The Scrawler in the Darkness

They lurk in the shadows, writing the grim destinies of those who step outside the limits of reality.

The building taunted Arthur every time he walked past it. It stood there, all steel and glass, a modern architectural style designed to evoke medical cleanliness and peerless efficiency. No matter how hard he kept his eyes on the ground, the image of that facility remained burned into his consciousness, a reminder of the grisly deadline that lurked ever closer in Arthur’s future.

He would have just as soon have avoided walking past it except that it happened to be so close to the coffee shop. His daily cup of coffee was the only luxury Arthur had been able to fit into his current budget. His walk down to the shop had become a sort of ritual. It got him exercise, and got him out of the apartment and away from the constant pressure of bills. He felt that without this ritual, he really might be in danger of losing it.

Entering the shop, Arthur walked over to the counter, ordered his usual (a medium cup of coffee with cream), and took a seat by the window. He made sure he was facing away from the facility, and yet it still lurked in his mind. Arthur thought back to when the first facility of its kind opened in Washington, D.C. He remembered the president’s speech, promising an end to the nanny state, to the do-nothing parasite who suckled themselves on the government teat. Arthur remembered that he used to think the facility was a great idea. He had felt ecstatic when one had opened right here in Cleveland. Finally, he wouldn't have to see so many transients on the way to work.

Arthur had continued to think this up until the day his manager called him in to talk about his performance. “So you see, Arthur,” the manager had said, peering at Arthur through his spectacles, “you just aren't processing software change requests at an efficient pace.”

“But my work has been improving,” Arthur had protested. “Everyone has been saying so!”

“Yes, the individual requests you complete are quite thorough. But you see, it’s not just about the quality of thew work. We also have to consider the rate at which the work is done. Efficiency is key. Do you see what I’m saying?”

Arthur had, in fact, understood. The modern world worked at a blinding pace, and those who couldn't keep up were left behind. Arthur had seen then that his protests would be in vain. The manager, for his part, had been nothing but cordial. He had even walked Arthur to his car to make sure he was OK to drive. This politeness didn't stop Arthur from cursing the manager out as he pulled away, however.

In the months that followed, Arthur fervently applied to every business that would take him. And every week, he had received another email apologizing to him for the inconvenience and wishing him luck on his job search. Around the three month mark, he had begun having nightmares about men in clean, crisp uniforms coming to his apartment and dragging him screaming into the metal and glass doors of the facility, never to be seen again. These nightmares had continued unabated throughout the rest of his job search.

Shaking his head, Arthur brought himself back to the present. Though the nightmares were terrifying, the future they predicted was not yet a forgone conclusion. There was still a few days before the six month deadline. and just last week he had attended a promising interview with a local tech support call center. Sure, it wasn't the most glamorous work, but it was better than the alternative. And besides, in all likelihood it was the last chance he’d get.

Suddenly, Arthur felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. Taking it out, he saw that he had gotten an email from the tech support company. Arthur felt his heart begin to pound. Opening the email, Arthur read the words “We are sorry,” and then the room began to spin. Arthur felt himself take shallow breath after shallow breath. He felt beads of sweat form on his brow. His sight became unfocused, and he couldn't read the rest of the email. He didn't need to, anyway. He knew what it said.

Then Arthur heard the tiny ringing sound of the bell on the coffee shop’s door. He didn't need to see who had come in. The men from the facility were here for him. Arthur knew this in his very bones. “Run,” said a voice in his head. “Run, run now!” And Arthur did run. He ran out of the door and straight into the street. There was the honk of a car horn, a screech of the brakes, the crunch of bone under rubber, and then finally, nothing.

The truly great horror stories are the ones that get you to distrust your own senses. The greatest comfort to the human mind is to know that everything is settled in its correct place. As soon as something upsets that order, whether it is natural or not, a potential threat appears, and the fear response is triggered. This is the primal instinct which all horror taps into to some degree.

Tzevtan Todorov knew this. To him, there were three types of horror: the uncanny, where the unsettling features are mundane; the marvelous, where they are clearly supernatural in nature; and the fantastic, where you are unable to tell. For Todorov, it was this third category that interested him the most. And it is this category we find ourselves in right now.

Look around you. What a quaint little establishment we are in, right? A nice little coffee shop, perfect for artistic discussion. But what's that feeling on the back of your neck? Is that breathing? And what's that shape in the corner of your eye? The one the appears human, but not quite so? Have your senses detected a threat? Or are you just imagining it?

My friend, we find ourselves at a crossroads. You can either believe your senses, or ignore what they are telling you. After all, the other patrons haven't seemed to notice anything. It's just you and me. It could very well be a trick of the imagination. And yet that hot breath is still hitting the back of your neck, isn't it? You have a choice to make. You can live without knowing whether or not something is really there...or you can find out.

Look behind you.

The problem with reading horror stories before bed is that, of course, you can't sleep. You tell yourself that it's just an autonomous response to fear or that you're just anticipating the nightmares that you might have. But deep down, you know that the real reason is that you're afraid of something coming to get you in the middle of the night. So you read something else, or find something to watch (quietly with headphones). Or maybe you just listen to some music (again, quietly, with headphones) and stare at the ceiling for a time. Eventually, you are able to find a way to sufficiently distract yourself and go to sleep.

Suddenly, your alarm goes off, and you get up to get ready to go to work. But something's wrong. Your clock says that it's seven in the morning, but it's still dark out. There is no light coming through your windows, not even the red and purple twinge of sunrise. You look out the window, and something immediately catches your eye: the moon. When you went to sleep, it was a waning crescent. Now it is full. You look down from the sky, and find that your neighborhood has disappeared. In its place is a forest of what appears to be red coral. It stretches on for an impossible distance.

Immediately, you begin looking for your house-mates. But when you go down the hallway and knock on their bedroom door, no one answers. You knock on the door to the bathroom. Again, no answer. So you open the door. No one is inside. Frantically, you search all the rooms on the upper floor. You find no one. So you run downstairs and begin searching the ground floor. And that is when you see the shadow through the window in the front room.

The shadow is large and many-limbed. It slinks through the coral forest, circling the house. you hear a low noise, something between the timbre of a growl and a rolling drumbeat. Then the shadow disappears and you hear a scratching at the door.

The scratching noise starts at the bottom and gradually works its way up. Then it stops, and the doorknob starts to rattle, as if something is playing with it, or perhaps trying to figure out how it works. You stare at the door, wondering if you remembered to lock it last night, and hoping beyond hope that you are still sleeping and, if you try hard enough, you can wake up, wake up, wake up...