I awoke to a shape standing at the foot of my bed. A man-sized figure, black against dim moonlight leaking through floral-print curtains. He was more a vacancy of light than a person, and utterly still.
It was deep into the night. Perhaps 2 AM or later. Somewhere in the house our dog, Noodles, barked furiously. Angela named the little monster and I accept no responsibility for the mutt or the name. He yapped as small dogs do, with much anger but little effect.
He certainly didn’t deter the thing at the foot of my bed. The figure didn’t speak. It took me a few seconds to remember that Angela was visiting family in Portland. The bedroom door was closed, the dog going mad somewhere on the other side.
My heart raced; my body paralyzed with terror. I ran through ways to fight off an intruder. None seemed realistic. I’m only five-foot-six, maybe one hundred and fifty-five pounds. I lay flat on my back, barely awake, betrayed by my own frozen muscles.
He glided up the side of the bed. I couldn’t see his face and it came to mind that he wasn’t a human intruder at all but a demon. A malevolent spirit with an otherworldly purpose. He laughed softly. Then he was gone. Neither door nor windows moved or made a sound.
I knew then he’d come to haunt me.
Still, I got up, pulled on my robe and checked the house, just in case.
We live in North Burnaby, a quiet suburb on the edge of Vancouver. Successive municipal governments blanketed the place in streetlights. When the wind blows, they conspire with overgrown pines to fill my modest pied-a-terre with moving shadows. It’s an old house, 1950s, the best I could do on a teacher’s salary.
On a good night, the shadows provide amusing distractions. Now they kept my fear at a low simmer, as if to soft boil me, like an egg. Might be I was rattled, too. A burglar would have been a one-off event, cured by the police, insurance, and a few stiff drinks.
This was different. A beginning.
It was Dieter Runge’s fault, the prick. Runge taught film studies and PE at the school where I chaired the English department. I had been thinking about his neck when I fell asleep. Specifically, about my hands around his neck, thick with muscle and fat, squeezing. About the smell of him, sweat soaking up through his grey hoodie and onto my chest as I choked the life out of him.
I often indulged such thoughts while alone in bed. Runge wore a stopwatch on a cord around his neck, a badge of manliness or something similarly toxic. Sometimes, for variety, I used the cord to garrotte him. Getting both hands inside the loop and twisting, hard, until his life flowed into nothing. Mostly, though, I preferred a more personal narrative. There was something uniquely exciting to his bare, tuna-steak flesh under my fingers.
I had fallen asleep with this film running in my head, my very own pornographic masterpiece of murder. Somehow, in the moment of transition between waking and oblivion, the fantasy must have opened a portal. A door to a darker place that allowed a demon to slip into my bedroom. Maybe even invited him.
So ok, it was probably more my fault than Dieter’s. But he was still a prick. The kind of man who’d been bullying his peers since he was six years old, when a growth spurt and an affinity for junk food had first given him an advantage. He had this way of standing too close to you even when you weren’t arguing, making the point that he was bigger and stronger.
Besides, I’ve never known a PE teacher who wasn’t a tyrant. A certain insecurity-driven assholeness is practically cooked into the job description.
At this point, I hadn’t actually strangled anyone. Not for real. Some people are haunted by what they’ve done. I was haunted by what I wanted to do.
Which made the demon doubly terrifying. Because how could I defend myself? You can control your actions. You’re responsible for your actions. Nobody controls their desires. The heart wants what it wants, as Emily Dickenson or Selena Gomez will tell you.
Neither daylight nor professional boundaries inhibited my demon. He followed me to work, watching me from under a reaper’s jet-black hood, eerily motionless at the end of a long, brightly lit corridor. The school’s fluorescent lighting was no match for his impenetrable darkness.
Students crowded around him, oblivious. I wondered if he was in my head. The prospect did not make him any less terrifying.
Kids today are punks. Clog a hallway with a hundred of them and you’ll find dozens of twisted souls. Probably more. The shit on their phones alone would turn your hair grey. Incest fantasy porn and CGI dismemberment scenes barely scratch the surface. It didn’t matter.
He wasn’t there for them.
He was there for me.
I’m not brave. If he’d asked for something, I’d have done it. He scared the crap out of me, dark and silent and knowing. That was the worst of it. The unspoken realization that he knew everything. It left me naked, my dreadful secrets laid bare, like snakes on a stone floor with nowhere to hide.
Angela returned that night. After so many years, there’s a threshold for how long she has to be gone before I miss her. A week is about right, and that was dead-on this time.
I was hoping her return would chase him away. We had a nice dinner. Afterwards we began to make love.
I felt him before I saw him, watching us over a bedside sconce. Angela’s skin warmed under my fingers, and he began to whisper. Not words I could comprehend, but something. A demonic mantra, maybe. Low, urgent, and demanding. A perfect echo of my desire.
Turned on, Angela responded to my touch, and usually that’s enough to get me going. Now, though, fear and hunger fed my arousal like wind into a bonfire. Each gust pushed the flames, and they in turn sucked harder. Lust hit me like a low-voltage current, curling my fingers and making my heart stutter. I buried my face in Angela’s shoulder so she wouldn’t see my cheek twitching.
I wanted to bite her, to taste blood, to push a forearm into her trachea and feel the way she moved when she couldn’t breathe. Less rhythmic, almost twitchy with excitement. That’s how I got my taste for it. It’s probably why I married her. I pinned her down and she gasped. She couldn’t hear the whispering, but she felt the effects and shuddered in anticipation.
I didn’t dare go further. There’s a line I never crossed, not in how far I went but in how I felt about it in the moment. Fall into that kind of love and you’ll never dig yourself out.
So ultimately it was unsatisfying. Like an alcoholic taking a single sip of communion wine. My demon’s whispers rose and fell with Angela’s orgasm, both tinged with disappointment.
The demon disappeared after we finished. But not for long. From that point onward he was never gone for long. I’d catch him following me. Or sometimes leading, since naturally he knew where I was going. I started looking for him when I left the house, but that only made it worse. The act of looking itself put him in my mind, a haunting by a haunting.
Desperate, I accompanied Angela to church. I’m a sporadic worshipper at best. Angela’s a regular and she was pleased. By then I was willing to try anything.
I might not be devout, but I believe. I hoped God might help. What a joke. The bastard demon walked right past me, up the stairs and into the church. I halfway expected him to hold the heavy oak door for one of the old ladies that made up most of our congregation.
I refused to be intimidated. Or to acknowledge it, anyway. Instead, I prayed. It didn’t help. They were just words thrown into a vacuum. We’re Anglicans, which is nice and all, but far too feeble for a demon situation. I needed Southern Baptists, or some crazy-as-hell Pentecostal lunatics with fire and brimstone and a screaming preacher speaking in tongues to even hope to make a dent.
Instead, I had Father McGee. Kindly and fat, he excelled at holding the hands of the dying, and his brownies cleaned up at bake sales. He was no help to me at all.
Brazen as all hell, my demon made himself comfortable at the end of my pew. Multicolored rays of light from the stained-glass windows disappeared into him as the sun rose. Like he was sucking piety with a straw and never getting full.
Anglicans aren’t big on confession, but it’s an option. I figured I’d try. Maybe Father McGee could refer me to someone more qualified, or at least more fearsome.
I slipped into the booth. The gate slid open with a harsh snap of wood striking wood and, naturally, the fucking demon leaned in from the other side. The audacity of it gave me a momentary flash of courage.
“You can’t judge me. You of all people. I haven’t done anything. I haven’t done anything.”
I could see his face now. Familiar, but black as if burned, with dark eyes that didn’t blink.
“Desires aren’t sins. And I don’t feel guilty. Not a bit.”
His smile answered for him. He didn’t believe a word of it. I might as well have been talking to myself.
“Well, fuck you then. I’ll go to a shrink. He’ll listen. The more I talk, the stronger the prescription. And that’ll be the end of it. And of you, too.”
He gave a small, knowing tilt of his head. Calling my bluff. It’s hard to lie to someone who knows your secrets. More than knows, who collects them. Hoards them like rare truffles still smelling of dirt and rot. He casually slid the gate closed, as if bored.
As we drove home, my fear and paranoia grew deeper, richer. My hands shook. Angela asked if I’d had too much coffee. What could I tell her?
He started to visit me in my dreams. I would be giving a lecture on Twelfth Night and realize I was in pyjamas, old flannel ones with stains, and the whole class was laughing. He sat at the back or leaned casually on a shelf filled with old textbooks.
I slept less and less, and the world became fuzzy around the edges. Angela cancelled a painting retreat on a small island off the coast, a favourite for her, out of love and concern.
It was no help. He was with me always.
I could feel a breaking point approaching. I’d eat breakfast or step into a class, and I’d want to scream, to run, to tear out my hair. Anything to make him go away, or even just to be cloaked again for a while, to make my secrets secret again. Instead, I’d sip my tea or open a textbook with shaking hands and fake normalcy as best I could.
It happened, finally, in a kind of waking dream. It started with Noodles, once again losing her goddamn mind at two in the morning. This time Angela was fast asleep beside me.
At least I wasn’t paralysed, and I didn’t want him in the bedroom. Some small shred of decency compelled me to leave Angela out of it. I pulled on the robe and a pair of slippers and left.
The bedroom door opened not into my living room, but instead a school hallway, pitch black, trapped like me in the wasting hours of the night. The waning moon left the building dark and silent, but for the whispering.
I fled, down the hallway and around a corner and then another. The school was a maze that didn’t end. Running was pointless, but that’s dreams for you.
I grabbed a locker to help me turn, the slippers being less than ideal for escaping demons. My hand came away sticky and I saw that it was covered in blood. That I was covered in blood, as if dipped into a deep vat, as if I’ve fallen down a deep and sunless well of crimson.
I stumbled, leaving rusty red smears on doorknobs and lockers, half-slipping footprints trailing back to the black, pursuing shape of the thing.
The whispers invaded my brain and I understood them for the first time. Like tentacles of thought wrapping through grey matter, they wanted to pry me into two. Here, my desires. Naked, shameful, repellant and yet thirsty. So thirsty. Over there my conscience, horrified and covered in blood and aroused and horrified anew to be turned on so. An unsustainable Escher drawing of desire and repulsion.
As the one became two, I had to choose. I couldn’t be both. The demon whispered his advice and I took it, clinging to desire at the expense of all else. I guess you could call it fate.
My disassociated twin ran beside me. Two men, both in plaid robes, pelting down school corridors with torment hard on our heels.
I regressed. Fight or flight, kill or be killed. I threw an elbow, knocking my conscience into the monster’s path. Better him than me.
He slipped and hit the floor, but to my dismay the demon refused to do my dirty work. My other half clawed his way up and closed on me, neck and neck with the demon. I couldn’t tell you which I feared most.
It seemed for a moment that they merged. That somehow, that was the secret. My demon and my conscience were one.
In that flash of insight, I turned and tackled my blood-soaked other half. I expected him to be ghostlike, ephemeral. Instead, the impact shuddered all the way down my spine.
We slid across the linoleum floor in a tangled mess. I took the wind out of him, though, and so ended on top. I kept him flat on his back, my full weight on his chest. I found his throat with my hands and clamped down. How could I know that this would be my first real killing?
He struggled desperately and I took a little pride in that. I could admire him even though I knew he had to go. I wish I could tell you I felt remorse, but that would be a lie. I needed to end it, and this was how.
The light went out of his eyes slowly, like sliding a dimmer switch down to the final notch.
You can’t make friends with your demons. That’s a myth. But you can come to a livable arrangement. Once I’d made the sacrifice, the terror dissipated. I miss him, my other half. I know I should feel sad. Or guilty. I don’t. I guess in the end, that’s what I’ve lost.
But you can’t live in terror your whole life. You’d surely go mad.
Tim Carter is a writer of stories, video games, film and TV. He is known for MORTAL KOMBAT: LEGACY, the DEAD RISING series of movies, and the award-winning video game SLEEPING DOGS. He lives in Vancouver, Canada with his wife, two dogs, and a disgruntled cat.