They always get in somehow. They hijacked currency and now they rule through inadequacy. If only’s weaken the defences, and then they’re in. If only you had a better car. If only you had a better house. If only you were better looking, sexier, taller, darker. Then you’d have the girl, the life, the dream. Then it could all be yours.
If only you smoked lay on the pavement. She bled tar. Scarlet tar. It oozed from her jacket. I pulled the box of matches from my own. Skrik, hiss. Wood became charcoal, twisted by heat and energy. I dropped it. The flame licked up her wound and I turned away.
The world strived, these days. Everything based on strife. Strive hard enough, and you can be one of them. One of those illustrious, desirable demons. The them that are looked up to. That stand above the rest with pure confidence. Not fake confidence like everyone you see and meet and get to know for real, but solid, unshakable, unstoppable confidence.
They show it in films, on posters and most of all on television. These are the gods we worship now. They accept our abhorrent inadequacy. They understand that it’s not our fault we’re fatally flawed. They smile airbrushed smiles, and they forgive us. They’ll show us how. Just stick with them, and eventually you’ll become something more than the nothing you are. All you have to do is worship them. If you worship hard enough, maybe, just maybe, you’ll become them.
Not in this town. I’ve had enough. One by one I’ve been cleansing the streets. Shadows of my own inadequacy left to smoulder in their own darkness. Some days it feels like an impossible task. All the demons, the tainted places they dwell in twisted by confused ideals. You strike down a nest of them and more get in while your back’s turned. Slipping in through the cracks to chip away at the parts you’ve protected. The little bits you’ve worked so hard to protect. Your ideals. Your belief. In yourself, in others, in your family, friends and the whole damn human race.
As I walk the streets the gaping speakers spit abuse from every window, every shop and screen. You’re ugly. Pathetic. Worthless. Fat. Stupid. Alone. The pictures replay moments of your nearest and dearest with that look in their eyes. That thing that they said. That thoughtless action. Why did they do that? If they really loved you, they wouldn’t have. He’s not prince charming. She’s not your one true love. But they must be out there, so drop them, keep looking. Somebody’s perfect for you. Somebody. You’re just not looking hard enough. Or maybe you’re just not worthy of them.
Burn it. Burn it to the ground. It’s what I want to do. Just set them all alight and listen to the crackle pop of melting insecurity. But you can’t. That just makes it worse. Here they’re contained, trapped inside cages built like houses, the windows their only way out. You burn that down and it’ll kill everything inside, but something has to fill the space. You can’t fill nothingness with strength. You just get weaker.
So I clean the streets. I keep the scum from escaping their cages and one by one, I clear the houses. The horrors inside have one weakness. A singular way to end them permanently, and reclaim each bastion for yourself. If you fight them, declare them evil, try to slaughter them before they have a chance to fight back, burn them or cut them or tear them into bits they only get stronger. They thrive off hate. Off shame and denial. And all they do is become a mirror. Because you’re not fighting them, you’re fighting you. You’re fighting your imperfection. And the screaming, angry speakers seek to make you hate them all the more. There’s one single way to stop them.
The plastic framed, double glazed glass door opens with a click, and the sounds escape. Wailing, sobbing and deep, guttural growls that make you want to flee. Vibrations shuddering through you with subtle messages. “If you step too far from the door it’ll shut, and you’ll be trapped inside.” “If you don’t run now you’ll never escape. Outside is so much nicer.” “The world is right, you’re a coward, a fool, but you’re alive. Better to leave now and have a chance than face the horrors you’ll find inside you.” “There’s a reason it’s a fear. Better to leave than to find out what it is.”
I don’t listen. I can’t listen. Every time you turn away it only gets stronger, uglier, even harder to face. Their mirrored form isn’t far from the truth. If you can’t look it in the eye, you can’t look yourself in the eye. As I leave the safety of the doorway, it slams shut behind me. “No escape.” But it’s a lie. It’s unlocked, but it’s the feeling of being trapped that makes you run. But you can always run. It wants you to run. It wins when you run.
The stairs creak flimsily as I step down towards the cellar, wood rotten and shaking under my weight. It splinters, each cracking step reminiscent of a breaking spine. “Leave now or you’ll never get back up.” “Get back to the light, else you’ll never escape.” “You’ll fall through and break your leg and be forced to stare into your own failure, pain your only company.” “If only you’d stay up top, ignore it, and get on with your life. It’d be easier that way.” “Blame others. Blame the world. Blame everyone but yourself, it’s safer than this.”
At the bottom of the suffocating darkness is the light. Almost sounds comforting, doesn’t it? But it’s not just a light. It’s a singular spotlight, carving an embassy in the darkness and keeping the shadows at bay. It’s a searchlight. And it’s searching for the real cause of the darkness around it. But it’s not going to find it. It can’t find it, because light can never truly find darkness. Darkness has to willingly step into the light.
I stand at the edge of the circle of truth. The voices, the fears, the attempts to make me turn back are silent now. And that’s worse, somehow. We know our fears. They protect us. A blanket we can wrap around ourselves telling us how we don’t need to do uncomfortable things. But now they’re gone, and there’s no excuse. Now it’s all on me. It’s my choice. If I turn away here, I can’t blame anything but myself. But if I carry on, there’s nothing to pull me out. The stark barrier of light is so different to everything else.
But I step over anyway.
The light feels no different, for a moment. The blinding intensity I expected just a difference in tone, a lighter grey than the thick hues surrounding it. But the darkness gets blacker in contrast, the world you knew gone, melting away. But once you’ve stepped inside, it’s even harder to step back again. You made the choice. Now you have to deal with the consequences.
“But you don’t.” The words form across the darkness like a mirage through the curtain of light. “You never need to deal with the consequences. You can always run. Always.”
“If I run, I won’t get anywhere.” I reply.
“But you’ve always been running.” The words splintered off into images, memories where I watched myself turn away from my problems, choosing the easier way than the right way. Putting off work until the last moment, if doing it at all. Lying my way out of confrontation. Shifting the blame from myself to another. The images kept coming, and I couldn’t deny their truth. Every part of me wanted to look away. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t the person I wanted to be. They were the lies. They were the fakes. Not me.
“How can you stand here and look at yourself, and not run?” It continued “How can you look on these images without shame? Without apologising for the selfish, fearful, pathetic actions you’ve committed, to yourself and others?”
Silence. I couldn’t answer. How could I? I knew it was right but I didn’t want to listen. But the longer I stayed, the longer I had to hear, to see all the ways I’d sinned. Not sinned against God or humanity, but against myself. Against who I thought I was. Against who I wanted to be.
I could leave. I could just step out of the light and back into the shadows. It was safe there. It was dark, and filled with smaller demons. Demons I could deal with. Little ones I could kill off and tell myself I was making myself better. What was I doing in here? Just self flagellation? Just throwing myself at it’s mercy? Letting it destroy what little self image I had left? No. No I couldn’t let it do that. I had to preserve what I had. I can’t fight if it breaks me. I had to get out. I had to leave. I had to…
Thoughts failed to find purchase in my mind. It became blank, clear with realisation, like a sudden spotlight shining down into a cellar of blackness. And I stood in it’s centre and said.
“If I run, I keep being that person. I can’t run anymore. By not running, I’m making up for every time I fled. By facing it, I’m ending the person I’m ashamed of. If I’m to change for the better, I need to accept the part of me that stops me changing at all. And to accept it, I have to look it in the eye.”
The images didn’t change, they swam before me, testing my words and resolve. But between them, from the darkness, stepped a figure. He stepped into the light in front of me, and stared into my eyes. I scarcely recognised him. Dark, uncertain eyes. Long, over developed legs. Skittish movements. Any moment, I thought, he’ll run. He always runs. You can see it in him.
But he didn’t. I didn’t. I raised my hand, and he took it. Light blinded me, the spotlight becoming unbearable in it’s intensity. I raised my other hand to my eyes, but didn’t let go. But as the light subsided, he was gone. And so was the darkness.
The cellar was bright and warm. The rooms upstairs furnished and well maintained. As I stepped out into the darkened street, it shrank away from the white, purified house, the landscape twisting away from it’s influence. From the alleys and side streets, the windows and doorways of other houses, from the sewers that ran beneath everything around, rose the demons. Snarling figures, stepping forth to smite this bastion of light. They were everywhere, crowding the street like a mob against the unholy abomination that had finally shown itself for what it was.
I stood in the doorway, and watched them surround the building. Carefully, in gentle anticipation of what had to happen, I drew my knife.
This time, I wouldn’t run.