DARK AND DARKER

The window was darker, he was sure of it.

For some time, he had lain awake, dazed with fever and sleeplessness. His eyes had been floundering about in the darkness, when the bedroom’s only window caught his attention.  No outside light penetrated it; instead, it was darker than the rest of the room. He rubbed his eyes, then closed them for several moments. When he opened them and looked toward the window, he confirmed that what he had seen had not been an illusion.

He considered this strange situation. His room, in an isolated inn, was absolutely dark. He could make out nothing, not the shape of the old photos on the walls nor even the faintest outlines of the furniture. All was black. Yet when he looked at the window, he could identify its shape, filled as it was with that which was darker than the darkness of the room.

His legs began to tremble, then his torso and arms. The room was filled with a pulsing, throbbing percussion, redolent of the drumming that accompanies condemned soldiers to their execution. The noise seemed to him so loud as to wake the household. But no one stirred.

He soon realized that the thundering noise was his own heartbeat thumping under the bedclothes, its pulse throbbing mercilessly in his ears. His body had been repelled by the strange phenomenon at the window. Now that his mind had a chance to weigh in, his anxiety only grew. Outside of the window was Darker. And all that separated him from Darker was a glass pane and a flimsy latch.

The window was latched, wasn’t it? he thought. He’d been in a fever since he woke up that morning, at times even slightly delirious. Much of the day was a fog. Maybe someone in the house, who had noted his absence from breakfast, had checked on him and found him burning up. They might have thought it best to open the window and let some cool air in. 

It was then he noticed a breeze flowing into the room. Something stirred. Perhaps it’s my robe hanging on the wall, he thought. Then something chimed, like bells calling forth the bereaved. The drumming in his chest accelerated then reversed beat, a delirious syncopated rhythm. His throat, already sore from retching during the day, swelled and constricted. He was alarmed by a growing inability to swallow; soon, he feared for his breathing. 

Slowly, subtly, the dark of the room grew darker. A foul blot spread from the window to the foot of the bed and over the bed clothes, and his limbs began to lose sensation. Darker, dragging itself up the bed toward his face, pressed down on his chest like a black marble slab. His lungs labored tortuously against the weight of it and the constriction in his throat. I must scream, he thought. He struggled to exhale, but nothing came.

This Darker darkness began to leak into his eyes like some loathsome treacle, blotting out the reassuring ordinary darkness and casting him into an eternal lightless abyss. He did not lose consciousness; that would have been a relief. Rather, in full awareness, the memory of ordinary darkness began to fade as his world became a hole blacker than black. Darker was absorbing him.

Bodily reflex took over. His body shook, and his arms and legs twitched as he convulsed in the bed. Finally, an autonomous scream emerged from his gaping mouth. 

The innkeeper dashed into the room and turned on the overhead lamp. The dark of the room faded and Darker retreated through the open window. “You’ll catch your death with that window open,” he said. “My God, I thought you were being killed.” He latched the window and pulled the curtains across, then turned off the light and departed.

His eyes didn’t leave the place where he knew the window to be. He could see its outline, for it framed Darker, now checked by the closed window. The pace and rhythm of his heartbeat gradually returned to normal, and everything that had happened began to feel like a dream. After a while, exhaustion set in, and he was released to sweet, dreamless sleep.

***

The next morning, the severity of his symptoms had moderated. He knew it was time to move on, even though the journey would be tiring. After packing and a light breakfast, he caught a ride with his host to the train station. He boarded the 8:15 and settled into an empty quartet of seats.

As he contemplated the passing countryside, he heaved a sigh and smiled. The day was dreary, drizzly, dark. A perfect day for sleeping. He stretched out his legs, folded his jacket and rested his head against the window. The hum of the train and its swaying lulled him. Staring at the gloom outside, he started to fall asleep.

Behind the train and rapidly approaching, black clouds loomed up. While he slept, the other passengers began gaping out the windows, troubled by what they saw. The dark sky was turning ominous, and from within the cloudbank something was emerging, unnatural in hue. Darker.

— Arthur Staaz is the alter-ego of a retired government attorney living in Ireland. His publication credits include the Pseudopod podcast, Morpheus Tales, and Bards and Sages Quarterly, among others.