How do we keep our emotionality in check? As a species, what regulatory mechanisms do we employ to balance negative and positive experiences? Does society influence our psychological balancing act, or is this primarily an individual responsibility?
Standing in the middle of a massive high school gymnasium, I’m surrounded by a hundred squirming bodies in their mid-twenties crammed together like mass-produced dolls waiting to be packaged into boxes and shipped to their new homes. My childhood friend, Josie, is crushed next to me, and I get the feeling we’ve been here a while, trapped.
The loud speaker comes on.
Congratulations, young wonders! You’ve been selected to partake in a revolutionary new Treatment that will make you Good As New. Tired of mindlessly drudging through your days only to live out the same dull routine day after day? Tired of numbing the slow-burning pain of apathy with television, video games, oversleeping, and overeating? You are not alone. We’ve selected you because we believe in you.
Now, you might be wondering, Where am I? Does my family know I’m here? What even is this ‘treatment?’ All great questions, and all will be answered in time, we promise. Rest assured your families have been informed and everything you need is here with you. Now is the time to sit back, relax, and let the Treatment wash over you. You will be here for the next three days so that the Treatment will have a chance to work. Great things take time, my lovelies.
IVs drop from the ceiling and The Voice tells us how to hook ourselves up. It’s for your own good, we are told. The floor is lined with yoga mats and we are told to lay down on the nearest one.
Don’t fight it, my lovelies, booms The Voice. Just let the Treatment wash over you, cleanse you, free you from your pain. It will all be over soon, my dears, just relax.
We lay down and It begins.
I slip into a sad dream. Playing out before me, like a wide-screen movie theater to an unsuspecting audience, are the failures and disappointments of my childhood. I watch, fascinated and terrified, desperate to wake up, desperate to see what happens. The humiliations ebb and flow and time loses meaning. Hours must pass — I can’t be sure — and a slow stream of tears trickle down the sides of my face, pooling in my ears. I feel violated and uncertain, lost in thoughts of misplaced mistakes scattered throughout my memory, having forgotten I am in a room of a hundred strangers, hooked up to IVs.
The movie screen goes black for a few seconds and then reads the words, “Day Two.” The subtle childhood humiliations are replaced by more graphic, horrific fights of past and present friends and family. The Movie shows things that have occurred, things that will occur. My greatest fears are displayed and I watch as my mother screams at me for all my faults, tells me how I’ve ruined her life, how it would have been better had I not been born.
The remainder of Day Two is spent watching myself on the big screen making presents for those I had hurt, whose anger plagues me: my mother’s, brother’s, father’s, close friends’, current boyfriend’s, exes’, etc. I wrap dutifully, a humble foot soldier in a war I didn’t realize I’d signed up for.
I know it is Day Three because now I am completely and entirely alone. There is no one around and I sit in petrified silence waiting for something to happen. The screen is black and I am watching myself wait, cross-legged, in a black room with no beginning and no end.
Nobody shows up; nothing happens.
I am in the desert of my own mind, and I begin to wander, searching for something, someone, anything. It is endless, and I know this is the nature of reality: despite the constant, daily distractions, which are insignificant and futile against the infinite pain and suffering of existence that there isn’t an answer for, there is nothing out there and the Nothingness is Eternal.
By the end of Day Three, I am immobile, completely and entirely paralyzed. I have no awareness of anything outside of the insurmountable sadness and agony and pain and depression and anxiety that has left me crippled, debilitated, wrought with fear, broken, hopeless, stuck, physically incapacitated. I feel I understand how it can be possible to die by emotional trauma. By the end of Day Three, I have ceased to be a human — I am a body consumed with fear.
At some point during the wandering, I am reminded that this isn’t just something that is happening, but that this is being done to me by someone. My eyes snap open and I become aware of the sensation of something sitting on my chest, weighing me down, holding me here.
One hundred bodies lay paralyzed on the floor of a gymnasium.
IVs stuck in our arms, we are trapped in our own personalized hells. Sandbags might as well be tied to my arms, legs, wrists, ankles. I know I have to get up, know I must act, know that if I don’t, there is a chance no one will and this is where we will all end.
I turn my head laboriously to my left, see Josie next to me, think, If I can just wake her up, we can do this together. I groggily pull the IVs from our veins and lift my torso slowly. The pain is excruciating: the sandbags rip at my seams and I scream out in pain.
No one so much as twitches.
Dread and sore emotions cripple my muscles, mind, making it difficult to move, see, breathe. I reach for the presents that we had made in our nightmares that somehow materialized next to my mat. I grab as many as I can in my arms and motion for Josie to do the same. They are important, I just don’t know why. We make our way to the double doors — there’s a thin stream of light coming in through the crack at the bottom of the door, promising something other than this Hell.
We make it to the door and, swinging them open wide, Josie collapses on the green grass, unable to move another inch. I know it’s up to me to go back in to gather the rest of the makeshift gifts and I know for some reason I must.
The atmosphere is distinctly different inside and outside of the gymnasium — sluggish and heavy, the air inside is thick with humidity and the sweat and sobs of the Diseased. It is intoxicating, laced with an addictive sadness that makes me want to give in, lay down, let the sadness fill me.
I go back in multiple times to get all the gifts made by me and my childhood friend. I don’t let myself give in to the atmosphere. I fight it hard: I know I have to, that that is my only option, that I am our only hope.
I wake up others each time I go in, pointing them to their presents, helping them through the doors. We stumble, zombie-like into the warm sun, confused and dazed and still plagued with the crushing weight of the gymnasium’s crippling fog.
People begin stumbling home, presents in their arms, hands shielding the sun from their sore eyes. I watch them: as they get further from the gymnasium, their spines straighten out, their limbs loosen, they walk with more purpose, direction, okay-ness. They amble to their homes in the small village we live in, as though nothing strange had just happened, we weren’t just drugged for three days, and there isn’t a reason to give it a second thought.
I walk back with a group of people I don’t recognize; a Voice says, What was that? Someone was doing that to us, right? Who, though? Who?
It takes me a second to realize the group of people are looking at me and that it had been my voice making those sounds.
No one answers.
Weeks pass and I am at home, back with my family, Resting from my Treatment. Occasionally, I go outside and wander around my small town, reacquainting myself with the streets, the shops, my home, my supposed life. I wander around the empty school, the sheriff’s department where Western cowboys with wide-brimmed hats and boots with spurs strut. I sit in the large, green park, swing on the swings, and go on slow jogs through the rows and rows of condos along one side of the town where most of the town’s inhabitants live.
It’s Tuesday night and I decide to go for a night jog.
Running slowly down the streets, I notice one of the sheriffs on the porch of the sheriff’s department. Menacingly, he stares at the dark town and I stop my jog before I break his line of sight. Crouched behind some bushes, I watch, horrified, as his body contorts and what I had assumed to be a human morphs into a large, winged beast with a spiky, hooded exoskeleton.
The shadows don’t feel dark enough and I worry I’ll be exposed. I stop breathing and wait to wake up, but nothing changes. He mounts a bike, spots a roaming stranger off in the distance, and rides towards this poor victim, all the way ringing the red bell on the bike. The stranger turns, shrieks, and begins to run.
The Creature catches up to him, knocks him down, and, spreading his wings, kneels down over the man. The Creature feasts on the man who lies motionless, incapacitated. I run home and lock the door, shaking in fear.
The sucker never had a chance.
The next week, I go out every night in search of the Creature. A wiser person would ignore this urge to seek Evil Incarnate, but I must know what It is, if It had something to do with the Gymnasium.
I watch as the sheriff transforms into the Creature and rides his bike and dings his bell and sucks on the souls of the easy prey and, soon, I have my answer. Though I evaded his attention for a few nights, my luck runs out and he sees me, chases me, taunts me night after night after night.
Still, I venture out, plagued with curiosity, and every night I am chased by the giant winged black Creature, ringing his bell on his red bike — I run for my life, terrified he will kill me or worse: trap me back in that Gymnasium for Eternity. Each night, I barely make it back inside the door of my family’s condo as he narrowly avoids snatching me. Each night, he scratches at the door, shrieking in pain at having been so close to his victim.
In my home, I am safe: he can’t get me there. It is only when I am out in the World when he has the freedom to chase and terrorize me.
Though I’d seen him chase others, he loses interest in them when he spots me. I am the Jerry to his Tom, the road runner to his Wile E. Coyote, the Bugs Bunny to his Elmer Fudd — it is relentless, myopic torture normalized by cartoon outfits and the mirage of magical realism. It doesn’t appear as though anyone else from the Gymnasium is chased or seems to remember what had happened at all.
One day, I meet up with a few of them and ask them what they remember and they look at me, confused, as if I’m crazy, and they slowly shake their heads — they don’t know what I’m talking about. They all seem to have moved on relatively effortlessly, giving little thought to anything at all while I am still being tormented constantly, chased by the winged Creature, unable to get over the insanity of the Gymnasium. I can’t move on and He is my reminder of my own failure to do so.
Weeks pass in confusion and torment and eventually, my mother suggests we have a dinner with some friends from the village to celebrate my recovery — Something to cheer me up, she says.
I thought this might be a good time to finally present to my family the gifts I had made them and attempt to explain that the “treatment” wasn’t a treatment at all.
I go up the stairs to my room to get the presents and when I come down, the sheriff — the Creature — is sitting next to my mother at our elongated dining table, laughing jovially and passing the mashed potatoes. He is dressed in his sheriff’s outfit and I realize I am the only one who knows his true identity.
I scream, dropping the presents.
Everyone turns, stares, as the presents tumble down the stairs.
NO! NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
My mother rushes up the stairs to where I stand, paralyzed in fear, pointing. She tries to calm me, asks what’s wrong. It’s him, I say, he is the one who trapped us in the gymnasium. HE IS THE CREATURE.
I am inconsolable and people stare in terrified confusion and my mother is telling me to calm down and nobody will believe me and I become more and more hysterical the more they stare, the more I am told to calm down, the more I hear them whisper, She’s crazy, what happened to her? She used to be such a sweet girl, and I see his devilish grin under his cowboy hat and for a moment he transforms but everyone has their back turned to him and only I see.
I begin to run down the stairs, toward the front door, because if he is here inside my home then maybe I will be safe out there. People make a wide path for me but then I see my boyfriend, next to the door, having just arrived.
IT’S HIM, I scream, PLEASE BELIEVE ME. I’M NOT CRAZY. YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE ME.
He’s confused but he takes me in his arms and strokes my hair and says it’s going to be okay, that he believes me. He could tell, could see within me and know something was wrong, really wrong, that I wasn’t lying.
My mother is overwhelmed with the reality of the situation, realizing she invited into her home a man that had been terrorizing her daughter. She grabs a large, sharp knife and attempts to stab him but he pins her in a choke-hold. The knife drops from her grip and I rush over and grab the knife and begin to stab him in a crazy frenzy, a chaotic, psychotic rush of fear as he grips my mother desperately in his arms.
Roaring in rage-filled pain, the sheriff transforms into the Creature and he drops my mother who falls to the ground. We tumble out of the house and — the other party guests having already scattered like a line of ants when a bully steps on its intelligent design — it’s just me, my mother, the Creature, and my boyfriend.
We huff and puff, eyeing each other’s weak hand, fresh wounds.
As we surround him, the Creature senses he has lost: he grabs the knife on the ground and stabs himself through the throat and the back of the neck.
If it were me, I probably wouldn’t speak at this point — what is the fucking point, right? But, apparently, Creatures work differently than Humans.
What have you done! He throws back his head attempting to convey outrage, but blood squirts from his lacerations and the fear is slowly slipping from my veins.
You’ve destroyed everything, you silly girl. By knowing me, you have killed me. You have upset The Balance and now everyone in your village will rot slowly from the inside out. I — he fumbles weakly — I am the great Prince Belial, the patron deity of the Sons of Darkness, the prince of the domination of wickedness. Together with Prince Michael, the Prince of Light of the Sons of Light, we create order for your meager, insignificant lives. We give you meaning through The Balance: your Sadness, Rage, and Confusion are necessary in the battle between Darkness and Light.
People must be reminded of the Fear, Anxiety, and Chaos they are born to. You need reminding of your humanity through your weaknesses. Though I can’t enter your sacred spaces without invitation, you invite me nonetheless — the Sadness I inflict is great and purposeful. But then you move on, so I must return to remind you what it is to be Human.
But what about me! I cried. You chase me every night, constantly!
He cackled with laughter menacingly, blood guzzling from his slashed throat, and spat, You, dear girl, you are plagued with Sadness. It follows you wherever you go.
He then puts his hand to my forehead, while he bleeds out.
I have something to show you, he says, Just a Dying Wish. He grins grotesquely, and there, in his blood-drenched arms, I fall into a deep sleep.
I wake up in a red-seared scene, some kind of battlefield, surrounded by my family and explosions cracking the sky and the feeling that this is the event that nobody is supposed to live through. We are positioned between a band of hostile enemies — with painted faces and sharpened spears and Anger screaming from their very Being — and what appears to be the end of the road that we’d been travelling, where, far below, a volcanic bubbling of stormy sea threatens to swallow us, should we fall.
Welcome to your Apocalypse, he cackles. This is your Judgement Day. The sky opens up and I see his menacing smile, face ripped with hatred and pain, and the clouds shoot shrapnel and debris as the wind thrusts me toward the cliff’s edge.
I look around to my family, faced with the same horrible end. My mother is attempting to soothe herself and me simultaneously, muttering mantra-like, It’s okay, we will figure this out, okay? Don’t worry, it will be okay. It will be okay, it will be okay. Father is looking for another way around the volcanic explosions, some side alley, a safe passageway so that my family can keep travelling together, along a different, but similar route to get us wherever it was we were going. My brother is lost in his own mind, already counting out the boards he will need and the supplies required to build a bridge from One Side to the Other.
To no avail.
I feel all of them trying to do something, trying to solve the problem in their own individual ways, and I realize I am helpless unless I know what trauma I am faced with at the cliff’s edge. I hold on to my mother, my brother, and inch myself as close as I can to the Edge. A hot wind gushes against me and intense vertigo threatens to throw me over into the pit.
I fall back, dripping in sweat.
I know I must do something, I know there is a decision before me — but, while my family attempts to alleviate the pain, alleviate the problem, I shiver in fear, inching forward and falling backward, too overwhelmed by the immensity of the Gap I must bridge.
I know I must, that this is my test.
And then A Voice says from the heavens, Behold, your greatest fear —
Every relationship has its cracks and its bumps, miniscule blemishes. You must clean them and move on. Beyond those surface scrapes lie the problems you can’t live with, that you fall into, that alter and drown you.
Without the Pit of Despair, there are no relationships. You know this is true. You will never be truly Happy. Human relationships are unsolvable holes in our being — the undying despair plagues you!
And what do you do? Quiver in uncertainty at your greatest fault. HA!
Cackling laughter fills the sky. He is dying, I can tell, but he brought me here and I know I won’t leave. That this is where I’ll die, too.
Kara Someday is a novelist and fiction writer. Her short stories and flash fiction have been published in The Ignatian Literary Magazine, Short Fiction Break, and FIVE:2:ONE Magazine‘s #thesideshow. She is currently seeking publishers for her first novel, Things That Fly.