01 Feb I Spoke to something Otherworldly
Most of us feel quite safe when the weather turns bad.
We have houses – castles of steel, plaster, and wood. We have television and the Internet, systems to warn us about anything actually dangerous. Modern life serves every need. Aside from natural disasters, weather rarely poses a problem in the 21st century. Gone are the days of muddy caves, of huts and villages. Now we live in monuments to our achievement.
And so, when rain comes down in sheets, when cracks of light split the air open and reverberating rumbles follow, we feel nothing but excitement.
But sometimes, the atmosphere beyond our walls is violent enough to unnerve us. The wind is powerful enough to make our houses creak and the tap of the rain turns into a roar. Then thunder erupts just outside, impossibly loud. The ground shakes. And for a moment, a primal urge to hide takes over. Our instincts are buried deep, but the untamed might of a storm can dredge them up.
Because at the core, we’re still frightened animals. We just upgraded our caves.
It was on such a thunderous night that I spoke to the Soul Eater.
I’d finished my evening rituals and crawled under the sheets. The noise of the rain comforted me at first, a soothing static lull. But when the storm intensified, my breath grew shallow with anxiety. I’ve never bothered with psychiatric help, so I don’t know what diagnosis they’d give my brain. But whatever plagues me, it’s twisted my thoughts since childhood.
I thought about my mind a lot that night, laying in my bed as the window flashed with lightning.
Why am I the way that I am?
What does it mean to be me?
Is it even worth it to be me?
These questions swirled in my head as the storm raged outside. I found no answers. The interesting thing was that most people would actually want to be me – or at least, to live my lifestyle. I’d found success in writing thriller novels, and my possessions were impressive. My house was grand and stately, situated in a woodland corner of a nice neighborhood.
Yet it was empty. Nobody shared my home with me.
I was also empty myself. I had nobody with which to share my true self. I was hyperconscious of the fact that I’d missed out on young love, that beautiful, blissful experience. Thirty years old and alone? Sure, I could find someone, but the damage of loneliness had already been done.
And since I wasn’t living for somebody else, what was I really living for? I’d never particularly enjoyed life. When I was a teenager, I lived because I had a future. When I was in my early twenties, I lived to take care of my mother. When I was in my late twenties, I lived because I had stories to tell. Now that future was here, my mother was gone, and my stories were told. What was left? Years of rotting in this mansion? Of trying to recover the feeling of the youth I wasted? It would never return.
Not much of a point in continuing.
The thunder rang out like a thousand simultaneous gunshots. My house, my enormous, empty house, shuddered, shaking dust from the ceiling. Instinctively, I pulled the blankets over my head, before a sense of shame for my childish reaction took over and forced the covers back down.
I realized I needed to sleep. My thoughts were taking a dark turn. My emotions were bubbling to the surface, dredged up by the storm. I tried to lie still and shut off my thoughts.
Seconds turned to minutes, then to hours. I was preparing myself to go grab some Ambien when another crack of thunder exploded over the house. As the rumble faded, I heard something else – a dull thud from downstairs.
The front door had been slammed shut.
I remembered locking it that night.
I lay quietly, pondering. A robbery? Should I call the cops or pretend to sleep? What if it wasn’t a robbery at all – perhaps some poor soul, caught in the storm, had sought shelter?
“Nicholaaas,” called a deep voice from outside my room.
My heart froze. Goosebumps broke out across my entire body. Whoever was out there, they sounded like no human I’d ever met before. I tried to sit upright.
Nothing happened. I couldn’t move. It was like I was held in place by an invisible weight.
Sleep paralysis. It happened to me from time to time. The phenomenon always carried a heavy burden of fear due to a concoction of hallucinations, but this time, I found it somewhat reassuring.
It meant the voice outside my door wasn’t real.
I held my breath as the doorknob turned, slowly, agonizingly. My bedroom door creaked as it swung open and a figure came into view.
The man was floating. Horizontally, as if he lay facedown on thin air. As he drifted across the room and over my bed, I had a sickening realization.
It was me. My body, my face, even the pajamas that I had at that very moment. He became motionless as he hovered directly above me. For a moment we just stared at each other. Then his mouth moved, and the voice that emerged was so alien I couldn’t imagine it synching with a person’s lips, much less my own.
“Hello, Nicholas.” Deep, knowing, mournful, as if the ocean could speak. And above that, a barely perceptible static buzz in the words.
I only stared.
“Come on, now. Be polite,” chided the ghost.
I found I could speak. “You’re not real,” I told him.
At this, my face, suspended just a few feet above me, only smiled.
“I was thinking we could have a conversation tonight.” The hallucination’s voice boomed around the room, echoing from more distant corners of the house.
“About what?” I asked him. I tried to move my arms and legs, but they refused to respond. It would be a long night.
“Life. Death. You.”
I answered with a stare, at which the facsimile of me broke into an even larger grin.
“Let’s start with a question. Why are you still alive?”
Of course he knew my thoughts- this was, after all, my dream. Still, a weird feeling crept through my paralyzed body when he mentioned the exact same question I’d just asked myself.
“Because my life has value,” I answered.
“Hardly a satisfactory answer, Nicholas. Why does your life have value?” the ghost said in that unearthly voice.
I hesitated for a few moments. “There are good things in my life. I eat well. I relax. I want for nothing.”
“Good?” The floating version of me chuckled. “Eating well is good? Relaxing is good? What about the bad, Nicholas? It doesn’t matter how satisfied your material urges are if your soul is diseased.”
I didn’t answer. The fear that had dissipated minutes ago returned at the words. This didn’t feel like a normal dream.
“Ponder this. How does “the good” in your life compare to the bad? The negatives are overwhelming. You have more regret than pride. You have more anger than joy. You have more aches and pains than comfortable moments. And your loneliness outweighs your love with the gravity of a world. ”
“Shut up,” I told the thing, and shut my eyes. Again, I tried to move, and again, my body failed me.
“No.” The word resounded, sonorous and static, from inches above my face. I opened my eyes and found the ghost had moved much closer. The smile had left his face.
“Every moment is a battle between joy and pain, and which one wins the majority of the time? There’s no formula I can contrive to prove this to you, but you know the truth, deep within you. You see, Nicholas, here’s the truly sad aspect of all this. You live a better life than the vast majority of all humans that have ever lived. And you’re still unhappy. What does that tell you about life?”
“Life is suffering,” I conceded. It was a mantra some of my characters liked to repeat.
He smiled again, suspended over me, and floated upwards a few inches. I hated my own face at that moment, a taunting and smug grin.
“So why live?” His question came out as a whisper that held more menace than any of the previous booming statements.
I stared up at the being. “Faith,” I answered after a minute.
His laugh was loud and rolling, like a series of crashing waves.
“Faith,” he repeated. “Faith in what?”
“Life is made of uncertainty. What if there’s someone up there?”
“Someone up there? You pitiful thing. You must know there’s nobody, nothing. And if, by some great accident, there was a being that created you, would you not curse it for your flaws? For the suffering inherent in what you are? A god which created you would be nothing short of evil.”
“I can’t explain it. I don’t have to. That’s what faith is, a passion for something greater than yourself,” but as I said the words I knew I didn’t believe them. I’d never been religious.
“Liaaar,” taunted the ghost, as he pointed an arm down at me. “And even if you weren’t attempting to deceive yourself, think of the very notion of ‘grand scheme’ of things. Some kind of cosmic plan. Is it truly a comforting idea, that you are merely a cog in the machine created by an incomprehensible force?”
A cold feeling spread through me at that, but I forced myself to ignore it. I kept forgetting it was still a dream, only a manifestation of my subconscious. I couldn’t let it disturb me, but there was something about the way the ghost moved and spoke that just wasn’t right. It was like no sleep paralysis episode I’d ever suffered.
“Nicholas… why live?” asked the hallucination once more.
Because… the future,” I answered. He smiled and opened his mouth, but I cut him off. “And no, not because I think I’m destined to be successful, like I used to think. I mean because I can wake up tomorrow and go to Europe. Because I can choose to do anything I want. Maybe I am unhappy, maybe there’s really nothing divine out there, but I have the freedom to choose my life.”
I felt determined to beat this thing. As I understood it, the dream would end when I proved him wrong, showed him that my life was worth living.
He stared down at me, not visibly angry, but when he spoke, that static buzz in his voice was more noticeable.
“Wrong.” For the first time, I noticed his eyes. They were not exactly like mine – some kind of yellow tint pervaded them.
“Wrong,” he said again. “You aren’t free, you worm. You are a puppet, a biological object used to perpetuate your species. You say you can go to Europe tomorrow- but you won’t. You only do what your urges tell you to do. You are the sum total of the forces that evolution built inside of you.”
That raised even more defiance in me. “You know what? That doesn’t even matter. I feel free, and so I am. Fundamentally, there’s no difference in my reality either way.”
“But Nicholas, even if you feel free, is that not a negative experience? Is there not horror in being forced into this world without meaning, a wanderer condemned to seek something he can never find? As long as you hold this delusion close to your heart – that you are “free” – you will never be satisfied, because you must surely believe there is some combination of choices out there that will save you from what you are.”
The cold feeling returned, and I recognized it for what it was – the realization that the ghost was right. For all the malice and hopelessness that poured out of his grinning mouth, his refutations made sense.
The ghost didn’t stop. “That’s the bane of it all, really. Consciousness. That awareness, that sickening knowledge, that you exist. Human beings – they don’t really want to be ‘beings.’ They just want to ‘be.’ But your self cannot ever simply ‘be’, for it strives… constantly. Your self, Nicholas, strives to disintegrate. Look behind the veil of the most enjoyable activities in this life, and realize they are a process of becoming unself. Sex. Drugs. Love. Even fun itself. Happiness is the process of killing self-awareness.”
I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to move, hoping that the nightmare would end.
When I opened them again, the ghost lay on top of me. I could see nothing but his eyes, so much like mine but with a strange yellow light behind them.
“What do you want?” I asked him.
“Your soul,” he said.
“I thought I was just a biological creature, without a soul.”
“Then it should be nothing to relinquish.”
“What do you want me to do?” I whispered.
“Give up,” he whispered back, and static filled the room.
The ghost floated higher, nearly disappearing into the murky gloom of my high arched ceiling. Then he began to change, and the facade of me – the facade of humanity – fell away like a withered leaf, and I saw how vast the thing truly was. It hung in the air like smoke, and filled the mind in a way that pushed out all ability to describe it.
When I regained my words, I asked.
“What are you?”
“The Soul Eater,” it said, a dry buzzing in its words.
I did not respond.
“Nicholas, it’s time,” the demon told me. “Give in. Let me have it. ”
The thing was right. It was right about me. It was right about the world. It was right about life.
“No.” I spat the word. Something in me wanted to live.
The demon above shifted and writhed.
“Because what is life for, if not continuation? There’s a force inside me, and I want to preserve it. I don’t care how shitty things are.”
The Soul Eater hissed. It grew until there was nothing else. And then it tried to strip my soul.
There’s not much I can say that will accurately describe what I felt at that moment. It should suffice to say that I am scarred, and I will never forget it. But I won. I fought off those grasping threads of spirit. Life won.
Eventually, the Soul Eater withdrew.
“You and I, we will do this again.”
A lump of dread manifested in me. What if the being came when I was weak? Then I realized I’d just fought it off at my weakest moment, and some sort of pride filled me.
“And I will win again,” I told it.
“You’ve won millions of times already. But on one of these repetitions, you will fail. You see, Nicholas, the universe repeats itself. It expands. It contracts. It re-expands. And every time, the same things happen- almost. There are two things that change.
The first is myself. I have been present for every rise and fall, from the dawn of time and before. I exist in another place, in another way. The universe does not control me, and so I last, through the endless back-and-forth, living through realities as you live through minutes.
The second, Nicholas, is that the universe is dying. Every expansion, every contraction- it grows weaker. Fainter. And you, right now, are an uncountable number of expansions from the beginning. One of these days you will have faded enough to give in. There is a secret only I know, Nicholas.”
“What?” I asked, terrified to hear the answer.
Everything already ended,” the thing hissed in a hoarse whisper. “It’s over. The universe once existed in glory. But it’s dead now. You’re just the fading ripples, a pale echo of what once was.”
And with that, the Soul Eater moved back through my door, out of my house, and into the night.
As soon as it left, I found I could move again. I held my hands to my face and cried. Just sobbed for the longest time. It had to have been the most traumatic dream of my life.
But of course, it was just that. A dream. Sleep paralysis. A common psychological phenomenon.
That didn’t explain why my door was open.
It’s been ten years since my conversation with the Soul Eater.
My life is different now. I found a wife that I love. I had kids, little bundles of happiness and energy that exhaust and delight me. Gone are the days of lying alone in my bed, staring up at the ceiling wondering what I was missing.
And so, when I have negative thoughts, when I begin to wonder if this world is worth living in, the answer is lying right next to me, and in rooms across the hall.
But sometimes, I see a familiar figure in the distance outside my house. Or when I’m driving the kids to school, I spot a glimpse of my doppleganger on the side of the road, floating just a few inches off the ground and grinning. And for a moment, I remember everything, I feel everything that I felt that night. I realize I’ve buried the truth with a textbook lifestyle designed to be fulfilling.
Because at the core, I’m still a lonely animal, fending off the truth of an uncaring world. I just upgraded my defenses.