by Micah Long
Editor's note: 'Only Darkness' was the fourth piece published in our DREAD series in Fall 2017. The series also includes 'morgue poetry' by Claire Bernardo, 'Consent' by Morgan Chittum, and 'Bridget Bishop' by Dean Graham.
If you had been paying attention, you would have known that Avery Hopkins was going to commit suicide. He had been receding from the world as of late. His temperament had become neurotic, fluctuating between extreme anxiety and inescapable apathy. He had been drinking far too much.
If you had been paying attention, you would’ve recognized Avery Hopkins. He wasn’t the sort of man you could pass by without noticing. Most people in his city knew him, but very few cared. He had a harsh look in his eyes and an arrogant posture that told people to stay away. Still, his head was always downcast; he never looked up at the sky.
One Sunday morning, Avery dragged himself out of bed, hungover. He dressed himself in a black suit and went down the hall to his study. The sight of his desk, covered in papers and books, awoke his groggy mind and cleared his pounding head. Avery sat and wrote, continuing a diatribe that had been cut off the day before when he had passed out at his desk. A half-empty bottle of rum sat beside his paper, and Avery took a sip.
If you had been standing over Avery’s shoulder, you would’ve seen what he was writing:
“Obviously, these philosophers were wrong. No ideal man rests somewhere outside this world. ‘Man shall not live on bread alone’ is a nice thought for the minds of the weak, the domestic servant or the bricklayer, but for the educated, it is simple and necessary to realize that man and his philosophy exists for this world.
“There is no time for idle fancies. It is time for the educated philosophers among us to face the truth. Man has no soul; furthermore, man only has one life. There is no world beyond.”
Although Avery knew what he was going to write next, he paused. His hand shook slightly as he lifted his bottle off his desk and downed an eighth of the liquid. He returned to his page.
“Is it depressing? Is it terrible? Is it the kind of idea that keeps you up at night as you drown in it? It very well may be for some. But we rip off our blindfolds and step forwards, although we may be stepping into shadows.
“Why should we live then? We shouldn’t, I say. We simply do. We keep ourselves anchored to what we know, although we have no reason to. Mankind is no better alive than dead.”
Avery paused once again, poured the rest of the rum into his mouth, and glanced at the pistol lying on his desk.
“Killing yourself is killing an animal.”
“You don’t waste time drowning an animal you can shoot,” mused the gravedigger of the local cemetery, setting down the document that had become both the last words and suicide note of Avery Hopkins.
The housekeeper had found Avery’s body lying next to his pistol and surrounded by empty liquor bottles. The doctor that was summoned pronounced Avery dead by alcohol poisoning The gravedigger they summoned to Avery’s home to help carry his coffin found the paper underneath the unfired pistol.
The writing was dated and signed July 6th, 1863. July 8th was the day that the housekeeper returned to work.
No funeral was held. The gravedigger stood in the rain sending scoop after scoop of earth pounding onto the thick wood of Avery’s coffin.
If you had been paying attention, you would have seen a glimmer in the rain, a vaguely human shape watching the burial. If you could see through the haze of our mortal world, which so often hides what we would call supernatural, you would’ve seen the newly released soul of Avery Hopkins, watching his own descent into the ground.
The gravedigger, now the only person physically present, fixed a simple headstone bearing Avery’s birth and death dates into the ground. Avery shuddered. It had taken him two days to kill himself. He realized that his body must have been found shortly after he perished.
Avery was in a new sea of reality. The physical world blended perfectly with a new environment of deeper meaning. A shimmering curtain was shining in front of him, easily visible but infinitely far away. A brilliantly bright soul drifted by him and through the veil. He willed himself to follow, but he was still held back. Another radiant soul drifted by and passed through with a shimmering ray of light. Avery felt a deep agony. More and more radiant beings passed by him. No light streamed from his own form. He was still anchored to something, some deep darkness inherent in his being. However, through the darkness came an even deeper yearning to reach through the curtain, to experience the same light he saw in the others’ souls.
There’s something to this, he thought. I’ve got to write this down. I have to know what is happening.
Six feet underground, tears had begun flowing out of the body’s eyes upon Avery’s observation of the burial. The alcohol had run its course and now freed Avery’s body from its deadening effects. The hand of the man twitched. If you could have heard his heart, you would have heard the faintest beating. His mind began to awaken like a smoking pile of kindling, waiting to burst into flame.
Avery felt a current push him towards his grave. The shimmering curtain blurred out of sight, and the colors of the world around him disappeared and blended into a hazy gray. He willed himself fruitlessly back to the curtain. He saw his headstone for a brief second as he was sucked down into a whirlpool of darkness.
“NO!” Avery screamed as he jolted awake. His head and right knee slammed against the top of a rough wooden box. He let out a pained cry and tried to bring his hand to his face to wipe away the tears. His hand scraped against the top of the box, and he felt a few drops of blood surface on his skin. Avery didn’t know why he was here. It felt as if he had just awoken from a dream. He was supposed to remember something from that dream. He was supposed to remember why he had fallen asleep in the first place. And why was he in a box?
Avery kicked the top of the box. Why was he lying down? Why was he crying? Why was the air musty and thick? Why did it smell like dirt?
Then a thought emerged, wrenching his heart and dropping his stomach.
Avery Hopkins had been buried alive.
His immediate response was animalistic, his fleshly cage overriding his mind and soul. He kicked at the top of the box over and over, hearing several toes crack from their protest against his coffin. He punched the box, more of the skin at his knuckles getting scraped off with each strike. He screamed wildly, as he had never screamed before, but the overpowering darkness drowned out his cries.
Avery didn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. He kicked harder, his screams growing louder, building on a pain and hopelessness that eclipsed anything he had ever felt in his life. Blood ran from his knuckles, and he began to frantically scratch at the top of the coffin, feeling splinters of wood bury themselves under his fingernails. He cried out in pain again and again, smashing the sides of the box now in the rhythm of war – a chaotic beat accompanied by only one thought: I’m dead!
Avery’s life had become hell, his damned state inescapable. He kicked again, his feet tired. One…two… A third kick weakly thudded against the roof of the box, having made no progress over the course of his struggle. Avery lay in the dark, gasping for breath and weeping. There was nothing he could do to help himself.
His heart slowed and his breathing turned into heaving gasps. His body had given up, and his mind had begun to take over.
Avery heaved his words into the darkness, “It took me two days to kill myself, and I still can’t let myself die.”
He lay in the darkness, but he began to panic again. He couldn’t just wait to fade away.
“Why? Why can’t I die?”
He thought of the paper he had written. It was wrong.
Mankind, he thought, is supposed to be alive.
He let out a sob, his first true expression of regret.
But I’m not alive. I’m going to die…again…
Avery’s last thoughts trailed off into the silence of his mind as he began to struggle for breath. His heartbeat slowed again. He closed his eyes, trying to shut out the darkness. Tears overflowed and poured from his face, forcing his eyes open again.
Above ground, the gravedigger hadn’t seen the earth move from Avery’s futile struggle. But he felt a strange, internal compulsion to move. He left the current grave he was digging and strode towards the grave of the late Avery Hopkins.
Avery’s body was as good as dead, immobile and worthless. His soul was hanging on until the last pathetic breath exited the mortal frame. Then, Avery heard a sound. He could feel the darkness receding, although he still could not see. A metallic tap hit the coffin, just above his eyes. He began to see faint beams of light shining through the small cracks in the wood. Tears ran down his face again. His heart pumping anxiously, waiting for another chance at life. The coffin was pried apart, and there stood the gravedigger, a tranquil figure, sunlight streaming down behind him, the clouds of the earlier rain no longer obstructing the light. Avery’s eyes welcomed the new brightness, but they stung as he squinted and gazed upwards.
The gravedigger helped the former corpse to his weak feet. Avery’s legs barely supported his shaken body. The two men left the pit and climbed up, back onto the ground. The cemetery grass stretched out around them. The sun above continued to shine down. The smell of rain was in the air. The gravedigger smiled, a compassionate smile for a man whose life had been renewed.
Avery saw none of it. He staggered home, eyes glazed over. He threw open his front door and climbed the stairs to his study. He staggered towards his desk and lifted a half-filled bottle in the air. He hurled the bottle across the room. It shattered on the wall. He lifted two more bottles and sent them flying in the same direction. He cleared his desk in the same manner, hurling his papers and notes into his fireplace and setting them ablaze. He emptied drawers of his quills and ink, and hurled philosophy books into the alley bordering his house. After an hour of emptying the study and his mind, he stood at the doorframe, looking into the hallway that led to his front door.
“There’s a life to live, and I need to just live it,” Avery smiled for the first time in weeks at the thought. But his mind wouldn’t let the idea rest. “Why,” he questioned, “should I live?”
A brilliant light flashed in front of his eyes for a moment. Avery’s mind was being hurled towards a single, inescapable possibility. He felt as if he were standing outside his own body, and something about it felt familiar. For a brief moment, Avery got a taste of something more real than he had ever felt before.
“No.” With a single word, Avery rejected the new thought in his mind. “I can’t have wasted my life!”
Avery turned back and saw his desk. On it lay his cocked and loaded pistol.
If you had been outside of Avery’s house that night, you would’ve heard a terrible cry, a sound that was forced from the soul as the final yearning for life escaped Avery’s form.
If you were there, you would’ve heard a single shot from a pistol.
The next day, a single tear fell from the gravedigger’s eye as he piled earth back onto the same coffin he had torn open the day before. No soul looked on at the burial. There was no shimmering curtain to move to, no more hope for the dead man. Only darkness.
Thumbnail image by Sabrina Sanchez.