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Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

Easy does it... Easy...

Tick.. Tock.. Tick.. Tock..

There's nobody there. There's nothing there. It's all in your head.

Tick... Tock... Tick... Tock...

It's all in your head... You're safe... You're safe.

Finally, I slowly released the deep breath I was holding onto and I opened my eyes. My room was cloaked in a warm curtain of black, only the faint glow of my lava lamp shining through and breaking it's grasp around me. Sunlight was barely beginning to stream into the room from my window, and soon enough the rest of the darkness would die as well.

I sat up in my bed, dark blue blankets sliding off from around me as I left their comforting embrace. I didn’t want to get up yet, but at the same time I didn’t want to stay in either. I didn’t want to go back to sleep, and after that nightmare I couldn’t even if I tried. I rubbed my clammy palms over my eyes, rubbing away the remaining hold sleep had over me. These dreams are getting worse. I thought to myself with a groan. I shifted over and pushed myself up, pausing for a moment more before finally getting up out of bed and clicking on the light above my head.

The shadows hissed and slithered away. They skittered and crawled all across the room, their amorphous bodies slipping under every nook and cranny, and their claws scraping the walls as they scrabbled away into their dark sanctuaries. All was quiet. All was calm. I was safe. I breathed out a soft sigh of relief.

I stretched my arms above my head as I scuffled across the room to the mirror propped against the back of my dresser. Neck-length charcoal hair, greying prematurely at the roots, falling over the left side of my face messily from my hysterical wake-up. Lightly tanned skin, and bright aqua eyes with prominent dark circles running along underneath them. Marcus Tomford: same guy I always was and always will be.

Every day I had to look. Every day I had to be sure. If I didn't I was sure that one day I'd wake up and see a different pair of eyes staring back at me from this mirror. But for now the paranoia fled as well, and I smiled ever so slightly. Though that feeling of ease never stayed in the mornings. The shadows were already restless, and I could see their eyes glaring at me from under my desk in the mirror. I suddenly whipped around, scrambling back against the dresser with a loud clatter. But when I had turned to face the phantom plaguing my vision, it was gone. Another day, another hallucination. I should have been used to it by now, I shouldn't still be scared, especially when this happened every single day.

Ever since I was a little kid I was plagued by these demented hallucinations. I'll see dark figures following me at night from the corner of my eyes. I'll feel the wash of hot, heavy breathing from hungry shadows lurking over my shoulder. And at night I'll hear the soft hisses and growls of the shadows as they squirmed against my bed, waiting to snatch me up in an instant. My brain's a nightmarish fog, and the border between fantasy and reality is impossible to see on the worst of days.

I have to take medication to try and prevent them from overcoming my senses, and I can't even sleep anymore without a light on and some kind of white noise to fill in the painful silence of my room at night. But the pills only lasted so long; once I hit puberty their effects got weaker and weaker on my body. I was becoming immune to them, and that realization came with one even more horrifying...

If I stopped taking my pills now.. the nightmares will only be even stronger than they were before.

This was a thought that kept me awake at night. The thought that even with how bad they were now that they could be twice as bad if I didn't fight back at all.

I put my hand to my chest, feeling my heartbeat finally starting to calm back down. I breathed out a deep, tired sigh as I pushed myself away from the dresser. The quicker I got ready the quicker I could take my meds and get rid of those visions for the day. I hastily threw on my usual garb: red t-shirt, my favorite black camouflage hoodie, a pair of long, dark red jeans, and a pair of bright red and white sneakers.

I still had plenty of time before class. So now for the most important task: get my pills.

I opened my door and I turned my gaze down to the deep, disturbingly dark hallway that my room was connected to. My blood ran cold just the sight of the vast emptiness of dark space before me.

Kenophobia: the fear of voids or empty spaces. Achluophobia: the fear of darkness.

Two of the many great fears that consumed my being every day of my life. I uneasily shifted my gaze up to the door across from my bedroom. The bathroom. Safety. Swallowing back the butterflies fluttering up from my stomach, I quickly darted across the hall over to the door opposite of my room. My movements were sharp and frantic as I gripped the knob of the bathroom door.

But the knob wouldn't turn. My breath caught in my throat and panic took over. The darkness was hungry. The shadows wanted blood. I could feel the wash of their serpentine breath ghost across my skin, and I could hear their claws scraping against the carpet as they clawed their way towards me. Slower, closer. Faster. Ever faster. Frenzied. Hungry.

Click.

The door flew open and I went with it. A strangled gasp escaped from me as, from the corner of my eye, I made out the blur of a mangled black mass of flesh barely skim past the back of my knees. A hungry, warped snarl escaped from its lips as I slammed the door shut behind me. Lights on, door closed. It's gone. I'm safe.

I need my meds now. My body was still trembling from the narrow encounter and my hands fumbled with the mirrored doors of the medicine cabinet. I reached inside and grasped the bottle tightly in my shakey hands, twisting the cap off and letting it clatter down into the sink carelessly. I then quickly overturned the bottle to let the small pellets rain into my palm.

It's fun when you try to run, Marcus~

Hot breath ghosted past my ear. I jumped and whirled around, immediately dropping the bottle in my panic. But the minute I looked, whatever monstrosity was there behind me was now gone... Wait, my pills!! As quick as I was to return to the overturned bottle, and as fast as I had tried to scrabble at the pellets rolling down the drain... I wasn't fast enough. Down they went. Every last one of them. Gone.

...What now? I didn't know what to do. I stood, trembling and terrified as I stared at the hollow drain. It's exactly what I feared most. It's exactly what I tried to prevent every day and night. But now the day is here. They'll come back now, and even stronger than ever. I couldn't move. I couldn't even breathe. In that very moment time had stopped altogether. I was frozen and nothing could thaw me from my place.

I clenched my eyes shut tight. I couldn't let this happen. I had to force myself to swallow down the anxiety rising up in my gut before it sent me into hysteria. I slowly looked to the bathroom door beside me. Dare I open it? Couldn't I just stay in here until my mom goes to the doctor and gets me a refill? I contemplated this for a moment, combing my fingers uneasily through my long, greying hair. Finally, I firmly gripped the knob of the door and twisted it. Light from the bathroom streamed out into the hallway. Nothing was there.

I sighed, heavier than ever out of sheer relief. The sun was starting to really shine in and chase away the last of the shadows. A small smile cracked over my face as I clicked off the light to the bathroom and closed the door. Maybe I really was safe? Maybe my fear of it all was just in my head? I can only hope at this point, I guess.

The rest of the morning went smoothly. No issues or breaks in its usual flow at all. My mom woke up, drove me out to school, and it was back to business as usual.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

I sat in my third period class, my exhausted eyes focused on the clock ticking away on the wall. I barely got any sleep last night, no thanks to my insomnia and those damn nightmares. And no matter how hard I tried I just couldn't focus on the class, even was my favorite class of the day. I needed something to wake me up. I flicked open my notes and started reading from the one bookmarked page in the spiral: a list of common human phobias.

“Achluophobia, Arachnophobia, Autophobia, Batophobia, Bogyphobia, Catoptrophobia, Claustrophobia, Coimetrophobia, Dementophobia...”

Dementophobia: the fear of insanity. The most deadly one of them all.

I yawned, waking up so early after hardly being able to sleep for a week was really starting to take its toll on me. My eyes could hardly stay open as I gazed over the paper mindlessly, going over every long, obnoxious word I had memorized all by heart. For a brief moment I felt my eyes close completely, the sweet siren of sleep calling me into her tender embrace...

“Tomford!”

I jolted up in my seat at the call of my name and focused my eyes up on my teacher, Mr. Stone. He glared at me, pointing accusingly with his ruler in hand. “I can see you nodding off over there, don't think I don't see you.” I scratched the back of my head sheepishly, “Sorry sir,” I murmered. A few people giggled in the back of the class as Stone stared me down.

Gelotophobia: the fear of being laughed at. Ophthalmophobia: the fear of being stared at.

Mr. Stone's steps echoed through the room as he trudged from in front of the whiteboard to right in front of my desk. I turned my gaze down to the desk as his eyes burned through my skin and into my very soul. “You'd do well to keep your eyes on the board, young man. If you don't start paying attention I'll wake you up myself. Are we clear?” Was he seriously threatening me? His voice was strong and demanding, and much more hostile than I'd ever heard it before.

“Sorry, sir. I haven't gotten a lot of sleep lately. I'll be fine,” I said shortly. I could hear more students giggling throughout the class, some even louder than before. Did they seriously not care about him hearing them? “Son, you are far from fine,” He spat out in contempt, smacking his ruler down on the back of my hand. I jolted it away just as fast as he had hit it. What was his problem? This wasn't like him at all. “We're gonna have to wake you up. One way... or another.” His voice dropped, rattling like a thousand nails tumbling down an empty drain.

Oh hell no.. It's starting to happen here? In class?! I cowered in my seat, body and mind both dreading facing the man looming above me. Reluctantly, I slowly turned my eyes up to my instructors face. If I was going to fight back these hallucinations, I had to know what I was going up against. But that spark of courage fizzled as fast as it had sparked, and my heart stopped the minute I set my eyes on him.

His face was no longer the stern, sharp-jawed face I had grown accustomed to. His face was built like a puppet's and his mouth was a blender to hell. Thick, gooping tears of blackness poured from wide, unblinking puppet eyes, fiery white pupils smoldering in his wooden orbs. His unhinged and gaping maw a wormhole into an all-consuming black abyss, his jaw lined by rows of frantically swirling, needle-sharp fangs lining, spitting out embers and sparks from the rattling of his teeth smashing together.

He shrieked out an inhuman roar of laughter, and I shrieked in absolute terror. I collapsed back out of my chair onto the ground. The giggles and laughter of my classmates roared up in hysterics at my fall. Everyone was laughing... laughing at my fear, laughing at my terror. Their eyes were wild and frenzied, burning with brimstone and hellfire. Unblinking, always following my every move. Fields of needles lined their throats, and grins split their faces in half from ear to ear. The room was ablaze with their ear-shattering laughter, their mouths spewing sprinklers of sparks and rust all across the room.

Pupaphobia: the fear of puppets. Pyrophobia: the fear of fire. Trypanophobia: the fear of needles. Enochlophobia: the fear of crowds.

“S-Stay back! Stay the hell away from me!!” I shrieked, voice cracking as I sprung up from the ground, stumbling over fallen chair and slamming myself back against the back wall of the room. They never took their eyes off me, not for an instant. They all just stared with their horrible, unblinking eyes and laughed at me, the echoes growing louder and louder and rang painfully in the deepest pits of my ears. My skin felt like it was being torn apart from their unblinking gazes and I clapped my hands over my ears in agony. It hurt, it all hurt. My skin was crawling, and could I feel blood running down my from my ears and dripping down from every pore in my skin.

I trembled and shook, but I couldn't move. I was trapped. Their eyes glued me in place as my eyes glued onto the figure I once knew as my teacher. His footsteps shook the ground, thundering towards me.

“What's wrong, Marcus..? Can't wake up?” He purred in that deathly low, hollow voice that turned my blood to ice. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't run. I was trapped. “It's okay, Marcus.. If you can't wake up, then just go back to sleep..” My breath came out in short, uneven breaths as I struggled to try and make myself say something, anything. Mr. Stone snapped the ruler against the wall beside me, shattering it apart into a splintering wood dagger. It was thirsty, thirsty for the source of the blood now pouring from my body.

Marcus!

...Someone was calling me, but their voice was drowned by the roars of hysterical laughter ripping apart the room. All I could do was try and force myself to form words as Mr. Stone took a hold of the ruler with both hands and positioned it up over his head down at me. “N..N-No..”


“TOMFORD! MARCUS TOMFORD!! WAKE UP!!!”

My eyes snapped open wide and a sharp gasp escaped from my lips. Breath rushed into my lungs and I coughed roughly in pain. I could still feel the fresh blood in my lungs and I could still feel the pain of the splinters driving into my chest... But nothing was there. Mr. Stone was gripping onto my shoulders from above me, the entire class pressed around in a choking circle around us. Their previous laughter was replaced with soft murmurs and hushed whispers.

Claustrophobia: the fear of confined spaces.

“Let me go..!! G-Get away from me!!” I thrashed back against the death grip of my teacher and kicked  wildly to try and get back and away from the crowd. “Give him some air, damn it! Leave 'im alone ya buncha vultures!” One kid started violently shoving back some of the kids crowded around me, breaking apart a nice chunk in the crowd until Mr. Stone shot a deadly scowl to the rest of them, “Back up unless you all want after-school detention!” He barked. The threat quickly scattered the remaining kids choked around me.

I just sat there, panting and wheezing like I'd been shoved underwater for an hour. Mr. Stone finally released my shoulders and crouched down before me, “Marcus, are you alright?” He asked. I swallowed roughly and gave a short nod. I couldn't say anything, my body was still in shock from it all. I just pulled my knees to my chest and hugged them there, giving another quiet nod in reply. He frowned, it was obvious he didn't believe me, but he breathed a heavy sigh of relief nonetheless, “I think you should visit the nurse, Tomford. Have her call your mom and get you home. You clearly need rest.”

I didn't want to go home, but I knew he was right; here at school was not the time to be freaking out over nothing. But still... how bad was I?

“I'll take 'im up to the office, sir.” I looked up from the floor and saw my close friend Matt shuffling his feet over to the both of us. “He's my friend, I can 'andle him.” He said, reassuringly, his familiar southern twang drawling out each word he spoke. The suggestion seemed to please Stone, as he stood up to his towering height above the both of us and gave a firm nod in approval, “That's fine. Just tell them that it was an emergency so they won't get you in trouble for not having a pass.” Matt nodded before reaching down to lend me a hand back up to my feet.

“Everybody back in their seats! No time for lollygagging!” I heard Mr. Stone announce as I was lead out of the classroom with Matt. It was a long walk to the nurse's office from the classroom, and the silence between us was deafening as we started walking. I'd only just stopped shaking when Matt finally spoke up, “You a'ight?” He asked simply. I huffed out a pathetic little laugh, “Yeah. I'm fine now.”

Matt had been my friend for as long as I can really remember, and he always managed to pop up whenever I really needed him; it didn't matter where I was or what I was doing, he was always there with me. He was a little bit shorter than me, but not by a lot since I was only 5'10”. He has somehow natural bright cherry red hair, cut short with long parted bangs that completely overpowers his dull grey-green eyes. He always wore this black and white striped shirt underneath a pair of dull, faded overalls, and a pair of dusty brown boots. He stuck out like a sore thumb in the crowds, and yet all the same somehow nobody seemed to pay him any mind other than me.

“What happened back there?” I asked as we turned around the corner. Matt laughed awkwardly and scratched the back of his head, “Ah, well.. Ya kin'a fell 'sleep in the middle a' class. Stone was tryin' to wake ya up, but you wouldn't budge. Then you just kinda jumped outta ya seat and started stumblin' around the class like a crazy person! You were screaming n' coverin' ya ears and finally fell over a desk. Ya kinda just rolled around on the ground for a bit 'til Stone finally brought ya back to us. So...” He trailed off, grinning widely with a shrug, “Guess ya broke the school record on th' crazy scale.”

Sounded about right considering how much my head hurt at that time. I'd felt like I'd gone head to head with an angry rhino and lost. “Great... So now people are gonna be gossiping about me up and down this place.” Matt snorted a laugh, “What, like they didn't already? Don't sweat it, ya only got one year left anyway! So who cares, right?” He reassured me, giving me a hearty pat on the back. I rolled my eyes but couldn't help but smile right back, “Yeah, you're right on that. Thanks, Matt.”

“Heh, anytime. But, hey, next time ya have a full-scale freak-out can ya do me a favor and not hit me in the face on ya way down?”

“Hah! Nah, it's not my fault you have such a punchable face!”

“Yeah, well next time I'll hit ya back twice as hard! So don't mess 'round, dick!”

We shared a good couple of laughs as we finally made it to the office. Times like this were much more bearable when he was here with me.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

The air was uncomfortably quiet and still as I sat waiting for the nurse to arrive in the office. The soft shuffling of staff was barely a whisper past the door, and the only company I had was the small clock ticking away on the desk. The silence was beginning to get to me. The lights of the room were blindingly bright, and the shadows around me were deep and dark... I could hear them, no, feel them breathing. They pulsed like the heart of a beast, and all their millions of breaths washed across my skin.  Soft patters of feet skittered across the floor. Small whispers and giggles in the shadows tickled my ears. They were watching me, laughing and sneering at my fear. I could feel their eyes burn into me from every angle.

Autophobia: the fear of being alone or of oneself.

Stop it! This isn't the time for this! I clenched my eyes shut tight and took in one long, shaky breath. My heart was pounding in my chest and it was getting harder and harder to breathe. None of these are real.. Nothing is there. Everything is fine. It's all in your head.. Quick, what's the full value of pi? Name down all the phobias you know. Something. Anything. Just think about something else! I bit my lip, trying with every fiber of my being to focus on anything else. But no matter how hard I tried I couldn't drive my attention away. Even now I could still hear the sound of that echoing, hysterical laughter from back in the classroom... It rang in my ears, crawling up my skin...

The click of the door opening brought me reeling back to my senses. The nurse slowly shuffled into the room, and with her presence the visions and sounds immediately faded away. “Hello there, dear. Are you feeling at all better?” The elderly nurse asked in her honey-sweet voice. My body immediately relaxed at her comforting tone. “Better than I did earlier,” I lied. She just smiled softly and moved over to sit at her desk, “I'm glad to hear that. I'm going to check you out for any injuries in a moment, alright? I just need to fill these out first for the front desk so they know you'll be leaving early.”

“That's fine, ma'am. Thanks.” And with that, she sat herself down and I looked away to distract myself once more.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

The minutes seemed to drag on forever as she scratched at her paperwork with her pen. I looked around the room, glad to see that the shadows were back to normal once again. Their voices and whispers had died away as well... but the longer I sat and the longer the silence dragged out the more I began to feel uneasy all over again. The nurse took her dear sweet time as she looked from her computer screen, down at the papers before her, and back again. I could swear that she glanced over at me when I glanced away, and her hands jittered erratically, frantically as she wrote. What's her problem? Was it something I said?

She's waiting, Marcus. I froze. A deep, dark, bone-chilling voice echoed through my head. It stopped my heart in sheer terror, and my blood ran cold in my veins. I slowly moved my eyes up from the floor to the nurse at her desk, but there she still sat scratching away at her papers if though nothing had happened. She's waiting for her moment, Marcus. She's going to take it the moment you let your guard down. She's going to kill you. That voice.. I swear I know that voice.

She's going to kill you, Marcus. You can't let her take the chance. You have to kill her before she kills you. What is this thing? And what the hell is it talking about?! I clenched my eyes shut tight and covered my ears. Familiar or not, this was insane! I wasn't about to kill some harmless old woman, and she wouldn't kill me either! The voice chuckled. Low, teasing, and so painfully familiar still. I could feel those eyes on me again: the invisible eyes of the shadows that burned into my soul. I could hear the voices again too, whispering, laughing... louder. Inching ever painfully closer towards me...

“Sweetie, is everything alright?” My eyes snapped open and I leapt back in my seat at the sound of the nurse's voice. She stood there right before me, looking at me in concern. My cheeks burned in embarrassment and I slowly moved my hands off my ears, “Y-Yeah, uh... I mean, sorry about that,” I coughed out, darting my gaze away from hers. The nurse just sighed and stood herself upright, “Please try to relax, dear. Your mother will be here soon, and then you'll be able to go home,” She patiently reassured me, “Will you be alright until then?” I held up my arms before me defensively, “No, really, I-I'll be fine, ma'am. I'm okay now, I swear.”

She stared at me for a moment, if though trying to see if I were lying, and then smiled softly, “Just to be sure, let me get something for you. I have a feeling it will help.” She shuffled over to a door off to the side of the room and clicked it open. I craned my neck to look past her into the closet and froze at the disturbing contents that were hung and stacked inside: vials of unlabeled fluids, syringes of all sizes, splints and castings, and even a bonesaw was dangling from a nail on the door! She looked back and just laughed at my disturbed expression, “I used to work in ER in a hospital, sweetie. So in case of any emergencies I have all necessary supplies for any kind of quick mend.” Ah... I guess that makes sense.

She turned her back on me and buried her nose in the shelves of the closet, blocking my vision from seeing inside any further. I felt uneasy, and flicked my eyes back to the shadows of the room. They were back, and their bodies pulsed even stronger than before, throbbing like the pulse of a man desperately gasping breath. All over again I could feel the sting of their eyes burning into my skin. A hot wash of breath billowed over the back of my neck, and my entire body tensed. You see? She has everything she needs to commit the perfect murder right in there. Don't wait, Marcus. ACT. I dared not move, I dared not even breathe. I slowly closed my eyes and prayed silently that whatever was there would go away.

Bang! I leapt up in my seat as the door of the closet was roughly slammed shut, tearing through the silence of the room like a dagger. The nurse turned back to me, smiling in that same honey-sweet way that she always had. “Your mother got you a new medicine, you see. It’s an injection though, so you’re going to have to relax and let me take care of you, now,” She slowly turned to me, raising up her supplies in her hands... and my heart stopped in my chest. The syringe she held in her bony, delicate fingers was the size of my own arm, and the barrel bubbled with a sick, noxious, inky black fluid. A few drops dripped from the head of the needle and down to the floor, and the tiles by her feet sizzled upon impact.

“Y-You're kidding, right? This is a joke, right?!” I leapt off the examination bed and scrambled over to the door. Locked. Shit! Whatever that thing was before, it was right!! I whirled around and stared with wide eyes as the nurse calmly strode across the room towards me. I was starting to panic. I couldn’t let this crazy bitch do this to me! I spun back around and pounded my fists against the door, “Hey!! Is anybody out there?! Let me go!! Lemmie outta this crazy-! GhhaAK-!!” I gasped out as I felt something long and slender coil around my throat. My hands shot up and pulled desperately at the object but it just coiled tighter around me, infinite strength pulling me down like an angry serpent toward the floor. I stumbled and shook as I tried to keep my balance, slowly turning and forcing my eyes down to see what was clinging to my throat.

The shadows. They finally betrayed me. The pulsing blackness that breathed around me, clinging to every object in the room had sprung up from the floor, and a long, transparent tendril of darkness clung to my throat and forcefully pulled me back towards the approaching nurse. I struggled against it, gasping and wheezing for breath. Then, with one mighty tug, it yanked me off my feet and down to the ground. I kicked and thrashed against it, but more shadows lashed out at my defiance. Thick serpents of darkness sprung up and coiled around my feet, lashing up to my arms, and forcefully pinned my limbs down against the floor. I was trapped.

I shook my head violently from side to side, gasping out for breath in my panic. I couldn't breathe, I couldn't move, and I couldn't even think. The nurse stood above me and clicked her tongue at my struggling. Her body was completely void of color, and her eyes... Icy, pitch black orbs, with golden catlike slits, froze me against the floor.

“Ah, men... They're so brave and collected until they're met with their darkest fears. Isn't that right, Marcus?” She cooed as she calmly flicked the tip of the obnoxiously oversized needle, disgusting black tar flying from its shimmering head. She knelt down on the ground beside my chest, a wide, sharp-toothed grin cracking across her face as she stared down at my helpless form. Her eyes followed my every movement as she slowly dragged the tip of the needle over my cheek and down across my throat.

“You know, it's been so nice to have you here, Marcus... You have no idea how long I've been waiting for someone like you to come along,” She drawled as her honey-sweet voice dipped lower in tone. Dangerous, icy, and uncomfortably familiar... The same voice from before. She slowly reared her arm back behind her head, needle gleamed in the blinding light above as that deathly cold voice rippled from her throat, “Well.. I suppose it all doesn't matter now. Sleep tight, honey.”

Agony tore through my throat and ripped me back to my senses yet again. My eyes snapped open, and my hands shot off from around my neck. I coughed and gasped for breath as I released my own throat. All a dream, again?! This isn't right, this isn't how it normally goes.

Was my insomnia finally turning me into a borderline narcoleptic? I was so drained of energy from the last few days that it would make sense. I wasn't safe. I was awake, but the nightmare wasn't over.

All around me the shadows were growing stronger than ever. They throbbed, twitched, and quivered. They hissed and cackled, growing into a sickening blackness that consumed the entire room around me. No. No way in hell I was dealing with this again. I bolted up off the bed and charged out nurses office. The shifting, faceless bodies of both faculty and student alike were a blur as I shoved my way through the office crowds.

Join us, Marcus! Join us!! I heard the shadows scream out to me. Thick tendrils of darkness lashed out at my legs and brushed past me as I tore through the office. I tripped. I stumbled. I shoved. I finally burst out from the office with a breathless gasp as I slammed out into the hallway.

The voices were gone. The shadows quivered back against the ground. I was safe, I thought... but I was wrong.

The light above my head flickered ominously as I caught my breath in the hall. I looked up, the light sparking and fading as I wheezed for breath. I swallowed thickly, slowly turning to face the open hallway. An icy howl of wind blew across my face and I squinted against the sudden gust. I'd brushed past death millions of times in my nightmares, but what I saw then I don't think I could ever forget.

The tiles were dark and slathered with dirt and grime, some of them torn up and blown apart in chunks all across the floor. The walls were torn and stained, and the paint was peeling tragically all along its shadowed length. Shimmering fluid dripped ominously from the ceiling, pooling across the floor in puddles of pitch black. The overhead lines of lights on the ceiling were shattered and dead, and what few remained were tired and dying in their half-mangled states. Their veins of cords hung like vines, the ends frayed out and stretched to their farthest limits, and sparked up angrily as the icy breeze threatened to tear away their last few seconds of life.

I swallowed down the lump in my throat and clenched my fists at my sides. This had gone on for long enough. I can't keep running around forever like this. So now, more than ever, it's time to end this nightmare once and for all.

I forced myself forward, heavy steps echoing through the dank and rotting halls as I descended deeper into the darkness, into the heart of the shadows. Shattered glass and tile crackled and crunched beneath my feet, and angry sparks fluttered from the lights over my head, falling like dying fireflies to the ground. The red-painted lockers against the wall were rusted and rotting, and many of their doors were either smashed in or busted open and hanging off the hinges. Tiny, black insects skittered, squirmed, and buzzed from the open holes in the doors, picking ravenously at half-eaten apples and abandoned textbooks nestled within. My skin crawled at the sight of them, and I could swear I could feel even their millions of eyes burn into me.

Entomophobia: the fear of bugs and insects.

It all seemed to go on forever; walls stretching deep into the inky blackness before me. I walked and walked, until I finally reached the wide and inviting main hall where the classrooms once were. The doors to the rooms were all just as corrupted as the rest of the hall: dark, dank, cold, and pale,with large viewing windows at the top that were secured with thick iron bars. They looked like they belonged in an asylum rather than a high school.

I shuddered uncomfortably as I trudged past. From every room a hellish sound crashed out from its confines. The loud rattling of chains, screech of claws against metal, the loud wails of tortured souls in agony echoed and rang in melodic discordance all around me. I gasped in surprise as bloodied hands suddenly lashed out from between the bars of the windows, clawing out at me in a frenzy.

I had to keep my gaze ahead and away from the windows. I knew I couldn't handle whatever I would see inside. But then, as I passed one of the last few doors, I heard something that made me freeze in mid-step. A small, weak groan of pain echoed out from the last room in the hall. That voice... I definitely knew that voice. I clenched my eyes shut tight... and I slowly turned toward the room. And as I opened my eyes to look through the window in the door... There he was.

Matt. My best friend. There he was in that room in front of me... crumbled on his knees in a pool of blood. His arms hung uselessly above his head as thick, snake-like chains coiled around his wrists and throat and pulled them both skyward. Dark, dried blood stained their links and the brutally mangled flesh of his wrists and throat, while deep slashes and vicious lacerations were torn all across his body dripping beads of fresh, brilliant crimson down to the floor below. His head hung limply before him, and his long, cherry red bangs matted together and curtained across his shadow-cloaked face.

I... couldn't look away from the horrible sight. I knew it wasn't real. It was all in my head. But seeing him so battered... so barely clinging on to life... it made my eyes water and my throat clench in agony.

“...Mar...cus..”

My eyes widened as he shifted against his chains, their tired rattles echoing across the room as he slowly picked his head up to look at me. He looked so tired, if though he had to strain to keep his eyes open to look up at me. He smiled. He smiled at me. “Heh... Heya, buddy...” He wheezed out softly, his voice rough and strained as he both spoke and breathed, “I was... lookin' for ya... you doin' alright now?” I couldn't respond. I just stared in mute horror as he shuddered and roughly coughed up fresh splatters of blood all across the floor.

“Urgh... Yeah... I ain't doin' so well myself, heh... heheh...” Matt laughed softly. He forced his head back up to face me, gritting his teeth in pain as dark red blood dripped down his chin and splattered to the floor. “Listen... M-Mark... I know what's up ahead... at the end of the hall. Y-You're not gonna like it,” he said, wheezing softly between his words, “B-But... ya gotta.. ya gotta fight it. Ya gotta face it. Knock it down and kill it. Otherwise... y-you're gonna be stuck here forever... Like me.”

...Is this for real?

Stuck here? As in stuck in this nightmare forever? There's no way it could be true. It's impossible, but all the same... What if he's right? Stuck in a coma that I'll never be able to wake from as I forever wandering this dark, tainted halls, feeling the eyes of god knows what on me and hearing the chains of all my fears and regrets rattle behind barely locked doors...

No. I can't let that happen.

“Matt... Don't worry. I'll get you out of here,” I said, gripping onto the bars of the door window, “I swear I will. I'll kill it, and then I'll... I'll find a way to get you free.” Matt smiled sadly at me, letting his head droop again. “Heh... I-It's too late for me, buddy... But if ya can... I'll be waitin' for ya.” I wanted to say something, reassure him or anything... but I couldn't. With this lump in my throat I was sure if I tried saying anything more I'd start crying right here. He was just so weak and battered, and his body was so drained and limp. And his voice... it was just so heart-breakingly rough and forced. I forced my gaze away, and my hands slipped from the bars of the door.

“B-Bye... Mark...” I heard Matt croak out weakly. I stopped myself before I moved back along. I swallowed hard, pausing for the longest time before I finally managed to quietly whisper back, “...Bye, Matt.”

It took a really long time for me to recover from that. I had to stop. So I stood, leaned back against the next door over, my entire body shaking from all I just witnessed. Matt's words were burned like a hot brand onto my brain. I couldn't really bring myself to leave him, it just didn't feel right. But at that moment, a cold, icy gust whirled across my face, forcing my attention away. I reluctantly looked up, and gazed down the hall. The lights began to flick out one by one in the distance. And with each one that died out, the gust grew stronger and stronger against me.

So this is it? The end of the line? I shakily pushed myself up off the door and faced the growing blackness creeping towards me. The wind was howling, and I clenched my fists at my sides in determination. Am I really ready to finish all this off?

...Hell no I'm not. But this is still getting done whether I like it or not.

One light died. Then another. And another. I closed my eyes and let out a long, slow breath of air to calm my nerves. “Dreams can't hurt you... Nothing can hurt you here. Nothing is real. It's all in your head...” I muttered to myself. The air felt increasingly tight and suffocating as the darkness loomed ever closer. One by one every light went out, the last halo of safety above me beginning to flicker and die like all it's brothers and sisters, and then...

Silence.

The wind had died.

The icy air prickled against my skin. I could feel the darkness breathing, pulsing all around me, but all I could hear was the shakiness of my breath echoing in my ears and heavy throb of my heart pounding in my chest. I didn't want to move. I didn't want to breathe. The final boss was here before me, and I knew that if I moved now it would get me... I didn't stand a chance. But even with this knowledge in my head... I slowly opened my eyes, ready to face it all.

I yelped, leaping back a full ten feet at suddenly seeing a pair of eyes right in front of my face. But what I saw when I moved back startled me even more.

...A mirror?

A tall, round, full-body mirror, with perfectly pristine glass and a dull bronze frame stood before me. It was otherworldly perfect, and it even seemed to glow softly as the tiles around it's front were barely visible with light. Everything else around me was nothing but blackness. A thick, choking, inky blackness that loomed around me like an all too warm blanket.

And in the reflection of the glass... it was me. Just... me.

“...What the hell is this?! Where's the demons? The monsters?! Where's the giant puppets with creepy baby faces and needles and... anything scary?!” I barked out into the void, “C'mon! I know you have it in you! Bring it!!” I turned and glared at the mirror, “Is this a joke? Are you making fun of me!?” I yelled, rearing my arm back and blasting the mirror full-force with my fist.

Instantly, I recoiled and hissed, rubbing my hand in pain. I looked back up to the glass. Not a single scratch or smudge on it. Its perfection wasn't marred at all... and it only made me angrier. I brought my foot up and slammed my heel into it as hard as I could. Still, not a single crack on it, not even a speck of dirt from my shoe. “What the hell's going on?!” I shouted, slamming my forearms down on the mirror in confused rage. I clenched my eyes shut tight and thunked my forehead against the glass. All this terror... all these years of running from imaginary monsters in my mind... was it all for nothing...? Was there nothing else to it?

I sighed and gently pounded my fist against the glass of the pristine mirror. Nothing. Nothing at all would leave a scratch or a smudge on the damn thing. There was nothing I could do. I didn't know what else to do. I didn't want to move, because this was the only spot in the room that wasn't suffocatingly dark. Seconds... Minutes.. It seemed to be forever I stood there. My anger eventually died down, and my heart stopped pounding in my chest. I was alone. There was nothing to fight, nothing to lose, and nothing at all to gain, either.

All this work really was for nothing...? Nothing is waiting for me at the end of the line to test my courage and banish the darkness in my mind? The only real monsters that I would be destroying at this point I would have to imagine up just to get rid of.

...Wait. Rewind. Imagining... I was imagining it all. I knew that, but.. What does this mean? I opened my eyes and looked up into my reflection's eyes. I was alone. Alone with myself, my thoughts, and this reflection.

This... reflection.

Fear... Phobias... Fear is only there if you make it there. Phobias...

Achluophobia, Arachnophobia, Autophobia, Batophobia, Bogyphobia, Catoptrophobia, Claustrophobia, Coimetrophobia, Enochlophobia...

Goodbye... Matt said goodbye. I said goodbye. He was always there when I needed him, never asked for anything in return... People never teased him when he passed by. They never said anything to him, not even my other friends. They never even brought him up when he wasn't around. And I had almost every class with him, too...

...Gelotophobia, Hadephobia, Hematophobia, Herpetophobia, Hypnophobia, Kenophobia, Nebulaphobia, Necrophobia, Nyctohylophobia, Nyctophobia, Ophthalmophobia...

I clenched my eyes shut and pressed my face harder against the glass of the mirror. From under me I could hear a soft cracking at the seemingly unbreakable glass.

My medication... I took it without question. I never even looked it over out of curiosity. I took it blindly just because I was told to, because I was told it would help. Mom never said anything when I went to go and get refills at the store, and she never harped on me to take them every day, either...

..Parasitophobia, Pneumatiphobia, Pteromerhanophobia, Pupaphobia, Pyrophobia, Sciaphobia, Seplophobia, Taphophobia...

Matt never left my side. We'd hang out all the time. He was in shambles when I saw him... A mirror... myself... darkness... Nothing was here except for a mirror... No monsters, nothing at all. Just myself and this mirror. Just myself and this reflection...

..Thantophobia, Xyrophobia, Zeusophobia, Zoophobia.

All the phobias I know... I studied them for months. I know them by heart. But I'm always missing one... I'm always forgetting one. Just... one... what was it...?

Another larger crack pricked at the mirror.

A mirror... no creatures of nightmare... I was left alone in darkness... Alone... Matt was alone and broken... I can feel this glass breaking... But nobody really ever responded to him... He never talked to anyone else. Unbreakable... I imagined all my nightmares... Fears can be made by imagining fears... Matt was always there for me. Always... there.

Crack... crack.. snap.. the long lines in the glass grew longer and longer by the second. Every second I poured over it all, the more I pondered... the more it began to crumble.

I imagined all my nightmares... Did I imagine all my fears..? They only affected me when I thought about them. But I was diagnosed... All my diagnosed phobias... I imagined them all...? Every time I got killed... Matt was in chains... he was all broken and bleeding... We said goodbye...

...Matt...

The cracks in the previously pristine glass now reached over towards the edge of the frame. Branch after branch crackled across its length. A single, tiny fragment chipped off and fell to my feet.

Fear... Imagined it all. Broken... What... what was that last fear..? I was always getting killed in my dreams... I was afraid of death... I wasn't afraid when I came here. I wasn't afraid of anything else unless I thought about it. Matt... Did I imagine it all..?

Detain... Derailed..? No... What was the one I always forgot?

The mirror was a melodious song of cracks and snaps, dozens of tiny shards prickling down to my feet.

I was scared when I came here. Scared of what? I didn't know what to find, what to do, or where to go. It only made things worse... They were always trying to kill me, but only in my dreams. I imagined everything up... My fears, my friend, my life...

“...Dementophobia.”

The fear of insanity.

“No.. NO!!!” I screeched. The mirror exploded apart, raining glass across my body and bathing the floor in shards. I clawed at my head, clenching my hair in my fists and crumpling to my knees. For once in what had to have been years, I felt tears stream down my face.

I had imagined it all.

My nightmares. My fears. My drugs. My... my friend...

My head throbbed in agony and I desperately clawed at my scalp to let it all loose. The darkness is getting to me. The pain is getting to me. The solitude is getting to me. My whole body feels like glass shattered with a sledgehammer. I can't breathe. I can't move. I can't think...

They were going to kill me, but only in my dreams.

They weren't going to kill me, they were going to kill Matt.

I imagined the whole thing.

It was all just a big game my mind played on me. And now I'm stuck in it.

But all these thoughts broke into more thoughts. All these questions just led to more questions. How deep did this rabbit hole go? What was real and what was fake? What was dream and what was reality at all? What if reality was the hell that I thought were my dreams, and my dreams were the blissful times of peace that I spent with Matt? What if everything WAS trying to kill me and Matt was there to protect me..!? How do I know what the real world is like at all?!

What else did I imagine? What was real? What was my imagination?

The puppets, the monsters, the demons... Mr. Stone.

Mr. Stone listened to him then... Stone let Matt take me to the office.. He didn't question him. He even responded to him then... But Matt was just a part of my imagination... The nurse... that voice....

He told me they were all trying to kill me... he wanted me to kill them... He wanted to protect me... They were all trying to kill me.. Trying to kill him..

This feeling in my chest... My head... My body... It all hurts... It all hurts so much... I'm so scared... I can't stop shaking...

“I'm... I'm crazy... I'm absolutely fucking nuts...” I whimpered. My chest ached and I clenched my eyes shut, letting each sob wrack through my broken body and mind. There was no way out of here now. I'm stuck in this hell of my own mind.

I just wanted a friend... And he came to help me conquer my fears. He was always there when I needed him.

All I wanted was a friend. And now... I'm alone.


“...You don't really think that though, do ya?”

My body stiffened at the sudden familiar voice from behind me. My crushing grip on my greying hair loosened before I eventually let go completely. No way.. could it really be..? I slowly turned behind me, and there... there he was.

“..M..Matt..?”

The shatters of glass that had poured behind me were still alive. Their glow was so warm and soft...I slowly placed a hand against the ground, not caring that the glass was cutting into my skin, and I slowly picked myself up off the ground.

Matt... He's alive.

He was just as alive as when he took me to the office. Not a single cut, bruise, or hint of blood was on his body. He grinned crookedly at me, in that same snarky way he always would before, “Didn't I warn ya that you wouldn't like the truth?” He joked, placing his hands upon his hips, “I knew you'd miss me, ya big dope. Butcha know, even though ya got a lot of it right, you're still pretty far off from the truth.”

I stayed silent as he paused, wiping my eyes with the end of my sleeve. “I'm not about ta leave. Hell, you can't get rid of me even if you wanted to! But, that bein' said...” He closed his eyes for a moment before opening them back up and locking them onto my own. His eyes seemed to hold a deathly intensity to them now. “I think it's about time we upped the stakes of our friendship, don'tcha think?”

“...W-What is that supposed to mean?” I croaked out, clearing my throat awkwardly. Matt just snickered. “Well, see Mark, here's the thing,” he started, slowly pacing himself around me, “You want a friend, and I wanna live. I can't live without a host, and you're too scared to see reality without me. So how 'bout we make a deal? You gimmie some of that delicious fear of yours once an' a while so I won't go hungry, and I stick around an' keep you company. And as a bonus, I'll even let you play with my little 'toys' so ya won't feel so weak anymore. Sound good?”

I sniffled, wiping away the last few tears from my red and puffy eyes. “Hungry...? Toys? W-What are you talking about, Matt? What's all this about?” I turned to face him as he paced, and finally asked, in the most serious tone I could muster, “What are you?”

He stopped his pacing immediately, and my blood ran cold as he gave me the biggest, meanest grin I'd ever seen him make. His canines were long and sharp, glinting in the dull light of the mirror shards below. “Now you're gettin' it.”

He raised his hands up and from the tile floor below the sea of inky blackness slowly dragged itself away from my feet. The shadows themselves rose up in long, swirling, and very much solid tendrils around us. A sharp pang of déjà vu passed through my mind; those shadows in the Nurse's office, they're just like those from before. Though now they weren’t harsh and bloodthirsty, instead they just gently swirled and swayed like ocean waves around us.

“Like it? This is jus' one of the toys I'll letcha play with later, buddy,” He said with a smirk as he watched my awe at the scene. “Most people can't see me, hear me, or feel me. But, heh, don't worry, Mark. I'm still real. Very real. I'm jus' not exactly what you'd call 'human', if ya catch my drift. Instead of eating food like you do, I feed on those delicious clouds of fear and panic that your mind makes.” I forced my gaze away from the shadowy display around me and looked back to Matt. “Wait, so YOU'RE the reason I keep having nightmares?” He clicked his tongue and shot me a wink, “Bingo. Don't take it personally though, buddy. It's funny to watch ya run and hide under ya blankets at night, but I'm doin' it more so I can stay alive.”

Matt paused then and reached his hand out to me. “So lets make a deal, Marcus Tomford.” He said rather seriously, though that crude little smirk was still plastered on his face. “We'll keep each other alive and safe from now on. You keep me alive with your tasty dreams once in a while, and in return I'll let you use my shadows whenever ya like. And on top 'o that, I'll letcha see all 'a reality with no more tricks. Sound good?”

...So this is what it comes down to. I can either end it all here and now, lose Matt forever, and stay trapped in this madhouse alone... Or I can keep him and see the real world for real, once and for all, even if I had to keep dealing with these nightmares for the rest of my life.

I looked from his fierce gaze down to his hand, and now I could see small wisps of those foggy shadows dripping off his skin.

...I don't know if it's safe to say this anymore, but he's still my friend. And if it's true that all he wanted was just to stay alive, is it really so wrong?

“...Fine. You got a deal.” Those words, those five, simple words were our binding contract as I reached up and clutched his hand. Matt seemed a bit surprised at first as I actually reached out to shake his hand, but then... that wicked grin spread back across his face again. “Pleasure doin' business with ya, buddy.”

All at once the shadows around us swarmed down upon me. They washed up and crushed down on my legs, swirling over my body like a sea of angry serpents. Panic flooded through me, and I tried to pull myself away, but Matt's vice grip kept me held in place. I stared at him in a mix of horror and betrayal. He didn't say anything, he just grinned. Slowly, he raised his arm up, and two huge, needle-like tendrils of shadow growing up behind him. Slowly they rose, and seeing them only sent me into further panic, and I tried desperately to pull away.

“Now do me a favor, Mark... and don't blink.

They flew forward, and all at once my eyes were plunged into the eternal blackness.


“Sweetie? Sweetie, is everything alright?” My eyes snapped open and a sudden rush of air ripped into my lungs. The nurse jumped back in surprise as I reawoke. “Ah! A-Are you okay?” She asked, concern now laced deep in her voice. “...Y-Yeah... I just had a... a bad dream,” I mumbled. I slowly rolled up from the ground of the hallway, where I must have fallen while I was out, and I rubbed my tired eyes.

Was it really all another dream?

No... It wasn't just a dream this time. Now... things were very much different.

In every corner of the hall I could see the shadows pulsing with life. Under every locker and shoved aside chair, and under the both of us in its depths they calmly pulsed and breathed. I could even feel my own shadow below me even breathe and swell, and under the nurse I could see hers anxious and trembling with life. I was... seeing things through Matt's eyes.

I looked up to the nurse, but before I could say anything to her I stopped...

Matt was standing right behind her.

His eyes were piercing, golden, catlike slits, floating in a sea of icy blackness. His fangs were just as sharp and menacing as before, and his fingers were now topped with long, jet-black claws. Everything else about him looked like it did before, and at this point I don't know if that made me feel reassured or uncomfortable. When he saw my attention drawn to him he grinned and gave me a small wave. The nurse glanced back, following my gaze, but then turned back to look at me once more. Matt was right.

She didn't see him at all.

The nurse cleared her throat lightly and stood herself back up to her feet. “Ahem, well... I spoke to both your doctor and your mother, dear. I have some medicine that should help with your little, ah... problem. But unfortunately it’s an injection, so I’m going to have to get some things before I can give it to you and let you go home, okay?” She kept her gaze away from mine; she must have seen that something different about me now. “And don't worry, I'll get a bandaid for that little cut on your hand, too...” She mumbled, turning to shuffle back away toward the office door.

Marcus.” Matt said, drawing my attention back to him, his gaze was intense as he stared the nurse down from behind. He narrowed his eyes, grinning cruelly as he lifted his hand up into the air towards the door. I followed his hand with my eyes, and saw the thin shadow of the doorknob slither up into the lock. The nurse tried the door, but frowned slightly when the knob didn't turn. “Oh...? Now how did this get locked?” She murmured to herself. She reached down into her dress pocket and pulled out a large ring of keys, picking through them slowly and trying them one by one on the lock. Matt turned his gaze to me.

Give it a shot.

I knew what he meant. I knew what that medicine was going to do.

I picked myself up off the ground and took a moment to steady myself. I could feel the shadows all around me. I could actually feel them like they were a part of my body. I raised my hand up, looking toward my shadow pooled at my feet expectantly, and it slowly slid along the pale tiles to the nurse's feet. It all felt so natural. I twitched my fingers up, and the shadow plucked up from the ground. It wiggled, it twitched, slowly rising up and hovering menacingly above the distracted woman's head.

Here.” I stopped and looked back to Matt beside me. He held out a long, jagged piece of glass; it was piece of a broken mirror. I grabbed onto it, looking down blankly to its shiny surface. It was there that I saw it. It was there in that reflection that I saw... what I had become.

My eyes were no longer the bright aqua they once were, they were now the same dull grey-green that Matt's once were. My face was void of all expression, though I could feel a small twitch at the corners of my mouth. I looked up from the shard of glass and towards my new enemy, and small smile curled across my face. It felt familiar, yet not all my own.

I'm not afraid anymore. Even as darkness flies and screams ring out around me, I won't be afraid again. What was there to fear? I've already become everything I had ever really feared in the beginning.

Dementophobia: the fear of insanity.