Dark Light

Easy Come, Easy Go

by Leena Alaa Shibl

It wasn’t a room.  It was a never-ending corridor, with a black wall on one side and a glass wall on the other.  Asher didn’t like facing the glass any more.  It had been easier when all this started, but with time his heart grew heavy and he could no longer bear staring at his loved ones day in, day out.  He couldn’t endure their blank expressions. Everyone he’d ever come to know, all lined up as he last saw them—cold, vacant, detached.  At the start, he spent most of his time sitting behind the glass, cross-legged on the floor, facing his parents mainly. By that point, he’d given up resistance, given up endlessly screaming and violently drumming his fists against the icy glass. No response. Not from one person in the emotionless crowd. Asher didn’t know where he was or why he was there, but from the looks of his friends, family, rivals, he knew he must be there as a form of punishment. It had to be. Why else would he be alone in such a dreary eternity?

The corridor wasn’t dark. It was dimmer and had a “sky” filled with dense, gray­-orange clouds – as if it were always about to rain on a cold day by sundown. The clouds never shifted. They stayed in place, floating above him. Sometimes the sky seemed strangely heavier than usual.  If he stared straight up too long he imagined it would fall.  There were days he hoped it would. Fall and destroy the very existence he felt doomed to. But it never did. Nor would it ever.

Asher lay on the floor, curled up with his back to the glass. His eyes were shut, for now. It was pointless – there was no sleeping here. There was no time either, but Asher came up with a way to tell days apart. Every once in a while, there would be a flash of light from the very end of the corridor followed by a beep. Each flash-beep sequence indicated an hour. Of course, this wasn’t true – it happened at random. But it kept him sane. He ripped a sleeve from his button-down shirt and further tore that into 24 irregular pieces, stuffing them in his right pocket. Whenever he heard the sound or saw the white light down the dim hall, he would transfer a slip of cloth from one pocket to the other. After the day—as he perceived it—was up, he would walk across to the black wall and add a tally with his nails to the ones before.  Then after the added day, he’d spend his time running. Just running. Down the corridor.

Hoping.

Praying.

Wishing.

All he wanted was an end to this infinite void. So he would run until the next light shone. He knew deep down he was not making progress. The clouds stayed in their place. The faces behind the glass never moved. They watched him run towards nothing. Running in the same spot over and over, and not going anywhere.  He never went beyond the source of flashing light. He knew it was pointless. He felt they knew too. But still, he ran since the day he got there.

And that was Asher’s routine.

Until now.

The beep sounded and Asher opened his heavy eyelids, automatically sliding his hand into his pocket.  But for the first time, he saw change. Change to the same monotonous arena. Change that made him not move the slip of cloth from one pocket to the other, nor count the number of cloths left for the day to end.  He just stood up, his jaw slightly open, his eyes gleaming. He watched. There were words. They started from one end of the wall until they reached the other end, only to start a new line. It was like a giant typewriter.  He squinted his eyes, focusing on the words that were magically appearing before him. After reading a line or two, he noticed the pattern.

“Who’s doing that?” he yelled looking up at the sky then back to the wall.

“Who’s writing that?” he pointed at the wall, accusingly, then faced the glass. The blank faces were just as unchanged. He turned back once more, his neck jolting in all directions, but always back to the wall. He kept up with every last printed word.

He stood in place, almost motionless save for his heaving breath lifting his chest. Slowly, he raised his bare, sleeveless arm and waved.

“Where are you?” He screamed at the nothingness, “How are you writing what I’m doing?”

He intertwined his fingers between the short strands of his loose wavy hair;  he felt whatever sanity he had left slipping away.

“STOP!” He screamed now, at the top of his lungs.

“Who are—STOP WRITING WHAT I’M SAYING!” 

The pleading did no good.

“I do not beg cowards. Come out here and face me!”

He circled himself with his fists clenched, preparing for an enemy to pounce from any direction.

 There’s no one here, except you.

The last words took him aback, “Are you talking to me?” He faced the wall when he read the words directed to him, the only form of communication he’d had in over 194 days, according to his prized tally.

“I’ll take that as a yes?” he asked, his voice still louder than it would normally be. He waited for another response, and for the first time in a long time, his hopes came true.

Yes, Asher, I’m talking to you.

“Where are you? Why can’t I see you?”  His voice was now notably lower.

Because I don’t exist in your realm. So to speak.

“My realm? Where am I exactly?” he stood back straight, as motionless as possible. The stiller I stand, he thought, the less can be written and the faster I’ll get a response.

“How…am I imaging this?”

No. You’re not.

“This… isn’t. This can’t be possible. How are you in my head?” He aggressively tapped his temple, tears glazing his eyes as the frustration overwhelmed him.

Because. You don’t technically exist. Your thoughts are not yours.

That seemed to make things worse. Or better? His face changed from frustration to confusion to a glow of excitement in a few seconds. Finally he broke out in a sudden fit of laughter. He hadn’t laughed in a long, long time.  It knocked him off his feet, dropping him to his knees. He turned back to the glass, the mirthful tears slowly crawling down his cheeks. The people behind the glass were fixed; they didn’t seem to find things quite as humorous.

He remained on his knees after his laughter subsided. The salty tears tingled his flesh; he wiped his wet cheeks with his intact sleeve. The thin linen shirt was almost drenched. He looked at it and was surprised by how many tears he had shed. From laughter alone? He wasn’t sure. He knew one thing though. I’m insane, he thought, sighing a breath of relief. He felt he finally knew the answer. I’m crazy. This whole time. I’ve been pumped up on some kind of hallucinogenic. To cure my madness, he reminded himself.

You’re not mad, Asher. This isn’t a bad dream or a weird acid trip. It is merely the reality of this place.

He paid no attention to the words on the wall now. He stared at them, but he was no longer reading what they had to say. He was satisfied with his own answer. Doubtlessly, this was the same conclusion he had reached the moment he first found himself here. And now this basically confirmed it.

Asher, this is where you belong. This is where you would always end up. It’s where your kind go in the end.

He said nothing. He replicated the empty faces behind the glass. Blankness.

The beep sounded once more. But he didn’t move.

Asher.

Seconds later, the beep went off again, the light continuously flashing like an SOS. But now it was brighter than before. The beep became louder each time it went off.

 Louder and louder and louder.

The final beep was continuous and screeching. That got Asher moving. He crammed his fingers in his ears, digging his nails in deeply, to block out the deafening sound coming from all directions. He grabbed a handful of cloth slips from both his pockets and shoved them in his ears, expecting them to help. But he made a mess of his day/night system for no reason.

Then the beeping came to a sudden stop, but the sharp ringing continued to echo. He half expected his eardrums to have ruptured, and checked to see if there might be blood oozing out of them. None. He gathered his strength and yelled once more, “Do you think this is funny? Do you find humor in watching people suffer?”

He massaged his ear lobes, straining to find comfort.

This is no game, Asher.

“Then what is this? What is all this?” He motioned his open palms to the sky, to the glass, lingering on the glass. “If I’m not crazy, what is all this?”

This is your world now. Where you will exist for eternity.

“Hell. I’m in hell?” His desperation made him willing to accept anything the mysterious writings on the wall were about to send his way.

Not hell. Not heaven, either. You’re in a state of eternal waiting.

He waited for more. Staring at the punctuation that slowly dissolved into the dark wall.

“Waiting? What exactly am I waiting for?”

For your story to be told.

“What story?”

The story of your life. You’re the main character in all this. You had a life, a family, a home. And that all ended for you. That’s how your kind end up here.

“You keep saying that. My ‘kind. Like I belong to a whole different species.”

 In a sense, you do. You’re a different sort of entity.

He let out a deep sigh, like he was trying to get through to a child to no avail. He thought for a minute about how to reword his questions to get a more logical answer from this ambiguous wall creature.

Ambiguous. That, you are. So let me rephrase, as you guessed I would.

It wasn’t a guess.

“Of course. How absurd of me. Because a wall can read my mind.”

I am no wall. The messages you see just happen to appear on the wall.

“Well, I can’t see you. Nor can I hear you. So I’m going to assume that you’re a wall.”

Asher felt smug after his clever deduction.  A whisper of thought filled his mind: I am truly mad.  I am arguing with scribbles on a wall.

“Stop that. No more writing what I think. It’s an invasion of privacy.”

Your thoughts are nothing more than words I have made you think. Your entire existence is based on what I have set it out to be. Are you catching on?

“Not really. And frankly, I have no time for your riddles. I would much rather leave this place. So, if you would be so kind.”

Let’s try this again Asher, once more. You do not exist. You’re a figment of my imagination – the main character of a story that I have written. You are the moveable piece in a game of chess that must be played out. All those who read this will gain a glimpse of my imagination through you. And this. This place. This is where you and all those like you end up when your story is told. When the book ends. This is where fictional characters spend the rest of their days once the last page is turned.

Asher read the words on the wall. Once, twice, a third time. He read them over and over until he chuckled, “Do you really think I’d believe that I’m a fictional character in a book? This is absolute nonsense, you do realize that, don’t you?”

I’m telling you the reality of this situation.

“You’re telling me that you’re some sort of psychopath with a sick idea of a joke.”

I’m telling you the truth.

“This doesn’t make sense. Prove it.”

How would you like me to do that?

“I don’t know. You made this place up, I presume. This hall of nothingness. The sun that never seems to set. The clouds that never move. Those faces. You brought them here. Make them go away.”

By the time Asher turned around to face the glass of familiar faces, they were gone. Every last one of them. The eerie faces that once stared back at him replaced by a large mirror. At a distance, his reflection seemed small. As he walked closer, he saw his face for the first time in what seemed like forever. It was as flushed as it was the last day he lived his life. His crooked nose matched his widow’s peak, pointing downwards, sharp and bold. His dark brown hair hadn’t grown an inch since he came. Everything was the same. Except his eyes. Sunken and dismal, his eyes reflected a sense of emptiness. Loneliness. Completely hollow, like a soul wasn’t there. They stared back at him but didn’t feel like his own; they were as cold and empty as the faces that once stood behind the glass. He examined his clothes, holding back the sense of fear his own eyes gave him.

His shirt was spotless, other than the torn sleeve over his left arm. The wound he had on his upper arm still looked fresh, but was dry as bone. He hadn’t lost weight, despite the lack of food. He never felt he needed it, now that he thought about it. He hadn’t felt hungry in a long time. He ruffled his wavy short hair, how he used to every time he faced a mirror. A habit that hadn’t died. 

The mirror was harder to bear than the empty faces that once stood. “This is just some kind of trick,” he breathed. Every footstep he took towards the wall was as quiet as it had ever been. No noise ever echoed in this place. His steps as silent as if he were walking on sponge. “An illusion,” he continued, his anger increasing the more he felt he was being tricked.

Was that not enough for you?

“Don’t belittle me like a child. For all I know, they’re all still there. Behind that mirror you put up. You can’t make me believe my entire existence was a lie based on a magic trick.”

Do you want something a little more drastic?

He couldn’t help but feel a sense of anxiety for what was about to come next.

The dim corridor suddenly grew colder, and a chill filled his spine. The clouds began to shift as the sun set faster than possible. The darkness and the cold came out of nowhere, his eyes peering at the sky. His breath was icy and drew a trail of smoke with each exhale. Thunder clapped and lightning flashed, brightening the entire room all at once. The faces behind the glass reappeared as the second flash of light illuminated the corridor once more. He noticed something different about them this time, but the light disappeared too fast for him to pinpoint what it was. Another flash and louder clap. The solemn looks of those he loved and knew appeared once more. Darkness, then the light, brighter than he could imagine. The people behind the glass were moving. They simultaneously walked towards him like lifeless beings, one step at a time.

There were faces he trusted, faces he found comfort in. But they never looked more dangerous. As the light came back once more, the mob were two feet closer. And again. Asher backed up, not taking his eyes off the glass, even in complete darkness. They seemed to be walking faster as they gained momentum, zombies learning how to sprint. Asher backed up against the wall where this all started. There was nowhere to run. He turned and hit the wall with his fists.

 “STOP! MAKE IT STOP!”

The shocking pain ran up his arm with every pound against the wall.

 “STOP!”

The mob of people was no longer behind a glass, suddenly disappearing as if it were never there. Their bodies only inches away from his, he recognized the person who made direct eye contact.

 “ROBBY, STOP!”

His brother-in-law had no expression on his face, but his pleas seemed to work. They stopped moving. The lightning and thunder came to a halt. The sun was rising with the clouds no longer there to obscure its bright rays. Asher’s back was firmly pressed against the wall, trying to create a distance between him and them. Their faces were in clear sight, as the sun rose to its peak. They stood there, so close to his face, that his heavy breathing made Robby’s curls sway with each exhale. “Help me,” he whispered, to no one in particular. No one blinked. Or moved. Or had any life in them. He had never really looked at them this close, this clearly. They looked…alone. They stood there until the impossible happened. It started with Robby. Or so he thought. Asher only noticed it in his sister’s husband since he had yet to break eye contact with him. Robby’s face began to slowly melt and slip away, like the sun was melting a detailed snowman. His lips and cheeks began to sag, and the corners of his eyes followed. His face was turning to mush when Asher saw the rest of them slowly melt away into nonexistence. They formed green puddles beneath his boots, like they were all made up of goo and bile. His breathing slowed, but Asher’s heart was still violently beating against his chest, the feeling resonating in his ears and eyes. The puddle of people seeped into the hard floors without leaving a drop.

Asher had a hard time regaining his step without leaning. He slowly knelt down, using his fingers as support, and felt the floor. It was flat and smooth, not a crack or a groove. Where did they go, he thought, his palms against the floor feeling for something – searching for something as small as a pin. He looked up when he had given up, completely dumbfounded by the phenomena of a group of people liquefying. To his relief, the faces were there once more, across the corridor. As they were when it all began. Their faces intact as if it were all just a bad dream finally over. It was like waking up from a horrible nightmare into another nightmare, one from which there was no waking up. 

“Who are you?”

 He expected the crack in his voice, not even trying to hide it. He couldn’t explain what his life had become, and it was too much to handle.

I’m the author.

Asher read the words and just nodded. Accepting it, perhaps. But more questions soon followed.

 “If I’m not real, then how do I have memories? How did I have a family and a life and a childhood? Explain that to me.”

I coined up your life to create this story.

“My life is your story?”

Precisely

Clearing his throat and flattening out the creases on his shirt, he stood up, “Not very creative are you?”

What makes you say that?

“Well, I’m no hero. Complete opposite, I’d say. With absolutely no morals to share.”

You lived a full life. Or so to speak. You just need to see it from a different perspective.

“My life didn’t even end yet. I just woke up one day here. In this…place.”

You didn’t die in the life you know. But your life did end that day.

For a long, long moment, Asher thought about that. He didn’t like what he was hearing. Now that he knew what all this was about he wanted something else. Badly.  Would just wanting it be enough? Could he yearn what he was yearning strongly enough to make it happen?  The author knew, of course.  Asher turned his eyes to the corridor’s end, now somehow brighter than it had ever been.  He ignored the bold letters on the wall. They seemed strangely urgent now, as if pleading with him, bargaining. It was always his aim to reach that flashing light. Hope at the end of the tunnel?

“It’s not ending here,” he announced, beginning to strut towards the blinking light. It was hot, uncomfortable, and he began to sweat. And sweat. Huge droplets that fell to the floor, and on closer inspection were opaque, the color of his flushed face and brown hair and gaunt eyes.

Suddenly the whole black wall flashed with endless bold letters. It flashed, then flickered, then lit up like fireworks, then scrolled a thousand scintillating letters, then a thousand more, with each step Asher took forward.

And Asher smiled as he walked down the corridor, passed the flicker of light, even though parts of him were melting away and other parts taking shape. The faces behind the glass were waiting for him, at the corridor’s end, and for the first time ever, they showed emotion, their eyes and lips glowing with expectation. Asher met them with a little puff of triumph,  at least for now, for he knew he had succeeded in unsealing his fate, buying a little more time; for this, he thought, is how a sequel begins.

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