I Drink to Still the Demons

For those of you following Demon Haunted Boy, thanks! But I must interrupt your regular viewing for this broadcast: I’m leaving for Vietnam in the near future, and so on top of continuing my latest novel, I’m creating a backlog of DHB so you won’t be deprived of Will’s latest adventures while I’m gone. Until then, enjoy this thing I wrote for Reddit’s Nosleep thread…

This story was brought to you by Absinthe – the preferred drink of mad men and women all over the world.

 I Drink to Still the Demons

My psychiatrist tells me in his stilted voice that I must have something in my past, in my preconscious childhood. He refuses to delve deeper, and gives me no explanation, which is fine by me. I don’t want to know any more than he does.

The drink, like everything else in my life, is a ritual, as predictable as the sun rising in my bedroom window the next morning, burning me with maddening heat. It begins with a shot glass, an expensive crystal piece I bought in Russia, I don’t remember when. I set the glass down on the desk and take my favourite bottle of absinthe from the cupboard – Green Fairy – and place it beside the glass. Then I write in this journal. I never read back over previous pages. I believe that the past is dead and gone and not worth dwelling over, and so I turn over a fresh page and write on clean paper. The bottle sits untouched, the beautiful green liquid drawing my gaze, until I’ve finished at least one page. Then finally, I fill the glass and stare at it, hypnotised, for several minutes.

At last, I drink. It tastes like liquorice flavoured fire.

That one shot is all I have, and I go to sleep shortly afterward, just as the pleasant buzz is settling into my brain.

That was the drink; now here are the demons.

There are two of them, and they appear to me at random times during the day, without warning. The first demon looks just like a man, and yet at the same time is so monstrous that the sight of him makes me want to run in the opposite direction until you collapse from exhaustion. The only reason I don’t is that I know he would follow me, striding with legs as thick as tree trunks, each pace longer than several of mine. He stands and watches, a seven foot beast with rank hair the colour and smell of garbage hanging over his grinning face, leaning back as if to survey me. His arms – strong enough to choke a gorilla, dangle by his sides, and he holds a wicked blade in his right hand. It’s the blade that gets to me the most, because I’ve never seen anything like it in all my life. It has the sterile sharpness of a surgeon’s tool, but I can’t imagine what practical function it could serve: it curves away from the handle in three different directions, hooking and curling and twisting. Capable of delicate work… but what work, I dread to think.

He knows. It’s in his grin. I can never move an inch when I see him, and only when my eyes begin to sting and I blink does he vanish.

The other demon is me. Or at least, he looks like me, if I’d spent the night in the sewer. His hair – my hair – has grey streaks in it, wild and torn out in places. His face is dirt streaked, and his clothes look and smell as though he’s been panic-sweating into them for weeks. He is more terrifying than the other demon, because of what he tells me, in my own shaking voice. This world is not real, he says. Stop taking the drink, and you’ll see: This World Is Not Real. He takes me by the shoulders and shakes me, staring desperately into my face, and then vanishes abruptly.

My psychiatrist comforts me, saying that the fact I know the demons are hallucinations is very promising. He’s missing the point, and I don’t bother to correct him, because I suspect he’s no more able to help me than I am to help myself. The point is that there was never any doubt in my mind that the demons aren’t real – what I’m not so sure about is whether or not Demon number two is telling the truth. After all, why would I lie to myself?

*

The thing is…

The thing is I keep noticing things.

It’s been a week now since I saw the demons, and now and again I have a moment of relief, when I think it’s all over and I can get on with my life. And then the coffee cup won’t be where I put it down a second ago. I sit down on my couch with the paper and put the steaming cup on the glass table beside me. I read the paper for a minute or two to let it cool, but when I reach for it, it’s gone.

Why is it I can’t go around to places in my neighbourhood I’ve never been before? I go on a walk, take a turn up Wightman. I never take a turn up Wightman – never. I always do the same route around the block when I’m walking. But just yesterday I decided to take the turn up Wightman. And a minute or so along I started recognizing houses, and I realized I’m not on Wightman at all, I’m on Richmond, the route I always take.

I’m starting to feel like a rat on a treadmill. The rat runs faster and faster, but he can’t get free – the only way to do that is to stop running and step off. I have to step off.

*

This morning, the second demon wrenched me from my bed. He was right in my face, shaking me, screaming at me. Wake Up! WAKE UP! WAKE UP! Jesus, I was so scared I wet the bed. I haven’t done that since I was a child, but I couldn’t help myself, seeing those familiar features twisted with insanity, the terror in his screams. I’m shaking, even now.

Tonight, I will not drink the absinth. My psychiatrist says it’s a good idea. It’ll do wonders for my health, he says.

*

The sunlight pierces me soon after dawn and I roll over the side of the bed in agony. I feel like I’ve crossed the Sahara desert naked, pale skin exposed to the African sun for days, my tongue thick and dry. The light struck my left eye so badly I haven’t regained the sight in it yet.

I call in sick to work, and Terry, my boss, takes it in his stride. His voice is almost relieved, as if to say: oh, thank God, you’re human. I haven’t called in sick once since I started there three years ago, or done anything outside of punch the clock exactly on time and do everything asked of me to the letter and not an inch more. When I think of it, I’ve lived the same day without variation for all those years. Never a fresh face, never so much as a skipped meal. I didn’t visit family. Never once did I stay up late, or have drinks with a colleague. I try to think back to the last conversation I had. Did they tell me anything I didn’t already know?

*

The pain is worse the second day. I crawl from my bedroom, teeth gritted, and pull myself down the hall. I have to call an ambulance, but I left my phone in the lounge downstairs.

Why does my house look so different? Everything is made of concrete instead of wood and carpet. My windows have thick bars across them, and the sunlight that comes through has a distinctly artificial hue – like the fluorescent lights in a hospital. My body is different, too: my skin is raw and bruised, and with each breath I take I wince from a pain in my chest, as though half my ribs are broken. How did this happen?

I drag myself down the stairs, gasping, and collapse at the bottom, paralysed for a minute. When I regain my senses I roll over and look down at myself, and discover the reason I’ve been crawling: both of my legs are severed at the shin. Stained trousers that I don’t recognize are tied off neatly at the stumps.

I scream.

*

I must have died at some point, because when I next wake up I am in hell.

I’m lying spread eagled on a stone slab, arms stretched taut by chains that have rubbed my wrists bloody. I’m already screaming when I come to my senses, because the first demon is leaning over me, his enormous mouth leering with pleasure and breathing his reek into my face.

He is working on me with his special knife, the one with curves and hooks I was so curious about before. I’m not curious now. He draws the blades across my flesh almost gently, with the flourish of an artist with his brush as he makes the final touches. The wounds he makes are shallow, superfluous, and excruciating. He takes his time.

He unchains me before he leaves, but I’m so drained I don’t move from my position, and simply stare, drooling, at a grey wall. Once the pain dulls to a bee sting hum, I allow myself to drift away.

*

It takes me another hour to make it off the slab, and when I hit the ground, fresh waves of nausea roll over me. I grit my teeth and lie down on the cold floor until the urge passes. Then I drag myself into the far corner, beside a cracked toilet. I take the room, and with each passing second it grows more familiar to me – more so even than my comfortable home and my well-lit white wallpapered office. While I went about my day, walking around the neighbourhood, lying down in my soft bed at night – this place was there all along.

This is my real home: a cell, perhaps twice as large as the average prison cell. The floor is covered with brown and black stains and scratch marks, and everything smells strongly of raw meat and excrement. A bedsheet is rolled up in one corner, and I read bloody letters on the fabric. Funny, I always wondered, writing in my journal, why the pen ran out of ink so frequently.

When I look down at myself, I begin to weep, even though I know what will be there before I see it. My emaciated body is so covered in scar tissue, blood and sweat that I can’t recognize it. My stumps are not halfway down the shin as I’d initially thought, but at the knee, and there are no trousers to hide the stumps. I put my hands up to my face and feel features that are just as mutilated as the rest of me: I was drooling earlier because I’m missing at least half of my teeth, and my gums hurt to touch. I have a beard and matted hair, and my nose has been broken at some point, though it doesn’t hurt, now. I try to touch my left eye and my fingertips, moving beyond where my pupil should have been, touch something tender in my socket. That is when I break.

I curl up on the floor and weep tears of despair. I don’t even know where I am, or who has done this to me, or why. I try to recall a true memory and arrive at a vision of friend’s face – his name comes to mind like a welcome breeze: Miles Neiman. He’s grinning, and he says: ‘It’s gonna be a good trip, Matt. Stop stressing, it’s about time you got out of the rat race for two weeks.’

That’s all I have, but just beneath the surface is a whole life lived, thirty – no thirty three years. I don’t know how long it will take to come back for me, and the more I strain my memory the more I despair that I’ll ever find out how I’ve got to this dark place, and who I’ve left behind.

‘Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh…’ A dry sound comes from nearby, and I’m crying so loud I don’t hear it at first. I have to wipe my eyes and prop myself up against the wall, sniffling, to listen. It sounds again, and this time I recognize it as a human voice.

‘Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh… Yesssss. You’ve stopped taking your medicine, haven’t you?’ The voice is coming from somewhere beyond my cell door. I crawl over to it, wiping snot from my nose and gasping as the cuts along my chest reopen from the movement. When I arrive, I see a small plain shot glass sitting beside the cell door.

‘Can you see me?’ The voice enquires. I peer through the bars into a narrow hallway. The walls and floor are all made of dusty concrete, and although the ceiling is lined with fluorescent lights, at the moment only one is lit, and it barely reaches me. The voice is coming from a gloomy cell opposite. A man stands inside, two wide eyes gleaming in a silhouette. I’m almost jealous of him, until I look closer and see that he is standing on his right leg, and holding the bars with his left arm: his other limbs are missing. He smiles at me, and his teeth are in about the same condition as mine. He has a deeply lined face and shoulder length grey hair. ‘There you go,’ he says. ‘I’m so glad you’re awake.’

‘Where am I?’ I’m shocked at the sound of my own voice – it is the voice of a broken man: soft and scratchy; helpless.

‘Back in the real world. You are embracing the truth at last, instead of the lie you’ve been living for three years.’

‘Oh, God. Three years.’ So I had never moved house, never got the new job. They were all hallucinations of comfort and sedation my mind had conjured up to keep me happy.

‘It’s a long time to be asleep. I took the drink for a full year.’

‘Who are you?’

‘Me? My name is… Life.’

‘Life?’ I say.

‘Yes. You wanted to know who I was before, though, didn’t you? Before, I was George. A banker. Rich, comfortable, content. Too much fat around my belly, too little going on,’ he tapped the side of his head with enough force to bruise himself, ‘in here. Now I’m alive. I feel everything, I taste everything, even the gruel that he brings. I still have power. Look!’

I watch while he lowers himself into a squat on his leg, keeping perfect balance all the while, and then rises up again. ‘I grow as strong as the food allows me – and he doesn’t skimp on gruel, no he doesn’t!’ He chuckles.

I am afraid to ask, but I do. ‘Who is he?’

‘Aaaaaaaahhhh. Our Nemesis. Our Captor. Our Sworn Enemy. Let me tell you about him. I have been studying him for all my stay here, and over the course of my attempted escapes, I’ve learned much. If I die, you may have to continue my mission, so listen closely, my young apprentice.’

He leans in to the bars, pressing his dirty face right up against them so that his eyes bug out, his pupils contracting to small points against the harsh hallway light.

‘He calls himself Master, but I always call him Slave. He doesn’t like that at all. The first time I did it, he cut off my arm. The second time, he took my leg, but I kept doing it, and he wanted to keep me alive for as long as he could. That was my first victory over him. The first step to proving who is really the Master.’ He laughs again, and winks at me.

‘He is a slave to his pleasure, you see. He’s a sadist in the purest sense, unable to live a normal life. He’s driven by a desire to control, and as a result he will never experience anything else life has to offer. That is a shame, because he is an incredibly intelligent man – a genius, even – and in prime physical shape besides. He could do and be anything anyone could want, and yet he chooses instead to live in a rundown house, pouring his savings into this elaborate basement: this obsession of his.

‘And it is an obsession, oh yes. I have personally met two men and two women, in your cell and the cells just adjacent to yours, and besides them I can see two more cell doors on your side of the hallway, and I believe there must be four doors I that I can’t see on my side. I estimate that he’s ended the lives of at least thirty people over the last four years, but it’s impossible to know. I can’t communicate with any of them, because they always take the drink. You’re the first to refuse it for two years. Congratulations.’

I stare at him in horror. He grins back. Insanity.

‘But what… There must be some way we can escape? I’m not taking the drink – I can help you.’ He nods eagerly, as though he’s been waiting for me to say this. My heart lifts. There is hope.

‘Yes. I have made many attempts over the years. I have learned two things. The first is that it is impossible for us to leave this place. The second is that our freedom lies within easy reach – inside ourselves. Isn’t that something? Isn’t that brilliant? Our salvation has been within our hands all this time. We have only to accept the truth.’

I close my eyes and swallow. Please, I beg a God I do not believe in, please tell me he has real plans to get out of this place. But before he can speak another word, a door cranks open and heavy steps sound in the hallway.

*

Two days go by.

When he slides the gruel through the tiny slot beneath the door, I eat it ravenously: tasteless grey mash. When he gives me the glass full of green liquid, I empty it into the toilet before temptation overtakes me. Each time, Life claps his hands and grins at me with his ten remaining teeth.

Three times a day, the footsteps thump down the hall. Twice, food slides through the slots at the bottom of our doors, the lukewarm sludge that Life seems to relish so much. Once a day, someone gets the knife.

I say once a day, but I don’t know, because the ones who take the drink don’t scream. Life tells me there is someone in the cell beside mine, which he can see into. A young woman, he tells me. Missing her ears, nose, tongue and arms. She takes the drink every day, he says, for two years, and on the days the footsteps stop in front of that cell and I hear the door creak open, I never hear a peep. Who knows where she is, while he does what he wants to do with her.

Life guides me, in some ways. He shows me how I could dig at the crack in the corner of my concrete cell, and cover my progress by tossing the bundle of sheets in the corner. ‘Who knows?’ he says. ‘If you can make it through the wall, perhaps you can crawl to safety. Devote your life to that crack, and you might well escape.’

And I do, I dig and dig and dig, with my fingernails, then with shards of harder concrete that broke off during my excavation. The Demon is not thorough in his visits. He is here only to satisfy a need. I can’t dig on the days he chooses me – I can only shudder in the corner and weep, while Life urges me to continue.

*

Life fights every time, but it seems only to delight the ‘Master’. Nevertheless, over the past two weeks I’ve never seen someone fight so furiously against an opponent who so obviously outmatches him, even if he were given all his limbs. Master spends longer with him than with anyone.

*

I am losing my mind. Yesterday, after a month of digging the crack, until it had gotten deep  enough that I could feel soil with the tips of my fingers, and wide enough that I could fit my head inside the cavity, He found it and moved me to another cell.

Life told me that would be the first of many times it would happen. The he laughed madly, and shouted at the top of his lungs: ‘NOT FOREVER! NOT FOR ALL OF US!’

I noticed the lock of my new cell was rusty, and I scraped a piece of the wall away and started chipping away at the rust.

*

Life died yesterday.

I heard him, I heard when the blade cut deeper than skin and his screams turned from pitch to gurgle. Four years, he fought. Four years. He died screaming my name.

At this point, I’ve chipped almost half of my ancient padlock to dust. My body is a mess, but I have all of my limbs. I chip, I chip away at the lock. Footsteps come thumping down the hall, louder than usual. He is angry, and tonight is my turn.

*

It was a pleasant day, today. I don’t seem to get many of those anymore. Old age has brought me much pain. As a youngster watching an old man hobble across a street, I never guessed the agony he would feel just to move the way I always took for granted. But on the other side of the coin, small things give me a pleasure they never could previously.

A hot cup of tea, a good meal, and a long sleep is enough to keep me happy. My routines bring contentment: my morning coffee, my office job, my nightly walk under the starry sky. My life may be plain, boring, mediocre – but it’s a good life. I tell people I drink to still the demons, and they just laugh, because what demons could a man like me have?

My psychiatrist tells me in his stilted voice that I must have something in my past, in my preconscious childhood. He refuses to delve deeper, and gives me no explanation, which is fine by me. I don’t want to know any more than he does.

The drink, like everything else in my life, is a ritual, nothing more, nothing less.

 

 

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