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I'm not afraid of anything.
Heights? Don't faze me. I can stand on the top of my building, toes hanging over the edge as I stretch my arms out and close my eyes, and the wind that threatens to push me plummeting to a wet, crunching lump on the ground is practically soothing.
Cramped spaces? Not a problem. People with claustrophobia are just afraid to admit they can't handle being alone with their own problems. In fact, I'll take a warm, dusty, cavernous cabinet over an open crowd any day of the week.
The dark? Please. Of course, if I can't see where I'm going, I'm likely to bump into something, fall and rip my shin open at worst, but that's just common sense and lessons learned. Otherwise, put me in the middle of that field out back—where the grass never grows beyond wilted brown stalks, and the woods around are crawling with poisonous hornets and packs of wolves—and I think I could even meditate on the tranquility of my surroundings.
I'm not afraid of being mugged on a shadow-draped boulevard at night by some nameless waste of society; I can defend myself, if not by few well-placed kicks and a brick to the head, then with the knives I keep in my coat pockets, new enough that the light itself seems to be sliced when I whittle them through the air.
I'm not afraid of an act of nature, like so many superstitious fools and paranoids; should lightning strike me down and explode my organs as the energy of the sky makes its union with that of the earth, or if the earth should violently shift and split like dry skin to crumble the creations of man and make the very sea tremble, or if the sea should then decide to swallow the coasts in a roaring wall of briny suffocation... well, then there was nothing that could have been done, and I'll find my peace as quickly as I look for it. And I'm not afraid of illness or accidents, of convulsing in my own secretions as I burn with blistering sores and vomit until my teeth yellow, or of simply walking into the crossing a moment too soon on the way to purchase a loaf of bread at the store, only be struck by a van and hear something snap inside me as a cool manhole kisses my cheek; if I keep my senses close and my body and mind fit, I have no-one to blame but myself and misfortune.
But I suppose those are common things, yes? True. But there are others.
I'm not afraid of the pulsing wad of tissue I found in the back of my closet one day, latched at head height like an ornamental mask. It looks like a brain and heart combined, ribbed and red and covered in a quartet of unblinking yellow eyes. It speaks sometimes, a backwards whisper emitting an icy wind that covers the closest shelves in bloody ashes by dawn.
I'm not afraid of the men that started appearing on the sidewalk, on the way to wherever it is I'm going. They differ in appearance beneath the tattered robes that drape their militant frames, but what little of it I can see is aging and distant. They hand me photos in a gauntlet as I pass, one each, and I sift through them to view scenes from my entire life, and yet not. This morning it was a grainy baby picture, a ten-fingered hand growing from the middle of my naked chest as I lay in a crib, followed by a shot of me as I am now, collapsed moaning against a winding alleyway as rats swarmed over my torso, and then an overhead view of my bisected husk in a coffin, old and shriveling. Different every time, the pictures will rot to nothingness before the day is over.
I'm not afraid of the gaping hole near the base of my kitchen floor that leads to an ancient stone staircase, which leads to a narrow attic unreachable and invisible from anywhere else. The walls are embedded with chunks of fur and bone, spelling out words no human has ever spoken in symbols no human has ever written. On occasion, the room will shudder, and creatures like beetles with mantis legs and winged centipedes will emerge from behind the mottled rafters to congregate about me.
I'm not afraid of the enormous puddle in the park, the one that moves and grows with the phases of the moon. The water within is a crystal-clear navy, even as stormclouds gather and the world's color inverts the nearer I draw. I look in, and like a glass-bottom boat it reveals an ocean, stretching down, down, down into darkness punctuated only by beams of light rising from some unseen source. Silently, things swim and wriggle past: A small school of miniature tiger sharks, a submarine with hairlike tendrils, a kraken that slowly floats upwards until its gigantic pupil just barely surfaces before submerging once more. One evening, I stood and watched at sunset as a gray and jagged-toothed lobster the size of a city bus squirmed in and out of sight.
And I'm not afraid of the being that follows me wherever I go, as I can only assume that the times I don't see it are the times it has chosen not to be seen. Not even of how its ebony-cloaked form, seven feet tall at the least, scuffles and sways upon dozens of twitching spider legs. Not even of when I wake up in the middle of the night to it sensuously running its shuddering fabric over the contours of my legs. Not even of the times I use a bathroom or buy a drink at the cafe on the edge of town, only to casually turn and see a flash of black cloth and spindly limbs disappear around the corner or through a doorway.
There have been others still—the serpentine and fleshless hand searching from my ceiling vents, the meter-like device by the nearest intersection dispensing coins with impossible dates that cling like nettles, the silver fog that materialized to make all within it appear freshly guillotined—but only five have endured. I was probably afraid once; there's a chance I staggered back in unprecedented horror, desperately looking for something to hold on to as blood drained from my face; it's reasonable to assume I lay awake in breathless terror, searching every source I could to discover what was happening to me; I wouldn't be completely surprised to learn that I'd questioned God and science and my very sanity as I drew tears and shuddering breaths alone in my apartment, wondering what they were, why they came to me.
Maybe I was afraid of them, and maybe I still should be. The trouble is... I'm not sure. It's not just that I have no fear—it's that I can't remember ever having it. I can't foresee ever having it. And I know why.
It's them. They take it. Take away my fear.
They're all connected somehow, from the same world or some twisted corner of unspeakable mythology in our own. Oh, it's not that they feed on fear—it's more like a bond, a symbiosis. Because here, to people, to whomever they choose, they are fear incarnate. The Agents of Fear.
Don't ask me how I know what to call them. Perhaps it's something I'm meant to, by the very virtue of their presence. It doesn't matter, because I'm still not afraid. And that's why I'm writing this.
Because it's killing me. It's a bond, but it's an addictive one, for them as much as for myself. As time passes, my fear remains tempered, but everything else is fading away. I look in the mirror to see myself pallid and thinning, veins a smoky shade underneath waning muscles. Food tastes like paper in my mouth, and drinks like toxic fluid. People swerve wide to avoid me in public, assuming I can even stomach being around them in the first place.
That's what it does, losing your fear. At first it was just the obvious, the sharp objects and high drops and things that go bump in the night. But fear is the most potent emotion—even the dumbest insect has its fight-or-flight response. It's tied to every other feeling there is.
And so I can't remember mercy. I can't remember inhibition. I can't remember love. I feel numb, indifferent, dangerous, like a lobotomy patient with the icepick still jutting out. And again, that's why I'm writing this.
What is fear? It's uncertainty. You fear the darkness because you can't see what it hides, but you wouldn't fear it at all if you couldn't imagine something hiding there. It's the middle ground between ignorance and truth.
There's something else between ignorance and truth: Stories. I used to think it was impossible to write about the things I was truly scared of, because I couldn't face making them real, even just with words on a page. But now, I realize that's the only way to stop them.
That must be what brought them, some creepy little tale I read in a decaying library book or stupid website. That must be why they hide what they are, why only I can see them. Because when you write something down, it becomes its own, a personal truth for all to know. And the fear is gone. Even now, as I type out these lines, I can feel the sensations flowing back to my tired body like a wave of purifying water. Compassion. Anxiety. Hope.
But when fear is written, it must become another's. I don't know what will happen when the last of them have vanished into poisonous dust or been sealed away with boards and mortar, when my fear returns in full and I realize the gravity of what I've been through, what I've done. Hopefully, I won't harm myself too badly.
So as regret comes back to me, I'll say simply this: I'm sorry. I'm sorry, but it was the only way. I suspect that if you've read this far, they may already be there, in your closet, on your sidewalk, your kitchen and park and every waking step. Maybe they'll be different, and maybe they won't. Everybody's afraid of something different, and yet we're all really just afraid of the same things.
It's coming back to me. They're leaving. Good, I need fear. I want it.
And now I can say that I am, I am afraid of something.
I'm just afraid of what's going to happen when you find them.