I felt it, before I saw it.
I studied painting at the School of the Arts in Ishtar. I was in my fourth year, and trained beneath a well-known artist whose identity will remain concealed for their privacy. He thought I had some sort of talent - that I could depict things that were better left undepicted. Those parts of you that you don't talk about, and never will. His words, not mine. I didn't believe him, but I appreciated the interest nonetheless, given the fact that to everyone else, I might as well have been invisible.
I wasn't creative, and couldn't come up with an original idea to save my life, but there was something wrong with my dreams. They were always nightmares. Every single time. When I was a teenager, a therapist convinced me to start recording them, but I didn't like to write, so I painted them instead - and that's all I ever did. Even after I told my instructor, his interest only grew. He always was a bit odd, and seemed to think that I was in tune with something ... else. Something beyond the sky. Beyond the stars. Beyond everything that we could physically touch. Before all of this started, he offered to guide me on a 'psychedelic journey,' as he put it, to try and better understand my condition.
The thought of taking anything always terrified me, even more than the nightmares. The thought of no longer being in control of my surroundings, and the things that I saw, but unlike in a dream, this world could harm me. This world could kill me.
But I didn't like to think I was a coward, so I agreed.
That was my first mistake.
I don't actually remember that night. He only told me that beyond a certain point, I seemed to lose contact with the world. I laid perfectly still on the ground, and I didn't say a word. I wouldn't respond to anything he asked, or did. I just wasn't there.
After the 'trip' had ended, he told me that I left, and that I swore I was fine - though I didn't respond when he asked me what I had seen.
For me, all I remember was waking up in my bed, back at home, feeling like I hadn't slept in a year. My skull pounded with the worst headache I ever experienced, like my brain was being squeezed in a vise, and when I got up, and looked in the bathroom mirror, I saw tears of blood dry on my cheeks.
I immediately thought that something was horribly wrong, and I started thinking about all the terrible diseases that it could've been. Yet, at the same time, I also knew that I was a hypochondriac. I almost went into debt from all the useless visits to emergency rooms that I had in my past, and it was never anything real. It was just my brain playing tricks on me. So, I talked myself down, and even though I had every right to be concerned, I brushed it aside, and assumed that it was nothing. I came up with convoluted scenarios in my mind, that could've somehow led to the symptoms I felt. Always trying to rationalize it. It wasn't sickness. It wasn't magic. It was psychology, and I would find a way through it, just like every other time.
It seems so stupid, when I look back at it now.
The next morning, I was taking the train to school, minding my business in the second last car, in one of those backward-facing seats, because I determined that to be the safest possible way of sitting on a train. If you sat in a regular seat, you'd be thrown forward if the train came to a sudden stop, and if you were in the very last car, you risked being rear-ended.
Sorry if I fall off-track. I'm not in the best state of mind right now.
Anyway, I was sitting in the back, looking out the window as the world rushed away from me, eyes on the glass skyscrapers that sliced up across the clear, blue sky. There weren't many people around me - just students trying to get a half hour of sleep before class, or cramming in some last-minute studying. I still felt so tired from whatever had happened over the weekend. Not a regular kind of fatigue, but a dissociation, where I didn't feel like I was entirely situated within my own body.
Then, it stopped.
A cold sweat began to cling to my skin, and a sensation of absolute dread intensified within me. I felt like I was in danger.
I looked around me, completely alert, but nothing caught my attention. My heartbeat hammering in my ears, I glanced out the window, and that's when I saw it. It was so odd, that I didn't really know what I was seeing, at first. There was a middle-aged man, black peacoat and blue jeans, standing on the roof of a building below the tracks, the slanted shingles beneath his boots - staring directly at me, as the train passed him by. There was no reason for him to be there. He wasn't dressed like a worker of any sort, and this wasn't a roof that was meant to be accessed. He looked like anybody you would see on the street, but for some reason, he was there, and he was looking up at me, his face blank and expressionless.
The train passed by him so quickly that I almost thought I was hallucinating, and I tried to look back, but the roof was out of sight. I glanced at the other passengers, but nobody else seemed to notice, even the few people that were staring out the window, and should've rightly seen him.
Once again, I rationalized it. I was an overly cautious person, prone to overthinking things, and I knew it - so, I brushed it off. I was sleep-deprived. I was unwell. I was recovering from a psychedelic experience that I didn't even remember. So, I just saw something that wasn't there. Easy.
Only, there was still the feeling.
It wasn't going away.
I felt like I was flooded with adrenaline - like I was inherently unsafe - and I was sweating so much that my clothes were starting to stick to my skin. So, I looked outside again, watching the city pass me by, and tried to find something. Something that didn't belong. Something out of place.
Everything was normal, but it didn't feel normal.
When I reached my stop, I stepped out into the hot daylight, along with everyone else, and made my way to class. The feeling didn't let up for even a moment, and I found myself looking over my shoulder every chance I had.
I made it to class, but I don't remember much. People were talking, and I was working, but I was just going through the motions. My mind wasn't there. I was looking around at everyone, trying to find something that didn't fit, but everything was exactly the way I remembered it, until I tried to look up. There was a sealed ventilation shaft on the ceiling, just an empty darkness behind the slats, but it caught my attention like a magnet. It didn't feel empty. I couldn't explain it, but it felt like something was in there. Like something was watching me. It felt like I was in danger.
So, I got up, and excused myself. I left that class as quick as I could, and stepped out into the daylight again. People were walking all around me, down the open paths of the school, and I felt like every single one of them was staring at me. I could never actually catch them doing it, but I just got this sensation that at any moment, somebody could come out of nowhere and stick a knife in my throat. Put a gun to my head. Drag me off into the bushes. It was the feeling of being watched. Not just by anyone, but by something that means you harm. Like you're a prey animal grazing in a field, and suddenly, every primal switch in your body flips at once, and tells you to run.
I happened to look up at a tall, administrative building. It was used to house the offices of all the professors.
Through one of the windows, maybe on the sixteenth floor, I could see a woman standing perfectly still, staring down at me. She was dressed like she belonged in an office - like she belonged in that setting - but she didn't.
I waited for what felt like minutes, and watched as people passed behind her, but they never acknowledged her existence. She just stood there, and held my gaze for as long as I could bear it.
I looked away. I needed to go home. I needed to get away from there.
I picked up the pace, and walked back to the station, and all the way, my eyes caught on anybody who lingered just a moment too long. They would look back at me, confused, or turn away to do something else. They were never it - whatever it was. Whatever it was that was watching me. Stalking me.
I got on the train, which was now packed full of people, though I managed to find a seat near a window. I wanted to be able to see it. The train started moving, and I kept my eyes peeled on the horizon of endless skyscrapers as they rushed by me, looking down at any rooftops that waited beneath the tracks. I could still feel it. I knew that it was watching me - and then, I saw it. We passed near a bridge of glass and metal that joined two shopping centers, and upon the swooping arches of steel that were fastened above it, an old man in rags stood in silence, his tattered fabrics hanging from his slender frame in defiance of the wind. He watched me, expressionless, his eyes shifting with the movement of the train. I nudged the lady who was sitting next to me, and pointed at the man outside.
"Do you see a man right there?" I asked. "On the bridge, standing on top of it." She looked out the window, and then back at me, her expression alarmed. She shook her head, and then got up from her seat, moving to the back of the car. I looked again, searching the landscape for the next appearance as the train began to slow for a stop at the next station. On a restaurant balcony, on the street below the tracks, a young, tattooed woman sat at a table with two men, but they didn't acknowledge her presence. She was staring up at me, her mouth hanging slack as though caught in a depraved, hungering trance. I got the attention of a father entertaining his son, and pointed out the window.
"Hey, do you see that lady down there?" I asked. "Right at the table with two guys, with the tattoos." The man glanced out the window, looking down at where I was pointing.
"I see the two guys," he said with a shrug, returning his attention to his kid. The woman slipped out of view as the train pulled into the next station. Was I losing my mind? Did something happen to me?
My instructor wouldn't be on campus until the next day, but I had to speak with him. He had to know something. I did have his number, so I swore that I would call him as soon as I got home. Nobody could see this thing but me - that much was clear - but that didn't mean that it wasn't real. The thought occurred to me that I could still be hallucinating from the effects of the psilocybin, or that I could even still be laying in my instructor's living room. Maybe I didn't remember the trip because this was it. Only, this felt real. This felt concrete, like I could reach out and touch this thing.
I eventually made my way home, keeping clear of any crowds, and training my eyes on every building I passed - though I never saw it. I knew that it was there, but there were so many possibilities that it was almost down to sheer luck whether I found it or not.
Walking out front, I heard the sound of laughter and clinking dishes, and saw that the neighbors across the street were having a small party on the bottom floor of their building. Most of them were seated at a table, visible from their window, but my blood ran cold when I saw a young, plain-looking woman staring directly at me. She was seated closest to where I stood, and nobody seemed to interact with her, or acknowledge her existence in any way. I assumed that her chair was real, but to the rest, was empty. Others were standing. Every other seat was occupied. Perhaps they avoided it, but didn't quite know why. It didn't occur to them. Maybe this creature did exist, and filled a physical space within the world, but for some reason, could only be seen by the victim of its malevolence. The only thing that I truly realized in that moment, was that every single time I saw it, it was getting closer.
I quickly entered my building, and made my way up to my apartment. The feeling stalked me, even when I was in the halls, or fire escape, with no possible way of being observed. If it had no line of sight within the world, it was almost like it watched me through the walls - like it crawled through all those cracks and spaces invisible to the naked eye, peering up at me from the subtle gap in the baseboard, or the darkness beneath the radiator. I had arrived at my apartment, but I didn't feel safe. I felt exactly the same.
I checked every room and every corner, every closet that I barely opened, and found nothing, but I had to be sure. Then, I opened the blinds, and peered out at the building across the street. I could still hear the party on the lower level, but my eyes weren't on them - they were on the man in the black suit who stared at me from the apartment opposite to my own. I shut my blinds, hyperventilating where I stood.
I was too terrified to leave, so I didn't. I retreated to my bedroom, which was thankfully absent of any windows, and shut the door behind me. I made sure my closet was wide open, and dismantled the frame of my bed so that nothing could fit underneath. I only needed a mattress, anyway, assuming that I could even sleep.
I called my instructor, and tried to ask him what was happening, but he didn't know. He seemed to think that something was trying to contact me, and that the apprehension I felt may have just been a primal fear of the unknown, but I don't believe him. I know fear, and this is unlike anything I've ever felt before. It's relentless. It's my mind telling me to stay away.
I could feel it watching me, even while I cried in the corner of my room, but I don't know how. There's nowhere it could've been, but it felt like it was everywhere, like it occupied every fleeting shadow. I looked at a picture of my family, on my nightstand, and saw a person that I didn't recognize. I picked up the framed photograph, and saw a bearded man standing behind my father, staring back at me. I took a picture, and sent it to my mother, asking who he was, but she said that she didn't see him. At some point, I called her, and tried explaining, but I was too scared and incoherent to get anything across - she thought I was having some sort of psychotic break from the drugs I took, but I know that I'm not. This is real. I know it is. She called the police, and I know she was just trying to do what she thought was right, but that wasn't what I wanted. If the police came, they would take me outside, and outside is exactly where it was. Where I hoped that it was.
I don't know how long I waited there. Time isn't something that I have the greatest grasp on, right now. It must've been night, because underneath the door, there was only darkness. Everything was quiet - so quiet that I could hear my own heartbeat.
I remember wondering why the police didn't come, but I was so tired and confused and scared that I didn't know what to think. Slowly, I crawled to my feet, and made my way to the bedroom door. Every second felt like an eternity, my vision blurring the closer I drew, like the entire world was caught in slow motion. I put my hand to the knob, and felt the cold steel against my fingertips, every hair on my body standing on end as a horrible chill ran down my spine. My teeth began to chatter, and every muscle started to twitch with an ancient, primordial fear that crept in from the back of my mind.
Then, I turned the knob, and pushed the door open with a long, agonizing creak that cut through the silence like a knife. The darkness of the hall spanned before me, the air cold and still. At the end, a tall man stood in the shadows, his expression as empty as a mask. Wordless, he stared into my soul, and I could barely even process what I was looking at, or how much danger I was in. I didn't have anywhere to run. There was nowhere to hide. I called to him, but he didn't respond. Slowly, I crept closer, my footsteps creaking upon the floorboards in the dead of night. It was like I was hypnotized, yet at the same time, I had to know. I had to know if this was real. The closer I got, the taller he seemed to become, every feature distending and looming while my heart hammered in my ears, and tears of blood stained my cheeks. Every pore on my body dripped with an icy sweat, and I could feel urine trickling down my leg as I stared into his dark and soulless eyes. His face started to change, roiling and shifting like I was looking at a thousand people at once, transforming between male and female, young and old, human and animal, to something altogether different, and the closer I drew to that truth, the more its mouth seemed to stretch, splitting open into a yawning darkness of teeth and fear that I swore went on forever.
And then, I was gone. The next thing I saw was a light, gleaming overhead through the blur of my vision. My ears were ringing, but I could hear the murmur of people nearby. I was laying on my back on a hospital bed, and my head was pounding with the worst headache I had ever felt. They had put me on something - some sort of sedative - and it wasn't long before I fell back asleep, whether I wanted to or not. All that I dreamt about was that man. Cornering me in until I wanted nothing more than to die, until his jaws unhinged into a shadow so deep that even the memory of light disappeared forever. I could feel the cold slickness of his throat, the teeth as they cut into my mind, and ground my soul into a tattered pulp. I could feel the horrible agony of every single moment, until I finally realized what it wanted.
I woke up, at some point, but I don't recall much. I said whatever I had to say to get out of there. Anything to get back home again.
I remember taking the canvas out of storage, and getting every paint that I had. I remember mixing them, churning them with my own blood and vomit and every bodily fluid that I could until my palette contained the most vile shades that my mind could comprehend. I remember my hands moving across the canvas. I didn't need a brush, only my flesh, smearing and writhing as though caught in some unearthly trance. I remember opening my eyes, for the first time in days, and witnessing what I had done.
I painted it.
It wasn't in my head, anymore. It's in front of me. I can feel it watching me. I can feel it ... cutting through my thoughts. It's eating me, and I can barely move.
I shouldn't have done this.
This shouldn't exist.
I just want to die.
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