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It wasn’t the night’s cold kiss that kept Daryl awake that lonely, November night. To tell the truth, it had been quite a while since Daryl Hutchinson had succumbed to any kind of restful sleep. It was obvious early on, however, that this wouldn’t be like any of those nights. No, it hadn’t been the cloying thoughts of his beloved Amber (who had decided to leave him in his time of need), nor was it the two opened bills on his counter; two-months’ rent for his shit-box apartment that remained unpaid. Surprisingly, it also hadn’t been the thought of the looming third and final bill that would, in two weeks’ time, arrive in his mail. All thoughts of his daily troubles had been scraped from his mind, driven out by an internal intruder; there was a peculiar itch, deep inside Daryl Hutchinson’s ear.

It hadn’t started as an itch. He’d woken up that morning with a strange congestion in his left ear. It felt tight, like a drop of water had become trapped inside, but no matter how hard he had shaken his head, nothing came out. The day had gone on, and Daryl had just gotten used to it. He was certain it was an issue that would resolve itself and require no extraneous action.

That had been the day, though. Half of the night had passed with Daryl staring into the dark ceiling in frustration. Somehow, the congestion had evolved into a troublesome irritation. The itching came in awful waves that made him shudder from head to toe. It was deep inside his ear, much too deep for any of his large fingers to claw at. He knew, he’d tried all of them. He’d reached, dug, poked and prodded, but the itch only got worse.

At about a quarter past four, Daryl understood that the congestion wasn’t getting any better. He could barely hear the sound of his own burrowing fingers anymore. Wondering if he was just simply going mad, he snapped his fingers just outside his ear. The snaps were audible, but only just. It wasn’t ideal, but it was manageable.

Then the itch turned into pain.

It almost took a whole minute for Daryl’s drowsy mind to even register the scratching-like sensation that had grown within his ear. Daryl moaned, in frustration and discomfort, as he sat up in bed. It wasn’t like any earache he’d had before. They turned his whole ear raw, and that pain throbbed into the base of his skull. This pain was different, precise and localized, surely nothing more than a progression of the irksome itch.

The pain had caused him more anger than anything else, so he lashed out and brought his palm to bear on the side of his head. Not once, twice, but three times. It solved nothing, and only serve to exacerbate his predicament.

As the pain dotted the inside of his ear, Daryl stood up and plodded towards the bathroom, scowling in the darkness. Seeing as how everything else had failed, Daryl was willing to do just about anything he could to get some decent shut-eye. He stepped into the bathroom, turning on the warm water in the sink. The uneven sound of running water was relaxing and welcome.

The pain actually relinquished for just a moment as Daryl reached down to the water. He let it run through his fingers for a moment, and he savored the warmth. Cupping his hand, he collected a decent amount of water, and he bent down as low as he could. There was something in his ear, of that, Daryl was certain, and he was ready to wash it out. He tilted his head, ready to dump every last drop inside.

“stop.”

Daryl shot upwards with a gasp, dropping the water into the sink. The voice had not been his. Daryl swung around, leaning backwards over the sink, to see who was there. The doorway behind him was empty and silent, but that didn’t ease his racing heart. Daryl reached out quickly with his arm, awkwardly searching for the light switch.

The lights uncovered nothing. The only occupant of the bathroom was Daryl. The only sounds were the running water and his own raspy breaths. He was alone, but that voice had been as real as anything. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected. An intruder? Amber? Each seemed as unlikely, and as troubling, as the other.

Daryl shut the door, realizing that beyond it obstructive shadows still hung on every nook and cranny. Isolated in the light, he should have felt better. The pressure pushed on his ear, and he felt the pain return once more. Despite the unpleasantness in his ear, the only thing Daryl could focus on was the evanescent voice.

Had he just imagined it?

For good measure, he checked the bathtub, stripping the shower curtains away in a fearful burst. Empty. There was no one, and nowhere else to hide. The water still running behind him, Daryl tried to massage the tiredness out of his face. He tried to bury his thoughts of the voice beneath layers of doubt.

It came again.

“turn. off.”

Daryl jumped, turning quickly to his left. The voice, the quiet voice, had come from there. He’d heard it, for sure this time, as surely as he heard the water running behind him. Yet, it didn’t make sense! No one was there. No one at all. He couldn’t decide whether the voice had belonged to a man or a woman, but neither stood beside him.

Daryl could see through the crack in the curtains that the window was shut, and a quick check showed him that it was, indeed, still locked. Peering through the curtains, the world outside was almost too dark to see, especially with the light reflecting from inside. Yet, there was no way the voice had come from out there. It felt too close, too intimate. It had been like someone had whispered into his ear.

“turn. off. water.”

“Who?” Daryl jumped, screaming at someone unseen. “Who’s there?”

“turn. off. water.”

Daryl opened his mouth, but words never came. He only screamed. Inside his ear, the pins had turned into molten daggers, and shocking, electric pain coursed through his skull. Clutching his ear, his legs buckled, and he shrunk towards the floor.

The pain stopped, momentarily, as the voice crept in once more, “stop. pain.”

Granted a brief respite, Daryl reached for the counter, and he pulled himself back up. Heaving, with tears blurring his vision, Daryl wasn’t sure what to do. Then, his respite was over, and the awful, ear-splitting pain burned him once more. Fueled by reflex and instinct, Daryl obeyed the voice. He turned the faucet and both the water and pain trickled away.

“good.”

The voice was almost indescribable. It had no emotion. Daryl couldn’t decide if it was pleased, upset, or even apathetic. The words just were. They existed on the fringe of his eardrum, with each word, each syllable vibrating and humming like they were plucked from the strings of a little guitar.

“good. sleep. now. sleep.”

The words gave it the emotion the voice had lacked. They gave the Voice an identity.

“Good,” it had said. It was “good” that Daryl gave in. It had been something that the Voice, the unseen entity, wanted, and Daryl had obeyed, and that was good. The uncomfortable, perverse thought tore Daryl from the ground, but the moment he got to his feet his world started to spin.

A nasty onset of vertigo took control. His legs gave only the slightest, tired warning before they gave out, allowing Daryl only enough time to brace himself against the bathroom’s wall. Sliding downwards, he soon came to rest on the cold, tile floor, sitting slumped against the wall.

The pain had subsided, but the intensity of the assault remained fresh and tender in his mind. He rose his hand towards his ear, not terribly sure of what to do next. Trembling, he tapped his earlobe with the same quivering motion that one might touch a red-hot stove. No pain came, so he touched it again. Taking a chance, he massaged the outside of his ear, bottom to top, and then relaxed. He was ok.

Curiosity, and sanity, begged him to push further. Daryl wanted to put his finger inside his ear, maybe massage the areas that were still a bit sore. The congestion lingered like an echo inside, and the itch had only grown worse. Yet, the idea of the Voice and its wrath held him back.

His hand fell to his side.

--

He sat there until morning.

He didn’t sleep, but his mind had wandered far. The sun had risen in an unconscious blink of the eye, and only when the bathroom had become bathed in its light had Daryl returned to awareness. The warmth was a lie, magnified by the window. Outside, November cold reigned. Inside the bathroom, however, the sun’s beams were sweltering and blinding.

Daryl stood up slowly, relieved that the vertigo had seemingly dissipated. He leaned on the counter as he tried to comprehend what had happened to him. The events, the horrors, of last night seemed impossible in the light of day. There was still the same pressure within his ear, but nothing more. No pain, no discomfort even, and no whispers.

A little light-headed, Daryl sat down on the toilet next to the window, crouching forward as he thought. What could it have been last night? He’d never experienced a nightmare that had felt so real, and that he couldn’t recall waking up from. The sun warmed the left side of his face as he pondered. In the light, the terrors of the dark faded into memory, and memory could be mistaken.

“I’m fine,” Daryl muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.”

Then, the reminder that he wasn’t.

“move.”

Memories returned from the ethereal as the all-too real Voice whispered a stern order into Daryl’s ear. Daryl took to his feet quickly, not for the Voice’s benefit, but out of his own uneasiness. There had been no one beside him. It wasn’t possible, but his madness had followed him into the light of day.

“hot,” the Voice said again. “no. hot.”

Daryl felt the side of his face, the warm touch of the sun was still imprinted there.

“cold. cold.”

Daryl stumbled backwards out of the bathroom. He muttered madness under his breath as he made his way into the main room of his apartment. Leaning over the kitchen counter, he brought his palm to his ear three times. Each time he desperately tried to change reality with his words.

“Not real,” he groaned. “This isn’t happening. It’s not real! No! I’m fine!”

Before he could utter another word, strike another time, the pain shot through his ear again, like someone had shoved a hypodermic needle into his brain. Daryl screamed for God as he fell to his knees, but God didn’t answer. There was only the Voice.

“stop,” it said, emotionlessly. “fine. i. fine. you. fine.”

The pain tapered, “we. fine.”

Gasping, Daryl felt pressured to disagree. Pulling himself up, he realized that nothing made sense. For a moment earlier, he had wondered if the voice in his head had truly been that. Perhaps it had been nothing more than a psychotic break caused by his insomnia or anxiety. He wished he could be happy that it wasn’t that. The Voice was certainly real, tangible in his ear, but Daryl couldn’t take any joy in knowing that his own mind hadn’t fractured.

The fact that the Voice was something real terrified him far more.

But it also gave him a certain idea. If it, the Voice, was a real thing, and it could hear him, then maybe the Voice was something he could talk to. Something he could reason with.

“Where are you?” Daryl asked, with his eyes scanning the room. Of course, when he wanted a response, there was nothing but silence.

He asked again, “Where are you? Show yourself!”

“here,” came the response. “inside.”

Daryl felt his throat tighten. He had been right, he could talk to the Voice, but he became suddenly unsure if he would like the conversation. It was madness.

“Inside?” Daryl asked, repeating the intriguing word.

“you,” came the horrifying response. “inside. you.”

Daryl couldn’t speak. Confusion gave way to uncomfortable feelings of invasion and violation. Something, some entity that could hear him, talk to him, and hurt him, was inside his body.

“What—” Daryl started, unable to find the words. “What are you?”

This was a question that the Voice didn’t answer. At least, not in the way that Daryl wanted.

“me,” was the only clue that Daryl ever got from the Voice itself. It was more than enough to get him heading for the door.

“stop,” said the Voice, as Daryl put on his coat. “moving. stop.”

Daryl didn’t listen. He didn’t even dare say it, but he needed to go see someone. Anyone. A Doctor, a Priest, a god damn psychiatrist if he had too, but he knew, reluctantly, that there was nothing more he could do. That was his aim, but as soon as his hand touched the doorknob Daryl understood one crucial fact.

The Voice was in charge.

Pain shot into his head like wild lightning, and in a moment Daryl was nothing more than a sobbing, writhing mass upon the floor. There was something the Voice needed to make absolutely clear.

“no,” it said. “stay.”

Daryl shook his head in denial, but the Voice was adamant.

“good. stay. home. safe. dark. no. people. good.”

Its words soon started to overlap each other, as if spoken by multiple beings all at once. They became overwhelming atop the crippling pain.

A cruel lecture from an even crueler teacher.

When Daryl started to scream, louder and louder, the Voice told him, “stop. screams. pain. loud.”

The more Daryl screamed, the worse the fire-hot embers burned inside his head. The voice repeated itself again, and again, until Daryl understood, and bit down hard on his lip. Stifling the scream, the Voice finally allowed his suffering to cease. The pain flowed away from the epicenter in his head, and Daryl felt its tingle creep across his skin and muscles, from his neck all the way down to his feet, before it eventually faded into nothing.

“good,” it said. “quiet. good.”

When he was allowed to get up, Daryl looked to the door, and he felt a twinge of discomfort in his head. With the same unwillingness of a man held at gunpoint, Daryl collapsed onto his couch, and he stared blankly into the ceiling.

As the day passed, Daryl would learn the Voice’s rules.

The first came when he tried to open the curtains. It had taken a while for Daryl to even move again after coming to terms with the monster inside him, and he wondered what he could still manage. There had to be something he could do to ease his situation. Perhaps if he could open the windows, he could signal for help. Someway so obscure that, perhaps, the Voice wouldn’t recognize right away. However, this attempt resulted in a painful scorning. It came in a quick, whip-like lashing to stay his hand.

“closed.” the Voice said. “dark. like. dark.”

The scratchy voice inside his head also rebutted when Daryl tried to shower several hours later.

“no. wet. no. water.”

The creature inside him feared the water more than the light or the heat, he found, as its particular temper-tantrum inside the bathroom lasted twice as long as any had before. All the better to send the most urgent message possible. Water bad.

Daryl hadn’t intended for the shower to rid himself of the Voice, but he was curious as to its limits. He remembered the outburst earlier, and apparently the threat of water cascading all around him was too much. Daryl found that the Voice didn’t have nearly as serious a response when he simply removed a bottle of water from the refrigerator. That was perfectly ok.

Lost for other options, Daryl had, of course, considered using his phone to contact someone on the outside. He was hesitant. The excruciating agony he had felt at the foot of the door wasn’t something he wished to experience again. The Voice made it very clear that he was not to attract attention to himself from the outside in any way. So, what could he do?

As the day stretched on, he couldn’t stop from staring at the phone. It lay charging on the kitchen counter. Easily accessible. Every scenario he ran in his head ended the same way, with him, on the floor, crying for the sweet-release of death. There was no way the Voice would ever let him contact the outside world.

Daryl never expected, however, that the outside world would try to contact him.

It made him jump when the phone sprung to life, as soon as the ringing began, the Voice expressed its painful displeasure.

“noise. what. is,” it asked.

“I have a phone call,” Daryl hissed through clenched teeth, as he stood up.

“no. answer,” the Voice demanded. “no.”

Daryl, bearing his teeth, found strength in his own frustration. It was strength enough to, momentarily, overcome the pain in his head, and the fear in his soul. He walked to the phone.

“I know you want me alone, isolated. Right?” Daryl asked, certain he was right.

“yes,” the Voice said. “alone. good.”

“Other people are bad, right? Other people can help me.”

“people. bad. bad. people,” it spoke as if a child.

“If I don’t answer the phone, then people will come to check on me. Got that? I can tell them it’s fine. If they come, then things won’t be fine. Ok?”

This made the Voice relent; the pain fell to a light simmer. Daryl’s hand crept upwards, and across the counter. The Voice offered no resistance, but it granted no permission. Daryl’s fingers lay, twitching, inches from the phone. They were poised, ready to grab it in a heartbeat.

All he needed was the Voice’s permission.

“answer,” the Voice conceded.

Daryl grabbed the phone in the blink of an eye, and in the same moment, the pain came once more. The Voice wasn’t finished.

“left. ear.”

The Voice eased up, allowing Daryl to answer the call. It was from Amber, just like he had hoped it would be. Obeying the voice, Daryl raised the phone up to his left ear.

“if. bad,” the Voice warned. “pain. worse. worse.”

It punctuated its point with a sharp, brutal snap. Daryl winced, but took it. He had to. Both of them, Daryl and the Voice, listened as Amber spoke.

“Are you there, Daryl?” she asked. “Hello?”

“speak,” whispered the Voice. “say. fine.”

Daryl couldn’t. Hearing Amber’s voice, even as muted as it was, brought a tear to his eye. It was impossible to remember the bad times: the fact that this was the first time he’d heard her voice in nearly a month, the day she walked out, the way she’d cried when she looked at him. It was different now, because he needed her.

“I’m here,” he said, grinning. “I’m here, Amber. Hi.”

There was a pinch in his ear, “say. fine. stop.”

“Yeah, hi,” Amber continued. “What the hell are you doing?”

“What?” Daryl asked, still too happy to hear Amber to even focus on the angry tone of her voice.

“Don’t ‘what’ me! I just heard from Tom and he says you’re about to lose your damn apartment. Is that true?”

“tell. her. go,” the voice interrupted, uninterested in anything she had to say.

“Yes, it’s true,” Daryl said.

“Have you found anything yet?” Amber asked. “Anything at all? Where have you applied?”

“I’ve been looking,” Daryl lied. He had to stall time, but he had no idea how long the Voice would give him, nor how long Amber’s patience would last. He had to find a way to tell her something was wrong, a way that wouldn’t let the Voice know. Daryl had gathered it was intelligent, but to what extent? What could he get away with?

He turned his gaze to the guitar in the corner of the room.

“Hey,” he said. “Did you know you left your guitar here, when you left?”

“guitar,” the voice echoed. “no.”

The Voice hurt Daryl as Amber, confused, asked, “What? The guitar is yours. Why would I take it? No, focus, we’re talking about you. You need a damn job, Daryl. Are you ok?”

The pained wheezing of Daryl abated long enough for him to respond as the Voice ordered.

“I’m fine, I feel fine. I just know you loved that guitar.”

“you. not. make. her. here,” the Voice stated. “she. no. come.”

Daryl knew what it meant. It had caught on. It knew what he had tried to do, and it wouldn’t allow it.

“stop. talk,” it ordered. “tell. fine. stop.”

Daryl took a deep breath as Amber’s voice came into his ear like a calming wave above the scratching whispers of the Voice.

“Look, forget it. I need to tell you something, ok. So, you listen, got it?”

Daryl nodded, humming a simple “mmhm”, hoping the Voice would allow it. It hadn’t stopped ranting, and its orders were escalating in intensity and frequency. Any moment now, Daryl knew it, the Voice would have enough.

“I miss you, but you made it clear the last time we talked that you don’t want any help. None, but I don’t care. I don’t. I care about you, and god dammit you need to pull your egocentric head out of your asinine ass for two seconds. Stop being so pathetic! I have a friend who can set you up. They’re looking for tech guys. They are looking for you! I know that getting let go sucks, I know, but here is your chance. You can pull yourself out of this. I’m just holding the rope for you. Please, baby. Please. All you need to do is tell me, right now, do you need my help or not?”

Daryl opened his mouth, yearning to yell out, scream out, “Yes! Oh, God yes! I’m sorry! I can’t do this anymore! I’m stuck! Save me!”

But the Voice told him, “no. tell. no. help. no.”

His insides simmered like coals, and as the tears came they blazed like fire. He had no choice. He was no longer in control.

There was only the Voice.

“I’m sorry,” Daryl whispered. “I can’t.”

“good,” said the Voice as Daryl started to weep.

“God, damn you, Daryl,” Amber started. She continued to tell Daryl how disappointed she was, and how simple it could be. All the while, the Voice ordered one thing.

“stop. talk. done. stop. done. talk. stop.”

The words all came at once, drumming inside his ear, and Daryl whispered, wondering, “Can you hear it?”

“What?” Amber asked.

“Can you hear it?” Daryl asked again.

He heard Amber sigh, “Listen, if you need me, when you need my help I will be here. Ok? I’ll be there for you, but you have to ask. Got it?”

“you. won’t,” the Voice said simply. “can’t. done.”

Then, Daryl was certain he’d died. The Voice hurt him, leaving him no choice but to clench the phone between his fingers. The call ended as his fingers squeezed down hard on the screen, and Amber was gone. Not even a weak “goodbye” escaped his lips, only a short-lived hiss of sorrow. He was alone, trapped, and at the complete and utter mercy of the Voice.

--

Several days passed; Daryl remained like a walking corpse within his apartment. There was little that the Voice still allowed him to do. He existed as nothing more than a shell, a vessel for the entity that pulled the strings in his head. Daryl felt like he no longer existed. There was only the will of the Voice.

For Daryl, the first day had been the worst physically, but after he’d learned the rules the Voice had significantly fewer reasons to harm him. The lack of pain was hardly enough to restore any sense of hope in the man, however, for Daryl felt more worthless than ever before. Every day that passed damaged him more and more as hope faded away.

The Voice wasn’t fond of activity, or movement of any kind. It would allow Daryl brief moments of freedom, and short spans of mobility when he woke up or whenever he needed to use the restroom. For the majority of the day, however, the Voice preferred it if Daryl lay upon the couch, and sat there until it was time for bed.

Television wasn’t allowed, for the Voice didn’t trust the sounds of other humans so close. It was alarmed at the prospect of anyone else entering the room, and getting close to Daryl himself. In fact, Daryl found that he was unable to enjoy anything that made noise. The Voice had already expressed its displeasure at the use of his phone, and the one time he tried to play his guitar had ended very poorly. Each time he plucked a string, the Voice would very quickly reprimand him. The Voice’s persistence and consuming control drove Daryl to a point of explosive frustration. Thinking he could push through the pain, and preserve some sense of purpose, normality, and humanity in his life, Daryl tried to play more. The Voice didn’t yield, and Daryl was forced to give up after only five notes.

In a violent outburst, it was smashed into tiny pieces; the strings, curled up and useless, lay against the splintered neck.

After four days of subservience, Daryl had a realization. There had been four days of silence and isolation. Each morning, he wondered to himself if Amber would show, and if some miracle would bring her to his door. Surely, she would come to check on him eventually.

Yet, each night fell without a single knock upon the door. Amber wasn’t coming for him. It took a little more than a week for Daryl to understand that she had been completely honest during the phone call. She was done, unless he reached out to her first. That was something he could not do.

That realization lead to another: everything he had ever done had been on his own.

No one had introduced him to Amber, he’d walked up to her on his own. He’d asked her out on his own. Beyond her, he’d made his way through college on his own, he’d gotten his job on his own, and he’d gotten his apartment on his own. Waiting for Amber was foolish, and so was the Voice. He would finish this on his own, swiftly and decisively.

It hated the sound of flowing water, but it still allowed him to drink silently from bottles. It was the Voice’s final mistake, Daryl was certain. It feared the water, and nothing fears anything without reason. Maybe that was all it would take. Just a little water. A fast baptism. He could do it quickly, before the Voice even realized what was happening. If it worked, he’d be free. He would have freed himself.

But, if it didn’t work, Daryl didn’t even want to imagine what would happen next. He couldn’t fail. He wouldn’t.

Removing a bottle from the fridge, he moved swiftly. He had the lid off in a moment, and he tilted his head. Yet, a further moment’s hesitation as he poured the water into his ear, and the game was over. A drop fell, but nothing more. There was a roar in his ear.

“DARE. YOU. WATER!” the Voice screamed. “STOP. NOW!”

Daryl screamed in return as the pain started, like a fire eating its way towards his brain. He wasn’t sure if it was the water, or perhaps blood, that sloshed about in his ear canal. He wanted to stop, to let the Voice win, and to make the horrible ache fall away, but he couldn’t. He wouldn’t let it win. He knew he could do it.

“N-no!” Daryl stammered, his teeth clenched in awful agony. “I-I’m done. I pour this, and you’re gone. You—you’re gonna leave.”

“NO,” it replied, confident. “NEVER. LEAVE. ONLY. PAIN.”

Somehow, like demonic hellfire, the pain worsened and Daryl quivered to his knees. Holding the water bottle firm and high above his head, he held on to his hope. He knew he could do it.

“You’re scared,” he said. “Scare—scared of the water! You’ll drown.”

“NO,” it said. “ONLY. PAIN,” and then it added another word; a new word that the Voice had learned. “KILL. YOU. KILL. IF. POUR.”

Daryl trembled, the pain had gotten worse yet, but at the moment that’s all that it remained. Pain. He had to believe, hope, that it couldn’t get any worse than that. It couldn’t kill him.

“I don’t believe you.”

He tilted the bottle, but before anything happened, the Voice spoke once more, no longer screaming.

“won’t. you,” it said. ‘won’t. know. you.”

Daryl stopped, and he waited.

“pathetic,” it said, in a tone that almost perfectly mirrored Amber’s from before, the first time the Voice had ever expressed anything similar to an emotion. “weak. failure.”

“Shut-up!” Daryl shouted. “You don’t know me!”

“won’t. pour. too. weak. lost. everything.”

“Stop,” Daryl groaned. “Stop!”

“alone. no. help. won’t. risk. sad. boy.”

“I’m going to kill you!” Daryl screamed.

“failure. daryl. failure. pathetic. pour. water. die. failure.”

Daryl screamed, and he threw the water bottle across the room. Water sprayed against the walls, and it pooled onto the floor as he wept. The pain started to recede as the drop of water trickled out of his ear, and the Voice offered its comfort.

“no. need. help,” it said. “i. here. we. ok.”

It was wrong, and Daryl finally knew it. He could have poured the water, but at what cost? He was alone, and he was a failure.

It had all been true. He’d lost his job, and in the aftermath, he’d become stuck in a hopeless rut. He had believed his whole life that he could succeed entirely on his own merit. It was a fool’s notion. When he lost that belief, he didn’t know how to pull himself out of the rut he had dug; his ego had eliminated all possible options.

On top of that he’d lost Amber too. He drove her away, even though she’d given him every chance. He had trapped himself. He couldn’t even laugh at the irony that by the time he’d figured it out he was still trapped. Trapped by the Voice.

If the Voice was right, and it could kill him, then he couldn’t risk it. Not alone. Not by himself. Going it alone had taken everything from Daryl, and he refused to let it take his life. He cried, and the Voice said nothing. It allowed him his moment of acceptance.

Daryl was glad. The Voice thought, wrongly, that he had given up.

--

Amber had called once more since the first time, and although he desperately wanted to answer the Voice had pulled his reins tight. He wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone. No one but the Voice.

Daryl had many interesting conversations with the entity that possessed him, when the Voice felt like speaking that is.

“Why are you doing this to me?” Daryl had asked once.

To this question, the creature simply replied with, “home.”

Most questions the Voice gave similar, simple responses. Daryl still couldn’t figure out if it was simply because the thing was daft or because it was intentionally secretive. He wished it would tell him more, but some of the things it didn’t say told Daryl more than he needed to know.

The Voice had given him lessons earlier, and they were meant to restrain Daryl. Yet, in his confinement, Daryl started to listen and learn. In the week that passed, Daryl had learned three things about the Voice; three things that, Daryl believed, might give him an edge.

The first was a realization that Daryl had known from the beginning, but the implications of which he was still trying to sort out. Whenever the Voice spoke, it wasn’t a completely internal sound. He heard it in his ear, and very specifically, he only heard it in his left ear. Whatever it was, it seemed limited to his left side; the same side that housed that awful congestion. That’s why it made him answer the phone there, so it could listen in. It was also the same reason it reacted so violently to the droplet of water. It didn’t change the fact that he couldn’t remove the mass, but it was a start.

Lesson one: The Voice was located inside his left ear.

The second lesson came when he realized that when the Voice was speaking, it remained incognizant of changes happening outside his body. Whenever the Voice spoke in his ear, Daryl found that he could move and do things unmolested. He discovered this by accident as he was walking around the apartment one day. The Voice started speaking to him, responding vaguely to some question Daryl himself had posed, and at the same time Daryl had decided to remove a sock. Daryl realized, right before the Voice stopped, that he had placed his right hand on the front door to balance himself. Knowing that front door was strictly prohibited, Daryl was surprised that the Voice took no action against him. It simply acted as if nothing had happened.

Curious, Daryl had experimented. Asking the Voice another question, he touched the door again, intentionally this time. He found that, almost without fail, when the Voice was speaking, it had no idea that any action outside had been performed. However, when the Voice stopped speaking, if his hand was still on the door, it offered nothing but hostility.

It was also worth mentioning that the Voice couldn’t hear his thoughts. Any comment or question had to be posed audibly to get a response. He thought many, many times of pouring boiling water into his ear and roasting alive whatever spirit or demon thrived inside him, knowing how much it feared the water. The thoughts never elicited a response. If he posed the question verbally, however, he got a slightly less pleasant retort. Daryl thought it was curious. Whatever had attached itself inside his body like a parasite wasn't all-knowing, and it didn't have complete access to his head. It was curious, but incredibly welcome information.

Lesson two: The Voice had blind spots.

The final lesson, and the one that intrigued Daryl the most, was that the Voice didn’t seem to be able to read. Daryl had only received, and neglected, one call in his week of imprisonment, but many more messages had been sent by text. There’d been five, at least, and just about all of them had been from Amber. Each time the phone buzzed, the Voice told Daryl he couldn’t answer. The Voice had believed the vibrations to be the same vibrations that came from phone calls, until Daryl tried to explain otherwise.

He picked up the phone, with the permission of the Voice who was actually quite curious about the so-called text messages. The Voice ordered he hold the phone up to his face, and Daryl obliged, displaying the latest message.

The text was from Amber, “Ignoring me isn’t going to stop time.”

He had paused after it vibrated, waiting for a stern response from the Voice, but there had been nothing. No pain. Instead, there was a curious whisper in his ear.

“what. say.”

“What’s what say?” Daryl asked.

“words. palm. say.”

Daryl understood. The Voice saw the phone, and it saw that there was a message there, not a call, and it understood that there were words. It just couldn’t read them.

“It’s just Amber checking in,” Daryl responded, curiously. This of course initiated the same angry reaction from the Voice, and Daryl was hesitant to look at any messages again. Yet, this gave him the most important bit of information yet.

Lesson three: The Voice couldn’t read.

For days, Daryl thought about what he could do to stop the voice. He could put earmuffs on. Something that muted the Voice, blinded it, but that idea was quickly discarded. If Daryl rolled over onto his left side, at all, during sleep, then he would feel the Voice’s wrath. If anything covered or even approached his left side without the Voice’s express permission was greeted with rage and venomous hostility, especially since the incident with the water bottle. It all was too risky.

So, what was he to do?

The plan was hatched in a dreamless night, more than a week and a half after the Voice had first spoken to him. Daryl understood that he had done so much on his own, just about all he could. It just wasn’t enough. He could enact any one of numerous plans but the Voice held him on a leash that was far too short. He couldn’t solve it all on his own, and he knew pain was unavoidable. There was no scenario where the Voice didn’t hurt him, and he accepted that.

He was done sitting in his rut.

Now, he couldn’t leave, he couldn’t call anyone, and the use of his phone was prohibited. Daryl could only pick it up if the Voice ordered him to. He decided to remain there and rest. The plan would remain safe inside his head until the sun rose. He took that time to think it all through. If he messed it up, any of it, then it was incredibly unlikely that the Voice would be as short-sighted the second time.

He waited until the next morning to put it into action. As soon as he was up from bed, and the Voice ordered him to move, out of the bedroom and into the darker living room, he made his move.

“How long will this go on for?” Daryl asked, moving swiftly to the kitchen.

He heard the itchy, awful whisper of the Voice, “until. die.”

“Me or you?” he asked, moving across the room to where his phone lay.

“either,” the voice said, as Daryl picked up his phone, and placed it deep into his pocket.

“Sounds lovely,” Daryl said, praying the Voice remained clueless.

Daryl threw himself down onto the couch. There was no time to waste. He just had to buy himself about twenty seconds. So, lying on his left side, with his head raised above the couch’s singular pillow, Daryl asked it another question.

“Do you hate me?”

“no,” the Voice said. “don’t. hate. home.”

“What do you think about me?”

Daryl asked the last question, and he immediately let his head fall to the pillow. The Voice spoke to him, but it had no idea that it was trapped. As it spoke, Daryl pulled the phone from his pocket, and opened the texts.

“love. home,” the Voice said, as Daryl found the unanswered messages from Amber. “home. calm. home. obedient.”

Daryl could tell it really struggled with the last word, but he didn’t know if it did so because the word was large or because the Voice had just discovered that it was blind.

“sit. up,” it ordered. It knew, but Daryl still needed a few seconds. He typed furiously. The Voice wouldn’t have it.

“what. do,” it said. “why. move. sit. up. now.”

The sizzling started, the warning shot, it wouldn’t remain so forgiving for long. The Voice barked the orders into Daryl’s ear, but he almost had it. He could feel the pain build and build as the Voice’s patience dwindled and dwindled. Just one more second.

There!

Daryl sat up, tossed his phone back towards the counter, and the pain subsided. There was silence, and a tickle in his ear. The Voice returned, anxious.

“what. sound. crash,” it asked without infliction. “phone.”

“It was nothing,” Daryl lied, unsure of how the entity had guessed it had been the phone.

“use. phone,” Daryl couldn’t decide if it was an accusation or a question.

“No, I didn’t. I couldn’t have, it’s over there.”

Just as Daryl pointed to it, it buzzed. It buzzed multiple times. A call from Amber.

“no. answer,” said the voice, and Daryl was happy to oblige. The call quickly fell silent, and then another came through immediately after.

“why. call.”

“I don’t know why,” Daryl said, certain that had been a question.

“make. stop.”

“I can’t.”

The second call ended, and a text message came through. The Voice was sick of it.

“what. message,” it asked.

“Yes, it’s a message.”

“read.” the Voice said. Daryl hesitated. He thought he’d almost heard the stressed inflection of panic in the Voice’s words.

Daryl stood, and cautiously approached the phone. The Voice allowed him to pick it up, and examine it. Daryl couldn’t hide his relief as he read the message. The Voice noticed.

“what. say,” it asked quickly.

“I’m done,” Daryl lied. “You won’t hear from me again.”

“real. words,” the Voice inquired.

“Yes,” Daryl lied, reading the last two messages over and over in his head.

The message he wrote to Amber, “Please, help me, I can’t leave my apartment. This is an emergency. Please come now. I need your help.”

The message Amber wrote to him, “I’m coming.”

Amber was there within twenty minutes, and they were the longest of Daryl’s life. The Voice had interrogated him time and time again about the messages on his phone. Each time, Daryl held strong and repeated the false message verbatim to the Voice. Yet, the Voice didn’t buy it. Daryl had never felt the Voice act this way. It was lashing out at him in frequent, shockingly painful ways. Every time he spoke, he felt the Voice gnawing on the inside of his ear like an animal.

Daryl had no idea what the Voice was, but he knew one thing for sure: it was scared.

When the knock on his door came, the Voice lost it. It no longer whispered in his ear; it pounded on his eardrum.

“WHO. HERE,” it demanded. “WHO. KNOCK.”

Gasping, Daryl threw himself towards the door, and through the pain he looked out the peephole. He grinned.

“It’s no one,” he said. “No one at all, it’s just a bill collector.”

“MAKE. GO. AWAY.”

“I will!” Daryl hissed. “I will, but you have to let me open the door!”

“NO!” The Voice roared. “DON’T. TRUST. DOOR. SHUT”

“I have to, or else she won’t go away!” Daryl said. “Please!”

The knocking came again, this time with Amber’s voice cutting through.

“Daryl?” She asked, concerned. “Daryl, open up this instant! I swear this better not be some kind of game!”

Daryl braced for it. The moment she spoke, he knew that the Voice would recognize her. Recognize Amber. Yet, the pain didn’t increase. The Voice was too furious to even listen.

“NO. OPEN.”

Daryl was done listening.

“I’m here,” he said, pain spiking within. “Hold on.”

“DON’T. OPEN,” the Voice ordered.

To this, Daryl responded, “I will open it, and tell her to go away. Listen to me! You have my word. I know what you can do to me. I know the pain you can cause. I’m nothing. I’m pathetic and that’s why you chose me.”

It didn’t end, but the Voice did ease up ever so slightly. A sign of trust.

“I know that this will hurt.”

He pulled the door open, and there, before him was Amber. She was radiant. The light from the hallway seemed almost blinding, and cast her in the perfect, angelic glow. Daryl cried, for he didn’t know how bad it could be.

“Are you ok?” Amber asked. “You look awful.”

“tell. her. go,” the Voice calmly reminded Daryl.

He waited.

“Daryl,” Amber continued, holding her phone in her hand. “Don’t waste my time, tell me. What the hell is this all about?”

“pain,” the Voice reminded. “endless. pain.”

Daryl heard it, but with Amber there it didn’t matter. He was ready.

“I need help,” Daryl said, quietly.

“no,” the Voice scratched.

“What do you mean?” Amber said.

Daryl had felt strong, but as the Voice went silent his face crumpled with fear and anxiety. The tears flowed, and he screamed at the top of his lungs.

“IT’S IN MY EAR!”

Daryl’s mind exploded at that moment, and Amber wasn’t fast enough to catch him as he fell. Pain became everything, in every vein, muscle, and bone of his body. It was stronger than Daryl had ever imagined. Screeching to God above, Daryl could only listen as the roar of the Voice rattled his skull.

“LIAR! ROTTEN! LIAR! PAY! NOW! PAY! PRICE! KILL—”

The words, and sound altogether faded as a black, suffocating void swallowed him whole.

--

There was a lightness, something was missing, and then there was panic.

Daryl awoke, yelling, because all he could remember was pain. It was there, the Voice, and it wanted to kill him! Daryl was yelling and yelling, but then he understood that there was no reason.

There was no Voice.

In fact, there wasn’t much of anything. His head felt light, like someone had popped a cork and let all the pain and mush drain out. There was some pain, a residual simmering within his left ear, but it was a comfortable shadow of what he’d felt before. It wasn’t what he had expected at all. He couldn’t remember how it had happened, but it was gone. He had awakened, there was little pain, and he wasn’t alone.

“Easy!” Amber said, her hands on his left shoulder. “Easy, baby. It’s ok! You’re fine! you’re ok now!”

Panting, Daryl grabbed her arm and he kissed her hand. The hospital room was empty except for her, and the moment he had awoken she had rushed to his side. Resting his head comfortably on the back of her hand, he closed his eyes again. He savored the emptiness inside his own head. It was perfect.

“Oh, God,” he mumbled. “Oh, God I love you. I love you, Amber. Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

“Of course,” she said softly. “Baby, are you ok? How do you feel?”

“I—” Daryl hesitated, he wanted to double check that everything was ok. He hoped it wasn’t just a dream. He started again with a shocked smile, because he was sure it wasn’t.

“I feel fine, I feel—free.”

“How’s the ear?” Amber asked, cautiously.

“I mean,” He said reaching for it. “It feels better than it did bef—”

He stopped. His ear was lighter, and that was good, but something else was missing. Something important. As his fingers crept up his face, they touched something itchy and flat. There was a gauze pad over his ear. He touched it, poked it, and scratched at it. The pad was curious, but even more so, was that he discovered something was indeed missing. The scratching of the pad, the rubbing of its course surface, and the snapping of his fingers, just to double check; he couldn’t hear any of it.

“I can’t hear,” Daryl said. “Not out of this ear.”

Amber nodded, “That’s what the doctor said. Said you ruptured your typic…uhm, something, the eardrum. You ruptured your eardrum.”

Daryl cusped his hand over the ear, and he thought back. The Voice, and the dying sound. An urgency came into his words upon remembering the Voice. There was a direness, and a fear in his gaze.

“What was in my ear?”

Amber’s mouth hung open.

“I—I,” she stumbled, unsure of what to say.

“Amber,” Daryl said, grasping her arm tightly. “What did they find in my ear?”

There was a knock at the door, and a curt “Hello?”

The doctor, an older man with a tanned face and an exceptionally thin hairline approached. He smiled, and held one of his hands deep inside his jacket pocket.

“You are awake,” he said, extending his free hand to Daryl. Daryl took it, “And much calmer now, sorry you had a rude awakening. Doctor Hoffstetler.”

The doctor released Daryl’s hand, and he gave Amber a quick nod.

“So, how are you feeling, Mr. Hutchinson?”

Daryl expelled a breath he hadn’t even realized he was holding, “It’s fine, except for the ‘can’t hear’ part.”

“Yes,” the doctor said. “Unfortunately, by the time we got to the blockage a significant rupture had occurred on your tympanic membrane. It was pretty nasty. Shredded, basically. The good news is, given time, it’s possible it can heal itself. The hearing loss you’re experiencing now may only be a transient symptom.”

“Blockage?” Daryl asked. Memories of the first night returned, the congestion he felt.

“Yes,” the Doctor said. A peculiar look appeared on the doctor’s face: excitement. “Do you have any idea what was in your ear?”

“No,” Daryl said quickly. “I have no idea what the hell was in my ear.”

The doctor nodded, “Are you squeamish?”

“What?” Daryl asked.

“I said,” the doctor pulled something from his white jacket. “Are you squeamish?”

On Daryl’s bedside table, the doctor place a tiny, clear vial. Inside, was what looked to be a stringy cotton ball. He felt Amber squirm in his grip. She couldn’t look away, but she clearly wanted to.

“What the hell is that?” Daryl asked. “Looks like…cotton, silk. I don’t know what that is!”

“Look a little closer,” the doctor said. “I think this is going to amaze you.”

So, Daryl moved closer, and he looked harder. He searched the white material for something more, anything.

He found it.

Something moved in the vial.

“No,” said Daryl. “It can’t be.”

He looked to the doctor, “Was this it?”

“Yes, it was there and it had established a significantly sized nes—”

“This can’t be it,” Daryl said, pulling away from the vial. “I mean, I heard—I heard…”

“Scratching?” the doctor asked. “It makes sense. In similar cases it’s not off to hear scratching and other noises, especially since this one was set up so close to your ear drum. Literally right on it, actually. I’ve never seen one this established, though. It had to have been in there for a while.”

Amber leaned forward, “Are you ok?”

How could he be? Daryl wanted to scream at them all. He wanted to tell them about the Voice, the pain, and everything. Yet, he couldn’t. Looking into the vial, Daryl was no longer even sure if he could trust himself. It was too unbelievable to be true. Hesitantly, as the doctor explained everything, Daryl leaned forward and gazed into the vial.

Inside the tube, nestled within a net of milky-white webs, sat a tiny, black spider that gazed vilely at Daryl, plucking at its webs with its feet, like it was picking the strings of a guitar.



Credited to Ryan Brennaman 
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