong and sickening, and immediately those smells conjured up an image of Eric, awake for several nights, smoking, pacing, and trying to figure out some horrid delusion.
‘It’s so good to see you, David,’ he said, letting me go and ushering me inside. ‘I’ve missed you.’
Deep down inside I still sheltered resentment towards him for stealing Aalia from me, but seeing him in such a state of distress, I felt the older feelings of care and friendship returning to me. Like blood flowing to a limb long gone to sleep. A tingle, then a surge of emotion. I had forgotten just how much I had missed Eric too.
His parent’s home was a good size, a four bedroom townhouse. Eric’s mother had made a tidy sum as a real estate agent, and so the street they lived on was one of the more affluent in the area. Since Eric’s breakdown he’d been living with his family, but they were away on a business trip for a few days – I suppose they needed to get one with their lives as much as anyone – and that had left Eric to delve deeper into his delusions.
I followed him down the hallway, and as I did so I noticed that the cellar door was open slightly, a solitary light bulb glowed at the foot of a flight of stairs burrowing under the house. As I peered down there, Eric turned to me and reacted quickly to my curiosity. He reached across and pushed the cellar door shut, and as he did so a draft caught the light bulb dangling below. It moved slowly, like a pendulum, catching wooden beams and boxes with its light, spreading shadows momentarily before the door clicked shut.
‘How’ve you been, Eric?’ I asked, walking through the doorway into the living room.
Slumping into an armchair, he didn’t answer me at first. He reached up with his hand and rubbed his forehead, pushing his long hair against his eyes as if in pain.
‘Aalia phoned me.’ That was enough to get his attention.
He looked up at me as I sat across from him in a wicker chair, which I knew was once his grandmother’s. We stared at each other across the tiny space between us. Outside, the clouds swirled and closed in, visible through a large window that looked down on a sloping hill.
‘You know we broke up, then?’ Eric didn’t take his eyes off of me for one second. As if he were searching for a tell. Perhaps he was frightened that I was now entangled with her.
‘Yeah, I know,’ I answered, looking him straight in the eye.
He scratched the stubble on his cheek. ‘Are you two a thing now?’
I laughed. It was a ridiculous question. After everything she and Eric had put me through. ‘No, we’re not. And we won’t ever be. I’m here because I don’t want your parents to come back from their trip to find you swinging from a rope.’
There was a silence between us; Eric looked at me through thin strands of hair.
‘Aalia thinks you’re suicidal. Are you?’ I took off my jacket, placing it next to me.
‘I…’ The hesitation told all.
‘Christ, Eric… What are you thinking?’ I was getting agitated. I had hoped that I would come and see him and find that Aalia’s claims were exaggerated. But his sullen expression, the fact he had not washed for days, and the look in his eyes – there was every chance I would have to phone an ambulance and let a psychiatric ward deal with him.
‘You don’t understand, David. You can’t.’
‘Try me,’ I moved to the edge of my seat, clasping my hands. ‘Eric, I’m here to help you. Believe me, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to be.’
Sighing, Eric rubbed his eyes as if to rid himself of tears or tiredness. Perhaps both. ‘Just promise me you’ll stay away from Aalia. I don’t think I could cope…’
‘And I could!?’
‘You don’t understand, David. I’m on the edge here. One push and I’m finished.’
‘I’ve no interest in her. She left me for you, Eric. You’re best done with her. We both are. Now, are you going to tell me what’s been happening or what? Have you been taking your medication?’
A look fluttered across Eric’s face; guilt, shame, helplessness – take your pick.
‘There’s your answer then.’ I was relieved that there was a solution. ‘Where are they, you need to start taking them to help you balance out. You know that.’
‘It’s not the medication, David.’ He now gazed across at me intently. ‘It’s… You won’t believe me.’
Something then tapped against the window.
Eric recoiled back in his chair, his eyes wide with fear. ‘What’s that!?’
It was almost dark, and something outside was attracted to a lamp that sat next to the window. ‘It’s just a moth or something.’
‘Is it?’ Eric asked.
‘Well… Yes,’ I assured him, as the indistinct shape now moved off. ‘What else would it be?’
‘Oh, God…’ Eric started whimpering. Bringing his hands up to his mouth, he stared at the rich red carpet at his feet and shuddered as if a great anxiety was trying to escape from inside.
Seeing Eric like that, I could not help but feel pity for him. The illness had robbed him of his mind in the past, and now it was threatening to do the same again. ‘Eric, please, just tell me what’s upsetting you, maybe I can help.’
At first he seemed unresponsive, but after fetching him a glass of water, he finally gave in to my requests, his only stipulation that I had to be open-minded about what he had to tell me. Sitting forward in the edge of his chair, the night now in full effect as the wind began to howl outside, Eric told his tale:
‘Everything was fine up until a few weeks ago. Things seemed great with Aalia. My parents were really pleased because we were talking about getting a place together. I think mum and dad feel it’s time I try and get back out on my own two feet. With Aalia, anything seemed possible… I… I’m sorry, David. I know it’s not fair to go on about her to you… I just mean that I’ve been stable for a good while now and I was ready to move on with my life. Every day I go for a long walk. It gets the endorphins going, helps my mood, the doctor says exercise is critical for mental health, and I’ve really felt that. It’s made a big difference. I go for a walk and listen to a podcast, Joe Rogan, usually, or Duncan Trussell. That walk is something I look forward to each and every day. But on that day, about three weeks ago… It was different. I’d just finished listening to something on my phone when I came to my usual spot. Just next to King’s Park train station. Now, normally, I walk back up past the primary school and up towards home, but… Something caught my attention.
‘I know it sounds weird, but I thought I could see smoke coming from the railway bridge. From the street on top, at least. I mean… You ever looked at a road on a hot day and you see that haze coming off of it? Well, it was like that, but there was a kind of black fuzziness to it, like some of it was transparent and the rest… Not. I thought something was burning, so I walked across King’s Park Avenue and ended up standing at one end of the bridge.
‘When I got closer, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There was no traffic around at that time, but I swear to you, David. I saw this black haze in the middle of the road. There was no fire; it was just sitting there on top of the road surface, about three feet high. Looking around I was alone with it on the bridge. I started to walk towards it, and as I did things got stranger. I could hear my footsteps, but they sounded sort of… Muddied. Deeper, and stifled somehow. No echo or nothing, like I’d walked into a small room. I looked up and the sun blinded me for a second. It was brighter than before, but I swear. It was like I was looking at everything through water, you know how it bends light?
‘Then, the black haze… Smoke… Whatever it was. It started moving off to the side. It mounted the pavement and then reached the wall above the train station. It started moving… I swear to God, David. It started moving like a person, or an animal or something, like it had hands. It climbed over the wall and disappeared over the edge of the bridge.’
There was another silence, I guessed that Eric was waiting for me to react, but I didn’t know what to say except: ‘Eric, you were hallucinating again. That’s all it was. You need to take your medication.’
Eric looked at me through pleading eyes. ‘No! It wasn’t a hallucination. I swear! It was real…’
‘And this is what’s been on your mind?’
Eric calmed for the moment and sank back into his story. ‘As soon as it disappeared under the bridge, everything went back to normal and I ran home in a panic. I thought just like you do now. I thought it was a hallucination. But, David, I was still taking my medication then.’
That made things worse. If Eric’s medication was wearing off, or he was relapsing, there was no telling how bad he would get. I had seen him at his worst years before. It took him and his family years to get over it.
‘Eric…’ I said, not sure what I was going to say next.
‘Let me finish… I need to get this off my chest. I wish I’d been able to leave what I saw at the back of my mind, but over the next couple of days I started to obsess about what I’d seen. I’m not doing a very good job of putting it into words, but I kept thinking about the haze coming off the ground and the black smoke inside. Worse, I couldn’t stop thinking about how it climbed over the wall, like it had arms.’
‘You went back?’ I asked, knowing the answer before I’d even asked the question.
Something tapped against the window again. Eric looked at the sheet of glass, his face drained of color. The outside world was now a deep, abyssal black, orange street lights from the city beyond the only reprieve. Sweat dripped from my friend’s forehead, and his mouth began to tremble.
‘Eric, look…’ Standing up, I walked over to his side and pulled the tall lamp stand over to the glass. There, a large moth bumped against the glass, feverishly trying to reach the light. ‘See, it’s just a moth. Nothing to worry about.’
‘Can you be sure?’ said Eric, slumping back into his chair looking exhausted.
Moving back to my chair, I sat down ready to continue the conversation. ‘What happened when you went back to the bridge?’
‘I couldn’t help myself. I had to see if it had just been all in my head.’
‘And what did you see?’
‘Nothing… I saw nothing.’
‘Well, there you go, Eric. It was just a one-off incident. I’m sure once you take your…’
Eric cut me off. ‘I saw nothing, but I heard something.’
The delusion had obviously taken full hold of my old friend. And I worried that it was becoming more likely, as the storm closed in, that I would have to phone an ambulance to have him committed or sectioned. ‘What did you hear?’ I said, hoping that by talking through it, I could persuade him out of his obsession.
‘I got to the bridge. It was raining, but not too heavy. There was nothing there, just a couple of parked cars and someone walking with an umbrella on the other side of the street. Part of me was delighted that I couldn’t see anything, but another part… It wanted to know more about that strange thing on the road. When I reached the section of wall where the thing had climbed over, I hesitated for a second. The wall was too high to peer straight over, but it was just above one of the arches where the train line runs through.
‘I stood there for a moment, waiting. Just as I’d convinced myself that it was all in my mind… I felt that same strange, oppressive atmosphere, like the sounds of the world had been deadened. Then, I heard a voice. It came from under the bridge and said in a horrid whisper: “Down here”. I was terrified. I can’t convey how sinister it was, but I felt a strange compulsion to do just as it said… Or asked… I’m not sure if it was a command or a request. “Down here”. What did it mean? Was it telling me there was something under the bridge which I had to see? Or was it whispering that phrase for some other purpose? I struggled against the urge to follow, knowing that to give in to a hallucination would be such a huge step back for me. It would jeopardize my state of mind, letting the illness back in. So, I came home, but with each step towards my mum and dad’s house, the thought that it wasn’t a hallucination tugged at me. That I’d witnessed, and heard, something incredible. Those thoughts wouldn’t leave me, and so by the next day, I knew that I’d have to return. I’d have to find out what it was without facing it. Without putting myself in danger. I hoped that I would find nothing, and so then I could be sure that it was all in my head.’
Rain now joined the wind outside, tapping the glass furiously with a thousand unseen watery fingertips. ‘Looks like that storm has arrived.’ My heart sank a little. I had hoped to avoid driving home in it, especially given the weather warnings. I knew I would have to leave soon, but I was gripped by Eric’s account of his hallucination, and wanted to be sure that he would not do anything silly once I had left. Just a little longer, I thought.
Eric looked out at the water dripping down the outside of the glass. ‘You should go, David. Before this gets worse.’
‘It’s okay, Eric. Please, at least tell me the rest of your story and then we can chat about how to get you back on the right track.’
‘I went back to the bridge the following day. But this time, I took a camera with me. My DSLR. I wanted to see if I could capture an image of whatever that thing was. So, I waited until about 2 PM, the place is always quiet at that time. No school kids running around on their lunch break, and no one else coming and going from their work. I got to the bridge, and…’ He trailed off for a moment, turning his attention to the window, where the rain now lashed against the house outside. There was a look on his face, just a flicker, as if he thought he saw something, before shaking his head slightly and whispering a few words to himself. I never heard what it was, but it had all the hallmarks of someone reassuring themselves that all was well with the world, even though trouble clearly brewed.
Composing himself, he continued: ‘At first, I stood where the thing had climbed over the wall. Just waiting to see if anything was said. But all I heard was a train moving underneath and stopping at the station before heading off to Glasgow Central. So, I walked down the station stairs and took a couple of shots of the stone arches from about halfway down. I’d never been afraid of that place before. We used to play around there as kids, remember? I mean, King’s Park train station can be a little isolated, but apart from that. In fact, I’d always enjoyed getting the Newton train on my way home from town. But something was different about it. Looking at the stone arches, I could see where the trains passed under the bridge, but I realized then that that was not where the haze would have hidden. On the embankment, directly beneath that part of the wall, was another half arch which was covered by overgrown thorn bushes. There’s no train line through there.
‘You know what I’m talking about. We climbed down there a couple of times when we were kids, remember?’
I laughed. That was something I had long forgotten about, but it was true, we had climbed down there once. I remembered being egged on to run across the train tracks. When we had gotten to the half arch, we found it filled mostly with soil, but there was a pretty big space inside. It was dark, and spanned the width of the street above. Once inside, you could stand up. It felt like another world in some ways. When Eric and I had been kids we had built countless dens around Kings Park, and found several places away from prying eyes. Those were secret locations where we would visit, our crowd of friends acting as though we were a group of bandits or outlaws in our hideouts. That thought was exciting. But we didn’t frequent the half arch under the bridge very often. It was too dark. Too cold and damp.
I think we were about twelve at the time, and I remember we found some smudges in the soil which our friend Stewart swore were footprints. I guess we only went back once or twice after that, and when we found more markings in the ground, we decided we didn’t want to run into the owner down there in the dark, away from the world. That, and when the trains passed through the main archway, which we were about a foot of solid stone away from, the place vibrated like hell. The noise was deafening. I remember thinking I could feel my insides moving as the trains passed. It was not a pleasant sensation.
‘Did you see anything in the half arch?’ I asked.
‘Not at first,’ Eric scratched at the stubble under his chin. ‘I took two pictures and checked them on my DSLR. I could only snap the opening of the half arch, as it’s further away on the other side of the train tracks. There was nothing unusual about the photos, so I turned to walk all the way onto the platform to see if I could get a better view. The train station was empty. Again, I took a few pictures on the edge of the platform, but all I got was the blackness of the opening under the bridge.
‘A train neared, and I heard the high pitched whine on the tracks before it reached me. When it stopped, a few people got off, not many. Then, the train continued on its way far down the line towards Glasgow Central. When I turned to look at the archway once more, I was struck by what I saw. A form of some kind, peeking out… glaring at me from the archway. A transparent haze with something black, like smoke or mold at its center. Quickly, I raised my camera and took a picture as it moved back under the bridge. And then it was gone.’
‘Let me guess,’ I said. ‘When you looked at the picture, there was nothing there?’
A wry smile crept across Eric’s face as the storm – wind, rain and all – was now in full effect outside. He stood up excitedly and rushed out of the room. Moments later, he returned, camera in hand. With a click, the camera powered on, and a dull glow emanated from the LCD screen, illuminating Eric’s face like a macabre gargoyle as he smiled down at his work.
‘Here,’ Eric said. ‘Take a look for yourself.’
Handing me the camera, he sat back down in his chair, the excitement in his face now diminishing, replaced once more with worry.
I looked down at the LCD screen. It was indeed a picture of the half archway under the station bridge. At first glance I could see nothing, but as I zoomed in, sure enough there it was. A shape of some description cast in shadow. It was difficult to make out. In fact, it could have been almost anything. ‘This is your ghost?’
‘Hah!’ Eric proclaimed. ‘A ghost? Who knows? Maybe that’s exactly what it is, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s something we’re not meant to see, and for some reason, I was unlucky enough to cross paths with it on that day. Something which usually stays out of sight. Now it doesn’t want me to go on telling people about it.’
‘You’re putting far too much weight on a blurry image, Eric. It could be dirt on the lens, or an insect moving quickly in front of the camera.’
‘No!’ Eric was getting angry. ‘Look at it!’ he stood up and practically leaped over to me. ‘Look at the shadow cast across it. That’s from the bridge. Whatever it is, it was there, and it’s under the half archway.’
The wind battered against the window, the glass reverberating, and with it a flash of lightning across the sky. Eric turned to it for a moment, then returned his gaze to mine, standing above me. ‘You should go. You don’t believe me, and this storm is only going to get worse.’
‘It’s not that I don’t believe you saw something, Eric. But look at it objectively. Either you saw something otherworldly that can’t be explained, or you hallucinated, which has happened to you before when your medication needed tweaking. Which seems more likely?’
‘It’s nothing to do with my schizophrenia. It has everything to do with that thing under the bridge…’ His voice trailed off for a moment as if a distant threat made itself known in his mind. ‘David… It spoke to me. It said ‘down here’. It wants me to go somewhere, I can feel it.’
‘Have you been back to the bridge since you took the photo?’
He shook his head. ‘No… But I’ve no need to…’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked, worried.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever been alone since the day I took its picture. Not truly.’
‘You mean you’ve seen it elsewhere?’
‘Not exactly,’ a look of frustration swept across his face, he started to pace up and down, wringing his hands as he spoke. ‘It hides… It hides in the dark. I don’t think it can last long in the light. The day I saw it in the sun, and the haze around it, I think it might have been burning.’
‘Burning? Come on, Eric, snap out of it!’
‘Let me prove it to you, David. Come with me to the bridge tomorrow once the storm has passed. If there’s nothing there then I’ll concede it’s in my mind. And if there is something, then maybe we’ll be the first to come face to face with… I don’t know what, exactly, but it could be monumental.’
When someone is caught in such a delusion, trying to persuade them out of it can be a thankless task. I had to change my strategy. ‘Okay, Eric, tomorrow we’ll go to the bridge. On one condition.’
‘You start taking your medication, right now.’
Eric reluctantly agreed to my terms, and I watched as he took his medication pill by pill. I knew how the drugs worked. It would be some time, perhaps even weeks, before they would start to affect his system and bring him back to earth. But the earlier he took them, the sooner he’d be back to his usual self.
After that, he assured me that he would be okay. My promise of going to the bridge the next day seemed to have lessened his feverish behavior. He actually thanked me, now he did not feel so alone. After that, he then walked me to the front door and we said our goodbyes. Tomorrow we would see what we would see. I hoped that it would be reason.
Outside, the complexion of the night had changed markedly. The storm was now rampant, and so I hurried out onto the street and to my car, pulling my jacket around me. Thunder roared overhead up in the black clouds and the wind raged against it in return, nearly knocking me off my feet as I reached the door of my car. Now the rain came, and as I sat in the driver’s seat, even with my windscreen wipers on, I was staring through a sheet of water which warped the world and all of its shadows. What had been a simple drive earlier in the night, was now going to be fraught with danger.
Above, the lightning sparked, and soon after the thunder clapped like the gods waging war in the sky. I was taken back to being a child on a caravan holiday. I remembered the thunder sounding like it was just above where I slept, roaring so loud that I imagined my bones shaking. It was the first time I realized that man is powerless when faced with the will of nature.
‘This is crazy,’ I said to myself; commenting on both the ferocity of the storm and my foolish attempt to travel home during it. But I felt I had already done my bit, and did not want to spend more time with Eric than I had to; I wanted to help, but our friendship was far from mended, and the thought of spending the night in his company was something for which I was not ready.
The car grumbled into life, and I waited for a moment to see if the rain would subside enough for me to see better. The windscreen wipers flashed back and forward over the glass in excited motion, barely providing a split second of good visibility through every movement. The lightning and thunder screeched once more. It felt closer that time, and as I looked around me, two trees further along the road were being shoved around, bending and leaning in the wind, so much so that they looked like they could give in at any moment.
Another flash of lighting, this time forked, cutting across the sky; a bloodied scar, peeking through the dark clouds. Just as I concluded that the weather was not going to get any better – in fact, it looked like it was getting worse – I turned my attention to Eric’s house again.
The lights were off.
The storm must have caused a power cut, as the other houses in the street were also now bathed in darkness, and the streetlights were no longer working. ‘He’s an adult,’ I said to myself. ‘He can take care of himself.’
Then I thought about something he had said earlier in the evening. ‘It hides… It hides in the dark.’ I berated myself for even considering it… No… Whatever he saw that day under the bridge was a hallucination. But now stuck in the dark… I had an image of Eric in my mind, besieged by his own illness, seeing and hearing things that were not there.
Frustrated that I could not just drive away, I opened my car door to the elements and headed back towards Eric’s house. The street was in complete darkness, the only light source the increasing cracks of lightning, which drew hideous caricatures of the world around me in shadow. Taking out my mobile phone, I turned the flashlight function on and used the underpowered narrow beam to light my footsteps as best I could.
A gust of wind blew towards me, and in it, I found it difficult to breathe. I walked at an angle against it, passing a tree which groaned under the weight of the wind, which itself swirled around everything, consuming it in an elemental roar. Quickly, I moved down the garden path, and finally, I reached Eric’s front door. I was expecting to have to knock, go in, and make sure he was okay, perhaps even reluctantly spend the night until the power came back on. But when I reached the front door, it was lying open.
The wind now carried the rain into the open doorway. All I could see was the blackness therein, and presented with it, I felt nervous about stepping inside. ‘Eric! It’s David, are you there?’ I shouted, trying my best to be heard over the storm. But nothing was said in return.
Moving inside, I was conscious of where I was stepping in the dark. The house was a mirror image of the world outside. The ferocity inverted. The space was still and lifeless. ‘Eric!’ I shouted again. A door creaked along the hallway from me, and so, phone light in hand, I made my way towards the living room where we had spoken before.
The two chairs in which we had sat now lay empty. The glass of water which Eric had drunk from when taking his pills lay on its side, the remnants of the water dripping onto the floor. I was about to shout Eric’s name for the third time, but something stayed my tongue. A feeling. That someone was watching me.
Footsteps now quickly sounded behind me. They rushed down the hallway and then were accompanied by the sound of a door opening up. Turning to the hallway, I could not see anyone there, but now something had changed. A door halfway along the wall now lay open.
‘Eric,’ I whispered under my breath, almost scared by the idea of what might answer. I cannot explain the irrational thoughts which were running through my mind, clambering for images and forms while surrounded by the nothingness of night, mentally filling the void with something tangible.
Walking towards the door slowly, I peered around it and saw that it led down into the cellar. A steep set of wooden stairs delved deep below the house. ‘Eric… Are you there?’ I finally said, my voice louder this time. I thought I heard an almost inaudible creak below, but it was quickly drowned out by another crash of thunder. The wind howled with all the dread of a banshee’s wail, finding cracks in the building through which to seep, and I was gripped by uncertainty. I could have run. Or, at the very least, stayed upstairs. Perhaps I should have, but the gnawing image of Eric cowering, terrified below, was enough to shake me into action. I resented him for what he had done to me, for taking Aalia from me, but I knew how debilitating his illness was, and I could not in good conscience leave him to it, or it to him.
Warily, I descended the stairs, knocking the dust from them as I did so. They were evidently rarely trodden, but there was no doubt that Eric had used them recently, perhaps just moments before, as I could see large smudges in patches of dust which looked like footprints on each step. My own footsteps sounded like dim remnants of the thunder outside, with a dark storm of the unknown waiting for me at the foot of the stairs.
Lightning clattered near the house again, the momentary spark shining through a small vent near the roof of the cellar. The light from my mobile phone was not enough to illuminate the entirety of the room, but from what I could see, I was amazed at how empty it was. The floor was like powdered concrete, the occasional cardboard box sitting upon it, filled with childhood memories and toys. A thick layer of dust covered the little that was there. It was clear then that the cellar had never been converted into a habitable part of the house, there should have been no one down there, good or bad, but the sight of a darkened doorway in front of me filled me with dread no less. Ducking underneath, I found myself in another empty room, the walls made from old reddened brick, but the color was dampened by the dust. The cellar was a copy of the house above; a dark twin hidden from view. The same layout. The same rooms. The same hallway at its center. But while the house above was filled with the things of the living, the cellar was filled with their absence.
‘Eric…’ I whispered now.
I am not sure why – I have never been one to be frightened of the dark, not since I was a child – but down there in the darkness, while lightning crackled high up in the atmosphere, I felt justified in my caution.
The sound of a foot scuffing the powdered concrete floor sent a cold shiver through my veins. Apprehension took hold of me, and a deep desire to go back upstairs threatened to overthrow any notion of finding or helping Eric. A need for self-preservation which, like the dust hanging in the air, blanketed my emotions. My heart raced. My breathing rasped as I inhaled the dust. Moving in a panic, I headed back to the stairs.
At least, that was my intention. For a moment, caught in the grip of anxiety, I became disorientated. Turning, I could see two doorways, and I was unsure which one I had come through. Staring at them anxiously, I tried to set my thinking on a more sensible course. All I had to do was walk through one of the doorways, if I then found myself in an unfamiliar part of the cellar, I would turn back and go through the other door.
Then, it felt as though the air became charged. Like the tense warning before a lightning strike. My skin erupted in goosebumps, and, reaching up, I could feel the hair on the back of my head standing on end from the static electricity. My attention momentarily distracted from the two doorways, it was quickly brought back into focus, when, from one of the rooms ahead, I heard it. A voice. In a barely audible whisper, where I could hear more breath and saliva in the mouth than speech, someone spoke two words. But they were so indistinct, that I could not be sure what they were. Nor even if they had just been a figment of my imagination – a product of my strange surroundings.
Whether it was because of Eric’s story or not, I cannot say, but the only phrase I could discern from the two whispered sounds was ‘down here’.
A cold sweat clung to my body, and a nervousness gripped me as my hand began to shake while holding the phone. The light from it vibrated in return, and I stood for what felt a lifetime staring at the two doorways. Which one contained the voice? Which one contained my path to freedom? Excitement then grew as I remembered the powdered concrete at my feet. Looking down, the blue light from my phone dimly lit smudged markings on the floor which I was certain were my own. They led back through the doorway on the right.
Feeling courage return, I stepped through, and in a moment of utter shock, I realized that the markings were not made by me. They were made by someone else. I found myself in an unfamiliar part of the cellar, and turned immediately to leave. When I did so… it all happened so fast. My light caught something in front of me, a person or form. It moved past me and headed through another doorway. Then, I heard the scream. Eric’s scream.
‘It’s here!’ he shrieked. Manic, clearly in the throes of his delusion.
I followed quickly, and then heard panicked footsteps accompany the cries, which now turned to a plea. A direct plea to me. ‘Follow it, David! It’s here!’ The footsteps now ran up the staircase, and as they did I noticed that the charged feeling in the atmosphere had dissipated. The lightning must have struck elsewhere. The feeling of dread lifted, and was then replaced with a different kind of anxiety. Up above, I heard Eric run down his hallway and out into the night, screaming ‘I see it! I see it!’
Clambering through the cellar, I finally found the staircase, and, relieved that I was leaving that dark place behind, rushed up them in pursuit of my friend. I gave chase, and headed out into the night. The rain was coming down in sheets, and above the lightning and thunder coerced each other into terrifying displays of combined might. But there was no sign of Eric in the garden.
The water streamed down my face, making it difficult to see as the wind battered me from left and right, a swirling invisible force intent on leaving no stone unturned. Rushing out to the street, I looked again. And at the top of the hill, some way away, I saw him. Eric was running through the night. He had too much of a head start, and in any case was faster. I would never catch him on my feet.
A gust of wind and rain buffeted me around before I finally reached my car and got inside. Turning the ignition, the engine burst into life, growling as if threatened by the storm. Putting my foot down, I drove up the street in his direction, it would only take me seconds to catch up to him even in that damned weather. But the night had other plans for me. I was gaining, but just as I reached within a few feet of him, ready to stop and pull him into my car, a painful creak shrieked nearby – the groan of a life ending. A tree which had stood for at least a hundred years fell, crashing in front of me. Instinctively, my foot slammed on the brakes. I felt a thump as the front of my car smashed into the tree trunk lying before me. A large branch jutted out, and as I crashed, it smashed through the windscreen. I saw it only a second before and hid under the dashboard, my heart pounding. The glass shattered over me, and the wind and rain broke into the car like a swarm of rats, climbing through the open wound in the front of the vehicle.
Disorientated, I opened the door to my right and fell face-first onto the road. The concrete surface gushed with water, carrying with it leaves and dirt. As I hit the ground, the water splashed up into my mouth, and I gasped and coughed as some of it stuck in my windpipe. Lightning shattered the sky, and the thunder raged as I caught my breath.
Pulling myself to my feet, I looked at the car. It was caught in the clutches of the fallen tree, the branches enveloping it. Steam rose from somewhere, and the engine answered my cough with one of its own. It would take some effort to get the car out, and even then I was not sure it could be salvaged. Any feelings of grief for my car were quickly wiped away as a squall of wind wrenched at a garden fence across from me. It tore several wood slats from their housing and launched them further down the street. A lamp post above rattled in the wind, its light still extinguished, and I feared that it too would topple, crushing me in the process. It was too dangerous; I had to get back to Eric’s house and out of the storm.
I guess I felt more for Eric than I could admit to myself that night, even after everything he had done to me. I saw up ahead through the storm, the rain lashing against my eyes and blurring my vision… I saw the distinct figure of Eric, not much further along the street, heading deeper into the storm. Something indistinct then flew through the air, carried on the wind… At least, it appeared that way. Perhaps it was a plastic bag… Or, no… A piece of cloth? Whatever it was, it weaved and darted through the rain and I watched as Eric waved his hands above him, trying to batter it away. The object must have carried more weight than at first apparent, as it struck Eric on the head. He fell to the ground, and the object continued on its way, carried by the fierceness of the night.
I could not leave him lying on the road, so I climbed over the fallen tree and ran along the street towards him. The wind blew in my face, and as it did so I found it almost impossible to breathe, turning my head to the side just to inhale barely enough air to continue. As I approached Eric in the dim light of my phone, I saw a cut on his unconscious head, blood trickling from it. Leaning down, I reached out in an attempt to wake him, but as I did so he opened his eyes and let out a hideous scream. A sort of panicked cry, similar to that of a child seeing something awful under its bed. His arms flailed as he pushed me back.
‘Eric! It’s me, David!’ I yelled, but the thunder drowned out my voice. ‘Eric! We need to get back to the house!’ I could barely hear my own voice, and I imagine that for Eric it was a nightmarish scene; waking up disoriented, seeing your friend above you, the lightning illuminating his face as his mouth opened and shut without apparently conveying any meaning.
He lashed out, striking me on the nose. I fell to my knees for a moment, dazed, as he climbed to his feet and dashed off into the night. ‘Eric… No…’ I felt myself say under my breath. It was madness. Madness that had gripped him. Madness to follow. But follow, I did.
I ran down the street as the hill now descended on the other side, then through a small wood across from the primary school we had both attended as children. Finally, I struggled across Kings Park Avenue, a long street usually bustling with traffic, now doused in darkness, rain, and dread. And there we were. On Station Road – the bridge which crossed above Kings Park train station, that innocuous little place where all of this had begun.
Eric stopped for a moment in the middle of the empty road. Whether it was terror or confusion, I could not rightly tell, but it was as if he was waiting for something to happen. Perhaps hoping for evidence of the thing under the bridge which he believed had been hounding him. I saw nothing but the raging storm.
Tilting his head as if he had heard something – as if you could in that storm – he suddenly ran to the staircase which led steeply down to the station. I followed as quickly as I could, still gasping for air, fighting the wind which threw itself with all its might against me. Reaching the stairs, I saw Eric below me on the platform, peering across the train line to the half archway under the bridge.
‘Eric!’ I screamed again, this time a momentary lapse of thunder allowing my voice to be heard.
He looked up at me. Looked up… And pointed across the train tracks to the half-tunnel.
I shook my head. ‘No, Eric! Please! We need to get out of here!’ But he paid no heed to my words, if he heard them at all.
He dashed across the platform. Rushing to the bottom of the stairs, I was helpless to stop him. By the time I reached the platform, he had already climbed down from it onto the tracks, and was making his way across them to the underside of the bridge. Above the line, the power cables swayed aggressively in the wind like necrotic veins, and a cold feeling now passed through my body.
How I wish I had rushed across the tracks to stop my friend immediately. But I could not. Something gripped me. A fear like no other. Something primal. Like the terror which spiders and snakes illicit automatically even from those who have never encountered such creatures. It felt as though we were not alone, and that whatever accompanied us was something which should not have been.
Eric pushed on. I watched as he reached the other side of the tracks. Standing before him was the half tunnel, its mouth gaping and dark. Yes, that was it. That place was darker than everything around it. A place unfit for people. Perhaps fit for something else. Something inhuman. That irrational thought finally spurred me into action. Jumping from the platform, I peered down the train line which continued for miles vacantly. Then, I rushed across them to my friend.
The thunder and lightning coalesced once more, and as it did so, Eric stepped into the half tunnel. I moved forward, the gaping maw of it seeming bigger somehow than I remembered. Once again the paralysis of that strange fear, that uncanny feeling of otherness took me, and so I stood for a moment, waiting. My only company the howling wind and seething trees on the side of the tracks as they spasmed rhythmically with the storm.
I could not see inside, nor could I see any trace of Eric. It was as if he had entered into another plane, another place, and vanished; to a stygian abyss into which human beings were not meant to wander. I tried desperately to free myself from Eric’s own delusion as I stared at the nothingness of the half archway, but I could not help but question what was meant by the two words which had started it all. ‘Down here’.
A hand reached out from the darkness and grabbed hold of me. Eric’s drawn face appeared too, and he pushed me down the embankment. I tumbled and fell onto the track, my chin and shoulder crushing against the cold wet metal of the train track. Above me, Eric stood, his eyes wide and bright, but his face etched in terror.
He said something, but the elements suffocated the words in a bleak shroud.
‘What!?’ I said, standing up, feeling blood gushing from my chin.
He spoke again, this time more fervently. But again, I could not hear him for the storm.
Rushing towards me, he pushed at me again. Pointing up the stairs to the road above. He screamed and yelled, his arms flailing, glancing back several times to the mouth of the half tunnel. But I could not hear him; all I could see was the fear in his face. For the last time, he pointed back at the half archway. Lightning crackled, and… Did I see something inside? Was it illuminated by the lightning, just for a moment? A shape? A shadow? I could not be certain.
Something cracked nearby. The sound of wood splintering. Eric pushed me out of the way as a large tree from the embankment above us gave way. Falling several feet from him, I watched in horror as the tree cut through the power lines above; slicing through them in sparks of electric blue, before then swallowing Eric whole. I saw it, the main trunk hitting him. Crushing him into the ground. The power lines flailed around, thousands of volts emanating from them, the electricity like an enraged prisoner unleashed. If they touched me, I was dead.
Instinctively, I pulled myself quickly back onto the platform and fell onto my hands and knees scrambling away. Turning back, I watched as the power lines smoked and growled. Somewhere under it all, Eric’s body lay.
* * * * * *
I called for an ambulance, and for the fire brigade. I guess they were busy that night with the storm and the havoc it was causing around the city. It took nearly an hour for them to arrive. By that time, the wind and rain were calming. The thunder and lightning still sounded, but now miles away on the horizon, as some unseen ferocious animal moving off, well-fed and sated. After the power lines had been shut off, I watched as the firefighters sifted through the smoking embers of the tree; watched, as they finally lifted the tree trunk off the line, and discovered the pulverized body of Eric.
He had been burned to a crisp from the electricity. Whether it was the voltage that had finished him off, or the impact from the tree, I do not know. All I do know is that now he is gone. My old friend. I often tell people that it was his illness that killed him. That the hallucinations were too much for anyone to cope with. They believe me, though I wonder sometimes if I believe myself.
I’ll conclude my account by simply saying this: Sanity is a fleeting, temporary condition. We all have our delusions, our ideas of how the world works and what constitutes reality. But such things are not concrete. They are merely interpretations of what the world truly is. A shadow of the universe. An echo of what is really there. A facsimile put together by our brains collecting data from our unreliable senses. In this way, we are always removed from the truth. Staring out from behind the warped glass of our own eyes. Who knows what the world is actually made of, and what is contained within it? For Eric, whatever he heard, whatever he saw, it was real for him. Real enough to make him believe in something far removed from the ordinary. Something most people are not meant to see.
For myself, I truly hope that such a revelation is kept far away, and that the world remains understood, calculable and known. I choose to believe that what Eric saw was not objectively real. Despite this belief, I have never visited the station at Kings Park since that night. For in my weaker moments, I fear that I may hear those same two words. Those two words, real or imagined, that led my friend to the dark recesses of the human mind, where our own personal monsters lie in wait, ravenous, and ready to make themselves known.
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