This story is by Camila and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
People say I’m strong because I’ve fought this battle before. As if by beating it once, it would only get easier. They seem to forget that bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics. Is there any use of cutting weeds when they’ll spring back up again? It’s a pleasant thought, that by surviving once, you are bound to survive something again. It’s one I’ve indulged in. But there’s always something, isn’t there? Someone to yank you off the ground, ripping away the determined roots that took so long to grow. But no matter, it’s just a dream. It isn’t real. And so I wake up. I staple my eyes open and inject caffeine into my blood. And still, sleep takes me to the nightmares of the battleground long forgotten, because of course I can survive this. I’ve done it before. I always go back to the same battleground, confident I can expel this from my thoughts. I’ve beat you before. I’ve beat you before. Wake up. Wake up!
When I awake there is nothing and everything all at once. I know this place, I’ve been here before. I was younger then, with more spring in my step, more fight in my battle, more determination in my soul. Back then, it was a mix between a yeti and a stegosaurus with the face of an irritated elf. The ridiculous workings of a child’s mind. The most terrifying nightmare-a concoction of movies I should not have watched as 4-year-old at midnight.
I’ve fought in this arena when there were spectators cheering me on. Times when I wore full battle armor and I had a full arsenal. The spectators would slowly leave, one by one. Each took a piece of my chain mail and a weapon from my stack. Memorabilia. A souvenir.
“The fight is over,” they all said. It appears they spoke too soon. Of course, it doesn’t matter, for I will fight this war for the rest of my life.
Now, there is no crowd in this void. The bleachers are empty in eerie silence. There is a thick veil over the world. Not mist, something more substantial. Like a molasses that absorbs everything. It leaves a gaping wound where one once stood, rendering it invisible. No one can see me. No one can hear me. I am alone.
I guess in loneliness one always calls out for someone else. I never mean to. But It takes it as an invitation. It takes anything and everything as an invitation. I’m not quite sure what ‘It’ is. This familiar figure has lost all familiarity. I remember I had a name for it once. Something bittersweet and childish, back when it was just a combination of yeti-stegosaurus-elf. It doesn’t have one now. Nothing fits the shifting, morphing, monster. It almost seems respectful to call it, well, It.
Its body circles the entire arena, leaving me with nothing more than the corner where I lay sprawled. Everything hurts, but when doesn’t it? It might as well have given me a hole in the ground, stretching down so far that I just keep falling forever, with no way to get up. There is a heaviness in the molasses air, but the molasses doesn’t smell sweet anymore. It smells cold and putrid, it chokes me. But that’s okay, I can’t breathe anyway.
There’s a sword. A dull blade which probably couldn’t cut through butter, much less non-corporeal armor. Meanwhile, I am naked. Or maybe I’m not, I can’t tell. Something clings to my body, making my skin sweat in the cold. It could be a thin linen. I wouldn’t know, I can’t see anything. My ears strain in the silence, but they still hear. The void is empty until It speaks.
Its voice is the cacophony of the harsh tones that I’ve heard. You coward! How is anything you are going to do matter? Give up already! You have forgotten how to live. Nothing is real, anyway.
I remember their voices. The tones which are feeding Its soundtrack. They chant in never-ending rhythms, mimicking the racing of my heart. It speaks in their voices: Have you forgotten us-the ghosts of your past, the phantoms of the possibility of what could have been? Have you buried us? I want to scream, but I have no voice. Even if I did, it would be meaningless. My cry would be lost in the chanting of the voices as they laugh. Their laughter echoes on the chamber walls-walls on which the shadow grows as It does. They’re brilliant, the walls. So dark is their depth, that they give off reflections. I can see again. I can see Its eyes. Dead eyes. My eyes.
So, It says, finally using Its own voice, my voice. Are you ready to give up?
I scream. I can feel it vibrate in my bones. The dark molasses lifts and I am left alone in emptiness. Except I am not alone, I am standing above myself, offering a helping hand. I take it. I know it’s not me. I want to speak, and there is a guttural sound escaping my lips.
Stop! I want to whisper. Stop! Shut up! I want to cover my ears.
Nobody can hear you! You are all alone! I scream back. Only it’s not me, and I know it’s not me. So why do I still think it’s me?
SHUT UP! I raise my voice even more, as if that’s possible.
Is this your surrender? It asks with Its voice, my voice.
This time, no sound escapes me. It is a silence louder than any scream. I’m too tired. I pick up the rusted metal that had clattered on the floor. It’s redundant by this point. There was a time when I swung it wildly. I can even remember reveling in the cheer erupting from the stands as I stood over Its shaking form, no bigger than an ant. I remember the rush of adrenaline and the pure joy of crushing that ant. I remember the name that I gave it, too. I was right to think it was bittersweet and childish. I had called it the Worry Monster. It had been a large ape-like being covered in white yeti fur with stegosaurus plates on its back and an impish elf face.
The sword used to shine with a sly smile. Now I can barely make out the point. Still, I take it in my hand, more like a token than anything. I walk over to It. I wonder when the Worry Monster became It. When it stopped being childhood irrationality and became me. My eyes, my voice, my skin.
Oh? It asks, using my voice, What’s this?
There is no chanting. The bleachers are still empty, but there is a lingering presence of the ghosts who sat in those seats. I remember to breathe. How could I forget to breathe of all things? Maybe people were right in saying that I am strong for beating it once. Maybe they’re wrong and I just opt for that comforting reality. Maybe I am just scared and I’m tricking my brain into thinking that I’m winning. I honestly don’t care. I’m tired. I want to sleep.
I’m tired, I say, so I’m leaving. I would advise you not to follow me, or you’ll grow tired too.
I drive the blade into Its chest, my chest. Only it isn’t my chest anymore. With a soft breath, It disappears, a shadow ceasing to exist. The sword falls to the ground, not quite clattering. I’m going to move along now. It will come to pay me a visit soon enough.
People will say I’m weak for walking away. That by staying in the cavern for a while longer, I would have negotiated a peace treaty or something. Honestly, I’m just glad I got out. Perhaps we should stop measuring courage. Or it too will become fuel for the beast. I’ll take today and make a map, though I don’t think this path will exist next time. Someone will tell me to go back, to finish what I started. Those are the ones who fight wars. This isn’t a war. It isn’t a life either. Maybe they’re right. Maybe this ends with a settled agreement signed by both parties on the dotted line. More probably this ends when we die. For we will die intertwined by the coils of triumphs and regrets. And maybe that’s the brave part.