All men are frightened. The more intelligent they are, the more they are frightened. The courageous man is the man who forces himself, in spite of his fear, to carry on.
–General George S. Patton, Jr.
To rid ourselves of our shadows – who we are – we must step into either total light or total darkness.
–Jeremy Preston Johnson
Even before she opened her eyes, Thelma knew an uncertain fate awaited her that would forever change how she viewed the world. Her perceptions were cold and unsympathetic causing her to suspect that in the deepest part of her heart something was wrong and that whatever waited for her would not only be unexplainable but terrifying as well. An immense sinking feeling, dwelling deep in the pit of her stomach, rose up as if it was volcanic lava, vivacious and violent, and brought with it an assured panic that was teetering on the verge of complete display. It took everything she had to remain calm.
After a few moments, she regained control over her panic enough to force her eyes open and face whatever frightening phenomenon was stalking her.
Her eyelids were heavy but they worked. Anticipating the worst she opened them slowly only to find herself in a void of darkness. She blinked, attempting to bring light back into view but it was all the same. Whether they were open or closed it didn’t matter, black was all she saw, and waking up in the dark was worse than anything Thelma had previously imagined. Fear, rather than her misrepresentation of panic, held her in place as anxiety began to pick her apart from within.
She searched frantically for an explanation that would clarify exactly where her world had disappeared to, but nothing helpful came, and as she sought for understanding, her mind mushroomed into a sea of uncertainty. Swarming in doubt and the vast skepticism of reality, she tried focusing on anything other than the dark. But it was too late. Without warning, panic stricken and terrified, Thelma suddenly choked on the air around her.
Her throat tightened. She tasted a dense and heavy flavor that seemed to contain some unknown chemical, and it made her queasy. She had experienced this before. Its tang was the same as the last time she ate sushi from the corner gas station. After which, she had remained home, sick in bed for the next two days.
Struggling for air, and when she thought it couldn’t get any worse, her airflow ceased altogether. She feared someone had shut off a valve connecting her to her only lifeline.
What flashed through her mind was the news coverage on MSNBC – the only news Thelma watched – of the astronauts who died stranded in space last year, unable to breathe, when their oxygen reserves failed and vented from their spacecraft after they were struck by a random solar flare crossing. In an instant, six experienced space travelers perished within seconds.
She envisioned her own face turning blue and frozen, unable to draw air from the vast nothingness of her dead surroundings and quickly became agitated. Thelma began thrashing on the floor, her body twisting and snaking in an effort to find a single source of breathable air.
Stars danced within the darkness. Brightened by the dark, they pulsed with the slowing of her heartbeat and twirled erratically in a universe that occupied no sight. From the corners of her eyes, they moved in a swirling motion across her field of vision. At least what she imagined was her field of vision, without being able to see she wasn’t entirely sure.
While enthralled by the cabaret of stars, performing a rhythmic waltz across an ocean of black, she realized she was starting to pass out. A throbbing headache formed behind her useless eyes and an immense pressure built up in her ears. It was as if she was at high altitude or underwater, either extreme forcing millions of pounds of pressure onto her head.
Suddenly, a breath came, startling her almost as much as when she lost it. Coolness soothed her throat and the refreshing air expanded her lungs with a stinging sensation. The stars slowly started to dull and fade away. She took deep invigorating breaths in and out until she was sure the air endured.
Once able to breathe again her thoughts began to clear and almost straightaway a new thought surged into her mind, virtually put there – I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. The thought was gone as quickly as it originated and she struggled to understand what it might mean. She knew she’d heard it somewhere before but at this moment, she couldn’t recall from where.
Still not able to see, her hands, shaky and unreliable, shifted to her face. Although she saw the stars put on a show a moment ago, she felt the need to check and make sure her eyes were still in their sockets. Relieved to find them where they belonged, she brushed away the unwanted stream of tears that she realized were gushing abundantly.
Gradually she shook off the grogginess that had been clouding her mind, but dared not stand upright yet, she still felt wobbly. Not as incapacitated as a drunk might be after a night of debauchery but mildly off axis. Instead, she crawled, frantically at first, searching with her sweeping hands out-stretched for something she could relate too.
With her finger, she tipped over an empty can and it rolled from her reach. The metallic clink echoed into some deeper cavity of emptiness, if that was at all possible, and spun away until it settled.
Once the metallic echo faded, silence deafened.
She paused on hands and knees waiting for another noise, maybe to follow, maybe to turn away from, she wasn’t exactly sure yet.
When the silence settled, a sense of dread crept up on her again and she wanted to stand and run, but that frightened her more. She couldn’t see a thing, not even her hand in front of her face, but her sense of smell had not failed her. Mildew lingered in the air. A decay of death was evident, and in her mind’s eye, she imagined the carcasses of dead rats feeding hordes of maggots.
She shook her head vigorously, fighting back panic still.
On the ground, her shoulders ached from being hunched over on hands and knees and they were beginning to get cold from the concrete floor. Her first thought of the floor was that it was damp, but when she moved ahead she found it to be smooth and clean, maybe even polished to a high shine, so she continued her search cautiously.
Unexpectedly, a sharp high-pitched squeal originated throughout some kind of intercom system. It shrieked at a pitch so high Thelma rolled onto her side and covered her ears. She pressed her hands tight to her head but it didn’t seem to do any good. The sound vibrated through her body and drilled into her head, and the only thing she could think to do was sing aloud. With hopes of disrupting the sound weaving its way between her brain tissue, Thelma began to sing Katie Perry’s version of Roar, but even that didn’t seem to be enough. She feared that at any second, it would reach the center of her head and explode.
Abruptly, at thirty seconds exactly, the sound clicked off and again silence reigned.
Thelma continued to lie on her side and breathe erratically. In and out she panted, until she realized she was on the verge of an asthma attack. For the second time, in the same amount of minutes, she was on the brink of losing her air. She couldn’t remember having this much trouble breathing since she was twelve years old.
The wall was as cool as the floor. She crawled to it and rested with her back against it. With her eyes closed but seeing the same blackness, she concentrated on her breathing.
As a kid, playing with other children on her street, Thelma sometimes needed longer resting periods after exerting games of tag or riding bikes. Having asthma was difficult for most children but her mother had taught her a trick that required her to simply remain calm, concentrate, and slowly regain control over her contracting lungs. It wasn’t something that always worked, but at times like this, when she carried no medicine, it was the only thing that helped. For the first time in twenty-three years, she sat as if she were meditating, quietly drawing long deep breaths.
While she was concentrating on her breathing, Thelma heard movement nearby, but couldn’t be certain from which direction it came. Even the small shuffle she heard echoed as the soda can did, until slowly it dissipated into nothing.
With a flash of insight, she realized for the first time she might not be alone. Her eyes burst open at the initial sound but the darkness stood strong. So strong in fact that not even the shadows amidst the shadows could be seen playing within its realm.
Again, she was scared, but at least now, her breathing was under control.
Manifestations of the mind, Thelma thought, could be the most deadly when confronted with unknown substances in the dark. She had read that somewhere in one of her many books in college.
As a psychologist, Thelma had encountered many patients who had claimed to see phantoms within the world they lived, so she sat unmoved, studying the dark. She wondered, for the first time in her career, if they might be real. And if they were, were they indeed deadlier in the dark?
She shivered with apprehension.
No shadows or phantoms danced in the murky room. No glowing demon eyes stared back at her from the abyss. Black was the only thing she was able to see.
Thriving on adrenaline and worried about monsters that might attack at any moment, Thelma was surprised to find she was hungry. The last thing she could remember before waking up was eating dinner alone in her apartment. That staggered into her next thought suggesting she’d been unconscious for some time and she couldn’t help but wonder for how long.
For the second time, movement resonated from an unknown source. She froze and listened intently. Something shuffled, clambered over what sounded like a cardboard box and finally grunted with an impaired speech.
It was human. Someone else was here with her.
Although scared, she dared to speak and got out a shaky, but barely audible, “Hello?”
“Who’s there?” a male voice answered back, startled and sounding as terrified as she was.
“Thelma,” her voice still shaky, “my name is Thelma Rosewood. I don’t know how I got here.”
“Neither do I,” the stranger told her. “My name is Nico Tram.” He stood up with his hands in front of him, searching for something familiar. “Are you ok Thelma? Are you hurt?”
“No, not hurt,” she answered. “I’m scared. I can’t see.”
Nico kicked something metal and Thelma flinched from the sound. He cussed under his breath and felt cool steel at his feet. It was a metal box of some kind but it had no obvious edges, rounding where it should have bent. When he tried to move it, he couldn’t, and as he felt around the outside of it, he found the box to be about six inches from the closest wall but not connected to it. When he tried to pick it up, he couldn’t.
Finally dismissing it, he continued to search for things unseen.
Nico continued to speak with Thelma, “Yeah it’s pretty damn dark in here.”
She could hear Nico moving, and although sound was hard to pinpoint, Thelma put Nico about twenty feet from her position on the opposite side of the room. Faint swiping sounds could be heard as his hands moved up and down the walls.
“What are you looking for?” she asked.
“Just trying to figure out where we are,” Nico answered. “Wondering if we’re stuck in one room or a building. By the sounds, I would say it’s a large open area, I’m leaning toward a building of some kind.”
She could hear every noise travel for what seemed like eternity into the darkness. It eventually faded with distance, which is why she thought it was a building as well.
“Sounds like there is a long hallway to my right,” she volunteered.
“Yeah, same this way.”
“Do you remember how you got here?”
“No,” he replied quickly, and then was quiet for a moment.
She thought that maybe he was trying to piece together what had happened, just as she had.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” she asked.
“I remember eating a frozen dinner in front of my television. I was watching a marathon of The Walking Dead.”
Now flesh rotted zombies flashed into her mind and she cringed.
She knew the TV show he was referring to, it was a horror series she used to watch with her ex-boyfriend, but since their break-up last year, she had stopped watching. Without him to cuddle against when she was scared, defeated the purpose of watching the show altogether.
Again, she closed her eyes trying to hide in the shadows that were familiar.
To get her mind off the corpse rotting zombies she asked, “You don’t remember going to bed, do you?”
He shuffled, stopped to think and said, “No I don’t.”
“I don’t either,” she told him. “Think maybe we were drugged?”
“Then dragged here… for what?”
Thelma didn’t answer. She was petrified to think about why she would be here and for what purpose. Her mind seemed to function on its own. It was envisioning worst-case depictions and she imagined crazed killers running around with night vision goggles, slinging razor sharp cleavers and machetes.
Maybe they’re watching me right now while I’m huddled in this corner with tears streaming down my face.
She imagined them struggling not to laugh at her with their hands covering their mouths, holding back malicious giggles with deadly intents.
Her next mind fixation visualized poisonous snakes, rabid rats and other diseased ridden animals that fabricated, and only made sense, in her locked up imaginary psyche. If she were asked to explain what her creatures looked like she didn’t think she would be able to do so.
Horrid and hairy, with twisted faces and nails so sharp they could scar the concrete on which she sat, seemed to be the only words she could think to describe them. But if she said that aloud, no one would believe her.
Without knowing it, she drew her knees to her chest and put her face into the palms of her hands. She was sobbing, and again struggling with her breathing.
“What’s wrong?” Nico asked after hearing her snivels. “Did something happen?”
“No,” she got out unsteadily, “at least nothing more than the obvious. My mind is wandering.” She stood up against the wall, her hands out in front of her and forced herself to stand strong. “Is there anything that I can do?”
“I don’t know,” he responded sadly. “I’m just trying to map the place in my head but it’s not working.”
“Well, there are these long passageways. Should we make our way down one and try to find a way out?”
“That sounds like the best plan I’ve heard today.”
In the dark, she twitched when she heard scraping on the wall to her left. She turned to face it with her hands extended.
“I’m coming to you… I think,” Nico told her. “Talk to me so I can follow your voice.”
“I can hear you. You’re getting closer.” The shuffling became louder. “Almost there. My hands are outstretched, reaching for you.”
Between the shuffling in front of her and the echoes behind her, she couldn’t estimate the distance they were apart. So she was surprised when a hand touched hers in the dark, and even though she knew it was coming, she let out a loud yelp.
Nico flinched when he heard her yell but managed to hold her tightly by the wrist.
“It’s me. I’m here,” he told her softly.
Thelma threw herself forward and hugged Nico as if she was starved for human contact. He let her hold on for a moment and then thought she might never let go. But finally, she subsided and loosened her grip.
“I’m sorry,” Thelma told him.
“Don’t apologize. I needed that as well.”