You go through your whole life, thinking you know what you’re doing and where you’re going. You think you’re doing everything right. But then something happens, something radical and drastic that you never could have predicted. Suddenly, your eyes open to a world you’ve never seen before. You never knew it was there, yet as soon as you see it, you’re part of it, and you feel like you’ve always been there.
What do I mean? What am I talking about? Maybe I should back up a little and start at the beginning. I’ll tell you how it happened. I’ll tell you MY story.
Growing up, I was your average introvert. I made decent grades, graduated well and all of that usual stuff. Completely normal. But, amid this, I wrote. At first, it was just little stories, thoughts and ideas I wrote out and passed among my friends. But, soon enough, the ideas became more elaborate and stories became long tales. I’d written my first novel before I graduated high school, and after debating with myself for a long while, I sent it off to publishers. One responded, and before I knew it, we were talking about revisions, cover art, and such.
Of course, that was the only book “Aaron Stone” ever wrote, so far as the public saw. I value my privacy, even now, and I wanted to protect that as much as possible. So, for my next book, I went to another publisher using the pseudonym “Sydney Bryan”. “Bryan” was a prolific writer, producing at least one book a year as well as a smattering of short stories for his decade of writing. I liked the anonymity of it, hiding behind a false name and enjoying success.
I moved to a quiet, little town in the middle of nowhere. It was a sweet place, all too happy to welcome a quiet young man with little to no concern in getting in anyone’s way. I worked a part time job at the local book store, always taking a little pride in stocking copies of my books. Of course, I hardly ever recommended my own work, afraid even that little tip might set someone off about my identity.
Things went on this way for years. I lead a normal life while the enigmatic “Bryan” hid from his fans and stayed out of public view. It was a pleasant existence, one I would have liked to continue. But, fate has a weird way of reminding us we don’t control our own lives.
I’ll never forget that night. I still wake up screaming sometimes with searing pain wracking my body from nightmares of that single event.
It was late in the year, when the days grow dark quickly and the sky always seems a perpetual grey. Night was falling, and an autumn rain pattered against the windows. I was, as usual, alone in my little house, seated on the floor and leaning against the couch. My note book rested in my lap as I wrote out an outline for my next work.
My head shot up when I heard a loud crash, hands quickly gathering my notebook to my chest like it would offer me some form of protection from whatever had made the sound. Lightning flashed outside, making me relax a little and pass the sound off as thunder. Chuckling and shaking my head at my own jumpiness, I settled back again, scribbling a little on the corner of the page as I thought.
My pen paused just above the page as I heard something else. I froze, glancing side to side quickly. Shaky hands settled my pen between the pages, carefully closing the notebook and setting it aside.
“I found you,” a rough voice said from behind me.
I leapt to my feet, stumbling back as I turned to see who had said that. A man stood behind my couch, dripping wet and wearing a wide smile. In his hands he held a bouquet of roses, a few drooping from being pounded by the rain. It took me a moment to find my voice again, my mouth dry and chalky from sheer shock and fear.
“Wh-who are you?” I demanded as firmly as I could. “And how did you get in here?”
“How I got here doesn’t matter,” he said, walking around the couch and moving toward me. “I found you…Aaron Stone.”
I gave him an incredulous look.
“What do you want with me?” I asked, taking another step back as he advanced.
“I love your writing. You were so hard to find,” he said with a chuckle. “But I wanted to find you. I had to tell you how important you are to me.”
I felt a shudder race through me at that. This was EXACTLY what I had wanted to avoid. It frightened me to think that he had managed to find me, even after how well I had covered my tracks. I’d heard stories of death threats and stalkers far too often to want to stand in the middle of literary fame. Yet…here this man was.
“You’re mistaken,” I said, trying to keep my voice from shaking. “I’m no writer. I wrote one book, but that was years ago.”
“That’s so cute,” he said with a laugh. “You’re so modest. I know the truth, though. You don’t have to hide from me.”
He moved closer, reaching out to me. I backed away quickly, knowing I must have looked like some frightened animal the way I jumped away. He frowned a little, holding the roses out to me.
“I even bought these for you,” he said, giving me an imploring look.
“You don’t understand,” I said, ignoring the flowers. “You…You’re confused!”
“I am not!” he said, anger flaring in his eyes. He drew a shaking breath, then looked at me once more. “Don’t you understand? I love you!”
“You don’t know who I am! How can you say that?” He started to speak, but I cut him off with a shake of my head. “NO!! I don’t want to hear it! Get out. Get out NOW! Or I’ll call the police!”
He stared at me a moment, and dear heavens above I NEVER want to see that look in a man’s eyes again. Anger, sadness, rage, confusion, so many emotions ran back and forth behind his eyes, his lip twitching as he seemed uncertain which to express. He threw the roses at me, and I hardly had time to get my hands up to deflect the spray of flowers. I heard him walking away, looking up to see his retreating back.
Trembling, I fell to my knees, unable to believe what had just happened. Outside, thunder clapped again, lighting up the sky with a brilliant flash of white. Another crash, and the power went out. I yelped, heart racing a moment.
Ah, I wish I could go back to that moment. Frightened as I was, I realize that was one of the moments I was most alive. I remember how my heart hammered in my chest, fluttering and pounding like the beating of a drum. I could hear it and feel it as blood coursed through my veins. I could almost feel the surges of that ‘life’ pulsing through each tiny passage. My skin flushed, my limbs shook, and all I could do was slump against the couch, trying to steady myself.
After that, things happened both too quickly and in slow motion.
I heard him, I think, but I had no time to act before he seized me by my hair and threw me over. I hit the coffee table, sending magazines and little knick-knacks flying across the room in a flurry. I twisted when I hit the floor, body in shock for a moment though unharmed.
He was over me in an instant, looming dark and evil in the dim room. The lightning flashed, illuminating his figure like something out of hell itself. He knelt, grabbing me by my hair again and jerking me up, glaring down at me. The last sound I ever made was a shrill cry of pain as a large kitchen knife bit into my throat, slicing quickly and cleanly across.
He dropped me back to the floor, and I could taste blood pouring into my mouth. I tried to breathe, but air refused to enter my lungs. I sputtered and hacked, trying to call out for help though I knew no one could hear. It hardly mattered, of course.
“If you won’t give me your heart,” I heard him say. “I’ll TAKE it from you!”
The knife plunged into my chest, breaking my ribs and cleanly slicing my flesh. A silent cry left me as he planted his hand on my chest to keep me still. In sick horror, I felt the knife cutting flesh and muscle, jerking sharply when a rib stopped its progress and easily slicing the bones open. I couldn’t tell if the tearing I heard was my shirt or my own flesh. Every movement redefined pain, sending burning shocks through my body.
He paused a moment, and I could see him staring down at..something. In the momentary silence, I could hear a soft thumping, a squishing throb of a sound almost drowned out by the rain on the window. The sound of my own heart beating in my chest was beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
His large hand plunged into my chest, pain redoubling as his flesh rubbed the raw edges of the wound. I jerked a little as he seized the beating organ, jerking it up quickly and slicing away the little tubes connecting it to its vital purpose.
My vision was blurred by now, and I was starting to feel cold. I couldn’t move, my limbs lacking the oxygen to make the muscles work. I could see his silhouette as he leaned over me, felt the warm press of his lips to mine before he stood and his shadow vanished from my view.
In movies, death is quick, nearly instantaneous. But, even though I’m told it would have taken mere seconds for my body to shut down, I was very much alive for far longer.
As I lay there, I felt the warmth of my own blood washing over my neck and chest, pooling beneath me and filling the cavity of my chest. My lungs still convulsed, desperately trying to draw breath from a throat no longer closed. My blood began to still in my veins, making my body feel heavy. My vision had long since blurred to nothing, but still my eyes remained open, and I could feel tears falling over my cheeks. Nothing obeyed me anymore, either from lack of strength or will I don’t know. It must have been a disgusting and beautiful sight, my body sprawled where it had fallen, surrounded in a crimson pool and scattered roses.
I don’t know how long I laid there, but it felt like years. Slowly, my mind clouded, and I felt…nothing. No pain, no warmth or cold, no weight, just nothing. I told myself this must have been what it was to die, and as much as I could, I embraced the feeling, turning myself over to that nothingness. Whatever awaited, I was free from the pain of laying there.
There was, for a short time, a period of that nothingness. I heard nothing, saw nothing, felt nothing at all. It was like sleep, really, a sweet oblivion to everything around me. I wish I could have gone on like that. But…such was not meant to be for me.
Somewhere amid that endless void…I woke up. I remember the strange feeling of waking from that apparent dream of blissful escape. I didn’t know where I was for a moment, or even who I was or how I had come to be there. I was naked…and very cold. I ran a hand over my arm to try and rub it warm again, but nothing I did caused any heat to touch my chilled flesh.
Then, the memories came back in a rush. My mind reeled, vision blurring as a million images past in front of them, carrying a memory that collected into my very being. I could hear the garbled sound of countless voices, laughter, crying, yelling and joyous exclamation, deepening the memories as they re-etched themselves in my mind. I pressed my hands to my ears, trying to stop the noise, closed my eyes to stop the sight, and tried to scream.
But all I heard was the whisper of air, like a hard wind on a cool day. The disjointed images slowed, replaying that horrific night blow by blow before me. I felt the pain again, heard his voice, saw his FACE. I crumpled to the ground, clutching my own shoulders and shuddering as my mind steadily settled. Trembling, panting, I simply stared for what could have been hours, could have been minutes, very well might have been days. All sense of time was lost to me in that place.
When I came to my senses again, I pushed myself up from the ground, looking about to see a dead forest. Trees barren of leaves with twisted and gnarled branches stood rooted in ash grey ground. A haze laid heavily over it all, and the smell of decay was thick in the air. Part of me swore this had to be some level of hell, even though I could think of nothing I had done to earn me a place in any hell..let alone a silent wood like this.
A trembling hand moved to my throat, fingers feeling along the wide gash there before daring to venture lower to my chest. The gaping wound was oddly smooth, save for the ribs that poked out of one side. There was no blood, no pain, nothing different than touching my arm or leg. I looked at my hand a moment, finding that my skin was a pale grey, having lost its pinkish colour of life. The hair that dangled in my face was a muted purplish hue, far removed from its former dark brown.
Something inside me kicked in then. It told me I was not dead, but I was still not alive, either. This place wasn’t hell, but a sort of way-station, a limbo for those coming back from the brink. Shakily, I got to my feet, brushing a bit of the ash-like dirt from my pale skin. I was reborn, still myself but changed. Without a heart and without a voice, I chose a direction and started walking, unsure of what awaited me in the gloom.