When Sarah Johnson woke up it was well past noon – she could tell because the sun was already up. This far up north that didn’t happen early in the day during winter. She groaned as she moved and felt how stiff her arms and legs were. Her head hurt like hell and she realized that she was lying on a flight of concrete stairs. One of the steps pressed painfully against her right temple and as she drew closer to her senses a heavy nausea grew alongside the pain. Somewhere in the distance she could hear traffic passing but where she lay sprawled only the ringing in her ears broke the silence. Fuck. She had done it again.
The palms of her still numb hands slipped on a thin layer of ice as she tried to rise. With clumsy movements she managed to maneuver herself into a sitting position on the stairs, and that’s when she saw the blood. She shivered. Where her head had been, the ice coating the concrete step was tinted a dirty, dark red. Her hand moved to her temple and the nausea rose as she felt the jagged edges of the cut there. The blood had coagulated or frozen and it was impossible to know how deep the wound was – but what she could feel of it was enough to make her flinch. Being drunk and falling asleep in stupid places was not entirely new to her, although most often it at least happen indoors. It was stupid, but usually it had ended well. This time however, she realized with a pang of fear, she was actually lucky to still be alive.
She dragged herself up with the help of a metal handrail running alongside the stairs. For several seconds she just stood there, panting heavily and trying to get her pulse to calm down. No matter how much her lungs worked, she couldn’t quite seem to get enough air into them. She felt lightheaded and the ringing in her ears persisted as she took in her surroundings. Below the stairs was a walking trail emerging from a tunnel running beneath a now silent railway track. She realized that she actually wasn’t that far from home. This was not the road she usually took from the bus but occasionally she did. It was a bit shorter but ran through a somewhat bad part of her area and was not the smartest choice after sunset. Drunk, badly dressed for the cold and unconscious in a bad part of town at night. She understood that she should count herself lucky to have woken up at all, even not considering the nasty cut to her head.
Using the handrail for support she managed to climb the stairs and ended up on a small yard surrounded by unkempt tower blocks. A chill wind tore at her sparse clothing and she hugged herself as she started staggering homewards. The prospect of a hot shower and a nice cup of tea afterwards kept her moving forward even as her entire body protested violently. That, and a promise to herself that she would never get so drunk again. At least not soon.
There was something wrong with the thermostat. She had turned it little by little until it was now all the way towards red, and still the water was lukewarm at best. She stood under the shower head and shivered like a leaf, desperation kicking in. This was the third shower she took tonight. The first one had managed to warm her, but once out in the living room and wrapped in four blankets before the TV she had quickly begun to feel cold again. Her lungs ached and her throat and mouth felt dry and sore. Spending the night out in the cold had certainly left its marks and she had understood that she was running an increasing fever. It had not been long before she was back in the shower again, but by then the real shivering fits had already begun kicking in.
Now she stood here for the third time. It was almost midnight and she was freezing like hell despite her best efforts to turn up the temperature of the running water. She had to call somebody, get them to fix this. But first she needed to take something for the fever. She stepped out of the shower and tore a dry towel from the rack, desperately draping it around her shaking body. When she turned to shut off the water she suddenly stopped dead with her hand on the tap. The soap bar resting on a plastic shelf right beneath the water spurting from the shower head had shrunk to an unrecognizable size. Like it had somehow melted away. She stared, blinked and then quickly turned off the water that to her trembling hand did not feel hot at all. Resolutely ignoring the heavy steam that had formed on her bathroom mirror she then hurried towards the kitchen, desperately hunting for aspirin.
When she awoke it was already dark outside again. She had slept through the entire day and the fever had given way to a numb and weak feeling in her entire body. She had expected her sheets to be all sweaty and damp but they weren’t. Instead, a disturbing, sweet smell had filled the room as she slept and she sighed as she looked over the edge of the bed to see if she had thrown up during the night. When she couldn’t find anything on the floor or in the bed she settled for opening up the window and hoping that it was just her illness-wrecked senses playing tricks on her.
Down on the street people were going about their business as usual, cars and pedestrians filling up the winter darkness far below her. She was struck by a strange feeling of unreality, as if she were watching everything through a thick two-way mirror, unable to be seen herself. This illusion was suddenly broken, however, when she noticed a person standing on the other side of the street with his eyes fixed on her building – staring straight at her. There was something deeply disturbing about his whole character and she began feeling sick again. Shivering she hurriedly closed the window, ignoring the putrid smell that still clung to everything in the room – especially to her. It was nothing, she was seeing things. She should call somebody, but the reception at the hospital had closed already and she didn’t feel ill enough to call the A&E.
Three sandwiches and a large glass of orange juice were staring accusingly at her from the low living room table between her and the television set. She knew she should be hungry but still couldn’t bring herself to eating or drinking anything. Instead she focused on the TV screen where the third season of Gilmore Girls was served in marathon by her old and struggling DVD player. She really loved that series, had re-watched it four times already over the years. Laughing at the witty dialogues made her temporarily forget that something was very, very wrong with her.
She opened her mouth to burst out laughing at yet another absurd situation in the fictional family, when sudden panic struck her. She couldn’t make a sound. She tried screaming, but there was no air in her lungs and she realized that she had not been breathing for a long time. As if she had simply… forgotten to do it. She drew a deep breath and finally the noises from the TV were accompanied by her own sounds as she started sobbing uncontrollably – but no tears came. She then sat there in the couch, fixedly breathing deeply and rhythmically for a long time as if that could somehow erase the strange experience she had just had. Could a person die from forgetting to draw breath? She had never heard of it. Didn’t the body do those things on reflex?
She jumped as the phone rang. She didn’t recognize the number, but wanted so badly to hear another person’s voice that she answered anyway.
“Hello?” Her voice was rugged and dry. She was surprised at how hard it was to form words.
Silence. The sound of… not breathing, something else. Maybe a faint backdrop of traffic. Then, suddenly, a voice.
“Have you realized yet?” And somehow she knew. That guy on the street.
She dialed off, more frightened than her internal logic could account for. She got up and frantically closed the curtains. After hurrying through the apartment and turning off all the lights she wrapped herself in blankets and curled up at the edge of the couch, listening and shaking in the darkness and silence. Her pulse didn’t go up, however, and she realized that she had once again forgotten to breath.
She knew that she must be dreaming, but still she didn’t wake up. It was night. She was on the concrete stairs again, but facing their base. The frozen blood from the cut on her temple still glowed dark against the icy white covering the steps. She knew she should be freezing in the cold air, but she felt nothing. Below the stairs the narrow walking trail begun, barely illuminated by a flickering street lamp. The circle of its light didn’t stretch far from the base of the stairs, and beyond it reigned darkness. At the edge of the visible world she could see the mouth of the tunnel gaping at her. For the first time she shivered, but it wasn’t from the cold. She knew that she should be able to see light at the end of that short tunnel, but she saw nothing but blackness in there.
Despite herself she started walking down the stairs, step by step and fear growing inside her. She didn’t want to know what waited for her in there and still something beckoned her closer with its terrible silence. She stepped down onto the walking trail but stopped in the middle of the light circle cast by the lamp, feeling herself shrinking as she stared into the pitch dark. There was something very wrong about everything. It looked exactly like the tunnel she had walked through on so many ill advised night strolls, but she knew from the bottom of her very being that it was nothing like it. This was something much older, darker, deeper, something masquerading as the well known just to draw her in. She realized that there was faint sound echoing from deep within the tunnel and she knew that she had heard it once before. In the background of a strange phone call. She turned and ran, but the staircase was dark and slippery and before she could do anything the sharp concrete steps rose up to meet her.
She woke with a start to a dark room filled with silence. Not even the sound of frantic heartbeats pulsing in her ears broke the eerie calm anymore. She got up, almost retching from the putrid taste sticking to her tongue and to her teeth. The smell was everywhere now but she didn’t even dare open the windows. What if he was still outside?
Her entire body felt stiff and almost didn’t obey her command to move into the bathroom. On the way there she glanced at the answering machine. She had been away from work for three days now and people were starting to call. She was desperate to talk to somebody, but somehow she was too tired to reach out. As if it would require a tremendous effort to penetrate the two-way mirror she had imagined earlier.
She tuned on the light in the bathroom but was instantly blinded and had to turn it off again. Her eyes didn’t seem capable of adjusting to the light anymore. She splashed some water into her face, hoping that it would make her feel better. It didn’t. She met her own eyes in the mirror and drew a shocked breath. She was so pale. Dark rings under her eyes and in the hollows of her cheeks made her look almost… dead. The insight frightened her and she hurried to turn on the light. And then she screamed.
It was not the mattness of her hair and her eyes, or the blueish tone of her skin. No, it was the sight of the scar at her temple. It had not healed at all and the edges of it seemed to have stretched and torn, as if the skin was beginning to come off from the skull. Reflexively her hand went to her mouth, and she stared into the mirror in horror as she realized that only two of the fingers on her right hand had their fingernails left. She bent over the toilet to throw up, but nothing came out. Nothing moved inside of her. It was as if all her organs and processes had actually stopped.
She screamed, a rough, parched scream that scared her even more, and dug her fingertips into her scalp as she staggered away from the mirror. Large bits and pieces of hair came off without her even tugging at it. She screamed again and ran into the living room.
She grabbed her phone and frantically dialed the emergency number, failing two times before her trembling fingers got it right. They left a viscous, sticky residue on the blinding screen but she didn’t care about that right now. She was falling apart, she couldn’t breathe and when she brought the phone to her face she realized that the putrid smell was actually emanating from her.
She almost couldn’t hear the operator’s voice as they took the call – were her ears shutting down as well? She groaned inarticulately, unable to make her tongue obey her.
“Miss? Can you hear me?” The operator’s voice fought its way through the two-way mirror and Sarah made another desperate attempt.
“Aheullph ghe”, she screamed and then realized that she could not close her jaws anymore. A guttural sound escaped her throat, but now she could barely hear herself. The world was growing silent. Even her vision was fading by the minute. Desperately she stared at the screen of her phone as it went from blurry green to an even blurrier red. The operator had ended the call. She tried to find the redial function, to find any function, but all she could see now was light and darkness.
Sarah screamed again, but this time there wasn’t even an attempt at coherent language. She didn’t know what was happening, but her body was shutting down all around her and there was nothing she could do. She didn’t even know if she was still sitting on the floor or if she had fallen over, all her senses were an ambiguous mess of dull impressions now and even her thoughts were sinking into a thick, clammy fog.
Then suddenly: a sound. The doorbell. The small vestige of her that could still feel panic and hope started kicking and screaming, forcing her near numb body to crawl towards the front door. She had heard the doorbell ring, she was sure of it. Or at least as sure as she could be of anything in this state. It must be someone from work, come to see how she was doing. They would help her, drive her to the hospital, everything would be alright, she would not die, she would not fall apart, she would not… She could not reach the door handle. Panic. She started scratching at the inside of the door. Faintly, uselessly, like an old, weak cat. She heard the doorbell ring again, closer this time. Don’t go away, she thought. Don’t leave me. I’m in here, I need help…
“Ah, fuck it”, a voice muttered on the other side of the door. She somehow recognized that voice. Then there was another sound, a scratching and then a click. Warm light flooded over her as the door opened towards the stairwell, blinding her again and making her try to shut her eyes. She realized that she couldn’t. A dark shape towered over her where she lay on the hallway carped, its silhouette a blurry blackness against the yellow light from outside. The shape stepped over her and closed the door, then bent down and looked straight into her dry, half seeing eyes.
“Well, there you are. You are a terrible hard one to reach, you know that?” Then she knew who he was and all she could feel suddenly was fear. What has this man done to me?
She tried to scream at him, to accuse him, to plead with him to leave her alone, to let her live, to help her…
“What was that?”, he said and she could have sworn that there was an unpleasant smile in those words. “Oh no, you’re not dying sweetie”, he said in a voice that didn’t try good enough to actually sound kind or caring.
She tried to protest, but his blurry silhouette just shook its head and put a finger to its lips to silence her. “No, not dying. Dead already, rather. Matter of fact, darling, I’m kind of surprised that you haven’t noticed. What with that smell and all. But what do I know, people never cease to surprise…”
He was silent for a moment, seemed to be eyeing her over. Sarah made a final attempt at speaking, but only succeeded in making the last trace of air leave her lungs in a tortured groan.
“Come, come, none of that now”, he said. “Being dead is not that bad, there are many perks to it actually. But yeah, you have obviously let yourself go way to far. But no worries”, he added and rose to his feet, “Vincent’s gonna fix you right up.”
She could hear his steps retire as he walked into the living room. She couldn’t even draw breath anymore. “Vincent, by the way, that’s me”, he continued from the other room. “In case you were wondering. But I reckon you’re not doing much of anything right now. Dead and walking for three days without feeding, well, that must be considered a rather crazy feat.” He was doing something over there in the living room, but it was not until he reemerged in her field of vision that she realized that he had removed the carped from the floor.
“People will probably talk”, he breezily continued, as if this was the most normal thing in the world. “Sure, they’ll say that it was mostly my fault for not reaching you sooner, but as I said honey, you’re a terribly stubborn specimen to say the least! Anyway, enough about that now. We have to get your rotting ass out of here so that my people can clean out the apartment. Can’t leave it stinking like this now, can we. Oh, is that your finger on the floor? Never mind, I’ll have someone bring all your parts later. Now, I hope you’re not offended if I do this…”
She could only stare blankly, flaccidly, as he bent down, put the carpet on the hallway floor and started wrapping her in it, rolling it around her layer by layer until all she could see was darkness and all she could smell was her own rotting body.
He lifted her up and carried her away, closing the door behind him as he went. He might have put her in a car, because soon she could hear the faint sound of an engine. All the while he kept on talking in that jovial, carefree tone of voice. She could hear him distantly through the thick fabric of the carpet.
“Don’t worry, sweetie. You’re no Miss Universe right now, but as soon as we figure out what your vitae is we’ll get you right back on track, you count on it. We’ve all been like you once, nobody’s judging. Or, well, maybe some, but not I. I’ve seen worse, I tell you. Having died and still not being able to, you know, leave the body… Well, I’ll tell you this. The first couple of weeks will be quite rough on you, I’ll be honest. Eating human flesh or souls or whatnot, I’ll admit it’s a bit different. But you’ll get used to it. I sure did. ”
The man called Vincent kept on talking, but Sarah had stopped listening. Something was drawing closer, she could feel it. Something old, something dark. The car stopped and he picked her up again, started walking. Entered a door, passing through an echoing corridor and then descending some kind of stairs. And that’s when she heard it, that sound. A sound she had heard only two times before, but which she had learned to fear more than anything. It was the sound of silence, the sound of darkness. The sound of beyond. And the terror she felt at the realization of where he was taking her awakened finally the last remnants of faltering force within her and she screamed.
Vincent stopped talking as the muffled hysteria from within the carped made it clear that she was not listening to his friendly explications anymore. He sighed and glanced around to make sure that nobody was close enough to hear her. Of course nobody was, he was too good to make sloppy mistakes like that.
“Now, now”, he said tonelessly and realized – not for the first time – that empathy and reassurance were not his strongest points. “No need to panic, darling. We’re just going home.”
Then he jumped down onto the subway tracks and started walking into the crossroads darkness where things were not as under the sun and where people like him – and her – could live in secret and shadows and madness. “Welcome to Dusk”, Vincent murmured, half to himself, as he crossed the line where the light from the platform couldn’t reach them anymore, and they were gone.