Every neighborhood has one kid that is scared of everything. His mom coddles him, he gets special treatment from the teachers at school, and he never ever goes outside. In my cul de sac, I was that kid—and I think that's why they took me.
Each night before sleep, I had a ritual: I would stand by the door to my room with the lights on and I would time a mighty leap so that I was in the air as I flipped the switch. The goal was to land in bed, rotate, and wrap myself in blankets before the bulb died completely and darkness really closed in.
I wasn't scared of the dark. I wasn't that much of a loser. I was just being cautious. Why put your feet near the open chilly void under the bed if you didn't have to? It was smart to jump from afar, even if all you were doing, at the very least, was ensuring your older brother couldn't hide under there and grab your ankles. It was a flawless system, really, and served me well for years.
Until the night that I tripped.
The light switch flipped down as I rose up, but my foot caught on my bookbag and I slammed to the carpet in a daze. I fell with my face right up against the chilly emptiness under the bed. A surge of adrenaline fueled an attempt to push away from it, but my worst fears came true: unseen fleshy hands grabbed my left arm and started pulling me.
Most of me thought it was my older brother, but part of me immediately understood that there was no way that slimy and meaty grasp was his. There was something trying to get me, and I hung onto the edge of the bed with my other hand desperately. As claws grabbed my leg and dragged my lower half into cold blackness, I kicked and screamed like a captured animal. As I began to slip, I was still clinging to the hope that this was just an overly elaborate prank by my older brother, but the last thing I saw before falling into endless darkness was his terrified face when he burst into my room and dove for me. He watched me fall; I saw him rise away in a receding rectangle of dim light.
The rectangle was the space under my bed—seen from the other side.
The best estimation of what I landed on would have to be a pile of rotting limbs. I couldn't see it, but I could feel it and smell it, and the creatures that had grabbed me were on equally loose footing. In absolute panic, I kicked and flailed and even bit into something's weirdly squishy forearm. They lost their hold, and I ran across that pit of torn-apart corpses blindly, repeatedly stumbling and jumping up as I went.
My shin hit the stone edge of some sort of opening, and I bit back a scream. The unseen creatures hadn't immediately grabbed me a second time, and my overwhelming fear told me not to give away my location, so I held the pain inside and made no noise. Clambering up into the opening, I crawled down that tunnel like my life depended on it. I hit my head at least three times, but I couldn't slow down. Scrabbling and sniffling echoed behind me, urging me on even as I became aware of someone talking up ahead. It was people! It was a man shouting!
My heart sank as I slid out of cramped stone into open mud. Exhausted and sloshing forward, I could hear him clearly, and the first thing I understood was that he was not someone who could help me. His shouts carried a tint of madness and rage, and seemed to be aimed at no one in particular.
"Vermin! Though you run, there is no hope. You shall be captured and eaten, screaming and alive!"
What the hell was happening? Where was I? While I'd been too panicked before, I began to cry as I lifted myself out of the mud and began crawling among low scratching bushes with strange square thorns that tore at my clothes. By the warm moldy wind, I was no longer inside a cavern, and my eyes began to adjust to the light of—nope. Not stars.
The night sky here was not filled with stars. The white dots—where the dark hazy ichor-dripping clouds did not obscure them—were actually eyes. Each one searched this way and that, looking, searching. I could feel their hungry gazes sweeping across my hiding spot, and I put my face to dirt and sobbed silently while that madman continued to rant. His words echoed across the open landscape, returning multiple times to my ears as a cacophony of hate and anger that amplified the miserable terror in my chest. Something slithered near in the dirt, but I curled deeper into the scratching bushes, and it moved on past.
I spent that first night lying there in my pajamas paralyzed by fear. The sounds were alien and horrifying and full of threat, and the smells were vomitous and putrid. I made no motion of any kind, and I kept telling myself that this would all end at dawn. It was a nightmare of some sort, or a horrible pocket dimension like on television, and this would all be over when I woke up.
Except I didn't wake up. Dawn was a barely perceptible green cast over everything; I might not even have noticed it if it hadn't meant the end of the madman's rant. The slithering things returned underground, the leathery flying things landed somewhere distant, and the madman's words faded echo by echo until silence fell.
And then I was alone.
I didn't want to believe it; any of it. I didn't want to accept this horrifying realm under my bed as real, and I didn't want to try my luck by climbing out from my hiding spot. Unfortunately, when no danger presented itself for a solid twenty minutes, my brain shut down.
I awoke when the dim green barely-visible sun was directly overhead, and I panicked all over again. Waking up still in those stabby bushes and still in a realm of nightmare meant this was really happening, and I screamed a few times before I was able to cover my mouth with my hand. It was good that I did that, because I almost screamed again when my eyes focused closer and I realized the bushes around me did not have thorns.
They had teeth. Human teeth.
I'd been hiding under the gaping maw of some sort of Venus flytrap with a horrifying human-like mouth the size of a person.
No wonder nothing had slithered my way. Ever so carefully, I began to inch forward—but I stopped when the plant quivered. Now, instead of being quiet out of fear, I knew screaming was my only way out. I shouted and waited.
I shouted again.
The pale green disk in the sky moved further from noon.
I began to shout over and over; I yelled until my throat was raw.
Tears ran down my face after I gave up hope. I was going to die here. All my fears had come true, even despite my constant precautions.
It was only when I blinked away the tears that I saw a boy somewhat older than me standing across a dirt gulch. He was powerfully dirty; practically caked in dried filth. His hair was a long ragged mess, and he held a heavy walking stick. With dead eyes, he jumped the gulch and stuck his staff down into the maw of the human-toothed pitcher plant. He stared down at me, waiting.
Taking the hint, I crawled out in a hurry. I turned to thank him profusely, but he was already off, leaping up a boulder and walking along a ridge without a word. What else could I do? It took me an attempt or two and I scraped my hands in the process, but I climbed up the rock and ran after him.
On the ridge, I could see more of the world around me by what I decided to call 'anti-daylight.' This wasn't daytime. The living landscape of mutated horrors and rotting mires was still only barely visible in a low-light kind of way where I often had to look away from something to see it out of the corner of my eye. I wasn't even sure the pale green disk in the sky was a sun in the traditional sense. It was more like a heavily-filtered spot of lighter darkness, as if someone had taken a real star and inverted all its colors and brightness and made it radiate cold bitterness instead of warm cheer.
By that cold and bitter anti-green, I saw no buildings and no roads. This was a barren wilderness with very little stable footing across a mix of dry cracked places and wet swampy patches. Everywhere, danger lurked, but the dirt-encrusted older boy walked between pitfalls and sleeping mutated plants with practiced aim. I was tired, so tired, and I thought I might collapse—but he didn't seem to care that I was behind him. I scrambled after him along ridges and over boulders until my limbs burned and my fingers were numb and bloody. I couldn't stop. My terror wouldn't let me. For the moment, my fear was just a dark passenger whispering in my ear, but it had a knife held to the back of my heart ready to stab me if I ended up alone again even for an instant.
I couldn't go on. I just couldn't. I was going to collapse. My legs were going to stop working. It burned. It hurt. I couldn't do it.
I kept telling myself that right up until I found myself in a rock-bound hollow populated by a dozen other kids. Right there in front of them, I fell roughly down and just lay there breathing and sweating on flat stone. Many of the kids were around my age; one looked like he was in college. All were dirty, hungry, tired, and numb. Some looked my direction, but none spoke to me. When I saw one of the youngest girls ask someone else for something with hand motions, I realized why: we didn't speak the same language. The girl was clearly Japanese, while her friend was Indian. A very French young man leaned on a crag high above, keeping watch in the dimness, and the guy that had led me here looked to be—Inuit? Was that right? It was hard to tell with how dirty and ragged everyone was. As I lay there panting, it occurred to me that we'd all been pulled under our beds from homes all over the world.
Did Inuit kids even have beds?
I shook my head. Not the point. The real problem: if they were all still here, that meant they hadn't found a way out. I was here to stay.
Huddling in a corner, I fought panic and tried to get a grip the rest of the dim evening. I didn't want to be known as a crybaby and the scared kid all over again, but I didn't know what else to do. Every time I thought to try to communicate with someone or do something for myself, terror gripped me and kept frozen. It was only through greater fear that I was finally forced to move: as the pale green anti-sun slid behind distant mountains, that same madman's rant began to echo over the world, and the dirty kids in the hollow rose to their feet. The college guy lit a torch made of white wood that looked like bone, but the light of the flame was anti-orange and only barely luminescent. It was as weak and gloomy as the sun.
He began to jog away. The others followed, and I leapt up the moment I realized they were leaving.
It was happening again. By the last of the pale green anti-light, leathery winged shapes took flight. Around us, the darkness came alive, seething at the edges of the torch's feeble anti-orange glow. Near that torch, I could only see the other kids by looking away from them and keeping them in the corners of my vision, which made it extremely difficult to keep up as the terrain rose sharply and fell jaggedly without warning. I scraped my hands again, this time leaving traces of blood, and I banged my shins and hit my head at least twice. My lungs burned from the very start, and despair began to crush me. Why was this happening? What had I done to deserve this? Was this cosmic punishment for being scared of everything?
Above it all, that furious speaker still raged. "Run, pathetic insects! The darkness is eternal, the darkness is unending. Even if you survive this night, you will be ground into dust! Your muscles will tire. Your focus will waver. You will make a mistake, and then you will be theirs!"
Where was he? He was behind us, then ahead of us, then off to the side. Always, his voice rang out with righteous judgmental fury, attacking our spirits as the creatures chased our bodies. I thought I'd reached my limit of misery that first night, but this was worse. This would be my life from now on: run, hide, scramble around in the dark, until I was finally exhausted in every way possible and caught. Sobbing as I ran to keep up with the other kids, I made the mistake the madman had taunted us about.
Hard stone knocked the breath out of me, and the pale anti-orange light moved on just enough that the darkness surrounded me. The younger girls began screaming, but it was too late: something slithering near leapt forward and attached itself around my legs. I didn't understand what I was feeling, but I knew it was bad. I kicked, but I could hardly move my legs for all the pressure on them.
The college guy turned around and brought the light back, but I shouldn't have looked.
I was waist-deep in the mouth of a giant leech.
Many of the other kids screamed in terror as the older ones beat on the leech with sticks; I felt every impact through its thin muscle-flesh, but I shrieked for them to hit harder. The same older Inuit boy that had saved me the first time stuck his stick between my waist and its gripping undulating mouth; it finally gave, and the college guy dragged me out.
A second gigantic leech appeared out of the darkness and wrapped its mouth completely around his head.
He struggled and hit at it, but his angles were all wrong.
The torch had fallen next to me, and I should have picked it up and burned the creature off of him. I knew that was what I needed to do.
But I didn't do it.
I was paralyzed by fear.
I just scrambled backwards, babbling incoherently and shrieking.
The Inuit finally did it himself, freeing the college guy just before he suffocated—but leaving him with a horrible toothy wound up the left side of his face. Gritting his teeth against the pain, our eldest took the pale torch in hand again and led us into a full-out run across the barren rocks. We ran beyond all endurance and deep into exhaustion before the negative sun finally rose and the madman stopped ranting; we squeezed into a small cave and sat tiredly tending to the wounded.
The Japanese girl ripped some of her already torn shirt and wrapped it around our leader's head, covering the bleeding leech-teeth pattern.
The same pattern had been torn into my pajama pants. The fabric had been the only barrier between those horrid teeth and my skin. The pants had been a Christmas present, and now they were ruined. I just kept thinking about that. What did it matter, in this place, that they'd been a Christmas present?
When I finally recovered enough to be able to speak, I opened my mouth a few times to apologize, but they wouldn't understand my words, and the sentiment would never make up for the pain and scars. I just sat in my corner of the cave feeling miserable instead. I resolved not to screw up that way again if I could help it.
But I did screw up again, about sixty-seven days later.
In those sixty-seven days, I learned that we ate and slept in the morning, gathered food until near dusk, and then ran all night—every night. The food was a mix of scavenged meat from creatures that killed each other in the dark and cut-up plants that had gone dormant thanks to capturing a recent meal. There was nothing alive in that pale green landscape that didn't viciously hunt, and the competition kept them constantly evolving and changing. Every night a new threat; every night a new horror.
There were other groups of kids out there doing the same thing. At times, we banded together, and often formed large temporary alliances against particularly dangerous new nightmares, but the quiet misery and eventual re-separation of our groups was born of the fact that we all knew we were going to slip up eventually. This wasn't sustainable; worse, it was getting harder every run. We adapted and thought ahead and made weapons and planned routes, but it was only a matter of time.
A matter of time. The madman drilled that into us every run with his ceaseless ranting. I hated him with a fury I never knew I could feel. By my count, my fifteenth birthday came and went, and I was an overfilled balloon ready to pop from all the terror and hate and despair and misery building inside me. On my sixty-seventh day in that world under my bed, it finally became too much, and I shut down at a crucial moment.
The older guys had baited a gigantic cockroach that had been hunting us for the last week into a box canyon. All I had to do was push a boulder over the edge; the heavy rock would crush its brain and kill it, leaving enough organic parts to feed us all for days.
But I didn't push the rock. The little Chinese girl watching my back with a bone-torch took notice and pulled at me, crying and screaming and hollering for me to do it, but I was frozen. Yeah, we'd beat this giant roach. We'd live for another few days. But he was ranting, always ranting, and this was my life now. We'd win the day just to face more days like this one, every day, all day, our entire lives. An absolute void darker than that world's night opened up in my chest, and I knew I'd let fear fully take control of me. I stood there unmoving while that little girl kicked my shin over and over.
And the college guy took a severe blow to the head in the time it took for the Inuit to run up the escarpment and push the boulder himself.
Nobody said anything the next day, but, as our leader lay unconscious with no sign of waking, I could feel that I'd broken something in us. We each lived with fear every single anti-day, but we managed it the best we could. While standing there in front of that boulder, I'd let terror seize me completely. I'd given up. Now they, too, were on that brink.
I had to do something. I was a problem. The way I was—it was problematic. Being the scared kid had not helped a single bit. I'd still gotten pulled under the bed, and I hadn't survived any better than anyone else for all my fearful precautions. That morning, while the college guy remained knocked out and the girls tended to him, I walked away from the group.
Nobody tried to stop me.
I found a spot on a high rocky ridge with nothing living nearby, and I just sat and stared out at the barely perceptible pale green horizon until, at long last, the song of pain and fear and despair in me grew silent. It wasn't mastery of fear; just the opposite. I'd become so physically and spiritually exhausted that my emotions had finally gone quiet. It was a strange relief-filled kind of giving up. I was going to die here, and I accepted that. As the madman always ranted, it was only a matter of time.
But I wanted to experience something different before I died. I wanted to know what it was to control fear, rather than the other way around. I wanted to feel fear and act in spite of it. I didn't know how to achieve that, but I did have some idea how to start: I needed to do something I was scared of.
The first and most terrifying thing that came to mind was dancing.
How many school dances had I stood in the corner and watched while making excuses? They made it seem so easy, but it was the absolute scariest thing I could think of even while trapped in a hellish demon-world under the bed.
I stood on that high and lonely ridge.
I gulped and looked around. Nobody would see me. I knew that. Why was I so embarrassed? I couldn't really do this, could I? I wasn't allowed to dance. I wasn't one of the cool kids who were supposed to dance and have fun in front of other people. Outcasts and nerds like me weren't supposed to dance.
Screw that. If I was going to die, I wanted to do this first.
Yeah. I could feel it welling up in me. I was going to dance.
I had the energy. I had the willpower. I could do it!
But I didn't actually know how.
Also, I didn't have any music. I wracked my brain there under the anti-afternoon sun, but I could not recall any song from the real world. My brain hadn't ventured anywhere near those memories in months, and I felt a million miles away from the sights and sounds of real life. Every tune I tried to conjure up fell through my mental fingers. Come on! Come on! Just one song. Any song!
And then, there it was.
Of course it had to be the most embarrassing possible song for me to try to dance to for the first time. Why did I even have this in my head?
Oh my god. Years ago, in sixth grade, someone I'd had a crush on had offered me an earbud on the bus and made me listen to this song. It was the coolest I'd ever felt, even though I'd had no idea what to do. That moment didn't go anywhere or lead to anything, but the song branded itself on the back of my brain.
The most embarrassing song possible to try to dance to for the first time. Of course.
Madonna's Into the Groove.
But the notes were in my head now and wouldn't leave. I began to feel more embarrassed at not moving. Slowly, I kicked out a foot. I stopped abruptly and looked around, but nobody had seen me. Nobody could see me. The energetic tune pulled me back into moving again.
I guess what I worked up to could be called a slow Running Man. Was it right or wrong? I had no idea. But nobody was around to make fun of me, so I started moving my held-up arms back and forth to the rhythm while kicking in and out. For the first time in my life, I closed my eyes and actually let a song take me. It was another world, just like the nightmarish one around me, but with a different base energy. More positive and energetic, less negative and murderous.
It's fair to say, as I danced alone on that high ridge by the light of an anti-sun, that I'd gone a little bit insane.
But facing a fear is kind of addictive. I wanted more. If I was going to die, I was going to keep pushing. Go out in a blaze of glory. I thought of another fear, and I sucked up my terror and charged right at it. To the rhythm rolling in my head, I danced down the slope and back to the clearing among the dense bone-trees where our group sat huddled.
Dancing in front of other people? Cue total internal panic. Our leader had even woken once more and now leaned up from his sweat-soaked spot to stare at me in wonder. I was terrified of him looking at me and I wanted to close my eyes, but that was just another fear to overcome.
So, I kept dancing right there, staring back at him.
Maybe that was the moment I'd gone a little bit insane.
Everyone else looked at me and shared confused glances, but something seemed to come over the college guy's face; some suspicion or idea. He nodded, winced at the pain of his own nod, and then slowly climbed to his feet with the help of those around him.
He took a deep breath, moved toward me, stopped—and then broke into a matching dance.
Nobody else knew what to think, but our leader put both his hands out, turned his palms upward, and lifted twice. One by one, the other kids began to shrug, stand, and join us. Once about a third of us were dancing for no reason to no music, the rest joined in a wave, since the scales had tilted and it had become weirder not to dance. When that happened, he pointed onward and upward and started dancing off down the path.
I didn't understand one bit of what was happening around me, but I wasn't about to stop.
We danced as a big knot of kids up toward the central hill of the region. Unlike the ridge I'd started on, this one was in full view of miles of terrain, and the thought of other groups seeing us, of other groups seeing me, set my heart apanic—so I charged straight into it, refusing to let fear still me.
As we danced on that hilltop and the pale sun sank toward the horizon, the other groups in the region began filtering in. They'd come to see what the hell was wrong with us, but, now that they were here, they understood: we were all going to die. We knew it. There was nothing we could do, and it was only a matter of time before the iron fist of darkness closed in upon us once and for all.
So, one by one, the other groups began dancing too.
The dim green sun dipped behind those distant mountains, and the madman's rant began to echo above our silent dancing.
"Sickly fleas, run for your lives, for night has fallen!"
If anything, we just danced harder, knowing that death was nigh. The last group entered the clearing, stared at our idiocy—and then joined us.
"Evil approaches. Flee, weaklings!"
I couldn't help it.
What had once terrified and paralyzed me—what had once clutched my spirit in agony—now sounded ridiculous. So some old weird dude was ranting somewhere nearby. Who cared? There were people like that on street corners back home, and we'd never paid them any mind then.
I wasn't the only one laughing, either. The night came alive with the movement of the horrific creatures we'd run from and fought our entire lives here, but it didn't matter anymore. We were having a great time as death approached, even laughing and smiling as we danced more and more exuberantly.
Now I could close my eyes. It wasn't fear. I just didn't care anymore.
The madman's rant became more of a splutter. "St—wait—stop! Stop dancing!"
Some of us chuckled.
"There's no music!" he shrieked somewhere in the dark. "There's no music! Why are you dancing? It's silent! There's no music!"
But that's what he didn't get. There totally was, it just wasn't music he could hear. In fact, in that moment, it occurred to me that his was the only voice I'd heard my entire time here. Dancing harder than I ever thought myself capable, I opened my mouth for the first time: "You don't hear the music?" Whole groups looked at me in wonder. Were my words the first they'd heard from anyone other than the unseen madman? We all had voices, but we'd all felt too hopeless to use them.
The madman replied directly for the first time I'd ever heard. "There's no music!"
"Sure there is," I shouted back.
It turned out, not only did we have voices, but we did actually understand each other. So strange that, the entire time, hopelessness had kept us separated in so simple a manner. The Inuit, beside me, nodded as he danced. "I hear it, too."
"Me too," someone else yelled.
Just like that, everyone was shouting and jeering at the unseen madman.
It didn't stop the creatures in the dark from slithering and skittering out to attack us, but, wouldn't you know it? They faded like so many wraiths evaporating into fog as we danced, laughed, and ignored them. It had always been our own emotions powering the nightmare, and we'd broken the cycle of fear. The willpower behind that horrible place continued to shout at us from just outside sight, but he was pathetic now that we understood.
Like a snowglobe cracking, that world of illusion began to fall apart as we danced together and turned away from it. The process took all night, during which we said our goodbyes and exchanged names and hometowns in case this meant our ends as well—and in case we got out.
In the end, the ground began falling out from under us, and I had to admit I was a little afraid even as I continued to desperately dance and try to ignore the others plunging away screaming into pale green oblivion. In the end, it was just me and the Inuit boy who had first saved me.
"Maybe I'll see you out there," I told him as our last shred of rock and earth began to crumble.
He shook his head as he did the Sprinkler move I'd taught him. "Maybe." He slowed. "If I live to be about four hundred."
I finally stopped and stilled, ready to ask, but the last firmness fell out from beneath my feet—I dropped backwards, screaming, falling forever.
At least until I hit my bed and woke up with a start.
It was dark, but a real and natural kind of darkness. Had that just been the most insane dream of all time? That couldn't have all been real, could it? The only reason I even wrote any of this down: my older brother rose up next to me in the gold light cast by the hallway, his eyes wide, as if he'd just seen me get pulled under the bed an instant before.